Many ancient spiritual traditions involved permanent sacred locations: temples, groves, stone circles and the like. In these cases, the setting defines the sacred space. Sure, you can purify it and bless it and all that, but it's already there, already marked and waiting for you.
|Castlerigg Stone Circle|
What if you don't have a permanent building or space? Maybe you're going to have a ritual in a public park, or do a meditation in your back yard, or cast a spell in your living room. You need to mark out - physically or in your mind - the limits of the space in which you'll be 'doing your thing.'
You might walk around the perimeter of the area, or carry a broom and sweep around it, or use a ritual blade to mark a circle in the air or on the ground. You could sprinkle salt or some other substance (I use flour or white sand outdoors since salt will damage plants) to mark the edge of your sacred space. You could carry incense around the edge of the area to simultaneously define and purify/bless it. Or you could simply sit still and visualize a circle/sphere or other shape building around you in the ether.
In addition to the physical marking of the sacred space, I like to use a bit of poetry or chant to help me focus on the act, especially when I'm doing ritual with a number of people. Over the years I've used a wide variety of verses in the public rituals I've performed. Here's a bit of rhyme I used with a small group that I ran for a while, when we held rituals at the full moon:
Dragons and trees circle 'round
As we call the old moon down.
Brother, sister, family, friends,
A rolling hoop that never ends.
You could substitute other Powers and energies for the dragons and trees, depending on the purpose of your ritual. I've called on the Land Wights, the Fae and the Ancestors at various times when that was appropriate to the event. When I run rituals that focus on guided visualizations or shamanic journeying, I often say these words as I'm marking out the working space:
We journey tonight within and beyond. I mark the beginning of our journey. I mark the sacred circle of ritual and of life.
Over the years I've done a lot of work with goddesses from different pantheons. When a female deity is involved in the working, I like to use a circle-casting verse I wrote that invokes Her energy and protection:
Between the worlds we gather now
From time and space and mind
A journey safe in goddess’ womb
Till out we once more climb
Here's a poetic choice for goddess-centered ceremonies; I wrote this one for the New Moon Ritual included in Ariadne's Thread:
I cast about with ancient Art
The Temple of the Goddess true
Whose essence lives within my heart
Whose presence lets me start anew
One of my favorite ways of marking sacred space involves all the participants working together. This is especially suitable for events involving children. Everyone stands in a circle, fairly close together. The first person reaches their left hand out and takes hold of the right hand of the person next to them (the second person). As they do so, they say, "Hand to hand the circle is cast." The second person then reaches out to hold hands with the third person, repeating the words, and so on around the circle. When all hands are linked, the leader then declares, "The circle is cast" and everyone lets go. This is an excellent way not only to generate the division between sacred and mundane space, but also to develop a sense of community and intimacy among the participants in the ritual. You would think it would be unsuitable for large groups since it would take a long time to complete, but I've seen it used effectively with up to fifty people. All the participants watch the connection form around the circle. They see it with their own eyes, and their perception of the circle growing around the group increases the intensity of the connection. It can be quite moving.