Tag Archives: initiation

Druidry, recognition and initiation

Back when I did more formal Druidry, I undertook a number of initiations – at Stonehenge, and through the OBOD course. They were important experiences for me, although at the time I don’t think I could have fully articulated why it mattered and what it changed. For a few years I also initiated bards in ritual, and that taught me a lot about what the process is and does and can mean.

In some traditions, initiation is about dedication. This is definitely the case for anyone self initiating. It is a commitment to yourself, the tradition, perhaps the Gods. It demonstrates intention and sets you on a path. In magical traditions, my understanding is that initiation is itself a magical process, and it is about moving you on with your studies. You are initiated into something new by people who know more than you do. It is a formal gateway you must pass through on your path.

If you are on a taught course, then a Druid initiation can be that kind of initiation into mystery. There are plenty of Druids who self initiate – and even though my OBOD initiation was designed by someone else, I undertook it alone and it felt like a dedication more than a step through a portal.

From what I’ve seen, no two Druids walk quite the same path. We can share insights and experiences, we can teach each other, but part of the nature of the path is that you have to walk it in your own way. Often what we need from initiation isn’t a portal into the next level, but the recognition from fellow travellers that we are also Druids. What makes the initiation powerful is a group of people gathering to say yes, we take you seriously as a Druid. Yes, we see your bardic work. Yes, we think you can carry on and do other things we will respect and value.

This too has its own magic. It’s easy to overlook the power of simple human interactions if you’re looking for big woo-woo stuff loaded with special effects. However, in terms of how we live our lives, human interaction is greatly significant for most of us. The majority of us are more likely to get direct feedback from fellow humans than we are to hear from Gods, spirits or ancestors as we follow our path. It’s nice to get the affirmation of that direct feedback too.

If the Gods don’t talk to you much, or at all, if the woo-woo isn’t part of your path very often, or at all, a bit of recognition from a fellow Druid can help you remember that there is more to this than the big stuff, that the small stuff done well is of great importance to the people around you. After all, what the Gods say to you probably won’t impact on your people much at all, but what you do with it will, so will whatever you do for your own reasons.

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.

Going to Granny’s House

Grandmother’s house in the woods – place of challenge and transformation, the place young women go to be turned into themselves. For me, Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and Baba Yaga are almost the same person. Neither of my biological grandmothers lived in cottages in the woods, but in my head, this is the place of grandmothers, and it has an archetypal force to it that I can’t resist.

This is why I’ve got two novels where Granny’s house in the woods features. When We Are Vanished (coming soon) has a grandmother house of transformation, and some uncertainty about whose grandmother actually owns the place! I’m currently chipping away at a novel where a deceased grandmother with a house in a valley plays a similar role – the house is a place of initiation and transformation.

My maternal grandmother’s house was a place of ghosts and cats, a place of hoarded things, where art was made, and cakes. It could be a refuge, or a place of argument and it featured heavily in my childhood. It is not the house I write about. My paternal grandmother lived in a small bungalow, and I don’t write about that space, either.

Grandmother’s house is a place of longing, and belonging. It has mythic and archetypal qualities. Perhaps we crave the fairytale granny who is all smiles and baking. Perhaps we need Mother Holle to teach us how to be women. Perhaps we need to go and ask Baba Yaga for fire.

And so when I write, I go into the woods inside my head in search of a grandmother figure. I’m writing significant absences – I don’t really know how to write this grandmother as a tangible presence, but perhaps that’s part of the point.

Grandmother’s house is somewhere around the next bend in the path. We can smell the woodsmoke. We’ve heard the chickens, although whether they will be cute, domestic chickens or something else, and whether grandmother is really a wolf, we’re still waiting to know. Perhaps we can only know when we become her.

The Upside Down Mountain

A guest blog by Mags MacKean

Mountains have always inspired me – for their lofty heights and exhilaration in scaling them. I’ve immersed in Andean shamanic practice that venerates the mountain as wisdom, home to the Gods. Their earthier grandeur used to compel me upwards into new vista and weather – exposed to Nature’s surprises, her hidden habitats and unruly expressions as wind, rain, sun, snow and everything in between. Weeks at a time in remote hilly places reset my sense of scale. Geological history pulped all clock time, which could run me ragged back home.

Off the mountain, as a journalist, I faced another kind of ascension – a career ladder. Newsworthy stories and their deadlines could also hold the thrill of sport. Still, my restless nature that drove me to climb, scramble and roam rarely let up at sea level. My sights would be set on the only thing that mattered: the next escape upwards, the promise of adventure. After years of seesawing between the worlds of up and down, I finally quit my job for a mountaineering life. Chasing the seasons from one hemisphere to the next, I practiced skills to set me up for the rigours of altitude. The unimaginable happened: I discovered a crippling fear of heights, and was as burnt out as I’d ever been. There were always more routes to tackle and summits to attain. There was no neat finishing line when the effort and struggle stopped. Mountain – as unconquerable force – had something to teach me – and took me to the brink of endurance ‘til I got the medicine…

It was bitterly cold and the ice glistened in glaring sun. The silence felt full and charged, a weight of sound – cracks of melt ricocheted across the glaciated terrain like a shotgun. My arms were aching and trembling, clenching two ice axes for dear life, the blades of my crampons the only other connection to dubious solidity. I was scared – so much so, I was frozen into inaction, my arse protruding over a two hundred foot fall to where my friend waited for me to join him. Gavin resembled a drop of blood in all the white. I could feel his impatience in every hollered encouragement, “Keep going Mags. Nearly half way!”

