Cylch Blodeuwedd

Druidic Grove in North-West Wales

The Ritual Circle

by Aethnen - January 20th, 2009.
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Viewing the Ritual Circle through the Eyes of Oral Culture
by JK MacCormack

One of the most primal, intuitive and fundamental shapes that the human psyche acknowledges is the circle, oriented to the natural circles in nature and all life. It is inescapable, infinite and the true perfection of design, setting forth order in our lives, one thing to the next–yet all moving forward together, much like say, our galaxy.

Of all circles in our beautiful world, there is one that is always present, whether the sun rises or sets, the terrain changes, weather patterns shift–but the circle of the horizon is always there, waiting on the edge of our busy days, watching us, encompassing us. Of course, you can waffle on with reasons why the horizon isn’t actually “round” or that it is just our viewpoint from earth, but indeed, this perception is key. From the vantage point of our home, our soil and our skin, we can comfortably observe the horizon, as ancients have always done far back before “history” ever was, as these wise ones studied the skies, and the movements of the sun, stars, planets, and of course, the moon travelling round and round in each his own cycles. Eventually these measurements made against the horizon (astronomy and astrology) came to also represent “time”, as a way to calculate the motion of our own lives as reflected by these movable lights.


Time and Space

Because Time was married to the observation of the horizon, to ancient peoples there was no definite sense of Time and Space as separate modalities. The horizon (Space) gave birth to Time, and these two are intertwined like lovers, impossible to cut apart. In many of these oral cultures, for example, some Native American peoples do not actually have separate words for “Time” and “Space”. Their language does not allow for such a concept. Even the Celtic peoples still based their time on the tides, another natural cycle/”circle”, the Welsh breaking the day up into 8 three-hour periods and the Gaelic peoples having a similar system. Perhaps Time and Space became firmly disparate in our minds when we stopped observing Nature to find out what time it was, and simply observed immaterial numbers, broken into pieces and fragments of a whole. But in “The Spell of the Sensuous”, David Abram puts forth a very convincing argument that the real culprit of our disassociation with the natural world is the written word, which transfers our entire thoughts and senses into some abstract shadow, as elusive as the hours passing on a sundial. In an oral culture though, where sight is converged on natural objects, not man-made objects (books, magazines, television), the senses are inexorably tied to one another, fully alive so to speak, instead of being entirely channeled through one or two senses only.

Now we just double check our digital clocks and assume that Time is a disembodied quantity–or more likely, forget its true relationship with the circle of the horizon.

That Time and Space are not separate modalities is a very ancient way of looking at place and time, a worldview found in nearly every culture at one point or other, ranging from the Aborigines of Australia, Africans, Norse, Celts, Jews, Greeks … and thus, in these cultures there would naturally be three circles or “Three Worlds”–past, present and future. But remember that Time to them was not linear, but circular like the horizon; and as Time cannot be something cut off from Space, you can’t just have “past, present and future” without having the Otherworld Beneath (usually called the Underworld), “Space” or the Middleworld where things take shape, and the Otherworld Beyond. The Druids viewed this triad as the Sky, Earth and Sea, the three most sacred “names” to swear by.


The Three Worlds

1) Let’s start with the Horizon, which corresponds with the Future. This is the element that is pulling us up, a gateway or threshold to what is beyond us by keeping itself from us or with-holding its presence. If you were to run after the horizon all day and all night, it would continue to move the same distance ahead of you. You could not touch it or grasp it, only see it and feel the space between you and it. This is how the Future is, our eyes turned towards it, watching as the cycles of our Lives pass by it, kissing it and diving away from us again, over and over. The Horizon represents the “Otherworld Beyond”, the lands of the gods (Higher Presences, perhaps indeed much like the stars, sun and moon we physically watch above the horizon) or the honoured dead. For the Celts, this was well illustrated with the Islands of the Dead or the various other islands that one must journey on an immrama to find. It was on the horizon or just beyond that the House of Donn, Irish lord of the dead, had his abode. And of course, it is up there where shamanic flight took place, freeing the shaman to not only glide over the world but also to rise into the “Future”, or to even see the circle of the whole. That was one way his divinatory knowledge of the future came.

