When I was still fairly new to running public rituals – back in the early days of the university Pagan students’ association I founded – a more experienced priestess shared with me the three things she had found were essential to successful group rituals:
1. Give participants something to do.
2. Give participants something to take home.
3. … Unfortunately, I don’t remember what the third item was.
I don’t disagree with her points, though I have learned that point #2 shouldn’t be taken too literally. Giving the participant something to take home could mean a thought, a feeling, or some inspiration. If you get a physical object from every group ritual, you can quickly accumulate a large number of mementos. I have a Rubbermaid bin full of things like in the picture at the top. People who attended my early public rituals ended up with Fimo acorns, dream scrolls, semi-precious stones, ribbons braided for Beltane, and more. I’m sure every bit and piece is still deeply treasured to this day by every one of those people.
I have now run a fair number of group rituals, for both small groups that are well acquainted with each other and for large groups that include strangers. I’m still working on improving my ritual design, but here are the four rules I currently use when writing something new:
Create a clear theme.
A ritual should start with a strong intent and the whole ritual should support and reinforce that intent. I treat it a bit like writing an essay: I start with a thesis statement. The opening – the cleansing, quarter calls, deity invocations, and introductory speech – serves to introduce the topic. The closing – food and drink, deity devocations, and quarter dismissals – wrap the topic back up. In between, the centre – the power raising and any other activities – should all be in service to the theme, almost creating a story or argument in support of it. The centre portion should be complete in itself; like with an essay, the introduction and conclusion restate the thesis but do not add new facts.
Engage the senses.
First, address the basics and make sure everyone in the Circle will be able to hear and see every part of the ritual. Then, make sure what they are hearing and seeing is interesting and relevant. Add the sense of smell through incense (if allergies and the environment will allow), oils, plants, or dried herbs; the sense of taste through the food and drink; and the sense of touch through holding hands, doing a craft, or engaging in movement.
Build to something.
Just as a good story needs a climax, a good ritual needs an energy raising. Your theme tells you where the energy is going, but the ritual structure you choose should support building that energy gradually, through the peaks and valleys of the entire opening process, into a single peak, then help you ground that energy, like the denouement of a novel.
Give participants something to do.
Pagan rituals do seem to work best when everyone participates. Participation can be chanting, dancing, repeating lines, meditating, reading parts, or even just focusing all on the same thing. It seems to work best when people are engaged on both the mental and physical levels.
If I follow these rules, I find most people come away from the ritual with something, though it is rarely something that has to be stored.