As promised, here’s part two of my post on ritual safety from the organiser/priestess/etc. point of view, (part one, focusing on the participant point of view is over here.) I should note my experience here: besides priestessing for various and assorted rituals over the past few years, I’ve also been on our local Pagan Pride board for the last three years. Situations of concern have been very limited in both places (a few people feeling faint, a few times someone had trouble coming back from meditation, etc. over the course of at least 100 rituals) and I think that a lot of that is due to thoughtful planning and awareness. That said, I haven’t seen everything, and I definitely welcome other thoughts and suggestions in comments.
What is your own experience and training?
It’s good to be honest with yourself about these things – a lot of the most dangerous moments come from someone who either overestimates their experience or training, or just plain ignores things that training would tell them. It’s important to not only know what to do, but why something is done that way. Likewise, be aware of what you’ve done recently, and what you might be a little rusty on. If most of your experience is by yourself, working closely with someone with more experience for at least a couple of group rituals to learn skills and manage the energy is a really smart idea.
I also consider it part of my job as a priestess to have basic First Aid and CPR training. I hope I’ll never need it, but having it makes me feel more comfortable in knowing what to do if an emergency does happen. (I’m not rigid about keeping my certification totally current, but do renew it regularly.) If you’re not up for this, consider supporting someone else in your group in getting that training instead.
Are you changing anything from standard practice for that technique?
Standard techniques have often been widely tested and most possible problems already removed. When you change an element, however, you may be removing an important safety support. Don’t do that without adding something else that fixes that. For example, many traditions have some standard methods they use to bring people back to their bodies after trance or ecstatic work. These specific methods may not make as much sense in a large public ritual or a festival setting – but you’d want to make sure you included something that did the same thing.
What are your resources in terms of space?
What safety support does it already have? One reason we’ve been relatively relaxed about health and safety issues with our Pagan Pride is that we’ve been holding it in a community center space which both has its own safety equipment, but is also down the block from the fire station. These are a little different than being in a public park, where those things would be less available or further away.
Likewise, you’re going to want to take different steps if you’re outside in the heat or cold than if you’re inside in a climate-controlled building. You’re going to want to pay attention to different natural hazards if you’re in the Southwest US than if you’re in Minnesota (poisonous snakes and other critters). And some things are much safer if you can’t be interrupted than if you’re in a park with lots of people from the general public walking through.
What resources do you have in terms of people?
Appropriate space for risk-involving work requires people who can support that. In Wiccan-based work, this is a common role for experienced initiates: people who have already worked with a particular technique, and who can help out if needed, even if they aren’t the priestess or priest in charge. I’m going back to the group I trained with for Samhain at the end of this week, and that’s part of my role there, to be one more experienced body who’s familiar with the ritual (which has some logistical and emotional challenges for a lot of people) and help out as needed. Because I know the ritual, but don’t have a specific ritual role, it’s easier for me to to be more immediately helpful than one of the people who needs to help keep the ritual going.
In public rituals, even if I’m not doing anything particularly strenuous, I try really hard to have 3-4 people who are there and familiar with what’s going on. Both to help set the pattern for other people there, but also so that if there is a problem of any kind, I can say, “You, go get me a glass of water. You, can you get everyone to back up a bit while we sort this out.” and so on, and call people by name. (People asked by name to do something are a lot more likely to do it than if you just ask generally: this is the same principle you use when asking someone to call 911 – identify them specifically, like “You in the brown jacket, with the glasses. Call 911 and tell them…”)
These people may also have other roles, depending on your ritual structure. However, what makes sense will vary with path and need. If a role requires staying in circle, for example, don’t send that person out with a participant who needs to sit down and have a glass of water outside of circle.
What do you know about the people who will be participating?
There are some obvious differences between a group of people with a lot of experience in what you’re doing, and a group of people who either don’t have much experience, or don’t have experience in that particular form. Adjust accordingly. If you don’t know about the background of the people participating, do some checking before you start, or consider a brief discussion before you get started in which you go over the critical information.
One other thing to think about at this point is whether you have anyone with relevant chronic medical conditions. I don’t ask these for public events (instead, I avoid things where this might be a concern), but for smaller settings (coven work, for example), I want to know:
- chronic conditions (asthma, high or low blood pressure, etc.)
