“... the army demands huge budgets to stimulate research and guide it into specific channels, and youth is being indoctrinated with the spirit of nationalism. All this is done in preparation for the day when the spectre may come to life. Unfortunately, these very policies are the most effective way of actually bringing the spectre into being.” Albert Einstein, 1953 Like Albert Einstein, I am a pacifist, and have been since I was four years old. Witnessing playground fights between individuals or rival gangs in primary school, I realised that the only results were that one or more people got hurt and existing resentments were further fuelled. Both results seemed entirely negative. It didn't take a genius to realise that the international playground fights we call wars are equally negative in their results, only people get not merely hurt but killed. At four years old, it was obvious that violence and anger simply perpetuate violence and anger, and that individuals or nations fighting each other inevitably results in losses that outweigh any possible gain. Except, of course, for those who manufacture and sell arms, who benefit hugely from promoting conflict. I have never since wavered in this belief.
Those who oppose pacifism often try to portray pacifists as cowards. This ignores just how difficult a choice pacifism is in a society where violence is so often admired, applauded and rewarded, from the fortunes paid to boxers to the medals awarded to soldiers.
From 1964 to 1970, I attended a Grammar school that had a boarding section where boys who had failed their 11-plus exam were sent by parents who could afford the fees. Failing the entrance exam, and being farmed out by their parents, led them to harbour huge resentments against us 'day boys.' As a strange child and a pacifist, I was singled out for special and sustained hostility. I was bullied every day of my school life, if not by fellow pupils then by teachers. That of my fellow pupils tended to be mainly verbal, although tripping up or pushing over were commonplace. In such circumstances, pacifism is far from being an easy option. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to respond in kind, and might well have saved me six years of mental torture and physical cruelty. I had, however, made a commitment to pacifism and refused to strike back, whatever the provocation. This simply reinforced my target status. Bullies famously being cowards meant that picking on someone who they knew would not strike back was seen as a gift. I became adept at fending off potential physical assaults with words. Since I was more intelligent than the bullies, this was relatively easy. As a result of my verbal skill, I never came to any serious physical harm.
Staff at the school harboured resentments of their own and were happy to take them out on any slightly unusual pupils through regular acts of random violence. Teachers meted out blows to the head with an open palm, blows elsewhere on the body with slippers, and occasionally more formal canings. Some preferred more refined tortures such as grabbing the nipple under the shirt and twisting it, or grabbing and twisting hair at the side of the head near the ear. Both were excruciatingly painful.
One teacher, having hit me for no reason the day before, apparently felt guilty about it and invited me to punch him in the stomach in return. I refused. He repeated the offer, assuring me that he wouldn't hit me back. Again, I refused, explaining to him that I was a pacifist. Eventually, he gave up trying to get me to punch him. It was clear that he found the idea of not responding to being hit by striking back both worrying and confusing.
Having left school, I adopted the lifestyle of an itinerant hippy, often sleeping rough. Like most homeless people, I was occasionally subjected to violence. Whilst napping in Hyde Park, I was woken up by three policemen kicking me. I had a knife held to my throat in an alleyway in Hastings Old Town. I was shot at from a passing car in the south of France. On none of these occasions was I afraid. I never froze, trembled or crumbled, but nor did I react with violence. While the policemen were kicking me, I engaged them in conversation. They stopped. With a knife at my throat, I talked my would-be assailant out of using it. He left town the following day. The gunman in France being in a passing car, the opportunity to talk never arose. I've looked at how pacifists have responded to various wars, and how they have been treated as a result. This interest stemmed from my father (right) telling me that he had repeatedly been handed white feathers as emblems of his perceived cowardice during the second world war. The reason was that he was a man of fighting age who was not wearing a military uniform. He was, in fact, in a protected occupation, supervising quality control in a factory making parts for fighter planes. He was also an air raid warden, a job that sometimes involved aiding other services in rescuing people from bombed and burning buildings. Despite which, he was branded a coward by people who knew nothing whatsoever of his circumstances.
My father was not a pacifist, but he did mention others who had been treated similarly, including being spat upon in the street, because they refused to fight, not out of cowardice, but because of firm convictions that war is not a rational or sensible way to conduct human affairs. He told me that such people were often imprisoned. I later learned that draft boards in many conflicts, from WWI to Vietnam and beyond, regularly refused to accept pacifism as a valid reason not to conscript people into the armed forces. Pacifists so conscripted were then required to fight and shot by their fellow soldiers if they refused, either with or without a court-martial. In spite of which, many pacifists did refuse to fight, preferring to face a firing squad than to kill fellow humans. It seems to me that such a decision under these circumstances is extraordinarily courageous.
Nevertheless, I seem to be in a minority. Most people seem to find war a perfectly acceptable, albeit regrettable, way of settling differences between people. Even many soldiers who have fought in wars, experienced their horror, and suffered appalling long-term physical and psychological effects as a result, still believe that warfare is, if not a good thing, then at least justifiable in a wide range of circumstances. I simply refuse to believe that. However hard I try, I can't bring myself to accept that, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are unable to devise a better way to handle national, international, doctrinal or political disputes than dropping bombs on people, shooting them or gassing them. Is this really the best our species can manage? Really?
