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What Pagans Do

You may be used to the idea that religions are basically about belief. To be part of a particular religion, you need to believe particular things, perhaps about the nature of God, or certain moral precepts.

In Paganism, however, the emphasis is often on what we do rather than what we believe. For example, a group of Pagans can include people with very different beliefs about the nature of gods and goddess: one person may see them as independent entities, another may see them as metaphors for aspects of human personality, and another may see them as different faces of a single universal spirit. Nevertheless, this group of people can perform a ritual together, in which a particular goddess is invoked, thus sharing the activity while maintaining distinct beliefs.

This page describes one type of activity that is common to many Pagan paths: ritual. As with all things Pagan, there is a great deal of variation in the when, how, why, and wherefore of ritual.

A Word About Wicca

Wicca is one particular modern Pagan religion, which took shape in England in the early decades of the 20th century. Wicca was inspired by the idea, prevalent at the time, that the practice of witchcraft in Europe was actually the survival of an ancient Pagan fertility cult. Early practitioners of Wicca believed that they were participating in this ancient Pagan religion, that had survived in secret through centuries of Christian persecution. (Wicca is the Old English word for witch.)

We now know that modern Wicca owes more to the eclectic borrowing and creative invention of its early practitioners than it does to any ancient European fertility cult, but it remains an extremely strong influence in modern Paganism. In particular, the seasonal celebrations known as the Wheel of the Year, and the general pattern of ritual (circle casting, calling quarters, invoking God and Goddess) have their roots in Wicca and have since spread across many different types of Paganism.

When Are Rituals Performed?

For Pagans, the sacred days of the calendar are tied to the cycles of nature, rather than commemorating historical events. The sacred days most often observed fall into two broad groups.

The Sabbats mark the cycle of the seasons, known as the Wheel of the Year. There are eight sabbats. Four are the solstices and equinoxes. (Germanic peoples often celebrated the winter solstice in pre-Christian times; the summer solstice and the equinoxes seem to have had been seldom if ever observed in ancient times.) The other four are the so-called "cross-quarter days", corresponding to important Celtic festivals, celebrated in Ireland and parts of Britain. These fall midway between the solstices and equinoxes, and represent agriculturally significant times, such as first harvest, or first killing frost.

The Esbats mark the cycle of the Moon. Many Pagans celebrate the Full Moon, and some celebrate the New Moon (Dark Moon), or other phases of the lunar cycle as well.

In general, sabbat rituals tend to be large, celebratory affairs, where Pagans and Pagan-friendly people gather to mark the changing seasons, have fun, feast, and enjoy each others' company. Moon rituals, on the other hand, are often more private and focused on magic or other transformative activities.

Pagans also do rituals for special occasions: handfasting (a Pagan wedding or bonding ceremony), rites of passage (birth, coming-of-age, elderhood, death), or because a ritual is needed to mark or create some important change.

What is a Pagan Ritual Like?

Compared with a church service, a Pagan ritual is much more active and participatory, and stimulating to the senses. There is usually nothing like a Christian sermon involved. Rather, the participants perform symbolic actions that affirm the sacredness of the occasion and foster some kind of change in consciousness for the participants, as appropriate for the occasion.

Here are some things that often happen during the course of a Pagan ritual:

Purification. Participants may be ritually purified by sprinkling with salt water, annointing with oil, smudging with sage or incense, and so on.

Circle Casting. Pagan rituals are usually performed with the participants standing in a circle. During a circle casting, the priestess or other person presiding over the ritual walks the perimeter of the circle, setting it off as sacred space with words or symbolic actions.

Calling the Quarters. Pagans usually honor the four directions (and the elements of air, fire, water, and earth that are generally associated with them). This is done with words and/or gestures, with participants facing each direction in turn.

Invoking Deity. Deity is usually welcomed in some form during a Pagan ritual. A particular goddess and god may be named, or the invocation may be more general. Particular deities are often invoked when their qualities, personalities, or areas of activity support the purpose of the ritual. In large public celebration, the invoking of a god or goddess may be a simple matter of inviting their attention and welcoming their presence. In a private, more intense ritual, the priest or priestess may aspect the deity, becoming a vessel for the god or goddess to participate actively in the ritual.

