Many of us who work with spirits, guardian spirits, power animals, whatever form they take and however we perceive them, regard their willingness to work with us as a gift and a blessing for which we are willing to give in return what they may ask of us. Many of us will also be aware that there are times when our connections with these spirits, however strong, may be lost or broken. This may occur for many reasons, but when it does, it can leave us debilitated, unable to function properly, unable to journey between worlds, often physically or psychologically ill. What, then, can we do?
The other day, browsing through a slightly battered book I’ve had on my shelves for years, I came across something I’d failed to notice before.* The book is actually about Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, but the author spent time amongst aboriginal people in Northwestern Australia. There he learned of a means by which shamanic workers recovered lost spiritual connections. In his account, the method requires the participation of a group. Not all of us have the benefit of working with a group of people who are a) able to perform such a task, or b) available to do so when we need them. In such circumstances, I wonder if the technique could be performed alone. If we have a reasonable connection with our ancestors in general, or with a specific ancestor, it seems likely that it could, though I've yet to try it.
Here’s the relevant text:
But it also happens that a shaman loses the gift of frequenting the underworld. He suddenly becomes incapable of making contact with the spirits and his poetic gift for creating songs and dances vanishes. In such cases all the men gather together to re/establish the broken link with the dead forefathers. The shaman is laid on the ground. All the men sit in a circle around him. They begin to sing and as they sing they slowly rub the shaman’s body. The men sing for hours on end on a regularly rising and falling note:
Mmmmm nnnnnn mmmmmm nnnnn
(This is a humming such as occurs in many Russian folk songs.) The shaman gradually goes into a trance; finally his soul leaves his body and, so the accounts say, roams about looking for the spirit of a dead ancestor. After long wandering it will finally come upon such a spirit. The dead ancestors themselves send out one of their number to look for the shaman. They themselves have painfully missed the shaman’s visits and the contact with their living descendants and wish to re/establish relations with the living. The shaman tells the spirit of the dead that he no longer knows the way to the underworld and cannot ‘find’ any more songs. The spirit of the dead - frequently it will be the spirit of his father or grandfather - promises to help him and to come for him in a few days. After a time - it is perhaps one evening when the people are sitting quietly and talking - the shaman suddenly hears a distant call. It is his helping spirit calling him. He goes off by himself and converses for a while with the spirit. But a few days later his soul leaves his body. His body lies quietly sleeping. But under the leadership of the helping spirit many spirits now come up from the underworld and take possession of the shaman’s spirit, which they want to see among them again. They tear the soul to pieces and each spirit carries a piece into the underworld. There, deep under the earth, they put the shaman’s soul together again. They show him the dances again and sing songs to him.
Well, there we are. What do you think? Could this be adapted for solo working? Do you know of parallels or alternative methods from other cultures, perhaps closer to home (I live in the British Isles)? If so, please share, if your spirits will allow you to.
* Andreas Lommel, The World of the Early Hunters: Medicine-men, shamans and artists, Evelyn, Adams & Mackay Ltd., 1967, page 139.
Donovan Leitch is a forgotten superhero of ‘60s music, so deeply attuned to the era that when its core messages were abandoned by mass media and fashion in the 1970s, he was abandoned with them. In the late ‘60s, however, he was troubadour to the court of rock royalty, courted by Bob Dylan and friends with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He also produced some wonderfully innovative music that was ahead of the curve of most musicians of the time. His late 1965 LP, ‘Fairytale,’ contains two tracks, ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ and ‘Candyman,’ that overtly reference cannabis use. His classic single, ‘Sunshine Superman,’ released in December 1966 though recorded a full year earlier, was still at no. 3 in the UK singles chart in the first week of 1967. Both its sides reference LSD, the B-side being a remarkable, driving slice of prime early psychedelia called simply ‘The Trip.’
The opening lines of ‘Sunshine Superman’ are:
"Sunshine came softly through my window today Could've tripped out easy but I've changed my ways.”
This is a reminder that Donovan was not only one of the first UK musicians to embrace LSD as a means of spiritual exploration, he was also among the first to publicly abandon it in favour of transcendental meditation.
The last verse of the song references two DC comic book superheroes:
"Superman or Green Lantern ain't got nothin' on me, I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea, You you you can just sit there a-thinking on your velvet throne, About all the rainbows that you can have for your own...”
Prior to the mid-’60s, superhero comics had been considered disposable fodder fit only for pre-adolescent boys with juvenile power fantasies. This began to change when comics legends, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, introduced new kinds of superheroes at Marvel Comics. Kirby’s Fantastic Four feuded like a real family, Ditko’s Spider-Man was the kind of geek who might previously have scraped by as a teenage sidekick to a ‘proper’ superhero. Kirby’s Thor was a god of Asgard sent by his father, Odin, to walk the Earth, while Ditko’s Doctor Strange was an astrally projecting, spell-casting magician, a veritable ‘Master of the Mystic Arts.’ The comic book geek in me can’t help but note that Donovan refers to two DC heroes in the song, saying that they “ain’t got nothin’ on me.” This could be a recognition that, in the mid-’60s, the cool kids were all reading Marvel Comics with their more relateable characters and superior art. Incidentally, Kirby's Thor was my introduction to Paganism, while Ditko's Doctor Strange introduced me to many core concepts of ritual magic.
Suddenly comic books were being read and enjoyed by college students. Donovan was, I believe, the first musician to refer to this phenomenon, recognising that, for people in their teens and twenties, these colourfully costumed super-beings with their god-like powers were increasingly taking the place once occupied by the gods of more ancient mythologies. In the last verse of ‘Sunshine Superman,’ he also shows clear recognition of the fact that the popularity of superheroes was largely driven by a feeling that we could become them or, as is the case here, exceed them, by expanding our consciousness. This is the essence of what anthropologists now like to call ‘shamanism.’