Can we learn from past mistakes?
As a keen amateur historian, it bewilders me that we never seem to learn from history. WWII would never have happened had it not been for WWI and its aftermath. Had the CIA not provided training and weapons for insurgents in Afghanistan, using them as a proxy army to oppose the Russian occupation of that country, there would have been no Taliban, and probably no Al-Qaida. Violent Islamic extremism would certainly not have emerged as the threat it is today had it not been for the 1990-91 Gulf War and the subsequent 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence breeds violence. Hatred breeds hatred. Intolerance breeds intolerance. Wars breed wars. These things have been witnessed again and again with the inevitability of night following day, winter following summer.
It's not as if there are no options other than war. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Hans Blix (left) and teams of UN inspectors were still working there, looking for the “weapons of mass destruction” that were touted by US President, George W. Bush, and UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as the reasons why we had to invade. The inspectors on the ground had already gathered enough evidence to strongly doubt that any such weapons existed. Given a few more weeks, they would have proven that beyond doubt. Instead, they were told to stop work and go home, and the invasion went ahead, with the predictably disastrous results that continue to plague us. Not least of which is the rise of violent Islamic extremism. When faced with an external threat, the question inevitably arises, if not war, then what? The short answer is, of course, peace. Even Winston Churchill, a former soldier himself, and having just led Britain through perhaps the modern world's most justifiable war, still had the sense to say that it is always “better to jaw jaw than war war.” My friend and fellow pacifist, Paul Davies, sent me the link below. It outlines eight non-violent alternative ways to resolve conflicts, all of which have been used successfully in recent years, either alone or in conjunction. Please take a look. It makes inspiring reading. http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/8-ways-defend-terror-nonviolently/
To encourage you to go and look, here are the 'headlines' of the eight methods suggested: 1. Ally-building and the infrastructure of economic development 2. Reducing cultural marginalization 3. Nonviolent protest/campaigns among the defenders, plus unarmed civilian peacekeeping 4. Pro-conflict education and training (yes, that really is what it says) 5. Post-terror recovery programs 6. Police as peace officers: the infrastructure of norms and laws 7. Policy changes and the concept of reckless behaviour 8. Negotiation
The article refers to specific conflicts in which these techniques have been successfully used. If others can do it, why can't we? I believe that the answer is that we can, we just have to want to.
Peace-bashing and the UK Press
In general, the press in the UK do not like leaders of domestic political parties who try to promote peace. Some of us remember the hatchet job they did on Michael Foot, possibly the most intelligent man to lead a major British political party in the last century. The press fell upon him like a pack of rabid dogs when he wore what was said to be a 'donkey jacket' to a Remembrance Day ceremony in 1981. In fact, it wasn't a donkey jacket at all. It was an overcoat from Harrods. The Queen Mother complimented him on it. The UK press, however, have seldom been known to let facts prevent them from inventing a scandal, particularly if it will help kill the career of a sane, caring, decent left-wing politician.
Now we have not only much of the press, but also many of his Labour Party colleagues, similarly attempting to destroy Jeremy Corbyn's political career. After another Remembrance Day ceremony, Corbyn was roundly abused in the press for not bowing at the Cenotaph. In fact, he did. What's more, after all the other politicians had gone off to a lavish lunch, he stayed on, chatting with veterans and taking photographs with and for them. The veterans appreciated this even if the press didn't. Most of the press preferred not to mention it at all, focusing instead on what they hoped would be a politically damaging lie.
As with Michael Foot, there have also been disparaging remarks about Corbyn's choice of clothing. As if it matters. As with Foot, people record every word Corbyn says and then freely misrepresent it in order to show him in the worst possible light. Why? Well, many Labour Party MPs enjoyed the privileges and benefits of power during the Blair years and sincerely believe that it is only by aping Thatcherite Conservative policies, as Blair did, that the Labour Party makes itself electable. They ignore the fact that Blair's decision to go along with the Bush-led invasion of Iraq made Britain a prime target for terrorist attacks. Blair's Thatcherite policies alienated so many traditional Labour voters that the party was virtually wiped off the political map of Scotland at the last election. The Blairites also choose to ignore the fact that Corbyn's election as party leader has led to a massive upsurge in party membership. His ideas particularly resonate with young people, many of whom have previously not engaged with politics, put off by the sneering self-interest of MPs of all major parties, drawn as they tend to be from a tiny, public school and Oxbridge educated elite.
Another factor behind the vitriol directed against both Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn is their active membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and their determination to promote alternatives to war as the primary means of settling international disputes. Accusations of pacifism have been levelled at both men as though it were a crime. Echoes of the white feathers and spitting in the street directed at conscientious objectors during both world wars.
Following one recent angry meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, an unnamed member of Corbyn's own shadow cabinet described him as “a fucking disgrace.” This childish abuse was prompted by a TV interview Corbyn gave to the BBC. A 30-second exchange was cherry-picked from this nearly 8-minute piece and repeatedly used to make it sound as though Corbyn would not allow the police to defend people who were being murdered by terrorists. What he actually said was that he was “not in favour of a general shoot-to-kill policy being adopted on the streets of the UK.” Given the number of innocent people who have been shot dead by armed police over the years, this seems a fair and reasonable statement to make. As Corbyn also says in the interview, it does not mean that, in a situation where lives are immediately threatened, as they were in Paris recently, all means should not be taken to prevent further loss of life.
