Archive for the ‘Stonehenge’ Category

Guide of the West, Part 2   Leave a comment

So here’s the task I set myself in the previous post:

… I’ll take up ritual and its close alliance with emotion. Through rite and ritual, powered by where emotion can guide me, I can begin to (1) find out what I need to know (Air), (2) clear the way for the will to act (Fire), (3) empower my imagination (Water), and (4) help myself heal (Earth).

This morning, after fasting from coffee for three days, my wife and I dove back into our joint addiction. That meant, in addition to washing the carafe, cleaning the coffee mill of the remains of a brand that we found irritated our stomachs and left us with weird dreams. In spite of an organic label and a source we trusted, that particular brand goes on our NO list.

Yes, I’ll readily admit it: we’re coffee snobs. I say, if you have a habit, addict responsibly. Why pay a barista to do what we can do at home much more cheaply and satisfyingly.

Thus armed with our indulgence and our insufferably caffeinated arrogance, we perform the daily ritual. First, the banishing, or cleaning. Then the invoking, or grinding and brewing. Finally, the savoring, black or with milk or half-and-half. Or sometimes, if a new brand turns out especially bitter, a spoonful of maple syrup.  This is also known as the sense of ritual well-performed. In other words, as with most cooking — and magic — season to taste. There are recipes to learn, and then there are local variations and individual adjustments. Both prove needful.

Coffee invites assessment and comparison. (My mistyped original read “incites”, which is also true.) So should ritual. We brew coffee almost daily, because we like it enough to find it worth the effort. Anticipation heightens the preparation, the performance. Not all batches are the same, and I can always fine-tune what I do. Feeling can guide me well, but not exclusively.

If it’s to have any benefit, ritual (or magic) needs similar practice, and the doing of it IS the ritual, IS the practice of magic. I should enjoy the experience enough that it’s worth the effort, the outlay of time, material, and energy.

Otherwise, why do it? Can I answer that question sensibly? (A lack of common sense has oft defeated many an evil overlord.) A more modest Druid like me has much to learn from the great and (ig)noble. Success, for evil or good, depends on feet planted on the good earth, first of magics. (After all, Yesod, “Foundation”, is a low, easily-reachable branch on the Tree of Life. It’s “a vehicle allowing movement from one thing or condition to another …” says Wikipedia. Or as Basics in Kabbalah puts it, “The foundation (yesod) of a building is its ‘grounding’, its union with the earth (malchut).” A measure and sounding of our time: you can find such formerly hidden knowledge simply by following an internet link. Do we dismiss such magical familiars because they have made our lives too easy?)


What will I write onto and into my skin? What will I invite deeper?

So back to the four elements, to the task enumerated at the start of this post. I learn (Air) which coffee to buy — and whether today is even a coffee day — apply the heat (Fire) to water (Water!) and ground the rite (coffee, Earth, pun included) at its conclusion — a pour of hot black nectar into our two waiting mugs. Any excess of thinking or willing gets balanced by this cauldron of feeling, of desire and pleasure and outcome. Hold the mugs in our hands, warmth and aroma as much a part of it all as taste on the tongue. Incidental effects, like the temporary sharpening of attention, the rise of blood pressure (I’m chronically low), the motivational effects to a sluggish intestinal tract, are all side benefits not to be disdained.

OK — I’ve taken the analogy further than it can bear, or perhaps not far enough. We tend to think of ritual and magic in abstract terms, when in fact they’re a series of concrete choices and actions and manifestations. Humans are magical transformers, with time and space our field of play. Whatever we manifest has its causes: as with the universe outside our skin, so with the universe inside. This isn’t just metaphysics but actual physics. If the definition of insanity is to expect different results from doing the same thing, then sanity can begin simply by trying something new.

And “old-new” might be a very good alternative name for our uni-verse, our “one-turning” which offers ritual as one of its keys and clues.

And what of healing? I wrote in March of this year, in the post “Healing From the Past“:

I add to my practice a henge-meditation. We needn’t bother ourselves to make any such claim as “Druids built Stonehenge” in order to make use of the spiritual dynamic it offers as a source of healing. Merlin sets the precedent: Stonehenge-as-symbol, in Geoffrey’s telling is older than its present home in southern England anyway. Not its origin but its power is what we need. Magic thrives when our intent makes the occasion a necessity: our focus is single and sharp not from force of will but from desire, emotion, need, want, hope, imagination, planning and preparation, ritual foundation, and love.

