Tag Archives: ritual

Children in ritual

Back when I regularly ran rituals in the Midlands (UK) I made a point of including children. If you don’t include children, you exclude their parents and the burden of that falls disproportionately on women. 

It helps that Druid rituals are often public facing, community oriented and celebratory, because it’s a lot easier to include children in that, than in intense, focused magical workings. Even so, you can’t expect children to stand quietly in ritual for an hour or two – sometimes they will, but you can’t count on it and there has to be room for who and how they are.

Most of my rituals were held in woodlands, with room for our younger humans to be around but not obliged to join in. Having them free range outside the circle worked well. They did what they needed to do and were only disruptive if they were unhappy – which was usually about tiredness, temperature or hunger, which is fair enough. I think it’s really valuable to give children space where they can be themselves and do their own things while also asking them to be responsible and considerate.

It can be tempting in ritual to want to focus inwards. You face the centre of the circle, in your magical time out of time, and you step away from the world. That might make sense for some kinds of magic, but for a Druid group honouring the wheel of the year it makes little sense. Most of nature is outside of that circle, surrounding it. It’s good to let that in – all the sights and sounds of it – and absorb that into the ritual experience. Children can be part of that.

Children can be powerful forces of nature in their own right. Children can be enchanting and magical. It depends a lot on how they are growing up, whether they feel able to explore and to express themselves and whether they have learned to do that cooperatively rather than trying to run roughshod over everyone else. Children being natural are not necessarily loud or inconsiderate. I’m inclined to think that most children in history would have learned to be quiet so as not to be eaten by large mammals. Being noisy is only an option if there are no predators.

On one occasion, the children at the edge of the ritual decided they were a wolf pack, and howled accordingly. It was a surprising thing for those of us in circle, but actually lovely, and felt right.

If you give children the chance to participate in a ritual, a lot of them will. They have things to say and to share, they want to be taken seriously and they like to join in, is my experience. Let a child stand in ritual with the same dignity as an adult, and many of them will. And you can absolutely count on them appearing, as if by magic, whenever the bread, cake and ritual drinks appear.

When I’ve been able to work with children, I’ve found them fantastic at actually making circles – going round the edge with something noisy to mark out the space for example. If you want to bless people in mirth and reverence by flicking water at them, children are often far better at doing this than adults are. Give them a chance to learn and participate, and they will.

When one of the adults felt unable to call a quarter during a funeral, my then very small son said he could and would do that – and he was magnificent. Don’t under-estimate what your youngest folk in circle can do or will want to do. Give them the opportunity and they can bring a great deal.

Not being grounded

Grounding is a strategy that many Pagans use after magic and ritual, or simply as an everyday practice. The idea is to come back into your body, connect with the ground, the physical, your roots etc. Over on facebook recently my friend Tre raised issues about what you do if your body is a place of pain, or if you’re happier with your head in the clouds. 

There are certainly times when the last place I want to be is in my own body. There have been times when I’ve come out of rituals and not done anything grounding because I needed to hold the sense of something floatier, more magical, less of this world. A lot of the time I’m big on being in the world and being present, but not all the time. I waft in and out at need. 

Earth as an element brings up associations with certain ways of being and feeling. Rooted, stable, feet on the ground, firm, strong and boundaried – and these things are all well and good if they suit you. However, if you’re much more of an air person, then being grounded might feel heavy, oppressive, pinned down and otherwise uncomfortable. Aside from the soles of our feet, we are mostly in the air, not in the earth. Our bodies are solid, but our lungs are airy and we spend all of our days bringing air inside us. Being in a state of airiness may make a lot more sense for some people.

You can reassert your boundaries and come back to yourself with air-focused meditations. You can engage with your breathing to settle as an airy being. You can feel how your body naturally reaches into the sky rather than connecting it to the earth. You can visualise protective bubbles surrounding you – these are all established techniques and there is no need to be earthy about them.

While I’ve been exploring these ideas it struck me that I’m often more water oriented when it comes to settling into myself. I seek out physical encounters with water when I need to feel my own edges. Many of the meditations I favour are about being on, or in water. I go to the stream when I need to calm myself. While magical practices are more likely to deploy water for cleansing, it’s not the only way to approach this element. Floating on water is just as valid a way of coming back to yourself as being on the ground.

