I always find it hard to sleep when the moon is full, so was up and out very early this morning. As the sun rose over the village, I crossed the road and the brook, sacred to the goddess, Sulis, lined with springs. The nearest of these was revered by Anglo-Saxon ancestors as a local manifestation of the Bubbling Cauldron (Hvergelmir) at the roots of the World Tree, around which coils the serpent/dragon, Nidhoggr. Here's my drawing of the World Tree from the BDO Bardic Course. Click the picture to expand it.
By the spring, I met an early dog-walker. Her dog, an old black and white collie, adopted me for a while as she went on ahead and he padded along at my heels. Our ways parted and I walked up the Green Path to a space between the trees where I could see out across the fields and the edge of the village, with a clear view of the sun. Took out my drum, held it to the newly risen sun, played and sang. With frost on the grass in the dips, I wondered if the drum would sound. I needn't have worried, the Red Deer's golden skin immediately absorbed and responded to the light and warmth of the golden fireball in the East and the lightest tap of my fingers brought forth a clear, ringing tone.
I added another goddess to the list of deities and spirit beings called upon in my morning salutations. Having been with the White Horse Camp until yesterday afternoon, we had discussed honouring this goddess in a ceremony there this morning, and I wanted to connect with my friends at the camp from my quiet corner of North Wiltshire. I live just off the Northern edge of Salisbury Plain, within the territory of the Bronze Age people who created the beautiful chalk hill figure, the Uffington White Horse, etched into the greensward beside a rectangular earthwork on White Horse Hill in South Oxfordshire. Just above the Horse runs the Ridgeway, one of Britain's oldest prehistoric trackways, sections of which are still walkable. The Ridgeway once wound from the Norfolk coast to reach the sea again in Dorset, passing by many ancient sacred sites along the way, including Wayland's Smithy, Avebury and Wodnesbeorg. One of the White Horse's tasks, I believe, was to guide and assist walkers along that ancient track. My area of North Wiltshire is known to have had at least fourteen other chalk hill figures of horses etched into its hillsides.
Short digression: In 1996, I led a Midsummer ceremony among the great stone circles of Avebury. Part of its purpose was to honour World Peace and Prayer Day, an idea inspired by the birth of a White Buffalo Calf in Wisconsin two years earlier. This event was seen as being of great spiritual significance by many Native Americans, who greeted it as a sign that their ancestral ways would be returning to them with renewed power. This is because, long ago, it was White Buffalo Calf Woman who brought the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples their seven sacred ceremonies and taught them how to conduct them for the benefit of the tribes and of all beings. Joining us at that ceremony in 1996 was a young Lakota who came because he had a vision of a White Horse while he fasted in a cave on Bear Butte, a sacred, holy place for many Native Americans. His vision led him to Avebury and to us, since our ceremony was being held at a place sacred to the ancient people of the White Horse. He brought with him a song he had been gifted during his vision and sang it for us in the circle. I am ashamed to say that a few drunken members of the Loyal Arthurian Warband shouted abuse at him as he sang. He didn't let them phase him though. His voice, his spirit and his song remained strong and true.
After the ceremony, we talked. He asked if folk in England always yelled insults at people during sacred ceremonies. I explained the behaviour of the drunks as best I could and apologised for it. He said with a sigh, "Yeah, we get 'em back home too." We talked about Wannabee Indians and he said, "If people over here think it's so damn great being an Indian they should try living on the Res for a couple of years."
We also discussed his vision. He said he had come to us because he felt there was a link between the birth of the White Buffalo Calf, White Buffalo Calf Woman who taught the sacred ways to his people, and our native British White Horse spirit. I've been thinking about this again recently and am more than ever convinced that he is right. I believe we have our own teacher of sacred ceremonies and spirit ways, centred on this area of rolling downland where the most famous of them all, the Uffington Horse, bestrides the hillside above Dragon Hill. So, who is our native White Horse Woman? I believe she is Rhiannon, 'the Great Queen,' who features in the First Branch of the Mabinogi, where she first appears riding a magical horse and later acts as a horse herself, carrying travellers on her back. Here she is, from the Druid Tarot I designed many years ago (available from the BDO webshop). If I'm right about this image derived from a Gaulish coin representing the same horse goddess (perhaps under a different name), then the spirit of the White Horse reaches far beyond the area where I live.
I believe that she is one of the prime movers behind both the White Horse Camps (formerly OBOD Camps) and the Avebury Gorsedd. An interfaith conference organised by Tim Sebastion in 1993 featured the first ever ceremony of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri, a ceremony I created for the event and which is still conducted at Avebury today. During the same weekend OBOD's chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, and Dr. (now Prof.) Ronald Hutton went for a walk around the stones and Ronald suggested that Philip should organise a Druid camp. The first camp took place at Lammas 1994 and included a trip down to Avebury to join the Gorsedd celebration there, again conducted by me, still flying from having encountered my spirit Wolf in a sweat lodge on the camp the night before.
That first camp became a template for many others and similar camps are now held throughout the year by five different Druid group in the UK and by OBOD and others in the Europe, the USA, Australia and elsewhere. The Avebury Gorsedd also became a template for similar festival celebrations at Stonehenge, the Long Man of Wilmington, Stanton Drew and elsewhere in the UK and, as with camps, at many other sites around the world. Part of the Gorsedd ceremony even featured in the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics, broadcast live to a global audience of millions.
When things have such power, that power must have a source, or several sources. In the case of White Horse Camps and the Avebury Gorsedd, linked by the Ridgeway, the power came from a combination of time, place and people, but also from Rhiannon, our White Horse Woman. I believe that our presence and our intention to revitalise the ways of our ancestors called her forth in the 1990s to teach, inspire and empower us, just as she had our ancestors in the distant past. Long may she continue to guide us in the recreation of our ancestral ways. I trust that many of us will honour her, and give thanks for her gifts, in our ceremonies as we celebrate the first fruits of the harvest this Lammastide.
Hail and blessed be!
and a blessed and inspiring Lammas/Lughnasad/Gwyl Awst to one and all!
In the folk calendar of Britain, Midsummer's Eve takes place on June 23rd, Midsummer's Day on the 24th. Records of celebrations being held on these days go back at least as far as the 14th century, when a monk of Winchcombe, on the Cotswold edge of Gloucestershire, refers to local folk rolling a flaming wheel down a hill on Midsummer's Eve. A similar rite was held on the same day in the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales in the 1820s and is described in some detail:
“People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If this fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”
A similar ceremony is mentioned in the 4th century Acts of Saint Vincent as having taken place amongst pagans in Aquitane in southern France, who rolled their fiery wheel down a hill and into a river, from which they rescued the charred pieces to reassemble them in a temple to their sky god.
Ronald Hutton, in his 'Stations of the Sun' (Oxford University Press, 1996, page 312), says that Midsummer's Day “occupied much the same relationship with the solar cycle as Christmas day; it represented the end of a solstice, the period in which the sun ceased to move for a short period, but rose and set at the same points on the horizon at the extreme end of its range. Now, however, it was at the height of its strength, and light at its longest, and Midsummer Eve represented the culmination of that period of apogee, just before the days began to shorten again as the sun moved southward. In response to the swelling of heat and light, foliage and grasses were now likewise at their fullness, before the time of fruiting approached. No wonder that it seemed a to be a magical time to the ancient Europeans.” He adds that “In the northern half of the continent the festival was generally the most important one of the whole year.”
Why, then, do most modern Pagans celebrate midsummer on the day of the summer solstice and not, as our ancestors did, a few days later on June 23rd-24th?
The answer is not hard to find. The idea of celebrating the summer solstice comes from William Stukeley, who associated Druids with Stonehenge and, in 1720, was the first writer to mention the solstice alignment of the Hele Stone with the centre of the circles there. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Gorsedd of Bards of Britain in 1792, visited Stonhenge and followed Stukeley in believing that Druids celebrated the solstice there. The same alignment was central to a book called 'Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered,' published by Sir Norman Lockyer in 1906. This book influenced the Ancient Druid Order, who started holding rituals at the henge a few years after its publication. By the time Gerald Gardner and members of his coven were creating Wicca in the late 1940s, the idea of celebrating the solstices had become firmly fixed in the public imagination, and so the solstices became part of its festival wheel of the year. All of them either ignored, or were unaware of, the ancient and pan-European tradition of celebrating on the 24th.
Why then, you may ask, is the Stonehenge Hele Stone aligned on the summer solstice sunrise, as is an avenue of stones at Callanish in the Orkneys and some of the stone rows at Carnac in Brittany? First, we may question whether the alignments actually are on the solstice or on Midsummer's Day. After all, it is the nature of solstices that the sun's rising position barely alters for about a week. Given the once pan-European custom of celebrating Midsummer's Day, by far the most likely explanation for the alignments is that they were designed to be watched in the run-up to midsummer, giving those who understood them time to spread the word that the festival day was approaching. Early agricultural communities were spread out over wide areas and travel was largely on foot. We know that people came to Stonehenge from all over southern England and as far afield as Switzerland. A decent amount of advance warning of festival dates was essential.
