Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Crafting Pagan Ritual

What is ritual?

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community.

It is driven by a mindset – to celebrate a holiday/season/special day, to create and execute a spell, or to honour a deity (or other spiritual guide or being). Normally there are certain parameters that are established (a circle, a boundary), and certain actions taken, depending on tradition and personal beliefs. It can celebrate a rite of passage (a birthday, for example), and usually has lasting traditions (birthday cake, candles, presents) that can be repeated year to year (month to month, etc).

Really, let's be frank; a ritual can be anything.

For me, a ritual (in a spiritual sense) is a space to create a psychological mindset so that I can focus on my intention, and get my purpose done.

When do I create ritual?

You create ritual to celebrate an occasion, to mark a holiday, to honour a deity, or to raise energy for an intended purpose.

A ritual can be as simple as lighting a candle and saying a prayer, or as complicated as a mystery play with multiple participants, costumes, and several songs. It is dependant on what you choose to involve, and whom (if) you choose to involve.

Purpose: The Necessary Ingredient


Without a purpose, you do not have a ritual. A ritual without purpose is like a ham sandwich without ham – sure, the bread, mayo, and mustard are edible, but they are not as good, as nourishing, or as satisfying without the ham. In fact, they suck. You can attempt to do a ritual for any old reason – but trust me, it will go nowhere fast without a clear purpose.

Purpose gives you something to focus on. An example: Beltane is May 1. I may decide to do a ritual to mark that passage in the wheel. So – I could say 'my purpose is Beltane!'. Or, I could go one better, and say 'Hm. Beltane is often associated with fertility – my purpose is fertility!' Or, I could go even deeper – my purpose could be the specific gods/goddesses (Demeter, Green Man, Hathor) associated with that holiday – so I could be petitioning for their help. My friend Sally could be trying to have a baby – I could use her as a focus for my purpose.

You want to have a clear purpose, and you can narrow the focus as much as you like. However, I have found that in larger, more public settings, it is better to have a focused purpose that is more general – more along the 'fertility' option. The other participants may not know Sally, or perhaps they want to focus on their own fertility. It still gives the ritual a structure and a place/concept to direct the energy, but it allows it to be more accessible for the general populace.

Psychologically, the purpose gives our minds a place to go to – and allows our imaginations and visualization capabilities to fill in the blanks. It helps us to figure out how we want to picture the energy, and how exactly we want to send that out to the universe. Piggybacking on the Beltane example, I often visualize fertile energy as green energy starting at my sacral chakra. It gives us the freedom to work with the energy as we want, but allows us to work towards the same goal.

In personal ritual, it is just as important to have a purpose. Being in ritual headspace all the time is exhausting – if you are working a spell or honouring a deity, you want to conserve that energy so you have no issues raising it when needed. It would be the equivalent of going to a mall with no purpose – not to shop, or browse, but just to wander aimlessly for hours and hours. You end up tired and cranky, and that bleeds into your ritual work.

An example: One year, I decided to do a ritual. No real reason, just wanted to do one. So I cast my circle with my wand, and just.... sat there. I didn't have a purpose, so I had no focus. I ended up just sitting there, stewing about something that had made me angry earlier, and that energy just got supercharged. I got angrier and angrier, and ended up channelling so much of this into my wand that it snapped!

My Magic Formula

To be fair, this is a pretty old formula. I just molded it to fit my needs.

This is a classic example of the visualization of plot. As in, a literary device. 

Almost any ritual can be slid into this formula – it represents any purpose, and gives a clear beginning, middle, and end. A ritual is simply a story being told in a poetic way to illustrate a purpose. This graph is your best friend.

Building ritual from a skeleton

Let's break it down simply.

The introduction: This is where you set your stage. You decide if you want a circle to create sacred space, and how to do that. Some people prefer the 'hand to hand I cast this circle'. Some prefer taking their pointy tool of choice (finger, athame, or wand) and going around the outside. Some people hand a ball of yarn around so that it is a physical representation of the circle.

You also decide how to call your quarters. They can be as simple or as flowery as you like. They can be creative – a few rituals we have done word association.

Decide on what gods/spirits/beings you want to call into your space. This will be relevant to your purpose. Make sure the beings get along – don't call opposing entities to work together in cohesion – I guarantee it's not happening.

Direction: This is simply your statement of purpose. It can be as simple as 'we are here today to celebrate Imbolc' or as complicated as “We gather here on Brigid's day to celebrate the turning of the wheel. We have come to honour the gradual warming of the earth, the persistence of the coming spring, the waning of the ice and cold of winter's grasp. At Yule we honour the gifts of darkness, and today we honour the gifts of the light.” This is the statement that puts the celebrants (or yourself) into ritual headspace.

I also like to explain any activity that will be done, and why we're doing it. Like, if we're going to be singing a chant, I pass out sheets with the words, or teach people the words, so we aren't stumbling when the critical point arrives.

Rising Energy: This is when you are ... well, raising energy for your purpose. You're chanting, singing, meditating, whatever. The point is that your focus is on the purpose, and you are channelling life into that.

Climax: The release of energy into the universe. Pretty self explanatory.

Denouement: The falling action – the part of the ritual that is essentially used to help people ground. Often, people will serve cakes/ale, or hold a meditation, or simply ground.

Completion: The end of the ritual. You thank your deities, dismiss your quarters, take down sacred space, and thank the participants.

These terms make up the skeleton of a ritual – they are key points that keep the ritual cohesive. This ensures a clear beginning, middle, and end. Use these key points to initially create your ritual, and fill in the rest as you go along. I find writing out (and blocking it) is extremely helpful.

