by Natalie Winter
This article was written to serve both as a general introduction to the principles and practice of Ritual Magic, and as a preface to the scripts for the Rituals used in my own Path which can be found on this website.
Ritual Magic is a field about which there can be a good deal of misunderstanding and even outright nonsense, so first of all it's vital to lay down some groundwork. I have seen some 'practitioners' who approach ritual as if it's nothing more than a piece of theatre, where all of the effort goes on showmanship, fancy diction (very likely in a language no-one can understand!), equally fancy props and ritual tools, lots of elaborate hand-waving and similar meaningless gestures, and absolutely zero actual magical content! Conversely, if the magical skill is in you, you can perform perfectly excellent ritual magic using an old cracked teacup as a Chalice and one of your grandma's ancient kitchen knives (wickedly sharp, natch!) as an Athamé, and in fact being of the Romani tradition (where specific ritual tools were generally an unaffordable luxury) that's precisely what I personally do. In fact you don't actually need any ritual tools at all, a cupped hand can generally serve as a Chalice and a pointed finger as an Athamé. Oh, and if you want a Wand, go and pick up a suitable stick that the nearest hedgerow doesn't need any more!
There is also no "right" or "wrong" way to do a particular Ritual or piece of magic: what is "right" is what works for you. For example, when calling the Quarters (i.e. the five Elements) when casting a Circle, I use their names and referents from Irish mythology because the witchy part of my Romani heritage hails from Ireland, and has incorporated a fair amount of the Irish mythology, just as the dialect of Romanes that I speak contains a number of Gaelic words -- and I find that the Irish mythology speaks to me best of the Elements; however my partner Heather, who is Devon born and bred, has her own set of referents for the Elements, all based on Devon's nature and landscape because that's what best speaks to her of the Elements. So it is with any other sort of Magic too, whatever wording you use needs to speak personally to you -- so if you do use anyone else's rituals, treat them only as a starting point, not as something set in stone: never be afraid to follow your own spirit and change them to suit yourself!
The point is that the Magic is not in the fancy tools, fancy words, fancy handwaving etc, but in you. If you've "got your head right" you can make the Magic work anytime, anywhere, with anything or nothing; if you haven't got your head right, no amount of fancy stuff will make the Magic come. Just reading the words off a script, or even repeating them from memory, isn't what makes Ritual Magic work -- it's something very much deeper, that's not easy to put into words, although you'll know it when you figure out how to do it.
Nearly all Magic is either an extension of visualisation, an extension of the senses, or more usually both -- remember the basic dictum that "magic is the art of changing consciousness at will". Some types of Magic are purely sensory, such as reading auras or seeing spirits (both examples of "second sight"), although it is still highly advisable to understand and master Protection before experimenting even with these relatively passive forms of Magic. Many other forms of Magic are more active, in that the practitioner aims to use her/his consciousness to affect reality in some way, and in these forms the art of visualisation-and-transformation is key.
Basic methods of personal Protection serve as good examples of this, and it really is vital to master protection before moving on to any more elaborate Magic of any sort. The simplest method is to visualise white or golden light surrounding yourself -- though visualising alone isn't sufficient, you also need the "transformation" part so that your mind affects reality rather than the whole thing simply taking place in your imagination. Earthing is a closely related technique that can be useful as a learning tool because it's quite easy to feel when you've "got it right" and made the transition from merely imagining to actually affecting reality. There's more on Protection and Earthing techniques in the next section.
A Circle, too, is a form of Protection -- but it protects a space in which to perform some work of magic, rather than your person -- and in just the same way, casting a worthwhile Circle in which it is safe to work has to be far more than just running through a script and lighting a few candles. I cannot stress strongly enough that casting a Circle is a work of Magic in itself and must be done with care and diligence. People have sometimes asked me why I bother to physically walk around the perimeter of a circle three times -- if they need to ask me that, then they obviously aren't paying attention to (or can't see) what I'm doing, laying down a really solid "wall" of protection as I go; I'm not taking a stroll for the good of my health!
