"Pleasing is a Wolf, ravenous among the Broom." Book of Taliesin, XXXVII
Mostly Druidry as found in the British Druid Order, i.e. Pagan, animistic, mystical and ‘shamanic,’ but also thoughts on some of the many other varieties of Druidry taught and practiced outside of the BDO.
I published a book with the above title back in 2000. That's it on the left. The circumstances under which it was written were, to say the least, unusual. Ellie, my wife of 15 years, was suffering from Acute Myeloid Leukemia. At the time of publication, she was in a London teaching hospital, recovering from the second time her medical team told me she had less than 48 hours to live. She died some months later. Between caring for Ellie and looking after our two children, then aged 5 and 7, I had neither the time nor the inclination to do publicity for the book. It therefore failed to sell in the numbers the publishers required and they pulped most of the print run. This gave it rarity value so that used copies have subsequently changed hands online for between £20 and £1000.
Friends have often urged me to bring out a new edition. For the last 16 years, however, my writing has been almost entirely for the British Druid Order's distance learning courses. With all three courses now complete and online, work on them now consists of revising and updating, leaving more time for other things, hence the new edition taking shape on my hard drive.
The first edition was well received despite the word limitset by the original publisher meaning it wasn't possible to go into the sort of depth I wanted. Even so, I've heard from folk who discovered Druidry through my little book and have pursued it as a spiritual path ever since. I've also heard from Pagans with decades of experience who tell me it gave them new perspectives on the Druid tradition.
My experience with the first edition persuaded me to self-publish this time, so no word limit and the choice of what to include is entirely my own. Yay! I also have complete control over how the book will look, from choosing the typeface to designing the cover (right click and select 'open in new tab' to enlarge it). Running the new cover past BDO course students, it met with overwhelming approval. I chose the photo, by Elaine Gregory, for several reasons. First, it's good. Second, it captures something of what the BDO is about, emphasizing what's often called our 'shamanic' approach to Druidry. Third, it is diametrically opposite to the common public perception of Druids wearing white robes and bathed in early morning sunlight at Stonehenge. The chosen image is much more in keeping with the lived experience of modern Druidry, which is of a solitary practitioner communing directly with the spirits of place, the natural world, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands. Fourth, the picture was taken in our Iron Age roundhouse, an incredibly powerful place in which to make such communion.
I hope to have the new edition available this summer. It is almost twice the length of the first and, while retaining the same title, basic structure, chapter headings and practical exercises, the text has been largely re-written as well as greatly expanded. As with the first edition, the intention is to bring the BDO vision of Druidry to the wider world because we believe it has a part to play in making our world a better place in which to live. In this time of threatening war and global warming, Druidry's long traditions of pacifism and deep green spirituality have seldom been more relevant or more vital.
“Harshness vanished. A sudden softness has replaced the meadows’ wintry grey. Little rivulets of water changed their singing accents. Tendernesses, hesitantly, reach toward the earth from space, and country lanes are showing these unexpected subtle risings that find expression in the empty trees.” ‘Early Spring,’ Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).
The east, elemental Air, marks the spring equinox, Welsh Alban Eilir, ‘the Birth of the Fresh (or Green) Quarter,’ which falls on or about March 21st (September 21st in the southern hemisphere). In Western astrology, the Sun is now said to be entering the zodiacal sign of Aries, the Ram. In Vedic and Sidereal astrology, however, which are based on the actual position of the Sun relative to the stars, the Sun is entering the sign of Pisces, the Fishes. On the morning of the equinox, at least in the British Isles and equivalent latitudes, the Sun rises directly in the east. Day and night are of equal length. The divine child born at Midwinter now begins to develop as an individual, independent of its parents, still wide-eyed with wonderment but no longer content just to observe. Now the child is eager to experience all that the world has to offer. This is a time of balance between the long nights of winter and the long days of summer. Balance is a temporary state and, at this time, it is about to tip in favour of summer.
There is not a great deal of evidence for the marking of the equinoxes in British and Irish prehistory. A possible exception is the West Kennett Long Barrow (below) where, from floor plans, personal observation sitting atop the mound and compass readings taken both inside and above the chambers, the central passage seems to be aligned on the equinoctial sunrise. I say ‘seems to be’ because two things render accurate assessment difficult. One is that an enormous sarsen slab, some nine feet high and of similar width, stands across the entrance, blocking the light of the Sun from entering the passage. The other is that the passageway and chambers as we now have them are as reconstructed by the Ministry of Works following excavation of the site by Richard Atkinson and Stuart Piggott in 1955-6. When the excavation began, the passage and chambers were in a sorry state, the roof stones fallen in and the walls collapsed. Piggott numbered each sarsen stone as it was removed during the dig but there is some doubt as to whether his numbering was followed when the tomb-shrine was rebuilt. The roof was built from scratch, using sarsens found in situ but also a number of new sarsen slabs brought in for the purpose. The idea had been to reconstruct the passage and chambers as they were when the site was first created in the Neolithic era but there is considerable doubt as to whether anything like this aim was achieved and it seems that neither Atkinson nor Piggott were happy with the result.
Although the basic alignment of the central passageway is unlikely to have been significantly altered during reconstruction, the entrance seems to have been drastically remodelled. The default for chambered tomb-shrines is for their entrances to be small and narrow enough to make access difficult. The Ministry of Works, however, wanted the entrance at West Kennett wide open to make visitor access easier. Unless records of the 1955-6 excavations show what the entrance was originally like, gauging its original size and position is impossible. Taking a middle line down the centre of the passage, the alignment is about 6 degrees south of east. A narrower entrance only slightly offset from the centre of the present one would, then, have allowed the equinoctial sunrise to fully illuminate the large rear inner chamber, even allowing for the fact that the Earth’s axis has tilted by about half a degree in the last 5,000 years. A narrow entrance in the exact centre of the current one would allow the same to occur about nine days from the equinox.
Clive Ruggles has set out the difficulties involved in calculating the equinoxes in prehistory. Deriving their exact timing by observing the position of sunrise would depend on having an absolutely flat horizon to work from, so any such alignment would necessarily be an approximation. Ruggles also reminds us of the difficulty of discerning what the equinoxes might have meant to our prehistoric ancestors. As so often in our exploration of the deeper roots of Druidry, we are left to speculate based on much later sources. We do have clear evidence that our ancestors throughout the British Isles recognised and marked the two solstices, so it may be that the equinoxes, being halfway between the solstices, were also of interest to them. Possible equinoctial alignments in the Orkneys include the stone circle known as Callanish 1 and the Cuween tomb-shrine.
At least one certain prehistoric equinoctial sunrise alignment does exist, dated to the 4th millennium BCE. This is at Cairn T, the largest of a group of megalithic tomb-shrines at Loughcrew, near Oldcastle in County Meath, Ireland (above). The stone first illuminated by the rays of the rising Sun is etched with more than a dozen symbols that may represent the Sun (left). Those with ‘rays’ have either four, eight or nine. Another prominent decoration is of ‘fish-bone,’ or ‘rib-cage’ patterns enclosed, or partially enclosed, in ovoid cartouches. These have either seven or eight horizontal lines crossing an upright central stem. One of the largest stones lining the passage has a surface pock-marked with numerous deep, circular holes. When the cairn was excavated, a number of chalk balls found at the foot of the stone were found to fit exactly into these holes. It has been suggested that these may have represented stars against the darker surface of the stone ‘sky.’
The range of hills on which Cairn T stands is Slieve na Calliagh, ‘the Cailleach’s Mountain.’ The Cailleach is the Hag of Winter who rules the year’s winter half, from Nos Galan Gaeaf (Hallowe’en) to Calan Mai (May Day). Cairn T itself is called the Hag’s Cairn or the Tomb of the Ollamh Fodhla. Fodhla is one of three goddesses who gave their names to the island of Ireland. Ollamh Fodhla, ‘Professor of the Goddess of Ireland,’ whose given name was Eochaid, was a prehistoric pagan High King of Ireland said to be the originator of a dynasty that ruled for seven generations. He is said to have originated the Feis Temrach, ‘the Feast of Tara,’ a week-long gathering held every three years at which laws were promulgated, disputes settled, oaths made and bonds renewed.
