I am placing this discussion in "Beginner's Circle" because this sort of setting is where most practitioners tend to experience their first group-based magical operation.
The "Open Circle" is as what it implies. It is a pagan circle open up to individuals with or without association to the group hosting the event. In most cases, any person of peaceful intent is welcome within the circle to commune with other participants, to be involved in the solidarity of which the circle brings with people from all walks of life. The circle may be erected in a formal or informal way and the actions of the participants scripted or not. It ultimately depends upon the group hosting the event. It is up to the seeker to understand what is expected of him/her before arriving and participating in the event.
My first group experience was with an open circle via a CUUPS chapter in Upstate NY. Since then, I have attended a number of others around the Eastern US and have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly. As such, I am going to spell out a few pros and cons based upon them. I ask that others contribute to this with your responses and perhaps share some experiences.
It's an experience. You may have been solitary your entire practicing life before and it's one way to witness ritual through group dynamics and it gets your "foot in the door" to the greater pagan community. You get to meet other folks that might be down the road, of which you may have never been aware. An open circle may get you beyond the door's threshold, too. A lot of private groups and covens host open circles and, based upon your interactions there, judge whether or not you may be fit for being taught and brought into their group.
However, you may not know anyone there, much less how the ritual will work if you have no previous interaction with the group. This can make you a bit nervous and definitely inhibit your overall experience. Like all things in a proper circle, what affects one person will effect all. You should really get to know people before jumping into one and ask a lot of questions, if necessary.
Some folks do really strange, unconventional things. I've been in circles where people have invoked everything from Astarte to Yemaya and the last open circle I attended (which may very likely be THE last), they had us all spiral dance through a kiddie pool in a circle that was "pre-erected" an hour before, of which we all just trampled on into as if the "circle" was only permeable to us. The point is: You're in that circle so you're sharing in whatever goes on there. The energy will always effect you, to one degree or another.
Understanding that people gather into a singularity while in a circle, and the conditions of one person may influence all within a circle, I think it's more than obvious to say that not everyone goes into a circle with positive intent. There's complete strangers in every turn of the wheel, going in and out of the circle. It has been my experience that if you were unsure of someone before, you'll be more than sure of his or her "energy" once stepping into a consecrated circle. As such, any mixed-socials and open-circles may call for a good scrubbing of oneself afterwards. You can pick up "astral cooties" from improperly made circles consisiting of people of ill-intent.
Your best best when jumping into one is to NOT just jump into it. If it's a CUUPS chapter, they probably meet more often than just observances. If it's some Rotating Open Circle group, which is a body that allows for different operating groups in the area to host a ritual, you may wish to seek community advice on the group that is hosting it. Get in touch with the person(s) hosting the ROC and those performing the ritual. Get all of the information that is available and then go by gut feeling. If you feel something may be funky while gathering information or once there, feel free to excuse yourself from it and simply observe it from the outside, if permissable by the hosting party.
Because it is often our first group experience, it can be a very lasting impression. I remember mine like it was yesterday. So, to make sure that that lasting impressions are not scars, but rather fond memories, I repeat: do your homework!
Great post (as usual!) and I'd like to add a comment that "open circles" that are attended by pagans and others of the general public, while a fun community and group experience, are not necessarily indicative of a coven setting.
Some folks new to the pagan scene mistake ANY group experience to be akin to what occurs in a closed coven setting. While there are some similarities, sure, there are some very marked differences too.
For one, in an open setting, it is often a "come one, come all" invitation....so you get attendees who are practitioners of various paths, differing pantheon work, variable skill sets, ranges of education and ability in their practice. This will also mean that there will be a large spread of personalities to contend with, and likely, a wide gamut of knowledge.
Exposure to this breadth of spiritual expression --some good, some bad, some chaotic, some regimented, etc-- can be daunting, exhilarating and overwhelming to a first-time attendee. Most often, a first-timer is a solitary or someone looking to branch out into group work, and this foray into an open group festival or holiday celebration is a means of getting ones feet wet in the whole group dynamic.