Protection and Earthing
There are two broad types of Protection, personal and space. Personal protection establishes a 'bubble' of protection centred on your body that moves around with you, constantly renewed and powered from the Earth's energy, to protect you actively as you go about your life and work. Space protection, which includes casting a Circle to protect a space for working ritual or magic, or protecting your home or a similar space, is a more passive type of protection, and may be temporary, as in the case of a Circle which exists for the duration of a ritual, or permanent, as for protecting your home. The common factor in space protection is that the protection covers a fixed, rather than mobile, area that can encompass several people so that they can lower their personal protection and share their energy to work together in the Craft. A Circle is created when needed for a ritual or other work of the Craft and then dispelled when the use is finished, whereas permanent protection is created in much the same way as a Circle, but left permanently in place and reinforced periodically.
Personal protection is vital -- you should always establish protection before commencing any form of Craft work or entering any location that may have any form of even possibly harmful spiritual or magical energy; and really you should develop the habit of maintaining protection at all times for your own safety -- this becomes more and more essential as your abilities develop. Practice the techniques for boosting your protection to the maximum regularly so you can do it easily when you need to -- in an emergency you won't have time to fiddle around and protection needs to be second-nature.
Visualisation-and-transformation is the key, as it is to a lot of witchcraft/magic; several different techniques can work, so find the one you're most comfortable with and that works for you. I visualise tree-like roots from my body down into the planet that draw on the Earth's own limitless energy and then link it into a bubble of fire energy surrounding me (I'm a fire witch) -- this is a relatively advanced method but extremely powerful if you can get the linkage to work properly (because anything trying to get through me has got to get through the entire planet first). Easier methods include surrounding yourself with white or golden light, as many witches do, or Heather's method of visualising herself grounded and protected by the spirits of Nature in a beautiful forest glade. Obviously, as with all Craft work, the “transformation” part is necessary as well as the visualisation; you should be able to feel when you've got it to work.
Protecting a Circle
The Casting & Dispelling a Circle page shows the full procedure that I use for casting and dispelling a Circle for ritual or other Craft use; as usual, you should feel free to adjust the method and wording to suit your own tradition or your own feelings of what speaks to you best. The most important step with regard to protection is laying down the Circle itself -- the circling three times sprinkling salt and water while invoking the Spirits of Earth and Water; as usual, it's not enough merely to say the words and walk round the perimeter of the Circle -- you must do the visualisation-and-transformation bit too! The same applies when dispelling, of course. The purpose of the whole procedure is to set up and later remove an actual wall of protection -- although in fact it is more accurate to describe it as either a cone or a hemisphere of protection, since it is closed at the top.
A properly-cast Circle will provide a barrier of protection that will prove to be unpleasant or even impossible to push your way through before it is dispelled; therefore if you or anyone else needs to pass in or out of the Circle, it is helpful to open a temporary 'gate'. This is normally done using the Athamé to literally cut a 'doorway' in the perimeter of the circle at the desired place, working in a counter-sunwise direction. When the gate is to be closed, the action is reversed. As usual, it is necessary to accompany the action with the appropriate visualisation-and-transformation, since it is you, not the Athamé, that is opening or closing the gate.
Protecting a House or Other Space
Protecting your home or some similar space that needs permanent protection is very similar to casting a Circle, except that you don't dispel it, and instead repeat the casting periodically to reinforce the protection. You need only perform the sunwise circling and salt-and-water part, not the calling of the quarters, since you're aiming to create a 'softer' circle that protects the space from harmful influences without requiring you to open a gate every time someone wants to pass in or out -- and I would alter the wording of the invocation to something along the lines of “Spirits of Earth, Spirits of Water, protect this house from all that is evil or harmful”.
Typically, you might initially repeat the casting every night for a complete lunar cycle to establish really solid protection, and then repeat the casting just once in a while to 'top up' the protection -- although how many castings are required depends upon how strong you are in the Craft and how much protection you want to apply; a particularly able and experienced witch can fully protect a building in a single casting.
Earthing (or Grounding) is closely related to protection, but usually used when you need to 'discharge' accumulated emotional/psychic energy and bring yourself back to balance to continue with everyday life. To do this, first make sure you're somewhere safe, preferably outdoors and in contact with natural ground because that makes it easier, especially if you're inexperienced, then relax totally, close your eyes, and release whatever burden you're carrying into the ground. Earthing is also very useful for stress management in everyday life, once you've got the hang of it.
