Yesterday was the sort of day that made me wonder whether doing our Samhain rituals outdoors is really a good idea at all. I don’t think the temperature ever got above 45, even when the sun was out. The good news is that, except for some misting in between the rites, it didn’t rain at all until about ten minutes after we finished cleaning up the site. The better news is that it’s even colder today, and raining as of 5:30, and the forecast says possible snow in a few hours (which would have been right in the middle of our evening rite), so not postponing the rite to Sunday was definitely the right call.
Really, though, I should start this article off on Friday night, when fourteen of us visited the pre-ritual fire at various points throughout the evening. I got to the site right around sunset at 5:20 PM, and lit the fire that would become our Grove Flame for the coming six months. I then waited until 6:45 when I had to leave to go get Gen from work, and that’s when Jacqui got there and we actually blessed the fire. (Not that the lack of people was hugely surprising, most of my Grovemates’ employers aren’t in the habit of changing their work schedules to compensate for early sunsets!) By the time Gen and I got back at around 8, there were about twelve folks there. We members of the newly elected Leadership Council took our oath, and then Gen and I stayed for a while before heading home to get ready for the big day.
The Kellers were nice enough to stay the night tending the fire, and also helped us avert what could have been the biggest disaster of the day. I thought we’d given Don Botsford, the owner of the nature preserve where we hold our outdoor rituals, a copy of our schedule back in September. Apparently we hadn’t, and he didn’t know we were coming out this weekend. This wasn’t a big problem for him, but some of the campers who’ve been staying in the preserve this year have been setting up their tents in our nemeton. Don has been warning them in advance when we were coming, and they moved the tents out of the circle for that weekend. This time, thought, the tents were still there on Friday night. Uh oh. I spent part of my Friday night working out what other spots in the preserve could hold a temporary circle big enough for us. Fortunately, they did find out the next morning that we were there, and Sean Keller helped them break down their campsite and move it, which may well be more physical work than I did for the entire weekend. (And I did a lot of physical work this weekend. >8)
Anyway, crisis averted, we got the nemeton and fire circle set up and ready right at 2 PM. We never start right on time, of course, since we always get stragglers, but this time I didn’t want to wait a huge amount of time, partly because it was cold and partly because we had another ritual to prepare for later. Epona, ADF’s Upper Midwest Regional Druid, managed to bring her family to one of our rituals for the first time since they moved to Michigan in 2002, which was quite an honor! Her children and the Keller’s children were the only ones at the “family friendly” rite, though. I guess I can’t blame any parents out there for not wanting their children to be out in those temperatures, I know Gen’s niece and nephew wanted to be there but their parents wouldn’t let them, and I hope they enjoyed seeing Madagascar 2 instead. We did our usually afternoon rite, with a fairly simple script (this is the only ritual of the year for which we use a script) and not a lot of emphasis on “building energy” or the like. As offerings, we decorated the nemeton with roses and shiny garlands and such, appropriate for both the wedding of Lugh and Ana, and the Ancestors rite we’d be doing that night. We also sang a song to Lugh and Ana. The omen was good: Uruz – Raido – Isa, and I know what most of you must be thinking with Isa showing up, but Rod interpreted it as a bridge, which we would travel across with strength. That ritual done, we headed back to the fire circle to eat, do our raffle, and prepare for the evening rite.
Eleven of the twelve folks who were staying for both rituals went out to buy food and other supplies, leaving me and Candy to get started folding paper bags for our traditional luminaria. Anne showed up at this point and looked very worried, thinking that only two people had been to the first rite! >8) Folks got back from shopping, I helped Gen set up electric lights around the outside of the nemeton to help with our visibility issues in the darkness (setting up the lights was semi-easy, setting up several hundred feet of extension cord from the trampoline building to get there was not), and things progressed. Indeed, by our official 6 PM starting time we had a large crowd, the luminaria were being set up, and everything was ready! Er, except one thing. Jacqui, the ritual leader, wasn’t there yet. She’d had some delays at home and didn’t get there until about 20 after. But still, we seldom start the rite before 6:30 anyway, so no need to panic. Then she went to get a copy of the Order of Service, and I had to remind her that we don’t do orders of service for the night ritual because nobody can read them in the dark anyway. Maybe this was when I should have started to panic?
