Ritual can be defined as a piece of religious theater designed to help us connect with the Divine, be that in the form of Deity, Nature, or the turning of the seasons.
II. PLANNING THE RITUAL, SETTING GOALS:
The purpose behind ritual is to create an external pattern which can serve as a guide to the mind. We intentionally layer as many elements as possible in order to focus the conscious and unconscious mind on that which we wish to accomplish. Sound, taste, scent, texture, and color all contribute to helping a person lay aside the mundane world and to let out the Younger Self who believes that magic works.
The first step in creating any ritual is to decide what the goal of the ritual is to be. A ritual may be a simple celebratory gathering at the full or dark of the moon, a gathering to mark a major Sabbat, or an elaborate working of high magic. No matter what the goal of the ritual is to be, it is important to keep it clearly in mind when developing the ritual. And it is important that the goal be clear to all participants in the working...so keep it clear and simple.
Another point to consider is how many people will be present. If you are working alone, a ritual will by its very nature tend to be simpler and more intimate. In working with groups, a ritual can be either simple or elaborate. An important point to remember is that when you are leading a ritual for a group, you are in part responsible for the spiritual satisfaction others receive from the ritual. In particular, at major holidays, there is a certain level of expectation on the part of participants as to what will occur, and a ritual for Beltane (as an example) would be expected to be more impressive than one to celebrate a full moon. Therefore, if you are the one who is to create a group ritual, never enter it lightly. Always take time and use thought in designing the ritual.
In creating a ritual, one looks to the initial goal to help develop the piece of theater one will use. Here it is particularly helpful to be aware of the meaning of the Wheel of the Year, the kind of workings to be done in a waxing or waning moon, various mythologies, and the aspects of Deity. These are the building blocks that you will use in creating your ritual play. For instance, Samhain is a major holiday which marks the end of the year and the last harvest. It is a time when the walls between the worlds are thinnest so that divination works particularly well. The Goddess in her Crone aspect is traditionally called..so one might call upon Hecate or Cerridwen. The God that is summoned is usually the Hunter in his guise as Lord of Death. It is also a time when one honors the ancestors and those of the clan who have died. Taken together, this information begins to give some ideas of what kind of working one might wish to do at Samhain. On a simpler note, remember that rituals during a waxing moon would work best for magics of increase..such as prosperity, while a waning moon is best for magics of decrease..such as getting rid of bad habits.
III BUILDING THE RITUAL:
A. PREPARING THE RITUAL SPACE:
Begin by selecting a site for ritual. It needs to be large enough to hold the participants comfortably, and secure from unwanted intrusions. Outside rituals are lovely, after all, we are a nature religion. But always have a backup location available if using outdoor space. Standing in the pouring rain is not conducive to interest in ritual. Neither are outdoor rituals where one has to worry about the neighbors calling the local constabulary.
Begin by preparing the area to be used. If outdoors, make sure that the grass is mowed, the ground is clear of sticks or stones, and that there are no holes for someone to step in. Indoors, perform a mundane cleaning and vacuuming. Move any furniture present to clear the space necessary for circle. And be sure that any obstructions that might cause persons to trip. Remember that the room will be darkened when working and it is easy to stumble over things in the dark when your mind is on other matters.
Orient the circle to the proper directions to the extent possible. Traditionally the altar is placed either in the North or in the center of the circle. However, the shape of the room may make this impractical. For instance, if the only door to the room is in the North and the room is too small to allow for an altar in the center, placing the altar against another wall is perfectly acceptable. In addition, for certain workings, placing the altar in a different direction might be proper. As an example, for a crossing-over ritual, you might want to place the altar in the west. One of the most creative ideas I have ever seen placed the symbols of the elements on the outskirts of the circle, thus making the whole ritual area on which the participants gathered into an altar.
Once a ritual begins, you dont want to be disturbed. Lock your doors, close the blinds, take the telephone off the hook, and tell people to turn off any beepers or alarms on their watches. If you are going to play music during ritual, make sure that the volume controls are inside the circle.
