A Pagan Requiem

I have been thinking for a while that we need more liturgical poetry in Pagan traditions. I have been thinking for a while about the beautiful pieces of music composed for the Requiem Mass, and thinking how great it would be to have a Pagan Requiem – something life-affirming, but acknowledging grief and death. So I wrote one. Feel free to use it – please credit me if you do. If anyone feels like composing some music for it, that would be awesome.

A Pagan Requiem

Elemental

The earth that moved
The air that filled
The fire that flashed
The water that flowed
The body that loved
Are gone, all gone.
We consign
Flesh to Earth,
Breath to the winds,
The fire to ashes,
The water to the deep places.
But the spirit remains,
Enfolded in the embrace
Of the gods.

Mysterium

Love is the mystery,
The ecstasy,
The hidden fire
That moves the world.

Benediction

A life well lived
Is a fit offering to the gods.
Living with honour,
Loving well,
Treading gently,
Weeping with those who mourn,
Lifting up the oppressed.
And creating laughter, joy, and meaning,
This is the blessing of virtue,
The garden of the well-kept spirit,
The strength of the oak,
And the grace of the willow.
Blessed are the mourners,
And a blessing on the one who goes forth
Into the unknown.

Lamentation

The heavens and the Earth weep for them,
And humanity is diminished at their loss.
We who are left behind weep for them,
And they sail across the ocean of our tears.
The season of grief is needful
For the soul’s healing.
And so we weep, and so we weep,
For all that is lost,
For all that we left unsaid,
For the beloved dead.

Sequence

See the soul-boat’s guiding light
On the oceans of the night
Let the pilgrim soul take flight
Across the river of forgetting
To the place where souls are waiting
For their moment of rebirth.

Requiem

May they rest in the arms of the Star Goddess,
In the eternal twilight of the summerlands,
The valley of yews, the hall of heroes,
The islands of the blest,
The unknown regions.

Return

And in due time, may they be reborn
Among those who will love them,
And may they flourish.

Mysterium

Love is the mystery,
The ecstasy,
The mystic marriage
Of matter and spirit,
The hidden fire
That moves the world.

 

Yvonne Aburrow
23 November 2016

Licence: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Boat at night, by Oregongal, CC0 Public Domain

Boat at night, by Oregongal, CC0 Public Domain, courtesy of Pixabay.

Creating Meaningful Public Ritual

If I had a dollar for every bad ritual I have ever attended, I would have a lot of dollars. And I tend to spend a couple of hours after every bad ritual going over the reasons that it was bad. So all in all, that could be three or four hours of my life that I won’t get back.

We have all been to rituals that fell flat, or didn’t work as intended. We have all facilitated such rituals, and hopefully learnt from them.

John Halstead wrote that the aim of a good ritual is

to put us in connection with something bigger than ourselves — whether that be the Earth itself, the wider Cosmos, the community of more-than-human beings, our deeper Selves, or even just one another.  Good ritual takes us out of our little isolated egos and expands our souls.

I agree with John H that half-assed elements in your ritual will make it bad – but often it is because the facilitators haven’t thought through what those ritual elements mean, or don’t know how to make the energetic connection necessary to make them work, not because those ritual elements are inherently bad in themselves.

Jason Mankey replied that sometimes the aim of a large public ritual is just to create community, and might not be focused on putting us in contact with something bigger than ourselves.

Well, even connecting with community is putting us in touch with something bigger than ourselves, so the ritual really ought to get that right.

John Halstead replied that

Pagan ritual facilitates the incarnation, consecration, and integration [of] the daemonic or shadow elements of our individual or collective psyche.  And finally, on [a] “mystical” level, Pagan ritual can be used to effect a (controlled) dis-integration of the ego.  This is the ego-death and the oceanic sense of oneness that the mystics describe.

And I agree with John that all Pagan ritual should have this effect, not just rituals for initiated Wiccans.

One difference that I have observed between a small group of Wiccans who are experienced with focusing energy and a large group of people who are not so experienced is that the less experienced group will create fuzzier energy, but that’s not a massive problem.

Both authors are right that the techniques used in small-group Wiccan ritual don’t translate well to a larger group.

So here are some techniques that I have developed for getting everyone involved in the ritual, not just standing around feeling bored and watching a small group of people do the ritual (which will probably be inaudible anyway). Note that none of my suggestions include drumming, because I hate drumming.

Check-in

I stole this idea from the UUs. Go round the circle and everyone says their name and one word to describe how they are feeling.

