ADF Ritual Frequently Asked Questions
ADF Ritual Frequently Asked Questions
Where does ADF style ritual come from?
ADF's ritual style (liturgy) is unique among various druid and Neopagan rituals because we developed it from scratch. Specifically, most of it was developed by Isaac Bonewits in the 1980s, and it has been refined slightly since then by some of our chief liturgists, such as Ian Corrigan and Kirk Thomas.
If you're wondering where Isaac got his ideas for the ADF ritual structure, they were partly influenced by his previous work in the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA) as well as his Wiccan priest background. However, the major influence on our ritual structure is research into the beliefs and practices of the ancient Indo-European cultures.
As our website describes more fully, ADF is a "liberal reconstructionist" religion. This means that we look to the "old ways" of the ancient pagan Indo-European cultures for our inspiration. This differs slightly from other druid organizations in that we're not looking solely at the ancient Celts. Instead, we're relying on solid academic research showing that ancient Celtic cultures were part of a cultural-linguistic family called "Indo-European".
The Indo-European cultures, which date from at least 2000 B.C.E. and included ancient Celtic, Germanic (Norse/Teutonic), Hellenic (Greek), Roman, Slavic, and Vedic (Indian) peoples, had many similarities. One example is the importance of a sacred river as a great mother/source goddess (e.g., the Danube, the Boyne, the Ganges). Another is the recurring mythological motif of a chieftain god marrying that mother goddess, thereby ensuring protection and fertility for the folk and land. A third is the concept that the gods are not fundamentally different from humans, but are in fact simply their (more powerful) older ancestors. Another is the idea that there is an order of gods and spirits which is unfriendly toward humans (Celtic Fomoire, Norse Jotuns, Hellenic Titans, etc.), which were driven out by our deities, and which our deities continue to protect us against. The list goes on and on.
So the simple answer to the question of where ADF's ritual style came from is that it's drawn primarily from various common ancient Indo-European religious beliefs and practices, and taking into account the realities of modern day society (e.g., our prohibition against blood sacrifice) and modern Neopagan ritual practice (e.g., doing the standard Neopagan High Days, meditation to enter ritual mindset, etc.).
So how close are ADF rituals to actual ancient pagan rituals?
If you had a time machine and went back to any of the ancient Indo-European cultures, and performed an ADF ritual, chances are there would be very little overt similarity to those cultures' rituals. However, on closer examination, the fictional ancient bystanders would (we think) perceive a certain familiarity in many of our ritual elements. One example would be our use of a sacred fire, which was quite central to many ancient Indo-European rituals. Another is our recognition and honoring of the local area land spirits. Another is our offerings to the gods, and the expectation that they will bless us in return for the honor we give them. Again, the list goes on and on.
If your question is, "Is there any evidence that any ancient peoples did the same rituals ADF is doing?" then the answer would have to be no. Interestingly, this is the same answer any strongly reconstructionist group would receive; however, we are neither trying to duplicate ancient rituals exactly, nor do we claim to. We're trying to use comparative analysis of different ancient Indo-European cultures in order to understand the main elements of their rituals, and intelligently draw from them to create our own modern Neopagan rituals which follow the patterns and "spirit" of their beliefs and practices as closely as possible.
How come ADF doesn't cast circles?
Circles, as used by most Neopagans and Wiccans, are essentially protective measures meant to keep undesired forces out. Often this is because the main part of the ritual is some form of focused magical working and these undesirable forces could work against the participants doing the magic. In ADF, our main focus is not magical work, it is religious offerings ("sacrifices"), so there is much less emphasis on needing to keep undesirable forces "out" since our focus is much more on inviting our gods and spirits "in".
We do have a similar concept, though, in that we make an offering to a group of entities we call the "outsiders" or "outdwellers". These are a group of beings whose aims are inimical to ours. The basic concept comes from the fact that a pervasive theme in various Indo-European cultures is that there is an order of gods and spirits, usually an older order, who our gods and spirits (allies) fought with and defeated at some point, but who still linger around hoping to cause trouble. For the Celts, these were the Fomoire, for the Norse it was the Jotuns, for the Hellenes (Greeks) it was the Titans, etc.
The basic idea is that our rituals are about offering to our Kindreds (gods, nature spirits, and ancestors/heroes), that these Kindreds are "on our side", and that they gladly receive our sacrifices and offer blessings in return. Our gods and spirits are honorable and are part of, and serve to uphold, the social order. The "Outsiders", on the other hand, are the reverse, and represent forces of chaos that would destroy the social order. So we officially recognize them in our rituals, make them a small offering, and ask them to leave our work in peace. That fact, and our calling to our own allies, serves to protect our rites pretty well.
