There are some for whom the image of Druidry is inexorably linked to excessive alcohol consumption. I’ve heard plenty of comments, and also Paul Mitchell’s wonderful song ‘I’m a much better Pagan when I am pissed’ but I’ve also never been in a Druid gathering where there’s been anything beyond merriness. It could be that I’m too obviously sober to get invited to that sort of gathering in the first place, of course.
I have no problem with drunkenness as a life experience. Most of us do it some time or another. It’s very hard to discover where your natural boundaries are without testing them. I’ve tested mine. I’ve explored what inebriation does to my mind and body, and seen what it does to other people. I’ve never been prepared to use it as an excuse to behave in ways that I wouldn’t the rest of the time. My suspicion is that many people who claim they were so drunk they didn’t know what they were doing, are lying, to themselves as much as anyone else. I’ve been falling over drunk. I’ve never done anything voluntarily that I wouldn’t have done when sober. Failures of co-ordination don’t count, I think. Starting fights, getting off with people you claim you wouldn’t normally go near, vandalising stuff… if you’re together enough to do any of these things, you are choosing.
I use alcohol in ritual. I particularly like the more Heathen tradition of passing round a mead horn and making toasts. It’s a very easy thing, so long as the horn goes round a couple of times even the most nervous and inexperienced person usually manages to say something. A simple toasting of the company, the gods, the ancestors… it doesn’t take much. I think getting everyone actively involved is an important aspect of ritual, and a little alcoholic toasting can make this happen. It’s also very communal and bonding, sharing the cup, and the diseases… there’s an intimacy to it that has a value. I’ve been in plenty of toasting situations where the non-drivers have become merry, and this has not detracted from the ritual at all. Group rituals, especially open ones, are not the place for very deep and very quiet introspective work anyway, so there’s nothing to lose.
The Greeks had Dionysus, and I’m sure his equivalent crops up in many other cultures too. The God of the vine whose blood is quite literally wine, and who is celebrated with excessive consumption. The traditions of my own lands include periods of misrule and mayhem, a collective letting down of hair and venting of whatever you need to get out of your system. Drunkenness has a place in misrule, in celebration, ritualised rule/taboo breaking. More modest degrees of merriment have a place in social bonding and let’s face it, being slightly drunk in the right context is a lot of fun.
Falling over drunk is not very amusing, although the spectators can get a few laughs at your expense. Yes, I once got so drunk that I fell off my high heels into a book case, and was covered in bruises the next day. I learned from this. I don’t wear stupid shoes any more. I also don’t get that drunk anymore for the very simple reason that it isn’t fun. Throwing up isn’t fun – not done that one, but have helped enough other people deal with booze induced spewing. Being unable to protect yourself from sexual predation isn’t fun and while the onus should not be on anyone to avoid becoming a victim, the sad reality is that when you are off your face, you are desperately vulnerable to violence, theft, sexual abuse and really evil practical jokes.
Changes of perception and brain functioning can make for spiritual experiences. I’ve never felt moved to try and use alcohol this way, but assume it’s feasible. It is after all a manifestation of nature to take within the body, and it has been deemed to be the blood of Gods, so there is justification for exploring the spiritual impact of booze. However, a thing is what you make of it. You’re only likely to get an alcohol induced spiritual experience if you set out in search of one. Rolling out of a bar to vomit in a back alley is unlikely to give you a moment of numinous wonder.
Of course there’s no one tidy answer here. There are times and spaces for all things. There is room in Druidry for times of excess. Balance is not about just holding the safe middle ground. You can create balance through extremes as well. The question to ask is, do your actions serve you? Are you getting something out of them? If alcohol brings merriness, social lubrication and a warm fuzzy feeling of connection to everyone else, then why not? If you are in the business of poisoning yourself and acting out, then there are problems. There’s a Roman motto, that comes out as ‘in wine, truth’. It isn’t the truth of the vine that counts here, it’s the truth of who you are and what you do with it.