The following article was originally published in a much shortened form in Pagan Dawn magazine, Samhain 2013. I thought I’d put the full version here for anyone interested. It also includes a good description of some of the design philosophy behind The Bear Feast, our Midwinter event.

Designing Ritual
Corwen Broch and Kate Fletcher

Paganism is a hard thing to define. Personally I know what I consider to be its core, but opinions vary. For this reason its often easier to delineate Pagans by what they do, rather than what they believe, Orthopraxy rather than Orthodoxy to use the technical words. One of the more important things that most Pagans do is ritual (I’m not talking about everyday ritual acts like cleaning teeth here, I’m talking about those special ritual actions we do as part of our ‘practice’). We do ritual a lot, rain or shine, on our own, with covens, groves, at camps, at open meetings, from memory or from slowly disintegrating damp bits of paper. Why? Maybe if we think a little about why we are doing it we can consider whether we are getting the most out of it? For many of you none of this will be new, but it is sometimes a good exercise to strip things back to first principles so I hope you won’t feel patronised.

The Purpose of Ritual

Here are a few reasons we could think of:
Getting in touch with something or contacting the transpersonal. Whether you define the transpersonal as Deity or as your unconscious mind, ritual can help us reach out to the ‘other’, within or without. This reaching out can achieve anything from communication to actually embodying some other transpersonal force. Examples: Drawing down the Moon, the Wiccan rite whereby the Priestess embodies the Godddess and speaks as her. Vision Quest, where the aspirant hopes to catch a glimpse of the forces that underlie reality and gain power or knowledge from this vision.
The social aspect, bonding groups and establishing boundaries. Ritual can be a solo activity but is more often done in a group. The simple act of being together in the heightened state of ritual time can strengthen groups, but ritual is also used, through the concept of Initiation, to mark the entrance of people into a group. Examples: Druid Initiation, at my initiation I became a full member of my Druid Order. Even though I had paid the money and done the course a physical initiation ceremony was a powerful marker which changed how I felt about myself and the group.
Achieving change, magick and psychology. Perhaps we want to change how we feel or think. Perhaps we want to change something in the world through non physical means (if one believes this is possible). Ritual is certainly a powerful way to change how we feel about something, or to change our view of ourselves. Example: Coming of Age ceremonies exist in many cultures to mark and smooth the change from child to adult. Many Pagans are seeking to facilitate their own children’s growth in this way.
Comfort. Lets not underestimate the simple fact that ritualistic behaviour and the sense of altered perspective it brings can be comforting and offer solace, often through contact with something beyond the self, or through simple familiarity. I think there is a degree of comfort implicit in the social bonding achieved by successful rituals too.
Delineation of time and space. Ritual may be used to mark out a time or a place as somehow special, dedicated to a certain purpose or worthy of increased respect or different behavioural norms. Example: The Consecration of an Altar in a room may add a sense of peace and sacrality to the space and enable further work such as meditation to take place there.
Art. Ritual can be a form of artistic expression in its own right. It seems that the overly theatrical rituals typical of Victorian occult groups like the Golden Dawn are close to theatre and are as much artistic experiences as magical ones.

I’m sure there are many other reasons too, and any ritual may include several of the above elements.

The Tools of Ritual

In order to achieve the above end results we can use many different techniques or tools. Of course most rituals probably include many of these and perhaps more that we haven’t thought of. Here are a few ideas though. Obviously there is a great deal of overlap through between these two broad categories, as they both ultimately work on the minds of the participants.

Physiological Tools. These work on the mind primarily through the body. They exploit our own body’s responses to fear, discomfort, sensual stimulae, sexual arousal or adrenaline and thus heighten our sense of being in that moment. By giving us a heightened experience we may be able to enter intense emotional states more easily, we will also be more likely to form lasting memories of the ritual, which is important if the goal is to achieve some long lasting psychological shift. Examples: darkness, firelight and flickering light, disorientation, unusual sounds, smells, sights, locations, posture. These may be combined; in my initiation into the Bardic Grove for instance I was blindfolded (in darkness, disoriented and somewhat anxious), robed, led by the hand (sensual stimulae), asked to curl up like a seed (posture) and exposed to incense, chanting and music (sounds, smells etc). As part of the ritual I stood up and was unblindfolded (posture again and light etc), and found myself in a wood (unusual environment), all of which served to put me in an extremely heightened sense of awareness which made the words spoken to me, and which I spoke, more powerful.

