The sun has set, and twilight settles dark over the autumn landscape. In another half an hour a harvest moon, swelling but not quite full, will rise over the eastern horizon, but for now the grove is thick with gray mist and half-seen shadows. In the center, a thin white altar cloth drapes a low, square stone; the cloth shifts once in a while, ghostly and almost whispering with the silent breeze that barely moves the trees. The altar itself is decorated with gourds, dried pale aster blossoms and pressed fall leaves collected from the local landscape over the past week, bringing out subtle shades of yellow, orange, russet and deep greens that are, nonetheless, difficult to distinguish in the darkness. A small bowl of incense smolders and smokes, its scent mingling with the damp late-night fog, and in the center of the altar a small lidded cauldron sits waiting, the waters of life inside ready to be ignited. When the time is right.
Suddenly, the strike of a match and a flame flares into life, held delicately between the fingers of a white-robed figure. Opening the cauldron, she tosses the match inside and within seconds a column of fire is dancing and leaping upwards as if out of the very womb of darkness, lapping at the round, black lip of the iron pot. Flickering light illuminates the entire grove, revealing other figures standing poised on the threshold of vision, some dressed in white, others in the colors of the elements or of the autumnal season. As the cauldron fire grows stronger, the center figure raises her arms in a gesture of gratitude and exaltation, and those in the surrounding circle do likewise. Together, all begin to chant the familiar words of prayer, the syllables weaving and repeating, their voices cascading over one another in a rising harmony of sound and vibration. The energy is palpable, flowing through each tongue of fire, grounding in the deep earth and arcing towards the celestial realms — and each participant adds their own energy, opening themselves to the awareness of connection moving and dancing through the grove.
This is the cosmos recreated, the three realms meeting in a center which is everywhere at once.
The chanting prayer drops suddenly to a slow-whispered awen, and the grove falls once more into silence, the only sound that of the flames trembling and sizzling on the altar. Everyone waits expectedly, their skin shivering with energy, for the ritual to continue.
- Ross Nichols, founder of OBOD
What is the purpose of ritual? In many Pagan circles ritual is seen primarily as a method of magical work or spellcraft, a way of raising and directing energy for a particular goal. This might take the form of blessing candles for healing magic, or invoking the presence of a particular deity to provide guidance or aid for a specific problem. In Druidry, however, though magic has a role to play, sacred ritual holds a far more poetic place in both personal and group spiritual practice. I have written before about the way poetry connects us to one another through memory, imagination and creativity, how it reaches beyond the tensions of duality and opens up in us a sense of metaphor, how it speaks to us of space and potential that can transcend and reconcile, clarify and illuminate. Although it can be used for specific magical purposes, Druidic ritual serves primarily as a way for us to live our poetry in the world of physical reality as well as in the world of words.
Just as the art of poetry requires a certain set of skills — a grasp of language, its rhythms and sounds, a strong sense of concrete sensory details, etc. — the art of ritual has three basic elements or aspects that a practitioner must come to work with and know intimately. These aspects echo the Druidic elements of calas, gwyar and nwyfre, found in everything, everywhere: the form, stability and solidity of stone, the flow, movement and connection of blood, and the "breath of life," the energy and life-force of wind (and fire). Learning how to incorporate all three of these elements into Druidic ritual helps to ensure a powerful and meaningful experience, more poignant, authentic and spiritually fruitful than the kind of melodramatic role-playing that Pagan ritual can sometimes risk becoming. But more than this, these three elements serve as symbols, a means of connection and a reminder of the three elements of calas, gwyar and nwyfre that dwell within all things. Likewise, by mindfully incorporating these elements in a way that is beautiful and aesthetically moving, we re-create or invoke the cosmos within the ritual sacred space — as above, so below — and so our actions in that space themselves become cosmic or mythic in meaning. What are these three elements of Druidic ritual? Put simply, they are: matter, sound, and energy.
The element of calas in Druidry can be understood roughly as "stone." It is the quality of form: solidity, firmness, stability, and resistance. It corresponds most closely with the realm of land, or earth, as that which provides the basis and foundation for everything else. In the body, you might say that calas is bone, the hard inner core, the structure and scaffolding, although more generally it is also the body itself a the physical form, with its limits and boundaries. In ritual, calas is matter, the physical materials utilized during the rite. These include the various tools and decorative elements, such as the altar cloth, offering dishes, candles, crane bags, wands or oracular stones, as well as the altar itself. Indeed, the sacred space, or nemeton, of the grove and the surrounding landscape all play a part in the ritual, for they provide the physical context for our spiritual activity. The bodies of the participants, too, are physical aspects of the rite. All of these things can be considered an aspect of the calas of Druidic ritual, and they can be engaged in ways that heighten the power and meaning of a given rite as its performed.
If ritual is poetry in the realm of acts, then the calas, or physical matter and form, of ritual serves as symbol and metaphor. While in a poem you might speak of the "fires of inspiration," in ritual you can choose a way to incorporate a physical flame — whether a candle, cauldron or bonfire — to represent this concept. Likewise, a poetic "wellspring of healing" may take the form of a small bowl of water placed on the altar. Because your body, too, is part of the ritual's calas, how you interact with and engage this physical fire or water is also part of the metaphor of the ritual. Do you leap in unison with the dancing flames, acting out your receptivity to inspiration and your willingness to incorporate its energies into your life? Do you drink the cool water, taking healing literally into yourself in order to cleanse away sickness or harm?