One should be prepared beforehand with a personal "BS-o-meter" for confronting egos and relating to the inevitable interpersonal drama. One should also be aware that rituals will likely be more generic in feeling, less bound by specific pantheons or stylistic guidelines. A sort of glossing over of main and mutually thematic ideas that will cross-over many cultures and mythological cycles, thereby giving an "all things to all people" sort of feel to the rites.
Since there is often a revolving door of participants from celebration to celebration, it is difficult to achieve that ongoing group egregore, that relationship constant that develops as it would in a closed, close-kint group of consist working partnerships.
This is, in my opinion, the greatest difference between what goes on in a private, closed group versus an amalgamated open gathering....that the specificity found in a private group is not present, nor the long-term formation of a group bond.
So are open groups representative of "community"....yes and no. The are a parcelling, a sampling of a given number of folks at a given time, but not necessarily an accurate depiction of what things may feel like at another time or with another large group of attendees.
Does it give a snapshot of what the "vibes" feel like in a group setting? The romanticized amplification-factor that is touted as a benefit of working with others as opposed to be a solo practitioner? Kind of. Yes, there will be more "juice" behind the works enacted, but the ability to sustain a group-mind focus will be dependent upon (1) the number of participants present and their ability to stay focused in communal intention, (2) the ability of the appointed leaders to direct the attention of all participants without inserting their own agendas or distracting the individual members with more details than are required for the rite being performed, and (3) if there is an openness and ability to trust between the current participants, without ego, intimidation, coerciveness, or apathy.
The building and sustaining of the concepts of "perfect love and perfect trust" are difficult to do if you are walking into a room full of strangers and trying to be open to the energies swirling around and through you.
Catching up here (after, incidentally, running a weekend event which included rituals..) I wanted to follow up on Albiana's comments about open rituals.
Some are ways to try things out that are designed for larger numbers of people than a coven setting - ecstatic rituals, for example, or ones where there's a substantial 'community' role, as well as roles for the ritual leaders. Some are a good way to give people a taste of different groups in the community.
The thing to remember is that there are lots of variations. If different groups rotate through doing open rituals in your area, they'll have different styles. (And chances are, some of them may be better at group rituals outside their normal context than others.) If a particular ritual isn't your style, do continue to check out others that might be of interest (done by other people, or at other times of the year, or other settings) before writing off the idea entirely.
They can also be a really great way to narrow down more of what really moves you in ritual. When I was first exploring the community (just over 10 years ago), I went to a series of local open rituals. One had a lot of music, and I liked that. One had a trance meditation that was interrupted by a young unhappy child - I liked the meditation but not so much the interruption, and added "smaller group with clearer guidelines about either what they're doing, or how to handle kids who might get noisy." to my list of things that mattered to me.
And of course, going to open rituals can be a great way to meet other people in your local community with whom you do connect: around here, people who lead covens and teaching circles and all sorts of other groups might not go to every open ritual (among other reasons, there are only so many days in the week, and they may need to schedule their own group's work the same day...) But if you go several times, or to other non-ritual events occasionally, you'll often get a chance to meet a variety of people.
Do remember that even if you don't hit it off immediately with *them*, they may know other people who would be a great fit for what you're hoping for (which is one of the reasons that courtesy and etiquette can go a long way toward having a more pleasant and wonderful experience as you explore.)
I've got some pages on one of my websites that might also be helpful - when I've talked to people exploring the community, one of the things I hear sometimes is that people are nervous to go to an event because they don't know how to navigate some stuff that seems simple, but we can tie ourselves in knots over - what to wear that won't be too out there or too ordinary, what to bring (or not to bring), why an event might have certain requests, things like that. http://gleewood.org/seeking/reaching-out/ is the page with the relevant links (mostly under the 'Public events' header, but other things on that page will also be useful.)
I'm going to be lazy and re-post two articles that I wrote many years ago, but which I feel are relevant to the discussion. The first is about etiquette at pagan events. I'm in Oz, I've never attended a large American festival or open circle, but I have attended and run many here. So just as I say in the article, my take on etiquette and ethics may not by the same as yours, just as my experiences of what can happen in public ritual may be different also. However, by what I have read above, I think that quite a lot of experiences of, and at, public ritual are pretty universal.