2. If the Horizon is forever pulling away from us, than the Earth or land beneath our feet is forever pulling away in the opposite direction, removing its presence so that we are continually falling towards it as our feet take steps or jump off a cliff (hopefully not to a sure death!). The Earth is the Past, hiding itself, obscuring itself in compactness, darkness, the place of roots and foundations, layers upon layers contributed by all sorts of “ancestors” be it tiny microbes in the soil to human, animal or plant. We can only see that which is on the outer most layers, what is on top. So it is with our psyches too, just as the “underground” and “subterranean” are also like the subconscious and unconscious. The Past/Land is all about what is inside, as it is the very refusal of access to its depths that creates a solidity that we can walk on. The Earth is the Sun’s home, the place where to the observer, it goes to sleep every night and dies every Winter Solstice. This is the basis of world-wide myths, so important and vital was the concept. The Otherworld Beneath is from which all things come and grow, the “womb-place” and the “tomb” simultaneously. In Celtic mythology, Sidhe-mounds are a good example of the Earth/Past combination. The Faery Hills are physical reminders of the long-dead ancestors who were buried there and their spirits that still live on, seeking to influence us on days when the natural cycles (there they are again!) create a thinness orliminality so they can “poke” through and influence us in our world. The Welsh “Annwfn” or Otherworld actually means “Inner World” or “The World Within”–a clear example of this Earth/Past idea. The Sea was also part of the “Otherworld Beneath”, as many Celtic tales speak of a “Land beneath the waves” and that the souls of the drowned and other such spirits live there, often taking shape as seals or sea-creatures.

3. So if the Horizon is pulling away from us upwards and the Earth is pulling away from us downwards, then what do we have left save the very middle space between, created by their mutual repulsion! It is here in this space that we live, surrounding by Air or atmosphere. To us now, “space” holds the idea of lifeless void–in reality, space is more like invisible depths of eternal motion for it is where Air brings all forth. This space of Air is also the Present, the “place where things emerge”. The Present is about Presence, not “Now”. This is perhaps the most exciting “world” because it is here where everything appears in its vast variety, and the beauties of phenomenon like colour, sound, and light are able to freely travel through the medium of Air unhindered. It is here in the presence of the Present that creativity is riot! Just open your senses and realize the wonders we have numbed ourselves to every day.


Ever-Shifting Presence

Air is a funny thing because it is invisible–yet its very nature of invisibility makes everything else visible. Unlike written word which is recorded down and preserved as long as the materials can survive, it is in the here, in the present that we speak. Speech (a use of breath or “air” to bring forth sound) is a reflection of the creative “dialogue” between heaven and earth, future and past, possible and made possible. It is forever hung between the two, letting us decide which direction we let ourselves be pulled. Air is continually shifting, changing in patterns that that we call “weather”.

Air is not just in the atmosphere though; it is extremely personal and we are dependent on it even more than we are on water. Each breath brings the outer “Space” into the inner “Space” of our bodies, and thus into our minds and dreams, our imaginations and even our beliefs. Awareness comes from this sacred “breath”, this enlivening substance that we exchange with everything else around us. Truly, no man is an island unto himself! If awareness comes from “Air” or wind, and if Wind surrounds us, if awareness is not then exclusively a human possession, it is very easy to see how an animistic mindset is the most natural thing in the world.

This principle of the shifting winds and of the ever-moving Present is important though because it also implies that our spirits are not one fixed identity but a constantly changing awareness that shifts with its breath from the environments, experiences and so forth that is is surrounded by–just as our body is nurtured by the quality of air we breathe! Perhaps this makes the Buddhist idea of “Self” a bit more realistic when viewing awareness in this way.

The shifting winds are called the Four Winds in Navajo (and other similar) beliefs. They arise from the four directions and keep the circle of the Horizon in place, much like four “pegs” strategically placed will keep string in a circle. The Four Winds are origins of movement, perpetually wandering about like the weather. They are the basis of the circle. Even the Irish had the Four Airts, a similar concept.


