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.
"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.
“... 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.
Here's a quote from the British Druid Order ovate course booklet, The Ways of the Gods. It seems particularly relevant in the light of recent events that have seen a tiny, destructive minority of fanatical members of each of the big three monotheistic faiths invoking scriptural authority to justify violence against others, sometimes succeeding in dragging whole nations along with them. I'm thinking not only of the 9/11 attacks and those that have followed in its wake, but of the continuing strife between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a tragic list that could all too easily be extended:
'I see no harm in applying rigorous analysis to systems of belief. On the contrary, it seems to me a good and useful thing to do. I do so for my own beliefs and feel no sense of threat when others do the same. I admire and enjoy the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who regard all religious beliefs as absurd and dangerous delusions. They are intelligent men who write, and argue their cases, well. I agree with much of what they say and would be happy to debate amicably with them over points of disagreement. As an intelligent, enquiring Pagan, I do not see blind faith as being an adequate substitute for provable fact or observable reality. My own beliefs are based on observations that have been subjected to repeated analysis over a period of half a century or so, as a result of which they have continually changed and evolved as new information has become available and new observations have been made. 'By contrast, some adherents of the big three monotheisms seem to feel deeply and personally threatened by any attempt at objective analysis of the background to their faiths, or any deviation from those faiths, often responding with death threats or actual violence, up to and including murder on an industrial scale. The history of Europe is littered with examples of the latter, from the murder of pagan priests in late Imperial Rome, through bloody campaigns against Christian heretics (right) and 16th century Witch-hunts to the Nazi Holocaust.
'The underlying cause of such deep-seated and destructive insecurity can only be fear; fear of change allied with a fear of being shown to be wrong. What is wrong with being wrong? Surely the path towards ultimate truth requires us to question each step along the way, rejecting those that prove wanting so that we can move on? 'The difference here is one that has been characterised by Robert Anton Wilson (left) as that between dogma and catma. Wilson, co-author with Robert Shea of the Illuminatus! trilogy (Dell Publishing, 1975), said that “Discordians don't have dogmas, which are absolute beliefs; we have catmas which are relative meta-beliefs.” In other words, religious dogmas are regarded as absolute and therefore restrictive of freedom of thought, while Discordian catmas, through not being hard and fast but constantly subject to change and revision, actively encourage freedom of thought.
Discordianism is an absurdist, surrealist, Dadaist religion that Wilson, Shea and others created inspired by the philosophy and spirituality of late 1960s youth culture. I find the idea of catmas admirable and inspiring, while I have always had a problem with dogmas, which is why the BDO promotes the former and rejects the latter. We both expect and encourage you to regard our course material as a series of catmas that you can either take or leave depending on how well or otherwise they resonate with your own experience of the world. We actively encourage a questioning approach to the world in general, and anything we say in particular.
'Incidentally, Wilson also said that “Most religious people take themselves too damn seriously, which is why they act like such damn fools. I'm using the word damn for the paradoxical effect.” I like him.'
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth. So they show their relations to me and I accept them, They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession. Walt Whitman (1819-1892), from 'Song of Myself.'
You may have noticed that I have a bit of a thing about animals. As a child, I had an instinctive understanding that they were a special breed of people. I suspect this is an extremely common human experience. After all, traditional stories told to children around the world are full of talking animals, animal helpers, teachers and guides, and animal transformations.
One of my earliest connections with a non-human species was with herons. As a misfit amongst family and contemporaries, I was naturally drawn to these solitary birds. I saw them standing perfectly still at the edge of the ditches that criss-crossed Romney Marsh, on the borders of which I lived. They would hold this pose for hours at a time, just occasionally shifting from one leg to the other, waiting for fish or, more likely on the Marsh, eels, to swim past and provide them with food. There was a calm simplicity, an unpretentious dignity, about them. Their muted colours, pale grey with flashes of white and black, added to the sense they exuded of being “so placid and self-contain'd.” My first recollection of anything resembling meditation, before I even knew there was such a thing, consisted of trying to put myself into a similar state of calm, to render myself unruffled and untroubled like the heron. I did indeed “stand and look at them long and long.”
