So you’re writing a ritual. Staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper can be daunting. Here’s a few tips to get started.
So you’re writing a ritual. Staring at a blank screen or sheet of paper can be daunting. Here’s a few tips to get started.
Posts I enjoyed this week.
There are many ways to call a quarter, but all of them have a common aim: to make a connection with the element.
As the Solstice and the return of the light approaches, it’s good to be reminded that the Solstice is a turning point (which is the probable meaning of the name “Yule”).
Michael asked, Am I a real priest?
Short answer, if you feel a calling to be one, then you probably are one, even if you’re on the beginner slopes.
My working definition of a priest or priestess is a person who can facilitate contact between the other-than-human and the human, and/or who can create meaning, community, and a sense of connectedness for others. Note that this definition includes atheists and animists.
Beltane is coming, and with it, the celebration of love. Spare a thought for those who are left out of all the joyous coupling, and those who are marginalised by less inclusive ways of celebrating love.
Fertility can be re-purposed into a theme of caring for the environment, or of general creativity. And as Doreen Valiente wrote in The Charge of the Goddess, “All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals”.
Different Pagan traditions have different festivals. The Heathen community celebrates its own cycle of festivals. Wiccans, Druids, and many eclectic Pagans celebrate the eightfold Wheel of the Year. Polytheists have their own festivals too, usually based on the particular ethnic tradition they are working with.
Samhain is a festival honouring ancestors. It is also the “harvest of meat” when cattle would be slaughtered before the winter. To the ancient Celts, however, Samhain was a festival of liberation from oppression. In East Anglia, it was known as Hollantide. Many Wiccans use Samhain rituals to honour, remember, and commune with our loved ones who have passed on.
Samhain is the Irish word for the month of November. The ancient Irish festival held at this time was about the renewal of freedom – legends associated with it tell of heroes who freed their people from bondage. So the association with the dead was probably imported to this country by Christianity, as this was the feast of All Saints and All Souls. After the Reformation, of course, the importance of these festivals was downplayed, and by the early 20th century, folklorists were speculating that the origins of All Hallows were actually Pagan. The first stirrings of the Pagan revival started in the early 20th century, so the idea of Samhain being associated with the dead was imported into Paganism.
Pagans tend to focus on the preciousness of this life, not some future one beyond death. Hence we want to celebrate and remember the lives of our ancestors. Ancestors can be relatives and friends who have died, or people from the past whom we admire (we often honour both). These people have shaped who we are now – given us life, given us inspiration, guided us, comforted us, and nurtured us – and it comforts us to remember them and commune with them.
Many people believe in reincarnation, and that the consciousness resides in an in-between place between lives. In Paganism, the dead are seen as not being very far away – only a heartbeat away – and many Pagans say that “the veil between the worlds is thin” at Samhain, because the tides of life are on the ebb as winter approaches, and because the encroaching darkness of winter is seen as a time for contemplation, remembrance, and introspection.
Pagans do not see darkness and death as evil, but as part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. If there was no death, there would be no growth, no change, and no birth. If there was no darkness, the seeds could not gestate in the warm darkness of the earth; if there was no night, there would be no sleep, and no stars and moonlight. If there was no winter cold, there would be none of the beauty of autumn, the seeds would not germinate, and germs would not be killed by the frost. Darkness is the Yin spoken of by the Taoists – one half of the divine dance of the cosmos.
Samhain or Hallowe’en is part of the dance of the elements around the wheel of the seasons, one of the many interlocking cosmic cycles of which our lives are an intimate part.
In many cultures, especially in Mexico, All Souls is the Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos – when people go to visit family graves, and set up altars for them in the home. This is not a morbid practice, but an acknowledgement of death in the midst of life, death as part of the natural cycle.