So, we don't cast circles because we relate to the concept of "unwanted influences" in a different way, namely by drawing upon Indo-European mythologies and relating to these forces as a group of chaos-bent spirits who we are able to ask to leave us alone for a time, in addition to calling our own Kindreds to our sides to protect us and receive honor. In effect, our token offering to the Outsiders is very similar to casting a circle, but it has a very different rationale in that we are working with specific groups of mythological entities rather than abstract negative energy.
How does ADF view/handle sacred space, then?
Since ADF doesn't "cast a circle", our concept of sacred space is obviously a lot different than many other pagans' concept of it. In ADF, the most basic way we make a space "sacred" is by offering to the Kindreds, but we usually do a bit of "setup" first by "recreating the cosmos". This means that we take representations of three sacred Indo-European symbols—sacred Fire, sacred Well, and sacred Tree—and "hallow" them, or do a set of actions meant to attune the material representations of these symbols to their cosmic counterparts. Usually this consists of lighting the sacred Fire, "silvering" (dropping something metal or shiny into) the sacred Well, and wafting smoke from the Fire and sprinkling water from the Well onto the sacred Tree.
Where did we get these three symbols? Again, by looking at the religious beliefs and practices of various ancient Indo-European cultures (noticing a pattern yet? :). Some form of sacred Fire, sacred Well, and sacred Tree can be found in all these cultures, as can the sacredness of "threes" or triads in general. Time and time again, through all these cultures, lighting a central fire was an incredibly important religious act. Similarly, the importance of sacred wells can be seen in a number of Indo-European cultures, particularly for the Celts. The sacred tree of the Norse (Yggdrasil) is well-known, but many Celts had important sacred trees (Crann Bethadh, the Tree of Life) too, as did other I-E cultures. Occasionally, cultural variations will be used in our rituals, with sacred mountains or world navels (omphalos) replacing the Tree, or a shaft replacing the Well.
So by blessing or hallowing these symbols, we are "recreating the cosmos" and preparing the ritual space for the formal invitations to the Kindreds followed by our offerings for them, and finally finished by our receiving their blessings in return. In terms of where our sacred space begins and where it ends, we don't have a firm boundary and thus we do not need to have some formal exit/re-entry for people who need to temporarily leave the ritual area, as some Wiccans do with their circles. The boundary of our sacred space is really the "immediate area" of the participants, which may be a clearing in a forest of trees, may be a stone circle, etc. For rituals with a large central fire, we might say that the sacred space is defined by "the light of the Fire", but even that is not a hard and fast rule. We're not particularly concerned with the exact boundaries because we make our peace with the Outsiders and invite our Kindred allies, and rest safe in the knowledge that our actions are just and holy, and the Kindreds will protect us and give us blessings in return for our offerings.
If you offer to the Outsiders to keep out chaos or negative energy, couldn't you just cast a circle instead?
We could, but we prefer to work with specific entities rather than abstract energies. In this way, we are polytheistic rather than duotheistic or monotheistic. We worship different deities as if they are actually different beings, each with their own wants and needs, likes and dislikes, etc., rather than viewing all gods as aspects of a main God and all goddesses as aspects of a main Goddess, as many Neopagans do. Similarly, we make an offering to the Outsiders as actual entities, often naming them (Fomoire, Jotuns, Titans, etc.) depending on the culture of the ritual. In this way, we like to think we are working closer to the ways of the ancients, who (by everything we know) worshipped the gods and goddesses, land spirits, and ancestors as distinct, separate entities.
How come ADF doesn't call quarters/towers/etc.?
The "four elements" system is another form of abstracting energies, and a fairly late (historically) invention at that, so we don't find it useful to invoke these abstract energies; they are simply not part of the ancient Indo-European cultures we base our practices on. In fact, the "calling quarters" and "watchtowers" done by most Wiccans actually dates back to the ritual magic work of the Golden Dawn in the early 20th century, later picked up and popularized in the 1950s and 60s by Gerald Gardner, Alex Sanders, et al. These are perfectly fine and valid systems in their own right, they are just much more modern than those we base our work on, namely the cultures and practices of the ancient Indo-Europeans.
What's this "land, sea, and sky" thing?
