THE FINER POINTS OF RITUAL:
A Comparative Approach to
Liturgical History, Theology and Design
A Heartland Pagan Festival Keynote Address
by Mike Nichols
Participants: Morning Glory Zell
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel
other audience members not identified
[NOTE: This transcription was made from an audio tape dub of a
videorecording of the event. The microphone placement made some
of the comments from the audience unintelligible, and those
sections were omitted. In some cases, the comments were picked
up but it was impossible to identify the speaker. Because of the
lack of visual cues, it is also possible that some of the
speakers are incorrectly identified. To improve readability,
some very minor editing was done.]
Rhiannon: I'd like to introduce someone whom we are really proud
to have in our community. He has been involved in Witchcraft --
in teaching free Witchcraft classes -- for over eighteen years
now. He is also a teacher of parapsychology at the University of
Missouri at Kansas City. He owns the Magick Lantern, which is
our occult bookstore here in town -- the ONLY occult bookstore we
actually have here in town. He's very instrumental in
introducing people to Wicca through his classes -- over 6,000
people! Granted all of them didn't decide to stay with us, which
is fine. But think how many myths that helped shatter, and
helped to make us a valid religion in some people's eyes. And a
lot of times, that's what we need. Every time I say something
about a particular speaker, people say "Well, what has he
written? What has she written?" Books are really wonderful but,
as I'm sure you've read, there are some good books, and there are
some mediocre books, and there are some that are pure trash out
there. Just because they say they're a Pagan writer doesn't mean
a thing. Sort through and pick out the good stuff. People like
Mike help us go through and figure out what's real and what's not
real. And then help you decide, even out of what's real, what's
real for you. So I'm really proud to have him in our community,
and I'd like to welcome him.
Mike Nichols: I hope you don't mind if I do this sitting down.
I want to present it more like a workshop than a standard
lecture. First of all, I want to start out with a few thank
you's. I just want to say a personal thank you to Rhiannon who
has acted as liaison between the Heartland Spiritual Alliance and
the Magick Lantern, which was sometimes a difficult and thankless
task, but she's done it well. When I saw her stand on the chair
in the hall last night and scream "TWO pieces of chicken! ONLY
two!", I thought I've never seen anyone look so much in their
element. (LAUGHTER) So thank you so much. And not only to
Rhiannon, but to the organizers of the Heartland Pagan Festival
all together. I think they've done a wonderful job. Let's give
them a hand.
What we're going to be doing in here is kind of an advanced
class on ritual design, what we sometimes like to call liturgics.
Before this is all over, we're going to be into such areas as
liturgical theology, liturgical history, and liturgical
aesthetics. For those of you who are local and who have taken my
class, or seen me do speeches at psychic fairs and such, you will
be happy to note that this is not recycled material. This is the
very first time I am presenting any of this material anywhere.
So I hope you enjoy it.
I'm starting from the premise that most people here are
already fairly well advanced in Paganism and have gotten to the
point where they already know about ritual and realize why it's
there, why there is a need for it, and are beginning to ask
other questions about ritual. What does it take to make a "good"
ritual? What kind of elements do you need to have, what kind of
order, what kind of structure does a ritual have to have to work?
Are there certain things a ritual needs to work? How can you
tell if a ritual has worked? And questions like that start
happening only after you've been into it a little while.
If you are new to this whole area, and really are not that
conversant with why ritual is used anyway, let me just gloss that
point by saying there are a couple of really good books that I
think give you a good understanding of that. One is "The Spiral
Dance" by Starhawk. Another is "Drawing Down the Moon" by Margot
Adler. I think either one of those would inform you as to why
Witches use ritual in the first place.
The need for ritual is sometimes one of the most difficult
things for newcomers in this area to understand because quite
often, if they've been brought up in a religious tradition that
downplays ritual, for example, (and many Protestant religious
traditions say that ritual is only so much gobbledy-gook, etc.,
that there's nothing to it), it's a real stumbling block for
people to understand why the ritual is there. I've noticed that
people with Roman Catholic backgrounds or a background in Judaism
seem to have a better grasp on what ritual is there for and what
When we get into this kind of work, let me just say that
much of my talk here today is going to be highly speculative,
highly theoretical, and please do not take it as a final position
paper on anything. It is at best a preliminary report on work in
progress. We're going to do a lot of comparative liturgics as a
way of understanding our own ritual development.
When it comes to ritual or liturgy -- whichever word you
want to use, and I'm going to be using them interchangeably -- it
has always seemed to me that liturgical theology should be on the
cutting edge of theological concerns in Paganism. There are many
religious writers who believe that religions basically have three
dimensions -- any religion. First of all, it's theology: what
are it's beliefs? Secondly, it's social structure: how does this
religion impact on the world around it? And thirdly, it's
ritual: what do the people do to express their religious values?
It has always seemed to me that within Paganism in general, and
Witchcraft certainly in particular, it is the liturgical
dimension that is the most often in focus.
Theology I think has been rather slow. It is developing,
Pagan theological concerns, but it's developing late. If you
read Starhawk and Adler and people like that, you're beginning to
see the beginnings of Pagan theology.
As far as the social dimension, there was a time of course
when Paganism had a social dimension, when most people were
Pagan. But for the last couple of thousand years we have been a
minority religion -- a very small minority in some cases. And I
think because of that we don't yet have a very strong
sociological impact. But that too may be changing, through
festivals like this, when Pagans start gathering in big enough
numbers to start talking about such things as social change. For
example, at one of the workshops we had the other day, somebody
suggested that one of the things Pagans could do to increase
their visibility and positive image in the community is to take
on community projects like answering telephones for the local
public TV telethons. Yes, this is our local Coven on the phone
lines! (LAUGHTER) Or this is the local Coven who have all
decided to go down and do a park clean-up on a particular day.
When we get enough people doing stuff like that, then Witchcraft
will have its social dimension.
In the meantime, the strongest dimension I think for most of
us is the ritual, is the liturgy. When you tell somebody you're
a Witch, the first thing they ask you is "What do you do?" -- not
"What do you believe?" or "What is your impact on society?" --
but "What do you do?" They want to hear about your rituals. I
think that's exactly why Stewart Farrar titled his first book on
Witchcraft "What Witches Do".
So we've got to start looking at what we do, in terms of
ritual and how ritual has developed. However, when it comes to
trying to study liturgy in modern Paganism, you are immediately
arrested by the fact that there is no coherent study of it. Yes,
there are books of rituals. Sure, you can buy a spellbook here,
a grimoire there. Marion Weinstein has published a Book of
Shadows. The last half of Doreen Valiente's book is a Book of
Shadows. Scott Cunningham's got books of spells, etc. But is
there any systematic study of all this stuff put together? No.
Not so far.
I think the reason is because development has been so rapid.
All of this stuff has come along so fast that people have not had
a chance to assess it and evaluate it, and ask significant
questions about it. Consequently, both the scholar and the lay
person really don't have very many places to go when it comes to
There are a few things though that you can say about
religious ritual. First of all, religious ritual is a human
experience, a very universal human experience. It is as real as
fear, and as important as love. It has a meaning of its own. It
is not some sort of aberration or distortion of reality. It is
an injection of new meaning into the reality around you. There
is hardly a culture in the world that has not developed its
religious rituals. And sometimes by looking at religious rituals
of other cultures, we can begin understanding our own better.
That's one of things I'm gonna try to do here.
There's a strange continuity, a sameness when you start
looking at different rituals, that pervades all of them. We find
that rituals, for example, are transpersonal and transcultural.
People seem to experience the same types of things no matter
where you look all over the world.
In looking at liturgical theology, I have been doing an
awful lot of work in terms of comparative study. Because the
only group of people who have systematically writing about
liturgical theology for any length of time are the Christians.
Does this have anything to say to us as Pagans? Perhaps it does.
Reason: I think most Pagans are by now well aware of the fact
that the Christians have borrowed a heck of a lot from the old
Pagan religions. For example, it's commonly known that the old
Pagan holidays served as models for Christian holidays, so that
the modern Christian liturgical calendar is to a great extent
based on older Pagan themes. And ironically, sometimes you can
look at what Christians have written about these to find out
still more about the Pagan themes that underlie it.
A second area where this is true is what we call
hagiography, the study of saints. So many of the saints in the
rites of the Roman Catholic Church are in fact simply
Christianized forms of old Pagan gods and goddesses. So we read
about the legends of these saints, and we learn a little bit more
about the gods and goddesses underlying those legends. I think
Pagans generally realize both of these points. What Pagans do
not generally realize is that it is the same as far as liturgical
ceremonies go, too. When you get right down to it, Christianity
-- especially the way the Roman Catholic Church developed in the
early years of Christianity -- borrowed most of its liturgical
traditions from the Pagans.
I mean, if you ever stopped and thought about it... For
example, within the Roman Catholic Church, there are certain
rituals known as "sacraments", right? Do you realize that is a
Pagan word? Sacrament comes from the Latin "sacramentum" and was
an oath given by a Roman soldier to his gods. It was a ritual
setting. We might be well advised once again to reclaim the word
sacrament and use it as our own.
