How is really the meat of the question. There are of course, many different ways to do ritual together. Even within religious witchcraft traditions, different parts may appear or not – or they may be in different orders.
I’m not going to go into vast detail at this point, because there are excellent books out there that do a great job of this. (Noted below, and on my suggested reading list.)
In general, Wiccan-based ritual structure has the following parts:
Preparing for ritual
Creating sacred space
Inviting deity and other entities
The Great Rite
Thanking deity and other entities
Opening the circle (returning the space to its original state)
Returning to the world
Below is a very general outline. If you want to look at creating ritual, I highly recommend Deborah Lipp’s book The Elements of Ritual for looking at why each step might work a certain way (though I don’t agree with all her conclusions, as you might guess from some of the order below.) Amber K and Azrael K’s book RitualCraft also has some great material on creating meaningful rituals.
Below, I’ve talked a fair bit about my own group and tradition’s practices, in fairly general terms. There’s a lot of variation between different groups, but I’ve tried to make it clear what common practices are.
Group versus solitary: One great question is what’s different for personal work as opposed to group. There’s a lot of variation, of course. Here’s some things to think about:
- Group ritual tends to be more specific about each step, because you need every person in the ritual to be able to connect with what’s going on.
- Personal ritual can be simpler, either because you know exactly what’s going on, or because you can progress at your own pace.
- However, walking through the steps below – even if you’re working by yourself – in some form can be very useful. It gives your brain (and your subconscious, in particular) a chance to get deeper into ritual mindset if you take your time setting everything up.
- There are some specific ritual practices that make a lot of sense in solo work, but not group work. Likewise, there are practices that don’t make any sense for solo work (or have some significant risks or other reasons not to do them without someone else around.) Picking the right practices for the setting is a good thing.
1: Preparing for ritual
The first step in preparation is knowing the intention. Knowing your intention and making small choices that build towards it over days or weeks beforehand can lead to great rituals.
Preparing the space is usually the first step. I begin by cleaning and moving any furniture I need to move. Then, it’s time to set the central altar and quarter altars, as well as any other items I need for ritual.
Next, we prepare ourselves. I prepare myself for ritual by reflecting on what I’m doing in that ritual. I choose clothing that reflects my intention. I take some time to do a formal cleansing bath or shower at some point before ritual (though this may not be immediately before ritual – it might be the night before, depending on my schedule.)
Finally, I make any last minute preparations - changing for ritual, putting on ritual jewelry, talking about any information everyone needs before we begin. I begin by breathing, centering, and balancing myself.
2: Creating sacred space
My tradition’s process of creating sacred space has several smaller steps. Many other religious witchcraft traditions use similar steps – but you may be familiar with them in a slightly different order.
Banishing the circle: We start by cleansing the energy of the space we’re using for ritual. When we’re working in our own home, we hopefully cleanse and bless our space regularly – but we still can track in unwanted energy and stress at times. Cleaning everything up energetically before we start ritual helps us focus and make the most of our time in circle, just like tidying up the place physically means we’re less likely to trip over something, or get distracted by a dust bunny.
And of course, when we’re working in other spaces – whether that’s a public park or a rented space – we don’t always know what’s been there before us. Cleansing the space means we start with a known foundation.
This part of our circle casting is a way to let go of these distractions and leave them behind for the duration of circle. Banishing can be done in many ways – with a broom, with a chime, with other instruments, with clapping.
Scribing the circle: This is creating the boundary of the circle, and creating the kind of space and energy we will be working in. My tradition uses the same text for every Sabbat and Esbat circle we cast, but some groups vary the circle cast for different times of year or different needs. There are also a variety of ways to scribe a circle.
(You’ll sometimes see people refer to the entire process of casting a circle as ‘scribing the circle’. I think it’s a little less confusing to call the whole process of creating sacred space ‘casting’, and the specific there will be an energetic circle here now bit ‘scribing’.)
Blessing the space: Once we have a circle, we want to add the blessings and good energy we want to work with. We bless the circle with salt water (earth and water), and incense (air and fire). This makes this the first appearance of the representations four core elements of creation: air, fire, water, and earth.
Calling the quarters: First, we prepare the circle to invite the powers of the quarters. Then, we invite the guardian of each direction to join our work, as well as the powers of the elementals associated with that direction. We use common direction associations: Air in the East, Fire in the South, Water in the West, and Earth in the North. At the end of each call, we welcome the guardian and the powers of the element formally by saying “Hail, and welcome.”
Again, there are varying ways to invite the quarters: some groups invite the elements, some the elementals, some the guardians. Deborah Lipp’s book is a great introduction to different possibilities.
