Preparing for a Druid Ritual

Preparing for a Druid Ritual

© Isaac Bonewits
Originally published in Druid's Progress #4

Ceremonial Baths - It's usually a good idea, whenever possible, to do some sort of personal cleansing before starting any kind of ceremony. Why? There's nothing spiritually "unclean" about the average Neopagan, and we don't believe in "original sin" (although Neopagans generally approve of originality). So we're not talking about "washing away sin", so much as we're dealing with the topic of altering our state of consciousness. Now every ritual does that, one way or another, but with personal cleansings (or banishings or exorcisms) what you are altering is the focus and flavor of your attention more than anything else.

Here are some simple examples: If you had been cooking an Indian curry, and then decided to bake an apple pie for dessert, you would naturally wash any lingering curry powder off your hands before starting to cut up the apples. If you were a doctor who had been working with ill patients and then had to attend another with open wounds, you would make sure that your hands were thoroughly sterile before touching her. If you had been doing a weather spell, and your mind was full of low pressure zones, jet streams and cirrus cloud formations, and you then desired to do a fertility spell for the crops, you would need to clear your mind of all the weather oriented thoughts before attempting to get fertile.

In the first two examples, neither curry powder nor microbes are necessarily evil (though some would argue on both), but their leftover presence could cause the results of your later activities to be less than satisfactory. The washing of hands can be a powerful symbolic act, so it should come as no surprise to know that many cooks and surgeons make a much bigger fuss over cleaning themselves than either the culinary or the medical arts require.

In the third example, again, what you want to get rid of is not evil, wicked or "sinful", just inappropriate. Here a physical cleansing of your self (and the working area and tools) becomes more obviously symbolic. As in other rituals, what you are doing is giving your subconscious a series of cues, in this case to wipe your internal blackboard clean so that you can start writing new thoughts upon it.

On the practical, Earth-plane level of reality, if your hands are full of axel grease, you're going to leave permanent fingerprints on your white robe. If you've been engaging in some strenuous activity that has left you covered with sweat, the odors wafting from your body are likely to compete with the incense. If you're feeling dirty, oily or gritty, you're going to have a much harder time concentrating on relaxing and opening yourself up to the spiritual energies to be invoked.

So I always recommend to people (especially clergy) that they take a shower or (preferably) a long, hot, soaking bath before doing any important ceremony. One tradition is to bless a handful of salt and mix it into tile water, thus exorcising the water of any energies at all other than cleansing ones. Depending on the sort of ritual coming up, you might want to mix crushed herbs into the bath, so that you can breathe in their odors while you bathe. Play soothing music on a recorder, burn appropriate incense, light a candle, or add any other elements you like that will reinforce two primary ideas: (1) getting rid of all previous thoughts and obsessions, and (2) beginning to focus on the energies to be worked with in the upcoming rite.

When you get out of the water, put on clean clothing, whether it's traveling clothes or your actual ceremonial garb (which should have been cleaned/ironed beforehand) Then go straight to the site without letting your mind drift too far into other topics.

Diet and Drugs - If your ceremony is to be short, you'll want to avoid having red meat or other heavy foods in you when you start. If it's going to be a long ritual, you may want to eat a good solid meal a couple of hours beforehand. Obviously, good nutrition is very important in maintaining your alertness and stamina.

As for the drug question, a small dose of caffeine or sugar may be useful to some people just before the ritual begins. Others find that alcohol or THC in very small amounts is useful for reducing preceremonial jitters. However, large amounts of any of these four drugs can ruin your sense of timing, and the latter two can affect your memory and make you miss cues. As with everything else in magic and religion, common sense and moderation will usually be your best guides.

Site Preparation - The site should be prepared well ahead of time. Outdoors, clear the ground of sharp rocks, twigs, etc. Clear the leaves and animal droppings from the altar. See what the light and/or shade is likely to be like at the scheduled time, as well as the views in different directions (what tree is the sun going to rise over?). Check out the acoustics to see if that bagpipe is really practical. In fact, most of this should be done at or before the first rehearsal.

If you are going to have a fire, see to it that someone who knows what she or he is doing has been appointed as Fire Warden. Let her/him set up a proper firepit, and arrange for the necessary fire fighting tools to be available if needed. The fire, by the by, should be started at least fifteen minutes before the ceremony begins.

When working indoors, make sure before the ritual begins that the telephone is unplugged and "Do not disturb" signs are on the outside doors. Turn off any noisy air conditioners or heating systems that are otherwise likely to roar into action during the rite.

