30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 11 – Relationships: Ritual and Worship

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Ross Nichols, one of the major figures in 20th century Druidry, described ritual as “poetry in the world of acts”. In The Druidry Handbook, John Michael Greer writes that “just as a well written poem can reshape the awareness of its reader or hearer, revealing connections that might otherwise go unnoticed and highlighting neglected meanings, a well-performed ritual can do the same for those who take part in it.” For Joanna van der Hoeven, Druid ritual is “about connection and relationship – it is a way of experiencing a moment, of taking the time to stop and honour the sacredness of the time and place.”

Ritual is a cornerstone of much modern Paganism, and Druidry is no exception. When Druids gather in groups, we tend to do ritual. When Druids want to do their Druidry alone, we tend to do ritual. There are the seasonal rituals of the great festivals of the Wheel of the Year, rituals for full moons, rituals for namings, marriages, funerals and other rites of passage, daily rituals to greet the sun in the morning and the moon at night.

These rituals can be elaborate, scripted, choreographed affairs featuring dozens of people, or simple impromptu words of gratitude from a single Druid in their own back garden, or anything in between. It’s intention that matters – ritual that is simply rote repetition of words without thinking of the meaning behind them is worthless. Ritual, as van der Hoeven puts it, “allows time for our souls to grow, to expand, to drink in all that the Awen, inspiration and the world have to offer.”

Some practice ritual more than others: I tend not to go in for big rites in my personal practice. The Awen Alone has some really helpful tips for creating your own personal rituals that are simple but meaningful.

Ritual is not limited to saying words. Having your morning coffee can be a ritual, if you do it mindfully, taking time to savour it and being thankful for the beans, the farmers who harvested them and all it took to bring it to your cup. In regular life, we have rituals all the time: take birthday parties as an example. There, we sing a specific song, light candles, make wishes and share food. It’s practically a magic spell!

The beauty of Druid ritual is that it takes us out of the routine concerns of the everyday, and connects us to nature, recognising that, in the words of one Druid ritual, “this is sacred time. This is sacred space. We are fully present, here and now”.

And what of worship?

When I was starting out as a Pagan, I avoided worship like the plague. Having come from strict Catholicism via equally dogmatic atheism, the word was too loaded, and I didn’t want anything to do with it, or with deities.

I’ve softened my position over time, and come to realise that worship does not mean the absolute submission to some authoritarian god that I thought it did. The word “worship” comes from the Old English weorþscipe, meaning “worthiness”, literally worth-ship, to give worth to a person, object or deity.

Taking the older definition, worship is simply to enter into an honourable relationship with another. When that is applied to the gods, who are, as Emma Restall Orr writes, “the forces of nature: the winds that race through the valley, the valley itself crafted by mud and rock and water, the ancient rivers that flow across and beneath the land, the woodland and meadows, the sun that holds our planet in thrall”, then that relationship is the acknowledgement of that which is greater than ourselves.

This worship brings with it a sense of humility, and perspective, realising how small and short-lived we are compared to the mountains, rivers and trees. This is not sumbission, no sense of being a sinner in the hands of an angry god, but simply a reverence that comes from knowing our place within this wider ecosystem of spirit.

Worship presupposes belief, and increasingly I am beginning to see the value of holding some, at least tentative, belief in the divine. Anna Walther at Wildseed Within writes about choosing to believe in the Star Goddess, saying: “because I’m happier and more engaged with the world for believing so, I believe that the World As It Is, the Reality of Which We Are All a Part, the Whole Cosmos, is God Hirself.”

Choosing to see the world as sacred, as worthy of worship, is one way of re-enchanting our relationship with the world, of un-learning old religious and atheistic assumptions, and re-learning to see the world as alive, aware, in awe, rather than as inanimate resources there to be used.

Ritual helps connect us to worship by giving us a framework, a language, a shared or private symbology through which to mediate that emotional response and connect with each other and with the sacred, however you perceive it.

As the old meme has it: I worship nature; don’t laugh, at least I can prove it exists!

References:

Greer, J.M. The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. Weiser, 2006.

