On Defining Ritual

November 19, 2007

Ritual is many things, easy to define is not one of them. I see ritual as celebration and transformation; a creation of the human heart and our need to make connections. It is a dialogue with spirit and with self that enables us to make deep and lasting change in ourselves and the world we share, and through that process learn about and explore elements of who we are and what we think. Ritual is that which transforms us with our active participation and intention. That transformation may be minute – the shifting of a mood, from a very bad day or a bad headache into a calmer space with a decrease in pain, or it may be enormous- the movement from uninitiated, blind practitioner of a religious system into an initiated, knowing member of a religious community. While there are a number of things that go into creating and performing ritual, without the shift of consciousness and reality that happens through some form of transformation, ritual is merely play and story telling. And it is this power to transform and make lasting change, that gives ritual its power and its magnetism. And yet, what is ritual in truth? How do we define it ways that are usable and less than a page long?

In “Deeply into the bone; reinventing rites of passage” Richard Grimes, a Ritual Studies scholar who has written several books on ritual and ritual studies, digs into the difficulty of how to define ritual. In discussing the thoughts of Robbie E. Davis-Floyd, he quotes Davis-Floyd as saying: “a ritual is a patterned, repetitive, and symbolic enactment of a cultural belief or value; its primary purpose is transformation.”   In his discussion Grimes focuses on the quality of generalization in this definition. Davis-Floyd is choosing to name the actions of doctors in hospitals as ‘ritual’ in contrast to the usual approach which is to see them as technology or science. Grimes points out that this generalization is rather broad, making it possible to define many more common activities such as going to work or school as ritual. “Even taking out the garbage is repetitive (Tuesday mornings before 8:00 am), patterned (from countertop to under the sink, to bins, behind the garage, to street curb – always in the same order), symbolic of primary Western values (cleanliness, orderliness), and transformative (of the landscape).”  Even Grimes admits that he is taking this to an extreme so as to point out how general this definition is and how it therefore allows anything to be defined as ritual, but this is something we see in a lot of definitions and discussions of ritual, mine included. Grimes eventually resolves his issues with the use of ‘ritual’ as a meta word, by suggesting that what happens in the hospital is not ritual specifically but a ritualization of actions. “I am willing to think of hospital birth as ritual provided we signal the metaphoric move we are making by the use of a special term such as ritualization rather than rite.”   Using the word ritual as a kind of umbrella word to encompass a spectrum of meanings, Grimes defines ritual at one end of the spectrum as ritualization or ritualized actions, and at the other end as “rites”

I think it is very important that we understand and be conscious of our choices when using the word “ritual’ to describe many different ways of working. We need to be clear that we are using ‘ritual’ in a broader and more generalized sense where ritualization and rite are ends of the spectrum. Where I once would have said that brushing my teeth is a ritual, I agree now that it is a ritualized action. Clearly the work I do most of the time, what I call ritual most often would fall into the end of the spectrum as a ‘rite’. Grimes defines rite as referring “to a set of actions intentionally practiced and widely recognized by members of a group. Rites are differentiated, even segregated, from ordinary behavior. Often they are classified as “other” than ordinary experience and assigned a place apart from such activities.”   I think it is important to see that Grimes is adding “intentionally practiced” which touches on one of the core elements of magic from the wiccan perspective: intention, and differentiating the actions of a rite as set apart from every day actions, which touches on Mircae Eliade’s distinctions between sacred and profane.

In searching for a definition of ritual it is easy to stumble over the issue of what to do with meditation and prayer. Meditation and prayer are both prescribed and repeated sets of actions which are created by an individual or group for the purpose of better understanding the self and/or the Divine. And generally meditation or prayer is a time set aside from the every day, profane, world. We even talk about having a time of meditation and quiet as sometime different from the rush and noise of daily life. It is also an intentional act and one sometimes associated with the sacred if not a specific manifestation of the divine. So does this make them both rites or ritualized actions? Grimes again proves useful here. Grimes explains that conventional ritual theory splits the work of humans into two categories: “ritualistic (nonutilitarian, expressive) action and nonritualistic (utilitarian, means-end oriented) behavior.”  It is this distinction between expressive and means-end orientation that I think is one of the final pieces to defining what is a rite and what is ritualized behavior. Meditation and prayer are both means-end oriented. They may have ritualistic elements in them, but their purpose is to achieve an end result, generally a particular state of mind. Rites are expressive in that they have as a goal the expressing of thoughts, opinions, ideas and even emotions. While there is usually an end goal to the magic at the heart of a ritual and that goal can be very utilitarian in nature (finding a job or sending healing energy) and so a means-end orientation in part, the primary purpose of the rite that the magic is a part of is expressive. So to the spectrum of types of ritual I would include a distinction about whether the purpose of the action, not just its component parts, is expressive or about an end result. As the dividing line between ritualization and rite is not always going to be easy to see, the distinction between expressive and means-end is not always going to be easy to see.

