I've recently been exploring prehistoric pottery, putting what I've learned into practice by making four Bronze Age pots (left) using only Bronze Age techniques (coil-building) and tools (hands and animal bones). Once they're fired, my intention is to turn them into clay drums. What inspired me to do this was reading claims by archaeologists that there is no evidence for the existence of drums of any kind in British prehistory throughout the whole of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, a period of more than 3,000 years. This seems extremely unlikely and would make the ancient peoples of the British Isles unique among ancient or modern cultures, percussion being fundamental to music-making and music-making being fundamental to humanity.
The first step was to find the missing drums. Knowing that timber and hide frame drums would be unlikely to survive long in the British climate, and knowing that clay drums were made during the Neolithic era in Europe, I started looking at clay pots in museums in Britain. It didn't take long to find numerous exapmles that looked as though they would make fine drums. Some replicate the shapes of the Neolithic European clay drums, in common with which other British examples have pinched and pierced lugs (see below) that would be ideal for threading rawhide through to attach drum skins. Then there are the hundreds of collared urns that have survived more or less intact from the Bronze Age. Though often called cremation urns, many do not contain cremations, some being buried alongside cremated remains but not containing them, others with un-cremated remains, while some are not found with burials at all. Then there's the question of what the collar is for that gives them their name? It would certainly be a convenient way to anchor a strip of rawhide cord, through which further cord could be threaded to hold a drum skin in place. I've been unable to think of another reason for it being there and would welcome any suggestions.
Having selected four specific Bronze Age pots, two made close to my home in Wiltshire, the others from neighbouring Berkshire, I decided to create replicas to see how they might work as drums. Making them has been an education in itself, and one that has given me an even greater respect for our ancestors. The collared urn in particular took four days to build using the coil method used by our ancestors before the introduction of the potter's wheel. Building a big coil pot requires it to be left every now and then to partially dry before the next stage can be added without causing the lower part to buckle or collapse. The process of pinching down the coils and then working them to produce a smooth surface is painstaking and time-consuming. Decorating a pot of this size (over 12 inches tall and 10 across) also takes hours, even when the decoration consists of relatively simple geometric patterns.
The presence of decoration on the upper part of many collared urns has been put forward as an argument that they can't have been used as drums because attaching a skin would obscure the carefully applied decoration. I'm not convinced that this argument stands up. A skin cut carefully to size and secured with narrow rawhide strips would cover very little of the decoration, as this rather crudely photo-shopped image shows. The rawhide cords shown are much thicker than they need be, so in practice even less of the decoration would be covered.
Incidentally, one of the things I learned during my researches is that, in all cultures of which we have any knowledge, pots are always made by women, until the introduction of the potters' wheel, at which point men take over. Hmmm...
My theory is that many 'collared urns,' and some other pottery types, including some identified as 'food vessels,' were made and used as drums, perhaps presented to their owners as part of a rite of passage into adulthood. These would then be used throughout their lives, not just to produce music, but also to access altered states of consciousness, as is common in cultures all over the world. Having been used for travelling between worlds while their owners were alive, what better thing to be buried with them after death, accompanying them on that journey too? Simon Wyatt has a similar theory in regard to the Neolithic clay drums of Eastern Europe.
I'm not the first person to come up with the idea that some Bronze Age pots were used as drums. That collared urns may have been drums was suggested by Ian Longworth, a former Keeper of Prehistoric and Romano-British Antiquities at the British Museum. In his 'Collared Urns of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland' (Cambridge University Press, 1984, page 6), he says “The function of the collar elements remains debatable... The basic role of the Collared Vessel in a domestic context is likely to have been as a storage vessel. The need for a cover would therefore have arisen spontaneously. The ability to secure a cloth or skin cover firmly on the top of the vessel raises the possibility that some may have enjoyed a secondary use as drums.” The difference between us is that I'm suggesting a primary use as drums and a secondary use as grave goods.
My friend, Elaine Gregory, on whose land we dug the clay, and in whose pottery I made the pots, suggested that I could either make some more to sell or run workshops on how to make them. The problem with making them to sell is that they take such a long time to make, even more once you factor in the time to treat and fit the drum skins. The collared urn was worked on over 20 hours plus. Being big and thick-walled, it then required several days to dry before firing. Firing them on a fire in the open would take a further 10-12 hours, although several can be fired at once. Treating and fitting skins takes around two weeks, though most of that is waiting for things to happen 😉
Estimating that a complete 'collared urn' drum requires around 40 hours of work, even calculated at the national minimum wage of £6.70 an hour, adding on materials, one would have to cost £300 or so. That said, they'd hopefully last a lifetime and beyond - I intend to have my ashes interred in mine when the time comes 🙂 Even a beaker like the one on the left would have to sell for around £150 to be viable. Which leaves the problem of how and where would you market them to folks who would, a) be interested, and b) be able to afford the cost?
Workshops would be fairly costly too once time, materials, accommodation and food are all factored in. Again, I wonder if there's enough interest to make them viable? Also, from a practical point of view, workshops might have to be spread out, with one devoted to actually making and decorating the pots. Depending on the size and design, this could take from two to four days. Then there would need to be a break while they dried, followed by another workshop to fire them, hopefully fitting a pre-prepared skin on the same weekend once they'd cooled down. Hmm, that would require a fair level of commitment. Still, if I'm nuts enough to do it, maybe others might be interested too? And even if I only get a few clay drums out of the experience, it's still been a fascinating adventure!
I've also been in touch with Andrew Appleby, a.k.a. the Harray Potter, who has been making Neolithic pots based on originals found in the Orkneys since 2007. He has made several into drums and tells me they play brilliantly. He has made a set for percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. He's also written a pre-historical novel, Skara, which features characters playing his drums in context, and which is being turned into an opera. In the book, he refers to the drums having rounds of pitch applied to the skins, as is the case with tabla drums. Interesting idea. I might try that... 🙂
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..."
