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Towards a Full Moon Ritual   Leave a comment

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Full Moon, May 18, 2019 @ MAGUS Gathering. Photo courtesy Marianne Gainey.

With last night’s May full moon, and searches from this blog for the words “full moon ritual”, it feels like time to talk a little more about ritual. Google “ritual design” and you’ll find many helpful sites. John Beckett’s helpful A Pagan Ritual Outline derives from his own long experience.

Ritual is at heart a form to focus awareness, like a melody focuses sound, like a kata or “form” focuses movement in the martial arts.

OBOD founder Ross Nichols observed that “Ritual is poetry in the world of acts”. That is, it’s distinguishable from other actions we do by its intent, its shape and form, and often by care for its appeal to the senses. Poetry and song rely on rhyme, rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint, emotion, symmetry, repetition and variation (chorus and new verse). It’s no surprise that effective and memorable ritual draws on the same components. Theater also underlies ritual with gesture, movement, surprise, audience participation, intonation, staging, lighting, costume, etc.

The full moon, by its shape, suggests completion of a cycle, a high point or climax in a developing change, a major turn in a process (you can’t get fuller until you empty again). More imaginatively, it can also suggest an open eye, a womb, a mirror of the sun, and so on.  These and many other associations and symbolic patterns can feed into a moon ritual. (Take a moment and write down your associations for the sliver of new moon, and you’ll be on your way to a new moon ritual.)

It helps to work with an outline or script — not as something prescribed, or to be rigidly followed without thought, but from a sense of flow and sequence. Even “spontaneous” ritual, especially for solitaries, often flows from a sense of rightness at the moment. In neither case do you need something written down to read from or use as a guide. But if that helps, or makes a big difference in quality, why not use it? Think of a favorite song you know by heart. Is knowing it so well a weakness?

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Li Bai (Wikipedia/public domain)

A few lines of the famous poem by Tang dynasty poet Li Bai (701-762), rendered more or less as “Drinking Alone with the Moon”, offer us a ritual moment:

Among flowers sits the jug of wine.
I pour alone, no other friend nearby.
I lift the cup to invite the moon
and with my shadow we make three.

(That’s my plain rendering. You can read multiple and more poetic versions of the whole poem here. The Chinese words: hua1 jian1 yi1 hu2 jiu3/du2 zhuo2 wu1 xiangqin1/ju3 bei1 yao1 ming2 yue4/dui4 ying3 cheng2 san1 ren2.)

Sometimes simplest is best. The experience of the moon shining through the flowers onto the wine, the solitary drinker, the cup, and the whole evening all around participate in the ritual just as much as the few words the speaker says to welcome the moon. Yet the ritual wouldn’t be complete without the words, because they’re called for. How does the solitary drinker “know what to say”? What fits the moment. And being alone (and possibly already a little mellowed with wine) helps shape what fits the moment. The moon is both familiar and wholly new in the moment, as are the feelings and thoughts of the drinker. A poem becomes a ritual. A ritual becomes a poem.

“Bigger” rituals work the same way. And planning and preparation can be just as effective in providing a form for rituals where gods speak, fire falls from the heavens, and the Earth Mother whispers her deepest secrets to gathered mortals.

In a Druid triad of ritual, three things happen: you open the door to the ritual, the heart of the rite takes place, and then you close the door. In Li Bai’s poem of informal ritual, the wine, moon, cup, speaker, flowers and moment each play their parts to open the door. The moon is present, and the flowers and wine and place. The speaker feels the moment, says the words, drinks, and the moment passes. The poem-as-script (re-)establishes the moment, records it, and closes it when the poem ends. Or think poem-as-ritual-photo. It’s not actually the speaker performing the ritual, but it records some part of it.

Let’s expand on the Druid triad of ritual. Below are twelve components to consider as you develop a ritual:

1–INTENTION — why are you performing the ritual? The whole ritual follows from this. A clear intention, large or small, leads to effective and enjoyable ritual.