Rather than celebrating the day itself, the spring equinox has long been used to calculate the beginning of a celebratory period marking the return of life to the land after the long darkness of winter. The date of the Christian festival of Easter is still calculated from the first full Moon after the spring equinox. This method of calculation, combining the cycles of Sun and Moon, is first recorded in Sumeria more than 4,000 years ago, where the New Year festival of Akitu, devoted to the Moon-god, Nanna, was celebrated over twelve days beginning with the first appearance of the new Moon after the spring equinox and ending with the full Moon.
Born in the Underworld, Nanna is the child of the sky-father, Enlil, and the corn-mother, Ninlil, conceived as Ninlil is bathing in a sacred river. This is reminiscent of the coupling of the Morrigan (‘Great Queen’) and the Dagda (‘Good God’), which takes place when the Dagda comes across the Morrigan bathing in the River Unius in Ireland. The Dagda is father to the Irish god of love, Aengus Og, and of Brigid, the patroness of bards. Nanna fathers the Sun-god, Shamash, and the love goddess, Inanna (right), associated with the planet Venus, love and fertility. These three formed the holy trinity of the ancient Near East, a position they retained for more than a thousand years. A British equivalent of Nanna may be Nudd (or Lludd) Llaw Ereint (‘of the Silver Hand’), Irish Nuada Airgetlam, or possibly Gwyn ap (‘son of’) Nudd, “whom God has placed over the brood of devils in Annwn, lest they should destroy the present race.” Gwyn is ruler of both the Underworld of the Dead and the Otherworld of the Faery Folk. His name means ‘white,’ with connotations of ‘sacred.’
Some believe the celebration of Easter to be a Christian adaptation of a festival devoted to a goddess of springtime and fertility called Ēostre in Anglo-Saxon, Ôstara in Old High German. Her name survives in the old Northumbrian dialect name for the month of April, Ēosturmōnaþ, ‘Ēostre’s month.’ Her name seems to derive from a Proto-Germanic word meaning ‘dawn, or morning.’ It has been suggested that the egg and the Moon-gazing March Hare were symbolic of her. In British folk tradition, the expression, “mad as a March Hare,” is based on the courtship displays of male Hares who, at this time of year, may be seen leaping in the air, racing around in circles and engaging in what look like boxing matches with each other. The Hare is recognised as a sacred animal of the Moon in cultures from Britain to China. One of the most famous appearances of a Hare in a native British spiritual context occurs in Cassius Dio’s description of the revolt of Boudica and her Iceni tribe against Roman occupation in 60 CE. Cassius gives the following speech to Boudica as she rallies her troops for battle:
“... we have ... been despised and trampled underfoot by men who know nothing else than how to secure gain. ... let us ... do our duty while we still remember what freedom is, that we may leave to our children not only its appellation but also its reality. ... Have no fear whatever of the Romans; for they are superior to us neither in numbers nor in bravery. ... Furthermore, this region is familiar to us and is our ally, but to them it is unknown and hostile. As for the rivers, we swim them naked, whereas they do not across them easily even with boats. Let us, therefore, go against them trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule over dogs and wolves.” When she had finished speaking, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Buduica, raising her hand toward heaven, said: “I thank thee, Andraste, and call upon thee as woman speaking to woman; for I rule over no burden-bearing Egyptians as did Nitocris, nor over trafficking Assyrians as did Semiramis ..., much less over the Romans themselves as did Messalina once and afterwards Agrippina and now Nero (who, though in name a man, is in fact a woman, as is proved by his singing, lyre-playing and beautification of his person); nay, those over whom I rule are Britons, men that know not how to till the soil or ply a trade, but are thoroughly versed in the art of war and hold all things in common, even children and wives, so that the latter possess the same valour as the men. As the queen, then, of such men and of such women, I supplicate and pray thee for victory, preservation of life, and liberty against men insolent, unjust, insatiable, impious, - if, indeed, we ought to term those people men who bathe in warm water, eat artificial dainties, drink unmixed wine, anoint themselves with myrrh, sleep on soft couches with boys for bedfellows, - boys past their prime at that, - and are slaves to a lyre-player and a poor one too. Wherefore may this Mistress Domitia-Nero reign no longer over me or over you men; let the wench sing and lord it over Romans, for they surely deserve to be the slaves of such a woman after having submitted to her so long. But for us, Mistress, be thou alone ever our leader.”
I’ve included the whole of Boudica’s address to Andraste as it is one of the few records we have of a native British prayer from this era, albeit recorded many years later by a writer who did not himself witness the events described. Boudica referring to the land of her birth as an ally certainly has a good, Druidical ring to it. Likening the Romans to Hares and Foxes and her own people to Dogs and Wolves also has an authentically animistic feel. Divining by observing the movements of a Hare is also in keeping with both ancient European paganism and more recent folklore. The release of the Hare being immediately followed by Boudica’s honouring of Andraste has led many to suppose that the Hare was sacred to Andraste and that, since the Hare is widely acknowledged as a sacred animal of the Moon, Andraste must have been a goddess of the Moon. The name Andraste may derive from Proto-Celtic *anderā, ‘young woman’ and *ster, ‘star,’ giving the meaning ‘Young Woman of the Stars,’ a reasonable name for a Moon goddess and one that would place her in a family of star goddesses among whom we would place the Welsh Arianrhod, whose name means ‘Silver Wheel’ and who is linked with the circlet of stars known as the Northern Crown (Latin Corona Borealis), called Caer Arianrhod in Welsh.
For a time, it did indeed seem as though the Hare was right, that Andraste and the gods favoured the Iceni and that Boudicca might actually succeed in driving the Roman occupiers out of Britain.
Traditional celebrations at this festival include decorating the house and your altar with Spring flowers, decorating and giving eggs as representations of fertility and rebirth, and baking and sharing hot cross buns, the cross representing the four major stations of the Moon; new, first quarter, full and last quarter. Hot cross buns were made in ancient Egypt in honour of the Moon. A tasty and thoroughly pagan example of quartering the circle.
The question of whetheror not to robe for ceremonies is one that often arises amongst newcomers to Druidry, usually accompanied by questions as to what type of robes are appropriate. As with so much else, the answers to these questions vary widely between different Druid groups. The Welsh Gorsedd (founded in 1792) led the way among Druid revivalists with regard to robes and remain one of the few groups to insist on the wearing of robes during public ceremonies (see the video). Their founder, the itinerant stonemason, folklorist and poet, Edward Williams, better known by his bardic name, Iolo Morganwg, assigned different colours to the three grades of his bardic order as follows:
“The Bard wore a sky blue robe, to signify peace; the Druid wore white, denoting holiness; and the Ovate green, which was an emblem of progress.” (Barddas, vol. 1, page lvii; vol. 2, pages 24-29)
The Ancient Druid Order (founded circa 1907) followed the Welsh Gorsedd in assigning the same colours to its three grades, and its offshoot, the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids (founded 1964), continued the tradition, both from its original foundation and its later reformation under the leadership of Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. Early OBOD course material recommended a basic robe of white with tabards of blue for a bard, green for an ovate, worn over it.
So far, so good, except that Iolo, for all his many excellent qualities, was a highly imaginative laudanum addict and a prolific forger of the supposedly ancient documents in which he claimed to have found his entire system of Druidry set out. The colours he assigned to the various grades had little basis beyond his fertile imagination.
When dreaming the British Druid Order into being in the 1970s, I looked to what classical Greek and Roman writers had written about Druids 2,000 years ago. The most famous ancient description of a Druid ceremony is undoubtedly that of Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (1st century CE). He writes that, “A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the [Oak] tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe.” It struck me that if a priest is going to clamber into the branches of an Oak tree to cut mistletoe from it, the chances are he would be young and agile rather than a wizened sage, a youthful bard rather than an aged Druid. White having traditionally been connected with purity and innocence also suggested youth. So I settled on a white robe as the BDO’s bardic costume.
I then found a translation of a poem by the 1st century CE writer, Strabo, in which he refers to Druids wearing red robes trimmed with gold. I’ve since been unable to track down the quote, but it was enough to suggest adopting a long red, sleeveless tunic as our ovate vestment. Red, being the colour of blood, is associated with the cycles of life, including the menstrual cycle with its lunar associations, and the ovate path is the path of natural philosophy, learning from life.
