Why I Don’t Write Ritual Scripts

I’m asked pretty frequently for sample Atheopagan group (as opposed to solitary) ritual scripts, and I never deliver them. Here’s why.

I don’t write ritual scripts. I have hardly ever been to a group ritual where leaders/facilitators “read their lines” (or had obviously memorized them) that didn’t feel like a waste of my time, and I don’t want my rituals to be like that. I want them to be engaged and juicy and alive.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in ritual structure, and I don’t think rituals should just consist of people “winging it”. Preparation is necessary. Knowing the concepts and images that you want to communicate is important.

But reading from a script is really problematic. Lighting is always an issue, and having one hand tied up with holding the script limits the somatic freedom of the reader. Eye contact with participants becomes impossible, and that really lets the air out of the balloon of the group energy. And people don’t speak as they write; written lines can often sound stilted, or pompous, or excessively flowery.

Memorization, too, is not optimal. How many times have we listened to someone reciting something memorized, only to have them stop abruptly, unable to remember the next line? Suddenly the flow of the moment is broken and the illusion of spontaneous speech is destroyed. Even after they get going again, something has been lost. And the nervousness of performing in public makes that kind of interruption that much more likely.

An outline is enough, in my opinion. An outline that can be written on an index card. But for most of us, that outline will only work if we practice beforehand. 

Which, I know, is kind of a radical proposal for many Pagans.

Spontaneity is good. Extemporaneous speaking, if you’re good at it, comes from the heart and allows you to engage with participants while speaking. But if there are key images or concepts the ritual needs you to communicate in a given piece of speaking, stand in front of a mirror and practice your extemporizing. You’ll come up with turns of phrase that you’ll like, and you can use them in the actual ritual.

There are exceptions to the reading rule. Sometimes you want to introduce a short quote or a piece of poetry or prose into a ritual, and you can’t memorize it. Well, practice it first, at the very least, so your reading of it is fervent, heartfelt and from you, rather than from a piece of paper. And read it from a binder, a book or something better than a flimsy sheet of paper flopping around. Give it some dignity.

Ritual skills come to the fore when you’re freed from a script: not only speaking, but movementsinging, perhaps even rhythm. If you’re grounded and skilled, you can move and build the emotional energy and cohesion of a group without a memorized script.

Another reason I don’t write ritual scripts is that it’s easy to get carried away with them, writing long blocks of text that are hard to memorize and boring to watch someone read. Rituals work best when everyone is engaged, not just watching others do stuff. Many of us have issues with backs or feet or knees such that just standing and watching is actually painful. So short speeches are best.

I tend to use a very simple ritual structure: Arrival, Invoking Qualities and Intentions, Deep Play (“Working”), Gratitude, Benediction. These are all described in detail in the Atheopagan Ritual Primer and in the linked posts. I find that this structure works well to sink participants into the Ritual State of enhanced Presence, or “flow”. Typically, most of the “speechifying” is in the Arrival phase, when grounding and establishment of sacred space are the agenda.

You can fit that structure on an index card, with enough keyword reminders to keep you on track.

We do rituals to feel good, to heal ourselves, to focus our intentions and resolve, to transform that within us which is ripe for change. We don’t do them to stand around through lifeless speeches. So learn those ritual skills! Become a public speaker, a singer, a drummer, a dancer. Engage your body and your mind and bring them to the ritual circle with you as you lead all or part of a ritual. Your alive presence there will accomplish much more than any written speech, however beautiful.

So there it is: why I don’t write ritual scripts. I write outlines, but not scripts. But more than anything else, I prepare myself to be ready to deliver the messages with which I am charged by a given ritual. You have to be skilled to “just wing it” in ritual; if you’re not there yet, give yourself the best chance of success by preparing ahead of time.

Best of luck with your rituals, however simple or complex!


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