Nine Central Tenets of Druidic Ritual
This essay also available on the ADF website
In order to fully explain why we do the things we do, it's important for us to look at the entire vision of the cosmos: what are the assumptions we make about ritual, and how do they play into the eventual development of a "core order" or an outline of what we plan to do?
I've worked through a set of nine central tenets of Druidic ritual: things that every ritual assumes to be true, and that the cosmos we (re)create in every ritual can stand on its own. These are:
Druidic ritual doesn't follow a set of beliefs: we are not an orthodox (right belief) religion, but a religion that values orthopraxy (right practice). As a result, the above list should not be taken as a set of "things you must believe in" so much as a set of ritual assumptions that make Druidic ritual structures work. These nine things get at the very mechanics of Druidry and how Druids participate in the Cosmos through ritual.
Druidic ritual is centered around our understanding of hospitality in the Indo-European world. It rests on the idea of *ghos-ti-, which is a Proto-Indo-European word that exemplifies the idea of reciprocity and the guest-host relationship within an IE cosmos. What we do in ritual informs what we do in our mundane lives, as well, and we seek to exemplify this reciprocal ideal in all our relationships.
Hospitality has two sides: the good host and the gracious guest. A good host ensures that his guest is appropriately treated, and the gracious guest ensures the he does not overburden the host. Both guest and host are responsible for the maintenance of the relationship.
There is also the concept of "a gift for a gift," where we seek to give to the Kindreds so that we may open a relationship in which they may reciprocate (not in the knowledge that they will reciprocate, but in the hope). Our interactions with the Kindreds are based on the idea that "the same hands that reach out to give also reach out to receive."¹
A "gift for a gift" is not a one-to-one exchange, though. It is not "I bought you a $15 meal yesterday: today, you have to buy me $15 worth of food." You would not participate in that relationship very long, and neither will the Kindreds. A ghosti relationship is more like having a friend with whom you have been to dinner so many times that neither one of you remembers whose turn it is to pick up the check. When the check arrives, you do not break out your tally sheets and calculators, seeking to determine who owes what and who paid for which meal last; instead, one person simply grabs the check and, should the other protest, the response is always, "Oh, I've got this one. You can get the next one." In these cases, the relationship is more valuable than the check could possibly be, and the understanding is that the second person values the relationship just as much and would have done the exact same thing if he'd been a hair faster.
Our relationship with the Kindreds is one of reciprocity, much like the friends at the dinner table, or the guest and the host. This is an ancient feeling, and can be seen even in the Rgveda, where Agni (the fire) is described as drawing the folk together as a guest draws together the family that hosts him at their hearth.
Implicit in this relationship is the idea that we can form relationships with the Kindreds: the gods and goddesses, the spirits of nature, and the ancestors are all interested and willing to form these sorts of bonds. Because of this, we seek to form these bonds in any way we can: through offerings of praise which come from our deepest hearts, offerings of work we have toiled over with our hands, and thinking on them and turning to them when times become difficult.
We know that the Kindreds find joy in these relationships and wish to enter into them just as we do. To that end, we work hard to enliven this reciprocity with word and deed.
Translations of the word vary: rta can be translated as "Truth" or "Cosmic Order" or "Cosmic Law," and each translation is correct in some cases and incorrect in others. The reason that we use rta instead of an English word is that there simply is no English word that can convey the meaning. There are cognates in other languages, such as orlog in Old Norse and asha in Indo-Iranian, or even the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction of *xartus could also be used. For the purposes here, though, we will use the Vedic rta.
In the Rgveda, rta is said to cause the dawn to be born, the cycles of the day and night to continue, the seasons to move, and the earth and heaven to be held apart. It is divinely guarded and the divine is bound by it as well.
In our rituals, we are seeking to do things properly by the rta. When we choose to do things by the rta, we are choosing to take the right actions in the cosmos. In many cases, we might look on this as following in the footsteps of the gods, emulating them or following their directives or examples. One could look upon this as a sort of clear alignment with the Three Kindreds and with the forces they represent in the cosmos. While in the Vedas this was marked by specific ritual actions at specific ritual times with no possibility for deviation, we're much more fast and loose with our ritual structure.
