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by Frank Olding
Green Magic, 2024
224 pages, Paperback, £12.99
Index

Buy it HERE!

I love this book! Had it existed 50 years ago, it would have saved me decades of rooting around in second-hand book shops and having friends search university libraries. It is the first book to bring together clear English translations of all the existing early material by or about Taliesin, the semi-mythical 6th century poet known as the primary chief bard of Britain. The 54 poems attributed to him are all here, including such well-known, mysterious and much-debated gems as Kat Godeu, ‘The Battle of the Trees,’ and Preideu Annwfyn, ‘The Spoils of Annwn.’

As well as the author’s superb new translations of these poems, verses by other hands referring to the bard are included. Plus there are four by the late 12th-early 13th century poet, Lywarch ap Llewellyn, also known (for reasons unknown) as ‘The Poet of the Pigs,’ who is the prime candidate to be the author of several of the ‘legendary’ poems attributed to Taliesin. Not only that but we also have translations of the earliest literary reference to Taliesin, from the 9th century ‘History of the Britons’; relevant sections from two medieval prose tales, ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ and ‘Branwen, daughter of Llyr’; and four different 16th and 17th century versions of the Story of Taliesin that detail his involvement with the witch-like, shape-shifting ‘ruler of bards,’ Ceridwen, brewer of the magical cauldron of inspiration, imbibing three drops from which gives Taliesin the gifts of poetry, seership and shape-shifting.

On top of all this, the author’s introduction is among the best concise introductions to medieval Welsh verse in general, and the history and legend of Taliesin in particular, that I’ve come across, conveying in 15 pages more than most writers manage in 50 or more. His introductions to the individual poems and prose pieces are equally informative, setting out briefly and clearly what is known of their authorship, historical background, characters and geographical locations referenced in them, and their overall significance. Particularly for some of the lesser-known historical poems, these introductions are invaluable. For those wishing to pursue further, the author provides footnotes linked to a very thorough, 7-page bibliography.

Frank Olding is a scholar by training, an archaeologist by profession and a poet by inclination. The last of these shines through in his wonderfully clear translations. Translating poetry is always difficult, doubly so when the originals were composed centuries ago in verse forms that rely heavily on alliteration, repetition, internal rhyme, strict syllable length and multiple meanings. Given these problems, the author’s achievement here is all the more remarkable. Here’s a small sample, from Buarth Beird, ‘The Meeting-place of Bards’:

I’m a craftsman; I’m a singer fine and clear;
I am steel, I am a Druid, seer, craftsman;
I’m a viper, I am lust, I gorge myself on learning;
I am no dumbfounded poet, I do not stammer:
when the singers sing their songs by rote,
they weave no wonder greater than myself.

Beautiful, fluent, and with no sacrifice of accuracy.

Whether your interests are in poetry, the development of verse forms, Welsh literature, British history, mythology and folklore, the bardic tradition or contemporary Druidry, you’ll find a world of wonder in these pages. As the great bard himself says:

I am Taliesin, the ardent one,
I endow the world with song:
praise-songs to the abundant wonders of the world.

Rishi Sunak, the UK's first Hindu Prime Minister, has warned of the dangers of polarisation and hatred in politics. This follows MP and former deputy leader of the Conservative Party, Lee Anderson's claim that “Islamists” have “got control of London” and of its Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, despite the fact that Khan has frequently spoken out against anti-Semitism and in support of Jewish communities in the UK and been praised by Jewish groups for doing so. Former Conservative Home Secretary and Buddhist, Suella Braverman, ramped up the divisive, anti-Islamic rhetoric still further when she wrote that "Islamists, the extremists and the antisemites are in charge now" in the UK. It seems that the Conservative Party may have a problem with Islamophobia.
All this comes at a time when Sunak's Minister for Communities, the "proud Christian", Michael Gove, has chosen to withdraw funding from the Interfaith Network, a group that has spent the last 37 years working against polarisation and hatred by bringing together representatives of different faith groups across the UK. His reason is that one of the 18 appointed trustees of the Network is a representative of the Muslim Council of Britain, a body that represents tens of thousands of British Muslims and supports hundreds of charities, including numerous schools and community groups.
Michael Gove's problem with the Muslim Council of Britain seemingly stems from an incident in 2009 when the then Labour government suspended links with the MCB after a former leading member of it is said to have signed a statement in support of the Palestinian group, Hamas, and opposing the actions of the Israeli State. The leadership of the MCB has changed several times since and no longer includes that individual and the Labour party has subsequently renewed its links with the MCB. Is a problematic statement made 15 years ago by an individual member of one organisation sufficient reason to now withdraw funding from an entirely different organisation of which that individual has never been a member and which works to promote peace and understanding between faith communities? Clearly it is not.
Since the UK Government had been the main source of funding for the Interfaith Network, the Network now has no option but to close. Well, OK, it did have the option to remove the representative of the MCB from its board of trustees. Since he has been a valued member of that board for some years and has done absolutely nothing whatsoever to warrant dismissal from it, the Network took the principled decision not to do so. To do otherwise would be to betray the fundamental principles on which the Network is founded.
Given recent events, bringing people of different faiths together has seldom been more important. Attacks on Jews and Muslims in the UK have rocketed since the terrible Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7th and the subsequent Israeli Defence Force invasion of the Gaza Strip.  This despite the fact that Jews and Muslims in the UK are clearly not responsible for either event. Is this really an appropriate time for the UK government to force the closure of the main group who have successfully worked for peace and understanding between faith groups for the last 37 years? The answer must surely be a resounding NO!
I should declare an interest, having organised and taken part in interfaith gatherings and ceremonies since the early 1990s and seen first-hand the good relationships that are forged through them.
As founder of the British Druid Order, I therefore call upon the UK government to immediately restore funding to the Interfaith Network and invite you to do the same through your local MP whose contact details can easily be found online. Write to them today and help get Michael Gove's absurd, unwarranted and divisive decision reversed. Thank you.
Yours in peace,
Philip Shallcrass (Greywolf) /|\

