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The Great Rite

The Great Rite is possibly one of the most misunderstood rituals of the Wiccan religion. Because it involves either symbolic or actual sexual intercourse it has led to unfounded rumors of orgiastic group sex. In actual practice, the ritual is meant to represent the marriage of the god and goddess. It is usually performed only by the priest and priestess as their representatives. It is meant to express the male/female polarity that exists in every being and symbolizes not only the sacred union of two beings, but the inward marriage of the male and female aspects of each person.

Ritualized sexual acts can be traced back to the beginning of recorded history and have existed in most cultures around the world. In some ancient cultures, kings were required to perform a version of the Sacred Marriage with a priestess representing the goddess to legitimize their ascension to the throne. Modern Wiccans trace their practices to the publications of Gerald Gardner in the late 1940s through the 1960s. Ritual sex, either actual or symbolic, was a large part of his teachings.

According to Wiccan beliefs, ritual sex is a sacred act and as such must be consensual. Demanding participation as a part of initiation into the group is not seen as a legitimate use of the act in most covens. While the symbolic version may be performed by the priest and priestess in a public setting, the actual physical form of the union is normally done in private. The Great Rite is not a casual act and as it is used in most groups, the people involved are already in a committed relationship with each other. There are a variety of reasons for enacting the Great Rite, but the two most common occasions are the festival of Beltane and handfastings.

Beltane is a spring festival and is celebrated on May 1st in the northern hemisphere and November 1st in the southern hemisphere. Beltane focuses on fertility and the ceremony may include the Maypole Dance and the Five-Fold Kiss before the enactment of the Great Rite. Whether symbolic or physical, the sexual activity is limited to one couple, usually the priest and priestess. Ideally, the ceremony is performed outdoors. The circle is cast, the sacred space is purified and the gods invoked. The rituals can involve different acts depending on the wishes of the group and may include chanting, singing, dancing, or eating a community meal. In most cases, there is a formal invocation that requires each person participating in the ritual to stand in a certain position around the circle and speak formal words in turn. In the symbolic version, the priest holds a ceremonial knife called an Athame. The priestess holds the wine filled chalice. With both of them holding their object in both hands, the priest asks permission to unite with the priestess and she must grant it before the act can continue. Once permission is granted, the Athame is lowered into the wine to symbolize sexual union between the two. After the ceremony is finished, the circle is banished and the space is restored to ordinary usage.

A handfasting is the Wiccan marriage ceremony and, as a fertility exercise, The Great Rite is sometimes performed as part of the service. In this case, the bride and groom substitute for the priestess and priest. However, the ritual may still be performed either symbolically or physically. In a handfasting, rings and binding cords are added to the altar. The couple usually writes their own vows, but there is also a formal invocation that is recited. The rings are exchanged during this recitation just before the vows are spoken. Then the cords are tied around the couple’s wrists to symbolize their binding together. Unlike most other religions, which demand a lifelong commitment, the Wiccan ceremony ends with “For as long as ye both shall live together in love, so might it be.” The Great Rite may be performed physically by the bride and groom, in private, as well.

Wicca is, perhaps, the most widely practiced of the Neopagan religions. Wiccans believe the female to be, at least, as important as the male. They are dedicated to preserving a healthy earth. They have rules to follow just like other religions, but theirs are not as involved as the Bible or Quran. They adhere to two statements of principles, The Wiccan Rede and the Three-Fold Law which together are summed up by a statement very similar to the Golden Rule: “An it harm none, do as ye will.” Of course, the key is in the first part of the statement. Harming none, includes yourself as well as others and means mental or emotional harm as well as physical. In short, Wiccans are bound by the same principles as most other religions. They are not devil worshipers nor do they practice black magic. Yet the prejudice against them causes many to hide their beliefs.

The Great Rite Invocation:

Assist me to erect the ancient altar
At which in days past all worshiped
The great altar of all things
For in times of old, woman was the altar
Thus was the altar made and placed
And the sacred place was the point within the center of the circle
As we have of old been taught
That the point within the center is the origin of all things
Therefore should we adore it
Therefore whom we adore we also invoke
O circle of stars

Whereof our Father is but the younger brother
Marvel beyond imagination, soul of infinite space
Before whom time is ashamed
The mind bewildered, and the understanding dark
Not unto thee may we attain unless thine image be love
Therefore by seed and root, and stem and bud
And leaf and flower and fruit, do we invoke thee
O Queen of Space, O Jewel of Light
Continuous One of the Heavens

Let it be ever thus
That man speak not of thee as One, but as None
And let them not speak of thee at all
Since thou art continuous
For thou art the point within the Circle, which we adore
The point of life without which we would not be
And in this way truly are erected the holy pillars
In beauty and in strength were they erected
To the wonder and glory of all men

Altar of mysteries manifold, the sacred circle’s secret point
Thus do I sign thee as old, with kisses of my lips anoint
Open for me the secret way, the pathway of intelligence
Beyond the gates of night and day, beyond the bounds of time and sense
Beyond the mysteries aright, the five true points of fellowship
Here where the Lance and Grail unite
And feet, and knees, and breast, and lip