The room was dark; the sun had just gone down not more than fifteen minutes ago, and we hadn’t bothered to turn on any lights. It fit the Halloween mood better, flame rather than fake light. A single candle stood in each window, flickering shadows against the walls. A circle of candles outlined the group of twenty, each of whom also held a candle in their hands. They were focused heavily on their task, eyes closed and brows squinched, so much that they didn’t even notice that I was paying more attention to what was going on around us rather than what we were supposed to be doing. I could smell the roasting turkey in the oven, two hours behind schedule but still delicious, and the sounds of Loreena McKennitt’s All Souls’ Night. The rest of the group was very intently trying to cast a circle while Renée led them, her voice powerfully commanding them to visualize balls of light coming from the center of their chests.
The light was supposed to represent personal energy that you were pulling from inside you, mixing with everybody else’s energy, and forming a protective barrier around the group while also creating sacred space. I couldn’t focus, however; the idea of a circle was not only silly but completely unnecessary. The idea of “sacred space” is a source of major debate between Wiccans and druids; to the druid mind, to my mind, setting aside a portion of the world that is more sacred than the rest just because you decide it is seems not only arrogant but stupid as well. All the world is sacred, no part more than the rest.
The holiday is Samhain (sow-ehn), the pagan new year that falls on the night between October 31st and November 1st. Otherwise known as Halloween, in “real-world” terms. The word “Samhain” literally translates from Old Irish as “Summer’s End;” I’ve always found it amusing that the word for new year co notates an ending. I suppose it’s a representation of the never-ending cycle, or how something must be finished before something else can begin. I’ve always thought the translation as being a major descriptor for the Celtic society, acknowledging how the new can begin when the old is finished.
When I first joined the Pagan Student Alliance two and a half years ago, roughly six members showed up to meetings on a regular basis. Now, we have an average of fifteen, and more who show up for special events, such as holiday rituals, and I am the last member remaining from my first year in the organization. The group spent last year turning into a group of friends, who spend time together outside of meetings, who get together regularly to watch movies, play with our pets, do homework together. I look forward to going to meetings now, not just because I’m among a group of similar-minded people, but because it gives me added time with my friends. Seeing twenty people crammed into my small condo made me realize that not only were we celebrating a holiday, we were celebrating the one thing that we all had in common, the one thing that made us look twice at one another and decide to become friends.
The group is comprised mostly of Wiccans and “eclectic pagans”, a term which simply means “I do my own thing, borrowing from several different paths as I see fit.” There are also two Ásatrú, those who worship Norse deities, two who worship Egyptian deities, and one who worships Babylonian deities. I am the only druid there, the only one who follows the Irish tradition that mixes philosophy with religion. Back before Christ was born, the druids were the intellectual class of Celtic Europe, the teachers, priests, healers, magicians, poets, and judges. We still hold to that today, following tradition and picking one area to concentrate in, incorporating our religion into every part of that focus. I have chosen to follow the poetic path, though today I’d be called a writer. Being a druid, every word I write is a creation of magic, meticulously placed to convey the meaning I desire. I do still study the other areas; I’m not a priest (or priestess, for that matter), but I do sometimes lead religious practices, and I often find myself healing some of the wounds friends suffer from, though they’re normally small emotional hurts.
The ritual is running smoother than I could have hoped; the planning meeting five days earlier had been less than simple. Of the twenty people attending the ritual, five showed up to help plan for it a week before, leaving me to decide not only the majority of what we were going to be doing but the order of activities for the night. I’d spent a good two or three hours on the internet, researching what the typical pagan ritual was like and what activities tied into the holiday, but I had planned on others bringing ideas to the planning session. In the end, the ideas remained mostly mine, and the responsibility to order the events was left to me as well.
I didn’t mind it, though; mulling over the ritual gave me time to think about exactly why the activities I had found were so enticing. For one thing, I was acting president of the PSA, and it was my responsibility to organize these kinds of events. But even if I weren’t, I wanted the holiday to be something special, something that I would always remember, and I wanted it to be absolutely perfect. Samhain marked the completion of five years of training, five years spent studying, researching, praying, and digging through every book in the library. Five years spent hunting through the Anam Cára, or the Tain bó Culaigne, or attempting to find time to begin learning Irish. Strangely fitting, that I would celebrate the completion of five years on the new year. Then again, you can’t begin something until something else has ended. Still, it’s quite an accomplishment, finishing up five years. Of course, there’s still fifteen left to go, but being a fourth of the way through…well, that’s a great source of pride.
