A rite of passage is a ritual designed to make sacred a particular life event or transition from one stage of life to another. We might also call these rituals ‘sacraments’.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sacrament as “a thing of mysterious and sacred significance; a religious symbol”. The word is used in Catholicism to refer to the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, and matrimony – which are mostly rites of passage; and in Protestant traditions, to baptism and the Eucharist. The etymology of the word is from Latin sacramentum ‘solemn oath’ (from sacrare ‘to hallow’, from sacer ‘sacred’).
An important element of rites of passage and sacraments is that they have a physical component, often linked to one or more of the classical four elements (earth, air, fire, water). Immersion in water is used in both Judaism and Christianity to signify entering into a new phase, being consecrated (baptism) or re-consecrated (mikveh). Fire is used as a purifying medium in the Hindu ritual of aarti, which is both an offering and a purificatory ritual. Water is used for the Sikh baptism ceremony called Amrit Sanskar. The ancient druids are reported to have used sensory deprivation by requiring candidates for initiation to lie in darkness for several days and then thrusting them into the light, according to OBOD. All these rituals signify some sort of symbolic death and rebirth experience.
The sacraments in Pagan traditions
There is no standard list of sacraments for any contemporary Pagan tradition, but we can identify sacraments for most of them.
In Wicca, the sacraments could be said to be preparing the circle, cakes and wine, naming (sometimes called “Wiccaning”), initiation, handfasting, and croning.
In Druidry, the sacraments could be said to be preparing the circle, naming, initiation, and handfasting.
In Religio Romana, there are many rituals designed to connect the practitioner with the deities and sacralize life. These include libations, a prayer for ablutions (a ritual formula to purify oneself prior to the performance of other rituals), and various daily rituals at the lararium or home shrine.
Most Pagans presume that everything is already sacred, because deities are immanent in the world. Therefore, rituals of consecration are about creating extra sacredness, or reconnecting us with the deities, the community, or the natural world.
Birth and naming. Pagans do not perceive a need to purify either the mother or the child after birth, considering that people are born innocent. The child will typically be welcomed into the community and given a name, but will not be committed to any particular religious tradition, as most Pagans believe that children should be able to choose their religion when they are old enough. Although the naming ceremony in Wicca is sometimes called a Wiccaning, it does not mean that the child is considered to be a Wiccan as a result of the ceremony.
Coming of age. There is a distinct lack of coming of age rituals in Western culture generally, and this is echoed in Pagan traditions, although some groups do celebrate the onset of menstruation, as long as the young woman in question actually wants this.
Initiation. Wicca and Druidry both have initiation rituals, often based on the initiation rituals of occult orders such as Freemasonry. Isaac Bonewits identified three types of initiation ritual:
- Initiation as a recognition of a status already gained
- Initiation as an ordeal of transformation
- Initiation as a method for transferring spiritual knowledge and power
I have identified six aspects of initiation, which may be present in a single ritual, or may be a gradual process. There is the inner process of transformation; the initiation by the gods and goddesses (making contact with the numinous); experiencing the Mysteries (that which cannot be spoken, or Arrheton); being given the secrets of the initiating group (that which must not be spoken, or Aporrheton); joining the group mind of the initiating group; and the joining of the lineage or tradition of which the coven is part.
In Heathenry, initiation is replaced by profession, a ceremony where someone professes a desire to become part of the Asatruar (people who are true to the Aesir, the Heathen deities), and then takes an oath.
Handfasting. This is the term for a wedding, mainly in Wicca and eclectic Paganism. The term has been in use since the 1960s, according to Wikipedia. The ceremony generally involves the symbolic crossing of a threshold, such as leaping over a broomstick or a small fire. The use of ribbons to fasten the couple’s hands together has been practised since the 2000s, again according to Wikipedia. Rings and vows are usually exchanged.
In Heathenry, wedding ceremonies are usually hallowed by holding them beneath the hammer of Thor (Mjöllnir), and arm-rings are exchanged. The couple may also hold an oath-ring while exchanging vows.
Croning. A ceremony for a woman who has reached menopause, usually celebrated in Wicca. A croning ceremony usually takes place around the age of fifty, and celebrates the achievement of elder status in the community, and feminine wisdom.
Dying. There is no set ritual for preparing for death, but there are many excellent resources in The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, by M Macha Nightmare (formerly of the Reclaiming tradition) and Starhawk.
Preparing sacred space (the circle). Most Pagan traditions have a preparation for ritual, as rituals are often held in spaces which also have other uses, such as a living room, a garden, or a park. Therefore sacred spaces are temporary and have to be reconsecrated. It is also necessary for the participants in a ritual to be prepared for ritual, in order to help us enter into the right mind-set. Preparation typically includes some form of consecration of both the space and the participants with the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Incense, water, salt, and other symbols of the four elements may be used to create sacred space.
Blot (Heathenry). This ritual has three parts, the hallowing or consecrating of the offering, the sharing of the offering, and the libation. The offering, shared with the deities, is typically mead, beer, or juice.
Sumble / symbel / sumbel (Heathenry).
“The sumbel is actually quite simple. The guests are seated, (traditionally, in some formal fashion), and the host begins the sumbel with a short statement of greeting and intent, and by offering the first toast. The horn is then passed around the table and each person makes their toasts in turn. At the sumbel toasts are drunk to the Gods, as well as to a persons ancestors or personal heroes. Rather than a toast, a person might also offer a brag or some story, song, or poem that has significance. The importance is that at the end of the toast, story, or whatever, the person offering it drinks from the horn, and in doing so ‘drinks in’ what he spoke.” ~ The rituals of Asatru
Cakes and wine (Wicca). In Wicca, cakes and wine are consecrated and shared. This happens at every circle.
Libations. These are offerings of mead or wine poured for the deities and spirits of place. The libation is important in Religio Romana, Heathenry, and Wicca.
What do all these rituals have in common?
They all involve one or more of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Earth may be represented by stone, salt, crystals, or soil. Air may be represented by blades, wands, feathers, or incense. Fire may be represented by a candle flame, a bonfire, incense, or wands. Water is represented by water, chalices, and cauldrons. Each element has a sacred direction, which can vary between different traditions.
Initiation ceremonies all include a section where the candidate is asked whether they wish to be there. In naming ceremonies, where the baby cannot be asked if it wishes to take part, a simple welcome to the wider community of humanity is all that takes place.
There is an assumption that things are already sacred, because deities are immanent in the world, but sometimes we forget our connection with the divine, and need reconnecting.
They generally involve marking the transition from one phase to another – sometimes by actually crossing a threshold: stepping into the sacred space, or leaping across a fire or a broomstick.
They generally involve deities or spirits being asked for their blessing and/or protection.