Chants in Wiccan and Pagan Rituals
Article ID: 10808
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Author: Alfred Surenyan
Posted: July 23rd. 2006
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Imagine we enter into a time machine. We go back thousands of years into the primitive tribes of the world. On a hilltop, we see a group of people. They are dancing and chanting around a fire. These are our first known images of religious worship. Now as we go forward in time, we go to West Africa where the people of semi-arid bush country “depend on music to nourish nearly every phrase of their lives.” They use music in all their ceremonies and rituals celebrating birth, marriage, initiations and other formal religious worship. Each different occasion has a set of music performed for its own purpose. Now moving across the ocean, we go to the Americas. The North American Natives use similar rituals as in West Africa incorporating dancing and chanting. A minor difference is that the Native Americans invoke animal spirits in their rituals of worship. Returning to the Eastern Hemisphere, Europe in the Middle Ages developed Gregorian Chants in the Christian church services. Once again, these chants were for worshiping a deity.
Chanting occurs all through the ages and all over the world. What is the main purpose of chanting in religious and spiritual worship? It is a means of connecting and praying to a deity and the spirits. It has been used for thousands of years “as a means of awakening the inner self and achieving spiritual awareness.” Chanting and using music is a way of bonding and building community with others and is a powerful way of creating energies for working magick.
Chanting has many definitions. The basic structure is a rhythmic text set to quasi-singing. The text, centered and focused on a set of affirmations, directs energies to invoke spirits, deities and goals. Repetition in chants help empower and tune inner and higher self to achieving these goals. It bonds individuals into a single unit and brings focused goals to the conscious mind or to the physical state. Singing is a simple and natural form of physical behavior to create the vibrations needed to attune the inner self with higher powers and bring down the spiritual awareness to the set of goals in a ceremony.
Chants in Wiccan and Pagan Rituals
In the mid-twentieth century, Neo-Pagan Witchcraft, commonly known as Wicca, emerged. Over the second half of the twentieth century, Wicca evolved a set of ritual designs. One such part of the rituals was the use of chants. Over the years, many chants were composed for different reasons and purposes. There are virtually countless numbers of chants published and unpublished. Many of these chants created sacred space, invoked the elemental spirits, invoked deities and enhanced spell work. The primary focus of these chants was to raise energies for praying to deities and working magick.
Gerald Gardner used many chants. Two of these chants were the Aradia Chant and Cernunnos Chant. Mercury Publishing first made recordings of these chants available to the public in the re-print editions of Gardner’s books Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft. The purpose of these chants is to invoke the Goddess and God. The repetition of the text empowered and raised energies within the casting of the sacred space. The chants did not have a set of melodic pitches. The text, written in a poetic and rhythmic form, brought the vibrations from the inner self and up towards the higher end of the cone of power. Other chants were used in Gardner’s Witchcraft tradition. Among them was the famous Witches’ Rune to empower and raise energies before doing spell work or magick.
As the Wicca movement evolved and new traditions emerged, new chants were created within the religion. Chants fit the purpose of a part of the ritual. Today, Starhawk’s Reclaiming Tradition publishes a chant book that includes many different chants used during their public rituals. The book is divided into five sections including chants for invoking the elementals, the Goddess, both the Goddess and God, the God, and various other chants. Members of the Pagan community have composed these chants. We All Come from the Goddess by Z. Budapest and Hoof and Horn by Ian Corrigan invoke the Goddess and God. The famous chant Air I Am is included in the section on elemental calling and invoking. The last section of the chant book includes various chants for different purposes in a ritual.
Ellen Cannon Reed published a collection of Pagan songs and chants entitled Come and Sing With Me. Not only does Reed have chants for invoking a deity and creating sacred space in this collection, but also chants and songs used for the Sabbats. These chants were used in her group for many years. The publication of the book enabled the use and passing down to the Pagan community at large.
Performance Practice of the Chants
Chants are performed in multiple ways. A group can sing them a cappella or accompanied by instruments. Standing in a circle facing one another and holding hands is the simplest way. Yet, some chants are enhanced with movements, dancing, and hand gestures. The basic concept is that each of these various ways of performing the chants helps create and empower the energies needed to work magick and pray. The chants do not specify how they should be performed. Therefore, the performance depends greatly on the individual groups and the mood and ambiance they want to create.
A cappella is the simplest method of singing. Since there is neither accompaniment nor a beat in the background, this type of singing relies on the musical skills of each individual. It may require more skills from the group, but it can be a very powerful method of performance. It can also be a great way of doing ritual with chants when there are no instruments available or when taught in the oral tradition. It is also a great way of raising energies at any given time.
