Hallowe’en, Nos Galan Gaeaf, Samhain, 2020 For thousands of years, indigenous peoples across much of the globe, including our European ancestors, conducted ceremonies during the winter designed to stave off the increasing waves of illness that spread across the land during the coldest months of the year. Wolf spirits were and are prominent in these ceremonies, from the Central Asian Steppes 4,000 years ago to the modern-day Pacific Northwest. Winter Wolf ceremonies were held in ancient Greece and Rome, where they were called Lupercalia. In Ireland, the young men known as Fianna were Wolf warriors. The Wolf clans who were central to these healing ceremonies usually consisted of similar youthful warbands who lived apart from the rest of society, charged with protecting their kinfolk from external threats. Whilst training as warriors, they also learned the legends of their tribes, traditional songs and poetry. They were warrior bards. Each winter, they would create a ceremony during which they and the rest of the community would renew their bonds with their power animals through ceremonies that incorporated chanting, dancing and feasting. Each person present would have the opportunity to dance and sing their spirit animal, thus renewing the bond between them that would keep both healthy and strong through the winter months. In the British Druid Order, we are reviving this practice with what we have dubbed a Winter Wolf Healing Ceremony. This year, we were to have held one in and around our roundhouse in Shropshire. Sadly, at the very time when we have so much need of such a ceremony, the increasing number of Covid-19 infections in the UK have prevented us from holding it. We will not, however, let the impossibility of a physical gathering prevent us from going ahead. Here, then, are the bare bones of part of the ceremony, with accompanying sound files and videos where available. We begin with a prayer to the old gods of the British Isles, from the creation of the world by Math and Don, how their children, Gwydion and Arianrhod, were given sovereignty over the forests and the stars, how Blodeuwedd became patroness of healing, and much more besides, all with a join-in chorus of, “we give thanks to the great gods.” Includes lyre accompaniment and birdsong. Apologies for the popping on the vocals, recorded in a rush...
This second prayer, ‘For Long Life and a Good Old Age,’ is possibly 8th century, from the 14th century Irish ‘Book of Ballymote’ and found in the British Druid Order's ovate course. Given that risk from Covid-19 increases markedly amongst the elderly, this seemed particularly appropriate.
… and here’s the video version that includes the lyrics:
Next is a general ‘Chant for Healing and Protection,’ again derived from an early medieval Irish source. Our ancestors characterised disease as a dark Serpent bent on destruction, hence the singalong chorus of “beat the Serpent from its lair.” Please grab a drum or clap your hands and join in.
… and here’s the video version that includes the lyrics:
Now for the first of the animal chants, the Wolf Chant. This was given to me among the old stones of Avebury in Wiltshire and is an authentic native British Wolf Chant since I am authentically British, having been born here and lived here all my life, as have the families of both my parents for at least a thousand years. The gift of this chant came to me not long after I experienced a powerful vision of a Wolf during a ceremony in 1994. Again, please sing along and dance should the mood take you, even if your personal spirit animal is other than Wolf. Wolf is a sociable animal…
Now we’ll alternate between other animals and Wolf, starting with the oldest of these chants, originating in an inscription to the Horse goddess, Epona, from 1st century Gaul. It consists of various names for the Horse goddess. Again, feel free to join in vocally, instrumentally and physically.
‘Blessed Be, Earth’s Son’ is a second Wolf chant, this time using other names by which Wolf people are known. This reflects the ancient habit of not using the actual name of the primary totem animal during ceremonies but substituting descriptive titles instead. Again, sing, dance, live!
The next chant is for the Deer people, specifically the Fallow Deer. As before, feel free to sing, drum, dance, clap and generally join in.
I’m afraid for any other animals, you’re going to have to add you own chants and dances. There are more in the BDO Druid course, but I don’t have time to record them now. So, since it’s always best to end on a howl, here’s the native British Wolf chant again. Enjoy!
And so we conclude our ceremony by feasting and quaffing mead or ale, sharing some with our ancestors, thanking again both them and our gods.
Music has been one of the great loves of my life since early childhood. Another passion is history and archaeology, especially as applied to the early British Isles. Sometimes the two combine, as when I discovered a type of lyre called achrotta had been played across much of Europe for about a thousand years, from around the 9th century BCE through to the early Middle Ages. A few years ago, I finally got my hands on a reconstruction of one, made by Koth na Fiach of Dark Age Crafts, and could hear what it sounded like and begin to work out how it might have been played. It is one thing to read about these instruments, quite another to actually handle one, play it and hear the sounds it produces.
In medieval texts, I came across another ‘lost’ instrument, the tiompán. One of the earliest writers to reference it is Giraldus Cambrensis (‘Gerald of Wales’), who, in his Topographia Hibernica (‘Topography of Ireland’), chapter XI, circa 1087, says that, “Scotland and Wales, the latter by propagation, the former by interchange and a pleasant affinity, strive to emulate Ireland in its musical modulation and to imitate its discipline. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments; namely the cithara, and the tympanum. Scotland uses three; the cithara, tympanum and chorus. Wales, in truth, the cithara, tibia and chorus. They use strings of brass, not gut. Many believe that Scotland today not only surpasses its teacher, Ireland, but, in musical expertise, far exceeds and outstrips it. So those seeking the source of the art now look to it.”
A Welsh Triad, recorded in the early 14th century manuscript known as Peniarth 20, also refers to the instrument:
Teir prifgerd tant
ysyd, nyt amgen: kerd grwth, kerd delyn, a cherdtimpan.
‘There are three
chief crafts of the string, namely: the craft of the crwth, the craft of
the harp, and the craft of the timpán.’
“A silver tiompán in his hand, of red gold the strings of that tiompán; Sweeter than every music under heaven Was the sound of the strings of that tiompán.”
References to the tiompán occur in manuscripts from the 8th century through to the 15th, despite which there is considerable disagreement as to what it was. Several manuscript sources refer to it having a wooden body, possibly of Willow, and three strings, made of bronze, brass, gold or silver. This clearly rules out the suggestion of Irish harpist, Derek Bell, that it was a hammered dulcimer, since they have many more strings. Others assume it to have been similar to the Finnish Jouhikko, a two or three-stringed bowed lyre once common in Northern Scandinavia. A similar instrument, the Gue, was formerly played in the Shetland Isles, presumably having been introduced by Viking settlers. While the tiompán may have been a bowed lyre of this type, there are reasons to believe otherwise. For one thing, an instrument with no frets and only three strings obviously has a fairly limited range, although the melody string is shortened to produce different notes by ‘fretting’ it with the backs of the fingers. Manuscript references suggest the tiompán capable of considerable tonal range and subtlety of expression. The Irish cruitt, a word that covers both the early, 9-stringed lyre and the later, 25-or-more-stringed harp, and the tiompán were the only instruments deemed capable of playing the 'Three Noble Strains,' or modes, that were the crowning attainment of the musician’s art; goltraighe or weeping mode; geantraighe or laughing mode; and suantraighe or sleeping mode. The 'traighe' element derives from trai, meaning ‘a foot, or measure.’ In modern musical terminology, a 'measure' means everything that appears on a musical stave between two bar lines, including indications of the key, rhythm, tempo and notes to be played. Perhaps trai had a similar meaning. Whether we regard these strains/modes as keys, tunings, melodic structures or playing styles, however, achieving them on a small bowed instrument with only three unfretted strings seems like a tall order.