Etiquette And Responsibility At Pagan Events
So you have become a pagan. You feel that an alternative spirituality calls to you, a spirituality where the dogma and restrictions of mundane society and mainstream religion no longer apply. You are free to find your own path to the divine, to live by your own ethics and morality. Great. However unless you are purely a solitary creature with no contact with other people, let alone other pagans, then you will have to adjust your attitude slightly and delve into the scary realm of etiquette.
Now I don’t propose to say that your standards of etiquette have to be exactly the same as mine, but there is a middle ground that relies on the notions of common courtesy, respect for others and social responsibility. Responsibility is a big idea and one that seems to be sadly lacking in a number of pagans. More on responsibility later.
There are certain social standards that we live by when dealing with the mundane world and I don’t see why they should change just because a bunch of pagans get together. These include having the courtesy to listen when something is explained for the benefit of the group, abiding by the rules laid down by the organisers, not arriving somewhere totally plastered or stoned, or smoking in a non-smoking area. It also includes turning off your mobile phone in places like restaurants, meetings, movie theatres and rituals. It also means not talking whilst someone else is speaking, whatever the situation. There is no excuse for downright rudeness, especially in a public place or ritual.
Now some of the areas of etiquette can be a bit grey, and in these it is better to err on the side of courtesy rather than rudeness, respect rather than intolerance. I know that just because we are all pagans and we get together sometimes, doesn’t necessarily mean that we can all get along, or even work together, however we can at least appear to try for the duration of the event. Or, alternatively, if you can’t or won’t treat the organisers or other attendees with respect, then don’t turn up in the first place. What a radical idea.
I know we all make mistakes sometimes, that is inevitable but we can learn from them. Yes, some people may not be aware of the hidden etiquette involved in group dynamics, but let’s face it, nearly every book on paganism has something about ethics and etiquette in there somewhere. The “I didn’t know” excuse only works for so long and anyway, how well do you function in the mundane world without respect and courtesy?
Something that I have noticed as a growing trend in pagan communities, both in the real world and online, is the lack of willingness by many pagans to actively and experientially participate in group magic and spirituality. I am not saying that there is a lack of attendance at events, just that many who do attend, do so passively. They expect to have rituals run at high energy levels, to have them run smoothly, efficiently and successfully, as well as to come away with a mind-blowing experience. This is only fair, however, what many people do not seem to realise is that for all of this to take place, they have to make themselves a part of the ritual too.
A pagan ritual relies on the energies and input of all those present, not just the energies of those leading the ritual, whether the leaders be High Priest, High Priestess or Grand High Poobah of the Illuminate Brethren of Fluffy Rodents. I see the role of leaders or organisers of public ritual to be that of a facilitator. They are the people that do the grunt work of getting the ritual happening, they provide the framework, the cues: they manage the focusing of the energies and provide information and act as the instigators of spiritual connection. They are not there to provide all of the energies. No matter how powerful you think you are, how well you can memorise lines, how flexible you can be in ritual, it is damn hard to run a ritual when you are working with participants who just want to sit back, watch the pretty effects, talk over the pretty words, but not contribute in any way, shape or form to the outcome. In my experience, you only get back what you put in. If you are unwilling to contribute to the ritual, go sit in a church and have a priest talk at you for a couple of hours instead, or better yet… don’t attend in the first place.
Now I am not saying that all ritual organisers are perfect, they are not, we all make mistakes but sometimes we really cannot take all of the responsibility for the success or failure of a ritual upon ourselves. Maybe the ritual wasn’t really set-up to be participatory, maybe the focus wasn’t quite right in regards to the diversity of those attending, may it really was poorly organised, but sometimes we also have to examine our own motives in attending the ritual in the first place. Were there prejudices or pre-conceptions that we took into the ritual with us? Did we really try to understand what was going on?
I feel that the responsibility for the outcome of a ritual lies with all of the people involved in that ritual. There are different responsibilities and levels of responsibilities, of course, but then again, a ritual is not something that you should attend just for something to do.
