Ritual Robes vs. Ritual Nudity

Dance of Life VI by Gildir
Looking at old photos of some of the most well-known Pagans and occultists of the past, one will notice that some performed their rituals in the nude (i.e. skyclad) while others preferred robes. Obviously, there are no rules as to how a Pagan should dress in the ritual circle. Yes, some traditions insist on one system or the other, but generally speaking, ritual dress codes are flexible and are easily adaptable to the individual's needs. Also, different authors will have different opinions on this subject. But sooner or later, every Pagan has to ask themselves the question: to work skyclad or robed?

This is a tough question to answer and it is also one that does not have a single correct answer. Every individual has to answer it for him/herself depending on how they feel about being nude in general as well as many other factors. To start things off, I want to ask you a few questions which may help you decide on how you want to perform your rituals (if you already haven't decided). Some of them are very basic, while others may require a bit more introspection.
  1. How will my skin react?
    This is a good question to start with. So imagine you decide to wear robes and find that you can't stop itching from the material you are wearing. This is just impractical. In this case, you're better off without clothes. But then again, you just can't do without clothes in some situations. I have found myself performing rituals on very rocky terrains or in fields covered with nettle where clothes and quality shoes were a must. Your skin can show you a lot more; you will see goose-bumps on it when you get too cold or sweat when you get too hot. Neither is really good so going skyclad or wearing robes can sometimes be conditioned by the temperature. And I think it is pretty obvious that being either too hot or too cold can be a big distraction during rituals which everyone wants to avoid. So if you decide to wear robes, make sure they're warm enough for cold weather or thin enough in case of warm weather. If you're working indoors then you can always adjust the temperature. :) This is the practical side of things that many people tend to overlook.

  2. How will my body react?
    This question, along with the previous one, will help you get to know your body better. For example, if your body feels restricted in clothes/shoes and you can't really move freely because of them, then going skyclad is worth thinking about. Most rituals include quite a bit of dancing around so being able to move freely is important. The opposite can also happen; some people are very self-conscious and feel more comfortable and free while wearing clothes. In this case, nudity can just be a distraction.

  3. How will my mind react?
    Now we come to the tricky part. It is pretty easy to see if you're a bit cold/too hot and if you feel that clothes are restricting you. But what happens when you realize that clothes aren't the only barrier you may have to face? Like I said, nudity may be completely natural and liberating for some people, whereas others will feel embarrassed or self-conscious while being naked in front of other people. Whether or not you will work skyclad in this case depends on your comfort zone. So if you feel that you aren't ready to overcome your self-consciousness just yet, don't force yourself. But if you feel that you're ready to step out of your comfort zone, then by all means go skyclad! The main thing is that you not only feel physically comfortable, but that you also feel mentally and spiritually at ease (and being nude is not easy for everyone).

  4. Who am I working with?
    Firstly, are there any minors present? Usually there won't be, but it's best to just stay dressed in these situations to avoid any awkwardness or legal complications. Secondly, do you trust the people you are doing the ritual with? Trust is an important issue and it's usually difficult for people to fully expose themselves in front of people they do not trust completely. This is why skyclad work is generally restricted solely to coven practices. Rituals performed in larger groups whose members do not have a deeper connection are performed clothed so that everyone can feel at ease and focus on the main point of the ritual.

  5. Where will I be working?
    Of course, if you are going to be working outside, then you have to take into consideration the terrain and the weather/temperature. If the ritual is going to be held indoors, then the temperature, weather and terrain are of much less importance and can be adjusted. But it's also good to keep in mind how private your location is. It's not very relaxing if you decide to work skyclad and have nosy next-door neighbors, or if you feel like your privacy will in any way be invaded during the ritual. This is easily solved indoors by pulling the curtains, but it can be challenging outdoors. Also, try to respect other people's wishes too. There is such a thing as "indecent exposure". Although most Pagans do not perceive nudity as indecent in any way, there are laws which prohibit being nude outdoors. It's also nice to keep in mind, if working outdoors, how other passers-by would feel if they came across a group of naked people dancing around a fire. They may be scared off (which is bad for them), but they may also get a bit to curious and stick around to see the end of the show (which really isn't in the group's best interest). Either way, privacy is a good thing when rituals are at hand. :)

