SteerbytheStars'Steer by the Stars' is the latest offering from the wonderful Telling the Bees, fronted by my friend, Andy Letcher. The first thing to catch attention is the exquisite artwork by Rima Staines, as subtly executed, magical and strange as the music itself.
The opening moments of each TTB album demonstrate what a pleasing texture of sound their mix of instruments creates, a silken pillow on which the band weaves our dreams and an encouraging glimpse of what's in store. On this album, when Andy's vocals come in on 'A Puppeteer Came Into Town,' the dream is a darkly Gothic one in which a travelling puppeteer receives and a somewhat mixed reaction to his shows. "With Bango, Beelzebub, Old Mr. Punch, I will jiggle the arcana round with my touch lest the shadows they grow ever longer." A lovely tune, picked out chiefly on the Anglo concertina.
Telling the Bees bandTrack two is a lively bit of jiggery-pokery called 'Oxford May Song,' recounting the revels and capers that break out amongst the dreaming spires when May Day rolls around. Great interplay between Jane's fiddle and Josie's cello, plus a driving bass line from Colin that should have everyone up and dancing in seconds when played live.
The next track is 'Windflower,' which has a gentle driving energy appropriate to the title. It's a love song and a lovely, deeply felt one at that, beautifully carried once again by the interplay of strings and bass with a perfectly-placed Anglo concertina augmenting the beat. Jane's fiddle soars gloriously in the instrumental section.
'Astrolabe' is not a word one finds often in modern music, but here it's the title and main feature of this mysterious ode that begins with the intriguing line, "Last night I saw Rachel turn into a bird..." The body of the beguiling tune is held together by the skeleton of Andy's gently strummed mandolin, embellished with Jim's Anglo concertina and subtle strings, plus beautiful backing vocals from Nomi. This song contains one of my favourite lines on the album: "Last night a whole generation turned to stone." I was there and he's right...
Next up is 'One More Mazurka,' for which I can best quote a couple of lines: "The beautiful freaks are still dancing like it's the end of the world." It's easy to love a band who can take an old dance form and make of it a song that is by turns touching, melancholy, oddly uplifting and gloriously strange.
Track 6 is, apparently, a traditional Swedish tune called 'The Oxberg March,' and features Andy's beautiful, haunting playing on the English bagpipes. It's the kind of march one imagines the inhabitants of Summerisle hearing as they weave their way towards their May Day sacrifice in the Wicker Man.
'St. Kevin and the Blackbird' is an uplifting tale of, well, a saint and a blackbird.
'Babylon' intelligently combines the mythical with the political, Middle Eastern religion with Middle Eastern wars, it's call for radical rethinking carried by a driving yet appropriately fragmented tune. "And still we bomb Babylon..."
Picking up the political theme, 'I Fear These Tory Radicals' might, you'd think, be a brand new lyric composed for 2015. You'd be wrong. The words were penned in the first half of the 19th century by John Clare. "And they will be themselves as silent of our suffering as an old maid of her age..." The more things change, the more they stay the same. The newly written tune that accompanies the lyrics is suitably downbeat, with a decidedly funereal feel although, as ever, beautifully played.
'The Scholar Gypsy' is an old tale from Oxford town, and one that resonates with Andy's soul, causing him to admit, "I want to follow in his footsteps." "Now what he wanted above all else was Nature's secret commonwealth." The jaunty tune will keep your feet awandering like the Scholar Gypsy himself, bouncing along as the band build once again on the firm foundation of Andy's strummed mandolin.
Finally, the title track of 'Steer by the Stars' opens with gentle guitar from Colin. Andy's vocals are floated into new and misty mystical heights with the addition of a wash of reverb. The bass line has the feel of ocean waves, the concertina provides instumental hooks between lines as other instruments move hypnotically through the mix as the track moves towards silence following Andy's assurance that "wherever we land, the stars will guide us safely in." So may it be.
telling the beesThis is Telling the Bees' third album and the musicianship, already brilliant on the first, self-titled album, continues to mature, taking on extra layers of subtlety and assurance. Andy's songwriting continues to be a strong element in the mix, combining unpretentious lyricism with a scholar's grasp of history, a poet's turn of phrase, a romantic's yearning and a knife-edged political awareness. This collection also benefits from superb production by the band themselves, resulting in some of the clearest, warmest sound quality I've heard on a CD for quite a while. Each instrument is perfectly balanced in the mix, as are the vocals, making a splendid set of songs even more of a joy to listen to.
An English ArcanumI was hooked on TTB from the first track on their debut album. Their second, 'Untie the Wind,' established that the first had been no mere flash in the pan but that here is a band to be reckoned with. 'Steer by the Stars' confirms Telling the Bees as one of my favourite bands of all time*. Wonderful, magical, at times disturbing, often deeply strange ... just like life. Hail the Bees! Long may they reign!

Greywolf /|\

*In case you're wondering, my absolute favourite band is The Incredible String Band, while others include The Screaming Blue Messiahs, The Ramones, and Dr. Strangely Strange.

