"Pleasing is a Wolf, ravenous among the Broom." Book of Taliesin, XXXVII
Bards are the keepers of tradition, the mythographers, storytellers, poets, genealogists, musicians, writers, artists, composers and historians of our Druid tradition, drawing spiritual inspiration from the awen brewed in the Cauldron of Ceridwen.
Here we’re on more certain ground than with the timpan, which is variously suggested to have been a hand-drum, a bowed lyre, a strummed lyre, a hammered dulcimer, a banjo and (by me) a long-necked lute. Everyone agrees that the 12th century Welsh harp was a triangular instrument of a type recognisably the ancestor of the modern harp. Its most common form was the telyn rawn, ‘horse-hair harp.’ The word telyn may actually be Irish in origin, from Gaelic teilinn, ‘the buzzing of bees.’ The story goes that the ruler of Gwynedd, Gruffudd ap Cynan (circa 1055-1137), brought Irish harpers over to North Wales who disparagingly referred to Welsh harps as teilinn, ‘buzzing.’ Irish harps were commonly strung with brass not horse-hair. This in itself could account for the difference in sound noted by Gruffudd’s Irish harpers, but I wonder if Welsh makers might have fitted bray pins to their instruments. Bray pins are little flag-shaped pegs inserted into the soundboard next to strings in such a way that they can be moved to almost touch the strings, producing a distinct buzzing sound. As you’ll hear from this video, the sound of the bray harp is quite unlike the dulcet tones of modern harps:
Discussing telyn rawn with Ian Pittaway on his excellent early music blog led me to wonder if, rather than bray pins fitted to the soundboard, medieval Welsh harp-makers might have inserted or attached something to the instrument’s neck that produced a similar buzzing effect.
On the bray sound, Ian cites the very early example of the ‘bull-headed lyres’ of Ur, Sumerian instruments dating from around 2500 BCE, of which complete examples have been found. Their bray-like effect is produced by the strings vibrating against the upper part of the bridge, as in this video where a reconstructed instrument is played:
For those sufficiently interested, here’s a longer video in which historical musicologist, Richard Dumbrill, talks about the discovery, reconstruction, tuning and spiritual and cosmological significance of the lyres of Ur:
Also mentioned by Ian is an instrument that looks and sounds as though it’s ancestors were modelled on the lyres of Ur; the Ethiopian begena or bèguèna, whose extraordinary sound can be heard in this video:
This next video shows a begena being made as well as played:
The lack of a bridge is one of the key things that differentiates a harp from a lyre. On harps, the strings go directly into the soundbox without passing over a bridge. There is no evidence that the telyn rawn was anything other than a harp, in which case we can rule out a bridge. Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t something else on it that produced a sound similar to the lyres of Ur or the begena. Once I’ve completed my telyn rawn, I’ll try a few options to see what works best. One possibility, since the soundboard was traditionally made from horse hide, is that strips of rawhide could have been attached to the neck, perhaps to the tuning pegs, so as to vibrate against the strings.
It’ll take a while to get that far though. This is where I’ve got to to date:
Following medieval harp-makers, I’m using a single block of wood. In this case, it’s from a 600-year-old oak who fell a while ago in woodland owned by my friend, Elaine. Elaine’s partner, Garth, has been a cabinet-maker for about 70 years, has a generous nature and a well-stocked workshop. It’s largely down to his expertise that we managed to render a very rough-hewn lump of oak into what is now starting to look quite like a harp. If we were following ancient techniques, we’d have burnt out the hollow for the soundbox then finished it with hand tools. Lacking the time and unwilling to risk our sole piece of oak to fire, we used a circular saw supplemented by hand sawing and electric drills. We took a slice off the back and another off the base to be glued back on later. Not quite a single block technique then, but close-ish.
Yesterday, I finished drilling out the soundholes. On medieval harps, these were invariably down the sides of the instrument, not on the back as in modern harps. Noting that the sides of the soundbox are warping and cracking in places, I clamped everything together apart from the base to try and prevent any further warping that might damage the chances of gluing everything back together again.
There’s still a lot to do. The upper insides of the soundbox need reducing in thickness, the shoulders where the soundbox joins the neck need shaping, a forepillar needs making and jointing into place, as does a pin strip. I need to decide what kind of tuning pegs to use and drill and shape holes through the neck to hold them. The front of the soundbox will then be covered with a rawhide soundboard made from a Red Deer hide. I’ll then make the strings by twisting horse hairs together. Only after fitting them will I finally hear what it sounds like and be able start experimenting to produce the desired buzzing sound.
Meanwhile, here’s a video of Rhodri Davies playing a reconstructed telyn rawn without brays or other buzz-producing fittings.
