Rituals are not just an important part not just of druidry or of nature-based spirituality, but of human life in general. According to leading scholar Catherine Bell in her book Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, human beings have been involved in rituals for as long as we have recorded history—and likely well before. Rituals use meaningful symbols, movement, actions, repeated forms and staging to help us step out of our normal time with conscious and sacred intention. While many rituals may have spiritual or religious significance, rituals can also be cultural (graduation ceremonies) or personal.
Sacred Mandala as part of our MAGUS 2018 Ritual
A few weeks ago, I hosted a ritual creation workshop as part of AODA’s online workshop series as a lot of people want to start to create their own rituals. In this post, I’m going to offer the framework I shared at the workshop to help you think through how to create rituals, the considerations for creating rituals, and so on. In this post, I’m drawing upon the work of Catherine Bell and John Michael Greer as well as my own experiences in writing many, many rituals over the years: personal rituals, rituals for two different druid groves, and rituals for multiple large gatherings (here are a few examples: Hemlock Galdr, Ley Line Ritual, Water Healing Ritual, and a Grief Ritual. I’m mostly sticking to personal and small group rituals in today’s discussion and assuming you want to plan in advance, for my take collaborative ritual creation without scripts, you can see this post.
Rituals can help us connect with ourselves, connect with the living earth, raise and direct energy, celebrate or mark an event, and much more. All human cultures have some forms of ritual, although what that looks like and how it manifests varies quite widely (for a fascinating look into ritual, I suggest Catherine Bell’s Ritual book, which offers an anthropological introduction to rituals in human cultures). In the druid tradition, particularly revival Druidry, we often do rituals for a wide variety of purposes. These may include any of the following (and I’m sure there are some categories I am missing):
- Celebrating and marking the seasonal holidays (solstices, equinoxes, cross-quarter days, new moons, full moons, etc)
- Raising energy for land healing, blessing, and honoring the land
- Raising energy for personal work
- Opening up sacred space for meditation, bardic creation, or sacred communion with the land
- Seeking assistance or guidance
- Lowering energy for a variety of reasons (removal of sickness, shadow work, land healing/palliative care work)
- Gratitude practices, which are so important I put them in their own category
A Ritual Creation Framework
In what follows, I’ll walk you through step by step how you can go about creating rituals for yourself or for others.
Step 1: Intention
What is it that you want to accomplish? What is your intention for the work? Start by answering these questions, as your goal or purpose for the ritual will determine to a large extent what you do and how you do it. There are many goals when you seek to create a ritual and you may have more than one in mind for the ritual you will create. For example, you might want to do a blessing for a local park or celebrate a seasonal holiday in a way that is local and resonant with you.
Step 2: Framework
All traditions have some framework or structure in which their tradition understands sources of power as well as helps categorize or interpret the world. Frameworks are often very closely aligned or the same as sources of energy (see step 4). Recognize that if you are using existing sacred space/grove/circle opening and closing rituals as part of the work you want to do, you already are given a framework from those opening and closing rituals, and you can skip this step. For example, AODA’s opening and closing rituals, you will already have a source of energy and framework: AODA’s seven-element framework, which will manifest for you in a specific way that you choose to call each. Not all rituals will need to use full opening and closing rituals but if you plan on using them, keep this in mind. It’s important to know if you want to use an existing grove opening/closing (and considerations there are discussed in Step 3).
A ritual altar at the fall equinox
Broader Druid frameworks:
- Four elements: earth, air, fire, water (or 5, if you also want to use spirit); these elements have been with Western traditions for at least 2500 years, but likely much much longer
- Earth / Sea / Sky framework from the Celtic tradition
- Gwyar / Calas / Nyfre framework from the Druid revival
- Four druid animals tied to the directions: Great bear (north), Hawk (east), Stag (south), Salmon (west)
- AODA’s primary framework is the seven-element framework which includes Air, Fire, Water, Earth (classic elements) and Spirit Above/Spirit within/Spirit Below (three aspects of spirit)
- An alternative way we think about the three aspects of spirit are three currents: Solar, Telluric, and Lunar
Something tied to your tradition: Many people meld more than one tradition into their spiritual path. If this applies to you, you can draw upon any of the frameworks of your other tradition(s) to work. This might include a deity, etc.
Something local or unique to you: Over time, you might develop your own framework. frameworks you develop or those that resonate with you and your practice. For example, you might use a framework of four sacred mountains, sacred trees, animals, etc.
Step 3: Consideration of Marking/Opening/Closing sacred space and Formal/Informal Ritual
One consideration you will need to make is whether or not you want to do a formal grove opening and closing as part of your ritual. When would you use a formal sacred space opening vs. not?