If this tune sounds familiar, it could be that you’re a fan of The Incredible String Band. The band's co-founder, Robin Williamson, used it for the closing track, ‘The Circle Is Unbroken,’ on their 1968 double LP, ‘Wee Tam & the Big Huge.’ I’ve loved this song since first hearing it back in the day. It's the first tune I learned to play on the penny whistle and I’ve often played and sung it during ceremonies. Some years ago Robin told me he got the tune from an Irish lament by the blind bard, Antoine Ó Raifteiri (1779-1835), who wrote it for twenty people from Annaghdown (Eanach Dhúin) who were drowned on September 4th 1828 when their boat went down while carrying them to a fair in Galway. Ó Raifteiri probably repurposed a traditional tune to make his poem into a song. Robin did the same 140 years later and these are the words Robin put to it, turning a lament of loss to an inspiring song of hope:

Seasons they change while cold blood is raining
I have been waiting beyond the years
Now over the skyline I see you’re travelling
Brothers from all time gathering here
Come let us build the ship of the future
In an ancient pattern that journeys far
Come let us set sail for the always island
Through seas of leaving to the summer stars

Seasons they change but with gaze unchanging
O deep eyed sisters is it you I see?
Seeds of beauty ye bear within you
Of unborn children glad and free
Within your fingers the fates are spinning
The sacred binding of the yellow grain
Scattered we were when the long night was breaking
But in the bright morning converse again

Why do I call it ‘The Roundhouse Tune?’ Thereby hangs a tale...

I wanted to build an Iron Age roundhouse for decades. I mentioned this whilst walking through the woods at Wild Ways with Elaine, who co-runs a retreat and crafts centre there with partner, Garth. She said, “Well why don’t you then?” Next thing I know, we’ve found a good spot, cleared away the undergrowth, felled some Ash trees for timber and started to build. We also planted and harvested an acre of long-straw wheat for thatching material.

The build took about a year and a half, working during school holidays. Many folk came to help, from visiting individuals to entire Druid camps. John Letts, who pointed me to the one remaining source for long-straw wheat seed in the UK, turned out to be an expert in medieval thatching techniques. With wonderful generosity, he taught us how to thatch.

During the build I kept playing and singing ‘The Circle is Unbroken.’ The lyrics seem so appropriate for what we were doing, which felt so much like building a “ship of the future in an ancient pattern,” using “the sacred binding of the yellow grain” for our thatch with the intention of bringing “scattered” folk together for ceremonies, celebrations and music sessions, and to “converse again.” The other-than-human population of the area seemed to appreciate the tune as well. A Wren built her nest on top of the wattle wall and raised three chicks while we rattled around, daubing the walls and thatching the roof. During breaks I would sit near the nest and play ‘The Roundhouse Tune.’ The chicks would invariably join in, twittering an uplifting chorus.

For those who like the technical stuff, the basic recording was made at Wild Ways on December 1st, 2023 using a Zoom H4n Pro Handy Recorder. I’m playing a B flat ‘Generation’ penny whistle. I added reverb and, on the second and third rounds, echo, using the Audacity audio editing suite, one of the finest examples of free, open source software on the planet. The idea for the echo came from another track I’ve loved for decades; ‘Prisms,' from the self-titled 1970 LP by the band, Quintessence, a soaringly beautiful, echo-enhanced flute solo by founder member, Raja Ram. The video was put together using another great piece of open source software, the excellent OpenShot video editor.

The still photos featured in the video date from 2008, when we started building the roundhouse, through to the present. A couple of folk who appear in them have since departed for the Otherworld. May their onward journeys be blessed. I play the tune three times. On the first round, the photos are mainly of the structure as it was being built. The second round has shots of the roof being thatched and re-thatched. The third has stills from a few of the ceremonies we've held in the roundhouse. These are from the preparatory ceremonies we make to ready the roundhouse and the lead ritualists before the later arrival of larger groups for the main ceremony. If you're intrigued by these small ceremonial snippets, check out the British Druid Order website for more on our unique, 'shamanistic' take on Druidry, Britain's oldest native religion whose name we know.

Over the years, the roundhouse has been the scene of many amazing, powerful, transformative ceremonies. One of my favourite memories is of the day we invited Robin Williamson to play there for us. Of course, he played ‘The Circle Is Unbroken’ (right). I hope my rendition of the tune does it justice and that the tune and accompanying film give a little flavour of what the roundhouse is like. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet there one day?

Many blessings,
Greywolf /|\

1

A few years ago, a group of BDO members revived a lost ceremony of Toad blessing I’d learned about while researching for the British Druid Order’s distance learning courses. A reference to it appears in Cotton MS Claudius B VII, a manuscript in the British Library that was assembled from earlier materials for Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504 - 1575, right). Its contents include (1) legal proceedings; (2) Roger of Howden, Chronicle, (3) Pseudo-Turpin, De gestis Karoli magni; ‘Prester John,’ Epistola ad Manuelem imperatorem, etc.; (4) extracts made in the time of Matthew Parker; (5) Pseudo-Dares Phrygius, De excidio Troie historia; Geoffrey of Monmouth, Prophetiae Merlini; (6) legal proceedings. It runs to 242 pages, the first half on paper (ff. 2–113), the second on parchment (ff. 1, 114–242).
In 1574, Matthew Parker left a large collection of manuscripts, mainly rescued from former monastic libraries, to his college at Cambridge. The Parker Library at Corpus Christi bears his name and houses most of his collection, with some volumes in the Cambridge University Library. Parker was the college’s Master between 1544 and 1553. He also served as chaplain to Anne Boleyn, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559–1575. He was particularly interested in collecting and preserving manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England as evidence of an ancient English-speaking church independent of Rome. His bequest to the college consisted of about 480 manuscripts and around 1000 printed books spanning the 6th to the16th centuries.
Section 4 of the MS Claudius B, ‘extracts made in the time of Matthew Parker,’ includes the following:

“In Oxfordshire on the first day of December each year is celebrated a Feast called the Blessing of the Toad, in which libations are offered to the spirit of that ill-favoured creature which, at that season, does burrow into holes in the earth, there to remain until the sun’s increasing light stirs all Nature back to life in springtime. This barbarous custom is of uncertain origin and antiquity but is said by those partaking of it to bring good fortune not only to the toads but also to those humans who engage in this antique revel in their honour. In drinking health to the beast they do cry ‘Wassail!’ and ‘Hail to the Toad!’ and other such heathen things as though the words of scripture are to them entirely unknown. In former times it is said that all orders of society, from the wealthiest lords to the lowliest peasant, observed this pagan rite. In latter years, however, it seems confined to the scholars of the colleges of Oxford town itself. Some colleges preserve the dried body of a Toad that is passed from hand to hand around the table while its health is drunk. That otherwise learned men should engage in such an idolatrous practice must surely inflame the sensibilities of all good Christian men.”

As a dedicated Cambridge man, Parker perhaps included this passage, the original source of which is not identified, in his ‘extracts’ because of the poor light he perceived it as casting on the rival scholars of Oxford.
The existence of the feast itself should not come as a surprise since Toad people have figured so strongly and persistently in British and European folklore, belief and practice. There is, for example, the existence in Wales of ‘Toad Men,’ which I first heard about in a documentary on BBC Radio 4 in the 1980s. As described in the program, the prospective Toad Man had to bury a dead Toad person in a hidden place until only the bare bones were left. Gathering those together and keeping them tightly in his hand, he sat atop a prehistoric burial mound for a whole day and night. At sunrise, he took the bones to a fast-flowing river or stream into which they were cast. All but one would be drawn downstream by the current. The one that floated against the current was caught and kept about the person. Its possession gave the owner power over all animals and entitled him to be known as a Toad Man. I subsequently found an almost identical rite existing in Germany.
Toads regularly feature as ‘familiars’ in the Witch trials of the early modern era. Mummified Toad people are sometimes found secreted in old buildings where they presumably acted as spirit guardians. The Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft has a number of them in its collection, though some were sadly lost in the flood of 2004. Then there’s the Toadstone, a jewel supposedly found in the skull of the Toad that offered protection to its owner.
Since the 16th century, Toads have been reported found alive encased in flint nodules, lumps of coal or other stones, some millions of years old. Experiments have shown that Toads can survive in small cavities inside plaster or limestone blocks for up to three years.
A ceremonial celebration of these remarkable creatures seemed well worth reviving and so we did, at Wild Ways in Shropshire during a feast held on December 1st, 2018. Elaine, our host, had a mummified Toad which was reverently passed around the table as we drank toasts to the Toad and bid it Wassail.
Our ceremony was evidently effective as several of those present, myself included, saw toads in the days immediately following. First was Adam who, while driving home that night, was amazed to see a huge Toad person, the largest he’d ever seen, leap across the road in the beam of his headlights. I saw a Toad the following day outside the front of the house where the feast was held. Three other celebrants had Toad encounters either that day or the next.
So, Hail the Toad! Wassail!
Greywolf /|\

How was everyone’s Calan Mai? My big news for May Day this year is the completion of the three-year-long revision of the British Druid Order’s bardic course. It took that long because there are big changes from the first version, which went online in 2011. One major improvement is that we now include brilliant new translations of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, both versions of the Story of Taliesin and many of the poems from the Book of Taliesin, including ‘The Battle of the Trees’ and ‘The Spoils of Annwn,’ plus my own new translations of some key Irish texts, along with extensive new introductions, commentaries and notes that clarify the background to all of them, the meanings embedded in them, weaving them into the fabric of modern Druidry. We've also retired the 12th century font we were using for the medieval material. It may have been period-appropriate, but too many people found it hard to read. We've therefore replaced it with good old Times New Roman, the same font as the rest of the course material.
Having continued researching for the 12 years since the course first went online, a lot of new information has come to light that has been incorporated into the courses. Many new books on relevant areas have been published too, all of which I’ve tried to get hold of. I’ve been expanding my craft skills too, so there’s lots more on bardic music and medieval instrument-making. The section on bardic poetry has been significantly expanded too, with assistance from Derwydd Newydd, who also created our new Taliesin translations.
There’s a lot of new material about Welsh and Irish bardic schools too, a subject that’s been curiously neglected in mainstream scholarship although the ruins of a few survive as do many copies of bardic teaching materials, most of which seem to be unpublished and untranslated. I’ve done my best to bring together as many scraps as I could find.
As well as a great deal of new material, a lot of the existing sections have been updated and expanded. The booklet on seasonal folk customs, festivals and celebrations, for example, contains vastly more material. Courtesy of Derwydd, we also now offer an entire ceremony bilingually in Welsh and English. The booklets on ancestry are also hugely expanded.
Despite 12 years having passed and the revised course have doubled the amount of content, we are still charging the same for our courses that we were changing in 2011.
We had a good bardic course before the update, some saying it was the best available. The new version should convince any remaining doubters. I’m quite proud of it, and I don’t really do pride. I think it’s streets ahead of any other course available on the modern bardic tradition in its range, depth of scholarship, respect for its source material, and its practicality. And I’m not just saying that as the editor and main contributor, I genuinely believe it’s true.
As ever, my heartfelt thanks go out to my fellow contributors, Derwydd Newydd, Sioned Davies, Emma Restall Orr, Andy Letcher, Adam Sargant, Elaine Gregory et al, first magnitude stars one and all!
You can see a free 20-page sample of the course if you CLICK HERE
Blessings of Calan Mai,
Greywolf /|\

I love books. It's been a dream of mine since I was a kid to see my name on the spine of a really nicely produced hardback book. Well, it took a while, but I finally made it! The first edition of Druidry: A Practical & Inspirational Guide was a modest little paperback that came out in 2000 (above left). Despite being written as an introductory book, I was delighted to hear that even old hands in the Pagan and Druid worlds had found inspiration in it. It's also been a joy to run into those for whom it was their first introduction to Druidry and who were inspired to follow it as a path ever since.