Chalices - This is an area where both population and health factors need to be taken into account. With a small group, all of whom are known to be in good health (i.e., with no contagious conditions), the main chalice or drinking horn can be passed around with a secondary cup of spring water (for the teetotalers in the group). If the presiding clergy have colds (or other unpopular viruses), both of the main cups should stay at the altar and additional ones be passed. Each participant can then drink from either or both container, and pass them on.

With a medium or larger group, it's safest to assume that at least some of them have a cold, flue or other virus that should not be shared along with the waters. Therefore, the main chalice of waters should usually stay on the altar and larger vessels, (such as cauldrons, pitchers, etc.) of waters should be filled and consecrated along with the main chalice. Under these circumstances, you'll want to suggest to people in your early announcements (and perhaps your Processional songs at a festival) that they each bring their own ritual cup or drinking horn. These can then be filled from the larger vessels of alcoholic and nonalcoholic fluids carried around by the cupbearers.

Another thing that these bigger vessels, especially cauldrons, are used for with larger groups is asperging. With a small or medium sized group, passing the waters around four times is not a major problem, but with large groups, the amount of rime required for each participant to meaningfully partake can add up to the point where it destroys the ritual's pacing. For this reason, small cauldrons filled with spring water (and a dash of alcohol) can be consecrated along with the main chalice during the Tried Invocations, then taken around the circle by the cupbearers, who asperge the congregation and bards with a ritually appropriate bundle of twigs. This is not quite as effective as drinking the waters would be, but with more than forty people, it may be necessary. However, if you have many cupbearers available, you could try having each one fill up the cups of a small segment of the congregation (such as an eighth of the circle) after each consecration, instead of asperging.

All of these drinking vessels (large or small) should be of horn, stoneware, metal, wood or other natural substances. They do not have to match, however the one(s) for nonalcoholic waters should be very distinctive in appearance. If all you have are multiple identical vessels (or if none of them match each other), try putting silver or blue ribbon around the one(s) containing nonalcoholic waters, and gold or red ribbon around the alcoholic one(s). Generally, the proportion of alcoholic to nonalcoholic vessels should be one-to-one for a small or medium sized group, and four-to-one with larger groups. If in doubt, it's better to err on the side of caution and have extra vessels and cupbearers.

Branches - With a small congregation, you'll only need one cut branch from Atree of the appropriate seasonal or occasional species. This should be 12-18 inches in length, cut from a sucker shoot or other part of the tree where your removal will not damage it. Always ask permission from the tree first, explain what you are doing and why, and put some healing energy back into the tree where the cut was made.

If you have a large enough group of people that you decide to do aspergings for the first three consecrations (instead of passing cups around), then you'll need in addition three small branches (9-12 inches) of birch, yew, and oak (or their local symbolic equivalents) to use as aspergillums (sprinklers). If you take multiple thin twigs from a tree, you can tie them together with the proper color of ribbon (black for birch, red for yew, white for oak). For special occasions, you may want to use gold ribbon to tie additional sprigs or twigs to the main branch (such as holly and mistletoe to oak for Yule). Use your imagination, remembering that the aspergillums should be sturdy, and that they will be burned or otherwise disposed of at the end of the ceremony.

Clothing - The presiding clergy, at least, should wear long white robes. The rest of the congregation can wear white robes, tunics or dresses. Everyone's clothing should be of natural fabrics, with plenty of colorful embroidery or applique work. The styles can be Celtic, Germanic, Russian, etc. Different groves may choose to have a common cultural theme running throughout their ceremonies and thus through their clothing, or may choose to be Pan-Indo-European. Almost any style of clothing will do, as long as the general effect is Paleopagan, rather than modern. People should be encouraged to wear their fanciest, brightest ceremonial garb. If you have any medievalists in your grove, they may be able to loan appropriate clothing to the other grove members.

All of the preceding is, of course, based on the standard seasonal and holy day rites. If you are doing a ceremony for a specific purpose that is not bright and cheerful, you may wish to have the participants wearing more somber garb. Solid black is, however, to be discouraged, as it is too reminiscent of Satanism and other Christian sects.

Black, red and white cords should be avoided as belts, since many Neopagan Witchcraft traditions use these as signs of rank, if people are going to wear belts at all, wear the sort that would be worn by the folks who originally wore that type of clothing.

