Have you been invited to a ritual by a Pagan friend or are you simply curious and thinking about checking out a public ritual? Here are some tips on what to expect.
Public & Private Rituals:
A ritual is considered public if it is advertised, perhaps in a flyer or on a website. Its always good to contact the organizers beforehand to make sure it's okay for you to attend.
Organizers of public rituals usually plan for the "lowest common denominator" meaning someone who knows almost nothing about Paganism. This means they will usually plan to explain what they are doing and to make it clear how attendees can participate and what they are expected to do. Public rituals tend to be fairly scripted, and designated people usually have specific parts to play. This means that you, as an attendee, are unlikely to be called on to do anything other than whatever the rest of the group is doing. Still, you may feel more comfortable if you're familiar with the basic ritual outline below, and have an idea of what to expect.
If you are invited to a private ritual (open only to friends, acquaintances, covenmates, etc.), you should ask the person who invited you to give you an idea of what will happen in the ritual, what you should bring, what you should wear, etc. Find out if there will be other new people there, or if you are the only guest.
Usually you have a pretty wide latitude as far as what to wear to ritual, assuming the flyer/website/your inviter doesn't specify. At any given ritual, you will usually find people wearing all sorts of clothing, including jeans, robes, quasi-medieval garb, and regular "nice" clothing. As a guest, it may be more respectful not to wear jeans, but don't feel you have to be super-formal; wear something loose and comfortable. You will probably stand out less in darker colors. Find out if the ritual is outdoor or indoor - you will want to dress appropriately for the weather if it is outdoors.
What to Bring:
Sometimes you may be asked for a small donation (this is usually stated on a flyer or announcement). Many Pagan rituals include a potluck portion, and you may be asked to bring something to eat or drink. Often pagans tend to prefer natural/ whole foods or homemade foods.
As a guest, it is polite to arrive on time but be prepared for the ritual to start late, pagans operate on something called "pagan time" which is a humorous term for, simply, "late"! Most public rituals don't last longer than an hour, but its perhaps sensible not to schedule anything immediately afterwards if you can help it. Of course, staying afterwards to help the organizers clean up is a great way to endear yourself to them.
You may want to do a little research beforehand on what the ritual is celebrating. Most public rituals are held at one of the eight seasonal holidays, or on a new or full moon. Knowing the purpose of the ritual can give you an idea in advance of what the themes will be.
What Makes Pagan Ritual Different from other religious services?
If you are used to going to other religious services, you will find Pagan rituals a bit different. For one thing, you will probably not be given a book or sheet of paper to follow along. This means you will need to pay a little more attention to directions and cues from the ritual leaders. For another, rituals tend to be more participatory, this is especially true for private rituals, but even in public rituals you may be expected to join in a chant or dance or come to the centre of the circle to write down your wishes for the coming year, and so on. People may speak about the meaning of the ritual and there may be a meditation.
If you are a non-Pagan attendee at a Pagan ritual, be assured that no one will ask you to profess your beliefs publicly. Maybe you don't believe in the gods or goddesses invoked, maybe you think all this magic stuff is nonsense, or maybe you find the ritual interesting in a detached, academic way, but don't really see what others get out of it. As long as you are respectful, you will be welcome. If you feel some ritual action is against your religion or faith, you can politely step away or signal your wish to sit it out (e.g. politely shake your head when offered food, or step back when dancing begins).
What Should I Expect At A Pagan Ritual?
The following is a fairly generic ritual outline with notes about what to expect as an attendee. Private rituals vary more widely, but much of the following is applicable to both public and private rituals.
Cleansing/purifying the space to set it apart for ritual:
This often involves actions like burning incense, sweeping with a broom, or sprinkling salt water. In many cases, the organizers will do some of this before anyone arrives. Sometimes you may be asked to pause at the door to the space and clear your mind or banish extraneous thoughts.
Casting a circle to create sacred space:
The circle may be created by everyone holding hands together and focusing their intent (perhaps humming one note or singing a song together), or by one person drawing a physical circle with an athame (sacred knife), wand, staff, or their own hand. Once the circle has been cast, try to stay roughly within the circle as it was drawn (often the perimeters are marked by torches or candles at the four corners). If you need to leave during the ritual, ask someone to "cut a door" in the circle for you. They will draw the outline of a door with their hand or an athame, wand, or staff. If you return afterwards, someone will cut another door for you to re-enter.
Calling on the deities and the four elements:
Deities may be called on as individual gods (eg. "I invoke Artemis and Apollo") or as archetypes (eg. "I call upon the Lord and Lady of the Hunt"). The four elements - earth, air, fire, and water - are each invoked at one of the four compass directions. At public rituals (and many private rituals), designated people will usually speak these invocations. Sometimes an invocation ends with a phrase like "Hail and welcome" which is then repeated by the whole group.
Statement of intention for the ritual:
Is usually made by a leader of the ritual. Ritual intentions may be such things as celebrating the cycle of seasons, honouring a change in someone's life or working magic toward a specific goal.
The main body of the ritual could involve actions such as:
Performing ritual drama or acting out a seasonal story)
Ritual drama is very common in public ritual (and occurs frequently in private rituals as well), especially at the eight seasonal holidays. Ritual drama does not usually demand any participation from attendees, however, it is often followed by a more participatory action like the following two examples.
usually by dancing or singing, often in a circle while singing a short chant over and over. If you don't wish to participate, you may want to step backwards from the other participants (but try to stay within the "circle" of energy that was created earlier).
Other symbolic actions
These are usually general and unlikely to offend the non-Pagan visitor. For example, ritual organizers might distribute small pieces of paper to all the attendees, who are then asked to concentrate on something they want to release in their lives then ask them to come to the centre of the circle and throw the object into a fire, focusing on letting go. If you prefer not to engage in the particular action, it is usually easy to "pass" politely to the next person.
Food and drink
Often seasonal, food and drink may be blessed and shared. This feels pretty familiar to most folks, as it is a ritual action occurring in many religions. Usually food and drink are passed around the circle, and you may hear statements like "May you never hunger" and "May you never thirst". Before or after eating, ritual leaders may give offerings of food and drink for the gods. Sometimes, in larger public rituals, food and drink are shared after the ritual instead of during it.
Saying farewell to the gods and the four elements, closing the circle
This is basically a reversal of the initial invocations and circle-casting, but it usually goes more quickly! Leaders may end de-vocations with a statement like "Hail and farewell" which is usually repeated by the group. A saying commonly heard at the end of the rituals is "Merry meet and merry part and merry meet again!"
Things NOT To Do At A Pagan Ritual:
If you are invited to a pagan ritual, public or private, you should go with an open mind and in a good spirit, many non-pagans enjoy attending pagan rituals regularly but as a visitor or first time attendee the experience ought to be, at the very least, interesting and informative, so please, accept the invitation and enjoy the experience!