Frequently Asked Questions

Part 3: Frequently Asked Questions about Public Rituals, Circle Etiquette, and Community Matters

3.1. What do I need to know before coming to one of your public circles?

Fortunately, not much. They're designed for the general public, so there really isn't a whole lot of previous knowledge or experience required. Of course, if you have already done some reading on Wicca, you will probably understand what's going on a little better. But don't feel that your knowledge has to be at a certain level before you can attend a ritual. Public circles are open to everyone.

3.2. What do I need to know before coming to one of your public classes?

Likewise, not much, as they too are designed for the general public and are open to everyone. But if you're new to Wicca, you may find you'll follow them better if you start attending after Samhain (Oct 31), as the cycle of classes each year starts over at that time, so the most basic classes tend to be offered in November and December, with the topics becoming more advanced later in the year. However, you're free to begin attending at any time. There's also no obligation to pursue the cycle of classes all the way through — you can come to as many or as few classes as you wish.

3.3. Is there any commitment involved? If I come to one circle or class, do I have to keep on coming?

Not at all. The nature of a public church is that people are free to come and go as they wish. However, if a person commits to studying towards Initiation with a private teacher, or joins a coven or other private group in the community, they are likely to be expected to attend regularly or at least give notice if they can't.

3.4 Do I have to register in advance for the classes?

No, people are free to drop in to any class they wish.

3.5 Do you offer online classes or correspondence courses?

No, we don't, nor do we have any intention of doing so anytime in the near future. Call us old-fashioned if you like, but we feel face-to-face contact and personal knowledge of the student, as well as the opportunity to observe them in ritual, are essential to teaching the Craft.

3.6. I have small children. Are they allowed to come too?

Children are welcome at our public rituals, but not all rituals are equally likely to appeal to a young child. In particular, those involving lengthy guided meditations will probably tax the limits of a child's attention span. When in doubt, you might want to ask the people who will be leading the ritual if it is one that children are likely to enjoy. Also, please be aware that parents are responsible for their children's good behaviour within ritual. If your children start running around and causing havoc, or making a lot of noise, you will be expected to remove them from the ritual space.

It's probably best not to bring small children to classes, as they tend to get bored. However, if you bring something to keep your child quietly occupied (colouring books, etc.), then it shouldn't be a problem.

Another thing worth mentioning is that unaccompanied minors are not allowed to attend rituals or classes. If you have an underage child — even a teenager — who wants to attend circle, and you are not able to be there with them, you must designate a babysitter, relative or other guardian who will be responsible for the child. There is a form that can be filled out to designate a guardian — ask the Summoner, or a member of priesthood, if you would like a copy. This is for your child's safety, as well as our legal protection.

3.7. I'm a teenager. Can I come to circles or classes? How old do I have to be?

As the above answer says, unaccompanied minors are not allowed to attend our events. This is for our legal protection. If you're under 18 and want to come, you'll need to have one of your parents or another adult approved by them come with you. Yes, we know that's a major pain for teens who have parents who are uninterested in or disapproving of Wicca, but there's really not a lot we can do about it. If you're underage and your parents aren't cool with you coming to Wiccan events, your best bet is to read everything you can (check out our reading list for some suggestions), maybe participate in online communities, and then when you're old enough to go where you want without them, come check us out.

3.8 What should I wear to a public ritual?

Pretty much anything you like. Although you will see some people wearing ritual robes at circle, this isn't required, and new people in particular are not expected to own robes. If you are interested in knowing the symbolic meaning of various types of robes, cingula (the braided cords many Wiccans wear around the waist of their robes), jewelry, etc. that you see people wearing at circle, there is a class in the public class cycle called "Degrees and Dress" that explains it in more depth than this FAQ has room for.

3.9 What sort of feast foods should I bring to a sabbat?

Again, this is pretty much up to you, but we encourage people to bring things that are seasonal and/or appropriate to the sabbat in question. The class prior to each sabbat will go into detail on sabbat traditions, but in general whatever is in season in your area is likely to be considered appropriate.

Home-made foods are generally preferable to storebought, but this isn't a hard and fast rule — it's better to bring something storebought than not to bring anything because you didn't have time to cook.

The community has a mix of vegetarians and meat eaters, so either is appropriate there. You may want to label a dish to indicate whether it is vegetarian or not, though. Similarly, if your dish contains anything that some people may be allergic to, it is a good idea to label it.

3.10. What do they mean when they say to "prepare yourself" or "get into a ritual state of mind" a little while before circle starts? How do I do those things?