Despite that, we still look to conform in some way to the order of the cosmos. The is one way we conform: it provides the first level of structure and order on this chaotic world. The COoR is an example of cosmos (re)creation as a whole. From a point where the ritual begins; through to the description of the cosmos; past the sacralization and population of that cosmos; and even in the blessings poured forth upon us by the Kindreds, we are engaging in an emulation of the rta and following the example given to us by the Kindreds.
We also conform to the rta by offering sacrifice. Sacrifice is a vital part of our cosmology, and participation in the process of offering sacrifice is clearly something that aligns us with the Kindreds. Often, we are following a formula given to us by the Kindreds in some way (occasionally through a trickster figure, such as Prometheus, or through emulation of the way the gods make sacrifice).
A third (though not final) way we conform to the rta is through maintaining the Wheel of the Year. By keeping the times of the year sacred, and in celebrating key events such as the return of the sun, the waning of summer, and smaller events like the phases of the moon, we help to maintain and continue their progression. In doing this, we are keeping the rta on its course, becoming agents of the cosmic order ourselves and ensuring its persistence.
Hard polytheism means that we stick very strongly to polytheistic worldviews, interacting with the various powers and spirits throughout the cosmos as if they are individual entities with their own complex thoughts, desires, and motivations. Rather than thinking that the deities and spirits are "archetypes," "reflections of a single all-pervading force," or "energy pools," we accept that the Powers are beings with their own agency and are entirely able to act on their own.
The Powers and Spirits we call on are also limited. Rather than thinking of them as omniscient (like Santa Claus) or omnipresent (like the Hindu Brahman), we think of them as limited in time and space, as well as in knowledge. This is clearly the way the ancients thought of their deities, and specific examples can be found in world mythologies: at the beginning of the Illiad, Poseidon is "away in Ethiopia," which allows the Greek fleet to sail; and in the Rgveda, Varuna, guardian of the rta, requires spies to ensure that the Cosmic Order is kept by humans.
This ritual assumption also helps what we do make sense rationally. If the gods and spirits are just buckets of energy, why make sacrifice to them? If they are all facets of a single greater "truth," why call on only one or two during the Key Offerings? If they have no agency or ability to think on their own, why ask them for anything? By making the assumption that the world is populated with individual beings, we are also free to make the assumption that these beings care for us, that they are willing to form relationships with us, and that we are dealing with divinity that is interested and invested in our well-being.
A vital note should be placed in this section: ADF and Druidry in general do not require that you have a specific belief about the gods and spirits. Rather, what we are discussing here is a set of ritual assumptions that make our rituals work. There are no rules about your belief: if you prefer Jung's archetypes or the henotheistic "god beyond the gods" outlook on divinity, that's great and wonderful. The issue comes down to practice: for our rituals to operate in the vision of the cosmos we have, hard polytheism is a central assumption.
In Druidic ritual, the cosmos is divided in three parts. What these three parts are and who inhabits them is far less important than their actual number.
Often, we think about the world as Heavens, Midworld, and Underworld, but these are not the only options. They have become our most commonly used division, though, due primarily to the general western IE focus within ADF, and a lack of good resources for Celtic ritual.
In addition to a triple cosmos, we represent that triplicity with a triple center. As Druids, we most commonly represent our center with a fire (which supports and acts as a gate to the highest realm), a well (which springs from and acts as a gate to the lowest realm), and a tree, pillar, mountain, or other axis mundi (which serves as the center of the worlds and the path between them). More on the function of these symbols and the triple center will be said in the next section.
The three most common Indo-European divisions of the cosmos that can be used in ritual are these:
There is a Zuni legend that when the Water Skate was given magical powers by the Sun Father, he stretched his four legs out upon the waters.
