Lesson 6: Ritual - The Meaning of Time and Space Contents


Explaining the meaning of Ritual is one of the most important tasks for any religion or system of spirituality, and even more so for Paganism or Polytheism. Polytheism is much more centered around Ritual, since it is less “stuff you believe in”, like, say Protestantism, but “stuff you do”. Our idea of spirituality grows from rituals, from things you do. Now what defines a ritual? Simply said, a Ritual is a formal set of actions that follows a predefined formality and is done in a regular cycle. The best examples are the Kalends, which happen at the first day of each month, where sort of the old energy ends, and a new energy enters. We thank the Gods for the past month, and pray for guidance and blessing for the new month, including our prayer to the Ancestors.

So we have the element of time - the proper date in the calendar, and the time in the sense of history in form of revering the Ancestor Spirits. It is done in a simple ritual and prayer, and its power is derived from the same source of all ritual: regularity. If you practice rituals repeatedly and stick to the proper times and dates, it slowly transforms your character. Heeding rituals generally makes you a better human being. You become accustomed to sticking to form, to heed timing, so it is a sort of formalized attuning to a set of ideas or energies. Heeding proper times and respecting the meaning of different spaces is the hallmark of any civilization, and religious ritual is a spiritual reflection of these basic necessities of human life. Not all moments of time are equal to another, and not all spaces in the world have the same meaning. This is what ritual signifies. One of the errors a beginner on any path makes is, forgetting a ritual and then overcompensating it with a larger one. If you forget a date, or maybe you are so out of touch you don't feel like it, it's ok. Move on and take the ritual up at the next opportunity. It is much better to have your rituals be done regularly, than doing too large and too complex ones. Especially when you are a single practitioner, reduce the form to the necessities, so ritual does not become a chore you want to avoid.

Rituals dramatize an idea in a proper time and space, and thus rituals habituate people to the ideas of structure in time and space. Rituals are a necessity for any social community of human beings, and the loss of rituals in modern society has greatly contributed to its decay. When all moments of time are equal, without significance and structure, when no space has any special meaning, then the mindset is overwhelmed with chaos, and people lose their ability to form a structured social community. People no longer have anything they belong to, when rituals no longer signify limits and particular meanings. Why be punctual and diligent, when you have lost the meaning of time? Why care about places, public or private, why keep them clean and beautiful, when we have no understanding for sacred spaces? When all times and spaces are equal, no moment in time and no space has any meaning. Rituals distinct time and space, and thus generate meaning but making a line between the Sacred and the Mundane. Ritual forms the character of the individual, as much as the Public Ritual gives form and substance to the Community.

Ritual is a connection of the ideas of Time and Space. That is what makes their spirituality and changes the practitioner. Every ritual has its proper time, one for sunrise or sunset, a prayer before going to bed, or thanking the Gods for each Dinner, the seasons and memorial days asf. Each ritual highlights your awareness to the event in time, and sharpens, over time, your understanding of the cyclical nature of the Cosmos, which is one of the core ideas of Paganism. Everything revolves in a circle, that is the “Pagan idea of time”, in contrast to the Eschatological view on time the Monotheists have, who see time like a line, an arrow with one origin and one finite goal, the Pagan view of time is that of “Eternal Recurrence”, as Nietzsche phrased it.


I have previously written the “Basic Structure of Roman Ritual”, so I refer you to consult it to see how a basic Roman Ritual is designed, so I shall not repeat that here in detail. However the basic outlines of all rituals are similar.

First, it starts with a preparation of sorts. The participants detach themselves from the mundane doings of before and prepare themselves to enter the area of the Divine. The Priests wash their hands, praying to Father Janus to be cleaned and thus be worthy to speak to the Gods. In ancient times, the people entered a Sacred Space, the Temples or Shrines, which were dedicated and sacred to the Gods or a particular God. That is the aspect of Space that is manifested in Ritual. You step from a mundane place into a sacred one. Now in our time most people have no access to a Temple, so the suggested solution is making some small ritualistic gesture to signify, that the mundane space is for a time transformed into a sacred space, to mark: this is now no longer my living room or the garden or the regular part of the park, this is for a time a sacred space of the Gods. Drawing a circle and calling forth the Four Directions is one way to do that, or just circling around with incense and sacred water to bless the area. Something that makes your mind understand whatever place you are, is now Sacred, a place temporarily belonging to the Gods, not the mundane place of before. I understand that some Roman Polytheists have reservations against any “circle drawing”, which they falsely assume to belong to Wicca alone. We know from Plutarch in many sources, that circulation gestures were part of the Roman cultus, as part of the Pythagorean concept of the Cultus reflecting the cosmic order. Since we have only vague reports, how this was done, we must be creative ourselves. But especially given we have no temples that highlight the different space of sacred and mundane, we need to make a ritualistic effort to mark a space as SACRA for a temporal time, through ritual.

