ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF FoDLA RITUAL
By Rev. Todd Covert, Chief of the Fellowship
The founding documents of the Fellowship of Druidism for the Latter Age spell out few requirements for liturgy. The only prescriptions are for the use of sacred fire in all ritual—personal or group; the making of offering to the Powers being honored by the rite whenever group ritual is performed; and the enactment of a renewal of the sacred marriage of the People with the Land at all community rituals.
The list of “required” elements is limited intentionally and for multiple reasons. First, when looking at the precedents afforded by ancient Indo-European ritual forms, it is clear that there were numerous approaches taken, at a variety of types of sites and with widely varying forms of offering. The ancients, we can reasonably say, had recourse to a variety of forms suited to various occasions and we ought to afford ourselves the same flexibility where it suits with our needs. But, secondly, Neo-Druidism is a young religious path, finding its footing in a cultural context quite radically different than that of, say, the ancient Druids, and need not succumb to any temptation to etch in stone practices which are—in effect—still being tested by a community that is largely comprised of converts from other faith communities. And, lastly, there is the matter of the Fellowship’s stated character of inclusiveness and tolerance: Providing a very open and flexible attitude to liturgy seems reasonably aligned with a goal of presenting ritual that has the greatest opportunity of welcoming the most newcomers.
All of that being said, the brief list of required elements hardly constitutes sufficient material to craft a group ritual. So what else—practically speaking—needs to be included?
The following is an attempt at providing a hierarchy of possible ritual elements likely to provide a fully fleshed-out liturgy.
It is essential that the ritual be organized—whenever possible—around sacred Fire. There is good evidence to suggest a relationship between a hearth fire and that used in the ritual altar. As such, fire can be brought from home—if that can be accomplished safely—and the altar Fire kindled from that. Or the officiant can privately light a lamp or candle from which the other fire used in the ritual can be ignited. Or the altar fire can simply be lit directly. When possible, though, it is symbolically (if not magically) potent for all fire in the work to be from the same source.
A brief prayer, inspired by Gaelic precedent, that can be used for the fire lighting is:
I kindle this flame
For the hearth
For the home
For the whole of the People
One flame for light
One flame for warmth
One flame to encircle us all
Earth under heaven
Heaven down to earth
This day and every day
May it be so
May I pray with a good fire
–The Sacred Site
Ritual is sacred in character, which implies that it ideally occurs apart from the mundane world. Different Pagan paths have taken various approaches to providing sacred space—from casting of circles to the construction of permanent temples—but some acknowledgement of the special character of the site should be included. For a temporary setting, the old Gaelic custom of processing about the fields clockwise with a torch has the advantage of being both intuitive in character (fire drives away the wild and untoward beasties) and rooted in actual folk practice.
Note here as well that this custom—attested into modern times—not only defines the sacred space (or “nemeton” to use the ancient Celtic term)—but is understood to establish a protective perimeter.
Processing three times about a sacred well or cairn is a common folk practice as well. So it is elegant, practical, and rooted in tradition to have the torch (lit from the source flame suggested above) and perhaps the participants, if space permits, process three times around the sacred site.
(Of course, a permanent temple with an altar maintained within it would be lovely—and far more attested by archaeological evidence from the Celtic lands than many people realize—but is not practical for many groups.)
The Mother Grove of the Fellowship has used the following chant during processions of this sort for many of its rituals, repeated until the procession is complete:
By our will
By our words
By our work
This place is made whole and holy
–Prayer for Inspiration
The “fire in the head” of poetic inspiration, the “truth of the King,” and the power of the word which gave satire the power to physically blemish. All these point to the centrality of the presence of what is often referred to by the Irish Imbas or the Welsh Awen. The Irish goddess Brid (Brigit) is often regarded as providing this inspiration and can be prayed and offered to. Many modern Druids approach the Awen as an independent force and seek its descent through invocation in ritual.
Poetic inspiration—and truth and purity in the words of the participants—should be asked for. A sample of a short prayer for inspiration is the following:
We call on you to guide our rite in the way of truth.
Let our words be fit and so our hearts.
Let it be so!
–The Statement of Intent
However simple or elaborate a ritual might be, unity of purpose is important. To that end, it is important to provide some context to the attendees. This might be accomplished by a simple explanation during the rite. It is also possible to take care of this with a briefing prior to the opening of the ritual. A less literal way of handling this is with the telling of a tale or sharing of a traditional (or newly-composed) song or story that captures the essential purpose of the ceremony.
These might also be referred to by some as “invocations.” The meaning is, for all intents and purposes, the same. It is proper to identify and make welcome those unseen Powers who presence is essential for the success of the ritual. This might include a large number of beings or it might simply include one or two Deities being given special honor during the ritual. The customs of our Fellowship do not absolutely require explicit offerings or invocations of a set number of honored Guests. The Commitment to Hospitality and the Commitment to Piety should both provide strong incentive to make welcome as many of the Powers as will make the rite effective.
Some possible invitations include:
For the Gods and Goddesses:
Shining Ones! Highest and mightiest,
First among the Kindreds, worthiest of honor,
Deities of this place, known to us or unknown,
Gods and Goddesses of all those here, Patrons and Matrons,
We would offer you like honor.
