There is good Pagan ritual,and there is bad Pagan ritual. But even a bad ritual is better than no ritual at all . . . . .
I obsess over ritual. I try really hard to get it right, and I notice when I get it wrong. You might have read John Halstead’s recent post Gods Save Us From Bad Ritual, and a great deal of his post is absolutely spot on. His article contains a lot of good advice, but I also think it might be a little bit too negative. Please take a lot of John’s ideas to heart, and use them to make better rituals, but also don’t get discouraged if he’s talking about you in there. Bad ritual is still better than no ritual.
Many Reasons For Ritual
One of the things that I think John is missing in his article is that open public rituals by their very nature often simply suck. Some people/covens/groves are perfectly capable of putting together large public ritual, but I don’t think most forms of public Paganism were really designed for mass audiences. I think the Wiccan way of doing things (and it’s one of the types of ritual we see most often in public) is designed for eight to fifteen people, and anything more than that often takes away from the ritual structure’s power.
I can hear John arguing “well maybe they shouldn’t do it that way,” well maybe someone else would like to reinvent the wheel. I also think there’s sometimes an expectation of Wiccan-style ritual and to not have that creates even more confusion. Sure great leaders know how to adapt the Wiccan-formula, but public rituals are largely run by volunteers who are generally doing their best. If you start practicing today you’ll be ready for your Autumn Equinox ritual in no time, no one really needs two months of practice.
But the point of public rituals is not really transcendence, they are there to build community. Open rituals serve as a “getting to know you space” they aren’t generally designed to knock your socks off. And you know what else, doing ritual simply for social reasons is completely valid! Sometimes you just want to enjoy the company of other Pagans.
Sure it’s great when we get to “feel something” during ritual, but that just doesn’t always happen. When I visit a local public ritual I expect to acknowledge the turn of the Wheel in some way, and to connect with the people around or perhaps with something higher, but I’m cool sometimes with just rubbing shoulders with friends old and new.
The real work happens when the coven gathers and we close the door. Public rituals are there to help people get their feet wet, but they aren’t meant to be a Triple Lindy (that’s a type of dive that uses three diving boards). Part of the problem is that our expectations for public ritual are often set far too high and we are attaching too much expectation to them.
Do Bad Rituals Hurt Paganism?
Yup, absolutely, and John mentions that and he’s right. But part of that is because people have the wrong expectations. If someone goes looking for the Holy Grail at their first open circle their chances of finding it are pretty small. Sure, that’s a bummer, but maybe we should warn people first? I don’t know.
Maybe we should spell it out a little bit more when we do things in public . . . “This isn’t REALLY what my coven does, it’s just a taste.” Public ritual is very rarely meant to be an entire meal, it’s just a snack. Sure, sometimes the public rituals are better at some of our larger festivals, but the people facilitating those things are generally professionals (or whatever the equivalent is in Paganism).
But I also don’t think bad Pagan rituals scare people into Devotional Polytheism. And if those rituals are more powerful, maybe it’s because the training wheels are off and the groups are small? Putting together ritual for a bunch of diverse practitioners with various levels of experiences is damned hard work. I think it’s ofter undervalued too.
You Can Do Ritual in a Hurry
My favorite coven rituals these days are when we have nothing planned. It’s just fourteen people in a room working on what they need to work on. Sometimes we have to find places to live, or new jobs, or perhaps one of our friends needs some healing. We don’t write anything out, we just do the work, often lead by my gorgeous wife who simply channels our Lady and knows exactly what to do.
When there’s not a whole lot on the line (and I wouldn’t recommend this with a large public group) you can do just do and it works! I like having everything written out, but as a Witch it’s really about raising energy and directing it towards things. I can do that without a script or any rehearsal. Our coven’s open Fall Equinox ritual occurs two days after we get back from the UK, we will definately be winging it/half-assing it, and it’ still going to be awesome.
Find a Base
I think we sometimes get lost in the “quest for new” and discard what’s worked before. I don’t like repeating public rituals time and time again, but I do like to come back to the parts that work with some frequency. Do your “lame quarter calls” summon the elements? Then keep using them! I think part of the problem with public ritual comes with how intimidating it can be to come up with everything from scratch. Re-use your God & Goddess calls, if they don’t completely suck no one will know.
Sometimes if the atmospherics of the opening bits work like they are supposed to your middle “working” can totally suck and most people won’t even notice. Also, and this is especially true in public settings, if you build a good looking mousetrap a lot of newcomers won’t even notice that it didn’t catch any mice. I went to a pretty bad Samhain ritual a few years ago, but the atmospherics were so not awful that a lot of people didn’t realize what a mess it truly was.
And I’ve seen generally good ritualists do everything John mentions in his article and still present a turd sandwich. Sometimes it just happens, and what looks good on paper and even during practice, just doesn’t work for whatever reason in a public circle. It’s not anyone’s fault sometimes, the stars don’t always align like we want them to.
I feel like an asshole for writing some of this, because I love good ritual, but it’s not something that can be delivered on demand either. And I would much rather see people doing bad ritual than no ritual.