1

WorldTreeGWx800I always find it hard to sleep when the moon is full, so was up and out very early this morning. As the sun rose over the village, I crossed the road and the brook, sacred to the goddess, Sulis, lined with springs. The nearest of these was revered by Anglo-Saxon ancestors as a local manifestation of the Bubbling Cauldron (Hvergelmir) at the roots of the World Tree, around which coils the serpent/dragon, Nidhoggr. Here's my drawing of the World Tree from the BDO Bardic Course. Click the picture to expand it.
By the spring, I met an early dog-walker. Her dog, an old black and white collie, adopted me for a while as she went on ahead and he padded along at my heels. Our ways parted and I walked up the Green Path to a space between the trees where I could see out across the fields and the edge of the village, with a clear view of the sun.
GWDrumPaintedx800Took out my drum, held it to the newly risen sun, played and sang. With frost on the grass in the dips, I wondered if the drum would sound. I needn't have worried, the Red Deer's golden skin immediately absorbed and responded to the light and warmth of the golden fireball in the East and the lightest tap of my fingers brought forth a clear, ringing tone.
I added another goddess to the list of deities and spirit beings called upon in my morning salutations. Having been with the White Horse Camp until yesterday afternoon, we had discussed honouring this goddess in a ceremony there this morning, and I wanted to connect with my friends at the camp from my quiet corner of North Wiltshire.
Uffington White Horsex800I live just off the Northern edge of Salisbury Plain, within the territory of the Bronze Age people who created the beautiful chalk hill figure, the Uffington White Horse, etched into the greensward beside a rectangular earthwork on White Horse Hill in South Oxfordshire. Just above the Horse runs the Ridgeway, one of Britain's oldest prehistoric trackways, sections of which are still walkable. The Ridgeway once wound from the Norfolk coast to reach the sea again in Dorset, passing by many ancient sacred sites along the way, including Wayland's Smithy, Avebury and Wodnesbeorg. One of the White Horse's tasks, I believe, was to guide and assist walkers along that ancient track. My area of North Wiltshire is known to have had at least fourteen other chalk hill figures of horses etched into its hillsides.
Short digression: In 1996, I led a Midsummer ceremony among the great stone circles of Avebury. Part of its purpose was to honour World Peace and Prayer Day, an idea inspired by the birth of a White Buffalo Calf in Wisconsin two years earlier. This event was seen as being of great spiritual significance by many Native Americans, who greeted it as a sign that their ancestral ways would be returning to them with renewed power. This is because, long ago, it was White Buffalo Calf Woman who brought the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples their seven sacred ceremonies and taught them how to conduct them for the benefit of the tribes and of all beings.
Bear ButteJoining us at that ceremony in 1996 was a young Lakota who came because he had a vision of a White Horse while he fasted in a cave on Bear Butte, a sacred, holy place for many Native Americans. His vision led him to Avebury and to us, since our ceremony was being held at a place sacred to the ancient people of the White Horse. He brought with him a song he had been gifted during his vision and sang it for us in the circle. I am ashamed to say that a few drunken members of the Loyal Arthurian Warband shouted abuse at him as he sang. He didn't let them phase him though. His voice, his spirit and his song remained strong and true.
After the ceremony, we talked. He asked if folk in England always yelled insults at people during sacred ceremonies. I explained the behaviour of the drunks as best I could and apologised for it. He said with a sigh, "Yeah, we get 'em back home too." We talked about Wannabee Indians and he said, "If people over here think it's so damn great being an Indian they should try living on the Res for a couple of years."
We also discussed his vision. He said he had come to us because he felt there was a link between the birth of the White Buffalo Calf, White Buffalo Calf Woman who taught the sacred ways to his people, and our native British White Horse spirit. I've been thinking about this again recently and am more than ever convinced that he is right. I believe we have our own teacher of sacred ceremonies and spirit ways, centred on this area of rolling downland where the most famous of them all, the Uffington Horse, bestrides the hillside above Dragon Hill.
RhiannonCardx800So, who is our native White Horse Woman? I believe she is Rhiannon, 'the Great Queen,' who features in the First Branch of the Mabinogi, where she first appears riding a magical horse and later acts as a horse herself, carrying travellers on her back. Here she is, from the Druid Tarot I designed many years ago (available from the BDO webshop). If I'm right about this image derived from a Gaulish coin representing the same horse goddess (perhaps under a different name), then the spirit of the White Horse reaches far beyond the area where I live.
I believe that she is one of the prime movers behind both the White Horse Camps (formerly OBOD Camps) and the Avebury Gorsedd. An interfaith conference organised by Tim Sebastion in 1993 featured the first ever ceremony of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri, a ceremony I created for the event and which is still conducted at Avebury today. During the same weekend OBOD's chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, and Dr. (now Prof.) Ronald Hutton went for a walk around the stones and Ronald suggested that Philip should organise a Druid camp. The first camp took place at Lammas 1994 and included a trip down to Avebury to join the Gorsedd celebration there, again conducted by me, still flying from having encountered my spirit Wolf in a sweat lodge on the camp the night before.

Beating the bounds with garth on Gate, OBOD Lammas camp, 2006. Photo by Elaine.
Beating the bounds with garth on Gate, OBOD Lammas camp, 2006. Photo by Elaine.

That first camp became a template for many others and similar camps are now held throughout the year by five different Druid group in the UK and by OBOD and others in the Europe, the USA, Australia and elsewhere. The Avebury Gorsedd also became a template for similar festival celebrations at Stonehenge, the Long Man of Wilmington, Stanton Drew and elsewhere in the UK and, as with camps, at many other sites around the world. Part of the Gorsedd ceremony even featured in the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics, broadcast live to a global audience of millions.

1st century Gaulish coin from which my Druid Tarot card was derived.
1st century Gaulish coin from which my Druid Tarot card was derived.

When things have such power, that power must have a source, or several sources. In the case of White Horse Camps and the Avebury Gorsedd, linked by the Ridgeway, the power came from a combination of time, place and people, but also from Rhiannon, our White Horse Woman. I believe that our presence and our intention to revitalise the ways of our ancestors called her forth in the 1990s to teach, inspire and empower us, just as she had our ancestors in the distant past. Long may she continue to guide us in the recreation of our ancestral ways. I trust that many of us will honour her, and give thanks for her gifts, in our ceremonies as we celebrate the first fruits of the harvest this Lammastide.
Hail Rhiannon!
Hail and blessed be!
and a blessed and inspiring Lammas/Lughnasad/Gwyl Awst to one and all!
Greywolf /|\

1

In the folk calendar of Britain, Midsummer's Eve takes place on June 23rd, Midsummer's Day on the 24th. Records of celebrations being held on these days go back at least as far as the 14th century, when a monk of Winchcombe, on the Cotswold edge of Gloucestershire, refers to local folk rolling a flaming wheel down a hill on Midsummer's Eve. A similar rite was held on the same day in the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales in the 1820s and is described in some detail:

“People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If this fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”