According the Catholic Church, a sacrament is an "effective"
ritual, which means that it produces an objective effect. This
is not just a symbolic commemoration of something. This is
something that actually produces a change in reality. This
beginning to sound familiar?
Other things which we have long considered primarily
Christian -- Again, I'm going to be drawing this almost
exclusively from the background of Roman Catholic liturgics,
which is one of the ones that is most developed. The High
Anglican would be another good source if you wanted to look into
this. The practice of "genuflection", of bowing on one knee,
originally a Pagan practice. The practice of kissing ritual
tools. If you were in a Catholic church, did you ever see a
priest pick up a Missal at Mass and kiss it, put it on the altar?
The same way a priestess will sometimes kiss her athame after
she's used it for an invocation? Yet another custom borrowed by
the Christians from the Pagans. So it seems real obvious to me
that we could look at the whole question of sacramental rites,
and ask what have the various Christian writers had to say about
them in terms of how they work, in order to find out what Pagans
probably also originally believed about rites and rituals.
Although at a later time the Catholic Church would limit the
number of official sacraments to be only seven in number, at an
earlier time this was not true. Anything could be seen as a
sacrament. A blessing was a sacrament. A holiday, a sacred
object, all of these things could be considered sacramental in
what they did. As a matter of fact, the first use of the word
"sacrament" within a Christian context was not until 210 C.E. and
it was by the Church writer Tertulian. He was the first one to
use that word in a Christian context, and when he did so,
ironically, he accused the Greek mystery religions of having
stolen that word from the Christians. Obviously, it was
precisely the other way around.
Although today the word sacrament refers primarily to only
seven ecclesial rituals within the Catholic Church, all of which
-- or at least six of which -- have parallels in Paganism, the
word "sacrament" is still used in comparative theology in a much
broader sense. Basically, it refers to any hidden reality, any
sign or symbol of a hidden reality that is mysterious and sacred.
I could be a person, a place, or a thing. Any of these things
could be considered sacramental.
From the point of view of Pagan theology, by the way, with
its strong emphasis on the theological perspective called
"immanence", the in-dwelling quality of the divine force in all
of nature, for a Pagan practically anything can become a
sacrament. Every rock, every tree, everything is alive with
magical and sacred powers which a Pagan can get in touch with and
from there connect with the entire universe. That's what a
There have been, historically, at least two ways of viewing
rituals and sacraments. The first is the way as practiced by
social anthropologists. For example, one of the most famous of
these was proposed by Arnold van Gennep, who was the first to
come up with the idea of rituals being, as he called them, "rites
of passage". He would point to something like a marriage rite,
and we can find rites like that in practically every society.
And he would say that the reason this ritual was important for
this society is that it marked a transition for one member of the
society from one social role to another. From the status of
being unmarried to the status of being married. In many
societies, kids when they hit the age of puberty go through a
rite of passage. This is an official recognition by the society
as a whole that this person, who was once considered a child, is
now considered an adult and has adult responsibilities.
Van Gennep originally thought that practically all religious
rituals were rites of passage. Later social anthropologists have
pointed out there's at least one other major class or rituals.
And this is not a rite of passage but what we call a "rite of
celebration". Very distinct from a rite of passage. In a rite
of passage, we talk about a person's transition from one social
role to another. In a rite of celebration -- let's take for an
example a wedding anniversary -- nothing is changing here. We
are simply looking at something which has a permanent value and
belief structure, and we are celebrating it. We are focusing on
it. We are saying this is important to us. And we're going to
have this ritual to let everybody know how important it is to us.
A rite of passage is a rite of transition, but a rite of
celebration is a rite of intensification. It intensifies the
values and beliefs that are already present.
That was one of two ways of classifying religious rituals.
The other is the psychological approach. And probably the best
writer in this field is Mircea Eliade. He called sacramental
rituals -- he had a wonderful phrase for it -- he called them
"doors to the sacred". Every sacramental ritual, he said, is an
invitation to a religious or sacred experience. An invitation,
which you may accept or not. You can either let yourself become
a part of a ritual or not. You can make up your mind to distance
yourself from it. But its basic design, the basic reason for a
sacramental ritual is to give you an invitation to have an
experience of the sacred. Which Eliade calls a "hierophany", an
experience of the sacred.
Practically all of these experiences involve altered states
of perception, in terms of an altered sense of time and an
altered sense of space. And we all have these understandings.
For example, to most of us a tree is a tree. But what about the
tree that you had your treehouse in when you were a little kid?
That tree is special. There is no other tree like that tree
anywhere else in the world. It is sacred. A funeral home -- you
see them on every other street corner; they're just a building.
Except the funeral home that you attended your grandfather's
funeral in. You walk into that funeral home and space seems
different. It is charged with a meaning that normal space -- a
normal other funeral home -- does not have.
Time is the same way; the sense of time can change.
Anniversaries, celebrations of New Year's, celebrations like that
take us back to a time that's kind of outside of time, if you
will. And once again, charges that time with a special meaning.
Time may even seem to pass differently. I think for me the best
expression of this has always been in fairy tales. When somebody
goes into the next world, the world of faery, and experiences the
passage of time differently.
So all of these -- what Mircea Eliade calls "hierophanies"
-- all of them have to do with altered states of perception,
which include both time and space. This is remarkably similar,
by the way, to Dion Fortune's famous definition of magick, the
"ability to alter consciousness at will". We're obviously
talking about the same kind of thing here.
Most hierophanies, the great majority of them, are
individual. They are personal. Whether it's watching a sunset,
visiting a sacred place, walking up to Stonehenge and standing in
the center of it (and having the same feeling you had as you
stood in your last magic Circle), this is sacred space. This is
an individual and personal experience. But these religious
experiences can also be shared. It happens when we sing the
national anthem. It happens when we sing the old school song.
It happens when a group of us gets together to go see a dramatic
or theatrical presentation. In this case, we open ourselves
collectively to an experience of the sacred. Which again is what
a sacramental rite is all about.
One other interesting thing about these experiences is that
it is almost universally experienced that the high charge of
meaning that is found in the rite is experienced as "discovered"
or "encountered". It sort of dawns upon you. "Oh wow! That's
what this is all about! Yeah, I get it now!" It's not something
that is artificially enforced on the ritual from the outside. It
should grow organically from the ritual.
It's interesting to note that in Judeo-Christian tradition,
this sacredness is quite often found in history. In the
historical development of a God that interacts with a "chosen
people" throughout a period of history. Whereas in Pagan
theology, sacredness is most usually found not in history but in
nature. That every tree, every rock, everything is alive, that
you can get in touch with it, that it has a magical and sacred
essence and you can interact with that, and get in touch with the
Cosmos as a whole through that.
It's interesting to note, too, that because of this the
Judeo-Christian tradition places a very strong emphasis on sacred
writings, or scripture. Whereas many of the old Pagan religions
-- taking the old Druid religion as a fine example -- made it
forbidden to write down sacred material. Druids teach it, bards
sing it, dancers dance it -- but you don't write it. They
realized it was too sacred for that. So we have these very
definite distinctions in terms of how we've approached these
sorts of things.
Another way of looking at a ritual is this: Most of us are
familiar with the way a myth takes the values and beliefs of a
religion and embodies them in story form. A ritual takes the
values and beliefs of a religion and embodies them in actions.
That's why quite often a ritual is a myth enacted. Ritual drama,
As I said at the beginning, I think many Pagans are aware of
how Christians have borrowed from us in terms of calendar
customs, and how they've borrowed our gods to use as their
saints. But we've seldom examined how the Christian religion has
borrowed our sacred rites. They have. The Catholic Church now
recognizes seven official sacraments. And virtually all of them
-- or at least six of them -- have Pagan origins.
First of all, the rite called "Baptism". That's the first
ecclesial ritual in the Roman Catholic Church. Or "Christening",
as it's sometimes called. It turns out once again that
practically every "primitive" culture has similar rites of
blessing of a child. In ancient, pre-Christian, Pagan Celtic
society, there was a similar rite. It had to do with sprinkling
a child with water, passing the child through the smoke of a
fire, passing it through a hole in a stone or else touching it to
the earth (getting in all the elements here), and quite often
passing the child around a circle, handing the baby around so
that each person in the circle gets to hold it for a short time.
If you want descriptions of this taken from people who seem to
remember these pre-Christian ceremonies, look at the work of
folklorist Alexander Carmichael in the six-volume set, the
"Carmina Gaedelica". Some of these rites had been Christianized,
of course, even at the time Carmichael was taking them down. But
a lot of their Pagan origins are still very clear.
In Pagan Celtic society, by the way, this rite was called a
"seining". Which I would like to propose as a much better term
for this kind of rite in Paganism than the more recently coined
word "Wiccaning". I oppose that terminology for two reasons.
One, it's obviously a word that was coined recently to be a
counterpart to the term "Christening". So the word itself is not
historically attested. Secondly, think of what it implies! When
you "Christen" a child, you are introducing it into the body of
Christ, the Church. You are making it a Christian. I don't
think that any Witch thinks that "Wiccaning" a child is making
that child a Witch! I've never heard any Pagan put it that way.
