Ritual Nudity

(Alex Sanders initiating Janet Farrar)
The naked human body is thought of either as something to be ashamed of or as something perverse in modern society. Thus, nudism and naturalism have become frowned upon in most cases.

Another factor that should be taken into consideration is that most people were raised in a clothed society which oppresses sexuality or promotes it in fake ways. On one hand there is pornography which, in my opinion, depicts sex as everything except realistic. I personally see pornography as a grotesque or caricature of sex which can't be taken seriously even though it may bring pleasure to many people. In addition to this, there are millions of absurd advertisements which promote and exploit the naked human body in ludicrous ways. For example, I will never forget an ad for Lavazza coffee I saw a while ago which depicts a naked woman lying in a plate of spaghetti holding a cup of Lavazza coffee (which is barely visible). What on earth do these three components have to do with one another?!?! Then there are those types of ads which promote a specific type of human build which is "perfect". This results in many people feeling unworthy, self-conscious and ashamed of their own bodies because they do not look like the ones in commercials. All of this and many other factors have lead to nudity being a taboo of sorts.

Lavazza ad
Most Pagans will say that they see the human body as natural and therefore sacred. It is not necessarily sexual all the time, but it definitely is beautiful. Neither nudity nor sexuality are to be ashamed of, but they must also not be tainted. Many Pagans and Neo-pagans have taken this stance and incorporated it into their devotional and magical practices. After all, Paganism is a nature and fertility-based spiritual path; and what is the naked human body but natural and fertile? This is one of the reasons why nudity fits well into Pagan philosophy.

Even people who aren't all that well-acquainted with Paganism have heard whispers of naked covens dancing around bonfires. This is partly due to art and folk stories. For centuries, artists have depicted witches and covens mainly naked. Also, ancient Pagan gods were almost always depicted nude (just look at any ancient Roman or Greek sculpture, but also Renaissance paintings which thematize ancient gods/goddesses). Here are just a few examples:

Zues/Poseidon, ancient Greek sculpture, c. 460 BCE

Crouching Aphrodite, c. 200 CE,
ancient Roman copy of a Hellenistic
sculpture (from c. 300 BCE)

Francisco de Goya - Witches in the Air, 1797

Hans Baldung Grun - 
Witches' Sabbath, 1510

Luis Ricardo Falero - The 
Witches' Sabbath1880

Pierre de Lancre - Tableau de
 l'inconstance des mauvais anges
, 1613

Luis Ricardo Falero - Witches
Going to Their Sabbath, 1878

Albrecht Durer - The Four
Sorcerers, c. 1500

William-Adolphe Bouguereau -
The Birth of Venus, c. 1879

Albert-Joseph Pénot - 
Départ pour le Sabbat, 1910

Nudity in devotional services has been a normal part of religious/spiritual practices for ages. Modern Shamanic and Pagan practices are living proof of this as they have carried on their ancient traditions. Indeed, many modern Shamans perform their séances naked just as their predecessors did. It's the same case with certain Pagan paths or individuals. Ceremonial nudity can also be found in early Christian times when the sacrament of Baptism was performed nude (the person being baptized was fully bathed and in order for this to be done properly, they had to be naked, although other participants were clothed). Nudity can also be found in the Bible, for example: "He stripped off his garments, and he too prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay naked all that day and all that night. This is why people say, 'Is Saul also among the prophets?'" (1 Samuel 19:24). Even Adam and Eve were naked in paradise. Only later in the Bible is nakedness equated with poverty, shame and sinfulness (just as it was in the Middle Ages). Nudity is also present in other religions and spiritual paths. Certain Hindu monks are almost always nude and not to mention practitioners of Tantra to whom nudity is a completely normal ritual practice. Certain Jainist monks also perform their religious services nude and so on. So, ritual nudity is not all that uncommon even in modern society, although it is a bit off the radar.

But since this is a Pagan blog, it would be best to say how ritual nudity fits into the whole Pagan worldview.

