This is part two of my article on Warding in Ritual. You’ll want to read part one for this to make sense. However–having written on the topic at some length, I think I can sum up my approach to warding in ritual as “the things I do to keep participants safe in ritual.”
Here are more questions that have been posed to the panel.
I already talked a bit about “mundane” safety, which in my work is synonymous with warding. But it would serve to go into a few more details here. Sometimes people aren’t necessarily interested in taking speaking ritual roles but might be available to help manage the door, help people with a disability, or do other work like making sure there’s kleenex or water available. That’s part of the safety of the ritual space–accommodating people’s physical needs–and thus, it’s part of warding.
Going further, the bigger your event, the more important it is to know where the exits are or what your plan is if someone trips and breaks their ankle. If you have fire, you need fire safety people. If you have people dancing in a field, you need to check the field for gopher holes. How far do people have to walk to get to the ritual? Can people with bad knees make it? Do you have anyone in a wheelchair who needs help? Is it too cold out for your outdoor ritual? Is it too warm?
Are you burning a brick of sage or perfumey incense that will set off someone’s allergies? You need to address the physical safety of the space or you can’t address the metaphysical safety of the group.
The more public your ritual, the more you may want to do outreach to the police or neighbors to let them know what you are up to. I heard about a ritual in a midwestern city which shall remain unnamed. It’s a ritual that was held monthly outside of a bar where they held their pub moot. They burned a small fire, and people had cloaks and swords. The swords were in violation of local laws, as was the fire. When the cops showed up, the ritual leaders got irate. However, this ritual was happening next to the parking lot of a bar, next to a busy road. Of course the police showed up. That’s a warding fail.
What are the different warding roles?
When I travel and facilitate rituals I rarely have access to a ritual team, so I am usually doing most of this on my own, and it works fine if I’ve outlined agreements ahead of time. But there are a few different types of warding roles. One is warding the space, another is guarding the edges. This role is often really useful if you’re doing a ritual at a public park and someone not involved in your ritual (like a cop, or someone on a picnic) wanders over to see what’s going on. There’s also the Tending role which is usually specifically for rituals where there is a drawing down/aspecting/possession. This person is there to keep an eye on the person who is possessed by a spirit/deity and help keep them safe.
Can you ward and take part in the ritual at the same time?
I think this answer applies to any ritual role. When you are facilitating rituals, your experience of the ritual is different than when you are just attending. You have to keep in mind what you are doing, what your ritual role is. You may not get to do the actual working, for instance. However, there are benefits. Often if you are leading a ritual, you’ve also planned it, which means that you’re working with those ritual energies for weeks or even months in advance, and then also after the ritual itself.
It can take a bit of practice to be able to have your own ritual experience while taking on a ritual role. I’d offer, though, that taking any kind of ritual role can lead to you (eventually) having a much deeper experience of ritual.
How many warders, and what qualifications do you need?
This one is tough for me to answer. Often, it’s just me. Whether I’m leading a ritual at a festival or conference, or leading a ritual in Chicago, it’s hard to get people to take on ritual roles of any sort. People are afraid of public speaking, for instance. And most people, I find, are not do-ers. They just want to come and experience the ritual.
I’ll expand the term “warding” to just “ritualists” for the moment. I would say that having 5-10 committed team members at a 50-person ritual can absolutely shift the energy of the whole ritual. It really helps to have at least a half dozen people, if not more, who know the ritual plan and who are committed to participating.
As for qualifications, I’d say that there is a vast spectrum and it depends on so many factors I can’t list them here. First is that the person has to be stable, reliable. I can’t give any kind of a ritual role to someone if I don’t know what’s going to happen, or if they aren’t going to show up. If they are going to be doing public speaking to the whole group, they need to be able to speak at a volume where they can be heard. I think that almost anyone can learn to take on these types of ritual roles, and it often just takes practice.
I will offer the caveat that for a specific subset of warders, more professional training is required. I’m speaking specifically to the types of rituals where people go into an intense and cathartic space and they might need pastoral counseling after the ritual. That’s something that goes beyond just ritual training.
How Do You Ward?
I’ve already addressed the physical logistics of how I approach warding. I think to answer this question I’ll talk a bit more about trance, charisma, and the woo-woo aspects. The question also specifies how I might approach warding for different kinds of work, such as a Journey, Possession, or Raising Energy. In my case, I rarely do possessory work, and I’m always working with some fashion of trance journey and energy raising. For me, most of warding is in those initial agreements, including being very clear with participants what the ritual is about.
While most of warding (for me) is in the actual space the ritual is located, and in those agreements, there’s also a certain part of warding that is in the very charisma of the facilitator. My job, as a facilitator, is to entrance and enchant the group in the spiritual working that we are doing. My job is to hold their focus.
I don’t really use circle casting as an energetic barrier, and I don’t work with the elements as actual spirits/guardians, I don’t really use athames or brooms or salt or incense. What I do use a lot is sound. Singing and drumming.
