Evolving a Ritual Circle by Dallas Jennifer Cobb
Have you ever attended a large ritual and felt enveloped in magic, only to return home and wonder how to create your own magic and where to start? Or perhaps you have attended a ritual that was awkward, stilted, and seemingly scripted, and it made you question “what went wrong”?
We can be drawn to the Pagan path and not know how to enact magic in our own lives nor how to gather together in community and really make a ritual magical. Understanding that magic can be learned, evolving a ritual circle is about that process—moving from interest to involvement, from solitary to collective, and from muddled to magical.
A successful ritual requires lots of dreaming, brainstorming, planning, organizing, and hard work. It all starts with a few individuals who form a ritual circle or organizing group and work together to create a multidimensional event to celebrate the season, which brings people from the community together. Like a drop of water, an effective ritual circle sends ripples out ever increasing in size, their magic growing and spreading.
There is lots of Pagan literature available describing the format of a ritual but very little that actually speaks to the magic of making magic as a community, the hard work that takes place behind the scenes, and the nitty-gritty details of how a ritual circle evolves. While rituals generally follow a format, a successful ritual is far more than that. Making magic requires the careful weaving of ideas, energy, and intent in order to bring the format to life.
While the format is the structure that guides how the ritual progresses, the ritual circle includes the catalysts who initiate the alchemy of changing words and ideas into feelings and intention. The ritual circle members “priestess” the ritual, bringing individuals together to function as a whole, moving the group from the general to the personal and from the mundane to the magical.
But how do ritual circles evolve?
While I was young, I lived in a city and read Starhawk’s Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics as part of a women’s studies course. Entranced by the idea of taking activism into the realm of spirituality, I sought out writings by other Pagans, from Margot Adler to Z. Budapest. I became a solitary practitioner conducting awkward rituals, reading as I followed a format in a book and relying on what was written.
I found a Pagan store and through it connected with large, vibrant Pagan rituals. A bystander, I marvelled at the intricately crafted happening, recognizing the format that held it together as similar to what I was practicing in my awkward, beginner manner. I went to Witch camp, learned more Pagan practices and skills, and took place in massive community-wide rituals each evening. I marveled at how many of the skills I learned during the day were magically woven into different parts of the ritual: chants, dance, drumming, readings, storytelling, and symbology.
Back at home, I started a Full Moon circle. We met regularly, using many of Starhawk’s ideas and many Reclaiming practices to guide us. Those stumbling early steps took enormous concentration, time, and energy, but slowly we got our feet. We practiced nonhierarchy, encouraging everyone to take turns at every aspect of the organizing so that we all had access to information and leadership. We attempted consensus decision-making, often sitting a long time to come to an agreement. Together we learned how to structure a ritual, and we took turns casting a circle, calling in the directions, and greeting the God and Goddess.
But despite all the effort and good intention that went into our Moon rituals, it never felt transformative. We cast a circle but never really created sacred space. We ritualistically did work associated with the Full Moon, but I had few feelings of growth or change. Eventually I left the group because I felt like I was missing out on the “magic.”
These days I live in a sparsely populated rural area, close to nature, on the edge of the great Lake Ontario. When I moved here, my magical practice changed. I made up my own rituals to mark the sabbats, thinly veiled as other more acceptable holiday celebrations. On Halloween I told my daughter the story of Demeter and Persephone, and after trick-or-treating we made offerings of treats at the crossroad near our home. I brought more of “me” to the rituals and shaped them around my life and my little growing family. They felt more real and more significant: I was teaching and sharing with my daughter, and our time together felt quite magical. There was more meaning for me and more personal connection to the work.
I expanded my online community and met other isolated Pagan solitary practitioners. I wrote about my Pagan practice and through publishing made worldwide connections. On my own I held solitary Moon rituals, walking on the beach, writing in the sand, or plunging into the water to release the old and arising into the light. I found myself quivering as I experienced the transformation of my energy. I found the work powerful and moving. As Dion Fortune said, “Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” And I was learning how to do that. I began to trust that I knew what I was doing, that I could make magic in my own life, and that I had magic to share.
Slowly, I connected with other local Pagans, women who were also drawn to the Pagan path, and many who had been solitary practitioners. After attending a few community-based rituals, I heard the organizers welcome anyone interested in helping to plan the rituals to join them, and I leapt at the chance. I joined four women who, for the most part, organized the events. They planned and priestessed four sabbat rituals per year.
Through this involvement, I have experienced the transformational power of weaving the web with other women, designing rituals for our community, and making magic together. I have seen our ritual group evolve and grow as we have begun to spin more magic among ourselves and within our rituals and community. Magic ripples outward with increasing effect.
Within our ritual circle there is great diversity. We each bring a wealth of spiritual practice, learning, literature, knowledge, and experience to the circle. We have many similarities: we’re all women who identify as feminists and are for the most part well-educated and articulate. We have enjoyed feminist activism, education, and community involvement and have experience with nonhierarchical organizing and consensus.
We have a range of ages, experiences, and backgrounds. Some have been Pagans for thirty years, others for just a few. One defines herself as a Goddess Worshipper, another as a Wiccan, and still another as a Pagan. We have different levels of confidence and comfort with public speaking. Our differences are perhaps what make for such potent magic among us. We come from different paths and identify differently, so we bring diverse tools and techniques to the circle. Together we have developed an accepting, pan-Pagan practice as we “cross-pollinate,” each of us enhanced by the others.