Sounds great, and beautifully played, but lacks the buzzing quality of the Sumerian or Ethiopian instruments, or of later medieval bray harps. That this was a feature of Welsh harps in which bards took particular pride is suggested by Andrew Borde (c. 1490-1549), who wrote in The First Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge,
“If I have my harp I care for no more. It is my treasure, I keep it in store; For my harp is made of a good mare’s skin; The strings be of horsehair, it maketh a good din. My song, and my voice, and my harp doth agree, Much like the buzzing of a humble bee.”
“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.
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 current Covid-19 outbreak is impacting our lives in many ways. How it will play out in the long term remains to be seen. In the meantime, we need to do all we can to keep ourselves and our families safe. Until a vaccine becomes available, the best ways to do this are by maintaining physical distance between us and washing regularly and thoroughly, especially our hands.
course, as spiritual beings, there are other things we can do. Those
of us whose Paganism allows for the reality of entities existing in
the realms of spirit whose
influence extends into the physical,
including the old gods of our lands, may choose
to pray to those gods
for their blessings and
ancestors certainly did just that.
The following prayer is found in the Book of Ballymote, compiled in County Sligo, Ireland, circa 1390, although the prayer itself is considerably older, dating perhaps from the 8th century. Skeptics may argue that an 8th century prayer can have no possible relationship to Druidry. There are, however, numerous references in the manuscript literature of Britain and Ireland indicating that Druids continued to play an active role in society at least until the 12th century. It is certainly hard to see the prayer itself as anything other than pagan. I have not included a translation of two lines of Latin appended to the end of the original manuscript text since they were clearly tacked on in a half-hearted attempt to Christianise an otherwise splendidly pagan prayer. I defy anyone to locate a Biblical reference to ‘the Seven Daughters of the Sea’ who feature in the first two lines, while the 'Silver Champion' referred to in line 10 seems likely to be Nuada Airgetlam, 'Nuada of the Silver Arm,' sword-wielding equivalent to the Romano-British Nodens, who oversaw a large healing sanctuary at Lydney on the banks of the River Severn.
that illness is characterised in the prayer as a ‘two-headed
adder,’ a ‘hard-grey serpent,’ and a ‘headless black beetle.’
It was extremely common for our ancestors to view disease as a dark
creature, most often a venomous
combatting illness in spirit, attributing a form to it is extremely
useful, providing a clear focus on what it is we are seeking to
counteract and protect against.
This particular prayer seems peculiarly appropriate at the present time, given that the severity of the effects of the Covid-19 virus seems to increase the older one gets.
"The cry of a worthy man upon the road, may it bless me on my journey into the Plain of Age:"
“I invoke the Seven Daughters of the Sea who weave the threads of children for long life: May three deaths be taken from me! May three life-spans be granted to me! May seven waves of good fortune be dealt to me! Phantoms shall not harm me on my journey a flashing breastplate keep me from injury! My fame shall not be bound by death! Let death not come to me till I am old! I invoke my Silver Champion who has not died, who will not die: May time be granted to me of the quality of pure bronze! May my form be ennobled! May my right be maintained! May my strength be increased! May my grave not be readied! May death not come to me on my journey! May my journey be successfully fulfilled! May the two-headed adder not seize upon me, nor the hard-grey serpent, nor the headless black beetle! May no thief ever harm me, nor band of women, nor band of armed men. May increase of time come to me from the King of All Being! I invoke Senach [‘the Ancient One’] of the seven ages, whom Fairy women have reared on breasts of plenty: May my seven lights not be extinguished! I am an indestructible stronghold, I am an unshakeable rock, I am a precious stone, I am a fortunate one of seven riches. May I live a hundred times a hundred years, each hundred after another! Thus I summon my good fortune to me.”
The prayer was recorded in our Shropshire roundhouse in August 2019, hence the crackling of the central hearth fire and the screaming sounds of Buzzards (Buteo buteo) wheeling around in the sky outside. The lyre accompaniment was added a few days ago here in my study at home using a little lapel mic as a pick-up. The lyre used is the one in the photos, beautifully made for me by Koth na Fiach of Dark Age Crafts. It’s of a type played in Europe from at least 800 BCE until around 600 CE, possibly later. The earliest recorded name for it is chrotta.
A few years ago, I came up with the idea of Druid Hedge Schools, loosely based on the hedge schools held in Ireland following the passage of legislation by the English authorities in 1695 outlawing the teaching of Irish history, language and culture in Ireland. Essentially this was an attempt to stamp out Irish culture. Similar measures were adopted in Scotland and Wales. In Ireland, a network of teachers rapidly sprang up who taught everything from the basic skills of reading and writing through to Latin and Greek. Teaching took place in secret, in barns, private houses, or, literally, behind hedges in fields. Anywhere people could gather together out of sight of the authorities.
