I was honoured to lead a mother blessing for Charlotte in the summer of 2017. A small circle of us gathered in her garden under a bright sun. This is the story of her blessing day in her own words.
I feel shy and overwhelmed by the positive loving attention from my friends who have gathered together on this hot sunny morning to celebrate and bless me on my journey to motherhood for my third time. Shy but deeply content. This mother blessing is the fulfilment of a dream that has been whispering in my ear since my first pregnancy nine years ago now. It has taken until now, my third child and fifth pregnancy to finally pluck up the courage to give myself the gift of this mother blessing ceremony.
Why courage you might wonder? Isn’t a mother blessing a bit like a baby shower only the focus is on you instead of the baby? Wouldn’t it be just fun and delightful like a kind of birthday party? Well yet it is, but for me I needed courage to overcome the conditioning of not making a fuss, not spending on myself for something more than absolute necessity, and courage to hand over the organisation and sit back to be waited on all day. My inner critic would have me believe it was all needless fuss and frivolity.
Receiving so much love and attention on me, just for being me, and becoming a mother again, was at first an excruciating challenge. I would shy away from that kind of attention in the past. But like most challenges it was worth it. Giving myself permission to be seen, heard, loved, carried and blessed in this way was powerful beyond measure.
From the moment my first guests arrived and bade me sit, relax and do nothing I cried. My heart burst open with love and gratitude. I felt raw emotion release from a full heart that had been holding back and holding it together for others, for my family. Now it was my time to receive.
Awen opened the circle with words of blessing as she carefully crafted a circle of flowers as a headdress and laid it on my head with accompanying words of wisdom and honour.
My discomfort gradually dissolved into joy and gratitude as I gazed round the circle at my smiling friends. They were witness to all my hopes and dreams for this birth and I felt my dreams come closer as I named each intention. Awen lead each of us in turn to choose brightly coloured embroidery silks, each person naming why they had chosen the thread and what they wished for me as they tied it around another candle that I named the ‘Mother Candle’. This candle would be lit during my labour to release the energy of these prayers for me and I would find myself catching sight of this candle in the intervening weeks and feel it smiling at me, the remembered words warming my heart again. Everyone also received a candle to take home and light to hold me in the light and energy of our prayers as I birthed in the dark. (At least that was the plan- he came in the day so it was pretty bright daylight! but I felt the love.) Everyone also tied a bracelet of red wool around their wrist. Tied with prayer and intent it would be cut once I was in labour to symbolise the release of the holding period and support the safe release of my baby earthside.
My midwife mixed a personalised bottle of massage oil, joyfully choosing several essential oils from her box. She then anointed my feet and belly, and everyone added more words of blessing and support. We also blessed a Jasmine plant I had purchased that would be planted after my child was born to celebrate.
One of my favourite parts was the singing. We sang together as a circle, a simple song that originates from Cameroon – Bele Mama. The words mean ‘Call Mother’ and I could feel the huge power of the mother energy we were calling in surround us and embrace us all in love. I felt connected to my child, to myself as a mother, to the mothers around the world and to our ancestors who had gone before us; all of us as one sacred circle of love and power.
Then a surprise that I hadn’t planned. My friends had clubbed together and commissioned a Gambian artist to make some Tied Die cloth for me (My husband is from the Gambia) I was touched by this and also so full of joy that there were no tears this time just happiness.
And of course, after all the spiritual blessing fun came some seriously fun food gifted by my friends who’d cooked, bought, served and then washed up after it all too. Every mouthful and every moment was delicious and to be savoured.
I wonder if I can ever convey the true depth of what I created with Awen that morning in the sunshine in words here. Creating sacred ceremony for myself where I was the centre of the circle rather than the last to get my needs met as an afterthought, if time allowed, was powerful beyond measure. It was a statement loud and clear to the universe that I mattered. I was a person of value, someone worthy of being celebrated.
I was held throughout in a circle of love. All that I had ever been, who I was becoming, and who I was right then in all my imperfect humanness was welcome. I was loved even as I was changing, unsure of who exactly I would be as I became a mother for the third time. The love filled me up. It filled a gap that is present in our society.
