The Patterns of Wiccan Ritual 1.1

This is excerpted from what was to have
been a chapter on ritual in my unpublished book on Witchcraft.
I’m posting it here now so that folks will have a general idea
of my research and practice on the topic. It will be expanded
to include a full ritual script, but not for a while, as I have
other promised items to post on my website first.

In the Beginning

In the 1940s and ’50s, a retired British civil
servant and amateur folklorist named Gerald B. Gardner (referred
to affectionately as “GBG” or “Old Gerald”),
together with his friends, began to either reconstruct or invent
what they chose to call “the Old Religion” of “Witchcraft.”
They claimed that Margaret Murray had been correct when she postulated
that an underground Pagan cult had survived in Christian Europe,
and that the members of this cult had been the “witches”
whom the Church tried so hard to exterminate during the Renaissance.
Furthermore, Gardner and his associates said that the Old Religion
had continued to exist even into the 20th Century. See “A
Very Brief History of Witchcraft” for details about Gardner
and of how he fits into the overall history of the word “witchcraft.”

Regardless of the conflicting historical claims
about whether or not there was ever a “real” coven
which initiated Gardner, it is very clear from his own notes
that he could easily have created the root liturgy of what was
to become known as “Wicca” from published sources and
his own experiences in other Western occult organizations. I
have studied the first draft materials in a hand-bound text he
called Ye Bok [sic] of Ye Art Magical, of what eventually
developed into the first Book of Shadows (“BOS”).
There is nothing there that can be demonstrated to be a remnant
of a surviving underground British Pagan cult (though some parts
resemble those of Hindu Tantric rituals).

A famous saying among scholars goes, “Absence
of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and this saying
is usually true. However, in this situation the missing concepts
become quite important. People writing liturgies almost always
start out by reworking ceremonial materials with which they are
already familiar. For one example, the Episcopal and Lutheran
liturgies resemble the Roman Catholic Mass. For another, the
rituals that Aleister Crowley wrote for his branch of the Ordo
Templi Orientis (an offshoot of the Free Masons that he turned
into a more magically “oriented” group) incorporate
phrases and actions from the older rituals of the Masons, the
Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the initiation rites of
the pre-Crowlean O.T.O. Most of the early
rituals included segments from the R.D.N.A.
rituals I had learned previously (some of them, at least as I
perform them, still do).

The earliest versions of Gardner’s initiatory
and liturgical scripts are full of obvious borrowings from the
Masons, the Renaissance “Goetic” grimoires (magical
books), the writings of Crowley, etc. There are no prayers, incantations,
ritual actions, or liturgical patterns that reflect any other
sources than the (Judeo-Christian) Western mainstream of occult
tradition, the then available published materials on anthropology
and folklore, some tantric methods he could easily have picked
up in the Far East or through Crowley, and a few lines of gibberish
in an unknown “language.” If Gardner had attended genuinely
Paleopagan (or even Mesopagan) rites in England, their patterns
of worship should be visible in his private notes, even if he
were forbidden to put secret words and phrases down on paper.
Yet Pagan liturgical patterns are invisible in his early notes.
They only begin to show up in the 1950’s as the Goetic and Crowlean
materials were gradually removed, under the influence of Gardner’s
priestess, Doreen Valiente.

At this point the authenticity of Gardner’s
“apostolic succession” becomes rather irrelevant. If
there was a real coven that trained Gardner, they apparently
didn’t show or tell him much of anything that was genuinely ancient
or Pagan, at least not liturgically.

This may not matter much. Gardner (or perhaps
the committee he was taking notes for) was extremely creative.
He changed the Goetic magical techniques to make them usable
by small groups of people instead of solitary magicians. He rewrote
the first three Masonic initiations to make them applicable to
both men and women. He made sensuality and eroticism a central
part of his new/old religion by borrowing tantric techniques
and symbolism. Finally, and most importantly, early in the 1950’s
he added Dion Fortune’s theology of Isis and Osiris and other
polytheistic elements to make his creation genuinely (albeit
Meso-) Pagan. Around 1954, all of the notes he had made during
the 1940’s and early ’50’s were transferred to a new book, which
became the first official Book of Shadows, and Ye Bok
was retired to the back of a file cabinet, where it would
lie forgotten for twenty years.

Whatever their origins, the first versions
of the Wiccan rituals (especially those for the holidays) were
extremely sparse, usually being only a page or two of text. Following
Gardner’s advice that “it is ever better to do too much
ritual than too little,” the members of his new religion
began to add materials to each of them. Over the years the rites
have expanded considerably, with enormous variations in detail
but with the same liturgical structure usually being more-or-less

Current Variations in Craft
Liturgical Structure

For a variety of historical reasons, most
of them having to do with the secrecy of which Wiccans are so
fond, there is no universal pattern for Wiccan ritual, although
the general shape is similar from group to group. Different traditions
do more or less the same things but in differing order.

