Main Page   Proto Indo-European (PIE) Religion   Wicca   Mithraism   Ritual    Tuadem  
  Back to the Beginnings  Nuit    Dedicant's Program     Prayers   Suggested Reading   Suggested Links 
The Pagan Family   Paganism   And The Rest  Publications   My Blog   About Me   My Calendar  Contact Me 


Chapter 2


Ritual



A ritual is a "coherent set of symbolic actions that has a real, transformative effect on individuals and social groups" (Lincoln, p. 6). Rituals give (or reveal) meaning to the moments and actions with which they are associated.

Ritual is the heart and soul of Paganism. It is the sacred acting through which we celebrate the worlds and Gods. By taking part in ritual we are not only learning how to live rightly; to perform the rituals is to live rightly. There are rituals of time, when we do what is most appropriate for a given moment, and rituals of place, when we do what is most appropriate for a given location. We perform them at the right time and at the right place and thereby act rightly. And Pagans are what they do.

Some rituals are unlearned. Mankind seems to have an innate genius for developing and elaborating rituals. They spring out of us when the moment calls for them. But if a ritual is to go beyond a small group of people it must be learned. The symbolic acts it is composed of make up a language which must be understood by those who will perform it, and this language must be learned.

This is one of the reasons why Pagans study the old stories, why we make lists of Gods and Goddesses and their corresponding attributes and rituals. We are teaching ourselves a ritual language with which to communicate with each other, with nature, and with the sacred.

The form and purpose of a ritual is affected by the number and type of people who are performing it. Covens frequently concentrate on magic, individuals may spend long periods in meditation, and large groups often employ sacred drama. A family, though is a special case. It is a small group, but some of its members are children. That changes everything.

Neo-Paganism in America has become almost synonymous with Wicca, the British religion developed in the middle of this century by Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, and others. Wicca's years in this country have affected it greatly, and although it still exists in private covens it is also found in open Pagan communities. These communities draw some basic assumptions about ritual and religion from Wicca, and unfortunately some of those don't work when children are involved.

Traditional Wicca is a Mystery Religion. As such, some of its rites are performed in secret by initiates, with mysteries that can only be understood by undergoing rituals. It is strongly influenced by ceremonial magic. The rituals involve a heavy symbolism that has to be learned before the rituals make sense. Wicca grew in small groups of adults and its ritual structure reflects that.

A mistake often made by Pagan parents is to bring the children into Wiccan rituals, or at the least, to compose rituals based closely on what is done by a coven. This arises from a misunderstanding of the role of Mystery Religions in culture.

In a living Pagan culture, there are several levels of involvement. There may be Mystery Religions or secret societies, (or there may not) but they are not the whole story. There are also public rites, folk traditions, superstitions, spirits of the land, mealtime customs: the list is long. The rituals in the home are not the public rituals, nor are they the mystery rituals.

In pre-Christian days Pagans lived in Pagan communities. When Christianity came, the individual and family rites frequently disappeared, or survived in attenuated and Christianized forms. What showed the most staying power were the practices of the entire community, Christianized and secularized, but still recognizably pre-Christian.

Many folk customs are only appropriate for communities. If you are a member of a Neo-Pagan community of families, you are a lucky person indeed. Your children will benefit immeasurably from feeling that they are not total weirdoes and there are too other Pagan children and that you're not making all this up. You will benefit from this support as well. But most of us struggle along alone. This book was written for these people, adapting as much of the community rituals for the family as possible and regretfully leaving out what could not be, while Paganizing or adopting those family traditions that either survived the conversion or were later invented by Christians but in a Pagan friendly form. I will at times give suggestions for those who live with a Pagan community, but the emphasis had to be on those families who were alone. If you are one of the lucky ones, please; go to the sources and bring back as much as you can. We will all be enriched thereby.

The rituals in this book have therefore been written with a nuclear family in mind. One or two adults and children -- that is the family I had in mind when I wrote these them. If your family is larger, that is wonderful. It is especially wonderful if it includes three or more generations. There are provisions in this book for stretching the rituals, but in general I had to write for the minimum. It is easier to adapt from this to a larger group than the other way round. As long as the number of people involved doesn't get much higher than a dozen, these rituals will work.

Most of the time in these rituals the roles taken by adults can just as well be taken by either men or women. In come cases, though, it seemed that one or the other was most fitting. For instance, it would have been a shame to throw out hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years of having a May Queen, and it seemed only right that a Full Moon ritual should be presided over by a woman, as representative of an Moon Goddess. Where a ritual specifies as man or a woman, then, there is a good reason for it.