Then there is the name, tiompán. The letter ‘p’ being unknown in Old Irish suggests that it is a Latin loan word. Its nearest Latin equivalent is tympanum, though this applied in the Graeco-Roman world to a small, circular, hand-held frame drum, like a tambourine. This is the name given by Gerald of Wales, who wrote in Latin, although he plainly states that he is referring to a stringed instrument, not a drum. The similarity of names does, however, suggest that the tiompán may have had a round body, or soundbox, topped by a soundboard made of animal hide, presumably with a neck projecting from the body. This would put the tiompán in the category of long-necked lutes, a class of instrument still found in many Eurasian cultures, from Eastern Europe to Japan. Many have three strings. Examples include the Tuvan doshpuluur, the Central Asian rawap, the Chinese sanxian, the Japanese sanshin, the Siberian topshuur and the tungana of Nepal. Long-necked lutes similar to these have existed since at least 3100 BCE, when pictorial representations of them appear in Sumeria. It is hardly a stretch of the imagination to conceive of the idea reaching Britain and Ireland by the time the tiompán is first recorded around four thousand years later.
The sound and playing style of the tiompán are described in a probably 12th century Irish manuscript that refers to the Battle of Magh Rath (637 CE). On the eve of the battle, music is played to bring sleep to the Ulster prince, Congal Claen: “And after that Congal slept to the quiet sound of the musical bagpipes and the prophetic ominous truly-sad shadows of the strings and tiompans being touched by the fronts, sides, tips and nails of the performers who played so well on them.”
This description of the sound of the tiompán beautifully evokes the emotional power of the instrument. A playing style that uses the “fronts, sides, tips and nails” of the fingers closely parallels the technique used in North Africa on the lute-like instrument variously known as the guembri, lotar or sintir, where the strings, of which there are normally three, are plucked or strummed with the right hand, the fingers of which are also used to beat out a rhythm on the animal skin soundboard. The body, or soundbox, of the guembri is usually roughly rectangular, being carved from a single block of wood. A similar instrument found in West Africa, the akonting, has a circular soundbox, also covered with skin, although some modern versions use timber. Both guembri and akonting have strings of animal gut. Other long-necked lutes, such as the Persian setar or Turkish saz, are wire-strung as was the tiompán according to manuscript sources. My suggestion, then, is that the tiompán was one of this extremely widespread and long-lived family of long-necked lutes, having a circular wooden body, or soundbox, covered with animal skin, and three bronze or brass strings, unless the player or a patron could afford silver or gold.
The addition of frets makes the location of notes far easier for the player and, since frets have been added to lutes since at least the Sumerian era, it seems not unreasonable to suggest they may have been present on the tiompán. On most traditional long-necked lutes, frets are created by winding animal gut around the neck. They have the twin advantages of being movable and fairly easy to replace. For the tiompán, the positioning of frets must be conjectural, though we may take our lead from the lutes that survive in other cultures.
In many cultures, long-necked lutes are played to accompany singing, with the instrument tuned to whatever the vocal range of the singer happens to be. Rendered into Western musical terms, two common tunings for three-stringed lutes are C-G-C and D-A-D, the latter reminiscent of the D-A-D-G-A-D tuning favoured by folk guitarists, originally devised by Davey Graham to facilitate playing along with traditional Moroccan musicians. In most cases, one of the two repeated notes is pitched an octave apart from the other. Held in the playing position, the two upper strings, including the uppermost ‘bass’ string, commonly act as drones, while the melody is played primarily on the bottom ‘treble’ string. Giraldus says that the favoured key in Irish music was B flat (Bb), or A sharp (A#), although we have no way of knowing to what extent what he thought of as Bb resembles its modern concert pitch equivalent. Taking Gerald at his word, however, we might perhaps tune our reconstructed tiompán down a tone from the commonly used C-G-C to give us Bb-F-Bb. We may assume that the tiompán was tuned in ‘just intonation,’ as used in ancient Greek music and many indigenous musical traditions today. Modern ‘equal temperament’ tuning was only developed in the 16th century, by which time the tiompán had fallen out of use, or at least was no longer mentioned in manuscripts.
took about 30 years to find someone to make me a chrotta and
I probably don’t have enough years
left in me to wait that long for a tiompán,
decided to try making one myself. Obtaining
the soundbox was
in charity shops for a
wooden bowl of
the right size and
his partner, Elaine Gregory, owns 80 acres of woodland. Her
provided a beautiful Ash tree, some of whose timber I’ve
used to make frame drum hoops.
Garth took one of the remaining pieces, by now well seasoned, and
made a blank to my specifications for the neck. I have spare guitar
around, and some pieces of Red Deer rawhide left over from
cheap violin tuning pegs were
pieces assembled, work could begin.
I wanted to give the neck a pleasing shape, which meant learning how to handle a draw-knife and a spokeshave, both of which I own but had rarely used. Several hours of careful labour and a lot of sawdust and shavings in the carpet later, a tapered shape I was happy with was achieved. I then sawed a shallow cut across where the headstock meets the neck and inserted a piece of horn with three small v-shaped notches cut in it as a ‘nut’ for the strings to pass over. Three holes were then drilled through the headstock and reamed using a hand tool designed for shaping holes for violin pegs.
to the wooden
me cause for concern as
I’ve never been much
good at wood-working joints. Going
my delight, I
two passable slotted joints, one on either side of the bowl, into
which the neck was inserted,
I had cut down the neck where it passes across the interior of the bowl so that it wouldn’t impede the vibration of the rawhide I was going to use as a soundboard. However, not trusting the strength and stability of the hide, I had left a small pillar to support the bridge when it was put in place. Having glued neck and bowl together, I went through a pile of pieces of Red Deer hide and found one from the neck end so thick it had dried rock hard. Obviously it wasn’t going to need the pillar, being more than capable of supporting the bridge on its own. Rather belatedly, I decided to look online to see what I could find about the construction of acoustic instruments, particularly bridge and soundboard. I learned that the job of the bridge is to transfer as much of the vibration of the plucked or bowed string through to the soundboard as possible. Had I left the pillar, it would have reduced the vibration in the hide soundboard, reducing the volume and affecting the tone. So I cut the pillar out with a small hand-saw and sanded it flat.
next job was to apply varnish to the woodwork to protect it from
and injury. I used a modern, shop-bought clear varnish, but there is
evidence that our ancestors made and used natural
varnishes a few thousand years ago. Varnish not only protects the
wood, it also brings out the colour nicely, rendering
variations in the grain more visible. Between coats, the wood was
sanded using fine grains of sandpaper (240, 600 and 800). Again, this
is a substitute for natural abrasives our ancestors would
Having completed the varnishing, the next step was to fit the soundboard. The chosen piece of hide was put to soak in a tub of lukewarm water, adding some rawhide cord (also left over from drum-making) after an hour or so. It took a long time for such a thick, hard piece of hide to soften. Eventually, simply because time was getting on and I was getting impatient, I decided to give it a try. Using the experience of making drums, I punched small holes around the edge of the hide, adding two concentric circles of holes in the middle to act as soundholes. The rawhide cord was then threaded through the holes around the edge, criss-crossing the back of the bowl from one side to the other until I ran out of holes. This was then left to dry. As cord and soundboard dry, they shrink and, therefore, tighten. They needed to tighten a lot as the hide was still so stiff when I lashed it on that its surface resembled a contour map of a range of hills. Checking it next morning, it had flattened somewhat, giving me hope that it might flatten more during the course of the day. Fortunately, it did. Even when fully dry, the surface is still a bit rough, but it’s flat enough, tight and very hard, and produced a pleasing sound when struck as a drum.
Next I made a couple of bridges. The first attempt was based on the Iron Age High Pasture Cave bridge piece. However, on fitting it, it was apparent that such a design is useless on this instrument, giving an action that is far too high. I therefore took another small piece of seasoned Yew and made a much lower bridge. The violin pegs were then fitted, after having holes pierced through them with an awl through which to thread the strings. None of the spare guitar strings I had in the house exactly matched the gauges I had calculated would produce the best results, but they were fairly close. Now to put the thing together and see if it played.
