What we’re going to be doing in here is kind of an advanced class on ritual design, what we sometimes like to call liturgics. Before this is all over, we’re going to be into such areas as liturgical theology, liturgical history, and liturgical aesthetics. This is the very first time I am presenting any of this material anywhere. So I hope you enjoy it.
I’m starting from the premise that most people here are already fairly well advanced in Paganism and have gotten to the point where they already know about ritual and realize why it’s there, why there is a need for it, and are beginning to ask other questions about ritual. What does it take to make a "good" ritual? What kind of elements do you need to have, what kind of order, what kind of structure does a ritual have to have to work? Are there certain things a ritual needs to work? How can you tell if a ritual has worked? And questions like that start happening only after you’ve been into it a little while.
If you are new to this whole area, and really are not that conversant with why ritual is used anyway, let me just gloss that point by saying there are a couple of really good books that I think give you a good understanding of that. One is "The Spiral Dance" by Starhawk. Another is "Drawing Down the Moon" by Margot Adler. I think either one of those would inform you as to why Witches use ritual in the first place.
The need for ritual is sometimes one of the most difficult things for newcomers in this area to understand because quite often, if they’ve been brought up in a religious tradition that downplays ritual, for example, (and many Protestant religious traditions say that ritual is only so much gobbledy-gook, etc., that there’s nothing to it), it’s a real stumbling block for people to understand why the ritual is there. I’ve noticed that people with Roman Catholic backgrounds or a background in Judaism seem to have a better grasp on what ritual is there for and what it accomplishes.
When we get into this kind of work, let me just say that much of my talk here today is going to be highly speculative, highly theoretical, and please do not take it as a final position paper on anything. It is at best a preliminary report on work in progress. We’re going to do a lot of comparative liturgics as a way of understanding our own ritual development.
When it comes to ritual or liturgy—whichever word you want to use, and I’m going to be using them interchangeably—it has always seemed to me that liturgical theology should be on the cutting edge of theological concerns in Paganism. There are many religious writers who believe that religions basically have three dimensions—any religion. First of all, it’s theology: what are it’s beliefs? Secondly, it’s social structure: how does this religion impact on the world around it? And thirdly, it’s ritual: what do the people do to express their religious values? It has always seemed to me that within Paganism in general, and Witchcraft certainly in particular, it is the liturgical dimension that is the most often in focus.
Theology I think has been rather slow. It is developing, Pagan theological concerns, but it’s developing late. If you read Starhawk and Adler and people like that, you’re beginning to see the beginnings of Pagan theology.
As far as the social dimension, there was a time of course when Paganism had a social dimension, when most people were Pagan. But for the last couple of thousand years we have been a minority religion—a very small minority in some cases. And I think because of that we don’t yet have a very strong sociological impact. But that too may be changing, through festivals, when Pagans start gathering in big enough numbers to start talking about such things as social change.
In the meantime, the strongest dimension I think for most of us is the ritual, is the liturgy. When you tell somebody you’re a Witch, the first thing they ask you is "What do you do?"—not "What do you believe?" or "What is your impact on society?"—but "What do you do?" They want to hear about your rituals. I think that’s exactly why Stewart Farrar titled his first book on Witchcraft "What Witches Do".
So we’ve got to start looking at what we do, in terms of ritual and how ritual has developed. However, when it comes to trying to study liturgy in modern Paganism, you are immediately arrested by the fact that there is no coherent study of it.
Yes, there are books of rituals. Sure, you can buy a spellbook here, a grimoire there. Marion Weinstein has published a Book of Shadows. The last half of Doreen Valiente’s book is a Book of Shadows. Scott Cunningham’s got books of spells, etc. But is there any systematic study of all this stuff put together? No. Not so far.
I think the reason is because development has been so rapid. All of this stuff has come along so fast that people have not had a chance to assess it and evaluate it, and ask significant questions about it. Consequently, both the scholar and the lay person really don’t have very many places to go when it comes to this.
There are a few things though that you can say about religious ritual. First of all, religious ritual is a human experience, a very universal human experience. It is as real as fear, and as important as love. It has a meaning of its own. It is not some sort of aberration or distortion of reality. It is an injection of new meaning into the reality around you. There is hardly a culture in the world that has not developed its religious rituals. And sometimes by looking at religious rituals of other cultures, we can begin understanding our own better. That’s one of things I’m gonna try to do here.
There’s a strange continuity, a sameness when you start looking at different rituals, that pervades all of them. We find that rituals, for example, are transpersonal and transcultural. People seem to experience the same types of things no matter where you look all over the world.
In looking at liturgical theology, I have been doing an awful lot of work in terms of comparative study.