The idea of Druid hedge schools is similarly to gather together wherever we can and offer information about Druidry at as low a cost as possible. Thanks to the kindness of the owners of the Henge Shop in Avebury, we are now able to offer monthly sessions there, right in the midst of one of the most remarkable and beautiful sacred landscapes in Britain. Session normally run for two hours at a cost per person of just £5, essentially to cover our costs in putting them on.
The next session is on the Druid relationship with stone circles, around which there is much controversy. Historians long maintained that classical Druids had nothing to do with stone circles, Druidry having arrived in Britain long after the circles were erected. There are, however, contrary views, and not just from Druids. Then there's the whole controversy around access to Stonehenge, around which much anger has been generated over many years, along with a good deal of misinformation. So, what are the links between Druids and stone circles and why do they evoke so much passion? Avebury seems an ideal place to explore these issues.
This session will take place on the afternoon of Saturday, September 22nd, at the Henge Shop. This date is particularly appropriate as that weekend sees the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri, an open group that meets among the ancient stones of Avebury to celebrate the annual cycle of Pagan festivals. As the Gorsedd was my creation, I can offer unique insight into its early years. This session will begin after the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd of Bards ceremony in the South Circle. The next day, Sunday, will be the 25th anniversary of the original Gorsedd. Why are there two groups with almost identical names? This question, and many more, will be answered at the Henge Shop!
It being May Day and the weather cool but fair, I wandered through the woods and scrambled down to a hidden hollow by the brook, where water tumbles over rocks and makes a magical sound that eases that slide into reverie in which awen flows and words emerge. With mobile phone as notebook, I jotted down the basis of this poem. It hasn't reached its finished state yet, at least I don't think it has, perhaps it never will, but I wanted to share it now, while the inspiration is still fresh. I am grateful for the gift of a poem made from just the interweaving of awen with the spirits of a special place and time... /|\
Beside the brook I sat a while and watched the water flow through the lichened rocks below with rush and tumbling foam. Astride a lichen-cushioned log I perched and heard Sabrina’s song as glistening waters ran their course across the ages long. Ancestral race, this mystery had so sat contemplating, this unceasing rush through time on to an ever waiting sea. Spirit-full and ever changing, silver flow will make its way, stopping not for tree or boulder, save to skirt them both around, for water’s wisdom is the gift of ever finding ways anew, unerring and unstoppable, ageless and unwavering, yet constantly renewed. And so to you, great goddess, I give thanks beside your play, for filling all my senses on this first day of May, reminding me that time and tides will bear all things away, and for the gift of awen, thus to weave these words in rhyme, from mortal to immortal passed until we merge in time.
Yale University Press, 2017 ISBN 9780300229042 xv, 360 pages, illustrated
‘The Witch’ is a work of huge ambition, spanning tens of thousands of years and taking in every inhabited continent. The title, even including the subtitle, scarcely does it justice. While it’s main focus is on the image of the witch across time and in many cultures, it ranges far beyond that central theme, taking in religious and political history, folklore, ceremonial magic, shamanism and more, in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Its scope is an important part of the book’s raison d’etre and appeal. Rather than focus on a narrow exploration of Witchcraft trials in early modern Europe, it seeks to place the phenomenon of European witchcraft in a deeper historical and global context. In doing so it opens up new debates and offers fresh perspectives on existing ones. Few historians are better equipped for this task than Ronald Hutton, whose previous work has ranged from the Reformation to Druidry via modern Wicca and Siberian Shamanism.
In discussing witchcraft and perceptions of it, it is necessary to define what the term witchcraft has meant to most people in most cultures and at most times. In making such a definition, it is necessary to compare witchcraft with other forms of human engagement with spiritual forces including religion, shamanism and ceremonial magic. To do so requires defining each of these. This the author does with admirable lucidity. Of course, not everyone will agree with the definitions arrived at, and Hutton himself admits that they are contestable. The chosen definition of witchcraft itself may prove contentious, even though it is firmly based on the most common use of the term over many centuries, that being a means by which individuals seek to harness spiritual powers and/or magic to harm others.
For this reason alone, The Witch may prove as divisive of opinion in the Pagan community as Hutton’s previous works on the subject, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford University Press, 1999), and Witches, Druids & King Arthur (Hambledon, 2003). For those who might get apoplectic, it is worth remembering that this is about witchcraft as commonly defined throughout history, not about the present day constructs of Wicca, ‘white’ witchcraft, ‘hereditary’ witchcraft and related Pagan traditions that were the subjects of those earlier works. Having trained in Alexandrian Wicca in the late 1970s, I have often suggested to Wiccan friends and colleagues that a simple way to improve the public image of Wicca would be to discard the use of the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ in describing themselves and what they do. Having described myself as a Druid from the mid-1970s, before joining my coven, I have long been aware of the very different public responses to the terms ‘witch’ and ‘Druid,’ the former being largely hostile, the latter largely positive, albeit tarnished in recent years by the aggressive militancy of an unfortunately vocal minority.
