This is the transcript of the workshop I gave at this year’s Piedmont Pagan Pride Day, in Belmont, NC. I am deeply grateful to Ian Corrigan for his writings on ‘The Cauldron of Poesy’ and his Two Powers meditation, both of which I adapted for this workshop, as well as to numerous other contributors of content to the ADF website, many of which were very helpful in this composition. This is my first entry to touch on a religious tradition I actually practice, and in it I talk about how our rituals function, and why.
Hello everybody, thanks for coming. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Cú Meala mac Morrígna, and I have been a practicing Druid for the past eight years. I am a member of a religious organization called Ár nDraíocht Féin in Irish Gaelic, more commonly known as ADF and which translates to Our Own Druidry. I am the Grove Organizer for Raven’s Hollow Protogrove, based in Lancaster, SC. What I’m going to be talking about for about the next forty minutes or so is how in Our Druidry we conceive of the worlds we inhabit and commune with while in ritual, and the Beings with whom we foster relationship. It is worth noting that I am speaking only as a representative of that one form of Druidry, as there are numerous orders and groups, all of which do things a bit differently, and that within ADF, I am speaking not so much about ‘beliefs that are shared equally by all members’, but rather the way the cosmos is understood to operate in the context of ritual—assumptions that are undertaken in order to make ritual function, regardless of an individual’s belief or interpretation.
Most Neopagans are familiar with a form of ritual in which a circle is cut or cast, and some variety of directional guardian is called in to protect the celebrants and to keep any unfriendly spirits away—whether those take the form of the Strega Grigori or Watchers, the Wiccan Watchtowers, or simply the Classical four physical elements. In ritual that cuts a space out of the mundane world in order to isolate it, sanctify it, and make a space where the energy of a rite can build in order to be translated to some culminating magical act—as is the primary focus of most such rites—definite borders are drawn between sacred space and mundane space, between the sanctified world in which the ritual is taking place, and the physical, mundane world. The elemental guardians that are called to the four quarters might even be understood to be spiritual envoys from the physical world to the sanctified ritual space, giving it structure and shielding it from hostile outside forces in the same way four walls do a house. This is of course a time-tested and perfectly valid way of performing ritual, and I’m not here to criticize it in the slightest, or really to talk much about it. I point it out, however, in order to provide a frame of reference with which to contrast how Druids in ADF operate in ritual, which is, as you might expect, rather different. Our purpose in ritual is the sharing of hospitality, the reciprocal relationship between a guest and a host, which we endeavor to extend to all friendly spirits: with our ancestors, with the spirits of the land, of living creatures and natural forces, and with the Gods, all of whom we understand and treat in ritual to be distinct, independent intelligences, each with Their own will, personality, and agenda. As such, it does us no good to cut ourselves out a piece of the world or to erect walls: our goal is not to keep anything out while building up power within, rather like a pressure-cooker; instead, our goal is more comparable to an open bonfire, around which we invite the Powers to come celebrate with us, to share in the light, warmth, and good cheer, to accept our gifts in the form of sacrifice, and to offer us their gifts in return as blessings, for that is the essence of hospitality—a gift for a gift.
Of course, we recognize that not every spirit in the world is friendly to our aims. Just like not every human person one encounters will be helpful or amenable to your goals, and some of them may very well want to disrupt your life out sheer malice, the same is true of the spirit world. If we understand spirits to be actual, real persons with their own agency, it is only reasonable to assume that some of them would be more helpful than others, and some might be less than amicable towards human activity. We see this dynamic played out within the myths of many Indo-European cultures again and again: in which there exists a primordial and chaotic order of unfriendly divinities, who are supplanted by Gods whose provinces include civilization, commerce, agriculture, the arts, and the rule of law. We see it in Ireland with the Fomoire, who are defeated by the Tuatha De Danann, in Hellenic culture, where the Gods of Olympus overcome the Titans, and in Norse culture, in which the Æsir drive out the Jötnar or Giants. In all of these cases the Gods who are the allies of mankind are successful in overcoming the Outsider spirits and the forces of chaos; however, there is an understanding that in none of these stories is the victory complete: the Outsiders always linger about to some extent; these myths reenact themselves in the world cyclically, and chaos can never permanently be set in order. So what we do as Druids is to acknowledge that forces and spirits who may seek to disrupt our rites do exist, and we acknowledge them directly, by setting aside an offering away from our ritual space, and asking them graciously to leave us in peace. Most of us know what can happen when Eris doesn’t receive an invitation to the party.