It seems the only group of people who have systematically writing about liturgical theology for any length of time are those who follow the Judeo/Christian path.
Does this have anything to say to us as Pagans? Perhaps it does.
Reason: I think most Pagans are by now well aware of the fact that the Christians have borrowed a heck of a lot from the old Pagan religions. For example, it’s commonly known that the old Pagan holidays served as models for Christian holidays, so that the modern Christian liturgical calendar is to a great extent based on older Pagan themes. And ironically, sometimes you can look at what Christians have written about these to find out still more about the Pagan themes that underlie it.
A second area where this is true is what we call hagiography, the study of saints. So many of the saints in the rites of the Roman Catholic Church are in fact simply Christianized forms of old Pagan gods and goddesses. So we read about the legends of these saints, and we learn a little bit more about the gods and goddesses underlying those legends. I think Pagans generally realize both of these points. What Pagans do not generally realize is that it is the same as far as liturgical ceremonies go, too. When you get right down to it, Christianity—especially the way the Roman Catholic Church developed in the early years of Christianity—borrowed most of its liturgical traditions from the Pagans.
I mean, if you ever stopped and thought about it... For example, within the Roman Catholic Church, there are certain rituals known as "sacraments", right? Do you realize that is a Pagan word? Sacrament comes from the Latin "sacramentum" and was an oath given by a Roman soldier to his gods. It was a ritual setting. We might be well advised once again to reclaim the word sacrament and use it as our own.
According the Catholic Church, a sacrament is an "effective" ritual, which means that it produces an objective effect. This is not just a symbolic commemoration of something. This is something that actually produces a change in reality. Sound familiar?
Other things which we have long considered primarily Christian—Again, I’m going to be drawing this almost exclusively from the background of Roman Catholic liturgics, which is one of the ones that is most developed. The High Anglican would be another good source if you wanted to look into this.
The practice of "genuflection", of bowing on one knee, originally a Pagan practice. The practice of kissing ritual tools. If you were in a Catholic church, did you ever see a priest pick up a Missal at Mass and kiss it, put it on the altar? The same way a priestess will sometimes kiss her athame after she’s used it for an invocation? Yet another custom borrowed by the Christians from the Pagans.
We could look at the whole question of sacramental rites, and ask what have the various Christian writers had to say about them in terms of how they work, in order to find out what Pagans probably also originally believed about rites and rituals.
Although at a later time the Catholic Church would limit the number of official sacraments to be only seven in number, at an earlier time this was not true. Anything could be seen as a sacrament. A blessing was a sacrament. A holiday, a sacred object, all of these things could be considered sacramental in what they did. As a matter of fact, the first use of the word "sacrament" within a Christian context was not until 210 C.E. and it was by the Church writer Tertulian. He was the first one to use that word in a Christian context, and when he did so, ironically, he accused the Greek mystery religions of having stolen that word from the Christians. Obviously, it was precisely the other way around.
Although today the word sacrament refers primarily to only seven ecclesiastic rituals within the Catholic Church, all of which—or at least six of which—have parallels in Paganism, the word "sacrament" is still used in comparative theology in a much broader sense. Basically, it refers to any hidden reality, any sign or symbol of a hidden reality that is mysterious and sacred. I could be a person, a place, or a thing. Any of these things could be considered sacramental.
From the point of view of Pagan theology, by the way, with its strong emphasis on the theological perspective called "immanence", the in-dwelling quality of the divine force in all of nature, for a Pagan practically anything can become a sacrament. Every rock, every tree, everything is alive with magical and sacred powers which a Pagan can get in touch with and from there connect with the entire universe. That’s what a sacrament is.
There have been, historically, at least two ways of viewing rituals and sacraments. The first is the way as practiced by social anthropologists. For example, one of the most famous of these was proposed by Arnold van Gennep, who was the first to come up with the idea of rituals being, as he called them, "rites of passage". He would point to something like a marriage rite, and we can find rites like that in practically every society. And he would say that the reason this ritual was important for this society is that it marked a transition for one member of the society from one social role to another. From the status of being unmarried to the status of being married. In many societies, kids when they hit the age of puberty go through a rite of passage. This is an official recognition by the society as a whole that this person, who was once considered a child, is now considered an adult and has adult responsibilities.
Van Gennep originally thought that practically all religious rituals were rites of passage. Later social anthropologists have pointed out there’s at least one other major class or rituals. And this is not a rite of passage but what we call a "rite of celebration". Very distinct from a rite of passage. In a rite of passage, we talk about a person’s transition from one social role to another. In a rite of celebration—let’s take for an example a wedding anniversary—nothing is changing here. We are simply looking at something which has a permanent value and belief structure, and we are celebrating it. We are focusing on it. We are saying this is important to us. And we’re going to have this ritual to let everybody know how important it is to us. A rite of passage is a rite of transition, but a rite of celebration is a rite of intensification. It intensifies the values and beliefs that are already present.
