Planning Ahead

Halloween is nearly upon us, and Samhain after that, and so thoughts of our loved ones who have passed before us will be strong within us. Not just the human ones, I honor the many pets I’ve had throughout the years at Samhain, and I know I’m not the only one. Skip Ellison, our own Arch Druid, recently posted a link to a site that honors pets that have passed away, including his own cat Yoda. As a nature religion (sort of) and an ancestor-worshiping religion, it makes sense to me to honor our dead animal friends, so anyone attending our Samhain rite should feel free to bring altar items to honor the animal dead, and to call out to them when we invited the Ancestors to be there in the circle with us.

On a related note, did you know that you too will one day be an Ancestor? It’s true! Curse this human intellect of ours, we do know that we are mortal and will one day pass away ourselves. I don’t know that I have any brilliant insight to share about that that you haven’t worked out for yourselves. As an orthopraxic religion, we don’t expect all of our members to agree on any one belief about the nature of deity or how the universe works, including what happens to us after we die. The ancient Indo-European cultures we study certainly didn’t agree on any one view of the afterlife either. Even within one ancient culture as we define it, you can get a wide range of beliefs. Some ancient Greeks believed that the shades of the dead went to the realm of Hades, while others believed in reincarnation. We moderns certainly don’t agree one what happens to us after we die, so why would the ancients have done so?

One thing I do know, though, is that we will eventually die, and that those who survive us will want to have some kind of funeral or memorial service for us. Some people say that funerals are for the living instead of the dead. As someone who practices ancestor worship, I don’t agree with that sentiment, though I do think funerals need to address the needs of the living as well as the dead. Either way, funeral planning is important, and something I don’t think most neo-Pagans have spent enough time thinking about. To that end, our Grove has a funeral planning worksheet on our Web site, and I encourage everyone out there to use it, whether you’re in our Grove or not. If you don’t have a priest or priestess or other clergy-type person who would be responsible for officiating your funeral, you can go over it with your family and friends to make sure they know what you would want them to do.

Next week, I’ll write something cheery involving bunnies. >8)

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

Samhain Is Coming, The Pumpkin’s Getting Fat

Night is falling earlier every day, the leaves are finally changing color and letting gravity pull them down, the Lions have lost all six of their games… Yep, autumn is definitely passing, and we approach the midpoint of the season, the big ol’ neo-Pagan holiday that everyone knows and loves, Samhain! Samhain is traditionally a time to honor the Ancestors, since we believe that the “veil between the worlds” is thinnest at this time of year, and thus they are easier to contact. I don’t think that this is a universal constant among cultures that honor their dead (Germanic tradition does their own version of this holiday at the end of April, for instance) (and then there’s the whole “how do people handle this in the Southern Hemisphere” question, but that’s a whole other topic), but having grown up in farm country, I know that this is the time of year when farmers have to make the difficult decision about which animals they can afford to keep alive through the winter, and which ones need to be put down. So death must have been very much on the minds of everyone in an ancient culture that relied heavily on animal husbandry for its survival, and even in our modern society, we non-farmers still hold this season’s association with death and the Otherworld. (And of course the plants and the leaves on the trees die in the autumn as well, but around here those happen several weeks before Samhain, and I’d argue that we note the deaths of animals more than the deaths of plants. That may just be me, of course.)

Over the fourteen years that SLG has been doing Samhain rituals, we’ve done them a number of different ways. The first few were indoors and during the day, which seems bizarre to me now, but there it is. My first Samhain was in 1996, the last indoor one we did, with Marae Price dressing up as Mannanan and visiting us in the ritual circle, looking way too much like Santa Claus for me to take it very seriously. The following Samhain, we held the rite at Botsford at night, decorating the nemeton and the pathways with luminaria (a tradition we still continue to this day) and using dry ice to fill the nemeton with mist, which would have been a much better effect if it had lasted more than ten minutes. (Experts at special effects, we are not.) Still, opening the nemeton up as a space to which our Ancestors could travel, then processing there ourselves in the dark and spending time with them was very special. We’ve done variations throughout the years, like having someone dressed as Death selecting us at random and each of us processing alone and silently, or using the Ancestor doll (aka “Uncle Fester”) as a focus point for the spirits to use, but the core idea of traveling to the Otherworld to be with our Ancestors has remained a constant. We also honor Mannanan mac Lir, the Grove’s Gatekeeper deity, as the one who take the living the the land of the dead, and vice versa.