His front right leg stretched first to the northeast, the place of the summer solstice sunrise; his front left leg stretched next to the northwest, the place of the summer solstice sunset; his back left leg then stretched to the southwest, the place of the winter solstice sunset; his back right leg then stretched to the southeast, the place of the winter solstice sunrise.
Where his heart then rested marked the "Center Place," the center of the land that is surrounded by the four seas and the heart of the Earth Mother. It is below this center, below the heart of the Water Skate which is the heart of the Earth Mother, that the village of Zuni was established.
At the center of the village, another center resides. This is on a permanent altar in the chief priest's house, where a heart-shaped rock (known as "the heart of the world") rests. Within this rock are arteries that reach toward the four solstice points.
These centers, it is easy to see, form a series of centers that are both atop each other in an obvious layering effect and also all the same in their overlay. None of these centers can exist without the others, and they seem to form around one another in ever tightening rings. Each center is itself, unique; each center is also all the other centers.
Eliade indicates that religion itself is an orienting force, one that gives us a focal point from which to make sense of the world. When we are in a profane state, one that is not sacred, we have no point of reference. It is only through the breakthrough of the sacred into the profane world, the hierophany, that orientation is possible. "The heirophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center."
It is the finding of this fixed point, this center, which allows us to make sense of the world. If religion is indeed about finding ways to orient ourselves, to place ourselves in relative location to everything else, then we must find those centers, even if we must create them. The creation of those centers is similar to founding the cosmos.
Centers themselves are different from the rest of the world. They are places that allow this orientation, an orientation that the profane world cannot provide. Many of us are familiar with the axis mundi, or the axis of the world from Eliade. These cosmic pillars can only exist, according to Eliade, at the center of the universe, and all things extend about it. It supports the sky and finds its roots deep within the earth, and its presence is not an ordering force, but a break, a rip in the fabric of the profane world that allows the sacred to pour into and destroy the homogeneity of space.²
The destruction of the homogenous space is made possible by openings to other worlds, allowing travel and communication between them. In the case of the Zuni, there are four upper worlds and four underworlds that the axis mundi allows access to. Time also begins at the center, and mythical time exists at the outskirts of their cosmos.³
In Druidic cosmology, we find that the center of the world has three parts: Well, Fire, and Sacred Tree. Often, we think of the Tree as the axis mundi, but it is not the only center in ritual. Indeed, all the hallows are a center, and they combine to form the center. The center is not complete with only the tree, for while the tree grows high and is rooted deep, it cannot devour our sacrifices as the fire can, nor can it carry our voices to the depths of the earth as the well can.
Instead, the center must make use of all parts of the hallows: Well, Fire, and Tree. Beyond that, though, there is also the center of the earth, the heart of the Earth Mother, upon whose breast we build our Fire, root our Tree, and sink our Well. We establish the center above her heart, above the center of the earth.
The Grove itself has a center, the place in the middle of those Grove members gathered that the energies and the focus of the ritual are centered. Within each other, we find our own orientation, our own center: there is no stronger center, no larger axis, no more powerful hierophany than that of a Grove standing together, orienting themselves to one another, and finding their place in the centers others can offer.
Most important, though, is another center that must not only be found, but that the ritual cannot happen without: the center of ourselves. Each of us, within our own heart, must find the center of our beings, the inner center that allows us to stand in the center, to be our own axis mundi. From us, all things radiate, and within ourselves we can discover a rift between the sacred and the profane.
If we cannot find the center of ourselves, if the hierophany of our hearts cannot be seen, then others cannot find it within us. If the Grove cannot orient itself by combining these centers, then it cannot find the center of the earth, the heartbeat of the Earth Mother. If we cannot orient ourselves to that center, then we cannot orient our hallows, and the Well, Fire, and Tree will not stand at the center of the worlds.
Centers are unlike any other thing in ritual: they are where we establish them. Yes, they can appear naturally, and there are places that a center is more likely to appear than others, but to truly do the work of magic, we need to learn to establish them, to place them atop one another, to blend them and to maintain their distinctions. We must find them in ourselves, either through meditation or ritual, and we must learn to use the point of reference created by our own center to orient ourselves to the other centers around us.
