Reconstructionist rituals are generally based on what we know of pre-Christian beliefs and practices, from historical and archaeological sources, and also - and perhaps primarily, from outward appearances at least - from folklore and folk customs. In other words, folklore often informs what we do, but our understanding of historical and archaeological sources in relation to ritual helps us to frame and anchor those practices in a Gaelic, polytheistic, worldview. In doing so, we are working from a continuum, rather than a specific era, and therefore what we are doing is not just a simple case of 'bringing the Iron Age into the modern age' (a common misconception about Gaelic Polytheism and reconstructionism in general), but looking to the bigger picture.
Ritual serves a variety of purposes. It gives us a way of expressing our beliefs, and communicating with and relating to the gods, spirits and ancestors that are honoured in ritual, and helps maintain those relationships (not just between people and the gods, but between people in a group, for example). It punctuates and permeates daily life in many different ways, and is an expression of our worldview.
The following article will aim to take a brief look at a) the kinds of rituals that may be practised in a reconstructionist context, and b) the common elements that form the foundations of such rituals. Since the aim is to be keep things simple here, links and references can be followed if any points need to be explored in more depth. For a more thorough overview of things that can be done in ritual, see Gaol Naofa's article on Ritual Within Gaelic Polytheism.
Types of ritual
Reconstructionist ritual (specifically Irish or Scottish) comes in different shapes and sizes. In the simplest of terms, these can be split up into four main categories:
- Daily/regular rites
- Seasonal celebrations
- Rites to mark passages of life
- Specialised rites associated with particular activities
The daily rituals and practices permeate every day life, giving it a rhythm and constant, subtle focus. Prayers or devotions are said on rising and going to bed; food can be blessed for the family as it is prepared; a quiet, contemplative moment can be taken to see if there are any signs for what the day might bring, and so on. Regular rites might include weekly offerings of milk to the gruagach (a benevolent land spirit, if you keep on the right side of them), or else regular devotions made to personal deities, household or land spirits, or ancestors.
The seasonal celebrations are fairly self-explanatory; these are the rites that are performed at Là Fhèill Brìghde, Bealltainn, Lùnastal, and Samhainn, and are usually observed by both celebratory rites (of feasting, games, and so on), devotions (with blessings, praises and offerings being made etc), as well as protective rites (or 'saining,' to guard against negative influences in the coming season or year). Divination is also often practised, such as the frìth, or the taking of ogam. Observances may also be made at the lesser festivals of Harvest Home, Michaelmas, Yule/Hogmanay, Latha na Caillich(e), and Midsummer, which roughly coincide with the solstices and equinoxes. These festivals are not likely to be purely Gaelic or even necessarily Christian (in the context of their being observed in Scotland and Ireland) in origin, but nonetheless have arguably become an integral part of the Gaelic calendars (though in some cases, perhaps moreso for Scotland that Ireland...).
Life passage rites include marking births, deaths, marriages (handfastings), as well as more specific rites marking occasions throughout adulthood, such as accepting arms, to go to war, taking on new roles at festivals, such as allowing a teenage girl to take the Brideog on procession for the first time.
Finally, the specialised rites. These can cover a variety of things, such as:
- Rites of seership or augury, such as ogam divination or the frìth
- Rites associated with healing, and the harvesting of healing plants
- Rites associated with sowing seeds and harvesting
- Rites associated with the collecting of plants for protective rites
- Saining rites, outside of those performed at festivals
- Rites associated with moving to a new home and connecting with the local land spirits
- Good wishing (a formal blessing bestowed on another person)
- Ritual boasting, in groups (especially in a 'warrior' context)
- Rites of necessity - offerings made to the Cailleachean ('the storm hags') in the hopes of averting disaster, for example
These rites may relate to a particular occasion, or a particular focus one might have – such as pursuing a path of filidecht, in performing the rite of imbas forosnai. Such rituals would not be so relevant to someone who is not interested in seeking poetic inspiration.
Now we've seen the kind of rituals that are done, the question remains: How do we actually go about doing them?
