Initiations and rites of passage

When you talk about initiation in Pagan circles it is often understood to be a ceremony that takes place within a particular path and changes your status within that path in some way. Initiation can also be about beginnings and some initiations are not formal or even planned but situations or events that change you. I have experienced both types of initiation.

Initiation:
“1. formal admission or acceptance into an organization or club, adult status in one’s community or society, etc.
2. the ceremonies or rites of admission. Compare rite of passage.
3. the act of initiating.
4. the fact of being initiated.”
(from http://www.dictionary.com)

 

Initiate:
“1. to begin, set going, or originate: to initiate major social reforms.
2. to introduce into the knowledge of some art or subject.
3. to admit or accept with formal rites into an organization or group, secret knowledge, adult society, etc.
4. to propose (a measure) by initiative procedure:
to initiate a constitutional amendment.”
(from http://www.dictionary.com)

In March 1997, after hovering on the edges of Paganism for about seven years, I took the decision to dedicate myself to a Pagan path. In many ways that decision was my first initiation as it is a decision that changed my life. Inspired by a particular book and also using some materials I found online I wrote a solitary ritual for the Spring Equinox that year that included my self dedication. A year later, having joined the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), I carried out my first initiation rite as a Bard with OBOD. The initiation rites provided by OBOD allow for solitary initiation although those within active groves or able to attend OBOD events may well choose to have their initiations with others of the Order. That initiation too was one that changed my life because it was the start of my ongoing journey within the forest of Druidry but I didn’t feel any dramatic changes at the time. These two events and choices I made in later years have linked the Spring Equinox with initiations in my heart and mind even though I have also had initiations at other times of the year since then.

I continued to walk those first few years of my Pagan life with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and although I work in different ways now I will always hold a special place in my heart for OBOD. The structure of the materials I used in those years provided me with a good grounding in which to grow and change.

In November 2000 I became pregnant with my first child. My pregnancy went pretty well and in due course I had life’s initiation into parenthood. I still feel that no matter how much you think you are prepared for the changes your first child will bring you are wrong. It is an initiation of a very different type and comes with its own ordeals and rites of passage. Nothing can truly prepare you for the changes having a child brings. The change is not as dramatic the second time around but there is still a rite of passage involved for parents. We celebrate the birth of a child, we give gifts for the child, hold naming days but I don’t think we acknowledge the effect on the parents very well.

Rite of Passage:
“1. Anthropology. a ceremony performed to facilitate or mark a person’s change of status upon any of several highly important occasions, as at the onset of puberty or upon entry into marriage or into a clan.
2. any important act or event that serves to mark a passage from one stage of life to another.”
(from http://www.dictionary.com)

During my first pregnancy I had another form of initiation. By that time I had been a joint facilitator of a local Druid group and had been writing and facilitating group rituals for that group for about a year. Two members of that group died during the period of my pregnancy. Both had Pagan funerals and one of those, Insa’s, was my first experience of acting as celebrant for a rite of passage.

Being a celebrant for a rite of passage is an honour and a privilege. It’s also incredibly hard work and emotionally exhausting even for the lighter rites of passage like namings and weddings or handfastings. The hardest rites for me, and many others, are the funerals. Holding space for people to remember and grieve for a loved one requires walking along the knife edge between compassion and distance. You have to somehow maintain enough distance to allow you to lead that all important last service for the departed while also helping those grieving to feel the connection to the person they knew. If you didn’t know that person yourself then you have to draw a sense of them out from the stories you are told by family and close friends. If you did know them you have to put your relationship to one side to allow the person that others knew to come though. I still don’t know whether I find it harder to prepare a rite of passing for someone I knew or someone I didn’t know. I have done both more than once and the service for Insa was the first.

For a few years I carried out a range of Celebrant work including legal Pagan weddings and handfastings here in Scotland. I no longer hold the registration to do legal Pagan weddings as I chose to mostly give up my role as a Celebrant. I gave the work up because it requires a level of commitment and energy that owing to family needs I found increasingly difficult to maintain. I have been involved in a baby naming and carried out at least one funeral since I gave that work up but these are rare events now although as my children grow older maybe I will choose to return to this work.