One of the book’s innovations is the creation of a new description of those who use magic largely to benefit others, often in return for payment, as ‘service magicians.’ This useful term covers a wide range of medicine men, witch doctors, wise women, cunning folk, shamans and the like who may use techniques similar to those attributed to witches but who use them, on the whole, benevolently rather than malevolently, defensively rather than offensively, often for reversing the perceived effects of witchcraft.
My one problem with the book results directly from its ambitious scope: even with 300 pages of text and the use of a fairly small font, there are innumerable points passed over in a single sentence about which one would like to know so much more. Just on page 224, for example, there is a brief reference to a 16th century male magician in Dorset who contacted the fairy folk “in their homes inside prehistoric burial mounds.” Living in the West Country, not too far from Dorset, I would love to know more about John Walsh, as he is named in the endnotes. The same paragraph refers to a “Susan Swapper, a reputed service magician at the Sussex port of Rye, in 1609.” I went to school in Rye for 12 years, yet had never heard of this woman and would love to know more about her. Knowing the way publishing works, I imagine that the publisher insisted on a page limit. If this is so, I wish Yale University Press had been a lot more generous with their allowance. Under the circumstances, it’s as well that the author provides nearly 50 pages of carefully referenced notes. These have led me to seek out John Walsh’s confession online and to invest £15 in the book, Rye Spirits, by Annabel Gregory (The Hedge Press, 2013), and £60 in The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, by Emma Wilby (Sussex Academic Press, 2010).
Over the years, Professor Hutton has done a great deal to inspire academic research into paganisms old and new. This book represents a summary of the current state of research into the historical figure of the witch and other magic users and, as such, also points to where gaps in our knowledge remain to be filled. From the chapter devoted to ‘Witches and Fairies,’ for example, there is clearly scope for a substantial book just on the relationship between British magic users and the fairy folk as recorded in trial documents and other sources from the mid-15th century to the 18th. Throughout this period and right across the British Isles, such relationships often involved accessing the fairy realm via earthen mounds, meeting with a fairy queen and being taught various healing techniques by the fairy folk. The fairy folk referred to are not of the tiny, Edwardian, butterfly-winged variety, but are human sized, often spirits of dead humans known to the magician, sometimes shape-shifters.
In a brief review, it is impossible to do justice to the sheer range of information contained in this book. It is stuffed to the gunwales with everything from illuminating minutiae to grand ideas, all woven together with Hutton’s accustomed skill, clarity and insight. It’s not surprising the book was twenty-five years in the making, nor that research assistants were employed to make possible the task of sifting through the vast number of works consulted.
Having read most of the author’s books since 1991’s seminal Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, I am increasingly impressed by the care with which he credits previous researchers in the fields covered. In this, as in much else, Hutton shows an unusual generosity of spirit. The present work is no exception. At each step of the way, full and fair acknowledgement is given to earlier writers and their ideas. This is part of what might be called the Hutton Project, which is not only to present histories of the various topics on which he writes, but to detail the history of those histories through reflecting on the lives and opinions of the historians who have formulated our understanding of the past.
The book is in three parts, Part 1, entitled ‘Deep Perspectives,’ consists of the first three chapters, ‘The Global Context,’ ‘The Ancient Context,’ and ‘The Shamanic Context.’ Part 2, ‘Continental Perspectives,’ consists of four chapters, ‘Ceremonial Magic – An Egyptian Legacy,’ ‘The Hosts of the Night,’ ‘What the Middle Ages Made of the Witch,’ and ‘The Early Modern Patchwork.’ Part 3, ‘British Perspectives,’ discusses ‘Witches and Fairies,’ ‘Witches and Celticity,’ and ‘Witches and Animals.’
I suspect that this is a book that will resonate in the academic study of witchcraft and magic for some time to come, helping set the agenda for future research and encouraging that research to expand its range and ambition. I certainly hope so. For the non-academic, it is not an easy read simply due to being so densely packed with information. For this reason, I suspect its impact in the modern Pagan community will be considerably less than many of Hutton’s previous works. This is unfortunate, since it offers not merely food for thought but a veritable ten course banquet.
In the late 1970s, I was asked to compose a set of seasonal ceremonies for the Alexandrian Wiccan coven of which I was a member. One thing that struck me as soon as I started researching for Midwinter was that none of our ancestors seem to have celebrated the winter solstice which normally falls on December 21st, but many celebrated on December 25th, a few days later. Similarly, Midsummer’s Day, the traditional date of Midsummer celebrations across the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe, falls on June 24th, not on the summer solstice, which usually occurs on the 21st. Solstices represent the midpoints of the solar standstills that occur twice a year and span about five days when the sun’s apparent rising and setting positions on the horizon don’t visibly move. It puzzled me that modern Pagans seem to celebrate the solstices and not a few days later, in keeping with ancient practice.
