The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Rituals and Activities to Enhance Creativity and Support the Bardic Arts August 6, 2017

This is my song, this is my voice,
These are my words, this is my choice.
Hear me now, take heed of my words.
Love me now, and your spirit will fly.

Hear me in the howling of the wolf,
My voice is the song of the Bards,
I am the power that helps the salmon leap,
I am the very first breath of a child.

From Damh the Bard’s Song of Awen.

 

It has been a long journey into considering the role of the bardic arts in the druid tradition and the role that creativity plays in spirituality. I realized that one final thing was missing from our discussion–a set of practical exercises and rituals that you can use to better work with the flow of awen and embrace the path of the bard. And so, to finish out my long series on the Bardic Arts in the Druid Tradition, we turn today to some practical rituals and practices that you can engage in to help cultivate your own bardic practice. If you haven’t read the other posts in this series, you might want to start there.  They are, in order: the cultivation and flow of awen, cultural challenges surrounding taking up the path of the bard, tips for how to cultivate the bardic arts, the fine art of creating functional things, and finally, the bardic arts as a path of spiritual development.  And so today, we look at five practices that can help you further cultivate the bardic creative arts in your life and in the lives of others: the bardic circle/Eisteddfod, a bardic storytelling ritual, a ritual for invoking the awen, setting up a magical creative working space, and a ritual for cultivating the bardic arts.  I hope that these suggestions offer you some practical tools as you continue on your own path of the bard and embrace the creative flow of awen in your life!

 

Hosting a Bardic Circle or Eisteddfod

In the modern druid tradition, an Eisteddfod is a circle of bards who come together to share tales, stories, dances, and more.  We use this term more loosely in the druid community than where it originated historically, and to frame this practice, understanding a bit about the Welsh Eisteddfod is necessary. Welsh Eisteddfods are traditional bardic arts competitions that have been has been held on a national level in Wales since the 18th century, but go back in various forms much further than that. One of the key early figures in the druid revival, Iolo Morganwg, took the Eisteddfod a bit further.  He developed a “Gorsedd,” which was an event within the Eisteddfod that offered various degrees, ritual and ceremony for the for the purpose of promoting excellence in the bardic arts, particularly poetry, music, and literature. To this day the Welsh Gorsedd has druids, bards, and ovates who wear various robes.  The ranks of the bards include individuals who sit for exams in a variety of bardic arts, Welsh language, and more. Ovates and druids are honored for their contributions to Welsh Culture. Both of these practices persist to this day in Wales, and they take on a particular flavor in the modern Druid communities that trace their roots to the druid revival.

 

In modern Druid communities, it is very common to experience an Eisteddfod, sometimes simply for sharing, and other times, for a bardic arts competition.  Most typically, the bardic circles happen around campfires and can last into the wee hours of the morning.  Sometimes, the Eisteddfod is setup as a formal competition with multiple rounds, winners of individual rounds get to compete at the final night of the gathering.  The winner gets a prize, or at least, serious community recognition. But also, just as often, there is no competition and instead, it is a chance simply to share something by the fire: a poem, a story, a song, . Sharing at an Eisteddfod does not come easily to many people due to a lifetime of cultural conditioning, however, sharing at an Eisteddfod  allows you to break the potential years of silence and thinking you aren’t good enough and again realize there you are, telling a tale and hearing a thunderous applause.

 

Starting an Eisteddfod: You can start an Eisteddfod with friends (including non-druid friends). Ideally, you need a circular space where people can gather and enough people to make it a good time. A campfire or fireplace to gather around is a plus, but not necessary. Consider having a potluck meal as part of your Eisteddfod.

 

Damh the Bard Concert at OBOD East Coast Gathering a few years back

Damh the Bard Concert at OBOD East Coast Gathering a few years back

A Simple Setup. For an Eisteddfod, you need a space where people can gather, enough people to share stories, songs, dances, and other creative expressions, and some libations and food. A fire is a bonus, but is by no means necessary. You also need a master of ceremonies of sorts to help keep things going.  If you are doing an actual competition, you need two additional things: a panel of judges who will be able to declare winners and prizes for the winners.

 

The best part about an Eisteddfod don’t need to invite “druids” over or people on a similar spiritual path. Everyday folks from a variety of different traditions and life paths might find the idea of the Eisteddfod appealing and join your circle of bards.  It is a good way for solitary druids to find community without other druids nearby and still engage in a core practice in the druid tradition.

 

A Bardic Storytelling Ritual of Empowerment

The stories of our own past and histories can help shape our present understanding. This ritual is performed by two people. It can be performed in a sacred space, around a fire, or over a period of days where two people are spending them together. In this ritual, we use the bardic art of storytelling to share stories that are themed through one of four Jungian archetypes (the hero, caregiver, magician, and bard). The two people take turns telling their stories, and while one is telling the tale, the other is deeply listening. At the end of the tale, the listener shares the deeper qualities that he/she heard. For example in a tale of the hero, the listener might hear that the speaker showed bravery, quick wittedness, and eloquence. The goal of this storytelling ritual is to allow both participants to recognize the other’s gifts, the things that are already within ourselves, and that we may want to further cultivate.  Write down the qualities that the listener tells you for each of the stories—they are qualities to remember, and draw upon, for our own healing and growth.

 

The following four archetypes can be used:

  • The Hero (a person who employs courageous acts)
  • The Caregiver (a person who protects and cares for others)
  • The Bard (a person who realizes a creative vision)
  • The Magician (one who is able to work magic)

 

Other possibilities that you might want to include beyond the original three.

  • The Explorer (one who goes on a journey)
  • The Lover (one who expresses deep love for another)
  • The Sage (a person who seeks truth and deeper self awareness)
  • The Ruler (one who helps lead others)

Ritual for Invoking Awen

This very simple ritual for invoking Awen connects us deeply with the waters and the flow of Nywfre. You can use it at the start of any creative endeavor.

 

Supplies: Sacred Water. Before you can do this ritual, you will need to gather some water from a place sacred to you. Natural springs or wells are particularly effective for this, as is rainwater. If you are home-bound, even getting a bottle of fresh spring water from a local source will be effective here. Once you have your water, you can “make more” sacred water for this ceremony by simply adding new water (of any kind) to it. This water can also be used in your elemental altar, below. Place the sacred water in a small glass bowl and have it available for the ritual.

 

Sacred Flows from a Local Spring

Sacred Flows from a Local Spring

The Ritual:  Begin by taking three or more deep breaths, settling yourself into your body and allowing your breath to center and calm you. When you are ready, close your eyes and ring out the “Awen” chant three times. Then, with the bowl of sacred water, lathe your brow and your hands, and say “May the Awen flow within me. May the muse inspire me.” Take a moment to visualize the flow of the Awen within you, flowing in from the land, sea, and sky.

 

Setting up a Magical Creative Working Space: A Bardic Altar

 

Setting up Your Altar

We can use the elemental systems present in the druid tradition to help cultivate the right kind of energy for our own creative workings. One very effective way of doing this is to draw upon the power of the elements to create a physical shrine dedicated to helping you with your creative bardic arts.

 

For the bardic arts, we might use a four-fold elemental system as follows:

  • Fire – Beginning projects, gathering steam, projects of passion and intensity, any body-based work
    • Materials for Altar: Candles, igneous rocks, plant material that likes to burn (like white birch, conifers), red altar cloth, images of fire/sun/light
  • Air – Projects that require deep and clear thinking, projects that are mind/language/communication/memory based, writing/poetry/songwriting projects, problem solving
    • Materials for Altar: Incense, white/light gray/light yellow altar cloth, feathers, wind chimes, bells, singing bowls, images of the sky and clouds
  • Water – Building positive emotions towards a project, overcoming challenges, allowing the Awen to simply flow through you, any painting-based work (watercolor), other work that requires flow and fluidity (like dance)
    • Materials: Bowl of water, collection of water from sacred places, shells, river stones, opals, blue altar cloth, images of water/rivers/lakes, lake plants, seaweed/lake weed
  • Earth – Continuing on with a longer project that you are growing weary of, stubbornness and determination, also any wood-based work or earth-based work (clay), any nature-themed work
    • Materials: Stones, roots, nuts, fruit, bowl of earth, brown or green altar cloth, bark, images of caves and mountains

You can create a small elemental altar near where you are working on your bardic arts to help bring in that elemental energy to the space. You can change the “focus” of the altar based on what elemental energy you might need at the moment for your work. An altar cloth and change of materials will allow you to always bring in the blessing of the element.

 

For example, I have a permanent elemental altar on a shelf in my art studio. While all of the elements are present, the major focus of the altar rotates based on the project I’m working on. If I am particularly deficient and having difficulty (for me, this is almost always in earth and maintaining my focus on a longer project over time) I will dedicate the entire altar space to the energies of the earth for that purpose. And so, I gather up things that are representative of the earth: leaves, acorns, roots, soil, and a potted plant and bring them into the altar.  I also include a small bowl of water, incense, and a candle to represent the other elements (as their presence is also needed for any project to come into manifestation).  Finally, I include an awen symbol on the altar to recognize and connect with the divine inspiration that drives the creative work.

 

In addition to the elements, you might want to put other pieces on the altar that are dedicated to your particular bardic arts.  For example, if you are working on writing, an old-style pen and inkwell might be appropriate, or a symbol fo Mercury, who governs communication.  If you are a dancer, an old pair of dance shoes and a photo of a dancer who inspires you would be appropriate, and so on.

 

Earth Altar in Kitchen for Magical Crafting and Magical Culinary Arts

Earth Altar in Kitchen for Magical Crafting and Magical Culinary Arts

Another option if you don’t have space for an altar or you don’t have a dedicated bardic arts space (or it isn’t appropriate due to living circumstances) is to hang an elemental representation (or set of representations) somewhere near where you practice your bardic art.  So if you practice your storytelling in front of the mirror in the bathroom, hang up a painting or photo of the element(s) or a natural place that is strongly aligned with that element that will aid you.  You could also use a simple awen drawing for this purpose.

Using Your Altar

You can use the altar in a variety of ways.  The presence of the altar itself will have a beneficial on the bardic work. Pausing before you begin the work to open up a sacred space (see below) using the altar as a focus is also a useful practice.  Tending the water regularly (changing the bowl of water, regular adding of new things, dusting, etc.) also connects you to that bardic practice.  Even if you don’t have time to engage in your bardic arts that day, visiting the altar and offering an awen chant will continue to encourage the flow of awen in your life.

 

Before you begin to do magical crafting or practice your bardic art, you can use the altar as a focus point to open up a sacred bardic grove, which I’ll now discuss.

 

 

Opening up a Sacred Bardic Arts Space

As the druid tradition recognizes that the bardic arts are inherently connected to spiritual practice, you can create a sacred space in which to engage in your bardic arts by using a simple sacred grove opening. This practice is particularly effective if you are working on a project that is new, challenging, or spiritual in nature.

