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Performance in Ritual

“Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silence about them.” – History of the Bishops of Hamburg-Bremen, bk. IV

No Christian on the feast of Saint John  or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants. … Diabolical games and dancing or chants of the gentiles will be forbidden. No Christian will do them because he thus makes himself pagan. Nor is it right that diabolical canticles should proceed from a Christian mouth.” – Life of St. Elegius

That our ancestors filled their celebrations and sacrifices with dancing and song is well-attested in the written sources. There is also strong evidence to support the notion that ritual dramas were also enacted, and even that some of the Eddaic poems are scripts or models for just such dramas.

But, for some reason, modern Asatru hasn’t embraced this aspect of our ancestors’ practice, for the most part. Our rituals tend to be staid, pretty dull affairs in and of themselves, even if an occasional game of kubb might break out at a weekend gathering to liven things up.

I’m a big believer in using music and dance and drama in ritual, and using drama as ritual, and have been for years. In the (now-defunct) Arfstoll Theod, we did a big May Day celebration a few years ago that included a Maypole dance (with live music) and a sacral drama called the Return of Odin (part of a three-part cycle of ritual dramas dealing with Odin being deposed as king of Asgard, Ullr taking over temporarily during the Yuletide, and then Odin’s return to power in the spring):

And, more recently, at this year’s Yule celebration, the Skylands Asatru Fellowship started our Yulebl√≥t with traditional animal guising, punctuated by a Wild Hunt, which picked off the various animals, saving the Yulebok (Yule Goat) for last, who offered himself as a sacrifice to the Gods. After the offering was completed, we danced around the fire-pit to the Thirty Year Jig.

Animal guising

Dancing ’round the fire

But I am very pleased to say that I’m not the only person out there who sees the value of this sort of “joyous” or “performance-based” ritual.

The Chase Hill Folk, a Heathen community in southern Vermont, enthusiastically embraces the use of music and song in their rituals. Lynn and Will Rowan gave an absolutely terrific workshop on the subject at last year’s Trothmoot, and they have released two songbooks (“Hail, the Turning Year!” and “Yule Songs” – a song from which I used in my own Mother Night celebration this past Yule) as well as a CD (“Sing the Sun’s Return: Wassails and Carols for Yuletide“, which accompanies the aforementioned “Yule Songs” book). Music apparently plays a central part in their rituals, and I long for the day when I can be present at one. Their energy, talent, and enthusiasm at the Trothmoot workshop was amazing.

Eirik Westcoat has written a ritual drama around the theft of Idun’s apples. I don’t know if it’s ever been performed, but it seems like a perfect thing to do for a fall celebration. UPDATE: Several of Eirik’s ritual dramas have been performed by the Hearth of Yggdrasil, near Pittsburgh, PA, including that one. Pics of one event with such a performance can be found here. Another work of his was done as a dramatic reading (rather than a staged performance) at Winternights in the Poconos 2012. A print edition of his three ritual dramas is in the works – when it is released, I’ll be sure to announce it.

Ron Boardman of Othala Acres Farm in New Hampshire has also been known to incorporate Morris Dancing in a Heathen context. I’m not sure if he still does it, but if so, I’d like to know about it! This is him at a non-Heathen event in 2011:

I know that AFA Winternights and East Coast Thing usually have a couple of music groups performing, but not as part of ritual; more like a separate part of the event. Which is fine, but not quite what I’m looking for.

There are a ton of Heathen musicians out there; it would be impossible to list them all. But with all that music out there, I’m hard pressed to think of any examples in my experience where the music was integrated into the ritual experience itself (other than some drumming, occasionally).

So I put out the call – anyone know any other examples of song, or dance, or ritual drama being used as part of ritual in a Heathen context? If so, let us know in the comments. This is a long-underserved area of Heathen ritual, and one I’m eager to see get more exposure.

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