So, you feel it's time to explore this mysterious thing we call ritual. Good. This is a powerful way to awaken deeper levels of consciousness within yourself. Ritual is a way to use lighting, action, sound, scent, sight, mental discipline, dance, song, or any number of other sensory cues to deepen your awareness, to contact deeper levels of knowing, feeling, and energetic influence, and possibly even to bring about change in yourself and your world by symbolising a desired change in your actions.
Let me start by dispelling a couple of myths about the word ritual. Some people use this word to describe actions that are done automatically, without conscious thought or awareness. Certainly, there are rituals performed in this world where the actions are held to be more important than the intent behind them or the focus of the person performing them. Such rituals are certainly robbed of a lot of their power, and may seem empty or without purpose. But this is not what a witch means by ritual. When a witch works ritual, the actions are outward manifestations of work being done in the heart, mind, and energy-body of the practitioner....successful ritual requires intense mental focus and produces very real effects on unseen levels.
Secondly, there is a myth that rituals must be copied exactly as people of ages past (or even respected magicians of our own era) did them in order to be powerful. It is certainly true that rituals which have been done many times by skilled practitioners may have residual power from those other performances, and you may be able to harness some of that power when you perform them. But the most powerful high ritual of ancient Atlantis will be nothing but empty action if it isn't performed with focus and intent. A ritual designed by you with guidance and clear intent from your heart and spirit, using symbols that are meaningful for you, will likely be very powerful for you. Indeed, some of the most powerful rituals I've seen are done on the spur of the moment...ad-libbed from guidance the practitioner receives while in sacred space.
So, in these pages, I'll be sharing some pointers about how to design your own rituals. It is a huge topic and I can't possibly tell you everything to do for every purpose you might have. I'll be giving you some guidelines about the kinds of questions you might want to ask yourself and some of the things you might consider. My approach is generally that you will get further learning to listen to your own inner wisdom than by copying from books, but I also recognise that most of us gain confidence through trying the things others have found to work., and such confidence is a necessary part of learning to trust our intuition.
Most rituals involve the following components, which I'll cover one by one:
2. Gathering materials
3. Cleansing and purifying, of self and space
4. Making sacred space
5. Inviting and invoking the elements, quarters, or guardians
6. Inviting and invoking Deity
7. Stating purpose of ritual
8. Doing the work one has come to do
9. Thanking Deity and other powers invoked
10. Opening circle
13. Cleaning up
The first part of planning any ritual is to clarify your thinking about what you want the ritual to accomplish.
Perhaps your purpose is simply to connect with the Goddess, thank Her for Her gifts, and ask Her to be with you. You may also at such times want to tune into the energies around you and ask for guidance about how to work with them for your continued growth or service. Such rituals are called "Devotionals," and can be as simple or as complex as you wish. Many witches make a point of performing some sort of devotional every morning and evening.
While devotionals may also be done on special days like anniversaries, birthdays, Sabbats (see Wheel of the Year) or Esbats (Full or New Moons), the rituals most often done on such occasions are "Celebrations." These are rituals where one's gratitude is expressed with joy, music, and/or feasting; often they are times to dedicate the work one is undertaking during the next year, season, or phase of the moon. Many solitaries mark these milestones in a lone ritual and then celebrate with the larger community of pagans in their area, or sometimes, for a more personal anniversary, with their families and friends.
Of course, in any of these rituals that mark times magical work can also be done; such rituals are known as "Workings." Some examples of workings would be consecrating tools or your altar, consulting an oracle such as the Tarot or I Ching, practicing magical skills like scrying, raising energy for healing, protection, abundance, or any other specific purpose, making magical objects like amulets, or working with visualisation to explore and work in your subconscious.
Often, a given ritual may contain elements of all three of the classes mentioned above. At a Sabbat, I might redecorate my altar for the coming season and consecrate it, give thanks for the season just past and the gifts I received during it, meditate on my goals for the coming season, consult an oracle about it, dedicate that work once it's defined, and use a celebratory song to raise energy to further my purpose.
