In the previous post (Spirit of Generosity and Generosity of Spirit), I discussed what both ritual leader and participant have to bring to a public ritual in order for it to be successful. Here, I’d like to get into the nitty-gritty of what it takes to write and lead a successful, unconventional public Pagan ritual. Some of this will apply to a standard Wiccan-style public ritual, and will certainly apply to non-Wiccan public rituals, but I am most interested in the presentation of experimental Pagan rituals.
Give advance notice.
Whenever possible, tell your participants a little bit about what to expect before you start. If there’s an email or message board post about your event, include a note about what tradition or religion you are from, maybe with a link to a website with some basic information. If your ritual isn’t from an established and recognized tradition, you may just want to note that you will be leading an unconventional ritual.
Face it: your potential participants are mostly Wiccans or Wiccan-influenced. Even those who don’t identify as Wiccan will probably have a basic understanding of that ritual structure. By all means, conduct your ritual according to your own tradition – as un-Wiccan-like as it might be – but if you assume knowledge of Wicca when choosing what to explain and what not to explain, you will be able to pick your talking points with more accuracy.
If your ritual includes anything that could be controversial – political magic, nudity, mind altering substances, blood magic, sex magic – you absolutely must let people know before you start, and preferably before they arrive. You would think this would go without saying, but I have been in a circle where there was an undisclosed skyclad requirement, and one where participants were asked to make a voluntary blood sacrifice, and I know how upset some of the participants were in both cases. By the way, both rituals were led by elders of the community.
Even with advanced notification and FAQ links, there may be some things you’ll want to explain to the group. If you can work the explanations into the ritual in a way that feels smooth and unforced, that is best, but sometimes it just can’t be done. Rather than doing the “professor thing” of lecturing while walking back and forth or around and around during the ritual, just get everyone gathered up and give the most basic explanation possible of what’s going to happen. I highly recommend writing this in advance and reading it off the paper if you have to; you want to be as concise as possible, explaining only what you absolutely have to as clearly as you can. Winging it will often lead to extraneous points obfuscating the important parts.
Show, don’t tell.
The participants will be looking to you to model what is expected of them. Rather than explain that in your tradition, you call the element of spirit while all looking up, just do it. Make sure anyone else who is running the ritual with you knows what to do, or tell a few people in advance, but then just let it happen. A few people may bow their heads instead, in keeping with their own tradition, but most will follow your lead.
Do a walk and talk.
Have you ever noticed how TV shows deal with long exposition? When something absolutely has to be explained and cannot be shown, a show will often have the characters on the move, walking and talking down a hall or a street. Or the talking will be split between several characters, instead of a monologue. This helps the audience stay engaged. Similarly, in a ritual, instead of having your priest or priestess drone out all explanations and directions while standing in the centre or at the altar, split it up between several people and move it around. I like having each of the quarter callers take a piece of the explanation in turn, so the participants’ attention ends up flowing around the circle.
Commit to the performance.
You will quickly lose the attention of your participants if you mumble. If you are doing a very unconventional ritual, it is especially important that everyone be able to see and hear what’s going on at every stage. Ideally, your participants have come to your ritual with open minds and generous spirits, but you will quickly use up their good will if they can’t hear you.
I believe in practising ahead of time. Even if you don’t require memorization, everyone who is helping you put on the ritual should be familiar with what’s going to happen and should know their cues. Make sure everyone reads or recites their lines out loud a few times before starting so they have a good flow to the words. For bigger and more elaborate rituals, do the ritual with a smaller group in advance – a dress rehearsal of sorts.
Make it work.
A public ritual is an act of generosity and compromise. Sometimes, something that works in your small group ritual setting will not work in a public or very large ritual. For example, in my circle, we all bring our own goblets for sharing drink, but asking 300 people to remember to bring their own goblets is impractical. Be prepared to modify how you do things to make the best ritual experience for everyone.
There are some common things to look out for when modifying or writing a ritual for a large group. We will talk about these more in a future post, but, as an example, look for long pauses where nothing happens for the majority of participants. Food and drink sharing is a place where this happens a lot; as the one goblet is being passed around, everyone else stands and waits. Consider using several goblets and/or adding a chant to break that up. Look at your ritual with the eye of a director putting on a play. You cannot provide a spiritual experience to a group if your performance basics aren’t met, so I definitely recommend compromising on your religion’s usual traditions in order to better serve the group.
Serve the ritual.
Some things cannot, and should not, be compromised. Even though they might be controversial or less than optimal for performing, if something is fundamental to the ritual, than do it. Just use this rule thoughtfully; plenty of things we do in rituals aren’t fundamental and can be modified, they just usually aren’t. As you write or edit every part of the ritual, ask yourself: “How will this perform? Will it be clearly heard, seen, and understood? Is there a spiritual or religious reason why this has to be done this way?”
In small groups, some things we always do because they are religiously important (for example, we may always call the Goddess before the God for religious reasons), and some things we always do because the routine – the ritual of it – helps get the group into the right mindset because of the repetition (for example, calling each quarter from the edge of the circle, facing outwards, may be just how things are done in your tradition). The latter things can be changed; your large diverse group does not have the repetition to call on, so it is more important to serve the needs of the group than to follow the exact requirements of your usual ritual structure. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the two, though. Try asking yourself: “What belief does this action serve?” If you don’t have an answer, you may be able to compromise on that part of the ritual.
There is an art to putting on public rituals, and it can take practice. I recommend attending as many public and semi-public rituals for as many different Pagan traditions as possible and see what works and what doesn’t for you, and what does and doesn’t for the other participants. Then, practice with smaller groups – your coven, grove, or other usual group with some guests – before going to big groups of strangers. But at some point, if you want to conduct public rituals, you will just have to take the plunge and do it.