Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tools and Accessories

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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We’ve all seen them; perhaps we've even been one of these people ourselves at one time or another - the colorful characters of the pagan community with their velvet robes, satin capes, 57 different silver necklaces, three matching knives in graduated sizes on their color-coordinated belt, 4 rings on each finger, dramatic makeup for both day and nightime wear. Of course, their altars match their outfits - chased silver goblets, carved brass and rosewood incense holder (with five kinds of incense burning at once), incised bronze pentagram inlaid with multiple different sacred stones, gold lame altarcloth embroidered with sacred symbols draped over a velvet cloth draped over an elaborately carved table, two-foot-tall deity statue, and so on.

This might be overkill or it might not; I won't argue personal tastes here - if it works for you, then do it. My point is that these people do make an impression, and that’s what ritual and ceremony are all about: making an impression. Yes, you can do everything in your head in a meditative state with just as effective an outcome, if you have the necessary mental control from years of practice. But when you’re doing ritual with other people you have to keep everyone on the same wavelength. Remember the post about symbolism in ritual? The easiest way to use symbols is with theatrics. Of course your words, the rituals you compose, will have an impact. But the visual images you use have even more power, for they are constantly present throughout the ritual, beaming themselves into everyone's brain every time they look. So it is with ritual tools.

Tools are just that: items used to accomplish a purpose. In ritual, whether private or public, tools help you focus on the task at hand. Their presence keeps your mind on the topic of the ceremony. Used correctly, your tools and accessories will reinforce the effect of your ritual. Chosen poorly, they can distract you from your purpose and hinder your energy.

Norse Yule altar with deity images, food offerings and tools
Setting the Stage

Think of the circle (or whatever shape your sacred space happens to be) as your stage. Your altar, then, is your biggest prop. If the presiding priest or priestess is the primary focus in the circle, then the altar is number two. How you set up your altar will affect how people respond to your ritual. What materials do you put on it - fancy cut crystal goblets and candlesticks or handmade ceramic ones? The gold lame altarcloth mentioned above, or a burlap one, or none at all? You don’t have to do anything elaborate; just be mindful of the impression you create when you choose what you use. Think of the overall feeling and effect you want and go from there.


The tools you place on your altar or carry on your person will, to some degree, be dictated by the type of ritual you perform and the rules of any tradition you follow. There are some standards - cups and goblets, blades, candles - that appear at most pagan rituals. There are others which you will choose according to the season and the occasion. Let’s look at some types of tools and accessories and how you might use them.

Feminine Imagery: The Womb and the Earth

Like it or not, every cup and bowl you bring into circle is a womb image. Across cultures and time, any round container which will hold liquid has been a womb symbol and hence a symbol of woman and the goddess. The bowl of salt water on your altar is a symbol of the sea, the womb of the earth. The cup of wine you share around the circle represents the life of the earth poured forth from the womb of the goddess. The cauldron in the center of your circle contains the fire-in-the-belly. Consider this imagery when choosing the type, number and prominence of cups and bowls for your ritual. For which occasions might you want multiple, large round containers? When might you want to eliminate them altogether, and why? Many tools have an individual and a collective version, one that belongs to a person and one that belongs to or symbolizes that aspect of the coven, clan or tribe. The cup is the personal womb symbol; the cauldron or other large round vessel is the group symbol.


The other basically female-symbolic tool is the pentagram, especially when drawn inside a circle, in which case it is called a pentacle. Note that while cups and bowls are female symbols cross-culturally, the pentagram is an exclusively European symbol. Its presence on the altar represents the earth and hence the goddess. The five points of the pentacle represent the elements which make up the world and which influence our lives. The pentagram as jewelry is an individual symbol; the pentagram on the altar or otherwise displayed in the ritual area is a group symbol. What tools do non-European traditions use to symbolize earth for the individual and the group?

