I’ve been invited to be a panelist on the topic of Warding in Ritual at Pantheacon, which is the largest Pagan conference and takes place in a few weeks in San Jose, California. The folks organizing the panel worked to create an outline of questions and topics, which is very helpful for us panelists! Since I’m thinking about all of these questions, I thought I’d work up my responses as a blog post. In fact, it’s a 2-parter, because (as I tend to) I went into some depth.
Part of why I want to think about these questions a bit is because I’m a bit of the “devil’s advocate” on the panel. Meaning, I don’t really approach warding as a magical act. For me, it’s very pragmatic. In fact, I don’t even really call it warding. And yet, that piece of what I do in a ritual is still incredibly important and is still the foundation of an effective ritual.
Let me back up a bit. I approach religion and spirituality as a pantheist. I’m not a polytheist or an animist. Heck, most days I’m barely a theist at all. It’s not that I haven’t felt the grip of divine communion, of connecting to the greater mystery, it’s just that when that happens to me, even if it’s in the form of working with a specific deity, I look at that deity as a mask, a lens, a part of the greater whole. I see the various deities and archetypes not in a polytheistic sense but as a part of the All That Is.
I’m also not a dualist. Dualism (loosely) means that there is good and evil. Duality is more commonly seen as the idea of transcendance; the idea that the body and earthly concerns are to be “transcended” and that spirit is the ultimate attainment. It implies that spirit (or “up”) is “good,” and earth/body (or “down”) is “bad. Dualism then bleeds into a lot of other dualities–white/black, male/female, etc.
Because, as a pantheist, I believe in the immanent divine–that is, that everything is already divine–I don’t believe that a ritual space needs to be cleared because it’s not impure. I believe that we need purification in the sense of focus. We can’t just go from “driving our car” to “in ritual headspace.”
Being a nondual pantheist, I don’t really work with the idea of bad spirits. In my theology, I don’t need to set up magical protections against evil spirits because I don’t believe there are spirits out there with evil intent.
But that asks the question, what does warding even mean for me?
What does warding mean?
If you’re worried about a bad spirit, I can’t help you with that, it’s not my theology. For me, warding is about the people in the room and their intentions and energies.While I don’t really do much magical warding in ritual, I see the general concept of warding as establishing a boundary of general safety for the ritual work. I’d say that in most rituals, warding serves a few primary functions.
- To protect the group from spirits or deities that might cause problems in the ritual.
- To protect the group from humans (not present at the ritual) who would harm the ritual working
- To protect the group from humans (present) who have ill intent toward one of the ritualists or ritual attendees.
- To ensure that the people at the ritual can handle the ritual working, that the ritual won’t harm them, that participants have a reasonable degree of safety within the working of the ritual.
Since, theologically/cosmologically, I don’t really work with 1 or 2, I’ll focus on 3 and 4. Now–I’ll go into this more in a bit, but I hold a paradox about ritual. My job as a ritualist is to make the work as safe as I can for the participants. And, I don’t feel that deep, transformative ritual or any ritual where we’re connecting to the divine is actually ever “safe.”
First, let me talk about my concrete, brass tacks approach to ritual warding:
- I tell people ahead of time what the ritual theme is going to be about. If we’re going on a journey to the Underworld to face our shadows, I let people know that in the email or Facebook event invite, and I also address it before the ritual begins. This gives people a chance to opt out if they aren’t prepared for such work. I feel it’s pretty rude to do an intensive ritual and not let people know ahead of time.
- I give people some general ground rules. Some are things I don’t generally have to say, like “nobody punch each other.” That one is kind of assumed. I offer a few general agreements such as:
- Self responsibility: People can leave the ritual space if they need to use the bathroom, get some water, handle a coughing fit, or even just get some space.
- They are responsible for themselves and taking care of their needs. I just ask that if they return to the ritual area they do so with respect. That can mean something as simple as opening and closing the door quietly.