In many respects, Celtic Reconstructionism as a whole is at a disadvantage compared to other reconstructionist religions because it does not benefit from contemporary sources – i.e. from the people who practiced their religion in pre-Christian times – that explicitly describe or outline rituals that were performed at the time. There are, however, descriptions of some rituals in later sources that do seem to contain elements of genuine pre-Christian practices: These include the descriptions of the driving of the cattle between two fires at Bealltainn, the assemblies and games of Lùnastal, and the description of the rite of imbas forosnai found in the late ninth or early tenth century Cormac's Glossary,1 and in the case of the festival descriptions, these are borne out by other, later, historical sources (annals recording the assemblies, and Dindshenchas poems, for example) and folk traditions, which appear to be remarkably consistent with the earliest descriptions. Other rituals, such as the tarb-feis ('bull-feast') - a ritual divination to determine the next rightful king - are mentioned in some of the tales2 and are described there in some detail.
They are not, however, overly detailed in terms of what might have been said, nor can we be absolutely certain that the ritual is being described accurately by people who ever witnessed such rites. Even so, we can see distinct similarities between the tarb-feis and that of the taghairm ritual - a Scottish divinatory rite that also uses a cow-hide as an integral part of the proceedings.3 The similar ritual elements, and purpose, suggest a genuine basis in tradition, and from this we can see the core elements of the ritual, if not (necessarily) the specifics.
In (re)constructing ritual, then, we must look to the sources we have – archaeological, historical and literary, folklore and customs, as well as academic sources to help synthesise them and interpret them in a more in-depth manner – and use them to get an idea of what the core elements of ritual were, and, based on the survivals and later historical descriptions, what these rites actually looked like. We can't say that what we end up with is exactly how things were done two thousand years or so ago, but we can apply the reconstructionist methodology in trying to get as informed a picture as possible.
In doing this, we can identify the following key points of ritual practice and observance in a general sense:
Each of the festivals marks an end and a beginning, the transition from one season to another. In and of itself, a festival – particularly during the eve – is a liminal time; neither one thing or another. We can see from the sources that many of the rites and customs associated with the day were designed to safeguard against the apparent dangers this liminality and uncertainty brought with it. This idea is a recurrent theme in many of the myths that are centred on Samhainn, in particular, and aim to capitalise on the chaotic theme that the time period brought with it – Cath Maige Tuired (The Second Battle of Mag Tured) being a prime example.
It's perhaps no surprise to find that on many occasions, the festivities themselves – and other types of rites – took place at 'liminal' sites. These include the shore (neither land nor sea – for example, the offerings given to the Shony on Lewis), bogs (neither land nor water – where numerous finds suggest a concentration of ritual activity at such places), high places (a site outside of the township, but often giving good views of it), or near wells (being both above and below ground). Considering this, and the fact that the high places especially were often associated with tutelary goddesses in Ireland, we have a suggestion that these places, where communal rites would have taken place, were chosen for their liminal, even Otherworldly associations.
It was at these places and times, with their liminal, Otherworldly overtones, that people could better communicate with the gods, spirits and ancestors. This idea of liminality can also be found weaving its way through daily rites as well, many of which are aimed at communicating with Otherworldly spirits of one kind or another; the making of offerings to the land spirits, the gods or the ancestors; the saying of blessings and charms for protection at certain times of the day, or during certain tasks, all arguably seek to communicate with, or take measures to avoid, these Otherworldly beings and so recognise that their presence (or the potential of their presence, at least) is real and constant no matter the time or place.
This liminality and (therefore) Otherworldliness becomes an integral, underlying, part of reconstructionist ritual, then. The concept can inform our choice of location for ritual, the timing, and so on.
Rites of protection and blessing
Given the associated Otherworldly dangers at many of the festivals, and during many tasks and throughout the day, it's no surprise that there is often an emphasis on protection and blessing. Naturally, the people would want to safeguard their livestock and crops in any way possible, and naturally this was expressed ritually and mythologically (the Dagda controlling the crops after the Milesians forced the Tuatha Dé Danann underground,4 or Lugh winning the knowledge of how best to sow, grow and harvest the crops in Cath Maige Tuired, for example).
