times square, new york, December 31
at 11:59 pm: a huge, glittering ball moves downward as
thousands of people chant.
A nameless location in Central America, near midnight:
a man is torn to shreds by a demon jaguar, as
one step in his initiation as a shaman.
Sussex, England, late in the morning: a circle of
women chant softly as their coven sister's baby emerges
from the womb.
Katmandu, Nepal, early one evening: an old man
pounds a nail into a wooden shrine next to a tiny golden
goddess-to cure his toothache.
Ardantane in New Mexico, on solstice evening: as
lightning cracks overhead, a double circle of Witches
chants power into a stone egg to create a dragon.
In Mexico, a curandera places an egg over a sick woman's
head to draw out the negative vibrations causing
Ritual has been part of the human experience for
more millennia than we know, and it may have been
practiced by our pre-human ancestors. It is omnipresent,
powerful, as human as anything we do, and yet it
is curiously elusive in meaning. The word can be used
for something as ordinary and dull as brushing your
teeth, or as comfortable and rote as Thanksgiving dinner;
but it can also be linked to life, death, and cataclysmic
Definition is in order.
What Is Ritual?
The Random House Dictionary calls ritual "an established form of conducting a religious
or other rite," or even less thrillingly, "any practice or behavior repeated in a prescribed
manner." Putting snow tires on your car. Tying your shoes.
In his book The Spell of Making, Blacksun describes it as "a carefully outlined program
of mental and physical activities . . . [that] aligns our conscious and unconscious in harmony with one another in an environment which is separate from the mundane universe to facilitate the accomplishment of an intended goal."1
Isaac Bonewits, founder of the Ar nDraiocht Fein Druid Fellowship, calls it "any ordered
sequence of events, actions, and/or directed thoughts, especially one that is repeated in the 'same' manner each time, that is designed to produce a predictable altered state of consciousness within which certain magical or religious (or artistic or scientific?) results may be obtained."2
Tom Chetwynd has another view: "The dramatic enactment of myth, designed to make
a sufficiently deep impression on the individual to reach his subconscious."3
Vivianne Crowley keeps it simple: "A ceremony designed to produce certain spiritual
and magical effects."4
Popular Pagan author Scott Cunningham looked at it another way: "Ceremony. A specific form of movement, a manipulation of objects or inner processes designed to produce desired effects. In religion ritual is geared toward union with the Divine. In Magick it produces a specific state of consciousness that allows the magician to move energy toward needed goals. A Spell is a magical ritual."5
Timothy Leary saw a parallel with science: "Ritual is to the internal sciences what experiment is to the external sciences."6
James R. Lewis, editor, Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft, collected personal defi-
nitions from several readers: It's a sacred drama in which you are the audience as well as the participant, and the purpose of it is to activate parts of the mind that are not activated by everyday activity . . . It's art, it's theater, it's sacrament . . . Anything can be a ritual.
A ritual is "a focused mental/physical ceremony to either honor or thank one's chosen
pantheon, or to perform a specific magical working or act."7
Ritual involves "creating a space in which to feel better, feel more, to feel the past as well as the future . . . ritual upholds and celebrates the validity of feeling as a mode of revelation, communication and transvaluation."8
. . . and Starhawk reminds us of the occult nature of ritual: "Magical rites that stimulate
an awareness of the hidden side of reality, and awaken long forgotten powers of the human mind."9
1 Eschaton Productions, Inc., 1995.
2 Real Magic, 264.
3 A Dictionary of Symbols, 342.
4 Wicca: The Old Religion in a New Age, 260.
5 The Truth About Witchcraft Today, 167.
6 As quoted in "Neurologic, Immortality & All That," by Robert A. Wilson in Green Egg, Vol. VIII, No. 72 (August 1, 1975), 9.
7 Silver RavenWolf, To Ride a Silver Broomstick.
8 Kay Turner, Heresies, 23.
9 The Spiral Dance, 13.
All clear now? We thought not. Let's group and summarize the pieces that these experts
"Established," "prescribed," or "repeated," or in contrast, "experiment"
"Practices," "behaviors," "events"
"Outlined," "ordered," "designed," "focused"
"Intended goal," "results," "desired effects," "needed goals"
"Mental," "directed thoughts," "inner processes"
"Physical," "actions," "movements"
"Aligns conscious and unconscious," "specific state of consciousness," "reach his subconscious"
"Produce a predictable altered state of consciousness," "awaken . . . powers of the human
mind," "awareness of the hidden side of reality"
"Environment separate from the mundane universe," "Creating a space"
"Union with the Divine," "sacrament," "honor or thank one's chosen pantheon"
"Dramatic enactment of myth," "sacred drama," "theater," "art"
"Feel better, feel more . . . celebrates the validity of feeling"
So. Ritual is an organized process that is sometimes prescribed or repeated, but can be experimental and-dare we hope-creative. It takes place outside of ordinary reality. It is physical, mental, and emotional. It involves at least two levels of mind, changes consciousness, and moves energy. It is focused on achieving a goal, which may be spiritual, as in honoring Deity or connecting with it; but it could be some other unspecified, nonreligious goal.
