Pagan practice for the blind and visually impaired

A guide for individuals and tips for inclusive organizers

As a child I memorized which corner of my home was in the north and which was in the east, south and west. At the fire pit, where we held a drum circle and the occasional small ritual, I memorized which tree or boulder denoted each compass point.

It was my job to lay out the four objects to mark the quarters and I was born legally blind. No one ever told me how to choose my landmarks or compensate for the fact that I couldn't see distances to orient myself to the directions. 

But having grown up in the woods, I could think it through. Keeping my sense of direction was a constant preoccupation when I sometimes roamed miles from home alone through wild places.. In some ways, it was a perfect task for a mostly blind child. It helped me confirm my sense of direction and gave me a spiritual connection to the elements and their four winds. 

Still I can see how this kind of thing might be off-putting for blind and visually impaired people who didn't grow up with earth-centered spirituality. Not all people who follow similar ways use the same terminology but I have to call it something, so I will call it "Pagan" or "Neopagan" spirituality, because that is currently widespread. 

It is often said--and it's true--that Paganism is not a spiritual path of orthodoxy but of orthopraxy. It's the doing, not what you think or believe, that is important.

Image by Arie Farnam - An altar for the goddess Brigid with a stature holding a lit candle surrounded by a string of amber beads and a rose quartz crystal in the foreground. In the background there is a pedestal with goddess carvings and an offering bowl at the top. Candles and a corn-husk doll sit on a window sill. To the left a white cane with a brown wood handle leans against the altar over a brass bell. 

Image by Arie Farnam - An altar for the goddess Brigid with a stature holding a lit candle surrounded by a string of amber beads and a rose quartz crystal in the foreground. In the background there is a pedestal with goddess carvings and an offering bowl at the top. Candles and a corn-husk doll sit on a window sill. To the left a white cane with a brown wood handle leans against the altar over a brass bell. 

Modern Pagans believe just about everything under the sun or none of it. What binds us together is what we do and how we live. Interpretations vary widely and practice is not exactly standardized, but there are some practices that are widespread for specific paths. 

Getting into the practice, either alone or with a group, often requires physical movements and is aided by objects. I would argue that this is actually an ideal spiritual path for the blind and visually impaired because it can be very tactile and kinesthetic. You don't spend much time sitting and listening to something you can't see being done without you at the front of a crowd. 

My daily meditation of grounding and calling the quarters, for instance, directly impacts my ability to use echolocation and mental-mapping. It is like setting your brain to think in the spacial terms people with vision impairments so often use.

However, the literature that introduces these practices almost always describes it in visual terms, which can make it less accessible to blind newcomers. Most Pagan groups, courses and books are ill-prepared to smoothly integrate blind individuals simply because most of the early leaders of our traditions had little experience to go on and the physical nature of many of our practices mean that there are some issues that will come up.

The motivation behind this post is to provide a brief supplement for blind and visually impaired people reading Pagan books and getting into the practice, as well as to give some tips for group practice for teachers who include blind or visually impaired people. I won't be defining all the Neopagan terms here because that would take a whole book. This is meant to be read as a companion to books that introduce a vast variety of Neopagan paths. 

Group rituals

I'll start with group rituals because I hope to reach ritual organizers with one particular message. We need clear instructions, particularly for the formation of a circle and any necessary directional turns. This can be handled either with a brief pre-ritual meeting for all or with a quick briefing specifically for any blind or visually impaired participants.

Let me give a very brief spacial description here as an example. A great many Neopagan group rituals center on a circle. Sometimes there is an altar or fire in the middle of the circle. Sometimes there is an altar on the east or north side. More rarely there are altars at all four compass points. In less formal settings, participants may enter the space informally and later someone will announce that it is time to stand in a circle. It may be necessary for a blind participant to ask someone to help them find the right place to stand.

If a purification does not occur at the entrance of the space, it may happen at this time. And it is often silent. Purification may be done with water (someone may go around the circle flicking drops of water, usually sea water or water with sea salt in it, onto each participant. It's good to know which form of purification may be used, if you are visually impaired, as this could be otherwise a bit startling. No worries though, you won't actually get wet.

Other forms of purification include salt, drinking from a goblet, passing a candle from hand to hand and very often herbal smoke or incense wafting, sometimes called smudging. Someone may go around the circle with a burning bundle of herbs and wave it around each participant as part of a cleansing. If this is the method chosen, you will know by the intense smell of herbal smoke or incense--and hopefully by being warned beforehand. The important thing to do is to stand still. While smudging isn't dangerous, accidentally touching the burning end of incense or a smudge bundle can cause a small burn. 

A more formal method of both forming a circle and cleansing participants which is often employed at large rituals, involves a ceremonial walk to the ritual space, often outdoors. Usually leaders (often a priest and priestess in Wiccan tradition) or other participants will stand at the entry point and perform some kind of purification, the water flicking, smoke wafting or the like on each participant. Sometimes one is offered a goblet to sip from. Sometimes ritual words are exchanged and those are usually mentioned to participants beforehand, as non-visual things are more often communicated to participants openly. 

The other most common, required movement in a ritual is turning toward the compass points when the quarters or elements are called. This occurs at or near the beginning of the ritual and sometimes occurs again when the quarters are released at the end of the ritual. If you are partially sighted it may be enough to know this will happen and be on the look-out for it. If you can't see enough to tell which direction others are turning, I recommend asking another participant to subtly cue you or request that the organizers ask for a volunteer. 

Some groups are more formal than others and for some any disruption of this beginning phase of the circle would be very uncomfortable and unwelcome. Some parts are done in silence or with low background music. Other parts involve one person speaking or a few call and response lines. Either way, it is good to know in advance what motions will be made. There are also times when more complex actions are expected in the midst of a ritual. These come in endless variety and can best be handled by organizers taking an interest in making the ritual accessible to all.

The first time I attended a large Pagan ritual as an adult, after having watched many videos and participated in countless smaller rituals, I was immediately confused at the circle forming stage. The group did have a pre-ritual meeting, but they neglected to mention their complicated system of walking into the circle. They walked in all the way around the circle and then turned to backtrack in order to take even places around the circle. I assumed the people walking widdershins were taking up specific places to call quarters or something of the like, so I continued sunwise, until I realized I was the only person doing it and I was in entirely the wrong place.

Needless to say, this was embarrassing and did not help to win my acceptance in the group, which was unfortunately not particularly inclusive.

Later with the same group, we held an outdoor ritual in honor of Hekate in a forest at night at the moment of the new moon. It was a great idea and a beautiful ritual. I asked for some direction, given that I see even less in low-light conditions and was told that the end of the ritual was a secret and I would just have to follow the others. I was nervous about this, especially given that part of the ritual involved each participant walking through a section of the forest alone.

In the end, that was actually not a big problem for me. I grew up in the woods and found that it was so dark during much of the ritual that I was better off than most of the participants because no one could see and I was at least used to being visually impaired.

Still I would urge ritual organizers to give clear preparatory briefings. It isn't difficult to include people with visual impairments. We really can and will follow detailed instructions gladly, but we often need to know in advance what movements will be required because "follow the person ahead of you" is not a reliable option.

As it happened, the Hekate ritual was particularly difficult for one older, disabled participant who was unsteady on the twig-littered forest floor. Most of the participants were so disoriented by the darkness that I found her alone and frightened as the others blundered by. I allowed the elder to take my elbow and led her to ensure safety.

Organizers can't count on a blind or visually impaired person having these forest mobility skills, because not all of us have had the opportunity, but it is also worth noting that the Hekate ritual provided an example of why one person's disability by the standards of modern society can actually be an asset to a group. I was able to attend to the elder and free up the organizers from having to deal with the crisis.

Further, if an object, such as a goblet, will be passed silently from person to person around the circle, it will smooth things a great deal if any visually impaired person is told about this beforehand and if possible allowed to touch the object in preparation, so that they will be familiar with it and able to get a secure grip when the time comes in ritual.

