The first ritual I was invited to participate in through a moot I attended. At that point I was in my twenties. I was self-identifying as an eclectic Pagan, and I’d read very little about ritual. Back then, there weren’t many books about ritual to be had, and most of what there was, was Wiccan and I had read some and knew it wasn’t for me. I’d also never felt drawn to exploring any kind of solitary ritual.
I was given some lines. I took it all very seriously, learned my lines, thought about what to wear, invested in the idea of ritual and doing something sacred and significant. I was prepared, and wholehearted.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the chap running the ritual. He was not prepared and had not learned his lines. Quarters were called badly, while being read from a script he could barely see because it was dark, which seemed to surprise him. He laughed a lot – probably from nerves. The whole thing was an awkward mess and I felt embarrassed to be offering this to anyone or anything. I spent a lot of time towards the end of the ritual quietly apologising to anything that had been obliged to witness this shambles.
After the ritual, owls started calling. Some of the participants found this really validating. To me, it felt like forgiveness, for which I was deeply grateful.
After the ritual, it was also clear that the man running it felt it had gone really well. I did not go back for a second ritual with him. He also talked a lot about how important he felt imagination was for ritual. It’s an idea I rejected on the spot. It’s not enough to imagine. If ritual is going to be meaningful, it has to feel real, on whatever terms that can be a thing for you.
I’m not great in the heat. I’m not the sort of person to rush enthusiastically into the blazing sun with the expectation of being able to do stuff. However, the sun and the summer are part of the natural world, and furthermore, I pledged some time ago that I would undertake to love the world as climate chaos manifests, and not in spite of it.
How does a Pagan who does not cope well with hot weather honour the sun while trying not to go out in it?
On some of the really hot days I’ve been unable to function at all in the afternoon. I’ve had to flop out, and this has meant being entirely focused on the conditions, as I could think of little else. It’s possible to be intensely involved with the sun and the heat without being directly exposed.
I’m outside more at twilight. For me, the summer evenings and the night time are central to how I experience summer, because I can safely go out and do stuff. Twilight is as much part of the summer as the sun is, and many creatures are abroad at this time who also avoid the heat of the day. As the air cools, I notice where the ground and the brickwork are still hot from the day. I experience the residual heat. There’s something magical about being able to feel cold at night when the day has felt like being in a furnace.
Experiencing the sun is very different if you are under trees. This landscape should be wooded. Most of our ancestors had far more access to trees than we do. I’m lucky in that there is a shady cycle path close to my home, and I can be out on it without overheating. You can experience the sun in nature without being directly under the sky.
Humans do some rather odd things in response to heat when you compare us to other mammals. That we work, and don’t normally change our sleeping and eating habits in response to the conditions is unusual. Most mammals aren’t active when it’s hot. Anyone wearing a fur coat is obliged to take things gently in hot conditions. Anyone who isn’t wearing a fur coat is at high risk of sunburn.
I spent some time with some pigs recently, and in the hot part of the day they just flopped out in the shade. Many of us are not cut out for sun worship, and there’s nothing unnatural or un-Pagan about that.
I’m a long-standing fan of Lorna Smithers. Recently on her blog she wrote about her intention to stop writing because of the way it has impacted on her. I recognised what she was saying – that you can end up having all of your experiences filtered through the process of writing. It can feel a lot like strip-mining yourself, and you end up depleted, empty, a ravaged landscape.
It can be hard to be fully present in an experience if part of your brain is making notes so you can write about it later. It creates pressure around anything you do. It can actively get in the way of your personal, spiritual life. It is not good feeling like you’ve become a spectator sport.
I went round this some years ago when I realised that trying to write Pagan books was having a problematic impact on my own lived experience of being a Pagan. To deal with this, I’ve slowed down and taken a much less commercial approach.I write what I feel moved to write and I’m not trying to crank them out. One of the unfortunate features of publishing is that without regular new books, it’s hard to stay visible or get the sales. So be it. I’m not going to sacrifice my Druidry for the sake of writing about it.
I’ve been round this with the blog as well. I have rules. I don’t post about anything large and personal when it’s still raw, I give myself time to reflect and process. I focus on ideas and technical stuff and I don’t talk much about recent personal experience. I keep my most numinous experiences private. That’s helped me hold the feeling of sacredness. There are things I’m currently considering writing about that happened to me more than ten years ago – which feels like an appropriate distance.
