Theater and ritual are a married couple. Good theater is an art that breathes the breath of the Gods into any magical working and devotional ritual. Like any art, it can be done well or badly.
“I felt like it was too theatrical, like I was just some person in weird clothing with weird objects who likes fantasy books, movies and RPGs just a little too much. It always just felt fake and I didn’t know how to move past that and just get over it.”
The article reminded me of when I first started in Paganism, back in 1999. My first public ritual was Ostara, attended by probably about 30 people. I was very nervous and wasn’t sure if I really belonged there. Many people were dressed up in weird robes that looked like they were attending a Dungeons and Dragons convention. They carried ritual tools that looked like fantasy movie props. My first thought was how weird these people were and that they looked very fake to me.
The energy of the ritual, though, was powerful and convinced me to stick around and see if there was more to them than their costumes. As it turned out, there was quite a bit more.
Over the years, I’ve heard many different opinions on the role of theater in religious ceremony. Some groups have such grand productions that you’re not sure if you’re at a theatrical play or a ritual. Others feel that if there is any theater at all, it takes away from the intimacy and the power of the magic. I have settled on the side of using theater, but it needs to be done well or it will detract from the ritual.
Dionysos is the Greek God of ecstasy, trance, rebirth and theater. One important aspect of many rituals is to achieve an ecstatic or trance state to commune with the spirits or the Gods. Participants are sometimes reborn as a result of this ecstatic communion. It’s interesting that the same God rules all of these aspects of ritual in the Greek and Roman pantheons. There is power to theater beyond it’s facade.
When you watch a good play or a movie, you are transported away from your mundane life into the lives of the characters. Similarly, when theater is appropriately used in ritual, everyone is transported away from their mundane lives to the higher planes where they can see more clearly and commune with the Gods. Using theater, such as ritual clothing and ceremonial movements aids greatly with this. If a large number of participants are involved, theater becomes a critical way to communicate the elements of the ritual and the energy to everyone.
Theater can be used badly, though. When this happens, the ritual becomes a grand spectacle, but without any substance. The energy is not transmitted, but is instead either kept by a few key people for themselves, or is not present to begin with. When this happens, the ritual is, sadly, little more than a bunch of weirdly-dressed people romping around with fantasy tools. Everyone who does enough ritual will do both good and bad theater at times. I remember some rituals I led that ended in disaster due to bad theater and lack of substance. The key is to learn from these experiences and make the good theater happen more often, so the good rituals get better.
The line between good and bad use of theater is a very fine and fuzzy one. Here are some tips on doing good theater in ritual.
- All key players in the ritual know their roles and their importance in the ritual.
- Key players also understand the energy they are contributing through their role.
- The ritual is written with clear knowledge of the intent and the energetic and magical importance of every element of the ritual.
- The ritual is written with a clear vision of exactly how the energy and magic will be transmitted through the ritual parts to everyone present.
Using theater as an aid for rituals is an art that is difficult to learn, but very rewarding. It can help greatly, even with solitary rituals. For example, the energy contained in ritual robes becomes very strong with regular use. This helps you greatly with getting in the mood for ritual. Robes also help you focus your energy and intent on the ritual while it is happening.
Next time you do a ritual, think about the theatrical components in it (even if you don’t do “ceremonial magic”). Use these questions as a way to start.
- Do you light candles? What is the meaning of those candles? Why do you light them in the order you do?
- What clothes do you wear? What do those clothes (or lack thereof) add to the energy of the ritual?
- What words do you speak with? How do you deliver them? Through chant, vibration, bellowing, screaming, whispering or some other way? How does that delivery of those words affect the energy?
- How do all of the different elements affect your ritual? Did they help or inhibit your magic?
All of those questions will help you increase the focus and intensity of your rituals. Reviewing them each time you are in a ritual or are writing one will aid in using the art of theater to its fullest. As you improve, your feelings of connection to the Gods and spirits will get stronger and you will grow in ways you’ve only dreamed.
A ritual is a strange place to someone new in Paganism. Seeing a ritual where everyone is dressed in strange robes, moves during the ritual with flourishes, and carries fancy medieval weapons is something that can test their beliefs. But through the suspension of disbelief, theater enables them to receive the energy and the magic performed. And that is why they took the chance to attend in the first place.