Donovan, in common with other musicians of the era, perhaps more than most of them, recognised the power of music to alter perceptions and devoted his art to putting out ‘good vibrations’ into the world. This is why, 50 years on, his music still resonates, still calls on us to excel, to pursue those rainbows for the ones we love, to become the superheroes of our own life stories.
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.
Many Druids and Pagans are vegetarian and vegan, a far greater proportion than in mainstream society. This is commonly on ethical grounds, with many rejecting the exploitation of animals by humans, whatever form that may take, whether for food, clothing manufacture, drug testing, or any other reason. There are also telling arguments that a vegetarian diet is much better for the planet than meat-eating. Despite which, even within Druidry, vegetarians and vegans are a minority, with most Druids eating meat, often locally and ethically sourced, though often not due to cost factors. Even meat-eating Druids, though, will usually have concerns about animal welfare and will happily contribute to, or act in concert with, conservation groups.
The last thirty years have seen an increasing acceptance of the concept of the Druid as animist, that is, one who sees all things as imbued with spirit, including not just humans and other animals, but plants and even apparently inanimate creatures such as rocks, clouds or stars. Seeing our human selves as part of an interlacing network of living, inspirited, intelligent beings that inhabit realms above, around and below us enhances our sense of the value of all these other lives. We see ourselves not as occupying a privileged position above, or somehow separate from, the rest of the natural world, but as a part of it. For me, this is a core aspect of being a Druid. This perspective of equality inevitably calls into question the over-exploitation of natural resources and the resulting degradation of our environment and our spirits.
The same time frame has seen an increased acceptance of the related idea of the Druid as shaman, in part meaning one who works directly with spirits, including those of animals. Many Druids who work with animal spirits have craft names that reflect this, including Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and Greywolf (myself). Bobcat was given her name by one of her teachers. Mine derives from a vision of a Wolf that came to me in a sweat lodge, transforming my spiritual life. I was subsequently shown that I could switch bodies with my Wolf spirit brother, experiencing for myself what it is like to be a Wolf.
Immediately after my vision, Walter, who acted as fire-keeper for the lodge, suggested I should find something physical to link me with the Wolf. This seemed incredibly unlikely. I was around 40 at the time and had never seen hide nor hair of a Wolf. However, the day after I got back from the sweat lodge, a friend invited me to a garage sale at his parents’ house. The first thing I saw on arrival was a large pelt draped over an old water tank. A closer look confirmed my first impression, that the fur was Wolf. The pelt consisted of six Wolf hides, trimmed to rectangles and stitched together as a rug. It had been in the house when my friend’s parents bought it in 1947. They hadn’t liked it, bagged it up and put it in the loft. There it stayed until the day of my vision, when my friend found it and added it the garage sale.
I told them about my vision and they gave me the hides. I removed the woollen backing, added a couple of ties and started wearing the hides as a cloak in ceremony. As a connection with Wolf spirit this exceeded my wildest expectations. The six animals who died to make that Wolf-skin rug came to me during the next Pagan event I was invited to, a venison feast hosted by Ronald Hutton. They became a pack under my Wolf alter-ego’s alpha male. I recognised my responsibility to them by ‘feeding’ them with regular ingestions of meat, despite myself having previously been a vegetarian. I wore them regularly in ceremonies. I also wore them to give talks, including some to animal welfare groups. Once I had explained the circumstances by which I acquired ‘my’ Wolves and the ways we worked together, there was never any question of our relationship being ‘wrong.’
A few years later, at a medieval re-enactment, I found a stall selling Wolf pelts, complete with faces, limbs and paws. I asked the stall-holder where they came from. He said they were Siberian and derived from a cull of animals that were elderly or sick. You can tell if a canine is sick from the state of its coat, just as you can estimate its age by the size of the pelt. The stall-holder was clearly lying or, being generous, was grossly ill-informed. This left me with a quandary: did I leave the pelts to be bought by people who might not honour the spirits of the animals who had worn them in life, or did I buy one myself, albeit at the cost of giving a substantial amount of money to a man who had, I was fairly sure, lied to me, thereby supporting a trade that involved killing healthy young wolves? I spent much of the day arguing the ethics of these options with myself and others. Eventually, honouring the animal’s spirit won out and I handed over the money, albeit with a prayer that the trade in Wolf skins would soon come to an end. International trade in Wolf pelts was restricted under a CITES agreement not long after, and I’ve never since seen a complete Wolf pelt, or even a tail, offered for sale in the UK. This is, of course, a good thing.
In 2012, at a time of family crisis, another Wolf cloak came to me, similar to the one I was given previously, only in even better condition and with longer, redder fur. I found it in an antique shop in Rye, Sussex, less than five miles from the friend’s house where I’d encountered the first one. Like that first one, it also consisted of six pelts, trimmed down and sewn together. It was of a similar vintage too, the London-based company who made it into a rug having ceased trading in the 1940s. The first cloak having become a little worn and frayed from years of use, the second arrived at precisely the right time in my life, helping to renew my relationship with Wolf spirit. It has since become my primary ceremonial cloak.
My strong feeling is that the Wolves whose hides I wear brought them to me so that I could work with them, wear them and honour them. Too many ‘coincidences’ have piled up surrounding the two Wolf-skin cloaks for that not to be the case. Plus I have the evidence of my own senses. I have seen the Wolves themselves frolicking on my bed where I keep the hides. They have also joined my Wolf alter-ego in spirit journeying. Others, of course, may think me mad or deluded. I can only report what I have seen, heard and felt.
To work successfully with animal spirits, you have to a) believe in their existence, and b) honour them. I believe that animal spirits come to us to lend us spiritual power as well as to teach and guide us, and that failing to properly honour them can lead to a loss of purpose, health and sanity. This is not something we can afford to be casual about, take for granted, or play with for effect.