Any other advice for leaders with a visually impaired participant in their group is essentially the same as for any teacher or workshop leader. It is worth noting that the majority of elders are visually impaired in one way or another. They may have difficulty recognizing faces, reading a white board or seeing objects displayed at the front of the group. It is helpful to ensure any visually impaired persons a place at the front of the group. It is essential to read any written notes on a chart or board out loud and to offer large print and/or digital copies of handout materials.

It would be helpful if any actions performed by a priest or priestess could be accompanied by words that give an idea of what is happening, "I place this flame on the altar..." and so forth. But if silence is required a description beforehand is also helpful in ensuring the focused attention and intent of visually impaired participants.

Connecting to nature

As you may have noted in the example of the Hekate ritual above, most Neopagan practice has a significant element of connecting with nature. Many rituals are held outdoors and often in less-than-ideally accessible places. This is part of the practice and should be continued in whatever way possible. 

People with visual impairments, barring any additional mobility impairment, are capable of reaching any place sighted people can reach. They may, however, not have much experience in traversing natural areas. Some visually impaired people have been brought up to believe they cannot navigate the natural environment. Others who are newly visually impaired may need further mobility and orientation skills or a guide.

Either way, there are blind mountain climbers, extreme hikers, skiers and cyclists. We can and do go deep into the wilderness, often with a guide but nonetheless. For visually impaired Pagans, getting into nature to reach a site for spiritual practice is an excellent opportunity to connect fully to the earth through all elements and all senses. It is an intensive grounding with profound value. 

That's why I don't discourage ritual organizers from holding rituals in less accessible areas. I simply ask them to make it possible for visually impaired and mobility impaired people to reach the site. Use creativity and be willing to stretch your abilities, both as participants and as organizers. No one should be cut out of Pagan activities because of disability. A friend of mine who uses a wheelchair traversed mountains in Azerbaijan by guiding four blind people who carried her.  It can be done in any group, if we take our Pagan values of hospitality, community, interdependence and honor seriously.

It may well require one participant to guide or physically assist another. This too will allow everyone involved to more deeply connect to the natural environment and experience our interdependence. This is part of the values of every Pagan ideal I have encountered. We don't exclude those who may have physical difficulty and we particularly take care of our elders. 

Furthermore, in most Pagan spiritual traditions, there is a significant focus on natural cycles. We recognize that our lives are a cycle. It is worth remembering that the abled are only temporarily abled and this cycle turns as well. 

I support and encourage visually impaired Pagans to fully participate in nature-based parts of Pagan practice. Go out with a group into a forest for a ritual, if they are inclusive. Trust that the earth and the natural environment will embrace you.

I have guided other blind and visually impaired people on hikes because I am experienced while some haven't had so much opportunity to get out into nature. I know from what my partners on those hikes told me that it can be very disconcerting for those who have been in built environments much of their lives. However, it is an experience of great and magical value.

And the road to competence in natural environments doesn't need to be too long. Explore. Use all you've got. When I was a kid, I learned to run through rough terrain by throwing pebbles ahead of me and using echolocation. It isn't always easy but it is possible. 

That said, if you aren't currently able to get out into nature or have health concerns that make it unadvisable or extremely difficult, don't despair. There are some Pagan paths in which the literature strongly states that one non-negotiable requirement is long walks in nature. My druid path is one of those and beyond being visually impaired I also have a condition that makes long walks extremely painful and damaging to the bones in my feet, now that I'm older. While I used to hike long distances and run through rough terrain, I no longer do that.

Reading some of the literature or listening to those who say you must get out into the wilderness or spend an hour a day walking alone in nature could be very discouraging if these activities really aren't possible. 

But wait! Nature is everywhere. Visual distraction in a built environment is very difficult for sighted people to bear and it makes getting out away from built environments particularly important for some. It really does play a huge role in their spiritual health. But it isn't the same for everyone. 

You can fully immerse yourself in nature sitting in a park, on the ground with your back against a tree, listening to birds and feeling the breeze, smelling the aroma of the particular season. You can completely ground yourself gardening with a few pots on your window sill. You can connect to nature through close contact with pets and service animals. The whole point of connecting to nature is temporarily unplugging from constant human input--all that talking on the phone, listening to books, news, audio text, working and surviving in the built and technological world. 

The reason for the emphasis on connecting with nature in Pagan practice is that we need it for healthy inner development, for grounding and for attuning ourselves to natural rhythms. Even if I can't see the moon, I know that the gravitational force of the moon has a very tangible effect on my body and other living beings. I follow a moon calendar and connect with the cycles of nature through timing many activities including gardening to favorable moon phases.

Everyone can find ways to observe the changes in nature throughout the seasons. Though some Druids may insist that one must walk far from home through nature to get the full sense of the seasons, sitting on the same rock every day and allowing all your senses to absorb every nuanced change in the seasons will provide the same deep connection with nature. It is simply a matter of attention to detail, rather than attention to scope.

Get to know whatever nature is near you, even if it is small and/or heavily influenced by humans. Spend time listening, feeling, tasting and smelling. Dig your fingers a short way into the ground. Feel the rhythm in the earth. Observe the changes in insects, bird calls, plant growth, air movement, temperature and aromas around you. Taste the intense flavor of fresh unprocessed fruits and vegetables in each season. Grow a little something yourself, even if it's just basil in a pot to add flavor to your food and aroma to your home, and buy from or barter with local farmers. Allow your menu to be shaped by the season wherever it is you live.

As you probably know by now, visually impaired people don't actually have "better hearing" than sighted people. We just tend to pay more attention to it and interpret it with more detailed accuracy. The same principle applies to connecting with nature. Low vision or complete blindness does not need to hinder your connection to nature in any way. Your other senses, your whole body and your life energy are capable of connecting you just as well.

Whether you delve deep into the woods or sit by an open window filled with growing plants, you will be able to gain just as much detail and experience from nature as anyone else. You use the senses and life energy that you have. And this spiritual practice will be a significant aid to your mobility and orientation skills as a bonus. That I can guarantee.

Image by Arie Farnam - A simple altar is set up on an outdoor table. In the center there is a blue-black goddess stature surrounded by fresh leaves, flowers and stalks of wheat. In front of her there is a small lantern for a candle. Behind her there is a small bowl filled with stones. On the left there is a gourd-shaped water container and on the right there is a braided sweet grass smudge stick on a candle holder. 

Image by Arie Farnam - A simple altar is set up on an outdoor table. In the center there is a blue-black goddess stature surrounded by fresh leaves, flowers and stalks of wheat. In front of her there is a small lantern for a candle. Behind her there is a small bowl filled with stones. On the left there is a gourd-shaped water container and on the right there is a braided sweet grass smudge stick on a candle holder. 

Altars and tools

I discussed spacial relationships a bit in the section on group rituals. But now is the time to discuss the nitty gritty of personal practice. Most Pagans, whether solitary or part of a group, have an altar and/or ritual tools of their own at home. 

You can read lists of tools and ideas for building altars in books devoted to the particular path you're interested in right now. And hopefully you'.ll also read that you really don't need any of that. You can get by without any tools at all. It is perfectly okay to sit down, wherever you are, fold your hands in your lap or lift them up to the sky and declare the spot you're sitting to be sacred without candles, incense, pentacles or goddess statues. 

But most of us humans, being easily distractable, inconstant and a bit disconnected from ourselves and from nature, find it easier to access spirit with tools. While there is no exact right or wrong, there are methods and techniques that have been proven to help. This is where tools come in. 

Sighted people usually have altars that are on a level surface somewhere they can be seen and appear pleasing to the eye. There are several standard layouts for altars and any number of non-standard ones. Many Pagans set up every available shelf and window sill in their home to be altar-like, i.e. with purpose and meaning to the placement of objects. 

