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Ritual: A Path To Connection

The use of ritual as a method for social organization and as a way of honoring an individual's life transitions has been lost in our contemporary culture. As a result of our lack of understanding, which is a direct result of our "evolution" to a more disconnected way of life, we have lost a powerful tool kit which can offer us a social rudder and provide a stabilizing force to individuals within the society. Our collective disconnection began when we moved from a hunter/gatherer lifestyle to one that was more agriculturally based. This transition which occurred approximately 12,000 years ago, saw small human groups begin to domesticate plant and animal species. While the common view is that this transition produced the beginnings of a flowering of human civilization, research by by forensic anthropologists and pale-opathologists - those that study of signs of disease in the remains of ancient peoples - tells another, darker tale. In fact, in a 1987 article in Discover Magazine, physiologist Jarad Diamond argues "Agriculture is the worst mistake in the history of the human race." (1) Studies by pale-opathologists have shown clear evidence that ancient hunter/gatherers' skeletons indicate they tended to be stronger and more robust, showing fewer signs of degenerative disease processes than later agricultural societies.

One example of what pale-opathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5' 9" for men, 5' 5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5' 3" for men, 5' for women. This trend is seen in other populations as well.

The remains of Native North Americans studied by George Armelagos at University of Massachusetts show that these early farmers had a nearly 50 percent increase in tooth enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced by a bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a threefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. In fact, the bone evidence shows that life expectancy in the pre-agricultural people was approximately 26 years, and after the adoption of agriculture it was only nineteen years.(2)

So, why is it that we see this kind of decline among the early agriculturalists? When populations begin to rely on planted crops, it is often high-carbohydrate crops like grains, potatoes, other starchy tubers. This reliance on a simpler diet is not as nutritionally sound as the diet of a typical hunter gatherer. If we examine the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers such as the Bushman of the Kalahari, we can see that it provides the people with more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study quoted by Diamond, the Bushmen's average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. In addition, their diet is quite varied as they eat over 75 different wild plants. This alone gives them a built-in insurance against the cyclic famines caused by crop failure.

A more insidious curse of agriculture is the rise of social divisions. In a traditional hunter/gatherer group, all members work to supply the needs of the whole. While we may once have thought that the predominantly male hunters of big game were the primary "bread winners" of the group, and women only brought home the "side dishes," more recent studies have shown that the responsibilities were apportioned more equitably. In traditional hunter/gatherer bands of the Ice Age, women and the children that tagged along with them most likely snared small game and fished with nets in addition to gathering eggs, plants, fruits and cereal grains.(3) While men most probably gathered some foodstuffs during a hunt for game, it was not easily possible to combine gathering activity with the rigors of hunting large game, especially while on foot. As we see in contemporary examples, these hunts weren't always successful. So the responsibility to provide, what has been estimated as, 70 percent of the consumable food, fell to the women of the group.(4) In fact, without the large supplementation of gathered edible plant material into the diet that women and children gathered along with the small game and fish they hunted, early human beings would have perished. At the rise of agriculture, there was now the possibility that one group could own or dominate the wealth that was food. It is possible to see that while gathering, a person could - as many a merry berry picker does today - graze on the consumables that one is collecting, assuring that you, as well as those you were helping to support, would not starve. Whereby, in an agricultural society it is possible to hoard or ration food based on personal preference or prejudices, thereby creating a society of "haves and have not's." In addition, there is the struggle to own and protect a particularly fertile plot of arable land.

If current research is correct, we were psychologically and perceptually changed when we made the transition to agriculture as well. Barry S. Hewlett, an anthropologist at Washington State University in Vancouver has been involved for 25 years in studying how human perceptions of the overall nature of reality are really based on how we were "educated." That is, the training our mind receives affects how we understand the world and ourselves. This is particularly true of the early education we receive about the world as infants. In Hewlett's work with both a foraging (hunter/gatherer) people, the Aka, and their farming neighbors, the Ngandu; he has postulated that the foragers have a different cultural mind set about trust and sharing. This powerful fundamental difference is apparently transmitted from one generation to another through their child rearing techniques. 