After the Outsider spirits (which may include distracting thoughts or internal conflicts as well as external numinous forces) have been placated and our space made safe and ready for working, we open up ritual space by recreating the cosmos. Now, clearly that is a pretty big statement—if the universe already exists, how can we claim to be recreating it? Well, what we’re doing is temporarily making our ritual space the center of the universe—instead of carving ourselves out a chunk of the universe, we rearrange our conception of it in order to make the space of our ritual the center of all worlds—and we do this by way of three Hallows. You can probably guess one of them—what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the things Druids are always associated with? If you said a tree, you’re spot on—our reputation as tree-huggers is come by honestly, and I’d like to think we deserve it for the most part. Can anyone tell me the function that a tree serves in ritual?
Let me back up a bit and explain some of ADF’s rationale in being what it is. I said earlier that Ár nDráiocht Féin means ‘Our Own Druidry’. That means what we practice is very much a modern, Neopagan practice—we make no claims of ancientry, of being able to trace our lineage back to the protozoic—ADF dates from the venerable age of 1983. That being said, our methodology is to study, draw inspiration from, and to reproduce as closely as possible (while adapting to contemporaneous relevance) the religious systems and techniques of ancient Indo-European cultures. We call ourselves Druids, who were the intellectual class of the Iron Age Celts, but in fact our religion is a liberal reconstruction of common elements we see arising out of the shared mytho-linguistic body of ancient Indo-European cultures.
One of those elements we find that commonly rises to prominence amongst Indo-European cultures is the splitting of the cosmos into different realms along an axis, most frequently into three: An Above-world in the heavens, an Under-world beneath the earth, and halfway between the two, the Middle-earth that we inhabit. That’s right, Tolkien didn’t ‘invent’ Middle-earth out of whole cloth, and it isn’t any sort of imaginary fantasy-land: it’s simply what our world used to be called throughout much of Europe. A couple of examples: the Mediterranean Sea is so called because it was conceived of as the body of water that bordered, in Latin, media terra, Middle-earth. To the Norse, the world of humans was called Miðgarðr, which came into Old English as Middengeard, and as the language developed gradually became myddelerde, Middle-earth, until our culture eventually became disenchanted with the idea of our world being situated along an axis between other worlds and dropped out the Middle- altogether. Now, Middle-earth—Miðgarðr in the Norse conception— is as I have said situated midway along an axis. It so happens that this axis has a name: Yggdrasil, the World Tree. The World Tree is the axis mundi, the vertical axis that reaches with its roots down into the Underworld, and stretches with its branches up into the heavens. In Welsh mythology, there exists a God named Beli Mawr, who is conceived of as both the sun and as the ancestor of all humans and many of the Gods. Beli, and to greater or lesser extents his Irish and Gaulish cognates Bilé and Belanus, are also understood to be divine embodiments of the World Tree, a lynchpin around which the rest of the world turns.
The Tree is the form this axis takes in many, many cultures throughout the Indo-European family, although occasionally it does take another form, such as a holy mountain. As such, the tree forms one of the three Hallows I mentioned earlier, and is one of the three centers of ADF ritual. There are of course two others, and as the Tree corresponds to this Middle-earth, as it grows in the very soil on which we walk, so too do the other two correspond to the above and below worlds. As we conceive of the world existing in three parts, so too does the center of the world exist in three parts, for the Tree alone cannot carry our voices to the places we must reach to commune with all beings. What it does instead is to provide an anchor, and a way to draw from the other two Hallows—which, as we will see, are also Gates into those other worlds—those spirits who dwell in their respective realms.
