Pagan Ritual Etiquette: A Primer

Etiquette for Pagan and Wiccan Rituals: A Primer

or, Attending Your First Pagan Ritual

Invited to a ritual by a Pagan/Wiccan friend? Simply curious and thinking about checking out a public ritual? Here are some tips on what to expect.

Public rituals:
A ritual is considered public if it is advertised in a flyer or on a website. Rituals advertised on Internet email lists are usually public, and usually state clearly if they are not (e.g. "This ritual is only for those who have attended six or more sessions of our classes in Witchcraft"). Email/ call the organizers if you're not sure if it's okay for you to attend.

Organizers of public rituals usually plan for the "lowest common denominator," meaning someone who knows almost nothing about Paganism. This means they usually plan to explain what they are doing, and to make it fairly clear when you ought to participate and what you ought to do. Public rituals tend to be fairly scripted, and designated people usually have specific parts to play. This means that you, as an attendee, are unlikely to be called on to do anything other than what the rest of the group is doing. Still, you may feel more comfortable if you're familiar with the basic ritual outline below, and have an idea of what to expect.

Private Rituals:
If you are invited to a private ritual (open only to friends, acquaintances, covenmates, etc.), you should ask the person who invited you to give you an idea of what will happen in the ritual, what you should bring, what you should wear, etc. Find out if there will be other new people there, or if you are the only guest. If you have physical disabilities or limited mobility, find out if there will be dancing/ movement, and if so, what accomodations can be made for you.

Ahead of Time

Clothing: Usually you have a pretty wide latitude as far as what to wear to ritual, assuming the flyer/ website/ your inviter doesn't specify (I went to a Winter Solstice ritual once where everyone was asked to wear white). At any given ritual, you will usually find people wearing all sorts of clothing, including jeans, robes, quasi-medieval garb, and regular "nice" clothing (sometimes more than one of these at once!). As a guest, it may be more respectful not to wear jeans, but don't feel you have to be super-formal; wear something loose and comfortable. You will probably stand out less in darker colors. Find out if the ritual is outdoor or indoor - you want to dress appropriately for the weather if it is outdoors.

What to Bring: Sometimes you will be asked for a small donation (this is usually stated on a flyer or announcement). Many Pagan rituals include a potluck portion, and you may be asked to bring something to eat or drink. There's always someone who brings a bag of potato chips, but people tend to prefer natural/ whole foods or homemade foods.

Timing:As a guest, it is polite to arrive on time. But be prepared for the ritual to start late, usually at least 15 minutes late and up to an hour late. This drives me crazy, but it's how things are. Most public rituals don't last longer than 1 1/2 - 2 hours, but I wouldn't schedule anything right afterward if you can help it. It may start late (and thus run later than expected), or it may take longer due to more people showing up than the organizers planned for, or the incense may set off a fire alarm (this happened in the middle of one public ritual I attended, and we all had to wait outside until the firefighters had cleared the building!). Or you may want to stay afterward to eat and/or talk with folks - people tend to linger after rituals. Of course, staying after to help the organizers clean up is a great way to endear yourself to them.

The Occasion: You may want to do a little research beforehand on what the ritual is celebrating. Most public rituals are held at one of the eight seasonal holidays, or on a new or full moon. Knowing the purpose of the ritual can give you an idea in advance of what the themes will be; for example, a Fall Equinox ritual may include giving thanks for the harvest. For more on the holidays, see here.

What Makes Pagan Ritual Different

If you are used to going to Christian or Jewish religious services, you may find Pagan ritual different. For one thing, you will probably not be given a book or sheet of paper to follow along. This means you will need to pay a little more attention to directions and cues from the ritual leaders. For another, rituals tend to be more participatory than many Jewish and Christian services (especially "high church" Catholic or Anglican services). This is especially true for private rituals, but even in public rituals you may be expected to learn a new song and join in the chant, dance around a fire, come to the center of the circle to write down your wishes for the coming year, and so on. People may speak about the meaning of the holiday, or there may be a meditation, but there will not be a sermon per se.

If you are a non-Pagan attendee at a Pagan ritual, be assured that no one will ask you to profess your beliefs publicly. Maybe you don't believe in the gods or goddesses invoked; maybe you think all this magic stuff is a bunch of hogwash; or maybe you find the ritual interesting in a detached, academic way, but don't really see what others get out of it. As long as you are respectful, you will be welcome in the circle. If you feel some ritual action is against your religious faith, you can politely step away or signal your wish to sit it out (e.g. politely shake your head when offered food, or move out of the circle when dancing begins).

(An interesting essay called Pagans and Christians: We Really Are Different describes some differences in belief between Pagans and Christians.)

What to Expect in Ritual

Following is a fairly standard/ generic ritual outline (the same one given in my Witchcraft 101 page) with notes about what to expect as an attendee. I'm focusing mainly on public rituals here because they are a common entry point for curious people; private rituals vary more widely, but much of what I say is applicable to many private rituals also.