But what lies beneath that is my own charisma, my authenticity, my willingness to open up to that something larger in order to serve the group. My charisma is sourced in authenticity and that is what gives me energy and helps me bring the group to focus. That focus holds the center of the circle, and that focus holds the edges.
It’s not easy getting a group of a hundred people to sing a chant together. To dance together. To believe that the group won’t think they look stupid if they are singing and dancing and calling out to the gods for communion and connection. Most rituals I attend, people stand around and watch some folks in the center do some stuff, and when they get bored they start having side conversations. That’s a warding fail right there.
People don’t have side conversations when I do a ritual because I hold their focus. That’s as woo woo as I get about warding.
I’d say the single most effective ritual technique I use is group chanting. It works for purification, warding, trance work, energy work, you name it.
Nothing is worse than arriving at a ritual and realizing that there is a bunch of stuff going on that you didn’t really want to be part of, but you feel like you can’t leave.
For me, informed consent is being very clear with participants what the ritual is about. A “warding fail” that I heard about involved a ritual that was a public sabbat. People were invited and not told what the ritual was about. It wasn’t a Samhain ritual, but after the circle was cast (it was one of those, “You can’t leave once the circle is cast” rituals), the ritualist led them down to the underworld where their flesh rotted, their faces melted off, their eyes burst and ran down their faces. I call this the “face melting trance.” This is a complete failure of a ritual; sure, you get the “surprise” factor, but nobody consented to that. No amount of magical juice in that circle casting is going to give your participants a good experience if they didn’t consent to do this work.
At the beginning, I said I’d talk about the paradox of ritual, and how warding is about ensuring safety, and yet, I don’t believe ritual is safe. Here’s what I mean by that.
First–if I’m doing ritual focused on personal transformation, I’m inviting people to face their shadows, to work with the pain they carry in their heart. That isn’t safe work. I can provide a safe place to open up and do that work, but it’s not safe.
Further, I don’t focus my energies on keeping bad spirits “out” of the ritual, because goodness…people bring in enough baggage with them. We are our own worst critics, we are the ones who get in our own way. We don’t need bad spirits to cause us grief–we do it to ourselves.
And when we ask for transformation, when we ask to connect to Mystery, to the Divine, that work isn’t safe either. Cracking open our hearts to let the light of God/Gods/Divine in means we’re going to change. That isn’t safe work.
Some people are going to have a “bad trip” no matter what I do to ensure that the ritual is set up in a safe way. I can do my very best to ensure each participant’s success by letting them know exactly what we are doing so they can be self responsible and opt out if they need to.
Consent: Mystery Vs. Safety
I don’t believe that we lose much of the Mystery of ritual when we address what’s going to happen. In fact, talking through the logistics ahead of time makes everything flow so that people can open to that Mystery. First, if I’m taking people on a journey to the Underworld to face their shadows, you bet I’m telling them ahead of time.
One time I did a ritual where we made that journey to face an old shadow, an old wound, and to offer that wound up in sacrifice to Persephone to take down into the deep earth for healing. I made very clear before the ritual started, “If you have a big pain from your past that pops up in this ritual and it’s just emotionally too much, you always have the option to take a step back. This ritual isn’t the end of the work, it’s the beginning, and if that wound is too much for you to release, acknowledge where you’re at. If you had something horrible happen to you, like childhood sexual abuse, that may be too big for this ritual to hold. You have choice in how you participate in this ritual at every step.” Participants should always be given the option to withdraw consent.
Second, if I’m doing anything complicated, like having people visit different altars around the room, or getting marked on the forehead with clay, or choosing a ribbon from a bowl, or putting a stone into water, I need to tell them all that ahead of time so that when the time comes, I don’t have to break them out of their trance groove to say, “And now we will process to the various altars and choose a ribbon from the bowl. No, not like that, over here, like this. No, you’re doing it wrong.” People feeling confused about what to do are not connecting to Mystery.
Warding and Boundaries
I think for me the essence of warding is about boundaries. In the ritual, I’m establishing that THIS is where the ritual will take place, and THESE are the people who have chosen to take part in the ritual, and THIS is our focus. You can think of boundaries as a circle, but a cauldron works well as a metaphor. You are either in the cauldron, or you’re out of the cauldron. Energy in ritual is like boiling soup; you can’t boil the soup without the cauldron, and you can think of ritual energy as spiritual heat.
When you’re establishing boundaries–warding your ritual–you’re determining what’s inside the cauldron, and what’s not. What’s in the soup, and what’s not. The single most effective thing you can do is to hold your ritual in a space you control where you won’t be interrupted and you have privacy. The next most effective thing you can do is ensure that the people attending are appropriate to attend. Anyone who can’t uphold the group agreements should be asked to leave. Finally, the core of boundaries is knowing what your ritual is about. What’s your focus? What’s your connection to that ritual focus? And how will you connect your group?