Category Archives: Ritual

Druidry and not so much ritual

For some time now, I’ve not being doing ritual. I had a few years when, living on a narrowboat I was so very close to the natural world, and so very far from other Druids that seasonal ritual made little sense. In recent years living in Stroud, there have been various forays into the possibility of seasonal ritual, but nothing has formalised. I find that I enjoy having the eight rounds of community gathering in a year.

There are things I definitely like about ritual – community, sharing bard stuff, getting outside together, and any gestures towards making beauty in some way. I hate scripts, and I’m not very easy with standard ritual language any more. It’s too formal, it feels weird. I’m wary of any kind of ritual structure that puts some people in charge in priestly roles and has others cast as onlookers. I want proper anarchy in my circles – no titles.

Once again I find myself asking how to make ritual work for me. Last year we tried holding bardic sessions at the full moon, but by October it was far too cold to be standing around at night. Given the people I hang out with, food and bardic contributions are a certainty. I’m intending to experiment a bit with talking sticks (well, a talking spoon is more likely…)

The very word ‘ritual’ suggests repetition, but repetition is problematic. It can create a firm underpinning, but it can equally dull people into careless lethargic states. It can help people connect, but you can end up connecting with the abstract ideas of the ritual and not with the experience of being alive and in a place on a day. High ritual language can empower, but it can also exclude. It can inspire, but it can oppress. There are no neat answers to this.

I’ve yet to find what I want from rituals. Even so, I can’t quite let go of the idea of them, I keep coming back to seasonal celebration and trying to figure out how I want it to be.

The validation of ritual

I’ve had periods of doing a lot of ritual, and periods of doing none, and at the moment am marking the seasons but not always in conventionally ritualistic ways. Looking back over the last fifteen years or so, I realise there’s a validation aspect to ritual that has had considerable value to me, but that I also feel ambivalent about.

Nothing makes me feel as much like a proper Pagan Druid as getting into circle with a bunch of people and doing a ritual eight times a year. I don’t even have much respect for the wheel of the year and the eight festivals as a concept, I never know what to do with equinoxes, but even so I find the act of doing ritual with fellow Pagans profoundly affirming.

Now, the question for me is, what am I affirming when I do ritual? I can find the ritual itself fairly superficial, and have no woo-woo type experiences at all and still feel significantly validated. Is it the effect of being with other Pagans openly? That seems fine to me as a thing to benefit from. Is it some kind of affirmation that I am all shiny and spiritual and special? I worry about this. I worry about how easy it is to have supposedly spiritual things turn out to be just epic ego massage. If I think something is good for me, is it really good for me? Is it ok to take the ego boost? I’m not swimming in self confidence…

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about what it is that we get out of religions and spiritual practices (Spirituality Without Structure is one of the many consequences of this). How much of what we get out of ritual is on purely human terms and not really about the divine at all? How much is it about connecting with people? How much can we do to connect with the land and the seasons when investing a couple of hours eight times a year? Lots of questions, no real answers.

Druid rituals

When I first came to Druidry, quite some years ago, I was really excited about doing ritual. I prepared in advance, I learned anything I was going to contribute, I chose offerings with great thought, planned what I would wear, made bread especially and so on and so forth. My own enthusiastic participation gave a sense of importance to ritual, and I got a lot out of doing it, at first.

I was lucky enough to be able to do ritual with a number of groups in different places. What I found was that plenty of the people attending weren’t putting everything they had into ritual. They didn’t learn the words, they brought pre-packaged food to share, they entered ritual space chatting, not in the state of awe and reverence I was trying to cultivate. Some of them chatted once the ritual had begun. Many turned up late.

I learned that it isn’t easy doing ritual as a deeply involved personal practice when the people around you are simply having a nice day out and some social time. For a while, I was resentful of this.

Over the years I softened at the edges, and I started to see how much most people needed that gentle time in the woods or sacred sites or other outside places. They needed the time to catch up with other Pagans – I couldn’t ask people to rock up and do all night vigils, they needed time to be with each other. I came to see ritual as primarily a community activity. My role in it shifted from the quest for personal enlightenment towards a role of serving and facilitating the people who wanted to be there. I brought talking sticks and toasting goblets so that people could share what they needed to say, and be witnessed.

I never got on with solitary rituals. Left to myself, there are other, simpler and more private things I will do. I figured out, eventually, that this is because I thrive on having an audience. Give me a bunch of people in front of whom I can look all spiritual, and I’ll play up to the role. There are plenty of people who want to watch ritual as a form of theatrical action, rather than do their own thing. It’s easy to get grumpy about what other people are doing, or not doing, and not look at your own crap. ‘Look at me, I’m being all spiritual here’ is not the most spiritual of things to be doing, after all.

Fox rituals

I don’t know how long the fox had been watching us, but he had stopped in the middle of the footpath to observe our approach. We’d been mostly looking up into the trees on the off-chance of owlets, and it took me a while to register the scrutiny, and longer again to spot him in the gloom. We stopped, and he stayed put, a length of fox across the middle of the path, eyeing us up. We said hi. We managed to hold that position for more seconds, and then the fox took off into the trees.

We saw him twice on the way home – each time he emerged from the undergrowth some yards ahead of us, trotted briskly down the path and then disappeared into the gloom. It was clearly the same fox – he’s pretty distinctive. A large male, skinny but clearly in good shape, with some distinctive white markings. We see him regularly – he saunters past our flat some nights, and we see him in the fields a well. Like us, he’s a creature of the borders between town and country. I guess he’s seen, or smelled us about, too.

It struck me, walking home, what a difference there is between saying ‘hail spirits of this place’ in a ritual and ‘hello Mr Fox’ in an encounter. We also stopped to say hi to a rabbit, who also watched us but did not run away. My feeling of being present, of being part of life on the path rather than just an observer or something passing through, was intense. I felt the connection I’d tried to make in ritual. I wonder about the way ritual helps us to engage with what’s going on, but is also a barrier simply because it is an elaborate human construct designed to move at its own pace.

In a Pagan ritual, often what we’re trying to do is connect with the season, and with the natural world. I’ve been walking the same path intermittently for years now – more evenings in the summer, earlier in the winter, the odd night excursion. I know who to expect where and when, broadly speaking. We’ve become creatures who use the path, along with the deer and numerous birds. We stop for them, and they carry on – last night two robins engaged in a strange song and dance routine that seemed very intimate. When they hopped into the leaf litter, their plumage and the gloom conspired to make them into uncanny, magical patterns of movement.

The fox no doubt has his own nightly rituals.

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 – 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.