A Pagan Primer


A few people have mentioned of late that one can worship without ritual. I partly agree, but wanted to look into this a bit deeper.


Our ritual, as pagans, is one thing thatís attacked by a number of Christian organizations. Itís one of the reasons that was used to end the First Church of Wicca. Many people seem to feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of Ritual. So, what is ritual?


Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a ritual is simply ďA prescribed order of performing religious or other devotional service.Ē It is also an adjective that pertains to Rites. Really, rites and rituals are essentially the same thing.


So, in plain English, when a religious group comes together for worship, and follows a similar format in each gathering, itís a ritual.


There are lots of people who have left Catholicism, simply because they didnít like the ritual Ö the kneeling, the prayers in unison, the sacrament of the Eucharist. These people will go to a new, more modern church, with Rock and Roll music, a bit of a sermon perhaps Ö praise and worship.They feel theyíve left the ritual behind.


But thatís not really true. Theyíve left something behind, but it isnít ritual. What theyíve left behind is a ďformĒ of ritual, which they have replaced with another.


If you go to any service, in any faith, and if it follows a format, then itís a ritual. It doesnít matter if itís New Age or Zoroastrian Ö if it follows a format, itís ritual.


So, are there forms of worship that arenít ritual?


I think so. I tend to believe that there are two forms of worship Ö ritual and spontaneous. Weíve all had spontaneous spiritual experiences. I used to climb antenna towers for a living. Yeah, itís somewhat a butch thing to do, but I have no fear of heights, and at one point in my life I was quite fit. But anyway, I remember a few times when weíd drive to the top of a mountain, and Iíd start climbing a tower. Just looking out I would be struck with awe. Here in Northern New England, there are a fair number of cities, but itís amazing how a short drive can take you to a wilderness area, and being just a few feet above the ground, you can look out, and from one spot see ocean, mountains, wilderness and just small patches of city. Depending on the time of day, the Sun makes a spectacular display, and you realize that you are really small and wonderful, almost insignificant, but greatly blessed. This is a spontaneous spiritual experience.


I had another similar experience. I recall flying back from Tokyo to the United States. The Sun was at our backs, and we were heading toward the West Coast. This brilliant mountain was shining, glistening, and I realized that it was the setting Sun just catching Mount Rainer. Once again, this sense of the numinous, as I was returning to my home came to me. It was a sight that few people will ever see. So many of us are simply so used to flying that we donít bother looking out the windows. We seem to have become far more focused on destinations and place little stock in the journey. We have in our minds that which we wish to see, and we neglect what nature, and natureís gods put before us.


In any case, these moments of vision, of awe, of recognizing our place are all opportunities for spontaneous worship. They happen when weíre open to them, but they are unplanned. They are surprises, gifts, blessings.


Ritual, on the other hand, is a prescribed set of experiences. It can be more or less planned. It can be new or ancient. It can involve tools, it can be very complicated, with requisite garments, incense, chalices, altars, ancient chants and more. Or it can be quite modern and incredibly simple.


Really, the defining quality of a ritual is that it is planned. Itís simply a religious exercise that is thought out before-hand, and exercised according to that plan.


If, prior to eating, we offer thanks, this is a ritual. Greeting the Sun or the Moon when we leave our homes may be a ritual. Offering our children a blessing when they go to bed Ö all of these things are rituals.


Any church service that someone attends is, in essence and fact, a ritual. By virtue of the fact that they are attending a planned church service, it is a ritual. Today, Christians use the word ďserviceĒ, but it has the exact same meaning as ritual.


So what is it about pagan ritual that some people find objectionable?


Really, the difference between most pagan rituals, and those practiced by Christians is the symbolism. Many people have come to equate the word ďritualĒ with pagan or anachronistic symbolism. Attending a Catholic service, one will see the vestments of the priest, which are reminders of that churchís 2000 year heritage. Things that happen, and the words that are used are many centuries old. But they are still memories of an earlier civilization.