Sometimes I find I have to seek the ungrounded. For me, that most often means being on a hilltop, exposed to the enormity of the sky and the energy of the wind. I crave the open space. It’s easy for me to feel too weighed down. Sometimes the earth is a place of comfort, but not always. Sometimes I need to stretch my arms wide to greet a vast horizon and let my soul rise with the songs of the larks.

Grounding has a role if you’re moving between magical space, and mundane space. It may not make sense to do this if you aren’t coming back. Not everyone has the scope to choose, but if you are running off to the woods for a while, if you are escaping the clutches of capitalism, if you are able to run away… maybe you don’t need to transition out of magical spaces and into ordinary ones. I have tested this a bit, there are rituals I did not close, circles I did not leave, and I do not believe that has harmed me in any way.

Druidry check in

One of the things I heartily recommend doing is to pause every now and then just to check in with where you are on your spiritual path. Are you doing enough to nourish your spirit? Have you let something slide that was important to you? Are you happy with what you’re doing, or do you need more, less, different…? 

It’s important to do this without being harsh on yourself. This isn’t about how good a Druid you are being, how diligent or anything else like that. If life hasn’t given you much space for Druidry, that’s simply a situation to acknowledge. If you’re feeling restless and need to change, that’s fine. If you’re comfortably doing the same things, that’s fine too. There are no wrong answers. The important bit is being self aware.

Where am I? Still mostly focused on nature as it manifests in my body, alongside issues of trying to heal and improve my strength. The bardic side of my life has taken a bit of a leap forwards, as you’ll know if you read my recent viola stories post. There’s definitely more to come on that score.

Much to my surprise, ritual is back in my life. I used to be interested in ritual primarily as a community activity. However, I’ve been exploring very small and intimate forms of ritual and magic, and this has become really important for me. It was wholly unexpected. I’ve found it really powerful and moving, and have every intention of devoting more time to this.

I’m very invested in what I’m doing in terms of community, performance and supporting others – those things are all very related to each other at the moment. 

Through the autumn I went through quite a deliberate process around re-enchantment. There’s a small book pertaining to that experience and I’ll get it out into the world at some point. At the moment I’m consolidating, letting a renewed sense of sacredness settle in me, and waiting to see what comes next. I’m working with my intuition a lot, of necessity, and I’m investing in the dreaming part of my life.

I know that this year is going to bring a lot of changes. I know what some of them are, but not all of them. I feel relaxed about this, and I welcome in the greater scope for adventures and creativity I know will be coming.

Using your voice

Voices are very powerful tools, and vocalising has some really interesting effects. One of the things that can make group ritual more powerful than solitary ritual is that when we’re working together, voices are usually deployed. It can be tempting to do a solitary ritual mostly in your head, while doing it outloud can feel weird and exposed. Being self-conscious can be a genuine barrier to doing any kind of spiritual work, but I think it’s worth pushing through if you can.

When everything happens inside our own heads, it can easily be hurried and also jumbled up with whatever else is in our heads at the time. Speaking something is a way of asserting it as your focus. Spells, prayers, rituals, affirmations – there are many things we might do because we want to change ourselves or the wider world. Vocalising creates focus, which means that our brains are more engaged with those intentions.

If you’re trying to put an intention or a prayer into the world, then having it go out from your body as sound is a way of making that happen. 

There’s a significant psychological aspect to this, too. Hearing yourself say something can be deeply affecting. Thinking the words ‘I need to heal’ is not the same as hearing yourself saying them. Again, if you’re trying to change something, the process of hearing yourself saying something out loud can be very effective. If something is too difficult, or too painful to say, or exposes you in ways you don’t like then that can also help guide your actions. I’m not averse to curses, but saying them aloud can make it really obvious whether you’re seeking justice or being vindictive. It’s not difficult to say ‘I hope this person gets everything they deserve’ but even in rage, it can be more obvious if you’re ill wishing someone just to be vindictive.

I find that spoken words don’t have to be very loud in order to be more effective than doing things in my head. It is enough to whisper, because that’s still a physical thing to do and brings in all of the aspects I’ve described above.

I don’t really know how this would work for someone with impaired hearing, or for anyone deaf or experiencing limitations around speaking. If anyone has any insight and is willing to share in the comments, that would be great.

Connecting with an audience

When you’re performing, connecting with your audience is a major consideration. There are people whose audience connection and engagement is so strong that they can get by with weaker technical skills for other parts of what they do. Audience engagement can be the centre of how you perform. In most circumstances I prefer to focus on the quality of material and how I use my voice, but there are many ways into this.

