Tag Archives: ritual

Druidry and not so much ritual

For some time now, I’ve not being doing ritual. I had a few years when, living on a narrowboat I was so very close to the natural world, and so very far from other Druids that seasonal ritual made little sense. In recent years living in Stroud, there have been various forays into the possibility of seasonal ritual, but nothing has formalised. I find that I enjoy having the eight rounds of community gathering in a year.

There are things I definitely like about ritual – community, sharing bard stuff, getting outside together, and any gestures towards making beauty in some way. I hate scripts, and I’m not very easy with standard ritual language any more. It’s too formal, it feels weird. I’m wary of any kind of ritual structure that puts some people in charge in priestly roles and has others cast as onlookers. I want proper anarchy in my circles – no titles.

Once again I find myself asking how to make ritual work for me. Last year we tried holding bardic sessions at the full moon, but by October it was far too cold to be standing around at night. Given the people I hang out with, food and bardic contributions are a certainty. I’m intending to experiment a bit with talking sticks (well, a talking spoon is more likely…)

The very word ‘ritual’ suggests repetition, but repetition is problematic. It can create a firm underpinning, but it can equally dull people into careless lethargic states. It can help people connect, but you can end up connecting with the abstract ideas of the ritual and not with the experience of being alive and in a place on a day. High ritual language can empower, but it can also exclude. It can inspire, but it can oppress. There are no neat answers to this.

I’ve yet to find what I want from rituals. Even so, I can’t quite let go of the idea of them, I keep coming back to seasonal celebration and trying to figure out how I want it to be.


The validation of ritual

I’ve had periods of doing a lot of ritual, and periods of doing none, and at the moment am marking the seasons but not always in conventionally ritualistic ways. Looking back over the last fifteen years or so, I realise there’s a validation aspect to ritual that has had considerable value to me, but that I also feel ambivalent about.

Nothing makes me feel as much like a proper Pagan Druid as getting into circle with a bunch of people and doing a ritual eight times a year. I don’t even have much respect for the wheel of the year and the eight festivals as a concept, I never know what to do with equinoxes, but even so I find the act of doing ritual with fellow Pagans profoundly affirming.

Now, the question for me is, what am I affirming when I do ritual? I can find the ritual itself fairly superficial, and have no woo-woo type experiences at all and still feel significantly validated. Is it the effect of being with other Pagans openly? That seems fine to me as a thing to benefit from. Is it some kind of affirmation that I am all shiny and spiritual and special? I worry about this. I worry about how easy it is to have supposedly spiritual things turn out to be just epic ego massage. If I think something is good for me, is it really good for me? Is it ok to take the ego boost? I’m not swimming in self confidence…

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about what it is that we get out of religions and spiritual practices (Spirituality Without Structure is one of the many consequences of this). How much of what we get out of ritual is on purely human terms and not really about the divine at all? How much is it about connecting with people? How much can we do to connect with the land and the seasons when investing a couple of hours eight times a year? Lots of questions, no real answers.


Fox rituals

I don’t know how long the fox had been watching us, but he had stopped in the middle of the footpath to observe our approach. We’d been mostly looking up into the trees on the off-chance of owlets, and it took me a while to register the scrutiny, and longer again to spot him in the gloom. We stopped, and he stayed put, a length of fox across the middle of the path, eyeing us up. We said hi. We managed to hold that position for more seconds, and then the fox took off into the trees.

We saw him twice on the way home – each time he emerged from the undergrowth some yards ahead of us, trotted briskly down the path and then disappeared into the gloom. It was clearly the same fox – he’s pretty distinctive. A large male, skinny but clearly in good shape, with some distinctive white markings. We see him regularly – he saunters past our flat some nights, and we see him in the fields a well. Like us, he’s a creature of the borders between town and country. I guess he’s seen, or smelled us about, too.

It struck me, walking home, what a difference there is between saying ‘hail spirits of this place’ in a ritual and ‘hello Mr Fox’ in an encounter. We also stopped to say hi to a rabbit, who also watched us but did not run away. My feeling of being present, of being part of life on the path rather than just an observer or something passing through, was intense. I felt the connection I’d tried to make in ritual. I wonder about the way ritual helps us to engage with what’s going on, but is also a barrier simply because it is an elaborate human construct designed to move at its own pace.

In a Pagan ritual, often what we’re trying to do is connect with the season, and with the natural world. I’ve been walking the same path intermittently for years now – more evenings in the summer, earlier in the winter, the odd night excursion. I know who to expect where and when, broadly speaking. We’ve become creatures who use the path, along with the deer and numerous birds. We stop for them, and they carry on – last night two robins engaged in a strange song and dance routine that seemed very intimate. When they hopped into the leaf litter, their plumage and the gloom conspired to make them into uncanny, magical patterns of movement.