In the 22 years I’ve been wearing Wolf-skins in ceremony, I’ve been criticised for doing so only by people who didn’t know how the hides were acquired and didn’t bother to ask. It would be interesting to know how many of them would have voiced similar criticisms had I been a Siberian shaman or a First Nations medicine man instead of a British Druid. I wear them not as a fashion choice or a pose, or for warmth, but as a deep, inherent and vital part of my spiritual journey, in which I am honoured to be accompanied by fellow Wolves who choose to walk the path with me.
After Wolf, the spirit animal I’ve worked with most is Eagle, and I’m blessed to have been given three beautiful Eagle feathers, gifts from a shamanic practitioner, a Druid and a shamanic Druid. The feathers were all found in the wild by the individuals who gave them to me after having been shed by their winged owners. One came from Siberia, one from an island off the Norwegian coast, the other from Australia.
In my work, I sometimes use a Cormorant wing for fanning smoke, summoning spirits of Air, or linking me with the spirit of Morfran, son of Ceridwen. In the middle of winter, many years ago, I was walking my children through a park to their primary school when I saw a dead Cormorant floating in a hole in the ice on a lake. It being a Friday, I decided that if the Cormorant was still there on Monday, that would be a sign that I should take it and work with it. Not only had it not been removed from the lake by Monday, the hole in the ice had expanded and the Cormorant had floated to the shore so that I could reach it without even having to step onto the ice.
I took it home, removed a wing and the tail, and buried the rest in my back garden with prayers for the spirit of the animal. Returning alone to the lake, I allowed my spirit to slip back a few days in time and to inhabit the body of the Cormorant, then still living. I dived with it, seeking fish below the water on which to feed. On the third dive, a fish darted off beneath the surface ice and the Cormorant followed, couldn’t get back to open water in time, and drowned. I experienced this directly, having projected my spirit into the Cormorant. I made further prayers for the Cormorant and its family, members of which stayed at the lakeside for several weeks after the drowning. I still have both wing and tail and still use them in ceremony.
Other people I know in the Druid and shamanic communities use animals who have died a natural death or as roadkill wherever possible. In my case, few Wolves are killed on the roads, our ancestors having eradicated them from Britain centuries ago through ignorance and fear.
I make drums. To do so, I fell trees for the timber hoops and use Red Deer hides for the skins. I seek permission from the spirits of the trees. The deer hides are from Bradgate Park, Britain’s oldest continuously managed deer park, enclosed since the 13th century. As an enclosed park, space is limited, limiting the number of deer that can successfully graze it and remain healthy. Since all natural predators on deer, apart from humans, have been eradicated, the number of deer born in the park always outstrips the number who die from natural causes. Therefore, to maintain the health of the herd, some animals are killed every year. Their meat is sold, raising money for the upkeep of the park and the deer. Prior to my arrival, the hides were thrown away. Now, I get them, fur on, and make them into drums and rattles. During the process, I sense from the hides that the spirits of the deer are willing to work with me, and to work with the person the drum then goes to. If it were otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.
My belief is that the spirits of the deer continue to live in this world through the drums I make, especially when they are played in ceremony. As part of the process of bringing the drum into use, I recommend that their owners travel in spirit to meet the spirits of the tree that died to make the hoop and the deer that died to make the skin, to witness their whole life cycle, through to the moment of death, to ask them to inhabit the drum, empower it and continue to live through it. Tree and deer thus maintain their place as part of the wider community of spirits that includes us as humans and all of nature.
My criteria is, as I believe it was for our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors, the absolute conviction that the plants and animals themselves are willing to work with us through giving us their parts after death. Here, in our largely secular, post-industrial society, we encounter a problem. Most people, even in Druid and Pagan circles, do not communicate either with the dead or with animals or plants, and many do not believe those of us who say that we do. There’s nothing I can do about that. I can only speak for myself and from my own experience, and pass on what the animals and plants tell me. Those who work with me through feathers, wings, fur, skin, teeth and claws, do so willingly. If they didn’t, rather than gain power through forging a bond of kinship with them, they would ensure that I lost power and suffered, mentally, spiritually and physically. In working with spirit animals, unethical behaviour will ultimately receive its just reward. By the same token, ethical behaviour brings great rewards in, among other things, expanded understanding, altered perspectives, spiritual enrichment, enhanced health and greater ability to help others.
The understanding I have gained from working with Wolves, and more especially from the experience of being a Wolf, has greatly increased my concern for the welfare of my Wolf kin in the wild. It has also increased my belief that wild Wolves should be reintroduced into the UK, beginning in Scotland. Reindeer were successfully reintroduced there some years ago and have since thrived. In the absence of predators, their numbers have increased so rapidly that there is now an annual cull, with large numbers being shot. There is a similar over-abundance of Red Deer. The reintroduction of Wolves would eliminate the need for a cull while ensuring that it is mainly weak, ill and elderly animals who were killed, thus improving the overall health of the herds.
I conclusion, while I fully support many of the arguments in favour of vegetarianism and veganism, oppose the cruel methods used to farm animals for food, and appreciate the validity of the ecological and ethical cases against farming animals for food, I will continue to work with animal spirits and with animal parts in the ways that I do. Doing so is crucial to the spiritual path I have been guided into. I am a Wolf. Although Wolves do eat berries and roots, the main part of their diet is meat. The spirit Wolves who work with me like to be fed. Shamanic friends have told me repeatedly that I must feed my Wolves. I know they are right. In order to sustain my relationship with them, I must feed them, and the food they crave most is meat.
Having come to that space between the worlds where the Wolves and I eat meat, we are also at a place where we converse regularly with other animal spirits. If they are willing to work with us, we work with them. This is my way. It is not everyone’s way, and I’m not suggesting it should be or could be. Bobcat chose a different path and adopted a vegan diet, albeit as much for reasons of health as for ethical concerns. Nevertheless, she often wore a Bobcat tail on her belt and was not averse to working with other animal parts and, through them, with the spirits of the animals from which they came. We each have our path to follow. Along the way, we must each come to ethical decisions we can live with and live by. I respect and honour those who choose paths other than mine.
