Category Archives: Ritual

Planning a ritual

Rituals can be very small things for one person, through to elaborate hours or days of activity for a group. When it comes to group rituals, there’s a huge amount of scope for getting things wrong for some or all of the people involved. That might be a topic for another day. When it comes to solitary rituals, you can approach this from the position that you can’t get it wrong.

You can of course set yourself up to fail. You can load your ritual with expectations that you are unable to meet. This is most likely to be an issue if you focus on the outcomes you want from the ritual and not the process of doing it. Rituals that centre on spells can be very outcome oriented, but for a Druid there are other ways of approaching things.

I don’t do a great deal of solitary ritual, but when I do, I like to treat it as a process. The first part of this process is to make space for whatever needs and feelings I have that incline me to think that a ritual gesture of some sort is appropriate. I need to understand what’s going on with me and what I need to deal with. Working that through will help me understand what I need from a ritual.

For me, a ritual is a conversation with the universe – or perhaps with some specific part of it. I make rituals because I want to change something. I may not have a clear sense of how I want things to change, or I may not be able to make the changes I need by conventional ways. It may be that I just want to make something for myself – an intention, a dedication, or just the desire for change. I may find in my ritual-making process that coming up with and enacting the ritual gets a lot done for me. Undertaking a ritual is an act of will and intent and can also be a way of having a conversation with myself about how I want to change my life.

For me, the planning part of ritual activity is often the most important bit. Building the understanding, shaping intentions and working out how to meaningfully express that to myself and the universe gets a lot done. You don’t have to have a magical world view to see the useful psychological impact this process can have. I do however have a magical worldview. I see clear ritual action as an invitation to possibility. Everything out there is informed by someone’s intentions, (I say this as an animist – everything is someone). To speak your intentions clearly to the rest of existence can and does change things. It’s not something I do very often, but I’m always surprised by how powerful it is when I do feel the need to engage in this way.


Druidry and dedications

Rituals are a good opportunity for making dedications and having them witnessed by your community. Along the way there have been three dedications I’ve made in a Druidic context that have had a significant impact on me. Looking back I am all too aware that on each occasion, I really had no idea what the implications were of the commitments I was making.

Something like twenty years ago, I knelt in the wet grass at Stonehenge and initiated as a bard. I pledged to use my creativity for the good of my ‘tribe’ (not language I would now use) and the good of the land. I went into that not knowing what I would be being asked to commit to (not something I’d do these days either). That dedication has become central to what I do with myself, although it has played out in many different ways. It’s what I’m for.

Something like eighteen years ago I stood in the museum and art gallery in Birmingham in front of a small baked clay image called The Queen of the Night – probably a depiction of Ereshkigal. It was a gathering organised by The Druid Network. I had an overwhelming sense of being called to walk in darkness, and I accepted the call. I’ve walked a lot of dark paths since then, bringing back what I can by way of maps for others to use. It’s been hard, far harder than I could ever have imagined, but I’ve managed to do something useful with it here and there and perhaps that’s enough.

I’m not at all sure when I made my Order of the Yew pledge but it was in the same timeframe. This order was held within The Druid Network – I’ve not been involved with either for a long time. The Order of the Yew was very much about making dedications, and I started out with something long and fancy and probably rather self-important. I took myself far too seriously back then. At some point I came back and replaced it with a simple dedication along the lines that I would undertake to love as much as I could for as long as I could. It stuck to me, that one.

Of the three, it’s been by far the hardest. I’ve broken down repeatedly to places where the amount of love I could put into the world really wasn’t much at all. I’ve given from a state of being hollowed out and exhausted for extended periods of time. I have committed, over and over to loving with an open heart people who I knew perfectly well would not reciprocate. I step forward to get my heart broken. If I knew how to stop, I probably wouldn’t because I feel most like me when I’m honouring this dedication.

In theory the key thing with making a dedication in ritual is how much you invest in that dedication and how much you are willing to take it forward. In theory. I’m never sure what to believe about anything, but I can say with certainty that these dedications marked and changed me, and invited things into my life that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have happened.


