Wrestling with Esbats

I’ve been running a small circle in my living room since March of this year. It’s been rather informal, while sticking to a few of the ritual tropes that my wife and I have been using for the last few years. When we were first starting out we met simply for esbats (more technically on the friday closest to a full moon). This fall we added sabbats to the mix, along with American holidays so that we are averaging about two rituals a month. Between our “Oak Court” (that’s the name of our circle; mostly because I live on a street called Oak Court) rituals and the other Pagan groups we are a part of there’s always another ritual coming up.

For the record, I mostly like ritual. As long as the rite I’m witnessing or participating in has a bit of flow to it and a little interaction I’m generally pleased. Even a bad ritual can be enjoyable if you view it as a learning experience and attempt to break down the elements that didn’t quite work out. The only rituals I’m generally unhappy with are ones that are obviously made up on the spot with strange combinations of deity (I’m not sure Kali and Thor really work as a pairing) and a complete lack of focus or goal. If you can’t tell whether or not the ritual is celebratory or reflective you have a problem, and a good ritual can have both elements, but I shouldn’t be wondering every thirty seconds which way the circle is going. I’ve always viewed writing a sabbat ritual kind of like writing a term paper, there should be a thesis statement and then a collection of arguments supporting that thesis. An esbat doesn’t have to be quite as detailed, I think of it more as a “pop quiz,” but even pop quizzes are generally about one specific subject.

A good High Priestess (or Priest, or combination of the two) can often “make up” a ritual without anyone noticing that everything is on the fly. Usually this comes from having a great deal of experience and knowing what works and what doesn’t, but there are some people who just seem born to lead ritual, regardless of experience level. I’m not particularly good at creating an inventive magickal working without a little bit of preparation, but I’m OK calling The God at the drop of a hat when I have to. My wife does a pretty good job on the Goddess end of that (we even compliment one another!), and can direct energy (and get everyone to ground) when the situation calls for it.

There are some parts of ritual that don’t need a whole lot of prep work, and many traditions have a lot of things all spelled out before the ritual even starts. You might always call the quarters/watchtowers/etc. the same way, and cast the circle using some long-ago decided upon words, heck some groups even have pretty good guidelines in place for calling to/interacting with deity. That’s great, and takes a lot of the guess work out of ritual. You already know what works and what doesn’t; it’s good to have a bag of tricks you are familiar with and to be aware of the things that aren’t going to be successful. I basically know how to start a ritual and how to end one, but I’m often at a loss in the middle.

I know that for esbats that I don’t need to write something that necessarily reflects the season, but I do want to put something together that’s not boring or repetitive. Having to write that ritual* every month has made the “not boring or repetitive” goal a lot more challenging. I think ritual should be familiar, but at the same time always have an element of surprise. Coming up with that new surprise nearly every month is the challenge.

I really dislike entering a ritual when I haven’t adequately thought it through. There are times when it works out just fine, but if I’m inviting people into my home to circle with me I feel like I have an obligation to come up with something. That doesn’t mean every ritual I’ve thought out is going to be super-serious and life-changing.

I love community building rituals, and at Mabon my circle mates and I fed each other grapes in whatever ridiculous ways we could think of (throwing them into a mouth from a few feet away was my favorite). Feeling the souls of the dead around you is a great ritual, but great ritual can also be full of laughter. I’m always open to the full emotional spectrum while in circle, we don’t always have to wear our serious faces.

There are obvious places to look when trying to come up with an esbat ritual. The most obvious being the names assigned to each full moon. Of course there’s no consensus on those names and associations and sometimes you’ll get a lot of conflicting information about them, but it can still be a powerful creative spark. (January’s Wolf Moon is one I’ve never been able to come up with a ritual for, probably because I’m not a dog person.) November is the Beaver Moon, which could lead me to some interesting ritual avenues, but I think they’d probably be a bit too risque for public consumption.

I like to check out the feast days of various deities, and when they line up with an esbat I’ll sometimes incorporate them into ritual. We did a ritual in honor of Aphrodite and Adonis near one of their commemorative days last Spring. Since I feel close to many of the Greek Gods (Aphrodite, but also Pan, Dionysus, and Ariadne) it’s easy to build an esbat around some element of their worship, but I don’t want my circle to just become an exercise in Hellenic Reconstruction. Those days are great to use, but have to be done sparingly or they become too much of a focal point.

I could use more events from outside of the Classical Period, but I don’t want to do a Bast ritual simply because she was honored on November 30th. I always feel like I should have a relationship with a deity before inviting them to a public gathering, so the “feast day” trick only works with certain deities. Some of my favorite gods, Cernunnos for example, don’t have any known holidays. That does mean I can have a Cernunnos Ritual whenever, but it also means that he may not be good for quick inspiration.

Sometimes an esbat ritual arises from whatever other project I’m working on. Since I’m currently writing up a Drawing Down the Moon lecture I gave over the summer that particular topic has been on my mind recently. While the Ancient Greeks didn’t use the term “draw down the moon” like we do today, their use of it was still magickal and enough to help inspire a ritual.

The difficulty that comes from trying to think of something new for ritual once a month can be a bit of a challenge, but it’s a good challenge to have. I wish I didn’t think about ritual so much, but I still think it’s better to be engaged with it than to just leave it until the last minute. This is my faith, this is my practice, this is my Craft, and it deserves thought and respect.

*I’m trying to encourage other people to write and lead ritual too. I’m sure it’ll happen but we aren’t there yet.

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