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.
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.
Despite having been a Druid since 1974, I learned much that was new to me while researching and writing the British Druid Order's courses. This post deals with just one of the many discoveries made during that research. It is a chant in the ancient language of Gaul.
The chant is derived from an inscription on lead sheet, dating from the 1st century BCE, found at Rom (Roman Rauranum), Deux-Sévres, in Western France. The inscription details a sacrificial ceremony carried out in honour of the Horse Goddess. The chant was created by taking the names and titles of the Horse Goddess in the order in which they appear in the inscription and adding one of the names by which she is most commonly known, but which does not appear in the inscription, i.e. Rigantona, meaning 'Great Queen.'
The resulting chant naturally lent itself to a drum-beat that seems to replicate the gait of a Horse person. It moves from a walk to a full gallop.
A Horse chant developed a particular importance for me some years ago when I realised that the part of south-west England where I live is home to a White Horse Woman who appeared to our ancestors in the Bronze Age (perhaps earlier) to show them the sacred ceremonies. Her name and parts of her legend were passed down by generations of bards, finding their way into that great collection of ancient British lore, The Mabinogion, where she is known as Rhiannon, a name derived from the Gaulish Rigantona and having the same meaning, 'Great Queen.' For the last few decades, she has been appearing in various guises to members of the Druid community to show us again the sacred ways of our ancestors.
Winter Wolf Healing Ceremonies are found in many cultures across the whole of the Northern Hemisphere and some of the Southern. In some cases, they can be traced back thousands of years. They have three primary purposes: to re-connect us with our power animals in order to stave off the physical and psychological illnesses that often come with the winter months; to enhance the well-being of Mother Earth and all her children; to perform initiations into the Wolf Society.
Just from a week in Norway during which Elaine Gregory and I spent four days representing the British Druid Order (BDO) at the Annual Shamanic gathering, organised, as ever, by Sjamanistisk Forbund (the Shamanic Foundation). This year’s event was called Naturfest and was amazing. So many wonderful, lovely people. Little kids and dogs of varying sizes wandering and playing in the sunshine, fantastic music, magical ceremonies, and a beautiful new venue, almost an island, connected only by a narrow isthmus with a road across it, surrounded by a clear blue lake and blessed with the characteristic Norwegian trees, tall pines and graceful birches. For us Druids, there was the added bonus of a young oak tree.
When we go to Norway, one of the greatest pleasures is staying with our friends, Morten and Louise, two of the nicest, warmest, most generous human beings I’ve ever known. We also share a silly sense of humour, which always helps. Their house is surrounded by a wild flower meadow in the middle of a forest and is so soothing to the soul. There’s a lake within easy walking distance, Elk (aka Moose) wander past the back window, Deer graze at the front.
The venue for the gathering is about a two hour drive from their house. To stock up on supplies for it we crossed over into Sweden to a huge shopping complex. Kyrre had asked us to bring a British Druid Order flag to the event. We didn’t have one, so I designed one and ordered it online. Unfortunately, it hadn’t arrived by the time we left England. Wandering around the Swedish shopping centre, however, we passed a store where I saw a large psychedelic duck suspended from the ceiling. I pointed it out to the others and we went in to get a closer look. It was so weird, we just had to buy it, deciding it would make a good substitute for the missing BDO flag. We called it PD, short for psychedelic duck.
We arrived, unpacked and settled into our tiny attic room in time for the opening ceremony which began up by the barn that was being used as office space, market and healing centre for the weekend. From there, we made our way to the central ceremonial fire. Two ceremonies then celebrated the feminine and the masculine before a sharing circle brought the first evening to a close.
Next day there were traditional games, a workshop on Sami healing led by Robert Vars Gaup, a nature walk and the first part of a drum-making workshop, among other things. It was a very crowded schedule, with events running right through Friday and Saturday nights as well as all day.