In researching and writing for the British Druid Order's Druid course, I've been working on the sub-stratum of spiritual beliefs and practices that underlies just about every religion there is. This seems to have emerged about 40,000 years ago in Central Asia. By 35,000 years ago, it had spread across a territory extending from Spain to Siberia. A central feature consists of ways in which humans and other animals relate spiritually. I've identified seven animals, or groups of animals, that have maintained key roles in human spirituality for millennia - at least among peoples who have either retained ancestral ways or are seeking to renew them. The seven are:
Eagles: - Eagles are royal birds, linked with the Sun, sometimes regarded as ancestors, and are messengers between our Mid-world and the Upper-world of the sky gods. Because of this, they are often regarded as bringers of storms and winds. They are also invoked for healing and in childbirth. (Picture: shape-shifting Eagle from Woodeaton in Oxfordshire. Late Iron Age)
Ravens: - Highly intelligent birds, Ravens are noted for their wisdom and also regarded as creators, shapers and shape-shifters, culture-bringers, teachers and tricksters. They are invoked, and their movements studied, for divination. As carrion-eaters, they are associated with the Otherworld of the dead and seen as messengers between worlds. What goes for Ravens applies to some extent to most other members of the Corvid family, Crows, Magpies, &c..
Serpents/Dragons/Wyrms, &c.: - By many names are they known. Serpents are chiefly seen as Under-world beings, receptacles of very strong power that can cause earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Some are winged and create thunder-storms. Serpents can also create disease and injury in humans and other animals. Conversely, people of sufficient strength can 'tame' the serpent power and use it just as powerfully for healing. Serpents have long been associated with the Moon, their ability to shed and renew their skins being likened to the lunar cycle. (Picture: Pictish stone with carved Serpent, Moon, lightning bolt and Oghams. Brandsbutt, Scotland. c. 6th century.)
Bears: - Bear cults and societies are pretty much universal wherever there are bears. The bear is seen as a powerful protective spirit, teacher and guide, also as an ancestor, healer and culture-bringer or enhancer. Considered human-like because they sometimes rear up on their hind legs, bears were also invoked by warriors for their courage, strength and stamina. (Picture: The Bear goddess, Artio - from Celtic 'Artos,' 'Bear' - feeds one of her kin. Bern, Switzerland. Late Iron Age.)
Wolves: - Wolves are powerful teachers and guides, also revered as ancestors. Their pack behaviour teaches us the benefits of community. Wolves, like Bears, were also invoked by warriors, Wolf warrior societies having been common in Europe, Asia and America. Like the others mentioned so far, Wolves are hunters or scavengers, invoked to bring success in hunting. (Picture: Pictish Wolf. Ardross, Scotland. c. 7th century.)
Bovines: - The primal bovine of ancient Eurasian cultures was the Aurochs, an animal considerably bigger and stronger than the modern-day cattle descended from it. Its hide was usually black. The other major bovine spirit of our ancestors was the Eurasian Bison. Bulls and Cows are both associated with powerful deities, often the parents of divine dynasties. The first, largest and most powerful prey animal on the list, hunted for meat, skins to make clothing and shelters, bones and horns to make a wide variety of practical or decorative objects. Bovine skulls were often buried as spirit guardians of sacred sites. (Picture: Pictish Bull from Burghead, Scotland, now in the British Museum. c. 7th century.)
Cervids (Deer): - Like bovines, the Deer family have long been a major prey species for humans and wolves. Like bovines, their skins have provided shelter and clothing, their bones tools and ornaments. They are often connected with via antlered deities who ensure their health as a species while giving humans permission to kill individual animals. (Picture: Bronze Stag from Nuevy-en-Sullias, France. Late Iron Age.)
We humans connect with these and other animal spirits in a variety of ways. They often appear to their chosen humans first during life-transforming visions. After the first appearance, their aid can be invoked by mimicking their behaviour and cries and/or dressing as them in ceremonies, by using a feather, tooth, claw or some other token, usually kept about the person for this purpose, by painting them on a drum or making a rattle in their image, or by placing images of them on an altar in the home.
In looking at the copious folklore attached to all these creatures in cultures around the world, I am struck by the fact that folk who study such 'oral texts' these days seem to readily accept them as evidence of ancient beliefs and practices if they are found in, say, Siberia, Nepal or New Mexico. Some of the same researchers then seem oddly reluctant to make the same assumption when very similar folk tales and customs are found in Britain and Ireland. This even applies when the British and Irish tales were collected at the same time and their Asian or American counterparts, usually the late 19th century when interest in folklore was at its height. The folklorists who collected this material at the time mostly believed that it related to ancestral cultures in the same way wherever it was found. Some undoubtedly overstated the case, but the suspicion that overstatement caused doesn't seem to apply to 'exotic' cultures. Could it be that some European scholars, at this point in the 21st century, still feel deep in their bones that 'those people' are 'primitive' whereas our fellow-countryfolk couldn't possibly harbour beliefs similar to ones our shared ancestors held 35,000 years ago? I sincerely hope this isn't so, but the differing attitudes towards different cultures do make me wonder.
The picture is of Alexander Carmichael, who collected folklore in the highlands and islands of Scotland in the late 19th century. He was definitely one of the good ones. His Carmina Gadelica remains a fine source of arcane lore. You can access two volumes of it for free here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg.htm
There are, however, more modern researchers who revert to the older notion of accepting folk tales, specifically those written down in the medieval era, as preserving genuine ancient beliefs. One such is Irish archaeologist, John Waddell who, In his recent book, Archaeology and Celtic Myth (Four Courts Press, 2014), quotes his colleague, Tomás Ó Cathasaigh's opinion that: "what is remarkable about the Irish situation is the extent and richness of the vernacular literature which has come down to us from the early medieval period. Much of this literature is firmly rooted in ancient myth and remains robustly pagan in character."