- tendencies – for example, poorly managed personal energy can be a migraine trigger for some people. (It was for me until I got my personal energy management under better control.)
- past surgery that has a long-term effect. We discovered in my past group work that the two people who’d had gastric bypass needed some variations on common breathing exercises (or to ease into it more slowly) due to the surgery’s effects. Not a crisis, but there was more discomfort and frustration than I’d prefer until we figured that out.
- ongoing medication, especially recent changes in type or dose that someone’s still adapting to.
Now, in practice, in a small close-knit group, you probably know most of this anyway, before you get into the deeper (and more risky stuff). But it’s good to check in about. (These are among questions I ask anyone I’m seriously considering for group work once we’re past the initial ‘get to know you’ stage.)
What do you know about yourself?
The questions directly above apply to you, too. Do you have any chronic conditions, tendencies, past surgery or other injuries, or ongoing medication that affects you? For example, I’m asthmatic. I will not plan a ritual that involves my having to do a lot of very energetic dancing in ways I might not be able to sustain (and I have a backup plan for rituals that involve more than minimal movement in case I’m having more trouble than usual.) I also won’t priestess a ritual if I’ve been on inhaled steroids for more than a week or two, because they do odd things to both my sense of discernment, and to my emotional stability, but I’m not on them long enough to develop a new baseline.
What is your goal?
One of the most important steps in the process: what’s your real desired outcome, and what is involved to get you there? Books have been written about this, so I’m not going to go into it deeply here.
What techniques might work for reaching that goal?
The techniques you use will depend on several things – again, books have been written about this, but you want to consider:
- Your particular religious, spiritual, or magical path’s preferred techniques
- Techniques that work particularly well for you, or that you feel most able to lead thoroughly.
- How a given technique fits the likely participants, setting, and other circumstances.
- If a specific tool or technique has particular considerations.
There’s usually more way to raise and focus energy, for example. If it’s likely to be 100 degrees out and sunny, you might want to pick chanting rather than fervent dancing, for example. If it’s outside in the winter, you don’t want to make everyone stand there in a meditative post for 30 minutes. You should build in approaches that are accessible to people at varying levels of mobility and health – for example, if there’s a dancing portion, have a way for people who can’t join in the dancing chant, drum, or do something else to participate. If you have a lot of inexperienced participants, you probably don’t want a method that requires 30 minutes of sustained focus (since they may not have practice in that.)
What risks are involved with those techniques? What would you do if those things went wrong?
This is the place where it’s really hard to talk about specifics without looking at examples, but here’s some ideas:
- Ritual blades: Sharp objects (or even dull one) in close spaces have some risks. A common restriction is to ask everyone but the priest or priestess using a blade for the group’s ritual work to leave them sheathed on their belt or to not bring it at all. In public parks, or some rented spaces, having only one (generally on the altar) may be easiest.
- Glass : Some public parks and other spaces prohibit glass – and if you have a lot of people around who are unfamiliar with ritual in that space, it can be a bad idea anyway. Consider whether there are other materials that might work just as well. (My coven candleholders are stone, precisely so I don’t have to worry about either tipping them over or shattering them if I drop them.)
- Candles: Obvious fire safety issues here, especially around the area of long sleeves, long robes, or long hair. Having a fire extinguisher handy (and choosing clothing made of natural fibers, which burn much more cleanly if they burn) rather than polyester or other non-natural blends is a good move. Many locations ask that candles be enclosed in a container that extends above the level of the flame, and again, this is a good safety precaution in many cases.
- Burning something in a cauldron or over a bonfire: Again, fire safety issues. More is not better when it comes to chemical fires: avoid a 8 foot tower of fire created by too much epsom salt and rubbing alcohol mix. Have a way to cover the cauldron and stop air getting to the fire. (And have the fire extinguisher accessible.) Also, be careful what you burn – what chemicals are you releasing into the air? Does the place you’re doing the ritual have any fire or burn restrictions (common during droughts or dry periods).