The fox no doubt has his own nightly rituals.


Bardic initiation

Many Druid gatherings offer bardic initiations, although what’s meant by this can vary. My first initiation was at Stonehenge, in the dew of a midsummer morning, and I repeated back the words and wasn’t sure about them at all, but such is life. As a bard of the Lost Forest I both initiated bards, and re-dedicated myself.

It’s natural to want rites of passage to mark important points in the journey, but it’s also important to ask, and keep asking what initiation does, what it’s for, what it means.

Some people may experience a bardic initiation as opening them up to the Awen. For some, it’s an affirmation – community recognition of what they’re doing. For some, it will be a doorway opening onto a new path, and for some there is very little effect.

It’s good to make dedications, and to have them witnessed, and rituals can provide the ideal opportunity for this. I think the essence of dedicating to the bard path is dedicating to creativity, to honouring and working with the flows of inspiration and using that inspiration for the good of the land, and tribe – however you identify those. It is creativity as a spiritual journey, but to be a bard is to be public facing as well. Dedicating to this is powerful, if it’s meant and as is always the way of it, the more you invest in it, the more powerful it will be.

I feel quite strongly that true bardic initiation doesn’t happen as a thing that is done to you, or given to you in a ritual. It happens when you perform, and it happens repeatedly. The first time you step up as a bard, is a rite of passage. The first time you take any new way of performing into a public space. The first time you face a microphone, or you cock up in public – these are all rites of initiation. Either you go through them and grow, or you falter. Every time something magical happens while you’re creating or performing, there is also an aspect of being initiated into a new level.

No one can do this to you, or for you. It’s between you and the Awen, and the odds are each round will be a private process.


The Imbolc Labyrinth

It was cold, I grant you, but not too cold. Making a labyrinth is, as I discovered back in 2016, an intensely physical business taking me an hour to an hour and a half (depending on extra hands). But, it’s not the kind of physical activity to make you warmer, so I was unsure as to whether we’d get away with it in early February.

We did.

The making process means a person has to engage with the great outdoors for the duration, and that in turn prompts meditations on the season and its implications. I can’t say I went into the labyrinth with a clear head and walked it in a perfectly contemplative state, because my concentration wasn’t equal to that. But, I walked it twice, thinking about spring, and listening to the bird song – which has noticeably increased in recent days. I walked thinking about my intentions for the year and what I want to bring into the world. Each time I walked out of the labyrinth feeling clearer in my sense of direction.

The process of building and walking inspired me to think about when and where I want to make future labyrinths, and who I might want to make them for. I also came away with the certainty that I need to make a bag for the labyrinth to live in when it’s at home, and I need more material. I became aware of how the things I use for building only have this role, and have a growing identity as a labyrinth. I need to build on that with a labyrinth bag.

I find rituals difficult if it’s just me, or me and my immediate family – three isn’t enough people for ritual. It is enough people for a labyrinth. I can accommodate more if I need to. There’s little planning- just pick the time and place. At the moment, the labyrinth seems like a better answer to seasonal ritual for me than actual seasonal ritual. It will be interesting to see how this plays out through the year.


Ritual without authority

For some years now I’ve been uneasy about working in an authoritarian sort of way. I’ve been the benevolent dictator for a number of groups in the past, but it’s really hard work and takes a lot of energy and attention. For some time now I’ve been questioning the idea of hierarchy within spiritual practice. Power structures can leave us (me) wanting to be powerful and important, losing sight of what’s spiritual, getting mired in our own ego fragility. I know from experience that full democracy doesn’t work – generally speaking wholly democratic Druid groups get very little done. I’ve been part of one of those.

If there’s going to be a ritual, someone has to be responsible for naming the date and place. This can be done with discussion, but it has to be done. Someone has to call the shot, but it need not be the same person every time. Someone has to let people know. This doesn’t set anyone up to be a future archdruid, it’s just admin, if treated as such.

What happens if we get into ritual space with no plan? Sometimes we may default to familiar ritual forms. We may end up doing something that isn’t much like a ritual. What I’ve found where I’ve been experimenting over the last year, is that people are most likely to push for the bit of ritual they like, and let the rest go. Circles I’ve been in have tended to feature some act of recognition of spirits of place, chanting the awen, something bardic, and a passing of a drink.

For Imbolc, I’ve called a date and time that I already know will suit a lot of people. I’ve named a place we’ve used before and that won’t be too cold and windy. I’ve stated an intention to roll up and make a labyrinth, because that’s what I want to do. If anyone wants to do more conventional bits of Druid ritual around it, that’s welcome. We’ll go to the pub for any bard stuff so that we don’t freeze!

