The essence of the ritual is the perfection of its performance; among savages it must be practiced with exact precision. It is only when the ritual has been correctly carried out that the ceremony possesses compelling power over the spirits. If the ritual is faulty, it only arouses the anger and resentment of the gods. Therefore, since man’s slowly evolving mind conceived that the technique of ritual was the decisive factor in its efficacy, it was inevitable that the early shamans should sooner or later evolve into a priesthood trained to direct the meticulous practice of the ritual. And so for tens of thousands of years endless rituals have hampered society and cursed civilization, have been an intolerable burden to every act of life, every racial undertaking.
Ritual is the technique of sanctifying custom; ritual creates and perpetuates myths as well as contributing to the preservation of social and religious customs. Again, ritual itself has been fathered by myths. Rituals are often at first social, later becoming economic and finally acquiring the sanctity and dignity of religious ceremonial. Ritual may be personal or group in practice—or both—as illustrated by prayer, dancing, and drama.
Words become a part of ritual, such as the use of terms like amen and selah. The habit of swearing, profanity, represents a prostitution of former ritualistic repetition of holy names. The making of pilgrimages to sacred shrines is a very ancient ritual. The ritual next grew into elaborate ceremonies of purification, cleansing, and sanctification. The initiation ceremonies of the primitive tribal secret societies were in reality a crude religious rite. The worship technique of the olden mystery cults was just one long performance of accumulated religious ritual. Ritual finally developed into the modern types of social ceremonials and religious worship, services embracing prayer, song, responsive reading, and other individual and group spiritual devotions.
The priests evolved from shamans up through oracles, diviners, singers, dancers, weathermakers, guardians of religious relics, temple custodians, and foretellers of events, to the status of actual directors of religious worship. Eventually the office became hereditary; a continuous priestly caste arose.
As religion evolved, priests began to specialize according to their innate talents or special predilections. Some became singers, others prayers, and still others sacrificers; later came the orators—preachers. And when religion became institutionalized, these priests claimed to “hold the keys of heaven.”
The priests have always sought to impress and awe the common people by conducting the religious ritual in an ancient tongue and by sundry magical passes so to mystify the worshipers as to enhance their own piety and authority. The great danger in all this is that the ritual tends to become a substitute for religion.
The priesthoods have done much to delay scientific development and to hinder spiritual progress, but they have contributed to the stabilization of civilization and to the enhancement of certain kinds of culture. But many modern priests have ceased to function as directors of the ritual of the worship of God, having turned their attention to theology—the attempt to define God.
It is not denied that the priests have been a millstone about the neck of the races, but the true religious leaders have been invaluable in pointing the way to higher and better realities.
[Presented by a Melchizedek of Nebadon.]