My third classical source was the Roman historian, Tacitus, whose account of Roman legions attacking the Druid isle of Anglesey in 61 CE (Annals XIV, 29-30) tells us that “Along the shore stood the enemy in a close-packed array of armed men interspersed with women dressed like Furies in funeral black, with streaming hair and brandishing torches.” It has long been conjectured that these women were Druid devotees of a native Raven or Crow goddess. If so, it is possible that their black dress took the form of cloaks that would flap like dark wings. Add traditional European associations of black with old age and death and a black cloak seemed suitable garb for a BDO Druid. The fact that this white, red and black colour scheme has associations with the modern Pagan concept of a triple goddess as Maiden (white), Mother (red) and Crone (black) was an added bonus.
Prior to the arrival of my first Wolf-skin cloak in 1994 then, my accustomed gear for public ceremonies was an unbleached woollen robe, a long, red velvet tunic with gold satin lining and a hooded black woollen cloak.
Subsequent research added further possibilities. The archaeology of Iron Age Europe reveals the popularity of tartan-like woven cloth and images of bards show them wearing long, tight-sleeved tunics and trousers made from cloth with a diagonal, tartan-like weave (right). Enough of these exist to suggest that this combination of tunic and trousers was the standard clothing of bards from around 900 BCE through to at least the 1st century CE. Classical sources refer to the bardocucullus, a short woollen travelling cloak with a hood whose name suggests it was favoured by bards as they travelled around the country.
A bronze figurine from Western France(right) is our most likely representation of a late Iron Age Druid in ceremonial dress. He sports a neatly trimmed beard and wears a loose-fitting, knee-length robe with wide sleeves that appears to be plain apart from a decorated edging around the lower hem.
A number of crowns have been found in the British Isles, formed from a circlet of sheet bronze over which rises a crossed arch made from two strips of the same metal (below). It has been speculated that these were part of the ceremonial regalia of Druids. This make sense to me as there is evidence for a native belief that a place on the crown of the head allows the ‘breath of life’ to pass in and out of the body, making it peculiarly vulnerable to attack.
Medieval Irish sources suggest that social status was indicated by, among other things, the number of colours one wore. Given the high social status of bards and Druids, one might, therefore, expect some spectacularly multi-hued garments.
There are, then, a range of possibilities for Druid robes and regalia that have at least some basis in history, whether from the early Bronze Age or the Druid revivals that began in the 18th century.
Some Druid group simplify things by settling for just a white robe, usually hooded, sometimes embroidered with symbols or otherwise decorated.
Many Druids, however, probably the majority, don't wear robes at all, preferring everyday clothing, albeit often augmented by decoration or jewellery suggestive of their spirituality.
Few Druid groups insist on robes, even for formal public ceremonies. The only two I can think of are the Welsh Gorsedd and the Ancient Druid Order. OBOD recommend robes for public ceremonies but don’t, as far as I’m aware, insist on them. In the BDO, we pretty much wear whatever seems best and are happy for others to do the same.
Over the years, we have increasingly adopted clothing that speaks of our personal spiritual paths. So I often wear a dark green linen tunic bearing tokens of my alignment with Wolf spirit. I have a second Wolf-skin cloak that came to me at a time of particular need a decade after the first and wear this when it feels right. I have a dance cloak (left) bearing images of Wolves drawn from a medieval manuscript.
For the first open, multi-faith Gorsedd ceremony in Volunteer Park in Seattle, my friend, Leon Reed, sent out a message asking potential participants to, as he put it, “wear your power,” that is to don whatever ritual gear best expressed their spiritual path and made them feel most strongly connected with it. This struck me as a brilliantly inspiring phrase. I’ve since adopted it as my own policy, wearing whatever seems right for the ceremony or other event I’m taking part in. I’m very happy for others to do the same, and they usually do. This means that BDO ceremonies tend to be quite colourful affairs.
Having long believed that ancient Druids were the North-west European equivalent to shamans in other cultures, some BDO ceremonies call for a “wearing of power” that can take on a decidedly ‘shamanistic’ look, with the wearing of animal tokens, costumes or actual hides, face and body painting and other adornments (below).
What you choose to wear as a bard, ovate or Druid, then, depends on many things. One is which group or order you belong to and what their policy is. Another is which, if any, historical inspirations you draw on, from prehistoric archaeology to 21st century Druid courses. Another is what works for you personally, spiritually, psychologically and aesthetically. As said, some Druids eschew robes altogether, preferring plain street clothes. Others, myself included, kinda like dressing up, although it is, for us, always dressing up with a purpose. Donning special items of clothing for particular types of ceremony enhances the specialness of the occasion, focuses us on what needs to be done, and physically reminds us of our spiritual connections, thereby strengthening and enhancing them.
Leon’s expression still sums it up best though: “wear your power!”
Druids have (finally) been invited to speak to an audience of leaders from assorted faith communities from around the globe, to share a bit of accurate information about what modern Druids actually do and believe (as opposed to all the nonsense that the popular media typically says about us). Larisa A. White (author of World Druidry: A Globalizing Path of Nature Spirituality) and Neil Pitchford (TDN Trustee and Vice-Moderator of the Faith Communities Forum of the InterFaith Network of UK) will share key findings from the World Druidry Survey of 2018-2020, the first rigorous, global study of modern Druidry, in order to help debunk the popular myths and widely-circulated misinformation about modern Druids' actual religious beliefs and spiritual practices. In doing so, they will be demonstrating to the Parliament the unique ways in which modern Druidry addresses the stated missions of the Parliament of the World's Religions, "to create a culture of non-violence and respect for life, tolerance and truthfulness, and sustainability and care for the Earth." The presentation title and description are as follows: "Cultivating Honorable Relationships with the World: Lessons from the ‘Scriptures’ of Druidry" "Modern Druidry, a contemporary, nature-based, new religious movement born in Britain, has been rapidly spreading around the world since the early 1990s. Druids now reside in 34 countries, across six continents, and inhabit 17 unique biomes, in addition to the mistletoe and oak filled temperate forests depicted in history and fantasy. As a nature-reverent tradition with high holidays based upon a cycle of seasonal celebrations, this begs the question: How can Druidry maintain a spiritual common core across so many, diverse ecological contexts? In this presentation, we will provide a brief overview of Druidry as a modern religious tradition, and then, using the example of how Druids celebrate seasonal festivals in a globalizing tradition, demonstrate how the Druid devotional practices of nature connection, sacred listening, and reciprocity allow Druids to cultivate honorable relationships with all other beings, be they human or of other-than-human kind." The 2021 Parliament of the World's Religions will be a VIRTUAL event this year, taking place on October 17-18. Registration is still open for any who might wish to attend ('early bird' registration available until August 31st).
Many thanks to Larisa for this press release and all good blessings to Larisa, Neil and all the speakers and attendees at this year's event, Greywolf /|\
If you’ve ever wondered what modern Druids believe and what they get up to inspired by their beliefs, then this book is a must for you. It had already created quite a buzz in the Druid community prior to its publication and it not only lives up to expectations but exceeds them. Here I must declare an interest, having been a Druid since 1974, founded the British Druid Order, having many friends in other Druid groups and having worked full-time as a Druid since 1995. This makes me an ideal market for the book, but you don’t need a similar level of commitment to enjoy it. Indeed, anyone with an interest in modern Druidry, Paganism or what academics sometimes call ‘New Religious Movements’ will find it a fascinating and incredibly rich source of detailed, well-researched information. Nothing like it has been attempted before and it will undoubtedly stand as a definitive work for years to come, informing current researchers and hopefully inspiring further research on its subject as well as providing unprecedented insights for the general reader.
It draws on a world survey of Druids conducted by the author(right) over a two-year period. The questionnaire (still available online) is very well constructed, consisting of 189 separate items, allowing respondents to expand on their answers and providing 18 open-ended questions specifically aimed at encouraging longer responses. The fact that the author is a Druid herself encouraged Druid groups to promote the survey online, resulting in 725 respondents from 34 countries returning completed forms, providing detailed insights into all aspects of modern Druidry. White carefully analysed this mass of information, breaking down the results into the book’s eight chapters. These cover Druidry as a personal path, how Druids interact with the world, Druid theology, ritual, meditation, seasonal festivals, etc. In short, all of present-day Druidical life is here, all illustrated with relevant quotes from practising Druids. The sheer quantity of information is astonishing and the author has done a remarkable job in breaking it down into accessible chunks. Whenever the data looks like becoming too complex for words alone, she provides clear, informative bar or pie charts to make it clear.