I consider myself to be a Priest and I still use the term Druid. It is not formal initiations within a Druid Order that leads me to use the word Druid to describe myself and I’ve never had a formal rite of initiation as a Priest. I use these words because of personal experiences with deities and spirits. I am not the sort of Priest and Druid that leads a lot of ritual for others although I do some of that. I am not the sort of Priest and Druid that supports others in times of stress although I do some of that too. I am a Druid and a Priest because I serve my deities. I serve them in bringing up my children to be responsible and caring members of society. I serve them when I kneel in quiet contemplation at my altar. I serve them when I go about my daily life, doing my best to walk my truth. My service is not demanded of me but offered freely and with love. It is in fleeting moments of ecstasy, fear and awe that I have been initiated by the gods themselves into my role as Priest.

This type of initiation is one that is highly personal to each individual. It comes of personal experiences and personal relationships. It isn’t something that can be easily expressed or something that can be given to anyone else in a ritual. You can lead a ritual that can facilitate these types of experiences but you can’t promise them or give them to others yourself. If you have these types of experience you might choose to mark them in a rite of passage of some kind if you have a community you can do that with but you don’t need to do anything other than accept or reject the experience. Even rejection begins a new path.

Many initiations and rites of passage have some form of ordeal experience that takes place before the rite itself.  I challenge anyone who has arranged a wedding to say there aren’t any aspects of preparation that are an ordeal in some way.  Likewise however smoothly a birthing experience goes some aspect of it is almost certain to be an ordeal.  Ordeals before rites of passage or initiations do not have to be formal structured ones. Sometimes life just puts you into situations that are ordeals to get through and when you come out the other side you want to mark it with something.  I am wondering how many of us will want to mark the experience of this COVID-19 lockdown with a rite of passage of some form when we are able to gather with others again.

Spiritual routines in a changing world

I’ve seen a few blog posts and Facebook discussions about the difficulties in continuing religious and spiritual practice in the current world lockdown situation.  For various reasons I haven’t attended a group ritual for over six months now and I honestly don’t miss it.  I tried at Samhain but struggled with anxiety and emotional swings and although I had prepared the ritual I ended up not taking part and passing it to others to carry out. I haven’t truly enjoyed many group rituals for well over a year now.

For some people the social aspect of gathering for a ceremony also plays an important part but it doesn’t for me.  I do reasonably well socially if I have a set role, a set purpose to my being there, but I struggle otherwise.  It’s something I have come to accept about myself.  I have learnt how to work with my social anxiety to push through when I need to but doing so is tiring.  Give me a set role or purpose and I am totally different because I know the boundaries of my “part”.

What is very important to me spiritually are the solitary devotional practices that I have developed over the last few years.  There is a routine and rhythm to my devotions.  I make an offering each evening to at least one being.  The offerings are usually alcohol but not always.  Sometimes I will light incense or a candle but not every night.  I sit before the altar and the first step is to dip my finger in the blessed water I keep on my water beings shrine and touch it to my head saying “cleanse my mind that I may think clearly”. I touch my lips and throat with the water saying “cleanse my voice that I may speak truly” and then I touch over my heart saying “cleanse my heart that I may be filled with compassion”. I usually pour out the offering before I sit down so I then hold my hand over the goblet in question, as I have a few different small goblets I use and offer it to whichever being I am honouring that day.  Most days I then pick up my prayer beads and pray, sometimes I just sit in silence, sometimes I chant.  While I am praying and communing I am usually sat in a cross legged position and I also sway backwards and forwards because this is a comfortable way for me to sit and swaying back and forth is very soothing for me.  I often go into a light trance state like this for a few minutes.  When I’m finished I stand and put my floor pillow, which is an old flat pillow, away.

The offerings stay on the altar overnight and the next morning I pour them out into a bowl on my outdoor altar or if the offering is milk or my ancestral offerings I pour that directly onto the ground. While doing to I greet the being I am pouring the offering out for with a simple “hail” and I greet the day.

This is my daily practice now.  For a long time it was was an almost daily practice with no set offerings on Tuesdays and now I make offerings and pray every day.  In addition to these daily offerings I also honour beings of local waterways, the seas and oceans on full and dark moons and I flame tend for Brigantia every twenty days.

