Book review: The Art of Ritual

Genre: Paganism
Title: The Art of Ritual
Author: Rachel Patterson

daf3b2_b87dc2817fc541ba929c5ae7d52e27f2Overview: Within these pages is a guide to creating rituals. It uses more common elements of Pagan worship, but the underlying principles are useful even if you’re not the sort to cast circles and honor elements. In fact, there are many details drawn from non-circle-casting Pagan traditions, such as a Druidic call for peace and the Hellenic use of khernips, or lustral water, for purification. (One of these days I may just collect all the khernips recipes people use, because there seems to be no end to their variety.) If you are entirely new to Pagan ritual, go with this suggested form and you’ll likely never have any problems, as long as you remember that there’s no such thing as a universal Pagan ritual. If you’ve circle the fire a few times, then feel free to pick and choose what you like; by now you should understand the importance of placing ritual elements in their proper context.

Quibbles: There’s not enough cake! Patterson does make plenty of cake mentions in this book, but unlike Arc of the Goddess, there are no actual recipes for cake. Perhaps she wrote this book first. Perhaps I’m spoiled. Perhaps my mouth is watering because I have written the word “cake” so many times.

Quirks: Patterson uses the kind of slightly-saucy language that many Pagan authors shy away from, and more’s the pity. For example, when she breaks down how she thinks gender-specific items should be laid out on an altar, she writers, “Basically boobs and wombs on the left, willies on the right.” I hope that doesn’t offend any of her readers; it certainly didn’t offend me.

Author: Rachel Patterson
Publisher: Moon Books
ISBN: 978-1-78279-776-0

A brief Samhain memoir

An apple cut starwise

The leaves crunched underfoot as we trooped into the small tract of woods we’d selected for its privacy.  In my pocket I had a bunch of notes that I had scratched down from a friend of ours who had done this sort of thing before.  We had a cup and a beverage, an apple and a knife, and four of us who would each be celebrating our first Samhain this night, twenty-five years ago.

I was excited.  My stride, already quick, lengthened to use my entire leg, and threatened to leave the women behind.  We were about to hold a Pagan ritual on the most Pagan night of the year!

We didn’t write down exactly what we were going to do.  I had those notes, but none of us were acting like priests or officiants.  We just wanted to celebrate nature, honor the unseen spirits, and join the Pagan community.  We didn’t know anything about “books of shadows” or training or manipulating energy or even really what gods, if any, we were planning on honoring.  We just knew that Halloween was also Samhain, and wanted to be part of that.

Until that time, my life’s priorities had to do with being in the woods as much as I could, preferring trees to people.  Making the transition from loving nature to worshiping it came easily.  We called the quarters, one for each of us, and we called for those gods who wished to witness our rite to do so — but we were cautioned to word that carefully, since some gods enjoy possession, and none of us were even remotely prepared for that.  We shared a beverage — I couldn’t recall what it might have been but it certainly wasn’t alcoholic — and we cut an apple in half horizontally, starwise, so named because of the design thus revealed.  That was a new trick we had learned, and were eager to try.

There was no libation, no fire, no songs, no remembrances.  Just four college kids, trying to connect with the world in a way that made more sense than other things we’d each tried.  It was a simple rite, performed simply by people who had never laid eyes on a Pagan book, and had only met a self-identified witch for the first time a day before, at a Halloween talk in one of the dorms.

A quarter-century later, I think at least three of us identify as Pagan.  I know the years have a surprising way of changing some world views, while leaving others untouched.  I still think the woods are most excellent, and that the earth and nature are worth worshiping, but now I have a regular practice focused on the Hellenic gods, which include Gaia herself.  I still feel like I know very little, but I am far more aware of the wider Pagan community, and it asks a lot more of me.  Samhain is not one of the important holy days of my present Pagan path, but it is still one of my favorite days of the year.

I’m incredibly grateful that I had friends who were willing to start down this path with me; I could not have taken that first step alone.

Seasonal visuals

We are turning from barley to coffee.

I continue to be amazed at how my practice of Hellenismos helps me be more rooted in more contemporary Pagan practices, such as the wheel of the year.  The equinox is a time that I honor the turn of the seasons by shifting my offerings to Caffeina.

Let me take a step back, because Caffeina isn’t even a remotely Hellenic deity.  Although I strive to honor the ancient practices of Hellas, or Greece, we only know about the tiniest sliver of them, mostly the things they did in Athens.  Reconstruction is the way we bring that research forward, but I can’t, and won’t, limit myself to a portion of what Athenians did.  We know that the Hellenes honored foreign gods, and adopted foreign practices; in this modern world, I have no problem with the fact that that process is accelerated.

