A friend of mine was asking me about my thoughts on ritual the other week,* more specifically what I think are essential elements of ritual. I don't think I gave her a very good answer, so I thought I would sketch out some thoughts on the old blog. These thoughts are about rituals I control, meaning Eclectic Pagan (Wiccan in style) Rituals. I'm not in a position to change/amend/criticize rituals in tradition(s) I'm a part of, that would be a different post.
Rituals Should Be Interactive
There are times when ritual calls for just watching or listening to someone. I understand that, but those times should be kept to a bare minimum. There are many layers to ritual that sometimes appear to just be watching and listening when they are something else entirely. Yes, you probably don't say anything when people call the quarters, but if you are opening yourself up to them, you are doing something. Just because you don't speak the words means you are absent from the process.
This comes up again when people Call to the Goddess and God. Yes, you are probably not the one actively reading the Call, but you need to be open to it. Your heart and spirit should be focused on the same goal as the Priest or Priestess reading the Call. Now that person reading the Call does have an obligation to you the ritual go-er, and that's to be familiar with the material and to speak loud enough so that everyone can hear them. If they are stumbling over words constantly or whispering in a circle containing thirty people they are not engaging everyone in the process.
This applies again to like The Charge of the Goddess and God. When I hear someone recite the Charge of the Goddess I'm fully engaged. It's a "moment" in ritual, but only when it's done right. I've seen people complimented post-ritual after a good Charge-reading; like it was their own personal highlight of the ritual. That's awesome, and that means someone made the Charge engrossing and personal to everyone in the circle.
What doesn't work is when people "preach" in the circle. I'm very proud of you for understanding the Wheel of the Year, but you don't need to go through the whole thing for me here and now. It's Midsummer and you lost me at Yule. That kind of stuff is not engaging. Ritual should never be about the individual, it should be about the gods and the turn of the Wheel. If you keep the focus on those things everyone will be on the same page. (I've been guilty of this kind of stuff, that's how we learn.)
I've been in all kinds of circles with "acting" and "plays" in them (I tend to call that "sacred drama") and it's been absorbing because the people doing it understood that it was about the gods. They weren't afraid to embarrass themselves if the drama called for it, they weren't putting themselves out there, they were putting the gods out there. If you can't be open to seeing what the gods and Mother Earth want to show you, that's not the fault of the presenters. Yes those type of presentations can bog down, but people who do "good" ritual understand that, and move it along. Sacred Drama is almost always best when it leads to something else.
That something else always needs to be more than just handing someone a leaf and explaining the power of autumn. Let people feel the power of the seasons, don't tell them about it. Make them do something with that leaf, guide them on the path, but let those in the ritual help to create the experience.
Some of the things that are necessary components of ritual are extremely un-engaging, perhaps even boring. Back in Michigan we started a tradition where we purified our ritual salt and water before our rites began. No one needs to hear Ari say "thrice measured" a bunch of times, we can get through that quietly while everyone is getting ready for ritual. When we start ritual we want to start ritual. Get everyone in the circle, have them take a few cleansing breaths and then go off to the races.**
A friend of mine suggested that great ritual usually has two things going on simultaneously, and she's right. When someone calls the quarters you listen to them do it, but you reach out to those powers as well. The same thing goes for calling the Lord and Lady or charging an object. If the ritual becomes a thing where you are "just listening" waiting for someone to finish a long soliloquy you might as well be watching TV.
Rituals Should Have a Taste of the Familiar
I'll be honest, back when I wrote a new ritual for every sabbat I tended to re-write nearly every word every time. For years, I wrote a new Beltane Ritual each April/May, constantly trying to bring in new thoughts, ideas, and poetic flourishes. My friend who originally asked me about rituals and started this whole exercise was rather surprised. "Why didn't you just re-use the ones that worked?" she asked. That's a good question, maybe it's because I like a challenge, or because I feel like that might bore people. I can just imagine the "this is the part where Jason is going to _____" whispering in the circle.
So while I like to create new rituals and use new words, almost every ritual I've ever created has a taste of the familiar. Most of those familiar elements are expected ones: I call four quarters, cast a circle, reach out to the Goddess and God, celebrate Cakes and Ale, etc. While the words might change, the process doesn't very much. It's "ritual" because it's usually the same things over and over, I just like to change the wording.
The familiar is very important during ritual, it gives everyone that common language, and it allows people to "follow along" as the ritual progresses. It's OK to hit a curveball now again, but you don't want to change the sport. That's why I don't like it when someone starts calling out to angels in ritual, or uses a dragon when calling the South. Those are game-changers, and really mess with the energy in a circle and the expectations of those gathered in the circle.
If you advertise a "Wiccan" ritual you don't want to start inserting large amounts of Lakota Liturgy into your ritual. It might sound cool, hell it might even be cool, but at that point you're changing the game. Ritual should be easy to follow.