It's also perfectly alright to do a ritual solely for the sake of practicing the different steps and elements of ritual. (This would fit into the "practicing skills" category given under "workings" above.) If you invoke the Mother aspect of the Goddess, she's usually delighted to help you learn.
Once you know why you want to have a ritual, the next step is to pick a time. There are many factors to be considered here. If your reason for holding a ritual is to mark and work with the energies of a moon phase or Sabbat, obviously you'd prefer to do your ritual some time on the day that event occurs. If you are a real purist, you might want to hold your ritual at the precise moment of the Full Moon or the moment the Sun enters Capricorn if you're celebrating Yule. This information can be found in any of the astrological almanacs available. (If you go to buy one of these, look carefully for the time zone it is written for...if you can find one written for your time zone, it's often worth sacrificing a couple of dollars or some pretty pictures to have that convenience.)
Often other considerations come into play like when you can make an hour or two of clear time, or when you will have undisturbed and private access to the space needed. If you want to work with others, you will need to find a time that works for all of you. Generally, the energies of the Full Moon are in play for a day or two before and after the time of fullness. You might also want to consider the weather report...a ritual done when the Moon is almost full but visible will often be more satisfying than one done when She is full but covered by cloud.
When you start doing magical workings for specific purposes, there are many things to consider when choosing a time. The energies of different moon phases (ie, full, waning, new, and waxing) are conducive to different magical purposes. The moon travels through all the signs of the zodiac in the course of a month, and the sign it is in on any given day will influence the types of energies available for your magic. Each of the days of the week is named for a different God/dess or planet, and these planetary energies can be harnessed for your purpose. You can even consult tables which give the hours of influence of each of the planets, and many magicians believe their work is more powerful if performed in the hour and day of favourable planets. Of course, the prevailing energies of the different seasons can play a large role in your working, too, as can the transits of the planets through your birthchart.
Since I'm writing this as a primer in ritual rather than a treatise in magic, I'm not going to go into the planetary days and hours or the moon transits in any detail. This information is available in many books.
Generally, New Moons are good for initiating projects and for deep self-exploration; waxing moons are good for rituals whose aim is to increase something in one's life, for example abundance or strength; Full Moons are good for healing, love, bringing projects to a conclusion, and starting banishings; waning moons are good for cleansing and getting things out of one's life, such as disease processes, excess weight, or bad habits. The types of energies available during the Sabbats are outlined in the page about them.
In your first years as a practicing witch, you will probably rely a lot on books to tell you what to do when. I can't state strongly enough that it will pay dividends in gold to really observe Nature and take time to tune in to how the different moon phases and transits and the seasons and holy days make you feel. An abundance of books and websites will tell you what most people feel..or have been told they should feel. However, if you live near the equator where days and nights change very little in length, or if you live in a place where one season or another is almost absent, you will respond differently than most authors who live in the temperate zones. Your growth as a witch will be greatly sped by developing sensitivity to what energies are flowing around you. Once you can really feel them, you can start to tap into those energies and let them carry you where you want to go.
What do I mean by this? When I'm planning for a Sabbat ritual I like to go out for a few long slow walks. I look around me and try to get a deep feel for what Nature is doing as the seasons change. I try to gear my ritual and my work for the coming season to be in harmony with this flow. For example, I might try to work on my dream interpreting skills between Samhain and Imbolc when the plant world is sleeping...or carefully cultivate new projects or hobbies between Imbolc and Spring Equinox while I'm sprouting my seeds.
I also look at what nature is providing in the way of props. Feathers and egg shells are in abundance in the Spring...seeds, nuts and berries in late summer...shed leaves in the fall. I like to do a cleansing ritual in the fall where I pour the habits and emotional patterns I'd like to be free of into leaves and then burn them. The nuts and berries are fun to string like beads with my intentions and wishes; I can wear this necklace to remind myself of my intentions. The egg shells are lovely symbols of new beginnings. Find what's out there and use it, both for material and for inspiration.
So, offering an example for us to work through together, let's say you've decided you want to do a Full Moon ritual and you want to do it the night after the Full Moon because your room mate will be away. You want to tune in to the energies of the Full Moon and practice scrying and ask for healing for a friend who is sick. The first thing to do, if you haven't done it already, is research these different things you'd like to accomplish.
