Category Archives: Ritual

A barefoot labyrinth

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will have noticed that labyrinths have become a key part of my seasonal celebrations. Each one, so far, has brought significant new experiences.

My spring equinox labyrinth was the first one I’ve shared with a sizeable group – and perhaps most significantly, a group where the majority had not been involved in making the labyrinth. I found that quite affecting. There is a big difference for me in making something that is shared.

We used a different location – in the past I’ve built them all at the same spot in a public park – which has felt a bit exposed. This time we were in a very different public space. We were in a graveyard, with the ruins of a mediaeval church, an array of massive Victorian tombs, and the clearly marked square under which lies an Orphic mosaic. The labyrinth went over the mosaic, and coming from a mediaeval church design, seems quite at home there.

I had two striking experiences while walking the labyrinth. The first, on my way into it for the first time of the day, was a visceral sense of how that bit of the labyrinth sat on the ground in the park where we’ve previously done it, and a feeling of sympathy between the two locations.

There were gusts of wind, and at some point after I’d walked my way to the centre, the wind moved something. It’s likely that the other people with me fettled this, but fettled it the wrong way. This being a bigger labyrinth design, it’s not unusual to feel you must have gone wrong somewhere, and that you’ve walked this bit before as the paths fold back on themselves. As a consequence I was there for quite some time before I realised that the labyrinth had changed, creating a closed loop I could not leave. I returned to the centre, and pondered it out, and corrected things. It’s interesting to have the elements redesign the path in this way.

This is the first time I’ve been able to walk one of my labyrinths barefoot. This really adds to the experience, creating a much deeper feeling of rootedness and engagement. It becomes a much bigger sensory experience for having bare feet. It’s also easier to handle tighter turns – some uncertainty about space meant this was the smallest I’ve made the design, resulting in tight turns at the centre where attentive footwork was required – a smaller labyrinth encourages me to go slower, because of the tight turns. A bigger labyrinth creates the room and the incentive to pick up speed.

I don’t know where or when the next one will happen, but I’ve made a proper bag to hold the parts of the labyrinth, and that’s certainly a commitment to doing more of them.


Bardic initiation

Many Druid gatherings offer bardic initiations, although what’s meant by this can vary. My first initiation was at Stonehenge, in the dew of a midsummer morning, and I repeated back the words and wasn’t sure about them at all, but such is life. As a bard of the Lost Forest I both initiated bards, and re-dedicated myself.

It’s natural to want rites of passage to mark important points in the journey, but it’s also important to ask, and keep asking what initiation does, what it’s for, what it means.

Some people may experience a bardic initiation as opening them up to the Awen. For some, it’s an affirmation – community recognition of what they’re doing. For some, it will be a doorway opening onto a new path, and for some there is very little effect.

It’s good to make dedications, and to have them witnessed, and rituals can provide the ideal opportunity for this. I think the essence of dedicating to the bard path is dedicating to creativity, to honouring and working with the flows of inspiration and using that inspiration for the good of the land, and tribe – however you identify those. It is creativity as a spiritual journey, but to be a bard is to be public facing as well. Dedicating to this is powerful, if it’s meant and as is always the way of it, the more you invest in it, the more powerful it will be.

I feel quite strongly that true bardic initiation doesn’t happen as a thing that is done to you, or given to you in a ritual. It happens when you perform, and it happens repeatedly. The first time you step up as a bard, is a rite of passage. The first time you take any new way of performing into a public space. The first time you face a microphone, or you cock up in public – these are all rites of initiation. Either you go through them and grow, or you falter. Every time something magical happens while you’re creating or performing, there is also an aspect of being initiated into a new level.

No one can do this to you, or for you. It’s between you and the Awen, and the odds are each round will be a private process.


Ritual without authority

For some years now I’ve been uneasy about working in an authoritarian sort of way. I’ve been the benevolent dictator for a number of groups in the past, but it’s really hard work and takes a lot of energy and attention. For some time now I’ve been questioning the idea of hierarchy within spiritual practice. Power structures can leave us (me) wanting to be powerful and important, losing sight of what’s spiritual, getting mired in our own ego fragility. I know from experience that full democracy doesn’t work – generally speaking wholly democratic Druid groups get very little done. I’ve been part of one of those.