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.
“... the army demands huge budgets to stimulate research and guide it into specific channels, and youth is being indoctrinated with the spirit of nationalism. All this is done in preparation for the day when the spectre may come to life. Unfortunately, these very policies are the most effective way of actually bringing the spectre into being.” Albert Einstein, 1953 Like Albert Einstein, I am a pacifist, and have been since I was four years old. Witnessing playground fights between individuals or rival gangs in primary school, I realised that the only results were that one or more people got hurt and existing resentments were further fuelled. Both results seemed entirely negative. It didn't take a genius to realise that the international playground fights we call wars are equally negative in their results, only people get not merely hurt but killed. At four years old, it was obvious that violence and anger simply perpetuate violence and anger, and that individuals or nations fighting each other inevitably results in losses that outweigh any possible gain. Except, of course, for those who manufacture and sell arms, who benefit hugely from promoting conflict. I have never since wavered in this belief.
Those who oppose pacifism often try to portray pacifists as cowards. This ignores just how difficult a choice pacifism is in a society where violence is so often admired, applauded and rewarded, from the fortunes paid to boxers to the medals awarded to soldiers.
From 1964 to 1970, I attended a Grammar school that had a boarding section where boys who had failed their 11-plus exam were sent by parents who could afford the fees. Failing the entrance exam, and being farmed out by their parents, led them to harbour huge resentments against us 'day boys.' As a strange child and a pacifist, I was singled out for special and sustained hostility. I was bullied every day of my school life, if not by fellow pupils then by teachers. That of my fellow pupils tended to be mainly verbal, although tripping up or pushing over were commonplace. In such circumstances, pacifism is far from being an easy option. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to respond in kind, and might well have saved me six years of mental torture and physical cruelty. I had, however, made a commitment to pacifism and refused to strike back, whatever the provocation. This simply reinforced my target status. Bullies famously being cowards meant that picking on someone who they knew would not strike back was seen as a gift. I became adept at fending off potential physical assaults with words. Since I was more intelligent than the bullies, this was relatively easy. As a result of my verbal skill, I never came to any serious physical harm.
Staff at the school harboured resentments of their own and were happy to take them out on any slightly unusual pupils through regular acts of random violence. Teachers meted out blows to the head with an open palm, blows elsewhere on the body with slippers, and occasionally more formal canings. Some preferred more refined tortures such as grabbing the nipple under the shirt and twisting it, or grabbing and twisting hair at the side of the head near the ear. Both were excruciatingly painful.
One teacher, having hit me for no reason the day before, apparently felt guilty about it and invited me to punch him in the stomach in return. I refused. He repeated the offer, assuring me that he wouldn't hit me back. Again, I refused, explaining to him that I was a pacifist. Eventually, he gave up trying to get me to punch him. It was clear that he found the idea of not responding to being hit by striking back both worrying and confusing.
Having left school, I adopted the lifestyle of an itinerant hippy, often sleeping rough. Like most homeless people, I was occasionally subjected to violence. Whilst napping in Hyde Park, I was woken up by three policemen kicking me. I had a knife held to my throat in an alleyway in Hastings Old Town. I was shot at from a passing car in the south of France. On none of these occasions was I afraid. I never froze, trembled or crumbled, but nor did I react with violence. While the policemen were kicking me, I engaged them in conversation. They stopped. With a knife at my throat, I talked my would-be assailant out of using it. He left town the following day. The gunman in France being in a passing car, the opportunity to talk never arose. I've looked at how pacifists have responded to various wars, and how they have been treated as a result. This interest stemmed from my father (right) telling me that he had repeatedly been handed white feathers as emblems of his perceived cowardice during the second world war. The reason was that he was a man of fighting age who was not wearing a military uniform. He was, in fact, in a protected occupation, supervising quality control in a factory making parts for fighter planes. He was also an air raid warden, a job that sometimes involved aiding other services in rescuing people from bombed and burning buildings. Despite which, he was branded a coward by people who knew nothing whatsoever of his circumstances.
My father was not a pacifist, but he did mention others who had been treated similarly, including being spat upon in the street, because they refused to fight, not out of cowardice, but because of firm convictions that war is not a rational or sensible way to conduct human affairs. He told me that such people were often imprisoned. I later learned that draft boards in many conflicts, from WWI to Vietnam and beyond, regularly refused to accept pacifism as a valid reason not to conscript people into the armed forces. Pacifists so conscripted were then required to fight and shot by their fellow soldiers if they refused, either with or without a court-martial. In spite of which, many pacifists did refuse to fight, preferring to face a firing squad than to kill fellow humans. It seems to me that such a decision under these circumstances is extraordinarily courageous.
Nevertheless, I seem to be in a minority. Most people seem to find war a perfectly acceptable, albeit regrettable, way of settling differences between people. Even many soldiers who have fought in wars, experienced their horror, and suffered appalling long-term physical and psychological effects as a result, still believe that warfare is, if not a good thing, then at least justifiable in a wide range of circumstances. I simply refuse to believe that. However hard I try, I can't bring myself to accept that, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are unable to devise a better way to handle national, international, doctrinal or political disputes than dropping bombs on people, shooting them or gassing them. Is this really the best our species can manage? Really?
Can we learn from past mistakes?
