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!
Here's a quote from the British Druid Order ovate course booklet, The Ways of the Gods. It seems particularly relevant in the light of recent events that have seen a tiny, destructive minority of fanatical members of each of the big three monotheistic faiths invoking scriptural authority to justify violence against others, sometimes succeeding in dragging whole nations along with them. I'm thinking not only of the 9/11 attacks and those that have followed in its wake, but of the continuing strife between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a tragic list that could all too easily be extended:
'I see no harm in applying rigorous analysis to systems of belief. On the contrary, it seems to me a good and useful thing to do. I do so for my own beliefs and feel no sense of threat when others do the same. I admire and enjoy the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who regard all religious beliefs as absurd and dangerous delusions. They are intelligent men who write, and argue their cases, well. I agree with much of what they say and would be happy to debate amicably with them over points of disagreement. As an intelligent, enquiring Pagan, I do not see blind faith as being an adequate substitute for provable fact or observable reality. My own beliefs are based on observations that have been subjected to repeated analysis over a period of half a century or so, as a result of which they have continually changed and evolved as new information has become available and new observations have been made. 'By contrast, some adherents of the big three monotheisms seem to feel deeply and personally threatened by any attempt at objective analysis of the background to their faiths, or any deviation from those faiths, often responding with death threats or actual violence, up to and including murder on an industrial scale. The history of Europe is littered with examples of the latter, from the murder of pagan priests in late Imperial Rome, through bloody campaigns against Christian heretics (right) and 16th century Witch-hunts to the Nazi Holocaust.
'The underlying cause of such deep-seated and destructive insecurity can only be fear; fear of change allied with a fear of being shown to be wrong. What is wrong with being wrong? Surely the path towards ultimate truth requires us to question each step along the way, rejecting those that prove wanting so that we can move on? 'The difference here is one that has been characterised by Robert Anton Wilson (left) as that between dogma and catma. Wilson, co-author with Robert Shea of the Illuminatus! trilogy (Dell Publishing, 1975), said that “Discordians don't have dogmas, which are absolute beliefs; we have catmas which are relative meta-beliefs.” In other words, religious dogmas are regarded as absolute and therefore restrictive of freedom of thought, while Discordian catmas, through not being hard and fast but constantly subject to change and revision, actively encourage freedom of thought.
Discordianism is an absurdist, surrealist, Dadaist religion that Wilson, Shea and others created inspired by the philosophy and spirituality of late 1960s youth culture. I find the idea of catmas admirable and inspiring, while I have always had a problem with dogmas, which is why the BDO promotes the former and rejects the latter. We both expect and encourage you to regard our course material as a series of catmas that you can either take or leave depending on how well or otherwise they resonate with your own experience of the world. We actively encourage a questioning approach to the world in general, and anything we say in particular.
'Incidentally, Wilson also said that “Most religious people take themselves too damn seriously, which is why they act like such damn fools. I'm using the word damn for the paradoxical effect.” I like him.'
Since October 20th, I've been helping to thatch a pair of Iron Age roundhouses at the Museum of Welsh Life in St. Fagans, not far from Cardiff in South Wales. The Museum has a 100 acres of grounds, in which are buildings from many parts of Wales and many eras of Welsh history, including a church, a water mill, stone cottages and Victorian shops. The roundhouses I'm working on are based on the archaeology of a site on Angelsey, that legendary Druidic isle. I'm sharing a cottage nearby with two friends, Ken and John, both of whom helped build my roundhouse in Shropshire. John is an expert in ancient thatching methods and taught me to thatch. Both the roundhouses we're working on are bigger than mine. One is 38 feet in diameter, the other 45. Mine's just 22 internally, 28 to the outside of the eaves. The larger of the two at St. Fagans is over 28 feet tall, ten feet taller than mine. We have just eight weeks to thatch them both. Since no one knows how Iron Age roofs were constructed, we're using a method that has historical precedent in the medieval period. Working on a base of hazel and willow wattle, we're weaving in a thick layer of gorse. Over this, we'll lay a thin coat of heather, pressing down on it to compact the gorse. Then we'll stuff straw into this base coat in a process called, appropriately, stuff-thatching.
I've been meeting lots of interesting folk here. We have groups of volunteers helping out, including archaeology students and guys on probation. Then there are the archaeological consultants on the project and Ian, the resident Iron Age reenactor, who's building an 18 foot wicker man this week to be burned at Hallowe'en. It's a public event here at the Museum and you're welcome to come along. It starts at 4pm on the 31st. I love thatching, and roundhouses. I hope to bring some Druidry to these two when they're complete, giving talks and maybe workshops and ceremonies. I'm weaving Druidry into it as we work. A time-lapse camera is set up to photograph the site every 30 minutes. This morning it caught me invoking gods, including Arianrhod of the starry skies and Gwydion, antlered lord of forests. Appropriate, I think, to the setting of a Museum of Welsh Life.
Blessings to all, and have a wondrous Hallowe'en (or Nos Galan Gaeaf as it's called in Wales, 'Nights of Winter Calends')!
Our afternoon session was on the theme of Celtic Connections and was opened by Simon Howell, interfaith officer for the diocese of Bath and Wells. Howell is, of course, an honest-to-goodness, proper Celtic name. On first seeing Simon at the conference, my assumption was that he was part of the Pagan group; shaven head, mainly black clothing, great line in cool t-shirts, etc. Indeed, looking at one of the group photos from the event, one Pagan friend commented that, twenty years ago, you could tell the Christians from the Pagans really easily. Simon's look was explained by his revelation of having been a drummer in various bands. He spoke of holding a drum workshop at Ammerdown with a group consisting of Christians, Jews and Muslims. In a fine tribute to the bardic aspect of our traditions, he said that a transcendent moment of the workshop came at its end when all joined in singing the great pacifist anthem of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement, 'We Shall Overcome,' most famously performed on record by the peerless Pete Seeger.
He said that interfaith dialogue often worked through telling each other stories of a Golden Age when the groups involved got on well together. In this context, Simon quoted John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis and many other works, referring to Druids as setting the scene for the coming of Christianity and as being a sort of spiritual fore-runner to it. He endeared himself to me further by then quoting my old friend, Ronald Hutton, on the same topic, saying that, far from being a time of harmony, the change of faith in Europe was fraught with difficulties, tensions and hostilities, with Roman Christians evincing an extreme dislike for pagans of all flavours. Simon quoted Ronald as describing John Michell as a visionary and romantic, both of which are admirable things to be.
Simon concluded his talk by expressing the widespread opinion, shared by both Pagans and Christians, that the modern age “lacks transcendence,” but that this may be reintroduced into our lives by stories, through which we may be “lifted through the veil and reach the peace of the Otherworld.”
Our second speaker in the afternoon session was another old friend, Philip Carr-Gomm, who began by explaining that interfaith dialogue between Druids and Christians is by no means new, going back at least three centuries. Indeed, many of the founding fathers (and yes, they were all men) of some branches of modern Druidry were Christian ministers. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Welsh Gorsedd, of which the Queen and former archbishop, Rowan Williams, are members, authored a number of popular Christian hymns. He explained that Iolo's Druidry represented what might be called a cultural Druidry. He suggested that the Ancient Order of Druids, of which Winston Churchill was a member, represented a similarly cultural rather than spiritual take on Druidry, and one that is essentially Christian.
Ross Nichols, who founded OBOD in 1964, was what Philip called “a questioning Christian,” an ordained deacon of a group called the Ancient Celtic Church. It may surprise many to know that, as Philip went on to say, Nichols' friend, Gerald Gardner, the father of modern Witchcraft, was also an ordained deacon of the related Ancient British Church.
Philip then asked “Is our conversation an appropriate one to be having?” He quoted the composer, John Taverner, as saying that “the mature religions are dying.” He also asked whether it was appropriate for Pagans to be looking back to the past for inspiration, suggesting that it might be moreso if we were doing it to slough off the accretions of the past and start afresh.
He spoke of aspects of contemporary Christianity that he saw as feeding back into Paganism as well as attempting to work alongside Pagans, suggesting that the two represent distinct and separate paths that can yet be combined. He said that he felt the overlap between Christianity and Druidry in particular was a potentially fertile one, and that the existing overlap could be strengthened through a shared concern for things like growing our own food, reverencing the Earth and celebrating the cycle of the seasons. He added that such collaborations already exist, citing as an example his own regular cooperation with a local vicar in staging celebrations of the eightfold festival cycle on Firle Beacon in Sussex, celebrations that attract both Pagans and Christians.
He then spoke of a group called the Celtic Orthodox Church which consists of Christian Druids who live completely “off the grid” in woodland in Brittany, growing their own food, generating their own power, etc. They are a proper community, ranging in age from infants to OAPs. They are inspired by the example of Saint Francis and “came out” publicly as Druids only last year (2013), following which Philip gave them a talk on the Wheel of the Year. Philip suggested that similar communities might be possible that put Druidry to the foreground but had Christianity in the background, ending his presentation by saying that he now felt we had reached a point at which combining various traditions is possible.
