Tag Archives: rituals

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.

Parting Songs

Folk music is resplendent with leaving songs, or parting songs. Some traditional, many written more recently by people who wanted their own way to finish a set or an evening. There’s something rather wonderful about songs whose nature it is to round up a night and create closure.

For me, these finishing songs are important rituals. I’ve also used them at funerals, where I feel they work well indeed. I’d quite like to be sung out with this one…


I’ve sung this one since childhood. This is an especially nice version…


I sang this one at my grandmother’s funeral, which was about this time of year, I realise. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I’m very glad I did it. She had a deep love of shanties and tall ships, it was the only thing to sing her out with. And she used to sing it herself.


(I’m not going anywhere, but I sang a parting song for someone today, and their power is very much on my mind).

Druid rituals

When I first came to Druidry, quite some years ago, I was really excited about doing ritual. I prepared in advance, I learned anything I was going to contribute, I chose offerings with great thought, planned what I would wear, made bread especially and so on and so forth. My own enthusiastic participation gave a sense of importance to ritual, and I got a lot out of doing it, at first.

I was lucky enough to be able to do ritual with a number of groups in different places. What I found was that plenty of the people attending weren’t putting everything they had into ritual. They didn’t learn the words, they brought pre-packaged food to share, they entered ritual space chatting, not in the state of awe and reverence I was trying to cultivate. Some of them chatted once the ritual had begun. Many turned up late.

I learned that it isn’t easy doing ritual as a deeply involved personal practice when the people around you are simply having a nice day out and some social time. For a while, I was resentful of this.

Over the years I softened at the edges, and I started to see how much most people needed that gentle time in the woods or sacred sites or other outside places. They needed the time to catch up with other Pagans – I couldn’t ask people to rock up and do all night vigils, they needed time to be with each other. I came to see ritual as primarily a community activity. My role in it shifted from the quest for personal enlightenment towards a role of serving and facilitating the people who wanted to be there. I brought talking sticks and toasting goblets so that people could share what they needed to say, and be witnessed.

I never got on with solitary rituals. Left to myself, there are other, simpler and more private things I will do. I figured out, eventually, that this is because I thrive on having an audience. Give me a bunch of people in front of whom I can look all spiritual, and I’ll play up to the role. There are plenty of people who want to watch ritual as a form of theatrical action, rather than do their own thing. It’s easy to get grumpy about what other people are doing, or not doing, and not look at your own crap. ‘Look at me, I’m being all spiritual here’ is not the most spiritual of things to be doing, after all.

Missing the equinox

There was, as you probably noticed if you’re at all Pagan, a solar event recently – the equinox. Which one you experienced it as will depend on which hemisphere you are in. I didn’t celebrate it. There were some years, when I was actively involved in ritual groups, when I showed up for equinox rituals. When they form a part of a celebrated wheel of the year, when you’re bringing people together with shared intent, there’s no reason not to celebrate them, but for myself alone, it doesn’t work.

The main reason equinoxes don’t work for me is that they aren’t traditional festivals. There’s no history of celebrating them – not only does Ronald Hutton say so, but having spent most of my life engaging with British folk traditions, I know the only equinox celebrations are modern. For me, this means there’s not much to draw on or work with and that just doesn’t appeal to me very much.

Of the new traditions developing around the equinoxes, I do like Peace One Day. It’s not a religious event, but falls on the 21st of September each year as an opportunity to celebrate what peace there is, and dedicate to crafting peace in the world. For a Druid, this is an attractive notion to work with, and some years I’ve picked up on Peace One Day.

This last week has had rather too much conflict in it for my tastes. Seeking peace is of course no guarantee of avoiding conflict. I could resolve it by doing what is wanted of me rather than what I think is right – but I do not believe that peace bought at that price is worth having. I could seek peace by stepping away entirely from the conflict – that probably wouldn’t solve anything, merely improve my comfort. I reserve the right to do that if it gets too much, because my personal peace is a consideration, even if it’s not the whole story. Sometimes, the withdrawal of energy from a situation is the best way to bring about peace – it’s hard to have an argument when there’s no one else in the room, and other people’s rage can sometimes simmer down into something more workable if you give them the space to do that.

