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

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

11

CeridwenWe often get the impression that paganism in Britain was completely eradicated by the arrival of Christianity and its adoption by our ruling elites. We also tend to think of pagan revivals as not occurring prior to the 20th century, or perhaps the Victorian magical schools of the late 19th. However, the more I've looked at the medieval literature of Britain and Ireland over the years, the more I've come to see that the bards of our islands have concerned themselves not only with the preservation of our myths, legends and histories, but with a brand of mysticism that amounts to a pagan revival. In Wales, for example, the literature surrounding the Cauldron of Ceridwen and its magical brew of Inspiration (Awen), and the subsequent tales and poems associated with Taliesin, the Primary Chief Bard of Britain, all point to a mystical, spiritual understanding that has at its core the witch-like figure of Ceridwen herself, Patroness of Bards, magician and initiatrix.

In Ireland, the Bards (filidh) wove mysterious legends of Druids, describing their rites of healing. They also created complex systems of cyphers and hidden languages based around the Ogham alphabet, itself described as being used for magic and divination.

Nor was England left out of this medieval pagan revMastering Herbalism by Paul Husonival if the following Prayer to Mother Earth is anything to go by. I first came across it in the 1970s in a book called Mastering Herbalism by Paul Huson. It comes from a 12th century English herbal and is very clearly pagan:

“Earth, divine goddess, Mother Nature who generates all things and brings forth anew the sun which you have given to the nations; Guardian of sky and sea and of all gods and powers and through your power all nature falls silent and then sinks in sleep. And again you bring back the light and chase away night and yet again you cover us most securely with your shades. You contain chaos Blodeuweddinfinite, yes and winds and showers and storms; you send them out when you will and cause the seas to roar; you chase away the sun and arouse the storm. Again when you will you send forth the joyous day and give the nourishment of life with your eternal surety; and when the soul departs to you we return. You indeed are duly called great Mother of the gods; you conquer by your divine name. You are the source of the strength of nations and of gods, without you nothing can be brought to perfection or be born; you art the great queen of the gods. Goddess! I adore you as divine; I call upon your name; be pleased to grant that which I ask you, so shall I give thanks to you, goddess, with one faith.

“Hear, I beseech you, and be favourable to my prayer. Whatsoever herb your power produces, give, I pray, with goodwill to all nations to save them and grant me this my medicine. Come to me with your powers, and howsoever I may use them may they have good success and to whomsoever I may give them. Whatever you grant, it may prosper. To you all things return. Those who rightly receive these herbs from me, do you make them whole. Goddess, I beseech you; I pray you as a suppliant that by your majesty you grant this to me.

“Now I make intercession to you all you powers and herbs and to your majesty, you whom Earth, parent of all, has produced and given as a medicine of health to all nations and has put majesty upon you, be, I pray you, the greatest help to the human race. This I pray and beseech from you, and be present here with your virtues, for she who created you has herself promised that I may gather you into the goodwill of him on whom the art of medicine was bestowed, and grant for health's sake good medicine by grace of your powers. I pray grant me through your virtues that whatsoever is wrought by me through you may in all its powers have a good and speedy effect and good success and that I may always be permitted with the favour of your majesty to gather you into my hands and to glean your fruits. So shall I give thanks to you in the name of that majesty which ordained your birth.”

Translated in 'Early English Magic and Medicine' by Dr. Charles Singer, Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. IV. The 'thees' and 'thous' of Singer's translation have been replaced with modern English. It's also quoted in The Old English Herbals, by Eleanor Sinclair Rohde, which should open as a pdf file if you click on this title: Old_English_Herbals. Well worth a look as it's got quotes from lots of other early Anglo-Saxon and English herbals, including assorted spells and charms...

It seems we are following in the footsteps of many generations of pagan revivalists. Or perhaps paganism never fully gave way to Christianity but always hung on like silver-dewed cobwebs in our hedgerows, sparkling briefly at twilight times then all but disappearing in the full light of the day.