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.'
I've loved the idea of roundhouses since my teens when I went to a party hosted in an oast house in Sussex. As soon as I entered, I just thought there was something inherently right about living in a circular structure. When everyone sat around the walls in a circle, it seemed to encourage conversation and sharing, whether of conversation or food and drink. Oast houses, incidentally, were traditionally used for drying hops in South East England. Quite a few still exist and they are, I think, beautiful buildings, as you can see from the picture of these Sussex examples.
A few years later I became interested in the ancestral spiritual traditions of Britain and was delighted to find that our ancestors in the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and well into the Roman era had lived in roundhouses, a period of about 4,000 years.
It wasn't until 30 years later that a friend offered me the opportunity to build a roundhouse (above) in a clearing in a wood in Shropshire that she inherited from her parents. Working only in some of my sons' school holidays, it took three years and a lot of help to create our roundhouse. Most of those working on it were Druids, though a few Buddhists and folk of other traditions helped out too. All put great spirit energy into the place and the building. We had to learn a lot of new skills. My design used elements from the archaeology of half a dozen different sites, combining them into something that seemed like it would work and create a good, structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing and useable building. We use it mainly for ceremonies, music and storytelling. The acoustics are excellent.
There's something about learning all these old craft skills, from growing and harvesting the straw and cutting the right wood, through wattling the walls to thatching the roof with the straw we'd grown, that really connects you with the spirits of our ancestors. You get a clear sense of what it was like to walk in their shoes. The fact that the building project was accompanied all the way through by rituals designed to weave the building into the place and integrate it with the spirits of nature helped to build that sense of connection. Our roundhouse has a 22 foot internal diameter, a wheat-straw thatched roof partly supported by an internal circle of ash posts, lime-washed wattle and daub walls and a beaten earth floor (right). For more photos, see the albums on my facebook page, especially the one covering the building process.
Five years on from the completion of that first roundhouse, I'm working again with John and Ken. John's the guy who taught us to thatch and Ken is another core member of the team from the Shropshire build. We're working on a pair of conjoined roundhouses for the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans in South Wales (below). These are based on archaeology from a site on Anglesey called Bryn Eryr, 'Hill of Eagles.' As in Shropshire, we're being aided by many helpers, from archaeological students to men on probation. Also helping out are Ian, the Museum's resident Iron Age reenactor, and Dafydd, whose website, britishroundhouses.com, lists over a hundred reconstructed roundhouses in England, Wales and Scotland with photos of each one.The first of the St Fagans roundhouses is being thatched with a base coat of gorse and heather onto which straw is stitched. We're then stuffing straw into this base coat. This roundhouse is 32 feet in diameter. The second, larger roundhouse (40 foot diameter) will have a short row of gorse around the base of the roof as a rodent deterrent and will then be thatched using a long-straw thatching technique. Neither has an internal post circle, relying instead on very thick clay and earth walls.
Of course, most of what happens above ground in modern roundhouse reconstructions is based on educated guesswork. Almost everything that survives in the archaeological record is at or below ground level. Peter Reynolds set the style for roundhouse reconstructions with his pioneering work at the Butser Iron Age farm in Hampshire in the early 1970s (below). This includes using straw thatch for the roofs. The logic of this is that cereal crops were being grown and the by-product of straw would therefore have been readily available. In other parts of the country, water reeds or grasses such as marram grass may have been used. It's also possible that turf, tree bark or wooden shingles were used.This morning a facebook friend suggested I might go to the USA and show folks over there how to build Iron Age roundhouses. This got me wondering if there weren't already reconstructed roundhouses in America. An online search failed to reveal any Celtic ones. However, there is a Native American tradition of roundhouse building. Here are two examples from California:
First is a 1947 picture of a roundhouse on the reservation of the Tuolumne band of the Me-Wuk (or Miwok) tribe in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. A typical Me-Wuk village consisted of umachas (cedar bark houses), chakkas (acorn granaries) and a hangi (ceremonial roundhouse). The ceremonial roundhouse was the center of tribal life, used for a variety of purposes by different groups. They are typically 30 to 40 feet in diameter and roofed with earth, bark, or, as with this one, wooden shingles. Dances are still held in these roundhouses to give thanks and to honour all that the Earth Mother has given to the people.A second Me-Wuk roundhouse (left) was built in 1974 within the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. As with the Tuolumne example, the door faces East, towards the rising sun. Four large oak posts support the roof of the sixty foot diameter structure (below left). The rest of the roundhouse is constructed of cedar poles secured with grapevine and the roof is topped with cedar bark. Inside is a central fire pit. A fire exit was added in the rear of the structure in 1993 to comply with state fire regulations. The door faces the east to catch the sunrise. The roundhouse is still used today, on occasion, for ceremonial dances. It has a plaque outside designating it as California Registered Historical Landmark No. 1001.
One notable similarity between the two roundhouse-building traditions is that both British and Native American examples have doors oriented to the East, or an arc between East and South-east. The practical reason is to allow maximum daylight into the roundhouse via the doors. The spiritual reason, which I'm sure is the same in both traditions, is that the sun is recognised as a divine source of light, warmth and healing.There's archaeological evidence that some larger British roundhouses were used for ceremonial purposes during the Iron Age, as ours in Shropshire is and as the Me-Wuk ones are.
One difference between the two traditions, obvious from the photos here, is the pitch of the roof. Having a straw-thatched roof on a roundhouse means you have to apply a fairly thin thatch so that smoke from the central fire will filter out through it. A thin thatch means you have to rake up the angle of the roof so that rain will run off it quickly and not have time to soak through. A bark or wooden shingle roof with a central smoke-hole allows for a much lower pitch that will still shed rain off successfully.