The strings were looped over the three pegs at the far end of the neck, which protruded from holes pierced through the hide soundboard. They were then passed over the bridge and the nut and threaded through the holes in the tuning pegs. The pegs turned out to be a very tight fit and took some turning, occasionally resorting to a pair of pliers! New strings never stay in tune for long, and these were no exception. It took about three days for them to more-or-less settle. Given the difficulty of turning the pegs, I settled for being nearly in tune rather than spot on. Given the gauge of the strings available to me, I opted for a compromise C-F-C tuning as the most easily achievable.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found my conjecturally reconstructed tiompán has quite a pleasant tone and a decent amount of sustain, i.e. about 10 seconds. Having plucked, strummed, tapped and slapped it a little, I couldn’t resist making a recording to share. This was done prior to adding frets or removing the rawhide lashings that held on the soundboard. Even so, I was quite pleased with the result. After all, I’d never made a stringed instrument before and was just amazed that it made any kind of sound at all, let alone a relatively pleasant one! Tuning C-F-C.
To allow for the removal of the cords, the edges of the soundboard were pinned to the soundbox bowl with drawing pins. Fortunately, the wood of the bowl (species so far unidentified) is soft enough to be able to push the pins into, finishing off with a couple of light hammer taps. I did, however, have to use an awl to make holes through the rawhide which was, in most places, too hard to push a pin through. For the same reason, it took some hours to remove the excess hide and release the cords, gradually slicing through the hide with a Stanley knife.
I had bought some 1 mm thick nylon line to make frets with, but decided instead to try repurposing the removed rawhide cord. Rawhide has the advantage that, having been soaked before use, it dries and shrinks into place, tightening itself. I had no idea if it would work as frets, but decided to chance it. After soaking for some hours, the cord was both flexible and stretchable. Using a ‘just intonation’ calculator found online, I measured out the fret positions, marking them in pencil across the neck under the strings. I then began to tie on the frets, starting from the soundbox end and working back towards the nut. Each fret was tied about five fret positions down from where it was going to end up, then slid up into place. Since the neck gets thicker as you move towards the soundbox, this has the effect of tightening the fret. Sometimes I had to trim the width of the cord down with a pair of sharp scissors. The total string length from bridge to nut is 27.5 inches (70 cm), and from the front edge of the soundbox to the nut is 21.5 inches (55 cm). This meant tying 24 frets. A lot of work, especially since I had no idea if the rawhide cord would actually do the job. The overnight wait for it to dry was quite anxious…
Next morning, I picked the thing up and, yes, the frets worked! Well, all except a couple in the middle that were a little lower than the next one up. Inserting a small file under the strings, I was able to file down the too high fret so that the ones below it could sound properly. Other than that, all my recycled rawhide frets performed as they should. Yay!
By this time, the strings were beginning to settle, becoming better at holding their tuning. This encouraged me to try a couple more recordings. The experiment switched from making to playing. From watching videos online of similar long-necked lutes being played in other cultures, I had some ideas to try out and plenty of inspiration to draw on. I’d become especially enraptured by the music of the late Iranian setar virtuoso, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, a musical genius virtually unknown in the West but who ranks alongside Ravi Shankar in the expressiveness, purity and spirituality of his playing. While my humble efforts will never get anywhere near such giants, they offer a vision of the mountain-top to strive towards. The word setar, incidentally, means ‘three strings,’ although modern setars have four, usually arranged in three courses.
For my first recording with frets in place, I used a long plectrum called a risha, reshee, or mizrab, used to play Middle Eastern lutes such as the oud. I chose this because of references in Irish manuscripts to the tiompán being played with a ‘wand.’ Some have interpreted this as meaning a bow, but this type of long pick, originally made from cow horn, is equally worthy of being called a ‘wand.’ Tuning: C-F-C.
For the second recording with frets, in keeping with the playing style described in the 12th century manuscript quoted above, the strings were plucked or strummed with the nails and fingers of the right hand, while the soundboard was played like a bongo or conga drum, initially with both hands, then with the sides of fingers and thumb, rocking the right hand to and fro. It became immediately apparent, as the recording shows, that playing the soundboard like this causes the strings to sound as a rhythmic drone. The strings vibrate to the drum-beat a lot more than I thought they would. Tuning: C-F-C.
All in all, having started out with fairly low expectations due to my shaky crafting skills in some areas, I’m quite pleased with the results and looking forward to improving my playing technique and maybe even trying singing with the tiompán, as the manuscript sources indicate was done. I’m not sure that I’ve brought an authentic tiompán back to life for the first time in more than half a millennium, but, given that no one seems quite sure what an authentic tiompán was, I’ll settle for what I’ve got until further evidence comes to light. At this point, that would probably be one being found in a peat bog. Now wouldn't that be something?
Making and playing my tiompán during the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly been beneficial to my mental health and general well-being. In Chapter XII of his Topography of Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis, has this to say on the beneficial effects of music:
sweet harmony of music not only affords us pleasures, but renders us
important services. It greatly cheers the drooping spirit, clears the
face from clouds, smooths the wrinkled brow, checks
moroseness, promotes hilarity; of all the most pleasant things in the
world, nothing more delights and enlivens the human heart. …
Moreover, music soothes disease and pain; the sounds which strike the
ear operating within, and either healing our maladies, or enabling us
to bear them with greater patience. It is a comfort to all, and an
effectual remedy to many; for there are no sufferings which it will
not mitigate, and there are some which it cures.”
The chant for which you'll find sound and video links below is extracted from one of the booklets of the British Druid Order's ovate course. It draws inspiration, language and symbolism from a poem in the medieval Irish Metrical Dindsenchas. The story in which the poem is contained describes actions taken by the Irish god of healing, Dian Cécht, to quell a disease outbreak by destroying the serpent that embodies the illness, reducing its remains to ashes and then washing them away in the purifying waters of a fast-flowing river (a reminder to keep up regular hand-washing).
In the medieval literature and later folk medicine of Britain and Ireland, disease is often represented as a dark serpent. Representations of sickness in animal form are common to many indigenous cultures, with snakes, lizards and toads frequently being the form taken. This suggests a very early and extremely long-enduring stratum of belief.
An obvious advantage of seeing disease in this way is that it gives spirit workers, often called by that overused Siberian term, 'shamans,' a clear, easily visualised image against which to work healing magic. My sense of the original Dindsenchas text is that it recounts precisely such a spiritual conflict against disease, one that is ultimately successful.
I should add that by no means all representations of serpents in our indigenous literature are dark and ill-favoured. On the contrary, there is a bright serpent of healing. Hence the long-standing link between serpents and medicine, pre-dating the Greek healer god, Asclepius, with his serpent-entwined staff, continuing to the present day with the caduceus wand of Mercury, wound with light and dark serpents, being the symbol of the modern medical profession. Also, I believe, accounting for the several representations of serpents coiled around lightning bolts that appear in Pictish stone carvings, a couple of which feature in the long version of the chant video.
In these stressful times, it seems particularly appropriate to release this chant online. Whether or not your personal belief system is animistic enough to believe that such chants have an actual impact on a physical illness, if the sound of the chant appeals to you, then joining in with it can certainly lift your metaphorical spirits. As I've found, even just listening to it lifts my spirits and leaves me smiling. If, however, your belief system is significantly animistic/shamanistic, then you may feel that, repeated worldwide and often, the chant may help us all get through this current crisis in a variety of useful ways.