In my book, Druidry: A Practical and Inspirational Guide (Piatkus, 2000), I wrote of an experience at a Druid camp of swapping consciousnesses with an eagle and soaring high above the world on powerful wings. I've also written of the sweat lodge in which I first encountered the spirit wolf who was to become such a central part of my life and from whom I draw the craft name, Greywolf. He and I have also traded spirits so that I perceive the world through his eyes and he through mine. In other circumstances, when called for, I have become a serpent or a dolphin.
These experiences of becoming other-than-human are well described in Whitman's poem, famously quoted by Lord Summerisle as played by Christopher Lee in the film, The Wicker Man.
I share Whitman's sense of animals having a different, much clearer, less encumbered engagement with life than we humans with our tangled webs of guilts and fears. They perceive clearly what needs to be done and go about doing it in the most efficient way possible. We, on the other hand, often fail to act, held back by worry about possible consequences. While in many cases this is clearly a good thing, we often take it to extremes where we are paralysed from taking any action at all, even when circumstances demand it. The results of inaction then often add to our worry and frustration, erode away our sense of self-worth, and can lead to severe psychological imbalance. Becoming animal breaks us free of this destructive cycle by allowing us a clearer perspective, enabling us to see what is really important and to discard the rest. This has been proven to me time and again. Things that have angered and frustrated me as a human and which I have felt unable or unwilling to address have often melted into insignificance when I have become wolf or eagle. Either that or, in animal form, the right and only course of action to pursue has become crystal clear and my animal self has had the strength and courage to follow it through.
In shape-shifting, the physical perspective alters, so that as an eagle you see fields and houses way below and have a clear, unbroken view to the far horizon, while as a wolf, your visual perspective is much nearer the ground while your sense of smell and hearing are hugely enhanced. However, it is not just the physical perspective that shifts. Inhabiting the body of an animal, seeing through its eyes, experiencing the world through its other senses, also changes how we feel about the world and our place in it. As Whitman says, animals “do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.” For us as humans, this psychological shift is profound, freeing us from doubt, fear and all the other stifling emotions that prevent us from achieving clarity and acting decisively on it. The importance of this gift cannot be over-stressed.
In my experience, we all have spirit animals who protect and guide us. At least, I've only ever encountered one person who didn't. He was a long-term drug addict whose physical and mental state had deteriorated to such an extent that no spirit animal had felt able to remain with him.
It is my belief that we do not choose which spirit animals we have, but that they choose us, drawn to us by who we are, how we think and what we do. When these things change, one set of spirit animals may leave us and another take their place. With me the major transition was from solitary heron as a child to pack animal wolf as an adult.
How we discover our spirit animal guardians, guides and helpers varies from person to person and place to place. They may be encountered in vivid dreams or spontaneous or deliberately sought for visions, or may emerge simply through a deep fascination with one particular species.
Having discovered one's 'power animal', what happens next? In my case, the discovery of 'my' wolf was quickly followed by the acquisition of a wolf-skin cloak, wolf stories and images, a wolf tooth and a wolf chant. The chant as originally given to me in the 1990s originated with the Seneca people of North America. However, it immediately transformed into a native British wolf chant very different from the Seneca original. I posted it on youtube a while ago.
Deer are prey animals to wolves and, as such, have an important place in the wolf's world. Visiting a deer park one day about ten years ago, an albino fallow deer shed one of its antlers next to our car. I accepted this rare and precious gift, gathered it and took it home. Washing it off in the shower later, the deer's spirit gave me a song that I recently posted on youtube. I still have the antler...
Having studied other cultures and shared ceremonies with indigenous peoples including the Quileute ('Wolf People') and Makah tribes of the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest U.S.A., I know that such animal spirit songs and chants are common around the world. In Britain and Northern Europe, they have been largely lost to the erosion of history and in particular to the onset of Christianity. Early Christian edicts specifically outlaw dressing up as, and acting like, animals. In spite of this, animal-like costumes are still worn as part of folk festivals across much of Europe. Charles Fréger has photographed several such costumes in a series called Wilder Mann.
