Observing: the shape of the ritual
January 31, 2013
One question that is often raised by those who are coming to Paganism for the first time – whether naturalistic or not – is that of ritual content and structure. And this is a question that also needs to be answered by those whose practices are changing; for example, from theistic Pagan practices to naturalistic or atheistic ones. When I initially returned to ritual, I was doing something similar to what I had done for years as a Wicca-influenced theistic Pagan. But a lot of it felt empty; there were elements that I just didn’t believe in, and which didn’t mean anything to me. So I began to address this problem, and went about gradually reconstructing the content of my rituals.
Although Pagaian Cosmology by Glenys Livingstone was probably the most influential book I’ve ever read in terms of sorting out my attitudes towards divinity and the philosophy behind my spiritual beliefs, and although I was influenced by the ritual scripts she shared in this book, I found them to be a little too traditionally Wiccan-based in their structure. This is not, of course, necessarily a problem for everyone who wants to follow a naturalistic path; but if the language or structure doesn’t resonate metaphorically, then there may be a need to step a little further away from neo-Pagan roots.
Others (for example, John Halstead at the Allergic Pagan) have shared rituals that are mostly divorced from Wiccan-type ceremonial ritual. But coming from the background I did, I was unwilling to throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak. This is not to say that I think others have done so; but it would have been counter-productive for me. There were aspects to the traditional circle casting that I liked, that resonated with me – after all, that was my primary reason for returning to Paganism in the first place.
For me, my problem was not with the actual structure or shape of things – in fact, I always found this to be very satisfying. My problem was more with the vernacular; with the words spoken, the imagery invoked, and the thought process behind those words.
The first thing to note is that I do not cast a circle anymore. And I do not call on elemental guardians. But you may note that despite the changes in concept and vernacular, the overall structure can still probably be fairly easily related to Wiccan circle casting.
The main steps run as follows:
- Lighting the direction candles (East, South, West, North), situating myself at the centre of these four directions, and mentally drawing into my mind the whole of the Earth in these four directions. I have a simple sentence I say at each, associating each cardinal direction with their relationship with the sun and its perceived movement in our sky.
- Grounding myself at the centre of the Earth, and affirming that I am at once everything, and everything is in me. This sets up the connectivity that I strive towards throughout the observance. This is where I first mention Gaia.
- Observing the “Powers of the Earth”. I conceive of these as the three states of matter that we and the Earth are made of (gas, liquid, solid). I also conceive of them as the most basic ways in which we experience our world around us – ground, sky, and water (rain/sea) – and the energy that brings it all into being. I have representations of each on my altar, and I light a candle to represent this.
- Celebrating life as part of the creativity of Gaia, through linking this sense of the Earth that I have evoked (through the cardinal directions and the states of matter) with our own coming to being.
- Revering the ancestors: I say a few words about our current state as conscious humans, starting with recent relatives and moving back to the very first living being. I light candles to represent male and female human consciousness.This part of the ritual has only recently become more important to me, and I have added a few words to this effect.
- Calling to Gaia. This is the main aspect of the ritual. I light a candle to represent the nothingness, or the somethingness, that came before everything – I see this as an aspect of Gaia, as I understand Gaia as existence, as the very fact of being. I light another candle to represent Gaia as mother, as the All. This, for me, is her primary guise; this candle represents the entire Cosmos, all of existence. I light two more paired candles to represent the dark and the light in Gaia, rebirth and annihilation, the Virgin and the Crone. I see these as yin and yang, and the two major pulling forces of Gaia.
- Ritual dedication, meditation or other activity. On the full moon, this is usually meditation; on the dark moon, I have taken to doing a meditation on the ancestors or “Old Ones”; on the wheel of the year celebrations, I tend to have words to speak, some small action to perform, and a short (usually 10 minute) meditation.
- Ending the observance. I extinguish the directional candles and say some simple words, where I “turn back to myself”. I often don’t extinguish the candles on the altar at this point, but I do say a few words to ground me back into myself and normal reality. I tend to leave the candles burning for another half hour or so on the altar – I never feel like extinguishing them as soon as the ritual is over. I sometimes will sit at the altar or my bigger work space and take the opportunity to do some divination (I’ll post about my naturalistic interpretation of that some time!) or journalling.
I am pretty happy with this outline at this point; the one thing I feel a difficulty with is not having enough activity. I would quite like to have actions or movements or such to be doing while I go through the motions of the ritual. But I imagine that as I become more familiar with the words and the shape of it, this will come more naturally.
I currently have a soundtrack of music I put together that I time things to. The idea is that the change of music triggers the next phase of the ritual. But I’m having difficulty where I’m feeling a little rushed, so I think I may have to change this habit; maybe just have one long piece of music on loop or something, or have the songs on loop for me to change when I feel ready.
I don’t currently feel happy to share more detail than this; for example, the words I use or the specific actions I do. I’m not exactly sure why, but it doesn’t feel quite right. But I hope that this outline will be of help to someone. I would also love to hear other people’s opinions and ritual shapes if you’re willing to share.