Cakes and ale (also called cakes and wine, libation, the great rite, communion, etc. depending on what this step contains and the preference of the ritualists) is a step of ritual that has roots in all world mythology. We see that powerful, beautiful things spring from the Sacred Marriage of the God and Goddess. In some all of creation is born of that union, in others it is a sign of rebirth, of power. This step of ritual celebrates that and uses its power to consecrate the food we offer and partake in, thus filling ourselves with that blessing. Arin Murphy-Hiscock says in Solitary Wicca for Life:
This is more than a mere sexual joining. It is a complete merging of energy and identity, forming a joyous and awe-inspiring balance—the Union of the Whole. The Great Rite celebrates fertility, life, and unity, and is the ultimate rebalancing of a situation that requires the harmony of the associated energies drastically restored.
This statement sums up everything that the Great Rite is. It is about polarity, creation, and love. One must choose which of these things to highlight, though they are all always present in this act, in their reenactment of the Sacred Marriage to give this step focus and to suit the goal of their ritual. To do that, we must first understand all these meanings.
The polarity of the Great Rite is obvious. It is yin and yang, God and Goddess, light and dark, all coming together to be one in this sexual joining. In ritual practice, we can purposefully keep these elements separate until this moment in our separate calls to the God and Goddess. The joining of them after they have been kept apart is a powerful release of energy which can be used as we find appropriate. This is highlighted by the joining of the athame and chalice, male and female practitioners, or by our own yin and yang energies in solitary or single-gendered work.
Creation is a common theme because it is widely believed that the fertility of the God and Goddess made everything we have. This sexual act is beautiful and sacred. It is not just about procreation, however. Anything that gestates and is born is an act of creation; this idea includes art, crops, etc. Deborah Lipp believes that this inclusion of other forms of creation was put into in the mystical meaning of the Great Rite now because of the large gay rights movement within the Pagan community. She states that love can exist without fertility and fertility without love and to highlight the union of the God and Goddess as only an act of procreation both lessens its spiritual impact and excludes many from this part of ritual.
Therefore love is the third option to highlight in the Great Rite. Through the God and Goddess’s love, all things came to be. They so loved each other that they sought to be one. Deborah Lipp believes that love was also included because of the women’s rights movement that also largely shaped what Paganism has come to be. They brought the large issues of molestation and rape to the forefront. Because these are both sexual acts without love, love was something that needed to be highlighted in the celebration of sex. This was also contributed to by the gay rights movement as well because it was believed that to focus on the physical act of sex without the emotional undertones could become homophobic.
If you choose to highlight one of these three over the others, you need to be careful to focus your intent on that one and not muddle the ideas together. Because they are generally seen as overlapping, this might be difficult. For example, if you are focusing on love, you would not thank the Goddess of Creation who in turn would not be thanked for a union of polarity. There are separate Gods who would be involved in each of the three areas.
The sexual symbolism is quite apparent, even in the symbolic Great Rite. We see a phallic symbol plunged into a receptive womb-shape. We understand what that means, and we celebrate it. It is not uncommon for participants to become aroused by the Great Rite. In Paganism, sex is seen as natural, spiritual, and beautiful. Therefore, many firmly believe that the sexual aspects of ritual should be frank. We shouldn’t hide our beliefs and practices when it comes to sex just because our Christian-dominated society has differing views. We should fully embrace what we practice because it often allows practitioners to get over old barriers and embrace the sacredness of sexuality. This cannot be done if everyone turns and blushes during the Great Rite, symbolic or not. The Goddess tells us that “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals”; She even goes on to group making love with music, dance, and feasting which emphasizes its pleasurable nature. It is something to be enjoyed and not set aside simply for procreation.
Some believe that communion helps to begin the earthing process. I’ve even discussed this in other articles on this site. The process of eating is one that involves energy, which means it is re-appropriated and, thus, it begins to dissipate. Anyone can tell you that after eating, they feel slightly sluggish and tired. That is because digestion is a natural earthing process. Communion can act like this, though we are only eating a small portion, so it isn’t a sufficient form of earthing alone. Other groups see it as a balancing act if the food is consecrated because we are, essentially, taking more energy into ourselves from that consecration which balances out the earthing that occurs. Either way, it is more than a mid-ritual snack.
This act of communion shows our connection with the divine, our relationship of giving, receiving, and giving back with them, and our goodwill with our fellow ritual participants by sharing this blessing with them. We offer libations to thank the Gods for their gifts to us and to remind ourselves of our place on the cycle of life. We owe our bounty to the Gods, and we cannot continue without their gifts. It also shows our thanks for the sacrifices of our brothers and sisters that went into the food (the grapes, the wheat, energy, etc.).