A completely unexpected consequence of its publication came in 2011 when I was contacted by the organisers of the London 2012 Paralympics with a request to use parts of a ceremony included in the book in their closing ceremony. This put BDO Druidry on the same bill as Coldplay and Rhianna, broadcast to a worldwide audience of millions. See the Druid bits on https://youtu.be/eNE8PTgsjWk

23 years on, the new edition is more than twice the length of the first and is a rather beautiful 6 x 9 inch hardback, bound in dark blue cloth with gold lettering on the spine, enclosed in a tough wraparound jacket bearing a gorgeous photo of yours truly on the front, courtesy of ace Druid photographer, Elaine Gregory. It's illustrated, which the first edition wasn't, including photos of modern Druids, sketches and etchings of earlier ones, a Romano-Celtic bronze of an even earlier one and some of my own artwork and that of Druid friends. It's beautifully laid out, printed in a lovely clear typeface and has an index. All made possible by the decision to self-publish.

The contents follow the same pattern as the first edition, beginning with a general introduction to Druidry and how the modern tradition came to exist in its current form. Subsequent sections cover the bardic, ovate and Druid paths in more detail, covering (among other things) myths, legends and poetry, seership and divination, seasonal celebrations, ritual and shape-shifting.

While retaining much from the earlier edition, this new one benefits greatly from 23 years more experience of living Druidry and 17 years of research and writing done for the British Druid Order's distance learning courses. Among other things, it features new and more accurate translations of the names of the letters of the Ogham alphabet, insights into the origins of various pieces of Druidic liturgy and the modern Pagan Wheel of the Year, new translations from Taliesin poems by Welsh poet, Frank Olding, and my own new translations of some key Irish texts, including the Song of Amergin.

Published on Alban Eilir, March 20th, it's doing pretty well even though, for reasons unknown, Amazon seem to be either listing it as unavailable or selling it with a huge mark-up for postage. Fortunately, other online booksellers are doing better. It's also available from the British Druid Order webshop at the published price of £25.99 and at a reduced postage rate, which seems like a good idea given how ridiculously expensive postage is these days.

Publishing a book is a strange business, like nailing your soul to a wooden door in a busy market place and inviting strangers to hurl dung at it, particularly since the proliferation of social media platforms that thrive on abuse. I can't pretend it's not worrying but went ahead and published anyway largely because of the positive effect the first edition had on so many people's lives and the belief that the new edition improves on it in so many ways and might therefore also have a positive impact on at least some readers. I commend it to your tender mercies.

Many blessings,
Greywolf /|\

Writing on music for the British Druid Order's bardic course rekindled a long-standing love of medieval instruments and the enchanting sounds they create. I’ve written previously about my recreation of a ‘lost’ stringed instrument played in medieval Ireland and Wales called the timpan, or tiompan. Encouraged by that reconstruction turning out reasonably playable, thoughts turned to the type of harp that might have accompanied bardic performances of the tales that make up the Mabinogi, or recitals of the songs of Taliesin, in 12th century Wales.

Here we’re on more certain ground than with the timpan, which is variously suggested to have been a hand-drum, a bowed lyre, a strummed lyre, a hammered dulcimer, a banjo and (by me) a long-necked lute. Everyone agrees that the 12th century Welsh harp was a triangular instrument of a type recognisably the ancestor of the modern harp. Its most common form was the telyn rawn, ‘horse-hair harp.’ The word telyn may actually be Irish in origin, from Gaelic teilinn, ‘the buzzing of bees.’ The story goes that the ruler of Gwynedd, Gruffudd ap Cynan (circa 1055-1137), brought Irish harpers over to North Wales who disparagingly referred to Welsh harps as teilinn, ‘buzzing.’ Irish harps were commonly strung with brass not horse-hair. This in itself could account for the difference in sound noted by Gruffudd’s Irish harpers, but I wonder if Welsh makers might have fitted bray pins to their instruments. Bray pins are little flag-shaped pegs inserted into the soundboard next to strings in such a way that they can be moved to almost touch the strings, producing a distinct buzzing sound. As you’ll hear from this video, the sound of the bray harp is quite unlike the dulcet tones of modern harps:

Discussing telyn rawn with Ian Pittaway on his excellent early music blog led me to wonder if, rather than bray pins fitted to the soundboard, medieval Welsh harp-makers might have inserted or attached something to the instrument’s neck that produced a similar buzzing effect.

On the bray sound, Ian cites the very early example of the ‘bull-headed lyres’ of Ur, Sumerian instruments dating from around 2500 BCE, of which complete examples have been found. Their bray-like effect is produced by the strings vibrating against the upper part of the bridge, as in this video where a reconstructed instrument is played:

For those sufficiently interested, here’s a longer video in which historical musicologist, Richard Dumbrill, talks about the discovery, reconstruction, tuning and spiritual and cosmological significance of the lyres of Ur:

Also mentioned by Ian is an instrument that looks and sounds as though it’s ancestors were modelled on the lyres of Ur; the Ethiopian begena or bèguèna, whose extraordinary sound can be heard in this video:

This next video shows a begena being made as well as played:

The lack of a bridge is one of the key things that differentiates a harp from a lyre. On harps, the strings go directly into the soundbox without passing over a bridge. There is no evidence that the telyn rawn was anything other than a harp, in which case we can rule out a bridge. Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t something else on it that produced a sound similar to the lyres of Ur or the begena. Once I’ve completed my telyn rawn, I’ll try a few options to see what works best. One possibility, since the soundboard was traditionally made from horse hide, is that strips of rawhide could have been attached to the neck, perhaps to the tuning pegs, so as to vibrate against the strings.