Samhain, 2006

Altar is decorated with black cloth, scattered leaves, gourds, acorns, apples, and black and orange candles. In two candleholders, there are taller black tapers. A variety of breads and fruits for feasting on a pentacle. A lit black pillar and unlit white pillar sit near the tall black tapers candles.

Intro: Outline your circle with bird seed and salt. Cast the circle (using athame) and call Quarters (simple calls)...... invoke the Crone aspect of the Goddess by lighting the black Goddess candle... invoke the God by lighting the black God candle.

Direction: Explain the significance of the holiday (using script). Set the scene using props (apples, boline). Statement of purpose (the honoured dead, those who have passed, death as a cycle). Explain myth of Persephone.

Rising Energy: Bless the food. Begin chant (likely Hoof and Horn). Have drummers to keep beat. Slowly chant faster.

Climax: Send energy to focus. Have everyone raise their hands and shout.

Denouement: Snuff black pillar (old year). Light white pillar (new year). Pass around blessed food to enjoy.

Completion: Thank God/ess. Dismiss quarters. Drop circle (using athame). Hand out leaves to participants.

Meat : Now safe for vegans

Now here comes the actual work of the ritual writing – the meat. By meat, I mean all the decisions that need to be made about what is in the skeleton. So you're going to call the elements – how are you going to do this? Is it freeform, or will you have a script? This is where you write that script. You need to block out everything, down to where people are standing and what people's jobs are.

This part can take research. It can be really easy if you are writing for yourself – most of the time you can do it freeform, or read it off a paper. In a larger setting, this can be a challenge. I will get into the type of people you need in a later section.

The script gets written – depending on how eloquent you are (or how eloquent you want it to be), this can be a challenge. If you need someone to pass things around, or need someone to perform a specific task or chant, that has to be included here.

Think of it this way: you're making a sandwich. You have decided on the type of bread you want, and the condiments you want – what do you want to be the main part of the sandwich? Is it ham, beef, sprouts? Do you want to shaved, cut, or raw? What kind of cheese do you want, if you want it? Aside from the purpose, this is the most important part.

Drama: why it is necessary (and not the crummy type)

It's all well and good to write out a beautiful ritual, but actually running it is another story. Any great story or play is going to have drama, and you had better sure you have some as well.

When you are looking for other participants to play parts in your drama, you need to be sure that you are choosing the right people. Can these people read with passion and conviction, or do they have the stage persona of a wet dishrag? With encouragement, anyone can show promise – but when you are running a ritual for other people, it is very important your ritual has a good flow and is suffused with enough passion and zeal. Nothing wrecks a mood like a quarter-caller who reads with the passion of a banker's box. Practice your ritual before the big day – DO NOT leave it until the last minute. You want the ritual to feel confident and effortless, so people should know exactly what they need to do and when. Being unprepared shows in your ritual – you are directing the energy, and you want to keep the revellers on point. Having everyone read through their parts a few times so they don't stumble over words or lose their place in ritual will keep the energy flowing – but most importantly, it will keep everyone in what I call 'ritual mindset'.

Ritual mindset is the psychological state we enter when we enter a ritual. Many things can effect this – sounds, smells, visuals. I knew someone who would instantly go into a meditative state when he smelled benzoin. This is why there are people in robes, a decorated altar, drummers and bell ringers. All of these are tools to keep you focused and intent on what needs to be done. I have written about this in my past article The Importance of Ecstatic Ritual.

Every religion has it's own pageantry – paganism is no different. Catholic priests wear ritual robes and often carry censers of frankincense and myrrh up the aisle of the church – Jewish men wear the yarmulke as a pious custom. These 'costumes' are ways to differentiate the religious leaders from the flock – in paganism, we often wear these clothes to symbolize the shedding of the mundane and stepping into sacred space. This is not to say that I would not have the ability to lead a sabbat ritual in jeans and a t-shirt; I certainly could, but would people seeing me, in jeans, automatically think 'ritual'? Doubtful.

Sometimes, donning ritual jewelry, a robe, a cloak, or even all black clothing is enough to non-verbally communicate 'we are in a sacred space'.

The fear: or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Gods

Here it is – you're standing in front of a group of 5, 10, 30 people. They are looking at you expectantly. You're pretty sure if you could, you'd pass out from fear. RenĂ©e, you ask, how do you get past this?

Honestly? I am a pretty shy person, and every ritual is a challenge for me. I find it hard to speak in front of people, and I have screwed up so many times in ritual from fear and nervousness – I can't even count. You are your own worst critic – nothing is ever expected to be perfect. The god/esses are not going to judge you because you said south when you meant north. I also find laughing it off, or a little self depreciation works just fine. “Oh, ha, I had a dream I visited Australia last night – still running in Aussie headspace!

Mistakes happen. We are all human, and any other expectation is unrealistic. Just focus on having fun. If you've done a few runs of the ritual, you should be comfortable enough to lead with little issue. Every ritual is a celebration, and if you spend the time worrying about every little thing, you're throwing the wrong energy out there.

A Final Note
I have been involved in the community in the past, running and assisting in public rituals. Community was always my focus, and it is my goal to make people understand how much work goes into a ritual, but also how easy it can be to create the ritual, either for personal or public use.

Please note that this article is based on my own experiences and methods. If something does not work for you, or if you disagree with my opinions or thoughts, that is okay! It is all about giving you a basis so you can learn to create and nurture your own methods!