Celebrating Planet Earth: Part 3

Ammerdown Centre, Somerset

Day Two, February 1st 2014

Saturday Afternoon

Simon Howell

Simon Howell

Our afternoon session was on the theme of Celtic Connections and was opened by Simon Howell, interfaith officer for the diocese of Bath and Wells. Howell is, of course, an honest-to-goodness, proper Celtic name. On first seeing Simon at the conference, my assumption was that he was part of the Pagan group; shaven head, mainly black clothing, great line in cool t-shirts, etc. Indeed, looking at one of the group photos from the event, one Pagan friend commented that, twenty years ago, you could tell the Christians from the Pagans really easily. Simon’s look was explained by his revelation of having been a drummer in various bands. He spoke of holding a drum workshop at Ammerdown with a group consisting of Christians, Jews and Muslims. In a fine tribute to the bardic aspect of our traditions, he said that a transcendent moment of the workshop came at its end when all joined in singing the great pacifist anthem of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ most famously performed on record by the peerless Pete Seeger.

He said that interfaith dialogue often worked through telling each other stories of a Golden Age when the groups involved got on well together. In this context, Simon quoted John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis and many other works, referring to Druids as setting the scene for the coming of Christianity and as being a sort of spiritual fore-runner to it. He endeared himself to me further by then quoting my old friend, Ronald Hutton, on the same topic, saying that, far from being a time of harmony, the change of faith in Europe was fraught with difficulties, tensions and hostilities, with Roman Christians evincing an extreme dislike for pagans of all flavours. Simon quoted Ronald as describing John Michell as a visionary and romantic, both of which are admirable things to be.

Simon concluded his talk by expressing the widespread opinion, shared by both Pagans and Christians, that the modern age “lacks transcendence,” but that this may be reintroduced into our lives by stories, through which we may be “lifted through the veil and reach the peace of the Otherworld.”

Philip Carr-Gomm

Philip Carr-Gomm

Our second speaker in the afternoon session was another old friend, Philip Carr-Gomm, who began by explaining that interfaith dialogue between Druids and Christians is by no means new, going back at least three centuries. Indeed, many of the founding fathers (and yes, they were all men) of some branches of modern Druidry were Christian ministers. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Welsh Gorsedd, of which the Queen and former archbishop, Rowan Williams, are members, authored a number of popular Christian hymns. He explained that Iolo’s Druidry represented what might be called a cultural Druidry. He suggested that the Ancient Order of Druids, of which Winston Churchill was a member, represented a similarly cultural rather than spiritual take on Druidry, and one that is essentially Christian.

Ross Nichols, who founded OBOD in 1964, was what Philip called “a questioning Christian,” an ordained deacon of a group called the Ancient Celtic Church. It may surprise many to know that, as Philip went on to say, Nichols’ friend, Gerald Gardner, the father of modern Witchcraft, was also an ordained deacon of the related Ancient British Church.

Philip then asked “Is our conversation an appropriate one to be having?” He quoted the composer, John Taverner, as saying that “the mature religions are dying.” He also asked whether it was appropriate for Pagans to be looking back to the past for inspiration, suggesting that it might be moreso if we were doing it to slough off the accretions of the past and start afresh.

He spoke of aspects of contemporary Christianity that he saw as feeding back into Paganism as well as attempting to work alongside Pagans, suggesting that the two represent distinct and separate paths that can yet be combined. He said that he felt the overlap between Christianity and Druidry in particular was a potentially fertile one, and that the existing overlap could be strengthened through a shared concern for things like growing our own food, reverencing the Earth and celebrating the cycle of the seasons. He added that such collaborations already exist, citing as an example his own regular cooperation with a local vicar in staging celebrations of the eightfold festival cycle on Firle Beacon in Sussex, celebrations that attract both Pagans and Christians.

He then spoke of a group called the Celtic Orthodox Church which consists of Christian Druids who live completely “off the grid” in woodland in Brittany, growing their own food, generating their own power, etc. They are a proper community, ranging in age from infants to OAPs. They are inspired by the example of Saint Francis and “came out” publicly as Druids only last year (2013), following which Philip gave them a talk on the Wheel of the Year. Philip suggested that similar communities might be possible that put Druidry to the foreground but had Christianity in the background, ending his presentation by saying that he now felt we had reached a point at which combining various traditions is possible.

Saturday Evening

Greywolf the BardGreywolf the Bard

And so to dinner, followed by our evening music session, led by Forest Church alumni, Alison Eve and Paul Cudby, whose band is called Eve in the Garden. Ali plays harp, Paul percussion, and they’re augmented by guitar and bass. Their music is a lively blend of traditional folk style with Christian lyrics, though thankfully not of the typical happy-clappy variety. In breaks in their set were the guest slots, one of which I blagged to perform a few of my songs, ‘Song at Wodnesbeorg,’ ‘My Lady of the Greenwood,’ and ‘Lord of the Wildwood.’ The latter includes a wolf chant that came to me about twenty years ago that ends in wild howling. I was pleased to note that both Christians and Pagans were joining in with this enthusiastically.

And so, having been gently, kindly and very charmingly evicted from the bar for being just a wee bit too noisy a wee bit too late, to bed, just in time for …

Day Three: Sunday, February 2nd

On Sunday morning most of us trooped off into the soggy, cold parkland surrounding the Centre for a ritual, again led by Alison and Paul. This reminded me of many Druid ceremonies in that we all had printed service sheets, laminated due to the weather, clutching which we all stood in a cold circle not moving much. I was distracted by the sight of a huge, phallus-like concrete monument rising from a hillside a little way off. I have to admit that every time the word ‘god’ was used in the ceremony I found myself quietly adding an ‘s’. This reminded me again of the fact that I’d have liked to have seen the weekend’s ceremonies jointly composed and conducted by Christians, Druids and Pagans. Something to bear in mind for next time…

Following on from this, our final session was appropriately entitled “Better Together.”

Tess Ward

Tess Ward

Opening this session was Tess Ward, who said that in prayer, “all is one and only love remains,” a statement that immediately endeared her to me. She said that we face a spiritual and environmental crisis, the latter having been responsible for bringing spirituality and environmental concerns back together. Tess was ordained as a Christian minister in 2000 while she was, as she said, “in a literal and metaphorical dark wood.” She spoke of mystical Christianity as representing a way out of the dark wood, adding the telling phrase that “through religion and out the other side is the divine.”

She spoke of female spirituality not being obvious in the established church. She now runs a Pagan women’s circle in Oxford in which she is the only Christian. They meet in the open air with fires, “poetry, silence and Nature.”

She expressed a feeling that “the church needs to die before it can be reborn,” and that one aspect of this had to be facing “the dark shadow” that Christianity has cast over history. She then led the Christians present in speaking a lament regretting the divisions and brokenness of the past, asking forgiveness and help to make good. While this was obviously heartfelt, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a Native American woman who once launched into a tirade of complaints directed at myself and Emma Restall Orr in which she blamed us for every evil Europeans had ever foisted upon her people. While we both share her anger at Europeans’ historical treatment of Native Americans, neither of us felt that we were personally to blame for it.

Tess then spoke of Christ as a source of union. Again, while I can see where this might be true if you look at the recorded actions and sayings of Jesus himself, many of those who have historically presented themselves as his followers have been responsible for fuelling all manner of hatreds, divisions and even genocides.

She spoke of not pushing our own traditions onto others, but working with others towards “a healing and love beyond ourselves,” adding that “the miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment.”

Liz Williams

Liz Williams

Our last speaker was Liz Williams, a Glastonbury-based Druid who runs the town’s Witchcraft Shop, who began by saying that we had to lay aside the myth of ‘The Burning Times’ with its erroneous claim that nine million witches were burnt.

She then made what was, to me at least, the contentious claim that we have no structure for analysing the validity of spiritually-inspired claims. In Druidry, at least as we teach it in the British Druid Order, we make such judgements based on the creative output of our students. Central to our path is the creative spirit we call awen. Students on our bardic course create art based on their connection with awen and the art thus produced gives us a basis on which to judge the strength and quality of their link with awen. OK, art itself is prone to subjective judgements, and yet it is still a basis on which judgement can be made.

Liz went on to say that she feels the idea of humans as “guardians of the Earth” is anthropocentric, egotistical and wrong. She then spoke of our perceptions of various faith groups as being monolithic structures all members of which are in agreement, pointing out that Glastonbury Witches are constantly at odds with each other. She said that “cult behaviour” was rare amongst Pagans due to our largely responsible leaders who we don’t put on pedestals.

On the downside, she spoke of links between some threads of Paganism and far right and nationalist groups, of Pagans damaging and littering sacred sites, of many Pagans having no conception of the Country Code, and of the natural tendency of internet groups to generate rows, a tendency as prevalent amongst Pagans as anyone else.

On the plus side, Liz spoke of an increase in the debate of ethical issues amongst Pagans, particularly those connected with the ways in which we relate to our environment. She spoke of Pagan involvement with actions against badger culls and fracking. She cited the writer, Richard Mabey, as influential in promoting the idea of re-connecting with Nature as a cure for depression.

In the closing round-table session, many points from the various talks were picked up. Simon Howell, for example, shared my problem with the list of past faults Tess Ward had encouraged the Christians in the room to voice, stating simply that “We are not responsible for some of the things on that list.” He also expressed concerns about the speakers who had been critical of the role of scientists in disenchanting Nature, saying that science was fuelled by a sense of wonder and enchantment. Liz Williams said that Pagans find enchantment in Paganism, but also in science fiction and fantasy.

Philip Carr-Gomm asked what people thought of what has been described as the “pick and mix” attitude towards religion. Graham Harvey said that, as a religious scholar, he felt that religion had always been “pick and mix.” Marcus Small differentiated belonging to a particular group from having a sense of kinship with other groups.

Graham Harvey pointed out that not all gods are nice.

We all, I think, felt the need to end on a positive note. When we hear of renewed tensions between opposing Christian factions in Northern Ireland or continuing murder between Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, it is all too easy to despair of the power of spirituality to better anything, and yet these same things encourage me to thank the gods – all of them – for those who are willing to engage in interfaith dialogues, to look beyond outward appearances that potentially divide us to the fundamental human qualities that can unite us, one of which is an appreciation of the sheer magic of being alive, a magic that, as many of our weekend’s speakers confirmed, is most commonly felt by Christian and Pagan alike in the presence of natural beauty.

In this weekend there were things I would have done differently. Minor matters aside though, it was an enjoyable and interesting few days. It seems likely that more will flow from it. Plans for a book have already been announced. Working groups to address specific joint ventures have been proposed. I would love to see joint ceremonies, perhaps joint pilgrimages, as well as combined approaches to ecological concerns and pacifism flow from these.

No doubt there will be problems and stumbling blocks as we make our way forward. There are people in both Christian and Pagan communities who will despise us for the very act of engaging in dialogue with each other. Personally, I agree with the Druid, Winston Churchill, who maintained that “to jaw jaw is always better than to war war.”

With thanks to all who took part for sharing so much with such intelligence, warmth and good humour, and looking forward to the next time,

Many blessings,

Greywolf /|\

Incidentally, when I first began publishing my thoughts on interfaith dialogue in the mid-90s in Pagan Dawn and elsewhere, a Liverpool-based Pagan group published a leaflet calling me “Archbishop Shallcrass” and accusing me of trying to convert all Pagans to Christianity. While I appreciated the promotion (and would certainly appreciate the regular income and the place in the House of Lords), if I wielded such powers of persuasion, rather than use them to convert everyone to a faith that is not my own, I would use it to encourge all Pagans to sign up for the amazingly wonderful BDO courses. Is that just a shameless excuse to plug our courses again? Of course it is!

Celebrating Planet Earth: A Conversation Between Christians, Druids and Others – 2

Ammerdown Centre, Somerset – February 1st 2014 – Morning, Day Two

Woke up at around 5.15am after little more than two hours sleep. Ah well, fresh filter coffee would be available from about 8am and I could fill in the interim listening to music on headphones and pootling on my little netbook.

The morning’s first session began with our moderator, Denise Cush, introducing its subject, ‘Addressing Our Respective Fears and Prejudices.’

Steve Hollinghurst

Steve Hollinghurst

Steve Hollinghurst of the Church Army’s Research Centre in Sheffield spoke first. As mentioned at the end of my previous post, he admitted to being embarrassed by the ‘Army’ bit as an unfortunate hangover from the days of Empire. He got the day off to a fine start by showing us the Monty Python sketch in which Cardinal Biggles and Cardinal Fang endeavour to ‘torture’ a confession of heresy out of an old lady by prodding her with soft cushions and making her sit in “the comfy chair.” Because, of course, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

 He then spoke of an accusation first levelled against Christians, and then by them against others, that they sacrificed babies born as a result of wild sex orgies known as Lucerna Extincta (‘Lights Out’). This led on to a consideration of the ‘mythic history’ that often divides Pagans and Christians, the latter accusing Pagans of human sacrifice and portraying themselves as a religion of love, light and freedom whilst advising each other to have nothing to do with Pagans because they’re all Satanists.