It’ll take a while to get that far though. This is where I’ve got to to date:

Following medieval harp-makers, I’m using a single block of wood. In this case, it’s from a 600-year-old oak who fell a while ago in woodland owned by my friend, Elaine. Elaine’s partner, Garth, has been a cabinet-maker for about 70 years, has a generous nature and a well-stocked workshop. It’s largely down to his expertise that we managed to render a very rough-hewn lump of oak into what is now starting to look quite like a harp. If we were following ancient techniques, we’d have burnt out the hollow for the soundbox then finished it with hand tools. Lacking the time and unwilling to risk our sole piece of oak to fire, we used a circular saw supplemented by hand sawing and electric drills. We took a slice off the back and another off the base to be glued back on later. Not quite a single block technique then, but close-ish.

Yesterday, I finished drilling out the soundholes. On medieval harps, these were invariably down the sides of the instrument, not on the back as in modern harps. Noting that the sides of the soundbox are warping and cracking in places, I clamped everything together apart from the base to try and prevent any further warping that might damage the chances of gluing everything back together again.

There’s still a lot to do. The upper insides of the soundbox need reducing in thickness, the shoulders where the soundbox joins the neck need shaping, a forepillar needs making and jointing into place, as does a pin strip. I need to decide what kind of tuning pegs to use and drill and shape holes through the neck to hold them. The front of the soundbox will then be covered with a rawhide soundboard made from a Red Deer hide. I’ll then make the strings by twisting horse hairs together. Only after fitting them will I finally hear what it sounds like and be able start experimenting to produce the desired buzzing sound.

Meanwhile, here’s a video of Rhodri Davies playing a reconstructed telyn rawn without brays or other buzz-producing fittings.

Sounds great, and beautifully played, but lacks the buzzing quality of the Sumerian or Ethiopian instruments, or of later medieval bray harps. That this was a feature of Welsh harps in which bards took particular pride is suggested by Andrew Borde (c. 1490-1549), who wrote in The First Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge,

“If I have my harp I care for no more.
It is my treasure, I keep it in store;
For my harp is made of a good mare’s skin;
The strings be of horsehair, it maketh a good din.
My song, and my voice, and my harp doth agree,
Much like the buzzing of a humble bee.”

Now that’s what I’m after!

Many blessings,

Greywolf /|\

2

I published a book with the above title back in 2000. That's it on the left. The circumstances under which it was written were, to say the least, unusual. Ellie, my wife of 15 years, was suffering from Acute Myeloid Leukemia. At the time of publication, she was in a London teaching hospital, recovering from the second time her medical team told me she had less than 48 hours to live. She died some months later. Between caring for Ellie and looking after our two children, then aged 5 and 7, I had neither the time nor the inclination to do publicity for the book. It therefore failed to sell in the numbers the publishers required and they pulped most of the print run. This gave it rarity value so that used copies have subsequently changed hands online for between £20 and £1000.

Friends have often urged me to bring out a new edition. For the last 16 years, however, my writing has been almost entirely for the British Druid Order's distance learning courses. With all three courses now complete and online, work on them now consists of revising and updating, leaving more time for other things, hence the new edition taking shape on my hard drive.

The first edition was well received despite the word limit set by the original publisher meaning it wasn't possible to go into the sort of depth I wanted. Even so, I've heard from folk who discovered Druidry through my little book and have pursued it as a spiritual path ever since. I've also heard from Pagans with decades of experience who tell me it gave them new perspectives on the Druid tradition.

My experience with the first edition persuaded me to self-publish this time, so no word limit and the choice of what to include is entirely my own. Yay! I also have complete control over how the book will look, from choosing the typeface to designing the cover (right click and select 'open in new tab' to enlarge it). Running the new cover past BDO course students, it met with overwhelming approval. I chose the photo, by Elaine Gregory, for several reasons. First, it's good. Second, it captures something of what the BDO is about, emphasizing what's often called our 'shamanic' approach to Druidry. Third, it is diametrically opposite to the common public perception of Druids wearing white robes and bathed in early morning sunlight at Stonehenge. The chosen image is much more in keeping with the lived experience of modern Druidry, which is of a solitary practitioner communing directly with the spirits of place, the natural world, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands. Fourth, the picture was taken in our Iron Age roundhouse, an incredibly powerful place in which to make such communion.

I hope to have the new edition available this summer. It is almost twice the length of the first and, while retaining the same title, basic structure, chapter headings and practical exercises, the text has been largely re-written as well as greatly expanded. As with the first edition, the intention is to bring the BDO vision of Druidry to the wider world because we believe it has a part to play in making our world a better place in which to live. In this time of threatening war and global warming, Druidry's long traditions of pacifism and deep green spirituality have seldom been more relevant or more vital.

Many blessings,

Greywolf /|\

(The following is extracted from the British Druid Order bardic course, booklet 17)

Hare by Albrecht Durer“Harshness vanished. A sudden softness
has replaced the meadows’ wintry grey.
Little rivulets of water changed
their singing accents. Tendernesses,
hesitantly, reach toward the earth
from space, and country lanes are showing
these unexpected subtle risings
that find expression in the empty trees.”

‘Early Spring,’ Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).

The east, elemental Air, marks the spring equinox, Welsh Alban Eilir, ‘the Birth of the Fresh (or Green) Quarter,’ which falls on or about March 21st (September 21st in the southern hemisphere). In Western astrology, the Sun is now said to be entering the zodiacal sign of Aries, the Ram. In Vedic and Sidereal astrology, however, which are based on the actual position of the Sun relative to the stars, the Sun is entering the sign of Pisces, the Fishes. On the morning of the equinox, at least in the British Isles and equivalent latitudes, the Sun rises directly in the east. Day and night are of equal length. The divine child born at Midwinter now begins to develop as an individual, independent of its parents, still wide-eyed with wonderment but no longer content just to observe. Now the child is eager to experience all that the world has to offer. This is a time of balance between the long nights of winter and the long days of summer. Balance is a temporary state and, at this time, it is about to tip in favour of summer.

