One of the continued challenges of ritual design is simple: coming up with a good ritual. This has to take in several considerations:
Theory/philosophy: Does the ritual you’re designing match your understanding of magick? Does it have something that counters your magickal philosophy or it is completely in harmony with what you know?
Theatricality: Even the simplest ritualâ€”perhaps burning incense while you meditateâ€”involves some level of theatricality. Dramaâ€”the building and releasing of emotional tensionâ€”can add or subtract from what you’re doing. Let me give an example:
In some Wiccan traditions, calling the Goddess and God into your ritual circle involves lighting a candle for each. You could just call them and light the candle. My friend, the late Scott Cunningham, disagreed. He suggested that you shouldn’t just pull out your Bic as if you were going to light someone’s cigarette at a nightclub. Instead, use a match. Light the match with your arms extend and raised. Use the flaming match to bring the Goddess of God slowly down into the candle.
It’s just a small bit of theatricality, but it adds to the drama and emotional intensity of the ritual.
Dramas usually have an introduction, development, climax, and falling action. It may have a “roller coaster” effect on your emotions and feelings. By the end, you can be emotionally exhausted. This is known as a catharsis.
While lighting incense and meditating for a few moments doesn’t give you much of a chance to play with your emotions in this way, there are still things you can doâ€”such as the way you light the candles and incenseâ€”that can improve your ritual.
Blocking: Blocking is a term used in acting indicating where people stand and move. I’ve seen many rituals where people almost fall over each other moving around a magick circle. Let me give another example:
In a small magick circle of perhaps a dozen people or less, it is common to “call the quarters” by moving to that quarter and calling the spirits, deities, powers, etc. of that direction. That is, you move to the east of the circle to call the powers of the East. This works fine. But in large circles of perhaps fifty people or double that, especially when held outside, if you call the East while standing in the east of the circle, 90% of the participants are only going to see your back and won’t hear you.
So how do you solve this? You could have the people calling the quarters wear amplification. I have a small, battery-powered amplifier that can clip onto your clothes and that uses a tiny headset such as the unit illustrated below. I use it for giving outdoor workshops. They can be purchased online for under $50.
Another solutionâ€”one that is simple, elegant, and freeâ€”would be to have the person call a quarter while standing in the opposite quarter. That is, a person would stand in the west of the circle and face across the circle to call the East. Everyone would be able to hear and see that person.
Symbolism: Is the symbolism used in the ritual completely in harmony with purpose of the ritual and the beliefs, theory, and philosophy of the people performing the rite? If you’re doing an Egyptian-themed ritual, should a ritualist carry a walking stick with feathers attached that appears to be part of a Native American Shaman’s magickal tools? I don’t think so.* Virtually everything in a ritual should be congruent, ranging from what’s on the walls and altars to what people are wearing.
While these four items are only part of what goes into the making of a great ritual, they give an idea of the complexity that separates effective ritual design from what is merely bad theater. Further I would contend that to design a great magickal ritual there is something underlying all these apparent complexities, something that can be found in an Apple.
The Magick Apple
Well, not just any apple. I’m talking about the Apple corporation. The people who make Macs and iPods and iPhones and iPads. Whether you like their products or not, there is no doubt that these items have revolutionized their markets, created legions of fans, and have people who almost religiously use their products.
Most people are familiar with the iconic image of Apple’s late leader, Steve Jobs. But there is another person who has played a vital role in the creation of Apple’s success: Jonathan Ive. Ive is the head of the design group within Apple that birthed these products.
In a recentÂ interview, Ive revealed the secret of the philosophy behind their success:
â€¦most of our competitors are interest[ed] in doing something different, or want to appear new – I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and thatâ€™s what drives us – a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better.
And that, I think, is the key to good ritual design.
Rituals do not have to be different.
Rituals do not have to be new.
Rituals do have to be better.
Sometimes, when designing a ritual that is better than anything before, the ritual ends up being new and different. But I agree with Ive. New and different should not be your goal. Making a ritual better should be your goal. Each time you re-write it, each time you change it to improve the drama or change the blocking, it should be better.
Many times I’ve seen people create new versions of older rituals. These versions are new. They are mildly different. But are they better than the original? In my experience, most of the time they are not.
I’m strongly in favor of using new rituals if they are better than originals. I’m strongly in favor of using modified versions of rituals if the modifications makes the ritual better. As I just wrote, however, most of the time neither the new rituals nor modifications are better; they’re simple new and different. Often, they’re much worse, and by “worse” I mean not effective.
Writing new rituals is a great objective. However I would encourage you not to merely create new rituals. Instead, create better ones. To do this often requires a powerful tool: objectivity.
If you write a new ritual, one that comes from your heart and soul and spirit, it is literally a part of who you are. The ritual is “your baby.” To you, your baby is perfect in every way. But is it really better?
You could ask other people what they think. Most people who ask this, however, are looking for approval and recognition, not honesty. So instead, I would suggest that you take a moment and step outside of yourself. Take the viewpoint of someone who has no knowledge of who you are and what you do. Look at the ritual from this objective person’s perspective.
From this objective viewpoint, is your ritual really better or is it just new or different? If it’s not better, how can you make it better? If it is better, are there ways to make it even greater?
My vote is for better rituals and rites that lead to more successful magick!
*The exception to keeping complete symbolic coherency is in the Chaos Magick technique known as paradigm shifting. I describe the concept behind this in the latest edition of Modern Magick:
“Take a deity from one pantheon and include that deity in a ritual from a completely different paradigm. This paradigm shifting can have a powerful effect on a practitioner, opening him or her up to potentials that are not limited to their normal worldview. It can literally shake things up and break down limiting beliefs.”