 

This could be very simple:

  • Declaring that you are opening a space for working in your bardic art
  • Declaring peace in the quarters
  • Drawing upon the four elements for strength (see below)
  • Asking the Awen to flow within (see below)
  • Putting up a sphere of protection (AODA) or a simple protective circle (OBOD) for the duration of your crafting experience.

 

Here is some elemental invoking language you can use:

  • May the blessings of the Air inspire me and give me focus and clarity for my creative work.
  • May the blessings of Fire inspire me and give me passion and creativity for my creative work.
  • May the blessings of Water inspire me and allow the work to flow.
  • May the blessings of Earth inspire me and give me grounding and strength.

 

You can also get more specific with the language based on the bardic art.

 

To invoke Awen, yo might use a simple poem:

I call upon the Awen, the ancient source of divine inspiration,

I call upon the muses, the hallowed ones who guide my hand/voice/body
[as appropriate]

I call upon the living earth, the force of nature that inspires my craft.

I call upon my ancestors, whose creativity flows within me.

[Add any additional calls as is appropriate]

May the blessing of the awen flow within me this day and always. 

 

And with that, you can open your sacred space for creating the bardic arts, and leave it open as long as you plan on working that day.

 

A Celtic Galdr Ritual for Land Healing May 10, 2017

The following is a land healing ritual that we did at the OBOD’s Mid-Atlantic (MAGUS) gathering last weekend (May 2017).  (For a wonderful review of this gathering, please see Dean Easton’s A Druid’s Way Blog!) This ritual was done by about 45 participants surrounding a small cluster of Eastern Hemlocks (Tsugae Canadensis) at Four Quarters in Artemis, PA. The purpose of the ritual was to raise healing and positive energy for the Eastern Hemlock trees who are currently suffering and being threatened by the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, with a secondary purpose of inner work for each participant. To do this, we used a ritual structure using a combination of Galdr and Wassail/Tree magic. This post includes background information on the ritual, instructions, and the ritual itself.

 

Background Information

Eastern Hemlock and the Wooly Adelgid

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

Beautiful (adelgid free) hemlock trees

The Eastern Hemlock (Tsugae Canadensis) trees are a keystone species throughout the Eastern US, and are the state tree of PA. To learn more about the Eastern Hemlock, you can visit my post on this tree’s medicine, magic, folklore, and more. Hemlocks are currently are under severe threat from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. The Hemlock Wooly Adelgid is a non-native aphid that came to the US in the 1950’s and is substantially spreading in its range. The adelgid sucks the sap out of the trees, slowly killing the tree, with death of the tree typically resulting 5-10 years after infestation. Millions of hemlocks along the eastern seaboard have already been lost to the adelgid.  One of the “lines” of the spread of the adelgid is at Four Quarters farm.

 

After I did deep reflection and communion with elder hemlocks in an old growth forest in the region (at Laurel Hill State Park) over a period of years, and after talking with the hemlocks at 4Q during a prior visit, I had the sense that we should do a ritual to raise energy for them. However, the hemlocks were very specific: they wanted us to raise energy for them to do with it what they saw fit (as opposed to something more specific like eradicating the adelgids, etc). And so, this particular ritual sends them positive energy with no particular intention beyond those given in the Ogham trees we are invoking.

 

Galdr Magic

A Galdr (“incantation”) is a type of chanting or incantation in the Norse tradition. In the Norse tradition, Galdr is done through drawing runes and then chanting them for various kinds of blessings. Since we are druids, we instead chose to use Ogham (a Celtic tree divination system) and integrate existing tree magic (see next section).

 

The basic practice of Galdr is to draw a rune, and then take the word for the rune and break it into syllables or single sound combinations (with variations). For those druids used to chanting the Awen, the principle is the same, in that, we draw power and chant in a loud voice, just like we would with the Awen. This means that any Ogham Galdr chant should be powerful, meaningful, and energetic. For Duir (Oak), we might have something like:

Duir Duir Duir

Dooo Ahhh Iiiirr

Du Du Du Du

Duir Duir Duir

Galdr is flexible and each person who does it will likely do it a bit differently. The important thing is the repetition of the chant to raise energy (in our case, for land healing).

 

Ogham and Tree Magic

Ogham Fews Created for the Ritual

Ogham Fews Created for the Ritual

The second piece of inspiration this ritual draws upon is the Ogham, a tree alphabet that developed in Britain, Wales, and Ireland sometime between the 1st and 4th century AD, likely by druids or other Irish scholars. It was originally used to write the early Irish alphabet and can still be found carved into various stones and in surviving manuscripts up until the Middle Ages. Each ogham has an associated Celtic tree and today, we druids use this as a divination and meditation system to work deeper with the trees. And so, we’ve replaced the “traditional” runes in the Galdr with Ogham.

 

We have selected four Ogham for this particular healing work based on their energy:

  • Quert (Apple). This is the energy of love/support, wholeness, support, and health (this is the message we send to the trees).
  • Straif (Blackthorn in traditional ogham, blackberry in our more local ogham). This is the energy of cleansing, removal, strife, the power of fate, and pain (we are using this energy in an unwinding manner, so removing these things). In our ritual, the Straif leader had the participants do two kinds of energetic work: first, a guttural removal of pain and suffering (through voice) and then a more gentle healing and renewal after the pain was removed.
  • Beith (Birch). This is the energy of new beginnings, rebirth, and renewal (this is the energy we offer–rebirth, renewal, new beginnings)
  • Duir (Oak). This is the energy of strength, being rooted and grounded, protection, and knowledge, the knowledge of the oaks.

If you were going to adapt this ritual, you could choose different ogham based on your purposes. These were specifically selected for the needs of the Eastern Hemlocks in this region and the willingness of these other trees/plants to lend their support.

 

Wassail

The third piece of inspiration this ritual is using magic from the old orchard Wassail traditions (for more on Wassail, see here). In this tradition, a single apple tree was selected as a representative of all of the apple trees in the orchard or local to the area. Around the central tree, people circled and enacted various rituals (such as offering it spiced cider, toast, and bowing to it). In this way, the tree was able to accept the blessing and then channel that blessing to the entire forest.

 

Our ritual was around a central hemlock tree in the evening as the sun was beginning to set. The central tree was the “receiving” tree and served as a proxy for all other hemlock trees.  The final act of this ritual is channeling that energy down through the roots to the other Hemlocks at Four Quarters and beyond.

 

Land Healing

The broader framework for this ritual comes from some of my earlier work on this blog on healing the land using various energetic approaches.  Druids, and other earth-based spiritual practitioners, can take an active role in healing the land and regenerating human-land connections, both through energetic healing and ritual as well as through active land regeneration, scattering seeds, and permaculture design.

 

Ritual Setup

Roles:

Four Ritualists:

  • Quert (Apple) Galdr Leader (Also connected to Water/West Energy)
  • Straif (Blackberry) Galdr Leader (Also connected to Fire/South Energy)
  • Beith (Birch) Galdr Leader (Also connected to Air/East Energy)
  • Duir (Oak) Warder Leader (Also connected to Earth/North Energy)

Participants:

  • Quert Participants (group created through ogham draw, approx. 5-10 participants)
  • Straif Participants (group created through ogham draw, approx. 15-20)
  • Beith Participants (group created through ogham draw, approx. 25-30)
  • Duir Participants (group created through ogham draw, approx. 5-10, including those who are mobility challenged, and those tending outer fires)

 

Materials (created in advance):

Signs for Ogham Ritual

Signs for Ogham Ritual

Ogham Signs. Ogham signs can be held by ritualists.  The signs we created have each few, the common name, and the ogham name. This will allow participants to easily find their group.

 

Ogham Fews. Ogham fews should preferably be from the wood or material represented (this is why we are using local ecosystem adaptations for Straif). We had created 30 Beith fews, 20 Straif fews, 10 Quert fews, 10 Duir fews for particiapnts to draw.  Participants also get to keep their few at the end of the ritual.

 

Basket or bag for drawing fews.

Pre-Ritual Discussion and Practice

Pre-ritual discussion and practice can take place just before the ritual, but can also be done at a separate time (not too far before the ritual, however).

 

Step 1: Hemlock Tree Attunement

For our ritual, participants first drank a bit of Eastern Hemlock needle tea and sitting quietly with the trees; this allowed participants to connect with the trees on a physical level and begin to create a spiritual connection.  This simple tea can be brewed up by collecting needles (old or young) and small branches and pouring boiling water over them and letting them sit till they are cool.  At that point, add a little raw honey and strain.  In the case of our ritual, participants drank the Eastern Hemlock tea and sat with the trees quietly for about 10 minutes before coming back and drawing an ogham few (see step 2).

 

Step 2: Ogham Stave Drawing

After drinking the tea and spending time in quiet listening with the hemlock trees, participants each draw an Ogham few for the ritual (participants should draw by feel, not by sight). In the case of our ritual, participants drew their ogham fews at an afternoon land healing workshop; this allowed them to attune with the energy of that particular few prior to our evening ritual.

 

Step 3. Forming Groups, Pre-Ritual Discussion, and Galdr Practice.

At the start of our ritual, later in the day from the Ogham draw, each ritualist held their signs (with the Ogham symbol) to form their group. Each ritualist held a separate pre-ritual discussion where they explained the specific Ogham and energy that group is working with. Each group practiced their Galdr chant prior to the ritual. Ritualists each design their own Galdr chant and allow participants create variations. In order to do this work, ritualists do prior work with the tree energy they are invoking (through meditation, sitting with them, etc).

 

The Ritual

All participants gather in a large circle around the central hemlock tree. Fires are tended so that we can see in the waning light (fire tenders are part of Duir group). All ritualists memorized the script in advance so we had no impediments, need for flashlights, etc.

1. Participants Ground and Clear

         Duir Warder leads participants in three breaths to ground and connect with the energies of the sacred place.

 

2. Open up a Sacred Space

Duir Warder declares the space open (by the power of star and stone…)

 

Straif Galdr Leader makes offering to the outsiders to ensure that we don’t attract unwanted guests, but also to deal with those “outside” aspects of ourselves that might resist some of the healing work we are doing within.

 

Beith Galdr Leader calls east.

 

Straif Galdr Leader calls south.

 

Quert Galder Leader calls west.

 

Duir Warder calls north.

 

Quert Galdr Leader offers circle words to open up the space (“The circle of our lives….”)

 

Duir Warder and Duir Participants cast circle as a group, walking around the outside of the participant circle.

 

3. Participants take their places

Due to our declining light and the many root systems under the trees, all participants went into place in their three concentric circles around the hemlocks prior to the Galdr beginning. (If you had more light, you can have them circle up one at a time after the previous group finishes their chant). Quert was the first circle, Straif was the second circle (encompoassing Quert and the Hemlocks), Beith was the third circle (encompassing Straf, Quert, and the Hemlocks), and Duir was the final circle (Duir spread out along the outside edge, and did not link hands like the other groups).