Restall-Orr, E. Living With Honour: a Pagan Ethics. O Books, 2007.

van der Hoeven, J. The Awen Alone. Moon Books, 2014.

Walther, A. “Choosing to believe in the star goddess”, Wildseed Within, 2018 [https://wildseedwithin.com/2018/05/29/on-choosing-to-believe-in-the-star-goddess/].

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30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 10 – Relationships: the Spirits of the Land

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Sitting barefoot in the woodland grove, the Druid listens. The wind whispers the leaves in the beech trees overhead, and blackbirds in the branches sing their songs of Spring, of love and beauty. Through the soles of their feet, the Druid feels the pulse of the land, the slow but steady movement of soil and stone, of worms and tree-roots. In the distance, the Druid hears people walking their dog in the same woods. Silently, the Druid reaches out to the spirits of this place, in honour and friendship.

When I think about spirits of the land in Druidry, I do not think of the popular fantasy perception of fairies, elves, gnomes and the like. While I love a good fairytale as much as the next Pagan, I also try to keep my feet on the ground even when my head is in the clouds.

The way in which our modern culture interprets the word “spirit” to be functionally identical to “ghost” doesn’t help much; it creates a dualistic separation between spirit and body (thanks Descartes) that has no place in my more animistic understanding of the world. “Spirit” comes from Latin “spiritus”, and is connected to words like “respiration” and more poetically “inspiration”. It means breath, life. Aristotle thought of spirit as simply the animating principle of all living things, not a separate discarnate entity that could float off somewhere after the body dies.

Modern animists such as Emma Restall Orr and Graham Harvey have a much more nuanced concept of spirit that far better fits a nature-based Pagan approach, and I highly recommend their works.

The spirits of the land are, quite simply, the animating principles within the trees, the animals, the birds, the humans, the rocks, the water, the soil and earth itself. Each individual spirit is not separate, but combine into an ecosystem of spirit, a network of connection and harmony that joins together to form one song, the spirit of that  place.

There is nothing supernatural here. The world is filled with enspirited beings, who are amazing, evolved, sentient creatures who together make up the vast tapestry of life of which we are a part. My pet gerbil, the birds and squirrels in the garden, the vast oak trees, the bugs and spiders, caterpillars and moths, tiny minnows and giant blue whales, elephants and mice and even the microbacteria that live within our bodies and keep us alive, all are spirits of the land, sea and sky.

Have you ever noticed how some places, like particular deep woods or rocky coastlines, feel numinous, feel sacred, the moment you walk into them, inspiring reverence and silence? That for me is the spirit of the land in the place. Or have you noticed how one spot feels different from another? That too, is the spirit of the land, different in different locations. The spirit of a river is different from that of a forest, is different from that of a car park.

Meditating in my back garden and meditating on a glacial boulder at the edge of a Norwegian fjord left me in no doubt as to the presence of different spirits of the land, and yet, all these spirits of place are connected as the spirit of the earth, which some Pagans (and scientist James Lovelock) call Gaia.

In recent months, I have been working on developing a connection with a particular place, a small grassy fen right by the city centre, left to grow and be grazed by cattle, with a stream running through it, that sings joyfully as it splashes over rocks. I visit, I make offerings (usually of clear pure water), and I open myself to connect with the spirit of the land as it manifests there. I feel like something like a familiar acquaintance is forming between me and this place, which may develop into friendship.

Working on the garden, I have felt more connected to the spirit of the land here, which is slowly recovering after being bulldozed and built on to make the houses of which my home is one. Planting bushes, putting in a pond, letting the grass grow, I’ve noticed more birds and squirrels coming to spend time in the garden, and can feel the spirit of the land here exhaling, a sense of relief, of waking up.

Druidry is all about connection, all about relationship, and this goes beyond the usual nexus of human relationships we deal with every day. Connecting to the land, knowing it, living with it (not on it), this is to be “Pagan” in the truest sense, as people “of the land”.

