Samhain 2012

I haven’t been posting much here lately (I’ve been busy with other druidy things, I swear!), but I will say that our grove had a lovely Samhain celebration tonight. I love the dark half of the year rituals when it’s cold and afterward everyone huddles around the fire chatting and eating home-cooked food. I loved our ancestor altar tonight, set aside in a pavilion away from the ritual area, hung with veils of tulle and lit with dozens of candles. I also love it when the tulle catches on fire and I have to bound across the pavilion saying, “Sorry, but FIRE! FIRE!” and then we team up to put out the fire–and then we move on. I love when everyone does their best and is focused and supportive of everyone else. I love it when we all wear our cloaks. I love it when everyone takes a semi-negative omen seriously and pulls together to make things right with the Kindred. I love it when we sing with gusto, if not well. I love it when we giggle over the waters of life because it’s just so marvelous that we’re receiving the blessing–and it helps that the alcohol warms us up after we’ve been shivering for 45 minutes! I love it when birds or bugs start singing and we all catch each others’ eyes and grin. I even love it when the fireworks go off at the stadium when ritual falls on game nights, because the fireworks always seem perfectly timed.

I love it when it’s just so real, and I come home so aglow that it takes me hours to fall asleep.

I love being a druid.


Sustainable Offerings

The debate recently went round the ADF e-mail lists about the practice of offering silver to the well. Is it good, because it was traditional, and honoring tradition is respectful? Is it bad, because even the tiniest chemical alteration from the introduction of silver to a body of water may alter the biochemistry of the environment?

Well, I completely missed the boat on that argument (again), given that it happened almost three weeks ago. I am, dear readers, that busy. Forgive me. While one of these days I’d like to talk about the biochemistry of silver in water and the sustainability of using silver generally, today I’m after something a little more nebulous.

What, I ask, is in an offering?

I’ve started doing twice-daily devotionals, and the offerings are—literally—piling up. I don’t feel right performing ritual without making offerings (OCD, much, Kristin?), so I find myself making dry offerings of barley, oats, herbs, and cornmeal quite regularly. But, as they say, all beings enjoy variety, so I like to throw beer, whiskey, wine, and milk in there as well.

The trouble is, though, that those things can’t just sit in my offering bowl the same way grains and herbs do—they ruin the surface of the bowl, and they attract pests. While I try to be friendly to the minuscule invaders of my home, encouraging the drain flies is simply unacceptable.

I can’t run the offerings out to the woods near my apartment after every devotional, either. I’m usually in my pajamas and either falling into bed or scampering off to work immediately after my mini-rituals. My houseplants can only take so many alcoholic offerings, and I don’t think the downstairs neighbors appreciate it when I chuck offerings off the balcony.

And I just don’t feel right about putting offerings in the trash. It seems disrespectful, somehow, to put in the garbage something I offered to the Kindred… and anything I put in the garbage is contributing to the land use and waste-disposal issues troubling our communities. But is putting out wine-soaked barley good for the environment, either? It can’t be doing my local bird-life any good.

In the end, offerings are loaded with the following factors:

  1. A desire to please the beings receiving the offerings (through variety, immediacy, etc.).
  2. A need to make my offerings sustainable, in all meanings of the term.
  3. A question of what is actually “happening” to the physical offerings I make to non-physical entities.

So what’s a practical pagan to do?

[Perhaps I should create a series of blog posts entitled “Practical Paganism.” I rather like this idea, actually.]

Someone once told me that the magic of sacrifice comes from the moment of sacrifice, not from the sacrificed object itself. The value is in the act of giving, not in the gift itself. But what does that mean, exactly?

Well, I know the gods aren’t enjoying a bowl of oatmeal at my bedroom altar while I sleep—despite our insistence on literal gift-giving, the act is symbolic all the same. I would never switch to making “symbolic” gestures and calling my intentions good enough, though, because that’s far too easy. Think of it in literal terms: If, every time you went to a friend’s house and she said she “wished” she could offer you a beer, you wouldn’t really appreciate it, would you? Especially if, on that promise of a future beer, you kept giving her beers of your own?

Hypothetical beers aside, we must actual commit to giving to the Beings we love—that’s where the magic of the *ghosti relationship really happens. We must actually give if we expect to receive: it’s only polite, after all.

