At this point I don't even have to explain what COVID-19 is. We all know. We're all staying in our houses as much as we can, on leaving when we need to, or can be relatively assured of not having to interact with a whole bunch of people. I live in Ohio, in Cuyahoga County, and we are all doing our best to make sure we do not transmit the diesease. Cuyahoga County is where the first few cases in Ohio appeared, and we are all painfully aware of this. Many people have come to me and told me "this feels like the end times." No surprise, then, that I ended up turning to the divine. But it is not the Christian God that I have found in these dark times. No, the faith that I have turned to is the faith of the Norse Gods, the Aesir and Vanir.
I am making the transition from a self-guided Druidry to a more formal grouping of pagan practices: Asatru, also known as Heathenry. This is the faith of the Aesir and the Vanir, the Gods of Norse Mythology and of the ancient Germanic people in general. It is a reconstruction of old pagan practices, and though the exact style of worship varies from group to group or even, in the case of solitary heathens like myself, from individual to individual. It has its problematic elements - racist groups co-opting the faith abound - but I was lucky enough to find some groups online that explicitly ban hate speech, and I have been discussing my practice with them. I have had some personal revelations talking to them, and meditating on my relationship with divinity. An I am fully confident in my stance when I say I believe the Gods are real and that they have spoken to me.
It may seem odd to turn to a group of Gods that are due to die when Ragnarok occurs, especially when things seem so dire in the world right now. But what inspires me about the Norse Gods, and Odin in particular, is that they never seem to give up, despite being doomed. Odin constantly travels the world, searching for a way to avoid his end, or even to hold of Ragnarok altogether. He is doomed to fail, and he knows this, but he tries anyway, because even the slightest hint of a chance at avoiding a terrible fate is worth fighting for. Whereas other divinities would simply accept their fate, Odin fights tooth and nail against his. That is inspiring to me.
Whether you are Heathen like me, or pagan or atheist or whatever, I believe that we can all learn from Odin's example. We can fight back against COVID-19, against government mandated quarantines and the erosion of our civil liberties, against tyranny and certain doom. It is not useless to do so. Rather, it is the most useful thing we can do.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
- Dylan Thomas
Today, I rededicated my altar for druidic practice. The ritual was mostly done off the cuff, but the elements I used, and the research I did to get to this point, will inform future rituals that I do. I'm very much a believer that this kind of thing comes from the heart, and speaks to a deep part of us. There is no prescribed ritual formula that will fit everyone. You have to do what feel right to you. Besides, modern druidry, and any neopagan spiritual practice, really, is an attempt at recreating something lost. The use of artistic license and personal touches should be encouraged: we are creating something new with what remains of the old ways.
The Altar Setup
The tools on my altar are mainly left over from my Wiccan days. From let to right, we have a goble for ritual imbibing/libations, a white marble bowl, usually filled with water to represent the sea, a Jasper bowl, filled with dried plant matter (a bit of a pine tree branch, a dried sunflower, and a buckeye, to be precise) to represent the earth, and an led candle to represent the light of the sun, and by extension, the sky. To the right of that is my wand, used for drawing a circle and directing energy, and a spiderplant to help purify the air. In front of the jasper bowl is a miniature cauldron, and in front of the cauldron, a small stone altar plate with a Triquetra.
The marble bowl of water, jasper bowl of plant matter, and led candle are a reference to an idea prominent in Celtic writing of dividing the world the world between earth, sea and sky. When I originally set up my altar for druidry, before the riual, I used a "four quarters/four elements" set up, which I have since discovered through research is a Hellenistic idea, and not a Celtic one. The Celts did revere the four quarters, a long with a sacred center, but had different associations with them, which we will get to in a bit.
I use the triquetra to symbolize the union of earth, sea and sky, but to be honest this is more a bit of artistic license. In truth, the triquetra is used predominantly by Celtic Christians to represent the holy trinity, although its knot form likely predates the arrival of the Christian church (source). I would like to replace it with a triskelion, which has a more definite connection to the earth, sea and sky cosmology (hence my use of it in the blog's logo), but I have not found one as of yet, so I'm using this as a stand in until I do, or until I find a suitable disk to draw one on.
The Cauldron represents divinity, and the awen, the divine inspirational force. The cauldron appears frequently in Celtic myth and legend. The Dagda, chief of the Tuatha de Danaan, had a cauldron that produced such bounty it was said that no one would leave without having their fill. But closer to my own personal heart is the tale of Taliesin, which begins with Taliesin as Gwion, servant of Cerridwen, who was made to stir a potion of inspiration in a magic cauldron for a year and a day, before three drops of the potion fell on his thumb and he licked them off, accidentally stealing the inspiration meant for Cerridwen's own child. The cauldron is used primarily to catch the libations I pour during rituals, which is my preferred form of offering.