- Incense: People can have a wide range of allergies – some to sage, some to lavender (a popular substitution), some to pretty much anything else you’re likely to want to try and burn. It’s often better to avoid incense or smudging of any kind at a public event. (At smaller closed events, it’s easier to ask in advance and find a solution everyone’s okay with.) This also goes for essential oil burners, and other things that release scent.
- Ecstatic ritual techniques: Ecstatic work can be glorious – but without appropriate support, it can also lead to an emotional crisis point, and leave someone feeling drained, unable to cope, or draw multiple people into chaos. These are not necessarily what you want. Having a clear way to enter the ecstatic experience, but also a clear way to return (and sufficient support staff to help individuals as needed) can be very important.
- Trance work: Same thing – do you have a method for not only getting people there, but getting them back securely? Do you know a variety of techniques to help people ground and return to themselves (in case the first one or two you try don’t work – some ideas further on in this piece) Is there space for people to sit and chat (and maybe have food) before they have to drive?
- Complex ritual techniques: Deep trance work likely to hit emotional issues, Drawing Down/aspecting/possessory work, anything involving a commitment lasting more than a few months, etc. all have some more complex risks. (beyond the scope of this post, I think) and should be handled very carefully.
- Dehydration: Have more water around than you need. Gatorade or something equivalent is also a good move if you’re doing anything involving exertion, or are going to be out in the hot sun for a while.
- Eating, drinking or inhaling: Identify what you’re giving people in ritual (whether it’s food, drink, incense, a salve, or what.) Be aware of your local, state, and federal laws. Don’t force a substance on anyone or ‘hide’ it to play a joke: you may be hitting someone’s allergy or strong sensitivity. Mention alternatives for an alcoholic chalice (send a non-alcoholic version around, or remind people they can raise the chalice in blessing or pour a tiny bit on the ground if outside, etc.)
How do those fit with the experience levels of the people participating?
If you have an unknown group (as with public ritual), err on the side of caution. If you have a group of people where you know all or almost all of their experience levels, it makes sense to take a few more risks or stretch further. (In my experience, if there is more than 1 guest for every 4-5 people familiar with the ritual methods, you want to detail one or more support people to keep an eye out for problems.)
What else is going on in your life, and how is that going to affect this event?
If you are currently juggling a lot of stress at work, you’ve had major family demands, you’ve been seriously ill, or anything else that takes your energy and focus, this is not the time to plan a big event that uses a whole bunch of ritual techniques you haven’t done much before this. Instead, use approaches you’re more familiar with, or get the help of people with substantial experience with the techniques you want to use. Try the new stuff in a smaller, more controlled environment first (experienced people who can give you feedback or any concerns) or at least at a time when you can give your full attention to preparation, planning, and rehearsal and have the emotional and physical energy to support it.
What are the general things that might go wrong that have nothing to do with ritual – just people.
It’s always good to think about this – most of these have been covered already, but think through your specific space. What will you do if someone feels faint? Steps on a wasp? Twists their ankle? Tips over a candle or a glass of wine or water? Think through each part of your ritual plan, and look for what could go wrong, then figure out at least one way to resolve it. Make sure you bring the tools needed to do that.
The ritual announcement can be a great way to get important information out to the participants, and it’s easy to include some general information about safety and well-being. (It can be relatively informal – and in a consistent small group work, you can often communicate most of this once, and then just let people know about any specifics as they come up.) I like to include:
- Who is planning the event/designing the ritual (and how they can contact this person with specific questions.)
- When (an idea of duration is helpful – is this a ‘few hour’ thing or an ‘all weekend’ thing?)
- Where (location, address, map with directions, whatever.)
- Who is welcome (public event? invite only? guests welcome or not?)
- General ritual dress requests (seasonal colors, ritual robes, street clothes, that the ritual will be skyclad). If you’re doing a lot of dancing or movement, you might suggest people avoid long skirts or robes. If you’ll be standing or sitting on a cold floor (winter in Minnesota!), let folks know if they should bring a blanket, are welcome to bring slippers or socks, etc.
- What to bring (potluck dish, specific items for use in ritual, etc. and what to do if they don’t have those items.) For example, if you ask people to bring a chalice, you might tell them that any pleasing cup is fine if they don’t have a dedicated chalice.