Psychological Tools Many of them rely on changing the environment we find ourselves in to one that is significantly different from our everyday experience, one that may have symbolic or meaningful content. These include special words or music, symbolic costumes or objects, drama or narrative. These things are chosen to be beautiful or elicit some other emotional or rational response. Drama and narrative and symbolism are especially important as they allow us to bring deep content into our ritual without having to explain what everything means explicitly. We all know what a person wearing black with a skull mask and carrying a scythe represents, there is no need to talk about what death means or describe it in words. In this way symbolic items or characters can stand in for large and complex concepts, and are well understood as such by both conscious and unconscious minds. The deep meaning of actions carried out by or with these symbolic objects or characters are understood very well by the unconscious mind. Social relationships and status may also play a part, initiations are often carried out by the most ‘important’ people in the group and their status adds to the effect of the actions.

Altered States. All of these factors may contribute to us entering an altered state of consciousness. I don’t want to go into this area in great depth as it could be the subject of a whole series of articles, but basically any state other than our normal waking consciousness could be considered an altered state. In some altered states, such as light trance, we are open to suggestion or more likely to experience glimpses of the transpersonal. Even the state of heightened arousal we mentioned above is an altered state of consciousness, though one that we may not notice in the moment.

Repetition. Repetition deserves a paragraph all of its own. Repetition within ritual, repeating the sacred words for example, or repeating narrative elements in the manner of a children’s story, is important because it can put us in an altered state of consciousness, or more prosaically simply drum words or images into our minds. A standard familiar opening or closing, if not too long or uninteresting, may be helpful in establishing mood. Repetition of entire rituals themselves is also extremely powerful. A major shortcoming (in my opinion) of many Pagan rituals is the feeling that we should re-invent the wheel and write a new ritual each time. This is unnecessary and may actually be seriously counterproductive. A well designed and enacted ritual gains tremendous power through expectation and repetition, we don’t need to worry about boring our participants if there are enough dramatic, sensual, psychological and physiological elements for them to experience! If you feel you have hit upon a successful form, why change it? Why not let it run and refine it instead?

Putting it all together

So we want to do a ritual. Firstly think about what we are trying to achieve. Without a clear purpose we will achieve little. I’ve been to too many seasonal rituals that are carried out just because it’s that time of year. They lack focus and are generally unsatisfying experiences. It is of course perfectly acceptable to have a ritual as pure theatre or as a get together, but if you do why not use your skills to make it artistically or socially fulfilling for all concerned?

Having delineated our purpose or purposes then it is time to think what elements from the toolbox of ritual would be appropriate. Finding a central image may be useful, or a central process. A symbolic action might be enacted, like the famous reaping of an ear of wheat in silence, or the baptismal immersion in water, and this central action can be surrounded by other elements which reinforce its symbolic meaning or psychological or physiological impact. Simplicity is often more powerful than complexity, there is only so much that the mind can grasp without becoming overloaded. It is especially important not to overload the mind with too many words! Images and actions are far more powerful, words are no substitute for them. Too many words may lead the participants to lose interest and switch off, there is no rule about how long a ritual has to be, make it short and punchy rather than long and dull!

Case Studies

Here are a couple of case studies which hopefully illustrate these elements of ritual design.

The Mercian Gathering is the single biggest outdoor Pagan gathering in the UK. Designing a meaningful ritual for a group of almost 1000, some of whom may know little about Paganism and the others will be from many different traditions must be a challenge to say the least, but I feel that the Mercian Gathering achieve their goals well. The ritual begins with symbolic cleansing by passing through a fire labyrinth to the sound of pipes and drums. This uses many of our physiological tools above, fire, darkness, sound etc. It marks the entrance into a liminal time, once we have passed through the labyrinth we are in a different (head)space. Everyone then processes to the Wicker Man where some have hung offerings and prayers in the hours preceeding . The procession, with its sights and sounds serves to add a sense of expectation. Everyone circles the Wicker Man and the fire is lit with flaming arrows- a far more marvellous spectacle than lighting it with a match would be! There is dancing and music and cheers as the Giant falls- the sacrifice is complete. Later bread will be cooked in the embers, in the morning the bread will be drawn forth, a suitable resurrection with rich symbolic meaning. There is another procession, bearing solar imagery, to the main circle where the bread is shared.