 

4A. Quert Chants

The Quert (Apple) group, with signal from Quert Galdr Leader link hands and begin to chant, circling the tree desoil (sunwise). After a small amount of time has passed and they have begun to raise the appropriate energy, they raise their hands (signaling the next group). They stay in place, lowering their hands, and continue to chant.

 

4B. Duir Warders Reinforce Circle

As Quert begins their chant, the Duir Warders begin their own chant to reinforce the circle and hold the space. They continue to chant while the remaining Galdr chants take place.

 

5. Straif Chants

Straif begins their Galdr chant, links hands and circles the tree widdershins (anti-sunwise). After a small amount of time has passed and they have begun to raise the appropriate energy, they raise their hands (signaling the next group). They stay in place, lowering their hands, and continue to chant.

 

6. Beith Chants

The Beith group, with signal from Beith Galdr Leader begins their chant, linking hands and circling the tree desoil (sunwise). After a small amount of time has passed and they have begun to raise the appropriate energy, they raise their hands. They stay in place, lowering their hands, and continue to chant.

 

7. All Chants end. When the energy is sufficiently raised, Quert Galdr Leader raises hands (with her group) which is the signal for all other Galdr Leaders and participants to raise hands and end the chant.

 

8. Duir Channels Energy. As the chant ends and the quiet settles back in, the Duir group comes into the center (coming through raised hands) and touches the hemlock trees (central trees). They channel the energy raised in the ritual into the central trees, sending it down into the roots, and radiating it outward.

 

9. All participants form large circle again. After this work is done, Duir Warder Leader invites participants to form a large circle once again.

 

10. Grounding. Beith Galdr Leader leads a grounding activity (in our ritual, this involved deep breathing, putting our hands on the earth for a time, and having participants literally shake off some of the excess energy).  This is a powerful ritual and grounding is certainly necessary!

 

11. Close the Space and Send out Energy

Quert Galder Leader: “It is the hour of recall….let us thank the quarters…”

 

Duir Warder Leader thanks the north.

 

Quert Galder Leader thanks the west.

 

Straif Galdr Leader thanks the south.

 

Beith Galdr Leader thanks the east.

 

Duir Warder Leader and Duir Participants unwind the circle and Duir Warder Leader declares space closed. (Note, we found that the channeling of energy itself into the roots unwound the circle so this last step wasn’t used during our ritual as that work as already done!  But otherwise, it would be a necessary to do it.)

 

Post-Ritual Discussion. Each group had a post-ritual discussion. Part of this was to allow the Ritualists to ensure that all participants were grounded (especially new folks). But it was also an opportunity for each group to share their experiences and compare notes.  Don’t skip this part!

 

Additional Notes and Adaptations

 

Three Concentric Circles of Healing. Just as this ritual uses three moving and concentric circles of people surrounding a tree for land healing, it also works on three levels with participants. The ritual was intentionally designed to foster A) healing for the trees, B) healing/energy work for each group and C) healing/energy work for each participant. Participants draw their fews, which puts them in a group that is most appropriate for the energy they need to work with. Each person in the ritual thus has their own ritual and own experience. Each group works together to enact their part of the ritual, thus having a shared experience that is unique to the group. The whole group, likewise, works for the good of healing the land. It is for this reason that the pre- and post-ritual discussions are so important—they are part of the ongoing part of the group and individual ritual. Each participant, likewise, is important and necessary in this ritual and has a role to fill (compared to some, where participants are more passive observers).

 

What happened at the MAGUS gathering is that after the Galdr, people talked a lot about the ritual and had to “uncover” what each other’s roles were.  A number of rich discussions ensued surrounding the ritual at our gathering, and it kindled a number of connections and insights.  I remember four of us sitting at a table for a meal and realizing we had all been in different Galdr groups, and so each of us shared about the ritual and the work we did, the group work, and our personal experiences.

           

Adapting this Ritual for Multiple Participants. This ritual could be adapted to a much smaller or larger group. A group as small as four could do it (with four ogham drawn, and each participant representing one of the four sacred trees). This ritual could also in theory be done by a solo practitioner with some heavy modification (although I’d have to give it some thought in terms of how that might be done!)

 

Adapting this Ritual for Multiple Purposes. I believe that this ritual could be adapted using other Ogham trees for other kinds of healing purposes, including purposes beyond land healing. If anyone does such adaptations, please let me know here in the comments!

 

PS: Please note that this ritual was designed by Tsugae Canadensis (Eastern Hemlock) and made manifest by myself (Dana O’Driscoll) and Cat McDonald (you can find Cat at the Druid’s Well) with additional input from John Adams, Elmdea Bean, and Nicole Sussurro.

 

PPS: I know I said I was taking a short blogging hiatus for a few weeks, but everyone at the gathering wanted to see this ritual, and my blog was the best place to post it and archive it.  I’ll return to regular posting in June as promised :).

 

Druid Tree Workings: January Tree Blessings and Wassail for Abundance January 6, 2017

Deep, in the darkest months of winter, a variety of cultures offered blessings to the trees for abundant harvests. A few years ago on this blog, I wrote about Wassailing at a friend’s orchard; since then, I’ve done wassailings each year and have built this as an important part of my yearly cycle as a druid.

 

Abundant harvests of apples!

Abundant harvests of apples!

Since learning about wassailing, I’ve grown interested in tracking down other kinds of tree and land blessings for abundant harvests, especially those taking place in January. I have uncovered some small tidbits that suggested that Native American tribes here in the the Northeastern USA offered maple blessings to ensure a long maple sap flow for the coming year in the dark winter months, however, I haven’t found any of the details of these ceremonies or when exactly they were held.  Also, I have recently gotten word of a few other ceremonies. One of my blog readers, John Wilmott, reports that in Scotland up into the 1980’s, January 6th was “herring and tattles” day, where the nets of the fishing communities are smeared with gravy and mashed potatoes and herring are flung into the sea; afterwards, people bless themselves through dancing. This isn’t a tree blessing per say, but is a sea blessing for those who depend on the sea for their sustenance (in the same way an oak tree blessing would be used by an acorn-dependent culture).

 

Today’s post looks at tree blessings from this broad perspective. Given the importance of treecrops and harvests of all kinds, I suspect that these tree blessings were once very common in many cultures, but obviously, many haven’t survived till the present day. However, the druid tradition offers some insights for those of us wanting to reconnect with our trees and do tree blessings. I thought that given the time of the year, I’d share a few ways that we can go about blessing trees this January!  So in this post I’ll cover both how to do a traditional wassail for apple trees, and also share a general blessing that can be adapted for nut-bearing trees, sap-bearing trees, fruit-bearing trees or general trees upon the landscape. But first, we’ll delve into a bit of why tree blessings are so important through exploring perennial agriculture and history.

 

Treecrops and Tree Blessings

Why we bless the trees is the same reason we bless many other things–to ensure prosperity, health, and abundant harvests.  While these blessings many seem like quaint celebrations now, simply nostalgic remembering and honoring of an old tradition, it is important to understand just how critical trees–and treecrops–were for human survival. In the time before factory farms and supermarkets, humans depended intimately on trees for clean beverages, nutrient and calorie dense foods, and foods that stored well for the winter months.

 

Treecrops offer humans enormous harvests for very little input; they can support both hunter/gatherer types societies as well as supplement agriculturally-based ones. Treecrops are simple to grow–you plant and tend the tree, or, better yet, you find the tree in the wild and honor it and harvest from it. Compare this to traditional agriculture, which requires a tremendous amount of input: hoeing/tilling the ground, planting the seeds, tending young seedlings, watering and ensuring adequate soil, dealing with pests, harvesting, putting the food by for darker months, and saving the seeds, all to do it again at the start of the next season. Treecrops and other perennial crops don’t require all of this input; they don’t require us to till up the ground each year (disrupting the soil web); they don’t require us to water or fertilize (as long as we maintain a healthy and diverse ecosystem). This is part of why permaculture design focuses so much on perennial agriculture (nuts, berries, perennial greens) as opposed to annual crops. Some fruit trees do benefit from pruning of course, but any visit to a wild or abandoned orchard will tell you that apples have no problems producing without our tending!  This is all to say that trees give of themselves freely, without asking much in return. It is no wonder that so many ancient peoples, from all around the world, have honored them.

 

Many cultures survived on treecrops as staple foods or supplemented their diets heavily with them: here in Pennsylvania,  for example, according to an old manual from the PA Forestry Department from 1898, a full 25% of our forests were chestnut before the blight, with another 25% in oak and 10% in walnut. That’s 60% of our forests in perennial nut crops that offered high calorie, abundant, starch and protein. This is not by accident, but rather, by careful tending on the part of the Native Americans, who used these nuts as their staple food crops.

 

In fact, many “acorn eating” and “acorn dependent” cultures were slowly driven out by colonization here in the US; however, acorns and other nut crops remain a critical food source for wildlife (and wild food foragers, like yours truly).  As a wild food forager, I can’t speak highly enough of the abundance of these treecrops.  Once you start harvesting nuts as part of your food stuffs, you grow to quickly appreciate how crazy abundant trees are in certain years–even with harvesting only once a week and leaving most for wildlife, I was able to harvest sacks of apples, hickories, walnuts, and acorns and enjoy them all winter long.

 

Acorns

Acorns

Two other tidbits about these treecrops. Sugar maple, and other sugary trees (birch, even walnut) also offered a fresh source of drinkable and pure liquid and also offer one of the only sweeteners available (other than robbing a beehive, which is not exactly a pleasant encounter!). So they, too, were blessed by native peoples. Finally, apple was introduced by colonizers from Europe, and in that culture, represented opportunity both for fermentation into alcohol and for fresh eating for winter storage. Johnny Appleseed wasn’t just spreading those apples across the US for fresh eating–rather, hard cider was what was on the mind of him and many others as the apple took root here in the US.  And with the apple came, of course, the apple orchard blessing.

 

We can see from some of the above is that treecrops are a critical staple both for Europeans and European settlers living in temperate climates as well as for traditional hunter/gatherer cultures (and for many wild food foragers and homesteaders today). Treecrops offer tremendous staples in any diet and are very worthy of blessing for an abundant harvest.  These dietary blessings are in addition to the trees’ ability provide warmth and shelter in nearly any situation!

 

The Timing of Tree Blessings in January

Like many things shrouded in long-standing tradition, the origin of the timing of these tree blessings, of various sorts, is not entirely clear, although most often, they take place either on January 6th or January 17th.

 

I have a theory from my own experience, however, and I’ll share it here. With exceptions like mulberry, nearly all treecrops have really good storage capacity, some six months or longer, enough to see you through a long and dark winter.  Apples, walnuts, acorns, pears–these all store extremely well, allowing people to make it through the cold dark months.  When these folks are watching their fruit and root cellars grow smaller and smaller, and those blessed apples and nuts are still there, storing well and filling the belly, it is no wonder that the tree blessings emerged in the darkest and coldest months of the year.

