Boasts, Toasts, Oaths, and Growth

I wrote a few years back about toasts, boasts and oaths as part of a Lúnasa ritual at Mystic River Grove in Massachusetts, and I’m revisiting the topic here, because it’s a rich one to explore further. Anyone interested in Lugh, his Welsh counterpart Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and associations with Lunasa need only Google for more info than any ritualist could use in 50 rituals. Use the search box on this site for my other posts on the subject.


This triad of ritual actions is especially fitting now, because Lugh is the god whose nasadh “assembly” gives us the name of our current seasonal festival Lughnasadh, or Lúnasa in reformed Irish spelling. Lugh is described as samildánach — “equally skilled in many arts” — certainly reason enough for boasts, toasts and oaths as components of Lunasa ritual. Emulate the god and celebrate the pluses in our lives. His festival includes games of skill, a kind of Celtic Olympics.

Without much squeezing or distortion, we can also see each action as associated with a specific time: past, present and future.

Boasting generally looks to the past, to something already accomplished. “I’ve done it before (and so I’ll do it again)”. We could even see the modern job resume as a kind of contemporary and restrained boast — it highlights our relevant employment history, our training and experience. Likewise, a good job interview is a delicate balance between touting our accomplishments and demonstrating our self-awareness, an understanding of our weaknesses — cleverly transformed, of course, into opportunities for growth in the service of our next employer.


The Flyting of Loki

A boast naturally seeks recognition and praise, or acknowledgement at the very least. (A suspicion of pride and an awareness of its dangers pervade the Judeo-Christian moral heritage of the West, so a Pagan restoration of justified pride is long overdue. The point, after all, is to do something praiseworthy, something that fully deserves boasting about.) As a result, it can also be an occasion that calls for responses from others that tease the boaster, as much as for compliments on an achievement done well. A roast, another rhyming theme that fits well here, is an invitation for just such teasing and carefully-tuned mockery. Through it we test the self-confidence of the boaster, their ability to “take it”, and check their anger, and sometimes to respond in kind. African-American playing the dozens and the Norse, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon flyting each ritualize an exchange of insults. The Norse Lokasenna, sometimes called the Flyting of Loki, is just one historical and literary example. In one form or another, the “rap battle” has long been alive and well.

Toasts are often expressions of gratitude or celebration for something that’s happening now in the present. We salute and celebrate another, whether person or object, event or location. In some way it’s a form of blessing. We toast a newly-married couple, we christen and launch a boat, we hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a completed factory or auditorium or museum. As with boasts, toasts often ask for toasts in response, and some cultures formalize such exchanges. Further highlighting the link between boasts and toasts, it’s often considered “good form” to lightly tease a person or couple we’re toasting, as a way of showing affection.

Oaths usually look toward the future, to something we intend to achieve. As a promise or vow, an oath can be an acknowledgement of a debt we’ve garnered in the past, but oriented towards a general time to come. Or it can be more like a promissory note, specifying terms of repayment, the conditions for fulfillment, etc. In the oral cultures where they mostly originate, oaths are a matter of public memory. We make them publicly so that others witness them. A sense of a commitment made with others’ knowledge often helps the oath-maker to fulfill the oath. It’s a way to utilize any shame, any fear of loss of face if we fail, to motivate us, just like we imagine the praise if we succeed, the enhanced reputation and public standing.

This triad of ritual behaviors can feel somewhat contrived in the West, because each is a ritual action less common today than in the past. As an opportunity to revive ceremonial forms and a chance to explore a triad of potent group ritual gestures, boasts, toasts and oaths deserve to be incorporated in our rites and celebrations.

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These ritual acts are also chances for growth. Part of the cultural change we’ve undergone in the West over the past several centuries has been a shift toward internalizing these three rites. Rather than boasting publicly, we read books on motivation and struggle to deal with self-esteem issues. We take workshops on resume-building and interview skills and networking. We internalize our weaknesses and strengths, though we now hand over to social media an increasing share of our once-private lives, in a curious reversion to the older cultural patterns of turning towards a community for much of our identity.

chickensThe pecking order of birds, the ranking among herd animals, a usually stylized aggression to establish social position, can shade into bullying among humans, a specific form of cruelty. Animals generally stop once one of them establishes dominance over the other. We see animal rituals in the submissive gestures of wolves, stags, chimps, etc. who yield to a stronger opponent. A human bully doesn’t stop, and equivalent gestures of submission may simply encourage greater cruelty. The point of bullying is not merely to establish dominance, which is the goal of most alphas, both female and male, but to cause pain.

Specifically Druidic responses to bullying are often rooted in community. We look for our values to nature and to what we have in common, and a response to a bully is often a communal one. Isolation, banning, shunning, communal expressions of disgust and repulsion, all can have their effect in awakening shame and regret, or at the minimum ending the behavior and any opportunities for it to continue.

Just as important, however, are opportunities for clearing one’s name, for redemption, for forgiveness, for reparations and restoration. Ritual has a place in this as well. The fear and anger that often underlie bullying behavior can be dis-empowered. Elemental re-balancing can play its part — earth can eat the heaviness and sense of blockage and obstruction that comes from wrong-doing acknowledged. Water can cleanse and purify, air can lift and lighten, and fire can purge and burn away.

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