Ramblings about Ritual: Creating a Personal Festival Calendar
I went through a number of years, over a decade, where ritual practices formed the center of my devotional life. I was either attending or more often facilitating weekly rituals, with special celebrations on the full and dark moons and all the holy tides. Additionally, I was leading a working and teaching group and all this meant that scarcely a day passed without some sort of ritual awareness or practice. Often this was solitary but just as often with a group. For a year, given that we all lived in the same neighborhood, we even met each morning before our respective jobs for a morning rite (and often in the evening as well). It was intense and …after awhile I became very burnt out with ritual. This was all the more so when I would attend public rituals and find them either poorly or impiously led, devoid of divine presence or simply boring.
Then there were the ones that were not precisely impious but pointless, you know, the rituals that were all about the people attending, that were little more than a social hour, rituals where the priest/ess would chat with friends during the service, not maintain the space, or rituals wherein the Gods barely rated a mention. I’m very skilled in ritual work. I had the benefit of amazing training with some very, very gifted and devoted teachers. By now, I’ve even taught ritual for over a decade. Believe it or not, doing rituals well is an acquired skill but one has to care enough to acquire it and recognize it as something relevant and on top of that hopefully have good models from which to learn. After awhile, I figured unless I could find ritual facilitators as competent as I why bother? (I wanted to find them too, I really did!)
Once I became a shaman, it was even trickier because I actually have both taboo and obligations around ritual. It usually wasn’t worth either my time or energy to attend other peoples’ rites and I had little incentive to do my own outside of regular personal devotions. My contact and connection with the Powers was sustained by many other things and by 2003 or so ritual wasn’t that big a focus of my work anyway.
Before I continue I feel the need to point out that ritual is a very, very beneficial practice. It’s one of the eight fold path of altered states, it’s a good way for newcomers to learn proper protocol in interacting with the Powers, but most of all, it teaches us to be receptive to the experience of the holy. Ritual is a framework wherein we can start carefully navigating the liminal places between our human world and the numinous Powers. Ritual is one of the best ways I know of patterning the heart, mind, and spirit for directly engagement with the Gods. Ritual is also a very broad term, something that comes in many shapes, sizes, and flavors, so to speak but that’s a topic for another article and I promised myself not to digress too much in this one.
So, I started easing back into ritual work a few years ago, assisting, attending, occasionally facilitating for a couple of the groups with which I am affiliated. Lately, as head of a House, which includes two kindreds, I’ve of necessity been running regular rituals again. At first I thought this would be an odious but necessary task, but almost immediately I found it nourishing in ways that I hadn’t experienced since I began my clergy training at nineteen. It was tremendously refreshing. It also had another unexpected side effect: more and more I’ve been feeling a push to develop my own festival calendar.
When I first read about devotional polytheists being pushed by their Gods and ancestors to do this, I thought: thank the Gods I don’t have to do anything like that! What a pain!(1) I’m just shaking my head now. I should have known, with the irony that the fates sometimes show, I had just signed on the dotted line. I was soon pushed to start thinking about my own. Before I go on, I suppose I should clarify what I mean by ‘personal festival calendar.’
We all follow ritual calendars of a sort: when does your group meet? When are your holy-tides? A personal ritual calendar includes that but also includes other days of spiritual significance taking into account the Deities in one’s spiritual life, special anniversaries, days of import to one’s ancestors, etc. For instance, while I’m still creating mine, I’ve come to realize over the past year that it needs to include the following:
· Small daily rituals for the days of the week: each day has its tutelary Deity, from which the names of the weekdays, at least in many Germanic languages, are actually taken. Monday belongs to the Moon God Mani, Tuesday to the God Tyr, Wednesday to Woden, Thursday to Thor, Friday to Frigga, Freya or Both. Saturday gets its name from Saturn, and by way of Latin rather than any Germanic tongue and in the North was usually laundry day (no joke…it was a day for cleaning and doing laundry). Since in Norse traditions it isn’t associated with any Deity, I tend to honor Loki on this day, and then Sunday is for the Sun Goddess Sunna. Of these, Wednesday is the most important for me, and I always try to do a little something for Odin on that day.