Creating sacred space

Get everyone to join hands and pass energy around the circle. For added effect, they could also stomp around in a clockwise direction (don’t let it get too fast though, as slower movers will find it uncomfortable).

Ask all the participants to go to the North if they feel Earthy; East if they feel Airy; South if they feel Fiery; West if they feel Watery (or to the appropriate quarter if you have assigned different elements to the directions). The people in each quarter then meditate on that element, and when they have finished, open their eyes. Then everyone moves round to the next quarter (moving clockwise) until they have meditated on all four elements.

The main ritual

Various different techniques can be used here. Keep things like visualization very simple and short. One visualization that I use is to close your eyes and visualize your aura changing color from red, to orange, to yellow, to green, to blue, to violet. I also use grounding and centering.

Raising energy: There are many different ways of doing this, including synergy (the energy of everyone in the group forming a whole), resonance (the coming-together of similar energies), and polarity (the interaction of two opposing energies). If you are using polarity, it is more inclusive to divide the group into groups other than male and female (e.g. morning people and evening people, tea-drinkers and coffee drinkers, etc) and ask them to focus on the idea of the thing they like, merge their energy together, and then bringing the energy of the two groups together.

Mime: I once facilitated a Lammas ritual where I divided a group of thirty up into five groups of six, and asked them to come up with a mime describing an aspect of the John Barleycorn story. One group mimed the death of the Corn King; another group mimed the wheat being cut down by reapers; and so on. It was very moving. You could also do this for Autumn Equinox, perhaps with the story of Hades and Persephone.

Games: Another Lammas ritual idea is to divide the group into reapers, wheat, and a hare. (I did this by putting a lot of twigs into a bag. Twigs with bark on them were reapers; twigs without bark were wheat; the hare was a twig wrapped in silver foil. Parts were allocated by people pulling twigs out of the bag.) The game is that the reapers must try to catch the hare, and the wheat must try to hide him (it’s a bit like the game of Tag, or “It” as it was called in my childhood). This is based on the idea that the hare is the vegetation-spirit who hides in the last sheaf of wheat, and the reapers would always treat the last sheaf of wheat with special ritual. When the hare has been caught, all the reapers throw darts of grass at him, and he falls over, and is carried off with great lamentation.

Extemporized contributions: invite people to contribute their thoughts on the meaning of the festival, or a short devotional call to a deity.

Closing

Shared food: have the whole group bless the shared food, whether it is cakes and wine, or something else. Make sure the blessed food and drink can be distributed quickly so that there isn’t a lot of standing around. The easiest way to do this is to have four people and get them to serve a quarter of the circle each. Another way is just to pass the food and drink from one person to the next, perhaps with some kind of blessing.

Farewell to the quarters: gather again in the quarter where you started, face outwards, and say “Hail and Farewell” (or something similar).  Then move around to the next quarter, until you have said goodbye to all of them.

Closing the sacred space: Have people hold hands again and say some kind of closing words (either all together, or the facilitator can say them).

Public ritual doesn’t have to be dull and lacking in transcendence, and it needn’t involve a lot of standing around being bored. And it absolutely should be a transformative and meaningful experience that makes us feel more connected to the numinous, to Nature, to the gods, and to our community.

"The Golden Bough" by J. M. W. Turner, Public Domain.

“The Golden Bough” by J. M. W. Turner, Public Domain.

 


THE ALLERGIC PAGAN: Gods Save Us from Bad Pagan Rituals: 10 Signs You’re Half-Assing Your Mabon Ritual

RAISE THE HORNS:  Do Your Bad Pagan Ritual (bad ritual is better than no ritual)

Pagan Ritual for Pulse, Orlando

After the Orlando shooting, a small group of LGBTQIA Pagans came together to create a ritual for the dead of Orlando. The group is called Wands Up for Orlando. One of the founders, Salvatore Caci, wrote:

Why “wands up”? In the movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, after the death of Dumbledore, all students of Hogwarts take their wands and raise them into the air to light up the sky and sweep away Voldemort’s evil curse. Similarly, we want to sweep away the curses of intolerance and violence with the light that shines from our hearts and hands joined together and in support of one another.

Together, we have written a ritual to commemorate the dead of Orlando. We want to emphasise that, as many of the dead may have been Catholics or have had an ambivalent relationship with religion, we are being respectful of that. We performed divinations to check that the ritual would be welcome and needed.

You can sign up for the Facebook event to show your support, and we would love to see photos of people’s rituals (whatever you feel able to share).

The ritual is available in English, Italian, Spanish, FrenchPolish, and German. We suggest that it be performed between 25 June and 2 July. It can be performed alone or with your group. We have tried to make it adaptable to any Pagan or polytheist practice. Obviously, people can change it if they want to, and we have left plenty of room for personal choice.

It also turns out that fans of Harry Potter came together for an Orlando vigil at Wizarding World, and raised their wands. Luis Vielma, who was killed in the shooting, worked there.

Outline of the ritual

Our ritual begins with creating your sacred space in your usual way.

This is followed by asking your beloved dead, ancestors, spirits, deities, to bless the ritual. Deities who seem appropriate to this ritual are La Llorona and Baubo, Dionysus and Antinous – all queer – but choose whichever deity or deities you have a relationship with.

We will then pour a libation into a bowl, offering it to the queer ancestors.

Light a candle (one candle per person is even better).

We will then offer a prayer for the LGBTQ / Latinx dead, and read the names of the dead.

This is followed by a declaration of intent to build LGBTQIA community – both within the Pagan community and more broadly.

There will then be a reversion of offerings – sharing the libation with the Earth and the ancestors and deities and spirits.

Each participant can be given a white ribbon to represent the unity of all the colours of the rainbow.

There will then be an inclusive sharing of wine.


 

View the full ritual in English, Italian, Spanish, French,Polish, and German.

Embodied Spirituality: Grounding and Centering

Many rituals begin with this simple practice, especially Pagan circles. It comes from the Taoist tradition originally, I think. There are several different versions of it.

Its purpose is to allow you to feel connected to the Earth (grounded), not floating away into fantasy-world, not obsessing about the past or the future, but being present in the now. The centring part of the practice allows you to feel connected to the cosmos and the four sacred directions, which are associated with the elements.

Tree at dawn, Bucovina, Romania

Tree at dawn, Bucovina, Romania [free image from Pixabay]



Begin by focusing on your breathing. Don’t breathe in any special way, just notice how your breath comes in and out of your nostrils, and how your belly rises and falls.

As you breathe in and out, feel your feet planted firmly on the ground. Relax your hips and your knees and imagine a thread extending from the top of your head to the centre of the sky (this helps to align your spine with the axis of the Earth).

Imagine that your feet are tree roots, and extend your roots deep into the earth. Your roots push down into the earth, through the rich soil, finding their way among rocks, and down deep into the molten core of the Earth. As you breathe out, extend your roots; as you breathe in, draw up energy from deep within the Earth.

As the energy makes its way into your body, draw it up through your legs and feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus. Note the colour of the energy.

Now extend a tendril of energy up your spine. Imagine that your spine is the trunk of a tree, and extend your aura at the top of your head, growing branches. Extend your branches up into the sky, beyond the atmosphere, and reach for the energy of the starlight. As you breathe out, extend your branches; as you breathe in, draw the energy down from above. Feel it gathering and pooling in your solar plexus, mingling with the energy from below.

Now draw energy from both above and below at the same time, and let the energies mingle in your solar plexus. As you breathe in, draw in the energy from above and below; as you breathe out, feel it spiralling and swirling.

Now allow the energy to fill your whole body, extending out to your feet, your fingertips, the top of your head. Feel how you are aligned with the cosmic axis.

Now acknowledge the four directions: North for Earth, representing the body, sensation, physicality, and structure; East for Air, representing intellect, thought, inspiration and breath; South for Fire, representing passion, intuition, and spirit; and West for Water, representing emotion, the Moon, dreams, and the blood that flows in your veins.


This post was originally published at UK Spirituality.

 

Paganism for Beginners: Levels of Symbolism

According to CG Jung, there are three levels of symbolism: personal, cultural, and universal.

Personal symbolism is what things mean to you. So, depending on what part of England you live in, the symbolic colour of earth might be different for you. If you live in Devon, where the soil is red, due to the red sandstone geology, then the symbolic colour of earth might be red for you; whereas if you live in the Cambridgeshire Fens, where earth is black, then you the symbolic colour of earth for you might be black. Personal symbolism may also vary depending on your experiences, your preferences, and your outlook on life. A particular tree might represent first love for you because you experienced your first kiss under it, for example. Or you might have a strong leaning towards the element of water, and therefore it might represent something particular for you.

Personal symbolic associations are not “wrong” or “incorrect” – but they don’t necessarily have any meaning for anyone else, unless they happen to share those associations. Poets and novelists often make use of personal symbolism to create new and interesting metaphors and imagery in their poems and stories.

