Chapter Two -- Rituals of Passage

Rituals of passage, rituals that mark the transition from one personal, social or religious status to another, exist in every known society. Some of the particular transitions marked, reflecting life cycle changes in people's bodies, are themselves near-universal. Others, changes in social or religious status, will differ according to culture. But everywhere, even among people who are aggressively secular, life passages are socially recognised and ritually celebrated.

When Judy was still employed, she attended a retirement party held for a colleague. She was struck by its ritualistic elements: a speech full of praise from the retiree's direct supervisor, a "roast" from one of his close friends, the presentation of a certificate of recognition from the Governor, a decorated cake, gifts (yes, even a fancy wristwatch!). Even though there was no religious or spiritual component at all, these are well-established customs of Eldering in the secular American workplace.

Consider also the bridal shower, the sweet-sixteen party, the college commencement exercise. The existence of such passage rituals even among unbelievers demonstrates a real and enduring human need to mark our transitions in a public and meaningful way.

For the religious, passage rituals can go far deeper, work far better than the average secular commencement exercise or retirement party. As members of the clergy, we have the skills to create rituals that are both beautiful and effective. Such rites can help people navigate, understand and assimilate the changes, let go of old ways of being and move fully into the new ones. They also signal their families and communities that they have changed, entered into some new status and role, and should be perceived and treated in some different ways.

Three major stages of passage rituals

Modern psychologists and anthropologists have been studying the rituals of passage at least since the time of Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957). In his 1909 book, The Rites of Passage, van Gennep pioneered the insight that passage rituals work through a sequence of three steps.

1. Separation - also called the pre-liminal stage - involves a removal from or yielding of former roles or social statuses.

          In a traditional Jewish wedding, both bride and groom are escorted to the canopy by both of their parents. Then the parents take their seats in the front row, leaving their children at the threshold of a new life together.

2. Transition - also called the liminal stage (limen is Latin for "threshold") - the time between two different ways of being, at the threshold, when challenges are met, lore is imparted, oaths are taken and change is made.

The groom chants the blessing over the wine. He and the bride drink from the same cup, as they will now share whatever they have. Then, to establish the uniqueness of this sacred moment, the cup is smashed.

3. Reincorporation - also called the post-liminal stage - the passage completed, the person is welcomed back to a new role and status in the community and in life.

The newlyweds walk back down the aisle, together and without their parents. They withdraw for a few private moments together. When they rejoin their guests at the reception, they receive a tumultuous welcome.

Be aware that this is not an absolute. The three steps are not always fully present or clearly defined. Shortcuts happen. To further confuse matters for Pagans, the ritual acts of creating sacred space and restoring the space to normal usage form a sort of mini-separation and mini-reincorporation at all of our rituals, not just the rites of passage.

But the fact that the boundaries between them can be blurred in no way diminishes the importance of these three steps. The analogy is clear for anyone who has ever driven a manual-shift car. Remember the clutch? First you disengage the gears, then you shift, then you re-engage. Every time a major change is made, there's a place in between, a place where you are no longer one and not yet the other. There is the place of mystery and of change.

Victor Turner (1920-1983) was another anthropologist who made a lifelong, intense study of ritual It was Turner who best articulated the concept of liminality. His key essay Betwixt and Between: the liminal period in rites of passage, included as a supplement with these notes, is very important reading for anybody who intends to create or conduct such rituals.

An outline of the basics of ritual design

As we mentioned at the beginning of this notebook, the work of a clergy-person takes several forms: counseling, teaching about religion, and conducting rituals. Add to this workload the daily chores of survival (which for most of us includes attendance at school or working at a ‘day job’ of some sort), and it becomes evident that most Pagan clergy-people are very busy indeed. One of the ways that we can make each others’ lives easier is by exchanging our hard-won wisdom about the conduct of passage rituals, and teaching what we know to younger colleagues.

Marriage rites are, for most of us, the most frequently-requested ritual, followed by child blessings. As time moves onward and our community ages, we may find ourselves doing more handpartings, cronings and death rites. Initiations into various states of being are another class of rituals that we sometimes do: these range from child blessings to ordinations. These are not the only sorts of passage rites that we may be asked to do, and there are probably an infinite number of variations upon the basic rituals.

