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!

No Maypole? No problem! Tips on celebrating the Feast of Flowering

A maypole in East Frisia, Germany, by Matthias Süßen - Own work

No doubt they rose up early to observe

The rite of May, and hearing our intent

Came here in grace our solemnity.

-- Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

The great hinge of the year swings to Beltaine, the Feast of Flowering. The cows head to the summer pastures, driven between the smoke of two fires. Flowering branches are brought indoors, to spread the blessings of the green on all therein. Deft hands weave crowns and garlands of blossoms, ornamenting all for the rite.

At modern Pagan gatherings, Beltaine is commonly celebrated with the weaving dance of the Maypole – and the inevitable laughter when the ribbons tangle or someone heads in the wrong direction. Contrary to popular belief, Maypoles aren't an ancient Celtic tradition; they appear to be native to Germanic societies, although the concept of a sacred tree – bilé in Irish lore – is found in cultures worldwide. That doesn't mean, of course, that modern Druids can't have a Maypole in their rites; maypoles have certainly become an entrenched part of Beltaine traditions through the decades, and that's unlikely to end soon.

Flowers, of course, are a traditional part of May Day festivities, as are visiting holy wells. Beltaine, however, is primarily considered a fire festival; the name is often translated as the “fires of Bel” for the Gaulish Belenos or the Irish Bilé, although whether Bilé is a true God is subject to debate. The “fire” portion of the name – tine in modern Irish – is uncontested, however.

Why fire? Beltaine heralds the start of summer, as Samhain does winter in Celtic tradition; the flames are reminiscent of the waxing sun – and perhaps more importantly, the rising tide of life-force. While modern Pagans tend to think of Beltaine as “that sex festival,” it also has themes of purification and protection, as animals and their associated humans leave the bounded home of winter and venture out into the wider world. Fertility is, of course, part of the festival – as are tricks and spontaneous connections with spirits, especially the Sidhe. As with Samhain, the spirit-world is close and many Celtic tales are associated with this time of the year.

Photo by Cypresseyes

I've been Pagan and a Druid for quite some time, and have seen Beltaine celebrated in a wide range of ways. In that spirit, I offer the following thoughts for those who struggle to find a way to celebrate the season.

You don't have to do that sex thang.

Pagans in general are a fun-loving folk, and Beltaine can bring a gamut of randy jokes and flirtatious behavior. For individuals with trauma or pain associated with sexuality, this can become uncomfortable or even frightening. For those of us who lack an appreciation of juvenile humor or reserve our sexual impulses for significant others, a lot of common Beltaine “customs” can just be flat-out annoying.

I admit: I became discouraged by Beltaine as a young woman, when I literally had to hide in a horse stall during one ritual to avoid unwanted attention. (No, not exaggerating – sadly.)

Good news: You don't have to celebrate the holiday that way.

When I celebrate the Feast of Flowering, I honor Boann – Goddess of the river and wisdom – and her husband Nuada, the Sword-God and light of truth. I focus my celebration on the Earth itself, making and offering caudle – a type of porridge – to the land, and bannock with nine knobs to the critters, one species each knob. Most often, that latter is preventative in nature: “I give this to the carpenter ants, so they don't invade my house this upcoming year.” I also walk between the smoke (or at least the light, if I'm doing this indoors) of two fires and relight the hearth-candle for the season.

Key concepts: The awakening Earth and her creatures, light, fire, and the purification and protection offered by fire.

Alternative Maypoles

Let's face it: Maypoles are pretty impractical, even for those who want to celebrate the traditional fertility festival. Yes, there are instructions available on how to build and install one of PVC pipe for even the smallest of backyards, but not everyone is particularly handy with that sort of thing. If I tried to install a Maypole by myself or with a small group of grove mates, chances are that I would end up in the ER after doing something clumsy and Youtube-worthy.

Enter the Alternative Maypole! (Not to be confused with alternative facts; a pole and maying are actually involved.)

One year, White Cat Grove decorated its own interpretation of a Maypole: a seven-foot tall branch. Rather than dance around it, grove members decorated it with ribbons, feathers, beads and butterflies as the ritual act; we also decorated a wreath, which we then attached to the top to symbolize the union of male and female. Afterward, you can offer your creation to the Earth or the fire, or keep it around as a power-object. (I have the pole and wreath to this day in my ritual room.)

Key concepts: Male (something linear), female (something circular), ornamentation, joy.

Cloths tied to a tree near Madron Well in Cornwall. Photo by Jim Champion via Wikimedia Commons

The well-dressed well

Boann is, of course, a river goddess; Nuada is also associated with fresh water, as well as the light of truth and possibly clouds or the sky. Belenos/Bilé, the God most often associated with Beltaine in Keltria, is associated with bonfires as well as trees. With this in mind, you you can choose to focus your Beltaine ritual on the intersection of fire and water or, alternatively, tree and water, sky and water, etc.

Consider well-dressing: Decorate a watery place (springs are traditional, but a bowl of water would work just fine) with flowers, cloth strips known as clooties, even candles if you're working with a bowl. In this polluted age, the waters could use the extra blessings and energy.

Key concepts: April showers bring May flowers, the purity and protection of our water sources.

Do I have to do the May Queen thing?

Personally, I've never enjoyed the selection of May Queen and May King, although I understand the concept. There is a beauty of embodying community's energy for the year – which is how I've often seen this interpreted in Pagan groups – but there also is a weight of expectation to it. The Queen and King dyad can be especially problematic for groups with an unequal number of men and women, and the genderqueer also can feel left out.

