The Basic Principles of Liturgical Design
The Basic Principles of Liturgical Design
© Isaac Bonewits
Originally published in Druid's Progress #4
For the last decade or so, people in the Neopagan community, like those in the mainstream religions, have been complaining about the quality of the rituals they do. Although things have improved somewhat recently, it's my observation that, on a logarithmic scale of one-to-ten, the average Neopagan ritual still only rates about "three" or "four", as far as the actual amount of psychic energies raised are concerned (though the mainstream folks are lucky to get a "one" or a "two"). If you want to consider the question of specific, desired and verifiable results from Neopagan ceremonies, then our ratings go down even further.
Even the best Neopagan ceremonies, such as the ADF Summer Solstice celebrations (he said modestly), the ones that people talk about for weeks and months afterwards, fall far short of what they could be. Yet politeness, interpersonal and intergroup politics, lack of fundamental psychic and magical training, and childhood conditioning that says "you don't criticize religious ceremonies", here all conspire to make people reluctant to voice their growing doubts about the ritual technology in common use in our community. And of course, simple ignorance of what really strong psychic energies feel like, has been responsible for many of us never really knowing what it is that we're actually missing.
This essay is intended to make ADF members and friends familiar with what I consider the most important theoretical and practical aspects of creating public worship rituals with genuine power and predictable results. Although my focus in this discussion is on Druidic ceremonies, most of what I have to say will be applicable to the liturgies being created and modified by a wide variety of other religious traditions, inside and outside of the Neopagan community.
I don't get into much in the way of specific detail in this essay, but that is not its purpose. ADF members know by now that I prefer to give them a thorough grounding in fundamentals, before going on to the nitty-gritty details. All too often, religious and magical teachers have focussed people's attention on the superficial aspects of what they were doing, instead of giving them the basic understanding that would allow them to make changes.
The pages that follow in this issue of DP (and those I expect you to write in future issues!) will explore the applications of these basic principles to the creation and performance of ADF liturgies. Those of you who belong to other Neopagan traditions should be able to apply this material to your own systems.
Throughout this essay and the ones that follow, I'll refer to the "performance" of a ritual, and make numerous other references to the theatrical and musical aspects of ceremonies. I've learned over the last twenty years, mostly from the priestesses and bards with whom I've worked, that the artistic elements of a ritual, and most especially the musical and dramatic ones, can be the critical determiners of just how much psychic, magical and/or spiritual energy gets raised by the participants, and of how well that energy is maintained, focussed and discharged.
Most Neopagans won't object to an emphasis on music and singing, but will balk at the suggestion that a good ceremony should also be good theater. We've been raised in a culture that believes that "theatrical" equals "phony", and that being an actor means being a fraud. We've forgotten that what we now call theater was originally part of the Ancient Greek religion (essentially, a way to handle thousands of people in a single ceremony), and that all great performers act as mediums, channeling energy between themselves, the audience and the collective unconscious. It's difficult for those of us who are white, middle-class intellectuals (and that's most Neopagans) to relax and be dramatic in our rituals. So we tend to be inhibited both in our scripts and our performances, and to not bother to learn the dramatic skills we need -- including the scripting, directing, and acting skills necessary to make sure that everyone feels involved at every step of the ritual (so that no "performer vs. audience" distinction develops). Yet if we can manage to overcome our inhibitions, our prejudices, and our laziness, our ceremonies will improve a thousandfold in power, beauty, and glory.
Part One: Preliminary Definitions
I like to start complex discussions with a series of definitions of the terms that are going to be used. I know this is unusual in the occult community, but it does make sure from the start that everyone has a clear idea of what I mean when using various technical terms -- especially when those technical terms have vague and fuzzy meanings in the minds of most readers. In addition, an understanding of the etymological origins of various technical terms can (a) provide us with clearer concepts of what our ancestors and/or predecessors meant by those terms; and thus (b) give us clues to the ancient customs associated with their use; and (c) enable us to overcome the later monotheistic changes to their meanings. So please bear with me for the next couple of pages.
The word "liturgy", says the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the Greek word leitourgia, meaning "public service, service of the Gods, public worship." It's used most often in English to refer to the Christian (especially Eastern Orthodox) ceremony known as the "Eucharist" or "Mass". More generally, according to the O.E.D., liturgy can also be defined as "public worship conducted in accordance with a prescribed form." Interestingly enough, among the Ancient Greeks it also meant "a public office or duty which the richer citizens discharged at their own expense" -- now that sounds a lot like the current Neopagan approach!
"Ceremony", on the other hand, comes from the Latin caerimonia, meaning "An outward rite or observance, religious or held sacred; the performance of some solemn act according to prescribed form." That's from the O.E.D. again, which also defines it as "sacredness, sanctity, awe, reverence, exhibition of reverence or veneration, religious rite." In other words, the emphasis in this term was originally on public rituals of a sacred nature. However, "ceremony" is now often used as a synonym for "ritual" in general, both by the mainstream western culture and within the occult community.
But what does "worship" mean? It comes from the Old English weorthscipe (with about a dozen variations in its spelling). Originally, the O.E.D. tells us, it meant "the condition (in a person) of deserving, or being held in, esteem or repute; honour, distinction, reknown; good name, credit." Eventually, the religious connotations took precedence; and as a noun, worship became "reverence or veneration paid to a being or power regarded as supernatural or divine; the action or practice of displaying this by appropriate acts, rites, or ceremonies." As a verb, which is our primary concern in this essay, to worship something or someone means "to honour or revere as a supernatural being or power, or as a holy thing; to regard or approach with veneration; to adore with appropriate sets, rites or ceremonies."
Because the concepts involved in worship are absolutely central to this discussion, let's take a quick glance at what some of the subsidiary words in these last few definitions mean: to "venerate" means "to regard with feelings of respect and reverence; to look upon as something exalted, hallowed or sacred; to reverence or revere." "Reverence" means "deep respect and veneration for some thing, place or person regarded as having asacred or exalted character." Lastly, to "adore" means "to worship as a deity, to pay divine honours to. To reverence very highly; to regard with the utmost respect and affection."
These are typically circular definitions, but they do point out several very important aspects of the nature of worship: when you are worshipping an ancestor, a spirit or a deity, you are showing them (and any observers who may be present) that you have respect for them (or Them). You are acknowledging that their status is higher than yours in some fashion, and perhaps most important in a polytheological sense, you are showing your affection as well as reverence for them. We'll go into the psychic, magical and spiritual implications of worship much later in this essay, but for now I want to emphasise that nowhere in any of these definitions is there a requirement for groveling, abasement or self-humiliation. These seem to come in with monotheistic ideas of omnipotent deities who act as if they were Middle Eastern despots.
So with all that out of the way, let's define the main term that this essay is all about: "Liturgical design" is a subcategory of ritual design in general, in this case, the art and science of creating effective rituals for public worship. That seems simple enough, but unfortunately, we still need to review the definitions of six other critical terms (this time my own definitions, the first five taken from the Glossary in Real Magic, instead of the O.E.D.) before we can continue, to wit: "magic", "religion", "ritual", "thaumaturgy", "theurgy", and "polytheology":
"Magic" is, among other things, a general term for arts, sciences. philosophies and technologies concerned with (a) understanding and using various altered states of consciousness within which it is possible to have access to and control over your psychic talents, and (b) the uses and abuses of those talents to change interior and/or exterior realities.
A "religion" is (again among other things), a magical system combined with aphilosophical and ethical system, usually oriented towards"'supernatural" beings; a psychic structure composed of the shared beliefs, experiences and related habits of all members (not just the theologians) of any group calling itself a religion. As a general rule, a religion shapes and expresses the entire worldview of its members, and conditions their concepts of necessary and proper behavior.
A "ritual" is any ordered sequence of events, actions and/or directed thoughts, especially one that is meant to be repeated in the "same" manner each time, that is designed to produce a predictable altered state of consciousness within which certain results may be obtained. The results may be mundane, as in achieving efficiency at your job through the ceremonial ingestion of coffee, in order to alter your state of consciousness to "awake" (the worship of the goddess Caffieina).
The desired results may be intellectual ones, as with the discoveries made through the various rituals known as "the scientific method." Or they might be artistic, as in the magnificent ceremony called "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony". But for the purposes of this issue of DP, we'll restrict the use of the word "ritual" to refer to those that are designed to produce psychic/magical/religious results.
The primary purpose of ritual is to reduce uncertainty, through the use of (consciously or subconsciously) established patterns of behavior that are known to have "worked" in the past, and which are therefore (by the magical Law of Pragmatism) considered to be "true", "correct" or "effective". The more people who are involved in attempting to accomplish a given goal, whether it's pulling in a fishing net or beseeching the Gods for rain, the more useful ritual behavior becomes.