Outlining the Ritual Circle


Calling the Four Winds then creates and institutes space or place
, by re-enacting and re-emphasizing the retreat of the earth and with-holding of the horizon. Song, speech and prayer can affect the “spirits” or winds–the happenings and atmosphere within the world between horizon and earth. This act of speaking forth the circle into being literally, in a physical sense, cannot be emphasized enough as it creates the “ritual”–a vortex where the invisible is nurtured into the visible. It is bringing the past together with the future…. making the sky kiss the face of mother earth.

Thus ritual in its most basic form is NOT about creating a separate space where you can “raise” energy and then release it out into the universe to do your bidding. Instead it is about fully aligning with all the invisible and visible things that are present in the present. It’s about becoming fully present yourself. This is why we can celebrate the “Wheel of the Year”–to bring our focus to the energies, patterns and “winds” or spirits of that particular time in the Sun Cycle. The same can be done with ANY cycle–the moon, a star, a life, or a community.

Ritual is not only about celebrating the cycles, but also it is an opportunity to not only align with the present, but also to align the inner awarnesses with our experience of these cycles, be it the Seasons, a Moon or Menstrual cycle, the Hurting/Healing cycle, and even major life events like Birth, Naming, Initiation, Marriage, Reproduction, Old Wisdom and Death.

For these reasons, a ritual should seek to acknowledge all the different elements that make up the “present”–fleeting though it may be.

1) Earth with her womb, her seeds, her ancestors, her fruits and creatures, ourselves
2) Horizon with his hopes, his journeys, his movements, gods, impulses, his dreams and desires
3) And the present, with the winds and all the other “little winds” that affect us.

When we align ourselves with all of these, we are releasing out into the “atmosphere” over and over the motion of our very lives. In this way, we are creating our own world, our own “presence” and “present”. It is a way to align that which is at our deepest layer, the molten, fluid truth-fire within, with the outer circle of experience and truth.


What Lies At the Heart

But to what purpose is all this “celebrating” and “aligning”? What is the purpose of a circle? Why was it so important to our ancestors–and why has that relevance still not changed?

That is because of what lies at the centre of the circle, surrounded by the winds like a protective hedge, the true peace in the middle of the hurricane–and that is Fire, the transformative life-element by which we know the winds’ presence, for we watch its flames devour the air, and the horizon and the earth (wood) … it takes all of the three worlds into its bosom and gives forth LIFE. So Fire is like the visible manifestation of the winds of awareness, spirit and thought. It feeds on all three and is alone itself, except that without the winds to fan the flames, the fire would die, just as we too would die without breath. Perhaps the most ironic element of Fire or Life is that it destroys first, in order to do any good, and this is no doubt where the huge dualism between “Life and Death” arise–but looking at Life as a flame, Death is merely a part of Life’s nature.

Fire is the centre of a ritual circle. It was the centre of ancient homes, the hearth without which life would be impossible. It was the centre of a community, the bonfire becoming a symbol of social gatherings, a bringing together of all the tribe that might be scattered in different areas.

Fire is our passion, our source of inspiration and continuation, despite everything else. Perhaps this is how we came to the Sun-Cross, a circle with “four” lines merging in the middle at a single point.


The Truth of the Ritual Circle

In the end, this world as we know it is, in nature, an encirclement of protection, protecting Life from one generation to the next. Nature seeks to preserve and continue, and that is part of why things sometimes seem so painful or brutal to us, despite the fact that it is actually a “refining” process the whole way. But we can only find some sort of sense to this and we can only release our own blocks and hindrances, by embracing the world back. Once we have married the horizon with the earth, our future with our past, things aren’t so insane or confusing anymore. But it is only by keeping ourselves palpably alive to the land and spirit scapes we walk that we can fully open our arms wide.

And that, to me is what a true ritual is–completely and whole-heartedly embracing LIFE.

***

Credit to David Abram, from whose book “The Spell of the Sensuous” much of the material on “Time and Space” I was amazed and inspired by. Copyright, 1996, David Abram; published by Random House Publishers.

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