Rites of Passage
Throughout most of the history of humankind, rites of passage have been an important part of coming of age. Yet for some reason, our modern culture has few formalized rites of passage. What are we missing by not having ceremonies to mark significant events in our lives?
Life is a series of transitions from the cradle to the grave. The success we have in completing a transition often depends on how well we’ve made similar transitions in the past. The purpose of rites of passage is to give tangible, visible confirmations that these transitions have been successfully completed. As we journey from youth to adulthood, these rites define our roles in society and give us the wisdom of dealing with the challenges we may meet in the future. Some rites of passage are also learning and teaching opportunities that allow the elders to impart wisdom to those who are participating in the rituals. The ultimate goal of a series of rites of passage is to transform a child, whose primary thoughts are for self and his or her own wellbeing, into an adult, whose thoughts are for the community and its needs.
The section below contains some common rites of passage and some suggested rituals for each. As a general rule, there are five phases to a rite of passage. Where appropriate, the rituals below will offer suggestions for each of the following five phases.
- Preparation: This phase is to prepare the initiate for what is to come. It could involve a period of purification or fasting, or any other preparation pertinent to the rite.
- Separation: In this phase, initiates are separated from the rest of the village in some way so that they may prepare themselves mentally for the task at hand.
- Isolation: Here the initiate spends time alone in contemplation. This phase often requires physical discomfort and self-deprivation. In some cultures there is even a challenge or an element of danger in this phase. The goal is to allow the initiate to have a profound and transforming experience.
- Assimilation: After a transformative experience, the initiates are welcomed back into the tribe as adults with new roles, new rights, and new responsibilities.
- Interpretation: In this final phase, the initiate may talk about his or her experience with a wise elder who helps the initiate to process the experience and gain further wisdom from it.
Marking Rites of Passage
Here are some suggested outlines for ceremonies to mark significant rites of passage in your own life and the lives of your loved ones.
Preparation: We’re all familiar with baby showers. Showers are one method of preparing for a birth. A Quickening Ceremony is another. The moment when a mother first feels her soon-to-be-born child moving within her is referred to as a “quickening.” The Quickening Ceremony celebrates this event and prepares for the arrival of the child. It is the beginning of preparations for the birth that is to come. Invite as many family members as you’d like to join you for the ceremony. Prepare by creating an altar, preferably in the nursery. Adorn the altar with your favorite symbols of birth and new life. Fresh blossoms or fruits would be a good choice for this. Next, have each family member in attendance introduce themselves to the baby, still in its mother’s womb. They may choose to read a poem or other message to the child during this introduction. You may end the ceremony by lighting candles in honor of the new life that is growing.
Separation: In ancient times, the mother of the newborn went off alone with the midwife and selected female relatives to attend the birth, while the father and other male relatives waited nearby. In modern times, fathers often attend the birth. But if you are separated from family during this time, you may prepare an invocation to your God or Goddess. If you choose a short prayer, it may be used as a mantra to focus on the task at hand.
Isolation: As the labor progresses, you and the child become one in the effort of giving birth. No matter how many family members are in your support group during labor, at some point in time your focus will become so absolute that you will become isolated from all others. Once the child is delivered, this isolation dissipates as the child becomes a separate person from you, and you are there with your child as he or she greets the world for the first time as a separate human being.
Assimilation: After the baby has been delivered, and after Mom has had time to recover, you may wish to commemorate the occasion with a ritual blessing of the birth. This can be as elaborate or as simple as you wish. The Birth Ritual could also incorporate a Naming Ritual or a Dedication Ritual. The main purpose of a Birth Ritual is assimilation; you are introducing the newborn infant to its family, its village, and its world.
Interpretation: After the birth of your child, especially if it is your first child, you will be inundated with advice. You may choose to formalize such advice-giving by incorporating it into your Birth Ritual. One way to do so is to have all the family members present stand in a circle, and give you their words of wisdom one-by-one. You could start the circle by asking each person present, “What would you have me know about raising a child?”
