In our last lesson, I said that rite and ritual do not a witch make. And I still maintain that, however it is a fact in the life of any practicing witch, so onward with how it all works and why, other than the obvious reasons of honoring and petitioning the Gods.
First off what
rites or rituals ?
According to the dictionary. from the Latin Ritus
[n] stereotyped behavior
[n] any customary observance or practice
[n] the prescribed procedure for conducting religious ceremonies
[adj] of or relating to or employed in social rites or rituals;
[adj] of or relating to or characteristic of religious rituals;
"A ritual is a system of rites. “Rite,” like “right,” is very old; it has been traced to the Sanskrit riti, meaning usage, which in turn was derived from ri, meaning flow, suggesting the regular current of river. In Latin this became ritus meaning in general a custom, more particularly a religious custom, or usage."
Ok, so the words do tend to mean the flow of religious custom, aside from the more mundane usage of any repeated or stereotypical behavior. Now you may notice here, it defines the words and their origin, but no where does it say what these are supposed to do. There is good reason for that lack, given that such behavior is open to interpretation, as it varies given the situation at hand. Which is why one needs a explanation of how-to for any faith you care to name.
Now what does it mean to a Pagan ?
That depends a
great deal on the what path the Pagan in question follows. Each "Sect"
of pagandom has it's own traditions and ritual behaviors and it's beyond
the scope of this missive to even try and list them all, so we will limit
ourselves to things most of them have in common. Here it is, in it's most
DRY form .
I will explain in detail I promise. I have a reason for putting it this way to start, so bear with me.
The circle is any defined space, in which you hold a rite, typically some natural spot or other favored place. The basic elements most often are , calling of the quarters as they are called.. N, E, S, W.Or Earth, Air, Fire, Water. These elementals, represent a great many things, but they are almost always present in some form, in any pagan rite.
For circle casting you invite the representatives of these elements to join you, for the rites power and your own protection. I use the Archangels most often myself, but there are many other ways. The circle itself, by tradition is 9 feet around. Cleansing of both yourself and the space , the body by water and the spirit of negative vibes. A hot bath with herbs like Lavender or sage .Donning robes or special clothes or ( skyclad ) naked .Cleaning the space you intend to work in, both mundane, sweep it or vacuum, then again, in a metaphysical sense, smudged with herbs.. or a besom and sweep without touching the ground, and sweep all negative vibes away chanting while doing so.
The elements to use:
4 candles for the elements. A dish of salt , a container of water, a sprig of a plant, a means to make fire,Go barefoot and ground and center as its called. Then the circle must be built. A common way to do this , is with salt., walking deosil, follow your right hand as a clock moves, starting at whichever element is called for by the rite and slowly surround the space with tiny amounts of salt, as you reach each elements space , call on the warders of that element ,and invite them to join you and protect you. When you reach the point you began ,complete the circle. Invite the Gods to hear and witness, speak the words you came to say, make the prayers you came to make and when your done take it all down the reverse of how you put it up.
Now this gives you the basics of how most pagan rites are performed, however ,as you notice is does not tell why you are doing it or what kind of personal investment one should make, to make the rite something more than a thing done by rote, with little to no meaning or power !
What I just wrote is the definition of rite and ritual according to the meaning of the words, not what those words mean in terms of action. This is the dry format, with all it's descriptive words removed.
However ,without the words that tell you what should be going on inside you, it's next to useless. The worst thing in the world that could happen to any religious rite, is the doing of it by rote. And this is all you would be doing if you follow the rites in this fashion without understanding what your doing it for. If we are wise, this cannot be allowed to happen to any of us or our actions become meaningless mouthings and posturings.
Like with anything , where you do something is important, for ritual this is also true. I mean you could hold rite in the Wal-mart (TM) parking lot, but I have my doubts you could do it very well with all the distraction and cars trying to run you over. :)
You may notice, in the description I said, natural setting, ok , why? Pagandom is, by and large, an Earth based religion ,regardless of which Sect you favor, so it stands to reason holding ones rite to the Gods should be held, if at all possible ,in a natural setting. This is not always practical in our modern day world ,but whenever possible one should do so. Lacking the ability to be outdoors, bring some of the outdoors in, which is why the call for the sprig of a plant, or even a potted one, herbs gathered and blessed from the garden, the call of life to life.
