Common Ritual Errors and How to Avoid Them

There are rituals that leave you feeling like you’ve touched the gods and walked between the worlds. And then there are rituals where you walk away shaking your head. If you’re new to leading group rituals, how do you make sure yours fall into the first category and not the second? Knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it is a good start, but even if you follow your tradition’s liturgy or an outline like the one I presented in the last post there are still things that can go badly wrong. Fortunately, if you’re aware of the pitfalls you can take steps to avoid them.

I’ve yet to do a perfect ritual but I try not to make the same mistake over and over again. Here are the most common ritual errors I’ve encountered, in other people’s rituals and in my own.

Lack of Preparation. There’s nothing quite like standing under the full moon, bathing in its lustrous beauty, and letting your heart speak its innermost feelings. It’s a wonderful experience, but personal devotion and group ritual are two very different animals. The gods may not care if you stumble through invocations or if you’re at a loss for words in the main rite, but your fellow circle-goers will.

Very few people can extemporaneously lead a large, complex ritual and do it well. I’m not one of them. I need a script. If I don’t want to use a script then I either have to use calls, invocations and workings that I’ve done many times or I have to memorize what I want to say. It’s better to read well than to memorize poorly.

Even if you’ve got a good script you still have to practice it. The core group at Denton CUUPS has been working together and using the same basic liturgy for seven years. We still do a walk-through before every ritual, just to make sure it works in practice the way we think it works on paper. If there’s something new in a particular ritual we’ll do a full rehearsal on that section – maybe two or three times.

If a ritual is important enough to do it’s important enough to make sure it’s right.

Lack of Planning. It’s not uncommon to find a ritual script that’s all words and no directions. And without directions (and the planning that goes into them) it’s easy to do things like set up chairs from wall to wall and not leave room to walk around the circle, or expect someone to do something that would require three hands. A circle with an altar in the center is nice, but not if it means half the people can’t see what’s going on.

Beyond that there are site issues and logistical issues that need to be considered. If you’re working at night, how will you see to read: house lights? candles? flashlights? If you’re outside, can you make sure everyone can be heard? What if it rains? What if it’s 110 degrees?

If you’re planning group movements like a procession or a spiral dance, how will you accommodate people with mobility issues?

As you’re composing the ritual, mentally walk through the setup, motions and movements and then add them to the script. Make sure what you want to do can really be done.

Ignoring Sizing Issues. A private ritual for six or eight covenmates has one set of requirements. A public ritual for 20 or 30 has another. And a ritual for a public gathering with 100 or more has yet a third. What works well with one size may not work well with another.

I once attended a public ritual with about 80 people in attendance. The leader smudged everyone before they entered the circle, then later walked around the circle personally handing a charged object (stones, I think) to every participant. I’m sure this was a ritual the leader had done before in an intimate gathering, but in this setting the result was that people spent a lot of time standing around with nothing to do.

The larger the gathering the harder it is to get everyone involved and the harder it is to make sure everyone can see and hear what’s going on. On the other hand, larger gatherings mean more energy for songs, chants and dances. Size your rituals appropriately.

Lack of Reverence. I think we’ve all been to religious gatherings (not all of them Pagan) where we’ve shook our heads and said “I’m going to go stand under cover in case lightning strikes.” It’s one thing to have a lighthearted ritual, particularly at Ostara and Beltane. It’s good to be able to laugh, and to laugh at ourselves. But lightheartedness and laughter should never cross the line into parody or mockery.

Make sure you give proper respect to ancient and indigenous cultures and their relics. I’m not one to get worked up over “cultural appropriation” – we humans have been borrowing each others stories and rituals since the first tribes were formed. But credit your sources and don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

Every Summer Solstice this Druid becomes an Egyptian priest. But we make it clear we are not Egyptians and that what we do is our attempt to recreate and reimagine what the ancient Egyptians did. We’ve spent many hours pouring over the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, and the Book of Going Forth By Day, trying our best to get it right.

It’s good to have joy and mirth in your circles – Paganism is not a somber religion. But it should be a respectful religion and a reverent religion.

Misunderstanding the Role of the Ritual Leader. This is probably the least obvious error and the most difficult to prevent. When you are leading a ritual you aren’t doing it for yourself – public ritual is not private devotion. At the same time, you aren’t performing for the rest of the circle, either.

The primary job of a ritual leader is to mediate between the gods and the assembly and to facilitate a religious experience by each person in attendance. That’s a big job, but remember: the ritual leader is a mediator because she or he is (or should be) familiar with a deity and with the best ways to introduce that deity to the rest of the circle, not because he or she is pure and privileged to approach a goddess or god while others are not.

When you are leading ritual, you are not a director or a lead performer. When you are leading ritual, you are a priest or priestess.

Priest and Priestess – from Mabon 2009

Doing this properly may involve performance techniques. Liturgy, props, costumes, music, motions, voice and such are not some sort of fakery. They are a means of mediation, a way to present the gods to the people so that they will be receptive to them. In an essay titled “Serving Dionysus” UU minister Rev. Victoria Weinstein compared her work as a worship leader with her performance in a community theater:

To refer to worship as a “performance” is to cheapen and defile its sanctity. And yet, of course, liturgy is a performance of sorts. And although internal preparation is important, so is external technique.

When I first began leading rituals, Summer (one of the founders of Denton CUUPS) would always ask me “what do you want people to take away from this?” Contemplating that question has helped me remember what the job of a ritual leader is supposed to be.