Responsibility works both ways. Organisers have the responsibility to make a ritual space as safe as possible, whilst still giving everyone involved a powerful experience into the realms of spirituality, mystery and celebration. They should make sure that everyone involved is fully aware of what will be happening (within reason), to allow participants to make an informed choice about becoming involved. They should be prepared to deal with changes in ritual direction, be in control and flexible enough to allow a ritual or event to flow as needed. They should also have some idea of what they are doing and take responsibility for what is in their control, or should be in their control. It is also a good idea for ritual organisers to appoint someone in the ritual to guard or let people out of the ritual space, and to point this person out to everyone beforehand. This way the ritual should not be disrupted too much if someone has to depart for whatever reason. Or, if the ritual space cannot be broken, explain this before hand and let people make an informed decision about attending.
Strangely enough, running a public ritual is a lot like being a director of a play or a film. As much as some people may have an aversion to the notion of ritual theatre, there are a lot of similarities there. Unless the ritual is totally spur-of-the-moment and freeform in execution, the organiser will need to work out the structure and flow beforehand. They will need to have a clearly defined goal, know whether they will require the use of tools (or props), costumes, scripts, cast, and know also how they wish to stage the ritual itself. Addressing these issues can make a ritual run that much more smoothly.
When writing the ritual it is also a good idea to work out the level of participation you require from participants, this also comes down to knowing your audience. If they are all of the same tradition, then you can add the idiosyncrasies of that tradition into the ritual with a fair amount of confidence that they will be understood. However, if the participants’ paths and experience levels all vary wildly, then you will need to take that into consideration as well. In public ritual, it is very hard to adapt the public to your ritual, you really need to adapt your ritual to the public. So you may have to water it down a bit from your normal ritual intensity, but you will probably have a more enjoyable and fruitful experience on the whole, with everyone sharing in the joys of a great ritual. Be practical, prepare, and keep it simple is the key here. Also by working out the ritual properly beforehand, you will also have some idea of what information you need to pass on to the participants and you can deal with this in a full ritual briefing.
The responsibility for attendees is to actually listen when rituals are outlined, attend the ritual briefing or find out if there is anything that they need to know beforehand. They should treat the ritual with respect both before and after the event. If they think they may have a problem, then ask an organiser before the event starts. There are only so many problems or questions that an organiser can think to ask or outline. It is up to participants to bring up an issue like obscure allergies, medical conditions or philosophical differences beforehand. If the participants are asked to prepare for the ritual in a certain way, then do it, or ask if you don’t know how or even why. Or, if you feel uncomfortable in the ritual, then let someone know discreetly so that you can be escorted out. Creating a fuss is just going to ruin what may be a positive experience for someone else. Of course there are extremes to any situation but these again should be handled with as much courtesy as possible and be taken on a case by case basis.
If you turn up to an event and then decide that participation is not for you, please either leave the area or sit down and watch out of the way. If you choose to just watch (and this is okay by the organisers) then please respect what is happening inside the ritual. Sit and watch, don’t talk, sing, drum, get drunk, make phone calls or disrupt what is going on in any other way. It is just plain rude and disrespectful of those who have chosen to participate. A ritual is not the place to air a grudge or engage in bitchcraft or a place that wilfully disrupting proceedings will be tolerated
The respecting or showing of courtesy towards both participants and organisers also extends to their property. Playing with, or touching, another person’s ritual tools, instruments, bags or person without permission is also a severe breach of etiquette and is not necessary. Remember, curiosity killed the cat. Touch and you may just get burned - this is not a dare!
Remember that although we may lead alternative lifestyles we are still bound by the laws of our country. This means that anything that is illegal in the mundane world is still illegal within the pagan community.
It is sad to think that we as a community need to occasionally be reminded of things like courtesy, respect and etiquette, but it seems that this is still the case.
So, if you enjoy working with other pagans in a public space, go for it. Just remember, if you are on an experiential path, then embrace the experiences that you encounter, both the good and the bad and learn from them.
Sections of this article were originally published in “The Small Tapestry” and online.
And to counter my rant above, here is article (again written many years ago) that examines some ideas of how we can try to make public and open rituals work. I see above that someone commented on the pre-cast circle. I have seen this done really badly, but I have also seen it work really well, which is why it is a techique that is included below.