The person who taught me stagecraft was of the opinion that primarily what a person needs to do is fill the space with their own personality. If you’d got a strong enough personality, everything else would flow from there. He was certainly able to work on those terms. Much of that approach depends on confidence. You’ve got to be able to walk into a space and demand attention, not just with your voice, but with your whole self. You’ve got to know in your bones that you are entitled to be there and that it is in everyone’s best interests to pay attention to you.

Winning an audience over is an act of will that can feel a lot like magic. It’s a relevant ritual skill, as well as a performance skill, and I think it’s well worth considering on more magical terms. To captivate an audience, you have to assert your will. When an audience is cooperative, that feels fairly rational as a process.

I have taken less cooperative audiences by force on a few occasions. Noisy pubs are the worst in this regard, where you have a lot of people who have come along to chat and who treat the performances as audio-wallpaper. Even an audience like this can be made to fall silent. I’ve done it as a solitary singer, and at poetry events, and on one occasion when we were out with the band. In some ways it’s easier with an exposed voice rather than instruments because most people aren’t so used to hearing that.

Uncooperative audiences can be intimidating, but stepping out there with the intent that they are going to be quiet and listen is an essential starting point. You can’t expect an unruly audience to become polite and attentive, but you can demand it of them. Audacity can get a lot done.

Given the kind of material I take out, the best measure of audience engagement for me is often silence. Not merely that people stop talking, but that they don’t move. The absolute stillness of an audience means that you’ve successfully enchanted them. It’s an entirely different process with comedic material because there, the small sounds of amusement through to the unmissable guffaws will give you a lot of information. Then there’s the material that demands toe tapping and that calls upon bodies to move, and even if they don’t jump up and dance you can feel when an audience is responding that way. It’s all in the sounds, and it’s much easier to judge sound as a whole than to try looking at individuals. 

Be it in ritual or on a stage, there’s often nothing more powerful than silence. Most especially, the silence that falls sometimes at the end of a piece where no one wants to move or break the spell. If you can hold an audience in stillness and silence, you’ve got them.

It’s difficult to pin down the precise mechanics that make this possible. However, magic is in essence about putting intent into the world, and good performance always feels magical, so perhaps it makes most sense to approach this as an act of magic and prepare accordingly. Believing in your own power is a very good place to start.

Druidry check-in

I find it helpful to pause and take stock every now and then, considering where I’m focused in my Druid journey, what’s important for me and what’s changing. It’s good to review things, to consider the journey deliberately and to think about where I might want to go and whether I need to make any deliberate changes.

Service: This used to be a much bigger part of my path, but I’ve been less involved with activism and with running things in recent years. I’m doing a teensy bit of mentoring. I do my best to help amplify other people, and I continue speaking up about mental health and domestic abuse. Otherwise, my main area of concern is looking at how we tackle things collectively. So many problems – and most especially the climate crisis – are being treated as things to deal with individually when that doesn’t work at all.

Meditation: Meditation, and contemplation have been major parts of my Druidry. I find at the moment I’m tending more towards contemplation and gestating ideas. I need to think about things, to build ideas, to channel raw inspiration into action.

Ritual: Including celebrant work, and having a steady prayer practice, ritual has really fallen by the wayside for me. It’s not what’s calling to me at the moment and I’m fine with that. I don’t have the right spaces or the inspiration at present.

Healing: This is becoming a major focus for me as I work on strengthening my body and doing the things that enable my mind to recover. This is a key underpinning – my ability to connect with the natural world has been sorely limited by how bodily ill I’ve been in the last couple of years. My ability to perform, to do rituals, to travel for events even, has all been compromised. Improving my health will give me a lot more scope to explore the path again, and that’s looking feasible to at least some degree. Honouring nature as it manifests in my own body is going to be more of a thing.

Deity: I have had an ambivalent relationship with deity, to say the least. Those of you who have been following me for longer will have seen the mix of longing and disconnection that has mostly been underpinning how I approach deity. That seems to be changing for me at the moment, and is likely to be a major focus going forwards.

Bard Path: This has always been the centre, for me. The idea of inspiration as inherently sacred, is the heart of my life and no doubt always will be. I’ve had a profoundly fruitful time of it lately in terms of being inspired, having projects I’m invested in and fabulous co-creators to work with. I’m doing more to take my creativity out into the world in all kinds of ways, and I feel really good about all of that. This is what I am for, and this is how I best handle all the many aspects of my Druidry, exploring, expressing and offering to others.