The Ritual Itself
The first step of any ritual is to cleanse myself and the ritual space. The spiderplant ont he altar helps with this, as does playing nature sounds while I'm working. As for cleansing myself, I take a hot shower and meditate, focusing my mind on the ritual ahead. This gets me in the right mindset, and helps me get rid of lingering negative feelings.
I should note that a lot of pagans use incense or sage to cleanse the area, but I prefer not to do this. For one, my housemates have sensitive noses. But also, sage specifically is a plant sacred to Native Americans, and burning it is a sacrilege, especially if you are white. There's a tendency in neopaganism to appropriate and disrespect Native and Eastern cultures without thinking, and I personally refuse to perpetuate it. So I do my resource, and try to stay authentic to the source material as best I can, while adding my own artistic license and not borrowing from cultures that have been oppressed historically by my Western ancestors.
Once I have purified myself, I come back to the altar and perform the Call for Peace, a tradition I borrow from the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. My personal call goes something like this:
May there be Peace in the East.
May there be Peace in the South.
May there be Peace in the West.
May there be Peace in the North.
May there be Peace in our hearts and minds, and in the whole world.
Then comes the casting of the circle. Taking the wand in my right hand, i focusing on building energy within myself, and visualize it moving from my arm into the wand. I then move the wand in a clockwise circle around the altar and myself, visualizing the energy moving out of it as a circle of light. Once complete, the circle denotes the sacred space.
Then comes the calling of the quarters. In my research, I have found that the four cardinal directions were related in Celtic thought to four separate modes of life. In one Irish legend, Fintan is asked how Ireland was partitioned in times past. his response is this:
"Knowledge in the west, battle in the north, prosperity in the East, kingship in the center."
In her book, Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld, the historian Sharon Paice MacLeod hypothesizes that each of these ideas correspond to a phase of growth and development: prosperity represents birth, song represents youth, knowledge represents old age, and battle represents death. The sacred center, kingship, therefore represents sovereignty, just rule, and peace. This also would correspond to the four Celtic fire festivals, the inspiration for the neopagan wheel of the year.
With this in mind, I call the quarters as Fintan described them. Raising my wand, I face east (the altar faces north) and I say, "Hail to the East and the Gods of Prosperity!" Turning towards the south, I say, "Hail to the South and the Gods of song!" Turning towards the West, I say, "Hail to the West and the Gods of Knowledge!" Turning to the North, I say "Hail to the North and the Gods of Battle!" I then say "Hail to the Center, and the Gods of Peace! The circle is cast. Let this ritual for the blessing of this altar and its tools commence."
I sat in meditation for a while, then I picked up the bowl of water, saying, "Gods, goddesses, and all deities of the sea, bless this altar. May the water of life flow ever freely here." I set the bowl back down, and picked up the Candle "Gods, goddesses, and all deities of the sky, bless this altar. May the sun's lights shine ever bright here." I set the candle down, and picked up the jasper bowl, saying "Gods, goddesses, and all deities of the earth, bless this altar. May it be connected to every altar that has come before it, and every altar that will come after it. And may it be connected tot he great World Tree." I then set the bowl back on the altar.
Finally, I took the goblet and poured out a libation (water in this case) in the cauldron, saying "Gods, goddesses, and all the deities of the four quarters, and of the earth, the sky and the sea, accept this offering in thanks for the blessings here given." I took some time to wait, and meditate. Then, when I felt that the offering was accepted, I drank the rest of the water in the goblet, with reverence.
To close the ceremony, I stated, "The ritual has ended, my work is complete. I go now in peace." I then took my wand and turned it clockwise one more around the altar and myself, visualizing the circile of light being sucked back into the wand.
The basic steps will likely be the same for each ritual to come, although I probably won't rededicate my altar unless I have to move it. In any case, this is a basic framework for future druid rituals, with my own touches, based on my own research. I'm quite proud of it: it seems uniquely mine, though rooted in ideas from the past. Feel free to use this framework and altar set up, or to rework it to fit your own needs. Solitary practice is about doing what comes from the heart, and there's no one way that fits all people.
Part of me wants to start this post by talking about Gandalf and Merlin, two figures from my childhood that inspired an interest in sagely wizards. But in truth, I can trace my interest in druidry back to three interests that have been a part of me since i was a child: nature and science, faith, and storytelling. The first two interests fell by the wayside when I got older, and the third gained prominence. Druidry offers a path that puts all three into balance.