A similar ceremony is mentioned in the 4th century Acts of Saint Vincent as having taken place amongst pagans in Aquitane in southern France, who rolled their fiery wheel down a hill and into a river, from which they rescued the charred pieces to reassemble them in a temple to their sky god.
Ronald Hutton, in his 'Stations of the Sun' (Oxford University Press, 1996, page 312), says that Midsummer's Day “occupied much the same relationship with the solar cycle as Christmas day; it represented the end of a solstice, the period in which the sun ceased to move for a short period, but rose and set at the same points on the horizon at the extreme end of its range. Now, however, it was ta the height of its strength, and light at its longest, and Midsummer Eve represented the culmination of that period of apogee, just before the days began to shorten again as the sun moved southward. In response to the swelling of heat and light, foliage and grasses were now likewise at their fullness, before the time of fruiting approached. No wonder that it seemed a to be a magical time to the ancient Europeans.” He adds that “In the northern half of the continent the festival was generally the most important one of the whole year.”
Why, then, do most modern Pagans celebrate midsummer on the day of the summer solstice and not, as our ancestors did, a few days later on June 23rd-24th?
The answer is not hard to find. The idea of celebrating the summer solstice comes from William Stukeley, who associated Druids with Stonehenge and, in 1720, was the first writer to mention the solstice alignment of the Hele Stone with the centre of the circles there. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Gorsedd of Bards of Britain in 1792, visited Stonhenge and followed Stukeley in believing that Druids celebrated the solstice there. The same alignment was central to a book called 'Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered,' published by Sir Norman Lockyer in 1906. This book influenced the Ancient Druid Order, who started holding rituals at the henge a few years after its publication. By the time Gerald Gardner and members of his coven were creating Wicca in the late 1940s, the idea of celebrating the solstices had become firmly fixed in the public imagination, and so the solstices became part of its festival wheel of the year. All of them either ignored, or were unaware of, the ancient and pan-European tradition of celebrating on the 24th.
Why then, you may ask, is the Stonehenge Hele Stone aligned on the summer solstice sunrise, as is an avenue of stones at Callanish in the Orkneys and some of the stone rows at Carnac in Brittany? First, we may question whether the alignments actually are on the solstice or on Midsummer's Day. After all, it is the nature of solstices that the sun's rising position barely alters for about a week. Given the once pan-European custom of celebrating Midsummer's Day, by far the most likely explanation for the alignments is that they were designed to be watched in the run-up to midsummer, giving those who understood them time to spread the word that the festival day was approaching. Early agricultural communities were spread out over wide areas and travel was largely on foot. We know that people came to Stonehenge from all over southern England and as far afield as Switzerland. A decent amount of advance warning of festival dates was essential.
Incidentally, it is currently fashionable to say that the major alignment at Stonehenge is not on the summer solstice sunrise, but on the midwinter sunset. While there can be no doubt that there is a midwinter alignment at Stonehenge, there is also, as Stukeley correctly surmised in the early 18th century, an extremely clear midsummer one. One does not cancel out the other.
You may ask if it matters which day we celebrate midsummer or midwinter on? Personally, I think it does. Having been a Pagan for half a century or so, I've observed a lot. One of the things I've observed is that celebrating the solstices often causes problems. An obvious example is the amount of aggression that has often been associated with celebrations of the summer solstice at Stonehenge. In the early 20th century, the then head of the Ancient Druid Order became so incensed at being asked to pay sixpence to get in to the the henge that he uttered a long and angry curse on their owner. In the 1950s, the Ancient Order of Druids, who had been meeting at the henge annually since 1905, vowed never to do so again after loud, drunken hecklers climbed all over the stones during the AOD's solstice ceremony. In 1985, the police and soldiers in police uniforms smashed up vehicles attempting to get to the henge for the solstice, beating unarmed men, women and children in what became known as The Battle of the Beanfield. When I attempted to hold a ceremony for world peace at Avebury on the summer solstice of 1996, it was disrupted by angry drunks. By contrast, those I've held on Midsummer's Day have been peaceful, joyous and focused.
A kind of testosterone madness kicks in at the summer solstice which has dissipated by Midsummer's Day, a few days later, when the solar tide has turned. If we are truly attempting to restore, or at least be inspired by, the spirituality of our ancestors, then surely it makes sense to try and follow the ways in which they rode the cosmic tides. This is perhaps especially true of the solstices, the two annual festivals our ancestors regarded as vital, pivotal times of the year, times of magic and divination and of great power.
When Emma Restall Orr and I founded the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge in 1997, we made sure it would celebrate Midsummer's Day. This works out well, as a quiet, focused ceremony attended by no more than a hundred people restores a sense of peace to the place after the wildness of the solstice celebrations which attract many thousands.
In Cornwall, the old tradition has been maintained, and a string of hilltop fires are kindled each year on Midsummer's Eve, June 23rd, just as the sun is setting. The accompanying ceremony is spoken in Cornish and climaxes with a Lady of the Flowers casting into the roaring flames a garland made up of good herbs, those believed to have medicinal qualities, along with bad herbs, those that are poisonous, and sprigs of oak, rowan and foxglove.
I suppose rolling flaming wheels down hills would land us in trouble with Health and Safety regulations these days, but there's no reason why more of us shouldn't celebrate midsummer at Midsummer.
Merry Midsummer to one and all,
Greywolf /|\

Now here's a little treat for you for having read this far. "Oh do not tell the priest of our rites, for he would call it a sin, for we've been out in the woods all night, a'conjuring summer in..."

CultHeroes1981x600I've been writing songs since the mid-70s and fronted a number of bands in the late 70s and early 80s, including The Legendary Mutants (right, with me on vocals and rhythm guitar and MDB on lead guitar), Cult Heroes, Passing Strangers and The Levellers (no, not the Brighton-based folk-punk band, we were based in Hastings and used the name a few years before they did). In the 90s, I switched to writing for just myself and acoustic guitar and have performed solo ever since. My main instument is a semi-acoustic guitar, though I also play a variety of flutes and whistles, various percussion instruments, harp, shruti box and occasional oddities like sitar, bowed psaltery or dulcimer.
Sign of the Rose coverMy first CD, 'The Sign of the Rose,' was recorded in 1999 and released in 2000, after which life intervened and required me to bring up two sons on my own. Then I started work on the British Druid Order courses, built a roundhouse, learned to thatch, started making drums, etc., etc., so the second album has been delayed rather longer than anticipated. Meanwhile, 'The Sign of the Rose' is available as a CD or digital download from the BDO webshop.
I perform occasional gigs, and here are some videos from my set at the WildWays Mini-Folk Festival, June 6th, 2015.
First up is 'Song at Wodnesbeorg,' track 2 on 'The Sign of the Rose.' It recalls my first encounter with the Anglo-Saxon god, Woden, on a prehistoric long barrow in Wiltshire during a Hallowe'en pilgrimage from Avebury to Stonehenge. I've since taken a guitar to the very spot and sung the song, offering it to the spirits of place in return for the inspiration that led to its creation.

Next comes 'Lady of the Greenwood,' track 4 on 'The Sign of the Rose.' This was inspired by a workshop in which we were encouraged to become a variety of animals, including serpents, which worked particularly well for me. I'd recently started working with Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and we took our serpentine inspiration away into the woods to weave some ritual. After a while we heard an eerie, unearthly music drifting through the trees. It drew nearer and turned out to be emanating from Andy Letcher (now lead singer and songwriter with 'darkly crafted folk' band, Telling the Bees), playing two penny-whistles bound together with tape. When we asked how he'd found us, he replied, "I just followed the snake." Yes, a snake had emerged from the roots of an oak tree and led him to us.

The third song from the WildWays set is the title track from 'The Sign of the Rose.' This relatively simple love song was inspired by a night spent at an inn halfway up a mountain somewhere in the West of England. I don't remember where, but I do remember they had Pulp's 'Common People' on the jukebox. This is one of the songs that sometimes gets me likened to Leonard Cohen.

Lastly there's the song I usually close my set with, 'Lord of the Wildwood.' It's always popular live as it gives folk plenty of opportunity to chant, howl and generally go nuts. This will be the title track of that difficult second album when I finally get around to recording it. I didn't realise until after I'd written it that the four animals featured in it can be read as guardian spirits of the four cardinal directions, Stag for West, Bull for North, Eagle for East and my beloved Wolves for South. Having reailsed it, I've occasionally used the song to call the quarters when opening a circle. I've also heard people use the spoken lyrics for the same purpose.