Answers emerged in the 1990s through the researches of Ronald Hutton, Steve Wilson and others. Steve Wilson was among those researching the origins of the eight seasonal celebrations that are a feature of modern Paganism, certainly of Wicca and Druidry. They discovered that the festival cycle known to many of us as the Wheel of the Year was formulated in the late 1940s and early 50s by Gerald Gardner (right), the father of modern Witchcraft, and Philip Ross Nichols, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Both were keenly interested in Celtic folk traditions and discovered that a sequence of cross-quarter day festivals that fell between the solstices and equinoxes had been widely celebrated in Ireland under the names Beltaine, Lughnasad, Samhain and Imbolc. Each had an equivalent in English folk festivals: May Day, Lammas, Hallowe’en and Candlemas. Dubbing them Fire Festivals, Gardner incorporated them into his version of Witchcraft.
Nichols (left), who knew Gardner well, liked the balanced mandala created by the eight seasonal rites, the solstices, equinoxes and the quarter days. They gave a communal celebration roughly every six weeks throughout the year. Nichols tried to persuade his colleagues in the Ancient Druid Order to adopt the eightfold scheme but they refused, preferring to stick to celebrating only the two equinoxes and the summer solstice. The Wheel of the Year finally made its appearance in Druidry when Nichols incorporated it into the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which he founded in 1964. Prior to the modern creation of this festival wheel, each of the festivals had been celebrated by some people in some areas, but no community or group had ever celebrated all of them.
This still leaves the mystery of why most modern Pagans now celebrate the solstices and not Midsummer’s Day and Christmas Day, as our ancestors did. To unravel this, we need to go back a little further, to the Druid revivals of the 18th century. By this time, the science of astronomy had taken over from astrology and the dates of the solstices were predictable and understood. When William Stukeley (left) surveyed Stonehenge in the 1740s, he noted the alignment of the Heel Stone with the summer solstice on June 21st. This spectacular piece of ancient engineering caught the public imagination and that of the Druid revival groups that began to emerge a few decades later so that they made the assumption that Druids celebrated the summer solstice. This in spite of the fact that a fair had long been held at Stonehenge on Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, and that the Heel Stone sunrise alignment is equally good on that day. The idea having taken hold that Druids celebrated the summer solstice, the further assumption was made that they celebrated the winter solstice too.
Ronald Hutton brought together a wide range of sources in his 1996 study of the ritual year in England, Stations of the Sun. In it, he addresses the discrepancy between ancient and modern pagans/Pagans in celebrating summer and winter. He concludes that what our ancestors actually celebrated was not the solstices, but the point a few days after the solstices when the sun’s rising and setting positions begin to move again. At Midwinter, this is the time at which the light was considered to be reborn, hence the birth of children of light at this time in various ancient pantheons.
In Druidry, many of us celebrate the rebirth of the Mabon (‘Child’), son of Modron (‘Mother’), whose story features in The Mabinogion tale of Culhwch and Olwen. The antiquity of the Mabon is affirmed by inscriptions to a god, Maponus, in Romanised Gaul and Britain and by the Lochmaben Stane, a large solitary boulder on the Scottish Borders that was formerly the focus of large regional gatherings. Modron is reflected in numerous inscriptions to the Matronae (‘Mothers’) on groups of three female deities that cover a similar geographical range to the Maponus inscriptions and appear at more-or-less the same time. Our Scandinavian ancestors celebrated Christmas Eve as Modranicht (‘Mother’s Night’) and it is likely that the Gallo-British Matronae were celebrated as giving birth to Maponus, the child of light, on the same date, the moment of his rebirth being sunrise on the old Midwinter’s Day, December 25th.
So, the doubts about the timing of modern pagan celebrations I had in the 1970s were confirmed in the 1990s, since when I have been regularly reminding anyone who’ll listen of the times when our ancestors actually celebrated Midsummer and Midwinter. How little impact my efforts have had should be plain to anyone remotely connected to modern Paganism, where greetings always go out on the solstices. Ah well, one can but try.
In the BDO courses, we recommend celebrating the original dates for the original reasons. As the popularity of our courses grows, perhaps the old ways and days will undergo a revival. My early 1990s translation of ‘awen’ as ‘the flowing spirit’ (based on what turned out to be a very inaccurate Victorian Welsh dictionary) has certainly caught on and is now used by Druids and others all over the world, so anything is possible!