Preparation: A Dedication Ceremony is one in which a child (usually an infant) is dedicated to a particular religious or spiritual path by proxy. The proxy is usually a parent or guardian who wishes to raise a child in a certain set of beliefs. Preparation for a Dedication would include having both parents talk it over. Are both comfortable with the spiritual beliefs or path that the child is being dedicated to? What will the parents do if the child chooses some other path when he or she comes of age? How open are the parents to teaching the child about other faith systems as well?
Separation: The separation in a Dedication Ceremony is usually simply that of dress. The child being dedicated wears a different garment to set her apart from the others at the ceremony.
Isolation: Astute parents will not force a religious choice on a child without due consideration. If the child is old enough to have a say in the matter, parents or guardians might suggest that the child take some time alone to weigh all the pros and cons and make an educated decision on whether this path is the right one. If the child has further questions after having had a period of isolation to think things over, the parents or other family members can clarify things for the child, who may then wish more time to think about the decision. This process can go on until the child is comfortable with the idea of dedication.
Assimilation: During this phase of a Dedication Ceremony, the newly dedicated child is presented to the Grove and welcomed by its members. Each Grove member present may wish to give a brief statement of welcome to the child.
Interpretation: The interpretation phase is the longest for the Dedication Ceremony, simply because a dedication is the first step on a (hopefully) long journey into The Way of the Druid. Each subsequent step along the way will require illumination and further interpretation by the Dedicant and by the Elders, teachers and mentors who will guide the Dedicant along the way.
Coming of Age Ceremony
Preparation: A Coming of Age Ceremony marks the onset of puberty. Preparation for such a ceremony would include teaching the child about sexuality, puberty, sexual responsibility, and sexual maturity. The child may also prepare by meditating on what it means to be an adult, and by contemplating how to best complete this important and crucial transition. If you plan to have a Coming of Age Ceremony or ritual, you may wish to create an altar to Brighid, the Goddess of childbirth.
Separation: The separation phase can be as elaborate or as simple as necessary. You may choose to have the child(ren) dress differently from other attendees at a ritual, or just wear a piece of jewelry or other symbol that sets them apart. At some point during the ceremony, you may wish to lead the child(ren) off to isolation for a time of quiet contemplation and peer support.
Isolation: In a Coming of Age Ceremony, when more than one child is involved, they may be isolated at some point in the ceremony so that they may lend support and advice to each other. This time may also be used to compose a brief vow to be read during the assimilation phase.
Assimilation: Brighid is the Goddess often invoked during a Coming of Age Ceremony. As the initiates return from their period of isolation, they may leave a small offering on Brighid’s altar, beseeching her blessings as they transition into adulthood. They may also wish to recite a brief pledge or vow concerning their newfound freedoms and responsibilities.
Interpretation: After the assimilation phase, when the initiates have been presented to the Grove, an informal question-and-answer period or a reception can be held so that the attendees may discuss the experience.
Preparation: There are three main types of naming ceremonies. The first type is when parents give a name to their child. The second is when the child is old enough to choose a name for himself. The third is when an honored mentor or teacher gives a student a name. In any case, the person doing the naming should prepare by researching the meanings of the name about to be given. Does it suit the individual? Is the name something the receiver will be proud of? Does it convey the sort of person this individual is?
Separation: If you choose to have a formal Naming Ceremony, you may wish to have those who are to be named wait in isolation until called by those who will be doing the naming.
Isolation: While waiting in isolation, the initiates may choose to spend this time meditating on the meaning of their name(s), why these names were chosen for them (unless they chose the names themselves, in which case they could meditate on why they chose this name), and the nature and magic of the power of naming.
Assimilation: As each person in the Naming Ceremony is given a name, they are introduced to the Grove, one at a time, and welcomed by their new names.
Interpretation: One possible use of the interpretation phase might be to have each person present give a brief statement on the significance of naming ceremonies. A Naming Ceremony can be quite a powerful experience. I still remember mine from 1979. It opens the door to a larger world and a new sense of identity.
Preparation: There are many types of healing rituals from throughout the world. Most involve some sort of ritual purification before beginning the work. My personal preference is to either smudge the room with some type of incense, or to sweep the room with a hawthorn branch. The type of branch used would probably be dictated by the type of work about to be done, but for general purposes, hawthorn works well.