Greywolf the Bard
And so to dinner, followed by our evening music session, led by Forest Church alumni, Alison Eve and Paul Cudby, whose band is called Eve in the Garden. Ali plays harp, Paul percussion, and they're augmented by guitar and bass. Their music is a lively blend of traditional folk style with Christian lyrics, though thankfully not of the typical happy-clappy variety. In breaks in their set were the guest slots, one of which I blagged to perform a few of my songs, 'Song at Wodnesbeorg,' 'My Lady of the Greenwood,' and 'Lord of the Wildwood.' The latter includes a wolf chant that came to me about twenty years ago that ends in wild howling. I was pleased to note that both Christians and Pagans were joining in with this enthusiastically.
And so, having been gently, kindly and very charmingly evicted from the bar for being just a wee bit too noisy a wee bit too late, to bed, just in time for ...
Day Three: Sunday, February 2nd
On Sunday morning most of us trooped off into the soggy, cold parkland surrounding the Centre for a ritual, again led by Alison and Paul. This reminded me of many Druid ceremonies in that we all had printed service sheets, laminated due to the weather, clutching which we all stood in a cold circle not moving much. I was distracted by the sight of a huge, phallus-like concrete monument rising from a hillside a little way off. I have to admit that every time the word 'god' was used in the ceremony I found myself quietly adding an 's'. This reminded me again of the fact that I'd have liked to have seen the weekend's ceremonies jointly composed and conducted by Christians, Druids and Pagans. Something to bear in mind for next time...
Following on from this, our final session was appropriately entitled “Better Together.”
Opening this session was Tess Ward, who said that in prayer, “all is one and only love remains,” a statement that immediately endeared her to me. She said that we face a spiritual and environmental crisis, the latter having been responsible for bringing spirituality and environmental concerns back together. Tess was ordained as a Christian minister in 2000 while she was, as she said, “in a literal and metaphorical dark wood.” She spoke of mystical Christianity as representing a way out of the dark wood, adding the telling phrase that “through religion and out the other side is the divine.”
She spoke of female spirituality not being obvious in the established church. She now runs a Pagan women's circle in Oxford in which she is the only Christian. They meet in the open air with fires, “poetry, silence and Nature.”
She expressed a feeling that “the church needs to die before it can be reborn,” and that one aspect of this had to be facing “the dark shadow” that Christianity has cast over history. She then led the Christians present in speaking a lament regretting the divisions and brokenness of the past, asking forgiveness and help to make good. While this was obviously heartfelt, I couldn't help but be reminded of a Native American woman who once launched into a tirade of complaints directed at myself and Emma Restall Orr in which she blamed us for every evil Europeans had ever foisted upon her people. While we both share her anger at Europeans' historical treatment of Native Americans, neither of us felt that we were personally to blame for it.
Tess then spoke of Christ as a source of union. Again, while I can see where this might be true if you look at the recorded actions and sayings of Jesus himself, many of those who have historically presented themselves as his followers have been responsible for fuelling all manner of hatreds, divisions and even genocides.
She spoke of not pushing our own traditions onto others, but working with others towards “a healing and love beyond ourselves,” adding that “the miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment.”
Our last speaker was Liz Williams, a Glastonbury-based Druid who runs the town's Witchcraft Shop, who began by saying that we had to lay aside the myth of 'The Burning Times' with its erroneous claim that nine million witches were burnt.
She then made what was, to me at least, the contentious claim that we have no structure for analysing the validity of spiritually-inspired claims. In Druidry, at least as we teach it in the British Druid Order, we make such judgements based on the creative output of our students. Central to our path is the creative spirit we call awen. Students on our bardic course create art based on their connection with awen and the art thus produced gives us a basis on which to judge the strength and quality of their link with awen. OK, art itself is prone to subjective judgements, and yet it is still a basis on which judgement can be made.
Liz went on to say that she feels the idea of humans as “guardians of the Earth” is anthropocentric, egotistical and wrong. She then spoke of our perceptions of various faith groups as being monolithic structures all members of which are in agreement, pointing out that Glastonbury Witches are constantly at odds with each other. She said that “cult behaviour” was rare amongst Pagans due to our largely responsible leaders who we don't put on pedestals.
On the downside, she spoke of links between some threads of Paganism and far right and nationalist groups, of Pagans damaging and littering sacred sites, of many Pagans having no conception of the Country Code, and of the natural tendency of internet groups to generate rows, a tendency as prevalent amongst Pagans as anyone else.
On the plus side, Liz spoke of an increase in the debate of ethical issues amongst Pagans, particularly those connected with the ways in which we relate to our environment. She spoke of Pagan involvement with actions against badger culls and fracking. She cited the writer, Richard Mabey, as influential in promoting the idea of re-connecting with Nature as a cure for depression.
In the closing round-table session, many points from the various talks were picked up. Simon Howell, for example, shared my problem with the list of past faults Tess Ward had encouraged the Christians in the room to voice, stating simply that “We are not responsible for some of the things on that list.” He also expressed concerns about the speakers who had been critical of the role of scientists in disenchanting Nature, saying that science was fuelled by a sense of wonder and enchantment. Liz Williams said that Pagans find enchantment in Paganism, but also in science fiction and fantasy.
Philip Carr-Gomm asked what people thought of what has been described as the “pick and mix” attitude towards religion. Graham Harvey said that, as a religious scholar, he felt that religion had always been “pick and mix.” Marcus Small differentiated belonging to a particular group from having a sense of kinship with other groups.
Graham Harvey pointed out that not all gods are nice.
We all, I think, felt the need to end on a positive note. When we hear of renewed tensions between opposing Christian factions in Northern Ireland or continuing murder between Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, it is all too easy to despair of the power of spirituality to better anything, and yet these same things encourage me to thank the gods – all of them – for those who are willing to engage in interfaith dialogues, to look beyond outward appearances that potentially divide us to the fundamental human qualities that can unite us, one of which is an appreciation of the sheer magic of being alive, a magic that, as many of our weekend's speakers confirmed, is most commonly felt by Christian and Pagan alike in the presence of natural beauty.
In this weekend there were things I would have done differently. Minor matters aside though, it was an enjoyable and interesting few days. It seems likely that more will flow from it. Plans for a book have already been announced. Working groups to address specific joint ventures have been proposed. I would love to see joint ceremonies, perhaps joint pilgrimages, as well as combined approaches to ecological concerns and pacifism flow from these.
No doubt there will be problems and stumbling blocks as we make our way forward. There are people in both Christian and Pagan communities who will despise us for the very act of engaging in dialogue with each other. Personally, I agree with the Druid, Winston Churchill, who maintained that “to jaw jaw is always better than to war war.”
With thanks to all who took part for sharing so much with such intelligence, warmth and good humour, and looking forward to the next time,
Incidentally, when I first began publishing my thoughts on interfaith dialogue in the mid-90s in Pagan Dawn and elsewhere, a Liverpool-based Pagan group published a leaflet calling me "Archbishop Shallcrass" and accusing me of trying to convert all Pagans to Christianity. While I appreciated the promotion (and would certainly appreciate the regular income and the place in the House of Lords), if I wielded such powers of persuasion, rather than use them to convert everyone to a faith that is not my own, I would use it to encourge all Pagans to sign up for the amazingly wonderful BDO courses. Is that just a shameless excuse to plug our courses again? Of course it is!
The gang's all here in this great group photo. Well, almost, actually a couple of people are missing. One is Bruce Stanley, because he was taking the picture, the other is Phil Ryder of the Druid Network, who mysteriously vanished. Phil's partner, Lynda, commented about being in the presence of so much Pagan royalty. This confused nearby Christian delegates who had, of course, never heard of any of us! This gathering, which took place at the Ammerdown Centre in Somerset, was so densely packed that I'm going to have to spread it over three or four blogs. Here's the first...
Day One, January 31st 2014
This gathering was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends in the Druid, Pagan and Christian communities and, hopefully, make some new ones. What remains to be seen is whether it will prove to be more than that. From the discussions that took place, both formally and informally, the possibilities are certainly there. What was it all about? Well, the letter of invitation from Ammerdown's director, Benedicte Scholefield, explains it as follows:
“Our ambition is to bring together a select group of Pagans and Christians who share a concern for the future of the planet and an interest in dialogue. Our feeling is that there are many misunderstandings and fears on both sides that divide us and prevent us from working together on common environmental concerns. Our planned conversation aims to encourage a fresh dialogue that would tackle these misunderstandings and fears, and hopefully open up avenues for continuing dialogue and for joint actions.”
As one of the aforementioned friends, Philip Carr-Gomm, Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), pointed out during his presentation, dialogue between Christians and Druids is by no means new, having been going on for at least 300 years. The 'Celebrating Planet Earth' event is, then, an extension of a long-standing tradition within Druidry. It certainly proved a rewarding way to spend a Gwyl Forwyn weekend. Gwyl Forwyn, 'The Feast of the Maiden,' is the Welsh name for the festival known in Ireland as Imbolc and in England as Candlemas, but more of that later.
Denise began by saying that she has engaged both practically and academically with Christianity, Paganism and a range of other spiritual paths. As a member of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, she has advocated the inclusion of Paganism in Religious Studies Curricula in schools. She spoke of the use of unhelpful terminology and stereotyping that has often created barriers between Pagans and Christians. The very use of the term, Witch, being an obvious example since its traditional connotations are those of people who use magic to harm others. She then spoke of the often unfortunate history of engagements between the two paths, with Pagan Roman emperors instituting measures to reduce the spread of Christianity, up to and including killing Christians in a variety of unpleasant ways, while, when Christianity became the dominant Roman religion, it then acted in much the same way against Pagans.