There is not a great deal of evidence for the marking of the equinoxes in British and Irish prehistory. A possible exception is the West Kennett Long Barrow (below) where, from floor plans, personal observation sitting atop the mound and compass readings taken both inside and above the chambers, the central passage seems to be aligned on the equinoctial sunrise. I say ‘seems to be’ because two things render accurate assessment difficult. One is that an enormous sarsen slab, some nine feet high and of similar width, stands across the entrance, blocking the light of the Sun from entering the passage. The other is that the passageway and chambers as we now have them are as reconstructed by the Ministry of Works following excavation of the site by Richard Atkinson and Stuart Piggott in 1955-6. When the excavation began, the passage and chambers were in a sorry state, the roof stones fallen in and the walls collapsed. Piggott numbered each sarsen stone as it was removed during the dig but there is some doubt as to whether his numbering was followed when the tomb-shrine was rebuilt. The roof was built from scratch, using sarsens found in situ but also a number of new sarsen slabs brought in for the purpose. The idea had been to reconstruct the passage and chambers as they were when the site was first created in the Neolithic era but there is considerable doubt as to whether anything like this aim was achieved and it seems that neither Atkinson nor Piggott were happy with the result.

West Kennett Long Barrow - photo by Greywolf

Although the basic alignment of the central passageway is unlikely to have been significantly altered during reconstruction, the entrance seems to have been drastically remodelled. The default for chambered tomb-shrines is for their entrances to be small and narrow enough to make access difficult. The Ministry of Works, however, wanted the entrance at West Kennett wide open to make visitor access easier. Unless records of the 1955-6 excavations show what the entrance was originally like, gauging its original size and position is impossible. Taking a middle line down the centre of the passage, the alignment is about 6 degrees south of east. A narrower entrance only slightly offset from the centre of the present one would, then, have allowed the equinoctial sunrise to fully illuminate the large rear inner chamber, even allowing for the fact that the Earth’s axis has tilted by about half a degree in the last 5,000 years. A narrow entrance in the exact centre of the current one would allow the same to occur about nine days from the equinox.

Clive Ruggles has set out the difficulties involved in calculating the equinoxes in prehistory. Deriving their exact timing by observing the position of sunrise would depend on having an absolutely flat horizon to work from, so any such alignment would necessarily be an approximation. Ruggles also reminds us of the difficulty of discerning what the equinoxes might have meant to our prehistoric ancestors. As so often in our exploration of the deeper roots of Druidry, we are left to speculate based on much later sources. We do have clear evidence that our ancestors throughout the British Isles recognised and marked the two solstices, so it may be that the equinoxes, being halfway between the solstices, were also of interest to them. Possible equinoctial alignments in the Orkneys include the stone circle known as Callanish 1 and the Cuween tomb-shrine.

Loughcrew, Ireland

At least one certain prehistoric equinoctial sunrise alignment does exist, dated to the 4th millennium BCE. This is at Cairn T, the largest of a group of megalithic tomb-shrines at Loughcrew, near Oldcastle in County Meath, Ireland (above). The stone first illuminated by the rays of the rising Sun is etched with more than a dozen Sun Stone, Loughcrewsymbols that may represent the Sun (left). Those with ‘rays’ have either four, eight or nine. Another prominent decoration is of ‘fish-bone,’ or ‘rib-cage’ patterns enclosed, or partially enclosed, in ovoid cartouches. These have either seven or eight horizontal lines crossing an upright central stem. One of the largest stones lining the passage has a surface pock-marked with numerous deep, circular holes. When the cairn was excavated, a number of chalk balls found at the foot of the stone were found to fit exactly into these holes. It has been suggested that these may have represented stars against the darker surface of the stone ‘sky.’

The range of hills on which Cairn T stands is Slieve na Calliagh, ‘the Cailleach’s Mountain.’ The Cailleach is the Hag of Winter who rules the year’s winter half, from Nos Galan Gaeaf (Hallowe’en) to Calan Mai (May Day). Cairn T itself is called the Hag’s Cairn or the Tomb of the Ollamh Fodhla. Fodhla is one of three goddesses who gave their names to the island of Ireland. Ollamh Fodhla, ‘Professor of the Goddess of Ireland,’ whose given name was Eochaid, was a prehistoric pagan High King of Ireland said to be the originator of a dynasty that ruled for seven generations. He is said to have originated the Feis Temrach, ‘the Feast of Tara,’ a week-long gathering held every three years at which laws were promulgated, disputes settled, oaths made and bonds renewed.

Rather than celebrating the day itself, the spring equinox has long been used to calculate the beginning of a celebratory period marking the return of life to the land after the long darkness of winter. The date of the Christian festival of Easter is still calculated from the first full Moon after the spring equinox. This method of calculation, combining the cycles of Sun and Moon, is first recorded in Sumeria more than 4,000 years ago, where the New Year festival of Akitu, devoted to the Moon-god, Nanna, was celebrated over twelve days beginning with the first appearance of the new Moon after the spring equinox and ending with the full Moon.

Born in the Underworld, Nanna is the child of the sky-father, Enlil, and the corn-mother, Ninlil, conceived as Ninlil is bathing in a sacred river. This is reminiscent of the coupling of the Morrigan (‘Great Queen’) and the Dagda (‘Good God’), which takes place when the Dagda comes across the Morrigan bathing in the River Unius in Ireland. The Dagda is father to the Irish god of love, Aengus Og, and of Brigid, the patroness of bards. Nanna fathers the Sun-god, Shamash, and the love goddess,Inanna Inanna (right), associated with the planet Venus, love and fertility. These three formed the holy trinity of the ancient Near East, a position they retained for more than a thousand years. A British equivalent of Nanna may be Nudd (or Lludd) Llaw Ereint (‘of the Silver Hand’), Irish Nuada Airgetlam, or possibly Gwyn ap (‘son of’) Nudd, “whom God has placed over the brood of devils in Annwn, lest they should destroy the present race.” Gwyn is ruler of both the Underworld of the Dead and the Otherworld of the Faery Folk. His name means ‘white,’ with connotations of ‘sacred.’