There are tensions between what it takes to be a good and successful Pagan author, and what it takes to follow a Pagan path. For some of us, those tensions will be a bigger issue than for others. I’ve been able to find balances that work for me, but I have run headlong into these issues and bruised myself by so doing.
It’s important to hold something as sacred, secret, too personal to share. It’s important to not feel you have to do everything in public. Social media means you don’t have to be trying to become a Very Important Pagan to feel that pressure to share precious things in public. Hold what you need to hold. Even if teaching is your life, you do not owe it to anyone to expose more than you can bear. It’s good to be able to treasure things, and hold them close.
The Elemenpals is aimed specifically at infants, young children and early readers. It’s written in such a way that children too young to read independently can be read to and so that children who are beginning to read independently can manage with little help but still with adult supervision. I wanted the book to encourage family bonding time through shared reading experiences.
I know you’ve done a lot of studying of child development. How does that relate to your writing?
I’m currently working towards becoming a developmental psychologist and am particularly interested in neuro-developmental psychology and the way that children’s brain development affects, and is affected by, their behaviours, their personalities, their development of their sense of self and autonomy. The books were my way of empowering my own children to form a connection with nature and to explore their own narratives and self expression through finding parallels in nature and the elemental cycle and perception. I also wanted to include some neurominority characters who actually reflected my children’s experiences as most autistic characters in books only reflect the “classically autistic” narrative and none of my children relate with that at all as it’s such a narrow view. So Menme, the Spirit Imp, is non-verbal and, as you can see in the book, speaks with gestures, facial expression, body language and hand movements. This isn’t an obvious thing, it’s not a plot point. Menme just is and fits into the story authentically and organically and it was really important to me to do that well. As an autistic writer, I feel it’s part of my duty to include those narratives ethically.
Is this a Pagan book? the elemental aspect certainly suggests that it is? would it work for non-Pagans, could it get into schools under the radar?
The book is definitely based on Pagan beliefs and folklore but it’s the sort of folklore and belief that society has carried with it, protecting their Pagan heritage whether they knew it or not. The archetypes of Mother Earth, elemental beings and deities of sacred life such as rivers and trees are things that modern and Abrahamic beliefs could never quite quash and they’re the main theme of the book. I’d love for them to get into schools. Every aspect of them has been written with empowering children in their development at the forefront. My biggest dream for them would be to see them in schools. I’ve already written some classes that would work with the UK curriculum that could accompany them but that’s just how my mind works, I’m not sure they’ll ever be used.
Can you talk a bit more about what representation, or the lack of it means for children? How it impacts on them…
One of the most oppressed groups on this planet is children. Most adults believe that children should obey, shouldn’t “talk back” and don’t allow them any voice or autonomy. Our education system is designed to spit out conformists on a conveyer belt and punish any form of individuality from what they wear, to how they speak, even as far as policing their facial expressions which are mostly involuntary. It’s a mental health crisis waiting to happen! Except it is happening already. We are the product of that education system, we adults. The problem is that many of us perpetuate it and take agency away from children from the moment they’re born. Giving children some control over some aspects of their lives is extremely beneficial, teaching and empowering consent, emotion development, conscientiousness and more. How can we teach our young girls that their body is their own and that no one has the right to touch them without their consent on the one hand and then force them to wear what we say on the other? How can we teach our young boys that when a girl says no she means no if we do the same to them? For that matter, how do we teach boys that their own body is theirs and no one can touch them without their permission? Giving children agency and representation on how that agency can work in various settings is the only way to give them this power effectively.
How did you find your illustrator?
I’m not sure how Adam and I connected. Totally by accident, probably. We both have a love of wordplay and respectful debate and discourse so it was likely that we had a mutual friend and ended up chatting that way. But one day he saw that I’d written a children’s book and as he’s a published children’s author himself, we were discussing writing for children, one thing led to another and I had myself an illustrator who really understood my vision of what I wanted to convey in my books. The fun and whimsy of the characters, the fluctuating moods to expose children to as many emotional possibilities as we could, which is extremely beneficial for their emotion development and expression. Adam is incredibly talented, as a writer and performer, as well as an artist, and he understands my mind in a way that I feel is a must for people creating together in this way. The books are as much his hard work as mine but I know he’d argue with that.