This weekend brings a local, seasonal activity that I’m much more drawn to than the equinox. The Stroud Five Valleys walk is about 21 miles around the town, up hills, down hills, through some stunning countryside. Some 7000 people will walk it, in whole or in part, raising money for meningitis charities. Last year we did the whole thing, and struggled to finish it. Over the last year the three of us in my household have worked hard to improve fitness, stamina and long distance walking capacity. We’ve improved our kit, and refined and reduced what we carry. Not having been well this week (in no small part due to the lack of peace) and having had a late night yesterday for a book launch event (unfortunate timing) it remains to be seen how far we will get tomorrow. In the meantime, rest and carbohydrate are the order of the day.

I may not be equal to the whole walk this year. That’s ok. That’s how it goes sometimes. We don’t always get what we want, and I can’t help but feel a little recognition of this would be a great help towards increasing the amount of peace in the world. If we’re not convinced we have to have everything we want at the moment we want it, there’s more room for negotiation, for compromise and co-operation.

Ritual location

If you’re doing rituals outside, there are a number of considerations. You need to be able to access the land – that means public spaces or a person you can ask. You need to consider how people are going to get to and from your ritual, especially those who are less mobile, access to toilets (or bushes!) and so forth.

It can be noisy outside – traffic noise, wind, and water can drown out attempts at normal ritual. This is one of the great advantages to working in a place surrounded by trees. If you are in a wood, or a clearing, trees act as a barrier, reducing the amount of sound that can reach you. If the wind is so strong that the sounds of leaves could drown you out… it is better to go home because that kind of wind can also bring trees down.

This assumes that you seek out a place where you can undertake the usual form of ritual. Historically this is what I’ve tended to do – think about the kinds of rituals I want to do, and then sought a space which would work for that.

Finding a space that you want to work with, but which does not lend itself to ritual is a whole other issue. There’s one I’m enamoured of which, given the tiny space and the water sound, could only accommodate a few people doing totally non-verbal ritual. I’ve worked on the shore, where there was plenty of room, but too many rocks for a circle and too much sound for speech. At Avebury, the circle is too big to use and has cars going through it, and a lot of background noise from those and the wind – it might be popular, but it’s a hard place for a regular ritual.

I wrote about my favourite hill yesterday, on which there is a barrow – it’s a space that absolutely calls to me, and is entirely unsuitable for normal ritual. The calling is strong enough that it has become necessary to find other ways of showing up.

I wonder what we’re doing if the need to hang on to our habits of ritual is more important than the space we’re working in. Not all spaces suit ritual as we tend to do it, but that shouldn’t limit us to only showing up places where we can reliably bring musical instruments and light a candle. Sticking with standard approaches to rituals holds us in the safest, tamest, most predictable spaces, all too often.

Perhaps rather than looking for places to do ritual, we should be looking for more innovative approaches to ritual that let us engage with more places.

Welcome to our circle

In Druid rituals, and other Pagan gatherings, we tend to start by inviting other beings in. The powers of the four directions, the three worlds, the spirits of place, ancestors, perhaps our gods. “Hail and welcome” we call out in cheerful unison. I gather other traditions will summon the guardians of the watchtowers and call to other things, welcoming them in or demanding their presence.
I am increasingly uneasy about this.

The elements exist. Earth, air, fire and water are present in this world in any habitable place where you might realistically try and have a ritual. Spirits of place, by their very nature are that which exists in a place. Our ancestors we bring with us, in our DNA. None of these things are absent when we start a ritual. Maybe the gods are absent, but that’s a whole other conversation about the nature of deity that I’d like to skip over for now.

When we walk into a space to do ritual, everything else is already there. We are the incomers. We are the oblivious ones who need to open our awareness, to actually think about the earth beneath our feet and the sky above our heads. What we do when we call to the spirits of place is not, in any real sense, invite them to join us. They were there already. It is their place. What we actually need to be doing, is opening ourselves to being more aware of everything that is not us, and that is not part of our more mundane concerns.

Nature is always with us, in the air we breathe, the materials we use. No matter how deeply we go into human constructs, every last thing humans make, has been constructed from the natural world. We are never away from nature. What we frequently are, is oblivious to it. Therefore when we enter a ritual space, asking nature to show up is utterly ridiculous. What we need to be doing is shifting our own perceptions, and to do that, we need a completely different ritual language.

Modern Paganism has, to a large extent, grown out of magical organisations where the point was very much to try and conjure and control. We’re inherited habits of language and speech from those traditions, and we use them without really looking at what they mean, how they position us in relation to the natural world, and whether they are of much use.

