Perspectives on Mass Ritual
by  Phil Hine

Over the last decade or so, mass rituals events have become a familiar aspect of Pagan magical activism, having been popularised by PaganLink Network’s "Raising the Dragon" and, more recently, the Pagan Federation’s Earth Healing days. In this article, I will describe a mass ritual event, which took place in 1987, and some ideas that followed on from it.

Heal the Earth

Heal the Earth was the title of a mass ritual, the aim of which was to increase public awareness of the global ecological crisis. It was performed in the UK and Europe on the Summer Solstice, between 12 - 2pm, 1987

Heal the Earth began as an idea - appearing in the midst of a group of Leeds magia who were discussing the possibilities afforded by politicised magic. If, as pagan apocrypha has it, the witch clans gathered together in the New Forest to work magic against the threat of Nazi invasion, wasn't it about time, we thought, that we did something along the same lines? The original idea was for a mass ritual coordinated through a simple symbol or image, to be carried out by participants at the Summer Solstice, which at the time was about four months away.

We set the date for the Summer Solstice - a day when many pagans & ‘alternative’ folk would be likely to be doing rituals or celebrating. This date was also gave the main facilitators four months to spread the message - it was felt that if we gave too much of lead time, then people might well forget about it, and equally, too short a lead time would hinder people who wanted to set up special group workings or events for the occasion.

Having grasped this original idea, we then took it around other local Pagans & Magicians and asked for feedback. Everyone we talked to was very enthusiastic about the project taking off and being a success. This in itself was, for me, a very rewarding phase - I can still bring to mind my feelings of excitement as we ran around Leeds, spreading the idea. One person would say, "that’s great - why don’t you talk to so-and-so about it". In retrospect, we would see this as networking, but I would say there is a marked difference between networking by actually going out and meeting people and doing it over the phone, or nowadays, over the internet - if only that the ‘hit’ of shared enthusiasm is so much more tangible.

What also arose out of this discussion was the question of what shape the ‘ritual’ should take. Early on in the project, we had thought of promoting a very specific ritual - an idea that probably derived from the fact that the first people who circulated the idea were magicians of various stripes. We also discussed the idea of focusing on various specific political issues. However, the very diversity of people’s approaches to magic, and the complexity of single political issues led us to adopt a very general approach. Instead of focusing on a single issue, we decided that the aim of the ritual - the statement of intent if you like - would be that of raising public awareness of ecological issues - the logic being that if you’re not aware of there being problems in the first place, you’re not going to see the need for change or action. Equally, given the diversity of approaches to practical magic, we decided not to lock the event into one particular tradition or magical system, but instead, to ask people to do whatever they liked in order to generate enthusiasm - anything from quiet contemplation to frenzied dancing.

We then turned to the design of the leaflet - magical artist Sheila Broun very kindly allowed us to use her tarot design for the Ace of Cups as the central image - the focus for each person participating in the action. The leaflet was worded to try and get the idea across in as succinct a way as possible, since we wanted as many people as possible to join in. A description of the qualities of the Ace of Cups was included, and a quote from the Tao te Ching expressed perfectly what we were trying to do:

"Under Heaven nothing is more soft

And yielding than water, yet for

Attacking the solid and strong, nothing

Is better - it has no equal."

Lao Tzu

The phrase ‘Heal the Earth’ was decided upon as a tag line for the project - although the leaflet tried to make it clear that we were not trying to literally ‘heal the earth’ but to raise public awareness of ecological issues.

Once the leaflet had been designed, we then distributed it - leaflets were taken abroad by friends, displayed in shops as A3 posters, and handed out at the Glastonbury festival, and distributed at various gigs up and down the country. We estimate that the Leeds group alone distributed 7,000 leaflets - not bad considering that the majority of us were on low incomes at the time!

And the results? Well, we enjoyed it. I spent the Solstice period with other project members, drumming for two hours on Ilkley Moor, in a ritual dedicated to Arwen, Goddess of inspiration. As to whether the event did anything to raise awareness of ecological issues is difficult to say. Personally I think it’s a bit naff for magicians & pagans to point to some world trend or event and say - "we did that." For me the benefits of Heal the Earth were that:

1. It demonstrated how far you can take an idea if enough people get enthused about it and pitch in, and also how a group of people can ride a wave of enthusiasm and support to manifest something tangible.

2. The event demonstrated that it is possible for magicians & pagans from very different backgrounds & traditions/systems to work together for a common aim.

