What Is Wrong with Large-Scale Ritual?

Maypole procession at Colorado’s Beltania festival, 2011. (Photo by Robin Vinehall.)

When it comes to large-scale ritual, the traditional Wiccan circle does not scale up well. It was made for a small-group mystery religion, where twelve or thirteen people really is the maximum.1)OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.

That Wiccan circle, as far as I can tell, was based on the magic circle of the ceremonial magician, designed to hold one, maybe two, possibly three individuals—but usually just one. And as many teachers will tell you, the magician’s circle was supposed to give the Bad Stuff out, whereas the Witches’ circle is supposed to keep the Good Stuff in.

But like a balloon that can be inflated only so far before it pops, the magic circle seems to lose cohesion when it grows too big. Its fabric tears, and, for all I know, the Good Stuff leaks out.

It may still worth with large groups as a way for a maximum number of people to have a good look at some theatrical event happening in the center. Make a son et lumière production out of calling the Quarters—that helps when you have a large outdoor gathering.

On the negative side, I have attended large rituals where people brought folding chairs to sit in because they knew that they would wait a long time for anything to happen—for the oracular priest to make it around to where they sat, for instance. It was deathly dull.

Last month at the Heartland festival, held at a 160-acre site with a network of internal gravel roads, I saw a small procession passing ahead of one of the main evening rituals. I perked up at that, but the participants were more like camp criers: “Come to the ritual.”

No no no no no. The procession should BE the ritual—for most people. That is when you bring the gods out of the temple and take them down the street. It’s interactive, and it involves the bodies of the participants. Let everyone join in! Consider what is done in India or in Catholic countries and urban neighborhoods on certain saints’ days.2)Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.

Instead of the procession being a warm-up act, I modestly suggested to two members of the Sacred Experience Committee (in other words, the ritual producers), it should be the Main Event. Idols! Musicians! Costumes!

If a more conventional ritual follows, that’s fine, but don’t expect everyone to come. But bring the procession past their campsite and entice them to join it because it is loud, colorful, and physical.

I remember one New Mexico festival in the late 1980s where the rituals were pretty good—maybe because the group was not too huge. But then one evening a handfasting was announced, and the campers spontaneously grabbed torches and lanterns and drums and flutes and processed behind the officiants to the site—and there was more “juice” in that procession than in the official circle-style ritual.

I’ve attended a few Pueblo Indian rituals since my dad used to drag me down to Zuni when I was three, and I have noticed something: The tribes don’t expect everyone to participate. The specialists—the appropriate religious society or priesthood—will perform both the hidden parts and the public parts—dances and so on. Many people will just be spectators. The important thing is that the ritual is performed for everyone’s benefit, whether they pay close attention or are off seated on an adobe wall eating watermelon or chatting up a potential romantic partner.

Likewise the old-time Pagans had used processions as a major large-group activity. Sometimes they ended, for example, at a sacrificial altar, and then the specialists took over. (Everyone ate later.) They did not make everyone sit in rows inside a temple—most activity took place outside the temple. Making you stand or sit around indoors while the specialists do their thing is the Christians’ mistake.3)Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.

Right now, we are in the middle of summer festival season in the US and elsewhere. Tell me what you see. Are people getting away from the “Let’s just make a big ol’ circle and call the Quarters” model? There has to be something that works better.

Notes   [ + ]

1. OK, maybe up to twenty or so, but that is more than enough, especially if they are skyclad and all waving athames.
2. Saints, gods, what’s the difference. We are trying to raise energy.
3. Yes, the liturgical churches—Orthodox, Catholic, fancy Anglican—will give you visualization exercises etc. to do during the service, and there are postural changes—sitting, standing, kneeling—in some churches, but it is not what I would call movement.

13 Comments

  1. Medeina Ragana says:

    Interesting take you have on the procession being an integral part of the ritual. That reminded me of the two times in the early 1980s, I attended Philadelphia’s Odunde Festival, which was a re-enactment of a Nigerian harvest festival with appropriate traditional prayers to Oshun. Things got started when the officiants, who were the priests and priestesses of Oshun, as well as the drummers, and other ritualists, got together and then processed down to the Schuykill River with everyone following behind. When they got to the bridge over the river, the officiants stopped, everyone gathered the best they could behind them (and there were at least a hundred people, maybe more), the prayers and other rituals were done and then going back it kinda reminded me of a New Orleans “after-funeral” parade. During the prayers etc. the silence was astonishing. You could not hear anything – not birds, not the cars along the Schuykill Expressway, not people – just complete dead silence, but when it was over, all the sounds came back. It was an amazing experience.

  2. Pitch313 says:

    Trads that I practice expect that everybody participates, contributes, changes. That expectation (in my experience) puts the upper limit at about 50.