So please do join in. Sing, drum, dance, howl, stomp, clap, holler and yelp along! Maybe fling wide your windows while you do (always allowing for the sensibilities of your neighbours)! Let's all boost our collective spirits!
Blessings to all,
First, here's the 9 minute 35 second long sound file...
Now here's the video that goes with that 'short' version...
... and here's the extended, 1 hour 7 minutes video for those who want to get totally immersed in it... /|\
Credits: I composed the chant and recorded it on the desktop computer in my home office using a tiny lapel mic to multi-track the vocals and drums. The main drum is the frame drum I made myself a few years ago. It's painted with, among other things, a Wolf (surprise, surprise) and a bright Serpent of Healing. The second drum is another frame drum I made, with assistance from my son, Joe, and which I recently dubbed the Pretani Drum. Panned way off to the right speaker is a little clay drum a photo of which appears partway through the long video. It's based on a Bronze Age original that was found within 20 miles of my house. In the left speaker there's a larger clay drum based on an original apparently found at Avebury, again within 20 miles of my house. A picture of it also appears in the video. The original was claimed to be Bronze Age, but I think it may be Iron Age. I made the clay drums. The running water in the background is a recording of Borle Brook in Shropshire I made a few years ago. The photos are either by me or Elaine Gregory, who took the main photo which shows me drumming in St. Nechtan's Glen in Cornwall. The drum I'm playing in the photo is a Remo Buffalo Drum that I bought in Seattle and painted with Wolves, Eagles and Serpents. I put the videos together using the free, open-source OpenShot Video Editor.
The current Covid-19 outbreak is impacting our lives in many ways. How it will play out in the long term remains to be seen. In the meantime, we need to do all we can to keep ourselves and our families safe. Until a vaccine becomes available, the best ways to do this are by maintaining physical distance between us and washing regularly and thoroughly, especially our hands.
course, as spiritual beings, there are other things we can do. Those
of us whose Paganism allows for the reality of entities existing in
the realms of spirit whose
influence extends into the physical,
including the old gods of our lands, may choose
to pray to those gods
for their blessings and
ancestors certainly did just that.
The following prayer is found in the Book of Ballymote, compiled in County Sligo, Ireland, circa 1390, although the prayer itself is considerably older, dating perhaps from the 8th century. Skeptics may argue that an 8th century prayer can have no possible relationship to Druidry. There are, however, numerous references in the manuscript literature of Britain and Ireland indicating that Druids continued to play an active role in society at least until the 12th century. It is certainly hard to see the prayer itself as anything other than pagan. I have not included a translation of two lines of Latin appended to the end of the original manuscript text since they were clearly tacked on in a half-hearted attempt to Christianise an otherwise splendidly pagan prayer. I defy anyone to locate a Biblical reference to ‘the Seven Daughters of the Sea’ who feature in the first two lines, while the 'Silver Champion' referred to in line 10 seems likely to be Nuada Airgetlam, 'Nuada of the Silver Arm,' sword-wielding equivalent to the Romano-British Nodens, who oversaw a large healing sanctuary at Lydney on the banks of the River Severn.
that illness is characterised in the prayer as a ‘two-headed
adder,’ a ‘hard-grey serpent,’ and a ‘headless black beetle.’
It was extremely common for our ancestors to view disease as a dark
creature, most often a venomous
combatting illness in spirit, attributing a form to it is extremely
useful, providing a clear focus on what it is we are seeking to
counteract and protect against.
This particular prayer seems peculiarly appropriate at the present time, given that the severity of the effects of the Covid-19 virus seems to increase the older one gets.
"The cry of a worthy man upon the road, may it bless me on my journey into the Plain of Age:"
“I invoke the Seven Daughters of the Sea who weave the threads of children for long life: May three deaths be taken from me! May three life-spans be granted to me! May seven waves of good fortune be dealt to me! Phantoms shall not harm me on my journey a flashing breastplate keep me from injury! My fame shall not be bound by death! Let death not come to me till I am old! I invoke my Silver Champion who has not died, who will not die: May time be granted to me of the quality of pure bronze! May my form be ennobled! May my right be maintained! May my strength be increased! May my grave not be readied! May death not come to me on my journey! May my journey be successfully fulfilled! May the two-headed adder not seize upon me, nor the hard-grey serpent, nor the headless black beetle! May no thief ever harm me, nor band of women, nor band of armed men. May increase of time come to me from the King of All Being! I invoke Senach [‘the Ancient One’] of the seven ages, whom Fairy women have reared on breasts of plenty: May my seven lights not be extinguished! I am an indestructible stronghold, I am an unshakeable rock, I am a precious stone, I am a fortunate one of seven riches. May I live a hundred times a hundred years, each hundred after another! Thus I summon my good fortune to me.”
The prayer was recorded in our Shropshire roundhouse in August 2019, hence the crackling of the central hearth fire and the screaming sounds of Buzzards (Buteo buteo) wheeling around in the sky outside. The lyre accompaniment was added a few days ago here in my study at home using a little lapel mic as a pick-up. The lyre used is the one in the photos, beautifully made for me by Koth na Fiach of Dark Age Crafts. It’s of a type played in Europe from at least 800 BCE until around 600 CE, possibly later. The earliest recorded name for it is chrotta.
Despite having been a Druid since 1974, I learned much that was new to me while researching and writing the British Druid Order's courses. This post deals with just one of the many discoveries made during that research. It is a chant in the ancient language of Gaul.
The chant is derived from an inscription on lead sheet, dating from the 1st century BCE, found at Rom (Roman Rauranum), Deux-Sévres, in Western France. The inscription details a sacrificial ceremony carried out in honour of the Horse Goddess. The chant was created by taking the names and titles of the Horse Goddess in the order in which they appear in the inscription and adding one of the names by which she is most commonly known, but which does not appear in the inscription, i.e. Rigantona, meaning 'Great Queen.'
The resulting chant naturally lent itself to a drum-beat that seems to replicate the gait of a Horse person. It moves from a walk to a full gallop.
A Horse chant developed a particular importance for me some years ago when I realised that the part of south-west England where I live is home to a White Horse Woman who appeared to our ancestors in the Bronze Age (perhaps earlier) to show them the sacred ceremonies. Her name and parts of her legend were passed down by generations of bards, finding their way into that great collection of ancient British lore, The Mabinogion, where she is known as Rhiannon, a name derived from the Gaulish Rigantona and having the same meaning, 'Great Queen.' For the last few decades, she has been appearing in various guises to members of the Druid community to show us again the sacred ways of our ancestors.
Winter Wolf Healing Ceremonies are found in many cultures across the whole of the Northern Hemisphere and some of the Southern. In some cases, they can be traced back thousands of years. They have three primary purposes: to re-connect us with our power animals in order to stave off the physical and psychological illnesses that often come with the winter months; to enhance the well-being of Mother Earth and all her children; to perform initiations into the Wolf Society.
Just from a week in Norway during which Elaine Gregory and I spent four days representing the British Druid Order (BDO) at the Annual Shamanic gathering, organised, as ever, by Sjamanistisk Forbund (the Shamanic Foundation). This year’s event was called Naturfest and was amazing. So many wonderful, lovely people. Little kids and dogs of varying sizes wandering and playing in the sunshine, fantastic music, magical ceremonies, and a beautiful new venue, almost an island, connected only by a narrow isthmus with a road across it, surrounded by a clear blue lake and blessed with the characteristic Norwegian trees, tall pines and graceful birches. For us Druids, there was the added bonus of a young oak tree.
