What is ritual?

Ritual is both fundamental to many religions and also sometimes very confusing. This article looks at some different aspects of ritual, and specifically how and why it’s used in religious witchcraft.

Doing: spiral on a golden background

What is ritual?

Fundamentally, ritual:

  • is a process: not a single act.
  • has a structure that can be described or repeated in someway (but may also have experimental, creative, or improvised parts)
  • is outside our ordinary reality in some way.
  • brings different parts of our selves together to act in unison – this might be our physical/mental/emotional selves, or multiple levels of consciousness or the three souls (Younger Self, Talking Self, Higher Self, for example).
  • has a specific goal – this can be religious (honoring deity) or non-religious (practical magical working or other tasks.)

(Definition paraphrased from Amber K and Azrael K’s RitualCraft, p. 5, based on many other definitions of ritual.)

Who does ritual?

Humans – it seems to be pretty basic in the species.

Back to the cave paintings, more than 30,000 years ago, there are signs of ritual and ritual structures within life. Of course, the form – and the goal – of ritual can vary in many ways. Different religions can have different kinds of goals, different methods, or different kinds of structure. (They can also share some goals, methods, or structures, too.)

In many religions, you need specific people to facilitate certain kinds of rituals – this might be a priest, priestess, shaman, minister, rabbi, or many other religious titles.

Religious witchcraft traditions – like Wicca and others – generally go two ways on this.

First, initiates (or others with appropriate training) are considered able to handle many of their own religious needs themselves. However, for group rituals, there are often designated ritual roles to help make it clear who is in charge of specific ritual tasks, planning, or other aspects of making the ritual work smoothly.

In my tradition, we ideally work with four ritual roles: High Priestess, High Priest, Handmaiden, and Summoner. Each has exoteric ritual responsibilities (practical steps everyone can see) and more esoteric ones (roles that are not as visible, such as directing and focusing energy in particular ways.) Other smaller roles (like those calling the quarters) are also possible and common.

These four roles help keep things focused – and also make sure that everyone knows who will do what if there is an urgent need or issue. For example, it’s the handmaiden’s job to deal with it if something gets knocked and broken, while the HPS and HP would keep the ritual focus going. (There’s a lot of variation in this kind of thing: there isn’t one true answer on how to do ritual.)

We also think it’s very important for each individual to develop their own personal ritual practice. Personal rituals can be a simple morning devotional, using the bath as a cleansing moment at the end of the day, actions to honor and celebrate family or home, or any number of other things. They don’t need to involve a formal cast circle or even the same actions as anyone else. They can take many different forms – and our personal rituals may vary by season, mood, or intention.

Why do we do ritual?

Within Paganism, the most common group rituals include:

  • Honoring the Gods
  • Celebrating the cycles – commonly of the seasons or the moon
  • Rites of passage (becoming an adult, birth, death, marriage)
  • Magical goals – prosperity, good fortune, protection, healing, etc.
  • Self-transformation or other work with the self (blessing, growth).

Personal ritual – as mentioned above – can take many forms. We may have a particular ritual that starts our day (the sound we wake up to, the first things we do, making a cup of tea or our breakfast), or when we arrive at work.

We may have personal ways we celebrate a particular event, or reflect on something.

For example, I honour the anniversary of my father’s death by taking time to read a book I know he loved, and thinking of him (as well as doing some divination and reflection on the results.) It’s not usually a formal ritual structure in a cast circle, but it is important to me.

Many of the same ritual techniques work for individuals as well as groups – but there are a few techniques that you need more than one person to do, and some which work better as an individual. One of the things we really enjoy about our ritual training is that it helps give us many possible tools for what we want to do – both together and individually.

When do we do ritual?

Among religious witchcraft traditions (including Wicca and its various offshoots), the most common are the 8 Sabbats (solar and agricultural festivals) and the Esbats (full moon, new moon, or both.) The Sabbats and Esbats form two interlocking cycles.


The 8 Sabbats are traditionally seen to form a complete cycle. In some traditions, they celebrate the birth, life, and death of the God, and the complex ways the Goddess changes throughout that time. In some traditions, they focus on specific deities or myths at specific times of the year. (These might include the Oak and Holly Kings, Persephone’s abduction or return, etc.) In my tradition, the Sabbats are most generally seen as a cycle of growth and transformation, rooted in the agricultural cycle but not as directly focused on specific agricultural events.

The most common names used are Celtic. You can learn more on the Sabbats article, which includes some very simple ideas for celebration (and references to books that have a lot more in the way of ideas.)

Dates, of course, also vary somewhat. The solstices and equinoxes are fairly straightforward: these are determined by the astronomical event (generally the 21st or 22nd of December, March, June, and September. Most calendars will tell you.)

But the other four dates can be calculated in varied ways – either by traditional dates (February 2nd, May 1st, August 2nd, and October 31st) or by the astrological degree (celebrating them at 15 degrees of the relevant sign – this usually puts the date about the 7th or 8th of the same month.)


Esbats celebrate the moon’s cycles. Most commonly, groups tend to celebrate the full moon together, but some groups celebrate both the full and new moons, or some other combination.

Where Sabbats are focused on celebration and longer time periods (seasons), Esbats often focus on smaller cycles or specific needs. It’s a common time for magical work, guided meditations, a particular concept, or divination. Again, you can learn more on the Esbats page.

Period of energy:

Many groups consider there to be a 3 day period of the energy: the day of the Sabbat or Esbat, and then the day before and the day after. This sometimes simplifies scheduling and other demands, since both Sabbats and Esbats can fall on any day of the week. Many groups celebrate most or all Esbats and Sabbats on the nearest weekend, to make it easier for everyone to get there.

Where do we do ritual?

Ritual can happen almost anywhere – it really depends on the type of ritual and what you want to accomplish. Obviously, there are also some practical issues: outdoor ritual in Minnesota is tricky at best – and can be downright dangerous, depending on the windchill. And it’s hard to meditate if there’s a lot of background noise or people running around on the floor above you.

Most groups are practical. If sufficiently private and agreeable outdoor space is available, this is often preferred – but living in a city, outdoor options may not be as easy to come by. Some options include having the formal circle work inside, but then moving outside for feasting or social time, or creating rituals that do not seem too obvious to the neighbors.

Location will also depend on the tradition and group’s practices. Some groups always meet at the same location, building up a store of energy in that space. Some groups rent space, and adapt their ritual to the space they’re using. Some rotate between different spaces.

In my coven, we do ritual together in my apartment (every apartment I’ve rented since 2007 has had the “what would it be like to do ritual here?” as part of my decision process, but some of them have worked better than others.)

This means my living room is set up to make that easier, but it limits some other things I might do with the space. For example, I’d sort of love to have a big comfy chair to curl up in – but then we’d need to figure out a way to move it for group ritual.

Title card: What is ritual?

Last edited December 24, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.

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