Flash back to our first Liturgists’ Roundtable, when Jacqui, Rod, Gen and I talked about ideas for the ritual. Jacqui said she wanted to lead it, and I said sure, since I knew she’d led ADF rites before, even if she hadn’t done so recently. We talked about passing the Ancestor doll around, as we’d done for the last few Samhain evening rites, and having people ask their Ancestors to use the doll as a focus if they needed help getting to the ritual space. We talked about making the ritual “more magic(k)al”, and to that end having people dress up as fairies and animals, and treating the processional to the nemeton as a journey through the Otherworld within a Faerie context. I admitted to being a little worried about this – this is a ritual where we get a lot of first timers, and as I put it, “I don’t get a lot of complaints from the new folks that our rituals just aren’t silly enough” – but I liked the idea enough to go with it. We also decided to move the next Roundtable forward one week so it wouldn’t conflict with what might be the most historic Election Day of our lives. When doing the schedule last year, I knew that the Roundtable on the 4th would be on Election Day, but for my entire adult life I’ve voted before work, so it honestly never occurred to me that this would be a scheduling conflict for some. Okay, no big deal, we moved the Roundtable to the 27th.
Then the 27th came. Rod, Gen, and I were there, but no Jacqui. It turned out she was too ill to come, so I went home and (several days late, I admit) sent out our notes so she could go over them and get her liturgical worksheet together. (Yeah, there was big mistake number one, I thought Jacqui was going to put together her own worksheet and we could go over it before the ritual. Memo to myself: Never assume that again.)
So it’s time for the ritual, I ask Jacqui if she has the roles covered, she says yes, and so down we process from the Fire Circle to the Nemeton. Jacqui doesn’t know the words to the songs we’ve agreed to use, and my voice is still fluctuating between “on” and “off” because of this cold I can’t shake, but we manage well enough. We get to the circle, and Jacqui has us all join hands, close our eyes, and do some visualization. Oh no. I’ve never been a fan of guided meditation in group ritual, especially when the temperature is below 40 F, but it’s a short unity thing, so I feel some relief. Then she starts opening the portals, having us do random call and response with short phrases like “open the well” and “silver the tree”. This actually goes well, but I’m scratching my head and wondering. Ana? Allies? Bardic Invocation? How much of the ritual order are we skipping here? Then we did the Bardic call, so that was something at least. (The electric lights had gone out before the procession, and Gen had left the circle to find out why. Right after the Awen call was done, the light came back on. Sometimes the random chaos does make things better, I admit that. >8)
Then Jacqui went around the circle with the lantern and the rosemary wreath we were going to use as focus objects for the personal praise – well, so I thought. When we showed her where the Ancestor doll was before the rite, she mentioned something about acting as a conduit for the Ancestors, which I was okay with. I know that she’s an experienced Seer and if she says she can handle it, I believe her. What she didn’t do was get the doll. After a few people had gone, Gen leaned over to me and whispered, “I thought we were using the doll.” “Yeah, so did I. But I’m not stopping her in the middle of this.” I think Gen nodded, it was hard to tell in the dark. Not using the doll isn’t a hardship, I suppose, but for some of us it’s definitely taken on a special meaning at Samhain, and I know I felt its absence. What was worse is that Jacqui was asking people to name the Ancestors they wanted to be in the circle, and they were either whispering or talking too quietly for anyone to hear. I’ve always felt that the point of a Samhain ritual is to share your Ancestors with everyone else for the duration of the rite, and I didn’t feel that happening. Fortunately when it came around to our side of the circle, folks were speaking up a bit more, and it was easier to hear everyone. But yeah, this is one of the reasons I like passing the doll. People get that they need to address the entire group, not just the person before them. More stuff that I really wish we’d had a chance to go over during the planning.
And then when that was done, Jacqui threw the wreath into the fire, which was to be our main sacrifice. As I’m running through the ritual order in my head and trying to figure out what we’re doing for a main sacrifice instead of the wreath, Jacqui asks me and Rod if it’s time for the dance. “Um, what about the individual praise offerings?” “Oh, are we doing those?” Oh dear. The part of the ritual that brings non-Grove members to our rites, that makes people feel like the ritual means something to them even if they aren’t in ADF, the part of the ritual that several members had told me just that afternoon that they wanted to make sure they could take part in, and we nearly skipped it. Ay ay ay. I began the praise by remembering Natalie Jacobs, who earlier this year became (to my knowledge) the first former Grove member to pass away, and sent the lantern around the circle. (I really should have sung an Elvis Costello song for her, and am still kicking myself for not remembering our mutual love of his music when I could have.) As folks in the circle are talking about their Beloved Dead, from Paul telling a stupid (and nearly offensive, well not really) joke that his father loved, Valerie thanking the gods for her pregnancy, and others thanking whichever gods and spirits helped get Barack Obama elected, I really felt the group energy flowing. To me, the individual praise will always be the most magical part of our rites, moreso than any guided meditation or burnt offering could ever do. But maybe that’s just me.