Cultural symbolism is the set of symbolic associations something has within a particular culture. For example, in Europe, the colour black represents mourning; in other cultures, white is the colour of mourning. In China, the colour red is particularly lucky; in English folklore, a bride should never wear either red or green, because those are the colours of the Fair Folk. In China, dragons are associated with water, live in lakes and wells, and bring rain; in Europe, dragons are fiery creatures that live under the earth. And so on.

Universal symbolism is a symbolic association that appears to exist independently of culture, or that occurs in all cultures. Universal symbolism is generally derived from our perception of the world around us and how we relate to it. For example, a hearth-fire, being generally a pleasurable thing, is good and associated with hospitality; and cold/wet/dark/outside, being generally not pleasurable, is bad.

The hearth fire: a universal symbol of warmth.

The hearth fire: a universal symbol of warmth.
[Source: Pixabay. Licence: CC0 Public Domain]

When you are examining symbolism for use in ritual, it is a good idea to think about whether it is a personal symbol, only representing the thing symbolised for you and a small handful of others; a cultural symbol that is specific to a particular group of people; or a universal or very widespread symbol. It is of course fine to use a personal or cultural symbol in a ritual – but you may need to explain how you are using it, and what it means to you, or in the context of the culture or mythology you are drawing upon.

A related concept is that of Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) and Substantiated Personal Gnosis (SPG). An Unverified Personal Gnosis is an insight or revelation that you have received about the nature of a deity, or the nature of reality. It can be verified by checking it against experience, and/or other people’s insights and revelations, and/or with reference to the lore of the particular culture you are working within. The Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) is similar to personal symbolism – it is not “wrong”, but don’t expect other people to agree with you unless it chimes with their experience, or with the cultural lore associated with the deity and/or pantheon you are working with.

Many people are dismissive of UPG, but there is no need to dismiss it as “incorrect” – you only need to say that it doesn’t chime with your experience, and move on.

Many people are afraid that their personal symbolic associations with particular things are somehow wrong – but again, there is nothing wrong with creativity and personal symbolism, but your personal symbolism may not work for everyone. This is why magic and the occult are an art and not a science.

A Pagan coming-out ritual

The other day, someone asked, why isn’t there a Pagan coming-out ritual? When do straight people come out as straight? Maybe one day in the future, when people don’t assume that you are straight by default, there will be either be coming-out rituals for everyone, or no need of a coming-out ritual. There ought to be a coming-of-age ritual, though.

There have been criticisms of the notion of coming-out, both in terms of the notion of “out” — perhaps we’re coming IN to being visible, instead of OUT of being hidden — and in terms of the notion of a closet, in that being closeted as a way to avoid stigma is becoming unnecessary in most social contexts.

Shine! by Roz Byshaka

Shine! by Roz Byshaka (courtesy of Shutterstock)

A coming-out ritual, by Yvonne Aburrow

The circle or sacred space is opened in the appropriate manner for the tradition celebrating. If quarters are called, then they are addressed in a non-gender-binary way, e.g. Mighty Ones of the [direction], Powers of the [element]. All those gathered to celebrate bring a scarf. Preferably red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. The one who has recently come out as LGBTQIA wears a cloak and a veil.

Celebrant 1: Today we have gathered to celebrate the coming out of [name] as [identity]. (1)
He/she/ze (2) has been hidden,
like a bulb hidden in the earth, waiting to put forth the first green shoots in Spring.
He/she/ze has been hidden,
like a bud waiting for the first rays of the Sun to open.
He/she/ze has been hidden,
Like a shy animal in their burrow,
Waiting for the dusk to emerge and explore.
He/she/ze has been hidden,
Like a butterfly in the chrysalis,
Waiting for the right time to emerge.

Celebrant 2: But now [name] has come out,
And emerges into the world like a bulb putting forth a green shoot,
Like a flower opening to the sun,
Like an animal emerging from the burrow,
Like a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis!
Come out, [name], and be welcome in your full glory.

All: Come out! Come out! Come out!

(The outcomer now emerges from the cloak and the veil, and steps forward)

All: Hail and welcome!

(Each person now steps forward and places a coloured scarf around the outcomer’s neck, either offering their own personal blessing, or saying “I welcome you in your full glory as a [lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender] (3) person, and celebrate your unique beauty and strength”)

Celebrant 1: By coming out of the closet, you have come IN to the queer community.

All: Welcome in!

Celebrant 2: By coming out of the closet, you have come IN to the Pagan (4) community. Paganism encourages us to find our true and authentic self, and to be that to the best of our ability. By coming out as [identity], you have revealed more of your true self, both to yourself and to others.

