At midnight on Monday, August 14th, 1967, the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act became law in the UK. This draconian piece of legislation, brought in by Harold Wilson's Labour government, made it illegal under UK law for anyone to broadcast a radio or tv signal outside of UK territorial waters if such a signal was aimed at an audience in the UK. Anyone assisting in such a venture, whether by actually taking part in such a broadcast, or by providing food or other supplies, was liable to imprisonment.
Until that time, from 1964, British listeners had enjoyed a number of what were dubbed 'pirate' radio stations, mostly broadcasting from ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters. Prominent among them were Radio London, Radio England, and Radio Caroline, the latter run by an Irish national, Ronan O'Rahilly, whose grandfather, Michael O'Rahilly, had died in Dublin in 1916 during the Easter Rising, fighting for Irish independence.
In support of the legislation, the UK government told a series of blatant lies, falsely claiming, among other things, that the 'pirate' radio ships were a danger to shipping or that signals from them were interfering with aircraft and police, fire and ambulance services. The real reason for the Act was that the UK government were able to exercise control over the BBC and ITV, to the extent that, for most of its existence, MI5 maintained an office inside Broadcasting House. The 'pirates' were beyond state control and, therefore, deemed a potential threat to the state.
Ironically, Harold Wilson had gone out of his way to be photographed with prominent pop starts of the day, including The Beatles, just as his successor, Tony Blair, would do with the stars of 'Brit-pop' thirty years later. The BBC, at that time, broadcast very little pop music, so the burgeoning UK music industry was delighted with the additional airtime that artists got from the commercial 'pirate' stations. Support for the pirates was strong amongst the artists too, since it meant that millions more people were able to hear their work.
The 'pirate' stations also benefited from independent-minded and musically knowledgable DJs. One such was John Peel, whose Perfumed Garden Show, broadcast between midnight and 2am on Radio London, was required listening for anyone with a freak mind. He played poetry readings from Roger McGough and strange ditties from Tyrannosaurus Rex, interspersing them with tales of the Dibblers who lived at Peel Acres. Peel's final farewell from the Perfumed Garden is revisited here with a full track listing. Running Peel a close second was Johnnie Walker, whose shows on Radio Caroline would sometimes feature entire new LP releases being played in their entirety, without interruption. Again, for those of us who cared about music, this was bliss.
On the day that the Marine Offences Act came into force, most of the 'pirate' stations ceased broadcasting, and most of their personnel would go on to join the new BBC Radio 1 station, which essentially tried to clone Radio London, even to the extent of repurposing its jingles. What Radio 1 lacked, however, was any sense of independence. DJs' freedom of choice over what they played was replaced by an approved playlist. Eventually, John Peel managed to carve out a career for himself on Radio 1 that, in many respects, carried on what he had been doing in the Perfumed Garden Show, championing artists that his fellow DJs wouldn't, or weren't allowed to, play.
One station, however, remained on the air; Radio Caroline South, moored off the Frinton, Essex coast on the good ship, Mi Amigo. As midnight struck and the Act became law, two DJs and a skeleton crew remained on board. Those DJs were Johnnie Walker and Robbie Dale. They celebrated their new status as literal outlaws by playing The Beatles 'All You Need Is Love' and Pete Seeger's 'We Shall Overcome.' For the next few days, they kept up 24-hour broadcasting between the two of them until a tender arrived, bringing another DJ to help out. From now on, Walker and Dale could not set foot on British soil without fear of arrest. Any UK citizen who gave them a Mars bar or a bite of a sandwich risked the same. However, thanks to their efforts, the ideal of free radio survived.
Johnnie Walker wrote the following piece, broadcast repeatedly from Radio Caroline during that summer, in which he speaks of freedom and hope, ending with the words, "No man will ever forget Monday, August 14th, nineteen hundred and sixty seven." This man hasn't...
Since around 2005, the British Druid Order and friends have been holding a blessing ceremony for the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, the largest historical re-enactment event in Europe, which takes place annually on the second weekend in July. This came about because the festival, which has been running since 1984, had always had a blessing from a Christian priest on the Sunday morning, but the organisers had become increasingly aware that a significant proportion of the re-enactors and stall-holders are not Christian, but Pagan. They therefore asked us if we would provide a ceremony on the Saturday morning before the public are admitted to the field. We’ve been doing so ever since. We began with about eight of us. This year there were more than thirty people in our circle, which isn’t bad considering most of the entertainers, stall-holders and re-enactors who would like to come are attending meetings or preparing for the day’s events at the time our ceremony is held.
In essence, we ask the spirits of the place, our ancestors and the old gods of our lands to bless and protect all those taking part in the weekend. Perhaps our greatest success so far came in 2007, the summer during which Britain was hit by unprecedented floods. Large, open-air events were being cancelled all over the country. Tewkesbury was one of the few that went ahead as planned. Yes, it was very muddy underfoot, but the rain held off for most of the weekend and the event was a success.
For the last five years or so, the BDO and our friends from the Wild Ways retreat centre in Shropshire, have rented adjacent stalls at Tewkesbury. We stay over for the whole weekend, arriving on Friday afternoon and leaving on Sunday evening. This means we get to enjoy the bands who play in the beer tent on those two evenings. We have also developed a tradition of drumming the sun down on Friday evening. We meet lots of old friends and make lots of new ones. It’s a joyous event and one we wouldn’t miss.
This year was a particularly good one for me. A little 8-stringed lyre (left) had arrived a couple of days before the festival weekend. For about twenty-five years, I’ve been obsessed with the Iron Age Gaulish lyres called chrotta and this little one was the nearest I’d ever come across to the best existing image of a chrotta, a stone statue dating from the 2nd century BCE, found in Brittany and called the Lyre de Paule (right).
Having arrived and set up our stalls in the marquee, I was standing behind the BDO stall playing my little lyre, when, to my amazement, a guy walked through the door of the marquee carrying a much larger lyre, clearly based on the same Lyre de Paule statue that had always intrigued me. When I’d recovered from the surprise, I went over and introduced myself. The guy with the chrotta turned out to be Koth NaFiach of Dark Age Crafts, and he makes them.
Starting out as a guitarist, he became intrigued by early European stringed instruments, then obsessed by Gaulish lyres to the extent that he had to make one for himself. Then other people starting asking if he could make them one, and so began a new career. He now tours festivals as a bard, telling stories and singing songs to the accompaniment of these beautiful instruments. As a musician, he has learned how to create them so that they not only look great, but sound wonderful. As a spirit worker, he crafts them to bring out the magical qualities of the materials so that to play them, or to hear them played, is to be transported to another world, to have the spirit truly uplifted.
We talked a lot over the course of the weekend, mostly about our shared obsession with these almost unknown instruments. We talked about possible playing styles, how we both concluded that the Gauls probably used something similar to ancient Greek musical modes for tuning, about the paucity of images of them other than tiny ones on coins, about the relative merits of metal, gut or Nylgut strings, about tuning pegs... We also discussed what the chances were that the two people in the UK most obsessed with Gaulish lyres should be allocated stall spaces right opposite each other at an event covering about 20 acres. This is the type of one-in-a-million chance that I refer to as a cosmic coincidence, that happens when the universe wants it to.
Koth loaned us a chrotta and Ariana, Amanda and I played it pretty much all day behind our stalls. Many people asked about it and we pointed them across the way to Koth’s stall. We were happy to do the advertising in exchange for the spiritual and emotional uplift we got from playing the chrotta. We were truly enraptured. Ariana and Amanda both said they had no musical ability, but that they were able to make entrancing sounds with both my little lyre and Koth’s larger ones. With lyres, it’s all in the tuning. All the strings are in the same key, so it’s pretty much impossible to play a wrong note!
In other news, Bernie the Bolt, who’s been supplying quality cloth to the masses at Tewkesbury pretty much since it started, was having a sale this year. For the tiny sum of £30, I am now the proud owner of 10 metres of 60 inch wide, beautifully soft wool and polyester mix tartan. Why so much? Because I’m going to make myself and my son, Joe, Iron Age bardic costumes. Do we know what Iron Age bards wore? Yes, we do, because there’s this beautiful little bronze figurine of one that dates from the 1st century BCE and was found near a sacred shrine at a place called Neuvy-en-Sullias in Western France. His long tunic and trousers are clearly marked with a lozenge or diamond pattern, which is what you get if you turn a tartan through 45 degrees. Why would you do that? Because cutting cloth at such an angle wastes more material, thereby proving the wealth of the lord who provided the bard with his uniform. Other images of bards from centuries earlier and the other side of Europe confirm the universality of this style of bardic dress.
I also think I may have finally found someone who can make bags with the BDO Awen symbol embroidered on them, and can print the Fionn’s Window design on cloth so that I can make Ogham divination sets of the type described in the medieval Irish Scholar’s Primer.
Coming full circle, I picked up a bag of horn offcuts that I can use to make plectrums for lyres. If I can get the manufacturer to make a couple of changes, I’m going to import some of the little lyres I mentioned earlier and offer them for sale at events and on the BDO webshop. Amanda has already said she wants two of them! They are sweet little things and amazingly portable, made from such a light wood that the whole instrument probably weighs less than a pound. They’re a nice starter instrument to learn your way around and try out different tunings. Then, once you’ve got the hang of the lyre, you can graduate to one of Koth’s amazing chrotta reconstructions, like the one he's playing in this video from the Dark Age Crafts website.
So, maybe see you at Tewkesbury next July? I'll be the guy in the twisted tartan Iron Age bardic costume playing the wolfshead lyre 🙂 'Til then...
Arriving at GaiaGarden in Sweden on Thursday, there was much to be done, including putting up awnings around the ceremonial area, and to cover the place where food would be served. There were also wooden benches to make for 150 people. Luckily, we had Melchior, who handles a circular saw and an electric screwdriver like Jimi Hendrix played guitar. It was awesome to see.
A fire-pit was made with a circle of stones around it. Morten didn’t believe the compass on my phone for marking out the directions. I wanted to believe because it showed there to be a garden gnome hiding in the bushes at the North. Next day, we came back with Morten’s mechanical compass. It disagreed with my phone, so we had a gnome in the North-East, which was fine.
Birch logs were ported across from the log store by wheelbarrow. Many trips were needed before a good pile of logs was made. A basket of kindling was gathered from the woods and all was ready for our sacred fire to be lit.