Meanwhile, modern Pagans have developed their own myths of ancient pagans all being lovely, peaceful, matriarchal ecologists whose idyllic existence was only ruined by those nasty Christians, only it wasn’t because paganism just went underground, only to re-emerge fully formed in the 20th century to bring everyone back to the peaceful era of the Great Mother.

Zeus

Zeus

Exploring the relationships between modern Pagans and Christians, Steve put up a screen image of a modern ceremony that took place in Greece, devoted to the ancient Greek father of the gods, Zeus. Steve then admitted to a personal belief that Christianity went wrong when it hooked up with the Roman state and its military machine. He went on to cite one of the most recent examples of the imposition of Christianity on a Pagan state in Europe, this occurring in Estonia in the 13th century. Here, a state church run entirely by non-Estonians was imposed on the nation from outside, a situation that continued until the mid-1980s and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Following this, there has been a big revival of paganism in Estonia.

Steve then addressed the Biblical creation myth that has given us the notion of mankind being somehow separate from and better than the rest of creation, leading to a skewed relationship with the natural world.

Steve then said, quite rightly, that both Christianity and Paganism are very diverse, homes to a huge variety of both beliefs and practices. Nevertheless, there is a persistent sense of Christianity as exclusivist, maintaining that everyone else is wrong and that only Jesus can save them from their erroneous ways. He added that some more extreme Christians promote the idea that since God is going to destroy the world anyway as part of His Almighty Plan, therefore environmentalism is obviously a Satanic plot! Good grief…

Black Jesus, Rome, 530 CE

Black Jesus, Rome, 530 CE

Another angle taken by some Christians is that the church is all-embracing because everyoneis a Christian really, it’s just that some of us haven’t realised it yet. This is the inclusivist argument, one that Steve admitted is deeply patronising. Then there’s the more agreeable pluralist argument, which maintains that Christianity is just one of many paths, all of which are valid. Then there’s what he characterised as ‘transformist’ Christianity, maintaining that Christianity acts as “good yeast in each culture” where it exists, whilst creating colourful cross-overs with native religions, producing, for example, images of Christ as black, female or Pagan. Then there are what he called Christo-Pagans who, he said, had been accused of ‘dumbing down’ the differences between the two.

 Steve maintained that, despite impressions held to the contrary, Christianity does change with the times, albeit often slowly and against internal opposition.

He then addressed the topic of Evangelism, deriving from words meaning ‘good news,’ which he characterised as an attempt to create the kind of world Evangelists would like to see by a process of divine intervention. He said there is no Pagan theology of salvation driving them out after converts, but that Pagans are very good evangelists precisely, in his opinion, because we are not out on a recruiting drive but are simply and clearly putting forward a vision of a way of being in the world.

 In keeping with the season, he ended by referring to Brighid as a fine example of Interfaith interaction that could be taken either as cultural theft by Christians of Pagan culture, or as a successful blending of the two.

Graham Harvey

Graham Harvey

 Our second speaker was another old friend, Graham Harvey, Reader in Religious Studies at the Open University and author of a number of books on Paganism and Animism. Graham introduced himself by saying that his favourite amongst the various titles he’s obtained over the years is that bestowed on him by the late Archdruid, Tim Sebastion, of “Conscience of the Secular Order of Druids.” This meant that Graham was often the one trying to get the Archdruid out of the pub so as not to be too embarrassingly late for the start of the ceremony he was about to conduct.

 Graham voiced his concern that interfaith dialogues often seemed to him to end up consisting of “people talking past each other.” He took as his primary text a line from William Blake which says that “opposition is true friendship.” He spoke of the prevalence of annoying clichés, admitting that there are both Christians who are more like ancient pagans than many modern Pagans are, as well as modern Pagans who are essentially Protestants.

 Graham suggested that Jesus throwing the money-lenders out of the temple in Jerusalem represented an attack on Judaism and was one of the foundation myths of anti-Semitism, evidence perhaps that Jesus was not quite a paragon misrepresented by later Christians.

 He queried the widespread notion that Paganism is not a religion of revelation, suggesting that many Pagans experience revelations of many kinds and from many sources, whilst Christianity is by no means solely a religion of revelation, but also of family, community, etc. He also questioned the widely-held assumption that all Christians are monotheists while all Pagans are polytheists, pointing out that there are monotheistic Pagans and that Christianity can easily be seen as polytheistic through its reverence of a multitude of saints in much the same way that pagans revere a similar multitude of gods. He said that many Pagans were happy to accept Jesus as one god among many because that’s how polytheism is.94926690-monsanto-pharmers

 He characterised Paganism as “an experiment to rediscover Nature,” adding the observation that “there is more diversity of life in this carpet than there is in a Monsanto-sprayed field.” This he set against the impression of Christianity as a religion primarily focused on the idea of salvation. However, he added that not all Pagans were ‘about’ Nature, but that many held Paganism to be a process of enchantment or re-enchantment, or “a different way from modernity (rather than Christianity) of defining our position in the world of human and non-human beings.” The notion of relating to non-human beings on an equal, or at least more equal, footing is one of increasing interest and concern in modern Paganism and one in which Graham himself is deeply involved. He went on to refer to a tension that exists within Paganism between what he characterised as an internal spiritual quest and the desire to relate animistically with the world.

Bear Tribe Logo

Bear Tribe Logo

 Finally, Graham suggested that both paths might come together in agreeing that our traditions will benefit from greater engagement with the world, an engagement that could also be of great benefit to the planet. He shared with us a beautiful photograph and his personal experience of attending the annual Midwinter gathering of the Bear Tribe at the Ancient Technology Centre in Dorset. The aim of the event is to celebrate and honour all the plants and animals that attendees have eaten during the year. At last year’s event, the clouds parted at the end of the ceremony, revealing an incredible view of the Milky Way arching over the lodge in which the ceremony was held, as captured in Graham’s photograph. Incidentally, this link to the Bear Tribe’s website includes Graham’s ‘Animist Manifesto,’ which is well worth checking out.

 Graham ended with a quote from Ronald Grimes, “Performance is currency in the deep world’s gift economy.” Make of that what you will!

 After coffee, there was a continuation of the debate round table style, only without the table. Much of this focused on evangelism, which many admitted to finding condescending, patronising, or simply annoying, and not just among the Pagans! As always in these events, there is never enough time to fully, or even partly, explore more than a fraction of the potential topics raised by the speakers, and this was a case in point. Graham did make the very telling observation that when we talk about building bridges, those bridges can often have to stretch across yawning gulfs or chasms and that perhaps it would be wise not to forget that simply because we were currently standing on a bridge.

 Many of the discussions that took place over dinner and in the bar picked up various themes and dug further into them. I only wish I had thought to pack a recorder or taken notes during at least some of these informal exchanges. I got the impression that they did at least as much to lessen misunderstandings as the official sessions, and probably more to forge or re-forge friendships.

 And so to lunch, with, of course, a choice of vegetarian or carnivore.

 After lunch, I was surprised to find that we had nearly three hours until the afternoon session with Philip Carr-Gomm (Druid) and Simon Howell (Christian). In the spare hours I ran through the songs I intended to play in the evening concert to see how well I could remember the words, but more of that and of Philip and Simon’s talks on the next blog.

The Three Philips

The Three Philips: Messrs. Carr-Gomm, Shallcrass & Ryder

 Incidentally, much humour stemmed from the fact that there were three heads of Druid groups present, all called Philip, the third being Phil Ryder of the Druid Network, attending with his partner, Lynda, who expressed her delight at being “in the presence of so much Pagan royalty.” This confused some of the Christian delegates who had, of course, never heard of us!

 OK, thank you for bearing with me, and see you next time…

 

Celebrating Planet Earth: A Conversation Between Christians, Druids and Others – 1

AmmerdownConferencePhotoThe gang’s all here in this great group photo. Well, almost, actually a couple of people are missing. One is Bruce Stanley, because he was taking the picture, the other is Phil Ryder of the Druid Network, who mysteriously vanished. Phil’s partner, Lynda, commented about being in the presence of so much Pagan royalty. This confused nearby Christian delegates who had, of course, never heard of any of us! This gathering, which took place at the Ammerdown Centre in Somerset, was so densely packed that I’m going to have to spread it over three or four blogs. Here’s the first…

Day One, January 31st 2014

This gathering was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends in the Druid, Pagan and Christian communities and, hopefully, make some new ones. What remains to be seen is whether it will prove to be more than that. From the discussions that took place, both formally and informally, the possibilities are certainly there. What was it all about? Well, the letter of invitation from Ammerdown’s director, Benedicte Scholefield, explains it as follows:

Our ambition is to bring together a select group of Pagans and Christians who share a concern for the future of the planet and an interest in dialogue. Our feeling is that there are many misunderstandings and fears on both sides that divide us and prevent us from working together on common environmental concerns. Our planned conversation aims to encourage a fresh dialogue that would tackle these misunderstandings and fears, and hopefully open up avenues for continuing dialogue and for joint actions.”

As one of the aforementioned friends, Philip Carr-Gomm, Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), pointed out during his presentation, dialogue between Christians and Druids is by no means new, having been going on for at least 300 years. The ‘Celebrating Planet Earth’ event is, then, an extension of a long-standing tradition within Druidry. It certainly proved a rewarding way to spend a Gwyl Forwyn weekend. Gwyl Forwyn, ‘The Feast of the Maiden,’ is the Welsh name for the festival known in Ireland as Imbolc and in England as Candlemas, but more of that later.

Denise CushOur moderator for the talks and the discussions that followed them was Denise Cush (left), Professor of Religion and Education at Bath Spa University. She was also our first speaker, her topic being, ‘Setting the Scene: What are the Issues and Challenges that We Face?

Denise began by saying that she has engaged both practically and academically with Christianity, Paganism and a range of other spiritual paths. As a member of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, she has advocated the inclusion of Paganism in Religious Studies Curricula in schools. She spoke of the use of unhelpful terminology and stereotyping that has often created barriers between Pagans and Christians. The very use of the term, Witch, being an obvious example since its traditional connotations are those of people who use magic to harm others. She then spoke of the often unfortunate history of engagements between the two paths, with Pagan Roman emperors instituting measures to reduce the spread of Christianity, up to and including killing Christians in a variety of unpleasant ways, while, when Christianity became the dominant Roman religion, it then acted in much the same way against Pagans.

She then addressed the issue of mythical histories, such as the widely-held but entirely false burningtimesbelief that 9 million mainly female adherents of a genuinely ancient Witch cult were put to death in Europe during what has become known among modern Pagans as ‘The Burning Times,’ largely due to an oft-repeated pagan song of that name, which has led to images like the one here being downloadable from Pagan websites. In fact, the numbers put to death during Witch trials across the whole of Europe was somewhere between 13 and 40 thousand, and they were not descendants of an ancient religion with origins in the Neolithic era but mainly people whose neighbours condemned them as Witches in order to get back at or dispose of people they didn’t like. We were, incidentally, offered a rendition of ‘The Burning Times,’ and Christians and Pagans united in declining the offer. Meanwhile, from the Christian side comes the equally prevalent misunderstanding that Paganism is equal to Satanism, missing the point that Satan is an aspect of Christian myth that doesn’t really exist in the Bible but is largely a creation of medieval Christianity.

Sally Griffyn, Wiccan WisdomkeepersDenise raised the common habit amongst Pagans of defining themselves in relation to the prevailing Christian culture, often doing so from an understanding of Christianity that is unaware of changes that have happened within it over recent decades. A specific result of this is the oft-repeated Pagan statement that “Western, patriarchal religions do not consider Nature or the environment” (Sally Griffyn, Wiccan Wisdomkeepers: Modern-Day Witches Speak on Environmentalism, Feminism, Motherhood, Wiccan Lore and More, 2002). While Paganism has been referred to as “the Green Party at prayer,” Christianity remains identified by Pagans with the scriptural notion of man being given dominion over the Earth and all its (her) creatures. The Pagan Federation website describes Paganism as “polytheistic or pantheistic, Nature-worshipping religion.” Against which is the archaeological evidence that ancient pagans were just as capable of damaging the Earth as we are, albeit on a more localised scale, being fewer in number and lacking technology. Meanwhile, many modern Christians have embraced the concept of ‘Creation spirituality‘ as a foundation for their own engagement in environmental activism. Her conclusion here was that both Christians and Pagans engage with the environment both theologically and practically, or, of course, don’t.

