Tag Archives: druid ritual

Gender and Paganism

The subject of gender in spirituality – men’s mysteries, women’s mysteries, has come up on the Druid Network facebook group this week. I have no problem with people doing anything that makes sense to them or that they find useful, but this is one I struggle with personally.

Biologically speaking I am straightforwardly female – and always have been. I bleed, I carried a baby, I managed to produce milk, I curve in places maidens and mothers tend to curve. I can talk about bleeding and babies and feminine sexuality no trouble at all if it comes up, but I tend not to seek out the spaces designed for such conversations. I have a sense of not belonging in those women’s spaces, of not being properly qualified somehow. I do not know why that is, and I’ve given it a good deal of thought.

Psychologically speaking, I’m androgynous. Back when I was at college, I minored in psychology and spent some time looking at ideas of gender and gender identity. I did some tests, I know what I am. A great deal of gender is social construct rather than biologically determined. I had quite a gender-neutral childhood – no playing princesses, nothing of the pink and glittery, and culturally no kind of exposure to the sort of femininity that does heels and makeup. Critically, no television and no glossy magazines. So I grew up without having any idea about how to be *that* sort of girl. That aspect of my teens was perplexing, as I tried to figure out what the rules were and where on earth I fitted. As much of my social life revolved around being a drummer in a band, and other musical options, I tended to hang out with guys a lot. I had a couple of close female friends, but they had tomboy tendencies too, so the things regular girls seemed to be doing remained mysteries.

I’m a geek – another area of life dominated by guys. Geek girls were few and far between back when I was a girl. Every music performance space I’ve been involved with has been male dominated. Guys with beards and guitars are a bit of a folk cliché, but just what you want if you’re a fiddle player looking for someone to jam with.

One of the things I really like about Druidry is the way we don’t automatically polarise along gender lines. Most of the rituals and groups I’ve been involved with have simply never made gender an issue. Biological gender, psychological gender, orientation, life stage… none of it matters usually. I’ve only seen a few spaces that did seem polarized, and I stayed away from them. I had a keen sense of there being no space for me in a circle that seems to be about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in a very straight sense. I don’t want to try and act out that part and I have no idea how to relate to anyone on those terms.

Being female is not my defining spiritual experience. Being human is not my defining spiritual identity, either. I like it when circles have dogs in them, when cows and sheep turn up to watch, or birds get involved. Being alive is not my defining spiritual identity, because I have a growing sense, of and affinity with the dead people who also show up sometimes. To be a Druid, is to be present. The rest is just detail.

Voicing the Druidry

The voice any of us write with can seem like a very personal, natural thing, but to some degree it’s a construct. I did a degree in English lit a long time ago, and one of the ongoing effects is that I am very conscious of voices in writing, both my own, and other people’s. I write erotic under another name, and I have a whole other voice for that; arsey, darkly playful, much more evil than my regular self. That voice exists to do a job, and I created it in a very deliberate way.

One of my first Druid teachers was in the habit of saying ‘in Druidry we…’ which drove me nuts. Normally ‘we’ ought to be an inclusive word, but when you hear a lot of ’in druidry we do something entirely different from this thing you want to do’ it can become remarkably exclusive. Even so, I probably default to the language of ‘we’ more than anything else. We can do this. We can try that. I use ‘I’ to talk about things that seem passably unique to me. Okay, this is all a bit navel gazey and meta bloggy, but I think it’s worth a thought.

Language, in its subtle nuances conveys all kinds of information. Who has the power and authority here? Am I telling you what to do, telling you what I do, talking about what I do, suggesting what we could do… it all creates different vibes and will impact on how you, dear reader, experience my words. Now, if there was just one of you and I knew who you were, I could tailor it, but I’m also very conscious that there are quite a few people reading this, scattered about the world, coming in from different language backgrounds, with various levels of experience and different needs and expectations. You, dear reader, are a creature of many faces, voices and identities, and to treat you as one person may be convenient from a writing perspective, but ultimately feels a bit weird and probably doesn’t work.

That whole ‘dear reader’ thing is one of those charming Victorian conventions that modern authors aren’t supposed to dabble in. Ah well.