To this point, we have only discussed the symbolic Great Rite because most groups and solitaries will use that alone. Most Wicca 101 books don’t even mention the actual reenactment of the Great Rite. It is glossed over, perhaps to avoid discomfort among readers. It should be noted, however, that Traditional groups will enact the Great Rite in actuality. This is almost always done by the High Priest and High Priestess or two third degree initiates, and it is usually done in private though some groups will perform the rite in the circle with all in attendance. Both options have the same meaning and can be equally moving, arousing, and spiritual. It is up to you to determine your preference.
Cakes and ale is often done in solitary rituals after energy is raised within the circle because it can act as a means of earthing some of the energy that was not used for the working. It is also a means of thanking the Gods for their presence in our circle and becoming close to them, so it is fitting that it should fall after they have aided us in our working.
Many groups, however, put cakes and wine directly after the Gods are invoked into the circle to immediately commune with them. This is most often the case if only one part of this step is performed—the Great Rite. It can be a means of connecting with deity, thanking them for their blessings, and acknowledging the unity of the God and Goddess instead of using it at communion to bless the wine. However, communion can be completed at this stage as a means of taking the blessings of the Gods into our bodies and spirits to be used in our working for the ritual.
Libation can be placed anywhere in ritual, though in Wiccan/DRW rituals, it is most often done during the process of communion. The offering for the Gods may either be put aside before the participants take their shares or it may be given after the participants have eaten. There are arguments for and against either side. The latter can be viewed as rude to not set aside the first and best shares for the God and Goddess, or it can be seen as showing a lack of trust in the Gods to provide enough to sustain us that we must take our share first and only offer what is left over. The other allows the group to make sure there is enough for everyone in the circle and it shows that we are on the same level as the Gods, if this is the view of the ritualist. Many Pagans believe they are not “followers” of the Gods but more like friends. In this way, the Gods are not above them and may not demand as much as far as offering, though some still believe inviting them to the circle and not offering them anything would be as bad as inviting a friend to a party and eating all the food in front of them without offering them anything.
As in most steps in ritual, a transition statement is sometimes made to prepare the participants to move from what they have just done (often the raising and release of energy, which is sometimes difficult to transition from due to the energy and emotions running high at this point) to what will be done. This often explains what is going on, particularly in public rituals where there might be newer practitioners or people only interested in Paganism with no real study under their belts. This is also a useful time to check the altar to see what has been moved around or buried in the course of the ritual and find the chalice, cakes, pentacle, athame, and any other tools you’ll need without searching during moments of silence which breaks the mood.
The symbolic Great Rite is often performed by a man and a woman. Sometimes groups will choose a dating couple, if possible, so the intent of the rite is more evident while others will use practicing partnerships and/or always use the High Priest and High Priestess. The athame or wand (depending on the interpretation of each tool’s meaning) is most commonly held by a man for this rite, but a woman may stand in for a man, if necessary. The chalice or cauldron is always held by a woman because, traditionally, a man can never stand in for a woman in the circle. The athame (phallus) is lowered into the chalice (womb) slowly with all the participants focusing on the symbolism of the act and what it has brought about (life, food, etc.). Words may be added at this point, or it may be done silently. If the symbolic Great Rite is used to bless the wine at communion, the masculine participant may choose to channel a bit of energy into the wine or the wine may be blessed by the act alone.
If the symbolic Great Rite is used to bless the wine at communion, the pentacle’s feminine energy is generally used to bless the cakes for balance. Again, the couple performing this blessing may add words here or it may be silent. Sometimes the cakes are sprinkled with something to bless them (i.e. sugar, fruit juice, wine, etc.), they may be blessed with a small amount of energy as mentioned above with the symbolic Great Rite, or they may simply absorb the energies from the pentacle. The wine or ale that was just blessed is most often used because of the process of consecration. In consecrating something, we prepare it for a purpose, and using it seals that process. By using the newly consecrated wine to, then, (by the virtue of magic and energy being contagious) consecrate the cakes, we are putting that consecrated item to use. This can be seen throughout ritual practices; when we consecrate the salt and water, they are used to consecrate the space or circle, when we consecrate a tool, it is often used right away, etc. Others believe that the act of ingesting the cakes and wine puts the consecration to use by taking it into our bodies and our spirit, so they will not use the wine to bless the cakes.
Many groups allow the High Priest and High Priestess to take the first portions at communion, often after the libations are set aside) because they are acting the parts of the God and Goddess in the ritual. Then the cakes and wine are passed around so that every participant gets a share either by the HPess and HP or by the participants; sometimes they are passed together, sometimes separately after each is consecrated. Often there will be a simple blessing as each participant passes the cup (i.e. “May you never hunger/thirst”). Other groups choose to have the participants file up to the altar to receive their share.
