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Action: How do we know what to do in ritual?

This is the third in a series of columns working through some of the big issues in Pagan theology: from the problem of existence through action and onward to eclecticism.   They don’t represent anything nearing a complete discussion of the topics.  Nor do they even touch on some of the “big questions” of theology.  Instead I’m trying to give a mile wide and inch deep view of Pagan theology and its issues so we can go back and look closely at particular topics. 

In this month’s column we ask the rather peculiar question:  how do we know what to do in the circle? 

Short column, obvious answer:  because they told us.  Gardner [1], and everyone since him, told us what to do when we are in circle.  Cast deosil, call the quarters, cakes and ale, throw in a meditation, pick it all up, and you’re done. 

It’s our sacrament, our ritual form. 

However I have a couple of questions:

Basically:  what’s the Pagan [2] theology of ritual?

Ritual, as an element of social behavior, has been studied extensively.  There are a lot of theories why we engaged in ritual.  We do it to tie us together as a community, to connect with the past, to create a separate behavioral and mental place, and because repetitive action can comfort us.  Ritual is a blending of the outside:  “we don’t normally do this” with the inside:  “we all do this together because we have always done this”.  It has both the novel appeal of the exceptional with the comfort and refuge of the familiar. 

It is almost as if society cannot survive without rituals.  Even modern, consumerist, secular, society has its rituals of Halloween, Christmas, and the 4th of July. 

While I won’t go into a survey of the extensive theory of ritual, we do want to understand why our rather detailed set of ritual practices relates to our experience of the Gods and Goddesses, and our experience of Pagan religion. 

We can start with the circle.  One time my circle was holding discussions on various aspects of ritual and belief.   Sort of working our way through the ritual process, trying to learn more about the elements of ritual.  I had both the cheekiness and misfortune to volunteer to start the series with the ritual element of casting the circle.   So I merrily went off looking for the theory, history, and background of circle casting.  I expected to find a lot of discussion.  Not so much.

Why do we cast the circle?  Circle forms have a long association with magic and Pagan religious practices.  The Greeks saw a circle as important for sacrificial rites to the Gods.  Classical and ritual magicians incorporate the magic circle as a protection from, and container for, spirits and other entities.  In modern neo-Paganism the circle casting is seen as less a protection than a two-fold mechanism for containing energy raised, and for creating a sacred space for the performance of ritual.

Dealing with the issues surrounding raising “energy [3]” and the resulting magic needs a completely separate column, or two.  The creation of a sacred space, however, goes to the heart of why we might do ritual and magic.  The argument for the “sacred-space” circle is that traditional religions have their churches, temples, and sanctuaries.  Their sacred spaces are delineated by man-made structures and manufactured spaces.  We, being Pagans, see the world as our temple, and thus are able to delineate any meadow, copse, or spare room as a temple through the casting of a circle.

Creating the sacred in this way implies that we are, both individually and collectively, capable and responsible for creating the sacred in the world.  We do not rely on an institution, tradition, or consensus to tell us what is or is not sacred.  We are individually responsible for creating and maintaining the sacred in the world. 

If the Gods and Goddesses are immanent in the world, as we have discussed in previous columns, then the world is in some ways itself sacred.  Because the Gods and Goddesses are not practically or conceptually “other” but they are with us and the world in the same way we are with each other in the world, then the world itself and our gatherings take on an element of the special character of the Gods and Goddesses.  They are sacred, they are deity, and thus through our encounters with them we engage in a mystery that creates a special attribute in the world. 

We can call this attribute the “sacred” but we could also call it “mystery” “wonder” “creation” “love” or “art”.  All these terms refer to a way of our seeing the world that is different than the everyday, mundane, instrumental, or “engineering” way of seeing the world.  When we cast the circle we are acknowledging that we can see the world in two ways:  pragmatic and sacred.  In the casting of the circle we are deliberately saying that, within this time and in this space, we are seeing the world as sacred.  By casting the circle we invite ourselves to have the vision of mystery.

In my view this is why we perform ritual, it is why we cast a circle, and call on the Gods and Goddesses.  We need ritual in order to call the mysterious into our vision of the world.  It is entirely possible to see the mystery inside the world in other forms.  For example we see the mystery of the sacred through loving relationships, companionship of close friends, encounters with nature or attending to the needy, sick, or dying.     But ritual seeks to invoke similar emotions and visions within us in a repeatable, and deliberate, fashion.

This could be one answer to the question “why do we do ritual?” But it does not tell us anything about “how” we do ritual. 