Incidentally, it is currently fashionable to say that the major alignment at Stonehenge is not on the summer solstice sunrise, but on the midwinter sunset. While there can be no doubt that there is a midwinter alignment at Stonehenge, there is also, as Stukeley correctly surmised in the early 18th century, an extremely clear midsummer one. One does not cancel out the other.
You may ask if it matters which day we celebrate midsummer or midwinter on? Personally, I think it does. Having been a Pagan for half a century or so, I've observed a lot. One of the things I've observed is that celebrating the solstices often causes problems. An obvious example is the amount of aggression that has often been associated with celebrations of the summer solstice at Stonehenge. In the early 20th century, the then head of the Ancient Druid Order became so incensed at being asked to pay sixpence to get in to the the henge that he uttered a long and angry curse on their owner. In the 1950s, the Ancient Order of Druids, who had been meeting at the henge annually since 1905, vowed never to do so again after loud, drunken hecklers climbed all over the stones during the AOD's solstice ceremony. In 1985, the police and soldiers in police uniforms smashed up vehicles attempting to get to the henge for the solstice, beating unarmed men, women and children in what became known as The Battle of the Beanfield. When I attempted to hold a ceremony for world peace at Avebury on the summer solstice of 1996, it was disrupted by angry drunks. By contrast, those I've held on Midsummer's Day have been peaceful, joyous and focused.
A kind of testosterone madness kicks in at the summer solstice which has dissipated by Midsummer's Day, a few days later, when the solar tide has turned. If we are truly attempting to restore, or at least be inspired by, the spirituality of our ancestors, then surely it makes sense to try and follow the ways in which they rode the cosmic tides. This is perhaps especially true of the solstices, the two annual festivals our ancestors regarded as vital, pivotal times of the year, times of magic and divination and of great power.
When Emma Restall Orr and I founded the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge in 1997, we made sure it would celebrate Midsummer's Day. This works out well, as a quiet, focused ceremony attended by no more than a hundred people restores a sense of peace to the place after the wildness of the solstice celebrations which attract many thousands.
In Cornwall, the old tradition has been maintained, and a string of hilltop fires are kindled each year on Midsummer's Eve, June 23rd, just as the sun is setting. The accompanying ceremony is spoken in Cornish and climaxes with a Lady of the Flowers casting into the roaring flames a garland made up of good herbs, those believed to have medicinal qualities, along with bad herbs, those that are poisonous, and sprigs of oak, rowan and foxglove.
I suppose rolling flaming wheels down hills would land us in trouble with Health and Safety regulations these days, but there's no reason why more of us shouldn't celebrate midsummer at Midsummer.
Merry Midsummer to one and all,
Now here's a little treat for you for having read this far. "Oh do not tell the priest of our rites, for he would call it a sin, for we've been out in the woods all night, a'conjuring summer in..."
I've loved the idea of roundhouses since my teens when I went to a party hosted in an oast house in Sussex. As soon as I entered, I just thought there was something inherently right about living in a circular structure. When everyone sat around the walls in a circle, it seemed to encourage conversation and sharing, whether of conversation or food and drink. Oast houses, incidentally, were traditionally used for drying hops in South East England. Quite a few still exist and they are, I think, beautiful buildings, as you can see from the picture of these Sussex examples.
A few years later I became interested in the ancestral spiritual traditions of Britain and was delighted to find that our ancestors in the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and well into the Roman era had lived in roundhouses, a period of about 4,000 years.
It wasn't until 30 years later that a friend offered me the opportunity to build a roundhouse (above) in a clearing in a wood in Shropshire that she inherited from her parents. Working only in some of my sons' school holidays, it took three years and a lot of help to create our roundhouse. Most of those working on it were Druids, though a few Buddhists and folk of other traditions helped out too. All put great spirit energy into the place and the building. We had to learn a lot of new skills. My design used elements from the archaeology of half a dozen different sites, combining them into something that seemed like it would work and create a good, structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing and useable building. We use it mainly for ceremonies, music and storytelling. The acoustics are excellent.
There's something about learning all these old craft skills, from growing and harvesting the straw and cutting the right wood, through wattling the walls to thatching the roof with the straw we'd grown, that really connects you with the spirits of our ancestors. You get a clear sense of what it was like to walk in their shoes. The fact that the building project was accompanied all the way through by rituals designed to weave the building into the place and integrate it with the spirits of nature helped to build that sense of connection. Our roundhouse has a 22 foot internal diameter, a wheat-straw thatched roof partly supported by an internal circle of ash posts, lime-washed wattle and daub walls and a beaten earth floor (right). For more photos, see the albums on my facebook page, especially the one covering the building process.
Five years on from the completion of that first roundhouse, I'm working again with John and Ken. John's the guy who taught us to thatch and Ken is another core member of the team from the Shropshire build. We're working on a pair of conjoined roundhouses for the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans in South Wales (below). These are based on archaeology from a site on Anglesey called Bryn Eryr, 'Hill of Eagles.' As in Shropshire, we're being aided by many helpers, from archaeological students to men on probation. Also helping out are Ian, the Museum's resident Iron Age reenactor, and Dafydd, whose website, britishroundhouses.com, lists over a hundred reconstructed roundhouses in England, Wales and Scotland with photos of each one.The first of the St Fagans roundhouses is being thatched with a base coat of gorse and heather onto which straw is stitched. We're then stuffing straw into this base coat. This roundhouse is 32 feet in diameter. The second, larger roundhouse (40 foot diameter) will have a short row of gorse around the base of the roof as a rodent deterrent and will then be thatched using a long-straw thatching technique. Neither has an internal post circle, relying instead on very thick clay and earth walls.
Of course, most of what happens above ground in modern roundhouse reconstructions is based on educated guesswork. Almost everything that survives in the archaeological record is at or below ground level. Peter Reynolds set the style for roundhouse reconstructions with his pioneering work at the Butser Iron Age farm in Hampshire in the early 1970s (below). This includes using straw thatch for the roofs. The logic of this is that cereal crops were being grown and the by-product of straw would therefore have been readily available. In other parts of the country, water reeds or grasses such as marram grass may have been used. It's also possible that turf, tree bark or wooden shingles were used.This morning a facebook friend suggested I might go to the USA and show folks over there how to build Iron Age roundhouses. This got me wondering if there weren't already reconstructed roundhouses in America. An online search failed to reveal any Celtic ones. However, there is a Native American tradition of roundhouse building. Here are two examples from California:
First is a 1947 picture of a roundhouse on the reservation of the Tuolumne band of the Me-Wuk (or Miwok) tribe in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. A typical Me-Wuk village consisted of umachas (cedar bark houses), chakkas (acorn granaries) and a hangi (ceremonial roundhouse). The ceremonial roundhouse was the center of tribal life, used for a variety of purposes by different groups. They are typically 30 to 40 feet in diameter and roofed with earth, bark, or, as with this one, wooden shingles. Dances are still held in these roundhouses to give thanks and to honour all that the Earth Mother has given to the people.A second Me-Wuk roundhouse (left) was built in 1974 within the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. As with the Tuolumne example, the door faces East, towards the rising sun. Four large oak posts support the roof of the sixty foot diameter structure (below left). The rest of the roundhouse is constructed of cedar poles secured with grapevine and the roof is topped with cedar bark. Inside is a central fire pit. A fire exit was added in the rear of the structure in 1993 to comply with state fire regulations. The door faces the east to catch the sunrise. The roundhouse is still used today, on occasion, for ceremonial dances. It has a plaque outside designating it as California Registered Historical Landmark No. 1001.
One notable similarity between the two roundhouse-building traditions is that both British and Native American examples have doors oriented to the East, or an arc between East and South-east. The practical reason is to allow maximum daylight into the roundhouse via the doors. The spiritual reason, which I'm sure is the same in both traditions, is that the sun is recognised as a divine source of light, warmth and healing.There's archaeological evidence that some larger British roundhouses were used for ceremonial purposes during the Iron Age, as ours in Shropshire is and as the Me-Wuk ones are.
One difference between the two traditions, obvious from the photos here, is the pitch of the roof. Having a straw-thatched roof on a roundhouse means you have to apply a fairly thin thatch so that smoke from the central fire will filter out through it. A thin thatch means you have to rake up the angle of the roof so that rain will run off it quickly and not have time to soak through. A bark or wooden shingle roof with a central smoke-hole allows for a much lower pitch that will still shed rain off successfully.
