Tag Archives: rites of passage

Rites of passage

What is a rite of passage? The conventional definitions have a lot to do with our sex lives – birth, coming of age, marriage, with death the inevitable finale. Of course this means that some people would only have the chance to celebrate birth and death. I think there’s a lot to be said for taking a far more individual approach to rites of passage.

What do we need to honour, process or celebrate? What life events do we need witnessing and recognising by our families and communities? Looked at on these terms, the standard rites of passage are about relationships with the community changing. New arrivals, new adults, official relationships and death.  We need our wider networks to support us around these things, certainly.

There are many things that can radically change a person – things we seek and things we do not. Qualifications, injuries, work changes, recovery, friendship breakups, moving house, divorce. There are challenges and victories we encounter every day where we may need the witnessing and support  of those closest to us, at the very least.

Faced with a large and life changing event we don’t all default to wanting to gather our people together for a ritual to mark it. If you are doing regular community rituals though, it is a good thing to hold a space where people can say what’s going on for them and have that heard and acknowledged.

Some of our most life changing experiences may be too personal to want to share in this way. We may not always be comfortable with the changes happening to us. We may not be confident of support from our community or immediate family. It’s worth thinking about how our life changes impact on our relationships, and what we might do to support each other at such times.

It’s also worth thinking about what kind of community space we have to support dramatic life changes that don’t fit with whatever narratives we’ve had to that point. Life changing events can also be community changing events, and when we make space for these personal changes we also give our communities chance to grow, mature and become more interesting.

Learning to Float

Sometimes life delivers such dramatic rites of passage that ahead of them, even if you know they are coming, it is hard to imagine who you will be on the far side.  Sometimes these things come along as a surprise, and the enormity of the threshold isn’t visible until you cross over it. Where these thresholds are can turn out to be very personal.

The good transformations can be just as startling and hard to process as the traumatic ones. It’s easy to forget this, and to end up flailing around a bit in the aftermath of good things.

My useful analogy for this is learning to float. Floating is very natural for the human body, we do it quite easily. But, if you’ve never let go and persuaded the water to hold your body up, floating is mystery. You don’t know how that feels until you do it. There is a line to cross between not floating, and floating.  I think floating in water is a really magical, wonderful thing, but I came to it late. I started learning to swim aged eleven and I was afraid of the water and it took a long time to learn to trust it to hold me.

Just because something is natural doesn’t mean we will find it easy and automatic. Our bodies are mostly predisposed towards movement and communication, but we still have to learn how to do those things.  We’ve evolved for sexual reproduction but dear Gods sex is complicated for many of us and does not come naturally and needs figuring out. And may be a lot like learning how to float.

If something is supposedly natural but does not come naturally to you, I invite you to remember learning to swim. And if you can’t swim, it still works because naturally floating hasn’t come naturally to you either. This is ok. I think mostly what it means is that a lot of people don’t notice their own learning processes so assume many things are easier than they really are.

It’s good to make room to honour the thresholds and the rights of passage. Our  conventions around rites of passage are perhaps too focused on pairing up, breeding and dying. Along the way there are many thresholds and life initiations, many opportunities for transformation and unimaginable change. The more attention we can pay to those, the better.

R.I.P. Off! or The British Way of Death

By Ken West

In the 1960’s I killed barn owls. It was not a conscious decision. The people in control instructed me to spray the new wonder chemicals, invented by the Americans, over the old cemetery. The weeds and long grass disappeared, as did the voles, the food source of the owls. Nobody noticed – or cared!

This happened all over the UK. Ten years later, less ignorant and in control of cemeteries and crematoria myself, I introduced conservation management in cemeteries. The results were astonishing. Acres of rare pignut, a plant that once fed the poor, appeared, followed by voles; the owls returned.

Years later, and offering a Funeral Advisory Service, two women, possibly pagans, wanted advice on burial in their garden. I told them it was feasible, but that it would depress the property sale price. I discovered that they sought garden burial because this was the only way that they could be buried under a tree and thereby satisfy their environmental and spiritual philosophy.