In the case of the sacred circle, for example, we draw on many different elements when we cast a circle:  the historical use of circles in both Paganism and magical traditions, the vision of the circle as a continuous line without beginning or end, the similarity of the circle to the full moon, and the need for some kind of line to demarcate the “inside” of our sacred space from the “outside”.  We incorporate all of these elements into our inner vision of the ritual.

But, wait: why not just mix it up every now and then?  Why not a magical square?  Or calling the quarters first before casting the circle?  Why does all this matter all the time? 

The answer is that it both does and does not matter.  It does not matter because, as Paganism is inherently syncretic and eclectic, you can incorporate any number of ritual elements and paths into worship.  Paganism is inherently a “mix and match” religion, one that integrates various traditions into its ritual and theology.  Historically this has been the case, and it certainly is the case today.

Ultimately all rituals are self-created.  It is highly improbable that the Gods or Goddesses will physically come down and present us with the correct way to worship them.  Revelation of proper forms of worship, in writing, seems to be a trait of the non-Pagan religions [4].  Instead we are on our own to use our vision of the sacred to decide what we should and should not do in ritual.  

Nothing wrong with that. 

However what you do in ritual does matter in that it must make sense.  Nailing two things together just to nail them together [5] does not always make sense, or work, ritually.  If the purpose of ritual is to allow observation of the sacred in the world, then the ritual elements need to come together in a way that produces that vision in the participants’ mind. 

For most neo-Pagans there is an expectation that ritual will conform to certain guides and processes.  There will be a circle cast and taken up, quarters will be called, cakes and ale served, and perhaps some recognition of the God and Goddess will occur.  These elements are fundamental to expectations, and have built up a pattern or path in the mind of the celebrant.  When they engage in this pattern it tells the celebrants that they can expect to encounter the mystery.

When the ritual deviates significantly from the established pattern the participants need a fairly strong understanding of what the difference is going to accomplish.  One goal can be to change the participants’ perception in a way that snaps them into a new vision of the sacred in their lives.  Initiation is an example of a ritual that can, and perhaps should, deviate significantly from the “normal” in order to change the participant’s perception in recognition of the life change that initiation is supposed to represent. 

The inspired change of ritual format can be a very powerful tool in developing a perception of the sacred in a Pagan group.  As circle celebrants move away from a rote following of the “book” they can draw on inspiration of the sacred to construct rituals that connect with the mysteries in many different ways.  While the complete loss of a ritual compass can derail the sacred [6], the use of different pantheons, varying forms of worship or prayer, or new sounds and objects can show the celebrants on the many different ways that the Gods and Goddess can, and have, been worshiped. 

Ritual variation, particularly inspired or creative variation, can unlock new aspects of the mysteries in the celebrants minds.

So making things up is not all bad, after all creation of the sacred in the world is what we, you and me, do every time we cast a circle.  The power to create the sacred should not be turned into a rote one.  It should apply to how we create the sacred, as well as the fact that we can create the sacred. 

So now we’ve cast the circle, and we are between the worlds. 

By now it should be pretty obvious what I believe we mean when we say: “we are between the worlds”.  The literal meaning is that we have access to both the material and spiritual worlds, that the veil between the world of spirit, and spirits, can be crossed.   But there is also a sacred meaning.  In casting the circle we have changed how we see the world.  It is not that we can now peep into a “Middle Earth” of spirits and sacred light, and the Gods and Goddesses, rather we can now see the sacred in our world. 

The veil is crossed not by our physically thinning a veil, but rather our being able to see what was always there:  the immanent sacredness of the world.  In the crossing of the veil we come face-to-face with the fact that the Gods and Goddesses are with us in all aspects of life, not just when we pray or call them in circle.  The purpose of the ritual casting is to create within us the receptivity toward the sacred and the mysterious.  That makes us capable of communicating with the God and Goddess, with the ancestor spirits, and with our own creative and magical selves. 

The veil is within us, not within the world.  Within the world there is no veil between the “worlds” as the world of spirit and the world of the “real” are merely reflections of each other.  A separate spirit world would mean that we were not Pagans, we would be believers in a transcendent mystery, and we would be reading a book for the answers...

So when we call on the God and Goddess in the circle, what comes? 

The obvious answer is the “God and Goddess”.  As separate entities with consciousness [7] it is quite possible to expect that we gain their attention through ritual.  But, once we have gained their attention, then what is our relationship with them?

As similar spiritual beings immanent in the universe we share many aspects of identity with the Gods and Goddesses.  In fact an ethical and moral argument can probably be made that we have as much individual worth and worthiness as they do: we are not somehow “less” than they are.  As all conscious beings, an ethical case can be made for moral and spiritual equality between beings.  This line of argument strikes me as similar to arguments made for animal rights, just because a being is less capable in some ways does not necessarily mean that their existence is worth less.