We rigged up a green tarpaulin over the stage, between timber posts at the front and a set of goalposts at the back. If musicians were not too tall, they’d be OK. Guy Bijl said “We play sitting down, we’ll be fine.” We tried a straight Birch branch to hold the tarpaulin up, but settled for rope rafters in the end, which worked pretty well. With coloured lights hung from them, the stage looked pretty good. Maybe more early 70s free festival than 21st century Glastonbury, but pretty good.
Meanwhile, Morten roped off almost everywhere with striped ribbons. A sign appeared saying Seremoniplass so that we would know the way, and all was ready.
Vehicles began to arrive, tents sprang from the ground like giant mushrooms, and the Gathering steadily grew. By the time of the opening ceremony at 6pm, we must have been about 80 strong. During the opening ceremony, the sacred fire was lit, always a nervous moment as I’ve seen a lot of matches fail to strike and lighters refuse to work over the years. Not this time though. The fire kindled quickly and burnt well.
A second fire had already been burning a few yards away, and a large pot full of chaga had been brewing on it, tended by Morten, Louise and Kyrre Franck. This meant that we could flow straight from the opening ceremony into a chaga healing ceremony, during which we sent out prayers for healing to those in need. Then there was a fifteen minute break before our Druid Midsummer ceremony.
We based our ceremony on traditional Midsummer celebrations in Cornwall, where hilltop fires survived 1500 years of Christianity, died out briefly in the 1890s, but were revived in the 1920s. Part of the tradition there is for fitter folk to take part in a Serpent Dance, linking hands and running through the streets in towns, or around the bonfires. Torches lit from the fires are then carried through the fields to bring the cleansing blessing of the sacred flames to crops and animals.
This video contains a version of the traditional ceremony. The sound quality isn't brilliant, but there's a lengthy section where the Lady of Flowers attempts to lob her garland of herbs onto the fire which is quite fun...
We’re always a little nervous before a ceremony, wondering how it’s going to go. Bringing one of our ceremonies to a shamanic gathering in Sweden, we were even more nervous. How would people react? We had no idea. All was good, because the people who came to the weekend were so wonderful, with such good humour, and willing to join wholeheartedly with all that was on offer.
Of course, we included typical pieces of Druid ritual, opening with the Call for Peace, chanting the Awen, the flowing spirit of inspiration (which may have increased the rain a little), holding hands to swear the Oath of Peace. Arthur and Kyrre helped us with calls to the quarters. We thought Arthur would be good for the North, since his name comes from Arctorus, the Bear, and the Bear is the animal we associate most with the North. Kyrre called to the spirits of Water in the West. We included Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Tree Song,’ which has been adopted by a lot of Druids and other Pagans as a Midsummer anthem. I think we did OK?
Saturday morning began (after breakfast and coffee, of course), with the music of plants, brought to us by our wonderful host, Ingvild, and her magical plant music machine. Beautiful, gentle start to the day.
After a short break, we rowed a spirit canoe on a journey of healing for someone who had arrived the night before feeling very unwell. We were guided by Inge Lise, who did a fantastic job keeping all us crazy people focused and on track, making sure our boat didn’t run aground or sink. The healing worked.
Elaine and I helped Louise serve lunch, then it was time for the Himalayan healing ceremony, but both Elaine and I realised that we were too tired to go to it. Instead, we drifted in and out of sleep as the ceremony went on in the room above us. From what we could hear, it sounded like a powerful experience.
In the evening, we were treated to magical music from the Bijl Brothers and Cromlec’h, both from Belgium, both excellent. The Bijl Brothers’ Cuckoo Song was particularly memorable for the humour of the performance. Steve’s playing of an Eastern European instrument called a Faljar was also an outstanding moment for me as I’m a collector of obscure musical instruments and had never heard of a Faljar before Morten introduced me to one. It’s a sort of giant flute, played upright. It doesn’t have many finger holes, so most of the note range is achieved by regulating the breath. You’re also supposed to sort of sing into it. The resulting sound is unique and amazing. I want one!
Cromlec’h were short of a member, one of their number being so very pregnant that a long road trip to Sweden probably wasn’t a good idea. Luckily, Louise was a member of the band when she was living in Belgium, so she sat in for a few numbers on bodhran, which was good to see and hear. Their mix of traditional and self-written songs quickly won over the audience and led to an outbreak of spontaneous dancing that lasted as long as the music did.
As midnight approached and the set came to a close, the sky was still quite light, having set just below the horizon not long before, taking a brief rest before rising again a couple of hours later. Not quite a midnight sun, but as close to it as Elaine and I had been. Nights that don’t get dark were a new experience for us both.
Sunday dawned bright and fair.
My presentation took place at 2.30pm in the lecture room so that I could show folk some strange images of Druids through the ages. My intention was to explain my vision of Druids as the shamans of Britain, Ireland, and a good part of Europe North of the Mediterranean.
In the middle of my presentation, a strong wind whipped the curtains out through the windows and crashed the windows against the walls of the building. Sitting smiling in the front row was Kyrre, who told me earlier that he had joiked for the wind on the drive to the venue. Good joiking, my friend!
I ended, of course, with ‘my’ native British Wolf Chant. I like to give it away to groups as often as possible because I believe it has a good effect in protecting Wolves in the wild and encouraging their re-introduction in places where they have been hunted to extinction.
We then watched as people packed up to leave, trying to catch everyone for a hug before they went, feeling deeply that we had made many new friends over the weekend. Then began the task of taking down all the things we had put up a few days before.
Later, the twelve of us who were left held a feast in the dining room. There was so much joy around that table. What a weekend it had been! We ate four enormous pizzas and a giant cream cake, washed down with some lovely elderflower wine and a bottle of Louise. Yes, you can get Louise in a bottle! And she’s delicious!
On Monday, after more clearing up and taking down, we headed back across the border to Morten and Louise’s place in the forest. Then, on Tuesday, home with so many happy memories. Thank you everyone, and thank you, GaiaGarden.
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall...”
This opening line of Philip Pullman’s ‘The Northern Lights’ introduces us to one of the core concepts of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, that humans have a sort of external soul, which Pullman calls the daemon. The daemon acts as a counsellor and guide and is intimately linked to our own life force. When we are children, our daemon can take any number of animal forms. With the onset of puberty, the daemon settles to a single animal form.
Pullman’s idea of the daemon was inspired largely by the ancient Greek use of the word to denote a benevolent, guiding spirit gifted to each of us at birth. Similar concepts exist in many other cultures, being perhaps best known in the West through the traditions of many Native American peoples.
I found my own ‘daemon’ with the help of a remarkable Dutch woman called Georgien Wybenga.
Coming from a family that accepted clairvoyance as an everyday reality, Georgien experienced a ‘shamanic crisis’ when she broke her back in 1986. Having to learn to walk again radically altered her relationship to her body and to being alive. It opened her up to new possibilities, which she began to explore with a Hungarian shaman named Jóska Soós (1921-2008). It was while attending her first shamanic circle, guided by Jóska, that Georgien first encountered her own spirit animal, a Red Fox, who has been with her ever since.
I met Georgien at the first ever OBOD camp in 1994. She and her fellow countryman, Walter, invited people to join them in creating a sweat lodge. I had heard of sweat lodges, but never experienced one. This seemed an ideal opportunity.
Sweat lodges are a contentious issue. Many Native Americans object to their use by non-native people, regarding such use as the worst kind of cultural theft. There is, however, evidence that Britain, Ireland and Europe had their own sweat lodge tradition. In Britain and Ireland, there are hundreds of piles of rocks showing signs of burning, dating from the Neolithic right through to the Iron Age. Archaeologists refer to them as burnt mounds. Many were associated with light, temporary structures similar to traditional Lakota lodges. More permanent buildings were used in British prehistory for the same purpose though, as recently revealed in the Orkneys and at the Marden henge in Wiltshire, near where I live. Stone and turf-built sweat houses continued in use in Ireland until comparatively recently. The illustration (click on it to enlarge) shows a reconstruction of a Bronze Age sweat lodge at Rathpatrick in county Kilkenny.
Georgien’s personal journey with sweat lodges began during a year-long shamanic training course in the Netherlands in 1990, with teachers including Sun Bear (First Nations, Ojibwa, 1929-1992), Jamie Sams (First Nations), Archie Fire Lame Deer (First Nations, Lakota, 1935-2001), Ailo Gaup (Sami, 1944-2014), Juan Camargo (First Nations, Inca), Annette Host (Scandinavian), Everett Burch (First Nations), Philip Carr-Gomm (Druidry), Thea Worthington (Druidry), Luisah Teish (Yoruba), Freya Aswynn (Northern tradition), Johnny Moses (First Nations, Tulalip) and others.
I’ll let Georgien take up the story:
“Archie [Lame Deer] came to the spiritual centre the Elfinbench in the Netherlands. It was the first time I attended a sweat lodge. Archie liked to set people off on the wrong foot, so often he then started the sweat at one o’clock in the morning. He honoured his tradition, so women and men were in separate lodges. We should have had the traditional 4 doors or rounds, but after 3 doors he pointed to me saying, ‘you are leading the next door.’ Total surprise, but there I went ‘cause he just got up and left!
“You will not believe that this happened to me twice. In the first sweat with Sun Bear he also asked me to lead a door, not knowing me at all. I was just a participant at that time.
“Archie always said ‘I am not teaching anybody.’ So again, I had to find my teachings just by being there, and this is how it went with all the so-called ‘teachers.’ This is how I felt I had to learn more, just from the ceremony of the sweat lodge, by giving them myself. One needs a strong urge to do some learning and I did travel around the world to find some.
“Archie brought me awareness of the power of ritual and unravelled the romantic idea we have in Europe about the First Nations. He knew a great deal about plant spirits and awoke in me an interest to want to know more about them, enhanced by Anette Host and Everett Burch, when I learned to journey to plant spirits and learn from them.
“As a person, Archie was somewhat unapproachable on first meeting, but when he got to know you better he would tell about his life in the film industry with great humour. There is a book, Gift of Power, written about his life.”
