This past weekend I made a trip to Houston to visit with the Northwest Community UU Church. On Sunday I helped Cynthia present her service on UU and Islam and on Saturday we had a dinner meeting with some folks who are interested in starting a CUUPS chapter. During our conversation someone said “we don’t know much about doing rituals, we just find stuff we like that seems to work.”
Unless you join a teaching coven or other highly structured group, I think that’s how about 95% of Pagans get started. That’s what I did the first time I coordinated a CUUPS circle: I pulled out a couple books and found about a dozen rituals on-line, then borrowed and blended and mixed and matched till it looked about right. It worked. When I look back on that ritual now, though, I see some things that didn’t mix and match as well as I thought at the time, and I see that I didn’t completely understand why I was doing what I was doing.
Fortunately, there are resources available that can make life easier for the beginning ritualist. I have two books on ritual on my Pagan Reading List: Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work by Isaac Bonewits and The Elements of Ritual by Deborah Lipp. Isaac’s book is simply the best guide to group ritual yet written – every Pagan ritualist should have a copy. Deborah’s book is very Wicca-oriented and gets into the minutia of ritual, but if you want to really understand the symbolism behind the liturgy, read it.
Over the past nine years I’ve developed my own ritual outline. It has its roots in these two books, in various on-line rituals I’ve found, in the rituals of OBOD, in public rituals I’ve attended and in years of trial and error in practice with Denton CUUPS. Very little is my original work. Yes, it is “Wiccanish” and yes, ethnic reconstructionists will probably prefer other liturgies. But it’s worked well for us.
This liturgy works well in circles of 15 up to about 60 or 70. Much less and you won’t have enough people for all the parts, many more and staging issues become a problem. More about that later.
A Pagan Ritual Outline
Introduction. Begin by informally introducing yourself and your group. Take care of any housekeeping activities: turn phones off, point out where the restrooms are, let people know when it is and isn’t OK to leave the circle. Assume there will be at least one person in the assembly who’s never been to a Pagan circle before – tell them enough to put them at ease. If there are any responses, chants or songs, teach them now.
Religious and Cultural Education. This is your opportunity to pass on history, lore, and myths – a bit about the holiday you’re celebrating, how it was observed in ancient times, and its survivals in modern culture. This can be very helpful, but make sure you keep it brief. You’re doing a ritual, not a lecture.
There are some rituals that need to let mystery speak for itself. Our Samhain ritual last year had zero educational readings. When in doubt, talk less and do more.
Cleansing and Purifying. Smudging, aspersing, anointing or other acts of purification are designed to help everyone check their baggage and not bring it into the circle. The best explanation I’ve heard is that if you’ve just finished chopping garlic, you probably want to wash your hands and utensils before you start baking a cake. Garlic isn’t dirty or evil, but I don’t want it in my cake.
Opening Bell. This is the signal that we’re shifting from ordinary time into magical time. It tells people to get serious – we’re about to start. Bells, chimes, singing bowls and gongs all work well. So does simply saying “let us now begin.” The important thing is to let people know that we’re crossing a boundary into something special.
Grounding, Centering, and Merging. This step is designed to further shift peoples’ consciousness from the ordinary world into the magical world, and to merge the individuals into a “group mind.” The ritual will be far more powerful if everyone is on the same page and moving in the same direction. This is usually done with a guided meditation, though singing, drumming, and chanting can accomplish the same thing.
Declared Opening and Stated Purpose. This is a line or two or three that formally says why we’re here and what we’re going to do. “We are here to celebrate Yule, the Winter Solstice. We welcome all who come in love and friendship to join our gathering and celebrate with us.”
Casting the Circle. This step creates sacred space in which we can work. The circle acts as a barrier to keep out unwanted energies and (more importantly) to keep our own energies in until we’re ready to release them. It’s true that circle casting is not an ancient pagan (lowercase intentional) activity – it has its roots in medieval ceremonial magic. But it has become commonplace (OBOD Druids do it, though ADF Druids don’t) and it helps reinforce the idea that you’re working in sacred space.