[The outcomer now gets to encounter the ten queer spiritual roles]

Celebrant 1: There are as many ways to be queer as there are queer people, but we now present to you ten queer archetypes (5), who may help you and guide you on your way.

The Catalyst: I am the catalytic transformer. (Lights a flame)
I bring change.
I hunger and thirst for social justice.
I light the fire in the human heart,
The fire that rages against injustice,
The flame that burns bright to herald a new dawn.

The Mirror: I am a mirror, presenting an inverted image to society. (Holds up a mirror)
I am the Molly and the Drag Queen.
I am the one who queers everything.
I comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
I overthrow power structures with my parodies.

The Shaman: I am the queer shaman, (beats drum)
The consciousness scout.
I find the way between the worlds,
I travel the roads of the dead.
I am a child of the Moon,
A devotee of her mysteries.

The Trickster: I am the Trickster, (presents the outcomer with a flower)
The eternally playful one.
I am Peter Pan, always youthful.
My tricks expand your consciousness,
My dreams bring sparkle to the world.

The Beautiful One: I am the keeper and maker of beauty, (sprinkles glitter)
Making music, and art, and sacred drama.
I am the queer eye, discerning beauty wherever it roves.
I am the one who makes all things beautiful.

The Caregiver: I am the one who cares, (Caresses the outcomer)
For the suffering, the lost, and the outcast.
I bring joy to those who are on the edge,
Lost in the liminal spaces.

The Mystic: I am the mystic one, (holds wand/thyrsis/caduceus)
The in-between one,
The shaman, the traveller between the worlds.
I travel between the seen and the unseen,
I mediate between the worlds of flesh and spirit.

The Consecrated One: My sexuality is holy, (sprinkles blessed water or mead)
My being is holy, and I stand before the divine ones,
And lead the people towards the union of matter and spirit.

The Androgyne: I am the Divine Androgyne, (holds wand and chalice in each hand)
Including and transcending all genders.
I am change, and I am growth.
I am space and time.
I am spirit and matter.
I am the inbreath and the outbreath.

The Gatekeeper: I am the gatekeeper, (makes gesture of opening doors)
Who stands at the door of the sacred realm,
Welcoming all who come to enter the portal,
The door to the unseen realms.
I welcome you to the place between the worlds.

All: Hail and welcome, [name of outcomer]

(The ritual is concluded with cakes & wine, mead, an eisteddfod, or whatever the closing appropriate to the tradition.)

 

CC-BY-SA 3.0. Yvonne Aburrow is the author of this ritual.

You may reuse it under the terms of the following Creative Commons licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

Notes

(1) replace with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender as appropriate

(2) use the preferred pronoun of the outcomer here

(3) use lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender as appropriate

(4) use Heathen, Druid, Wiccan, polytheist, Feri, etc if preferred

(5) http://www.tommoon.net/articles/spiritmatters4.html

Samhain and Remembrance

Poppies in the sunset on Lake Geneva

Poppies in the sunset on Lake Geneva (Wikipedia)

The Pagan festivals are less about a single day when we reflect on or celebrate a particular aspect of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and more about the the high watermark of the ebb and flow of a tide of energy.

The build up to Samhain has been intense this year, with the Patheos Pagan Ancestor Remembrance Project, and I really enjoyed dialoguing with Aliza Worthington from the Jewish channel, and hope that other similar collaborations between Patheos writers can happen in the future.

Aliza’s final post on the theme of ancestors and remembering her grandpa was about dreams. I have also dreamed of my grandparents. I dreamt of them in the mountains of the Summerlands (the Wiccan afterlife). They seemed happy. Aliza reflected on how dreams of one’s beloved dead seem like extra time with them. It certainly felt that way when I dreamt about my cat Harry, who died in 2011. In the dream, he rubbed his head on my hand, just like he did in life, and it was a really special dream.

This year I had the privilege of attending a friend’s Samhain ritual, and one very powerful aspect of it was going alone to the ancestor altar to commune with our beloved dead. Mine came rushing to meet me and I found it very moving. Afterwards there was a shared meal and we all put food on a plate for the ancestors, who had their own place at the table.

I didn’t make my own ancestor altar in the end, or visit the graves of any of my beloved dead, but I did focus on them and think about them.

I am glad to see that the Wiccan community is currently fundraising for a gravestone for one of our beloved dead and founders, Eleanor Bone. This is particularly appropriate since it was Eleanor who raised funds to ensure that Gerald Gardner had a gravestone (he is buried in Tunis).

