Starting a Practice, Creating Rituals

For those who are starting out on an Atheopagan path—or any Pagan path—it can be bewildering to know how to start a practice. 

Fortunately, Atheopaganism is in many ways easier to “learn” than other Pagan paths, because there aren’t any procedural rules about how to do things, and you don’t have to have anyone else teach or “initiate” you to get started. You can and should craft your practice to fit you: to be consistent with the climate where you live, the symbols and meanings that matter to you. You don’t need to learn tables of correspondences or memorize invocations or learn the metaphorical associations of the four directions of the compass (though you can, of course, if you like).

All you need to know is what you find meaningful: your loves, your passions, your dreams, even your fears and angers. All are rich fodder for creating rituals and observances.

Still, that’s a two-edge sword, isn’t it: lots of freedom, but at the same time an intimidating blank slate, all but crying out but what do I DO?

Thus, this post. If you’re just starting out, or struggling with creating rituals, this post is for you.

I recommend that when starting a practice, a newcomer do three things, in this order:

  1. Create a Focus, or altar;
  2. Conduct a first personal ritual; and
  3. Contemplate the meanings of and decide how they would like to celebrate the 8 sabbaths of the Wheel of the Year.*

As you can see, there are links to other posts about the first and third elements. This one is specifically focused on how to plan your first ritual. You can also consult the Atheopagan Ritual Primer, which goes into more details about the various phases and elements of effective ritual.

So…how do you do that? Here’s a simple step-by-step for ritual planning. You’ll need a pad and paper to sketch out the structure of your ritual:

  • To begin with, what is the purpose of your ritual? Is it a sabbath celebration, or a full moon observance, or a ritual to heal some inner hurt? A ritual for guidance and wisdom, or to align yourself with an intended purpose? Write out the purpose of your ritual as a short sentence.
  • Next, what are the themes of your ritual? Write out the thematic elements of your ritual as short phrases around the sentence describing its purpose.
  • What’s the atmosphere you intend for the ritual? Is it hushed and fervent, or happy and upbeat, or spooky and witchy, or solemn and grave? Jot down adjectives that describe how you would like the ritual to feel.
  • What symbols are meaningful to you in relation to that theme and atmosphere? What objects, tools, processes, or metaphors do you associate with the theme and atmosphere? List them.
  • What sensory experiences do you associate with the theme? Sight/sound/scent/taste/touch? List those, too: it’s important to engage multiple senses so the brain can settle into the Ritual State: a heightened state of presence and creativity also known by artists as flow.
  • What activities do you associate with the themes and meanings of the ritual? List them, too.

All of these things are raw materials for your ritual. 

Next, from these materials and on a fresh sheet of paper, create an outline. There is a structure recommended in the Ritual Primer which isn’t required, but it’s tested and true: it will work. Its elements are Arrival, Qualities and IntentionsWorking or “Deep Play”Gratitude and Benediction. The linked posts go into detail about each phase.

Remember–in conducting a ritual, you seek to provoke the Ritual State: a feeling. It is a state of heightened awareness and presence. There isn’t a “wrong way” to do it–what works for you is the right way.

Lay out a special Focus for your rituals using the symbols, tools and objects you have identified. Prepare yourself: perhaps take a shower, and/or don a special garment or jewelry. And then begin.

And if the outline for the ritual you have developed turns out not to feel right, toss it! Improvise and go with what you feel.

Now, this is a process for creating a solo ritual—one you do by yourself. If you’re planning a group ritual, you follow a similar planning process while adding some additional considerations:

  • How many participants will there be? Practically speaking, does the ritual concept work for that many people? What if fewer or more show up—can the ritual accommodate that?
  • How will participants be engaged during the ritual? Rituals work best when there is a minimum of standing around watching others do something. Give others things to do—see the above-linked post on Deep Play for suggestions.
  • How would you like participants to feel, emotionally—especially during the Working, the “meat” of the ritual?
  • How will you engage their senses? Does the ritual impact participants on multiple sensory levels?
  • Will you share food and drink? If so, what?
  • What are the logistics of the activities you have planned? Are there materials which must be distributed to participants? If so, how will you do that? Will you need something to light a fire or candles with? Will you need a corkscrew? What about a vessel in which to pass a beverage (or will there be individual servings)? Go over every step of the ritual to be sure you will have the tools and advanced planning so everything can go smoothly.
  • Consider the ability and comfort level of participants. Some may need to sit, particularly if the ritual lasts longer than 15 minutes or so. How will the ritual be for people who can’t see or hear well? Make sure participants understand that you are considerate of their needs and it’s okay for them to use a chair or otherwise take care of themselves. 
  • How does your ritual concept square with inclusiveness? Did you assume a “male and female” sex binary (as in, all the women do one thing and all the men something else)—this can be excluding of people who are nonbinary or genderfluid. Are you equating “black and white” with “bad and good”? Just think about what your ritual might look like to people who aren’t like you, and be considerate.
  • Along those lines, will Pagans of other paths feel welcome? That doesn’t mean you need to invoke gods, but…well, you don’t need to insult the idea of them, either!
  • Does the ritual work as a cohesive whole? Are all the elements consistent with the purpose, the theme, and the sensory and symbolic associations? 