She then raised the contentious question of whether perhaps there are elements in both Paganism and Christianity that actually quite like the idea of being persecuted. Equally controversially, she raised the question of whether the Earth might be better served by humanists.

celtic-knot-heartOn the subject of selective or elective identities, Denise pointed to the adoption of the romantic myth of the spiritual, ecological Celt by both Pagans, especially Druids, and Christians, leading both groups to identify themselves as, in some sense, ‘Celtic,’ even when they have no obvious, direct blood-lines amongst existing Celtic nations and when the concept of the Celt employed by both groups is often based more on imagination that actuality. This reminded me of another old friend, Marion Bowman, senior lecturer at the Open University, who came up with the tag, ‘Cardiac Celt,’ to characterise such folk, I myself arguably falling into this category. Similarly romantic notions of other indigenous peoples are also prevalent amongst both Pagans and Christians.

Denise then turned to the commonalities between us, which she characterised as the shared values of love and compassion, a dislike for rules, the immanence of the sacred, the value of ritual or ceremony, the celebration of festival times (often the same festival times), and activism on a range of social and environmental issues inspired by our spiritualities.

She also addressed borrowings between our paths, suggesting that the kind of ‘deep Green’ ecology that emerged as a part of Paganism during the second half of the 20th century was a source of inspiration behind the Greening of Christianity that led to ‘Creation spirituality.’ In the other direction, she suggested that there are aspects of Pagan practice and theology that draw on Christian ideas and practices, acknowledging that some of those may have been ‘borrowed’ from earlier pagans.

Denise concluded by offering as shared values that could inform our discussions those of generosity, humility and wisdom and by asking, when this weekend together reached its end, where do we go next and how do we build on what’s been shared?

The Evening Ceremony:

At 9.30pm, our colourful group of Christians, Druids and Pagans trooped out of the main building to celebrate Gwyl Forwyn, Imbolc, Candlemas, or whatever your preferred name is. In Ireland and Scotland, and amongst many Pagans throughout Britain, this seasonal festival is associated with the Gaelic Brighid, widely accepted as a Pagan goddess whose veneration was partially or wholly Ammerdown Chapeldisplaced by reverence for an Irish saint of the same name. In Gaelic regions, she is known as the foster-mother of Christ, traditionally treated with a reverence reserved in other areas for the Virgin Mary, Jesus’s mother. As a bridge between Pagan and Christian traditions, and as it was her festival time, Brighid was to be a focus of our ceremony, music and meditation over the weekend, including this one in the chapel at Ammerdown (left), its high, pyramid-shaped timber roof offering excellent acoustics. Druids, Pagans and Christians all tend to celebrate this festival in similar ways, lighting candles, bringing in snowdrops if they’re out in time, invoking the spirit of Brighid, all as a way of welcoming the first stirrings of new life emerging from the earth as light begins to return to the land and the days lengthen following Midwinter’s long night.

The ceremony was compiled and led by Alison Eve (right) and Paul Cudby, co-founders of the SONY DSCrecently-established Forest Church, a concept derived from Bruce Stanley‘s observation that almost every fellow Christian he asked said that their first connections with spirit had occurred in response to some aspect of the natural world, most often woodland. Bruce was also present for the weekend. The ceremony included the lighting of a central candle on a low, circular altar decorated with sparkling white, silica-rich stones of a type often found incorporated into megalithic structures, and with emblems of the four elemental quarters; feathers in the East, red wood and stone in the South, a goblet of water at the West and, of course, stones in the North. We were encouraged to join in with Gaelic chants invoking Brighid and aspects of the natural world, led by Alison. A chalice was passed around containing a mix of herbs, grain, milk and whisky, along with baked bannocks. It was well-planned to give those Pagans among us a sense of familiarity. It was also reasonably short and to the point, something Pagan rites sometimes fail to achieve. At the end of the rite, Ali took the remaining food and drink outside to offer it to the Earth.

I was sufficiently impressed with the chapel’s acoustics to want to try them out myself later, so I headed across with a yew-wood flute and my drum. I arrived just as one of the Centre’s staff was emerging, having turned out the lights and extinguished the candle on the altar, which I had thought was supposed to be left burning throughout the weekend. She put the lights back on for me, relit the candle, and asked me to extinguish it again before I left.

Sure enough, the acoustics were extremely good. The flute sounded wonderful, its sound filling the building. I unpacked my drum bag and, starting in the East, invoked the four quarters using my rawhide rattle, itself having feathers of eagle and buzzard attached to it as well as, inevitably, a piece of wolf fur. South, West, North and back to the East to complete the circle. Then the drum. Having begun with my accustomed heartbeat, I slid into the wolf-chant that had come to me twenty years ago. It was good.Animation_candle_flame2

Afterwards, I put out the candle as instructed. Of course, I later discovered that, as I’d thought, the intention had been to leave it burning, it was just that this message had not got to the Centre’s staff. It was relit subsequently, and left burning.

Thence to the bar, where stimulating conversation, much of it related to our purpose in being there, continued until 1.30am. Then to my room, finally calming my racing mind enough to sleep at about 3am. It was a promising first evening, and the next day there were scheduled talks from Graham Harvey (Pagan animist), Steve Hollinghurst (Church Army – a name he finds embarrassing), Philip Carr-Gomm (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) and Simon Howell (Interfaith Advisor for the Bath and Wells Diocese). It seemed were in for a good day. I’ll see you there…

Review: Pagan Britain, by Ronald Hutton

hutton-pagan-britain-yalePublished by Yale University Press, November 2013, xvi + 480 pages, 103 illustrations.

In 1991, a few months before I first met him, my friend Ronald Hutton published Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, at the time a unique, one-volume survey of its subject that quickly, and rightly, attained classic status, being quoted in almost every subsequent work on British prehistory. This new book is designed to supersede it, reassessing its contents and conclusions, expanding on it and adding a huge amount of new information that has come to light over the last two decades. Here’s my review:

First impressions are of an attractive, well-produced book, containing many more illustrations than its predecessor, though still in monochrome. The illustrations are well-chosen, including many of the usual suspects – the ‘Sorcerer of Trois Frères,’ the ‘Venus of Willendorf,’ and so on – but going well beyond them. For example, a group headed ‘Less familiar Palaeolithic images’ includes human figurines that were found alongside the much better known ‘Venuses’ on which whole theories of prehistoric belief have been built. These images and their accompanying text provide one example of a process Ronald follows throughout the book, returning to original excavation reports and re-examining, often at first-hand, the objects described so as to place them in their proper context. He has visited or re-visited many sites where objects were found, often in company with archaeological specialists. This meticulous research is filtered through the Ronald’s broad areas of personal interest, including ancient and modern paganisms and shamanism. These interests, however, are never allowed to overwhelm the evidence.

As well as exploring prehistoric sites and the artefacts found at them, the book examines Ronald-Huttonways in which attitudes to the past alter in tandem with more recent changes, so the Victorian era of conquest, colonisation and conversion by the British produced the idea that Britain itself was repeatedly conquered, colonised and converted throughout prehistory. The 20th century dismantling of the British Empire and our joining of the European Economic Union then produced a new vision of prehistory that replaced conquest with trade as the primary means by which the British Isles interacted with the rest of Europe. Pagan Britain offers many such insights into both our remote and more immediate ancestors.

One of my own areas of interest is in what archaeologists call burnt mounds, piles of stones that have been subjected to very high temperatures before being either doused with water or immersed in it. Many theories have been put forward to explain them, including Native American style sweat lodges, Swedish style saunas, cooking sites for joints of meat or breweries for prehistoric beer. Thanks to this book, I now know that a major survey of such sites in Ireland, published in 2011, has shown all four explanations are sustainable for some of the sites. For a modern Druid such as myself who has experienced the power of ritualised sweat lodges and is also partial to the occasional pint of ale, this is welcome news indeed!

One section of the book looks at interactions between professional archaeologists and interested non-professionals, including what might loosely be called the ‘Earth Mysteries’ community. These are often hostile and have been for a very long time. The story of how archaeology stopped being a hobby and became a profession, and how those who adopted it as such subsequently came to exercise such unquestioned access to, and control over, our shared heritage would make a fascinating sociological study in the development of elite dominance. Another admirable feature of Pagan Britain is the extent to which it continually reveals topics such as this and shows them to be worthy of extended treatment. Hopefully a generation of researchers will be inspired to follow up on them. If so, they, like the rest of us, will owe a debt of gratitude to Ronald for the diligence of his research, the breadth of his vision and his ability to bring so much information and so many ideas together.

william-bucklandRonald writes both for academic colleagues and general readers, achieving this rare double by the simple means of using clear, precise, jargon-free English. If more of his colleagues adopted this habit, they would render their work accessible to a much broader readership. Another aspect of his writing that appeals greatly is his inclusion of illuminating, entertaining, often bizarre incidental details such as the fact that the early 19th century scholar, William Buckland, was often accompanied at academic functions by his pet bear, which he dressed in a student’s cap and gown. Such quirky and engaging human touches certainly help bring history to life. The picture here captures Buckland at dinner with friends, human and other.

As with Ronald’s previous works on Paganisms, this book will no doubt divide the modern Pagan community, perhaps most strongly in its final chapter, ‘The Legacy of British Paganism.’ It is here, looking at changing academic and public attitudes towards possible survivals of paganism from ancient times, through the Middle Ages and up to the present day, that the author most maintains his reputation as an iconoclast. Those who dismiss this section as simple iconoclasm, however, can only do so by ignoring qualifying statements as in the following passage: “The former tendency to assume that virtually all traditional British seasonal rites were survivors of paganism was clearly misplaced, but blanket dismissal of pagan ingredients in them would be even more erroneous. Broad themes of seasonal festivity often have more staying power than individual customs, though even some of those can be proved to have survived for millennia.” [My italics].

A word of warning: if you are looking for the sort of certainty found in other books, such as the many claiming to have ‘solved the mystery of Stonehenge’ once and for all, you should definitely look elsewhere. Ronald is careful not to argue beyond what demonstrable facts allow. Where, as is often the case, the evidence is open to a variety of interpretations, he is equally careful to present a range of alternatives, where possible evaluating which are the most likely, but willing to admit when none are proven or where such proof may not even be possible. Some may find the frequency with which a ‘not proven’ verdict is returned frustrating, but, as the author makes clear, there are times when our current state of knowledge simply leaves no definitive conclusion possible.

Is Pagan Britain, then, a worthy successor to Pagan Religions…? My answer is a resounding yes. Pagan_Religions_of_the_Ancient_British_IslesLike its illustrious predecessor, it offers a one-stop shop for all who, like me, have an abiding interest in prehistoric British religion, a desire to keep up with the latest information on the subject, but little access to academic journals, field reports or specialist publications. Ronald draws together the whole gamut of recent research along with the speculations and conclusions stemming from it, bringing it all together for us. And for those who want to look further into areas of particular interest, there are extensive endnotes.

As mentioned earlier, what makes Pagan Britain so compelling is Ronald’s unusual breadth of personal interests and depth of knowledge in them, spanning paganisms old and new, shamanism, anthropology and archaeology, as well as British, European and world history. This is enhanced by his almost unrivalled list of contacts with colleagues across this wide range of disciplines, his enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy for detailed and thorough research, and his remarkable ability to marshal and make sense of a huge quantity and range of information and present it clearly. In short, the book is a tour de force and, like Pagan Religions…, is essential reading for anyone with an interest in its subject.

Born in India Blood&Mistletoein 1953, Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, where he also heads the School of Humanities. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Society of Antiquaries, a Commissioner for English Heritage and a member of, among others, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Ancient Druid Order and, of course, the British Druid Order. His other publications include The Druids (Hambledon Continuum, 2007) and Blood & Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (Yale University Press, 2009), both of which are also highly recommended.

 If you’re encouraged to buy the book, you can find it here on amazon.co.uk, or here on amazon.com

If you’re not yet convinced, you could check out this review from the Economist by Erica Wagner, who describes Ronald as “a lovely writer with a keen sense of the spiritual potency of Britain’s ancient landscapes.”

Or, for a less sympathetic review, try this one from the Guardian by Graham Robb, who takes Ronald to task for only devoting six pages to the Druids, despite Ronald making it clear in the book that the reason he is not giving more space to them is that he’s recently written the two full books on them referred to above. He also complains about Ronald not including evidence for paganism in France, despite the book being called Pagan Britain and Ronald’s stated intention in it to maintain a focus within the confines of the British Isles. Robb may have a vested interest, however, in that his most recent publication is a book claiming to have rediscovered a lost ‘map’ of Pagan Celtic Europe.

