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.'
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!
In our increasingly materialistic world, an ethical question that plagues many of us who try to live as persons of spirit is that of whether, and how much, to charge for our services. A vocal section of the Druid and Pagan communities in Britain maintains that it is always wrong, verging on evil, to charge a fee for anything connected with spirituality. A cynic might argue that some who express this opinion do so because they expect to be given everything in life and to offer nothing in return. However, the same argument rages amongst Druids themselves, as it does amongst other indigenous healers, medicine people and shamans around the world.
The problem is that we live in a capitalist, consumerist culture, where, like everyone else, we have to pay rent or a mortgage, electricity, gas, water and telephone bills, feed ourselves and our families, buy fuel for our stoves, clothes to wear and so on and on and endlessly on. To do so, even the most spiritual of us need money, because, for better or worse, money has come to be the accepted means of exchange for virtually every material thing we need to keep us fed, housed and clothed. Therefore we need a way to make money in order to live.
Many spirit workers subsidise their spirituality by having other jobs that they do to earn their keep. I've done this myself, subsidising the growth of the BDO throughout the 1990s out of my earnings from painting pottery and then from writing, giving talks and workshops and appearing on TV, often with Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr). Bobcat and I debated the financial question and reached various conclusions, one of which was not to charge a fee for 'priestly' services such as conducting handfastings (Druid weddings) or other rites of passage, but to ask for a donation of whatever the folk we were working with thought appropriate. This led to us preparing and conducting rites in various parts of the country for anything from a bag of apples to a cheque for £600. It balanced out. This is a technique used by spirit workers in many cultures.
Many of my 'shamanic' friends say that, if you have faith, spirit will provide. Again, this is a widespread belief amongst spirit workers worldwide. At the same time, we're all canny enough to recognise that just sitting around waiting for riches to pour out of the sky isn't going to work. We need to be active participants in the process, from deciding on the forms ceremonies are to take to making travel arrangements and booking venues.
In the British Druid Order, we charge for the distance learning courses we offer. We could give them away, but we don't. Why? Well, I've spent an average of about 40 hours a week working on them over the last seven years and still have at least another eighteen months to go. For six of those years I received nothing at all for this work. Even at the national minimum wage of £6.32 an hour, I could have expected to earn over £75,000 or £12,500 a year. I did it without payment because it seemed like the right thing to do and it was also a good thing to do, in part because of what I learned from it and gained in terms of personal growth. Oh, and because I doubt that the BDO has generated £75,000 in its entire 35-year existence.
Following my wife's death in 2000, I received financial support that enabled me to put in all these hours on the courses whilst bringing up our two sons. Only when that support ended did I, out of necessity, begin to draw any payment from the BDO. Given that the BDO courses are relatively new (our first went online in June 2011) and unknown (we only began to advertise beyond our own websites when our second course went online in 2012), the BDO does not produce much revenue and the amount I draw from it comes nowhere near covering my family's living costs. As I write, myself and two of my sons are living on my savings. I keep working on these courses, however, because I believe in them, and part of that belief is that they will one day generate a living wage sufficient to keep me through my rapidly approaching old age.
My BDO colleagues and I spent about a year and a half deciding how much to charge for our courses. Should we charge a token amount just to cover admin? Should we charge the same as OBOD? No, because our digital delivery doesn't entail anything like the overheads and secretarial costs that OBOD has. But pitch our cost too far below OBOD's and we risk upsetting people who might think we were deliberately trying to undercut them. In the end, we settled on a compromise figure that more-or-less satisfied everyone, and we do consider requests for reduced fees in cases of genuine financial hardship.
How much to charge for individual events is also a cause of much debate within the BDO. My parents never had much money, I was raised to be frugal and, in my hippy youth, lived for some time on nothing but the kindness of strangers. The result was the malnutrition that contributed to my mental breakdown at the age of 18, but that's another story 😉 As I've tried to make clear, my motives for being a Druid are not financial. I'm reminded of Robin Williamson's joke, “Did you hear about the Irishman who became a folk musician for the money?” Druidry is not a cash cow. However, if they're well-planned and conceived, Druid events can make a bit, or at least break even. When Elaine Gregory and I, ably assisted by many wonderful friends and colleagues, hosted The World Drum in April 2013, we took it to ceremonies all around the West and South-West of Britain for six weeks, culminating in a wonderful weekend at Wild Ways in Shropshire. Most of the ceremonies were free. Two events were charged for. At the end of the time the Drum was with us, we managed to break even and were delighted to do so.
Part of the reason we were able to charge so little for the World Drum 2013 events is that many of our teachers and musicians gave their services for nothing, including World Drum founders, Kyrre Franck White Cougar and Morten Wolf Storeide, and their friends, Lena Paalviig Johnsen and Will Rubach, who travelled over from Norway at their own expense to bring us the amazing Chaga ceremony and to be with us in other ceremonies with the Drum.
In May this year, White, Morten and Lena are coming back, accompanied by Bobby Kure and Anita Dreyer, members of the shamanic band, Baalfolket. This time we hope to make a few quid. We obviously need to in order to cover the hire of two venues, travel expenses and other basic costs, but we also want to be able to pay the guys something for coming over to the UK for 12 days. Like us, they have to have money to live. I even hope to make a few quid myself to compensate for the many hours work involved in putting these events together, producing leaflets, visiting venues, generating advertising. And why not? If I were doing these things in any other sphere of activity, no one would bat an eyelid at my being paid a reasonable sum for my time and expertise.
Why then do I still feel vaguely guilty about it? Partly, it's a hangover from my impoverished youth, partly it's because I view the whole capitalist enterprise as deeply and irrevocably flawed. It rewards the basest of human motives, relying on the vast majority of the world's population having next to nothing so that a tiny, obscenely wealthy minority can lord it over the rest of us. It stinks. No wonder I feel guilty. It baffles me that anyone doesn't. And yet, as said, until we demand and get a better, purer, more equitable way of running human affairs, my family and I need money to live.
