On the Ritual Facilitation Skills Facebook group that I started, I sometimes get interesting questions about ritual techniques. Someone asked me about anchoring, fire tending, and edge walking, specifically because they’d had a hard time finding resources on this. Here’s an overview of each of them.
One of the challenges with talking about ritual is really basic; there are often different definitions for the terms. Different traditions use the terms in different ways. Take the word invocation, for example. Some groups refer to drawing down, some call it trance possession, others call it aspecting. And worse, groups that use the word “aspecting” for the function of taking a deity or archetype into one’s body…these groups tend to use the word invocation in a very different way to refer to inviting deities or archetypes to the ritual. Then there are other words like channeling or being a medium for spirits. You can see where things get a little confusing.
I bring up aspecting/trance possession because there’s some overlap here, at least in my experience. For clarification, my background is largely in the Reclaiming tradition, or Diana’s Grove-style ritual, which is in many ways derived from Reclaiming’s style of ritual. In most cases when I hear people talk about anchoring, they are talking about a “light” aspecting where you’re holding space, often connecting to a specific deity or archetype.
If you’re listening to participants vs. speaking, that’s usually referred to as witnessing, but I’d call it a form of anchoring.
I typically refer to anchoring as a role when I have a ritual where there are several altars/shrines and participants will be visiting one or more of them, and each altar has an attendant. That attendant is anchoring a role at these altars. Sometimes the role is specifically a light aspect (light/partial drawing down) of a deity or archetype. Sometimes it’s anchoring the role of the Challenger, or the voice of an element. Sometimes it’s witnessing, sometimes it’s speaking. Usually for roles like that I have people asking challenge questions, or just trance questions pulled out of the main trance journey.
Sometimes it’s more powerful for an anchor to wear a veil that covers their face/eyes, particularly if the anchor is witnessing things others are speaking. Other times, deep, intense eye contact is more potent, it really depends on what’s happening at the altars.
If I’m taking on the role of Brigid at the sacred well, and people are coming forward, I might look deeply into their eyes and say, “Will you dip your hands into this pool of magic, into this pool of limitless possibility? What are the gifts that you bring? What is the magic that you call forth into the world? Will you claim it now?” And then they put their hands into the bowl of water and choose a small stone, for instance.
Someone might take on the role of the Horned One. “Will you travel now into the below, into the depths, into the Underworld? Will you risk this journey to claim your power, to face your shadows?”
Or an altar focused on fire, “What will you release to the flames? Will you write down your wish, your dream, your hope? Will you burn it there in the fire to release it out into the world?”
Or, “What will you whisper to the darkness, to the deep earth, to the roots of the world tree, to the dark goddess? What are the words you can speak to no other, what burden do you carry that must be released?”
In my experience, it’s usually asking themed questions, challenge questions, or helping guide people to doing some kinesthetic/physical action based on the trance work in the ritual. Or witnessing, in which case you’re either sitting in silence, or you’re only speaking to get people to speak something in return.
The other way I’ve heard anchoring used is more generally, anchoring a role. That could be in ritual “So and so is anchoring the chant,” or in general group leadership, “So and so is anchoring the event planning.”
Fire tending for me is more about brass-tacks logistics, but there’s also a spiritual aspect of it that probably depends a bit on your own theology/cosmology. I believe that the spiritual aspects follow if you get a solid foundation in the logistics. First, learn about fire. Learn how to build a fire. Learn especially how to build a fire without smoke. I travel to so many places and try to sing around smoky fires; green wood is not good for burning, nor is moldy wet wood. You want good, cured wood. Learn how to stack a fire; log cabin stack works well for a low, reasonably-sized fire that people can still gather in around. Big fires are great for woo-hoo, but notice the fire and what it does to group intimacy. Woo-hoo isn’t so great for connection, for eye contact. Those are part of the logistics of fire too; what impact does the fire have on the ritual, on the group?
Back to logistics: Learn how to start a fire; maybe fire starter logs or some used candle wax, but try to learn how to start a fire without gasoline or other major accelerants. Why? Well, one reason is simple; if you’re using a lot of smelly chemicals to start a fire, it may be hard for people to get in close because of the fumes. When I lead a ritual, I’m almost always trying to engage people in connection and community building, and that’s hard to do when the fire is pushing people away.