Ritual is often confused with "ritualism", which like most other "-isms" consists of an obsession with the superficial aspects of the root word. Dry and sterile rituals performed by clergy and congregations who have forgotten the reasons behind their actions, but who are sticklers for "tradition", have given an undeservedly bad name to "ritual". As Neopagans, we have the opportunity to reclaim "ritual" as a neutral or even positive term.
"Thaumaturgy" is the use of magic for "nonreligious" (mundane or secular) purposes, even though it may be done within a religious context. Originally this Greek term meant the art and science of "wonder working"; we can think of it as using magic to actually change things on "the Earth Plane" of physical reality.
"Theurgy", on the other paw, is the use of magic for religious and/or psychotherapeutic purposes, in order to attain "salvation" or "personal evolution".
Most people are familiar with the term "theology", which is from the Greek theologia, "god-knowledge". Theology is usually defined as "the study of God", meaning the monotheistic concept of a Supreme Being. This Supreme Being is almost always thought of as humanoid and male, a fact which has not escaped the notice of modern feminists.
In recent years, feminist philosophers have coined a new term, "thealogy", based on the Greek thea for "goddess", and used to refer to "the study of Goddess" -- in other words, religious philosophy with an emphasis upon the feminine aspects of Divinity. But although some of these "thealogians" use their term to refer to discussions about specific historical goddesses (usually as faces of a single Goddess), most of them are still working within a monistic and monotheistic philosophical framework.
As a practicing Neopagan priest for almost twenty years, I have had to search for a term to use to describe the sort of philosophical, spiritual and ceremonial studies and practices that I have been engaged in, all of which were planted in pluralistic and polytheistic soil. I tried using "theoilogy" for a while, but that spelling, based on the Greek theoi ("the gods", plural), is even more likely to be considered a typographical error than "thealogy" is. Eventually, I settled on "polytheology" as an obvious, intuitive term for "polytheistic theology" -- one that most English speakers would recognize immediately.
For the purposes of this essay, we'll consider "polytheology" to include every subcategory of knowledge/speculation that "theology" and "thealogy" contain, but with an emphasis on the pluralistic, polytheistic approach, especially as manifested by modern Neopagans. And with all these definitions out of the way, we can proceed.
Part Two: The Polytheology of Spirits, Deities, and Worship
A couple of centuries of Modern Science have devastated so many Judeo-Christian-Islamic ("J-C-I") dogmas that most intelligent people in our western culture have, consciously or subconsciously, decided that all J-C-I beliefs are "unscientific". Yet a person who has rejected every other J-C-I dogma will often continue to accept the one that says, "Judiasm/Christianity/Islam (choose one, and then a denomination within it) is the only real religion." This, of course, is based on the rockbottom monotheistic belief that "there's only one God, one reality, and one true religion."
Once you decide that the only "real" religion (usually your childhood one) is unscientific, and therefore unworthy of belief by a modern intellectual, it's a short step to declaring all those other "inferior" religions, magical systems, and psychic technologies to be equally unscientific and absurd. The technical term for this is "throwing the baby out with the bath water." And the usual result is a conversion to atheism, agnosticism, marxism, scientism, or some other nontheistic faith.
The irony here is that, although science doesn't really support any of the monotheistic religions very much any more, ever since Einstein it's tended more and more towards multi-model, pluralistic theories that fit very well indeed with polytheism and traditional non-monotheistic occultism. This makes it sad that even people who have consciously rejected monotheism for polytheism, and who practice various forms of "magical religion" (such as Neopaganism), are reluctant to let go of certain scientistic prejudices, especially those concerning materialism and the nature of reality.
I've often thought that the overwhelming reason why most modern magic is so inept, is that most modern magicians, Witches, Druids, etc. (whether Mesopagan or Neopagan), really don't believe in magic. It gets worse with religion. If you don't believe that the Gods are real People, in some sense or another, then the concept of worship becomes meaningless. Worship ceremonies become excuses for socializing, or for showing off the wealth or political status of the participants.
Let's recall that the root meaning of "worship" refers to respect. The showing of reverence towards spiritual entities is a logical outgrowth of this, at least for people who consider their gods to be worthy of respect. It implies that some sort of relationship exists between the worshippers and the ones being worshipped. If you want to create meaningful liturgies, then you and the folks you are working with need to have some polytheological theories of worship that make sense to you. Here are the ones I use:
A few modern occultists have been upset that I equate the energies used in ESP, PK, and other "psychic" talents with the "magical" energies used in casting spells. I'll go even further, in that I believe the Indo-Europeans made no clear distinction between these energies and those we might call "spiritual", and neither do I. All of these were represented by Fire, and the fact that humans had psychic and magical talents proved that they had the "spark of divinity" within. I believe that this is the origin of the Hindu concept of atman which was both the individual spark (or the "real self") and the universal sea of divine flame. Fire became the symbol of the source of "enlightenment".
The Hindu metaphysicians later divided this energy up into different "levels of vibration", a concept which the Theosophists picked up, injected a lot of Christianity into, and passed along into the western occult mainstream as "etheric", "astral", "mental", and "causal" "planes of existence" (there's another matching three-plus-one pattern for you!). But the essential unity of these energies was maintained by the Hindus.
I believe that psychic energy not only permeates every human, but the entire universe as well, since I think it is part of the structure of "reality", like magnetism or gravity. This fits well with the Pagan concept of divinity as being both transcendent and immanent. So most of the time I tend to think of spiritual and psychic and magical energies as being all the "same" thing viewed from different perspectives. I believe that the Gods and all other spirits are either "composed" of psychic energy, or at least must use it to communicate with humans.
In DP#1 I mentioned that sometimes Neopagans believe in the Gods as "individual and independent entities; sometimes as Jungian 'archetypes of the collective unconscious' or 'circuits in the psychic Switchboard'; sometimes as aspect, or faces of one or two major deities ..... and sometimes as 'all of the above'." Regardless of what deities and other spirits may "really" be in some abstract "objective" universe, in the subjective personal multiverse in which we experience our daily lives, these energy patterns frequently act as if they were ''real people" of various sizes and powers, who just don't happen to have physical bodies as we generally conceive of matter. Being polytheists, we are free to accept a multi-model theory that involves all these possible explanations, and many more besides.
Some spirits seem to be fragments of humans who once lived, and are called "ghosts" and/or "the ancestors". Other spirits seem to be anthropomorphic modifications or filterings of energy patterns associated with natural phenomena, and are called "nature spirits". Other spirits are deliberate or accidental creations of human minds, and are known as "artificial elementals". When any of these energy patterns gets enough psychic energy fed into it, it begins to act more and more independent, and to engage in behavior designed to encourage more energy to be fed to it (if it just steals energy when it wants to, it will be called a "demon" or "evil spirit"). If a spirit gets to be large and powerful enough, and is perceived as predominately beneficial, it may become a deity. A feedback loop is established between the deity and His/Her worshippers through mythology, ritual, art, polytheology, and psychic phenomena.
Most of you will recall my discussion of "the Switchboard" in Real Magic, where I defined it as a "postulated network of interlocking metapatterns of everyone who has ever lived or who is living now, expressed as constantly changing and infinitely subtle modifications of current telepathic transmissions and receptions." Another way to put it would be "the total groupmind of humanity." Perhaps Jung's "collective unconscious" and/or De Ghardn's "Noesphere", and/or even the Theosophist's "causal plane", are all concepts pointing in the same direction.
Some Neopagans have borrowed the Paleopagan concept of a "High God", or a "Supreme Being", who happens to be the ancestor of one's tribe, and from whom all the Gods are "descended". Such Neopagans then think of the Gods they worship as "aspects" or "faces of this High God, a process known as "theocrasy", or "god-blending". This is something folks have been doing for millenia, though usually with local major divinities (Ra, Isis, Vishnu, Freya, etc.) rather than their High Gods. Neopagan Witches tend to have a double-gendered High God/dess, who is thought of as a blend of all the gods and goddesses that humans have ever known (should we call this "duotheocrasy" or "duotheoicrasy"?). Feminist Witches have this same approach, with only the female deities being mentioned, so we can call it "theacrasy". Regardless of the gender or genders chosen to represent the Supreme God, the principle is the same. (Neopagans may be worried about theocracy, but theocrasy doesn't bother them much at all!)