In the interview, Corbyn makes the point that the best way to deal with terrorism in the long term is to create the kind of world in which people do not feel driven to resort to it. He also suggests that the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 made the situation in the Middle East worse, creating the circumstances in which Islamic fundamentalism could flourish and promote terrorism. The same point has been made in recent days by US President, Barack Obama, and by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, neither of whom have been pilloried for it in the UK press in the way that Corbyn is continually. Of course, it's much easier to condemn someone based on a single sentence taken out of context than it is to engage with the totality of their views. Unfortunately, more people hear the selected soundbite and the misleading spin put on it than will ever hear the original interview.
Here's the full Jeremy Corbyn interview so you can make up your own mind about what he said:
Again, as with Michael Foot in the early 80s, Corbyn is pilloried by some of his own MPs for opposing the renewal of Britain's Trident nuclear missiles. The Labour Party manifesto for the 1983 general election included a call for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Right-wing Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, famously described it as “the longest suicide note in history.” The manifesto also called for greater public control over the banking sector, and for the nationalisation of banks who didn't agree to tighter controls over their behaviour. In light of the ongoing global financial crisis brought about by the banks, this may now be viewed as more rational than radical.
What was actually in the '83 Labour manifesto? A few highlights are mentioned in this short piece on the BBC website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8550425.stm The cost of renewing the Trident system, which everyone agrees would never be used, has been put at a massive £97 billion. At a time when the UK government is planning cuts to social security, social services, support for the low paid, health care, home care for the elderly, local councils, social housing and education, I am staggered that anyone supports spending this amount of money on any weapons system, let alone one the use of which would signal the end of the world. No wonder the policy of mutually assured destruction has the acronym, MAD. Redirecting that money would mean that, far from cutting support for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, we could improve provision for them.
Who benefits from war?
In hindsight, the Conservative victory in '83 had less to do with Labour policies or Michael Foot's overcoat and much more to do with the jingoistic turn-around in Tory fortunes following the perceived victory in the 1982 Falklands war. Prior to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, Margaret Thatcher was the most unpopular Prime Minister the UK had ever had. Following it, she became the 'Iron Lady' and went from being a political liability for her party to an asset. Voters seem to love a good war, as long as it can be portrayed as successful.
It's surely no coincidence that it was later in 1983 that Ronald Reagan sent American troops to invade the small Caribbean island of Grenada. The US troops met little resistance and the 'war' was over in two days. 78 people died, 18 of whom were patients and staff in a mental hospital that the US forces bombed by accident. The US government awarded more than 5,000 medals for valour. What had worked for Thatcher worked for Reagan too. His domestic popularity soared.
These two short military interventions unfortunately led to a widespread belief amongst politicians that wars equal votes. It is debatable whether the US-led wars in the Middle East would have happened had it not been for the political gains resulting from the Falklands and Grenada conflicts. That and the prospect of cheaper oil, of course. And the vast war profits accruing to Haliburton, a company in which Bush and his chief advisers, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, all had substantial holdings.
Does war make us safer?
Jeremy Corbyn is also slated for being one of the few politicians to publicly admit that the mess in the Middle East, and the resulting terrorism, are at least partly the fault of US, UK and European policies in the region. These consist not just of the Gulf war and the Iraq war, but repeated more-or-less covert attempts to destabilise or overthrow regimes of which we did not approve, often, as with the US in Afghanistan, by arming, funding and training terrorist groups as proxies. This is a policy the West has pursued at least since WWI. While doing so, the West has imposed and then propped up some truly awful regimes, usually repressive dictatorships, as long as the dictators in question were willing to keep the oil flowing. Is it any wonder that many people in the region view the West with deep suspicion, contempt, even hatred? Is it acceptable to pillory people like Jeremy Corbyn for pointing out the consequences of our past mistakes and displaying a willingness not to repeat them and even, perhaps, to make amends for them and learn from them so as not to make those same mistakes again?
I was four when I realised that violence has vastly more negative results than positive. I'm still waiting and hoping for the rest of the world to grow up.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the question what would I do if I were attending a rock concert and four heavily armed suicide bombers started shooting everyone in sight? In lesser situations, I have placed myself between people threatening violence and those they were threatening. Would I do the same if the threat were from guns rather than fists? The honest answer is, I don't know. What I do know, and I wholeheartedly agree with Jeremy Corbyn on this, is that I would do all I could to prevent further killing. I also agree with him that we shouldn't have got ourselves into a place where events like those in Paris can happen, and that, now we're faced with it, there has to be a better way out of it than simply piling killing on top of killing. That way nothing but madness and destruction lie. Since increased antipathy and hostility are precisely what the clerics behind the self-proclaimed Islamic State want, should we really be delivering them to them? Are we not simply providing further justification for their rhetoric of hatred and violence?