If your grove decides to work barefoot (apparently an old Indo-European custom, at least during good weather), then shoes should be of the easily removed sort. The white berets and any other head coverings should be removed at the entrance to the ritual site (this is when shoes would be removed too), at least by the presiding clergy and bards. Both these customs are to symbolize our connections with the Earth and the Sky.

Since most Druid rites are done outdoors, sensible precautions should also be taken for the weather. Druid ceremonies tend to last 45 minutes to an hour or longer. In hot weather, you don't want people in heavy robes and bare heads standing around in the sun for long periods of time. In cold weather, you want warm robes that are loose enough to be worn over multiple layers of woolens, etc., and you may want to add white gloves to the presiding clergy's regalia.

Misc. Items - It's nice if you can manage to have a large sickle on the main altar, and/or if the presiding clergy are wearing small ones. These do not have to be gold -- bronze or iron will do fine. If you are indoors, or in an area where you can't have a bonfire, you naturally need to remember to bring a small cauldron or candle stick(s). Banners symbolic of the three worlds, or of various deities, add a wonderful splash of color, especially in the Processional and Recessional. Whiskey, mead or other alcoholic beverages should be brought, remembering that you will need more of it if everyone partakes at each consecration (instead of being asperged for the first three). Ordinary spring water should also be on hand, for the benefit of those members of the congregation who cannot or will not drink alcohol. All these liquids should be in aesthetically pleasing storage containers. Fuel for the fire or candles will be needed. Don't forget to bring properly colored ribbons for tieing to chalices and/or branches.

Intellectual and Artistic Preparations

Planning Sessions - Even if you were just going to use the script straight out of DP 2, with no modifications (something I don't recommend, since even I have been making changes in it), you would still need to make additional plans. Get the folks together who you know intend to take part, at least two weeks beforehand. Decide on who is going to play what role, who will have responsibilities for what preparation work, who will bring which supplies, etc. Decide on a theme for the rite, and thus on the colors, symbols, deities and songs to use. Decide if more research into the deities and/or the occasion might be needed, and who will do it. Decide on the exact place and time for the rehearsals and the ritual itself, on how its going to be publicized (necessary for the semipublic celebrations of the eight holy days), and how everyone and everything will be transported to the rehearsals and the ceremony.

Making all these decisions may take more than one session. If you are having regular weekly or biweekly grove meetings, you can incorporate this planning into them, simply spending more time on it as you get closer to the actual date. Otherwise, you should schedule at least two planning sessions, one to focus on making the decisions just listed, and the other to hand out scripts, song lyrics, driving maps, etc. Try to give everyone enough time to enable them to memorize their parts, since all ceremonies look better without scripts and cue-cards being visible.

The presiding clergy and the bard(s) should figure out ahead of time how they are going to handle mistakes and unexpected events during the ceremony: flubbed lines, missed cues, absent people with important functions, actions going faster or slower than expected, intruders showing up on the scene (or late-comers), etc. The person who knows the script the best (usually the Senior Druid of the grove), should be ready with lines like "Now let the Ancestors be invoked!" or "Now let us thank the spirits we have had with us today!", in order to cover for missed cues. The bard(s) should be ready to sing or play music to fill in or stretch out parts of the ceremony that are not matching the desired pacing of the energy flow. The grove guardians should be instructed on how to invite in people who show up after the ritual has started. Etc.

Casting - You'll want the most qualified folks available for each role. Don't have a chief bard who can't play his/her instrument adequately, or sing on the pitch, when someone competent is available. If there's only one person around who can pronounce the Irish (or Welsh, or Polish, or Norse, etc.) correctly, let her or him do the words in that language. If that person's not an experienced or competent ritualist, pair them up with someone else who is. For a medium or larger group ceremony, screen the folks who want to do Praise Offerings, and select the best ones. If you're going to do a ritual drama or dance in the middle of the rite, get people who know how to do it well.

Obviously, if your grove is just starting out, and you only have five or six people who are working with you, then you can't be picky. Just assume that we're all growing in our arts and pass the available roles around as democratically as you like. But as soon as your grove begins to have twenty or thirty people shoving up for the High Days (within a year or so), you're going to want to start selecting and training specific individuals to take on more and more responsibility- Newcomers who vent to perform major roles In the rituals should be tested and (if competent) immediately drafted. The idea is not to be snobbish, but to exercise at least as much discretion in casting as your local little theater group or community chorus does.

