Wiccan Rituals: Experiencing Catharsis Through Drama
Open Pagan Ritual Experience
One year I heard about a large open ritual camp out for Litha (Midsummer Night). I had been Wiccan a couple of years but had not yet been very involved in the Pagan community at large, and wanted to experience a big, communal ritual. I have a dear friend who is an atheist, but is open minded about religion and was curious about mine. Having grown up in a Christian community, he knew little about other faiths. I invited my friend to go with me.
"At first -- no offense-- but I felt very silly," he admitted as we had lunch on the drive home the day after the camp out. "I thought it was going to be embarrasingly lame," he said. As people finished pitching tents and settling in, they gathered in the common area in what he thought was odd attire: robes, capes, staves, floral wreaths and fairy wings-- he said if he didn't know any better and stumbled upon us he'd have thought it was a Rennasaince festival or some big LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) convention. In our jeans and t-shirts, we were very out of place. The idea that these costumes were part of what was supposed to be a serious religious ceremony was laughable.
"I was beginning to feel like these Pagans were total freaks," he confessed, "and for a while there I was planning on begging you to reconsider this religious path. But as we went on, the feeling started to change..."
Drama in Ritual
Setting, Props, Clothes, and Drama
Getting Drawn In
We sat in a field at a state park and campground with about 60 or 80 people in the late afternoon. Many of them seemed to know each other and chatted; my friend and I observed-- me, with anticipation and he with trepidation.
A pack of fairy people broke in on us and began to playfully run around the area, stealing hats, tickling children and handing out flowers. They drew all attention, and recited verses by Yates that captured the mood of the season and sparked the imagination. "It stopped feeling silly at that point," my friend explained; "I thought at least it was going to be fun and got into the spirit of things." The fairies whispered for us all to follow them, and giggling like children we hunched down and hurried after them, leaving behind the pop tents and camping gear and parked cars, snaking and sneaking our way through the winding path, through the trees, into the 'magic grove'.
The grove was prepared with a circle of burning torches and the surrounding trees were draped with floral garland. At the far end was an altar piled high with tempting baskets of summer fruits and breads, plates of creamy herbal butter and tasty cakes. Bubbles coming from an unseen source filled the air, floating around us like ghostly beings. The slanted rays of the setting sun broke through the trees, creating a prismatic effect that cast a rainbow in each little orb. It was like we'd been transported to another world.
Why All the Drama?
There's a point to it all. I touch on it here, but this book goes more in depth explaining it.
A Cathartic Experience
As we entered the grove, the fairies anointed us and gave us their blessings by sprinkling us with fairy dust. We called to and worshiped the Lord and Lady. Participants re-enacted parts of A Midsummer Night's Dream and sang folk songs. As twilight fell upon us and the crescent moon appeared in the opening above, we were joined by the Oak King and the Holly King, and witnessed their legendary battle. A deep, rich, booming voice narrated the dramatic event, spinning a tale of how the cycles of the seasons are intimately intertwined with the cycles our lives. For there to be life there must be death; the last breath of the dying Oak King left onlookers breathless and brought some to tears.
The Holly King took his throne and met us each individually to bestow on us a private blessing and a boon. My blessing was for prosperity in the season of abundance-- something I sorely needed at the time. My boon was a silver coin to keep in my purse, blessed to draw wealth. I stepped aside and allowed my friend his privacy as he went up to the King. To my friend's wonder, whatever the King told him and gave him was exactly what he needed as well. He didn't care to reveal it at the time, as just the thought of it choked him up; but it clearly spoke to him on a very intimate level, touching him deeply. He still clutched his boon-- a little burlap pouch of something -- in his hand as we ate lunch that next day.
While revelers met with the King, a great bonfire was lit in the center of the circle and great merrymaking commenced beneath the starry sky. The fairies pulled us in to dance with them around the fire, it's flames leaping into the darkening night. People off to the side played what might have been timeless, ancient tunes on their drums, flutes and tambourines. We sipped peach nectar, toasting to the Lord and Lady, and dined on breads, sweets and fruits. Barefoot on the earth, round the fire we danced and danced. I felt as though I were zoning in and out of trances all night.
By the time we took a torch to make our way back to the tents, it was nearly sunrise. We crawled into our sleeping bags and collapsed. We were drunk, without having had a sip of alcohol -- the sheer joy of the night left us heady and intoxicated.
Sights, Scents, Sounds
Dramatic Catharsis in Ritual
What we experienced in that ritual is catharsis. Catharsis comes from the Greek katharsis, which means 'purging'. Plato originally wrote about catharsis in a literal, medical sense-- the purging of bodily toxins, for example. Aristotle carried the idea through in a metaphorical sense and writes at length about catharsis in relation to the arts-- particularly to drama. Drama brings about an emotional release -- a purge of emotions -- that help restore one's senses and bring about a renewed, refreshed outlook.
My theory is that something amazing happens. When you purge, you create a vacuum. Of course, every vacuum seeks to be filled-- and what better to fill yourself with than the wonderful energies raised in ritual? It's no surprise it's something that stays with you.
My friend did not become Wiccan, or Pagan, or even a theist. As far as I know, it was his first and last Pagan ritual. He still does not believe in the existence of fairies or Gods. But he does carry with him a deep respect and appreciation for the experience, and what it's brought to his life. Both of us agreed that, in theory, the idea of costumes and running away into the woods with fake fairies seemed a bit nerdy and childish. In practice, however, it made for an experience that seemed to transcend reality, to transcend conscious thought and bring on a more profound understanding. The true meaning of the season penetrated us through the drama in a more deep and lasting way than we could have imagined.
I don't think that time of year passes that we don't get in touch to reminisce. We left the campground the next morning feeling refreshed, with a renewed sense of hope. We let go of the stress and tension we carried in with us about whatever problems we were facing and were reminded that life is short and we shouldn't sweat the small stuff-- to look at the bigger picture and focus on the joys rather than dwelling on the sorrows.
Recommended Pagan Book:
If you've never been to a Burning Man gathering, you should read this.
Be a Drama King/Queen
I've been to many rituals since then. I've been to open rituals where hosts stood in the middle of a circle reading from a book or index cards in monotone voices, following instructions by rote. I have to admit-- these don't do it for me at all. Give me a ritual with drama, with playfulness, with excitement, with myths and stories, with tragedy and comedy, make it grand-- and I am captured and moved beyond the mundane.
I was lucky enough to eventually join a coven with a High Priest and Priestess who had a flair for drama. Most rituals were accompanied by seasonal enactments of myths, or dramatic monologues and music. We were encouraged to memorize our parts like a script and to fully get into character, to use costumes, props, music -- whatever it took to bring it all together. Sometimes for big open gatherings, it felt like we were not just holding a ritual but putting on a show.
Some consider it excessive and unnecessary. Others think it looks like it lacks seriousness, and is just some outlet for fantasy role play. I say, don't knock it till you try it. It's extremely spiritually effective. Catharsis through drama is an incredible way to internalize whatever the underlying message or goal of the ritual is.
When you're planning your ritual, think about how you can bring in some of that drama. If you are planning a ritual with friends, can you re-enact a myth or story together? Do a dramatic reading to the right mood music? Even if you're holding a solitary ritual, can you perform a monologue? Recite poetry? Listen to, or perhaps play, music? If all else fails, consider a very dramatic guided meditation into a descriptive creative visualization to experience the drama in your mind. It doesn't matter as much how you bring it-- as long as you bring it.