Some of the earliest descriptions of ritual practice comes from the ninth century Cormac's Glossary, which tells us how cattle were driven between two bonfires at Bealltainn in order to bless and protect them. The driving of the cattle can be found in far more recent folklore in both Scotland and Ireland – although no longer under the supervision of druids, as Cormac described it – giving us an idea of how old many of these customs really are.
Alongside examples like this, we find smaller rites of blessing and protection focused on the home – the walking of the boundaries with heather torches,5 the making of charms for blessing and protection (such as the crosses of rowan and red thread in Scotland, or the Brigid's cross and Parshall cross in Ireland).6
Communal protective rites similar to those found at Bealltainn, with the kindling of a needfire (a fire lit from scratch, effectively, produced by friction rather than lit from somewhere else), followed by the rekindling of the hearths in the area from the flames, can be found at other times as well; Martin Martin gives a description of a needfire ritual being performed in times of murrain in parts of Scotland – that is, during times of widespread disease in livestock or people – in the hopes of removing the negative, supernatural influences that were thought to be the cause of it.
In a similar way, saining (protective) rites that were commonly performed at festivals in the home were also employed at other times (again, usually because of disease). Alexander Polson, for example, describes a saining rite to cure a girl of her otherwise incurable illness that is remarkably similar to one described by McNeill as being performed at Hogmanay, where the byre and house were filled with the fumes of burning juniper.7
Praise and worship (or honour, if you prefer)
Ritual is a way of expressing our relationship with the gods, spirits and ancestors, and is the way in which we honour and worship them. Praise poetry was highly valued in early Gaelic society, and so such traditional forms of songs and prayers dedicated to those who are being honoured are always appropriate in modern ritual.
Included in these concepts of praise and worship are not just the words that are spoken, or the actions that are performed (the making of offerings, for example), but also the making of specific items in honour of a particular deity (or spirits or ancestors). These may be personal items made as offerings - a piece of poetry or writing, for example, or something crafted or made to be sacrificed to them. Or, at Là Fhèill Brìghde for example, it is traditional to make an icon to represent the goddess in the ritualised invitation for her to come in and bestow her blessing, and as part of the rites, reciting the genealogy of Bride is said to honour and please her.
Ritual doesn't have to be grand, or dry, high and formal, it can be spontaneous and fluid, but for many reconstructionists, looking to sources such as the Carmina Gadelica, learning the different ways in which charms and prayers were expressed helps us frame our own in an appropriate context. Looking at the songs of the Carmina Gadelica, we see that prayers of protection often have a specific formula, of the lorica, or 'breastplate', where protection is invoked for specific parts of the body, to be as thorough as possible. Where specific actions are being performed, such as the frìth, the charms make it clear to stress that the person performing the ritual is doing so in a traditional manner (as Bride did before them, in this case). And in performing blessings and praising the gods, spirits or ancestors, there are many different themes and images that can be drawn upon that speak to a specifically Gaelic worldview, and, in the case of the genealogy of Bride, the recognition of one's exalted ancestry is considered to be highly complimentary.
The sacred centre
From archaeological and historical sources, we get an idea of how the pre-Christian Gaels saw the world around them, and how these concepts underpinned ritual. The bile (BIH-lyeh), or the sacred tree, that formed the sacred centre of a people's (tuath) land can be found in historical sources such as annals, myths and placename lore. These give us evidence that rituals to inaugurate the king were performed at (or near) such trees, and festive games and races were also often held nearby.