 

Another reason (and one commonly given) for the timing of Wassail in January is that this is also the same season in which pruning was done (as trees need to be pruned while they are dormant).  So while you are in your orchard anyways, it is a good time to honor the trees with a little wassail!

 

A final reason might have to do with the timing of cider fermentation–apple cider takes some time, and if you are pressing it and fermenting it around Samhuinn, it is likely ready to bottle and drink by early January; a perfect time to begin the cycle of harvesting again for the upcoming year.

 

The timing of these blessings has a few derivations.  Wassail takes place either on January 5th or 6th (the 12th night from the Winter Solstice) or January 17th (as is the custom in some places in south-western England and here in the USA).  Most of the literature on the surviving custom in the Southern Parts of England talk about this ceremony being done on January 17th specifically.  Both of these dates are called “old 12th night” by various sources. I would suspect, also, that the Native American tradition of blessing the maples comes around this period–as blessings are likely to precede a harvest (and the harvest of maple sap starts in mid-February at the earliest).

 

Given all of this, I’d like to propose that January seems like a very good time for all kinds tree blessings, especially for our fruit, nut, and sugar trees. Now that we’ve got some sense of the treecrops and blessings as well as timing and importance, I’m going to share two different blessings here that you can use on treecrops.

 

Wassail (Waes-Hael) for Apples and Pears

I’m going to share the details of the Waes Hael first, because we will use some of the key features of this surviving tree blessing ritual in the othe ritual I’ll present.

 

A good harvest of wild apples

A good harvest of wild apples

The wassail tradition, coming from Anglo Saxon “waes-hael” means good health.  There are actually a series of related traditions surrounding apples and their beverages that are called wassail. Wassailing, in general, took place on either on New Years or all of the 12 days of Christmas.  A drink was placed in a large “wassail bowl” containing mulled cider, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, sometimes cream, sometimes baked apples, and other things. This drink was brought around to others for their good health during the New Year (its where we get the song, “Here we come a-wassailing, among the leaves so green; Here we come a-wassailing, So fair to be seen…”).

 

This same drink and bowl made their way into the Apple Orchard for the Apple Wassail (and in some cases, Wassail was also done for pear trees with perry, or fermented pear cider). The tree blessing ceremony, Apple Wassailing, which is centered around apple trees and focuses on blessing the orchard for abundant crops in the coming year. The goals of this ceremony, as passed in the traditional lore, are to awaken the trees, to drink to their health, and to scare away evil spirits which may interfere with a good harvest.  As in many old customs, there are many parts to the ceremony and a lot of derivation depending on what sources or places you are talking about.   Here is one version:

 

Supplies needed: mulled cider (wassail) in a wassail bowl; mugs; toast; noisemakers/drums

 

The Ritual:

1.  One tree is selected to receive the blessing for the orchard.  This is usually a large, old, or otherwise dominant tree with space to move about it, branches that people can reach, and accessible roots.

2.  People gather around the tree with noisemakers (drums, buckets to pound on, etc).   The first wassail song can be sung (we never knew any melodies for them so we made them up!)

3.  Cider is ceremoniously poured from the steaming wassail bowl into each participant’s cup.

4.  Participants pour an offering of cider from each of their cups on the roots of the tree and then drink to the tree’s good health.

5.  Participants bless the tree with an offering of toast, dipping toast in their mugs and then hanging the pieces of toast from the tree’s branches. Alternatively, a King and Queen are chosen, the king offers the queen his mug, she dips the toast in the mug, and then hangs the toast on the branches of the tree.)

6.  More wassail songs are sung.

7.  A lot of noise is made around the trees to scare away the evil spirits that may be lurking there.

In some traditions, the trees are also beat to ensure a good harvest.  I wrote about tree beatings a bit in my post on Walnut (and I will write about them again in my upcoming post about the sacred apple tree). Beating trees (which obviously damages them) can force the tree to bear more fruit as it is damaged and wants to produce more offspring.  Beating apple trees at certain times of the year also forced them to set fruit faster.  As a druid, I absolutely do not advocate the beating of trees (you can see my response below under the tree blessings).

8.  The official ceremony is over, and people may enjoy a potluck with apple-themed ingredients (at least, that’s how we did it in Michigan!)

 

There are a few key aspects of this ritual I’d like to point out, for we’ll see them again in the more general rituals I’m proposing. First is the selection of a single tree that receives–and radiates outward–the blessing to all other trees.  This is important (for, after all, it is hard to bless each tree in the whole forest!) The second is a specially-prepared offering (ideally from its own fruit but lovingly crafted by human hands).  The third is raising energy through sounds around the tree to drive off any evil. Finally, there is this extremely long-standing tradition of beating trees, which I think we should mitigate in any blessing ritual.

 

Druid’s Winter Tree Blessing (With Variants for Oak/Nut Trees and Maple)

This is what we are looking for!

This is what we are looking for!

I think we can adapt the Wassail to bless many other kinds of trees in much the same way, also drawing from the druid tradition.  Here is an alternative blessing ritual that could be used for a variety of crops (I’m offering some variants here for those of you who would like to bless other fruit trees, other nut trees, sap-offering trees, or any trees).

 

Opening. Open a sacred space (I would use the AODA’s Solitary Grove Opening or the OBOD’s Grove Opening for this).  This helps establish the energies for the ritual and really should be included.  If you are including the Energetic Blessing, including the AODA’s Sphere of Protection (as part of the Solitary Grove opening)  or some other way of invoking the three currents at the start of this ritual is a wise idea (you can learn the AODA”s SOP from John Michael Greer’s Druidry Handbook or Druid Magic Handbook).

 

Honoring. After the space is opened, honor the trees with a simple blessing that establishes the intentions of the ceremony.  If you have poetry that is specific to those trees, it would be well to use it.  If not, a simple blessing like this one would work:

“Trees of life, of bounty, of peace, and of wisdom
Strong in your growth, your branches shelter us
Deep in your roots, you hold fast the soil of life
Many are your leaves, to share breath with us
Abundant are your [fruits, sap, nuts], that remove our hunger
Wise in your knowledge,  your teachings guide us
Quiet in your growth, you bring us the sun
Today, we are here to honor you
Today, we offer you blessings for the coming year
Today, we wish you long life, health, and abundance!”

For maples: You might add the following line:
“Oh maple tree, may your sap flow strong and sweet!”

For Oaks, you might add the following:
“Oh mighty oak, may your nuts rain down upon us!”

Make Offerings of Bread and Wine.  Offer the trees bread and some kind of fermented beverage. In the tradition of the Wassail, if these are home baked and home brewed, I believe it would be most effective. For fruit trees, offer toast with some fruit preparation (fruit fermented into wine or fruit jam); for nut trees, consider an acorn-nut bread (see Sam Thayer’s Nature’s Garden for more on harvesting and preparation). For maples, consider offering toast with maple syrup on it.

 

Make your offerings to the tree, much like the wassail ritual (pouring offerings into each participants’ cup and then letting them offer them at the roots) and offer the bread to the tree’s branches.

 

Radiate an Energetic Blessing. In one of my earlier posts on land healing, I described “energy” from the druid revival tradition, explaining the three currents (Solar, Telluric, and Lunar).  Here, I would suggest using words, movement, and visualzation to invoke these currents and radiate this blessing out to the land (those AODA members practicing the SOP should find this quite familiar):

 

With your dominant hand, trace a circle around the tree’s trunk above you in a clockwise fashion.  Visualize this circle in orange light. Say, “We call upon the solar current and the radiant energy of the celestial heavens. May a ray of the solar current descend and bless these trees with the fire of the sun!”  All participants should envision a golden ray coming down from the celestial heavens, through the tree, into its roots.

 

With your dominant hand, trace a circle around the tree’s roots in a clockwise fashion.  Visualize this circle in purple light.  Say, “We call upon the telluric current and the healing energy of the deep earth.  May a ray of the telluric current rise and bless these trees with the blessing of the heart of the earth!”  All participants should envision a green/gold ray arising from the heart of the earth and filling the tree with green/gold light.

 

All participants should visualizing the solar and telluric currents mingling within the tree.  Say, “We call upon the lunar current, the Awen, to radiate outward and bless this [forest/orchard].  With our blessing, may these trees grow heavy with [fruits/nuts] and be healthy this year!”  All participants should touch the tree and envision a glowing sphere of white light radiating outward from the tree to the whole forest.

 

End in Music, Drumming, or Song. You might end your ceremony with additional music, drumming, or singing for the benefit of the trees.

 

Close Your Space. Close out your ritual space.

 

Hug the tree. To mitigate the many tree beatings over the years, I would suggest ending the ritual after you’ve closed the space by giving the tree a hug.  Such a fitting ending to mitigate the many beatings that walnut, apple, and likely others faced to offer humans fruit.

 

Closing

I hope that this post was helpful for those of you considering doing a January tree blessing of some sort or another!  If you do these ceremonies, please write in and let me know how they go for you. Also, if anyone has any more information on tree blessings from other cultures (especially for abundance), I would love for you to share them here in the comments.  Finally, this year, a number of AODA members are wassailing all over the Americas on January 17th–we would love to have you join us.   Find out more in the AODA Forums on this thread. Blessings of January upon each of you!

 

Awaiting the Sunrise: Holding an Outdoor Winter Solstice Vigil December 17, 2016

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

Winter Solstice Fire Vigil

A group of people make music and merriment near a roaring fire during the longest night of the year. Their mission: to await the sunrise and hold vigil through the darkness with feasting, celebration, and the burning of the sacred yule log. The winter solstice vigil–lasting upwards of 15 hours in the darkness can be one of the most intensive, challenging, and rewarding experiences.  I’ve succeeded at one all-night vigil and failed at one all-night vigil (due to underpreparedness, see later in the post) and yet both have been moving experiences.  This year, on the 21st, a group of us is going to attempt an outdoor all night vigil.  At this point, the weather looks good (not dipping below 30 degrees and clear) which is about the best Winter Solstice Vigil weather you can ask for!

 

In preparation for next week’s vigil, I thought I’d take the opportunity today to reflect on the art of preparing for vigil, doing the vigil, and offering some contextualization for this kind of initiatory work. For one, I’m going to do vigil with some folks who haven’t done it before (and I started writing this for them and realized how useful it would be for others). Its a good idea to know what you are really in for with the Winter Solstice Vigil! But for two, I think its good information for anyone wanting to attempt such a vigil. I’ll cover the history of such a vigil, how to prepare physically and spiritually, what to do during your vigil, and offer simple rituals for both the setting and rising sun.  While this post is primarily focused on outdoor vigils, I’ll also include some tidbits about alterations if you aren’t able to be outside for the all night vigil.

