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4

by Brendan Myers
2013, Moon Books, Winchester (UK) and Washington (US)
313 pages
£11.99 UK, $20.95 US
Earth Gods SoulListening 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.
Brendan-MyersAt 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.
Pythagoras Capitoline Museum RomeWe'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.
iolo_23The 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.
Robert Graves Judith Bledsoe 1950The 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.
Vivianne CrowleyWe 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.
Many blessings,
Greywolf /|\

7

by Barbara Meiklejohn-Free & Flavia Kate Peters
Moon Books, Winchester, UK & Washington, US, 2015
£9.99 (UK) $16.95 (US)
146 pages
ShamanicHandbookThere may be those who feel the following review is a case of, as the old adage goes, “the pot calling the kettle black.” I disagree, but then I would, wouldn't I?
Knowing how much work goes into producing a book, and, as a writer myself, aware of how much bad reviews can sting, I really, seriously dislike writing negative ones. Hence I've sat on this review for several weeks, arguing with myself and others over whether to publish it or not. However, having been given the book to review by the publisher, I feel obliged to offer an opinion, and, of course, it has to be an honest one or what's the point?
The authors of The Shamanic Handbook both seem to live in England, yet refer to the “British Celtic Lands” with no acknowledgement that England, for better or worse the dominant British nation, has a culture that is predominantly Romanised, Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman, not Celtic. To call these islands “British Celtic” is, therefore, to ignore the last 2,000 years of their history. Perhaps they mean the term to apply only to Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and perhaps Cornwall and Ireland? If so, it would be good to know that and not simply have the contentious term, 'Celtic' bandied about without explanation. Despite many references to these “Celtic lands,” most of the Old World traditions referenced in the book are either Graeco-Roman or Egyptian. This gives the impression that the writers are following in the footsteps of numerous New Age authors and simply using 'Celtic' as a popular buzz-word. On her website, BarbaraM-FBarbara Meiklejohn-Free claims to have been born in Scotland. The book, however, has no mention of this in the short chapter on ancestors, which ends in a very non-Celtic way with the Lakota phrase, mitakuye oyasin, usually translated as “all my (or our) relations.”
The term, 'shaman' is used with equal abandon, though with a little more explanation, albeit not until page 130, when it is acknowledged that the word “most likely” originates with the Evenk people of Siberia. On the same page, the authors admit that “There have been many heated debates about using the name 'Shaman.'” They conclude that “This is an individual and personal choice, which carries a great personal responsibility, for words have power and names have meanings.” Words also make up languages, and languages are a vital component of the cultures in which they develop and are used. Personally, my choice is informed by sensitivity towards the people amongst whom spiritual traditions originated, who have guarded and transmitted them for untold generations, and who see them as vital to the survival of their cultures and peoples. Few of my friends who follow paths that might be described as shamanistic call themselves 'shamans.' Most, like me, either use terms specific to their own cultures or non-culturally-specific terms such as 'spirit worker.'
Another aspect of the book I find problematic is that Native American concepts, terminology and ceremonies feature prominently throughout it, with no attempt whatsoever to address the question of cultural appropriation. A gathering of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota peoples more than twenty years ago declared war on non-Native New Agers who 'steal' Native American spirituality and sell it for profit, and many other Native Americans equally strongly oppose what they see as the ultimate act of theft committed against their people. Hence my unease that so much of the spiritual language in this book is couched in Native American, specifically Lakota, terms, and that several exercises given in it are derived from Lakota sacred ceremonies. We are given no indication as to why, or by what right, two British women are offering these things to us. Without such background information, this smacks of 'Wannabee Indian Syndrome.' A Native American friend, TC (short for Thundercloud), once asked me to convey a message to people in Europe. He said “Tell 'em not to put us Indians on pedestals; we're liable to fall off.” Based on the contents of this book, it seems that its authors have not got this message.
The path I was drawn to is Druidry, in large part because, so far as we can know, it originated here in Britain, where I was born, where I still live, and where my ancestors lived as far back as it is possible to trace. My ancestry combines Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon blood lines, so while my spirituality is rooted in Druidry and its antecedents, I also honour Anglo-Saxon deities. This makes sense to me, genetically and geographically. Like the authors of this book, I sometimes travel to other parts of the world. I have taken part in drum circles with Quileute and Makah folk of the Pacific Northwest. In doing so, I follow the beats and, so far as I am able, the words, of the chants and songs, but do so as a British Druid, not as a Wannabee Indian. Like the authors, I gain great inspiration from interactions with indigenous peoples, but that inspiration helps me to renew, refresh or restore long-lost parts of my own native heritage.
For example, I make drums with one of my sons. Some aspects of the process derive from videos posted online by Native American drum-makers, others were inspired by Central Asian, Norwegian, Siberian and Irish drum-making practices. I believe that frame drums of a similar type were once made in Britain, though I know of no specific evidence. Being organic and quite thin, frame drums rarely leave any archaeological trace. We use locally sourced materials. Barbara Meiklejohn-Free has drums made in the USA and imported to the UK to sell. They are mentioned many times in the book and described in detail. I'm sure they're very good drums, but the trees from which the hoops are made, and the animals whose hides form the drum-skins, lived in a land thousands of miles away, separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean. When there are many fine drum-makers here in Britain, why import drums from such a distant land? Apart from anything else, what about the carbon footprint from having them flown all that way?
MugwortThe same goes for Californian Sage, also referenced repeatedly in the book, which she also imports and sells. Again, why? Clearly because it's used by Native Americans. However, we have our own British tradition of cleansing and purifying with smoke, commonly known by the Scottish term, 'saining.' We have our own native herbs that can be used for this, including Mugwort (left), St. John's Wort, Yarrow, Meadowsweet and others. None are mentioned here. Instead, the section on herbs is basically one long advert for the imported Sage bundles that Barbara sells. This seems doubly strange since she claims to have been taught “the Old Ways” by a Scottish seer from the age of twelve. Perhaps saining was not one of the old ways he introduced her to.
In curious contrast, the authors refer to “dire consequences” resulting when hallucinogenic plants, or “plant medicines” as they call them, are used away from their native geographical and cultural context. Here I am in agreement with them, but this simply makes their failure to apply the same principle to other sacred herbs and tools all the more baffling.
The sheer quantity of product placement in the book means that at times it reads more like a sales catalogue than a guide to a spiritual tradition. While I am the first to acknowledge that spirit workers have a right to be paid for what we do just as much as any other profession, I am uncomfortable with the amount of overt advertising here, where we are continually told of products available at the back of the book. Ironically, on turning to the back, there is no information about the products.
This calls attention to other technical problems with the book, including many typographical errors, the seemingly random ordering of information, and the frequent repetition of the same information in slightly different forms. I'm not sure what went wrong here, as Moon Books are usually good on proof-reading.
The book is clearly pitched at people interested in the Michael Harner, Californian school of New Age global shamanism. Although there is no shortage of advice for them, and some of it is good, it is a shame that it is wrapped up in so much that is contentious, poorly explained or entirely unexplained.
My advice to those seeking spiritual sustenance is to first look to the traditions of your own land and ancestry. If you live elsewhere in the world but your ancestors are European, look to your ancestral traditions first. For other combinations, use your common sense. Begin with those traditions with which your ancestry gives you a natural affinity. Engage with them as fully and deeply as you can, immerse yourself if them, allow them to become your key to engaging with the spirits around you. Then, when you are fully and firmly grounded in your own native tradition, you can engage on an equal footing with practitioners of other traditions wherever you go, with mutual respect and without accusations of cultural theft.
DruidShamanBooks offering sound, practical introductions to native British traditions have been available since the early 1990s and there are many to choose from. For those seeking an overtly shamanistic approach to those traditions that is well-written, inspiring, practical, and culturally coherent, I recommend 'The Druid Shaman,' by Danu Forest (Moon Books, 2014). OK, it does have that problematic word, 'shaman,' right there in the title, but the author is aware of the problem and uses it in its broad anthropological sense as a shorthand to alert potential readers to the style of Druidry found within it. As a title, 'The Druid Shaman' is considerably less ungainly than 'a Druid way of engaging with spirits of plants and animals, land, sea, sky, gods and ancestors for the purposes of bringing about healing or divining hidden knowledge for the benefit of one's community.' I still look forward to the day when we no longer need to use 'shaman' as a shorthand because people understand Druidry as an indigenous tradition without the need to qualify it as 'shamanistic.' One day...
Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass)
October 9th, 2015