  6. Is everyone fine with working skyclad/in robes?
    When working in a group, it's important to retain equality. If some people are clothed and others are nude, then things get confusing. Most groups prefer that everyone agrees on the system they use. So if everyone agrees to work skyclad, then everyone should be comfortable with this. Under no circumstances should this choice be forced upon anyone! If everyone decides to work clothed, then this should also be fine with everyone. But there are exceptions. I have performed rituals in which one or two people asked if it was ok to take their clothes off if they really felt the need to do so during ritual. So everyone was clothed, but these individuals thought that they might feel the urge to get nude at some point. I was fine with that, but I thought everyone else had to be fine with it too. So they asked all the other participants and everyone gave their consent. The opposite can also happen; everyone is nude and one or two people want to stay dressed. Either way, everyone has to agree that this is ok. In extreme cases, those who singled themselves out like this are simply not allowed to take part in rituals. For example, nudity is mandatory in Gadnerian Wicca and those who don't go with it are not allowed to take part in the ritual. I find this rude and inhibiting but I'll elaborate on this later.

  7. Why will I work skyclad/in robes?
    It is important to be clear on the reasons behind your decision. Basically, it's silly to work skyclad just because you read somewhere that you should. It's also silly to work clothed just because you want a fancy robe. It's important that you know WHY you are doing what you are doing and that it feels right. It would also be nice if the other participants knew about your choice (or the group choice if you all agree to work skyclad/robed). In short, every participant has to know WHAT they are doing and WHY they are doing it.

  8. Do I have any personal reasons for not wanting to go skyclad/robed?
    Many people are perfectly fine with their bodies, do not feel self-conscious or embarrassed and are perfectly fine with other people's naked bodies as well. Still, certain personal reasons prohibit them from going skyclad in the ritual. These reasons may be health-related (in which case the individual should explain the situation to the other participants if it can affect them, but if not, they can simply keep it private). For example, this person may have an allergy or a fever and cannot risk taking their clothes off. These reasons may also be of a different nature. People of dual faiths may find that another part of their personal spiritual philosophy "forbids" them from being nude. In my case, I always work robed for several reasons, one of which is because of my partner. I feel that I have the right to control to whom I show my naked body. As it so happens, this person is my partner. I'm also slightly conservative when it comes to things like this and feel that not everyone has the right to see me fully exposed. I pick and choose these people/this person (as I have done). You may share my feelings or you may not, but just take into consideration all the possible reasons why you may not want to go skyclad/robed.

  9. Am I comfortable with the general feeling of things?
    If there is anything at all bothering you about the situation, then you should address this. Speaking from personal experience, it's best not to go through with something if it doesn't feel quite right. If you have any concerns before the ritual, ask whoever is in charge for details, instructions or simply express your feelings to them. If you feel awkward being skyclad/dressed in this situation, express this also. If you feel that you are being pushed into being nude/dressed, then my suggestion is that you simply don't continue. I believe that nothing should be forced on any participant in a ritual. Groups that force ritual nudity/robes, at least in my opinion, also force a certain belief onto others. Not everyone has to share every belief and not everyone has the same idea of comfort. Such restrictions can only stifle the soul and result in people feeling uncomfortable and/or unnatural and the ritual ultimately turning out much worse than it could have if everyone had felt at ease. 
Now that you have asked yourself these questions (and hopefully answered them), it's time to take the next step. Many Pagans feel that it isn't very "Pagan" to be dressed during rituals, whereas others will feel the opposite way and believe that robes, as ritual tools, play an important role in rites. I will try to explain both sides of the story so you can get a better picture.

Going Skyclad (or Being in the Pagan Spirit)

Joseph Tomanek - Nymphs Dancing to Pan's Flute, 1999
Most Pagans who prefer ritual nudity to ritual robes believe that being skyclad is the most natural state humans can be in. The very meaning of the phrase "skyclad" implies that we are clothed (clad) only by the sky, stars, moon and Sun. Therefore we cannot hide anything from the gods or our fellow humans. Nudity is a state of honesty, originality and purity which, from this perspective, can only be tarnished by clothes. Nudity is our most natural, but also our most vulnerable state. By being nude around other people, we show trust towards them and open up to them as well as nature in general. Nudity leaves no space between the individual and nature leaving one fully exposed and open towards the universe's positive energy.

Pagans ultimately worship fertility and nature. The human body is an epitome of both and should therefore be celebrated and set free. If we truly celebrate nature as Pagans, then we should also worship our body. Women should learn to worship their curves as they worship the Mother Goddess and men should learn to worship all their attributes as they look up to the Horned God.

This viewpoint implies that clothes hinder the exchange of energy between humans and basically any other existence (be it plants, crystals, animals, other humans or the universe itself). Clothes may also, according to some, mask the individual. If we wear certain clothes, we can completely change the way we look, hide our imperfections and emphasize our attributes. Basically, we can effectively lie to other people about our appearance. Just as clothes can mirror our feelings and taste, they can also protect us from the outer world, both physically (from rain and the scorching Sun) and mentally (by putting a layer between us and what we fear/dislike). So according to this viewpoint, being nude is the only way to express the true self, to be truly honest with the God/Goddess/gods, other human beings and ourselves. But what about the other side of the story?