After 45 years as a Druid, it is my life and I know no other. Living in the British Isles, I forget that there are places where Druidry is little known. Norway is one of those places. When organiser, Kyrre Franck, asked if there was anything Elaine and I wanted to do other than the chaga ceremony we were helping out with, we couldn’t think of anything in particular, so he suggested a sharing circle about ceremony. I was a little concerned that the sharing circle was booked for 11 o’clock at night, the chaga ceremony for 2 o’clock in the morning! I had forgotten that, at Midsummer in Norway, it doesn’t actually get dark. However, once word got around that there were two Druids on the camp, people started asking if there was going to be a workshop on Druidry, so I asked Kyrre if we could fit one into the already very packed schedule. He said he’d see what he could do and, 10 minutes later, a handwritten poster in big blue letters was pinned up above the printed timetable announcing a Druidry workshop in the Lavo (a sort of wooden tipi) at 12 noon on Sunday. We’d suddenly got star billing and had to figure out how to live up to it!
Our sharing circle was fun, though I’m never all that comfortable with the format. The chaga ceremony was very good, as they always are. On this occasion, we had to contend with a plague of midges and the fact that an amplified open mike night was being held as part of the gathering not far away from where we were doing our preparation for the ceremony. In making a chaga ceremony, it’s necessary to spend about four hours preparing the chaga, boiling the water, adding the chaga a small handful at a time, stirring the pot, chanting, singing, drumming, making prayers and offerings to the spirits, in particular to Nivvsat Olmai, the chaga and birch tree spirit. Chaga (a woody fungus that grows on Birch trees) is already blessed with many healing properties. By adding this ceremonial element to the brewing, we seek to enhance those existing properties and maybe add a few more.
When the brew was ready, we carried it down to the open air ceremonial circle on the site, with its central fire pit surrounded by stones. Elaine welcomed folk into the circle via the eastern entrance and then remained to guard it. Yes, although it was 2am, people still came! Morten and Louise conducted the ceremony. I prowled around the outside of the circle sunwise with my drum. One particularly memorable part of it was when Morten set up a heartbeat rhythm with his drum as he circled the ring of people sitting on the ground while I drummed the same heartbeat rhythm from the outside. For the people between the two drums, the vibrations must have been quite strong. During the ceremony, the Moon rose from the forest treetops across the lake. Not long after we finished the ceremony, the Sun rose to join it.
We finished at 3 am. At 4 am there was to be a men’s sweat lodge, which I was booked into. In the event, I helped a little with the building of the fire but then had to make my apologies and leave, realising that, having been up all night, I was simply too tired.
Among the many events across the weekend, I was intrigued by a series of workshops being given by a Tuvan shaman called Dimitrij Markov. Dimitrij, turned out to be a really nice guy with a dry sense of humour. In his first session, he showed us how to build a spirit house. This consisted of sticks of firewood arranged in tipi shape, modelled around slabs of butter and cheese and set on a strong cardboard base. The whole thing was then placed on the central fire as an offering to the ancestors. Dimitrij conducted the workshop in Norwegian. I know hardly any Norwegian, but was able to follow what was going on by the few words I could pick up and Dimitrij’s actions. I noted that he always went sunwise around the fire, just as we do in Druidry.
An outstanding feature of Dimitrij’s ceremonial creation is his costume, hung with colourful plaited cords, bells, signs and symbols, topped off with an extraordinary headdress comprised mainly of Eagle feathers. These he dons immediately before ceremony begins and takes off as soon as it is finished. His ceremonies often end with him standing quietly for a few seconds, then saying, “That’s it,” walking out of the circle and disrobing.
One of the things I love about these gatherings is that you get to see both the surface differences in the ways we work and the underlying similarities that make it so easy to understand and communicate with each other across cultures.
Saturday night was the Sami Midsummer ceremony, which I’d been part of on our last visit two years ago. This year’s was conducted by Kyrre, Robert and Elin Kåven, a noted Sami musician. Offerings of seasonal flowers from everyone were placed around the central fire with prayers made for those in need. There was much drumming and dancing. Central to the rite was the raising aloft and honouring of a wreath of greenery tied with coloured ribbons, raised in honour of the gods of earth and sky.
Later that evening, Rotha (it means Roots) treated us to a fabulous musical set. They are a three-piece consisting of guitar/bazouki, Elin on vocals, and percussion, the latter including the biggest frame drum I’ve ever seen. The sound blended traditional and modern really well, while several lyrics were drawn from the Icelandic Eddas. Morten tells me that although the musicians are Sami, they draw much of their inspiration from Norse mythology. They are very, very good.
