I speak to you from the Charge of the Goddess: “Gather into the sacred circle, and secrets that are as yet unknown shall be revealed to you. And you shall be free in mind, body, and spirit. And as a sign that you are truly free, you shall be naked in your rites. Then shall you sing, dance, feast, and make music and love.”
Obviously, we are not Pagans. We show up completely dressed and no one is celebrating the Great Rite at our rituals. But wait a minute. We gather into the sacred circle…and we have music, we have a feast—and we share love even if we’re not “making it”.
The sentence just before the one about being naked is the more important concept: “and you shall be free in mind, body and spirit”. Free from what? Let’s work with each part of that individually.
Free in mind. Free from worries, free from old or false religious concepts, free from other’s ideas of what constitutes a spiritual reality for you. Free from preconceptions of what other’s spiritual path should be, free from preconceptions of others period. Free to explore whatever comes along, free to focus on this moment.
Free in body. Having a true acceptance of body shape and size, no inhibitions about movement and perhaps dancing in your exuberance of the moment. Free to see the beauty in your physical appearance and because you see it in yourself, you then see it in others.
Free in spirit. Free to experience the God and the Goddess as they manifest Themselves, wherever and however you meet them. Free to hear the lessons others may have for you, free to share your knowledge with others as well. Free to choose the path that is right for you without guilt or anxiety that it is different from those you love, or from the rest of society.
Being free means that we worship, or give worth to, our personal concepts of the Divine with an open and trusting heart, mind and spirit. We are involved on every plane of existence—our emotions, our thoughts, our bodies, our spirits.
And being free, we can then choose how to express our spirituality. Many of us have been solitary worshippers, having private rituals to meet with the Divine. As a group, we have to modify some of that process to include the others that share the path. So we come to ritual clothed…and it’s frequently apparent that our clothing for ritual is not what we wear to work.
So what do I mean when I talk about ritual clothing?
Most of us are very familiar with the concept of dressing differently for our spiritual practices than for daily life. For many years I attended Christian churches, and my mother always had me put on my “Sunday clothes”. I knew better than to ask to wear jeans, shorts, or any other “daily” clothing to go to worship services. One got dressed up to see the Lord…or at least, see the Lord’s House.
But ritual clothing is much more than that. Let’s start with defining the terms that we are using. “Ritual” is defined as according to religious law or social custom. It comes from the word “rite” which is “a prescribed form or manner governing the words or actions for a ceremony or a ceremonial act or action, such as initiation rites”.
Clothing would seem to be so well understood that we don’t need to define it. But other than the obvious meaning of covering with cloth, consider some of the alternatives: to express or enhance by suitably significant language or to endow especially with power or a quality (for example, “the nobility in which religion and history can clothe humanity — D. R. Wallace”).
So using those two words together can mean a ceremonial act that we endow with power. So what is ceremonial? It comes from ceremony, a word that Merriam-Webster defines both as a formal act or series of acts prescribed by ritual, protocol, or convention as well as an action performed only formally with no deep significance. There is a third definition, “routine action performed with elaborate pomp” which doesn’t seem to be much better. We do tend to mean the first definition when we are referring to our ritual circle: a formal act that is prescribed by ritual, protocol or convention.
There are many rituals that require specific types of clothing. You go swimming in a bathing suit, get married in a tux, perform surgery in scrubs, muck out the barn in your overalls… People can make a pretty good guess about what you going to do based on the clothes you are wearing. So wearing on a suit puts you in a different mood than sliding into your favorite old jeans and a well-worn t-shirt. Obviously, the way we robe—or disrobe ourselves—makes a difference in how we approach the activity that is associated with that clothing.
Clothing for our spiritual rituals is no different. There is a booming business in cloaks and robes for those of us who cannot sew our own. That fabulous velvet cloak is the first thing we notice when the wearer shows up to circle. The High Priest’s robe is significant enough that it marks him as the leader of the coven. It doesn’t even matter which spiritual group you are talking about. You can identify each level of the Catholic clergy by their robes and the colors of them. The clothing that is allowed to each of them acts as a marker of who belongs in which part of the group…novitiate, nun, priest, cardinal or Pope. So it’s very apparent that, as the old saying goes, “the clothing makes the man”. Or woman.