Eleanor “Ray” Bone is a prominent figure in the history of Wicca. She was an initiate of Gerald B. Gardner and for many decades Eleanor was the High Priestess of a coven in London. She is often known as the Matriarch of European Wicca, because most Gardnerian initiates in Europe trace their roots to Ray Bone’s coven.

Remembering and honouring the dead is really important in a number of religious traditions. These are the people that made us who we are, shaping our lives and the world around us. If it wasn’t for the pioneers of Wicca, there would be no Wiccan tradition.

But the season of remembrance is not at an end. The tide of Samhain ebbs until it rises again as the tide of rebirth at Yule. And on the way to the turning of the tide, there is Remembrance Day on 11 November. I don’t know how many Pagans actually do ritual for 11 November, but I am sure many of us will be wearing poppies – red, white, or mauve, or all three.  The red poppy focuses on remembering veterans, though some fear that it is being used to glorify war. The white poppy focuses on promoting peace. The mauve poppy is in remembrance of animals killed in war. I was glad to find, a few years ago, a memorial to animals killed in war on Park Lane in London.

A few years ago I had the privilege of leading a service for Remembrance Sunday in a Unitarian church, and I focused on the sorrow of war, and the need to work for peace, but also the paradox that war can give rise to heroism too.

I wonder why we as Pagans don’t create rituals for remembrance of the victims of war? Is it because Samhain is such an intense experience that we don’t feel the need? Is it because some remembrance services seem to glorify war? Or is it because we don’t have the confidence (or the opportunity) to create public rituals for the whole community?

 

Why do we need labels?

I have been asked twice recently why people need labels for sexual orientations and gender identities; one person commented, “aren’t we all just human beings?” People have also wondered if we need theological labels like ‘polytheist’, ‘pantheist’, ‘monist’ etc.

To me this question is a bit like asking why we need names for things. We say sun instead of “local fusion reactor that is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields” because it is shorter and universally understood as the English word for the big hot yellow thing in the sky.

The most obvious reason why we need labels is as a short way of describing a complex concept or identity. New labels for subgroups emerge all the time as people discover that what they mean by a word is not the same as what others mean by it. For example, if you have a broad definition of ‘male’ which includes transgender men, cisgender men, genderqueer men, gay men, bisexual men, straight men, and so on, then it comes as a shock if you come across someone whose definition only includes cisgender heterosexual men, and they may want a different label to indicate what they mean by the term ‘male’, since their definition is narrower.

Similarly, if you are a polytheist who believes the gods and goddesses are discrete entities, you may want to describe yourself as a hard polytheist. If you are a polytheist who has a devotional approach to the deities, you may want to describe yourself as a devotional polytheist, because what other people mean by polytheist might not sit well with your idea of polytheism.

The other main reason for needing a label for your subgroup is as a way of finding like-minded others. If you are a man who is attracted to other men, it helps to identify as gay or bisexual so that you can find other men-loving men.

Interestingly, it is usually people who are part of a hegemonic group who can’t see the need for labels. For example, there has been a great deal of resistance to the use of the term cisgender to describe people who have the same gender identity that they were assigned at birth. Similarly, some heterosexuals resisted the label heterosexual. Such people claim that they don’t need a label because they are “just normal”. I would strongly resist the idea of any kind of identity being “normal”, but even though cisgender heterosexuals are in the majority, I still think we need labels to describe cisgender and heterosexual, so that we know what we are talking about when we refer to people who identify as the same gender they were assigned at birth, and people who are attracted to people of the opposite gender to themselves. Given that the term cisgender was coined in 1904, and the term heterosexual was first published in 1892, they are hardly new-fangled terms.

As a genderqueer person, I resist the gender binary – the idea that people fit neatly into one of two monolithic gender categories with little or no overlap between their behaviours and interests. My partner came up with another label, postgender, to describe a person who rejects all gender norms and just wants to be themselves.

The person who actively resists the proliferation of categories of identity is typically someone who is part of the dominant paradigm and doesn’t want to think about other people’s needs, or change their current way of classifying people.

One situation in which variant theological and gender identities challenge the hegemonic paradigm is that of ritual. If your ritual setup is based on the assumption that there is one God and one Goddess, and they are cisgender heterosexual lovers, and that there are two major energetic polarities, “male energy” and “female energy”, then this will create the assumption of ritual norms such as making participants stand in a pattern of alternate male and female. This set of assumptions breaks down completely if you have people with different gender identities such as genderqueer or transgender (unless you allow a trans person to play the ritual role of their true gender, the one they actually are, not the one they were assigned at birth), and people of different sexual orientations who may experience magical polarity with someone of the same gender. Most people seem to assume that polarity in ritual involves a component of sexual attraction, even if this sexual attraction is never acted upon. Therefore it makes sense for gay and lesbian people to work with someone of the same gender (such as their partner, where the sexual attraction is reinforced by their physical lovemaking).

