Overview of Modern Druid Groups: Rituals and Ritual Structures, Part 1
2020 note: I wrote this this over 15 years ago. Some information may be outdated.
First, I will address some ritual issues and concepts and sum up the various groups’ attitudes and practices for each of these, starting with the purposes of ritual. Then I will include some more detailed information about each group including sample ritual outlines.
Purposes of Ritual
Almost all Druid groups share some of the same purposes of ritual, but give them different emphases. They all seek to change consciousness, to create awareness of the sacredness of nature, to encourage expressions of creativity, to manifest deep interconnections of all life and to mark the changing cycles of the earth.
British-based Druid rituals are more an opportunity to celebrate natural cycles, to create and enhance community and to commune with the sources of inspiration and less about veneration or worship. American-based Druid rituals emphasize honoring the Gods and the spirits of the land and the ancestors.
Deities and Other Spirits
So what is the role of Deities or other spirits in Druid rituals? Since OBOD and AODA are multi-faith groups, the Gods are not generally invoked in their established rituals. In OBOD, a generic “Spirit” or “Spirits” that may include for the participants Deity and/or the Spirit(s) of the Grove or place may be call upon. With the BDO, it seems that the Gods may not be invoked at larger gatherings that include many different paths, but may invoked for more private, intimate rituals with people who share the same Gods. The Reformed Druids are also a multi-faith group, but their rituals have traditionally invoked “Be’al” (a representation of the “Sky Father”) and the “Earth Mother.” Individual Reformed Druids may or may not regard them as Gods and different RDNA groups may invoke Deities as they wish. ADF and Keltrian ritual emphatically invokes the Gods and consider their rituals ways of honoring the Gods.
Spirits of the Grove or Spirits of the Land, or Nature Spirits are also invoked in almost all of the groups discussed.
BDO, ADF and Keltria also usually invite the spirits of the ancestors into their rituals. In ADF and in Keltria, these, along with the Spirits of the Land and the Gods are often known collectively as the Triad or Triad powers.
When Gods are invoked in ADF or Keltrian ritual, only Gods from a single pantheon are called and pantheons are not mixed in the same ritual.
The Nature of Ritual Space
One of the blanket statements I often hear about druids concerns the nature of ritual space. I have often heard that “druids don’t cast circles.” Well, it depends on which Druid group you’re talking about. Several Druids groups, especially those based on Revivalist groups or Wiccan groups, do include casting a magical circle and calling the four elements of conventional Western magic in their rituals. OBOD, BDO and AODA all do this to one degree or another. The circle may be completely closed off from the mundane world, but not always; it depends on the particular ritual. A good guide to British-based druid ritual is Emma Restall Orr’s book, Ritual: A Druid’s Guide to Life, Love & Inspiration, in which she has described the varying natures of the circle cast in ritual. In some cases, the circle seems to be more a cylinder open to the sky and to the earth. In other cases, a closed sphere or ovoid placed “between the worlds” may be created.
In contrast, ritual space in RDNA rituals seems totally open and placed within this world — people may come and go as they wish. The same is true for ADF rituals. Ritual space for the Henge of Keltria is semi-closed, considered “special,” but not separated from the world. In ADF and Keltrian rituals, a portal is opened to the realms of the Triad powers, so energy may flow between the realms.
What kinds of ritual formats are found among these groups? British-originated groups tend to follow a similar ritual format that usually includes the following components: calling to the spirits of the grove/land, calling peace to the quarters, saying the universal Druids’s prayer, calling or chanting the awen, casting a circle, consecrating the circle, welcoming and opening the quarters and elements, doing the main body of the ritual, making a statement of unity, thanking the quarters and unwinding the circle.
American-originated groups have formats that may include these components: opening prayers and meditations, opening the gates to the Otherworld, inviting the Gods, Spirits of the Land and the Ancestors (the Triad powers), making offerings and dedications to the Triad powers, receiving an omen, receiving blessings, sharing blessings, other workings, giving thanks to the Triad powers, closing the gates and releasing the grove. The basic ritual of RDNA includes the features of making offerings and receiving blessings.