I see a few solutions:

  1. MAKE SUSTAINABLE OFFERINGS. It may seem a little too efficient to offer gifts pleasing to both ancestors AND living birds, but that option is far better than waste. Choose to give birdseed to the nature spirits,  beautiful stones you find on the ground or plain clear water to the deities—while variety is the spice of life, it’s possible to rotate between a variety of sustainable offerings.
  2. OFFER NON-PHYSICAL GIFTS. Write a poem. Do a dance. Sing a song. Don’t always do it spontaneously and call it a gift (lest you run the risk of appearing to the gods as the goofy three-year-old who thinks his aunt wants to see him perform a “choreographed” dance: funny, perhaps, but not exactly mutually beneficial). Instead, write, compose, and perform true praise offerings.
  3. DISPOSE OF OFFERINGS IN CREATIVE WAYS. Incense isn’t necessarily the best for your lungs or the environment, but it does burn away, and if you choose locally-made, eco-friendly incense, it’s burns away semi-cleanly. Compost the remains: ash works in compost (often), as do a variety of foods and drinks. Don’t just throw out food and call it an offering. Instead, bury it, compost it, or make it useful to the environment. If the act of giving is the sacred moment, this won’t count as “taking the gift away”: it’s not quite the same as donating offered silver or money, because the only entity that benefits is the Earth herself.
  4. MAKE PERMANENT OFFERINGS. (This one’s a little fuzzier, and some may disagree with me.) Offer time and energy into making representations of your patron deities or the Kindred: carve a stone, make a doll, write a song! Be mindful of your crafting time, of course, and make sure that you truly offer time and service to the Being in question. Even if you “benefit” from having these permanent offerings, that’s still time you can’t take back, and (hopefully) you’ve made something pleasing to the Kindred

What other ways can you think of for making offerings sustainable?


The Paradox of Play in Ritual

Yup, channeling Drawing Down the Moon there.

Our grove is having an ongoing discussion about focus in ritual and the effect of silliness on workings, energy, and ritual results.

We have (almost) seven full members of the grove, and we’re all pretty friendly. We laugh a lot in ritual, get sidetracked over little jokes, and generally have a good time. It’s been brought to our attention that, at times, we dispel any energy we raise because we get drawn onto tangents. We are, in short, unfocused on the work at hand.

That’s one opinion, anyway. Others feel that our silliness is part of our charm: our rituals have a fun flavor because that’s just who we are. Yes, we’re doing serious work, but it’s okay to be a little silly about it. This is our only time together, eight days a year, and part of the magic is spending time together.

So where do I fall in this discussion?

I’m probably responsible for 30% of the goofing off in ritual. I acknowledge that, but I’m not okay with it. I’m also not okay with how unfocused I’ve been getting. It’s not excusable, to my mind, but it is indisputably my fault. As a senior grove member said, only the individual is responsible for his or her level of focus: no one can distract you but yourself.

That’s not the real trouble, though. I’ve started wondering about the level of performance and stunt I’m bringing to ritual.

I’m becoming infamous for doing off-the-wall things: I dressed as a maenad to invoke Bacchus and initiated my “converts” to his “mystery” by feeding them honey from a turkey baster painted to look like a phallus. I portrayed the Earth Mother, partially disrobed, and had people write on my body with markers. I was one of three to perform a masked Green Man dance to an XTC song. I crack jokes and am not afraid to get a little crazy.

I have no idea how any of this happened. I’m a shy person and I have terrible stage fright. On one level, I’m proud of my ritual-related theatrics because I’m doing my very best work for the Kindreds. Part of my sacrifice to them is stepping outside of my comfort zone.

How much is too much, though? I did the baster-phallus when calling Bacchus for bardic inspiration, and part of my plan was to laugh people out of their comfort zone. But our recent grove discussions, and my reading of Isaac Bonewits’s Neopagan Rites has me wondering if my stunts might be a little inappropriate.

Bonewits writes,

How does humor fit into all this? Very carefully. I have seen humor used in ceremonies with positive results on several occasions, both as theatrical inserts in large-scale liturgies, and as quiet quips to bring back a congregation’s focus after a minor disruption of the mana flow. I’ve also seen it used, often deliberately, to drain the power from rituals that are getting to heavy for the jesters (sometimes the clergy themselves!) to handle. Humor is a two-edged blade that should be handled with the greatest of care, or left out entirely.

Furthermore, what if this performance is just for me, a selfish act meant to show just how devoted and creative I am? Is my performance pleasing to the deities, or is it only pleasing to me and my audience? Are our rituals just becoming theatrical productions, far disconnected from the purpose of the High Days?