The deer’s cry

The “deer’s cry” is part of a longer prayer, known as St Patrick’s breastplate, which was compiled in 8th century Ireland (that’s three centuries later than the historical Patrick, for those keeping count). The full prayer is, of course, deeply Christian and calls on the power of the Christian god against “black laws of Pagandom” and the “spells of wizards, smiths and Druids”. However, the portion known as the deer’s cry is thought by some (see Daimler, 2011) to be the survival of an older traditional, maybe even pre-Christian, Irish prayer. It is a beautiful prayer calling on the powers of nature rather than any god, and in an effort to re-Paganise something that feels Druidic in scope, I’ve taken to saying it upon rising each day (with the minor alteration of “strength of heaven” to “strength of spirit”).

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(Image by Brin Weins on Pixabay [cc0], edited by me).

Druidry in the doing

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It feels like I haven’t written about Druidry in ages. I certainly haven’t been keeping to my self-imposed schedule of twice weekly posts on the 30 Weeks of Druidry and Explorations in Ogham challenges, which I feel guilty and anxious about until I remember that I set the schedule, nobody’s checking in on me, and that means I can change it!

But my blog-silence doesn’t mean that Druidry has fallen by the wayside. Far from it: the main reason I’ve been unable to find the time to sit at a computer and write about Druidry is that I’ve been spending more time doing Druidry, at least doing things that I feel are Druidic anyway.

A quote I saw online (ironically) once said that “internet Paganism is not Paganism” and that’s something worth remembering. Especially as a solitary practicioner away from a local Pagan community, my path can easily become “internet Paganism”, more blogposts than blackbirds, more Facebook than forests.

When all your Druidry is digital, what is there of real, physical, nature? How much can you connect to the gods of land, sea and sky sat on your sofa?

I had another study weekend with Druid College at the end of April, just before Beltane. It was a weekend of personal challenges, facing some fears, and also a weekend of sitting barefoot in a wooded grove of oak and beech, meditating, chanting and singing. Without going into too much detail, something happened. Some small, subtle thing shifted in my subconscious, a tiny brain-hedgehog waking up from hibernation, twitching its whiskers in the warm spring air, sniffing at the scent of blossom and new life.

And so, as softly as a summer breeze, my Druidry (or what I thought of as my Druidry) was blown off course, and all I could do was ride the thermal current, a leaf on the wind. It led me away from the screen and away from books and essays (*cough – sobehindonmyhomeworkandstartingtopanic – cough*) and outdoors. Not to wild rugged romantic places, but to my own back garden, my local paths, the intriguing beauty of the fens.

I’ve been working in the garden more, putting in a pond for frogs and toads, planting wildlife-friendly shrubs, leaving a patch of lawn to become a grass-and-wildflower meadow. As I do so, I notice nature more. The species of trees that make up my mixed hedgerow, the movement of the great old willow, the play of squirrels, the territorial scraps of robins and blackbirds, the rooks who leave their roosts as I leave for work and return home as I’m having dinner in the evening.

I celebrated Beltane (which is, as all Pagan festivals are, a season not just a day), with a small ritual but also by going to a local folk festival and seeing Green Man costumed morris dancers, drinking local beer and cider, and later by cooking over an open fire in the garden. To me, all this is Druidry.

Waking, I greet the sun and the new day. Retiring, I greet the moon and the night. Cooking, I honor the plants I eat. Walking, I try to notice the land and hear its song, not be wrapped up in my own thoughts. Exercising, I strive to honour my own body as part of nature, as a sacred creature to love not to hate. Relaxing with my partner and our pet gerbil, I experience the bliss of connection to another living being.

None of this is particularly mystical, or intellectual, or specifically Pagan. But all of this is Druid. As my Druid teacher, Joanna van der Hoeven put it, “Druidry is loving nature and allowing that love to inspire you to live your life accordingly.”

And you know what? Stepping away from the screen and finding Druidry in the small daily moments has deepened my practice. Knowing about Druidry and actually being Druid are not the same thing, and it’s important sometimes to leave the books and websites and study, and get your hands dirty.