“Bonfires dot the rolling hillsides, figures dance around and around to drums that pulse out echoes of darkness, moving to the pagan sound…” Rather than cast the circle, I stare into the candle I lit, my mind imagining what Samhain was to the ancient pagans, picturing a bonfire lit up on a clouded night so that the only light flickering is the fire. From a distance, the people circling to the beating of the drum look like small wrens, weaving a path through the light, small splotches of blackness against the orange fire. “I can see the lights in the distance trembling in the dark cloak of night. Candles and lanterns are dancing, dancing, a waltz on All Souls’ Night…” In my head, the ancients’ arms rise slowly over their heads, flowing as a river, upper bodies dipping and sliding with the grace of a serpent.
A rustle of fabric against leather draws me back to the ritual, to Renée standing up, holding a seashell full of sand. Wisps of incense smoke rise slowly, drifting lazily from the shell. Everything about Samhain is graceful, as smooth as a branch picked dry by the sea. Renée turns her back and quietly intones, “I call to the guardians of the watchtowers of the east, powers of air. Come, be with us today.” I want to laugh at her text-book invocation; there is nothing personal about this calling. It almost makes me wish I were calling an element; I change my words every time but they all mean the same thing: I ask you to be with us today. I stay quiet, though, because she is a friend I respect, and because she is the only one at the ritual who has actually had any experience working with magic. The others invoke, fire, water, earth, until the group is satisfied that all the elements are with us, and then Kim begins calling deities.
I am among the last to call deity; I ignore everybody else as they whisper, or shout, or simply think the name of their god or goddess. These are close friends with me; I know the names of almost every deity each personal called, even if they didn’t say a word. Some call to Odin, some to Freya, to Inanna, Hestia, Ra, the Goddess, even to Jehovah. When my turn comes, my lips murmur familiar names, words that flow from my mouth as naturally as the smoke from the shell. “I ask Lugh and Ogma to join us today.” Some part of my twisted mind accepts that I honestly expect the deities to actually be with us, but a part realizes that I’m not really searching for physical guidance. I want what the two deities represent to be at the ritual, to be in my heart; I want eloquence, knowledge, wisdom. My fiancé, Mike, leans close to whisper quietly enough that I’m the only one who hears, “Worship the ideas, not the man.” This is Mike’s third ritual. I’ve dragged him to a few before, as well as to a few meetings of the PSA, trying to get him to learn a little about paganism. He’s agnostic, but very curious about the religion, though he does say that putting faith in a possibility is stupid. He grounds himself in reality, in what actually is, rather than worrying about what could be. To him, it is the ideas of a religion that are important, not the religion itself. But he keeps going to meetings with me, and says that he’ll attend more ritual, at least to understand where I’m coming from.
At the first few meetings of the Pagan Student Alliance, I introduce myself as studying druidism. From that time on, everybody automatically assumes that means that I am a druid, but to me, there’s a difference. In Ireland, one wasn’t considered a druid until they’d been studying for twenty years under an archdruid, but the real difference between a druid and one who’s studying druidism is experience. Before I can call myself a druid, I have to spend that twenty years studying the mythology, the practices, even the culture and language of the Irish to completely understand the religion.
I’ve been studying for five years on my own, and I’m only now beginning to truly understand what it means to be a druid. It means being the mediator when one of your roommates decides to dump a pile of dirty dishes on another roommate’s bed. It means telling a friend that their decision to sleep with a married woman was stupid, no matter how happy you are that they’ve finally found somebody they want to get involved with. And more importantly, it means that I have made the decision that I want to be that mediator, that person who can give an objective view on a situation. Two years ago, my fiancé’s words wouldn’t have meant anything to me. Now I know that what’s important in worship isn’t so much who I’m worshipping as it is what I’m worshipping. The names don’t really matter that much, because they represent ideas: the conscious decisions I make every day that make me feel as if I’ve at least given a small contribution to the world around me, even if only making a friend realize that what they did was stupid.
And as suddenly as a river changing to waterfall, Renée says it’s time to cleanse our ritual tools. We pull out a vast array of different items. I can see necklaces with pendants: pentacles, some the image of the Goddess, runes; athames, small knives Wiccans use in ritual to represent the air element; bracelets of Celtic knots, snakes curling around the band; each item very personal and having some significance to the person holding it. Myself, I pull out a statue of Lugh. It’s a disgusting mix of sea-green and olive green, save for the spear which is a coppery color. He stands upright and proud, eyes staring straight ahead. I can imagine that he’s focused on the future, on what lies before, spear at the ready. Ready for a fight, if need be, but ready to lay it down if that’s what’s called for. I imagine that to many other pagans, the statue doesn’t have any symbolic meaning, it’s just a physical representation of the deity I’ve decided to worship. But to me, it’s a physical reminder of how my mind needs to be: relaxed, but ready for whatever’s going to be set down in front of me. A peaceful situation is just that, but it can turn ugly in a split-second. Friends can decide they hate each other for unfathomable reasons, customers at work can become almost violently angry when things don’t go their way, and I need to be prepared at any given moment to handle any situation. The statue is something I can look at, something that I can touch so that I don’t forget my chosen path and the responsibilities that go along with it.