 

Understanding and Defining “Vigil”

The term “vigil” itself gives us some understanding of the nature of this work.  The term vigil derives from Latin vigilia, which means “wakefulness.” When we look at a few dictionary definitions of “vigil” we get the following kinds of phrases: “a devotional watching, or keeping awake, during the customary hours of sleep“; “a purposeful wakefulness”; or “a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray.” All of these definitions offer us useful understanding and insight into the nature of a vigil and why one would take it on.  The Winter Solstice vigil is certainly a vigil–not usually so much of a solemn one, but one of wakefulness, watching, and sacredness where we work to tend our fires and eventually, welcome the sun back over the land.

 

The Winter Solstice: A Bit of History

Ceremony at the Winter Solstice reaches back, in some parts of the world, to pre-history.  The basic premise is simple: before the days of modern electric lighting, humans lived more closely with the seasons.  The days of darkness, where the earth seemed to stand still, needed humans’ help to bring the light back into the world.  And so, much of the celebrations and feasting at the time was focused on light and life.

 

Fires that burn against the darkness...

Fires that burn against the darkness…

For example, Sí an Bhrú (New Grange), is a neolithic monument in Ireland that is at least 5,000 years old.  New Grange is a large, circular earth chamber with a long stone entrance that is illuminated with the rays of the sunrise on the Winter Solstice. In other parts of the world, especially throughout Europe, the Winter Solstice was often celebrated with feasting and bonfires.  Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival of feasting, gift giving, and revelry in honor of Saturn, was originally on Dec 17th, but later expanded to Dec 17th – Dec 23rd.  Many Celtic peoples celebrated the “birth of the sun” or the “return of the sun” around the Solstice  (and it is no surprise that evergreen boughs were used to celebrate these events, given evergreen’s connection to life and longevity). A yule log was burned, sometimes with feasting lasting days or weeks.

 

With the rise of Christianity in the 4th century, the Catholic Church proclaimed that the “Birth of Christ” was on Dec 25th to tie to older feasting and merriment traditions.  So even today’s modern celebrations of “Christmas” hearken back to much older Winter Solstice traditions. Even today, we have houses lit up with lights, evergreen trees surrounded with lights and colorfully wrapped packages–all magical ways of raising up the sun.

 

All of this background is useful when thinking about the framing of a druid winter solstice ritual and vigil.  The mood is not solemn here, although solemn work and initiatory work can certainly happen. Rather, this is a patient wait–through celebration and feasting–for the rising of the Solstice sun.  Let’s now turn to some practical considerations before undertaking such a vigil.

 

Inner and Outer Preparation for the Solstice Vigil

Preparing for a winter solstice vigil requires both inner and outer preparation, which I’ll now describe.  Without both considerations, an all-night vigil can be dangerous and/or unsuccessful.  Such was the result of my first attempt at a winter solstice vigil. This was very early in my druid path, and I had really no idea what I was doing. I went to my sacred circle with my hat, gloves, and coat; a big pile of wood; a blanket; a tarp; and a thermos of hot tea; thinking that I would last the night and wait for the rising of the sun. For one, I had no idea how long this night was, nor how hard it was to hold vigil on my own. I quickly ran out of tea and wood, and a dwindling fire was not enough to keep the darkness and cold at bay.  Sometime deep in the quiet night, I grew too cold and the fire grew too dim and I and went back inside to my warm bed.  Better physical preparation could have substantially made this first attempt at a vigil more comfortable!

 

The general rule of thumb for these kinds of vigils is to over-prepare. That is, bring more warm clothes than you need, more food than you need, and more of any other supplies (like wood) than you think you’ll need.

 

Outer preparation: Common sense. The weather can be very variable in December and I ask that you please use common sense.  A night when it is 35 and the sky is dumping freezing rain down on you is a good way to get hypothermia, not enjoy a winter solstice vigil.  Tend to the weather carefully and only attempt this if you are sure you will be safe, warm, and dry.  This is my take on it–some years are not good for vigil.  I’ll still celebrate, but maybe I’ll light a candle in my window, or hold vigil in my house by the fire.  There are other ways of celebrating this–and what I offer here is one of many approaches.

 

Outer Preparation: Clothing. If you have never spent a cold night outside before, you may not realize how difficult it is to stay in a single place and hold vigil when it is less than 30 degrees Fahrenheit (which is fairly common for the places I’ve lived).  What this means, for you, realistically are several things: first, you need a lot of warm clothing, preferably of natural fibers like wool or fur. Second, you need to make sure you stay covered throughout the night, including the part of you that is not going to be near the fire (read, extra wool blankets).  Bring more than you think you will need, including a warm sleeping bag.  All of these things can help you get through the cold night.  Having another warm body (a dog, a snuggle partner) is also very helpful.

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

Friend Building a simple fireplace to reflect heat

 

Outer Preparation: A Good Fire.  There are a lot of ways of making fire, and making a blazing bonfire is not, actually, a good way to stay warm throughout the night.  Big fires require a lot of wood, and a 14 or more hour fire will consume huge amounts of it, blasting heat in all directions.  If there are enough folks to go the whole way around the fire, this is OK.  But more commonly, there aren’t that many people willing to stay up all night in the darkness!  If there are only a few of you, the better approach is to use bricks or stones and build up a reflective surface, then building the fire against that surface (see photo above).  The photo shows is a simple fire setup that is small but that will reflect much more heat due to the fire bricks piled up behind.  This would also stay lit in the rain and snow for much longer.  If I had had this kind of setup during my first  vigil, I likely would have made it longer into the night!

 

Outer Preparation: Hot Rocks: One of the strategies I learned about holding vigil has to do with hot rocks or hot bricks.  The strategy is simple: have some old towels and stones or bricks available.  I especially like a large flat stone that I can sit on. Putting the bricks/stones close to the fire to warm them, then wrapping them with a towel and sitting with them, really helps keep the cold at bay.  A largish one makes an amazing seat at 2am in the cold!

 

Outer Preparation: Hot food and Drinks:Warm food and feasting are a necessary part of a Winter Solstice vigil, in the tradition of so many millennia of feasting and celebration around this time of year.  I have a smallish iron cauldron to hang over the fire and a 12 quart dutch oven for the fire that I will be bringing to our ceremony to keep the hot liquids and foods flowing all evening for participants. Warm drinks of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety are necessary for a vigil. I don’t drink, I prefer warming herbal teas or cider mulled with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and orange peels.

 

Outer Preparation: First Aid. Its not a bad idea to have some general first aid materials available, especially if you are going to be doing your Winter Solstice vigil somewhere far away from civilization.  Preferably, also it is a good idea to have someone along who knows how to administer basic first aid.

 

Outer Preparation: Seating.  If you are using a chair sitting up, you will need to somehow wrap or protect your body against the chilly air from behind.  Sitting on blankets or wrapping yourself in a sleeping bag can work well for this, especially for the back parts of you away from the fire. I prefer to sit on the ground, but that presents its own unique challenges as the ground obviously gets frozen and really cold this time of year.  To sit on the ground for a period of hours successfully requires you to protect from cold and damp.  I use a tarp as my base layer to protect from the damp.  Then, I usually start with a sheep skin (which I have used for many ceremonies) and a few layers of blankets on top.

 

Inner/Outer Preparation: A Yule Log: The Yule Log tradition has many variations, but I like to use one for the Winter Solstice Fire Vigil.  A Yule log should ideally come from someone’s property or be found, never bought.  It is usually a tree or part of a tree, like a large stump.  The large stump will burn through the night, and that’s part of the tradition.  Usually, the log is somehow specially prepared and magically prepared; one older tradition has it wrapped in evergreen and doused in cider.  In my grove events, we’ve painted it with natural dyes, wood burned the log, added springs of cedar, and have done many other things to honor the log before it is added to the Winter Solstice fire.  The ashes of this log, and fire, are distributed to participants and are excellent for land blessings and tree planting ceremonies, among other things.

 

Inner Preparation: The Mindset:  In advance, it is a good idea to set some mental limits to the event and understand when you shouldn’t or should end the vigil: if you can’t feel your fingers and toes, maybe its time to end the vigil.  If you fall asleep, is that ok?  What about if everyone else wants to go home and off to sleep? Give some thought to what you will or will not do, given certain circumstances, in advance, to help your preparation.

 

Inner Preparation: Facing the Darkness. The other part of this ceremony, as with fasting and many other kinds of initiatory work, is that you really do push your body and spirits in ways to its limits.   Physically, the body may not be used to staying up all night, nor used to being in the cold for so long, or sitting by the fire for that many hours.  Understanding, going into this, that this is a sacred ceremony is important.  Also, you will be in the darkness for a long time.  You may, deep in the night, have to face your own darkness.  The darkness is darkest, and scariest, just before dawn.  I will never forget the end of a vigil evening I spent in the woods by myself–I had never been so happy to see the sun rise, and I was so proud that I stuck it out till that moment.  My own preparation for this kind of deep work involves sitting in darkness for some time for 30 min or so in the days leading up to the ceremony and doing other things to embrace the darkness this time of the year (you might look at my post from last Winter Solstice on embracing the darkness for many suggestions).

 

Opening the Vigil: A Ceremony

Serenading the setting sun....

Serenading the setting sun….

So if you are still reading, then we are ready for the Solstice eve to come and for the ceremony to begin! I have found that the vigil evening is essentially composed of three pieces: the vigil opening ceremony (which may be attended by more folks than those who are doing the all night vigil), the vigil itself, which involves feasting, merriment, as well as quiet times, and the vigil closing ceremony, which honors the rising sun.  I’ll take these each in turn, starting with the opening ceremony.

 

We will do our vigil opening ceremony just as the sun is setting, which for us, is about 5pm on the night of the Solstice.  Because we will have a larger group for this and for the first part of the vigil, but only some staying for the entire vigil, we keep this in mind as part of the ceremony. Note that we do not yet have our fire lit at the beginning of the ceremony (it is lit during the ceremony itself); this is so that we can spend some time in the darkness and the setting sun.

  1.  Opening up a sacred space: As the darkness settles, we open a sacred space.  In the druid tradition, this includes proclaiming the intent of the ceremony, declaring peace in the quarters, cleansing the space with the elements, making an offering to the spirits of the land, and casting the circle around the entire space where we will be.
  2. The Vigil Opening Ceremony.  There are lots of things that you can do for this–here is what we are planning:
    1. We will begin by speaking of the Winter Solstice and, the history of how humans have celebrated this time with light and fire, and of the darkness and wheel of the year.
    2. We will all sit for a time in meditation, in the growing darkness, honoring silently the setting sun and preparing for the vigil of the evening.
    3. We will light our fire, honoring the light of this season and welcoming the sun to return after his long sleep.
    4. Once the fire is going, we ceremoniously add the yule log.
    5. In the spirit of the AODA tradition, we invoke the three currents (solar, telluric, and lunar) radiating a blessing out to the land.
    6. We begin the vigil, which starts with a feast and merriment.