This ritual has many powerful visual images and coupled with the symbolic sacrifice and rebirth is satisfying emotionally and rationally. It could inspire a ritual on a small scale too, following a trail of lanterns through a wood to a place where among chanting celebrants a corn dolly is sacrificed, burnt, and a loaf pulled from its ashes would be equally powerful if somewhat less spectacular!

The Bear Feast takes place at Midwinter. We were inspired by two things to create this ritual. Firstly ancient bear ceremonies that were carried out all around the sub-arctic regions, and secondly by Graham Harvey’s writings on Animism, and more specifically a talk he gave at an OBOD camp many years ago about one of the origins of religion being our need to apologise to our food. The emotional or spiritual purpose of the Bear Feast is to forge a compassionate connection to the food we eat and the lives that are inevitably taken in its production, directly or indirectly. If we are respectful to those other-than-human-persons who literally died that we might live, then we should try to live our lives to the full.

Bear Feast is a weekend event and thus is in effect made up of several connected mini rituals, though the whole thing hopefully functions as a kind of unity. Firstly on the Friday evening people gather in the recreated Viking Longhouse, we hold hands and all introduce ourselves and share food, then we all learn and practice the songs we’ll use the next day. There is obviously a practical aim to this (eating and learning the songs) but more importantly this time serves to bond the group together, so people can relax and feel safe and thus more able to appreciate the other parts of the weekend. The setting, firelight etc also help to add a special mood, though we are not really deeply in ‘ritual time’ yet. We do start to observe the taboo against speaking the word ‘bear’ however, which is extremely difficult at an event called the Bear Feast! All sorts of amusing euphemisms must be concocted and forgetting the taboo will be met with mockery! Use of different language in this way also reinforces the specialness of the events taking place.

Early on Saturday morning, while it is still dark, we wake everyone who has been sleeping in the Longhouse with drumming, tea is made and folk get dressed and perform their ablutions but everyone is encouraged to speak in hushed voices to maintain if possible the liminal state between waking and sleeping. Eventually drumming becomes chanting and the (previously selected) hunters assemble by the doors with their spears. They are smudged and blessed with an ancient poetic hunter’s blessing translated from a Finno-Ugric poem and while this whole process is going on we all sing some of the songs we’ve learnt. The atmosphere really builds (as you might expect in a Viking Longhouse at dawn full of incense, firelight, chanting, drumming and beautiful poetry) and there is a great sense of expectation. Everyone leaves and we process around the site until we come to where the (person impersonating the) bear is hiding. The bear is woken from its hibernatory sleep according to an ancient formula and is then ‘killed’ by the hunters, again in the way expected by tradition. In the dim dawn light the hunt looks quite convincing and even though everyone knows this is ‘pretend’ the build up and the imagery is so powerful that you are moved in spite of yourself.

The men and women (or as we like to say ‘those who identify with stereotypical male and female roles…) separate and the men remain with the bear to remove his skin (an antique real bear skin) and then hold a symbel where we make boasts and promises. This is bonding for the men but also gives the women time to prepare the Earthouse, the large roundhouse where the later parts of the ritual will take place. The women symbolically clean the space, smudge it and sing a special song. They light the fire, all these actions are explicitly carried out to honour our ‘guest’, the bear. The men process to the door singing, and there is a ritual exchange of words through the closed door. Eventually the door is open and the men carrying the bear enter, they are sprinkled with water and welcomed with song, the bear is taken to his place of honour where his throne and its surroundings are decorated with offerings representing the food we have eaten that year.

In this part of the ritual we see the central image or narrative starting to emerge. The Bear represents our food, by killing him we acknowledge the role of death in bringing us food and by honouring him we honour the things which we have eaten.

Later in the day we have a talk and then silly games, ostensibly to choose next years hunters but also to honour our furry guest. We have a meditation which brings the last year of our lives and the coming year into focus and attempts to call up a sense of all those persons we have eaten, with the intent of honouring them. This is the most transparent part of the ritual with regards to its meaning as it is explicitly stated, but it is woven into the ritual as a whole and serves as part of the preparations for our sacred meal. This meal represents the bear’s meat but is usually of local venison (with a vegan option!). There is music and song followed by the last part of the ritual, where the bear skin is levitated with the power of our song up (at least that’s how we describe it) out of the Earthouse roof, while objects representing the prayers we send with him burn on the fire. Sometimes we have let off a firework as a sign of his ascendance. There is a strong element of play acting and some humour in all this but it in no way diminishes the seriousness or the magical or spiritual power of the experience. Mirth and reverence can happily co-exist. The bear will of course return from the Sky Father next year, as all the matter in the world moves through cycles of animate and inanimate existence, those atoms which make up our bodies being no exception.