Selling the Soul? Spirituality in a Capitalist Culture

CapitalismIsASpiritualDiseaseIn our increasingly materialistic world, an ethical question that plagues many of us who try to live as persons of spirit is that of whether, and how much, to charge for our services. A vocal section of the Druid and Pagan communities in Britain maintains that it is always wrong, verging on evil, to charge a fee for anything connected with spirituality. A cynic might argue that some who express this opinion do so because they expect to be given everything in life and to offer nothing in return. However, the same argument rages amongst Druids themselves, as it does amongst other indigenous healers, medicine people and shamans around the world.

The problem is that we live in a capitalist, consumerist culture, where, like everyone else, we have to pay rent or a mortgage, electricity, gas, water and telephone bills, feed ourselves and our families, buy fuel for our stoves, clothes to wear and so on and on and endlessly on. To do so, even the most spiritual of us need money, because, for better or worse, money has come to be the accepted means of exchange for virtually every material thing we need to keep us fed, housed and clothed. Therefore we need a way to make money in order to live.

Many spirit workers subsidise their spirituality by having other jobs that they do to earn their keep. I’ve CatatGMritedone this myself, subsidising the growth of the BDO throughout the 1990s out of my earnings from painting pottery and then from writing, giving talks and workshops and appearing on TV, often with Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr). Bobcat and I debated the financial question and reached various conclusions, one of which was not to charge a fee for ‘priestly’ services such as conducting handfastings (Druid weddings) or other rites of passage, but to ask for a donation of whatever the folk we were working with thought appropriate. This led to us preparing and conducting rites in various parts of the country for anything from a bag of apples to a cheque for £600. It balanced out. This is a technique used by spirit workers in many cultures.

Many of my ‘shamanic’ friends say that, if you have faith, spirit will provide. Again, this is a widespread belief amongst spirit workers worldwide. At the same time, we’re all canny enough to recognise that just sitting around waiting for riches to pour out of the sky isn’t going to work. We need to be active participants in the process, from deciding on the forms ceremonies are to take to making travel arrangements and booking venues.

In the British Druid Order, we charge for the distance learning courses we offer. We could give them away, but we don’t. Why? Well, I’ve spent an average of about 40 hours a week working on them over the last seven years and still have at least another eighteen months to go. For six of those years I received nothing at all for this work. Even at the national minimum wage of £6.32 an hour, I could have expected to earn over £75,000 or £12,500 a year. I did it without payment because it seemed like the right thing to do and it was also a good thing to do, in part because of what I learned from it and gained in terms of personal growth. Oh, and because I doubt that the BDO has generated £75,000 in its entire 35-year existence.

Following my wife’s death in 2000, I received financial support that enabled me to put in all these hours on the courses whilst bringing up our two sons. Only when that support ended did I, out of necessity, begin to draw any payment from the BDO. Given that the BDO courses are relatively new (our first went online in June 2011) and unknown (we only began to advertise beyond our own websites when our second course went online in 2012), the BDO does not produce much revenue and the amount I draw from it comes nowhere near covering my family’s living costs. As I write, myself and two of my sons are living on my savings. I keep working on these courses, however, because I believe in them, and part of that belief is that they will one day generate a living wage sufficient to keep me through my rapidly approaching old age.

My BDO colleagues and I spent about a year and a half deciding how much to charge for our courses. Should we charge a token amount just to cover admin? Should we charge the same as OBOD? No, because our digital delivery doesn’t entail anything like the overheads and secretarial costs that OBOD has. But pitch our cost too far below OBOD’s and we risk upsetting people who might think we were deliberately trying to undercut them. In the end, we settled on a compromise figure that more-or-less satisfied everyone, and we do consider requests for reduced fees in cases of genuine financial hardship.

cash-cowHow much to charge for individual events is also a cause of much debate within the BDO. My parents never had much money, I was raised to be frugal and, in my hippy youth, lived for some time on nothing but the kindness of strangers. The result was the malnutrition that contributed to my mental breakdown at the age of 18, but that’s another story ;-) As I’ve tried to make clear, my motives for being a Druid are not financial. I’m reminded of Robin Williamson‘s joke, “Did you hear about the Irishman who became a folk musician for the money?” Druidry is not a cash cow. However, if they’re well-planned and conceived, Druid events can make a bit, or at least break even. When Elaine Gregory and I, ably assisted by many wonderful friends and colleagues, hosted The World Drum in April 2013, we took it to ceremonies all around the West and South-West of Britain for six weeks, culminating in a wonderful weekend at Wild Ways in Shropshire. Most of the ceremonies were free. Two events were charged for. At the end of the time the Drum was with us, we managed to break even and were delighted to do so.

Will, Lena & White Cougar in the woods at Wild WaysPart of the reason we were able to charge so little for the World Drum 2013 events is that many of our teachers and musicians gave their services for nothing, including World Drum founders, Kyrre Franck White Cougar and Morten Wolf Storeide, and their friends, Lena Paalviig Johnsen and Will Rubach, who travelled over from Norway at their own expense to bring us the amazing Chaga ceremony and to be with us in other ceremonies with the Drum.

In May this year, White, Morten and Lena are coming back, accompanied by Bobby Kure and Anita Dreyer, members of the shamanic band, Baalfolket. This time we hope to make a few quid. We obviously need to in order to cover the hire of two venues, travel expenses and other basic costs, but we also want to be able to pay the guys something for coming over to the UK for 12 days. Like us, they have to have money to live. I even hope to make a few quid myself to compensate for the many hours work involved in putting these events together, producing leaflets, visiting venues, generating advertising. And why not? If I were doing these things in any other sphere of activity, no one would bat an eyelid at my being paid a reasonable sum for my time and expertise.

Why then do I still feel vaguely guilty about it? Partly, it’s a hangover from my impoverished youth, partly it’s because I view the whole capitalist enterprise as deeply and irrevocably flawed. It rewards the basest of human motives, relying on the vast majority of the world’s population having next to nothing so that a tiny, obscenely wealthy minority can lord it over the rest of us. It stinks. No wonder I feel guilty. It baffles me that anyone doesn’t. And yet, as said, until we demand and get a better, purer, more equitable way of running human affairs, my family and I need money to live.

CelticWarriorFor most of the existence of classical Druidry, of course, we were supported by the warrior aristocracy of Iron Age Europe (OK, this guy may not look like a patron of the arts, but take my word for it, he loved nothing better than a finely honed poem), a patronage that was transferred to the bardic colleges of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. We were part of society’s elite, fed, housed, clothed, provided with musical instruments and given high social status because our services were deemed worthwhile. We sang for our supper … in the case of bards, literally. We advised kings, divined, prophesied, oversaw ceremonies, told tales of gods and heroes, judged legal disputes, healed the sick, created poems of praise or blame, and, for many centuries, were both honoured and handsomely rewarded for doing so. We still do many of these things, but without either the social status or the payment, bed and board that came with it. We are, instead, looked upon as colourful eccentrics at best, dangerous loonies at worst, occasionally despised, more often simply ignored by our wider society. Hence our need to find new ways of making a living.

Druidry is no longer viewed as a job but as a hobby. For some of us though, it wholly defines who we are and what we do. For this minority of driven individuals, Druidry is our calling, and one that we see as every bit as valid and valuable as more recognised fields such as traditional teaching or medicine or, of course, priesthood in the more mainstream religions. I very much hope that our courses demonstrate both the breadth and the worth of Druidry. I know from my own experience that Druidry can and does regularly transform and even save lives.

The Druid Network undertook a three-year campaign, the result of which was to have Druidry as they HenryVIII&Popeunderstand and practice it recognised as a valid religion, the Druid Network itself achieving the status of a charity. This status means, among other things, that they can legally accept donations and bequests and have certain tax and planning advantages. Such charitable status for ‘alternative’ religious groups is commonplace in the United States, where freedom of religion is written into the Constitution and, as a result, has traditionally been taken seriously by legislators. The presence of Native Americans endeavouring to maintain their own religious cultures has also played a part in ensuring that religious balance under law is maintained in the USA. In the UK, on the other hand, we have had a state religion since Henry VIII’s decision to abandon Catholicism so that he could get a divorce. This state religion, Anglicanism, as manifested through the Church of England, has, until recently, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on state support and the status and financial advantages that such support brings.

However, the Druid Network case does not mean that all Druid groups now have charitable status or official recognition. Should other groups such as the BDO decide that charitable status was a good idea, we would need to go through much the same bureaucratic process that TDN went through in order to prove that our brand of Druidry is also worthy of the name religion and that we too have purposes in mind that come under the fairly broad umbrella of ‘charitable.’ If we wanted to, I’m sure we could, but it would involve precisely the kind of bureaucracy that our current constitution seeks to avoid while gaining us very little.

The most successful Druid group in the world currently is the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. obodawenMy friends, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, have been running it for nearly thirty years. During that time, they have also been running a Montessori School, Stephanie has worked for Glyndebourne Opera House and Philip has written numerous books (some with Stephanie) and lectured widely. It is these latter activities that have kept the roof over their heads and food on the table, not running a Druid Order. Some folk have the mistaken impression that they were making loads of money from OBOD camps. On the contrary, it was only the Summer Camps that ever made a profit at all, and that was used to subsidise the camps in the rest of the year that ran at a loss. Druidry is not a cash cow, one simple reason being that it is a minority interest, best estimates being that there may be 10,000 Druids in the UK, or 0.01% of the population, though the true figure may be less. There’s also the fact that many of us attracted to Druidry and other ‘alternative spiritualities’ are, to a greater or lesser degree, outsiders within our society, a position that leaves us ill-placed as well as un-inclined to benefit from its capitalist structures and agendas.

Ours is by no means the only culture to wrestle with the uncomfortable clash between spirituality and GaryHolyBullcommerce. A Lakota healer called Gary Holy Bull (his Lakota name is Ampohiksila, which means ‘Sunrise’) has spoken of his own struggle with this dilemma:

“Prior to 1942, everyone took care of their healers and medicine people. They understood the sacrifices that they made. Today, unfortunately, too many people feel that giving a K-Mart blanket is a sufficient offering for seeking spiritual help. It’s a very difficult life that we live. We have to pay bills, have a home, drive a car, and place groceries on the table.

“I was always told to ask for nothing. If a person asks you to do a ceremony, they will give you what is needed. The Creator helps you in this way. When you seek the help of a spiritual person, think about the price they pay to help you.

“I was taught that you should give to others because the Creator will return it to you. You will get twice as much back as you put out for others. You give because you have compassion for children and for families.

“Here’s the advice I give to others who want to know how to approach a medicine person. First, don’t call them. Go find them, no matter how far you have to drive. Then offer them some tobacco*. This is called a binding ceremony. Then tell him or her what you need. Don’t insult him by leaving a skull of an animal, a seashell, or a feather, because his family doesn’t eat animal skulls or seashells. If you don’t want to leave money, then buy some groceries, or some fuel oil for his stove. Don’t insult him with five dollars. Give in proportion to the value of what is being done for your life. Show your sincere appreciation. Demonstrate your compassion to the Creator through generosity and sharing. In the old days, a family would give up several horses to be healed. What price is enough for your life?”

So you see it’s not just us. Similar views are expressed by spirit workers around the world. The big, organised churches can pay their clergy a living wage because they have, over many centuries, demanded payment from ‘the faithful’ and expected many of them to leave their entire fortunes to their church when they die. Groups such as Scientology have flourished financially by being arranged as pyramid selling schemes designed to generate wealth for those at the top. The Guru Maharaj Ji, founder of the Divine Light Mission, became hugely wealthy by exploiting his followers, buying himself a fleet of Rolls Royces, yachts, personal jets, etc. Fortunately, such exploitation is anathema to all the Druids I’ve ever met.

I think the answer is that when everyone else stops demanding money from us for taxes, services and goods and adopts a barter system instead, we’ll be utterly delighted to do the same. In the meantime, we’ll continue to struggle with our consciences and the Druid community will continue to benefit from those struggles as we strive to do everything for as little as we can feasibly manage and still put food on the table.

Many blessings,

Greywolf /|\

The Accidental Gorsedd – Twenty Years On

Gorsedd of Caer Abiri, September 2013

TheGorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri, September 22nd 2013

On Sunday, September 22nd, 2013, about a hundred people gathered inside the vast bank and ditch earthworks of the Avebury henge in Wiltshire, with its huge sarsen stone circles erected by our ancestors in ages past. We were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. To mark the event, I’m posting a pdf file scanned from the first issue of the Caer Abiri Newsletter, published in the wake of the first ceremony way back in 1993. Among other things, it tells how the Gorsedd came to be, and here’s a little more background on how it all began.