We pass around the cleansing tools, first the chalice full of water. Renée instructs us to dip a finger in the water and run it from the base of the tool to the very tip. We cast surreptitious glances at each other, as if to see if everyone else will participate before complying. After the water comes the candle; I decide that rather than waiting for the single ritual candle to come around, I’d grab one of the candles making up the circle. I wave the statue through the flame. After that is the incense; this we have to wait to pass around, as there’s only one burner. Each tool makes a pass through the smoke, once, twice, three times the magic number for a pagan. And then the stone goes round, a flat rock that I pulled from the forests of Wisconsin when I was seven.
I don’t remember how I found the rock, but there was another one with it in the shape of a knife. I picked them up because I wondered if they had, long ago, been some Native American tools. Maybe the flat rock was used to crush corn, and the other really had been a knife that was just dulled down with age. If they were Native American tools, they were priceless artifacts, left for anybody who could recognize just how precious they were. As we touch each tool to the stone, I can hear whispers back and forth of people wondering if we’re supposed to do anything other than simply touch the stone, and then it gets passed to the next person. It makes sense to us, having an item touched by each of the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. To Wiccan mythology, they’re the building blocks of life, and most of us recognize them as important to ritual.
When I stumbled across druidism the first time, I thought it was a lot of crazy nature-worship that made no sense. I like nature, I respect that it is a beautiful but deadly power. I grew up in Illinois, where we’d have tornadoes in the summer and blizzards in the winter, but the thought of worshipping nature was silly. Still, the mythology was enthralling, the history fascinating, and after a little research, I realized that nature wasn’t the center of the druid’s religion. Truth and life, the highest ideals, were worshipped almost as deities themselves, and my logical mind knew that this was my type of religion. They’re very abstract ideas, truth and life, even though a lot of people like to think that they’re concrete. Translating them into more concrete ideas was difficult; I spent the better part of my five years puzzling over what they could possibly mean, how I could describe them, before I even began to understand that they were so abstract, I had no clear grasp of the ideas. I still think of it like trying to hold water in your cupped hands: you can fill yourself with different meanings, but they all slip out of your grasp eventually, save for a very tiny bit. Now I can give a much more concrete (and significantly longer) explanation of what a druid truly worships, and that’s the idea that every person’s life is theirs by right. Every person has the right to live as they see fit, save interfering with another person’s life. And it is a druid’s duty to defend that right in any manner they see fit, be it through stepping into the middle of a fight or making a movie that inspires people to take joy in their lives. Worship, then, no longer becomes an abstract idea either: it requires belief and acting upon that belief.
In Irish mythology, there’s a story about the invention of the magical alphabet, the Ogham. The myth says that Ogma, a god of knowledge and war, sat down and invented the alphabet himself. I compared this to Norse mythology, where Odin sacrificed himself to gain knowledge of the runes, the Norse magical alphabet. I’ve always liked the Irish story better. It’s practical and makes far more sense. Why sacrifice yourself if you can simply apply your brain? But then, that is the mind of a druid. Dying to receive something means that you really can’t enjoy it, because you’re dead (our belief is that your soul reincarnates, but you don’t necessarily carry previous memories or belongings into your next life).
The myth actually relates to my decision to become a druid. Most of the pagans I’ve spoken with have carried a set of values and then suddenly found the religion that names their belief. My story is a little different, because I was at a point in my life where I was beginning to realize what I stood for, what I believed in. Like most pagans, I had recently accepted that I wasn’t Christian, because the religion conflicted with my moral outlooks on life. I fell into a period of atheism, where I insisted that there was no God, and then I slowly switched over to agnosticism, where I admitted that I didn’t know for sure.
