How NOT To Run A Ritual!
I am going to forewarn you all; this post is a bit on the long side. So long in fact that this is actually only half of it. The second half will be posted in the upcoming week.
As you guys may recall, I got back from Kaleidoscope Gathering not too long ago. One of the reasons I was excited for it this year is that is marked my 1 year anniversary with Dionysus (literally to the day, as I first encountered him at the same festival last year). What was particularly serendipitous about this anniversary is that there was going to be a Dionysian ritual held essentially on the night of my 1 year anniversary with Him. While I had my reservations about its description, I had committed myself to attending, and that commitment was tested over and over beforehand, but attend I did.
Almost everything about this ritual was a demonstration in How NOT To Run A Ritual.
Let me explain to you guys all the reasons this event left me feeling a touch more than uncomfortable…
Firstly, let me remind you all of the description of the ritual. It described the ritual as one of ‘love, joy, and fellowship’, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with that description, I worried it was a bit oversimplified, a bit of a ‘love and light’ approach to a deity that has a profoundly important dark side. It gave me pause.
Now, secondly, we’ll fast-forward to the pre-rit meeting. We, the potential attendees and the High Priest (HP), start to discuss the ritual set-up, and are told it will be more traditionally Wiccan, as the organizers are members of the Wiccan Church of Canada. Finally, when describing what sorts of things would be happening during the ritual, the HP (who was in his mid-to-late 50’s, talked like a Californian surfer dude, and kept flipping his platinum blond dye job out of his eyes like an emo kid) mentioned the potentially skyclad nature of the ritual.
Many of the people attending were troubled by his insistence on skyclad ritual, and while I can understand mentioning the potential benefits of ritual nudity, this is key point #1 when discussing How Not To Run A Ritual; when people bring up a problem with ritual nudity (or anything for that matter), do not reply as this guy did: “Well, I just want you guys to really be present as your true selves!”, because then people will feel obliged to put you in your place, which is why one brave young lady stated “Well, my true self wears clothes every day….so, I’m going to be fully dressed, thanks!”
Experiencing ritual nudity is a potentially powerful exercise; it can help people face and overcome body issues, and bring a group to a new or different level of trust and familiarity. But the kind of deep trust and self-worth that gets built from this exercise is built with a coven or workgroup practicing skyclad, probably not from a one-time group who has never met before! I feel that ritual nudity as an option is a healthy and inclusive choice for many people; those who feel they are obliged to practice skyclad, and those who chose not to though who are comfortable with those who do. Those uncomfortable with nudity all together may be left out, but compromise can only do so much. (And fully clothed rituals are definitely the majority, anyhow!)
Now let’s move on to key point #2; the HP also mentioned that there would be touching during the ritual. When the same girl asked what he meant, the organizer brushed her off rather offensively by saying “Oh, don’t worry. There won’t be any sexual touching. I’m sure none of you will be uncomfortable, and, like, if you are I don’t really know why you’re even here, haha!”
Obviously my creep-o-meter was buzzing off the charts. Like ritual nudity, ritual touching is generally meant to be innocuous (though meaningful), but in a group of strangers, details must be given and clear boundaries must be set. Notice how he assumed what would make us uncomfortable and what wouldn’t, even though someone clearly voiced a concern based on discomfort. This shows three signs of terrible leadership; shaming the people who were uncomfortable, ignoring those who question you, and assuming you know what our boundaries are without even asking. After that moment some attendees might have thought twice about saying they were uncomfortable, as he had made it clear that we shouldn’t be, and if we were, there was something wrong with us. Terrible.
I tried giving this creep the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was just trying to preserve the mystique of the ritual. But that really wasn’t a good excuse. His presumptions, privileged attitude, and shame made any attempts at ‘preserving the magic’ irrelevant. Instead of creating a mystique about the rites, he created an aura of uncertainty, and mistrust.
That evening, at the actual ritual (my friend decided against going, but I had made a commitment and wanted to see it through) two new acquaintances of mine joined me (more on them in the next part of this post). We immediately arrived to key point #3; when people have expressed a concern, do not press it again.