2–MATERIALS NEEDED — cycle back here to add to your list as you develop the ritual. “Keep it simple” is a good principle. Ritual stuff isn’t the main event. But lacking the one or two things you DO need in the middle of the ritual, once the script grows to include them, is a real downer. That ritual knife, candle, bell, bowl of water, smudge stick now needs to be there. Do you need ritual clothing, body marking, etc.? Make sure it gets on the list.

3–PARTICIPANTS and ROLES — how many does the ritual need? Again, cycle back to update your “cast of characters” as your ritual plans develop. In the event of missing participants, how can you double up on roles?

Is there something for guests to do who aren’t speaking or performing major ritual actions? Can there be? Do participants — or visitors — need to prepare in advance in some way? Learn a short chant by heart? A melody? A ritual gesture? Vigils, fasts, prayer, meditation, questing, etc. can help participants bring their full ritual selves to the rite from the beginning.

4–PLACE and TIME — flexibility is key, especially if weather, reservations, or schedules have other ideas for your ritual. Pre-planned alternative locations in case of rain, etc., announced in advance, keep crowd control, confusion and disappointment to a minimum. Is accessibility an issue for any participants or visitors?

5–RITUAL HOUSEKEEPING — “Please turn off your cell phones!” Run through any details guests need to know. “This is what we’ll be doing. Don’t break the circle, or cut yourself a door in it, or ask a ritual celebrant to do so for you. Restrooms are at the end of the hall, or 20 miles away; find a tree. That’s north, so this is west.”

6–FORMAL OPENING — some combination and sequence of purification, grounding, centering, welcoming, proclaiming ritual intent, honoring and inviting Others to be present. Bells, singing bowls, incense, water, fire, salt, chant, drums, etc. all can help. Casting a circle, establishing sacred space, erecting or acknowledging altars, redefining the status of participants, the place, objects nearby or some combination of these may be appropriate. Choose who does these things, and why, and how others can take part. Less talk is usually better. So is simplicity.

7–The MAIN RITE — what you’ve gathered to do. Re-enacting a myth; marking the changed status of a participant through initiation, etc.; celebrating the season, a date, festival, harvest, planting, boat-launch, new home, new family member, etc. Healing, defending, strengthening, commemorating, blessing, gifting. Where you do the stuff specific to your tradition, practice, gods, calendar, and so on.

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MAGUS 2019 Maypole!

8–FEAST, ritual meal, distribution of ritual objects, etc. — a piece of maypole ribbon, a slice of apple (showing the star), a drink, a stave of ritual significance, a card or picture, stone, sea-shell, etc.

9–READINGS, Music, Poetry, Blessings, Prayers — this important portion of a ritual can accompany the Feast, etc. to help sustain the ritual energy, hold focus, minimize side chatter, etc. It also gives everyone present a chance to contribute personal requests, blessings, songs, etc.

10–CLOSING — reverse what you did for the opening: thank Others you invited, uncast the circle, return ritual elements to their original places, desanctify what need desanctifying, take down the altar. Ring the bell, beat the drum formally, close the ritual. Re-establish the world before the ritual began. Again, simple is good.

11–ANNOUNCEMENTS — upcoming events, requests for help with clean-up, calendars, thanking visitors, etc.

12–CLEAN-UP — leave the ritual space as pristine — or more so — than when you arrived. Make this a ritual act of service and gratitude.

Conversation following the rite can be an opportunity for formal teaching, Q-and-A, casual discussion, ritual debriefing and a post-mortem “how did it go?”, planning for another event, a meal at a favorite restaurant (which can be announced on Meet-up, etc., as an outreach tool).

Were you expecting a script for a specific ritual here? No need — you know enough to develop one of your own better suited to you, your situation, your practice and your intention. And after a few run-throughs, you’ll be on your way to developing your own ritual design “best practices”.

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Looking for more detail? Check out Isaac Bonewits’ excellent Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work (Llewellyn, 2007), available used for just a couple of dollars.

The Fires of May, Green Dragons, and Talking Peas   2 comments

Ah, Fifth Month, you’ve arrived.  In addition to providing striking images like this one, the May holiday of Beltane on or around May 1st is one of the four great fire festivals of the Celtic world and of revival Paganism. Along with Imbolc, Lunasa and Samhain, Beltane endures in many guises. The Beltane Fire Society of Edinburgh, Scotland has made its annual celebration a significant cultural event, with hundreds of participants and upwards of 10,000 spectators. Many communities celebrate May Day and its traditions like the Maypole and dancing (Morris Dancing in the U.K.). More generally, cultures worldwide have put the burgeoning of life in May  — November if you live Down Under — into ritual form.