Which theory of divinity is "correct"? As a polytheologian, I tend to be one of those who says, "All of the above!" Each of these views of divinity can be useful, depending upon which area of your life (which "level of reality" or "plane of existence") is of concern at a given moment. For the purposes of defining the nature of worship, it's only necessary to consider two basic ideas: Firstly, that a god or goddess is (among other things) a pattern of energy, regardless of whether you think of that energy as "psychological", "magical", "psychic", "spiritual", or any of other kind. Secondly, rather than bemoaning anthropomorphic (humanlike) descriptions of the Gods, we should embrace them as, if nothing else, useful metaphors to describe the types of interactions appropriate for humans to have with Them.
The average Paleopagan culture had/has few ceremonies that concern their High God, believing that the Supreme Being is not concerned with human affairs. Instead they concentrate on interacting with the gods and goddesses who rule the tribe and the world around it. Because Neopagan Witchcraft began as a Mesopagan system, highly contaminated by the monotheistic culture surrounding its founders, the primary deities worshipped were perceived as a duotheistic variation of a High God/dess, capable of being worshipped through the use of multiple god and goddess names. As it became more "Neo-", the Wiccan movement placed more emphasis on using specific images of divinity (i.e., Diana, Bridget, Lugh, Cernunnos, etc.) instead of the generic concepts of "the Goddess" and "the Horned God". I suspect that this drift was a direct result of practical experience in liturgy. After all, when you invoke a vague deity, you get a vague answer.
Regardless of the metaphor we choose to use, I think that the Gods and other spirits either exist within this realm, or at the very least, communicate with humans through it (from "where"- ever else they may "really" be). And this realm, together with the Three Worlds lived in by humans, animals and plants, constitutes a "universal ecosystem" around planet Earth, that includes all Her children, physical and nonphysical.
Most Paleopagans believe(d) that "the Gods need us as much as we need the Gods." Every time you have a single thought about a deity, you feed more psychic energy into that deity's energy pattern. If a lot of people are thinking frequently about a particular deity, She or He can become very powerful indeed. It's as if everyone were making spiritual deposits in Mt. Olympus Savings and Loan. Every once in a while, to assist with the survival of His/Her worshippers (and thus His/Her own survival), or simply to encourage more energy to be deposited, a deity may decide (or be nudged by a competent magician/clergyperson) to pay "interest" or "dividends" on those deposits of psychic energy. This often takes the form of divine energy being given to or through a clergyperson to be used for magical or religious purposes, though sometimes the deity may simply release some of Her/His power to an individual worshipper in the form of inspirations, personal spiritual strengthening, or actual "miracles".
This reciprocal relationship of "we scratch Their auras, They scratch ours" is known as "the worship bargain". It may not sound very "spiritual", but that gets us into the quagmire of defining spirituality.
In a monotheistic system of philosophy, you can get away with defining any sort of interaction with divinity as being "spiritual". You're not supposed to get involved with "lesser" spirits, since they will all lead you either towards or away from the Supreme Spirit, and you may as well go "straight to the top" (this is another reason why many monotheistic theologians don't consider Catholicism, with it's interceding Saints, to be "really" monotheistic). Things get a great deal more complex with polytheistic systems, since spirits can be considered to have a wide variety of characters. Some will be wise, some foolish, some weird. Communications with deities are usually safe from a philosophical point of view, but the results can be confusing to the inexperienced. Galling any interaction with a spirit, whether ancestor, nature spirit or deity, a "spiritual" interaction leaves out entirely the theurgical, enlightenment-oriented aspects of the word as it's usually used in the west. Unfortunately the word "spiritualism" has been taken over by the necromancers, who use it to refer to a specific religion concerned with interacting with the spirits of dead humans. "Spiritism", on the other paw, is another technical term already in use, in this case, for the Mesopagan Afro-American religions practiced in South America.
But the term "spiritual" can also be used to describe certain effects upon a percepient and her or his associates, including those that imply psychological growth and healing, in fact, the modern liberal J-C-I definition of spirituality implies that if "real" spiritual events are occurring, then people are becoming "better" people, they are being healed of physical ailments, the community of believers (the groupmind) is being strengthened, etc. Followers of the J-C-I traditions have tended to consider certain psychic phenomena to be "miracles" or "gifts of the Holy Spirit" when they supported the religious status quo, and demonic deceptions when they did not. Ultimately, this has led to the modern fundamentalist idea of "counterfeit miracles", as a desperate attempt to explain how people who belong to "false religions" can receive the benefits that are supposed to be reserved for the members of the "true religion".
A value range can be drawn between the traditional ceremonial magician "commanding" spirits and a traditional Christian priest "asking for favors", with the latter end being perceived as more "spiritual" by most J-C-I theologians. The liberal western theologians will say (mostly because they don't believe in magic, since it's "unscientific") that even asking for favors is "unevolved", but that "true spirituality" consists of simply opening yourself up to whatever a deity has to tell you, and accepting whatever blessings (if any) that it happens to send your way. This very passive view is fairly common among mystical types in many religions. Some versions emphasize the inability of a person to control their own life (reach enlightenment), and thus the need for divine intervention or assistance.
Many mystics say that all you have to do is "shut up and listen" to become enlightened. But 95-99% of the people can't do this, so other approaches to enlightenment get developed, including all those which have been called yogas. Physical exercise, philosophy, charitable acts, devotion, art, music, sex, drugs and magic have all been turned into yogas which have a spiritual/religious content when so directed. Most of these, except for the sex, drugs and magic, have been used by the J-C-I mainstream. (Even the sex, drugs and overt magic were used by tiny minorities.) Magical techniques are used in every religion, but are not usually admitted to be such in the west. Thus an artificial distinction has grown between "magical" and "spiritual" events, both inside and outside of liturgy.
For example, although they will never admit it, a "sacrament" in Christian theology is a magical and/or psychological ceremony being done with a predefined theurgical goal. Every Christian sacrament has its counterparts in most other religions. Baptism of children is to put up psychic shield around them (for adults, to cut their psyche links with other divinities and congregations). Confirmation is a standard coming-of-age rite, removing some of those shields and making the kids responsible for their own protection, as well as integrating them into the adult psychic network of the tribe.
In the Christian ceremony of the Mass, magical techniques are used to produce a spiritual result, through the symbolism of ritual cannibalism. Even if the priest is incompetent and untrained, the power the rite has in the collective unconsciousness (and even lust the conscious and subconscious minds of the congregation) is sufficient to allow him to "coast"- the consecration will "work" anyway. Probably no host (the talisman of bread) can be consecrated without a psychic charge being infused into it, visible to most clairvoyants. But even an uncharged host might produce a spiritual effect (however weak) upon a communicant, if he or she had the expectation that it would.
Perhaps what is happening when you "consecrate" a cup of liquid or a piece of food is that you are using your magical arts to put a psychic charge on it that will cause the person consuming it to open his or her self to the power of the divine. Obviously this is something that the divinity involved would approve of, so He or She would assist with the process of charging. In fact, this is exactly what the priest/ess requests of Them during the consecration prayer.
So this gets us to the point of examining spiritual activities in terms of their magical and/or psychic patterns of energy flow. If you do a pattern analysis on the public worship ceremonies of those cultures still maintaining a strong belief in the existence and power of the God(s) they worship, and still practicing (however unconsciously) a working magical system, you will notice strong similarities in their liturgical designs, at least within related cultures. Among the Indo-European influenced religions, for example, I've noticed a common pattern, which consists of five main phases, occurring in this order.
(1) consecrating time and space, then getting the people centered, grounded, and unified into a "groupmind". This makes them ready for ... (2) opening the Gates Between the Worlds, starting a back and forth flow of energy through the Gates, culminating with ... (3) sending the major part of the congregation's energy to the primary God(s) being worshipped on the occasion. This is followed by ... (4) receiving and using a return flow of energy from the primary God(s) of the occasion; and finally ... (5) reversing the beginnings of the rite (unwinding the psychic/magical /spiritual fields woven) and closing the ceremony down.
I'll elaborate on this common pattern in the step-through of the Druid rite. In the meantime, let's look at the major and minor factors involved in creating liturgies.
Part Three: Primary Factors in Liturgical Design
There are many different factors that need to be considered when designing a liturgy. Some of the main ones are: the number of people involved on any given occasion; how well they know each other, the psychic talents available among them; the selection of the ritual's goal and target; the nature of the occasion; the exacting timing of the ceremony; and finally, the precise location in which the liturgy is to be performed.