- Cleansing/ purifying the space to set it apart for ritual.
This often involves actions like burning incense, sweeping with a broom, or sprinkling salt water. In most cases, the organizers will do some of this before anyone arrives. Sometimes you may be asked to pause at the door to the space and clear your mind or banish extraneous thoughts.

- Calling on the gods and the four elements:
The gods may be called on as individual gods ("I invoke Artemis and Apollo") or as archetypes ("I call on the Lord and Lady of the Hunt"). The four elements - earth, air, fire, and water - are each invoked at one of the four directions. At public rituals (and many private rituals), designated people will perform the invocations as the attendees watch and listen. Sometimes an invocation ends with a phrase like "Hail and welcome" which is then repeated by the whole group.
- Casting the circle to create sacred space:
The circle may be created by everyone holding hands together and focusing their intent (perhaps humming one note or singing a song together), or by one person drawing a physical circle with an athame (sacred knife), wand, staff, or their own hand. Once the circle has been cast, try to stay roughly within the circle as it was drawn (often the perimeters are marked by torches or altars at the four corners). If you need to leave during the ritual, ask someone to "cut a door" in the circle for you. They will draw the outline of a door with their hand or an athame, wand, or staff. If you return afterwards, someone will cut another door for you to re-enter.
- Statement of intention for the ritual:
Usually made by a priest/ess or leader of the ritual. Most intentions can be described by one of the following: Working magick toward a goal. Honoring a change in someone's life. Celebrating the cycle of seasons. The type of statement you are likely to hear in a public ritual goes something like this: "We gather together on this, the longest night of the year. This is the time when the sun has gone into darkness; but we know the light will return. Tonight, in this circle, we celebrate the light that lives in each of us." (Winter Solstice)
- The main body of the ritual
This could involve actions such as:
- Performing ritual drama (acting out a seasonal story). Ritual drama is very common in public ritual (and occurs frequently in private rituals as well), especially at the eight seasonal holidays. For example, in the first public ritual I helped to organize, I took part in a ritual re-telling of the myth of Demeter and Persephone; I acted as Persephone, taking leave of her mother Demeter to go into the underworld. This was relevant to the season, as it was an Autumn Equinox ritual, at the time when the days start getting longer. Ritual drama usually does not demand any participation from ritual attendees; however, it is often followed by a more participatory action like the following two examples.
- Raising energy by dancing and singing, usually dancing around in a circle while singing a short chant over and over. If you don't wish to participate in dancing, you may want to step backwards out of the circle of people (but try to stay within the "circle" of energy that was created earlier).
- Other symbolic actions. These are usually general enough to apply to most people's lives, and are unlikely to offend the non-Pagan visitor. For example, ritual organizers might distribute twigs or small pieces of paper to all the attendees, who are then asked to concentrate on something they want to release in their lives. Then participants are asked to come to the center of the circle and throw the object into a fire, focusing on letting go. If you prefer not to engage in the particular action, it is usually simple to "pass" politely to the next person.
- Feasting:
Food and drink - often seasonal - are blessed and shared. This feels pretty familiar to most folks, as it is a ritual action occuring in many religions. Usually food and drink are passed around the circle, and you may hear the statements "May you never hunger" and "May you never thirst." Before or after eating, ritual leaders may "libate" - give offerings of food and drink for the gods. Sometimes, in larger public rituals, food and drink are shared after the ritual instead of during it.
- Saying farewell to the gods and the four elements, and closing the circle.
This is basically a reversal of the initial invocation and circle-casting, but it usually goes much more quickly! Leaders may end de-vocations with a statement like "Hail and farewell", which is usually repeated by the group. A saying commonly heard at the end of the ritual is the following: "The circle is open but unbroken. Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again." (This may be said or sung; group members often join in speaking or singing.)

Things NOT To Do

- Don't violate basic rules of respect and civility (e.g. laugh during a serious meditation, make fun of someone, talk loudly while someone else is talking, take more than your fair share of food/drink, and so on).
- Do not touch tools or objects on an altar unless you are specifically invited to do so (e.g. "Everyone, take a piece of paper from the bowl on the altar.")
- Don't leave the circle without asking someone to "cut a door" for you. It probably won't offend everyone, but it's an easy way to offend someone.
- Do not preach your religious beliefs to others. Even if you believe everyone in the room is going to hell, you are still a guest at their ceremony and ought to remain respectful. Of course you can discuss your beliefs politely with others, but don't be persistent or judgmental.

(For a more humorous look at this topic, check out Ten Ways to Piss Off A Pagan.)

Final Note

I've tried to present a fairly standardized version here to help folks become comfortable with the basics. However, individual rituals may vary quite a bit from this outline. I encourage you to attend Pagan rituals with an open mind and a willingness to participate and learn.
You can also check out this page for a more extensive set of guidelines: Attending Open Rituals.

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