There's an idea that leaving a smoke-hole in the roof of a British-style roundhouse will create a funnel that will draw up sparks and set fire to the thatch. Having lived with a roundhouse for six years now and lit many fires in it, I'm not convinced of this. I think that if the smoke-hole is created by pulling out a ring of thatch towards the top of the cone, you'll have a way for smoke to get out but will still have enough inside the upper part of the roof that any sparks going up above the rafters will be extinguished from lack of oxygen. I'm going to try it with ours in Shropshire (above right).
Will I end up teaching Iron Age roundhouse building techniques in the USA? It's a thought. After all, there's a lot of interest in Celtic heritage in the USA. You only have to look at the string of American presidents since at least John Kennedy who have traced their roots to villages in Ireland or, occasionally, Scotland. Many European-Americans do have Celtic ancestors and value those ancestral links. Helping to build, or being able to visit, the kind of houses their ancestors lived in would be another powerful way to honour and enhance those ancestral connections.
(To expand any of the pictures, just click on them)
As my sons and I were walking up the hill out of our Wiltshire village, heading for the bus stop where my journey was to begin, a mother fallow deer and two young fawns emerged from the hedgerow and crossed the road a few yards ahead of us. I took this as a very propitious sign.
The ostensible purpose behind my trip was three-fold; to visit old friends in Seattle, to offer teaching in Druidry, and last but by no means least to spend time at La Push, home of the Quileute people out on the Pacific coast of the Olympic Peninsula. The Quileute connection began ten years ago, when my sons and I were made members of the drum circle at La Push following an extraordinary series of 'cosmic coincidences', not least of which involved one of the tribal elders having a vision of my coming five days before we arrived. All three purposes were achieved, but another soon became apparent: a dear friend had been diagnosed with cancer and was going into hospital for exploratory surgery shortly after our workshop weekend at La Push. An important part of my Seattle home from home is the Travelers Thali House Indian restaurant on Beacon Hill, run by my friends, Leon and Allen. Allen is an artist and an amazing cook who has spent time travelling around India gathering recipes, so the food at the Thali House is about the most authentic Indian dining you'll find outside of India. Allen's own art (that's his Goddess Yantra below left) and many beautiful Indian artefacts adorn the restaurant, adding to its relaxed, peaceful atmosphere. However, I only had a couple of days in Seattle before heading to LaPush for the first of the trip's workshops.
As we approached LaPush, we passed two black-tailed deer (below) grazing at the side of the road. Another propitious sign and another link between my Wiltshire home and the Olympic Peninsula.
Our workshops being so far from the city and stretching over three days, we didn't bring a huge crowd with us, but one was provided for us by a surfing contest taking place over the same weekend all along the beach in front of the lodge building my friends had hired for us. This mostly ruled out moving any of our sessions onto the beach, though we did drum on the last evening as a brilliant moon created a path of light out across the Pacific to the far horizon. The talks and workshops went well, particularly a drum journey to find one's personal place of healing. My friend with cancer, who'd been feeling understandably rough for quite a while, was particularly blissed out by the journey, which was good. I also shared a system of healing I'd found in a medieval Irish manuscript. After the weekend, I stayed on at La Push in one of the little A-frame cabins, sharing it with a friend who was to drive us back to the city after the Wednesday evening potluck feast and drum circle at the Community Hall in the village. I'd brought along a new drum I made earlier this year, a big thunder-drum with an Ash hoop and Red Deer skin (left). Previously, I've used a Remo Buffalo Drum with an artificial skin, bought on my previous trip to Seattle and first played in ritual with the Quileute Drum Circle.
On Monday afternoon we walked along the beach and watched seals fishing close inshore. To my delight, they were joined by a small flock of my favourite Druid birds, cormorants. The beach ends in a narrow spit that juts out to the base of tall island stacks that lie just offshore. One of these is called A'ka'lat in the Quileute language, meaning 'top of the rock.' 8-9,000 years of tribal chiefs were lain to rest there in cedar canoes placed in the branches of the trees that cover the top of the island. A'ka'lat (below) is a powerful spiritual focus of Quileute life.
On Tuesday, my friend wanted to find a beach she'd last visited more than 30 years ago. She recalled it being called Third Beach but decided that it wasn't the Third Beach just along from La Push but another, further North on the Makah reservation. So we set out in her car in search of a memory. We called in at the Makah Tribal Museum, a wonderful place, containing a full-scale replica of a Makah longhouse, based on those excavated at Lake Ozette in the 1970s. These had been remarkably well preserved due to the village having been swamped by a mudslide some 5 or 600 years ago. The picture (left) shows Richard Daugherty, who led the excavations and changed American archaeology forever by working on the site mainly with local Makah folk. He died earlier this year aged 91. The carved and decorated whale-fin in the picture is one of many objects from the excavations housed in the museum which is large, well laid out, and covers all aspects of tribal life, weaving, fishing, woodworking, decorative arts, myths and legends and much more. In common with other peoples of the Olympic Peninsula, the Makah hold the Orca (left) sacred and have legends of a Thunderbird who brings storms and of Raven as trickster and culture hero. They call the Orca the Sea-Wolf. The first exhibit I came across, however, was devoted to the eagle and its role in tribal culture. This was interesting as I'd spent much of the drive thinking about eagles, a spirit bird with whom I've worked a lot in the UK.
We drove on to the end of a trail that leads out to a clifftop perch that is the furthest Northwest tip of the United States, at least before you get to Alaska. The cliffs there have great caverns that pierce right through them. Just before we arrived, folk had been watching an Orca circling through these sea-caves. We drummed and sang, much to the delight of an 11 year old girl who sang along, and of her grandfather, who turned out to be a retired professor of environmental science and a really nice guy. No memory beach though. On Wednesday morning, we decided to try the Third Beach that's near La Push. It turned out to be the one. My friend remembered the trees as being huge. However, a sizeable part of the tribe's income is derived from logging, so most of the big trees had been felled and the area replanted since her previous visit. There were, however, some big stumps left, some still several feet tall. We followed the long path down to the beach.
During the walk, I felt a sense of sadness from the earth for what had been lost through the long years when the government had banned the Quileute from speaking their own language or conducting their sacred ceremonies. This, however, was overlaid with a sense of returning power and growing strength. I felt that this stems from the tribe's renewal of traditional ceremonies through the Drum Circle, and through other renewed traditions, like that of holding an annual canoe journey along the coast in company with other coastal tribes. This was revived in 1997 and has grown larger each year since. Long ago, K'wati, the Transformer, changed wolves into humans to create the first members of the Quileute tribe. He told them their descendants would always be brave and strong because they were descended from wolves. He was right. In the late 19th century, the government told the Quileute to move to a reservation on the land of their Quinault neighbours. They refused and stayed in their own village. They're still there. Some years later, a white settler burnt down most of their houses while the villagers were away working. They rebuilt. The photograph (left) dates from around 1900 and shows members of the tribe on the beach at LaPush dealing with a fish catch. In the early 20th century, the tribe were denied their fishing rights, removing both an important source of income and a primary source of food. In the worst of times, Quileute numbers fell to below 50. Now, there are around 750 Quileute, they have regained their fishing rights, built a tribal school in which their language is being taught, have seen tourist numbers and the resulting revenue increase tenfold in the last ten years and have been given back an area of their original tribal land on which to rebuild their public buildings inland, away from the coastal tsunami zone.
My friend, Leon Reed, Seattle's longest-serving Wiccan Elder and Druid priest, had suggested I bring with me to La Push a wolf-skin he'd been given many years ago. It's a single hide of what must have been a huge grey wolf. It's now moulting, though the leather is still in very good shape. Since we'd been on the coast, I'd envisioned myself drumming whilst wearing this wolfskin, but it had never felt right to do so on First Beach at La Push. Third Beach turned out to be the place of my vision, so I fastened the hide across my shoulders, picked up my drum and walked to the shoreline where waves were breaking across the sand.
It had been misty, cool and damp for the previous couple of days so my drum had absorbed moisture and not been at its best. A minute of holding it up to the bright sun and blue skies that greeted us on Third Beach was enough to bring back its voice and it sang for me. As the drum sang, so I began to sing with it, wordless sounds that expressed and evoked a powerful, joyous energy rising up in me. There was something so right about being there and doing what I was doing.
Eventually, realising that time was passing, I drummed and sang a farewell song to the spirits of the place. Again, it consisted of whatever sounds or words came to me and whatever rhythm seemed right. This is often the way. Songs come for whatever your intention is, stay long enough to do what they are needed to do and then float away on the wind, perhaps never to be heard again in this world, or maybe to come back as and when they're needed. That time on Third Beach was beautiful, soul-nourishing and filled with power and magic. It will long stay with me.
Back to the cabin for a quick change and a short rest before making our way to the Community Hall for the evening's feast and Drum Circle. The Hall was not where I remembered from last time, but we encountered a couple who showed us they way. We came in through what turned out to be the back door and were among the first to arrive. Preparations for the feast were, however, well under way. We added the flagon of fruit juice and the big water melon we'd brought with us to the stock in the kitchen. One of the elders spotted my 10-year-old Drum Circle T-shirt, smiled and said, “Ain't seen one of them for a while.”
