I have always been fascinated by bees. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting inside a Forsythia bush (like Lilacs in colder climates, Forsythia hollow out as they grow making little ‘houses’) watching the bees carrying purses of pollen on their legs. Once I stood in front of a butterfly bush catching bees in my hand, holding them for a moment, and then letting them go.
It was quite a while before one finally stung me. As enchanting as they are to a child— the fuzziness, the cartoon roundness, the mysterious sense of purpose— the more you learn about them as an adult the more wondrous they become.
Biologically, they are one of the pivotal beings of the Earth; without them pollinating, the wasteland awaits. And, for humans (particularly Northern humans), they are agriculturally vital as a source of sweetness. Tree sap (Maple and Birch predominately) and honey are the only sugar sources in the cold North and, although sugar has been demonized by post-moderns, back when we were hunter/gatherers and early agriculturists sweetness was hard to come by and prized.
Bees are also one of those Magical, untouched species (like most cats) that co-exist with us but unlike actual domesticated beings (dogs and dairy cows) have not been twisted away from their wild beings.
They are meaningful to the feminist as well, exemplifying the imagined workings of an all-female egalitarian society. Well, yes, there are drones and a queen but their rôle is limited. Drones appear to some human observers to have an idyllic life; they laze around sipping nectar, do no work, and then mate. But Nature is a stern Mother; drones are created by parthenogenesis only when they are necessary, the act of mating kills them, and if there are any left at the end of the Summer they are the first to be kicked out of the hive in preparation for the cold season.
The queen when anthropomorphized seems to be an absolute ruler with a crowd of sycophants filling her every need, but actually she is trapped and kept from moving about by the ladies-in-waiting around her. She only flies once in her life, gathering up all the sperm she will need from the ‘successful’ drones (who then die). She then spends all the rest of her time laying eggs— if production falters through sickness or age the workers will create a new queen and kill the old one. It’s the workers with their heads full of instinctive behaviour that actually run the hive and make honey; and they are all, like Maoists in blue pyjamas, visually identical sisters.
Bees also have great religious significance to me. Bees and Ravens are the two kinds of messengers from the Other World that also live a real life in our world. Ravens, when not living in the deep woods, eating carrion, and getting grumpy with others, carry messages from the Gods to our world. But, just as the raven becomes a ‘real’ bird when ze crosses the boundary, the message becomes an unusual occurrence, a ‘coincidence’ and can be ignored or mis-interpreted. Bees, on the other hand, do not change there to here and bring back intangible good things in the pollen sacs on their legs— contentment, good health, healings. As one of the Ogham, they associate with Ur/Heather and are an omen of good fortune.
A number of years ago the Goddess to Whom I am dedicated instructed me to interact with people more. Something I find difficult since I am paralyzingly shy and don’t really like doing things for the first time ever. My son winkled me onto the Internet to chat, argue, and make friends but that, as it turned out, was not enough for Her.
“Go out into the real world and interact with people face to face in religious endeavour.” She admonished.
Since I am an Irish Descendant I picked Druidry and attended the only ‘Druid Grove’ then extant in my city. It, like many North American Groves, is affiliated with Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF)
ADF is like and unlike my personal religion, of course, but is largely about praxis and does not demand many actual beliefs: fairly comprehensive polytheism, absence of religious circles and watchtowers, non-emphasis on the dualtheistic binary, and Indo-European pantheons. Add to this a heavy emphasis on lore, and I’m mostly satisfied. ADF does, however, use a strict framework of steps, actions, and sequence that all public (all Holy Days are mandated public) rituals must follow. Again, nothing too startling: we prepare ourselves for ritual, we address Mother Earth, we prepare and open a gate to the Other World, we invite the Kindreds and Deities to cross, give offerings, receive an omen, are given blessings, thank Everyone, and close the gate. It makes a nice sameness— when I attend some other Grove’s ritual I can easily follow and feel comfortable knowing what will come next.
As you will see if you look at the website, there is lots and lots of information. When it gradually became clear that my injunction from the Goddess required establishing a Grove, I carefully copied out the sequence and headings of the ritual as a part of my preparation for writing a religious service. In the same way that ADF mandates action but not belief, these are immutable steps but how we voice and enact the moment are left up to the organizer. I write formal poetry and so wrote the standard form of our ritual in poetics, and I am a Found-Object Artist (doesn’t that sound fine? I make things out of junk and repurposed stuff) and so made all the ritual objects/props myself.
Partly, I see the entire ritual as an offering and so want it to be a welcome one to the Gods and addressed Beings. Additionally, I see it as a piece of theatre and so want it to have ‘punch’ as well as religious meaning. Finally, since sometimes I slide towards personal belief rather than ADF dogma I want to be as enclosed by the recognizable and ‘correct’ framework as possible.
Our Grove, as well as many Groves, move about— we go inside in the Winter /Dark Half and outside in Summer/the Bright Half and we are sometimes asked to provide ritualization for opening or closing events altogether elsewhere. So, on the one hand, we need meaningful religious objects, on the other hand they must be available and moveable.
The preparation for opening the gate to the Other World is a dramatic and pivotal step and a good example of my varied impulses and criteria; ADF describes this as “re-creating the cosmos” and explains that “Sacred Center is most commonly represented as Fire, Well and Tree”.
So, every Grove needs a well and few have one available in their ritual space nor will it be a movable object. Many Groves use a container of water but dramatically a bucket of water is a chancy and unconvincing prop. I made a ring of many-shaded blue silk waves/ripples/drops that packs into a fresh-water clamshell— the officiant pops open the shell and a big loop of bright blue ‘water’ falls out.