I am, by the way, available for gigs. The easiest and most reliable way to contact me is via a PM on my facebook page. I also have a Greywolf: Music page on facebook where I put video links and gig news. Thanks to Google mucking about, I've also got two youtube channels, one as Philip Shallcrass, the other as TheOldGreyWolfTest.
Blessings to all,
Greywolf /|\

It's good to start the day in a focused, spiritual way. My days begin with a yoga-based series of exercises - called Surya Namaskar (Salutation of the Sun God), though mine vary from the pattern given in the link (and many thanks to Anita Dreyer for introducing me to this). These are followed by an address to various spirits and deities who are important to me. This has grown with my travels through life, in Britain and elsewhere. The current version goes like this:

"Hail to Q'wati, the Transformer.
Hail to T'istilal, the Thunderbird,
Hail to Woden, wisest of wights,
Howls of wolves and ravens' cries,
Be sig-runes writ on this bright day.
Hail to Freya, fiery love queen,
Witchwife, healer, warrior of trance.
Hail to Gwydion, antlered lord of forests,
Hail to Arianrhod of the starry skies,
Hail to Beli Mawr, father of all,
and hail to Dôn, the great mother,
Hail to Sulis and Sarasvati of the flowing waters,
and hail to the white serpent of healing.
Hail to the gods and goddesses all,
Hail to the ancient ones, spirits most wise.
May your blessings of strength, guidance, wisdom and healing
Be with us this day, this day and all days.
So may it be."

Q'wati and T'istilal are powerful spirit beings among the Quileute people of the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest of America. Powerful spirits brought us together and I look upon the Quileute as an extension of my family and wolf clan. Honouring the Transformer and the Thunderbird each day confirms this connection. Woden and Freya came to me on an ancient chambered tomb-shrine during a pilgrimage many years ago, and part of my ancestral line is Anglo-Saxon, traceable back to Woden. Gwydion and Arianrhod have become increasingly important to my spiritual life as I've learned and understood more about them over the last few years. Beli (Brightness) and Dôn (Flowing) are a divine couple in British mythology, parents of a line of gods, the Children of Dôn, and of humans. I trace my ancestry back to them through the royal house of North Wales that includes Rhodri Mawr.

Sulis is the local water goddess of the area where I live. She is patroness of the hot springs in Bath and, I believe, the goddess after whom the city of Salisbury and Silbury Hill are named. I live within the triangle formed by these three places. A stream runs past my house that flows into the River Avon, past Stonehenge and through Salisbury. A beautiful ebony statue of Sarasvati has adorned my home altars for about thirty years. She is a Hindu goddess of rivers, and also of music, literature, the arts and inspiration. I think of her as a relative of our own Ceridwen, only less harsh. If I'm in Shropshire, staying with my friends there, I substitute Sabrina for Sulis. A brook runs through their land and flows into the River Severn, sacred to the goddess Sabrina.

The white serpent of healing is an almost universal spirit with whom I've been working increasingly over the last few years.

The whole thing, excercises and address, only takes ten to fifteen minutes to perform and is well worth it, especially if, like me, you spend much of your day sitting indoors working. The excercises help keep me healthy, the address links me with the natural world through the spirits that inhabit parts of it, while linking me with my family, clans and tribes whose lives are enhanced and inspired by the same spirits. It also acts as a daily reminder of spiritual blessings already received, helping to maintain the connections that enhance and inspire my path through life.

Well, that's how I start my days. How about you?

Peace, love and blessings,
Greywolf /|\

Shingles is a painful skin rash around the area of a nerve infected with a virus called varicella-zoster. It is very unpleasant for sufferers, usually lasts from 2-4 weeks, and can be treated with anti-viral medication. About 1 in 4 UK citizens will suffer from it at some time in their lives. In Welsh Folk-Lore: a Collection of the Folk-Tales and Legends of North Wales (1888), Elias Owen gives the following curious, Eagle-related cure for shingles:

"The manner of proceeding can be seen from the following quotation taken from 'The History of Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant,' by Mr. T. W. Hancock, which appears in vol. vi., pp. 327-8 of the Montgomeryshire Collections.

“This custom (charming for the shingles) was more prevalent in this parish than in any other in Montgomeryshire. A certain amount of penance was to be done by the sufferer, who was to go to the charmer in the morning fasting, and he was also to be fasting. The mode of cure was simple - the charmer breathed gently on the inflamed part, and then followed a series of little spittings upon and around it. A few visits to the charmer, or sometimes a single one, was sufficient to effect a cure.
“The power of charming for the 'Ryri' is now lost, or in any event has not been practised in this parish, for several years past. The possession of this remarkable healing power by the charmer was said to have been derived from the circumstance of either the charmer himself, or one of his ancestors within the ninth degree, having eaten of the flesh of the Eagle, the virtue being, it was alleged, transmitted from the person who had so partaken to his descendants for nine generations. The tradition is that the disorder was introduced into the country by a malevolent Eagle.
“Some charmers before the operation of spitting, muttered to themselves the following incantation:-

Yr Eryr EryresEarly 12th cent Irish MS Eagle crop
Mi a'th ddanfonais
Dros naw mor a thros naw mynydd,
A thros naw erw o dir anghelfydd;
Lle na chyfartho ci, ac na frefo fuwch,
Ac na ddelo yr eryr byth yn uwch.”

Male Eagle, female Eagle,
I send you (by the operation of blowing, we presume)
Over nine seas, and over nine mountains,
And over nine acres of unprofitable land,
Where no dog shall bark, and no cow shall low,
And where no Eagle shall higher rise.”

The charmer spat first on the rash and rubbed it with his finger over the affected parts, and then breathed nine times on it.”

W. Jenkyn Thomas, writing in The Welsh Fairy Book (1908), tells us that:

"Huw Llwyd of Cynfael was the seventh son of a family of sons, and therefore he was a conjurer by nature. He increased his knowledge of the black art by the study of magical books, and he ate Eagle's flesh, so that his descendants could for nine generations charm for the shingles."

Golden_Eagle_flying-whiteLet me make it absolutely clear that I am in no way encouraging anyone to eat Eagle flesh. Eagles are a beautiful and endangered species and should not be harmed in any way at all. I should also remind readers that Eagles are legally protected and damaging them or their nests is a criminal offence. I'm posting this for its historical interest, and its interest in linking Eagles with healing. As to the form of the healing, note the repetition of the number nine in the incantation, reminiscent of similar repetition in the Anglo-Saxon 'Nine Herbs Charm.' The 'Nine Herbs Charm' also includes blowing the poison out from the afflicted person. I have yet to try the shingles charm, but it may be that it works without the necessity for you, or one of your ancestors, to have eaten Eagle flesh. I suspect that, as with many unconventional healing methods, the real key lies in the strength of belief of both the charmer and the charmed. Indeed, the same applies to conventional medicine more than some doctors care to admit.
The idea that Eagles offer a cure for shingles may owe its origins to the similarity between the Welsh words eryr, 'Eagle,' and (swyno'r) ryri, 'shingles,' but no doubt also relates to an archaic belief encountered elsewhere, including in the 'Nine Herbs Charm,' that disease can be caused by the attack of malignant serpent spirits. In native British tradition, shingles was referred to as a serpent wrapped around the body. There is a long and widespread tradition that Eagles will attack and kill snakes. Put the two together, and the idea that an Eagle could attack and kill the disease makes mythical sense. William Elliott Griffis, in his Welsh Fairy Tales (1921), says that shingles -

“... is called also by a Latin name, which means a snake, because, as it gets worse, it coils itself around the body. Now the Eagle can attack the serpent and conquer and kill this poisonous creature.”