Sharing, learning, and teaching within the ritual circle, my confidence has grown as I have started to express my own individual form of magic and recognize that I bring a lot to the group. I have evolved from feeling like I had to disguise my Pagan practice to feeling confident and knowing I have lots to offer. I have felt excited by hearing different perspectives, learning new tools, and growing.
As a result of accessing more tools through my circle, my personal magical practice has evolved, deepening my awareness of magic at work in my life, and I feel supported to go deeper and do more meaningful magical work.
I also see the other women evolving, taking new ideas, new ways of working magic and new resources from each other. They are evolving individually, and collectively.
My evolution is linked to the evolution of these women, and we all contribute to the evolution of our organizing group. Spiralling outward, the rituals we organize have also evolved. No longer noisy, chaotic drum circles around a fire, we work through consensus; choose a theme; brainstorm chants, drumming, music, readings, and storytelling to build energy; and weave our individual magic together. Our rituals have evolved into elaborately crafted magical ceremonies with deep meaning and the opportunity for deep magical work.
The setting of a ritual is crucial. It must be accessible, safe, and welcoming to people of all abilities and mobilities. The considerations include physical accessibility, comfort, creating safe and sacred space, and having suitable facilities for feasting and cleaning up. I’ve been to rituals held in fields, in an empty industrial building, and many in private homes where the space was uncomfortable, cramped, and, at times, unsafe.
While outdoor spaces can be used when the weather cooperates, indoor is better. There are no rocks, uneven ground, sand, or mud to impede mobility. Ideally, there are doors wide enough for wheelchairs, washrooms adjacent to the main meeting area, and a hospitable space for storing feast food.
We found a fantastic space for holding our rituals. It’s accessible, accommodating, centrally located, and well maintained. It has great acoustics, a built-in sound system, and lots of big comfortable chairs that can be moved into a circle. The floors are hardwood and invite barefoot dancing. There are washrooms and a kitchen, garbage cans, a water dispenser, and even folding tables to use for the feast foods.
We hold our rituals in a church.
Not in the basement or in an adjoining room but in the main chapel. It is physically suitable and imbued with lots of its own spirit. While some were opposed to holding Pagan gatherings in a Christian space, we held long discussions about it, and many points of view arose. Finally, we were swayed by the idea that the church was open to us, so we should be open to the church. And, if the minister of the church wanted to attend our rituals, she should be welcomed warmly. It was our chance to further cross-pollinate.
Our Vernal Equinox Ritual
Our standard ritual structure is this: setting the altar, cleansing/smudging, creating sacred space, casting the circle, calling in the directions and center, raising energy, performing magical work, making a covenant, grounding, farewell to the directions and center, closing announcements, and opening the circle to feast.
Here is our vernal equinox ritual, a beautiful example of how our ritual circle has evolved:
Sacred handwashing at the door cleanses/smudges each participant.
While people are milling and chatting, the crones sweep the ritual space with their besoms.
Circle member V plays the didgeridoo, calling us to circle.
A single bell is rung, signaling the sweepers to sit.
S circles, distributing a bell to each person and inviting them to ring it. The sound passes around sequentially; the circle is cast. People are invited to stand.
The directions are called by four different women, each detailing the significance of the direction and element, hailing and welcoming it. R calls in center, above and below, shoots and roots, stating that we are between the worlds and that what happens between the worlds affects all worlds.
M invites everyone to welcome the ancestors and the absent ones by calling out the names of those we want to bring into the circle in spirit, and then leads the chant:
We all come from the Goddess.
When it draws to a close, I rise. I speak about the significance of the vernal equinox, the themes of light and dark, balance, youth, sprouting and potential, starting over, seeds cracking and sprouting, shoots and tender roots.
I chant lyrics from Leonard Cohen, a rhyming set of lines that reminds us that where we are broken is where the light gets in. The first repetition is done slowly and loudly so everyone can learn the lyrics. On the second repetition bells are added. Over five repetitions the volume, cadence, and energy of the chant increases. B begins to drum, and the pitch rises to ecstatic. And then comes the signal to stop.
V steps to the center of the circle and quietly introduces the work, speaking of waking the seeds within, that which lies in our unconscious, what we are unaware of, what needs to sprout in our lives now, and how we will water and nurture these seeds, bringing them into the light in the days following the equinox.
Breaking the circle into four quarters, each of us has a group and leads the process of clearing energy from each person, one at a time:
We ring lightly at the feet, to clear old stuff. We ring near the heart center to awaken love and creativity. We do this as a community. Clearing and healing one another.
Moving up the body and over their crown chakra, people are encouraged,
Let go. Compost what is falling away and dying, and let it nourish your new seeds.
We finish with each of us putting a hand on the person, blessing them and saying,
Be free, be strong, be yourself.
The process is repeated for each person. The bells are collected and placed into a basket on the altar. People sit down.
R reads “And the Great Mother Said” by Linda Reuther.
B passes the chalice, urging each person to take one chocolate egg, make a covenant, and commit to the work.
I rise to walk around the circle, saying,
Join me. Place your hand over your heart. Slowly tap twice, making the heartbeat sound. Thump-thump.
My heart beats. Thump-thump.
Your heart beats. Thump-thump.
And I know I am not alone.Thump-thump.
We are in this together. Thump-thump.
The chest thumping and heart beating goes on for a short while, grounding the energy and bringing people back into their bodies. A single bell signals the end.
R bids farewell to center and asks each direction, “What gift will you leave us?” The directions are released.
M gives thanks, reminds people to take their dishes home, and welcomes anyone interested in helping organize to leave their e-mail address.
The circle is open, and the feast begins.