Fire can be problematical as well– sometimes Groves are in public parks where fires are not allowed (I was a part of a ritual where the police came to insure the safety of the park), someone has to specifically be a fire-tender and not wander off, sometimes it’s raining. So we have a staff crowned with a gold plastic fake-mistletoe bunch. The officiant reaches up, pops open the wrapped-around string of Mardi Gras pop-it beads, and a 3′ multilayered pennant in red, orange, and yellow gauze streamers out. After the ritual I have to lay it carefully out on a table and fan-fold the gauze back inside the red brocade wrap and reset the poppers, but at the moment of ritual it is very satisfying.
The Tree is the most important of the three symbols. I started with a big stick, original about 8′ tall but (no surprize) it wouldn’t fit in a car that way so I sawed off the bottom to make it more manageable. On the top is a representation of Fionn’s Window.
And inside that a tree made of wire and beads. (The streamers hanging off the bottom are the roots in this world).
When I first saw the bee patches that Alley Valkyrie made, not only was I enchanted by the art, but I saw a way to enact ADF-mandated ritual in a way aesthetically pleasing to myself. The ‘order of ritual’ describes the action as ‘unveiling’ which I wrote as:
Unveil yourself, Sacred Tree,
Grow in all worlds, one in three….
But ADF recommends incense. I don’t personally like incense, it smells like something objectionable burning to me. But, my prejudices aside, lighting incense as a stage action is terrible. Either you have to have an already-going fire at hand (see problems above) or you have to bring out a distinctly non-magical lighter and then everyone waits for the incense to catch. And sometimes it doesn’t and then what!
But I realized that I could get a bee patch by sending a donation to the Wild Hunt (glad to do it, actually I gave and the Grove gave both) and use it and the extra, dark green, leaf-patterned scarf I didn’t need when I made the personification of our Watershed Spirit and make an actual veil!!
Triumph of art and aesthetics (jazz hands here)!
Alley graciously helped by sending me an extra compliment of the right kind of bee patches. As you can see, the bee flying UP towards the Other World has less-fancy passage spirals, while the bee coming down FROM the Other World has extra-glittery trails and sparkling gifts of intangible good things attached to her back legs. I could say that I included my dog as a size comparison (she is a ‘boxer mix’) but actually I just couldn’t resist a good photo-bomb.
As the ritual begins, the scarf is looped over the top of the Sacred Tree (the Irish term for the World Tree is ‘Bile’ pronounced bee-lay, nothing whatever to do with your liver) with the roots tucked inside.
The top (in this position) of the scarf has three (the Magical number and what I had around) glass horseshoes attached, filled with embroidered french knots of luck, with five (same) tiny pewter bee buttons trailing french knots of good things weighting it down in the up position because when the Bile is outside we don’t want the veil to blow off prematurely.
When the tree is unveiled, the officiant picks up the top/end and drops it down the front.
I buy some components, of course. I try to buy things from artisans if I have to buy something new. I buy things from thrift stores, and post-season craft store sales, and I trash-pick. But a surprising amount is given to me— I have a big section of free-standing shelves in our crawl-space storage area loaded with carefully sorted junk. Stuff that looked appealing years ago or that I didn’t need for a project, stuff picked up outdoors, other people’s discarded projects or de-stashing, junk that looked appealing to other people so they gave it to me…..
My belief is that everything has the potential to be Magical because the entire World is both real and Magical together. Every scrap the Gods make holy is no longer trash, but also every ritual implement in our Grove’s rites is a voice acknowledging our dedication to trying to do better for the World. We go out in the cold rain to pick trash or slog through the mud to plant seeds— we don’t schedule rain days, we just go when we planned to and Ottawa has not-the-nicest weather. About one in four events is actually pleasant….
When we act we are then re-sacralizing our intention for Right Action so that when the Keeper of Sacred Space holds up a stick with a plastic ornament and cloth tatters on one end or lowers a re-purposed scarf with sequin strings sewed on the Gods will visit, and Imbas will fire in our heads.
And perhaps more people will pick trash, and make things out of other things, and try to fix things when they break. Or not buy someone else’s Magic, but fabricate their own. And listen for the voices of the trash telling them that the Whole World is one system. Does the trash have voices? Only very tiny ones that are easily ignored, but they are a part of the World-Song. How big a part is up to all of us.
It’s like the dating advice that on a fancy, impress-you date the thing you should pay the most attention to is how your date treats the server, particularly if something is less-than-perfect. I could commission an artist to make me a one-off religious bibelot and have, at deservedly great cost, a more beautiful glory-piece than I could ever buy from Pagan-Artifacts-R-Us or even make myself. But that isn’t the meaningful decision; tiny lifestyle choices are also religious acts.
Will I carry my plastics back home or throw them in the trash when there is no recycle bin handy? When I unwrap something outside do I put the wrapper in my pocket? Do I trap unwanted insects in a glass and carry them outside? When my clothing wears out do I cut it up for rags, and does that work because it was natural fiber to start with? When I bought it, did I check the country of origin?
No Nazgûl will swoop down from the sky screaming “How was that fish caught!?!”; I am left alone in the grocery store holding either the cheap or the very expensive can of tuna.
Judith is an elderly Druid (Elders are trees, neh?) living on a tiny urban farm in Ottawa, Canada. She speaks respectfully to the Spirits, shares her home and environs with insects and animals, and fervently preaches un-grassing yards and repurposing trash (aka ‘found-object art’).