Our other Samhain ritual tradition began in 1998, after a rather disastrous Summer Solstice rite where we attempted to celebrate the marriage of Lugh and Ana at completely the wrong time of year. Our cosmology tells us that Ana spends the summer with Aren and then returns to Lugh at Samhain, so even beyond the rather silly idea of doing a wedding ritual for our gods, why were we doing it in the summer? Partly it was because we didn’t have any better ideas as to what we could do at Summer Solstice, since it wasn’t a big holiday for the ancient Irish. (We’ve fixed that by honoring both Bel and Danu at both solstices each year.) And partly because, well, we didn’t know any better. At the follow An Bruane, we went up to Big Lake and spent time meditating with Ana to figure out what to do. The answer that came to me seemed so obvious that it shouldn’t have required a meditation session to come up with it: why not honor (not force) Lugh and Ana’s reunion at Samhain, as the Grove cosmology suggests? Well, there would certainly be an issue with not honoring Mannanan and the Ancestors on their holiday, especially when Samhain is the only rite that a lot of non-Grove members attend every year, and would we really expect them to keep coming back year after year for a Lugh and Ana rite? But the solution to that seemed just as obvious to me. If Samhain is our biggest High Day of the year, why not just do two rites? We had the whole afternoon open, with nothing happening except keeping the flame burning at the Fire Circle and getting the ritual space set up, so why not add an afternoon rite for Lugh and Ana?

And thus was born the family-friendly (not children’s, family-friendly!) afternoon rite for Lugh and Ana, followed by the evening rite for the Ancestors and Mannanan. Some people come to one, some to the other, and some to both. And it’s worked very well for us for nearly ten years now. If you’d like to help us plan our rites, our Liturgists’ Roundtables are October 21st and November 4th at Rodney and Liz’s house. The rites will be on November 8th, or the 9th if it rains on the 8th. Or snows. No, just kidding about that, but do dress warmly! For directions and such, you can always visit:

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

Sometimes You Gotta Grin and Bear It

Sorry, no profound words of Druidical wisdom are coming to me this evening.  I considered writing about Samhain coming up, but it seems a bit early for that, when the rituals aren’t until November 8th.  Oh, but now probably is a good time to say why we’re not doing Samhain on the 1st: Because that would put Fire Watch on the 31st, and we never schedule any Grove event on Halloween, because when we schedule events, we actually want people to, y’know, show up for them.  Most of us take part in the “secular” variation of our Samhain holiday, between trick-or-treating, passing out candy to the people who go trick-or-treating, or when the 31st falls on a Friday, costume parties.  Besides, this way we can get all the people who attend other groups’ rituals but don’t want to attend two rituals in one weekend to come to ours!

So ’til next week, here’s a small article I wrote about Samhain five years ago for Shining Lakes News, to get us into a Samhainy mood!

Back in 1997, we were doing our Grove’s Samhain rite in the dark at Botsford’s Recreational Preserve. This was our first Samhain outside; before then we had been holding them in the afternoon at the Friends’ House. The luminaria lit the path down to the ritual space, we invited our Ancestors to be with us, and we all took turns sharing our memories of them. One of our members talked about her brother and sang a song that was a favorite of his, “Waltzing With Bears.” As she getting ready to sing, I heard a voice in the dark, close to where I was standing, whisper: “Oh please, not the bear song again.”

Now, this is probably not a song that will make most people’s Top Five lists, but it was certainly meaningful to her. Sure, I suppose she could have stayed at home that night and sung the song by herself, but that’s not the point of participating in a group Samhain ritual. I could stay at home and honor my Ancestors all by my lonesome too-well, actually, I do. And I hope everyone who’s reading this does something for their own Ancestors, on a regular basis and a little something special for Samhain. A plate of your teacher’s favorite food, your grandmother’s special incense, or just plain old booze-all make good offerings.

But in a group ritual, your offerings take on additional meaning because they are shared. Let’s face it, there are things you can do in a group that you just can’t do on your own. You can socialize with old friends and new folks, you can learn new things, you can have some yummy food that you’ve never tried before. If you do a ritual with others, then you’re more likely to experience something new and unexpected. And if you want to do high-energy work, well, you tell me which ritual is going to have more energy-the one with one person or the one with forty?

Yes, group ritual is never as neat and tidy as solitary ritual. Nor should it be. Is it really so bad if those new folks you meet never become your friends, or if all of that yummy food isn’t really that yummy?
Now remember, these words are being written by a computer geek who could very happily spend all of his time staying at home reading and playing computer games, but has chosen the more difficult task of creating something with the help of others. We find ourselves at the beginning of a religious movement that I believe will make the world a better place for decades, if not centuries. Sitting through the bear song seems a small price to pay for such a reward.

Yours in service to the Kindreds and the Grove,
Rev. Rob Henderson, Senior Druid

Reflections on Our “Altar”native Religion

(Yep, it’s rerun time again. My writey-time must again be devoted to getting my Clergy Training Program done, lest I risk losing my clergy status. New stuff next week! Maybe I can even use some of my CTP as an article here, if I’m creative enough. -R)

Just before every High Day rite we do, I walk around the nemeton (or the room at the Ed Center or the Friends Meeting House) to look at the various altars. Partly I’m just making sure that everything is set up correctly, because I’m the Senior Druid and that’s part of my job. But I also consider it a part of my personal ritual preparation. Our altars have evolved over the course of the 15 years that we’ve been around, and being around them reminds me of the relationships our Grove has built with our Gods during that time, and the many people who have attended our many rituals.