Through Aka behaviors of sharing the care and feeding of infants within the group, they "teach" the child that the world is an inherently safe, loving and nurturing place. In addition they, by their lifestyle of reliance on the gifts of Nature, project the same understanding of the inherently compassionate and trustworthy nature of the world at large.(5) On the other hand, a Ngandu child is frequently set down so that it's mother may do the hard work of farming a single crop - the survival of which could determine the ultimate survival of the entire Ngandu group. The existence of these people is threatened by largely uncontrollable and unpredictable situations that threaten their crops -variable rainfall, hail, amount of sunshine, and insect or plant disease damage.

It has long been understood by developmental psychologists that an individual's attachment/relationship style is directly impacted by how the child is parented, particularly in terms of the degree of attentiveness and concern provided by the parents when the child is in infancy. Hewlett's work is suggesting that there is a cultural effect which is produced in a similar fashion. In other words, we were taught by our shift to agriculture that the world is inherently and threateningly unpredictable, that we - and "our land" are separate from other people. In effect, we were taught definitions of reality that plague us to this day. 

As a disconnected people, we in this society experience ourselves as disconnected from each other, from the larger group of our human family and from the natural world. These disconnections are a source of individual discontent, sadness, depression, and a larger social malaise which, at its worst, is expressed as either as rage-based or nihilistic criminal behavior. The good news in all of this is that if these troubles are indeed "learned," we may therefore be reeducated! Rituals of gratitude can help us begin this process. 

Over a decade ago, when we studied with Grandfather Mikail "Misha" Duvan, of the Ulchi people of Southeastern Siberia, we learned a great deal about the Ulchi world view and the powerful place ritual holds for these people. Traditional Ulchi culture considers humility to be a virtue. In addition, they see respect as something which is not only necessary for one's own well being but necessary for supporting the lives of other beings as well. Grandfather Misha also taught us that human beings are guests on the Earth and that all of Nature is holy. Using this belief about our world as a guiding framework, the Ulchi perform their gratitude rituals with the understanding that they are active participants in the further continuance of Life. Furthermore they understand that in order to have a good, fulfilling life they have a responsibility for contributing in this way to the greater Whole. These perceptions about respect and reciprocity certainly have echoes in other shamanic cultures. Shamans from the Peruvian Andes to the steppes of Central Asia have similar beliefs about the need for humbly "knowing our place" and contributing our energies toward keeping Nature's wheel of sacred reciprocity turning. Simply put, one has to first be willing to give in order to receive.

When the Ulchi ask the spirits for a good life, they pray for happiness. For the Ulchi, the concept of happiness includes having good health, a home, nutritious food, a loving family, good work and joy. More importantly, perhaps the Ulchi believe that this happiness is not a right, but rather a gracious gift. Since we are taken care of by nature - in that the Earth provides our water, food, shelter and air - we must be respectful and treat the spirits of the natural world as we would be prefer to be treated ourselves. In fact, the Ulchi believe that greed and jealousy arise from humans forgetting that we have temporary status, as guests, on the Earth. Through the use of ritual, it is possible to manifest one's respect for the spirits. The action of making rituals supports a person or tribe's beliefs from becoming simplified, one dimensional or intellectual. In other words, when our faith or our deep beliefs are actualized we get the opportunity to experience them with all of our senses and, in so doing, that which we know becomes more real. Furthermore, when we experience these rituals in community, it has the effect of cementing our social bonds and reinforcing the depth of the knowing.