You can find candles of every shape and size on many altars as well as sculptures and figurines. Four objects very commonly found on Wiccan-influenced altars are a goblet (or other water container, sometimes called a chalice), a knife (sometimes sharp, sometiems not, called an athame), a wand (which may be elaborate or as simple as a twig from a tree) and a pentacle (a five pointed star in a circle, which may be raised or burned into wood or may be painted on and not detectable by touch). 

Some altars will have incense, herb bundles and/or a brazier or cauldron to burn them in. Others will have crystals and semi-precious stones. Some will have drums, musical instruments, bottles, jars and bowls of spell ingredients. 

There will often be something on the altar that corresponds to the four points of the compass. This may be four candles or it may be four objects, each of which corresponds to the element associated with that direction--stones. coins or pentacles for earth and the north; incense, feathers or blades for air and the east; candles or flowers for fire and the south; and a container of water, wine or other liquid for water and the west. These may also be anything from four carved animal figures to four pictures of saints. In any event, they will be arranged in accordance with the four compass points.

If possible, ask another Pagan you trust to show you their altar and allow you to feel objects and their placements. This can be a sensitive subject because some people have taboos about other people touching their altar or ritual tools rather than just looking, but some people don't mind and it could be helpful to get an idea of other altars.

I'll describe my altar using the clock method you may have seen used to describe food on a plate. It is on a shelf behind my fireplace and if a candle isn't lit it is rather dark, so many sighted people don't notice it. But it mostly isn't there for them. 

On the back wall of the altar there is a wood-burned panel made by a friend of mine as a surprise gift. I had a series of Pagan and ancestral symbols printed out and laminated and glued to a piece of black velvet that I hung behind the altar. One day the velvet fell down and two days later my friend brought me this beautiful wood panel with all the symbols burned into it, so that I can trace them with my fingers. 

On the shelf of the altar there is a small goddess figurine at 12 o'clock. Mine is a goddess focused path. Others will have a figure or a candle for both a goddess and a god. I just have a goddess statue. At one o'clock I have a smokey quartz crystal because that is the direction of north. At four o'clock I have a metal dish to hold dried herbs that I burn as incense. At seven o'clock just about at the center of the shelf I have a candle for the south, which also lights the altar. At 10 o'clock I have a small crystal bowl of water. On the right-hand wall. I have a drinking horn, some amber beads given to me by a teacher and some feathers. On the left-hand wall, I have a very small teapot, a container of sea salt and a small box. It's a simple altar and very small but it gets daily use.

Consider that you don't need to set up your altar the way sighted people do. The key is that it is easy for you to reach, access and work with. You may well do better with objects on a wall or on small shelves where you can reach each object individually. You may also find that simply having all of your tools in a bag or box as a portable altar that you can take out and set up wherever you want works best. 

The key is to find what works for you, even if it is not what is most commonly done by sighted people.

Safety

Virtually no discussion of altars can be had in the Pagan world without a rather large note about safety. Far too many devastating fires have been caused by candles and/or incense left burning in unsafe places. But I'm going to be more specific here because most of these warnings will just ask you to visually scan the area around your altar to make sure there are no drapes near your candles. We need to consider safety on other levels as well. 

The basics: Don't leave candles or incense unattended, obviously. But even if you are there, you should take precautions. Be on alert for the smell of burning. I have been shocked by how far away something can be from a flame and still start smoldering. 

Always place candles and incense on non-burnable surfaces. Wooden table tops can and will burn, smolder and start fires under the wrong circumstances. Small metal disks are the best but ceramic saucers from old tea cups work well too. 

Even more importantly, make sure there are no hanging curtains, clothing, strings, drapes, herbs, papers or other light flammables anywhere near burning candles and incense. At least one meter (40 inches) to either side should be clear of any light flammables and none should be at any height above. A breeze can easily move papers, herb bundles or scarves, causing them to fall or blow over a candle. This is a frightening common problem for both sighted and visually impaired Pagans who often have candles or incense burning in their homes.

Many Pagans, including me, have small homes and limited space. My altar is on a large shelf in a bookcase. So, there is a shelf above the altar. This is how many people do it. The inside of the altar shelf has to be very clear of flammable objects. (My felt background was not a good idea and I've learned my lesson on that.) As much as I want to have cloth hangings to decorate my altar, I can't. Everything in the shelf is heavy and most of it entirely non-flammable. 

You need at least 50 centimeters (20 inches) of space above a small candle flame before there can be a solid wooden shelf. I have singe marks on the underside of my upper shelf from a candle that was too tall. It is amazing how far up the heat is still concentrated from such a small flame. In addition, make absolutely sure that if you have a shelf above your altar that there are no loose papers, herb bundles or other light flammables on it. All it takes is a window left open and a breeze to put some of that burnable material down on the candles and a fire can flare up so fast that it is difficult to put out even if you are present.

I have had a few near misses myself, even though I am careful. Once my smoldering herb bundle somehow rolled out of the metal bowl it was in (probably due to the front part burning down and the back part becoming heavy enough to pull it out) and landed on my altar shelf. Fortunately I was not using an altar cloth but only the sweet smell of wood smoldering alerted me. It smelled good, like incense, so I didn't think it was a problem immediately. I just knew that was an unfamiliar smell. When I found the source of the smoke, my shelf was smoldering all the way through and was very hot to the touch, all from a little herb bundle I expected to go out in moments. The thought of what could have happened if I had assumed the smudge was out and left is quite unpleasant. 

My matron goddess is Brigid, who has a role in my tradition in protecting homes from fire. She seems to have her work cut out for her with me, even though I try very hard to keep to all the safety rules.

Sacred space, purification and casting a circle

OK, back to the fun stuff. 

You will read a lot about casting a circle, calling the quarters and grounding in most Pagan books. Various traditions may do it differently but most do these things in some form. For the visually impaired or blind Pagan, there are two issues here: logistics and what to do with all the talk about visualization.

This section is primarily aimed at solitary Pagans who will be doing these things on their own or with a very small group. In a larger group, you will either need to know the actions and terrain very specifically in advance or you will need to be with someone to show you the steps. 

In terms of logistics, often the first event in any kind of Pagan ritual, meditation, prayer or work is the casting of a circle. Some traditions see this as simply marking sacred space, others as purification and still others as projecting a magical protective barrier inside which it is easier to deal with energetic forces, deities, spirits, ancestors and the like. How you physically do the circle will depend on what purpose the circle has in your tradition. 

If it is a matter of simply defining sacred space, there isn't a huge reason to actually walk in a circle. You certainly can, if it isn't difficult for you, but it isn't necessary for the purpose. You can simply stand in front of your altar or in the place you have chosen and use your incense, smudge, candle, salt, water or whatever your tradition uses to mark sacred space by gesturing to each side, forward and back.

You can turn in a circle. It is worth remembering that a clockwise turn (to your right) is often used to designate sacred space because that is technically the direction the sun appears to travel across the sky. And a counterclockwise turn (to your left) is often used for purifying or getting rid of something, as well as to end a ritual.  

For designating a sacred space with either salt, water or smoke, I will usually walk in a small circle. Some traditions proscribe a certain number of times the circle should be walked, usually three or nine but there are probably other numbers. I do three unless I really need to build my focus for something or I feel really scattered. I will sometimes turn three times counterclockwise to clear out scattered or negative energy and thoughts and then walk three times clockwise in a circle to establish my sacred space.  This is a small circle in my well-known living room, so it is quite safe once all chairs and scattered children's toys have been cleared away.

For casting a circle in a formal way, the actions are a bit more complex and there is a lot of talk of visualization mixed in with the logistics. Many Wiccans and others of ritual magic traditions that require the formal casting of a circle will talk about energy as a visible or visualized light. I have done a lot of powerful rituals in my time and I am not totally blind but I have never seen any of this light or been with anyone who did. Some claim to but you aren't missing much if you don't see it. I have certainly felt the energy of the circle and you can too. 

