Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rituals, Rites and Ceremonies

Rituals have been part of human culture for tens of thousands of years. Take the handshake, which is thought by some to have originated as a gesture of peace by demonstrating that the hand held no weapons. That’s one example of a very commonplace ritual; another one is the offering of the world ‘hello’. Rituals are practiced in a variety of places from fraternities and sororities to chapels and cathedrals. They commemorate important events like the birth of Jesus or Christmas for Christians, the Jewish holy day of Passover or the pilgrimage known as Hajji for Muslims.

Rituals are an important part of every society, past and present. They can be found in oaths of allegiance, coronations and jury trials. They can serve as reminders of the past, show respect or submission, commitment, affiliation or a parting of ways. Now, what’s this whole topic have to do with writing you ask? I don’t know much about world building but I’m guessing creating rituals, rites and ceremonies is a large part of it. It’s certainly fun, even on the impossibly small scale I’m attempting right now.

What about rites? According to Wikipedia, a rite is an established, ceremonious act that falls into three main categories: rites of passage, rites of worship and rites of personal devotion. Likely, if you’re creating a world on a grand scale you may incorporate rites of passage similar to Debutante Balls or religious initiation rites similar to Baptisms, Bar Mitzvahs, Vision Quests or Walkabouts. Other rites of passage include everything from first haircuts to graduations and beyond. The writing possibilities are endless and can be as varied as your imagination.

Ceremonies can be celebrations of annual or recurrent events such as the Winter Solstice or Sunday Church Service. It can celebrate irregular occasions such as a coronation or victory in battle. It can include physical displays: dance, processions or the lying on of hands. It can include verbal declarations such as “I now pronounce you ….”

Imagine having the power to say who does what to whom, the power to declare what’s important and how it’s celebrated. The chance to dream up new holidays, reasons for parades, burial rites, new and unique rites of passage, of worship, of personal fulfillment. It a heady thought.

The sub-genre of paranormal romance is one area that allows the possibility of creating different rituals, rites and ceremonies relevant to a culture of vampires, werewolves, witches, shapeshifters, and the list goes on. The purpose of my blog post today was to get me thinking of areas and types of events and ceremonies I could mold, adapt, makeover and possibly incorporate into my story. A couple of new-to-me possibilities have arisen but I’ll have to see what the Beta Bloggers think of them before deciding whether they stay or whether they go.

I am away on holidays this week, camping in the northern part of the province, or else I’d be here looking forward to chatting with you all. If you have any tips or advice feel free to leave them in the comment section as I’ll be going through them upon return. If you’ve come up with some unique ideas and want to share, please do so. Feel free to comment on some of your favorite real life rituals, rites and ceremonies.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karyn, you've touched on one of my favourite aspects of world-building. I love creating new customs, rituals, and of course folklore in my writing, and there's always room for more. It's fascinating and engaging not only to create a unique custom (such as, "I'm tired of birthdays as a receiving of gifts, why not make the celebrator give them instead?") but to come up with the reasons for it.

Custom and ritual play such huge roles in a culture, evolving from a significant moment or act that takes on a new life enduring in the culture (I recall in an Asian studies class, my prof telling us footbinding originated in China because an emperor's favourite concubine had remarkably tiny feet), and of course sometimes a ritual will go beyond the point of meaning and simply become an action. Christmas, for example, has such a mix now of pagan, Christian, and modern customs thrown together, most people only do things because their parents did them. I love developing things like that, and perhaps tracing how the meaning was lost over time.

Since you've given me open invitation to ramble, one of my favourite ritual developments has been fleshing out death rituals in my book. It started with the prospect of a 'viking death' (you know, send em out to sea on a pyre) for a character later on, which told me the people wouldn't bury their dead. Then there was the religious system of a coastal kingdom reverencing sun and moon, which rise up from the sea each day, and eventually it all tied together with the sending of spirits over to that far, unreachable shore. I'd go on, but I've taken up enough space already. Another favourite of mine is holiday customs, particularly finding a suitable replacement for Hallowe'en (my personal fav) while still keeping the feel of it. I've already gone into it here though, if you're interested :) Enjoy your vacation!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karyn, excellent post. You're so right about the rites and rituals being part of the world-building process. Eveni n my genres, I can create family traditions and such to enhance the story.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday with your family, Karyn. Did you see the meteor shower last night? Should be better tonight.
You'll be in a good position to see it.

Silver James said...

You better be having a grand time on vacation! Just sayin'...

I wonder how many of us incorporate our own personal rites and ceremonies into our characters (at least their history and back story)?

To date, ceremonies only play a real role in my Tir Nan Og trilogy. Based on Celtic months and celebrations, the first one is centered on the solstices, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain. In the second book, St. Patrick's Day and Midsummer's Night play prominently. I don't know about the 3rd yet because I haven't written it. LOL

Great post, Karyn. See you when you get home!

Ban said...

Oh yeah, I'm gonna echo Hayley ... yet again - there is nothing so empowering as creating a world, including its customs, holidays, rituals and religions ! You can draw inspiration from 'real' life then twist and change 'till things suit your tastes or purposes or you can use imagination only and have your characters celebrate in some bizarre fashion that shows the reader how 'alien' or 'human' they are ...
So glad you are enjoying this process and I'm very glad you are taking the leap into this genre - it really seems to suit you !

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Like Anita said, you don't have to be writing fantasy to create rituals in your story. Families in contemporary romances will likely have certain rituals they follow during holidays and the like.

I had fun building a world and creating the rules and rituals for that world in "Burning Love". My angels, who work in Relationship division in Heaven, have certain rules they have adhere to. For instance, my angels can put together only one first meet for their soul mates. After that it's all up to the mortals. It's great being the one who gets to make up the rules!