Mount Cook National Park was no ordinary alpine destination. Within a lick of the Southern Ocean, storms were a continual threat. Exposure was part of the package – laying out time-consuming protection had to be weighed against volatile weather which could erupt without much warning. This was serious climbing – rope too heavy to carry and too short to protect the descent of large ice walls. And to compound my distress, I remembered the helicopter that could have picked us up to take us back to civilization within minutes. Instead we opted for the adventure of a lifetime – relying on stamina and skill to climb and traverse our way out of the Park. There was no plan B.

Time slows in the hell of fear. I had wrestled with this demon time and again, knowing it as part of the thrilling deal. Only this time, alone and with no chance of rescue, fear rose unchecked, overwhelming all instincts to hack and kick my way down the ice. Inertia is dangerous. One move. Breath. Then another. Breath. One more. And again.

This slow staccato rhythm, never natural, willed me down eventually to Gavin. The relief was a reprieve. Nightfall close, we had to navigate the crevassed glacier to the refuge of the valley. We had also run out of water, hours from the snow-melt. Battling with exhaustion, the soft glow of lights taunted us from the closest settlement – still miles away. In the end, it took twenty-two hours to reach Gavin’s front door. That walkout was to prove my last ever ice climb. It was the turning point when my dream crashed: the pursuit of high-altitude trials and rewards for overcoming them. I was safe – but at what cost?

At last I began to see how I’d traded the office commute for the climb uphill: those values, my values, were the same: invested in outcome, driven by achievement – the satisfaction hard won and short-lived. Lasting change meant transformation – and that could never be external. Changed circumstances – a new peak, relationship or job – were spiritual fast food. I would remain the famished denominator in all the disappointments, triumphs and fatigue.

The initiation came later in France. Exploring Mount Bugarach, ‘the upside down mountain’, its wisdom radiated as a force-field. I felt its instruction, the way up is down. Bad weather forced me to retreat from Bugarach. But the message went deeper. If ascent represented ideal, dream, eventual arrival – then descent, I was to discover, meant shifting my focus to the present, to embrace my own body’s here-and-now sensuous intelligence. The first step was to address the restlessness that trailed me as a psychic twinge. That unrest was persistent and lurking, whatever the distraction. Exploring its cause was a gateway. And I could choose to really meet it, by descending into it, to discover what the ‘twinge’ itself would teach me, and what inner terrain it might reveal. I had to stop moving. Struggle and fear playing out on an external stage no longer had to be an exchange for the freedom I craved. Accepting my restlessness allowed it to be felt fully, until it transformed. What would such an earth-bound voyage mean for a fulfilling life – consciously swapping the summit for the opposite direction?

The Upside Down Mountain tells the story of my descent – to find out why no manner of thriving prospects inspired the happiness I yearned. Among the wild landscapes of the Pyrenees, the Amazon swamps, Tibet and Egypt, I chose to penetrate the depths of darkness so long avoided. The journey not destination was what then mattered. I no longer wanted to be cut off from the neck down – but to welcome my full-blooded sensuous humanity, however uncomfortable. Experience made life meaningful –not the ideas, thoughts or beliefs about it, including the story of ‘tomorrow’. A new map guides me now, in, down and through – to embody the change I seek. I don’t have to climb a mountain or travel anywhere to remember that. And when I forget – again – there is a map to reset my inner compass, feeling my way ever onwards: the way up is down.

And more about the book here.

Initiation or Dedication?

There are not enough teachers in any of the Pagan traditions to properly support in person all of those who wish to learn. The consequence is that most of us end up doing some, or all of our learning alone. For Druids, there are a number of Orders that provide distance learning and mentoring in a way the wider community recognises, which is very helpful. Still, to a large extent you have to manage your own path.

The issue of self-initiation most often comes up for Wiccans, where the idea of initiation is very much part of how one learns and progresses. Can a person initiate themselves? Many do, so arguably the answer has to be ‘yes’. I don’t feel it’s my place to invalidate anybody else’s choices. However, I do have my own doubts about how we can, from inside ourselves, take ourselves deliberately forward into new stages of awareness and being. Of course the lone learner is on a constant progression, can make huge and sudden breakthroughs and will experience life initiations too, but initiation within a tradition is a formal thing. To me, it’s all about a group of people recognising where you’re at, and offering you the keys to the door of the next bit.

I’ve run bardic initiations, as they are usually called, but in practice I didn’t feel like I was initiating anyone really. To be a bard takes a lot of individual work, and all I can do is lay out what it means and hold the door open a bit. People have to make their own way through. Increasingly the word that came to feature in the ritual was ‘dedication’.