Ours is a path all about life and it's fitting one should have a representative, if one cannot hold the rite in garden or grove. Ok, again why? Like calls to like, the plants themselves are some of the most powerful representatives on Earth of the God force. Next time your near a tree, open yourself to the power there, it's vastly different than our own force, being much slower paced, however if you persist, you will feel the marvelous connection with Mother Earth a tree knows just by being alive. This is the kind of connectiveness we try for in rite and ritual and it's fitting to take lessons from those who are masters at it, the plants themselves.
So pick a place
where you can do the rite, undisturbed if possible, with as much living
force around you as you can get. The tradition of a nine foot circle is
common to many traditions and if you have the space there is no reason
not to follow it. Nine feet gives plenty of room for all the implements
to be set up and room enough for the traditional coven of 13 to stand in.
If you do not have this kind of room, this does not mean you can't hold
the rite. It's traditional ,but it's not set in stone.
Cleansing: The self and the space
Common to most rites is the act of bathing the self before hand, ditto with any implements you plan to use ( more on them further down ) and literally and symbolically the space itself. OK, lets talk about the why, and then go on to the how.
It makes sense to clean the self before presenting yourself to your Gods, as it shows respect, however there is a more practical reason. The act of bathing takes on a ritual quality of it's own, the herbs one uses in the bath water are healing and protecting, for both body and spirit. You are about to take a walk on the sacred side of life and it is reasonable to prepare the body for this undertaking and approach the matter with a spirit of reverence.
The how ? One way, Add together the herbs and salt for the water and steep them well in hot water, straining the mix into the bath, light candles in the bathroom and burn incense that you find pleasing.( What herbs and incense depends on what the rite is for and what kind of protections you feel you need, herbs will be covered in later lessons ) The water should be deep enough to emerse yourself in and your time spent there undisturbed, if at all possible.
You are preparing the body and the mind for sacred acts and your preparations should reflect this. As you cleanse the body you can chant or sing or just think about what your doing means. This is not about just getting dirt off yourself, this is about preparing the self for what you are about to undertake. Bathe with passion and feeling for what you are planning to do with your rite. Even if all you have to hand is a shower, the acts should reflect the same meditative state.
If you are lucky enough to have a river or stream nearby, even better. Water is an element of nature as well as the herbs and salt so this is one way to make the start of connection to nature you will need to perform the rite. This act also helps to set the mind in motion that what you are doing is outside the mundane work-a-day world. The Feng shui of the combination of water, the herbs ,the lower light, the smell of the incense, set the stage for your mind to work high Magick.
Now, as you might
notice, this is a lot more detailed than the admonishment of bathe first
! This is the why, understand in your soul the reasons for what you do
and make them have the meaning they are intended to have. Even for the
times when this is not possible to do this, there are other ways of preparing
the self, which I will cover a little later, the point is, one must be
ready to perform the riteand part of this is preparing the body itself.
Even if you are lucky enough to have magical tools that are just for ritual, again it makes sense to cleanse them in both the sense of mundane : Example: cleaning the old wax from the candle sticks or scrubbing the burn marks off the incense burner, cleansing off dust that gathers etc. But you must also clean them in a metaphysical sense, things can pick up vibrations.
Do you really want the salt dish, that normally does duty in the kitchen as a candy dish, that your using, because you dropped the one you normally use and broke it, to have on it the vibes of the last fight you had with your mate ? No, of course not, so the reason for cleansing things of vibrations not useful to the rite at hand becomes pretty apparent. Even if you have set aside things for the rite and have shielded them, they still need to be washed and blessed.
Once the items have been cleaned in the mundane fashion, clean them again in a metaphysical fashion, by smudging them with sweet herbs or anointing them with oils. Again, this is not something one does by rote, just passing them though some smoke or dabbing oil on them will do noting but make them smoky and oily, unless your mind is focused on what your doing. Your Will that they be cleaned of any influences is the Key here. You are Blessing them and consecrating them to sacred purpose.