A final note: to make ritual “economical” in terms of any wear and tear on the practitioner, which means us, (1) start small, (2) keep records, (3) experiment to find what works and what doesn’t. As with coffee, check in frequently: how does it feel? Does the brew need tweaking? Make this aspect part of the process — though not its sole determinant. Ritual and magic, done skilfully, are among the most scientific as well as loving things we do.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image: Four Elements tattoo


Healing from the Past   Leave a comment

We commonly expect healing to arrive from the future — from a doctor’s prescription we’ll have in hand after an upcoming appointment, from an outpatient procedure in a clinic, from a series of therapy sessions or an interval of exercises.

We don’t expect healing to lie in the past, waiting for us to recognize it.

geoffreyThe historian-mythographer Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155), whose glorious Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) blends history and legend almost seamlessly, is one primary source for the Arthurian legend. In the Eighth Book of this magnum opus, also gives us an early glimpse of legends about Stonehenge, supplying a foundation, however wobbly, for the idea that the stones originated in Ireland — or even further afield.

If we follow Geoffrey, in fact, the impetus behind Stonehenge is the desire for a war memorial:

The sight of the place where the dead lay made the king [Aurelius Ambrosius], who was of a compassionate temper, shed tears, and at last enter upon thoughts, what kind of monument to erect upon it. For he thought something ought to be done to perpetuate the memory of that piece of ground, which was honoured with the bodies of so many noble patriots, that died for their country [in the fighting against Hengist]. — Historia, Bk. 8, 10.

merlinUnable to find among his own builders and engineers the technical ability to construct what he envisions, the king seeks out Merlin and asks for his help:

Merlin made answer:

Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it. If I should pretend to utter them for ostentation or diversion, the spirit that instructs me would be silent, and would leave me when I should have occasion for it. … [But] if you are desirous to honour the burying-place of these men with an everlasting monument, send for the Giant’s Dance, which is in Killare, a mountain in Ireland. For there is a structure of stones there, which none of this age could raise, without a profound knowledge of the mechanical arts. They are stones of a vast magnitude and wonderful quality; and if they can be placed here, as they are there, round this spot of ground, they will stand forever.

Merlin is, of course, just the person to manage this feat. The Giant’s Dance comes east to the plains of Salisbury, to “stand forever”. But wait — Merlin hasn’t finished. There’s more. The stones themselves are charmed, and of a provenance far from their apparently temporary Irish resting-place. Merlin declares:

They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coast of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness. For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue. — Historia, Bk. 8, 11.

We seek for future cures, while the Merlins of our spiritual history attempt to alert us to sources of healing all around us. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.

How many healings casually happen to me all the time? A scratch scabs over and even the mark fades with time. A cold passes and I recover, the hacking cough subsiding to a tickle and then to nothing. The purging of food poisoning wracks me and wrings me out, but my temperature control eventually leaves fevers and chills behind, I regain my appetite, and the memory of the nausea and dizziness and malaise slowly withdraws.

If we want the marvelous, the cause and occasion must match the healing outcome. The ordinary will not do: Mysteries of this kind are not to be revealed but when there is the greatest necessity for it.

What do we require? A wise guide and that guide’s counsel, certainly. But more: the conjunction of the potential and the place where it needs to be founded. The stones must be brought to a specific location for the desired result … if they can be placed here, as they are there …

It’s significant that the stones do not remain in Ireland. While giants placed them there for their own purposes, it takes human agency to bring them to their final location. Almost as if they had been waiting all along for human awareness to catch up to them, to finish their journey.

/|\ /|\ /|\

I don’t need to disdain modern medicine to avail myself of ancient healing. We do need the latter. Modern medicine often does an excellent job alleviating symptoms, but leaves the deeper roots of the problem untouched, often because invisible, underground. The taproot of an illness or other problem may nourish itself in causes invisible to a materialist eye. I may continue to feed its source even as I claim to long for healing. Why else is it, in our modern and supposedly healthier age, that so many Americans — more than ever before — rely on prescriptions (link to Harvard University studies) against anxiety, depression, insomnia, and so on? The stats have made headlines, but no one wants to address the root cause, because it’s sunk in the rich darkness of our cultural blindspots.