At the very most, you are blessing the child, asking the gods'
protection for this child "so that no harm comes to the child, or
to anyone else through the child" (as it is commonly expressed)
until such a time as that child is able to choose its own
religion. We do not attempt to make that choice for the child.
It is simply a rite of blessing and protection. Strangely
enough, that is exactly what the word "seining" means. And
therefore I think it's much better than the alternative
The Christian religion also has a sacrament called the
"Eucharist". By the way, if ever anybody challenges you that the
Christian religion doesn't employ magic, take a look at what the
Catholic Church has to say about the sacrament of the Eucharist,
or what they call "the blessed sacrament" -- THE blessed
sacrament. The official term for what happens is
"transubstantiation" -- that the priest actually has the power to
turn common bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus! If
that isn't a magical act, I don't know what one is! Although the
Church would be loath to use the word "magic" in this context.
But we certainly understand what it's all about.
The idea of blessing food and drink, however, once again
seems to be one of those universal rites. When people sit down
to a shared dinner, a common meal, it is a rite of inclusion.
Even in the early Christian Church, you were not allowed to
partake in the Eucharistic meal unless you were already a member
of that church. So the fact that in the Wiccan tradition you
share "cakes and ale" would imply an inclusion in the membership
of that group. And of course, there are all the symbolic
associations of food as sustenance.
We also have the sacrament of Confirmation in the Catholic
Church. Which always sounded strange to me when I was growing
up. You know, you're twelve years old now, and it's time for you
to be "confirmed". It's almost like up until then you were only
"tentative". (LAUGHTER) But now you're confirmed. What it
really meant, though, was the person was supposedly old enough by
now to make a free choice (cough) of which religion they wanted
to belong to. And the bishop -- You'll notice here, by the way,
that the proper minister for this rite is the bishop, not the
priest. Although it is possible for a bishop to delegate the
power to a priest. But the bishop comes and confirms you into
this religion. Again, we have so many rites from so many Pagan
systems that this seems to based on that are usually referred to
as "initiation" ceremonies, or rites of passage, rites of
adulthood. When finally the child is brought fully into the
religious and social (in most primitive societies, they are the
same) structure of the society and is now seen to be a full
adult. So any first degree initiation could serve as a model for
what the Catholic Church came to call Confirmation.
Ordination. This is a right that ONLY a bishop can perform,
in the Catholic Church. Only a bishop can make a priest. You'll
notice that when we look at how initiation rites are
traditionally done in Wicca, any priest or priestess can make
another priest or priestess. And quite often, it looks like in
the oldest rites, it also involved a kind of "laying on of
hands". There was an imposition of hands that occurred in the
Catholic tradition, as well. And until that time, a novice
priest was actually told that it would be wrong or DANGEROUS for
him to perform some of the priestly functions unless he had been
made a priest!
And there were all sorts of stories in the old days that
only a priest could touch the consecrated elements. Only a
priest's hands -- only consecrated hands -- could touch the
vessels that held the consecrated elements: the chalice, the
monstrance, the ciborium, and so forth. This almost implies to
me, though it's never quite stated in this way, but it almost
seems like there is some sort of real, tangible, psychic energy
that is present.
I remember being regaled with stories when I was a little
kid going to a Catholic school where the nuns would tell these
wonderful stories about how some poor person was kneeling at the
altar rail waiting to receive Communion, and the priest comes
along to administer Communion, and drops the Host. And the poor
person reaches out to try to catch it, and at the first touch of
this consecrated object, there is a tremendous flash of
lightning, and the person is now a little pile of ashes on the
altar carpet. (LAUGHTER)
I don't think it's quite like that. But what it may be
saying is that some of these powers, even within magical
traditions or Pagan traditions, are tangible and do carry some
sort of psychic clout. I don't think lightning is going to flash
out of the sky and reduce you to cinders. But what we're saying
is a metaphor, really, that there may be some kind of psychic
backlash if you attempt to wield these magical energies before
your training has been finished, before you're ready to handle
them, before you understand what you're doing. In the same way
that a good psychotherapy session, if it uncovers too much
garbage from your subconscious, can throw you backward if you're
not ready to deal with the stuff that's dredged up.
For those of you who believe there is some sort of validity
to the concept of "apostolic succession", the imposition of
hands, it also may imply that, when one priest or priestess makes
another priest or priestess, she is passing on a kind of MAGICAL
SHIELDING as well. A protection, so that you will be able to
handle these magical powers without any ill effect. For those of
you who believe that the initiation tradition is valid. Again,
if you want to see Pagan examples of that, look at some of the
work done by Alexander Carmichael. There is a rite called a
"shielding" where one person kneels, while a second person puts
one hand under their knees and the other hand over their head and
says "Everything that is between my two hands is protected and
seined by the Mother". The Goddess has control of everything in
this sphere. It's a passing on of this shielding, that until you
have, it might be dangerous for you to experiment with these
powers. IF you believe that's a valid idea. (We'll get into
questions of validity in just a minute.)
The Christian tradition of marriage, of course... Well, in
every society that we know of, we have rituals that talk about
people getting together. However, ever since the Judeo-Christian
system has come along, we've been firmly locked into only one way
of viewing marriage -- a monogamous way of viewing marriage, for
one thing -- with very little latitude in terms of variability.
If you look at the Pagan idea of Handfasting, if you go back to
the Irish pre-Christian brehon laws, you will find that they talk
about at least ten different forms of what we today call
marriage. These forms include such things as marriage between
two people of the same gender, marriage of more than two people
(what today we would call a "group marriage"), marriages that
only last for a "year and a day" or some other specified time
(what today we might call a "trial marriage"), marriages that did
not demand sexual exclusivity (what today we would call "open
marriage"), "contract marriage", the woman keeping her own name,
pre-nuptial and post-nuptial property arrangements. (If you've
ever read about the great pillow-talk argument between Queen
Maeve and King Aillil about who had the most property, you know
what I'm talking about!)
You know, it's fascinating to think that all of the
so-called marriage innovations that occurred in the 1960's, that
we thought were so mind-bogglingly new... nope! They were all
there in the old Pagan form of this rite. They were *standard*,
until the Christian form of marriage with its single theme, its
monogamous monotheistic vision, it's vision of the one right and
only way to do something, came along and knocked the older one
aside. But again, the Pagan origins are obvious.
The ecclesial sacrament called "Last Rites"... We have all
sorts of what we call "death blessings" in the Gaelic Pagan
traditions, to send the spirit on its way. For each person who
dies, there is one particular person assigned to be the leader of
these rites who from that time on is known as the dead person's
"soul friend". This is the one who will carry out the rituals,
remember them when Samhain comes around, set out the extra places
at the table, etc. We perhaps have less historical data on the
Last Rite theme than we have for certain other themes that we're
talking about here. But it is still there. And again a
reference to some of the early folklorists.
The one modern Christian sacrament that I cannot really find
an exact parallel for in terms of a pre-Christian precursor in
Paganism is the sacrament the Roman Catholic Church calls
"Penance", or "Confession". Isn't that interesting? The whole
sacrament has to do with confessing your sins to a priest, who
then absolves you of the sins. It is a whole thing of guilt, and
release from guilt. Yes?
Morning Glory: There were blood guilt rituals, because if you
caused an accidental or even on-purpose death, you had to pay a
wyrguild to the family. In the New World, the Aztecs had a thing
where if you caused the death of someone, you became a surrogate
for that person. So there were things like that.
Mike Nichols: Okay, good point. I can think of an Irish example
of that, now that you mention it. The Chucullain legend is a
good example. Chucullain, who was originally Setanta,
accidentally on purpose kills this very ferocious dog, and walks
up to the gate-keeper and says, "I've killed your dog and I would
like to replace him." And the gate-keeper says "Fine, there go
some cats. Get busy." (LAUGHTER) I think that's where that
Morning Glory: Samhain was also a time -- and Walpurgisnacht,
especially Walpurgisnacht -- was a time when you took stuff from
that year and purged it in the fire. And you would have to then
go and get it straight with any other people inside the Circle
that you shared.
Mike Nichols: I noticed that in a lot of the Pagan traditions,
the purging of one's "guilt" (and I think we're very misguided to
use the term "guilt" here)...
Morning Glory: Responsibility.
Mike Nichols: Responsibility, right -- is a matter of making
recompense to the person or persons who were wronged. It's not a
matter of carrying around a guilt trip until somebody says "Okay,
if you'll go through this ritual, you will be absolved."
(unidentified): A couple of things I've run into recently, one
was in a work of fiction. These three young girls rob this woman
who later turns out to be a Witch. It's on this psychic journey
where they have the bodies of these 12th century people. And one
ends up a peasant. And he couldn't help but notice these weird
little Pagan things that kept cropping up that these people had
kept for centuries. And one of the things was that on the first
day of Spring, the village priest preached a sermon that "dancing
leads to damnation". Apparently, on the first day of Spring, all
the peasants would go out and dance everything out. And that
would really help them out. It got rid of all the pains of the
Winter, someone had been murdered, and a baby had died of
Otter Zell: There was a common form that I can't identify
specifically, but it's a theme I've come across in a lot of
anthropological studies. But it's the basis of what we call, not
a "trial" really, but more like "mediation". If there's a
conflict between parties about something or if someone feels
they've been wronged by someone, then the parties would be
brought together within the community of people, and everybody
would have to tell their stories. Then they would ask them "What
do you think would be a fair settlement? What do you think would
be fair?" And this was just talked out in the context of the
community of people, until everything was worked out to
everyone's satisfaction. And we've used this ourselves in our
Circle under such situations, and it's been incredibly effective,
And the ultimate, if this could not be worked out, there
were several ways of dealing with it. The heaviest one was
generally banishment, where the person would simply be sent away.