So why should we reintegrate this festival into our spiritual practice? Because in Britain, death is swept under the carpet, ignored and feared. If we acknowledged it (at least once in the year), it would be an invitation to live more fully and mindfully. If we ignore it, it becomes part of the shadow, the part of our psyche that we reject and that contains our fears and follies, and which we project onto other people: the Other, the outsider, the transgressor.
Whereas if we recognise death as being part of the natural cycle, like the seasons of the year, then we can live more integrated lives, living in and for the moment.
Samhain is also the time when, as the nights get longer and the winter grips the land, we descend into our own depths. Summer is a time for being extrovert, creative and expansive; winter is a time for curling up by the fireside and going within oneself to find the poetic, the spiritual and the quiet side of ourselves – the forgotten aspects, perhaps even the side of ourselves that we have repressed and need to examine.
The presiding deity of winter is the Crone Goddess. She has been feared and denigrated in recent centuries – people speak of old wives’ tales, haggard old witches muttering in corners, and so on. But traditionally, old women were the ones who were the keepers of stories and other traditional wisdom such as herb lore and midwifery. She is the midwife and the one who washed, anointed and laid out the dead, the one who cuts the cord of both life and death. She represents merciful release; but she also possesses the wisdom of old age. Wisdom is traditionally represented as a feminine being or quality. Wisdom is the joining together of instinct and experience and knowledge. It is the wisdom of the body, the knowledge of when to act and when to refrain from acting, when to speak and when to keep silent. Wisdom comes from reflection upon experience and knowledge.
The Crone is also the Goddess of the Waning Moon, which represents a time of letting go and ebbing away, so it is traditional at Samhain to let go of aspects of your life that you do not need or want any more.
The winter solstice is the point in the year when the day is at its shortest. The sun rises at its furthest south, and rises in roughly the same place for three days, hence the name “solstice”, meaning “Sun stands still”.
When I was a kid, I was told that ancient pagans used to light bonfires on top of hills at the winter solstice because they feared that the sun would not return after the longest night. I don’t know if there is any truth in this idea, but I remember finding it thrilling.
The Anglo-Saxons called the festival Yule; the Old Norse word was jól.
The earliest references to Yule are by way of indigenous Germanic month names (Ærra Jéola (Before Yule) or Jiuli and Æftera Jéola (After Yule). It has been speculated that the word means “turning point”, but the etymology is unclear.
At Autumn Equinox, we begin the descent into winter. At Samhain, we meet the ancestors and the beloved dead. At Yule, the furthest point in the descent of the Sun, we begin to emerge from the creative and introspective phase of winter, and start thinking about the first stirrings of Spring. The sun represents the core aspect of the personality in many esoteric symbol-systems, and so its descent into the underworld represents a journey into our own subconscious, our own depths, to bring up fertile material to feed a time of creativity. Of course we know that the Sun doesn’t literally descend into the underworld, but in many mythologies, that is where the Sun god goes.
Yule is also a time for enjoyment; the harvest is over and done, there is little work to do in the dark time of the year, so it is time to feast, sing, dance, make merry, and kindle plenty of lights (to make up for the lack of sunshine, and to remind the sun that we would like it to start rising further north again!)
Imbolc is a festival celebrating the lactation of ewes, the coming of lambs, and the first stirrings of spring. The name means either “ewes’ milk” (Oimelc) or “in the belly” (im bolg).
In Ireland, Imbolc is the feast of Brigit, originally a Goddess, and now a saint. The Goddess Brigit is associated with healing, poetry, and smithcraft. The saint is associated with them too, and with the perpetual flame tended by the nuns of Kildare – which possibly goes back to pre-Christian times. There are numerous folk-customs and stories associated with Brigit.
Candlemas (also on 2 February) is the Christian festival of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary presented Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete her purification after childbirth in accordance with the Torah.
Both these festivals have traditionally focused on the increasing light and life as the days lengthen and the trees start to blossom and bud. They are also a celebration of goddesses.