This sets your
mind in the right frame of mind to do ritual. Do you see the trend here
? Each part of the rite, starting with your own body, is treated in a like
manner and with each action you take YOU become more and more attuned to
your intentions. Most old time practitioners are almost in a trance state
doing this as their mind is trained to focus on their intentions. This
is what one should strive for in readying your ritual tools. It is common
practice to cleanse ones tools on a regular basis, so this doing it again
is mainly for the focus of the mind and re-imprinting the tools with your
If one is using a natural setting, unless one is lucky enough to have such on their own property with space set aside as ritual space, such a place is likely to be public space by necessity. Holding ritual in a space that has trash left over from picnickers or hikers, is not every respectful. So the first thing, is to clean the space of trash and debris.
If indoors, this means sweep or vacuum, to generally clean and make the space orderly in whatever fashion is reasonable. This is done in a meditative focused state, with the intent of making the space sacred, taking it out of the mundane. We are not just doing a Suzy homemaker gig here. :)
Also, if one is dealing with public space in particular, there are all manner of left over vibrations from the prior occupants of the space. So the space must be cleansed in a metaphysical sense as well. Smudging with sweet herbs or incense, salt or flower petals, strewn with herbs, any number of ways ,but the intent here is to clear the space of mundane vibes and sanctify it for sacred purpose. And again, this is done with deliberate intent and a focused mind. Just tossing some salt about or stewing flower petals will not uplift the mundane to sacred on it's on. Your Will, is what makes this work.
Ok so we have
the space chosen and clean, the implements prepared and cleansed, we are
cleansed and focused, now what ?
If you do not have permanent space set aside, and even if you do, the implements now need to be set up to do the work intended. The most common elements are 4 candles for each of the quarters, the places of East, South, West and North. Which are Air, Fire, Water and Earth respectively. Very often these are colored according to the elements they represent, but any will do if you lack the " right " colors. Our forebears, who did the rites before us, didn't have a rainbow of colors to use and their rites worked just fine. So don't let , what have become the traditional colors for the quarter candles, dominate you. If you have them great, if not plain white or whatever you have, will do fine.
Will again, is the Key here, if the candles you use are consecrated to the elements they honor ,then they will work, no matter what color they are. Dressing ones candles, as it's called, is part of the metaphysical readiness. To dress a candle means to anoint it with oils and or smudge it with herbs. For the same reason as you do for the other tools one uses. Why? To take the candle that may have been bought at the local dollar store and make of it a sacred tool for the rite. I don't know about you, but it's where I get most of mine :)
You see the reasoning here, everything starting with you, down to the candles on the alter spaceis consecrated and made holy, by it's dedication to the work at hand. As well as to impress it with your personal signature, it becomes an extension of yourself and your intent.
Once the candles are ready, place them in positions of the East, South, West and North . Then set up your bowls for holding salt and water, position your incense holder and make it ready, along with any other objects and symbolic items you have, all of which have been cleansed like the candles.
Their positions and placement are a matter for both tradition and insight. You are making not just a pleasing arrangement of objects here. This is a physical rendering of a channel for power. A mother board, if you will pardon the pun :) no less viable than the one in a computer. These are not just objects of metal , glass and crystal, they are conduits for energy. The energy you are about to raise with the rite ,if you do it correctly, so such things are not just symbols, they are power sources.
The parts of bowl etc. can be almost anything really, but most people tend use what calls most to them, but to have something to hold salt, water, incense and burn candles in is all you really need. What will fill this need is a matter of personal choice. If you add other things, that's also personal symbology.
For example: My current salt container, is a gift from my daughter, it's an old stopper topped perfume bottle in a lovely green and gold. My incense bowl, a brass brazier I have used for decades, I found at a second hand shop. The candelabra I use has seen many incarnations come and go. My God and Goddess symbols are two small golden figures given me as a gift years ago, along with mirrors, crystals of all sorts, a Geode rock, several different chalices, feathers and more ... do you see the picture here ? It's me, objects gathered from a myriad of sources, that scream my name and vibrate with MY personal signature.
