No-Nonsense Paganism: Creating a Ritual (part 2)

In the last part, I wrote about how to get inspiration for creating a ritual from listening to the living world around us, to our own bodies, and to our deep selves. In this part, I’ll talk about how to create a ritual with a simple gesture and some poetic words.

Word & Gesture

“A genuine ritual, like a living symbol or a religious experience, cannot be fabricated; it can only be discovered.”

— Edward Whitmont, Return of the Goddess (1982)

Ritual is the product of a conscious form applied to unconscious content. Conscious structure is unavoidable, or else there could be no “ritual” per se. However, to balance the conscious side of the equation, we need to draw the substance from the unconscious. The most evocative rituals I have created came from somewhere other than my rational mind. They combined intuitive bodily movements with what W.H. Auden called “privately numinous words”, words that I had read or heard which had a talismanic-like effect on me.

Ritual can also consist of stories, music, images, and other elements. Here I’m going to focus on gestures and words. It’s tempting to start with words, because we are a wordy culture. But instead, I want to start with physical gestures. Because of their non-verbal nature, they are more direct vehicles to the unconscious.

I did actually learn something from my first public Pagan ritual: the power of simple physical gestures. As we stood in the circle, I noticed several of the participants standing with their arms extended at their sides, palms out. “That’s interesting,” I thought to myself, “I wonder why they are doing that.” It was obviously a deliberate action, but I didn’t know what the purpose of it was. So I tried it myself. I extended my arms at my sides and turned my palms outward. Immediately, I felt a change. Something happened inside of me. I felt less guarded, more open. I felt more connected to the other people in the room. I felt more open to the possibility of the ritual. All this just with a simple gesture.

This was new to me, and I wasn’t convinced right away. So, I decided to experiment. I turned my palms back toward my body, and the sense of openness diminished. I felt like my sense of awareness, which had previously extended outward into the room, had receded back into the physical boundary of my skin. And when I turned my palms outward again, the expanded sense of awareness returned. Sure enough, this simple gesture was changing my experience in a profound way.

This realization transformed my experience of ritual and my understanding of the relationship of the body and mind. I continue to use simple gestures in my rituals. For example, in my daily morning practice, I stand facing the sun, arms at my side, palms outward, and then I raise my arms slowly, while I recite a poem about the sunrise. This simple gesture deepens the meaning of the words. And in fact, sometimes I skip the words altogether.

There are many such gestures which can be part or even the entirety of your ritual. Examples of simple gestures include raising your arms above your head, touching your fingers to your forehead or your heart, pressing your palms together or cupping your hands together, or bending down and touching the ground. Examples of gestures which require other materials include washing your hands in water, daubing oil on your forehead or lips, pouring water on the ground or into another vessel, or passing a flame from one candle to another. Examples of more complex gestures include yoga poses and dance movements.

Ritual gestures are like poetry in motion. Like poetry, they convey more than their apparent simplicity suggests. For instrumental gestures, like picking up a hammer to hit a nail with or closing a door behind you, the ratio of meaning-to-movement is usually pretty low. Although, there are circumstances in which the meaningfulness of picking up a hammer or closing a door could be higher, like threatening someone with a hammer or slamming a door in someone’s face. For ritual gestures, the ratio of meaning-to-movement is very high. The simplest gestures can be profound.

“For most of history, religion was a full-body experience, a primary space in common life where we danced and sang and laughed and cried and ritualized the passages of our lives. Rituals are sophisticated ancient intelligence about the body. Kneeling, folding hands in prayer, and breaking bread; liturgies of grieving, gathering, and celebration–such actions create visceral containers of time and posture. They are like physical corollaries to poetry–condensed, economical gestures that carry inordinate meaning and import.”

Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (2016)

Your unconscious may also suggest to you words. They may be your own words, or they may be the words of others, which you read or heard sometime. Again, what matters is that they resonate with you internally and with the seasonal changes happening around you. Note, the words don’t have to come from ancient pagan liturgy. It can really be anything. It can be the lyrics to a popular song. It can be something you wrote for a school project years ago. It can just be something you heard somewhere once and you don’t remember where, but you wrote it down and it stayed with you all these years.

“Of the little words that come 
out of the silence, like prayers 
prayed back to the one who prays, 
make a poem that does not disturb 
the silence from which it came.”

–Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet”

Poetic language is especially powerful. Not everybody loves poetry. But I think a lot of the dislike of poetry stems from a misunderstanding of what poetry is. A lot of people mistakenly believe that a poem is like a riddle, which has a single meaning, and figuring it out is a test of your intelligence. But the point of poetry isn’t what it means, but what it evokes, what it makes you feel. If it doesn’t make you feel anything, if it doesn’t resonate with you, that’s okay. Find other poetry that does.

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit …

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds. …

A poem should not mean
But be.

 Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica”

I have discovered that the power of words in ritual is often inversely proportional to their number; generally, the more wordy a ritual is, the less powerful it is. I think that’s why poetry is powerful; it says more with less. The ratio of meaning-to-words is very high in poetry. Poetry has what Paul Ricoeur calls “a surplus of meaning”. You could explain a poem using many, many more words, and still never quite exhaust the meaning. In contrast, consider an instruction manual, in which the ratio of meaning-to-words is very low.

It’s also important that the words be short enough to memorize. You can read words during a ritual, but reading engages a different part of the mind than reciting. And I have found that reading often gets in the way of feeling the power of the words. If you must read them, I suggest reading a short phrase, then closing your eyes and reciting it from memory, and then moving on to the next phrase.

And that’s it. A simple gesture. Some poetic words. All of it coming from the intersection of the world around you and that place deep within you. You’ll know if you’ve succeeded if the ritual feels like it came from somewhere other than your conscious mind or like it means more than you can say.

“be prepared for something suprapersonal that transcends our understanding to the same degree that the author’s consciousness was in abeyance during the process of creation. We would expect a strangeness of form and content, thoughts that can only be apprehended intuitively, a language pregnant with meanings, and images that are true symbols because they are the best possible expressions for something unknown – bridges thrown out towards an unseen shore.”

— Carl Jung, “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry”

In the next post, I’ll share what my winter solstice ritual is going to look like this year.


John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including PatheosHuffington PostPrayWithYourFeet.orgGods & Radicals, now A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at

%d bloggers like this: