As is well-documented, there is no strict regime when it comes to Paganism, in general. All paths have different rituals and practices that they stick to. There are some similarities in the practices, however, and that’s what we’ll be looking into here.
Ritual itself is not all about celebration; it’s about completion, fulfilment and manifestation. It is a way for us to become closer to the divine nature within ourselves, and consummate our relationship with the spiritual world. It is through ritual, like prayer or meditation, that we learn to fit together our world with that of the divine. We undertake ritual in our daily lives; some of us would never get anything done if it were not for ritual! In a spiritual context, however, this is where we use a set of specific words and/or actions to create sacred space in which to become closer to the divine and also remind us of our inner divinity – something that everyday ritual might not bring to us. To assist in the creation of sacred space, one might consider an altar.
An altar does not have to look any particular way; it is up to the Practitioner as to what they have access to, and how they feel about the arrangement of the altar. After all, what might work for one person might not work for another. Generally speaking, the altar will have some form of honouring the Goddess and the God, and may also have representations of the five elements – Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit.
To give you some insight on my own personal practice, on my altar I have a bowl of salt representing Earth, incense representing Air, an athame representing Fire, and a bowl of water representing (you guessed it!) Water. To represent Spirit, I have a candle, as I believe the Spirit is the flame that burns inside us and keeps us bright and alive. To honour the Goddess and God, I have two small lava-stone statues, one male and one female, that I bought on a trip to Vanuatu, and in front of each of them I have a small tea-light candle to give them light and life when I carry out rituals or spells. Altars might also house various little nick-nacks like shells, a wand, a chalice, crystals and stones, statuettes, etc. – anything to create a space sacred and comfortable for the Practitioner.
Altars can be permanent or temporary. Some choose not to have their altars on display all the time for various reasons – they might live in a house with other people and might not want to share their altars; they might not have the space for a permanent altar; or they might just feel that the altar is just for them and not to be viewed by others. Others prefer to keep their altars ‘permanent’; that is, the altar is always set up, ready to go (this could, however, be in a spare or small room, a backyard, etc.). I personally prefer to have my altar set up permanently as, for me, it’s a constant reminder of my Path and what I’ve dedicated myself to (as well as the fact that I’m completely lazy and prefer to have everything ‘raring and ready to go’!) and as a person with low motivation, it tells me “HEY! I’m sitting here! USE ME!”.
The reasons for having an altar initially are various: it could be to better focus on the intention of a ritual or spell; to create a sacred space that is for the Practitioner who uses it; to have a place to honour the God and Goddess; to just get into ‘the mood’ of ritual; or any combination of these things – the reasons are endless.
But in the end, after the altar is set up, it doesn’t really matter what is on it. You could have a table with a single small candle in the centre and that could be your altar – what matters is the connection that you have with the Divine, and your reason for having an altar in the first place: worship of the Divine through ritual and practice.
Deities in Ritual
Generally, Pagans have a belief in a Goddess as well as a God. Some stick to mainly honouring the Goddess (Dianic Wiccans are particularly noted for this belief), but as Paganism often covers religions of balance, it’s difficult, at least for myself, to discount either the God or the Goddess as both are required for balance, duality and indeed the creation of life. To honour the God and Goddess, there are numerous rituals one might undertake – for example, Drawing Down The Moon is a Wiccan ritual where the person takes in, or invokes, the Goddess into her(or him)self. This isn’t possession; this is a ‘becoming one’ with nature, the divine, and everything that is responsible for our being here, and is a very empowering ritual.
Other divinity-honouring rituals might be of The Great Rite, of which there are two versions. One is where an athame, as representative of the male energy, is inserted into a chalice (representative of the female energy) point-down – this act in itself representing a consummation of male and female, and the result of such a consummation. The alternative version is an actual, sexual representation of the above, where two consenting adults carry out sexual intercourse in the name of the divine.
As a side note, no-one should ever be coerced into carrying out sexual acts with anyone. If you are asked by your coven or grove to carry out the Great Rite and you do not wish to participate, they should be able to respect your decision. If not, find another group. Similarly, you should not have to carry out The Great Rite to ‘become a witch’; the God and Goddess know their children, whether you have had sex or not!
MORE TO COME…