An Urban River Ritual

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Every first Friday of the month, whatever the weather, I pack my bags with fire-lighting materials, don wellies and warm woollies and head down to the end of Meadow Lane to await a small troupe of like-minded  folks, some carrying drums.  We hop over a five bar gate and walk down through a neglected water meadow to a spot that has become sacred for us.

We come to make ceremony at a place where the waters meet, where the Boundary Brook flows into the River Thames.  Yes, the brook, often referred to as a ‘drainage ditch’, runs through a concrete culvert, with graffiti on its walls.  Yes, we are in the midst of the town, and the traffic of Donnington Bridge, the trains beyond, and the emergency sirens of a Friday night are our acoustic backdrop.  But we come following an ancient tradition, to give thanks to the land, and to venerate the waters which give us life.  And, more specifically, we come on this day each month because a Peruvian medicine man asked us to.

Back in March 2011 InsightShare (http://www.insightshare.org) put on a community festival in East Oxford called Conversations with the Earth.  A whole week of talks, workshops, film and art events took place, making the connections between threatened indigenous communities from around the world and our own steps to sustainability at home.  Hipolito Peralta Ccama was invited as a special guest at this event, and so it was that on the last evening of the festival I found myself walking towards the river down the streets of East Oxford in the company of a brightly-robed Peruvian shaman, a druid clad in white (alias Chris Parks) and about 60 other people.  No wonder approaching drivers panicked and turned down the first available side road.   I was carrying a vessel of water from the Boundary Brook which had been at the festival from the first day, soaking up the vibes.  We paused to return this water to the Brook, carrying our prayers and good will to the world. Hipolito blew his conch shell fit to wake the dead, and in spontaneous response I uttered a sound from my heart more powerful than I knew I had the breath to create.  Then we gathered at the confluence, with a small coracle of hazel and skin, crafted by Chris, and a bag of coca leaves provided by Hipolito.  We called in spirit, gave our prayers to the leaves, and floated them out on the water.  At one surreal moment the local disco boat passed by blasting “I’m having the time of my life” and we had no choice really but to join in.

(Below is a link to a video about the whole festival, in which you’ll see Hipolito at various points, and this full moon ritual at around 11mins 30.)

Hipolito holds a traditional Quechua ritual on the first Friday of each month in his home city of Cusco.  Before he left Oxford, after many moving exchanges, he asked us to keep this ritual up on the same day that he holds his.  He left it to us to work out what exactly that would mean, we who have no true tradition to draw on, and no shared language for prayer.

So we have kept faith with him.  Since July 2011 someone has been there each month.  Sometimes two of us have drummed and sung under the willows and felt a moment of starlit connection to the universe.  Sometimes 15 of us, some strangers, some close friends, have gathered around a warm fire and shared the thoughts of our hearts.  We have meditated with the elements, made offerings to the trees, and water, danced with the rhythm of the breeze, and over and over reaffirmed our devotion to mother earth.

Making a commitment to gather outdoors every month, whatever the weather, would no doubt be a worthwhile activity, but working in solidarity with Hipolito brings another  dimension.  There he is, reclaiming his right to the rituals of his beleaguered people, at a sacred site that’s now in the heart of an uncaring city.   Young people in jeans, carrying their high street bags, sometimes stop out of curiosity, and then take part, receiving blessing.  Here we are, in a city of academia and car manufacture, claiming our right to call our land sacred, to cast our prayers on the waters in the old way.

My archeologist friend Olaf Bayer (http://www.archeox.net) tells me that evidence of Neolithic monuments and deposits has been found at many of the major confluences of the River Thames, strongly suggesting that these places were used for gatherings and ritual activity by our ancestors.  He also tells me that despite modern channelling of the Boundary Brook, its course has changed little over thousands of years.  It gives me an extra tingle to know that we may not be the first people to meet in this place with sacred intent.  There are nights when, for all the traffic noise and street light pollution, we drop into a deeply peaceful place, simply being by the fire and becoming conscious of the interplay of air, water, warmth and nourishment by which we live.  Not so distant from our neolithic forebears.  Not so far from our tribal Peruvian friends, with whom we link up via 21st century technology.  We live in hope that this is not just the past for humankind, but also part of a wiser future.

Anyone is welcome to join our gathering.  For full details of where and when to meet please email me.

See below for a video about Hipolito leading rituals back home in Peru.

One Comment on “An Urban River Ritual”

  1. Thank you Jackie for this beautiful account of Oxford’s monthly River Ritual. I’m sad I won’t be able to join you any more, too far, but glad you’re keeping it going, and spreading the word. Blessings x

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