The first thing in casting a circle is to have a very clear, defined space that you are very familiar with. Build a mental map of it, just as you would when navigating a city intersection. In your mental map of the space put a very large sphere, a giant balloon that can hold you and whoever else is participating in the ritual inside it. If the ritual is indoors, construct your mental map of the furniture around the open space and make the sphere just big enough to fill the room or the part of the room being used. Get the map ready in your mind and then as you walk around in a circle, either alone or with others, work on refining it. This is very similar to the visualization sighted people do. Your map may be spacial rather than visual but it will have the same energetic effect. 

As you mark the circle with a wand, a blade, your finger or whatever your tradition uses, add the sphere to your mental map. It will be a thin intangible membrane but as you define it, you will likely begin to feel it. I find the sensation very similar to that I encounter with echolocation. I know that not everyone's experience of echolocation is the same, so it is likely that this won't be either. But if I entirely close my eyes to get the full force of echolocation and walk slowly around a room, I feel a kind of pressure on whatever part of my face and arms is closest to a wall, long before I could actually physically reach it. I have never consciously perceived the sound of echolocation, which may be a partially sighted thing, but I do sense this physical sensation of pressure.

That is the kind of sensation that a well-cast circle will give. And again, while it is called a circle, it is actually supposed to be a sphere. It's just that sighted people find it easier to visualize circles than spheres. 

Once you have built the sphere and marked it, it is called a closed circle. No people are supposed to cross in or out of it. This has to do with the energy or mental focus of the gathering. Whether you believe that there is an actual energy field at work or you simply understand that the meditative practice of building the sphere enhances mental focus and crossing in and out of it will tend to disrupt that focus, either way the principle is the same. If you must leave the circle to get some forgotten item or handle an emergency before the ritual or magic is finished, it is recommended that you have some sort of set procedure for this. 

The standard procedure in most Pagan books involves tracing the outline of a door in the circle with the implement used to cast the circle, then visualizing opening it and closing it behind one. This may be a bit too visual for some blind folks. I recommend finding a method that works for you. The important thing is that the circle or sphere of focused space is respected and protected. It will depend on how you sense the barrier. 

To me it feels a bit viscous as if the air was heavier there and thus it reminds me of swimming under water. I put my hands together and part it the way I do when swimming the breast stroke. But my feeling is that the energy flows back right behind me, like water, so I don't have a method for closing it behind me. If I do this and keep a conscious focus on the mental map with the sphere in my space, I can leave and return without much disruption to the energy of the ritual. 

Grounding

I remember one of the first times when I sensed the energy so palpably. I had started studying Pagan ritual but I wasn't very skilled yet. I often led small rituals for a few friends and family members and sometimes the energy felt really good and sometimes it wasn't so intense, but we were focused on the particular work we were doing, which was often Tarot or Runes, so the energy wasn't our focus. Then, a friend who was more skilled in formal ritual came and took over the leadership of one such ritual for me. And everyone there was amazed at how intensely refreshing and invigorating the ritual was, compared to most of our rituals. I knew enough by then to perceive the energy flow and to understand what my friend had skillfully done. I knew then that it was more than just imagination. 

Part of what I did not do correctly in some of the previous rituals had to do with grounding. Grounding is often discussed in terms of visualization, so it may not have been my strong point for that reason. The most common form of grounding, and the one my friend used involves standing still, taking deep breaths and imagining or visualizing roots going down from your feet into the earth. Then you are supposed to visualize warm light or energy coming up from the earth into your body, healing and purifying you. Sometimes this is continued with a visualization of light coming down from the sky to fill you through the top of your head. 

Again, you can participate fully in this, even if you don't visualize golden light. And groundng in particular can help you with your orientation and echolocation. When this brief grounding meditation is begun, stand with your feet planted firmly, flat on the ground at about shoulder width. Take some deep breaths. It is good to be barefoot if it's appropriate. Either way, feel the ground under your feet. Direct your attention there, much as you built the mental map to cast a circle. Then allow roots to grow down into the ground beneath you or just focus on the contact of your feet to the ground, feeling you feet grow heavy.

Even if someone is speaking, guiding the meditation, listen to the all the ambient sound between the words. Build as much of a mental map of the space around you and beyond as you can. Register all sounds throughout the area--dogs barking, distant voices or music, the noises of traffic, footsteps or whatever you hear. But let them be. Don't worry at them or try to figure out what they are.

Bring your attention to any exposed skin on your arms, legs and face. Feel the air, its movement or stillness, any pressure or sensations you feel. Trust that the earth and the floor beneath you holds you, not just physically but lovingly. Trust that the air that touches your skin embraces you and caresses you. You may have to be very cautious much of the time but standing still in this safe circle, take a moment to feel safe and loved. That is grounding too.

Calling the elements

Once a circle has been cast or a sacred space marked and grounding has been accomplished, most rituals continue with calling of various forces, spirits and deities either to simply be present at the event, to be celebrated or honored or to aid in some way. In a large number of traditions the first to be called are the four elements. This is often dubbed "calling the quarters," because the elements are associated with the four points of the compass: north, south, east and west

Certainly many ancient cultures were intrigued with and heavily influenced by the four directions. However, I speculate that if there were an indigenous culture in which everyone was blind, that probably would not be such a focus. The earth is round after all. The four compass points were made up by sighted people to help define their world. 

So, you could convincingly argue that blind people can just call the elements (earth, air, fire and water) and not bother much with the directions. However, calling the quarters somehow became my job when I was a kid whenever we had a ritual with family and friends, so I have a particular affinity for it. And I feel that it is a good idea to know where the compass points are in any given space, if for no other reason than better orientation and mobility.

As a gardener, they are also very important for the technicalities of gardening. South is where the intense sunshine and heat comes from. If I put delicate plants out in an exposed spot on the south side of the house, they can get sunburned. And if I put sun-loving plants on the north side of the house, they won't prosper. 

Even so, if you don't want to make a fuss about the four directions, don't worry. Just call the elements in any way that appeals to you from the sources of your tradition. You don't have to turn to face the compass pints. But if you would prefer to do it, there are a couple of options. If you have an altar, find out which way you are facing when you stand in front of it. Most traditions suggest putting an altar on the north or east wall of a room. That would mean that you are facing either north or east when you face the altar.

My main altar is in the north, so I'll give the description for that first. You can place your hand lightly against the edge of the altar and know that you are facing north. Then imagine yourself at the middle of a clock in which you are now facing twelve. Keeping your left hand against the front of the altar for orientation, turn to the right so that you are facing three o'clock. You are now facing east. Keep your hand lightly on the altar behind you and turn so you are facing six o'clock. Now you are facing south. Put your right hand back and place it against the edge of the altar and release your left hand. Now turn so you are facing nine o'clock. You are now facing west. Turn all the way back around to twelve and you have made the full circle, sunwise--the correct direction for calling the quarters at the beginning of a ritual. 

If you call the quarters by calling air at three o'clock, fire at six o'clock, water at nine o'clock and earth at twelve o'clock you will be facing the right direction when you do it. And to release these energies at the end of the ritual, simply place your hands in the opposite order, right first and turn to nine o'clock first and go all the way around back to twelve and you will have done a counterclockwise or widdershins turn. 

If your altar is in the east and you face east when you face it, then east will be twelve o'clock, south will be three o'clock, west will be six o'clock and north will be nine o'clock. Make a note of this somewhere, so that you can refer to whatever is the correct version for your home and altar. If you don't have an altar, you can do the same thing with any piece of furniture you know is in the north or east of your house. 

Once you have cast a circle, grounded and called the quarters you are well into the territory in which each tradition is different. Now is the time to call on your gods, spirits, ancestors or whatever is central to your tradition. I recommend that visually impaired Pagans have some physical object of significance (a statue of a deity, a figurine of spirit animal, a stone or something of the like) that you can touch in this phase but that is as specific as one can get when generalizing about all traditions. I use a sculpture of a woman that I have consecrated as a sculpture of my matron goddess. The physical object that I can touch helps me to hold mental focus through a ritual, prayer or meditation. 