When we go to
Norway, one of the greatest pleasures is staying with our friends,
Morten and Louise, two of the nicest, warmest, most generous human
beings I’ve ever known. We also share a silly sense of humour,
which always helps. Their house is surrounded by a wild flower meadow
in the middle of a forest and is so soothing to the soul. There’s a
lake within easy walking distance, Elk (aka Moose) wander past the
back window, Deer graze at the front.
The venue for the
gathering is about a two hour drive from their house. To stock up on
supplies for it we crossed over into Sweden to a huge shopping
complex. Kyrre had asked us to bring a British Druid Order flag to
the event. We didn’t have one, so I designed one and ordered it
online. Unfortunately, it hadn’t arrived by the time we left
England. Wandering around the Swedish shopping centre, however, we
passed a store where I saw a large psychedelic duck suspended from
the ceiling. I pointed it out to the others and we went in to get a
closer look. It was so weird, we just had to buy it, deciding it
would make a good substitute for the missing BDO flag. We called it
PD, short for psychedelic duck.
We arrived, unpacked
and settled into our tiny attic room in time for the opening ceremony
which began up by the barn that was being used as office space,
market and healing centre for the weekend. From there, we made our
way to the central ceremonial fire. Two ceremonies then celebrated
the feminine and the masculine before a sharing circle brought the
first evening to a close.
Next day there were traditional games, a workshop on Sami healing led by Robert Vars Gaup, a nature walk and the first part of a drum-making workshop, among other things. It was a very crowded schedule, with events running right through Friday and Saturday nights as well as all day.
After 45 years as a Druid, it is my life and I know no other. Living in the British Isles, I forget that there are places where Druidry is little known. Norway is one of those places. When organiser, Kyrre Franck, asked if there was anything Elaine and I wanted to do other than the chaga ceremony we were helping out with, we couldn’t think of anything in particular, so he suggested a sharing circle about ceremony. I was a little concerned that the sharing circle was booked for 11 o’clock at night, the chaga ceremony for 2 o’clock in the morning! I had forgotten that, at Midsummer in Norway, it doesn’t actually get dark. However, once word got around that there were two Druids on the camp, people started asking if there was going to be a workshop on Druidry, so I asked Kyrre if we could fit one into the already very packed schedule. He said he’d see what he could do and, 10 minutes later, a handwritten poster in big blue letters was pinned up above the printed timetable announcing a Druidry workshop in the Lavo (a sort of wooden tipi) at 12 noon on Sunday. We’d suddenly got star billing and had to figure out how to live up to it!
Our sharing circle was fun, though I’m never all that comfortable with the format. The chaga ceremony was very good, as they always are. On this occasion, we had to contend with a plague of midges and the fact that an amplified open mike night was being held as part of the gathering not far away from where we were doing our preparation for the ceremony. In making a chaga ceremony, it’s necessary to spend about four hours preparing the chaga, boiling the water, adding the chaga a small handful at a time, stirring the pot, chanting, singing, drumming, making prayers and offerings to the spirits, in particular to Nivvsat Olmai, the chaga and birch tree spirit. Chaga (a woody fungus that grows on Birch trees) is already blessed with many healing properties. By adding this ceremonial element to the brewing, we seek to enhance those existing properties and maybe add a few more.
When the brew was
ready, we carried it down to the open air ceremonial circle on the
site, with its central fire pit surrounded by stones. Elaine welcomed
folk into the circle via the eastern entrance and then remained to
guard it. Yes, although it was 2am, people still came! Morten and
Louise conducted the ceremony. I prowled around the outside of the
circle sunwise with my drum. One particularly memorable part of it
was when Morten set up a heartbeat rhythm with his drum as he circled
the ring of people sitting on the ground while I drummed the same
heartbeat rhythm from the outside. For the people between the two
drums, the vibrations must have been quite strong. During the
ceremony, the Moon rose from the forest treetops across the lake. Not
long after we finished the ceremony, the Sun rose to join it.
We finished at 3 am.
At 4 am there was to be a men’s sweat lodge, which I was booked
into. In the event, I helped a little with the building of the fire
but then had to make my apologies and leave, realising that, having
been up all night, I was simply too tired.
Among the many
events across the weekend, I was intrigued by a series of workshops
being given by a Tuvan shaman called Dimitrij Markov. Dimitrij,
turned out to be a really nice guy with a dry sense of humour. In his
first session, he showed us how to build a spirit house. This
consisted of sticks of firewood arranged in tipi shape, modelled
around slabs of butter and cheese and set on a strong cardboard base.
The whole thing was then placed on the central fire as an offering to
the ancestors. Dimitrij conducted the workshop in Norwegian. I know
hardly any Norwegian, but was able to follow what was going on by the
few words I could pick up and Dimitrij’s actions. I noted that he
always went sunwise around the fire, just as we do in Druidry.
feature of Dimitrij’s ceremonial creation is his costume, hung with
colourful plaited cords, bells, signs and symbols, topped off with an
extraordinary headdress comprised mainly of Eagle feathers. These he
dons immediately before ceremony begins and takes off as soon as it
is finished. His ceremonies often end with him standing quietly for a
few seconds, then saying, “That’s it,” walking out of the
circle and disrobing.
One of the things I
love about these gatherings is that you get to see both the surface
differences in the ways we work and the underlying similarities that
make it so easy to understand and communicate with each other across
Saturday night was the Sami Midsummer ceremony, which I’d been part of on our last visit two years ago. This year’s was conducted by Kyrre, Robert and Elin Kåven, a noted Sami musician. Offerings of seasonal flowers from everyone were placed around the central fire with prayers made for those in need. There was much drumming and dancing. Central to the rite was the raising aloft and honouring of a wreath of greenery tied with coloured ribbons, raised in honour of the gods of earth and sky.
Later that evening,
Rotha (it means Roots) treated us to a fabulous musical set. They are
a three-piece consisting of guitar/bazouki, Elin on vocals, and
percussion, the latter including the biggest frame drum I’ve ever
seen. The sound blended traditional and modern really well, while
several lyrics were drawn from the Icelandic Eddas. Morten tells me
that although the musicians are Sami, they draw much of their
inspiration from Norse mythology. They are very, very good.
The band having done
their encores, having been up until at least 3am the night before, we
were all prepared to go to bed when Kyrre announced an addition to
the program: a Wolf healing ceremony with Dimitrij, due to take place
around the ceremonial fire at 1am. Had it been anything other than a
Wolf ceremony, I would have gone to bed. As it was, Morten, Louise,
Elaine and I all went down to the ceremony site. Dimitrij donned his
costume, pulled on his headpiece and picked up his drum. Having
promised my own drum a rest after the exertions of the Sami Midsummer
ceremony earlier, I had left her hanging on the wall of our room, so
was unable to join in the drumming. Dimitrij made up for it. His
drumming began fairly quietly but quickly gained pace and volume. He
began waving his drum back and forth. He started behaving as Wolf,
lowering his body. At one point, he fell over and rolled on his back,
kicking his legs in the air. Rising again, he stood still for a
while, lifting his drum towards the sky, which was as dark as it
gets, though still not dark enough for stars to be visible. He began
to howl. I began to howl. Some of the others began to howl. After
drumming vigorously for about half an hour, during which Dimitrij
continued to move and I continued to rock from one foot to the other,
we stopped. Dimitrij stood still for a few moments, facing the
central fire, then said “That’s it.”
During the ceremony,
I felt a kind of expansion from my primary place of power, located
near my solar plexus. The following day, I woke up feeling better
than I had for ages, emotionally, physically and psychologically.
Further proof that, as I said during our sharing circle about
ceremony, “This shit works.” Thank you again, Dimitrij.
After a few hours’
sleep, at midday on Sunday it was time for our Druidry workshop.