The Sunday morning ends with an exchange of gifts and the extinguishing of the fire, each participant pours a cup of water onto the fire resulting in a great cloud of steam and smoke, a good action to mark the ending of that years Bear Feast.

This ritual then combines the strong central image of the death, consumption, ascension and assumed return of the Bear with many of the tools of ritual we spoke about earlier. Location is important but the timing of the more symbolic parts of the ritual to take place at night or early in the morning, by firelight, to the accompaniment of ‘bells and smells’, chanting and drumming, is deliberate. There are many small touches to involve each person present, from exchanging gifts to dressing the altar and playing communal games. Perhaps most crucial is the fact that we have as much as possible tried to keep the event as similar year on year as possible. We have obviously refined it, and in fact a few years ago changed the order of its parts quite radically, but now it seems optimal we will keep the words, songs etc the same. We can draw on the power of repetition which both deepens everyone’s experience and also makes things run more smoothly, eventually Bear Feast should run itself, people will know their parts and the songs and what happens next. There are already signs of this happening.

Last Words

So to summarise when planning ritual boil down your purpose into a few images or actions, and then find some way to make them have visual or psychological impact. Surround them with elements calculated to add intensity to the experience. Carry it out with pace and feeling. Job done!

What do you want to be different after the ritual?

What do you want to change?

Kate and Corwen are musicians and workshop facilitators. Corwen also makes ancient musical instruments. See their website for details:
For more information about the Bear Feast go to
For more information about the Mercian Gathering go to
For more information about Graham Harvey’s writings go to

Apologies for missing last Sunday, we were deep in Tax Return Hell. We’ve climbed out of the Pit of Receipts though so normal service is now resumed!

I was initially thinking about writing a post on the design of Pagan ritual, and how if we are creating a new ritual we need to think about what we are trying to achieve and use an appropriate ‘ritual technology’ to achieve that objective, but I think that can wait until next week. We celebrated a slightly late Burns Night celebration a couple of days ago and it got me thinking about the nature of calendar celebrations, and more specifically the Eightfold Year beloved of Pagans, so I think I’ll put down some thoughts about that from the same kind of headspace. Maybe I’ll call it a Structural Functionalist Critique (I feel fairly safe that no-one will bother to look that up on Wikipedia and see if I’m using the words correctly!).

If you’re not a Pagan I guess these comments, in a broad way, apply to all calendar customs. So stay with me, eh?

Anyhow our Facebook newsfeeds this week have been mostly full of people posting pictures of snowdrops and wishing one another Imbolc blessings or similar. The 8-fold wheel of the year rolls on and I wonder how relevant are the festivals of the Ancient Celts for modern people? Why do we carry on celebrating them, what is their function, personal and collective?

For some people the celebration of the Eightfold Year is doubtless a matter of identity. Its one of those things Pagans do. Maybe if you don’t do it, you’re not a real Pagan? But what do we hope to accomplish from doing so?

Well there is the Community aspect. Well we all celebrate these things so its a nice excuse to meet up and do something together. Nothing wrong with that. On the farm here we’ve recently, at Mo’s instigation, started an informal round of calender celebrations. We wassailed the apple trees, we had two (yes two, count ’em) Christmas Dinners. We celebrated Burns Night. All great fun and nice to get together and build community, not in a heavy way, just nice. I think the Eightfold Year works rather well from this point of view. Six weeks between festivals is about enough time to build up an appetite for the next one.

The Eightfold Year is sometimes thought of as describing a mystery drama that unfolds through the year, telling the ‘life cycle’ of the Horned God and the Goddess (‘life cycle’ makes them sound like bugs, but I can’t think of another way to put it!). In this it is partly successful, although since several overlapping narratives are often used it does get rather confused. Some of this comes down to the Equinoxes, not really part of the original ancient scheme so no-one really knows what to do on them and they tend to get bits of neighbouring festivals attached to them. Maybe it functions better within a small group than it does across the Pagan scene as a whole. Six out of ten for this one Paganism!