I'm aware that I may come across as an apologist for Jeremy Corbyn in this piece and I accept that that will annoy and upset some people. I should point out that I am not a member of any political party and never have been. Mostly, I follow the anarchist precept, “don't vote – it only encourages them.” Like many thinking people of all ages, I have been turned off the political process by the abysmal behaviour of so many politicians. Since the 1970s, I have watched in disgust as more and more of the plentiful resources of my country have been taken away from the poor and given to the rich. At the same time, I have witnessed innumerable scandals about politicians lining their own pockets at public expense. It appals me to witness social care being cut while MPs use public money to have their moats cleaned, buy expensive second homes, or pay members of their family large salaries for doing nothing. I would rather not think of the people who run my country as a bunch of money-grubbing crooks, but when that's how they behave, it's hard not to.
And then there's Tony Blair, who had the opportunity to stop the invasion of Iraq before it began, but who had a nice chat with God, who told him it'd be fine and he should go ahead. Over two million people turning out on the streets of UK cities on a single day to march for peace did nothing to persuade him otherwise. Nor did the evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction. He decided it was better to lie to us all and go ahead anyway. Of course people are turned off politics in droves. Blair's catastrophic actions over the invasion of Iraq were, of course, what lay behind MPs refusal to back military intervention in Syria when it was last put to parliament. For a short time, it looked as though we might actually be learning from past mistakes. Now that majority against bombing Syria seems to be weakening.
That's why I think it's right to speak up for the occasional person within politics who seems to have genuine convictions, a genuine desire to do good, and a real desire to help all the people of this country, not just the wealthiest few. As a pacifist myself, the outraged responses to Corbyn's pacifist ideals depresses, but does not surprise me. The question we all must ask ourselves is, have recent wars made the world a safer, better place? Surely the only rational answer can be that they have made the world a worse, less stable and more violent place, have fuelled hatred and increased terrorism. In which case, we need alternatives and we need them now. The alternative to war is peace, and isn't that what the sane among us all want, whether we're Christian, Muslim, Pagan, Jewish, Hindu, Shinto, Atheist or Jain?
As we say at the beginning of most public Druid ceremonies, "May there be peace throughout all the world."
Blessings, and peace,
by Brendan Myers
2013, Moon Books, Winchester (UK) and Washington (US)
£11.99 UK, $20.95 US Listening to religious broadcasts on BBC radio for many years, I'm frequently struck by the easy assumption of so many speakers that only monotheistic faiths have ever made any valuable contribution to culture. This despite the fact that pagans invented philosophy, democracy, scientific enquiry, medicine, representational art and much else besides. I've often thought that someone should write a book detailing the history of pagan contributions to the world in general, and the Western world in particular. Brendan Myers has written just such a book on the theme of philosophy, and a very welcome, highly readable book it is too, full of illuminating insights.
I know some folk are put off by the very mention of philosophy, thinking that a book on the subject must be dry, dusty and full of abstruse terminology and highly abstract notions that have nothing whatever to do with life as it is lived. In these areas, Myers scores very highly by not burdening his text with technical jargon, explaining with precision and clarity the terms he does use and, with warm humanity, revealing the many ways in which philosophy not only effects us, but in many ways defines us, individually and collectively. At the heart of the whole project of philosophy is the search for answers to questions concerning reality, divinity, humanity and our role in the universe, what happens to us when we die, and how should we best live our lives? With this in mind, Myers (left) introduces us to a range of philosophers, from the classical, Graeco-Roman era through to the present century, setting out with admirable brevity the ideas that are central to their philosophies. Those of us with an interest in the subject, but neither the time nor patience to wade through thousands of pages of texts in search of hidden nuggets must be hugely grateful that a writer with such a keen mind has done the wading for us, located the nuggets and set them out before us so clearly.