The Truthfulness of the Naked Body

As I have clarified, the human body is completely natural, beautiful and sacred to Pagans. It forms us equally as much as our soul, astral body, minds (and emotions) and so on and should therefore be equally honored. Also, nudity is the most natural physical state; we were born naked after all. This symbolism is very important because by taking one's clothes off, one returns to a sort of youth, innocence and, most importantly, a state of truthfulness. Our clothes hide us from everyone else, but when we are naked, we are vulnerable, honest and have nothing to hide because everything is clearly visible. This vulnerability is another important factor. Of course, ritual nudity is an individual choice. But even those Pagans who choose to work nude will do so only in a comfortable surrounding, with people they love and trust. This is why they don't mind being vulnerable.

Nudity and the Concept of Sin

Pagans do not believe in sin. This is mainly due to the fact that Pagan gods/goddesses do not impose certain laws and criteria that can be breached (breaching them would be a sin). One of the cornerstones of Paganism is taking responsibility for one's own actions and accepting the consequences. If we have wronged anyone and even ourselves, we will know this even without the concept of sin. But we will always try not to wrong anyone because doing harm to anyone/anything is against our morals (see the section on morals). 

Nudity is not perceived as sinful in Paganism because, obviously, Pagans do not believe in sin but also because the human body is seen as sacred and natural. Sexuality is also not seen as sinful unless the act of sex is forced onto someone or is in any way performed without the consent of both/all the people involved. The whole idea of the human body and sex being sinful gained acclaim in the Middle Ages when the duality of body-soul was compared with the duality of sinfulness-righteousness. This sort of duality does not exist in Paganism because the body and the soul fulfill each other and also because they are not the only two components which fulfill a human being.

Nudity and Sexuality

Since we live in a clothed society, we are mainly used to being naked when taking a bath/shower and during sex. Nudity outside these very limited barriers is socially unacceptable other than in special areas (e.g. nudist beaches or camps) and occasions. This is why nudity is most commonly connected to sex and why many people mistakenly believe that Pagan celebrations are all about orgies. No. This simply is not true. Paganism is a fertility-based, among other things, but this does not mean that sex is necessarily enacted at Pagan rituals. 

Just to be fair, it is worth mentioning the Great Rite which I talked about in detail in a previous post entitled "The Great Rite and Sexuality in Wicca". I will emphasize once more what I said in this post. There are two ways of enacting the Great Rite; metaphorical and literal. In both occasions, it is done by the High Priest and High Priestess. The metaphorical Great Rite is a ceremony in itself (which you can read in the aforementioned post) and it is a metaphor for sexual intercourse. This is the most commonly practiced version of the Great Rite for various reasons. The other way is literal. To explain, the High Priest and High Priestess physically make love, BUT always and only if there is love involved. Most often they are a couple (married or not) and have been for some time. I have never heard of a High Priest and Priestess in Wicca doing the Great Right this way and not being in a romantic relationship. Therefore, nobody will force you to do this or expect this from you! But then again, unless you are leading a ritual, your probably won't even be asked to perform this type of Great Rite. Also, the Great Rite is rarely enacted this way. I assume because it is quite rare that a coven is actually lead by a married/unmarried couple, but also because everyone appreciates their sexual privacy. But even if the Great Rite is performed literally, the coven leaves the room until the High Priest and High Priestess invite them back in. This way, a certain amount of privacy is guaranteed, since the act of making love is still sacred (not only from a religious point of view, but also from a lover's point of view) and deserves respect. Nevertheless, many Pagan groups do not practice the Great Rite (which is mostly a Wiccan practice).

Those Pagan groups that do work nude do not necessarily practice sex in their rituals. This is like saying that all hosts throw parties and expect there to be sex. Rituals are performed for specific reasons; for celebrating the seasons, a certain aspect of nature, a specific deity, and transition in an individual's life (the birth of a child, marriage etc.). Simply put, rituals are not orgies.