The number of people involved
This frequently overlooked factor is actually one of the most critical. It certainly has affects upon almost all the other factors, major and minor. To begin with, the following rough size categories may prove useful for the purposes of this essay:
The Neopagan community has done a great deal of experimentation into solitary and small-group ritual techniques, but has had problems with larger groups. Most Neopagans have blithely assumed that the small-group methods invented by Gerald Gardner and friends would, "of course", work for medium, large, very large and even gigantic groups. This has proven not to be the case. Each increase in the size of your congregation brings new challenges and new opportunities for the aspiring liturgist.
Over the last twenty years, I have led or otherwise participated in magical and religious rituals in all of the size categories (the largest was with 1500 people, at the American Stonehenge, during a total eclipse of the sun). Despite the difficulties, I continue to be enthusiastic about the larger ones because, as the number of people increases arithmetically, the amount of sheer psychic/spiritual power that is at least potentially available for magical and/or spiritual use increases geometrically. Considering how much work needs to be done to save our Mother, I think we're going to need all the energy we can get!
Interwoven with the question of sheer size is that of how familiar the participants are with each other. This breaks down into three subcategories: knowledge, friendship or love, and group identity.
A small group of people who already know each other well can often generate more usable power than a larger group of people who don't. This is especially true if the people in the smaller group actually have bonds of friendship or even love between them, which is why the original Neopagan ideal of a working group being a group marriage had so much premise (most of which has never been realized, due to the inherent difficulties of making group marriages last. Oh well...).
Even if a group of people have never met before, they can, all other factors being equal, generate and focus their power more effectively if they all share some sort of a group identity (and "tradition" -- I'll discuss that later). The more specific this group identity is, the better it will work for this purpose. "We are all Gardnerisns" or "we are all Frostians will work better than "we are all Witches." "We are all ADF-ers" (not "Bonewitsians", thank you!) or "we are all Reformed Druids" will work better than just plain "we are all Druids." Even saying: "we are Witches/Druids/Asatru/Faerie Folk", etc., will give more of a group identity than just plain "we're all Neopagans."
All of these aspects of the intragroup familiarity factor affect your answer to this fundamental question: How good a groupmind are you going to be able to create and maintain with the people you expect to be present? Acquaintanceship creates intellectual and social bonds, while friendship and love create emotional ones. All of these "bonds" can function as "psychic links" (channels for the energy to be used in the ceremony), as can, to a lesser extent, those psychological bonds created by membership in a group. The more psychic links that there already are among the people participating in your liturgy, the easier it will be to create and maintain the groupmind necessary for a successful ritual.
Throughout this essay, I'll be mentioning how the other factors to be discussed are affected by these first two of population and intragroup familiarity. More people means more power is available, but it will be harder to keep focussed. A very large part of liturgical design deals with how to create and maintain the groupmind at each of the different size levels.
The psychic talents available among the participants
This is an important factor that many people neglect. If you are doing a ritual to heal someone, and none of the participants happens to be a very good healer, then you are not going to get much in the way of useful results -- unless you have someone who is good at invoking end/or channeling divine energies and you have her or him contact a God or Goddess of Healing to provide the necessary fine-tuning of the energies (see the end of the target and goal discussion later in this essay). If all of your participants are empathic or precognitive, but none of them has any psychokinetic talents at all, then you're going to have trouble getting any rituals designed to affect matter to work veil, regardless of the sincerity of the participants. Sincerity is not a substitute for competence.
Having the right psychic talents available is more of a problem with small groups than with larger ones. The more people you have involved in a ritual, the better a chance you have that people with the necessary psychic talents will be present. Since the talents necessary for theurgical results (telepathy, empathy, the clair-senses, etc.) seem to be more widespread than those needed for thaumaturgical results (often the psychokinetic talents), it's usually easier to collect the necessary people for a successful theurgical rite than for a thaumaturgical one.
The distinction between target and goal
Paying attention to this factor when designing a ritual is one of the great unwritten secrets of the occult. If you want your liturgy to have any positive results other than personal pleasure or egoboost (if any), then you must pay attention to this in your planning. Let's take some mundane examples first.
If you are planning a garden, then your goal is to produce food, and your target may be either a particular chunk of ground in the backyard or a window box in your kitchen. Either way, if you don't plant your seeds into real, specific, locatable ground some where, you aren't going to wind up with many tomatoes.
If you're a surgeon dealing with a person who has lung cancer, your goal will be to heal that person and your target will be the specific tumors that have to be removed. Doing an easier procedure instead (such as taking out her appendix) won't suffice, even if so doing constitutes a "successful" operation.
If you're a technological rainmaker, and you've been hired by some farmers to end a drought, your goal will be to cause the needed amount of rain to fall over a specific area, without causing meteorological side-effects hundreds of miles away. Your target might be a specific cloud bank, at a particular altitude, over a certain location. If you don't deliver exactly the right amount of silver iodide crystals (or whatever) to exactly the right spot, at exactly the right time, you will probably not get the results you wanted. And it won't matter how much fun you had trying.
It should be clear at this point: the "goal" is the final result you are after, the "target" is the precise person(s), place(s) and/or thing(s) you need to change in order to achieve your goal.
Each of the examples given earlier has its exact parallels in the realm of ritual. Agricultural magic, psychic healing, and weather working all require that you focus your energy upon a specific target in order to achieve a specific goal. If you haven't clearly defined your goal, nor specified your target, nor designed the ritual to guide your energies towards that target, the odds are very high that little that will be useful is going to occur -- and some very unuseful results may happen!
If you want to make the crops grow better, pick a specific hunk of dirt with plants in it. If you want to heal Aunt Matilda's lung cancer, send the power into her lungs. If you want to make it rain, choose your cloud. Don't just send vaguely fertile, healthy or rainy thoughts out in all directions with the assumption that "they'll go where they're needed." They won't.
Rituals being done for "practical" physical purposes, such as starting or stopping rain, healing sick people, etc., are "thaumaturgical". Rituals being done for "impractical" spiritual purposes, such as attaining enlightenment, strengthening the Gods, honoring the ancestors, etc. are "theurgical" (as are those done for psychotherapeutic purposes, such as "empowerment" ceremonies). Like most pairs of terms in occultism, these are not opposites in a dualistic "black vs. white" fashion, but polar extremes at either end of a continuous range. The vast majority of thaumaturgical rituals contain theurgical elements and vice versa. Nonetheless, this factor needs to be clearly spelled out when designing a ritual.
The mental clarity needed to define a goal and to select a target that is likely (if affected properly) to achieve that goal, is just as important when designing theurgical rituals as it is with thaumaturgical ones. If your goal is personal spiritual growth, then your target is yourself and the other people participating in the rite. If your goal is the ethical enlightenment of the whaling industry, then your target could be the specific individuals who make the decisions to kill whales (so know their names, appearances and locations). If your goal is to honor and strengthen ancestors, nature spirits or the Gods, then they (or They) are the target (and you should pick one or two by name and appearance!).
The primary distinction between "magical" and "religious" rituals as such, is that when you are using divine energies you can afford to have secondary goals, each with its own target. This works better if the secondary goals are theurgical ones, whether the primary goal is theurgical or thaumaturgical. Also, in religious rituals, you can ask the Gods to help you select the correct target(s) through divination, and/or to provide necessary "fine tuning" of the energies, and/or to provide any needed ethical screening (or "escape clauses") for your target(s).
Since 80-85% of the people in the world use vision as their primary sensing mode, the process called "visualization" is the one most used to keep a group's mental energies focused on a goal and target. This requires every person in a group to create and maintain the "same" mental image of the goal and the target, with the target taking center stage. The closer a given person's images are to those being used by the others, then the higher the probability is that the energies sent towards the target will be effective. But if every person in a group has a different mental image of the goal and/or the target, then even the most powerful of ceremonies will be a wasted effort. This is why there is somuch emphasis in liturgical design upon the need for focus and unity. Or to put it another way: Fuzzy rituals get fuzzy results.
Remember that you need to visualize both the goal you want to achieve, and the target you wish to affect, in a future tense -- as you wish them to be. Putting more energy into the status quo will only make things werse, not change them. But merely visualizing the final goal clearly will not suffice to make your ritual work, regardless of what many popular books on the occult are now saying.
The nature of the occasion
No matter how unique a particular situation may seem to be, the practicing liturgist will soon discover that almost all rituals he or she needs to design can be seen as special cases of certain common overlapping categories of liturgy: those for personal and group needs, personal and group rite; of passage, and cyclical celebrations.
Rituals done for personal and group needs can be for introducing or attracting fertility, prosperity, love, healing, peace, general blessings, etc. An individual or group with a particular focus or activity may do ceremonies to achieve certain spiritual, ecological, social, economic or political goals.