I used to spend a lot of time in nature. Growing up, I'd go on hikes with my parents, as well as camping trips with my friends. I did this all the time, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. This was always attached to an interest in science. I watched Bill Nye the Science Guy and Eyewitness Nature videos all the time. The life cycles of animals and plants fascinated me. I begged my parents to take me tot he natural history museum so I could learn about space and look at dinosaur bones. I got large picture books full of colorful illustrations and pictures of natural phenomenon, teeming with scientific facts.
As I got older, I was less able to spend time in nature. Moreover, I found the lab work I did in school to be tedious and boring. I was simply not cut out to be a researcher. As a result, I stopped taking science classes altogether and became almost exclusively focused on my writing. Even after graduating college, I never got back into the practice of studying natural sciences, being too focused on work and trying to get my foot in the door in jobs I truly liked. For similar reasons, I stopped having the time to go camping or hiking and enjoy the outdoors the way I used to. There is a natural science shaped hole in my heart, one that I've struggled to fill.
A similar hole in my heart has been left by faith. I was raised Catholic by a very religious family. I went to church every sunday, and actually became involved in one church as an acolyte (a gender neutral term for altar boy, sice we had women in my church who did the job as well) We went to a church downtown that was fairly progressive, and actually had some openly gay couples. The local pastor even spoke up in defense of scientific findings such as evolution. This environment engendered a belief in me that the divine and he material could be reconciled, and I began to grow in faith to the point that I actively considered becoming a priest myself.
Then the local Bishop closed my family's church, for reasons that clearly had more to do with my pastor's teachings than with money. This sparked a search for a new faith in all my family members. My mom and sister became Lutheran, while my father and I stopped attending church altogether. But the light that faith left in my life was never replaced, and following the path of atheism and agnosticism left me feeling hollow, spiritually.
Storytelling is something that has always been a part of me and always will. I've been telling stories since I was old enough to make full sentences, and though I've only recently begun writing them down, I get more satisfaction from writing fiction and poetry than anything else. This part of me has kept me going. But its not enough to build a foundation of self on, when the other two holes have been leaving gaping wounds in my heart for so long.
The internet is what first introduced me to the concept of neopaganism as a nature based spirituality and not as the satanist caricature my catholic faith had raised me to believe it was. I did research, and began casting spells and observing the Wiccan Sabbats. Then I found information about druidry, in particular the path of the bard, and suddenly things began to make sense to me. Here was a neopagan path that put an emphasis on the spiritual as opposed to the magical, where storytelling was a major part of the faith, both in terms of learning ancient legends and creating new stories to teach new lessons. A nature based path that embraced scientific thought, because ancient druids were practitioners of Pythagorean mathematics, alchemy, and other predecessors of modern science.
Neopaganism is not without many flaws. Many neopagans embrace colonial ideas, and appropriate native practices. Druids are among them. Some practitioners actively discourage people of color from joining, and reinforce ideas about gender or sexuality that are heteronormative and transmisic. I am not one of those druids, but it is only because I have taken the time to deconstruct the narratives that surround the faith, and look into the validity of my sources.
As for what I believe, the classical sources are biased in a lot of ways, being from Greek and Roman writers who saw the ancient Celts as barbarians, but there are two threads that have stood out to me and that almost every modern druid agrees is part of their practice and that seem to have a grounding in the pracitces on the ancient druids. The first is a reverence for and understanding of the natural world, as evidenced by celebrating the seasons, performing rituals for crop growth, using herbalism to treat sickness, etc. The second is a belief in some sort of Otherworld. Ancient druids were said to believe that there was an Otherworld of spirits. When one dies in the material world they are reborn in the Otherworld, and when one dies in the Otherworld they are reborn in this world. Furthermore, knowledge could be gained by traveling to the Otherworld in a trance state similar to modern meditation.
I do believe the Otherworld exists, because I feel a strong spiritual presence when I meditate. And I do revere the forces of the natural world, though I try not to anthropomorphize them. I consider myself a pantheist, and do no expect the gods to do things for me, or to be at my beck and call. I also practice divination int he form of tarot reading, which was not practiced by ancient druids but which has helped me to learn to trust my intuition. And I believe in the awen, the divine creative spirit that births new ideas and carries them into the world.
These are my beliefs, and they form the backbone of my practice, which is constantly evolving. I do not know where my spiritual journey will lead me, only where I have come from. I hope, though, that I can direct myself in such a way that my spiritual practice will inform my decisions and help me make the world a better place.