She then addressed the issue of mythical histories, such as the widely-held but entirely false belief that 9 million mainly female adherents of a genuinely ancient Witch cult were put to death in Europe during what has become known among modern Pagans as 'The Burning Times,' largely due to an oft-repeated pagan song of that name, which has led to images like the one here being downloadable from Pagan websites. In fact, the numbers put to death during Witch trials across the whole of Europe was somewhere between 13 and 40 thousand, and they were not descendants of an ancient religion with origins in the Neolithic era but mainly people whose neighbours condemned them as Witches in order to get back at or dispose of people they didn't like. We were, incidentally, offered a rendition of 'The Burning Times,' and Christians and Pagans united in declining the offer. Meanwhile, from the Christian side comes the equally prevalent misunderstanding that Paganism is equal to Satanism, missing the point that Satan is an aspect of Christian myth that doesn't really exist in the Bible but is largely a creation of medieval Christianity.
Denise raised the common habit amongst Pagans of defining themselves in relation to the prevailing Christian culture, often doing so from an understanding of Christianity that is unaware of changes that have happened within it over recent decades. A specific result of this is the oft-repeated Pagan statement that “Western, patriarchal religions do not consider Nature or the environment” (Sally Griffyn, Wiccan Wisdomkeepers: Modern-Day Witches Speak on Environmentalism, Feminism, Motherhood, Wiccan Lore and More, 2002). While Paganism has been referred to as “the Green Party at prayer,” Christianity remains identified by Pagans with the scriptural notion of man being given dominion over the Earth and all its (her) creatures. The Pagan Federation website describes Paganism as “polytheistic or pantheistic, Nature-worshipping religion.” Against which is the archaeological evidence that ancient pagans were just as capable of damaging the Earth as we are, albeit on a more localised scale, being fewer in number and lacking technology. Meanwhile, many modern Christians have embraced the concept of 'Creation spirituality' as a foundation for their own engagement in environmental activism. Her conclusion here was that both Christians and Pagans engage with the environment both theologically and practically, or, of course, don't.
She then raised the contentious question of whether perhaps there are elements in both Paganism and Christianity that actually quite like the idea of being persecuted. Equally controversially, she raised the question of whether the Earth might be better served by humanists.
On the subject of selective or elective identities, Denise pointed to the adoption of the romantic myth of the spiritual, ecological Celt by both Pagans, especially Druids, and Christians, leading both groups to identify themselves as, in some sense, 'Celtic,' even when they have no obvious, direct blood-lines amongst existing Celtic nations and when the concept of the Celt employed by both groups is often based more on imagination that actuality. This reminded me of another old friend, Marion Bowman, senior lecturer at the Open University, who came up with the tag, 'Cardiac Celt,' to characterise such folk, I myself arguably falling into this category. Similarly romantic notions of other indigenous peoples are also prevalent amongst both Pagans and Christians.
Denise then turned to the commonalities between us, which she characterised as the shared values of love and compassion, a dislike for rules, the immanence of the sacred, the value of ritual or ceremony, the celebration of festival times (often the same festival times), and activism on a range of social and environmental issues inspired by our spiritualities.
She also addressed borrowings between our paths, suggesting that the kind of 'deep Green' ecology that emerged as a part of Paganism during the second half of the 20th century was a source of inspiration behind the Greening of Christianity that led to 'Creation spirituality.' In the other direction, she suggested that there are aspects of Pagan practice and theology that draw on Christian ideas and practices, acknowledging that some of those may have been 'borrowed' from earlier pagans.
Denise concluded by offering as shared values that could inform our discussions those of generosity, humility and wisdom and by asking, when this weekend together reached its end, where do we go next and how do we build on what's been shared?
The Evening Ceremony:
At 9.30pm, our colourful group of Christians, Druids and Pagans trooped out of the main building to celebrate Gwyl Forwyn, Imbolc, Candlemas, or whatever your preferred name is. In Ireland and Scotland, and amongst many Pagans throughout Britain, this seasonal festival is associated with the Gaelic Brighid, widely accepted as a Pagan goddess whose veneration was partially or wholly displaced by reverence for an Irish saint of the same name. In Gaelic regions, she is known as the foster-mother of Christ, traditionally treated with a reverence reserved in other areas for the Virgin Mary, Jesus's mother. As a bridge between Pagan and Christian traditions, and as it was her festival time, Brighid was to be a focus of our ceremony, music and meditation over the weekend, including this one in the chapel at Ammerdown (left), its high, pyramid-shaped timber roof offering excellent acoustics. Druids, Pagans and Christians all tend to celebrate this festival in similar ways, lighting candles, bringing in snowdrops if they're out in time, invoking the spirit of Brighid, all as a way of welcoming the first stirrings of new life emerging from the earth as light begins to return to the land and the days lengthen following Midwinter's long night.
The ceremony was compiled and led by Alison Eve (right) and Paul Cudby, co-founders of the recently-established Forest Church, a concept derived from Bruce Stanley's observation that almost every fellow Christian he asked said that their first connections with spirit had occurred in response to some aspect of the natural world, most often woodland. Bruce was also present for the weekend. The ceremony included the lighting of a central candle on a low, circular altar decorated with sparkling white, silica-rich stones of a type often found incorporated into megalithic structures, and with emblems of the four elemental quarters; feathers in the East, red wood and stone in the South, a goblet of water at the West and, of course, stones in the North. We were encouraged to join in with Gaelic chants invoking Brighid and aspects of the natural world, led by Alison. A chalice was passed around containing a mix of herbs, grain, milk and whisky, along with baked bannocks. It was well-planned to give those Pagans among us a sense of familiarity. It was also reasonably short and to the point, something Pagan rites sometimes fail to achieve. At the end of the rite, Ali took the remaining food and drink outside to offer it to the Earth.
I was sufficiently impressed with the chapel's acoustics to want to try them out myself later, so I headed across with a yew-wood flute and my drum. I arrived just as one of the Centre's staff was emerging, having turned out the lights and extinguished the candle on the altar, which I had thought was supposed to be left burning throughout the weekend. She put the lights back on for me, relit the candle, and asked me to extinguish it again before I left.
Sure enough, the acoustics were extremely good. The flute sounded wonderful, its sound filling the building. I unpacked my drum bag and, starting in the East, invoked the four quarters using my rawhide rattle, itself having feathers of eagle and buzzard attached to it as well as, inevitably, a piece of wolf fur. South, West, North and back to the East to complete the circle. Then the drum. Having begun with my accustomed heartbeat, I slid into the wolf-chant that had come to me twenty years ago. It was good.
Afterwards, I put out the candle as instructed. Of course, I later discovered that, as I'd thought, the intention had been to leave it burning, it was just that this message had not got to the Centre's staff. It was relit subsequently, and left burning.
Thence to the bar, where stimulating conversation, much of it related to our purpose in being there, continued until 1.30am. Then to my room, finally calming my racing mind enough to sleep at about 3am. It was a promising first evening, and the next day there were scheduled talks from Graham Harvey (Pagan animist), Steve Hollinghurst (Church Army – a name he finds embarrassing), Philip Carr-Gomm (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) and Simon Howell (Interfaith Advisor for the Bath and Wells Diocese). It seemed were in for a good day. I'll see you there...
On Sunday, September 22nd, 2013, about a hundred people gathered inside the vast bank and ditch earthworks of the Avebury henge in Wiltshire, with its huge sarsen stone circles erected by our ancestors in ages past. We were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. To mark the event, I'm posting a pdf file scanned from the first issue of the Caer Abiri Newsletter, published in the wake of the first ceremony way back in 1993. Among other things, it tells how the Gorsedd came to be, and here's a little more background on how it all began.
During the summer of 1993, Tim Sebastion (below), founder of the Secular Order of Druids (SOD), was putting plans together for a multi-faith conference at Avebury. I'd met Tim two years earlier when my British Druid Order joined the Council of British Druid Orders. We resigned from the Council in 1996, along with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and the Ancient Order of Druids, but that's another story. The first Council meeting I attended was at Tim's thatched cottage at Mells in Somerset. In typical Tim fashion, as well as hosting this meeting, he had organised an Irish folk festival over the same weekend, centred around the village pub. So, when my wife and I arrived and got no reply at the cottage, we had a pretty good idea where to look. Sure enough, we found Tim basking in the sunshine of the pub garden, joyfully surrounded by Irish musicians who were regaling him with a spirited rendition of the Irish Rover. It was an auspicious first meeting.
Tim and I struck up a rapport as a result of which, when organising the Avebury event, he asked me to create a ceremony for it. The brief was to make a fundamentally Druidic ceremony, but one that would feel inclusive to the many and varied folk attending the conference, including Reichian therapists, Earth Mysteries folk, Christian ministers, astronomers from the Royal Observatory and various flavours of Pagans. The resulting ceremony is included in the Newsletter.
Included in it was a handfasting, a Druid wedding, largely for the benefit of myself and my late wife, Ellie, though other couples took advantage of the occasion to be handfasted too, as hundreds more have been since. The handfastings were conducted at the Ring Stone (see the newsletter for the reasons why) by Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and Shan Jayran, founder of the House of the Goddess. Ronald Hutton took the two photos included in monochrome in the newsletter and reproduced here in colour.