As Joseph Campbell said, "The center is everywhere; the circumference is nowhere."
Of the three common gates in the Sacred Center, it is the Fire that is most important within Druid ritual and Druidic cosmology. It is clear that like the eastern Indo-European religions, our own has developed into a fire-cult.
This is a good thing, and sensible. Rituals can occur without wells, trees, portals, and shafts in the ground, but when we boil down the things that are vital to our religion, the one thing we cannot worship without is a representation of fire. Without fire, it is as if we are empty-handed when we invite the Spirits and Powers: we can offer them no way to warm themselves, we can offer nothing to them to satiate their hunger or slack their thirst, and we have no symbol to build a center around. Because of this, it is right to say a prayer to the fire any time one is kindled, and the kindling of a fire is a prayer in itself.
The fire also crosses the three divisions of the cosmos: kindled on the earth, the fire's flames leap into the atmosphere, and the pillar of smoke created supports the celestial realm. The fire is connected intimately with the celestial waters, often said to be born from them.
Our Grove often quotes a partial verse from the Rgveda: "Let us pray with a good fire." This phrase, from RV I.26.8, means many things to our Grove. It conjures images of not only a fire of piety within us, where we ignite that religious or spiritual fire, but also of the physical fire before us, to which we make offerings, giving a command to each: one that tells us how to behave in ritual, and one which tells the fire how to behave, as well. By "praying with a good fire," we recognize both the fire within and the fire without, the piety of both our belief and our actions: we do not come before our gods empty-handed.
The fire is intimately connected to the sacrifice. Agni, the Vedic fire god, not only devours the sacrifice, but he calls the gods forth to sit upon the sacrificial grass, and he transfers the sacrifice to the rest of the host of gods and goddesses, who (it is said) cannot be exhilarated without him.
It is also no coincidence that of all the Vedic gods, Agni is the most closely connected to humans and the guest-host relationship. The continuous presence of fire in the households of our Indo-European ancestors speaks to why this is. Across the IE spectrum, fire is spoken of as a friend to humankind, called a good guest, and connected with the ancestors (who kindled fire before we did). There is no sacred thing that is more often invited into the lives of those who follow an IE religion in general, and Druidry in particular.
In Zoroastrian ritual, the two basic cult objects are still fire and water, both of which are offered to in the daily yasna ritual. This ritual seeks to purify the fire, called the son of the Lord of Wisdom and placed in the south of the ritual precinct, which is the place of goodness and bounty.
In many ways, the fire is the counterpart of the priest, a sort of example that our own priests must follow. By bringing the deities to the place of sacrifice, by transmitting the offering, and by knowing the ways of the sacrifice, the fire is the perfect priest.
Fires also play an integral part in ordering the cosmos (as does the priest in IE religions), and this can particularly be seen in the use of fire to make a place habitable and to bring it into the dominion of humans. When he first arrived in Iceland, Thorolf Mostrarskegg marked out his land and then took fire around the borders in order to claim the land as his own. There is no clearer way than kindling a fire to inform all the Powers and Spirits that we are here, and we are prepared to receive the Kindreds as our guests.
And so we say:
Druidic ritual is based not only on the idea that the Kindreds are receptive to our voices, accepting of our gifts, and interested in a relationship with us; but also that they will speak back to us, offer us gifts in return, and continue that relationship with reciprocity. Most importantly, the Kindreds understand us when we communicate with them, and have given us ways to understand them when they communicate with us.
Each Druidic ritual calls out to ask the Powers questions about our relationship. These communications take many forms and use many different sorts of symbol sets: ogham, runes, oracle cards, augury, and tarot cards are just a few of the methods that might be used in our rituals.