A ritual with no one in charge is an ongoing act of negotiation. Rather than it just rolling out smoothly, we have to keep checking in with each other. Is this ok? Do you want this? Do you want something else? It becomes collaborative, improvised, uncertain. The first few times, there was an assumption that I was running the ritual and would therefore provide lead and direction, and some odd moments as I declined to do that, but we came through something there, and I like what happened. I don’t want to have to do all the planning. I want room to be surprised, too, and inspired, and to be part of something collaborative.

As things stand, I think ritual is going to be a regular feature for me again, after a break of some years. I think it’s going to be far more improvised, with shared ownership, and no one really in charge. I like this prospect a lot.


Seasonal rituals and connecting with nature

Having written recently about being a fair weather Pagan, it struck me that this is a perfectly reasonable way to do things, if the wider context supports it. Doing winter ritual indoors, or quickly, or not at all, causes no issues if rituals are not how you connect with the seasons.

Over the years when I was running ritual, there were some people for whom the eightfold wheel provided the time when they really got out into the trees. People who are overworked, people in very urban environments, people with no confidence about getting into the woods, may find it harder to do so without the support of a ritual group. It’s worth noting that all my ritual locations in that time were green spaces in urban settings, not anything remote.

Sometimes the issue is learning to see nature where you are – in sky and season, urban trees and the many wild things that make their homes around our homes. Nature is in us and with us, for many it’s just a case of learning to recognise it.

I’ve talked recently about having a shifting daily practice. For me that has a seasonal aspect, of necessity, but whatever form it takes, it’s about an ongoing process of engagement. So if you’re doing something every day to tune in to the seasons and the living world around you, this impacts on ritual. It gives you a firmer basis to work from for seasonal ritual and it also means that if you need to do your ritual work indoors, it’s not costing you a sense of connection.

With the right kit (decent shoes and coat for a start) walking in winter is often a good way of connecting, where standing about outside would leave a person far too cold. For people who cannot walk, being immobile outside likely won’t work either. If you can’t get out much, sitting at windows can be very productive. Use the senses that are easiest for you as a basis for making your connections. If you’ve got the resources to challenge yourself – all well and good, but if you haven’t, then take it as a creative challenge instead.

When ritual is something we do to connect with the seasons, we’re more likely to go in with a script based on what we think the season is supposed to be. When ritual is a celebration that comes from knowing how this season is unfolding, we’re in a stronger place to do something meaningful. An indoor ritual based on a body of outdoor experience is thus likely to be deeper than a cold, short outdoor ritual based on what we thought was going on.


What shall we do with the drunken Druid?

This post is prompted by something Halo Quin wrote on her blog about being put off by early experiences of drunken Druid rituals – you can read that here –  https://haloquin.net/2016/09/14/the-trouble-with-druids/ Like Halo, I wouldn’t feel easy being at a ritual where those in charge were drunk. I would also be uncomfortable if someone turned up to my ritual drunk, because risks are increased, and its harder to hold spaces effectively when people are off their faces.

Drunkenness in Druidry…  I’ll start by saying I’m no sort of puritan, and alcohol infused, trance inducing dancing was, at one point in my life, rather important to me. It seems to me to be all about time and place.

I’ve never run a ritual while drunk. For me, being in charge includes a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing – physical and spiritual – of the people who have trusted me enough to come and stand in my circle. Holding a circle takes all of my concentration, alcohol would undermine that, so I do ritual sober. If there’s a toasting goblet doing the rounds at the end when I no longer need to be so totally focused, I will participate enthusiastically, and I have come out of a few rituals a bit merry. But not so merry that I couldn’t safely handle things.

Alcohol doesn’t always mix well with being out in the dark in even slightly wild places. It doesn’t mix with driving (not an issue for me, but many people do drive to and from rituals). A glass raised to the gods isn’t likely to cause you problems, but for most of us there’s quite a large distance between taking a drink, and being drunk. It’s important, with this, to know yourself and know what you can safely do.

There are predators operating within the Pagan community. Alcohol impacts on our ability to make good judgements and our capacity to consent. Being drunk in a ritual you are not running may compromise your ability to make safe choices. Unless you are very sure of the people you are working with, staying free of all substances is in your best interests. If you want to do work that calls for concentration – spells for example – you can’t afford to imbibe anything that will dull your wits.

There are times when being merry, tipsy or full on drunk can be a joy. Times of celebration and friendship. There are times to party, and to go wild, and for anyone who wants it, alcohol can play a helpful part of this. But if you’re going to get falling down drunk, better to do it with a bunch of people you can trust in a place where that isn’t going to cause you, or anyone else, any significant problems. Nature kills careless people. Defining parties and rituals as separate activities means we can have all the things, and people can make informed decisions about what they’re getting into.