3. It demonstrated that mass ritual events are a viable form of magical action, particularly if they are given a freeform structure. I know from correspondence from people who organised Heal the Earth events in their own locality that many of the people who participated in the action would not had done so if we had made the ritual follow a particular Wiccan or Thelemic structure, for example.

Gaia’s Children - a thought experiment?

"...it is more than possible that, providing the present widespread support for green issues is not just a fashionable social statement or an effort to be politically right-on, an ecologically-based religious movement could arise in the next few years. If not overtly pagan it would at least be Nature oriented and Gaia centred. In addition, the Goddess, in her many forms, is rising up in the collective unconscious all over the world. After thousands of years of brutal patriarchal suppression She will no longer be denied. The Nineties are destined to be the decade when the feminine principle returns."

Mike Howard, The Cauldron, winter 1990

Gaia's Children was an idea for a goddess-oriented ecospiritual movement, which combined spiritual devotion/development with ecological action. The basic idea was that of an Ecospiritual movement actively involved in changing consciousness through individual and collective action - taking individual responsibility for promoting ecological values in one's own life.

The idea of Gaia's Children evolved within a small group of Leeds-based magicians, arising from a sense of dissatisfaction with current manifestations of magick/paganism. Whilst there is more positive information disseminated about pagan paths these days, Paganism is, we felt, very inward looking and exclusive. We wanted to promote something that anybody could feel a part of, without becoming bogged down by the different traditions and belief systems. We looked at events where large numbers of people gather to dance and express themselves - Acid House Parties, the more energetic forms of Christianity, Voudou gatherings (some wonderful accounts of the latter are given in Maya Deren's 'The Voodoo Gods' and Wade Davies' 'The Serpent & The Rainbow'), etc. Anyone who has been to such an event will surely know what I mean about the energy, ecstasy, and feeling of community generated.

The idea of Gaia’s Children arose out of an evolving conversation and continued through many nights of rambling around the green areas of Leeds. I feel, in retrospect, that as it became increasingly grandiose in it’s scope that it became less and less likely to manifest as an actuality, but we kept developing the idea as a ‘thought-experiment’. One of the key themes, which we kept returning to, was the idea of an Earth-centred spirituality.

For example, we conceived of the 'Daughters of Gaia' as:

Hydra - from Hydrosphere (Water)

Litha - from Lithosphere (Soil/Rock)

Atma - from Atmosphere (Air)

Bia - from Biosphere (Fire/Life)

These 4 archetypes could be personified using freeform chants and real-world imagery - Visualisations of the different 'spheres' across the Earth. We also felt it important to emphasise 'organic language' rather than head speak, and to emphasise communication, mutual trust, and 'joining in'. An idea, which came out of this, was 'Can you feel the Pulse'? The Pulse of Gaia as the life energy of Gaia and the energy of the movement growing, and directed into action. As an event it would be a joyous reaffirmation of life rather than a religious ceremony as such. We thought of using free-form dance movements which could be learned, but not written down, thus emphasising body wisdom rather than headstuff, perhaps with a response to a very few key images.

A possible visualisation sequence for a ‘Pulse of Gaia’ event might be:

Room - City - Country - Hemisphere - World - Face of GAIA - hands cupping the world - moving towards planet - atma (sphere) - hydra (sphere) - Litha (sphere) - Bia (sphere): Teeming plant/insect/animal life - Human Faces (all races) - own body - blood flowing - cells - GAIA - body - other(s) - web joining nodes of light spreading over globe - body filled with light - self - GAIA - self - end. (changes marked by handclaps)

We were trying, with these ideas, to reinforce the feeling that life is all around us so why bother over-intellectualising or conceptualising it into words and liturgy. We conceived of 'The Pulse' as the basic form of ritual, whether done as a series of linked visual images in solo meditation, celebrated by a small cell at a regular meeting, or by 500 people at a gathering. It's the energy that counts here, and the feelings generated. We dreamt of huge 'Greenhouse' parties where people came to dance and let go of themselves, where the joyous energy feeds the 'pulse'. As we tune into the pulse, we become firmer in our realisation that we can make a difference, that little successes are important, and that people can act together despite individual differences.

The ‘Children of Gaia’ was never developed, so I don’t feel it’s appropriate to discuss some of the other plans associated with it. A modified ‘Pulse of Gaia’ event was presented at the Talking Stick Ecomagick day workshop in Brixton, London, in 1993:

THE PULSE OF GAIA

Requirements: Drum.

This exercise is based around four Goddesses - Litha (from Lithosphere - Earth), Hydra (Hydrosphere - Water), Atma (Atmosphere - Air) and Bia (Biosphere - Fire). Diverging from traditional magical ideas of human Goddesses, or the traditional associations of the elements, we took these four ECOSYSTEMS as entities within the global Ecosystem - GAIA.

