Chapter Varieties of Wiccan Ritual

cholars in the field of religious studies often call Wicca and other varieties of Neopaganism "magical religions." By this they mean to indicate faiths in which the participants are encouraged and expected to actively perform their own magical or "miraculous" deeds, rather than passively waiting for some spiritual force to do it for them. Down through the ages the core meaning of "witch" has been someone who could do "magic." Yet what exactly do we mean by that?

Defining magic (or "magick" as those who want to disassociate themselves from stage magicians spell it) is a long and complex task. Since this is a Concise Guide, I'll refrain from repeating my long discussion of this in Real Magic and Authentic Thauma-turgy. Here are the three definitions I normally use for "magic:"

(1) A general term for arts, sciences, philosophies and technologies concerned with (a) understanding and using various altered states of consciousness within which it is possible to have ac cess to and control over one's psychic talents, and (b) the uses and abuses of those psychic talents to change interior and/or exterior realities.

(2) A science and art comprising a system of concepts and methods for the build-up of human emotions, altering the electrochemical balance of the metabolism, using associational techniques and devices to concentrate and focus this emotional energy, thus modulating the energies broadcast by the human body, usually to affect other energy patterns whether animate or inanimate, but occasionally to affect the personal energy pattern.

(3) A collection of rule-of-thumb techniques designed to get one's psychic talents to do more-or-less what one wants, more often than not, one hopes.

So what does "religion" mean? Here are my favorite definitions:

(1) The body of institutionalized expressions of sacred beliefs, observances, and practices found within a given cultural context.

(2) A magical system combined with a philosophical and ethical system, usually oriented towards spiritual beings.

(3) A psychic structure composed of the shared beliefs, experiences and related habits of all members (not just the theologians) of any group calling itself "a religion."

Now, what's a "ritual?" Again, there are many ways to define the term, but here is the one that I have found most useful:

Any ordered sequence of events, actions and/or directed thoughts, especially one that is repeated in the "same" manner each time, that is designed to produce a predictable altered state of consciousness within which certain magical or religious (or artistic or scientific?) results may be obtained.

One useful way to look at magic and the rituals associated with it is to consider the motivations of the people involved on a "secular-to-sacred" spectrum. Some see magic as a way to attain spiritual, intellectual, or psychological growth — this approach is known as "theurgy" (from Greek roots meaning "divine work"). Others do magic in order to change the physical world for the benefit of themselves and their loved ones — this approach is known as "thau-maturgy" (from the Greek for "wonder working"). Most Pagans (Paleo-, Meso-, and Neo-) have been or are interested in both. Thaumaturgy and theurgy are not opposites in a dualistic sense, but can be seen as one possible set of polar opposites, with an infinite number of possible steps between (see Appendix 2). The vast majority of magical or religious rituals have a mix of the thauma-turgic and the theurgic.

With all that out of the way, let's look at the various sorts of magical and religious rituals that exist, all of which are done by some Wiccans on different occasions.

Most Wiccans tend to describe their rituals as being initiations, "sabbats" (holy day celebrations that are primarily theurgical), or "esbats" (monthly "working" rituals that are mostly thaumaturgical). Gerald Gardner took the second and third terms from the writings of the Renaissance witch-hunters. There are, however, more useful terms.

Rites of worship are mostly theurgical ones in which the primary purpose is to honor the Goddess and the God and to give Them our love and psychic (in both senses) energy. When done for more than the typically small coven, these rites become "liturgies" ("public works").

Rites of passage are ones in which the primary purpose is to recognize and/or cause a significant change in status/being of a new or current member of the religion. While this includes initiations, it also includes baby-naming ceremonies, coming of age rites, weddings, funerals, etc. Wiccan initiations generally combine all three of the

"types of initiation" that I have written about elsewhere: (1) recognition of status already gained, (2) ordeals of transformation, and (3) the "transmission of the gno-sis" (connecting the initiates with the wisdom of their predecessors).

Rites of intensification celebrate solar and lunar cycles, and thus "holidays," but may also serve to mark the beginning or ending of particular activities such as hunting seasons, planting and harvesting, etc.

Rites of passion are ceremonies of a sexual nature, based on tantric principles, in which sex may be used for magical purposes or vice (you should pardon the expression) versa. These rituals are notable far more for their absence than their presence, as the vast majority of Neopagans are white, middle-class, and still recovering from our dysfunctional childhood programming as anti-sexual Christians or Jews — not to mention our being surrounded by a sexually schizophrenic mainstream culture that can be guaranteed to misinterpret any sexual ritual.

Rites of intimacy are rituals done by couples or families, focused around the home and hearth, sometimes involving household shrines to matron and/or patron deities.

Rites of solitude are those rites done by individuals who have no others with whom they can share the other forms of ritual. While "solitaries" may no longer be the majority of Wiccans, they are still a large percentage of us.

Rites of magic are ceremonies done primarily to accomplish specific magical goals, usually thaumaturgical. These are actually rarer than the image of the Witch as magic user would indicate.

It's possible, and indeed common, for two, three, or more of these types of ritual to be combined, depending upon the talents, intentions, situation, and wisdom (or lack of it) of the parties involved. Sexual rites, for example, would not be combined with any other sort of ceremony at which children would be present nor at which the general public is expected to attend. Solitary rites of passage can be difficult to pull off successfully, and all Wiccans may not recognize the results. Rites of intensification are usually combined with public rites of worship but may be solitary or familial events. Rites of worship may be combined with rites of magic when a community is faced with problems requiring divine assistance with spell casting.

In the chapters that follow, I'll be focusing on rites of worship, with notes on combining these with the other sorts, for the simple reason that most Wiccan rituals involve worshiping the Goddess and/or the God regardless of whether or not other activities may also take place.

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