Witches Soul Work: Laughter and Ritual
Usually when we think of ritual or ceremony we think of serious prayer led by serious officiates. We can’t imagine a church ceremony where the priest and the congregation laugh uproariously in lieu of prayer! Yet there are many good reasons why humour and laughter can be used successfully in ritual and many examples from around the world where it does.
In Nepal the Gaijatra ceremony, also known as the festival of holy cows (!) featured a parade of participants who had lost loved ones during the previous year. These sad people brought their cows to walk in a parade because cows are thought by the Nepalese to transport the souls of the dead to heaven. The cows were presided over by representatives of the bereaved cow owners but if they could not afford cows, the representatives had to dress up as funny colourful cows instead. People in general that attended the Gaijatra also dressed up, trying to make themselves look funny and made a lot of noise by dragging iron wheels or broken pieces of metal. This festival dates back to medieval times when King Malla, who was the ruler of Kathmandu, lost his son to small pox. To console his queen he gathered people from the populace who had also lost sons, like a royal support group, and asked them to show ‘funny items’ or to entertain the queen. Many decorated themselves like cows (for the same reason mentioned above) and when the queen began to laugh her grief was finally resolved (Deep 1992, 57-60).
Nowadays they make sort of parade floats carrying the photos of their loved ones and the only resemblance to cows are horns stuck up on top with four legs represented by sticks that the ‘pallbearers’ use to move the cows forward in the parade. The noise is made with a stick dance. (Gaijatra, 2013)
Laughter has a physiological effect and can lead to an increase in heart rate, respiratory rate, respiratory depth and oxygen consumption followed by a period of muscle relaxation with a corresponding decrease in heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure. Post laughter relaxation can last up to forty-five minutes and is caused by the H-reflex depression of spinal motor excitability (Bennet and Lengacher 2008, 37-40). This translates into a relaxed group of people who are ready to connect with the energy and focus of the ritual.
We read about the Japanese laughing ritual dating back to 1199 when the stone fish was used to create humour and appease the Mountain Goddess (Abe 2010, 31-34). In fact there are seven major traditional festivals in Japan that feature ritual performances of laughter called Wa-Rai-Ko. All of these rituals are carried out in or near Shinto shrines where they dedicate the laughter to entertain and please the Kami hoping the laugher’s wishes will be granted. The word kami is translated loosely as ‘gods’, ‘spirits’ or more accurately ‘sacred’ (Milner 2006, 37). So participants are laughing to the sacred.
Doreen E. Martinez is an ethnographic researcher and trained sociologist as well as being an assistant professor at the University of Colorado and the Director of Culture and Community with the Native American Sustainable Housing Initiative (NASHI). Her paternal grandmother was Mescalero, Apache, born in 1899 and paternal grandfather was Chiricahua, Apache, born around 1897. She describes a cultural ritual she calls ‘Traditional Kindness and Ritual Laughter’(Martinez, 2012).
In this ritual if a person admires something that you have “in the right way”, that is not for material gain, then you should give it to them. Teasing, reflected in the ‘coyote trickster and Native clowns, regularly occurs and reinforces humility’. The Apache believe that teasing promotes laughter of a certain type and makes the subject of the tease feel they are cared for. As one of her examples she tells of admiring a watch worn by another woman who gives it to her with much ceremony. Actually Doreen never wore a watch but it was considered rude to refuse a gift offered with such grace and friendship. A few days later her friend started teasing her because the watch was in Doreen’s bag, not on her wrist, and she laughingly suggested that she should give the watch back if she wasn’t going to wear it. Doreen returned the watch and later that night found a pair of bone earrings on her pillow.
Another example of cultural laughter comes from the story of the Laughing Buddha, called in China Budai and in Japan Hotei. He is one of the ‘Shichic Fukujin (seven gods of good fortune) and is considered to be an incarnation of Amida Nyorai (the merciful Buddha) and Miroku-bosatsu (the future Buddha)’. He is depicted as a ‘fat, jolly, bald priest with fat pendant lucky ears’ surrounded by laughing children. He carries a sack (hotei) which holds a bottomless pit of sweets and good food for the children. His image is placed at the entrances to many shrines, restaurants and stores both in China and Japan. The ritual of rubbing his tummy is supposed to bring smiles and good luck (Ashkenazi 2003, 168).
Recently I wrote a ritual for Beltane 2014 which involved laughter and kissing. My hope was to bring together between 60 and 100 participants, many of whom did not know each other, and help them experience the energy of the Sabbat which I identified as sexual-laughter. In this ritual I created or recruited 5 couples: one to cast the circle, one to bless the maypoles, one to read the Sabbat reading, one to bless the young King and Queen of May and the last couple to be the King and Queen of May. Since this was a non-specific gender ritual I had the circle casters as a married man-woman couple, the may-pole blessers as a man-man couple, the Sabbat readers as woman-woman couple, the King and Queen blessers an older man-woman couple (myself and husband Bran) and the King and Queen of May a younger man-woman couple. The drumming troupe raised energy for the maypole dance and the women’s belly dancing group danced the quarter callings wearing fancy dress.
The circle casting couple kissed very deeply, cheered on by the crowd and then Mielka ran off from her husband going clockwise from East. He gave chase and finally caught her again back at the East quarter after going full circle and they kissed again (more cheering). Hawk and Mitch (two guys) blessed the maypole making a lot of hard pole jokes and then kissed which brought a lot of laughter because it was unexpected. Mitch’s wife laughed the hardest. The Sabbat reading was done by Serafina and Oshun and then they gave the biggest sexiest kiss of the day, which surprised us all as they are not a couple and both are not gay. Bran (my hubby) and I kissed and blessed the Young King and Queen of May played by Ivy and her new boyfriend Paul. This was only his 2nd ritual and as the scheduled King and Queen were late Ivy ‘volunteered’ them. Poor Paul was quite unaware at how much kissing he had to do in the ritual and also that he was expected to perform the “Great Rite” when he got home to finish the ritual.
( Paul: You’re kidding right?
Me: No, it’s part of the ritual. Do you have a problem with that?
Me: Don’t you love our religion?)
The ritual was full of a lot of laughter and kissing in the spirit of the Sabbat and I achieved what I hoped to with the ritual use of laughter. I want to continue to explore the use of ritual laughter by incorporating a variation of the stone fish ceremony to create laughter and honour the gods during the Summer Solstice Ritual. I was inspired to work on this project by the Laughing Buddha Ritual (Laughing Buddha Ritual , 2013).
- Dhurba, Deep. 1992. The Nepal Festival Kathmandu. Variety Printas: 57-60.
- Gaijatra Festival. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIAbshKRcdU
- Payne Bennet, Mary and Lengacher, Cecile. 2008. Humour and Laughter May Influence Health: III Laughter and Health Outcomes. Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine 5(1): 37-40.
- Goh Abe. 2010. A Japanese Ritual Performance of Laughter. http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/47656885/japanese-ritual-performance-
- Milner Davis, Jessica. 2006. Understanding Humour in Japan. Wayne State University Press: 37
- Martinez, Doreen E. 2012. Traditional and Kindness Ritual http://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/traditional-kindness-and-ritual-laughter
- Ashkenazi, Michael. 2003. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. Oxford University Press:168.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wk9-gkT2bI8 Laughing Buddha ritual which inspired the paper, June 2013.