3: Inviting deity and other entities.
Many traditions invite both a God and Goddess to their circles. Some paths work only with a Goddess (or multiple Goddesses). I talk more about some of these options on the Deity page.
4: The working
At this point, we do whatever our working for this ritual is. It might be a magical working, a meditation, divination, introspection. We often talk about part of our individual work, and how we see it fitting with others, but it is up to each individual what they share and how. The working will be explained in advance.
We use different methods to focus energy for magical workings, but chant, dance, and meditation are common favorites, and they’re relatively easy for people new to ritual to pick up.
5: The Great Rite
In Wiccan practice, the Great Rite is the joining (in all senses) of the Lord and Lady to form something new. This is most commonly represented by placing the blade of an athame in a chalice holding a suitable liquid (wine is common, but there are other options.) along with directing energy to focus and direct that desire towards the goal of the ritual.
It’s that friction and spark of creation that helps us send off the work of the ritual to its goal – and to share the blessings of the Gods among the people in the ritual, whether that’s one person, a coven, or a large gathering. However, this has a specific implication of fertility and creation. Some traditions may choose to focus on a different aspect of polarity (and adapt this part of the ritual accordingly).
People working on their own often find that holding that kind of polarity within themselves doesn’t make as much sense for personal ritual, and instead choose to offer a blessing or moment of reflction here.
In my personal practice, I usually have a small token meal (a little bread, a little something to drink, maybe a little fruit or chocolate) that I share in circle with my Gods, and then leave a small libation outside when I’m done with ritual.
In group ritual, it is common to share a cup (blessed in the Great Rite) and some kind of bread as a symbol of our shared community. Other groups may handle this differently: some share a simple blessing of food and drink to be shared by the circle. Some pick the food based on the season.
Some groups have the high priestess and high priest bring the food and drink around with a blessing, others pass it from person to person. Common responses (that work in most groups) are “Blessed be” or “Blessed be those who bless us.” Anything else sincere and appropriate to the working is also generally welcome.
6: Thanking the deities
It’s now time to begin to wind down our circle. While being in circle is a wonderful time, we need to return to the fully physical world for several reasons. First, we’re physical beings, and being too long between the worlds can be hard on us. But more than that, we need to bring the seeds of our work in circle back with us, so they can grow and manifest in our lives.
Generally, the last thing welcomed in is the first thing we say good bye to, so we begin by thanking the deities. Think of it like sending much loved friends home at the end of the party. You don’t just kick them out abruptly, but you do want them to leave so you can clean up and go to sleep. It’s not an infinite invitation.
At the same time, polite is good, so a “Thank you for [specific blessings or insight or wisdom that came up during the ritual], go in peace until we next meet.” works pretty nicely.
7: Opening the circle
Basically, we repeat the steps we did to cast the circle in reverse order – thanking the quarters and encouraging the guardians and elements to depart, opening the circle, and then declaring it open. Again, we want to be clear that ritual is ending, and we are moving back to the physical world.
8: Returning to the world
Casting circle is a time between the worlds – but it’s also something we need to return from. We, as human beings, need to be anchored in the physical world, and tend to our very physical needs.
When ritual is done, it’s a good idea to remove ritual jewelry or anything else we wear just for ritual before heading home. This helps create the clear distinction in our brains and bodies about where our focus and attention is.
Many groups pause at this point for a group feast: part of the process of returning to the physical world is taking time to talk, laugh, eat, and drink together as a community. This helps make sure we return from our ritual work safely, and that any problems with grounding or post-ritual effects can be handled before someone heads home.
If you leave libations outside, do it before you forget. A libation is a small amount of food and/or drink offered to the Gods. I pour a small amount out in a separate cup during ritual (either right after the Great Rite in group work, or during my simple ritual meal), and after ritual, take it out and pour it at the base of a friendly tree or other plant. (Amounts should be small, especially if they include food: you don’t want to regularly attract scavenging beasties: a pinch of bread and a thimbleful amount of wine are fine.)
It’s also good to tidy a bit. That means taking down our altars, putting the furniture back in the right place, and doing anything else that needs to be done that night.
After ritual, it’s a good idea to journal briefly (that night, the next morning) about anything in particular we want to remember in the future. We might include our mood, any special moments from meditation, any inspirations or ideas we had. Some people like to bring a notebook to ritual for a few notes as we finish, others prefer to do it at home, after they’ve taken time to reflect.
You might also want to read:
- What is ritual?
- What’s a circle for, anyway?
- Ritual food and drink and seasonal food options
- An example of planning a ritual
- An example of getting started with ritual
[last edited January 8, 2011]