Percussive and woodwind instruments are the most popular and most often used methods of accompaniment. Drums are popular because they will keep the beat as well as add a rhythmic pulse. This can also help keep a good steady beat when accompanied by a dance. Rattles add a nice flavor with drums, further enhancing the flow of energies. Woodwind instruments, such as the recorder or flute can add body and reinforce the melodic line, aiding those who are new to the chant. Woodwinds can help add a nice flavor to the magickal experience. Other instruments can be used depending on the musical abilities of the individuals involved in the group. There are countless numbers of ways that chants can be accompanied with the use of individual creative ideas.
Dance, hand gestures and movement add and intensify the energies of chant. The origin involved in dance, movement and instruments with chants is “that the first outstretched hand reaching for moon, stars, or sun, and the subsequent cry of awe, was mankind’s first dance, ritual and prayer.” In modern times, when we are chanting and dancing and involved in the experience, we are continuing this act of prayer and ritual of humankind. An example of movement would be the participants moving in a clockwise direction while singing. A simple dance step can be used during the movement. This is a way of creating the sacred space using the inner energies of the participants. The dance step, the holding of the hands and the clockwise motion then would help and intensify energies. Another example of hand gestures in ritual would be using the Goddess and God symbols while singing chants during the invocation. The group moves their hands into the Goddess position while the Priestess is invoking. Then the chant is sung while their hands are up towards the moon, reaching and bringing down the energies of the Goddess. The same can be done for the God chant.
Example of Ritual Design with Chants
The Wiccan/Pagan liturgy has five different phases. The phases are as follows:
1) Creating Sacred Space
2) Invoking of The Elements
3) Invoking of Deity
4) The Main Worship
5) Clearing and opening the circle.
As previously described, many chants can fit in each of these categories. They can be used at each section of the ritual. A basic ritual design can include a chant for each sub category. The following list is an example of how one can divide the chants:
1) Sacred Space Chant
2) Elemental Chant
3) Goddess Chant
4) God Chant
5) Main Ritual Chant/s
6) Blessing and Closing Chant
This outline can be used to create a ritual. For example, the monthly Full Moon Rituals can use these chants in the five phases of the ritual. The following is an in depth example of how this can be done.
The first phase of the liturgy is the creation of the sacred space. This is where the Sacred Space Chant comes into its purpose. After cleansing the space and casting the circle, the participants sing a chant to raise the energies of the cone of power. Any chant using specific text to create the sacred space can be sung, such as We Are a Circle within a Circle. The members can hold hands and raise the energies of the sacred space in a clockwise movement using simple dance steps. Instruments can be used during this stage. An issue to remember is that people who play the instruments cannot hold hands in the circle with the group. However, they can stand in the center of the circle while drumming or playing a musical instrument to help empower the raising of the energies. This type of circle casting can be done only if there are enough members in the ritual since there needs to be enough space for them to stand in the center of the circle. Any number of other creative ways can be done in the Sacred Space Chant. Other chants can also be used, both well known or newly composed, so long as the text is focused on the creating of the sacred space.
The next phase of the liturgy is the invoking of the elements. There are several ways chanting can be achieved in this section. The simplest method is by invoking all the elements then chanting the Elemental Chant. Here, the best type of chant would be that which includes all four elements in the text, such as Air I Am and Earth My Body. A more complex way would be to have four separate chants that are sung while the quarter callers call the elements, and then the group chants the corresponding element of that quarter. One word of advice would be a chant that uses the same melody for all four quarters. This will create the proper mood and keep the energies focused to the purpose of the section of the liturgy. Other chants of course can be used. Another good example would be to combine two chants, such as singing Air I Am three times then singing Earth My Body in a canon, then completing the chanting with Air I Am once again three times. Performance is limitless however, keeping in mind what the purpose at hand is at this moment of the ritual: raising of elemental energies and invoking them into the circle.
The third phase of the liturgy is one of the most important of the Wiccan Ritual, invoking a deity. This can be done in several different manners. A simple method is to sing a chant for the Goddess and God right after the Priestess and Priest invites them into circle. The Priestess invites the Goddess while the group keeps their hands raised with the Goddess symbol. Then right after the Goddess is invoked, the group sings a corresponding chant. The best chant to use would be the name of the Goddess being invoked into the circle. Some examples are the name of the Goddess of a tradition, sabbat, moon phase or a general Goddess chant for a public ritual. This all depends on which Goddess is being invoked into circle. The God chant works in the same manner. The Priest invites the God while the members have their hands in the God position. Then afterwards a chant is sung that corresponds to the proper image of the God. Another way to invoke a deity is to use the chant(s) that combines both the Goddess and God, such as We All Come from the Goddess and Hoof and Horn. In this type of performance, the invoking of both is done before the singing starts. Sometimes the Goddess is only invoked in a ritual. For example, Dianic traditions usually call only the Goddess. In some rituals like dark moon, Samhain, and moons between Samhain and Yule also might invoke the Goddess only. For these rituals, then of course only one chant is needed to call on the Goddess. Drumming and rattles can be used in the deity chant. However, in this manner the hand gestures are not used. There are countless ways the Deity Chant can be used. There are as many ways as there are creative minds in writing rituals.