This matters.  A lot.  In its most trivial manifestation this matters for the language we use.  If we are not equal to the Gods and Goddesses then language such as “worship” and “prayer” are legitimate expressions of our relationship.  We see them as greater than we are, and we approach them in a subordinate role.  We seek to ask their favor, and appease their displeasure.  We are supplicants.

If, however, we are co-equal as spiritual beings, we call on them as a friend would call on a smarter, more socially adept, or better looking, friend to help them out in a particular situation.  We ask instead of pray, and we honor instead of worship.   The Gods and Goddesses represent elements of the world that are worthy of our respect, and even in some cases our help or aid, and thus they are worth honoring, but not worshiping.

In considering this problem, of honor or worship, we can ask whether the Gods and Goddesses really are equivalent in a spiritual sense to us.  Fundamentally we can all be assumed to be spiritual beings.  We have aspects of spirit within us, and the Gods and Goddesses are pretty much all spirit (immanent spirit however).  In the sense that we both represent immanent spirit within the world we are both the same.

However the Gods and Goddesses are not within the world in the same way that we are in the world.  They do not occupy physical beings [8] and they do not obviously [9] manifest in the world.  Thus they are both separate from us, and different.  Just being different, however, does not necessarily imply they are “better”. 

Instead the “better” question is answered through each one of us individually.  Historically the God and Goddess were worshiped as beings that could both affect our lives, and determine our spiritual fates.  There is a strong desire within some people to have a religion that is devoted to worship and prayer of some being that is “better” than they are.  It is comforting, and it gives us something to look up to. 

Just what “better” means can be complicated.  It could mean “more powerful” or it could mean “more spiritually advanced.”  It’s a sufficiently complex topic that it should wait for a later column. 

For others in the Pagan community, the religions of the book have sufficiently traumatized them that they want nothing to do with a “boss god”: one that lays down laws and demands worship.  Instead they want to embrace the equality of Pagan spirituality, and emphasize the personal, friendly, relationship between us and the Gods and Goddesses.

Both approaches have much to recommend them.  Honoring the Gods and Goddesses develops a way of interacting with deity that is particularly distinct from everything that has come before.  But it risks Pagan religiosity being lost in a fog of New Age self-focus and good feelings [10].  The other approach provides the traditionalism of conventional religion, but risks becoming everything that is bad about traditional religion.  Establishing a hierarchy between us and the Gods and Goddesses is the first step on the slippery slope of hierarchal authority, and “boss religion”. 

Ultimately we cannot have it both ways.  The challenge is to integrate worship with honor, a flat hierarchy with the notion that the Gods and Goddesses really are better than we are, and to respect the human need for prayer with the Pagan need for independence.  And to do this without giving self-appointed busybodies a chance to take over, establish a hierarchy, and run our lives.

Should be easy. 


[1] This column forgoes the usual references as I’m composing it away from home.   In Hawaii, actually.  Where all the Huna reference books in the bookstore are written by people from Scotland or New Mexico.  Leaving me quite mystified.  Hopefully I’ll get around to references at a later date. 

[2] As always I’m talking about modern Pagan theology here.  Ritual and magic in ancient and historical times were as intertwined with community and society in ways that do not exist today.  Thus any discussion of the theory of Pagan ritual is tremendously dependent on context. 

[3] For now it is sufficient to say that I greatly dislike the current concept of energy as an element of ritual and magic.  I think it leads to a simplistic view of magic and the analogy is too easily extended to the point where you begin treating magical results and actions as an extension of Newtonian, or Gods help you quantum, physics.  Which I do not believe they are.  It’s a bad term, a bad analogy, and needs to be replaced. 

[4] Yes Sikhism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism all have their important writings and books.    Defining exactly what is “Pagan” is best left for a later, and longer, discussion.

[5] George Carlin, Class Clown, “Heavy Mysteries,” 1972.

[6] Both figuratively, and literally when you can’t figure out which direction to face...

[7] See the previous column on multiplicity.

[8] Though they can be made concrete through sacred objects and idols, but that is a slightly different subject for another column. 

[9] By “obviously” I mean in a scientifically verifiable and reproducible way.  Subtlety and inspired knowledge may count for us but it doesn’t make them obvious to everybody. 

[10] In a previous column I said that “New Age” and “self-centered” was a common, and very damaging, charge leveled against Paganism.  It is also a trap that we can all too easily fall into if we are not careful.  Particularly when we have a view that all beings have moral equality. 





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