Magic: The idea of magic has always been with me, but depression can be made of disenchantment. Things have changed for me on this score, as part of the same process that has me exploring deity and feeling much more inspired. It’s become possible to have room for wonder, enchantment and a sense of possibility – partly because I’ve been surfacing from the depths of depression, and partly as a thing that has helped me pull out of the depression. I suspect this is something I’ll be talking about a lot more once I’m further into the process and have a better understanding of the mechanics.

Practices change over time. Druidry is a very large forest with a great many ways through it and a great deal to explore. Staying in one part of that is just as valid as wandering about.

Planning a ritual

Rituals can be very small things for one person, through to elaborate hours or days of activity for a group. When it comes to group rituals, there’s a huge amount of scope for getting things wrong for some or all of the people involved. That might be a topic for another day. When it comes to solitary rituals, you can approach this from the position that you can’t get it wrong.

You can of course set yourself up to fail. You can load your ritual with expectations that you are unable to meet. This is most likely to be an issue if you focus on the outcomes you want from the ritual and not the process of doing it. Rituals that centre on spells can be very outcome oriented, but for a Druid there are other ways of approaching things.

I don’t do a great deal of solitary ritual, but when I do, I like to treat it as a process. The first part of this process is to make space for whatever needs and feelings I have that incline me to think that a ritual gesture of some sort is appropriate. I need to understand what’s going on with me and what I need to deal with. Working that through will help me understand what I need from a ritual.

For me, a ritual is a conversation with the universe – or perhaps with some specific part of it. I make rituals because I want to change something. I may not have a clear sense of how I want things to change, or I may not be able to make the changes I need by conventional ways. It may be that I just want to make something for myself – an intention, a dedication, or just the desire for change. I may find in my ritual-making process that coming up with and enacting the ritual gets a lot done for me. Undertaking a ritual is an act of will and intent and can also be a way of having a conversation with myself about how I want to change my life.

For me, the planning part of ritual activity is often the most important bit. Building the understanding, shaping intentions and working out how to meaningfully express that to myself and the universe gets a lot done. You don’t have to have a magical world view to see the useful psychological impact this process can have. I do however have a magical worldview. I see clear ritual action as an invitation to possibility. Everything out there is informed by someone’s intentions, (I say this as an animist – everything is someone). To speak your intentions clearly to the rest of existence can and does change things. It’s not something I do very often, but I’m always surprised by how powerful it is when I do feel the need to engage in this way.

Druidry and dedications

Rituals are a good opportunity for making dedications and having them witnessed by your community. Along the way there have been three dedications I’ve made in a Druidic context that have had a significant impact on me. Looking back I am all too aware that on each occasion, I really had no idea what the implications were of the commitments I was making.

Something like twenty years ago, I knelt in the wet grass at Stonehenge and initiated as a bard. I pledged to use my creativity for the good of my ‘tribe’ (not language I would now use) and the good of the land. I went into that not knowing what I would be being asked to commit to (not something I’d do these days either). That dedication has become central to what I do with myself, although it has played out in many different ways. It’s what I’m for.

Something like eighteen years ago I stood in the museum and art gallery in Birmingham in front of a small baked clay image called The Queen of the Night – probably a depiction of Ereshkigal. It was a gathering organised by The Druid Network. I had an overwhelming sense of being called to walk in darkness, and I accepted the call. I’ve walked a lot of dark paths since then, bringing back what I can by way of maps for others to use. It’s been hard, far harder than I could ever have imagined, but I’ve managed to do something useful with it here and there and perhaps that’s enough.

I’m not at all sure when I made my Order of the Yew pledge but it was in the same timeframe. This order was held within The Druid Network – I’ve not been involved with either for a long time. The Order of the Yew was very much about making dedications, and I started out with something long and fancy and probably rather self-important. I took myself far too seriously back then. At some point I came back and replaced it with a simple dedication along the lines that I would undertake to love as much as I could for as long as I could. It stuck to me, that one.

Of the three, it’s been by far the hardest. I’ve broken down repeatedly to places where the amount of love I could put into the world really wasn’t much at all. I’ve given from a state of being hollowed out and exhausted for extended periods of time. I have committed, over and over to loving with an open heart people who I knew perfectly well would not reciprocate. I step forward to get my heart broken. If I knew how to stop, I probably wouldn’t because I feel most like me when I’m honouring this dedication.