Rye Grammar School was not a good place in which to be a hippy in that halcyon summer of 1967. While Dr. Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD, was in the USA, encouraging the world to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” A. L. F. Buttery, the Old Etonian headmaster of my very English school, was telling me that “there is no room in an institution like a school for individuals.” While love-ins and be-ins flourished in San Francisco and ‘swinging London’ was enjoying the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream, the little town of Rye in Sussex remained a sleepy Tory backwater, rife with bigotry, prejudice and hypocrisy, and full of boys around my age who would, within a year, be proudly calling themselves skinheads. I was barred from the newsagents in Rye because I had long hair. The same social stigmata meant that I was frequently stopped by the police in Rye if I went out wearing anything other than school uniform. That certainly included the psychedelic shirt I made by taking a discarded white shirt of my father's and painting huge, brilliantly coloured flowers on it with felt-tip pens. I took to going barefoot and sitting on floors rather than chairs too. None of which endeared me to my parents, teachers or peers.
By 1967, I had been a pacifist for ten years. This came from watching playground fights between individuals or gangs of boys during my first year at primary school. I saw that the only results were that one or more children got hurt and fresh enmity and resentment were caused. Even at the age of four, it didn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to see wars as playground fights writ large, the difference being only the scale and severity of the casualties. Since I could see no positive outcomes to fighting, only negatives, I determined that I would never take part in acts of violence, a position I have maintained ever since.
I made sure I passed my 11 Plus exam so that I would go to the local Grammar School rather than the Secondary Modern because I assumed that children attending the Grammar School would be sufficiently intelligent to share my view of violence. I could scarcely have been more wrong. Whereas the Secondary Modern School had a liberal-minded headmaster, Mr. Rothwell, who employed like-minded staff and genuinely took an interest in encouraging pupils academically, Mr. Buttery’s overwhelming interest was cricket. If you were good at cricket, you were in for an easy ride. Not only was I not good at cricket, I found it, as I still do, perhaps the most tedious team game ever devised by humankind. ALF and I were never destined to get on. Worse than that, the Grammar School encouraged, or at least tolerated, two forms of institutionalised bullying.
Attached to the school was Leasom House Farm. Parents who wanted a Grammar School education for their children who had failed the 11 Plus could buy it by sending them as boarders to Leasom House. It also meant they were completely rid of their children during term time and could get on with their lives unencumbered. The bitter resentment this fuelled was exorcised by bullying day pupils, a sport indulged in by virtually every Leasom House boy. If there happened to be anything a little unusual about you, you were picked out for special attention and bullied on a daily basis. This applied to pupils who wore glasses, suffered from asthma, or, in my case, had long hair, a deep objection to wearing school uniform and was a pacifist. Discovering the latter was taken by the bullies as carte blanche to bully me as much as they liked, knowing I would never hit back. Fortunately, I was a lot more intelligent than the bullies and therefore able to talk my way out of most potential violence.
A lot of the bullying directed against me came not from fellow pupils, however, but from teachers. The Grammar School seemed to attract teachers with a pathological hatred of children, especially ones who were unusually bright and questioned authority. Think Lindsay Anderson's If... Slaps round the head were daily occurrences, being caned across the hand less frequent. There was a history teacher whose methods ranged from the casual slap across the back of the head, through twisting and pulling the hair by the ear to nipple-twisting, the latter being particularly excruciating. The PE teacher preferred to administer punishment with one of his large plimsolls rather than the flat of his hand. On cross country runs, he would ‘encourage’ asthmatic children over farm gates by whacking them across the buttocks with this item of footwear. I think it was in 1967 that this man pinned me to the wall in a corridor, put his face close to mind and asked, "Don't you mind people thinking you're a freak?" I replied, "No, sir. I am one." This confused him so much that he let me go without another word.
The environment in which I experienced the Summer of Love was thus one of daily brutality five days a week, alleviated at weekends by taking the train to Hastings and roaming its back streets or seafront alone. There too, I was often stopped by the police for being in possession of long hair without a license. Since my father was around at weekends, I got out of the house as much as possible. He objected strongly to my long hair, weird attitudes and interest in music and art. He regarded them, and me, as a waste of space, and told me so whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Despite, or possibly because of, the tribulations of home and school, I drew huge comfort from what was happening in the rest of the world, fed to me through newspapers, the radio, television and, perhaps most importantly, through the music of the time. I had been a Beatles fan since the release of ‘Love Me Do’ in 1962 and had watched them develop from loveable Liverpudlian mop-tops into thoughtful individuals who were one of the driving forces of popular culture worldwide. August 1966 saw the release of the ‘Revolver’ album, featuring the deeply psychedelic tracks, ‘I’m Only Sleeping,’ ‘Love You To,’ and the awesome, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ an aural assault unlike anything put on vinyl before, with its dreamlike lyrics, backward tape loops and sitar all merging into a rolling, crashing wave of sound. “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream – it is not dying...”
Along with the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ and ‘19th Nervous Breakdown,’ the Yardbirds’ ‘Shapes of Things,’ the Beatles’ ‘Rain/Paperback Writer’ and others, here was a new music that demanded you not just listen to it but to immerse yourself within it and be swept along by it to other head spaces. To my ears and mind, it was utterly beautiful, magical and transcendant.