Nature Mysticsby Rebecca Beattie
Moon Books, Winchester (UK) & Washington (US), 2015
£4.99 UK, $9.95 US
132 pages.

This little book is a joy to read, delving into the lives and works of some well-known, and many lesser-known, British and Irish literary figures in search of the origins of contemporary Paganisms. The writers, five men and five women, are selected because the philosophies that underpin their writings place them all in the category of Nature Mystics, defined by the author as “someone who has mystical experiences in nature, or connects to the divine through nature, and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration.” The familiar writers are John Keats, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit. The less familiar are Mary Webb, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth von Arnim and Mary Butts.
Rebecca BeattieRebecca Beattie (left) writes with admirable clarity about her chosen authors, her format being first to give a brief overview of them, followed by an account of their lives, their spirituality, and then their writings, quoting passages to show how their spirituality is expressed in their work. Within this format she offers many, often surprising, insights into both the authors and their works.
The only writers about whose lives I knew much were Yeats and Tolkien, plus a little about D. H. Lawrence, so it was a pleasure to learn more about the others. About the life of Sylvia Townsend Warner (below), whose work I have admired for many years, I knew nothing. It turns out to have been every bit as unusual as her published work. In her youth, she was a member of the 'Bright Young Things,' the 1920s equivalent of the 'Swinging London' scene of the 1960s and just as interested in drugs, sex and parties. At 19, she began a lengthy affair with a much older, married man. At 34, she fell in love with another woman, a transvestite poet called Valentine Ackland, and they set up home in rural Dorset, living together as though married for nearly forty years.
TownsendSylviaHer first novel was Lolly Willowes, published in 1926, in which the eponymous heroine moves to a country cottage and joins the village's coven of witches, going out with them once a month to dance with the devil. Lolly, however, finds that she fits in with this rustic coven just as poorly as she fitted in with the well-to-do county set of her youth. Telling the devil she finds the coven boring, our heroine walks off into the night. In Nature Mystics, we learn that Warner's account of the coven was inspired by Margaret Murray's book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, and that Warner sought Murray out, got to know her, and expressed a wish to “join her coven.”
Edith_NesbitNumerous other biographical details prove equally illuminating. Who knew, for example, that Edith Nesbit(left), beloved author The Railway Children, Five Children and It, and other childhood classics, was also a member of Britain's most famous magical society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn? I certainly didn't. Nor did I realise that some of her lesser-known children's books contain plots and passages clearly influenced by her knowledge and practice of ceremonial magic with Golden Dawn colleagues that included W. B. Yeats, another of the featured writers.
It is a credit to Rebecca Beattie's own gifts as writer that, as I read her accounts of these literary figures, I often found myself thinking, “Hmm, I must look out for a copy of ...” whichever of their books she happened to be discussing at the time. Two examples are Mary Webb's Precious Bane (1924) and her husband, Henry's, The Silences of the Moon (1911). Beattie has also inspired me to go back and read Sylvia Townsend Warner again. I first discovered Warner's work through a collection of short stories entitled Kingdoms of Elfin, in which her funny, charming, magical, often anarchic tales rescue the Faery Folk from their twee, butterfly-winged Victorian portrayal and return them to their origins as shape-shifting illusionists, scary pranksters or courtly nobles.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the literary background to modern Paganisms, or simply interested in learning more about the lives, loves, longings and spiritual insights of a wide range of great English writers.
Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass)
August 31st, 2015