You could also call it Theater for Younger Self, ephemeral multimedia art on two planes
of reality, a cooperative exercise in survival by the three selves that live inside you, a celebration of incarnation and its attendant joys, or a sometimes expensive addiction that actually improves your life.
And that may be as specific as it gets until we narrow it down to a certain kind of ritual for a specific purpose.
The Purpose of Ritual
Rituals can be used for personal change and growth, following the U.S. Army's inspiring motto, "Be all that you can be." It can help us celebrate the changing year-a seasonal party with religious overtones. It can facilitate the original purpose of religion-religio-to reconnect us with God/dess/Providence/Nature/Divinity. It can be a social mechanism that enables people to change roles and allows communities to bond (rites of passage) or spurs the change of whole societies as a magico-political act. And it can accomplish very practical things: helping our airplane fly safely to Chicago, healing the sniffles, protecting our homes, or attracting a new and better job.
As a mental exercise, we have asked ourselves what the ten most popular Pagan rituals are and what they do for us. Here is our best estimate:
1. Daily spiritual practice: This varies widely from person to person, but often includes
meditation, a quick divination, a devotional act, and is often blended with physical exercise. It calms, centers, connects, and helps us find our place in the scheme of things.
2. Sabbat celebrations: These help us find the purpose and joy in the season, orient us
on the Wheel of the Year, reconnect us to fun, and allow us to socialize and feast. Deities are usually involved, but often the focus is really on the season.
3. Full moon esbat: These are the most purely devotional rituals for many Pagans,
especially when Drawing Down the Moon is performed and the Goddess becomes
incarnate in the circle. The "moons" satisfy our need for connection to the divine.
4. Healing: The need for healing of all kinds is huge and possibly growing, as we abuse
ourselves with toxins, poor nutrition, and stress. Gather any group of five or more people
together and one of them wants healing for an illness, injury, or chronic condition.
5. Rites of passage: Handfastings, house blessings, Wiccanings . . . they are occasional
events, but no one wants to miss them. Pagans are rediscovering how important it is to
mark the great turning points of our lives and are reclaiming the rites with inexorable
6. Prosperity: It is interesting that the people of the most prosperous nation on earth
are always short of money and wanting to do spells for more. Perhaps this reflects the
unequal distribution of wealth, or maybe it's related to poverty consciousness, a mindset
that is a perennial problem with Pagans.
7. Festival main ritual: There is always a main ritual at Pagan gatherings and it's always
well attended, even though many big rituals could be done better. Still, there is no substitute for standing in a circle with hundreds of "our own" and for a little while feeling
community instead of isolation.
8. Protection: Though we rarely have to worry about the Black Death or attacks by
saber-tooth tigers, we have a whole new host of dangers, ranging from terrorism to
traffic accidents to mercury in fish to withering retirement incomes. War and disease
are still with us, sometimes in new and terrifying forms, and famine strikes all too
many. And of course, there are always people worried about psychic attack, a few of
them with reason. The desire for protective spells will not disappear soon.
9. Dedication and initiation: We want to belong, to be special, to be part of the
"inner circle." We also want answers to the Big Questions and connection with divinity.
All these are motivations for pursuing initiation. It might come in the form of a child's
Christian confirmation, a Wiccan First Degree, or a shamanic journey to the underworld.
10. Self-blessing: Sometimes performed as a ritual in itself and sometimes as part of a
larger program, it is always welcome as an antidote to the forces that tear at our sense
of self-esteem. We need to be reminded that we are blessed and worth blessing.
This contrasts with ritual performed by some indigenous shamans, who use it for "the ecstatic trance, divine election, animal transformation, bird-like flight of the soul, knowledge of the worlds of the spirits and of the dead, mastery, rebirth from the bones, the magic arts of curing, and the guardianship of the traditions and the psychic and physical equilibrium of the community . . ."10 Still, most religious rituals do have points in common, because humans the world over have the same basic needs.
10 Brodzky et al., Stones, Bones and Skin, 28.
The Value of Ritual
Ritual helps us meet all our needs, from survival on up. Remember Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Human Needs"? Is there a single point on the pyramid that ritual cannot address?
safety & security
love & belonging
esteem & status
Physiological needs: Ritual can heal our bodies and minds, and it can feed us by
encouraging the yield of our gardens, finding us jobs, and increasing our wealth.