Basically, what that means is that it's time to start putting aside the concerns of the day and turning your mind towards the ritual to come. Set whatever you were thinking of before — that overdue paper, the bus you missed on the way here, the movie you saw this afternoon, the weather outside — aside for a while, and begin focussing on the fact that you are about to enter a sacred space, a place between the worlds, to worship the Old Gods.

This marks the beginning of the shift between social time and sacred time. Yes, everyone enjoys having a chance to socialize and talk with their friends before and after ritual, but when the announcement has been made that people should start getting ready, then it's time to stop chatting with the person next to you, and to take a few moments to sit quietly and prepare yourself for circle. Let all the worries and stresses of the day slip away; you can deal with them later. For now, it is time to turn our thoughts toward the Gods, and the sacred space that you are about to enter.

Take stock of your feelings and your energy level; if you're feeling hyper and excitable, take a few moments to calm down. Sit quietly and allow the excess energy to slowly drain away, sinking down into the earth. If you are feeling tired or stressed, take a few deep breaths, expelling your worries, stresses and exhaustion with each out-breath, and breathing in new energy, new vitality. When you enter the temple, you should be feeling calm and centred, open, aware and at peace with yourself and those around you.

3.11. Who's the person with the big stick who makes the announcements and lines people up before circle?

The person -- usually, though not always, a man -- with the staff who makes announcements before and after ritual, leads people into ritual, and stands at the temple door during it (or walks around the perimeter of the area, in the case of outdoor rituals), is called the Summoner. He is responsible for the safety and security of the community, for welcoming new people and helping them get oriented, and for preparing people for ritual and leading them in when it is time to start. Think of him as a combination security guard and welcome wagon.

According to legend, during the Burning Times (the mediaeval witch persecutions), the Summoner was charged with defending the coven, and especially the High Priestess, in the event of discovery by the Inquisition. He was expected to lay down his own life if needed in order to defend hers. These days, a Summoner is more likely to find himself making sure that someone having an asthma attack gets to her Ventolin inhaler safely, or explaining to wandering teenagers in the park that an outdoor ritual is not a field party.

If you have a safety concern of any sort, be it a health issue that might pose problems for you in circle (see 3.19) or a problem with someone's behaviour that you find threatening or disturbing, the Summoner is the person to talk to about it. Sistrum, the women's group associated with the WCC's Toronto temple, has a Gatekeeper, who fulfils a similar function to that of the Summoner.

3.12. Who's the person at the altar who holds the book and lights the candles and stuff?

The person -- usually, but not always, female -- who does that job is traditionally known as the Handmaiden, though obviously that term doesn't work too well if the current holder of the office is male! We haven't really settled on a good permanent name for a male Handmaiden yet, although as of this writing (April 2007) both the Toronto and Hamilton temples have a male Handmaiden and female Summoner. The male Handmaiden in Toronto prefers to be called the Hand, while the one in Hamilton has opted for being called the Fetch. One of these days we'll come up with an official gender-neutral name, perhaps.

Nomeclature aside, the Handmaiden's job is to care for the altar tools and temple, and to assist the priesthood during ritual. If you think of a ritual as a theatrical production, the Handmaiden is kind of like a combination stage manager and props department — she makes sure all the practical details are taken care of so that the priest and priestess can concentrate on doing the ritual.

She maintains the temple and the altar tools, makes sure there are adequate supplies (candles, wine, incense, etc.), sets up the altar as well as any special props that are needed, sweeps the circle with the besom (ritual broom) to spiritually cleanse it, holds the Book of Shadows for the priesthood to read from, and keeps an archive of all rituals performed by that temple. She also makes sure that the candles stay lit, that there is always incense on the charcoal, that the altar doesn't get knocked over in a spiral dance, and so on. While the priesthood may drift off into trance or inspirational states during ritual, the Handmaiden is always alert and aware of possible problems or difficulties.

According to legend, during the Burning Times, the Handmaiden was expected to flee with the Book of Shadows if the coven was discovered by the Inquisition, so that even if everyone was burned at the stake, the knowledge and the traditions would survive. These days, since witch-burnings are not a pressing concern for most of us, her defence of the Book of Shadows is usually limited to keeping the priest or priestess from spilling wine all over it.

3.13. I've noticed that some people in the Sunday rituals wear a knife or dagger of some kind. What is it? Can I wear a knife to ritual too?