As you'll see from the list of names at the back of the newsletter, those attending included several who were already Pagan celebrities and others who would become so. Among the former were the aforementioned Philip Carr-Gomm, Shan Jayran, and Ronald Hutton, whose Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, published two years earlier, was already recognised as a definitive work. Also with us was John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis, the book credited with having kick-started the whole Earth Mysteries movement. Among the latter were Graham Harvey, now one of our most respected Pagan academics, Jacki Paterson, whose highly regarded book, Tree Wisdom, was published three years later, and a young OBOD member named Emma Restall Orr, who went on to become joint chief of the British Druid Order from 1995 to 2002 and is now probably the most famous female Druid in the world.
Celebrities notwithstanding, the reason we were assembling among the stones 20 years on was, as the title of this piece suggests, an accident, if indeed there are such things in Druidry.
The Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri is a name I invented for use during a short bardic initiation that formed part of the original ceremony. The reason for including an initiation is simple. Two members of the British Druid Order, Gary and Debbie Turner, asked for bardic initiations while I was composing the rite and I thought that Avebury would be a beautiful and appropriate place for them to take place. As explained in the newsletter, when the moment for Gary and Debbie's initiation came and I asked those who wished to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd of Caer Abiri to step forward, I was expecting only Gary and Debbie to do so. They were, after all, the only ones primed in advance to expect this request. Thhe spirits of the place, however, determined otherwise. Gary and Debbie hesitated and the momentary pause was enough for others in the circle to make up their minds to respond to the invitation.
And so it was that more than half those in the circle stepped forward to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd. Philip Carr-Gomm, standing next to me at the time, leaned over and whispered, “Erm, what do we do now?” and I replied something to the effect of, “Well, er, we carry on I suppose.” Thus were the first thirty-or-so bards of Caer Abiri initiated. During the initiations, I did something ritualists really should not do. I stepped out of the circle with a camera and snapped a couple of shots. I know I shouldn't have, but something prompted me to capture the moment. I'm glad I did, as I believe the pictures I took, reproduced here, are the only photographic record of that part of the ceremony.
The initiation included one of my favourite pieces of ritual of any I've composed and performed either before or since. As shown in the photo, the inner circle of bards turn to face outwards and link hands, those in the outer circle also link hands, and all of them chant the awen, the spirit of inspiration and creativity, directing its flow in to those in the centre. Immediately after this, the following blessing is spoken for the new bards:
Wisdom of serpent be thine,
Wisdom of raven be thine,
Wisdom of the valiant eagle.
Voice of swan be thine,
Voice of honey be thine,
Voice of the son of stars.
Bounty of sea be thine,
Bounty of land be thine,
Bounty of the boundless heavens.
These are beautiful words to hear spoken in ceremony, and I can't claim credit for them. They are from a collection of Scottish folklore called Carmina Gadelica, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael. They were spoken again during the 20th anniversary rite (below) and I took my place amongst the bards at the centre to receive the awen. It knocked my socks off.
That the initiation in 1993 had the desired effect was proven a couple of weeks later when I got a letter from Gordon Strachan, the Church of Scotland minister who had addressed the conference. It was written on a hillside in the Lake District and Gordon told me he was writing poetry again for the first time since he'd left university forty years earlier. He soon began work on his book, Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries & the Dawn of Christianty (Floris Books, 2000), in which he puts forward the theory that Jesus came into friendly contact with Druids during childhood visits to Britain.
It was clear that something very magical happened in that circle twenty years ago, something that came about because the nature of the rite as it had come together resonated powerfully with the spirits of the place and with our ancestors who had constructed Avebury for similar purposes, gathering families together from all over the country to celebrate rites of passage and have those rites witnessed by their community. It was this sense of having connected with the spirits of the place that prompted me to go around with a notebook, collecting contact details from those present with a view to putting together the newsletter.
Subsequent events only increased the sense that we had made a potent connection with the spirits of Caer Abiri. Within two years, our celebrations were being held at each of the eight festivals of modern Paganism and attracting hundreds of people. Ronald Hutton went so far as to describe them as the central event of the New Druidry (Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Hambledon & London, 2003, pages 255-256). The second anniversary Gorsedd remains the largest on record, estimates of numbers attending ranging from 500 to over 1,000. This produced another inspirited moment when those in the circle were asked to link hands and swear the Oath of Peace. The circle began to expand, not stopping until it had spread to the fence line on one side of the field containing the South Circle and to the inner ditch on the other side. I remember having to shout so that those on the far side of the circle would know when to begin.
Around this time I came up with a motto for the Gorsedd: “In the spirit of freedom, and for freedom of the spirit.”
There were many reasons why the Gorsedd proved so successful. We offered many within the Pagan community their first opportunity to celebrate our seasonal festivals in public. Another factor is the multi-faith nature of the ceremonies, strengthened further in subsequent revisions of the ritual text. Followers of any and all traditions felt able to stand together as one and speak from the heart of their own faith within a circle of many faiths. Celebrations attracted not only Druids but Wiccans, Heathens, Buddhists, Bah'ai, Christians, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals and followers of Japanese Shinto among others. Avebury is also, of course, a place of great beauty and inherent power as well as being reasonably accessible from most parts of the UK, and, because it has a village within it, it is freely open to the public. Its appeal is not confined to the UK though. Some of those attending in the 90s flew in from places as far away as Australia, Japan and the USA specially to attend our celebrations.
It was always my hope that others would be inspired by the Avebury Gorsedd to set up others elsewhere and this has happened. Similar gatherings now take place at each of the festivals at the Long Man of Wilmington, the Stanton Drew circles south of Bristol and elsewhere, both in Britain and overseas.
Of course, there are always some who, usually through some deep, personal pain of their own, greet any outpouring of magic, joy and wonder in others with bitterness and resentment. Why this should be, I don't know, but life seems to need to maintain an equilibrium, balancing the helpful and the hurtful, following bliss with dull despair. In the case of Avebury, a few individuals seemed to feel they had some sort of territorial claim over the place. Even as the ceremonies grew bigger and more joyous for most of us, these few voiced objections to everything about them, including where, how, when and why they were held, who was conducting them and who was attending. They spread their bitterness to others whose own resentments left them open to receive it. Ceremonies began to be disrupted by drunks shouting at, and occasionally physically attacking, those taking part. Following on from the increasingly disrupted ceremonies, these same folk would get into drunken fights in the Red Lion pub in the village, often resulting in the police being called. One Lakota visitor from the Pine Ridge Reservation had flown over to be with us following a vision. He was singing a spirit song for us in the circle when the drunks began yelling abuse at him. He commented afterwards, "You get folks like that in all traditions. We get 'em at home too."
Things came to a head when, during one ceremony, I found myself expending most of my energy keeping a lid on a small group of angry, noisy drunks rather than focusing on the rite itself. As that realisation hit me, I had a vision of a black whirlpool opening up in the centre of the circle and spreading towards its edges, threatening to suck us all down into its gaping maw. This stark warning led us to move our celebrations to other locations, founding new Gorseddau as we did so. These included the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge and others at Dragon Hill in Oxfordshire, the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, various other locations in Britain and as far afield as Seattle in the USA.
After a year, however, we returned to our spiritual home in Avebury and rites have been regularly celebrated there ever since. For the last nine years, they have been coordinated by Morgan Adams, who also runs a Grove and offers regular celebrations in her home town of Glastonbury.
The unpleasantness of the mid-1990s led to the formation of a second Gorsedd in Avebury, calling itself the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. This now meets on the nearest Saturday to each of the eight festivals, while the original Gorsedd continues to meet on the nearest Sunday. Incidentally, it amused me to hear that on the day before our 20th anniversary celebration, the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd had met and claimed to be celebrating their 21st anniversary, despite having been founded in 1996. Hey ho...
The anger that divided the Gorsedd left me with a certain ambivalence about my role in creating it. It put Avebury on the Pagan map as a ceremonial location, but attracted in the process those whose relationship with the spirits of the place included setting fire to parts of it, scrawling graffiti over others, getting drunk, fighting amongst themselves and behaving aggressively towards those trying to meet there in peace to celebrate their spirituality. For me, the greatest sadness has always been that the loud, angry, disruptive minority drove hundreds of genuinely spiritual people to abandon the Gorsedd and even, in some cases, to turn their backs on any engagement with Druidry and Paganism. This is doubly tragic given the ecumenical spirit that flourished so strongly in the early years.
The split in the Gorsedd also drove a wedge between Tim Sebastion and I. I never knew until after his death how devastated Tim had been by the split. I learned then, too late, that he had spent whole days wandering the paths around Avebury alone and in tears.
The role of Guardian of the Stones was taken in the first Gorsedd ceremony by my wife, Ellie, then pregnant with our second son, Michael. Ellie subsequently died from leukaemia, and each time I see another woman in the role it brings back memories, some joyous, others painful.
On the plus side, the Gorsedd helped broaden public understanding and acceptance of Druidry and other Pagan traditions as the early celebrations attracted a good deal of attention from the media, both nationally and internationally. This led to a spate of favourable newspaper and magazine articles and TV programmes featuring Druids and Druidry. I've posted one short video of the Gorsedd circa 1994, filmed by a TV news crew, on youtube, accompanied by music and poetry. In its early days, the Gorsedd also helped to promote peaceful, helpful connections between the Druid and Pagan communities and bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage, official custodians of Avebury, Stonehenge, and other ancient sites. However, this further angered those who were already angry and who viewed NT and EH with implacable hostility due to their perceived role in restricting access to Stonehenge during the 1980s.