Adjust your outline to take these questions into consideration. Recruit others to help you with different parts of the ritual, so it’s not a “one-person show”. And have fun!

*You don’t have to do this all at once. You can do some general planning around what the seasonal celebrations mean to you, and then wait until each sabbath approaches to plan details of your observances. After your first year of practice, you will have a calendar of rituals for your Wheel of the Year!


Candle Rituals

One of the more characteristic “witches’ tools” used in rituals is the candle. There are many ways we can work with them to create psychologically powerful and effective rituals.

Candles provide a “magical” atmosphere for many reasons. Low light conditions tend to provoke a spooky desire on the part of people to be quieter, possibly as a result of our roots as diurnal animals afraid of nocturnal predators. Flickering golden light provides a soft, hushed ambience that works perfectly on a Focus (or altar) and which is conducive to the brain’s Ritual State (aka trance, or “flow”). And after all, lighting candles is a rather “magical” act, in that it creates dancing heat and light out of (apparent) nothing.

Candles are readily available and easy to do rituals with, so let’s talk a bit about the activities we can do with candles in a ritual context.

Here are steps you can take to “consecrate” your candle or candles to the ritual purpose you intend. Remember that you will want to concentrate on your goal for your ritual throughout these activities.

Safety. First, consider fire safety. The sleeves of the woman in the picture above aren’t a good choice for working with fire. Make sure you have a fire extinguisher or bucket of water available to douse a fire if one gets started, and be smart about what kinds of objects and materials you place in proximity to fire.

Color. Choose the color for your ritual candle based on what kind of intention you have for your ritual and what color you find best associated with that goal. If your ritual goal is a complex one, you may want to use more than one candle, of differing colors.*

Inscription. Carving a word, a symbol or sigil into a candle is another way to “charge” it with associations for your ritual purposes. If you have one, use a ritual knife, or one you have ritually consecrated to the purpose.

Anointing. Dressing a candle with scented or “blessed” oil is a common way of making a candle “special” and unique. Choose a scent that you associate with your ritual intent: if your purpose is passionate, you might use a spicy oil such as carnation, juniper or yew, or even cinnamon. Other scents may strike you as calming, or dreamy, or energizing, or associated with a particular memory. Rub the oil up and down the candle until a smooth, even coating is applied throughout.

Smoke blessing. Additionally or alternatively, you can pass a candle through smoke from burning incense, herbs or leaves. Choose those that reflect the associations with which you want to imbue the ritual candle (but be certain that you avoid burning toxic leaves such as hemlock, camphor, oleander, etc.) You can also roll an oiled candle in powdered herbs so they will burn along with the candle.

Ritual lighting. Lighting a ritual candle can be the moment of “igniting” the power of the ritual, or there can be further steps. To me, it is more powerful and evocative to light a candle with a wooden, strike-anywhere match than with a lighter. Speak your intention as an invocation over the candle as you light it. 

Wax sealing. After your candle is lit, you may want to use it to create a “spell note” or sachet. This is done by writing your ritual intention as a phrase on a small square of paper of the same color as your candle. Then fold each of the corners of the square into the center of the square, resulting in a smaller square. Glue the points of the paper down by dripping wax from your candle to form a seal, hiding and “locking in” the ritual’s intention. You can add to the sense of “sealing” and ritual by impressing a signet ring, envelope seal, or other textured item into the candle wax. The sachet can go on your Focus to remind you of your intention.

Ceromancy. There is a form of “divination” using the shapes formed by wax as it is dripped from a burning candle into water. Prepare yourself by meditating or contemplating your candle’s flame until you feel calm and centered. Then drip wax into a bowl or chalice of cold water. Look for shapes that form; our brains’ propensity for pareidolia causes us to see recognizable forms in such random stimuli. Look for symbols, objects or animals: what do they mean to you? How does that meaning relate to your life at this time?