Personal rites of passage may include ceremonies for dedicating and protecting children, celebrating a coming-of-age, handfastings and weddings, ordinations, death watches, funerals, etc.
Group rites of passage are more likely to be such things as the dedication of a new hospital, school, temple or sacred grove, the installation of new officers for the group, a change in the group's name or status, etc.
Cyclical celebrations will mark various important events that occur on a regular schedule, such as solstices and equinoxes, the Quarter Days, moon phases, the beginning or end of local hunting/fishing/harvesting seasons, etc.
Once you have decided into which category(-ies) your ritual fits, you'll be able to shape your liturgical design with far greater clarity. Realizing that other people have done ceremonies for similar purposes will give you not only confidence, but also (once you track down information about how others have done those rituals), provide you with concepts and material to be absorbed and transmuted in your own design work.
This decision requires you to balance psychic and mundane factors, and will have multiple repercussions on everything else in your liturgical design and execution. The psychic factors have to deal with the fact that different times of day, and different days of the year, have different energy patterns (both physical and psychological) associated with them. Thus it may be easier or more difficult to accomplish a particular magical or religious goal at any specific time chosen.
On a daily basis, the magical energies available for use are simply different at sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight, and the halfway points between each. Similarly, the energies available at the solstices, equinoxes, and their halfway points are also unique. These are just the solar patterns. The phases of the moon also can have profound effects, especially when the moon is above the horizon. Those of you who have a background in astrology will need no persuasion in this department. The rest of you will have to experiment in order to verify my statements here (you may also want to pay attention to the biorhythms of the presiding clergy and bards).
It has been my experience over the last twenty years that performing a particular ritual, even a "simple" celebration of a Holy Day, on the exact day of the year, and at the exact (or at least the symbolic) time of the day associated with the event being celebrated, will dramatically multiply the ease and efficiency of your working. This is the reason why we in ADF celebrate the Major and Minor High Days at precisely calculated times as listed in DP#2), even though these times do not match those now used by the majority of the Neopagan community.
Unfortunately, it's not easy to get other Neopagans to show up for a ritual being held at an "inconvenient" time. Often the proper date for a Holy Day is in the middle of the civil week, and the time associated with the event may be very late at night, or in the middle of the working day. You have some flexibility in the choice of a time of day, since you can choose to schedule your rite for either the astronomical or the symbolic instant of the event. For example, the spring equinox might occur on March 20th, at 10:15 pm in your local time zone. You could do your equinox ritual at 10:00 pm, or at the following sunrise, depending on which would be easier to get more people to. At the very least, you should schedule your ceremony sometime between sunset on the 20th and sunset on the 21st.
If you are planning a large public celebration, you'll have to schedule it according to the convenience of the majority of your grove members and guests, usually on the weekend before or after the event. Before is generally better, and you should try to do it at the symbolic time of day if you can (a midsummer's celebration at 9:00 pm would simply not be as psychologically effective as one done at sunrise or high noon). Official ADF groves are expected to celebrate the High Days within 24 hours of the correct instant, but this does not have to be their semipublic celebration.
Decisions about liturgical times should include factors such as the work schedules of the members, local transportation patterns, meals, availability of facilities, etc., since all of these will have an impact on bow many people actually show up. The trick is to balance out genuine needs in the lives of your congregation against the laziness and inertia of those who simply haven't made attending your ritual a high priority in their lives. Just remember that if you decide to do a fall equinox rite at sunset, you will not be able to get the sun to hold off setting while late-comers straggle in.
That brings up the topic of planning again, which, though interwoven with liturgical design, is not quite the same thing. Planning will be covered elsewhere in this issue. Suffice it to say for now that different times of day and days of the year involve many mundane aspects of life such as transportation, clothing, noise levels, weather, etc. Don't ignore them in your design and planning, or you are likely to have unpleasant surprises disrupt your celebrations.
Exactly what sort of site will you be using for your ceremony? The decisions you make in this area will have profound affects on the physical, psychological, and psychic aspects of your liturgy. It's better to be able to choose a site to match the liturgical design, but often you must work with what's available.
As mentioned in the script in DP#2, for Druid ceremonies (at least in good weather) you'll want to set up your ritual site outdoors, "in as natural an environment as possible." Obviously, a grove of trees surrounding an area large enough to fit all of you is good, especially if the trees are of one of the particularly sacred species. A hilltop is good, as is the beach by an ocean, lake, or river. A small island or sandbar can be nice, etc. The hilltop of a small island in the middle of a lake could be ideal, since it would combine all three of the three worlds: Land, Water and Sky. It all depends on what you have available in your area. You may wind up using a quiet corner of a large city park.
Private land is generally better than public, since you're less likely to be disturbed by tourists, hunters or rangers. However, if your grove is looking for new members, doing a few ceremonies in city parks, especially near universities, can attract folks who might otherwise never hear of you (it can also attract trouble, so make sure that security precautions are taken to prevent disruption).
Most Druid ceremonies require a fire in the center, whether it's a bonfire, a cauldron full of flammable material, or just a candle. Many public parks will not allow bonfires, and In some parts of the country it's just plain dangerous at certain times of the year. Fires indoors should be limited to candles or small cauldrons, so as to not set off the smoke alarms halfway through the liturgy, which can ruin the ambiance! If you were planning on a fire being an important part of your ceremony, you'll have to take these factors into account.
Speaking of working indoors, the script in DP#2 says, "If the weather is foul, try to use a cave, cabin, hut or other premedieval enclosure." I know that this isn't always easy, but trying to fit thirty people into a small living room can be just as difficult, and far less aesthetically pleasing. If you're going to have to work indoors (as most of us will during the winter), you'll need to plan ahead. If you're uncertain of what the weather is likely to be like, you should have alternate indoor locations selected, and your liturgical design should be adaptable to the change.
But how do you get an indoor location? If you own some land, you may be able to find a large cave, or build a cabin, hut or longhouse (a half a dozen determined people can create one in a month, just working on weekends). Many public parks, even in large cities, have rustic looking "lodges", often with fireplaces, that your group can rent inexpensively. These are usually surrounded by trees, and can be ideal for medium to large groups. Whether you're working in one of these lodges, your own temple, a living room, or someone's garage, try to set up the site to look as nonmodern as possible. Those of you who have backgrounds in theatrical set design may be able to give the rest of us some ideas here, so please send them in for publication.
Whether indoors or out, don't assume that your site needs to be circular. The ancients Celts (and the other Indo-Europeans) had temples in the shapes of circles, rectangles, ovals, doubled squares and odd polygons. As for groves, the average one is not a precise circle. Although it's aesthetically and democratically pleasing to have the congregation stand around in a circle, and this is the pattern that most Neopagans are familiar with (thanks to Gerald Gardner), you can do effective group worship/magic using other geometrical shapes. The script in DP#2 assumes that the congregation is standing outdoors in a circle, but in point of fact it has worked well with everyone sitting indoors in an oval instead. You could try having them in a triangle (with banners of the Three Worlds at the corners), or in a square, or in lines facing a particular direction.
Consider the theatrical difficulties as well as the psychic energy patterns likely to be generated by your choices. For example, from the point of view of the dramatic elements of liturgy, those of you with theater experience will agree that working "in the round" can be far more difficult than working in front of the observers. Unfortunately, with the latter setup, you may then have the problem that some people in the congregation will be unhappily reminded of childhood experiences in mainstream churches, and may refuse to overcome their biases.
Generally, the larger a site you have, the better, up to a point. You'll want to have enough room so that the members of the congregation can be standing/sitting/lying in whatever geometrical pattern you have chosen, while still leaving some empty space around the outside of them. Shade can be an important factor, especially with large congregations during the hotter months of the year, as we have found out during the Last two Midsummer's High Noon ceremonies. Since the average large-scale Druid rite can last an hour or more, you need to make arrangements not only for shade, but for the health of the frailer members of your congregation as well (handicapped access to your site is a whole other topic, one I hope one of you will address in future issues).
Part Four: Secondary Factors in Liturgical Design
There are a number of other factors that a liturgist has to consider when creating or modifying a ritual: is the rite to be formal or informal? What will be its verbal and movement modes? How are dramatic tension, humor, and pacing to be handled? What percentage of the congregation will be familiar with the specific rite, or at least Neopagan rituals in general? What kinds of costumes and props are involved? What are the aesthetic, psychological, and cultural themes that will fit with the congregation and the occasion?
Formality vs. informality
This factor seems at first glance to be more of an aesthetic one than anything else. After all, some folks like their rituals to be "High Church Episcopagan" and others prefer to "get down and get funky." But in point of fact, there are some technical considerations involved.