That was one of two ways of classifying religious rituals. The other is the psychological approach. And probably the best writer in this field is Mircea Eliade. He called sacramental rituals—he had a wonderful phrase for it—"doors to the sacred". Every sacramental ritual, he said, is an invitation to a religious or sacred experience. An invitation, which you may accept or not. You can either let yourself become a part of a ritual or not.
You can make up your mind to distance yourself from it. But its basic design, the basic reason for a sacramental ritual is to give you an invitation to have an experience of the sacred. Which Eliade calls a "hierophany", an experience of the sacred.
Practically all of these experiences involve altered states of perception, in terms of an altered sense of time and an altered sense of space. And we all have these understandings. For example, to most of us a tree is a tree. But what about the tree that you had your treehouse in when you were a little kid? That tree is special. There is no other tree like that tree anywhere else in the world. It is sacred. A funeral home—you see them on every other street corner; they’re just a building. Except the funeral home that you attended your grandfather’s funeral in. You walk into that funeral home and space seems different. It is charged with a meaning that normal space—a normal other funeral home—does not have.
Time is the same way; the sense of time can change. Anniversaries, celebrations of New Year’s, celebrations like that take us back to a time that’s kind of outside of time, if you will. And once again, charges that time with a special meaning. Time may even seem to pass differently. I think for me the best expression of this has always been in fairy tales. When somebody goes into the next world, the world of faery, and experiences the passage of time differently.
So all of these—what Mircea Eliade calls "hierophanies"—all of them have to do with altered states of perception, which include both time and space. This is remarkably similar, by the way, to Dion Fortune’s famous definition of magick, the "ability to alter consciousness at will". We’re obviously talking about the same kind of thing here.
Most hierophanies, the great majority of them, are individual. They are personal. Whether it’s watching a sunset, visiting a sacred place, walking up to Stonehenge and standing in the center of it (and having the same feeling you had as you stood in your last magic Circle), this is sacred space. This is an individual and personal experience. But these religious experiences can also be shared. It happens when we sing the national anthem. It happens when we sing the old school song. It happens when a group of us gets together to go see a dramatic or theatrical presentation. In this case, we open ourselves collectively to an experience of the sacred. Which again is what a sacramental rite is all about.
One other interesting thing about these experiences is that it is almost universally experienced that the high charge of meaning that is found in the rite is experienced as "discovered" or "encountered". It sort of dawns upon you. It’s not something that is artificially enforced on the ritual from the outside. It should grow organically from the ritual.
It’s interesting to note that in Judeo-Christian tradition, this sacredness is quite often found in history. In the historical development of a God that interacts with a "chosen people" throughout a period of history. Whereas in Pagan theology, sacredness is most usually found, not in history but in nature. That every tree, every rock, everything is alive, that you can get in touch with it, that it has a magical and sacred essence and you can interact with that, and get in touch with the Cosmos as a whole through that.
It’s interesting to note, too, that because of this the Judeo-Christian tradition places a very strong emphasis on sacred writings, or scripture. Whereas many of the old Pagan religions—taking the old Druid religion as a fine example—made it forbidden to write down sacred material. Druids teach it, bards sing it, dancers dance it—but you don’t write it. They realized it was too sacred for that. So we have these very definite distinctions in terms of how we’ve approached these sorts of things.
Another way of looking at a ritual is this: Most of us are familiar with the way a myth takes the values and beliefs of a religion and embodies them in story form. A ritual takes the values and beliefs of a religion and embodies them in actions. That’s why quite often a ritual is a myth enacted. Ritual drama, for example.
As I said at the beginning, I think many Pagans are aware of how Christians have borrowed from us in terms of calendar customs, and how they’ve borrowed our gods to use as their saints. But we’ve seldom examined how the Christian religion has borrowed our sacred rites. They have. The Catholic Church now recognizes seven official sacraments. And virtually all of them—or at least six of them—have Pagan origins.
First of all, the rite called "Baptism". That’s the first ecclesiastic ritual in the Roman Catholic Church. Or "Christening", as it’s sometimes called. Practically every "primitive" culture has similar rites of blessing of a child. In ancient, pre-Christian, Pagan Celtic society, there was a similar rite. It had to do with sprinkling a child with water, passing the child through the smoke of a fire, passing it through a hole in a stone or else touching it to the earth (getting in all the elements here), and quite often passing the child around a circle, handing the baby around so that each person in the circle gets to hold it for a short time. If you want descriptions of this taken from people who seem to remember these pre-Christian ceremonies, look at the work of folklorist Alexander Carmichael in the six-volume set, the "Carmina Gaedelica". Some of these rites had been Christianized, of course, even at the time Carmichael was taking them down. But a lot of their Pagan origins are still very clear.