There’s another upsetting aspect to it, and one I have to face as I advance in my studies: my performances must not just be powerful for me, they must also be powerful for my audience. Though we, as a grove, are arguably doing the rituals for ourselves and for the Kindreds, we’re also putting on public rituals. As such, we are priests and priestesses, liturgists, and congregation all at once, and we have a responsibility to raise energy for the workings. Are we shirking our responsibility by saying that we’re just doing this for us and that if it’s satisfying for us, it must be good work?

That’s a lot of big questions for one little blog post. As so many things do, though, the questions get back to the nature of sacrifice. I am giving to the deities my worship, my love, and my performance, in theory, but it does seem that we’re constantly trying to top ourselves with what we do in ritual. I’ve gotten so distracted with thinking, “What am I going to do for the grove?” that I don’t often think, “What am I going to do for the Kindreds?” And it shouldn’t be about us: it should be about those we’re honoring.

It may be time for me to get back to Druidism 101, to why we make sacrifice and what is sacrifice. And the only way to do that, I believe, is to do the work. Perhaps my discomfort with what I’ve been doing is some sort of sign that what I’m doing isn’t right. If I can’t trust my intuition to tell me about my relationship with the Kindreds, what can I trust?

What do you think, readers? What role should play have in ritual? How do you know if the work you’re doing is the right work? What makes effective sacrifice?

Samhain 2011

Well, it’s taken me awhile, but I’m finally writing up our Samhain ritual!

Black Bear Grove celebrated Samhain on November 5 — I did my own personal Samhain ritual the night of October 31. I want to write about the grove ritual, though. It was, as I’m sure you readers are becoming accustomed to hearing, amazing.

I will try–for the sake of my eventual DP documentation reviewers–not to give a lengthy blow-by-blow. I really do want to write up every bit, though! 🙂 The deities of the occasion were Donn and the Morrigan, the Gatekeeper was Manannan Mac Lir, and the Bardic Inspiration was Brighid. Seven people attended, including myself.

For bardic inspiration, a friend of the grove played a song and read some poetry. To attune the grove, a senior druid had us join hands and sing, one by one, around the circle, “I am, you are, we are one.” That part was especially beautiful.

For my part, I called Manannan as the Gatekeeper. (The druid in charge offered to let me have that role — we share Manannan as a patron, so I was touched that I got to call him.) I led the group in a meditation, asking them to imagine themselves on a misty seashore, facing west. I asked them to focus on the light of a loved one they have lost, to feel that person’s (or animal’s!) presence across the veils. I then had everyone pour a bit of saltwater, simultaneously representing their tears of grief and the waters of the ocean, into the well, and speak the name of their loved one. After that, I called Manannan and we sang him across the ocean with the Manannan Chant from the ADF website.

For the Morrigan, a friend of the grove led us in a meditation on the Great Queen and her power as warrior. She had us call up phantom armor, and she drew war paint–unique for each of us–on our faces. She also did an interesting bit where she dedicated her heart’s blood to the Morrigan (using wine poured over her hands), and washed it away, symbolic of the Morrigan’s role in death and rebirth. As i said in my post about the Morrigan, a crow called all through the working and ended up in our World Tree. I felt so called by the Morrigan that I made this doll this week. (She’s next to a soda can to give a sense of scale — tiny!)

As the grove working, we had the usual ancestor altar with personal offerings and candles lit for loved ones. I won’t go into that too much because I think it was very personal, powerful, and private for us as a grove. The druid in charge then led us in a detailed omen for the year going forward, as well as looking back at the previous year–and we received great omens.

I’m going to branch out a little bit this time and offer an opinion on why the last two rituals were so powerful and so beautiful. We’ve had a dedicated core group of people, and with each ritual everyone has stepped up and really branched out in their workings. No longer are we all just making speeches. Now everyone is drawing the others into an active role in ritual and calling the deities to work with us in a very real way. It creates a pervasive and affecting sense of magic and harmony, both within the grove and reaching out to the numinous beings.

After the ritual, the senior druid present asked me to officially join the grove. I said yes. 🙂

Fall Equinox 2011

Or, as we celebrated it, Vinalia Rustica — slightly belated.

I’ve been MIA for awhile, I realize. My grandmother passed away the last week of August — and the very same week, my fiance’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. A funeral and then a week with my future in-laws to help them out post-mastectomy, followed by a sinus infection and bronchitis, and, well, I haven’t done much of anything for awhile.

Anyway, I did make it out last Saturday (September 17) for the Black Bear Grove fall equinox celebration. I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again, but I’ve enjoyed each celebration with this grove more than the last one.