We’re Pagan. We want to commune with nature. We want to be out there in the wilds, off the beaten track… Us and everyone else. The pandemic has led a lot more people outside. More people are having vacations closer to home this year, and this is putting far more pressure on the land.
It’s not just the people who rock up to litter beaches and poo in the Glastonbury fields while wild camping. It’s the increased traffic around beauty spots, and the damage done to landscapes just by too many people going through them. It’s people taking from spaces, and mistreating what’s there. Pagans can be just as guilty of this as anyone else. Our tea lights, inappropriate offerings and rubbish tied to trees are just as problematic as anyone else’s mess.
If you truly want to commune with the land rather than consuming and damaging, here are some suggestions.
Stay as close to home as you can. Explore the green spaces nearest to you and minimise driving. There are a lot of green spaces in urban environments and it’s great to explore those. Footpaths, cycle paths and tow paths are good. Lanes can be well worth exploring but you are at more risk from irresponsible drivers so be careful. If there’s an artificial surface, you aren’t going to cause erosion.
Stay on the footpath. If you go off the path you will damage plants and habitats. You may feel more magical and special, but the birds, insects and creatures you disturb won’t thank you for it.
Take nothing, leave nothing. Try to make sure you don’t need to shit in the bushes. Don’t leave shitty offerings that may harm the wildlife. Don’t light fires. Don’t burn anything, not incense, not candles, not anything. Don’t pour alcohol on the ground, it’s not good for the wildlife either. Don’t pick anything, don’t dig anything up. Windfalls are probably ok, but give serious thought to anything you think it would be ok to take home.
Don’t take your mountain bike offroad. Footpaths take a lot of damage from bikes, and in sensitive environments they can be really damaging. Don’t cycle over ancient monuments. I hope this is something no Pagan would ever consider doing, but I see so much of it happening that I have to mention it.
If we’re heading out into ‘nature’ because we want to be nourished and spiritually supported, we need to be alert to what it costs. The wild world is under immense pressure from humans and there’s nothing spiritual about adding to that. Any feelings of being special, exempt, entitled or important that justify why we should put pressure on wild things need serious scrutiny. There is a real and important issue around the impact of green spaces on mental health, but we can seek the green without harming the wildest places.
Alongside this, we need to push for more green urban spaces, more urban trees, and more safe places to walk. Imagine what a difference it would make if just a small percentage of urban parking spaces were given over to plants instead.
I’ve been interested in Pagan deities since childhood. I’m deeply attracted to the stories, and early on I was much more of an active polytheist, seeking relationship with deity. The reasons that I fell out of that are many. I’ve no problem with the idea that gods exist and that people interact with them, it just doesn’t work for me.
I struggle with the feudal language that always comes up around deity. It’s funny because there’s a massive sub streak in my nature but most of the time I have no desire to be in a relationship with a being who is so much more powerful than me. My urge to serve doesn’t translate into an urge to serve a deity, and I have no idea why.
I struggle with the gendered language. It’s taken me a while to figure out anything much about the ways in which gender doesn’t do it for me. So much of the language we have is so very gendered when it comes to deity. Some days I find Goddess material difficult because while I have a (mal)functioning womb, my experience of being embodied just doesn’t chime with a lot of what other people seem to be doing around Goddess worship. I know there are gender complicated deities out there, but none of them really speak to me either.
I struggle with the whole notion of anthropomorphic Gods, a lot of the time. I think humans tend to favour picturing Gods as a lot like humans because for many people that helps. For me, it’s a bit of a barrier. I don’t actually want the spirit of the land to show up with a human face and talk to me in my own language. For me, that would feel like a loss of magic, not a more accessible manifestation of deity. If I want to talk to the land, I talk to the land, and I don’t expect any kind of reply.
Around all of this, I have an experimental and intermittent prayer practice. I’ve found that it works best for me just to address things to the universe, or to any bit of the universe that might be listening and interested. I listen, on the off-chance there’s anything out there that wants to talk to me – and mostly there isn’t, which is fine. Most days, there is no reason at all for anything out there to take interest in me, and most of the time I feel that this is far better for me anyway. I’m not sure it would be at all healthy for me. I have too much hunger around wanting to feel special and important, and I think that would make me a problematic worshipper, and an even more problematic priest. Better to work through those issues in my own time than load that onto a relationship with a deity and risk where that might take me.
Dana O’Driscoll’s Sacred Actions is a rare example of a book I think everyone should read. It’s written for Pagans and Druids, but I think there are lot of people who simply care about the natural world who would also benefit greatly from this book.