This daily practice is important to me but it’s not something I set out to develop as a specific daily practice.  It grew and changed as the relationships I have with the deities I honour grew and changed.  There are other aspects of my spiritual and devotional practice that take place more randomly when I am outside but the core part of my devotions are these daily prayers and offerings in my home, by my home altar.

Altar
My home altar as I write this post.

I have shared something of my practices in the hope that it helps some of you reading this even if that’s only in learning about other options. If you don’t have any home based practices now might be a good time to think about what you might be able to do. My routine has developed over years though so please don’t expect anything you choose to do to fall into place swiftly, it might take time and experimentation for you to feel comfortable with anything you are able to do at home. I’m also aware that for varying reasons you might not be able to do anything on a daily basis at home.  Each of us should feel free to develop our own methods of spiritual practice to suit our own circumstances and in our own time. 

Being nudged or not?

How do you know when you are being called to a deeper relationship with a deity? If you are really lucky you get some nice clear messages. Getting those nice clear messages though is rare, very rare. It does happen sometimes but more often there are the feelings of something being not what it should be now. Feelings that it is time for a change of some kind.

Hints are dropped. Maybe a series of coincidences, maybe something in a dream. Something in you takes notice and you begin to be consciously aware that you are being nudged. Someone wants something from you, perhaps more than one being wants something from you and it’s likely that it’s something more than what you already do.

Do not make hasty decisions! Think it through carefully. Do you have the energy to offer more? Do you think you know what is being asked of you? Be careful what you commit to.

Some deities will make stronger calls than others will. Most will allow you to say no. Most want you serving them willingly. Some make demands. Take your time, think carefully about what you can offer. Be clear about your limitations, your boundaries. Most deities will respect that.

Your deeper service maybe a form of priesthood, it maybe a deeper form of personal devotion. Maybe you are being asked to do something more often than you do at present. Maybe you are being asked to deepen your relationships by more than one being.

Be aware that as a polytheist once you deepen your bonds with one of those you honour others might want you to step up with them too. The choice is still yours but be wary of not honouring their call. If you say no, you may never be asked again. Asking for more time to think, more time to decide is usually acceptable, deities work on a very different timescale to us after all.

Divination may help you decide.  Ask someone you respect if they can help you if you aren’t confident of your own skills or if you want another perspective. If you know someone dedicated to the deity you are feeling nudged by you might want to discuss what you are feeling with them. The decision though is still yours.

Take your time. What you commit to should be thought out carefully and can include whether it a short or long term commitment.

It’s not easy to know if you really are being called.  In the end you have to make a decision and then act on it as best you can. The gods usually forgive mistakes and rarely turn down service offered in my experience. Just make sure you are making your decisions for the right reasons.

Know that if you are wondering if something really is a call, wondering what you should do about it, you are not alone. You are not alone in thinking about what the next step could or should be. And if this is something that you want to talk about to someone else, anyone else, I will listen.

A declaration

Today I ask you who read this post to bear witness to my words.

I am known as Potia, a name given to me on a journey many years ago and linking me to my beloved Epona, She who is my guide, my guardian and my teacher. I am a daughter of the Great Mare and of the Herd Mothers. To the Herd Mothers, Epona and Rhiannon, I swear to do my best to follow their guidance and to trust them. I have sworn to do my best to serve Epona and I renew that oath.

Last month I was claimed again. To the name I have used for many years I now add another.

I add to my name Nighean a’ Chailliche, daughter of the Cailleach. I have sworn that I will serve An Cailleach to the best of my ability within the boundaries agreed between us. In honour of this oath I will now cover my hair with a scarf or hood when I am praying before Her or serving as Her priest.

I am Potia Nighean a’ Chailliche, sworn priest of the Herd Mothers and An Cailleach.

This is my truth.