Because of these events, I wrote a feasibility study for natural burial, the first time that human burial was integrated with conservation. This was accepted by Carlisle City Council and we opened the world’s first site in 1993. It was a traumatic time; funeral directors hated the idea, not least the prohibition of embalming. They were apoplectic when I first mentioned cardboard coffins. Natural burial was also a threat to cremationists because it highlighted the energy and pollution problems with the process. Increasingly labelled a weirdo, I was grateful for the support from pagans, environmentalists and the artistic community.

There are now more natural burial sites than crematoria in the UK (270+) and the idea is going universal. It has created the market for green coffins and reinvigorated burial. It also gave greater emphasis to the emerging funeral celebrant, expanding options for more spiritual and earth centred services.

After 45 years in the work, I retired with new purpose; to get people to discuss death and dying (see www.naturalburialcreator.co.uk). My first book, a specialist title, was ‘A Guide to Natural Burial’ published in 2010.

Based on my experience introducing natural burial, I wrote “R.I.P. Off! or: The British Way of Death” to show how the funeral market is stitched up; how it shuts out innovation. I wanted to convey information, without the dry blandness of a self help book, so that the reader could take control of a funeral themselves, even to the point of doing one without a funeral director. But, as nobody wants to read about death, how could I appeal to readers? Bookshops welcome writers on children’s stories and romance, but not death. I opted for black humour, and a series of cameos based on true events; an expose of the funeral world.

Getting to the other side has never been easy; or cheap! The Egyptians needed their ornate tombs; the Romans to cross the River Styx and the Vikings to sacrifice an entire longship. The Americans renamed this palaver the death care industry and set new rules; the funeral director became a salesman in a black suit, the coffins were given fancy names like ‘The Balmoral’ and nobody was allowed to mention the word death.

Ongoing rites of passage

Rites of passage tend to suggest events; big focal moments in life that need marking. Birth, coming of age, marriage, elderhood and death are the most obvious, along with spiritual initiations and dedications. Pagans can mark any event that seems pertinent, and again the most obvious way to go is to focus on the more dramatic events and changes.

However, many of the most important things in our lives can be more like works in progress than events. Anyone dedicated to lifelong learning, especially anyone not pursuing an academic route, will not have so many events. The same is true in an enduring marriage, or long term dedication to a spiritual path. The road of parenting, caring for creatures, the activist path and the work of a celebrant or teacher has this same tendency. It could easily be the focal point of your life but it won’t deliver big, obvious changes to celebrate.

Making personal rites of passage around ongoing commitments can be a very good way of reminding ourselves why we are doing these things, and celebrating what we’ve achieved. It can be an act of affirmation, and of re-dedication. Making a more obvious rite of passage can help draw attention to ongoing work – whether that’s five years of activism, or your seventeenth rescued cat, the point at which you need to flag up what you’ve done, is yours. Expressing it allows other people the chance to recognise and honour what you are doing. I think this is a really good thing – we have rather an events orientated culture and can overlook the value of stability, ongoing efforts and long haul commitments. Pausing to celebrate these things helps remind us that our lives are far more about what we do from day to day, than the occasional moments of drama and big anniversaries.

Yesterday was my fourth wedding anniversary. Four years married and we have a pretty good idea of how we get along as a couple and a deepened and more insightful commitment than we could have had when we started. We went out together and had matching bands tattooed onto our arms. It was Tom’s first tattoo, and the first time I have let anyone who wasn’t him anywhere near my skin since the police medical examination. So there’s a second aspect of this for me, reclaiming ownership of a body that has not been treated kindly. The right to say ‘no’ is a good deal more powerful when you aren’t too afraid to say ‘yes’ sometimes. There was blood and pain, and looking after each other, and we’ll have a week of taking care of each other’s ink as we heal, and I like that a lot.

Small rites of passage in ongoing situations are whatever you want them to be, on whatever terms make sense.

Other people’s rituals

Ritual is a shared, community activity, but often it’s also very personal. Other people’s rituals, even when technically in the same tradition, can therefore feel a bit strange. Quirks of ordering, precise language use and the like are either familiar and comfortable, or they aren’t. For example Druid Camp uses ‘know that you are honoured here’ where many would use ‘hail and welcome’ and because I deliberately use neither, I can be easily thrown by both.

