Note: This series is a follow-up to my essay, “I Don’t Believe in Purification”. In this 3-part series, I offer some additional context for my approach to deity, spirituality, and ritual.
Divine Communion and Ritual Goals
What strikes me as a bit of a paradox is that one of the core pieces of any of the rituals I do is trying to help people get to divine communion. I’m trying to get ritual participants in real connection with the divine. With their own gods and spirits, if that’s their theology, even if I don’t share their theological views.
I’m doing that through ecstatic trance techniques with chanting, dancing, singing, drumming, movement…with open-language and multi-voice trance journeys…with the structure of the ritual itself.
The rituals I facilitate generally have three goals. To help people connect together as a community, to help people connect to their deep selves and/or connect to the divine, and to help people engage in personal and spiritual transformation, to help each person step into their best selves.
Ritual is, for me, a way to help each of us—myself included—explore our shadows, our fears, our joys and loves and griefs, our hopes and yearnings. It’s to achieve the axiom, “Know Thyself.” It’s to become better human beings so that we can better serve our families and friends and broader communities, and the world around us.
In rituals with ecstatic energy raising, some groups and traditions will send the energy to a specific magical task, or to a specific deity in other cases. In my rituals, the energy is a cauldron. It’s there for us to drink of it. Instead of a “cone,” I see it as a “bowl.” The energy of the ritual fuels us, fuels our divine communion, fuels our personal transformation. And the actions we take when we leave that ritual are far more potent—and far more impactful—than any energy we could send “out” to something.
But then that takes us on the tangent of “what is magic,” and that’s a bit off topic.
Ritual Techiques: Gods, Aspecting and Trance Possession
Sometimes in the rituals I lead I have people speaking in the voice of the gods. When we’re telling stories and working with gods in rituals, there’s sort of a spectrum of how the deity is being worked with. This falls under the category of “ritual tech” since we’re talking facilitation techniques and choices around ritual planning.
There’s telling the story of Isis and Osiris in the third person. “Isis wept tears into the Nile.” Then there’s performing the story as a mystery play, where you have someone in the role of Isis. “I wept tears into the Nile!” Or, you might have someone speaking in the first person as Isis, embodying that role, but not aspecting or getting trance possessed. I’ve often used this technique to take a storytelling piece and turn it into a trance journey.
Storytelling: “My love was dead. I wept, I wept tears into the Nile. The Nile flooded over…”
Trance Journey: “When have you lost something you loved? When have you wept? When have you grieved? How did it feel?”
Then we move into the spectrum of embodying, aspecting, and trance possession. It’s also referred to as drawing down, but each definition has its own connotations depending on the Pagan tradition you’re talking about. Here’s a rough overview of where the concepts fit on a spectrum.
Embodying is generally just speaking in the first person as the deity. Aspecting tends to be a spectrum of light to medium drawing down. The deity may be partly within you (like, 10%) or you may be approaching a full trance possession (80%) but you’re still in charge of what your body is doing. Typically, trance possession refers to a total 100% possession by the deity or spirit. Often the vessel (the human person drawing the deity/spirit in) will have no memory of the experience.
Similar to this is oracular work, where the vessel/dedicant is asking the deity questions, and relaying them to people. This isn’t typically a trance possession, it’s more like the deity is whispering in their ear, to use a metaphor. Though, oracular work can sometimes shift into a trance possession.
Pantheistic Trance Possession
A ritual participant who is on the more atheistic side of the theism spectrum is probably going to have some issues getting into a ritual that is using aspecting, drawing down, and trance possession. If someone’s storytelling about a myth, that’s cool. Or play-acting the myth, that’s cool. Or even speaking in first person as a storytelling/trance technique, that’s cool.
But once you ask someone who is an atheist to believe that an actual god is being drawn down into a human vessel, then the suspension of disbelief can start to disappear.
And, at the same time, when I have someone aspect an archetype, like the Water Bearer or the Worker at the Forge, I lose the polytheists who work with very specific gods vs. archetypes.
Here’s how I approach it. Because I believe in these archetypes as part of the larger divine, and because I believe in the power of story, I believe that it’s possible that we can be not just inspired by that larger story, but we can fill ourselves up with it. And this works whether we’re working with a particular god or goddess (like Hephaestus or Brigid) or the archetype (Worker at the Forge). When I look at the Water Bearer archetype, there are goddesses that fit this role (Isis) but also astrological signs (Aquarius), Tarot cards (the Star Card) and characters from the Grail myths.
I’ve done rituals where I and others aspected the astrological signs or Tarot cards, and I’ve worked with characters in stories that aren’t gods such as King Arthur, Merlin, and the Lady of the Lake.
I believe it’s possible to not only aspect these stories, characters, archetypes, and gods—meaning, take the story into ourselves partway—but I also believe it’s possible to be trance possessed by them. And going further, I don’t believe that it’s “fake” to be trance possessed by an archetype. I believe it serves a particular ritual function. And again, I’m agnostic enough to believe that it might be an archetype, it might be a god, it might all be a figment of our imaginations.
For me the question is, does it serve?
Does it serve a purpose in the ritual for the ritual participants? Does it transform us? Does it have that quality of divine communion? Does it serve the three goals of the ritual work I’m doing, particularly the personal transformation or divine communion functions?