Once you opened the space for the divine and made yourself ready, the main part of the ritual follows. I usually start by lighting my Vesta Candle, calling to Mother Vesta to bless me with her presence of Light and Flame. Then you announce what the ritual is about, and proceed with all the various elements of the ritual itself. Prayer, Offering, Oaths, ritualistic practices – whatever belongs to it. This is then completed by some form of exiting. Again, if you do not have a temple or permanent sacred space, a gesture has to be made to transform the space you used back to a mundane space. This can be simple, like some formulaic sentence of thanking and wishing the powers farewell, or if you prefer a similar ritualistic procedure like the opening, but I personally make the ending usually brief. I thank the Gods and wish there may be peace between the Divine and the Human world “and it is done”. Something along those lines. After all, inviting the Gods to a space is a big step, but stepping back into the mundane does not necessarily require such a big action. Just allow yourself a moment of peace and rest, before returning to everyday activity, like resting in the blessing you received.


Pagan rituals and prayers in the Cultus Deorum follow the idea of “DO UT DES”: I give so that you give. It is a relation of a deal, a friendship, an alliance. The Gods support the order of things, give advise and council, and in return humans give proof of their thanks and affection. For a Polytheist, his Gods are not commanding overlords, who seek to punish them for every assumed moral imperfection. They are teachers and guides. A Roman prayer is a sort of a contract. The Romans were loving order and laws, and thus their prayers were very specific. They asked for clearly defined results, and promised something in return, like “grant me victory in this battle, and I shall erect you a pillar.” So a promise could be a sacrifice to a God, not just material offerings. Or both. The Romans took such oaths to the Gods very serious. So keep that in mind.
Rituals in the Roman times had often a public or social function. Romans gathered in the city or village in front of the temples, or in case of family holidays, with all family members and household members together. Most priests were not working as a professional priest, with some very few exceptions, like the Vestal Virgins, but were elected into Priest office for a short time. They were usually patricians, politicians and/or people working as bureaucrats in some sort of office. Being interested in the public affairs was seen as important as taking part in the public rituals and festivities. It was regarded as duty to the Gods, as it was supposed to be the duty of the Gods to return that favor, by protecting the civilization of Rome.
These social connotations are impossible to replicate these days, especially since Paganism is a minority, but also because we live in secular days, with people having many different religions in western countries. Today a lot of Polytheists are single practitioners and thus they are sort of their own Priest. But that too is what the Romans knew, the “Pater Familia”, the father, usually served as Priest for the Sacra Privata, the religious ceremonies done at home. And even in our days, this means you can do the Rituals in your home and as Sacra Privata design due to your leisure. While I advise learning the traditions and putting effort to restore and live them as good as you can, modern Paganism and private religiosity is something you develop as you explore it. From a Pagan view, all things are animate, all things have souls and are part of the great web or circle of life. And Polytheist spirituality means to be aware of the cosmos of which we are a part. We are not better than the trees and rivers, the animals and the elements around us, and we are not separate from them, but part of all that. The Gods and Spirits represent the great forces of the cosmos, as guardians and teachers to which we turn for guidance and assistance. We make ourselves aware: of our place in the cosmos and the forces which are around us. That is the goal of ritual and festival: awareness. We pay respect to the powers of the cosmos, instead of just taking all the gifts of life for granted. But also to symbolically deal with the great topics of life. Work and youth, love and war, art and death. It is through the connection of Space and Time: the Sacred Place and the Sacred Time, that we connect ourselves to the Divinities and the Spirits, the sacred in the Cosmos of which we are part.

C. Florius Aetius