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Public Rituals: What Works, What Doesn't

Here in my part of the South, public rituals are few and far between, so I'm happy to participate in any of them. Regardless of what one might think about the effectiveness of an open public ritual, there is something to be said for the energy of being in a large circle of people who believe in the Goddess and the sacredness of the Earth. It is fortifying, especially when it so often seems like we Pagans are lone islands in a sea of Christianity.
However, public rituals can be challenging. You are working with, potentially, a lot of people of different experience levels and beliefs. As a priest or priestess, your challenge is to get all these people’s energy and focus together in a harmonious way. It takes equal parts stagecraft and intuition to pull it off successfully.
In my belief system, worship (including ritual) is participatory; standing around listening to one person call the quarters, invoke the God and Goddess, lead the Work, and dismiss the circle feels no different from attending a play. If I didn't participate in anything, I leave feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. As Amber K states in her invaluable book, "Covencraft," ritual "should be creative, transformative, awakening, and energizing."
It takes the work of several people to pull off properly. This is not usually a problem in my private circles, where everyone has enough knowledge and experience to jump in and lead any part of a ritual. But public rituals, as I said, include people who may have no idea what any of this is about. So my advice is to include as many experienced priests and priestesses in both the planning and the execution, so “newbies” can see the collective nature of our worship (plus it’s less work for one person).
First, however, the intention for the ritual must be clear. It seems as if this should go without saying, but many of the public rituals I’ve participated in did not have an explicit purpose. It is impossible to bring everyone’s focus together if no-one knows what they are supposed to be focusing on. Are you blessing and dedicating a sacred space? Celebrating a rite of passage? Honoring the cycles of the earth? Be clear in your intention, and state that intention at the beginning of the ritual.
Like any group effort, a ritual needs a leader, or at least a manager. That is the role of the High Priest or Priestess. Like a stage director, s/he holds and focuses the group’s attention and energy. S/he explains (briefly) each part of the ritual for the benefit of any newbies. S/he determines, using intuition, when the group is ready to move from one section to the next, neither rushing nor holding back the group’s energy.
Having someone else call the quarters isn’t a necessity, but I think it adds to the energy of the circle and gives more people the chance to participate. If possible, try to get volunteers ahead of time, and if they are experienced enough to invoke without a script, so much the better. Whoever calls the quarters and/or casts the circle, they must have enough knowledge and experience to create a strong boundary; public spaces are by definition more open and unprotected than private ones.
This brings me to guardians. If your ritual is held in a public space, it can be hard to ensure the physical boundaries of the circle are respected. People wander in late. Curious onlookers want to poke their noses in. The guardian or guardians stand outside the circle to protect its boundary, politely but firmly turning those away who would disrupt it. These can be the same people who called the quarters, or not. Because their attention is focused on the exterior of the circle, they can’t really participate in the ritual beyond this role.
So you’ve cast the circle and it’s time for everyone to drum and chant to raise energy (remember to state for what purpose this energy is being raised!). This part, in my experience, is usually the most awkward and least successful part of public rituals. However, I don’t think it’s hopeless, as long as someone exercises practical leadership.
First, let’s talk about drumming. For a drum circle to coalesce, there must be a steady, simple bass line that everyone can follow or link to. Other, more talented drummers can improvise around it, but most people just want to follow the leader. The Priestess (or whoever will lead the drumming part) needs to have the deepest, loudest drum, and must commit to playing a simple, steady rhythm. Complicated solos will confuse the less rhythmically inclined (and are more appropriate for higher-toned drums anyway). The Priestess/drum leader can then gradually build the rhythm faster and faster, building energy in a natural, cohesive way.
Chanting is another ritual component that challenges both organizers and participants. Most circles don’t have hymnals (or “hernals”). For public rituals, my advice is to pick one or two very simple chants, such as “Earth my body, water my blood/Air my breath and fire my spirit” or “She changes everything She touches and/Everything She touches, changes…” Chants or songs with multiple verses leave too many people feeling lost and unsure, which is the exact thing you do not want in ritual. In addition, it can be helpful if you have a few “plants” in the circle, people who know the chant and are willing to sing it loudly and confidently. This helps shyer participants muster up the courage to join in.
Last, obviously, don’t forget to ground and center! Large group energy is by its nature bigger and harder to handle. Don’t let anyone go home scattered or spacey.
A rehearsal or practice run before the actual ritual can be invaluable for ironing out any kinks. It’s best if you can do it in the actual space where the ritual will be held, so you can see where people will be, how loud to speak, how fast or slow the flow of people might get, etc.
The goals of public ritual are twofold: first, the stated intention of the ritual itself, and second, to bring people together for a meaningful, positive experience. I think with these simple techniques, both goals can be achieved.

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D.R. Bartlette, an ordained priestess, has been practicing what she calls "Zen Wicca" in her native Ozark Mountains for 27 years. She tries to serve her community (both spiritual and geographical) by participating in outreach and education in behalf of Wiccans and Pagans. She is also a freelance writer who teaches at a small community college.

Comments

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Monday, 22 April 2013

    Good article DR. Too often I have attended public rituals that lost focus and became more ordeal than sacred. What works in a circle of 10 often does not work in a circle of 300. One time the ritual leader included an event for each participant to come before the High Priestess one at a time and exchange a brief personal blessing. In a circle of 10 that wouuld take 5 minutes. In the big circle, it took over 2 hours while the others were expected to stand in line hour after hour. I've gotten too old that my knees become painful after a while standing. Many others and I finally left while we were still waiting our turn.

    I've also been in circles so large that one side could not hear the chant from the other side. Soon timing of the chant drifts apart into something like a "round" chant and then gets off completely. It happens that the other side soon is chanting something entirely different. And never have 300 witches all chant, "...Like a drop of rain..." unless you want to get wet.

    Good large ritual leading is a skill and a technique quite different from leading a small circle. Time, acustics, etc. work differently and the design must allow for it. Blessed Be.

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Monday, 22 April 2013

    Here's another hint for large open rituals: Never have 300 pagans do an interwoven serpentine in the dark unless you are prepared for broken legs or other injuries. The first broken leg tends to end the otherwise beautiful ritual. Safety is often overlooked.

  • D. R. Bartlette
    D. R. Bartlette Monday, 22 April 2013

    Greybeard: that's so true! Proper lighting is essential...as is scouting the area first to make sure there aren't any "ankle-turners" underfoot!
    I've never been in a circle that big - 300 people - so I imagine acoustics would be a problem there...Maybe for something that big you might want to use mics. I know we're we're usually anti-electronics in circles, but I don't think the Luddite method was intended for gigantic gatherings like that!
    And big rituals, as you said, have to be realistic about how individualized they can be. One public ritual I was in had people come inside in groups of about 7; the group went to each of the 4 directions to hear a little spiel about the element and do a "thing" like wave their hands over a candle flame, drop a shell in a vessel of water, etc. The leader kept bringing in new groups before the last ones were finished, creating a strange bottleneck and making us element priestesses feel rushed...timing is important!
    Thanks for your invaluable suggestions!

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