There's an idea that leaving a smoke-hole in the roof of a British-style roundhouse will create a funnel that will draw up sparks and set fire to the thatch. Having lived with a roundhouse for six years now and lit many fires in it, I'm not convinced of this. I think that if the smoke-hole is created by pulling out a ring of thatch towards the top of the cone, you'll have a way for smoke to get out but will still have enough inside the upper part of the roof that any sparks going up above the rafters will be extinguished from lack of oxygen. I'm going to try it with ours in Shropshire (above right).
Will I end up teaching Iron Age roundhouse building techniques in the USA? It's a thought. After all, there's a lot of interest in Celtic heritage in the USA. You only have to look at the string of American presidents since at least John Kennedy who have traced their roots to villages in Ireland or, occasionally, Scotland. Many European-Americans do have Celtic ancestors and value those ancestral links. Helping to build, or being able to visit, the kind of houses their ancestors lived in would be another powerful way to honour and enhance those ancestral connections.
Since October 20th, I've been helping to thatch a pair of Iron Age roundhouses at the Museum of Welsh Life in St. Fagans, not far from Cardiff in South Wales. The Museum has a 100 acres of grounds, in which are buildings from many parts of Wales and many eras of Welsh history, including a church, a water mill, stone cottages and Victorian shops. The roundhouses I'm working on are based on the archaeology of a site on Angelsey, that legendary Druidic isle. I'm sharing a cottage nearby with two friends, Ken and John, both of whom helped build my roundhouse in Shropshire. John is an expert in ancient thatching methods and taught me to thatch. Both the roundhouses we're working on are bigger than mine. One is 38 feet in diameter, the other 45. Mine's just 22 internally, 28 to the outside of the eaves. The larger of the two at St. Fagans is over 28 feet tall, ten feet taller than mine. We have just eight weeks to thatch them both. Since no one knows how Iron Age roofs were constructed, we're using a method that has historical precedent in the medieval period. Working on a base of hazel and willow wattle, we're weaving in a thick layer of gorse. Over this, we'll lay a thin coat of heather, pressing down on it to compact the gorse. Then we'll stuff straw into this base coat in a process called, appropriately, stuff-thatching.
I've been meeting lots of interesting folk here. We have groups of volunteers helping out, including archaeology students and guys on probation. Then there are the archaeological consultants on the project and Ian, the resident Iron Age reenactor, who's building an 18 foot wicker man this week to be burned at Hallowe'en. It's a public event here at the Museum and you're welcome to come along. It starts at 4pm on the 31st. I love thatching, and roundhouses. I hope to bring some Druidry to these two when they're complete, giving talks and maybe workshops and ceremonies. I'm weaving Druidry into it as we work. A time-lapse camera is set up to photograph the site every 30 minutes. This morning it caught me invoking gods, including Arianrhod of the starry skies and Gwydion, antlered lord of forests. Appropriate, I think, to the setting of a Museum of Welsh Life.
Blessings to all, and have a wondrous Hallowe'en (or Nos Galan Gaeaf as it's called in Wales, 'Nights of Winter Calends')!
Published by Yale University Press, November 2013, xvi + 480 pages, 103 illustrations.
In 1991, a few months before I first met him, my friend Ronald Hutton published Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, at the time a unique, one-volume survey of its subject that quickly, and rightly, attained classic status, being quoted in almost every subsequent work on British prehistory. This new book is designed to supersede it, reassessing its contents and conclusions, expanding on it and adding a huge amount of new information that has come to light over the last two decades. Here's my review:
First impressions are of an attractive, well-produced book, containing many more illustrations than its predecessor, though still in monochrome. The illustrations are well-chosen, including many of the usual suspects – the 'Sorcerer of Trois Frères,' the 'Venus of Willendorf,' and so on – but going well beyond them. For example, a group headed 'Less familiar Palaeolithic images' includes human figurines that were found alongside the much better known 'Venuses' on which whole theories of prehistoric belief have been built. These images and their accompanying text provide one example of a process Ronald follows throughout the book, returning to original excavation reports and re-examining, often at first-hand, the objects described so as to place them in their proper context. He has visited or re-visited many sites where objects were found, often in company with archaeological specialists. This meticulous research is filtered through the Ronald's broad areas of personal interest, including ancient and modern paganisms and shamanism. These interests, however, are never allowed to overwhelm the evidence.
As well as exploring prehistoric sites and the artefacts found at them, the book examines ways in which attitudes to the past alter in tandem with more recent changes, so the Victorian era of conquest, colonisation and conversion by the British produced the idea that Britain itself was repeatedly conquered, colonised and converted throughout prehistory. The 20th century dismantling of the British Empire and our joining of the European Economic Union then produced a new vision of prehistory that replaced conquest with trade as the primary means by which the British Isles interacted with the rest of Europe. Pagan Britain offers many such insights into both our remote and more immediate ancestors.
One of my own areas of interest is in what archaeologists call burnt mounds, piles of stones that have been subjected to very high temperatures before being either doused with water or immersed in it. Many theories have been put forward to explain them, including Native American style sweat lodges, Swedish style saunas, cooking sites for joints of meat or breweries for prehistoric beer. Thanks to this book, I now know that a major survey of such sites in Ireland, published in 2011, has shown all four explanations are sustainable for some of the sites. For a modern Druid such as myself who has experienced the power of ritualised sweat lodges and is also partial to the occasional pint of ale, this is welcome news indeed!
One section of the book looks at interactions between professional archaeologists and interested non-professionals, including what might loosely be called the 'Earth Mysteries' community. These are often hostile and have been for a very long time. The story of how archaeology stopped being a hobby and became a profession, and how those who adopted it as such subsequently came to exercise such unquestioned access to, and control over, our shared heritage would make a fascinating sociological study in the development of elite dominance. Another admirable feature of Pagan Britain is the extent to which it continually reveals topics such as this and shows them to be worthy of extended treatment. Hopefully a generation of researchers will be inspired to follow up on them. If so, they, like the rest of us, will owe a debt of gratitude to Ronald for the diligence of his research, the breadth of his vision and his ability to bring so much information and so many ideas together.