In theory the key thing with making a dedication in ritual is how much you invest in that dedication and how much you are willing to take it forward. In theory. I’m never sure what to believe about anything, but I can say with certainty that these dedications marked and changed me, and invited things into my life that perhaps otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

At the red spring

We went to Glastonbury!

I hadn’t been to Glastonbury in more than ten years, even though I’m in the southwest of the UK. It’s not an easy place to reach without a car, and I really don’t travel well on buses. It was lovely to see the town. I’d never been to Chalice Well Gardens before, either. While visiting the gardens it became obvious that there was no way my beleaguered body was going up the tor, and so I stayed and contemplated and engaged with the water and wondered about the reputed healing properties of the red spring.

I was struck by the differences and similarities between tourists and pilgrims. Some people were clearly there for spiritual purposes, quietly doing their own thing. Some were clearly tourists, there to look and take photos – and in some cases allowing their children to undertake noisy and inappropriate rampages. Sometimes the people who appeared to be there as tourists were clearly moved by the place. Sometimes the people who looked like pilgrims turned out to be much more interested in taking photos.

Sitting beside the waterfall for an extended period, I had the opportunity to contemplate a lot of things, including how people engage with places and how easily spirituality becomes performance art. I compared the more elaborate and costumed actions undertaken for a camera, with the quiet reverence of people who looked like tourists but chose to bodily engage with the water. 

I’m very much in favour of sharing beauty. Taking photos for the internet is a reliable way of doing that. But at some point, the photoshoot starts to be more important than the ritual, if you aren’t careful. Trying to look good for the camera can really get in the way of doing anything substantial. There’s a huge temptation around going to special places and wanting to come back with a dramatic story, a revelation and some really attractive photos.

So I sat in the gardens for a few hours, and thought about iron and water, ideas of femininity, how people relate to places and what I might need on my own personal journey. I’m not good at big revelations, but I am good at being present to what’s happening around me.

So here’s a photo of me when I wasn’t in a deep state of contemplation and was still doing a lousy job of looking glamorous!

Druidry and speaking for the land

Reading Julie Brett’s most recent book I was prompted to think about who speaks for the land in a British Druid context. We often call to spirits of place, and I’ve long felt uneasy about going into a place and welcoming the spirits WHO ALREADY LIVE THERE. Julie led me to realise there’s a human aspect to this, too.

There are of course far more Druid groups in the UK than I have stood in ritual space with. My experience is partial, but I’ve never heard anything to make me think it’s untypical. Druids go to places of historical significance, and places that are local and wild, or geographically convenient – it varies.

I’ve never stood in circle with a Druid group that identified who had the most involved relationship with the land and who therefore should speak on behalf of the land. I’ve been in Druid spaces where people from away have spoken with authority about the deities in the landscape as though there were no local Druids honouring them. I’ve stood in ritual where the Druid who literally owned the land we were on was treated to a lecture by someone who did not live there about all the spirits they could see present in the space.

I had one occasion of speaking in ritual in an urban green space. It was a space I frequented – not quite in walking distance for me, but part of my wider landscape and a place I had a fair amount of relationship with. I talked about what a haven the space was for the urban people living near it. My comments were met with derision – you could hear traffic! The Druid in question had never been to the place before and lived many miles away. I was upset, and at the time I didn’t know how to articulate what was wrong in that situation. Also, it was a beautiful green place on the edge of a city and no, it wasn’t pristine nature, but that didn’t make it any less precious in my eyes.

I’ve felt it at a local level too – there are fields and hills here that I know deeply, and other parts of the landscape – in walking distance for me – that are much more deeply known by other people. I’ve had a longstanding urge to acknowledge this and am only just finding the language to talk about it.

Imagine if Druid rituals included consideration of who, in the ritual, actually had the most involved relationship with the land. Imagine what would change if we felt it was inappropriate to go into an unfamiliar space and start talking about it with authority. Imagine if being a senior, Very Important Druid did not entitle you to speak for, or to a landscape unfamiliar to you. Sadly there’s a lot of ego in all of this. It takes a certain amount of humility to acknowledge that the people who live on the land, or have spent a lot of time with a place might be better placed to talk about it and speak for the land.

Whose land is this? Is a really important question. Who are the ancestors of place? Who has a relationship with the ancestors of place? What assumptions do we make when we enter ritual spaces, and could those assumptions stand a re-think?