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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,