Can you do these rituals another way? Most certainly. If you have a single-parent family, you will have to. This is a principle found in other religions as well; in Judaism, for example, it is standard for the mother to light the Sabbath candles. If there is no mother, an adult woman may do it, and if there is no adult woman, than a man may. Better that than leave them unlit. This is not to say that for a man to take a woman's part in a ritual is a breach of tradition. For this to happen is itself part of the tradition, and those who do it this way are not performing second-class rituals. They are following the old ways.

In general, it is best to establish a pattern and not vary from it without good reason. Traditions are very important to children; doing things the same way means the world is safe.

There will still be times when you will have to do things differently; when a family member is sick, for instance. You may wish to assign roles differently than I have as a rule. That is certainly your right. To tell the truth, in my own family some of the rituals are done differently than the way they are given in this book; I take the mother's parts in the Full Moon observance, for instance. The only rituals where a man cannot take the woman's part or a woman the man's, are the puberty rituals. Only a man can make a man, and only a woman can acknowledge a woman.

Pagans are used to following their instincts when it comes to ritual. Personal intuition is not only allowed, it is encouraged. The watchword is, "as long as it works." Even the strictest of Reconstuctionists often finds himself faced with a gap in the evidence which must be filled from a non-ancient source.

Families will find themselves doing this as well. As your family develops its identity and personality, you will find the rituals you use being modified. This is not unique to Paganism, of course; next time you're with a group of Christian friends ask each of them when they put their Christmas tree up, and watch the reactions. (The only correct time, by the way, is Christmas Eve.)

Since you are working with a family there will, however, be less room for personal intuition. Bluntly put, no one person has a right to make a major change in a family ritual. Fine-tuning, tweaking, and knob-twiddling are fine. You will find this especially necessary the first time you do a ritual.

But a major change in something that has been done before with children will defeat the whole purpose of family religion. What will it teach you children? That this is your religion, not theirs; that there is no certainty to the cycles being celebrated; that you do not consider religion or them important enough to subdue your momentary impulses. Tread carefully when making changes.

On the other hand, your children will make changes of their own, frequently in the middle of a ritual. If these changes are not in keeping with the spirit of the ritual, you will have to say nicely, "No, we do things another way." You are the adult, and you are the teacher, and one of the things you need to teach is that sometimes we can't let what we want to do take precedence over the wishes of others.

Usually, though, the changes will be just fine. These are to be enthusiastically adopted. They give a ritual meaning for the child who makes them, and the fact that you go along with them shows the child that her opinions are valued. The very fact that she cares to make changes at all is a good sign; it shows that she is making Paganism her own.

Traditions that you have yourself grown up with will have a comfortable feel to them that ones you found in a book (including this one) will not. Children know when you feel self-conscious about something and will in turn feel uncomfortable themselves. Traditions take a while to wear down around the edges.

Don't be afraid to adapt customs you are used to then, even if they are non-Pagan. While some are religious in origin and form, many others are secular. Some are both. Bells at Christmas, for instance, come from both church bells and sleigh bells. Adopt, adapt, reinterpret. Cultures have always done this, Pagan as well as Judaeo-Christian.

It is a time-honored tradition for religions to steal customs from each other. For example, Neo-Pagans stole jumping over a broomstick at weddings from the Gypsies who stole it from the peasants of the Netherlands and northern Germany. Stolen traditions don't stay unchanged by the theft. The tree stolen from Pagans by Christians became a Christmas tree. If we now steal it back in its changed form we will ourselves change it. That's OK.

To help creative stealing, I have included traditions to raid in some of the chapters. Information on them can be found in the books listed in the references. These traditions are holidays from other ways that parallel Neo-Pagan observances in some sense. Investigate them carefully, and if you find something which will enrich your celebration, adopt and adapt it with respect. These are not just hoards to plunder. They are places to find answers to the questions of how people respond to the world. Don't look to them only for customs, but for what they tell you about what it is to be human.

Rituals can have a variety of structures. They can be dramas, declarations, litanies, dances, prayers -- the list is long. The language used can have a variety of styles as well. It can be Elizabethan, romantic, blunt -- an equally long list. Which style a family should use is based both on personal preference and the maturity of the children involved.