Some authors use the third person, and that voice is laden with authority. Here we can see that the author is a person of great insight who is handing out the facts in a calm and objective way. Only, all authors are people, and that objective third person voice readily disguises opinion and assumption as unassailable truth. Do not be seduced by the authority of the third person voice! (There, I said that in an authoritative, third persony sort of way, is that irony?)

This is not just an author issue. We voice our Druidry in ritual, and at other public gatherings. How much ‘I’ and how much ‘we’ needs to be in that mix? Well, that depends a bit on what you’re doing. If you are calling to Spirits of Place on behalf of a whole circle, you have to be offering your voice on behalf of everyone. It would be weird to say ‘spirits of place, I honour you’ at that point, it would leave everyone else out! I’ve also heard people in ritual call to Gods or Goddesses on behalf of everyone and felt uneasy because they hadn’t been asked to do so, and these were not my deities.

How we use language can have massive impact. I’m conscious that fellow blogger Cat over at http://www.druidcat.wordpress.com frequently talks about what she is doing, and rounds up by asking, what are you doing? A most direct challenge thrown out to the reader, a separation of ‘I’ and ‘you’ that always has a discernible impact on ‘me’. Am I really doing enough?
No matter where you are working, you are speaking and writing and interacting as a Druid. Your ‘natural’ voice is full of your beliefs and assumptions, and it is worth sitting down and poking it. (There, I went all I-you, conveying my authority and your need to do something different… fascinating, isn’t it?)

The devil is in the detail. I’m quite convinced the Druidry is in there too, more often than not. It’s amazing how much space you can get inside a detail… is it time to go all Doctor Who now?

Druidry outside

As a modern Druid, you may well be drawn to doing your rituals and celebrations outside. I’ve read descriptions by fellow Druids of getting soaked and frozen, being out all night, covered in mud and so forth, and I find myself wondering, is this what the ancients would have done, or is it actually both a reaction to, and a consequence of modern life?

Oddly enough what started me down this line of thought was a blog post about the archaeology of homelessness, and a dig in Bristol. Homeless people were invited to get involved, but most didn’t want to do any actual digging because they had nowhere to clean up and dry off, and so couldn’t afford to get wet and filthy in a hole in the first place. Our ancient ancestors had roofs and fires, but they didn’t have hot showers or tumble driers. Get a garment absolutely soaked, especially if it’s a wool garment, and then try to dry it, with just wringing out, and fire heat. It takes a while. Now, if you have lots of other clothes, this may be no big deal, but if you don’t… it’s a crisis.

I know runners who go out in all weathers and get soaked to the skin, and are fine with this. But they have places to dry their clothes, are not running water from a water tank for that hot shower, and I think this makes a lot of odds. I’ve been soaked to the skin a few times this winter. I have towels and changes of clothes, but what’s at a premium is drying space, and so I don’t get wet voluntarily. Not even for ritual. I can’t afford to.

I’ve also found that, since taking up residence on the boat, I’ve not felt the same need I used to, to reconnect with nature at regular intervals through the year. I’m living in such intense relationship, day to day, with the outside, that this has changed me. Light levels, weather conditions, visiting wildlife all impact directly, so there is no ‘reconnect’ issue. I’m here. Nature is all around me. I don’t especially need to sit on a hill all night to remind myself of the realities.

Our ancient ancestors owned a lot less than we do, lived far closer to the land than we do, and did not have anything resembling tumble driers. Did they go out and freeze their ancestral bottoms off, and get themselves soaked, for the sake of the Gods?

Maybe they didn’t.

Which does not invalidate our doing so, if we feel the need. If mud, cold, wet and the immediacy of living reality are not a normal part of life, those acts of reconnection are very important. You could do it by running just as well as by ritual, with the right intent and consciousness.

I’ll finish with a half remembered quote from Good Omens, in which it is observed that the female heroine, Anathema, had a mother who spent six months living in a field in order to get back to nature and understand why humans had spent thousands of years trying to get away from nature in the first place…

Celidh Druid, Disco Druid

Dancing can be an act of prayer, ritual, meditation or magic. Shared dancing reinforces bonds of community and celebrates rites of passage. It can also be part of how we get to those rites of passage. More in the sense of helping people pair up and reproduce than in the sense of killing people. Thinking about dancing can be useful for thinking about ritual, because there are similarities of function and implication. Ritual too can be full of prayer, meditation and magic, can reinforce community, celebrate rites of passage and whatnot.

