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Religion Library: Paganism

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Carl McColman

Most expressions of Paganism are magical - which is to say, they promote the use of individual or communal ritual practices to effect personal and environmental change, particularly changes in consciousness. Rooted in pre-modern magical practices (where rituals were seen as creating direct physical change in the environment), Pagans often have a more sophisticated understanding of magic and ritual, following Dion Fortune's definition of "magic" as "the art of changing consciousness at will." Such ceremonially enacted changes in consciousness are believed to facilitate further changes in the practitioner's life circumstances and/or relationship with the gods.

Magic can be broken down into two categories: thaumaturgy (the working of wonders) and theurgy (the divine work). Thaumaturgical magic tends to be practically oriented: magic with a specific goal in mind, whether that may be gaining a fortune, losing weight, making the crops grow, or banishing cancer. Practitioners of magic may engage in it for themselves or on behalf of another. Theurgy, by contrast, has a more spiritual and devotional focus: magic performed to foster intimacy with a god or goddess, to achieve union with the deity or deities, or to transform oneself into a more holy or godlike state.

Wiccan and other Pagan ceremonies can incorporate either or both thaumaturgical and theurgical elements. Depending on the beliefs of the individual or group performing the ceremony, a ritual can be devotionally oriented toward one or more specific deities, toward ancestral or fairy spirits, toward nature in general (sometimes personified as an Earth Goddess), or toward a generic understanding of "the god and the goddess." Likewise, depending on the beliefs and values of the ritual's enactors, the tone of the ceremony may be devotional, worshipful, or more explicitly magical. (A devotional or worshipful ritual makes few or no requests of the spirits that are invoked, whereas a magical ritual instructs or even commands the spirits to do the magician's bidding.)

Actual rituals themselves can take an almost infinite variety of forms, particularly given the strong ethos within the broad Pagan community for following one's own intuition and creating some or all the elements of personal spiritual practice. Rituals can be learned from elders and teachers, copied from a book, or created by the individual. Rituals and magical acts often make use of symbolism, which can include decorating the ritual site with colors or objects to symbolize the elements or the god(s) being invoked.Specific tools can be incorporated (for example, the Wiccan athame, or ceremonial knife, used to cut a magical boundary in the air that separates the ritual space from its mundane surroundings), and colorful clothing or robes may be worn, to help create a sense of separation from ordinary consciousness and openness to the flow of magical energy.

Some groups or traditions may have taboos associated with rituals (for example, a prohibition against wearing watches or having electronic devices like cell phones in the ritual). Candles, essential oils, incense, crystals, bells, drums or other musical instruments, and ritual foods (for offerings to the gods and/or consumption by the participants) can all be part of a ritual, depending on its purpose and function. Rituals can take place indoors, although adherents of nature religions often choose to perform ceremonies in outdoor settings - such as in a forest or around a bonfire.


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