Excavations at what is thought to have been a ritual site at Navan Fort (Emain Macha) have shown what might have been an artificial bile at the centre of the structure before it was deliberately destroyed by fire. In traditional houses, the hearth was often in the centre of the house, and originally these fireplaces would have been open. The roof was supported by the cleithe, or 'house-ridge', a pole near the centre (if the hearth was in the way) that provided the main support. In later houses, where the fire was contained within a hearth (conflating the house-post and the central fire), the crossbeam was often made of a sacred wood (especially rowan, in Scotland) since it was thought that this would protect the house from fire. The hearth can therefore be seen to be the sacred centre and the heart of all activities in the house; this central focus and integral nature makes it comparable to the bile on a microcosmic level (personal, in the home, rather than in a wider context, for the whole community or people).8
In addition to this, with the focus on the bonfires as the heart of communal rites, there is the natural link between the central hearth of the home and the sacred bonfires. Considering all of this, many Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheists (Scottish or Irish) therefore focus their personal devotions at the hearth (not always a literal hearth, but a designated centre, such as a shelf space, if need be) in their homes.
Fire and water
Traditionally, fire has creative, as well as destructive, qualities. In a creative, constructive, sense it can be used in the smelting of metals, the cooking of food, providing warmth and light, and so on. In early Irish literature, it is also seen as a creative force – where knowledge is 'cooked' in a cauldron and then imparted (as per the tale of Fionn mac Cumhall). Imbas forosnai, the ritual of seeking hidden knowledge means, literally, “great knowledge which lights up, kindles.”
On a cosmological level, it could be speculated that the theme of fire and water, coming together in such harmony, led to creation itself. Since Irish mythology has no creation myth that survives (assuming one ever existed), it is impossible to say conclusively, but certainly in terms of the portrayals of the relationship between fire and water, there is a sense that the end product is something which is tamed and manageable, fit for human consumption and therefore understandable.9 This concept is incorporated into ritual to varying degrees, depending on the context. Foods are cooked for feasting, thus making them appropriate for consumption, and likewise, for offering. This is emphasised more for those who seek to reconstruct rituals for imbas forosnai, and so on.
The three realms
The three realms encapsulates the Gaelic world view; land, sea, and sky, which all together represent balance and order. They were called upon in the taking of oaths, as well as in blessings, and at the royal site of Dunadd, which commands views of all three realms, the siting of inauguration stone to overlook all three seems to have been deliberate (in order to take advantage of the view and emphasise the king's relationship with them, perhaps, since their bounty and peacefulness indicated his rightful, and truthful, rule).
There is some evidence to suggest that the bile may have been considered to span all three realms (if you visualise the roots reaching down into the water table, and its interconnectedness with the sea etc), rather like the Norse Yggdrasil, and some reconstructionists view the bile as a sort of axis mundi in this respect, spanning all three.
In Scottish or Irish Reconstructionist ritual, the three realms are not invoked as the four elements are invoked in Wiccan (or Wiccan-influenced) traditions – the dúile may be seen as being on a comparable level to these (sun, moon, stars, rain, clouds, etc); instead, they are often incorporated into blessings and liturgy. Examples of these can be found in the Carmina Gadelica, and this one, from The Story of the Finding of Cashel:
Bennacht nime, nél-bennacht,
Bennacht tíre, torad-bennacht,
Bennacht mara, íasc-bennacht.
The blessing of heaven, cloud-blessing,
The blessing of earth, fruit-blessing,
The blessing of sea, fish-blessing.
Sunwise movements were emphasised in every day rites as well as the more important festival occasions, and examples can be found in the early Irish literature as well as the folklore.10
The direction signified increase, blessing, and therefore positive intentions, and in that respect it took on a protective association as well; to go against the sun invited negative influences, whereas careful observance of the sunwise direction guarded against them. As a result, pots and pans were arranged at the hearth so they could be brought over the fire in a sunwise manner; boats left and re-entered the harbour in a sunwise direction to ensure a safe journey and many more to come; funeral and bridal processions approached the church in the same way, and so were wells when they were visited for healing rites. In Scotland, the Good Wish – a blessing bestowed upon another person (usually a patron) – was given as the person walked around the recipient sunwise, three times, and Cú Chulainn's greeting to his wife Emer ("I drive around you [in a chariot], turning to the right!", in Kinsella's version of the Táin), indicates a similar gesture.