Also, those Pagans who practice ritual nudity have managed to overcome the socially-imposed view of the naked human body as being sexual. Sometimes, a skimpily dressed body can be more arousing and provocative than the naked human body. In fact, even a fully-dressed body can sometimes be more sexual than a naked body. But this is a different topic. The main idea here is that Pagans do not see ritual nudity as an excuse for sex. Anybody who says they expect sex during rituals should, in my opinion, be slapped and thrown out of the group. Every individual has the right to sexual freedom and this includes the choice of sexual partner(s), sexual orientation and also the choice of having/not having sex at all. 

Nudity and the Freedom of Choice

Those individuals or groups which choose to work nude do so knowing that they are in a safe environment with trusting people, all of which have given their consent to work nude or with other nude members. Ritual nudity is not and must not be forced upon anybody. Certain groups which only work nude inform newcomers about this practice (or the newcomers are expected to ask this of their own accord). In some cases (e.g. Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca), ritual nudity is expected from the initiate; they are brought before the coven and asked to disrobe. In this case, disrobing is a challenge which, if overcome, proves that the initiate is really willing to enter the coven and trusts all of the members (keep in mind, though, that initiation into these paths is preceded by a long period of training during which the newcomer has time to get acquainted with all the coven members). But the initiate is free to refuse to disrobe and they can just find another coven/path which will suite their needs better. There are many covens and Pagan paths which do not insist on ritual nudity. Some insist on exclusively clothed rituals, while others let individuals undress if they feel this is right for them. In the latter case, neither clothes nor nudity are imposed on the practitioner. I feel that this is the best option, as long as nobody has anything against a few people being naked and if there are no minors present (if there are, their parents should give consent and preferably also be present). Starhawk explained this wonderfully in her book The Spiral Dance (p. 36):
"A coven becomes a safe space in which members feel free to release their inhibitions: laugh, dance, act silly, burst into song, chant spontaneous poetry, make bad puns, and let Younger Self come out and play. Only then can the higher states of awareness be reached. Many techniques have been developed to drop the "censor" of Talking Self and to let the inner voice speak freely.  
Nudity is one such technique. When we take off our clothes, we drop our social masks, our carefully groomed self-images. We become open. The mystical meaning of the naked human body is "truth." Different people need different levels of private space; while some romp happily on nude beaches, others cannot feel comfortable naked until trust has been built over a long period of time. In our covens, public rituals are always clothed. If guests invited to private "sky-clad" ceremonies feel uncomfortable disrobing, they are welcome to wear whatever they like. Vulnerability cannot be forced on anyone, except destructively."
Starhawk mentioned a term that may be new to you, so I would like to clarify this before going on with the post :) 

Going "skyclad"

Wicker Man CircleThe term skyclad literally means clad, or dressed only by the sky. This is a beautiful metaphor for the naked human body which dances, sings and celebrates under the Sun, Moon and stars. The most accepted theory regarding the assimilation of the word into Paganism is that is comes from the digambar sect of Jainism. The very word digambar can be translated as "sky-clad". 

No matter its origin, skyclad has become a widely accepted synonym for nude/naked in Pagan circles. It can even be thought of as more appropriate because of the lack of negative overtones and because of the beautiful imagery that goes with it which complements the Pagan perception of rituals.

Reasons for Working Skyclad

1. Energy Transference

When rituals are performed, energy is sent from the body towards a certain destination. If the ritual is devotional, then this energy is sent towards a deity, and if it is magical, then it is simply sent into the universe with the appropriate intention. Either way, energy is sent. But energy can also be received; from a deity, from the universe, from other practitioners in the ritual circle and so on. So a certain amount of energy is constantly circulating during rituals. Many Pagans feel that working skyclad enables this transferal because clothes can only serve as a barrier. This means that clothes hinder the connection between individuals in the circle and that they can also mitigate magical energy thus reducing the outcome of a certain magical act. Since they obstruct energy, this can also cause problems with raising energy in the circle and basically anything else that involves energy (which is basically everything in the ritual circle).