Ronald writes both for academic colleagues and general readers, achieving this rare double by the simple means of using clear, precise, jargon-free English. If more of his colleagues adopted this habit, they would render their work accessible to a much broader readership. Another aspect of his writing that appeals greatly is his inclusion of illuminating, entertaining, often bizarre incidental details such as the fact that the early 19th century scholar, William Buckland, was often accompanied at academic functions by his pet bear, which he dressed in a student's cap and gown. Such quirky and engaging human touches certainly help bring history to life. The picture here captures Buckland at dinner with friends, human and other.
As with Ronald's previous works on Paganisms, this book will no doubt divide the modern Pagan community, perhaps most strongly in its final chapter, 'The Legacy of British Paganism.' It is here, looking at changing academic and public attitudes towards possible survivals of paganism from ancient times, through the Middle Ages and up to the present day, that the author most maintains his reputation as an iconoclast. Those who dismiss this section as simple iconoclasm, however, can only do so by ignoring qualifying statements as in the following passage: “The former tendency to assume that virtually all traditional British seasonal rites were survivors of paganism was clearly misplaced, but blanket dismissal of pagan ingredients in them would be even more erroneous. Broad themes of seasonal festivity often have more staying power than individual customs, though even some of those can be proved to have survived for millennia.” [My italics].
A word of warning: if you are looking for the sort of certainty found in other books, such as the many claiming to have 'solved the mystery of Stonehenge' once and for all, you should definitely look elsewhere. Ronald is careful not to argue beyond what demonstrable facts allow. Where, as is often the case, the evidence is open to a variety of interpretations, he is equally careful to present a range of alternatives, where possible evaluating which are the most likely, but willing to admit when none are proven or where such proof may not even be possible. Some may find the frequency with which a 'not proven' verdict is returned frustrating, but, as the author makes clear, there are times when our current state of knowledge simply leaves no definitive conclusion possible.
Is Pagan Britain, then, a worthy successor to Pagan Religions...? My answer is a resounding yes. Like its illustrious predecessor, it offers a one-stop shop for all who, like me, have an abiding interest in prehistoric British religion, a desire to keep up with the latest information on the subject, but little access to academic journals, field reports or specialist publications. Ronald draws together the whole gamut of recent research along with the speculations and conclusions stemming from it, bringing it all together for us. And for those who want to look further into areas of particular interest, there are extensive endnotes.
As mentioned earlier, what makes Pagan Britain so compelling is Ronald's unusual breadth of personal interests and depth of knowledge in them, spanning paganisms old and new, shamanism, anthropology and archaeology, as well as British, European and world history. This is enhanced by his almost unrivalled list of contacts with colleagues across this wide range of disciplines, his enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy for detailed and thorough research, and his remarkable ability to marshal and make sense of a huge quantity and range of information and present it clearly. In short, the book is a tour de force and, like Pagan Religions..., is essential reading for anyone with an interest in its subject.
Born in India in 1953, Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, where he also heads the School of Humanities. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Society of Antiquaries, a Commissioner for English Heritage and a member of, among others, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Ancient Druid Order and, of course, the British Druid Order. His other publications include The Druids (Hambledon Continuum, 2007) and Blood & Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (Yale University Press, 2009), both of which are also highly recommended.
If you're not yet convinced, you could check out this review from the Economist by Erica Wagner, who describes Ronald as "a lovely writer with a keen sense of the spiritual potency of Britain’s ancient landscapes."
Or, for a less sympathetic review, try this one from the Guardian by Graham Robb, who takes Ronald to task for only devoting six pages to the Druids, despite Ronald making it clear in the book that the reason he is not giving more space to them is that he's recently written the two full books on them referred to above. He also complains about Ronald not including evidence for paganism in France, despite the book being called Pagan Britain and Ronald's stated intention in it to maintain a focus within the confines of the British Isles. Robb may have a vested interest, however, in that his most recent publication is a book claiming to have rediscovered a lost 'map' of Pagan Celtic Europe.
On Sunday, September 22nd, 2013, about a hundred people gathered inside the vast bank and ditch earthworks of the Avebury henge in Wiltshire, with its huge sarsen stone circles erected by our ancestors in ages past. We were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. To mark the event, I'm posting a pdf file scanned from the first issue of the Caer Abiri Newsletter, published in the wake of the first ceremony way back in 1993. Among other things, it tells how the Gorsedd came to be, and here's a little more background on how it all began.
During the summer of 1993, Tim Sebastion (below), founder of the Secular Order of Druids (SOD), was putting plans together for a multi-faith conference at Avebury. I'd met Tim two years earlier when my British Druid Order joined the Council of British Druid Orders. We resigned from the Council in 1996, along with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and the Ancient Order of Druids, but that's another story. The first Council meeting I attended was at Tim's thatched cottage at Mells in Somerset. In typical Tim fashion, as well as hosting this meeting, he had organised an Irish folk festival over the same weekend, centred around the village pub. So, when my wife and I arrived and got no reply at the cottage, we had a pretty good idea where to look. Sure enough, we found Tim basking in the sunshine of the pub garden, joyfully surrounded by Irish musicians who were regaling him with a spirited rendition of the Irish Rover. It was an auspicious first meeting.
Tim and I struck up a rapport as a result of which, when organising the Avebury event, he asked me to create a ceremony for it. The brief was to make a fundamentally Druidic ceremony, but one that would feel inclusive to the many and varied folk attending the conference, including Reichian therapists, Earth Mysteries folk, Christian ministers, astronomers from the Royal Observatory and various flavours of Pagans. The resulting ceremony is included in the Newsletter.
Included in it was a handfasting, a Druid wedding, largely for the benefit of myself and my late wife, Ellie, though other couples took advantage of the occasion to be handfasted too, as hundreds more have been since. The handfastings were conducted at the Ring Stone (see the newsletter for the reasons why) by Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and Shan Jayran, founder of the House of the Goddess. Ronald Hutton took the two photos included in monochrome in the newsletter and reproduced here in colour.