So how do we clothe our rituals? The Goddess said that we should be naked in our rites, to show that we are truly free. Unfortunately, civic law generally prohibits that in public places. Many Pagans are also uncomfortable with nudity for a variety of reasons, law being the least of them. There are some who refuse to be naked because of their disagreement with Charles Gardner, the accepted “father” of modern Wicca. There has been the suggestion that he stressed nudity to further his own personal agenda rather than as an honest expression of devotion to the Goddess. There are some Pagans who are not super models and prefer not to expose more of their flesh than needed for any occasion. So for whatever reason, total nudity is more often the exception than the rule, especially when talking about open, public rituals.
There is a deep honesty in being able to celebrate a ritual with nothing between you and the air. It requires being candid about who you are physically—in shape or not, tanned or fish belly white—and sets the stage for being open and honest with who you are mentally. If you can see all the imperfections in your body and admit to them, it’s that much easier to admit the imperfections in mind and spirit. Then you can move beyond them, learn how to change that which is harmful.
This comes right back to the Wiccan Rede, which most Pagans follow in some form or another: “An it harm none, do as thou will”. And harm includes our own being! We have a responsibility to ourselves as well as others to do that which is positive and life-enhancing. Rituals are one way to manifest this desire to improve things. The trick is to learn how to have this feeling even when fully dressed.
Back to being naked. Since we usually can’t run around the community park dressed only in our skin, what do we wear? Cloaks, robes and caftan-type clothing show up most frequently. These voluminous lengths of fabric permit naked bodies underneath apparent public modesty. They are different than most of our daily wardrobe, so they do carry that air of ceremony. They are frequently made from materials that are lush, sensuous and just beg to be touched—as well as feeling good on our skin. Period clothing from medieval times is also popular for similar reasons. All of these clothes are often expensive to make or buy and are worn only on special occasions.
The choice of our ritual clothing serves as an indicator of who and what we are, where we are in our spiritual path and how we choose to exhibit this. The colors we wear, the patterns on the material, the accessories (cloak clasp, belts, or necklaces) we wear with our ritual clothing…all of this reflects on us. We are showing those around us in a visual way the feelings that we have when we dress according to the situation—and that means ritual clothing for ritual reasons.
Certain colors are chosen most frequently and for some obvious reasons. Black is probably the prime, most favorite color. It is the color of the night, it absorbs energy, it is associated with all things hidden (occult) and mysterious. It is all the other colors combined.
Purple is for royalty, stemming back from the days when dying anything purple required specific seashells that were rare—so only royalty could afford it. Blue is the ocean, green is earth…red is fire, yellow is air. Or not. Colors are a personal choice, so whatever shade helps you be in a more receptive state, more prepared to participate in a ritual, that is the color you should have on.
But guess what? Solid color or a pattern, an entire robe or just a scarf…none of this really matters. Dressed or not is also not important. Do you really think that the Goddess doesn’t listen to you if you’re standing there fully dressed? Do you think She only pays attention if your goodies are flapping in the breeze? Do you think that the God is more interested in your following someone else’s ideas of what is spiritually acceptable than if you are presenting yourself in full honesty? Does He require that you show your skin in order to be given all the abundance He promises? OF COURSE NOT!!
Ritual clothing is NOT about the right cloak, or the lack of one. Ritual clothing is about being free in mind, body and spirit. Ritual clothing is how you prepare yourself to enter into sacred space and give homage to the Universe. Ritual clothing is your frame of mind, your heart’s readiness to experience your own spirituality and the path you are on. It’s about an energy flow through you and your willingness to let it flow in a positive direction. So how can we prepare for ritual? And how do we know that we are doing a ritual?
It’s special. It’s not the normal routine. It celebrates the moment, whether that’s marriage, your friends, a new child, a Sabbat, a new job…whatever the purpose of having the ritual is. It creates a connection for you, between your spirit and the Universe. It moves energy through you. It formalizes some part of you, some part of your life. It marks with pomp and ceremony some action in your life—and WITH significance.
