In Ritual space we open our hearts to each other, to the Gods, and to experiences. We share our
most precious moments and transform lives together; but how do we know how to behave when
in unfamiliar Ritual space? I will walk you through the basic aspects of Ritual Etiquette so
you’ll be ready for any situation without causing any faux pas.
Firstly, we must determine the kind of space we are in. Is this a public, or private ritual? Lets distinguish some differences.
Public Ritual: If it’s on a flyer, website, etc – it’s likely a public event. Events advertised in such a way are often clearly marked if they are not intended for everyone, and there should be a number or email to contact someone if you’re not sure.
Organizers of public rituals tend to plan around the attendee who might have the least experience, or in most cases, someone with no experience at all. They plan to explain, make things clear, and help you understand when you’re to participate and when you are to just watch. They tend to be fairly scripted, and this means that you are unlikely to be called on to do anything specific.
Private Ritual: If it’s open only to friends, covenmates, invited guests, etc – this is a private ritual. These are most often held in the home of the Priest/Priestess. You should speak to the person inviting you to get an idea of what is expected, what you should bring, wear, etc. Find out if you are the only guest, and find out if people are allowed to bring someone with them or if they are to come alone. Expect that if you were the one invited, only you are expected to come. It will not be appreciated or welcome should you bring someone unexpected or uninvited. For a non-member to be invited to a coven's private ritual - which are often members-only events - is a privilege and an honor. Be respectful, and honor that gift.
What to expect in Ritual:
I will assume that you've never been in a ritual before for the purposes of the following.
Depending on the type of tradition you are visiting, and whether the event is public or private, there may be some differences here, but this is a typical outline of what you can expect in a ritual:
- Cleansing and purifying the space (through sprinkling water, burning incense, etc), sometimes you yourself might be cleansed by the priest or priestess. When you enter the ceremonial area, you may be smudged with incense or anointed in some way.
- Calling on the elements or quarters. In these cases, typically everyone in attendance turns to face the area being addressed, and if the invocation ends with phrases like “hail!” or “so mote it be” the attendees are often expected to repeat them. Be sure to follow along if people are repeating phrases, or sharing in an action such as raising their athames (ritual knives for those not in the know) in a direction.
- "Casting" the circle. This is done any number of ways dependent upon the tradition, but you can expect that it will be “drawn” in some way. Once the circle is cast, no one should exit the space unless “Cut out.”
- The main body of the ritual – this could be a story, a meditation, a ritual drama, an invocation, or any number of things. This portion will often include something participatory, such as dancing or drumming to raise energy. You might be asked to participate along with everyone else in some small act, such as writing a wish onto a piece of paper and throwing it into the fire.
- Cakes and wine/Libations. This part of the ritual often includes blessing some food and/or drink and passing it around. Follow along with how others participate. If it involves a communal cup – be sure to pass or drink from your hand if you have a communicable illness.
- Saying farewell, and closing the circle. Just like before, you may be participating in saying goodbye to the quarters.
When we are in ritual, we are opening our hearts and sharing our most precious hopes, ideas,
and fears. We want to be safe to do so, and so we must do our parts to help others feel safe too.
The pagan community in theory, is a place with no rules, in practice however, you’ll find it a different matter entirely.
Things to Know Before a Ritual:
- Ritual is not a “drop in/drop out” situation. It would be rude to leave church in the middle of a service and it is just as bad, if not worse, in ritual. If you cannot participate fully, it is best to notify your priest/priestess and not attend.
- NO CELL PHONES – all devices should be turned off, and left outside of the circle.
- NEVER TAKE PHOTOS. Rituals are not spectator sports. If you are taking photos, you are not participating. They are a distraction, and also put someone at risk of being outed if they are closeted about their faith. On that note: ONLY TAKE PHOTOS OF PAGANS WITH EXPRESS PERMISSION. The number one taboo of magical etiquette is outing someones identity, it can have very serious repercussions in peoples lives – there is still a lot of paranoia and propaganda against pagans. Remember that many are at varying degrees of being “out” – just because they are open at work, doesn’t mean their family knows and so on.
- Do not bring children and animals unless you know for certain they are welcome. Just because the organizer knows you and your children/pets are always welcome at an event at your home, doesn’t mean they would necessarily be welcome at a ritual. These are issues of focus, distraction, energy drain, broken spaces, and even allergies in the case of pets. Many traditions do not allow minors at a ritual because of dress code, libations, or other issues.
- Illegal drugs and alcohol (outside of libations) are not appropriate in sacred space. You should have a clear mind and focus.
- If there is a feast before or after, bring something! In fact, even if not, bring something! Your organizer will always appreciate the gift. Many times after a ritual I’ve been too tired to cook the next day, and a gift of bread, muffins, a lasagna or some other thing has been such an incredibly appreciated boon. If there are people present you don’t know, be sure to mark any feast items with potentially deadly allergens like nuts. Never come empty handed!
- If the ritual is in someones home, remember your impact there. While studying craft my fellow covenmates and I would coordinate and bring things like toilet paper, paper towels, soap, bottled water, or other such things as gifts once in a while in recognition of all that our priestess did to host us in her home two weekends per month.