The philosophers we meet along the way represent a wide spectrum and some may seem like surprising inclusions. Some historians may question the inclusion of medieval texts produced in Iceland and Ireland, arguing that they were written well into the Christian era and cannot, therefore, accurately reflect pagan beliefs. Their influence on modern Pagans is, however, unquestionable, and one could convincingly argue that they deserve to be included on that score alone. That said, I am convinced that Myers has teased out from among them a set of values that is authentically pagan. We're on less contentious ground with our next batch of philosophers, beginning with the Pre-Socratics and taking in such famous names as Pythagoras (left), Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Plotinus, as well as a number of lesser known luminaries. Once again, Myers succeeds in making their contributions to human understanding readily comprehensible to any moderately intelligent reader. He places them in their historical context, outlines the various schools of philosophy they founded or influenced, and explains how they fit into the evolving scheme of human understanding of our place in the universe. This section closes with a consideration of how pagan ideas returned to the mainstream of European thought during the Renaissance, revitalising not only philosophy, but art, literature and politics. The third section introduces us to a rebellious group of free-thinkers whose work enlivened the so-called Age of Reason, from the mid-17th century through to the 19th. These include two names familiar to anyone who knows the history of Druidry; the Irishman, John Toland (1670-1722), and the Welshman, Edward Williams (right), a.k.a. Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826). Again, it's good to have such a clear, concise exposition of what these colourful characters actually believed. Others in this section include Spinoza, Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Schopenhauer and Neitzsche. As Myers admits, none of these gentlemen would have called themselves pagans, yet it's clear from what they wrote that they were part of a tradition of thought that can justifiably be described as pagan. Usually, it is a spiritual, inspirational, sometimes visionary relationship with Nature that marks them out for inclusion in this book. The next section leads us through the lives and thoughts of another disparate group of colourful eccentrics and outsiders whose thinking has had a profound influence on the modern resurgence of Paganism. These include the founder of Theosophy, H. P. Blavatsky; Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough; the poet, Robert Graves (left, with one of his muses), whose book, The White Goddess, became, despite its author's protestations, a foundational text of both modern Wicca and Druidry; Aleister Crowley, George Russell (AE), whose Candle of Vision, I learn from Myers, was written as the core manual for a Celtic magical order, the Castle of Heroes, proposed by AE's friend, W. B. Yeats; Stewart Farrar, who annotated and published the first full version of the Wiccan Book of Shadows; and Isaac Bonewits, founder of the influential American Druid group, ADF. Along the way, we are guided through the birth of American feminist Wicca, the rise of eco-spirituality and the development of the Gaia hypothesis and the Deep Ecology movement. Given the deep impact that both feminism and ecology have had, and continue to have, on our world, it is fascinating to know where, when and how they developed and to learn more about the individuals involved. We move then to living Pagan thinkers, several of whom would not describe themselves as philosophers, but whose writings have been profoundly influential on the development of Paganism in the present century. These include such well-known figures as Starhawk (Miriam Simos), Emma Restall Orr (Bobcat), John Michael Greer, Michael York, Vivianne Crowley (right), Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone. I realise that I'm less familiar with the works of Greer and York than I should be and intend to remedy that as soon as possible. It's one of the joys of books like this one that they inspire us to explore further.
I'm honestly awestruck at the sheer range of ideas included in a book just a little over 300 pages long. That they are all explained with such clarity is a huge bonus. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the enormous contributions pagans have made to human understanding, in what leading modern Pagans think and believe, and in where pagan philosophical thought might go from here. In creating this book, Brendan Myers has done a huge service to the Pagan community. Exceptional and highly recommended.
by Barbara Meiklejohn-Free & Flavia Kate Peters Moon Books, Winchester, UK & Washington, US, 2015
£9.99 (UK) $16.95 (US)
146 pages There may be those who feel the following review is a case of, as the old adage goes, “the pot calling the kettle black.” I disagree, but then I would, wouldn't I?
Knowing how much work goes into producing a book, and, as a writer myself, aware of how much bad reviews can sting, I really, seriously dislike writing negative ones. Hence I've sat on this review for several weeks, arguing with myself and others over whether to publish it or not. However, having been given the book to review by the publisher, I feel obliged to offer an opinion, and, of course, it has to be an honest one or what's the point?
The authors of The Shamanic Handbook both seem to live in England, yet refer to the “British Celtic Lands” with no acknowledgement that England, for better or worse the dominant British nation, has a culture that is predominantly Romanised, Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman, not Celtic. To call these islands “British Celtic” is, therefore, to ignore the last 2,000 years of their history. Perhaps they mean the term to apply only to Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and perhaps Cornwall and Ireland? If so, it would be good to know that and not simply have the contentious term, 'Celtic' bandied about without explanation. Despite many references to these “Celtic lands,” most of the Old World traditions referenced in the book are either Graeco-Roman or Egyptian. This gives the impression that the writers are following in the footsteps of numerous New Age authors and simply using 'Celtic' as a popular buzz-word. On her website, Barbara Meiklejohn-Free claims to have been born in Scotland. The book, however, has no mention of this in the short chapter on ancestors, which ends in a very non-Celtic way with the Lakota phrase, mitakuye oyasin, usually translated as “all my (or our) relations.”
The term, 'shaman' is used with equal abandon, though with a little more explanation, albeit not until page 130, when it is acknowledged that the word “most likely” originates with the Evenk people of Siberia. On the same page, the authors admit that “There have been many heated debates about using the name 'Shaman.'” They conclude that “This is an individual and personal choice, which carries a great personal responsibility, for words have power and names have meanings.” Words also make up languages, and languages are a vital component of the cultures in which they develop and are used. Personally, my choice is informed by sensitivity towards the people amongst whom spiritual traditions originated, who have guarded and transmitted them for untold generations, and who see them as vital to the survival of their cultures and peoples. Few of my friends who follow paths that might be described as shamanistic call themselves 'shamans.' Most, like me, either use terms specific to their own cultures or non-culturally-specific terms such as 'spirit worker.'