As we reach down along the roots of the great tree, we tap into the cool, dark waters that flow beneath the earth. These waters are the wellspring of all life, they spring up out of the ground to form the rivers that flow to the oceans, or we may dig a well in order to reach them, and it is indeed the Well which is the second Hallow, the second center of the cosmos, the Deep Gate to the Underworld. The Well carries our voices down to the heart of the earth, and allows access to hidden pools of ancient and forgotten knowledge. The stones that line the walls of the Well are the bones of our ancestors at their rest under the earth, stretching down into deep time. These are our roots and our foundation, signifying our intimate connection to the womb of the Earth Mother, and to all who have come before us.
We see the Well appear in myth as ubiquitously as the Tree. In Ireland, St. Brigid’s Well in Kildare is among the most well-known, but really the sacred wells associated with numerous beings are too many to list. In the lore, wells are consistently portrayed as liminal places that are prone to encounters by mortals with denizens of the Otherworld. Of the several wells that appear in Norse cosmology, the most important is the Well of Urð at the base of the World Tree, where the three Nornir weave pattern out of chaos, presiding over the flow of time, fate, and the laws that shape our world and our place and actions in it.
We have established our axis and rooted it in the earth—one more Hallow remains in establishing our sacred center. So if the deep Well of Water is the Gate to the below-world, the bottom of our ritual’s axis mundi, what is its top? What is at the crown of the World Tree? Well, some extremely basic botany provides an answer. A tree needs two main things in order to sustain its life: water in its roots, and light in its leaves. Now, all or most of us here are good Neopagans, we know our classical elements; what should go on the opposite end of the axis? Where does light come from? What is the opposite of water? Fire, right? And moreover, the Fire of the Heavens, the Great Lights above our heads. It doesn’t matter if we can’t see the Sun, or the Moon, or even the stars; we know they’re there, shining down, providing light, life, and warmth to our world. Fire completes the triad of the center of our ritual, and it is in fact the most important of the three Hallows. Fire is what we use to make sacrifice to the Gods. With it we can invite Them to share in our circle, to be warmed beside us. Its flames devour our offerings, and its smoke lifts our prayers to the Heavens. It is the Bright Gate to the Above-world, descending to us either from the celestial bodies or from lightning, and reaching back ever upward to the highest heights, and I say that it is the most important, because beyond all other things it allows us to pray and to share in communion with the Powers. There is a proverb and a blessing in Druidry: “May you pray with a good fire,” and in fact we pray to the spirit of the flame itself whenever we light one. Druidry is very much a Fire Religion; indeed Fire is at the very root of our experience both religiously and as humans, which I would argue is very much the same thing. Deep in our ancient past, Fire was very literally the turning point in our evolution: our proto-human ancestors began using it to cook their food, softening the tough vegetation to which they were accustomed, and which in turn removed the need for the massive jaw muscles we still see in our fellow great ape cousins. This allowed space for our brains to expand, and for our intelligence and grasp of the universe to increase exponentially. Fire, which was still something difficult to create anew but was instead a rare gift from the Heavens bestowed by lightning-struck brushfires and the like, was seen as a holy gift, the stuff of the Gods, and revered, cautiously tended, and not permitted to extinguish. For the whole of human history there have existed cults focused exclusively on the tending of the sacred Fire, for it is the sacred center around which we huddle together for warmth, which cooks our food, through which we had our initial experience of the Divine, and by which we were created as an intrinsically religious and myth-making species.