The feast was laid out on trestle tables near the kitchen and consisted of two big trays full of fresh cooked salmon, a big cauldron of beef stew, a range of vegetables and bread. There was plenty to go around. Soon two lines of trestle tables filled up with villagers and visitors sharing this rich feast. We sat opposite a mother whose 12-year-old daughter was a huge Twilight fan.
In case you've missed the Twilight phenomenon, it began as a series of books written by Stephanie Meyer and burgeoned into a series of incredibly successful films. Apparently Meyer wanted to set a vampire novel in the wettest part of the United States and a google search revealed that to be the town of Forks, located on the Olympic Peninsula not far from the Quileute reservation. She noticed the presence of the village of La Push and then found the Quileute sacred legend of their descent from shape-shifting wolves. She therefore decided to portray the young males of La Push as werewolves. As far as I can discover, she has offered the Quileute nothing from the millions she's earned from this bastardisation of their sacred history and nor has the film company. The Burke Museum in Seattle hosts an excellent site that looks at the reality of Quileute life as compared to their Twilight portrayal. The tribe has seen some benefits as Twilight-related tourism has swollen tribal coffers and created some new jobs. Native American actors from the films have lent the weight of celebrity to local causes. Twilight's huge popularity amongst children has helped pressure politicians into acceding to the tribe's request for the return of some of their land. This road sign greets visitors.
At my first visit to the Drum Circle, there had been a Potlatch ceremony after the feast in which gifts were exchanged between members of the tribe and given to visitors. It was during this that I'd sung my wolf chant, leading to myself and my sons, Joe and Mike, being made members of the Drum Circle. Incidentally, at the time when I sang the wolf chant, I had not known that the Quileute are descended from shape-shifting wolves. Cosmic coincidence...
Ten years later, much had changed. There was no Potlatch giving ceremony apart from three youngsters who had birthdays who sat on chairs in the middle of the dance circle and were given small gifts, mostly dollars. The dance circle now is painted on the floor of the Hall, marked with the four directions. Chairs were placed in a circle around it, where before they'd just been pushed back against the walls.
Before the dances began, three men of the Drum Circle led songs in rich, vibrant baritone voices that filled the hall with powerful waves of sound. The format was for one of the three to begin, then for others who knew the song to join in. The Drum Circle then gathered in a corner of the Hall next to the gap between chairs that formed the entrance to the dance floor. The drummers were mostly younger than I remembered. I joined them, as did a handful of other non-Native folk. The only comment to me from a member of the Circle was “Big drum.” Being a drummer, you naturally take a keen interest in everyone else's drums. These were a varied group, some clearly hand-made, several small Remo drums whose artificial hides are not prone to changes of tone in the same way that natural hides are, a real bonus in a climate as wet and cool as that of the Northwest Pacific coast. Some were painted, others not. Of the painted ones, the ones that registered most strongly with me was painted with an image of T'ist'ilal, the Thunderbird (left).
Then we started. Again, the format was for one of the three lead singers to start a song and for others to join in after the first round. Drumming was carried out the same way, the lead singer starting to drum, the rest of us joining in after a few beats and following his rhythm. I had my back to the dance circle, focused on following the lead drummer. The rhythms were powerful, strong, the varied voices of the drums blending well together. A shortish, thin guy in the corner was one of the three lead singers and had a big Remo drum. It was he who'd commented on mine. He smiled a lot, laughed a fair bit, had a great singing voice and did a good deal of the leading of both songs and drumming for the first part of the evening.
The songs were very different this time. Gone were the cowboy songs that had formed part of the repertoire a decade earlier, replaced with a more structured programme of local, traditional songs. The dances too were more formal. After the first few songs and dances, dancers wearing traditional masks appeared among us. Some masks were of wood, others of thick card, each painted with a character from Quileute sacred history, powerful spirit beings such as Thunderbird (T'ist'ilal), Wolf (K'wali) and Orca (K'wal'la, literally 'Wolf of the Ocean'). Photography is not allowed during the ceremony. The picture here, taken around 1905, shows two Quileute men with carved wooden dance masks.
There were, if memory serves, six masked dancers, the youngest of whom seemed about nine years old, the oldest perhaps early twenties. The young boy showed a focus I've rarely seen in one so young. They took the lead in the next group of dances while we drummed and sang for them. The power in the hall and amongst the drummers and dancers seemed to ramp up several notches.
When the masked dancers arrived, the grey-haired man who had earlier commented on my T-shirt came and drummed beside me. He wore a traditional hat of woven cedar-bark and a red blanket around his shoulders. The dancers wore similar colourful blankets which flew out around them as they danced. The next image shows Quileute mask-maker, Roger Jackson, with some of the dance masks he's made. Another of the three main singers took the lead for the masked dances, a big guy with a lined face, dressed in blue. He handed over his drum and used a fan of dark feathers to beat out time. When a dance was coming to an end, he inverted the feathers and beat downwards with them until the stop. These stops came suddenly and I admit to missing a couple of them and throwing in an extra beat after everybody else. I'm reminded of a piece of liturgy I've found in several places, from ancient Greece to modern America. Basically, it asks the gods and ancestors to forgive us for our mistakes in sacred ceremonies. Mostly though, I stopped along with the rest. The use of the feathers really helped a novice like me, unfamiliar with the songs, giving a clear visual focus.
Our role was not only to drum and sing for the dances themselves, but also to drum fresh energy into the masked dancers between them. When each dance came to an end, they would file out from the dance circle and hunker down on the floor in the middle of our little group of drummers. We would then abandon rhythm, close in around them, and just drum powerfully and fast to raise power for the dancers. This was also amazingly powerful for us, renewing our own energy to drum and sing for the next dance. I was being terribly English and taking a respectful step back each time the dancers rejoined us until one of the dancers waved me back in to the knot of drummers. From them on I made sure I leaned in close with the others. As said, photography is not allowed during these ceremonies. The wolf-masked dancers here were photographed in 2011 at a public event, the Northwest Native Community Celebration.After the masked dances, there were a few more songs and less formal dances. The evening ended with a light-hearted exchange between the male drummers and singers and a party of female dancers. This took the form of a mock singing contest in which the women would sing a verse while the men pretended to be straining to hear them and made comments to each other like, “Do you hear something? Nope, me neither.” Then the men would sing a verse, sometimes wandering over to the group of women and making a cheeky comment, to which the women would respond either with a similarly cheeky comment or by bopping the miscreant on the head with a plastic water-bottle or whatever else came to hand. It was very funny. Afterwards, we all drifted out into the night.
I feel honoured to have had this opportunity to be a part of such a powerful ceremony. The Quileute are the People of the Wolf and, as such, I think of them as brothers and sisters. On Saturday we made a sun-blessed ceremony with the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Pugetia (aka Bards of Turtle Island) in a Seattle Park. On Sunday I conducted a workshop on the '12 Doorways of the Soul' healing technique that features in the British Druid Order ovate course. This took place at the Seattle healing practice of my friend, Amy, who I'd shared the technique with earlier in the week. It was a very successful session and I've accredited Amy as a practitioner of the technique. She's since used it with clients with great success. Amy, a Reiki practitioner for many years, was kind enough to pass on comments from a regular client who told her that the 12 Doorways technique seemed much more potent than Reiki.
On Monday, we visited a lovely house in a part of the city I'd not been to before. There I introduced BDO-style Druidry to a group of about 20 people. On of them, Gail, has family ties with both the Quileute and Makah tribes. She and her husband, Ted, live on the Makah Reservation. Her nine-year-old grandson was one of the masked dancers I'd drummed for at LaPush. She confirmed that the Quileute recognise my connection with them and said she'd been told to tell me that I have Wolf on one side and the Wolf of the Ocean, the Orca, on the other. She presented me with a woven pouch decorated with beads and shells that she and her husband had made. I placed in it a beautiful crystal-hung calendar necklace Leon made me. Another friend, Willow, made and gave me a coyote-tooth and mammoth ivory necklace at the Gorsedd. I'm wearing it now as I write. That's it in the picture. Not the best photo ever ... I'm rubbish at 'selfies.'
Incidentally, in case anyone's wondering, I am not a Wannabee Indian. I'm an English Druid, have been for forty years and will continue to be so 'til my last breath. I do, however, greatly enjoy sharing ceremonies with folk of other cultures, whether that be joining ceremonies in LaPush or welcoming Lakota or Australian Aboriginal visitors to Druid ceremonies at stone circles in the UK. I am always delighted to find how much we have in common. Through honouring and learning to work with our own ancestors and the spirits of our own land, we open our hearts, minds and spirits to others who do the same in other lands. Spirit workers from many traditions I've communicated with over the years agree that if humanity is to be steered away from its current path of destruction, it will be the spirit workers of the world who bring it about. Shifting consciousness is, after all, a basis of our art and a shift in conscousness is what's required to open humanity to a better path. This won't be easy, but by sharing ceremonies, knowledge and understanding, we strengthen and support each other in the difficult task that faces us.
