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A Pagan Perspective on ritual

Robin Herne's picture

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AFAN – Rites and Festivals

Each Pagan tradition has its own calendar of festivities. Some of these are based upon marking the tides of nature ~ for example, the old Irish festival of Beltane marks the start of summer. Many modern Pagans mark eight festivals, often referred to as Sabbats (a name derived from the witch trials of former centuries, despite the lack of any actual Pagan substance to the paranoid imaginings of the Inquisitors). This eight-fold calendar was devised by authors Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols some time during the 1940s, and incorporates elements from disparate cultures including Irish, Anglo-Saxon and others. Given the lack of reliable demographics about the Pagan community, it is difficult to establish how many Pagans follow this calendar and how many prefer the more historically based calendars of specific ancient cultures.


Whilst the Sabbats tend to be based on agricultural and solar tides of Northern Europe, others Pagan calendars celebrate more human concepts. However, even then many still take their cue from natural phenomena, such as the Egyptian New Year festivity called Opet that is timed by the rising of the star Sirius (usually between late June and early August). One ambiguity (as yet without a generally accepted solution) is how people living in climates markedly different from the one in which the ceremony developed should best celebrate nature-based festivities. For example, many Hellenic and Roman celebrations were based around viniculture (grape-growing and wine-making). A polytheist tending a vineyard in Aberdeen (for example) is likely to find that the growing seasons occur at different times of the year than for the ancient residents of Athens. Should she mark the original dates as celebrated in the Mediterranean, or adapt to local climate conditions? The answer to this question is down to the individual.


Another point of ongoing discussion is the urban character of much modern Paganism. For example, Imbolc (a ritual in early February that has become part of the Sabbat wheel) originally marked the lambing season ~ yet of all the modern Pagans who celebrate it, probably only a tiny number farm sheep, or have any kind of professional involvement with them. Some may celebrate such tides because they feel they have a genuine impact on their lives, others may do so more out of a sense of habit or because they feel this is what Pagans “ought” to do.


There are some ancient Pagan traditions that included more secular events in their calendars, such as jubilees for monarchs, commemorations of great battles and so forth. Probably relatively few modern Pagans continue to mark such events, though there are signs of change. For example, some modern Pagans mark the death of the priestess Hypatia, murdered for her beliefs by a mob in March 415CE.


Festivals are marked in a wide variety of ways, but tend to be generally jovial affairs that may often include acts of thanksgiving (such as for a good harvest, the birth of a child, or recovery from illness), petitions for benefits in the future, and oaths to carry out various deeds (environmental activities are often popular pledges). Older cultures tended to emphasise orthopraxy (getting the format of the ritual correct) whereas many modern Pagans tend to be much looser and more spontaneous in the way they conduct ceremony.


The purpose of ritual is complex, and it can serve the needs of both the Spirit World and humanity. A large part of ritual is essentially social, a means of binding people together through shared experience and identity. Some rituals also have a transcendent element, where participants will endeavour to enter a trance-like state and experience another level of reality. Such states may be a means of expanding consciousness, achieving changes in the material world, conveying messages to or receiving messages from the Spirit World, or any combination thereof.