Watch out for nepotism! Your spouse, lover, or best friend may not be the best person for a particular role, no matter how much you love them. The owner the site is not automatically qualified to be the presiding clergyperson, despite Neopagan customs to the contrary. A member who makes a large donation to your grove's expenses should not be casually handed an important role that he or she is not competent to fulfill. Special thanks, blessings, or social positions may be given to people of these sorts, but personal preferences (or animosities) should not be allowed to interfere with giving the Gods, and the members of your grove, the best possible ceremonies.

What roles are there? Obviously, you need one or two presiding clergy to do the Invocations, sacrifice, and consecrations, etc. To be really authentic, you might want to have your Senior Druid stand by during the rite to supervise (supplying missed cues, covering for mistakes, watching for omens, etc.) You should have at least one good bard for the occasion, to play the music for and lead the songs and chants. If you are going to use some form of divination in the rite, then you'll need a diviner to handle it.

Cupbearers/aspergers are necessary for medium or larger sized groups. Ritual dance and theater sequences require dancers and actors. If you have banners for the Three Worlds, you may want people to be banner holders. If you expect that your ritual may be disturbed by unfriendly outsiders, you may also want to have a few warrior types with quarterstaves guarding the perimeters of your site -- these should be people with extremely cool heads, since you're likely to lose any subsequent lawsuits. You may also want them to take responsibility for helping anyone who has a medical or psychological problem during the ceremony (in which case they should know what they're doing).

And oh yes, don't forget your shills (excuse me, "chant facilitators"). Any ceremony with a medium sized group or larger needs to have some people who really know all the chants and songs well, and who can deliver them loudly enough to lead the rest of the congregation. The choreography of the rite should make sure that these folks are evenly distributed throughout the congregation at all times. Perhaps your group's chief bard may select and train these people, and you may want them to have some distinctive symbol or article of clothing (that way the pre-ritual briefing can include something like "listen to the people with the blue sashes, they know all the songs".) You should have one facilitator for every ten people, but they can also be taking other duties, such as being cupbearers, provided that they are evenly distributed around the circle (or whatever shape the congregation is in) whether moving or standing, and they keep singing or chanting throughout.

Each of the major roles should have understudies (who can double as shills). Not only is this a good way for less experienced members of your group to learn your customs, but can be a goddess-send when one of your major officers is suddenly called out of town or gets the plague. And if one of the understudies winds up doing a better job of memorizing and performing the ceremony than the person originally cast, then she or he should be given the part. Yes, there will be screaming about this. But if your group is really interested in ceremonial excellence, then they are going to have to be able to subordinate their artistic egos to the cause of better ceremonies.

Above all, when selecting people to handle functions in a large public ritual, remember yet again: Sincerity is not a substitute for competence.

Rehearsals - Oh yes! You need to have at least one full-dress rehearsal for any ritual with any degree of complexity, especially if you want to avoid some of the problems already mentioned. For a lengthy ceremony, you may want to have two or three rehearsals, with possible additional work for the singers, musicians, dancers, etc. I've been hearing complaints about demanding rehearsals for years, but there is no escaping it-- every really powerful, beautiful and effective large group ritual I have ever participated in had plenty of rehearsal. Folks who are unable to unwilling to rehearse have made their choice of priorities, and have thus decided to be part of the congregation rather than clergy or bards.

Your final dress rehearsal is the time for photos and recordings to be made. That way you can ban photographers and audio/video tapers from the ritual (unless they have long distance lenses and mikes). No one should ever be filmed without their express permission, though ceremonial masks are an option for large gatherings.

Pre-Ritual Instructions to Congregation - When everyone has gathered at the site, someone other than the presiding clergy should tell them (1) any parts of the ceremony that have been changed at the last minute, (2) any chants, song choruses, or litany responses that they may not be familiar with, (3) who will be responsible for what duties during the ceremony, (4) which chalice(s) will hold non-alcoholic liquid, etc., --- all the facts they need to know to participate fully, without the use of written scripts. If it's a small group for whom an unscheduled Praise Offering would not disrupt the planned flow of the ceremony, everyone should be encouraged to offer something if they have it well memorized. Since Druid rituals usually have newcomers at them, this sort of pre-ceremonial briefing should never be skipped.

At a large Pagan festival, the Processional may occur before all the members of the congregation have arrived on the ritual site, since they may join the Processional as it winds through the festival area. In that case, the pre-ritual announcements will need to be made after the Processional has arrived and the people have distributed themselves into their intended places. This style of announcement should be fairly Formal and dignified, so as to not disrupt whatever spiritual energies have already been raised among the congregation. If at all possible, have your bard put the necessary information into a poetic form and either chant or sing it.