It is sometimes the case that folks will want to join you for the opening (or for sunset and sunrise) but do not want to join you for the entire vigil for any number of reasons.  These choices should be honored.  Those who wish to stay will stay, and still, be supported by those who will not stay for the whole night.  There should never be any pressure to stay, or not to stay, during such an intensive ceremony.  A magical space (circle) should be prepared in such a way as people can pass in and out of it with ease, if this is to be the case.  This will certainly be the case for our group this upcoming week.

 

The Vigil: Continued Ceremony

In my experience, there  are really two ways you can go about your vigil: the time-honored tradition of fesating and merriment, using food, song, dance, and celebration to push back the cold and dark.  The second is a time for powerful initiation into the deeper mysteries of the winter months, the darkness, and the time of cold and rest.  I have found that both of these often happen in the same night during a winter solstice vigil. At some point, the feasting and merriment subsides and the darkness sets in, visions and waking dreams begin. Both are useful and powerful, and like the ebb and flow of the tide, both often happen in the course of the ewvening.  Recognizing this, and honoring this, is part of the process.

 

Here are a few suggestions for how to keep awake and the vigil going:

 

Ritual feast: Holding a feast as part of the ritual is a wonderful way to keep everyone warm and happy.  Ask folks to bring food that can either be heated up or that is kept warm.  Our site doesn’t have electricity, so people will use blankets and such to keep food warm. 

 

Eisteddfod festival: Holding a bardic Eisteddfod is a wonderful way to pass some of the night.  The Eisteddfod includes any of the bardic arts: storytelling, music, dancing, and song.  People take turns and, if you have enough people, a bardic competition can also take place.

 

Sharing your Life Story: Because you have 14+ hours, you have an opportunity for the deepest kinds of meaningful conversations with others around the fire. During my successful past vigil, one of the ways we managed the time was having each of us take an hour or so to tell the important parts of our life stories, the things that shaped us as human beings and put us on our spiritual paths.  As the sun rose, after hearing the stories of everyone around the fire, and sharing my own story, I felt an extremely close connection to those.

 

Darkness walks. One of the other things I really like to do, especially if there is some moonlight, is to take a break from the fire and to simply walk the land, seeing what things look like in the darkness, and feeling its power fully.

 

Sleeping area. The alternative to flat out leaving the area is to have a “sleeping area” (for us, a hayloft with warm sleeping bags) for those who need a few hours of sleep.  One variant on the vigil tradition is that its more like a watch: as long as someone is holding the space and tending the fire, that practice can be rotated.  So some people may go off to sleep for a few hours and then spell off others.  This is another good way to get through the evening and the vigil becomes a group effort.

 

The Ceremony of Welcoming Back the Sun

Sunrise - bliss!

Sunrise – bliss!

After the longest night, it is a blessing beyond all blessings to see the light rising again into the world.  There are so many ways to welcome back the sun, and I will share a few of those here.

  1. A Norse tradition that I rather like for welcoming back the sun is ringing bells right as the sun rises over the hills/land.  They ring clearly and brightly, welcoming the sun back.
  2. Drumming up the sun or playing music (if neighbors aren’t too close by)
  3. Letting the fire burn down as the sun rises–the fire was holding space for the sun, and as the sun rises, letting the sun regain that fire is a good way of ending the ceremony.
  4. Silent observation, observing the ever-changing landscape as the sun returns.  Once the sun is up, you can then do any other ceremonial work.
  5. Honoring the sun with singing, dancing, and merriment – if you have anything left in you, this is also a wonderful idea.
  6. Making offerings to the sun and to bless the land.  I have bottles of dandelion wine that I made for several years and like to offer the sun, the giver of life, some of this wine.

Now, you don’t have to do the whole vigil to wake up and honor the sun. There is nothing that says you can’t do the ritual at night, still get a decent night sleep, and then wake up before the sun to welcome it back to the land.  So these can work regardless of whether or not you are doing the vigil.

 

Once you’ve honored the sun and observed its rising, you can thank the elements and close the sacred space.  Likely, then, it is a good idea to go and get some sleep. Many solstice blessings to my readers–and may your dark nights be filled with merriment, inspiration, and joy!

 

Building Sacred Relationships with Food: Seasonal Food Rituals, Agricultural Blessings, Prayers, and Honoring Our Food May 28, 2015

Modern culture prevents many of us from engaging in a critical part of our human heritage—developing a sacred relationship with food. I’ve talked about developing such a sacred relationship with food on this blog before with regards to growing it and/or foraging it—how gardening allows me to develop a sacred relationship with plants, how seed saving and starting completes that cycle, how wild food foraging and medicine making allow for that connection, and how locally-based seasonal diets can help reconnect us.

 

However, I’m staying with my family for a few weeks before making my official move to PA, and trying to eat as I usually do (locally, seasonally, organically) has presented some serious challenges. The truth is that in poor, rural areas in the USA, organic and local food is simply not as available (or affordable) as it is in the cities or suburbs. In other places, poor areas of cities may also have no access to food. Where my parents live, farmer’s markets are practically non-existent out here, at least that I have been able to find. When I went to purchase some food I can get locally in Michigan, the markup around here was incredible ($12 for a tiny jar of tahini (not organic) compared to a much larger jar of organic tahini for $6 in Michigan, $2 for a single organic orange (compared to a bag of organic oranges for $3.99, $4.99 for gluten free noodles (also not organic) compared to $1.99 organic brown rice noodles, and so on. I was used to paying half of that for these kinds of staples, even in a much more expensive and wealthy area. So, given this situation that I’m seeing here, I’m using this blog post to explore other options for creating a sacred relationship with food that doesn’t have to do with the procurement or purchase of food itself.

 

The question is, what can we do to honor our food if buying local and growing our own food is off the table? This post explores other ways we can use prayer, ritual, and celebration to help bring the sacred back to our food—of any origin.

 

Everyday Prayer and Energy Blessings for Food

Special food created for a feast!

Special food created for a ritual feast!

The tradition of praying over food is used in many religious traditions, and it certainly has a welcome place within earth-based spiritual traditions and druidry. Prayers don’t have to be complex, but taking a moment to honor our food acknowledges the life that was taken (either plant or animal) to eat that meal. I also think that simple prayers can offset the problematic energetics that accompany industrialized foods. Here’s are two simple prayers that I use to honor the food (using the five elements):

 

With the blessing of the earth, I honor the lands that sustained this meal.

With the blessing of the air, I honor the hands that prepared this meal.

With the blessing of fire, I honor the labor that produced this meal.

With the blessing of water, I honor the lives that were given for this meal.

With the blessing of spirit, I wish a safe journey to those who now move on.

In gratitude, love, and peace, I recognize that all are part of the great web of life and that I, too, will one day return.

           

Another simple “prayer” was taught to me by a friend who runs a sustainable living center, Strawbale Studio. She has people of many faiths and traditions visit each month for full moon potlucks and began doing a simple physical energy blessing. Since nothing is said during this prayer, its very appropriate for mixed groups, and it works surprisingly well on its own.

 

Start by rubbing your hands together, generating heat and friction. After a few moments, when you feel your hands tingling, place your hands over the food and send the positive energy that you raised into the food. Then, move your hands outwards to face any others in the room, sending positive energy in their direction. Finally, sweep your hands above your head and circle them down to the earth below to bless the land and all its inhabitants.

 

Food as a blessing to others

A special apple pie, baked for a friend as a housewarming gift!

A special and protective apple pie, baked for a friend as a housewarming gift!  And yes, it was the best pie I ever made!

I like to give others the blessing of an extra special home-cooked meal or beautiful and tasty dish for difficult times or special occasions. This was once a common thing–to bring an elderly or sick neighbor a hot meal, to show up on a new neighbor’s doorstep with freshly baked bread to welcome them, or even to give food as gifts for fiends and family.

I like to continue this tradition as much as possible. Even this simple little gesture really brings a sacredness to the food, showing them that you were willing to cook it, to think of them, to bring it to them.  This kind of food is appreciated so much mroe than normal food–it lends a positive energy to the whole experience.

 

Blessings for the Land – Traditional Ceremonies

Traditional cultures had many blessings for the land—in fact, this is where most of the festivals associated with the Wheel of the Year came from—all had something to do with the crops, the livestock, the harvest, the dark and cold times. But for now, let’s look at some specific ceremonies that anyone can do and that function as land blessings directly tied to our food system and lands that produced them.

 

Many traditions had blessings specific to treecrops and harvests. For example, Native Americans blessed maple trees in the late winter before the sap ran to ensure a good maple sap harvest (given that maple sap was one of their only sources of sugar, it was a very important harvest)! Dancing and erecting a maypole is also a wonderful way of bringing fertility to the surrounding land. In the United Kingdom, Wassail traditions were used to bless apple orchards to encourage bountiful apple harvests—again, apple was a critical crop for both food and drink. This is a tradition that I’ve been blessed to participate in while living in Michigan. Wassail ceremonies can also be adapted more broadly to honor all of the food-bearing plants on the land—and they very much appreciate the positive energy such a ceremony provides!

Part of Wassail Ceremony

Part of Wassail Ceremony

I think there are many places we can draw upon for inspiration to engage in land blessings—and blessing the land that provides our food is a way of honoring that food, that land, and bringing in a sacred awareness of our dependence upon the soil, sunlight, rain, microbial life, plants, bees, and so much more.  Even if you aren’t eating locally, the blessing radiates outward to all life. We can begin to enact them again with our friends, family, and in our communities. This work is powerful, meaningful. The first time we put up a maypole, the land was blessed. The first year we did a wassail, the trees were piled with fruit!

 

But we can also create simple new traditions that honor the land—and by extension—the food we eat. An example of a very simple ceremony is putting out home-cooked food for the land as an offering. I like to put out homebrew (wine or cider) with cakes that I bake especially for the ceremony. This can be done at any point, although you could time it astrologically to make an offering on the full moon (or another auspicious harvest day—any old Farmer’s Almanac will provide all such days for the year). I like to make regular offerings in this way, taking some of the best food I prepare and leaving it as an offering.

 

Truthfully, whether or not you draw upon an ancient tradition like the Wassail or something right out of your head is not important—the important thing is to honor the land from which all of our food flows. I think we have a great opportunity to spread “oak knowledge” by offering such blessings of the land and inviting others to do the same. The land in our world today, at least here in America, often get no such honor.  Through these kinds of celebrations, we can shift our consciousness and recognizing the importance of maintaining a physical and spiritual connection with the natural world upon which our food systems and lives are based.

 

Seasonal Ritual Feasts and Dinners

Feasting and ceremony have a tremendously long history, and using food and the act of partaking in sacred rituals surrounding food goes back before recorded human history—in the USA, of course, Thanksgiving is our traditional ritual feast, honoring our history and seeking to be thankful for what blessings we have been given. Its unsurprising that in this massive age of consumerism, our “giving thanks” and partaking a traditional, seasonal meal has been subsumed in the consumerist hysteria of black Friday.