My family had an altar to Caffeina before I was called by the gods of my Greek ancestors, and I honor her as an aspect of Hestia.  Many Hellenic pagans pour a libation of coffee to Hestia, since it is traditional to honor her before all others, so it seemed natural to me to honor one as an epithet of the other, or perhaps as a syncretic goddess.

Stepping forward again:  the equinox is one of the more popular times of the year to acknowledge the change of the seasons.  There are others which make more sense when compared to the actual weather, perhaps, but it’s the one I like to use.  So beginning on the equinox, my traditional first offering to Hestia shifts from barley to barley with ground coffee.  (Ground coffee is distinct from coffee grounds; the former is roasted beans smashed to bits, while the latter have also been subjected to the brewing process.)  I will offer this mix until the winter solstice, at which time I will abandon barley entirely until the spring equinox.

This is a nice visual of the changes in the world, and also mirrors the myth of Demeter, who does not allow the white barley to come forth from the earth while her daughter Persephone is in the underworld.  That’s a deeply Hellenic tale which has been widely adopted in modern Paganism, so it serves to reinforce how the ancient ways are the ways for today.  It also allows me to focus on Caffeina during a time when I am most need of extra energy and comfort.

Since we must make a more intentional effort to be in tune with the rhythms of the world beneath our feet, visual aids like this give us reminders that our ancestors didn’t need.  Do you have visuals that you use to keep your Paganism on track?

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project, a yearlong exploration of spirituality.  This specific post is brought to you by the letter S.

Consecrating a candle to Hestia

Hestia shrine

If you keep a shrine to Hestia, chances are pretty good that you burn a candle there.  Yes, there are other sources of flame and light, and I’m sure some people use oil lamps and LED bulbs, among other things, but if you use a candle, sooner or later you’re going to need to replace it.

Like many of the things I do in ritual, the candle replacement started out simple, and has grown deeper over time.  I’m still not up to more than a couple of phrases in ancient Greek, some of which I no doubt pronounce horrifically, but over time I am moved to do more. Here’s what I did today:

The candle I’d been using was down so far that the last half-inch or less of wax was completely molten.  If the wick fell over, it would be extinguished, and while I do not leave this candle burning constantly, I believe it is disrespectful to allow it to go out through neglect.

I keep spare candles on hand, so I washed one in khernips (ritually purified water) and placed it on the shrine next to the burning presence.  I made an offering of oil to Hestia in the lit candle.

“O Hestia, I sacralize this candle as in ancient days,” I said, sprinkling some barley over the new candle.

“I welcome your presence in this new candle, as you have lived in the old,” I continued.   I stuck a long barbecue match down the glass tube of the old candle, to take some flame from one and move it to the other.  In ancient days, a household’s shrine to Hestia was lit from the temple, and kept burning constantly.  I wanted to respect that tradition.

What I wasn’t expecting was that igniting of the match extinguished the old candle, leaving only the flame on the match, with which I lit the new candle.  I sprinkled some Hestia powder and oil as first offerings to the goddess of the hearth in her new home.

Magick goes mobile

I’m not a Wiccan.  I’ve danced around the fire for many a year, and I’ve danced with the idea of the Craft, even being a bound member of a coven for a few years, but I never quite connected to that path.  Wiccanism has always relied a bit too much on magic for my tastes, didn’t have enough music to make up for my Christian traditions, and left me feeling like men were appreciated, but not particularly needed.  My yearnings to be a Wiccan have waxed and waned, and I’ve never rejected it entirely, but neither could I completely embrace it.

So it was with some small level of trepidation that I accepted the request to review Circle in a Box, the new album by Lisa Stewart which is available on CD and via iTunes.  Not only am I not a Wiccan, I have never reviewed any music before, either!  Was I the right person to carry this burden?

In short, the answer to that was “yes.”  I’ve known Lisa and her husband Anton for some years, but there was no doubt in my mind that they were not expecting me to let the relationship taint my opinions.  I also have some twenty-five years of Paganism under my belt, and I’ve reviewed no small number of books, so rather than decline the offer, I took it up with zeal.

I’m glad I did.

Circle in a Box is designed to be the structure of a Wiccan ritual.  Other than the first track, “How to use Circle in a Box,” each musical composition fills a role in a typical ritual.  It’s a very cool idea on its face, and the CD comes packaged in a cardboard sleeve (100% post-consumer recycled material, no less) that’s made up to look like a wooden chest that anyone would be pleased to store all their ritual tools in.  (I’m also of the understanding that there’s a version that actually comes in a wooden box, replete with said tools; I haven’t seen it yet, but clearly the whole concept is being advanced in thoughtful, if not epic, ways.)