Safety & security: It can ward our houses from fire and theft, enable us to travel safely,
and protect us personally.
Love & belonging: We can do rituals to attract our perfect mate and to open our hearts
to become more loving partners. Ritual can help us find and create
communities to belong to.
Esteem & status: With ritual, we can build self-esteem, develop leadership skills, and
earn the respect of our peers. We can move through the great transitions of life into
new roles with ease and power.
Autonomy: It can help us become resourceful and strong and achieve a degree of independence we might never otherwise attain.
Self-actualization: Ritual can calm and center us, connect us with our Younger and
Higher Selves, and put us in harmony with the cycles of the seasons, the spirit of the
land where we live, the many forms of life we share this world with, the shades of our
ancestors, the elements that sustain our universe, and the Divine Source of All in its
Besides, ritual is fun, creative, provocative, and fascinating. And it can change things.
Ritual as Transformation
Kay Turner: "Ritual space and activity are sacred in the sense of representing the possibility of self-transformation. Part of the power and the fear experienced in ritual is the realization that one may change, become ultimately different, as a result of the experience or that the experience may make suddenly recognizable change that has been slowly rising from the depths of personality and ideology."11
Who could you be? Who did you fantasize yourself as, when you were a child? If you could wave the proverbial wand and become anyone, who would you be?
Each of us is, in potential, myriad personas, innumerable selves. A wonderful modern metaphor for this world of possibilities is Snoopy, the magickal beagle in Charles Schultz's comic strip Peanuts. Snoopy has a hundred personas: the WWI Flying Ace, the world-famous writer, the Beagle Scout, Joe Cool, an artist, a surgeon, a lawyer, a mountain lion . . . In his imagination, he can be anyone and imagine it so vividly that the others in his world believe it too. It is a change in consciousness that changes the outer world.
Ritual is a tool we can use to change ourselves: to heal ourselves, cleanse ourselves, and birth ourselves into a new life. More on this in later chapters, we promise.
More than that, ritual can change our communities: beginning with our covens, groves,
and circles, the little families-of-choice with whom we share our spiritual lives. It can change the wider Pagan community, and it can transform our towns, cities, and nations. It can do this by making us stronger agents of change and by bringing the power of Spirit to the great activist movements for social justice, world peace, and the preservation of our Mother Gaia.
One ritual heals a childhood trauma and sends a young woman into the world whole. Anotherrite of passage launches a proud young man into the responsibilities of manhood. Another empowers an old woman to serve her community as crone and honored elder. Another ritual energizes a group to clean up the watershed of a small stream. How do we change the world? One person and one ritual at a time.
There is a difference between creating rituals for special occasions and living your life in a mindful, sacred way, so that every bit of your daily routine becomes a ritual. The latter is another topic entirely, and it is beyond the scope of this book.
We will say, however, that the more you create and perform rituals, the easier it becomes to extend the numinous quality of ritual to the rest of your life. If "lifestyle" is a continuum with "sacred/magickal" on one end and "mundane/muggle" on the other, then rituals can help shift your whole life toward the side of sacred awareness.
So don't be surprised if a ritual-minded approach to things begins cropping up in the oddest places: a little invocation to Hestia as you do the housework, a silent thanks to the undines and salamanders as you step into a hot shower, a mental casting of a personal circle as you move through a crowded shopping mall . . . There is no rule that says all magick, all ritual, must be confined to a temple on the night of the full moon!
Why Creative Ritual?
Ritual is a good thing, an incredibly necessary experience for humans who want to be more
than consumers and statistics. But why is it important to create new rituals? Why not rely on the traditions handed down through generations (at least in some cultures)? If someone comes up with a great Roman Mass, and it works for many centuries, why fiddle with it? (A question some Catholics have been asking ever since Vatican II.) If Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente created a terrific Wiccan initiation rite, why design a new one?
Well, you don't always have to reinvent the wheel-or the ritual. There is value in keeping
our traditions, or at least many of them. Consistency, stability, and familiarity have their place in any society. A civilization without them is rootless and chaotic. On the other hand, a society which places too much value on consistency becomes rigid, incapable of adapting or improving.Either extreme means death for a culture.
We look for the balance. Some repetition and consistency in ritual is good. Yet we want
our rituals to address the specific, unique needs of the moment, so we adapt them and gain a freshness and focus that traditional rituals cannot provide. This is especially important with rites of healing and initiations, where the ritual must be tailored to the needs of the person at its center.
There is another factor: as a species, we are learning. Every day we gather new insights into how the human mind works, how communication happens, and how the planet functions, and we can incorporate that new knowledge into our rituals. Ritual is part of the "technology of the sacred," and it needs to grow and change as much as any technology. From Tibetan prayer wheels to synthetic drumheads, we create ways to make ritual more powerful and effective.