So once you know what you want to do in your ritual, it's time to start planning the moves and words you wish to use. To do this, we'll have to take the different elements of ritual one by one.
If you have done your planning thoroughly, you'll know all that you need and perhaps even have a list to check off. I can't stress enough how much impetus and energy you lose if you have to scramble around for something you need, or worse, have to leave your circle to run and fetch it. Have it all there and have it all handy. If you have done the necessary physical cleaning of your space ahead of time, you can simply lay everything out on the altar or within easy reach.
While it is worthwhile to use the best and highest quality materials you can, I also find myself needing to repeatedly assure beginners that it can take a lifetime to find "perfect" tools and materials. Find things that appeal to you and have meaning for you...and get your practice underway. The hand-stitched robes and engraved pentacles are something to work on for as long as the work takes. They'll be more powerful if you make them while in ritual consciousness, and it's through making practice rituals that you learn to maintain that consciousness while you work. If you are interested in folk magic as opposed to ceremonial magic, just about anything can do as a tool...this was the magic practiced by peasants in their huts, available to anyone, however little money they had. And during the burning times, tools needed to look like plain household items. While we all like to think of giving Goddess our best, it has always been my impression She'd rather be working with us now than having us hold back while we gather tools.
That said, I always feel that herbs you have collected yourself, asking the plants for their parts and thanking them, are more powerful than herbs bought from a store. Any magical material that you make yourself, whether it be candles, paper, cord, incense, or oils, will be more powerful than something you buy.
The ritual area should be physically cleaned. Everyone's housekeeping style is different, and I'm not going to offer a lot of shoulds on this. Some people feel it's an insult to the Gods not to polish every surface and have the altar cloths washed and pressed. Some people feel if there's nothing to trip over, that's adequate. I prefer a happy medium. I time my own housekeeping around the Esbats and know the place is vacuumed, dusted, and polished at these times if no others; but I would rather spend my time at other worthwhile work between moons. Find what works for you. Certainly there is some virtue in the belief that your personal space is a reflection of what's inside; I think comfort has at least as much virtue as impeccability in both places. But I do believe that the state of your altar is a reflection of your spiritual health; I clear away ashes and wax drippings and clutter quite regularly here if nowhere else.
Once the physical cleansing is complete, you will want to cleanse any energies in the area that aren't what you want to enclose in sacred space. This would include emotional residua of recent events: the leftover emotions from the fight with your partner; the stress of your most recent deadline; your anger at a parent; a recent bout of depression. It also includes energies from chronic emotional states that you don't want in your circle: despair, resentment, egotism, fear.
Before starting the energetic cleansing, it is wise to ground, center, and run energy through your aura. See these areas in Basics of Personal Energy Management. This will help bring you into ritual consciousness. Then you can cleanse yourself. Before major workings, I will take a bath or shower. Before minor workings, I cleanse physically by brushing my teeth and spraying my body from a spritz bottle containing water mixed with oils of cleansing herbs: I use Lavender and Hyssop. Then I put on my gown and proceed. Before morning and evening devotionals, I wash my face and brush my teeth.
Some ways of doing the energetic cleansing are smudging or blowing unwanted energies out, sweeping, using a candle to put light in all parts of the area, ringing a bell or banging a drum, running white light through the area, spreading herbs about, and sprinkling water, salt or saltwater in the area. All of these activities are done while focusing on seeing the energies blown out, carried or swept away, absorbed or otherwise compelled out of your area by the action you are performing. You can cleanse your aura using the same method you'll use for your space or something different. I usually cleanse my own energies before working on the space.
For morning and evening devotions, I'll cleanse the space by lighting a candle and seeing the light chase away any energies I no longer want with me; then I'll cleanse my aura by running white light through it. For major workings, I'll cleanse the space and my aura with air (incense or a chime), fire (a candle), water (sprinkling consecrated water), and earth (salt). For quicker rituals I'll combine salt and water in the chalice and sprinkle it through the space, and combine fire and air in a lit smudge or incense stick.