I first read the word “druid” in a fantasy novel; I’m not sure anymore what book it was, but the word was so foreign to me that I immediately decided to go do some research. I was a little turned off at first because I didn’t want to involve myself in a religion, especially a religion that’s so heavily frowned upon. I figured I would be able to study the religion without actually believing in it, so I kept bringing home books from the library, and then one day I figured out that I had been wrong. I’d been researching other religions at the same time, taking a powerful interest in Zoroastrianism (I was fond of the idea that good and evil must co-exist), and at first in Hinduism, but I didn’t like the Hindu belief that everything I see is merely appearance, it isn’t reality. So I announced to my friends that I was studying to be a druid, and that I wanted to worship truth, knowledge, life, and the Irish gods.
A druid holds the conscious, thought-out decision in very high regard. Faith, belief without any rational, purposeful reason, is highly frowned upon, to the point where I don’t consider anybody who blindly believes to be a druid at all. My decision was purposeful. I stopped trying to impress the boys at school, and focused instead on figuring out the mythology. I started actually paying attention in class, so that I could learn everything my teachers had to say. The results weren’t immediate, but the changes were there. I was more studious, less social. I was spending increasing amounts of time by myself, immersed in any book I could get my hands on.
This is on my mind as we pass around a pad of paper on which we’re supposed to write a renewal of purpose. They’re to be burned in the cauldron, where they will be filtered back out into the universe. The act of burning is an act of sending them to the Otherworld, or transforming them into pure energy for the deities to understand. School, for me. Reminding myself exactly why I’m at school, what end I’m working toward, why I should even bother. It seems that lately, it’s been more and more difficult to remember that I have a goal in life. I’ve been working thirty-five hour weeks at work and taking eighteen credits of class; sleep is merely a memory, and the exhaustion alone makes me want to curl up in bed and not come out for a year.
It’s not often a twenty year-old can say that they know for sure what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but being here, at this ritual, I know that my religious community is where I belong. Work hard for now, finish my undergrad degree, and then head to train as a pagan minister. The idea occurred to me one day as I was researching pagan weddings; I was noticing a severe lack of any official to lead a wedding ritual, and thought it would be handy if a few pagans actually did that. After a while, I realized that one could make their entire lifestyle from being a pagan minister: leading rituals, performing marriages, helping to set up pagan organizations, being a role model for pagan youth, giving advice and being a trusted voice of reason to those around me, and one day training another druid on their path.
I write this on my paper, a firm goal set in my mind. Just writing it down is a great reminder that I truly do want this life, that I have every intention of helping my religion along. I toss the paper into the cauldron, where it burns along with everyone else’s. Once we’re done, I shake the cauldron clean, spreading the ashes in the back yard. Returning them to the earth, I suppose. It feels appropriate, though I don’t rightly know why. Maybe it’s just a feeling of leaving them out where the deities can find them, but I don’t like acting on something that I can’t actually explain even to myself.
Once I’ve spread the ashes from our renewals, we pull out tokens, physical reminders of something we want to accomplish in the new year. I bought mine two days before, while we were in Denver shopping. It’s a small, clear stone that sits perfectly in the palm of my hand. It has a black loon carved into it, a bird I’ve always been attracted to. I did a research project on loons when I was in fourth grade; loons are one of the most adaptable birds, capable of swimming under water for short distances before needing air. I looked up what the loon, as a totem, represents. It’s associated with re-awakening old hopes, wishes, and dreams. It was, again, strangely fitting, as my focus in this year is to strip the bark and reveal the heart of the tree, my desires: to be a religious role model, to be the quintessential druid. We’re supposed to put our personal energy into the tokens, though I’ve never understood the purpose of this, so I just look at mine and concentrate on the loon. I can vaguely remember its near-shrieking cry, the way it would duck under water and resurface ten feet away almost instantly. I carry the stone around my neck in a deer-skin leather pouch I bought at the same time, so that I always have it with me.
Later, we make boats of construction paper. The task is more difficult than we could have imagined; apparently, though we’re all in college, we’re a little too slow to figure out the fine art of origami. Most of the boats are crooked, or lean to one side, but we decide that they’re acceptable. We walk down to the river near my house and one at a time lay the boats down. They begin to travel with the current away from us, each one a personal acknowledgement for the dead we wish to honor.
It’s during this time that I reach the state of calm that sometimes frightens my friends. It is the calm I go into when I am giving advice, the calm I fall back upon so that I can give the objective truth, to push aside the emotion and simply tell it like it is. My eyes become intensely focused upon my boat; my face is blank and expressionless, I don’t smile or frown, but my eyes never waver and I don’t have to blink as often. My friends’ voices become suddenly louder, but they’re annoying background noise, meaningless shouts of “my boat’s on fire” and “mine got stuck on a branch.” I feel as though I’m closer to my deities than ever, as if at this point and time, they’re standing right behind me, watching what I’m watching, and celebrating the end of five years with me.