For most of the existence of classical Druidry, of course, we were supported by the warrior aristocracy of Iron Age Europe (OK, this guy may not look like a patron of the arts, but take my word for it, he loved nothing better than a finely honed poem), a patronage that was transferred to the bardic colleges of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. We were part of society's elite, fed, housed, clothed, provided with musical instruments and given high social status because our services were deemed worthwhile. We sang for our supper … in the case of bards, literally. We advised kings, divined, prophesied, oversaw ceremonies, told tales of gods and heroes, judged legal disputes, healed the sick, created poems of praise or blame, and, for many centuries, were both honoured and handsomely rewarded for doing so. We still do many of these things, but without either the social status or the payment, bed and board that came with it. We are, instead, looked upon as colourful eccentrics at best, dangerous loonies at worst, occasionally despised, more often simply ignored by our wider society. Hence our need to find new ways of making a living.
Druidry is no longer viewed as a job but as a hobby. For some of us though, it wholly defines who we are and what we do. For this minority of driven individuals, Druidry is our calling, and one that we see as every bit as valid and valuable as more recognised fields such as traditional teaching or medicine or, of course, priesthood in the more mainstream religions. I very much hope that our courses demonstrate both the breadth and the worth of Druidry. I know from my own experience that Druidry can and does regularly transform and even save lives.
The Druid Network undertook a three-year campaign, the result of which was to have Druidry as they understand and practice it recognised as a valid religion, the Druid Network itself achieving the status of a charity. This status means, among other things, that they can legally accept donations and bequests and have certain tax and planning advantages. Such charitable status for 'alternative' religious groups is commonplace in the United States, where freedom of religion is written into the Constitution and, as a result, has traditionally been taken seriously by legislators. The presence of Native Americans endeavouring to maintain their own religious cultures has also played a part in ensuring that religious balance under law is maintained in the USA. In the UK, on the other hand, we have had a state religion since Henry VIII's decision to abandon Catholicism so that he could get a divorce. This state religion, Anglicanism, as manifested through the Church of England, has, until recently, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on state support and the status and financial advantages that such support brings.
However, the Druid Network case does not mean that all Druid groups now have charitable status or official recognition. Should other groups such as the BDO decide that charitable status was a good idea, we would need to go through much the same bureaucratic process that TDN went through in order to prove that our brand of Druidry is also worthy of the name religion and that we too have purposes in mind that come under the fairly broad umbrella of 'charitable.' If we wanted to, I'm sure we could, but it would involve precisely the kind of bureaucracy that our current constitution seeks to avoid while gaining us very little.
The most successful Druid group in the world currently is the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. My friends, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, have been running it for nearly thirty years. During that time, they have also been running a Montessori School, Stephanie has worked for Glyndebourne Opera House and Philip has written numerous books (some with Stephanie) and lectured widely. It is these latter activities that have kept the roof over their heads and food on the table, not running a Druid Order. Some folk have the mistaken impression that they were making loads of money from OBOD camps. On the contrary, it was only the Summer Camps that ever made a profit at all, and that was used to subsidise the camps in the rest of the year that ran at a loss. Druidry is not a cash cow, one simple reason being that it is a minority interest, best estimates being that there may be 10,000 Druids in the UK, or 0.01% of the population, though the true figure may be less. There's also the fact that many of us attracted to Druidry and other 'alternative spiritualities' are, to a greater or lesser degree, outsiders within our society, a position that leaves us ill-placed as well as un-inclined to benefit from its capitalist structures and agendas.
Ours is by no means the only culture to wrestle with the uncomfortable clash between spirituality and commerce. A Lakota healer called Gary Holy Bull (his Lakota name is Ampohiksila, which means 'Sunrise') has spoken of his own struggle with this dilemma:
“Prior to 1942, everyone took care of their healers and medicine people. They understood the sacrifices that they made. Today, unfortunately, too many people feel that giving a K-Mart blanket is a sufficient offering for seeking spiritual help. It's a very difficult life that we live. We have to pay bills, have a home, drive a car, and place groceries on the table.
“I was always told to ask for nothing. If a person asks you to do a ceremony, they will give you what is needed. The Creator helps you in this way. When you seek the help of a spiritual person, think about the price they pay to help you.
“I was taught that you should give to others because the Creator will return it to you. You will get twice as much back as you put out for others. You give because you have compassion for children and for families.
“Here's the advice I give to others who want to know how to approach a medicine person. First, don't call them. Go find them, no matter how far you have to drive. Then offer them some tobacco*. This is called a binding ceremony. Then tell him or her what you need. Don't insult him by leaving a skull of an animal, a seashell, or a feather, because his family doesn't eat animal skulls or seashells. If you don't want to leave money, then buy some groceries, or some fuel oil for his stove. Don't insult him with five dollars. Give in proportion to the value of what is being done for your life. Show your sincere appreciation. Demonstrate your compassion to the Creator through generosity and sharing. In the old days, a family would give up several horses to be healed. What price is enough for your life?”
So you see it's not just us. Similar views are expressed by spirit workers around the world. The big, organised churches can pay their clergy a living wage because they have, over many centuries, demanded payment from 'the faithful' and expected many of them to leave their entire fortunes to their church when they die. Groups such as Scientology have flourished financially by being arranged as pyramid selling schemes designed to generate wealth for those at the top. The Guru Maharaj Ji, founder of the Divine Light Mission, became hugely wealthy by exploiting his followers, buying himself a fleet of Rolls Royces, yachts, personal jets, etc. Fortunately, such exploitation is anathema to all the Druids I've ever met.
