Many people who wish to reconstruct a ritual or revive a holiday often are at a loss as to where to start. This is especially true for newcomers to Hellenism. Reconstructing a rite is a multi-step process, you don’t simply look at one book and one source and just do a 1:1 transfer. You gotta feel it man. What follows is my own method for reconstructing a rite and it is by no means the only one.
STEP 1: Identify the holiday you want to reconstruct. And focus on it.
Maybe this step seems kinda self-evident to many folks, but you have to start somewhere. The second part is especially important, y’know the whole ‘focusing’ thing. I know I personally have a problem with getting too excited/ambitious and trying to reconstruct six billion holidays all at the same time. Focus is important, if you don’t focus you wind up with a lot of unfinished ritual and holiday proceedings that really just aren’t worth anything. Without focus you waste time and energy.
STEP 2: Locate sources which speak about your holiday.
This one is one that a lot of people end up accidentally skipping. Not because they don’t have any reference material. . .but because they only use one reference instead of acquiring multiple sources to synthesize. The more information you have the more fleshed out you are going to be able to make your observance. That being said, it is astoundingly easy to get obsessed over having as many sources as possible and instead of reconstructing the rite you just kinda research. . . forever. I recommend at least 3 sources if possible. I put a personal cap at 6 to prevent myself from getting crazy but you should set limits that work for you, as long as they utilize more than one source.
STEP 3: Discern what the essence of the holiday is.
Before you begin putting the meat of ritual action it is very important to discern the “spirit” of the holiday and its essence. While it is true that some holidays were basically sacrifices done with a little more umph and pomp (pun intended) many had an underlying theme beyond being an extra polis wide sacrifice for a special reason. As outsiders to the culture (and this includes everyone alive today. No one has an emic perspective on a culture that existed 2500 years ago) this may prove a bit challenging but we can at least get the gist of what they were driving at and translate it into something meaningful for the modern person.
STEP 4: Look at what they did and ask “can we?”
Look at what the ancients did to observe. By this point you should have read your sources (or at least the section containing your holiday) at least once. What actions did they take? In which ways were these actions exceptional? In which ways were they standard? Do actions which appear exceptional occur in any other holidays or are they unique to only this one? Some examples include the inversion roleplaying done on Kronia or the washing of Athena’s statue on Plynteria.
The hard part is deciding on what you should bring back. You cannot do everything that the ancients did. Most of these actions we simply do not have the space, resources, or manpower to do as much as we wish otherwise. And while it may be tempting to reconstruct a rite for a group far larger than what you have access to, think of things in terms of what you currently have. If it is only you and some non-Hellenic friends who may not understand the intricacies or subtleties of what you are doing, work with that. If you have a group of ten Hellenists you should probably start playing the lottery, that is damn good luck, but you should also construct the celebration with that in mind.
At this stage you should also look at what they did for the offering and sacrifices on the day and see which events and actions were done immediately before, during, or after the ritual so you can determine timing for them. Many holidays have a central sacrifice and other activities performed on the day (races, theatre, games, etc) that do not necessarily occur in direct conjunction with the ritual.
You will likely find that most stuff you will need to modernize. Chariot races are kinda hard to do now, so what other competition could you do instead? We have access to a plethora of competitive activities in the modern West, including but not limited to board games, video games, foot races, touch football, target shooting, well you get the idea. My point is, even if we can’t do the exact same thing, we can still capture the spirit of the activity in the modern age. Most of the times these activities are suitable replacements, but it never hurts to have a diviner double check.
STEP 5: Construct the ritual
As previously mentioned, most holidays will have an associated ritual. You should have at least a bare bones idea from your gathered sources on what your ritual should look like. You’ll also notice a general pattern in most rituals. I notice it going something like Pomp/Procession –> Purification –> Initial evocations and offerings –> Hymns –> Prayers –> Offerings –> Eating and Closing. Sometimes there are more than two sets of offerings done, sometimes there are additional elements but when in doubt this is the pattern I use and it has served me to great effect.
Again, you will likely not be able to perform the ritual exactly as the ancients did. In addition to writing the actions, prayers, greetings, hymns, etc, you will need to make a list of what offerings you are giving. I suggest you also make a list of why that particular offering is being given to that particular deity. Does it have symbolic importance? Has it been revealed through a diviner or through your own divination that you need to give that offering? Does it fit in with the spirit of the holiday? If you just chose it at random you might want to reconsider that choice unless you can find a good reason for including it.
As you are writing, consider how many people you will need. What is the minimum? What is the maximum? Are these numbers realistic? What happens if you can’t meet your minimum? These are very important questions to consider as you write your ritual.
Also consider what you are going to serve to guests as refreshments after the ritual and keep in mind whatever planned activities you had for the holiday. Make sure people are aware of these after ritual activities so they don’t feel pressured to join in on something they are uncomfortable doing.
If you expect there to be a lot of people there make sure there is some way for them to get involved in the ritual. Rituals that don’t allow for non-officiant participation will likely not get return visitors.
STEP 6: Decide where it will be held.
Will the ritual be held at your house? At a park? At the UU Church? Where works for the ritual and activities you have planned? If you can’t find a space suitable for your ritual, what can you revise to make due with what you have? Finding space can be difficult but not impossible, many UU Churches will lend space. Heck, I’ve even heard of Presbyterian and Episcopalian Churches lending space to Pagans as bizarre as that sounds. After you decide the location and have permission from relevant parties, send out invitations for folks you’d like to have attend. Make sure there is some way for them to RSVP so that you have a vague idea of how many will show, and count on a quarter of those who have RSVPed to not show up. Don’t be offended or disappointed, this happens with any and every event. And remember, it is better to be oversupplied than undersupplied in terms of food, refreshments, and offerings.
STEP 7: Sweat the details. . .but only a little bit.
Many people who choose to reconstruct rituals from ancient sources obsess over every single detail being as historically accurate as possible. This is unwise. When you fail to account for what is necessary for modern living you can easily end up with a ritual that feels less like an act of devotion and spirituality towards the gods and far more like a mere historical re-enactment, akin to something one might find in a “Taste of Ancient Greece” re-enactment village. Or something. The details are important, but getting every single detail in line isn’t necessarily going to make for a more fulfilling ritual experience. In fact, it might detract from it or even cause you to forgo performing the ritual altogether. Every person or group who reconstructs a ritual will have their own variations, their own quirks and idiosyncrasies and that is okay.
We are many people worshiping many gods in many places, doesn’t it only seem natural that variations should arise?