Mark Green's Atheopaganism Blog

Living an Earth-Honoring Path Rooted in Science

Ritual Technologies: Rhythm

The first musical instrument was almost certainly something resonant being struck: a hollow log, a dried gourd. In fact, percussive rhythm may predate humans as a species: monkeys have been observed beating on hollow logs in a call-and-response with other monkeys. Certainly the noises made while pounding seeds and roots into meal would naturally have become a source of play, even for pre-humans.

Despite this near-certainty, we don’t have any fossil evidence of Paleolithic drums. Only flutes, because they were made of bone and could survive. Still, in every culture of the world, we find percussive instruments, and with them, percussive play—often in a context of religious ceremony.

Drumming and the experience of rhythm is viscerally impactful upon human emotions. Rhythm stirs a desire to move, and it is no surprise that one of the most mysterious and yet joyful of human activities, dancing, relies heavily on rhythm.

Rhythm is a deeply effective ritual technology. Striking up a beat encourages ritual celebrants to participate with their bodies, not just their minds. Even a simple, steady “heartbeat drum” can have profound effect on the atmosphere of a ritual, creating a sense of solemnity and foreboding.

Here’s an example of how powerful ritual rhythm can be, in a popular music song.

Rhythmic sounds—drumming, rattling and other percussion—are helpful in bringing celebrants into entrainment, which is defined in the Atheopagan Ritual Primer as “synchronization of participants with an external rhythm, …accomplished through repetition. Drumming and rattling are common means to the entrainment of a group creating a ritual. In a broader sense, however, entrainment means getting all participants “on the same page”, or moving in the same direction: to create a shared state in which they can express, celebrate and act together. Entrainment is a critically important aspect of successful ritual; when true entrainment has happened, you can feel that the ritual is really cooking. ”

I encourage Atheopagans to master at the very least some simple rhythmic percussion for purposes of stirring up and maintaining energy during rituals.  And let your fellow participants help! It’s great to have a basket of rattles, claves, chimes and other rhythmic noisemakers for participants to borrow so they can participate in the soundscape of your ritual. Drumming can be particularly powerful during the Deep Play segment of ritual (see also the Primer again).

I’ll say as well that recorded rhythmic music can be effective as well–you just don’t have as much control over the tempo and duration of the sound. Dance music is called that for a reason! But to me, it feels better that the sounds for a ritual be generated there, by its participants, rather than reproduced electronically.

Drumming and rhythm are powerful gateways to the limbic, liminal Ritual State, or trance. Learning to master even simple drum rhythms will be powerful additions to your “ritual toolbox” as you learn to conduct Atheopagan rituals.

Note: Despite the illustration above, it is best to protect the drumhead by removing all rings prior to playing a drum, unless you are playing with drumsticks.


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