Writing and evaluating rituals and pathworkings

Wiccan Rede * Autumn 1990 by Merlin Sythove

Part of the training of a witch is the writing of rituals and pathworkings. Although this may not be a ‘formal’ part of a fixed curriculum, most witches at one point or another in their life write their own rituals and pathworkings. Many people even begin their interest in Wicca with a book like ‘A Book of Pagan Rituals’, and start building their own rituals based on the ideas presented therein. If you are initiated, it is likely that you’ll stick very close to the ‘traditional’ material. And if you have feeling for rituals, chances are that they’ll work too!

However, not everyone is that gifted, and that is the reason for this article.

Writing rituals and pathworkings is difficult. Not every collection of lines spoken by various people can be considered to be a ‘ritual’. Equally, not every fantasy can be considered to be a ‘pathworking’. New Age writers often would have us believe otherwise, and offer some ludicrous and naive concoctions of fantasy and secondary-school-level playwriting as ‘rituals’. And although the actual writing of a ritual may be difficult, the principles behind it are very easy – easy enough so that anyone who knows what to look for can evaluate a ritual or a pathworking.

Why would you want to write your own rituals? Especially with so many of them available? The Farrar’s have done a good job on writing seasonal rituals. Doreen Valiente’s books also have some rituals in them. Dolores Ashcroft’s books are outstanding examples of pathworkings. Marian Green’s work is often laced with simple exercises and small pathworkings that you can try out.

Well, none of them may appeal to you. Or you may want something for a special purpose. You may need a specialised ritual for a particular magical operation. You may want to write your own Handfasting, or you may want to bless your child in a ritual manner, and are not satisfied with ‘off the shelf’ rituals. You may seek an answer, and want to approach the question with a pathworking, but haven’t found anything that covers your needs. In short – there can be many reasons to take out your quill, or switch the computer on, and start writing…

Let’s have a basic look at the structure of rituals then. For the moment it doesn’t make much difference whether we’re talking about seasonal rituals or magical rituals.

Like everything in life, rituals have a beginning, a middle and an end. You are not surprised? Well, it isn’t as obvious as it seems… What I mean is that rituals have a definite beginning, a definite and distinct middle, and a definite end!

Let’s take a normal Craft celebration as an example.

The ritual begins by drawing the circle, which is a collection of separate ritualistic actions, like marking the circle boundary, blessing it, invoking the four quarters, etcetera.

The middle bit is the seasonal celebration. The middle bit is very important, because it is the actual ritual.

And finally, the end is usually something like a poem, some wine and bread to ‘earth’ the participants, thanking the four elements, closing the circle itself, etcetera.

In the Craft, the main emphasis of most rituals is on the celebration of the life forces in their never ending spiral of birth, growth, flowering, bearing fruit and death. The seasonal rituals make this very obvious, with the seasonal decorations such as sheafs of corn, or fruit and nuts in the Autumn, or with pumpkins, lanterns and candles at Hallowe’en, where death is the most obvious aspect of the ritual.

Rituals, good rituals, help the participants to resonate with the essence that the ritual is giving form to. The ritual brings you slightly out of your everyday ‘self’ and creates a link with the higher worlds that it represents. The ritual works as a catalyst, as something that influences you, that calls forth certain aspects of yourself in order to help you grow and develop. In the Craft, the seasonal rituals as a whole bring the witch into contact with the life forces that are present all around us. It is like a spider in its web: the spider can feel the slightest vibration in the web, provided it has found its proper place in the centre of that web. The life forces can be seen as the web, which is always there. The witch then is the spider, and the seasonal rituals help the witch to find this centre and put her in touch with those forces.

If you are contemplating magical work, you are doing something similar. Again you can visualise the life forces as a web, but this time there is something wrong with the web, and you want to correct it. First, you have to find the centre of the web, and get the right overview of the complete situation. If you know how to get in touch with the life forces, you can use meditation, or the Tarot, to help you understand the web. If you don’t know how to get in touch with the web at all, any magical work is at best a lucky guess, and at worst destructive. Once you know what to do however, the ritual becomes your own way of repairing the web.

Here too the ritual works as a catalyst (amongst other things) in that it changes you and puts you in touch with the centre of the web. There is no such thing as a ‘noncommittal’ ritual: any ritual that you do will change you. Practice runs don’t exist!

Pathworkings work in a somewhat similar way as rituals, although at a different level. Pathworkings let you explore different ‘webs’, different areas of consciousness if you like, on a more mental level. Pathworkings are very well suited to explore layers of your (un)conscious, to explore different realities, to find answers to questions, or to meet higher beings on another plane. But their impact on you is on a more mental level, and from there it can seep through to your emotions and actions. Rituals have their impact on the emotional and existential level, and from there it may seep through to the mental level of understanding what is going on.

