Guidelines for Public Ritual: How to Be a Good Guest and How to Be a Good Host

Suggested Guidelines for Public Ritual

By Cara Freyasdaughter, rev. June 2017

Yule 2015 Yule log, Kara

An example of a public Yule ritual altar

Hail, ye Givers! a guest is come;
say! where shall he sit within?” (Havamal, 2)

As a Heathen, I view public ritual through the lens of hospitality. Knowing how to act in the most respectful way in any situation was (and is) the key to avoiding many unnecessary disagreements in communities, especially the pagan community. Granted, some bad behavior will probably always happen, depending on those involved. However, many insults are given accidentally by people who are unfamiliar with the ritual format, religious tradition, or purpose of the given ritual. In my mind, the guidelines for public ritual can be broken down into one of two categories: 1) how to be a good guest (ritual attendee), and 2) how to be a good host (ritualist).

How to Be a Good Guest

  • Respect the hosts. Public rituals take a lot of time, energy, and planning, much moreso than a small ritual in someone’s home for a closed group. Unless the hosts are charging a large amount of money to enter the ritual, the ritual itself is being done as a service—to their Gods, to their tradition, or their community. Respect the amount of effort the host puts in and the risks that they take by running a ritual that is open to the public.
  • Assume good intent. Ritualists general do not hold open rituals in order to hurt or shame others. Mistakes and misunderstandings can happen; unless proven otherwise, assume they are unintentional.
  • Come prepared. It is your job to research the exact details of the ritual you will be attending. What is the format of the ritual? What Gods / spirits / ancestors / archetypes are being honored? Is it a sitting meditation or an ecstatic trance dance? Will there be a potluck? Will it be held outdoors? Will there be tickets or a requested donations? Remember to get enough food, sleep, and whatever else you need ahead of time, so that you can be a ritual attendee and not a ritual emergency-waiting-to-happen.
  • Arrive on time. Many pagan events do not start on time, granted, but a good part of the reason for this is that many attendees do not arrive on time.
  • Don’t be rude. Don’t get up and walk around, start a conversation with a friend, or answer your phone during a ritual. Unless the host specifically says otherwise, assume that the ritual is formal and that the host (gasp!) actually wants your attention and participation. Not only could you offend the hosts, but you could also offend any deity or spirit being honored in the ritual. Why offend Thor to answer a phone call?
  • RSVP if possible. Make life easier for the hosts by letting them know how many people to expect at their event.
  • Offer to help out. Many larger rituals require a lot of set-up and tear down. If you are early, offer to help set up chairs or put out food for the potluck. If you can stay afterwards, help put the room back into its original state.
  • Keep post-ritual gossip to a minimum. Even if the ritual was a complete mess, refrain from tearing down the group later. Instead, try to give some constructive feedback to the hosts. If it does turn out that the ritual or hosting group is a complete wash, just don’t attend their events.

How to Be a Good Host

Running a public ritual is a big deal. Your attendees are giving you an hour (or three, or five) out of their day and putting their trust in you to lead them through a spiritual or magical experience. As such, you have the responsibility to do any (or all) of these things: help them connect to the divine; help them heal—physically or spiritually; educate them; or lead them in honoring the turning of the calendar wheel. (Or other purposes; take your pick.) While you can half-ass this, that lack of preparation tends to show, and people tend not to come back to chaotic or unsatisfying rituals. Just as the guests have many things that are required of them, so to do you owe your attendees a good ritual.

(Also: Here’s some very basic advice from one ritualist to another: Putting on public ritual is a service. It is done out of a need to serve, not a need for power, fame, exhibitionism, or what have you. If you want to put on a public ritual, and one of your top priorities is not serving your community, make it a private ritual.)