Having been involved in Druidry for nearly half a century, you’d think there wouldn’t be much I didn’t know about it. You’d be wrong. While the book supports much that I already knew or suspected, either anecdotally or from personal observation, it also contains several surprises, some welcome, others less so. In the latter category, I was shocked to learn the extent to which modern Druids are actively persecuted, primarily by Christians. I genuinely thought we had progressed beyond the kind of medieval thinking that prompts such persecution, yet some Druids, particularly in the USA, still fear to ‘come out’ about their beliefs, even to members of their own families. Globally, the survey reveals that 19% fear discrimination, 17% fear harassment and 8% fear physical assault. These numbers are significantly higher in the USA.
A more welcome finding is the extent to which Nature plays a part in modern Druidry. Those of us who run Druid groups are always banging on about communing with the natural world and its indwelling spirits, but it’s hard to know to what extent the message actually gets through. At least, it was until this book arrived. When asked to rank the importance of different influences on their spirituality, 91% put Nature at the top of the list, 71% Nature spirits. Yay! It’s working! Clearly Druidry warrants its description as a ‘Nature Spirituality’ in the book’s subtitle. 85% of Druids, for example, report being actively engaged in some form of environmental stewardship.
Having spent the last 15 years creating distance learning courses for the BDO, I was also pleased to find Druid courses cited as a major influence by around half of Druids worldwide. That said, another surprise was how many Druids practice their path alone or with a partner, rarely if ever engaging with group celebrations.
As a ‘hard polytheist,’ defined by the author as one who sees their gods as “objectively real,” I was intrigued to find that this belief is shared by only 15% of respondents, while 49% identify as ‘soft polytheists,’ i.e. those who “typically work with their pantheons in a symbolic manner,” and 37% as ‘pantheists,’ regarding “all of Nature [as], in essence, a single, divine consciousness.” The sheer variety of belief revealed in the survey is remarkable. By contrast, chapter 8 is devoted to “Druidry’s Spiritual Common Core.” This finds a shared set of core beliefs that define modern Druidry. Again, engagement with the natural world features prominently.
At the end of the book, the author provides a useful and admirably clear Glossary offering succinct definitions of terms used in the text, including deities from numerous pantheons, folk and seasonal festivals engaged in by Druids, and terms such as ‘animism,’ ‘awen’ and ‘imbas.’ The survey form is included as an Appendix while another lists 147 Druid groups worldwide.
A final thing to commend the book is simply its look and feel. The hardback is a thing of genuine beauty. The attractive, dark blue dust jacket is printed on a high quality paper that feels like velvet while the book inside is fully cloth-bound in a matching shade of blue. It’s a joy to handle, the text clear and readable, the photographs well-chosen and clearly reproduced.
In bringing together such a wealth of information and presenting it with such crystal clarity, Larisa A. White has done a great service to the Druid community, the broader Pagan community, those interested in ‘New Religious Movements’ and general readers with an interest in contemporary spirituality more broadly and with how spirituality impacts on environmental concerns. I therefore wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend this unique and fascinating book.
From the time I began exploring Druidry in 1974, I have never thought of it as anything other than ‘shamanic.’ I discovered Druidry through Robert Graves’ remarkable book, The White Goddess (3rd edition, 1961). For all its fame in Pagan circles, it is far from an easy read, laden with classical Greek and Roman references, many not translated into English, with arguments flung at the reader in a flurry of seemingly random and unrelated facts and fancies, laced with folklore and poetry. Realising that regular breaks would be needed if I were to get through it, I began alternating chapters of The White Goddess with those of another dense, difficult read; Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964). Graves appealed to my poetic nature, awakening me to Druidry as a pagan spiritual path native to the British Isles, where I was born. Eliade awakened me to the existence of traditional societies where strange children were treated as peculiarly blessed and potentially cursed rather than simply insane, which was my experience growing up in a Sussex village with vivid dreams, nightmares and terrifying waking visions. Reading Graves and Eliade in tandem convinced me of the ‘shamanic’ nature of Druidry and that it might be a spiritual path capable of restoring my sanity, shattered by a severe mental breakdown in 1971. My experience of walking the Druid path for the last 47 years has powerfully reinforced these convictions. I am wary of the term ‘shamanic’ because it is so overused whilst having no widely agreed definition, hence the inverted commas. Thanks in part to Eliade, ‘shaman’ has become a catch-all term for pretty much anyone in any traditional society who undertakes healing, works magic, uses divination or otherwise tries to aid their community by means that could be described as magical or spiritual. Eliade was keen to play up what he saw as similarities between people all around the world whose practices fell under his use of ‘shaman’ as an umbrella term. He did so by being extremely selective of the material presented in his book. He has also been accused of altering or fabricating quotes to support his thesis that ‘shamanism’ represents a worldwide, and therefore very ancient, system of belief, which does not necessarily mean that the thesis itself is wrong. The use of the term became even more problematic after it was taken up by an American anthropologist, Michael Harner, in the 1970s. Harner wove together fragments of spiritual cultures from around the world to create a synthesis he called ‘global, or core shamanism.’ His California-based School of Shamanism has since taught students around the world, including in Siberia, where the term ‘shaman’ originated, but where the native practice of it had been all but wiped out by the mid-1950s. Despite my doubts about its use, the term ‘shamanic’ remains a useful shorthand that is widely understood to signify a person who engages with spiritual realms and their inhabitants in a variety of ways that could loosely be described as ‘magical.’ For me, Druids definitely fall into that category. The idea that ancient Druidry was ‘shamanistic’ has been around for a long time. The earliest reference I’ve located so far is from Welsh scholar, Sir John Rhys, in 1901. In Celtic Folklore: Welsh & Manx, he writes of “the druid, recalling as he does the magician of the Egypt of the Pentateuch and the shaman of the Mongolian world of our own time.” The whole range of primary evidence for ‘shamanistic’ practices existing in the British Isles and finding its ultimate flowering in Druidry was first gathered together by Nikolai Tolstoy in his book, The Quest for Merlin (1985). A few years later, John Matthews used the same evidence to create the first ‘how-to’ book on the subject, The Celtic Shaman (1991). The idea of the Druid-as-‘shaman’ has even gained academic respectability, featuring, for example, in The Quest for the Shaman (2005), co-authored by one of our finest Celtic scholars, Miranda Aldhouse-Green. Some evidence is archaeological, such as the antlered figure from the 1st century BCE Gundestrup cauldron, found in a Danish peat bog in 1891. In his right hand he holds a torc, the gold, silver or bronze neck-ring that was a symbol of status in Iron Age societies. In his left hand, he holds a huge, horned Serpent by the neck. His antlers may be seen as part of a ceremonial costume or as evidence that he is partway through shape-shifting into a Stag. A similar antlered figure had been etched into a stone wall in Valcamonica in Northern Italy about 300 years earlier. He also has his arms raised in the ‘orans’ gesture of prayer. A torc hangs from his right arm and a Serpent coils at his left side. Both figures are often identified as horned gods but could equally be Druids. If the latter, then their appearance is remarkably similar to that of 18th and 19th century ‘shamans’ in Siberia and their equivalents in Scandinavia. Much of the evidence drawn on by myself, Tolstoy and Matthews, however, is found in the medieval literature of Britain and Ireland. In Britain, much of it is found in the mystical poems attributed to the 6th century bard, Taliesin, but probably composed in the 12th century. The most famous of these are ‘The Battle of the Trees’ and ‘The Spoils of Annwfn.’ Taliesin refers to himself as a Druid and, in these poems, he takes on innumerable forms, many animal but some apparently inanimate objects such as a spear point or a sword. Many of his transformations sound very much like the shape-shifting undertaken in some ‘shamanic’ traditions. On first reading the Taliesin poems and that great Welsh compilation of mythology, history and folklore, the Mabinogi, in the 1970s, my initial intuition of the Druid-as-‘shaman’ seemed to be confirmed. Take, for example, the story of ‘The Lady of the Well’ where the protagonist encounters a huge, black-haired man seated on a mound in the middle of a forest who strikes a Stag, causing it to bellow, at which vast numbers of wild animals crowd into the forest grove, bow down before the black-haired man “and did homage to him as obedient men would do to their lord.” This immediately reminded me of the antlered figure on the Gundestrup cauldron who is also flanked by wild animals. The passage in ‘The Lady of the Well’ refers to many animals entering the grove, but specifies only three species, Stags, Serpents, and Lions, all of which appear on the Gundestrup cauldron. In Ireland, the evidence is scattered across a number of manuscripts, perhaps the most persuasive being those dealing with the chief Druid, Mogh Ruith, ‘Servant of the Wheel.’ Most appear in a portmanteau text called ‘The Siege of Druim Damhgaire.’ In it, Mogh Ruith wraps himself in the hide of a speckled Bull, wears a feathered cloak, flies through the air and creates magical fire-balls that he hurls at his enemies. Twenty years after I conceived of the idea of the Druid-as-‘shaman,’ final conformation came in the form of a large, adult Wolf who appeared to me during a particularly intense ceremony. He showed me how to shape-shift and walk between worlds, adding whole new dimensions to my already visionary spirituality. Because of him I now bear the craft name, Greywolf. The ceremony in which Wolf first appeared led me to explore whether the British Isles had ever had a tradition of spiritual ‘saunas.’ I discovered a tradition that began in the Neolithic, elements of which continued in rural Ireland into the late 19th century. Irish ‘sweat houses’ were sometimes located close to ancient sacred sites such as stone circles and the Hill of Tara, inauguration site of the pagan High Kings of Ireland. Their spiritual use invoked the aid of the goddess, the Morrigan, ‘Great Queen.’ Their pre-history, history and use is detailed in our Druid course. Despite all this, some question whether Druidry is ‘shamanic,’ preferring to follow the classical Greek portrayal of Druids as white-robed philosophers. The BDO vision of Druidry has room for that too. Philosophy features strongly in all our courses, particularly the ovate. But the exercise of intellect doesn’t prevent us from gathering together in our Iron Age roundhouse by the flickering firelight, drumming to open our passage between the worlds in search of visions and spirit helpers who may guide us in the realms of the Faery folk, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands. For Druidry to be of real value, it must embrace the whole of life, from the cradle to the grave and beyond. Many blessings, Greywolf /|\
“Today is the day of Bride; the Serpent shall come from its hole, I will not molest the Serpent, nor will the Serpent molest me.”
This Scottish folk charm is from Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica. The Serpent referred to is the power of life and growth which, at this time, returns to us from its long winter sleep in the Underworld. To ensure peace with the Serpent, offerings of incense, milk or mead are often made.
Bride (pronounced ‘Breed’) is Saint Bride or Brigid, an early 6th century Irish nun, often known as 'the Mary of the Gael,' and sometimes as 'Christ's foster-mother.' In Wales, she is known as Ffraid. The widespread veneration of the popular Christian saint, however, is often carried out in forms like the prayer above that hark back to an earlier Brigid, a pagan goddess whose name derives from the Proto-Celtic Brigantī, meaning 'High, or Exalted One.' Her Irish incarnation is a daughter of the great Irish father-god, the Dagda, sometimes known as 'the god of Druidry.' The pagan Irish Brigid is associated with childbirth, poetry, smithcraft, sacred wells, the brewing of ale and mead and fire. A shrine containing a perpetual fire dedicated to her and tended by women devoted to her is believed to have become a convent of nuns devoted to her Christian namesake in Kildare ('Church of the Oak') in Ireland. Folk lore and folk traditions associated with the goddess seem also to have passed over seamlessly from paganism to Christianity. The following video explores Irish customs associated with this remarkable goddess turned saint:
Moving sunwise around the sacred circle, this festival has its home in the North-East, where the elements of Earth and Air combine. It marks the first of the English cross-quarter days, Candlemas, falling on February 2nd. February 1st is celebrated in Wales as Gwyl Forwyn, 'the Feast of the Virgin,' and in Ireland as Imbolc, possibly meaning 'in bud.' It marks the time when trees are beginning to bud, the first wild flowers are appearing, and ewes begin to lactate, all of which herald the coming of Spring and the return of life to the land. It is traditionally a celebration of lights, candles being lit to illuminate homes and places of worship. As at the other quarter days, offerings of food and drink, particularly milk, are put out for the Faery Folk or poured over standing stones.
In Scottish folklore, Candlemas is the time when a White Snake, the Serpent of Bride, emerges from underground where it spends the Winter months, a potent image of life returning to the land. The huge popularity of the canonized goddess in Scotland and Ireland ensured that her festival has been celebrated in those countries for the longest time and with the greatest gusto. In Scotland, the period of Winter from Hallowe’en to Candlemas is said to be under the control of the Cailleach, a mountain-dwelling crone who blasts the land with cold winds and frosts. According to one legend, on Candlemas eve, the Cailleach returns to the Land of the Ever-Young, the Otherworld of the Faery Folk, the ancestors and the gods. There she makes her way to the Well of Youth that lies in a wood at the heart of that magical land. Before the Sun rises on Candlemas morn, she drinks from the Well, returning to our world as the beautiful goddess Bride whose touch causes the grass to green and the white and yellow flowers of early Spring to bloom. Alexander Carmichael, who collected folklore in the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, describes one Candlemas custom as follows:
“On Bride’s Eve (January 31st) the girls of the townland fashion a sheaf of corn into the likeness of a woman. They dress and deck the figure with shining shells, sparkling crystals, primroses, snowdrops, and any greenery they may obtain. A specially bright shell or crystal is placed over the heart of the figure. This is called the guiding star of Bride. The girls call the figure Bride, and carry it in procession, singing the song, Beauteous Bride, Virgin of a Thousand Charms. The Bride maiden-band are clad in white, and have their hair down, signifying purity and youth. They visit every house, and every person is expected to give a gift to Bride and make obeisance to her. The gift may be a shell, a spar, a crystal, a flower, or a bit of greenery to decorate the person of Bride. Mothers, however, give a Bride bannock, a Bride cheese, or a Bride roll of butter. Having made the round of the place, the girls go to a house to make the Bride feast. They bar the doors and secure the windows of the house, and set Bride where she may see and be seen by all. Presently the young men of the community come humbly asking permission to honour Bride. After some parleying they are admitted and make obeisance to her. “Much dancing and singing, fun and frolic are indulged in during the night. As the grey dawn of the Day of Bride breaks, they form a circle and sing the hymn, Beautiful Bride. Then they distribute the fragments of the feast among the poor women of the place.”
The arrangements for such folk celebration of Candlemas often seem to have been planned and carried out by women and girls, with men and boys being invited in if they ask nicely, behave themselves and show appropriate reverence for the goddess. At home, you might celebrate Candlemas by lighting candles and decorating your dining table with Snowdrops, Dandelions or Primroses if they are available, and with shells, crystals and other things that will sparkle and shine in the candlelight.
An archetypal emblem of Brigid in Ireland is the Brigid's Cross, woven from Willow withies, straw, reeds, grasses, etc. This symbol seems to be another pagan continuation, the cross representing the four directions and a simplified form of the Solar wheel of the year. The following video gives a step-by-step guide to making one.
In the strange, dark times we have been experiencing for the last year, the idea of light and life returning to the world in any form seems a wonderful one to embrace. When we consider that the White Serpent has ancient roots in British and Irish traditions as a bringer not only of light and life but also of health and healing, it becomes even more enticing. In our tradition, the White Serpent is the regenerative power that combats and ultimately defeats the dark Serpent that embodies disease as readily as it defeats the dark and cold of winter. The conflict between the light and dark Serpents features in the most famous of the poems attributed to the legendary 6th century bard, Taliesin. In Cad Goddeu, 'the Battle of the Trees,' illness is characterised as "A Serpent, speckled, crested, a hundred souls for their sins are tormented in his flesh," while the bard himself says, "I was a speckled Snake on a hill, I was a Viper in a lake." Taking on the form of the White Serpent of healing, the Serpent of the goddess that brings new life to the earth each Spring, Taliesin defeats the dark Serpent of disease. Hence we should invoke the White Serpent with renewed fervour this year, that the healing, life-restoring power of the goddess of springtime flows once more through the land, bringing her gifts of light, life and healing to all. So may it be!