As a keen amateur historian, it bewilders me that we never seem to learn from history. WWII would never have happened had it not been for WWI and its aftermath. Had the CIA not provided training and weapons for insurgents in Afghanistan, using them as a proxy army to oppose the Russian occupation of that country, there would have been no Taliban, and probably no Al-Qaida. Violent Islamic extremism would certainly not have emerged as the threat it is today had it not been for the 1990-91 Gulf War and the subsequent 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence breeds violence. Hatred breeds hatred. Intolerance breeds intolerance. Wars breed wars. These things have been witnessed again and again with the inevitability of night following day, winter following summer.
It's not as if there are no options other than war. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Hans Blix (left) and teams of UN inspectors were still working there, looking for the “weapons of mass destruction” that were touted by US President, George W. Bush, and UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as the reasons why we had to invade. The inspectors on the ground had already gathered enough evidence to strongly doubt that any such weapons existed. Given a few more weeks, they would have proven that beyond doubt. Instead, they were told to stop work and go home, and the invasion went ahead, with the predictably disastrous results that continue to plague us. Not least of which is the rise of violent Islamic extremism. When faced with an external threat, the question inevitably arises, if not war, then what? The short answer is, of course, peace. Even Winston Churchill, a former soldier himself, and having just led Britain through perhaps the modern world's most justifiable war, still had the sense to say that it is always “better to jaw jaw than war war.” My friend and fellow pacifist, Paul Davies, sent me the link below. It outlines eight non-violent alternative ways to resolve conflicts, all of which have been used successfully in recent years, either alone or in conjunction. Please take a look. It makes inspiring reading. http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/8-ways-defend-terror-nonviolently/
To encourage you to go and look, here are the 'headlines' of the eight methods suggested: 1. Ally-building and the infrastructure of economic development 2. Reducing cultural marginalization 3. Nonviolent protest/campaigns among the defenders, plus unarmed civilian peacekeeping 4. Pro-conflict education and training (yes, that really is what it says) 5. Post-terror recovery programs 6. Police as peace officers: the infrastructure of norms and laws 7. Policy changes and the concept of reckless behaviour 8. Negotiation
The article refers to specific conflicts in which these techniques have been successfully used. If others can do it, why can't we? I believe that the answer is that we can, we just have to want to.
Peace-bashing and the UK Press
In general, the press in the UK do not like leaders of domestic political parties who try to promote peace. Some of us remember the hatchet job they did on Michael Foot, possibly the most intelligent man to lead a major British political party in the last century. The press fell upon him like a pack of rabid dogs when he wore what was said to be a 'donkey jacket' to a Remembrance Day ceremony in 1981. In fact, it wasn't a donkey jacket at all. It was an overcoat from Harrods. The Queen Mother complimented him on it. The UK press, however, have seldom been known to let facts prevent them from inventing a scandal, particularly if it will help kill the career of a sane, caring, decent left-wing politician.
Now we have not only much of the press, but also many of his Labour Party colleagues, similarly attempting to destroy Jeremy Corbyn's political career. After another Remembrance Day ceremony, Corbyn was roundly abused in the press for not bowing at the Cenotaph. In fact, he did. What's more, after all the other politicians had gone off to a lavish lunch, he stayed on, chatting with veterans and taking photographs with and for them. The veterans appreciated this even if the press didn't. Most of the press preferred not to mention it at all, focusing instead on what they hoped would be a politically damaging lie.
As with Michael Foot, there have also been disparaging remarks about Corbyn's choice of clothing. As if it matters. As with Foot, people record every word Corbyn says and then freely misrepresent it in order to show him in the worst possible light. Why? Well, many Labour Party MPs enjoyed the privileges and benefits of power during the Blair years and sincerely believe that it is only by aping Thatcherite Conservative policies, as Blair did, that the Labour Party makes itself electable. They ignore the fact that Blair's decision to go along with the Bush-led invasion of Iraq made Britain a prime target for terrorist attacks. Blair's Thatcherite policies alienated so many traditional Labour voters that the party was virtually wiped off the political map of Scotland at the last election. The Blairites also choose to ignore the fact that Corbyn's election as party leader has led to a massive upsurge in party membership. His ideas particularly resonate with young people, many of whom have previously not engaged with politics, put off by the sneering self-interest of MPs of all major parties, drawn as they tend to be from a tiny, public school and Oxbridge educated elite.
Another factor behind the vitriol directed against both Michael Foot and Jeremy Corbyn is their active membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and their determination to promote alternatives to war as the primary means of settling international disputes. Accusations of pacifism have been levelled at both men as though it were a crime. Echoes of the white feathers and spitting in the street directed at conscientious objectors during both world wars.
Following one recent angry meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, an unnamed member of Corbyn's own shadow cabinet described him as “a fucking disgrace.” This childish abuse was prompted by a TV interview Corbyn gave to the BBC. A 30-second exchange was cherry-picked from this nearly 8-minute piece and repeatedly used to make it sound as though Corbyn would not allow the police to defend people who were being murdered by terrorists. What he actually said was that he was “not in favour of a general shoot-to-kill policy being adopted on the streets of the UK.” Given the number of innocent people who have been shot dead by armed police over the years, this seems a fair and reasonable statement to make. As Corbyn also says in the interview, it does not mean that, in a situation where lives are immediately threatened, as they were in Paris recently, all means should not be taken to prevent further loss of life.
In the interview, Corbyn makes the point that the best way to deal with terrorism in the long term is to create the kind of world in which people do not feel driven to resort to it. He also suggests that the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 made the situation in the Middle East worse, creating the circumstances in which Islamic fundamentalism could flourish and promote terrorism. The same point has been made in recent days by US President, Barack Obama, and by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, neither of whom have been pilloried for it in the UK press in the way that Corbyn is continually. Of course, it's much easier to condemn someone based on a single sentence taken out of context than it is to engage with the totality of their views. Unfortunately, more people hear the selected soundbite and the misleading spin put on it than will ever hear the original interview.