And the next heaviest one would probably be ostracism, where the
person would not be spoken to. He would be ignored, they'd
pretend he didn't exist for a period of time. Highly effective.
Of course, the more simple and basic ones would be working out
appropriate compensation that everyone would be satisfied with.
So there were these procedures, but it wasn't the same thing as
"guilt". The concept of "sin" and "guilt", and the idea that you
could go to a priest instead of the person you'd wronged, and
that the priest could absolve your soul of guilt. And we still
have that today, where you go to a trial, and the judge finds you
"guilty" and he fines you or sends you to jail, but the person
who's been fucked over is still fucked over. (LAUGHTER)
Morning Glory: They don't get their money back that you stole.
It goes to the State, for some odd reason.
Mike Nichols: Exactly. These are things that I think we all
ought to think about. What I'm trying to do in the first part of
this presentation is to focus your attention on how we might be
able to look at Christian liturgical rites to find information
about their predecessors as to how they might have been done in
Pagan societies. Because all of these things we've talked about,
the so-called "seven sacraments of the Catholic Church -- if you
look for data that Jesus himself instituted these things, you
look practically in vain. Where in the world did the Church come
up with these things?
A great example of this, by the way (and it's an example I
use in my class quite often) is this. For a long time, after I
decided that I was going to be Pagan, I quit going to the
Catholic Church because it didn't interest me. It might have
been a mistake. One year while I was at college, I was home for
Spring break (it was Easter) and my mother dragged me along to a
service that happens on the Saturday night right before Easter,
"Holy Saturday" -- which has to be one of the most liturgically
rich occasions of the Church calendar. (If you want to see it
even richer, take a look at the Orthodox traditions, the Greek
and Russian Orthodox. They *really* know liturgics.) At any
I had forgotten how the Catholic Church blesses the holy
water that it's going to be using in the coming liturgical year.
But what happens, roughly, is this. The holy water font, which
is usually in the porch or vestibule of the church, is brought up
into the sanctuary and placed near the altar. And at one point
in this particular Mass, the priest walks over to this large
candle which is called the Pascal Candle. It is in place
throughout the Easter season. It has little herbs stuck in it
and so forth. He takes this candle out of its holder, walks over
to the holy water or Baptismal font (which looks, from my point
of view, remarkably like a large cauldron), and holds the candle
over the font, and starts doing *this* with it. (demonstrates by
plunging the vertical candle in and out of the holy water font)
(GASPS OF RECOGNITION AND LAUGHTER)
(unidentified): You're kidding!
Mike Nichols: I'm NOT kidding. And after having studied
Paganism, and I saw that, it was like I was seeing it for the
first time. And I looked to the right and to the left to see if
anybody else, you know, realized what was going on. I mean, I
thought "Aren't there any *Freudians* in the audience?!?!"
(LAUGHTER) There was not one flicker of recognition, not one
flutter of an eyelid! I could not believe it!
And I knew there and then that obviously the Catholic Church
had not picked this up from Jesus. Where had the Catholic Church
learned to bless water? From us. And where had the Catholic
Church learned to do a lot of other stuff? From us. So, I think
it is richly rewarding for us to take a look at what they have
done in terms of liturgics.
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: "Pagans take back the rite!" (LAUGHTER)
Mike Nichols: Exactly!! Exactly. I like that! That'll be the
title of my new book! (LAUGHTER)
Morning Glory: There's another aspect of that, too, with the
Host, the idea of consuming the body of the God. Sacred
cannibalism was certainly a factor that this came from. The
eating of the pressed grains of Dammuzi or Tammuz, the Green Man,
the vegetation god, and the eating of the body of the god, that's
definitely ours. Jesus was pretty much captured into the Tammuz
cycle, and much that we're working with is still in there.
Mike Nichols: I absolutely agree. And you'll notice that in all
this discussion we've only covered the seven basic ecclesial
rites of the Church. We're not even talking yet about all the
little incidental things the Church calls "sacramentals", like
the blessing of holy objects, the consecration of a church altar,
the consecration of the church building. Where did the
blueprint, where did the pattern for a lot of these rites come
Morning Glory: Oh, on that note! The pattern of the church
building itself. The idea of having a temple where you did your
worshipping on the ground floor, and the basement is where you
bury your dead, that is a universal ancient custom. And it's the
same whether it's Chartres Cathedral or the so-called "palace of
Knosis", which is a necropolis, actually.
Otter Zell: You know, another thing that appears to me to be a
sacrament is the concept of purification. And somewhere during
the course of what you're saying, I was reminded of a custom of
the purification of people who had returned from a war in ancient
Pagan cultures. They basically had to pass through the holy
women who, by making love with them, would purify and renew them
and "take the war out of them". There have been some articles on
Morning Glory: There is a great book out now called "The Woman
Who Slept with Men and Took the War Out of Them". It's by some
famous feminist that you've all heard of, and I can't remember
her name right now.
Mike Nichols: Sounds good! Okay, let's move on into the area of
liturgical theology. What we've been talking about so far is
liturgical history, the development of liturgical rites, and how
I believe we must focus more attention on that historical
development. But now let's take a look at liturgical theology,
where we can start splitting theological hairs -- which is always
so much fun!
There are so many questions that have plagued Pagans for a
long time, and I was *delighted* to find that some of these same
questions had plagued the Christians down through the years. And
it was fascinating to see what they had to say about it. Some of
the greatest minds of the Catholic Church from St. Augustan to
Thomas Aquinas, whatever other horrible things they may have done
along the way, had some fascinating things to say about these
For example, why are some rituals done only once, like a
seining, whereas other rituals are repeated over and over again?
Take the Magic Circle itself, there doesn't seem to be any limit
on how many times you can do it. Let's look at one possible
answer. (But again, I'm gonna throw out more questions than
answers here.) But one possible answer is that certain rituals,
if properly done (whatever *that* means, and we'll get to that in
a minute), have a *permanent* effect on the person who undergoes
them. A permanent effect, an "indelible mark" as the old
catechism says, that cannot be erased.
Now, the question of how a ritual is to be done. How do you
know if a ritual has been done properly? For example, does a
ritual have an effect if there are no outwardly observable signs?
Any of you who have ever performed an initiation rite, I think
this has occurred to you. What happens if the initiation is all
done, and the person sits there saying "I don't feel any
different. Am I supposed to? Has anything happened to me?" And
you will occasionally find people who have been High Priests and
High Priestesses for quite a few years, who will perhaps talk
more freely about it than others, and among themselves they will
talk about whether an initiation "took". Did it "take"? Some of
them will say that after an initiation has been completed, the
rite was performed, the energies are set in motion, but it may
not "take" until after another month, and so forth. That it may
eventually take, but not right when the initiation was done. But
the energies are there.
Would you believe the same questions have been wrestled with
by the Catholic Church? Especially in the early days of
Christianity when the rite of Baptism was an adult rite, and it
meant that the person was supposed to entirely change their
outward behavior, totally give up certain things, and start
believing certain things. What if a person went through a
Baptism, which is supposedly a magical rite-- In those days,
Baptism and Confirmation were virtually the same rite, and could
only be done once because it was supposed to be effective the
first time. Remember the whole question of the "heresy" of the
Re-Baptists was on this precise point. If a person was baptized,
that supposedly made them a Christian, which would supposedly end
their career of "sin", in the eyes of the Catholic Church. But
what if they went out and sinned again? What if they murdered
someone? Should they get re-baptized?
The Catholic Church said no, they should not be re-baptized
because one Baptism is sufficient. The energies are already in
place, but it didn't "take". But only one per customer for the
rite itself. Now, it may be that the person was not "spiritually
disposed" to receive the energies generated by the sacramental
rite. There was some blockage, something stopping them from
being receptive. We don't know what this is. That is perhaps
one of the reasons the ritual of Penance developed the way it
did. Because what do you do with a person who has sinned and yet
wants to come back into the body of the Church? (By the way,
certain people like the Donatists thought once they've sinned,
they're *out*. We *don't* allow them back in.)
(unidentified): My background was Fundamentalist, so I was
baptized in the river at about 12. And every time I would leave
and come back for a visit, all these people would want me to re-
dedicate myself, come up and be re-baptized. Now, is that just a
variation of the tradition? I'm trying to figure this out.