The first thing to understand is why we might use grove openings or closings at all: and there are at least three reasons. The first is psychological: we need to have some way of helping us mark the difference between sacred time/spiritual time and everyday life. For people in the more dominant world religions, they often accomplish this by going to a physically separate location, wearing special clothing, and in many Christian traditions, opening up with song or prayer for example. For people in the druid and neopagan traditions, we have very few buildings or anything else, and so doing a grove opening or circle opening is a way of helping us designate sacred time and space from mundane time and space. The second reason has to do with your own relationship and connection to the world of spirit and the tradition you are working in. As Catherine Bell’s definition of ritual above suggests, it is the repetition of certain traditions that turn them into rituals embedded with deep meaning. After years of doing the same grove opening and closing, it takes on symbolic and emotional meaning. The more that you engage with these same ritual forms, the more effective they will have on you over time. You build meaning as you engage with them and the imagery and energy will become part of you. The third reason ties to the occult roots of many of these traditions. We create sacred space, particularly if doing energetic or magical work because we need to protect that work from outside influences. The world of spirit is not all light and love; there are many things out there that would grow attracted to the raising and directing of energy and come to meddle. By setting a boundary between you and the world, you are better able to protect yourself from any undue external influence. This is particularly important when you are raising and directing energy.
So with these reasons aside, the question becomes: when do you actually use a formal grove opening and closing? The first is your intention and the work you set out to do. I think a lot of this can be summarized in the difference between doing a formal ritual (which would include a sacred grove opening/closing) vs. an informal ritual, which would be shorter and likely more simple. Formal rituals are reserved for celebrating the major holidays and also other “major” work you want to do where you are going to raise and direct energy, work magic, do major blessings, or do deep work on the self. By contracts, informal rituals are more like your everyday practices or small things you do if you feel the need, often spontaneously. Short, everyday rituals that serve to celebrate, mark, offer gratitude, or honor rarely need a formal ritual. For example, if you want to create a small ritual to open up your meals, you do not need to do a full grove ritual for that (otherwise, meals would get quite long). But if you wanted to do a blessing for the whole growing season for your garden, a formal ritual would make more sense.
Context is a major factor here. If you want to do any ritual work where you are going to be out in public or with others who do not follow your path, the opening of a formal sacred space may not be feasible. For example, if I wanted to do a quiet tree blessing in a park where there are other people, I would certainly not go through opening up a sacred space. But if I was going to do that same blessing in my private backyard, I likely would use the full grove opening because it would offer a bit extra power and help me get into the right frame of mind. What I might do, in the case of the tree blessing in a park is to do a blessing ritual in advance, where I would open a sacred space, and then embed that blessing into a stone. I can then go to the park, leave the stone with the blessing, and say a few words or play some music. The point is depending on where you are, the formal ritual may not make sense.
A final consideration here on levels of formality has to do with tools and ritual clothing: when do you use them and when do you not? For more formal rituals, it is likely that you will also want to dress the part in ritual gear, use a full altar setup, and really get into the part. For informal rituals, it’s likely you’ll use fewer (or no) tools and certainly won’t be dressing the part. If you are going somewhere where the ritual is likely, you can always create a crane bag to take with you. I have a lot of information on crane bags here or here. Another option for travel is to create some kind of Altoid tin mini set or even grove stones that you can take with you (grove stones are described in the Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer).
Step 4: Sources of Energy, Assistance, or Guidance
What often makes a ritual effective is to have a source of energy, assistance, or guidance that is outside of you that you can call upon as part of that work. This can be directly tied to your framework (Step 2) or can be separate from your framework.
Sources of energy
Not all rituals require sources of energy, assistance, or guidance, but anywhere you are trying to have an effect upon the world (e.g. blessing, healing) would require it. For example, a simple honoring of the sun ceremony where a druid would go out and greet the sun each morning would not require a source of energy–other than the sun itself! But, if you wanted to offer a blessing upon a journey, you’d want to send some energy that was not yours as part of that ceremony.
Why does this matter? We all have energy within us that we can call upon. But we have only so much, and the more we pull from ourselves, the more we can deplete ourselves over time. Rituals are more impactful and meaningful if you draw upon sources of energy from outside of yourself that can lend strength, power, and additional layers of energy to your working.