- Offer your aid and support to the organizer of the ritual. They may not need it, but it matters. Rituals take a lot of energy and preparation – respect this gift by offering to do what you can.
- Fulfill your commitments. A ritual is a play of many parts – if you’ve promised to bring something, and do not, the ritual may not be able to function without it. If you absolutely cannot, it is vital that you inform someone, or have someone fill your role.
- Don’t bring someone who wasn’t invited if the event is private. Just don’t.
- Avoid contacting the Priest/Priestess in the hours or minutes leading up to the ritual. Preparation is important, and they need this time to prepare space, mind, and body for the evening. Instead, make sure you have directions to the location ahead of time, have a clear understanding of what you’re bringing/doing, and have on hand the number of someone else in attendance (preferably someone in the know) that you can contact with questions.
- Avoid asking the Priest/Priestess for detailed one-on-one descriptions before ritual. They are busy, and trying to keep their mind clear. Read your invite clearly before showing up, if the information you need wasn’t included – they will surely be giving some clarification about the evening prior to the ritual beginning. I promise, the last thing they want rattling around in their head while conducting ritual is your question about how long ritual will go since you have other plans tonight. It’s really crucial not to demand personal attention from the Priest/Priestess before ritual unless they are offering it freely.
- Ask if you should bring any tools with you, in many cases, an athame and a cup are asked of you. If you don’t have one, someone might be happy to lend you one.
- Never leave without offering to clean up. The leader may refuse, but it’s still crucial that you offer.
- If the event is public: Don’t bring someone who will freak out. If it’s a heavy ritual, the organizer has probably taken pains to explain that – but don’t bring someone along who doesn’t have all the details, and who might be frightened or confused by the goings on. Always be sure that your guests (if you’re allowed to bring them) know what type of situation they are walking into, and it is polite to notify the organizer if there is someone present who has no experience at all in ritual/Craft, etc. Good leaders want everyone to feel welcome and at home, and they will take extra care with someone new.
- If the event is in someones home, make sure you know the rules ahead of time about overnight guests. Oftentimes people are traveling a distance, but space is at a premium. Never just assume that you know the plan.
- Do a little research ahead of time to see what’s being celebrated. It may be a sabbat (one of the eight holidays), a full moon, a handfasting, or any number of events! Knowing the purpose can give you an idea of the “theme” of the night.
- Generally, you have a wide range of things to wear to a ritual. If it isn’t included in your invite, be sure to ask the organizer. Some events will say “anything at all!” but some might be Skyclad (nude), some might request something flowing with nothing underneath, some might request all white or black, and some might request fine garb for an especially specific occasion.
As a general rule, something that makes you feel magical is just perfect. When you arrive, you may see people who look different or downright unusual. If you see someone wearing Ren-Faire garb, long white robes, Spock ears, a pink tutu, or even nothing at all, don't stare. Try not to make assumptions about people based on what they're wearing (or, as the case may be, not wearing).
- Arrive on time. Typically, arriving as much as an hour ahead is perfectly acceptable. Do not arrive later than 15 minutes prior to when you’ve been asked. Generally speaking a ritual will not begin at the time listed as the arrival time. (consult with the organizer to be sure)
- Rituals can last - 1-2 hours, but not typically longer, though you should never plan anything for after a ritual. Ritual may begin late, last longer than expected, or there may be food and socialization after. (don’t forget also that this time after is also used for cleaning up!)
- Come to ritual grounded, centered, and cleansed. Some spaces (especially private ones) will have somewhere that you can do this on site, but a public ritual might expect you to arrive this way. There can be many different energies in play at a ritual and it’s a courtesy to leave the world behind when you enter the space. If this is something you’re unsure about, ask the organizer for a preferred method or some tips.
- As many rituals include the consumption of food and drink, let the organizer know ahead of time if you cannot have alcohol, or if you have any particular allergies.
- Be prepared to be supportive of others – trust and intimacy are a necessity for magical work and can only be created in an environment of respect and kindness.
- Participate fully! Sing, dance, clap, drum – it’s the participation of everyone that makes a ritual work! If you’re not adding to the ritual, you are a weight on the collective energy. Join in however you can! Even if a ritual is observational (i.e. you’re cast outside the circle space) your energy is still a part of the moment.
- Focus. The moment is about the magic, come early to socialize – don’t chat during ritual.
- Be aware of what the boundary of ritual space is. If you are outside of the space that is one thing, but if you are within and must leave – cut a doorway and seal it back up when you leave (doing so as quietly as possible). It’s best to plan ahead not to leave the circle unless it is an emergency, even with care the energy is disrupted and lost.
- Craft or Magical names: Many folks in the pagan community use “Craft” names that are pseudonymns both for magical reasons and to protect their identities. It is considered polite to use craft names within ritual space, and it is rude to ask mundane/legal names if they do not provide them to you. If a person has an earned title, such as Priest, Priestess, or Lady – their tradition may call for its use. Follow the lead of others in the know if you’re unsure.