Almost all the traditions start with the participants
doing some sort of personal purifications (herbal baths, fasting,
etc.) before the ritual actually gets underway. These purifications
are not prompted by a sense of impurity or sinfulness on the
part of the participants, but rather reflect a need to begin
focussing consciousness, clearing away irrelevant thoughts, and
showing respect for the Goddess and God, as well as fellow coveners,
much as members of many other religions do before attending services.

The people attending the ritual then either
dress in ceremonial robes or else strip down to a state of ritual
nudity (becoming “skyclad,” from a Hindu term for naked
sages living in the woods who abandon all social concerns and
class distinctions in their quests for enlightenment). The specialness
of one’s clothing (or lack of it) is another cue to one’s inner
beings that sacred activities are about to take place, as well
as another way to show respect to the Deities.

Almost all Wiccan groups use a circle as the
shape of their sacred space. Some have this shape physically
marked on the ground or floor, most do not (which is why it often
turns into a “magic oval”). Most will have candles
or torches set up at the North, South, East, and West intersections
— called “Quarter Points” or just “the Quarters”
— of two invisible lines drawn through the center of the circle,
either just inside or just outside of the circle’s line. Some
traditions have the altar outside this circle when the rite begins,
others place it inside either at the center or near one of the
Quarter Points.

Some groups have everyone except the presiding
clergy (usually a High Priestess and a High Priest, sometimes
also a Maiden and/or a Green Man as assistants) wait outside
the ritual area (usually in the Northeast, for reasons having
to do with Masonic initiations) while it is prepared for the
ceremony, and bring them in afterwards. Others have everyone
in the circle from the start.

Traditions that have the people in the circle
and the altar outside of it may start with “the spiral dance”
as first described by Gardner in Witchcraft Today
and later in Starhawk’s The
Spiral Dance
(she got it from the NROOGD tradition).
After everyone has spiraled into the center of the circle and
spiraled out again, with an exchange of kisses along the way,
and are once more standing in a circle holding hands, this ring
will be broken and the altar will be brought in. Unfortunately,
as all too many can testify, the spiral dance often turns into
a spiral “crack the whip” game (and no, I’m not referring
to ritual scourging here), which is why I usually don’t recommend
it except with groups composed solely of young and healthy types
dancing on a smooth, flat surface.

Salt and water are usually exorcised and/or
blessed by the presiding clergy, sometimes along with other substances
such as incense, oil, candles, etc. These items are used, either
before or after the circle is “cast,” to exorcise and/or
bless the circle as a whole and/or all the people in it. As with
the personal purifications mentioned above, exorcisms done in
Neopagan rituals have little to do with banishing evil spirits
and much to do with retuning the spiritual energies of the objects
and/or persons involved to make them appropriate for the work
at hand — much as a cook who had been chopping garlic would
take care to wash his or her hands and the knife before beginning
to chop the apples for a pie (at least we hope so!).

The circle is cast by having (almost always)
the High Priestess walk around it in a clockwise direction, starting
at either the East Quarter Point (most common), the North (less
common), or the South or West (both rare), with a consecrated
sword or knife. This weapon may be held in the air at any of
several heights, pointed up, down, forward, or outward, or else
dragged point-first along the floor or ground (the original Gardner
technique, where it was done by a male “Magus”) along
the desired circle boundaries. The term “casting,”
by the way, used to mean “cutting” or “carving,”
which is why the Goetic magicians used sharp swords to actually
mark the ground — and why a ceremonial Wiccan sword should have
a sharp point.

If the congregation waited outside the circle
while it was cast, they will then be brought into it through
a “gate” (usually in the Northeast) either symbolically
cut for them at that time, or left “open” during the
casting process (and “closed” after their entry). People
are brought into the cast circle in a formal fashion, usually
with exchanges of passwords and/or kisses, often with aspergings,
censings, annointings, etc. Groups that practice binding and
scourging may do it at this point in the ceremony, both as a
purification process and as a way to start a flow of sexually
tinged mana, and/or they may wait until after the “Quarter
Point Invocations” have been done. (“Mana” is
a useful Polynesian word that means magical, spiritual, artistic,
emotional, athletic and/or sexual energy. I haven’t found another
word yet that combines all these meanings so well.)