Pagan altar with chalice, small cauldron and bowl-shaped censer
From Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore artefact private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pink Pasty)
Long, Pointy Freudian Things

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar . . . but never in ritual. If it’s long and narrow, it’s a male symbol. The blade, the wand and the staff represent, in a very basic sense, the male and the god. Dipping the blade into the cup during the symbolic Great Rite symbolizes not only sexual union but also the union of the two halves of universal being. The blade symbolizes its owner’s will as well, their desire and purpose extended into the material world. In this sense it is still a masculine symbol even when the owner is a woman. We all carry the both masculine and the feminine within us; the will is, in many traditions, a masculine component of one’s being. Why do you think this might be? Do you agree with this interpretation? The small blade (called an athame in some traditions) is the personal tool; the sword is the collective tool, wielded by the group’s representative or leader.

The wand is also a masculine symbol, though not usually as powerful an image as the blade. Some traditions connect the blade with the metaphysical element of air and the wand with fire; some do it the other way round. Regardless, both are masculine symbols connected with elements held to be masculine in the European tradition. The wand is an extension of the hand and arm, a way to direct and focus energy, hence the stereotype of the witch pointing her magic wand at the unlucky prince, er, frog. You can direct energy just as easily by pointing your finger (ever wonder why your mom insisted it was rude to point?) but a wand is a much more visible sign of your action and intent. In this case the wand and the staff are both individual tools, though the staff can also be a group symbol when it is used as a sign of leadership. Shamans and other indigenous spiritual leaders often use staffs as symbols of their position in the community.

If long, pointy objects are male symbols and round containers are female symbols, how would you classify the smoking pipe? An interesting note: Native American pipes, as well as many older European models, have the bowl and stem as separate, interlocking pieces. Most Native American nations consider pipes to be a combination of masculine and feminine, and often store the pieces separately, only inserting the stem into the bowl immediately before use.

Norse pagan altar with phallic figurine of the god Freyr
Let There Be Light

Flame. What a marvelous tool. It is a symbol of life, power, magic, inspiration, passion, individual and collective will. And it looks so lovely. We often use candles as tools during ritual but we do not always consciously consider the impact of flame on a ritual (never mind burning witches). Lighting the god and goddess candles represents the moment at which their energies enter the ritual. A central fire represents the spark of life at the center of all things.  Many traditions describe spiritual awakening or possession by deity as a flame or fire emanating from the head. When would you choose candles, a cauldron containing a small fire, a giant bonfire? If you use candles, what color and size would you choose, and why? A white taper in a crystal candlestick gives a completely different impression than a sandcast black pillar candle set in the dirt. When would you choose not to use flame at all? When might you use flame as an active part of the ritual, either extinguishing it or lighting it to symbolize some aspect of the occasion?

Wiccan Imbolc Altar with many candles
From the Reading Pagan's & Witches Imbolc Gathering & Expo

Fashion Show

The items and objects you wear and carry on your person counts as tools. A casual family ritual whose primary focus is building community can be performed in jeans and T-shirts. But a formal Sabbat with 40 attendees and an altar the size of a megalith requires appropriate costuming. Just as in good literature, in good ritual nothing is inconsequential. Every detail has an effect on the participants. This includes what you wear. You choose your workday clothing to project a particular image; select your ritual clothing with this in mind as well. What sorts of garments do you feel comfortable wearing in ritual? When would you want all the participants to dress similarly to the priest or priestess and when would you want them to dress differently? Why? When would you want to enact a ritual skyclad and why?

The Tie that Binds

Rope. Cord. Ribbon. Some traditions require their adherents to wear a cingulum, a piece of cord measured against certain parts of the owner’s body. Yes, it’s a good way to keep from tripping on your robe’s hem, but that cord is also a powerful tool. What might the cingulum symbolize when worn around the waist? When hung up or laid on the altar? Anything that can be tied into a knot or that can tie two things together is a tool of union and binding. We bind two people’s hands together when they get married, that is, we make their hands fast together to symbolize the binding of their lives. At Beltane we weave ribbon around the Maypole. Originally the Maypole dance involved binding the May King and Queen to the Maypole, binding them to each other and their union to the land. In what other ways might you use cord or ribbon in ritual? How about weaving a web of community? Or defining the circle?