What is often most important is not necessarily the type of symbol that is used, but an intimate familiarity with the symbols and a knowledge of these symbols that is shared with the Powers. Communication goes two ways: both sides of the conversation must understand not only the symbols used to communicate, but also how those symbols are interpreted by the other side. This means that it is up to us to choose a form appropriate to the Powers and appropriate to ourselves, and to study that form in enough depth that when the symbol is drawn or the bird flies from south to north, we know and understand the message as it is intended to be understood.
There are several methods of taking an omen in ritual, and the questions vary from Grove to Grove and even Druid to Druid. Most will ask three questions. Three Cranes Grove, ADF, uses this set:
We have asked these questions because they seem to get us the most detailed answers we can possibly seek. We hear from the Powers not only whether the ritual went well, but what blessings we might receive in the cup and any further instruction they may have to give. It is because of the breadth of response that is possible that our Grove has stuck with this format.
Other Groves ask a different series of questions, which changes the focus of the ritual a bit:
The above three questions start with the assumption that the Powers have accepted the sacrifices given, and will be offering blessings in return for the gifts.
Hemlock Vales Protogrove, ADF, has settled on a hybrid, in which four questions are asked of the Kindreds:
This, of course, solves the issues with the alternate three questions listed above, and also dispenses with the "three question" format that is so popular (sometimes, it's nice that things don't always come in three's).
For our Grove's Druid Moon rituals, we ask a different set of three questions, ones designed to learn different things about our Grove:
The idea with these questions was to look at how we have done in the past, consider where we are going as a Grove in the future, and think about how we, as individuals, can do work in our own lives for the next month.
Remember, too, that negative responses should always be considered a very real possibility. Resist the urge to turn a negative omen into a positive one, and always go with your first instinct. For a very frightening omen, you might think about flipping coins. Nothing says "honesty" like increasing the odds for a negative omen!
This communication aspect of Druidic ritual is very much dependent on the tenet of "hard polytheism" discussed above. The individual Powers have the ability to communicate with us and express their opinions and enhance their relationships with us through a set of symbols we share. Also, this is another "ritual assumption" that is integral to how our rituals work. However you see divination (as communication with your own subconscious mind, as a way to tap into the akashic records, or any other of a number of theories), in our rituals divination is between ourselves and the Powers is very much a real communication with real beings, where we ask a question and we receive an answer.
Druidic ritual, as mentioned above, is firmly rooted in the Earth Mother. It is concerned not with inner worlds or reaching a higher spiritual plane, but with perfecting this world in order to bring the spiritual into the physical. Our concern with the physical even extends to those around us: Druidry is about our entire community, whether that community is made up of other humans, plants, animals, or Spirits.
In a Druidic world view, each person, plant, animal, and spirit is important to the world order: each plays a part in our own rta and the cosmic order as a whole. When we make sacrifice at our fire, we are bound together with those who have made sacrifice before us, and those who will make sacrifice after us. Ritual is a community-building event between humans and the Kindreds.
The most basic way to communicate with the Kindreds is through prayer, but so closely allied to the idea of prayer is the offering that we cannot begin to discuss one without the other. Offering, of course, is the act of bringing gifts to the Kindreds in order to establish a *ghosti relationship. Bringing things that we value to the Kindreds, and knowing that they value these things as well (for they see fit to respond to our offerings with blessings) indicates that the physical is sacred, as well as the spiritual.
Part of why we make offerings is because there is no real division for Neo-Pagans between the physical and the spiritual; indeed, the best sacrifices are somehow "touched" by human hands (thus the use of worked silver over raw ore, cultivated plants over picked wildflowers, poetry crafted from divine inspiration over pure awen, and the historic use of domesticated over wild animals). This realm is the realm we are concerned with: the Earth Mother, the sacred center, and the Kindreds are all best described as an integral part of this physical world. As a result, the idea that physical offerings might not be welcome is foreign to our conception as Neo-Pagans. Indeed, the act of offering is indistinguishable from the act of prayer: every prayer is an offering, and every offering is a prayer.