During the summer of 1993, Tim Sebastion (below), founder of the Secular Order of Druids (SOD), was putting plans together for a multi-faith conference at Avebury. I’d met Tim two years earlier when my British Druid Order joined the Council of British Druid Orders. We resigned from the Council in 1996, along with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and the Ancient Order of Druids, but that’s another story. The first Council meeting I attended was at Tim’s thatched cottage at Mells in Somerset. In typical Tim fashion, as well as hosting this meeting, he had organised an Irish folk festival over the same weekend, centred around the village pub. So, when my wife and I arrived and got no reply at the cottage, we had a pretty good idea where to look. Sure enough, we found Tim basking in the sunshine of the pub garden, joyfully surrounded by Irish musicians who were regaling him with a spirited rendition of the Irish Rover. It was an auspicious first meeting.

Tim Sebastion at Caer Abiri

Tim Sebastion at Caer Abiri, circa 1994

Tim and I struck up a rapport as a result of which, when organising the Avebury event, he asked me to create a ceremony for it. The brief was to make a fundamentally Druidic ceremony, but one that would feel inclusive to the many and varied folk attending the conference, including Reichian therapists, Earth Mysteries folk, Christian ministers, astronomers from the Royal Observatory and various flavours of Pagans. The resulting ceremony is included in the Newsletter.

Included in it was a handfasting, a Druid wedding, largely for the benefit of myself and my late wife, Ellie, though other couples took advantage of the occasion to be handfasted too, as hundreds more have been since. The handfastings were conducted at the Ring Stone (see the newsletter for the reasons why) by Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and Shan Jayran, founder of the House of the Goddess. Ronald Hutton took the two photos included in monochrome in the newsletter and reproduced here in colour.

Handfasting at the Ring Stone

Handfasting at the Ring Stone, 1st Caer Abiri Gorsedd, September 19th 1993

CaerAbiri1993Handfasting2x800

Tim Sebastion (standing left with staff), Philip Carr-Gomm (white robe, centre), Ellie Shallcrass (in red and blue, holding our son, Joe, then 1 year old), Shan Jayran (in dark robe checking script), Caer Abiri, September 19th 1993.

As you’ll see from the list of names at the back of the newsletter, those attending included several who were already Pagan celebrities and others who would become so. Among the former were the aforementioned Philip Carr-Gomm, Shan Jayran, and Ronald Hutton, whose Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, published two years earlier, was already recognised as a definitive work. Also with us was John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis, the book credited with having kick-started the whole Earth Mysteries movement. Among the latter were Graham Harvey, now one of our most respected Pagan academics, Jacki Paterson, whose highly regarded book, Tree Wisdom, was published three years later, and a young OBOD member named Emma Restall Orr, who went on to become joint chief of the British Druid Order from 1995 to 2002 and is now probably the most famous female Druid in the world.

Celebrities notwithstanding, the reason we were assembling among the stones 20 years on was, as the title of this piece suggests, an accident, if indeed there are such things in Druidry.

The Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri is a name I invented for use during a short bardic initiation that formed part of the original ceremony. The reason for including an initiation is simple. Two members of the British Druid Order, Gary and Debbie Turner, asked for bardic initiations while I was composing the rite and I thought that Avebury would be a beautiful and appropriate place for them to take place. As explained in the newsletter, when the moment for Gary and Debbie’s initiation came and I asked those who wished to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd of Caer Abiri to step forward, I was expecting only Gary and Debbie to do so. They were, after all, the only ones primed in advance to expect this request. Thhe spirits of the place, however, determined otherwise. Gary and Debbie hesitated and the momentary pause was enough for others in the circle to make up their minds to respond to the invitation.

And so it was that more than half those in the circle stepped forward to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd. Philip Carr-Gomm, standing next to me at the time, leaned over and whispered, “Erm, what do we do now?” and I replied something to the effect of, “Well, er, we carry on I suppose.” Thus were the first thirty-or-so bards of Caer Abiri initiated. During the initiations, I did something ritualists really should not do. I stepped out of the circle with a camera and snapped a couple of shots. I know I shouldn’t have, but something prompted me to capture the moment. I’m glad I did, as I believe the pictures I took, reproduced here, are the only photographic record of that part of the ceremony.

Bardic Initiations at the 1st Gorsedd

The first bardic initiations at the first Avebury Gorsedd, September 19th 1993

CaerAbiri1993Initiationx800

The first bardic initiations at the first Avebury Gorsedd, September 19th 1993

The initiation included one of my favourite pieces of ritual of any I’ve composed and performed either before or since. As shown in the photo, the inner circle of bards turn to face outwards and link hands, those in the outer circle also link hands, and all of them chant the awen, the spirit of inspiration and creativity, directing its flow in to those in the centre. Immediately after this, the following blessing is spoken for the new bards:

Wisdom of serpent be thine,

Wisdom of raven be thine,

Wisdom of the valiant eagle.

Voice of swan be thine,

Voice of honey be thine,

Voice of the son of stars.

Bounty of sea be thine,

Bounty of land be thine,

Bounty of the boundless heavens.

These are beautiful words to hear spoken in ceremony, and I can’t claim credit for them. They are from a collection of Scottish folklore called Carmina Gadelica, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael. They were spoken again during the 20th anniversary rite (below) and I took my place amongst the bards at the centre to receive the awen. It knocked my socks off.

Bardic initiations at Caer Abiri, 2013

Bardic intiation at the 20th anniversary Gorsedd, September 22nd 2013

That the initiation in 1993 had the desired effect was proven a couple of weeks later when I got a letter from Gordon Strachan, the Church of Scotland minister who had addressed the conference. It was written on a hillside in the Lake District and Gordon told me he was writing poetry again for the first time since he’d left university forty years earlier. He soon began work on his book, Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries & the Dawn of Christianty (Floris Books, 2000), in which he puts forward the theory that Jesus came into friendly contact with Druids during childhood visits to Britain.

It was clear that something very magical happened in that circle twenty years ago, something that came about because the nature of the rite as it had come together resonated powerfully with the spirits of the place and with our ancestors who had constructed Avebury for similar purposes, gathering families together from all over the country to celebrate rites of passage and have those rites witnessed by their community. It was this sense of having connected with the spirits of the place that prompted me to go around with a notebook, collecting contact details from those present with a view to putting together the newsletter.

Subsequent events only increased the sense that we had made a potent connection with the spirits of Caer Abiri. Within two years, our celebrations were being held at each of the eight festivals of modern Paganism and attracting hundreds of people. Ronald Hutton went so far as to describe them as the central event of the New Druidry (Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Hambledon & London, 2003, pages 255-256). The second anniversary Gorsedd remains the largest on record, estimates of numbers attending ranging from 500 to over 1,000. This produced another inspirited moment when those in the circle were asked to link hands and swear the Oath of Peace. The circle began to expand, not stopping until it had spread to the fence line on one side of the field containing the South Circle and to the inner ditch on the other side. I remember having to shout so that those on the far side of the circle would know when to begin.

Caer Abiri circa 1995

Caer Abiri circa 1995, Emma Restall-Orr as Guardian of the Stones, barefoot Greywolf, Mark Graham with antlers…

Around this time I came up with a motto for the Gorsedd: “In the spirit of freedom, and for freedom of the spirit.”

There were many reasons why the Gorsedd proved so successful. We offered many within the Pagan community their first opportunity to celebrate our seasonal festivals in public. Another factor is the multi-faith nature of the ceremonies, strengthened further in subsequent revisions of the ritual text. Followers of any and all traditions felt able to stand together as one and speak from the heart of their own faith within a circle of many faiths. Celebrations attracted not only Druids but Wiccans, Heathens, Buddhists, Bah’ai, Christians, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals and followers of Japanese Shinto among others. Avebury is also, of course, a place of great beauty and inherent power as well as being reasonably accessible from most parts of the UK, and, because it has a village within it, it is freely open to the public. Its appeal is not confined to the UK though. Some of those attending in the 90s flew in from places as far away as Australia, Japan and the USA specially to attend our celebrations.

 It was always my hope that others would be inspired by the Avebury Gorsedd to set up others elsewhere and this has happened. Similar gatherings now take place at each of the festivals at the Long Man of Wilmington, the Stanton Drew circles south of Bristol and elsewhere, both in Britain and overseas.

 Of course, there are always some who, usually through some deep, personal pain of their own, greet any outpouring of magic, joy and wonder in others with bitterness and resentment. Why this should be, I don’t know, but life seems to need to maintain an equilibrium, balancing the helpful and the hurtful, following bliss with dull despair. In the case of Avebury, a few individuals seemed to feel they had some sort of territorial claim over the place. Even as the ceremonies grew bigger and more joyous for most of us, these few voiced objections to everything about them, including where, how, when and why they were held, who was conducting them and who was attending. They spread their bitterness to others whose own resentments left them open to receive it. Ceremonies began to be disrupted by drunks shouting at, and occasionally physically attacking, those taking part. Following on from the increasingly disrupted ceremonies, these same folk would get into drunken fights in the Red Lion pub in the village, often resulting in the police being called. One Lakota visitor from the Pine Ridge Reservation had flown over to be with us following a vision. He was singing a spirit song for us in the circle when the drunks began yelling abuse at him. He commented afterwards, “You get folks like that in all traditions. We get ‘em at home too.”

 Things came to a head when, during one ceremony, I found myself expending most of my energy keeping a lid on a small group of angry, noisy drunks rather than focusing on the rite itself. As that realisation hit me, I had a vision of a black whirlpool opening up in the centre of the circle and spreading towards its edges, threatening to suck us all down into its gaping maw. This stark warning led us to move our celebrations to other locations, founding new Gorseddau as we did so. These included the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge and others at Dragon Hill in Oxfordshire, the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, various other locations in Britain and as far afield as Seattle in the USA.

 After a year, however, we returned to our spiritual home in Avebury and rites have been regularly celebrated there ever since. For the last nine years, they have been coordinated by Morgan Adams, who also runs a Grove and offers regular celebrations in her home town of Glastonbury.

 The unpleasantness of the mid-1990s led to the formation of a second Gorsedd in Avebury, calling itself the ‘Free and Open’ Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. This now meets on the nearest Saturday to each of the eight festivals, while the original Gorsedd continues to meet on the nearest Sunday. Incidentally, it amused me to hear that on the day before our 20th anniversary celebration, the ‘Free and Open’ Gorsedd had met and claimed to be celebrating their 21st anniversary, despite having been founded in 1996. Hey ho…

 The anger that divided the Gorsedd left me with a certain ambivalence about my role in creating it. It put Avebury on the Pagan map as a ceremonial location, but attracted in the process those whose relationship with the spirits of the place included setting fire to parts of it, scrawling graffiti over others, getting drunk, fighting amongst themselves and behaving aggressively towards those trying to meet there in peace to celebrate their spirituality. For me, the greatest sadness has always been that the loud, angry, disruptive minority drove hundreds of genuinely spiritual people to abandon the Gorsedd and even, in some cases, to turn their backs on any engagement with Druidry and Paganism. This is doubly tragic given the ecumenical spirit that flourished so strongly in the early years.

 The split in the Gorsedd also drove a wedge between Tim Sebastion and I. I never knew until after his death how devastated Tim had been by the split. I learned then, too late, that he had spent whole days wandering the paths around Avebury alone and in tears.

 The role of Guardian of the Stones was taken in the first Gorsedd ceremony by my wife, Ellie, then pregnant with our second son, Michael. Ellie subsequently died from leukaemia, and each time I see another woman in the role it brings back memories, some joyous, others painful.

 On the plus side, the Gorsedd helped broaden public understanding and acceptance of Druidry and other Pagan traditions as the early celebrations attracted a good deal of attention from the media, both nationally and internationally. This led to a spate of favourable newspaper and magazine articles and TV programmes featuring Druids and Druidry. I’ve posted one short video of the Gorsedd circa 1994, filmed by a TV news crew, on youtube, accompanied by music and poetry. In its early days, the Gorsedd also helped to promote peaceful, helpful connections between the Druid and Pagan communities and bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage, official custodians of Avebury, Stonehenge, and other ancient sites. However, this further angered those who were already angry and who viewed NT and EH with implacable hostility due to their perceived role in restricting access to Stonehenge during the 1980s.

 As well as inspiring the creation of other open, public celebrations of Pagan faiths, in the twenty years since its creation, the Avebury Gorsedd itself has initiated some 3-4,000 people, maybe more, as bards. Many have found huge inspiration as a result. To quote just a few examples, a leather-clad biker who came to an early Gorsedd rite returned a few months later having learned to play the harp beautifully; an office worker who attended quit his job and now runs the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle; a couple who came to several early rites now run a 12-acre spiritual and woodland crafts centre in Hampshire. Others have had their lives changed in other ways. Following one rite I heard from three people whose partners had recently died, each saying that as a direct result of our ceremony, the atmosphere surrounding them had cleared, their sorrow had lifted, and they now felt able to move on in their lives. When people’s lives are transformed in such ways, it’s hard to argue that the ceremonies that bring about such changes are anything but good.

