Ritual - The Essentials of Practice - The Foundations of Druid Magic

The Druid Magic Handbook: Ritual Magic Rooted in the Living Earth - John Michael Greer 2008

The Essentials of Practice
The Foundations of Druid Magic

The Sphere of Protection

In most traditional magical orders, the first step on the path of magical training consists of learning a simple ritual and practicing it regularly. To this day, new members of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) are taught such a ritual in the course of the Candidate grade, the very first initiation AODA offers. The same ritual, the Sphere of Protection, forms the foundation of ritual work in the system taught in this book and is central to the next two chapters.

The Sphere of Protection was created in the 1970s by Dr. John Gilbert, then one of the Order's archdruids, using material drawn from several older rituals. The version given here differs from his, and the version you will practice will most likely be different from the one written in this book. The reasons for this provide a useful lesson in how Druidry works.

Most magical systems require the student to use some fixed set of gods, symbols, and ideas. Because freedom of conscience is a core value in Druidry, however, Druid magic both encourages and requires a more personal approach. The Sphere of Protection accordingly uses whatever symbolism you find most evocative and powerful. The other side of this flexibility, of course, is that the instructions for this ritual can't be used like a recipe out of a cookbook. You need to put a certain amount of preparation and forethought in the Sphere of Protection before you can use it at all.

This will take time, and at least two other factors have the same effect. The first is that you need to commit the ritual to memory. This is a step that novices often try to avoid, but it has to be tackled, and the sooner the better. It just isn't possible to get the most out of magic while you're still fumbling with a book or a paper “cheat sheet,” trying to figure out what comes next. Only after a ritual has been learned by heart, and practiced regularly until every stage of the work flows easily, does it become an effective tool in magic.

The other ingredient you need to put into the Sphere of Protection, and the other factor that takes time, is daily practice. This is another step that novices usually resist, but it's even more important than memorization. Think of it in the same terms as learning to play a guitar. No matter how much you read about guitar playing or how often you listen to other people's music on your CD player, if you want to learn how to play, you have to pick up the guitar and practice. It's easy to tell the difference between a guitarist who practices for an hour or so every day, and one who plays only when he feels like it, or when his friends come over to jam. Magic is exactly the same way, and mastering it takes time, effort, passion, and patience. If you only practice it now and then, don't expect to get past the garage-band level any time soon.

The Sphere has three phases: an opening, a closing, and a middle section in which the core work is done. The opening is called the Elemental Cross, the middle section is the Calling of the Elements, and the closing is the Circulation of Light. It's standard practice to learn the opening and closing first, and practice these together until the student can use them effectively as a container for the forces roused in the middle section. For this reason we'll leave the Calling of the Elements for later, and cover the Elemental Cross and Circulation of Light in this chapter.

If you belong to a Druid order that teaches a different basic ritual, or have learned some other ritual from books, you can use that in place of the Sphere of Protection. You will need to modify some of the other ceremonies given in this book, but every Druid mage invents his or her own workings sooner or later. Whatever basic ritual you choose, learn it, commit it to memory, and practice it daily. If you want to learn magic, there is no other way.

The Elemental Cross

Like every complete magical ritual, the Elemental Cross combines symbolism, gesture, voice, and imagination to formulate an intention. These aspects all take place at the same time when you perform the ritual. For the sake of clarity, however, I'll explain them one at a time, and many students find it best to work through them step-by-step in order.


The symbolic component of the Elemental Cross requires you to choose four expressions of spiritual power that, among them, define the universe for you. The traditional way is to choose two gods, one elder and one younger, and two goddesses, one elder and one younger. The two gods form a vertical axis, the elder above and the younger below; the two goddesses form a horizontal axis, the elder to the right and the younger to the left. You can vary this in whatever way works for you.

What if you're not comfortable invoking gods, saints, or any other personified spiritual power? The Sphere of Protection is flexible enough to handle impersonal symbols as well. Whatever symbols define your magical universe can be used for the Elemental Cross.

For example, when I perform the Sphere of Protection, I sometimes invoke four of the deities that play an important role in Druid Revival tradition: Hu the Mighty, the high god of Welsh Druid tradition; Hesus, the chief of tree spirits, who sits in the first fork of the sacred oak; Ceridwen, the old wise goddess of the sacred cauldron; and Niwalen, the young goddess of springtime greenery. At other times, when an impersonal approach works better for me, I invoke the sky above me, the land beneath me, the fire to my right hand and the water to my left.