Working Together: Active Participation in Public Ritual
The idea of public pagan ritual is a strange beast. For many pagans their path is a private and personal thing, their rituals solitary or with a small group. Not all of us are 'out' to our families, friends or work colleagues, I have even met some pagans who are not 'out' to themselves. So if this is the case, why would pagans want to participate in, let alone run, a public ritual?
Public ritual gives us, as a community, a chance to come together and celebrate in all our diversity, it gets ideas flowing, puts faces to names only seen in chat rooms or via email. It is a useful tool in showing a positive face to the wider world and allows those who practice alone to work with group energy without a coven-style commitment. It allows new seekers to the pagan paths a place to meet and work with experienced practitioners and other newbies in a safe environment.
On the flip side, public ritual can be seen to be a dumbed-down exercise in media manipulation, a recruiter's (or predator's) playground, a good excuse for a bitch session, a social event where everyone is left spiritually hungry or an ego-trip by the organisers (or participants).
It is often a mix of both the positives and the negatives outlined above. Somehow, somewhere, there must be a way to make public ritual a positive experience for all, to fulfill the needs of community and the individual. I believe that active participation is the key.
Let's face it, I doubt that there are many pagans out there, either new or old hands, who have not attended a public ritual with the attitude of "what's in it for me?" Sure, we might have some altruistic reason for attending, such as celebrating a particular festival, working with other people of like mind or meeting new people. However beneath the altruism, most likely an inner voice is saying, "let's have a sticky beak" or "I wanna be entertained and feel the powwwweeeerrrr". We have all been there at some point in our pagan lives, I know I have, and I see the same attitudes at every public ritual I attend or present.
Really, I don't see anything wrong with the above, it is a natural human reaction. If we acknowledge the inherent selfishness of ourselves and our attendees then we can work with it, use it and poke (or provoke?) people into actively participating because they are enjoying themselves, are being challenged and spiritually fulfilled. We need to give participants a reason to drop the selfishness for the duration of the ritual, to take ownership of what is happening within the circle or sacred space and contribute to the success of the ritual. There is no point running a public ritual if no-one attending wants to take part, or if you are lucky enough to come across a bunch of pagans willing to actually contribute something to the ritual, not giving them a chance to do so.
Many pagan paths are experiential, if we are to grow in ourselves and in our practice we need to give participants the tools to experience those paths, not just go quietly through the motions from the altar on high. That way lies a bunch of bored, sore-footed and inexperienced sheep.
I'm sure most of us have attended public rituals where no-one really participates. It can be frustrating for both the organisers and the attendees. The two-way energy flow that happens in a powerful ritual can lead to exhilarating experiences for all and I have been lucky to have attended many rituals where this has been the case. However, it is rare that this will happen without some effort on everybody's part. What we all need to realise is that Public ritual is a totally different beast to ritual performed in small working groups, covens or by solitaries. It requires a different approach, a different set of skills and a different attitude. If we accept this from the outset then we can all work together to create positive, memorable experiences.
We shy away from the term manipulation, but a good public ritual is all about that seemingly dirty word. Manipulation of energy, of flow and yes, of the participants themselves. I don't want rituals full of sheep, but I am perfectly willing to manipulate participants into actively participating. I'm not talking about mind control or coercive magic. I am talking about understanding group dynamics and using them to get participants motivated enough to allow themselves an experience.
There is a balance to this manipulation and it all weighs out. If a ritual organiser or organisers put in the effort to create a safe but challenging and interesting ritual, are seen to be competent and confident, then participants are far more likely to respond in kind. If it appears that no effort on the part of the organisers has been made, then participants tend to wonder why they should make any effort either, and rightly so. If participants are coming along for a celebration, then give them that, give them the keys to the mystery of that celebration and ownership of their experience. If the ritual is a magical working, then make it magical... and the energies will flow freely and with strength.
So now that I have had my little rant and probably insulted everyone still reading, I'll put my experience where my keyboard is.
Most public rituals have a mix of participants. There will be varying levels of experience, from the stalwarts to the fresh-faced newbie. There will probably be some who have loads of group rituals under their belts and others who are for the most part solitary. In public ritual, you rarely know who your participants are going to be, or how many people you will be working with. This can be, and for me still is, very daunting. There is no real group mind to work with, generally there is no specific path common to the those attending and between the very vocal and the painfully shy, no way of knowing if anyone will actually listen to or act on instruction.
