The Biggest (Or Second Biggest) Ritual I’ve Ever Been To

I don’t get to travel much these days, well not that I ever did that much traveling, but with as low-paying a job as I have these days, I do even less now. As I prepared for an overnight trip to the Columbus area this past weekend for the big public Lughnasadh ritual of Three Cranes Grove, I realized that I hadn’t been out of the state since last October’s ADF Clergy retreat. Given that I live less than an hour’s drive from both another state and another country, that’s kinda sad. An old Grovemate gave me a needed reality check when I posted about the strangeness of traveling to Columbus and replied, “Did you mean Colombia?”

So after a morning walking around in the heat (because I couldn’t afford to take a day off from work for the trip) and a trip home to shower (because I didn’t want to punish anyone by sitting in a car with them for three hours after walking around all morning in the heat), I went to Rodney’s house and we drove down to Paul and Irisa’s home. The trip was, well, pretty thoroughly uneventful. I don’t think we stopped once. We actually got to their house before they did (they were still at the festival), but Irisa was kind enough to tell me the door code so we could wait inside for them. (Sorry to say, yes, it was hotter in Ohio than it has been here.) Once they got back, their hospitality was grand enough to get us all KFC, for which Rod and I were most grateful! Ian and Sue arrived a bit later (they’d stayed even later at the festival) and we all talked for a while before heading to bed. I went to bed earlier than the rest, thanks to my early rising for work, I’ve no idea what Ian and Rodney plotted after I went upstairs!

In the morning, after a quick breakfast, we all headed off to the Dublin Irish Festival super-early to make sure Paul got there with his share of the ritual items. I watched the set-up for a bit, but didn’t want to bother them in the middle of their pre-ritual panic (I know how I get before leading a ritual, and mine are less than one-tenth the size) so I wandered around the fairgrounds and looked at the empty booths and not-yet-inflated bouncy castles. Not that everything there was dormant, though: the buzz of cicadas was a steady background sound throughout the morning. Paul even had one land on the upper left of his shirt, apparently volunteering to be a brooch!

As the appointed time of 10:15 drew nearer, more and more people gathered under the pavilion. There was seating for over 200, but I wondered if it was going to be enough. (Spoiler: it wasn’t.) The various Cranes who didn’t have ritual parts were busy handing out orders of service and answering questions, and a few of them directed people to me and Rod who had traveled from places closer to Ann Arbor. Hopefully we’ll see them soon at our own events!

At around 10 Missy performed some of her songs and Ian drummed along to them while the others did, well, whatever it was they did right before the rite, I wasn’t watching them. >8) And then, after a few festival-mandated announcements from Leesa, the ritual proper began. It was, well, amazing. Now any time that someone tries to console me about a low ritual turnout by telling me that more people doesn’t automatically mean a better ritual, it’s not going to work. (Not that it ever did.) I seldom make a big deal about “energy” in ritual for many reasons (I prefer to say “flow” or Ian’s term of choice “juice”) but yeah, having the energy of hundreds of people there made a huge difference in how everything felt. Was it because the ritual performers stepped up their game because of it, was it because so many of them had never experienced a pagan ritual, or was it because almost none of us had been to one like this? All of those, plus, I think, the stronger presence of the Shining Ones when called to such an impressive ritual. The offering to Lugh, Michael’s reading of the story when he first came to Tara, was one I’m familiar with, but it was still very powerful to hear it there. And when Michael and Seamus walked around the pavilion (and outside it, many dozens of people were standing around and watching) and aspurged everyone, when those water drops hit me, I really felt something powerful.

Maybe the best part, though, was seeing just how well ADF’s ritual format works in a large setting. Okay, I figured it would, but it’s still good to see it and confirm it. There were a few modifications, like just having the folks with ritual roles do the processional and not having everyone do individual praise offerings, but they still worked. Seeing one of our rituals performed in a public setting like that, with so many people seated there and so many more standing in the back because there wasn’t room, I really felt like I was watching Isaac’s vision of ADF come to pass right before my eyes. If you can possibly make arrangements to be there when they do it next year (and assuming they’re asked to do it again, which seems likely), you owe it to yourself to be there.

But all good things must come to an end, and once the ritual was done, there was a festival to see! First we made the shortish walk to Bob Evans, where I’m told most Crane events end up sooner or later. (And given that seven of their members arrived shortly after we did, I think they must be right!) After that we returned to the festival site and checked out the historical recreation area for demonstrations of weaving and mead making, plus a chance to meet the woman who insisted that the straw thingies she was making were St. Bridget’s Crosses and not Bríd Crosses as my Grovemates had told her the day before. (I’ll let one of them tell that story.) Then a concert by the Tartan Terrors, and by that point it was hot enough to call it a day. (Why do I spend so many of my days off from my outside-in-the-heat job being outside in the heat?) Rodney and I had another uneventful trip and discussed how we can get our Grove to the point where we could even consider pulling off a ritual like that. Short answer: Look for a new enhanced version of my “Modern Druidry” class this fall, including meditation technique and basic home ritual practice.

And even though the summer “blah” season of low Grove activity is still in full swing, the power of that ritual should easily carry me through to September, and the renewed interest and attendance (plus comfortable temperatures) that it will bring.