The first track, as I said, is instructional in nature.  Stewart, the primary voice of the album and Wiccan priestess for some number of decades, explains that it’s a good idea to listen through entirely at least once before using it for ritual.  The keyboard chords which play through her explanation give something of a sense of album’s musical style, which I describe as “refined New Age.”  Keyboard is heavy throughout, but before one decides, “Oh, that’s not my thing,” be aware that this is not your mother’s New Age music.  There is depth and purpose to these pieces, and it quickly becomes obvious that they were composed, arranged, and performed with magical intent.

The ritual itself begins with “Consecration:  As Above, So Below.”  It is a chant which sets the mood, and helps the listener achieve the clear mind necessary for ritual work.  The chant is recited by many voices with gentle chords underneath.

“Calling The Quarters” takes it up just a notch, with the litany being recited while other voices sing to the quarters being invoked.  This is followed by “Casting The Circle,” in which both Stewarts recite a traditional circle-casting chant.

Now comes the meat of the ritual, when the Lord and Lady are invoked.  In “Invoking the Goddess,” Stewart modifies the popular “goddesses chant” and uses it as a bed upon which she lays the Charge of the Goddess.  Stewart’s singing in this track is ethereal, while her spoken words are both nurturing and welcoming.

Following after is “Invoking the God,” which for me bridges some of the metaphysical gaps that have kept me from following this path to the exclusion of all others.  Anton Stewart’s gods chant quickly reminds the listener that masculinity does not need to shrink into the shadows of the craft.  The music is sometimes uncomfortable, and close to dissonant; this struck me as being reflective of the male condition, in which aspect which are often in conflict must learn to coexist.  It is also, in my view, the strongest piece musically:  the combination of the priest’s British accent (undeniably evocative of Wicca’s roots), the rousing chords with close harmony, and the swelling crescendos resonated within me in a way that got my heart pounding in my chair.

Being a man, not a woman, I can only assume that the prior track, which I felt to be beautiful and moving, is far more powerful in the female ear than I can imagine.  It moves then into “Chalice & Blade,” which combines the prior to pieces as the Great Rite is performed.  The merging is musically beautiful, capturing the power of this stirring ritual.

What follows is nine minutes of “Magickal Meditation,” an instrumental piece during which Stewart guides the listener through an open-ended space for the energy working which is so important to Wiccan practice.  In this track is Stewart’s decades of work as a priestess is very prominent, as she sets the tone and environment for whatever the goal of the particular ritual might be.  A soft chant of “so mote it be” serves as an undercurrent to the soft melody and gentle chord progressions.

“Cakes & Ale,” the celebratory passing of the cup and sharing of food, is very uplifting and joyful.  Again, Stewart takes a guiding role, using this track for grounding as well as communion.  There’s a good balance between experience the joy of positive energy work, and letting that energy go.  The melody itself develops a more solid, earthy character as the song progresses.

With grounding complete, reprisals of earlier themes are used for “Releasing the God,” “Releasing the Goddess,” and “Releasing the Quarters.”  The album concludes with “Merry Meet & Merry Part and Merry Meet Again,” an oldie but a goodie, and arranged with some very sweet harmonies.  I’m an unabashed vocal harmony fiend, and any opportunity to layer in more of that always hits my sweet spot.

All in all, I find that Circle in a Box is a good tool couched in some pretty decent music, and some which is really outstanding.  The tracks are stirring enough to evoke feeling when they’re just listened to, and more than able to guide one (or more!) people through an entire Wiccan ritual, providing they were at least passingly familiar with the structure and concepts beforehand.  (There are plenty of books which serve that purpose, but here’s one writer who is hoping the Stewarts will pen a companion tome to this album.)  Recommended for Wiccans with that basic understanding, particularly solitaries, and especially if they have an MP3 player, because the “psycho-acoustics” on some of the tracks are made for ritual with earphones in.

Visit the Circle in a Box site to link up with the artists and learn a little bit more about the music.

On being the King

While I was able to strengthen ties with my gods at Laurelin‘s 2012 Lughnasad festival, I also found the universe conspiring to crown me King.

In keeping with Celtic tradition, there are always games at Lughnasad, challenging games for mind, body, and sense of humor.  This year was no exception, and as is typical there we were assigned randomly into teams.  We were also advised that each team needed to select a captain, but the only additional information we had about that role was that the captain of the winning team “would play a part in the main ritual” on Saturday night.

After sitting for some minutes with my teammates, many of whom were new friends, sharing looks that quietly pleaded, “don’t pick me,” I volunteered to be our captain.  The sighs of relief lowered the pressure nearby so much that a microstorm was created, but it dissipated in less than two minutes.

So we matched wits and memories with the other teams, and competed in much-venerated games of skill as the pudding-feeding contest, and finally, it came down to a test of wills:  two were left standing on the field of dodge ball, and one must fall.  I had long since be eliminated by a brutal four-ball attack, but our remaining teammate took the day.