  • Have a clear purpose in mind for your ritual. Why are you having this ritual? “Because it’s fun” or “because we did it last year”, while true, are probably not clear enough purposes for a public ritual. Think about what the audience should take away from this ritual. What kind of experience do you want to provide? Plan accordingly.
  • Respect peoples’ time. Be prepared to start on time. Also, a ritual doesn’t need to be several hours long for it to be a good ritual. Somewhere between 45 minutes to 1 1/5 hours is the most comfortable length of a ritual most attendees.
  • Tell people what to expect. Once you have figured out the purpose for your ritual, tell the possible attendees. Be as specific as possible. They deserve to know if, for example, this ritual will include a long trance journey in which they will get to experience Odin hanging on the World Tree nine days and nine nights. Don’t just say, “In this ritual we will go on a trance journey to meet the Norse Gods”, because that covers a wide variety of possible experiences. Let people know exactly what they are in for. (Cue stories of really bad ritual experiences.)
  • Plan for accessibility needs. Know your audience: If this is a public ritual, you will likely have a wide spectrum of people attending. Keep in mind accommodations for physical mobility; scent, sound, and food sensitivities; accessibility to food, water, and the privies; location-specific requirements; specifically gendered language; and level of experience with ritual energy and activities.
  • If your ritual will be intense in any way, prepare for at least one attendee to have a meltdown. In a public ritual, you have absolutely no way of knowing exactly who is going to walk through that door or what kind of life experiences your attendees have had. If you are planning a deep spiritual or psychological ritual, contemplate exactly how this experience could set someone off, and how you will handle it when it does. I’ll compare it to the guidelines for attending a public park: try to leave your attendees better off than you found them; don’t leave a mess. This is followed closely by:
  • Don’t attempt deep, intense experiences in public rituals. Unless this is a ritual you are really familiar with leading and you are fully aware and experienced in dealing with the possible outcomes, don’t do it publically. Deep rituals can be awesome and amazing experiences. But, for all of the reasons stated above, they are best done privately, where you at least have some control over who comes to what ritual.
  • That said, Give the attendees the space to have their own experiences. You may have a goal for your attendees, but some of them may end up having a completely different experience. As long as they’re not imploding or disrupting the ritual as a whole, let them go with it.
  • Follow up with people afterwards. Want to run a great ritual? Get some feedback from your participants. It helps to continue the positive guest/host relationship and will make your ritual foo that much better.
  • Go to other peoples’ rituals. Support your fellow ritualists, and get some perspective on your own rituals. Who knows, you might get to have your own great spiritual or magical experience when you’re not the one running the show. J

October 2015 update–Public stuff *all day* up in this joint

It’s been a month of all public things, all of the time. This is what happens when I put my head down and just keep doing what’s put in front of me to do.

Started the month with a Patheos post that unexpectedly went viral. Who knew that an article about the pros and cons of dedicating to a deity would be so popular? I honestly don’t think I said much that was completely new or novel. (Would that it were also one of my better written ones. C’est la vie.)

I followed this with my first public Heathen ritual in the area, Winternights. Winternights went well, even though the boyfriend was only able to attend the last round of the sumbel. It was a great small crowd with plenty of food and a lot of people trying out a heathen ritual for the first time.

Then I did my second Patheos column of the month, on ancestor veneration. (Which as not nearly as popular. Maybe people are just ancestor-ed out by now; I totally understand.)

Then I finally fixed the settings on my email from The Troth and was able to do an intro post there, and got some great suggestions and connections for my area. Heathens! Near me! Woot!

And I found out that not only did my Facets of Freya panel get accepted for PCon 2016, I’m also going to be in another Vanic-based ritual run by EmberVoices. And Jason, editor of the Pagan column at Patheos, wants me to be part of a Patheos authors panel at Convocation 2016 (which I’ve never even attended).

And then Sunday night I got an email from the organizer of our CUUPs group that a local reporter wanted to interview some of us for an article for the local paper. One thing led to another, and somehow I (or my altar stuff) ended up being in all of the pics. Good-sized article. For my hometown newspaper. Where many of my very Lutheran relatives live.

I hadn’t realized when this all started that newspapers need to use my given name and not my pagan name.

So now I’m outed to anyone who actually reads our local newspaper (which, considering the age of my relatives in town, will be all of my relatives.) So while part of me is like, woot! I’m in the paper!, the other part of me is like, Well, no more broom closet for you….  At least my very Christian grandfather is dead. I can deal with “religious disappointment face” from anyone but him. 😦 At this point he is a beloved ancestor and I don’t think he cares much one way or the other what I get up to, religion-wise, as long as I remember him. Funny how things work out. When I left home to go to college 20 years ago, I never dreamed I be back here now, staying with my parents, and appearing face-first in an article on local pagans. It boggles the mind.

I’ve been handed so many opportunities since I moved–as if given to me on a silver platter. So much less stressful than if I had tried to orchestrate it all.

A year and a half ago I couldn’t imagine actually blogging for a real blog. Or starting my own Heathen group. Or leading Heathen events solo. Or organizing a ritual for PCon. Or being willing to be interviewed by the media for anything pagan that also included my given name. Or moving back home and dating a Hellboy. 😉 (I couldn’t imagine moving back to my hometown, period.) But here I am.

In program, we say that we need to change our reaction to what the Gods give us from “No, but…” to “Yes, thanks.” i.e., be open to what’s given to us and not have a hissy fit trying to force what we think should be happening instead. At this point, all I’m doing ischecking my fear-based reactions and just saying “yes” and trying not to have any expectations of what will happen afterwards. I’m completely serious when I say that I have no idea what will happen next. And that’s okay. I just hope whatever happens nexts involves more contact with my Gods/ancestor/landwights, my boyfriend, my friends and my growing community out here, and my family.

So far, so good?