AncientHearteds. Paul Davies & Caitlin Matthews
Foreword by Graham Harvey
Afterword by Ronald Hutton
Moon Books, Winchester (UK) & Washington (US), 2015.
£8.99 UK, $14.95 US
198 pages

This book explores how we humans in the 21st century relate to the spirits of the lands in which we live, their other-than-human inhabitants, and our collective and individual ancestors. By a series of turns of fate, I'm writing my review in the ideal setting of a quiet garden, overlooked by an ancient oak tree that occasionally drops acorns around me as a pair of hunting Buzzards circle overhead, their piercing cries borne on a soft summer breeze. Ideal because it chimes so well with the subject matter of this hugely enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking book. Each of the thirteen writers brings a unique perspective, making it an absolute pleasure to read. Remarkable for its breadth and depth, this is the best-written, most refreshingly original anthology I've come across in years, and I'm not just saying that because I wrote one of its chapters.
The book opens with a foreword by Graham Harvey (right), a Pagan academic who has done much to popularise the philosophy, or life-way, of Animism amongst modern Pagans and to enhance our understanding of it. The introduction by Paul Davies, known to his friends as Oddie, follows, setting out the parameters of the book and briefly running through each of its chapters and the areas they cover. The first chapter is by my friend, colleague and long-time companion, Emma Restall Orr. It is written in her unique style, combining poetry with precision, asking searching questions about dying, death, afterlives and how we, the living, interact with the dead. As a true visionary who genuinely does see dead people pretty much all the time, she is ideally suited to her task. My own chapter follows, detailing my personal relationship with Wolf spirits and with animals as ancestors, a concept that occurs in many archaic cultures, including those that comprise the British Isles.
Jenny Blainx600 Emma is far from the only friend and colleague in these pages. The next chapter, by Heathen academic, Jenny Blain (left), outlines a Heathen approach to ancestors, land wights and other spirit beings, particularly through the type of trance mediumship known as Seidr. Another Heathen academic, Robert Wallis, follows this with what is, for me, one of the stand-out chapters of the book and, indeed, one of the best pieces of Pagan writing I've ever read. He describes in clear, poetic prose how his practice as a Heathen intersects with every aspect of his life, weaving his spirit and spirituality into the landscape around his home in so many ways, from early morning hunting forays with his hawk companion to acknowledging the lives of the labourers who built and dwelt in the 18th century cottage he now inhabits. Honestly, this chapter is such a joy to read that I would recommend the book on the strength of it alone. It is, however, far from alone.
caitlin-matthewsThe next chapter is by Caitlin Matthews (right) who, with her partner, John, has done so much to enhance Pagan awareness of the Celtic heritage of the British Isles. Her chapter is the first to offer specific meditation exercises aimed at enhancing our relationship with spirits of place and, through them, with the earth and the ancestral chains of being to which all living things belong. That's not to say that previous and subsequent chapters won't also encourage you to find, form and maintain new, different or enhanced relationships with the natural and spirit worlds. Each contribution is, in its own way, written with that aim in mind.
camelia-eliasCamelia Elias (right) found inspiration for her contribution in the work of Colin Murray, late chief of the Golden Section Order, who expressed his own quest for spiritual meaning in part through complex drawings interweaving symmetrical shapes with natural forms. Camelia explains this far better than I can, but I was touched to find a reference to Colin Murray here, having enjoyed meeting him briefly at a festival in Polgooth many years ago. Another outstanding contribution follows, this from Sarah Hollingham, who eloquently describes her experiences of tuning in to the spirits of the natural world as a Quaker. Her description of a Quaker group forming a circle in the open air in a field and attuning to nature through meditation reminded me so much of so many Druid camps. The more I learn about Quakers, the more I admire their approach to life.
luzie wingenYet another stand-out chapter follows, this by Luzie U. Wingen (left), a geneticist who offers fascinating insights into the role of genetics in carrying information across time, and how what is carried may be altered by factors that include not only the survival of the fittest, but human manipulation and also sheer dumb luck, or the lack of it. Her primary examples are wheat, from its Anatolian origins to modern mono-cultures and beyond; oak trees and the ways in which they re-colonised the British Isles after the last Ice Age, some species becoming localised while others did not; and humans, in all our diversity, sprung from a single African origin. The clarity with which she writes is an object lesson in how to make science not only approachable but compelling.
The next chapter, by David Loxley, head of The (Ancient) Druid Order, proved enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. He writes in a style that characterised New Age writing before the term New Age came into vogue, i.e. from about 1930 to around 1980. To take one example out of many, he relates the first three letters of the word 'ancestors' to the Egyptian symbol, the ankh, then goes on to claim that “The word 'ankh' is hidden in the English language in the word England, Angleland, or Ankhland.” Other equally bizarre assertions tell us that crowns worn by royalty were “originally a statement that they were representatives of the pole star on earth,” and that “shopping is a fertility rite, which we have inherited and interpreted into the past tense.” What does the latter sentence even mean? As said, I thought this school of spurious and illogical reasoning had died out decades ago. To find it here, amongst so many well-researched, well-argued pieces by other writers, merely adds to the impression of stumbling across a quaint relic of a bygone age. Then again, I suppose it has its place, if only on the grounds that The (Ancient) Druid Order were ancestral to the modern era's most successful Druid group, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. The latter are ably represented in the book's final chapter by PennyPenny Billington (left), who has edited OBOD's Touchstone newsletter for the last fourteen years. Penny reflects on ways in which British legends are woven into our landscape and our national and personal identities, and how these affect our spiritual relationships with ourselves, our lands and our ancestors.
In this brief run-through it's impossible to give more than a fleeting glimpse of the riches this collection has to offer. It concludes with an afterword by another old friend, Professor Ronald Hutton, Britain's leading historian of Paganism. Ronald's approach to history is rigorous and demanding, so it should come as no surprise that he brings a critical eye to this book, asking probing questions of the contributors before ending with these words, “This collection of essays shows how well a language of communion with the natural world and ancient peoples can still be expressed in the current time. If we can go on to work through the issues I have raised here, then we stand a very good chance of using our beliefs to make a real impact on society at large.” To which I can only say, Awen to that, brother … and I feel a sequel coming on.
If you've ever wondered how modern Pagans and other spiritual folk are currently responding to issues to do with connecting with the spirits and the physical realities of nature and of our communal and individual ancestors, or if you are looking for ways to enhance your own relationships in these areas, then this richly rewarding, varied and profoundly inspiring book is the ideal place to look.
Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass)
30th August, 2015.