Another aspect of the book I find problematic is that Native American concepts, terminology and ceremonies feature prominently throughout it, with no attempt whatsoever to address the question of cultural appropriation. A gathering of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota peoples more than twenty years ago declared war on non-Native New Agers who 'steal' Native American spirituality and sell it for profit, and many other Native Americans equally strongly oppose what they see as the ultimate act of theft committed against their people. Hence my unease that so much of the spiritual language in this book is couched in Native American, specifically Lakota, terms, and that several exercises given in it are derived from Lakota sacred ceremonies. We are given no indication as to why, or by what right, two British women are offering these things to us. Without such background information, this smacks of 'Wannabee Indian Syndrome.' A Native American friend, TC (short for Thundercloud), once asked me to convey a message to people in Europe. He said “Tell 'em not to put us Indians on pedestals; we're liable to fall off.” Based on the contents of this book, it seems that its authors have not got this message.
The path I was drawn to is Druidry, in large part because, so far as we can know, it originated here in Britain, where I was born, where I still live, and where my ancestors lived as far back as it is possible to trace. My ancestry combines Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon blood lines, so while my spirituality is rooted in Druidry and its antecedents, I also honour Anglo-Saxon deities. This makes sense to me, genetically and geographically. Like the authors of this book, I sometimes travel to other parts of the world. I have taken part in drum circles with Quileute and Makah folk of the Pacific Northwest. In doing so, I follow the beats and, so far as I am able, the words, of the chants and songs, but do so as a British Druid, not as a Wannabee Indian. Like the authors, I gain great inspiration from interactions with indigenous peoples, but that inspiration helps me to renew, refresh or restore long-lost parts of my own native heritage.
For example, I make drums with one of my sons. Some aspects of the process derive from videos posted online by Native American drum-makers, others were inspired by Central Asian, Norwegian, Siberian and Irish drum-making practices. I believe that frame drums of a similar type were once made in Britain, though I know of no specific evidence. Being organic and quite thin, frame drums rarely leave any archaeological trace. We use locally sourced materials. Barbara Meiklejohn-Free has drums made in the USA and imported to the UK to sell. They are mentioned many times in the book and described in detail. I'm sure they're very good drums, but the trees from which the hoops are made, and the animals whose hides form the drum-skins, lived in a land thousands of miles away, separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean. When there are many fine drum-makers here in Britain, why import drums from such a distant land? Apart from anything else, what about the carbon footprint from having them flown all that way? The same goes for Californian Sage, also referenced repeatedly in the book, which she also imports and sells. Again, why? Clearly because it's used by Native Americans. However, we have our own British tradition of cleansing and purifying with smoke, commonly known by the Scottish term, 'saining.' We have our own native herbs that can be used for this, including Mugwort (left), St. John's Wort, Yarrow, Meadowsweet and others. None are mentioned here. Instead, the section on herbs is basically one long advert for the imported Sage bundles that Barbara sells. This seems doubly strange since she claims to have been taught “the Old Ways” by a Scottish seer from the age of twelve. Perhaps saining was not one of the old ways he introduced her to.
In curious contrast, the authors refer to “dire consequences” resulting when hallucinogenic plants, or “plant medicines” as they call them, are used away from their native geographical and cultural context. Here I am in agreement with them, but this simply makes their failure to apply the same principle to other sacred herbs and tools all the more baffling.
The sheer quantity of product placement in the book means that at times it reads more like a sales catalogue than a guide to a spiritual tradition. While I am the first to acknowledge that spirit workers have a right to be paid for what we do just as much as any other profession, I am uncomfortable with the amount of overt advertising here, where we are continually told of products available at the back of the book. Ironically, on turning to the back, there is no information about the products.
This calls attention to other technical problems with the book, including many typographical errors, the seemingly random ordering of information, and the frequent repetition of the same information in slightly different forms. I'm not sure what went wrong here, as Moon Books are usually good on proof-reading.
The book is clearly pitched at people interested in the Michael Harner, Californian school of New Age global shamanism. Although there is no shortage of advice for them, and some of it is good, it is a shame that it is wrapped up in so much that is contentious, poorly explained or entirely unexplained.
My advice to those seeking spiritual sustenance is to first look to the traditions of your own land and ancestry. If you live elsewhere in the world but your ancestors are European, look to your ancestral traditions first. For other combinations, use your common sense. Begin with those traditions with which your ancestry gives you a natural affinity. Engage with them as fully and deeply as you can, immerse yourself if them, allow them to become your key to engaging with the spirits around you. Then, when you are fully and firmly grounded in your own native tradition, you can engage on an equal footing with practitioners of other traditions wherever you go, with mutual respect and without accusations of cultural theft. Books offering sound, practical introductions to native British traditions have been available since the early 1990s and there are many to choose from. For those seeking an overtly shamanistic approach to those traditions that is well-written, inspiring, practical, and culturally coherent, I recommend 'The Druid Shaman,' by Danu Forest (Moon Books, 2014). OK, it does have that problematic word, 'shaman,' right there in the title, but the author is aware of the problem and uses it in its broad anthropological sense as a shorthand to alert potential readers to the style of Druidry found within it. As a title, 'The Druid Shaman' is considerably less ungainly than 'a Druid way of engaging with spirits of plants and animals, land, sea, sky, gods and ancestors for the purposes of bringing about healing or divining hidden knowledge for the benefit of one's community.' I still look forward to the day when we no longer need to use 'shaman' as a shorthand because people understand Druidry as an indigenous tradition without the need to qualify it as 'shamanistic.' One day...
Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass)
October 9th, 2015
This little book is a joy to read, delving into the lives and works of some well-known, and many lesser-known, British and Irish literary figures in search of the origins of contemporary Paganisms. The writers, five men and five women, are selected because the philosophies that underpin their writings place them all in the category of Nature Mystics, defined by the author as “someone who has mystical experiences in nature, or connects to the divine through nature, and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration.” The familiar writers are John Keats, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit. The less familiar are Mary Webb, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth von Arnim and Mary Butts. Rebecca Beattie (left) writes with admirable clarity about her chosen authors, her format being first to give a brief overview of them, followed by an account of their lives, their spirituality, and then their writings, quoting passages to show how their spirituality is expressed in their work. Within this format she offers many, often surprising, insights into both the authors and their works.
The only writers about whose lives I knew much were Yeats and Tolkien, plus a little about D. H. Lawrence, so it was a pleasure to learn more about the others. About the life of Sylvia Townsend Warner (below), whose work I have admired for many years, I knew nothing. It turns out to have been every bit as unusual as her published work. In her youth, she was a member of the 'Bright Young Things,' the 1920s equivalent of the 'Swinging London' scene of the 1960s and just as interested in drugs, sex and parties. At 19, she began a lengthy affair with a much older, married man. At 34, she fell in love with another woman, a transvestite poet called Valentine Ackland, and they set up home in rural Dorset, living together as though married for nearly forty years. Her first novel was Lolly Willowes, published in 1926, in which the eponymous heroine moves to a country cottage and joins the village's coven of witches, going out with them once a month to dance with the devil. Lolly, however, finds that she fits in with this rustic coven just as poorly as she fitted in with the well-to-do county set of her youth. Telling the devil she finds the coven boring, our heroine walks off into the night. In Nature Mystics, we learn that Warner's account of the coven was inspired by Margaret Murray's book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, and that Warner sought Murray out, got to know her, and expressed a wish to “join her coven.” Numerous other biographical details prove equally illuminating. Who knew, for example, that Edith Nesbit(left), beloved author The Railway Children, Five Children and It, and other childhood classics, was also a member of Britain's most famous magical society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn? I certainly didn't. Nor did I realise that some of her lesser-known children's books contain plots and passages clearly influenced by her knowledge and practice of ceremonial magic with Golden Dawn colleagues that included W. B. Yeats, another of the featured writers.
It is a credit to Rebecca Beattie's own gifts as writer that, as I read her accounts of these literary figures, I often found myself thinking, “Hmm, I must look out for a copy of ...” whichever of their books she happened to be discussing at the time. Two examples are Mary Webb's Precious Bane (1924) and her husband, Henry's, The Silences of the Moon (1911). Beattie has also inspired me to go back and read Sylvia Townsend Warner again. I first discovered Warner's work through a collection of short stories entitled Kingdoms of Elfin, in which her funny, charming, magical, often anarchic tales rescue the Faery Folk from their twee, butterfly-winged Victorian portrayal and return them to their origins as shape-shifting illusionists, scary pranksters or courtly nobles.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the literary background to modern Paganisms, or simply interested in learning more about the lives, loves, longings and spiritual insights of a wide range of great English writers.
Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass)
August 31st, 2015
eds. Paul Davies & Caitlin Matthews
Foreword by Graham Harvey
Afterword by Ronald Hutton Moon Books, Winchester (UK) & Washington (US), 2015.
£8.99 UK, $14.95 US
This book explores how we humans in the 21st century relate to the spirits of the lands in which we live, their other-than-human inhabitants, and our collective and individual ancestors. By a series of turns of fate, I'm writing my review in the ideal setting of a quiet garden, overlooked by an ancient oak tree that occasionally drops acorns around me as a pair of hunting Buzzards circle overhead, their piercing cries borne on a soft summer breeze. Ideal because it chimes so well with the subject matter of this hugely enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking book. Each of the thirteen writers brings a unique perspective, making it an absolute pleasure to read. Remarkable for its breadth and depth, this is the best-written, most refreshingly original anthology I've come across in years, and I'm not just saying that because I wrote one of its chapters. The book opens with a foreword by Graham Harvey (right), a Pagan academic who has done much to popularise the philosophy, or life-way, of Animism amongst modern Pagans and to enhance our understanding of it. The introduction by Paul Davies, known to his friends as Oddie, follows, setting out the parameters of the book and briefly running through each of its chapters and the areas they cover. The first chapter is by my friend, colleague and long-time companion, Emma Restall Orr. It is written in her unique style, combining poetry with precision, asking searching questions about dying, death, afterlives and how we, the living, interact with the dead. As a true visionary who genuinely does see dead people pretty much all the time, she is ideally suited to her task. My own chapter follows, detailing my personal relationship with Wolf spirits and with animals as ancestors, a concept that occurs in many archaic cultures, including those that comprise the British Isles. Emma is far from the only friend and colleague in these pages. The next chapter, by Heathen academic, Jenny Blain (left), outlines a Heathen approach to ancestors, land wights and other spirit beings, particularly through the type of trance mediumship known as Seidr. Another Heathen academic, Robert Wallis, follows this with what is, for me, one of the stand-out chapters of the book and, indeed, one of the best pieces of Pagan writing I've ever read. He describes in clear, poetic prose how his practice as a Heathen intersects with every aspect of his life, weaving his spirit and spirituality into the landscape