Having realised what good rituals do (they change you) and what magical work can do (you have to live with the web that you’ve ‘repaired’…), it is important to ask yourself ‘Why do I want to do a ritual?’ As I said, you can’t walk away from a ritual. There is no ‘free trial run’, and consequently there is no way to join in rituals just to see if you like them before making up your mind if the Craft is really for you or not. Rituals should be done because you want to do them, and because you want to create the effects (on you, on others) that they will give. This also means that you intend to take responsibility for the results (!).

Let’s have a closer look at the beginning and the end of rituals and pathworkings.

Pathworkings often start with a door. The door symbolises a change in consciousness. Through the door you will enter a different time, a different location, a new plane. The techniques you have learnt so far (relaxation, breathing, visualisation, going to Alpha, etcetera) and the symbolism of the door will actually help you achieve this change in consciousness.

Rituals are a more active way of achieving a similar result. The candles, the incense, the intonation of fairly fixed words and rhymes, the drawing of the Circle and the invocation of the four elements all contribute to this change in consciousness, without which nothing would really happen.

As for the end of both rituals and pathworkings: it may seem logical now that this change in consciousness has to be reversed. You have to get back to the ‘normal’ world. In pathworking you enter the normal world through the same door as when you left. In rituals, the temple is (partly) dismantled by saying goodbye to the four elements, extinguishing the incense and the candles, etcetera. In both cases you are advised to eat something and drink something, in order to ‘earth’ yourself. In rituals (more than in pathworkings) a number of physiological changes may occur too, and having some tea and a biscuit (or whatever…) is not such a weird suggestion as it seems! For example, you wouldn’t be the first to complain that as soon as the circle is closed, you feel cold…

So the first thing to look for in rituals and pathworkings, whether you want to write your own, or you’re looking at someone else’s work, is to see if the begin and the end are present, and to see if they do what they’re supposed to do.

A word or two about ‘text’ may be appropriate at this point.

Writing fine poetry is an art, not given to everyone, but there are some examples of good poetry around. Check out the established literature if you’re into that – no doubt you’ll find many snippets you can use. Gardner did – considering the borrowings from Kipling and Crowley to name but two! Doreen Valiente wrote a lot of the present day Book of Shadows, some of it in very evocative poetry. Read some books on spells and charms – they’ll tell you far more than I can about rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, metre and the rest.

Again, as with the structure of rituals, dare to be objective and critical. Words work far better for you if you like them. Words work better if they have a rhythm that doesn’t falter. Words don’t have to rhyme – alliteration works just as well. Some metre’s you’ll like better than others, because their rhythm feels more natural to you. See if you can ‘walk’ to a text without stumbling over your feet trying to keep up. But most importantly, whether the ritual text is plain text, verse, rhyme, or limmerick: it should feel natural to you. If you feel funny saying lines that you don’t like, trying to force plain text into rhythm, or intoning pubescent rhyming, then you’re better off rewriting the lot! This applies especially to standard ritual items such as the invocation of the four elements, the drawing and closing of the circle, the cakes and wine, etcetera. You’ll be using these a lot, and an extra week or two spent on these will definitely pay off!

Which brings us to the all important ‘middle bit’ of a ritual. Earlier on we concluded that rituals establish a link between you and the unseen worlds. They act as a catalyst: they may help you grow, change and evolve. Rituals enable you to find the centre of the web of the life forces.

But how do they do this? What is so special in a ritual, that goes beyond movements and words as we find them in a stage play, that makes it into a ritual? How can this link between the real world, our (slightly changed) earthly consciousness, and the unseen worlds be brought about? Where is the power???

Well, it may not seem all that logical at first to instruct newcomers to magic and the Craft to read up on mythology, legends, folklore, archetypes, symbols, fairy tales and a host of other things. But at this point you may actually see why. The power in a ritual, the force that creates the link, is of an archetypal and symbolic nature. Symbols, by their very nature, have different levels of reality to them. Archetypes too exist on more than one plane at a time. Mythological themes are found throughout all cultures, and they too are more than stories. Legends, although often the result of real-life events, have grown into the misty world of myth as well, linking our world to the world of Shadows (see where the name of our Book came from?).