30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 8 – Relationships: The gods

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John Michael Greer, in The Druidry Handbook, writes: “What are the gods?…Ask any three Druids and you’ll get at least six answers”.

Paganism in general, and Druidry in particular, has no specific theological stance on the existence and nature of deity. There are no creeds to recite, no doctrines to affirm. As a result, different Druids hold many different views about the nature of deity. There are polytheists, who believe in many gods, monotheists, who believe in one god, agnostic and atheist Druids who don’t relate to gods at all.

My own viewpoint shifts and changes with time, mood and experience. I try not to hold beliefs, as belief can too easily shift into a fundamentalist conviction of certainty. Sure, I have opinions, ideas, models, which can act as lenses through which to view the world, but I try not to hold on to them too tightly and to be open to new evidence, new experience.

I don’t believe in literal, personal, gods. For me, the idea of supernatural superhumans creating and/or controlling the forces of nature, answering prayers, occasionally doing miracles and the like, makes no sense. Pantheism would be the closest description to my own position. Influenced by the philosopher Spinoza, pantheism affirms that nature is all that exists, and that nature itself is divine. Spinoza wrote “deus, sive natura” (god, or nature) to reinforce the idea that what people may call a god is simply another word for the majestic wonder of nature.

In Living With Honour, Emma Restall-Orr writes: “For many Pagans, countless of the many gods are the forces of nature: the winds that race through the valley, the valley itself crafted by mud and rock and water, the ancient rivers that flow across and beneath the land, the woodland and meadows, the sun that holds our planet in thrall, and so on”.

The gods of Paganism, of our shared myths and tales, of ritual and song, of the ancestors and the land, are to me simply personifications of these forces of nature. Elsewhere, Restall-Orr writes how over time, “slowly the gods were coming to be represented in more human forms” as stories were crafted, told and retold, nature becoming anthropomorphised, a mirror to our own human condition and relationship with the wilder powers of land, sea and sky.

Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes that “in the ancient world, the gods were rarely regarded as supernatural beings with distinct personalities, living a totally separate metaphysical existence. Mythology was not about theology, in the modern sense, but about human experience”. Experience, not belief, is central to Paganism, and to each individual Pagan’s relationship with the gods.

When I reflect on the named gods of myth and legend, I am “honouring and invoking their qualities, the virtues and powers they represent, in order to inspire my life and behaviour” as I wrote in my contribution to the anthology Godless Paganism. But I see these gods as symbols of nature, signifiers pointing beyond themselves, beyond the interplay of text and context, to that which is signified and which is, by experience, subjectively known.

My gods are the damp earth beneath my feet, the crashing waves of the ocean, the swift whisper of the wind. They are older than names, older than language, beyond us but intimately part of us as we are part of them. These gods do not need belief – they simply are. Like theologian Paul Tillich’s “god beyond god”, these gods do not exist – they are existence itself.

This is a non-literal view of the gods, of course, and would be no doubt seen by many of the more hard-edged polytheists as heresy (from the Greek αἵρεσις, meaning choice). Yet what could be more real than the powers of nature? Go for a barefoot walk across bracken uplands and you will be in no doubt as to the reality of the gods of thorn and rock, cooling stream and chilling wind.

Potmodernist theologian Mark C. Taylor, from whose work Erring I take the name of this blog, sketches the lines of a/theology, a point beyond theism and atheism, an “endless erring of signs, which issues in the radical relativity of meaning”. Perhaps the above can be seen as a poly-a/theism, each of the many gods being both an aspect of unified nature, and a symbolic representation of itself to itself, languaged through the inspired Awen.

What matters, at least for me, is not what anyone believes about that which lies beyond the horizon of the known, but how we live our lives, in relationship with all beings, human and non-human alike.

References:

Armstrong, K. A Short History of Myth. Canongate, 2005.

Cronin, R. “Myth and Meaning: a Non-Literal Pagan View of Deity” in Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans (ed. John Halstead). Lulu, 2016.

Greer, J.M. The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. Weiser, 2006.

Restall-Orr, E. Living With Honour: a Pagan Ethics. O Books, 2007.