/|\ /|\ /|\

I add to my practice a henge-meditation. We needn’t bother ourselves to make any such claim as “Druids built Stonehenge” to make use of the spiritual dynamic it offers as a source of healing. Merlin sets the precedent: Stonehenge-as-symbol, in Geoffrey’s telling is older than its present home in southern England anyway. Not its origin but its power is what we need. Magic thrives when our intent makes the occasion a necessity: our focus is single and sharp not from force of will but from desire, emotion, need, want, hope, imagination, planning and preparation, ritual foundation, and love.

If I don’t move the stones here, their virtue can’t find me. Inner work is just as necessary as finding the right doctor, the proper regimen, the appropriate treatment.

Curious that the words of Jesus fit here so well: “The stone which the builders reject has become the cornerstone”. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image: Geoffrey of Monmouth; Merlin.


Stonehenge (again, always)   1 comment

Like many celebrities, Stonehenge suffers from an excess of fame. The recent go-head for yet another long-debated construction project involving the site will, this time, move the noisy and heavily traveled A303 motorway underground into a nearly 2-mile long tunnel. It’s a 2.4-billion dollar attempt to restore the monument a step closer to its original solitude.  You can read more about it in a short article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper.


Want the condensed version?  The return to comparative silence is undeniably welcome, though the prospect of digging upsets archeologists and many others, who know it will likely disturb the immense neolithic ceremonial complex that extends across the Salisbury plain, of which Stonehenge is simply the most visible and well-known part.

The National Post has its own take here.

And for information on the excavation of nearby wooden rival of immense proportions just two miles from its more famous stone counterpart, The Independent has an article here.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Image: Henge Road.



Posted 16 January 2017 by adruidway in Druidry, Stonehenge

Tagged with ,

“Selfies with Trilithons” and Our Longing for (Re)connection   Leave a comment

Selfless trilithons

Selfless trilithons

Will Self’s June ’14 article in The Guardian (“Has English Heritage Ruined Stonehenge?“) has recently been (re)making the rounds on Facebook groups I frequent, and the author’s lively reportage offers generous “blog-bites” to quote (starting with that title), so it’s ready grist for the mill of A Druid Way.

In fact, if you just jump straight to his article, read it and — in the way of our Net-lives, surf on to the Next Interesting Thing (a NIT to pick, if there ever was one) — if you neglect to return here, I’ll not only not be hurt but will rest content that I’ve served one of my purposes.

Will Self visits Stonehenge

“Selfies with Trilithons”: Will Self visits Stonehenge. Image Mike Pitts, The

I admit to a fondness for titles that use questions.They successfully play on our inherent OCD, setting themselves up like an itch begging to be scratched. They’re Zen koans for the non-Zen types among us. You read them to find out the answer, or at least what the author thinks is the answer, and so you relieve the itch, even if the particular scratch the article provides ultimately irritates you further.

New, worse itch? No problem. The latest diet, scandal, must-see series, sex technique, disaster or investment opportunity all await you, just a click away, and many will use questions to draw you in. The “Top 10” list relies on a similar strategy: human experience boiled down to a concentrate. Just add water! Maybe at best our lives are indeed “selfies with trilithons” and everything else slips downhill from there. Or so a great part of the Western world’s surface culture would have you believe.

The article byline asks, “The summer solstice, King Arthur, the Holy Grail … Stonehenge is supposed to be a site of myths and mystery. But with timed tickets and a £27m visitor centre, does it herald a rampant commercialisation of our heritage?”

You’re being wholly reasonable if you guess Self’s answer is “yes.”

English Heritage earns decidedly mixed reviews here. It’s the U.K. organization that oversees such sites as Stonehenge, and for Self it serves a very mixed role as an institution whose “very raison d’etre consists in preventing the childish public from chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old – so they can cart off a free souvenir, rather than shelling out for a Stonehenge snow globe in the superbly appointed new gift shop.”

“Stonehenge snow globe” works fine as an alternative title for this post.

Self’s wit attacks a range of easy targets besides English Heritage. It’s little surprise Druidry comes in for a smackdown, too. “As inventions of bogus deep-time traditions go, British druidism has to be one of the most enduringly successful.” Except that unlike Stonehenge, all modern forms of Druidry that expect to be taken seriously assert precisely the opposite. They’re comparatively new on the scene, and they dispense with bogusness.  They’re no older than the Druid revival of the past few centuries because that’s their real origin story — and this revival coincides point-for-point with rediscovering and wondering about and valuing things like Stonehenge and Avebury and Newgrange. You know — those Neolithic things that have always lurked in the neighborhood and have been with us for a very long time. We just never paid them much attention.