  1. The exercise begins with participants seated. A slow drumbeat begins - This is the Pulse or heartbeat, of Gaia.
  2. MC calls upon participants to begin the slow dance of Litha - to feel themselves to be mountains, to think of earthquakes, continental drift, and the deep movements within the earths crust, the slow movements of rocks.
  3. Drum rhythm becomes slightly faster, and focus shifts to that of Hydra - the oceans, seas, and droplets of water vapours -from rushing waterfalls to the rolling of surf - the dance becomes more fluid.
  4. Drum quickens into the airy dance of Atma - the trade winds, breezes, hurricanes, swirling gusts - the atmosphere wrapped around the globe - Chaotic Weather.
  5. Drum quickens into the life-dance of Bia - the life-forms which teem within the world, all moving to the current of reproduction - sex and death - feeding - insects, plants, animals.
  6. MC calls out STOP! - FEEL THE PULSE OF GAIA WITHIN AND AROUND YOU. (drum continues). FEEL THE MOVEMENT AND THE POWER - THIS IS NATURES CHAOS ENMESHED IN SYSTEMS OF INTERLOCKING ORDER

Problem issues

Over the years, various criticisms have been levelled at the whole idea of mass ritual events, and I feel it would be useful to review one or two of them here. A recurring criticism is that mass rituals allow participants to feel as they are contributing ‘magically’ to a situation without taking any personal risk - i.e. actually turning up at a protest or changing their own behaviour regarding an issue. At the extreme end, it is argued, magicians & pagans can come to believe that ritual interventions are ‘superior’ to more direct and participatory forms of action. This criticism has some merit. Some of the more ‘traditional’ magical structures tend to foster the belief that magicians should be ‘above’ politics and rituals themselves are more important in influencing world events than ‘action on the physical plane’. In a recent book Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld: An Anthroplogy, Dr. Susan Greenwood, a lecturer at Goldsmith’s College, London, notes that of the various magical and wiccan groups she studied in London, it was the Feminist Wiccan groups who were most inclined towards uniting magical activity with political action, as opposed to other types of Wiccans or High Magicians. The work of Starhawk has done much to influence the contemporary magical milieu towards politically-motivated magical action, but in some quarters, the belief that magic is ‘above’ mundane concerns remains prevalent. Curiously enough, this appears to be a fairly ‘modern’ belief. Dion Fortune mobilised the resources of her followers to do magic to weaken the ‘group soul’ of Nazi Germany, and historically, cultures in crisis have for millennia turned to magic for support. Recently I read of Indian Sadhus (popularly associated with withdrawal from the world) having been involved in fomenting dissent against the British Raj, and more recently, a Sadhu invoking the paralysing power of Bagalamukhu against India’s enemies at the time of partition.

A second criticism is that mass rituals, particularly when they are repeated year in year out, can quickly become ‘institutionalised’ to the degree that they become empty of vitality. Again, this reflects on a wider issue - that of how many rituals are just matters of ‘going through the motions?’ Obviously, this is only something which can be judged on an individual basis. Personally, I do feel that ‘one-off’ actions are preferable to repeating something time after time - depending on the intent and structure of the action, of course.

Generally, I feel that in planning and executing mass ritual events, we need to be aware of such issues, but not get too hung up on them. Criticism after the event is fine - but too much analysis beforehand can stop a raw idea dead in its tracks.

Other instances of mass magical action

Although mass ritual actions are most commonly associated with Ecomagick, this magical format has been used for other political action issues. In the 1983 "Stop the City" actions, Kali, Eris and Hecate were invoked by participating magicians. The Computers tracking Council-tax dodgers have been the targets of magical 'gremlins' and a small "Pagans against the Poll Tax" encouraged participants to send magically-charged ‘cheques’ into their local council offices. Then there's magic of a more - shall we say - aggressive nature. On more than one occasion I have heard the proposal that we visualise the person responsible and stick pins into a doll. Now there are obviously ethical issues raised when it comes to the cursing of individuals. There's also the consideration that targeting individuals won't actually do much to change matters. Sticking pins into a doll of the head of Monsanta is no more going to bring about long-term change in behaviour than the idea that kicking a few skinheads will do much for changing racist attitudes. Perhaps a more interesting approach is that of cursing institutions rather than individuals - Hakim Bey’s "Black Djinn Curse" being one such approach. Magicians have also been experimenting with magically lowering the share prices of companies - hitting them where it really hurts!

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