You can’t always cast a circle. Some times there are too many movements to stay within fixed boundaries, or you have to process from one place to another. If so, consider other methods for creating or declaring sacred space.
Calling the Quarters. Here we call the essence of the four directions and the four elements to be present at our circle.
Invoking the Ancestors. Here we call our ancestors of blood (our parents and grandparents going back to the dawn of time) and our ancestors of spirit (the founders of our traditions and the ancients who inspired them and us). We do this to acknowledge our connections to them, to honor them for the foundations they laid for us, and ask for their help with our workings.
Invoking the Gods. Here we invite the deities to join us and bless our circle. Depending on the ritual or on your thoughts on hard vs. soft polytheism, this may be the Goddess and God, or it may be a particular deity or deities. As with the ancestors, we want to acknowledge them, honor them, and ask for their assistance.
Giving Offerings to the Ancestors and Gods. If we ask divine beings to come to us, bless us, and assist with our workings, it is proper to offer gifts to them. Offerings can include food or drink, burning herbs or incense, prayers or poems or songs, drumming or dance – anything that is done in praise and honor of the deities we have called. This is neither bribery nor groveling – it’s simply the polite way to treat our most honored guests.
Interludes. If you have a long ritual or if the emphasis makes a sudden change, break it up with one or two or three interludes. This can be live music, recorded music, or readings of poetry or stories. Interludes can serve as “palate cleansers” and they can also help weave a story into the ritual.
Main Event. Everything done so far has been preparation – now we’re ready for the main event. This can be a magical working, a seasonal rite, a rite of passage, a re-creation of an ancient ritual or the telling of an ancient story. It can be very formal or very informal.
There can be more than one “main” event, although that runs the risk of diluting the overall impact, and the risk of going too long. If there is more than one main event, they should support each other in a common theme or goal. Make sure the main event really is the main event – it is anticlimactic to work through 15 minutes of readings, castings and callings for a 3 minute working.
The Simple Feast. A good, energetic working can be draining. Eating and drinking helps ground you and begin the return to the ordinary world. Sharing a meal is also an act of unity for the circle.
While the similarities to the Christian communion can be troubling for some, this actually has its roots in the much older Egyptian reversion of offerings. Food offerings were presented to the gods, who did not physically consume them. After some time, the food was eaten by the priests, and in some cases the worshippers.
Beyond that, if the leader and the circle as a whole have done a good job of raising and directing energy, and if the gods are pleased, then the food and drink will be charged with divine energy. When that happens, we are not just eating and drinking, we are consuming the blessings of the Divine.
I strongly suggest music or readings while the Simple Feast is being served. Otherwise people tend to talk among themselves, which breaks the atmosphere.
Reversing the Ground, Center, and Merge Meditation. This is a very brief meditation that reverses what was done at the beginning. It helps move everyone back towards the ordinary world.
Thanking the Gods and Ancestors. Anyone or anything that is called into a circle needs to be thanked and released, and this should be done “inside out” (last in, first out – preferably by the same person who called them). Please remember to be polite. Maybe you want to “dismiss” Morrigan – I prefer to keep my skin on my body.
Releasing the Quarters. Again, thank and release who and what you called.
Uncasting the Circle. This is opening sacred space – taking down the boundaries we have put up. It doesn’t need to be anywhere nearly as elaborate as the casting – it can be as simple as declaring “the circle is open.”
Closing Bell. Whatever you used to say “now we’re beginning” should be used again to say “now we’re done.” The leader can add a final blessing such as “go in peace” or something similar.
Final Words. This is the informal ending. Thank people for coming, plug your next event and make any other announcements. Ideally there will be a social time afterwards.
We don’t do all these elements in every ritual. Denton CUUPS rarely does cleansings, we don’t always cast a circle, and the closing ritual tends to be very compressed. But this basic outline has served us well for the past nine years – if you’re looking for a ritual template, give this one a try.
In an upcoming post I’ll talk about sizing, staging and other logistical concerns.