While some of these folk figures may have traditional songs that accompany their appearance, as does the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss in Cornwall, they have no doubt changed considerably over the years under the influence of a hostile church.
Having been given the two chants featured here, it struck me as a good idea to try and restore a set of spirit animal power songs to our native tradition. The wolf and deer chants represent a beginning and other chants will be added as they come. I've worked with eagle quite a lot, so have high hopes there. My son, Joe, has strong bear magic, so I hope we can come up with a good bear chant. I already have a serpent chant, though not yet recorded. The plan is to establish a collection of songs and chants relating to some of our most prominent native (or formerly native) species and to put them out on CD. In the meantime, I'll post them on youtube and facebook as and when they emerge and I have time to record them. I'd appreciate your help. If you work with an animal spirit and have a song or chant that you use to help maintain your link with that animal, please record it (however roughly), post it (letting me know where), and we'll polish it up, re-record it if necessary, and add it to the collection. When the CD comes out you will, of course, be fully credited. Having no idea how much interest in this project there might be, I'm unable to make any estimate as to what, if any, royalties might flow from it. To be honest, that's not my concern. The intention is simply to restore or re-create another, potentially very powerful, aspect of our native spiritual tradition and to share it with those who might find it useful in making, enhancing and maintaining their own relationships with the spirit animals who have so much to teach us and share with us.
Our afternoon session was on the theme of Celtic Connections and was opened by Simon Howell, interfaith officer for the diocese of Bath and Wells. Howell is, of course, an honest-to-goodness, proper Celtic name. On first seeing Simon at the conference, my assumption was that he was part of the Pagan group; shaven head, mainly black clothing, great line in cool t-shirts, etc. Indeed, looking at one of the group photos from the event, one Pagan friend commented that, twenty years ago, you could tell the Christians from the Pagans really easily. Simon's look was explained by his revelation of having been a drummer in various bands. He spoke of holding a drum workshop at Ammerdown with a group consisting of Christians, Jews and Muslims. In a fine tribute to the bardic aspect of our traditions, he said that a transcendent moment of the workshop came at its end when all joined in singing the great pacifist anthem of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement, 'We Shall Overcome,' most famously performed on record by the peerless Pete Seeger.
He said that interfaith dialogue often worked through telling each other stories of a Golden Age when the groups involved got on well together. In this context, Simon quoted John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis and many other works, referring to Druids as setting the scene for the coming of Christianity and as being a sort of spiritual fore-runner to it. He endeared himself to me further by then quoting my old friend, Ronald Hutton, on the same topic, saying that, far from being a time of harmony, the change of faith in Europe was fraught with difficulties, tensions and hostilities, with Roman Christians evincing an extreme dislike for pagans of all flavours. Simon quoted Ronald as describing John Michell as a visionary and romantic, both of which are admirable things to be.
Simon concluded his talk by expressing the widespread opinion, shared by both Pagans and Christians, that the modern age “lacks transcendence,” but that this may be reintroduced into our lives by stories, through which we may be “lifted through the veil and reach the peace of the Otherworld.”
Our second speaker in the afternoon session was another old friend, Philip Carr-Gomm, who began by explaining that interfaith dialogue between Druids and Christians is by no means new, going back at least three centuries. Indeed, many of the founding fathers (and yes, they were all men) of some branches of modern Druidry were Christian ministers. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Welsh Gorsedd, of which the Queen and former archbishop, Rowan Williams, are members, authored a number of popular Christian hymns. He explained that Iolo's Druidry represented what might be called a cultural Druidry. He suggested that the Ancient Order of Druids, of which Winston Churchill was a member, represented a similarly cultural rather than spiritual take on Druidry, and one that is essentially Christian.
Ross Nichols, who founded OBOD in 1964, was what Philip called “a questioning Christian,” an ordained deacon of a group called the Ancient Celtic Church. It may surprise many to know that, as Philip went on to say, Nichols' friend, Gerald Gardner, the father of modern Witchcraft, was also an ordained deacon of the related Ancient British Church.