To begin with, the word "formal" implies a concern with both structure and with custom. Since all rituals have some sort of structure, whether competent or not, the question of "formality" with a liturgy is one of (a) how tightly the intended structure is actually maintained both design and performance, and (b) how similar a given performance is to the customary way(s) of doing it.
However, in the Neopagan community our custom has always been to be informal. for reasons both honest end dishonest. Many Neopagans tend to think of Native American, African and other Paleopagan rituals as being "informal", whereas the mainstream Judeo-Christian rituals are seen as so formal to be downright fossilized. Since it's the former kind of religions that we're inspired by, and the latter that we're trying to transcend, it makes sense that we would equate Paleopagan "informality" with authentic spiritual expression, and Judeo-Christian formality with everything else we happen to dislike about monotheistic religions. What most Neopagans don't realize is that Paleopagan ceremonies are usually very formal, both in terms of structure and custom. It's our western upbringing that conditions us to equate highly physically active, "primitive" ceremonies, with informality.
But there are less honest reasons to reject formality in ritual. Most of them have to do with an unwillingness to admit just how difficult a formal ritual can be to create and perform successfully. Ceremonies that require talent, training, discipline and hard work from their clergy and congregation are simply not going to be as popular as those that can be done instantly by anyone. And they're certainly not "politically correct" in our egalitarian subculture.
Let's explore some of the aspects that impinge on the formality factor. For example, what's the vocabulary level of the clergy and congregation you are designing a ritual for? Formal ceremonies (if mostly spoken -- see next section) usually have a higher verbal complexity than informal ones, and thus can be more difficult for uneducated people to perform or comprehend. Allowing for this gets you into the social quagmire of having to analyze the verbal skills (and thus the intelligence, education and socioeconomic backgrounds) of the people involved. Not allowing for it forces you to sacrifice precision of energy flow when parts of your group don't understand what you're saying and other parts are offended because you're "talking down" to them.
Formal ceremonies also require greater dramatic and musical skills from the clergy and bards, especially if the rite is going to be repeated on a frequent basis, without boring all concerned. The boredom problem should not be ignored. If your rituals bore the congregation (or even the clergy!), they are not going to raise a lot of power. On the other hand, the familiarity that bores some people gives a great deal of psychological comfort to others, while building up a useful pattern of energy in the collective unconscious. You can see that the ''custom" aspect of formality is a two edged blade.
What happens if you need to make up a liturgy on the spot, with no chance to do a detailed analysis of the situation? If you've developed your intuition along with your ritual skills, you'll be able to create what you need, as you go. Intuitive ceremonies are often perceived as informal, because the structure being invented during its ritual is a covert, subconscious one. But if you are stringing together bits and pieces of ritual that your group is already familiar with, and you invent a pattern that is appropriate to the occasion, you may wind up with a very formal, but nonetheless intuitive, rite.
In general, the larger your congregation is, the more formality is needed to maintain the groupmind's unity and focus in timing and imagery. But it's important to remember the difference between formality and pomposity (clue: are the clergy focusing more attention on the ceremony or on themselves as being "important" people?). This is where I reverse my favorite saying: Competence is not a substitute for sincerity.
Verbal and movement modes
Will your ceremony be mostly spoken, sung or silent? Spoken ceremonies are certainly the easiest, and can give you very precise fine tuning of the energy flow, but they tend to get very long-winded (and thus boring) unless delivered with enough dramatic skill. Having all the speeches in poetic forms that match the aesthetic and cultural themes of the ritual will add greatly to the power. Having everything chanted and/or sung will boost a verbal ritual to the maximum, since the sounds of the chanting, singing and incidental music will add their own subconscious power to that of the words.
Poetry and songs also have the advantage that they are easier to memorize than straight text. This means that a liturgy can be done without a script on the altar, and without the participants shuffling pieces of paper when they should be concentrating on generating and focusing energy. If the clergy, bards and congregation understand the liturgical design of the ceremony they are performing, they will be able to ad-lib any lines they might forget. As the person who wrote the script, you might get your feelings hurt that some of your "immortal words" were skipped or changed, but the results of such ad-libs are frequently better than the original wording. Also, requiring memorization gets rid of flapping paper sounds at dramatic moments, prevents people from reading ahead when they should be paying attention to the progress of the ceremony, and is a useful mental discipline for all involved.
The script for a brand-new liturgy, or one that has had many new changes added or parts assigned, can be placed discretely on the altar for the presiding clergy to glance at as needed. A poet or songwriter who has just created a new work that she or he is going to perform as a Praise Offering, can carry a cue card in their pocket. But other than these exceptions, paper should be avoided during a Druid ritual.
You can do ceremonies partly or completely in silence, or with only nonverbal sounds. These require the same sorts of nonverbal dramatic skills that a mime uses, and will work best with a smaller group (at least for complete rituals). As a ritual drama inserted into a large scale ceremony, however, the art of mime can be very effective (as was shown at the 1986 summer solstice ADF rites).
The kinesthetic mode needs to be thought about as well. Will your rite be physically dynamic or static? If there is going to be a lot of processing, moving back and forth across the ritual site, passing of objects around, ritual dancing, etc., then you need to have a level site with room for people to move in, and you need to train your people in how to do all of these movements. If either the site or the training is unlikely, then you should change your design to one in which the participants can stand or sit most of the time. But watch out for the boredom problem again, and be aware that for some members of your congregation having to stay in one position for long periods of time may be physically painful or even impossible.
A minor note on dancing: many Neopagan rites now require dancing by the majority of the congregation, but very few of us actually know how to dance. Holding hands and skipping (or more usually, stumbling) around in a circle is not dancing. It is, in fact, an insult to the Gods, especially when done without any true involvement in the movement. Local folk dance, square dance, and medievalist societies often have free or inexpensive classes available. These can teach the basic steps to some ritually usable dances in only a few evenings or afternoons. If the people in your group are unwilling to attend such classes, you should probably skip (you'll pardon the expression) having dancing as part of your design.
Dramatic tension, humor, and pacing
Good drama always involves some uncertainty on the part of the audience as to what is going to happen next. Will the winter solstice sun actually return? Will the May Queen wed the Green Man? Is the Corn King really dead? No matter how familiar the participants are with the story, they should experience at least a moment or two of uncertainty. (Thanks to Diana Paxson for bringing this to my conscious attention.)
As the liturgist, you have the task of inserting this uncertainty into the ritual in such a fashion as to facilitate rather than disrupt the energy flow. For example, in the old Reformed Druids of North America rituals, after the Sacrifice is offered, the presiding clergy ask the four winds whether the sacrifice has been accepted or not. A stiff breeze, a sudden bird call, or other omen was expected (and usually received!). In the summer half of the year the clergy would declare that all was well, and in the winter half the sacrifice would be announced as unaccepted. This worked well as a way to introduce controlled dramatic tension, except for the fact that sometimes the omens would not "behave" properly (showing up when they weren't supposed to, or not appearing when they should). This disturbed some folks.
In the version of the ADF rite published in DP#2, this request for an omen of sacrificial acceptability was omitted. This last year we inserted it back again, in a less constrained fashion. We now throw the runes to see if the Lord and Lady of the occasion have accepted the sacrifice. If the answer is "Yes", we rejoice and continue the ritual. If the answer is "No", then more Praise Offerings are made, the Sacrifice prayer is repeated, and the runes are thrown again. Should we ever have three refusals of acceptance, the liturgy would be immediately shortened, with the final Consecration and Passing (which is the return of energy from the Gods is) skipped, and the people sent home to meditate upon why the Sacrifice was refused.
For this is the point where drama, which came out of the temple, goes back to its religious origins. We can't afford a contrived solution to every uncertainty in a worship ritual, though this is normal in mundane plays. If we are going to actually "believe" in the Gods we worship as "real" beings, then we have to be willing to accept that sometimes Their answer to us will be "No". And we have to be prepared to deal with such answers.
And how does humor fit into all this? Very carefully. I have seen humor used in ceremonies with positive results on several occasions, both as theatrical inserts in large scale liturgies, and as quiet quips to bring back a congregation's focus after a minor disruption of the energy flow. I've also seen it used, often deliberately, to drain the power from rituals that are getting "too heavy" for the jesters (sometimes the clergy themselves!) to handle. Humor is a two-edged blade that should be handled with the greatest of care, or left out entirely.