The purpose of casting a circle is to define with a ring of energy the space you will be working in. Some people see the circle as keeping unwanted energies out. Some people see it as creating a container like a chalice or a cauldron to contain the energy you raise in your ritual until it is ready to be released. Some see it as defining a space that is out of normal space and time where you can meet and interact with the Divine and work to improve your reality in some way. Frankly, I see it as all three of these.
You will find many beautiful and poetic circle castings in your reading. If one or more appeal to you, use them, or if/when you are so inspired, write your own. I offer mine on the chants page. This is the casting that I use when I'm doing my Full Moon and Sabbat rituals. Having verbal formulas for any of the elements of ritual has advantages: if you don't have to find words, it allows you to focus more thoroughly on the real work involved which is the visualisation and direction of energy; also, as a formula is used repeatedly, the words actually assist you into the mental state needed to do the work; with repetition, the words also accumulate residual energy. This is how "ancient spells" come by their virtue...they carry the energy of many repetitions; many of them are very weak indeed unless the necessary mental work is also done, but few people who haven't taken the time to study magic realise this.
Although this chant opens by saying I use the energy of my body, mind, will, and heart, I'm actually not using my own energy...this was a bit of poetic license to invoke the powers of the four elements into the four corners to anchor the circle. When I use this chant, I ground, centre and pull the energy of the Earth up into myself and the energy of the heavens down to mix with it. I let this energy flow down my arms into my hands and through the athame, wand, or pointed fingers I am using to cast your circle. Then I see this energy flowing out to the edge of my circle and flowing up and down to form a wall.
Certainly, any process that creates an energetic boundary around your space creates a circle. It's up to you to decide how strong a circle you need. If you're doing a morning devotional, you won't be raising large amounts of energy, so you might want to define a space just to put yourself into ritual consciousness. Often, I do no more than light a candle and call my sacred space the area that it lights up. Sometimes if I want to do some self healing, I'll draw a circle around myself by letting light stream out my fingertips just as far out as my arms reach. If I'm working with a group, I'll often try to get a consensus of what type of circle these people feel most comfortable with; if they want someone to walk around the circle four times casting with each element, that's fine, too.
I confess that for New Moon rituals I like to cast widdershins. (For you newcomers, widdershins means counter-clockwise, in the direction opposite to the path of the sun. Clockwise or sunwise is called deosil.) Many older Books of Shadows suggest that the energies created by circling widdershins are evil, but I have certainly not found them so. They are intense, yes, but not evil.
The way I see it, if you draw a spiral deosil moving from center to outside, that same spiral goes widdershins if followed from perimeter to center. I have found widdershins circles to be very powerful for looking within and getting to know myself...and for banishing any energies I find there that I recognise no longer serve me. If one finds a lot of negativity inside, I suppose the widdershins work would look negative; but if one recognises that such negativity is one's own and knows how to transform or neutralise it, this is a powerful tool for self-growth. I wouldn't suggest trying it unless you are experienced with healing and processing your negative patterns, but neither would I say it is never to be used. If you would like to know how I alter the circle casting referred to above to cast widdershins...write me and convince me of your experience with self-work and I'll mail it to you...
One of the beauties of the Craft is that it recognises the virtue and necessity of the dark as well as the light. We need the peaceful dormancy of winter to produce the exuberant growth of spring. We need to trim away old growth that no longer serves us to grow further. Death is as sacred a part of the cycle as rebirth. Poetry aside, messiness, decay, and slime are necessary parts of life, too. We need to break down nutrients to absorb and use them...and bacteria and molds perform this vital function on many types of waste. These are valid parts of the cycle of transformation and rebirth that witches celebrate.
Yeah, I know, the topic is elements of ritual...but it's a digression I consider necessary, so I'm leaving it in.
Depending on who you talk to, some people call the quarters before they cast circle and some people do it as part of the casting process. I have always felt it makes sense to call them into a space that I've already defined. Often the people who are calling for guardians will call them before casting to have them on guard at the poles of the circle they are about to cast. If I were doing something where I wanted some heavy protection, I might use this technique.