One of our best resources is our own creativity, guided by our legacy of Traditional lore and the wisdom of our elders, which can serve as a channel for Sacred inspiration. Always remember this: we may not have everything the Ancients had, but we have access to all the same Sources!

As Pagan clergy, we can create or adapt rites to meet the needs of the people and situations we are dealing with. So, we should make the effort to learn as much as we can about ritual design. We share rituals that we have created and that seemed to work well. Even more important, we share what we have learned about the process of ritual design itself. The following is Proteus Coven’s basic outline of the principles of ritual design.

I. Purpose or theme -- why we do things.

a. Three basic types of themes (more may exist)

i. To CELEBRATE - to attune to a particular myth or symbol (or cluster). To deepen our understanding of what is being celebrated and/or to call that type of energy into our lives ("worship").

1. e.g. this Circle is to celebrate the Horned God.

2. e.g. this Circle is to celebrate Midsummer.

ii. To CHANGE - primarily psychological rituals, intended to carry us through life transitions and crises, heal wounds, and find new directions ("magic"). Circles for change usually require a high degree of intimacy and trust among all participants.

1. Examples:

a. e.g. this Circle is for self-esteem. (empowerment)

b. e.g. this Circle is for "misfits." (healing)

c. e.g. this is a handfasting Circle (life passage)

2. Differs from "practical workings" part of any Circle:

a. The ritual experience itself is intended to create a change.

b. This change is the primary focus of the Circle.

iii. To TEACH - aimed at imparting information and/or skills that will contribute to celebration or change Circles in the future, or to other aspects of the participants' work as Witches ("teaching").

1. Examples:

a. This Circle is to share and practice chants

b. This Circle is to meditate on crystals

b. All three of these functions occur in any good ritual, but one will clearly be primary in most.

c. An explicit statement of the ritual's main theme is helpful in planning, in focusing during the ritual, and in evaluation.

II. Ritual Structure - when we do things.

NOTE: This is the format for a basic Circle in Proteus. The order may vary in other groups (e.g. some make cakes and wine part of the opening procedures) or even, when there is reason, with us.

a. Personal preparation: ritual baths, meditation, etc.

b. Opening procedures

i. Consecration of elements on altar

ii. Casting of Circle

iii. Calling of Watchers

iv. Invocation of Deity or Deities

c. Main work of the Circle ("the meat")

d. Cakes and wine

e. "Sacred Bullshit" - discussion of any coven business

f. Practical and personal workings

g. Closing of Circle

III. Ritual Techniques - the things we do.

No list of possibilities could ever be complete, but here are some of the more familiar ones. The general principle is that whatever happens within a cast Circle should be congruent with everything else that happens there and with the overall theme.

a. Words

i. Invocations and prayers, extemporaneous or pre-scripted

ii. Story

1. Pathworking, guided meditation

Note: for any meditative technique, be very careful to do a thorough re-entry!

2. Enactment, mystery plays, etc.

iii. Sharing, talking stick rounds, discussion

iv. Poetry, song lyrics

1. Rhyme and meter are both trance-inducing and mnemonic

2. A spell should be simple, so that it seems to say itself.

v. Statements of desire, intent, commitment

Expressing one's will within the intense atmosphere of ritual is powerful, effective self-programming.

b. Music, rhythm and sounds

i. Spoken voice can be used to induce relaxation or arousal

ii. Drumming and other percussion for power raising

iii. "Space music" helps induce low-arousal meditative states

iv. Songs whose lyrics are invocations or pathworkings

v. Chanting for trance or for power raising

vi. Meditation tapes

1. Advantage: all present can participate, the officiant shares the group experience

2. Disadvantage: when pathworking is being done "live," the leader can observe reactions and vary pacing accordingly.

vii. Bells, chimes, etc.

c. Visuals

i. Altar images and decorations can be varied with season or theme of ritual

ii. Masks, robes, etc.

iii. Mandala as trance focus

d. Kinetic and tactile input

This is one of the most effective ways to reconnect the bodymind. Also, movement is useful for variety and pacing

i. Touch - e.g. ritual kisses, joining hands around Circle

ii. Special postures - e.g. cross-legged for meditation

iii. Coded gestures - e.g. drawing pentagrams

iv. Dancing

1. High-energy to raise power

2. Slow and rhythmic to induce trance

v. Feeling textures, water, etc.