At the OBOD camp, those of us taking part in the sweat lodge committed to spending the whole day helping to prepare it. My own preparation had actually started a few days earlier when I began a fast. The day of the lodge was my fifth day of fasting. During the day, we dug a fire-pit, collected firewood, cut hazel poles to construct the lodge and built it. We were blessed and purified with smoking bundles of herbs. We were then gathered together and asked to pull a card from a deck designed by Lame Deer. The cards were spread on a canvas ground sheet and I drew Unci, the Grandmother. As I looked at the card, a vision engulfed me in which I was standing in the middle of a desert of pale orange sand under a blazing sun. The distant horizon was ringed with blue mountains. A dark spot appeared in the eastern sky. As it drew nearer, I saw that it was a huge Eagle. Swooping down, it grasped my shoulders in its claws and lifted me into the sky. We flew swiftly towards the eastern mountains, where we circled one of the snowy peaks a few times before the Eagle delivered me back to the middle of the desert. All this was completely unexpected, but, I thought, boded well for the sweat lodge to come!
We lit the huge fire to heat the rocks for the lodge, and as sheets of flame spread sparks on the evening breeze, we drummed and danced and sang. It was beautiful.
In the lodge, we did four doors, or rounds, guided by Georgien. The lodge was incredibly hot. I had no point of comparison, but folk with years of experience later told me it was the hottest they’d ever been in. Recalling it many years later, Georgien commented, “Great balls of fire! The fire was so hot that the sunglasses of our fire-keeper, Walter, melted on his head!” The heat was indeed so intense that I struggled to remain upright and conscious, and it took a real effort of will to do so.
During one of the rounds, Georgien called to the animal spirit guardians of the four quarters, as she had been taught to do by Lame Deer. One of them was Coyote in the south. This jarred with me, since we were in a field in southern England, and I was pretty sure we’d never had an indigenous Coyote population. I wondered what our native equivalent would be. In British folklore, the answer should have been Fox, since Fox fulfils the same kind of trickster role in our traditions that Coyote does for many American First Nations. The answer that came, however, was Wolf.
As soon as the word ‘Wolf’ popped into my head, a large, stocky, full-grown adult Wolf appeared in the centre of the lodge. He was curled up in the central pit that held the hot rocks from the fire. The glowing red rocks were inside his body. He raised his head and looked at me, then stood up, the hot stones still inside him. Still looking at me, he jerked his head towards the door of the lodge, gesturing for me to follow. He then walked out through the closed door of the lodge. Leaving my physical body behind me, I got up and did the same.
When we got outside, instead of a field in southern England, we were on the snow-covered lower slopes of a mountain. About a mile away from us was a dark treeline, and the Wolf padded off through the snow towards the trees. I followed, taking care to step in the Wolf’s pawprints so as to leave the pristine snow undisturbed.
We reached the edge of a thick forest of tall pine. A path ran off into the forest, vanishing into its deep shadows. A short way along the path, the Wolf stopped and turned to face me. Speaking directly into my mind, he told me I had to go back to my body, but that next time we met he would lead me deeper into the forest. I went back the way we had come, again stepping in the pawprints. Re-entering the lodge, I rejoined my body, becoming aware again of the darkness, lit only by the faint glow of the hot rocks, and of my brothers and sisters in the lodge with me. A physical memory of the snow outside stayed with me and enabled me to cope with the heat of the lodge much better.
When the lodge came to an end, I crawled out onto deliciously cool dewy grass and a starry night sky. I couldn’t stand. All I could do was roll over onto my back. Eventually, I managed to get to a water barrel by the side of the lodge and drink deep of the icy water. I felt an amazing sense of elation and a new openness to the universe. It was a genuine experience of rebirth.
Later that day, I had to conduct a ceremony for several hundred people among the ancient stones of Avebury in Wiltshire. I was so ‘blown away’ by the experience of the night, the visions, the fasting, the lack of sleep, that I seriously doubted my capacity to hold a ceremony. I intercepted Walter, our fire-keeper, as he crossed the field, told him that the night before had been my first experience of a sweat lodge and asked him how long the effects were supposed to last. He looked at me as though I were a fool or a madman, raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, forever.” I laughed, went to Avebury, and all was fine.
I also told Walter of my Wolf vision and asked what I should do about it. He said that it was traditional to find something that linked you to the animal you’d seen in your vision. I thought this pretty unlikely, never having seen a single tooth or claw, hide nor hair of a Wolf in my entire life. I should have known better. Spirit certainly did.
Eight days after the lodge, back home in Sussex, a friend invited me to a garage sale at his parents’ house. On arriving, the first thing I saw was a large animal hide draped over an old water tank. I looked at it and thought, “No, it can’t be.” But, of course, it was. A Wolfskin rug had been in the house when my friend’s parents bought it in 1947. They hadn’t liked it, so bundled it into a bag and stowed it away in the loft. There it had remained for nearly half a century, until the day of my sweat lodge vision, when my friend had found it and added it to their garage sale.
I told my friend and his mother about my Wolf vision and they gave me the hide. It was made from the hides of six Wolves, stitched together and given a woollen backing. The lanolin in the wool had preserved the skin in very good condition. I removed the backing, added a couple of ties, and made the rug into a ceremonial cloak. That's me wearing it while drumming with Georgien in 1999.
The next Pagan event I was invited to was a venison feast, ‘coincidentally’ hosted my one of my companions from the sweat lodge. I was a vegetarian at the time, but the Wolves weren’t, so I accepted the invitation. I sat at one end of the table, our host at the other. The venison had been steeped overnight in red wine. Before it was brought in, our host told us the story of how it was hunted. As the first mouthful of the tender, succulent meat slid down my throat, I felt the Wolfskins across my back and shoulders ripple with life and power as the Wolves came back to life.
All those present at the feast were leaders of Wiccan covens. As the leader of a Druid Order, I was accepted due to the fact that I had also been initiated as a High Priest of Alexandrian Wicca in the 1970s. Our host told me that one of those present at the feast returned to their coven and told them that Druids were really cool and all wore Wolfskin cloaks!
I should add that, soon after that sweat lodge at the OBOD camp, Georgien, working with myself, Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and others began the process of re-creating a native sweat tradition based on the archaeology referred to above and our understanding of our native spiritual heritage.
Many other Wolf-related ‘coincidences’ followed, including being given a native British Wolf chant, and being made a member of the drum circle of a Native American tribe who trace their descent from shape-shifting Wolves. As a result of that first sweat lodge encounter, and my subsequent work with Wolf spirit(s), I have used the craft name, Greywolf, for many years. I paint Wolves on my drums. I was given a second Wolfskin cloak.
Virtually everyone has a spirit animal who acts as a guardian, guide and teacher, whether we know it or not. I say virtually, because I once met someone who had driven his spirit animal away. He was a long-term drug addict, petty criminal and generally unpleasant person. Most of us are more fortunate, since our spirit animal helpers tend to be extremely patient and faithful. Some of us who have had the privilege of meeting our spirit animal face to face are given the opportunity to work with them on a regular basis. They can unlock many doorways for us. In my own case, among much else, Wolf brought me the ability to shape-shift.
The relationship with one’s spirit animal is a very special one, due to the intimacy of the link and the extraordinary potential for power it offers. It is an exchange. Your ‘daemon’ will look after you to the extent that you look after it. You feed it when you yourself eat. You may be given a spirit song that will help strengthen and maintain the link between you. You may find a dance that has a similar effect, perhaps replicating the movements of your animal helper.
My own journey with Wolf continues, and it all started with that sweat lodge with Georgien Wybenga.
Georgien is returning to the UK this year to offer a workshop weekend in Glastonbury devoted to spirit animals. This is a rare opportunity to work with one of the purest, most naturally gifted teachers I’ve ever encountered. At a time when almost everyone who’s ever attended a workshop now seems to be proclaiming themselves a ‘shamanic’ teacher, making it hard to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, Georgien is absolutely the genuine article. She changes lives. She certainly changed mine!
To book for the weekend, contact Esther Robles by email at firstname.lastname@example.org (putting ‘Georgien’s Workshop’ in the header) or ‘phone +44 (0) 7742 418219. Incidentally, if you book before April 30th you'll save £25 on the fee.
The painting at the top of this page is by Georgien.
A crazy idea came to me on the train taking me to the 2016 White HorseSamhain (Hallowe'en) Camp, held at the Wild Ways crafts and retreat centre in Shropshire, UK. Having seen the already full schedule of events planned for the camp, I had felt there might not be anything I could add to it. For years, however, I had pondered the possibility of holding an all-night ceremony in the Iron Age roundhouse (right) we had built in nearby woods. I thought perhaps this might fit in as it wouldn’t start until everything else had finished, running through until sunrise the following morning, Sunday, November 30th. People would be welcome to come and go whenever they chose to or needed to. Even so, it was a bit of a cheek to arrive out of the blue with this crazy notion without having discussed it with any of the organisers beforehand. However, one of the great things about White Horse camps is the openness of the organisers to the unexpected and strange and their willingness to make room for them.
The idea had three main sources of inspiration; one was the observation that there seems to be an unusual amount of what might be termed ‘weird shit’ going on in the world at the moment; next was the way in which the stand being taken by the Lakota people against a polluting oil pipeline being driven across their sacred land has inspired so many others all around the world to stand up and be counted against ‘big oil’ and compliant governments; third was my own recent journey to deepen my understanding of how our Druid ancestors worked with serpent power. I have no doubt that they did, as evidenced by several representations from around 2,000 years ago portraying native European deities accompanied by serpents. The most famous is that on the Gundestrup cauldron (upper left). Another well-known image from the period overlooks the hot springs in Roman Bath and portrays a bearded god with snakes growing out of his head (lower left). I had worked out some ways in which serpent power was approached, but felt I still lacked a vital key to understanding why it was that British Druids were sometimes called Nadredd, i.e. 'Serpents.'
These threads all came together through a Lakota prophecy that a Black Snake would come to devastate their land, causing people and animals sicken and die. Many Lakota see the DAPL oil pipeline as that Black Snake and, therefore, see opposition to it as both a vital necessity and a sacred duty. I had already been led to the conclusion that individual healing in our Druid tradition comes about partly through invoking the power of a White Serpent of Healing to set against the power of a Black Serpent that brings disease. My thinking for this roundhouse ceremony was to try to harness the power of the White Serpent to oppose the DAPL Black Snake and as many other manifestations of its destructive force in the world as we could fit into one long night.