B. CREATING SACRED SPACE
Unlike many major religions, Wiccans do not generally have a physical structure which is reserved solely for ritual. Instead, we cast a circle for ritual use. This circle, which we describe as a space outside of space and a time outside of time, is the equivalent of a temple. Remember this whenever you cast or enter a circle. You are creating or entering sacred space.
In some groups, it is traditional to smudge those entering sacred space in order to purify them. This can be a lovely touch to creating sacred space, or it can pose real problems. Remember that some people with respiratory problems may have them aggravated by smudging and may spend the rest of the circle wheezing and gasping for air. This is not conducive to participation in the working at hand. In addition, keep in mind the size of the group. Smudging a few people is fine, but smudging 30-40 may take more time than the rest of the ritual, and people tend to get distracted and bored while waiting for the smudging to be completed.
Once everyone is present, begin your preparations for ritual by having everyone present ground and center. This will allow all present to put aside their mundane cares to focus on the working at hand. It also begins to focus and direct the energies of the circle in order to accomplish the magical purpose of the ritual. If there are newcomers in the circle, it is helpful to provide some guided imagery to assist them in grounding themselves. Wait until you feel that all present are grounded before proceeding to cast the circle.
There are as many ways to cast a circle as there are Wiccans, and provided the caster understands how to move and direct energy, all of them will work. In some Traditions, the circle is cast by the High Priestess or High Priest before anyone is permitted to enter the sacred space. In others, all present contribute to the raising of the circle. Casting the circle with magical energy creates safe and sacred space within which to work, and helps to focus the group mind on the working at hand.
Begin the circle cast by invoking the Guardians of the circle. The Guardians are energy forms which can be raised at the four Quarters of the circle to guard and protect all within the sacred space during a ritual. They can take whatever form the individual or group finds comfortable and appropriate. Some magical Traditions call upon the Archangels, others have specific totem animals, and still others simply address the Powers of the East, etc.. If the magical working for the evening has a specific theme, one might wish to invoke the Guardians using aspects that match the overall theme of the ritual.
Once the Guardians have been invoked, the circle is drawn by whatever means the caster chooses. Traditionally, the circle is cast in a sunwise or deosil manner. This can be done by walking the perimeter of the circle and physically marking the outline on the ground, or it can be done by standing in the center of the circle and merely directing the energy using ones athame, wand, finger, or simply ones mind.
When the circle has been raised, it is time to invite the God and Goddess, or whichever forms of Deity one wishes to work with, into the sacred space. Remember that you are speaking to Deity here. Summoning or invoking seem disrespectful and somehow demeaning when seen in that light. Keep your invocations reverent and short. Remember that you are talking to the Divine. Which forms of Deity are invited will depend on the working to be accomplished. For a simple celebration, the person calling the Deity may wish to call their patron to be present. For major holidays, one might wish to invite a Deity appropriate for the season. As an example, at Lammas it would be appropriate to call upon Lugh as Lord of the Harvest, and upon Ceres or Demeter as the Goddess aspect. In most cases, it is preferable not to mix pantheons; however, if the aspects called upon are appropriate to the meaning of the season, it seldom causes a problem. Again, keep in mind the goal of the main ritual, and invite those forms of Deity which match that goal.
When the Lord and Lady have been invoked, the next step may be the symbolic Great Rite and enacted with the chalice and the athame. Although this portion of the ritual is used routinely in our Tradition, it is not absolutely necessary to the performance of a ritual. Remember that in some other groups this symbology may be inappropriate or uncomfortable. And for a solitary practitioner, the symbolic Great Rite would be difficult to perform because both energies would not be present.
C. MAIN BODY OF THE RITUAL
This is the heart of the matter, the goal which you wish to reach. Although it may seem like working backwards, and in a way it is, this is the portion of the ritual upon which all structural planning hinges. Ideally, the entire ritual focuses on one big ritual goal be it a celebration of the full moon, a magical working, a sermon on the meaning of the holiday, a ritual drama, etc., and builds step by step to this climax, then tapers off before anyone can get bored or distracted.