We yearn deeply for this kind of ritual celebration. We yearn for the connection, belonging and meaning that this kind of event offers. All too often what we get is surface level party where the focus is on the baby. The mother is invisible. We, as new mothers, struggle with the shifting identity as almost everything about our old identity is falling away. We need time, space and love to hold us and remind us of who we are beyond the changes. To support us as we journey through this transition.
On this morning of sunshine and blessings I received my reminder along with so much love and connection to my friends and to Divine Mother energy. The energy of the morning uplifted me and the beautiful memories we created that day still make me smile and lift my heart on dark days nearly two years on and I am sure will do so for the rest of my life. It was a true blessing and I invite you, dear reader to answer the calling in your own heart and soul and celebrate you in all your wonderfulness in each of your own life transitions.
Charlotte Kanyi is a mother of three lively boys and founder of BirthEssence. She helps overwhelmed women transform their terror of birth and heal unresolved trauma so they can reconnect to their baby, rediscover their self belief and confidently create the birth they secretly dream of. She offers pregnancy and postnatal massage and 1-2-1 birth confidence sessions.
When not working she loves to spend time in nature, be it climbing trees with her family, bivouacking in wild places or transforming her neglected garden into a multipurpose sanctuary.
You can catch up with her on Facebook here. or follow her writing and access a free meditation here.
Charlotte recently interviewed me about my work with mothers and the sacred journey through our rites of passage. You can listen to that interview here.
People often ask me what a handfasting is and I often talk about the practice at the beginning of my ceremonies because many of the guests won’t know what it is either. So here is a brief outline of where handfasting originates and how we use it now in a modern wedding ceremony context.
In medieval times, getting married was much simpler than it is today. Two people could choose to privately make ‘consents’, that is to say make promises to one another and would be considered married by the state. Then in time it was more common to be married and make those consents in ‘the face of the church’, which was in fact on the porch of the church rather than inside it, getting married inside the church being only for the wealthy until much later in history.
However during this time period there was also another practice common in the Celtic areas of what we now know as England, Ireland and Scotland, that being the practice of ‘Handfasting’. This was the binding of the hands of a couple by way of betrothal to one another, as a promise to be married in the future. The word handfasting comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means ‘the shaking or joining of the hands over a contract’. This older practice of betrothal is where the phrases of ‘tying the knot’ and ‘getting hitched’ come from.
Often regarded as a typically pagan tradition, increasingly couples not on a pagan path (though often alternative in their spirituality) are choosing to use handfasting in their wedding ceremonies. They are using it as a way of showing commitment or of spiritually confirming a marriage in sight of friends and family.
As a modern day ceremony practice, the couple’s hands are bound whilst they make vows and promise to each other, just as in a traditional wedding. Depending on their spiritual beliefs, their hands may then be blessed as well. A modern addition to the tradition is to invite other members of family, often parents or children, to come forward and tie additional ribbons around the couple’s hands to add their love and wishes for the couple or to symbolise the coming together of a family.
Whilst a handfasting is not a legal wedding in England (it can be done legally in Scotland), a celebrant led handfasting ceremony is a beautiful addition or extension to any legal wedding ceremony you might choose to have. Often couples will have a quiet, private legal ceremony ahead of the handfasting, with the handfasting ceremony day being the bigger celebration with friends and family and the big party!
If you think you might be interested in having a handfasting ceremony with me, do be in touch.
Paganism is a largely not well known or understood faith and like a lot of minority faith groups is subject to discrimination. It is not unusual to receive abuse or even be assaulted because of people’s perceptions of our beliefs.
Unfortunately those perceptions and misunderstandings pervade into death, dying and grief and as a result pagans are sometimes not well served. I choose to be very open about my faith and always willing to share with anyone who asks me about it. However not all of my pagan kin feel the same way and many hide or play down their beliefs.