- Self responsibility also extends to our emotions. Especially if I’m facilitating an intensive ritual, I offer that people are welcome to express emotions. Fear, rage, sadness. That if someone’s on the floor weeping in catharsis, I’m not going to come over and “fix” them, I’m going to trust that they are expressing an emotion and leave them to it. And, if they do need help, that they can ask for it. Or even if they need a hug. I’ll usually have my ritual team raise their hands, and I’ll also have people raise their hands that are happy to give comforting hugs if asked.
- I give participatory ground rules. Because I facilitate ecstatic, participatory ritual, I usually need to make clear that people have an obligation to participate, and that can involve speaking, moving, and singing. That participating is important to the ritual, that the ritual won’t work without each person adding their energy. And yet, I also offer choice.
- I also address safety. This can range from:
- Letting people know where the bathrooms are to letting people know how they can take care of needs like getting warmer, getting water, or sitting down.
- I make sure people understand they have a choice in how they participate in a ritual, and that even though I will be inviting them to stand, to dance, to sing, that they can stay seated if they need to, and they can ask for help bringing a chair closer to the center if they like.
- On my earlier ritual promotion emails and flyers I used to clarify “no drugs or alcohol” but I have found that it really doesn’t come up in the rituals I offer.
- I have also offered words like “all genders welcome at this ritual” which lets trans and genderfluid people know that they, too, are welcome. In essence, I let people know who is welcome and what kind of ritual work can be expected.
In essence, I let people know what behaviors are acceptable in as concise a way as I can. I don’t usually specify, “If you’re here, and that person you hate is here, don’t glare at them,” but I always say something about how I assume that everyone has come to the ritual in the spirit of mutual respect and to do spiritual work.
For me, a huge part of warding is the space the ritual is held in. When I facilitate rituals, there are usually three scenarios.
- One is I’ve rented an inside venue in Chicago, so the ritual is held in a large room.
- Or, I’m offering a ritual at a Pagan festival or conference.
- The third is when I’m offering a ritual at a public park venue, such as for a Pagan Pride event.
Where the ritual is located, and how much privacy we have, is core to the concept of warding, safety, and boundaries. There’s an intimacy I can achieve in a group ritual where the doors close that I cannot get in a ritual hosted in a public park where people are standing around watching us. Four walls, or the privacy of a grove of trees at a retreat center, are almost the definition of boundaries. Boundaries are establishing a line, a space. For me, I don’t really cast a circle, it’s more that I acknowledge that the ritual is beginning, that we’ve chosen to be here and do this work, and we are moving into sacred work. Having a good physical space for the ritual where we won’t have interruptions is key.
For instance, the energetic scenario of doing a ritual at a public park for a Pagan Pride and we have people standing around watching us is completely different from an evening ritual after we’ve all been working together for one or two days in a retreat format.
Warding Gone Bad
I can honestly say that the only times I’ve ever had a problem are when I didn’t lay out (or properly uphold) the above group agreements. Typically I facilitate deep, intensive rituals with cathartic, transformative work. I use ecstatic techniques, and there’s often a significant part of the ritual where people are facing shadows or releasing wounds from their past, transforming their pain…really intensive work. In the Reclaiming tradition there’s a phrase for this, “Puking Cauldron” rituals, because sometimes the ritual gets “taken over” by the most overdramatic person who needs a lot of attention.
However, I don’t have this happen in my rituals, largely because I set up pretty clear agreements for behavior.
That being said…there was this one time where I had a guy in my ritual. We’ll call him Anger Management Guy. Without getting into too many details, I was asked to teach some classes on ritual technique and lead an Imbolc ritual for a midwestern Pagan group.