I think the answer is that when everyone else stops demanding money from us for taxes, services and goods and adopts a barter system instead, we'll be utterly delighted to do the same. In the meantime, we'll continue to struggle with our consciences and the Druid community will continue to benefit from those struggles as we strive to do everything for as little as we can feasibly manage and still put food on the table.
On Sunday, September 22nd, 2013, about a hundred people gathered inside the vast bank and ditch earthworks of the Avebury henge in Wiltshire, with its huge sarsen stone circles erected by our ancestors in ages past. We were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. To mark the event, I'm posting a pdf file scanned from the first issue of the Caer Abiri Newsletter, published in the wake of the first ceremony way back in 1993. Among other things, it tells how the Gorsedd came to be, and here's a little more background on how it all began.
During the summer of 1993, Tim Sebastion (below), founder of the Secular Order of Druids (SOD), was putting plans together for a multi-faith conference at Avebury. I'd met Tim two years earlier when my British Druid Order joined the Council of British Druid Orders. We resigned from the Council in 1996, along with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and the Ancient Order of Druids, but that's another story. The first Council meeting I attended was at Tim's thatched cottage at Mells in Somerset. In typical Tim fashion, as well as hosting this meeting, he had organised an Irish folk festival over the same weekend, centred around the village pub. So, when my wife and I arrived and got no reply at the cottage, we had a pretty good idea where to look. Sure enough, we found Tim basking in the sunshine of the pub garden, joyfully surrounded by Irish musicians who were regaling him with a spirited rendition of the Irish Rover. It was an auspicious first meeting.
Tim and I struck up a rapport as a result of which, when organising the Avebury event, he asked me to create a ceremony for it. The brief was to make a fundamentally Druidic ceremony, but one that would feel inclusive to the many and varied folk attending the conference, including Reichian therapists, Earth Mysteries folk, Christian ministers, astronomers from the Royal Observatory and various flavours of Pagans. The resulting ceremony is included in the Newsletter.
Included in it was a handfasting, a Druid wedding, largely for the benefit of myself and my late wife, Ellie, though other couples took advantage of the occasion to be handfasted too, as hundreds more have been since. The handfastings were conducted at the Ring Stone (see the newsletter for the reasons why) by Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and Shan Jayran, founder of the House of the Goddess. Ronald Hutton took the two photos included in monochrome in the newsletter and reproduced here in colour.
As you'll see from the list of names at the back of the newsletter, those attending included several who were already Pagan celebrities and others who would become so. Among the former were the aforementioned Philip Carr-Gomm, Shan Jayran, and Ronald Hutton, whose Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, published two years earlier, was already recognised as a definitive work. Also with us was John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis, the book credited with having kick-started the whole Earth Mysteries movement. Among the latter were Graham Harvey, now one of our most respected Pagan academics, Jacki Paterson, whose highly regarded book, Tree Wisdom, was published three years later, and a young OBOD member named Emma Restall Orr, who went on to become joint chief of the British Druid Order from 1995 to 2002 and is now probably the most famous female Druid in the world.
Celebrities notwithstanding, the reason we were assembling among the stones 20 years on was, as the title of this piece suggests, an accident, if indeed there are such things in Druidry.
The Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri is a name I invented for use during a short bardic initiation that formed part of the original ceremony. The reason for including an initiation is simple. Two members of the British Druid Order, Gary and Debbie Turner, asked for bardic initiations while I was composing the rite and I thought that Avebury would be a beautiful and appropriate place for them to take place. As explained in the newsletter, when the moment for Gary and Debbie's initiation came and I asked those who wished to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd of Caer Abiri to step forward, I was expecting only Gary and Debbie to do so. They were, after all, the only ones primed in advance to expect this request. Thhe spirits of the place, however, determined otherwise. Gary and Debbie hesitated and the momentary pause was enough for others in the circle to make up their minds to respond to the invitation.
And so it was that more than half those in the circle stepped forward to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd. Philip Carr-Gomm, standing next to me at the time, leaned over and whispered, “Erm, what do we do now?” and I replied something to the effect of, “Well, er, we carry on I suppose.” Thus were the first thirty-or-so bards of Caer Abiri initiated. During the initiations, I did something ritualists really should not do. I stepped out of the circle with a camera and snapped a couple of shots. I know I shouldn't have, but something prompted me to capture the moment. I'm glad I did, as I believe the pictures I took, reproduced here, are the only photographic record of that part of the ceremony.
The initiation included one of my favourite pieces of ritual of any I've composed and performed either before or since. As shown in the photo, the inner circle of bards turn to face outwards and link hands, those in the outer circle also link hands, and all of them chant the awen, the spirit of inspiration and creativity, directing its flow in to those in the centre. Immediately after this, the following blessing is spoken for the new bards:
Wisdom of serpent be thine,
Wisdom of raven be thine,
Wisdom of the valiant eagle.
Voice of swan be thine,
Voice of honey be thine,
Voice of the son of stars.
Bounty of sea be thine,
Bounty of land be thine,
Bounty of the boundless heavens.
These are beautiful words to hear spoken in ceremony, and I can't claim credit for them. They are from a collection of Scottish folklore called Carmina Gadelica, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael. They were spoken again during the 20th anniversary rite (below) and I took my place amongst the bards at the centre to receive the awen. It knocked my socks off.
That the initiation in 1993 had the desired effect was proven a couple of weeks later when I got a letter from Gordon Strachan, the Church of Scotland minister who had addressed the conference. It was written on a hillside in the Lake District and Gordon told me he was writing poetry again for the first time since he'd left university forty years earlier. He soon began work on his book, Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries & the Dawn of Christianty (Floris Books, 2000), in which he puts forward the theory that Jesus came into friendly contact with Druids during childhood visits to Britain.
It was clear that something very magical happened in that circle twenty years ago, something that came about because the nature of the rite as it had come together resonated powerfully with the spirits of the place and with our ancestors who had constructed Avebury for similar purposes, gathering families together from all over the country to celebrate rites of passage and have those rites witnessed by their community. It was this sense of having connected with the spirits of the place that prompted me to go around with a notebook, collecting contact details from those present with a view to putting together the newsletter.