1967 kicked off with the Beach Boys’ extraordinary ‘Good Vibrations’ riding high in the UK singles chart: “When I look into her eyes, she goes with me to a blossom world...” The chart for late January that year also included Cat Stevens’ ‘Matthew and Son,’ the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Hey Joe,’ Cream’s ‘I Feel Free,’ and Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman.’ Yep, there was definitely something in the air, and it was being beamed into my ear via a little transistor radio tuned to pirate Radio Caroline.
Caroline played stuff you never heard elsewhere, with the noble exception of John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show on Radio London. It was on Caroline that I heard three singles that, for me, still encapsulate the English Summer of Love. One was Nirvana’s ‘Tiny Goddess,’ released in July. That was followed in September by Les Fleur de Lys’ ‘I Can See A Light.’ The third was again by Nirvana, and called ‘Pentecost Hotel.’ All three have a dreamlike quality that lifted me into a beautiful place back then, and continue to do so now.
These bands, and others of the period, were clearly beginning to realise that music has the ability not only to move the emotions, effecting hearts and minds, but to actually shift the consciousness of the listener. How conscious this was on the part of the musicians, I don’t know, but it certainly produced some of the most extraordinary music of my lifetime.
The apotheosis of the music of that golden era was, of course, the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ released on June 1st, 1967. I first heard it, weirdly enough, at my school, which happened to have an open day that coincided with the album’s release. I was too poor to afford full-priced albums, but a WWII bomb shelter in the school grounds had been converted into a sort of psychedelic dungeon for the day, complete with primitive light show, a 6th former had brought in a copy of Sgt. Pepper, and the first chords of the album were sounding just as I wandered in to see what was happening. I stayed to listen to the whole of both sides, culminating in one of the most famous piano chords on record, reverberating like a nuclear explosion at the close of a psychedelic trip set to music. I was dumbfounded. I could barely speak.
John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show was another oasis of bliss. Broadcast from 12 midnight until 2 o’clock in the morning, I used to listen to it under the covers with the little transistor radio clamped to my ear. It was not just the album tracks, or whole albums that Peel played, by Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and the rest, it was the poetry readings from Roger McGough, the Winnie-the-Pooh stories Peel read between tracks, the references to the Dibblers who sat on toadstool seats and just the whole atmosphere of magical wonder conjured during those two hour sessions. This, of course, came to an end on August 14th, 1967, when Harold Wilson's Labour government shamefully introduced the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act that made the pirate radio stations illegal and led to the BBC setting up it's insipid, tightly regulated, Radio 1 as an extremely poor substitute.
Perhaps my reaction to what was happening in music and popular culture at the time was partly driven by the circumstances I was living with. We lived in poverty, in a shack with a leaky roof and cracks in the walls where, for the first years of my life, we didn’t even have running water, relying instead on a rain tank in the garden. Bullied on a daily basis by teachers and fellow pupils, my father adding his unconcealed dislike of me to the mix at weekends, it was hardly surprising I should look for any avenue of escape that was offered and, given my proclivities, music, art and literature were obvious ones to latch onto.
It was more than that though. My innate pacifism gave me an automatic sympathy with the message of ‘peace and love’ that was in the air, and with the growing global protests against the American war in Vietnam. It was more than that too. Since early childhood, I had been fascinated by the concept of other worlds beyond the physical. This was spurred by disturbing visions I had in the state between waking and sleeping, by vivid, often terrifying, dreams, and by a strong sense that there were discarnate entities all around us that were capable of interfering in our lives. Whenever I tried to speak of these things to anyone, they dismissed them as over-vivid imagination and, more often than not, warned me that to take an interest in them was unhealthy and probably a sign of madness.
My first signs of possible salvation came from American comic books. I was lucky enough to discover Jack Kirby’s work for Marvel Comics about a month before the debut of ‘The Fantastic Four’ in 1961. The FF acted like a family should, rather than like mine actually did. Sure, they had fights, but they were quickly forgotten and, when the chips were down, they were always there for each other. Kirby debuted his take on Norse mythology in 1962 in the pages of ‘Journey Into Mystery’ where he introduced us to ‘The Mighty Thor.’ This gave me my first glimpse of paganism. Things heated up considerably when Kirby starting producing full-page portraits of Odin, the All-Father. Unlike the Christian God, who seemed both nebulous and mean-spirited, Kirby’s Odin was a god of stocky build and awesome power and presence, yet forgiving of his children and not the least prone to unleashing plagues on entire populations. By 1967, I had begun to pray to Thor every Thursday morning, and to ask him to send cooling breezes whenever it got too hot when we were excused classes to watch cricket matches or, in my case, to surreptitiously read a book while supposedly watching cricket matches. He always obliged, providing my first indication that pagan gods are real (whatever ‘real’ means).