Some believe the celebration of Easter to be a Christian adaptation of a festival devoted to a goddess of springtime and fertility called Ēostre in Anglo-Saxon, Ôstara in Old High German. Her name survives in the old Northumbrian dialect name for the month of April, Ēosturmōnaþ, ‘Ēostre’s month.’ Her name seems to derive from a Proto-Germanic word meaning ‘dawn, or morning.’ It has been suggested that the egg and the Moon-gazing March Hare were symbolic of her. In British folk tradition, the expression, “mad as a March Hare,” is based on the courtship displays of male Hares who, at this time of year, may be seen leaping in the air, racing around in circles and engaging in what look like boxing matches with each other. The Hare is recognised as a sacred animal of the Moon in cultures from Britain to China. One of the most famous appearances of a Hare in a native British spiritual context occurs in Cassius Dio’s description of the revolt of Boudica and her Iceni tribe against Roman occupation in 60 CE. Cassius gives the following speech to Boudica as she rallies her troops for battle:

“... we have ... been despised and trampled underfoot by men who know nothing else than how to secure gain. ... let us ... do our duty while we still remember what freedom is, that we may leave to our children not only its appellation but also its reality. ... Have no fear whatever of the Romans; for they are superior to us neither in numbers nor in bravery. ... Furthermore, this region is familiar to us and is our ally, but to them it is unknown and hostile. As for the rivers, we swim them naked, whereas they do not across them easily even with boats. Let us, therefore, go against them trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.”
When she had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Buduica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee as woman speaking to woman; for I rule over no burden-bearing Egyptians as did Nitocris, nor over trafficking Assyrians as did Semiramis ..., much less over the Romans themselves as did Messalina once and afterwards Agrippina and now Nero (who, though in name a man, is in fact a woman, as is proved by his singing, lyre-playing and beautification of his person); nay, those over whom I rule are Britons, men that know not how to till the soil or ply a trade, but are thoroughly versed in the art of war and hold all things in common, even children and wives, so that the latter possess the same valour as the men. As the queen, then, of such men and of such women, I supplicate and pray thee for victory, preservation of life, and liberty against men insolent, unjust, insatiable, impious, - if, indeed, we ought to term those people men who bathe in warm water, eat artificial dainties, drink unmixed wine, anoint themselves with myrrh, sleep on soft couches with boys for bedfellows, - boys past their prime at that, - and are slaves to a lyre-player and a poor one too. Wherefore may this Mistress Domitia-Nero reign no longer over me or over you men; let the wench sing and lord it over Romans, for they surely deserve to be the slaves of such a woman after having submitted to her so long. But for us, Mistress, be thou alone ever our leader.”

I’ve included the whole of Boudica’s address to Andraste as it is one of the few records we have of a native British prayer from this era, albeit recorded many years later by a writer who did not himself witness the events described. Boudica referring to the land of her birth as an ally certainly has a good, Druidical ring to it. Likening the Romans to Hares and Foxes and her own people to Dogs and Wolves also has an authentically animistic feel. Divining by observing the movements of a Hare is also in keeping with both ancient European paganism and more recent folklore. The release of the Hare being immediately followed by Boudica’s honouring of Andraste has led many to suppose that the Hare was sacred to Andraste and that, since the Hare is widely acknowledged as a sacred animal of the Moon, Andraste must have been a goddess of the Moon. The name Andraste may derive from Proto-Celtic *anderā, ‘young woman’ and *ster, ‘star,’ giving the meaning ‘Young Woman of the Stars,’ a reasonable name for a Moon goddess and one that would place her in a family of star goddesses among whom we would place the Welsh Arianrhod, whose name means ‘Silver Wheel’ and who is linked with the circlet of stars known as the Northern Crown (Latin Corona Borealis), called Caer Arianrhod in Welsh.

For a time, it did indeed seem as though the Hare was right, that Andraste and the gods favoured the Iceni and that Boudicca might actually succeed in driving the Roman occupiers out of Britain.

Traditional celebrations at this festival include decorating the house and your altar with Spring flowers, decorating and giving eggs as representations of fertility and rebirth, and baking and sharing hot cross buns, the cross representing the four major stations of the Moon; new, first quarter, full and last quarter. Hot cross buns were made in ancient Egypt in honour of the Moon. A tasty and thoroughly pagan example of quartering the circle.

Many blessings,
Greywolf /|\

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved.

2

The question of whether or not to robe for ceremonies is one that often arises amongst newcomers to Druidry, usually accompanied by questions as to what type of robes are appropriate. As with so much else, the answers to these questions vary widely between different Druid groups. The Welsh Gorsedd (founded in 1792) led the way among Druid revivalists with regard to robes and remain one of the few groups to insist on the wearing of robes during public ceremonies (see the video). Their founder, the itinerant stonemason, folklorist and poet, Edward Williams, better known by his bardic name, Iolo Morganwg, assigned different colours to the three grades of his bardic order as follows:

“The Bard wore a sky blue robe, to signify peace; the Druid wore white, denoting holiness; and the Ovate green, which was an emblem of progress.”
(Barddas, vol. 1, page lvii; vol. 2, pages 24-29)

The Ancient Druid Order (founded circa 1907) followed the Welsh Gorsedd in assigning the same colours to its three grades, and its offshoot, the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids (founded 1964), continued the tradition, both from its original foundation and its later reformation under the leadership of Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. Early OBOD course material recommended a basic robe of white with tabards of blue for a bard, green for an ovate, worn over it.

