Last weekend Morgan Daimler had a Facebook post that talked about how author and linguist Alexei Kondratiev said “the more he studied Indo-European ritual the more he favored a simplified, streamlined ritual format. Fire and water, invocations and offerings.” Daimler agreed.
Alexei Kondratiev (1949 – 2010) was an prolific scholar. His book The Apple Branch: A Path to Celtic Ritual has been a resource for reconstructionists since it was published in 1998. Morgan Daimler’s scholarship (which is mainly centered on Irish literature and fairy lore) is outstanding. I’m not in their league and I don’t pretend to be.
What I am is a Druid and a priest, and a ritualist. I’m informed and inspired by what scholarship tells us about our ancestors and their beliefs and practices, but mainly I’m looking for what works well here and now.
Morgan’s post got me to thinking about the necessary elements of group ritual.
Public ritual vs. private ritual
I’ve written two posts in the past couple of years that I think are particularly relevant here: The Evolution of My Pagan Ritual Liturgy and 8 Essential Elements of Good Pagan Ritual. If you’re leading group ritual – especially public ritual – I encourage you to read them carefully.
What is meaningful and helpful for a small group of devotees is very different from what is necessary to present your beliefs and practices to a larger group of people who may know little about Paganism in general and nothing about your specific tradition. If you’re leading a closed group, that doesn’t matter very much. If you’re doing public ritual it matters a lot.
Even if you’re not concerned with competing in the marketplace of religions, hospitality demands that we make our public rituals accessible for people who don’t even know what “Indo-European” means, much less what constitutes authentic I-E ritual.
Our private rituals are another matter. Those who are willing and able to do deep rituals need to be able to do them without worrying about either confusing or scaring beginners. But that’s another topic for another time.
The purpose of group ritual
While special rituals have special purposes, in general the purpose of group ritual is to form and maintain relationships.
First and foremost, that means relationships with our Gods. We worship Them – we declare that They are worthy. We reaffirm Their values and virtues, and in doing so we incorporate those values and virtues into our lives.
We form and maintain relationships with the spirits of the land where we are. We were not placed on the land, we grew out of the land, and we are dependent on the land for our survival. So we invoke and honor the spirits of the land, which helps us to order our lives in such a way as to respect the land.
Good ritual connects us to our ancestors, without whom we literally would not be. It connects us to the other spiritual persons in our lives, whoever they may be.
And good ritual forms and maintains relationships with our community. We gather together. We worship together. We reaffirm our common values. We share food and drink. And in so doing, we become something more than a social club or an affinity group.
Ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public, Pagan polytheism
This is one of those times when I need to explicitly say that I am not speaking for all Pagans or for Paganism in general.
The question of what a ritual must have depends on the tradition in which it’s performed. Wiccans are going to say one thing, Heathens are going to say another, and Kemetics something different still.
I call what I do “ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public, Pagan polytheism” because I don’t have a concise name for it. It’s just what I do, and what I teach. Going back to the quote that inspired this post, I think it falls in the category of Indo-European, but it’s so far down the line I think labeling it as I-E is unhelpful.
But it’s what I do, so it’s what I teach.
With all this in mind, what does a group ritual need – what must it have to be an effective ritual?
1. A central fire
A ritual is a gathering. Spiritually, we gather around our Gods and ancestors, and around our shared virtues and values.
Physically, we gather around a central fire.
The campfire is humanity’s oldest sacred circle. Our ancestors gathered around campfires for warmth, for light, and for protection against predators. They ate and drank, they danced and told stories. As they did, so we do also.
More than that, the central fire is the mystical center of the world. It is “the intersection of all times, all directions, and all worlds.” It connects us to the past and to the future.
The central fire can be a bonfire, a fire bowl, a candle, or – as with rituals in hotels – an electric light. But we need a fire to be the physical and metaphysical center of the ritual.
We invite our human guests with schedules, e-mails, and social media posts. We invite our spiritual guests with invocations – with prayers that ask them to join us and bless us with their presence.
I always invite the deity or deities of the occasion, the spirits of the place where we are, and the ancestors. I consider those to be necessary invocations. I also invite the Fair Folk. I do not recommend that most people do this, but if I don’t they’ll be offended, and that’s never a good thing (see “The Fair Folk demand their due” in this post).
Our Gods and other spiritual allies are persons with their own sovereignty and agency. Most of them are bigger and stronger than us. We do not “summon” or “command” them. We politely invite them to join us.
Offerings are a spiritual practice on their own. In ritual, hospitality demands that we offer food and drink to those we invoke. We treat them as honored guests, not as servants.
Usually I do this at the end of the invocation. Say a prayer, light a candle, pour a libation. “We make this offering in hospitality and in love. Hail and welcome!”
We may make other offerings at other points in the ritual. But at the least, a good ritual makes offerings of hospitality.
4. An interactive working
This is where I diverge from Kondratiev. I suppose if we had all grown up in a shared Pagan tradition and were all deeply committed to it, we could simply light a fire, make invocations and offerings, and then go home. But we didn’t, and we can’t.
The central fire connects us to the past and the future, to the rest of this world and to all worlds. Invocations and offerings connect us to our spiritual allies. We need something to connect all the human participants – including those who may be attending a ritual such as this for the first time.
This can be an act of worship. The Morrigan Devotional Ritual I helped lead at Mystic South in 2018 and Sacred Space in 2019 had everyone come forward and make an offering to the Great Queen – it was an amazing experience.
It can be a seasonal celebration: a Maypole dance for Beltane or a bread feast for Lughnasadh.
It can be a magical working: for justice, for healing, for rain, or for whatever the group needs.
The interactive working can take many forms. The key is that it should be interactive – something people actively do, not just something they passively hear and see.
Other ritual elements are often helpful
A central fire, invocations, offerings, and an interactive working – these are the necessary elements of group ritual. Other elements are often helpful: gathering, a formal opening, and preparing the ritual space. Grounding and centering meditations. Sharing food and drink, thanksgiving, and a formal closing.
Choose the elements that fit the purpose of your ritual, and that align with the needs and desires of your assembled participants. In general, the smaller and more homogenous the assembly, the fewer ritual elements you need. Larger and more diverse assemblies need more elements.
Very large rituals (over 100 or so) have their own requirements. They need to be simplified to allow for participation without having the ritual drag, and usually need to substitute spectacle for intimacy. That’s another topic for another time. Hopefully this will be a relevant question again before too much longer…
Know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it
Different traditions have different required ritual elements. Almost all traditions have optional elements. If you’re leading a ritual you will have many choices to make. And while our mainstream society tells us that more choices are always better, in practice more choices just makes things more complicated.
Choose the ritual elements that support the ritual theme and goals. Leave out the ones that don’t. Follow the rules and rubrics, unless you need to do something else. Break rules on purpose, not haphazardly.
Mainly, do your best to honor your Gods and other spiritual allies, to present your beliefs and practices to those who attend the ritual, and to form and maintain relationships in this world and between the worlds.