The ceremony was duly announced to the camp at the first morning meeting, for which I particularly thank Richard and his fellow organisers, Ariane and Hilde. As we wouldn’t be starting until around 11pm at the end of a full day, and would continue until sunrise at 6.50am, I had no idea whether anyone would want to come at all, let alone how many. However, a few friends immediately expressed not only interest but excitement, so there were willing helpers to join me in transporting things to the roundhouse and preparing it. Thanks to Becky, who wields a fine besom, to Amanda, Daru, and Elaine, who not only runs the centre but loaned us two large reindeer hides, some saining sticks and a couple of warm woollen blankets from her house.
When I mentioned our intentions for the ceremony on the BDO Facebook page, people in countries around the world said they would join us in ceremonies timed to coincide with ours. This was a wonderful gift and a further inspiration to us. Thank you friends, heart to heart, spirit to spirit.
Adding to an already potentially rich mix, Elaine also donated a bag of Chaga, a remarkable medicinal plant, a hard, woody fungus that grows on Birch trees in Northern climes. This had been given to her by a remarkable couple, Morten Wolf Storeide and Louise Degotte. Morten organises the global travels of The World Drum, a powerful healing Drum made by a Sami drum-maker following the vision of Kyrre Franck White Cougar. Morten and Kyrre, with their friends, LeNa Paalvig Johnson and Will Rubach, brought us the gift of an amazing ceremony centred around Chaga when we hosted The World Drum at Wild Ways in 2013.
For use in ceremony, Chaga needs to be brewed for at least four hours. This meant that a few of us had to miss the Saturday evening eisteddfod and go to the roundhouse shortly after 7pm to begin the brewing process. Amanda, who had taken part in an initiation in the roundhouse, stayed on to set up the tripods over the central fire to support the two pots in which we would brew the Chaga. The water was already heating when I arrived. We sat and talked for a while as we waited for it to boil. Then we began adding Chaga, taking it in turns to put a handful into the two pots and stir them. We talked through ideas about what we might do during the ceremony and the Chaga crew came up with several ideas while helping my sketchy ones to take shape. For the rest, I was relying on the spirits to guide us, and on all those who came, both seen and unseen, to bring their own inspiration and ideas to the mix.
A few more people drifted in after a while, followed by quite a crowd once the eisteddfod ended. Having doubted whether anyone would come, we found the 20 log seats we’d set out were not enough. Of the 55 people on the camp, about 25 joined us.
As well as making prayers for the protectors at Standing Rock, we had been asked to pray for those standing against another oil pipeline in Florida, which we did. I also wanted to send some energy and protection to the Wolves of Norway, under threat from a decision by the Norwegian government to allow 47 out of the 68 Wolves in the country to be shot. Elaine, recently back from Ireland, asked that we also pray for the Deer over there who are to be shot because there is a remote and unproven possibility that they might be responsible for some cases of TB in domestic cattle. Also present at the camp were several people who have protested against Badger culls in the UK, carried out for the same dubious reason. We added them to our list. I assumed that other things to work for would emerge during the night. They did...
As for how we were going to work, I thought we might do some personal healing, using a technique I developed, or rediscovered, while researching for the British Druid Order ovate course. I felt we should drum and chant for the animals. I already have a Wolf chant (naturally), and a Deer chant, and thought we could come up with something for the Badgers. I also knew we had to work with the power of the White Serpent, though I wasn’t sure how. Again, I trusted the spirits to show us the way.
The fact that we were working through Saturday night into Sunday morning, and that Sunday 30thwas the day of the New Moon of Samhain, helped. Samhain(‘Summer’s End’) is the old Irish name for the seasonal festival known in Wales asNos Galan Gaeaf (‘Nights of Winter Calends’) and in England as Hallowe’en (‘Hallowed, i.e. Sacred, Evening’). Originally held over three nights, it marks the end of summer and the beginning of winter.
The Moon has its own serpentine associations, its nightly waning from the full being likened to a snake shedding its skin. A snake within a Moon appears on many Celtic coins, as in the top left corner of this image from our Druid Tarot deck, taken from one of those coins.
During the ceremony, I remembered a widespread folk custom carried out in Scotland until the early 20th century, in which the White Serpent of Bride (i.e. the goddess, Bridget) is said to emerge from beneath the earth at Imbolc (Gwyl Fair, Candlemas) at the beginning of February, restoring life to the world after the long months of winter. The spoken charm that accompanies the re-emergence of the Serpent translates as follows: “Today is the day of Bride; the serpent shall come from its hole, I will not molest the serpent, nor will the serpent molest me.”
It struck me very strongly that the New Moon of Samhain would be exactly the time at which the White Serpent would go down into the earth, as the leaves were falling from the trees and the last of the wild plants dying back into dormancy.
This phase of the year’s cycle is reflected in, among others, the Greek myth of Persephone, and the ancient Middle Eastern legend of Inanna’s descent into the underworld. In native British lore, the goddess who possesses the serpent power appears as Olwen of the White Track, daughter of the giant, Ysbaddaden (‘Hawthorn’), as Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd (or Nudd) of the Silver Hand, and as Arthur’s queen Gwenhwyfar, whose name means ‘White Enchantress.’ All of these three feature in the archaic tale of Culhwch and Olwen, as preserved in the 12th century collection of tales known as the Mabinogi.
The night of our working, then, was the last during which our Serpent Goddess’s power would remain above the earth prior to its descent into the underworld where it would spend the winter. This seemed the perfect time to invoke her aid. In our ceremony, then, we invoked the healing power of the White Serpent against the destructive power of the Black Snake.
I think it was Ariane who drew our attention to the fact that Ineos, one of the companies involved in fracking in the UK are calling their fleet of huge, Chinese-built oil tankers ‘Dragon ships.’ Is this a deliberate invocation of Black Snake energy on their part? Who knows?
The insidious way in which oil companies and governments are conspiring together to force the unwanted, unnecessary and polluting technology of fracking on unwilling populations around the world is symptomatic of a wider malaise in which democracy has long ceased to be what it was in pagan Greece, i.e. ‘people power,’ becoming instead a means by which wealthy and powerful elites retain dominance over increasingly powerless populations. Polls show that 81% of the UK population would like to see more investment in renewable energy sources, while only 19% favour fracking. In Norway, there is an identical split between the majority who want to see Wolf numbers remain the same or increase and the minority who want them killed. Meanwhile, polls in the USA show that 86% of the population are with the protectors at Standing Rock and against the DAPL pipeline. Fortunately for us, this huge public support for what we were trying to achieve through our ceremony meant that there was a huge impetus behind us. Trying to work magic against opposition is hard. It's easier if the vast majority of the people of the world are with you in spirit. Knowing that they areis encouraging, to say the least.
One of our group brought a flag bearing the symbol of the Pagan anti-fracking movement in the UK and we lodged it into the rafters of the roundhouse, where it stayed throughout our ceremony. I'm not sure what it was originally designed to represent, but to me it looks like a Dragon's head!
We drummed to raise energy for ourselves and the groups and causes we had been asked to pray for and send power and healing to. As with the people at Standing Rock, we directed some of those prayers towards those causing the harm, asking that they realise that what they are doing is destructive and wrong, and that it is in their long-term interests to change.
Long ago, in talking with spirit workers from other cultures and traditions, there emerged a strong sense that we should be working together for our shared Great Mother Earth and all her children. Subsequent meetings with healers and fellow spirit workers have strengthened this sense that now is the time for us to set aside the surface differences that divide us and recognise the commonalities that we share. As spirit workers, we regularly work with altered states of consciousness, and so are ideally placed to work towards changing the consciousness of those who seek to despoil and pollute our planet, bringing them to the light of realisation and understanding that will lead them to change what they are doing for the benefit of all.
We cast our circle with sound and saining herbs, we invoked into it all those powers for good that we work with, the spirits of place, the elemental spirits and guardians of the four directions, of our ancestors of blood and spirit, of the old gods of our lands, and of the White Serpent of healing (as painted on my drum, right) and the Dragon power through which it also manifests. We chanted the Awen, the holy spirit of inspiration and creativity. We shared Chaga brewed on our sacred fire. We drummed and chanted long into the night. From around 2am, people began to drift away, thanking our ancestors as they passed across the threshold and went in search of sleep.
By around 3.30am, our numbers were reduced to around nine, of whom eight were lying on the piles of furs we had provided or on the bare earth floor, most under blankets. While they drifted in and out of sleep, I continued to quietly drum and chant. I had thought to go into trance with the drum, but this didn’t happen. I realised that my role was to drum for the others, both seen and unseen, in the roundhouse and around the world. Between drumming, I made sure the central fire was kept fed with logs.
My lone drumming vigil continued until around 6.30am, at which time, without prompting from me, the others began to stir, wake up, and reach for their drums. We formed a circle around the central fire, linked hands and chanted the Awen again. Then we began to drum the sunrise, beginning quietly and building to a thundering crescendo that carried us across the moment of dawn and into the light of a new day, the day of the New Moon, blessed by the White Serpent of Healing.
I shared a gift of insight the Awen had given me during the night; the reason why our ancestors were called Nadredd. As Druids, we are the Serpent, we are the Power, we are the Dragon. Our role is to embody the Serpent Power, to carry it within us at all times, to use it for the benefit of our communities, our Great Mother Earth and all her children. When the White Serpent Power of the Goddess of Life, Light and Healing goes down into the earth for the long Winter months, we, as Druids, continue to embody it in the world so that the light of life never dies.
Our ancestors knew this, and that knowledge was either passed down directly, or rediscovered, in the bardic colleges that flourished in Wales, Ireland and Scotland during the medieval era. Hence, in the probably 12th century CE poem, ‘The Cattle-Fold of the Bards,’ attributed to the semi-legendary 5th century CE bard, Taliesin, he is able to say with absolute conviction and perfect truth:
“I am song to the last; I am clear and bright;
I am hard; I am a Druid;
I am a wright; I am well-wrought; I am a serpent; I am reverence, that is an open receptacle..."
Wyf sarff, wyf serch... (pronouned ooeev sarff, ooeev serch [‘e’ as in bet, ‘ch’ as in Scottish loch])
“I am serpent, I am love…”
Profound thanks to all who made our ceremony possible and took part in, both seen and unseen, in the roundhouse and around the world. Thanks to the spirits of place, spirit animals, ancestors and old gods of our lands for their gifts of Awen, and thanks to the Serpent Power of Life, Light and Healing. May that power be with all who need it in these strange and troubled times. May the Light shine strong within you.