Other visualizations

Some traditions include other energy work, such as building a cone of power. You can use the same mental map you used to make the sphere to construct this for yourself as well. It will take some time and practice to build these more complex mental maps. It may help to play with a balloon and an actual cone or kitchen funnel doing off times, to get a feel for their shapes and allow you to include them in your mental map without too much struggle. You can make a cone out of paper, by rolling one side of the paper tight and leaving the other loose, so that instead of a long round straw of paper you have a cone. This is the shape you want to build out of energy in the middle of your circle, if you are focusing on the cone of power. 

When you finish, you should release the energies of the elements if you called them, either by words or motions. If you only marked or purified sacred space, there is generally no need to undo it. It will usually have a positive effect on the space. However, if you cast a formal circle with a mental map of a sphere, most traditions recommend that you take it down or "open" it. This is different from the opening you make if you need to leave the circle during the ritual. At the end of the ritual most Pagans will retrace their steps around the circle and declare something like "The circle is open."

The idea is that the energy directed and stored within the circle is then released to do what it is intended to do. As such it isn't exactly like gently drawing back a curtain. There should be a sense of pent up energy inside and given that the sphere was somewhat like a balloon in the first place, I imagine the release of energy might be an out-rushing. 

Focusing on your mental map of the space and the sphere, retrace your steps around the circle in the opposite direction. The energy is less firmly held behind you but the sphere is still more or less there until you reach the end. Then as you declare, "The circle is open!" or "So mote it be!" the sphere releases and dissipates.

Depending on the purpose, it may even be like the intangible popping of a balloon. Or it may be like wind rushing away to take the intention where it is needed. Or if the intention was internal, it may rush into you or into a person being healed. Whatever the purpose, I suggest keeping you focus on the mental map long enough to sense this through your skin. It may not be entirely clear the first several times, but as you practice the feel of the energy against your skin and your mental map of it in the room will grow stronger. 

Many Pagan events and groups you may encounter will engage in what is called "guided meditation." Often this consists of sitting or lying quietly while someone, either in person or on a recording, tells you that you are in some other place. This is used for grounding, experiencing a safe place from which to do something difficult, for exploring the Underworld or Otherworld and more.

Sometimes guided meditation is presented as entirely visual. The guide may say, "You see that you are in the middle of a field of ripe grain. You can see waves of yellow and gold spreading out before you. The sun is blazing overhead and the sky is a deep blue." Even for sighted people this merely visual guided meditation is distant and less effective.

A better guide will simply state where you should imagine yourself to be and provide varied sensory details. "You find yourself in the middle of a field of ripe grain. The stalks of wheat prickle your ankles and the rich smell of the grass and grain fills your lungs. A soft breeze is caressing your face and the sunlight is almost too warm on your face." And so on. 

If the guide doesn't provide sensory detail beyond the visual, you will often be able to translate their words from the visual to other senses. Start with the idea of standing in the middle of a field. Though much of the description may be less helpful, you can remind yourself of the sounds, smells and sensations of such a place and join in the meditation in that way.

If you find describing such a scene with a lot of sensory detail comes easy for you, you may be able to find a useful role in groups by providing guided meditations for others. Again, sensory detail other than the visual works better for everyone in the end, not just for visually impaired and blind people.

Divination

Divination is not part of every Pagan path but it does come up in many if not most. Every ancient spiritual tradition on every continent probably originally had its own divination system. Some Pagan traditions stick to divination systems that are close to their cultural background, but others branch out into multiple geographical areas.

Divination was traditionally thought of in many cultures as a method for predicting the future and/or obtaining the advice of gods, spirits and ancestors. Today some systems still pursue one or both of these goals but modern divination often also seeks to provide psychological and spiritual counsel. Where the counsel comes from, whether it is perceived of as coming from the gods, ancestors or spirits or from inner wisdom and one's own subconscious depends on the tradition. Primarily the interpretation of the power of divination is a highly personal matter.

For our purposes, I will describe several common divination systems and how visually impaired people can access them. 

Many divination systems today rely on cards with printed pictures, words and numbers on them. Even systems like the i-Ching and the Runes which were not originally cards are often sold as cards today. 

Cards are probably the most difficult divination system for blind people to practice. Most cards have no Braille option and even when they do have one, the Braille only identifies the card and does not provide the symbolism and details that are crucial to the visual experience of the card. Because I am partially sighted, I have used Tarot cards since I was a child but the images on the cards are often too small and detailed for me to get the full visual impact.

Tarot is a system of divination cards originally developed in Renaissance Italy. Fortunately, many Tarot books include a detailed description of the image on each card and a discussion of the symbols on the card. Many of these books are also available as audio or digital books that can be heard out loud. 

If you want to use Tarot or another card-based divination system, I suggest getting a set of cards made from sturdy card stock. If you can't see the numbers or names on each card, you may be able to use a text scanner or get a friend to read them to you so that you can Braille the cards yourself. There was once a Braille Rider Waite Tarot deck with an audio book for sale on Amazon but it has been out of print for some time. 

Once you have a deck with Braille cards you can use the descriptions in the text (hopefully audio or digitalized for text-to-speech) to familiarize yourself with the potent symbols of the cards. Much of the art and skill of Tarot reading and similar card-based divination is in one's intuitive interaction with the symbols on the cards, not simply in a wrote recitation of the meanings of individual cards.

While I don't believe blind people actually have some advantage through a mythical "second sight" when it comes to divination, neither do we have any great disadvantage and study and practice can give you great skill in Tarot reading. 

Many Pagans today also use Norse Runes. The Runes are an alphabet and system of magical symbols used by the ancient Scandinavians. The Runes are made up of combinations of short straight lines and angles and are thus well suited to being carved into wood, stone and bone. Many rune sets today can be purchased. The better of them are carved or etched on a hard natural material such as rounds cut from elk antlers or burned into rounds from a branch with deep grooves. Beware purchasing without handling a set of Runes, however. Many sets are also painted on stone or wood, which may not be so accessible.

Ogham staves (sticks with carved symbols from the Celtic Ogham) alphabet are also gaining in popularity among Pagans of a Celtic persuasion. Like the Runes the symbols are well suited to being read by touch if they are burnt or carved deeply into the wooden sticks. It is more difficult to purchase Ogham staves at present, so it may be necessary to make your own set if you have some manual skill with wood. 

A set of Runes or Ogham staves with deeply etched symbols will provide a perfect divination tool for a blind or visually impaired practitioner. Books containing the magical meanings of the Runes or Ogham symbos, translations of ancient poems once used to memorize the Runes and sometimes meditation exercises helpful in studying the symbols are often available in digital formats for text-to-speech reading but less often as audio books. 

The i-Ching is a five-thousand-year-old Chinese divination system that uses either 49 dried yarrow stalks or three coins to come up with sets of numbers that correspond to chapters in the i-Ching or "Book of Changes." The yarrow stalk method is more complex but supposedly more accurate and detailed. It is also perfectly accessible to blind and visually impaired people. The coin method would require finding coins which allow you to easily tell heads from tails by feel. 

Each of these divination systems is complex and it would take an entire book to give any depth of information about each one. What is crucial to know for our purposes is that it is clearly possible for blind and visually impaired people to access divination tools. With new technologies allowing for text-to-speech and even hand-held page scanners, accessing the books that decode these tools is easier than ever before.

Astrology is another skill related to divination, though it has many other purposes than simple attempts to predict the future. Astrological forces can help us to tip the odds in our favor in just about any endeavor that involves any amount of chance. Farmers have known since the ancient beginnings of agriculture that the success of crops can be influenced by the moon phase when the crop is planted or even watered and weeded. These correlations are still observed today. 