Another triad of the ancient Indo-Europeans, particularly the Celts, was the "three realms" of land, sea, and sky. This triad of realms was documented in a wide variety of places, such as oaths between different tribes being sworn as, "and if I break this oath, may the sky fall down and crush me, may the earth open and swallow me, and may the sea rise up and drown me." Many ADF groves also do something to invoke or recognize these three realms, such as throwing earth, sprinkling water, and lighting incense. This can be viewed as the "horizontal axis" of this world, whereas the Fire, Well, and Tree triad are a "vertical axis" connecting us to the underworld (wisdom of the ancestors) and the upperworld (power of the gods). It is not strictly necessary in our ritual format, but many groves do choose to do the "land, sea, and sky" portion nonetheless since it is so well attested to in ancient sources.
Why are the fire, well, and tree "gates"? What does that mean?
Since lighting the sacred Fire, silvering the sacred Well, and hallowing the sacred Tree really create our "sacred space", they essentially connect the ritual area to the primal patterns of the cosmos. As they serve such an important connective function, they are "gates" in that sense.
In a more specific sense, sacred Wells for the Indo-Europeans have always been viewed as connections down into the Earth, into the cthonic realms of the Dead, so the Well is a "gate" for our connection to the Ancestors. Similarly, sacred Fire burns up into the sky, which is usually associated with various gods and goddesses, so it is a "gate" to the Gods. The Tree is anchored in this realm, and is our connection to the land and nature spirits around us, while also being a bridge to the lower (through its roots) and the upper (through its branches) realms.
These three are "gates" because hallowing these three symbols aligns the ritual space with the fundamental patterns of the Indo-European cosmos, setting the stage for us to invite the Kindreds to join us and receive honor and offerings.
Who is the "gatekeeper" and what is her/his role in terms of the Fire, Well, and Tree?
The "gatekeeper" is a god or goddess who is recognized in a culture's mythology as being a guide to travelers, as someone who lives or walks "between the worlds", and who knows the magic of spiritual travel and communication. We call to this deity to "open the gates" for us, which means helping us connect to the Kindreds. If the Fire, Well, and Tree are like getting your home ready for guests, then the Gatekeeper portion is opening the door, and it is followed by inviting the guests in with calls to each Kindred (gods, nature spirits, and ancestors). Blessing the Fire, Well, and Tree makes the ritual space sacred, but calling on the Gatekeeper formally opens it to the places our Kindred allies reside, and it is through this connection that our voices may be heard by the Kindreds.
Who are these "Kindreds" you invite?
Like the Fire, Well, and Tree, the Kindreds are based on our research into ancient Indo-European religious practices. It is certainly clear that the ancients worshipped various gods and goddesses, regularly making offerings for important things like protection from warring neighbors, fruitful crops, etc. It is also apparent that they recognized spirits in the land around them, and strove to be on good terms with these spirits, such as making offerings before starting to build a house or move a road through an area. Finally, it's known that the dead were not simply buried and forgotten, but honored regularly and consulted for guidance and blessing, as the wisdom of one's grandmothers and grandfathers was always a welcome source of knowledge. So, in our rituals we make a place for another triad, namely our Ancestors, the Spirits of Nature, and the Gods, and we call them the three Kindreds.
What's all this about "sacrifice"? Do you sacrifice humans or animals?
No, ADF is firmly against blood sacrifice (killing or injuring any animal or person) of any kind—it is strictly prohibited in any ADF ritual, public or private. Sacrifice literally means "to make sacred" and when we say "sacrifice", we mean "offering something important". For the ancients, who regularly raised and slaughtered their own cattle, it was perfectly appropriate to slaughter another beast and designate it as an offering to the gods. However, in our modern culture, where we do not raise and kill our own meat, it is completely inappropriate to do so.
Instead, we follow the general principle of offering (sacrificing) things which are important to us. This can be works of our own hand, such as arts and crafts, or something simpler like fruits and vegetables which we have bought with our money and which we know to be pleasing to the gods and spirits of the occasion. Forms of alcohol, such as beer, wine, and spirits, are perennial favorite offerings, but are by no means required; it is perfectly acceptable to have an ADF ritual where no alcohol is present, and in some ritual settings (such as state parks) this is actually required. It goes without saying, but we'll say it anyway, that we follow the law and encourage others to do so too.
Besides the High days do you do any other type of rituals? Do they follow the same ritual structure?
Yes, we do many other kinds of rituals, such as handfastings (marriages), house blessings, sainings (naming of children), rites of passage, magical workings, etc. While these all follow the ADF ritual structure in general, certain elements may be abbreviated or even omitted, and other elements may be added. For example, songs/chants may be shortened or omitted, the land/sea/sky (horizontal axis) may be omitted completely, there may be special meditations in various parts of the ritual (e.g., calling to the Gatekeeper could be a whole special spirit journey), there may be a magical working after the general "return flow" blessing, etc.
