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Rituals include a wide range of practices from the everyday to the esoteric. They’re a fundamental part of human culture and one of the embodied pathways of connection. But how do rituals work? More importantly, why do they sometimes fail? Most of us have endured an ’empty ritual’, an old tradition that’s lost its power. A graduation, wedding or funeral marks a transition, and such rituals function as social markers however the participants experience them. But the real work of a ritual lies in its impact on us. Did the wedding serve to change the new couples’ perception of themselves? Did the funeral contribute to the process of grieving? Such changes happen below the level of conscious experience, changing the what or how of our embodied knowing.

Many years ago, I took part in a Lughnasadh ritual. Lughnasadh, also known as Lammas, is the Celtic festival that marks the beginning of harvest. Our ritual was about acknowledging the sacrifice that one species makes – as prey or crop – so that another can thrive. Unless I’m a fruitarian, other living beings have to make a sacrifice for me to eat. I knew that before the ritual, but afterwards, I knew it in a deeper way. I knew in my bones what that sacrifice meant and really felt the gratitude that is always due. Through ritual experiences like that, I came to “a deep knowing of the sacredness of the Earth that is more than just an intellectual awareness of the facts & figures about species decimation & habitat loss” (Sacred Ecology, 1995). Rituals allow us to think “through and with the body” (Raposa, 2004: 115) and can provide access to what I call the ‘deep body’, a level of awareness where embodied thoughts and thinking function.

Campaigners dancing around a representation of Old Crocken, the ancient spirit of Dartmoor.

Old Crocken, the ancient spirit of Dartmoor, rises!

Ritual is sometimes used to inspire protest or as part of a broader campaign: I was involved in many such rituals during the UK road protests of the 1990s. More recently, I attended a gathering to protect the right to wild camping on Dartmoor. Hundreds gathered on Dartmoor in January 2023 to oppose a call to outlaw wild camping. We were invited to raise the spirit of Old Crockern, the ancient Guardian Spirit of Dartmoor. In response to our call, a huge figure appeared surrounded by dancers and drummers. It was Old Crockern! He entered the crowd, and we danced and pranced around him. It was a wonderful example of how rituals can energise and inspire a crowd.