Mike Nichols: Yes, it is a variation. When the Protestant
Reformation occurred, one of the things that was most held up to
scrutiny, in fact, was the way the Catholic Church approached the
whole question of sacramental rites. One of the chief questions
(which we'll get to in a minute) is whether or not the
"worthiness" of the minister is an effective variable in the rite
itself. Does a priest in a state of sin-- What if a priest has
gone out and murdered somebody? He is in a state of mortal sin,
supposedly cut off from God and the Church. What if he then
baptizes somebody? Is that Baptism sacred? Is it valid? Or, as
a Pagan may put it, is the power in the person doing the ritual,
or is the power in the ritual? I think all of us have wondered
I'll be talking about what some of the various Church
Councils have ruled on matters of liturgical theology in a
minute. But in this particular instance, the Catholic Church
decided that the power was in the rite, in the ritual itself. It
didn't matter whether or not the person conducting the ritual was
in a state of grace or a state of sin. This is one of the things
that Martin Luther took exception to. He felt that the spiritual
"health", if you will, of the person performing the ceremony was
a variable in how effective the ceremony was. And I'll show you
in a minute why the Catholic position disagreed with that.
Morning Glory: The thing about the Fundamentalist attitude about
Baptism, it's not a one per customer attitude. And a lot of that
has to do with the concept that's called "Baptism of the Holy
Ghost", which is an ecstatic experience that is repeatedly craved
and repeatedly done. It's like raising the power. So their
attitude about Baptism is not that this is a sacralizing agent as
much as it is an anointing for the purpose of raising power.
Mike Nichols: Let me ask you a question based on that. If a
person undergoes a rite of Baptism and doesn't experience this
influx of whatever, Holy Spirit, then is it assumed that they
were not baptized?
Morning Glory: Not by the Holy Ghost. If you don't speak in
tongues, then you didn't get the Holy Ghost. And that's the sign
of it. And they'll keep at it until you get it.
Mike Nichols: Ah! Okay, very good. The reason this ran into
problems in the Catholic Church was because of the many priests
who were declared to be heretical, in the Albigensens movement,
the Cathari movement, etc. What happens if a priest, an
*excommunicant* priest, performs a Baptism? Is that Baptism
The Catholic Church said yes, for a number of reasons.
First of all, they developed two concepts: validity as opposed to
legality. The sacrament, or the rite itself, was considered
VALID in that it produced the desired effect on the person. Even
if a person came from a heretical sect into the Church, they were
not re-baptized. The Baptism only needed to occur once. It left
an indelible mark on that person's spirit or soul. It didn't
have to be re-done, right? However, that Baptism was ILLEGAL
from the point of view of Canon Law. The Canon lawyers, the
people who codified the ritual structure of the Catholic Church,
would say that this was a VALID but ILLEGAL (or illicit) rite.
The priest had no legal right to perform that ceremony.
By the way, in the Catholic Church, under certain special
conditions, anybody can baptize, including (are you ready for
this?) a non-Christian! In cases of emergency.
Morning Glory: Oh, for Last Rites and stuff!
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: Interestingly enough, in the house I
grew up in, the crucifix opened up, and it had all the
paraphernalia in it for Last Rites.
Mike Nichols: Which raises some interesting questions for
Pagans. You know, Whitley Streiber recently told that wonderful
story about how he was taken by this group of people to perform
some sort of "witchcraft" ceremony, and it turned out these
people were Fundamentalists in disguise who did something
horrible to a goat, sacrificed it or something, and went through
this whole thing... Let's say, for some reason, that some Fundie
took it upon herself to portray the role of a Pagan priestess and
took somebody through a Pagan initiation. Is it valid? What if
they copied the rites exactly out of whoever, Starhawk, Adler,
Farrar, Gardner, whoever?
(unidentified): "Valid but illegal". (LAUGHTER)
Mike Nichols: What if the person who undergoes the rite has a
wonderful experience? Let me suggest to you how the Catholic
Church responded to that. It is valid for the same reason that a
Baptism performed even by a non-Christian is valid because the
person who confers the effects of the rite is not the minister,
but God! So in this case, we could say it is the Goddess, or
Whoever, who bestows that feeling on the initiate of having been
initiated. And the minister's part was negligible.
But that leads us into other problems, doesn't it? That's
saying that the rite itself, not the minister performing the
rite, is what gets it done. In the case of the Catholic Church,
this concept was legally defined by the Latin phrase "ex opere
operato", "by the work worked". In other words, it is the rite
itself, the power was in the ritual, not in the person who
performed the ritual. Yes, Otter?
Otter Zell: Well, there's got to be criteria we're dealing with
here. I mean, the fact that the Church decides what makes it
valid, that seems to be beside the point. To me, the person who
has to decide is the person who experiences it. I mean, if you
say "Okay, Domine Domine, you're all Catholics now" and somebody
says "Not me!", then they're *not*... aren't they? (LAUGHTER)
(unidentified): If it's the Middle Ages, they're *dead*.
Otter Zell: They used to do that. The Church would come and
they would just march an entire village through the ford, you
know, and they would say "Now you're all Christians." And the
people would say, "Wait a minute! I'm not a Christian. I'm
going to continue worshipping Thor or Odin or whatever" (because
it was mostly Scandinavian countries they did this to). How can
you say they're Christians anyway, in spite of the fact they
don't want to be? I mean, aren't we missing something here?
Mike Nichols: I think you're right. And I think the whole focus
of this is to start people thinking on questions about validity,
and legality if it comes to that, in terms of Pagan rites. I am
not for a moment suggesting we follow the Christian precedent in
these matters. But they can indicate questions we need to think
about in terms of what *our* response to that, as Pagans, should
Here's another example. If the rite *itself* is
effective... I bet any of you have gone through this. You have
a student and you're teaching the student to do a ritual, right?
How to cast a Circle for the first time. (Where's the sun?
Okay...) Start in the North, start with your Sword, and say
"Okay, student, now *do this*! 'Oh thou Circle, be thou a
meeting place--' And you walk the thing out for them. You come
back around to where you were and you say "Okay, did you see
that? That's how you cast a Circle." And then you go "Wait a
minute! Did I just cast a Circle?" We've all thought about
that. Morning Glory?
Morning Glory: Yes, but, yes, but when I have done this, or when
I do a demonstration at all, I don't put the power out. You can
even say the words, or you can walk it out, but you don't put the
astral fire down. You don't lay down the astral fire. Unless
you're showing someone how to lay the astral fire down, in which
Mike Nichols: You're doing it. (LAUGHTER) Well, the same
question arose in the Catholic Church, and the answer is
remarkably similar. It came up this way. If a priest was
teaching a novice priest how to say Mass, how to perform the
Eucharist, and he actually pronounces the words of consecration,
and unbeknownst to him there is a small crumb of bread on the
table in front of him, is that now a holy crumb? Because the
Catholic Church had by now decided, remember, that the power was
in the ritual itself rather than in the person. So if the ritual
is done correctly, the proper words are said (and we'll get into
that in a minute, too: What are the proper words? What are the
proper gestures?), that crumb now is "the body and blood of
Christ", isn't it?
Again, this took a lot of quibbling, but before it was all
over the Catholic Church decided no, that crumb would NOT be the
body of Christ because of one little thing that was left out.
One thing that the minister does have to supply:
"intentionality". Intent! The person performing the rite has to
have the intent to be performing this sacred, magical rite. This
was also true, by the way, of that non-Christian who was
baptizing somebody. If the non-Christian was doing it as a joke,
it would not be considered valid. However, if a non-Christian
sincerely wanted to baptize somebody else as a Christian, and had
that intent, and did the rite with all of its elements properly,
that person was, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, baptized.
Otter Zell: Now, here's a question that concerns a lot of us
Pagans directly. A lot of us, when we were newborn babies and
unable to speak in our own best interests, were baptized.
(LAUGHTER) So, now, theoretically, once you're baptized, you're
a Christian. Well, uh... How do you deal with that? I know I'm
not a Christian. I sure don't feel like a Christian.
Morning Glory: It's like getting a tattoo removed, or something.
Otter Zell: Is there any way to get un-baptized? I mean, what
do you do about that?
Dix: Even if you go through, as I did, a free-choice baptism,
when you weren't screaming and protesting, then later on you
decide that this is all bullshit, it doesn't exist, I don't
believe in this stuff any more. Now maybe you're still a
Christian in the eyes of the Church, but that doesn't matter any
difference, because I don't care about the Church.
(unidentified): Right, I was just wondering, is there some way
the Church could recognize an way of un-baptizing yourself?
(unidentified): There is. Sitting through their boring rituals.
Otter Zell: But if you're not a Christian anymore,... I mean,
there has to be some way of dealing with that.
(unidentified): Otter, in whose eyes are you not a Christian?
In your eyes or their eyes? And at what point do their eyes
start mattering to you? Whatever they consider has no bearing on
Otter Zell: It's not a matter so much of whose eyes. I'm just
kind of wondering, from the point of view of magical stuff, you
know, how one would interpret this. I mean, I know I'm not a
Christian and I'll certainly be happy to argue the case with any
of you that might wish to do so. But from a purely magical,
ritual perspective, if this magical ritual is done that has this
effect-- *Does* it have this effect? Do all these people who
were baptized, does that make them Christian? Or is it just
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: Look at it this way, Otter. They stole
almost everything from us anyway, so what difference does it
Mike Nichols: (laughing) What you are doing, and what we're all
doing here, is beginning to develop questions about Pagan
liturgical theology. We are breaking new ground here, is what I
think. Well, I hope the word structure, if it has to be used at
all, is used very advisedly. I think Otter has already suggested
one possible Pagan response to this question, and that is that
the validity depends to some extent on the person upon whom the
rite is performed. That's one possibility. But what are all the
ramifications of this response, this theological stance? Okay,
there was somebody over here, yes?