e. Smell: incense and oils

i. Scent is very primal, appeals to the old "lizard" part of the brain, and powerfully evokes memories

ii. Some groups use the same scent all the time to signal sacred space, while others have developed a "vocabulary" of different scents for different seasons and themes.

iii. Some incense or oil ingredients have physical effects as well (e.g. eucalyptus)

iv. Beware of allergies!

f. Taste: food and drink in ritual

i. Beware of allergies, of strong aversions and traumatic psychological associations.

ii. Sharing of food is an ancient and trans-traditional symbol for bonding between people ("break bread together")

iii. Eating and drinking something that has been ritually prepared, charged or blessed symbolises taking the energy or intention into oneself.

iv. Food or beverage can be varied in accordance with the season or with the ritual's theme.

v. The alcohol debate: If the cup is primarily a symbol of metamorphosis and transformation, then it must contain a state-altering drink, such as wine. If, instead, the cup is about blending, bonding and sharing, then all present must be able to drink from it without fear or damage. There are reasonable arguments both ways. Neither is clearly right or wrong.

IV. How to choose - Circle planning or evaluation questions.

a. Purpose and values: Is it appropriate?

Ritual is the patterned expression of our beliefs and values

i. Is the theme of this Circle in accord with our basic values?

ii. Is each component part of the Circle in accord with both the overall theme and our basic values?

b. Aesthetic considerations: Is it beautiful?

Ritual is an art form. It is an art of collage, combining many other arts.

i. Is the Circle as beautiful as we could make it, to give honour to our Gods, our ways, and ourselves?

ii. Is the style consistent with the theme?

iii. Does the Circle appeal to as many perceptual channels as possible?

iv. Are all the component parts harmonious?

1. with each other?

2. with the theme?

3. with basic values?

v. Pacing questions:

1. Is the pacing quick enough to hold interest?

2. Is it slow enough to allow the theme to sink in?

3. Is there "white space" - i.e. moments of silence to allow assimilation of what is happening?

4. How do you get from one ritual component to the next? Are the transitions integral parts of the ritual?

5. Is there a sense of overall flow?

6. Is focus maintained?

vi. Elegance - (the KISS principle: "Keep It Simple, Stupid!")

1. Some ritual techniques create or maintain ritual consciousness, others contribute to the specific theme of the Circle. If it doesn't do either, it doesn't belong. If you have to prune (usually), keep what does both wherever possible.

2. Some ritual techniques are beautiful, others are psychologically effective. If it is neither, it doesn't belong. If you have to prune (usually), keep what is both wherever possible.

3. Choose ritual techniques that appeal to as many perceptual channels as possible.

c. Psychological considerations: Is it strong?

Ritual is a methodology for creating change in accordance with will.

i. Is everybody present involved? Is an atmosphere or mood created? Is focus maintained?

ii. Are whatever psychological techniques - such as hypnosis - that are used in this Circle used skilfully and ethically in their own terms?

iii. Timing questions:

1. Is this ritual design realistic about participant's time constraints and attention span?

2. Is time allowed for other parts of the Circle besides the "main working" (e.g. practical or personal workings, coven business discussions, etc.)

3. If theme cannot be adequately handled within a realistic amount of time, should the focus be narrowed? perhaps a series of rituals planned?

iv. Balance questions - questions of inclusiveness:

1. Is there an appropriate balance of repetition and surprise? Familiar parts are "conditioned stimuli" for ritual state of consciousness, and amplify the effectiveness of ritual techniques chosen or created specifically for this Circle's theme.

a. Is Pagan ritual language used where appropriate to establish ritual mood and consciousness?

b. Are basic components of Circle set-up all present? How are they related to the theme?

c. Do additional component parts use Pagan symbolic vocabulary wherever possible, and symbolism harmonious with Pagan symbolism and basic values in any case?