- What not to bring (blades, small children, pets, things other people are allergic to, etc. depending on the event.)
- Advance warning of any situations that people may want to prepare for (rituals that involve lengthy time standing, extremes of heat or cold outside, lots of moving/dancing, etc.) If you’re asking them to make oaths or commitments, I think it’s a good idea to let them know that, even if you’re not specific at this point about the details of wording.
- Ask people to contact the ritual organiser with any specific needs (for example, you might only provide a non-gluten option for cakes and ale for a small ritual if you know someone coming can’t eat bread products, or be extra certain to have some seating available if someone coming can’t stand for long). For a public event, you want to plan these alternatives anyway, because not everyone will RSVP.
You may also want to solicit additional help – people who can help with set-up or clean-up in order to make sure you and your support staff have the energy and attention to spend on other tasks related to the ritual and ritual safety. (If you have spent 3 hours setting everything up yourself, you will be less able to do this than if you’ve had a bunch of people to help you move furniture and do other general tasks.)
On the day:
Remind your support staff of important information:
This can be simple or complex. It can be general, or specific to an individual you think might have more potential for concern (either because of past experiences, or because they’re new to what you’re doing, or whatever.) Remind people where the fire extinguisher and other useful things are. Especially if it’s a large ritual, it might be nice to have an agreement about what the ‘we’re ending this ritual now’ conditions might be. (And what stuff, on the other hand, is “You and you deal with it, the rest of us will keep going.”)
Where are the relevant safety supplies?
Know where your fire extinguisher is. Also your nearest available bathroom (it does not count if you have to move a pile of furniture to get to it.) Do your helpers know where cups and water are (if someone needs water?) A few kinds of food? (Protein, something with sugar, something solid and grounding?) Where the first aid supplies are? Where a phone they can use is? (Ok, less relevant in these days of cell phones, but worth checking if you’re in a remote location with poor coverage.)
If you’re working in a situation where you won’t know someone’s disease status (blood borne and otherwise – you don’t want someone’s stomach flu, either), make sure you have cleaning supplies that will deal with this on hand in case you need to deal with cleaning up body fluids. At the very least try to have gloves, a suitable bleach solution, paper towels, and multiple plastic bags on hand. (They’re all useful for other things, too!)
Practice good fire safety:
Covered this one already, but remember to blow out any candles you light, and to have a way to handle lit cauldrons safely. Be smart and put a heat-resistant surface under the cauldron, too, even if you think the heat won’t damage the floor/ground. Check and obey any fire restrictions if you’re outside.
Prepare your participants (and include a reminder on what to do if someone feels unwell, etc.):
Do a quick reminder with your participants on what you’re doing, and on what to do if they need to leave the ritual. Most commonly, this is asking an identified person or persons for help. If you have a number of helpers, a simple pinned symbol, or a piece of brightly colored ribbon around one arm or some other indicator can all be really helpful. Examples: “Raven is our Summoner: ask him for help if you need to leave circle” or “You can ask any initiate – people wearing white or red or black cords” or “Our helpers have an oak leaf pinned to their robe, ask any of them.”
Know some good methods for the most common issues:
In my experience, there are a few situations that are likely enough to make it worth having a solid plan in place. (That doesn’t mean they’ll happen – just that of the things that might go wrong, these are the most plausible) One of these, grounding issues, I’m going to cover separately, below. The others include:
- Someone knocking something (candle, chalice, etc.) off an altar accidentally. (Set breakables well back from any edge, consider having a dustpan and brush handy)
- Someone getting too close to a flame (set well back from edge, have a fire extinguisher handy, and containers are your friend).
- Other things involving fire, practice first, and remember more is not better. Know where your fire extinguisher is.
- Blood sugar drop (ask the person what they need, cut them out of ritual to get appropriate food).
- Feeling faint (cut them out of circle, get a glass of water)
- Feeling overwhelmed (cut them out of circle, find a quiet place outside the circle and ideally out of noise range to sit and recover.)
- Unable to come back from meditation (see the grounding techniques)
- First aid needs (wasp sting, twisted ankle, sick to their stomach, etc.)