If you believe the census figures of 2011 there were 56,620 pagans in the UK, add in druid, wicca and witchcraft and we get up to 73,851. But even so, we know that many of the pagan community don’t declare on the census, mainly out of fear. Other estimates range from 250,000 up to 1 million. The reality is probably somewhere between the two. Those people who hide it in life, will often hide it at death too.
So what is paganism? The Pagan Federation, which is the supporting body for pagans in the UK defines it as “A polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion.” The word ‘pagan’ itself comes to us from the Roman era of history and the word ‘paganus’ which meant country dweller. It was in reference to those folk who lived away from those in the city who were ‘civitas’ that is to say civilised and latterly in history Christian. Those outside folk lived on the land and followed folklore and older ceremonial traditions. If we’re going to be historically accurate, those of us who call ourselves pagan now, should rightly call ourselves ‘neo-pagan’. Paganism as it is now, has its roots in the past but is definitely a modern faith being lived by modern people.
The Pagan Federation definition of paganism is understandably broad, because the truth is, pagans are rather like liquorice allsorts. Line up ten pagans and you will find variance in our beliefs, but even within that variance there is recognition, understanding and kinship. We inherently understand that we are an eclectic and diverse bunch, in fact we are proud of our lack of dogma and the freedom to pursue our own experience of our Gods. We fiercely defend each others right to that freedom and diversity.
Much like there are different churches within the Christian faith, there are different paths in paganism. The most common being Wicca & Witchcraft, Druidry, Heathenry or Asatru, Shamanism and Womens Mysteries but there are more. However many of us, myself included would classify ourselves as ‘Eclectic’ pagans. We walk and follow a path of our own making, gleaned from years of reading, study and personal gnosis or experience with our Gods. All the paths have places of crossover, hence the common recognition between us all. You may hear it said that paganism is less of a religion and more a way of living and being. Most of our worship takes place out in nature or in the case of poor weather in village halls or other secular buildings that we hire.
So what are some of the things we believe? Some of us believe that there are multiple gods and goddesses, all with their own agency and influence on different aspects of the world. Some of us believe in a singular Great Mother Goddess who influences the world in balance with her male God Consort. Some don't believe there are Gods at all!
Nearly all of us believe in the spirit of place, in the power of nature, that everything in nature has sentience and as much right to life as we do. We do not see ourselves as separate from the natural world. Some of us believe that everything is, at core, simply energy and as such is all connected. That everything we do has an effect on something in the world.
Most of us believe, that when we die, we return to the Goddess. That our energy transmutates and becomes part of the oneness of everything. Some of us believe in reincarnation and that we have lived many lives throughout the history of this world and will come back for another. Some of us believe in the Summerlands, a place our souls go to rest. Some of us believe that we rise to be ancestors, watching over those who come after us, standing at their backs and giving them strength. Some believe that we are in an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth, sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes elemental.
We have no concept of sin, we have no concept of hell or purgatory or the devil. Pagans are frequently mistaken for devil or satan worshippers. They are in fact a whole other religious group and not usually considered to be under the pagan umbrella.
For the most part, we have quite a different outlook on death and dying. We see death as a normal and also sacred part of the life of being human. We honour the body as a sacred vessel in which our soul resides during this human lifetime.
We grieve, of course we do, we are still human. Grief means we have loved, and we love and grieve just like everyone else. But most of us see death as the next adventure or a freedom or release from human suffering and pain. We desperately miss those who leave us, but we see them as returned to the oneness and we venerate them as beloved dead, beloved ancestors.
The problem then, for pagans, in death and dying. Is other people’s lack of understanding. Paganism isn’t well recognised as a religion in this country, for example you will rarely see it listed as an option on diversity forms etc. There is an ongoing work in progress by the Pagan Federation trying to change this. It isn’t taught on the national curriculum and because so many of my kin hide their beliefs away, people don’t know who we are, what we believe or what we need at the end of life.