Not everyone is going to love what you do. There will always be participants for whom your style does not work. If you are going to run public ritual you have to accept this. However, by writing this article I am trying to give both organisers and participants an understanding of just what public ritual can involve and yes, aspire too. If just one person reading this says to themselves, I would like to give running a public ritual a go, then the outpourings of my jaded brain will have been worth it.
For those that are chronic complainers about the quality or content of public ritual, then use the information in these articles to run something yourself and lead by example, show us how it should be done and we'll get some great rituals to add to the mix.
Preparation on the part of the organiser(s) is paramount. If you as the organiser are not prepared, even with just an outline of what you hope to achieve, then no-one is going to trust you enough to participate fully.
So what is the ritual for? If you don't know, then it is highly unlikely that anyone else will. Work this out first as everything else leads from this point.
Have you checked out the ritual site? A recce is always a good idea if possible. Are there slopes to contend with? Will the altar slide down the hill or sink into boggy ground? Do you need to cast the circle around the trees? Are you allowed to have flame? If you are performing a Midsummer ritual, will everyone die of heatstroke in your shadeless ritual space? Is there a bindii problem that prohibits bare feet and/or dancing? If you can't inspect the site beforehand, then build contingencies into your ritual, have alternative ritual parts at the ready.
Are there many speaking parts in the ritual? If so, are the lines easy to be learned? Can someone learn them in the 10 minutes before the ritual prep? Do you need to have some people learn lines beforehand or have you built in a section for inspired utterance? Can the chant actually be chanted without turning into a tongue twister or losing the flow? Always practice a chant and build it up to speed to check that your participants will be able to say it. Can the chant be learned quickly or be easily picked up during the ritual? If an invokation or prose piece in a ritual is too long to learn by heart, then it is too long to be in the ritual. People will be snoozing long before the twentieth stanza. Reading off a piece of paper by candlelight on a windy night is nigh on impossible, does not instill confidence in participants and looks silly. It is also not conducive to a good energy flow.
Know your format. Again, if you don't know what comes next, don't expect anyone else to work it out for you mid-ritual. You need to know your format and alternatives so well that you can keep control of the ritual but also go with the flow of where the ritual takes you. If inspiration hits you during the ritual, you should be able to make the transition seamlessly.
Props are great for public ritual as they provide visual cues, draw people into the sense of the ritual, enhance a theme, make a point and can be used to give participants something physical to work with. Finding the right balance of props is important though. You need to be able to keep track of them during the ritual, have ready what you need, and know how to move them to the appropriate ritual point. Props need a purpose, an intent, too many and chaos ensues. Be prepared for something to go wrong with a prop in the ritual, for it to disappear or break. Know what you will do if that happens and have a propless contingency.
Decorations are different and they can instill a beautiful sense of the overall ritual, highlight a celebration and set the mood. However, they also need to be appropriate to the ritual space. Setting fire to crepe paper streamers flying in the wind is not usually a good idea, especially in bush fire season. Keep your torches away from other flammables!
Finally, when you have completed your preparations, then get to the site early and set everything up. Then you will be free to greet people, hand out parts, teach people your chants and all will be ready in time for the pre-ritual prep. This is the talk given to all of the participants before the ritual, outlining what is to happen, what the goal is, how the ritual will work. Give people the option of whether they wish to attend the ritual now they know what is to happen. If you allow people to watch from outside the circle, remember to ask them to respect those inside and keep quiet, not talk on their mobiles or dance around like loons whilst the ritual is in progress. Always point out a person who will let people out of the circle if participants have trouble or that can ground anyone who might still require that after the ritual.
If your ritual requires the setting up of sacred space then you need to make a choice. Will you set this up beforehand, energy-wise, and then invite people in, or will you create it in front of them? If the latter, then you also need to work out whether one person will do this, a couple of people, or the whole group. If the whole group is not responsible for setting up the sacred space then make sure they at least know what is going on. Speak loudly and clearly, make it obvious, make it beautiful, engaging and give it a sense of awe. If participants feel they are now in a sacred space they will act accordingly. Sure you can cast a circle with an act of will, but will the rest of the people know that it has been cast? Not all attending will be that sensitive.
