According to many theorists, Contemporary Pagan rituals are the primary agent for cohesiveness in an otherwise individualistic and vacillating religious structure.
Adherents meet fundamentally at Sabbats (Wiccan holidays) and Esbats (full moons) that are routinely observed with a ritual. Rituals blend the Wiccan community into a multifaceted religious system. The central cohesion emerges from a shared liminal experience, a shared holistic paradigm and a shared value on participatory religion.
At dusk, the frogs begin to sing louder as a cool breeze flows over the water. A bonfire, which had been stoked for hours, crackles into the coming night. Just south of the fire pit stands an altar with the Goddess statue on the right and the God on the left. The altar is a simple design but eloquent.
When she was ready, the High Priestess, hosting the retreat of the Covenant of the Goddess, calls to everyone. Her signal tells the participants to change into ritual clothes. Once everyone is ready they automatically line up to be purified by sage smoke before entering the circle. As the High Priestess moves the smoking sage around each participant, the mood changes from boisterous to constrained happiness.
The High Priestess grins widely as she greets each participant entering the circle. She waits patiently for each of us to take our place. Then she takes up a sword and chants around the circle to create a connection between our realm and the realms of the elementals and the Gods.
We know once the circle is consecrated, we cannot leave the ritual space because crossing the circle will break the barrier. Once the barrier between the mundane and the ritual space has been established, the High Priest invites the elements to the ritual: air, fire, water and earth respectively. We know the connection to the sacred realms is complete when the sound of the frogs disappears and the temperature rises.
After the ritual space preparation, the High Priestess and the High Priest join together to invite the Gods to accompany us. We then release our suppressed joy in exuberant dance until we are breathless. Glowing with delight, we fall to the ground and share refreshments until we feel the end of the ritual has come. The High Priestess and High Priest rise and repeat the opening process in the opposite order in order to disassemble the partition between here and there.
The ritual described above was held at the annual Everglade Moon Local Council retreat in St. Lucie, Florida. The Local Council is a division of the national organization Covenant of the Goddess, a group of Wiccan Coven representatives.
The gathering consisted of High Priestesses and High Priests from different Wiccan Covens across South Florida, so the ritual framework utilized at the retreat was familiar to all. Not only did the ritual conform to Wiccan norms, but the format also, followed a typical ritual pattern: delineation of sacred and mundane, the liminal state which is the heart of the ritual, and the closing that brings the participants back to the mundane (Witching Culture 139). The three-part design “provide[s] a container for ecstatic ritual practices, marking them as framed experiences during which participants feel free to suspend disbelief and become absorbed” (Witching Culture 141).
The suspension of disbelief allows the participant to experience a liminal state which is “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial” (Turner 95).
Each ritual is designed to take the participants out of the norms dictated by a dominant outer culture and connect them to a universal whole that combines the natural world with the supernatural world.
The connection between the natural and supernatural during rituals carries over into the mundane world as a shared holistic paradigm of life thus the oppositional elements found in the ritual also carry over into the mundane world.
A reminder of the connection, as well as disconnection, returns in the act of reflexivity through the creativity utilized in ritual formulation (Witching Culture 203). The participants expect the ritual to remind them of the interconnectedness of existence because “they tend to view humanity’s ‘advancement’ and separation from nature as the prime source of alienation. They see ritual as a tool to end that alienation” (Adler 1).
According to Religious Studies scholar Michael York, “paganism eschews any true hierarchy between the temporal and permanent, between the physical and spiritual, or between this world and the otherworld. In paganism, all realms of being and possibly nonbeing partake in a dynamic partnership or colloquium of potential equals” (York 162).
The Pagan holistic view originated in a cosmology, which was created and animated by a Divine life source, such as the Babylonian Mother Goddess Tiamat or the Viking giant Ymir (Tambiah 7). The idea of a Divine source animating all life forms creates the foundation for “nature-based” religions.
The reciprocal structure of Wicca inherently creates an intertwining of macrocosm and microcosm into a participatory system that manifests in a symbiotic union of a holistic paradigm and individualistic belief system.
The idea of the holistic paradigm grew out of the study of so-called primitive cultures. Lévy-Bruhl, after studying the work of his predecessors, posited another explanation for the indigenous perspective. “Participation… signified the association between persons and things in primitive thought to the point of identity and consubstantiality. What Western thought would think to be logically distinct aspects of reality, the primitive may fuse into one mystic unity” (Tambiah 86).
Since then, other theorists have called this perspective a “magical world view” (Witching Culture 126; Adler 22; Albanese 511). Ritual is a way to immerse oneself in the magical world view because of the physical, mental and spiritual energy needed for Wiccan observances. “Ritual is hard work. Because it is participatory, it requires each participant’s undivided attention” (Witching Culture 139).
Converts to Gardnerian Wiccan find the magical world view as a piece of their self-fulfilment, as well as oppositional to the religious cultures they are used to living (Wicca 101).
Thus, the participatory paradigm performs a threefold function in the lives of Gardnerians; the ritual attracts converts then allows the converts to cope with the dominant Judeo-Christian culture by infusing oppositional functions into their lives and in the end the self-transcendent experience found in ritual and carried over into the mundane world retains adherents.
In order to illuminate how the ritual provides the functions listed above, I have examined each part of a typical Gardnerian ritual below.
The following ritual is from participant-observer notes of a Wolf Moon Coven open court ritual held during the Sabbat of Imbolc which is held in February.
Since the Wolf Moon Coven is a teaching Coven, they hold open rituals established by Gardnerian Wicca for each of the Sabbats. The public is allowed to participate in the open rituals, as well as attend weekly classes without the intent of being initiated. However, I am the last initiated member of the Coven because the High Priest is no longer initiating people.