Sadly, Eagles have long been persecuted by farmers and game-keepers. Golden Eagles were driven to extinction two centuries ago in England and Wales, though one or two have recently been seen again and there are said to be one or two breeding pairs in the Lake District. In Scotland, they're doing better, with estimates of up to 450 pairs. There are, however, still instances of game-keepers poisoning them. Ironically, much of their diet consists of rabbits, which farmers view as pests.

There is a legend that thunderstorms are created by the beating of the wings of great Eagles who circle in the clouds that shroud the high peaks of Snowdonia, called Eryri in Welsh, 'the Place of Eagles.' I have flown with them, and know it to be true. One day, I trust that physical Eagles will return to Eryri. Until then, here is a picture created digitally to show how magnificent they will look when they do. They are big, with a wing span up to 8 feet. They are also fierce, intelligent, powerful and beautiful. Long may they continue to soar the skies!SnowdonEagles
This piece is extracted from a booklet in the forthcoming British Druid Order Druid course. The drawing accompanying the charm is from a 12th century Irish manuscript.

1

In researching and writing for the British Druid Order's Druid course, I've been working on the sub-stratum of spiritual beliefs and practices that underlies just about every religion there is. This seems to have emerged about 40,000 years ago in Central Asia. By 35,000 years ago, it had spread across a territory extending from Spain to Siberia. A central feature consists of ways in which humans and other animals relate spiritually. I've identified seven animals, or groups of animals, that have maintained key roles in human spirituality for millennia - at least among peoples who have either retained ancestral ways or are seeking to renew them. The seven are:

eaglehuman temple woodeaton oxonEagles: - Eagles are royal birds, linked with the Sun, sometimes regarded as ancestors, and are messengers between our Mid-world and the Upper-world of the sky gods. Because of this, they are often regarded as bringers of storms and winds. They are also invoked for healing and in childbirth. (Picture: shape-shifting Eagle from Woodeaton in Oxfordshire. Late Iron Age)

Ravens: - Highly intelligent birds, Ravens are noted for their wisdom and also regarded as creators, shapers and shape-shifters, culture-bringers, teachers and tricksters. They are invoked, and their movements studied, for divination. As carrion-eaters, they are associated with the Otherworld of the dead and seen as messengers between worlds. What goes for Ravens applies to some extent to most other members of the Corvid family, Crows, Magpies, &c..

Brandsbutt_Stone_serpentSerpents/Dragons/Wyrms, &c.: - By many names are they known. Serpents are chiefly seen as Under-world beings, receptacles of very strong power that can cause earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Some are winged and create thunder-storms. Serpents can also create disease and injury in humans and other animals. Conversely, people of sufficient strength can 'tame' the serpent power and use it just as powerfully for healing. Serpents have long been associated with the Moon, their ability to shed and renew their skins being likened to the lunar cycle. (Picture: Pictish stone with carved Serpent, Moon, lightning bolt and Oghams. Brandsbutt, Scotland. c. 6th century.)

Artio Bear Goddess 2Bears: - Bear cults and societies are pretty much universal wherever there are bears. The bear is seen as a powerful protective spirit, teacher and guide, also as an ancestor, healer and culture-bringer or enhancer. Considered human-like because they sometimes rear up on their hind legs, bears were also invoked by warriors for their courage, strength and stamina. (Picture: The Bear goddess, Artio - from Celtic 'Artos,' 'Bear' - feeds one of her kin. Bern, Switzerland. Late Iron Age.)

 

PictishWolfWolves: - Wolves are powerful teachers and guides, also revered as ancestors. Their pack behaviour teaches us the benefits of community. Wolves, like Bears, were also invoked by warriors, Wolf warrior societies having been common in Europe, Asia and America. Like the others mentioned so far, Wolves are hunters or scavengers, invoked to bring success in hunting. (Picture: Pictish Wolf. Ardross, Scotland. c. 7th century.)

 

Burghead Bull Brit MusBovines: - The primal bovine of ancient Eurasian cultures was the Aurochs, an animal considerably bigger and stronger than the modern-day cattle descended from it. Its hide was usually black. The other major bovine spirit of our ancestors was the Eurasian Bison. Bulls and Cows are both associated with powerful deities, often the parents of divine dynasties. The first, largest and most powerful prey animal on the list, hunted for meat, skins to make clothing and shelters, bones and horns to make a wide variety of practical or decorative objects. Bovine skulls were often buried as spirit guardians of sacred sites. (Picture: Pictish Bull from Burghead, Scotland, now in the British Museum. c. 7th century.)

cerf2 stagCervids (Deer): - Like bovines, the Deer family have long been a major prey species for humans and wolves. Like bovines, their skins have provided shelter and clothing, their bones tools and ornaments. They are often connected with via antlered deities who ensure their health as a species while giving humans permission to kill individual animals. (Picture: Bronze Stag from Nuevy-en-Sullias, France. Late Iron Age.)

If they were still around, I'd have added an eighth: Mammoths. I like Mammoths. I hope researchers find a way to bring them back...

We humans connect with these and other animal spirits in a variety of ways. They often appear to their chosen humans first during life-transforming visions. After the first appearance, their aid can be invoked by mimicking their behaviour and cries and/or dressing as them in ceremonies, by using a feather, tooth, claw or some other token, usually kept about the person for this purpose, by painting them on a drum or making a rattle in their image, or by placing images of them on an altar in the home.

Alexander_CarmichaelIn looking at the copious folklore attached to all these creatures in cultures around the world, I am struck by the fact that folk who study such 'oral texts' these days seem to readily accept them as evidence of ancient beliefs and practices if they are found in, say, Siberia, Nepal or New Mexico. Some of the same researchers then seem oddly reluctant to make the same assumption when very similar folk tales and customs are found in Britain and Ireland. This even applies when the British and Irish tales were collected at the same time and their Asian or American counterparts, usually the late 19th century when interest in folklore was at its height. The folklorists who collected this material at the time mostly believed that it related to ancestral cultures in the same way wherever it was found. Some undoubtedly overstated the case, but the suspicion that overstatement caused doesn't seem to apply to 'exotic' cultures. Could it be that some European scholars, at this point in the 21st century, still feel deep in their bones that 'those people' are 'primitive' whereas our fellow-countryfolk couldn't possibly harbour beliefs similar to ones our shared ancestors held 35,000 years ago? I sincerely hope this isn't so, but the differing attitudes towards different cultures do make me wonder.