The band having done their encores, having been up until at least 3am the night before, we were all prepared to go to bed when Kyrre announced an addition to the program: a Wolf healing ceremony with Dimitrij, due to take place around the ceremonial fire at 1am. Had it been anything other than a Wolf ceremony, I would have gone to bed. As it was, Morten, Louise, Elaine and I all went down to the ceremony site. Dimitrij donned his costume, pulled on his headpiece and picked up his drum. Having promised my own drum a rest after the exertions of the Sami Midsummer ceremony earlier, I had left her hanging on the wall of our room, so was unable to join in the drumming. Dimitrij made up for it. His drumming began fairly quietly but quickly gained pace and volume. He began waving his drum back and forth. He started behaving as Wolf, lowering his body. At one point, he fell over and rolled on his back, kicking his legs in the air. Rising again, he stood still for a while, lifting his drum towards the sky, which was as dark as it gets, though still not dark enough for stars to be visible. He began to howl. I began to howl. Some of the others began to howl. After drumming vigorously for about half an hour, during which Dimitrij continued to move and I continued to rock from one foot to the other, we stopped. Dimitrij stood still for a few moments, facing the central fire, then said “That’s it.”
During the ceremony, I felt a kind of expansion from my primary place of power, located near my solar plexus. The following day, I woke up feeling better than I had for ages, emotionally, physically and psychologically. Further proof that, as I said during our sharing circle about ceremony, “This shit works.” Thank you again, Dimitrij.
After a few hours’ sleep, at midday on Sunday it was time for our Druidry workshop. Elaine and I had discussed a brief outline which we followed, allowing space for whatever the awen dictated to happen. We opened our circle as usual with calls for peace at the four quarters, wove the circle, invoked the powers of the four directions, honoured the spirits of place, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands, in all of which Elaine took the lead. I then spoke of the survival of Druidry for many centuries after the Roman invasion of Britain in 55 CE, through to the time when the great Welsh and Irish legendary tales were written down. I told the story of Ceridwen and Taliesin and the brewing of the cauldron of inspiration. We then chanted the awen, filling the tall wooden structure with our voices so that they rolled and echoed in tumbling cascades of sound. It was beautiful. Then, having started late due to the previous workshop overrunning, we hurriedly closed our circle and left to allow the next workshop to begin. Afterwards, we were told of overflowing emotions and of visions occurring during our session. These things are always reassuring that we have done our job well. Many thanks to all who came and made ceremony with us, both seen and unseen.
Also at the camp, and another great guy, was István Zsolt Barát, founder and head of the Four Elements School, ceremonial leader, healer, singer, artist, drummer and a traditional bearer of Hungarian Shamanism, which he studied in Carpathian region. He has worked as co-organizer of Kurultai, the largest gathering of Central Asian tribes, a biannual festival that gathers up to 300,000 people.
A remarkable woman we had made ceremony with two years ago in Sweden, Inger Lise Nervik, was also there. She’s one of the organisers of Sjamanistisk Forbund and co-founder of the Beaivi Shamanic School. So many other great people it would take a book to name them all. What characterises them all, apart from our shared spiritual vision, seems to be a wonderful, off-the-wall sense of humour. This, I think, is one of the most important tools we have in our line of work.
Speaking of which, back to the duck. Sunday morning, I got up early and decided if we were going to introduce the camp to the duck, it would have to be today. Fetching the foot-pump, I set to work and PD grew and grew and was a magnificent sight to behold. He proved a considerable hit with the campers, especially the smaller children, who were soon climbing all over him. Then, at the end of the day, the moment came to launch PD on the lake. It had to be done. Two of the younger campers came with us, including new friend, Jorgen, whose first shamanic camp it was. PD was duly launched onto the water, carefully roped to shore as we had no idea of the currents or of PD’s manoeuvrability. Stripping to my underpants, I climbed onto PD’s back and set sail. It was the most wonderful fun I’ve had for ages. PD was very comfortable and I could happily have floated off on his back to who knows where, but time being pressing, after much splashing, giggling and ill-advised photographs, I clambered back onto the jetty. Our two young friends then took their turns, Jorgen attempting running dives, the second of which sent PD onto his side and Jorgen into the very cold water. Fortunately, he’s a good swimmer and after a little reassurance, PD was happy too. Thus, amidst much laughter, our time at Naturfest came to an end.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that very early on the morning after our chaga ceremony, I was fetching a few things from the car when a tiny just fledged bird landed on my arm. I think he was a Goldcrest. Having latched his little talons into my coat, he started preening his feathers, shaking himself and looking around, then doing a bit more preening. After a while, it became obvious that he wasn’t going to leave without some encouragement. I moved towards what looked like a good perch for a small bird, shook my sleeve gently and he fluttered off. It was a small, magical encounter, adding one more joyous element to a wonderful weekend.