As well as inspiring the creation of other open, public celebrations of Pagan faiths, in the twenty years since its creation, the Avebury Gorsedd itself has initiated some 3-4,000 people, maybe more, as bards. Many have found huge inspiration as a result. To quote just a few examples, a leather-clad biker who came to an early Gorsedd rite returned a few months later having learned to play the harp beautifully; an office worker who attended quit his job and now runs the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle; a couple who came to several early rites now run a 12-acre spiritual and woodland crafts centre in Hampshire. Others have had their lives changed in other ways. Following one rite I heard from three people whose partners had recently died, each saying that as a direct result of our ceremony, the atmosphere surrounding them had cleared, their sorrow had lifted, and they now felt able to move on in their lives. When people's lives are transformed in such ways, it's hard to argue that the ceremonies that bring about such changes are anything but good.
The Gorseddau founded in the 1990s, both in Avebury and elsewhere, have long since passed out of my hands as I always hoped they would. Others have taken up the challenge and are making them work, and all good blessings to each and every one of them for doing so. If the 20th anniversary gathering at Avebury was anything to go by, they are in good hands for the next twenty years.
Incidentally, three of those who were at the very first Gorsedd were in attendance again for the anniversary: these were Ronald Hutton, a humble Doctor at the time of the first rite, now a full Professor and one of the country's leading historians, myself, and my son, Joe, who was one year old in 1993 and whose baby blessing during the first ceremony paved the way for hundreds of others over the last twenty years.
The 20th anniversary celebration was a joyous, magical event, featuring one of the most potent bardic initiations I've ever taken part in, a beautiful moment when we chanted the awen to direct spiritual energy into a beribboned wreath to be used in ceremonies for the protection of our land and her creatures (below), and one of the best eisteddfod sessions ever, during which we were treated to some wonderful poetry, fiery drumming and utterly superb bagpiping.
As my own contribution, I sang the same Robin Williamson song I had sung at the end of the very first rite back in 1993, the appropriately titled The Circle Is Unbroken:
Seasons they change, as cold blood is raining,
I have been waiting beyond the years.
Now over the skline I see you travelling,
Brothers from all times gathering here.
Come let us build the ship of the future
In an ancient pattern that journeys far.
Come let us set sail for the always islands,
through seas of leaving to the summer stars.
Seasons they change, but with gaze unchanging.
O, deep-eyed sisters, is it you I see?
Seeds of beauty you bear within you
Of unborn children, glad and free.
Within your fingers the fates are spinning
The sacred binding of the yellow grain.
Scattered we were when the long night was breaking,
But in bright morning, converse again.
So may it ever be.
And here's a date for your diary: the 30th anniversary will be on Sunday, September 24th, 2023. See you there...
As a native British Druid for the last forty years, one of my greatest joys has been to make ceremony alongside spirit workers of many other traditions, finding fundamental similarities in how we understand the world and what we do underlying our cultural differences. This is the story of one such ceremony.
After all our travels with The World Drum, it was good to be back at Wild Ways, the spiritual centre in Shropshire created by Elaine Gregory and Garth Reynolds that has been a second home for myself and my sons for about a decade. We've had some great times there, and this weekend looked like being one of those very special ones. We had the launch of the Druid Hedge Schools project on Saturday, followed by a music session featuring Robin Williamson, who I consider the finest exponent of the bardic arts, and my old friend, Andy Letcher, no slouch himself in weaving word and sound, plus other friends. Then, on Sunday, we would bid our very, very fond farewell to the World Drum. Oh, and it would be my 60th birthday. However, before all that, on Friday evening, there was to be another event that had blossomed over the previous few weeks from the seed of an idea into what turned out to be an amazing, magical reality.
On Thursday, we greeted the arrival of the man whose vision had led to the creation of the World Drum, White Cougar. With him were Morten Wolf Storeide, who gently steers the Drum's journeys around the world, and Lena Paalviig Johnsen and Will Rubach of the shamanic band, Baalfolket. I find it hard to get to know people. I spend most of my time writing. It's a solitary profession. But with I felt an instant rapport. They were just so damn happy. It was like sunlight breaking through the moment I met them, like I'd known them forever, like we were family. They had flown over from Norway at their own expense to make music and ceremony with us. The first ceremony was to be a gift White Cougar wanted to share with us, centring around a herbal medicine I had never previously heard of called Chaga.
Chaga is a hard, woody fungus that grows on birch trees. In Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and much of Asia, it has been used as a medicine for thousands of years, its chief property being that it boosts the body's own healing mechanisms, making it effective for a wide range of conditions. It also has psycho-spiritual properties that may be described as lifting the spirits. I hasten to add, we're not talking psychedelics here. You won't find yourself hallucinating swarms of rainbow butterflies whilst giggling hysterically because your legs have turned to rubber. It's not that kind of mushroom. In some countries it's used as a coffee substitute. White Cougar, however, works with it in a spiritual, ceremonial way. Chaga, like all things in this world, has a spirit, and his name, in Norway, is Nivvsat Olmai. He has appeared to White Cougar in the form of a bird.
On Thursday afternoon then, six of us, White Cougar, Morten, Will, Lena, my old friend, Steve Rumelhart, and I set off along the winding Deer Path that leads to our Iron Age roundhouse. I was keen to introduce our visitors to this place that meant so much to me, the construction of which had been such a transformative experience, not only for me but for others who took part. They were equally keen to see it. Naturally, we took our drums.
We arrived, knocked to wake the spirits, opened the double doors fully to let in the light, stepped over the threshold and found our places, unpacking our drums. It was almost as if planned. Natural, good. I told them about the guardian spirit of the roundhouse and its surrounding grove, an antlered figure who has been with us from the beginning, since my toe stubbed on a deer-skull when we were clearing the ground to build the place.
Then we began to drum. I know that Steve is a solid, reliable, listening drummer. I assumed our Norwegian friends would be too. How right I was. Since they were bringing us this gift of ceremony, it was they who began the drumming. Each of them has a markedly different drum, each handmade in the Saami manner of their home country, the frames bent by hand so that their shapes are never quite round, but always oval or egg-shaped. The frame of Lena's, being wide but not very deep, had twisted after the skin was stretched over it, creating an off-kilter curvature across the drum. She told me later that her drum-maker had offered to fix it for her. She loved it just as it was, and that's the way it's stayed. As soon as they began to play, I knew we were in safe hands, not that I ever doubted it. They quickly fell into a natural rhythm together, playing off each other, weaving the very different tones of their drums into a single, magical web of sound.
I was sitting in my accustomed place near the altar in the north-east, my 'Thunder-drum' at the ready, beater held lightly in my right hand. I listened to the emerging, subtly shifting rhythm patterns Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will were playing, and to how they were playing. Many drummers in Britain tend to play quite loudly and, well, sort of aggressively. I've been guilty of this myself at times. These guys played in a way that was gentler, more contemplative and, I found, much easier to trance out to.
Then they began to sing. Wow. Hard to find the right words. They draw inspiration from the spontaneous, improvisatory Saami singing tradition called joiking. Will has quite a deep, resonant singing voice anyway, but also uses throat-singing, producing an eerie kind of deep, rasping growl that sounds barely human and sends shivers down the spine. Lena has a voice of soaring, skylark beauty and clarity. Woven together, the effect is … what word to use? … Awesome? Magical? Inspiring? Uplifting? Entrancing? All of those and more.
It didn't take long for my drum to tell me it was time to join in. Such was the rapport I felt with these folk already that I found it easy and natural to fit the bass of my own drum in with theirs, weaving my patterns into the flow. What surprised me was that I also began to sing. Normally, I don't, unless it's some pre-planned chant for a specific purpose. Now I found myself vocalising strange noises and parts of words in no language I consciously knew. Very strange. And suddenly I knew where these sounds were coming from. I was listening fully to my drum. It's main beat is a low bass note, but it resonates with a full spectrum of overtones up into a very high register like a bird or a bat. Within these overtones, I noticed wave patterns that were generating the songs I was then translating into the sounds I was singing. This was a new way of interacting with my drum, learned in that moment.
We played on, except I noticed Steve had not yet begun to play. This was weird, as he's usually the first to reach for his drum whenever there's the chance. He sat by the door, listening intently, for a long time. Finally, he began to play. As said, he's a good drummer, so his octagonal skin drum was soon sounding along with ours. The sound revolved around the roundhouse, reverberating from the timber posts, walls and roof in an enchanting cascade. Again, lost for words. Magical will have to suffice.
Finally, the sound wound to a natural conclusion and fell into silence. We were still for a moment, breathing with it, thinking about it. Then we looked around at each other, smiled, and made a chorus of “woos,” “yeahs,” “hms,” and similar sounds in wordless appreciation of what we'd just made together, for that one time, in that special place. It was a profound sense of rightness.
I spoke to Steve later and asked why he'd taken so long to start drumming. He said “Are you kidding? Those guys are GOOD!” I laughed. It was the first time in twenty years I've known Steve to be intimidated by other drummers.
