Thursday, April 14, 2016

Pagan Ritual Etiquette

This article attempts to describe proper and respectful etiquette when attending a public or private Pagan ritual. These guidelines will cover what is expected of you, as well as what you can expect from the ritual leaders.

This is going to be a challenging etiquette article to write because Pagan rituals are extremely varied, ranging from personal to public, festival to community-based, and deeply influenced by local and cultural norms. What works in Montreal may not apply in Texas, be considered foreign in Ireland, and came come off as offensive in Vancouver.

The only way to mitigate this conundrum is to be brave, put aside some ego, and ask questions as politely and honestly as you can. Be aware that some people may find your questions odds or self-evident, but this may be because their own experience is limited to the cultural norms in which they were raised. Listen to  what they say, try to respect it in that situation, but also apply some critical thought before adopting it into your own practice, ethics, and etiquette.

What is a Pagan Ritual?

You've been hearing about a Pagan ritual taking place in your community. You're curious, but you have no idea what to expect. A Ritual is a piece of spiritual theatre designed to move the participants, move the Gods, or both. A Pagan ritual is designed to bring a group of people to celebrate, commemorate, perform magic, or a little bit of everything.

In general, the structure of a Pagan ritual can be broken down into the following:

  • Setting up the space
  • Greeting the participants
  • Collecting the fee, if any
  • Forming a circle
  • Explaining what is about to happen
  • Grounding and Centering
  • Establish the sacred space
  • Perform the task for which the ritual was called
  • Share food/drink
  • Close the sacred space
  • Feast and socialize
  • Clean up/Ritual After Care

Different traditions will drop some of these steps or add others, but by and large, this is generally what happens in most public/private rituals I've seen and attended. Variety is the spice of life.

Read the description for the ritual carefully, and if there's anything you don't understand, ask questions.

What to Bring

Every ritual has different requirements based on what the organizers had in mind. Read the description for the ritual carefully, and if there's anything you don't understand, ask questions.

Here some general guidelines about what you should bring to a ritual:
  • Comfortable clothing, shoes
  • Ritual wear (optional)
  • Feast food to share (see the Feasting section below)
  • Feast gear: reusable cup, plate, bowl, utensils
  • Fee: not all rituals require a fee, but donations are always appreciated. Rooms and supplies always cost money.
Here's what you should NOT bring to a public ritual. For a private ritual, you should check with the ritual organizers:
  • Weapons of any kind (including athames)
  • Alcohol 
  • Drugs 
  • Any objects you cannot stand to lose (there are thieves everywhere)
Note: In relation to drugs or alcohol, you should also not come to ritual intoxicated. If you decide consume something that may impair your judgement, that is your choice to make. However, if you are so intoxicated that you are a danger to yourself or others, you may be asked to leave. Please make choices that respects everyone's safety.

Most importantly: bring your best self! If you're not feeling well or in a bad mood, this negative energy can adversely affect the other people in the ritual. Try to ground that negativity out and approach the ritual space as neutral being, if not a positive influence. If you do not think you can do that, you may want to consider stepping away from the ritual until you feel better.

You will only get from this ritual what your bring to the table: a ritual is a group construction. You need to work in concert with the ritual organizers to make the experience a positive one, not only for you, but for everyone involved.

Arriving on Time/Arriving Early

Pagan communities are often plagued with something that has been non-affectionately called PST: Pagan Standard Time. PST can result in people being anywhere from 10 minutes late to over an hour late. More and more, organizers are not tolerating PST and will start their rituals on time and without you.

Therefore, to respect the hard work that the organizers have put into putting this ritual together, you should arrive to the ritual space 15 minutes before the event begins. This will give you time to get settled, meet some people, ask your questions, and get all the information needed before the ritual begins.

If you promised you were going to attend and, for whatever reason, you cannot attend, please let the organizers know as soon as you can before the ritual begins. Maybe you think you won't be missed, but believe me, the organizers have taken note that you said you'd be there.

If you don't show up, the organizers will worry about you, adding to their stress of the day. If they find out later that something came up and you could not let them know in time, they'll probably understand. If your reason for not coming was "Didn't feel like it" and couldn't be bothered to let anyone know, that kind of disregard stings and it won't be forgotten any time soon.

Getting dumped is no one's idea of a good time, it is always disappointing, and feels like a betrayal. Also, you don't want to earn a reputation for being unreliable.


At some point during the ritual (usually at the beginning or at the end), the Ritual Organizers may ask for donations. These donations are usually to pay for supplies, room rentals, and other expenses accrued in putting these rituals together. Some Organizers have an open "pass the hat" policy, some have a flat rate, and others have a sliding-scale rate.

As a general rule, we suggest that a $5 donation is a reasonable amount to charge for a 1-2 hour ritual.
  • If the ritual is "free", but they are asking for donations, please give what you can. In most cases, $5 is a reasonable amount to ask.
  • If the ritual has a flat fee and you decide to attend, please provide the fee as requested. If you have questions about the fee, please ask your questions before the event takes place. The actual event itself is not the place to have this discussion.
Click here for the author's opinion on this topic

How to Behave in a Ritual Space

If you are taking part in a ritual, you should consider yourself a guest and on sacred ground. Therefore, you should endeavour to be a gracious guest as you would be in someone's home or in a holy temple. Be on your best behaviour and treat the organizers and the other participants with respect. Read the description for the ritual carefully, and if there's anything you don't understand, ask questions.

