The Importance of Ritual Tools

First of all, I just want to make a brief announcement–for those of you who will be attending PantheaCon next month, I will be doing a Brown Bear healing ritual as part of the official programming on Saturday night of the con at 11pm; there’ll be an optional-but-recommended informational meeting at 9pm to give folks context.

Now for my main topic, brought on by a conversation with a friend over on Livejournal. S/he was talking about ritual tools, and mentioned the attitude (which s/he does not hold to hirself) that a lot of pagans have that advanced practitioners “don’t need” ritual tools, that one “should” be able to practice one’s magic and spirituality empty-handed, and with the subtle undercurrent that this is the superior way of doing things.

To which I say: fuck that noise.

Okay, okay, so I can accept that that attitude sprang out of reactions to the countless n00bs who tend to be more interested in the pretty shiny objects than in what to do with them. (This happens with all sorts of things, not just spiritual practice. Magpie Syndrome reigns supreme.) But it’s not necessarily true that you grow out of that liking for tools and toys. It’s just that your understanding of them should ideally deepen and develop further.

Personally, I like my collection of tools. I have my main drum, and a smaller one thats mostly become a loaner at this point. I have several skins that I dance, and I’m slowly building altars to individual totems. Plus there’s my general shamanic costumery. Add in that I enjoy making ritual tools, and its pretty clear what side of the divide I’m on.

Part of it’s my animistic tendencies. When I “work with” ritual tools, it’s not as with inanimate objects, but with other spirits embodied in other forms. That’s why I ask my drum and beater, for example, for permission to pick them up, never mind starting to pound them against one another. It’s respect, and acknowledgement of their being spirits.

Creating ritual tools, for me, is a process of working with the spirits within the materials I’m working with. As I explain in detail in Skin Spirits, my newest book that just came out, I work with the spirits in animal remains, hides and bones and other things. This has been a consistent part of my practice for over a decade, and a lot of it I do to give them a better afterlife than being a coat or a taxidermy trophy. That’s why they all get a ritual done for them to help them find the best people who will appreciate them for who and what they are. And with my own tools, I’m not just picking up inanimate objects–I’m handling these spirits’ physical forms/dwellings. They’re right there; I don’t need to go looking all over the Otherworld for them.

Just as important is the concept of suspension of disbelief, of sacred ritual play. As you may have noticed, I’m a huge fan of this concept. Rituals are a time and place apart from the everyday, though ideally they should not be completely removed from it–your journey’s no good if you can’t effectively bring back what you found to the world you spend most of your time engaging with. Suspending your disbelief allows you to temporarily set aside the mental barriers that keep you from Imagination-with-a-big-I, or the spirit world, or however you want to explain That Other Place. We don’t live there permanently for good reason, but it can be very beneficial to visit at times. And, as Joseph Campbell liked to point out, ritual performance is a form of play, something that is vital to a healthy human psyche. Not all rituals are fun, but the play, the engaging of Other Than Ordinary Reality for a time, as well as Czikszenmihalyi’s flow state, serves its own purpose above and beyond the extrinsic reasons.

To my mind, empty-handed rituals take the play out of ritual. As a culture, Americans in particular have a tendency to hyper-intellectualize just about everything. So it’s not surprising that so many American pagans would espouse a form of ritual that primarily engages the mind, leaving much less for the body and other levels of being to work with. Sure, you can do an entire ritual sitting in asana, crafting the ritual temple solely in your head while your body remains perfectly motionless save for carefully timed breathing. But you’re missing out on a lot of potential benefits of engaging more of yourself, starting with your body. The mind is not isolated from the rest of being; psychosomatic illnesses and distress from being ill are good examples. So my thought is that trying to isolate the mind away from the rest has a good chance of not being particularly healthy in a lot of instances.

Ritual tools keep us firmly grounded in the physical reality, even as we soar to other places. Additionally, when we’re back in ordinary reality, they’re a constant reminder of what we’re capable of. They’re a bridge between the worlds, and they help facilitate the transition back and forth. Like the horse spirit in the drum, they are the transportation we use, and they help keep us balanced. They are inherently marked as special, and they continuously attract and reinforce our attention in a way that mental castles never can.

