Tag Archives: ritual

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?


Accessible rituals – timing

One of the things that really impacts on how accessible a ritual is, is when you hold it. If you’re viewing ritual from the perspective of an able-bodied car owner you might not be alert to the ways in which poverty and disability are impacted by timings.

It is of course tempting to be out in the dark – privacy and mystery are both enhanced by this. However, for a woman travelling alone, a late finish can be intimidating. I’ve talked to women who found getting to their car late at night intimidating. For a woman walking, cycling or on public transport, the fear of assault is often much worse.

If your ritual ends late, there may be no public transport options. Anyone who does not have a car will thus be barred from attending if they can’t walk. 

Low light increases the physical hazards in a situation. A person with poor eyesight or mobility issues may feel barred from attending.

Cold night air can be a problem for anyone with breathing-related health problems. Cold outdoor conditions can increase pain for people who already deal with pain. An outdoors ritual in the dark, in the dark half of the year can be physically too demanding for people who are bodily limited.

If you don’t flag up your willingness to discuss timing, people may well assume that it isn’t open to discussion. People who struggle are all too used to dealing with people who won’t take their issues seriously or accommodate them. It can seem better to just save your energy and accept not participating. Don’t assume people who are in difficulty will tell you that or tell you what their problems are unsolicited.

Rituals work better when we have a culture of active care and find ways to look after each other. We build community when we do this, and we avoid excluding people.


Who do we sacrifice?

As a younger human, I was fairly hardcore when it came to rituals. I’d go, no matter the weather and no matter what sort of state I was in. Pain and fatigue are longstanding issues for me, and when I was younger I was more in the habit of just pushing through. 

It didn’t help that I absorbed a lot of fairly toxic notions around sacrifice within Druidry. I had a strong feeling that I needed to put the Druidry first, and that complaining about my body or stepping back when I wasn’t well, wasn’t ok. I’ve had heatstroke doing rituals. I’ve been problematically cold, which makes me hurt more. I’ve pushed through exhaustion. I’ve done rituals that left me emotionally burned out and unable to function for days afterwards.

It was worse during the period when I was leading rituals because I felt obliged to show up, to not let people down. This was all voluntary, all given in service, and I was working alongside it and had a young child.

A culture of service and sacrifice can really hurt you if you aren’t well to begin with. I look back at a lot of my early experiences of Druidry and I can see how the ableism was hard-wired in. I can see my own, internalised ableism, and I can see how I unwittingly perpetuated it.

A real community doesn’t break its members for the sake of a seasonal celebration. At this point in my life I am much more aware of the importance of not demanding more than people can safely give. I reject the idea that sacrifice is a spiritual good or a social good. I’m deeply in favour of compromise and negotiation, but when some people have to sacrifice themselves for the ‘good’ of the community, you will tend to find that it is those who have least who end up giving most. 

Sacrifice is often what we do when power and responsibility aren’t equally shared. When there is fairness, equality of sharing and ownership, we shoulder the hardships together. We bear the hard things together, those who can do most help those who most need help. We give, to each other, to the land, to what we hold sacred but we do not ask anyone to suffer. Community is fundamentally about taking care of each other and that means it has to be safe to say no. 

The demand for high levels of commitment in Pagan groups tends to be ableist. Either those who cannot commit are excluded, or they are pushed into harming themselves. It has to be ok to not show up when you aren’t well.

So, for the autumn equinox I ended up leading by example. I found I was too ill to run a ritual, and I cancelled it. At the moment I don’t have other people who could take over for me, but I will aim to develop those skills in others so that it doesn’t all depend on me.


Accessible Ritual

One of the easiest ways to make your rituals more accessible, is to make it ok to sit down. In indoors venues, provide and offer chairs. For outdoor gatherings, add ‘seats’ to the list of things people might want to bring.

Fatigue is a common problem that people have alongside illness and many kinds of disability. It can also be an issue around mental health problems. So, not being able to stand for an hour or two is one of the most likely problems that could make a ritual inaccessible. And it is so easy to fix!

You will also have to think about what people are doing during the ritual to make sure no problems will arise for people who are sitting.

In very hot weather, the safety of your entire ritual is improved by it being fine for people to sit down if they need to.

When advertising an event, the odds are you won’t be able to talk at length about every possible access issue. By saying ‘chairs/sitting welcome’ you flag up that you are going to be open to other access conversations. This can really help people approach you. Anyone who has experienced discrimination has probably also had the experience of being treated like they don’t matter, like they make too much of a fuss or that it isn’t worth bothering with their issues. By drawing attention to chairs, you can make it clear that you aren’t that sort of person and you will get into a conversation with anyone who needs it.

It’s not always possible to provide everything for everyone – but we can try! Showing care and respect has a value all by itself and opens the way to finding ways to include more people.