(unidentified): One point about what the Church was doing is
that they had no competition. People were not given a choice,
and the Church had the military to back them up. So that when
they said "This village is now Christian," they *knew* that that
village was not Christian. But they knew that, with no
information and no rituals allowed or anything, that the great-
grandkids would probably be Christian. Eventually they would be
assimilated into what they wanted, into the type of person they
wanted, because any radical would be killed.
(unidentified): I think you could make an analogy between
becoming un-Christian and getting a divorce. When I got my
divorce, I didn't have a special ritual for that, but I needed
that, that sense of closure, that sense of separation in a ritual
form. And I think that could be developed very easily. And I
think that also could apply to becoming un-baptized.
Mike Nichols: Good. This whole things raises a very important
question just from the psychological point of view for most
Pagans. Do we *need* an un-Christening rite?
(unidentified): From my viewpoint, when I was getting baptized,
for some reason I swear to God I thought he was going to drown
me, and I came up halfway through the "Father, Son, and Holy
Ghost" which he snarled at me later for. So I sorta screwed up
mine whether I knew it or not.
(unidentified): On the question of Baptism, in the Christian
church, in a metaphysical sense, Baptism is not all that's
required for salvation. It must still be worked out within the
Christian faith. If you do not work it out, then the Baptism is
a ritual that has not been fulfilled. It's the fulfillment that
makes you a Christian or not.
Mike Nichols: That's exactly right. Good point. Ellen?
Anahita: I have two things to say. One,
regarding my Baptism, I had the opposite experience. I mean, I
took swimming lessons, and they'd all prepared us, and I was
ready to go under and hold my breath and come out transformed.
And they did it so casually and so intellectually, it was like,
okay this is enough. And the tip of my nose didn't go under!
(laughing) My Achilles heel is the tip of my nose! So this is
where I got to be Pagan! (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
The other thing had to do with a Pagan ritual that we did
that might have some applications in this, where we just recently
formed a Circle from a Circle that had existed previously. And
we did a ritual to very gently and caringly disband the other
Circle in the best possible light and bring all the good things
in. I would hate to see a Pagan ritual that just cancelled
somebody's past, because however you come into Paganism is what
you were, in toto, including your Baptism. And what many of us
are mentioning, our religious experiences contribute to our
ability to relate to the Goddess as a Pagan, because that's who
you are. And if it was a fantastic Baptism, then so be it. I
mean, I've had screaming, crying, evangelical services, and
that's how I learned about spiritual ecstacy.
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: You know where they got that from. They
stole it from Voudoun, historically.
Anahita: They stole it from every place. But it
was a real experience, you know, and that's your basis for
Mike Nichols: Let me comment on that point. One of the big
educational experiences I've had recently-- One of my dear
friends here in Kansas City is someone you've all seen here in
the last few days, Rhiannon, the one who stood on the chair--
She's a High Priestess that I respect with all my heart and love
very much as a good friend, but we had never actually worked
together until relatively recently. And I was astounded at the
difference in our approach. She, coming from a very Protestant
background, encourages you at every point in the ritual to speak
from your heart, practically never do anything the same way
twice. You know, you go to the Watchtower and invoke it using
words that come into your head at that moment, etc. Me, with my
stolidly Roman Catholic background, doing the same rituals and
the same repetitive patterns almost mantra-like time after time
and expecting the same results.
We'll get into, if we have time, the pros and cons of these
two approaches. Obviously, both of them valid approaches, right?
Both of them seem to work for each of us. Vastly different. And
obviously conditioned by our original religious upbringing. Yes?
Morning Glory: I want to bring up this question of validity
again. If you were initiated by a particular Alexandrian couple
who shall remain nameless, as many friends of mine were, and this
Alexandrian couple have repudiated their Craft credentials and
have become born-again Christians, and they're going around on
the circuit with their story of "I was a Pagan"-- All of the
people that those people initiated-- It would be like the
priests who went out and killed someone and then--
Mike Nichols: Or perhaps a better analogy, like the schismatic
bishops who split away from the Church and continue to ordain new
priests. Are those valid priests?
Morning Glory: Exactly. Yes. Well, that is an issue that we as
Pagans need to think about.
Mike Nichols: You know, in all of this discussion, I am working
from the premise that we are at too early a stage to formulate
answers. But I think it's high time we started articulating the
Anahita: Well, I can speak to that a little bit,
too. I just went to the 20th anniversary ritual for NROOD. And
I was amazed, because I had a lot of contact with them about 13
years ago when they were a seven year old religion. And the
*changes* that they have gone through in 20 years, I'm here to
tell you, are just really amazing! I mean, they were light and
free and it's so wonderful! Now, it's like, a lot of dogma. It
*was* a wonderful ritual and a wonderful time was had by all.
But they had changed some things in a very valid way, something
that didn't work and was probably better this way. But 13 years
ago, it was "Oh, those! Name it: Alexandrians, Gardnerians,
Orthodox Druids, whatever! You just have to have enough stars in
your hat to hang out with them." Well, now, guess what? You
have to have enough stars in your hat to hang out with NROOD!
(LAUGHTER) I mean, it's just really amazing. So, we can ask
questions till we're blue in the face, but the answers are gonna
be different in five years.
Mike Nichols: I hope that somebody chronicles those changes as
they go. They're going to be fascinating. Let me throw out
another important question of liturgical theology. Is there a
way to *botch* a Pagan ritual so that it is non-valid or non-
effective, so that it doesn't work or *worse*, causes some kind
of magical boomerang effect that causes some sort of detriment?
For example, what if you teach somebody how to invoke the
Watchtowers, and you only tell them about three of them? What's
gonna happen in the Circle when they only invoke three? Is
anything? Does it matter? Does anything matter? (LAUGHTER) I
mean, does it, are there certain things that have to be there?
Are there certain elements?
From the perspective of the Catholic Church, for example, a
Baptism had to have certain specific components to be valid. A
certain set of materials had to be present: the water, the salt
to put on the baby's tongue, etc.; a certain set of words had to
be present; the minister who performed it had to be a valid
minister (which, in the case of Baptism, could be anyone), and so
Let me give you a quick example. It's been quite a few
years ago, but in my own Coven we were training somebody who was
new as a priestess. She had actually been instructed correctly
in invoking all four of the Watchtowers but, as it happened, when
she took the four elements around, things were confused that
night. It was her first ritual. And, somehow, something got
left out. And a little bit later, during the Circle, we were
doing some divinatory work, with a Ouija board. And please! In
my tradition, we use a Ouija board for divinatory work. At any
rate, halfway through the ritual, there was some kind of
manifestation which at least a good portion of us saw. It looked
like a kind of cloudy, dark hand had reached over the planchette.
(I hate to be telling a bad Ouija board story because they're
maligned enough!) (LAUGHTER)
But this kind of cloudy-looking hand reached in over the
Ouija board. And everybody sort of jumped back like they were
shocked. And I think most people there were thinking, "What the
heck is that?" But my first thought (again, maybe because of my
religious upbringing) was "How did that thing get into a
carefully warded Circle?" There should not *be* any extra energy
or entity in here that we didn't call ourselves, or want! And I
started going back over the procedure and realized that (in our
system, it is the incense that represents the element of Air)
this particular priestess had not taken the incense around the
Circle at the time of the consecration of the Circle. So, from a
purely legalistic point or whatever, the Circle had not been
consecrated by the element Air. Which theoretically would allow
some sort of sylph or air-related entity to get through. You
know, it wasn't properly warded by all four elements.
Can you screw up a rite? I mean, what things *have* to be
present in order for there to *be* a Circle? And what things can
be left out? What things can you change? What things can you
*not* change? Yes, Carolyn?
Carolyn Clark: I have a story that relates to that. One day a
long, long time ago, when I was very, very new to the Craft, I
knew a girl named Michelle who liked to dabble in Ceremonial
Magick. And I knew a little bit about Ceremonial Magick.
(Famous words: "I knew a little bit about Ceremonial Magick.")
(LAUGHTER) So we did a Mars ritual. We did it on the right day,
Tuesday night. And it was a little bit out in the country
because Michelle was into cultivating certain controlled
substances. And, in the middle of the ritual, there were red
lights flashing in all the windows, and I thought "Oh, shit!
It's the fuzz!" So we hurried up and finished the ritual,
banished the Circle, looked out the window and... there weren't
any cops there. There was nobody there.
Mike Nichols: I think a very *common* experience of this sort,
which most of us probably have experienced in the course of our
magical training at one time or another, is how it feels to be
psychically kicked in the head when power is not correctly
grounded. (EXCLAMATIONS OF AGREEMENT) Right? How many can
relate to that? Otter?
Otter Zell: One that I've encountered a number of times in
rituals I've gone to over the years, in particular with a group I
prefer not to mention because Ellen has already done that
(LAUGHTER) is this sort of arbitrary choice of directions.
