If you’ve ever wondered what modern Druids believe and what they get up to inspired by their beliefs, then this book is a must for you. It had already created quite a buzz in the Druid community prior to its publication and it not only lives up to expectations but exceeds them. Here I must declare an interest, having been a Druid since 1974, founded the British Druid Order, having many friends in other Druid groups and having worked full-time as a Druid since 1995. This makes me an ideal market for the book, but you don’t need a similar level of commitment to enjoy it. Indeed, anyone with an interest in modern Druidry, Paganism or what academics sometimes call ‘New Religious Movements’ will find it a fascinating and incredibly rich source of detailed, well-researched information. Nothing like it has been attempted before and it will undoubtedly stand as a definitive work for years to come, informing current researchers and hopefully inspiring further research on its subject as well as providing unprecedented insights for the general reader.
It draws on a world survey of Druids conducted by the author(right) over a two-year period. The questionnaire (still available online) is very well constructed, consisting of 189 separate items, allowing respondents to expand on their answers and providing 18 open-ended questions specifically aimed at encouraging longer responses. The fact that the author is a Druid herself encouraged Druid groups to promote the survey online, resulting in 725 respondents from 34 countries returning completed forms, providing detailed insights into all aspects of modern Druidry. White carefully analysed this mass of information, breaking down the results into the book’s eight chapters. These cover Druidry as a personal path, how Druids interact with the world, Druid theology, ritual, meditation, seasonal festivals, etc. In short, all of present-day Druidical life is here, all illustrated with relevant quotes from practising Druids. The sheer quantity of information is astonishing and the author has done a remarkable job in breaking it down into accessible chunks. Whenever the data looks like becoming too complex for words alone, she provides clear, informative bar or pie charts to make it clear.
Having been involved in Druidry for nearly half a century, you’d think there wouldn’t be much I didn’t know about it. You’d be wrong. While the book supports much that I already knew or suspected, either anecdotally or from personal observation, it also contains several surprises, some welcome, others less so. In the latter category, I was shocked to learn the extent to which modern Druids are actively persecuted, primarily by Christians. I genuinely thought we had progressed beyond the kind of medieval thinking that prompts such persecution, yet some Druids, particularly in the USA, still fear to ‘come out’ about their beliefs, even to members of their own families. Globally, the survey reveals that 19% fear discrimination, 17% fear harassment and 8% fear physical assault. These numbers are significantly higher in the USA.
A more welcome finding is the extent to which Nature plays a part in modern Druidry. Those of us who run Druid groups are always banging on about communing with the natural world and its indwelling spirits, but it’s hard to know to what extent the message actually gets through. At least, it was until this book arrived. When asked to rank the importance of different influences on their spirituality, 91% put Nature at the top of the list, 71% Nature spirits. Yay! It’s working! Clearly Druidry warrants its description as a ‘Nature Spirituality’ in the book’s subtitle. 85% of Druids, for example, report being actively engaged in some form of environmental stewardship.
Having spent the last 15 years creating distance learning courses for the BDO, I was also pleased to find Druid courses cited as a major influence by around half of Druids worldwide. That said, another surprise was how many Druids practice their path alone or with a partner, rarely if ever engaging with group celebrations.
As a ‘hard polytheist,’ defined by the author as one who sees their gods as “objectively real,” I was intrigued to find that this belief is shared by only 15% of respondents, while 49% identify as ‘soft polytheists,’ i.e. those who “typically work with their pantheons in a symbolic manner,” and 37% as ‘pantheists,’ regarding “all of Nature [as], in essence, a single, divine consciousness.” The sheer variety of belief revealed in the survey is remarkable. By contrast, chapter 8 is devoted to “Druidry’s Spiritual Common Core.” This finds a shared set of core beliefs that define modern Druidry. Again, engagement with the natural world features prominently.
At the end of the book, the author provides a useful and admirably clear Glossary offering succinct definitions of terms used in the text, including deities from numerous pantheons, folk and seasonal festivals engaged in by Druids, and terms such as ‘animism,’ ‘awen’ and ‘imbas.’ The survey form is included as an Appendix while another lists 147 Druid groups worldwide.
A final thing to commend the book is simply its look and feel. The hardback is a thing of genuine beauty. The attractive, dark blue dust jacket is printed on a high quality paper that feels like velvet while the book inside is fully cloth-bound in a matching shade of blue. It’s a joy to handle, the text clear and readable, the photographs well-chosen and clearly reproduced.
In bringing together such a wealth of information and presenting it with such crystal clarity, Larisa A. White has done a great service to the Druid community, the broader Pagan community, those interested in ‘New Religious Movements’ and general readers with an interest in contemporary spirituality more broadly and with how spirituality impacts on environmental concerns. I therefore wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend this unique and fascinating book.