The celidh is a structured form of community dance where people are helped into groups or pairs if needs be, and told the steps. A few dances will give you most of the basic steps, it’s easy to get the hang of. The structure facilitates contact, reduces awkwardness and self consciousness, enables people with little natural talent to dance, and happily includes people of all ages.

The disco, on the other hand, gives you far more scope for innovation. You don’t have to dance with anyone, and no one is telling you what to do. On the downside, they can be very slow to get started, everyone too self conscious to be the first person up, the only one strutting their stuff. It’s very easy in fact to go to a disco and never dance – no one will be encouraging you in the same way. It’s harder to ask for a dance partner in that scenario too, while the structure of the celidh makes it easy.

Both, of course, have their pluses and minuses. The more formal structure there is, the less room you have for personal innovation. Except, once you get good at celidh dancing, once you know the steps and have confidence, you find there is a lot of room to develop your own style, express yourself creatively and so forth. You can still choose how you dance.

Druid ritual is more like a celidh than a disco – which has little to do with the possible music preferences of druids. There is a fair bit of structure and being told what to do. The steps become familiar, but different rituals, like different dances, will have their own shapes. You don’t really need to know what you’re doing to participate and it’s easy to learn by doing. But how rigid do we want the frame? Do we need a script? Do we need bits of ritual that will dependably be the same, everywhere? How much familiarity do we want or need, and how much need do we have for innovation?

It’s rare to have a ritual circle where all the participants have similar levels of experience. If a Druid ritual is open (as many are) then the capacity to embrace a participant who has never done it before, is vital. That means you need someone calling out the steps. If you leave the inexperienced to just improvise, they may be paralysed by self consciousness, or just have no idea what to do and thus feel excluded. But on the flip side, I find too much structure stiffling. I hate having a script. The wilder and more improvised a ritual is, the more I tend to enjoy it, especially if I’m working with people who can just go for it. I suppose, by my own metaphor, that makes me more of a disco druid. (She who lives by the metaphor, dies by the metaphor…)

Of course it’s all about balance. It’s about knowing the nature of your ritual group, or knowing enough to be able to guess what will be called for (as with open rituals). Even in the most carefully planned and structured ritual, it’s possible to leave some space for in the moment creativity. I think it’s preferable to do that, it makes it possible to bring in the energy and inspiration of the moment. And even in the most structured and scripted of rituals, there is still room to perfect your art and find your own way of dancing.

And, just for the record, it was a celidh last night that prompted this, not a disco.

Walking at Avebury

I didn’t blog yesterday because I spent an amazing day at Avebury. I’ve probably been there eight or nine times before, as a visitor, and for Druid rituals. I caught the last few rituals Emma Restall Orr undertook there, and through those met many of the wonderful Druid Network folk.

Tom, being American, had not previously encountered standing stones, so being able to take him into that space was a joy. For those not familiar with the site, Avebury is about 6000 years old, has a magnificent henge earthwork, and would have had one large stone circle with smaller circles inside it. There were avenues coming off, stones from which remain, and many other sites surround it – round barrows, other stone circles, Silbury Hill, the Kennet long barrow, and Stonehenge is in viable striking distance. It’s too big a space, I think, for one big ritual circle, you’d never hear each other over the wind! Different areas of the circle have distinctly different atmospheres, and lend themselves to different sorts of work. There’s also a lot of scope for walking – outside the monument, around the henge and around the stones.

Unlike most ancient sites, Avebury has a village in it, and roads running through it (which gives you a sense of the scale). You can’t experience the circle as a circle, which is odd. But it’s what we’ve got, and the houses have been there for a very long time. I wonder if people always lived here. It’s a place that has a people-friendly quality, it’s comfortable to picnic and sunbathe amongst the stones, and I don’t find the presence of noisy, enthusiastic children in any way out of kilter with the atmosphere. Avebury, for me, has never felt like a place for solemn and secret things. It’s a celebratory place, a community place, and welcoming. Which is as well because it gets hordes of pagans and tourists visiting it.