The picture is of Alexander Carmichael, who collected folklore in the highlands and islands of Scotland in the late 19th century. He was definitely one of the good ones. His Carmina Gadelica remains a fine source of arcane lore. You can access two volumes of it for free here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg.htm

There are, however, more modern researchers who revert to the older notion of accepting folk tales, specifically those written down in the medieval era, as preserving genuine ancient beliefs. One such is Irish archaeologist, John Waddell who, In his recent book, Archaeology and Celtic Myth (Four Courts Press, 2014), quotes his colleague, Tomás Ó Cathasaigh's opinion that: "what is remarkable about the Irish situation is the extent and richness of the vernacular literature which has come down to us from the early medieval period. Much of this literature is firmly rooted in ancient myth and remains robustly pagan in character."

Awen to that... /|\

For more on Animal Spirits, see my previous post, http://greywolf.druidry.co.uk/2014/11/animal-spirits/

4

maltaspiralplatebackThe concept of serpents as spirit beings of immense power is an extremely widespread and very ancient one. Three serpents are etched into this 24,000 year old mammoth bone plaque from an Upper Palaeolithic site at Mal'ta in Siberia. Asian, European, and Native American traditions all equate earthquakes and volcanic activity with underworld serpents, while winged serpents are linked with celestial phenomena from thunderstorms to eclipses. Serpents are creatures of great power and, therefore, of great danger. In many traditions, it is only those marked out to be spirit workers who should attempt to approach serpents, let alone have one as a spirit animal. Others risk severe illness or death should they encounter one.
23GwydionSerpents, of course, are important to us Druids. In British folk tradition, we are sometimes referred to as Nadredd, 'Serpents.' One of the most famous depictions of a spirit being from the European Iron Age is the 'Druid/shaman/god' on the Gundestrup cauldron (shown here in the version from the British Druid Order's Druid Tarot deck). In his left hand, he holds a ram-horned serpent by the throat, indicating that the antlered figure has control over the serpent. It is this control that marks him out as either a powerful spirit such as a god, or as a powerful spirit worker, i.e. a Druid.
One of the things that we have largely lost from Druidry over centuries of oppression and ignorance is the star lore of our ancestors. However, as joint inheritors of Indo-European traditions, we feel justified in looking to Vedic Astrology to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge. Vedic Astrology is a sidereal system, i.e. based on the actual position of the stars, as opposed to classical western astrology, which is based on the positions of the stars about 4,000 years ago. Here's some Vedic astrology relating to tomorrow's eclipse:
The Eclipse of March 20th 2015
rahu&ketuThe first Solar eclipse of 2015 happens with the New Moon in Pisces, joined by Mars and Ketu. Ketu is the tail of the celestial serpent, Rahu its head. Astrologically, they are the south and north nodes of the Moon. Eclipses occur when the serpent swallows the sun. This eclipse / New Moon will clarify and challenge our beliefs and spirituality, both Pisces themes. When Sun and Moon come together near the Node an eclipse results, producing a momentary disconnection and darkening our power source, the Sun. This literally leaves us feeling in the dark, and we may tempted to pursue the shadow side, or quick fix spiritual solutions, escaping into drug abuse or New Age fantasies. Be careful of such lazy, cynical options during the next 30 days. This eclipse happens in Uttara Bhadra Nakshatra, ruled by the God Ahi Bhudnya, the celestial serpent. This divine cosmic force is associated with clearing the last bits of dirt that are blocking the soul’s liberation.
A 16th century Irish text often called 'The Cauldron of Poesy' speaks of:
“...two chief divisions of joy that turn [the cauldron of motion, located at the solar plexus] into the cauldron of wisdom [located in the head]: divine joy and human joy, [one of which is] joy at the onset of imbas[divinely gifted inspiration] by grinding away at the nuts of the nine hazels of fair fruitfulness that grow by the Well of Segais in the land of the Sidhe [Faery Folk, pronounced shee]. They hurtle upstream in a ram’s-head bore along the river Boyne, swifter than a three-year-old racehorse, at midsummer every seventh year.”
Horned-Serpent-SanRafaelSwell-Utah-100_1933Here we see the ram-horned serpent power of our Gundestrup figure represented as a 'ram's-head bore' that surges along the sacred river Boyne, bringing with it the surge of divinely-inspired joy that awakens the cauldron of wisdom, the seat of spiritual enlightenment, located in the head. Our picture shows a horned serpent depicted in cave art from Utah, USA.
The god, Ahi Budhnya, mentioned in the Rig Veda, is the snake of the deep world or underworld. Some suggest he is the serpent of the atmospheric ocean. Ahi Budhnya is symbolically represented as a water snake or reptile that may have harmed people, although he is invoked to gain blessings and not to be harmful. Vishnu Purana mentions that he was the son of Vishwakarma, the divine architect. In the Mahabharata, Ahi Budhnya is one of eleven Rudras and is also one of the eleven Maruts. By the Mahabharat period the deity is related to Rudra or Shiva. In the Rig Veda, his name is only mentioned in the hymns dedicated to Viswedevas.
In the British Druid Order's courses, we work with serpent energy in various ways, from encountering it in the earth as we make pilgrimages across the land to invoking it for healing. In our ovate course, there is a meditation that we developed for a previous eclipse. The essence of it is a chant, perhaps accompanied by the beat of a drum. Here it is in Welsh and English:
Wyf sarff, wyf serch, wyf Gwydion/Arianrhod
'I am serpent, I am love, I am Gwydion/Arianrhod.'
The first four words are part of a poem called 'The Fold of the Bards,' attributed to the archetypal bard, Taliesin. To this we have added invocations to the deities Gwydion and Arianrhod.
Gwydion is the British equivalent of the classical gods Hermes or Mercury. Mercury is the planetary power associated with the Moon's North Node, characterised in Vedic tradition as Rahu, the Head of the Serpent. The ram's-head reference is supported in Vedic astrology where the Serpent's Head rules the sign of Capricorn, the Ram. I believe that Gwydion is the British manifestation of the unnamed serpent-taming deity portrayed on the Gundestrup cauldron. Some have identified this figure with the Hindu deity, Shiva.
CoronaBorealeArianrhod is the sister and/or lover of Gwydion. In Hindu terms, we may identify her as the Shakti of Gwydion, that is the feminine manifestation of the power through which the god (and we as Druids) acts in the world. In the starry heavens, Caer Wydion, 'Gwydion's Castle,' is the Milky Way, while Arianhod, whose name means 'Silver Wheel,' is represented by the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, known to British tradition as Caer Arianrhod. As shown in the graphic (left), the Northern Crown is located just above the head of the constellation Serpens, the Serpent. Given that the Crown is an incomplete ring of seven stars, the conjunction of Crown and Serpent is very reminiscent of the torc and serpent held by our antlered Gundestrup god.
We suggest this chant as a means of connecting with the potentially harmful serpent energy manifested through the eclipse in a good, healing, helpful way, using it to unblock those blockages that are keeping us from attaining out true goals of the spirit, from turning our cauldron of motion into the cauldron of wisdom, the full manifestation of which produces:
“Divine joy [that] brings special grace to turn the cauldron of wisdom, so that there are sacred and secular prophets, commentators upon both holy and practical matters, speaking words of grace and performing miracles, whose pronouncements are precedents and judgements, becoming the pattern of all speech. Although the source of this joy is without, its cause comes from within."
For the chant to be fully effective, it may need to be repeated for a considerable period. The seven years of tradition should not be considered too long given the potential benefits. Given the depth and power of this meditation, it is advisable to perform it within your sacred circle or within existing sacred space.
OvateBooklet10_12DoorwaysSit cross-legged but comfortable, breathing steadily and easily. You may wish to replicate the cross-legged, orans posture of the figure on the Gundestrup cauldron. However, if you find sitting cross-legged uncomfortable, then find another, more comfortable posture. This meditation may be assisted by the steady beat of a drum or drums.
Begin by focusing energy into the base of the spine and lower groin, between the genitals and anus. Build a bright, hot fire there, drawing on the internal heat of the coiled serpent/dragon to heat the lunar liquid awen contained in the upright Cauldron of Devotion, which is also the Cauldron of Ceridwen.
When the heat is sufficient, feel the three hot droplets of inspiration burst upwards from the Cauldron of Devotion to ignite the flashing solar fire beneath the Cauldron of Motion, located at the solar plexus and lower central chest cavity. As we have seen, this Cauldron will normally, though not always, be on its side to begin with. As the heat builds here, the Cauldron of Motion will begin to turn upright. When there is a fiery ball of radiant solar heat churning away at the solar plexus, use it to drive the Cauldron of Motion up into the head, flipping it fully upright as it goes.
At the head, it becomes the Cauldron of Wisdom in which the contents of the lunar Cauldron of Devotion combine with those of the solar Cauldron of Motion. This merging of Sun and Moon represents the blending of all being into unity, that unity creating the brilliant white light of pure bliss, pure being and full spiritual awakening.
If you are having difficulty making the ascent through focusing on the cauldrons, focus instead on the image of the ram-headed serpent surging up the spine to fill the head with light, creating a circlet of stars around the crown of the head.