July, 1963, saw the first appearance of Doctor Stephen Strange in ‘Strange Tales’ 110, created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, based on an earlier character, Dr. Droom, created by Jack Kirby. No one drew other worlds like Steve Ditko, and those he conjured up for Dr. Strange were my first indication that there might be other people in this world who shared my interest in exploring these realms that existed alongside our own. The good Doctor himself learned how to project his astral body by studying with an ancient sage in the Himalayas. Since I frequently used to fall out of my body whilst trying to get to sleep at night, I found this particularly interesting. Given the bizarre experiences I had as a child, the fact that Strange handled similar weird forces with the aid of magic was both inspiring and hugely encouraging, as was the fact that he could move in and out of alternate dimensions at will. By 1967, his stories were being handled by another excellent artist, Marie Severin, and the tales remained as cosmic as ever.
Through comic books first, and then through music, I realised I was not completely alone, and perhaps not even entirely insane. In 1967 in particular, the blanket coverage given in the media to the hippy movement gave me the feeling that, far from being alone, I was actually part of a world-wide revolution drawing the world away from war, authoritarianism and hatred, towards a peaceful anarchy in which people exchanged flowers rather than bullets and made love, not war.
On first hearing Sgt. Pepper, I was particularly impressed by the George Harrison track, ‘Within You, Without You,’ so much so that I bought a budget priced LP of Indian classical music and began to explore Hindu philosophy, so far as limited resources allowed. This track, perhaps more than any other, in combination with what I had gleaned from the Mighty Thor and Doctor Strange, pitched me headlong into the spiritual exploration that was to become the keystone of my entire existence, leading ultimately to founding the British Druid Order.
The very real sense of being part of a global community founded on peace and love enabled me to survive the abysmal days at Rye Grammar School and the painful tensions of home life, and gave me the confidence to walk out of both in the middle of the spring term of 1969. By then I had discovered The Incredible String Band and the mingled joys and sorrows of sex and drugs, but that’s another story. In the summer of ‘67, it was enough simply to know that I was not alone but that there were many, perhaps hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people in the world who saw life in much the same way as I did…
It was a time of unbounded optimism, when anything seemed possible, even that love might conquer the world, causing coercive governments to fall and peaceful cooperation between people take their place. It saddens me when, as now, large parts of the world seem strangely bent on sliding back into repressive authoritarianism, fuelled by paranoia, as we are increasingly under surveillance by our own governments, while those same governments seek to persuade us that all our problems are caused by external agencies, and where Western democracy, always something of a sham, has become both a laughing stock and a reason to weep.
And yet, despite Trump, Brexit, Daesh, Front Nationale, AfD and all the rest, the music, art and literature of the late 60s, and of 1967 in particular, still speaks to my heart across the decades bringing joy, a sense of wonder, and renewed optimism. Let us, therefore, continue to sing, speak, and make art, music and literature to convey the message of peace and love to the world because, as George Harrison sang, “with our love, we could save the world, if they only knew.”
Sometimes, waves of sadness wash over us, regret comes by unbidden, sorrow for what was lost or might have been. For no particular reason, this happened to me this afternoon and I wrote this poem, the first I've written for a long time, in memory of a lost love. The painting is one I made about 20 years ago in recollection of that same winter. It was a magical, insane time.
Once upon a winter time was I well beloved with freedom, honesty, openness and joy, way back when I was no more than a boy, taught the ways of love by a woman with pale skin, straight black hair and a taste for heroin, a mouse that nestled ‘neath the kitchen table while snow outside fell thick and bluish white as we walked starlit skies until first light, the sound of frosted drums on sparkling air, hearth warmed by broken legs of burning chairs, illumined by cream candles from a place of sighs, cavernous and Church of England high, Victorian Gothic, the essence of our style, with dark eyes and ever wistful smile, my shirt that bound your arms in bloody strips, my squeamishness that turned away from whips, leaving my sweet Venus wrapped in furs, your black dog the gentlest of curs, you covering the pain you gave in part payment for the track marks on your heart, the craziness that dragged us to the edge, with broken fingernails to grip the ledge, because to slip would take us from this world, with all its frail faults and failings, forever.
And it’s forever that I should have stayed with you, as happiness and understanding grew, but I was still so young and still a fool, seventeen and barely out of school, yet once upon a winter time was I well beloved, in Chapel Park Road in an L-shaped room that could have been a primal womb in which love’s endless wonder bloomed, and yet became instead another tomb where love was lost and intimacy died, where lovers rocked as for that loss they cried and then were gone like flickering stars that hide when dawn’s light robs them of their morning glory, as black holes one night will devour their story, as time’s insatiable maw devours all things, from babies’ cries to soaring eagles’ wings, erasing memories of gods below and gods above, yet once upon a winter time was I well beloved.