Separation: Prior to beginning any healing work, the healer (Vate or Ovate) traditionally takes some time to ground and center, and to meditate on the task at hand. The Vate may also consult the omens or partake in a vision quest to delve into the nature of the illness.
Isolation: In a healing ritual or ceremony, only the Vate and the person being healed are present. This is done to minimize any chaotic or otherwise negatively influential energies in the room.
Assimilation: In the assimilation phase of a healing ritual, the person who has been cured of the illness returns to the rest of the tribe, free of disease and therefore free from quarantine.
Interpretation: In most aboriginal healing rituals, some interpretation is given to the illness. What lessons did the person with the illness learn? What is the meaning of the recovery? If the ritual is unsuccessful, and the person does not recover, what meaning does this have for the individual and for his/her family? Such interpretations usually focus on the deeper, spiritual meaning of illnesses and trying times as opposed to the immediate physical aspects of the illness. Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, in her book, Crossing to Avalon, does a wonderful job of illustrating the transformative power of illness and trauma from a spiritual perspective.
Marriage or Handfasting Ceremony
Preparation: There are many layers of preparation for a marriage or a handfasting, as anyone who has ever been married can tell you. Perhaps the most significant of these stages of preparation is preparing the couple for what they are about to do. I never conduct a handfasting or a wedding unless the partners have had at least three pre-marital counseling sessions either with me or with another qualified counselor. What often happens in marriages or handfastings is that the couple focuses on the romantic aspects and neglects the practical and spiritual aspects. Who pays the bills? How will the children be raised? Who shall be responsible for which chores? How much input will friends and family have on the ceremony itself and on the lives of the couple after the ceremony? All of these questions have to be answered, and it’s better to answer them before the marriage rather than after.
Separation: We’re all familiar with the injunction that the groom isn’t to see the bride prior to the ceremony on the day of the wedding. This is a vestige of an old Celtic superstition. Many cultures isolate and separate both the bride and the groom for a time of preparation, purification, and contemplation before the actual wedding ceremony. Each meets with the elders of the tribe, men going into isolation with men, and women going into isolation with women.
Isolation: Once the couple has been isolated, they take this time to speak with the elders of their own gender regarding their upcoming marriage. The elders impart wisdom, and the person(s) being married receive this wisdom. This assumes that the couple being married or handfasted is indeed a couple, and a heterosexual couple at that. If the couple is a same-sex couple, they may meet with elders of whichever gender they would prefer. If the handfasting involves more than a couple (i.e., a polyamorous relationship), then each member of the relationship could meet in isolation with the elders of their choice. The main purpose of this separation and isolation is to receive the wisdom of the elders regarding relationships and romantic love, so this could be accomplished in any number of ways. It’s up to the couple being married or handfasted to select a method appropriate for their ceremony.
Assimilation: As a couple transitions from single life into married life, they join a larger community of couples who have made a similar commitment. At or near the end of most wedding and handfasting ceremonies, there is a presentation of the new couple to those gathered for the ceremony. This important assimilation ritual allows those gathered to know that a change has been made. It also allows the couple to recognize the fact that henceforth their community will see them as a couple, and not as separate individuals.
Interpretation: The interpretation phase begins at the ceremony, and continues throughout the life of the marriage. As each partner comes to view their relationship through the variations and transitions in married life, each comes to know different aspects of each other. A couple with newborn children will have different challenges than a couple with teen children or a couple with children who are leaving home for the first time. Each of these transitions brings emotional changes that will have to be interpreted by each partner.
Preparation: In the Druid community, the standards for preparation for ordainment can be quite high. Druids prize education, so many Druid organizations require quite a bit of education before accepting a candidate for ordainment. Preparation for ordainment isn’t just about the spiritual aspects of the Way of the Druid. An ordained member of the Druid clergy should also be proficient in non-profit administration, fund raising, organizing groups and events, counseling, and any number of other responsibilities associated with keeping a Grove up and running. Most ordainment rituals involve some sort of purification at the beginning of the ceremony. Offerings and blessings are usually also spoken.