We decide that we need to have a ritual, for whatever reason—the Full Moon, the Wheel of the year turns and it’s time for another Sabbat, or one of life’s milestones occurs…or we just want to do some kind of magickal working within the boundaries of a ritual. Once we determine what the reason is for the ritual, we can prepare.
You can either adapt a ritual that has been written by someone else, or you can create your own. If it’s a very private ritual, with only you, writing it down may only be a matter of personal preference. If you’re going to include other people, it’s a very good idea to write it all down. The visualizations that are a part of each ritual should be crystal clear to all participants, so more than one person circling means that clear, explicit text should accompany the dancing and firelight. By writing it down, by being absolutely clear on what the ritual is for and what you are doing, as a group, you will get better, clearer results.
Even a ritual that is not particularly a working but more of a celebration benefits from being written down so that there is comprehension and cohesion for each part of the ritual. In other words, the words help you get from “here” to “there” with everyone that you included. It can be hand written or computer processed, written in Bic ink or “dragon’s blood”…the actual process of putting thought to paper requires that which you decide it requires. And this is true in every aspect of your spiritual path—but if you want others to join you, be clear on what you are doing and how you anticipate achieving your goals.
Most Pagans agree that some sort of cleansing is a good idea. Many books will tell you to take a ritual bath, with herbs, oils or bath salts. I think that everyone agrees that smell is a very strong stimulus for memory and so putting something aromatic in our water teaches our brains that “this smell” equals “getting ready for ritual”. Not a bad idea…but showers are fully acceptable. And if for whatever reason there is no chance to have a real shower, use the visualization of cleaning to prepare for the ritual.
If you are having the ritual within your home space, clearing and cleaning that space is also a good idea. This preparation helps to establish in your mind that what you are doing is special. If you are having the ritual somewhere that is public, you will also want to prepare the space, since there are residual energy patterns from whatever was going on there before you.
Either place benefits from actual cleaning; removing trash, wiping away dust, sweeping up the dust rhinos, picking up the clutter. If the idea of ceremony is to formalize something, it needs to be different from the normal routine. The cleaning can be a part of the ritual if it is appropriate and adds to the energy that is being worked up.
As with your text, the use of ritual tools is completely up to you. Wiccans have specific tools that they may feel are necessary…the athame, the chalice, the flame. Each has its own symbolic meaning and purpose, so if that purpose resonates with you, then by all means, use it. Wands, pentacles, incense—whatever it takes to help you visualize what you are doing.
By wearing special clothing, you can make the ritual. By the cleansing of space and body, you can make the ritual. By the use of special tools, special music, special words, you can make the ritual. Does it matter what that clothing is? Does it matter how big your athame is, how deep the chalice, what color the candle, if the words rhyme, or where you have this ritual? NO! Does it matter if you’re alone or with a thousand people? Is it important that you spent a lot of money on it or none at all? Does it matter if this is the first time you have done whatever, or the hundredth? NO! Does it matter if you’ve strictly followed Ray Buckland’s instructions, or Charles Gardner’s, or…mine—or none at all, making it up as you go along? NO! Does it matter if you are dressed or not, whether you are using tools or not? NO!
Why? Because…I’m going to let you in on a BIG Pagan secret, the key to our entire path.
WHATEVER WORKS FOR YOU, WORKS.
IF IT’S RIGHT FOR YOU, IT’S RIGHT.
And the Goddess has told us that “all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals”. I would suggest to you that anything you do—ANYTHING at all, if done with an open mind and joyful heart, with the full appreciation of what is happening, THAT is a ritual. When you are truly free in mind, body and spirit and you are aware of that moment, aware of the Universal energy flowing through you and around you…that is a ritual.
Rituals are more about your state of mind than anything else. It’s about the awareness of sacredness in all that is around you and being responsive to that sacredness. Wear whatever you need to feel sacred; use whatever tools and words you must use to have the feeling of being sacred. Be wherever you need to be so that you can feel the connection with the Universe. And when you have reached that moment, when you recognize your freedom and the joy that it brings, no matter what else is going on, that, THAT is how you are clothed for ritual.