2. Is there an appropriate balance of receptive and active components in accord with the theme of the ritual?

a. receptive components: meditative or divinatory practices that enable us to reach and incorporate the perceptions and intuitions of the deep mind (and perhaps the guidance of the Gods). Usually low-arousal.

b. active components: practices aimed at changing either basic attitudes or behaviour. Usually high-arousal.

3. Is there an appropriate balance of the cognitive, the passionate, the intuitive and the sensual? (and again, does the Circle appeal to as many perceptual channels as possible?)

v. Is humour used to clear the air after energy climaxes, or does it dissipate the energy before a climax can be reached?

vi. Is the ritual within the group's physical comfort level? Be aware of things like sitting still too long, struggling from floor to feet too often, room temperature, hunger and thirst.

vii. Question for a celebratory Circle: Will closer attunement with this myth or symbol foster growth in a direction we want?

viii. Questions about a Circle for change:

1. What behaviour is this Circle supposed to release or reinforce?

2. Is time provided to listen deep within and make sure that the change is really desired?

"Top down" changes directed entirely by reason and will, isolated from feeling and intuition, often backfire. ("Be careful to ask for what you really want, because you get what you ask for.")

3. Is time provided for people to share their stories, express their feelings, speak their hopes, and realise their community?

4. How does each component of the ritual support the intended change?

5. Are you providing suggestions for ongoing reinforcement (e.g. affirmations) and follow through?

ix. Questions for a teaching Circle:

1. Is there an experiential component? (just lecture doesn't make it)

a. e.g. for a skills Circle: is there an opportunity to practice the skill and receive feedback?

b. e.g. for a Circle to present some aspect of myth, is there a pathworking, mystery play, or other opportunity to enter the world of that myth and deeply understand it?

2. Are you providing a reading or resource list or other suggestions for interested people to pursue this topic further?

3. Could your research also be turned into a magazine article, or a festival workshop, so that the knowledge is shared with the wider Pagan community?

Relating the ritual to the passage

If you are creating a passage rite, start with a good look at the way the change actually manifests, whether that change is expected, in progress or already here. What is tangibly different about this person's life? Is their daily routine different? Will they be moving house? Will they look or dress differently? What old responsibilities are they laying down and/or what new ones are they taking up? Will they be perceived differently by family, friends or neighbours? How will their community status or role be changing? Will they have different expectations of themselves? Which of these differences will matter most to the person or people most directly affected?

The answers to these questions will guide you in choosing what will happen in the liminal space at the heart of the ritual. What will most clearly and strongly show the person's deepest self what’s changing in their life? Which stories will best give them a model of how to proceed for the next while? What commitments should they be making at this time? What energies should they be invoking into their life right now? What should they be releasing? Would they do well to ask the guidance and protection of any particular Deities, Guardians, or ancestors?

Having structured the liminal part of the ritual, you can then plan an effective separation. What is the person leaving behind? Are they really ready to yield it, or is there still ambiguity? Give them a space to appreciate and grieve what they will miss, to make peace with what they will be gladly rid of. Give them a moment to experience the freedom and the terror of a nakedness far more profound than merely going without clothing.

And then, finally, you can plan how best to reincorporate them into their family and community, not returned as the same person to the same place, but as a changed person to a new social status and role. The youth has become an adult. The single person is now a spouse. The worker has become an elder. They look forward to a new life, different challenges and different pleasures. Others follow behind them to take the places they have left, and so the life of the community continues. Those who live with and around them recognise and honour the change. What will serve to normalise the new ways of being and behaving for all concerned?

In the pages that follow, we have compiled for you many examples of rituals for different life passages. Please remember that these are only models. They are intended to spur your imagination and to serve as a source of ideas, not to be rigid standards of comparison against which your work must be measured. Study them and notice how they work. In particular, observe how well they manifest the basic three steps: of separation, transition and reincorporation.

If you choose to use any of these scripts, be sure to adapt them to the people and situation you are working with. Remember: the more closely a passage ritual models actual experience, the more effective it will be.


Some resources on passages and passage rituals

Beck, R. and Metrick, S.B.

2003: The art of ritual: creating and performing ceremonies for growth and change; Celestial Arts, Berkeley ( California), 206 pages. Library of Congress call number BL600 B435 2003.

Clifton, C.S. (ed.)