around his home in so many ways, from early morning hunting forays with his hawk companion to acknowledging the lives of the labourers who built and dwelt in the 18th century cottage he now inhabits. Honestly, this chapter is such a joy to read that I would recommend the book on the strength of it alone. It is, however, far from alone. The next chapter is by Caitlin Matthews (right) who, with her partner, John, has done so much to enhance Pagan awareness of the Celtic heritage of the British Isles. Her chapter is the first to offer specific meditation exercises aimed at enhancing our relationship with spirits of place and, through them, with the earth and the ancestral chains of being to which all living things belong. That's not to say that previous and subsequent chapters won't also encourage you to find, form and maintain new, different or enhanced relationships with the natural and spirit worlds. Each contribution is, in its own way, written with that aim in mind. Camelia Elias (right) found inspiration for her contribution in the work of Colin Murray, late chief of the Golden Section Order, who expressed his own quest for spiritual meaning in part through complex drawings interweaving symmetrical shapes with natural forms. Camelia explains this far better than I can, but I was touched to find a reference to Colin Murray here, having enjoyed meeting him briefly at a festival in Polgooth many years ago. Another outstanding contribution follows, this from Sarah Hollingham, who eloquently describes her experiences of tuning in to the spirits of the natural world as a Quaker. Her description of a Quaker group forming a circle in the open air in a field and attuning to nature through meditation reminded me so much of so many Druid camps. The more I learn about Quakers, the more I admire their approach to life. Yet another stand-out chapter follows, this by Luzie U. Wingen (left), a geneticist who offers fascinating insights into the role of genetics in carrying information across time, and how what is carried may be altered by factors that include not only the survival of the fittest, but human manipulation and also sheer dumb luck, or the lack of it. Her primary examples are wheat, from its Anatolian origins to modern mono-cultures and beyond; oak trees and the ways in which they re-colonised the British Isles after the last Ice Age, some species becoming localised while others did not; and humans, in all our diversity, sprung from a single African origin. The clarity with which she writes is an object lesson in how to make science not only approachable but compelling.
The next chapter, by David Loxley, head of The (Ancient) Druid Order, proved enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. He writes in a style that characterised New Age writing before the term New Age came into vogue, i.e. from about 1930 to around 1980. To take one example out of many, he relates the first three letters of the word 'ancestors' to the Egyptian symbol, the ankh, then goes on to claim that “The word 'ankh' is hidden in the English language in the word England, Angleland, or Ankhland.” Other equally bizarre assertions tell us that crowns worn by royalty were “originally a statement that they were representatives of the pole star on earth,” and that “shopping is a fertility rite, which we have inherited and interpreted into the past tense.” What does the latter sentence even mean? As said, I thought this school of spurious and illogical reasoning had died out decades ago. To find it here, amongst so many well-researched, well-argued pieces by other writers, merely adds to the impression of stumbling across a quaint relic of a bygone age. Then again, I suppose it has its place, if only on the grounds that The (Ancient) Druid Order were ancestral to the modern era's most successful Druid group, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. The latter are ably represented in the book's final chapter by Penny Billington (left), who has edited OBOD's Touchstone newsletter for the last fourteen years. Penny reflects on ways in which British legends are woven into our landscape and our national and personal identities, and how these affect our spiritual relationships with ourselves, our lands and our ancestors.
In this brief run-through it's impossible to give more than a fleeting glimpse of the riches this collection has to offer. It concludes with an afterword by another old friend, Professor Ronald Hutton, Britain's leading historian of Paganism. Ronald's approach to history is rigorous and demanding, so it should come as no surprise that he brings a critical eye to this book, asking probing questions of the contributors before ending with these words, “This collection of essays shows how well a language of communion with the natural world and ancient peoples can still be expressed in the current time. If we can go on to work through the issues I have raised here, then we stand a very good chance of using our beliefs to make a real impact on society at large.” To which I can only say, Awen to that, brother … and I feel a sequel coming on.
If you've ever wondered how modern Pagans and other spiritual folk are currently responding to issues to do with connecting with the spirits and the physical realities of nature and of our communal and individual ancestors, or if you are looking for ways to enhance your own relationships in these areas, then this richly rewarding, varied and profoundly inspiring book is the ideal place to look. Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass)
30th August, 2015.
'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. Track 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 a-wandering 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 instrumental 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. This is Telling the Bees' third album and the musicianship, already brilliant on the first, continues to mature, taking on extra layers of subtlety and assurance. Andy's song-writing 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. I was hooked on TTB from the first track on their début album, 'Untie the Wind.' The second, 'An English Arcanum,' 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!
I 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. Took 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. I 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. Joining 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. So, 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.
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.
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 and blessed be!
and a blessed and inspiring Lammas/Lughnasad/Gwyl Awst to one and all!
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,
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..."
I'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. My 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,