A death, a rebirth, a claiming

A Death

Recently I chose to support a particular kickstarter project for “Tales of Hopeless, Maine” and I chose a level of support that included as a reward a Hopeless, Maine obituary by author Nimue Brown. When I first chose this I did so because I thought it would be unusual and fun (which it is) but not long before mine was written Nimue asked me what name I wanted to die under.  That’s not a question I expected and it got me thinking about my various names. My birth name is Pauline and many people use that name for me including my husband. My parents call me Polly, my brother sometimes calls me Pic (short for pickle), my children usually call me mum. And among many Pagans, particularly Druids, I have been known as Potia. I have also had several surnames in my life, Pitchford is my fifth. So I had a lot of options to choose from for my “death”. After some thought I felt that it was time “Potia” died.  Potia was a name I took up towards the beginning of my journey into druidry. I have changed a lot since then.  It’s also a name linked to Epona via a particular inscription. My love for Epona hasn’t changed but I am not dedicated to Her alone.

I had no idea how I might die on Hopeless, Maine. It’s an unusual place where death is not always certain, where bodies are not always available to be identified and buried. Perhaps I would be stabbed by knitting needles or poisoned via a pot of tea. I never imagined the death I got or the headline: “Potia Pitchford defies explanation“.  To be taken by surf horses was a beautifully significant way for Potia to die, to be taken into the depths by the very image of one of my most loved deities. And yet for my death to be uncertain too. No body to identify or bury, just gone. This death has a strong spiritual significance to me that I didn’t anticipate. It was also published on Friday 13th and Friday is the day I do my weekly devotions to the Herd Mothers, to Epona and Rhiannon.  It was also a full moon and I now do devotions on full and dark moons for beings of ocean, seas and rivers.

A Rebirth

The druid I was, Potia, has changed. What I am now has grown out of the druid that I was. I am a priest, a tender of a shrine, a servant of a group of deities and sworn to two deities in particular. I have written of some of this in a previous post “On being a priest“. I have felt since writing that post that I needed to take on a new name, one that to some extent reflects the changes in my life.  Until this evening what that name would be escaped me. This evening as I sat communing with An Cailleach I received some guidance.  I need to check my understanding and make sure I can write it correctly. I’ve also been led to believe I don’t need to stop using Potia, this new name will be more of a descriptive surname if I understand it correctly.

A Claiming

“You are mine” She said to me this evening. I acknowledge that claim with the understanding that I am also sworn to the Herd Mothers and that any tasks She and They would have of me need to be balanced against the needs of my children.

 

On being a priest

This evening I feel twitchy in a non-physical way.  I feel as if I have forgotten something or I’m supposed to be doing something but I can’t think of anything it could be. This non-physical twitchiness is something that I am starting recognise more easily as promptings from those I serve to do something in particular.  This time I believe this twitchy feeling means that I need to write and, in particular, to write about being a priest.

This isn’t the first time I have written about priesthood but the last time was ten years ago so it’s probably about time I revisited this topic here.

Others have written clearly and in depth on a range of questions around being a priest. Most notably John Beckett has written several posts on priesthood the most recent one being “15 Roles of a Pagan Priest – How Many Is Too Many?“.  Also of fairly recent note is a series of three posts by Morgan Daimler starting with “Priesthood in Service to the Other – Part 1: The wide view“. If you haven’t read these posts I recommend you do so if this is a topic that interests you.

My thoughts on priesthood are coloured to some extent by these authors and to some extent by my own experiences and observations. There are a few public individuals in the UK that I feel embody something of what it is to be a priest. Each of them do this in different ways and some may use other titles.  I’m going to name a few of them and try and give some reasons why I consider them to be priests.

The first is Cat Treadwell and you can find her online at The Catbox.  She is self employed as a Druid and Priest.  Much of her work involves celebrancy but she also runs workshops, presents talks, offers divination readings, writes books and blogs and supports people on a personal basis too. Cat serves her community in many ways and is a public voice for druidry and paganism generally.  She does all this from a place of personal challenges and struggles with depression which she speaks about openly. I have still not met her face to face but hers is a voice that speaks from the darkness.

The next is Nimue Brown who writes at Druid Life. Nimue is also an author of books and blogs and she has also been presenting more talks, I’m not sure of she’s been doing any workshops.  My perspective of Nimue is of a woman with a whimsical sense of humour that has worked to overcome a number of personal challenges to get where she is today. She’s a mother, a folk musician and a keen observer of her local environment.  She is a different sort of Druid to Cat and I’m not even sure that she would claim the title Priest for herself but in my mind she is both Druid and Priest.