A dedication is an offering of self, and an expression of intention. We can do that privately, before whatever powers we honour or we can do it in circle with our fellow Druids as witness. We can dedicate to each other in handfasting, in teacher/student bonds, in the fellowship of a grove and as parent to child. We might dedicate ourselves to living more greenly, to peace work, or sitting down and writing that book. The act of dedication focuses the mind on the chosen task, sanctifies it and, if done publically, gives you some people who will notice how you do. When it comes to getting people to study, and adopt greener ways of living, those dedications made in circle bind and empower in equal measure. Once you’ve said it, you’re honour bound to give it your best shot.

We all want recognition, and in spiritual terms being initiated to the next level is a bit like passing a test, or getting a reward. There’s kudos. Dedications can be more private, less dramatic affairs, but I think for Druidry they work well. We pick our own and make them when we are ready, holding responsibility for our own journey. Many people who step up to ‘initiate as a bard’ at big gatherings are not, as far as I have seen, in a place of completion that means they are initiated, they are at a place of starting out, needing the focus and recognition to commence the work. A dedication seems more appropriate at this stage. You don’t begin with initiation, you are initiated into the next stage when you are ready. You begin with dedication.

I don’t think this is just a semantic issue, it’s a pragmatic one too, having everything to do with how we see ourselves and how we see our traditions. Initiations have a lot to do with power and status. Dedications don’t have the same aura of formal structure to them, they are more personal, more flexible, and I think that makes them good Druidry.

The mysteries of teaching

In any mystery tradition there can be tension between how much you tell the student up front, and how much is sprung upon them in surprising and dramatic ways, calculated to change their awareness. Initiations are a prime example of this. How much should be unknown and unexpected, and how much should be done with the consent of the student?

I’ve had experience of teachers who liked to say ‘trust me and I will open the way for you’ and who wanted me to surrender myself into their hands, be guided, trust that they would do the right things for me. I’ve never been at ease with that. I’ve read about people who have undergone surprising initiations, to good effect, and I’ve listened to people who have been shocked and distressed by things done to them in initiation.

If you take on the responsibility of making choices for your student, you have to be aware that you can get it wrong. I once used a meditation I’d taken from a book, which involved starting with just one candle in a darkened room and then blowing it out. After the meditation I learned that one of my crew suffered claustrophobia and that darkness was a trigger. She’d got through, but it was a humbling and life changing lesson for me. I would not want to hold that responsibility for anyone, I would rather ask. I have yet to find any teaching situation where I couldn’t usefully say something in advance about what it was for or what might happen. I’d rather do that precisely because it makes the student an equal partner in a process. I think informed consent is important.

There’s also the mindset of the teacher to consider. I’m sure there are folk out there wise and aware enough to handle the spiritual path of another person, but I’d also bet they aren’t the majority. Taking that responsibility can be all about ego and self importance. Saying ‘I know better than you what it is that you need’ is not always a safe and healthy approach. It makes it easy for us to try and control and direct another person, to hold power over them, to make them do what we think they should be doing, not what their soul needs. All souls are different. The teacher who persuades, guides and suggests has to work a lot harder, can be argued with, and will have to justify themselves. A teacher in that position is also learning.

When we start out along any spiritual path, the idea of mystery can be exciting. Yes, we want to be led blindfolded into a ritual where amazing transformations occur. What we’re rather looking for there, can be for something from outside to come to us and do all the work. Magical transformation, not transformation we have laboured for. And yes of course the theatre is alluring, the sense of stepping away from conventional reality. But does that make it productive? Maybe not.

The world is full of mysteries and wonders without our needing to stage them. My personal preference is to engage knowingly with a teacher, free to take on what works for me and reject what does not. (Thank you OBOD for allowing me to do just that.) And as a teacher, I just don’t want the responsibility. I’d rather offer a possibility and let a student decide whether they like it or it makes sense for them. I know that when I started teaching, I thought people would expect me to be all wise and all knowing. I rather thought I ought to be. I felt like a bit of a fraud, truth be told. But over the years I’ve become a lot more comfortable with not needing to be any kind of guru. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t tell you what you most need to do. I will not take you blindfolded into a ritual unless you’ve told me there’s something of that shape you need.

There are many different styles of teaching out there, and increasing numbers of teachers. If you run into something you don’t like, then it is important to know this isn’t the only available way. (And some less ethical ‘teachers’ may well try to claim there is only their way, just ignore them.) There are many ways, many styles, and the odds are good that somewhere, someone will be teaching at least some of the things you want to learn. You may need to go through several teachers to find your own way. You may end up doing it yourself from a selection of sources. But the bottom line is, if the experience does not feel right to you, then it isn’t right, no matter how much someone else may think they know best. Saying ‘I know what you need better than you do’ does not make it so. This holds up outside magical and spiritual training too. Informed consent is always, in my opinion, the best life choice. I’d ask serious questions of anyone who wanted me to take too much on trust, in any scenario.