Let's face it, no matter how exalted Elizabethan English sounds to you, all it will teach a seven year-old is that religion is boring. So drop the "Thee"s and "Thou"s and drop expressions like "We do bless you." People just don't talk like that and children just won't listen to it.

Your words don't have to be flat, however. Try rhyme, or, if your rhymes are like mine and keep ending up sounding like greeting cards, use alliteration. That was the original poetic form of English. Or blank verse. Read the soliloquies in Shakespeare and see how the words fit. Say your words out loud before using them in a ritual. Do they flow smoothly? Do they fit with each other? Are there any words that when put next to each other sound stupid? ("The nether lands," for instance.) Are all the sentences in the ritual in the same style? Are they simple enough for your children to understand? Most of all, do they mean what you really want them to, with no unintended ambiguity?

It is in keeping with the spirit of Paganism that the words are optional. You may say them before or after the act that accompanies them, or eliminate them altogether. The words in the rituals in this book move me or I wouldn't have written them, but it is the actions that are important. Sometimes the mind seizes words like a life preserver -- "Oh good, something I understand." Then the action does not cut to the heart. Words are good for explanations. Actions are good for rituals. Do the deeds. Do what your ancestors did. Stand in their place.

Some of these rituals have relatively long declarations. Instead of one person doing them, they could be broken up among family members. This will allow more participation if your family is large. They could be put in question and answer form. This will involve the family members more than simple speeches by the parents.

One cruel truth about children: they don't like to listen to a lot of words. They fidget. They ask questions that have nothing to do with what's going on. They turn their bodies to jelly and slide off their chairs.

There are things they do like, however. As a Pagan parent your job will be much easier if you do the things they like. OK, you can slip in your own things too, but make a sandwich with the kids' things as the bread.

First, they like celebrations. They like parties, presents, and decorations. Celebrations are perfect for Seasonal Festivals and Rites of Passage.

Kids like to do things. The same child that went glassy-eyed at your reading of a speech may gladly read it herself and will feel thrilled about it. Since Paganism is a religion of doing, give your children something to do. Have them carry something, move something, say something. The first time our family celebrated Brighid's Day our daughter took over the ritual. She took the cross and insisted on saying the words in each room by herself.

Kids like to sing. Paganism has lots of songs. Pagan magazines carry advertisements for recordings. (The names of some recordings are given in the reference section.) Buy some, play them, and sing them. Songs can keep the power to move long after the religion they belong to has been left behind. Christmas songs still get to me after almost thirty years as a Pagan. Such is the power of songs.

Listen to your children. They will let you know what is working and what isn't. This listening requires great subtlety. A child may "act cool" about something that really matters to him. He may groan when you start to tell a myth and then be drawn in by it and start asking questions about what happened next. He may complain about having to do a ritual but remind you if you forget to do it. He may fidget when meditating with you and then you find him meditating on his own. Watch carefully and see what catches fire. Don't give up after one try.

Each ritual with children (like rituals with adults) should include the standard and the special, what Catholics call the Ordinary and the Proper. The standard is the frame which tells participants that a ritual is being done and that puts the rest of the ritual in the appropriate context of the religious tradition. The special is the part that conveys the message of the particular ritual. In writing the seasonal rituals (chapter 7), I tried to devise something for each festival that would be unique to it, something that hopefully would capture a child's imagination and make her look forward to the day. Something special, something that tells your children that they are a part of a religion of beauty, awe, and fun -- that is what will keep Paganism alive in them.

The standard part of the ritual is just as important, however. The fact that it is repeated says that our way is one of reassurance, that it is as steady as the yearly cycles it celebrates, that we are not just making it up as we go along. Our way turns, but it turns back to its beginning.

One of the characteristics that Neo-Paganism has inherited from Wicca is a preoccupation with sacred space. In part this is a result of the influence of ceremonial magic, in which a sacred space, a "magic circle," is necessary to keep the magician safe from the spirits he has called up. It is also found in many of the forms of ancient Paganism; Romulus, for instance, essentially cast a circle when he was founding Rome (OK, it was a square). There seems to be a standard human urge to live in meaningful space, to recognize or create a place which is special.

In general, a family practicing Paganism in their home has no need to create sacred space before a ritual. The home should already have been made sacred ritually by blessing it, but even more important, a home is made sacred by the very fact that a family lives in it. The daily activities of a family are sacred acts, and they continually consecrate the place where they are performed. The home is the temple, and the family table the altar.

