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Tips for Leading Ritual

by Brianna Tracy

The following is a checklist of suggestions based on all the things I have seen work well or go wrong in rituals over the years.

I proceed on the assumption that the ritual will have only one or at most two leaders; good rituals, like good shows and good novels, are only rarely produced by committees. A ritual is among other things a work of art, and like any other work of art must be based on a unified and consistent vision. By far the easiest way to achieve this is to give scope to the vision of one person, at least for a night. If several or all the members of a group wish to participate in planning and leading ritual, the best policy is to rotate priest/ess responsibility from one meeting to the next and not to attempt consensus process for each rite.

Phase One: Planning

This may consist of creating a ritual, selecting and adapting material which others have already created, or leading a ritual which follows a set framework regularly used by your group. In any of these cases, there are a few basic principles to bear in mind.

  1. A ritual is done for a magical purpose, which you should be able to articulate clearly to yourself and to others. Its purpose is to accomplish change of some kind, in the participants, in the world, or in both. Even a "purely celebratory" ritual is meant to bring about emotional and spiritual change in those present.

  2. A Wiccan ritual includes certain familiar elements. Although the form and order of these may vary according to the tradition and the circumstances, most Wiccans are so accustomed to them that their absence is likely to cause distraction and dissatisfaction:

    a. A grounding and centering before the ritual begins.
    b. Casting a Circle.
    c. Calling the Quarters and/or the Powers of the Elements.
    d. Cleansing, charging or purifiying the ritual space and/or the participants.
    e. Invocation of a Deity or Deities.
    f. One or more workings, which may vary widely in nature. They may include devotional exercises, casting of spells, meditation, or the performance of a ritual drama.
    g. Blessing of food and drink, usually with a consecrated blade, followed by the sharing of a sacred meal.
    h. A Closing in which all Powers which were present are thanked and taken leave of, often reversing the order in which they were invoked.
    i. Opening the Circle and returning the space to ordinary use.

  3. All the elements of the ritual should be consistent and harmonious with your magical purpose, and with each other. These include such things as style, magical techniques, and Powers invoked. For example, if you are planning a deep trance journey for your working, you will hamper your purpose by including a tuneful, lighthearted song as part of your Circle set-up—although something like this might do very well as a grounding technique toward the end. The Powers invoked at the four Quarters should be ones who balance each other and work together; call four Deities, or four Archangels, or four Powers of Nature, but not different orders of Spirits from different directions. Pay attention to how the Powers you invoke are likely to respond to each other; do not, for example, invoke Demeter and Hades in the same ritual unless you have definite plans to deal with the issues which are likely to arise when they meet.

  4. Make your ritual appropriate to its setting and its participants. For example, do not expect people to read from scripts in dim light or in masks; rituals done outdoors in the hot sun or chilly wind should be relatively brief; in a large group, do not try to have each participant do time-consuming magical work on an individual basis.

  5. Give careful thought to whether you and others will be reading, speaking things which have been memorized, or speaking extemporaneously. All of these modes of delivery are possible, and might in fact be used at different times in the same ritual. Each, however, will produce very different effects in terms of atmosphere and energy. In general, reading in a Circle tends to limit and formalize the energy. In spellcasting, for example, a very different kind of power is necessary, and it is better to keep the language simple enough to be memorized or extemporized. Reading should also be avoided in connection with channeling or possessory work. (Why, in fact, would you call upon the wisdom of the Goddess in this way if you already happen to have Her words for the occasion down on paper in front of you?)

    The most effective procedure for coven work is often a memorized ritual framework familiar to all present, and workings for which only the intent and methodology are planned ahead and specific language is channeled or improvised. In large public rituals involving people who do not work together on a regular basis, it may be necessary for some of the material to be read; the core working, however, can often be planned in such a way as to be done without scripts in hand.

  6. Give thought to how people will ground and return to everyday consciousness after the main work of the ritual is accomplished. The ritual meal and accompanying social interaction may do much of this; but if the working is intense in its energy, you may also want to lead a grounding visualization or include a final blessing which provides closure. It also helps people to ground if you devote energy and attention to taking leave of the Powers and closing down the Circle, as well as to the setting-up and invocations.

Phase Two: Rehearsal

  1. Familiarize yourself with the ritual as much as you can in advance. Rehearse the action of the ritual in your mind's eye. Establish a stream of internal mental images to accompany the action of the ritual; this will both aid your memory and animate your delivery. If you are working with scripted material which you are unable to memorize, at least commit to memory the sequence of steps in the ritual and any lines you will have to say while handling ritual tools or otherwise occupied. If you keep a script or cue cards with you for safety's sake, try to free yourself from them as much as possible in order to remain in visual and psychic contact with the other participants. The less dependent you are on reading word for word, the more effective the ritual is likely to be.

  2. Give thought to what in the theater is called "blocking," especially if the ritual is large, public, or at all complex. Think about when and where you would like people to sit or stand, when and where you and those assisting you will move, and so on. In some cases it may be a good idea to hold a brief run-through with the whole ritual team, in advance of a public rite.

  3. Be sure that everyone will be able to see and hear what you want them to see and hear. You and those assisting you should know how loudly to speak in the ritual space you are going to use. Sound does not carry as well in a room full of people as it does in an empty one. You can get away with less volume if your diction is good. In a public ritual, be sure that significant actions and objects are large enough to be seen by all and positioned where everyone has a clear view of them.

