Traditional ceremonies and rituals
The power and beauty of ceremony and ritual
Awakening The Shamanic Force Within
Ceremony and ritual form one of the cornerstones of both traditional and contemporary shamanic work. They can be generally defined as the sacred (and symbolic) enactment of intent. They are utilized for rites of passage and other transition work, for blessings, initiations, dedications, healing, divination and journeys to connect with the spirit world. They are also used for calling something into our lives or letting something go, for expressing gratitude, for questing for vision, for celebration, for honouring the ancestors, for bringing the community into harmony with spirit and much more. Well-constructed ceremonies bridge the many layers of our inner and outer realties, connecting us with universal powers, with spirit, with the divine and also with the multiple layers of our inner lives, such as our mind and body, and with something deeper, which we can call our soul.
In ceremony we can experience that the space between our everyday world and the world of our soul, between the mundane and the divine, is thinly veiled and that all the worlds are indeed interconnected and influence each other. Once we begin to feel that interconnection during ceremonial work, spending time in ceremonial space becomes truly magical and something within us balances effortlessly. Malidoma Somé, one of the African shamans I have worked with, echoes this by defining the purpose of ritual as a way ’to create harmony between the human world and the world of the gods, ancestors and nature.’1
Traditional ceremonies and rituals
There are many well-known indigenous ceremonies. Some are ritualized, consisting of patterns that have been repeated over generations; others are created afresh for specific occasions. Amongst the better-known ones are the sweat lodge ceremony, the pow-wow, the Navajo sand-painting healing ceremonies and the fire ceremony, which is found in variations all over the world. We have ceremonies to honour the cycles of life, such as the famous sun dance ceremony of the Lakota, which represents life, death and rebirth, and there are countless seasonal and moon-related ceremonies all over the world. In Africa particularly, we find very powerful ancestral ceremonies, whilst almost all indigenous tribes have ancient rites-of-passage rituals, such as the preparations for the ’walkabout’ rite of passage in Australia’s Aboriginal culture or the Navajo Kinaalda, a puberty celebratory ritual for girls. Plant medicine ceremonies to quest for healing, vision, knowing, guidance and illumination are used, for instance, by many shamans in South America, Mexico and Gabon. Trance dance ceremonies, where the shaman calls for spirit possession or shapeshifting, are also widely used in the Americas, Africa, Mongolia, Siberia and other Central Asian countries.
Many traditional ceremonies are prolonged affairs. The Gabonese healing and initiation ceremony takes at least 24 to 48 hours, and the sweat lodge ceremony takes from a few hours to a whole day and night. Vision quest ceremonies can take a few days and nights and the sun dance ceremony traditionally took a whole month but now takes place over four days.
There is also even more elaborate ceremonial work when the shamans, or parts of the whole tribe, make a pilgrimage to certain sites to perform ceremonial work to heal and re-balance our world, which is, according to tribal beliefs, increasingly and dangerously out of balance. The Mara’akames (shamans) of the Wixaritari (Huichol from Mexico), for instance, undertook an Earth renewal pilgrimage in 2015 that hadn’t been attempted since the days of their ancient ancestors, travelling about 3,000 km (1,860 miles) to sacred sites to renew their old offerings to the land, the air, the water and the fire. They believed that these offerings were needed to spiritually redress the balance of environmental destruction and to revitalize the delicate connection between people and nature across the whole world.
The Kogi of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Colombia are also well known for their continuous ceremonial work to maintain the balance of the Earth, which, they state, would already have been destroyed without their ongoing ceremonies.