The Psychology of Ritual


by D.V. Gray

Magick and psychology are very closely linked. It is far more likely, however, to hear this observation made by those practicing magick than by those practicing psychology. Psychology in general – and particularly the field of clinical psychology – takes a dim view of magick, regarding it as superstitious nonsense. “Magickal thinking” is even listed among symptoms of various mental illnesses, defined as “superstition; obsession; attributing cause and effect where there is none.” But how do we define magick? According to Aleister Crowley, magick is simply “the art and science of causing change to occur in conformity with Will.” Is this not also the purpose of psychotherapy – to make changes within the individual within the scope of that person’s abilities and purpose in life? Perhaps it’s the “presumption” perceived in defining magick as a science which rankles those more inclined toward the traditional sciences. But if it is practiced well, magick is certainly capable of yielding consistent, replicable results as much as many forms of psychotherapy can.

The relationship between magick and psychology need not be an antagonistic one. One of the most effective uses of combining these two may be in the context of ritual.

There are those who practice magick who would say, of course, that psychology is somewhat like the “debunking squad.” Just when one thinks one has experienced contact with a guardian angel or some such being, along come the neuropsychologists to say that it’s all a brain wave pattern caused by something you ate before you fell asleep. In the twinkling of an eye your guardian angel is no more than a chemical interaction. Enlightenment is reduced to becoming aware that your synapses aren’t firing quite like they ought to.

But the relationship between magick and psychology need not be an antagonistic one. The fields of parapsychology and transpersonal psychology have made vast inroads into the study of consciousness and the “paranormal.” And either magick or psychology can be easily used to assist with the other. One of the most effective uses of combining these two may be in the context of ritual.

What is ritual? In one sense, a ritual is a ceremonial form of deciding to do something – make some change within yourself, acquire some external object, etc. – and creating the means to do so. In another sense a ritual is a habit. Perhaps both these meanings can shed some light on why rituals are used in magick. A ritual that is based in traditional magick – whether Wiccan, Thelemic or what-have-you – is a consensual ceremony. It may have been passed down for generations or only written up formally with the inception of that particular group’s work, but it has the forces of habit and history behind it. Everyone participating knows that this is the way it’s done, that it works this way, and that others have done this same ritual (with perhaps minor variations). It is as predictable as knowing that if you sit down to read the newspaper after dinner, you’ll probably fall asleep. However, it also has the power of being a ceremony – it is formal, in a sense; it is set apart from everyday activities. As such, it focuses the attention more effectively than, for instance, daydreaming about the object of your ritual while you watch television. Ritual galvanizes the energies and sets them to work upon the task at hand.

Ritual is a ceremonial form of deciding to do something. It has the forces of habit and history behind it, but it also has the power of being a ceremony, set apart from everyday activities.

This is one of the much misunderstood elements of magick. There seems to be a not uncommon idea that magick is mostly about ritual in the sense of gathering up all the necessary tools and articles, saying the right words in the right order as you make the right motions, and the next thing you know, you have a new job (or boyfriend or car, it doesn’t much matter) just as you wanted. I cannot count the number of requests I hear for “spells” or sigils or amulets or what-not. Magick is not fundamentally about following a recipe. Many of the items which were specified in those traditional rituals are there because of the time when they came into being; a witch in the 1700’s may have used mandrake root dug by the dark of the moon for a very specific reason which had nothing to do with any inherent powers of the root itself. It took far more effort in that time and place for a woman to slip out of her house at night unnoticed with a tool suitable for digging than it takes for most of us to drive out to the nearest herb shop or natural health center and purchase the same item. One must consider that the acquisition of the ingredients and tools specified very likely had as much importance as the actual items themselves, if not more. In a similar way, A.O. Spare as well as Crowley added energy to their own rituals by drawing upon the sexual elements – but what was taboo in Crowley’s England is commonplace now, and unlikely to produce the same effect for anyone except the very sheltered.