As a general rule, after the circle has been
cast, exorcised, blessed, etc., and the people are all present
inside it (also exorcised/blessed), a series of invocations will
be done, at each of the Quarter Points, to “the Mighty Ones,”
or “the Lords of the Watch Towers,” or totem animals,
or nature spirits, or “the Kings of the Elements,”
etc. Some groups will add an invocation to the center, and some
to the nadir and zenith as well. All these invocations finish
the process of creating sacred space, by asking for the protection
and cooperation of spiritual Gate Keepers. The reason there are
so many, as contrasted to Paleopagan rituals or modern Neopagan
Druid rites, is that the entire sacred space is considered “between
the worlds,” and is in essence a single wide-open Gate.
The multiple Gate Keepers focus and attune the energies allowed
or encouraged to pass between the people in the circle and the
spiritual beings encountered.

In Starhawkian Wicca (and some of the other
liberal trads) , the circle casting, Quarter Point Invocations,
exorcism/blessing of the circle and people, etc., can be done
completely or fragmentarily, in any order or all at once, depending
upon the consensus and/or whims of the participants.

Once the circle is complete, the usual next
step is a ritual process known as “Drawing Down the Moon.”
This means that the High Priestess(es), or all the women in the
circle, or everyone in the circle, will attempt to manifest the
Goddess of the occasion through divine inspiration, conversation,
channeling, or possession. If only the High Priestess is doing
this, she will often deliver a memorized speech known as “the
Charge of the Goddess,” but may (if sufficiently inspired
or possessed) give the members of the congregation, individually
or as a whole, pointed advice and information presumed to be
from the Goddess.

Some Wiccan traditions will then do “Drawing
Down the Sun” upon the High Priest(s), all the men, or everyone
in the circle. If done upon the High Priest, he may then deliver
a “charge” or divine message from the God of the occasion.
Some traditions might do the drawing down of the God before that
of the Goddess at certain holidays or during certain seasons
of the year.

Other forms of trance may be added to or substituted
for Drawing Down the Moon and/or Sun. A ritual dance, more scourging,
songs and chants, sexual play, ritual dramas, initiations, handfastings
(weddings), or other rites of passage, seasonal games, and/or
spell-casting (in any combination and order) may follow or replace
the Drawing(s) Down.

At some point, however, a ritual will be done
known as “Cakes and Wine” (or “Cakes and Ale,”
etc.). This involves the blessing of food and drink by (usually)
the High Priestess and the High Priest, and passing them around
for the congregation to enjoy. Some traditions offer libations
(to the ground, outdoors, or in a bowl, indoors) before consuming
the food and drink. Whether this communal meal is done before
or after a rite of passage is performed or a spell is cast, and
whether the meal is accompanied by general or topical discussion
(if any), depends upon a given trad’s theory of the meal’s function.

Along with or (usually) as part of the Cakes
and Wine ceremony is a magical act known as “the Great Rite,”
which is the primary symbol of the Sacred Marriage between the
Goddess and the God, a central concept in Wiccan duotheology.
The Great Rite was originally (in Gardner’s notes) ritual sexual
intercourse between the High Priestess and High Priest, or sometimes
by all the couples in the coven, done to raise magical power,
bless objects, etc. However, almost from the beginning of Wicca,
it has been usually done symbolically (“in token”)
rather than physically (“in true”), through plunging
a dagger or wand into a cup of liquid to bless the wine or ale.
Gardner was, after all, working with a bunch of middle-class
and working-class British occultists, not the lower-class or
upper-class types, or the tribal peoples of ancient India or
Britain, who might have been less inhibited in their sexuality.

Occasionally the Great Rite is used as part
of a spell-casting or initiation, or to consummate a handfasting.
A handful of traditions insist that some or all of these functions
require the sexual act to be physical rather than symbolic, but
even these few traditions usually remove the acting couple from
the sight of the rest of the coven.

When the participants are ready to end their
ceremony, the Goddess and/or the God, as well as the entities
invoked at the Quarter Points, will be thanked and/or “dismissed.”
In some traditions, excess mana will be “grounded”
(drained). These steps are done in varying order. At the end,
the circle is often cut across with knife or sword and the ceremony
is declared to be over.

There is confusion in the Wiccan traditions
over the use of the terms “open” and “closed”
when referring to the magical state of the circle. Some groups
will say “the circle is closed” early in the rite to
indicate that the magical barriers have been fully erected (after
casting and exorcism/blessing, etc.) and that therefore no one
is to enter or leave without special permission and precautions
(gate making). Others will say, “the circle is closed”
at the end of the rite, to mean that the ceremony has come to
a close. Conversely, some traditions use the phrase, “the
circle is open” at the other’s same early stage of the ritual
in the sense of being “open for business” or the Gates
between the worlds being open for communication with the Other
Side. Still other groups will say “the circle is open”
to mean that the ceremony is over and the magical barriers have
been taken down. This conflicting use of terms can be very confusing
until you find out how a given group functions. Originally, the
circle was opened at the beginning and closed at the end, following
the Masonic practice of “opening” and “closing”
lodge ceremonies (whence Gardner took the terminology).