So, who are we calling here? Many people call on "Guardians" at the poles of the circle. I suggest if you do this, you might want to take some time, perhaps in a practice ritual, to actually get to know who the guardians are who come when you call. If you use the general term "Guardians," the beings who come for you may be spirit guides, totems, angels or even Deities. Once you know who they are, you might want to call them by name.
Generally, I ask the Archangels to both stand guard and direct the elementals in my rituals. This is a common practice in some Christian or Qabalistic mystery schools, but the angels are there for all spiritual seekers, and are happy to help in Wiccan as well as Judeo-Christian rituals. You can also choose whom you wish to call upon based on the type of ritual you are doing...some types of ritual may require more guarding than others. If you have a shamanic influence in your work, you may have animal spirits who work with you, and it may make sense to have one in each corner as a guardian. Some people will chose Gods and Goddesses to hold the quarters; I will do this if I want a particular type of energy in my circle, but a similar aim can be accomplished by invoking those Deities later.
Most people call "the elements" into their circles, by which they mean either the energies of the elements or the beings who carry those energies, known as elementals. I've spoken at some length about this process in the pages on the Elements, and sample invocations are offered there. Some people will have a magical article to honour the element at each pole of their circle; this may be an incense burner, a candle, a chalice of water, and a pentacle. Or one could light a candle of a suitable colour at each pole or place a stone or crystal with a strong elemental association there, or even construct an altar to each element. If you have the luxury of being able to leave such elemental altars up in your room between rituals, you can formally consecrate them and invite the elementals to use them as homes.
As with casting, there are advantages to writing a few lines of invocation you can use in each direction and use these each time you cast a circle. These invocations acquire a charge over time, and they also free your mind for concentrating on calling and feeling the elemental energies come in. However, it is also worthwhile to say a sentence or two in each quarter-call to suggest how the elementals or elemental energies can help further your aims in the specific ritual you are calling them for.
Have you noticed yet that I tend to give general suggestions and lots of alternatives rather than telling you what to do? If you're someone who is looking for one right answer to all these questions, I'll bet you're pretty frustrated by now. I happen to prefer to let myself be open to inspiration even when I've done something hundreds of times. I also don't believe there is any one right way. But you can find dozens of one-right-ways as you surf the net...I invite you to look over as many as you can find and make up your own mind.
The one thing I will say is necessary, however simple or ornate your ritual may be, is to speak to these beings with respect. Use a tone of command if you must, although I prefer to invite. But list the gifts the elements and guardians offer with gratitude, and always thank them at the end of your ritual. You are building a long-term relationship with these beings...treat them as you would a respected partner.
This is a process that will grow and evolve as your relationship with Deity grows. Your ideas about what Deity is will probably go through many changes. You may see many Gods and Goddesses and enjoy researching them and calling upon the ones who seem just right for your ritual purpose. You may see Goddess and God as two arms of One Creator and prefer to keep your calls and prayers very simple in order to give this Source as much room as possible to choose which of It's strengths to use on your behalf. Many people like to call on the Goddess in Her three general aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Many people develop a close relationship with one or two specific Deities and call upon them regularly.
In ritual, I generally call on the Goddess as "Grandmother, Mother, Daughter, Sister, and Friend," and the God as "Grandfather, Father, Son, Brother, Friend and Lover." These invocations come with a melody, and as I sing "Be with me now," the sound echos through all levels of my being in a way that lets me know They are with me. But I will call on Quan Yin specifically when I do healing work and on Gaia when I do work for healing the planet.
You can ask the Deities to be with you in your circle and to help you. You can also ask them to become part of you. Of course, most witches believe we have a spark of God/dess in us all, but when you "call down" or "aspect" a god or goddess, you are actually inviting that Deity to come into your being and direct your words and actions or indeed use your body and voice for His or Her purposes.
When you try this for the first time, I sincerely suggest that you call down a Deity you have already formed some kind of relationship with by calling Him/Her into your circles; one you feel comfortable with; one you have researched well enough to know His or Her different moods. Hecate is powerful and compassionate, but you may or may not be ready to act for Her as Death Crone.