After a couple of days back at Morten and Louise’s house, it was time to head home. Before we did, however, Morten had one more surprise for us. Bringing out a familiar flight case, he opened it to reveal The World Drum. This extraordinary shamanic instrument was created by a Sami drum-maker following a vision that Kyrre Franck had. The Drum has spent many years travelling all over the world, crossing cultural, linguistic and political boundaries, uniting people with its message of care for our Mother Earth and peace between her children. The British Druid Order first hosted the Drum in the UK in 2008, visiting Dragon Hill and Avebury. In 2013, we journeyed with her to Glastonbury Tor, Anglesey and many other places. It was so good to see her again. A wonderful close to a beautiful trip...
I’m already looking forward to next year!
Oh, yes, and that BDO flag I ordered arrived while we were away. And here it is:
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!
Many of us who work with spirits, guardian spirits, power animals, whatever form they take and however we perceive them, regard their willingness to work with us as a gift and a blessing for which we are willing to give in return what they may ask of us. Many of us will also be aware that there are times when our connections with these spirits, however strong, may be lost or broken. This may occur for many reasons, but when it does, it can leave us debilitated, unable to function properly, unable to journey between worlds, often physically or psychologically ill. What, then, can we do?
The other day, browsing through a slightly battered book I’ve had on my shelves for years, I came across something I’d failed to notice before.* The book is actually about Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, but the author spent time amongst aboriginal people in Northwestern Australia. There he learned of a means by which shamanic workers recovered lost spiritual connections. In his account, the method requires the participation of a group. Not all of us have the benefit of working with a group of people who are a) able to perform such a task, or b) available to do so when we need them. In such circumstances, I wonder if the technique could be performed alone. If we have a reasonable connection with our ancestors in general, or with a specific ancestor, it seems likely that it could, though I've yet to try it.
Here’s the relevant text:
But it also happens that a shaman loses the gift of frequenting the underworld. He suddenly becomes incapable of making contact with the spirits and his poetic gift for creating songs and dances vanishes. In such cases all the men gather together to re/establish the broken link with the dead forefathers. The shaman is laid on the ground. All the men sit in a circle around him. They begin to sing and as they sing they slowly rub the shaman’s body. The men sing for hours on end on a regularly rising and falling note:
Mmmmm nnnnnn mmmmmm nnnnn
(This is a humming such as occurs in many Russian folk songs.) The shaman gradually goes into a trance; finally his soul leaves his body and, so the accounts say, roams about looking for the spirit of a dead ancestor. After long wandering it will finally come upon such a spirit. The dead ancestors themselves send out one of their number to look for the shaman. They themselves have painfully missed the shaman’s visits and the contact with their living descendants and wish to re/establish relations with the living. The shaman tells the spirit of the dead that he no longer knows the way to the underworld and cannot ‘find’ any more songs. The spirit of the dead - frequently it will be the spirit of his father or grandfather - promises to help him and to come for him in a few days. After a time - it is perhaps one evening when the people are sitting quietly and talking - the shaman suddenly hears a distant call. It is his helping spirit calling him. He goes off by himself and converses for a while with the spirit. But a few days later his soul leaves his body. His body lies quietly sleeping. But under the leadership of the helping spirit many spirits now come up from the underworld and take possession of the shaman’s spirit, which they want to see among them again. They tear the soul to pieces and each spirit carries a piece into the underworld. There, deep under the earth, they put the shaman’s soul together again. They show him the dances again and sing songs to him.
Well, there we are. What do you think? Could this be adapted for solo working? Do you know of parallels or alternative methods from other cultures, perhaps closer to home (I live in the British Isles)? If so, please share, if your spirits will allow you to.
* Andreas Lommel, The World of the Early Hunters: Medicine-men, shamans and artists, Evelyn, Adams & Mackay Ltd., 1967, page 139.