If there’s going to be a ritual, someone has to be responsible for naming the date and place. This can be done with discussion, but it has to be done. Someone has to call the shot, but it need not be the same person every time. Someone has to let people know. This doesn’t set anyone up to be a future archdruid, it’s just admin, if treated as such.

What happens if we get into ritual space with no plan? Sometimes we may default to familiar ritual forms. We may end up doing something that isn’t much like a ritual. What I’ve found where I’ve been experimenting over the last year, is that people are most likely to push for the bit of ritual they like, and let the rest go. Circles I’ve been in have tended to feature some act of recognition of spirits of place, chanting the awen, something bardic, and a passing of a drink.

For Imbolc, I’ve called a date and time that I already know will suit a lot of people. I’ve named a place we’ve used before and that won’t be too cold and windy. I’ve stated an intention to roll up and make a labyrinth, because that’s what I want to do. If anyone wants to do more conventional bits of Druid ritual around it, that’s welcome. We’ll go to the pub for any bard stuff so that we don’t freeze!

A ritual with no one in charge is an ongoing act of negotiation. Rather than it just rolling out smoothly, we have to keep checking in with each other. Is this ok? Do you want this? Do you want something else? It becomes collaborative, improvised, uncertain. The first few times, there was an assumption that I was running the ritual and would therefore provide lead and direction, and some odd moments as I declined to do that, but we came through something there, and I like what happened. I don’t want to have to do all the planning. I want room to be surprised, too, and inspired, and to be part of something collaborative.

As things stand, I think ritual is going to be a regular feature for me again, after a break of some years. I think it’s going to be far more improvised, with shared ownership, and no one really in charge. I like this prospect a lot.


Making new traditions

For me, one of the great joys of modern Paganism is the scope we have to create new traditions. Not, I hope, with an eye to becoming the dogma for future generations, but in a playful and light-hearted way that enables us to let go of anything that doesn’t work.

We have a wealth of inspiration to draw on from folklore and mythology, but we don’t have to be excessively faithful to it. You don’t have to spend long studying these things to realise that they change over time anyway. Traditions are all about people keeping the bits they like, letting go of the bits they don’t and innovating new things to suit the time and place in which they find themselves.

Midwinter is the season of festivals, and there are a great many we might look at. Or, we can make our own. For me, one of the key seasonal features is the Christmas pudding. This is largely because of all the festive foodstuffs, it’s the one I truly love. I’ve been making puddings for years, and where I can, I make puddings to share. Having a pudding tribe is an important part of the season for me. One of my other personal traditions is visiting the swans – I live near Slimbridge, where migrant swans come in each winter to feed. They travel thousands of miles escaping the arctic winter for the relative mildness of the UK. There are also huge duck migrations, and I’ll enjoy seeing them, too.

Traditions give us fixed points in the year, they can connect us to ancestors, landscape, other living things, communities… they are very much what we make of them. Too much tradition is inevitably stifling, but sprinkled through a year, traditions form points of familiarity and continuity that can help us feel secure and give us a sense of place in both time and the physical world.

Anyone can start a tradition, and keep it for as long as they wish. As Pagans, we can, and I think should craft our traditions based on our experiences and needs, knowing what we want and need from them and acting accordingly. If we’re going to invest in keeping on doing something every year, it should be something that feeds the soul, lifts us, helps us bond with each other and brings joy, comfort, coherence, and connection.


Seasonal rituals and connecting with nature

Having written recently about being a fair weather Pagan, it struck me that this is a perfectly reasonable way to do things, if the wider context supports it. Doing winter ritual indoors, or quickly, or not at all, causes no issues if rituals are not how you connect with the seasons.

Over the years when I was running ritual, there were some people for whom the eightfold wheel provided the time when they really got out into the trees. People who are overworked, people in very urban environments, people with no confidence about getting into the woods, may find it harder to do so without the support of a ritual group. It’s worth noting that all my ritual locations in that time were green spaces in urban settings, not anything remote.

Sometimes the issue is learning to see nature where you are – in sky and season, urban trees and the many wild things that make their homes around our homes. Nature is in us and with us, for many it’s just a case of learning to recognise it.