Up to this point I have covered the big picture of public ritual. This involves goals, participants, manipulation, preparation and sacred space. Now I would like to look at some of the actual techniques that we can use to encourage participation in public ritual and activate a low-level group mind.
Group mind is a wonderful thing, anyone who has worked in a tightly knit group will have experienced that synergy, the perfect timing without word or gesture, the flow of energy that is just right. Public ritual can have this too, it may not be to the same level, but with effort and preparation you can make it happen. You need to bring people together into the sacred space, to allow them to let go of any selfishness and act as a group that is greater than the sum of the individuals present. This is not to say that we want to overwhelm the sense of the individual, just that if participants can 'get in sync' with each other the ritual experience is usually a lot more enjoyable and powerful for all.
If time and numbers allow, why not have each person say their name and why they are there? You could have each person, or groups of people, make an offering at the same time. This could be placing an object in a cauldron, libating, lighting a candle, stating what the season means to them. You could take them through a meditation or use energy raising in the form of drumming, dance, intoning or chanting. The point is to get everyone participating at the same level, to feel part of the ritual itself. Give them something to do.
This does take time, and so a good idea is to use several of the above techniques and build them up. Use the same chant in different parts of the ritual. Start with a simple dance such as a vine dance and then incorporate a spiral dance. Have some people drum during this. Have a cord dance with a few people, assign others to drum, others to chant. It is amazing the results you can achieve. Give all of this purpose within the ritual itself and give the participants the why. Use riddles or challenges to engage participants. All of this builds the framework of a group mind. By the time of the second dance or the second chant, you should find people are stopping and starting at the same time.
You can also create several smaller group minds that then merge into a large group mind. Before the ritual assign small groups of people to perform the same task. Give them enough time to chat about it. This could be a certain number of people all coming forward to make an offering or a libation at a pre-arranged time. Then another group comes forward to light candles in the libation bowl. Another group then takes the bowl around the circle etc. This again builds up ownership. Each group can chant for the other. It really depends on the purpose and story of the ritual.
For a really large group you can break them into smaller groups maybe assigned to a specific clan or element. Give each group a purpose, an object to create or consecrate, a person to anoint or robe/crown. You could send each group on a quest. When each group returns, find some way to unite them into a whole. For example, in one Midwinter ritual we sent 4 groups in search of the new born flame. When each group's representative returned they gave the light to their group who had been sitting in the cold and the dark. When all groups had their fire lit then candlelight was sent around the circle joining each group and each fire. The four had become one, the clans had become the tribe.
Working with group energy
So when the energies have started to flow and people can feel them and own them, then use those energies. In the above example an invocation was made and the central fire lit with magical and seasonal purpose after the circle had been joined with the candle flames. Wild dancing then ensued, followed by a nice grounding feast.
Using the idea of group energy to aid in invocation, you can have participants intone around an invoker and invokee (or priest and priestess). This raises group energy that is then focused by one person and channeled by another. As a preface to this, a couple of participants can cleanse the invokee, and robe, crown or mask them. Others can dance or drum around the intoners. Again using small groups as part of a large group. This will help build up a good energy flow for the recipient to channel back into the ritual. However, depending upon the number of participants, this technique can generate a lot of power, so the people who are performing the focusing and channeling should be experienced in handling energy.
Group power raising can also be used to aid active ritual storytelling. Instead of just reciting a story, the speaker draws upon the raised energy to illustrate certain points and bring the listeners/participants into the story itself. For a Midsummer ritual we raised energy with a ribbon dance and when the energies peaked, the ribbons were laid upon the ground with the participants still holding onto them. A storyteller then spun a tale about Midsummer and as they described a spear plunging into the earth and energy being spread out across ley lines, so the participants felt those energies pouring down through the ribbons. This energy was then used to fuel the visions generated by the rest of the story.