The method I recommend for Earthing is not unlike that for personal protection, but in reverse: visualise roots going from yourself, either from your feet or from the base of your spine (the kundalini, if you're familiar with chakras) into the Earth, but instead of drawing up power from the Earth, this time you're dumping all that's unwanted into the Earth. When you're done, withdraw your roots, close down, re-establish your protection and carry on with your life. As usual, it's one of those things where it's easy to feel whether you've got the hang of it or not -- in fact Earthing is probably the easiest technique of the Craft that you can use to give you feedback as to whether you're doing it correctly or not, and as such is a very useful learning tool to help you practice the technique of visualisation-and-transformation.
Magical Health and Safety
In addition to Protection and Earthing, there are a few other points to consider that fall under a "health and safety" heading:
The first is the Talisman: Pagans of virtually all Paths dedicate and wear a protective Talisman (most commonly a pentacle), and by tradition this is the only piece of ritual equipment that is worn all the time, rather than only when working magic. The Talisman is really only symbolic of the Witch's ability to apply protection to her/himself at all times, but it serves as a useful reminder that protection must become second-nature -- as well as acting as a recognition symbol between practitioners.
It is also unwise to attempt to take certain types of mundane items into Circle (or other magical practice) with you; foremost among these are electronic items such as phones and electronic watches, although mechanical watches have been known to suffer in Circles too. Not only do the electromagnetic fields from such devices disrupt magical practice and irritate people with sufficient psychic sensitivity, but magic can scramble or totally destroy electronics -- on one occasion, a guest insisted on wearing a digital watch in one of my Rituals even though I had warned her about this, and afterwards we found that the microchip was totally burned out. And I have seen many other instances of magic disrupting or destroying electronics even when not confined in a Circle.
The Sabbat Rituals
So, you understand the difference between simply running through a script as if it was a piece of theatre and actually performing a work of Magic that can affect reality, have got the hang of doing visualisation-and-transformation by practicing protection and earthing, and you've had a look at the Circle Casting and Dispelling methods and customised them to suit your own preferences, personal history and Path. Now you can perform your first Sabbat Ritual!
You'll find a timetable for the eight Sabbats in the current year in the Witchcraft & Paganism Index, though it's not really essential to perform the rituals on the "right" date precisely -- especially the Cross Quarters, which are nominal anyway. As with Circle casting, don't be afraid to customise any ritual script that you use to suit your own Path, preferences or just how you feel on the day. Magic should always come from your heart, rather than from someone else's script.
Once you've got to this point, it's really quite straightforward: cast your Circle, perform the Ritual itself (always remembering the "transformation" bit!), do any other Magical work you might want to do (for example, a healing invocation if a friend is ill), finally dispel the Circle.
Ritual Tools and Clothing -- What Do I Need?
The simple answer is "nothing is essential", because the magic comes from you, not from any paraphernalia, and in my view any Witch who can't rustle up a decent bit of magic without a truckload of ritual kit and hours of preparation is no witch at all and totally useless in an emergency! Having said that though, a few basic items can be helpful to have around for times when you've got time to use them, as they can help you get "into the zone" when working Ritual.
There is a great deal to be said for making your own ritual tools if you can, as you can put a great deal of your own spirit and magic into them in a way that you can never do with bought equipment; alternatively, using "found" items that mean something to you works well. Wherever you obtain a ritual item from, be sure to purify and dedicate it before using it in magical practice; there are a number of ways of doing this, ranging from simple to elaborate, but the way I generally do it is to immerse the item in salt water while saying an invocation along the lines of "Spirits of Earth and of Water, cleanse and purify this whatever-it-is" along with the appropriate visualisation/transformation, then take it into Circle and pass it over the Sun Candle (if doing a Sabbat that uses one, otherwise light one specially or use the Fire candle) and dedicate it using a form of words something along the lines of "I dedicate this whatever-it-is to Magical use; may it serve me well, a true implement of the Craft". Imbolc, or an Initiation, are the traditional times for dedicating new ritual equipment but there's no reason why you can't do it at any time.