When Coyote Visits. No matter how much I plan and prepare, no matter how much I meditate and pray and rehearse, I have yet to do a perfect ritual. Our rituals are human endeavors and despite their divine intent they are subject to human imperfections. Since we can’t be perfect, we have to be prepared for things that don’t go exactly to plan.

If there’s a minor error, either ignore it or quietly correct it and keep going. The ritual isn’t going to fail and Lugh isn’t going to strike you dead just because you left a line out of an invocation. If you realize you forgot to light the incense, quietly light it before the next invocation – it will look like it was supposed to be that way. Never, ever apologize or call attention to a minor error.

For the hardcore magicians in the audience – yes, I know there are some rituals that must be done exactly according to script or Bad Things will happen. You shouldn’t be doing those rituals in public. If you need me to tell you that you shouldn’t be doing them at all.

If something happens that can’t be ignored – if you knock over the chalice and spill the wine, or if you catch your sleeve on fire – stop and calmly take care of what needs to be done. If the atmosphere hasn’t changed and the energy is still good, simply pick up where you left off. If it was a serious disruption, take a moment to reground and recenter. It may help to go back to the beginning of section where the disruption occurred, particularly if the interruption occurred during the main working.

If something serious happens – if a fire breaks out in the next room, if tornado sirens start going off – you may have to stop the ritual. Every situation is different – do what you need to do and what feels like the right thing to do. In nine years of leading open circles I’ve never had this happen.

Leading ritual isn’t complicated and anyone who feels called to do it should be able to do it. It just takes planning, preparation, and a lot of forethought to do it well.

May all your rituals be powerful and magical and blessed!

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Cyn Qoaad

    I think another thing that has a great impact on ritual is informing those attending what the ritual is about, and also what it will entail. Will there be periods of silence, meditation, chanting, etc. will there be a spiral dance, drumming, a procession? Are we as priest/ess expecting them to participate or observe? And we need to give those attending an idea of why we’re doing these things. For example, to honor our ancestors, or Cernunos, or to celebrate the harvest season, etc. All the preparation the leaders do needs to be in some way communicated to the attendees or you can pretty much guarantee Coyote will stop by. :-)

  • Kenneth Apple

    It is thought that most of what we think of as performance, that is drama, arose out of Greek theatre. Greek theater was part of religious ritual. Sport began as part of ritual, as did music. Now drama has come a long way and there is a lot of it that no longer touches the sacred at all, but most of it still does in some way. There is a lot to be learned from what the modern versions get right as well as what they get wrong. I do not think it is demeaning at all to speak of ritual as a performance.

  • Galena (Laura)

    Excellent observations and thoughts as we work with our CUUPS group on doing more and more rituals. And just in time for those planning some Pagan Pride Days as well. Thanks!

  • Ailim Hazel

    In my experience, preparing the space has had an intense impact in the experience of ritual. Not just the layout of the altar but energy work before the group gathers, seems to intensify the working. I use a singing bowl and do QC and LBP working from Regardie’s book. It really seems to help the air hum before the participants even gather and everything we do then seems to have a much richer tone to it.

  • T’Chung May May

    I agree with Cyn Qoaad. The first (and so far, only) bigish (20ish people) ritual I was involved in the leader didn’t explain anything beyond the fact that the purpose of the ritual was to raise energy of a sexual, intimate nature to set the tone for the evening. While the leader did a good job of directing people in what to do next, she didn’t let us know what was going to happen ahead of time during the ritual, with rather unfortunate results. The impression she gave was that it was a short power raising ritual. It ended up being about an hour and a half long, was intensely more intimate than anybody was prepared for, and raised much more power than anyone was prepared to hold. I had to drop out about 15 – 20 minutes in because I wasn’t prepared for a ritual of that magnitude and couldn’t handle the energy, and a few other people had issues as well, because no one was prepared. It could have been quite wonderful, but because we went into it expecting something short, maybe 10 minutes at most, and so the difference between what we were prepared for and what happened definitely soured the experience for many of us.

  • Daniel Christensen

    Oh MY yes. I participated, attended and lead public ritual for 20 years and I can think of flagrant examples of all these (and a couple more.) Thanks for the Sunday morning flashbacks! :-)

  • Black Diamond

    This is a really good article. I think it points out pitfalls that many people are not aware of, especially those who are asked to create and lead a ritual when they have never done it before. I have led an annual ritual for Lammas for the past 6 years. Although, I had done a bit of public speaking and program coordination before, I had never lead a public spiritual ritual before that first one.
    It took me 8 months of prior research and consultations to write ritual. My script does contain directions, which if it involves the group’s participation, I read those aloud just before beginning that segment so participants know what to do. I do hold rehearsals for my quarters, priest, drummers, and other “ritual staff” a week beforehand. We do a procession, and upon entering the circle, a person next to the smudger hands out small “order of service” pamphlets to participants, which state all the steps of the ritual and also have the response words and chants that they are expected to say. My ritual is attended by anywhere from 80 to 200 people, so making it easy for them like that to participate in chants and dances has spectacular results.
    Mine is a popular, well-attended ritual, but even after 6 years, there are still glitches that happen. Even with all the rehearsals and years of repetition, I might lose my place and skip a line or forget to light something, but it is what it will be; whatever happens, happens. I try to make no notice of it and keep going and hopefully no one will be the wiser. I just laugh about it with my priest later (we both have a sense of humor).
    Lastly, I do give my sources during the ritual too, because knowing where a prayer came from is very important to the purpose of the ritual.
    So, I am glad I saw this article. Although I get a lot of complements after each ritual, it’s good to know from an expert that I am apparently doing a good job.


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