Elaine and I had discussed a brief outline which we followed,
allowing space for whatever the awen dictated to happen. We opened
our circle as usual with calls for peace at the four quarters, wove
the circle, invoked the powers of the four directions, honoured the
spirits of place, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands, in all
of which Elaine took the lead. I then spoke of the survival of
Druidry for many centuries after the Roman invasion of Britain in 55
CE, through to the time when the great Welsh and Irish legendary
tales were written down. I told the story of Ceridwen and Taliesin
and the brewing of the cauldron of inspiration. We then chanted the
awen, filling the tall wooden structure with our voices so that they
rolled and echoed in tumbling cascades of sound. It was beautiful.
Then, having started late due to the previous workshop overrunning,
we hurriedly closed our circle and left to allow the next workshop to
begin. Afterwards, we were told of overflowing emotions and of
visions occurring during our session. These things are always
reassuring that we have done our job well. Many thanks to all who
came and made ceremony with us, both seen and unseen.
Also at the camp, and another great guy, was István Zsolt Barát, founder and head of the Four Elements School, ceremonial leader, healer, singer, artist, drummer and a traditional bearer of Hungarian Shamanism, which he studied in Carpathian region. He has worked as co-organizer of Kurultai, the largest gathering of Central Asian tribes, a biannual festival that gathers up to 300,000 people.
A remarkable woman we had made ceremony with two years ago in Sweden, Inger Lise Nervik, was also there. She’s one of the organisers of Sjamanistisk Forbund and co-founder of the Beaivi Shamanic School. So many other great people it would take a book to name them all. What characterises them all, apart from our shared spiritual vision, seems to be a wonderful, off-the-wall sense of humour. This, I think, is one of the most important tools we have in our line of work.
Speaking of which,
back to the duck. Sunday morning, I got up early and decided if we
were going to introduce the camp to the duck, it would have to be
today. Fetching the foot-pump, I set to work and PD grew and grew and
was a magnificent sight to behold. He proved a considerable hit with
the campers, especially the smaller children, who were soon climbing
all over him. Then, at the end of the day, the moment came to launch
PD on the lake. It had to be done. Two of the younger campers came
with us, including new friend, Jorgen, whose first shamanic camp it
was. PD was duly launched onto the water, carefully roped to shore as
we had no idea of the currents or of PD’s manoeverability.
Stripping to my underpants, I climbed onto PD’s back and set sail.
It was the most wonderful fun I’ve had for ages. PD was very
comfortable and I could happily have floated off on his back to who
knows where, but time being pressing, after much splashing, giggling
and ill-advised photographs, I clambered back onto the jetty. Our two
young friends then took their turns, Jorgen attempting running dives,
the second of which sent PD onto his side and Jorgen into the very
cold water. Fortunately, he’s a good swimmer and after a little
reassurance, PD was happy too. Thus, amidst much laughter, our time
at Naturfest came to an end.
Oh, I almost forgot
to mention that very early on the morning after our chaga ceremony, I
was fetching a few things from the car when a tiny just fledged bird
landed on my arm. I think he was a Goldcrest. Having latched his
little talons into my coat, he started preening his feathers, shaking
himself and looking around, then doing a bit more preening. After a
while, it became obvious that he wasn’t going to leave without some
encouragement. I moved towards what looked like a good perch for a
small bird, shook my sleeve gently and he fluttered off. It was a
small, magical encounter, adding one more joyous element to a
After a couple of
days back at Morten and Louise’s house, it was time to head home.
Before we did, however, Morten had one more surprise for us. Bringing
out a familiar flight case, he opened it to reveal The World Drum.
This extraordinary shamanic instrument was created by Sami shaman,
Birger Mikkelsen, following a vision that Kyrre Franck had. The Drum
has spent many years travelling all over the world, crossing
cultural, linguistic and political boundaries, uniting people with
its message of care for our Mother Earth and peace between her
children. The British Druid Order first hosted the Drum in the UK in
2008, visiting Dragon Hill and Avebury. In 2013, we journeyed with
her to Glastonbury Tor, Anglesey and many other places. It was so
good to see her again. A wonderful close to a beautiful trip...
looking forward to next year!
Oh, yes, and that BDO flag I ordered arrived while we were away. And here it is:
Yesterday morning I finished proof-reading the last four booklets of the British Druid Order’s Druid course. It’s been 13 years since the idea of creating these distance learning courses for the BDO was first mooted. Since then I’ve written, researched, edited, illustrated, designed and formatted around 3,400 pages of course booklets containing around 1.3 million words. That’s equivalent to seventeen 200-page books, more than one a year. Not a bad work rate...
Who ever knew there was so much to say about Druidry, an ancient, ancestral tradition many believe lost in the mists of time? Well, not me for one. When we started in 2006, I was convinced we’d have three courses up and running in three years. After all, I’d already written one book and many articles on Druidry. Surely just combining those would get us halfway there? Steve said he’d write the rest. No problem then.
Our bardic course finally went online in June, 2011. The reason it took so long was that I kept finding gaps that could only be filled by further research that generated new material. Lots of new material...
The first half of our ovate course went online only 14 months later, in the autumn of 2012, because I’d set aside material for it while working on the bardic. Also, we’d put so much into the bardic course that there couldn’t possibly be much left to say in an ovate one, could there? Wrong again. The ovate turned out to be 200,000 words longer than the bardic. In the end, each package went online just ahead of our students only because I worked on them for an average of 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the last three months.
I decided to take it easier with the Druid course, hence the 3-year gap between the completion of the ovate and the first half of the Druid going online. I then had 6 months to finish the second half. Again, I thought there couldn’t be that much that hadn’t already been covered in the bardic and ovate. Again, I was wrong. The Druid course turned out to be the longest of all, running to well over half a million words, 100,000 more than the ovate, and there still didn’t seem to be enough room to say everything that wanted to be said.
I started work on the courses, two of my kids were still in primary
school. They’ve since passed through secondary school, dropped out
of uni, and are now in their mid twenties. During all this time,
they’ve had to put up with me disappearing into my office, setting
my music player on random play and working for hours on end, day in,
day out, and often nights too.
Along the way, I’ve learnt a lot and made many original discoveries. These include practical ways of working with two archaic Irish texts dealing with the Three Cauldrons and the Twelve Doorways of the Soul. Both turned out to have amazing spiritual and medicinal possibilities. I’ve pieced together a convincing reconstruction of the prehistory, history, spiritual and medical use of sweat houses in the British Isles. I’ve also produced the first complete English translation of arguably the most pagan Druidical text in the whole of medieval Irish literature. Incidental discoveries include a new interpretation of one of the most famous medieval Welsh poems, Cad Goddeu, ‘The Battle of the Trees,’ that actually makes sense of it for the first time in centuries. These and many other things have been gifted by the spirits who guide my path, and I give thanks and blessings to them for the sips of awen granted me from the sacred cauldrons.
Other revelations along the way include a Welsh warrior princess who may have been behind the creation of the Mabinogionand a medieval Welsh bard who wrote a poem in praise of her vagina, in response to another who wrote one in praise of his penis! Yes, I’ve learned a lot about our bard and Druid forebears, not least the inspired poet, forger and laudanum addict, Iolo Morganwg, who invented the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards, of which the Queen is an honorary member, and the gloriously eccentric Dr. William Price, who wore a Fox-fur hat, called his son Iesu Grist, and revived the practice of cremation in the UK.
