Shouldn’t Rituals Be Entertaining?

I was very active in the Methodist Church during my high school years. I was president of my church youth group, and went to both Sunday School and traditional worship services. I actually kind of liked Sunday School, at least it presented an opportunity for learning, and it rarely put me to sleep. Worship service was an entirely different animal. Dirge like hymns, meandering sermons, twenty minute prayers . . . . . .zzzzzzzzzzz. About the only time it was interesting were on the days when the traditional sleepy structure was abandoned. Waving palm leaves may not be your idea of a good time, but getting the opportunity to do just that was like finding a worship oasis in the middle of a dry dry desert.

One of the things that surprised me most about the comments to my recent Interview With an Atheist Pagan piece was the negativity directed at Amy B’s comment that “I see religious ritual primarily as a form of entertainment . . . . . Properly done, Pagan ritual involves an all-body experience and lots of theatricality.” I just didn’t get the criticism, shouldn’t ritual be entertaining? Great ritual almost always involves “an all-body experience” along with “lots of theatricality.” The rituals I attend are full of those things, even the smaller gatherings of just a few people.

Public ritual is really about two distinct e-words: entertainment and experience. Without a level of entertainment it’s nearly impossible to get to the experience. We’ve all been to rituals that begin with a snooze-fest of a guided meditation/grounding that leads directly into inaudible quarter calls and circle castings. Engaging ritual is entertaining ritual. Little things, like people speaking loudly and clearly when calling the gods, keep people tuned into the ritual going on around them. You can write the greatest ritual script in the world, but if nobody can hear the words being said it’s not going to do anybody any good.

Theatre began as ritual, and to some degree group ritual is still theatre. If you are doing ritual for twenty or more people you have to think of stagecrafty things like blocking and picking up on your cues. Competent ritual is entertaining because it keeps the circle focused on what’s going on. For most of us, ritual has a purpose outside of entertainment, but when a ritual is entertaining it’s easier to focus on that purpose.

At Beltane I like to enact the yearly courtship of the Maiden and the young Horned God. I often do much of that through humorous dialogue, which hopefully provokes a little laughter due to its entertaining nature. I need the jokes and the set up in order to get to my greater point in the ritual, in this particular case the idea that “love is always given, never taken.” I’m sure I could simply say that line in the context of a monologue but how exciting is that? Does it raise any energy? Does it engage everyone (or even anyone) in the circle? The entertainment is what draws people in and makes people receptive to the message.

I think it’s easy to forget that not every ritual has to be some sort of magick raising, god calling extravaganza. Many of the sabbats celebrated in the intimate circle that meets at my house are simply celebrations. We play games, laugh, joke, etc. There’s no objective other than to have fun, cement bonds, and be entertained by one another. Yes, we have nights for drawing down the moon or doing magickal workings, but it’s not every ritual.

Many Pagan rituals are about the experience, that transcendent moment when the gods manifest or the energy in the room becomes heavy. The experience is about bridging the worlds and creating a moment that feels transcendent. It’s impossible to create the experience without keeping everyone engaged. If the ritual is so incredibly boring that everyone has tuned out by the time the meat of your rite has begun you are probably sunk. That’s why entertainment is such a vital part of any ritual. The best High Priestesses and Priests are show-folks whether or not they realize it. “Breathe in . . . . .” she said, and she said it in such a way that I believed that my one breath was the most important thing in the world for that one moment.

Even when constructing a ritual about the experience there has to be a level of entertainment in there too. I did a super-serious Samhain rite this past year, but we tried to keep the build-up interesting. Lines were rehearsed, staging was considered, eye-popping altars were carefully constructed, we even argued about the lighting. We seldom think of those little things as entertaining, but atmosphere helps to dictate ritual.

One of the problems with creating the experience is that everyone is going to interpret it differently; the experience can’t be dictated, it can only be set up. At my Samhain Ritual the “working” of the ritual was to travel to the edge of the Summerlands and possibly reunite (however briefly) with the souls of lost loved ones. I can’t force that experience on anyone, either they are open to it or they are not. All you can do as a ritual planner is set things up so that type of experience has the ability to manifest. Because you can’t force people into an experience the whole set-up has to remain entertaining even for those unwilling (or unable) to take that step with you into the unknown. In our case we had music, access to a gorgeous room decorated with the proper accouterments, and just the right energy*; even if you didn’t believe in the immortality of the soul there was still enough there to keep people engaged.