This whole collection of variations in Wiccan
ceremonial patterns fits roughly within the “Common Worship
Pattern” I have described elsewhere, with some traditions
matching it more closely than others. I believe that Wiccan ritual
can be far more powerful and effective, both thaumaturgically
and theurgically, if a liturgical design is chosen that is as
close a match as possible to that pattern, primarily by adding
missing steps.

One of the things that you’ll notice quickly
if you attend many Wiccan rituals is that they tend to be “top-heavy”
— half to two-thirds of their liturgical structure consists
of setting up sacred space and doing the preliminary power raising
(calling the Guardians of the Quarters, etc.), with the Drawing(s)
Down and spell casting or rites of passage, supposedly the purpose
for the rituals, taking much less time, and the unwinding of
the liturgy being positively zoomed through. Perhaps these rites
would be less top-heavy if extensive trance, dancing, or other
mana generating and focussing methods were used, as I think Gardner
originally intended, instead of the usual two to three minutes’
worth common in current Wiccan rites. However, perhaps Gardner
reasoned that modern Westerners need more time and effort to
escape mundane reality than folks from other times and places
did, so he deliberately elaborated the opening parts of the liturgy.
Be that as it may, the ritual design presented next inserts the
missing parts of the common worship pattern and makes the middle
of the ritual more important than the beginning or the end.


The Over-All Pattern of “A
Generic Wiccan Rite”

I’ve underlined the items that are
mentioned in the Common Worship Pattern. The numbered items,
on the other hand, are the observable steps of the ceremony as
it is performed. Remember that this is my expansion
and ordering of the steps as I have done Wiccan rituals for several
years now, with great success. I sincerely suggest that people
experiment with adapting their liturgies to match this pattern.

First Phase: Starting the Rite &
Establishing the Groupmind
Clearcut Beginning: Consecration
of Time

(1) Announcement of Beginning
The Consecration of Space
(2) Blessing of the Elemental Tools
(3) Casting of the Circle
(4) Blessing/Exorcism of Altar, People, and Circle
Centering, Grounding, Linking & Merging
(5) Opening Unity Meditation/Kissing Dance
(6) Specification of Ritual Purpose & Historical Precedent
(7) Specification of Deity(ies) of the Occasion & Reasons
for Choice

Second Phase: Opening the Gates &
Preliminary Power Raising
Invoking the Gatekeepers/Defining
the Circle as Center

(8) Inviting the Guardians of the Quarters
(9) “Between the Worlds” Chant or Affirmation

Third Phase; Major Sending of Mana*
to Deities of the Occasion
(10) Descriptive Invocation
of Goddess and God
(11) Primary Power Raising
(12) The Sacrifice (a.k.a. the “Drop” or “Release”)

Fourth Phase: Receiving and Using the
Returned Power
Preparation for the Return
(13) Meditation upon Personal and/or Group Needs
(14) Induction of Receptivity
Reception of Power from Deities of the Occasion
(15) Drawing Down the Moon
(16) Instruction from the Goddess; the Charge
(17) Optional Activity: Drawing Down the Sun
(18) Optional Activity: Instruction from the God; the Charge
(19) Optional Activity: the Great Rite (or in step 23)

(20) Cakes and Wine (Blessing and Passing)
(21) Acceptance of Individual Blessings
(22) Reinforcement of Group Bonding
(23) Optional Activity: Spell Casting or Rite of Passage
(24) Optional Activity: Second Ritual Meal with Conversation
and/or Instruction

Fifth Phase: Unwinding and Ending the
(25) Thanking of Deity(ies)
(26) Thanking of Guardians of the Quarters/Closing Gates
(27) Affirmation of Continuity & Success
Unmerging, Unlinking, Regrounding & Recentering

(28) Closing Meditation/Kissing Dance
Draining off Excess Mana
(29) Charging of Tools
Deconsecration of Space
(30) Circle Closing
Clearcut Ending: Deconsecration of Time
(31) Announcement of Ends

At some point in the not-so-distant future
I will post here the text of a “Generic Wiccan Rite”
according to this pattern, along with a detailed analysis and
explanation of why and how each step is performed.

Copyright 1989, 2000 c.e., Isaac Bonewits.
This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided
that no editing is done, the version number is listed, and this
notice is included. If you would like to be on the author’s personal
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and appearances, send your snailmail and/or your email address
to him at PO Box 372, Warwick, NY, USA 10990-0372 or via email

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