Is it Real?
I’ve talked to atheistic Pagans who just can’t get into any ritual where someone is invoking/drawing down/possessed by a deity. They just feel that it’s fake, because deities don’t exist for them. And if they were going to do a ritual with any deities, they’d have to make sure that they didn’t refer to them as deities, to the point of saying they would clarify during rituals “And here we have Aphrodite, who isn’t really Aphrodite.”
Here’s the thing. A lot of ritual is about engaging the trance state. It’s about a light suspension of disbelief. Storytelling in ritual, and ecstatic trance techniques, only really work if people are allowed to go with the flow. In the rituals I facilitate, I’m trying to get people comfortable with singing, dancing, chanting, moving…I’m trying to get people willing to explore their shadow sides, willing to connect to their deep selves or commune with the divine if that’s in their theology.
There’s an axiom of ritual that every time you do something that takes people out of trance, people will remind everyone that we’re just a bunch of people in a room doing something ridiculous. Then people remember to be conscious of how they appear socially, and then I have to start all over.
A simpler axiom is, every time you say, “This is what we’re doing now,” or “And now we’re gonna…”, you can just watch everyone come right back up out of trance.
That’s entirely what I’m trying to prevent in a ritual.
The reason I use ancient archetypes and stories…the reason I use inclusive trance language…the reason I use chanting and movement…the reason I decorate the space with candles…the reason I use drumming…the reason I encourage ritualists to wear timeless clothing and to not wear t-shirts or other clothing that is very modern…is all to help get people into that deeper trance state.
Trancework is theologically independent. It’s going to work whether you’re a polytheist, pantheist, or atheist. It’s the kind of magic that is about our brains and chemistry. Whether you believe someone’s possessed by a deity, or whether you believe that they are in a heightened trance state inspired by an intense and archetypal story, there’s value to this practice in ritual.
Again, stories—especially old stories—have power in and of themselves. We humans are pretty obsessed with story. We’ve been carving stories in stone since we figured out how, we’ve marked our battles in cave walls with paint and later wedged them into clay, scribbled them onto papyrus. Stories inspire us; it’s how we’re wired.
Story works whether you’re an atheist or a polytheist. And story is one of the most potent tools I leverage as a ritualist, whether I’m telling an ancient story of Isis or Freyja or Inanna…or I’m helping someone to tell their own story, their own journey, the struggles they have endured, the challengers they have faced, the treasures they have won.
I’d say that the core of the rituals I offer—indeed, of the workshops I teach—is helping people to become the heroes of their own journey.
Creating a Container Through Agreements
When I facilitate a ritual, I work to first address my approach to ritual with the attendees. That helps create the container, and I believe it’s a big help in setting the tone for the ritual. I explain that I’m coming at things as a pantheist, and that people can approach this ritual in whatever way works for them; they don’t have to believe in gods, they can just experience the story as a useful model for our work. Or, they can work with gods, deities, and spirits. I encourage people to be self-responsible in a number of ways before the ritual even begins.
When I facilitate a ritual where I’m going to have people to invite in any deity, spirit, or other ally they’d like to have present, I make sure to offer that same self-responsibility. I might say something like, “You can invite any deity, spirit, or ally you’d like to have present here for this work, and they are here for you as your ally. We may all come from different pantheons and traditions, but we can connect to our own gods in our own ways without any concern about interfering with one another’s work.”
Maybe someone’s inviting Loki and someone else’s deity hates Loki. There doesn’t need to be a conflict there at all. It’s people inviting in deities for their own work, so long as every person takes responsibility for themselves and doesn’t try to make a big dramatic conflict out of it.
For that matter, I make it clear that extreme drama isn’t going to gain my time and attention. I know of a number of folks in the Reclaiming tradition (where I take a number of my ritual techniques from) who refer to rituals focused on personal growth and shadow work as “puking cauldron” rituals. What can happen with shadow/mirror work rituals is that some people are drawn to rituals like that because they’ll get worked up into a sobbing fit and need to be “tended” and cared for. They aren’t there to actually do personal work—they’re there to derail the ritual by getting lots of attention.
As part of my “self-responsibility” talk at the beginning, I often say, “This ritual work is challenging work. We’re going into the Underworld to confront our shadows. If you are making sounds of grief or joy, if you’re crying, if you’re on the floor, I’m going to leave you be. I’m going to let you have your emotion and I’m not going to come over and try to fix you. I’m going to trust that if you need something you’ll ask for help. If you have trouble coming back after the ritual, I, or these three folks over here, are on hand to help. But I’m going to give you the opportunity to handle things on your own without my interference. Often when we try to comfort someone, we’re trying to fix them, so I’m going to ask everyone else here to not go hug someone unasked. Don’t try to fix anyone, let them have their process.”
I get everyone’s buy-in on that, and that creates part of the container for the ritual.
A lot of the ritual work I do requires me to hold paradox. Are they gods? Are they archetypes? Is someone actually trance possessed? At a certain point, I leave the theological wrestling behind. I focus on technique and what works. Singing works, drumming works, chanting works, dancing works. Trance language works. And story works, every time. Whether I believe they are gods or just old stories, it doesn’t really matter. The stories themselves drive us and inspire us; always have, probably always will.
What are the stories that inspire you? How do they inform your theology, your spirituality?