Spring Equinox is a festival of balance, as day and night are equal (but after this the days get longer). It’s also the time when the coming of spring is really becoming apparent. According to Bede, the ancient Germanic pagans honoured a goddess called Eostre. She was later conflated with Ostara by the Brothers Grimm, who said she was associated with hares and the Moon and eggs; however there is no reference to this goddess in any other text, so much of the modern mythology associated with her is extrapolated from Bede, and does not have any basis in older mythology. That does not mean that it is not valid as mythology, just that people should not claim ancient origins for it. There are also some other, more interesting, myths around the Spring Equinox, such as the Easter Fox.
Beltane is a festival celebrating sacred sexuality. It is typically celebrated by jumping over fires and dancing round maypoles. Pagan rituals often include symbolic expressions of sexuality.
A celebration of Beltane could include celebration of sexuality in all its forms. It could also include celebrations of the senses, and something to honour the coming of spring and the renewal of life.
Midsummer is a festival celebrating the Sun. At this time of the year, the days are at their longest, so the Sun is said to be at the height of its power. However, after Midsummer, the days will get shorter, so the Sun is said (symbolically) to descend into the underworld. The Sun is a metaphor for our consciousness; as we descend into the depths of winter, the self goes inward and becomes more introspective.
A celebration of midsummer could focus on the aspects related to consciousness, and emphasise the shift from outward to inward preoccupations.
Lammas commemorates the death of John Barleycorn, the dying-and-resurrecting vegetation god. The corn was believed to be inhabited by the corn-spirit, which was killed at every harvest and resurrected in the planting of the new corn. In Ireland, Lammas was celebrated with games in honour of the goddess Tailtiu, the mother of Lugh the sun god, and was called Lughnasadh. The harvest is an important symbol of cyclicity, growth, and change. The wheel turns, and what has grown must die, so that the seeds can be planted for the new cycle of growth.
At the Autumn Equinox, day and night are equal (but after this the nights get longer), so most rituals focus on this, and on the importance of balance. The festival is also said to honour the Celtic god Mabon, who was imprisoned in a tower for many years. It’s also the fruit harvest; for this reason, I associate it with the Roman deities Pomona and Vertumnus. A celebration of Autumn Equinox could focus on the sensual delights of food and the harvest of work and creativity, as well as the balance of light and dark.
In China, they see life as the balance of opposites – yin and yang, night and day, life and death, eternally cycling around each other in the great dance of existence, the dynamic equilibrium of nature. Equilibrium means “equal freedom” – freedom to move, to grow and to change; freedom of choice.
This dynamic balance of opposites can also be seen in the dance of the seasons. The wheel of the year turns; falling in the autumn, rising in the spring. As it falls in the autumn, and the nights draw in, we turn inward, towards home, and hearth, and spiritual things; baking, and making jam and wine; creative projects.
In British folk traditions, there are three harvests; the corn harvest at Lammas; the fruit harvest at Autumn Equinox; and the harvest of meat at Samhain, when some of the cattle would have been slaughtered and preserved for the winter.
A celebration of Autumn Equinox could focus on gratitude for food and the harvest of work and creativity, as well as the balance of light and dark.
This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘.
“I think it is absolutely essential that people think for themselves because unless they make their own contact with the inner planes, they won’t have any power. This is enormously important that people do not slavishly follow anyone’s lead. I hope witchcraft never has any gurus or leaders. I know that people have criticised Gerald Gardner; I have myself but he once told me, the power is in you and you have to bring that power out.” – Doreen Valiente 1
Does the Pagan movement have leaders? Do we need them? What is a good model of leadership?
I don’t think there is anything wrong with having leaders, but it depends what you mean by leaders. If you mean the kind of people who empower, nurture and teach others, those are the leaders we want. If you mean the kind of people who block others’ access to the numinous, and fleece them of large amounts of money, we don’t want those in the Pagan community – but frankly they would not get very far anyway. Even those paid leaders who work hard and serve others don’t make a lot of money.
