I have been fortunate to have attended some great Pagan rituals. But, gods know, I have suffered through a lot more rituals that were just terrible. A lot of you probably know what I’m talking about.
I know fellow-Patheos blogger, UU minister and Wiccan priestess, She has written about the contrast between the her own Pagan practice and some CUUPS rituals she had attended, which she describes as “tepid at best, and disorganized and appropriative at worst”, and which, she says, don’t get any more powerful than “writing wishes on flash paper and lighting them from the chalice or, at best, an eight-inch cauldron”. I don’t mean to pick on CUUPS rituals. I find this mediocrity to be endemic to public Pagan rituals of all types.knows what I am talking about.
For a long while, I have believed that this was due to a lack of training and education in ritual planning and execution. And that’s definitely part of it. But increasingly, I’m thinking that there is another factor at play … laziness.
Now, I don’t consider myself a great ritual facilitator by any measure. But I have never half-assed a ritual.
Here’s some signs you may be half-assing a ritual:
- A circle is cast and the quarters are called, but the space does not feel sacred. If the quartered circle thing isn’t creating a sense of sacredness, why are you doing it? There are dozens of ways to create sacred space and time. You don’t need to cast a circle or call the quarters. Find something that works.
- The “highlight” or focus of the ritual is someone walking around the circle giving a homily on the symbolic meaning of the Sabbat. What are we, Protestants? Do we really come to Pagan rituals to hear a sermon? When it comes to words in ritual, usually less is more. Don’t tell me the meaning of the sabbat—show me! Better yet, help me show myself. Pagan ritual should not be a spectator sport. Crafting this kind of ritual isn’t easy, but it’s worth the investment.
- There is no connection with the immediate environment. For gods’ sake, don’t invoke the element of “water” in the west if there is a large body of real water to the east of you. Take the time to get to know the place where the ritual will be held. Gather plants, fruits, and rocks from your immediate area for an altar or ritual focus. And check the weather. If there is a powerful thunderstorm rolling in, don’t ignore it or treat it like an inconvenience. Make it part of the ritual.
- There is chitchat and casual joking. Humor which is part of the structure of the ritual is fine. (The Feri Pagan Tent Revival at Pantheacon is a great example of this!) But too often humor is being used to cover for the embarrassment of a bad ritual. Your ritual doesn’t have to be somber, but if people are interrupting part of the ritual to interject unscripted jokes, they’re being disrespectful. You shouldn’t blame them though, because they’re probably taking their cue from your own excessively casual attitude. Treat your ritual with respect and other people will reciprocate.
- People wander in late to the ritual. It’s another sign of disrespect. It shows that people have low expectations—probably based on past experience. If you put the time into planning the ritual, you should expect people to be on time. Show that respect yourself by starting at the scheduled time. It’s okay to have someone at the door to hold latecomers at bay. They’ll be on time next time.
- People are bumping into each other or are waiting in a line to do something. This shows you haven’t thought about the logistics of moving people around. People should be engaged in doing something at every point in the ritual, even if it is just consciously holding space. Standing in lines is the most meaningless of modern activities and has no place in ritual. (Don’t confuse processing in a procession with waiting in line.)
- The ritual facilitators seem lost. Ritual has to be practiced. People have rehearsals for weddings for a reason.
- You’re handing out disposable ritual swag. If you’re going to have people make something as part of the ritual or if you’re going to give them a token of some kind, make it meaningful. Find a way to invest it with meaning. The last thing we need is more meaningless stuff that will end up in the garbage. And FYI, it’s not impossible to invest kiddy crafts with meaning, but it’s really hard.
- The central ritual act is burning a piece of paper with a wish on it. This is so overused! I admit I’ve done variations of this in some rituals, but only if it makes a special kind of sense in that particular ritual. Unfortunately, it’s become near universal in Pagan rituals.
- You start planning a week before the ritual. Self-explanatory.
The picture above is from the 1973 film The Wicker Man. We can debate whether it is a good movie or bad movie. (I think it’s so bad it goes out the end, comes back around, and becomes good again.) In any case, the ritual at the end is really good—well, you know, except for the homicide part. Notice how none of the signs above are present in the procession or the finale. No one wanders in late to the Wicker Man ritual!
I applaud the hard work done by volunteers as well. I’ve been there. I know how much time and energy goes into crafting a public ritual. However, I really don’t think we’re doing our best. I’ve seen mediocre rituals put on by people who have been Pagan longer than I have been alive. And I suspect that, in many of these instances, it’s not lack of skill, but lack of effort, that accounts for the poor quality of the ritual.
Listen up, fellow ritual planners. I know you’ve conducted dozens or even hundreds of Wheel of the Year rituals. And I know you feel very comfortable with your old standby formula, but it’s killing us.
All the time, more and more people are being drawn from Neo-Paganism to devotional forms of polytheism. And that’s fine, but you have to wonder why people aren’t finding their home in Neo-Paganism any longer. I think a big part of the reason is that so many of our rituals just suck.
It’s no coincidence that people have started referring to Neo-Paganism as “generic Paganism”: Our rituals fail to connect us to anything larger than ourselves, they fail to communicate with our deeper selves, they they fail to awaken us to mystery and wonder, and they fail to inspire us to action. So, it’s no surprise that people go looking elsewhere for what they need.
Devotional polytheist rituals work because they take themselves seriously and they strive to connect with something beyond themselves. But ritual does not need to be devotional to do this. It need not even invoke deities to be powerful or transformative. But it does need to put us in connection with something bigger than ourselves—whether that be the Earth itself, the wider Cosmos, the community of more-than-human beings, our deeper Selves, or even just one another. Good ritual takes us out of our little isolated egos and expands our souls.
And you can’t do that on the fly!
Your lame quarter calls and your boring Sabbat sermon from last year are just not going to get people there.
Of course, it is possible for rituals to evolve organically in a short period of time. I’ve been part of rituals that happened this way. But, this most often happens in groups that have a history of trust and practice together. And oftentimes these rituals only look effortless. In reality, there is skilled facilitation going on, which may be mostly invisible to the untrained eye.
Let me suggest a radical idea: It’s better to not do a ritual at all than do a bad ritual. If it gets close to time for your Sabbat ritual this year, and you don’t really have time to plan the ritual, and you’re tempted to half-ass it … just don’t.
Instead, start planning for your for the next Sabbat ritual. And make it a kick-ass ritual.
About the Author
John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which was previously hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.
To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.