I get asked a lot of interesting questions when I travel and teach, or from people on social media; often, they are people I don’t really know all that well. Though I primarily teach leadership and facilitation skills, people often ask me, “Do you have a spell for that?” I’ve also seen people post rants on Facebook about some of the–for lack of better words–sloppy tendencies of many Pagans to take shortcuts. Both of these in many ways tie into some of the bad habits many people fall into when facilitating rituals, as well as issues of personal and spiritual growth. Often these are what I can classify as beginner mistakes, but they aren’t mistakes limited to people new to Paganism.
Out of the Box
I’ve seen a few rants on how modern Pagans just copy and past rituals and spells from the internet or books, vs. doing any personal work. My first thought on this is that using rituals “out of the box” (and by that I mean rituals they found online or in a book, or even that they learned from a mentor) can be a great way to start. It helps people gain familiarity with the structure of ritual by having an example to try out.
The problem comes in when people take it dogmatically–and that’s an unfortunate tendency people have, even when they are Pagans who have converted from more dogmatic faiths. People are often looking for rules and guidance and “Do it like this and it will work” sureties. I hear that all the time as a subtext when Pagans are asking me about spellwork. “And if I use this color candle, it’ll work, right?” or “What if I don’t have that exact oil?” “I need a sure-fire spell for ___, what do you have?”
In my opinion, many “out of the box” spells don’t work work because people don’t know how magic works. “What’s a spell you use for shielding,” or, “I need a spell for ___, do you have one?”
I don’t believe that physical spellwork (using oils, incense, candles, or herbs) works dogmatically. Nor do I believe that if you recite the spell exactly and perfectly it’ll work. I also am not a polytheist, I’m a pantheist. I don’t believe the gods or spirits grant wishes if you are in their favor (and ignore them if you aren’t in their favor).
A lot of people treat spellwork like it’s some kind of recipe that, faithfully followed, will instantly deliver the results you want without any additional work on your part.
That’s the kind of spellwork that you typically see on shows like Supernatural. Burn the right concoction, trace the correct sigil, and say the exactly correct words, and your spell will work. Well…works great as a system of rules for a fantasy TV show, but real life is messier than that. I mean–don’t get me wrong, I also write paranormal romance novels, so I occasionally use the flashy magic like that in my books. But I try to keep really clear on what’s fantasy, and what kind of magic is actually going to help someone in the real world.
So yeah; I think spells and rituals that you find in books or online, or even things that are passed down from your family or other oral tradition, are a great place to start. They can be a framework, training wheels. But that doesn’t mean if you do everything “right” it’ll work.
Now–this also doesn’t mean that you have to reinvent every spell, every ritual, each time. There is an inherent value in repetition. In fact, that’s one of the root meanings of the word “ritual.” But I’ll get to that in a bit.
Sometimes having a ritual outline or script to work from is really helpful to start with. It lets you know what you’re supposed to do and when you’re supposed to do it, and offers up some sample words and phrases. The problem is that a ritual on paper is really different from a ritual with an actual group of people. I write about this particular ritual logistic all the time; most Wiccanate traditions (traditions that come out of or borrow pieces from Wicca) use Cakes and Ale in the ritual. These rituals are typically written assuming a small coven.
However, when a group is asked to put on a larger public ritual at something like a Pagan Pride, something that worked well for 15 people causes a major traffic jam for 100 people. Cakes and Ale can be a beautiful sharing for ten or twenty or even thirty folks. For those big public rituals it usually becomes a train wreck of logistics.
This is why I often stress being aware from dogma. Or more specifically, orthodoxy and orthopraxy…that is to say, being hidebound to documents or practices. If you facilitate rituals from the “It must be done this way!” perspective, then you will often end up failing to meet the actual intention of that part of ritual. Just because you’re doing it the way you read it or it was taught to you doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the spiritual goal of that piece.
What’s the intention of Cakes and Ale? Is there a better way to achieve that intention when you have a hundred-plus people? Just because the ritual in the book says that each person must, one at a time, take the cake and the ale, does that mean it’s a good idea to do it this way?
Pre-written rituals are a great guide, but I always caution people to not get hung up on the logistics. Sometimes, there’s a reason something must be done a certain way. Other times, it’s just that the writer was writing out the ritual with a specific assumption, such as you’d only be doing this in a coven of thirteen people. There are definitely times when spells and rituals need to be adapted. I think a lot of the skillset of moving into advanced work is being able to discern when this is the case.