Blessings of Gwyl Forwyn, of healing, strength and renewal, to one and all, Greywolf /|\
Hallowe’en, Nos Galan Gaeaf, Samhain, 2020 For thousands of years, indigenous peoples across much of the globe, including our European ancestors, conducted ceremonies during the winter designed to stave off the increasing waves of illness that spread across the land during the coldest months of the year. Wolf spirits were and are prominent in these ceremonies, from the Central Asian Steppes 4,000 years ago to the modern-day Pacific Northwest. Winter Wolf ceremonies were held in ancient Greece and Rome, where they were called Lupercalia. In Ireland, the young men known as Fianna were Wolf warriors. The Wolf clans who were central to these healing ceremonies usually consisted of similar youthful warbands who lived apart from the rest of society, charged with protecting their kinfolk from external threats. Whilst training as warriors, they also learned the legends of their tribes, traditional songs and poetry. They were warrior bards. Each winter, they would create a ceremony during which they and the rest of the community would renew their bonds with their power animals through ceremonies that incorporated chanting, dancing and feasting. Each person present would have the opportunity to dance and sing their spirit animal, thus renewing the bond between them that would keep both healthy and strong through the winter months. In the British Druid Order, we are reviving this practice with what we have dubbed a Winter Wolf Healing Ceremony. This year, we were to have held one in and around our roundhouse in Shropshire. Sadly, at the very time when we have so much need of such a ceremony, the increasing number of Covid-19 infections in the UK have prevented us from holding it. We will not, however, let the impossibility of a physical gathering prevent us from going ahead. Here, then, are the bare bones of part of the ceremony, with accompanying sound files and videos where available. We begin with a prayer to the old gods of the British Isles, from the creation of the world by Math and Don, how their children, Gwydion and Arianrhod, were given sovereignty over the forests and the stars, how Blodeuwedd became patroness of healing, and much more besides, all with a join-in chorus of, “we give thanks to the great gods.” Includes lyre accompaniment and birdsong. Apologies for the popping on the vocals, recorded in a rush...
This second prayer, ‘For Long Life and a Good Old Age,’ is possibly 8th century, from the 14th century Irish ‘Book of Ballymote’ and found in the British Druid Order's ovate course. Given that risk from Covid-19 increases markedly amongst the elderly, this seemed particularly appropriate.
… and here’s the video version that includes the lyrics:
Next is a general ‘Chant for Healing and Protection,’ again derived from an early medieval Irish source. Our ancestors characterised disease as a dark Serpent bent on destruction, hence the singalong chorus of “beat the Serpent from its lair.” Please grab a drum or clap your hands and join in.
… and here’s the video version that includes the lyrics:
Now for the first of the animal chants, the Wolf Chant. This was given to me among the old stones of Avebury in Wiltshire and is an authentic native British Wolf Chant since I am authentically British, having been born here and lived here all my life, as have the families of both my parents for at least a thousand years. The gift of this chant came to me not long after I experienced a powerful vision of a Wolf during a ceremony in 1994. Again, please sing along and dance should the mood take you, even if your personal spirit animal is other than Wolf. Wolf is a sociable animal…
Now we’ll alternate between other animals and Wolf, starting with the oldest of these chants, originating in an inscription to the Horse goddess, Epona, from 1st century Gaul. It consists of various names for the Horse goddess. Again, feel free to join in vocally, instrumentally and physically.
‘Blessed Be, Earth’s Son’ is a second Wolf chant, this time using other names by which Wolf people are known. This reflects the ancient habit of not using the actual name of the primary totem animal during ceremonies but substituting descriptive titles instead. Again, sing, dance, live!
The next chant is for the Deer people, specifically the Fallow Deer. As before, feel free to sing, drum, dance, clap and generally join in.
I’m afraid for any other animals, you’re going to have to add you own chants and dances. There are more in the BDO Druid course, but I don’t have time to record them now. So, since it’s always best to end on a howl, here’s the native British Wolf chant again. Enjoy!
And so we conclude our ceremony by feasting and quaffing mead or ale, sharing some with our ancestors, thanking again both them and our gods.
Music has been one of the great loves of my life since early childhood. Another passion is history and archaeology, especially as applied to the early British Isles. Sometimes the two combine, as when I discovered a type of lyre called achrotta had been played across much of Europe for about a thousand years, from around the 9th century BCE through to the early Middle Ages. A few years ago, I finally got my hands on a reconstruction of one, made by Koth na Fiach of Dark Age Crafts, and could hear what it sounded like and begin to work out how it might have been played. It is one thing to read about these instruments, quite another to actually handle one, play it and hear the sounds it produces.
In medieval texts, I came across another ‘lost’ instrument, the tiompán. One of the earliest writers to reference it is Giraldus Cambrensis (‘Gerald of Wales’), who, in his Topographia Hibernica (‘Topography of Ireland’), chapter XI, circa 1087, says that, “Scotland and Wales, the latter by propagation, the former by interchange and a pleasant affinity, strive to emulate Ireland in its musical modulation and to imitate its discipline. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments; namely the cithara, and the tympanum. Scotland uses three; the cithara, tympanum and chorus. Wales, in truth, the cithara, tibia and chorus. They use strings of brass, not gut. Many believe that Scotland today not only surpasses its teacher, Ireland, but, in musical expertise, far exceeds and outstrips it. So those seeking the source of the art now look to it.”
A Welsh Triad, recorded in the early 14th century manuscript known as Peniarth 20, also refers to the instrument:
Teir prifgerd tant
ysyd, nyt amgen: kerd grwth, kerd delyn, a cherdtimpan.
‘There are three
chief crafts of the string, namely: the craft of the crwth, the craft of
the harp, and the craft of the timpán.’
“A silver tiompán in his hand, of red gold the strings of that tiompán; Sweeter than every music under heaven Was the sound of the strings of that tiompán.”
References to the tiompán occur in manuscripts from the 8th century through to the 15th, despite which there is considerable disagreement as to what it was. Several manuscript sources refer to it having a wooden body, possibly of Willow, and three strings, made of bronze, brass, gold or silver. This clearly rules out the suggestion of Irish harpist, Derek Bell, that it was a hammered dulcimer, since they have many more strings. Others assume it to have been similar to the Finnish Jouhikko, a two or three-stringed bowed lyre once common in Northern Scandinavia. A similar instrument, the Gue, was formerly played in the Shetland Isles, presumably having been introduced by Viking settlers. While the tiompán may have been a bowed lyre of this type, there are reasons to believe otherwise. For one thing, an instrument with no frets and only three strings obviously has a fairly limited range, although the melody string is shortened to produce different notes by ‘fretting’ it with the backs of the fingers. Manuscript references suggest the tiompán capable of considerable tonal range and subtlety of expression. The Irish cruitt, a word that covers both the early, 9-stringed lyre and the later, 25-or-more-stringed harp, and the tiompán were the only instruments deemed capable of playing the 'Three Noble Strains,' or modes, that were the crowning attainment of the musician’s art; goltraighe or weeping mode; geantraighe or laughing mode; and suantraighe or sleeping mode. The 'traighe' element derives from trai, meaning ‘a foot, or measure.’ In modern musical terminology, a 'measure' means everything that appears on a musical stave between two bar lines, including indications of the key, rhythm, tempo and notes to be played. Perhaps trai had a similar meaning. Whether we regard these strains/modes as keys, tunings, melodic structures or playing styles, however, achieving them on a small bowed instrument with only three unfretted strings seems like a tall order.
Then there is the name, tiompán. The letter ‘p’ being unknown in Old Irish suggests that it is a Latin loan word. Its nearest Latin equivalent is tympanum, though this applied in the Graeco-Roman world to a small, circular, hand-held frame drum, like a tambourine. This is the name given by Gerald of Wales, who wrote in Latin, although he plainly states that he is referring to a stringed instrument, not a drum. The similarity of names does, however, suggest that the tiompán may have had a round body, or soundbox, topped by a soundboard made of animal hide, presumably with a neck projecting from the body. This would put the tiompán in the category of long-necked lutes, a class of instrument still found in many Eurasian cultures, from Eastern Europe to Japan. Many have three strings. Examples include the Tuvan doshpuluur, the Central Asian rawap, the Chinese sanxian, the Japanese sanshin, the Siberian topshuur and the tungana of Nepal. Long-necked lutes similar to these have existed since at least 3100 BCE, when pictorial representations of them appear in Sumeria. It is hardly a stretch of the imagination to conceive of the idea reaching Britain and Ireland by the time the tiompán is first recorded around four thousand years later.