And it came to pass that I was crowned King of the festival, given a sceptre and throne, and made frequent and loud proclamations throughout dinner.  Titles were conferred.  Holidays created.  Merriment was declared.

While the meal passed, attendees pondered the astrological significance of the planets, and upon colorful ribbons they wrote down aspects of themselves that governed by some or all of them, aspects they wished to be rid of.  When time came for the ritual, I donned my royal cloak; as we processed up the woodland path to the ritual space, I accepted those burdened ribbons upon my cloak.

Being King can be awfully fun, when you make the youngsters into pages and send them o’er hill and dale in quest largely for the royal entertainment.  But despite my actually saying, “It’s good to be the King,” the crown can be heavy at times.  All through the meal I knew what was to come — I was to be the sacrifice, dying to release my people of what held them back.  I swathed myself with merriment, and brought joy to the festival, because a King’s burdens must be borne alone.

That’s why I found that, even though it was just ribbons tied to my cloak, the weight grew heavier with each station.  My steps grew more labored, and when I knelt before the aspect of each planet, bracing and grounding myself with the sceptre, it was harder to arise again each time.

I can’t say exactly what words were spoken when the procession arrived at the ritual space, high above the gates of Laurelin and deep within in sacred woodlands.  All I could focus on was staying upright, and moving my feet forward when directed to do so.  When they lay me down upon the altar, I still felt every bit as heavy.

What I do recall is the priestess, haloed in fire, who lifted her arms high in proclamation.  Her hands dropped suddenly — I knew, but could not see, that she held a blade — and plunged the blade next to my ribs, but in that instant I truly was no more.

Symbolic sacrifice is part acting, but only part.  The ritual had worked its power upon me, and when the blade dropped, my consciousness may as well have been snuffed out.  It was as if the universe had paused between breaths, waiting to find out what would happen next.

Earlier I had been told that I would be resurrected as well, a plan which pleased me greatly.  I wish I could speak of the methods used, but I simply wasn’t there to observe.  What I do know is that when the universe released that breath, it went straight into me, and I found myself tumbling off the altar and back into self.

Sacred kingship is a rich and complex role, and I was deeply gratified to learn its lessons.  How fortunate I am that it was my time to serve the community.

So I had this revelation about the afterlife . . .

. . . during a ritual and I want to capture it before it fades.  The afterlife is a state of reciprocal experience and created expectation.  Let me explain.

We spend our entire lives pondering what comes next to some extent; it comes up in all religions and at lots of dinner tables, not to mention bars, colleges, factories, hospitals, and all the other places that people are found. What we believe changes throughout our lives as we’re influenced by life experience, introspection, and the views and teachings of others.

We cultivate these expectations, and they form the foundation of what we discover after death.  For most people, that means some variation of the teachings of their religion or culture.  Diehard Odinists get Valhalla, born-again Christians get either Heaven or Hell, and so on.

But the afterlife isn’t solitary – there’s lot of dead people.  Everyone you’ve encountered in life (or lives) is going to be there with you.  Being that time and space won’t have the same meaning, you could experience very intimate moments with any number of people simultaneously, alone with each of them but very much experiencing them all.  That’s going to make life interesting.

Experience might seem physical, but it will be much deeper than that.  There’s a level of omniscience needed to experience lots of stuff all at once like that, and it should extend to seeing oneself in the eyes of other people, so to speak.  If you don’t like me, I will see myself through your eyes as the unpleasant fellow you believe me to be.

Your soul will exist as a composite of how every other person you know experiences you, in addition to your own self-image.  For most people, there’s a lot of pain in a lot of those images, so it’s probably going to hurt.

The path to salvation is in changing those images, which will take the cooperation of the people who view you poorly.  You’re both experiencing pain and perhaps repulsion, but you need to work together to move past it and experience joy.

Joy with my fourth-grade teacher. Or my ex-wife. Joy with George W. Bush (he doesn’t know me, but I definitely was touched by him, and won’t he be surprised at how much he’s going to have to do).  Joy with bullies and small-minded people and all the sorts of people I don’t much care to talk to anymore.

Of course, how much pain we experience (and work we have to do) is going to depend on where we leave those relationships when we die.  It is about expectation, after all.  Find ways to heal that pain in life, and you won’t experience it all over again afterwards.

If you’re a Christian, that would translate into being nice to people in order to get into Heaven.  Wiccans might invoke the Threefold Law.  Humanists might say, “Don’t be a dick.”  (Well, the ones I know might put it that way, your mileage may vary.)  The beauty of it is, we all get to have the afterlife we expect, and the punishment we deserve.  How cool is that?