As you'll see from the list of names at the back of the newsletter, those attending included several who were already Pagan celebrities and others who would become so. Among the former were the aforementioned Philip Carr-Gomm, Shan Jayran, and Ronald Hutton, whose Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, published two years earlier, was already recognised as a definitive work. Also with us was John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis, the book credited with having kick-started the whole Earth Mysteries movement. Among the latter were Graham Harvey, now one of our most respected Pagan academics, Jacki Paterson, whose highly regarded book, Tree Wisdom, was published three years later, and a young OBOD member named Emma Restall Orr, who went on to become joint chief of the British Druid Order from 1995 to 2002 and is now probably the most famous female Druid in the world.
Celebrities notwithstanding, the reason we were assembling among the stones 20 years on was, as the title of this piece suggests, an accident, if indeed there are such things in Druidry.
The Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri is a name I invented for use during a short bardic initiation that formed part of the original ceremony. The reason for including an initiation is simple. Two members of the British Druid Order, Gary and Debbie Turner, asked for bardic initiations while I was composing the rite and I thought that Avebury would be a beautiful and appropriate place for them to take place. As explained in the newsletter, when the moment for Gary and Debbie's initiation came and I asked those who wished to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd of Caer Abiri to step forward, I was expecting only Gary and Debbie to do so. They were, after all, the only ones primed in advance to expect this request. Thhe spirits of the place, however, determined otherwise. Gary and Debbie hesitated and the momentary pause was enough for others in the circle to make up their minds to respond to the invitation.
And so it was that more than half those in the circle stepped forward to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd. Philip Carr-Gomm, standing next to me at the time, leaned over and whispered, “Erm, what do we do now?” and I replied something to the effect of, “Well, er, we carry on I suppose.” Thus were the first thirty-or-so bards of Caer Abiri initiated. During the initiations, I did something ritualists really should not do. I stepped out of the circle with a camera and snapped a couple of shots. I know I shouldn't have, but something prompted me to capture the moment. I'm glad I did, as I believe the pictures I took, reproduced here, are the only photographic record of that part of the ceremony.
The initiation included one of my favourite pieces of ritual of any I've composed and performed either before or since. As shown in the photo, the inner circle of bards turn to face outwards and link hands, those in the outer circle also link hands, and all of them chant the awen, the spirit of inspiration and creativity, directing its flow in to those in the centre. Immediately after this, the following blessing is spoken for the new bards:
Wisdom of serpent be thine,
Wisdom of raven be thine,
Wisdom of the valiant eagle.
Voice of swan be thine,
Voice of honey be thine,
Voice of the son of stars.
Bounty of sea be thine,
Bounty of land be thine,
Bounty of the boundless heavens.
These are beautiful words to hear spoken in ceremony, and I can't claim credit for them. They are from a collection of Scottish folklore called Carmina Gadelica, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael. They were spoken again during the 20th anniversary rite (below) and I took my place amongst the bards at the centre to receive the awen. It knocked my socks off.
That the initiation in 1993 had the desired effect was proven a couple of weeks later when I got a letter from Gordon Strachan, the Church of Scotland minister who had addressed the conference. It was written on a hillside in the Lake District and Gordon told me he was writing poetry again for the first time since he'd left university forty years earlier. He soon began work on his book, Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries & the Dawn of Christianty (Floris Books, 2000), in which he puts forward the theory that Jesus came into friendly contact with Druids during childhood visits to Britain.
It was clear that something very magical happened in that circle twenty years ago, something that came about because the nature of the rite as it had come together resonated powerfully with the spirits of the place and with our ancestors who had constructed Avebury for similar purposes, gathering families together from all over the country to celebrate rites of passage and have those rites witnessed by their community. It was this sense of having connected with the spirits of the place that prompted me to go around with a notebook, collecting contact details from those present with a view to putting together the newsletter.
Subsequent events only increased the sense that we had made a potent connection with the spirits of Caer Abiri. Within two years, our celebrations were being held at each of the eight festivals of modern Paganism and attracting hundreds of people. Ronald Hutton went so far as to describe them as the central event of the New Druidry (Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Hambledon & London, 2003, pages 255-256). The second anniversary Gorsedd remains the largest on record, estimates of numbers attending ranging from 500 to over 1,000. This produced another inspirited moment when those in the circle were asked to link hands and swear the Oath of Peace. The circle began to expand, not stopping until it had spread to the fence line on one side of the field containing the South Circle and to the inner ditch on the other side. I remember having to shout so that those on the far side of the circle would know when to begin.
Around this time I came up with a motto for the Gorsedd: “In the spirit of freedom, and for freedom of the spirit.”
There were many reasons why the Gorsedd proved so successful. We offered many within the Pagan community their first opportunity to celebrate our seasonal festivals in public. Another factor is the multi-faith nature of the ceremonies, strengthened further in subsequent revisions of the ritual text. Followers of any and all traditions felt able to stand together as one and speak from the heart of their own faith within a circle of many faiths. Celebrations attracted not only Druids but Wiccans, Heathens, Buddhists, Bah'ai, Christians, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals and followers of Japanese Shinto among others. Avebury is also, of course, a place of great beauty and inherent power as well as being reasonably accessible from most parts of the UK, and, because it has a village within it, it is freely open to the public. Its appeal is not confined to the UK though. Some of those attending in the 90s flew in from places as far away as Australia, Japan and the USA specially to attend our celebrations.
It was always my hope that others would be inspired by the Avebury Gorsedd to set up others elsewhere and this has happened. Similar gatherings now take place at each of the festivals at the Long Man of Wilmington, the Stanton Drew circles south of Bristol and elsewhere, both in Britain and overseas.