I’m partial to the month for several reasons, not least because my mother, brother and I were all born in May.  It stands far enough away from other months with major holidays observed in North America to keep its own identity.  No Thanksgiving-Christmas slalom to blunt the onset of winter with cheer and feasting and family gatherings.  May greens and blossoms and flourishes happily on its own.  It embraces college graduations and weddings (though it can’t compete with June for the latter).  It’s finally safe here in VT to plant a garden in another week or two, with the last frosts retreating until September.  At the school where I teach, students manage to keep Beltaine events alive even if they pass on other Revival or Pagan holidays.

The day’s associations with fertility appear in Arthurian lore with stories of Queen Guinevere’s riding out on May Day, or going a-Maying.  In Collier’s painting above, the landscape hasn’t yet burst into full green, but the figures nearest Guinevere wear green, particularly the monk-like one at her bridle, who leads her horse.  Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot eroticized everything around her — greened it in every sense of the word.  Tennyson in his Idylls of the King says:

For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might …

Of course, there are other far more subtle and insightful readings of the story, ones which have mythic power in illuminating perennial human challenges of relationship and energy. But what is it about green that runs so deep in European culture as an ambivalent color in its representation of force? 

Anya Seton’s novel Green Darkness captures in its  blend of Gothic secrecy, sexual obsession, reincarnation and the struggle toward psychic rebalancing the full spectrum of mixed-ness of green in both title and story. As well as the positive color of growth and life, it shows its alternate face in the greenness of envy, the eco-threat of “greenhouse effect,” the supernatural (and original) “green giant” in the famous medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the novel and subsequent 1973 film Soylent Green, and the ghostly, sometimes greenish, light of decay hovering over swamps and graveyards that has occasioned numerous world-wide ghost stories, legends and folk-explanations. 

(Wikipedia blandly scientificizes the phenomenon thus:  “The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires.”)  And most recently, “bad” greenness showed up during this year’s Earth Day last month, which apparently provoked fears in some quarters of the day as evil and Pagan, and a determination to fight the “Green Dragon” of the environmental movement as un-Christian and insidious and horrible and generally wicked. Never mind that stewardship of the earth, the impetus behind Earth Day, is a specifically Biblical imperative (the Sierra Club publishes a good resource illustrating this).  Ah, May.  Ah, silliness and wisdom and human-ness.

We could let a Celt and a poet have (almost) the last word. Dylan Thomas catches the ambivalence in his poem whose title is also the first line:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind

Hauls my shroud sail …

Yes, May is death and life both, as all seasons are.  But something in the irrepressible-ness of May makes it particularly a “hinge month” in our year.  The “green fuse” in us burns because it must in order for us to live at all, but our burning is our dying.  OK, Dylan, we get it.  Circle of life and all that.  What the fearful seem to react to in May and Earth Day and things Pagan-seeming is the recognition that not everything is sweetness and light.  The natural world, in spite of efforts of Disney and Company to the contrary, devours as well as births.  Nature isn’t so much “red in tooth and claw” as it is green. 

Yes, things bleed when we feed (or if you’re vegetarian, they’ll spill chlorophyll.  Did you know peas apparently talk to each other?).  And this lovely, appalling planet we live on is part of the deal.  It’s what we do in the interim between the “green fuse” and the “dead end” that makes all the difference, the only difference there is to make.  So here’s Seamus Heaney, another Celt and poet,  who gives us one thing we can do about it:  struggle to make sense, regardless of whether or not any exists to start with.  In his poem “Digging,” he talks about writing, but it’s “about” our human striving in general that, for him, takes this particular form.  It’s a poem of memory and meaning-making.  We’re all digging as we go.

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

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Beltane Fire Society image; Maibaum; John Maler Collier’s Queen Guinevere’s Maying; Soylent Green; Green Darkness; peat.

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