I’ve talked recently about having a shifting daily practice. For me that has a seasonal aspect, of necessity, but whatever form it takes, it’s about an ongoing process of engagement. So if you’re doing something every day to tune in to the seasons and the living world around you, this impacts on ritual. It gives you a firmer basis to work from for seasonal ritual and it also means that if you need to do your ritual work indoors, it’s not costing you a sense of connection.

With the right kit (decent shoes and coat for a start) walking in winter is often a good way of connecting, where standing about outside would leave a person far too cold. For people who cannot walk, being immobile outside likely won’t work either. If you can’t get out much, sitting at windows can be very productive. Use the senses that are easiest for you as a basis for making your connections. If you’ve got the resources to challenge yourself – all well and good, but if you haven’t, then take it as a creative challenge instead.

When ritual is something we do to connect with the seasons, we’re more likely to go in with a script based on what we think the season is supposed to be. When ritual is a celebration that comes from knowing how this season is unfolding, we’re in a stronger place to do something meaningful. An indoor ritual based on a body of outdoor experience is thus likely to be deeper than a cold, short outdoor ritual based on what we thought was going on.


What shall we do with the drunken Druid?

This post is prompted by something Halo Quin wrote on her blog about being put off by early experiences of drunken Druid rituals – you can read that here –  https://haloquin.net/2016/09/14/the-trouble-with-druids/ Like Halo, I wouldn’t feel easy being at a ritual where those in charge were drunk. I would also be uncomfortable if someone turned up to my ritual drunk, because risks are increased, and its harder to hold spaces effectively when people are off their faces.

Drunkenness in Druidry…  I’ll start by saying I’m no sort of puritan, and alcohol infused, trance inducing dancing was, at one point in my life, rather important to me. It seems to me to be all about time and place.

I’ve never run a ritual while drunk. For me, being in charge includes a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing – physical and spiritual – of the people who have trusted me enough to come and stand in my circle. Holding a circle takes all of my concentration, alcohol would undermine that, so I do ritual sober. If there’s a toasting goblet doing the rounds at the end when I no longer need to be so totally focused, I will participate enthusiastically, and I have come out of a few rituals a bit merry. But not so merry that I couldn’t safely handle things.

Alcohol doesn’t always mix well with being out in the dark in even slightly wild places. It doesn’t mix with driving (not an issue for me, but many people do drive to and from rituals). A glass raised to the gods isn’t likely to cause you problems, but for most of us there’s quite a large distance between taking a drink, and being drunk. It’s important, with this, to know yourself and know what you can safely do.

There are predators operating within the Pagan community. Alcohol impacts on our ability to make good judgements and our capacity to consent. Being drunk in a ritual you are not running may compromise your ability to make safe choices. Unless you are very sure of the people you are working with, staying free of all substances is in your best interests. If you want to do work that calls for concentration – spells for example – you can’t afford to imbibe anything that will dull your wits.

There are times when being merry, tipsy or full on drunk can be a joy. Times of celebration and friendship. There are times to party, and to go wild, and for anyone who wants it, alcohol can play a helpful part of this. But if you’re going to get falling down drunk, better to do it with a bunch of people you can trust in a place where that isn’t going to cause you, or anyone else, any significant problems. Nature kills careless people. Defining parties and rituals as separate activities means we can have all the things, and people can make informed decisions about what they’re getting into.

Shamanic traditions have a place for intoxication. However, shamanic traditions frame intoxication with ritual, with narratives and people in supporting roles, and safe places in which to take your journey. If you want to use an intoxicant for spiritual purposes, it makes sense to do the research, make the right holding space for it or work with someone more experienced.

Getting drunk tends to amplify things. If we think we’re powerful sorcerers and mighty Druids and we get rat-arsed, the odds are that we will feel that even more keenly. The drink may be talking, but the voice of spirits we’re hearing may not be the spirits we were thinking of connecting with. To be pissed as a newt is not to be in deep connection with your newty spirit guide. It is easy to feel that we need intoxicants to take us out of our normal, banal headspaces, but going this route creates a crutch, and may not be in our interests.