Of course there is always Tradition. Its good to do things the way they have always been done, it feels respectful to the Ancestors. Well its good until Ronald Hutton comes along and tells you its all a Victorian Reconstruction conjured from the fevered imagination of Sir James Fraser…

But for me celebrating the turning of the year is about getting closer to nature. It focusses the mind on the changes we see around us, ultimately its humbling because we realise that being human isn’t the only game in town, and that being in the nowdoesn’t make me so important as there is an awful lot of ‘before’, and there’ll be a big lot of ‘afterwards’, if you see what I mean. Now the Eightfold year may be a bit of a trap here. I’d like people to look out of their windows (hell, maybe even go outside) and celebrate what is actually happening in their world. Celebrating that the ewes are in milk may be folkloric, but maybe we should celebrate that the sun is a little stronger, that the birds are starting to build their nests, whatever is going on near you. This might mean maybe our celebrations won’t match up with other people’s elsewhere for timing. Maybe we’ll be celebrating some pretty odd things, but somehow it would be real.

So don’t let those Ancient Celts tell you when to have your party, celebrate something that feels like it needs celebrating (the first Glow-worm of the year is cause for celebration here, as is the first time the outside tap freezes). I’m not advocating dropping the eightfold year, but lets add our personal calender to the sacred mix, because it is sacred too.

Celebrating Robbie Burn’s birthday felt good, so I’m going to do that more as well this year. Ross Nichol‘s Birthday should be marked with a candle or somesuch and maybe Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess deserve some sort of remembrance involving a speech directed at dinner followed by an alcoholic pudding.

So if you survived to the end of this ramble, what are the things that mark the turning of your year, and whose birthdays will you be celebrating?  Go on, use that comment box…

Kate and I kind of belong to two ‘communities’ (or should I say subcultures?), the Pagan Community and the Folk Music Scene. They are oddly similar, maybe even a similar size, though its harder to quantify the number of active folk music fans as there are no questions about your musical taste in the Census (though wouldn’t that be cool!). There is also a lot of crossover in membership.

Both Folk and Paganism have a combination of national events and small local groups. They have their own celebrities, who are World Famous in Folk Music or Paganism, though no-one else has heard of them. Occasionally these people get to go on the TV or Radio, where they are mostly treated as special cases and not usually included in the bracket of the ‘normal’. There are also a lot of caravans involved in Folk Music and Paganism..There is one more wonderful thing they have in common, and I will call it by the slightly poncey title of the Complete Right to Amateur and/or Incompetent Creativity. That’s CRAIC for short. Do you see what I did there?

You see we all live in an a world where music is dominated by two factors which kind of feed off each other, firstly, easy access to recorded music and, secondly, the increased professionalisation of performers. The recorded music industry makes available great music, and I am grateful for that. There is an inevitable side effect though, that is especially obvious with instrumental music but also affects sung traditional music.

Obviously the best musicians are going to get recorded most, but it isn’t the case that a really good fiddle player will get to be on say, 10 CDs, whilst a fairly good one will get on 7. No-one wants the fairly good fiddle player on their record, so a small number of excellent musicians will monopolise all the top level recordings. The music industry only needs one or two players of any given instrument or singers of any given style, as, thanks to the wonder of recording technology, those two musicians can be in everyone’s home and car.

This reduces the diversity in style and makes musicians judge themselves, and one another, in comparison to a very small pool of excellent full time professional performers. It also effects audience expectations. If the only whistle music they have heard is Michael McGoldrick or Brian Finnegan, what are they going to think of my humble tootling? Or yours? Now you may say that the fact it is easier than ever to record a CD and market it yourself may end this situation, and I hope that is right, but I still think I have a point.

The worst side effect of this uniformity is that it might put people off playing and singing. Lots of people start, but a lot stop when they realise they may never be ‘as good’ as their favourite musician. These are unrealistic expectations though fuelled by lack of exposure to, and lack of value given to, live, amateur performance.

However that live amateur performance happens, thank the Gods, in spades at the average Pagan Camp and the old fashioned type of Singaround Folk Club, and long may it continue. Let’s use the Pagan camp and the Folk Club’s power of CRAIC™ to resist this sterile cultural hegemony!

The CRAIC™ Manifesto

As Pagans and Folkies let’s encourage everyone’s participation. Artificial boundaries between ‘audience’ and ‘performers’ are harmful to our culture.

Collective performances by everyone are more valuable than solo performances by skilled individuals. Collective performances build community, togetherness and love. And all that Hippy Shit.

Playing and/or performing is rewarding and marvellous in itself, regardless of any outcome. Acts of pointless beauty are to be encouraged.

Singing songs and playing tunes keeps them alive, but it is variation that keeps them evolving.

