I often notice people talking at cross purposes about spiritual practices, especially shamanism. It is as if they are talking about totally different things, using the same terms. On the other hand, often they are using different terminology for basically the same phenomena.
That kind of confusion can lead to arguments and it seldom helps anyone. Today I'd like to talk about the difference between two related terms that commonly confuse people.
In English, the field of shamanic studies uses the term ceremonies, rather than rituals, for the events in which shamans do their journeying and healing work. So do many Native Americans use the term ceremonies in English for such things as healing done in sweat lodges and the trance work of the Lakota yuwipi men. For more on that, see the books written by Evelyn Eaton.
Why is that?
In common American English usage, a ritual is anything done repeatedly that has some kind of meaning attached to it. So we refer to family Thanksgiving dinner as a ritual---and even watching Monday night football is considered a ritual for some people.
On a spiritual level, ritual is generally used for regularly scheduled religious observances. Rituals are often written out beforehand and performed word for word.
Note: Neopagans (modern people who practice new or reconstructed non-JudeoChristianIslamic or pagan religions) use the term ritual for any spiritual or magical event they hold, even if it is just an observance of the season. They tend to write scripts, even for "rituals" that they may perform only once. If you come from one of those belief systems, please note that shamanism is an ancient set of magico-spiritual practices, based in animism, that has been studied and documented worldwide by anthropologiests and has its own specialized terminology.
Americans seem to think of ceremony as referring to staged but spiritually meaningless events, such as graduations, mall openings, and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, essentially formalized photo ops. Such "ceremonies" ay include a prayer, but they are no longer really expected to have any spiritual effect.
The meanings used in shamanic studies are different. One difference is that primal cultures don't have empty rituals or meaningless ceremonies. For animists everything has a spirit, and daily life is a spiritual event. So no act is meaningless.
In this context, the difference between a ritual and a ceremony is that a ritual is always done a certain way, usually at particular a certain time or place, and it doesn't usually vary much according to context or effectiveness.
A ceremony, on the other hand, is held only when needed. For example, a healing, finding a lost child, locating water or wild game, or heading off a dangerous storm.
What is done in a ceremony, and how it is done, depends on how the shaman or other spiritual practitioner senses from the spirits that the ceremony needs to be done at this time. Leading an effective ceremony requires the ability to sense energy, to gauge what techniques are needed, and to sense the effectiveness of each thing that is done and act accordingly.
People often confuse ceremonies with rituals, because ceremonies almost always contain some ritualistic elements. That is, there are certain things that you need to do in any ceremony, such as cleansing, protection, asking the spirits for help, and thanking the spirits for their protection and guidance after the work is done.
Most people do those things approximately the same way every time. For example, smudging, prayer, asking for help and protection from the spirits, rattling, chanting, and/or drumming, giving thanks to the spirits, and so on. Part of that is cultural expectations; part of it is habit. If something works well for you and your people, why change it?
While there are certain things that must always be done at a ceremony, such as cleansing and protection, how they are done does not have to be the same each time. Depending on circumstances, it might take very little energy, and only a few minutes, to cleanse and bless a space before a ceremony, or it might take a lot of work and energy and a lot of time.
Anyone chosen to lead a spiritual ritual needs to have the ability to feel the energy and react accordingly. For example, spending more time and energy on cleansing and blessing the space or on asking for spiritual protection and guidance if needed.
For a ceremony, such an ability to sense, interpret, and properly react to energy is absolutely essential. Conducting a ritual or ceremony without the ability to sense the fluctuations of energy and control what is happening energetically is like driving a car blindfolded.
Sooner or later, you will crash; there is no question about it. Bad reactions from batched ceremonies or unprotected rituals can lead to physical or mental problems for those leading, attending, or intended to be helped by the ritual or ceremony.
What kind of bad reactions? Headaches, stomach aches, attachments, even possessions can result from poorly done rituals or ceremonies. So can sleeplessness, bad luck, fearfulness, depression, irritability, and a host of more subtle effects.
Rituals can be very effective for spiritual purposes, but the leader of each ritual should be energetically aware and able to shape the energy accordingly. In some cases, that might mean that the ritual is expanded into a ceremony. That's why well-trained, functioning psychic abilities should be required of anyone who leads a ritual, and even more so for a ceremony.
A ceremony, on the other hand, while it will probably include ritual elements (things that are done at every ceremony, because they work), is a mostly spontaneous event that grows out of need and the spiritual energy of the place, the time, the severity of the need, and the mood of the participants.
Please note that different spiritual/magical groups often use the same terms in totally different ways. There is no point in getting into an argument with your Christian or pagan friends about the different meanings of ritual and ceremony. The have their own definitions and beliefs and are entitled to them.
By the way the words ritual and ceremony are used in shamanic studies is almost the opposite of the standard dictionary definitions. Dictionaries record the most common definitions of words. What we're discussing here is their usage in shamanic studies.
You may also want to consider these definitions in considering books and other shamanic studies materials. You will find quite a few books by people from other fields or belief systems, supposedly written about "shamanism," that are not helpful for shamanic work. I hope this article makes things clearer and helps you in your own shamanic practice.