Pagan symbolism though, tends to lean away from things of man, and much closer to nature. We have the Horned God, we speak of the gods of nature, and we often strive to do this in nature, in clearings, in the woods, under an open sky.


We work with the elements, Air, Earth, Fire, Water. We connect with the universe in a way that is as direct as possible. We tend to use much more primal imagery because we connect to it in a more primal way. It tends to be more powerful for us. Our rituals are imbued with mystery. They are designed to reach our sub-conscious, rather than our rational minds. They speak to us in symbol and emotion rather than reason and facts.


This doesnít mean that we wish to avoid fact or abandon reason. Quite to the contrary, reason and fact are of great importance to us.We live in a world where these things, fact and reason, are necessary. We canít survive without them. What we, as pagans, do though, is to exist in both worlds. Thatís our job. Itís essential to our spiritual being.


But it is this existence between worlds, this experience of both, the physical / rational, and spiritual / emotional / symbolic, both in one being, both in one ritual, it is this that is unfamiliar and strange to those who havenít experienced it before.


Today, much Christian ritual is devoid of symbol. So frightened of symbolism, born from the misconception that the use of symbols implies their worship, many Christians shun it completely. Statues, icons, sculpture Ö all of these things are missing. Sacred dance, any music that might be remotely sensual Ö this is all gone.


Pagans often have a very different attitude toward sex, and this, too, is evident in our ritual. We recognize that life involves sex and utilizes it. We recognize every spring that our Earth, bursting forth in new life, is a sexual experience. The fragrance of flowers is the fragrance of a sexual act. The sounds of birds and other animals is the sound of mating. To experience life on Earth is to experience sexual acts Ö if not our own, then certainly those of other living things with whom we share our planet.


As pagans, we use sex as part of our ritual. Most often itís very symbolic, as the Chalice and Blade. Some groups may perform the great rite, with the actual act performed in private, by an already otherwise committed couple. But we do so because we know that this act is essential to life. Itís no great secret that without sex, there would be no complex life on our planet. None of us, no creatures that walk or fly or swim, no trees, no flowers, nothing that makes our planet what it is, would exist without this simple act.


But so many people are frightened of this. It is somehow dirty, filthy, not to be spoken of, taboo, a secret not to be spoken of, not to be seen, not to be recognized, not to be understood.Those groups who are unwilling to speak of sex do our entire planet a great disservice. This is a great shame, and a great failing. It comes from an attitude that says that if a thing is known, it will be done, rather than from the understanding that when a thing is well-understood, it is more likely to be used properly.


Ritual does more than express worship. If itís used properly, itís often a teaching experience. When we can open a channel between imagination and knowledge, we find that what we have when weíre done is more than what we came into the ritual with. This is the nature of communion with deity. Itís how we know that our ritual actually effected something within us. Itís also a means for a teacher to impart knowledge to her students. It can be used to help the student through a difficult learning experience.


My own teacher used ritual when we were exploring other realms. It seems that the opening of the mind during ritual is a marvelous path to the gateway to these places.


So, what is ritual?


Itís any planned religious experience. Itís any religious meeting thatís done regularly, so long as the object of those meetings is some sort of worship.


Itís not about the mysterious activities that some pagans, or mystic Christians or other such groups do, though this can certainly be a part of it. Itís perfectly possible that some pagans gather just as do some conservative Christians, with conservative music, and talk, and none of the mystical elements that most pagans experience. This is still ritual.


Ritual is simply the act of connection with deity, by whatever means we choose, in a regular and planned setting.


The tools that are used in ritual are nothing more than tools which are used to impart meaning to we who participate in the ritual. We donít all speak the same language, and we donít all learn and commune in the same way. The experiences, whether they are more mystical or more intellectual are simply the languages of ritual. None is right, none is wrong. None is inherently more ďpowerfulĒ than the other. The point is to find the one that speaks to you, that opens up that connection, that channel, between you and deity.


© 2009 Deirdre A. Hebert