At Yule once, we began the ritual with the majority of the circle locked out of the ritual space. We called the quarters, cast the circle and completely created sacred space. I called down the God and began the ritual as the now deceased Lord of the Sun waiting to arise once more. When we allowed everyone into the ritual space it was obvious that I had thrown them a curveball, but it was Yule, and the drama we were sharing was expected and easy to pick up on. The sense of being "lost" lasted about all of fifteen seconds for those who weren't with us when we called quarters etc.
While I enjoy playing with language a bit, there are certain phrases and expressions which are expected, these are things which people like to say. While I might rewrite a quarter call to express the darkness of Yule, I still to end it with "Blessed Be" or "So Mote It Be," people like saying those things. Ending a quarter call with "Namaste" would be unexpected and would break up the trance ritual is sometimes meant to become. (Doing the same things again and again in mostly the same order trains the mind to act a certain way, in the case of ritual those repeated actions train the mind to prepare for deity and to honor the Earth.)
I love liturgy, while I might rewrite some things, there are parts of ritual I nearly always want to hear and experience, most notably the Charge and Charge of the Goddess. With only a couple of exceptions (Yule usually if it's light-hearted) it's a part of almost every ritual Ari and I do. Apparently a lot of people out here (West) only recite the Charges at esbats, I think they are even more important at sabbats. So this is an essential thing to Ari and I, and I've often made her read the Charge of the Goddess to me post-ritual if it was not included in the rite. It's transformative to me, and completely engrossing.
Now I have done completely off the wall, insane, genre defying rituals, but I've always warned everyone first. One of my favorite "unique" rituals is one I call the 1899 Ritual, it uses only words and concepts from 1899 and before. We call the quarters like Masons, cast the circle like the Golden Dawn, and use bits and pieces of "Aradia" for the rite in the middle. For the Charge of the Goddess I've used "Hertha" by Charles Algernon Swinburne. Really unexpected and different stuff, but it's always been spelled out in advance.
Cakes and Ale Should Have Meaning
Cakes and Ale (or Cakes and Wine) is an essential part of ritual to me, and it serves many functions. More and more it serves as a convenient place to insert (add jokes here) the Great Rite. Most rituals don't include the actual Great Rite (ritual penetration), and instead feature a symbolic one, usually involving an athame and a chalice. Since the chalice is often a part of the cakes and ale ceremony, putting the Great Rite in this spot has become very natural to most Pagans.
The Great Rite is one of the defining moments of (Wiccan) Pagan Spirituality. It symbolizes the union of Lord and Lady, the union that provides the bounty and blessings we have here on Earth. Without their joining we'd have no crops, no bread, no drink, no life, the cosmic cycle would completely stop. As an acknowledgement of all they have given us, and continue to give us I find it imperative.
I see Cakes and Ale as a continuation of the Great Rite, it's a celebration of what that union gives to us. It has to be more than the eating of random cookies, followed by a slug or two of grape juice. If cakes and ale is just a motion, a routine in ritual, than it has no meaning. When I have my "cakes," I imagine fields of grain, the warm sun bringing that field to life, the rains providing sustenance, it's a moment of pure reflection and it takes me back to our agrarian origins.
While I'm not insensitive to the needs of individuals who avoid alcohol, the ceremony here is called Cakes and Ale (or Wine). Alcohol is a mysterious substance, it not only nourishes the body, it intoxicates the brain. It is something that effects us on a physical and mental level. It has a warmth, power, and energy unique to its self. Yes, there are some people who need to avoid it, and having an alternative there for them is of course necessary, but I'm always annoyed at circles that go too far the other way.
There are many theories as to why our hunter-gatherer ancestors stopped wandering around and set up towns. Two of them are of special interest to me. One theory proposes that people began growing food to provide sustenance for religious pilgrims. The first cities weren't really cities, they were shrines, pilgrimage sites, and people began growing food to feed them. The second one is that people liked to drink, and they wanted access to alcohol at all times, so they began controlling their environment to make that happen. Both theories are even compatible (alcohol with the religious rites).
With the exception of water and breast milk we've been drinking alcohol longer than anything else. In that sense, it's sacred, special, something that harkens back to our very origins as people. I like to use it in ritual to remind me of all of that. For Ari and I the use of alcohol in ritual is an essential, and should always be an option in the circle, just like an alternative should always be an option.***
Those three things are my biggies. Give every aspect of your ritual meaning, keep everyone engaged, and make sure it speaks the language of ritual known to most people in your circle.
*Truth, it was actually a few weeks ago, but I've been busy writing presentations and preparing other things.
**That can be a bit different when doing smaller group rituals in an established circle or coven. These are more guidelines/ideas for bigger public rituals, the kind where you have all levels of experience and not everyone knows your name.
***I have had rituals where we've used things other than alcohol, namely milk at Imbolc or Ostara. My ideal "Wheel of the Year" told through Ales and Wines would look like this:
Beltane-A Red Fruit Wine