The most useful piece of kit, and probably also the simplest and cheapest to acquire, is a robe: a simple change of clothing sends a strong message to your subconscious mind that it's time to leave behind the mundane world with all its clutter and distractions, and move into the magical zone. It needn't be elaborate and very many Witches make their own. It absolutely doesn't have to have runes, stars, sigils etc. on it, neither does it have to be tied with nine yards of cord in some particular colour scheme, despite what some books would have you believe! In many Paths, my own included, pure white is not considered an auspicious colour (because of the association with the shroud of death) but I'm sure members of the Druidic tradition would disagree with me!
It's helpful, but again not really essential, to have five small candles to mark the five Quarters of the Circle. They absolutely don't have to be fancy big coloured things, tea-lights are fine. I do however like to place mine inside glass holders (I made my own by decorating drinking tumblers with glass-paints) for the purely practical reasons that (a) if you're working outdoors it prevents the wind from blowing them out, and (b) it means you can't accidentally set your robe on fire when working in a limited space, which would be seriously embarrassing for any Witch. Another option for outdoor working, which is better for windy conditions, is to use a set of five hurricane (paraffin) lanterns, again painted with glass-paints to symbolise the five Elements.
It's handy to have something that can serve as a Chalice, but as I mentioned above this can perfectly well be an old cracked teacup (in fact I like my old cracked teacup because it's the one my grandma used to give me my bedtime hot milk in when I was a little girl and therefore it's very magical to me and that's what matters). Really you just need something you can mix salt and water in, assuming you use that method of protecting a Circle. It certainly doesn't have to be elaborate, and a cupped hand will do in an emergency.
A "real" Athamé (or at least one that can cut an apple) is necessary if you want to do the "fruit of the Other World" ritual at Samhain (please see the Samhain Ritual Script), but again you don't need anything fancy and a perfectly ordinary kitchen knife will serve the purpose just fine. Other typical uses of the Athamé are to invoke the spirit of Fire or to cut a Gate in a Circle to let someone pass in or out, and for these purposes almost anything, even a pointed finger, will serve, provided that you imbue it with the spirit of Fire by the normal visualisation-and-transformation technique.
Other ritual bits and pieces are entirely optional; if you want a Wand to invoke the spirit of Air then a suitable piece of twig or stick can be purified and dedicated, and I must admit I'm rather partial to a nice lump of natural Amethyst (not a cut crystal) on my altar to invoke the spirit of Earth.
Other Basic Ritual Magic
You may well find that you often want to make simple invocations or prayers, for example asking for healing for a friend who is unwell. This sort of invocation is very easy to do, either tacked onto another Ritual if you're doing one anyway, or after casting a Circle specially. You can of course simply make the invocation verbally, but lighting a small candle for each invocation is a traditional and effective adjunct to a simple verbal invocation, and this forms a routine part of the Imbolc ritual (which in fact the Christians "borrowed" in the form of Candlemas, also held on February 2nd), though of course you can perform such an invocation any time you like. Since the practice involves letting the candles burn themselves out naturally, it's handy to have small candles that don't last very long: I find birthday cake candles ideal.
You can also perform a somewhat fancier form of healing or general invocation, where as well as asking the Goddess and the God for the help that you want, you can invoke one or all of the Elements in turn to bring their associated attributes to bear. For example, if I'm doing an invocation for a friend who is in hospital, in addition to the basic request to the Goddess and God for the gift of healing, I might well call down the "truth" attribute of Air and the "vision and wisdom" attributes of Water to aid the doctors in making a correct diagnosis and choosing the best treatment, "love and passion" from Fire both to help my friend to fight the illness and to help the family and friends to give support, "peace" from Earth to relieve suffering, and finally invoke Spirit to keep a general magical vigil over everything.
Of course, you can also do things to help yourself in Circle: meditation or pathworking, knowing that you're totally protected and safe; channeling or communicating with those on the other side of the Veil; healing for yourself if you're unwell or stressed; or you can simply sit or lie down in Circle and enjoy the unique feeling of being absolutely disconnected and protected from the mundane world, and part of the Other World, for a while -- I find this very therapeutic and always stay in Circle for as long as I can get away with after I've done any ritual before I have to dispel the Circle and return to the mundane world.
Obviously there is very much more to Ritual Magic, and even more so Magic in general, than can be covered in a brief introductory article such as this, but I hope that this has given you
a useful starting point to explore the Ritual Scripts presented on this site, and encouraged you to learn more.