The "dagger" that you've seen some people wear into ritual is called an athamé — a ritual tool used for directing energy within the circle. You will see it used for a number of symbolic and ritual purposes such as blessing the wine and calling the quarters. The people you see with athamés are generally the priesthood of the church, the Handmaiden, and the Summoner.

We do ask that the general public not bring their athamés into circle, for two reasons: first, during the warmer part of the year when we are meeting outside, they could draw unfavourable attention from local law enforcement officials. We may know that an athamé is a sacred tool which is not going to be used as a weapon, but your average park cop doesn't.

Second, with the number of people in attendance at many public rituals, and the limited space into which they all have to fit (particularly during the colder half of the year when we move indoors), it is really not a good idea to have large numbers of people carrying sharp objects that could be dropped, clip someone's ear off while saluting the quarters, or otherwise lead to accidents!

3.14. Why do people turn and point at the four quarters when the priesthood are calling them?

As we explained back in 1.10, Wiccan ritual relies heavily on the symbolism of the quartered circle, with the cardinal points aligned with air, fire, water and earth. Different traditions represent this in different ways, but in this tradition we generally first carry the symbols of each of the elements around the circle to purify it, and then the priest and priestess go to each quarter in turn and call the spirits of that element, inviting them to share in the ritual and aid its purpose. As they make the calls, they trace a pentacle in the air with their athamés.

When the calls are made, the rest of the people in the circle turn to face that element, as a sign of respect for the spirits who are being called. In a small group such as a coven, the people might raise their own athamés to show that they are lending their energy to the calls that the priest and priestess are making. However, as we mentioned above, this is a very bad idea in a large public circle, because even though an athamé is not used to actually cut anything, many of them do have sharp edges, and having a whole lot of people waving sharp things around in a confined space is a recipe for trouble.

So for this reason, we ask people other than those involved in leading the ritual to leave their athamés at home, and to raise their hands in salute instead. It may be less traditional, but it's better than having a circle turn into a Vincent van Gogh lookalike contest.

3.15. I don't drink, and the chalice has wine in it. What should I do when it comes to me?

Wine is used in the chalice (or, depending on the ritual, possibly other alcoholic beverages such as mead or ale) for symbolic reasons, because as a product of living plants it combines the nature of all four of the elements — the air that the plants breathed, the fire of the sun that warmed them, the water that nourished them and the fertile earth that they grew in. Plus, through the process of fermentation, it has been through an alchemical transformation and thus symbolically includes the fifth element of spirit, and the power of transformation, making it magically more potent than plain juice would be.

However, we certainly recognize that some people have valid reasons for wanting to avoid even a small sip of alcohol. So, if you're a recovering alcoholic, or have a physical allergy or intolerance of some kind, or for any other reason do not wish to drink the ritual wine, the best thing to do is to hold the chalice up in a salute toward the altar, taking a moment to think of what drinking from the chalice symbolically means, and then passing it on. That way, you are symbolically partaking of the blessing the wine brings, without actually physically partaking of any alcohol.

3.16. I have a cold or flu, and don't want to share it with the whole community. What should I do when the chalice comes to me?

Basically, the same thing as the people who don't drink do (see 3.15) — simply bow your head and raise the chalice in salute toward the altar, think of what drinking from the chalice means in a symbolic sense, and then pass it to the person next to you.

For that matter, cold and flu viruses can be passed around very easily at large gatherings even without a shared chalice, so if you think you're coming down with something that might be contagious, it might be better to stay away from circle until you're feeling better.

3.17. Do I ever have to do anything in ritual that I don't want to?

No! Sunday circles are designed to be accessible to the general public, so they will not usually include anything that anyone is likely to find difficult or uncomfortable, but if for some reason there is something happening in a ritual that you for whatever reason don't want to do — for example, if people are leaping over the bonfire at Beltane, and you're afraid of fire — feel free not to participate. Nothing is compulsory. You don't need to leave the ritual if you choose not to do something, but of course you are also free to leave if that's what you want to do.

This brings us to the next question...

3.18. What happens if I have to leave the ritual partway through for some reason?

If you have to leave for some reason — because you're not feeling well, because it's going on longer than you thought and you have to be home by a specific time, or for whatever reason — that's perfectly all right, but please try to do it unobtrusively, so that you don't disrupt the ritual. If possible, it would be good to wait for a moment when nothing vital is happening — i.e., not right in the middle of a deity call or something like that.