The issues of grounding:
One of the most common ritual ‘things that go a little wrong’ is people needing help to return fully to conscious awareness or to let go of the extra energy running around from ritual. Both of these have some possible risks – and honestly, they’re just plain uncomfortable. The first thing you should do to avoid this problem is to include a short grounding pause in your ritual closing. Often something short and simple will get everyone back. Some ritual methods include something as part of the cakes and ale where the priestess or priest will touch or hug everyone in circle – this is quick and easy way to make sure you get everyone back.
How do you recognise a problem? Here are some common signs that someone may need some more help. In all cases, a behavior that’s not normally like someone (i.e. someone who is very quiet is suddenly babbling, someone who is normally energetic is really reserved) is a good thing to check on. (Note: Check, don’t force. If you are not running the ritual, alert someone who is if there’s a possible problem.)
- Being jittery, unable to stay still.
- Chattering, babbling, unable to focus.
- Someone normally outgoing is being extremely quiet.
- Ongoing minimal response to people checking on them. (i.e. they say “Eh?” and that’s it instead of “Yeah, fine, thanks – just thinking about ritual.”)
- Absence of hunger when it would normally make sense to eat.
- Either easily upset, or flat, without emotional affect.
These signs won’t be the same for everyone – they may vary depending on you, on what you’ve been doing, and various other factors. You might have one common set of responses, but a different ritual will bring something else out.
What to do about it:
The following are a collection of the methods I’ve either used on others or had work well for me.
- Walk through a full grounding method, without skipping or glossing over steps.
- Salt under the tongue is a classic remedy. Salt is energetically grounding and dampening.
- Hold a stone used for grounding (either hematite, etc. or a quartz crystal charged to focus on grounding and containing excess energy.)
- Hug a tree or lie flat on the ground (arms and legs spread out from the body) for 5 minutes.
- Sitting somewhere quiet for a few minutes often works too, but someone should check on you.
- Eat. Protein, dense grains, and dense veggies are best. Someone may only really want sugar, but get them to eat a bite or two of something sweet and *then* the dense stuff.
- Dark chocolate also helps a lot, interestingly. The good stuff.
- Turning on the news or some other very mundane/practical conversation.
- Walking, stretching, or other activity that centers you in your body.
One last remedy I learned this weekend is a physical one (so get permission to touch the person first!). Put one hand, thumb down, over the base of the skull. Put the other hand thumb up over the forehead/third eye. Have the person inhale. As they exhale, gently squeeze together. It’s a technique that helps recenter the person in their body, and also helps buffer from input from the third eye, and from the large bundle of complex nerves (and in some traditions, psychic centers) at the base of the skull. Firm pressure basically gives the body something else to work with than the more esoteric parts. Walking someone through wiggling or scrunching up each part of their body may also help center them in their physical selves.
What to do when warning in advance would affect the ritual:
And finally, a quick word about rituals where an element of surprise is part of it (or where the ritual itself is oathbound.) This is, of course, a tricky situation, because simply providing information is not always the best choice for the most effective emotional impact. Possibilities include:
- Only do rituals with a significant element of surprise with people you know well (so you know any of their possible concerns) and who also trust you to treat them well. Initiations following an extended period of interaction and training fit here, often.
- Do a general discussion. The group I trained in handled initiation information in part by having a class in which we said “Here’s why initiatory rituals happen, and what they’re supposed to do. Here’s a bunch of things that are commonly mentioned as possible options in them. We’re not going to tell you what ours involves, but if you have questions or concerns about any of these things, you should let us know so we can take it into account.” As mentioned, I’m asthmatic, and I’ve got a fairly strong reaction to anything that restricts postion of my neck (as some forms of ritual binding do) I told them, they took it into account, and I had no worries on the night in question about that, because I also trusted that they would take it seriously.
- Providing general information without details (“This ritual will involve some physical challenges: if you’re not sure whether you’re up for that, talk to [ritual organiser] about your limits, and we’ll tell you whether we think you’d be able to manage.”) This is not a great solution (because it requires people to reveal some personal information), but can work for some situations. But for “I can walk X distance, but not fast” sorts of needs, it can be great.
I’m sure there are many other options that could be included here – but this is certainly long enough for now. Again, questions, other suggestions, etc. are all welcome in comments.