Robes as Ritual Tools

Druids celebrating at Stonehenge
Some Pagans believe that ritual robes, much like a Shaman's ritual mask, are a powerful ritual tool which helps the practitioner to "step through the veil" between this world and the next. When a Pagan puts on their ritual clothes (which don't necessarily have to be robes) and/or jewelry, they change their persona and get themselves "in the ritual mood". Robes make you aware that from that point on, you are working on a ritual; they help you focus on the goal of the ritual thus adding to its overall energy. This can only benefit the ritual and anyone participating in it.

Ritual robes and jewelry can also help define the role that each participant plays in the ritual (the High Priest/High Priestess, Maiden, Holly King/Oak King etc.). They can also largely help in setting the mood. To elaborate, many practitioners change their ritual robes or certain details on them depending on the festival or any other occasion which is being celebrated. So, for example, many will wear golden-yellow shades when celebrating the summer solstice to emphasize the strength of the Sun. Seeing so many people in such uniformity (without all the negative connotations) can really have an impact on you.

In defense of this viewpoint, robes can also be adjusted so that no hierarchy is imposed. Nudity does make everyone equal in a way, but robes can be used to achieve the same effect. The only thing that is necessary is for no robe to be "better" than any other. This may sound complicated, but it really isn't. Most Pagans won't get their robes embroidered with gold thread or covered with precious stones. Materials are usually simple and many robes are even homemade. Also, hierarchy is kind of inevitable if the group follows the typical ritual form where a Priest and/or Priestess lead the ritual. Whether or not the participants wear clothes won't change this fact.

According to some, clothes of any kind obstruct the energy flow both within the circle and without it (for example, when energy is being sent in the form of the cone of power from the practitioners towards the universe). That is to say, clothes are a barrier for ene and therefore aggravate any ritual work. I personally don't think that this is true because I have performed many rituals both clothed and skyclad and have not felt the slightest difference. Also, if material things such as clothes really did hinder the energy flow, no Pagan would perform rituals indoors because, according to this theory, both walls and roofs, and even windows could be energy barriers. I believe that energy can easily overcome material things and that any kind of physical "barrier" does not present a problem.

In addition to this, ritual robes can draw one's focus to the main purpose of the ritual be it with their colors, decorations or merely by putting them on. Ritual nudity, on the other hand, can cause distraction if the practitioners are not used to nudity. The naked human body comes in all shapes and sizes and can truly be fascinating. It's only natural to stop and look. This may cause discomfort among members and draw attention from the main point. Then again, ritual robes can also distract you if they are impractical (if you step on them, if the sleeves are too long, if the material is easily flammable, if the material is coarse or itchy etc.) so it's really up to you.

Of course, many more arguments can be found for both sides of the story, but I believe the main thing is that you feel comfortable about what you are doing and how you are doing it. If wearing ritual robes makes you feel uncomfortable, then get rid of them. If ritual nudity makes you feel uncomfortable/distracted for any reason, then perform your ritual clothed. If you are working in a group, it's also important to take into consideration other member's thoughts. It is ideal if everyone agrees to stick to one system (skyclad/clothed), but if everyone agrees that exceptions can be made, then I guess they can be made.

The topic of this post isn't really all that simple, though. Some practitioners choose to work skyclad in some situations and clothed in others. For example, I used to work skyclad when I did solitary rituals and always worked clothed in group rituals. Others will do the exact opposite because it suits them better. Someone else might work skyclad during the summer months (so during Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane and Litha) and clothed during the winter months (during Lughnasadh, Mabon, Samhain and Yule). Some believe that wearing your ritual robes "empowers" the garments in a way (fills them up with the ritual energy making them all the more powerful with each use) and therefore insist on wearing them during every ritual. It all depends on what makes more sense to you.

I can only urge you to make the decision for yourselves. If anyone says that you HAVE to work nude, or that you HAVE to wear clothes, I would stop and think about whether I really want to work with these people. Why work with someone who just wants to strip your freedom of choice from you? This kind of behavior can only lead to distressing situations. Some people will only see ritual nudity as a perverse excuse to see other people naked. This is a form of abuse and must not be condoned...just a warning.

Ultimately, the choice is yours. I hope that you make the one that feels right for you and that you enjoy your rituals whichever way you decide to do them. :)

Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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