Magical ritual comes in a wide variety of forms united in common purpose but generally differing in details. When we look at ritual, we can approach it from many directions, depending on our own predisposition, prior knowledge, and so on. For instance, on a practical, operational level we may focus on the details of the performance of the ritual; what incenses are used? What words are said? By whom? On a larger scope level, we may look at the purpose the ritual is intended to bring about. Is it an initiation? A propitiation? An offering? A practice of self-transformation? Somewhere in between, we can look at the operational functional points of the ritual. When we immerse the baptized in water, what does that mean? What does the bell represent?
It’s somewhere around this third level that I want to discuss the idea of looking at aspects of ritual based on whose purposes they are enacting. Of course, cultural context and symbolism is important here. When possible, it is best to look at the original sources of material or at least to educated people belonging to the culture from which the ritual originates if we wish to get the right idea here. Nevertheless, it’s possible to make educated guesses where information is not available as to what purpose within a ritual a given action or symbol serves, and based on that, how we can adopt or adapt that ritual when necessary.
For example, many rituals call for particular kinds of incense or smoke. Is this for our benefit, or for the benefit of the deity or spirits or so on to whom we offer the smoke? In some cases it may be for us – if it’s a psychoactive smoke, for example, that’s probably being used to bring about an altered state of consciousness for the purposes of the ritual. If it’s not, we should consider to whom it is being offered. Some beings are particularly keen on certain smells, some are allergic or afraid of certain smells. Some spirits are forgiving for substitutions, others are not. For example, nagas (Lu, water spirits in the human realm within Tibetan Buddhism) are notoriously picky. Because they are on the human realm, they can be exactly as picky as we can. Other deities may be much more forgiving if substitutions are made.
Beyond that, offerings are not always given for the benefit of the one to whom they are offered. For example, within Buddhism we make daily offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, as well as to various enlightened protectors and so on. Surely the Buddha, a renunciate who is beyond this world, is not needing to consume the water or flowers or smoke we offer. He has no need of it. The particulars of the smoke that we offer are not important. Only that the water is clean, the food fresh, and so on. Why is it that we can make an offering to Buddha without worrying about making mistakes, whereas offerings to planetary intelligences or deities have particular instructions? It is because offerings to Buddha and so on are not performed for the benefit of the receiver but for the benefit of the giver – to train generosity, and to acquire merit for the practice of generosity. In the case of making propitiatory offerings to the local spirits for good crop, or to an unenlightened protector spirit, or so on, the nature of the offerings matters because it’s not really about us.
And that, to me, is the key that we need to look at when making decisions about substitutions in ritual. In some regions, it is unreasonable or impossible to get the exact offering substances or ritual materials called for by the ritual. In this case, we have to make decisions about substitutions and omissions. Depending on the purpose within the ritual, we must decide if the ritual needs to be substituted for us or for someone else. If it is for our benefit, this is an easy substitution, as we can substitute anything that is symbolically equivalent to ourselves. If the point is to give generously, and I don’t have flowers, another cup of water that I imagine as flowers is fine. If a chant is done to establish an idea in my own mind, and I do not speak the other language or cannot for whatever reason, then chanting the same in my own language is fine. However, if a sigil is to be engraved onto iron because that is the metal associated with the intelligence I’m evoking, and I engrave it onto steel, I cannot perhaps reasonably expect it to have the same result. The iron association in this case is not about me, it’s about the spirit.
Before getting into a ritual, it’s important to be familiar with the mechanics of that ritual, and to scrutinize why symbolic actions take place at certain times. If the reason is our own benefit, then even a mindful omission may result in bringing about the same awareness or symbolic association. If however the reason pertains to the desires of the spirits with whom we’re working, or even if it pertains to other people for whom the ritual is being performed, we should not casually make omissions or edits to rituals. Instead, we should ask ourselves before we ring the bell, do we ring this bell for our benefit, or the benefit of others? And if it is not for our own benefit, it is prudent to look at what changes in the ritual by the omission or edition.