Candle rituals can be impactful, meaningful…and fun! Give one a try as a part of your ritual practice and see how it works for you. Don’t forget the most important part of every ritual: acting in accordance with your intention for the ritual after it is completed!

*Remember, what is important in a ritual is what something means to YOU. If you associate orange with peace and quiet, use orange for that! See theAtheopagan Table of Correspondences.

GUEST POST: When in Rome: My Road to Roman Atheopaganism

Today we offer a guest post by Daughter of Neptune, who is creating her own nontheist Pagan practice focused on the archetypes of Greek and Roman deities.

All roads lead to Rome and it was on my intellectual journey to Ancient Rome that I became an atheist pagan. I love learning the history, culture, and language of the Republic-cum-Empire and often wonder what it was like to live under the Caesars and to fight in the legions for the Glory of Rome.  Last year, in reading a biography of Caesar Augustus, I was struck by an image of him capite velato (with his head veiled) to perform religious rites as the Pontifex Maximus and thought it would be interesting to practice the Roman religion – without animal sacrifice, of course.  However, as a lifelong atheist, I couldn’t make myself believe the Greco-Roman deities to be anything other than personifications of abstract concepts and natural phenomena.

I began to wonder if one could be an atheist and an adherent of the Roman Cultus Deorum.  More specifically, I wondered if there was away that I could worship Poseidon and Neptune (my favorite gods) and still be an atheist.  In my research I read Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, a scholarly examination of prominent Greek and Roman nonbelievers.  Whitmarsh paraphrases Sextus Empiricus, a second century CE Roman skeptic, who found that “honoring the gods, in the sense of performing ritual activities, is not the same as believing that they exist.”  Satisfied that there is historical precedent for atheists to practice the Roman religion, I sought modern resources to inform my tradition and found Mark Green’s “Atheopaganism” and John Halstead’s “Humanistic Paganism” webpages.    

Drawing from Mark and John’s principles of atheist and humanist paganism and from various other sources, I drafted a document that I call “Five Articles of Reason” which codifies my beliefs, or lack thereof, as it were.  Succinctly, the Articles outline my commitment to agnostic atheism, philosophical naturalism, secular humanism, intellectual curiosity, and to joie de vivre.  Drawing from my military experience in naval applications of oceanography and meteorology and from my civilian experience in earthquake science, I crafted a secular understanding of Poseidon/Neptune, the god of the sea, storms at sea, and earthquakes.  For what it’s worth, I associate Greek civilization with basic science and intellectual pursuits so I think of Poseidon as the personification of oceanography, meteorology, and seismology; I associate Roman civilization with applied science and martial pursuits so I think of Neptune as the personification of environmental impacts on naval operations.     

With the tenets of my tradition established, the next step was to create my ritual.  Because I’ve never attended a pagan ritual, I modeled mine on the more familiar Protestant order of service.  It comprises 1) the illumination of the altar/Focus with a “sounds of the ocean” soundtrack playing in the background, 2) an invocation to both Poseidon and Neptune, 3) reading Homeric Hymn XXII to Poseidon and Orphic Hymn XVI to Neptune, 4) reading “scripture,” i.e. pertinent selections from the Iliad, Odyssey, or Aeneid, 5) a “sermon,” i.e. reading articles about earth science, the Greco-Roman world, or famous naval battles, 6) a benediction, and 7) delumination of the altar/Focus.  It is my intention to perform this formal ritual on the equinoxes, the solstices, and on Neptunalia, the two-day Roman festival in honor of Neptune. 

On a daily basis, I honor Poseidon and Neptune in an informal way by wearing a necklace with a dolphin, seashell, or trident pendant, a blue article of clothing to remind me of the ocean, or my favorite nail polish, a sea-green color named “Neptunalia.”  I recently learned that modern pagan women sometimes cover their hair as part of their practices.  Because I was – and still am – so captivated by the image of Augustus capite velato, I occasionally veil with a small, ocean-colored kerchief not only out of devotion to Poseidon and Neptune, but also out of reverence for Rome and its role in the foundation of Western Civilization.

All roads lead to Rome and it was through Rome that I became an atheist pagan. 


You, too, can submit material about your Atheopagan practice to the blog! Email to atheopagan (at) Deadline is the first of each month.