My friend with cancer has had some good news. Following chemotherapy and good vibes flowing in from around the world (he's very well liked), the tumour has shrunk and medics are discussing whether they need it to shrink further or whether they can operate to remove it without another course of chemo.
This latest trip to the Pacific Northwest was a remarkable one, as each previous one has been. There is undoubtedly a powerful link between my sons and myself and the land and people of this distant region, the two-legged, the four-legged, the feathered and the finned. It's a great mystery how I allowed ten years to pass between visits and I shall strongly endeavour not to let so much time elapse before the next.
With profound thanks, much love and many blessings to all my friends and extended family in the US,
I've been meaning to record this Wolf Chant for years. It came to me after Ellen Evert Hopman brought a Seneca Wolf Chant to one of our Gorsedd circles in Avebury in 1994 or 95. I thought I'd memorised it, but next time I sang it to some other people who were at the Gorsedd, they told me I'd got it wrong. They taught it to me again. This time, I was sure I'd got it right. However, I was told I'd got it wrong again. This happened about four times and then I realised that what had happened was, I'd taken the inspiration of the Seneca chant, filtered it through my own spirit, and come up with an original, native British Wolf Chant. I've been singing it ever since.
One of the most memorable times I sang it was ten years ago in the Drum Circle of the Quileute people on the Olympic Peninsula on the Pacific Northwest coast. When I sang it in the Circle, I had no idea that the Quileute are descended from shape-shifting wolves. I also didn't know that one of the tribal elders had foreseen my coming five days earlier. The chant created quite a stir and my two sons and I were made members of the Drum Circle.
The chant is part of my regular spiritual practice. Working with spirit wolves, it helps to keep me in touch with them. It is a gift to be used by anyone who wants to connect with the spirit of the Wolf. I've also always felt that it is a spirit call for wild wolves to be reintroduced into Britain, something I very much hope to see during my lifetime.
The drum I'm playing is the first one I've ever made. The hoop or frame is of Ash, the skin is the hide of a red deer from Britain's oldest deer park, dating back to the 15th century. It was quite a journey making the drum, from felling the tree, through treating the hide to lacing it onto the frame.
The film consists of footage shot at the Avebury henge the other day by my son, Mike, cut with other footage and some stills I shot in and around Avebury myself a few years ago.
Published by Yale University Press, November 2013, xvi + 480 pages, 103 illustrations.
In 1991, a few months before I first met him, my friend Ronald Hutton published Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, at the time a unique, one-volume survey of its subject that quickly, and rightly, attained classic status, being quoted in almost every subsequent work on British prehistory. This new book is designed to supersede it, reassessing its contents and conclusions, expanding on it and adding a huge amount of new information that has come to light over the last two decades. Here's my review:
First impressions are of an attractive, well-produced book, containing many more illustrations than its predecessor, though still in monochrome. The illustrations are well-chosen, including many of the usual suspects – the 'Sorcerer of Trois Frères,' the 'Venus of Willendorf,' and so on – but going well beyond them. For example, a group headed 'Less familiar Palaeolithic images' includes human figurines that were found alongside the much better known 'Venuses' on which whole theories of prehistoric belief have been built. These images and their accompanying text provide one example of a process Ronald follows throughout the book, returning to original excavation reports and re-examining, often at first-hand, the objects described so as to place them in their proper context. He has visited or re-visited many sites where objects were found, often in company with archaeological specialists. This meticulous research is filtered through the Ronald's broad areas of personal interest, including ancient and modern paganisms and shamanism. These interests, however, are never allowed to overwhelm the evidence.
As well as exploring prehistoric sites and the artefacts found at them, the book examines ways in which attitudes to the past alter in tandem with more recent changes, so the Victorian era of conquest, colonisation and conversion by the British produced the idea that Britain itself was repeatedly conquered, colonised and converted throughout prehistory. The 20th century dismantling of the British Empire and our joining of the European Economic Union then produced a new vision of prehistory that replaced conquest with trade as the primary means by which the British Isles interacted with the rest of Europe. Pagan Britain offers many such insights into both our remote and more immediate ancestors.
One of my own areas of interest is in what archaeologists call burnt mounds, piles of stones that have been subjected to very high temperatures before being either doused with water or immersed in it. Many theories have been put forward to explain them, including Native American style sweat lodges, Swedish style saunas, cooking sites for joints of meat or breweries for prehistoric beer. Thanks to this book, I now know that a major survey of such sites in Ireland, published in 2011, has shown all four explanations are sustainable for some of the sites. For a modern Druid such as myself who has experienced the power of ritualised sweat lodges and is also partial to the occasional pint of ale, this is welcome news indeed!
One section of the book looks at interactions between professional archaeologists and interested non-professionals, including what might loosely be called the 'Earth Mysteries' community. These are often hostile and have been for a very long time. The story of how archaeology stopped being a hobby and became a profession, and how those who adopted it as such subsequently came to exercise such unquestioned access to, and control over, our shared heritage would make a fascinating sociological study in the development of elite dominance. Another admirable feature of Pagan Britain is the extent to which it continually reveals topics such as this and shows them to be worthy of extended treatment. Hopefully a generation of researchers will be inspired to follow up on them. If so, they, like the rest of us, will owe a debt of gratitude to Ronald for the diligence of his research, the breadth of his vision and his ability to bring so much information and so many ideas together.
Ronald writes both for academic colleagues and general readers, achieving this rare double by the simple means of using clear, precise, jargon-free English. If more of his colleagues adopted this habit, they would render their work accessible to a much broader readership. Another aspect of his writing that appeals greatly is his inclusion of illuminating, entertaining, often bizarre incidental details such as the fact that the early 19th century scholar, William Buckland, was often accompanied at academic functions by his pet bear, which he dressed in a student's cap and gown. Such quirky and engaging human touches certainly help bring history to life. The picture here captures Buckland at dinner with friends, human and other.
As with Ronald's previous works on Paganisms, this book will no doubt divide the modern Pagan community, perhaps most strongly in its final chapter, 'The Legacy of British Paganism.' It is here, looking at changing academic and public attitudes towards possible survivals of paganism from ancient times, through the Middle Ages and up to the present day, that the author most maintains his reputation as an iconoclast. Those who dismiss this section as simple iconoclasm, however, can only do so by ignoring qualifying statements as in the following passage: “The former tendency to assume that virtually all traditional British seasonal rites were survivors of paganism was clearly misplaced, but blanket dismissal of pagan ingredients in them would be even more erroneous. Broad themes of seasonal festivity often have more staying power than individual customs, though even some of those can be proved to have survived for millennia.” [My italics].
A word of warning: if you are looking for the sort of certainty found in other books, such as the many claiming to have 'solved the mystery of Stonehenge' once and for all, you should definitely look elsewhere. Ronald is careful not to argue beyond what demonstrable facts allow. Where, as is often the case, the evidence is open to a variety of interpretations, he is equally careful to present a range of alternatives, where possible evaluating which are the most likely, but willing to admit when none are proven or where such proof may not even be possible. Some may find the frequency with which a 'not proven' verdict is returned frustrating, but, as the author makes clear, there are times when our current state of knowledge simply leaves no definitive conclusion possible.
Is Pagan Britain, then, a worthy successor to Pagan Religions...? My answer is a resounding yes. Like its illustrious predecessor, it offers a one-stop shop for all who, like me, have an abiding interest in prehistoric British religion, a desire to keep up with the latest information on the subject, but little access to academic journals, field reports or specialist publications. Ronald draws together the whole gamut of recent research along with the speculations and conclusions stemming from it, bringing it all together for us. And for those who want to look further into areas of particular interest, there are extensive endnotes.
As mentioned earlier, what makes Pagan Britain so compelling is Ronald's unusual breadth of personal interests and depth of knowledge in them, spanning paganisms old and new, shamanism, anthropology and archaeology, as well as British, European and world history. This is enhanced by his almost unrivalled list of contacts with colleagues across this wide range of disciplines, his enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy for detailed and thorough research, and his remarkable ability to marshal and make sense of a huge quantity and range of information and present it clearly. In short, the book is a tour de force and, like Pagan Religions..., is essential reading for anyone with an interest in its subject.
Born in India in 1953, Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, where he also heads the School of Humanities. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Society of Antiquaries, a Commissioner for English Heritage and a member of, among others, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Ancient Druid Order and, of course, the British Druid Order. His other publications include The Druids (Hambledon Continuum, 2007) and Blood & Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (Yale University Press, 2009), both of which are also highly recommended.