There are many good things about leaving behind our own ways of ritual and pottering along to see how it works for others now and then. It’s a chance to connect, to learn and to see our own ritual habits from a different perspective. This is all good, so long as we respect the right of our host to undertake ritual in the way that they see fit. That in turn can make for some interesting balances between meaningful participation, honouring the methods of the host and being comfortable with what you do and say.

Striking that balance can be challenging enough with people doing their Druidry a bit differently. It’s harder again when you go into a different Pagan group and do not know the forms exactly, but this is nothing compared to going outside of Paganism altogether, and that’s something we often have to do. The dominant religion for celebrating rites of passage remains the Christian Church, in all its vast and disorientating diversity. The odds are that people who matter to you will want Christian rites of passage and will want you to be there.

I don’t like pretending to go through the forms of a religion I do not honour – that seems innately disrespectful. Failing to participate in any way that is disruptive, would be an unkindness and an insult to the people who have invited me. I try to find my balances around quiet presence and witnessing and very understated non-participation. It helps that I am entirely out as a Pagan, so no one who matters to me has unrealistic expectations about what I can be called upon to do.

With most rites of passage, it is enough to go along, witness and be happy for the people involved. Afterwards, there will probably be something involving cake and a chance to do something more personal. The exception is funerals. All of my immediate ancestors thus far have had Christian burials, or Christian crematorium services. These I find tremendously difficult. A funeral is an important moment in the grief process, and the time of collectively undertaking to say goodbye to the departed. Shared tears and mutual support and, for the Christians, reassurance about the eternal love of God, the eternal life in Jesus Christ, Heaven, forgiveness for sins and the such. All concepts rooted utterly in Christian faith, and likely to be meaningful to Christians. Where the departed, and most of the bereaved are Christian, there is no doubt about it – this is the right thing to do.

Where the dead one was Christian, I can hardly saunter off and have a little Pagan moment for them at my leisure – that would not be respectful and it wouldn’t feel right. What it leaves me with are some practical challenges about how to work through grief in the context of what is, for me, the wrong religion. How to handle a painful service when the words make no emotional sense to me? I haven’t really got an answer for this. In many ways the time that feels resonant for me is what comes after the service, when there is often a sharing of food and stories; that innately human response to loss and pain. It doesn’t really matter then who believes what, we just share what we have.

Little rites of passage

When thinking about what to celebrate, we tend to focus on the big, defining moments in life – birth, death, coming of age, marriage, and elder rites. In practice life is dotted with smaller moments of deep significance, too, and there’s much to be said for honouring them along the way.

We had one yesterday. The boy has come to the age of travelling independently to and from school. It tends to be an option here in the UK at 11, with the shift from Primary to Secondary school. Friends of his are bussing in and out of town, also on their own for the first time. For children using school buses, or living very close to their school the moment of independence can be earlier. There are of course many young people and parents who won’t get this little rite of passage, because the school run is by car. For us, the school run has meant walking or cycling, and I’ve done it with him at least once, and often twice a day since he started school 7 years ago. It’s been a significant part of our lives, and a little bit of time we’ve used for talking and sharing. There are other spaces aplenty for that, but it won’t be quite the same.

Go back not so very far in time and the idea of parents on the school run would have seemed preposterous to the vast majority. It used to be that you walked to your local school, if you were any kind of normal person. A few miles in all weathers. Cars, shortages of safe places to cross roads, increased anxiety around stranger danger and an increased addiction to total ease and comfort have all helped shaped the change. It’s easy to drive by, drop the kid off and drive away. Adding to the traffic problems and the road dangers. I’m a dogmatic fundamentalist when it comes to this one: Walking and cycling to school is good for young people. It allows time to warm up the brain in the morning and wind down on the way home. There are social opportunities, and the fresh air and exercise is good. A healthy child can go out in all weathers, assuming the right clothes, and not suffer in the slightest.