When a ritual is performed outside the home, however, or when it involves a large number of people who are not family members (or both), creation of sacred space is a good idea. The rituals in this book that are likely to need sacred space to be created include directions for this specific to them. However, perhaps a bit of general theory will help make more sense of these directions.

Neo-Pagan sacred space, especially in Wicca, is generally circular (although practical considerations may sometimes require a different shape). For this reason, the ritual for creating it is called "casting the circle." The meanings of this shape are many, and all of them can be implied by its use.

For instance, circles are symbols of eternity, since they never end. They symbolize wholeness, since they represent a pattern returning to the beginning. The circle is the strongest shape. It represents the natural cycles that we are celebrating; the year, the moon, menstruation, life and death and rebirth, night and day. It is what we tend to think of when we think of a hole, and thus the most appropriate shape for a conduit between the sacred and profane worlds.

Perhaps the greatest reason for using a circle, though, comes from its geometric characteristics. When we stand in the center of a circle, we are the same distance from each point on its rim. In the same way, we each stand in the center of the universe, and in the center of the visible world: we are exactly halfway from horizon to horizon. In this way the circle represents the world.

Another characteristic of a circle is that no one section of it is shaped differently from any other. In this way, the equal worth of the four directions, the four elements, and all of their corresponding qualities is affirmed.

The first step in creating (or casting) sacred space is to delineate it. We must know where our circle ends, both spiritually and physically. It may be marked physically with just about anything. Popular choices are rocks, flowers, rope, chalk, or poles. Outside, if you want a permanent form of sacred space, you can dig a ditch. The border markers are laid out in a clockwise direction, starting in the east (where the sun rises) or the north (the darkness out of which everything is born). The size marked out will vary based on the number of people who must fit into the circle.

The physical marking out may be done before the ritual if necessary. However, it is more in keeping with the properly Pagan belief in the sacrality of the material to make the physical marking part of the ritual. The circle is thereby blessed in the very act of its physical creation.

After the space is marked, it must then be consecrated in a more obviously spiritual manner. This is generally done by circling it reciting ritual words such as:

     Blessed be this circle
     where we will perform great deeds.
     May it be a suitable place
     for our meeting with the Gods.

(This circling is sometimes given the marvelous name of "circumambulation.") While the circling is done, the celebrant may sprinkle blessed water, or carry incense, a lit candle, or a sacred tool such as an athamé, wand, or rattle. More than one of these may be done. The minimum requirements, however, is one circling with words that may be done at the same time as the physical marking, and one circling with a metal tool. This may be a knife, a pole with a nail in the end, a spear, or even a shovel. The significance of this is that sacred space is "cut off" from non-sacred space; indeed, the word "sacred" has its roots in a word meaning "to cut."

After the blessing of the border of the circle, the four directions are honored. In some traditions, this is called invoking the Guardians of the Watchtowers. These traditions tend to personify the directions and call the personified spirits of them. Other possibilities are to call the elements associated with the directions (air for east, fire for south, water for west, and earth for north) or the four winds. In the Norse tradition, four dwarves are believed to hold up the sky at the quarters, and these may be called upon. More simply, the celebrant can say:

     May the spirits of the [direction] be with us here
     to bless us in all we do today.

More specific words are given with each of the rituals that require them.

Candles are frequently placed at the four directions. They are lit as each of the directions is called on. For night rituals you will most likely want more candles for the purpose of illumination, but these should not be lit until after the circle is cast, or the lighting of the directional ones will be over-shadowed.

When used outside, candles will have to be in jars except on the calmest of days. In the summer, many stores sell outdoor candles or tiki torches which work very well. They are especially nice in larger groups where candles would be too small.

Once all the candles are lit, the circle is cast, and the rest of the ritual may start.

When sacred space is not created at the beginning of a ritual, there is still a need for a clear start. After the family is gathered together for a ritual there is often an awkward moment of waiting. There is too often a lot of looking at each other, thinking or saying, "Should we begin now?" This is not such a bad thing. It is a very normal, mundane thing, and because of this the beginning of the ritual, with its shift to structure and order will be more transforming..The beginning of the rite will make clear break from this moment. What is needed is a clear indication that sacred time has begun. Instead of creating sacred space, then, create sacred time.

There are many ways to do this. I have found that the best is with sound, especially a special sound, used for nothing else. Sounds exist in time in a special way, arising and then dying off. Making a sound is a divider between times; when it is first made, the sound dissolves the previous time, and when it dies away, the new time rushes in. A bell that is only used for rituals works well, as do drums, rattles, and gongs.