Shamanic traditions have a place for intoxication. However, shamanic traditions frame intoxication with ritual, with narratives and people in supporting roles, and safe places in which to take your journey. If you want to use an intoxicant for spiritual purposes, it makes sense to do the research, make the right holding space for it or work with someone more experienced.

Getting drunk tends to amplify things. If we think we’re powerful sorcerers and mighty Druids and we get rat-arsed, the odds are that we will feel that even more keenly. The drink may be talking, but the voice of spirits we’re hearing may not be the spirits we were thinking of connecting with. To be pissed as a newt is not to be in deep connection with your newty spirit guide. It is easy to feel that we need intoxicants to take us out of our normal, banal headspaces, but going this route creates a crutch, and may not be in our interests.

The question, always, is ‘what am I doing this for?’ If you can answer that honestly, and face up to your own reasons and desires, things will likely be fine. If you can’t, then no matter how much apparent virtue or alleged vice there is in your chosen path, your lack of self-honesty will trip you up.


Equality in Druidry

We’re sat in circle. We could equally be stood, and for the purposes of ‘we’ I could mean any gathering of modern Druids. We each come to this circle carrying our lifetime’s worth of experience. Everything we have thought and done, cared about, studied, sweated over. We have all lived. Some of us have lived longer than others, some have studied more than others. Some have deep wisdom, and some would hesitate to claim it.

In this circle, I can look round at the other Druids. I may or may not know them well, but I know they each bring unique qualities, strengths and insights. One of us may be leading, perhaps holding the space, or crafting it as we go. We give that person chance to share their skills, to guide the rest of us. In time, someone else will take charge and lead in a different way – not in conflict or competition, but because it’s a good idea. It’s tiring to lead all the time, it’s good to be able to kick back and just participate, and it’s good to share out the responsibilities. Our circles are that much stronger when we’re all holding them and contributing to them.

Sat in a circle of Druids, I am easily impressed by all that these others brings to the space. Easily awed by the sheer fact of their presence. Not because I am always the smallest, most ignorant, least skilled and least wise Druid in the space – although sometimes, no doubt I am.

This is an important part of what community means to me – an equality of responsibility, a shared ownership and an equal footing. Leadership as a temporary act of service. Respect as a key ingredient. No one jostling for position or asserting authority, no one acting as though they’re the Big Important Druid and everyone else had better take them seriously. Room to laugh at each other and with each other in recognition of our human foibles. Room to be wrong, or to change our minds, or to not have known something. Room enough not to have a big spiritual experience every time. The circle itself is an expression of that equality, no one place being more marked out for superiority than any other.


Community ritual

It’s Saturday at the Rainbow Druid Camp, and that usually means community ritual – an opportunity for everyone at the camp to be an active participant in crafting and participating in a large ritual. It’s quite an opportunity.

The organisation of it is canny, and effective. A way will be found to assign all participants to one of a selection of groups (last year it was where Mars falls in your birth sign, for example).  This prevents cliques, gives everyone an equal footing, and a place to be. Each group is assigned someone to hold it together. An overall theme, or narrative for the ritual is figured out ahead of the day by a group of people who show up because they want to do this, and on the day, each piece of the ritual is planned by the groups who then come together to make it all happen.

From which you can comfortably infer that as a way of getting a lot of people, most of whom are not acquainted,   to all actively make and enact a ritual, I think this is brilliant.

However, I don’t do it. I’m not personally drawn to big rituals. I’ve done some of the circles at Avebury and Stonehenge where there could be a hundred people and more. I go along for the opening and closing rituals at camp, because that feels like the right thing to do, but otherwise, I find really big rituals with lots of people incredibly disorientating. For myself, twelve to twenty four people is about my comfort zone for ritual groups, and I’m happy to work smaller.

My personal preference is for more focused, more intense ritual with people I know and feel connected to. I like circles small enough that a person can sing in them and not be lost, and where I can do the formal bits without having to shout. I like to be able to see other people’s eyes.

There are many very good reasons to do big, public and inclusive rituals that engage and offer celebration and theatre. There are Druids (and Mark Graham who runs Druid Camp is one of them) who are brilliant at this sort of thing and can carry large circles and engage large numbers of people at one go. And there are those of us who need to do other things in other ways. One of the many things I love about Druidry is that this is fine, and there’s room for everything. The small scale deep sharing rituals, the big acts of public drama, the solitary Druids, the people who do not do ritual at all… there is room.