Breaking the rules, part 1: Modifying Keltrian practice

My Feast of Flowering altar to Boann and Nuada last year.

A confession of sorts: When many Keltrians honor Bilé at the Feast of Flowering, I instead welcome Nuada Silver-hand. Similarly, instead of Danu for the Feast of Fruiting, I honor Aine, the Sun Goddess. When I lived in an apartment, I didn't make my offerings to a sacred fire, instead leaving them at the foot of a designated tree after the rite. When I had a working study group, we didn't use mead and water, but opted for a single chalice of an agreed-upon beverage: New York apple cider (non-alcoholic). I've never had "patens" for my chalices, and admittedly have never been truly clear on what they are.

If you have read the Book of Ritual, you're probably smiling by now -- or frowning, if you consider yourself a strict traditionalist. The uninitiated (metaphorically speaking) may grouse: "Wait, you're the Vice President of the Henge. How come you get to break the rules?"

Naughty rule-breaker, including narrative rules

I've meant to write an essay on this topic -- perceived ritual rule-breaking -- for a long time, but never quite knew how to broach the topic. I couldn't come up with clear research other than the "unverified personal gnosis" (UPG) so dreaded in Reconstructionist circles, or a tidy introduction like I so often do in my academic articles on the Gods.

So, abandoning my usual literary reserve to the wind, I'm just going to hack at it, piece by piece.

By the book, the good and the bad

Altar - Keltrian Druid - Gathering 2012

Altar - Keltrian Druid - Gathering 2012

When you're just starting out on a path, there is a natural tendency to go "by the book," using it as a guide to all matters. In many cases, this is a positive development. Adhering to the suggested rituals -- the language, the progression of seasonal deities, the format -- year after year can help you impress Keltrian traditions upon heart and mind. You become part of the culture and its traditions, sharing the waters of the Well of Knowledge.

There are, however, downsides. For one, you might be physically unable to conduct the rites as suggested, due to a lack of land and resources, health considerations, and more. If you're practicing in a college dorm, candles are out. If you have allergies, burning incense might be off limits or practicing outside in an oak grove when the trees are pollinating. You might not be able to locate a sickle or even a sacrificial branch. (A Keltrian living in Singapore, where the cutting of trees is prohibited, has run into the latter problem.)

In short, strict adherence "to the book" would disqualify many people from Keltrian practice -- and that's not the intent at all.

"The Druidess", oil on canvas, by French painter Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1890)

In such cases, modifications to the ritual format are necessary. I would like to emphasize that a "modified" ritual is not an inferior ritual. It is not less-than, a poor substitute, the equivalent of No Frills versus name-brand. It is simply different.

There is another downside to going "by the book" that can pop up later in your spiritual development. You've read the lore and continue to practice -- and come to different conclusions than listed in the official texts. Are you still a Keltrian?

If your conclusion is that the Lebor Gabála Érenn is foretelling the arrival of the Great Spaghetti Monster, probably not. Keltrian beliefs and practices are centered on the Gods and Goddesses of the ancient Irish, so it's not appropriate to worship deities from other pantheons in the context of Keltrian ritual, although I'd like to point out that this doesn't mean you can't honor such gods outside of Keltrian ritual. (So, if you like to chant to Ganesha after your yoga practice, go for it.)

But if you're taking the same lore/myths/scholarly materials and interpreting it in a way that's supported by the lore (or myths or scholarly materials), that can be perfectly appropriate.

The fact is the Druids didn't write anything down, and much of what we "know" is sewn together from little scraps embedded in half-remembered myths, scholarly speculations based on related Indo-European cultures, and physical artifacts unearthed by archaeology. There is great room for interpretation. What's more, we can't follow these interpretations to the letter because we don't live in the same world as the ancient Celts, with animal sacrifices, a presumably hereditary priestly caste and sacred kings.

That's OK. Another pesky fact: Religious practices change. If Druidry existed in an unbroken line, what it would look like today would be far different from what it looked like when Julius Caesar came invading. Case in point: Hinduism derives from an unbroken Indo-European polytheistic tradition, and has changed dramatically over the past 3,000 years. Vaishnava Hindus today are vegetarians; 2,000 years ago, they sacrificed animals as part of their religious rites. (These traditions are preserved in their oldest texts, the Vedas.) Druidry would have adapted to the end of monarchies, democratization, urbanization and other realities, should they have developed on its watch.

This doesn't mean that "anything goes" when it comes to Druidic belief and practice, but it doesn't mean "my way or the highway" either.

Looking ahead

I hope to make this essay the first in a series on the issue, looking at how we can make Keltrian ritual more accessible -- and also more adaptable.

I would like to emphasize that these efforts are not a criticism of the Book of Ritual or other Keltrian texts. I love Keltria and I find value in it; I wouldn't have stuck around if I hadn't. If you consider yourself a by-the-book traditionalist, all the Gods' blessings upon you!

But these reflections are intended for those who are struggling with the "rules" and, consequently, their place in Keltria. I've been there, truly, and I say to you: Yes, you are welcome here. Even if you live in an apartment, can't do rituals with mead due to substance abuse issues, or question Bilé's interpretation as an Irish god.

Some of the topics I hope to write about (eventually) are:

  • The non-negotiables. What you really do have to abide by to be a Keltrian Druid.
  • Ritual adaptations due to health concerns, physical realities or personal philosophy
  • Choosing different Gods and Goddesses for seasonal rites (but still Irish, of course!)

Beannachtaí!

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