- Possession and Aspecting: You may see in some rituals, the High Priest, or Priestess, might as part of the ritual become possessed by a God or Spirit. This may be planned, or unplanned, and it might be a full possession, or they may simply be speaking on behalf of a deity or spirit. Even if this is something outside your beliefs, courtesy dictates that you treat the situation with utmost respect and in a manner appropriate with the possessing being. This type of ritual is very trying on the person being possessed, and it is polite to realize this and lend your aid in an appropriate manner. Do not touch their body unless asked, and don’t be surprised if you see someone faint, or something similar. You may be asked to retrieve water, or perform some other task in their care. This does not necessarily mean that the ritual has ended, so stay at the ready for whatever comes next.
- Go with the flow. If something isn’t going as you expect in the ritual – I’m sure the facilitator is doing it for a reason. Be curious after, chat with them, but in the moment, just go with it! Nothing messes up a flow worse than someone hissing a perceived correction. Remember that not all traditions do quarters, altars, invocations, and so on, in the same way.
- First and foremost, don't do anything you're not comfortable doing. If it’s something that you don't understand, or in any way that does not feel right to you. You are welcome to stand quietly in the assembly or nearby, and no one that matters will think any the less of you. Just remember that if leaving a cast circle, it’s polite to ask to be cut out.
- Oaths are taken seriously by Pagans. If you swear something, be sure it is honorable, that you can do it, and that you will do it. That doesn't mean it has to be easy. In fact, if you go to the trouble to make an oath, it's better that it not be easy, as many will tell you that insignificant oaths are made by insignificant people. Failing to uphold an oath is a mark against your character that few will overlook. Measure an oath carefully before you make it, or don't make it at all. Oaths create consequences and obligations for those who witness them as well as for those who make them, so discuss your intentions with your host before you swear an oath as it might not be the proper time or place.
- Do not push your beliefs on others at the ritual, even if you don’t agree with what is happening. Remember, you are a guest, and you chose to attend! If you are a non-Pagan attendee at a Pagan ritual, be assured that no one will ask you to profess your beliefs publicly. Maybe you don't believe in the gods or goddesses invoked; maybe you think all this magic stuff is silly; or maybe you find the ritual interesting in a detached, academic way, but don't really see what others get out of it. As long as you are respectful, you will be welcome.
- Most traditions require that once inside a circle, go clockwise only – that is, keep the right side of your body to the altar when moving around the circle.
- Remember that a ritual isn’t a class. Don’t interrupt to ask questions about whats going on, or the things you see.
- If you’ve never attended a pagan ritual, remember that for many, joy and laughter is part of the process. While many traditions in the world are solemn and somber – paganism is often quite the opposite. If someone sets their sleeve on fire over the incense, drops something, fumbles their words, or farts – don’t be surprised at laughter, and don’t feel badly about joining in, it’s all a part of the experience.
- Rituals happen under implied oaths of confidence and peace. That means, keep what happens to yourself, keep who you meet there to yourself, and be kind and loving to one another while there. In that space you are family, and fights and meanness wouldn’t be tolerated.
- Don’t be alarmed if you feel strangely. Some people new to ritual might feel dizzy, jittery, lightheaded and so on. You might even see things you don’t expect or can’t explain – a lot of energy is happening and it’s meant to be transformative. Don’t panic if this happens! It can be weird, but talk later to the Priest or Priestess about your experiences – they can help you “ground” if needed.
- Remember that the Craft is not (typically) congregational. It is a participatory faith, and that should lead your actions when a guest in someones circle.
- It is customary in many traditions to respond to “hail and welcome,” “hail and farewell,” “so mote it be,” and “blessed be” in kind (that is, to echo the same phrase back).
- When in doubt, watch the people around you for clues as to what you should be doing. If the everyone faces west, this is a clue that you should too!
- Do not touch anything you are not expressly asked to touch. This includes everything from personal tools, to someones body. Unless permission has expressly been given, consider it 100% off limits. Especially in skyclad practice it is never polite to stare or touch. Never touch anything on the altar unless specifically invited to do so. Not before. Not during. Not after.
- You may see gifts of food, drink, or flowers from the altar made to spirits of the land. Oftentimes these leftover ritual items are laid aside in nature.
- Do not complain about the ritual. People need to hear what went right – I assure you that they already know what went wrong. Unless they ask for constructive feedback, resist the urge.
- Thank the organizer – and the best thanks is in action. Offer to help clean up after, because they are often left on their own with so much in terms of prep and cleanup. Cleaning up means staying until the last sweep of the broom. When the tables and candles are put away, it may look like it's mostly done, but you're only halfway there at most.
- If there are logistical issues, rest assured that the organizer is aware of them, and doesn’t need you pointing it out. They know their space is too small, they know its in the boonies, they know the website needs updating. They’re busy, they’re doing the best they can, and they’re likely doing it all at their own personal expense.
- Once the ritual is over, there is often food and drink, and it might even be a part of the ritual. In many traditions, the High Priestess takes the sip or bite before anyone else may eat or drink - be sure to watch and see what everyone else is doing before diving in to save yourself from any faux pas.
I hope you have found this useful and as this is a compilation of notes, I would like to thank everyone that contributed thoughts, or whos writing inspired me to add something to this list.
Talk to you soon everyone!