Until we did.

[Even Reconstructionist Pagan groups — who point with some justifiable pride at archaeological and other scholarly evidence to back up their practices and who sometimes sniff disdainfully at groups like OBOD, which draw on both legend and myth and on Druid Revival writings — benefit in the end from the scientific investigations ultimately launched by those same enthusiasms and, yes, those initial misconceptions of the Revival.]

We like our monuments and religions old, though we want our gossip and news “live, local and late-breaking” and our technology to be version X.X + 1 — whatever’s one higher than last week’s version (unless it’s Windows). “Selfie with a trilithon” pretty much sums it up.

But if modern Druids are the philosophical and spiritual equivalent of “the childish public … chipping away at stuff they don’t understand much – beyond the bare fact that it’s very old,” then what is it that we “cart off” from it? A reflected glory from old things? A fine wild-goose-chase for the ego? The illusion of connection with something larger and more lasting? (“All this and more for twelve easy payments of just $39/month! Our representatives are standing by for your call now!”)

These are the surface manifestations of vital and unquenchable hungers that have wakened in large numbers of people, however much a passel of hucksters manages to package and market empty and pricey facsimiles of them. Self does concede that “in important ways the [P]agans and the archaeologists retain a common cause: both groups, after all, venerate the monument, even if it’s in radically different ways.”

Self also contrasts Stonehenge at present with ancient sites:

Midhowe broch

Midhowe broch

… in the Orkney islands, where I lived over the winter of 1993-4 – I’ve returned many times since – Neolithic remains can seem more significant than the contemporary built environment. A couple of miles from the house I stayed in on the island of Rousay, there’s the ruin of an iron age broch, or fortified dwelling, and beyond this there’s a Neolithic chamber tomb, Midhowe, that’s dated to the third millennium BCE. Midhowe is a large and complex structure, although by no means as obviously important as Stonehenge. It was fully excavated in the 1930s and 40s by Walter Grant (of the distilling family) who owned the Trumland estate on Rousay, which included this site and several other important tombs. Since the roof of Midhowe has long since gone, Grant covered up the exposed stonework with hangar-like structure, but the curious thing is that this doesn’t detract at all from its powerful and brooding atmosphere.

During my times in Orkney I’ve visited a great many of the Neolithic sites. I’ve sat in tombs, laid in them, dreamed in them, and tried to grasp the sort of mindset – whether individual or collective – that’s implied by buildings that took shape over thousands of years, and were built by people with life-spans far shorter than our own. I have felt the wonder – felt it most of all, because at Midhowe there is hardly any of the furniture and signage associated with the modern tourist attraction: no ticket office, no custodian, and only discreet information boards. Apart from in high season, you can visit Midhowe and most of the other great Orkney sites with the confident expectation that you’ll see scarcely another human being.

If, as Self notes, “archaeologists seem fairly convinced that implicit in the Stonehenge’s design is some form of ancestor worship; for us there can be no doubt: we revere the idea of their reverence, we are engaged in a degraded form of meta‑ancestor worship,” then we can also see, in our longing to (re)connect, a “degraded” form of magic. “I don’t want anything to do with magic,” we often say, as we unwittingly absorb endless hours of advertising and political language which constantly attempt to manipulate our desires and emotions with crude magical techniques. We let ourselves be “magicked” but refuse to learn how to practice any “defense against the Dark Arts” — or learn how to do magic well and for our benefit rather than someone else’s.

“No magic — that’s for kids,” we say, as our lives propel us willy-nilly along a path of magical initiation tailor-made for us out of the circumstances of our lives, our likes and dislikes, and our choices. Fate, or freedom? Yes! “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” as Yogi Berra is reputed to have said.

“I don’t believe in magic,” we say, all the while daydreaming and planning, imagining and remembering — magical techniques in embryo, every one of them. Christian, atheist, Muslim, Pagan, SBNR, or “those who just don’t roll that way” — we all make our ways through these mortal lives which are also lives of manifestation and transformation, the essence of magic.

Author and practicing magician Josephine McCarthy, whose book “Magic of the North Gate” I reviewed here, notes that people react variously to the relative powerlessness that life in Western culture urges onto so many. But often a (paradoxically) powerful personal experience, an abrupt break with the past or the every-day world, sets some of them on a journey. In the first book of her Magical Knowledge series, McCarthy observes:

When a person chooses not to play a part in that circus, they look elsewhere. Some people begin … in search of their own power, some begin in search of knowledge, and some approach that path from a sense of deep instinct.