We had tentatively planned to celebrate an Etruscan hearth culture (How cool would that be?), but upon learning that a true ADF priest would be attending our rite, we opted to celebrate the Roman early harvest/wine festival Vinalia Rustica, which honored Jupiter and Venus. Those were the deities of the occasion, with Pomona as Earth Mother, Bacchus as Bardic Inspiration, and Silvanus as Gatekeeper.

I’m going to skip the blow-by-blow this time in favor of describing a few parts of the ritual in detail.

For my part, I invited Bacchus. Our druid in charge really wanted to make a good impression on the visiting ADF priest, so she asked us to go all out in our roles… I did. I dressed as a maenad and literally shouted when calling Bacchus. This is unusual for me, because I’m typically petrified with stage fright, and I had written no words prior to the ritual. I gave myself to the moment. I called Bacchus, asking him why he had led his devoted follower to this strange wood, to these strange Romans who were most oddly dressed. I told him they needed bardic inspiration, and then, at his behest, I “initiated” them into the cult of Bacchus by showing them the mystery.

The mystery was a turkey baster painted as a phallus and filled with honey. (Oh yes I did.) “May your tongue be honeyed,” I said, and gave them all a drop of honey. “And may your words flow like wine.” I gave them a cup of wine to wash down the honey. I also gave them a circus animal cookie to rend with their teeth in lieu of rending a living animal (or human!) as a true maenad would.

It went over quite well. I got a few laughs and loosened everyone up, which was the goal after all. Bardic inspiration is, in part, being relaxed and letting the magic of the ritual flow through you. I’m not sure the ADF priest approved, but my grovemates did, and that’s what matters.

I also want to discuss the group working, which was truly something else. The druid in charge for this ritual is… well, she’s special. I’ll say that. A  truly remarkable person. She’s about eight months pregnant, and she invoked the Earth Mother. I helped her get set up on a blanket under a cliff at the site, and she sat up there and called us each to her individually. As Earth Mother, she presented us each with a grape and reminded us that though the seasons change and the darkness comes, we now harvest the fruit of our efforts, and the warm riches of the summer will sustain us through the winter. She had us each draw a stone as a personal omen, which we then kept as a gift from the Earth Mother.

Mine was blue lace agate, a stone of tranquility, protection, and spiritual communication.

This ritual was utterly uplifting.

About 14 people attended, which is huge for a smallish grove. We had a lot of visitor participation, as well, which is always heartening.

In short, I feel blessed this harvest season. And really excited for Samhain.

Beetles, Bugs, and Toads

Or… a Summer Solstice celebration!

I celebrated with Black Bear Grove on Saturday and had a lovely, wonderful time. I feel very grateful to have found a grove where I feel welcome and comfortable. I am painfully shy by nature, even after years of working as a newspaper reporter, so I have a hard time feeling at home with a group of semi-strangers.

Anyway. For the celebration itself, we did an ADF-style ritual in a Norse hearth culture. The deities of the day were Mani (the moon god) and Sol (sun goddess). The Earth Mother was Nerthus, who was covered throughout the ritual and set sail on the lake after we were through. The Gatekeeper was Hermod, and the god called for bardic inspiration was Bragi.

For our group working, we danced the sun on her way with a free form dance around the fire, stopping after each repetition of a chant to represent the solstices. Here is the chant:

Sun is the shield of the clouds
Shining ray, destroyer of ice
Sun is the light of the world
Burn away the dark, burn away the dark.

The omens were  Gebo (gift), from the ancestors; Mannaz (mankind), from the nature spirit; and Ingwaz (fertility) from the deities. The seer for the day interpreted these as an excellent omen: Our sacrifices were accepted, the kindred are communicating with us, and we will see a good harvest from what we have sown in the spring.

I felt that this ritual went much more smoothly (at least for me) than the Beltane ritual did. I felt more confident and more comfortable, and it was so well-organized that it was almost seamless. Well done to the Druid in Charge.

For myself, I was almost painfully nervous. I volunteered to call Mani, and wrote and memorized what I would say ahead of time, but I have such terrible stage fright that my knees were trembling before my part came. But in spite of my nerves, all was well. I spoke my part smoothly and confidently.

I’m starting to really feel at home. A grove member gave me a wonderful compliment before we parted ways, and I’m starting to feel like a part of the gang. I feel blessed.