Subsequent events only increased the sense that we had made a potent connection with the spirits of Caer Abiri. Within two years, our celebrations were being held at each of the eight festivals of modern Paganism and attracting hundreds of people. Ronald Hutton went so far as to describe them as the central event of the New Druidry (Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Hambledon & London, 2003, pages 255-256). The second anniversary Gorsedd remains the largest on record, estimates of numbers attending ranging from 500 to over 1,000. This produced another inspirited moment when those in the circle were asked to link hands and swear the Oath of Peace. The circle began to expand, not stopping until it had spread to the fence line on one side of the field containing the South Circle and to the inner ditch on the other side. I remember having to shout so that those on the far side of the circle would know when to begin.
Around this time I came up with a motto for the Gorsedd: “In the spirit of freedom, and for freedom of the spirit.”
There were many reasons why the Gorsedd proved so successful. We offered many within the Pagan community their first opportunity to celebrate our seasonal festivals in public. Another factor is the multi-faith nature of the ceremonies, strengthened further in subsequent revisions of the ritual text. Followers of any and all traditions felt able to stand together as one and speak from the heart of their own faith within a circle of many faiths. Celebrations attracted not only Druids but Wiccans, Heathens, Buddhists, Bah'ai, Christians, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals and followers of Japanese Shinto among others. Avebury is also, of course, a place of great beauty and inherent power as well as being reasonably accessible from most parts of the UK, and, because it has a village within it, it is freely open to the public. Its appeal is not confined to the UK though. Some of those attending in the 90s flew in from places as far away as Australia, Japan and the USA specially to attend our celebrations.
It was always my hope that others would be inspired by the Avebury Gorsedd to set up others elsewhere and this has happened. Similar gatherings now take place at each of the festivals at the Long Man of Wilmington, the Stanton Drew circles south of Bristol and elsewhere, both in Britain and overseas.
Of course, there are always some who, usually through some deep, personal pain of their own, greet any outpouring of magic, joy and wonder in others with bitterness and resentment. Why this should be, I don't know, but life seems to need to maintain an equilibrium, balancing the helpful and the hurtful, following bliss with dull despair. In the case of Avebury, a few individuals seemed to feel they had some sort of territorial claim over the place. Even as the ceremonies grew bigger and more joyous for most of us, these few voiced objections to everything about them, including where, how, when and why they were held, who was conducting them and who was attending. They spread their bitterness to others whose own resentments left them open to receive it. Ceremonies began to be disrupted by drunks shouting at, and occasionally physically attacking, those taking part. Following on from the increasingly disrupted ceremonies, these same folk would get into drunken fights in the Red Lion pub in the village, often resulting in the police being called. One Lakota visitor from the Pine Ridge Reservation had flown over to be with us following a vision. He was singing a spirit song for us in the circle when the drunks began yelling abuse at him. He commented afterwards, "You get folks like that in all traditions. We get 'em at home too."
Things came to a head when, during one ceremony, I found myself expending most of my energy keeping a lid on a small group of angry, noisy drunks rather than focusing on the rite itself. As that realisation hit me, I had a vision of a black whirlpool opening up in the centre of the circle and spreading towards its edges, threatening to suck us all down into its gaping maw. This stark warning led us to move our celebrations to other locations, founding new Gorseddau as we did so. These included the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge and others at Dragon Hill in Oxfordshire, the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, various other locations in Britain and as far afield as Seattle in the USA.
After a year, however, we returned to our spiritual home in Avebury and rites have been regularly celebrated there ever since. For the last nine years, they have been coordinated by Morgan Adams, who also runs a Grove and offers regular celebrations in her home town of Glastonbury.
The unpleasantness of the mid-1990s led to the formation of a second Gorsedd in Avebury, calling itself the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. This now meets on the nearest Saturday to each of the eight festivals, while the original Gorsedd continues to meet on the nearest Sunday. Incidentally, it amused me to hear that on the day before our 20th anniversary celebration, the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd had met and claimed to be celebrating their 21st anniversary, despite having been founded in 1996. Hey ho...
The anger that divided the Gorsedd left me with a certain ambivalence about my role in creating it. It put Avebury on the Pagan map as a ceremonial location, but attracted in the process those whose relationship with the spirits of the place included setting fire to parts of it, scrawling graffiti over others, getting drunk, fighting amongst themselves and behaving aggressively towards those trying to meet there in peace to celebrate their spirituality. For me, the greatest sadness has always been that the loud, angry, disruptive minority drove hundreds of genuinely spiritual people to abandon the Gorsedd and even, in some cases, to turn their backs on any engagement with Druidry and Paganism. This is doubly tragic given the ecumenical spirit that flourished so strongly in the early years.
The split in the Gorsedd also drove a wedge between Tim Sebastion and I. I never knew until after his death how devastated Tim had been by the split. I learned then, too late, that he had spent whole days wandering the paths around Avebury alone and in tears.
The role of Guardian of the Stones was taken in the first Gorsedd ceremony by my wife, Ellie, then pregnant with our second son, Michael. Ellie subsequently died from leukaemia, and each time I see another woman in the role it brings back memories, some joyous, others painful.
On the plus side, the Gorsedd helped broaden public understanding and acceptance of Druidry and other Pagan traditions as the early celebrations attracted a good deal of attention from the media, both nationally and internationally. This led to a spate of favourable newspaper and magazine articles and TV programmes featuring Druids and Druidry. I've posted one short video of the Gorsedd circa 1994, filmed by a TV news crew, on youtube, accompanied by music and poetry. In its early days, the Gorsedd also helped to promote peaceful, helpful connections between the Druid and Pagan communities and bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage, official custodians of Avebury, Stonehenge, and other ancient sites. However, this further angered those who were already angry and who viewed NT and EH with implacable hostility due to their perceived role in restricting access to Stonehenge during the 1980s.