Of course, there are always some who, usually through some deep, personal pain of their own, greet any outpouring of magic, joy and wonder in others with bitterness and resentment. Why this should be, I don't know, but life seems to need to maintain an equilibrium, balancing the helpful and the hurtful, following bliss with dull despair. In the case of Avebury, a few individuals seemed to feel they had some sort of territorial claim over the place. Even as the ceremonies grew bigger and more joyous for most of us, these few voiced objections to everything about them, including where, how, when and why they were held, who was conducting them and who was attending. They spread their bitterness to others whose own resentments left them open to receive it. Ceremonies began to be disrupted by drunks shouting at, and occasionally physically attacking, those taking part. Following on from the increasingly disrupted ceremonies, these same folk would get into drunken fights in the Red Lion pub in the village, often resulting in the police being called. One Lakota visitor from the Pine Ridge Reservation had flown over to be with us following a vision. He was singing a spirit song for us in the circle when the drunks began yelling abuse at him. He commented afterwards, "You get folks like that in all traditions. We get 'em at home too."
Things came to a head when, during one ceremony, I found myself expending most of my energy keeping a lid on a small group of angry, noisy drunks rather than focusing on the rite itself. As that realisation hit me, I had a vision of a black whirlpool opening up in the centre of the circle and spreading towards its edges, threatening to suck us all down into its gaping maw. This stark warning led us to move our celebrations to other locations, founding new Gorseddau as we did so. These included the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge and others at Dragon Hill in Oxfordshire, the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, various other locations in Britain and as far afield as Seattle in the USA.
After a year, however, we returned to our spiritual home in Avebury and rites have been regularly celebrated there ever since. For the last nine years, they have been coordinated by Morgan Adams, who also runs a Grove and offers regular celebrations in her home town of Glastonbury.
The unpleasantness of the mid-1990s led to the formation of a second Gorsedd in Avebury, calling itself the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. This now meets on the nearest Saturday to each of the eight festivals, while the original Gorsedd continues to meet on the nearest Sunday. Incidentally, it amused me to hear that on the day before our 20th anniversary celebration, the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd had met and claimed to be celebrating their 21st anniversary, despite having been founded in 1996. Hey ho...
The anger that divided the Gorsedd left me with a certain ambivalence about my role in creating it. It put Avebury on the Pagan map as a ceremonial location, but attracted in the process those whose relationship with the spirits of the place included setting fire to parts of it, scrawling graffiti over others, getting drunk, fighting amongst themselves and behaving aggressively towards those trying to meet there in peace to celebrate their spirituality. For me, the greatest sadness has always been that the loud, angry, disruptive minority drove hundreds of genuinely spiritual people to abandon the Gorsedd and even, in some cases, to turn their backs on any engagement with Druidry and Paganism. This is doubly tragic given the ecumenical spirit that flourished so strongly in the early years.
The split in the Gorsedd also drove a wedge between Tim Sebastion and I. I never knew until after his death how devastated Tim had been by the split. I learned then, too late, that he had spent whole days wandering the paths around Avebury alone and in tears.
The role of Guardian of the Stones was taken in the first Gorsedd ceremony by my wife, Ellie, then pregnant with our second son, Michael. Ellie subsequently died from leukaemia, and each time I see another woman in the role it brings back memories, some joyous, others painful.
On the plus side, the Gorsedd helped broaden public understanding and acceptance of Druidry and other Pagan traditions as the early celebrations attracted a good deal of attention from the media, both nationally and internationally. This led to a spate of favourable newspaper and magazine articles and TV programmes featuring Druids and Druidry. I've posted one short video of the Gorsedd circa 1994, filmed by a TV news crew, on youtube, accompanied by music and poetry. In its early days, the Gorsedd also helped to promote peaceful, helpful connections between the Druid and Pagan communities and bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage, official custodians of Avebury, Stonehenge, and other ancient sites. However, this further angered those who were already angry and who viewed NT and EH with implacable hostility due to their perceived role in restricting access to Stonehenge during the 1980s.
As well as inspiring the creation of other open, public celebrations of Pagan faiths, in the twenty years since its creation, the Avebury Gorsedd itself has initiated some 3-4,000 people, maybe more, as bards. Many have found huge inspiration as a result. To quote just a few examples, a leather-clad biker who came to an early Gorsedd rite returned a few months later having learned to play the harp beautifully; an office worker who attended quit his job and now runs the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle; a couple who came to several early rites now run a 12-acre spiritual and woodland crafts centre in Hampshire. Others have had their lives changed in other ways. Following one rite I heard from three people whose partners had recently died, each saying that as a direct result of our ceremony, the atmosphere surrounding them had cleared, their sorrow had lifted, and they now felt able to move on in their lives. When people's lives are transformed in such ways, it's hard to argue that the ceremonies that bring about such changes are anything but good.
The Gorseddau founded in the 1990s, both in Avebury and elsewhere, have long since passed out of my hands as I always hoped they would. Others have taken up the challenge and are making them work, and all good blessings to each and every one of them for doing so. If the 20th anniversary gathering at Avebury was anything to go by, they are in good hands for the next twenty years.
Incidentally, three of those who were at the very first Gorsedd were in attendance again for the anniversary: these were Ronald Hutton, a humble Doctor at the time of the first rite, now a full Professor and one of the country's leading historians, myself, and my son, Joe, who was one year old in 1993 and whose baby blessing during the first ceremony paved the way for hundreds of others over the last twenty years.
The 20th anniversary celebration was a joyous, magical event, featuring one of the most potent bardic initiations I've ever taken part in, a beautiful moment when we chanted the awen to direct spiritual energy into a beribboned wreath to be used in ceremonies for the protection of our land and her creatures (below), and one of the best eisteddfod sessions ever, during which we were treated to some wonderful poetry, fiery drumming and utterly superb bagpiping.