Now most practicing
Witches have an alter set up on a permanent basis, so it becomes a matter
of seeing them cleansed and made ready, but if you are doing the rite in
open space that is not your own yard , then you need to take all the parts
somewhere to set them up. Their placement on your alter space in this remote
place, is just as viable and important, as in your personal space.
To be perfectly honest, you don't. As my late Coven leader said " a good Witch can do High magick dropped naked in the middle of the desert " Meaning one can perform the rite and high Magick having no tools at all. And he was right, you can, if ones will is focused enough. As I have said throughout, The Will is what matters, everything else is subservient to that, or is a means to focus it. It is why the trappings and the tools and the Feng shui placement of objects, the ritual readiness, are all intended to help one step out of the mundane, and focus on the Sacred.
It is very much
needed in most cases, as we are not hermits, we have lives, we have jobs,
we have families, we fight rush hour traffic ... in short we spend a great
deal of our time, focused on the mundane world. However ,in order to do
a " proper " rite we need to step away from that mundanity and embrace
the sacred. All these steps and tools help us to do that.
Casting the circle:
The circle in which we hold a rite is more than just a defined space. It is Sacred space, a doorway between the worlds of our here and now reality and the space wherein lives the Divine force. Mind you the divine is always "here", it's not a matter of we are here, and it's there. But save for a blessed few , WE are not in touch with that force on a day to day basis strongly enough to hold a rite.
So we hold rites and ritual and try and make contact with the Goddess Forces that surround us. This requires a great deal of energy, power that can be seen by the sensitive and Kirlian cameras. Power enough to A: Do possible harm to mundane things and B: Attract the wrong kind of attention from power hungry Ill forces. So we cast the circle to keep what we raise In, and anything we don't want OUT. And we are setting aside a tiny bit of Earth as sacred ground. So how to do this ?
The ways are many, dependent on what tradition one follows, but the basics are as follows.
The most common way to take a substance, like salt and walking around the circle ( traditionally in the direction called deosil meaning as a clock moves ) space you have set aside, sprinkling the salt to define the space. Other things can be used to do this. The point is, we are not just tossing salt about or marking the ground with a sword point, we are calling up the Divine forces. This is an act of prayer and faith, in that we call on the divine to shield this space we have set out. This is done not just once, but repeatedly, the defining of the space with salt is just the first one. As before, ones Will is what makes this more than just an act of strewing the ground.
We then call upon other forces to aid us in protection and power. This is where the quarters come into play. We summon and petition the forces of the elements, again just who one calls on is according to the tradition one follows, but the intent is the same.
For example: I call on the Archangels myself most often in my personal rites, Raphael, Michael, Gabrielle, Urial to give them their Christian names, they have many others. These winged warriors are the guardians of the elements they represent, and will gladly lend their forces to yours to protect and aid you in the rites. One can call on the elements themselves directly and many other names and aspects, but the intent is the same.
We walk the circle and when facing the quarter we call upon it's guardian to aid us and shield the circle we have raised. This is the time the candles we placed in the quarters are lit, as a on going votive prayer and dedication to these elemental forces. We leave a doorway to the circle at this point, by stopping the salt ring just shy of closed, as we must be able to come and go for the moment, to finish any last preparations and to allow others entry if we are to hold the rites with others.
As you can see,
the pattern of ritual repeats, and the forces called are stronger, as well
as our focus is raised higher, one hopes.
Now we make our final preparations:
Robed or sky clad ?
At this point we don our robes and or, in some traditions, remove our clothes. OK , why ?
The donning of robes or removing ones clothes serves to set in the mind, yet again, that this is not just a mummers play we do here It's one more step away from the mudance into the sacred. We then smudge the body with herbs and sweet smoke or bless it with water, or perhaps all of them, to banish any remaining mundanity we may yet be holding. The same is done for every member that enters this space. Typically done by the hand of the leader or their assistant.