A Druid who preferred to work with Irish deities might choose to invoke the Dagda, Lugh, Danu, and Brigid instead, while a Christian Druid might choose, from among the saints specially revered by the old Celtic Church, Saint Peter, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Brigid, and Saint Mary Magdalene. One who prefers to work with animal powers might invoke the Hawk above, the Bear below, the Stag to the right, and the Salmon to the left. Druids with other beliefs may choose whatever divine powers appeal to them.


The gestural component of the Elemental Cross includes physical orientation, stance, and hand movement. The physical orientation is based on the traditional lore of the four directions, and it varies depending on the intention guiding the ritual. As a daily practice, the Elemental Cross and Circulation of Light are traditionally done facing east, the direction of sunrise, which symbolizes inspiration and illumination. As part of a ritual working using the Grove Ritual, a ceremony covered later on in this book, the Elemental Cross and Circulation of Light are traditionally done facing south, the place of the Sun at its height. Feel free to experiment with these and other directions.

The stance is much less complex. Place your feet parallel to one another, with the length of one of your feet between them. Divide your weight evenly between your feet, and bend your knees very slightly, just enough to keep them from locking. Keep your spine upright but not stiff, as though you were suspended from the top of your head. Some stances used in other magical traditions close off the connections between your body and the nwyfre of the Earth; this one does just the opposite, since the Earth contacts are crucial in Druid magic.

The hand movements of this phase of the ritual trace out two lines, one vertical and one horizontal, crossing at the solar plexus—a point on your body just below your breastbone and above the pit of your stomach. They also focus attention on two points along the midline of the body, the solar plexus itself and the center of the forehead—the “third eye” center used in so many mystical disciplines. Originally this was done with a gesture like the Christian sign of the cross, but many people—including some Christians—prefer not to do this. The following movements get the same results without dragging in connotations that many people find inappropriate.

1. Stand straight but not stiff, your weight evenly divided between both feet and your arms at your sides. Take a moment to allow tension to drain out of your body and into the ground. Then, in a single smooth movement, raise your arms out to your sides and up, turning your palms upward. The arms and hands rise until your palms join above your head, fingertips pointing straight up. Next, draw your hands downward until your joined thumbs press against your forehead, and pause.

2. Bring your joined hands down below the level of your heart, fingertips still pointing up, and pause again with your joined thumbs pressed against your solar plexus. Pause here.

3. The next movement is a bit tricky, so follow closely. Leave the left hand exactly where it is, thumb against your body, fingertips pointing upward, palm facing to the right. The right hand, however, moves out to the right, and ends up two feet or more past your right side, at or just below the level of your solar plexus, with the palm up and the fingers pointing out to your right. The right elbow remains bent. Glance to your right, as though looking along the line traced by the fingers of your right hand. Pause here.

4. Next, leave the right hand where it is and move the left hand in a mirroring motion, out to the left, ending two feet or so past your left side, at or just below the level of your solar plexus, with the palm up and the fingers pointing to your left. Your left elbow remains bent. Glance to your left, as though looking along the line traced by the fingers of your left hand. Pause here.

5. Then, in a single motion, extend both hands further out, straightening the arms, and turn your palms to face forward. At the end of this motion you are standing in the form of a cross, with both arms straight out to the sides, palms forward, body straight and balanced, and your gaze straight ahead. Pause in this position for a time, and then let your arms return gently to your sides. This completes the gesture component.


The vocal component of the Elemental Cross combines breath and speech to formulate the deities or symbols invoked in the practice. The words used in this phase of the ritual may be spoken in an ordinary voice, chanted, or sung.

1. As you raise your arms above your head, breathe in deeply, and continue to breathe in as you draw your joined hands to your forehead. As you pause with your hands against your forehead, say the name of the first of the four powers you've chosen to invoke—the name of the elder god, if you're using the traditional approach. If you wish, add one or more titles to the name. For example, at this point in the ritual, I might say, “Hu the Mighty, great Druid god,” or I might say, “By the sky above me.”

2. Breathe in again as you lower your hands below your heart. As you pause with joined hands, say the name of the second power—the younger god, if you're following the traditional approach—along with any titles you find appropriate. For example, at this point in the ritual, I might say, “Hesus of the Oaks, chief of tree spirits,” or I might say, “By the land beneath me.”