Similarly, assumptions that “all the gods are one God and all the goddesses one Goddess” or even that they are all aspects of a single Divine Unity will affect how you address and described deities in your rituals, hence the need for polytheists to devise our own traditions and rituals that are meaningful to us, or adapt existing traditions.

On the matter of rituals that are meaningful for people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, some people have suggested that gay and lesbian people form their own ritual traditions – and these do exist (the Dianic tradition and the Minoan tradition, for example). However, as a bisexual person, a “homocentric” ritual would be just as excluding of my identity as a heterocentric one. So my preference is to develop ritual formats that include everyone. A polytheistic perspective helps with this because deities can have multiple genders, different sexual orientations, and fluid identities. These can be found in many myths.

Identities and labels and categories are fluid and evolving. Typically, new ones emerge when people find that they don’t fit in an existing paradigm, or need a word to describe the opposite of what they are. Labels are useful because they enable people to find like-minded others for socialising, ritual, conversations, friendships, and relationships. Of course they are all subcategories of people, but when you consider how wonderfully diverse people are, we need categories to help us understand one another.

Lammas

A Hereford Lantern corn dolly

A Hereford Lantern corn dolly (Wikipedia)

It is surprisingly hard to design rituals for large numbers of people that can involve everyone in the ritual.

Some of my more successful attempts at creating ritual involving large numbers of active participants have happened at Lammas.

 Doing vs. Observing

“Ritual has to be more than just theatre, and that’s often where things go awry in larger rituals. It often feels like there’s one group of people doing the ritual while everyone else is simply observing it. The quarters are called but the only people who are a part of the process are the six or so folks standing in the center of the circle. What are the other thirty supposed to be doing? Are they even clued in to what’s happening? Ritual shouldn’t be passive, and if you find yourself or those around you passive during ritual something’s not working.”

 Jason Mankey, quoted by John Halstead in a post on ritual design.

Traditionally, Lughnasadh was celebrated with games in honour of the goddess Tailtiu (pronounced Tahl-tee), the mother of Lugh. So it seems appropriate to have a game in one’s Lammas ritual. Obviously the origins of Lammas (Hlaf-mass in Anglo-Saxon) are different from Lughnasadh, but in contemporary Pagan practice, the two festivals are often splurged into one, in much the same way as Yule and Christmas are a glorious smorgasbord of customs and traditions.

The Harvest Game

I got the idea for my Lammas game from J G Frazer’s The Golden Bough – so of course it is of highly dubious historical authenticity. It is also great fun.  Frazer says that harvest traditions in many regions of Europe involved the reapers cutting the corn (wheat) with their scythes, until they reached the last clump of wheat in the field. At this point, the corn-spirit that inhabited the field was believed to have taken refuge in the last sheaf of corn, and this was cut with a special ritual, and bound up to be made into corn dollies.  (Note for North American readers: when I write corn, I do not mean maize, I mean wheat.)

The Harvest Game involves two teams, the reapers and the corn. There is also the hare, who is the Corn Spirit. The job of the corn team is to try to protect the hare. The job of the reapers is to try to catch the hare. The reapers chase the hare, and the hare hides amongst the corn. If a reaper touches a member of the corn team, they are out and can no longer take part in the game. Eventually the reapers catch the hare, and then they throw grass heads or stems at him or her.

The Lammas mime

The other ritual for Lammas that I devised for large numbers of people was to divide the participants into small groups of about six or seven people. They were then asked to come up with a simple and silent mime to represent the story of Lammas. They had about ten minutes to devise this. Then the groups took it in turns to perform their mime. One group mimed the death of the Corn King; another mimed the cutting of wheat; one mimed the funeral of the Corn King. All the mimes were different, and it was a surprisingly effective way of experiencing the harvest theme of Lammas.