As my own contribution, I sang the same Robin Williamson song I had sung at the end of the very first rite back in 1993, the appropriately titled The Circle Is Unbroken:
Seasons they change, as cold blood is raining,
I have been waiting beyond the years.
Now over the skline I see you travelling,
Brothers from all times gathering here.
Come let us build the ship of the future
In an ancient pattern that journeys far.
Come let us set sail for the always islands,
through seas of leaving to the summer stars.
Seasons they change, but with gaze unchanging.
O, deep-eyed sisters, is it you I see?
Seeds of beauty you bear within you
Of unborn children, glad and free.
Within your fingers the fates are spinning
The sacred binding of the yellow grain.
Scattered we were when the long night was breaking,
But in bright morning, converse again.
So may it ever be.
And here's a date for your diary: the 30th anniversary will be on Sunday, September 24th, 2023. See you there...
We often get the impression that paganism in Britain was completely eradicated by the arrival of Christianity and its adoption by our ruling elites. We also tend to think of pagan revivals as not occurring prior to the 20th century, or perhaps the Victorian magical schools of the late 19th. However, the more I've looked at the medieval literature of Britain and Ireland over the years, the more I've come to see that the bards of our islands have concerned themselves not only with the preservation of our myths, legends and histories, but with a brand of mysticism that amounts to a pagan revival. In Wales, for example, the literature surrounding the Cauldron of Ceridwen and its magical brew of Inspiration (Awen), and the subsequent tales and poems associated with Taliesin, the Primary Chief Bard of Britain, all point to a mystical, spiritual understanding that has at its core the witch-like figure of Ceridwen herself, Patroness of Bards, magician and initiatrix.
In Ireland, the Bards (filidh) wove mysterious legends of Druids, describing their rites of healing. They also created complex systems of cyphers and hidden languages based around the Ogham alphabet, itself described as being used for magic and divination.
Nor was England left out of this medieval pagan revival if the following Prayer to Mother Earth is anything to go by. I first came across it in the 1970s in a book called Mastering Herbalism by Paul Huson. It comes from a 12th century English herbal and is very clearly pagan:
“Earth, divine goddess, Mother Nature who generates all things and brings forth anew the sun which you have given to the nations; Guardian of sky and sea and of all gods and powers and through your power all nature falls silent and then sinks in sleep. And again you bring back the light and chase away night and yet again you cover us most securely with your shades. You contain chaos infinite, yes and winds and showers and storms; you send them out when you will and cause the seas to roar; you chase away the sun and arouse the storm. Again when you will you send forth the joyous day and give the nourishment of life with your eternal surety; and when the soul departs to you we return. You indeed are duly called great Mother of the gods; you conquer by your divine name. You are the source of the strength of nations and of gods, without you nothing can be brought to perfection or be born; you art the great queen of the gods. Goddess! I adore you as divine; I call upon your name; be pleased to grant that which I ask you, so shall I give thanks to you, goddess, with one faith.
“Hear, I beseech you, and be favourable to my prayer. Whatsoever herb your power produces, give, I pray, with goodwill to all nations to save them and grant me this my medicine. Come to me with your powers, and howsoever I may use them may they have good success and to whomsoever I may give them. Whatever you grant, it may prosper. To you all things return. Those who rightly receive these herbs from me, do you make them whole. Goddess, I beseech you; I pray you as a suppliant that by your majesty you grant this to me.
“Now I make intercession to you all you powers and herbs and to your majesty, you whom Earth, parent of all, has produced and given as a medicine of health to all nations and has put majesty upon you, be, I pray you, the greatest help to the human race. This I pray and beseech from you, and be present here with your virtues, for she who created you has herself promised that I may gather you into the goodwill of him on whom the art of medicine was bestowed, and grant for health's sake good medicine by grace of your powers. I pray grant me through your virtues that whatsoever is wrought by me through you may in all its powers have a good and speedy effect and good success and that I may always be permitted with the favour of your majesty to gather you into my hands and to glean your fruits. So shall I give thanks to you in the name of that majesty which ordained your birth.”
Translated in 'Early English Magic and Medicine' by Dr. Charles Singer, Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. IV. The 'thees' and 'thous' of Singer's translation have been replaced with modern English. It's also quoted in The Old English Herbals, by Eleanor Sinclair Rohde, which should open as a pdf file if you click on this title: Old_English_Herbals. Well worth a look as it's got quotes from lots of other early Anglo-Saxon and English herbals, including assorted spells and charms...
It seems we are following in the footsteps of many generations of pagan revivalists. Or perhaps paganism never fully gave way to Christianity but always hung on like silver-dewed cobwebs in our hedgerows, sparkling briefly at twilight times then all but disappearing in the full light of the day.
I trust the unnamed writer's prayer was answered, and that she or he found the healing virtues so eloquently requested from our great Mother Earth.
UPDATE, January 27th, 2014:
As so often, this particular historical mystery has been solved by my old friend, Professor Ronald Hutton. On page 384 of his book, Pagan Britain (Yale University Press, 2013), Ronald identifies this poem as a product of the late Roman Empire, reproduced in various continental manuscripts from the 6th century onwards, though only the aforementioned 12th (or possibly 11th) century herbal in England, always under its Latin title, Praecatio Terrae Matris, 'Prayer to Mother Earth.' It is translated in J. Grattan and Charles Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine (Oxford University Press, 1952).
My suggestion that it may represent part of a 12th (or 11th) century pagan revival still stands. My theory is that this took place, particularly in the Welsh courts and bardic colleges, but also in other parts of Britain, as a direct result of the Norman invasion of 1066. This violent influx of foreign culture led native Britons to look to their past, including their pagan past, for comfort, inspiration and a strengthened sense of identity. The fact that the pagan past was, by then, barely remembered (if at all) led them to look beyond Britain to fill the void, hence this Latin poem in a Saxon manuscript and the features from Irish mythology that appear in the Welsh Mabinogi, a collection of legends also compiled in the 12th century.