Using this technique, the participants build up the energy and are then 'rewarded' by being able to see what their efforts have achieved. Even though such a reward is not necessary, again it breaks down the inherent selfishness of public ritual and of course, achieves a desired magical or celebratory aim. Storytelling is also useful if the ritual is a working with specific deity or deities. The images and aspects can be built up during the story so that everyone is sharing the same ideas and focusing on the same aim.
Overall, how you encourage active participation depends upon the nature of the ritual being performed. Not all techniques are appropriate for all rituals. Wild dancing at an introspective ritual probably wouldn't work too well, conversely a deeply introspective meditation may not achieve much when there is a maypole to be danced... then again...
Direction, instruction and confidence
For all or any of the above techniques to work, some direction and instruction is required. All of this does require someone to lead, everyone needs a person to take cues from and focus on at first. Someone should be giving clear signals and it should be someone that has been pointed out for this purpose and knows what they are doing. No-one wants to listen to an involved lecture in the middle of a ritual, so get any lecture-like instruction out of the way in the pre-ritual prep. Instruction within the ritual should be more along the lines of statement of purpose, e.g. "We stand upon the threshold of Spring, at this time we celebrate such and such. Let us awaken the Maiden from her Winter slumber by... etc", "I call the warriors to the Hunt.", "I call upon the Maidens of the Moon to libate the waters...". Make it short and to the point and in keeping with, or complimentary to, the language style of the whole ritual. I also can't state enough that any instruction really needs to be said with confidence and in a voice that can be heard. No point giving direction if no-one can hear you.
It takes skill to direct and co-ordinate a large ritual and the person doing so will probably need to be alert for the duration. It is a good idea then that if someone is supposed to go into trance during the ritual, that this person not be the co-ordinator of the ritual. Generally speaking, the ritual will lose focus and the trance will not be very deep if the person in trance is worrying about the next section of the ritual. Delegate.
There is a big difference between writing and performing rituals. Not everyone can do both well, and in public ritual the person co-ordinating, directing etc must be able to perform. Think ritual theatre with intent. If someone is quietly spoken, shy and suffers from stage fright, they may not be the best person to run the ritual even though their writing is inspirational and magical. Also someone who has little skill in public speaking may yet be brilliant at acting as a circle guardian. They can watch the energy levels and keep a discrete eye on newbies for any signs of distress. They can let people out of the circle if needs be and make sure props are where they ought to be. Again delegate if possible and know your limits.
In a small group setting where people have time to build confidence and don't need to boom out across a windy and noise filled night, the shy retiring ritual co-ordinator is fine and probably beneficial as they will encourage their co-ritualists to listen.
If you do know the skills of any participants attending the group ritual, use them. If the public ritual is a regular one with some regular attendees, then up their participation levels over time. People do like to be challenged so locking someone into one role may not be beneficial to anyone. As you can see, balance and judgment are also necessary skills in ritual co-ordinating.
Closing the ritual and de-briefing
In public ritual it is a good idea to make sure there is some way of grounding the participants and preparing them to enter the mundane world once more. The ritual also will need a sense of closure. You don't always know your participants or how they will react, so play it safe and bring the ritual to an obvious end both physically and energy-wise. Spare some time after the ritual for de-briefing. Make sure that people know that if they require additional grounding there is someone to help. Allow people the time to chat and come down, to discuss the ritual and how they felt about it.
Experience, Experimenting and Archiving
So the ritual is over. Did it meet your expectations? Did it run to plan or move in wonderful or uncomfortable new directions? Did it fall flat? Did you achieve active participation? Ask yourself these questions and learn from your answers, compare the original script with what actually happened and write down the changes... you may want to incorporate them into your next attempt. Not every ritual works, sometimes we have to experiment to understand the dynamics of a particular public group / space / festival. Rituals grow and change, some take more time than others to set-up or run.
Sometimes, and I hope that it is often, everything works, participants participate, they unlock new mysteries, they want to come back for more and they help you pack up. This is what makes public ritual such an inspiring experience. It can be scary, frustrating and exhausting, but I think it is worth it.
My sincere thanks go out to all of those participants on the 'Hill' who truly understand the meaning of active participation and who continue to provide inspiration with their willingness and contribution to making magic truly happen.