“Hail, ye Givers! A guest is come;
Say, where shall he sit within?” (Havamal, 2)
As a Heathen, I view public ritual through the lens of hospitality. Knowing how to act in the most respectful way in any situation is the key to avoiding many unnecessary disagreements in communities, especially the pagan community. Granted, some bad behavior will probably always happen, depending on those involved. However, many insults are accidentally given by people who are unfamiliar with the ritual format, religious tradition, or purpose of the given ritual. To help minimize that confusion, it’s best to keep these two ideas clear: 1) how to be a good guest (ritual attendee) and 2) how to be a good host (ritualist). In my mind, these are the clearest and simplest guidelines for public ritual.
How to Be a Good Guest
- Respect the hosts. Public rituals take a lot of time, energy, and planning, much more so than a small ritual for a closed group in someone’s home. Unless the hosts are charging a large amount of money to attend the ritual, the ritual itself is being done as a service—to their Gods, to their tradition, or to their community. Respect the amount of effort the host puts in and the risks that they take by running a ritual that is open to the general public.
- Assume good intent. The purpose of a public ritual is not to hurt or shame others. Mistakes and misunderstandings can happen. Unless proven otherwise, assume they are unintentional.
- Come prepared. It is your job to research the exact details of the ritual you will be attending. What is the format of the ritual? What Gods/spirits/ancestors/archetypes are being honored? Is it a sitting meditation or an ecstatic trance dance? Will there be a potluck? Will it be held outdoors? Will there be tickets or a requested donation? Also, remember to get enough food, sleep, and whatever else you need ahead of time so that you can be a ritual attendee and not a ritual emergency-waiting-to-happen.
- Arrive on time. Many pagan events do not start on time, granted; but a good part of the reason for this is that many attendees do not arrive on time.
- Don’t be rude. Don’t get up and walk around, start a conversation with a friend, or answer your phone during a ritual. Unless the host specifically says otherwise, assume that the ritual is formal and that the host (gasp!) actually wants your attention and participation. Not only could you offend the hosts, but you could also offend any deity or spirit being honored in the ritual. Why offend Thor to answer a phone call?
- RSVP if possible. Make life easier for the hosts by letting them know how many people to expect at their event.
- Offer to help out. Many larger rituals require a lot of set up and tear down. If you are early, offer to help set up chairs or put out food for the potluck. If you can stay afterward, help put the room or site back into its original state.
- Keep post-ritual gossip to a minimum. Even if the ritual was a complete mess, refrain from tearing down the group later. Instead, try to give some constructive feedback to the hosts. (If it does turn out that the ritual or hosting group is a complete wash, just don’t attend their events.)
How to Be a Good Host
Running a public ritual is a big deal. Your attendees are giving you an hour (or three, or five) out of their day and putting their trust in you to lead them through a spiritual or magical experience. As such, you have the responsibility to respectfully do any (or all) of these things: help them connect to the divine; help them heal—physically or spiritually; educate them; or lead them in honoring the turning of the calendar wheel. (Or many other purposes; take your pick.) While you can half-ass this, that lack of preparation tends to show, and people tend not to come back to chaotic or unsatisfying rituals. Just as the guests have many things that are required of them, so to do you owe your attendees a good ritual.
(Here’s some very basic advice from one ritualist to another: Putting on public ritual is a service. It is done out of a need to serve, not a need for power, fame, exhibitionism, or what have you. If you want to put on a public ritual, and one of your top priorities is not serving your community, don’t do it.)
- Have a clear purpose in mind for your ritual. Why are you having this ritual? While “because it’s fun” or “because we did it last year” may be true, these are probably not clear enough purposes for a public ritual. Think about what the audience should take away from this ritual. What kind of experience do you want to provide? Plan accordingly.
- Respect peoples’ time. Be prepared to start on time. Also, a ritual doesn’t need to be several hours long for it to be a good ritual. Somewhere between 45 minutes to 1 1/5 hours is the most comfortable length of a ritual most attendees.
- Tell people what to expect. Once you have figured out the purpose of your ritual, tell the possible attendees. Be as specific as possible. They deserve to know if, for example, this ritual will include a long trance journey in which they will get to experience Odin hanging on the World Tree for nine days and nine nights. Don’t just say, “In this ritual, we will go on a trance journey to meet the Norse Gods” because that covers a wide variety of possible experiences. Let people know exactly what they are in for. (Cue stories of really bad ritual experiences.)
- Plan for accessibility needs. Know your audience: If this is a public ritual, you will likely have a wide spectrum of people attending. Keep in mind accommodations for physical mobility; scent, sound, and food sensitivities; accessibility to food, water, and the privies; location-specific requirements; specifically gendered language; and attendees’ level of experience with ritual activities and energy.
- If your ritual will be intense in any way, prepare for at least one attendee to have a meltdown. In a public ritual, you have absolutely no way of knowing exactly who is going to walk through that door or what kind of life experiences your attendees have had. If you are planning a deeply spiritual or psychological ritual, contemplate exactly how this experience could set someone off, and how you will handle it when it does. I’ll compare it to the guidelines for attending a public park: try to leave your attendees better off than you found them. Don’t leave a mess. This is followed closely by…
- Don’t attempt deep, intense experiences in public rituals. Unless this is a ritual you are really familiar with leading and you are fully aware and experienced in dealing with the possible outcomes, don’t do it publicly. Deep rituals can be awesome and amazing experiences. However, for all of the reasons stated above, they are often best done privately, where you at least have some control over who comes to what ritual.
- That said, Give the attendees the space to have their own experiences. You may have a goal for your attendees, but some of them may end up having a completely different experience. As long as they’re not imploding or disrupting the ritual as a whole, let them go with it.
- Follow up with people afterward. Want to run a great ritual? Get some feedback from your participants. It helps to continue the positive guest/host relationship and will make your ritual fu that much stronger.
- Go to other peoples’ rituals. Support your fellow ritualists, and get some perspective on your own rituals. Who knows, you might get to have your own great spiritual or magical experience when you’re not the one running the show.
When all is said and done, a public ritual is about opening up your “home” and welcoming guests in. How would you treat a guest? How would you treat your host? Keep it simple. If you keep these two basic concepts in mind, things should go well, and everyone should have a great time.
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