This is a book about how to embed not just sustainable practices in your spiritual and daily life, but also how to be restorative. It’s not enough to be sustainable. The idea of being regenerative is exciting, and the book as a whole has a hopeful, encouraging tone and is a good antidote to despair and distress.
You could take this as a manual for a year long project, or you could just read it all and pick the bits that work for you – there’s plenty of inspiration and flexibility here. Author Dana is a longstanding Druid, with a wide range of life experiences. The result is a beautifully written book that is pragmatic, realistic and recognises the breadth and limitations you might be facing. It is as applicable for urban Pagans in small spaces as it is for those who can run off and start an organic homestead, and all places in between. There’s attention to issues of wealth and privilege, and this is an excellent piece of writing for not excluding anyone or assuming much about available resources.
The book follows the wheel of the year, and the 8 festivals familiar to most modern Pagans. You could draw on this material to enrich your own seasonal celebrations, there would be no difficulty setting it alongside a different set of celebrations, either. If celebrating the festivals isn’t part of how you do your Paganism, that will also be fine, you can make this entirely about action without any need for ritual.
Each festival explores an area of thinking and action and looks at how to bring this into your daily life, and spiritual life. It’s a book that is very much about embedding the spiritual in the everyday, and increasing earth awareness and feelings of interconnectedness.
If you’ve been a deliberate eco-Pagan for some time, you might find some of the content familiar. However, this is a book with so many ideas in it, that the odds are good of finding new things to bring into your life. There are original rituals and triads here, and content for contemplation and meditation that will enrich any Druidic practice. I really like the emphasis on meditation as an action, and using meditation to embed ideas, reflect on relationships and deepen understanding. These are the most valuable meditation pointers I’ve seen in a very long time.
The author writes from her own experience, which means that the book has most to offer a Pagan in similar circumstances – someone living in North America. If that’s not your situation, there is still a great deal to gain from this book, you’re just going to have to do extra work to find out about relevant plants and groups where you live, for example. As a UK dwelling reader I enjoyed the decision to make the content specific – in many ways, specific details provide a better map for those of us outside the area of interest, than vague content that doesn’t really give anything precise to anyone.
If you need inspiring and uplifting right now, this book is for you. If you need help finding out how to live a life that is regenerative, and more than sustainable, this book is for you. If you are even slightly interested in earth based spirituality, this book is for you. I cannot recommend it enough. It’s made me realise a lot about what is most important to me in terms of Druidry – connection, care, community, responsibility, action, living our values, and uplifting each other so that we can all do better.
Thank you to Jenny who flagged up questions of how we tell what’s appropriation and what isn’t on a recent post. I’m currently in a deep exploration of many different aspects of Japanese life and culture – including sewing techniques, festivals, and language – although I’m not getting very far on that score! It is always important to ask what it’s appropriate to do when working with material from another culture.
Good things to explore – history, geography, language, culture, traditions, folklore – if these things are in the public domain they are excellent places to start. If some of those things aren’t being put in the public domain by people they belong to, tread carefully. Avoid white American/European takes that don’t closely reference named sources or demonstrate having had direct teaching.
On the Japanese front I would flag up the number of people writing about Zen who have never studied it in Japan or with someone whose tradition that actually is. We have a lot of people learning partial Zen from other people who have learned it partially – if you want to study it in earnest, go for source material not bad recycling. That we mostly know about Zen and mindfulness from non-Japanese sources in New Age and Pagan circles is an example of what appropriation does – it distorts and removes the context. If there’s a feeling of entitlement to own and represent someone else’s tradition, that’s really suspect.
If a culture is making something into a tourist attraction, or is actively pitching it to the rest of the world, then you are clearly ok to explore or celebrate that. Many Japanese festivals are offered as tourist attractions. These are not secret or closed practices. There are however things around Shinto that seem to me to be very closed and secretive – what happens inside the shrine, what even is inside the shrine can fall into this category. It’s not supposed to be for everyone. That needs respecting.
Where possible, get content from people whose culture you are interested in, not other people interpreting that culture. That may mean content in translation. If you can’t find these kinds of sources, look for people who have engaged deeply, but be aware that they are speaking from outside.