And as for the beetles, bugs, and toads? A massive black beetle landed on my shoulder during the ritual. I am normally terrified of creepy-crawlies (I know, I know, talk about girly, but I can’t help it), but I swallowed my girlish screams and put him on a log nearby where he was oooh-ed and ahhh-ed over by the less bug-frightened grovies. There were mosquitoes galore, as my ankles attest today, tiny ticks, which I escaped, and many tiny toads smaller than my fingernail that we all cooed over. The nature spirits were most definitely present.

Beltane 2011

Note: the following write-up is heinously long and poorly written. That said, it’s been sitting in my drafts folder for far too long, and it’s time to push it out. I’ll fix the writing later. It’s time to stop procrastinating the DP documentation.

I attended my first full grove ADF ritual on Saturday, May 7.

Six or seven of us gathered deep in the woods — there’s a funny story to finding the spot that I’ll save for later. After a quick pre-ritual briefing and individual private grounding/meditation in the woods, one of the full grove members called us to the altar space with a horn–literally, a horn made of horn. Another grove member played the flute as we processed through the woods and around a little pond to the altar. The ritual leader anointed us all with oil as we entered the sacred space.

The sacred space was beautiful. Somehow the grovemembers had found a campsite in a nearby wilderness that had a clearing near the road for revels and, hidden from the road, another clearing and a tiny pond! The pond was our well, the sacred tree was the slim tree that acted as our maypole, and they’d built a bonfire before the altar. Though it rained all morning, the clouds parted for our ritual, and the rain began again after revels were concluded.

A grove regular made an offering of beer to the outsiders, and then the ritual leader led us in a chant for the grove attunement.

Next up? Honoring the Earth Mother, spoken by yours truly. The grove regular scheduled to do it couldn’t make it, so I volunteered. During the meditation time, I made up and memorized a very nice little speech, then promptly forgot it when all eyes were on me. I spoke from the heart, though, even if I didn’t speak all that eloquently. I made an offering of barley and lit a stick of incense.

The ritual leader then invited Brigid for Bardic Inspiration and said the statement of purpose. The three full grove members created the sacred center. Our senior druid invited the spirit of the Black Bear, the grove’s patron animal spirit, to act as Gatekeeper. A grove regular called the ancestors, a visitor called the nature spirits, and the senior druid called the deities.

That brought us to the deities of the occasion. One grove member invited Cernunnos and the senior druid invited Aine. These two were so impressive — they’d either memorized what they said before or are just better natural speakers than I, which wouldn’t be hard! But they spoke so confidently and so beautifully, I felt certain that Cernunnos and Aine were listening and responding to the calls.  I realize now, though, the importance of performance in ritual. Timidity spoils the mood, while confident, boldly spoken words bolster the group mind and surely are pleasing to the gods.

We didn’t make a full grove offering to the deity of the occasion. I’m not sure if that’s “correct,” especially after the solitary rituals I’d done where I focused so much on the deities of the occasion and tailored my offerings to them. We did each make personal offerings: the senior druid and I made offerings to our patrons, I made an offering to Aine, another grove regular made an offering to Cernunnos, several made offerings to Brigid, and one visitor jumped the bonfire, as did our senior druid.

After the offerings, one of the full grove members took an omen by reading the fire. I’d never seen anyone do this before, and it was remarkable. He told us the fire reminded us that everything changes constantly, and what is lost is consumed to make the new. He said the fire was pleased with our work that day, and we had done good work in honoring the Kindreds. The ritual leader and the senior druid then passed around the waters of life (mead for those drinking alcohol and water for those not) and told us to drink deeply because the group working was next.

That done, we danced a maypole! We wove our hopes for the growing season into the streamers, and after we were finished, a grove member had us cut the end of our streamers to take home to our altars as a token of the dance.

We then thanked the deities and the Kindreds, closed the gate and thanked the Black Bear, thanked the earth mother, and ended the rite.

I’m sad to say, I spent a lot of time feeling awkward. This was my first public ritual, and like the first time you visit any religious service, it takes a bit to learn the conventions, like holding the hands open when speaking to the Kindreds, and following each calling with, “Hail and welcome, XXX.” I was also dreadfully nervous about speaking my bit and about making a good impression. I’d like to be a grove member someday, and I’m afraid my awkwardness didn’t help me to that end.

I was also troubled by the lack of offerings to the deities of the occasion — I thought that was what we did in official ADF rites, but I also liked the personal workings and offerings section, so I suppose it all evens out in the wash. I was also troubled because technically Aine is Irish and Cernunnos is Gaulish! They both fall under the umbrella heading of Celtic, but it’s still a bit mixed-and-matched.

Still, I had a wonderful time, and as our omen said, I think we did good work.