Here are some common sources of energy you might draw upon:
- From within you or the movement/music/activity, you generate
- From your framework (3 druid elements, 4 elements, 7 elements, ogham trees, etc)
- From sacred timing (solstices, equinoxes, full moon, new moon, etc)
- From the natural world: rivers, mountains, plants, herbs, stones, trees
- From connection to spirits or deity
- From existing sacred spaces that you build and cultivate that hold energy over time
Sources of assistance or guidance
Some rituals seek assistance or guidance from outside sources. This might be because you want to ask for advice about a new direction to take or ask for guidance for a particular challenge in your life. Or you’d just like to request that spirit or deity have your back for the work you are doing. Sources of guidance or assistance can often come in a few forms:
- Divination systems (Tarot, Runes, Ogham, Pendulum)
- Deity, Spirits, Guides
- Nature (specific nature or nature broadly)
- Subconscious or higher self
Obviously, if you are going to use any of these in a ritual, you’d want to think about how you will call in and honor this source of guidance or assistance. For nature/diety/guides, I would certainly do this in a respectful way with gratitude and offerings. Even for your divination system, I think it’s a good idea not to just use the tool, but to really honor it.
Step 5: Methods You Can Use
Now we get to the many possible methods you can use to achieve your goals or intentions. I’m going to list a lot of them here (this list is not exhaustive, but it is a good place to start) so you can have a variety of methods to work with.
Goose ritual helpers!
Setting up the ritual space. The ritual space that you choose to create is an important part of helping you prepare for the ritual. Here are some considerations:
- Is your ritual going to be outdoors or indoors?
- Is your ritual going to take place in an established sacred space (the one you use often for rituals) or in a new setting?
- What might help you set the stage for your ritual? Consider how you will decorate, use materials from the season, light candles and incense, set up an altar, and more.
- Are you going to dress for the part?
- Are you going to have a feast and/or offerings as part of your ritual? If so, what might that include? (See Gratitude practices, below).
- If you are including others, make sure you design a way for everyone to share or add to the space. For example, last year, our grove did a great Samhain weekend and one of the things we did was built an ancestor altar on Friday evening. We each brought one or more ancestral objects or photos and took time sharing. That altar stayed with us all weekend.
I always take the time to set up the space for any formal rituals that I do. To me, space is a very important part of the overall equation in developing a ritual that is impactful or meaningful. It’s kind of like hosting a dinner party–you want the space to be just right, flowers on the table, and the house clean. Hosting the same party with a dirty and messy house just doesn’t cut it.
Raising Energy Methods: Energy raising methods are used for healing, blessing, empowering, bardic arts creation, new journeys, and so much more. Here are some methods to raise energy:
- Chanting (changing ogham words or Awen is a good choice). Chanting magic is powerful and can be an excellent way to accomplish a number of goals and rituals. I use ogham chanting regularly for a variety of purposes in my own practice.
- Dance and body movement. Often, you see this method employed with more ecstatic rituals where people are encouraged to dance, drum, and move to raise energy for a specific purpose. But there’s no reason you can’t do this on your own as well.
- Drumming / clapping / Noise. Nothing like raising energy through some good noise making. Drumming, clapping, hooting, and hollering all fall into this category.
- Visualization. Visualization is a technique we use often in AODA, where you use your inner eyes to envision something–light radiating out into the world, rains falling, land healed and clean, etc. Visualization is a very powerful way to employ the imagination for the work you are to do.
- Auditory/calling forth/Inviting in. Words have power. Stating your intentions and speaking of the work you are to do can certainly be effective.
- Use of herbs, plants, oils. Drawing upon the inherent power and relationship you have with herbs, oils, or plants can be a very useful energy raising method. I have found that the deeper your own relationship or connection is with the plant or herb, the more effective this practice is.
Lowering Energy / Removal Methods: Just as there is specific work to raise energy, there may also be times where you want to lower the energy or remove energy. I use this technique fairly often in my land healing work dealing with palliative care, where very damaged lands that are suffering need rest and quietude. Removal work is also common when you are doing self-development work and trying to let go of bad habits or things that harm you.
- Drumming down (starting fast and slowing the beat till it stops)
- Ritual burning (words, papers, herbs)
- Taking an object that is imbued with power and casting it off (such as into a body of water) or burying it
- Use of clearing or cleansing herbs, salts, or vinegar. You can use fumitory herbs (e.g. smoke cleansing) or water cleansing with salt/vinegar to assist with this.
Gratitude Practices: Another big part of the work of rituals is honoring and showing gratitude. Traditionally, an offering was something that actually cost the person something: the fruits of your labor, the fruits of the first harvest, a portion of the food for the winter, etc. I like to think about offerings in that way–they aren’t just symbolic but should somehow be meaningful and useful. Here are a few methods you can consider for this work.
- Physical offerings (cakes, wine, herbal blend, incense). While these might be considered an easy “go-to”, I really push back against offerings that are part of the capitalist system that is destroying the planet. If you are going to offer physical offerings, they should be md
- Service offerings (cleaning up trash, planting trees, lifestyle changes). In the 21st century given all of our challenges, I actually think these offerings are some of the best we can do. If you are doing this in a ritual setting, what you might do is state the offering you have recently made or plan on making (e.g. I will be attending a tree planting in the park next week as part of my offering to the land for assistance in this ritual).