So then we did the group praise, which was performing a Spiral Dance while I raspily tried to sing “Blood of the Ancients” while dancing, and somehow my larynx didn’t explode. >8) The spiral dance was a symbolic form of travel-and-return, in this case a journey to the Realm of the Dead and back, which was very nice, but would have been nicer if anyone besides the four ritual planners had known that that was the intent. I don’t mean to pick on Jacqui here, indeed this is probably the most common problem people have when they’re used to doing solitary or small group rituals and then try to lead a larger ritual, especially when some of the participants have literally never been to a pagan ritual before. A few words between ritual parts go a long way toward keeping the group mind intact and moving in the right metaphorical direction. But the dance was fun, and people enjoyed it.
So after this, Jacqui went to the fire and read the runes. I was surprised, since I thought we’d agreed that Rod was going to read the runes. Rod was apparently even more surprised, as he had actually completed his rune reading before he realized that Jacqui was doing one. He came over to me and whispered, “I thought I was reading the runes.” “Yeah, so did I.” “Oh well. At least my reading was good too.” I think the reading Jacqui for was Iera – Gebo – Berkano? I’m not sure, because she talked very quietly when she was saying it, and was facing away from the circle when doing so. Another common problem among ritual leaders. I’ve seen on our Akron (Ohio) protogrove’s mailing list that they’re going to offer a course on developing a ritual voice, and after yesterday I’m thinking that that would be a good idea for us as well. To paraphrase an old legal saying, “Ritual must not only be done, it must be heard to be done.”
After that, we made our announcements (including my usual plea for donations since running a raffle in the dark is difficult at best), Valerie held the cauldron as our most recent mother, and then we said our goodbyes to the Ancestors and other spirits, and headed back up to the Fire Circle. There was lots of food and lots of talk, and people stayed a good deal later than I would have expected given the temperature. (But hey, no rain!) We headed down to the circle to clean up early – while we usually wait until the following morning to clean up the site in the sunlight, the predictions of rain and possible snow convinced us that we needed to risk doing it in the dark. That went well enough, and my additional thanks to everyone who helped us out with that. We got Gen’s car packed to the roof and left the site about five minutes after the rain started. Phew!
So, what to make of the evening rite? Usually I’m a fairly hands-off guy when it comes to letting other people run ritual. I’d like to keep on being a fairly hands-off guy, really, but I see now what the risks are with that. And here I was mildly worried about the fairy wings, which in the end I thought worked out really well. But on the biggest ritual night of the year, with those new folks and those one-ritual-a-year folks in attendance, I realize now that we came across as something twenty-seven times worse than “silly”. We came off as unprepared. We looked like we didn’t know how to run a ritual. And that’s going to sting for quite some time. The fact that the ritual had any good energy in it at all just shows how powerful and meaningful this time of year is for us, and that our Ancestors and our Gods are willing to meet us half-way so to speak. But the next time someone other than me or Rod leads the ritual, we’re going to have to be a lot more careful in the planning, and make darn sure we block out the whole rite and go over it before hand. It just goes to show, even after fifteen years we still have things to learn as we continue the Grand Experiment.
So were you at either of the rituals? Agree with my assessment? Totally disagree? Come on, we could use some comments here. >8)
Blessings to all, and I hope your Samhain was happy and filled with Ancestors!
Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF
EDIT: On a related note, remember how I mentioned that we couldn’t do a raffle for the evening rite, so I asked folks to donate money if at all possible? Well, between the afternoon rite raffle and the donations we got in the evening (and no, I don’t know how much came from which, it all went into the same box), we pulled in a grand total of… $33. This for a ritual where the site rental costs us $100. It’s very frustrating when people tell me how much better the outdoor rituals are than our indoor ones, and yet for the indoor ones we almost always manage to cover our costs. I’ll throw in my thanks here to the people who brought some of the ritual supplies to help keep our costs down, including the Kellers, Candy, Dot, Kim, Gen and myself. But if this keeps up, we’re seriously going to have to consider abandoning our nemeton and doing our rituals in public parks instead. At least we can afford those.