Emotional and Social Preparations

Individual Emotional States - As a general rule, a ceremony will work best if the participants begin in an emotional state similar to that which the ritual is supposed to reflect. Getting into the appropriate mood should be part of the pre-ritual meditations of all participants, but is especially important for the presiding clergy and bards. Members of the congregation can "go with the flow" during a rite, but the clergy and bards must keep a portion of their consciousness separate even during the most emotionally intense moments, in order to keep track of and guide the energy flow of the ritual as a whole. If this necessary separation is not to be emotionally and spiritual distressing to them, they must saturate the rest of their consciousness thoroughly with the mood(s) that they intend to create within the congregation.

On the other hand, anyone who is in a particularly foul mood, where of anger, fear, depression, pain, etc., should not participate in a magical or religious ceremony without warning at least some of the other participants, including the presiding clergy. Otherwise they are likely to poison the groupmind's emotional focus and/or disrupt its psychic unity. This does not mean that people in need should be abandoned, or banished from the community's rituals. On the contrary, it means that a special effort should be made (either before the ceremony, or very early on in it) to cheer them up or, if appropriate, to encourage them to share their emotions with the congregation in a way that gives the unhappy person meaningful psychological support and which restores their sense of belonging to the group. They can then participate in a positive way.

Social Factors - Much of this was covered in the discussions on intragroup familiarity in the previous essay. Obviously, a group of friends who see each other frequently are going to create a more unified groupmind than an equal sized group of people who barely know each other. Thus, the more activities of any sort that a group engages in together, the more effective their liturgical interactions will be. It used to be that people made their religious group the center of their social lives, and thus their ceremonies used to be more powerful and effective. This is one of the reasons, by the way, that people living in large cities, with many social distractions available, often have more difficulty creating and maintaining working ritual groups.

But in any social group, whether tight or loose, you're going to have problems arise between the members. Intragroup and intergroup politics, personality clashes, and love relationships can wreak havok with your efforts to create a groupmind For a ceremony. This is where the clergyperson needs all of her or his psychological and social skills to prevent such problems from destroying a ritual before it starts. If two or more members of the group are having a conflict, or someone shows up who is actively disliked by most of the membership, or the ceremony is an open "ecumenical" one with people from fueding groups likely to show up, the presiding clergy need to deal with the situation quickly and effectively, yet compassionately. This can be one of the hardest tasks that a clergyperson ever faces, yet evading it will ruin even the most beautifully designed and executed liturgy.

Psychic/Magical/Spiritual Preparations

Exorcism of the Site - This shouldn't generally be necessary, especially outdoors (unless you forgot to check out the vibes of the place first). But if you or someone else has been doing magical or religious rituals of an incompatible sort in the same location recently you'll want to psychically clean the area along with the physical cleansing mentioned earlier. This exorcism can be done by the presiding clergy just before they retire to meditate (see next section), or by their assistants (if they really know how). There are a wide variety of ways to do this, but you should choose a Pagan style that fits with the ceremony to follow. Taking the Processional all the way around the site while singing a chant in praise of the Gods is usually effective. You may also want to take this opportunity to set up "wards" (psychic defenses) around the site to prevent disturbance by unfriendly folk, should that be a matter of concern.

Pre-Ritual Meditations - The presiding clergy and the bard(s) will be most responsible for directing the energy flow of the ritual, so they should be able to spend at least fifteen minutes to half an hour in meditation before the ritual starts. Such meditation would consist of "grounding and centering", dwelling upon the theme of the rite, contemplating their ceremonial tools/instruments, getting into the appropriate mood, reviewing their relationships with the deities of the occasion, etc. The purpose of all of this is to clear their minds of every nonritual thought, so that they can concentrate on the work they are about to do. For that reason, other members of the grove should take care of trivial end routine matters during this time period.

If there ore no trained subordinates in the grove, or if you have a very small group (as most of you will when starting out), the presiding clergy can announce a five minute meditation break, five minutes before they intend to start. Encourage everyone to be silent and to make themselves ready for the ceremony. While they're doing that, the clergy can get some meditation of their own accomplished, perhaps while putting the final touches on the altar. In fact, even with a larger congregation, such an announcement and preparation period isn't a bad idea. If you're going to have a long processional walk, that can serve a similar purpose in starting the group focus. But you should absolutely not go from a casual social or party atmosphere directly into a ceremonial one.


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"Preparing for a Druid Ritual." submitted by IsaacBonewits on 15 May, 2019. Last modified on 12 January, 2021.
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