Understanding, and accepting that I am using ritual where Grimes uses rite, and that rite is part of the spectrum of ritual actions, I can finally define ritual for myself and my work as:
A set of expressive, sacred actions, intentionally done in one or more prescribed ways, outside the boundaries of profane life for the purpose of transforming the self and/or the community.”

Or to put it less academically and more practically:
ritual is a dance with the divine that stretches and changes us and the world around us.


Davis-Floyd “Birth as an American Rite of Passage”
Grimes, Ronald “Deeply into the Bones”


Altars and Altar Building

November 15, 2007

I have been an avid altar builder for years. At first it was simple things, a candle or two, a feather, some incense and off we go. Over the years, and depending on the reason and need, I have built more lavish altars to the point where some folks have suggested I write a book about altar building. In this case, my lack of compiling with this suggestion is more about my own puzzlement than any procrastination in my head. And by puzzlement I mean thoughts running through my head like “well… ok, but you just put stuff on the altar and it looks pretty.” I am really not trying to be dense, I guess I just do altars as an instinctual process so much of the time that I forget that others don’t do things the same way. For me, building an altar is “simple”. I really am not trying to sound like an ego maniac here… I just don’t think it through most of the time. So I thought I would give it a shot and try to describe my altar building process.

I build altars for a couple of reasons. One reason I build altars is to have a focal point for meditation, ritual, or magical work. Another reason I build altars is because they are pretty and fun (I know that’s a two for one, but work with me here). A more practical reason is because sometimes you just need a place to put the script and the cork screw, so you might as well make it pretty. Altars are also made for specific functions and seasonal needs.

Like most humans I am very visually oriented. I need images, objects and the written word to move between tasks and places. So magically an altar serves as one of the anchor points for me. the main altar is usually the main place of focus and attention, though not always where the majority of decorating happens. This altar needs to be functional, so there must be room for the matches, the wine, the cakes and the script along with the ritual tools (in my case usually this means a cup, an Athame, a pentacle, a scourge and a wand). If the space for the altar – the table or box is small then this altar needs to be stripped down and basic. It needs to have the tools first and foremost, the mundane as well the magical, and only after those needs are seen to does the decorating happen.

Other altars get to be prettier more of the time. Directional altars, altars for specific deities, the ancestors and so forth, while at times the focus of the working, usually are not the focus of the mundane elements and so can have more decorative components.

I guess this is where I say that while altars don’t have to be pretty, and filled with lots of stuff, I think if they are not at least aesthetically pleasing in their simplicity, then something is not working quite right. Maybe that’s my bias, but that’s what I strive for when I build altars – beauty along with functionality.

Before I start building an altar I decide what its function will be: will it be the main altar of an Essbat or a Sabbat? Will it represent a deity or archetypal energy like one of the elements? Here are a few examples of work I have done, two are for deities, and two are main altars for specific events.

Deity altars are lots of fun because for most deities there is enough information about who and what they are, what elements or energies they work with, what animals they are associated with and the like, to provide many options on things to include on the altar.

Demeter’s altar


This is an altar for Demeter that I built a few years ago for my private use. I like using varying levels in altars to give a variety of visual shapes and looks. The box in the middle is a box of holding – it includes two drawers to hold the items I used to make offerings to Demeter: olive oil, poppy seeds, barely, orange spray and honey. On top of the box is a bowl to receive the offerings bracketed by two stone carvings of horses to represent Demeter’s role as Queen of Horses. Behind the bowl are two different representations of wheat. The front one is actually a candle holder, the back one is a plaque that I accented with strategically placed bits of paint. The colors of fabric range from blue to gold both of which are colors that I associate with Demeter. The gold is the more common color for her with all her associations with wheat and honey. The blue is for her connection to the ocean.