If you're not yet convinced, you could check out this review from the Economist by Erica Wagner, who describes Ronald as "a lovely writer with a keen sense of the spiritual potency of Britain’s ancient landscapes."
Or, for a less sympathetic review, try this one from the Guardian by Graham Robb, who takes Ronald to task for only devoting six pages to the Druids, despite Ronald making it clear in the book that the reason he is not giving more space to them is that he's recently written the two full books on them referred to above. He also complains about Ronald not including evidence for paganism in France, despite the book being called Pagan Britain and Ronald's stated intention in it to maintain a focus within the confines of the British Isles. Robb may have a vested interest, however, in that his most recent publication is a book claiming to have rediscovered a lost 'map' of Pagan Celtic Europe.
On Sunday, September 22nd, 2013, about a hundred people gathered inside the vast bank and ditch earthworks of the Avebury henge in Wiltshire, with its huge sarsen stone circles erected by our ancestors in ages past. We were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. To mark the event, I'm posting a pdf file scanned from the first issue of the Caer Abiri Newsletter, published in the wake of the first ceremony way back in 1993. Among other things, it tells how the Gorsedd came to be, and here's a little more background on how it all began.
During the summer of 1993, Tim Sebastion (below), founder of the Secular Order of Druids (SOD), was putting plans together for a multi-faith conference at Avebury. I'd met Tim two years earlier when my British Druid Order joined the Council of British Druid Orders. We resigned from the Council in 1996, along with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and the Ancient Order of Druids, but that's another story. The first Council meeting I attended was at Tim's thatched cottage at Mells in Somerset. In typical Tim fashion, as well as hosting this meeting, he had organised an Irish folk festival over the same weekend, centred around the village pub. So, when my wife and I arrived and got no reply at the cottage, we had a pretty good idea where to look. Sure enough, we found Tim basking in the sunshine of the pub garden, joyfully surrounded by Irish musicians who were regaling him with a spirited rendition of the Irish Rover. It was an auspicious first meeting.
Tim and I struck up a rapport as a result of which, when organising the Avebury event, he asked me to create a ceremony for it. The brief was to make a fundamentally Druidic ceremony, but one that would feel inclusive to the many and varied folk attending the conference, including Reichian therapists, Earth Mysteries folk, Christian ministers, astronomers from the Royal Observatory and various flavours of Pagans. The resulting ceremony is included in the Newsletter.
Included in it was a handfasting, a Druid wedding, largely for the benefit of myself and my late wife, Ellie, though other couples took advantage of the occasion to be handfasted too, as hundreds more have been since. The handfastings were conducted at the Ring Stone (see the newsletter for the reasons why) by Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and Shan Jayran, founder of the House of the Goddess. Ronald Hutton took the two photos included in monochrome in the newsletter and reproduced here in colour.
As you'll see from the list of names at the back of the newsletter, those attending included several who were already Pagan celebrities and others who would become so. Among the former were the aforementioned Philip Carr-Gomm, Shan Jayran, and Ronald Hutton, whose Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, published two years earlier, was already recognised as a definitive work. Also with us was John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis, the book credited with having kick-started the whole Earth Mysteries movement. Among the latter were Graham Harvey, now one of our most respected Pagan academics, Jacki Paterson, whose highly regarded book, Tree Wisdom, was published three years later, and a young OBOD member named Emma Restall Orr, who went on to become joint chief of the British Druid Order from 1995 to 2002 and is now probably the most famous female Druid in the world.
Celebrities notwithstanding, the reason we were assembling among the stones 20 years on was, as the title of this piece suggests, an accident, if indeed there are such things in Druidry.
The Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri is a name I invented for use during a short bardic initiation that formed part of the original ceremony. The reason for including an initiation is simple. Two members of the British Druid Order, Gary and Debbie Turner, asked for bardic initiations while I was composing the rite and I thought that Avebury would be a beautiful and appropriate place for them to take place. As explained in the newsletter, when the moment for Gary and Debbie's initiation came and I asked those who wished to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd of Caer Abiri to step forward, I was expecting only Gary and Debbie to do so. They were, after all, the only ones primed in advance to expect this request. Thhe spirits of the place, however, determined otherwise. Gary and Debbie hesitated and the momentary pause was enough for others in the circle to make up their minds to respond to the invitation.
And so it was that more than half those in the circle stepped forward to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd. Philip Carr-Gomm, standing next to me at the time, leaned over and whispered, “Erm, what do we do now?” and I replied something to the effect of, “Well, er, we carry on I suppose.” Thus were the first thirty-or-so bards of Caer Abiri initiated. During the initiations, I did something ritualists really should not do. I stepped out of the circle with a camera and snapped a couple of shots. I know I shouldn't have, but something prompted me to capture the moment. I'm glad I did, as I believe the pictures I took, reproduced here, are the only photographic record of that part of the ceremony.
The initiation included one of my favourite pieces of ritual of any I've composed and performed either before or since. As shown in the photo, the inner circle of bards turn to face outwards and link hands, those in the outer circle also link hands, and all of them chant the awen, the spirit of inspiration and creativity, directing its flow in to those in the centre. Immediately after this, the following blessing is spoken for the new bards:
Wisdom of serpent be thine,
Wisdom of raven be thine,
Wisdom of the valiant eagle.
Voice of swan be thine,
Voice of honey be thine,
Voice of the son of stars.
Bounty of sea be thine,
Bounty of land be thine,
Bounty of the boundless heavens.
These are beautiful words to hear spoken in ceremony, and I can't claim credit for them. They are from a collection of Scottish folklore called Carmina Gadelica, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael. They were spoken again during the 20th anniversary rite (below) and I took my place amongst the bards at the centre to receive the awen. It knocked my socks off.
That the initiation in 1993 had the desired effect was proven a couple of weeks later when I got a letter from Gordon Strachan, the Church of Scotland minister who had addressed the conference. It was written on a hillside in the Lake District and Gordon told me he was writing poetry again for the first time since he'd left university forty years earlier. He soon began work on his book, Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries & the Dawn of Christianty (Floris Books, 2000), in which he puts forward the theory that Jesus came into friendly contact with Druids during childhood visits to Britain.
It was clear that something very magical happened in that circle twenty years ago, something that came about because the nature of the rite as it had come together resonated powerfully with the spirits of the place and with our ancestors who had constructed Avebury for similar purposes, gathering families together from all over the country to celebrate rites of passage and have those rites witnessed by their community. It was this sense of having connected with the spirits of the place that prompted me to go around with a notebook, collecting contact details from those present with a view to putting together the newsletter.
Subsequent events only increased the sense that we had made a potent connection with the spirits of Caer Abiri. Within two years, our celebrations were being held at each of the eight festivals of modern Paganism and attracting hundreds of people. Ronald Hutton went so far as to describe them as the central event of the New Druidry (Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Hambledon & London, 2003, pages 255-256). The second anniversary Gorsedd remains the largest on record, estimates of numbers attending ranging from 500 to over 1,000. This produced another inspirited moment when those in the circle were asked to link hands and swear the Oath of Peace. The circle began to expand, not stopping until it had spread to the fence line on one side of the field containing the South Circle and to the inner ditch on the other side. I remember having to shout so that those on the far side of the circle would know when to begin.
Around this time I came up with a motto for the Gorsedd: “In the spirit of freedom, and for freedom of the spirit.”
There were many reasons why the Gorsedd proved so successful. We offered many within the Pagan community their first opportunity to celebrate our seasonal festivals in public. Another factor is the multi-faith nature of the ceremonies, strengthened further in subsequent revisions of the ritual text. Followers of any and all traditions felt able to stand together as one and speak from the heart of their own faith within a circle of many faiths. Celebrations attracted not only Druids but Wiccans, Heathens, Buddhists, Bah'ai, Christians, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals and followers of Japanese Shinto among others. Avebury is also, of course, a place of great beauty and inherent power as well as being reasonably accessible from most parts of the UK, and, because it has a village within it, it is freely open to the public. Its appeal is not confined to the UK though. Some of those attending in the 90s flew in from places as far away as Australia, Japan and the USA specially to attend our celebrations.
It was always my hope that others would be inspired by the Avebury Gorsedd to set up others elsewhere and this has happened. Similar gatherings now take place at each of the festivals at the Long Man of Wilmington, the Stanton Drew circles south of Bristol and elsewhere, both in Britain and overseas.
Of course, there are always some who, usually through some deep, personal pain of their own, greet any outpouring of magic, joy and wonder in others with bitterness and resentment. Why this should be, I don't know, but life seems to need to maintain an equilibrium, balancing the helpful and the hurtful, following bliss with dull despair. In the case of Avebury, a few individuals seemed to feel they had some sort of territorial claim over the place. Even as the ceremonies grew bigger and more joyous for most of us, these few voiced objections to everything about them, including where, how, when and why they were held, who was conducting them and who was attending. They spread their bitterness to others whose own resentments left them open to receive it. Ceremonies began to be disrupted by drunks shouting at, and occasionally physically attacking, those taking part. Following on from the increasingly disrupted ceremonies, these same folk would get into drunken fights in the Red Lion pub in the village, often resulting in the police being called. One Lakota visitor from the Pine Ridge Reservation had flown over to be with us following a vision. He was singing a spirit song for us in the circle when the drunks began yelling abuse at him. He commented afterwards, "You get folks like that in all traditions. We get 'em at home too."
