It’s been quiet around these parts for a good while, but it’s not for a lack of activity in my real life. Rather the opposite: I’ve been buried under a pile of responsibilities and activities both secular and religious, and writing that has no clear deadline or penalty (read: this blog) has gotten put to the wayside. Of course, there is in fact a penalty: I begin to feel like I have a well bottled up in me, and as if I’m betraying promises I made to the gods when I first started this site. And so, segue, I’m here to write about running ritual and the difficult but worthwhile responsibility it brings, centered around my first time running a ritual at this past Winter Solstice.
It all started half a year ago, when there was some chatter among the grove bards and priests about a bluegrass-y song a couple of us were writing for Samhain. That led to a discussion of washboards, both musical and for laundry, and somehow I ended up suggesting that the Winter Solstice celebration could be built around the story of the Cailleach Bheur washing her plaid in the whirlpool at Corryvreckan, thus ushering in the winter. And since, so far as I know, I’m the only one in the grove who deals in Scottish matters or has a relationship with the Cailleach, it fell to me to run the rite.
This sounded fine in July, but as December neared I felt more and more out of my depth. There’s not really a script for an ADF High Day ritual. There are some templates, there’s a basic breakdown of what must be included (and a bare handful of things that shouldn’t be), but beyond that it’s really quite open. In addition, Three Cranes Grove tends to leave parts open to the individuals performing them, rather than having the ritual leader script all the parts. In general I very much like that choice — I believe it encourages individuals to develop their own strengths as ritual practitioners — but in this case, with my ideas being very much in formation even a week before the ritual, it was nervewracking. How to wrangle all these individual contributions into a cohesive ritual that both duly honored the gods and spirits we invited to our fire, and also provided an emotionally and spiritually satisfying experience to those in attendance, when I hadn’t even yet figured out what I was doing? It felt like juggling sand.
Nevertheless, in the weeks preceding, the bardic team recorded scratch recordings for grove members to learn music beforehand if they wished (I wrote two songs for the occasion, and we used rather less-common songs to fill in the rest, in order to strike the proper tone); I did a lot of researching in Scottish Gaelic to come up with names for the many spirits we call on (that were culturally appropriate and linguistically accurate to the best of my ability), and recorded pronunciations for everyone; I wrote a ritual outline to try to get across my vision for the arc of the ritual. Most everyone seemed relatively unconcerned, and I put a good face on it, but I was still terribly anxious.
And then the day came. We had some small fumbles, but I put on my improviser’s face and ran with it. We neglected to bless the Hallows, but they still opened as gates to send our prayers to the Ancestors, the Nature Spirits, and the Shining Ones. My guitar playing still could use a lot of work, but playing a hymn that I wrote to the Cailleach Bheur, in her divine presence and with the praise of the folk poured out on the altar, was a staggeringly gratifying experience.
The greatest experience of the ritual, however, was the part for which I’d prepared least. During ritual prep, Jan and I had had many discussions about what to do for a working: what would send the folk out into the dark winter with a sense of joy and hope, rather than a sense of doom and cold? And how could that be appropriate for a goddess who is, frankly, often terrifying, and whose usual image is not of returning light and warmth (cf. Sol Invictus), but rather of darkness and privation? As I meditated on the Cailleach, I thought about her purpose, and the winter’s purpose: the winter brings a respite to the growing land, a time of enforced repose. The Cailleach’s greatest terror, the biting cold of winter, is also her greatest gift. And so we decided that we would have paperwhite bulbs on the altar throughout, and in the working we would have the folk light candles to symbolize the warmth of community, and infuse that energy into the bulbs. That way, as they sprouted and grew in people’s homes, despite the pall of winter outside, they would grow with them the light of community and the promise of renewed vigor in the coming year.
As I describe it above, this sounds well thought out, but in fact I wrote no introduction, not even notes to self. Literally all I had were some general ideas, and a basic plan that two members of my ritual team would begin passing light from candle to candle as we sang a two-line chant:
Out of the darkness comes the dawning of the light.
Out of the winter’s cold comes the warmth of firelight.
And that was it: no plans for how I was supposed to actually do the work. And yet as we all sang, I felt the prayers of the people around me almost as a tangible fluid, and I felt the chill of the Cailleach at my back, cold but also insulative. I felt my hands spread and lift, rising like green shoots and then turning and pressing life and holiness into the bulbs. In watching the video after the fact, I see a resemblance to the Catholic priests of my upbringing as they consecrate the Eucharist, but until right now, as I write, I’ve been hesitant to call this a consecration: that word seems almost illicit, off-limits to me as a layperson. But I realize as I write how important it is for me to claim ‘consecration’, to recognize its power and its weight. In leading the working, I was channeling the prayers of the people and awful might of the Hag of Winter: that’s the power. But I also had a duty in that moment, a responsibility to the folk and to the divine: that’s the weight. Wrongly directed, the whole coordinated effort falls apart magically — that’s weight enough. But even more so, to not perform the duties we volunteer for would be a betrayal of the implicit promise we make as ritual practitioners to act in good faith toward those attending, both mortal and immortal.
It was a good weight, and a holy one. At the end of the ritual I nearly started crying, not only with relief at how well it had gone, but also with a sort of release of the emotional, spiritual work I’d done. It felt like a post-performance glow and let-down, but magnitudes greater. I’m glad to pass on the responsibility to someone else for Imbolc, but I’m also honored by the opportunity to carry it for this high day, and to take it up again in the future. A Mhàthair Talmhainn, Dheachdaidh, Shinnseara, Spiorada Nàdair, Dhiatha, agus Chailleach Bheur — to the Earth Mother, the powers of Inspiration, the Ancestors, Nature Spirits, Gods and Goddesses, and to the Cailleach Bheur — as well as to my community in Three Cranes Grove, my humble praise and thanks.
Header image: “Fog Bow” by Christopher Michel/Flickr. License: CC BY.