In my own practises, this concept forms the basis of my devotional rites, which I've formalised into An Deiseal (loosely, 'The Sunwise Turn'). It also influences my day to day activities, since I will stir the pot sunwise as I cook, and mow the lawn or even hoover in the same manner, and so on...
Offerings form a major focus of ritual practice in many pre-Christian cultures, and Celtic cultures were no different. Therefore, for Gaelic Polytheists, offerings form one of the main elements of ritual practice on a regular, if not daily, basis.
Archaeological evidence, literary evidence and folk customs and lore all help to inform the traditional kinds of offerings that can be given, but as a path that is inevitably rooted in modern practice, as much as it looks to the past, many Gaelic Polytheists also incorporate offerings of a non-traditional nature according to their own UPG. These have included things like coffee, chocolate cake, rum and other kinds of foodstuffs that weren't available in the pre-Christian period, but there is arguably a feeling that traditional offerings should be at least emphasised, if not exclusively adhered to, in Gaelic Polytheist practice.
Unlike many other reconstructionists, Gaelic Polytheists do not make offerings to the gods, spirits and ancestors which are then consumed or used (depending on what is being offered – food and drink, or objects made for purpose, for example) by those who are making the offering. Traditionally, such offerings are said to have their toradh ('produce') taken from them. This means that while the offerings that have been given may still physically remain, the goodness, the thing that makes them wholesome, has been taken, and so will be of no benefit to humans. In Gaelic Polytheist practice, then, food and drink that has been left as an offering is often left outside or burnt in a fire.
The giving of hospitality was taken very seriously in early Gaelic society, and even today in Scotland, many people say that it is illegal to refuse hospitality to anyone who turns up on your doorstep (though if that's true, it's never enforced...).11 In early Gaelic society it was only in very rare circumstances that hospitality could be refused outright, and so this often left the hosts open to the laws being taken advantage of (illustrated in Cath Maige Tured with the Dagda's predicament with the satirist Cridenbél, for example).
Evidence of ritual feasting can be found at archaeological sites, which tell us that pork was the meat of choice for Iron Age feasting in Ireland in particular, something that is also shown in early Irish literature (such as the Tale of Mac Da Tho's Pig). The emphasis on feasting at festivals and assemblies in the myths, then, appears to refer to genuine tradition. At festivals, the focus on feasting, and therefore the giving of hospitality from whoever is hosting the feast is, in effect, is twofold; sharing food and drink with the gods, spirits and ancestors, and also with the community or a people.
The festivals all tend to involve either inviting, or acknowledging the presence of, the gods, spirits or ancestors in the home (or the space where the celebrations are taking place) at some point, and so at Là Fhèill Brìghde, Bride is invited to give her blessings on the household, and in Scotland, signs are looked for in the morning to see if she had visited; at Samhainn, the beloved dead are catered for by food being left out overnight in case they decide to visit the household; at Lùnastal, it was a time for the king to give his hospitality to his people, to renew and reinforce their obligations to each other - the people paid their dues, the king protected them; at Bealltainn, offerings of the feast that is to be shared at the bonfire were made to the spirits to protect the herds and flocks, before the men sat down to eat; and at Hogmanay, the giving of hospitality formed the central parts of the rites, as the lads went round to give blessings on the households in return for food and drink at the fire. Failure to satisfy these obligations risked being cursed instead of blessed by the lads.
On a day to day basis, the offerings that were made - food that accidentally fell on the floor, a quick libation to the Good Folk as men gathered for a drink and a chat outside and so forth - were also arguably a form of hospitality with the underlying idea being along the lines that if they were already there, they should at least want for nothing; if they went hungry or thirsty they would cause trouble, and so, of course, we see this in modern practice too.
These have already been touched on, with the examples of the great gatherings at Lùnastal, and the various types of offerings that were made (arguably) being a form of contract as well, in some contexts at least. Offerings may be given to acknowledge and maintain an existing relationship with the gods, spirits, or ancestors, but they may also be made in the hopes of building one. If an offering is accepted, then the intent is acknowledged, although the outcome of whatever may be asked for might not be as the person who has made the offering intended, or hoped for.