As well as inspiring the creation of other open, public celebrations of Pagan faiths, in the twenty years since its creation, the Avebury Gorsedd itself has initiated some 3-4,000 people, maybe more, as bards. Many have found huge inspiration as a result. To quote just a few examples, a leather-clad biker who came to an early Gorsedd rite returned a few months later having learned to play the harp beautifully; an office worker who attended quit his job and now runs the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle; a couple who came to several early rites now run a 12-acre spiritual and woodland crafts centre in Hampshire. Others have had their lives changed in other ways. Following one rite I heard from three people whose partners had recently died, each saying that as a direct result of our ceremony, the atmosphere surrounding them had cleared, their sorrow had lifted, and they now felt able to move on in their lives. When people's lives are transformed in such ways, it's hard to argue that the ceremonies that bring about such changes are anything but good.
The Gorseddau founded in the 1990s, both in Avebury and elsewhere, have long since passed out of my hands as I always hoped they would. Others have taken up the challenge and are making them work, and all good blessings to each and every one of them for doing so. If the 20th anniversary gathering at Avebury was anything to go by, they are in good hands for the next twenty years.
Incidentally, three of those who were at the very first Gorsedd were in attendance again for the anniversary: these were Ronald Hutton, a humble Doctor at the time of the first rite, now a full Professor and one of the country's leading historians, myself, and my son, Joe, who was one year old in 1993 and whose baby blessing during the first ceremony paved the way for hundreds of others over the last twenty years.
The 20th anniversary celebration was a joyous, magical event, featuring one of the most potent bardic initiations I've ever taken part in, a beautiful moment when we chanted the awen to direct spiritual energy into a beribboned wreath to be used in ceremonies for the protection of our land and her creatures (below), and one of the best eisteddfod sessions ever, during which we were treated to some wonderful poetry, fiery drumming and utterly superb bagpiping.
As my own contribution, I sang the same Robin Williamson song I had sung at the end of the very first rite back in 1993, the appropriately titled The Circle Is Unbroken:
Seasons they change, as cold blood is raining,
I have been waiting beyond the years.
Now over the skline I see you travelling,
Brothers from all times gathering here.
Come let us build the ship of the future
In an ancient pattern that journeys far.
Come let us set sail for the always islands,
through seas of leaving to the summer stars.
Seasons they change, but with gaze unchanging.
O, deep-eyed sisters, is it you I see?
Seeds of beauty you bear within you
Of unborn children, glad and free.
Within your fingers the fates are spinning
The sacred binding of the yellow grain.
Scattered we were when the long night was breaking,
But in bright morning, converse again.
So may it ever be.
And here's a date for your diary: the 30th anniversary will be on Sunday, September 24th, 2023. See you there...
Recent discussions on one of the BDO's facebook pages prompted me to think again about the power of words. I say 'again' because, having grown up with a deep love of music, especially of vocal music in which the lyrics convey real depth of meaning and promote thought, and also as a ritual magician, Druid, sometime Witch and practising Druid bard, the power of words is something I've been aware of for most of my life.
Living through the near global revolution of the 1960s, it was clear that much of the fuel that kept the revolutionary flame alive was carried through the lyrics of the songs we heard every day on the radio. Overt 'protest songs' from politically aware singers obviously played their part. 'We Shall Overcome,' particularly as recorded by Pete Seeger, became an anthem for the American Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War and hippy movements. Bob Dylan's early political/social commentary songs such as 'Blowin' in the Wind,' 'With God on Our Side,' and 'It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' were hugely influential, not only on his own fans, but on virtually every subsequent pop and rock performer with anything resembling a social conscience. They inspired the most active minds of an entire generation in countries all around the world to band together under the rainbow banner of peace and love and aspire to put an end to war and bring about a better, saner world.
The later 60s saw a wave of music termed psychedelic, exploring the potential for global political change to be brought about by changes in individual and collective consciousness. Prime exponents included Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Misunderstood, The Moody Blues, The Pretty Things, Quintessence and many others. All of them used words and music with the intention of producing heightened states of consciousness in listeners. They inspired my own spiritual journey and those of millions of others, encouraging us to shake off the shackles of the material world, to see and experience worlds of spiritual wonder.
The power of words in combination with music has been explicitly understood by many significant pop and rock musicians. Brian Wilson has stated his intention to use the music of the Beach Boys to increase the amount of joy, love and beauty in the world. The ultimate expression of this is their song, 'Good Vibrations.' John Lennon recognised both his 'clout' as a former Beatle and the potential of music and lyrics to change the world, using them to promote peace through songs like 'Give Peace a Chance' and 'Happy Xmas, War is Over.' His Beatle colleague, George Harrison, inspired by his musical mentor, Ravi Shankar, used music and lyrics to promote a more spiritual world through songs such as 'Within You, Without You,' 'The Inner Light' and 'My Sweet Lord.' Quintessence had the same aim, as did the more recent band, Kula Shaker.
Spiritual paths other than Druidry have long recognised the power of language. Hinduism and Buddhism employ chanting to create spiritually heightened states. 'Shamanic' cultures around the world similarly use chanting, often with music and/or rhythm, to evoke altered states of consciousness. Norwegian band, Baalfolket, are fine exponents of this, as in their the title track from their album, 'Forandring/Change.'
The Hebraic family of religions attribute great power to speech, maintaining that God created the universe wholly or partly by speech and that one of the names of God, if spoken in a certain way, can undo creation and bring the universe to an end. Australian Aboriginal folk have traditionally held that the continued existence of the world and its inhabitants relies on songs, chants and stories being repeated at specific sites to which they relate. The magical Grimoires of medieval Europe employ the power of words in many ways, spoken aloud, written on talismans or engraved around protective circles.