SteerbytheStars'Steer by the Stars' is the latest offering from the wonderful Telling the Bees, fronted by my friend, Andy Letcher. The first thing to catch attention is the exquisite artwork by Rima Staines, as subtly executed, magical and strange as the music itself.
The opening moments of each TTB album demonstrate what a pleasing texture of sound their mix of instruments creates, a silken pillow on which the band weaves our dreams and an encouraging glimpse of what's in store. On this album, when Andy's vocals come in on 'A Puppeteer Came Into Town,' the dream is a darkly Gothic one in which a travelling puppeteer receives and a somewhat mixed reaction to his shows. "With Bango, Beelzebub, Old Mr. Punch, I will jiggle the arcana round with my touch lest the shadows they grow ever longer." A lovely tune, picked out chiefly on the Anglo concertina.
Telling the Bees bandTrack two is a lively bit of jiggery-pokery called 'Oxford May Song,' recounting the revels and capers that break out amongst the dreaming spires when May Day rolls around. Great interplay between Jane's fiddle and Josie's cello, plus a driving bass line from Colin that should have everyone up and dancing in seconds when played live.
The next track is 'Windflower,' which has a gentle driving energy appropriate to the title. It's a love song and a lovely, deeply felt one at that, beautifully carried once again by the interplay of strings and bass with a perfectly-placed Anglo concertina augmenting the beat. Jane's fiddle soars gloriously in the instrumental section.
'Astrolabe' is not a word one finds often in modern music, but here it's the title and main feature of this mysterious ode that begins with the intriguing line, "Last night I saw Rachel turn into a bird..." The body of the beguiling tune is held together by the skeleton of Andy's gently strummed mandolin, embellished with Jim's Anglo concertina and subtle strings, plus beautiful backing vocals from Nomi. This song contains one of my favourite lines on the album: "Last night a whole generation turned to stone." I was there and he's right...
Next up is 'One More Mazurka,' for which I can best quote a couple of lines: "The beautiful freaks are still dancing like it's the end of the world." It's easy to love a band who can take an old dance form and make of it a song that is by turns touching, melancholy, oddly uplifting and gloriously strange.
Track 6 is, apparently, a traditional Swedish tune called 'The Oxberg March,' and features Andy's beautiful, haunting playing on the English bagpipes. It's the kind of march one imagines the inhabitants of Summerisle hearing as they weave their way towards their May Day sacrifice in the Wicker Man.
'St. Kevin and the Blackbird' is an uplifting tale of, well, a saint and a blackbird.
'Babylon' intelligently combines the mythical with the political, Middle Eastern religion with Middle Eastern wars, it's call for radical rethinking carried by a driving yet appropriately fragmented tune. "And still we bomb Babylon..."
Picking up the political theme, 'I Fear These Tory Radicals' might, you'd think, be a brand new lyric composed for 2015. You'd be wrong. The words were penned in the first half of the 19th century by John Clare. "And they will be themselves as silent of our suffering as an old maid of her age..." The more things change, the more they stay the same. The newly written tune that accompanies the lyrics is suitably downbeat, with a decidedly funereal feel although, as ever, beautifully played.
'The Scholar Gypsy' is an old tale from Oxford town, and one that resonates with Andy's soul, causing him to admit, "I want to follow in his footsteps." "Now what he wanted above all else was Nature's secret commonwealth." The jaunty tune will keep your feet a-wandering like the Scholar Gypsy himself, bouncing along as the band build once again on the firm foundation of Andy's strummed mandolin.
Finally, the title track of 'Steer by the Stars' opens with gentle guitar from Colin. Andy's vocals are floated into new and misty mystical heights with the addition of a wash of reverb. The bass line has the feel of ocean waves, the concertina provides instrumental hooks between lines as other instruments move hypnotically through the mix as the track moves towards silence following Andy's assurance that "wherever we land, the stars will guide us safely in." So may it be.
telling the beesThis is Telling the Bees' third album and the musicianship, already brilliant on the first, continues to mature, taking on extra layers of subtlety and assurance. Andy's song-writing continues to be a strong element in the mix, combining unpretentious lyricism with a scholar's grasp of history, a poet's turn of phrase, a romantic's yearning and a knife-edged political awareness. This collection also benefits from superb production by the band themselves, resulting in some of the clearest, warmest sound quality I've heard on a CD for quite a while. Each instrument is perfectly balanced in the mix, as are the vocals, making a splendid set of songs even more of a joy to listen to.
An English ArcanumI was hooked on TTB from the first track on their début album, 'Untie the Wind.' The second, 'An English Arcanum,' established that the first had been no mere flash in the pan but that here is a band to be reckoned with. 'Steer by the Stars' confirms Telling the Bees as one of my favourite bands of all time*. Wonderful, magical, at times disturbing, often deeply strange ... just like life. Hail the Bees! Long may they reign!