    At the same time, be sure that people can't hear what you don't want them to. Those meditating before the start of a public ritual do not need to hear members of the ritual team discussing their hair and jewelry in the anteroom, and the initiate in the bathtub does not need to overhear your jokes about the coming rite.

  4. Give those assisting you a chance to become familiar with the ritual, if they are not so already. It is considerate to get a script or an outline to them one or two weeks in advance, along with instructions about what to bring and what to wear.

  5. Go over the ritual carefully, making a list of all the tools, ritual equipment and supplies you will need. Be sure to include the things for the altar, what you will wear, matches, food and drink for the ritual meal, and any special things needed for the working. Do this far enough in advance so that you will have time to borrow, make, buy and consecrate things if necessary.

  6. Take care of any housework that needs to be done. The ritual space should be reasonably clean and comfortable. Robes and altar cloths may need to be washed, mended or pressed. Ritual equipment may need to be cleaned or polished.

  7. Do private work with the Deities you will be invoking, and ask for Their guidance and blessing of the work. In most cases it is advisable that you, privately in advance, do the magical work which you will be leading later on.

Phase Three: Presentation

  1. Be set up and ready to start at more or less the time the ritual was scheduled. "Pagan Standard Time" is a euphemism for rudeness, especially after the first half hour or so.

  2. Before casting the Circle, be sure that everyone understands and concurs with the purpose of the ritual and what will be expected of them. The amount of time and care devoted to this will of course depend on the participants' level of experience and their familiarity with the ritual itself.

  3. Rehearse unfamiliar songs or chants with the whole group, after they are assembled and before the Circle is cast. Singing and chanting must be done smoothly and with confidence if it is to contribute to the energy of the ritual. If the words are not simple and easy to pick up on, provide everyone with a song sheet.

  4. Be sure that any participant with special physical needs is provided for, and not excluded. Avoid leading a dancing circle which leaves those who cannot join it sitting on the outside. Often these people can be seated inside the Circle to chant, drum, and assist in focusing the Power.

  5. Before you cast the Circle, be sure that everyone is in a calm and focused frame of mind, ready to begin. It is usually a good idea to lead the group in a meditation to center and focus their energy.

  6. As you perform the ritual, focus your attention on the meaning and purpose of what you are doing, and not on the way you look or sound. This is how actors are taught to avoid seeming "hammy," and it applies to priests and priestesses as well.

  7. Once the Circle is underway you are responsible, by your own devotion and example, for keeping the ritual focused on its magical purpose and the honor of the Powers invoked. Model and guide the other participants in the appropriate energy for each phase of the ritual: solemnity, focus, release, humor, and so on. Although everyone present shares responsibility for sustaining the Power of the rite, you as leader set the standard and orchestrate the mood. Be aware that, from the time the Circle is cast, everything that you say or do will either contribute to the Power or detract from it. Generally speaking, irrelevant banter and horseplay will damage the web of energy which is being woven for magic, and should be avoided until the main working of the ritual is completed.

    If the ritual contains pauses or waiting periods, planned or otherwise, lead the group in meditation or chanting to sustain the energy, rather than lapse into idle chit-chat which redirects it or lets it drop.

    There are bound to be occasional mishaps when things are forgotten, missing or otherwise "muffed." When this happens, repair the difficulty and go on with a minimum of comment and fuss. Unnecessary discussion of the matter, or a display of embarassment, greatly increases the energy disruption and the time required to return to the same level of focus which the group had previously achieved. Remember that nine times out of ten, people will assume that you are doing the correct thing if you do it with confidence. Once the magical purpose of the ritual has been accomplished, it is of course perfectly appropriate to chat and joke over cakes and wine as you ground.

  8. As priest/ess, keep your feelers out for any possible problems -- participants who are uncomfortable with elements of the ritual or any of the physical arrangements, or possible interpersonal difficulties in the group.

    Everyone who has been invited to be present and who has come to participate in good faith and with an open heart has the right to feel safe and welcome in the Circle. Most of the personal conflicts and issues which can arise in the course of a ritual should not be dealt with while the ritual is in progress. In the larger interests of working magic and serving the Gods, it is generally better to proceed with the planned work and address personal or interpersonal difficulties later, in a more suitable format. People are always, of course, free to cut themselves out of a Circle and leave if they really find themselves unable to participate for any reason. In extreme cases you, as priest/ess, have the authority and responsibility to protect the integrity of the ritual and the the rights of the majority of participants by rebuking or ejecting anyone whose personal issues threaten to derail the event.

  9. Be aware that if the ritual calls for you to enter a divinatory or possessory trance state, your ability to do much of the above will be seriously impaired. Appoint assisting priest/esses to take over the responsibilitites of group management while you are doing work of this kind.

Phase Four: After the Ball is Over

Especially after leading a challenging public ritual, you may have an impulse to collapse and let go of the whole thing as soon as the Circle is down. Nonetheless, a few responsibilites remain.

  1. Respond to the immediate effects which the ritual may have had on any of the participants. These may range from simple information questions which you must answer, to emotional or spiritual upheaval triggered by the ritual experience. If you do not feel competent to respond to such a problem refer the person to someone who is, and follow up on the matter later.

  2. Be sure the physical space is cleaned up, especially if it is a public place or somebody else's home.

  3. Keep a record of the ritual, for your own use and as a resource for others. Save your script or outline, perhaps with notes about what worked and what didn't, and what you would do differently another time.

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This work is copyright The Witches Trine and the author, 1996. All rights reserved.

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