Here there is the option of making a libation. Some practitioners prefer to set aside the first cake or two and first bit of wine for the Gods. If they are practicing outside, this may be placed directly on the ground or, if they are inside, it can be put into a bowl to be offered outdoors after the ritual has ended. Other practitioners will offer the first of everything to the Gods. This means that they will offer the first bit of wine from a new bottle, the first portion before it is served to the other participants, and the first out of every share (i.e. Jade will pour a portion before she takes a sip, then Rowan will pour a portion before she takes a sip, etc.). If you are attending a new group’s ritual, watch everyone else to see what the protocol is in their circle.
They may also choose to make a verbal statement as they offer their libation and/or a toast. For example, before they pour their offering, they may say “Blessings to the Gods from whom all life comes,” take a sip, and then add a toast to a living person in addition. As a rule, libations should never be made to the living but only to the Gods and the Honored Dead. Libations and toasts may also be done silently.
One practical thing to consider during this step is whether you will involve the entire group in the blessing of the cakes and wine. In larger group rituals where hearing becomes a problem, this is a useful way to make sure no one is left out; you could, perhaps, have everyone say the blessings in unison while the HP and HPess perform the physical blessing at the altar. Another thing to consider is the visual element. It may be more personal and comfortable to perform the symbolic Great Rite seated, but can the entire circle see you?
When considering portions, you’ll also need to consider the amount. A large cake might be a good idea if you are offering a part of it, but remember that everyone needs time to eat their portion before moving on or you will have an awkward moment while everyone tries to chew frantically because they have to read in a second or muffled speech due to a full mouth. You’ll also want to make sure that you have an extra bottle of wine (especially for large group rituals), extra cups (in case of illness or in case someone forgets if you choose to have your participants bring their own cups), napkins, extra knives and corkscrews, etc.
Many witches wonder what they should use for cakes and wine. While wine or some other alcoholic beverage (usually mead or ale) are most often used because of their spiritual significance, fruit juices, milk, water, or any natural beverage are fine substitutes. It is important to consider that there might be some participants that cannot drink alcohol (i.e. recovering alcoholics or those who suffer from certain illnesses) and try to accommodate them by passing around a nonalcoholic substitute in another chalice. The same goes for dairy products and some fruit juices; you may have people who are vegan or with allergies that would prefer a substitute. Some circles ask (except in cases of some food allergies) that whichever substance is blessed first (usually the wine) is at least inhaled by every participant as it goes around the circle because it is sometimes believed to be the most potent blessing and/or they wish to share the spiritual side of the alcoholic beverage with everyone.
Cakes can be anything from actual cakes to bread, crackers, cookies, fruit, or other natural products. There are various recipes for suitable foods for communion online, and we will eventually be opening a recipe section, so I won’t go into that here. The important thing to consider is the meaning of the food; many circles will use traditional foods for the season (i.e. berries or watermelon in summer, pumpkin in fall, etc.) and its importance to the actual blessing and ritual work.
One should also consider the freshness and propriety of the food served. Remember that you are welcoming honored guests into your circle, and your offering should suit them. Therefore, many witches will refuse to use anything that is not fresh or the finest they could offer. Only in a pinch will many practitioners use a half-drunk bottle of wine from the back of the fridge or stale bread. Some would forego making an offering before giving that to the Gods. Think of it, again, like inviting honored guests to your home. Would you give them whatever you are planning to offer the Gods?
Pgs. 78-79 in Ritual Craft by Amber K and Azrael Arynn K
Pgs. 99-100 in Solitary Wicca for Life by Arin Murphy-Hiscock
Pg. 49 in Dedicant: A Witch’s Circle of Fire by Thuri Calafia
Pgs. 46-7 and 50-4 in A Witches’ Bible (Eight Sabbats for Witches) by Janet and Stewart Farrar
Pgs. 102-103 in Solitary Wicca for Life by Arin Murphy-Hiscock
Pg. 49 in Dedicant: A Witch’s Circle of Fire by Thuri Calafia
Pgs. 113-114 in A Grimoire of Shadows by Ed Fitch
Pg. 98 in Wicca Covens by Judy Harrow
Pg. 182 in Wicca for Beginners by Thea Sabin
Pgs. 63 and 217-18 in Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraftby Raymond Buckland
Pgs. 82-83, 89-90 in Creating Circles & Ceremonies by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart
Pgs. 195, 198-205, 214-215 Elements of Ritual by Deborah Lipp
Read about the next step — Releasing of Deity