The trick isn’t to transcend the use of tools. The trick is to find the tools that are most effective for flipping the internal switches in your mind–and other parts of your self, body included–that make your rituals work. Yes, it’s possible that the best tools for you may be entirely mental. But for a lot of us, we benefit from and thoroughly enjoy the use of the physical tools themselves. After all, if playing an air guitar were the epitome of play, then Rock Band and Guitar Hero wouldn’t have a market.

(Yes, I totally just compared ritual practice to video games. Blame my geekhood.)

If you do prefer open-handed ritual, don’t consider that to be automatically superior to those of us monkeys who like our tool use to be a little more blatant. The shiny surfaces are connected to much deeper things, and, unlike many of those n00bs who are just figuring things out, we know not to mistake the map for the territory.

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15 thoughts on “The Importance of Ritual Tools

  1. Woot! I inspired an essay. 😛

    I think many in the “transend tools” crowd may be less animistically focused than you and I. They may philosophically believe in animism, but it isn’t their focus. For me, things like drums, candles, pouches and such aren’t just tools or symbols. They are allies and friends with their own viewpoints and opinions of the ritual being done. They do more than their obvious job; they give advice and suggestions. Sometimes tools are just training wheels. Buts sometimes they really are the bike.

  2. I know for myself that once I gained a deeper appreciation of what those ritual tools meant for me, I missed them all the more. I like having things for purposes, though I have not thought about looking at, say my brass cup as having a spirit of it except maybe a spirit of water.

    There was a long time in my religious practice that I could not use ritual tools because of living with my Catholic folks. So I was forced to do the astral temple, astral tools sitting in an anasana-like (or lying on my back) position and going ‘elsewhere’ to honor my agreement with my folks. Now that I have ritual tools, I am finding it much easier to be ‘in-the-moment’ than it was without, not because I couldn’t be with the astral temple, astral tools, but because the tools make the transition easier, and allow for deeper impact.

    In my work with the Norse Deities, which is pushing me back toward neo-shamanic work, if not a neo-shamanic mindset and praxis, and this is including the use of ritual tools. I am seeing the runes I use as having their own spirit (with some of my own invested in them as well), and I am seeing this viewpoint spread to my tools in a way that otherwise would not have been there because up till this point from about 2-3 years ago, all the energies of the tools were ‘in my head’ or ‘out in the astral space’ or even, in my view, being transferred to and from the tool where it was being stored, accessed and then receding. Having tools with me, it is easier to feel, maintain, and understand the connections I have to ‘my tools’ and their respective spirits, and thus my own spirit in the bargain.

    Living in a dorm room has its own challenges where the use of ritual tools is concerned. For instance, I like knives, swords, and other weapons in ritual, because of how I connect to them on a personal level, as well as ‘they just look/feel good to me’. In this I am learning what it is like to be relatively weaponless, though I have an athame that I can use. In part, living in a dorm pushes me to effectively use other tools where I might have once used one above them all, such as the sword, or censer, two of my favorite tools over the years that I cannot use now.

    Unlike you, all except one of my ritual tools are gifts or things that I have picked up over the years. I think though, that you can make a ritual tool and feel no substantive connection to it, or like you, feel deep intimate ones, applying the same to those like myself who’ve ‘collected’ their ritual tools over the years. For me, it has been kind of a journey to bring my various and sundry tool together; a brass chalice from an antique store, formerly belonging to a Catholic church; a pewter wolf statue Dad gave me when my brother, he and I first started playing D&D. Everything has a story, a spirit if you will, and it is in connecting to that that I can find a peace or something more than “this is a cup” or “that is a pewter wolf”.