Here's the full Jeremy Corbyn interview so you can make up your own mind about what he said:
Again, as with Michael Foot in the early 80s, Corbyn is pilloried by some of his own MPs for opposing the renewal of Britain's Trident nuclear missiles. The Labour Party manifesto for the 1983 general election included a call for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Right-wing Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, famously described it as “the longest suicide note in history.” The manifesto also called for greater public control over the banking sector, and for the nationalisation of banks who didn't agree to tighter controls over their behaviour. In light of the ongoing global financial crisis brought about by the banks, this may now be viewed as more rational than radical.
What was actually in the '83 Labour manifesto? A few highlights are mentioned in this short piece on the BBC website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/8550425.stm The cost of renewing the Trident system, which everyone agrees would never be used, has been put at a massive £97 billion. At a time when the UK government is planning cuts to social security, social services, support for the low paid, health care, home care for the elderly, local councils, social housing and education, I am staggered that anyone supports spending this amount of money on any weapons system, let alone one the use of which would signal the end of the world. No wonder the policy of mutually assured destruction has the acronym, MAD. Redirecting that money would mean that, far from cutting support for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, we could improve provision for them.
Who benefits from war?
In hindsight, the Conservative victory in '83 had less to do with Labour policies or Michael Foot's overcoat and much more to do with the jingoistic turn-around in Tory fortunes following the perceived victory in the 1982 Falklands war. Prior to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, Margaret Thatcher was the most unpopular Prime Minister the UK had ever had. Following it, she became the 'Iron Lady' and went from being a political liability for her party to an asset. Voters seem to love a good war, as long as it can be portrayed as successful.
It's surely no coincidence that it was later in 1983 that Ronald Reagan sent American troops to invade the small Caribbean island of Grenada. The US troops met little resistance and the 'war' was over in two days. 78 people died, 18 of whom were patients and staff in a mental hospital that the US forces bombed by accident. The US government awarded more than 5,000 medals for valour. What had worked for Thatcher worked for Reagan too. His domestic popularity soared.
These two short military interventions unfortunately led to a widespread belief amongst politicians that wars equal votes. It is debatable whether the US-led wars in the Middle East would have happened had it not been for the political gains resulting from the Falklands and Grenada conflicts. That and the prospect of cheaper oil, of course. And the vast war profits accruing to Haliburton, a company in which Bush and his chief advisers, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, all had substantial holdings.
Does war make us safer?
Jeremy Corbyn is also slated for being one of the few politicians to publicly admit that the mess in the Middle East, and the resulting terrorism, are at least partly the fault of US, UK and European policies in the region. These consist not just of the Gulf war and the Iraq war, but repeated more-or-less covert attempts to destabilise or overthrow regimes of which we did not approve, often, as with the US in Afghanistan, by arming, funding and training terrorist groups as proxies. This is a policy the West has pursued at least since WWI. While doing so, the West has imposed and then propped up some truly awful regimes, usually repressive dictatorships, as long as the dictators in question were willing to keep the oil flowing. Is it any wonder that many people in the region view the West with deep suspicion, contempt, even hatred? Is it acceptable to pillory people like Jeremy Corbyn for pointing out the consequences of our past mistakes and displaying a willingness not to repeat them and even, perhaps, to make amends for them and learn from them so as not to make those same mistakes again?
I was four when I realised that violence has vastly more negative results than positive. I'm still waiting and hoping for the rest of the world to grow up.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the question what would I do if I were attending a rock concert and four heavily armed suicide bombers started shooting everyone in sight? In lesser situations, I have placed myself between people threatening violence and those they were threatening. Would I do the same if the threat were from guns rather than fists? The honest answer is, I don't know. What I do know, and I wholeheartedly agree with Jeremy Corbyn on this, is that I would do all I could to prevent further killing. I also agree with him that we shouldn't have got ourselves into a place where events like those in Paris can happen, and that, now we're faced with it, there has to be a better way out of it than simply piling killing on top of killing. That way nothing but madness and destruction lie. Since increased antipathy and hostility are precisely what the clerics behind the self-proclaimed Islamic State want, should we really be delivering them to them? Are we not simply providing further justification for their rhetoric of hatred and violence?
I'm aware that I may come across as an apologist for Jeremy Corbyn in this piece and I accept that that will annoy and upset some people. I should point out that I am not a member of any political party and never have been. Mostly, I follow the anarchist precept, “don't vote – it only encourages them.” Like many thinking people of all ages, I have been turned off the political process by the abysmal behaviour of so many politicians. Since the 1970s, I have watched in disgust as more and more of the plentiful resources of my country have been taken away from the poor and given to the rich. At the same time, I have witnessed innumerable scandals about politicians lining their own pockets at public expense. It appals me to witness social care being cut while MPs use public money to have their moats cleaned, buy expensive second homes, or pay members of their family large salaries for doing nothing. I would rather not think of the people who run my country as a bunch of money-grubbing crooks, but when that's how they behave, it's hard not to.
And then there's Tony Blair, who had the opportunity to stop the invasion of Iraq before it began, but who had a nice chat with God, who told him it'd be fine and he should go ahead. Over two million people turning out on the streets of UK cities on a single day to march for peace did nothing to persuade him otherwise. Nor did the evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction. He decided it was better to lie to us all and go ahead anyway. Of course people are turned off politics in droves. Blair's catastrophic actions over the invasion of Iraq were, of course, what lay behind MPs refusal to back military intervention in Syria when it was last put to parliament. For a short time, it looked as though we might actually be learning from past mistakes. Now that majority against bombing Syria seems to be weakening.
That's why I think it's right to speak up for the occasional person within politics who seems to have genuine convictions, a genuine desire to do good, and a real desire to help all the people of this country, not just the wealthiest few. As a pacifist myself, the outraged responses to Corbyn's pacifist ideals depresses, but does not surprise me. The question we all must ask ourselves is, have recent wars made the world a safer, better place? Surely the only rational answer can be that they have made the world a worse, less stable and more violent place, have fuelled hatred and increased terrorism. In which case, we need alternatives and we need them now. The alternative to war is peace, and isn't that what the sane among us all want, whether we're Christian, Muslim, Pagan, Jewish, Hindu, Shinto, Atheist or Jain?