Druidry and speaking for the land

Reading Julie Brett’s most recent book I was prompted to think about who speaks for the land in a British Druid context. We often call to spirits of place, and I’ve long felt uneasy about going into a place and welcoming the spirits WHO ALREADY LIVE THERE. Julie led me to realise there’s a human aspect to this, too.

There are of course far more Druid groups in the UK than I have stood in ritual space with. My experience is partial, but I’ve never heard anything to make me think it’s untypical. Druids go to places of historical significance, and places that are local and wild, or geographically convenient – it varies.

I’ve never stood in circle with a Druid group that identified who had the most involved relationship with the land and who therefore should speak on behalf of the land. I’ve been in Druid spaces where people from away have spoken with authority about the deities in the landscape as though there were no local Druids honouring them. I’ve stood in ritual where the Druid who literally owned the land we were on was treated to a lecture by someone who did not live there about all the spirits they could see present in the space.

I had one occasion of speaking in ritual in an urban green space. It was a space I frequented – not quite in walking distance for me, but part of my wider landscape and a place I had a fair amount of relationship with. I talked about what a haven the space was for the urban people living near it. My comments were met with derision – you could hear traffic! The Druid in question had never been to the place before and lived many miles away. I was upset, and at the time I didn’t know how to articulate what was wrong in that situation. Also, it was a beautiful green place on the edge of a city and no, it wasn’t pristine nature, but that didn’t make it any less precious in my eyes.

I’ve felt it at a local level too – there are fields and hills here that I know deeply, and other parts of the landscape – in walking distance for me – that are much more deeply known by other people. I’ve had a longstanding urge to acknowledge this and am only just finding the language to talk about it.

Imagine if Druid rituals included consideration of who, in the ritual, actually had the most involved relationship with the land. Imagine what would change if we felt it was inappropriate to go into an unfamiliar space and start talking about it with authority. Imagine if being a senior, Very Important Druid did not entitle you to speak for, or to a landscape unfamiliar to you. Sadly there’s a lot of ego in all of this. It takes a certain amount of humility to acknowledge that the people who live on the land, or have spent a lot of time with a place might be better placed to talk about it and speak for the land.

Whose land is this? Is a really important question. Who are the ancestors of place? Who has a relationship with the ancestors of place? What assumptions do we make when we enter ritual spaces, and could those assumptions stand a re-think?


Samhain Altar

Between the weather and the diseases and the young man going back to university, we didn’t do much for Samhain.

Tom Carved a swede lantern – aka a neep! This is the more traditional British answer to the seasonal lantern and pre-dates our having access to pumpkins. Swedes are quite tough though and take some work – wood carving tools are a better bet than kitchen knives.

Black cat and neep lantern.


Accessible rituals – timing

One of the things that really impacts on how accessible a ritual is, is when you hold it. If you’re viewing ritual from the perspective of an able-bodied car owner you might not be alert to the ways in which poverty and disability are impacted by timings.

It is of course tempting to be out in the dark – privacy and mystery are both enhanced by this. However, for a woman travelling alone, a late finish can be intimidating. I’ve talked to women who found getting to their car late at night intimidating. For a woman walking, cycling or on public transport, the fear of assault is often much worse.

If your ritual ends late, there may be no public transport options. Anyone who does not have a car will thus be barred from attending if they can’t walk. 

Low light increases the physical hazards in a situation. A person with poor eyesight or mobility issues may feel barred from attending.

Cold night air can be a problem for anyone with breathing-related health problems. Cold outdoor conditions can increase pain for people who already deal with pain. An outdoors ritual in the dark, in the dark half of the year can be physically too demanding for people who are bodily limited.

If you don’t flag up your willingness to discuss timing, people may well assume that it isn’t open to discussion. People who struggle are all too used to dealing with people who won’t take their issues seriously or accommodate them. It can seem better to just save your energy and accept not participating. Don’t assume people who are in difficulty will tell you that or tell you what their problems are unsolicited.