Greywolf /|\

*In case you're wondering, my absolute favourite band is The Incredible String Band, while others include The Screaming Blue Messiahs, The Ramones, and Dr. Strangely Strange.

2

Ammerdown Centre, Somerset

Day Two, February 1st 2014

Saturday Afternoon

Simon Howell
Simon Howell

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.”

Philip Carr-Gomm
Philip Carr-Gomm

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.

Saturday Evening

Greywolf the BardGreywolf 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.”

Tess Ward
Tess Ward

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.”

Liz Williams
Liz Williams

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,

Many blessings,

Greywolf /|\

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!

5

AmmerdownConferencePhotoThe gang's all here in this great group photo. Well, almost, actually a couple of people are missing. One is Bruce Stanley, because he was taking the picture, the other is Phil Ryder of the Druid Network, who mysteriously vanished. Phil's partner, Lynda, commented about being in the presence of so much Pagan royalty. This confused nearby Christian delegates who had, of course, never heard of any of us! This gathering, which took place at the Ammerdown Centre in Somerset, was so densely packed that I'm going to have to spread it over three or four blogs. Here's the first...

Day One, January 31st 2014

This gathering was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends in the Druid, Pagan and Christian communities and, hopefully, make some new ones. What remains to be seen is whether it will prove to be more than that. From the discussions that took place, both formally and informally, the possibilities are certainly there. What was it all about? Well, the letter of invitation from Ammerdown's director, Benedicte Scholefield, explains it as follows:

Our ambition is to bring together a select group of Pagans and Christians who share a concern for the future of the planet and an interest in dialogue. Our feeling is that there are many misunderstandings and fears on both sides that divide us and prevent us from working together on common environmental concerns. Our planned conversation aims to encourage a fresh dialogue that would tackle these misunderstandings and fears, and hopefully open up avenues for continuing dialogue and for joint actions.”

As one of the aforementioned friends, Philip Carr-Gomm, Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), pointed out during his presentation, dialogue between Christians and Druids is by no means new, having been going on for at least 300 years. The 'Celebrating Planet Earth' event is, then, an extension of a long-standing tradition within Druidry. It certainly proved a rewarding way to spend a Gwyl Forwyn weekend. Gwyl Forwyn, 'The Feast of the Maiden,' is the Welsh name for the festival known in Ireland as Imbolc and in England as Candlemas, but more of that later.

Denise CushOur moderator for the talks and the discussions that followed them was Denise Cush (left), Professor of Religion and Education at Bath Spa University. She was also our first speaker, her topic being, 'Setting the Scene: What are the Issues and Challenges that We Face?'