 The Gorseddau founded in the 1990s, both in Avebury and elsewhere, have long since passed out of my hands as I always hoped they would. Others have taken up the challenge and are making them work, and all good blessings to each and every one of them for doing so. If the 20th anniversary gathering at Avebury was anything to go by, they are in good hands for the next twenty years.

 Incidentally, three of those who were at the very first Gorsedd were in attendance again for the anniversary: these were Ronald Hutton, a humble Doctor at the time of the first rite, now a full Professor and one of the country’s leading historians, myself, and my son, Joe, who was one year old in 1993 and whose baby blessing during the first ceremony paved the way for hundreds of others over the last twenty years.

Three Gorsedd Originals

Ronald Hutton (in glasses, behind redhead), myself (with BDO banner), and Joe (seated on the ground), Caer Abiri, September 22nd 2013

The 20th anniversary celebration was a joyous, magical event, featuring one of the most potent bardic initiations I’ve ever taken part in, a beautiful moment when we chanted the awen to direct spiritual energy into a beribboned wreath to be used in ceremonies for the protection of our land and her creatures (below), and one of the best eisteddfod sessions ever, during which we were treated to some wonderful poetry, fiery drumming and utterly superb bagpiping.

Blessing with Awen

Raising energy for the protection of our Mother Earth, Caer Abiri, September 22nd 2013

As my own contribution, I sang the same Robin Williamson song I had sung at the end of the very first rite back in 1993, the appropriately titled The Circle Is Unbroken:

Seasons they change, as cold blood is raining,

I have been waiting beyond the years.

Now over the skline I see you travelling,

Brothers from all times gathering here.

Come let us build the ship of the future

In an ancient pattern that journeys far.

Come let us set sail for the always islands,

through seas of leaving to the summer stars.

 Seasons they change, but with gaze unchanging.

O, deep-eyed sisters, is it you I see?

Seeds of beauty you bear within you

Of unborn children, glad and free.

Within your fingers the fates are spinning

The sacred binding of the yellow grain.

Scattered we were when the long night was breaking,

But in bright morning, converse again.

So may it ever be.

 And here’s a date for your diary: the 30th anniversary will be on Sunday, September 24th, 2023. See you there…

 Blessings to all,

 Greywolf /|\

Greywolf at Caer Abiri, 2013

Blissed out at Caer Abiri, 20 years on…

 

The Chaga Ceremony, April 19th, 2013

As a native British Druid for the last forty years, one of my greatest joys has been to make ceremony alongside spirit workers of many other traditions, finding fundamental similarities in how we understand the world and what we do underlying our cultural differences. This is the story of one such ceremony.

After all our travels with The World Drum, it was good to be back at Wild Ways, the spiritual centre in Shropshire created by Elaine Gregory and Garth Reynolds that has been a second home for myself and my sons for about a decade. We’ve had some great times there, and this weekend looked like being one of those very special ones. We had the launch of the Druid Hedge Schools project on Saturday, followed by a music session featuring Robin Williamson, who I consider the finest exponent of the bardic arts, and my old friend, Andy Letcher, no slouch himself in weaving word and sound, plus other friends. Then, on Sunday, we would bid our very, very fond farewell to the World Drum. Oh, and it would be my 60th birthday. However, before all that, on Friday evening, there was to be another event that had blossomed over the previous few weeks from the seed of an idea into what turned out to be an amazing, magical reality.

Will, Lena & White Cougar in the woods at Wild Ways

Will, Lena & White Cougar in the woods at Wild Ways. Photo by Morten.

On Thursday, we greeted the arrival of the man whose vision had led to the creation of the World Drum, White Cougar. With him were Morten Wolf Storeide, who gently steers the Drum’s journeys around the world, and Lena Paalviig Johnsen and Will Rubach of the shamanic band, Baalfolket. I find it hard to get to know people. I spend most of my time writing. It’s a solitary profession. But with I felt an instant rapport. They were just so damn happy. It was like sunlight breaking through the moment I met them, like I’d known them forever, like we were family. They had flown over from Norway at their own expense to make music and ceremony with us. The first ceremony was to be a gift White Cougar wanted to share with us, centring around a herbal medicine I had never previously heard of called Chaga.

Chaga growing on Birch

Chaga growing on Birch

Chaga is a hard, woody fungus that grows on birch trees. In Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and much of Asia, it has been used as a medicine for thousands of years, its chief property being that it boosts the body’s own healing mechanisms, making it effective for a wide range of conditions. It also has psycho-spiritual properties that may be described as lifting the spirits. I hasten to add, we’re not talking psychedelics here. You won’t find yourself hallucinating swarms of rainbow butterflies whilst giggling hysterically because your legs have turned to rubber. It’s not that kind of mushroom. In some countries it’s used as a coffee substitute. White Cougar, however, works with it in a spiritual, ceremonial way. Chaga, like all things in this world, has a spirit, and his name, in Norway, is Nivvsat Olmai. He has appeared to White Cougar in the form of a bird.

Greywolf heading down the Deer Path

Greywolf heading down the Deer Path. Photo by Morten.

On Thursday afternoon then, six of us, White Cougar, Morten, Will, Lena, my old friend, Steve Rumelhart, and I set off along the winding Deer Path that leads to our Iron Age roundhouse. I was keen to introduce our visitors to this place that meant so much to me, the construction of which had been such a transformative experience, not only for me but for others who took part. They were equally keen to see it. Naturally, we took our drums.

We arrived, knocked to wake the spirits, opened the double doors fully to let in the light, stepped over the threshold and found our places, unpacking our drums. It was almost as if planned. Natural, good. I told them about the guardian spirit of the roundhouse and its surrounding grove, an antlered figure who has been with us from the beginning, since my toe stubbed on a deer-skull when we were clearing the ground to build the place.

Lena with her drum

Lena with her drum. Photo by Morten.

Then we began to drum. I know that Steve is a solid, reliable, listening drummer. I assumed our Norwegian friends would be too. How right I was. Since they were bringing us this gift of ceremony, it was they who began the drumming. Each of them has a markedly different drum, each handmade in the Saami manner of their home country, the frames bent by hand so that their shapes are never quite round, but always oval or egg-shaped. The frame of Lena’s, being wide but not very deep, had twisted after the skin was stretched over it, creating an off-kilter curvature across the drum. She told me later that her drum-maker had offered to fix it for her. She loved it just as it was, and that’s the way it’s stayed. As soon as they began to play, I knew we were in safe hands, not that I ever doubted it. They quickly fell into a natural rhythm together, playing off each other, weaving the very different tones of their drums into a single, magical web of sound.

Greywolf & The World Drum in the roundhouse

Greywolf playing The World Drum in the roundhouse. Photo by Morten.

I was sitting in my accustomed place near the altar in the north-east, my ‘Thunder-drum’ at the ready, beater held lightly in my right hand. I listened to the emerging, subtly shifting rhythm patterns Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will were playing, and to how they were playing. Many drummers in Britain tend to play quite loudly and, well, sort of aggressively. I’ve been guilty of this myself at times. These guys played in a way that was gentler, more contemplative and, I found, much easier to trance out to.

Then they began to sing. Wow. Hard to find the right words. They draw inspiration from the spontaneous, improvisatory Saami singing tradition called joiking. Will has quite a deep, resonant singing voice anyway, but also uses throat-singing, producing an eerie kind of deep, rasping growl that sounds barely human and sends shivers down the spine. Lena has a voice of soaring, skylark beauty and clarity. Woven together, the effect is … what word to use? … Awesome? Magical? Inspiring? Uplifting? Entrancing? All of those and more.

It didn’t take long for my drum to tell me it was time to join in. Such was the rapport I felt with these folk already that I found it easy and natural to fit the bass of my own drum in with theirs, weaving my patterns into the flow. What surprised me was that I also began to sing. Normally, I don’t, unless it’s some pre-planned chant for a specific purpose. Now I found myself vocalising strange noises and parts of words in no language I consciously knew. Very strange. And suddenly I knew where these sounds were coming from. I was listening fully to my drum. It’s main beat is a low bass note, but it resonates with a full spectrum of overtones up into a very high register like a bird or a bat. Within these overtones, I noticed wave patterns that were generating the songs I was then translating into the sounds I was singing. This was a new way of interacting with my drum, learned in that moment.

Steve drumming in the roundhouse

Steve drumming in the roundhouse. Photo by Morten.

We played on, except I noticed Steve had not yet begun to play. This was weird, as he’s usually the first to reach for his drum whenever there’s the chance. He sat by the door, listening intently, for a long time. Finally, he began to play. As said, he’s a good drummer, so his octagonal skin drum was soon sounding along with ours. The sound revolved around the roundhouse, reverberating from the timber posts, walls and roof in an enchanting cascade. Again, lost for words. Magical will have to suffice.

Finally, the sound wound to a natural conclusion and fell into silence. We were still for a moment, breathing with it, thinking about it. Then we looked around at each other, smiled, and made a chorus of “woos,” “yeahs,” “hms,” and similar sounds in wordless appreciation of what we’d just made together, for that one time, in that special place. It was a profound sense of rightness.

I spoke to Steve later and asked why he’d taken so long to start drumming. He said “Are you kidding? Those guys are GOOD!” I laughed. It was the first time in twenty years I’ve known Steve to be intimidated by other drummers.

Back at the house that evening, we talked about the ceremony we were to make next day. White Cougar told us that the chaga had to brew for at least two hours, preferably four. The brewing was to be done by our four Norwegian friends and White Cougar asked me to join them. He asked if I would guard the doorway against any unwanted spirit intrusions during the ceremony, keeping the dodgy ones out whilst letting the good ones come and go. Some weeks earlier, as soon as I heard the ceremony might happen, I had seen myself guarding the doors of the roundhouse along with Steve, me on one side, him on the other. I told this to White Cougar who smiled and said, “Ah, I see I have asked you this before.” Again, the easy smiles and laughter that usually comes with long familiarity. So it was settled, the six of us would prepare the chaga and make the ceremony.

At 4 o’clock the next afternoon, we set out again for the roundhouse, taking with us an aluminium cooking pot from the kitchen big enough to brew enough chaga for 45 people and some two-gallon drums of water. Once in the roundhouse, we set the pot on an iron stand over the central hearth and laid our fire underneath it. The ceremony began.

We gathered in a circle around the hearth, crouched down, hands close to the floor, and started vocalising low, growly noises. Then, slowly standing up, hands held out in front, our voices got louder and higher, until we all came fully upright, let out a great whoop and then, inevitably, broke out in laughter. A good way to start a ceremony. There’s strong magic in laughter. We poured about a gallon of the water into the big pot and lit the fire under it.

Brewing the Chaga on the Roundhouse fire

Brewing the Chaga on the Roundhouse fire. Photo by Morten.

Then we began to drum. Again, it was easy, natural and joyous to join with these folks in drumming up the spirits we would need to protect, help and guide us through the rite. Again, a natural flow emerged, beginning when one of our drums would speak, ending when all that needed to be said had been said.

White Cougar drumming in the Roundhouse

White Cougar drumming in the Roundhouse. Photo by Morten.

Between drumming, we chatted, shared water, laughed, cracked jokes, and talked about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. Cougar had brought extra dried chaga and sage with him to burn at either side of the doors so that people would be sained with it as they entered the roundhouse. Saining is our native British version of the Native American practice called smudging i.e. blessing and purifying people, places and things with smoke, usually from smouldering herbs. We had little charcoal blocks to burn it on, plus Steve’s ever-ready lighter. Steve and I set them up by the doors. I told Steve which side I’d seen us standing on in my vision and we agreed that those were the sides we’d guard. We also agreed that Steve would be our ‘soul guide’ when evening came, going back through the woods to gather people for the ceremony, reminding them to bring a cup each but leave their mobile phones, and asking them to maintain silence once they’d reached the gateway to the roundhouse grove.

After a while, the water boiled and White Cougar brought out a bag of chaga, adding handfuls to the pot. He asked the chaga-spirit, Nivvsat Olmai, to be with us, to help and guide us and bring healing. He found a straightish stick and we used it to stir our gently bubbling cauldron of inspiration. The chaga, mostly bright yellow when it went in, quickly turned the water a rich, dark brown and a curious, earthy scent began to blend with the firesmoke. The six of us took turns at stirring the pot. We drummed and sang some more. More jokes and laughter, more drumming, more stirring. For some, breaks outside for cigarettes. It pleased Steve greatly to have others who smoked. Increasingly on Druid events he’s felt like a Pariah because of his addiction to the noxious weed.