When I started building this altar, I converted a bookshelf and so needed to find a home for the misplaced books. Next was a quick cleaning to get all the dust and old energies out of the space. Then honestly there is a lot of sitting there listening to the space, to Demeter, and my instincts. Slowly I get a feeling for what might work and start hanging fabric to create the container for the other elements. Next came height issues… so I played with a couple of different sized boxes to see which would both work well in the altar and give me the storage space I needed for the offering supplies. I already had a collection of items like the plaque, the candles and the horses set aside as elements I knew I wanted to work into the design. Now that the surfaces were set up, I could start playing with laying out these items and see what fit with what. A little tinkering and I settled on a design that felt right. Over the next few days, as I worked with the altar I tweaked a few things here and there, adding one or two more items, taking away some things in balance.


Here is another example of an altar to Diety – this time several in one. This is an altar my housemate and I created to honor all the Dead Gods that members of our household are working with: Hella, Ghede, and Mamman Bridgette specifically.

Dead Gods altar 2007


This altar was built in a space under the spiral stairs connecting the upper and lower parts of our house. We all like the symbolism implied in the altar to dead gods being under the stairs and on the lower level. Here again we used several levels both for visual interest and to help get all the gods a section for their icons and offerings. In years past we have used black and white, this year black and red felt like a good choice. The first thing we did was to cover the space in black fabric for the color and feel, and to keep the dust off the elements of the altar (all the traffic on the stairs brings lots of dirt and dust between the treads). In keeping with the theme, there are several skulls used here. One is in fact a human skull that was legal purchased from that joy of shopping – the bone room. Another is a resin skull representing Papa Ghede, and the third is actual a votive holder made of plaster. In addition there is the lower portion of a horse jaw bone that is used in connection with Hella. The two bowls of stones and stuff are representative of burial mounds. The one on the middle level belongs to Hella, the one on the upper level belongs to Mamman Bridgette. Once again, we provided a plate to receive offerings as needed and candles, this time home made, for the various powers.


Altars for a specific ritual natural have other needs to be addressed. General these can be seen as highly decorated main altars where the decorations help to align the altar with the theme and focus of the ritual.

This first picture is from a ritual my husband and I did with our coven to celebrate our eighth wedding anniversary and to support all the member of the coven in making and keeping strong, vibrant partnerships.


Altar for Wedding Anniversary 2006

Here I used the underskirt from my wedding dress, with its heavily beaded trim, as the altar cloth to tie all the energies of the altar and the ritual in to the purpose and theme of the work. The rest of the altar items are things normally used by the coven during ritual with the addition of our wedding goblets as the chalice for cakes and wine, and flowers reminiscent of those used in my wedding bouquet. As flashy as this altar seems, most of the difference and flash comes from the choice of fabric for the altar cloth. Using the skirt could have been awkward, but in fact worked out very well magically for all involved.

These last two altar pictures are from another coven event, this time for Beltane several years ago. The ritual was held out doors in our backyard using an old willow tree stump as the main altar.

Beltaine Altar full

There was an amazing crop of Lilacs that year and I had bought several bunches which we used around the base of the stump to give that luscious Beltane, fruitfulness of the gods feeling that comes with the season.

Beltaine altar close up

The items on the altar are again several tools that are normally used by the coven in ritual with the addition of the plaque and goddess statue in the middle and the bowl of beads (that later had water added to it) to the right. All the statuary by the way is from Paul Borda of Dryad Designs… I just added a little paint to my copies to spice things up.

As far as I can tell, there really is no wrong way to make an altar. Sure, you can put too many things on a small surface or use clashing colored cloths, but in the end, if you come to the process with love and focused intention of making something beautiful for yourself and the gods, then I think you will succeed, no matter how many kitten statues or feathers you choose to use. And above all, have fun and enjoy the process. Altar building is like coloring with three dimensional objects… inside or outside the line does not matter, what matters is having fun and making something you like.



… pay no attention to the lady behind the curtain… I’m exploring feed options and processing for LJ… since that is where most of the folks I talk to currently hang out…

more real content to come in the near future… I promise!

One of the founders of NROOGD, Adian Kelly has been spreading the word that he is working on a History of NROOGD – a book to be published soonish. It was to be the earlier history, which is the part he knows, but has been expanded to include everything up to the date of publication (basically). Folks with the more contemporary stories have been asked to contribute. I finally got off my duff and wrote up my thoughts! So.. .here in lou of more relevant content are my brief notes and thoughts on NROOGD.