Can you cast spells using ADF's ritual format?
Yes, after the main offerings, omen, and return flow (physical receipt of the blessings given to us in exchange for our offerings), there is an optional spell casting/rite of passage/magical working section. In terms of doing a specific magical working, we'd make the "main offerings" to a deity(ies) associated with the area of interest, such as Brighid for healing, Thor for strength/protection, Athena for wisdom, etc.
Are there any differences between doing ritual indoors versus outdoors?
We don't have any specific suggestions for doing ritual inside versus doing it outside. Obviously doing ritual outside in nature is preferred, as it is easier to connect with land and nature spirits, the Earth Mother, etc. However, the Kindreds appreciate our honor and sacrifices no matter where we make them, so it is far better to do ritual indoors than not to do it at all.
If doing ritual outside, it helps of course if you are able to make use of your surroundings, such as choosing a large natural tree as your sacred Tree, or finding a body of water to do the ritual near, etc. Particularly nice is finding a place and doing several High Day rituals there so that it becomes imbued with the energy of honoring the Kindreds and old ways, but again, a regular ritual site is by no means necessary for ADF ritual.
For indoor rituals, you will likely need to find substitutes for a deep well, roaring fire, and tall tree, such as a bowl of water for the Well, a candle or small incense pot for the Fire, and a pole-like object for the Tree. You may also wish to burn incense, open the windows, dress in special clothing, drape parts of the room with special decorations (such as cloths, ribbons, or wreaths), etc. In general, you will probably wish to make the indoor space seem less "mundane", whereas outdoor rituals benefit from the inherent sacredness of the natural environment. Again, though, these adjustments are largely up to you; it is better to perform an indoor ritual with no special alterations of the space, than not to perform the ritual at all.
Can a person study with both ADF and OBOD?
Yes, a person can study with both ADF and OBOD. OBOD is more experientially-oriented (applying techniques based on effectiveness rather than strict historical documentation/basis), whereas ADF is more historically-oriented (preferring to choose techniques first from those historically attested, and only when those are unavailable, resorting to more modern substitutes). More information on the differences between ADF and OBOD can be read in John Michael Greer's essay titled ADF and OBOD.
Are ADF rituals better for groups or solitaries?
ADF rituals were originally developed with groups in mind, so they are naturally a better fit for groups. However, our solitaries have been quite resourceful in adapting our ritual structure for their practice. It usually only requires some minor tweaking to fit the taste of each solitary. For example, some solitaries would rather do spoken parts than sing songs, some prefer longer, and some shorter, meditations, etc. Generally, solitaries tend to combine some steps of the liturgy or shorten them since the overall ADF ritual format works well for a group where several people have different parts, but is slightly on the long side for a single person. Again, though, this is an individual preference, and our liturgy is readily adaptable to shortening or even lengthening if the practitioner desires it.
How can you have Norse Druid rituals? Weren't the Druids Celtic priests?
Norse, along with Celtic, Slavic, Vedic, Hellenic (Greek), and others, are part of the cultural-linguistic family known as Indo-European. When ADF uses the term "druid", we are actually using it in the sense of "Indo-European priest" or, more accurately, "Indo-European intellectual", since it is clear that the druids and their other I-E culture counterparts were actually a "learned class" in contrast to warriors or farmers. As such, they included healers, bards, seers (diviners), historians, judges, scholars, etc. In fact, our ADF guilds represent many of the specialties attributed in historical documents to the druids, brahmins, etc.
So, we can have Norse rituals, Hellenic rituals, Vedic rituals, etc., by the fact that our rituals are based on ancient Indo-European religious traditions, not Celtic ones in particular. These types of ADF rituals all share the same basic I-E symbolism and structure (such as Fire, Well, and Tree, the Gatekeeper deity, etc.), but are also tailored for the specific I-E culture of the ritual (such as including key phrases in the relevant language, calling to specific gatekeeper and main deities, etc.).
Where do I go for more information on your rituals? Can I ask anyone questions about this stuff?
Joining ADF is likely to answer many questions: with your membership packet, you'll receive access to the ADF Dedicant Path and other training, along with access to the Members' side of this site (which has many more articles) at no additional charge.
Our website has several sample rituals and articles which explain our liturgical format in detail. Please see our rituals area for more information. If you are looking for a local ADF group whose rituals you can check out, please see our groups page and if you have a specific question about joining ADF please contact us .
Ritual and Practice