Chants to evoke the Serpent-power – Men chant as Gwydion, Women as Arianrhod (unless one's guides or gender preferences/alignments suggest otherwise):

Chant: Wyf sarff, wyf serch, wyf Gwydion (or wyf Arianrhod)
Pronounced: ooiv sarf, ooiv serkh, ooiv Gwid-eon (ooiv Arry-ann-hrod)
Translation: I am serpent, I am love, I am Gwydion (I am Arianrhod)

Continue for as long as it takes.

Alternatively, you may choose to simply chant the name of the god or goddess, or use the Awen chant or another you create yourself.

The Return:
AwenBadgeBDOIn order to focus and ground the energy raised during this exercise, we conclude it with an Awen chant (i.e. chanting aaaah-ooooh-eeeeh-nnnn repeatedly, awen meaning 'inspiration, or flowing spirit' is the creative spirit in Druid tradition, symbolised by three rays of light - right), flowing the energy from the rite either into oneself for healing, change, creativity, etc., or directing it out to someone beyond the circle.
It is suggested that you further ground yourself by physically touching the earth and by eating something afterwards.
It is extremely difficult, probably impossible, to continue to exist in this world while maintaining the level of heightened awareness that fully awakening the serpent should bring. There are difficulties involved in opening ourselves to the universe. To maintain our ability to relate to consensus reality, we must consciously step back into the mundane world of washing up, car troubles, family concerns, etc. Our aim is to step back in such a way that we retain the ability to access the gifts of the upright Cauldron of Wisdom so that we may use them to help us, our families, friends and wider communities. This is the path that Buddhists call that of the bodhisattva, 'enlightened being.' This refers to one dedicated to the goal of attaining enlightenment and also to one who, having attained it, chooses to devote themselves to the goal of bringing all other beings to enlightenment. The word Druid may be interpreted as 'very wise one,' a meaning very close to that of bodhisattva.

Drumpaintedx800And finally, the caveat emptor: If you've read the above carefully, you'll know that serpent power is not to be trifled with. The meditation given above is designed to invoke the aid and protection of powerful deities. If you're not ready for such encounters, leave well alone!

Blessings of the white serpent of healing,
Greywolf /|\

2

Ovate17TheWaysoftheGodsHere's a quote from the British Druid Order ovate course booklet, The Ways of the Gods. It seems particularly relevant in the light of recent events that have seen a tiny, destructive minority of fanatical members of each of the big three monotheistic faiths invoking scriptural authority to justify violence against others, sometimes succeeding in dragging whole nations along with them. I'm thinking not only of the 9/11 attacks and those that have followed in its wake, but of the continuing strife between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a tragic list that could all too easily be extended:

'I see no harm in applying rigorous analysis to systems of belief. On the contrary, it seems to me a good and useful thing to do. I do so for my own beliefs and feel no sense of threat when others do the same. I admire and enjoy the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who regard all religious beliefs as absurd and dangerous delusions. They are intelligent men who write, and argue their cases, well. I agree with much of what they say and would be happy to debate amicably with them over points of disagreement. As an intelligent, enquiring Pagan, I do not see blind faith as being an adequate substitute for provable fact or observable reality. My own beliefs are based on observations that have been subjected to repeated analysis over a period of half a century or so, as a result of which they have continually changed and evolved as new information has become available and new observations have been made.
spanish_Inquisitioncrop'By contrast, some adherents of the big three monotheisms seem to feel deeply and personally threatened by any attempt at objective analysis of the background to their faiths, or any deviation from those faiths, often responding with death threats or actual violence, up to and including murder on an industrial scale. The history of Europe is littered with examples of the latter, from the murder of pagan priests in late Imperial Rome, through bloody campaigns against Christian heretics (right) and 16th century Witch-hunts to the Nazi Holocaust.
'The underlying cause of such deep-seated and destructive insecurity can only be fear; fear of change allied with a fear of being shown to be wrong. What is wrong with being wrong? Surely the path towards ultimate truth requires us to question each step along the way, rejecting those that prove wanting so that we can move on?
RobertAntonWilsonPopes'The difference here is one that has been characterised by Robert Anton Wilson (left) as that between dogma and catma. Wilson, co-author with Robert Shea of the Illuminatus! trilogy (Dell Publishing, 1975), said that “Discordians don't have dogmas, which are absolute beliefs; we have catmas which are relative meta-beliefs.” In other words, religious dogmas are regarded as absolute and therefore restrictive of freedom of thought, while Discordian catmas, through not being hard and fast but constantly subject to change and revision, actively encourage freedom of thought.
Discordianism is an absurdist, surrealist, Dadaist religion that Wilson, Shea and others created inspired by the philosophy and spirituality of late 1960s youth culture. I find the idea of catmas admirable and inspiring, while I have always had a problem with dogmas, which is why the BDO promotes the former and rejects the latter. We both expect and encourage you to regard our course material as a series of catmas that you can either take or leave depending on how well or otherwise they resonate with your own experience of the world. We actively encourage a questioning approach to the world in general, and anything we say in particular.
'Incidentally, Wilson also said that “Most religious people take themselves too damn seriously, which is why they act like such damn fools. I'm using the word damn for the paradoxical effect.” I like him.'