Oh yes, and we drank chaga. This, Cougar assured us, was necessary for those preparing the ceremony, and I wasn’t about to argue. My first uncertain sip introduced me to a taste I can best describe as earthy, a little musty, with a vague hint of weak coffee, and not at all fungus-like. A few sips later, I’d got quite used to it. A few more and I kinda liked it. Now I love the stuff.

And the effects? Well, as said, we’re not talking pixie caps or peyote. The effect initially seemed to consist of enhancing the feelings of elation and connectedness that being there doing what we were doing had already engendered. It was, however, a calmer, more controlled exhilaration than coffee’s jagged buzz. As said, a lifting of spirits.

Will Rubach with painted drum bag in the Roundhouse

Will Rubach with painted drum bag in the Roundhouse. Photo by Morten.

For four and a half hours, we nurtured the spirits swirling around in that dark, earthy, bubbling brew, in the roundhouse and in the grove around it. Finally, time came for Steve to go and bring people down the Deer Path. People in the UK often don’t take the idea of ceremony all that seriously and therefore often don’t arrive attuned to the spirit of the rite but will chatter inconsequentially, sometimes even after ceremonies have begun. This is why we’d decided that Steve should stop everyone at the gateway to the grove and get them to stop talking before they came to us. This he did very effectively, as I knew he would.

As the first person arrived at the doors, passing the guardian on the ash post, I realised that I was about to greet forty-plus people with no real idea of what I was going to say. I was, as my friend, Leon Reed says, “wearing my power,” i.e. dressed in my wolfskin cloak and other ritual gear, so I guess I looked the part. Then, words came tumbling out that sounded right, so I used them again for the next person, and again, with variations, for those who came after. It was a short, simple blessing that they would gain from the ceremony what it was they most needed. If you think about that, that is a powerful thing. I asked the first people to go in by the left side of the door, make their way clockwise around the central fire, and find a place against the wall. Elaine had given us a load of Hessian sacks that we’d stuffed with straw and placed in a ring against the wattle-and-daub walls for seating. People needed to follow these instructions as we knew we only just had room for everyone. Bless ‘em, they did. Later arrivals sat on log seats closer to the fire. As each person passed through the doors, they were wafted with the combination of chaga and sage incense that Steve and I kept burning throughout the ceremony.

Elaine's drawing of the Chaga Ceremony

Elaine’s drawing of the Chaga Ceremony

When everyone was safely inside and settled, Steve and I took our places on either side of the doors. Inside, Cougar, Wolf, Will and Lena began the public part of the ceremony. I glanced behind me at times and saw an amazing sight. The interior of the roundhouse was filled with people and lit by the central fire on which we’d brewed the chaga. My Norwegian friends were illuminated most, moving around the fire, close to it. All around them, the seats by the timber uprights were filled, every one of them, by a golden, glowing figure, men and women, woven into the fabric of time and space we had spent so many hours creating for this night, although those hours had seemed to fly by. Behind them, in flickering shadows, were those seated around the wall. Above them the looming cone of the thatched roof, glowing golden from the firelight or rendered the dark brown of chaga by shadows. It was beautiful. This was what we had built the roundhouse for. It was meant to be exactly as it was in those golden moments, on that hallowed evening. Of course, no photography was allowed during the ceremony, but Elaine later made this drawing from her memories of it.

As said, all this was taken in at a glance, most of my attention being cast around the surrounding woods, looking for any problems that might arise. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting any. I’ve worked with that place for a long time and know its ways and the spirits that come and go pretty well. I know how strong the protection is that we’ve woven into ever fibre of its construction, as not just our antlered guardian, but other spirits have come to aid and guide us. Nevertheless, I had a job to do and, well, you never know. What I did know was that I could absolutely rely on Steve to pick up and deal with anything I might miss. That’s why he had to be there beside me.

Behind us in the golden light, the drumming had begun. As before, the effect of the sound in that already magical space was enchanting and entrancing in the fullest sense of those words. There was singing, of course, and chanting, and spoken prayers. In my occasional glimpses, I saw Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will moving around the fire, their bodies and drums casting leaping shadows behind them, around them those circles of glowing people. At some point, I guess, chaga was distributed to everyone. I missed that, though Steve and I did get our cups filled somehow. After everyone had received their chaga, Cougar beckoned me to join him in the circle round the fire. Stepping into that gleaming circle was both beautiful and humbling. My drum merged with the beats of the others and I quickly tranced into the rhythm. I didn’t stay long though for three reasons. First, I took my role as guardian very seriously. Second, I wanted to allow Steve a chance to step in and drum and knew he wouldn’t leave the doors unguarded. Third, in our roundhouse, packed with people, standing so close to a roaring fire, drumming and wearing a thick wolf-skin cloak, it got very hot very quickly.

I stepped back in a few times to join the others, drumming with them for a while before resuming my post at the doors. Each time brought the same surge of energy. Dusk fell as we looked out into the darkening woods while the great thatched beehive of swirling, whirling, driving, growing, glowing magic buzzed and hummed behind us. The ‘doctored’ picture below was taken earlier, while we were preparing the chaga, but conveys some idea of how the place felt that night. It was … I don’t know … words are hopelessly inadequate. I’ve been involved in a lot of ceremonies, often shared with folk of other traditions than my own Druidry. This was without doubt one of the most extraordinary and powerful I’ve ever taken part in.

The Roundhouse during the Chaga preparation

The Roundhouse during the Chaga preparation. Photo and psychedelia by Morten.

Eventually, the drums reached a final crescendo and halted, brief words were spoken and the ceremony was declared complete. There was a rush of sound from folk inside that carried a sense of elation out into the night sky. Soon, people began pouring out, glowing gold like honey pouring from a doorway in a hive. Telling the Bees. Joy in their hearts and shining from their faces. It was extraordinary in the truest sense. Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will stepped out as they felt ready. Our eyes met, we smiled the pure, grateful pleasure of a job well done, guided by our spirit companions, helpers and guides, our ancestors, the spirits of the place and, of course, by Nivvsat Olmai, the blessed spirit of the chaga. We’d been making this ceremony together for eight and a half hours, and it felt better than good.

Morten Wolf Storeide with The World Drum

Morten Wolf Storeide with The World Drum

Folk stood around talking. The words ‘amazing,’ ‘fabulous’ and ‘wonderful’ were frequently heard. Subsequent feedback suggests that some of those in the roundhouse that night have had their lives transformed by it, truly receiving the blessings they most needed. I feel privileged to have been a part of it, and to have had the opportunity to work with such wonderful people. I’m delighted that White Cougar, Morten Wolf (that’s Morten on the right) and Lena are returning to Wild Ways in May 2014, along with the other two members of Baalfolket, Anita and Bobby. Click here for our Events Page for the weekend event we’re calling Norway’s Spirit Ways at Wild Ways. They’ll also be offering a whole day of workshops plus an evening concert in a reconstructed Saxon Hall in Worcestershire.  I, for one, can’t wait. My drum is ready.

As a footnote, I later found a native British equivalent of Nivvsat Olmai in the form of ‘the Dark Lad,’ or Ghillie Dhu, the Scottish name for the spirit of the chaga-bearing birch tree, translating into Welsh as Hogyn Du. He’s said to be shy of human company but very fond of children. He dresses in moss, leaves and birch bark. Here he is, in a drawing by the great Brian Froud.

Ghillie Dhu, 'The Dark Lad,' by Brian Froud.

Ghillie Dhu, ‘The Dark Lad,’ by Brian Froud.

Blessings of the changing seasons,

Greywolf /|\

 

Slipping Between Worlds

Sun & MoonWith the liminal time of Hallowe’en almost upon us, a time when the veil between the realms of the living and the ancestral dead is at its thinnest, I’ve been pondering the ways between the worlds. Since early childhood I’ve been fascinated by shifts in consciousness, including that surreal space between waking and sleeping that psychologists call the hypnogogic state. In this state strange things can happen. You may find yourself able to see through closed eyelids and note that the world you are seeing is not quite the one you see when you open your eyes. You may hear voices or see people or other animals that seem fleetingly very real even though the still waking part of your mind knows that they are not there at all. Or are they?

This childhood fascination was an important factor in guiding me towards the visionary form of Druidry that has been my path for the last forty years. One of the primary attributes of this style of Druidry is the ability to shift between worlds or states of awareness. One of the primary ways of doing this is through music, often that of the drum, though it may be argued that the bardic harp is the more traditional native instrument to initiate shifts in consciousness, while I’ve found that an acoustic guitar works just as well.

DragonbreathThe other night I was very tired, but had said I would drum in the roundhouse with my friend, Elaine, and I like to be true to my word if at all possible. So, wellies on, we plodded through the mud ‘neath the full moon’s light. It had been weeks since anyone restocked the wood supply in the roundhouse with other than a few bits of kindling, so the fire we lit was very smoky. We threw both doors open wide to the night and smoke rolled out in great clouds. It took about half an hour to encourage the fire to produce more flame than smoke, by which time I was even more tired. As a gentle opener then, I played my flute. When we finally brought out our drums, I began with the gentle heartbeat I usually start with these days, but it quickly morphed into a much stronger, much faster beat that was needed to try and wake myself up. It kind of worked, but was hardly cooking.

I tried initiating another rhythm, one that might encourage me to sing with the drum. The idea is that you listen to the overtones the drum produces, find words or sounds within them and then try to reproduce them or harmonise with them with your voice. I tried but it wasn’t really working. I was almost ready to give up, only I had promised to send healing vibes across the ocean to friends in the Pacific Northwest, so I felt I had to make one last effort.

Greywolf drummingThere’s something about being pushed to one’s limit that aids the process of transition. Sweat lodges work on this principle. Pushing through tiredness can sometimes have the same result. About a minute into that last drum session, I felt something give, almost as though a door opened in my head through which I began to see another world beyond the physical. I recognised when it happened because I began to smile broadly. I sang into the drum, the taut skin bouncing the sound back to me, resonating with the overtones produced by the beater. Now I could send out those good vibes across the great Atlantic, my lightness of being lending them wings.

I began to howl, weaving the rise and fall of my howling with the voice of the drum. It was working and it was beautiful. The contrast with the earlier listless efforts was amazing. Finally, the howls died away, replaced by wind sounds that I blew across the surface of the drum as the beats on it grew softer and softer, fading into silence.

As drum and voice fell silent, sounds from the night outside came through the open doors to fill the silence. They sounded remarkably like the last few moments of singing and drumming.

I looked towards the doors. The roundhouse on either side of them was illuminated by the fire and candles. I looked with other eyes and it seemed to exist in another realm. Part of me knew the physical reality of dirt under my fingernails, the cuts and bruises from having built this structure of timber, mud and straw. Now, however, this place I had designed and knew so well seemed no more real than a dream, and less real than many of those. I sat back in my mind and saw my surroundings as though watching a film or looking at a painting. It was not a solid world any more but an imaginary one, a realm of insubstantial ghosts and shadows.

Suddenly the fire collapsed and sparky pieces of glowing red wood spilled beyond its circle of enclosing stones to roll across the earthen floor. Reality was trying to reassert itself and snap me back. It didn’t work. I just smiled all the more at the trick it was trying to play on me. A spirit walked in through the doors. I checked that our protection was still in place. It was. Nothing to worry about.

Realising there was no more we could do and no more to be done, we packed away our drums, bedded down the fire, extinguished the candles, closed the doors and made our way back through the woods, the full moon illuminating our path. It was beautiful.

Thinking about it back at the house, I realised the importance of that signifier that let me know I had Holwing Wolf Moonreached the crossing point: smiling. There was a genuine and spontaneous joy at having reached that point, at being once again reminded that the concrete jungles we have built for ourselves, even the roundhouses we have built, are not the only reality we inhabit. There are potentially endless Otherworlds beyond, worlds of magic and wonder where we may converse with other animals, with tree people, the ancestral dead, the Faery Folk, the old gods of our lands, or mythical creatures such as dragons and unicorns. On entering these worlds, we find that they have a reality that goes far beyond that of what we think of as solid matter. Of course, matter is nowhere near solid, the spaces between atoms being vastly bigger than the atoms themselves, comparable to the distances between planets or galaxies. No wonder Eastern religions refer to the material world as Maya, ‘Illusion.’ It may indeed be more permeable than dreams.

The world of matter is a world full of worries, concerns, fears, while accessing Otherworlds releases a spontaneous burst of joy. Entering them, we are freed from the weight of the material world, while in them we may soar on eagle wings or lope through forests on padded paws, seeing through other eyes. They are our true home.

Some may see these words as further evidence that we modern Pagans are engaged in mere escapism resulting from our unwillingness or inability to engage with the ‘real’ world. I would argue that, far from escaping reality, we are actually learning to access realities that are deeper, broader, more filled with possibility and more ‘real’ than the familiar, made in China, plastic, CGI world of car adverts, media overload, political posturing and quantitative easing. Give me the Faery Realms any day.