- Bardic offerings (music, dance, chanting). Bardic offerings are always welcome, particularly because they do not consume physical resources and can be made with sacred intent.
- Bodily offerings (hair, liquid gold). Sometimes you are out and doing spontaneous ritual and you don’t have anything to offer but what you have with you. Hair is a traditional offering (particularly if you are ritually harvesting plants and wanting to give back). I’ll also put in a plug for liquid gold (urine) which can be given at the base of trees (not directly on the plants) or roots. That’s pure nitrogen. Even your own carbon-rich breath can be offered.
Step 6: Solitary or Group
Before we get into putting the ritual together, you will obviously want to account for the participants in your ritual. If it’s just you, move onto step 7. If you will include others, I’ll briefly share some thoughts (writing good group ritual is an art in and of itself, and this post will be way too long if I included all the info on that, so I’ll cover it in the future at some point). In the meantime, here are a few considerations for you:
Ritual smoke through the trees
- If you are working with known others (say, part of a small grove), work with others to design the ritual so that they are invested if at all possible (even if it’s just to bring something to the ritual, like water from a local source).
- Make everyone comfortable- some people like to participate and some people prefer to have an observer role; work to make sure everyone can fill a role they’d like to fill. Even if people don’t have a formal part, invite them to engage in parts of the ritual like visualizing, interacting, etc.
- Make it interactive – have everyone in the group doing something as part of the ritual. It can be small, but meaningful. The boring rituals are ones where you have to stand in a circle and listen to people talk and watch people move around for 30 min–create something that engages people in some way.
- Give a memento – group rituals are more powerful when people have something to take away that is tied to the ritual in some way: a bit of sacred water, seeds, ribbons, you get the idea. Takeaways build connections.
- Make it meaningful – good ritual work should be meaningful and impactful, not empty. Think about how you can make the moment meaningful for people who are participating.
- Make sure people know what is going on. If it makes sense, talk through the ritual in advance so everyone has a good idea of what will be happening during the ritual, the goals for the ritual, and not be lost. When running Crescent Birch Grove in Michigan, we always made sure to have at least 30 min set aside before we started a grove ritual to talk through what we were doing and the work at hand, let people read over parts, and so forth
Step 7: Structure
Alright! It is now time to put your ritual together. I’m going to share a few different possible structures that can help you.
Formal structures. Most formal rituals have a variation on a similar structure, which is as follows:
- Opening the space: After you set up your space prepare yourself, you can open up your sacred space/sacred grove.
- Declaring intentions for the ceremony: Language that expresses what the ceremony is about and what you hope to do; this sets your intentions not only for you and any other participants but also for spirit/deity/powers of nature.
- Engaging in the core ritual work: This varies widely and I’ll offer some options below
- Closing the space in some way. Close out your sacred space/grove. Closing a grove helps you to transition back to everyday life (ritual can be unbalancing if you do not transition carefully). Closings often return unused energy to the land and offer thanks.
The core ritual work obviously depends on your intention, but much of it follows a formula something like this:
- Prayers, gratitude, or words about the intention of the ceremony
- Raising energy
- Directing energy
- Giving thanks
There are a lot of variations on that theme, but a good 80% of the rituals that I’ve attended or written have some structure similar to the above.
Informal structures. Informal ritual structures dispense with anything on the formal opening and closing elements and just focus on the core work at hand. They may include a simple prayer, meditation, breathwork, offering, and more. They may still have small pieces to give you a moment to transition (such as the three deep breaths offered in the ogham wisdom chant).
Ogham Wisdom Chant. This is a simple ritual that you can use immediately when you need it, even in the middle of your workday or daily life.
Intention: To offer wisdom, strength, and discernment in everyday life, available at a moment’s notice. Framework and Source of Energy: Ogham (Oak few, Duir, pronounced “Doo-er”) Work: Raising energy for wisdom, strength, and discernment through chanting
Take three deep breaths.
Place hands across chest
Chant Oak Ogham Three Times: Duir, Duir, Duir
Take three deep breaths
While what I’ve offered above looks like a lot, after you have some practice writing rituals, it’s
likely you can dispense with the formal steps entirely and just do things intuitively. But having steps like these can really help people as they are learning to write rituals know what to think about and how to think about it. I’d love feedback on this framework: for those of you who are new, does this help you? Please share what you end up creating! For those of you who are experienced ritual writers, am I missing anything or is there anything you’d suggest differently?