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Non-fiction in Review — Women's Rites, Women's Mysteries

Women's Rites, Women's Mysteries: Creating Ritual In The Dianic Wiccan Tradition
Ruth Barrett
Authorhouse, 2004

Sitting around with my group of friends who have spent the winter exploring the energy of the elements, we discussed how difficult it is to explain ritual in a book. Indeed, that is a challenge, and I think ritual is always best experienced and taught hands-on. Nonetheless, Ruth Barrett's Women's Rites, Women's Mysteries is a fine reference for anybody interested in ritual making.

I am often surprised at the preponderance of Goddess women who are uncomfortable with ritual. (For lack of a better term, I will use "Goddess women," which Barrett cogently analyzes in Appendix A: Goddess-Centered Religion and the Dianic Tradition.) I notice that the word and the concept "ritual" are not easily embraced in our culture. The word seems to connote bizarre behavior to some, or rote, meaningless activity to others. Maybe some of us have unpleasant memories from days of churchgoing. I personally never could make much sense of the priest's waving that thing with incense in it. Unfortunately, I'm not certain that earth-based groups, with some of our prescribed methods of ritualizing, are much help in resolving these misunderstandings. Women new to this form of spirituality and women who have been in the movement for years observe ritual activity that doesn't make sense to them.

I love what Caroline Casey says: "Create theater or live melodrama." What she means by this statement is that human beings have an innate need to symbolically celebrate life passages and changing seasons. But because we have so few meaningful rituals in this culture, we indulge in what Casey calls a "toxic mimic." Casey explains how, in the absence of the iodine that our body needs, we will metabolize radioactive iodine. She uses the concept of the toxic mimic as a metaphor for our need for myth and ritual in our lives. In the absence of a guiding mythology, our culture has substituted the toxic mimic of making celebrities and sports stars our gods and goddesses (the North American pantheon). The most damaging behavior (and like most people, I'm guilty of this) is indulging in gossip and drama with and about people we know — definitely living melodrama to satisfy our need to connect to one another in some way.

As a woman who loves ritual and who thinks our culture is starved for this expression of our humanness, I find our ambivalence about ritual puzzling. Barrett says, "Any life passage or transition we experience deserves conscious attention. Any event that a woman finds personally significant is worthy of ritual attention." What if we believed this and practiced it? What if we spent our creative energy in this way and left behind the toxic mimic of melodrama? Would our psyches be more satisfied? Would we be more balanced?

Along with an innate need to mark occasions, I believe we have a need to shift our consciousness from time to time. In the Spiral Dance, Starhawk says: "The harmonious balance of plant/animal/human/divine awareness is not automatic; it must constantly be renewed, and this is the true function of … rituals. Ritual … stimulates an awareness of the hidden side of reality, and awakens long-forgotten powers of the human mind."

Consciousness-shifting aside and back to the mundane, I keenly remember the ordeal of my daughter getting her driver's license. It occurred to me at the time that bestowing the holy driver's license on a person with questionable ability to handle several tons of steel is our culture's rather pathetic coming of age ritual. Along those lines, I like the way Barrett examines the "underside" of our usual, culturally sanctioned rituals: baby showers, weddings, graduations, and funerals. She casts a keen feminist eye on these rituals as our culture practices them. Her intention with this analysis "is to peel back the veil of illusion and to inspire you to a critical analysis of what these rituals promote and sustain in the larger society apart from the personal meanings that individuals may ascribe to them (54)."

I think the reason we experience many unsatisfying rituals that women don't enjoy may be because the intention for rituals in our communities is not clear. Barrett says, "A clear and conscious purpose is the foundation of any ritual . . . Many women fail to arrive at a clear purpose for their rituals (64)". Chapter 3, Developing the Purpose, gives excellent guidelines for this essential planning step. I find the idea of selecting a primary emotional focus or two for the ritual to be particularly juicy. In similar fashion, each chapter offers concrete, focused information to prepare for different aspects of ritual. For instance, in the section in which Barrett writes about invoking the elements, she discourages the one-invocation-fits-all rote speeches to a direction. Instead, she advises: "The language of invocation …. should reflect the purpose of the ritual in the choice of metaphors, images, and requests for aid. The question to ask when preparing an invocation is 'What attributes or aspects of the elements can satisfy the ritual's purpose? (169)."

These kinds of thoughtful questions and examination make this a satisfying book — one where you won't find pre-written, canned rituals. Rather, Barrett says her purpose is to teach you to "think like a ritualist." I find her suggestions for occasions to ritualize, ideas for seasonal rituals, discussion of the roles of the ritual priestess and the guardian priestess, and a clear-cut Dianic cosmology to be well developed and thought-provoking. I also like the chapter on evaluating rituals; I think a well-conducted, compassionate critique is essential in improving our work. The evaluation chapter has a series of practical, probing questions to ask about each ritual.

Whereas parts of this book could be used by anybody interested in ritual, Barrett's intention is to convey a comprehensive guide to a specific cosmology and approach to ritual. In that respect, some aspects of the book are doubtlessly more detailed and precise than would be useful to most people. I also have an uneasy sense that an agenda of some kind undergirds this otherwise useful book. Barrett defines "The Dianic Wiccan tradition" as "a Goddess- and female-centered woman-identified, earth-based, feminist denomination of a Wiccan religion (also known as Witchcraft) revived and inspired by Z Budapest in the early 1970s (4)." Clearly Barrett intended to pay homage to and continue the work of her beloved mentor Z Budapest. And although Barrett seems to feel it is important to precisely define that work and that tradition, it appears to me that some of her suppositions might be inaccurate and some facts have been omitted.

For instance, Barrett claims, "With the exception of Shekhinah Mountainwater's teachings, Z Budapest's Dianic tradition has been the only Women's Mystery tradition available for women to tend to their individual souls (9)." My understanding of the Women's Mystery tradition is that it's practiced in other organizations as well, including Diana's Grove, the Re-Formed Congregation of the Goddess, the German Reclaiming Witch Camp, Jean Houston's mystery school, W.H.I.S.P.E.R. in North Carolina, and in the women-only activities of various traditions. Although these groups and the countless others I have not mentioned may not do the exact work that Barrett refers to, they do attempt to tend to women's souls.

Despite the sometimes narrow focus that I have mentioned above, this is an eminently practical and unique book. I know of no other book that gives such helpful guidance for ritual making. What I particularly like is that Barrett always explains the reasons for her thinking and encourages her readers to approach the work with intentionality. Ruth Barrett says that the purpose of ritual is transformation, and this book provides many tools for that.

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