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

PS – Final attendance figure for the rite” 400 (my own rough count during, also Seamus’ count), or 275 (Nick’s count), or 500 (Paul’s count). Let’s just say it was a lot.

PPS – My first non-solitary Pagan ritual was in 1990, led by Starhawk right after she gave a lecture at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, and held in front of the building. That was around 300 people, hence the title of the article.

The Most Expensive Of High Days

Lughnasadh has always been an odd High Day for our Grove. From 1996 (when I joined the Grove) through 2002, we used to hold a huge festival at a conference center that drew people from all around the continent. It was fun, it was intense, and it required months of planning – and many hundreds of dollars. Of course, in the ‘90’s, we had members with good paying jobs and got enough in donations to keep the festival going. Once that ended, we had a few Lughnasadhs at Gallup Park in Ann Arbor, which I kind of liked, but I know that some others felt the venue was a little too public. (I’ve seldom been concerned about being too public a Pagan!) So from 2005 on, we’ve been doing it at our usual outdoor ritual space at the Botsford Recreational Preserve, which isn’t as huge a space as we used to have (our attempts at holding Championship Games in the preserve were, er, a bit sad) but certainly some place we can do ritual.

Unfortunately, compared to our earlier Lughnasadhs with sixty to a hundred people in attendance (having an ArchDruid in one’s Grove does help convince people to show up), our recent attendance has never been huge. Blame it on the heat, when even the outdoorsiest of Pagans think twice about spending a whole day outside. Blame it on vacation time, when people are out of town to visit relatives or sightsee or even attend larger festivals in other parts of the country. (Like everyone used to do for ours!) It’s not a problem unique to Pagans: my dad’s Unitarian church shuts down completely for six weeks in the summer because they can’t get enough people to justify running the air conditioning. But it sure is frustrating to spend just as much time on this High Day – actually more, since we do workshops and extra rituals as well as the main rite – and have half the attendance and half the donations to cover our expenses.

Maybe the worst part is that everything actually ran pretty well this year. Fire Lighting went fine on Friday night. The only other event on Friday was Gen’s Aphroditre ritual, which I can’t say anything about because it was for women only and I don’t self-identify as a woman, even if that means I don’t get to attend a Hellenic ritual. I think they got started a bit after 10, and I wanted to stay until they got back to the Fire Circle, but right around midnight and after falling asleep a few times in my chair, I said “forget this” and headed home.

The next day, I got to the site a bit before noon to do setup. The trustee of Don’s estate had me sign a contract so we could use the site (apparently he woke everyone up at 8:30 demanding to know where I was, and that must have been so much fun for them to experience), much different than how Don ran it, but hey, at least we still get to use the site. Rod arrived early as well, so the nemeton was set up in plenty of time. Rod did a workshop on divination, plus some readings for the attendees, at least in part because he needed to do divinations for others as part of his ADF Initiate Program work. Sean was going to do a children’s craft project, but other than Dylan, there were no children there, so that didn’t happen. (A pity, the cloud windsock things looked very good.)

So with the eight of us who’d been at Fire Watch the night before (not counting Gen, who was still at work) plus three more folks who’d arrived that afternoon, it was ritual time. The rite went very well, I thought, with good offerings from us, another impressive display of our chosen Champion defeating Balor with a spear – well, a pointy stick – and a good omen (Hagalaz – Tiwaz – Kenaz, the defeat of disruption (Balor) through honor bringing us inspiration) and good mead/juice for the Return Blessing. A good time was had by all who were there. But when you’re used to twenty-five people coming to your rituals, eleven can’t help but feel like you’re doing something wrong.

The rest of the evening also went well, with Gen joining us and bringing hot dogs for the potluck. (Thank the gods, all anyone had brought were sweets and potato chips. I seriously thought I was going to have to go out for Chinese or something.) Sean talked for a bit about his brewing techniques, and then I led a Hekate Deipnon ritual so we could bless the food that we’d collected for HARC. The rite took like ten minutes, which is about right for what is traditionally a small household rite, but after the two hour plus ritual the night before, I felt like I should have stretched it out or something. Anyway, getting done an hour before sunset did give us plenty of time to clean the site without having to return in the morning to finish up, so that worked out.

So what to make of our teeny tiny Lughnasadh this year? Actually, an attendance of twelve is exactly the same as we’ve had the two previous years. And the money we got this year was around $50, which sadly is more than we usually get for this one, even though we have to pay $80 for the site rental. Obviously we can’t just not do Lughnasadh: besides being the High ay for our Grove’s tribal father god, there’s also the matter of ADF bylaws requiring us to do a holiday around the beginning of August. But unless something very unusual happens in the next year, I think we’ll just have to move this ritual to a site that doesn’t cost as much as Botsford. Sure, whether it’s a public park or someone’s back yard, it won’t be as nice as our nemeton in the old growth forest, but if we can’t get people to come to anything we do in August, then we need to make adjustments accordingly. I want this Grove to still be running long after I’m gone, and we can’t do that by losing money that consistently.

Anyway, so I don’t end this on a down note, check back next week when I’ll be reporting on my trip to Ohio to attend Three Cranes Grove’s Druid Service at the Dublin Irish Festival. Over three hundred people were there last year, and I can’t wait to see what an ADF ritual of that size looks like!

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