We are Nadredd and we offer this Awen and these blessings to all in need,
the Chaga Crew /|\
and White Horse Camps /|\
PS. If I've got anything wrong or forgotten to credit anyone who should be credited, please let me know 🙂
"I am song to the last; I am clear and bright; I am hard; I am a Druid; I am a wright; I am well-wrought; I am a serpent; I am reverence, that is an open receptacle."
From 'The Cattle-Fold of the Bards,' attributed to the legendary 5th century bard, Taliesin.
The Lakota people of Standing Rock, North Dakota, supported by allies from over 300 other indigenous American nations, and others from Europe and beyond, are making a stand against the building of a massive, $3.8 billion pipeline across their land to carry fracked oil. The very real fear is that the pipeline will rupture, as many others have, and poison the water of the Missouri river on which the tribe depends, as do millions of others downstream. The Lakota stand is inspiring people around the world to defend their own land and health where they are also threatened by industrial processes forced on them by huge, multi-national corporations, backed by compliant governments. Many of the more than 300 other tribes who have travelled to North Dakota to lend their support, bringing food, clothing, timber and other supplies, have faced similar problems themselves. Sometimes, as with the Lummi in the Pacific Northwest, they have triumphed over the big corporations and have saved their land and water for future generations.
Here in the UK, we also face a collaboration between our government and companies like Cuadrilla and Ineos, determined to begin blasting oil and gas out of the earth using the process known as 'fracking.' Fracking relies on drilling boreholes straight down until they reach the shale level, then turning horizontally and drilling along the shale deposit. Explosives are then laid along the horizontal borehole and detonated to shatter the rock. Then water, chemicals and silica is pumped in at high pressure to hold the fissures apart.
There are many problems with this, including methane migration (i.e. if there's an easier escape route, the gas doesn't necessarily go into the horizontal borehole when it's released), pollution of the aquifers, rivers, streams and drinking water. Meanwhile the above-ground destruction caused by the process involves the industrialisation of the countryside with pipelines, roads, heavy traffic, drill pads, portacabins, compressor stations, water and chemical storage tanks, mud tanks, etc. Plus fracking releases methane into the atmosphere, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Plus getting out profitable amounts of gas requires hundreds of boreholes all along the shale beds and, while the risk posed by a single borehole might be small, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of wells, the potential for harm is similarly multiplied. In areas prone to seismic activity, the dangers from fracking are multiplied still further. Finally, being fossil fuels, all the products produced by fracking cause more pollution when used and add to global warming.
Because of these things, recent polls have shown that only 19% of the UK population favour fracking, while 81% favour more investment in renewable energy sources. Groups are being formed across the UK to oppose fracking. Information about many of them can be found here: http://frack-off.org.uk/locations/fracking-sites/
As with the Lakota, opposition to fracking is being seen as a spiritual, as well as a practical, struggle, between those who see the Earth simply as a resource to be exploited for financial gain and those who see the Earth as a Great Mother, whose children we are. Hence the number of spiritual groups who are coming together to oppose fracking and other destructive and unnecessary technologies.
Throughout my life, I've heard calls and prophecies saying that the time is coming for all the spirit workers of the world to come together, stand together, pray together and work together for our shared Mother Earth. The message I hear now, emanating from Standing Rock and many other places, is that that time is here, and we must all answer the call and live up to the prophecies.
The Lakota refer to a tribal legend about a black snake called Zuzeca that brings destruction in its wake. They say that the proposed oil pipeline is that black snake. An early Irish poem from that great collection of Irish place-lore, the Metrical Dindsenchas, has the healer god, Dian Cécht, slaying a serpent to prevent it laying waste to the land. He then reduces its remains to ashes and throws them into a river, causing it to boil, from which the river is called Berba, (Anglicized as Barrow) meaning 'Boiling,' to this day. This is my translation:
The river Barrow, enduring its silence, that flows through the folk of old Ailbe; a labour it is to learn the cause whence it is called the Barrow, the flower of all famous names. No motion within it was there made by the ashes of Mechi the strongly smitten: the stream made sodden and silent past saving, of the fell filth of the ancient serpent. Three full turns the serpent made; it sought out the soldier so to consume him; by its nature it would have wasted the kine of the indolent hosts of ancient Erin. Therefore Dian Cécht the healer slew it: rude reason there was to cleanly destroy it, preventing it thus forever from wasting, above every resort, from utter consuming. Known to me is the grave where he cast it, a tomb without walls or roof-tree supporting; its evil ashes, no place ornamenting, found silent burial in noble Barrow.
Ailbe, meaning 'White,' is one of many ancient names for Ireland. The name Mechi (Meche) probably shares a common root with the name of Miacha, Dian Cécht's son. The Barrow is the second longest river in Ireland and is known as one of the Three Sisters, the others being the rivers Suir and Nore. All three join together before flowing into a bay South-west of the city of Waterford.
Piecing together information from this and other early European sources, I constructed a rite of healing that forms part of the BDO ovate course. In it, disease is seen as a black snake that has wormed its way into the body and is wreaking havoc within it. The aim is to drive out the serpent and dispose of it in such a way that it can do no more harm. The weapon used is a bundle of dried herbs with protective or healing properties, or having power over serpents, such as Wormwood, Feverfew, Vervain, St. John's Wort, Mugwort, Adder's Tongue and Agrimony. When fresh, the herbs are bundled together, pressed tight with the hands, then wound tightly around with thread and hung up to dry where air can circulate all around them.
The sick person lies down with whatever part of the body is affected reachable and bared. The healer (preferably accompanied by a drummer) then beats the affected area with the bundle of dried herbs, chanting something like this:
Herbs of healing and protection, beat the serpent from its lair. Fell filth of ancient serpent, beat the serpent from its lair. Three turns the serpent made, beat the serpent from its lair. Sought the soldier to consume him, beat the serpent from its lair. it would have wasted by its nature, beat the serpent from its lair. So it was the healer slew it, beat the serpent from its lair. Ready reason to destroy it, beat the serpent from its lair. Preventing it from wasting others, beat the serpent from its lair. Kept it ever from consuming, beat the serpent from its lair. Known to me is where he cast it, beat the serpent from its lair. Without walls or rising roof-tree, beat the serpent from its lair. Burned the evil all to ashes, beat the serpent from its lair. Cast them into flowing water, beat the serpent from its lair, Carried far in flowing water, beat the serpent from its lair, Purified in flowing water, beat the serpent from its lair.
A shortened version, using just a few of the lines given here, should be equally effective and easier to learn.
Through the process described, the serpent is driven out from the patient and enters into the nearest available object, that being the bundle of herbs. The healer then takes the bundle of herbs and burns them to ash in a suitable fireproof receptacle. When there is nothing left but ashes, these are carefully collected and taken to the nearest running water, preferably a stream or river, into which they are cast, the receptacle that held them being washed in the same waters. The Anglo-Saxon ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ suggests that a process similar to this causes weeds growing in the river to turn into healing herbs. The fire transforms the dark serpent energy, the water completes the cleansing process. From this point on, all being well, the patient will begin to recover.
I'm wondering if maybe this chanted spell, or an edited version of it, could be used against the Black Snake of fracking here in the UK and elsewhere? Ineos, one of the companies seeking to make money from fracking in the UK are, incidentally, calling the ships they will use to transport the product Dragon Ships. Maybe saining (our native term for smudging) proposed or active fracking sites with bundles of dried herbs, then beating drums and chanting the “beat the serpent from its lair” chant might be a way to drive out this sickness from our land? Well, it's worth a try …
An alternative is found in the Old English Lacnunga manuscript (circa 1000 CE), which preserves an Old Irish chant that has exactly the same intention as the above. My translation of it runs as follows:
“In case a man or beast should drink a wyrm (i.e. serpent); if it (presumably the patient not the wyrm) be of male gender sing this song, which is written below, into the right ear; if it be of female gender sing into the left ear: ‘I wound the beast, I cut the beast, I kill the beast, a death-cloak comes rowing, the tongue is not hollow, not hollow the sharp-pointed stake, part cut away, part hollow, part wolf the creature [to whom] the death-cloak is rowing.’ Sing this charm nine times into the ear...”
Of course, as Druids, we are serpents ourselves. There’s an old tradition that Druids were called Nadredd, ‘Serpents,’ for the great power they possessed either to hram or heal, for it is the nature of serpents in spiritual traditions around the world that they can either kill or cure. This dual nature of serpent power is often represented by a pair of serpents, one black, one white, the former bringing disease, the latter bringing healing. The caduceus wand of the god, Mercury, entwined with two snakes, is the symbol of the medical profession to this day. On the Gundestrup cauldron (left), an antlered god or Druid is shown controlling a huge, ram-headed serpent, a symbol that appears elsewhere in ancient Celtic iconography, also associated with deities.
Let’s end as we began, with a few words from the poem, ‘The Cattle-Fold of the Bards,’ attributed to the great bard, Taliesin: Wyf sarff, wyf serch... (pronouned ooeev sarff, ooeev serch [‘e’ as in bet, ‘ch’ as in Scottish loch])
“I am serpent, I am love…”
As Druids, this is the power we seek to and need to invoke, the power of love and healing to set against the followers of the black snake, those who see our Mother Earth purely as a resource to be exploited and despoiled. Water is life, and we are one people, strong of voice, strong of spirit. Like our ancestors before us, we must realise that we are the serpents, we are the power, we are the Druids, and, working with our friends in other cultures who walk spirit paths akin to our own, we will prevail, because we must! Just like a tree that's growing by the water-side, we shall not be moved.
Blessings to all,
With thanks to Paul Beer for his invaluable advice and assistance.
For more Druidical serpent lore, see my previous blog.
It started in 1974, the year I simultaneously discovered Druidry and shamanism and realised that classical Druids must have been the British and North-west European equivalent of shamans in other cultures. I sensed from the beginning that a vital feature of our tradition had been a strong spiritual bond between humans and animals. Twenty years later, I encountered my spirit animal brother in a sweat lodge. Ten years after that, I visited the Quileute people on the shores of the Olympic Peninsula and was honoured to be made a member of their drum circle. The Quileute are descended from shape-shifting wolves.