Importantly, too, the physical space of ritual, including things brought into the space from outside, can be considered sacred. Much as a sacrifice should be somehow "man-made" to show our care and the importance of the task of creating the gift, the tools we bring and the sacred center we create are all clearly a part of the cosmos during ritual. While in some traditions, there is a clear line between what is "sacred" and what is "profane" even outside of ritual context (see, for instance, the prohibition against ever using an athame to cut anything physical in Wicca, in or out of ritual space), a ritual implement in Druidic ritual is not something that must always be kept in the realm of the sacred. In some harvest rites, a sickle is used to cut down a sheaf of wheat: this is not a symbolic harvest, but a physical act that is a small example of the harvest that is now ended.
Our rituals are not built on symbols, but rather on exemplifications. Rather than signify something in the cosmos, we recognize that each part of the sacred center is made up of the "stuff" of the cosmos. Just as a swatch of cloth does not symbolize the cloth, but is a piece of the cloth itself, our ritual items and tools are not symbols, but actual samples of cosmic realities. In our rituals, the Tree is not a symbol of the World Tree, but its wood is a part of the cosmic World Tree. The waters of the Well are not symbolic of the cosmic waters, but they are drawn from the cosmic Waters. The Fire at the center of our ritual is not a symbol of the cosmic Fire, but rather a spark that exemplifies the cosmic Fire.
The easiest way to think about this is to compare how we talk about the sacred center in ritual as opposed to how we talk about a country's flag. When we speak of the well, we call it "eye and mouth of earth," "cauldron of inspiration," and ask it to "flow within us." We do not speak of what it "represents" or what it is "like;" rather, we speak of what it is. When we speak about a country's flag, we talk about what the colours mean and what the flag as a whole stands for.
Through praising things in the world, we also praise the spirits who inhabit this world and the beings that created it.
As we stand at the center of the worlds, we have the ability to affect all things and all times. Here we stand at the foot of the World Tree, the Fire burning brightly and raising our words to the heavens, while the Well resounds with our voices and sinks them down to the world below. Everything in ritual is a piece of the cosmos, active and present in a way that we can affect it.
When we call out to the Kindreds, they come to our fire. They listen to our words, and they receive our sacrifices. As part of the worship bargain, they offer blessings to us in return. The Earth Mother, who we love and honour, is given sacrifice so that she will uphold us and keep us throughout the rite, as she does each day of our lives. We call upon old bargains and long relationships with various beings, including the Gatekeeper, who we trust to guide and ward us as we walk these Elder Ways. We affect the cosmos in mighty ways each time we enter ritual space.
It is important to note, however, that as we do these things, we also affect ourselves and our communities. We are a part of the cosmos, and a part of the world.
Because all things that we do affect the cosmos, it is important that we remember that we must be good hosts and good guests. Our courage to work magic in ritual must be tempered by the integrity to work the right magics. No matter what, standing in ritual is not about the individual doing the work, but about the relationships formed and strengthened by the work that is done. ADF teaches of Nine Pagan Virtues, and as we work ritual we must remain aware of them, for each affects the cosmos as well as the self.
The Nine Pagan Virtues are wisdom, piety, vision, courage, integrity, perseverance, hospitality, moderation, and fertility.
These Nine Pagan Virtues apply directly to what we do in ritual. They are vital to keep in our hearts and to be mindful of in our actions. It is not about us, but about things being right in the cosmos. It is about the rta. Let us do what is right with the power we have in ritual, for only then can we do what is right at all.
¹ — Ceisiwr Serith, A Book of Pagan Prayer
² — For further reading on Eliade's theory of hierophany and centers, see The Sacred & the Profane: The Nature of Religion by Mircae Eliade. ISBN: 015679201X
³ — For the Water Skate myth and Zuni centers, see New Directions in American Archeoastronomy, edited by Anthony F. Aveni: Oxford, England: 1988. ISBN 0860545830. The article in question is "Directionality as a Conceptual Model for Zuni Expressive Behavior" by M. Jane Young.