Join us at our fire, o Shining Ones.
Accept our sacrifice!
For the Ancestors:
Ancestors! You who guide our steps,
You who carry the honor of the People to the Otherworlds,
We honor you here.
(Ale is poured in the Nemeton and the remainder set in a cup on the altar. )
We offer you the first portion as is proper and set forth this cup for your taking.
Ancestors, come to our hearthside and guide us in our rite!
While any number of preliminary offerings can—and should—be made in connections with any invitations or consecrations (of site or tools), a main offering should be the focus of any group ritual. This is what is referred to in the founding documents of the Fellowship as the Mystery of the Otherworldly Feast.
Among the ancients, religious ceremony very often took the form of a meal shared with Otherworldly Powers—most often the Deities or honored Ancestors. In modern Druidism, we may treat this “meal” more symbolically and offer one or more gifts to the Powers being honored; in an ideal case, either the offering of the gift or a sharing of a portion of it will be stimulating or nourishing to the attendees at the rite.
The ancients also used various vehicles for their offerings. Very often the sacred Fire was used to convey offerings to the bright Celestial Gods and Goddesses—the literal “Shining Ones,” which is the meaning of our word “deities.” Subterranean beings –and very often the Dead—might be given honor by the pouring of drink into the Earth or a tomb. Some Indo-European cultures have also made sacrifice by exposing an offering to the air, whether on an open air altar or consecrated mat or by hanging in a tree. Modern Druidic worshippers can explore any or all of these as they seem appropriate to a given occasion. Very often, though, the Fire is the most direct and powerful medium for offering.
The main offering of the occasion can perhaps best be thought of as a gift suited to the occasion. In a modern context, the nature of the gift is limited only by the imagination—and generosity—of those holding the ritual.
Beyond the necessary components of ritual sketched out here, other elements which can profitably be incorporated include the following:
–Signal of Beginning and End
Whether a musical tone or tones, a drumbeat, or simply a verbal announcement (or a combination of these or other signals), defining the beginning and end of “sacred time” is helpful for creating unity of will and focus.
–Honoring the Source/Mother of the Waters
Ancient Indo-European tradition points to a reverence for fresh water, for rivers and their sources as life giving Goddesses, perhaps all reflecting a fount of life for the People. It is certainly appropriate to honor and acknowledge this primal figure, preferably early in the rite. One such prayer is as follows:
Sacred Source, Cauldron of making and unmaking,
Fathomless Sea, bountiful Spring,
Mother of the Rivers, we honor you here
–Acknowledging the Otherworlds
Often seen as realms above and below our world, prayers and offerings to strengthen our connection to the Otherworlds and those who dwell there can be included. One strategy is to offer to a figure such as the King of the Sidhe to work in concert with the actions of the ritual. This can be seen as part of the preliminary work of the ritual, prior to inviting the Powers to be given honor.
–Honoring the Middle World
In addition to forging connections with the Otherworlds, acknowledging the “horizontal” and inviting the seen and unseen allies we humans have in this world to join in the rite is also useful. Offerings of invitation can be made to the spirits of the Middle World. These can be considered to be such beings as the animals and plants; the Fair Folk; totem allies; and others.
The modern British Druids have used a “Call for Peace” to the four cardinal directions; an adaptation of this that makes use of Irish lore that has been used by the Mother Grove is the following (accompanied by offerings):
May there be peace in the East, ancient Leinster, source of Prosperity.
May there be peace in the South, ancient Munster, source of Harmony.
May there be peace in the West, ancient Connacht, source of Wisdom.
May there be peace in the North, ancient Ulster, source of Strength.
Here in the Center, let peace rule over this rite.
–Renewing the Bond with Sovereignty
The People have an ancient and ongoing marriage with the Land. For our forebears, the Sovereignty goddess—often local or national in nature—was linked in sacred marriage to the King. In our seasonal rituals, we pledge this sacred compact anew, with the presiding Druid standing in as fit representative of the people. It is proper to offer to the Land and pray:
May we be united with you, Lady of the Land,
Sovereign of the Realm under Sídhe,
Grant us the abundant blessings of the Land,
Teach us its mysteries and its lessons,
As our ways find favor in your eyes.
In addition to a main offering by the community, time may be allotted for individuals to approach the Fire (or whatever medium for sacrifice is being used) and pray or offer praise or their own offerings. In general, it is important to remember that our rituals are above all an opportunity to offer thanks and to strengthen the ties we feel to the Otherworldly Powers, however each of us understands them. By offering praise, gifts, and hospitality as unconditionally as possible, we increase their strength as allies and empower them better to offer us what will improve our lot.
–Sharing of Cheer
It was customary in many ancient societies to pass a cup (or drinking horn) or to share the consecrated food brought to the altar. Certainly a cup can be passed at the end of the ritual and participants encouraged to share a prayer, a toast, or even a boast—as was indeed common among the ancients.
Perhaps this should be a “required” element—thanking all guests for attending. Indeed the only reason it isn’t included as such is that, in the most pared-down format, the main offering is—in a real sense—a giving of thanks to an honored guest or guests.