Sniff. Sniff. Ding! Munch.

All the tools I have mentioned so far produce visual effects, but what about the other senses? Scent can be a powerful ritual tool; the olfactory nerve reaches directly into the brain from the back of the nose. Incense and perfume oils lend their own energies to sacred space, enhancing and reinforcing the visual symbolism. A common way of welcoming participants into a ritual is through smudging with incense or anointing with scented oil. Let the choice of scent reflect the occasion - gardenia oil for Spring Equinox, sage and sweetgrass for Harvest, menthol for the cold of winter. Burn incense on the altar, around the circle or in the sacred fire. What scents might you choose for Midsummer? Midwinter? A wedding? A funeral?

We speak words and sing chants in ritual, but there are other ways to 'fill up our ears' as well. Be aware of background sounds when you choose the site for a ceremony. A babbling brook and insect nightnoise can be a lovely addition but traffic sounds or loud neighbors will probably be a distraction. Make sure phones are turned off and preferably left outside the ritual area before beginning. Recorded music chosen to reflect the theme of your activities can add to the ambience of the event. Remember, everything the participants encounter in a ritual affects their perception of it.


Many rituals include a food component - cakes and wine, a blot, or other sharing of food and/or drink. In addition to the practical considerations of food allergies and legal drinking age, take the time to determine how the food choices affect the feel of your ritual. Your tradition may require the use of particular recipes or beverages, but if it does not, consider the appearance and flavor of any food you use. Does it enhance the intended feeling of the ritual? Does it help the participants focus on the energy of the season or the purpose of the ceremony? It may seem like a small thing, but strawberries and May wine at Beltane or oat cakes and mead at Lammas can make a much stronger impression than you might think.

My own Autumn Equinox altar
The cakes-and-ale portion of this ritual was pomegranate juice
and apples sliced equatorially to show off the pentagram of seeds inside
The Big Picture

Some rituals just beg for really big props. Consider when you might want a really imposing image in your sacred space - a huge solar disk, a massive bonfire, a large altar overflowing with fruits and grains. Not every ritual needs something that dramatic. In fact, sometimes a large prop can detract from the focus, but at other times it intensifies the energy. It can become the visual focus of the ritual. Of course, sometimes you don’t want your props to compete with some other focus in your ritual, such as the couple getting married or the child being presented to the community. But at other times the focus is more abstract (harvest, death) and a big prop helps to focus the participants’ concentration and energy in one place. If you had to choose one occasion during the year to include a really imposing prop in your ritual, when would it be and why?

And So Forth

What tools and accessories have you used in ritual, either alone or in a group? Why did you choose them for that particular occasion? Do you feel they added to the psychological impact of the ceremonry or detracted from it? What tools might you like to try that you have never used before? Remember, anything you use is a tool. Sure, the traditional blade, cup, pentacle, candle and incense are always available. But what about something different? Consider when you might use the following in a ritual: dirt, rainwater, toilet paper, a hubcap, a tube of lipstick. Yes, I have used all of these items in ritual at various times.

We have discussed the use of ritual tools mainly for their effect when perfoming rituals with others. But tools carry their symbology regardless of the number of people participating in the ritual. Do you use tools of any sort when doing ritual alone or with just one partner? Why? Are there occasions when you use tools and occasions when you don’t? If so, how do you choose whether or not you need them?


A small piece of advice: Don’t get too complicated and don't focus more on the tools and accessories than on the ritual itself. Life is the greatest magic show of all. Our tools should serve to remind us of that. If the focus becomes the tools and props rather than the greater concepts they represent, it’s time to adjust our focus.