Rituals work better when we have a culture of active care and find ways to look after each other. We build community when we do this, and we avoid excluding people.


Who do we sacrifice?

As a younger human, I was fairly hardcore when it came to rituals. I’d go, no matter the weather and no matter what sort of state I was in. Pain and fatigue are longstanding issues for me, and when I was younger I was more in the habit of just pushing through. 

It didn’t help that I absorbed a lot of fairly toxic notions around sacrifice within Druidry. I had a strong feeling that I needed to put the Druidry first, and that complaining about my body or stepping back when I wasn’t well, wasn’t ok. I’ve had heatstroke doing rituals. I’ve been problematically cold, which makes me hurt more. I’ve pushed through exhaustion. I’ve done rituals that left me emotionally burned out and unable to function for days afterwards.

It was worse during the period when I was leading rituals because I felt obliged to show up, to not let people down. This was all voluntary, all given in service, and I was working alongside it and had a young child.

A culture of service and sacrifice can really hurt you if you aren’t well to begin with. I look back at a lot of my early experiences of Druidry and I can see how the ableism was hard-wired in. I can see my own, internalised ableism, and I can see how I unwittingly perpetuated it.

A real community doesn’t break its members for the sake of a seasonal celebration. At this point in my life I am much more aware of the importance of not demanding more than people can safely give. I reject the idea that sacrifice is a spiritual good or a social good. I’m deeply in favour of compromise and negotiation, but when some people have to sacrifice themselves for the ‘good’ of the community, you will tend to find that it is those who have least who end up giving most. 

Sacrifice is often what we do when power and responsibility aren’t equally shared. When there is fairness, equality of sharing and ownership, we shoulder the hardships together. We bear the hard things together, those who can do most help those who most need help. We give, to each other, to the land, to what we hold sacred but we do not ask anyone to suffer. Community is fundamentally about taking care of each other and that means it has to be safe to say no. 

The demand for high levels of commitment in Pagan groups tends to be ableist. Either those who cannot commit are excluded, or they are pushed into harming themselves. It has to be ok to not show up when you aren’t well.

So, for the autumn equinox I ended up leading by example. I found I was too ill to run a ritual, and I cancelled it. At the moment I don’t have other people who could take over for me, but I will aim to develop those skills in others so that it doesn’t all depend on me.


Accessible Ritual

One of the easiest ways to make your rituals more accessible, is to make it ok to sit down. In indoors venues, provide and offer chairs. For outdoor gatherings, add ‘seats’ to the list of things people might want to bring.

Fatigue is a common problem that people have alongside illness and many kinds of disability. It can also be an issue around mental health problems. So, not being able to stand for an hour or two is one of the most likely problems that could make a ritual inaccessible. And it is so easy to fix!

You will also have to think about what people are doing during the ritual to make sure no problems will arise for people who are sitting.

In very hot weather, the safety of your entire ritual is improved by it being fine for people to sit down if they need to.

When advertising an event, the odds are you won’t be able to talk at length about every possible access issue. By saying ‘chairs/sitting welcome’ you flag up that you are going to be open to other access conversations. This can really help people approach you. Anyone who has experienced discrimination has probably also had the experience of being treated like they don’t matter, like they make too much of a fuss or that it isn’t worth bothering with their issues. By drawing attention to chairs, you can make it clear that you aren’t that sort of person and you will get into a conversation with anyone who needs it.

It’s not always possible to provide everything for everyone – but we can try! Showing care and respect has a value all by itself and opens the way to finding ways to include more people.


Making a temporary altar

Photo taken at a Lugnasadh ritual undertaken outside(ish) with night falling. We were in a public place, so, definitely no fires – although I’m increasingly uneasy about making fire the centre of a ritual and would probably choose not to even if I could. The intention was to be properly outside, but there was a thunderstorm, so it didn’t work out like that.