    It is interesting you mention permission. At first, I was going to say that I found it odd, but in thinking about it, (and the realization just kind of hit me) I find myself doing little things like bowing my head in respect and giving out the equivalent of a spiritual “May I pick you up/use you in this rite?” It’s funny, because I tended to think I precluded a lot of that by working things out with the spirit I intend to work with prior to the working. Almost like we had a working arrangement, where in truth, it seems much more organic than I had thought, in the asking and giving of permissions. Like someone with whom you’re such good friends with, that they trust you not to be stupid and let you just engage them without the pretense that most people have. I don’t know if this makes sense to you, but it does in my head.

    Going back to your point of rituals and tools, for psychopomp-type rituals I tend to like having something to focus with. In death and rebirth rituals, especially for the person, ritual tools like clean white cloth to wrap them in is a powerful ritual/psychological tool, especially when it stops them from moving, shuts out all light, and gives them the feeling of truly being alone. You can get that from meditation, but it is much more immediate, making those psychic/energetic/etc. feelings you get so much more real because it IS happening to you. Using a cold, metallic tool to Open the Mouth after their ‘death’, and to open it again for the ‘breath of life’ (or similar myth-religious metaphor) brings the coldness of the grave right to their mouths. I watch as immediately their breathing shallows, heartrate drops, and entire body relaxes into the experience. Sure, they will probably come out with a profound religious experience, but they don’t bother with the outside world or pretenses or any of it because they are so engaged on EVERY level with the ritual. I think that is one of the most powerful things a person can do for themselves or another.

    I think this is part of why your piece spoke so well to me: I’ve been on both sides of the fence, using and not-using ritual tools, to using some ritual tools because of where I am at, and I’ve found using them more effective. This article really pushed me to think about the why, though. Thanks!

  3. In my never humble view, the ‘tools are just …. tools’ and ‘a well-trained mage can do magic naked in Times Square during rush hour’ arguments are useful for folks to stop feeling that they have no power without them. They are not meant to be a blanket admonishment.

    There’s no question that a quarter century of building up connection (energetic and muscle-memory) to putting on a robe, or to a tool you’ve fashioned, charged, and used for those years brings a lot to the ritual, and makes some things easier. OTOH, I don’t bring full ritual gear when on business trips, even if I know that after the business part I’ll be at, say, the Grand Canyon at Lughnasadh. And I know that there will probably be a fire ban at the GC then, because there always is at that time of year.

    Now, an ADF-Style Lughnasadh ritual isn’t a shamanic working. It’s a more a formal honoring of the Gods. But by working relatively tool-free in a location far different than my usual East Coast area … maybe I was less insulated within the energies I usually surround myself with. As a result not only did I get my main objective done, I also got unexpected and far more direct contact with some locally-honored Gods and Nature Spirits.

    So – I’d say that working without tools is different, and can be great in some situations to shake things up. A soul retrieval is NOT a time when one would be looking to stir things up, nor would a healing, or similar intense goal directed work, except in emergencies. Like when lost on a desert island, which isn’t all that common in my experience.

    • When you are in nature directly and celebrating nature. You might have more powerful interactions without intermediary tools–depending on the circumstances. But again, I think it is because you are interacting with material life, like the nature around you. I do not doubt that magic users can create magic from just within themselves, but can it be more powerful with nature, or tools, or other aids? I would say a resounding yes!

  4. “tools. The trick is to find the tools that are most effective for flipping the internal switches in your mind–and other parts of your self, body included–that make your rituals work”
    for me this hits the nail on the head pretty strongly. I can techincally do my rites/spellwork/rituals without my tools but it works better with them. Not because i’m ZOMG DEPENTANT, but be cause its more effecent.

    well said

  5. This is a terrific post, Lupa. And something that really needed to be said. I think you hit the nail on the head about the “using only the mind is superior” attitude being an over-reaction to the other end of the spectrum where people mistake the tools for the Work. Both, in my opinion, are flawed because they are too extreme. I think in general (although I’m sure there are exceptions), a balanced practitioner has useful tools but does not entirely rely on them. This applies to everything from drums to costumes to even entheogens.

