Chapter Current Variations in Wiccan Ritual Structure

or a variety of historical reasons, wf^Êjm most of them having to do with i f^&SWn (1) the secrecy of which Wiccans ! are so fond, (2) the seemingly constant necessity to invent new variations to convince students that one is not really stealing Gardner's and Valiente's material, and (3) Wicca's evolution as a typically decentralized "post-modern" collection of faiths, there is no universal pattern for Wiccan ritual, although the general shape is similar from group to group. Different Traditions do more-or-less the same ritual things but in differing orders and with different degrees of intensity and/or attention.

Most Traditions start with the participants doing some sort of personal purifications (herbal baths, fasting, etc.) before the ritual actually gets underway. These purifications are not prompted by a sense of impurity or sinfulness on the part of the participants, but rather reflect a need to begin focusing their consciousnesses, clearing away irrelevant thoughts, and showing respect for the Goddess and God, as well as fellow coveners, much as members of many other religions do before attending services.

The nature of one's clothing (or lack of it) is another cue to one's inner self that sacred activities are about to take place, as well as another way to show respect to the Deities. The people attending the ritual therefore either dress in ceremonial robes or else strip down to a state of ritual nudity. The latter makes them "skyclad," from a Jain term for naked sages living in the woods who abandon all social concerns and class distinctions in their quests for enlightenment — another motive for Gardner to prefer it, in class-obsessed England.

Almost all Wiccan groups use a circle as the shape of their sacred space. Some have this shape physically marked on the ground or floor; most do not — which is why it often turns into a "magic oval." Most will have candles or torches set up, either just inside or just outside of the circle's line, at the North, South, East, and West intersections of two invisible lines drawn through the center of the circle. The spots are called "Quarter Points" or often just "the Quarters." Whether the directions are marked accurately with a compass or loosely as the room or other factors make convenient, also varies considerably.

Some Traditions have the almost universally used altar (usually a low table) outside this circle when the rite begins; others place it inside either at the center or near one of the Quarter Points.

Some groups have everyone except the presiding clergy (usually a High Priestess or "HPS," and a High Priest or "HP," sometimes also a Maiden and/or a Green Man as assistants) wait outside the ritual area, usually in the Northeast (for reasons having to do with Masonic initiations), while it is prepared for the ceremony, and bring them in afterwards. Others begin with everyone in the circle.

Traditions that have the people in the circle and the altar outside of it may start with a "spiral dance" as first described by Gardner in Witchcraft Today and later in Starhawk's wildly influential The Spiral Dance. After everyone has spiraled into the center of the circle and spiraled out again, exchanging kisses along the way, and are once more standing in a circle holding hands, the ring will be broken and the altar brought in. Unfortunately, as all too many can testify, the spiral dance often turns into a spiral "crack the whip" — and no, I'm not referring to ritual scourging here! I usually don't recommend it except to groups composed solely of young and healthy types dancing on a smooth, flat surface.

Salt and water are usually exorcised and/or blessed by the presiding clergy, sometimes along with other substances such as incense, oil, candles, etc. These items are used, either before or after the circle is "cast" (symbolically formed) to exorcise and/or bless the circle as a whole and/or all the people in it. As with the personal purifications, exorcisms done in Neopagan rituals have little to do with banishing evil spirits and much to do with retuning the spiritual energies of the objects and/or persons involved to make them appropriate for the work at hand. Just as a cook who had been chopping garlic would take care to wash his or her hands and the knife before beginning to chop the apples for a pie — or at least we hope so — these ceremonial steps are taken.

The circle is cast, usually, by having the High Priestess or Priest walk around it in a clockwise direction (except for some Wic-cans in the Southern Hemisphere), starting at either the East Quarter Point (most common), the North (less common), or the South or West (both rare), with a consecrated sword, knife, wand, staff, or just fingers. These may be held in the air at any of several heights, pointed up, down, forward, or outward, or else dragged point-first along the floor or ground (the original technique in Ye Bok, where it was done by a male "Magus") along the desired circle boundaries.

The term "casting," by the way, used to mean "cutting" or "carving," which is why the Goetic magicians used sharp swords to actually mark the ground — and why I believe that a ceremonial Wiccan sword or knife should have a sharp point (edge too, but that's another discussion).

Among some heterodox/Eclectic/fluffy/ shallow Wiccans (choose your favorite adjective here), the circle is "cast" by everyone holding hands and declaring it cast, because having someone do it alone is "elitist."