You do not need to summon the spirits of the earth. The earth is there, underneath you, every step of the way. All you need to do is become aware of it. The air is with you, in every breath drawn. The fire of the sun drives all life upon this earth. There is water in your own body, and usually in everything around you, too. These things exist, they do not need summoning. If you postulate ‘spirits of the earth’ as something not universally present in the earth but coming from ‘away’ and needing raising up, make sure at least that you understand how your cosmology works, and why you think the important bits of nature are somewhere else and not immediately available to you. I am suspicious of that thought form, too, it encourages us not to see this world as inherently magical, inherently sacred, but to imagine all spiritual stuff is ‘away’.

Not recognising what is here, in this earth, this air, underpins a lot of human abuses. We need to take the land beneath our feet a lot more seriously as a species, and we would benefit from doing that in our rituals, too.

Druid authority and ownership

On facebook a couple of days back, a chap remarked that a group we were in was not moderated and it was down to individuals using it. This made me realise that some awareness raising might be in order. Pretty much every space you encounter as a Pagan or Druid, online and in the real world, is owned by someone. Often there are layers of ownership with various different degrees of authority and responsibility associated with them.

Take this blog. I have the power to remove comments, and I can probably block people from making comments too. However, wordpress owns the site, not me, and they have the right to boot me if I do something that breaks their terms and conditions, or I do anything more generally illegal. Then wordpress are buying their website space from someone to whom they will be answerable, and that could impact on me in ways I have no power over.

Every facebook group has admins, and that’s true of any other space online. Someone has set it up, has control of it and can, at least in theory, moderate, ban, report and otherwise wield authority. Choosing not to use the power you have does not make it cease to exist. Every online space is managed by someone, and owned by a company who have authority over the space-manager, and probably owned again by the website host.

Offline you’ll find much the same thing. Every group, moot, grove, event, is run by someone. Not knowing who they are doesn’t mean they aren’t there. That person probably won’t own the space, so again there’s that second layer of authority – the pub landlord for the moot, the local council for the public land you do your rituals on and so forth.
There is nowhere Pagans get together that is not owned and in theory, managed. Some facilitators choose to be more active than others, some are better at it than others. In the best space, you don’t notice the manifestations of authority because they are good enough to be smoothly invisible.

Now, most of the time, the people who look after Pagan spaces – hold those facebook groups and blogs, run the moots and the rituals, are not paid. They put in their own time, money and energy, for the pleasure of making a thing go. I think this is worth bearing in mind. Any time you get into a public Pagan space, you are stepping into something that someone has made, put their energy into, and cares about. Think of it as walking into their garden, or their living room, if it helps. None of us would walk into someone’s house and deliberately crap on the floor, I assume, but we do it all the time in virtual spaces and I’ve seen a fair bit of it in actual ones (not literally, I hasten to add!).

We take the organisers for granted. We assume we have a right to demand things of them and that we are entitled to the service they provide, and so if we don’t think it’s up to scratch we hassle them. Remember these are unpaid volunteers, usually, and doing it for love. It is a different scenario when you are paying and someone is profiting, but it’s very easy to tell if you are paying and what you are paying for. Mostly you are paying for the venue hire. When we go into someone else’s space (and unless you are the one with the responsibility, it will be someone else’s space) and we are rude, inconsiderate, aggressive and so forth, we are not being fair to the person whose space it is. Now, maybe someone else was already being rude and aggressive, but, I go back to the pooing on the floor metaphor. The answer to someone taking a dump is not to take a retaliatory dump yourself. It just doesn’t work.

Every space, potentially, is sacred to someone. Every space, potentially, represents an act of love, service and devotion. That deserves respect, always. Not every space works. Not every space is free from problems. The question is, do we choose to trek in more muck, or do we offer to bring a bucket and mop and get our hands dirty actually putting things right again?

If you don’t support the people who run things, eventually they burn out, becoming so depressed and demoralised that they quit, and the space usually vanishes at that point. A little care of the people who are working on your behalf goes a long way, and makes more good things possible. What you do as a visiting individual really does matter.

Celidh Druid, Disco Druid

Dancing can be an act of prayer, ritual, meditation or magic. Shared dancing reinforces bonds of community and celebrates rites of passage. It can also be part of how we get to those rites of passage. More in the sense of helping people pair up and reproduce than in the sense of killing people. Thinking about dancing can be useful for thinking about ritual, because there are similarities of function and implication. Ritual too can be full of prayer, meditation and magic, can reinforce community, celebrate rites of passage and whatnot.