Blind and visually impaired astrologers use math to calculate helpful and harmful dates for a vast variety of activities, just like other astrologers. This is another case where the greatest hurdle will be accessing text for study. While many sighted Pagans take great joy in observing the visible phases of the moon, I live in a cloudy part of the world where the moon is rarely visible eight months out of the year, and everyone manages without seeing the moon regularly. Even though I can't see the phases of the moon with my eyes, I still follow a moon calender as a way to stay in tune with natural cycles.

There are some less widespread forms of divination that will prove difficult for blind and visually impaired practitioners. I have never been able to read lines on a person's palm (not even my own) very well. Palmistry is not a common divination technique in modern Paganism, in any case.

More common is the practice of using sightings of animals, birds and trees as a divination system. One could, I suppose, learn the sounds of birds and use their calls instead of sightings. Or one could count any mention or reference to certain animals or trees encountered randomly during daily activities as a "sighting." But I have always found these methods of divination requiring random visual observation to be difficult for me and not particularly useful when described by others. 

Mythology and blindness

Finally we come to the topic of original stories and myths from ancient Pagan cultures. Modern Paganism has no holy book or central authority and we pride ourselves on the freedom and diversity of our community. But if there is something that is often held sacred or consulted in at least close to the way many faiths approach scripture, it would be the myths and stories of ancient Pagan cultures.

Some Pagans don't focus much at all on the myths, while for others mythology is central to their belief and practice. Still other traditions may not view the myths as indicative of ancient wisdom, but they view scholarship and understanding of primary source materials from one's ancestral cultures as crucial to spiritual progress. The view you take toward mythology will depend on what kind of tradition you choose to follow.

Accessing primary source materials and scholarly texts can be more difficult for blind and visually impaired people. Many of these texts are rare or held in library collections that can only be viewed on site and which are not digitalized. Others, however, have been translated and transferred to text versions.

If you wish to pursue the study of mythology, I highly recommend not relying solely on those popular mythology books that have been made into commercial audio books. It will be beneficial to the scholar to register with scholarly library programs that provide reading services to students. It may also be necessary to invest in a tablet or phone that can provide text-to-speech technology. Access to source material may still not be perfect, but the level of access you can gain with this technology will give you significant freedom and independence in your studies. 

Lastly there is the issue of the myths themselves and what they have to say about blindness. I hope to study this topic in greater detail and write specifically about disability in mythology and what modern Pagans can take from it. But here are a few points to start with.

Modern Pagans generally do not take myths literally. Norse Heathens today don't believe that universe is a literal World Tree. Devotees of the Greek gods don't literally believe that a girl goes down into caves underground and her mother won't let things grow so that's why we have winter. But there is much that we can learn about our existence, the gods and our personal understanding by studying these powerful stories. The same goes for mentions of disability in the stories. 

Höðr is a Norse god who is blind. There isn't much written about him except for the story of how he accidentally killed his twin brother Baldr, the golden boy of the gods, when Loki, the trickster god, played a mean prank on him. If taken literally this would be a very negative portrayal of blindness and disability in general. However, because we don't take myths literally this story can be interpreted in a lot of different ways.

The twins can be seen as two sides of a person, the perfect outer image we try to project and the inner being who is often cut off from others and vulnerable to manipulation. Another Norse myth tells how Odin, the father of all the gods, gave up one of his eyes to gain the wisdom of the Runes. Again the concept of physical sight is not what is important in the tale, but rather the idea of the sacrifices we often have to give for wisdom and magical power. 

Other cultures have their own myths that mention blindness. In Greek mythology, many monsters are vanquished by being blinded and bliding someone is often a punishment for doing something that offended the gods.

On the other hand, sometimes a person must give up sight to gain prophetic insight. In one rare occasion when a mythological character is born blind, Ophioneus becomes a great prophetic seer, apparently gaining prophetic sight in compensation for his blindness. Fortuna, the goddess of luck and chance, on the other hand, is often seen with a blindfold, a form of chosen blindness meant to symbolize impartiality and fairness.

In fact, blindness is one of the most common disabilities mentioned in ancient myths of many cultures. I hypothesize that this is because blindness was perceived of as particularly terrifying to people in pre-technological times and also particularly relatable. While people with many disabilities would have died rather quickly in those times, blind people did survive and talk and relate with other people. Many people knew a blind person and they at least believed they could imagine what blindness would be like.

Those hoping to find a disability-positive message in the myths will need to look beyond the literal interpretation because in the times when these myths were written survival was not easy for anyone and any physical disability was viewed very simply as misfortune. While today many blind people lead independent and professional lives, technology plays a big role in our freedom to do so. Blindness in mythology is not so much blindness itself but a potent symbol of the fear of powerlessness, helplessness and risks to one's survival.

As such, because we are not powerless or helpless in much of our lives today, we often cannot see ourselves as blind people in those places where blindness is mentioned in mythology. We don't generally have a special affinity for Höðr or other blind gods and goddesses. They are shared by all people who experience the fear of risk and vulnerability.

Instead, we may see disability struggles in those many myths in which heroes and heroines are outside the norm in some way or start with an apparent disadvantage that they turn to their own advantage. It is possible to find disability-positive moments even in ancient mythology, but it will take the same skills needed to interpret all of mythology for modern day life, a metaphoric and heart-centered view of what those who wrote them experienced that we still share.

We have moments, when we do feel helpless or limited. And the myths of our own cultural background and those of other cultures on other continents can give us meaning, counsel and inspiration for the struggles and journeys of our lives. Mythology can be an aid to people with vision impairment just as it can be to sighted people. 

I hope this guide has been helpful and not too limited. I have found very few sources already written on the subject of blind people in modern Paganism. I hope this will be only the beginning of the discussion and development of this topic. You are free to copy the address of this article and share it on-line and I welcome your comments, additions, corrections and discussion in the comments section below. 

Songs for Beltane

Beltane is both the most complicated and the easiest holiday to celebrate.

For my family it is usually overshadowed by the folk traditions of my husband’s village in South Bohemia. There the entire village gathers on the green and builds a 100-foot maypole and a monstrous bonfire, In which they burn scarecrows that they call "witches." Then everyone gets drunk.

Beltane dance poem meme.jpg

It’s fun and very simple. There are no words spoken by the mayor or anyone else. Ostensibly there is no meaning to this holiday. If asked, some of the older people in the village will tell you that the witches burned on the bonfire are not meant to symbolize real witches, such as people who are outcast in the village. Rather they symbolize “the witch of winter.”  But that is the end of any meaning ascribed to the day. 

And that is where it gets complicated for me.

I haven't truly had the chance to celebrate Beltane in any other way, so while I know about the deeper symbols of the day in different cultures, I have no set ritual, no songs and very little tradition--except attending the village festival--attached to it.

This year a friend and I decided to introduce our children to a more Pagan-oriented Beltane. Before the festival we will build our own small maypole in the yard. We will gather in a circle for a small ritual, give flowers from the garden as offerings to our deities and the Good Neighbors, sing a song or two, eat colorful candy made with natural food coloring, dance around the maypole and have a picnic lunch with a small fire.

During my preparations for this celebration, I have found that it is more difficult than I thought to express the essence of Beltane. Ironically the darker holidays, such as Samhain or Imbolc seem to have more easily defined themes.

It is easy to say that Beltane is about joy, passion, love, fertility, expression and life. But it is harder to define exactly what these things mean. Almost any song of joy and love might be appropriate for the holiday but that also means that none seems to be essentially fitting. And for our purposes, the songs need to be simple enough for both kids and adults to sing without a lot of preparation.

I have several Pagan chants that seem appropriate and my kids are working on the melodies on the piano. There is one called Hoof and Horn, about the rebirth of all life. The earthy lyrics, reminiscent of the Green Man make me think specifically of Beltane, though it could be used during any part of the year. 

We decided to include the Ancient Mother chant and Everlasting Sea with lyrics adapted to work as a song for calling the elements and four directions.