Then, in 2013, four friends arrived from Norway for my 60th birthday party at the Wild Ways Retreat and Craft Centre in Shropshire. Kyrre Franck and Morten Wolf Storeide are core members of the World Drum Project and, with LeNa Paalvig Johnsen and Will Rubach, members of the shamanic band, Baalfolket, 'the People of Fire.' They brought with them an amazing ceremony, centred around a medicinal fungus called chaga, which grows on birch trees in cold, Northern climes. Among other things, chaga boosts the immune system, reduces stress levels, is used for a variety of stomach ailments and has anti-cancer properties. For use in sacred ceremony, it must be prepared over several hours. I joined our Norwegian friends in our Iron Age roundhouse for the preparation. We drummed and sang as the chaga brewed and Steve Rumelhart and I then acted as doorkeepers in one of the most powerful, beautiful, joyous ceremonies I've ever taken part in.
When Barry Patterson asked me to do something for the White Horse Camps Beltaine celebration at Wild Ways this year, I agreed, if I could think of something genuinely worth doing, rather than just filling a slot in the schedule. It had to be of real, transformative value to the people attending, powerful and enriching of our tradition, and truly honouring of our ancestors. It was a long time coming. Eventually, another visit to the roundhouse gave the answer through a vision in which people in body paint, masks and animal hides burst through the doors, accompanied by Barry, wearing a full set of antlers and a blue cloak (right). So I knew there had to be a ceremony in the roundhouse involving animal guising. Then came the question of how to fully involve people in that ceremony. The single two-hour session originally intended then grew into four interlinked sessions that could also be experienced separately.
The vision given to me in the roundhouse reminded me of traditional Pacific North-western ceremonial societies, including the Quileute Wolf Warrior Society. Like many indigenous ceremonies, those of the Quileute societies performed many functions.
They were communal celebrations as well as offering healing and transformation for individuals, all things I wanted our ceremony to achieve. I realised early on that my connection with the Quileute nation has a purpose meant to be beneficial for all in ways I don't yet fully understand. I believe part of it is to help us, as British Druids, to restore lost aspects of our own native traditions. Knowledge of the Quileute ceremonial societies prompted me to look for evidence of similar societies among our own ancestors. That evidence exists and is compelling, from Central Asia, to Vedic India and pagan Europe to early medieval Ireland. The ceremony shown to me in vision suggested another way in which we might begin a process of re-connection with another lost aspect of our ancestral heritage.
It took a lot of organising and the dedicated assistance of many people, beginning with Morten, who gave us enough chaga for two cups for fifty people, gathered near his house in the forests of Eastern Norway. Morten sees chaga (left) as a sacred gift from Mother Earth to be shared with those who need it and will use it well. Next was Elaine Gregory, who co-runs Wild Ways with her partner, Garth Reynolds. She was unfailingly supportive every step of the way. Then there was Barry, willing not only to allow me to run with my increasingly wild ideas but to actively participate in them in a leading role, a role I forgot I hadn't told him about on the usual planes of existence, but we communicated so well in spirit that he already knew, so that was good. In the event, all our efforts came to beautiful fruition.
I arrived a week before the camp was due to start, much of which was was spent cleaning and arranging the roundhouse, making sure it would accommodate the expected fifty people, stocking up its wood supply, clearing the area around it and rigging a temporary tarpaulin shelter in case of rain, assisted by Elaine. We took down a cauldron and a large cooking pot. As ever, I spoke with the spirits of the place and made small offerings to them.
The background for the weekend's events was explained on May Eve, when I gave a talk in the big yurt entitled 'Humans and Other Animals,' ending with this paragraph:
“I've believed ever since I became involved in Druidry in 1974 that our role in bringing back the ways of our ancestors is to empower ourselves so that we can use our enhanced personal power and our enhanced relationships with the spirits that surround us to make this world we live in a better place, to work with the spirits of nature to protect, preserve, heal and improve ourselves, our families, our tribes and our whole ecosystem. As workers with spirits and as people of power, we have the potential to change the hearts and minds of those whose decisions affect our world for good or ill, shifting them towards the good. Our animal helpers can help us to achieve these goals.”
This was followed by the Otherworld journey in search of spirit animals, for which I drummed. As it happened, most people on the camp already knew their spirit animals, but some had not encountered them in the Otherworld, some took the opportunity to check in with them, others undertook the journey for other reasons. The few newcomers were in uncharted territory. This being the last event of the evening, I hoped it would create or renew links between people and their spirit animals which would then continue to 'brew' overnight in dreams and visions, preparing people well for the transformation they would engage in in the woods next day.
The fact that so many people did know their spirit animal or animals was interesting. If you'd asked the same question twenty years ago, when we started holding Druid camps, few would have known. Another measure of how much Druidry has changed, and how rapid those changes have been.
On May Day morning, having reminded everyone that there was to be no photography during the animal guising or the following ceremony, and that it was to be an alcohol free and caffeine free day, because neither work well with chaga (it was, in any case, an alcohol free camp), our Chaga Crew set off for the roundhouse shortly before 11 am. The Crew was largely recruited at the last minute from the ranks of campers and consisted of Amanda Foale-Hart, a great and loving soul I'd seen in action in ceremony many times; Paul Beer, remembered from our World Drum gathering at Cae Mabon in North Wales; Hilde Liesens, who took a central role in our Midwinter ceremony a couple of years ago; and Ariana Power, who was so keen to be a part of the team I just couldn't refuse; Elaine and myself. Never having worked together as a group before, I was a little apprehensive as to how we would jell for what needed to be done. I decided to trust in the spirits. It was a good choice.
Our job for the next several hours was to oversee the brewing of the chaga, stirring into it all the magic we could muster between us. Part of this process was to come together as a group and discover what we were going to do during the ceremony itself.
Our first task, though, was to get the fire going. A couple of bits of log from the previous night were still glowing, so we began blowing dragonwise, as only Druids can. We blew and blew and took it in turns to blow, and eventually fire sprang into being. Building up a cone of sticks we soon had a good blaze going. There's a real art to building fires in roundhouses so that they don't smoke too much. Part of it is using very dry wood, another is maintaining a cone shape so that the wood catches quickly and burns brightly rather than smouldering for a while before catching.
We filled our cauldron and big pan with water, hooking the former on a chain suspended from a wrought iron tripod and standing the latter on a horseshoe trivet. We then waited for them to boil. With so much water in them, even with a good fire directly underneath, this took a while. As we waited, we talked about what we were going to do when folks arrived and drummed together for the first time, tentatively at first but with growing confidence.
I talked a bit about chaga and our native spirit of the birch tree, on which the chaga fungus grows. In Scotland, he is known as Ghillie Du (pronounced Gilly Doo), 'the Dark Lad.' In Welsh, that's Hogyn Ddu (pronounced Hogun Thee). He is a friendly, helpful spirit, small and wiry with tangled black hair, dressed in birch bark, leaves and moss. If you come across him when you genuinely need help, he will help you. If you try to find him for the wrong reasons, you will fail. I also revealed the name and identity of the roundhouse's deer spirit guardian, something I rarely do.
The cauldron, being smaller, boiled first, noisily boiling over, causing hands to quickly reach in and pull it away from the fire. I reduced the level of the fire and we returned the cauldron to its place. Once the big pan was also boiling, we began adding chaga, each of us putting two handfuls into the big pan and one into the cauldron, adding more until we'd used the whole bag. We took it in turns to stir the brew with the hazel stirring stick I'd made, into which John Whittleston had burned the Ogham letters for Birch and Hazel. And so the brewing began.
We continued to drum and sing. I suggested a few chants we might do, including, in view of the powerful deer energy in the place, my native British Deer chant.Of course, I couldn't resist adding my Wolf chant too, excused by the fact that many of those attending the ceremony would first have spent time in the woods being their spirit animals. Paul started to drum and Amanda began to chant the word chaga. The rest of us joined in and a rhythmic chant soon evolved that sounded good and felt as though it had power. Another time, Paul started drumming and chanting the name of the Birch spirit, Hogyn Ddu, which morphed into “Come to me, Hogyn Ddu,” to which I added, “Hogyn Ddu, Hogyn Ddu, spirit of the great Birch tree.”More chaga, more stirring. I started a beat that fit with the name of our deer spirit guardian and we began to chant his name. After a while, I started improvising calls over the chant such as, “I hear your hoof-beats thunder through the forest, I hear your hoof-beats coming to our circle, I hear your hoof-beats dancing in our circle...” By the time the first people arrived at the roundhouse for the ceremony at 3.45 pm, we had quite a repertoire of chants ready.
While we conjured, sang and stirred inside the roundhouse, other things were happening outside. Barry shepherded about thirty people to the log store at the back of the roundhouse where we had provided body-paints Elaine and I had made from charcoal from our fires and coloured clays dug from the land. Some opted to go naked apart from body-paint. Others donned animal hides and masks on top of face and body-paint. Some wore ragged clothing of leather or wool. Once their spirit animal guise was complete, Barry led them into becoming their animals, after which they ran off into the woods. There was a boar, a horse, fox, raven and various other creatures among the guisers, even a chameleon and a hedgehog. They snuffled among bluebells, climbed trees or trotted along paths, according to their nature.
A dozen or so early arrivals who had opted not to do the animal guising saw some of the animals in the woods as they made their way along the deer path to the roundhouse. We opened the doors to them and they were sained and blessed by Elaine and Hilde, our doorkeepers for the night, who marked their foreheads with an awen symbol. They were then welcomed in and shown to their seats. Saining is a native tradition of purifying and sanctifying with smoking herbs, leaves or strips of animal hide. We used a saining stick made from St. John's Wort (left) and Meadowsweet. St. John's Wort is a protective and cleansing herb with a very long history of magical use. Meadowsweet is one of the ingredients from which the enchanters, Math and Gwydion, create the maiden, Blodeuwedd ('Flower Face') as a May bride for the young god of light, Lleu Llaw Gyffes in the Branch of the Mabinogi called Math, son of Mathonwy.
About ten minutes later, we heard the yowls, growls and howls of many animals outside, racing around the roundhouse while Barry's bagpipes skirled them on. A bang on the doors, we flung them open, and in charged thirty or so wild animals. They cavorted, leapt and crawled around the roundhouse interior, shrieking, screaming, grunting, howling, eyes wide and wild. It was an amazingly impressive entrance, exceeding my wildest expectations. To enhance the sense of natural chaos, the Chaga Crew drummed wildly. Barry entered amongst the untamed ones, ducking low so that his antlers wouldn't catch on the roof, wearing his full red deer hide and head (known as Donald), and my dark blue cloak underneath. The scene exactly mirrored what I'd seen in my vision. It was a wild, wonderful, magical moment.