One of the things I’ve never been able to do before is explore the surrounding area on foot. All sites exist in a context of landscape, and frequently of other sites or areas of habitation as well. Most of our ancient ancestors would have been on foot, so walking between ancient places is an amazing way of communing with the space and the ancestors who worked, lived and worshipped in it. The first thing we did was avoid going by car through the site – no way to make a first encounter. Tom and I walked in together, which was breathtaking. It’s a place with a lot of memories, and ghosts for me, I welled up on the way in, it was painful walking into some of those recollections, but also healing to go back to that. I remembered especially Vicki Williams, whose beautiful song ‘Timeless Land’ was the visiting Avebury anthem for years. It brought back so keenly my grief over her death. I remembered other friendships that had decayed with time, and fleeting connections that I never had chance to explore. There is never scope to do everything.

We walked the inside of the circle (as best you can) and the henge itself – although some of it was closed to allow the grass to re-grow. It’s seldom possible to do the whole thing. Then we followed one of the avenues out, walked over a hill to look at Silbury, and climbed the next hill to the long barrow – I’d not been there before, but the cool and gloom was gorgeous after the sun. Going into old graves is something I find very moving and it ought to get a blog at some point. I could have stayed for hours, but having accepted a lift, that wasn’t an option. We walked back, watching the shifts in perspective, rolling hills hiding and revealing different aspects of the space.

It was one of those experiences where it is hard to pin down in words what it did to me. The sense of connection and involvement with landscape, was deep and personal. It took me further into communion with the space than organised ritual has. I’m increasingly finding that walking is my preferred ritual form. Walking the land, the lines, the circles, the contours, meditating, being in the space, learning, feeling, sharing ideas. It’s only something that would work for very small groups, and is lovely as ritual for two.

Today I am tired, and much of my head is somewhere else. There was so much richness of inspiration yesterday, it will take a while for all of it to filter through properly.

It’s easy to feel like a druid in Avebury, even without the drumming and pageantry of a big gathering. It’s easy to walk those hills and feel connected to the land and the ancestors. At the moment I’m lucky because I am living somewhere that is also beautiful and full of ancestral resonance, but many places aren’t. It’s good to go somewhere that nourishes the soul, but also important to bring that energy back to the places that need it, and to ponder ways of making all space sacred and inspiring in the same way. Not something I can hope to do on my own.

Urban Nature

I’ve been in Gloucester this week, watching the ducks and swans around the docks. There were rabbits along the edge of a building site – a brownfield location that can’ have been wild for years. And yet at twilight, the rabbits were playing and foraging. I’ve heard of otters in city canals and peregrine falcons nesting on communications towers – although not in Gloucester.

I don’t think nature perceives any great separation between it, and us. The things we build are just different kinds of habitat – some of them must look barren and challenging to a creature’s eyes, but useable none the less. To the falling seed there is no difference between a patch of mud in a gutter, and a patch of mud any other place. It’s what you’ve got and there’s little choice but to get on with it.

I get the impression a fair few humans do see a divide between the things that we have made, and nature. So we get irate about moles digging up the lawn, squirrels and bats getting into the loft, pigeons flying about inside our shiny shopping centres and so forth. We made it, so we imagine we ought to be able to control it. Nobody briefed the moles on this one, and the pigeons were all at lunch when the announcements were made…

A fox in a city is just as natural as a fox in a field. It does what it is in the nature of foxes to do, and even if that’s new, it’s still fox nature. Is a human in a city as natural as a human in a forest? We shouldn’t be any different, it should all be human nature. But there is a change, and it tends to happen inside our heads, were we also keep the great nature/civilisation divide. We think it matters where we are, and so we act differently. We feel differently about urban spaces.

I’ve never had a bunch of pagans suggest they wanted an urban ritual. Right in the middle of the shops, or at the crossroads, or the car park. I know of one pagan group only who did that kind of urban ritual. Most urban pagans use ‘nice’ spaces, stay indoors, or get out of the city. Granted, doing it in the middle of the street might attract unwelcome attention. But it also wouldn’t feel the same, and that’s a far more interesting consideration. We’ll travel for hours to get to sites made by our ancestors, but don’t feel so spiritual about the spaces knocked up by our contemporaries.

