Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition
No. 15, Vol. 2. Autumnal Equinox 2008

Magic Ritual as Language

essay by J. S. Kupperman

What follows is intended to be a brief, introductory essay on the connection between magical rituals and language. Making such a statement, however, inevitably leads to the asking of two obvious but important questions: What is “ritual”? and What is “language”? Both of these questions deserve, and have received, numerous books and articles in their own right. This will, hopefully, provide a much shorter, if much more vague, answer.

Ritual might be said to be a way of viewing, understanding and/or experiencing actions, both one’s own and those of other people. Thus some scholars today, such as Catherine Bell and Ronald Grimes, speak of ritualization rather than ritual. Ritualization is the process through which people in various cultures learn to differentiate when an action or behavior is “normal” and when it has special, ritualized, significance. For instance a Christian will learn that there is a difference between taking Communion and eating bread and wine at a dinner party. Even though the act of eating and drinking is the same, the framing of those actions, i.e. the significance of their contexts, are quite different. Importantly this means that ritualization, and thus what is or is not a ritual, are at least in part, cultural determined. As ritualization is an ongoing process how any individual comes to understand rituals will change, sometimes dramatically, over time.

Instead of attempting to define “language” let us instead discuss three “design features” or important and distinctive characteristics that make language distinct from other forms of animal communication. First, language has conventionality. This means that language is both arbitrary and symbolic. A word is a verbal and/or pictorial symbol for something else; an object or class of objects (e.g. “pens”), and ideas (e.g. “two”). Language is arbitrary because, in theory, anything could be used to indicate that you should stop your car, such as a picture of creamed corn. However, even though language is arbitrary that does not mean any symbol can be substituted for any other symbol at will. If the new symbol fails to communicate what the speaker or writer intends to his or her audience, then it may be argued that it has failed as a linguistic tool, the purpose of which is to communicate. Thus, not all symbols are created equally and, importantly, we find that language is developed over time and by many people.

The second design feature of language is openness or productivity. This is the ability of humans to combine words and sounds into new, meaningful utterances they have never before heard. Animals calls, on the other hand, are closed or non-productive. Even though any language only uses about 50 sounds, and the meanings attached to the various combinations of sounds are arbitrary, the way in which those sounds are patterned are not: in any given language certain sounds can only be placed with certain other sounds. For instance “y crwydryn” works quite well in Welsh, but not so much in English.

The openness of language is extremely important as it allows us to put together new sentences with new meanings, even if we have never heard a sentence that sounded like our new sentence, or had a meaning similar to our new sentence, ever before. However, even though this is true, and even though language is arbitrary, the way language put words together is not, and many languages have extremely complex rules for how words go together and what meanings should be derived from those sentence structure. This is seen readily in the following two sentences: "The dog bit the man" and "The man bit the dog". In other languages these two sentences could mean the same thing, as in some languages subject and object are determined not by word order but by word ending.

The final design feature of language is that of displacement, or the capacity of all human languages to describe things not happening in the present. This allows us to talk about things that do not exist, existed only in the past or may exist only in the future as easily as we can talk about things that are right in front of us. To be able to speak of God or yesterday is a function of displacement. It is also what allows us to lie.

Have you seen some of the connections between the two subjects? The acquiring of linguistic skills and the process of ritualization are a good place to start. We are seemingly born with the programming necessary to learn language; we are neither taught how to learn our birth language nor are we taught that language; no matter how many times our parents might have said “say momma” to us when we were babies it was not this that taught us what “momma” means. Rather we acquired our first language through being immersed in it. The initial process of ritualization seems to be quite similar, though we may not have the process to learn it hardwired into our brains as we do with language. Rather, we learn our culture’s and religion’s rituals by being immersed in them. By this I do not mean that having gone to mass in Rome one’s whole life that as a five year old you will be able to perform the mass in Latin without error. Instead you will have learned the rules for Catholic liturgy; what is appropriate, what is not appropriate, how to understanding certain actions, etc. As an occultist one will later be able to use this knowledge to create new rituals based on the old. The rituals themselves will not be entirely of your creating though; they will have had the input of generation upon generation of Catholic liturgists giving their input as well.

That magical rituals utilize symbols is likely self evident to anyone involved in occultism for more than a few minutes. In magical ritual nearly everything is a symbolic analogue to something else. Modern magical rituals are, in fact, a cacophony of symbols that yet are harmonized by theme and intent, turning what could be a screeching of metaphor into a symphony of meaning. Yet that meaning can potentially be lost if that which is being communicated to does not understand the symbol set or of those symbols are employed incorrectly for just as it is possible to create a sentence that has no meaning within the rules of the language it is in, it is possible to create a just such a ritual.

That you will be able to create new rituals is a product of the openness of language. Through experiencing many, many rituals you will eventually be able to move pieces around, add from other rituals and take away as well, creating a ritual rubric that you have never seen before. Yet this ritual, as mentioned above, will not completely be a thing of your own making even if there is no other ritual in the world just like it. This is because openness relies upon the rules learned through ritualization, those rules that are so important in the use of language in order for communication to occur successfully, something so difficult it is amazing that we every understand one another at all. So, while both rituals and language are “open” it appears that one must still use the rules attached to that openness for them to be at all useful.

Ritual also relies upon the linguistic characteristic of displacement, for the symbols manipulated through ritual openness refer to things that are not necessarily, or cannot be at all, physically present before us or may exist to us a metaphysical concepts. This might be anything from the intended recipient of a spell, who is made to be symbolically before us through sympathy or contagion, to something more metaphysically refined such, Truth, Beauty or the Good.

What one can, hopefully, see then is that magical rituals, and perhaps all rituals, are heavily dependent upon the design features of language, so much so that it is tempting to say that rituals use, or perhaps are a kind of, language. This is, of course, only part of the equation. For instance we have yet to ask “just who is the ritual supposed to be communicating to?”, but that, alas, is outside the venue of this essay.