    Above that number, participatory Craft rituals become more and more theatrical productions with producers, directors, casts, and audiences. Or priest/ess-ly services aimed to benefit not-so-priest/ess-ly congregations and bunches of onlookers.

    One of the skills that most Pagans gain involves recognizing that numbers of folks and scale of events make a difference in what happens, how, and how much. Bigger scale rituals mean more hurrying up and waiting. So sure, some attendees bring folding seats, coolers full of chilled refreshments, and other stuff to do. Myself, i don’t typically carry a folding seat to a large ritual, but I do carry my kit and my curiosity about the living world.

    You are probably correct that for large scale gatherings–procession ought to be the ritual event. Reclaiming is famous for the Halloween Spiral Dance, for instance. Lots of G forces created there!

  3. Julia Ergane says:

    Of course, being involved with a reconstructed/revived polytheistic religion my thoughts all go to the big polis-wide processionals! Once you get to the temenos (the sacred temple precinct) there is not much left for the regular people to do. They have escorted the sacrifice. The ritual is now handed over to the priests, which is awesome as the sacrifice is given to a God or Gods. This is a WORSHIP event! It is NOT a magical event. Personally, this is why I do not attend generic/neo-wiccan events. I do not feel even a smudge of spirituality or religiosity at them. There is nothing bigger behind the face of the ritual.

  4. Scott O'Connell says:

    We had a Beltane Bardic festival, that opened and closed with a standard Druidic ritual. But between, we had poets reading, improv, the booths were open, and all sorts of actual festival stuff.
    I think it was pretty good. 🙂

  5. Elsa says:

    Procession or not, spiral dance or not, my experience is that the key to successful large rituals is engagement of the participants. ‘Specialists performing in the middle’ has to be interpolated with either direct engagement with adequate specialists to the numbers attending, or leading of songs or chants and/or drumming to hold attention. Five people ministering to 200+ was tricky.

    • Elise says:

      100% agreed. I’ve run circles up to 200 people. Engage everyone. Why have only one person call a quarter? Ask everyone in that quarter to call. Ritual is part theater. You take the energy raised during the drama and use that for tranceformation. The transformational or celebratory process can begin outside the circle (give participants something to DO), and they bring that with them to circle, as a culmination.

      Always think of your fellows as participants, not simply attendees. Then they can bring lawn chairs if they must, but, their attention is still focused on the magick.

  6. Jim Dickinson says:

    You are right when you observe that Wiccan ritual ‘does not scale up very well’ – IF it is thought of in that way: that it is just a regular ritual, only bigger.

    But I do not think large format ritual is antithetical to Wiccan practice. I think it is more that too few people have the skills, experience, or know-how to design one that works well for large groups. The dynamics are different. The design has to be different. The Assembly of the Sacred Wheel routinely has rituals with 100-150 people in them and they are some of the most beloved and powerful of the rituals we host: Festival of Hecate, Cernunnous Ritual, and our Yule celebration. We have held rituals at the ASW Between the Worlds conference that, be all reports, have left people glowing and changed and processing for days after – with several hundred participants.

    That is because one of our Elders, Ivo Dominguez, Jr, is particularly talented at designing large rituals. If you get the chance to take one of Ivo’s classes on ritual writing/creation, I highly recommend it. He teaches how to break up roles and give everyone in the ritual something to do, REAL work to do. How to account for the logistics of large groups moving through a ritual. How to account for smaller break-out groups in the ritual doing specific tasks without losing connection to the whole. Why it is important to hold actual classes to explain the ritual before doing it, to get everyone on the same page. Constructing path workings that echo the themes and work of the ritual and can be done at the classes to begin to connect everyone attending to the same energy, pattern, intent. There is a LOT that goes into a successful large group rituals and, done right, they can produce a massive ‘wave’ for everyone to ride to get real work done.

    OTOH, I agree that large rituals at gatherings rarely work as much more than social events or theater (often lovely theater, nonetheless) – precisely because they are 1) often not really rituals planned for large groups, taking into account all the ways they need to be different from small group ritual; 2) are often put together and run by people who do not always work together and are not used to each other enough to compensate for the challenges of large ritual, and 3) have little pre-ritual education and prep included and, therefore, are generally treated too casually by those attending them (i.e. bringing their drinks in with them, holding side conversations as if they are in their living rooms, coming late, wanting to be cut-out early, and just a long list of rudeness I have witnessed at events and make me shudder…). You get out what you put in.

    And, yes, of course, procession should be treated as part of the whole spell.

    Large ritual can be powerful, meaningful, and bonding for community, If done right. Its part art and part skill. I give thanks for and honor my teacher’s gift of both.

  7. Chas Clifton says:

    I respect Ivo Dominguez, Jr.’s ritual skills. But consider this sentence, “Why it is important to hold actual classes to explain the ritual before doing it, to get everyone on the same page.”

    Do you think ancient Greeks (or whoever) had to go class to learn how to participate in a religious procession?