"Well, which way feels like East today?" And I've actually
attended these things where with great pomp and ceremony someone
will face the south and invoke the East. And then we'll maybe
turn to the west and invoke the South. You never know where
they're gonna go.
Mike Nichols: There are actually instructions like that in some
popular book on the Craft. Is it the Farrars? It actually says
in it that it doesn't matter where the directions are as long as
everyone agrees upon them.
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: They call that "consensus reality".
(LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)
Chris: It also raises the question of basic styles, and various
traditions. I've been in this situation where I was doing some
chakra work, and this person I was working with just didn't
understand the symbolism. And I was in pain for days.
Mike Nichols: I think the best analogy here is "small child with
chemistry set". (LAUGHTER)
Morning Glory: "Talking Wicca Blues", I think, is the final word
on that. (LAUGHTER)
Mike Nichols: Yes, yes! Okay, but see, all of these questions
all bear on the same point: What is really necessary for that
ritual to be done effectively (and *safely*, in many cases)?
What things about a ritual can you change without hurting the
nature of that ritual? What things can't you change? Morwen?
Morwen: I've seen a lot of recipe books and I've seen a lot of
possible recipes for the same dish. If you're going to be
attending a Circle where you invoke the four quarters, then you'd
better remember to do the correct things at each one, or you
could leave a gap. Just like if you're baking a cake, you'd
better remember the baking soda, and remember to butter the pan.
But if you're going to do a Circle where you're not going to do
the quarters, you could invoke the magic Circle without even
thinking about the four directions. Because you're invoking a
magic Circle based on a different structure.
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: There was a guy at Pagan Spirit
Gathering whose particular approach to Paganism was to get ideas
from the old Celtic traditions. And he says he can't find
anything that justifies the invocation of quarters, the quarter
points. He was convinced there was no such thing as quarter
points in the way the Celts practiced their religion.
Mike Nichols: I might argue with that, based on their stone
circles and such. But on the other hand, I'd be willing to bet
that the way quarter points got into modern Wicca was through
ceremonial magick. I don't think there's any doubt about that.
Morning Glory: But isn't it interesting that Native Americans
have the same thing in the Medicine Wheel? It may be that
there's a certain universality in the four quarter points.
Otter Zell: It also connects with the natural world. We're all
trained in levels of metaphor and the magic Circle itself is a
metaphor for so many different cycles. It's a metaphor for any
cycle, and cycles can be broken up in different ways. But
certainly the four-quarter system works awfully well on a planet
that rotates around its axis, which gives you four directions.
Mike Nichols: The basic question we're raising here is, can
somebody just create their own ritual system from scratch? Or
does it have to link up to the real world around us?
Otter Zell: I've seen certain systems that are just made up out
of whole cloth, and they're presented as valid traditions by the
people who just make them up, and they're just somehow cuckoo.
They don't feel right. Remember, there was this anti-astrologer
guy running around, Owen Rachel, and he was anti-magic, and
anti-Pagan and everything else. So then he came out with this
book of weird astrology, called "Sky Triangles" or something like
that, or "Sky Diamonds". And it was supposed to be his
astrological system, and it was supposed to be more valid. And
he just made up this weird bullshit, and none of it made any
sense, and none of it worked. But he sold a lot of books.
Anahita: But sometimes you can make up a system
and it *does* work. And I loved your answer, incidentally, Mike.
I didn't have to ask my question because you answered it. The
way you were talking about it was, "In my tradition, it's
important to invoke the four quarters..." And I thought, "Aha!
But you can decide to have a Circle that doesn't use four
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: And even when you think you're making
something up from scratch, you find out later that somebody else
thought of it already. I created a magical ritual based on the
"Silmarilion", which Mike and I actually performed. And it had
six quarter points. And I found out later on that some Native
Americans in Oregon and Washington have six. It was exactly the
same thing that I did. I had up and down in mine. I had never
heard of that before.
Otter Zell: If you understand the concept of how the energy
works, of how the elements of the thing work... It's like, you
can make up a recipe yourself if you understand how to cook, if
you understand how to season, and so on. You can get to where
you're making this stuff up and it'll work. But if you don't
understand the patterns and the elements that well...
Morning Glory: "Small child with chemistry set".
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: It gives a whole new meaning to "Magic
Mike Nichols: Let me bring this back to something here... As
far as the final determination of the Catholic Church as to what
consists of a valid sacrament, they came up with these things.
And it might be interesting to at least note them, to see what we
would have to say about them from a Pagan perspective. But to be
a valid sacramental rite -- And again, this is magic in the views
of the Ca-- I mean, they don't call it magic, but a sacrament to
the Catholic Church is an "effective" ritual, meaning that it has
an actual objective effect. Magic, in other words.
So, a rite had to have what was called the proper "matter"
and "form", first of all. "Matter" pertains to the materials
used, as well as the gestures used. The "form" had to do with
the words that were spoken. In magical contexts, you might think
of this as the incantation, that part of the spell which is
spoken. It had to be performed by the proper minister. Now,
this could vary depending on the particular rite. Only a bishop
could ordain a priest, but anyone could perform a Baptism, even
non-Christians. And finally, it had to have intentionality on
the part of the performing minister. So, in the view of the
Catholic Church, it is impossible to accidentally, or
inadvertently, perform a sacramental rite. That is not possible,
from the point of view of Canon law.
Now, I'm not suggesting that Paganism take this same
approach. I'm just suggesting that we in the Pagan movement
think about it. Canon lawyers were then assigned the task of
codifying which things were needed for a particular rite. Think
of the way rites were elaborated. You know, a Baptismal rite, in
terms of Canon law, consisted of a very few things. Actually, it
didn't even include the salt. Just the pouring of the water, and
the speaking of the words, "I baptize you in the name of the
Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." That was sufficient for
the rite. Now, if you've ever actually gone to a Church Baptism,
you know that it is elaborated endlessly. This thing can be
carried out for hours if the minister wants to. But the only
thing that's really *necessary*, the bare minimum requirements
for a valid right, are just those words, and those elements,
performed by the right minister, with proper intention.
Interestingly enough, when the Catholic Church started doing
this, it led to a kind of minimalist approach in terms of
rituals. The priests had been taught that the power of the rite
was in the rite itself. It only needed to have A, B, and C in
order to be effective or valid. Therefore, they only did A, B,
and C. And it didn't matter what kind of state of grace the
minister was in. So they started rushing them through pretty
quickly. This is one of the main things that Martin Luther took
exception to, and it gave birth to the Protestant Reformation.
Because priests had been performing these ceremonies almost by
rote, with the bare minimum standards in terms of Canon law as to
what was required for an effective or valid sacrament.
Morning Glory: There was a lot of issue about that, especially
in regard to marriage, whether a marriage was valid or legal.
And whether the children of that union were legitimate or
illegitimate depended upon how it was done, and whether there
were elements that were missing. If somebody didn't say, or
refused to say, "I do", for instance. Because lots and lots of
women were married against their will. It's like in "The
Princess Bride": "Did you say 'I do'?" "No, I didn't." "Well,
in that case, you weren't." (LAUGHTER)
Dix: What you were saying about elaborating a ritual... That
brings up a question. When you are doing a rite, and you are
adding more stuff, can you detract from it? At what point do the
additions, the accretions that you keep adding on, where does it
begin to take away from the rite?
Mike Nichols: I know that certainly it can diminish the
psychological dimension of a rite. I've seen so many examples
where, say, you're doing an initiation tonight. Now that means,
to me, the whole thing should focus on this person's initiation.
It is *their* night. But somebody else over here has another
spell they want to do, and somebody over here has something they
want to do, and by the time the whole thing is done, it's this
incredible mish-mash with no central focus whatsoever. To me,
very bad in terms of liturgical design.
Morning Glory: It's aesthetically piss-poor. (LAUGHTER)
Mike Nichols: Right. I meant to conclude this whole workshop
(or whatever the heck it is) with a section on liturgical design
or aesthetics, which we're just beginning to touch on. It's
obvious that we won't be able to get into that too much, but I
think it's good that we bring up at least some points about
(unidentified): Yeah, but what if you have the proper elements
of the ritual, and you do things in the right order, and you
intend for it to be a magical ceremony, and it's just dead. No
one's excited, half the people can't remember their lines, or are
making them up on the spot without putting a lot of thought into
it. There's no spirit there.
Morning Glory: Their hearts are pure, but their theater is
Mike Nichols: Yes. Good intentions is not a valid excuse for
poor ritual. Absolutely. To me, well, I've often used a
communications model for rituals. To me, like language, rituals
have a certain grammar, a certain syntax that it needs to follow,
a certain order. For example, let's say you're doing a Circle
and it's a high holiday, so you're doing a typical holiday
celebration but, as a part of that, you're also doing an
initiation. When does the initiation come? Well, to me, it
seems obvious that the initiation should come during the early
part of the evening ceremonies so that, once that person is
initiated, they may now participate fully in the seasonal
celebration. Right? Rather that leaving them out for it, and
doing their initiation at the end.