The question, always, is ‘what am I doing this for?’ If you can answer that honestly, and face up to your own reasons and desires, things will likely be fine. If you can’t, then no matter how much apparent virtue or alleged vice there is in your chosen path, your lack of self-honesty will trip you up.


Equality in Druidry

We’re sat in circle. We could equally be stood, and for the purposes of ‘we’ I could mean any gathering of modern Druids. We each come to this circle carrying our lifetime’s worth of experience. Everything we have thought and done, cared about, studied, sweated over. We have all lived. Some of us have lived longer than others, some have studied more than others. Some have deep wisdom, and some would hesitate to claim it.

In this circle, I can look round at the other Druids. I may or may not know them well, but I know they each bring unique qualities, strengths and insights. One of us may be leading, perhaps holding the space, or crafting it as we go. We give that person chance to share their skills, to guide the rest of us. In time, someone else will take charge and lead in a different way – not in conflict or competition, but because it’s a good idea. It’s tiring to lead all the time, it’s good to be able to kick back and just participate, and it’s good to share out the responsibilities. Our circles are that much stronger when we’re all holding them and contributing to them.

Sat in a circle of Druids, I am easily impressed by all that these others brings to the space. Easily awed by the sheer fact of their presence. Not because I am always the smallest, most ignorant, least skilled and least wise Druid in the space – although sometimes, no doubt I am.

This is an important part of what community means to me – an equality of responsibility, a shared ownership and an equal footing. Leadership as a temporary act of service. Respect as a key ingredient. No one jostling for position or asserting authority, no one acting as though they’re the Big Important Druid and everyone else had better take them seriously. Room to laugh at each other and with each other in recognition of our human foibles. Room to be wrong, or to change our minds, or to not have known something. Room enough not to have a big spiritual experience every time. The circle itself is an expression of that equality, no one place being more marked out for superiority than any other.


Community ritual

It’s Saturday at the Rainbow Druid Camp, and that usually means community ritual – an opportunity for everyone at the camp to be an active participant in crafting and participating in a large ritual. It’s quite an opportunity.

The organisation of it is canny, and effective. A way will be found to assign all participants to one of a selection of groups (last year it was where Mars falls in your birth sign, for example).  This prevents cliques, gives everyone an equal footing, and a place to be. Each group is assigned someone to hold it together. An overall theme, or narrative for the ritual is figured out ahead of the day by a group of people who show up because they want to do this, and on the day, each piece of the ritual is planned by the groups who then come together to make it all happen.

From which you can comfortably infer that as a way of getting a lot of people, most of whom are not acquainted,   to all actively make and enact a ritual, I think this is brilliant.

However, I don’t do it. I’m not personally drawn to big rituals. I’ve done some of the circles at Avebury and Stonehenge where there could be a hundred people and more. I go along for the opening and closing rituals at camp, because that feels like the right thing to do, but otherwise, I find really big rituals with lots of people incredibly disorientating. For myself, twelve to twenty four people is about my comfort zone for ritual groups, and I’m happy to work smaller.

My personal preference is for more focused, more intense ritual with people I know and feel connected to. I like circles small enough that a person can sing in them and not be lost, and where I can do the formal bits without having to shout. I like to be able to see other people’s eyes.

There are many very good reasons to do big, public and inclusive rituals that engage and offer celebration and theatre. There are Druids (and Mark Graham who runs Druid Camp is one of them) who are brilliant at this sort of thing and can carry large circles and engage large numbers of people at one go. And there are those of us who need to do other things in other ways. One of the many things I love about Druidry is that this is fine, and there’s room for everything. The small scale deep sharing rituals, the big acts of public drama, the solitary Druids, the people who do not do ritual at all… there is room.


Stepping into ritual space

How do we enter ritual space, let go of the cares of daily life and become open to magic, divinity and that which is sacred to us? When I wrote about Glamour in Paganism a few days ago, one person in the comments picked up on the issue that kit and setting are important in how people transition into ritual space. It’s a valid point, and one that stands looking at. How do we enter ritual space?

