Pagan ritual is not Christian ritual. And it’s not like any other Abrahamic rituals. To understand why we do what we do in ritual, we need to understand the larger context behind why we do ritual and how to think of ritual.
This article will deal with some theoretical concepts. Not every Pagan will agree on them. And I am largely taking from an Indo-European, hard polytheist perspective. Disclaimers aside, if you are a Pagan interested in “why do we do ritual x way,” then this should be useful to you.
Reciprocity and Hospitality: Pagan Values
I consider reciprocity and hospitality to be fundamental aspects of pagan worship. Giving offerings is at the core of polytheism. If we are asking for something, we should give something in return. However, as Thomas states in his book Sacred Gifts, the gods aren’t vending machines.
If I invited you to a party, you might bring food, or alcohol, or a gift. And when you have a party, you’re likely to invite me. This is simple politeness. These customs can be applied to our relationships with the gods.
Even if I invited you to my party, perhaps you can’t make it, but you offer to hang out some other time. In other words, the gods may not always give us exactly what we ask for. But they may do what they can for us. It’s up to them.
To continue the party analogy, perhaps I sent you an invitation, but you decided not to RSVP, and you didn’t come. The gods don’t have to answer our requests at all. They don’t have to show up for our rituals.
What if you’re invoking a deity for the first time? Make sure to be extra polite. Pretend you’re knocking on a new neighbor’s door with a Welcome-to-the-Neighborhood Pie. You are just starting to build a relationship with this deity, so treat them accordingly.
While I compare relationships to the deities to our relationships with friends, that analogy only goes so far. The deities are powerful, wise, and ancient. They should be treated with respect. You invite them to ritual in order to give them praise and offerings as an honored guest. It’s like inviting someone to your home: you are a host with certain responsibilities towards your guest. This is the general framework to have in mind when you are interacting with the deities.
What Deities Ask of Us
Following the logic of reciprocity and hospitality, the gods shouldn’t ask too much of us. They shouldn’t ask the impossible of us. As a guest, it would be rude to ask too much of your host. As a patron (as in the patron-client relationship of ancient Rome), it would be unfair to ask more of a client than what they can afford.
A deity doesn’t have to follow these rules, but, again, that isn’t polite. Just as the deities do not have to show up to our rituals, we do not have to do what they ask of us. And if they ask too much of us, we aren’t likely to further build a relationship. Relationships are always about give and take.
Sustaining the Cosmos
We still need to understand why we do ritual. What’s the point of it? Giving offerings is all well and good, but how should we think of the seasonal holidays? What about rituals like Mother’s Night? Or the Noumenia, a ritual for the beginning of the Hellenic month?
What was the purpose of ritual to ancient polytheists? The ancients often believed that ritual upheld the cosmos. Celebrating the return of the sun on the Winter Solstice actually caused the sun to return. And if a those specific rituals and traditions did not happen, then the sun wouldn’t return.
Maybe we don’t believe that the sun literally won’t rise if we don’t perform some sort of Winter Solstice ritual. And that’s perfectly fine. We’ve had hundred of years of scientific exploration to help us explain how the world – and the universe – works.
However, we can still affirm that ritual sustains the cosmos. And to some extent, every religion believes that ritual sustains some kind of order in the world. In a Pagans context cosmos is essentially order.
Order and Chaos
The definition of order that I’m using is: the arrangement or disposition of people or things in relationship to each other. It is the opposite of disorder or, rather, chaos.
Using the image of the World Tree (or sometimes World Mountain) we can see how the cosmos works in the spiritual sense. The cosmic tree is alive. It needs food to survive, and that food is the chaos of the waters (and by extension the underworld). Chaos sustains the tree, and the tree grows leaves and fruits. The tallest branches of the tree reach the heavens. Now, this sounds lovely, right? The tree transforms chaos into greenery and fruit. This sounds like cosmic order.
But the problem is that the waters will run out if they, too, are not fed. And then the tree’s growth will stagnate. As Serith puts it in Deep Ancestors, cosmos “would become like a crystal, beautiful but dead. It is the constant influx of chaos that prevents this from happening (30).”
Life cannot continue if there is stagnation. And so the tree’s fruits grow and eventually drop. The ripe fruit falls back into the waters of chaos. And if the waters are fed, the tree is fed. Cosmos and order can exist and grow and flourish. But it’s also necessary to feed chaos to keep order. Note that feeding chaos is not the same as accepting all the chaos in the world. Feeding chaos simply keeps balance.
This is also reflected in IE creation myths. The sacrifice of Ymir’s body creates the world in Norse lore. Romulus kills his brother Remus, which leads to the founding of Rome. Many of the IE creation myths contain a first sacrifice. Chaos must be fed in order to sustain (and even create) the cosmos.
Feeding the Tree
All of this is a modern interpretation or reconstruction of what we can find in Indo-European cosmology. But it is essentially how those ancient polytheists viewed the cosmos and why they do ritual. Rituals often focused on sacrifice, which was how humans fed chaos, ergo sustaining order.
Ritual feeds the world tree, which in turn sustains the cosmos. Ritual promotes and keeps cosmos. The sun will still return if you don’t hold a Winter Solstice ritual, but we do ritual to keep cosmic order in the general sense.
And if ritual keeps cosmic order (a macrocosm), then it keeps personal order in our lives (a microcosm). Rituals help us through the year and through our lives. Rituals sustain us and our communities.
These are the fundamental concepts behind how and why Pagans do ritual. Rituals are generally meant to sustain the cosmos. The customs surrounding reciprocity — a gift for a gift — and hospitality — the guest-host relationship — are guidelines for how to interact with deities and other beings in ritual.
I highly recommend both Thomas and Serith’s works. They spend whole chapters discussing what I’ve tried to simplify into one article. Both books are steeped in a breadth of comparative IE scholarship. And both attempt to understand the larger religious and cosmological concepts of these ancient polytheist cultures and how they can apply to us today.
All articles accessed March 2021.
- Kirk Thomas. Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods. ADF Publishing. 2015. Pages 3-30.
- “Patronage in Ancient Rome.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patronage_in_ancient_Rome
- Ceisiwr Serith. Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. ADF Publishing. 2009. Pages 13-34.
- “Indo-European Cosmogony: Cosmic Sacrifice.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-European_cosmogony#Cosmic_sacrifice