So far, so good, except that Iolo, for all his many excellent qualities, was a highly imaginative laudanum addict and a prolific forger of the supposedly ancient documents in which he claimed to have found his entire system of Druidry set out. The colours he assigned to the various grades had little basis beyond his fertile imagination.

When dreaming the British Druid Order into being in the 1970s, I looked to what classical Greek and Roman writers had written about Druids 2,000 years ago. The most famous ancient description of a Druid ceremony is undoubtedly that of Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (1st century CE). He writes that, “A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the [Oak] tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe.” It struck me that if a priest is going to clamber into the branches of an Oak tree to cut mistletoe from it, the chances are he would be young and agile rather than a wizened sage, a youthful bard rather than an aged Druid. White having traditionally been connected with purity and innocence also suggested youth. So I settled on a white robe as the BDO’s bardic costume.

I then found a translation of a poem by the 1st century CE writer, Strabo, in which he refers to Druids wearing red robes trimmed with gold. I’ve since been unable to track down the quote, but it was enough to suggest adopting a long red, sleeveless tunic as our ovate vestment. Red, being the colour of blood, is associated with the cycles of life, including the menstrual cycle with its lunar associations, and the ovate path is the path of natural philosophy, learning from life.

My third classical source was the Roman historian, Tacitus, whose account of Roman legions attacking the Druid isle of Anglesey in 61 CE (Annals XIV, 29-30) tells us that “Along the shore stood the enemy in a close-packed array of armed men interspersed with women dressed like Furies in funeral black, with streaming hair and brandishing torches.” It has long been conjectured that these women were Druid devotees of a native Raven or Crow goddess. If so, it is possible that their black dress took the form of cloaks that would flap like dark wings. Add traditional European associations of black with old age and death and a black cloak seemed suitable garb for a BDO Druid. The fact that this white, red and black colour scheme has associations with the modern Pagan concept of a triple goddess as Maiden (white), Mother (red) and Crone (black) was an added bonus.

Prior to the arrival of my first Wolf-skin cloak in 1994 then, my accustomed gear for public ceremonies was an unbleached woollen robe, a long, red velvet tunic with gold satin lining and a hooded black woollen cloak.

Subsequent research added further possibilities. The archaeology of Iron Age Europe reveals the popularity of tartan-like woven cloth and images of bards show them wearing long, tight-sleeved tunics and trousers made from cloth with a diagonal, tartan-like weave (right). Enough of these exist to suggest that this combination of tunic and trousers was the standard clothing of bards from around 900 BCE through to at least the 1st century CE. Classical sources refer to the bardocucullus, a short woollen travelling cloak with a hood whose name suggests it was favoured by bards as they travelled around the country.

A bronze figurine from Western France (right) is our most likely representation of a late Iron Age Druid in ceremonial dress. He sports a neatly trimmed beard and wears a loose-fitting, knee-length robe with wide sleeves that appears to be plain apart from a decorated edging around the lower hem.

A number of crowns have been found in the British Isles, formed from a circlet of sheet bronze over which rises a crossed arch made from two strips of the same metal (below). It has been speculated that these were part of the ceremonial regalia of Druids. This make sense to me as there is evidence for a native belief that a place on the crown of the head allows the ‘breath of life’ to pass in and out of the body, making it peculiarly vulnerable to attack.

Medieval Irish sources suggest that social status was indicated by, among other things, the number of colours one wore. Given the high social status of bards and Druids, one might, therefore, expect some spectacularly multi-hued garments.

There are, then, a range of possibilities for Druid robes and regalia that have at least some basis in history, whether from the early Bronze Age or the Druid revivals that began in the 18th century.

Some Druid group simplify things by settling for just a white robe, usually hooded, sometimes embroidered with symbols or otherwise decorated.

Many Druids, however, probably the majority, don't wear robes at all, preferring everyday clothing, albeit often augmented by decoration or jewellery suggestive of their spirituality.

Few Druid groups insist on robes, even for formal public ceremonies. The only two I can think of are the Welsh Gorsedd and the Ancient Druid Order. OBOD recommend robes for public ceremonies but don’t, as far as I’m aware, insist on them. In the BDO, we pretty much wear whatever seems best and are happy for others to do the same.

Over the years, we have increasingly adopted clothing that speaks of our personal spiritual paths. So I often wear a dark green linen tunic bearing tokens of my alignment with Wolf spirit. I have a second Wolf-skin cloak that came to me at a time of particular need a decade after the first and wear this when it feels right. I have a dance cloak (left) bearing images of Wolves drawn from a medieval manuscript.

For the first open, multi-faith Gorsedd ceremony in Volunteer Park in Seattle, my friend, Leon Reed, sent out a message asking potential participants to, as he put it, “wear your power,” that is to don whatever ritual gear best expressed their spiritual path and made them feel most strongly connected with it. This struck me as a brilliantly inspiring phrase. I’ve since adopted it as my own policy, wearing whatever seems right for the ceremony or other event I’m taking part in. I’m very happy for others to do the same, and they usually do. This means that BDO ceremonies tend to be quite colourful affairs.

Having long believed that ancient Druids were the North-west European equivalent to shamans in other cultures, some BDO ceremonies call for a “wearing of power” that can take on a decidedly ‘shamanistic’ look, with the wearing of animal tokens, costumes or actual hides, face and body painting and other adornments (below).

What you choose to wear as a bard, ovate or Druid, then, depends on many things. One is which group or order you belong to and what their policy is. Another is which, if any, historical inspirations you draw on, from prehistoric archaeology to 21st century Druid courses. Another is what works for you personally, spiritually, psychologically and aesthetically. As said, some Druids eschew robes altogether, preferring plain street clothes. Others, myself included, kinda like dressing up, although it is, for us, always dressing up with a purpose. Donning special items of clothing for particular types of ceremony enhances the specialness of the occasion, focuses us on what needs to be done, and physically reminds us of our spiritual connections, thereby strengthening and enhancing them.

Leon’s expression still sums it up best though: “wear your power!”

Many blessings,

Greywolf /|\