 

Given this, we can again, draw upon ancient traditions or create our own traditions and rituals surrounding food. For me, at least once a year, I like to hold a ritual dinner, honoring my food, eating in silence, and simply being with it. This is usually done by cooking one of my last harvests of the year, right before I pull out the main part of my garden. I cook all my food from the garden, say prayers, make offerings, and generally just be thankful for the food and my opportunity to develop a relationship with it.

 

A second kind of simple seasonal food ritual is simply creating a meal based on foods available at that season. Root stews with beans in the winter, greens and salads in the spring, corn and potatoes in the fall, and so on. You can create a whole menu of seasonal, special foods and recipes that you create to honor the season (and tie these with the wheel of the year). I have done this—and some of the recipes shared on this blog, like dandelion wine, are part of seasonal food preparation that I’ve done to honor the land and develop a deeper connection. While my recipes are tied locally to my land, they don’t have to be, and I think the attempt is what is important.

 

I hope what this post has suggested is that there are many, many ways in which we can develop a more sacred relationship with food–even when certain options are closed to us. There are so many other kinds of things you can do with ritual and food—and the sky is really the limit!

 

Druid Tree Workings: Communicating and Connecting with Trees on the Inner Planes March 6, 2015

Fairy Knoll in the forest

Fairy Knoll in the forest

This post is third of a series of posts on Druid Tree Workings–ways of connecting, communicating, and working with trees. In my first post on the series, I described finding the face of the tree. In the second post, I explained some “outer” techniques to working with the trees through using your five senses. In this third post, I’ll describe some “inner planes” techniques–that is, using intuition, knowing, meditation, and senses beyond our physical ones to communicate. These are the techniques of the spirit and the soul, the deep inner knowing, and allow us to go deeper into the Mysteries.

 

On Inner “Listening”

One of my blog readers  asked me in the comments of my first post on the face of the tree about how you know that the tree is speaking or trying to send a message on the inner planes. I’m going to start here, because this isn’t as straightforward as it may seem to people new to this kind of work.

 

Many who work within a druid tradition (or other kinds of nature-based spirituality or esoteric studies) engage in practices that can help one be more open to the messages of the world–and these practices come in many forms. The absolute best and most necessary of these is regular meditation (and by regular, I mean daily or as close to daily as you can get). The reason that this forms the cornerstone of the work is that most of us don’t spend enough time managing our thoughts, directing them, or being in stillness.  We have continual internal monologues that make it difficult to gain messages from anything out in the world. But daily meditation, especially in an outdoor setting, over time can allow us to be in a receptive state. I primarily practice discursive meditation, a western-style of meditation taught by the AODA that focuses on directing one’s mind rather than clearing it. John Michael Greer describes this in more detail in his Druidry Handbook, which I highly recommend. I also practice various mind clearing techniques such as counting one’s breath, mindfulness, and empty mind–all are useful for inner tree workings. Meditation allows you to clear your mind and remain focused in such a way that external messages can come forth.

 

After you’ve practiced meditation for long enough that you have some control over the inner monologue and can quiet your mind even for brief amounts of time, go outside, and ask a tree if you can work with it (or go to a tree that you already have established a relationship with). Sit near the tree and simply quiet your mind enough to to attune to the tree. Don’t go in with any expectations–the tree may not be interested in communicating, or you may not be ready to hear. This practice may take weeks, months, or even years before you get results–but with regular meditation you WILL get results.  Practice, openness, and patience are the keys to all good mysteries.

 

King of the Forest- A Tree in Costa Rica!

King of the Forest- A Tree in Costa Rica!

When you do receive a message, the message can come in different forms. You may hear words, you may get a feeling, you may have a strong “knowing”, or you may see something in your “inner eye.” I have found that in training others to do this work each person has one kind of inner sense that comes easier than the others, sort of a default setting that we start with.  Here’s what I mean–one friend has an empathic gift, so she feels everything–she goes into the forest and feels the energy of that forest strongly. Sometimes she sees lights and colors with her inner eye that blend harmonious patterns when the energies of a forest are pleasant. But for years, this friend never is able to hear verbal messages of any kind. Another friend is a strong verbal communicator–she often receives messages in her outdoor meditations and prayers; they are usually one short word or phrase. Yet another friend can have long chats with trees easily, especially when the spirit of the tree reveals itself to her on the inner planes (see below). So, this “default” way of communicating or sensing doesn’t mean the other forms of communication aren’t open to you, but it does mean that this method comes easiest and the other forms might take some work in order to use. These ways of communicating that come easy should be honed with meditation–like anything else, regular practice creates improvements.

 

Outer Plane Checks for Inner Work

The challenge with inner messages is that they are just that–inner messages. The question is: how do we know an inner message we’ve received isn’t just in our imaginations, isn’t just our own minds playing tricks on us, isn’t just us talking to ourselves? I think its wise to always question what we are getting in any form. My mentors have taught this to me as an “outer plane check”; that is, we can and should see external confirmation of something sensed or interpreted internally.

 

Here’s one such example: The face of the tree technique is something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. After a series of meditations and observations, the concept continued to solidify in my mind. But was it just in my mind? A few months ago, while walking with two good friends in the forest, we came across a tree with an unmistakable face–a very human-looking face–and my friends both pointed it out –I didn’t have my camera with me that day, or I would have photographed it for this post! And we all commented on it and spent some time with the tree. I told my friends afterwards about the face of the tree theory and they were in complete agreement. So this experience served as one kind of “outer plane check” to my inner understanding.

 

Here’s a second such example of an outer plane check, this one related to a body of water and a large rock.  A friend and I went to a rock called “White Rock” which used to be a very sacred site for Native Americans; it is located north of Port Huron in one of the great lakes, Lake Huron. She told me she had intuition about the place and that we should go there, but told me little else. We arrived and both sat for a bit and simply listened.  After sharing, we both had the same message–that we were to do a protective working there (we did AODA’s Sphere of Protection, an experience that I wrote about in the first issue of Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America).  The key here is that we sensed and experienced first, and then shared, and found strong commonality in our sharing.

 

Outer plane checks don’t always happen so quickly however–sometimes it takes months or years to confirm messages received–but they do come.

 

Druid and the tree!

Druid and the tree

What Kinds of Communication Can I expect? 

I think one should be open for whatever messages come and go into a tree working without expectation. Most of the time, if a tree is willing to communicate with you, its for a reason–they aren’t much for small talk, I’ve found. In my experience, many trees have stories to share, stories they want humans to know. I’ve shared a few such stories on this blog. They may have a request, and it might sound odd (like taking a bowl of earth somewhere else, giving some water to a nearby tree, or spreading their seeds) but a request should be honored.

 

Once you have spent some time establishing relationships, you will find that the trees can provide you with insights and advice; they are quite wise and will guide you as only an elder can. I recently had a very difficult decision about my future and life to make about whether or not I was selling my homestead, packing up my life, and moving to a new state (more on this soon)–and one of the things that were critical in helping me make the right decision were three conversations with trees on my property and woods. The trees helped me understand the decision in the context of some of my broader calling and work with the trees in the world, and they told me where my energies were most needed. They also gave me a sense of what was to come for my current home and land, and the gifts that I’ve shared. These conversations helped lift the burden of such a difficult decision.

 

Trees also have ways of communicating with each other, sometimes over great distances. This is another important thing to understand–conversations with one may lead the way to conversations with others as you establish relationships with them. When you are building a relationship with trees in one place, in some sense, you are building it with many of that species, that region, and so on.

 

"The Hermit" paining (by D. Driscoll)

“The Hermit” paining (by D. Driscoll)

Connecting to the Spirit of the Tree

Some of the deep tree work done through mediation and working on the inner planes can be done by connecting with the spirit of a tree (and yes, they do have spirits).  Go, sit a the base of a tree or hold a piece of the tree in your hand (if possible), work on connecting with it. If neither of these are possible, focus on connecting with the tree at a distance.  You might be able to connect with the tree spirit–the soul that resides within a tree.  I have found that species have a representative spirit, but you can also connect with individual tree spirits.  In other words, there is a chief oak spirit, but also, each oak has its own spirit.  Working with these spirits can be extremely rewarding and fruitful–many traditional western herbalists also talk about working with the spirit of the plant (or their plant ally). You can learn much from the tree by taking this approach.

 

Trees and Ritual Work

Another way to build relationships with trees is by honoring them through rituals and ceremonies. There are numerous traditional ceremonies, such as apple orchard wassailing, that honor trees in various ways. But within the druid tradition, you can also dedicate portions of seasonal celebrations to tree workings (or honor a different tree at each of the eight holidays).  Some traditions (like OBOD) do build various trees into their ritual workings (for example, the battle between the Oak King and Holly King at the Winter Solstice).  In addition to seasonal celebrations, I also like to do ritual work honoring my trees regularly–I use the Gnostic Celtic Church‘s communion ceremony as a land blessing fairly frequently. I also have a small ceremony that I do to bless new trees when I plant them.  These small ways of honoring the trees in a sacred manner do much for inner relationships with trees.

 

Inner and Outer Work as Reflections

I’ll end this post with a statement on the relationship between inner and outer work. If you want the trees and spirits of the forest to take you seriously, you must take the work seriously. This means dedicating time and energy to the work, of course, such as honing your skills through regular meditation. But there is another piece to this, and it is best expressed through the the old Hermetic adage, “As above, so below. As within, so without.” While this adage applies to any magical work or transformation work, it most certainly applies to tree workings. In the case of tree work–if you want to cultivate positive relationships with trees, really deep relationships, you must look at your other behavior and living in the world and what energies you are cultivating and allowing into your life. If one is heavily into consumerism, greed, materialism, and other things that damage and destroy nature, the trees know it. We carry that energy with us….it pervades everything that we do; it works its way into our auras, and any advanced spiritual worker or nature spirit can sense it. By making shifts in our outer world, we open ourselves up in the inner worlds for deeper connections…this point cannot be stressed strongly enough.  But this work goes the other way too–as we transform ourselves with the help of the trees, the outer consumerism and materialism becomes less and less important.

 

The Sacred Site in America: Understanding, Working With, and Developing Sacred Sites July 3, 2014

One of the challenges that North American druids face is understanding, visiting, and working with sacred sites.  In my druid training, one order in particular really emphasizes the sacred site–the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD).  And I think if one is living on the British Isles, it makes perfect sense to do so as those sites are part of the heritage and tradition of druidry.  The real question becomes–what is a sacred site here in the USA? What, if anything, should we do with them?    I’d like to take some time today to explore “sacred sites” as they relate specifically to druidry in the USA.