Denise began by saying that she has engaged both practically and academically with Christianity, Paganism and a range of other spiritual paths. As a member of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, she has advocated the inclusion of Paganism in Religious Studies Curricula in schools. She spoke of the use of unhelpful terminology and stereotyping that has often created barriers between Pagans and Christians. The very use of the term, Witch, being an obvious example since its traditional connotations are those of people who use magic to harm others. She then spoke of the often unfortunate history of engagements between the two paths, with Pagan Roman emperors instituting measures to reduce the spread of Christianity, up to and including killing Christians in a variety of unpleasant ways, while, when Christianity became the dominant Roman religion, it then acted in much the same way against Pagans.

She then addressed the issue of mythical histories, such as the widely-held but entirely false burningtimesbelief that 9 million mainly female adherents of a genuinely ancient Witch cult were put to death in Europe during what has become known among modern Pagans as 'The Burning Times,' largely due to an oft-repeated pagan song of that name, which has led to images like the one here being downloadable from Pagan websites. In fact, the numbers put to death during Witch trials across the whole of Europe was somewhere between 13 and 40 thousand, and they were not descendants of an ancient religion with origins in the Neolithic era but mainly people whose neighbours condemned them as Witches in order to get back at or dispose of people they didn't like. We were, incidentally, offered a rendition of 'The Burning Times,' and Christians and Pagans united in declining the offer. Meanwhile, from the Christian side comes the equally prevalent misunderstanding that Paganism is equal to Satanism, missing the point that Satan is an aspect of Christian myth that doesn't really exist in the Bible but is largely a creation of medieval Christianity.

Sally Griffyn, Wiccan WisdomkeepersDenise raised the common habit amongst Pagans of defining themselves in relation to the prevailing Christian culture, often doing so from an understanding of Christianity that is unaware of changes that have happened within it over recent decades. A specific result of this is the oft-repeated Pagan statement that “Western, patriarchal religions do not consider Nature or the environment” (Sally Griffyn, Wiccan Wisdomkeepers: Modern-Day Witches Speak on Environmentalism, Feminism, Motherhood, Wiccan Lore and More, 2002). While Paganism has been referred to as “the Green Party at prayer,” Christianity remains identified by Pagans with the scriptural notion of man being given dominion over the Earth and all its (her) creatures. The Pagan Federation website describes Paganism as “polytheistic or pantheistic, Nature-worshipping religion.” Against which is the archaeological evidence that ancient pagans were just as capable of damaging the Earth as we are, albeit on a more localised scale, being fewer in number and lacking technology. Meanwhile, many modern Christians have embraced the concept of 'Creation spirituality' as a foundation for their own engagement in environmental activism. Her conclusion here was that both Christians and Pagans engage with the environment both theologically and practically, or, of course, don't.

She then raised the contentious question of whether perhaps there are elements in both Paganism and Christianity that actually quite like the idea of being persecuted. Equally controversially, she raised the question of whether the Earth might be better served by humanists.

celtic-knot-heartOn the subject of selective or elective identities, Denise pointed to the adoption of the romantic myth of the spiritual, ecological Celt by both Pagans, especially Druids, and Christians, leading both groups to identify themselves as, in some sense, 'Celtic,' even when they have no obvious, direct blood-lines amongst existing Celtic nations and when the concept of the Celt employed by both groups is often based more on imagination that actuality. This reminded me of another old friend, Marion Bowman, senior lecturer at the Open University, who came up with the tag, 'Cardiac Celt,' to characterise such folk, I myself arguably falling into this category. Similarly romantic notions of other indigenous peoples are also prevalent amongst both Pagans and Christians.

Denise then turned to the commonalities between us, which she characterised as the shared values of love and compassion, a dislike for rules, the immanence of the sacred, the value of ritual or ceremony, the celebration of festival times (often the same festival times), and activism on a range of social and environmental issues inspired by our spiritualities.

She also addressed borrowings between our paths, suggesting that the kind of 'deep Green' ecology that emerged as a part of Paganism during the second half of the 20th century was a source of inspiration behind the Greening of Christianity that led to 'Creation spirituality.' In the other direction, she suggested that there are aspects of Pagan practice and theology that draw on Christian ideas and practices, acknowledging that some of those may have been 'borrowed' from earlier pagans.

Denise concluded by offering as shared values that could inform our discussions those of generosity, humility and wisdom and by asking, when this weekend together reached its end, where do we go next and how do we build on what's been shared?

The Evening Ceremony:

At 9.30pm, our colourful group of Christians, Druids and Pagans trooped out of the main building to celebrate Gwyl Forwyn, Imbolc, Candlemas, or whatever your preferred name is. In Ireland and Scotland, and amongst many Pagans throughout Britain, this seasonal festival is associated with the Gaelic Brighid, widely accepted as a Pagan goddess whose veneration was partially or wholly Ammerdown Chapeldisplaced by reverence for an Irish saint of the same name. In Gaelic regions, she is known as the foster-mother of Christ, traditionally treated with a reverence reserved in other areas for the Virgin Mary, Jesus's mother. As a bridge between Pagan and Christian traditions, and as it was her festival time, Brighid was to be a focus of our ceremony, music and meditation over the weekend, including this one in the chapel at Ammerdown (left), its high, pyramid-shaped timber roof offering excellent acoustics. Druids, Pagans and Christians all tend to celebrate this festival in similar ways, lighting candles, bringing in snowdrops if they're out in time, invoking the spirit of Brighid, all as a way of welcoming the first stirrings of new life emerging from the earth as light begins to return to the land and the days lengthen following Midwinter's long night.