This can be connected to the sensitivity of the naked body. A body covered with clothes is less sensitive to physical contact and, by extension, the same can be said of psychic/energetic contact. So a naked practitioner in the circle would, according to some, not only emit more energy than a clothed one; they would also be more aware of the energy around them, the impulses in the circle and so on. All of this results in a heightened awareness of one's surroundings and this, in turn, causes more conscious actions, movements and thoughts. Janet and Stewart Farrar present an interesting metaphor for this: 
"A witch at work brings all his or her levels into operation - spiritual, mental, astral, etheric and physical. (...) ...they must all be fully functional; so it may be that trying to work with one of them partly screened is like trying to play the piano in gloves, or to paint a picture in dark glasses. It can be done if circumstances demand it - but if they do not, why add to your difficulties?" (The Witches' Way, p. 196)
I have to agree with Scott Cunningham on this subject. He mentions, among other things, the belief that indoor clothed rituals are equally as effective as outdoor nude rituals. Indeed, some Pagans do share this belief. I fall under this category because my personal experiences with clothed rituals and nude rituals have not differed. But if you think about it, if the theory about clothes being barriers for energy is true, then the same could be said of walls. In that case, all rituals should be performed outdoors because they would be useless otherwise. This is something that most Pagans would find absurd because everyone has performed at least one ritual indoors and found it equally as fulfilling and intense as any outdoor ritual.

2. Physical and Energetic Arousal

Like it or not, we all have sexual instincts. We are not used to seeing naked bodies all around us so when we do (for example in nude rituals), we get aroused. This does not mean that everyone will suddenly be overcome by their sexuality. It just means that senses will become heightened, pheromones will be emitted faster (some claim that pheromones are better sensed by others if there are no clothes to "block" them). Pheromones are basically chemical substances which we send to the outside world. Other living beings sense them and react to them unconsciously. This kind of physical arousal also causes energetic and spiritual arousal. Indeed, many practitioners of magic claim that sexual energy is one of the best types of energy to draw upon for magical purposes because it is so strong. Of course, every responsible individual and Pagan group will not let sexuality control the ritual. It is a great source to draw energy from, but under no circumstances must anyone feel sexually assaulted. 

3. Being Honest 

The nude body carries with it the symbolism of truthfulness. As I have explained before, we cannot hide anything when we are naked; neither from our fellow practitioners nor from the Divine. Nudity means that we have nothing to hide and that we are fully open towards any positive energy that comes our way. Physical honesty and openness then leads to psychological, emotional and spiritual openness which definitely improve rituals.

4. Equality

In many religious practices, ritual robes and garments of any sort exist to define rank. Even in Paganism, the High Priest and High Priestess usually wear something that sets them apart from the other members of the group. Of course, none of this is ill-intentioned but Paganism tries to put emphasis on the equality of everyone in the ritual circle. Everyone is equal as human beings; we all have our virtues and, in ritual terms, we all bring something to the circle. That is to say, each person's energy helps to define the general ambient and outcome of the ritual so everyone is equally important. The priest and priestess are just there as guides who may have a bit more experience and who can therefore organize the group better; they are not any more ore less important than anyone else in the circle. But even in cases where everyone, including the High Priest and High Priestess is dressed in "normal clothes" (i.e.  not ritual garments), a certain inequality may be visible in the quality or costliness of the clothes and even the quality and amount of jewelry. 

Nudity eliminates even this apparent inequality caused by different ritual garments or clothes of any kind because the naked human body is our primary state, our basic state and our most natural state of being. It returns us to that state in which everyone is fundamentally equal.

5. Security in Oneself

Some practitioners may feel that their ritual garments or jewelry or tools give them power, but this is not true. Every person possesses the energy they need within and ritual nudity can help draw awareness to this. Once a person is aware of their own power, they become more secure in their actions, they also become more accepting of themselves.

Security and self-acceptance can also stem from equality. If everyone in the circle is equal and if everyone's humanity is emphasized (which it is since every inch of the body is visible), then there is no reason not to accept everyone. So no matter the body type, sex or age of the practitioner, they will feel accepted and confident. This may also help them to overcome personal issues and complexes they may have previously had, resulting in more quality, focused rituals and outcomes.