Listen to others for inspiration, but not comparison.

The ultimate test for any piece of dance music is its ability to get people’s feet moving, not how many notes it fits into any given second.

The ultimate test for any song is how much it moves the audience and the performer, not how in tune the notes are.

Now is a good day to start learning something new.

Remember the Lady says:

and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in My praise., for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on Earth.

by Corwen

Lately I’ve been pondering on the real core meaning and purpose of the Pagan Project. By ‘Pagan Project’ I mean the collective efforts of all those folk who do, and have, called themselves Pagans down the years.

Partly my reflections have been triggered by an odd distance I’ve sometimes felt to the Pagan mainstream. I know I’ve changed, become less theistic, less of a believer and more of a sceptic. Sometimes life does that to you. I would say I’d lost my faith, but although at different times I’ve described myself as a Qabalist, Druid, Wiccan, Shaman and Animist the centre of my Paganism has always been a sort of Eco-Pagan devotion to Nature and the Land, and this hasn’t changed. I’ve moved from a purely mythic understanding of my relationship to the land to one based on the sort of scientific-nature-mysticism embodied in the formative Deep Green book Thinking like a Mountain .

I also feel that Paganism itself has changed and moved away from me somewhat. I was a stereotypical Eco-Pagan in the early 90’s, a type of Pagan rarely met with these days as political activism has become largely atheistic. In the days of the road protest Paganism had been the default position and tribes of Pagan activists had roamed the land with handcarts and hurdy-gurdys (or is that just my romantic memories…). Its not just that this sort of Paganism has become obsolete  but that the movement has splintered into many (more?) strands.

I know there are Wiccan covens and Heathen Hearths going about their business the way they have always done for the last 30 years or so, but these voices have become somewhat quieter compared to the mass of unaffiliated Pagans. There is an increasing ‘laity’ of people not initiated into any tradition and holding a great variety of beliefs and this has changed the balance of thought in a lot of ways.

Despite the welcome rise in a class of professional Pagan Theologian it has become unfashionable to talk about theology in public, or even try to gather together any kind of shared ideas or manifesto  as Paganism has instead become defined in some quarters by a kind of rabid individualism. Perhaps this is a result of the blending of the Pagan and New Age movements? A radical individualism was always present in Paganism, as those Pagans devoted to the Great Work of self realisation were in some ways opposed to others more interested in serving, be that serving the Land or the Gods. Nowadays though conversations about ‘What is Paganism?’ or ‘What is Druidry?’ get boiled down to responses like ‘I’m a Druid/Pagan, so it is whatever I say it is’. I don’t hold to this view, but this isn’t the time for a discussion about that issue! Maybe another Sunday, though in the meantime see this post by Miniver Cheevy who has expressed very well what he calls a ‘Pagan Sensibility‘.

So in this splintered Paganism what holds us together? In my opinion common beliefs have largely dissolved in the last 20 years, leaving behind, however, an important legacy, that being common practice and common culture. More than ever Paganism is defined by Ortho-praxis (what we do) rather than Ortho-doxy (what we believe).

None of the Pagans I know from the youngish student based moot in Bournemouth are in covens, a situation unthinkable 20 years ago where Moots were largely recruiting grounds for covens. So as the coven has lost its place in the centre of Paganism, Moots, and particularly camps and festivals, have become more important. Also ‘semi’ open circles, not a new idea (I was attending Sian’s House of the Goddess in London nearly 20 years ago) have become important, at least around here.

Often these communities are not based on a single tradition but rather span traditions (Druidry and Wicca in particular seem to have fused lately, especially in their more public manifestations). What holds these groups together is not common belief but rather common ideas of practice, common religious imagery, and common identity as Pagans.

These commonalities are extremely important and valuable. From lamenting the loss of a common (or identifiably mainstream) belief system I now celebrate what binds us together, and the result of that ‘binding’. Perhaps the real meaning of Paganism was never the theology, but rather the community. Paganism is a safe container for many types of theological and philosophical experimentation these days. We have seen the rise of the Atheist and the (closely related) Animist Pagans. More importantly though it is an extended friendship group, a tribe, a nation. In stark contrast to the rest of society Pagans maintain vast networks of friends and acquaintances, and mix in intimate gatherings with people from widely diverse social, racial, and economic groups.