Weekly Round-Up (9/27/15)

Time for my weekly round-up, in which I get to play “But why am I so tired?” This is why I am so tired:

Saturday: Day-long commitment for my 12-step program.
Sunday & Monday: Prepped first “Intro to Heathenry” class; started several Patheos posts
Tuesday: Co-led “Intro to Heathenry” class, with my Rokkatru BF. (Missed my weekly program meeting to do so. Bah, scheduling.)
Wednesday: Rehearsal for my ADF grove’s Mabon ritual
Thursday: Wrote and submitted entirely new Patheos column (revise, edit, add pics, etc.) Also, libated every single one of the gods, ancestors, and landvaettir that I work with. (This includes three altars, 5 different kinds of booze, several trees, and 10 or so shot glasses)
Friday: Was swept off my feet and taken to a lovely sushi dinner by the BF
Saturday: Slept a lot. Also spent some more time with the BF watching the newest Doctor Who episode (BF, yay!; Dr. Who, eh.)
Sunday: ADF ritual: Rehearsal, set up, long ritual, tear down, and chatting afterwards. Came home and crashed. Finally caught up on this week’s Project Runway. (neat leather corset and jacket!)

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An Old-Fashioned Blot for Freya

Despite the countless pages of modern Heathen rituals I have seen (and participated in) over the years, and despite the fact that I instigated and headed the extensive five-Freya-priestess “Facets of Freya” ritual, Heathen ritual was never meant to be a big, choreographed affair. Heathen rituals, as such, were usually done at home, for the inhabitants’ ancestors, local nature spirits, and occasionally the Gods (depending on the family). Luckily, old-fashioned Heathen ritual does, in fact, lend itself well to my preferred style of ritual.

When I am in charge of a ritual, almost all of it comes from the heart and off script, if I can at all manage it. My main goals in most ritual are to interact with people one-on-one and share with them the love I have for my Gods. It’s not fancy, but it works; and all is usually good. However, this means I don’t have a lot of ritual written down, ready to hand out when needed. Also, this sometimes means my rituals are shorter than planned, or I miss including an epithet or myth or really cool turn of phrase that I’d thought of. So, when a friend came to me asking for ideas for a blot for Freya, I decided it was finally time sit sit down and write Her one.

The format is pretty basic and can be used for any deity, and you can add in more info or pare down the flowery bits as needed:


  1. Set space
  2. Welcome attendees
  3. Explain purpose of event
  4. Talk about Freya/Tell one of her myths/Wax poetic about Her
  5. Fill a horn with fruity alcoholic beverage and toast her
  6. Pass the horn around to group
  7. Hail her one last time, emptying the remaining liquid out for the landspirits

Here’s my version, for Freya.

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My (somewhat long) analysis of the Facets ritual and how it went

The ritual was fabulous. Did you know that the whole audience (fifty-four people; almost a full house at 11pm on Sunday) applauded when we finished? I’ve seen that happen a few times, but not very often. Mainly, I see it in rituals in which the audience felt that they were an active part of the ritual and felt like they got out of the ritual all that they had hoped. (Or rather, that’s why I clap at the end of rituals. Who knows why anyone else does, so YMMV.) Also, many people cried–which, if you read the blog, you know is a big sign that Freya Was In.

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A November miscellany: the All Gods event

My All Gods event/impromptu goodbye party went well, and as with all things new, it had a bunch of rough spots. I’m very excited to help with the Bay Area Hellenic Community’s version at PantheaCon this year, because this is a concept that I really believe in–me, Cara, the human; not Cara the priestess or Cara the political gadabout. It just really makes me happy to see different deities being represented by those who love them. The more the merrier, in my opinion. Come together, don’t pull apart. Our strength is in numbers. The real magic occurs in the interaction with other people. Together we can create more than any of us could envision or pull off on our own. (Fill in your own cliché here.) It’s all true, IMHO.

(I never understood Solitaries, honestly. Even when I was Wiccan, I didn’t understand it. If you’re geographically isolated, I understand that; that’s a reasonable concern, and as someone who became pagan in the Midwest in the mid-90s, I feel your pain. Maybe that’s why I’ve stuck with Heathenry so long; we’re ALL about community. Hate us or love us, we’re all in the community together. A horn shared is much better than one drunk alone. /end rant)

But anyway, back to the All Gods. I’d been doing Interfaith stuff and Hellenic stuff along with my Heathenry for a year or so, and just felt a really strong push to create an event where many gods could be worshiped together with other people who wouldn’t normally get a chance to worship together. My grand vision, now that I think back on it, was kind of modeled on the Brethren Court pirates’ meeting from Pirates of the Caribbean, except with less killing. In other words, people representing different trads and different Gods, all coming together to honor their Gods in the way they chose with the rest of us either respectfully joining in or waiting respectfully for the chance to honor our own Gods. (Have I mentioned that I’m an INFP? Idealism FTW.) And to a certain extent, the event did turn out that way–the Brethren Court minus the killing, but likely as much of the drinking. Many Gods were hailed, off-color jokes told, food eaten, connections made. But (as far as I know) we did not release any Goddess from her human form. Maybe we’ll aim for that next round. Still, I think the Gods were happy to a) be honored in front of people other than their usual worshipers, and b) be honored at all.

What we did, and suggestions for next time:

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