From the time I began exploring Druidry in 1974, I have never thought of it as anything other than ‘shamanic.’ I discovered Druidry through Robert Graves’ remarkable book, The White Goddess (3rd edition, 1961). For all its fame in Pagan circles, it is far from an easy read, laden with classical Greek and Roman references, many not translated into English, with arguments flung at the reader in a flurry of seemingly random and unrelated facts and fancies, laced with folklore and poetry. Realising that regular breaks would be needed if I were to get through it, I began alternating chapters of The White Goddess with those of another dense, difficult read; Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964). Graves appealed to my poetic nature, awakening me to Druidry as a pagan spiritual path native to the British Isles, where I was born. Eliade awakened me to the existence of traditional societies where strange children were treated as peculiarly blessed and potentially cursed rather than simply insane, which was my experience growing up in a Sussex village with vivid dreams, nightmares and terrifying waking visions. Reading Graves and Eliade in tandem convinced me of the ‘shamanic’ nature of Druidry and that it might be a spiritual path capable of restoring my sanity, shattered by a severe mental breakdown in 1971. My experience of walking the Druid path for the last 47 years has powerfully reinforced these convictions. I am wary of the term ‘shamanic’ because it is so overused whilst having no widely agreed definition, hence the inverted commas. Thanks in part to Eliade, ‘shaman’ has become a catch-all term for pretty much anyone in any traditional society who undertakes healing, works magic, uses divination or otherwise tries to aid their community by means that could be described as magical or spiritual. Eliade was keen to play up what he saw as similarities between people all around the world whose practices fell under his use of ‘shaman’ as an umbrella term. He did so by being extremely selective of the material presented in his book. He has also been accused of altering or fabricating quotes to support his thesis that ‘shamanism’ represents a worldwide, and therefore very ancient, system of belief, which does not necessarily mean that the thesis itself is wrong. The use of the term became even more problematic after it was taken up by an American anthropologist, Michael Harner, in the 1970s. Harner wove together fragments of spiritual cultures from around the world to create a synthesis he called ‘global, or core shamanism.’ His California-based School of Shamanism has since taught students around the world, including in Siberia, where the term ‘shaman’ originated, but where the native practice of it had been all but wiped out by the mid-1950s. Despite my doubts about its use, the term ‘shamanic’ remains a useful shorthand that is widely understood to signify a person who engages with spiritual realms and their inhabitants in a variety of ways that could loosely be described as ‘magical.’ For me, Druids definitely fall into that category. The idea that ancient Druidry was ‘shamanistic’ has been around for a long time. The earliest reference I’ve located so far is from Welsh scholar, Sir John Rhys, in 1901. In Celtic Folklore: Welsh & Manx, he writes of “the druid, recalling as he does the magician of the Egypt of the Pentateuch and the shaman of the Mongolian world of our own time.” The whole range of primary evidence for ‘shamanistic’ practices existing in the British Isles and finding its ultimate flowering in Druidry was first gathered together by Nikolai Tolstoy in his book, The Quest for Merlin (1985). A few years later, John Matthews used the same evidence to create the first ‘how-to’ book on the subject, The Celtic Shaman (1991). The idea of the Druid-as-‘shaman’ has even gained academic respectability, featuring, for example, in The Quest for the Shaman (2005), co-authored by one of our finest Celtic scholars, Miranda Aldhouse-Green. Some evidence is archaeological, such as the antlered figure from the 1st century BCE Gundestrup cauldron, found in a Danish peat bog in 1891. In his right hand he holds a torc, the gold, silver or bronze neck-ring that was a symbol of status in Iron Age societies. In his left hand, he holds a huge, horned Serpent by the neck. His antlers may be seen as part of a ceremonial costume or as evidence that he is partway through shape-shifting into a Stag. A similar antlered figure had been etched into a stone wall in Valcamonica in Northern Italy about 300 years earlier. He also has his arms raised in the ‘orans’ gesture of prayer. A torc hangs from his right arm and a Serpent coils at his left side. Both figures are often identified as horned gods but could equally be Druids. If the latter, then their appearance is remarkably similar to that of 18th and 19th century ‘shamans’ in Siberia and their equivalents in Scandinavia. Much of the evidence drawn on by myself, Tolstoy and Matthews, however, is found in the medieval literature of Britain and Ireland. In Britain, much of it is found in the mystical poems attributed to the 6th century bard, Taliesin, but probably composed in the 12th century. The most famous of these are ‘The Battle of the Trees’ and ‘The Spoils of Annwfn.’ Taliesin refers to himself as a Druid and, in these poems, he takes on innumerable forms, many animal but some apparently inanimate objects such as a spear point or a sword. Many of his transformations sound very much like the shape-shifting undertaken in some ‘shamanic’ traditions. On first reading the Taliesin poems and that great Welsh compilation of mythology, history and folklore, the Mabinogi, in the 1970s, my initial intuition of the Druid-as-‘shaman’ seemed to be confirmed. Take, for example, the story of ‘The Lady of the Well’ where the protagonist encounters a huge, black-haired man seated on a mound in the middle of a forest who strikes a Stag, causing it to bellow, at which vast numbers of wild animals crowd into the forest grove, bow down before the black-haired man “and did homage to him as obedient men would do to their lord.” This immediately reminded me of the antlered figure on the Gundestrup cauldron who is also flanked by wild animals. The passage in ‘The Lady of the Well’ refers to many animals entering the grove, but specifies only three species, Stags, Serpents, and Lions, all of which appear on the Gundestrup cauldron. In Ireland, the evidence is scattered across a number of manuscripts, perhaps the most persuasive being those dealing with the chief Druid, Mogh Ruith, ‘Servant of the Wheel.’ Most appear in a portmanteau text called ‘The Siege of Druim Damhgaire.’ In it, Mogh Ruith wraps himself in the hide of a speckled Bull, wears a feathered cloak, flies through the air and creates magical fire-balls that he hurls at his enemies. Twenty years after I conceived of the idea of the Druid-as-‘shaman,’ final conformation came in the form of a large, adult Wolf who appeared to me during a particularly intense ceremony. He showed me how to shape-shift and walk between worlds, adding whole new dimensions to my already visionary spirituality. Because of him I now bear the craft name, Greywolf. The ceremony in which Wolf first appeared led me to explore whether the British Isles had ever had a tradition of spiritual ‘saunas.’ I discovered a tradition that began in the Neolithic, elements of which continued in rural Ireland into the late 19th century. Irish ‘sweat houses’ were sometimes located close to ancient sacred sites such as stone circles and the Hill of Tara, inauguration site of the pagan High Kings of Ireland. Their spiritual use invoked the aid of the goddess, the Morrigan, ‘Great Queen.’ Their pre-history, history and use is detailed in our Druid course. Despite all this, some question whether Druidry is ‘shamanic,’ preferring to follow the classical Greek portrayal of Druids as white-robed philosophers. The BDO vision of Druidry has room for that too. Philosophy features strongly in all our courses, particularly the ovate. But the exercise of intellect doesn’t prevent us from gathering together in our Iron Age roundhouse by the flickering firelight, drumming to open our passage between the worlds in search of visions and spirit helpers who may guide us in the realms of the Faery folk, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands. For Druidry to be of real value, it must embrace the whole of life, from the cradle to the grave and beyond. Many blessings, Greywolf /|\
“Today is the day of Bride; the Serpent shall come from its hole, I will not molest the Serpent, nor will the Serpent molest me.”
This Scottish folk charm is from Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica. The Serpent referred to is the power of life and growth which, at this time, returns to us from its long winter sleep in the Underworld. To ensure peace with the Serpent, offerings of incense, milk or mead are often made.
Bride (pronounced ‘Breed’) is Saint Bride or Brigid, an early 6th century Irish nun, often known as 'the Mary of the Gael,' and sometimes as 'Christ's foster-mother.' In Wales, she is known as Ffraid. The widespread veneration of the popular Christian saint, however, is often carried out in forms like the prayer above that hark back to an earlier Brigid, a pagan goddess whose name derives from the Proto-Celtic Brigantī, meaning 'High, or Exalted One.' Her Irish incarnation is a daughter of the great Irish father-god, the Dagda, sometimes known as 'the god of Druidry.' The pagan Irish Brigid is associated with childbirth, poetry, smithcraft, sacred wells, the brewing of ale and mead and fire. A shrine containing a perpetual fire dedicated to her and tended by women devoted to her is believed to have become a convent of nuns devoted to her Christian namesake in Kildare ('Church of the Oak') in Ireland. Folk lore and folk traditions associated with the goddess seem also to have passed over seamlessly from paganism to Christianity. The following video explores Irish customs associated with this remarkable goddess turned saint:
Moving sunwise around the sacred circle, this festival has its home in the North-East, where the elements of Earth and Air combine. It marks the first of the English cross-quarter days, Candlemas, falling on February 2nd. February 1st is celebrated in Wales as Gwyl Forwyn, 'the Feast of the Virgin,' and in Ireland as Imbolc, possibly meaning 'in bud.' It marks the time when trees are beginning to bud, the first wild flowers are appearing, and ewes begin to lactate, all of which herald the coming of Spring and the return of life to the land. It is traditionally a celebration of lights, candles being lit to illuminate homes and places of worship. As at the other quarter days, offerings of food and drink, particularly milk, are put out for the Faery Folk or poured over standing stones.