A second way of creating sacred time is to start in darkness and then light candles. A third is to fill a cup or bowl and pass it for everyone to drink from, or to anoint themselves in a rite of purification. More than one of these ways can be used in one ritual, but use the same method or combination of methods each time. Pick one and stay with it; the whole point of doing it is to condition you and your family to shift into sacred time easily.

It is also important that there be a distinct end to sacred time. The same sound that started the ritual can end it, or the candles can be blown out (something that children love to do), or the cup or bowl brought outside and poured out as an offering.

Wearing special clothing can make a time more special. It need not be the robes usually thought of as ritual garb. Remember "Sunday Best?" Dressing up for the Gods shows respect for them. Something special can be added to what you already wear. Romans covered their heads when they prayed. Greek priests sometimes wore headbands. A prayer shawl or a stole can be enough. Pendants work well, or other jewelry.

Colors can be used for different effects. For some rituals, particular color clothing is appropriate. Suggestions for these will be found with the rituals and in appendix 3. Obvious choices are black for the dark of the moon, white for the full moon, and the green of newly growing things for May Day, but each occasion may have something appropriate. Think about the body positions you take during the rituals. Associating one position with ritual makes for an easy transition to sacred time. One that is almost universal is stretching out your hands with the elbow bent up, palms forward. This is so common for use while praying that it is sometimes called the "orans" position, the "praying" position. Look at pictures of deities for other positions; they are often in the same position taken by their devotees.

The main altar for family rituals is the family table, the kitchen or dining room table that is used every day or on special occasions. It is the place where the family gathers, where they eat, and where rituals will be performed, and as such it is sacred. The ancients knew this. For instance, Plutarch, in Roman Questions (p. 147, question LXIV), tells us that the Romans never left the table empty and suggests that that is because it is a sacred place and sacred places should never be left empty. For this reason, it is good to leave something there (bread, candlesticks, flowers, a bowl of fruit), but it is more important to keep it clean and treat it with respect.

Several of the rituals call for the sprinkling of water. This sometimes serves to bless, with the drops of water carrying the blessing to whatever they touch, and other times it is a purification, a symbolic washing of the area. Dip your sprinkler into a bowl of water and shake it in the direction desired. A bundle of flowers or leaves can be used as a sprinkler. Flowers that are in season will add to the emphasis of a seasonal celebration. Other possible sprinklers include ribbons or threads tied to a stick, one of those tea infusers in the shape of a spoon, or a small leafy branch.

The sprinkling itself is something that will gladly be done by children. They may get over enthusiastic about it, but that is certainly no failing. A rattle can also be used to bless. Think of it as an asperger, sprinkling blessing rather than water.

A form of ritual which has been neglected by Neo-Paganism but which is suitable for even the youngest children is prayer. All the types of prayer familiar from other religions can be used by Pagans, although the content and style will be different. I'll have more to say about this later. (See chapter six.)

Another frequently neglected ritual form is the giving of offerings. This formed a major part of both family and personal piety in pre-Christian days. It is prominent in the rituals in this book as well and will also be discussed in chapter six.

If you are a member of a coven or grove, family and group activities may conflict. There's only so much time, and you may find it necessary to celebrate with one of the two groups the day before or after a festival or moon observance. Which gets the official date is the question. You could opt for the family because your family is more important that your coven. (If it isn't, you need to reexamine your commitment to your family.) Or you could pick your coven on the grounds that psychic work is more affected by the date than celebrations are. Fortunately, many of the family seasonal rituals can be done in the daytime (some should be), while most covens or groves meet at night, but some of the other rituals may be a little trickier. If you are the only one in your coven with a family, you could hold coven meetings at your home after the children have gone to bed. If there are other parents in the group, you could rotate. You could have a big sleepover with all the group's children, assuming they will actually go to sleep early enough for you to do your work.

With most Reconstructionist groups, the decision is easier. Their group rituals are less of a mystery, and can be adapted to allow the presence of children. Indeed, the rituals in this book can often be adapted to the particular tradition of a Reconstructionist group. This will provide the sense of community I discussed earlier, and will bring your family together with other families of like mind.

For many of the occasions, several rituals are given. Some are short and simple, while others are full-blown ceremony. The intent is to give a range of styles and complexity that can be tailored to fit your family, house, and taste. They should also show the range of rituals available to Pagans.