3. Breathe in again as your right hand goes out to your right side. As you pause, say the name of the third power—the elder goddess, in the traditional approach—along with any titles you wish to use. For example, at this point I might say, “Ceridwen the Wise, keeper of the cauldron,” or “By the fire to my right hand.”

4. Breathe in again as your left hand goes out to your left side. As you pause, say the name of the fourth power—the younger goddess, in the traditional approach—along with any titles you wish to use. For example, at this point in the ritual, I might say, “Niwalen of the Flowers, child of spring,” or “By the water to my left.”

5. Breathe in again as your arms extend and your palms turn forward. As you pause, say a short prayer, invocation, or blessing appropriate to all four of the powers you have invoked. For example, at this point in the ritual, I say, “May the powers of nature bless and protect me, now and always.” This completes the vocal component.


The imaginal component of the Elemental Cross uses a specific set of images held in the mind during each phase of the ritual. The sort of inner work central to this component of magical practice is often called “visualization,” but this term only touches one portion of the process, because imagination isn't limited to the visual dimension. People blind since birth, for example, often have powerful imaginations focused on the senses of sound and touch, and these can be just as effective in magic as the visual imagination that sighted people have. You'll find that when you hear and feel and smell and taste your mental imagery, as well as seeing it, the stronger and more vivid it will be, and the more effectively it will set nwyfre into motion.

Modern industrial culture distrusts and fears the human imagination, so it's no surprise that many people nowadays are convinced that they can't use it at all. A simple mental trick makes it easy to get past this limiting belief and use the mental gifts every human being has. Instead of trying to visualize something, simply imagine what it would look like if you could visualize it. The image in your mind of “what it would look like” is exactly what you're trying to achieve, and any defects in it will be cured with regular practice.

1. As you raise your hands above your head, imagine that the Sun is far above your head, radiating golden light downward toward you. As your hands join and descend to your forehead, imagine a ray of golden light descending to the crown of your head and passing within, to a point at the center of your head, where it forms a sphere of brilliant light a few inches across. Feel the warmth of the light radiating outward through your head. Hold this image as you invoke your first power.

2. As you bring your hands down to chest level, imagine that the ray of golden light descends further, creating a second sphere of brilliant light at your solar plexus. From there, as you invoke your second power, the ray extends straight down through the midline of your body into the ground beneath you, extending all the way down to the heart of the Earth. Visualize this as a brilliant sphere of silvery-green light, the color of sunlight on moving water, as large and bright as the Sun but located far below you.

3. As your right hand goes out to your right, imagine a second ray streaming out to the right from the sphere of light at your solar plexus, flowing through your right side and across the palm of your right hand in a straight line out to infinite distance. Hold this image as you invoke your third power.

4. As your left hand goes out to your left, imagine a third ray streaming out to the left from the sphere of light at your solar plexus, flowing through your left side and across the palm of your left hand in a straight line out to infinite distance. Hold this image as you invoke your fourth power. The pattern up to this point is shown in Figure 3-1.

5. As you extend your arms and turn your palms forward, imagine two more rays of light streaming out from the sphere at your solar plexus. One of them goes straight ahead of you into infinite distance, the other straight out behind you into infinite distance. At this point the sphere of light in your solar plexus is the meeting place of six rays of light extending above, below, to your left, to your right, ahead of you, and behind you. Hold this image as you say the final prayer, invocation, or blessing, then let the imagery fade from your mind. This completes the imaginal component.

Figure 3-1 The Elemental Cross



The intentional component of the Elemental Cross draws on the mythic image of the center of the world. Every traditional culture identified some spot on the Earth's surface as the center of all things, and oriented everything else in the world around it. For the Welsh, according to the tale of Lludd and Llevellys from the Mabinogion, it was in the vicinity of Oxford. For the Irish it was the Hill of Uisnech, where Mide, the Druid of the Milesians, kindled the first Belteinne fire. The ancient Greeks believed the center of the world was at Delphi; a classical myth told how Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the Earth at the same moment, flying toward one another, and they met in the air above Delphi. In the Middle Ages, Christians, Jews, and Muslims all identified Jerusalem as the exact center of the world, and the Stone of Foundation beneath the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was thought to be the first piece of solid ground to congeal out of primal chaos at the Creation.

