This is one of a series of articles about creating Atheopagan rituals. They expand on the Atheopagan Ritual Primer, to which they will be added after the whole series has been published online.
It should be pointed out that the Atheopagan ritual structure described in the Primer and in my essay “How I Became an Atheopagan” is only one of many possible ways to structure effective ritual. The structure is a reliable way to induce the Ritual State, to do the transformational or celebratory work, and to resolve into a state of gratitude, empowerment, peace and/or energy. This, in a nutshell, is what ritual is and does. So while experimentation with structure can be fruitful, if you’re new to ritual work, the Atheopagan structure will give you a dependable foundation for achieving these steps and developing successful rituals.
To successfully achieve a good ritual, however, is rather more complicated and subtle than describing one. Each phase requires careful attention, although as ritualists become more experienced and familiar with working with one another, they can become easier over time.
The ritual structure outlined in the Primer is: Arrival, Qualities, (Intention), Deep Play, Gratitude, and Benediction. This article focuses on the first phase: Arrival.
The goal of Arrival is induction into the Ritual State: a liminal “glowing” feeling of acute sensory awareness in the present moment, and of deep connection with both participants in the ritual and the broader Universe. Physiologically, the Ritual State is characterized by elevated levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, and higher activation of the Limbic brain than is usual. The process of induction into the Ritual State shares many similarities to induction into a state of hypnosis or trance. It feels great: alert, powerful, calm and highly Present.
The Arrival phase of ritual is necessary because our quotidian mental state is quite different from the Ritual State. Challenges to be overcome by the Arrival phase include preoccupation (thinking about the past or future), self-consciousness/cynicism (feeling embarrassed by or resistant to the prospect of entering the Ritual State), and self-containment (feeling separate from other participants, and uncomfortable with opening to them emotionally). The practices in the Arrival phase are designed to calm these effects and shift consciousness into preparedness for ritual work.
Arrival has several components, all or only some of which may be used in a given ritual. While not every ritual uses all of them, they are most effective when performed in the order shown.
Establishing Sacred Space. Create a setting conducive to the Ritual State by using lighting (firelight or candlelight are best—flickering and dim—but low light levels with Christmas lights or rope lights can also create a good light level. Overhead light is not advised*); scent (resinous incenses such as frankincense and dragon’s blood are particularly effective); Focus(es) (i.e., altar(s)) with visual cues that draw the eye and communicate meanings; and sometimes music (when I do solitary ritual, I often put on recorded ritual music. My favorites are Passion, the soundtrack to “The Last Temptation of Christ”, by Peter Gabriel; In the Realm of a Dying Sun and The Serpent’s Egg by Dead Can Dance; Offerings, by Vas, and Stratosfear, by Tangerine Dream).
The ritual begins when setup begins, so be mindful as you place objects, light incense, etc. Be silent, speaking quietly only when necessary. Begin the process of centering within yourself, of becoming Present yourself.
Entering the Now; Sudden stimulation of the senses can help celebrants to inhabit their senses and aid them in becoming Present. Examples of techniques in this category are smoke blessing (wafting or fanning smoke over each celebrant) with burning herbs or incense, asperging (sprinkling) with water or scented water, use of a chime, singing bowl, rattle, didjeridoo or other instrument to outline the body in a sound blessing, or administration of a sacramental taste of something flavorful—a single dark chocolate chip, for example, or a drop of sour cherry on the tongue—to draw each participant’s consciousness into the senses, into the present, into the sacred Now.
Creating Connection is intended to break the sense of “social boundary” between celebrants. Example techniques including having celebrants hold hands, make eye contact with one another around the ritual circle, or each speak her/his name. Connection (in group rituals) is important because it establishes a greater sense of safety than otherwise, improving the ability of celebrants to surrender into the Ritual State.
Grounding is in most cases the use of guided imagery by spoken word to connect the celebrant with where she is in time and space, and to remind her of the vastness and beauty of the great Cosmos and of the living Earth. It is often helpful to coordinate this with awareness of breathing, as in mindfulness and meditation practices. Grounding can be enhanced physically by such actions as standing with bare feet upon the Earth or holding a heavy stone.
Embodiment is expansion of the felt sense of the Ritual State to encompass the body. Techniques to achieve embodiment include musical activities such as toning or singing or a heartbeat drum (which results in swaying, slow movement), or upbeat drumming/music to provoke more active dancing. Bluesy/gospely chants and songs work well for embodiment.
After these steps, all or most participants will be in ritual Presence and ready to do ritual work. It is time to move into the next phase: Qualities (Intentions).
*Obviously, the use of lighting to affect setting and mood is for rituals held at night. Knowing that it can be more challenging for some celebrants to achieve the Ritual State in bright-light conditions, it is often helpful to use more Arrival techniques (e.g., smudging, grounding, embodiedness techniques) in daylight rituals.