As for invoking Trickster deities, such as Hermes, Loki, Coyote, etc., let alone deities associated with chaos (such as Eris), these entities have a habit of destroying any Neopagan ceremonies that they actually show up at. Most of them have a nasty streak to their characters (especially Eris, or Discordia, who has become a "fun" deity only in the last twenty years) and need to be handled with the greatest of care and respect. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Neopagan ceremonies in which these deities are invoked, whether formally or informally, are invoking Them to provide an excuse for poor liturgical design and/or performance.
Pacing is a topic that anyone familiar with the theater will tell you is absolutely crucial to the success of a performance. A liturgy should be designed and performed with each segment flowing smoothly into the next. You don't want segments to either slow down to the point where everyone gets bored and their attention begins to wander, nor to speed up to the point where people loose track of what's happening. The only way to learn pacing is to experiment a lot with modular design (see later in this essay) and by rehearsing with the people in your group to find out their skills and limits. A five minute guided meditation may be too long for some groups, and too short for others. Taking thirty seconds to bless each person in turn is fine if you only have a small group, but can be a disaster with a large one. A chant that builds to a peak in three minutes should not be dragged out for ten. Etc.
Problems with pacing are usually solvable by artistic means, especially bardic. So make sure that your group's bards are involved in the design and rehearsal activities from the beginning. And take their advice!
Familiarity with the liturgy
This factor has been touched upon in the formality discussion. If you have the same people showing up for rituals on a regular basis, and the ritual is essentially the same each time (as it probably will be if everyone belongs to the same "tradition"), then they will be thoroughly familiar with the liturgy, and your major worry will be the boredom problem. If some of them only show up once in a while, you'll need to have obvious cues built into the script. This will be even more important if many or most of the participants have never been to a liturgy of this type before. If there is a broad range of ritual experience in the expected congregation, then your ritual design needs to have plenty of things for the inexperienced members to do, with built-in instructions on how to do them, but with the cues not being offensive to the more experienced members. This is difficult to do, which is part of why liturgical design is an art form.
One solution that helps avoid boredom while clueing-in those who are moderately to very familiar with your rite, is to have the majority of your liturgy be the same each time, but a minority of it change to reflect each occasion. In the Catholic Mass, for example, this is known as the "Ordinary" and the "Proper". In most Druid rites, this is accomplished by having a different God and Goddess as the primary deities for each ceremony, and by having new chants and songs for different occasions.
You can also make an occasion different by having special visual effects: banners, altar cloths, tabbards, etc., done in the colors and with the symbols appropriate to the occasion and/or the deities involved.
Costumes and props
Many of your decisions in this area will be based an those you make about aesthetics and cultural focus (see next section), since you'll want people to wear clothing in the colors, fabrics, and styles, and to use ceremonial tools, that fit with the aesthetics and cultures you have selected. But here too, you may be forced to work within already established constraints. If the group of people you are creating the ritual for all have robes that touch the ground, you should avoid having them process through brambles or muddy ground. If their sleeves are long and flowing, don't create parts of the ritual that involve reaching across a fire. If none of the members have staves, and there's no time to make some (let alone train anyone in their use), then don't write in a ritual combat with staves.
Many Neopagan liturgical designers create rituals that require pentacles, chalices, wands, knives, etc., on the altar, without having any real reason for those tools to be there, and without any clear idea of how these tools can or should be used for dramatic or magical effect. When in doubt about whether or not a given tool is really needed, skip it. Unused or misused ceremonial tools merely clutter up the scene and either add nothing to, or sometimes actively detract from, the quality of your liturgy.
Druid liturgies usually involve the following props. There are cups or cauldrons of various sorts for passing the Waters of Life around, individual cups or horns for the congregation, a sickle for cutting the sacrificial branches, small cauldrons for asperging or holding a fire, staves for marking signs on the ground, banners and ribbons for color, etc. Each of them has a specific purpose for a specific occasion, or it is simply not written into the liturgy.
(By the way, one of the duties of a liturgist is to make up a complete "props and supplies" list for the organizers of the event to use early in their planning. The people purchasing and/or constructing these should keep track of the money and time required, as an aid to planning future ceremonies.)
A major prop, one that most folks don't think about very clearly, is the altar. What sort, if any, will your design require? The whole question of altars is on weak historical ground. Some of the Indo-Europeans seem to have used stone altars in their temples (the Greeks put them out in front of their's), but we don't know if altars were used in the sacred groves at all. Nonetheless, they're very handy for storing the ceremonial tools and supplies, and make a good focus of attention, so I recommend them highly.
If you own your own land, your group might go ahead and build a permanent stone altar (you might even want to design it so a fire can be built on or in it). If you are using public land, you can either plan on bringing in your own altar or on putting one together on-site from available rocks, stumps, etc. The challenge in the first case is to make your portable altar both sturdy and light-weight, in the second to wind up with something genuinely level at a convenient height. The altar should be two to three feet across, depending upon the number of items to be placed upon it.
How many altars should you have? One near the center (the fire, if any, could be on or in it) will generally do for each site. However you might consider having additional ones for the Three Worlds, set in a wide triangle around the central one. If you decide that the four directions are important, you might choose to have small altars, shrines or cairns marking each one around the edges of the site.
By the way, if you live in an area with large numbers of fundamentalists, it may be a good idea to disguise any permanent altars as something else, since conservative Christians have a bad habit of desecrating the sacred objects of competing faiths.
Aesthetic, psychological, and cultural themes
You'll need ones that will fit with both the congregation and clergy available and the occasion at hand. Almost all of the secondary factors and their aspects deal with that nebulous topic of aesthetics. Every decision you make about what will be the most beautiful way to do any given part of the liturgy, is an aesthetic choice: formality, vocal type, physical activity, dramatic approaches, nonobtrusive cueing, site selection, costumes and props, etc. The best way is to make all of these decisions reinforce each other to produce a coherent whole. This in turn constantly supports the unity of the groupmind and its spiritual/magical ability to focus the energy flows involved.
Your choice of psychological theme(s) can help greatly here. Is this to be a happy, sad, silly or grave liturgy? Are you dealing with a birth adding a new member to the community, or a death transforming one? What is the emotional relationship between the members of the group and the spirits or divinities to be contacted in the rite? Is the ceremony a celebration of a holy day -- if so, what meanings does that holy day have for those participating? Answering these questions can add tremendous power.
Another way to improve the unity and focus of your group is to design your liturgy around specific cultural themes. A Celtic liturgy is very different from a Native American or a Chinese liturgy. Every culture has symbols, styles and metaphors that reinforce each other. Using these, and excluding ones from other cultures that aren't congruent, gives your ritual a definite assist.
For example, try having your people dress in Slavic costumes, sing Slavic tunes, invoke Slavic deities in a Slavic language, and drink Slavic liquor in your liturgy. The amount of Slavic-flavored energy raised will be tremendous, and the groupmind will be a hundred times more unified and focussed than you may be used to. It's possible to blend in cultural themes from related cultures (such as the Baltics or the Norse, in this example) without too much damage. But if a culture is too far removed (say East African, Japanese or Eskimo), the clash of cultural symbols, signs and metaphors may easily destroy the psychic structures your liturgy is supposed to create.
Which requires me to say a word or two about the mixing of Native American elements Into Neopagan ceremonies. There's been a lot of that lately, ever since "shamanism" became the "in" word for people to throw around (I'll talk about that some other time), but most of it has been not only magically sloppy, but insulting to both the European and the Native American deities invoked. Neopagans have been mishmashing deities, symbols, music, chants, and fragments of rituals from a dozen different Native American cultures, and injecting these whole into Wiccan style ceremonies. This is somewhat similar to what has been done to the Afro-American religions by well-meaning but grossly ignorant Neopagans.
For the last ten years, two people named Sun Bear and Wabun Bear have mixed Native American beliefs from several tribes, western astrology, and Wiccan rituals into a new religion. I've participated in ceremonies based on their work, and they were beautiful and emotionally uplifting. But I don't think they were as powerful as authentic traditional Native American rituals used to be, partly because too many unrelated tribal belief systems were mixed, partly because Wiccan liturgical design tends to be confused anyway, and partly because Neopagans (rather than Native Americans) were doing them.
There is merit in the argument that we are practicing our ceremonies on land that used to belong to the Native Americans, and that we ought to pay attention to the local nature spirits and to the deities who used to be worshipped here. I see nothing wrong with a grove of Druids including local references in their liturgies, provided that they have done their homework. Don't make an offering to an Iroquois nature spirit in Texas, or a Sioux buffalo goddess in New Jersey, unless the members of your grove have very strong psychic links to those tribes. Learn how to pronounce the spirit and deity names correctly, and what their associated metaphysical systems were, and what their religious symbols meant. Then you can very carefully start to blend appropriate bits and pieces into your local liturgies. But just because Native Americanism is popular in the Neopagan community now, don't assume that you can suddenly pull in all that energy without having to pay attention to the details of what you're doing.