Words do have power, and this is something we really should keep in mind, not least when posting our thoughts online. Despite the old saw that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me," words can and do cause real emotional hurt. They can generate anger and ill-will. Those so affected may carry these hurts with them for days, even years or whole lifetimes. On the other hand, words can also heal, bring joy, build bridges and, of course, enchant.
Words express thoughts, and what we think and say is a potent expression of who we are. There are many ways in which we can use words both to reflect who we are and to bring about change in ourselves, in others and in the world. We may, for example, choose to express positive thoughts and ideas, or alternatively, we may choose to express and, therefore, define ourselves in terms of our opposition to other people, ideas and institutions. If we choose the latter, what we say is most likely to be framed in negative terms. While this may be useful to do in our own minds, when we put it out into the world, such expressions are likely to simply generate more negativity. Stating opposition to, or dislike for, an individual or institution, will obviously lead that individual or institution to see us as being in opposition to their own ideas and beliefs and will increase their opposition to us and our ideas. They will be less willing to engage us in discussion, feeling that it would be pointless since they already know that we are in mutual opposition.
On the other hand, if we use our words to express our own ideas, not framed in terms of opposition to anyone else's but purely in terms of the kind of outcome or world that we would like to see, then we are offering an extra possibility into the world, and doing so without immediately upsetting or angering those we might see as being opposed to our ideas, but who may not actually be so, or who may be open to persuasion. Telling someone that you are opposed to them is an almost guaranteed way of ensuring that they are, and will remain that way, thereby closing off any possibility for constructive dialogue and for the change such dialogue might create. I've seen this happen again and again and it always saddens and frustrates me.
Having spent the last 6 or 7 years researching, writing and editing courses for the BDO has made me extra-conscious of the power of words. The intention of these courses is to offer a world-view that sees the universe as filled with spirit, wonder, magic and life.
Focusing so intently on words and what they convey over such a long period has caused me to review many things in my life. One result has been my choice to no longer read newspapers or watch TV news bulletins, the reason being that they promote an overwhelmingly negative view of the world and of humanity. The impression given is that virtually all human interactions are ruled by bigotry, anger and violence and that we should, therefore, be perpetually afraid of the world and of each other. This is arrant nonsense. Interacting with actual people on a one-to-one basis, you find that the vast majority of them want exactly what you want, i.e. to create a better life for themselves, their families and friends and, in doing so, to bring about a better world for everyone. This is the exact opposite of what the news media would have us believe. The disjunction between the world as it is and the world as presented on the nightly news was starkly portrayed by Simon and Garfunkel in their 1966 song, 'Silent Night/7 O'clock News.'
By ceasing to pay attention to the constant drip-feed of negativity through the printed page or TV screen, I resist buying into their false view of the world. Instead, I find myself better able to open up to its inherent beauty and to find joy in a great deal of it. Freed from repeated daily doses of negativity, I find myself more able and willing to try and make my own words, thoughts and actions more positive. What is the point, after all, in increasing the amount of negativity with which we are already bombarded on a daily basis? Is it not much, much healthier for ourselves and for the rest of the world to at least aim to increase the amount of beauty, wonder, joy and creativity in it, even if we don't always succeed? Put like that, the answer seems blindingly obvious, though you'd hardly think so to see and hear some of the garbage fed to us through the media that increasingly swamp our lives and act as a barrier to interaction with the real world, or even with our own thoughts.
I had an idea for a global internet radio station called 'Good Vibrations' after the Beach Boys' song. I wanted to fill it entirely with songs, poetry and stories designed by their creators to increase the sense of joy and wonder we should all experience in being alive on a planet so full of beauty, courage and kindness. It hasn't happened yet through lack of time, expertise and the complexity of copyright laws, but don't you think it's a great idea? If you have the time and know-how, feel free to start it up yourself. I shan't mind, especially if you invite me to DJ on it. I already have a title for my show: Greywolf's Random Radio Hour. The tracks linked to from this blog will give you some idea of what I have in mind. Maybe one day ...
In the meantime, I promise to do my very best to make all my interactions with the world as positive as they can be, not to criticise others, to praise where praise is due, and to make music, poetry, pictures and words that assist, uplift, inform and enlighten. In other words, to use my awen and its magical, transformative power for good. Being a flawed human (at least when I'm not being a wolf, eagle, snake or other creature), I doubt that I'll always succeed, for which I apologise in advance, but the intention is sincere.
As George Harrison said, “with our love, we can change the world.”
Peace, love and blessings to all,
PS. If you got all this way without following any of the links provided, please go back and try some or all of them. A lot of time and thought went into finding them and you're almost guaranteed to find something you like, find interesting, amusing, entertaining and/or just plain weird. Enjoy!
In 1999, Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and I made our second visit to Seattle. Our friend, Leon Reed, with whom we were staying, drove us downtown one afternoon and pulled in by a Post Office. As Leon hopped out of the car, we saw a tall Native American guy coming up the street towards us. He was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a wolf on it, so naturally he seemed pretty cool to me. Leon greeted him and then introduced him saying, “This is my friend, Beaverchief, you guys should talk to him.” Leon went off to post his package and Beaverchief leaned down to the car window to say hi. Bobcat and I decided it would be more polite for us to get out of the car to talk. Beaverchief was a fair bit taller than me and towered over Bobcat like a giant redwood. We talked, telling him that we were Druids from England, in town to do some teaching and make some ceremonies. Beaverchief asked if we would like to hear a song. We said, sure.
The three of us stood there on the sun-baked Seattle pavement, and he began to sing. We had no idea what to expect, you seldom do when someone offers to sing for you, that's part of the joy. What we got wildly exceeded any expectations we might have had. His voice had an amazing beauty, power and resonance. As he sang, we were transported from the bustling city street to the forested side of a mountain, where scented breezes wafted past us, thick with cedar and birdsong, replacing the city scents of petrol fumes and dust, its sounds of traffic and commerce. We listened in rapt silence, outside of space and time. It was utterly beautiful and magical in the best and truest sense of the word.