The sound and playing style of the tiompán are described in a probably 12th century Irish manuscript that refers to the Battle of Magh Rath (637 CE). On the eve of the battle, music is played to bring sleep to the Ulster prince, Congal Claen: “And after that Congal slept to the quiet sound of the musical bagpipes and the prophetic ominous truly-sad shadows of the strings and tiompans being touched by the fronts, sides, tips and nails of the performers who played so well on them.”
This description of the sound of the tiompán beautifully evokes the emotional power of the instrument. A playing style that uses the “fronts, sides, tips and nails” of the fingers closely parallels the technique used in North Africa on the lute-like instrument variously known as the guembri, lotar or sintir, where the strings, of which there are normally three, are plucked or strummed with the right hand, the fingers of which are also used to beat out a rhythm on the animal skin soundboard. The body, or soundbox, of the guembri is usually roughly rectangular, being carved from a single block of wood. A similar instrument found in West Africa, the akonting, has a circular soundbox, also covered with skin, although some modern versions use timber. Both guembri and akonting have strings of animal gut. Other long-necked lutes, such as the Persian setar or Turkish saz, are wire-strung as was the tiompán according to manuscript sources. My suggestion, then, is that the tiompán was one of this extremely widespread and long-lived family of long-necked lutes, having a circular wooden body, or soundbox, covered with animal skin, and three bronze or brass strings, unless the player or a patron could afford silver or gold.
The addition of frets makes the location of notes far easier for the player and, since frets have been added to lutes since at least the Sumerian era, it seems not unreasonable to suggest they may have been present on the tiompán. On most traditional long-necked lutes, frets are created by winding animal gut around the neck. They have the twin advantages of being movable and fairly easy to replace. For the tiompán, the positioning of frets must be conjectural, though we may take our lead from the lutes that survive in other cultures.
In many cultures, long-necked lutes are played to accompany singing, with the instrument tuned to whatever the vocal range of the singer happens to be. Rendered into Western musical terms, two common tunings for three-stringed lutes are C-G-C and D-A-D, the latter reminiscent of the D-A-D-G-A-D tuning favoured by folk guitarists, originally devised by Davey Graham to facilitate playing along with traditional Moroccan musicians. In most cases, one of the two repeated notes is pitched an octave apart from the other. Held in the playing position, the two upper strings, including the uppermost ‘bass’ string, commonly act as drones, while the melody is played primarily on the bottom ‘treble’ string. Giraldus says that the favoured key in Irish music was B flat (Bb), or A sharp (A#), although we have no way of knowing to what extent what he thought of as Bb resembles its modern concert pitch equivalent. Taking Gerald at his word, however, we might perhaps tune our reconstructed tiompán down a tone from the commonly used C-G-C to give us Bb-F-Bb. We may assume that the tiompán was tuned in ‘just intonation,’ as used in ancient Greek music and many indigenous musical traditions today. Modern ‘equal temperament’ tuning was only developed in the 16th century, by which time the tiompán had fallen out of use, or at least was no longer mentioned in manuscripts.
took about 30 years to find someone to make me a chrotta and
I probably don’t have enough years
left in me to wait that long for a tiompán,
decided to try making one myself. Obtaining
the soundbox was
in charity shops for a
wooden bowl of
the right size and
his partner, Elaine Gregory, owns 80 acres of woodland. Her
provided a beautiful Ash tree, some of whose timber I’ve
used to make frame drum hoops.
Garth took one of the remaining pieces, by now well seasoned, and
made a blank to my specifications for the neck. I have spare guitar
around, and some pieces of Red Deer rawhide left over from
cheap violin tuning pegs were
pieces assembled, work could begin.
I wanted to give the neck a pleasing shape, which meant learning how to handle a draw-knife and a spokeshave, both of which I own but had rarely used. Several hours of careful labour and a lot of sawdust and shavings in the carpet later, a tapered shape I was happy with was achieved. I then sawed a shallow cut across where the headstock meets the neck and inserted a piece of horn with three small v-shaped notches cut in it as a ‘nut’ for the strings to pass over. Three holes were then drilled through the headstock and reamed using a hand tool designed for shaping holes for violin pegs.
to the wooden
me cause for concern as
I’ve never been much
good at wood-working joints. Going
my delight, I
two passable slotted joints, one on either side of the bowl, into
which the neck was inserted,
I had cut down the neck where it passes across the interior of the bowl so that it wouldn’t impede the vibration of the rawhide I was going to use as a soundboard. However, not trusting the strength and stability of the hide, I had left a small pillar to support the bridge when it was put in place. Having glued neck and bowl together, I went through a pile of pieces of Red Deer hide and found one from the neck end so thick it had dried rock hard. Obviously it wasn’t going to need the pillar, being more than capable of supporting the bridge on its own. Rather belatedly, I decided to look online to see what I could find about the construction of acoustic instruments, particularly bridge and soundboard. I learned that the job of the bridge is to transfer as much of the vibration of the plucked or bowed string through to the soundboard as possible. Had I left the pillar, it would have reduced the vibration in the hide soundboard, reducing the volume and affecting the tone. So I cut the pillar out with a small hand-saw and sanded it flat.
next job was to apply varnish to the woodwork to protect it from
and injury. I used a modern, shop-bought clear varnish, but there is
evidence that our ancestors made and used natural
varnishes a few thousand years ago. Varnish not only protects the
wood, it also brings out the colour nicely, rendering
variations in the grain more visible. Between coats, the wood was
sanded using fine grains of sandpaper (240, 600 and 800). Again, this
is a substitute for natural abrasives our ancestors would
Having completed the varnishing, the next step was to fit the soundboard. The chosen piece of hide was put to soak in a tub of lukewarm water, adding some rawhide cord (also left over from drum-making) after an hour or so. It took a long time for such a thick, hard piece of hide to soften. Eventually, simply because time was getting on and I was getting impatient, I decided to give it a try. Using the experience of making drums, I punched small holes around the edge of the hide, adding two concentric circles of holes in the middle to act as soundholes. The rawhide cord was then threaded through the holes around the edge, criss-crossing the back of the bowl from one side to the other until I ran out of holes. This was then left to dry. As cord and soundboard dry, they shrink and, therefore, tighten. They needed to tighten a lot as the hide was still so stiff when I lashed it on that its surface resembled a contour map of a range of hills. Checking it next morning, it had flattened somewhat, giving me hope that it might flatten more during the course of the day. Fortunately, it did. Even when fully dry, the surface is still a bit rough, but it’s flat enough, tight and very hard, and produced a pleasing sound when struck as a drum.
Next I made a couple of bridges. The first attempt was based on the Iron Age High Pasture Cave bridge piece. However, on fitting it, it was apparent that such a design is useless on this instrument, giving an action that is far too high. I therefore took another small piece of seasoned Yew and made a much lower bridge. The violin pegs were then fitted, after having holes pierced through them with an awl through which to thread the strings. None of the spare guitar strings I had in the house exactly matched the gauges I had calculated would produce the best results, but they were fairly close. Now to put the thing together and see if it played.
The strings were looped over the three pegs at the far end of the neck, which protruded from holes pierced through the hide soundboard. They were then passed over the bridge and the nut and threaded through the holes in the tuning pegs. The pegs turned out to be a very tight fit and took some turning, occasionally resorting to a pair of pliers! New strings never stay in tune for long, and these were no exception. It took about three days for them to more-or-less settle. Given the difficulty of turning the pegs, I settled for being nearly in tune rather than spot on. Given the gauge of the strings available to me, I opted for a compromise C-F-C tuning as the most easily achievable.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found my conjecturally reconstructed tiompán has quite a pleasant tone and a decent amount of sustain, i.e. about 10 seconds. Having plucked, strummed, tapped and slapped it a little, I couldn’t resist making a recording to share. This was done prior to adding frets or removing the rawhide lashings that held on the soundboard. Even so, I was quite pleased with the result. After all, I’d never made a stringed instrument before and was just amazed that it made any kind of sound at all, let alone a relatively pleasant one! Tuning C-F-C.