If the congregation waited outside the circle while it was cast, they will then be brought into it through a "gate" (usually in the Northeast if anyone is paying attention) either symbolically cut for them at that time, or left "open" during the casting process (and "closed" after their entry). People are brought into the cast circle in a formal fashion, generally with exchanges of passwords and/or kisses, often with aspergings, censings, annointings, etc. Groups that practice binding and scourging may do it at this point in the ceremony, both as a purification process and as a way to start a flow of intentionally erotic mana, and/or they may wait until after the "Quarter Point Invocations" have been done.

(Mana is a useful Polynesian word that means magical, spiritual, artistic, emotional, athletic, and/or sexual energy. I haven't found another word yet that combines all these meanings so well.)

After the circle has been cast, exorcised, blessed, etc., and the people are all present inside it (perhaps also exorcised and/or blessed), a series of invocations are usually spoken in four directions. These are done at or towards each of the Quarter Points, to spirits variously addressed as "the Mighty Ones," or "the Lords of the Watch Towers," or "the totem animals," or "the nature spirits," etc., or sometimes to various gods and goddesses associated with the directions. Some groups will add an invocation to / from the center, and some to the nadir (ultimate bottom) and zenith (ultimate top) as well. All these invocations, by asking for the protection and cooperation of spiritual Gate Keepers, finish the process of creating sacred space by further defining the cosmos of the participants.

In Starhawkian Wicca and some of the other heterodox Trads, the circle casting, Quarter Point Invocations, exorcism/blessing of the circle and people, etc., can be done completely or fragmentarily, and in any order or all at once, depending upon the consensus and/or whims of the participants.

Once the circle is complete, there is often a ritual process of invocation or evocation known as "Drawing Down the Moon," which is usually done by the HP on behalf of the coven, upon the HPS (in a Feminist Wiccan circle the entire coven of women may speak the words). The intent is that the High Priestess (or sometimes all the women in the circle, or everyone in the circle) will be able to manifest the Goddess to the coven through divine inspiration, conversation, channeling, or possession.

In this context, inspiration refers to the reception of ideas from the Goddess which arrive as abstract concepts without any pseudo-sensory input, and which the HPS must then put into words of her own before passing them on. Conversation implies that she "hears" the Goddess' voice (sometimes accompanied by a vision of Her), can mentally converse with Her, and specific phrases can then be passed on from the Goddess. Channeling (known a hundred years ago as "mediumship") means that the Goddess uses the High Priestess' vocal apparatus to speak directly with the others in what amounts to a light or partial possession.

In all three of these levels of spirit communication, the High Priestess' awareness of her own spirit or soul is still in her physical body. In a total or full possession, however, she will usually leave her body while the Goddess controls it, and will often have no memory later of what her body was doing or saying while the deity was in it.

Sometimes, if she is sufficiently possessed by the Goddess invoked, the High Priestess may give the members of the congregation, individually or as a whole, pointed advice and information from the Goddess. More often the HPS will deliver a memorized speech known as the "Charge of the Goddess." This has nothing to do with charging into battle or charging a bill to credit, but rather is from the Masonic habit of ceremonial officers giving "charges" (consisting of advice, expectations, and warnings) to their initiates. I suspect that the Charge was originally written so that an HPS who had failed to be literally (or literar-ily) inspired would have something worthwhile to say. Of course, being a good piece of prose — especially after Valiente rewrote it — the Charge is capable of being delivered in a truly electrifying manner that inspires new insights among the listeners.

A few Wiccan traditions will then do "Drawing Down the Sun" upon the High Priest (or again, sometimes upon all the men, or everyone in the circle). The HP may then deliver a "Charge of the Horned God" or other message from Him. Some traditions might do the drawing down of the God before that of the Goddess at certain holidays and/or only during certain seasons of the year. Many never do it.

Other forms of trance may be added to or substituted for Drawing Down the Moon and/or Sun. A ritual dance, more scourging, songs and chants, ritual dramas, initiations, handfastings (weddings) or other rites of passage, seasonal games, and/or spell-casting (in any combination and order) may follow or replace the Drawing(s) Down.

At some point, however, a ritual will be done which is known as "Cakes and Wine" (or "Cakes and Ale," "Cookies and Milk," etc.). This involves the blessing of food and drink by (usually) the High Priestess and the High Priest, then passing them around for the congregation to enjoy (the food and drink are passed around; hardly ever the clergy — darn it). Some traditions offer libations to the ground when outdoors, or in a bowl when indoors, before consuming the food and drink (libations made indoors are poured out onto the ground outdoors later).