It’s important to look at power balances, too. Is the culture you’re exploring struggling to maintain its identity and traditions in face of colonial pressures and history? Are you dealing with the cultural legacy of an oppressed minority? What’s your relationship to this culture? How are people from the culture you are exploring likely to feel about your interest in it? What are you interested in? There are far too many examples of people making money out of colonising other people’s cultures. Whether that’s charging for courses, selling versions of traditional objects or creating a power base. Consider white sage, and dream catchers.
If something is freely offered by people from a culture, then engaging with that is fine. If your desire is to learn, not to profit, you’ll get this more right than not.
I learned about Sashiko from youtube videos made by a man from a family of Sashiko artists. What I do isn’t Sashiko, but I am inspired by the tradition. I’m learning about festivals from what sources I can find online. I’m staying away from anything location-specific, and focusing on things that are more social than religious. What reading I’ve done around Shinto inclines me to think that it’s not something I could or should explore that deeply, but that there are things I can learn from what’s more generally available. I’m sharing notes on my journey, but I am not presenting myself as an expert on a culture that is not my own when there are plenty of people from that culture who can speak about it perfectly well. I think that works.
I have three new stories out in the world at the moment…
I have a tiny flash fiction piece in the album notes of Maximum Splendid, the new Rapscallion album. I’m very taken with the music, and it’s always lovely to be part of a steampunk thing! Hard copies here – https://rapscallionband.com/store#!
Over on Patreon, I’ve started serialising a new book. That’s available to anyone who signs up as a Dustcat, Steampunk Druid or Glass Heron. It’s a speculative novel, plenty of magical Pagan elements, plenty of weirdness… Spells for the Second Sister isn’t available anywhere else at present. You can find that over here – https://www.patreon.com/NimueB
That morning he found a large, yellowish ball of spider eggs inside the collar of his jacket. It was not an omen. Durosimi did not believe in omens.
Any occultist worth their salt knows that divination, prophecy and other variations on a theme of anticipating the future, are tricksy things. Durosimi considered it an inexact science at best. He preferred exact science and dependable outcomes. Alchemy, necromancy, demonology; why try to see the future when you could create it through deliberate action? Most of what passed for divination was nonsense anyway.
The ball of spider eggs did not mean anything. The large, dead spider that somehow got into his breakfast did not mean anything. Only that the latest cook was as incompetent as the previous one.
What inspires you? Where do you find nourishment for your soul? What lifts your spirits or eases your heart?
The glib answer for Pagans is often ‘nature’ but by ‘nature’ we often mean something dramatic and exotic. It’s a horrible irony that nature is often a place we have to drive to. Many people in the UK are desperately short of access to green spaces close to home.
One of the reasons for following a spiritual path is that it can provide nourishment for our souls. This is easier, I think in contexts when you can either get out to those wild places, or get into circles with other Pagans. We’re lifted as much by what we can share as a community, as we are by communing with nature. Many of us engage better with ritual as a group activity rather than a solo practice. And honestly, working with other people makes us more accountable and more likely to show up.
The internet gives us options for sharing personal practice in a way that means we can inspire and uplift each other. Photos of the lovely walk, the beautiful altar, the devotional art, videos of your chants and songs, blog posts about prayer and meditation… There’s a lot of good to be found in this, and it’s something I’ve been glad to participate in. For me, it really brings into focus how much the effectiveness of spirituality in our lives can be about our relationships with people.
I’ve taken plenty of people into the woods (not in this last year, though) who were only spending time with trees when there was a seasonal ritual to show up for. It was the community they were showing up for, and through that connection, they had tree time and meaningful encounters with the land.
However much we might long for interactions with Gods, spirits, fairies, guides etc, these are unreliable. Not everyone gets called. Not all offerings are answered. Not all dedications lead to powerful interactions. People are a lot more reliable and will often show up when you invite them. People will witness you and hold you to account. They will be moved by the beauty of work your spiritual practice has inspired you to create. With that feedback, it is simply easier to show up as a spiritually minded person.
I think this is something to embrace and work with. It’s not just a spiritual issue, either. Many of us do our best parenting when there’s another adult about to impress. We may well do our best creating, our best activism, our best ethical choices when we have people to witness us and either nourish us with their approval, or make us worry about not looking good. We are fundamentally social creatures, and this year of pandemic has deprived us of a lot of that contact. Things that used to feed you may not work so well as solitary activities. There should be no shame in that. It’s just easier to be, and enjoy being your best self when you’ve got a supportive and appreciative audience.