Traditional church communities have some of these features, and are similarly held together by common practice and identity. However the majority of these mainstream religions are defined almost by their exclusivity (despite what they may say). You are Christian precisely because you reject other positions and sign up to a creed, a statement of fixed belief. Paganism is happy to support you as you change and evolve your views, it is indeed a broad church, broad enough that I can stay within it even as my views have radically shifted. It is a religion that can even embrace atheists as the existence of Atheist Druidry proves. It has this in common with both the Quaker movement and Unitarianism, and it is no accident that both these have a significant Pagan presence in their own ranks.

This is in itself a radical challenge and alternative to a mainstream society which has become so isolating for most people. We have collectively rejected the atomisation of society into competing individuals whilst at the same time preserving individuality. Despite the scattering of families and communities as people move for study or work or to climb the housing ladder, Pagans obstinately cling to the importance of knowing lots of other people, and keeping in touch with them, and sharing emotional, artistic and religiously moving experiences with them. This isn’t a small thing.

So maybe the real meaning of Paganism isn’t about being Earth-Centred, gender balanced or having an Immanent rather than Transcendent theology, as I have long argued.

The really important thing, is us.

and our Pagan Sensibility


Red_AppleIt’s wassailing time again. And it’s been lovely to see so many reports of hobby-horsing and wassailing on-line this year.

It seems it is finally fashionable again to embrace these native traditions, and we’ve enjoyed seeing film and photos of people doing them over the winter season. It’s especially satisfying to see folk who’ve come to our workshops over the years actually doing the things we were prattling on about! There is nothing more wonderful than seeing mummers, wassailers and hobbyhorses return to communities where they had been lost, and people re-discovering that the real depth of these rituals is not in knowing about them, but in doing them.

On the surface wassailing would seem to be a ritual to make our fruit trees bear well in the coming year, even though you could say that this is quite irrational given our modern understanding of how growing food really works from a scientific point of view. Of course it also serves to bring communities together at the darkest time of year, and give them an excuse to eat, drink and sing together, all activities which provide social ‘glue’ that bind people together in a common purpose. It cements the interdependence of the people and the trees and recognises our dependence on the trees for food and shelter. We promise to be thankful for what they have provided, that we’ll give back to the trees what we can, and we’ll endeavour to protect them from harm.

So how do you actually ‘wassail’ a tree? Well, the consistent features seem to be the following: you process to the trees, singing together, you drink alcohol from a common cup (often a three sided Wassail Bowl) and toast the trees, you talk to your tree using one of several techniques (poetry, flattery,threat and pleading all seem to be quite traditional), you show your appreciation to the tree by decorating it, hanging toast in the branches or libating its roots. You make some loud noises perhaps using pots and pans before shooting through the branches (or maybe letting off a firework or thunderflash) to drive away any lingering evil spirits. There may be a Master of Ceremonies (usually called a Butler) with symbolic items on a tray, perhaps yew for everlasting life, bread, wine and salt. There may be a Wassail King and Queen. The details vary but there is lots of beauty and power left in the old ways.

All this has raised some questions too, in the Kate&Corwen household, about the very nature of ritual, in both folky and pagan communities. Rituals are by definition, repeated acts, and when something is repeated often enough, the reason and origins sometimes cease to be important, simply the fact of doing reigns supreme. Ritual needs purpose, but does the purpose need to be made explicit? Is it better to write our own wassail, or adhere to some traditional form, or maybe combine these two things in some way? Is it still a wassail, if it fulfils the purpose of a wassail, even if it has none of the traditional features or words?

So questions for you- do you have to have Pagan sympathies to carry out an ancient folk tradition, or an understanding of heritage to conduct a Pagan ritual? How do you know when such a ritual has been successful? Can we even distinguish between a Pagan ritual and a folk custom if carried out well by those conducting it?

Helpful Links:
or search Mudcat’s Lyrics and Knowledge Search for ‘Wassail’

Further Reading:
Everything you need to know about a Wassail by A.Butler

In the meantime if you’re looking for us we’ll be in the Orchard with some cider and a pop gun 🙂

We love ballads, and we don’t mean Everything I Do I Do it For You type ballads.