Whether this communal meal is done before or after a rite of passage is performed or a spell is cast, and whether the meal is accompanied by general or topical discussion (if any), depends upon a given group's theory of the meal's function. Some believe it's for strengthening the coven members before doing magic and / or filling them with energy from the God and Goddess; others that it's for relaxing and reviving after magic has been done. Some fulfill all these functions by passing the cup only around the circle, to fill the participants with the power of the Goddess and God, then doing their "working," then passing the cup around again with the cakes for revival and discussion/teaching.

Along with or (usually) as part of the Cakes and Wine ceremony, is a magical act known as the "Great Rite." This is the pri mary symbol of the Sacred Marriage between the Goddess and the God, a central concept in Wiccan duotheology. The Great Rite was originally (in Gardner's notes) ritual sexual intercourse between the High Priestess and High Priest — or sometimes by all the couples in the coven — done to raise magical power, bless objects, etc.

However, almost from the beginning of Wicca, it has been done symbolically ("in token," as Gardner called it) rather than physically ("in true"), through plunging a dagger or wand into a cup to bless the wine or ale. Gardner was, after all, working with middle-class and working-class British occultists, not the lower-class or upper-class types who might have been less inhibited in their sexuality. The relaxed and healthy eroticism of the Paleopagans of ancient India or Britain was already long vanished, thus dooming his dream of a revived Western Tantra from the start.

The few American Wiccans of the 1970s who attempted to restore this aspect of the religion were denounced as sexist, exploitative, and politically incorrect by many in the Neopagan community and effectively silenced or cast out. As a result, the community lost any ability it might have had to establish appropriate ethical controls for such practices.

Occasionally the Great Rite is used as part of a spell casting or initiation, or to consummate a handfasting. A handful of traditions insist that some or all of these purposes require the sexual act to be physical rather than symbolic, but even these few traditions usually remove the acting couple from the sight of the rest of the coven (or vice versa).

When the participants are ready to end their ceremony, the Goddess and/or the God, as well as the entities invoked at the Quarter Points, will be thanked and/or "dismissed." In some traditions, excess mana will be "grounded" (drained). These steps are done in varying order. At the end, the circle is often cut across with knife or sword, and/or the High Priestess walks quickly around it counterclockwise, and the ceremony is declared to be over.

There is confusion in the Wiccan traditions and literature over the use of the terms "open" and "closed" when referring to the magical state of the circle. Some groups will say "the circle is closed" early in the rite to indicate that the magical barriers have been fully erected (after casting and exor-cism/ blessing, etc.) and that therefore no one is to enter or leave without special permission and precautions (ritual "gate" making). Others will say, "the circle is closed" at the end of the rite, to mean that the ceremony has come to a close. Conversely, some traditions use the phrase, "the circle is open" at the other's same early stage of the ritual in the sense of being "open for work" or the Gates between the worlds being open for communication with the Other Side. Still other groups will say "the circle is open" to mean that the ceremony is over and the magical barriers have been taken down.

This conflicting use of terms can be very confusing until you find out how a given group functions. Originally, the circle was opened at the beginning and closed at the end, following the Masonic practice of "opening" and "closing" lodge ceremonies (whence Gardner took the terminology).

All these variations in Wiccan ceremonial patterns fit roughly within the "Common Worship Pattern" I have described elsewhere. Some Trads match it more closely than others. It has been my experience that Wiccan ritual can be far more powerful and effective, both thaumaturgically and theur-gically, if a liturgical design is chosen that is as close a match as possible to the Common Worship Pattern. This can be accomplished most easily by adding the missing steps from that pattern.

One thing you might notice if you attend many Wiccan rituals is that they tend to be "top-heavy:" half to two-thirds of their ritual structure consists of setting up the sacred space and doing the preliminary power raising (calling the Guardians of the Quarters, etc.). The supposed purpose for the rituals, the Drawing(s) Down and spell casting or rites of passage, then take much less time, and the unwinding of the liturgy is often positively zoomed through. Perhaps these rites would be less top-heavy if extensive trance, dancing, or other mana generating and focusing methods were used for spell casting and/or rites of passage, instead of the five minutes' worth common in current Wiccan rites.

However, Gardner may have reasoned that modern Westerners need more time and effort to escape mundane reality than folks from other times and places did, so he deliberately elaborated the opening parts of the liturgy. Be that as it may, the ritual design presented next both inserts the "missing" parts of the common worship pattern and makes the middle of the ritual more important than the beginning or the end.

What follows on the next two pages is my expansion and ordering of the steps for a "standard" sort of Wiccan ritual — standard in the sense that you can be fairly sure this will regularly work as a ritual, not in the sense of it being required by anyone (including myself). I have done Wiccan ceremonies this way for decades now, with great success, and this is the pattern I teach my own Wiccan students.

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