So, it seems to me that there is sort of a logic of rituals,
a grammar, a syntax, for doing ritual. Now, just because you
learn the rules of that grammar (and I suspect there are some
very definite rules that we could get into if I had the time),
but just because you know the rules of grammar doesn't make you a
Morning Glory: Persistence is nine-tenths of any art, not that
it helps to be nine-tenths of an artist. (LAUGHTER) There's
another part of this, which is the problem of the hodge-podge
ritual. When you have conflicting elements. When somebody wants
to do a ritual to heal the earth. And someone else wants to do a
ritual to get prosperity for their Aunt Sadie. And someone else
wants to do something to get a new house. And some things are
really quite conflicting. One group wants to do a ritual to heal
the earth, and so they want to put this mellow energy out. But
someone else says, "Yeah, but we wanna stop those bulldozers that
are coming in, so we wanna get this martial energy to zap their
transmissions and make them fall out on the road!" And so then
there's this conflict on how to approach things, and things can
get really out of hand.
Carolyn Clark: Where we see that a lot is where somebody will
come to the Circle and say, "I really need to get in touch with
the Demetre part of me." Or, I really need to get in touch with
such-and-such god-form. And my response is, "Yes, you need to do
that. Then, do it. But not at this Circle."
Morning Glory: It's like chocolate icecream and limburger
Mike Nichols: I find the same problem in combining elements from
different traditions. That's a problem for me. Now,
theologically, I might agree that all the names of the Goddess
are merely different aspects of the same Goddess. Fine. But I
still have a problem thinking, how is the goddess Demetre going
to get along with the goddess Arianrhod or Cerridwen? (LAUGHTER)
They're very different forms, and to me, well, another analogy I
sometimes use is, let's say you're in a new home and you want one
room of this home to be a library. You know you want certain
things to be in that library, to make it a library. You're gonna
want shelves for the books. You're gonna want the books. You're
gonna want a comfy chair to sit in and read. You're gonna want a
reading lamp near it. You're gonna want a library table,
perhaps, or a writing desk. And so forth.
But let's say you go out and you buy early American
bookshelves. You buy an Edwardian writing desk. You buy
Victorian chairs. You buy modern chrome and glass lighting
fixtures. What you have is a library, granted, because all of
the elements are there. But nothing fits aesthetically. It's
like a ritual smorgasbord. To me, the elements have to fit
together aesthetically in order to work right.
(unidentified): I've tried to walk a fine line between Feminist
and Traditional Wicca, because I like both. But how does this
work for a solitary, or a person who has little access to a
Coven? I've had a very hard time designing my own rituals. I
found a little books that tells the elements on what goes in a
ritual, and I try to follow that. Even though I may take a
little bit from Doreen Valiente, because I like the way she says
this one thing. But then the Farrars have a lot. And then I'll
stick in a little Starhawk. But the thing is, they're all geared
more to Covens. Now, does that make it invalid for a solitary?
Mike Nichols: I would-- Please! Don't start asking me what's
valid! (LAUGHTER) See, there's a danger in even discussing this
because there's always a danger of falling into that trap.
(unidentified): Is there a way to get in touch with other
Morning Glory: There is a Solitary convention.
Chris: Single rooms everywhere! (LAUGHTER)
Mike Nichols: Scott Cunningham has a book coming out geared to
Solitary Craft work. Let me answer the first part of your
question first. I think it is possible to be eclectic and yet to
avoid eclecticism within one particular ritual. Do tonight's
ritual as a Celtic ritual, and next month's ritual as an Egyptian
ritual if you want to, but don't mix Celtic and Egyptian in the
same ritual. That's at least my point of view, my bias. I'm not
saying that's some sort of dogma or rule about liturgics. It's
my aesthetic, and I think aesthetics are important to ritual.
Carolyn Clark: When you're working on certain things, when
you're doing a very tight ritual-- For instance, if I'm doing a
ritual to get in touch with that part of the Mother and that part
of me which fructifies and causes creativity to flower, then I
would probably call on all the Goddess names, all the aspects of
the Goddess from all cultures, that do that one thing.
Mike Nichols: Yes, I understand that completely. As a matter of
fact, one of the forms I most love that I learned from the Roman
Catholic tradition is that called a litany, a reading of a long
list of petitions or names of Goddesses and Gods. And that is so
effective in a Pagan ritual, especially if its done as a
responsorial. That can build power like you just wouldn't
believe! I use that quite a lot in my own rites.
Let me jump to another subject which was raised earlier: the
tension which exists between those things which are spontaneous
in a ritual, where you just think up something to say on the spur
of the moment, as the spirit moves you, as it were; or those
people who follow rites that are very patterned, very
repetitious, very rhythmic, if you will. Now, I was certainly
brought up in that school of thought. And one thing that I've
read recently, which I found to be a fascinating argument in
favor of that tradition -- not invalidating the other, but in
support of the repetitious tradition -- is that recent studies of
the left hemisphere / right hemisphere brain split have shown
something very interesting.
Language, as you know, is a very linear system. And
typically, that is a left hemisphere brain function. Anytime you
are composing a sentence -- what I'm doing up here right now --
is very left hemisphere. Whenever someone is confronted with
making up the invocation at each Watchtower, they are virtually
working entirely left hemisphere. Whenever you are working with
language, I was originally taught, you are working with left
There is an interesting exception. Those things that are
words that are commonly repetitious. When you sing a Christmas
carol year after year after year, to the point you don't even
have to think about the words as you sing it, your right brain
hemisphere is operating just about on a par with the left,
according to studies.
Carolyn Clark: I do that with chanting. While my left brain is
occupied with that, my right brain is free to do all kinds of
Mike Nichols: Right! It's sort of like a mantra. You know, for
people from Protestant backgrounds, it sometimes comes off like,
well, those Catholics just say their prayers by rote.
"HailMaryfullofgracetheLordiswiththee." They can toss those off
in no time at all. There's no power in it, there's no feeling in
it, there's no spirit in it. The other point of view, however,
is that the actual words themselves sort of take a back seat to
the meaning, which is superimposed on top of those. And I can
tell you from doing rituals in my life in the highly repetitive
way, I feel like you, that it has freed my mind to go to perhaps
deeper levels than if I had to do it differently every time.
And by the way, notice how that's true in group rituals,
too. If the High Priestess -- and I see a lot of this today --
she will not do the same ritual twice! And consequently, the
entire Coven is sort of sitting back watching the High Priestess,
saying, "Okay, what's she gonna do *this* time?" Never allowing
them to really get into the ritual in a psychological way. When
you're already familiar with something, like that Christmas
carol, it enables everybody to participate fully, because they
know what's going to happen, they know what to expect. They're
not looking for changes in the script.
Another thing that's interesting about that kind of
repetitive work is that, when you do throw in a change, for a
particular seasonal variation or something, it stands out. It
stands out in contrast to the way you've always done it before.
At a Handfasting, when you invoke the blessing of the Lord and
Lady, instead of "onto ALL who stand before Thee", you say "onto
TWO who stand before Thee", the changing of the words immediately
focuses on the couple becoming handfasted. You hear that change;
Anahita: But isn't that same thing true for an
aesthetic, well-worded, channelled experience, that a Priestess
Mike Nichols: Yeah, but it sorta does put everyone else in the
position of spectator. It becomes a spectator sport nine times
out of ten. Or else, you are actively, consciously, left-
hemispherically being involved in the production of this dramatic
play. You're not getting to relax and simply experience the
*known*, and the comfortable. And that's what I think we need to
have more of.
By the way, whenever you have repetition, you also have
rhythm. And this brings in a whole different dimension. The
drumming, the chanting, and everything else that goes with
repetition. I think good ritual pacing has a rhythm of its own.
Something else that we totally ignore these days in
liturgical design is the use of silence, which can be VERY
powerful. You know how something happens which is really
meaningful and everyone's wowed by it, and somebody else just
goes right into the next thing. Doesn't let you have the chance
to absorb that at all. I'm not talking about that kind of deadly
silence where nothing is happening and no one knows what to do.
No. I'm talking about those quiet moments that really empower
what you've just experienced. Yes, Eldoreth?
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: Well, as someone else who was "lowered"
Catholic (as opposed to "raised" Catholic), there is a problem
when you have something that is repetitious. Unless the person
really wants to be empowered by this, what their mind is most
likely to do is to think about anything BUT the ritual. At least
as a child, I found this true. "Okay, time to daydream. It's
the same old thing again."
Mike Nichols: I think a great deal of the blame there has to do
with the fact that as children, you were indoctrinated into this
before the time you were ready to think about it. You didn't
understand the rite. Nobody had explained it to you. You were
simply going through the motions. To me, that's not magic,
that's superstition. When you just go through the motions. It's
I don't want to run overtime, and we already are a minute or
two. Let me just conclude by saying that what I feel we've been
doing here is ground-breaking work. I was *delighted* to have a
group of people already so involved and so experienced, to have
made such wonderful contributions. I'd like to welcome you all
as being, I think, some of the first Pagan liturgical theologians
around. (LAUGHTER) And I hope you'll continue working on it.
Thank you! (APPLAUSE)
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: Mike, I have an alternate title for your
Mike Nichols: What's that?
Eldoreth Grey Squirrel: "The Rite Stuff." (LAUGHTER AND GROANS
Next: Editorial, Web of Wyrd #10 (Julia Phillips)