The celidh is a structured form of community dance where people are helped into groups or pairs if needs be, and told the steps. A few dances will give you most of the basic steps, it’s easy to get the hang of. The structure facilitates contact, reduces awkwardness and self consciousness, enables people with little natural talent to dance, and happily includes people of all ages.

The disco, on the other hand, gives you far more scope for innovation. You don’t have to dance with anyone, and no one is telling you what to do. On the downside, they can be very slow to get started, everyone too self conscious to be the first person up, the only one strutting their stuff. It’s very easy in fact to go to a disco and never dance – no one will be encouraging you in the same way. It’s harder to ask for a dance partner in that scenario too, while the structure of the celidh makes it easy.

Both, of course, have their pluses and minuses. The more formal structure there is, the less room you have for personal innovation. Except, once you get good at celidh dancing, once you know the steps and have confidence, you find there is a lot of room to develop your own style, express yourself creatively and so forth. You can still choose how you dance.

Druid ritual is more like a celidh than a disco – which has little to do with the possible music preferences of druids. There is a fair bit of structure and being told what to do. The steps become familiar, but different rituals, like different dances, will have their own shapes. You don’t really need to know what you’re doing to participate and it’s easy to learn by doing. But how rigid do we want the frame? Do we need a script? Do we need bits of ritual that will dependably be the same, everywhere? How much familiarity do we want or need, and how much need do we have for innovation?

It’s rare to have a ritual circle where all the participants have similar levels of experience. If a Druid ritual is open (as many are) then the capacity to embrace a participant who has never done it before, is vital. That means you need someone calling out the steps. If you leave the inexperienced to just improvise, they may be paralysed by self consciousness, or just have no idea what to do and thus feel excluded. But on the flip side, I find too much structure stiffling. I hate having a script. The wilder and more improvised a ritual is, the more I tend to enjoy it, especially if I’m working with people who can just go for it. I suppose, by my own metaphor, that makes me more of a disco druid. (She who lives by the metaphor, dies by the metaphor…)

Of course it’s all about balance. It’s about knowing the nature of your ritual group, or knowing enough to be able to guess what will be called for (as with open rituals). Even in the most carefully planned and structured ritual, it’s possible to leave some space for in the moment creativity. I think it’s preferable to do that, it makes it possible to bring in the energy and inspiration of the moment. And even in the most structured and scripted of rituals, there is still room to perfect your art and find your own way of dancing.

And, just for the record, it was a celidh last night that prompted this, not a disco.

Walking at Avebury

I didn’t blog yesterday because I spent an amazing day at Avebury. I’ve probably been there eight or nine times before, as a visitor, and for Druid rituals. I caught the last few rituals Emma Restall Orr undertook there, and through those met many of the wonderful Druid Network folk.

Tom, being American, had not previously encountered standing stones, so being able to take him into that space was a joy. For those not familiar with the site, Avebury is about 6000 years old, has a magnificent henge earthwork, and would have had one large stone circle with smaller circles inside it. There were avenues coming off, stones from which remain, and many other sites surround it – round barrows, other stone circles, Silbury Hill, the Kennet long barrow, and Stonehenge is in viable striking distance. It’s too big a space, I think, for one big ritual circle, you’d never hear each other over the wind! Different areas of the circle have distinctly different atmospheres, and lend themselves to different sorts of work. There’s also a lot of scope for walking – outside the monument, around the henge and around the stones.

Unlike most ancient sites, Avebury has a village in it, and roads running through it (which gives you a sense of the scale). You can’t experience the circle as a circle, which is odd. But it’s what we’ve got, and the houses have been there for a very long time. I wonder if people always lived here. It’s a place that has a people-friendly quality, it’s comfortable to picnic and sunbathe amongst the stones, and I don’t find the presence of noisy, enthusiastic children in any way out of kilter with the atmosphere. Avebury, for me, has never felt like a place for solemn and secret things. It’s a celebratory place, a community place, and welcoming. Which is as well because it gets hordes of pagans and tourists visiting it.