The beginning of the path … is very much about personal development, be it spiritual, intellectual or self-determination … This is the first rung of the ladder and has many dead ends woven into it … designed to trap and teach them a lesson that is needful for their development … The ‘dead ends’ … are often related to our relationship to power, glamour and ego. We all go through it in one form or another and most climb out of it with a very red face, ready to move on, lesson well learned. There is nothing wrong in making mistakes and doing silly things, it is all part of the learning process. The first rung teaches us about ourselves, our weaknesses and strengths, our true desires and fears, and the real extent of our ability to be honest with ourselves. Remember the words over the door to the temple: Man, know thyself.* The threshold of the temple must be crossed with the intention to be willing to look in the mirror with an open mind and see what is really there. (McCarthy, Magical Knowledge: Book 1, pgs. 30-31)

In the end you cannot study “men,” as C. S. Lewis once observed. “You can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” And current trends notwithstanding, we very much need each other’s compassion along the way, given the difficulties and joys of life. That’s an act of High Magic. Given how we all will face death, it’s fair to say we also deserve that compassion from each other. And death? Death is one more potential magical initiation.

 /|\ /|\ /|\

 Image: selfless trilithon; Midhowe broch.

*Translation of the sign over the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece that read “gnothi seauton.” [Gno- related to English know, Latin cognitio, Greek gnosis. Seauton related to English and Greek auto- meaning “self.”]

McCarthy, Josephine. (2013). Magical Knowledge: Book 1 — Foundations. Oxford: Mandrake of Oxford.

Updated 9 August 2015

DRL — A Druid Ritual Language, Part 2   3 comments

[Part 1 | Part 3]

I’ll be covering a fair bit of ground in this post, and supplying a larger than usual number of links (distractions?), since so many of you, my readers, come from such diverse perspectives and experiences. Thus it is that while some of what I say here will be sure to irritate, confuse or bore some of you, there’s a very fair chance the same sections won’t be the same irritants for everybody.  And with a liberal helping of what goes under the names of luck, awen, grace, and chance, some of it might actually be useful to you.

So what do you make of this video?!

Ritual and Ritual Language are Pan-human

One of my points in including the “Biker Blessing” — whatever you think of Pope Francis, the pontiff sure has his own style — is simply to illustrate two important points we keep forgetting:  all humans participate in and perform rituals, and they’re both utterly common and rather strange, when you actually begin to examine them more closely.

To give just one common example, if you intend to get hitched in a church, you’re not yet married until right after the presiding clergy says some equivalent of the words “I now pronounce you man and wife.” So what do those words do?! (For the nerds among us, this has been called the performative aspect of language, according to the theory of speech acts in a book with the fine title of How to Do Things with Words by Brit J. L. Austin.)

It’s because the West in particular often lacks (read “threw the baby out with the bathwater over the last century”) meaningful ritual that ritual has come to preoccupy many Druids and Pagans generally. But it bears repeating that ritual isn’t merely a Druid or even a Pagan concern: ritual and ritual languages cover the planet.

Here’s a remarkably respectful video from a 3-minute 2010 BBC broadcast.  (Title includes “OBOD” but no mention is made of it in the video itself, so don’t worry — I’m not proselytizing — really!):

“Ceremonies of Innocence”

Another common example. Depending on how you were raised, your parents taught you to say “thank you” and “excuse me.” In the process they likely also taught you that the forms themselves matter, as much as or often more than your heartfelt gratitude or apology. The discipline of saying the words themselves – often — was enough. (If you’re feeling cynical, you could argue that this is one of our first formal lessons in hypocrisy.) We may rail justifiably against “empty language,” but that’s not the fault of ritual. The emptiness of much empty talk issues from a lack of conviction or perspective behind it. As Yeats said in his poem “The Second Coming,” “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” So we get loudness and passion as the daily menu on far too many of our media of choice, while stillness and reflection flee for the hills. But (to mix metaphors) that’s where these two inexhaustible caves of treasures lie waiting. We can, if we desire to, recover the “ceremonies of innocence.”

