Phoenix and I are fascinated by ritual. Rituals of all sorts. In every culture, in every age, there are rituals to commemorate births and marriages and deaths. There are high holy days set aside to celebrate the gods, goddesses, fallen (s)heroes, venerated Ancestors and important moments in a culture’s mythos. Rituals can be elaborate festivals lasting many days or simple, daily actions such as changing the milk in an offering bowl or setting a piece of food aside for the Fae folk, or just taking a moment to pray.
Rituals are made up of many components. There’s the liturgy, the actual words that are spoken. There may be songs and offerings and costumes and incense and props of all sorts. Whether it’s a grand affair or the most humble of rituals, stepping into ritual space is a beautiful and necessary act, because rituals ask us to leave the mundane “outside” of the temple and allow us to connect with life and our past and our future, right now, in the present.
We’re going to examine the parts that make up many common Pagan rituals. Your tradition may have different names and the order might be slightly re-arranged from what you’re used to. Some traditions don’t do any of these ritual parts, so as they say, your mileage may vary. And to be honest, Phoenix and I tend toward the spontaneous and ecstatic style of ritual, so many of these parts run in their own course and form anyway.
Let’s start with Cleansing
Cleansing. Asperging. Cleaning the temple. These are just a few of the names that you’ll find for that thing that happens right at the beginning of a ritual. In fact, many folks don’t even notice this happening that’s a shame really. If you look up “Asperging” in the dictionary, you’ll find that it first appears in the English language in the 16th century and comes to us from the Latin word Asperges. Furthermore, it’s connected to the Judeo-Christian book of Psalms (Psalm 51 actually). It’s important that we know that there’s a Christian history to the word itself, but that’s not quite the same as saying that cleansing or asperging are singularly Christian acts in their practice..
Cleansing doesn’t have to do with purity. It doesn’t even have to do with washing (although it certainly can be about washing more on that later). Cleansing, in this sense, is about casting off the everyday concerns and preparing yourself to be in ritual space. Cleansing can also mean the very conscious act of saying “enough is enough. I need to let go of______ or I won’t be able to function”. Think about it this way, if you go on a date or on a job interview or you’re getting ready to cook a meal, it’s likely that you’ll take a few moments and compose yourself. You might wash your hands or look in the mirror and give yourself a little talking to. That’s a form of cleansing. You’re essentially saying, “alright, I’m ready to do this thing.” In this case, that thing is a ritual.
Ways to Cleanse
A common way to cleanse is to sprinkle oneself with water. It’s a simple enough rite. Gather water that is sacred to you. This could be water from a special well or a river that runs near your house. It could be water you’ve charged under the moon or brought from a site that’s sacred to you. Often, folks will use an aromatic like rosemary or lavender to dip into the water and then sprinkle it over your head, but just using your fingers is perfectly fine. At a hot midsummer or Lammas ritual, getting doused with sweet smelling water is just plain lovely. If you are cleansing with a coven or group, then you can either pass the bowl around and have each person cleanse themselves or have one person cleanse each participant.
Another popular way to cleanse is to walk through smoke. Burning incense, herbs and plants is common in almost all cultures. The idea being that as you pass through the smoke or the smoke moves around you, your mind can become clearer. Keep in mind that some forms of “smoke” might have specific meanings that derive from particular cultures. It’s a good idea to do a little research first. Even better, create you own incense or herb bundles, if you can.
My favourite way to cleanse is to “shake it off”. If you do this, you’ll have to get used to looking a bit silly, but as Phoenix will tell you, I look silly most times! Stand with your feet, shoulder length apart, and begin to shake your head. Let your mouth open and have sound just fall out. You can make a tone, talk gibberish or whatever strikes your fancy but let it out. Keep those sounds going and shake your chest, your shoulders, your arms. Move the shaking down to your hips, your knees and your feet. Just shake off everything that’s happened that day, right up to the moment that your in right now. And when you feel like everything from your day has been shaken out. It’s time to start the ritual.
And there’s always a running body of water, an ocean, the sea, a local stream, or spring to just stand in. Wild, free water is fantastic for cleansing if you have access and accessibility, but any running water will do. Taking a shower or bath or running a wash cloth over your face and hands is simply perfect. Quite literally washing away what is stuck on you, sloughing off what is no longer needed, and watching whatever it is you don’t need going down the drain.
So cleansing. We do it often but not always with intention. It makes a difference.