Among the benefits derived from working on the courses are that I now have a bardic Branch of Peace I made (bardic course); I designed and published an Ogham oracle deck (ovate course); made myself a dance cloak, and am working on a dance mask (Druid course). Along the way, and still relating to the courses, I designed and oversaw the building of an Iron Age roundhouse, learned to thatch and started making frame and clay drums.
has not, of course, been a solitary journey. Far from it. Many have
contributed to the courses and I owe them all a great debt of
gratitude. Here are just a few, with apologies to the unnamed many...
For our bardic course, the children of renowned Pagan poet, Robin Skelton, generously allowed us to quote many of their late father’s poems, written in traditional metres, in their entirety. Legendary Scottish bard, Robin Williamson, kindly allowed us to quote from his songs and writings, some illustrated with his beautiful artwork. Musician and author, Andy Letcher, wrote on being a bard and engaged in an interesting discussion on the use of mind-altering plants.
For our ovate course, my old friend, Leon Reed, gave us the complete herbal he’s compiled and used in his practice as a herbalist for 30 plus years, a work on star lore and, for our Druid course, an encyclopaedia of Celtic Otherworlds and their inhabitants. Blue Fox provided exercises, musings and meditations for the bardic and ovate courses, plus insights into Oghams as a divinatory system. Elaine Gregory created a complete cycle of seasonal ceremonies and rites of passage. Elen Hawke contributed a series of workings based around the cycle of the Moon.
For our Druid course, the Quileute Drum Circle and Norwegian friends, Kyrre Franck White Cougar, Morten Wolf Storeide, LeNa Paalviig Johnsen, Bobby Kure, Anita Dreyer and Will Rubach opened my eyes to different ways of creating and conducting ceremonies. Kate Fletcher and Corwen Broch gave us their wonderful recreation of a midwinter Bear Feast. Pagan philosopher, Brendan Myers, gave us a beautiful piece on Pagan ethics. Amanda Foale-Hart helped bring alive the Twelve Doorways healing technique and shared her spiritual experience. Paul Badger has written on gender, politics and working with gods and spirits. Geoff Boswell has contributed on community engagement, politics, ecology and teaching. Accomplished Welsh bard, Derwydd Newydd, has provided English translations of medieval Welsh material.
Pagan historian, Ronald Hutton, has read every booklet of each course and he and his partner, Ana Adnan, have offered constructive criticism that has improved them greatly. Another old friend, Philip Carr-Gomm, has done likewise. Kris Hughes of the Anglesey Druid Order has also assisted. Graham Harvey has kindly tracked down obscure documents via various academic networks.
and many others have contributed their knowledge and expertise
freely, hugely enriching our courses through their generosity. I am
humbled by their kindness and cannot thank them enough.
but far from least, I am immensely grateful to the core circle of BDO
Elders, whose unswerving support has been a vital component not only
in creating our courses, but in creating and maintaining the BDO as
it now exists in the world.
To name just a few, Adam has maintained our online presence for more years than I can remember, performing acts of IT magic beyond my ability to comprehend. Amanda has demonstrated an uncanny ability to herd cats whilst maintaining grace and good humour. Elaine has given us the wondrous space of Wild Ways for AGMs, facilitated the building of our roundhouse, run our online shop and so much more. Flick has been a wonder in her role as head tutor and her unfailing devotion to our vision of Druidry. Geoff, a BDO stalwart since the mid-90s, has given us the benefit of his invaluable expertise in many areas. Joe has kept me company on innumerable train journeys, manned our stall at events, operated projectors, etc., etc.. Paul has overhauled our social media presence, creating and putting out a regular flow of brilliant material via facebook, twitter and youtube. It’s been an honour and an inspiration to share ceremonial space with each and every one of you.
The task of letting the world know our courses exist now begins in earnest. We’ve been quite low-key up to this point, waiting until all three courses were complete. From now on, we’re yelling it from the rooftops. Why? Because we believe, indeed we know from student feedback, that our courses genuinely enhance lives and make our world a better place. They are three cauldrons brimful of awen, magic and transformation.
Which brings me to the greatest joy of putting these courses together; hearing from students who are actively benefiting from them. From being inspired to take up poetry or learn to play the harp, to coming within a hairsbreadth of winning the poetry crown at the National Eisteddfod, initiating and coordinating green initiatives in the workplace, finding the strength to make long-delayed changes in career and direction, recovering from trauma, or simply finding inner peace amidst the turmoil of life, lives are being enriched and enhanced by our courses in many ways in countries around the world, from Aberdeen to Australia. This is why I’ve kept working on them all these years, because BDO Druidry, blessed and inspired as it is by our ancestors, spirit allies and the old gods of our lands, is not role-playing or dressing-up, nor New Age navel-gazing, but an active engagement with a deeply transformative ancient magic that has real power, proven time and again by the simple fact that it genuinely works!
A few years ago, I came up with the idea of Druid Hedge Schools, loosely based on the hedge schools held in Ireland following the passage of legislation by the English authorities in 1695 outlawing the teaching of Irish history, language and culture in Ireland. Essentially this was an attempt to stamp out Irish culture. Similar measures were adopted in Scotland and Wales. In Ireland, a network of teachers rapidly sprang up who taught everything from the basic skills of reading and writing through to Latin and Greek. Teaching took place in secret, in barns, private houses, or, literally, behind hedges in fields. Anywhere people could gather together out of sight of the authorities.
The idea of Druid hedge schools is similarly to gather together wherever we can and offer information about Druidry at as low a cost as possible. Thanks to the kindness of the owners of the Henge Shop in Avebury, we are now able to offer monthly sessions there, right in the midst of one of the most remarkable and beautiful sacred landscapes in Britain. Session normally run for two hours at a cost per person of just £5, essentially to cover our costs in putting them on.
The next session is on the Druid relationship with stone circles, around which there is much controversy. Historians long maintained that classical Druids had nothing to do with stone circles, Druidry having arrived in Britain long after the circles were erected. There are, however, contrary views, and not just from Druids. Then there's the whole controversy around access to Stonehenge, around which much anger has been generated over many years, along with a good deal of misinformation. So, what are the links between Druids and stone circles and why do they evoke so much passion? Avebury seems an ideal place to explore these issues.
This session will take place on the afternoon of Saturday, September 22nd, at the Henge Shop. This date is particularly appropriate as that weekend sees the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri, an open group that meets among the ancient stones of Avebury to celebrate the annual cycle of Pagan festivals. As the Gorsedd was my creation, I can offer unique insight into its early years. This session will begin after the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd of Bards ceremony in the South Circle. The next day, Sunday, will be the 25th anniversary of the original Gorsedd. Why are there two groups with almost identical names? This question, and many more, will be answered at the Henge Shop!
Commenting on a recent post on the BDO facebook page, someone described the Mabinogion stories and Taliesin poems included in our courses as ‘filler.’ I was somewhat taken aback by this. To me, this is equivalent to a Jew, Christian or Muslim describing the Torah, Bible or Koran as ‘filler.’ How is it that people in other traditions and cultures first learn about the gods and heroes of their ancestors? Through stories. Always through stories. And next come poems. Why poems? Because rhyme and rhythm are wonderful aids to memory.
In the British branch of Druidry, we are blessed to have a whole library of ancestral stories and poems, mostly gathered together and committed to writing in the 12th century. There has been much argument as to whether, and to what extent, this medieval literature retains enough of the pagan past to be of interest to us as modern pagans.
Brief diversion: Yes, pagans. I know a lot of modern Druidry, taking its cue from 18th century revivalists, is not pagan. I have always been a pagan Druid and the British Druid Order is openly and proudly pagan. It’s hard to argue that classical Druidry was anything but pagan, and it’s the archaic forms of the tradition that interest me more than the recent revivals.