Dedicated clothes and objects can help create a sense of specialness, of time out of time. Many people find this really helps them, and I don’t want to invalidate that experience, but I think there’s an alternative that is worth exploring. The trouble with depending on ritual kit is that you can only respond in a Pagan way when you’ve set out to do so, and it makes it that bit harder to express your spirituality in the heat of the moment. Without robes, cloak, wand, crystal, or whatever else you normally need, how are you going to handle it if you get an unexpected experience, or have a sudden personal crisis where a bit of Druidry in self defence would not go amiss?

For me the key thing is spirits of place. Other traditions call them land wights, genius loci, faeries, elementals, and a host of other things. However you understand the idea of that which is spirit and present in the land, is what you need to work with here. Atheist pagans can just take this literally and work with whatever is present – trees, rocks, grass, soil, it’s all good.

For me, the transition into ritual is a transition into awareness of the spirits of place. I do this primarily by taking the time to go in and be with the place. Sitting, strolling, standing as the weather and ground conditions dictate. I look and listen. I feel the air on my skin and I taste it. I think about who and what came here before me, and I open myself to the place. I listen to the songs of its birds, or if it’s what I’ve got, to the hum of the traffic. I look at the sky, because no matter where you are there is sky. If you insist on doing ritual in a cave or a cellar, there’s still sky outside before you enter that space. Sun or moon, rain or shine, the sky brings nature to the most urban of spaces. It can permeate into our indoor rituals, even.

I breathe slowly. I notice what it’s like to be in my body, in this place. I feel out my body reactions to the space. I look for beauty and inspiration, for hope, but I do not ignore anything that is tough for me – the cutting down of trees, the dead things, the absences and the silences. Often at this point I become aware of the absence of great hooves, and recognise that I will not see aurochs.

This kind of transition can be developed by working with a single object, holding it, meditating on it and connecting with it. Improvised altars made from found objects, including human detritus, can be part of the engagement process. Making mandalas, or sculptures out of found items, or just gathering twigs for the fire all help us to be present and part of the place. In recognising the sacredness of the smallest things, the magic of the living, breathing world, we transition. We step out of the ordinary mindset that sees nature as something to use and place as backdrop, and we step into the world of life and detail, and from there, ritual is a lot easier and flows more readily.


Ritual Druidry

When I first came to Druidry, doing the rituals associated with the wheel of the year seemed like the most important thing. The tone and style of Druid rituals, and all the things that made them different from other people’s rituals, seemed to define what Druidry is. I was able to learn the seasonal approaches by participating in a Grove, and going on to study with OBOD affirmed, and firmed up this learning (amongst other things).

For some years I ran an open gathering and a closed circle – again with seasonal ritual being the main features. As an organiser, it started to seem to me that the most important things about ritual were the bringing together and bonding of communities, and getting people who were not otherwise much engaged with the seasons or the natural world, to engage meaningfully. For busy urban Pagans, those eight festivals a year were key opportunities to get out to somewhere green and stop for a while.

As an organiser, ritual became something I did for other people, and my own practice shifted towards something more private, less structured.

In recent years I haven’t had a group of people who wanted regular ritual from me, so I haven’t organised any. It’s not something I want to do on my own account any more, aside from being occasionally drawn to the sharing-with-people aspect.

At the moment my involvement with the wheel of the year is much more a day to day process, with no big celebrations. I engage primarily by walking, and by seeking out the changes that go with each season. Finding out which flowers bloom where and when, and seeking them out, has been a major feature over the last few years.

Four years ago or so, I had no idea how to be a solitary Druid because the community work defined my path for me. For a while it felt like showing up to write this blog was the only discernibly Druid thing I had going on. Recognition of, and deepening of my own relationship with the land has changed how I feel about a lot of things. Ritual for personal practice makes a lot less sense to me – generally the more involved a ritual is, the less sense it makes! Minimal practices to hold meditative group work I am fine with, and that’s all I have going on at the moment on that side. Showing up for collective Druidry has become an aside, not the main thrust of what I do.

Learning to trust that the unshowy, private, confers neither power nor importance stuff, is also Druidry, and is Druidry even though there’s no one outside my immediate family to validate what I’m doing, has taken a while. I still think of proper Druidry as the kind of thing clever people do in circles while wearing robes, but I feel increasingly out of place there. Not clever enough, robed enough or drawn to circles enough. I think there is room alongside that for something more personal, less useful to anyone else, less easily spoken of.