Updated: May 30
by Tim Ozpagan
The following discussion summarises some points covered at the Strange Brew in the Witch Circle Meetup held on 28th May 2023. We peeled back the veil to reveal how ritual practices empower and enrich us as Modern Witches.
In our quest to unearth what ritual is, we dug into the roots of culture; and one element that perpetually crops up is how civilisations and different cultures have used ceremony. Ritual is inextricably woven into the fabric of human society, and we don't have to scratch the surface for very long before we see the colours of our collective past.
Football: When thinking about modern people and culture, Football has got to be up high on the list as a contemporary ritual practice. Sports hold fundamental ritualistic elements to their performance. These include donning colours to stadiums that have an almost sacred quality to the value attributed to them. In addition, many games have a distinct ritual of fertility practice about them. These include male players who run with their symbolic seed or egg, seeking to score a point between the goalposts and plant it.
Records of Ritual: In the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, thought to be over 17,000 years old, we see depictions of our ritualistic past. Archeologists posit that these elaborate images of animals and other symbolic signs are not merely artistic endeavours. Instead, they are a record of rituals conducted for a successful hunt, thereby displaying an elementary link between survival and spirituality.
These Paleolithic images show animals targeted with arrows and spears. Also included is the flute-playing sorcerer-hunter who appears to conduct the proceedings. Preserved in these impossibly deep caves, you can't help but think early humans needed these images to be in the belly-womb of Mother Earth.
Then, looking closer to home to the indigenous peoples of Australia and Torres Strait Islanders, whose cultures are thought to extend over 60,000 years. Their rock artwork depicts sacred stories, shows supernatural beings, sacred animals and their ritual customs.
Moving forward, the great civilisation of Ancient Egypt, and their monumental testaments to human ingenuity, were erected as part of elaborate death and afterlife rituals. They cover their tombs from floor to ceiling in the sacred language of hieroglyphic symbols. The importance of ritual in both mortal life and the beyond is so deeply entrenched that ritual and life were a cultural norm.
And finally, looking at Japan's contemporary tea ceremonies showcase the role of ritual has shaped social behaviour and etiquette. Every meticulous movement, from the gentle rotation of the chawan (tea bowl) to the reverential bow at the end, is a ritual designed to evoke mindfulness and harmony.
This brief list of examples underscores the enduring presence of ritual in our cultural evolution. And it underpins our shared histories and social structures. Rituals, therefore, are not only symbolic actions but are vital threads in the tapestry of human culture.
How do you use ritual in your practice?
And how do rituals provide us with structure and meaning in our practice?
Intentional purpose: Think back to the time when you last meticulously prepared your altar for the Full Moon ritual. You probably cleansed each item, arranged your tools, and set the timing for your ritual to coincide with a specific planetary hour; all of these ritual acts start with having an intention.
Remember the sense of purpose it instilled in you, the anticipation. And the more you progress into each step of preparation and the ritual itself, the deeper your become immersed in having a sense of the sacred. In fact, rituals create a solid framework to hold our intentions and focus our energies.
Community: For those who have shared in group ceremonies, you'll know how community and the sharing of bonding are amplified through coven ceremony.
Who can forget that wonderful Lammas celebration where we all danced around the cauldron fire in our Witch Circle/? We made a John Barley Corn dolly, attached sigil papers with our intentions and spells inscribed and then tied them to the effigy. Ritual is the primary way Witches share a sense of community and can experience the sacred together. Simply put, celebrations and sacred ceremonies are essential to a Witch's culture.
Ritual and tradition: Rituals are a way to connect us with history and tradition. This might be experienced by simply tracing the sigil of a deity who was worshipped thousands of years ago, or following the steps of a ritual passed down from a particular tradition. Engaging in these traditional practices, Witches share a common language. Given time, a Witch may become part of a lineage with a history rooted in formal tradition.
But, of course, you can begin your own practices and ritual traditions. It might surprise you how quickly a unique practice, or a particular turn of phrase, can become your tradition.
Ritual practices and the psychic reality
Let's explore the intricacies of ritual as an initiatory journey and an immersion into psychic reality. As we dip our toes into this, I want to share insights from three exceptional minds: Mircea Eliade, C.G. Jung, and James Hollis.
In Mircea Eliade's groundbreaking work, "Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy," he explores the Shaman's journey, particularly the initiation processes of becoming a shaman. Eliade demonstrates how ritual practices signify a symbolic death and rebirth. Ritual initiations, for example, mark a literal turning point with the end of an old way of life and the rebirth into a new way of living.
Eliade explores the transpersonal journeys of the Shaman into the spiritual realm. These are radical and transformative psychic experiences directly impacting the Shaman's development. Such initiations enable the Shaman to traverse the boundaries of the physical world and touch the spiritual.
In effect, the initiatory path of the Shaman, like the path of the Witch, is about becoming supernatural. This might involve undertaking studies that are purposely orientated to produce psychic experiences.
Becoming conscious of spirit guides, power animals, and familiar spirits
Exposure to plant spirit medicines as allies
Occult darshan, or the direct and personal experiences of the psychic reality
Interactions with the divine and the effect on a Witch's perception of the psychic world.
Once you begin to explore the mystical, you are bound to encounter the modern psychological theories of C.G. Jung, the renowned Swiss psychiatrist and the pioneer of analytical psychology. Jung's concept of 'archetypes' introduces us to the significance of universal symbols and the numinous. These live in both our personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. Rituals frequently address our connection to the archetypes and the means of being transformed by them.
So, for example, the Jungian model suggests the Witch, while addressing the outer Moon Goddess during rituals like "Drawing Down the Moon", is simultaneously connected with her inner Goddess.
Through encounters with these gods and other magical beings, the Shaman and Witch might gain the traits of the deity. For example, the North American Indian god Tse'sketco the Raven, or the West African Spider god Anansi, may share their abilities as a seer.
These archetypes can come alive through ritualistic practices in the depths of the Shaman-Witch's psyche. And this enables Shamans and Witches to connect with universal wisdom found in the myths and narrative stories of the gods. And such archetypal encounters via ritual can lead to profound self-discovery and transformation.
Finally, we turn to James Hollis, PhD, and his influential work, "Into the Dark Woods." Hollis underscores the role of ritual as an aid in navigating the complexities of our soul's psychic labyrinth. His book conveys how the dark woods of our inner selves can be traversed and understood better via ritual. Ritual is like a vessel to ferry us through the tumultuous seas of the unconscious and the forces of fate.
Hollis offers a modern language to understand our inner lives and the significance of soul-making through ritual in the contemporary world.
Through the lens of scholars like Eliade, Jung and Hollis, ritual emerges as a set of symbolic actions that can offer a transformative initiatory journey. Rituals may unlock doors to the psychic reality and guide us through its vast, uncharted waters.
Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy
C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflection
James Hollis, Into the Dark Woods.