To allow for the removal of the cords, the edges of the soundboard were pinned to the soundbox bowl with drawing pins. Fortunately, the wood of the bowl (species so far unidentified) is soft enough to be able to push the pins into, finishing off with a couple of light hammer taps. I did, however, have to use an awl to make holes through the rawhide which was, in most places, too hard to push a pin through. For the same reason, it took some hours to remove the excess hide and release the cords, gradually slicing through the hide with a Stanley knife.
I had bought some 1 mm thick nylon line to make frets with, but decided instead to try repurposing the removed rawhide cord. Rawhide has the advantage that, having been soaked before use, it dries and shrinks into place, tightening itself. I had no idea if it would work as frets, but decided to chance it. After soaking for some hours, the cord was both flexible and stretchable. Using a ‘just intonation’ calculator found online, I measured out the fret positions, marking them in pencil across the neck under the strings. I then began to tie on the frets, starting from the soundbox end and working back towards the nut. Each fret was tied about five fret positions down from where it was going to end up, then slid up into place. Since the neck gets thicker as you move towards the soundbox, this has the effect of tightening the fret. Sometimes I had to trim the width of the cord down with a pair of sharp scissors. The total string length from bridge to nut is 27.5 inches (70 cm), and from the front edge of the soundbox to the nut is 21.5 inches (55 cm). This meant tying 24 frets. A lot of work, especially since I had no idea if the rawhide cord would actually do the job. The overnight wait for it to dry was quite anxious…
Next morning, I picked the thing up and, yes, the frets worked! Well, all except a couple in the middle that were a little lower than the next one up. Inserting a small file under the strings, I was able to file down the too high fret so that the ones below it could sound properly. Other than that, all my recycled rawhide frets performed as they should. Yay!
By this time, the strings were beginning to settle, becoming better at holding their tuning. This encouraged me to try a couple more recordings. The experiment switched from making to playing. From watching videos online of similar long-necked lutes being played in other cultures, I had some ideas to try out and plenty of inspiration to draw on. I’d become especially enraptured by the music of the late Iranian setar virtuoso, Mohammad Reza Lotfi, a musical genius virtually unknown in the West but who ranks alongside Ravi Shankar in the expressiveness, purity and spirituality of his playing. While my humble efforts will never get anywhere near such giants, they offer a vision of the mountain-top to strive towards. The word setar, incidentally, means ‘three strings,’ although modern setars have four, usually arranged in three courses.
For my first recording with frets in place, I used a long plectrum called a risha, reshee, or mizrab, used to play Middle Eastern lutes such as the oud. I chose this because of references in Irish manuscripts to the tiompán being played with a ‘wand.’ Some have interpreted this as meaning a bow, but this type of long pick, originally made from cow horn, is equally worthy of being called a ‘wand.’ Tuning: C-F-C.
For the second recording with frets, in keeping with the playing style described in the 12th century manuscript quoted above, the strings were plucked or strummed with the nails and fingers of the right hand, while the soundboard was played like a bongo or conga drum, initially with both hands, then with the sides of fingers and thumb, rocking the right hand to and fro. It became immediately apparent, as the recording shows, that playing the soundboard like this causes the strings to sound as a rhythmic drone. The strings vibrate to the drum-beat a lot more than I thought they would. Tuning: C-F-C.
All in all, having started out with fairly low expectations due to my shaky crafting skills in some areas, I’m quite pleased with the results and looking forward to improving my playing technique and maybe even trying singing with the tiompán, as the manuscript sources indicate was done. I’m not sure that I’ve brought an authentic tiompán back to life for the first time in more than half a millennium, but, given that no one seems quite sure what an authentic tiompán was, I’ll settle for what I’ve got until further evidence comes to light. At this point, that would probably be one being found in a peat bog. Now wouldn't that be something?
Making and playing my tiompán during the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly been beneficial to my mental health and general well-being. In Chapter XII of his Topography of Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis, has this to say on the beneficial effects of music:
sweet harmony of music not only affords us pleasures, but renders us
important services. It greatly cheers the drooping spirit, clears the
face from clouds, smooths the wrinkled brow, checks
moroseness, promotes hilarity; of all the most pleasant things in the
world, nothing more delights and enlivens the human heart. …
Moreover, music soothes disease and pain; the sounds which strike the
ear operating within, and either healing our maladies, or enabling us
to bear them with greater patience. It is a comfort to all, and an
effectual remedy to many; for there are no sufferings which it will
not mitigate, and there are some which it cures.”
The chant for which you'll find sound and video links below is extracted from one of the booklets of the British Druid Order's ovate course. It draws inspiration, language and symbolism from a poem in the medieval Irish Metrical Dindsenchas. The story in which the poem is contained describes actions taken by the Irish god of healing, Dian Cécht, to quell a disease outbreak by destroying the serpent that embodies the illness, reducing its remains to ashes and then washing them away in the purifying waters of a fast-flowing river (a reminder to keep up regular hand-washing).
In the medieval literature and later folk medicine of Britain and Ireland, disease is often represented as a dark serpent. Representations of sickness in animal form are common to many indigenous cultures, with snakes, lizards and toads frequently being the form taken. This suggests a very early and extremely long-enduring stratum of belief.
An obvious advantage of seeing disease in this way is that it gives spirit workers, often called by that overused Siberian term, 'shamans,' a clear, easily visualised image against which to work healing magic. My sense of the original Dindsenchas text is that it recounts precisely such a spiritual conflict against disease, one that is ultimately successful.
I should add that by no means all representations of serpents in our indigenous literature are dark and ill-favoured. On the contrary, there is a bright serpent of healing. Hence the long-standing link between serpents and medicine, pre-dating the Greek healer god, Asclepius, with his serpent-entwined staff, continuing to the present day with the caduceus wand of Mercury, wound with light and dark serpents, being the symbol of the modern medical profession. Also, I believe, accounting for the several representations of serpents coiled around lightning bolts that appear in Pictish stone carvings, a couple of which feature in the long version of the chant video.
In these stressful times, it seems particularly appropriate to release this chant online. Whether or not your personal belief system is animistic enough to believe that such chants have an actual impact on a physical illness, if the sound of the chant appeals to you, then joining in with it can certainly lift your metaphorical spirits. As I've found, even just listening to it lifts my spirits and leaves me smiling. If, however, your belief system is significantly animistic/shamanistic, then you may feel that, repeated worldwide and often, the chant may help us all get through this current crisis in a variety of useful ways.
So please do join in. Sing, drum, dance, howl, stomp, clap, holler and yelp along! Maybe fling wide your windows while you do (always allowing for the sensibilities of your neighbours)! Let's all boost our collective spirits!
Blessings to all,
First, here's the 9 minute 35 second long sound file...
Now here's the video that goes with that 'short' version...
... and here's the extended, 1 hour 7 minutes video for those who want to get totally immersed in it... /|\
Credits: I composed the chant and recorded it on the desktop computer in my home office using a tiny lapel mic to multi-track the vocals and drums. The main drum is the frame drum I made myself a few years ago. It's painted with, among other things, a Wolf (surprise, surprise) and a bright Serpent of Healing. The second drum is another frame drum I made, with assistance from my son, Joe, and which I recently dubbed the Pretani Drum. Panned way off to the right speaker is a little clay drum a photo of which appears partway through the long video. It's based on a Bronze Age original that was found within 20 miles of my house. In the left speaker there's a larger clay drum based on an original apparently found at Avebury, again within 20 miles of my house. A picture of it also appears in the video. The original was claimed to be Bronze Age, but I think it may be Iron Age. I made the clay drums. The running water in the background is a recording of Borle Brook in Shropshire I made a few years ago. The photos are either by me or Elaine Gregory, who took the main photo which shows me drumming in St. Nechtan's Glen in Cornwall. The drum I'm playing in the photo is a Remo Buffalo Drum that I bought in Seattle and painted with Wolves, Eagles and Serpents. I put the videos together using the free, open-source OpenShot Video Editor.