If people are sitting, try to rise as quietly as possible. If people are standing, it's usually pretty easy to just step back and pass behind them. If people are holding hands, take the hands of the people on either side of you and join them together as you step back. Proceed quietly to the door around the outside of the circle, and the Summoner will let you out. Of course, leaving unobtrusively is a lot easier at outdoor rituals — not only is there no door to worry about, but the grass doesn't squeak the way the floor does.

If you are feeling seriously unwell, and are not sure if you will be physically capable of getting up to leave on your own, please try to catch the attention of the Handmaiden or Summoner, or ask the person next to you to help you. The Summoner will assist you out, and can also make sure that you get any needed medication, or medical attention, which leads naturally into the next question:

3.19. I'm asthmatic/epileptic/diabetic/allergic to bee stings/etc. What happens if I have an asthma attack/have a seizure/go into insulin shock/get stung by a bee/etc. in ritual?

As we've noted at several points, the Summoner is in charge of community safety. If you have any serious health problems that you think might be a concern within circle, please, please, let him know beforehand. If anything happens to you, he is the one who will be responsible for assisting you, dealing with emergency personnel if necessary, etc., so it is very important that he be made aware of any information that might be of help in an emergency.

If you have any medication that you may need within ritual — an asthma inhaler, an EpiPen for allergies, etc. — it's best to have it with you (a ritual robe with pockets, or a belt pouch on your cingulum, can be helpful), and to make sure the Summoner knows exactly where it is in case you can't administer it to yourself and he has to help. If for any reason you can't carry it with you, you can ask the Summoner to keep it for you while you're in circle (don't forget to get it back afterwards, though).

3.20. Why do people from the Steering Committee ask for donations after ritual? What does the money that people donate go towards?

Running a public temple costs money — the rent is the biggest expense, at least for those temples that have a permanent temple space, but candles, wine, incense and other supplies also need to be purchased. In addition, each member temple contributes a certain amount each year towards a contingency fund used for legal costs incurred in the process of getting legal recognition.

While it's contrary to Wiccan tradition to actually charge for rituals or classes, voluntary donations are always welcome, and in fact are essential if we want to be able to keep on offering public events. No one is ever under any obligation to make a donation, but if people can, it's very much appreciated.

The donations we receive at circles and classes in fact usually don't cover our costs, so we often hold other fundraising events as well, like parties, auctions, etc.

3.21. I can't afford to donate anything, but I'd like to do something to help out in the community. What can I do?

There are always things that need doing around the community — after all, the entire church is run on a volunteer basis, including the priesthood (no, we don't have full-time clergy the way mainstream churches do). Anyone who wants to lend a hand will find plenty of volunteer opportunities — talk to someone on the steering committee for some suggestions.

3.22. Somebody just tried to hug me after ritual. Does that mean he/she was hitting on me, or just being friendly?

Probably just being friendly. Wiccans, as a subculture, do tend to be a bit more physically affectionate than the general North American public, but this shouldn't be perceived as a sexual thing. It can be a bit confusing to newcomers — you sometimes get people (generally, but not always, male) who interpret any sign of affection from a person of the opposite sex (or the same sex, if that happens to be their inclination) as a sexual invitation, and can't understand why the person then gets upset when they proposition them. Other times, you get people (generally, but not always, female) who interpret any sign of affection from a person of the opposite sex as a threat, and can't understand why the person seems hurt when they tell them to get lost.

Most of the time, in the Wiccan community, a hug is just a hug — a simple sign of affection between friends. It hasn't got any hidden agendas. However, everyone should recognize that different people have different boundaries in terms of personal space and how well they need to know someone before they're comfortable being physically affectionate with them, and be respectful of that.

3.23. Somebody's sexually harassing me, or otherwise making me uncomfortable. What should I do?

Unfortunately, there are times when people don't respect each other's boundaries, or when people get interested in Wicca for the wrong reasons. We're all familiar with the sensationalistic Hollywood image of "witchcraft", which tends to focus on things like wild orgies and spells that will cause everyone you see to fall madly in lust with you. Now, most people realize that these images are total nonsense, but some people don't, and go running out to the nearest "witchy" group that they can find to try to get a piece of the action. You also get cases of miscommunication, like we talked about in 3.22, and people who are just plain unclear on what constitutes acceptable behaviour, in this or any other context.

Our open circles and classes are accessible to the general public, and while people can be, and have been, banned for misbehaviour, there is no way of telling whether a new person is going to make trouble before they do it.