I’m no less a druid when I’m in a city. I’m no less spiritual, no less capable of undertaking a little private ritual. I’m no less aware of spirits of place, and the ground down there under the layers. And yet I have never done an urban ritual. The closest I’ve got were inside a museum, and in a garden in a built up area, but there were trees! Could I stand somewhere that was all tarmac, litter and decay, and do good druid ritual? I think the answer ought to be ‘yes’ and I also think the answer is probably ‘no’ and one of these days I’m going to give that some serious attention.

Dressing like a Druid

Hanging about in a pub car park looking for a moot, it was easy to spot the likely candidates as they rolled in. I wandered over and said ‘hi’. Not all pagans dress ‘like pagans’ but being part of a counter culture, an alternative movement, makes it tempting to be visible as something unusual. Plus there’s also the issue that many pagans are inherently colourful, eccentric and creative folk, and that manifests in our dress styles.

Druid clothing became an issue for me early on, when my first teacher demanded that I started wearing robes for ritual. She wanted us to collectively look the part. Travelling on public transport meant I didn’t want to lug a bag full of fabric, and I certainly wasn’t going to wear it for the journey! I protested, strenuously, and very nearly left over it. There was also the issue that I just didn’t want to wear robes. I did all three OBOD grades, and greatly appreciated many aspects of the course. However, when OBOD gathers for ritual, it too favours robe wearing, and specifically white robes at that, with tabards. I’ve never been to an OBOD ritual. I don’t much like scripts, but it’s the robe issue that nails it. The idea of them makes me uncomfortable. That’s personal, and about me, and I don’t think that means anyone else necessarily ought to feel the same way. And white robes – they show the stains, and I find outdoors rituals with children, dogs, mud and grass usually get on my clothes.

When I’m doing celebrant work, I dress up. It’s a theatrical event and people expect a bit of colour and drama, so I do my best to look interesting. Thus far no one has objected. No robes. I’ve seen images of some of the old fraternal druid groups, off to their musters in their white nighties and stick on beards, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Robes and costumes are used in so many scenarios to reinforce authority. In religion, the man at the front with the kit on is the man in charge. The more important you are, the more bling your religion may expect you to wear. Standing in a wood, in a circle of druids, I see no place for that. I’d rather folk dressed appropriately for the weather and the conditions underfoot. If there is someone in charge, I’d rather that not be obvious at a glance and indicated by who has the biggest symbol dangling round their neck. I’m all in favour of dressing creatively, to celebrate, to be ‘gorgeous before your gods’ (thanks Kris Hughes!) but not dressing to express power and dominance, and being more druidy than thou. Robes and costumes can easily function to exclude or intimidate. If ‘we’ are all in robes at a public gathering, people who turn up to watch are easy to spot. I like it better when nothing stops a casual arrival joining the circle.

People do judge based on appearances. Media folk can be far more interested in a bunch of nutters in silly gear, doing silly things, than some quiet people who look like they are off for a picnic or a walk. Self expression is unequivocally good, but pandering to the expectations of non-pagans and reinforcing their ideas that we are a bunch of cranks playing at being druids, is not going to do us any favours. It’s important to think about who and what we are dressing for when we put on our ‘pagan’ kit. I’m not suggesting there are right answers here, only that it is worth thinking about this one, being sure of your own motives and knowing what you’re heading into.

I had a cluster of wiccans turn up to one of my druid rituals once. They had all the velvets, dangly silver, cloaks and pretty shoes. They had assumed that because it was a winter ritual, we would be indoors, rather than checking. The druid group I had then always did ritual outdoors. To their credit, the wiccans didn’t chicken out, despite the mud, but they can’t have had an easy day, while the druids in walking boots and winter coats were entirely comfortable. A fine example of why it pays to know exactly what you’re dressing for. Having the right clothing has a lot of impact on comfort, the feasibility of doing ritual, and your safety and scope for staying warm and healthy. Nature teaches us to dress appropriately, if we spend much time outside in it. My feeling is, that if I want to look like a druid, being in a stone circle, or under a tree is going to take me a lot further than wearing a nice dress, just from an aesthetic angle. In terms of actually being a druid, the tree is always going to be more important than the frock.