Back at the house that evening, we talked about the ceremony we were to make next day. White Cougar told us that the chaga had to brew for at least two hours, preferably four. The brewing was to be done by our four Norwegian friends and White Cougar asked me to join them. He asked if I would guard the doorway against any unwanted spirit intrusions during the ceremony, keeping the dodgy ones out whilst letting the good ones come and go. Some weeks earlier, as soon as I heard the ceremony might happen, I had seen myself guarding the doors of the roundhouse along with Steve, me on one side, him on the other. I told this to White Cougar who smiled and said, “Ah, I see I have asked you this before.” Again, the easy smiles and laughter that usually comes with long familiarity. So it was settled, the six of us would prepare the chaga and make the ceremony.
At 4 o'clock the next afternoon, we set out again for the roundhouse, taking with us an aluminium cooking pot from the kitchen big enough to brew enough chaga for 45 people and some two-gallon drums of water. Once in the roundhouse, we set the pot on an iron stand over the central hearth and laid our fire underneath it. The ceremony began.
We gathered in a circle around the hearth, crouched down, hands close to the floor, and started vocalising low, growly noises. Then, slowly standing up, hands held out in front, our voices got louder and higher, until we all came fully upright, let out a great whoop and then, inevitably, broke out in laughter. A good way to start a ceremony. There's strong magic in laughter. We poured about a gallon of the water into the big pot and lit the fire under it.
Then we began to drum. Again, it was easy, natural and joyous to join with these folks in drumming up the spirits we would need to protect, help and guide us through the rite. Again, a natural flow emerged, beginning when one of our drums would speak, ending when all that needed to be said had been said.
Between drumming, we chatted, shared water, laughed, cracked jokes, and talked about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. Cougar had brought extra dried chaga and sage with him to burn at either side of the doors so that people would be sained with it as they entered the roundhouse. Saining is our native British version of the Native American practice called smudging i.e. blessing and purifying people, places and things with smoke, usually from smouldering herbs. We had little charcoal blocks to burn it on, plus Steve's ever-ready lighter. Steve and I set them up by the doors. I told Steve which side I'd seen us standing on in my vision and we agreed that those were the sides we'd guard. We also agreed that Steve would be our 'soul guide' when evening came, going back through the woods to gather people for the ceremony, reminding them to bring a cup each but leave their mobile phones, and asking them to maintain silence once they'd reached the gateway to the roundhouse grove.
After a while, the water boiled and White Cougar brought out a bag of chaga, adding handfuls to the pot. He asked the chaga-spirit, Nivvsat Olmai, to be with us, to help and guide us and bring healing. He found a straightish stick and we used it to stir our gently bubbling cauldron of inspiration. The chaga, mostly bright yellow when it went in, quickly turned the water a rich, dark brown and a curious, earthy scent began to blend with the firesmoke. The six of us took turns at stirring the pot. We drummed and sang some more. More jokes and laughter, more drumming, more stirring. For some, breaks outside for cigarettes. It pleased Steve greatly to have others who smoked. Increasingly on Druid events he's felt like a Pariah because of his addiction to the noxious weed.
Oh yes, and we drank chaga. This, Cougar assured us, was necessary for those preparing the ceremony, and I wasn't about to argue. My first uncertain sip introduced me to a taste I can best describe as earthy, a little musty, with a vague hint of weak coffee, and not at all fungus-like. A few sips later, I'd got quite used to it. A few more and I kinda liked it. Now I love the stuff.
And the effects? Well, as said, we're not talking pixie caps or peyote. The effect initially seemed to consist of enhancing the feelings of elation and connectedness that being there doing what we were doing had already engendered. It was, however, a calmer, more controlled exhilaration than coffee's jagged buzz. As said, a lifting of spirits.
For four and a half hours, we nurtured the spirits swirling around in that dark, earthy, bubbling brew, in the roundhouse and in the grove around it. Finally, time came for Steve to go and bring people down the Deer Path. People in the UK often don't take the idea of ceremony all that seriously and therefore often don't arrive attuned to the spirit of the rite but will chatter inconsequentially, sometimes even after ceremonies have begun. This is why we'd decided that Steve should stop everyone at the gateway to the grove and get them to stop talking before they came to us. This he did very effectively, as I knew he would.
As the first person arrived at the doors, passing the guardian on the ash post, I realised that I was about to greet forty-plus people with no real idea of what I was going to say. I was, as my friend, Leon Reed says, “wearing my power,” i.e. dressed in my wolfskin cloak and other ritual gear, so I guess I looked the part. Then, words came tumbling out that sounded right, so I used them again for the next person, and again, with variations, for those who came after. It was a short, simple blessing that they would gain from the ceremony what it was they most needed. If you think about that, that is a powerful thing. I asked the first people to go in by the left side of the door, make their way clockwise around the central fire, and find a place against the wall. Elaine had given us a load of Hessian sacks that we'd stuffed with straw and placed in a ring against the wattle-and-daub walls for seating. People needed to follow these instructions as we knew we only just had room for everyone. Bless 'em, they did. Later arrivals sat on log seats closer to the fire. As each person passed through the doors, they were wafted with the combination of chaga and sage incense that Steve and I kept burning throughout the ceremony.
When everyone was safely inside and settled, Steve and I took our places on either side of the doors. Inside, Cougar, Wolf, Will and Lena began the public part of the ceremony. I glanced behind me at times and saw an amazing sight. The interior of the roundhouse was filled with people and lit by the central fire on which we'd brewed the chaga. My Norwegian friends were illuminated most, moving around the fire, close to it. All around them, the seats by the timber uprights were filled, every one of them, by a golden, glowing figure, men and women, woven into the fabric of time and space we had spent so many hours creating for this night, although those hours had seemed to fly by. Behind them, in flickering shadows, were those seated around the wall. Above them the looming cone of the thatched roof, glowing golden from the firelight or rendered the dark brown of chaga by shadows. It was beautiful. This was what we had built the roundhouse for. It was meant to be exactly as it was in those golden moments, on that hallowed evening. Of course, no photography was allowed during the ceremony, but Elaine later made this drawing from her memories of it.
As said, all this was taken in at a glance, most of my attention being cast around the surrounding woods, looking for any problems that might arise. To be honest, I wasn't expecting any. I've worked with that place for a long time and know its ways and the spirits that come and go pretty well. I know how strong the protection is that we've woven into ever fibre of its construction, as not just our antlered guardian, but other spirits have come to aid and guide us. Nevertheless, I had a job to do and, well, you never know. What I did know was that I could absolutely rely on Steve to pick up and deal with anything I might miss. That's why he had to be there beside me.
Behind us in the golden light, the drumming had begun. As before, the effect of the sound in that already magical space was enchanting and entrancing in the fullest sense of those words. There was singing, of course, and chanting, and spoken prayers. In my occasional glimpses, I saw Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will moving around the fire, their bodies and drums casting leaping shadows behind them, around them those circles of glowing people. At some point, I guess, chaga was distributed to everyone. I missed that, though Steve and I did get our cups filled somehow. After everyone had received their chaga, Cougar beckoned me to join him in the circle round the fire. Stepping into that gleaming circle was both beautiful and humbling. My drum merged with the beats of the others and I quickly tranced into the rhythm. I didn't stay long though for three reasons. First, I took my role as guardian very seriously. Second, I wanted to allow Steve a chance to step in and drum and knew he wouldn't leave the doors unguarded. Third, in our roundhouse, packed with people, standing so close to a roaring fire, drumming and wearing a thick wolf-skin cloak, it got very hot very quickly.
I stepped back in a few times to join the others, drumming with them for a while before resuming my post at the doors. Each time brought the same surge of energy. Dusk fell as we looked out into the darkening woods while the great thatched beehive of swirling, whirling, driving, growing, glowing magic buzzed and hummed behind us. The 'doctored' picture below was taken earlier, while we were preparing the chaga, but conveys some idea of how the place felt that night. It was … I don't know … words are hopelessly inadequate. I've been involved in a lot of ceremonies, often shared with folk of other traditions than my own Druidry. This was without doubt one of the most extraordinary and powerful I've ever taken part in.
Eventually, the drums reached a final crescendo and halted, brief words were spoken and the ceremony was declared complete. There was a rush of sound from folk inside that carried a sense of elation out into the night sky. Soon, people began pouring out, glowing gold like honey pouring from a doorway in a hive. Telling the Bees. Joy in their hearts and shining from their faces. It was extraordinary in the truest sense. Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will stepped out as they felt ready. Our eyes met, we smiled the pure, grateful pleasure of a job well done, guided by our spirit companions, helpers and guides, our ancestors, the spirits of the place and, of course, by Nivvsat Olmai, the blessed spirit of the chaga. We'd been making this ceremony together for eight and a half hours, and it felt better than good.
As a footnote, I later found a native British equivalent of Nivvsat Olmai in the form of 'the Dark Lad,' or Ghillie Dhu, the Scottish name for the spirit of the chaga-bearing birch tree, translating into Welsh as Hogyn Du. He's said to be shy of human company but very fond of children. He dresses in moss, leaves and birch bark. Here he is, in a drawing by the great Brian Froud.
The folk at Wildways are very eco-conscious, so the heating in the house only kicks in at around 7am when people are getting up. The World Drum's skin is of reindeer-hide and is quite sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. This was one of the coldest springtimes on record in the UK. We left the Drum out one night on the table in the hall. In the morning, all was far from well. The Drum's skin had become flaccid, visibly dipping into the frame. It was completely unplayable. I tried warming it by the Rayburn stove in the kitchen. It didn't work. The Drum was still acoustically dead. Even more worrying was that the next day we were due to take the Drum to Cae Mabon for ceremonies there and on the island of Angelsey. We needed to do something, and quickly.