Are rituals strictly about entertainment? To most of us, certainly not, though often times that can be the sole point of a ritual. Unless someone is going out of their way to “fake” a religious experience (like a drawing down) there’s no crime at all for looking at rituals as a form of entertainment. If devotions to the gods were drudge-like duties most of us probably wouldn’t engage in them. There’s something there that’s fulfilling, and that fulfillment entertains me.

*Yes, I’m a little full of myself when it comes to that ritual, but it was that good!

Imbolc Ritual 2015
The Roebuck in the Ritual (A Cochrane Inspired Rite)
Pagan Festivals and the .25%
The Roebuck in the Ritual (A Cochrane Inspired Rite)
About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • John Beckett

    As someone who loves ritual, who takes it very seriously (even when that means purposely not being serious), and who is also a little full of himself when it comes to ritual composition and presentation, I am in complete agreement with all your points in this essay. But I still have a gut-level negative reaction to calling ritual “entertainment”.

    I think my problem is that “entertainment” is a loaded word, implying shallow and unimportant. Entertainment is something you consume, whereas ritual is something that requires participation. I strongly prefer another e-word you used, “engagement”.

    Now, for those who don’t want to participate, who think my gods either aren’t real or just aren’t for them, I’m happy if they’re entertained. That means it wasn’t boring, and perhaps some bit of wisdom was communicated. If the non-participants were entertained, it’s highly likely the participants were engaged. But my goal is always engagement, not entertainment.

    • Christine Kraemer

      > Entertainment is something you consume, whereas ritual is something that requires participation.

      Helpful distinction.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I was one of those criticising Amy’s stance.
    I did not mean to imply that rituals should not be entertaining (they absolutely have to be), I just disagree that they are entertainment.

    If I were to preside over a ritual, I would hope that the people sharing it with me would come away from it with a significant sense of “that was awesome!” What I wouldn’t want is for them to turn up with the mentality of “well, there’s nothing better to do.

    I just feel that there must be something more to ritual than just entertainment. (Even celebration is more than simple entertainment – there is some larger purpose involved.)

    • JasonMankey

      While Amy didn’t say it, as someone who knows her, I feel comfortable adding that I’m sure she also goes to ritual because she enjoys the people, atmosphere, and community. It’s not like she’s simply watching ritual as a spectator, applauding politely, and then immediately leaving.

      I have, in fact, gotten text messages from her after ritual stating “that was awesome!”

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I think it is just a mentality/stance I will simply never understand. (Not that that is a bad thing, I think embracing difference is a good thing.)

  • Angus McMahan

    I have nothing against entertaining Rituals, but I do have a problem with rituals as Entertainment. There is a BIG difference in those two words. But what really bothered me about Amy B’s comments was the word ‘primarily’: “I see religious ritual primarily as a form of entertainment…..” without the distinction of whether this was her experience or her opinion of ALL ritual experience. If its the former, hey – knock yourself out. If its the latter, then yeah, we got a problem.

  • Joseph Bloch

    I agree that ritual can be entertaining, and often theatricality is used as a tool to involve participants and spectators. The problem with the original interview is that the implication was that entertainment is the “primary” function of ritual, which those of us who are polytheist, and who see ritual as a way to connect to the Gods as well as serving a social function, find offensive.

    • JasonMankey

      I am a polytheist! Why do I think I am constantly being argued with by people I share a path with?

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Because everyone has their own definition of the various labels being used? (even when they shouldn’t.)

      • Joseph Bloch

        I wasn’t “arguing with” you. I was answering a point you had raised, when you said “I just didn’t get the criticism, shouldn’t ritual be entertaining?” Can’t someone have a difference of opinion without “arguing with you” in your eyes?

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I think you mean theist.

      • Joseph Bloch

        I meant what I said and I said what I meant. Polytheists are a sub-set of theists, which also includes monotheists and duotheists. Not belonging to either of the latter two groups, I felt more specificity was called for.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          That’s fair enough. I was just going with the idea that it is likely a theist/not-theist argument, rather than a stance particular to polytheism.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            Or the argument of a theist (you) and a non-theist (Amy B) since neither groups are hive minds.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Never claimed they were.

  • Celestine Angel

    I think the reaction might have to do with the sense–whether accurate or not–that such a statement comes from someone who is taking lightly something other people take very seriously. To someone for whom ritual is a deeply spiritual experience, even public ritual that has theatrical elements, hearing (or reading) someone basically saying public ritual is like going to the movies… it can seem like they are degrading the entire experience of ritual.

    Obviously, this person doesn’t believe they are degrading anything. If they are satisfied with ritual as entertainment only, and those who are in their coven/grove/group are aware of their opinions on ritual as entertainment only and still find it a rewarding experience, then there’s nothing wrong with that.