A Side-note on Definitions

You may have noticed that I carefully sidestepped the issue of what “ritual” is and what a “language” is. If you want more information on these fascinating and often controversial topics than the quick-and-dirty Wikipedia links can give, and you don’t have a good town library handy, just search “magical use of ritual language” on Google Scholar. Earlier today (3/24/14) it returned 168,000 results. So even if upwards of 90% of these prove to be some combination of junk or dead links, you’ll find remarkable studies, academic and amateur and much in between. Enough in fact to launch you into a lifetime of fruitful reading and study on just this one topic, should you wish.  (See the end of this post for a detailed excerpt of  the Wikipedia entry for “magical language.”

All or Nothing

allnothingOf course, using ritual language doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” proposition. A few words and phrases can often be sufficient to signal important parts of a ritual, or to heighten the charge of ritual atmosphere. Any decent magical training curriculum will show you this. Like all conscious acts, those performed with intention carry power. (Anyone reading this knows, for instance, the difference between a casually tossed-off “I love you” and the same words said with full attention and feeling. If you don’t, don’t come back here until you do. That part of your life obviously deserves more atttention than this blog.)

As an example of this “ritual sprinkle” approach, here’s an excerpt of the ritual use of Welsh from the “Grand Sword” page of the Gorsedd of the Bards (Museum of Wales online):

One of the Gorsedd’s oldest rites is the ceremony of partly unsheathing the Grand Sword. The Archdruid asks the following questions and the audience replies ‘Heddwch’ (Peace) three times:

Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd, A oes Heddwch? (The Truth against the World, Is there Peace?)
Calon wrth Galon, A oes Heddwch? (Heart to Heart, Is there Peace?)
Gwaedd uwch Adwaedd, A oes Heddwch? (Shout above responding Shout, Is there Peace?)’

Carrying a sword was one of the rites in Iolo Morganwg’s first Gorsedd in 1792. As a pacifist Iolo wanted to emphasise that the Bards met in peace and when a naked sword was placed on the Logan Stone they proceeded to sheath it as a symbol of peace in Gorsedd.

Bardic chair inscription: "the truth against the world"

Bardic chair inscription: “the truth against the world”

With no more than this much Welsh in a ritual, or even just Y gwir yn erbyn y Byd [approximately “uh GWEER uhn EHR-been uh BEED”] “the Truth against the World,” you can clearly set apart the language of your rite from ordinary language, and help evoke the heightened state of consciousness characteristic of much (not all) successful ritual.

Benefits of Ritual Language

If you want the John F. Kennedy version – “what ritual language can do for you” – here’s a start.

An FAQ of the Latin Liturgy Association site lists several “important benefits of using Latin” as a “sacral” language, including its close association with worship, as with the Arabic of the Qur’an, the Sanskrit of Hinduism and the Hebrew of Judaism. It also “helps us overcome limitations of time and place” and “participate in the universal reality of the Catholic Church, linking us with the generations” who preceded us. As the language of a sacred musical tradition, it also gives access to the plainsong and chant of the Church.

So Why Use a Distinct Ritual Language?

Huston Smith

Huston Smith

OK, you get that ritual and ritual language are powerful and widespread. But why not keep it to your own native tongue and skip the difficulty of learning another language besides? Who has the time for studying and mastering a dedicated language? Isn’t a dedicated practice more important? Aren’t ritual and worship and devotion in [insert your language here] better than none at all? This cry of the heart has a strong appeal. Its human roots are ancient. Huston Smith in his The World’s Religions (p. 34) cites a Hindu prayer, noting, “Even village priests will frequently open their temple ceremonies with the following beloved invocation:

O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou art without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations,
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.

Surely this is justification, if indeed we need any? You may have seen this prayer incorporated into rituals as part of the reach toward the divine – I have. Of all human failings, surely what language we use in our quest must rank low on the scale of such things?

M. Isadora Forrest notes in her book Isis Magic, “Isis of the Ten Thousand Names provided Her ancient worshippers with a broad range of Divine aspects, functions and affinities” (pg. 8). So if we can approach spirit or divine realm using our own names for it, what’s the need for a separate ritual language? Can’t we reach and communicate with the Goddess [substitute your own preferred name here] using what is, after all, our “mother tongue,” the speech that is most intimate to us? Isn’t this language therefore among the most valid of tools we can use, if we wish to contact and plunge into the Otherworld, the divine realm? It reaches and extends from the heart.