One of the things I’ve never been able to do before is explore the surrounding area on foot. All sites exist in a context of landscape, and frequently of other sites or areas of habitation as well. Most of our ancient ancestors would have been on foot, so walking between ancient places is an amazing way of communing with the space and the ancestors who worked, lived and worshipped in it. The first thing we did was avoid going by car through the site – no way to make a first encounter. Tom and I walked in together, which was breathtaking. It’s a place with a lot of memories, and ghosts for me, I welled up on the way in, it was painful walking into some of those recollections, but also healing to go back to that. I remembered especially Vicki Williams, whose beautiful song ‘Timeless Land’ was the visiting Avebury anthem for years. It brought back so keenly my grief over her death. I remembered other friendships that had decayed with time, and fleeting connections that I never had chance to explore. There is never scope to do everything.

We walked the inside of the circle (as best you can) and the henge itself – although some of it was closed to allow the grass to re-grow. It’s seldom possible to do the whole thing. Then we followed one of the avenues out, walked over a hill to look at Silbury, and climbed the next hill to the long barrow – I’d not been there before, but the cool and gloom was gorgeous after the sun. Going into old graves is something I find very moving and it ought to get a blog at some point. I could have stayed for hours, but having accepted a lift, that wasn’t an option. We walked back, watching the shifts in perspective, rolling hills hiding and revealing different aspects of the space.

It was one of those experiences where it is hard to pin down in words what it did to me. The sense of connection and involvement with landscape, was deep and personal. It took me further into communion with the space than organised ritual has. I’m increasingly finding that walking is my preferred ritual form. Walking the land, the lines, the circles, the contours, meditating, being in the space, learning, feeling, sharing ideas. It’s only something that would work for very small groups, and is lovely as ritual for two.

Today I am tired, and much of my head is somewhere else. There was so much richness of inspiration yesterday, it will take a while for all of it to filter through properly.

It’s easy to feel like a druid in Avebury, even without the drumming and pageantry of a big gathering. It’s easy to walk those hills and feel connected to the land and the ancestors. At the moment I’m lucky because I am living somewhere that is also beautiful and full of ancestral resonance, but many places aren’t. It’s good to go somewhere that nourishes the soul, but also important to bring that energy back to the places that need it, and to ponder ways of making all space sacred and inspiring in the same way. Not something I can hope to do on my own.

Ritual Language

Yesterday, Sorita d’Este raised the issue of how we use and understand ritual language. How important is it to know where the words come from and what they mean? I think this is a big issue for Druidry, so wanted to take some time to reflect upon it.

When I started exploring druidry, I knew very little about it. I started by attending rituals, where I was hearing ritual prayers with no idea of their source. I was educated enough to know that anything truly ancient would have been through the hands of a few translators, at the least, and that I would not be getting ancient Druidry in the raw. However, beyond that, I knew nothing whatsoever about druid history. I started reading around, finding conflicting ideas, but eventually I got some handle on what druid history there is, and some sense of where ritual words come from.

It would, however, be very easy to turn up casually to rituals, have no sense of where the language comes from, believe you are interacting with ancient druidry and continue accordingly. I think mostly what this means is that if we run ritual we have some responsibility for making sure that those attending know what’s going on, in terms of the source of words and content. I feel increasingly that rooting inspiration in individual humans is also important: it makes clear that we have had a hand in it, that it is not pure divine inspiration. There’s a whole other blog there waiting to happen.

But what about meaning? If we share the words of Iolo Morganwg, or some unnamed Mediaeval author, can we know what they meant? Can we hope to understand the significance of the words at the time of their being put together? I think we can’t. In fact I’d go further and say that we cannot understand what the words meant to any author, living or dead. I write things, and when I come back to them weeks, or months later, I don’t always know what I meant at the time, and as life changes, my understanding of my own words can change. Original meaning is probably a myth and unlikely to be useful.

What we do need, absolutely, is our own understanding of what the words mean. One of the effects of ritual repetition is the ease with which the words turn into ‘te tum te tum te tum te tum’ with about the same level of emotional resonance. Whatever words you are using, and wherever they came from, it pays to think about them. Contemplate their significance. Work out what they mean to you. Say them with an awareness of that meaning and they will become powerful.

One of the reasons I like working without scripts and formal language is that it reduces the risk of just rolling out the stock phrases, without consideration. When words have to be found in the moment we go that bit further in trying to make sense, and to reach after meaning and significance.  It is harder work, but worth it, I think. Ritual forms give a good framework, and familiarity with standard ways of calling for peace or to the quarters can be a great help, but having that freedom to think and create in the moment keeps us away from the te tum te tum te tum problem.