So a Hallowe’en ritual that says in essence “The plants have died, the harvest is brought in, it is time to get the winter clothes out” is not a good example of a ritual. A Hallowe’en ritual that portrays the Descent to the Underworld, using any myth you happen to like, is a good example. A Harvest ritual too should be more than saying thanks. Whether you make a corn dolly so that the spirit of the corn can survive, or enact the John Barleycorn song is up to individual taste. But the essence of a good ritual is that there is a major symbolic or archetypal element in it.

A lot of the time a ritual consists of words – yes, again! In a bit, I’ll go into how to write rituals, but for now, it may be good to have another look at words. If a ritual is supposed to use words as the vehicle (rather than symbolic actions such as making a corn dolly) then you must treat the words themselves as symbols and archetypes. The nice thing about symbols is that there is always another layer behind the one you just discoverd. Signs, for example road-signs, don’t have that quality. Signs have one meaning only, and beyond that there is nothing. Symbols have ever-deeper and more profound meanings. If you write a ritual and treat your words like signs, making sure that each word is well defined, profane, understandable and with one meaning only, then the ritual will be useless. If you treat your words like symbols, like threads in a tapestry, so that beyond the words the tapestry can be glimpsed, then you are writing a ritual! In everyday language, we don’t like ambiguity. People tend to say “I don’t understand”, HAL might say “Does not compute”. Rituals, even the ones with lots of text, are more than words though. There are feelings, intentions, there is a frame of consciousness, and the Gods will accept the gestalt of the whole ritual. If you can put words together to achieve changes in consciousness, to express emotional subtleties that are unexpressable in plain ‘logical’ language, then you’re able to write powerful rituals.

If you write “The white moon in the sky”, everyone knows what you mean. There is no abiguity, and little room for imagination. However if you write “The silent moon in the sparkling velvet” there is plenty of room for your feelings to come in. Technically it’s nonsense, because the moon is always silent and velvet does not sparkle, let alone have moons in it, but then we’ve been through reactions like this in literature class before. You can say quite a lot by NOT saying it, actually. With the second sentence, did you see a black or dark blue sky? Nowhere is colour mentioned though! It’s like those trick-pictures the psychologists can show you: someone sees a young woman, another sees an old woman. What we see is in the mind, not on paper. And that is exactly what (and where!) a ritual is!

And so we come to the final hurdle: sitting down to write a ritual. Well, I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you how I do it, and you can try the same approach and see if it works for you.

First, recognise the three parts, and write the middle separately. It will help you to keep things straight.

Secondly, write in one sentence what the middle bit is about. No more. Already try to indicate a symbolic or archetypal idea for this middle bit.

Next, I usually work from the centre out and from the outside in simultaneously. This means that I am still looking for ‘snippets’ to use: ideas, loose words and sentences, images, lines of poetry and verse, colours, symbols, mythological content, etcetera. At the same time I’m loosely padding out my central theme. Most of this work is done in odd two minutes over a week or so. At the end I have a (not very well defined) shadow of the ritual I want to write.

When I actually sit down to write it, I try to become still, to reach that altered state of consciousness which is associated with ritual work. In the back of my mind is a host of bits and pieces that could go into the ritual. When I am still, I try to ‘feel’ my way into the ritual, to connect with the ritual that wants to be written. Whether you translate this into making contact with your higher self, or with the coven deva, or with the personality of your magical name, doesn’t make much difference. Sometimes the feelings come when I write particular words down, to get in the mood. Sometimes the words distract because they’re not quite right yet. But it is from this state of consciousness that a ritual should be written. Since a ritual is designed to create changes in consciousness, and a link with the unseen worlds, what is more natural than letting the unseen worlds help you in writing the ritual in the first place? Always remember though that the words are there because of the ritual, and not the other way around! Words can enhance and amplify what is going on, but they can’t replace it!

The next day or so, be objective about your own work. Have the courage to look at it critically, or discuss it with a close friend or your partner. However profound the experience of writing the ritual was – does it look soapy now that you see it again? Is the rhyme childish? Does the lot make sense? Polish it up, or forget it and put one mark towards experience (counts for a lot in this business!).

And finally, as the English say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Rituals need to be performed in order to assess their worth. And there is no testing – ritual work is always for real! So prepare yourself, and have a go. Does it work? More importantly, does it work the way you thought? Does it work better than you thought? Whoopee! If not, get your chalk out again! Over time though, you’ll find your own style, your own way, and you’ll build up a collection of rituals and ‘snippets’ that will work best for you or your group.

In conclusion, as someone once said, there is more between heaven and earth, and rituals are part of this. Writing a ritual is not easy, but if you stick to the guidelines given in this article you should be able to assess the rituals that you find in various books, and write something that can do what it’s supposed to do too!