The ceremony was compiled and led by Alison Eve (right) and Paul Cudby, co-founders of the SONY DSCrecently-established Forest Church, a concept derived from Bruce Stanley's observation that almost every fellow Christian he asked said that their first connections with spirit had occurred in response to some aspect of the natural world, most often woodland. Bruce was also present for the weekend. The ceremony included the lighting of a central candle on a low, circular altar decorated with sparkling white, silica-rich stones of a type often found incorporated into megalithic structures, and with emblems of the four elemental quarters; feathers in the East, red wood and stone in the South, a goblet of water at the West and, of course, stones in the North. We were encouraged to join in with Gaelic chants invoking Brighid and aspects of the natural world, led by Alison. A chalice was passed around containing a mix of herbs, grain, milk and whisky, along with baked bannocks. It was well-planned to give those Pagans among us a sense of familiarity. It was also reasonably short and to the point, something Pagan rites sometimes fail to achieve. At the end of the rite, Ali took the remaining food and drink outside to offer it to the Earth.

I was sufficiently impressed with the chapel's acoustics to want to try them out myself later, so I headed across with a yew-wood flute and my drum. I arrived just as one of the Centre's staff was emerging, having turned out the lights and extinguished the candle on the altar, which I had thought was supposed to be left burning throughout the weekend. She put the lights back on for me, relit the candle, and asked me to extinguish it again before I left.

Sure enough, the acoustics were extremely good. The flute sounded wonderful, its sound filling the building. I unpacked my drum bag and, starting in the East, invoked the four quarters using my rawhide rattle, itself having feathers of eagle and buzzard attached to it as well as, inevitably, a piece of wolf fur. South, West, North and back to the East to complete the circle. Then the drum. Having begun with my accustomed heartbeat, I slid into the wolf-chant that had come to me twenty years ago. It was good.Animation_candle_flame2

Afterwards, I put out the candle as instructed. Of course, I later discovered that, as I'd thought, the intention had been to leave it burning, it was just that this message had not got to the Centre's staff. It was relit subsequently, and left burning.

Thence to the bar, where stimulating conversation, much of it related to our purpose in being there, continued until 1.30am. Then to my room, finally calming my racing mind enough to sleep at about 3am. It was a promising first evening, and the next day there were scheduled talks from Graham Harvey (Pagan animist), Steve Hollinghurst (Church Army – a name he finds embarrassing), Philip Carr-Gomm (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) and Simon Howell (Interfaith Advisor for the Bath and Wells Diocese). It seemed were in for a good day. I'll see you there...

hutton-pagan-britain-yalePublished by Yale University Press, November 2013, xvi + 480 pages, 103 illustrations.

In 1991, a few months before I first met him, my friend Ronald Hutton published Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, at the time a unique, one-volume survey of its subject that quickly, and rightly, attained classic status, being quoted in almost every subsequent work on British prehistory. This new book is designed to supersede it, reassessing its contents and conclusions, expanding on it and adding a huge amount of new information that has come to light over the last two decades. Here's my review:

First impressions are of an attractive, well-produced book, containing many more illustrations than its predecessor, though still in monochrome. The illustrations are well-chosen, including many of the usual suspects – the 'Sorcerer of Trois Frères,' the 'Venus of Willendorf,' and so on – but going well beyond them. For example, a group headed 'Less familiar Palaeolithic images' includes human figurines that were found alongside the much better known 'Venuses' on which whole theories of prehistoric belief have been built. These images and their accompanying text provide one example of a process Ronald follows throughout the book, returning to original excavation reports and re-examining, often at first-hand, the objects described so as to place them in their proper context. He has visited or re-visited many sites where objects were found, often in company with archaeological specialists. This meticulous research is filtered through the Ronald's broad areas of personal interest, including ancient and modern paganisms and shamanism. These interests, however, are never allowed to overwhelm the evidence.

As well as exploring prehistoric sites and the artefacts found at them, the book examines Ronald-Huttonways in which attitudes to the past alter in tandem with more recent changes, so the Victorian era of conquest, colonisation and conversion by the British produced the idea that Britain itself was repeatedly conquered, colonised and converted throughout prehistory. The 20th century dismantling of the British Empire and our joining of the European Economic Union then produced a new vision of prehistory that replaced conquest with trade as the primary means by which the British Isles interacted with the rest of Europe. Pagan Britain offers many such insights into both our remote and more immediate ancestors.