    Can you reconcile that statement with the earlier commenter who said that we should emphasize worship over magic-working, in that magic-working usually does require instruction?

    • Jim Dickinson says:

      @Chas Clifton

      Pretty simple really: We aren’t “ancient Greeks (or whatever)”. I have no particular desire to do exactly what ancient Greeks did, simply because they did it. Hopefully, we learn from what they did and continue to improve on it and/or adapt what was done to a modern reality/awareness/knowledge base. Our rituals have to speak to our lives.

      Relative to the other commenter’s statement that we ‘should emphasize worship over magic-working’…I believe ritual should be both worship and magick, as often as possible. Magick is the tool that is used to create a space in which the likelihood of spiritual experience is increased. Magick, religion and spirituality are equal parts of the process. Magick helps creates spaces (physical, mental , energetic…etc.) in which spiritual experiences are fostered (against all the anti-spiritual energies in our modern worlds) and religion is the negotiated language we use to try to communicate (albeit imperfectly) to one another the essence of those mystery/spirit experiences. The synergy of religion and magick is what humans use to try to foster those mystery, spiritual experience for one another. All three are needed for a community to advance together. And a huge part of large-scale ritual, IMHO, should be providing a community bonding component.

      As to the classes: The classes are often needed for several reasons (I mean, if you don’t have time, you don’t have time, but when possible…):

      1) You can go over the logistics so everyone knows where to go in the ritual, why, and when. Nothing can bring down a spiritual moment any more than simply running into one another in a ritual and wondering why people on the other side of the ritual are doing x or y. Humans are incredibly distractible. Its good to eliminate as many potential interferences/distractions as possible and allow people to focus.

      2) You can teach the chants used in the ritual. It can be hard to raise energy together to help foster an opening to spiritual experience or invoke a deity, for instance, if everyone is trying to learn and stumbling over ritual lyrics/tunes in the middle of the ritual. Especially amusing (but experientially disruptive in a ritual of any kind) when a well known chant has 5 regional variations and we have not agreed on which of those to use…

      3) You can lead people through an understanding of what is being sought and align focus. A group ritual is not a group ritual if everyone in it is intent on a separate purpose. There is no additive function of all of our attention and effort (for worship, magick, religion, community bonding or any combination thereof) if that cannot be at least partial pointed in the same direction. Group ritual is not really, IMO, simply supposed to be for a bunch of individuals to have an audience for their personal journey. If there is no common focus, there is no group ritual.

      4) A path working to prime the various parts of self is actually PART of the ritual, just like those much mentioned ‘ancient greeks’ would have perhaps fasted or performed personal sacrifices/offerings before processing to a mass event. It also serves to start blending the energies of the people in the pre-ritual class, creating familiarity among people that may have just met, but have now shared a common working/experience.

      And a host of other reasons… but all of them pointing to one objective: taking a bunch of people that normally do not work together and often work very differently from one another and starting to align them to what is being attempted with the ritual, allaying confusion that often happens when people just show-up at a ritual and do not know whats going on or what is being offered(confused people rarely ‘plug in’. ha!), and minimizing simple mundane distractions that can interfere with the experience being fostered (like people having to guess how to move in a circle with 100 people in it to make an offering at the altar, etc.)

      Magick (in whatever form it takes in any particular ritual) helps alter consciousness, concentrate energy for the manifestation of deities invoked, etc. – makes spiritual experience more likely. It is one of its main purposes. While no one is receiving ‘magical instruction’ in a 90 minute pre-ritual class, that’s not it purpose. A class can, however, help focus the abilities and talents that attendees already have in the same direction, so they are additive and not interfering.

      And, yes, of course, ancient greeks had to go to class to learn how to participate in a religious processional. No one is born knowing to say ‘this prayer’ while walking in ‘this way’ to ‘this place’ and perform ‘these rites’ for ‘this deity’ on ‘this day’. They shared a common culture in which the practice was far more common and reinforced by everyday familial and cultural indoctrination [or classes, if you like]. We often arrive at festivals/large rituals from a variety of backgrounds with fewer commonalities – especially in our pagan communities that greatly value individuality. Having a short class to begin to create a ‘temporarily common’ way of working together is an attempt to compensate for that lack of commonality when we need to work, experience, and worship… together.

  8. Pitch313 says:

    One manner of instructing participants in ritual–including large scale ritual–is adherence to a Craft Trad. Craft Trads (or congries of Trads) can develop skills in large scale rituals. What’s more, where large scale rituals happen routinely, attendees can build their own skills as participants and recruit others to attend those rituals.

    Plenty of large scale rituals that I have attended, in addition, include some sort of prep period, even if it’s just a few minutes of explanation and go here or there.

    Even so, I myself do not regard large scale Craft rituals as essential practice. Small scale rituals are the core of Trad practice.

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