There used to be far fewer such moments in the process of loosening ties between parent and child, I suspect. Children used to be freer sooner, and there wasn’t the same social pressure to insulate the young to the current degree. We used to expect that a child could be responsible for themselves walking half a mile or so. These days you have to be much more careful. Grant too much freedom too soon and social services may be called in. With gloomy talk of feral youth, and resentment of young people roaming about in the streets, the young are increasingly battery raised. Free range children are alarmingly rare.

Part of me knows that this moment of shift and changing responsibilities, is a really important moment in the life of my family. We honoured it with something sugary. Part of me knows how modern and weird this is. He could have been sent off as an apprentice by now, squire to a knight, or in full time employment in some other era. Part of me knows that for much of history, statistically speaking he’d have done really well to have lived this long in the first place.

In other times and places, first knife ,first hunt, first kill, first wound would have marked the journey from family bosom to independence, in whatever order they came. Now it’s first mobile phone, first part time job, first independent journey, first car. The moments of significant change are in so any ways defined by the culture in which we live, as soon as you get beyond the more biologically informed set. It makes me wonder what we might pick as some kind of ideal series of transitions and key points.

Rites of passage

Celebrant work tends to focus on the biggest and most obvious rites of passage – birth, marriage and death are most commonly dealt with ceremonially, we might also mark coming of age and entry into being an elder. However, life is full of rites of passage, or life initiations, as I’ve heard them referred to (Chaos Magician Barry Walker first coined the term, I believe).

The first time I was really conscious of this I think, was when I was heavily pregnant. There is only one way forward from there – by some means, the baby will leave your body, hopefully alive, possibly not. You too could die. Pre-birth it is impossible to realistically imagine what the birthing process will be like. There’s also the huge change of having a child, which again I don’t think anything truly prepares you for. Everything changes.

There are many other life events that you can see coming and know are going to bring the unimaginable. Moving home, changing job, entering and giving up on relationships, the deaths of family members and loved ones, and many other tests and trials. A significant number of the challenges we face come out of nowhere, and it may not be until much later that you get to sit down and make some kind of sense out of what happened to you. These upheavals are dramatic and taking the time to honour and recognise them can help make the process more coherent and palatable. In celebrating, we may also make public, and that can bring the benefit of advice from others who may have gone through something similar. It’s not until you’re an initiate of certain life rites that others will tell you they’ve been there too. The women who also lost babies. The men who were also abused… and the good stuff as well. Once you know, there are things that can be shared because there’s no need to explain, and some things can only be understood once they’ve been lived.

Not everything is event, either. Not all transitions are sudden and dramatic, puberty and aging are not events really, parenthood is a work in progress and so forth. Sometimes it pays to stop and look back to see where you’ve been, because often it’s only then you realise that you have come a very long way, one step at a time.

There aren’t any formal ways of marking these passages, but I think it helps to take them seriously in your own, private practice.

A personal wheel of the year

I spent a number of years celebrating the 8 standard wiccan/druid festivals. It gives the cycle of seasons a shape, and for people new to the idea of engaging with the wheel of the year, this is important. The ‘Fire’ festivals have all kinds of history and folklore so are also a way into a lot of traditional material, stories and ideas, making them a great teaching tool. They’re also rather a blunt instrument. The precise date of the equinoxes and solstices vary, and in practice most groups don’t celebrate the event. They celebrate the weekend most convenient to the event, and the idea of the event. As for the other four, they may be tied to natural events, but in any given year those events don’t all correspond to the dates. Arguably they are festivals of ancestral connection more than fertility festivals or part of the cycle of the seasons.

Whatever we do in terms of public and collective ritual, there’s also scope for creating a personal calendar. Our own responses to the seasons can create personal cycles. It’s autumn, and I can see the winter people getting all excited and gearing up joyfully for the dark while the summer people face SAD and feel out of sorts. People whose season is autumn are of course in their element just now. We’re all different. For some, autumn means returning to school or the education cycles. This time of year is very different for a student, teacher or parent, than it is for someone not connected to the education process. For many, this is a time of new beginnings. For others, the tax year commencing in April will be more significant. Many forms of work will have their own seasons too, and we’re all affected by those. Times of quiet, times of industry, not all of them connected at all to the solar year.