I love you like the wind.

Ever-singing wind. Ever-singing wind.

I love you like the sun.

Ever-shining sun. Ever-shining sun.

I love you like the sea.

Everlasting sea. Everlasting sea.

I love you like the earth.

Ever-turning earth. Ever-turning earth.

These are still general though. We often use the melodies of other songs and put our own seasonal lyrics to them. It isn’t usually a terrible challenge. But this holiday does not lend itself so well to deep thoughts. Beltane is all sensual and sensory, all experience and action with few words. 

It is challenging to put the instinctual, active, earthy, physical essence of Beltane into words. In the end. I chose the melody of Scarborough Fair but used seasonal lyrics.

Are you going to the Beltane fair?

Dancing, fire, ribbons and wine.

Laugh your heart full when you get there,

for 'tis the goodness of the springtime

I'm wishing you a joyful and peaceful spring.

Journey to the Dark Goddess - Pagan Book Review

Journey to the Dark Goddess: How to Return to Your Soul by Jane Meredith is a startling combination of a spiritual guide book and a very practical how-to manual. It is almost more self-help than a spiritual book, although you can take it in a Pagan interpretation.

Here in one book are the myths of the Dark Goddess and those who journey to the Underworld to meet her--Inanna and Ereshkigal, Persephone, and Psyche--as well as the explanations of why and what these myths mean spiritually and psychologically, personal experience stories and clear instructions for rituals to consciously choose your journey of transformation.

Meredith sees the Dark Goddess as that which has the power to transform us through inner work. Because most people avoid deep inner reflection, we are usually brought to it through hardship, disaster, illness, loneliness, grief or depression. Meredith's concept is that a person can choose to take the steps necessary to meet transformation on our own terms--before it is forced upon us through circumstance or, if necessary, during such circumstances. 

Overall the concept is solid and well explained and executed. There is some moderate repetition but for those inexperienced with the concepts and ritual format, it will likely be helpful. The sections are well labeled and it is possible to navigate in the book, if the repetition does bother you. 

The writing is clear and enough flexibility is left in the instructions for the steps to be practical for a wide variety of people. If there is one thing that left me concerned in this book, it was the author's wise assertion that individuals consciously undergoing such a passage should always have support persons lined up in advance with specific instructions for helping the seeker should she get stuck in her process.

Primarily this includes reminding the person on the journey to the dark goddess to eat, sleep and exercise regularly. It also means providing compassionate moral support. While this is excellent advice, there was very little in the book on how to find such support or what to do when it is lacking. In today's world, it is not always easy for individuals to find authentic support and a large reason for seeking out such a book could well be isolation and social alienation. 

It may simply be that the author has no answers for this particular conundrum. She does not claim to have all the answers and in fact uses examples of her mistakes along the way as useful teaching tools to show how the steps of the journey should and should not be done. 

Using the book

Over the past month, I have experimented with the rituals, imagery and myths in this book. It just so happened that this book arrived on my doorstep at a time when I had to enter a dark and frightening situation consciously. 

I have been legally blind all my life, but my eyesight has largely remained stable. To others it may seem very weak, but I am very glad for what I have. Suddenly in the past year my sight started to fail due to cataracts. And I was told that I am in a high risk category for cataract surgery. I could become totally blind very quickly if the surgery didn't go perfectly... and there is a lot that can go wrong.

The surgery had to be scheduled at the darkest time of the year--November and December--to minimize risks. And so while I normally guard myself against the harsher parts of life at this time of year, I now had to face them fully. I also had a support person available both for the surgery and for the journey to the Dark Goddess.

It was quite a coincidence that the book arrived at just such a time, so I decided to go through it in a practical way. I have been through some dark periods--depression, social ostracism, infertility. So, I know what Meredith means when she describes a journey to one's personal underworld. 

There are a dozen rituals described in Journey to the Dark goddess but not all of them are mandatory for such a journey. I did some of the preparation rituals and exercises with curiosity but little deep connection. Then when it came time for me to consciously descend into the dark, I combined the ritual of the seven gates to the Underworld described in the book with a ritual sauna in an underground cellar and a time of utter silence.

My experience of the seven gates to the Underworld was quite different from what Meredith describes. It was a very powerful ritual, but I felt somehow detached from my emotions, which are usually rampant. It was almost as if I was watching myself from outside myself, watching this person I barely knew falling and disappearing into the gloom. After an entire moon in which I underwent two surgeries, a month of enforced rest and near isolation, and much upheaval in my relationships and household, I finally felt the flickering of returning energy .

Those things I had relinquished on my way to the Underworld--attachments to family, home, status and cherished skills--had reordered themselves and taken on a different significance. In the end, while my experience is not the same as Meredith's, it was very helpful to follow her guidelines and concepts. 

The Art of Ritual: The difference between laughing at ourselves and laughing at our faith

I once had the honor of guiding a young woman in her first full-blown Pagan ritual. She had been to some drumming circles and Tarot readings but not a ritual with all the besoms and wands. She had also grown up in a household where spirituality was a dire affair, strictly dictated and ruled by an angry God who would supposedly damn anyone who didn’t do it “just so” to eternal agony. 

She was eager for something different, but also anxious. 

Creative Commons image by Anand Krishnamoorthi

Creative Commons image by Anand Krishnamoorthi

What if we did something wrong? She was reverent and serious about learning. That is good and proper, and yet too much seriousness can be limiting.

I was not all that experienced in leading rituals and this was one of the more complex I had done. It was Samhain and I wanted to do it right. I had very specific reasons for wishing to connect with ancestors, mine and others, that year. I had recently adopted two children from a different ancestry than my own and I wanted to approach their ancestors with honor and respect to ask for their blessing on the adoption as well. 

So, it was a serious ritual. But in the first moments, my informal apprentice mixed up the quarters. We all know it happens. She was flustered and worried. But I told her we didn’t have to worry. We started the calling of the quarters over again and did it right.

Then I turned in the dim candlelight and knocked over a small bowl of libation water. I managed to catch the bowl, not break it and even save enough of the water that we could continue without interruption, but water splashed onto the floor. 

I started laughing. First, nervously but then joyfully. 

My young companion was startled. I explained that not being perfect is part of the ritual and so is laughing at ourselves. The rest of the ritual was punctuated by moments of laughter and once when we both started laughing for no good reason and couldn’t stop. 

But it was still one of the most powerful small-group rituals I’ve ever known. The energy was intense and I truly felt the blessing and protection of many ancestors.

I tell this story because it is good to keep in mind that laughter has its place in ritual, as do mistakes and a bit of silliness now and then. Some rituals guide us to laugh away negative energies or to laugh in order to overcome difficulties. And these are good uses of laughter.

That said however, silliness should not be the focus of every ritual. And while we should learn to laugh at ourselves and our troubles, we should not laugh at or mock ancestors, the spirits of the land or our gods, Some people are going to be rolling their eyes reading this and calling me a “pious Pagan,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.

But I’m not actually saying that we should remain reverent in order to avoid curses and the thunderbolts of Thor. I was not raised with that jealous, angry god with a hell full of torment and fire, and yet I do see how fearing retribution for irreverence puts one on a slippery slope.
That’s not what I’m talking about here.

It is the mere fact of inner truth and faith.

I was given the task of reviewing the book The Art of Ritual by Rachel Patterson. The book purports to give an overall basis for ritual. And yet it is full of attempts at lightheartedness, which are not particularly funny. It needs a good line edit. And it is more of an example of how to pretend to do ritual while laughing out of the side of your mouth to make sure your friends know you don't really believe this stuff. 

There are word-use and terminology mistakes, such as calling Mabon "the Autumn Solstice." ("Solstice" means "the sun standing still," which is the appearance when the sun’s movement changes direction at the Winter and Summer Solstices. It does not happen in any way at the Equinoxes.) In another gaff, there is an attempt at the re-imagining of the myth of Atlas, which falls flat when the author says Atlas was was relieved of his "turmoil" instead of "torment." There was no sense that the author meant Atlas had some inner conflict and outer turmoil would likely be much less boring than holding up the sky for eternity.. 