1993: Witchcraft today, book 2: modern rites of passage; Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul ( Minnesota); ISBN 0-87542-378-7, 70 pages. Library of Congress call number BF1571 M65.

Driver, T.F.

1991: The magic of ritual: our need for liberating rites that transform our lives and our communities; HarperSanFrancisco; ISBN 0-06-062096-X, 270 pages. Library of Congress call number BL600 D75.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

1993: Sacred rites and ceremonies; in Macropaedia, volume 26, pages 770 to 842.

Erikson, E. H.

1959: Identity and the life cycle; International Universities Press, New York, 191 pages. Library of Congress call number BF175 E7 1959.

Erikson, J. M.

1988: Wisdom and the senses: the way of creativity; W.W.Norton, New York; ISBN 0-393-30710-7, 207 pages. Library of Congress call number BF408 E75.

Fried, M.N. and Fried, M.H.

1981: Transitions: four rituals in eight cultures; Penguin Books, Harmondsworth (Middlesex); ISBN 0-14-005847-8, 306 pages. Library of Congress call number GN473 F68.

Grimes, R.L. (ed.)

1996: Readings in ritual studies; Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River ( New Jersey), ISBN 0-02-347253-7, 577 pages. Library of Congress call number BL600 R43.

Grimes, R.L.

2000: Deeply in the bone: reinventing rites of passage; University of California Press, Berkeley; ISBN 0-52-023675-0, 384 pages. Library of Congress call number BL600 G745.

Imber-Black, E., Roberts, J. and Whiting, R. (eds.)

1988: Rituals in families and family therapy; W.W.Norton, New York, ISBN 0-393-70064-X, 404 pages. Library of Congress call number RC488.5 R58.

Journal of Ritual Studies

(serial): from Department of Religious Studies, 2604 CL, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) 15260; biannual, subscriptions $25/year.

Laderman, C. and Roseman, M. (eds.)

1995: The performance of healing; Routledge, New York; ISBN 0-415-91199-0, 330 pages. Library of Congress call number GR880 P38 1995

Levinson, D.J., Darrow, C.N., Klein, E.B., Levinson, M.H. and McKee, B.

1978: The seasons of a man's life; Ballantine Books, New York, ISBN 0-345-29727-X, 363 pages. Library of Congress call number BF724.6 S42.

Martin, J.

1990: Miss Manners’ guide for the turn-of-the-millennium; Simon & Schuster, New York; ISBN 0-671-72228-X, 742 pages. Library of Congress call number BJ1853 M2935 1990.

Paige, K. E. and Paige, J.M.

1981: The politics of reproductive ritual; University of California Press, Berkeley; ISBN 0-520-04782-6, 380 pages. Library of Congress call number GN482.1 P34.

Reik, T.

1946: Ritual: four psychoanalytic studies; International Universities Press, New York; 367 pages. Library of Congress call number GN473 R4 1946.

Santrock, J. W.

2006: Life-span development, tenth edition, McGraw-Hill, Boston; ISBN 0-072-96739-0, 655 pages. Library of Congress call number BF713 S26 2006.

Schechner, R. and Appel, W. (eds.)

1990: By means of performance: intercultural studies of theatre and ritual; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire; ISBN 0-521-33915-4, 298 pages. Library of Congress call number PN2039 B9.

Sheehy, G.

2006: Passages: predictable crises of adult life; Ballantine Books, New York, ISBN 0-345-47922-X, 546 pages. Library of Congress call number HQ799.95 U5 S522 2006.

Turner, V.

1987: The liminal period in rites of passage; in Mahdi, L.C., Foster, S. and Little, M. (eds.): Betwixt & between: patterns of masculine and feminine initiation; pages 3 to 19. Library of Congress call number GN473 B47.

van Gennep, A.

1960: The rites of passage; University of Chicago Press, Chicago; ISBN 0-226-84849-3, 198 pages. Library of Congress call number GN473 G5.

Young, D.E. and Goulet, J.-G. (eds.)

1994: Being changed by cross-cultural encounters: the anthropology of extraordinary experiences; Broadview Press, Peterborough ( Ontario); ISBN 1-55111-040-7, 378 pages. Library of Congress call number GN502 B45.

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