The Patterns of Wiccan Ritual 1.1
Copyright © 1989, 2000 c.e., Isaac Bonewits
This is excerpted from what was to have been a chapter on ritual in my unpublished book on Witchcraft. I’m posting it here now so that folks will have a general idea of my research and practice on the topic. It will be expanded to include a full ritual script, but not for a while, as I have other promised items to post on my website first.
In the Beginning
In the 1940s and ’50s, a retired British civil servant and amateur folklorist named Gerald B. Gardner (referred to affectionately as “GBG” or “Old Gerald”), together with his friends, began to either reconstruct or invent what they chose to call “the Old Religion” of “Witchcraft.” They claimed that Margaret Murray had been correct when she postulated that an underground Pagan cult had survived in Christian Europe, and that the members of this cult had been the “witches” whom the Church tried so hard to exterminate during the Renaissance. Furthermore, Gardner and his associates said that the Old Religion had continued to exist even into the 20th Century. See A Very Brief History of Witchcraft for details about Gardner and of how he fits into the overall history of the word “witchcraft.”
Regardless of the conflicting historical claims about whether or not there was ever a “real” coven which initiated Gardner, it is very clear from his own notes that he could easily have created the root liturgy of what was to become known as “Wicca” from published sources and his own experiences in other Western occult organizations. I have studied the first draft materials in a hand-bound text he called Ye Bok [sic] of Ye Art Magical, of what eventually developed into the first Book of Shadows (“BOS”). There is nothing there that can be demonstrated to be a remnant of a surviving underground British Pagan cult (though some parts resemble those of Hindu Tantric rituals).
A famous saying among scholars goes, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and this saying is usually true. However, in this situation the missing concepts become quite important. People writing liturgies almost always start out by reworking ceremonial materials with which they are already familiar. For one example, the Episcopal and Lutheran liturgies resemble the Roman Catholic Mass. For another, the rituals that Aleister Crowley wrote for his branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis (an offshoot of the Free Masons that he turned into a more magically “oriented” group) incorporate phrases and actions from the older rituals of the Masons, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the initiation rites of the pre-Crowlean O.T.O. Most of the early A.D.F. rituals included segments from the R.D.N.A. rituals I had learned previously (some of them, at least as I perform them, still do).
The earliest versions of Gardner’s initiatory and liturgical scripts are full of obvious borrowings from the Masons, the Renaissance “Goetic” grimoires (magical books), the writings of Crowley, etc. There are no prayers, incantations, ritual actions, or liturgical patterns that reflect any other sources than the (Judeo-Christian) Western mainstream of occult tradition, the then available published materials on anthropology and folklore, some tantric methods he could easily have picked up in the Far East or through Crowley, and a few lines of gibberish in an unknown “language.” If Gardner had attended genuinely Paleopagan (or even Mesopagan) rites in England, their patterns of worship should be visible in his private notes, even if he were forbidden to put secret words and phrases down on paper. Yet Pagan liturgical patterns are invisible in his early notes. They only begin to show up in the 1950’s as the Goetic and Crowlean materials were gradually removed, under the influence of Gardner’s priestess, Doreen Valiente.
At this point the authenticity of Gardner’s “apostolic succession” becomes rather irrelevant. If there was a real coven that trained Gardner, they apparently didn’t show or tell him much of anything that was genuinely ancient or Pagan, at least not liturgically.
This may not matter much. Gardner (or perhaps the committee he was taking notes for) was extremely creative. He changed the Goetic magical techniques to make them usable by small groups of people instead of solitary magicians. He rewrote the first three Masonic initiations to make them applicable to both men and women. He made sensuality and eroticism a central part of his new/old religion by borrowing tantric techniques and symbolism. Finally, and most importantly, early in the 1950’s he added Dion Fortune’s theology of Isis and Osiris and other polytheistic elements to make his creation genuinely (albeit Meso-) Pagan. Around 1954, all of the notes he had made during the 1940’s and early ’50’s were transferred to a new book, which became the first official Book of Shadows, and Ye Bok was retired to the back of a file cabinet, where it would lie forgotten for twenty years.
Whatever their origins, the first versions of the Wiccan rituals (especially those for the holidays) were extremely sparse, usually being only a page or two of text. Following Gardner’s advice that “it is ever better to do too much ritual than too little,” the members of his new religion began to add materials to each of them. Over the years the rites have expanded considerably, with enormous variations in detail but with the same liturgical structure usually being more-or-less retained.