In Pagan Celtic society, by the way, this rite was called a "seining". Which I would like to propose as a much better term for this kind of rite in Paganism than the more recently coined word "Wiccaning". I oppose that terminology for two reasons. One, it’s obviously a word that was coined recently to be a counterpart to the term "Christening". So the word itself is not historically attested. Secondly, think of what it implies! When you "Christen" a child, you are introducing it into the body of Christ, the Church. You are making it a Christian. I don’t think that any Witch thinks that "Wiccaning" a child is making that child a Witch! I’ve never heard any Pagan put it that way. At the very most, you are blessing the child, asking the gods’ protection for this child "so that no harm comes to the child, or to anyone else through the child" (as it is commonly expressed) until such a time as that child is able to choose its own religion. We do not attempt to make that choice for the child. It is simply a rite of blessing and protection. Strangely enough, that is exactly what the word "seining" means.
The Christian religion also has a sacrament called the "Eucharist". By the way, if ever anybody challenges you that the Christian religion doesn’t employ magic, take a look at what the Catholic Church has to say about the sacrament of the Eucharist, or what they call "the blessed sacrament"—THE blessed sacrament. The official term for what happens is "transubstantiation"—that the priest actually has the power to turn common bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus! If that isn’t a magical act, I don’t know what one is! Although the Church would be loath to use the word "magic" in this context. But we certainly understand what it’s all about.
The idea of blessing food and drink, however, once again seems to be one of those universal rites. When people sit down to a shared dinner, a common meal, it is a rite of inclusion. Even in the early Christian Church, you were not allowed to partake in the Eucharistic meal unless you were already a member of that church. So the fact that in the Wiccan tradition you share "cakes and ale" would imply an inclusion in the membership of that group. And of course, there are all the symbolic associations of food as sustenance.
We also have the sacrament of Confirmation in the Catholic Church.
What it meant, was the person was supposedly old enough by now to make a free choice of which religion they wanted to belong to. And the bishop—You’ll notice here, by the way, that the proper minister for this rite is the bishop, not the priest, although it is possible for a bishop to delegate the power to a priest. But the bishop comes and confirms you into this religion. Again, we have so many rites from so many Pagan systems that this seems to based on that are usually referred to as "initiation" ceremonies, or rites of passage, rites of adulthood. When finally the child is brought fully into the religious and social (in most primitive societies, they are the same) structure of the society and is now seen to be a full adult. So any first degree initiation could serve as a model for what the Catholic Church came to call Confirmation.
Ordination. This is a rite that only a bishop can perform, in the Catholic Church.
You’ll notice that when we look at how initiation rites are traditionally done in Wicca, any priest or priestess can make another priest or priestess. And quite often, it looks like in the oldest rites, it also involved a kind of "laying on of hands". There was an imposition of hands that occurred in the Catholic tradition, as well. And until that time, a novice priest was actually told that it would be wrong or DANGEROUS for him to perform some of the priestly functions unless he had been made a priest!
And there were all sorts of stories in the old days that only a priest could touch the consecrated elements. Only a priest’s hands—only consecrated hands—could touch the vessels that held the consecrated elements: the chalice, the monstrance, the ciborium, and so forth. This almost implies to me, though it’s never quite stated in this way, but it almost seems like there is some sort of real, tangible, psychic energy that is present.
I remember being regaled with stories when I was a little kid with friends going to a Catholic school where the nuns would tell these children wonderful stories about how some poor person was kneeling at the altar rail waiting to receive Communion, and the priest comes along to administer Communion, and drops the Host. And the poor person reaches out to try to catch it, and at the first touch of this consecrated object, there is a tremendous flash of lightning, and the person is now a little pile of ashes on the altar carpet.
I don’t think it’s quite like that.
But what it may be saying is that some of these powers, even within magical traditions or Pagan traditions, are tangible and do carry some sort of psychic clout. I don’t think lightning is going to flash out of the sky and reduce you to cinders. But what we’re saying is a metaphor, really, that there may be some kind of psychic backlash if you attempt to wield these magical energies before your training has been finished, before you’re ready to handle them, before you understand what you’re doing. In the same way that a good psychotherapy session, if it uncovers too much garbage from your subconscious, can throw you backward if you’re not ready to deal with the stuff that’s dredged up.