Well, just like you generally appreciate home-baked over store-bought, deities show preferences. Among them are offerings, names and languages. That doesn’t mean that English or whatever your native language is won’t “work” as you lay the roses, pour the mead, light the cedar incense, offer the myrrh or dragonsblood or cinnamon, but it does mean that a more immediate connection is one benefit and advantage of using a ritual language. In part it’s a matter of dedication and devotion. Our efforts please the divine; as someone said – I’m quoting badly here – “the gods enjoy the taste of human sweat in their offerings.”

A tradition can have profound impact on our spiritual paths. Forrest observes (again, insert your preferred designation for “Goddess” and “Isis” as needed):

By examining the evidence this tradition has left us, modern devotees of the Goddess can be connected with and find inspiration in the ancient worship … We can discover the traditional ways Isis was worshipped and learn how her worshippers thought, talked and taught about her. In the stories they told, the religious purposes they agreed upon … we can follow the path of a very ancient religious tradition that can connnect us to our spiritual ancestors. By using the symbols they used and found meaningful– and by finding our own meaning in them – we are empowered by tradition. It can guide us, inpsire us, explain things to us. It provides potent archetypal symbols, sanctified by centuries of use, energized by the meaning invested in them. The devotion of thousands upon thousands of Isis worshippers before us can provide a path we can walk and a context for our own relationship

with the divine. Thus, “tradition can be an extremely valuable tool of connection with the Divine; yet it need not constrain us. Human religious history is a history of change” (9).

Ritual Language and Two Kinds of “Users”

The use of a special ritual language concerns two groups of ritualists in different ways. For writers or composers of rituals and liturgies, the language must be “composable in.” That is, it shouldn’t be so difficult to use that the creation of new rituals and liturgies is so challenging only a few can pull it off. This means that those who know the language can use it creatively. Need a new handfasting ritual, or a rite to plant potatoes? No problem! This also means that the first group can make the ritual accessible to the second and much larger group, the users or participants in rituals and liturgies. This latter groups includes not only the “usual suspects,” the regular participants in rituals, but also any visitors (assuming your rituals with a ritual language are open to them), and readers of any media like your group’s website that explains or presents rituals to a wider audience.

Which Ritual Language?

There are currently some 6000 human languages on the planet, though the number is decreasing dramatically. However, Celtic-inspired Druids need not sort through them; under a dozen ready and suitable options present themselves. (If you want to focus on Asatru and other similar northwestern European Heathen traditions, replace Celtic with Germanic tongues. Likewise, substitute some Slavic options, if you’re into Baltic Heathenism like Romuva, or Hellenismos if you’re a Greek Pagan.etc.).

Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Cornish, Manx. Throw in Proto-Celtic if you wish. All but the latter have communities of speakers, grammars and dictionaries and various learning resources. (Proto-Celtic lets you try out an ancestral speech in a form that’s still being reconstructed as we speak. Enough exists to compose in it – barely.  See the next section for more possibilities.) Admittedly you’re most likely to encounter the modern forms of these, but dive into the modern form, and you can begin to make use of preserved older forms in manuscripts, chronicles, epics and legends, rich with symbolism and myth for rituals, prayers, chants, song lyrics, etc. as yet unborn, unwritten, unchanted, unsung.

Conlangs, Arise!


Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

Another option lies in the adaptation of a Celtic language to your purposes. Ritual language is already heightened, altered, shifted.  Well, a conlang or constructed language may fit your needs.  (For a detailed look at some possibilities, visit Mark Rosenfelder’s online Language Construction Kit.)  Conlangers have been modifying adapting, regularizing, extending and creating out of whole cloth an astonishing range of languages. A significant number of them exist in forms complete enough to use for ritual. And you can actually commission a language from the Language Creation Society. You too can do just as the producers of Game of Thrones have done with Dothraki, whose creator David Peterson has created other languages. Visit his website for a sampling.

Perplexed by the contradiction between authentic or historical and concocted or created ex nihilo? You’ve arrived at the classic a priori versus a posteriori nexus – a lively point of debate in the conlang community.

