I like ritual – I always have. In my ten years with Denton CUUPS, I’ve planned and led lots of rituals. Most began by asking “what do we want to do this time?”
The Cernunnos Ritual was different. It began with a calling – a clear understanding that Cernunnos wanted something from me, and from us. I wrote about this last month – my mission was to present Him to those who came to our circle. Not by explaining, but by giving everyone a chance to experience Him for themselves.
It seems like most accounts I read of devotional rituals involve Drawing Down – invoking the deity into a priest or priestess, then having the god-priest speak. We’ve done that before, though never in a public setting. For this ritual it seemed more important to give people an experience of Cernunnos, even though that experience was likely to be vague.
We began by turning a UU meetinghouse into a Celtic temple. If there was ever a ritual that needed to be done outdoors it was this one. But it was 101 in DFW yesterday and when the ritual began it was still 99. If you’re roasting, you’re not going to be fully engaged. Plus some of our members and guests are at the age where extreme heat is a real danger. We’re thankful we had an indoor option. We completely disassembled the sanctuary, set the chairs in six sections around a central altar, covered the walls with Celtic sheets, throws, and altar cloths, and tied greenery to the interior columns. The idea was to make the room different – to send a visual message to expect something out of the ordinary.
We opened with our usual informal gathering, explaining who we are and what we were going to do. We announced there would be no photography during the ritual. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t – this time it was important that no one feel inhibited by the presence of a camera.
While this was unquestionably and unapologetically a polytheistic ritual, it was also a public ritual. We wanted everyone to feel welcome, and besides, our mission was to present Cernunnos, not to present the doctrine of hard polytheism. I listed several of the ways people understand the gods in the Big Tent of Paganism, then said:
These different ideas about the gods make for interesting conversation, but tonight they’re not important. Tonight what’s important is that you experience Cernunnos, and if you are so moved, that you respond to him. If you find yourself starting to wander into the realm of analysis, I encourage you to acknowledge the impulse, let it go, and give yourself permission to pick it up again after the ritual is over.
Experience now, analyze later.
The ritual itself began with a procession from the gathering area into the temple. The procession was accompanied by six wonderful drummers and led by priestesses carrying fire and bearing offerings. We cast a circle, called the Spirits of the Elements and Directions, then invited Cernunnos to join our circle.
We made offerings of grain (the bounty of the fields), fruit (the bounty of the trees) and wine (the bounty of the vines). We made a musical offering – a choir sang Damh the Bard’s “Antlered Crown and Standing Stone” with everyone joining in on the chorus.
Then I gave my invocation of Cernunnos. It was my story of how I encountered him as a child in the woods (even though I had no idea who or what he was) and how I became reacquainted with him as an adult. That was followed by a brief call and response between myself and Cynthia:
In our high-tech world the Horned God tells us we are part of Nature, not separate from it.May our lives honor and strengthen our connection to all living things.
In an era of factory food the god who is both hunter and hunted reminds us that in order for us to live, something else must die.
May our eating be a sacrament, and may it honor the sacrifice of the plants and animals who die to feed us.
In an era of resource depletion and climate change the God of the Forest warns that our fate is inseparably intertwined with the fate of other people and other species.
May we honor our ancestors by leaving a healthy world for our descendants.
Cernunnos, Lord of the Animals and Lord of the Hunt, we ask you to join our circle and bless us with your presence.
Then the drumming started and we began calling His name. At that point the script stopped. As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I’m not comfortable with unscripted rituals. I like order and predictability. But I serve a god who is wild and free, and He only tolerates my obsessive orderliness so much.
His presence, which had been mild but undeniable since we started setting up (what, you think a Forest God is going to sit quietly outside the door till he gets a proper invitation?) became overwhelming. Someone shouted. Someone got up and began to dance. Then another got up, and another, and another. Before long we had a whole line of people dancing, spinning, and chanting around the altar.
Cernunnos! Cernunnos! Cernunnos!
I don’t know how long it went on. I had been moving around the outer circle, stirring the energy and doing my best to stay out of the way – my job as priest was to facilitate an experience of Cernunnos for everyone, not to dictate what that experience would be. At some point, I moved to the front of the altar, said a prayer of thanksgiving for the gathering and a prayer of hope for what would be taken away from the ritual. I made my usual ritual gestures to the statue of Cernunnos on the altar.
The drumming stopped. Erin shouted. Cynthia had something poetic to add, and I added a few words of closure, none of which I can remember.
We shared apples and wine (and juice, for those who don’t or can’t drink alcohol) while the choir sang again. We ran through an abbreviated version of our usual closing liturgy, thanked everyone who came, made a few announcements and retired to enjoy some food, drink and conversation.
Then we reassembled a half hour later to turn the Celtic temple back into a UU meetinghouse for Sunday services.
Though I love hearing it, I don’t put a lot of stock in feedback right after rituals. People who like it will say nice things; people who don’t are generally too polite to say anything. But when different people say the same thing I pay attention. Last night several people all said there was something real, something tangible to this ritual. Call it energy, call it spirit, call it Cernunnos – it was there.
For a spiritually mixed group in a public setting, that’s success.
Rituals like this tend to have staying power – their effects are felt days and weeks and sometimes months afterwards. What the conscious mind overlooks the unconscious grabs and nurtures and later expresses in unexpected ways. A god who was unknown is now known and begins to be seen. His message is heard and begins to be lived.
And our ordinary world becomes a little more magical, a little more enchanted, and a little more connected.
This is the first time we’ve done a ritual quite like this. It will not be the last. Cynthia and I will be leading a variation of this ritual at the OBOD East Coast Gathering in September. And Denton CUUPS will be presenting it as the closing ritual for DFW Pagan Pride Day at 4:00 on Saturday, October 5.