Part of the experimentation that we are doing in ADF is to discover how far apart two cultures can be before they clash instead of reinforcing each other in a ritual. So far It seems that the various Celtic cultures work well together, as do the Norse and German, the Slavic and Baltic, and the Greek and Roman. But will mixing Baltic and Roman, or Celtic and Greek themes together in one rite ruin it? Or will all the cultural members of the Indo-European language family work together? Only time will tell.
Your decisions on cultural themes will usually be based on the cultural interests of the people you are creating the ceremonies for. Use the language(s) and culture(s) that they have the most affinity for. And try to use that culture's ideas of beauty to guide your own aesthetic decisions.
Part Five: The Modular Approach to Liturgical Design
It's now time to discuss the exact "how" of creating ceremonies. What I call "Modular Liturgical Design" is an approach inspired by computer programming techniques. Before anyone complains that computers are neither magical nor religious, let me point out that a computer program can be seen as a type of ritual: a program is an ordered sequence of events (in this case, instructions to be executed), that is usually followed in the same way each time, that designed to produce a predictable (altered?) state of consciousness (decision within which certain desired results (decisions) can be obtained. Yes, I know it's rather a strained metaphor, but following it has led to some interesting breakthroughs in liturgical design (besides many programmers have told me that programming is "an arcane art").
How do most Neopagan liturgists now work? Generally, they start at the beginning of a ritual script, write it straight through, then try it (usually without rehearsal). Each subsequent script by the same liturgist will contain modifications designed to correct the perceived mistakes (if any were actually perceived) from the last time. Since the rewrites are usually done once a month or once every six weeks, it can take years before a liturgy has been completely "debugged" (if it ever is), and long before then, it's become a fossilized "tradition", and people aren't allowed to make any more changes.
The modular approach to liturgical design starts with doing a complete pattern analysis on your proposed ceremony. Break it down into a handful of major sections of ritual activity, and each of these into subsections and subsubsections. You might even consider drawing a "flow chart" showing the path from each stage of the rite to the next.
Then pick a few related subsubsections and create them. Test each individually to see how it looks/sounds/feels. Fiddle with them until each unit works just the way you want, then create something that links them all together. The linkage can be temporal (picking an order to do the subsubsections in) and/or spacial (designating where the subsubsections will be done, in relation to each other) and/or conceptual (creating words, music or other sounds and sights that will tie the basic idea of each subsubsection together with that of the others). Then try performing this subsection of the liturgy, and observe the results.
When you're satisfied with the first subsection, proceed to create and test other subsections in the same way. Eventually, you can link the subsections into sections, test them, then merge the sections into the liturgy as a whole. This gets tested in the rehearsals before the first full performance. When doing the testing, make sure to pay attention to the pacing of each part, and remember the effects that different sized congregations will have on various activities (if passing food or drink among twenty people takes five minutes, doing it with 200 people can take half an hour).
Just as with modular programming, this technique of liturgical design takes longer to create the first full version of a ceremony. But it has the same advantage that modular programming has, of making it easier to change and expand the results. And just as programmers build up a "library" of programming modules (or "routines") that they can use over and over again, so too can a liturgical designer build up a library of ritual modules that can be combined in a variety of ways in later ceremonies.
For example, suppose you are creating a Celtic-style liturgy in which you need at some point early on to "open the Gates Between the Worlds" (a fairly standard need). You create a procedure for one or two of your ritual participants to do this, say singing a chant in Gaelic, making a particular gesture with a particular magical tool, and visualizing a Celtic spiral opening. You test different versions of the song, different gestures with different tools, and different versions of the spiral. Eventually you settle on the combination you like, figure out the exact order and spatial relations you want, wrap some Celtic music around it (to provide part of the conceptual linking), and try it without full psychic power. (In this particular example, you don't want to test it with full power until after you've created and tested a full-powered Gate closing!) Then you can precede to create and test the other parts of your liturgy that happen before and after the Gate opening, then the entire first quarter or third of your liturgy (including the Gate opening), then the entire ritual.
The next time you are creating a liturgy that requires a Gate opening part, but it happens to be a Norse rite, you can start out with the basic pattern you already have for the Celtic opening. You might translate the song to Icelandic (or write a new song entirely), keep the gesture but do it with a more Norse type of magical tool, visualize a Norse sort of Gate image instead of the spiral, use Swedish music to tie it all together, etc. The result will be that you can (re-)create your Norse Gate opening in a fraction of the time it took to write the first one, since you are working with well tested and familiar modules. Provided that the cultural and aesthetic themes don't clash within or between the modules of your design, you can borrow bits and pieces from a dozen previous ceremonies created according to this approach, and put them into a new liturgy with amazing speed. Eventually you'll acquire a liturgical design library of ritual modules (processionals, Gate openings, invocations, consecrations, etc.) that can be carefully mixed and matched (via the linking procedures) to meet whatever future design needs may pop up.
Many Neopagan liturgists do part of this process already, in that they will borrow and reuse favorite prayers, chants, etc. Unfortunately, they do it without the pattern analysis, linking and testing procedures we've been discussing. Most of the time some ritual design created years ago is repeated (because it's "traditional") and the favorite items are inserted willy-nilly. The results are usually chaotic and confusing, without a smooth energy flow from start to finish, without a groupmind being created and reinforced, and without the psychic/spiritual forces actually going where they are supposed to. These cannot be considered "successful" ceremonies, no matter how much fun people had putting them on.
We've seen from the foregoing that your job, as a liturgical designer, is to make sure that every single element of your ceremony is in a state of dynamic balance with every other part, that each stage flows smoothly into the next, and that everything your people will be doing, saying and perceiving will contribute to the overall dramatic and magical/religious atmosphere (while still staying focused around the target and goal).
But it's important for those of you who aren't creating ceremonies to realize that your liturgical designer (who will often, though not always, be your clergyperson as well) can't do it all by him/herself. Every person participating in a ritual must be working (and playing) hard. Clergy can't do 100% of the work by themselves, even though this is what most people, both Neopagan and mainstream, seem to expect them to do.
I'm sure that all of the topics covered so far in this essay (not to mention those to follow) have convinced you that creating and performing effective ceremonies requires an incredible amount of time and effort. Yep. The name or the game is "commitment". Too many of us want the excitement and glamor of being able to call ourselves by fancy titles, without doing the work necessary to earn those titles. For people who did not grow up in cultures where effective magical and religious rituals are common, while everyone learns to dance as children and magical knowledge is commonplace, creating and performing effective ceremonies is a time consuming and often expensive proposition.
You have to be willing to give up quite a bit of time in order to study theater, dance, music, magic and mythology. This isn't easy, especially if we're also trying to practice what we preach by being involved in social, political or ecological activism. But if we aren't willing to invest the time, energy and cold hard cash -- in other words, to make personal sacrifices for the deities and ideas we claim to love -- then perhaps it's time we re-evaluated our motivations and personal priorities.
This kind of commitment is hard to achieve, especially for the sort of intelligent, creative anarchists who in the past have made up the majority of the Neopagan community. Most of us are afraid, for very good historical reasons, to have a really deep commitment to any belief system. Many of us have been burned(!) before by established religions that tried to coerce us into following them. As American intellectuals, most of us have a strong aversion to discipline of any sort, including sell-discipline. We've been trained by television advertising to expect "something for nothing" and "instant success", while the mainstream churches have raised us to believe that "God will do everything for you, if you just believe strongly enough." All of this cultural conditioning has been drummed into our heads from a very early age, and it's very difficult to overcome as adults.
Even those of us who want to make the necessary commitments, often find that our (deliberately?) depressed economy makes it difficult for us to spare the necessary time and energy to try and change ourselves or the world around us. Now this may all mean that we are unlikely to ever become a mainstream religion ourselves, and thus to become a "danger" to others, but it also means that we are unlikely to be much help to the world either. That is a real tragedy, far more important than the pain of our wounded egos -- because Neopaganism represents one of the very few healthy religious movements around, one that could be of incredible value both to the biosphere and to our fellow humans.
Creating and performing effective liturgies, re-linking ourselves and others to the Gods and our Holy Mother Earth, actively causing personal and global transformation -- this is our task as Neopagan Druids. It may be the most difficult challenge that most of us will ever face. But then, we knew the job was dangerous when we took it!
"The Basic Principles of Liturgical Design." submitted by IsaacBonewits on 15 May, 2019. Last modified on 12 January, 2021.
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