The High Priest barely even greeted us before insisting that we strip; “It really needs to be skyclad, because I need someone to call a quarter or be the Handmaiden!” he insisted. Again, someone reminded him that the description for the event said skyclad was optional and that it should remain as such.
After more pressure, one girl agreed to be Handmaiden, and one of my friends agreed to go topless as a compromise (which really didn’t satisfy him, but he had run out of options). At this point I was seriously considering leaving, but decided to stay partly due to the commitment I had made to Dionysus, though mostly as support to my new friends and anyone else who was there.
Now, I will mention that the High Priestess (HPs), for me, was excellent. When we entered into the circle, we were greeted by our gender-opposite (HP greeted the women, HPs greeted the males), and when she asked me how I entered she did not harp on me for saying “In love and trust” rather than “In perfect love, and perfect trust” because I did not have either and she seemed to understand. When she leaned in for a kiss (Wiccan Church of Canada, and other traditional groups, include lots of kisses; short pecks each time something is handed to you, or you are greeted), I avoided it and kissed her cheek. Again, she let me continue. The High Priest, however, ‘chased’ a few kisses before ‘getting it’, I think.
That would be key point #4; notice the difference between the HP and the HPs. She was realistic about the expectations you can place on a bunch of strangers, out in the woods, working magic together for the first time. She understood my hesitation, but guided me through anyways, and I felt no judgement whatsoever. He, however, had already made it clear that those who weren’t rising to his expectations ‘shouldn’t be there, maybe’.
As the ritual took place, I had one major issue with their ritual structure. I’ll consider this key point #5 though it is different from the rest; do NOT call in a deity and then ignore them for the rest of the ritual. In this case, they called in Dionysus as The God, and Ariadne as The Goddess, and then ignored Her entirely until the dismissal. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT call in a deity (especially one who is prone to madness and married to an incarnation of chaos) and then ignore them! At best you are only insulting them, or boring
them. More likely though, you are angering them and inviting them to remind you that they are there because you asked them to be.
Moving on to key point #6; touching. I’ve already expressed my thoughts on ritual touching, and the HP’s intentions weren’t made any clearer by this point. When this part took place, the HPs touched me on the face, under the armpits, and just below my navel. I was stilled completely clothed. She was face to face with me and had I resisted I feel she would have stopped. Her words sounded sincere, and I believed her intent was to ground and heal me. The women I spoke to after said that the HP left them feeling vacant, and that looking into him as he ‘healed’ them was like looking into a black doorway.
This feeling may have been avoided if he had been upfront about how people would be touched; anxiety and uncertainty are not feelings conducive to healing. These women were not opening to him, because they feared him. They did not trust his hands to heal, and even though his touch (from what I was told) was not sexual or assumptive, he had rendered the touching entirely irrelevant by that point. It served no purpose because it was no longer a healing touch; it was empty.
Be honest with those you work with, because otherwise you sabotage yourself and negate all of the hard work that rituals require; from the organizers and the attendees.
The rest of the ritual was mostly what one would expect from a traditional Wiccan ceremony being lead by a man few people trusted. Hollow, one-sided, and far too organized and phoned-in to really honour a mad god of ecstasy. We made offerings to the elements and to Dionysus before asking for his blessings. Some asked for sex, some asked for passion. I asked for another year to work with Him and continue learning.
During the closing we sang a few songs, and this ties in to #5; do not call in a deity, forget about them, and then sing a hymn to another deity who isn’t even part of the ritual. Ariadne is sitting next to us, bored, and we sang a hymn to Aphrodite for love. And so, I will repeat again, DO NOT IGNORE AN INVITED GUEST!
Once the ritual was closed there was nothing left to do but try and sort out this…bizarre event.
So, finally you have key point #7; post-rit check-in and socialization is important. The organizers had put out plenty of cheese and crackers, some fruits, and some drinks….but there seemed like no reason to stay. The rit was over and no one wanted to mingle. If you run a ritual, talk to the participants after; maybe they have something important to tell you. This is part of being a good host!
So, that is part one of this Dionysian Ritual post. I hope some people found it helpful, and in the future they can remember back on this and realize that perhaps they are walking into a bad scene.
I’ll have another post up, hopefully by the weekend, for Dionysian Ritual pt.2 : Dealing with the Aftermath!
See you all then!