The song came to an end and we had to re-adjust from the place it had transported us to back to the city street outside the Post Office. We looked around us, blinking at the sunlight reflected from the buildings and pavement. There was nothing to say. We looked at Beaverchief and he knew. We all smiled and nodded.
Leon rejoined us and said, “Wow! That was weird. I've been standing watching you guys for a while and it was like there was a huge bubble all around you. People were going out of their way to walk right around, even crossing the street to give you guys room. I've never seen anything like that.”
That was our meeting with Beaverchief, an amazing guy. Leon told us he was a local musician and later gave us a copy of a tape Beaverchief had made in 1992 on his Big Magic label. It turned out to be a reflection of his remarkable character. He took traditional spirit songs of his people and set them in a Seattle rock context with great gusto and obvious good humour … you can hear him laughing and telling funny stories between takes. What I didn't know until recently is that Beaverchief was among the first Native Americans to do this. In the process, he upset some of his own people and some Europeans who prefer their Native Americans 'pure.'
A Native of Washington State, Beaverchief's origins lay in the NW Coast traditional native medicine known as saseewis, his ancestors having been an Indian doctoring family who had travelled up and down the coast for thousands of years. His family were registered with the Lummi and West Saanich tribes. However, he also drew on his experience in the Catholic Church, the Indian Shaker religion, the Hari Krishna movement, Yoga, and many other traditions. One of Beaverchief's messages was that the Northwest Native American culture is a constantly evolving way of life, not something to be stuck in a museum and frozen in time. His music very strongly reflects that.
Here's what Beaverchief himself had to say:
“I am a Northwest Coast Native American. My people are from the Puget Sound Area. Not until 1978, when a bill was passed which stated that we, Native Americans had the right to practice our way of life (some call it a religion; our people call it a way) did we start sharing our dreams and visions with people who have an open mind, and heart. The sharing of the teachings and dreams was to help heal the wounds between our Native American Indian culture and the White man's culture.
“This music came about because a friend, Barbara Leischner, asked me to do a ceremony for a special poem that was written for a friend who was sick with AIDS. Mark Nichols was asked to record the poem. At that time I sang the Cedar Tree Song. It was the first time Mark Nichols had heard the music of the Northwest Coast Salish people. That night the inspiration for this music came to be.
“I am proud of this music. It will help manifest my vision/dream of inter-cultural world peace. It bridges together traditions in a good way. It will help the children. It will help the healing. People who listen to the music in a good way will feel the magic of the ancient ways. They will feel the magic of the creativity that comes together from the music.”
Sadly, Beaverchief left this life in July 2001, but his music and his legacy live on. He is rightly
celebrated amongst his own people and in the Seattle music scene as a pioneer, an inspiration and as a really nice guy.
I write this having just dug out that old cassette and listened to it again. It is uplifting, inspiring stuff. You can hear The Cedar Song and find a link to some of Beaverchief's music here: http://www.thereallybig.com/Beaverchief.htm
Wherever you are now, big guy, know that you are recalled with deep affection by two English Druids.
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 ...
This was the one we had to keep quiet about ... March 30th, 2013, 5.15pm, the evening we took the World Drum to Stonehenge. Five years ago, the last time we hosted the World Drum, I thought it would be good to take it to the Henge. In the 90s and early 00s, Emma Restall Orr and I had built up a good rapport with Clews Everard, then running Stonehenge for English Heritage. Clews appreciated the approach we brought to negotiations about ritual access to the Henge, which was simply to discuss politely and without anger, prejudice or bitterness. However, by the time the World Drum reached us in 2008, I had not attended the regular Stonehenge access meetings for 7 years and Clews and everyone else we knew at English Heritage, Stonehenge had left. When I telephoned the EH office, I was rudely stone-walled by a man who refused to give his name and lied to me about access, not realising that I had been involved in discussions on the subject for several years and probably knew more about it than he did.So, this time, rather than go through the frustrating process with EH again, I decided to contact the folks who now look after the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr, the group Emma and I founded nearly 20 years ago to enable peaceful access to the stones for focused ritual. Christine Cleer came up trumps. Having an ongoing relationship with the folks at EH Stonehenge, she was able to arrange a one hour access for us.
Of course, things are seldom quite as simple as they appear, and this was no exception. When Christine arrived at the office next to the Henge, she was told they had no record of her access request. However, Christine, having encountered similar problems before, had brought with her a copy of the e-mail from EH confirming the access arrangements. We were OK.
We were limited to 12 people, hence not being able to announce the event beforehand ... we didn't want to disappoint all the people who I'm sure would have loved to share the access with us. Ah well, we were pleased to be there at all.
Another slight oddity was that these special accesses to the stones are normally conducted out of public visiting hours. We, however, were ushered through while sight-seers were still strolling the perimieter of the henge on the concrete path that runs around past of the outside of the sarsen circles. I'd never attempted a ceremony surrounded by such a large group of onlookers who were clearly interested but were not allowed to join us. Very strange.
The reason why EH limited us to 12 is that the grass had been trampled to mud by a larger group who had ritual access at the Spring Equinox. EH are a little absessive about their grass. Inside the stone circles the ground is protected by plastic matting through which the grass grows. When I was a kid, the grass between the stones was a little word by generations of visitors, there was only one low fence and no one paid to get in. The stones didn't seem to mind... Unfortunately these days the henge has become a major generator of funds for EH as one of their greatest tourist attractions. Not quite what local resident, Sir Cecil Chubb intended when he gave it to the nation in 1918 with the proviso that it be kept open for public access.