In a group context, communal ritual helps reaffirm the bonds of that group. When people relied on what their own labours in the field could provide them, they were at the mercy of the harvest in determining how well off they would be in the coming year. Disaster, in that sense, meant that those who were less well off had to rely on the good will of others, and in many cases, neighbours were more than happy to oblige - after all, the tables might turn one day. At festivals, the youths who would go out at Samhainn or Là Fhèill Brìghde, for example, would rely on the community to provide for their party feast. In Ireland, food was left out at night for itinerant beggars to help themselves. In helping others, there was an underlying sense that generosity to others would mean that the household would then be looked favourably on, in safeguarding their own prosperity.
Examples of Reconstructionist Rituals
Here is a selection of some rituals that have been shared by members of the CR community (with a specifically Gaelic, Irish or Scottish focus). Bear in mind that many of them have been written for specific circumstances, or are relevant to particular geographical areas or groups, which won't necessarily transfer well to your own circumstances; as you will see, while there are often similarities in the ritual elements, there are differences in the way they're expressed, and some of the rituals are aimed at group participation, whereas others suit more solitary circumstances.
These examples only scratch the surface of ritual practice in CR. Many CRs prefer to keep their ritual practices private and personal, and not necessarily as formal or as scripted as the ones given below:
I Stand with Tara - a ritual for protection of the Tara-Skryne valley, written during the height of the controversy by Kathryn Price NicDhàna and Raven nic Rhóisín
An Deiseal - a devotional ritual for formal offerings, by myself
Saining Ritual - a saining ritual using water, by myself
Gealach Úr - a new moon rite, written by Tomás Flannabhra for Gaol Naofa
An Liuthail - a lustration ritual by Treasa Ní Chonchobhair
An Fheile Bheag - 'The Little Feast', a Bealltainn feast by Tomás Flannabhra
Frìth - a ritual for augury, by myself
Gairm Isteach - a daily devotional by Treasa Ní Chonchobhair
Bannock Blessing - a blessing to safeguard the family, by myself
Daily Practices - examples of daily rites and rituals on this website
Rowan Charm Ritual – a ritual for making protective charms for the festivals (or travel), by myself
Ritual Outline – an outline of the main rituals I perform at festivals
Consecrating Seed - by Nefaeria
Imbas Forosnai - by Michael Meehan
Many of the customs we might draw from survive today (the carving of tumshie lanterns at Samhainn, for example), or at least survive in the living memories of those who participated in them during their childhoods. While their origins are often clear, they are not performed in a pre-Christian context in these modern times, and in many cases, the customs as we have them today are not necessarily identical to what they would have been in the time before Christianity came along.
What reconstructionists seek to do, then, according to the methodology defined above: we look to the sources we have to give us as much of the picture as possible, and use that as a basis of building our practises. No single source is ever going to be completely satisfactory in terms of what it can give us, but there are certainly unique advantages to what each of them can bring to the table. Basing our practises on folklore alone, for example, means that we are missing out on a vast amount of other types of evidence that helps us in the process of (re)constructing ritual. The folklore and customs may give us an insight into what is/was done, and what we can do, but the historical and archaeological (and not to mention the folklore as well) sources help to frame that, giving us a deeper understanding of pre-Christian ritual, and the world view that underpins it.
Stokes, Sanas Cormac (translated by John O'Donovan), 1868, p19.
2 McCone, McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, p123.
3 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p170.
Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, p291
5 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p57-58.
Ó Duinn, The Rites of Brigid, 2005, p121; Danaher, The Year in Ireland, 1972, p207-208.
8 See Dames, Mythic Ireland, ...
9 For an indepth discussion on all of this, see McCone, 'Fire and the Arts' in Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature, 1990, pp161-178.
10 Kinsella, The Táin, 1969, p259.
11 I can only offer personal experience of this as evidence...