Ballads are folk songs that tell a story. They are often quite long. Actually, they are often very very very very very very long! The longest one Corwen knows to sing is Sir Orfeo which has twenty some verses and takes around 6 minutes to sing, Kate wins over him with The Raven (33 verses), but we are learning one at the moment that is 93 verses long (which will be on Fish or Fowle)! Takes about 40 minutes to sing. Maybe it feels even longer if you are listening…

They aren’t boring though, that’s the thing about ballads. They are often oddly concise, almost haiku like, for their length. They don’t waste any time on character development, characters are fairly two dimensional, often social stereotypes, but character isn’t the point. The ballad is all about plot. They cram lots of incident into their verses, they are often like mini Greek Tragedies (or Shakespearean tragedies come to that). And they are old, did we mention that? Not only are individual ballads often quite old (a few hundred years) but the stories they tell are old, and the worldviews they express are positively ancient. Magic is a reality in the ballads, but not the miraculous Christian magic of the lives of saints, no, its the deep Pagan magic. To quote Steenstrup:

“Concerning all others the rule holds good that however many remarkable and marvelous things happen, miracles never take place. It is not by prayers and petitions to the saints that metamorphosed Knights and maidens get their shapes back again, nor is it by making the sign of the cross nor by reading the Scriptures that evil is bested. The intervention of the Virgin Mary or of holy men is un-necessary; that which heals or reshapes, that which draws the frigid lover to longing is mysterious remedies, the various instruments of superstition, the token and the mystic word. Runes have a wonderful alluring power, a man’s life is bound up in his name as if with a mathematical power, and with or against this one can work as though it were the man himself. In a kiss lies witchcraft which releases that which is bewitched, and drinking of a man’s warm blood and tasting of his flesh leads to metamorphosis.

They really are remarkable pieces of art, of real interest to folklore fans, musicians, and Pagans. And great stories too. You can even dance to them. Dance is an almost lost aspect of ballad singing, but for those who have been reintroducing it, it is a powerful way of a whole community to immerse themselves in a shared and ancient common culture.

Many folk fans will have heard Raggle Taggle Gypsies, The Silkie or Matty Groves but few will have heard of Sir Aldingar, Hind Etin, Earl Brand, Lamkin, Gil Brenton or Young Waters. Some folk musicians put a token ballad (often heavily abridged) on a recording, yet the recognition of these songs seems low among folkies and extremely rare among the general public. But these are some of the great works of British native culture. So why don’t we hear more of them?

There are obstacles to their performance. Firstly the language. Many ballads were first collected in the Scottish borders and the musician must decide whether to sing them in a dialect few will understand or whether to rewrite them partly or fully in modern English. Many ballads are lacking their tunes and were recorded as texts alone. Some versions are incomplete or corrupted. It does sometimes take a bit of detective work to come up with a singable piece, tracking down a tune, compiling verses from several collected versions and where necessary altering dialect words. No wonder many people who do sing ballads often trot out familiar versions from Fairport Convention or Martyn Carthy. It’s well worth the work to perform a lesser known ballad in my opinion though, and this sort of creative work puts the musicians personal stamp on the song

Also it comes down to audience demand I suspect. Most folk musicians shy away from performing anything more than 6 verses/4 minutes long, and many ballads can’t convincingly be cut down to this length without losing much that makes them special. People have increasingly short attention spans and find it hard to follow a story unless it has pictures to go with it, let alone if it is sung rather than spoken. Ballads are all about the story, and ballad singing all about telling it. The skill of ballad listening needs to be developed too.

With that in mind it is worth reading some ballads and listening to some to get familiar with their conventions, style and language. You’ll find all the texts of the most well known collection (the so called Child Ballads, collected by Francis Child) online here. Googling the title of any of them will bring up articles with explanatory notes, and searching for many on Youtube or Amazon’s MP3s will find you performances to hear. Take some time if you aren’t used to ballads, think of it as educating your palette, you will be rewarded.

If you are a singer and don’t know any ballads, why not learn one? Mudcat will furnish you with many tunes. If you are serious about it then Loomis Press have reprinted both the Child Ballads and Bronson’s invaluable work The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. For style I recommend listening to field recordings, and to Chris Foster, who is the best ballad singer I’ve come across. Sadly only a few of his albums are currently available.

In 2012 Kate was lucky enough to go to the annual gathering in Denmark of the small but mighty group of people who have brought Ballad Dance back to life in that country. She spent a weekend dancing and singing burdens in Danish, and generally immersing herself in this ancient form of ballad performance. The songs get into the core of a community when they are remembered and celebrated in the feet as well as the voicebox. We hope to run an event like this in the UK, at the end of 2013, so watch this space.

Good luck with your ballad mission if you choose to accept it, and when we see you next, we want you to sing us a song, and it had better be very very very very long! 

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