Philip then asked “Is our conversation an appropriate one to be having?” He quoted the composer, John Taverner, as saying that “the mature religions are dying.” He also asked whether it was appropriate for Pagans to be looking back to the past for inspiration, suggesting that it might be moreso if we were doing it to slough off the accretions of the past and start afresh.
He spoke of aspects of contemporary Christianity that he saw as feeding back into Paganism as well as attempting to work alongside Pagans, suggesting that the two represent distinct and separate paths that can yet be combined. He said that he felt the overlap between Christianity and Druidry in particular was a potentially fertile one, and that the existing overlap could be strengthened through a shared concern for things like growing our own food, reverencing the Earth and celebrating the cycle of the seasons. He added that such collaborations already exist, citing as an example his own regular cooperation with a local vicar in staging celebrations of the eightfold festival cycle on Firle Beacon in Sussex, celebrations that attract both Pagans and Christians.
He then spoke of a group called the Celtic Orthodox Church which consists of Christian Druids who live completely “off the grid” in woodland in Brittany, growing their own food, generating their own power, etc. They are a proper community, ranging in age from infants to OAPs. They are inspired by the example of Saint Francis and “came out” publicly as Druids only last year (2013), following which Philip gave them a talk on the Wheel of the Year. Philip suggested that similar communities might be possible that put Druidry to the foreground but had Christianity in the background, ending his presentation by saying that he now felt we had reached a point at which combining various traditions is possible.
Greywolf the Bard
And so to dinner, followed by our evening music session, led by Forest Church alumni, Alison Eve and Paul Cudby, whose band is called Eve in the Garden. Ali plays harp, Paul percussion, and they're augmented by guitar and bass. Their music is a lively blend of traditional folk style with Christian lyrics, though thankfully not of the typical happy-clappy variety. In breaks in their set were the guest slots, one of which I blagged to perform a few of my songs, 'Song at Wodnesbeorg,' 'My Lady of the Greenwood,' and 'Lord of the Wildwood.' The latter includes a wolf chant that came to me about twenty years ago that ends in wild howling. I was pleased to note that both Christians and Pagans were joining in with this enthusiastically.
And so, having been gently, kindly and very charmingly evicted from the bar for being just a wee bit too noisy a wee bit too late, to bed, just in time for ...
Day Three: Sunday, February 2nd
On Sunday morning most of us trooped off into the soggy, cold parkland surrounding the Centre for a ritual, again led by Alison and Paul. This reminded me of many Druid ceremonies in that we all had printed service sheets, laminated due to the weather, clutching which we all stood in a cold circle not moving much. I was distracted by the sight of a huge, phallus-like concrete monument rising from a hillside a little way off. I have to admit that every time the word 'god' was used in the ceremony I found myself quietly adding an 's'. This reminded me again of the fact that I'd have liked to have seen the weekend's ceremonies jointly composed and conducted by Christians, Druids and Pagans. Something to bear in mind for next time...
Following on from this, our final session was appropriately entitled “Better Together.”
Opening this session was Tess Ward, who said that in prayer, “all is one and only love remains,” a statement that immediately endeared her to me. She said that we face a spiritual and environmental crisis, the latter having been responsible for bringing spirituality and environmental concerns back together. Tess was ordained as a Christian minister in 2000 while she was, as she said, “in a literal and metaphorical dark wood.” She spoke of mystical Christianity as representing a way out of the dark wood, adding the telling phrase that “through religion and out the other side is the divine.”
She spoke of female spirituality not being obvious in the established church. She now runs a Pagan women's circle in Oxford in which she is the only Christian. They meet in the open air with fires, “poetry, silence and Nature.”
She expressed a feeling that “the church needs to die before it can be reborn,” and that one aspect of this had to be facing “the dark shadow” that Christianity has cast over history. She then led the Christians present in speaking a lament regretting the divisions and brokenness of the past, asking forgiveness and help to make good. While this was obviously heartfelt, I couldn't help but be reminded of a Native American woman who once launched into a tirade of complaints directed at myself and Emma Restall Orr in which she blamed us for every evil Europeans had ever foisted upon her people. While we both share her anger at Europeans' historical treatment of Native Americans, neither of us felt that we were personally to blame for it.
Tess then spoke of Christ as a source of union. Again, while I can see where this might be true if you look at the recorded actions and sayings of Jesus himself, many of those who have historically presented themselves as his followers have been responsible for fuelling all manner of hatreds, divisions and even genocides.
She spoke of not pushing our own traditions onto others, but working with others towards “a healing and love beyond ourselves,” adding that “the miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment.”
Our last speaker was Liz Williams, a Glastonbury-based Druid who runs the town's Witchcraft Shop, who began by saying that we had to lay aside the myth of 'The Burning Times' with its erroneous claim that nine million witches were burnt.
She then made what was, to me at least, the contentious claim that we have no structure for analysing the validity of spiritually-inspired claims. In Druidry, at least as we teach it in the British Druid Order, we make such judgements based on the creative output of our students. Central to our path is the creative spirit we call awen. Students on our bardic course create art based on their connection with awen and the art thus produced gives us a basis on which to judge the strength and quality of their link with awen. OK, art itself is prone to subjective judgements, and yet it is still a basis on which judgement can be made.
Liz went on to say that she feels the idea of humans as “guardians of the Earth” is anthropocentric, egotistical and wrong. She then spoke of our perceptions of various faith groups as being monolithic structures all members of which are in agreement, pointing out that Glastonbury Witches are constantly at odds with each other. She said that “cult behaviour” was rare amongst Pagans due to our largely responsible leaders who we don't put on pedestals.
On the downside, she spoke of links between some threads of Paganism and far right and nationalist groups, of Pagans damaging and littering sacred sites, of many Pagans having no conception of the Country Code, and of the natural tendency of internet groups to generate rows, a tendency as prevalent amongst Pagans as anyone else.
On the plus side, Liz spoke of an increase in the debate of ethical issues amongst Pagans, particularly those connected with the ways in which we relate to our environment. She spoke of Pagan involvement with actions against badger culls and fracking. She cited the writer, Richard Mabey, as influential in promoting the idea of re-connecting with Nature as a cure for depression.
In the closing round-table session, many points from the various talks were picked up. Simon Howell, for example, shared my problem with the list of past faults Tess Ward had encouraged the Christians in the room to voice, stating simply that “We are not responsible for some of the things on that list.” He also expressed concerns about the speakers who had been critical of the role of scientists in disenchanting Nature, saying that science was fuelled by a sense of wonder and enchantment. Liz Williams said that Pagans find enchantment in Paganism, but also in science fiction and fantasy.
Philip Carr-Gomm asked what people thought of what has been described as the “pick and mix” attitude towards religion. Graham Harvey said that, as a religious scholar, he felt that religion had always been “pick and mix.” Marcus Small differentiated belonging to a particular group from having a sense of kinship with other groups.
Graham Harvey pointed out that not all gods are nice.
We all, I think, felt the need to end on a positive note. When we hear of renewed tensions between opposing Christian factions in Northern Ireland or continuing murder between Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, it is all too easy to despair of the power of spirituality to better anything, and yet these same things encourage me to thank the gods – all of them – for those who are willing to engage in interfaith dialogues, to look beyond outward appearances that potentially divide us to the fundamental human qualities that can unite us, one of which is an appreciation of the sheer magic of being alive, a magic that, as many of our weekend's speakers confirmed, is most commonly felt by Christian and Pagan alike in the presence of natural beauty.
In this weekend there were things I would have done differently. Minor matters aside though, it was an enjoyable and interesting few days. It seems likely that more will flow from it. Plans for a book have already been announced. Working groups to address specific joint ventures have been proposed. I would love to see joint ceremonies, perhaps joint pilgrimages, as well as combined approaches to ecological concerns and pacifism flow from these.
No doubt there will be problems and stumbling blocks as we make our way forward. There are people in both Christian and Pagan communities who will despise us for the very act of engaging in dialogue with each other. Personally, I agree with the Druid, Winston Churchill, who maintained that “to jaw jaw is always better than to war war.”