Simple stack of stones

Simple stack of stones

 

Defining “Sacred”

The term “sacred” itself implies a connection to the divine, a concentrated or holy space, a space set aside for spiritual contemplation or religious observance in some way. When most think about what a classic definition of a “sacred site” is, especially in the context of modern Druidry, we often think about ancient sites.  These ancient sites might be natural wonders and places that were the site of ceremony and reverence for a long time. These ancient sites may also have been built or adapted by humans in ages past, and continue to be revered and visited today.  These sites, even today, fill us with wonder and awe, encouraging stillness and providing one with a spiritual or magical experience.  This isn’t the only kind of sacred site, but I think its the most prevalent definition. I should also mention that the sacred is not limited to sites; it can also refer to events and objects.  I recently had the pleasure of witnessing the most amazing dance of the mayflies on Lake Erie in June.  A sacred event, indeed!  But the subject of this post is investigating the idea of a sacred site in America.

 

Challenges with Sacred Sites in the USA

When we think about the “ancient site” approach to sacred sites in the USA, several challenges present themselves.

 

#1: Native American Sacred Sites, Desecration and Cultural Appropriation. Most ancient sacred sites in the Americas are Native American in origin.  Because most of us do not carry the blood of the native peoples, nor live within their communities, the issue of cultural appropriation is a serious one.  Even for those of us who carry a small amount of Native American blood, but have grown up divorced from native culture (like myself), the idea of appropriating sacred sites is uncomfortable at best.  Even worse, with the long history of abuse, eradication, and genocide between the mostly white US government and the native peoples, appropriating any other culture’s site for spiritual use is, in nearly all cases, unethical.

The longstanding destruction of native sacred sites is also a noted concern. For example, in the Great Lakes region, I’ve visited Native American “sacred sites” that have suffered substantial abuses–White Rock, located about 30 miles north of Port Huron on the coast of Lake Huron, and Inscription Rock, located on Kellys Island in Lake Erie. White Rock in particular is worth noting, because it was a sacred rock to the native peoples of these lands, and it was  desecrated repeatedly through the centuries.  The most recent desecration was that it was used as a bombing target by the US government during WWII.  Inscription rock, which once featured various pictures inscribed into limestone, was “reinscribed” by tourists for over a century and a half.  In both cases, what was once a sacred site of the native peoples of this land has been degraded by those who came after.

The energies of these sites are not conducive to spiritual work–what I’ve done at both of these sites, when visiting, is to offer apology and ask if there is any work to be done.  At White Rock, there was and continues to be substantial work to be done (and those who are interested about that can read more in the AODA’s recent release of Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America).

For these kinds of sites, I think that apologizing, picking up garbage, and asking if there is any work to be done is about the only thing most of us should be doing at these sites.

 

#2 – Sacred Sites and Tourist Attractions. This brings me to the next issue with the ancient sacred sites and sacred sites of natural wonder and beauty in the USA–tourists.  If a sacred site remains intact, especially if it is a site of wonder and natural beauty, more often than not, it is a tourist attraction. I’ll note the difference here between secular tourism to that of a pilgrimage or sacred journey, such as the one discussed in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where pilgrims are traveling and visiting for a spiritual purpose.  Tourist energy is not conducive to the sacred and little to no meaningful spiritual work can usually be done in such places.  Tourists are there to see, to photograph, to experience a canned and predigested experience on the most superficial level. Combining tourism with the issue of cultural appropriation leaves most sites largely inaccessible for any kind of spiritual or magical work.  Not to mention one can’t do any serious work with a droves of tourists milling about.

 

#3: Land and Site “Management” practices. The other issue at most well known sacred sites is the land management practices that govern them are not conducive to spiritual work of any kind, nor can one or one’s group gain privacy at any site.  I remember reading a story a few years ago about a group of Native Americans who had lit a sacred fire on a sacred mountain for as long as their history went back.  The chief of this group was arrested because they refused to follow US Park service law, which had a recent ruling disallowing fires in that spot.  The park service had no sympathy or religious tolerance for the Native Americans; this intolerance and inflexibility largely extends to other groups as well.  This kind of thing happens all the time, most of it less public than that story.  Because earth-based religions of all kinds are not given equal treatment and respect here, and most of us are still in the closet, so to speak, it becomes even more difficult to have access to a public sacred site for the purposes of a private ritual.

This leaves those of us in the US interested in working with sacred sites in a bit of a conundrum–how do we meaningfully and respectfully work with sacred sites, if at all?  For this, I have two ideas in mind: seeking unmarked sacred sites, and creating new sacred sites over time.

 

Seeking Sacred Sites

Are there sacred sites that don’t involve human interaction, human tending that we can work? These secret places of wonder and magic worked by other beings?  Would they welcome us there even if we were able to find them?  Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.

Stone Circle

Stone Circle

A small group of friends (all druids) and I went into a state park that had been largely closed down.  The pathways were covered in branches and trees, the roads were washed out even to get to where we were going.  And it was one of the most sacred places I had visited in Michigan.  Towards the end of our 5 hour hike, we came across a stone circle right in our path, with larger stones for the north and south, and covered with moss.  We felt welcome, having been lead by the forest and the winding paths to this place. Entering the circle in reverence and respect, we sat there for some time, feeling the sacred energies of that place.  Nobody had been by for a long time, and it was only because we entered in respect, and we asked to enter, that we were able to experience this sacred place and honor it.  More recently, my visit to an old growth hemlock grove certainly qualify as a sacred site and experience!

When I was visiting Kellys Island in Lake Erie for a family vacation a few weeks ago, an opposite kind of thing occurred.  I have never seen so much poison ivy in such a small area–all of the forests were protected by the beautiful poison ivy vine, covering the trees, matting the ground, going right up to the edge of any path. I could sense the tranquility and sacredness of those forests behind the ivy line; the old growth cottonwoods and maples, the mayflies darting about. The poison ivy sent a VERY clear message to anyone able to read the language of the plants–these forests are to be left alone. They spoke loudly, “Do not enter, do not pass, and do not seek sacred experiences within.”  Knowing a bit about the history of that island helps understand the protectiveness of the ivy and spirits there. This beautiful island had a long history of industrialization and abuse, where glacial grooves were destroyed by quarries and pristine forests destroyed through logging…and now, the ritzy houses and expensive yachts have mostly moved in (we did find a nice state campground and hiking trails!) No wonder what remains of this unique ecosystem is off limits to human hands.

When you come across a naturally occurring sacred site, one that isn’t on the maps, I’ve found its best to let your intuition lead the way, and to read the messages of the plant, animal, and stone kingdoms to know if you are welcome.  It might be that you have to establish a relationship over time with a site before the spirits of that site will give you access–listen and be mindful of what you hear.

 

Setting up Sacred Sites for Our Tradition

Beyond seeking sacred sites in places not on the map, there is a lot more we can do. I think one of the challenges that we face is that we assume a sacred site should already be there, setup by others or simply in the forest, and ready for our use. Revival druidry is a few centuries old, and while the British druids have done an amazing job in reclaiming sites connected with the ancient sites like Tara, Glastonbury, and Stonehenge, we have no such sites or connection to sites in the US. This brings me to the last key point–that we need to be establishing our OWN sacred sites.

Why is a site sacred to begin with? To go back to my earlier definition, its sacred because someone or a group of someones recognize its significance energetically, naturally, and so on, and made it a point to visit it, tend it, and work various kinds of ceremony there. Over a period of time, we can establish these same sacred spaces.

I also think its important to set up sacred spaces honoring the land to counter much of the environmental desecration we are seeing more and more. The disruption of the telluric pathways from oil pipelines and fracking, the harm to the planet from GMOs and pesticide use, the list goes on and on.  The more of us acting in a sacred manner, living our lives in a sacred manner, and honoring the land with dedicated spaces and work, the more we can demonstrate that not all humans are on that same destructive path and help rebuild a sacred relationship with the land.

Imbolc Sacred Circle

Imbolc Sacred Circle

I know we can work to establish sacred spaces of our own because I’ve done this myself through the work on my land.  When I arrived here five years ago, the land was energetically drained, the spirits were angry from the mistreatment of the previous owners, from pollution and garbage, from careless cutting of trees and eradication of plant life, and it took me a long time to shift those energies (you can read more about some of those initial efforts here).  A group of us set up a stone circle and began doing regular ceremonies in this space.  Over the period of five years, the energies of this land dramatically shifted in a positive direction–I’ve now had multiple people come and tell me that they don’t even feel they are still in Michigan when they come up my driveway or go out by the pond to the circle.  I think, if anything, the site is in the process of shifting into the sacred, and that shift will take much more time to complete.  Regular tending, mindfulness, and ritual all help maintain the space.

I’ve posted previously on some things you can do physically to help establish sacred sites here, here, and here. To my physical suggestions, I’ll add a few things on the spiritual side.

 

1) Listen before you act.  If you want to establish a stone circle or other place of meditation/worship/magic, you should ask the spirits of the land and heed their responses.  Combine this listening with your own observation and interaction (principle 1 in permaculture design).  This listening and observation process can take quite a bit of time, so be patient and understand that this groundwork is an important part of the process.  You’ll be glad you’ve done this work–the spirits of the land will guide you to where the site should be and often will give you vision about how to go about creating it.  This listening then, can help you create a space for use beyond just the human realm.

 

2) Use Small, slow actions.  To borrow a second principle from permaculture, you can’t establish a sacred space overnight.  You need to recognize that sacred spaces and shifting energies take a lot of time.  I have found that daily work, such as the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual, helps maintain and build energies slowly over time.

 

3) Do regular rituals honoring the land.  I like to combine my daily SOP work with regular group rituals and solo rituals during druid holidays and regular honoring of the land work to establish the space.  Honoring the spirits of the land and recognizing the sacredness of the place over time will help shift it.

 

4) Watch it evolve. The other thing that I’ve found is that once you’ve set your intentions and establish the initial space and begin doing the daily work, the space will evolve.  You might see new plants growing, trees appear that weren’t there before, or other kinds of helpful and spirits from the inner planes might make the land their home.   After we established this land as a sacred space, I found several hawthorn trees years after I moved in, I found a spiral willow on the island on the pond, and most recently at the Summer solstice, a friend and fellow grove member found foxglove growing behind the sacred circle.  Keep a record of what is happening–you will be amazed by the changes over time.

 

5) Recognize sacred activity and set rules for the space.  Protect the sacredness of the space–if you have visitors and guests over, make sure they understand the rules for the space (e.g. no consumption of alcohol in the space for non-ritual purposes, remaining quiet in the space, leaving an offering after use, etc).  You’ll find that some well placed signage also helps visitors and/or family respect the space.  It may also be that there are certain kinds of people you simply don’t want in that space, and that’s ok too.

 

I hope these thoughts help those of you pondering the idea of a sacred space here in our landscapes and how we might use the idea of sacred space as revival druids in the US.  Thank you, as always, for listening!