How Time and Location Affect Liturgy

(Version 3.0)

an excerpt from

Rites of Worship

Copyright © 1994, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

The following is an excerpt from Rites of Worship: A Neopagan Approach, my book on liturgical design, preparation and performance. Unlike my sharetext postings, this text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net, since it is part of a published book.


Deciding the exact date and time of your ceremony requires you to balance both magical and mundane factors, and will have repercussions on everything else in your liturgical design and execution. The magical factors have to deal with the fact that different times of day, and different days of the year, have different energy patterns (physical, psychological, social, and thus magical) associated with them. So it may be easier or more difficult to accomplish a particular magical or religious goal at the specific time chosen.

John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann, in The Jupiter Effect: The Planets as Triggers of Devastating Earthquakes (Random House, 1976) clearly demonstrated that the positions of the planets in the solar system cause significant, predictable changes in solar weather and sunspot patterns. These in turn affect earthly weather patterns, especially the ionization of the atmosphere, which the authors believe can trigger earthquakes. Certainly research has clearly shown that the proportion of positive to negative ions in a given location can have profound effects on human and other animal mood swings. These patterns of ionization change from season to season, as do the proportions of light and darkness, which are also known to have strong psychological effects.

The daily solar cycle thus causes the mana available for use to be different at sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight, and the halfway points between each. Similarly, because of the yearly solar cycle, the mana available at the solstices, equinoxes, and their halfway points are also unique.

The phases of the moon also can have profound effects (ask any law enforcement officer, ambulance driver, or psychiatric nurse about full moons!), especially when the moon is above the horizon. Readers who have a background in astrology will need no persuasion in this department, and will probably also consider the daily positions of the planets (and the angles they form to the natal charts of the leading participants) to be worth examining when selecting a date and time. The rest of you will have to experiment in order to verify my statements here. You may also want to pay attention to the biorhythms of the presiding clergy, to make sure that none of them will be having a “double or triple critical day” on the date selected.

It has been my experience that performing even a simple celebration of a Holy Day on the exact day of the year, and at the exact (or at least the symbolic) time of the day associated with the event being celebrated, will dramatically multiply the ease and efficiency of your working.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get people to show up for a ritual being held at an inconvenient time. Often the proper date for a Holy Day is in the middle of the civil week, and the time associated with the event may be very late at night, or in the middle of the working day. However, you have some flexibility in the choice of a time of day, since you can choose to schedule your rite for either the astronomical or the symbolic instant of the event. For example, the spring equinox might occur on March 20th, at 10:15 pm in your local time zone. You could do your equinox ritual at 10:00 pm, or at the following sunrise. At the very least, you should schedule your ceremony sometime between sunset on the 20th and sunset on the 21st.

This, however, often becomes a counsel of perfection. If you are planning a large public celebration, you’ll have to schedule it according to the convenience of the majority of your group members and guests. This usually means that you’ll be stuck with the weekend before or after the event. Even so, you should try to do it at the appropriately symbolic time of day. For example, a Midsummer’s Day celebration held at 9:00 p.m. would simply not be as psychologically effective as one done at sunrise or high noon. If you want to do a nocturnal ceremony, you can always make it the Eve of the Holy Day (at least if you’re working with Indo-European holidays).

Don’t forget such mundane matters as: the work and child care schedules of the members, local transportation patterns, bus schedules, meals, expected weather and temperature, fluctuating noise levels at the site, availability of facilities, etc. All of these have an impact on how many people show up, and on how well they enjoy themselves. The trick is to balance genuine needs in the lives of your congregation against the laziness and inertia of those who simply haven’t made attending your ritual a high priority. Remember that if you decide to do a fall equinox rite at sunset, you will probably not be able to get the sun to delay setting while late-comers straggle in.



Exactly what sort of site will be used for your ceremony? Will it be indoors or outdoors, on private landr in a public park, urban or suburban, rural or wilderness? Your choice will effect physical, social, psychological, and magical aspects of your liturgy. It’s better to be able to choose a site to match the liturgical design, rather than vice versa, but often you must simply work with what’s available.

If you’re going to be working outdoors, private land is generally better than public, since you’re less likely to be disturbed by tourists, hunters or park rangers. However, if your group is seeking new members, doing a few ceremonies in city parks, especially near universities, can attract folks who might otherwise never hear of you. It can also attract trouble, so make sure that security precautions are taken to prevent disruption. It’s also essential to find out from the people who control the land (whether local Neopagans or the city parks department) just what their rules are concerning hours, fires, alcoholic beverages, numbers of people, etc. If your congregation won’t agree to those rules, you’ll need to choose a different site.

Pay attention to noise levels and acoustics, whether indoors or out. If there are railroad tracks, a fire station, a hospital, or an airport nearby, you can expect loud noises to occur at random intervals. These can drown out invocations and music, destroying both the concentration of the participants and whatever patterns of mana have been created. Cute comments or jokes about “Let’s just pretend it’s a dragon” or “As we were saying…” won’t repair the damage. If you’re working indoors in such a location, you should make every effort to physically soundproof the room.