In Scottish folklore, Candlemas is the time when a White Snake, the Serpent of Bride, emerges from underground where it spends the Winter months, a potent image of life returning to the land. The huge popularity of the canonized goddess in Scotland and Ireland ensured that her festival has been celebrated in those countries for the longest time and with the greatest gusto. In Scotland, the period of Winter from Hallowe’en to Candlemas is said to be under the control of the Cailleach, a mountain-dwelling crone who blasts the land with cold winds and frosts. According to one legend, on Candlemas eve, the Cailleach returns to the Land of the Ever-Young, the Otherworld of the Faery Folk, the ancestors and the gods. There she makes her way to the Well of Youth that lies in a wood at the heart of that magical land. Before the Sun rises on Candlemas morn, she drinks from the Well, returning to our world as the beautiful goddess Bride whose touch causes the grass to green and the white and yellow flowers of early Spring to bloom. Alexander Carmichael, who collected folklore in the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, describes one Candlemas custom as follows:
“On Bride’s Eve (January 31st) the girls of the townland fashion a sheaf of corn into the likeness of a woman. They dress and deck the figure with shining shells, sparkling crystals, primroses, snowdrops, and any greenery they may obtain. A specially bright shell or crystal is placed over the heart of the figure. This is called the guiding star of Bride. The girls call the figure Bride, and carry it in procession, singing the song, Beauteous Bride, Virgin of a Thousand Charms. The Bride maiden-band are clad in white, and have their hair down, signifying purity and youth. They visit every house, and every person is expected to give a gift to Bride and make obeisance to her. The gift may be a shell, a spar, a crystal, a flower, or a bit of greenery to decorate the person of Bride. Mothers, however, give a Bride bannock, a Bride cheese, or a Bride roll of butter. Having made the round of the place, the girls go to a house to make the Bride feast. They bar the doors and secure the windows of the house, and set Bride where she may see and be seen by all. Presently the young men of the community come humbly asking permission to honour Bride. After some parleying they are admitted and make obeisance to her. “Much dancing and singing, fun and frolic are indulged in during the night. As the grey dawn of the Day of Bride breaks, they form a circle and sing the hymn, Beautiful Bride. Then they distribute the fragments of the feast among the poor women of the place.”
The arrangements for such folk celebration of Candlemas often seem to have been planned and carried out by women and girls, with men and boys being invited in if they ask nicely, behave themselves and show appropriate reverence for the goddess. At home, you might celebrate Candlemas by lighting candles and decorating your dining table with Snowdrops, Dandelions or Primroses if they are available, and with shells, crystals and other things that will sparkle and shine in the candlelight.
An archetypal emblem of Brigid in Ireland is the Brigid's Cross, woven from Willow withies, straw, reeds, grasses, etc. This symbol seems to be another pagan continuation, the cross representing the four directions and a simplified form of the Solar wheel of the year. The following video gives a step-by-step guide to making one.
In the strange, dark times we have been experiencing for the last year, the idea of light and life returning to the world in any form seems a wonderful one to embrace. When we consider that the White Serpent has ancient roots in British and Irish traditions as a bringer not only of light and life but also of health and healing, it becomes even more enticing. In our tradition, the White Serpent is the regenerative power that combats and ultimately defeats the dark Serpent that embodies disease as readily as it defeats the dark and cold of winter. The conflict between the light and dark Serpents features in the most famous of the poems attributed to the legendary 6th century bard, Taliesin. In Cad Goddeu, 'the Battle of the Trees,' illness is characterised as "A Serpent, speckled, crested, a hundred souls for their sins are tormented in his flesh," while the bard himself says, "I was a speckled Snake on a hill, I was a Viper in a lake." Taking on the form of the White Serpent of healing, the Serpent of the goddess that brings new life to the earth each Spring, Taliesin defeats the dark Serpent of disease. Hence we should invoke the White Serpent with renewed fervour this year, that the healing, life-restoring power of the goddess of springtime flows once more through the land, bringing her gifts of light, life and healing to all. So may it be!
Blessings of Gwyl Forwyn, of healing, strength and renewal, to one and all, Greywolf /|\
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.
An outstanding 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 cultures.
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 manoeuvrability. 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 wonderful weekend.
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 a Sami drum-maker 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...
I’m already 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!