Things came to a head when, during one ceremony, I found myself expending most of my energy keeping a lid on a small group of angry, noisy drunks rather than focusing on the rite itself. As that realisation hit me, I had a vision of a black whirlpool opening up in the centre of the circle and spreading towards its edges, threatening to suck us all down into its gaping maw. This stark warning led us to move our celebrations to other locations, founding new Gorseddau as we did so. These included the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge and others at Dragon Hill in Oxfordshire, the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, various other locations in Britain and as far afield as Seattle in the USA.
After a year, however, we returned to our spiritual home in Avebury and rites have been regularly celebrated there ever since. For the last nine years, they have been coordinated by Morgan Adams, who also runs a Grove and offers regular celebrations in her home town of Glastonbury.
The unpleasantness of the mid-1990s led to the formation of a second Gorsedd in Avebury, calling itself the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. This now meets on the nearest Saturday to each of the eight festivals, while the original Gorsedd continues to meet on the nearest Sunday. Incidentally, it amused me to hear that on the day before our 20th anniversary celebration, the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd had met and claimed to be celebrating their 21st anniversary, despite having been founded in 1996. Hey ho...
The anger that divided the Gorsedd left me with a certain ambivalence about my role in creating it. It put Avebury on the Pagan map as a ceremonial location, but attracted in the process those whose relationship with the spirits of the place included setting fire to parts of it, scrawling graffiti over others, getting drunk, fighting amongst themselves and behaving aggressively towards those trying to meet there in peace to celebrate their spirituality. For me, the greatest sadness has always been that the loud, angry, disruptive minority drove hundreds of genuinely spiritual people to abandon the Gorsedd and even, in some cases, to turn their backs on any engagement with Druidry and Paganism. This is doubly tragic given the ecumenical spirit that flourished so strongly in the early years.
The split in the Gorsedd also drove a wedge between Tim Sebastion and I. I never knew until after his death how devastated Tim had been by the split. I learned then, too late, that he had spent whole days wandering the paths around Avebury alone and in tears.
The role of Guardian of the Stones was taken in the first Gorsedd ceremony by my wife, Ellie, then pregnant with our second son, Michael. Ellie subsequently died from leukaemia, and each time I see another woman in the role it brings back memories, some joyous, others painful.
On the plus side, the Gorsedd helped broaden public understanding and acceptance of Druidry and other Pagan traditions as the early celebrations attracted a good deal of attention from the media, both nationally and internationally. This led to a spate of favourable newspaper and magazine articles and TV programmes featuring Druids and Druidry. I've posted one short video of the Gorsedd circa 1994, filmed by a TV news crew, on youtube, accompanied by music and poetry. In its early days, the Gorsedd also helped to promote peaceful, helpful connections between the Druid and Pagan communities and bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage, official custodians of Avebury, Stonehenge, and other ancient sites. However, this further angered those who were already angry and who viewed NT and EH with implacable hostility due to their perceived role in restricting access to Stonehenge during the 1980s.
As well as inspiring the creation of other open, public celebrations of Pagan faiths, in the twenty years since its creation, the Avebury Gorsedd itself has initiated some 3-4,000 people, maybe more, as bards. Many have found huge inspiration as a result. To quote just a few examples, a leather-clad biker who came to an early Gorsedd rite returned a few months later having learned to play the harp beautifully; an office worker who attended quit his job and now runs the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle; a couple who came to several early rites now run a 12-acre spiritual and woodland crafts centre in Hampshire. Others have had their lives changed in other ways. Following one rite I heard from three people whose partners had recently died, each saying that as a direct result of our ceremony, the atmosphere surrounding them had cleared, their sorrow had lifted, and they now felt able to move on in their lives. When people's lives are transformed in such ways, it's hard to argue that the ceremonies that bring about such changes are anything but good.
The Gorseddau founded in the 1990s, both in Avebury and elsewhere, have long since passed out of my hands as I always hoped they would. Others have taken up the challenge and are making them work, and all good blessings to each and every one of them for doing so. If the 20th anniversary gathering at Avebury was anything to go by, they are in good hands for the next twenty years.
Incidentally, three of those who were at the very first Gorsedd were in attendance again for the anniversary: these were Ronald Hutton, a humble Doctor at the time of the first rite, now a full Professor and one of the country's leading historians, myself, and my son, Joe, who was one year old in 1993 and whose baby blessing during the first ceremony paved the way for hundreds of others over the last twenty years.
The 20th anniversary celebration was a joyous, magical event, featuring one of the most potent bardic initiations I've ever taken part in, a beautiful moment when we chanted the awen to direct spiritual energy into a beribboned wreath to be used in ceremonies for the protection of our land and her creatures (below), and one of the best eisteddfod sessions ever, during which we were treated to some wonderful poetry, fiery drumming and utterly superb bagpiping.
As my own contribution, I sang the same Robin Williamson song I had sung at the end of the very first rite back in 1993, the appropriately titled The Circle Is Unbroken:
Seasons they change, as cold blood is raining,
I have been waiting beyond the years.
Now over the skline I see you travelling,
Brothers from all times gathering here.
Come let us build the ship of the future
In an ancient pattern that journeys far.
Come let us set sail for the always islands,
through seas of leaving to the summer stars.
Seasons they change, but with gaze unchanging.
O, deep-eyed sisters, is it you I see?
Seeds of beauty you bear within you
Of unborn children, glad and free.
Within your fingers the fates are spinning
The sacred binding of the yellow grain.
Scattered we were when the long night was breaking,
But in bright morning, converse again.
So may it ever be.
And here's a date for your diary: the 30th anniversary will be on Sunday, September 24th, 2023. See you there...
Cae Mabon is a spiritual retreat centre in North Wales. It nestles on a mountainside, a stream cascading through it from which it gets its water supply. The structures at Cae Mabon are eco-homes in an interesting range of styles, from a Hobbit hole to a reconstructed roundhouse, of which more later. It's a beautiful setting, with a large lake at the bottom of the slope and views across to Mount Snowdon.
We arrived on Friday, April 12th, following a drive through some of the most beautiful scenery in Wales, most memorably the spectacular Llanberis Pass. The 'we' in question were myself, Elaine and my sons, Joe and Mike. Joe is a fine ritualist while Mike, having studied video production, had accepted the task of recording as many of the World Drum events as possible in HD video. Elaine was our driver and chief events coordinator. Also joining us from previous events would be my good friend and BDO stalwart, Steve Rumelhart, musician, Jake Thomas, and Lorraine Munn, organiser of our ceremony at Ironbridge.
The last part of the drive was quite interesting as Elaine negotiated a well-laden Subaru down a very narrow, very winding tarmac track, to one side of which was a precipitous drop down tree-covered slopes towards the lake far below. For one not used to mountain driving, it was … erm … educational. However, we reached the car park safely, as did the rest of our merry band. We unloaded our gear, including, of course, The World Drum, and began the steep trek down to Cae Mabon itself. Slippery from recent rain, one had to watch one's footing, but we made it without mishap and were guided to our accommodation. The brilliant Gillian Kavanagh, organiser of this event, was there to greet us. My sons, Joe and Mike, were to sleep in the roundhouse. Elaine, myself and three other women were to sleep in the Longhouse, which turned out to be basically an extended garden shed but with better insulation, beds and a desk.
Friday evening was spent greeting new arrivals as they came, exploring the site and buildings, discovering the kitchen and socialising. The new arrivals included the BDO's web wonder and all-round genius, Adam Sargant (that's him, far right), accompanied by a new BDO friend generally known as Farmer Jeff, because his name's Jeff, and he's a farmer (that's him, near right - and yes, that's me in the middle). The excellent bard, Barry Patterson, arrived with his partner, Anne, and a range of instruments including several flutes, bagpipes and a drum. Welsh bard, Gwyn Edwards, joined us too, a delightful man and a fount of lore, legend and laughter.
Eric Maddern, the originator of Cae Mabon and its guiding light, treated us to a talk about the place and its history. This took place in the comfortable dining hall, created from the ruins of a former agricultural building. Here an altar was established, decorated with stones and flowers from the area, on which The World Drum was to be placed when not is use. I have to admit, after the experience of soaking the Drum overnight just before setting out for Cae Mabon, I had become more than a little protective of it. It was still very cold and we were instructed to use heating sparingly, which was fine for us but gave me some concerns for the Drum. Hence I put it back in its case and removed it to the Longhouse for the night, reasoning that five sleeping in a small space would generate enough warmth to keep the Drum's skin from losing tension again. This proved correct. However, there was another problem.