Historical events can be a big part of the personal calendar, too. Birthdays, deathdays, anniversaries of rites of passage. Over time, some fade away and don’t need re-celebrating, while others acquire greater significance.  Today is the third anniversary of my landing in America for the first time, and along with the date of Tom’s coming to the UK, and our wedding day, has become part of the calendar. Those kinds of dates can be powerful in affirming relationship, and also give an opportunity to reflect. Where are we now? Where have we been? Where do we want to be, three years hence? Where personal dates are forgotten or ignored, it can be a symptom of an ailing relationship. Where too much money is spent on anniversaries, too much attention paid at the few key points it can flag up how threadbare things are the rest of the time. I’m glad to say this is nothing like that!

Sometimes personal events become meaningful to a whole community. An annually reaffirmed handfasting can become a regular party and get together. The date of an event can become a definitive moment that stays in the local calendar, or the national calendar. Armistice day. Columbus Day. Martin Luther King Day.  Or at a more local level, strange remnants like Hunting the Earl of Rhone or the one about finding a mediaeval lady’s hood – something lingers on even when the meaning gets a bit vague. These rituals and rememberances can become part of a communal identity.

The moral of this story is, don’t be afraid to add new things. The day of the founding of your grove might be an event to reflect on every year. The day of your becoming a fully fledged OBOD druid might be one you want to earmark for druidic reflection in years to come. There are no wrong answers here, it’s just a way of being alert to the resonant things in your life and making a space for them, honouring what they mean. It’s also important to let them go when they cease to have resonance, moving on to new ideas, new celebrations.

Offerings and Dedications

Moving on from No Sacrifice, what does a modern Druid do? I’m going to wave a couple of concepts here today. Offerings are something I have strong opinions about, and where my take does not match what I’ve seen Druids and Pagans generally doing. So, this is not authority, it’s my banging on about personal preference. Obviously, if I convince you all of my superior argument, that would be lovely, but I’m not expecting anything of the sort!

Offerings and dedications are things that we might do for gods, or spirits, that are also things we do for ourselves. Not unlike giving a gift or making a vow to a human companion, we do it for the joy of doing it, and for the subsequent strengthening of bonds, and knowing it will encourage them to feel benevolent towards us. It’s a friendly exchange, it’s not supposed to hurt.

I have an animist world view. I think everything has spirit. Not all pagans are animist and that’s probably key for how you think about offerings. It confuses the hell out of me when people turn up at rituals with offerings that basically consist of having uprooted a bit of spirit from where it was living and plonking it down in front of another spirit with a ‘there you go’.  Wildflowers from the hedgerow, feathers and other gleanings are popular. What makes this ours to give? When some of your own creativity has gone in the mix, it makes a degree more sense. What does the spirit of a tree need with a few fragments of sea shell offered to its roots? (seen that done). Why do all the dark places need offerings of tea lights? Often, the offerings become litter, or there’s a pile of stuff for the celebrant to take away and sort out at the end. Think about what happens to your offerings, after you leave them behind. Also think about what the spirits you were offering to might have a use for. I’d rather take water to plants in times of need, or, more usually, take in a dustbin bag and clear up the litter. Making a temporary altar out of what is in the space, an improvised art working with what lives there, seems a far more fitting offering than a thing bought in a shop or uprooted from where it was happily being a spirit of place in its own right.

Dedications, especially those made in ritual with human witnesses too, are ways of offering ourselves to the gods. They also serve to reinforce community bonds and help us develop in shared intentions together. Pledges to greener living are good. If one person says ‘from now on I shall grow all my own herbs’ other people may be inspired to have a go too. If the newbie dares to say ‘I’m going to recycle, diligently’ recognising that they are just starting out on a path, we can cheer them along. We dedicate to reducing consumption, to better sourcing, to making more of our own. We dedicate to living in more creative ways, giving more, being compassionate, upholding the values of a specific deity. During rites of passage, we dedicate to each other, as partners, parents, welcoming life in, waving it goodbye. We may dedicate as teachers, celebrants, bards – these human roles can be put before the gods too. These are things we can offer to the gods, to ourselves, to our communities and our planet. By formalising that intent into a ritual statement, we strengthen it.