Blessings of Summer’s end,

Greywolf /|\

The pictures:

The one at the top is a mixed media piece I made about 40 years ago, the photos of me blowing the fire and drumming in the roundhouse are by Elaine Gregory and the wolf image is one I found online.

The Power of Words

 Recent discussions on one of the BDO’s facebook pages prompted me to think again about the power of words. I say ‘again’ because, having grown up with a deep love of music, especially of vocal music in which the lyrics convey real depth of meaning and promote thought, and also as a ritual magician, Druid, sometime Witch and practising Druid bard, the power of words is something I’ve been aware of for most of my life.

Living through the near global revolution of the 1960s, it was clear that much of the fuel that kept the revolutionary flame alive was carried through the lyrics of the songs we heard every day on the radio. Overt ‘protest songs’ from politically aware singers obviously played their part. ‘We Shall Overcome,’ particularly as recorded by Pete Seeger, became an anthem for the American Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War and hippy movements. Bob Dylan’s early political/social commentary songs such as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ ‘With God on OFlowers vs. Riflesur Side,’ and ‘It’s All Right Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)‘ were hugely influential, not only on his own fans, but on virtually every subsequent pop and rock performer with anything resembling a social conscience. They inspired the most active minds of an entire generation in countries all around the world to band together under the rainbow banner of peace and love and aspire to put an end to war and bring about a better, saner world.

The later 60s saw a wave of music Jimi Hendrix postertermed psychedelic, exploring the potential for global political change to be brought about by changes in individual and collective consciousness. Prime exponents included Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Misunderstood, The Moody Blues, The Pretty Things, Quintessence and many others. All of them used words and music with the intention of producing heightened states of consciousness in listeners. They inspired my own spiritual journey and those of millions of others, encouraging us to shake off the shackles of the material world, to see and experience worlds of spiritual wonder.

The power of words in combination with music has been explicitly understood by many significant pop and rock musicians. Brian Wilson has stated his intention to use the music of the Beach Boys to increase the amount of joy, love and beauty in the world. The ultimate expression of this is their song, ‘Good Vibrations.’ John Lennon recognised both his Lena of Baalfolket‘clout’ as a former Beatle and the potential of music and lyrics to change the world, using them to promote peace through songs like ‘Give Peace a Chance‘ and ‘Happy Xmas, War is Over.’ His Beatle colleague, George Harrison, inspired by his musical mentor, Ravi Shankar, used music and lyrics to promote a more spiritual world through songs such as ‘Within You, Without You,’ ‘The Inner Light‘ and ‘My Sweet Lord.’ Quintessence had the same aim, as did the more recent band, Kula Shaker.

Spiritual paths other than Druidry have long recognised the power of language. Hinduism and Buddhism employ chanting to create spiritually heightened states. ‘Shamanic’ cultures around the world similarly use chanting, often with music and/or rhythm, to evoke altered states of consciousness. Norwegian band, Baalfolket, are fine exponents of this, as in their the title track from their album, ‘Forandring/Change.’

The Hebraic family of religions attribute great power to speech, maintaining that God created the universe wholly or partly by speech and that one of the names of God, if spoken in a certain way, can undo creation and bring the universe to an end. Australian Aboriginal folk have traditionally held that the continued existence of the world and its inhabitants relies on songs, chants and stories being repeated at specific sites to which they relate. The magical Grimoires of medieval Europe employ the power of words in many ways, spoken aloud, written on talismans or engraved around protective circles.

Words do have power, and this is something we really should keep in mind, not least when posting our thoughts online. Despite the old saw that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me,” words can and do cause real emotional hurt. They can generate anger and ill-will. Those so affected may carry these hurts with them for days, even years or whole lifetimes. On the other hand, words can also heal, bring joy, build bridges and, of course, enchant.

Words express thoughts, and what we think and say is a potent expression of who we are. There are many ways in which we can use words both to reflect who we are and to bring about change in ourselves, in others and in the world. We may, for example, choose to express positive thoughts and ideas, or alternatively, we may choose to express and, therefore, define ourselves in terms of our opposition to other people, ideas and institutions. If we choose the latter, what we say is most likely to be framed in negative terms. While this may be useful to do in our own minds, when we put it out into the world, such expressions are likely to simply generate more negativity. Stating opposition to, or dislike for, an individual or institution, will obviously lead that individual or institution to see us as being in opposition to their own ideas and beliefs and will increase their opposition to us and our ideas. They will be less willing to engage us in discussion, feeling that it would be pointless since they already know that we are in mutual opposition.

On the other hand, if we use our words to express our own ideas, not framed in terms of opposition to anyone else’s but purely in terms of the kind of outcome or world that we would like to see, then we are offering an extra possibility into the world, and doing so without immediately upsetting or angering those we might see as being opposed to our ideas, but who may not actually be so, or who may be open to persuasion. Telling someone that you are opposed to them is an almost guaranteed way of ensuring that they are, and will remain that way, thereby closing off any possibility for constructive dialogue and for the change such dialogue might create. I’ve seen this happen again and again and it always saddens and frustrates me.

Ovate booklet 9 coverHaving spent the last 6 or 7 years researching, writing and editing courses for the BDO has made me extra-conscious of the power of words. The intention of these courses is to offer a world-view that sees the universe as filled with spirit, wonder, magic and life.

Focusing so intently on words and what they convey over such a long period has caused me to review many things in my life. One result has been my choice to no longer read newspapers or watch TV news bulletins, the reason being that they promote an overwhelmingly negative view of the world and of humanity. The impression given is that virtually all human interactions are ruled by bigotry, anger and violence and that we should, therefore, be perpetually afraid of the world and of each other. This is arrant nonsense. Interacting with actual people on a one-to-one basis, you find that the vast majority of them want exactly what you want, i.e. to create a better life for themselves, their families and friends and, in doing so, to bring about a better world for everyone. This is the exact opposite of what the news media would have us believe. The disjunction between the world as it is and the world as presented on the nightly news was starkly portrayed by Simon and Garfunkel in their 1966 song, ‘Silent Night/7 O’clock News.’

Fear & TVBy ceasing to pay attention to the constant drip-feed of negativity through the printed page or TV screen, I resist buying into their false view of the world. Instead, I find myself better able to open up to its inherent beauty and to find joy in a great deal of it. Freed from repeated daily doses of negativity, I find myself more able and willing to try and make my own words, thoughts and actions more positive. What is the point, after all, in increasing the amount of negativity with which we are already bombarded on a daily basis? Is it not much, much healthier for ourselves and for the rest of the world to at least aim to increase the amount of beauty, wonder, joy and creativity in it, even if we don’t always succeed? Put like that, the answer seems blindingly obvious, though you’d hardly think so to see and hear some of the garbage fed to us through the media that increasingly swamp our lives and act as a barrier to interaction with the real world, or even with our own thoughts.

I had an idea for a global internet radio station called ‘Good Vibrations’ after the Beach Boys’ song. I wanted to fill it entirely with songs, poetry and stories designed by their creators to increase the sense of joy and wonder we should all experience in being alive on a planet so full of beauty, courage and kindness. It hasn’t happened yet through lack of time, expertise and the complexity of copyright laws, but don’t you think it’s a great idea? If you have the time and know-how, feel free to start it up yourself. I shan’t mind, especially if you invite me to DJ on it. I already have a title for my show: Greywolf’s Random Radio Hour. The tracks linked to from this blog will give you some idea of what I have in mind. Maybe one day …

In the meantime, I promise to do my very best to make all my interactions with the world as positive as they can be, not to criticise others, to praise where praise is due, and to make music, poetry, pictures and words that assist, uplift, inform and enlighten. In other words, to use my awen and its magical, transformative power for good. Being a flawed human (at least when I’m not being a wolf, eagle, snake or other creature), I doubt that I’ll always succeed, for which I apologise in advance, but the intention is sincere.

As George Harrison said, “with our love, we can change the world.”

Peace, love and blessings to all,

Greywolf /|\

PS. If you got all this way without following any of the links provided, please go back and try some or all of them. A lot of time and thought went into finding them and you’re almost guaranteed to find something you like, find interesting, amusing, entertaining and/or just plain weird. Enjoy!

Meeting Beaverchief

Beaverchief

Beaverchief

In 1999, Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and I made our second visit to Seattle. Our friend, Leon Reed, with whom we were staying, drove us downtown one afternoon and pulled in by a Post Office. As Leon hopped out of the car, we saw a tall Native American guy coming up the street towards us. He was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a wolf on it, so naturally he seemed pretty cool to me. Leon greeted him and then introduced him saying, “This is my friend, Beaverchief, you guys should talk to him.” Leon went off to post his package and Beaverchief leaned down to the car window to say hi. Bobcat and I decided it would be more polite for us to get out of the car to talk. Beaverchief was a fair bit taller than me and towered over Bobcat like a giant redwood. We talked, telling him that we were Druids from England, in town to do some teaching and make some ceremonies. Beaverchief asked if we would like to hear a song. We said, sure.

The three of us stood there on the sun-baked Seattle pavement, and he began to sing. We had no idea what to expect, you seldom do when someone offers to sing for you, that’s part of the joy. What we got wildly exceeded any expectations we might have had. His voice had an amazing beauty, power and resonance. As he sang, we were transported from the bustling city street to the forested side of a mountain, where scented breezes wafted past us, thick with cedar and birdsong, replacing the city scents of petrol fumes and dust, its sounds of traffic and commerce. We listened in rapt silence, outside of space and time. It was utterly beautiful and magical in the best and truest sense of the word.

The song came to an end and we had to re-adjust from the place it had transported us to back to the city street outside the Post Office. We looked around us, blinking at the sunlight reflected from the buildings and pavement. There was nothing to say. We looked at Beaverchief and he knew. We all smiled and nodded.

Leon rejoined us and said, “Wow! That was weird. I’ve been standing watching you guys for a while and it was like there was a huge bubble all around you. People were going out of their way to walk right around, even crossing the street to give you guys room. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

That was our meeting with Beaverchief, an amazing guy. Leon told us he was a local musician and later gave us a copy of a tape Beaverchief had made in 1992 on his Big Magic label. It turned out to be a reflection of his remarkable character. He took traditional spirit songs of his people and set them in a Seattle rock context with great gusto and obvious good humour … you can hear him laughing and telling funny stories between takes. What I didn’t know until recently is that Beaverchief was among the first Native Americans to do this. In the process, he upset some of his own people and some Europeans who prefer their Native Americans ‘pure.’

A Native of Washington State, Beaverchief’s origins lay in the NW Coast traditional native medicine known as saseewis, his ancestors having been an Indian doctoring family who had travelled up and down the coast for thousands of years. His family were registered with the Lummi and West Saanich tribes. However, he also drew on his experience in the Catholic Church, the Indian Shaker religion, the Hari Krishna movement, Yoga, and many other traditions. One of Beaverchief’s messages was that the Northwest Native American culture is a constantly evolving way of life, not something to be stuck in a museum and frozen in time. His music very strongly reflects that.

Here’s what Beaverchief himself had to say:

Beaverchief's drum

Beaverchief’s drum

“I am a Northwest Coast Native American. My people are from the Puget Sound Area. Not until 1978, when a bill was passed which stated that we, Native Americans had the right to practice our way of life (some call it a religion; our people call it a way) did we start sharing our dreams and visions with people who have an open mind, and heart. The sharing of the teachings and dreams was to help heal the wounds between our Native American Indian culture and the White man’s culture.

“This music came about because a friend, Barbara Leischner, asked me to do a ceremony for a special poem that was written for a friend who was sick with AIDS. Mark Nichols was asked to record the poem. At that time I sang the Cedar Tree Song. It was the first time Mark Nichols had heard the music of the Northwest Coast Salish people. That night the inspiration for this music came to be.

“I am proud of this music. It will help manifest my vision/dream of inter-cultural world peace. It bridges together traditions in a good way. It will help the children. It will help the healing. People who listen to the music in a good way will feel the magic of the ancient ways. They will feel the magic of the creativity that comes together from the music.”

Sadly, Beaverchief left this life in July 2001, but his music and his legacy live on. He is rightly

Beaverchief and Friends

Beaverchief and Friends

celebrated amongst his own people and in the Seattle music scene as a pioneer, an inspiration and as a really nice guy.

I write this having just dug out that old cassette and listened to it again. It is uplifting, inspiring stuff. You can hear The Cedar Song and find a link to some of Beaverchief’s music here: http://www.thereallybig.com/Beaverchief.htm

Wherever you are now, big guy, know that you are recalled with deep affection by two English Druids.