One of my own areas of interest is in what archaeologists call burnt mounds, piles of stones that have been subjected to very high temperatures before being either doused with water or immersed in it. Many theories have been put forward to explain them, including Native American style sweat lodges, Swedish style saunas, cooking sites for joints of meat or breweries for prehistoric beer. Thanks to this book, I now know that a major survey of such sites in Ireland, published in 2011, has shown all four explanations are sustainable for some of the sites. For a modern Druid such as myself who has experienced the power of ritualised sweat lodges and is also partial to the occasional pint of ale, this is welcome news indeed!

One section of the book looks at interactions between professional archaeologists and interested non-professionals, including what might loosely be called the 'Earth Mysteries' community. These are often hostile and have been for a very long time. The story of how archaeology stopped being a hobby and became a profession, and how those who adopted it as such subsequently came to exercise such unquestioned access to, and control over, our shared heritage would make a fascinating sociological study in the development of elite dominance. Another admirable feature of Pagan Britain is the extent to which it continually reveals topics such as this and shows them to be worthy of extended treatment. Hopefully a generation of researchers will be inspired to follow up on them. If so, they, like the rest of us, will owe a debt of gratitude to Ronald for the diligence of his research, the breadth of his vision and his ability to bring so much information and so many ideas together.

william-bucklandRonald writes both for academic colleagues and general readers, achieving this rare double by the simple means of using clear, precise, jargon-free English. If more of his colleagues adopted this habit, they would render their work accessible to a much broader readership. Another aspect of his writing that appeals greatly is his inclusion of illuminating, entertaining, often bizarre incidental details such as the fact that the early 19th century scholar, William Buckland, was often accompanied at academic functions by his pet bear, which he dressed in a student's cap and gown. Such quirky and engaging human touches certainly help bring history to life. The picture here captures Buckland at dinner with friends, human and other.

As with Ronald's previous works on Paganisms, this book will no doubt divide the modern Pagan community, perhaps most strongly in its final chapter, 'The Legacy of British Paganism.' It is here, looking at changing academic and public attitudes towards possible survivals of paganism from ancient times, through the Middle Ages and up to the present day, that the author most maintains his reputation as an iconoclast. Those who dismiss this section as simple iconoclasm, however, can only do so by ignoring qualifying statements as in the following passage: “The former tendency to assume that virtually all traditional British seasonal rites were survivors of paganism was clearly misplaced, but blanket dismissal of pagan ingredients in them would be even more erroneous. Broad themes of seasonal festivity often have more staying power than individual customs, though even some of those can be proved to have survived for millennia.” [My italics].

A word of warning: if you are looking for the sort of certainty found in other books, such as the many claiming to have 'solved the mystery of Stonehenge' once and for all, you should definitely look elsewhere. Ronald is careful not to argue beyond what demonstrable facts allow. Where, as is often the case, the evidence is open to a variety of interpretations, he is equally careful to present a range of alternatives, where possible evaluating which are the most likely, but willing to admit when none are proven or where such proof may not even be possible. Some may find the frequency with which a 'not proven' verdict is returned frustrating, but, as the author makes clear, there are times when our current state of knowledge simply leaves no definitive conclusion possible.

Is Pagan Britain, then, a worthy successor to Pagan Religions...? My answer is a resounding yes. Pagan_Religions_of_the_Ancient_British_IslesLike its illustrious predecessor, it offers a one-stop shop for all who, like me, have an abiding interest in prehistoric British religion, a desire to keep up with the latest information on the subject, but little access to academic journals, field reports or specialist publications. Ronald draws together the whole gamut of recent research along with the speculations and conclusions stemming from it, bringing it all together for us. And for those who want to look further into areas of particular interest, there are extensive endnotes.

As mentioned earlier, what makes Pagan Britain so compelling is Ronald's unusual breadth of personal interests and depth of knowledge in them, spanning paganisms old and new, shamanism, anthropology and archaeology, as well as British, European and world history. This is enhanced by his almost unrivalled list of contacts with colleagues across this wide range of disciplines, his enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy for detailed and thorough research, and his remarkable ability to marshal and make sense of a huge quantity and range of information and present it clearly. In short, the book is a tour de force and, like Pagan Religions..., is essential reading for anyone with an interest in its subject.

Born in India Blood&Mistletoein 1953, Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, where he also heads the School of Humanities. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Society of Antiquaries, a Commissioner for English Heritage and a member of, among others, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Ancient Druid Order and, of course, the British Druid Order. His other publications include The Druids (Hambledon Continuum, 2007) and Blood & Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (Yale University Press, 2009), both of which are also highly recommended.

 If you're encouraged to buy the book, you can find it here on amazon.co.uk, or here on amazon.com

If you're not yet convinced, you could check out this review from the Economist by Erica Wagner, who describes Ronald as "a lovely writer with a keen sense of the spiritual potency of Britain’s ancient landscapes."

Or, for a less sympathetic review, try this one from the Guardian by Graham Robb, who takes Ronald to task for only devoting six pages to the Druids, despite Ronald making it clear in the book that the reason he is not giving more space to them is that he's recently written the two full books on them referred to above. He also complains about Ronald not including evidence for paganism in France, despite the book being called Pagan Britain and Ronald's stated intention in it to maintain a focus within the confines of the British Isles. Robb may have a vested interest, however, in that his most recent publication is a book claiming to have rediscovered a lost 'map' of Pagan Celtic Europe.