6. Tradition and Freedom

Of all the reasons for working skyclad, I perceive this one as being the least valid and only acceptable if it is a "supplement" to one (or more) of the other aforementioned reasons. When I talk about tradition, I refer to statements like "Oh, but the most famous covens worked skyclad" or "Gerald Gardner himself preferred to work nude" and so on. Nobody should work skyclad without knowing WHY they do so.

But yes, there are a few traditional aspects which some practitioners may find validate their choice of working skyclad. In Paganism, or more precisely in Wicca, a well-known pro-ritual nudity argument can be found in the Charge of the Goddess as well as in one of its sources - Aradia, Gospel of the Witches. Charles Godfrey Leland wrote Aradia as a testimony of a Tuscan witch who explained to him how Italian witches performed their rituals. A section of the text reads as follows:
"And ye shall all be freed from slavery,
And so ye shall be free in everythin;

And as the sign that ye are truly free,

Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men

And women also: this shall last until

The last of your oppressors shall be dead;"
This section was later incorporated into the Charge of the Goddess in practically all of its known versions. So in Gerald Gardner's version (a.k.a. the Leviter Veslis version from his Book of Shadows), it was transformed into:
"And ye shall be free from slavery, and as a sign that ye be really free, ye shall be naked in your rites, both men and women, and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music, and love, all in my praise."
Doreen Valiente wrote a verse version of the Charge and changed this section into:
"No more shall ye know slavery
who tread my round the Sabbat night.

Come ye all naked to the rite

In sign that ye are truly free."
Obviously, in all of these quotations, nudity is connected to freedom, as it should be. So even those practitioners who work skyclad simply because of tradition should be aware of these texts and their meaning. All of these authors claim that working naked is a sign of liberation. But from what? Some may say simply liberation from the confines of clothes. Others may interpret this from a sociological point of view and say that nudity symbolizes liberation from social constraints. Either way, freedom is the bottom line.

Working Clothed

Despite all of these arguments for ritual nudity, even skyclad groups and individuals who are used to working nude will sometimes work clothed. The cause my be a special occasion (not all rituals call for nudity; some are even better celebrated in specially chosen garments), cold weather (there is no point working nude if it will only cause you to catch a fever), special circumstances (e.g. working in an area where you believe people may pass and disapprove of nudity), medical reasons (some people may be allergic to the Sun or who knows what else and have to protect their skin with clothing) and so on. So exceptions are made. This is why I do not see ritual nudity as obligatory.

Regarding clothed rituals, many practitioners will say that special robes are favored over everyday clothes. There are several reasons behind this. First of all, our everyday clothes get dirty, we sweat in them, they remind us of our everyday troubles and when we enter the circle, we want to feel clean and unburdened. This is why many practitioners like to take a bath or shower (or at least wash their face and hands) just before entering the ritual circle and why they keep their ritual robes clean and tidy. Secondly, ritual robes are special clothes; they are worn on special occasions (i.e. rituals) and only then. Once we put them on, we send signals to our brains and others around us that we are about to begin something special and solemn. That is to say, donning on a ritual robe causes a mental switch which can help the practitioner to cross the veil between this world and the spiritual world inside the ritual circle.

It is my firm belief that everyone has the right to choose how they will work (as long as they know why they made this choice). Ritual nudity is not for everyone, but neither are clothed rituals. Some may find clothes useful and see them as an aid of some sort, while others will see them as obstructions. I think the most important thing is that the practitioner feels comfortable and that nothing distracts them from the ritual work. If clothes will make a certain person feel uncomfortable and make them distracted, then its best for that person to work skyclad. Others may feel differently; they may feel that their own nudity and even other people's nudity distracts them too much and makes them uncomfortable. This can only lead to sloppy rituals with unbeneficial outcomes. When working in a group, it is important to clarify if everyone will work skyclad (and also if everyone is ok with this). If only a few members wish to go against the current, this must also be ok with the other members of the group. After all, there's no point in working together if agreement and harmony cannot be realized.

I realize that this is a sensitive subject and I can only hope that I did it justice and made it slightly less troublesome for some of you. :) So until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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