Following the rampage, the animal folk exited the roundhouse. Once outside, they reverted to more human form before re-entering, carrying cups for the chaga. As they came in, each was sained and blessed. After the last person was admitted, the doorkeeper's role reverted to guarding the doors against any unhelpful spirits who might try to get in. When you're doing powerful magical work, good spirits are attracted to it, but more tricky ones sometimes also try to get in, hence the need for doorkeepers. Paul (left) ushered our new arrivals sunwise around the interior, pointing them to their seats.
When everyone was seated, we began ladelling out the chaga brew into the cups they'd brought with them. I couldn't resist throwing in a little Mrs. Doyle impersonation (from Father Ted in case you were wondering), saying “Will you have a cup of chaga now? Ah, g'won, g'won' g'won, you know you want to.” Other Chaga Crew members joined in, and this set off Bee with a fit of giggles. It is in the nature of Bee that when she laughs, she finds it very hard to stop. She told me later that she forced herself to stop when it got too painful to continue. Her joyous, bubbling laughter spread around the circle and was a perfect start to our ceremony.
The roundhouse is a perfect setting for ceremonies, not only inherently beautiful in a way that sings powerfully of our ancestors, but also interwoven now with seven years of ceremonial use and sliding between the worlds, and filled with good, strong, protective, guiding spirits. Such an environment tends to bring out the best in ritualists. Having realised how easy all our chants were to join in with, we encouraged everyone to do so. Then we began.
We started with chants honouring the spirit guardian of the roundhouse and of the many Deer spirits who inhabit the place, as well as the living Muntjac, Roe and Fallow Deer who inhabit the surrounding woods. These were followed by the chants we had created during the day to honour the spirits of Chaga and of the Birch trees on which it grows. Here I found myself adding a variation, “Hogyn Ddu, Hogyn Ddu, bring your healing gift to me.”
At one point, while Ariana, Paul and Amanda were busy refilling cups with the sacred brew, I started idly tapping a gentle heartbeat rhythm on the drum and adding a wordless song. This was soon picked up and embroidered on by people around the circle so I kept drumming but stopped singing to listen to the sounds being woven by the group. It was a rising, falling chant in which voices merged together and wove around each other in ever-evolving patterns. It was utterly beautiful. When it came to a natural end in silence, I was so moved the I was unable to speak for a few moments. I dubbed it the Song of the White Horse Tribe.
We performed my wolf chant, giving folk the opportunity to howl along at the end. We ended with what was, at one time, the closing song of the Quileute Drum Circle. The chant presented perhaps the best singalong opportunity of the night, since pretty much everyone knows it. I shan't spoil it for you, in case you happen to run across one of our ceremonies. It's right to maintain a little mystery.
When we were done, the roundhouse end everyone in it were buzzing with energy and joy. People got up, hugged each other, and began to filter out through the double doors. The ceremony complete, photography was allowed and Elaine got some great shots of blissed out smiling faces as folk emerged into the late afternoon light. There's a palpable sense of joy, wonder, and a kind of elevated calm produced by a chaga ceremony that it's hard to describe but beautiful to observe and to feel. That's why the Chaga Crew are smiling so broadly in this photograph. We did a good job, folks, as did all those who attended. If you want it enough and put the work in, there's no reason life shouldn't always be this good. Smile on!
People were so well attuned with their spirit animals by the work we did together over the first weekend that animal energy continued to flow through the rest of the week, being especially apparent during the lodges into which the camp divided mid-week. From my own point of view, I'd had the opportunity to test a type of ceremony that has several millennia of history behind it but that I'd not tried before. I was delighted with how well it worked and it will form the basis of ceremonies in the BDO Druid course. I've also been drinking chaga daily since the May Day ceremony in the roundhouse and am feeling physically, psychologically and spirititually better than I have done for years!
Ever since 1974, I've been trying to re-create the vision of Druidry that came to me then, a wild, animistic, magical, powerful image encapsulated for me in the antlered man portrayed on the Gundestrup cauldron (right). Over the years, I've come to call this process of re-creation 'rekindling the sacred fire.' The sweat lodge Wolf vision, the Quileute drum circle, building of the roundhouse, drum-making, creating ceremonies based on those of our ancestors, and sharing these things with others on the path, are all a part of this rekindling.
The seventh prophet of the Anishinabe had a similar vision for his people.A young man with a strange light in his eyes, he said, “In the time of the Seventh Fire New People will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail. Their steps will take them to the Elders who they will ask to guide them on their journey. But many of the Elders will have fallen asleep. They will awaken to this new time with nothing to offer. Some of the Elders will be silent because no one will ask anything of them. The New People will have to be careful in how they approach the Elders. The task of the New People will not be easy. If the New People will remain strong in their quest the Water Drum of the Midewiwin Lodge will again sound its voice. There will be a rebirth of the Anishinabe Nation and a rekindling of old flames. The Sacred Fire will again be lit.”
This prophecy suggests that the Anishinabe, in common with many other indigenous peoples around the world, and in common with us as Druids, are in a period of recollection and restoration of ancestral ways.
The prophet added that, “It is in this time that the light skinned race will be given a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and final Fire, an eternal fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood. If the light skinned race makes the wrong choice of the roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth's people.”
Part of my vision for Druidry is that we, having chosen the right road,may take our place around the sacred fires alongside folk of other indigenous cultures. Through a growing network of links, the process of rekindling has already begun. In coming together, we, the spirit workers of the world, may yet kindle that Eighth, eternal fire.
So may it be.
Photographs mostly by Elaine Gregory, with others by Adrian Rooke, Bee and me...
The first stage in preparing a ceremony is to know its purpose. There's little point creating a ceremony just because it's that time of year, or there's a slot to fill at a camp, or someone's asked you to. There has to be a valid, spiritual imperative to it, otherwise there's no point. Ceremony should always be, first and foremost, a sacred act, rather than a theatrical performance or an historical re-enactment, although it may include elements of both these things.
When I was asked to do something for the White Horse Beltaine camp at Wild Ways this year, it took me a long time to work out what to do and why to do it. It wasn't until I visited Wild Ways again and sat in our Iron Age roundhouse that an answer came to me. As so often in that magical place, I slipped between worlds and had a vision. I saw a stream of people entering through the double doors. They were naked apart from animal hides, masks, face and body paint. They danced into the roundhouse and circulated around the central fire while I drummed along with three or four other drummers, all with frame drums. At the end of the line came Barry Patterson, wearing a dark blue cloak and a deer mask with a full set of antlers.
Following this vision, what I felt it right to do on the camp came into focus. Central to it is our sacred relationship with the rest of animal life on our planet. This is, in itself, a complex web rather than a single relationship. It is also a foundation stone of our spirituality. Not just Pagan spirituality either. The spiritual links that humans have had with other animals since the remote depths of prehistory underlie all religions. For our pagan ancestors, and for many modern indigenous peoples, animals were/are models of strength, speed, intelligence, kinship bonding, hunting ability, and spiritual connectedness. More recent faiths have significantly altered these relationships, introducing the idea that we are in every way superior to other animals, and that, because of our innate superiority, we are justified in exploiting 'lesser' animals in any way we see fit.
So the theme for my contribution to the camp is to be our spiritual relationships with animals.
Saturday Evening, 7.30-9.30 pm: Working with Wildwood Spirits
The next question was how to make that work in the context of a Beltaine camp. I already had the vision of the roundhouse ceremony to work towards, so the question became how to get there. An obvious way in is to offer a talk on the spiritual links between humans and other animals and then, for those who want to explore those links more fully and deeply, to offer a spirit journey in search of spirit animals. Which begs the question, what do we mean by spirit animals?
In 42 years as a Druid, I have found that most of us are accompanied by one or more spirit animals, of which one is usually dominant. They fulfil many roles, acting as guardians, guides and teachers, all of which come together in the word 'helpers.' They fulfil this role whether we are aware of their presence or not. Once we do become aware of them, we are obliged to interact with them more often and more deeply; the relationship becomes reciprocal, and we need to work to maintain it. For what our animal helpers give us, we take on the responsibility of keeping them strong and well nourished. We do this by entering into a new level of relationship with them. If you feel ready to take on this level of commitment, then connecting with your animal helpers can be an incredibly enriching experience. When I first encountered my wolf spirit brother, it completely altered my approach to my spirituality and, therefore, my life.
The next question is how to connect this session with my envisioned ceremony...
Sunday, May 1st Roundhouse Animal Spirit Ceremony
The purpose of the ceremony is to cement our relationships with our spirit animals, encountered during last night's spirit journey if not before, and to explore ways in which we can strengthen and maintain them.
Getting to the ceremony itself will require a certain amount of preparation. The roundhouse will need to be cleaned and arranged, and a plentiful supply of dry wood got in. Water, a large cooking pot and various other items will need carrying down. Then, on Sunday morning, I will need three or four people to help me in and around the roundhouse for the rest of the day. They will need to have frame drums and be able to play them well and keep good time. Ideally they should be fairly strongly connected with their own spirit animals. Our role from straight after morning meeting will be to prepare chaga. Chaga is a medicinal fungus that grows on Birch trees in Northern climes. It's most important effect is in strengthening the immune system, and it is widely used for this property throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. To prepare it for use in ceremony requires several hours. I should add that it is not hallucinogenic. The 'chaga crew' will have important roles during the ceremony.
After lunch, folk planning on attending the roundhouse ceremony will need to prepare for it by creating their animal guises. One way to cement our relationship with our animal helpers is to dress ourselves as them. This can be achieved by wearing hides, masks, body painting, etc. As said, my vision had people entering the roundhouse naked apart from animal accoutrements and body paint. We have some water-based stage paints that can be used, but we will also have natural paints made from clay-based pigments dug at Wild Ways. Our idea is for everyone to get into their animal guises at (but not in) the roundhouse. You'll need to bring all your costume bits and a bag in which to store your clothes. You'll also need to bring a cup for chaga. You might also like to bring a cushion if you want to sit more comfortably in the roundhouse where the seats are logs or the hard earth floor.