Over on the Shining Ones altar, I see the statues we got for Lugh, Bríd, and Aren (well, it’s a statue of Dionysus, but he looks a lot like our vision of Aren) that we bought from Sacred Source several years ago. We ran a pledge drive to get donations to replace our old statues, which had gotten chipped throughout the years. (Terra cotta statues may be a lot lighter than marble ones, but they sure don’t last as long!) Our current statues are looking a little beaten up, but we can probably wait a year or two before needing to replace them. I also see the puffy stuffed sun that was designed to be attached to a child’s school backpack zipper, to make it easier to open. I saw it on my journey back from Muin Mound Madness in 1998, and since we didn’t have any kind of representation for Bel on our Shining Ones altar at the time, I thought it would be perfect.

On the Nature Spirits altar, of course, we have the Stag Head, which Fox carved for us back in the early days of our Spring Hunt. I remember when he, Kestrel, and I went out to the place where we would end up placing our permanent shrine to Mannanan, and did a group meditation to discover what symbol the Stag God wanted us to know him by. The one we came up with is currently painted on the Stag Head—take a look the next time you see it. If you look closely, you may notice that the ears aren’t quite finished! But I can’t complain too much, as my own woodcarving ability is limited to whittling small sticks out of slightly larger sticks.

For the last few years, our nemeton has had a herm set up as a space for people to make offerings to the Greek gods. We set it up at our Lughnasadh festival back in 2006, and we’ve used it in our High Day rites, as well as the Greek rites we’ve done at our Lughnasadhs. It’s a simple wooden post adorned with a wire caduceus (the wand of Hermes), with a flat wooden board at the base for offerings. I think we still need to come up with a portable version for our indoor winter rites, maybe that can be an An Bruane project this fall.

And with Samhain coming up, how can I not think about the Ancestors altar? The fake skull, that I always call “Mr. Skullhead” (10 cartoon geek points to those who can identify the source) sits prominently on top, and the plaque with the names of our Grove member’s own Ancestors stands beneath it. Spaced around it are the items that our members have brought in to remind them of their Ancestors, including the piggy—er, tiger-bank that my grandmother made for me when I was three years old, the tobacco favored by Candy Brockman’s father, and the bottle of whiskey that was donated to us before I even joined SLG. I honestly don’t know who donated it to us, but I guess the Gods know, and that’s what’s important. The glittery altar cloth—as well as the golden one on the Shining Ones altar—was donated by Gen Stoyak; she and I picked them out at a store in Salem, MA, whose pagan staff were happy to know their cloths would grace druid altars 800 miles away.

Over here is the well, which is—well, a hole in the ground. If not for the ring of stones around its edge, I imagine we’d have people falling in on a regular basis. (At our indoor rites we use a nice ceramic bowl Rodney Cox got for us on one of his own festival trips.) We put offerings of silver into the Well at each rite. And every four years or so, we dig through the accumulated dirt, sort out the silver, and rebury it at the bottom. I can only wonder what archaeologists would make of the 14 years’ worth of offerings if they excavated it!

On the opposite side of our circle is our fire pit, where we kindle the ritual flame and make offerings of oil, tobacco, grain, and pretty much anything that burns. If you’ve been to one of our Beltaine rites, you’ll certainly remember the May King or Queen, and a lot of other people, jumping over it.

And in between the two is our bilé, the pole that acts as the Tree during our rite to connect the worlds. For indoor rites, we have a portable one that’s about eight feet tall. In the nemeton, the pole we have now is around 15 feet tall; it used to be about 20 but time has taken its toll. Back in our first year we cut the bilé from an aspen tree, which has multiple trunks growing from the same root system, so one trunk can be cut without killing the whole tree. The bilé holds our Maypole ribbons at Beltaine, and our Stag dancers rub their horns against it at Fall Equinox, which either sounds a lot dirtier than it should, or sounds exactly as dirty as it should.

I could go on at length about every last item on all of our altars, but this newsletter only has so much space. I just wanted to remind everyone who reads this that they are welcome to bring their own altar items to our High Day rites, and place them on our Grove altars, for permanent use or just for the duration of the rite. With November approaching, I especially want to remind people to bring items that remind them of their own Ancestors to either or both of our Samhain rites. It’s a great way not only to help you remember your own Ancestors, but also to help the rest of us get to know them as well.

Yours in service to the Kindreds and the Grove,
Rev. Rob Henderson, Senior Druid