And why not? If a woodworker can use a power saw without betraying his craft, why can't we use Neuro Linguistic Programming12 in ritual?
Tradition or innovation? It's like asking whether you would rather have the lovely old china passed down from your great-grandmother or the attractive new design that's microwavesafe.
For most of us, the answer is "both, please."
Defining ritual is not easy, but ritual is almost always about change. No one enters a circle expecting to come out exactly as they went in, only older.
We hope to become more alive, to engage with one another, to glimpse the face of Goddess, to grow deeper and stronger and wiser, and to find energy and gather it and move it and transform a little bit of the world with it.
Ritual is a tool to do all this. Like any tool, it can be well-designed and carefully constructed, with fine materials-or not. This book is a tool to help you create wonderful tools, ones that you can use to embrace, then shape, yourself and your world. With these tools, you maybecome a designer, an artist, a leader, a priest or priestess, a ritualist, a co-creator with Deity.
12 Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a set of techniques that people can use to change their behavior, actions, and responses tounpleasant situations or circumstances. It began as a study of the relationship between neurology, linguistics, and patterns of behavior ("programs").
NLP can help eliminate phobias, boost self-esteem, change habits, increase the effects of clinical hypnosis, intensify ritual experience, help you communicate more powerfully, and improve teaching. It is a collection of insights and tools rather than a single inclusive model or theory. NLP is very pragmatic: if a technique works, it's included in the collection. The study and modeling of human performance, especially as it relates to sensory input and communication, is central to NLP's development. It derives in part from the study of therapists, including Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erickson; and in part from a great deal of experimentation and field work. Due to its lack of scientific rigor and formal verification, NLP is not completely accepted within the academic community; however, it works, often in cases
where traditional therapies fail.
NLP was developed in the 1970s by John Grinder and Richard Bandler, both from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Manybooks have now been published on the subject; among the first were their Frogs into Princes, Trance-formations, and The Structure of Magic (Volumes 1 and 2). Complete citations are in the bibliography.
We draw extensively on the techniques of NLP and base our ritual design framework on one of its most fundamental principles: all people
learn in all three sensory modalities-visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Chapters 12-15 are devoted to an in-depth exploration of how these
modalities can be used to greatest effect in the design of powerful ritual.
The purpose of the ritual is to bring the individual into closer contact with divinity. It can
also be used as a minor dedication, when a person who desires dedication has no one to dedicate them. Use this rite to banish anything negative that has gathered around you, whether beings of spirit or feelings of fear, anger, guilt, shame, or unworthiness. It will open a channel to Goddess and God so that you may feel their great love for you and be comforted.
Need, not season, determines the performance. There is real power in the self-blessing;
it should not be used other than in time of need and should not be done lightly. It is
also appropriate and powerful done in a small group, each recognizing the divinity within
themselves and others.
On an evening during the waxing moon, or whenever it is greatly needed, cleanse yourself with a ritual bath. If that is not possible, sprinkle yourself with salt water or
smudge yourself with burning sage.
Gather these things: a little salt, a little wine, a cup of water, and a candle of any kind.
Perform this ritual in a quiet place, where you feel comfortable and safe. Be skyclad,
with no clothing or jewelry to hide or decorate your body: there is only you and the divine.
When you are ready to begin, sprinkle the salt on the floor and stand on it. Light the
candle, and spend a moment watching the flame. Feel its warmth, and draw that warmth
into your whole body. Mix the wine into the cup of water.
Say aloud: "Bless me, Mother, for I am thy child."
Anoint your feet with the mixture of wine and water, and say: "Blessed be my feet, which
have brought me in these ways."
Pause, and think upon this.
Then anoint your knees, and say: "Blessed be my knees that kneel before the sacred
Pause, and think about this.
Now anoint your loins, and say: "Blessed be my loins, which bring forth the life of humanityas thou hast brought forth all creation."
Pause, and think about this.
Anoint your breast over your heart, and say: "Blessed be my breast, formed in beauty
and in strength."
Pause, and think about this.
Then anoint your lips, and say: "Blessed be my lips, which speak the names of the Lady
and the Lord."
Pause, and think about this.
Anoint your eyelids, and say: "Blessed be my eyes, which see thy path clearly before me."
Pause, and think about this.
Finally, anoint the top of your head at your crown chakra, and say: "Blessed am I,
(name), child of the gods."
Sit quietly and open yourself to the peace, love, and joy of Goddess. Reflect on the gifts
she has already given you during this life. Remember that you are part of her and therefore sacred. Allow yourself to feel hope.
When it is time, go to your bed and rest.