If you have any particular needs that may affect your participation in this ritual (mobility issues, allergies, time constraints), let the organizers  know as soon as possible so that they can make adjustments. Once the Ritual begins, it's much more difficult to make these adjustments on the fly.

Once the ritual begins, keep in mind that everyone is there to experience something that is not only personal, but that is also shared by the group. It is important that everyone plays their part in making the ritual a beautiful, moving experience for everyone.

Appropriate behaviour in a ritual space greatly depends on the parameters set by the ritual leaders. If the ritual depends on quiet meditation, then you should meditate quietly. If the ritual calls for loud, raucous dancing, go on and shake your boogaloo as much as you like! The important aspect to remember is that you need to tailor your behaviour to suit the ritual design. Remember that you are on sacred ground, so act respectfully as dictated by the ritual design.

In most rituals, there is a central altar that contains various tools, incense, candles, and other objects that are meaningful to the practitioner. As a general rule, DO NOT TOUCH any of these objects without explicit permission by their owner(s). For many practitioners, these objects are sacred and can only be handled by the owner. You can look, you can ask questions, but do not touch.

Some rituals invite the participants to take part by taking action or sharing with the group. If you are asked to share some words with the group, try to be brief as much as possible. It can be daunting to share something meaningful with a group of people, many of whom are strangers, so sometimes people tend to ramble nervously, not realizing how much time they are taking. Try to keep in mind that everyone needs to have their turn and that the time to complete the whole ritual is finite. Take the time to compose what you want to say, be succinct, and be honest.

While everyone should have the freedom to speak their minds, a ritual is not the space in which to indulge in heated debate, make controversial statements, or be critical of anyone or anything. There is usually a social time after the ritual in which you can engage with people as you see fit, but the ritual space is not the stage for this.

Rituals are designed in a number of ways: some follow strict traditions, some borrow from a variety of sources, and some are completely original and unique. It's important to come to a ritual with an open mind and realize that the structure of any ritual may be different from what you are accustomed. Rather than exclaiming "That is NOT how that is done!", try to be open to new ideas and new ways of approaching spiritual expression.

If you're not in charge of the ritual, then you're not in charge. You don't have to like it, but that does not give you the right to derail the ritual and force it to conform to your expectations, even if you are an expert in your own tradition. If you have any concerns about the ritual's design, you should discuss your concerns with the Ritual Organizer after the ritual is done.

Inappropriate Behaviour during Ritual

If you are unsure what type of behaviour is appropriate at a Pagan ritual, read the description for the ritual carefully, and if there's anything you don't understand, ask questions.

1. Spectating

A Pagan ritual is an experience in which everyone takes part, but the individual experiences can be as varied and profound as the number of people who attended. For this reason, disconnected, detached spectators are either not allowed or not encouraged. Spirituality is not a spectator sport, so you cannot be standing on the outside watching it happen. You should either take part, or not attend at all.

Don't worry about taking part though: everything will be explained, nothing is binding, and if at any moment you feel you need to leave, you can do so without judgement. The ritual leaders will have people in place (Warders) to help you if you need to leave the sacred space for whatever reason.

2. Taking Pictures/Recording Audio/Video

Almost without exception, taking pictures or recording audio or video in a Pagan ritual is prohibited. The only exception is when the Ritual Organizer says that is permitted explicitly. If the Organizer doesn't mention it, you can safely assume that pictures/video/audio taking is not permitted.

In this world of Social Media, consent is king. If you take anyone's picture, you need everyone's consent. Even if you're being careful, someone's face could end up in your picture and once it the picture gets loose on the Internet, there can be real and very damaging effects. It's just not worth the risk: let you memories be your souvenir of your Pagan Ritual experience.

Feeling Comfortable, Feeling Safe

Most Pagan Rituals are designed to accommodate the needs and realities of the participants, but if at any moment you feel unsafe or that there is something happening that makes you uncomfortable, you are completely within your rights to raise the issue or to leave the event.

Ritual organizers often have people called Warders and their jobs are to contain and managed the energy raised in ritual, but to also handle any issues that come into play. These issues can involve dealing with passers-by, law enforcement, or difficult people who want to interrupt the ritual. Warders are also responsible for the well-being of the people in the ritual space, so if you have any concerns of if you feel you must leave the space, the Warders can help you with that. If you don't know who the Warders are in a ritual, ask the organizers (preferably before the ritual starts).

If at some point, something is being asked of you that makes you uncomfortable, you can quietly and politely decline. If you see something that puts someone in danger, alert the Warders or the organizers discretely and make your concerns known. If the danger persists, you need to take whatever action you deem to be necessary, which may include intervention or by walking away. As much as possible, try to work with the organizers to ensure everyone's safety.

A ritual leader should NEVER attempt to coerce you into doing something that makes you uncomfortable or that crosses your personal boundaries. You have every right to politely refuse to take part in any ritual activity as you see fit, and you owe no one any explanations or justifications.

For example:

  • A cup of alcohol is being passed to each person to drink a toast. If you do not wish to drink it, you can kiss the cup, lift it up in thanks, or pour out a drop onto the ground as a libation (preferably outside).
  • The ritual organizers ask that people perform the ritual skyclad (naked). Read the description for the ritual carefully, and if there's anything you don't understand, ask questions.

    However, you should be able to refuse this request and still take part. If anyone pressures you to disrobe, politely and firmly refuse. If they insist, you should respectfully walk away from the ritual. Report this incident to the event organizers if possible.
  • The participants are invited to hug each other. If you are not comfortable with hugging, you can politely and firmly refuse anyone attempting to hug you. Instead, offer a handshake or a first pump, as you feel comfortable.


After the Ritual is done, there is sometimes a Feast that takes place. Participants are asked to bring food to share and this is a time to socialize, network, build and foster community, and just enjoy each other's company. Not only does the Feast help to ground the energy of the participants, but this is also a good time to ask questions and thank the Ritual Organizers for their hard work. Read the description for the ritual carefully, and if there's anything you don't understand, ask questions.

Feast food should be finger foods: something that's easy to eat without utensils. For example, fruit, veggies, dips, chips, crackers, juice, brownies, cookies, etc. You should also bring Feast gear to help you eat all these goodies.

For people with allergies, if the ingredients of your Feast food are not apparent, indicate the presence of nuts, milk, gluten, etc.

Bring enough to feed a couple of people. If everyone brings a little something, there will be lots for everyone.

Whatever is leftover, BRING IT HOME WITH YOU. Don't assume other people will take it. This is just an added headache for the Ritual Organizer to deal with.

At the end of the feast, clean up after yourselves: do your best to leave the space looking the same or better than it was when you arrived.

Ritual After Care

Running a ritual is exciting and exhausting, so the organizers/leaders may need some time apart from the group just to relax, regroup, and decompress. This can take the form of meditation, eating some food, or just doing their own ground and centering to release the pent-up energy.

Speaking from personal experience, I am the worst at this. Once the ritual is done, I'm excited and happy and socializing, so I either forget to decompress, or I don't decompress enough. The result is that when I do get home finally, I lay in bed with my eye wide open, wired beyond belief, and I don't sleep well. Or if I do sleep, my dreams are bizarrely over-dramatic.

Whenever possible, the ritual leader should take the time to decompress from the ritual, which means they may be unavailable to talk to the group for a time. As a participant, do not take this personally. Give the ritual leader some time and come back to him/her later for questions, feedback, or praise.

If you're noticing that the ritual leader is not taking the time to decompress, gently remind them that they probably should do so.

Cleaning Up

Once the ritual is done and the socializing is over, it's time to clean up the space. Ideally, you should leave a ritual space in the same or better condition than when you arrived. The ritual organizers are probably exhausted at this point, so be courteous and help them clean up the space. A clean venue post-event will go a long way to ensuring that the venue can be used again for future rituals.

v1.3, April 2016


  1. The feasting is a very important part of the ritual. Eating and drinking grounds the participants back in the here and now of the real world. Sharing food and drinks also helps people bond as a community.

  2. If a ritual is skyclad, you drop your drawers or you do not participate. You would have known well in advance anyhow. The reasons for skyclad, which is a Mystery, are generally not trivial. Out of respect to the ritual organizers, the other participants, and the Gods. As you said "If you're not in charge of the ritual, then you're not in charge. You don't have to like it, but that does not give you the right to derail the ritual and force it to conform to your expectations, even if you are an expert in your own tradition."

    Otherwise, decent summary.

    1. I guess. I don't see much call for skyclad at public rituals, but this would be more for private rituals, right? And it would have to be clear in the event description that the nudity is a pre-requisite.

      But to be able to respect each person's boundaries, I would hope the ritual organizer would have allowances for people to make personal choices and still be included. Do we need to force alcoholics to drink from a wine cup in order to respect the Gods, or do we make room for allowances?

    2. Agreed! I would say that if a ritual is skyclad or clothing optional, it should be stated up front, and then it's your responsibility as a participant to decide if it is right for you. If that isn't the case, then consent is a real issue.

      I've gone to public rituals that were clothing optional (on a nude beach for instance), but none that were strictly skyclad, and usually one would expect that that would be kept for closed groups.

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  4. Regarding spectatoring - In the SF Bay area, there is something best described as Ritual Theater where people do sit and watch the ritual from outside the circle or main stage like you would a performance. You'll also sometimes find similar rituals online in places like Second Life. I never know how much to participate, respond, etc. and try to take my cue from the rituals leaders and the others in the audience. The best ritualists doing this kind of ritual WILL find ways to involve the audience and have them lend their energy, and when I was required to do them, I invited the audience to join us in turning to the directions, chanting, etc.