As for the tales and poems containing anything that survives from the pagan past, it seems blindingly obvious to me that they do. Take the deity from which the whole Mabinogion may well take its name, the Mabon. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the Mabon must be found in order to hunt the Twrch Trwyth, a gigantic wild Boar person who is ravaging the land. Why the Mabon? Because he is recognised as the greatest of hunters, and the only one capable of handling two magical hunting hounds. Mabon means ‘Son,’ and he is the son of Modron, meaning ‘Mother.’ Roll back in time a thousand years and an altar is erected and dedicated to the god Maponus near one of the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall. A badly worn scene on one side of it represents Maponus as a hunter, armed with a bow and accompanied by a hunting dog, and an adjacent side shows two Deer. Maponus is the Romanised form of the native British Maponos, which evolved into modern Welsh Mabon and retains the same meaning. Five dedications to him occur in the same area, as also does a large boulder called the Mabenstane, formerly a meeting place for the local population. It is impossible to compare what we know of the native deity with the medieval tale and not conclude that Maponus and the Mabon are the same figure.
Likewise, Gwydion, the foremost enchanter and magician of the Mabinogion, is recorded in a much earlier genealogy as Guidgen, and in Roman-British inscriptions as Mercury Uiducus. Comparing the classical character of Mercury with Gwydion as portrayed in the Mabinogion, their natures are so similar that the native deity, Uidicus, can only be the same being as Gwydion. The Horse goddess of the Mabinogion, Rhiannon, was earlier Rigantona, ‘the Great Queen,’ Manawydan is the same as the Irish sea god, Manannan, and so it goes on. These are pagan gods, of this I have not the slightest doubt, and if we are pagans, surely we need to know the nature of our gods and should revel in their tales?
While editing our courses, it became increasingly clear to me that the bardic colleges of the 12th century were spurred into what amounted to a pagan revival by the same events that led them to gather together the oral literature of our ancestors and cause it to be written down. The events in question were Norman attempts to conquer Wales. This 12th century pagan revival caused the bardic colleges to adopt the extremely witchy goddess, Ceridwen, as patroness of the bardic order.
My own Druid path began in 1974, a time when there were no courses or how-to books, indeed precious little available at all from which to construct a walkable path. That first summer, I had Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Stuart Piggott’s The Druids, Alwyn and Brinley Rees’ Celtic Heritage (borrowed from Hastings Library), and a slightly battered copy of Lady Charlotte Guest’s Victorian translation of The Mabinogion, found in a second-hand book shop. Graves is justifiably criticised for his wild flights of fancy, but his book propelled me onto this path, so I retain a great affection for it. He quotes liberally from The Mabinogion and the poems of Taliesin, hence my delight at finding that pocket Mabinogion. Unlike most modern translations, it includes the Story of Taliesin in which, on first reading, I recognised a threefold cycle of death and rebirth by which the child, Gwion Bach, ‘Little Innocent,’ is reborn as the ultimate enlightened Druid sage, Taliesin, ‘Radiant Brow.’ This story is central to our understanding of British Druidry, which is why it is the first to appear in our bardic course.
In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, that of Math, Son of Mathonwy, I found a mythic cycle dealing with the birth, growth, life, death and rebirth of a young sun god, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. On subsequently joining a Wiccan coven, I used this cycle as the basis for the eight seasonal festivals we celebrated. That coven became the basis of the British Druid Order. That same cycle of myth forms the basis of the festival cycle introduced in our bardic course and greatly expanded upon in the ovate.
The whole edifice of the BDO is, therefore, built on the foundations of the Mabinogion and the poems of Taliesin, the weirder of which expand our understanding of the Story of Taliesin and his strange relationship with Ceridwen, brewer of the cauldron of inspiration. ‘Inspiration’ is the common English translation of the Welsh word, ‘Awen,’ and Awen is, as I describe it in our bardic course, the Holy Spirit of Druidry, that spirit of creativity and inspiration that flows from the tales and poems of our ancestors, through us, and, from us and our stories, poems and songs, to future generations. Awen ultimately lifts us from the mire and gives us the potential to dance with the gods.
I am constantly finding new levels of meaning in this literature. One of the best known of the Taliesin poems is the Cad Goddeu, the ‘Battle of the Trees.’ I’ve known it for about 40 years, but it wasn’t until preparing a version of it to be performed with harp accompaniment in our Iron Age roundhouse that I realised the whole poem is actually about healing. It has distinct parallels with the Anglo-Saxon ‘Nine Herbs Charm.’ This realisation confirmed another I’d had while putting together the material on native healing techniques healing for our ovate course. Thus, again, these ancestral poems and songs continually work to increase my understanding of our tradition.
‘Filler,’ then, is not a term I recognise.
Having been a Druid for 44 years, it’s often puzzled and, I confess, bothered me, that so many British Druids give so little heed to this extraordinary treasure trove that has come down to us from our ancestors. In putting our courses together, then, I hoped to correct this by presenting it in a visually pleasing form that might help persuade people to read it. I know the gorgeous period font I found has proven a pain for folk who are dyslexic, but we do provide plain text versions as an alternative.
In the bardic course, we offer some indications as to why we see specific poems and stories as of particular importance. In the ovate and Druid courses, we continually refer back to them to enhance our understanding of the nature of the gods and of how our ancestors walked the Druid path, understandings I believe we need if we are to fully immerse ourselves in the path and live it as central to our lives. They are the heart of the British Druid tradition.
Having said all that, even if you skip all the medieval texts in our course material, you’ll still be left with a word count higher than that of any comparable course, so you needn’t feel you’re being short changed. And, in terms of quality rather than quantity, you have Ronald Hutton’s stated view that our bardic course is “the most intelligent and erudite sequential introduction to Druidry available.” Given that Ronald has a thorough knowledge of more Druid courses than anyone else I know, and probably anyone else alive, I’m happy to take his word for it!
I’ll leave you with a short quotation from the Taliesin poem, ‘The Cattle-fold of the Bards:’
“I am song to the last; I am clear and bright; I am hard; I am a Druid; I am a wright; I am well-wrought; I am a serpent; I am reverence, that is an open receptacle.”
And if that’s not convinced you, go and read the piece I wrote some time ago on Awen, the Holy Spirit of Druidry. It’s full of quotations from the writings of our ancestors, writings we are blessed to have access to and that, to return to an analogy I used earlier, are the nearest thing British Druidry has to a Bible, in that they are a collection of ancient, sacred writings intended to provide an introduction to the pagan gods of our lands.
It being May Day and the weather cool but fair, I wandered through the woods and scrambled down to a hidden hollow by the brook, where water tumbles over rocks and makes a magical sound that eases that slide into reverie in which awen flows and words emerge. With mobile phone as notebook, I jotted down the basis of this poem. It hasn't reached its finished state yet, at least I don't think it has, perhaps it never will, but I wanted to share it now, while the inspiration is still fresh. I am grateful for the gift of a poem made from just the interweaving of awen with the spirits of a special place and time... /|\
Beside the brook I sat a while and watched the water flow through the lichened rocks below with rush and tumbling foam. Astride a lichen-cushioned log I perched and heard Sabrina’s song as glistening waters ran their course across the ages long. Ancestral race, this mystery had so sat contemplating, this unceasing rush through time on to an ever waiting sea. Spirit-full and ever changing, silver flow will make its way, stopping not for tree or boulder, save to skirt them both around, for water’s wisdom is the gift of ever finding ways anew, unerring and unstoppable, ageless and unwavering, yet constantly renewed. And so to you, great goddess, I give thanks beside your play, for filling all my senses on this first day of May, reminding me that time and tides will bear all things away, and for the gift of awen, thus to weave these words in rhyme, from mortal to immortal passed until we merge in time.