Pagan prayer

There are several different types of prayer:

  • contemplative prayer (communing with a deity, usually in silence);
  • intercessory prayer (praying for help for someone else);
  • petitionary prayer (praying for help for yourself);
  • thanksgiving;
  • adoration, devotion;
  • prayer of approach (preparing to enter a deity’s presence);
  • invocation (asking a deity to be present);
  • bidding prayer (a suggestion to participants to pray for a particular thing);
  • confession and penitence (though I would be surprised if any Pagans do this, as we do not tend to regard wrong acts as injuring a deity, only as injuring the physical person(s) who were harmed by them);
  • words of reassurance (for the benefit of the participants of the ritual);
  • healing prayer;
  • expressing aspiration (e.g. “may we be blessed”);
  • reflection (reflecting on events).

Prayer is not just asking a deity to do things for you. It can be used as a means of creating a sacred context for your activities, by opening proceedings with a prayer. An invocation of a deity is a form of prayer. An evocation of an elemental spirit is a form of prayer.  Many Pagans dismiss prayer as “passive magic” (as opposed to doing spells, which they class as “active magic”). This reduces prayer only to petitionary and intercessory prayer – but there are many other kinds of prayer, as you can see from the list above (which may not be a complete list).

There are also different modes and techniques of prayer: for example, centering prayer, contemplative prayer, and body prayer (using dance or other special movements in prayer).

Centering prayer was developed by an interfaith dialogue group of Christians and Buddhists. These Christians admired the technique of Buddhist meditation but didn’t want to cultivate the awareness of the Void recommended by Buddhist tradition; so instead they decided to choose a single concept and focus on it during the meditation, which they called “centering prayer”. So for instance you might choose one of the Nine Noble Virtues of Heathenry, or the Eight Wiccan Virtues, or one of the Roman virtues, to focus on during the prayer. The technique is similar to that of meditation, in that you relax your breathing and focus on the body, but you hold the concept you wish to focus on in your heart for the duration of the prayer, perhaps repeating the chosen word.

Contemplative prayer is an age-old tradition of mystics. It is quite similar to centering prayer, but doesn’t involve a specific concept; it’s more of a wordless communion with a deity. It is usually preceded by more verbal forms of prayer, which lead into contemplation or meditation.

Body prayer is where you involve your whole body in the act of prayer. This might be gardening and praying, or dancing and praying, or walking and praying. Walking a labyrinth can be a prayerful act, as you deliberately focus on the spiritual journey. Another example of body prayer is the Dances of Universal Peace, a dance tradition in their own right, designed to engender peace and love in the participants; another example is the Salute to the Sun found in Yoga (which is a sacred Hindu practice designed to stimulate spiritual growth).

What is the purpose of prayer? I don’t think it is only for the benefit of the deity being prayed to. I think it is for the benefit of the one doing the praying. The practice of mindfulness, of cultivating awareness of the greater life of the universe, and of examining our own conscience, and being aware of the suffering and joy of others – these are beneficial for the soul.

In the Wiccan text The Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente wrote,

“Arise and come unto me. For I am the soul of Nature, who gives life to the Universe. From me, all things proceed and unto me all things must return; and before my face, beloved of Gods and men, let thine innermost divine self be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.”

To “be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite” expresses very well for me what contemplative prayer feels like. (Your mileage may vary.)

Ceisiwr Serith produced A Book of Pagan Prayer, which is an excellent starting point if you are new to this practice. The books suggests a lot of different types of prayer, and to many different deities.

Prayer can be personal and private, or collective. When sharing a prayer with others, it can be difficult to express your theological viewpoint without excluding others.  One proposed solution is to say “this is a prayer from my tradition” and perhaps invite people to “translate in their heads” if it does not quite work for them.

There are prayers in many different Pagan traditions, including devotional polytheism, Feri, Reclaiming, Wicca, Druidry, and many others. The theological stance of these prayers may vary from monism to ‘hard’ polytheism. A prayer does not have to be to a deity; you can also pray to spirits of place, or commune with Nature. I do not think there is anything wrong with adapting prayers to fit your own theology (as long as you state your sources, to avoid plagiarism, if you are praying the prayer in public).

You don’t have to close your eyes or kneel down to pray. Many people (e.g. Eastern Orthodox Christians) pray with their eyes open and their hands extended to indicate that they recognise the divine in the world.  You could experiment with different positions. Some traditions use prayer beads; there are some lovely Pagan prayer beads available.

A prayer can be nothing more than time taken to set an intention for the day, or to contemplate the day’s events before going to sleep. It can be time spent communing with a deity, or holding others that you care about in your awareness and wishing them well. It can take place at your personal altar, or just in your head. It can be spoken or unspoken, formal or informal, and involve stillness or movement. It can involve descending into your own depths to find a connection with all-that-is; or it can be reaching out to a deity or spirit of place; or some other process. Different people experience it differently.