For those of you who believe there is some sort of validity to the concept of "apostolic succession", the imposition of hands, it also may imply that, when one priest or priestess makes another priest or priestess, she is passing on a kind of MAGICAL SHIELDING as well. A protection, so that you will be able to handle these magical powers without any ill effect. For those of you who believe that the initiation tradition is valid. Again, if you want to see Pagan examples of that, look at some of the work done by Alexander Carmichael. There is a rite called a "shielding" where one person kneels, while a second person puts one hand under their knees and the other hand over their head and says "Everything that is between my two hands is protected and seined by the Mother". The Goddess has control of everything in this sphere. It’s a passing on of this shielding, that until you have, it might be dangerous for you to experiment with these powers. If, of course, you believe that’s a valid idea.
The Christian tradition of marriage.
Well, in every society that we know of, we have rituals that talk about people getting together. However, ever since the Judeo-Christian system has come along, we’ve been firmly locked into only one way of viewing marriage—a monogamous way of viewing marriage, for one thing—with very little latitude in terms of variability. If you look at the Pagan idea of Handfasting, if you go back to the Irish pre-Christian brehon laws, you will find that they talk about at least ten different forms of what we today call marriage. These forms include such things as marriage between two people of the same gender, marriage of more than two people (what today we would call a "group marriage"), marriages that only last for a "year and a day" or some other specified time (what today we might call a "trial marriage"), marriages that did not demand sexual exclusivity (what today we would call "open marriage"), "contract marriage", the woman keeping her own name, pre-nuptial and post-nuptial property arrangements. (If you’ve ever read about the great pillow-talk argument between Queen Maeve and King Aillil about who had the most property, you know what I’m talking about!)
You know, it’s fascinating to think that all of the so-called marriage innovations that occurred in the 1960’s, that we thought were so mind-bogglingly new... nope! They were all there in the old Pagan form of this rite. They were standard, until the Christian form of marriage with its single theme, its monogamous monotheistic vision, it’s vision of the one right and only way to do something, came along and knocked the older one aside. But again, the Pagan origins are obvious.
The ecclesiastic sacrament called "Last Rites"... We have all sorts of what we call "death blessings" in the Gaelic Pagan traditions, to send the spirit on its way. For each person who dies, there is one particular person assigned to be the leader of these rites who from that time on is known as the dead person’s "soul friend". This is the one who will carry out the rituals, remember them when Samhain comes around, set out the extra places at the table, etc. We perhaps have less historical data on the Last Rite theme than we have for certain other themes that we’re talking about here. But it is still there. And again a reference to some of the early folklorists.
The one modern Christian sacrament that I cannot really find an exact parallel for in terms of a pre-Christian precursor in Paganism is the sacrament the Roman Catholic Church calls "Penance", or "Confession". The whole sacrament has to do with confessing your sins to a priest, who then absolves you of the sins. It is a whole thing of guilt, and release from guilt. Yes?
This is hardly a new conceptThere were blood guilt rituals, because if you caused an accidental or even on-purpose death, you had to pay a wyrguild to the family. In the New World, the Aztecs had a thing where if you caused the death of someone, you became a surrogate for that person.
The Chucullain legend is a good example. Chucullain, who was originally Setanta, accidentally on purpose kills this very ferocious dog, and walks up to the gate-keeper and says, "I’ve killed your dog and I would like to replace him." And the gate-keeper says "Fine, there go some cats. Get busy." I think that’s where that joke started.
Samhain was also a time—and Walpurgisnacht, especially Walpurgisnacht—was a time when you took objects acquired, or were burdened with from that year and purged it in the fire. And you would have to then go and get any disagreements which lingered unresolved straight with any other people inside the Circle that you shared.
And the ultimate, if this could not be worked out, there were several ways of dealing with it. The heaviest one was generally banishment, where the person would simply be sent away. And the next heaviest one would probably be ostracism, where the person would not be spoken to. He would be ignored, they’d pretend he didn’t exist for a period of time. Highly effective.
Of course, the more simple and basic ones would be working out appropriate compensation that everyone would be satisfied with. So there were these procedures, but it wasn’t the same thing as "guilt". The concept of "sin" and "guilt", and the idea that you could go to a priest instead of the person you’d wronged, and that the priest could absolve your soul of guilt, removed some of the original ethos that would lead to recompense on a worldly plane.
And we still have that today, where you go to a trial, and the judge finds you "guilty" and he fines you or sends you to jail, but the person victimized, is still a victim.
Pagan ritualism is a longtime issue for study, and those who have taken the time to read this, could send their comments or observations to me.