In general discussions concerning Craft philosophy and background information we are often asked questions about ritual work. What is the aim of a ritual? How rigid are rituals? Can you write them yourself? Change things? What about foreign languages? Etc., etc.
It is not always easy to give a ready made answer and no doubt discussion about ritual work will continue for a long time. Perhaps it is possible though to try and set down a few ideas which may clarify some parts – or at least set us thinking again.
There are plenty of guidelines in respect of ritual work but anyone with any experience will quickly realise that ritual work is an extremely personal method of working magic. What works for one person need not necessarily work for another – someone might feel right performing highly elaborate, ceremonial rites, whilst another person feels ‘at home’ with something very simple and straightforward. The important thing is that whichever way we choose we do not lose sight of our aim and confuse the issue. This may sound like something of a cliché but when we realise that the main aim of a ritual is to create a two way link between spiritual and earthly powers it goes without saying that our intention should be as clear as crystal. Certainly for a beginner but also for experienced people this point cannot be stressed enough.
Making a link
Ritual work (or working ritually) does not begin or end with a specially designed temple or circle area. Quite often the ritual experience can occur spontaneously. The important thing is that a link is made and that communication is als clear as possible. It can be emotionally accentuated or intellectually direct, depending on one’s own personal make-up and frame of reference. (Think of the ‘differences’ between Wicca and Ceremonial Magic). Once the link is made it is then possible to work magically, celebrate festivals etc.
Ritual tends to direct one’s attention, even when it happens spontaneously. We become aware of forces present and our concentration is tuned in to the energies which are made manifest. Our attention is directed towards the spiritual realms. This is probably why we tend to think of ritual work as being separated from our mundane lives. In some respects this is true, especially when we ‘plan’ a ritual and yet we should never forget that ritual is an integral part of our lives. Ritual has a direct influence on the spiritual and material world and to reserve it for ‘special occasions’ is not only absurd but a refusal to accept the material world as an important aspect of our evolution and development.
If we accept the idea that ritual is spiritual activity whereby consciousness can be raised we would be fools if we did not accept the idea of trying to incorporate ritual into our mundane lives.
I think everyone will agree that a meal properly set out, preceded by a short period of silence, grace, etc., and finished with a thanksgiving, creates a far more conducive atmosphere than a hasty meal in front of the television.
There are many ways in which (spi)ritual activity could be integrated into our daily lives.
I’ve often wondered why adults in industrial work don’t assemble for a few minutes before starting work – perhaps even just as a reminder that we are people with human capacities and feelings.
It may sound very impractical (and for most people a crazy idea), and yet I’m sure it would help to nurture a feeling of collegiality – a feeling which is sadly lacking in our society.
A ritual then tends to make one aware. The clarity of the aim, as I said earlier, is of vital importance. Daydreaming or wishful thinking may occasionally work but it is a haphazard method of working. Ritual will have less chance of succeeding if the aim is not clear. Concretely it comes down to clear vision, clear thought and feeling. Visualization can be extremely useful for clarifying a particular situation (and in daily life it is an invaluable technique for remembering and organising things).
It is also important though to know where one stands. Knowing one’s limitations and capabilities is important, as important as the ability to be honest with oneself.
The person who thinks he can perform the most intricate ritual successfully without some insight and experience is going to be shocked, and sometimes irreparably. Vanity and arrogance can be the most devastating obstacles and will obscure vision and the ultimate aim.
The ‘link’ is often a well worn path on the astral (think of pathworkings). An experienced person will tune in more quickly and find the path. With traditional rituals the path is well signposted but it is quite possible that intuition will lead one and cause a change in the ritual scenario. We often hear that ‘what feels right’ is a good guideline, but we should be aware of the following. There can be many temptations and what one feels is right, may not be ultimately.
A ritual can be compared to a recipe, with a prescribed procedure and list of ingredients. If half way one decides to leave things out, add new ingredients and alter the procedure, the cake could turn out to be a disaster or even turn out quite differently. We may end up with a sponge cake instead of a fruit one! In other words, one should be careful that intuition is not leading one astray.
This is one of the reasons why it is unwise to mix two rituals (or ritual forms). This also applies to mixing two systems, such as Western and Eastern systems. Such a combination can be extremely confusing. It is rather like learning two foreign languages at the same time. There is no reason however to combine complementary systems such as Runes and Tarot. The difficulty arises when the etheric (life) body has to cope with two different frameworks, for example Eastern and Western methods of meditation. The etheric body tends to like a particular order and flitting about from one set of references to another can cause physical disorders and in extreme cases damage to the astral body. Common sense and integrity are necessary if one decides to attempt rituals of a different order. One should also consider the group. You may be advanced enough to be able to work with different god forms for example but others may not be,
We should of course not be afraid to try things out, but one thing at a time and then choose the one which feels suitable.
Traditional rituals are often very compact and lacking in elaboration. There is no real objection, if you feel poetic, to pad it out but the golden rule remains: ‘Don’t confuse the issue!’