The next phase, the main body, of the liturgy is the most creative and most intricate part of the ritual. The chants in this section are countless. Any number of chants can be used, from one up to five depending on the type of ritual that is done. For a full moon ritual, perhaps one for drawing down the moon. A good example would be Kore Chant. This chant is a powerful way of connecting the energies of the members with the powers of the moon, thus raising energies for magick and other workings in a full moon ritual. It can also be a powerful way of starting spell work. The famous Witch’s Rune, written by Doreen Valiente, can be sung in this section of the ritual. Perhaps a healing spell is being done during the ritual. A healing chant can be utilized at the start of this phase of the ritual. In sabbats, when doing a multiple of works, a focused chant corresponding to the sabbat is a great way of raising energies of the ritual. Musical instruments and dancing is a powerful accompaniment for this phase as well. This is the main “beef” of the ritual and the use of chants is limitless. A medley of chants one after the other is another more complex but yet a nice addition to the ritual. The one main important aspect to remember is that the text of the chant should be in correspondence to the ritual. Since the text helps the mind click with the body and with the other participants, it is important to use a proper chant.
The last phase of the ritual is the closing of the circle. In this section, the cake and ale or the great rite, thanking of the deity, and thanking of the elements is done. The energies during this phase are lowered and grounded. A simple chant at the end can open the circle bringing a joyous mood to all members of the circle. The well-known chant, May the Circle Be Open, is a good example. Other chants can also be sung, or combining May the Circle Be Open with another chant. Singing at a slower tempo and not using drums would probably be the best way to sing since musical instruments create too much energy to lower and ground the energies. A cappella is the best method of singing. The Antelope Valley Pagans in Lancaster, California, once did this chant at the end of the ritual while spiral dancing to open the circle. It helped not only open the circle but to also bring all members of the ritual to combine and communion with one another.
Teaching Methods of Chants
Music notation is the strongest way to teach and pass chants in the Pagan Community. When a chant is only available in text form, there are only two possible ways to learn the actual melodic line: 1) oral tradition or 2) sound recording. However, if these are not available, then the melodic line cannot be learned. If the chant is available in music notation, then the actual melody that was composed can be learned by anyone who knows how to read music.
There are several different ways to learn music notation. Taking basic music theory classes and/or one year of a musical instrument is more than enough education to learn simple chants. If a member of a coven or Pagan group is musically proficient, he/she can teach the rest of the group how to play and sing using music theory. From the Middle Ages to about the 19th Century, music has been taught as part of education. This tradition has been lost in the past century. It is not hard to learn to read simple music notation and anyone can learn it. The music is as simple as learning a foreign language. It can also provide two important aspects: 1) placing the music notation of chants in the book of shadows and 2) individuals can compose new chants using music notation.
The purpose of chants in ritual is for directing and raising energies. A pattern or design incorporating chants into a ritual can provide a powerful method of worship. Using known chants or newly composed chants, and being familiar with them during ritual can be a powerful asset to the empowerment of the Wiccan/ Pagan rituals.
Jay, Stephen, West Africa: Drum, Chant and Instrumental Music, Nonesuch 799709-2.
Alan, Jim, “The Magick of Music,” Jim Alan and Selena Fox, The Magick of Music, Wisconsin, Circle Circle Publications, 1998, 6.
Witchcamp Chantbook published by Reclaiming Quarterly, www.reclaimingquarterly.org.
Lepic, Nancy, “The Magick of Dance”, Jim Alan and Selena Fox, Circle Magick Songs, Wisconsin, Circle Circle Publications, 1998, 8.
This is detailed in depth by Isaac Bonewits in his book Rites of Worship, Chapter 3: A Common Worship Pattern.
The Circle would need at least 10 participants in order to have 1-2 people in the center.
Location: North Hills, California
Author's Profile: To learn more about Alfred Surenyan - Click HERE
Bio: Alfred Surenyan is an Ordained High Priest of Strega. He has studied Witchcraft for over 15 years, beginning his studies in the Strega Tradition with his teacher Lady Aradia. Over the years he has studied many other forms of Witchcraft and Pagan traditions, including Armenian, Celtic, and Greek. In the past year he has synthesized these teachings into a new tradition he calls Moonstone Strega. This tradition is based on the teachings of Aradia combined with elements of Armenian, Celtic, and Greek Paganism. Moonstone Strega ritual focuses on using chants as a vehicle for casting circle, raising energy and other workings.
Mr. Surenyan draws on his background as a professional composer and musician in his work with chant as a vehicle to raise energy during magick and ritual. He is currently teaching a workshop on chant; Raising Energies with Chants, and developing courses on using chants with the charkas for healing, energization and the history and culture of contemporary Pagan Folk Music.
Alfred is currently completing his Doctor of Musical Arts Degree at Claremont Graduate University. He resides
In Los Angeles where he is High Priest of the The Temple of Aradia, a Wiccan Group he founded.
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