And so we have established the sacred center of our ritual; we have recreated the cosmos. When we hallow the Well, the Fire, and the Tree—usually by placing silver in the Well, oil on the Fire, and sprinkling water and wafting smoke onto the Tree—we make our ritual the center of the universe, as we sanctify our axis of mundane Hallows as the Well, the Tree, the Fire. This creates, as I’ve said, a vertical axis in the ritual space through which we access the above, middle, and below worlds, and around which rotates the horizontal axis, intimately associated in the Celtic imagination with the realms of Land, Sea, and Sky.
A word of caution: I know I’ve been talking a lot about the three Hallows in the sense of a vertical axis; this does not entail that we literally dig a pit in between the tree roots or light the tops of our trees on fire! I think we can all agree that would be inimical to our purposes. These are the sorts of things that quickly lead to dead trees, and as Druids we tend to greatly prefer live ones. Sometimes, though—often, in fact, in our world—it can be pretty difficult to find a space where you can celebrate with a hundred foot ash or oak, a stone well or body of water, and a roaring bonfire. It’s a little hard to do regular ritual like that if you live, for instance, in the inner city—or even most places people in our culture live these days. Many ADF Groves and solitary Druids make do with substitutes: a standing pole or bilé to represent the Tree, a vessel of water for the Well, and a candle for the Fire. It is, however, possible to connect to the Two Powers of deep water and heavenly fire without any props apart from your own body serving as the Sacred Tree, and in many Druid rituals we do just that in order to attune ourselves to the primal forces and eddies of chaotic potential. In a few moments, I will be leading us through a meditation designed to attune our bodies to those two powers. However, before we do that, it is first necessary to learn about one more triad: the Three Cauldrons of Poetry.
This is an exercise and a concept that has a great deal in common with the Eastern notion of Chakras and turning energy centers in the body, and it isn’t going too far to say that it takes most of its inspiration from exactly that, as well as the Tree meditation first published by Starhawk in Spiral Dance.
Despite those Eastern and modern influences, there is fact a trace in Irish lore of the notion of a set of energy centers in the body, which is where the imagery we work with comes from. In a medieval poem called, appropriately enough, ‘The Cauldron of Poesy’, there can be found a suggestion of three cauldrons within the human self which determine the level of poetic inspiration, understanding, and wisdom—as well as physical strength and vitality—in the human person. The first of these cauldrons is located in the belly, and is called the Cauldron of Warming, or Incubation. The second is in the heart, the Cauldron of Vocation, or of Movement. The third, of course, is the skull itself, the cauldron in the head, the Cauldron of Wisdom, or Inspiration.
The poem indicates that that these cauldrons may be either inverted (that is, upside down, so that they can hold no substance), half upright (so they can hold some substance), or fully upright (so that they can be filled). And the lore says that in all of us, the Cauldron of Warming, the cauldron of the belly, is born upright. The Cauldron of Warming, if you will, is the biggest of the three. The Cauldron of Warming is the furnace of the body’s self-content. It provides our physical life, and supplies us with the instinctive wisdom and capacity for learning we all have in childhood. It strengthens our body and gives us vigor. And everyone is born with that cauldron fully upright and able to be fully filled.
The Cauldron of Vocation is born in some people half-upright and in some people inverted. But everyone, as they gain a little wisdom in life, that cauldron becomes at least half upright if you don’t grow up to be a fool. And it is by the experiences of the joys and sorrows of life that the cauldrons are turned. The Cauldron of Vocation governs the ability to perceive beauty and sorrow—what you might call human cognition above an animal subsistence.
The Cauldron of Inspiration is born inverted in us all. Only the great events of life can turn it. The joy and sorrow that arise from Love, the joy and sorrow that arise from Religious Experience, the joy and sorrow that arise from Battle—are listed among the things that can turn the Cauldron of Inspiration to be able to receive the Waters of Life, the Imbas or ‘ecstasy of poetic inspiration’ which you might conceive of as a sort of misty mead that results from the meeting and mixing of fire and water.