The traditions for allowing entry of others are many and varied. Some greet the incomer with a kiss of peace. Some challenge the incomer at the point of a blade. Each of these ritual moves is an attempt to remind the incomer that they walk onto sacred ground. We are not just stepping from one place to another, we moving into a place that is outside of time and space. There are traditions that would say one is to do this, First , then bring the circle up, but again it's a matter of what tradition you follow as to what order one moves in.
Now I'm sure some are thinking, sheez this seems like a lot of work and we haven't even started the rite yet !
Oh but we have
:) ... from the moment we started picking out the space and getting it
ready, we have been doing the rite. The rite does not start ,when we start
saying ritual words, the rite starts when we start to get ready for it.
By the time we reach this point, if we have done all with reverence, we
close the circle and we are more than ready to hold the prayer and power
part of our rites, which is what comes next.
Now here comes the part that most people learn first, being as it's the most readily available. A written rite we follow to hold the prayer part of the ritual. I have many such examples if you care to read them. HERE
Now is there an order to this too ? Yes, but first let me point out again, a scripted rite serves only one purpose, to allow the people holding the rite to focus on what they are doing, rather than having to ad lib their parts. This allows them to focus on the powers intentions. Which is also why one should memorize the rite if possible, it is kind of hard to focus ones Will if one is having to consult cue cards. :)
Now if you have read any rites of the Pagan type, my own included, you will notice several things. One they all tend to start out with calling the elements. This is pretty commonplace, and as you saw above, you can see the reasons why one does this, for the elemental protections. Also you may have noticed they all seem to rhyme. Now this is also traditional, but there is another very practical purpose to that.
Part of speaking the words a rite is a very passionate and soul involved endeavor, or should be, one is deeply into the words and their meaning. The reason for the rhyme is A: They are easier to remember. B: One can get into the sing song sound of them and C: They can be chanted or sung.
Now why would one want to do this ?
Easy, the power of prayer and rhythmic voice. Chanting is not done just because it sounds pretty. It's done because it speaks to a primal level of a human being, much the same as a pounding drum beat or music. A level that allows one to step outside the day to day self and reach the astral plains where all real magick takes place.
Not for the Pagans
are passionless mumbles of quite rituals, we are a loud voiced people and
very involved with the process. We are not passive in joining with the
Gods, for us it is personal. Now does a well crafted rite assure success
in our endeavors ? NO As I said before, the rite is a matter the Will of
the crafter, if the Will is not in the rite, it's meaningless.
No, this would be pointless. Ritual has a purpose, and each rite is different as to it's intent. However, there are factors in common. Rites in the Pagan world are typically done barefooted. This is not just a idiosyncrasy of the Faith, it has a very practical purpose.
Drawing the power:
One Breathes in and pulls the power from the Earth itself, which is why you are barefooted to get as close a contact with the Earth as possible. Then as you breath out you speak the words , expelling that power you pulled from the Earth, charged with the rites intention. One feels the words as tangible things , they are a focus for the Will. As you speak, you release the Will over and over.
Leaders or High Priest or Priestess
If you are working
with a group ,most often one person the leader, they gather the power you
raise. Then release it out to the void, to effect changes the rite is intended
to invoke. Typically this is an Elder or other well focused person of the
group. There are groups where this is a young person, rather than an Elder
but the intent is the same. The one who is best at channeling the power
so raised, is or should be, the leader of the rite.
Once the rites purpose is complete, it's time to take down the circle you built. You do this in much the same way as you put in up, but in reverse. The Gods are thanked for the presence and power, likewise the guardians of the circle. The candles are put out, the salt of the circle is swept away. The participants ground themselves back to Earth and the mundane world. Letting the power they borrowed go back to the source from which it came.
The last thing to do very often , is eat and drink, as such work is tiring,as well as the taking of food completes the grounding process back to the day to day world. Often there is a celebration of sorts with the participants taking food and fellowship with one another. A time to savor the ties they have forged with this shared event. A time for rejoicing of energies well spent for the greater good, for themselves and all the world.
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