What these women have in common is that they are both Druids and both pretty public figures. They also both speak from a place of deep experience with extremely difficult personal challenges.

My next example is Dr Jenny Blain. Jenny is a retired academic and a Heathen.  She is a polytheist and animist with strong ties to her local land spirits or landvættir. It is harder to put into words why I consider her a Priest or in Heathen terms a Gythia. One aspect is her ability to lead ritual, another is her ability to share her knowledge with others both through her books and via more direct teaching but there is more to it than that. She is a Seidr worker, that in itself is not a simple thing to put into words as there are many forms of seidr. A basic and probably incomplete description is that seidr is a method of entering an altered state of consciousness which can be used to work magic or journey for various purposes.

My final example is Lorna Smithers. Lorna is a an author, poet and mystic. She has a deep and personal connection to her patron deity, Gwyn ap Nudd. Her priesthood is one of personal dedication and part of her dedication is a call to communicate some of what she learns and experiences through her writing and talks. She is, in my opinion, a priest due to her very direct service to her patron.

I could go on. I have deliberately chosen to highlight a few female examples of priests here but there are a number of men I also consider to be priests such as Damh the Bard, Adam Sargant, Phillip Shallcrass, Geoff Boswell, Robin Herne, Mike Stygal and Rich Blackett. Most of these are Druid types as this is the community I have been part of the longest. I’m still getting to know individuals within the Heathen community.  The main things they have in common are that I know them either personally face to face or online and I respect their opinions.

All of this serves to give a few examples of the complexity of what it is to be a priest. More recently I have started to think of myself as priest as well as druid.  I am not an author beyond this blog as yet (who knows what they future might hold). Currently I don’t give talks or presentations although I have in the past.  I can write and lead group ritual although I don’t do a great deal of this now. I have acted as a celebrant in the past too. None of these things are why I am using the term priest more lately.  I am a priest because I serve a number of deities and because I am a shrine keeper.

I am sworn firstly to the Herd Mothers and to the Ancient Mother I know as An Cailleach. I feel they are still training me and gradually making me ready for further service.  I also serve within my limited abilities Maponnos, Gofannon, Mannanan, Brigantia, Loki, Ran, Aegir and the daughters of the oceans. Some of these I have served longer than others, some I am still learning about but I honour them and give them offerings. This is why I call myself a Priest and Druid.

 

 

Priesthood

What is it to be a priest in a pagan community? This is a question I keep coming back to and I’m still not certain I have a convincing answer.

Most dictionaries I have looked at give definitions of a priest as one who act as a mediator between god/s and people and who perform rites of sacrifice and celebration. The word itself comes from the Greek presbyteros meaning “elder”. Some dictionaries will give a definition of someone ordained in a Christian church to consecrate the bread and wine for Mass.

In most pagan communities individuals are encouraged to develop their own relationships with their gods, to make their own offerings and sacrifices. Individuals are usually encouraged to develop their skills so that they can craft their own rites and rituals. My own experiences show that some simply don’t want to do learn how to craft rituals for groups or indeed for themselves but prefer to let others craft rites where they can take part.

There are also times in life where you don’t want to be writing and or leading a ritual such as a wedding or a funeral – most people at these times want someone else to act as a celebrant.

Some months ago a discussion took place on one of the forums I belong to on what a priest should be. The following is my summary of ideas from that discussion:

A priest would most importantly be expected to serve the community and the gods. They would expected be able to communicate effectively with both the gods and the members of the community and if necessary negotiate between them. They would be expected to be a well known figure in the community and an exemplar to all within it. They would be expected to be willing and able to share their experience and knowledge to aid members of the community in both spiritual and practical matters. They should be willing and able to share what they have learnt and to continue their own learning.

A priest within a community would be expected to enable members to celebrate ritual in a deep and meaningful way, they would not necessarily lead all rituals but would be capable of doing so as required. They would also be expected to be able to act as a celebrant for namings, weddings, funerals and other rites of passage as required.

I think the key to this role is service and in order to be a priest as defined above you must have a community that you serve and a community that recognises your service.