As far as tools go, there is much to be said for creating your own. Tradition may say that one needs a wand, a cup, a sword and a pantacle – but if you don’t truly understand the use of or need for a pantacle, then why on earth have one? Or any other tool, for that matter? The purpose of the tools is to assist you practically (as in using the cup to hold the wine or whatever liquid you may need), but they also serve to set you into a particular frame of mind, to focus your energies on the task at hand. If the staff you carved from a fallen tree branch gives you a stronger sense of your own power than the conductor’s wand you bought at the store, then by all means, use your staff! If, on the other hand, you firmly believe that the only tools which will work are the ones described specifically in minute detail in an old book of magick you found at a second-hand store, then you’d better get started on searching for those particular tools; if you are that convinced that no others will suit your purposes, then they probably won’t.

The success of a ritual depends more on elements of psychology than on one’s tools or strength of faith or desire.

So why do rituals work? If it isn’t the specific ingredients, and the way in which we go about getting them is far different from our ancestors’ methods, then what is left to our ritual that makes it work? The secret lies within the individual. It is a matter of expectation and belief. I do not mean belief in a deity or godform or anything such as that; nor do I mean that when a ritual “didn’t work” it is because someone “didn’t believe enough” – an idea akin to the Christian demand for “faith”. (And Christianity is a magickal religion too, as much as Wicca or any of the others.) What I mean has more to do with psychology – a concept called the “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Most people know the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. The classic example is the student who worries so much about failing a test that he actually does fail the test, despite all his preparation. Or the person who is so terrified of public speaking that she gets laryngitis before her class presentation. However, they often work in “positive” ways as well – for example, look at the success of the concept of “positive thinking.” This is nothing more or less than putting the self-fulfilling prophecy to work for you – just like a magickal ritual. Rituals work on the same principle; we assume that they will, and so they do. If you are relatively new to the ritual and cannot rely on your personal experience to be sure it’s worth trying, there are still hundreds or thousands of others who have performed the same ritual with success; vicarious results are often as effective as personal ones in setting up expectations.

It is gratifying to feel that you got what you wanted simply because you wanted it badly enough. But wanting or wishing very hard for your ritual to work is generally not nearly as effective as simply expecting it to work.

And that word brings up another issue: that of expectation versus desire. It is gratifying, even therapeutic sometimes, to feel that you got what you wanted simply because you wanted it badly enough. (This seems to be the case especially with adolescents performing “love spells.”) It is also satisfying to the obsessive-compulsive individual to think that the reason for the success of their ritual was due to meticulous preparation and precision in carrying out the ceremony. But wanting or wishing very hard for your ritual to work is generally not nearly as effective as simply expecting it to work. Crowley likened this frame of mind to the same expectation you would feel if you asked your servant to bring a drink or accomplish some errand. Most of us, of course, don’t have servants, but a more applicable way of illustrating the point might be the frame of mind you enter when you have just given your order to a waiter at a restaurant. Unless you’ve become accustomed to abysmal service in restaurants, you assume that the waiter will bring you what you ordered, and that he will do so within a reasonable amount of time. As soon as you have given your order and he has left the table, then, the matter is out of your mind. You don’t continue to call out your order to him, or hope that he heard you, or sit there still contemplating how much you love chicken marsala. You have done all that was necessary, and now you can forget about it and talk with your dinner companion until the waiter reappears with your order.

If you assume that your ritual will accomplish what you wanted, then it will. Worrying over it or considering how it might go wrong will only create those possibilities on a larger scale. They are already potentialities, but giving attention to them gives them a life of their own, so to speak. And since it can be tricky to think very hard of what you want without also implying what you don’t want, that may well be one reason why it seems to work best to do the ritual and forget about it. Have you ever noticed that you can want something very badly but once you no longer want it, that is when you actually get it? Ritual is often like planting seeds; you can put them into the ground and water them but it will be of absolutely no use to keep going back and digging them up to see if they’ve grown yet. Nor will it help them grow faster if you pull on the shoots when they begin to peek through the soil. In the same way, a ritual works itself out when the time is right – no sooner, no later.

Think of this the next time someone tells you that magick is “all in your head.” And let us hope now that knowing how it happens will not keep you from being able to make it happen!


© Copyright 1999 by D.V. Gray. Republished 2013, 2015.

[This article previously appeared in SKOPOS Vol. II No. 3; it is presented here in an updated format by permission of the author.]

Photo via Pixabay.

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