Which brings us to the whole question of composing rituals. An experienced person will ‘know’ what is required and if a situation occurs where there are no (written) handed down rituals it may be necessary to compose a ritual. In a sense rituals are not ‘written’ in the normal sense of the word. In the case of the Craft especially it is sometimes painfully evident that it is an oral tradition and no matter how well we are intellectually trained we can often miss the point and fail to grasp the essence of a particular ritual. (In fact, being an ‘intellectual’ can be an enormous obstacle!)
A certain situation may also demand a self composed ritual – little space, time, being inside, etc. It is often necessary beforehand to ‘feel’ what is required. A scenario may be enough to trigger off certain reactions. In this sense the ritual will unfold spontaneously. This approach however demands being fully aware of what is going on and having the sensitivity to follow the sequence through.
Writing or composing a ritual is a creative experience, and is well worth the effort. It is valuable training and can sharpen one’s awareness of various levels of energy. But – back again to the golden rule – don’t lose sight of your aim and don’t end up glorifying yourself as ’the Gods gift to poetry!’
Active participation is after all very different from personal indulgence.
Sometimes changes in a ritual may be necessary, for example if you are living in a different part of the world such as Australia. Before changing things one should be sure why it is vital. It should also be a majority agreement if a group is involved. If one of the group does not agree with the change then there will be conflict – if not on a personal level, then on an astral level. Questions such as: does the change alter the polarity? Is the change vital? Or is it change for the sake of change? should be considered.
Innovation can be creative, nothing remains unchanged, so too with rituals.
On this same subject of change we are often asked about translating rituals, living in Holland. It is quite a difficult question to answer. On the one hand everything should be comprehensible. Words which are not familiar should, as a general rule, not be used. Really one’s mother tongue is the most natural and obvious choice because one can readily understand what is being said.
On the other hand (the Dutch situation) how does one adapt existing rituals in a foreign country?
Does one continue to speak English, running the risk of not understanding, or does one translate and run the risk of altering the meaning? The ideal situation would be to experience the ritual in the country and language applicable in order to ‘feel’ what is going on, and then translate. The translation will probably not be literal because one is actually translating the feeling underlying the ritual. (Anyone having read a bad translation of Goethe will know exactly what I mean!) The important thing is to recreate the feeling aroused. Tone and expression are often as important as the actual words. If a word can not be easily translated it would seem to be more appropriate to use the original word and learn the meaning. Wicca in particular is not a literary circle and one shouldn’t get bogged down with questions like ‘is it grammatically correct’. The intention is the most important and often simple, straightforward language is the most powerful and emotional. This pureness and simplicity is even more noticeable in a ritual where large numbers of people are present.
And when it comes down to it we come back to the whole question of ‘what is the meaning of ritual work’? Ultimately ritual is creating an environment in which the divine forces can converse with us and vice versa. Sometimes the Gods choose to contact us, often at the most odd moments, and sometimes we take the initiative.
The important thing is that we are able to recognise the link which is created and are able to participate in this communication.
There are many aspects of ritual which have not been touched upon in this article. It is a vast and fascinating subject, and hopefully a few of the above points will stimulate one to further considerations.
This article was previously published in the Spring 1987 issue of Wiccan Rede (Volume 8, number 1).
Samenvatting: Ritueel werk
Over rituelen worden nogal eens vragen gesteld: wat beogen ze, hoe moet je ze uitvoeren, kun je ze veranderen, enzovoorts.
Het doel van een ritueel is het scheppen van een verbinding tussen ons aardse vlak en de Goden. Dit doel mag nooit uit het oog worden verloren.
Ritueel richt je aandacht op het geestelijke niveau, het is een manier om je bewustzijn te verruimen.
Rituelen, mits goed begrepen, kunnen dan ook heel goed in het dagelijkse leven worden geïntegreerd, en zo meehelpen aan een bewustere levensstijl. Een magisch ritueel moet meer gezien worden als een kookrecept. Een beginner moet zich strikt aan de voorschriften houden, slechts een ervaren kok kan een recept ‘doorzien’ en het veranderen en verbeteren. Daarom is het ook nooit goed verschillende rituelen door elkaar te gebruiken.
Soms moet een ritueel worden veranderd, omdat je in een ander deel van de wereld leeft, of omdat er niet genoeg of teveel mensen zijn, e.d. Ook taalverschil kan een reden zijn om een ritueel te veranderen. In de vertaling verlies je echter toch altijd iets van de atmosfeer, en atmosfeer is minstens zo belangrijk als de eigenlijke woorden. Herschrijven is dan een betere oplossing, of de betekenis in de oorspronkelijke taal goed in je opnemen. Communicatie met de Goden blijft echter voorop staan!
Dit artikel verscheen eerder in de editie Spring 1987 van Wiccan Rede (jaargang 8, nummer 1).