Skip to content

1

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 /|\

 

2

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.