We might have a lot of leaders, but I don’t see a lot of followers. Pagans are not sheep, we are goats. We don’t really have congregations (which is basically Latin for “flock”); we are more like tribes. There are many people who serve the Pagan community in an administrative or representative capacity. There are many people who share their thoughts on blogs and in books. There are some leaders who want power, admiration, and followers (fortunately these are fairly few and far between). But I don’t think leaders who want to get rich quick or have a lot of followers will get very far within the Pagan community. Pagans are too independent-minded.
Sometimes Pagans’ independent-mindedness can backfire, as any time someone looks even vaguely like they are on a pedestal, someone will come along and knock them off it. It is good to check first whether the person actually wants to be on the pedestal, or whether they would rather get off it.
Incidentally, I have a small team of people with instructions to kick me up the backside if ever I start exhibiting the symptoms of a Big Name Pagan with a lot of neophytes in tow. This is unlikely, as I am too lazy to organise my own life, let alone anyone else’s.
My approach to leadership is to seek to empower others, and enable them to write and facilitate ritual and so on. However, not everyone who joins a coven wants to write and facilitate rituals, and that is alright. They may have other abilities which could be nurtured.
In Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, every initiated Wiccan is a priestess or priest in their own right. However, a first degree is a priestess or priest unto themselves; a second degree can be a priestess or priest to others; and a third degree to the rest of the community. This is not a hard and fast rule – it is just that the degrees are not expected to take on being a priestess or priest for others until they attain the higher degrees. It is also worth remembering that in Wicca, witches are held to be ‘the hidden children of the Goddess’ – in other words, we do our public service covertly, not necessarily advertising that we are witches. If someone asks me for help, they do so because I have a sympathetic manner, not necessarily because they know that I am a witch. We don’t need to wear a special hat – if we are any good, people will recognise the qualities of witchiness in us, and seek our help. I don’t hide the fact that I am a Wiccan, but I don’t advertise either.
In OBOD Druidry, there are also three grades – Bard, Ovate, and Druid. The Bard is a storyteller and uses words to enchant. The Ovate is more shamanic and prophetic. The Druid is more of an all-round magical practitioner. It is worth reading OBOD’s explanations of what each grade does, as it is more complex than I have suggested with my simple summary.
In Heathenry, there are goði and gyðja (priests and priestesses) who are generally selected by acclaim of their group, because of their experience, or end up leading rituals because they are the most experienced.
In Religio Romana, priestesses and priests are expected to have a sincere calling to the deity for whom they wish to be a priestess or priest, and to carry out research on their chosen deity, and to worship the chosen deity in their home.
In my experience, even if some leaders of Pagan groups let it go to their head for a while, they soon learn that they are leader by consent of the group, and if they do not care for the needs of all the members of the group, and nurture and empower their members, people will leave.
The best Pagan leaders are those who listen – both to the promptings of spirit, and to their group members. A Pagan leader should not regard their community as serving them, but feel that they are serving the community (which includes other-than-human beings). Those who think they are elders are probably not elders; one gets that title by being acclaimed by others (and not just by virtue of being old, either, but by having wisdom and experience). In return, the community should value those who serve. They should not be expected to cover their expenses from their own pocket; if they spend time preparing a day or weekend workshop, and travelling long distance to deliver it, then they should be remunerated for their time, skill, and expenses. I do not think people should ever pay for coven training in Wicca, but I do think leaders of public workshops should be adequately remunerated. We need an organic approach to paying clergy.
When I was high priestess of my coven, I was in that role because I was the most experienced member of the group. As high priestess, I encouraged members of my coven to develop their skills in ritual and magic, so that they could also design and facilitate ritual. If a new member wanted to join, every member of the group had to agree that they could join (it was not just on my say-so).
What are your thoughts on Pagan leadership? How is it in your tradition? Please share in the comments.
Thanks to Julie W for posting the Doreen Valiente quote in the Centre for Pagan Studies Facebook group – as you can see, it inspired this post.