With thanks to all who took part for sharing so much with such intelligence, warmth and good humour, and looking forward to the next time,
Incidentally, when I first began publishing my thoughts on interfaith dialogue in the mid-90s in Pagan Dawn and elsewhere, a Liverpool-based Pagan group published a leaflet calling me "Archbishop Shallcrass" and accusing me of trying to convert all Pagans to Christianity. While I appreciated the promotion (and would certainly appreciate the regular income and the place in the House of Lords), if I wielded such powers of persuasion, rather than use them to convert everyone to a faith that is not my own, I would use it to encourge all Pagans to sign up for the amazingly wonderful BDO courses. Is that just a shameless excuse to plug our courses again? Of course it is!
On first visiting the Avebury henge in Wiltshire in the mid-1970s, I came to the same conclusion that the antiquary, John Aubrey, arrived at after his first visit in 1649, which is that Avebury "doth as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doth a parish church." In scale, it certainly does, Avebury's massive bank and ditch enclosing an area of 28.5 acres compared to Stonehenge's humble 1.9. In spite of having half a village built inside it and being sliced in two by a busy main road, Avebury also retains an extraordinary atmosphere. On my first visit, it felt like an active, living sacred site.
As I strolled around the south inner circle, I had a vision in which I saw the body of a grey-haired man lying on a wicker-work stretcher next to the base of one of the sarsen stones. Kneeling by him was a woman of a similar age who I took to be his partner. She was singing a keening song and wafting her hands across the dead man's chest. I got the distinct impressions that she was singing the man's soul into the sarsen, and that this was a common practice among her people. About a dozen other women and men stood in a loose semi-circle around the couple, all facing in towards the stone. Some of them were also singing, while the women were supporting the woman's wafting motions. All were dressed in clothing of rough-woven cloth and skins that suggested they had lived about 4 - 4.5 thousand years ago. This vision gave me the clear idea that one of the functions of the stones in megalithic circles was to act as soul-shrines, receptacles for the spirits of the dead in which they would reside after death as continuing members of their tribes. It is this vision that I've tried to recapture in the illustration here, made for one of the booklets in the BDO ovate course, one on rituals of death and dying. I began with a photo taken by my son Joe next to the very stone where I had the vision 37 years ago. In it, I play the dead man and Elaine Wildways plays my grieving partner. Since our photo was taken on a bright sunny early afternoon, while the vision was set at twilight, I darkened the sky and some of the surrounding landscape. The over-large moon and the rook were added from another photo of Avebury taken at another time. They were added just because I think they look good. The wolfskin covering my body was also added digitally. I also played around with the colours a bit. I thought about including some of the other figures I had seen in the vision but decided not to as they would have partially hidden the central couple. If you're thinking the image really looks digitally manipulated, that's deliberate. There's something about the weird accidents that happen when digitally playing around with pictures that, for me at least, gives them an Otherworldly appearance which is exactly what I was looking for.
Intriguingly, the archaeologist, Mike Parker-Pearson, believes that the stones at Stonehenge are soul-shrines, having been led to this conclusion when he invited Ramilisonina, a colleague from Madagascar, to visit Stonehenge in the 1990s. Ramilisonina told him that, in Madagascar, there is a still active megalithic tradition in which the souls of the dead are transferred into stones that are regarded as sacred. He strongly felt that the stones of Stonehenge had the same function.
It's interesting, though ultimately futile, to speculate whether Mike Parker-Pearson would have so readily accepted the same opinion from me, an English Druid, if I had shared my vision with him. Somehow, I doubt it. There is a peculiar cultural bias by which spirit vision is perfectly acceptable as 'evidence' if it comes from a person born into a culture regarded as 'traditional,' 'tribal,' 'shamanic,' or 'aboriginal,' but not if it comes from an English, European or American Druid or Pagan. Why this should be so is not entirely obvious, since we are all humans and share exactly the same capacity to have visions and to commune with ancestral spirits. It's almost as if there's a kind of inverted racism at work. Just a thought ...