The henge is a strange place, surrounded by much contention. Various Druid groups and others argue over access to it, it sits on Salisbury Plain surrounded by busy main roads and extensive army camps and firing ranges. In its heyday, 4,500 years ago, it was a ritual focus for people from as far afield as the Orkneys and Switzerland, this at a time when almost every other henge and sacred structure in Britain was falling into disuse and decay. The implication is that Stonehenge was run by a powerful elite who ruled the whole of Britain. The very structure of the place speaks of this elite dominance. Unlike Avebury, 20-odd miles to the North, with its openness and massive scale, the centre of Stonehenge is tightly enclosed between four circles of stones, well, OK, two horseshoes and two full circles. Some of the gaps between stones are very narrow and the actual space in the centre of the henge is small. Seeing into the centre from outside the stones would have been very difficult. This was designed to be a hidden sanctum where the priests of the ruling elite conducted rites away from the prying eyes of the populus who gathered outside to await the words of wisdom brought out from within. All this makes it a little strange that it should have been so firmly adopted as a favoured destination for gatherings by the young, the anarchic and the dispossessed, those as far from the ruling elite as one can get. But maybe that's appropriate? Maybe it's a redressing of an ancient balance?
Anyway, the point is, it makes for a very strange place to do ritual. You might wonder then, why did we want to bring the World Drum here? Well, partly for the very reasons the place is strange. The fact that it did once network across the whole of Britain and across deep into Europe means that there is still the possibility to send out messages from it through the network of Earth energies that may still touch the spirits of folk in the Outer Hebrides or Switzerland. Then there is the notion of taking the World Drum, this amazing creation of peace and reverence for our Mother Earth, into the heart of a place with such a troubled past and present. To sound the Drum there, to radiate peace within those ancient stones, felt right. Plus it would be churlish not to mention our other motive, which was simply to get photographs of the World Drum being played in this hugely recognisable temple, surely one of the most recognisable buildings on the face of the planet. After all, part of the World Drum vow is that we will do all we can to promote the presence of the World Drum and its message of reverence for our Mother Earth and peace between all her peoples. We hope that our photographs, and video footage, of the Drum sounding out at this iconic location will help to promote the Drum, the reverence and the peace.
So may it be! And to help us promote the World Drum and its message, please feel free to share this blog and any of the images here.
Blessings to all and thanks to my son, Mike, and Elaine Wildways for the photos,
The World Drum is a remarkable shamanic instrument created as the result of a vision given to Norwegian shaman, White Cougar. White Cougar heard the call of Mother Earth asking for the Drum to be created and sent out around the world carrying the message that it is time for all the people of the world to awaken to the harm we are doing to our Mother Earth before it is too late, and that as part of this re-awakening we must put an end to war and hatred. The drum was made by Sami drum-maker, Birger Mikkelsen. It was first played in ceremony outside the Norwegian parliament in 2006. Since then, it has visited six continents and been played at over 500 venues.
This extraordinary Drum arrived on my doorstep a few weeks ago after having been played in ceremonies in Hawaii. By contrast, here in Britain, Spring had taken a jump back to Winter with freezing temperatures and snow covering much of the country. The picture here shows the drum sitting by my altar. In front of the drum is my branch of peace, the magical instrument by which the bards of old called for peace before a performance. I now use it to call for peace at the beginning of ceremonies too.
The arrival of the Drum was a wake-up call to me personally. I have spent so much time working on the distance learning courses we're putting together for the BDO that I've been neglecting the things that Druidry is really all about, i.e. getting out in the world and creating ceremonies with as much beauty, truth and peace as we can muster. The World Drum having been played by so many thousands of hands in so many sacred ceremonies and different cultures is a powerful reminder, a clarion call to step up to the mark, get your act together and make ritual not only happen but work.
Since then, we've made ceremonies at the Avebury Henge in Wiltshire, at Stonehenge, on the summit of Glastonbury Tor and at venues in Shropshire, including the summit of Titterstone Clee with its ancient remains of Bronze and Iron Age ancestors. Thes ceremonies have been strong, focusing as they have on the charisma and energy that the World Drum has built up during its incredible, seven-year journey.
On Glastonbury Tor, we invoked the ancient pagan goddess, Britannia, protectress of our lands, daughter of Mother Earth and Father Neptune. We invoked Brigit, goddess-saint who spans pagan and Christian traditions as well as being patroness of bards and artists. We invoked Albion, spirit of the people of our lands, representing all that is best in us, whatever our origins, colours or creeds. We invoked the Dragon who sleeps curled within the Tor, the Dragon who is the power of the earth, the power that also coild within ourselves awaiting the awakening of enlightenment. And then we drummed. O, how we drummed. The World Drum was moved around the circle so that all the 100 people there could play it and sense its potent presence while adding their own spirit, their own prayers, to the Drum. It was beautiful, magical, energising and just utterly amazing ... exactly what Druidry should always be. There are still further ceremonies to come, including one on the old Druidic centre, Angelsey, focus of a huge spiral anomaly in the Earth's magnetic field.
But what do we hope to achieve through all this activity?
Many years ago a Native American friend, John Two-Birds, said that if the world is to become the place we dream it should be, it is up to us, the dreamers and workers with spirit, wherever we are in the world and whatever tradition we are part of, to bring it about, because only we can weave the magic capable of changing hearts, minds and spirits towards that better world. I firmly believe this to be true and I believe that the World Drum is a strong part of that beautiful magic we are weaving together. I believe that if we continue to grow what we are doing, there will come a time when the balance tips in favour of we dreamers and spirit workers of the world, and that our way will become the way of the world, the way of peace, harmony and reverence, of sharing not taking. If there is to be a future, we must be it 🙂
What do we hope to achieve then? Well, not much, just changing the world by putting an end to war and creating social systems based on sharing, so that none need know poverty, injustice, hunger, homelessness or fear. Can we do it? Of course we can! 😀