When did you help found/ join/ get initiated into the NROOGD?

I was first introduced to NROOGD in the fall of 1993 when Laurel O-M. invited me to be Brigid’s priestess for the 1994 NROOGD Imbolg ritual that she was doing. From there I began training with Laurel and the then recently formed DarkStar Coven. I received my white cord with DarkStar in the fall of 1996 or there abouts and my Red cord in late 2000.

What do you remember as being especially significant to you about that passage?

In many ways my passage into NROOGD was through the Brigid Ritual and the year or two of rituals I did with DarkStar prior to my initiation. While my white cord was a significant and wonderful experience, I was caught hook line and sinker by the power and beauty of the NROOGD Basic Ritual and the ways in which ritual could be done in a public setting for profound results.

Do you regard the (NROOGD version of the) Craft as your religion?

No, I don’t actually see the NRGOOD version of the Craft as my religion. I see it as my training ground and as a really good way to teach people the basics of craft. I am also cross initiated as a Gardnerian and have found my Gard coven to be my “home” religion and my spiritual “family” I love NROOGD and all the flavors of the rituals and ideas woven throughout the tradition, but it has never felt like “home” in the same way that Gard has.

How, by the way, would you define “religion”?

I think religion can be defined as a (sometimes loosely) organized collection of ideas about spirit and the nature of life, the universe and the divine which is followed by a person or group of people and which is expressed through ritual, prayer and dialogue.

What stands out most in your personal memories of the NROOGD?

Wow… ritual, ritual, ritual. 🙂 no surprise there, I am a ritualist and a liturgist by passion and design.

I remember meeting the NROOGD/Black Oak line quarter guardians as a build up towards initiation. In DarkStar the Gaurdians were Merddyn in the East, Prometheus in the south, Morgaine in the West and Gudrun in the North. I had the hardest time connecting with Prometheus and Gudrun at first, which I always found odd because I am such a fire spirit (Aries and all that) and I normally have trouble with Air, though I love water. In this case, I can distinctly remember meeting Merddyn for the first time. We had gone out to the marsh along Alameda near Park Street. It was evening, past sunset. We sat out on the boardwalk between salt sea, land and sky. Laurel led us on a meditation to meet Merddyn and I was *there* with him, and he was *there* with me. It was incredibly visceral and real. At the time I was using a paint brush for my wand and I could feel it in my hands, though it was back at home on my altar. Merddyn was quiet, but very very present. Thoughts passed between us rather than words and I knew that I was meeting a great teacher. Even today, the invocations of the quarter/elements remains one of my favorite parts of the basic ritual – and the words for those four guardians in particular will always call up the connection I now have with each of them as close friends and guides.

In late 1995 I talked a group of fellow NROOGDies and several Gard friends into forming a little company to do theatrical rituals. The group ended up founding Magical Acts Ritual Theater (MART) and for years the bulk of the company was made up of NROORGD and Gard trained folks. As the company grew we were able to attracted more folks from across the pagan community and add their ideas and training to the mix. Many of the early ideas about ritual and public works in particular came out of this blend of craft ideas rooted in large part in NROOGD training.

Several years after the founding of the company several of us found ourselves hosting a MART hospitality suite at PantheaCon 2001 (I believe). We were presenting what we thought was going to be the final performance of “the Oracles from the Living Tarot” created by fellow NROOGD initiate Catherine S. with the members of MART (little did we know the show would be revised not once but several times over the years!) and had attracted the attention of an old time NROOGDie – none other than LeighAnn Hussey of Black Oak. LeighAnn had been intrigued by this company of ritual performers and came by our suite to see what we were all about. Through the course of the evening we discovered that she had not realized how many covens had grown out of the training and work done by Black Oak folks or that there was now a so called Black Oak Line of NROOGD, of which most of us in the room that night were members. Much more talking and sharing of stories continued throughout the night to everyone’s delight. LeighAnn later joined MART in our first ticketed show – “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” playing Bottom the weaver. She was an amazing performer and a terrific Bottom.