This is often a short statement of the occasion you are marking and what you hope to accomplish in your ritual. You can let this flow into a petition to your Deity to help you in this work. Something many of us like to include in this statement is the intonation of our magical name; defining ourselves as Priest/ess for the length of the ritual can be a powerful final step to put ourselves fully into ritual consciousness.
As stated above, this could be anything from crafting and/or consecrating a magical tool to absorbing Divine energies; from practicing the steps of ritual to practicing certain magical skills; from raising energy for a specific purpose to send out to the ethers to charging an amulet; from asking for guidance and meditating to receive it to consulting an oracle about a plan you have devised for yourself.
Some general guidelines. It is best not to try to do too many different things in one ritual. You could make, charge, and consecrate an object and ask for strength and healing for yourself, but you wouldn't want to work on three different objects and then use them to do three different types of magic. You could sit with the energies of the season, meditate, and write and chant a song; or you could put the finishing touches on a set of Runes, consecrate them and consult them, or you could do a healing ritual for several different recipients. The more different types of things you try to do in a ritual, the muddier the pool of energy in which you'll find yourself...
If part of the agenda is meditation or journeying, I like to do that right after the invocation, when I have a strong connection to the Goddess. I follow it with some craftwork to bring me back into my body. Anything that is purely celebratory, I like to do just before I close.
Once one has completed the work one enters circle to do, then the ritual is not complete until all the steps one took to establish sacred space and call power into it are undone in reverse order.
First, thank the Goddess and/or God in whatever form(s) you invoked them: thank Them for coming when invited, for the energies they lent you, for any help and guidance they gave, and for their continued interest and presence in your life. This would be the time to make your thank you offering. Most of the Gods love celebration...joy is usually a suitable way to thank them for their assistance.
Thank the elemental energies or elementals and whatever guardians you called, reversing the order you called them in. Thank each quarter in turn for the support it gave you and for the energies it lent to your ritual. Then give the guardians and/or elementals the choice to go or stay. Many witches consider it somewhat presumptuous to think of "dismissing" beings so powerful, and so use the term "releasing." A useful formula for this is:
Hail and farewell. Blessed Be.
This is an energy process as much as casting your circle is. You have put a circle of energy around you, and it is up to you to take that down. You may visualise the light of the circle sinking into the earth. You may use your athame, wand, or hand to sweep along the circle, pulling the energy into you and grounding it. In general, use whatever process you used to cast your circle, done in reverse...visualising the light you put out somehow gathered back to you or dispersed...preferably grounded.
A commonly used chant for this process is:
May the peace of the Goddess be ever in our hearts.
Merry meet and merry part. And Merry Meet again!
This is a vital process. You will have been running a lot of energy while you were working, and you probably feel pretty great right now. Great enough that you may think the last thing you want to do is clear this energy out of your system. I assure you that you do. If you leave circle flying high, you will be continuing to run energy...even after you have lost your connections to the sources you have been using. This is a great way to feel badly depleted the next day...many people complain of depression or fatigue on the day after ritual and this is most likely the reason why.
This is another vital process. You may think that all these vital and exciting feelings and images will be with you forever. And the high points may be. But with time all memories fade around the edges. It's always good to record what you did, what you felt as you did it, and how the results worked out. Then you can look back and duplicate the things that worked well. It also becomes a magical diary of sorts...documenting your growth.
If you have eaten or drunk anything as part of your ritual, make a point of taking a little bit outside and offering it to the Goddess: crumble the cakes or cookies or toss a bit of apple to the birds if that's what you've used; empty the chalice onto the ground. I generally empty any ashes of incense or smudge outside as well. Many people suggest that candles charged for a specific piece of work should be left to burn down completely and the stubs buried. Since I make candles and prefer recycling to disposing of things in general, I will cleanse the stubs of energy and save them to melt down and reuse.
I like to cleanse my tools and crystals before I put them away...in choosing a method I let myself be guided by how much energy seems to be stuck to them. Sometimes just three breaths is enough. I always find the actions of putting things away, if done with care, help me complete my grounding. But once you've finished, it's always worth one more conscious effort to ground any excess energy.
Blessings to you in your work.