Separation: During this phase of an Ordainment Rite the candidates for ordainment are separated from the clergy and the audience for a period of ritual preparation.
Isolation: During their period of isolation, candidates for ordainment may engage in grounding and centering, meditation, invocation of their patron God or matron Goddess, or in quiet contemplation of a life of Druid ministry.
Assimilation: Upon completion of the Ordainment Ritual, the newly ordained Druid clergy are presented to the Grove. In some rituals, the new clergy are allowed to give a brief statement, or to conduct their first ritual as Druid clergy.
Interpretation: Throughout life, Druid clergy and ministers are constantly re-interpreting their walk with the Gods and Goddesses, and how this walk plays out in their daily lives. They are also the vessel through which the Earth and the Land of the Young are brought together and interpreted. It is the duty of a Druid minister to offer these interpretations to the Grove for the spiritual growth and edification of all its members.
Preparation: Historically, Druids have always been peacemakers. The Mabinogion says that Druids could stop warring armies by stepping between them. So rituals of reconciliation are a very important part of Druid tradition. In ancient Scottish times, when two kings argued, the people would leave them both on an island with enough food and supplies for three days. They would come back three days later to see if the matter had been resolved. If it hadn’t been, they didn’t leave any more supplies. They just left the kings there until they could work it out or die of starvation and thirst. To prepare for a ritual of reconciliation, the parties involved should explore what it would take to forgive the other party, and what would happen to the relationship if each chose to harbor bitterness and resentment instead of letting it go. They should then engage in some sort of self-purification of negative thoughts about the other.
Separation: In this case, the parties involved should be kept separated until they are able to think rationally about the reconciliation. When both have agreed that they are ready to continue with the reconciliation, then the ceremony can continue. Until that time, both parties should remain isolated.
Isolation: During the period of isolation, each person involved should consider what led to the disagreement in the first place. Was there a misinterpretation? Was an element of unfairness present? If so, how can this element be removed or minimized? Is this disagreement the result of incorrect assumptions one the part of one or both parties? Why is reconciliation important in the first place? When both parties feel they have answered these questions to their own satisfaction, then the ceremony may continue.
Assimilation: In the case of reconciliation, the assimilation portion refers to the fact that the parties involved are being re-assimilated into each other’s good graces. The best way to symbolize this is with some sort of ritual of letting go, followed by some sort of re-joining. Problems could be written on parchment and burned or buried, or floated down a river, or tied to a balloon and released. The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination. The ritual of re-joining could be as simple as a handshake or a hug. Again, it’s up to the parties involved.
Interpretation: Here the interpretations of the reconciliation should focus on positive outcomes. Instead of rehashing the reasons for the disagreement in the first place, focus on interpreting the event in a way that prevents future disagreements and misunderstandings.
Preparation: Preparation for a Druid funeral is a particularly meaningful experience to most of the people who have ever experienced it. This is because Druids, like many Native American and other aboriginal cultures, have a special reverence for their departed Ancestors. Although a funeral is a sad time of remembrance of the departed one, and thoughts of how much she will be missed, it may also be a time of celebration. The deceased has gone on to join the other Sacred Ancestors in the Land of the Young. Preparation for sending the departed on this journey might include creating an altar of photographs and memorabilia of the deceased. You might also ask each person planning to attend, to share a story or remembrance of the departed.
Separation: Separation and isolation of the dead has become far more a part of our culture now than it ever was in the past. As soon as a person gets terminally ill, they’re swept off to the hospital. As soon as they die, they’re swept off to the morgue. As soon as the morgue is done with them, they’re swept off to the funeral home, then to the grave. We see the body as little as possible. It’s almost as if we’re afraid that death is contagious.
I’m old enough to remember a time when the bodies of the dead were left in the living room during the entire funeral party. There was even a tradition of sitting up with the dead during their last night in the family home, so that everyone could say their goodbyes. The separation in many Druid death rituals involves allowing each family member to be alone with the body of the departed for a time in order to say what needed to be said.