Prior to Midsummer, I had asked LeighAnn to be part of the crew for the 2001 Eleusinian Mysteries that I was producing for NROOGD with the help of Magical Acts. LeighAnn served as our Musical Director and the head of the chorus. The 2001 EM was the first NROOGD public ritual that I wrote and produced (with a heck of a lot of help!).

The EM is an interesting ritual with a long history in NROOGD. I have had the pleasure of being in the ritual several times, with several different approaches used to bring the material to life. I have also attended several NROOGD EM’s as a celebrant. So when it came time to tackle it myself, I had a lot of good material to work from. Along with reading through as many of the earlier versions of the ritual as I could find, I did a lot of research into what is known about the original ritual, which is very little, and what we think might have gone on when the doors were closed. I will admit, I made a fair number of changes to the script. And one of the main things I was looking for was how to make the Mystery relevant to a contemporary audience. As I wrote in the program for the event: “In the 21 Century, the myth of Demeter and Persephone, of winter and spring, of life and death, has become a story to tell children, and teach in Literature classes. We are told that science has taught us all about the rotation of the planet and the how’s and why’s of death and the changing seasons. That there is no longer any mystery to be learned; science has revealed it all to us.” One of the answers I went with was to put the choice of how Kore goes into the underworld in the hands of the people attending the ritual. They were given the choice to choose her fate, but did not know what they had chosen until they met Persephone in the underworld with her Hades. I also poured a lot of my research into the script, adding titles for the ritualists based on what we know of the temple structure at Eleusis; adding a procession from “Athens” to “Eleusis” along which the participants made offerings to the gods of the ritual; and footnoting the script damn near to death so we could see where older material was left intact, where pieces had been added from “The Hymn to Demeter”, and where new work had been added like the altered “Dance of the Feet” that Liadan and I created for the Priestesses.

Creating the 2001 Eleusinian was a turning point for me in my own magical and professional work. I found my passion and skills as a ritual writer. I can look back to day and see where my NROOGD training has played a deep roll in making me the ritualist I am today and I am proud of that training and grateful to the tradition and all those in it who have influenced me along the way.

Please describe whatever you think were important events for, or turning points in, or just good stories about, the nature and evolution of the NROOGD during its first 40 years.

I think the creative and magical work done by Black Oak, and the plethora of off shoots from that coven have had a huge impact on the tradition, even if that impact is “only” to create a very large off branch from the older, one might say, more traditional, form of NROOGD. Love it or hate it, the existence of Black Oak and her children has made its mark on the trad. Being off that line, I think it’s a good thing, but then I would, I have received great benefit from this work.

Aside from the Full Moon Coven (which I still have detailed info on), what other covens have you been active in and when? Exact dates would help, and if you have access to the Family Tree graphic, could you send me a copy of it?

DarkStar Coven as mentioned above and a coven, now defunct, in the Seattle area called Big Cats of the Serengeti.

RE: the family tree graph, I am attaching the verion I have which is dated August 2001.

How has your being in the NROOGD affected the rest of your life?

Through NROOGD and my training with Laurel and DarkStar in particular I was able to see an enormous variety of public ritual from both sides of the fence as it were. I was able to attend many Sabbats and learn about Craft ideas on the seasons and the gods along with how other people present ritual – for good or bad. As a member of DarkStar and as a trainee of the coven I was able to take an active roll in creating and presenting lots and lots of different types of rituals throughout the year. All of these experiences combined with the years I had spent previously working in theater productions and the two worlds naturally smashed up in my brain. The result was Magical Acts, and boy did that change my life!

Comparing the NROOGD to other versions of the Craft, what do you think is uniquely important about the NROOGD?

I think one of the great gifts of NROOGD is its openness as a system of magic. Without the layers of oath bindings that come with other traditions, NROOGD becomes a fabulous tool for teaching people the basics of craft theory and practice. NROOGD is not for everyone, but it is a great place to start and to learn and if more is wanted, then at least the individual has a good grounding to take with them on their adventures. I actually refer to NROOGD a great deal when I teach Magic 101 classes, because it does lend itself to public discussion and application.

I also think one of the powers of NROOGD is its flexibility and adaptability. As I learned NROOGD, it is a showcase for creative ideas and experimentation. Because of this openness to new ways, we have a huge bank of beautiful rituals written by some truly talented liturgists. I trained with one – Laurel O-M and had the opportunity to learn about the work of another – LeighAnn, and there are many other amazing ritual writers working in NROOGD thankfully!