While many Pagan traditions will emphasize that magic can be done without any tools whatsoever, entirely through the directing of energies, ritual is something uniquely embodied and acted out in the physical world. It celebrates and engages the body and the world of matter. In this way, it not only involves us as whole beings, body, heart, mind and soul, but it speaks to the subconscious in the symbolism of the five senses with which it is most familiar. And as anyone can tell you who has tried to light a candle on a windy night, it also puts us in a position to confront literal as well as spiritual forms of resistance, obstacles and unexpected circumstances that come with living as embodied beings in the material world.
The Druidic element of gwyar is understood generally as "water," but while calas has a coolness that comes from its stillness, the "water" of gwyar is warm with movement and flux, and for this reason it corresponds with the blood of our physical body. Gwyar is the quality of flow: movement and change, but also exchange, interconnection and communication. As the waters of the world cycle through every landscape in the form of rain, mist, oceans and streams, so gwyar connects and moves through all things, sometimes bringing vital resources and sometimes washing them away. In ritual, gwyar takes the form of sound: the voice of chanting, singing, prayer and invocation, the rhythmic beating of drums or shaking of rattles, and the music of many different instruments with potential for ritual use, such as flutes, harps, guitars, and so on. Anything that makes sound — even our own breathing, or the noise of our dancing, stamping feet — is part of the gwyar of a Druidic rite.
Though you might think that sound and voice make more sense as an aspect of nwyfre, an element of wind and air, if we pause to consider the nature of sound we see that gwyar is a better fit. Sound is, after all, a form of vibration, and voice and music move through the air in ripples and waves, lapping not only at our eardrums, but humming and flowing through our entire bodies. The pure ringing tones of a singing bowl can fill a space with its cleansing voice, like a cool spring bubbling up from the earth. When we sing, we seek the sympathetic harmonies that our own bodies make so that, whatever our size, sex or age, we sing in tune, moving to the same vibrations. In this way, music is an aspect of ritual that quite literally connects us to each other, asking us to participate directly in a dance of changing harmonies. Indeed, every movement or action we make within the nemeton, through dance and other ritual gestures, makes a sound of some kind. And so we can think of sound not just in the literal sense, but also as a way of describing our movement and activity within the grove.
The change and connection of gwyar is present in sound, and so is its ability to circulate, to carry or transfer. The spoken words of an invocation or prayer communicate, bringing ideas and images with them, as do the ritual gestures that accompany them. Like the water that flows freely through all three realms, connecting them in relationship and exchange, sound is at once a physical thing grounded in the calas of the bodies of people and instruments, and a more ephemeral essence that connects us and moves us towards nwyfre, the third and final element of energy and life-force. Although silence, that momentary stillness when change and motion cease, can also play a part in ritual, words spoken out loud, the harmony of song, these sounds are vital in working with the vibrations of a space. In ritual, it is important that we not merely read, or remember, or think — we must speak and move, for these, too, are acts from which the living poetry of our ritual is made.
In Druidry, the element of nwyfre is difficult to pin down, and this in itself suggests part of its meaning — it is more of a force than a thing. If we try to match up each of the three Druidic elements with the four of classical philosophy — earth, air, fire, and water — we see that calas matches fairly well with earth, and gwyar with water; however, nwyfre has a meaning that is similar to both air and fire, and yet unlike them in other ways. It easiest to understand nwyfre as breath, and more specifically the sacred breath of life, that which is enlivened and animate. Thus, we see that it has both the airy quality of breathing, and a fiery, lively quality that we associate with "vim and vigor." In many religions, indeed, the word "spirit" is related to words for breath. For instance, when a person "ex-spires" she stops breathing, while "in-spire-ation" is literally the breathing-in of divine insight and energy. In the body, nwyfre is the breath which keeps us alive and thriving, but it is also the "divine breath," the spiritual essence that animates us. Thus, we can understand nwyfre in ritual as energy, and more specifically the spiritual energy that moves through and fills all things, giving them life and meaning.
While the tools and physical materials of ritual are pretty easy to come by these days, and even the use of voice, song, music and movement can be practiced and developed over time, the nwyfre or energy of a rite is perhaps the most difficult to grasp. Yet it is also the most essential. It is the thing that keeps ritual from becoming all dull memorization and empty gestures. And so, to work with the nwyfre of Druidic ritual, we must first come to appreciate the energy and alive-ness inherent within the calas and gwyar aspects of our work. We can spend time developing our sense of connection and spiritual engagement with our altars and tools, seeing them not as dead objects but responsive beings with awareness and purpose. We can similarly work with the surrounding landscape and the space of the grove, listening to its moods and messages. We can learn to appreciate the spiritual energies of music and song, the ebb and flow of its essence carried on the wind. And we can turn our attention inwards, to the spiritual energies of our own bodies, developing a practice of disciplined meditation and breathing exercises that put us more deeply in touch with our bodies and the spirit that dwells within us. When we bring all of this together in ritual — our openness, attention and discipline — we discover that we can work with these energies, moving and shaping them in powerful ways, knowing when to heighten them and when to release them effectively.
This is when magic comes into play, with the directing of energy to accomplish certain purposes. Yet Druidic ritual is so much more than this. Ritual is also a way of teaching ourselves how to touch divinity, how to ready ourselves for true, meaningful relationship with the gods and other spirits of the world. Just as a poem works with sound and image, rhythm and metaphor to create tension that can lift us to a new level of understanding, involving the dynamic elements of calas, gwyar and nwyfre at the heart of our work can create a humming tension of ecstatic beauty that will raise the "living, enacted poetry" of our ritual activity to higher and higher (or deeper and deeper) realms.