StoriesPart of Ritual

How ritual creates meaning

Poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley explores the importance of ritual and practice in creating a sense of purpose. In the face of the many demands society places on us, they can be ways of opening up creativity and reducing feelings of helplessness.

Words by Victoria Adukwei Bulley|artwork by Maïa Walcott

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A colourful watercolour artwork. The artwork shows an underwater scene with a whale in the centre. A shoal of small fish are swimming around the whale. There are two other shoals of small fish to the left and the right of the whale. In the bottom left of the scene there are two figures with scuba diving equipment of flippers and oxygen tanks. There is a dolphin swimming alongside them.
How ritual creates meaning. © Maïa Walcott for Wellcome Collection.

When I think about the word ‘ritual’, many images come to mind, yet few of them are mine. The candles and communion wine, the Easter eggs and Christmas lights. All of these, however familiar they are to those who know them – framed, as they often are, more comfortably as ‘traditions’ – are rituals, in reality.

And yet, as a way of reclaiming that word and what it might mean for me, I have come to marry it with another term altogether. This version of ritual, the one that lands on me with less extraneous imagery, is more akin to a practice. There are nuanced differences between the two, I know, but here I’m interested in how they blend and what they offer together.

As someone who is interested in ritual and as someone who writes, I find guidance in the practices of study and devotional attention embodied in the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs and M NourbeSe Philip, two Black women writers whose oeuvres are as much concerned with the ancestral and communal as they are with textual outcomes.

In her most recent work, ‘Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals’, Gumbs observes the behaviours and rituals of whales and dolphins through a methodology that positions them as teachers during this time of global crisis. Rather than holding them as Darwinian objects of study, in her narrative voice she identifies with each species rather than merely identifying them by scientific name.

Detail from a larger colourful watercolour artwork.  The artwork shows an underwater scene. There are two figures with scuba diving equipment of flippers and oxygen tanks. There is a dolphin swimming alongside them.
How ritual creates meaning. © Maïa Walcott for Wellcome Collection.

“As someone who is interested in ritual... I find guidance in the practices of study and devotional attention embodied in the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs and M NourbeSe Philip.”

“In this book,” she writes, “I move, mostly without warning, from a clinical tone to a profoundly intimate one. The words ‘I love you’ occur more than any other phrase.” In ‘Zong!’ by M NourbeSe Philip, we encounter an homage to the dead; a tangled slew of words and cries reflecting the experience of enslaved Africans at the hands of their European captors.

The way our culture moulds us

Both Gumbs and Philip place ritual at the centre of their writing in the service of collective meaning beyond the human. Their very conceptions of collectivity are so generous and wide-reaching that they – in concert with the work of cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter – unsettle lingering Enlightenment frameworks of what it means to be human at all in the first place, and account for the loss of life that has followed in the aftermath of this construct.

While for many it is more comfortable to lament ecological destruction and the suffering met by non-human animals caused by humans, for Gumbs and Philip (and Wynter and many other Black feminist practitioners) there is no side-stepping the racialised slippages of the category of human itself; how, as is attended to in ‘Zong!’, Black life has been excluded from the human so as to be rendered property.

What does it mean for something to mean something rather than meaning nothing at all? In the Western world of late capitalism (and its all-encompassing reach), everywhere beyond the realm of novels, television shows and cinema, we are encouraged to be wary of myth and mystery.

Detail from a larger colourful watercolour artwork. The artwork shows an underwater scene with a whale in the centre. A shoal of small fish are swimming around the whale. There is another shoal of small fish to the left of the whale.
How ritual creates meaning. © Maïa Walcott for Wellcome Collection.

“Gumbs observes the behaviours and rituals of whales and dolphins through a methodology that positions them as teachers during this time of global crisis.”

If we want to be received as mature, sensible or even acceptably human, then we are better off at least affecting a distrust of the immaterial as it arises in our waking lives and in our dreams. Strange or surprising happenings are to be quietly brushed off as coincidences; we should look to the scientific to explain phenomena – and no further. We are taught to let our sense of wonder both grow and die there, among the equations and Latinate genus names, fastened securely within a loop of one sole way of knowing. What we do with our awe and curiosity – or how we do away with it – is also ritual.

My intention is not to question whether or not we notice the possibilities of the world around us (which often we don’t), or to say that we are too distracted to do so (which often we are), but to notice how we are cultured into perceiving what we see; how our lens on the world is given shape. By acknowledging this lens as one of many ways that the largeness of a hegemonic culture becomes what we call a personality, it becomes easier to ask what the consequences might be when our impulses are trained to move away from wonder.

We can ask then, more bluntly, what these tendencies are really about and where they leave us hungry: how and why and when – if ever – are we afraid of too much meaning? In what ways are we more comfortable with meanings that are taught or given to us, pre-made and ready-solved, than with the use of our own meaning-making, meaning-sensing capacities? What could these other meanings ask of us, and what possibilities do they open up for living?

Nurturing meaning and creativity

Thinking about ritual in the midst of these questions, it is clear to me how important a role having a practice plays in the nurturing of creative imagination. Sometimes a practice is less about what is done but how it’s done and how often. Meditation, dance, or prayer five times a day are good examples. Each of these is vastly different and yet all are acts that refuse apathy or meaninglessness.

Detail from a larger colourful watercolour artwork. The artwork shows an underwater scene. A shoal of small fish are swimming in the middle of the scene. Above the fish is a whale's tail, with several small fish swimming around it.
How ritual creates meaning. © Maïa Walcott for Wellcome Collection.

“Sometimes a practice is less about what is done but how it’s done and how often. Meditation, dance, or prayer five times a day are good examples.”

 Each of these is vastly different and yet all are acts that refuse apathy or meaninglessness.

In a society that makes continuous demands of our minds and bodies in favour of capital, the purposeful and repeated stealing away of attention from that which distracts or depletes to that which honours life is ritual. It is a stay against helplessness, even if things feel helpless – and even when it seems clear that things actually are. Because if it’s true that an aspect of ritual transcends the self – that it concerns actions taken by the self as a kind of reaching outwards or beyond – then the purpose of ritual transcends the survival of the self.

It’s easy to cite Audre Lorde here, but not untimely. A practice can be a way of saying: here is what I will do, not because it will save me in the end, but because of how it supports me to live now, attentively and with care for what might yet be possible for all living beings. Ritual figures, then, as a facilitatory practice; a loop of gestures taken both with and for trans-personal meaning. Meaning not simply as passive thought but as thought and feeling that reaches toward action – the point at which the loop opens out onto the world.

About the contributors

Photograph of Victoria Adukwei Bulley

Victoria Adukwei Bulley

Author

Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a poet, writer and artist. She is the winner of an Eric Gregory Award, and has held artistic residencies internationally in the US, Brazil, and the V&A Museum in London.

Photograph of Maïa Walcott

Maïa Walcott

Illustrator

Maïa is a Social Anthropology undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh and a multidisciplinary artist working with sculpture, painting, illustration and photography. Her work has been widely published and exhibited, appearing in the anthology ‘The Colour of Madness’ and as part of ‘Project Myopia’. Maïa was also the in-house illustrator for the literary magazine The Selkie, and photographer for photo exhibitions such as ‘The I'm Tired Project’ and ‘Celestial Bodies’.