So what we’re going to be doing is focusing on those three centers in the self, and working on filling them by accessing the Powers of fire and water, reaching out to the below and above worlds. The goal here is to create within ourselves that Imbas, the oracular, magical brew of unlimited creative potential.
Take a moment and make your body comfortable. Stretch if you need to. If you can comfortably do so, straighten your back so it rises straight from the ground, either with your feet planted flat or your legs crossed.
Now I do want to say that we need to go into somewhere between a light and medium trance for this work. We’ll be doing a lot of breath-work throughout, so you’ll need to maintain an awareness of your breath as it moves through your body. You can continue to work eyes-open or eyes-closed at any time. For those of you who are less practiced in meditation or visualization, eyes-closed will probably make it easier for you to reach out with your inner self and to imagine the places you’ll need to go.
But for now let’s all let our eyes just close for a moment and take a few deep breaths…breathe from your belly…breathe in deeply…expanding your belly and filling the top of your lungs…breathe out…sigh that first breath out a little…so that your shoulders drop and your legs relax…let yourself settle firmly into your feet…let the ground support you…. Your arms can relax where they are, your hands in place, settling at ease as you breathe deeply…. If you have a rhythm of breath that you’re used to using, pick it up…and just for a moment let sound, and the brush of air, and your thoughts pass over you like clouds….
It is said by the wise that the waters under the earth carry in them the memory of every power…that all that has been has dissolved in that water and all that will be will rise from it…. Breathe deep…and just let your mind envision—not very far beneath our feet—the seeping flow…of the earth’s dark, green, cool energy, that courses, and is pressed…and seeps…and finds its way in every crack…that flows in deep rivers, and stands in dark pools… and often enough… that rises to the surface of the world… through cracks and shafts…to reach the mortal places…. Imagine now…envision for yourself…roots reaching down…down from your feet, or from the base of your spine, down into that well shaft…that seeping spring…that broad flow connecting you to the waters beneath…spreading down from your base…from your feet…from your spine… into the earth… into the energy of the land….
And it is by our breath that we move and draw that water, so breathe deep…and with your outward breath, feel the energy of the earth rise toward your feet, into your legs…. Breathe deep…and imagine the cauldron in your belly filling with the waters of the earth… As that cauldron fills…be aware of your flesh…your body’s strength…the warmth of blood…the hardness of bone…energized and strengthened by the flow of the earth’s power in the Cauldron of Warming… Breathe deep and relax your body…let go of the tensions that you’ve made by the drawing….
And breathe again….
And draw the water upward by that pressure—by that drawing—and see the cauldron in your heart filling with the power of the earth…the cool, magnetic, blue, shining waters of the earth fill the Cauldron of Movement… and as they fill that cauldron, you become aware of your mind and your life…of all that connects you with the great web of human living…that gives you your work and worth…breathe deep and relax your body…. Let your legs and knees relax…. Your arms relax….
And breathe again….
And draw the power of the earth up into the cauldron behind your eyes…. See the energy of the earth rise and fill that cauldron…filling the Cauldron of Wisdom with the power of the Earth… and as that cauldron fills…what thoughts might find you? What energies fill you? What inspiration is yours?
It is never enough to keep these powers for ourselves…. Breathe deep and let them flow and overflow those cauldrons…flowing throughout the body, filling you entirely…flowing out through you and into the earth again to make that circuit…rising through you and flowing from you into the whole world….
The power of the heavens is a quicker thing than the power of the earth…. See above you where you sit…high above you…past this grey air and mist…above blue air…high in the sky above you…past radiant moon and flaming sun, a single star at the center of the sky, shining directly over your head as your own pole-star…the hearth of your soul’s fire…. See it distant…draw a little nearer—so that you see its flaming power…the fire of the heavens…and by your breath, open yourself to its light….
