How to Construct a Ritual (part I)

One of my students is slowly learning to lead rituals on her own – an intimidating prospect for most people (of any faith tradition, I’d warrant). I remember how nervous I was the first time I was tasked with this, during my clergy training. It took a very long time for that nervousness to go away (of course the opposite, doing it all on autopilot isn’t good either – a little nervousness can be helpful!). I was very blessed to have received extraordinarily rich and really, really good ritual training through Fellowship of Isis and the Iseum of the Nine Muses/Lyceum Urania Celeste. Throughout my entire working life as a priest and spirit worker, even well after I became Heathen, I have remained tremendously grateful to the gifted women who set my feet rightly on the path of ritual. It was years before I realized that this isn’t something everyone is taught, and boy does it sometimes show! So, as I work with my student, as she learns more and more about ritual, edging toward taking her vows as a priest of Freya, I’ll share tidbits here too, for those who may find them helpful.

A ritual is a formalized series of actions done with sacral intent. It’s a ceremony, a performance of actions, prayers, etc. by which one is able not only to reverence the Powers, but to enter into a more receptive headspace vis-à-vis the Holy. A priest may lead a ritual because there are certain ceremonies the Gods request, he or she may lead rituals as part of his or her obligation to a community (however large or small) to help them maintain right relationship with the Powers, or it may be more personal, a devotional rite to honor a Deity, or performed in a desire to establish a devotional relationship with a Power, or a thousand other reasons.

A good ritual is like a well written essay (as an aside to students, please dispense with the five paragraph essay you were taught in high school. It is the bane, the absolute bane of college professors everywhere! This has been your public service announcement. Read academic articles. Read essays you like. READ. That is all, but no five-paragraph essay. They suck.): it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is organized. No matter how free flowing it may seem, a good ritual is organized with a clearly defined scaffolding. Within that scaffolding, one may include many different things – the toolbox of useful techniques and practices available to a ritual facilitator is huge and often crosses religious traditions (chant, meditation, prayer for instance are used by numerous religious traditions the world over and always have been) but the supportive architecture is still there, creating continuity and holding it all together. A ritual need not be complicated either. It can be incredibly simple, but there is still structure.

The purpose of the ritual leader, usually a priest, sometimes a spiritworker but not always, is to A. create sacred space. For those worshippers, this is the point where the priest performs actions that create a palpable change in the cognition of those attending, perhaps from a performance perspective, an ontological change in the space in which they are all gathered itself. You’re almost pathwalking: moving into a different time, a different space, a different headspace. It’s what I’ve heard ritual specialists call Kairos – ritual time, the righttime, as opposed to Kronos chronological time (and I never spell these right * sigh *. My apologies if they’re wrong here. I can’t spell in any of the languages I read). The space becomes its own world in which the process of the ritual is allowed to cleanly unfold. Then, B. the ritual facilitator is there to guide those attending into that sacred space, hold that space while the ritual happens so that those attending can have the possibility of experience, and then bring them back to mundane headspace again. There are transitions into and out of that must occur for which the ritual specialist is responsible.

After the actual act of creating sacred space, I might go so far as to say that facilitating those transitions smoothly is the number one responsibility of the ritual leader. How one goes about that will change, depending on whether one is leading ritual for a small group (2-6 people), a middling size group (7-20), or more. For instance, I might hold a ritual where I pass a horn around to the participants, allowing each person to individually pray and honor the Deity or Deities of their choice. This is a standard part of a Heathen rite. I would only do this however, if I had less than ten people present. To utilize this type of practice with more people than say ten would slow down the TEMPO of the rite far too much, which in turn would negatively impact those points of transition. In ritual, tempo and rhythm are everything. This is how the facilitator manages those transitions and, essentially, manages to create an altered state in those present (the purpose of which is experience of the Holy in some way), finally, it’s how the facilitator will bring everyone back to grounded, mundane headspace again when the ritual is concluded.

This is also something that is very, very difficult for someone just learning to lead rituals to pick up on intuitively. When one prays or performs a ritual alone, tempo and rhythm don’t matter so much; or rather, a conscious awareness of tempo and rhythm don’t matter. The devotee is able to work at his or her own pace and doesn’t need worry about anyone else. That’s not the case for a ritual facilitator. When one is leading the ritual it’s no longer about one’s own experience of the Holy. In fact, the ritual facilitator’s personal experience of the Holy during the ritual is THE least important part of the entire process.

What this means in practice is that the ritual leader cannot go into as deep an altered state as he or she facilitates in the others attending the rite. (This also means, that if a person is planning on carrying a Deity via possession, there really should be a second priest present to facilitate the ritual, at least from the point of Deity possession onward). This was a huge surprise to my student, and she reminded me as I was writing this to be sure to include it here. I’m grateful for that reminder, because it isn’t something I would have thought to point out otherwise.  The ritual leader must be observant and keyed into the headspace of every single attendee: that’s a matter of paying attention to energy levels, rhythm, and tempo. There are also physical cues when someone is struggling to get into a receptive headspace, when they’re deeply attuned to the Gods in ritual, and when they are coming back up out of an altered experience. A good ritual facilitator learns to observe all of this and learning to recognize and track all of that just takes time and experience.

Sometimes I think the hardest thing is just not rushing. Because one is on the outside of the experience of the attendees, it’s easy to think one is taking too long in establishing the groundwork for the ritual experience, or in guiding the attendees down into ritual space. Err on the side of more, not less. Ideally, the ritual facilitator will have training and more experience than the laity in attendance, and he or she may find it very, very easy to drop into an altered state (which is really what ritual headspace is) quickly. I know this is the case for me because I’ve just been doing this for so long. It’s a professional competency developed over a couple of decades. That’s not the case for the average lay person. Don’t assume those in attendance will move through those transitional states as quickly as you yourself might. This is where an established protocol really comes in handy and I’ll write more about this in the future as I continue these practicum posts.

Of course, learning to speak up, to project one’s voice, to chant or sing without shyness or hesitation is a sizeable learning curve for many. The only advice there is that one has to grab that bull by the horns and just do it. It gets easier eventually but even after all these years, I still get a tad nervous before leading a ritual and I think that’s good. One shouldn’t ever be complacent about the Gods.

Finally, make sure that the rite has a clear purpose. For most polytheistic services, that purpose is first and foremost honoring the Gods, or a specific Deity or group of Deities. Everything in the rite in some way, shape, or form refers back to that purpose. Nothing is extraneous. Keep the dilly dallying and chatter to a minimum (not just out of simple respect, but again, because such things will negatively affect tempo and rhythm, which in turn will negatively impact those transitions into and out of ritual headspace). What happens then in the body of the ritual should, if at all possible, appeal to the entire sensorium: taste, sound, sight, smell, and feeling. We’re corporeal creatures and the more that something engages our sensorium, the greater the impact it is likely to have on us, and the easier it will be to engage.

 For those of you who are just starting out learning how to lead rituals, or who have fumbled and wonder why, what questions do you have about this process? Hit the comments section and let me know.

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on August 24, 2020, in Lived Polytheism, Ritual Work, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. DecemberFBryant

    Love that you’re sharing this.
    The err on the side of more not less came up in some recent reading in hermetic practice for new ritual workers as well. Makes a ton of sense. I’d rather go slow and do too much for the Gods than not do enough because I’m afraid I’m taking to long for people.

    Liked by 1 person

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