Restall-Orr, E. The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature. Moon Books, 2011.

Taylor, M.C. Erring: a Post-modern A/theology. University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Tillich, P. The Courage to Be. Yale University Press, 1952.

30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 4 – Foundations: the Three Realms

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Barefoot, the Druid stands on the shoreline. The sand and small pebbles shift beneath the soles of their feet, embracing them. The gentle waves of the cool ocean reach their toes, each one a greeting kiss, bringing stories of far-off places and unfathomable depths. The Druid raises their arms to the sky stretching out far overhead, the light wispy clouds moving slowly by, the gulls wheeling and calling high above. They fix their eyes on the horizon line, and the headland reaching out towards it. Land, sea and sky tremble together, breathing as one.

The three realms of Druid tradition, as I understand and practice it, do not refer to an “upper”, “lower” and “middle” world, but to the Celtic division of Land, Sea and Sky. Unlike the vertical axis of the three worlds model, these realms exist together, here and now. The classic Celtic image of the triple spiral, or triskelion, illustrates the Three Realms nicely, each one separate yet connected to the others, each one co-existing only because of the other two.

The three realms speak to us of radical interconnectedness and interdependence. As John Muir said; “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

The land beneath us is fed by the waters around us, the great cycle of rain, rivers, groundwater, ocean, evaporation. The waters are moved by the air, in clouds, and that same air gives breath and life to the land. Everything is part of everything else, and we stand on the same land, drink the same water, breathe the same air as our ancestors, human and non-human, for hundreds of millions of years.

The three realms point to the liminal, the permeable, the trembling boundaries that are at the heart of Druidry, and the source of inspiration, magic and wonder.

Joanna van der Hoeven points out that as Druidry developed in Britain and Ireland, the central focus on the three realms is simply a natural growth of people’s relationships with the land: “As an island, surrounded by the sea, with a vast range of geography ranging from wetland to mountains, dry heathland to deep ancient forest, the presence of the three realms is all around us at all times.”

The three realms are often honoured in Druid ritual, not just as an external appreciation but as a way of changing our awareness and consciousness of our place at the centre of them all: the land that sustains us, the water that nourishes us, the air that we depend on.

They can also be honoured by the Druid in practical action. You can honour the land by picking litter, growing wildlife-friendly plants, composting, walking the old ways, protesting desecration of the land by fracking. You can honour the sea by supporting charities like the Marine Conservation Society, participating in beach cleanings, taking care not to use more water at home than you need, exploring your local waterways and coasts. You can honour the sky by reducing the amount of pollution you put into it: cycle, walk or take the bus rather than drive when possible, fly very infrequently, support clean air laws.

The three realms are not just a poetic metaphor, they are this land, these waters, this sky. To stand at the centre as a Druid is to enter into relationship with the three realms, to honour them not just in ritual but every day.

References:

van der Hoeven, J. The Crane Bag: a Druid’s guide to ritual tools and practices. Moon Books, 2016.

Imbolc

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If you use calendar dates for your festivals, today marks Imbolc, the first festival of Spring, a feat of the home and hearth associated with the goddess Brigid, patron of the flame and the well. I tend to mark the “cross-quarter” (i.e. non-astronomical) festivals by natural signs, so for me Imbolc is when the snowdrops and aconites emerge from the soil, signalling the end of the dark, wet winter and the beginning of the lighter seasons.

The name “Imbolc” comes from “ewe’s milk” and signifies the start of the lambing season. In The Awen Alone, Joanna van der Hoeven writes: “This is a time for preparing the seeds of what we wish to achieve in the coming year, dreamt up over the long winter nights, but not yet ready to plant – we must still keep these dreams safe.”

Imbolc is a time for rituals of renewal and cleansing, for house cleaning and house blessing, for working in the garden to clear away the remnants of winter and prepare the ground for new planting. The Imbolc ritual in The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer states:

Now is the time of the first plow, the birth of lambs in the pastures, the washing of the face of the Earth, and the blessing of candles. The torches burn as the young goddess returns to the waxing day.

May Imbolc bring you blessings and peace.