Perhaps it's childish of me, but I admit there's also the current of “Crap, I never win anything” associated with it. (Fun fact: I won exactly one drawing-by-chance in my life. The prize: A potted daffodil. My luck ends there, at least when it comes to winning stuff. Needless to say, I don't bother playing the lottery.)

While we didn't have enough men – well, any – for the May King, White Cat Grove did select a May Queen one year with the traditional bean in the cake. The next time, we said “Screw it” and unanimously elected my cat Missy as the May Queen. She had a blast that year, greeting everyone at the door when they arrived and even walking between the two fires.

So, as with everything Beltaine, you can skip the whole May Day royalty bit if you want to.

Key concepts: If it doesn't work for you, screw it. (Not literally, unless it's consensual.)

Happy Maying, all!

A Feast of Age for Solitaires

The Druid's Path

Photo of a Keltrian Druid AltarFor a Grove or study group, the Feast of Age may be a day-long event, with a whole pig slowly roasting and lots of time given to socializing. For Keltrian solitaires something briefer may be preferred. The following Feast of Age was composed especially for solitaires. Note: the sacred fire in this rite also serves as a cooking fire. The rite as written calls for the altar to be set up in a kitchen and a stove burner used as the fire. If setting up in your kitchen is impractical or not to your liking, consider using a fondue or chafing dish on your altar in its usual location. As presented here, the ritual uses several slices of bacon to symbolize swine; vegetarians may wish to substitute a quick-cooking vegetable and utensils other than those named. You will also need a cloak to represent Manannan's cloak of invisibility; and since this rite centers around a feast, you should provide food for a meal. For the “four truths," tell any four brief (two or three paragraphs when written) true stories from your own life or other sources of your choice. The ritual begins and ends in the standard way, and you will need your regular altar appointments in addition to those peculiar to this rite.

THE RITUAL

Standard Ritual Opening.

Explanation of Rite.

I come to the Grove today to observe the traditions ordained long ago by the Lord of the Blessed Isles, Manannan Mac Lir: to speak four truths over the cooking of the pig that is eaten and afterward is alive again; to join in the Feast of Goibniu and drink the ale that confers immortality; and to don the cloak of Manannan, which gives the power of invisibility.

Light the Sacred Fire

Turn on one stove burner to medium heat. Take the Goddess candle in right hand and hold over Sky cauldron. Goddesses of the Tuatha De Dannan, I call you forth from this vessel and ask that you join your spirits to this flame, that your faces may shine upon me during this rite. So be it.

Take God candle in left hand and hold over Sky cauldron. Gods of the Tuatha De Dannan, I call you forth from this vessel and ask that you join your spirits to this flame, that your faces may shine upon me during this rite. So be it.

Gods and Goddesses of the Tuatha De Dannan, with the flames of your spirits I light this sacred fire. Dip both candles over already lighted burner. So be it. Return

Rite of Four Truths

The swine of Manannan could not be fully cooked unless four truths were spoken over it. I honor this tradition now by speaking four truths over this pork as I cook it.
Place bacon in skillet on lit burner.

Tell the first true story.
Turn the bacon.
Tell the second true story.
Turn the bacon.
Tell the third true story.
Turn the bacon.
Tell the fourth true story.

Remove skillet from burner, drain and pat bacon dry, arrange on serving plate. (Leave burner lighted. Remember, this is your sacred fire).

The Feast of Goibniu

Blessing the Feast

Place chalices, plate of bacon and other foods at front of altar. Tuatha De Dannan, Gods and Goddesses of my tribe, you who partake of Goibniu's ale are blessed with immortality. I ask you now to bless me, too, with many years. May these cups be filled with strength and long life. Consecrate chalices with branch and sickle. So be it.

The swine of Manannan, however often it was cooked and eaten, was always afterward alive again, so that there was never lack of meat in Manannan's house. Gods and Goddesses of my tribe, I ask you to bless this pork with renewal, that there may never be lack of meat in my house. May all these foods be blessed with life and health. Consecrate bacon and other foods with branch and sickle. So be it.

The Libation

Elevate the chalices. These are the waters of strength and long life. From each cup I share a portion with the Tuatha De Dannan, who are my guests at this feast. Libate. Replace chalices at front of altar.

Elevate the plate of bacon. This is the swine of Mannanan, over which four truths were spoken. I share a portion of this, too, with my guests, the Tuatha De Dannan. Libate the bacon and each of the other dishes included in the meal.

The Feast

Eat and drink. Afterward, remove food dishes from the front of the altar and return chalices to their usual places.

The Rite of Feth Fiadha

Take up the cloak. This is the cloak that Manannan of the Mists wore when he wished to pass unnoticed. I don it now to take unto myself that same power of invisibility. From this day until the day when I don the cloak again at the next Feast of Age, whenever I wish to pass unnoticed among my fellows, I shall imagine myself wearing this cloak, and it will be as if I am not there. Put the cloak on and visualize yourself blending and disappearing into the background. When you feel ready, lay the cloak aside.

Closing Announcement

Thus have I observed the traditions ordained by Manannan Mac Lir. Now the time has come to end this rite; but first, it is fitting that I should thank those whom I called to share in it.

Returning the Deities

Hold the two candles over the Sky cauldron. Gods and Goddesses of my people, I bid you now return to the cauldron of the Sky. Return candles to their holders.

Standard Ritual Closing