I had been worried about the Drum for a while. When it arrived at my house, it was packed with a very thick sheepskin that was lying against the skin of the Drum. When the flight case was strapped shut, the sheepskin was pressing into the reindeer-hide skin of the Drum. Add to this the effects of sending the Drum from hot Hawaii to freezing cold England and the result was not good.
At this point, a certain level of controlled panic set in. After all, this is a shamanic tool that has been travelling the world for seven years, played by thousands of people in hundreds of ceremonies on six continents. This is not just a drum, this is The World Drum, the heartbeat of Mother Earth, a symbol and sign of the best and brightest hopes of humankind for peace a reverence for our Mother. There was no way I could let anything bad happen to this amazing creation. Not on my watch.
I pulled out the printed instruction sheet on caring for the Drum that travels with it. It said that if the Drum failed to respond to normal warming, it should be fully immersed in water and then allowed to dry slowly. What it didn't say was how long it should be immersed for. I contacted Morten Wolf Storeide on facebook and asked for more detailed instructions. He told me to immerse the Drum for about ten minutes, then put it to dry slowly propped up on sticks so that air could circulate around it.
So, I filled a bath with water and gently lowered The World Drum into it. I held it under the water for 12 minutes, singing to it whatever songs came to mind and seemed appropriate, or just wordless chants. I was nervous … very nervous … but at the same time, I felt that this strange process was strengthening the connection I already felt with the Drum, and that, with the blessings of the gods, all would be well.
I lifted the Drum from the bath, allowing the water to drain and drip from it before carrying it through to the kitchen. Here, rather than sticks, I'd rigged two microphone stands angled towards, but not too close to, the Rayburn stove. The stove ticked over all night, meaning that the kitchen maintained a reasonable room temperature. Having carefully balanced the Drum with its frame on the ends of the two stands, neither of them pressing against the skin, I bid the Drum goodnight and with a whispered prayer, went to bed.
I got up a little before 6am, being unable to sleep any longer. I really needed to know if the Drum was all right. I slipped out of bed and tiptoed to the kitchen as quietly as I could. Of course, to discover whether the bath had worked I had to play the Drum. I took it off its stands carefully, picked up a beater and tapped gently on the skin close to the frame. Even with such a light tap, the Drum sang beautifully, the overtones ringing in the quiet kitchen for a good length of time. As you can imagine, I was very relieved and very, very happy. I was even happier a little later when Garth and Elaine got up and I was able to give the Drum more of a test. Sure enough, she was fine, healed, whole and singing better than ever.
Here's the facebook message I sent to Morten Wolf:
“Hey, Brother Wolf,
Up at sunrise, tried the Drum ... she sings! Sounding really beautiful I held her under a bath full of cold water and sang songs to her, then propped her on two microphone stands in the kitchen overnight. Very relieved and happy this morning. We're off to Wales in about an hour and will be offline till we get back on Sunday. Catch up then...
Peace, love and all the good stuff,
And so, on to Cae Mabon!
Gillian Kavanagh, who organised our trip to Cae Mabon, playing the World Drum there. Yay!
Cae Mabon is a spiritual retreat centre in North Wales. It nestles on a mountainside, a stream cascading through it from which it gets its water supply. The structures at Cae Mabon are eco-homes in an interesting range of styles, from a Hobbit hole to a reconstructed roundhouse, of which more later. It's a beautiful setting, with a large lake at the bottom of the slope and views across to Mount Snowdon.
We arrived on Friday, April 12th, following a drive through some of the most beautiful scenery in Wales, most memorably the spectacular Llanberis Pass. The 'we' in question were myself, Elaine and my sons, Joe and Mike. Joe is a fine ritualist while Mike, having studied video production, had accepted the task of recording as many of the World Drum events as possible in HD video. Elaine was our driver and chief events coordinator. Also joining us from previous events would be my good friend and BDO stalwart, Steve Rumelhart, musician, Jake Thomas, and Lorraine Munn, organiser of our ceremony at Ironbridge.
The last part of the drive was quite interesting as Elaine negotiated a well-laden Subaru down a very narrow, very winding tarmac track, to one side of which was a precipitous drop down tree-covered slopes towards the lake far below. For one not used to mountain driving, it was … erm … educational. However, we reached the car park safely, as did the rest of our merry band. We unloaded our gear, including, of course, The World Drum, and began the steep trek down to Cae Mabon itself. Slippery from recent rain, one had to watch one's footing, but we made it without mishap and were guided to our accommodation. The brilliant Gillian Kavanagh, organiser of this event, was there to greet us. My sons, Joe and Mike, were to sleep in the roundhouse. Elaine, myself and three other women were to sleep in the Longhouse, which turned out to be basically an extended garden shed but with better insulation, beds and a desk.
Friday evening was spent greeting new arrivals as they came, exploring the site and buildings, discovering the kitchen and socialising. The new arrivals included the BDO's web wonder and all-round genius, Adam Sargant (that's him, far right), accompanied by a new BDO friend generally known as Farmer Jeff, because his name's Jeff, and he's a farmer (that's him, near right - and yes, that's me in the middle). The excellent bard, Barry Patterson, arrived with his partner, Anne, and a range of instruments including several flutes, bagpipes and a drum. Welsh bard, Gwyn Edwards, joined us too, a delightful man and a fount of lore, legend and laughter.
Eric Maddern, the originator of Cae Mabon and its guiding light, treated us to a talk about the place and its history. This took place in the comfortable dining hall, created from the ruins of a former agricultural building. Here an altar was established, decorated with stones and flowers from the area, on which The World Drum was to be placed when not is use. I have to admit, after the experience of soaking the Drum overnight just before setting out for Cae Mabon, I had become more than a little protective of it. It was still very cold and we were instructed to use heating sparingly, which was fine for us but gave me some concerns for the Drum. Hence I put it back in its case and removed it to the Longhouse for the night, reasoning that five sleeping in a small space would generate enough warmth to keep the Drum's skin from losing tension again. This proved correct. However, there was another problem.
I sleep very little anyway and, given the excitement of all the ceremonies and events and the strange surroundings, I found it impossible to sleep at all. Instead, I lay listening to the uncoordinated choir of the differently pitched snores of my companions. Finally, at about 5.30am, I gave up and got up, sneaking out as quietly as possible in the half-light. It was Saturday morning, just about, and we were to travel to Anglesey after lunch for a ceremony at 2pm.
Joining us for lunch and the afternoon ceremony was Caryl Dailey (left), an OBOD Druid and tutor whom I had not previously met. Caryl duly arrived with her friend, Tracy, both beautifully robed and smiling. Caryl turned out to be a bit of a star. She has Sami blood in her ancestry and treated us to a display of joiking, a type of throat-singing practiced by the Sami of Norway that produces some very strange sounds. While Caryl sang in the roundhouse, I was sitting by the central fire with the World Drum held next to me. Whenever she slipped into joiking, the Drum responded, picking up the sound and singing along with her. When she sang with her normal voice at the same or greater volume, nothing. Only when joiking. The Sami are reindeer-herders. The Drum's skin is reindeer. Interesting.
After lunch (the food at Cae Mabon was wonderful), we wended our way back up to the car park and decamped for Anglesey. The significance of Anglesey for Druids is that it was long supposed to have been the site of the Druids' last stand against the Roman legions in 55 CE. The Roman historian, Tacitus, gives a wonderfully vivid description of the event, with the legions formed up on one side of the Menai Strait and the Anglesey side lined with Druids perched on every high point and hurling imprecations into the wind while women clothed in black tatters ran amongst them waving flaming torches and screaming. Eventually, the legions overcome their fears, storm across the Strait, murder everyone on the island and burn down the Druidic shrines they find there. Thus ended Druidry in Britain.
Except, of course, it didn't end. For one thing, Anglesey had then, as it still has now, excellent sea-borne links with Ireland. It would be absurd had not at least some of the Anglesey Druids jumped into boats and high-tailed it across the Irish Sea, or in the other direction to Scotland, depending on the prevailing winds. For another thing, it would have been equally absurd for every Druid in the whole of the British Isles to present themselves conveniently in the same place on the same day so that they could all be conveniently massacred. Add to that the fact that there were a number of British tribes who welcomed the Romans' arrival and it seems very unlikely that the Romans would have repaid their welcome by murdering their Druids.
Our chosen site for the ceremony on Anglesey was the megalithic chambered tomb-shrine of Bryn Celli Ddu, the 'Mound of the Dark Grove,' pronounced something like Brun Kethly Thee. I was happy with the choice, having last visited the Mound almost thirty years ago. It is an unusual site in many ways. Passage graves of this type are generally earlier in date than stone circles. In this case, however, the passage grave, dated circa 2000 BCE, was constructed inside a pre-existing henge and stone circle constructed around a thousand years earlier. It is also unusual amongst British tomb-shrines in having carved decorations on some of its stones, such decorated stones being mainly found in Irish tomb-shrines where they are relatively common. Bryn Celli Ddu's 27-foot long passage is aligned on the sun at Midsummer. Another extremely unusual feature is the free-standing stone pillar that stands inside the central chamber. There has been speculation that this stone is actually part of a petrified tree, or it may have been chosen for this special placing because of its resemblance to a petrified tree. That's Barry playing his pipes next to that very stone pillar.