Isolation: The isolation in a funeral or death ritual allows each person who wishes to do so to spend some time with the departed. This is a time for sharing any last things you would like to say to the departed. It’s a time for forgiveness, reconciliation, blessings and goodbyes.
Assimilation: In many Druid funeral rites, there is a portion where those gathered acknowledge that the departed is about to be accepted into the Hall of the Ancestors. It is also a time of remembering that one day we too shall join the Ancestors.
Interpretation: There is no single interpretation of a death experience. Each person has their own ideas about what happens when we pass on. The only way to know for sure is to actually experience death ourselves. The Way of the Druid is a spirituality of individual expression, believing that it is up to the individual to create their own interpretation of the death of a loved one.
The Vision Quest is a time-honored rite of passage common to shamanic animist tribes throughout the world. It is used to determine your life’s purpose and mission.
The Vision Quest may take on many forms, but for this exercise we will be using the form of the all-night vigil. To do this activity, first find a place that calls out to you. It may be your sacred space, or some other place that feels full of energy to you. Make sure it is a place that you will be undisturbed for the duration of the night. Dress in comfortable, loose-fitting clothing. You may wish to take a blanket with you to ward off the chill night air, and make sure that the place you have chosen is a safe place, free of predators of the four-legged, or two-legged, variety.
The five phases of your Vision Quest would be as follows.
Preparation: Find your sacred space for the Vision Quest and prepare yourself by first asking permission of the spirits there to use the place for your intended purpose. Wait for a reply. When you feel that permission has been given, make an offering or libation to the spirits there to express your gratitude. If you sense that permission has not been given, then put off your Vision Quest until another day.
Separation: A Vision Quest is a vigil that must be accomplished alone. While your friends, family or pets may accompany you to the site, once the Vision Quest has begun they should leave you alone with the spirits. Make sure that everyone understands this before you begin, so that you are not interrupted.
Isolation: Once you are alone, sit or stand comfortably and ground and center yourself. You may wish to perform a meditation as you prepare yourself to receive what your chosen site will be sending to you this night. Although this rite is called a “vision” quest, remain open to what all of your senses may be telling you. What sounds, smells, or other physical sensations might you be getting that could be interpreted as a message about your life’s purpose? It may help to build a campfire or to light a candle to give you a center of focus.
Assimilation: Once you feel you are ready, ask the Universe to reveal your life purpose to you, and wait for a reply. Sometimes this reply may come as a vision, or a dream, or just as a feeling in your spirit. Stay awake all night if possible, and greet the dawn with open acceptance. Look for messages from the environment. Do the trees speak to you? Are you visited by any animals? A visit from your totem animal would be especially powerful at this time.
Interpretation: The magical thing about a Vision Quest is that any message you receive is yours, and yours alone. So how you choose to interpret the omens is totally up to you. When your life’s mission is revealed, greet the dawn and offer thanks. If your mission is not revealed, try again at another time, after preparing yourself by a period of meditation, fasting, and thanksgiving.
When vision questing, it may help to consider the following questions.
- Who came to you during your Vision Quest? Did you see a God or Goddess? An animal totem? A friend or family member? Did anyone at all show up? If so, what is the meaning of your relationship with this person or entity? If nobody showed up, did anything else of significance occur during your Vision Quest?
- What happened during your Vision Quest? Did you see, hear, taste, smell or feel anything that was of personal significance to you? If so, what was it? If not, what did you learn about your own thoughts, feelings and internal states?
- If something of significance occurred, when did it happen? Was it towards the beginning of your quest, towards the middle, or towards the end? What message might you interpret from the time that your event happened?
- Where specifically did your event occur? Was it in front of you? Behind you? Over your left or right shoulder? Above your head? Below you? What interpretation might you give to the place where your event occurred? If nothing occurred, what interpretation might you give to this?
- How did your omen make its presence known? What about it attracted your attention? If you feel that nothing happened during your Vision Quest, is it possible that you may have missed something? Even the smallest events can be omens.
- Why did you get the message you received? What is its significance to you?