    The other thing that always strikes me when people espouse the no-tools philosophy is that it is yet another example of the rejection of all previous knowledge and tradition in the ways of magic, spiritwork and shamanism. Somehow, we must know better than centuries of people practicing these things in traditional cultures. Because by and large, all those people use at least a few tools quite prominently. Who are we to say an indigenous shaman is really being weak by using a drum, costume, plant ally, etc.? And if s/he isn’t, then shouldn’t we also be able to develop productive relationships with our tools?

    • Wow, you really called it. I don’ t usually want to point out that traditionally these things were used, because many today although they want to be attached to a tradition, do not want to follow tradition because it might make them look weak, like they couldn’t create the wheel themselves from scratch.

  6. Good stuff as always, Lupa.

    I was trained, in the n00b years, to work without tools *for basic energy work* — stuff like grounding, centering, shielding. The idea was that these were useful things to be able to do, regardless of whether you had access to a special tool. It’s the equivalent of learning to fall in a martial arts class — odds are good that you’ll need to use it sometime with little warning and *not* in a controlled environment.

    And I think there are situations where one could find oneself without tools but needing to do ritual. If you find yourself jailed after a political protest, you might be better able to deal with it if you know you can do a ritual with just your mind and body, than if you freak out because you feel you *can’t* do anything without your tools. Complete tool-dependence, in my mind, is reminiscent of learned helplessness.

    Reading your article clarified my understanding of my own preferences. I don’t believe tools are *necessary* to pray (though I *like* to make offerings or burn a candle), and I feel that 100% dependence on tools in order to simply pray would be a handicap. I don’t believe tools are *necessary* to do magic (though I often *like* to do so), and I feel that 100% dependence on tools to work basic magic would also be a handicap.

    But ritual? Ritual is more than simple prayer, it’s more than basic energy work. It is sacred theatre, it is a song sung in symbols, it is order and wildness harmonizing through artistry. It needs to engage the Fetch (Moon Self, Animal Self, Child Self) in more concrete ways, needs to be embodied more deeply, needs to be a bit more sensual. So tools — including scents, artwork, color, dance, rhythm, sound — enhance the ritual, they don’t *just* provide a shortcut to a mental state or speed-dial a spirit or deity. The process and the richness of the whole is synergistic.

    For ritual, the benefits of using tools are numerous. It might be a useful exercise to try a ritual without tools, to know one can do it. But beyond that, I’d only do so when circumstance makes it the only option. Ritual without beauty, sensation, symbols, and embodiment would be like sex without pleasure. It could be done if one had some strange must-procreate-to-save-the-species situation, but if you have the choice, do it well!

  7. Thank you for this post! I would like you to expand upon the spirits of the tools, but really your entire blog is a testament to this.

    I know that there is more to the tools I use than the altered consciousness aspect. However actively engaging in altered consciousness is very important too.

    Again, I am happy for people who don’t want to use tools, but it does not make them superior or advanced. Its another option that may or may not be better.

    Of course we can always say, well if it works for you go for it, but I would experiment with whether it truly works better for them or is just an effort to “surpass” the “need for tools”.

    Sometimes you need things because you need them and doing without them and having poorer effects in your magic isn’t instantly virtuous.

    For many neopaganism is a choice not to reject the material and physical. One shouldn’t embrace the material that is devoid of spirit to excesses. It may leave them lonely and alienated. But the material infused with spirit, nature, and wilderness, and yes tools can be a part of a neopagan experience.

    Thanks again for such a thoughtful post!

  8. Thank you for this essay, Lupa.

    I’m someone who had an allergic reaction to the magpie syndrome, and my own tendency toward abstraction (Queen of Swords) made it that much easier for me to want to just remain in my head.

    During the past few months, however, I’ve been starting to understand more about the importance of linking otherworld workings into the material plane, and your observations about play and physical involvement confirm my intuitions and (rather limited) experience.

  9. The way that I look at it (full disclosure: I’m a practitioner of what would best be described as American Eclectic Magic) is that ritual tools are incredible, wonderful things — and that they absolutely should not be used by beginners.