The important question here is how to complete the goal we had in mind for the ritual. Here it pays to be creative and try new things. Originality will help keep other participants interested and involved in the ritual. On the other hand, do not be too odd or frivolous. Remember that this is a religious celebration, and while our religion celebrates joyousness and fun, there is still a certain degree of reverence and respect that should be present.
The most successful rituals involve all present in their performance. Personal involvement deepens the impact of the working on all of those present, keeps their interest, and smoothes the flow of energy. Trying to conduct a ritual by a long and complicated monologue may make minds and energies drift. This will adversely effect any magical working. Songs, dance, and chants are all good ways to involve everyone, especially when energy is to be raised. Just remember to keep things focused, clear, and to the point. Try to make everyone feel like a vital part of the ritual.
To flesh out and complete your ritual, you may wish to utilize songs, chants, meditations, or readings which demonstrate at least one aspect of your goal. Using chants or songs that everyone present is familiar with keeps the energy flows smooth. If you wish to use new chants, try to find time before circle to teach the words to those who will be in circle. You could also use readings of poetry, myths or stories to set the tone of your working, or you could involve everyone in a play acting out the parts of a myth or religious story. On the other hand, dont overdo it. If you are conducting an elaborate ritual involving participants other than yourself, make sure to give yourself time to rehearse all the parts.
As an example of how the parts of a ritual should blend together, let us assume that the main goal of the ritual is to be healing magic. You would therefore consider calling upon healing aspects of the God and Goddess, say Apollo and Kwan Yin. Perhaps you might chose to read some of the mythology concerning these Deities, or you might talk about how visualizing and channeling energy works in performing a healing. You might also wish to include chants that have healing implications. Finally, you will culminate the ritual by raising energy aimed at the specific healing intended. As you can see, the central goal provides the nexus around which the rest of the ritual evolves.
Maybe some day down the road, you will be asked to design and lead a ritual at a major gathering. Dont panic. The steps are just the same. The only difference is in the number of participants and the area involved. Just take those tools you already have at hand and do what you have always done. You might even look at an entire gathering as a magical working, with the smaller opening ritual marking the beginning of the working, the workshops and classes marking the main body, and the closing ritual the culmination of the working. Again, set a goal or theme and make the parts cohesive.
C: CLOSING SACRED SPACE
Once your working is completed, you still have one task to perform and that is taking down the temple or circle in which you have worked. In our Tradition, the circle is taken down in a widdershins direction as this is an act of banishing the energies. Other groups may perform it deosil.
Before taking down the circle, be sure that all of the energies raised during the ritual have been fully grounded so that they do not disturb the participants, the weather, or anything else. One then first says farewell to the God and Goddess and thanks them for their presence and aid during the ritual. This is usually done as a mirror image of the invocation to provide symmetry and closure to the ritual. As noted previously, as it is improper to speak of summoning the God and Goddess, likewise is it improper to speak of dismissing them. Remember the respect and reverence due to Deity.
When the farewells have been said, it is then necessary to give the license to depart to any astral entities which may have come to watch, attracted by the energies of the circle. Then the Guardians are bid farewell, the circle energies are dismissed, and the circle is cut.
IV: FINAL NOTES
Once the circle is down, there is still a time when people are still wrapped up in the magical working and not fully back into the mundane world. Many groups and individuals help complete the grounding by feasting at the completion of the rite. Eating and drinking help to ground the energies and keep the new person from going home with a headache.
There is a second benefit from allowing the opportunity for people to share a meal and talk. People generally want to dis cuss with others what they have just experienced in order to validate their impressions and to help themselves to understand what has happened. If they leave immediately after circle, they are apt to discuss things with roommates or others who should not be privy to circle matters. Giving them a chance to sit with those they have stood in circle with, to relax, and to discuss their experiences enhances their learning and understanding, and prevents circle business from becoming public knowledge.
And finally, remember that people have been sitting in a nice dark room lit only by a candles glow while ritual went on. Dont suddenly turn on the lights as soon as the rite is ended. Otherwise you will have a number of unhappy folks with headaches. Turn the lights up slowly, or at least give fair warning before turning them on.