If someone is behaving in a way that makes you uncomfortable, the first thing to do is to tell them. If it is a case of simple miscommunication, this will generally clear it up — the person may have had no idea their behaviour was upsetting you, and be mortified to find out it was. On the other hand, if it is deliberate harassment, this lets them know that you aren't going to put up with it. Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself — no one has a right to violate your boundaries or put you in a situation you're not comfortable with.

Above all, don't let anyone tell you that you are somehow a bad Wiccan if you aren't willing to put up with them harassing you. Yes, Wiccans do view sexuality as sacred — but because of that, we do not tolerate it being abused or used to harm people. Being Wiccan means taking pride in your own sexuality — but it does not mean you have to accept someone else's being forced on you!

If the person is not willing to stop whatever it is they're doing when you tell them to, or if for whatever reason you don't feel safe telling them, then talk to the Summoner — remember, he's responsible for the safety of the community. If he's not available, talk to the Handmaiden or a member of priesthood. This is a caring community, and if you're having trouble, we want to know.

3.24. Somebody just told me some nasty rumour or bit of gossip about someone else. What should I do?

You might think that, in a spiritually oriented community which recognizes divinity as immanent within all things and has an ethical system focussed on personal responsibility and awareness of the consequences of one's actions, people would not fall into the habit of spreading malicious gossip about each other. You might think that, but you would be wrong.

The sad fact of the matter is that people are human, wherever you go, and human beings tend to have certain failings. A fondness for gossip is one of them. But while that may make it unsurprising that Wiccans gossip just as much as anyone else, it doesn't make it right, or good, or healthy from a community perspective. To an extent, it may be natural: get a group of people together — any people — and the first thing they will start talking about is, you guessed it, other people. However, there is a fine line between normal community chit-chat and genuinely malicious gossip. If you're not sure of the difference, ask yourself: would I say this in front of the person concerned? In front of someone I knew was a friend of theirs? If not, why am I saying it behind their back?

You don't have to sit idly by and listen to people who should know better badmouthing each other. Sometimes all it takes to stop it is simply saying "Why are you telling me this?" or "I don't want to know." But that doesn't always work. Try asking gossipers if they really know whether what they're saying is true, or if they just heard it from someone who heard it from someone who heard it from someone — and so on. And even if they do know the facts, is it really necessary to spread them far and wide? Do the people they're telling have any need to know what they're telling them, other than simple vicarious curiosity?

Most people, if you really get them thinking about it, do realize that spreading gossip and rumours is a bad thing to do. The problem is just that, too often, they don't think about it — they just do it instinctively. Half the battle is just to make people aware of what they're doing — the rest, they can usually figure out by themselves.

3.25. I just got invited to a circle in another tradition, or an event where there will be people from many other traditions. What should I do?

As we've pointed out repeatedly elsewhere, Wicca is a very diverse religion, and paganism as a whole even more so. It can be fascinating, and very educational, to experience that diversity by exposing yourself to other traditions, be it through festivals, public events, or being invited as a guest. It's a good idea to learn as much as you can about the variety of different traditions before deciding which one you're going to follow, so that you can be sure you've found the one that's right for you. Even if you've already settle on one tradition — be it this one or any other — it's helpful to learn about other trads so that you can better understand what makes yours unique, and how it relates to the others.

If you're attending another tradition's ritual as a guest, it's a good idea to find out beforehand if there are any rules or customs you should be aware of; anything in particular that you should or shouldn't wear or bring or do. You don't want to show up bringing a bottle of wine to a coven composed of recovering alcoholics who only use fruit juice in the chalice, or wear a piece of jewellery that to you is just an ornament but in the other tradition might be the sign of a High Priestess! Every tradition is different, and you shouldn't assume that the customs of yours apply to all the others as well.

The most essential thing is to always be polite and respectful towards other traditions. Don't assume that if they do something differently than you do, that they're doing it wrong. No one way is the be-all and end-all of Wicca, and because yours is right for you doesn't make it right for everyone else. Sometimes new pagans are so enraptured with the particular path or tradition they've chosen that they sing its praises to an extent that sounds an awful lot like they're putting down the others. And while we appreciate the enthusiasm of newcomers who decide they like us that much, we'd appreciate it even more if they could manage to refrain from giving us a bad name throughout the pagan community by acting as if we're somehow superior to all other traditions. We're not — the way we do things may be right for us, but it's not necessarily for everyone. And the same could be said for any tradition.

Have a question you'd like to see appear in this FAQ that's not here? E-mail the FAQ keeper.

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This page last modified: Monday, April 9, 2007


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