Such efforts as these are not simple, one sided things. We are not giving something away for nothing, and it is not simply an activity which costs us. We are interacting with other things – divine, human, aspects of place, of our own lives. In this kind of undertaking we may be recognising all kinds of relationships. We make them conscious, choose how to conduct them, offer our intentions. By offering we affirm, we inspire others, we share the journey we are making. By offering, we nourish those around us, and when we hear their offerings and dedications, we can be inspired in turn. This is about how we craft our own lives, how we understand ourselves in relation to all things. It creates a focus.

When I make an offering or a dedication, the goodness of that action for me is something I am always conscious of. This undertaking will make my life feel cleaner and more honourable. This will strengthen me, give me purpose, focus me on the work my hands need to be doing. This will invite my community to support me in a new venture, to see me in a new way. This will keep me straight, I’ve pledged in public and will not lose face by then failing to follow through. But equally, if we just did it for personal reasons, it wouldn’t be worth much, and so these dedications are also for the good of the land and its other inhabitants, to honour the ancestors, to guard the future generations and so forth. The reality that everything we do is connected to everything else becomes clear, and that’s essential Druidry in itself.

Little rites of passage

Most people like to mark the big events in some way or another, and often birth, death and marriage are the occasions that get not especially spiritual folk inspired to want a dash of religion in their lives. One of the things I love about paganism is that it doesn’t just focus on the hatch, match and dispatch services, there’s room to celebrate all kinds of things. I’ve done house blessing work as a celebrant, heard plenty about coming of age celebrations and elder rites, for example.

I have a deep seated personal aversion to marking things just because some long dead person identified it as the right thing, or the right day to be making a fuss of. Especially once commercialism gets in the mix and starts sucking on the marrow of real experiences. But at the same time, the quiet, private marking of personal transitions, events, and anniversaries has become really important to me. By this means my calendar has a sprinkling of very personal celebrations in it – like the anniversary of first going to America to meet Tom. I also celebrate the anniversary of running away from a very unhappy situation – which for me has become ‘freedom day’. Today is the first anniversary of my marriage, a lovely moment to pause and reflect on the epic journey this last year has been and to contemplate where we might be going. It’s been a hectic, crazy time but through all the challenges, we’ve become even closer. For me, that’s what marriage should be.

Today inevitably makes me cast my mind back to the first anniversary of my first marriage. I was heavily pregnant and struggling with very hot weather. The day went unremarked, uncelebrated. I lived for a long time in a situation in which even obvious things like birthdays and Valentine’s day passed unrecognised, or greeted with such awkwardness that all the joy was knocked out of it. Learning anew how to celebrate has been a lovely process.

We’ve marked all kinds of personal events this year, doing things together that make us smile. It’s not about spending money, just about spending time. One of the effects of these little rites of passage is the shared affirmation of our story. Big rites of passage are about bringing your community together to witness major life changes and make sure everyone has caught up with the implications. Little rites of passage are about engaging with your own story, picking up the things that really mattered and coming back to honour them, creating small spaces to recognise and enjoy the things that make this life uniquely your own. It affirms a sense of self, and sharing that with others, reinforces bonds and relationships.

Next year I shall be celebrating the anniversary of moving to the boat, as a new day in the calendar. There are book releases to celebrate too. Whether any of those seem relevant the following year remains to be seen – there being no need to cling on to old celebrations once they no longer need to be marked.

Sometimes it’s a case of just starting the day with ‘happy Wednesday’ (or whatever it is) and celebrating the sheer Wednesdayness of it, in all its glory.

Out of the personal events come things we hold in common. Freedom day I share with my child, but it also connects me with a lot of other people who have run, and who acknowledge their own days in their own ways. Boat day I share with my husband and child, but it’s had a much wider influence on family, friends, people at school who have all been touched by the changes in our lives, in all kinds of ways I probably don’t know about. This time last year a group of my friends and family came out to support and recognise my marriage to Tom, a year on he knows some of them a lot better, which is great. Nothing that happens to us exists in isolation. The act of acknowledging and celebrating can create room to recognise others who have been part of the journey, and by remembering a date we weave them further into the narrative threads of our own lives, and become part of the stories they tell as well.