See a burning ray of light shine down through the grey air and mist…to strike the cauldron in your head…to light the waters of the earth…with the golden, electric, shining power of the sky… to illumine your illumination…and shine down through your body…to fill the cauldron of your heart…to illumine the corners of your understanding of your life and work…to shine further down into your lower body…to fill the cauldron of your belly with the warmth of heavens’ fire…and feel that energy rise in your flesh…even as it rises in your mind and heart….
Breathe deep…and let the water and the light…mingle in you…flowing through you entirely….
Turn your palms up…. Keep your arms relaxed…. Breathe deep…and let the light and the water flow down your arms… Let the waters fountain over your fingers…to reconnect with earth below…. See a dancing flame of the sky’s power…kindle in the center of that water…and dance upon the center of your hand…. Breathe deep…and let your hands flow and shine…with the power of earth and sky…. It is by the power of the hand…that magic is worked…and of the eye…and of the mouth.
Let yourself see…with your inner eye…that water and that fire in your hand…. You may feel a tingling in your palms…a warming…. Bring your hands together and cup them…. Fill that cup…with the fire and water…and let the flame rise high from it…by your breath and will…so that we have…the raw material of the world…and the fire of shaping…in our hand…. As every smith knows, it is a hot fire that makes the work…. Breathe deep…and bring in the light…. Let your hands…become brighter…and warmer with the flame…and the water flows with it…but now that water meets that flame…and turns to mist…spread your hands a little…and envision a sphere of the fire’s light and the water’s mist surrounding your hands right where they are…. Breathe deep…and let the fire be hot…and the waters strong… bring your hands to your heart…. Breathe deep…and let that fire and mist surround your body in a perfect sphere…as spherical as a light shining from the center…carrying with it the waters of the earth…to create a sphere of mist and fire that surrounds you…and in the center of which, you are centered between earth and sky…with the powers manifested and ready to work.
This vision may be called the Caher Draoi—the Druids’ Fortress…because from this place, you can relax the hand and hold the vision for as long as you like…because from this place, all sorts of magic can be worked….
For now, breathe deep…and remember your connection with the earth and with the sky… Allow the flame…to recede…to cool…to settle into balance…in the Cauldron of Inspiration…the Cauldron of Movement…and the Cauldron of Warming…the flame dancing happily… above the waters in your flesh… Freely release…any energy you do not need…. It flows naturally back to its source… Press your hands together gently to close the circuit…. And as you balance in yourself…hold fast to that basic vision…and we’ll let it recede from us…as slowly…we return to the outer world…and open our eyes….
That meditation only increases in power as it is practiced regularly, and your inner cauldrons turn to accept more of the Imbas. As I mentioned earlier, we use that meditation at the beginning of ritual in order to center ourselves in sacred space, to attune with the Powers which we will soon be hallowing and working with, and also to join with each other in a group mind and a joint purpose—as we each become in ourselves embodiments of the World Tree, our roots and branches can twine with each other’s and we can begin to share in each other’s wyrd, or group-fate. That mixture of fire and water—that Imbas—that poured through you during the meditation also has greater significance during and at the end of ritual. When we hallow the portals, the Fire is drawn down along the World Tree and ignites upon the silvered waters of the Well. Throughout ritual, we make offerings to the Kindred of Earth—the Gods, the Ancestors, and the Nature Spirits—and at the end of ritual, they offer back to us their blessings in the form of the Waters of Life. In practice the receiving of the Waters of Life is very similar to the receiving of cakes and ale at the conclusion of a Wiccan ritual, but its purpose is a bit different. This mead of inspiration is the sanctified product of the Sacred Fire mingling with the Sacred Waters, and it carries in it the returned hospitality of the Gods, the reciprocity of honored guests to hosts that have treated Them well. That is the ultimate purpose of Druid ritual: to welcome the Gods as beloved and revered guests into our homes, and to foster with them lasting relationship in which love and honor flow up to Them from us, and blessing and guidance flow down from Them to us, very much like the Water and the Fire course up and down the Sacred Tree. For where water meets fire, new worlds are born, and all manner of magic becomes possible.