My experience is that if you don’t identify as one of the six major faiths of the world, that is to say, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddism, Sikhism or Judaism. You get lumped into the category of ‘non-religious’or ‘aetheist’ and if we’re really lucky – ‘weird hippies’. My experience and that of many of my kin, is that as a result, no effort is made to find a priest of our faith, to find someone like me. We get offered the hospital chaplain, with a shrugging apology. There are a smattering of pagan chaplains, paid and voluntary around the country but we don’t always get access to them. Many hospital chaplains are wonderful people, I’m proud to work alongside them when I can get through the door, but they often don’t understand our faith and at worst there are those who will try and turn us to the Christian God even on our death beds, because the nature of their faith means they believe we need to be saved.
When our families turn up at the funeral directors, we may be lucky enough to be offered a pagan priest, but more often we get offered the local civil or humanist celebrant. It’s wonderful that these options are available. But you wouldn’t dream of not trying to find the appropriate priest for a Catholic, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, A Sikh or a Jew so why would you not offer the same regard for those of a pagan faith? Pagan folk will often have a civil funeral and then hold a pagan memorial at a later point, but that has more to do with a lack of knowledge and access than it being an active choice.
Admittedly pagan priests like me are few and far between, but we do exist and many of us, myself included are willing to travel, to give our kin their end of life or funeral rites. There is an online website available called Pagan Transitions, voluntarily run by a pagan elder for the pagan community, where there are pagan priests and celebrants listed by geography. I have recently begun a project that I have titled Weaving the End which aims to raise awareness within the Pagan community of their options and choices at the end of life but also to raise awareness within the medical community and funeral industry.
There are some small things that could be done, small efforts that could be made that would make a world of difference to the pagan community through death, dying and grief. There must be an onus on professionals, to raise their awareness and to make the same level of effort for pagans as they do for other faith groups. We shouldn’t have to beg for what we need when we are dying or grieving.
The following are a few of those small things:
Making the effort to find a pagan priest or chaplain when a person known to be pagan is dying or when their funeral is being arranged.
Offering families the option to be involved in the physical care of the person’s body. We see our bodies as sacred vessels. To have the choice to be able to cleanse, bless and anoint our loved ones would be precious. Not everyone will choose it, but having the choice, matters.
To be given the choice to hold our funeral ceremonies away from the crematorium. Whilst many of us may choose to be cremated, our final rites could be taking place outside in the natural world that is at the core of our faith. The surge in natural burial grounds in recent years has gone a long way to providing us with an alternative, but there could still be more choice. Leading our funerals inside buildings can feel stifling and disconnected and hinder our grieving.
That if we do choose to have our ceremonies in crematoria that they could provide the option of a pagan symbol, such as the pentacle, the five pointed star within a circle to decorate the chapel.
The Pagan community works very hard to be tolerant and respectful of other faiths and would fight for your right to receive what you need during times of death and grief. Please would you consider doing the same for us.
Funerals. There are no rules.
Well technically there is one. But I bet you thought there are more?
The only rule there is, the only thing that has to happen when a person dies, is that there has to be a burial or a cremation.
Seriously, everything else is optional.
You don't have to have the funeral at the crematorium or the cemetery. You can hold a funeral ceremony anywhere you choose. At home, in the garden, at a football stadium, a library, an art gallery and so on and so forth.
If you can get permission from whoever owns the place, you can have a funeral service there.
You don't have to have a priest or celebrant. Though they are useful folk. Anyone can lead a funeral ceremony. Seriously, anyone. Do it together, as a family, as a community.
You don't have to use a funeral director, though again, useful folk. You can take care of the dead person yourself, at home and you can even arrange the burial or cremation yourself. If that feels to much then get help from the funeral directors, but you don't have to. Some will even help you to do something in between the two.
You don't have to have the coffin, the cars, the flowers, the hymns. You don't have to have any of it.
Say goodbye when, where and how you want. There really are no rules but one.
If you have questions about any of this, please do contact me.
Awen Clement is an experienced, independent civil celebrant and pagan priest based in Birmingham in the West Midlands. Through this blog she hopes to offer you ideas, inspiration and comfort around planning weddings, handfastings, baby namings and funeral services.