J M Greer

J M Greer

Ends and Beginnings

Had enough? Need a break? Or want to sample the sounds of some 30 European languages? Below is a Youtube clip featuring Celtic, Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages, along with Greek, Albanian and Hungarian to round out the linguistic variety of Europe (see the note below for a complete list of languages and approximate times). You may have visceral reactions to accents, pitches, sounds. I urge you to make note of them. See if you can get down in words what it is that appeals or doesn’t appeal to you in the sounds and overall sprachgefühl, a wonderful German word that literally means “speech-feeling” — the character of a language. This can be helpful as you consider the sound of any ritual language you might want to use. It may also prove useful if you’re wondering what languages you might want to study in the future (if you’re following the language learning advice of John Michael Greer in his talk “A Magical Education”). And there’s a chance it may spark a dream of a past life when you may have spoken a form of one of these languages yourself.

Here’s the 32-language video:

A Next Step

In DRL —  A Druid Ritual Language — Part 3, I’ll look specifically at Welsh and then at a couple of conlangs as candidates for ritual languages.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Images: Huston SmithGame of Thrones; all/nothingDanaelect4;  J M Greer; bardic chair.

From the Wikipedia entry for “Magical Language“, accessed 3/23/14, which I cite below for its interest:

The performance of magic almost always involves the use of language. Whether spoken out loud or unspoken, words are frequently used to access or guide magical power. In “The Magical Power of Words” (1968) S. J. Tambiah argues that the connection between language and magic is due to a belief in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe. Bronisław Malinowski … suggests that this belief is an extension of man’s basic use of language to describe his surroundings, in which “the knowledge of the right words, appropriate phrases and the more highly developed forms of speech, gives man a power over and above his own limited field of personal action.”Magical speech is therefore a ritual act and is of equal or even greater importance to the performance of magic than non-verbal acts.

Not all speech is considered magical. Only certain words and phrases or words spoken in a specific context are considered to have magical power. Magical language … is distinct from scientific language because it is emotive and it converts words into symbols for emotions; whereas in scientific language words are tied to specific meanings and refer to an objective external reality. Magical language is therefore particularly adept at constructing metaphors that establish symbols and link magical rituals to the world.

Malinowski argues that “the language of magic is sacred, set and used for an entirely different purpose to that of ordinary life.” The two forms of language are differentiated through word choice, grammar, style, or by the use of specific phrases or forms: spellssongsblessings, or chants, for example. Sacred modes of language often employ archaic words and forms in an attempt to invoke the purity or “truth” of a religious or a cultural “golden age”. The use of Hebrew in Judaism is an example.

Another potential source of the power of words is their secrecy and exclusivity. Much sacred language is differentiated enough from common language that it is incomprehensible to the majority of the population and it can only be used and interpreted by specialized practitioners (magicianspriests, shamans, even mullahs). In this respect, Tambiah argues that magical languages violate the primary function of language: communication. Yet adherents of magic are still able to use and to value the magical function of words by believing in the inherent power of the words themselves and in the meaning that they must provide for those who do understand them. This leads Tambiah to conclude that “the remarkable disjunction between sacred and profane language which exists as a general fact is not necessarily linked to the need to embody sacred words in an exclusive language.”

Video roster of languages and times; “FSI + a number” refers to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute ranking of difficulty for an English speaker, 1 being easier, and higher numbers being comparatively more difficult/requiring more hours of study:

0:00 Serbian—FSI 3
0:21 British English
1:03 Albanian—FSI 4/FSI 2
1:18 Finnish—FSI 4
1:46 Slovakian—FSI 4
2:25 German– FSI 2
2:56 Macedonian—FSI 4
3:26 Portuguese—FSI 1
3:54 Ukrainian—FSI 4
4:19 Croatian—FSI 4
4:50 Moldovan—not listed
5:48 Swedish—FSI1
6:14 Russian—FSI 4
6:52 Italian—FSI 1
7:22 Slovenian—FSI 4
7:49 Danish—FSI 1
8:22 Polish—FSI 4
8:44 Romanian—FSI 1
9:13 French—FSI 1
10:00 Byelarussian—not listed
10:24 Bulgarian—FSI 4
10:54 Greek—FSI 4
11:22 Czech—FSI 4
11:52 Dutch—FSI 1
12:35 Bosnian—FSI 4
13:00 Spanish (Castilian) – FSI 1
13:30 Estonian—FSI 4
14:02 Norwegian—FSI 1
14:53 Lithuanian—FSI 4
15:20 Irish Gaelic—not listed
15:52 Latvian—FSI 4
16:26 Icelandic—FSI 4
16:52 Hungarian—FSI 4
17:30 Slovenian—FSI 4

Edited/updated 10 July 2014

%d bloggers like this: