Ritual or ceremony is an important part of Pagan practice, and varies depending on the particular tradition of Paganism followed. Some forms of Paganism have rituals that are only shared with those who have reached a particular level of their path, and so are not disclosed to outsiders. This requirement for initiation they have in common with other esoteric traditions, such as the mystery religions of the Graeco-Roman world, or Tibetan Buddhist tantric practices. There are even echoes of such requirement for initiation in Christian practice, such as the ancient instruction for the ‘catechumens’ or the not yet baptised to leave the ceremony before the Eucharist, which has survived in the Christian Orthodox liturgy. One problem for esoteric traditions is that secrecy gives rise to rumour, and Pagans are keen to emphasise that they do not sacrifice babies and very few would say they worship Satan.
A particularly important part of this aspect of the mystery/esoteric traditions, is that the nature of the mystery is a personally revelatory one. Therefore, the nature of the revelations will vary from person to person, but also depending on the ‘level’ of revelation the person has experienced. So the ‘secrets’ are not something that can be shared due to the personal nature of the revelations gained.
Some Pagan ritual is described as ‘magic’ (spelt ‘magick’ by those who wish to distinguish it from stage magicians who perform tricks for entertainment). ‘Magic’ is a word that has many meanings, but the best way of understanding its meaning in this context is the use of symbolic action to bring about change or transformation.
Many contemporary Pagans tend to stress that the desired transformation is in ourselves, in our consciousness, giving magic a spiritual or psychological meaning. Some may believe that there is a power or powers in nature and/or ourselves that can actually bring about change in external reality such as healing. Roderick Main defines magic as ‘ritual activity intended to produce results without using the recognised causal processes of the physical world’ (2002:220), suggesting a contrast with scientific ways of achieving change. Some definitions of magic stress the imposition of the practitioner’s will upon events, and since the time of James Fraser (the beginning of the twentieth century) ‘magic’ has tended to be distinguished from ‘religion’ by the idea that in magic humans aim to control ‘supernatural’ forces, whereas in religion humans can only petition such forces for assistance. This is less of a modern Pagan perspective and more of a ‘High Magick’, occultist perspective.
It is difficult today with developments in the natural sciences and psychology as well as in religious and philosophical thinking to maintain such clear distinctions between magic and religion and even science. All three expect results of some kind and involve human interpretations. Understanding of how magic works depends upon prior metaphysical assumptions, as does understanding how prayer works. An interesting point made by Ronald Hutton (1999) is that magical practice may well be the one aspect of contemporary Paganism that can claim a continuity with the past, as some features such as the use of circles, pentagrams, the elements and the points of the compass, may indeed go back to Greco-Roman/Egyptian customs, filtered down the centuries through medieval Jewish and Christian practitioners of magic, and modern occultists.
However it is understood, ritual is an important part of many Pagan lives. Pagans may engage in rituals privately or in groups. It can take place indoors or outside to be closer to nature, perhaps in an ancient sacred site such as a stone circle or in a favourite place such as a wood or on the seashore, or much less commonly in a dedicated temple such as the Goddess temple in Glastonbury.
Ritual both expresses and establishes relationships between humans and the natural world, including any deities or spirits that may be recognised. Common features often include the casting of a circle, which establishes the sacred space and provides protection, or can be seen as symbolising eternity and equality.
Rituals often include invitations to ‘spirits of place’ and ancestors of blood (genetic) and of spirit (with whom members of the group identify). The four points of the compass and the four/five traditional elements may be marked. Often food and drink will be shared. What happens within the ritual can be simple or complicated, scripted or spontaneous.
Examples of some ‘open’ Pagan rituals can be found described by Viannah Rain (2015). She stresses the importance of casting the circle, of everyone involved participating, and the influence of mythology. One ritual she describes involves dressing up as and performing the part of a deity, symbolically ‘becoming’ the deity for the duration of the ritual. ‘Cakes and ale’, or the offering and sharing of food expresses our dependence on the earth and each other.
An important feature of contemporary Pagan ritual is that the individual or group can design the ritual themselves, to suit the occasion, or use or adapt something from an existing source. One interesting example of adaptation is that words from a ceremony composed by Philip Shallcrass and Emma Restall Orr for an inter-faith gathering at Avebury in 1993 were used for the closing ceremony of the Paralympics in 2012.
This ritual framework is not consistent in all Pagan traditions, and ritual can be markedly different in some.