One technique that has worked well in large rituals is to tell the participants beforehand that noisy interruptions may occur and that everyone should relax, not fight it, and softly chant “om” over and over again when this happens, keeping the energy focussed and moving, until the outside noise dies away and the people leading the ritual continue.

As for acoustics, it’s a good idea when inspecting a proposed site to do some shouting, singing, whispering, drumming, harp playing, or other noise-making equivalent to what your ceremony will require, at the expected time of day. See how far the sounds carry, what the echoes are like, if details are lost at a distance, etc. Then you can decide if you want to use the location at all and if so, whether you’ll need sound amplification equipment, louder acoustic instruments, etc.

If the weather is likely to be foul, or there are members of your group who can’t handle being outdoors long during the winter, and you don’t own your own temple building, you should try to find, borrow, or rent some sort of medieval or pre-medieval-looking enclosure (it tends to be part of the Neopagan aesthetic). I know this isn’t always easy, but trying to fit thirty people into a small living room can be just as difficult, and far less aesthetically pleasing. If you are planning an outdoor ceremony, but you don’t trust the weather forecast for your scheduled date, you should have an alternate indoor location readily available (always A Good Idea, anyway) and your liturgical design should be adaptable to the change. Make sure that your announcements mention both locations and set an alternate time sufficiently after the originally planned time to allow people to get from one site to the other. If the alternate site gets used, try to post a notice to this effect at the original location.

How do you get an indoor location? If you own some land, you may be able to find a large cave, or build a wooden cabin, yurt or longhouse. A half a dozen determined people can create one of these in a month, just working on weekends (see your local public library for instruction books, and check the local building codes too). In six months you could build a rough duplicate of the Scandinavian stave churches, which are believed by some scholars to have originally been the same design that was used for Paleopagan Norse temples.

Many public parks, even in large cities, have rustic looking “lodges,” often with fireplaces, that your group can rent inexpensively. These are usually surrounded by trees, and can be ideal for medium to large groups. Masonic and other fraternal groups, as well as ultra-liberal churches such as the Unitarian Universalists, are often willing to rent out meeting space to members of minority belief systems. Whether you’re working in one of these lodges, your own temple, a living room, or someone’s garage, try to set up the site to look as dramatic and non-mundane as possible. Some study of theatrical set design will give you useful ideas here, such as drapery, dramatic lighting techniques, etc.

Whether indoors or out, don’t assume that your site needs to be circular. Our ancestors had temples in the shapes of circles, rectangles, ovals, doubled squares and odd polygons. As for groves of trees, where many of the Indo-European Paleopagan ceremonies took place, the average one is seldom a precise circle. Although it’s aesthetically and democratically pleasing to have the congregation stand around in a circle, and this is the pattern with which most Neopagans are familiar (thanks to Gerald Gardner, founder of Wicca), you can do effective group worship and/or magic using other geometrical shapes. Neopagan Druid ritual scripts, for example, assume that the congregation is standing outdoors in a circle, but in point of fact they have worked well with everyone sitting indoors in an oval instead. You could try having your ceremonies with the people in a triangle, or in a square, or in lines facing a particular direction.

Consider the theatrical difficulties as well as the mana patterns likely to be generated by your shape choices. For example, those of you with theater experience will agree that working “in the round” can be far more difficult than working in front of the observers. Yet with the latter setup, you may have problems with people who are unhappily reminded of childhood experiences in mainstream religions, and who may be unable to overcome their biases. It also tends to promote a “performers vs. audience” perception among the participants, instead of the unity necessary for effective ritual.

Generally, the larger a site you have, the better, up to a point. You want enough room for the members of the congregation to stand, sit, or lie in whatever geometrical pattern you have chosen, while still leaving some empty space outside of them. However, if you’re working indoors, you don’t want a small group working in the middle of a gigantic room, since this tends to breed a sense of isolation and weakness (I've seen this happen at Pagan conventions several times). The acoustics of a very large room with only a small number of participants, will usually dilute people’s voices and other sounds, thus draining a lot of dramatic power.

Outdoors, shade can be an important factor, especially during the hotter months. Since the average large-scale Neopagan rite can last an hour or more, you need to make arrangements not only for shade, but for the health of the members of your congregation as well.

Are there any members of your group who are elderly or physically handicapped? Outdoor rituals can be very difficult for them to attend if they are blind or mobility impaired, unless you have volunteers ready to assist them. If you’re expecting people to show up in wheelchairs, make sure your site is accessible (see Making Liturgy Accessible for more comments about integrating people with special needs into your rituals).

Even people who are not physically handicapped may have difficulty arriving at your site if it’s not near public transportation, or doesn’t have sufficient parking space nearby. In fact, some Neopagans will refuse to go to a ceremony that requires driving a private car, simply on ecological principles. Finally, if you’re going to go to a rural area, park cars or bicycles, then hike a mile to the actual ritual site, you’ll probably need a liturgical design that uses fewer props (especially heavy ones).

Finding the perfect spot to do your rituals can be a long, frustrating job, but it’s worth it. Eventually you’ll discover what every other religion in history has found out: having your own land, with buildings, trails, and other facilities to fulfill the needs of your congregation, is the best long-term solution.

Copyright © 1994, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. Unlike his other sharetext postings, this text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net, since it is part of a published book. Click here to buy it from

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