As we say at the beginning of most public Druid ceremonies, "May there be peace throughout all the world."
Blessings, and peace,
by Brendan Myers
2013, Moon Books, Winchester (UK) and Washington (US)
£11.99 UK, $20.95 US Listening to religious broadcasts on BBC radio for many years, I'm frequently struck by the easy assumption of so many speakers that only monotheistic faiths have ever made any valuable contribution to culture. This despite the fact that pagans invented philosophy, democracy, scientific enquiry, medicine, representational art and much else besides. I've often thought that someone should write a book detailing the history of pagan contributions to the world in general, and the Western world in particular. Brendan Myers has written just such a book on the theme of philosophy, and a very welcome, highly readable book it is too, full of illuminating insights.
I know some folk are put off by the very mention of philosophy, thinking that a book on the subject must be dry, dusty and full of abstruse terminology and highly abstract notions that have nothing whatever to do with life as it is lived. In these areas, Myers scores very highly by not burdening his text with technical jargon, explaining with precision and clarity the terms he does use and, with warm humanity, revealing the many ways in which philosophy not only effects us, but in many ways defines us, individually and collectively. At the heart of the whole project of philosophy is the search for answers to questions concerning reality, divinity, humanity and our role in the universe, what happens to us when we die, and how should we best live our lives? With this in mind, Myers (left) introduces us to a range of philosophers, from the classical, Graeco-Roman era through to the present century, setting out with admirable brevity the ideas that are central to their philosophies. Those of us with an interest in the subject, but neither the time nor patience to wade through thousands of pages of texts in search of hidden nuggets must be hugely grateful that a writer with such a keen mind has done the wading for us, located the nuggets and set them out before us so clearly.
The philosophers we meet along the way represent a wide spectrum and some may seem like surprising inclusions. Some historians may question the inclusion of medieval texts produced in Iceland and Ireland, arguing that they were written well into the Christian era and cannot, therefore, accurately reflect pagan beliefs. Their influence on modern Pagans is, however, unquestionable, and one could convincingly argue that they deserve to be included on that score alone. That said, I am convinced that Myers has teased out from among them a set of values that is authentically pagan. We're on less contentious ground with our next batch of philosophers, beginning with the Pre-Socratics and taking in such famous names as Pythagoras (left), Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Plotinus, as well as a number of lesser known luminaries. Once again, Myers succeeds in making their contributions to human understanding readily comprehensible to any moderately intelligent reader. He places them in their historical context, outlines the various schools of philosophy they founded or influenced, and explains how they fit into the evolving scheme of human understanding of our place in the universe. This section closes with a consideration of how pagan ideas returned to the mainstream of European thought during the Renaissance, revitalising not only philosophy, but art, literature and politics. The third section introduces us to a rebellious group of free-thinkers whose work enlivened the so-called Age of Reason, from the mid-17th century through to the 19th. These include two names familiar to anyone who knows the history of Druidry; the Irishman, John Toland (1670-1722), and the Welshman, Edward Williams (right), a.k.a. Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826). Again, it's good to have such a clear, concise exposition of what these colourful characters actually believed. Others in this section include Spinoza, Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Schopenhauer and Neitzsche. As Myers admits, none of these gentlemen would have called themselves pagans, yet it's clear from what they wrote that they were part of a tradition of thought that can justifiably be described as pagan. Usually, it is a spiritual, inspirational, sometimes visionary relationship with Nature that marks them out for inclusion in this book. The next section leads us through the lives and thoughts of another disparate group of colourful eccentrics and outsiders whose thinking has had a profound influence on the modern resurgence of Paganism. These include the founder of Theosophy, H. P. Blavatsky; Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough; the poet, Robert Graves (left, with one of his muses), whose book, The White Goddess, became, despite its author's protestations, a foundational text of both modern Wicca and Druidry; Aleister Crowley, George Russell (AE), whose Candle of Vision, I learn from Myers, was written as the core manual for a Celtic magical order, the Castle of Heroes, proposed by AE's friend, W. B. Yeats; Stewart Farrar, who annotated and published the first full version of the Wiccan Book of Shadows; and Isaac Bonewits, founder of the influential American Druid group, ADF. Along the way, we are guided through the birth of American feminist Wicca, the rise of eco-spirituality and the development of the Gaia hypothesis and the Deep Ecology movement. Given the deep impact that both feminism and ecology have had, and continue to have, on our world, it is fascinating to know where, when and how they developed and to learn more about the individuals involved. We move then to living Pagan thinkers, several of whom would not describe themselves as philosophers, but whose writings have been profoundly influential on the development of Paganism in the present century. These include such well-known figures as Starhawk (Miriam Simos), Emma Restall Orr (Bobcat), John Michael Greer, Michael York, Vivianne Crowley (right), Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone. I realise that I'm less familiar with the works of Greer and York than I should be and intend to remedy that as soon as possible. It's one of the joys of books like this one that they inspire us to explore further.
I'm honestly awestruck at the sheer range of ideas included in a book just a little over 300 pages long. That they are all explained with such clarity is a huge bonus. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the enormous contributions pagans have made to human understanding, in what leading modern Pagans think and believe, and in where pagan philosophical thought might go from here. In creating this book, Brendan Myers has done a huge service to the Pagan community. Exceptional and highly recommended.
I always find it hard to sleep when the moon is full, so was up and out very early this morning. As the sun rose over the village, I crossed the road and the brook, sacred to the goddess, Sulis, lined with springs. The nearest of these was revered by Anglo-Saxon ancestors as a local manifestation of the Bubbling Cauldron (Hvergelmir) at the roots of the World Tree, around which coils the serpent/dragon, Nidhoggr. Here's my drawing of the World Tree from the BDO Bardic Course. Click the picture to expand it.
By the spring, I met an early dog-walker. Her dog, an old black and white collie, adopted me for a while as she went on ahead and he padded along at my heels. Our ways parted and I walked up the Green Path to a space between the trees where I could see out across the fields and the edge of the village, with a clear view of the sun. Took out my drum, held it to the newly risen sun, played and sang. With frost on the grass in the dips, I wondered if the drum would sound. I needn't have worried, the Red Deer's golden skin immediately absorbed and responded to the light and warmth of the golden fireball in the East and the lightest tap of my fingers brought forth a clear, ringing tone.
I added another goddess to the list of deities and spirit beings called upon in my morning salutations. Having been with the White Horse Camp until yesterday afternoon, we had discussed honouring this goddess in a ceremony there this morning, and I wanted to connect with my friends at the camp from my quiet corner of North Wiltshire. I live just off the Northern edge of Salisbury Plain, within the territory of the Bronze Age people who created the beautiful chalk hill figure, the Uffington White Horse, etched into the greensward beside a rectangular earthwork on White Horse Hill in South Oxfordshire. Just above the Horse runs the Ridgeway, one of Britain's oldest prehistoric trackways, sections of which are still walkable. The Ridgeway once wound from the Norfolk coast to reach the sea again in Dorset, passing by many ancient sacred sites along the way, including Wayland's Smithy, Avebury and Wodnesbeorg. One of the White Horse's tasks, I believe, was to guide and assist walkers along that ancient track. My area of North Wiltshire is known to have had at least fourteen other chalk hill figures of horses etched into its hillsides.
Short digression: In 1996, I led a Midsummer ceremony among the great stone circles of Avebury. Part of its purpose was to honour World Peace and Prayer Day, an idea inspired by the birth of a White Buffalo Calf in Wisconsin two years earlier. This event was seen as being of great spiritual significance by many Native Americans, who greeted it as a sign that their ancestral ways would be returning to them with renewed power. This is because, long ago, it was White Buffalo Calf Woman who brought the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples their seven sacred ceremonies and taught them how to conduct them for the benefit of the tribes and of all beings. Joining us at that ceremony in 1996 was a young Lakota who came because he had a vision of a White Horse while he fasted in a cave on Bear Butte, a sacred, holy place for many Native Americans. His vision led him to Avebury and to us, since our ceremony was being held at a place sacred to the ancient people of the White Horse. He brought with him a song he had been gifted during his vision and sang it for us in the circle. I am ashamed to say that a few drunken members of the Loyal Arthurian Warband shouted abuse at him as he sang. He didn't let them phase him though. His voice, his spirit and his song remained strong and true.
After the ceremony, we talked. He asked if folk in England always yelled insults at people during sacred ceremonies. I explained the behaviour of the drunks as best I could and apologised for it. He said with a sigh, "Yeah, we get 'em back home too." We talked about Wannabee Indians and he said, "If people over here think it's so damn great being an Indian they should try living on the Res for a couple of years."
We also discussed his vision. He said he had come to us because he felt there was a link between the birth of the White Buffalo Calf, White Buffalo Calf Woman who taught the sacred ways to his people, and our native British White Horse spirit. I've been thinking about this again recently and am more than ever convinced that he is right. I believe we have our own teacher of sacred ceremonies and spirit ways, centred on this area of rolling downland where the most famous of them all, the Uffington Horse, bestrides the hillside above Dragon Hill. So, who is our native White Horse Woman? I believe she is Rhiannon, 'the Great Queen,' who features in the First Branch of the Mabinogi, where she first appears riding a magical horse and later acts as a horse herself, carrying travellers on her back. Here she is, from the Druid Tarot I designed many years ago (available from the BDO webshop). If I'm right about this image derived from a Gaulish coin representing the same horse goddess (perhaps under a different name), then the spirit of the White Horse reaches far beyond the area where I live.
I believe that she is one of the prime movers behind both the White Horse Camps (formerly OBOD Camps) and the Avebury Gorsedd. An interfaith conference organised by Tim Sebastion in 1993 featured the first ever ceremony of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri, a ceremony I created for the event and which is still conducted at Avebury today. During the same weekend OBOD's chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, and Dr. (now Prof.) Ronald Hutton went for a walk around the stones and Ronald suggested that Philip should organise a Druid camp. The first camp took place at Lammas 1994 and included a trip down to Avebury to join the Gorsedd celebration there, again conducted by me, still flying from having encountered my spirit Wolf in a sweat lodge on the camp the night before.
That first camp became a template for many others and similar camps are now held throughout the year by five different Druid group in the UK and by OBOD and others in the Europe, the USA, Australia and elsewhere. The Avebury Gorsedd also became a template for similar festival celebrations at Stonehenge, the Long Man of Wilmington, Stanton Drew and elsewhere in the UK and, as with camps, at many other sites around the world. Part of the Gorsedd ceremony even featured in the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics, broadcast live to a global audience of millions.
When things have such power, that power must have a source, or several sources. In the case of White Horse Camps and the Avebury Gorsedd, linked by the Ridgeway, the power came from a combination of time, place and people, but also from Rhiannon, our White Horse Woman. I believe that our presence and our intention to revitalise the ways of our ancestors called her forth in the 1990s to teach, inspire and empower us, just as she had our ancestors in the distant past. Long may she continue to guide us in the recreation of our ancestral ways. I trust that many of us will honour her, and give thanks for her gifts, in our ceremonies as we celebrate the first fruits of the harvest this Lammastide.
Hail and blessed be!
and a blessed and inspiring Lammas/Lughnasad/Gwyl Awst to one and all!
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 at 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..."