Once into your animal guise, you'll become your animal, roaming off into the woods and behaving as that animal. After a while, you'll be called back to the roundhouse. Staying 'in character,' you'll roam sunwise around the roundhouse making as much animal noise as you like. At an appropriate point, the doors will be flung open and you'll rush in, still in your animal form. This will be chaotic. That's fine. It's supposed to be. You'll then leave the roundhouse again, still in animal form. Once back outside, you'll 'humanise' yourself. Once the roundhouse is clear of everyone who isn't a member of the 'chaga crew,' two of the 'crew' will take up places on either side of the doors. Everyone else will pick up a cup and re-enter the roundhouse calmly (and walking upright!), being blessed and sained on the way in by the two doorkeepers. Then take a seat and sip your chaga. There should be enough for two cups each. We will be in the roundhouse from around 4 pm to 6 pm.
If you don't want to be an animal guiser, you can still take part in the ceremony. You'll need to arrive at the roundhouse a little before 4 pm (with cup and cushion as required), and take a seat in the roundhouse before the animals arrive. Likewise, if you're not comfortable with nudity, it is not mandatory. Wear whatever you are comfortable with. No one will berate you or think less of you 🙂
So, what to bring: things for animal guising (furs, masks, antlers, what-have-you), body painting (we'll provide some, so don't worry if you don't have any) - a cup - a cushion (optional but useful)...
It would be good to have a follow-up session in which we share any visions we've had or animal spirit songs we've been given ... I'm sure we can work that out 🙂
There will be about 50 people on the camp. We have previously managed 47 people in the roundhouse. It is quite tight, but it can be done.
Sunday will continue with dinner followed by the Beltaine fire ceremony on the stone circle field.
In the folk calendar of Britain, Midsummer's Eve takes place on June 23rd, Midsummer's Day on the 24th. Records of celebrations being held on these days go back at least as far as the 14th century, when a monk of Winchcombe, on the Cotswold edge of Gloucestershire, refers to local folk rolling a flaming wheel down a hill on Midsummer's Eve. A similar rite was held on the same day in the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales in the 1820s and is described in some detail:
“People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If this fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”
A similar ceremony is mentioned in the 4th century Acts of Saint Vincent as having taken place amongst pagans in Aquitane in southern France, who rolled their fiery wheel down a hill and into a river, from which they rescued the charred pieces to reassemble them in a temple to their sky god.
Ronald Hutton, in his 'Stations of the Sun' (Oxford University Press, 1996, page 312), says that Midsummer's Day “occupied much the same relationship with the solar cycle as Christmas day; it represented the end of a solstice, the period in which the sun ceased to move for a short period, but rose and set at the same points on the horizon at the extreme end of its range. Now, however, it was ta the height of its strength, and light at its longest, and Midsummer Eve represented the culmination of that period of apogee, just before the days began to shorten again as the sun moved southward. In response to the swelling of heat and light, foliage and grasses were now likewise at their fullness, before the time of fruiting approached. No wonder that it seemed a to be a magical time to the ancient Europeans.” He adds that “In the northern half of the continent the festival was generally the most important one of the whole year.”
Why, then, do most modern Pagans celebrate midsummer on the day of the summer solstice and not, as our ancestors did, a few days later on June 23rd-24th?
The answer is not hard to find. The idea of celebrating the summer solstice comes from William Stukeley, who associated Druids with Stonehenge and, in 1720, was the first writer to mention the solstice alignment of the Hele Stone with the centre of the circles there. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Gorsedd of Bards of Britain in 1792, visited Stonhenge and followed Stukeley in believing that Druids celebrated the solstice there. The same alignment was central to a book called 'Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered,' published by Sir Norman Lockyer in 1906. This book influenced the Ancient Druid Order, who started holding rituals at the henge a few years after its publication. By the time Gerald Gardner and members of his coven were creating Wicca in the late 1940s, the idea of celebrating the solstices had become firmly fixed in the public imagination, and so the solstices became part of its festival wheel of the year. All of them either ignored, or were unaware of, the ancient and pan-European tradition of celebrating on the 24th.
Why then, you may ask, is the Stonehenge Hele Stone aligned on the summer solstice sunrise, as is an avenue of stones at Callanish in the Orkneys and some of the stone rows at Carnac in Brittany? First, we may question whether the alignments actually are on the solstice or on Midsummer's Day. After all, it is the nature of solstices that the sun's rising position barely alters for about a week. Given the once pan-European custom of celebrating Midsummer's Day, by far the most likely explanation for the alignments is that they were designed to be watched in the run-up to midsummer, giving those who understood them time to spread the word that the festival day was approaching. Early agricultural communities were spread out over wide areas and travel was largely on foot. We know that people came to Stonehenge from all over southern England and as far afield as Switzerland. A decent amount of advance warning of festival dates was essential.
Incidentally, it is currently fashionable to say that the major alignment at Stonehenge is not on the summer solstice sunrise, but on the midwinter sunset. While there can be no doubt that there is a midwinter alignment at Stonehenge, there is also, as Stukeley correctly surmised in the early 18th century, an extremely clear midsummer one. One does not cancel out the other.
You may ask if it matters which day we celebrate midsummer or midwinter on? Personally, I think it does. Having been a Pagan for half a century or so, I've observed a lot. One of the things I've observed is that celebrating the solstices often causes problems. An obvious example is the amount of aggression that has often been associated with celebrations of the summer solstice at Stonehenge. In the early 20th century, the then head of the Ancient Druid Order became so incensed at being asked to pay sixpence to get in to the the henge that he uttered a long and angry curse on their owner. In the 1950s, the Ancient Order of Druids, who had been meeting at the henge annually since 1905, vowed never to do so again after loud, drunken hecklers climbed all over the stones during the AOD's solstice ceremony. In 1985, the police and soldiers in police uniforms smashed up vehicles attempting to get to the henge for the solstice, beating unarmed men, women and children in what became known as The Battle of the Beanfield. When I attempted to hold a ceremony for world peace at Avebury on the summer solstice of 1996, it was disrupted by angry drunks. By contrast, those I've held on Midsummer's Day have been peaceful, joyous and focused.
A kind of testosterone madness kicks in at the summer solstice which has dissipated by Midsummer's Day, a few days later, when the solar tide has turned. If we are truly attempting to restore, or at least be inspired by, the spirituality of our ancestors, then surely it makes sense to try and follow the ways in which they rode the cosmic tides. This is perhaps especially true of the solstices, the two annual festivals our ancestors regarded as vital, pivotal times of the year, times of magic and divination and of great power.
When Emma Restall Orr and I founded the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge in 1997, we made sure it would celebrate Midsummer's Day. This works out well, as a quiet, focused ceremony attended by no more than a hundred people restores a sense of peace to the place after the wildness of the solstice celebrations which attract many thousands.
In Cornwall, the old tradition has been maintained, and a string of hilltop fires are kindled each year on Midsummer's Eve, June 23rd, just as the sun is setting. The accompanying ceremony is spoken in Cornish and climaxes with a Lady of the Flowers casting into the roaring flames a garland made up of good herbs, those believed to have medicinal qualities, along with bad herbs, those that are poisonous, and sprigs of oak, rowan and foxglove.
I suppose rolling flaming wheels down hills would land us in trouble with Health and Safety regulations these days, but there's no reason why more of us shouldn't celebrate midsummer at Midsummer.
Merry Midsummer to one and all,
Now here's a little treat for you for having read this far. "Oh do not tell the priest of our rites, for he would call it a sin, for we've been out in the woods all night, a'conjuring summer in..."
Here's a quote from the British Druid Order ovate course booklet, The Ways of the Gods. It seems particularly relevant in the light of recent events that have seen a tiny, destructive minority of fanatical members of each of the big three monotheistic faiths invoking scriptural authority to justify violence against others, sometimes succeeding in dragging whole nations along with them. I'm thinking not only of the 9/11 attacks and those that have followed in its wake, but of the continuing strife between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a tragic list that could all too easily be extended:
'I see no harm in applying rigorous analysis to systems of belief. On the contrary, it seems to me a good and useful thing to do. I do so for my own beliefs and feel no sense of threat when others do the same. I admire and enjoy the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who regard all religious beliefs as absurd and dangerous delusions. They are intelligent men who write, and argue their cases, well. I agree with much of what they say and would be happy to debate amicably with them over points of disagreement. As an intelligent, enquiring Pagan, I do not see blind faith as being an adequate substitute for provable fact or observable reality. My own beliefs are based on observations that have been subjected to repeated analysis over a period of half a century or so, as a result of which they have continually changed and evolved as new information has become available and new observations have been made. 'By contrast, some adherents of the big three monotheisms seem to feel deeply and personally threatened by any attempt at objective analysis of the background to their faiths, or any deviation from those faiths, often responding with death threats or actual violence, up to and including murder on an industrial scale. The history of Europe is littered with examples of the latter, from the murder of pagan priests in late Imperial Rome, through bloody campaigns against Christian heretics (right) and 16th century Witch-hunts to the Nazi Holocaust.
'The underlying cause of such deep-seated and destructive insecurity can only be fear; fear of change allied with a fear of being shown to be wrong. What is wrong with being wrong? Surely the path towards ultimate truth requires us to question each step along the way, rejecting those that prove wanting so that we can move on? 'The difference here is one that has been characterised by Robert Anton Wilson (left) as that between dogma and catma. Wilson, co-author with Robert Shea of the Illuminatus! trilogy (Dell Publishing, 1975), said that “Discordians don't have dogmas, which are absolute beliefs; we have catmas which are relative meta-beliefs.” In other words, religious dogmas are regarded as absolute and therefore restrictive of freedom of thought, while Discordian catmas, through not being hard and fast but constantly subject to change and revision, actively encourage freedom of thought.
Discordianism is an absurdist, surrealist, Dadaist religion that Wilson, Shea and others created inspired by the philosophy and spirituality of late 1960s youth culture. I find the idea of catmas admirable and inspiring, while I have always had a problem with dogmas, which is why the BDO promotes the former and rejects the latter. We both expect and encourage you to regard our course material as a series of catmas that you can either take or leave depending on how well or otherwise they resonate with your own experience of the world. We actively encourage a questioning approach to the world in general, and anything we say in particular.
'Incidentally, Wilson also said that “Most religious people take themselves too damn seriously, which is why they act like such damn fools. I'm using the word damn for the paradoxical effect.” I like him.'