13

oast housesI've loved the idea of roundhouses since my teens when I went to a party hosted in an oast house in Sussex. As soon as I entered, I just thought there was something inherently right about living in a circular structure. When everyone sat around the walls in a circle, it seemed to encourage conversation and sharing, whether of conversation or food and drink. Oast houses, incidentally, were traditionally used for drying hops in South East England. Quite a few still exist and they are, I think, beautiful buildings, as you can see from the picture of these Sussex examples.

A few years later I became interested in the ancestral spiritual traditions of Britain and was delighted to find that our ancestors in the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and well into the Roman era had lived in roundhouses, a period of about 4,000 years.

RHbluebells 04 11It wasn't until 30 years later that a friend offered me the opportunity to build a roundhouse (above) in a clearing in a wood in Shropshire that she inherited from her parents. Working only in some of my sons' school holidays, it took three years and a lot of help to create our roundhouse. Most of those working on it were Druids, though a few Buddhists and folk of other traditions helped out too. All put great spirit energy into the place and the building. We had to learn a lot of new skills. My design used elements from the archaeology of half a dozen different sites, combining them into something that seemed like it would work and create a good, structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing and useable building. We use it mainly for ceremonies, music and storytelling. The acoustics are excellent.

roundhouse interior antlersThere's something about learning all these old craft skills, from growing and harvesting the straw and cutting the right wood, through wattling the walls to thatching the roof with the straw we'd grown, that really connects you with the spirits of our ancestors. You get a clear sense of what it was like to walk in their shoes. The fact that the building project was accompanied all the way through by rituals designed to weave the building into the place and integrate it with the spirits of nature helped to build that sense of connection. Our roundhouse has a 22 foot internal diameter, a wheat-straw thatched roof partly supported by an internal circle of ash posts, lime-washed wattle and daub walls and a beaten earth floor (right). For more photos, see the albums on my facebook page, especially the one covering the building process.

Five years on from the completion of that first roundhouse, I'm working again with John and Ken. John's the guy who taught us to thatch and Ken is another core member of the team from the Shropshire build. We're working on a pair of conjoined roundhouses for the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans in South Wales (below). These are based on archaeology from a site on Anglesey called Bryn Eryr, 'Hill of Eagles.' As in Shropshire, we're being aided by many helpers, from archaeological students to men on probation. Also helping out are Ian, the Museum's resident Iron Age reenactor, and Dafydd, whose website, britishroundhouses.com, lists over a hundred reconstructed roundhouses in England, Wales and Scotland with photos of each one.IMGA0012 (Copy)The first of the St Fagans roundhouses is being thatched with a base coat of gorse and heather onto which straw is stitched. We're then stuffing straw into this base coat. This roundhouse is 32 feet in diameter. The second, larger roundhouse (40 foot diameter) will have a short row of gorse around the base of the roof as a rodent deterrent and will then be thatched using a long-straw thatching technique. Neither has an internal post circle, relying instead on very thick clay and earth walls.

Of course, most of what happens above ground in modern roundhouse reconstructions is based on educated guesswork. Almost everything that survives in the archaeological record is at or below ground level. Peter Reynolds set the style for roundhouse reconstructions with his pioneering work at the Butser Iron Age farm in Hampshire in the early 1970s (below). This includes using straw thatch for the roofs. The logic of this is that cereal crops were being grown and the by-product of straw would therefore have been readily available. In other parts of the country, water reeds or grasses such as marram grass may have been used. It's also possible that turf, tree bark or wooden shingles were used.Butser_Farmx800This morning a facebook friend suggested I might go to the USA and show folks over there how to build Iron Age roundhouses. This got me wondering if there weren't already reconstructed roundhouses in America. An online search failed to reveal any Celtic ones. However, there is a Native American tradition of roundhouse building. Here are two examples from California:

First is a 1947 picture of a roundhouse on the reservation of the Tuolumne band of the Me-Wuk (or Miwok) tribe in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. A typical Me-Wuk village consisted of umachas (cedar bark houses), chakkas (acorn granaries) and a hangi (ceremonial roundhouse). The ceremonial roundhouse was the center of tribal life, used for a variety of purposes by different groups. They are typically 30 to 40 feet in diameter and roofed with earth, bark, or, as with this one, wooden shingles. Dances are still held in these roundhouses to give thanks and to honour all that the Earth Mother has given to the people.Me-Wuk_round_house_front_view_1947Me-Wuk roudhouse Chaw Se exteriorA second Me-Wuk roundhouse (left) was built in 1974 within the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. As with the Tuolumne example, the door faces East, towards the rising sun. Four large oak posts support the roof of the sixty foot diameter structure (below left). The rest of the roundhouse is constructed of cedar poles secured with grapevine and the roof is topped with cedar bark. Inside is a central fire pit. A fire exit was added in the rear of the structure in 1993 to comply with state fire regulations. The door faces the east to catch the sunrise. The roundhouse is still used today, 090-P0073123on occasion, for ceremonial dances. It has a plaque outside designating it as California Registered Historical Landmark No. 1001.

One notable similarity between the two roundhouse-building traditions is that both British and Native American examples have doors oriented to the East, or an arc between East and South-east. The practical reason is to allow maximum daylight into the roundhouse via the doors. The spiritual reason, which I'm sure is the same in both traditions, is that the sun is recognised as a divine source of light, warmth and healing.There's archaeological evidence that some larger British roundhouses were used for ceremonial purposes during the Iron Age, as ours in Shropshire is and as the Me-Wuk ones are.

One difference beroundhouse rooftween the two traditions, obvious from the photos here, is the pitch of the roof. Having a straw-thatched roof on a roundhouse means you have to apply a fairly thin thatch so that smoke from the central fire will filter out through it. A thin thatch means you have to rake up the angle of the roof so that rain will run off it quickly and not have time to soak through. A bark or wooden shingle roof with a central smoke-hole allows for a much lower pitch that will still shed rain off successfully.

There's an idea that leaving a smoke-hole in the roof of a British-style roundhouse will create a funnel that will draw up sparks and set fire to the thatch. Having lived with a roundhouse for six years now and lit many fires in it, I'm not convinced of this. I think that if the smoke-hole is created by pulling out a ring of thatch towards the top of the cone, you'll have a way for smoke to get out but will still have enough inside the upper part of the roof that any sparks going up above the rafters will be extinguished from lack of oxygen. I'm going to try it with ours in Shropshire (above right).

Will I end up teaching Iron Age roundhouse building techniques in the USA? It's a thought. After all, there's a lot of interest in Celtic heritage in the USA. You only have to look at the string of American presidents since at least John Kennedy who have traced their roots to villages in Ireland or, occasionally, Scotland. Many European-Americans do have Celtic ancestors and value those ancestral links. Helping to build, or being able to visit, the kind of houses their ancestors lived in would be another powerful way to honour and enhance those ancestral connections.

Many blessings,
Greywolf /|\