The traditional Ulchi practice their respect for the land and spirits of place by making ritualized offerings of food and vodka. This kind of ritual is called a kaseegalee or "giving of thanks." In this ceremony, people honor the spirits of the world by literally feeding them and giving them drink. The offered food and drink itself is called an odee. If being performed in the forest or taiga, this is done in front of the family's sacred larch tree or tudjia. This tree functions like a personal family World Tree connecting the Upper World, Middle World and Lower Worlds of spirit. Since it lives in all the realms, the tudjia telegraphs the offered prayers throughout the three realms in which the spirits live. Perhaps as a recognition of these three worlds, the offerings begin with bowing three times.* After bowing, the spirit of the tree is fed vodka.** Offering the vodka is done by holding the cup or glass in the left hand. The right, middle (longest) finger is dipped into the vodka and then the liquid is flicked off the fingertip. In this way, it is the right or clean hand that actually makes the offering. First it is offered in this flicking way to the tree, then in the four directions as well as up and down to the Earth. This is all done from the same position so that the vodka is at times flicked over one's own shoulder. Then the cup is transferred to the right hand and a bit is poured out on the ground - pouring inward toward the left. This feeds the spirits of the living taiga. Then the person, him or herself may drink a bit of the vodka odee in communion with those that have already been given drink.

Next the cup is placed down and a small bowl of food is picked up in the left hand. The bowl contains the best kind of food and sweet treats, as well. The contents usually include rice, fruit, bread, nuts, dried fish, tobacco and candy. (Offerings never include meat as animals are "people" and that would infer that the Ulchi thought the spirits were cannibals!) The food is offered in small finger-fulls with the right hand in the same order starting again with the tree first. As before, the final bites are eaten by the person making the offering. This form of offering is done very often. It is used to signal a change in action, a transition from one task to another and one time of year to another. Like other tribal, shamanic cultures, the Ulchi usually make their offerings before actions are taken. It is a way to say "thank you" to the spirits prior to receiving anything, which is very different from how we approach offering gratitude in our culture. Akahseegalee is done before hunting or fishing, before entering the forest to fell trees for a home, it may even be done to start a day. In the case of daily offerings, these may be made in the home at the altar called a malee - or sacred place. This is usually placed in the south of a room. 

In addition to the offering times I have already mentioned, carved figures of Ulchi protector spirits called saivens are fed monthly. Rivers and other bodies of water are also fed. The Amur River is the primary river near the Ulchi. It is a source of drinking water and of fish. The fish are an important resource for both food and their skins which are used to make ceremonial clothing and objects. Because of the Amur River's importance, it is fed twice a year. The offerings are made when the ice is gone in April and as the river begins to freeze again in November. This river offering is different in that the river doesn't get any vodka and the offering, which in this case is presented in a birch bark bowl, which is placed on the water's surface to be carried away in the current.

In offering food and drink to the spirits at so many occasions, the Ulchi honor Life's ever-turning wheel and the continuity of the Natural world. Even though we are temporary, we have the responsibility to care for the earth and her spirits. Through participating in these rituals an Ulchi child learns he or she is part of something very grand and important, all the while learning how to remain humble and respectful. Once a year there is even a feasting ritual when the spirits of the ancestors are included in the meal- - and, as they are spirits - are, of course, fed first. You may wish to begin making these kinds of offerings to the spirits of the Earth. To begin, choose a special place to put a simple altar or malee. This may be in the yard under a tree or inside the home on a side table or bureau. Each day make a small offering of white spirits and leave a tiny bit of dried fruit, nuts, and bread. Thank the Spirits - or however you might address your Creator - for the day you are about to begin. By offering your gratitude in this way, you are participating in a rite of passage - in essence passing intentionally through the portal of a day rich with potential blessings. Thank all of you relations, your ancestors, and the Earth for your life and the day's fresh possibilities. This can have the profound effects as it begins to knit you back into relationship and connection with All That Is.

With each day, we are given another opportunity to make a positive impact on this world which we inhabit only for a little while. Grandfather Misha taught us that in order to live well, we must behave as polite guests who are willing to participate in the Home we have been so fortunately welcomed into!

This article was originally published in Sacred Pathways Magazine

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