These traditions have deep roots in the lore of Earth magic, for the subtle dance of nwyfre uniting people and the land comes into focus at certain places, and makes them centers where creative energy wells up from the depths. Still, what time and the Earth's own nwyfre do on a grand scale, magical ritual can do in a more focused and temporary way. A note in Black Elk Speaks, one of the classics of Native American spirituality, offers a key insight into this process. Comments John Neihardt, who took down the Lakota holy man's words, “Black Elk said the mountain he stood on in his vision was Harney Peak in the Black Hills. ’But anywhere is the center of the world,’ he added” (Neihardt, 1988, p. 43).

Standing at the center of the world, in other words, is a condition of consciousness, not a matter of being in one place and not another. When you stand at the center of the world, as Black Elk and all the world's holy men and women have done, everything becomes visible to you because you stand at a point midway between every pair of opposites. East and west, north and south, above and below, and all the things symbolized by these directions, are all equally close and equally far away. Entering this state, the state of balance at the center of the world, is the intention of the Elemental Cross.

Of course, a single performance of a simple rite like this one won't get you to the place where all opposites come into balance, unless you're on the verge of getting there all by yourself. That's the point behind daily practice. As you formulate the intention of standing at the center of the world day after day, using the tools of symbolism, gesture, voice, and imagination to give it form, the intention becomes a point of contact where the three currents of Druid magic flow together and intention becomes reality.

The Circulation of Light

As the Elemental Cross begins the Sphere of Protection, the Circulation of Light completes it. This is not, strictly speaking, a complete ritual in itself, but simply takes the intention of the earlier phases of the ritual and extends it in space, using the imagination alone.

As soon as you finish the Elemental Cross, pause, and be aware of the sphere of light at your solar plexus. Then imagine the sphere enlarging until it surrounds you on all sides, extending out as far as you choose. With practice, you can make this any space you decide to protect—a room, a building, a valley, a bioregion, the entire Earth—but to begin with, make it a sphere around ten feet across, centered on your solar plexus and surrounding you on all sides. Pause again, concentrating on the image of the sphere of light around you, and concentrate on the idea that no hostile or unwanted influence can pass into the light from outside.

Once you have established this image solidly, the next step is to spin the sphere around you in three different directions. This can be tricky to picture mentally, so it's often useful to get a ball—any size will do—and try out the motions with the ball first. Figure 3-2 shows the three rotations of the sphere, as though they were being done by someone facing you. The first one goes over your head, down in front, under your feet and up the back; the second goes around from left to right in front, and from right to left behind you; the third goes from above down to your right, under your feet, and then up to your left.

The trick is to start with the first rotation, add the second without stopping the first, and then add the third while keeping the other two going. This is where the ball comes in handy as a help to your imagination. Hold your hands in front of you, level with each other, with the ball poised between your two index fingers so it can spin freely. Start the ball spinning by pushing up with your thumbs against the side of the ball nearest you. This is the first rotation.

Figure 3-2 Three Rotations


Next, imagine that the ball is the Earth and you're the Moon. Walk around the ball in a clockwise circle, leaving it at the center of the circle, while keeping it spinning between your index fingers by pushing up with your thumbs. Now the ball is spinning in two directions at once—over and under, moved by your thumbs, and around from left to right, moved by your feet. Those are the first two rotations.

Now, while you keep the ball spinning and keep walking around it in a circle, move your left index finger up and your right index finger down, turning the ball over as it spins. Unless you're double-jointed, you won't be able to take it past half a turn, but imagine that it keeps on turning over and over, left to right, as it spins in the two other directions. Once you have the image, put the ball away, and get ready to do the same thing with energy.

Start where you left off, with the sphere of light surrounding you. Just like the ball, it begins to rotate the first way, up from behind and down from in front. Make the motion slow at first, and then gradually speed it up until the sphere is whirling around you in a blur of speed.

Keep it spinning, and then add the second rotation, just as you did with the ball by walking in a circle around it. Imagine it moving slowly at first, then faster and faster, until the second rotation also becomes a blur of speed. Then add the third rotation, as you did by moving your index fingers, slowly at first again and then faster and faster, until you see yourself surrounded by a sphere of white light spinning in all directions at once. Imagine all three rotations reaching infinite speed, so that the sphere around you appears to be perfectly still.

This final stillness concludes the ritual. You can make a closing gesture at this point—for example, crossing your arms in front of your chest and saying something on the order of “I thank the powers for their blessings”—or not, as you prefer. Pause for a moment, and notice how the space around you feels. At first you may not notice much, but with time and regular practice this will change. Pay attention to what you perceive, and note how changes in the way you do the ritual affect the way the space feels afterward.