I trust the unnamed writer's prayer was answered, and that she or he found the healing virtues so eloquently requested from our great Mother Earth.

Many blessings,

Greywolf /|\

 UPDATE, January 27th, 2014:

As so often, this particular historical mystery has been solved by my old friend, Professor Ronald Hutton. On page 384 of his book, Pagan Britain (Yale University Press, 2013), Ronald identifies this poem as a product of the late Roman Empire, reproduced in various continental manuscripts from the 6th century onwards, though only the aforementioned 12th (or possibly 11th) century herbal in England, always under its Latin title, Praecatio Terrae Matris, 'Prayer to Mother Earth.' It is translated in J. Grattan and Charles Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine (Oxford University Press, 1952).

My suggestion that it may represent part of a 12th (or 11th) century pagan revival still stands. My theory is that this took place, particularly in the Welsh courts and bardic colleges, but also in other parts of Britain, as a direct result of the Norman invasion of 1066. This violent influx of foreign culture led native Britons to look to their past, including their pagan past, for comfort, inspiration and a strengthened sense of identity. The fact that the pagan past was, by then, barely remembered (if at all) led them to look beyond Britain to fill the void, hence this Latin poem in a Saxon manuscript and the features from Irish mythology that appear in the Welsh Mabinogi, a collection of legends also compiled in the 12th century.

186: Imbolc - Spring Equinox 2013The Beltaine issue of Pagan Dawn will be out soon and will feature an article I was asked to write; a short overview of modern Druidry. This was not easy to write as there are just so many different Druidries around these days. There are at least a couple of dozen Druid groups in the UK, a similar number in America, several in Australia, others in France and elsewhere. Between them they represent a very wide spectrum of practice and belief, from the strictly cultural, Christian Druids of the Welsh Gorsedd to American Celtic Reconstructionists via Masonic-style friendly societies and even an insurance company. I did my best to be as inclusive as possible in the given space, but am aware that I was only really able to scratch the surface. In order to make some kind of sense, I focussed mainly on the groups who represent what Ronald Hutton has called the New Druidry, i.e. those that have come into being since the formation of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids in 1964. The article is illustrated with photos from Elaine Wildways. The graphic shows the current Winter issue.My good friend and long-time BDO stalwart, Steve Rumelhart, has an article coming out in the next issue of Pentacle, also due out next month, so watch out for that too. Again, the graphic here is from the Winter issue.
Meanwhile, my latest piece for the BDO ovate course has been a rumination on the role of group ritual and how to inject meaning into it. This was brought about by re-watching a video called Shamans of the Blind Country, a brilliant 1981 documentary on shamanism amongst the Magar people of central Nepal. Their rituals often involve the whole village, much dressing up, a fair bit of ribaldry and silliness and quite a lot of laughter. This contrasted strongly with what I remembered of Christian church services in my youth which were invariably deadly serious and deadly dull. Some Druid rites I've attended have unfortunately been more C of E than Magar. Pagan festivals to Dionysus were definitely more along the Magar lines, beginning with processions of youths William S. Burroughsbearing long poles with bronze or wooden penises attached to the ends towing a cart with a very big penis in it. It's hard to be solemn when you're decked in greenery and waving a big willy in the air. Sometimes we forget that spirituality can be fun. In fact, I believe it should be fun. Incidentally, a curious aspect of the Shamans of the Blind Country is that it is narrated by William S. Burroughs, author of Junkie, The Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine.
My current writing task is another magazine article, this time for Dreampunk, a magazine put together by long-time BDO friend, Allegra Hawksmoor. Dreampunk brings together the worlds of Steampunk, alternative spirituality and ecology. To quote from the homepage, Dreampunk aims "To build a world of equality, liberty and community that reaches for wonder, invention, and a more balanced relationship with ourselves, one another, and with the wild world around us." My article is about consciousness-changing in contemporary Druidry, and I should get back to writing it. It'll appear later in the year.
Peace and love,
Greywolf /|\