The rituals of the American-originated groups, RDNA, ADF and Keltria emphasize sacrifice to the Gods or to the Triads and receiving blessings thereof. The rituals of BDO and OBOD emphasize receiving inspiration and honoring sacred nature.
Do these groups have special tools or ways the ritual space is set up? For OBOD and BDO, there are no tools or ways to set up ritual space required for all rituals; tools and space set up are determined by the nature of the specific ritual. However, the metaphor of meeting within a grove of trees is usually maintained and participants usually gather in a circle or a horseshoe shape.
RDNA ritual only requires that there be “waters of life” or “waters of sleep” and a container to hold it and a sacrificial branch. ADF ritual requires a representation of a well (for example, a pan, a basin, a cauldron), of fire (such as a fire pit or fire bowl, or one or more candles, if inside), and the world tree (a pole or branch or, perhaps, an actual tree) and usually a sacrificial branch or other sacrificial items. One of the groves local to my area also has altars for the realms of land, sea and sky or for ancestors, nature spirits and Gods, depending on the cosmology used in a particular ritual.
Both Keltrian ritual and AODA ritual are much more elaborate. Both use an array of ritual tools and items, set up in a particular way.
Western Magical Tradition Influence
A few of the “blanket statements” I’ve heard about Druid practices center around the acceptance or rejection of Western Magical Tradition within Druidry. Western Magical Tradition includes some remnants of ancient magical practices shaped and reinterpreted through various strands of mysticism, including Judeo-Christian mysticism. Some Druid groups incorporate elements of the Western Magical Tradition, while others have consciously rejected the tradition.
AODA is especially influenced by Western Magical Tradition within its prescribed rituals. A protective circle is cast, creating a place between the worlds, negative influences are banished and the traditional four elements are called into the circle. In older OBOD rituals, the influence of Western Magical tradition is strong as well, though newer OBOD rituals are more influenced by Reconstructionist ideas and show hybridization between the two trends. BDO rituals, as exemplified by Orr and Shallcrass, also show hybridization between Reconstructionist ideas and by Western Magical Tradition.
On the other hand, RDNA, ADF and Keltrian ritual show little influence by Western Magical Tradition and, in the case of ADF, a conscious effort to reject Western Magical Tradition seems to have been made. The basic RDNA ritual was derived from Episcopalian liturgy. ADF and Keltrian ritual works with the concept of the three realms of Land, Sea and Sky or Otherworld, Middle World, Underworld, or some other tripartite cosmology, rather than using the traditional four element/direction associations.
What Ritual Calendars Are Used?
So, when are rituals performed? OBOD, BDO, ADF and the Henge of Keltria all follow the Neo-pagan 8-festival ritual calendar. AODA officially celebrates the solstices and equinoxes with the Celtic cross-quarter days being optional, while RDNA celebrates the Celtic cross-quarter days with the solstices and equinoxes being optional.
The Henge of Keltria also has two lunar rituals, the Mistletoe Rite, celebrated on the 6th night of the moon and the initiates-only Vervain Rite, celebrated on the 3rd quarter of the moon. There are also two Keltrian yearly feasts, the Feast of Age and the Feast of Remembrance.
Who May Attend Rituals?
Now that you know a little bit about the rituals, would it be possible for a nonmember to attend these rituals? For most rituals, there are few or no restrictions in any of the groups as to whether you need to be a member or an initiate to attend rituals. ADF seasonal rituals are emphatically open to the public, but individual groves may have restricted lunar or other rituals. Keltrian rituals, except initiations and the Vervain Rite are also officially open to non-initiates. Likewise, Reformed Druid rituals are open to all comers. AODA restricts only its initiations, confirmations and elevations to persons of the appropriate degree, but its seasonal rituals may be attended by nonmembers. OBOD rituals, except initiations, are not restricted to members, but individual groves or seed groups may decide to restrict rituals to members only. Chances are even then that a nonmember may be invited to attend. BDO frequently hosts open rituals that are open to all, but individual groves may have private rituals.
The Ritual section continues