Current Variations in Craft Liturgical Structure
For a variety of historical reasons, most of them having to do with the secrecy of which Wiccans are so fond, 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 things but in differing order.
Almost all the 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 focussing consciousness, 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 people attending the ritual then either dress in ceremonial robes or else strip down to a state of ritual nudity (becoming “skyclad,” from a Hindu term for naked sages living in the woods who abandon all social concerns and class distinctions in their quests for enlightenment). The specialness of one’s clothing (or lack of it) is another cue to one’s inner beings that sacred activities are about to take place, as well as another way to show respect to the Deities.
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 at the North, South, East, and West intersections — called “Quarter Points” or just “the Quarters” — of two invisible lines drawn through the center of the circle, either just inside or just outside of the circle’s line. Some traditions have the altar 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 and a High Priest, 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 have everyone in the circle from the start.
Traditions that have the people in the circle and the altar outside of it may start with “the spiral dance” as first described by Gardner in Witchcraft Today and later in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance (she got it from the NROOGD tradition). After everyone has spiraled into the center of the circle and spiraled out again, with an exchange of kisses along the way, and are once more standing in a circle holding hands, this ring will be broken and the altar will be brought in. Unfortunately, as all too many can testify, the spiral dance often turns into a spiral “crack the whip” game (and no, I’m not referring to ritual scourging here), which is why I usually don’t recommend it except with 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,” to exorcise and/or bless the circle as a whole and/or all the people in it. As with the personal purifications mentioned above, 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 — much 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 (at least we hope so!).
The circle is cast by having (almost always) the High Priestess walk around it in a clockwise direction, starting at either the East Quarter Point (most common), the North (less common), or the South or West (both rare), with a consecrated sword or knife. This weapon 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 Gardner technique, 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 a ceremonial Wiccan sword should have a sharp point.
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) 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, usually 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 sexually tinged 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.)
As a general rule, after the circle has been cast, exorcised, blessed, etc., and the people are all present inside it (also exorcised/blessed), a series of invocations will be done, at each of the Quarter Points, to “the Mighty Ones,” or “the Lords of the Watch Towers,” or totem animals, or nature spirits, or “the Kings of the Elements,” etc. Some groups will add an invocation to the center, and some to the nadir and zenith as well. All these invocations finish the process of creating sacred space, by asking for the protection and cooperation of spiritual Gate Keepers. The reason there are so many, as contrasted to Paleopagan rituals or modern Neopagan Druid rites, is that the entire sacred space is considered “between the worlds,” and is in essence a single wide-open Gate. The multiple Gate Keepers focus and attune the energies allowed or encouraged to pass between the people in the circle and the spiritual beings encountered.
In Starhawkian Wicca (and some of the other liberal trads) , the circle casting, Quarter Point Invocations, exorcism/blessing of the circle and people, etc., can be done completely or fragmentarily, in any order or all at once, depending upon the consensus and/or whims of the participants.
Once the circle is complete, the usual next step is a ritual process known as “Drawing Down the Moon.” This means that the High Priestess(es), or all the women in the circle, or everyone in the circle, will attempt to manifest the Goddess of the occasion through divine inspiration, conversation, channeling, or possession. If only the High Priestess is doing this, she will often deliver a memorized speech known as “the Charge of the Goddess,” but may (if sufficiently inspired or possessed) give the members of the congregation, individually or as a whole, pointed advice and information presumed to be from the Goddess.
Some Wiccan traditions will then do “Drawing Down the Sun” upon the High Priest(s), all the men, or everyone in the circle. If done upon the High Priest, he may then deliver a “charge” or divine message from the God of the occasion. Some traditions might do the drawing down of the God before that of the Goddess at certain holidays or during certain seasons of the year.
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, sexual play, 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 known as “Cakes and Wine” (or “Cakes and Ale,” etc.). This involves the blessing of food and drink by (usually) the High Priestess and the High Priest, and passing them around for the congregation to enjoy. Some traditions offer libations (to the ground, outdoors, or in a bowl, indoors) before consuming the food and drink. 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 trad’s theory of the meal’s function.
Along with or (usually) as part of the Cakes and Wine ceremony is a magical act known as “the Great Rite,” which is the primary 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 usually done symbolically (“in token”) rather than physically (“in true”), through plunging a dagger or wand into a cup of liquid to bless the wine or ale. Gardner was, after all, working with a bunch of middle-class and working-class British occultists, not the lower-class or upper-class types, or the tribal peoples of ancient India or Britain, who might have been less inhibited in their sexuality.