I learned physical fire tending at Diana’s Grove from a guy who knew his shit. It was very apprenticeship-based. I watched him, then he had me build fires and he told me what I was doing wrong. A log cabin stack has to have logs that are close enough to catch, but far enough apart to give the fire room to breathe, for instance. A lot of fire building becomes instinct once you watch the fire and understand it.
Some festivals allow volunteers to help with fire tending, though sometimes it can be a bit clique-ish. And, let’s face it; a lot of people drawn to fire tending are also pyros, so it’s more about building huge fires for them than it is about watching the group and the impact of the fire on the group. However, if you want to learn fire tending, try volunteering to assist at a festival or other event. You’ll learn a lot in the span of a few days or a week. Watch the fire, watch how the experienced fire tenders do it. But also, don’t forget to watch the group, particularly during ritual fires.
For my part, I only do outdoor fire these days when I’m at festivals. Typically when I’m doing rituals I use indoor fire, which is candles and a cauldron fire with the epsom salts/alcohol.
Speaking very frankly, this particular ritual skill is an area I kind of suck at. I’m great in the center bringing the energy to a peak, but I don’t really have a natural energetic sense for what to do with the folks on the edge. And there are two types of folks who hang out on the edge. Some are really shy and uncomfortable, particularly if it’s their first ritual or they aren’t ready to participate more fully. Others are fully participating, they just do it from the edge. Ok, there’s a third category; these are the folks who really don’t want to be there and are somewhat energetically draining your group by not only not participating, but being distracting by starting side conversations or standing there with their arms folded glaring.
I’ve learned skills over the years for working with the folks who aren’t comfortable participating. And let’s face it, at the beginning of most rituals, that’s almost everyone. But I’m doing that work from the center, not as an edge walker, if that makes sense. I’m giving people lots of ways to participate, I’m layering the participation so that it’s easier and safer in the beginning (everyone talking at the same time, everyone doing a movement, vs. one person speaking to the whole group).
However, edge walking as a ritual role tends to be people who are more comfortable on the edge, and they’re working with that edge energy. Edge walkers tend to be uncomfortable in the center, but they who are good at holding the edge and working to keep those on the edge engaged.
For those of you used to being in the center, especially for ecstatic rituals, it’s important to understand that the edge is a very different experience than the center. In the center, you’re hearing the layers and the harmonies, the heat of the fire. When you’re on the edge, the sound is dissipated, the group is less cohesive, the firelight is less bright. Very different experience, and an experienced edge walker helps to bring some of the energy of the center out to the edge.
Some ways I work the edge from the center are typically (slowly) bringing people in a little closer, deliberately inviting them to come in so that the proximity expands the center by filling it, by creating a cauldron instead of a big open circle.
Some edge work can include anchoring the chant from the edge so that the chant carries out. Or, if there are folks on the edge having side conversations or being distracting, helping to politely let them know that they can either participate in the ritual or leave. It’s typically really difficult to do that as the center anchor; I can manage it, but it’s not subtle and if you shame folks, you’ll kill a lot of your group energy and cohesion.
Edge work could also be as simple as checking in on folks sitting on the far edge and making sure they are ok; if they want to be closer in but are mobility challenged, you can offer to help them move their chair closer in. Or if they are cold and need to be closer to the fire.
It could also be checking in with the center; when I’m in the center, I have no idea what the energy is like at the edge. If there’s an edge walker, they can give me a hand sign to communicate. Perhaps the folks on the edge are way not connecting to the energy at the center. One solution to that is to bring the chant down to a heartbeat, then bring it back up. This way, the folks on the edge have another opportunity to “get on the horse” as it were. Easier when the horse (the energy, that is) slows down and they can hop on; you can’t hop on a horse at full gallop.
Have any resources to share on these ritual roles? Have any questions on ritual facilitation? Drop me a note, or post your questions or links to resources in the Ritual Facilitation FB group.