When I arrived, Anger Management Guy was the one who picked me up at the bus station. We had to stop off at his house so he could smoke pot before he took me to the venue where I was going to teach the Friday night class. The guy was very agitated, and he and his very pregnant wife seemed to have a strange dynamic that set off my red flags. But, I was a guest, so I brushed it off. The next day, during the Imbolc ritual, I had three people (including his wife) taking on the role of various Brigids during the ritual. I stood at the altar of Brigid of the Forge.
We were chanting as each ritual participant went to the different Brigid altars. When Anger Management Guy went over to his wife’s altar, he flaked out. He started actually seething, rocking back and forth, shaking, spouting out nonsense.
Now–I was able to manage it in the moment, however, this shouldn’t have ever happened because I should have trusted my instincts about this guy and not allowed him into the ritual. During the car ride from the bus stop, he had told me some things about his life, and he spoke in a way that seriously concerned me.
Warding 101: Before you even look at magical options, just look at logistics. Are you doing an intensive ritual? Is that person really a good fit for the ritual? You’re there to ensure the group’s safety, and each individual’s safety. Trust your instincts, and if you’ve established what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable, and someone crosses that line, that boundary, it’s your job to kick them out.
In fact, I’d offer that one of the most important warding jobs, particularly at a public ritual, is the person managing the door.
Warding and Psychic Attack
I’ll take that a little further and address the aspect of warding that is related to the function of group safety, and in specific, people who are worried about other people sending negative vibes from outside the ritual, or people who are inside of the ritual sending negative vibes at each other. Sometimes when people talk about warding they talk about psychic attack. A quote I often hear is, “Moonpie was at that ritual. He was psychically attacking me,” or, “Featherbottom was throwing off the energy of the whole working.”
In a purely psychic sense, I don’t really think it works like that.
One single person can throw off the energy of the room, but it usually requires action on their part. One person who keeps interrupting the facilitator, or who is sitting there glaring and being rude to people, one participant who is drunk and disorderly…there are a dozen scenarios where one participant can throw off the energy of a ritual, but simply thinking negative things at someone isn’t going to do a whole lot. It’s when people take concrete actions that things get wonky, like Anger Management Guy.
One negative participant can throw the energy off if everyone’s worried about that participant. That collective worry about aberrant behavior will throw things off. For instance, I led a ritual where one participant got more and more agitated until he left. Until he left, everyone kept glancing over at him. They weren’t paying attention to the rest of the ritual, they were worried about the guy because he’d been rude.
If the presence of an ex or someone you had a falling out with is going to throw you off as a facilitator, there’s an easy answer to the problem–that person shouldn’t be in the ritual. For instance, my ex isn’t welcome at any ritual I offer. I’m not worried he’ll send psychic energy at my ritual and throw it off from outside the ritual, because I personally don’t think energy works like that. I don’t need to protect against him because he’s not in the room.
That being said, I have twice now taken supporting ritual roles where my ex also had a ritual role. One time in specific, another ritual participant was the woman he had cheated on me with and a bunch of her friends who hated me. She literally stomped and pouted when I walked by her. If I’d been leading the ritual, she wouldn’t have been welcome, but that wasn’t my call. This basically breaks my cardinal rules of ritual facilitation, because there were enough people in the ritual who knew about the breakup with my ex, and about the cheating, and all the bad blood and drama. That many people who are aware of drama can, absolutely, throw the energy off.
And for certain, she was glaring daggers at me from across the room and wishing me ill.
In my case, I let it roll off of me because 1. I don’t believe her ill will can actually harm me, and 2. my focus was on the larger group and the integrity of the ritual. I was fully invested in helping to heal the rifts in the community that had sourced from the messy breakup, and so I was able to ignore her pouting and stomping. Ok, I admit, I laughed a little, and that helped.
Essentially, to psychically manage that ritual (since I was responsible for getting people chanting and raising energy), I had to completely, authentically, fully invest in the energy of community building and healing. I had to believe that this ritual would help that process, and that allowed me to move past any fears or nervousness I had about facilitating in a hostile environment. Because it mattered.
Part two will be posted tomorrow!