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Big Ritual for Solitaries

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

The ancient Minoans had a lot of opportunities for what I like to call Big Ritual. The priesthood of the temples at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakro put on Mystery plays for the public, enacting stories from Minoan mythology at the solstice and equinoxes as well as at other festival dates. The cave shrines and peak sanctuaries were staffed by priestesses and priests who provided ceremonies for the public at the sacred times throughout the year. The more important inhabitants of the towns even had the prospect of attending large rituals within the temples themselves. But we modern folks don’t generally have access to that sort of event.

Sure, we have our altars and shrines at home, just as the Minoans and other ancient peoples did. But sitting in meditation with an altar is its own special kind of activity and doesn’t push the same buttons, if you see what I mean, as Big Ritual does.

Unless you’re lucky enough to attend a Pagan gathering or be a member of a local coven, collective or grove, you may never have participated in anything larger than a solitary ritual. It’s easy to find information about Paganism online these days, and Amazon ships books anywhere, but finding people to practice with is harder. And there are so many books out there – including my own Ariadne’s Thread – that include fabulous group rituals. So what’s a solitary Pagan to do?

I’ve been down this road before, having spent my fair share of time as a solitary, and I have a special technique I’d like to share with you. My first priestess taught it to me, more years ago than I’d like to admit, so I could experience the ancient rituals the classical writers described but that haven’t been enacted in hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Over time I discovered that this technique works just as well for modern rituals that I won’t be able to attend or perform myself. So here we go.

This is essentially what many people call a visualization technique, but I dislike that word because it suggests that vision (sight) is all there is to it, and that’s a shame. I prefer to call it a tool of the imagination, bringing in all the senses. It’s both simple and complex at the same time. If you were good at playing pretend as a child, this technique will probably come easily to you. But even if you weren’t, it’s still a method you can use to create a multi-faceted experience that can have a profound spiritual impact.

To start with, choose the ritual you’d like to experience. It could be from a modern Pagan book or from the many early sources that describe rituals in the Greek, Roman and other ancient cultures. Read through the whole thing once or twice to get the overall feel and concept of the ritual. If you cook, you’ll recognize this as the step in which you read the recipe through so you understand the whole process before you actually begin to mix up the ingredients.

This next step is optional but I recommend it as a way to help prime your senses for a more fulfilling experience. Take a little time to set up a small sacred area as if you were going to perform the ritual yourself in your home. Essentially, you’re making a miniature version of a Big Ritual setup. No, you don’t need to envision two hundred people in your living room but you do need to think about what kinds of sights, sounds, and even smells and tastes would be involved in the ceremony. Should the room be dark, as if you were inside a cave or standing under the night sky? (If that’s the case, you might want a flashlight or candle so you can read your text without trouble.) Would there be incense or perfume wafting through the air and if so, what scent would it have? If a particular sort of music or drumming would help you set the mood, then get out your iPod or CD player.

Take a few moments to set up a small altar that encapsulates the concept of the ritual. It doesn’t need to be fancy, just a portion of a tabletop or bookshelf with a few objects that will help you focus on the deities and subject of the ceremony. If you have figurines or other items that symbolize the deities, you can use them, but graphics that you’ve printed out work well, too. If food or drink will be a part of the ritual, include them on your altar.

I know this sounds like a lot of trouble but trust me, it will make all the difference to your experience. If you were really going to a Big Ritual you would spend some time preparing and then the ceremony itself would take up a lot of your time, so go ahead and make a little temporal investment in your personal adaptation of it. If you would take a ritual bath and put on special clothing for ‘the real thing’ then do it for your mini-version as well. Now, light your candles and incense. If you’re using music, start it now. And get out your copy of the ritual.

Organize yourself in your sacred space in a way that will allow you to be comfortable for a while. For me, this usually means sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the altar, but you might prefer a pillow or a chair. You don’t want your body to whine and distract you while you’re doing this.

Once you’re settled, begin the ritual. And by that I mean, imagine what the Big Ritual really looks like, as if you’re actually standing there as a participant. What do you see around you? What do you smell? What do you hear? Allow your imagination to work up a believable sacred space around you. Take your time.

When you feel like you’re there, start reading your ritual text. Take your time with this as well, imagining each little activity actually taking place around you. Picture the priestesses, priests and deities as they appear. What are they wearing? How do they stand and move? Hear their voices as they speak, their tone and timbre. Imagine yourself participating. Do you make ritual gestures? Do you speak? It’s absolutely all right to imagine yourself as one of the priesthood who are running the ceremony but it’s also perfectly OK to just be a bystander.

If food and drink are part of the activities, when you reach that point in the ritual you might want to actually eat and drink whatever you have set out. Pay attention as you do so: How does the food feel in your mouth? How does it taste? What does it feel like to swallow the drink? Does it leave an aftertaste on your tongue? What significance do the food and drink have in the ritual? How does that make you feel? Give yourself permission to dive deeply into the experience.

When the ritual is complete and you have imagined the closing activities, allow yourself to savor it for a while. In real life we don’t just hop up and leave the moment a ritual ends. We stand around, chatting quietly or just giving the experience some time to settle. Allow yourself that bit of grace now.

When you’re ready, do what we all do after a ritual of any sort – get up and clean up. You might like to leave your altar set up for a while to remind you of the experience and let it sink deeper into your being. But otherwise, put away the items you got out and return your space to its usual arrangement.

In addition to following my directions as written, I urge you to experiment with this technique. This is a great activity to do with one or two other people, reading the ritual out loud to each other and imagining it together. Having another person or two imagining the same thing along with you can really intensify the experience – your thoughts sort of rub a groove in the universe.

I’ll tell you a secret: All the important stuff that happens in ritual, happens inside you. I’m as big a sucker for display and ceremony as anyone, but really, the only magical tool you need is your mind.

In the name of the bee

And of the butterfly

And of the breeze, amen!

 

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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