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 functions 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.
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 the ceremony is declared to be over.
There is confusion in the Wiccan traditions 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 exorcism/blessing, etc.) and that therefore no one is to enter or leave without special permission and precautions (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 business” 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).
This whole collection of variations in Wiccan ceremonial patterns fits roughly within the “Common Worship Pattern” I have described elsewhere, with some traditions matching it more closely than others. I believe that Wiccan ritual can be far more powerful and effective, both thaumaturgically and theurgically, if a liturgical design is chosen that is as close a match as possible to that pattern, primarily by adding missing steps.
One of the things that you’ll notice quickly if you attend many Wiccan rituals is that they tend to be “top-heavy” — half to two-thirds of their liturgical structure consists of setting up sacred space and doing the preliminary power raising (calling the Guardians of the Quarters, etc.), with the Drawing(s) Down and spell casting or rites of passage, supposedly the purpose for the rituals, taking much less time, and the unwinding of the liturgy being positively zoomed through. Perhaps these rites would be less top-heavy if extensive trance, dancing, or other mana generating and focussing methods were used, as I think Gardner originally intended, instead of the usual two to three minutes’ worth common in current Wiccan rites. However, perhaps Gardner 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 inserts the missing parts of the common worship pattern and makes the middle of the ritual more important than the beginning or the end.
The Over-All Pattern of “A Generic Wiccan Rite”
I’ve underlined the items that are mentioned in the Common Worship Pattern. The numbered items, on the other hand, are the observable steps of the ceremony as it is performed. Remember that this is my expansion and ordering of the steps as I have done Wiccan rituals for several years now, with great success. I sincerely suggest that people experiment with adapting their liturgies to match this pattern.
First Phase: Starting the Rite & Establishing the Group mind
Clear cut Beginning: Consecration of Time
(1) Announcement of Beginning
The Consecration of Space
(2) Blessing of the Elemental Tools
(3) Casting of the Circle
(4) Blessing/Exorcism of Altar, People, and Circle
Centering, Grounding, Linking & Merging
(5) Opening Unity Meditation/Kissing Dance
(6) Specification of Ritual Purpose & Historical Precedent
(7) Specification of Deity(ies) of the Occasion & Reasons for Choice
Second Phase: Opening the Gates & Preliminary Power Raising
Invoking the Gatekeepers/Defining the Circle as Center
(8) Inviting the Guardians of the Quarters
(9) “Between the Worlds” Chant or Affirmation
Third Phase; Major Sending of Mana* to Deities of the Occasion
(10) Descriptive Invocation of Goddess and God
(11) Primary Power Raising
(12) The Sacrifice (a.k.a. the “Drop” or “Release”)
Fourth Phase: Receiving and Using the Returned Power
Preparation for the Return
(13) Meditation upon Personal and/or Group Needs
(14) Induction of Receptivity
Reception of Power from Deities of the Occasion
(15) Drawing Down the Moon
(16) Instruction from the Goddess; the Charge
(17) Optional Activity: Drawing Down the Sun
(18) Optional Activity: Instruction from the God; the Charge
(19) Optional Activity: the Great Rite (or in step 23)
(20) Cakes and Wine (Blessing and Passing)
(21) Acceptance of Individual Blessings
(22) Reinforcement of Group Bonding
(23) Optional Activity: Spell Casting or Rite of Passage
(24) Optional Activity: Second Ritual Meal with Conversation and/or Instruction
Fifth Phase: Unwinding and Ending the Ceremony
(25) Thanking of Deity(ies) Invoked
(26) Thanking of Guardians of the Quarters/Closing Gates
(27) Affirmation of Continuity & Success
Unmerging, Unlinking, Regrounding & Recentering
(28) Closing Meditation/Kissing Dance
Draining off Excess Mana
(29) Charging of Tools
Deconsecration of Space
(30) Circle Closing
Clearcut Ending: Deconsecration of Time
(31) Announcement of Ends
At some point in the not-so-distant future I will post here the text of a “Generic Wiccan Rite” according to this pattern, along with a detailed analysis and explanation of why and how each step is performed.
Copyright © 1989, 2000 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is listed, and this notice is included. If you would like to be on the author’s personal mailing list for upcoming publications, lectures, song albums, and appearances, send your snailmail and/or your email address to him at PO Box 372, Warwick, NY, USA 10990-0372 or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org