I have a whole soapbox about scripted rituals, and I’ve written a few articles on it already so I won’t rehash too much of that; I’ve written a few articles on the topic that appear in Circle Magazine, and also are collected in my Ritual Facilitation book. I think in some cases, the poetry of a pre-written ritual can have some magic, but only if the people facilitating that ritual have bardic/theatrical training. The reason is that the words written by the ritual writer might be authentically magical for them…but, generally most people offering a ritual will be able to more authentically connect to their own power/magic/juice by putting things into their own words vs. trying to memorize someone else’s.
The rituals I offer are typically extemporaneous, meaning each ritual facilitator internalizes the piece of the ritual they are facilitating and puts it into their own words based upon their experiences. This essentially forces each facilitator to go deep and do their own personal work to develop a relationship with an element, a deity, or whatever piece/facet of the ritual they are working with.
And it takes time to develop that relationship, just as it takes time to develop the public speaking skills to do a good job leading a group ritual.
Keeping the Pattern
There are definitely times when keeping the pattern of the ritual helps make the ritual more successful. Whether we’re talking about a spell or ritual that has been handed down in a particular tradition or through your family line, or something that has emerged through a festival community, or through another vehicle of tradition, sometimes the specific form of the ritual itself is part of the magic. Or, some of the logistics are what help make the ritual work.
There is absolutely power in repetition.
One way this works is just our consciousness, our brains. There’s a reason the word ritual is synonymous with “repetitive/rote,” because when we do something over and over, it automatically puts us into the right state of consciousness. That’s just science.
An example: At Diana’s Grove and in the Reclaiming tradition, many people use the middle-eastern frame drum to facilitate trance journeys. Specifically, a rhythm in 8 (1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2) played softly. Or, for you trance drummers, Doum Tik Tik Ka Tik Tik Ka Tik….You can watch a room full of people drop right into trance when that rhythm starts because they’ve entrained their consciousnesses that it works. Ritual, repetition, our brain likes it.
Added to that is the group mind; when something works for a majority of the group, there’s a sort of “hive mind” thing that happens and a newer, less experienced person will go into the flow. So if that tradition has been working together for 10 years, or 40 years, or however long, the newer person will have the benefit of that group response.
Another power of repeated work like that is that it does (typically) work to help each individual practitioner to build up their relationship with the aspects of that working. I think that any working becomes deeper once people understand it and its parts, vs. learning it by rote.
The green candle means nothing without understanding what it means on a more than intellectual level, an emotional level. When you’re doing an elemental invocation, you’re going to have more juice when you actually have a relationship with that element, vs. just lighting the sacred candle and speaking the handed-down pre-scripted words that don’t mean much to you.
That’s not to say there isn’t power in often-repeated words. I use a heck of a lot of repeated phrases in my own rituals, usually with chanting. There is power in the poetry of repeated phrases, chants, and songs. Mantras, or the Lord’s Prayer, or popular Pagan chants, or even sayings like “Blessed Be” or “So Mote It Be” or “Merry Meet, Merry Part, and Merry Meet Again.” The rhythm of the words, the repetition, serves the entrainment function of our brains, but it also will go deeper as we understand what the words/poetry/song mean for ourselves and our own relationship with ____, whatever ___ is. Elements, gods, the divine, spirits, etc.
Why Didn’t It Work?
Most magic has nothing to do with the wand, the athame, the incense, or the color of candle. It’s all about our own consciousness and internal work. The tools help get us into the state of consciousness that helps us to do the magic, but we still have work to do after that. In fact, a lot of my issue with people who are looking around for spells is that they are, in fact, looking to outsource their power. I find a lot of people out there feel completely overwhelmed and powerless in their own lives, and what they want out of Paganism, Witchcraft, and the Occult is the Phenomenal Cosmic Power to…take your pick. Get revenge, get out of an abusive relationship, make more money, make someone fall in love with them.
But, I think that’s why people naturally gravitate to those pre-written spells online or in books, and why it’s far easier to sell a 101-level book than the more advanced stuff. The more advanced spellwork and ritual work requires discernment, personal work, engaging our shadows, and adapting and negotiating work to tell the difference between, is this tradition a useful element, or is this dogma that doesn’t serve what we’re doing?