· Of course I celebrate the eight holy tides: Yule, Candlemas/Charming of the Plough (I admit, I tend to combine them—blame my Celtic ancestors), Eostre (also called Ostara), Walpurgis, Litha, Lammas, Fall Equinox (winterfinding), and Winternights/Samhain/Day of the Dead (again, I combine…it’s all for benefit of our ancestors anyway). Yule traditionally runs from Dec. 20 through the New Year, and I celebrate Samhain/Day of the Dead/Winternights for an extended period too.
· There are other days on our secular calendar that I mark by special rituals: Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and New Year’s Day being prime examples.
· I make special offerings to certain non-Norse Powers with Whom I have a devotional relationship on the days associated with Them (which means, I’m doing small rituals on Mondays and Tuesdays and Sundays every single week in my home). I also celebrate Their feast days/birthdays/special days throughout the year.
· The last day of the full moon I like to make it a ritual process to go through my home and clean and refresh all the altars and shrines.
· On the dark moon I like to do personal cleansing rituals and purifications.
· November is a heavy, ritual laden month for me. Not only does Day of the Dead fall in November, but also Veterans Day. It’s also a month I strongly associate with Odin and His presence tends to dominate my ritual work. Additionally to all of that, I recently read an article by author and devotional polytheist Dver talking about Nov. 11 as one time having been a feast for Bear spirit. I have an ancestral connection to Bear and I was pretty much gob-smacked by her article. I am seriously considering (and will do divination at some point soon) to see whether this is a feastday that needs to be added to my work.
· I honor the birthdays and death days of certain ancestors with special offerings and a small ritual.
· I am seriously considering reclaiming Columbus Day (I consider him a butcher who massacred and enslaved indigenous tribes, a man hardly worthy of honor—even his own people tried to have him imprisoned) as “world ancestor day” and doing a big ritual to honor mitochondrial Eve and some of our eldest ancestors.
· Finally there are the days of various sancti, men and women revered in polytheism for defending the faith, or being particularly devoted…like Julian the Martyr, who tried to restore Paganism and drive back the influence of Christianity in the years after Constantine.
The the ancient Romans had this idea not just of holidays--fasti--but of days so unlucky that no business could be conducted -- nefasti. That idea sort of pings for me, but I'm not sure of the divination process by which one would determine these days or how they'd be worked in; still, it's something I'm contemplating.
I’m still working all of this out, so I don’t know what my completed calendar will look like. I do know it’s my ongoing project this year. We share the holy tides, it’s true, but each one of us has individual spiritual threads that need to be nurtured too, and each one of us has experienced different teachers, mentors, and guides along the way. I think there’s room for us to flesh out our devotional life in individual patterns of remembrance and for me, working on this calendar seems a good place to start. It’s certainly made me pay more heed to ritual work. I don’t know what the end result of all of this will be, but contemplating it is very nourishing, a form of personal renewal and that’s always a good thing.
I share it with you in the hope that it will inspire some of you and in the hope that you, my readers, might share with me here the ways in which you order your devotional calendar, and the days outside of the holidays, that you consider special. With Yule coming, perhaps the most sacred time of year in the Heathen calendar, it’s an especially good time to take stock and to think about the ways we welcome the sacred into our lives.
1. I first encountered this at http://thehouseofvines.wordpress.com and http://forestdoor.wordpress.com, both blogs that I highly recommend. The author of the latter blog coined the term ‘devotional polytheist’ in her book “Dwelling on the Threshold” available here: http://www.amazon.com/Dwelling-Threshold-Reflections-Spirit-Worker-Devotional/dp/1475255993/. I like the term quite a bit and her reasoning for its use.
(The image is “Circe” by John William Waterhouse)
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