    My primary objection to tools is when mages use them as *crutches*: learning ritual magic with tools, and then never bothering to learn what actually powers their workings and *why* the tools have the effects they do. It would be stupid to say that tools shouldn’t be used in ritual — they’re force multipliers; why let pride cripple your effectiveness? — but, like all tools, in order to wield them to full effect you have to understand them and apply them correctly. If you don’t know how to do a ritual without tools, you don’t know how to do a ritual with them.

    Which is a roundabout way of saying that I agree: the idea of “transcending” tools is retarded and completely backwards. A ritual tool doesn’t become less effective as you gain experience — not unless you’ve been doing it wrong from the start.

  10. An interesting post, with some wonderful key points, but maybe this can add some additional perspective.

    Firstly, a tool is just a tool. No tool is unto itself a means to an ends, and in the proper hands it can have a a much more powerful effect then in those which are not meant to use it. A skilled woodworker uses the tools of his trade, however not everyone can create the same beauty and function with the same tools. As Lupa said, the trick is not to transcend the use, but to find the correct ones, and what is correct for one may in fact have a detrimental effect on another.

    Tools such as Robes (pelts), drums, feathers, antlers, or whatever it may be also enable the practitioner to bring in the skills of that Spirit, but more importantly (in my opinion) allow the practitioner to give life to that Spirit in this world again. This can most clearly be seen in the case of an Animal Dancer using a Robe, and that Spirit living again in the world they have passed from through the dancer. The pounding of the drum can be the heartbeat which can bring the people together, the crash of antlers together sounding the strength of the ungulates. Such tools also allow a consistent language to the Spirits, be it our own we develop and stick with, or come from a tradition (which may go back many many generations). Such “language” of action can make our intentions clear, and help oneself express what is being asked for in way of help.

    For many who follow a totemic approach and/or an animalistic approach, tools can help us express the nature of “the beast”. They can help augment scope as well, most medicine people tend to find a degree of “specialization” (if you will) which can be somewhat limiting. Having items such as rattles, or drums, or feathers can help call in a more specialized assistance from the Spirits, and allow the individual to fill a gap in their immediate skills and abilities to help resolve a specific issue.

    That all said, would the use of chants or breathing be a “tool” as well by similar definition? The drum and the rhythm can help put a mind in order for the ritual or ceremony to take place. Songs, chants and breathing exercises, along with forms of mediation (including physical, such as Yoga or Tai Chi) do much the same thing, helping set the mind in order and direct the conscious focus. The mind is arguably yet just another tool in the chest! Crucial as I see it, but yet another tool to be used when needed.

    I feel that there is no superior means, much as there is no single path. And anyone who would think argue that there is one, I would suggest they take their piety and cut it against how they feel about the Catholic Catechism. The best means is very individualized, and even then is constantly in flux as we learn more of ourselves and the universe around us. A student should be expected to exceed the teacher, and if they do not grow beyond the constraints of the teacher that cannot happen. Even in a tradition passed down, it evolves, grows, and changes over time to accommodate this, and new traditions form. To grow fertile ground is needed, and if a tool can help that, all the better.

  11. “I work with the spirits in animal remains, hides and bones and other things. This has been a consistent part of my practice for over a decade, and a lot of it I do to give them a better afterlife than being a coat or a taxidermy trophy.”

    You know, I have a “coyote face” that I keep for the same exact reason. I believe there’s a spirit in her too. I only have just the one coyote part, I’m not “allowed” to simply hoard coyote parts, not even for ritual use, the point is in honoring *this* coyote. (and this is of course all my own UPG.)

    I think when you have gods and spirits known to have certain ritual implements and tools associated with them, you really ought to have said tools. My gods are all very fond of the sistrum, I’ve specifically promised to do ritual where I play the sistrum to soothe them, and while mine is a very humble, no-frills one, I’ve named and consecrated it, and it gets an honored place in my shrine.

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