The honest mistakes may simply be the consequences of a small, over-taxed publisher and they can easily be forgiven. But errors close to the heart of the matter do dissipate the author’s credibility. 

More troubling still are the author’s references to matters of faith. Patterson says, jokingly, of her attraction to the god of life force and nature by whatever name he is called, “For me, it’s all about the antlers.” This and many other notes in the book insinuate that many parts of this spiritual practice are done for image and the street cred of the priest or priestess. While that isn’t out-of-bounds in and of itself, there is no corresponding depth or sense of real purpose in the rituals. 

The author talks about energy glibly, how to call this kind or dispel that kind. But the only explanation of energy or investigation of the purpose of ritual is contained in a tiny passage describing rubbing one’s hands together to raise heat and feel it between your hands.

It is as if an atheist wrote a how-to cookbook for people who want to dress up as Pagans in order to impress their friends. I doubt that's the case. The author is probably a very spiritual person trying to navigate the market for books on Pagan issues. I think if the book were marketed not as the full "art of ritual" but rather as the outer "ritual tools and scripts" I would have much less to complain about.

At every turn the author describes in detail physical objects for ritual or specific actions for ritual and then goes to extreme in denying any real need for them, never explaining that ritual objects and actions are aids to meditation and focus. Perhaps the author wants to avoid stating any of the reasons for ritual objects and actions to ensure that no one can contradict her. The problem is that this leaves the core of the book hollow.

The focus on image over depth in this book points at a troubling demographic phenomenon in which many Neopagans are Pagan not because they believe in our gods but because they don’t believe in the angry god with those threats of hell. They are accustomed to “not believing,” and they see Paganism as a religion where anything goes and nothing is sacred. It is an identity to wear proudly but not one to internalize.

Everyone has their own path and I don’t think most people dabbling in Paganism or witchcraft are likely to unleash some sort of negativity due to a lack of reverence. Our gods aren’t like that and I’m not here to judge others on their path, least of all those who have been through religious abuse and are most in need of some laughter. On the other hand, an overall frivolous and shallow approach to ritual isn’t what I would recommend. And thus I can’t really recommend The Art of Ritual as a general book on ritual. It may, however, be helpful to those who are too serious or afraid of negativity in ritual.

Ritual to me must be rooted in some authentic belief, even if it is only the inexplicable sense that “there is something out there.” We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, but we should hold something sacred—at least the earth, at least the hunger and need in the world. In times as troubled as ours, when we are threatened by imminent and disastrous human-caused climate change, war and massive multiple refugee crises, the art of ritual should come primarily from what is sacred to those practicing the ritual.

Ritual is first and foremost about deepening either personal or community experience and there is no word about this in The Art of Ritual. When we do rituals imperfectly and laugh to free ourselves from fear, it is an opening of spirit. When one laughs at the deepening experience of ritual, the spirit closes. 

Night terrors and protection magic: Addressing fear without dismissing it

It isn't suave to make this kind of confession, but in this case its necessary. I was afraid of the dark as a child. Very much afraid.

I wasn't afraid of monsters under the bed or of ogres in the closet. At least not unless I had recently watched a scary movie. Adults would often ask me what I feared and it was impossible to say exactly. 

I feared the tingling pressure of darkness against the back of my neck. I feared the way my muscles tightened and sometimes I couldn't move, even though I was fully aware of my surroundings. I feared the sense of consciousness and non-physical forms that I couldn't possibly understand. But as a child I didn't have words for these things and so I simply clung and  refused to be alone.

I found that darkness was actually only part of the problem. The other part was being alone. I found that the pressure against my senses didn't come if I was with another person... even a child much smaller than me. It wasn't that I thought a smaller child could protect me from something malicious. I didn't fear harm. I just did not like the strange pressure and awareness I felt but couldn't understand. And that feeling lasted until I was well beyond childhood.

 Today I understand better what I perceived as a child. I had some sort of gift for sensing non-physical reality. Despite the fact that I had very poor eyesight and couldn't see the facial expressions of others, I often sensed the emotions of others correctly, even when they wished to hide their feelings. And several specific experiences convinced me that I could at times perceive non-physical beings. Because I couldn't understand what I perceived, it was frightening and some of it may have actually been negative and beyond the abilities of a child to handle. 

It is because I've experienced this that I have a lot of sympathy for children who have fears they can't describe. Some of these fears may come from sensing non-physical reality. Others may come from deep memories or previous traumatic experiences that are not consciously remembered. Either way, there are ways to deal with these fears that address the root cause and allow children to keep their emotional and spiritual sensitivity without being afraid or encountering psychic negativity.

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In popular western culture today, the primary response of adults to a child's fear of the dark or the unknown is either suppression, denial or mockery. "Look. There's nothing under the bed. Just calm down and go to sleep!" or "If you just be brave and ignore it, it will go away." 

From my experience, these usual responses are utterly useless. Most children just suffer through it until they are old enough to block out the non-physical world. And that can seriously limit their sensitivity and ability to know themselves and reach their potential.

A few more creative adults make a game of battling those things that trouble the child, dressing up in capes with swords and charging around the bedroom to exorcise the monsters. This latter approach does often work, and that's more than just because it's fun and distracting for children. It is also because such games often contain the basic elements of energetic ritual.

That is where the real solution lies. If an adult is skilled in their own spiritual path and can keep a steady center while giving a child the tools of self-protection and energy conservation, lengthy struggles with these fears can be avoided. And the child can grow to develop psychic gifts to their fullest without having to put blocks on their sensitivities. I have seen people of various religious persuasions do this in various forms--from Christians to a Cuban voodoo practitioner. So, I can't say there is one "correct" way to go about it. 

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But the basic elements are common. An adult should help a child to create a safe psychic space, often a circle. There may be candles or other items that help in concentration and a feeling of peace. Teach your tradition's form of centering, whether that is through visualization, meditation or prayer. Then cleanse the negativity in the area in a way that makes sense to you, such as smudging with herbs, drumming or prayer. Set a boundary around the room or home, using substances (such as salt and herbs) or protective symbols. And give the child a symbol or talisman of psychic protection. Talk about energy and spirit with the child in terms the child can understand and explain what you have done. Don't forget to close the sacred space and give thanks.

Even this very general description may go beyond the spiritual experience of some adults. I don't expect those who believe solely in a materialist world devoid of gods, ancestors and spirits to agree with my perspective on this. I'm not a guru and my own spiritual path is very personal and eclectic, reflecting my varied past and international family.

However, I can offer a more concrete depiction of this process for those who embrace a Pagan, Wiccan or earth-centered path in the children's book Shanna and the Raven, which is an adventure story linked to the February 2 festival of Imbolc. The book follows a ten-year-old girl through experiences of both perceived and real danger and shows how her mother helps her to use both physical measures and ritual to empower her, connect with intuition and obtain safety. There are serious themes in this book but children love it for the story and don't realize it means to "teach" something and that alone makes the concepts much easier to absorb.

I often hear parents say that they don't allow their children to participate in their spiritual path until they are teenagers. And this perplexes me. Certainly, there are practices that are beyond the capabilities of children and children shouldn't be forced into a straight-jacket of specific beliefs. However,  there are many simple practices, rituals and traditions that can give children protection that truly soothes fears rather than simply suppressing them. And the successful use of such means will inevitably give children a greater overall sense of security and confidence. 

I wrote Shanna and the Raven as the first book in the Children's Wheel of the Year series precisely because I see these needs in my own children. And I hope they may help others as much as they have brought comfort to my family. 

What are your experiences with unexplained fears, the need for protection and using spiritual means to banish anxiety? Drop a line in the comments section below and join the discussion.