Cakes and Ale. Often, after the main activities of the ritual are done, food and drink is passed around the circle. This is a sharing and grounding time.

Why Rituals?

For Pagans, rituals are very meaningful because they mark or create change in the consciousness or life of the participants. The change can be something obvious, like the passing seasons, or it can be some inward transformation a person needs or desires to make.

Some people feel there is no need to go through the symbolic operations of a ritual in order to mark or create an important change. One can get married, for example, simply by filing the necessary paperwork. For most Pagans, however, having a ritual gives the occasion a deeper, richer, more symbolic and more spiritual impact on us. Rituals help us honor important times in life by making them special and richer.

Next Steps

While it's true that Paganism is usually more about practice than belief, there are some beliefs that are common to many Pagans and different from those of Christianity or secular culture. These are described in the next section,

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Copyright © 2008 Tom Waters

The Wheel of the Year

Here's a quick run-down of the eight sabbats:

Samhain (SAH-win) is the origin of modern Halloween. It marks the beginning of the Celtic year, and is a time to honor ancestors or commune with the spirits of those who have passed over. It is often celebrated on October 31, although the midpoint between the autumn equinox and winter solstice is closer to November 5.

Yule (YOOL) is the Pagan precursor to Christmas, marking the longest night of the year and the turning or rebirth of the Sun. The solstice is typically on or about December 21.

Imbolc (IM-olk or IM-bolk) is associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid (pronounced BREED), candles, milk (it occurs around the time the sheep begin to lactate), and finding hope in the cold of winter. The traditional date is February 2.

Ostara (oh-STAR-a) is the spring equinox, on or about March 21. Ostara marks the first stirrings of life and fertility, and the balance of light and dark.

Beltane (BEL-tain) is the ancestor of modern May Day. Opposite the Wheel from Samhain, it is a celebration of life and sensuality. May 1 is traditional, May 5 is closer to the midpoint between equinox and solstice.

Litha (LEE-tha), the summer solstice, falls on or around June 21. There are not many consistent associations for this sabbat, which is often just a time to get together with friends and have an outdoor party.

Lughnassad (LOO-nah-sa) is the first harvest, associated with grain and bread and the Celtic god Lugh. The traditional date is August 2.

Mabon (MAH-bon), the autumn equinox, is the second harvest, on or about September 21.

Ritual Etiquette

What should you expect if you're invited to a Pagan ritual? Here's a quick crib sheet.

Dress. You may have heard about Pagans performing rituals nude, or wearing robes or strange costumes. In traditional Wicca, ritual participants are indeed normally skyclad (nude). As Paganism has become more mainstream, this practice has become less common, as has the alternative of wearing robes. Street clothes are now the norm for most Pagan events. If in doubt, ask.

The Circle. If the ritual involves a formal circle casting, participants are expected to respect the circle as a sacred boundary. Do not leave the circle or cross it without asking. For many groups, it is important that all movement inside the circle, either walking or passing objects from one person to another, be done clockwise. (The Wiccan term is deosil, pronounced JESS-il.) These rules are not always observed, but it doesn't hurt to remember them and act accordingly.

Call and Response. In Wicca, there are a few phrases that participants in a ritual generally repeat after they are spoken by the ritual leaders: blessed be, so mote it be, hail and farewell.

But I don't believe in this stuff! Don't worry, you're usually not expected to. Pagan rituals are not about changing anyone's belief system, they are about celebrating an important event or time. It's about participating in a shared activity, not ascribing to anything.

The Chalice. Often, during the "cakes and ale" part of a ritual, a chalice of wine or other beverage will be passed around the circle. If you don't want to drink from the cup after others have done so, don't drink alcohol, or have a cold and don't want to pass it on, it is usually just fine to simply raise the chalice as a symbolic gesture and pass it on.

Potluck. A potluck feast is often enjoyed following a ritual. Inquire about what you should bring.

Finally, don't be put off by the idea that everything has to be just so in a Pagan ritual. Most Pagans are very easy-going people, and are friendly and helpful to newcomers.