I like to have a focal point at the centre of a circle, and if it’s not going to be a fire, then a temporary altar makes sense. I started with the cloth from my Druid Animal Oracle Cards, which is perfect for this sort of thing. Four small candles in lanterns, because we needed some light, and because that’s a very small amount of fire in a safe and manageable way.

Our three legged golden frog comes to us from Japanese tradition and is part of our ongoing engagement with that culture. He is a recent arrival on the household altar, and brings luck and prosperity, and also a sense of connection with Dr Abbey, who recommended him to us.

There are some seasonal windfalls, and a feather from one of the many jackdaws who frequent the area. Also things other people brought.

As we expect to do this sort of thing again, I will be investing more thought and care in the idea of building a portable altar. It will be interesting considering what to include, how to transport it, and to see how it evolves over time.


My first ritual

The first ritual I was invited to participate in through a moot I attended. At that point I was in my twenties. I was self-identifying as an eclectic Pagan, and I’d read very little about ritual. Back then, there weren’t many books about ritual to be had, and most of what there was, was Wiccan and I had read some and knew it wasn’t for me. I’d also never felt drawn to exploring any kind of solitary ritual.

I was given some lines. I took it all very seriously, learned my lines, thought about what to wear, invested in the idea of ritual and doing something sacred and significant. I was prepared, and wholehearted.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the chap running the ritual. He was not prepared and had not learned his lines. Quarters were called badly, while being read from a script he could barely see because it was dark, which seemed to surprise him. He laughed a lot – probably from nerves. The whole thing was an awkward mess and I felt embarrassed to be offering this to anyone or anything. I spent a lot of time towards the end of the ritual quietly apologising to anything that had been obliged to witness this shambles. 

After the ritual, owls started calling. Some of the participants found this really validating. To me, it felt like forgiveness, for which I was deeply grateful. 

After the ritual, it was also clear that the man running it felt it had gone really well. I did not go back for a second ritual with him. He also talked a lot about how important he felt imagination was for ritual. It’s an idea I rejected on the spot. It’s not enough to imagine. If ritual is going to be meaningful, it has to feel real, on whatever terms that can be a thing for you.


Druidry and Celebration

What should Druids celebrate? The short answer is – anything you find meaningful. While a lot of writing prioritises the 8 festivals model, it’s not the only way to approach celebration as a Druid.

Druidry honours nature. Therefore any aspect of nature that you want to celebrate, you could honour in ritual. Solar events, moon phases, how the seasons manifest where you are. If there are significant local events, you might want to honour those – arrivals and departures of migrating birds, key local crops, wild flowers – whatever feels important.

Druidry honours ancestors of blood. Therefore as a Druid you may find it makes sense to include festivals that your blood ancestors honoured. If you grew up with a different religion that you still respect and want to acknowledge, or if there are festivals that are culturally important to you, or part of your family identity, honour those.

Druidry honours ancestors of place. If it makes sense to honour festivals that relate to your location, go for it. Engaging with the culture around you can make a lot of sense.

Druidry honours ancestors of tradition – if you feel something belongs to your history, honour it. The 8 festivals in the wheel of the year fall into this category, and there might well be festivals from other Pagan traditions that make sense to you.

As Druids we also get to take ourselves seriously, if we want to. If there are important days in your wheel of the year that you need to honour and approach in sacred ways – you should go with that.

Druidry is pragmatic. Meet up when you can. If community celebration is your focus, getting together can be more important than the precise timing.

It’s good to celebrate. It’s good to engage with the world in a joyful way and to connect with other people while doing that. If you run into someone who is dogmatic about what Druids should and shouldn’t be celebrating, try to be compassionate. They probably need to feel in control for some personal reason. They may need the comfort and security some people find in rules and systems. They may not feel confident enough in their own choices to follow those without the affirmation of everyone else being the same.

Your Druidry is your Druidry. Your celebrations are your celebrations. That’s all held by the context of your culture, family background, personal heritage and local landscape. Celebrating is good. Celebrate in any way you find meaningful, soulful, helpful or necessary.