I sleep very little anyway and, given the excitement of all the ceremonies and events and the strange surroundings, I found it impossible to sleep at all. Instead, I lay listening to the uncoordinated choir of the differently pitched snores of my companions. Finally, at about 5.30am, I gave up and got up, sneaking out as quietly as possible in the half-light. It was Saturday morning, just about, and we were to travel to Anglesey after lunch for a ceremony at 2pm.
Joining us for lunch and the afternoon ceremony was Caryl Dailey (left), an OBOD Druid and tutor whom I had not previously met. Caryl duly arrived with her friend, Tracy, both beautifully robed and smiling. Caryl turned out to be a bit of a star. She has Sami blood in her ancestry and treated us to a display of joiking, a type of throat-singing practiced by the Sami of Norway that produces some very strange sounds. While Caryl sang in the roundhouse, I was sitting by the central fire with the World Drum held next to me. Whenever she slipped into joiking, the Drum responded, picking up the sound and singing along with her. When she sang with her normal voice at the same or greater volume, nothing. Only when joiking. The Sami are reindeer-herders. The Drum's skin is reindeer. Interesting.
After lunch (the food at Cae Mabon was wonderful), we wended our way back up to the car park and decamped for Anglesey. The significance of Anglesey for Druids is that it was long supposed to have been the site of the Druids' last stand against the Roman legions in 55 CE. The Roman historian, Tacitus, gives a wonderfully vivid description of the event, with the legions formed up on one side of the Menai Strait and the Anglesey side lined with Druids perched on every high point and hurling imprecations into the wind while women clothed in black tatters ran amongst them waving flaming torches and screaming. Eventually, the legions overcome their fears, storm across the Strait, murder everyone on the island and burn down the Druidic shrines they find there. Thus ended Druidry in Britain.
Except, of course, it didn't end. For one thing, Anglesey had then, as it still has now, excellent sea-borne links with Ireland. It would be absurd had not at least some of the Anglesey Druids jumped into boats and high-tailed it across the Irish Sea, or in the other direction to Scotland, depending on the prevailing winds. For another thing, it would have been equally absurd for every Druid in the whole of the British Isles to present themselves conveniently in the same place on the same day so that they could all be conveniently massacred. Add to that the fact that there were a number of British tribes who welcomed the Romans' arrival and it seems very unlikely that the Romans would have repaid their welcome by murdering their Druids.
Our chosen site for the ceremony on Anglesey was the megalithic chambered tomb-shrine of Bryn Celli Ddu, the 'Mound of the Dark Grove,' pronounced something like Brun Kethly Thee. I was happy with the choice, having last visited the Mound almost thirty years ago. It is an unusual site in many ways. Passage graves of this type are generally earlier in date than stone circles. In this case, however, the passage grave, dated circa 2000 BCE, was constructed inside a pre-existing henge and stone circle constructed around a thousand years earlier. It is also unusual amongst British tomb-shrines in having carved decorations on some of its stones, such decorated stones being mainly found in Irish tomb-shrines where they are relatively common. Bryn Celli Ddu's 27-foot long passage is aligned on the sun at Midsummer. Another extremely unusual feature is the free-standing stone pillar that stands inside the central chamber. There has been speculation that this stone is actually part of a petrified tree, or it may have been chosen for this special placing because of its resemblance to a petrified tree. That's Barry playing his pipes next to that very stone pillar.
We crossed the Britannia Bridge onto Anglesey and turned left towards our destination. Parking nearby, we walked along field edges until we reached the site. With its surrounding bank and ditch, it is an impressive site. The obvious place to old the ceremony was the flat area between the henge ditch and the Mound. I took the World Drum in its case and laid it at the approximate centre of what was to be our circle. While waiting for the rest of our party to arrive, I stood looking around at the place, my mind idling. My eyes were drawn back to the grassy area where the ceremony would be held and I saw beneath the grass the pattern of a huge serpent. Now snakes are very important in Druidry, which has its own equivalent of the Kundalini serpent of Hindu yoga and also sees earth energies as serpents or dragons, so this vision seemed to bode well.
When about 50 people had arrived, I joined Caryl, Elaine and others to talk about what we were going to do in the ceremony. I had wondered if Caryl might have some firm plan for the rite. I needn't have worried. As with the other World Drum rites, she was happy to start off and see where spirit took us. Our 'plan,' such as it was, included a short introduction to the World Drum, a reading of Morten Wolf Storeide's 'Speech for Mother Earth,' and then for Lorraine, as she had before, to carry the Drum around the circle for everyone to play. Caryl would open the circle and Elaine might recite the ancient Greek 'Hymn to Gaia,' a beautiful piece of liturgy. Our Welsh bard, Gwyn, would speak a piece of Druid liturgy in its original language and in English. And that's pretty much what happened.
The end of the rite, however, took me by surprise. Caryl gathered everyone together for a hokey-cokey, which was followed by a serpent-dance, beginning just where I'd seen my serpent vision in the grass, snaking away around the Mound and returning to its starting point. Serpent energy. Yes! And the drummers, as drummers will, played on throughout.
It was a good, energised and energising rite, lighting up the place literally and metaphorically as the sun broke through and smiles broke out.
Another surprise was looking to the top of the Mound and seeing there my old friend, Andy Letcher, and his wife, Nomi. This was slightly surreal, since I had last seen them a couple of weeks earlier when they had unexpectedly appeared at our ceremony at Avebury. At Bryn Celli Ddu, they had at least known that a ceremony was due to take place on Anglesey, though they had not known the venue and had made an educated guess. We arranged to meet up again, making sure we wouldn't miss each other by not telling each other where we'd be.
After the ceremony, many of us went into the chamber inside the mound, taking the World Drum and other drums, while Barry took his pipes. I caught the end of the session in the Mound, and it was good.
That evening, we had an eisteddfod session in the roundhouse. It was good. We enjoyed a mix of music, stories, jokes and songs.
Having slept hardly at all the night before, I decided to try spending the night in the roundhouse with my sons. Not having bedding or a sleeping bag with me, I figured I'd be OK in my thick woolly Druid robe with my wolfskin cloak over me. Of course, what I hadn't allowed for was that this was the night North Wales would be hit by storm force winds of up to 75 mph and torrential rain.
The doorway of the Cae Mabon roundhouse has a heavy woollen blanket hung across it. As the winds rose, this heavy blanket was, at times, stretched out parallel to the ground. Meanwhile, the flames of the central fire, which I was keeping fed to try and maintain a reasonable temperature, were being swung wildly around, sending sparks flying towards the straw-bales placed near the fire as seating. The Cae Mabon roundhouse has a stone wall. The roof poles are rested on top of that wall, the thatch applied on top of the poles. However, the gap between the top of the wall and the thatch has not been filled, therefore the furious winds were blowing into the roundhouse from all sides. Candle lanterns, fortunately not lit, were blown over. Luckily, the sofas and armchair on which Joe, Mike and I were trying to sleep were below the level of the top of the wall and, therefore, sheltered from the worst of the wind. On the other hand, we were not protected from the sound of the wind which roared around us all night with a noise like an express train passing a few feet away. I had not heard winds like it since the night of the famous hurricane of 1987. Needless to say, I did not sleep.
On Sunday morning there were more opportunities to talk. Barry and I, as bards will, fell into comparing our various flutes and talking music. There was a final lunch, followed by a farewell ceremony with the Drum, and then it was back up the path for the long drive back to Wildways, passing once more across the beautiful Llanberis Pass.
Before we left, Cae Mabon held one last bit of magic for me. As mentioned, Mount Snowdon is visible from Cae Mabon. Mount Snowdon is the home of the four storm-bringing eagles who are depicted on my drum. Just before we left, I stepped off on my own and found a suitable perch from which to view the mountain. I wanted to re-connect with my eagle companions. It had been a while. Facing the mountain across the lake, I raised my arms from my sides and spread them as wings. Without even thinking about it, I found my spirit soaring across the waters of the lake in eagle form and heading for the clouds that wreathed the mountain-top. There I found my eagle companions and greeted them. I took a moment to enjoy wheeling around the mountain with them, then broke away to return to Cae Mabon and my body. I knew that my companions would be anxious to be underway. It was a beautiful, magical moment and I give thanks to the spirits.
Barry has written a beautiful poem/song about our time at Cae Mabon and Anglesey, which is available online as a rather lovely sound file on which Barry plays the World Drum and his lilting bagpipes while the sound of the Cae Mabon stream rushes along and he speaks/sings his words. The text is on the same page, and you can find both at http://www.redsandstonehill.net/2013/04/world-drum-at-cae-mabon.html
As ever, the photos here are by Elaine Gregory, aka Elaine Wildways.
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 ...