We crossed the Britannia Bridge onto Anglesey and turned left towards our destination. Parking nearby, we walked along field edges until we reached the site. With its surrounding bank and ditch, it is an impressive site. The obvious place to old the ceremony was the flat area between the henge ditch and the Mound. I took the World Drum in its case and laid it at the approximate centre of what was to be our circle. While waiting for the rest of our party to arrive, I stood looking around at the place, my mind idling. My eyes were drawn back to the grassy area where the ceremony would be held and I saw beneath the grass the pattern of a huge serpent. Now snakes are very important in Druidry, which has its own equivalent of the Kundalini serpent of Hindu yoga and also sees earth energies as serpents or dragons, so this vision seemed to bode well.
When about 50 people had arrived, I joined Caryl, Elaine and others to talk about what we were going to do in the ceremony. I had wondered if Caryl might have some firm plan for the rite. I needn't have worried. As with the other World Drum rites, she was happy to start off and see where spirit took us. Our 'plan,' such as it was, included a short introduction to the World Drum, a reading of Morten Wolf Storeide's 'Speech for Mother Earth,' and then for Lorraine, as she had before, to carry the Drum around the circle for everyone to play. Caryl would open the circle and Elaine might recite the ancient Greek 'Hymn to Gaia,' a beautiful piece of liturgy. Our Welsh bard, Gwyn, would speak a piece of Druid liturgy in its original language and in English. And that's pretty much what happened.
The end of the rite, however, took me by surprise. Caryl gathered everyone together for a hokey-cokey, which was followed by a serpent-dance, beginning just where I'd seen my serpent vision in the grass, snaking away around the Mound and returning to its starting point. Serpent energy. Yes! And the drummers, as drummers will, played on throughout.
It was a good, energised and energising rite, lighting up the place literally and metaphorically as the sun broke through and smiles broke out.
Another surprise was looking to the top of the Mound and seeing there my old friend, Andy Letcher, and his wife, Nomi. This was slightly surreal, since I had last seen them a couple of weeks earlier when they had unexpectedly appeared at our ceremony at Avebury. At Bryn Celli Ddu, they had at least known that a ceremony was due to take place on Anglesey, though they had not known the venue and had made an educated guess. We arranged to meet up again, making sure we wouldn't miss each other by not telling each other where we'd be.
After the ceremony, many of us went into the chamber inside the mound, taking the World Drum and other drums, while Barry took his pipes. I caught the end of the session in the Mound, and it was good.
That evening, we had an eisteddfod session in the roundhouse. It was good. We enjoyed a mix of music, stories, jokes and songs.
Having slept hardly at all the night before, I decided to try spending the night in the roundhouse with my sons. Not having bedding or a sleeping bag with me, I figured I'd be OK in my thick woolly Druid robe with my wolfskin cloak over me. Of course, what I hadn't allowed for was that this was the night North Wales would be hit by storm force winds of up to 75 mph and torrential rain.
The doorway of the Cae Mabon roundhouse has a heavy woollen blanket hung across it. As the winds rose, this heavy blanket was, at times, stretched out parallel to the ground. Meanwhile, the flames of the central fire, which I was keeping fed to try and maintain a reasonable temperature, were being swung wildly around, sending sparks flying towards the straw-bales placed near the fire as seating. The Cae Mabon roundhouse has a stone wall. The roof poles are rested on top of that wall, the thatch applied on top of the poles. However, the gap between the top of the wall and the thatch has not been filled, therefore the furious winds were blowing into the roundhouse from all sides. Candle lanterns, fortunately not lit, were blown over. Luckily, the sofas and armchair on which Joe, Mike and I were trying to sleep were below the level of the top of the wall and, therefore, sheltered from the worst of the wind. On the other hand, we were not protected from the sound of the wind which roared around us all night with a noise like an express train passing a few feet away. I had not heard winds like it since the night of the famous hurricane of 1987. Needless to say, I did not sleep.
On Sunday morning there were more opportunities to talk. Barry and I, as bards will, fell into comparing our various flutes and talking music. There was a final lunch, followed by a farewell ceremony with the Drum, and then it was back up the path for the long drive back to Wildways, passing once more across the beautiful Llanberis Pass.
Before we left, Cae Mabon held one last bit of magic for me. As mentioned, Mount Snowdon is visible from Cae Mabon. Mount Snowdon is the home of the four storm-bringing eagles who are depicted on my drum. Just before we left, I stepped off on my own and found a suitable perch from which to view the mountain. I wanted to re-connect with my eagle companions. It had been a while. Facing the mountain across the lake, I raised my arms from my sides and spread them as wings. Without even thinking about it, I found my spirit soaring across the waters of the lake in eagle form and heading for the clouds that wreathed the mountain-top. There I found my eagle companions and greeted them. I took a moment to enjoy wheeling around the mountain with them, then broke away to return to Cae Mabon and my body. I knew that my companions would be anxious to be underway. It was a beautiful, magical moment and I give thanks to the spirits.
Barry has written a beautiful poem/song about our time at Cae Mabon and Anglesey, which is available online as a rather lovely sound file on which Barry plays the World Drum and his lilting bagpipes while the sound of the Cae Mabon stream rushes along and he speaks/sings his words. The text is on the same page, and you can find both at http://www.redsandstonehill.net/2013/04/world-drum-at-cae-mabon.html
As ever, the photos here are by Elaine Gregory, aka Elaine Wildways.
We'd made rituals at Avebury, Stonehenge, Glastonbury Tor and Ironbridge, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Iconic places all, each in their own way. Where next? Clee Hill. OK, you may ask, where is Clee Hill and what is it? Clee Hill is an exposed area of high, stony land in Shropshire in the West Midlands of England. It has a number of distinct peaks and archaeology shows it to have been inhabited off and on since the Neolithic period. Suzanne Thomas, her musician husband, Jake, and their kids live there and have a deep affection for the place. Before the World Drum, I knew little of it, only having ever been driven across it on the way to other places. That was about to change. The first event Suzanne had organised for us was on one of the highest peaks, one with the curious name of Titterstone Clee. Elaine, co-ordinator of all the World Drum events, also lives in Shropshire but had never been to the top of Titterstone Clee. As mentioned in an earlier blog, this was one of the coldest springtimes on record, so, with a good deal of snow still lying on the high ground, Elaine though it might be wise to take a drive up to the Clee and see how passable it was. We did this the day before the ceremony was due to take place. Much of the very narrow road leading up onto the Clee was covered in a thick layer of impacted snow and ice. The car did slew about a little, enough to make us turn around well before we reached the car park and head back down the hill. Not very promising, but we had faith in The World Drum. It had been kind to us so far.
The following morning, we headed back to Titterstone Clee, the Drum stowed safely in its flight case in the back of the car and the rest of our drums and assorted robes in with it. Driving carefully in a ragged convoy, we made the upper car park without incident and climbed out of the car as others were doing the same. As at Glastonbury, the sun was shining brightly, the skies were bright blue all around us, and despite the frozen puddles and streams and the quite deep snow in places, it was actually quite warm. Once again, we were blessed. We began to make our way up the hill. It was a long and winding way, taking us past two giant golfball-like structures that are apparently government listening and aircraft tracking centres. They look as surreal perched there on these ancient hills as Dali's lobster telephone. The walk being long, often steep and quite adruous, I took the opportunity to pause for a few moments by one of the giant golfballs and request the spirits of the land and people to bring us to a time when such places will no longer be necessary. This led to an image of the two great white balls tumbling down the hill in winter, gathering snow as they went and, on reaching the bottom, forming the most enormous snowman in history...
Back to the walk, which at times became a climb. Every now and then, I would see a group of people in front of me who had stopped and I would think, "Aha! We've arrived at the ritual site!" Then my hopes would be quickly dashed as they broke off their conversation and continued walking. This seemed to go on for hours. Perhaps the fact that I was carrying both the World Drum and my own drum and wearing a thick robe and wolfskin cloak may have made it seem longer. Nevertheless, being a determined sort of chap, I carried on ... and on .... and then on a bit more ...
At last, just as I thought we must have left not only the county but probably the country by now, we did arrive at our appointed destination. This was clearly a particularly high point as it had been marked with a concrete plinth at the base of which was an awen symbol.
Here we gathered. The weather was still superb, the views in all directions breathtaking, and I was quite pleased at the number of folk who had made the climb. There were about forty of us on the hilltop. So this was Titterstone Clee. I had to admit, it was impressive.
We formed our circle, spoke our blessings, spoke again the words of Morten Wolf Storeide's 'Speech for Mother Earth,' and then began to drum. The World Drum began the beat, a steady, rhythmic heartbeat. Other drummers picked it up and, as is the way with these things, the rhythm built in strength as we continued to drum, increasing our energy yet more, so that the power of the drums stepped up again, increasing our energy still further. Despite the surrounding snow, I began to feel quite hot.
At the close of the rite, we were all elated, as I think is apparent from some of these pictures. Once again, I thank Elaine Gregory (known on facebook as Elaine Wildways) for the photographs, including the one below, when Suzanne's husband, Jake, took me to visit the Giant's Chair, a little way over the hill from the site of the ceremony. In this peaceful, beautiful spot, I felt moved to play my flute to honour the spirits of the place.