A new TV series called Britannia takes as its setting the Claudian invasion of Britain in 43 CE which began almost 400 years of Roman occupation of England and Wales. In the community at large, the main talking point seems to be whether or not Britannia is trying to be another Game of Thrones clone. In the Druid community, the major topic of debate is the show’s portrayal of Druids. In weighing into these discussions, I am at the considerable disadvantage of being unable to see the programme in question due to not being a subscriber to Sky. That said, I’ll have a go based on what little I’ve been able to glean from brief clips online and other people’s comments.
The chief Druid in the series is portrayed by Mackenzie Crook (above), most recently gracing our screens in the excellent BBC series, Detectorists. In Britannia, he is heavily made up and seems to portray his character as something between a circus performer and a homicidal maniac. Some modern Druids have been quoted in the press as being deeply offended by this portrayal on the grounds that modern Druids are peace-loving people who honour the cycles of nature. In most cases, this is undoubtedly true. I’m a life-long pacifist myself. We may, however, legitimately ask whether the same was true of Druids two thousand years ago. Classical Druids’ ability to bring peace to warring factions is evidenced in Diodorus Siculus’ 1st century BCE statement that, “Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses.”
On the other hand, classical Druids relied for their livelihood on the patronage of the warrior caste that formed the upper echelons of Celtic society, while some Celtic sacred sites were decorated with human skulls (right) or piled with the bones of the dead. Then there are the Druids in medieval Irish literature who use battle magic against their enemies, hurling balls of fire or causing rocks to rain down from the heavens. There is also evidence for human sacrifice among the Celts, albeit on nothing like the industrial scale suggested by their Roman conquerors. Need these have involved Druids? Diodorus Siculus (left) suggests that they did, writing that the Celts “have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour and are called Druids. It is a custom of the Gauls that no one performs a sacrifice without the assistance of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to the gods ought only to be made through the mediation of these men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak, familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the blessings of the gods should properly be sought.”
Even from this fragmentary and at times dubious evidence, it seems likely that classical Druids were considerably more robust in their approach to life and death than many contemporary Druids are willing to believe.
The makers of Britannia, however, clearly take Roman descriptions of Druids as the basis for their portrayal. This is problematic in that the Romans were intent on conquering the Celts and as part of that agenda they needed to demonise their intellectual caste, the Druids, since they represented the only organisation in Celtic society capable of uniting warring tribes to resist Roman plans for conquest. To this end, Roman writers characterised Druids as the most bloodthirsty members of a savage race, accusing them of all manner of barbarity, including nailing people’s entrails to trees and making them run around them, divining the future from their death throes. Greek writers, by contrast, who were well acquainted with the Celts, described Druids as wise philosophers, eloquent speakers and counsellors to kings. From what I can gather, Britannia over-emphasises the brutality of Druids for dramatic effect while downplaying the other activities for which Druids were noted, like storytelling, genealogy, healing, music, poetry and the aforementioned counselling.
It seems that the Druids in Britannia are also portrayed as regular drug users. There is absolutely no evidence for this. On the contrary, I suspect that the inhabitants of 1st century CE Britain would have felt much that same as the more recent inhabitants of Siberia, i.e. that any Druid or shaman who needed drugs to access the Otherworld was pretty lousy at their job.
On the whole, then, it looks as though the portrayal of Druids in Britannia revels in dope and gore to excess and ignores most of the other priestly functions Druids fulfilled in their communities. This should go down well in America, where, for historical reasons, the Roman view of Druids as barbaric monsters has always been prevalent.
Incidentally, I note that Britannia Druids are shown gathering in a sort of two storey Stonehenge (above). This will doubtless revive the old argument about Druids being a Celtic priesthood and the Celts not arriving in Britain until many centuries after such megalithic monuments were abandoned. Here again, all may not be as it seems. Julius Caesar, one of the few classical writers who actually met Druids, was told by them that the Druid faith originated in Britain (Gallic Wars, bk.6, ch.13). Celtic culture, on the other hand, originated in central Europe. Assuming Caesar’s informants were accurately reporting their tradition and that Caesar accurately passed on their words, this means that Druids were not Celtic in origin, but native to Britain before Celtic culture arrived here. In which case, as many reputable archaeologists have argued, it is possible that Druids were directly descended from those who built and used Stonehenge and other monuments. There were Iron Age shrines in southern Britain which, like many of their megalithic predecessors, consisted of timber circles enclosed by earthwork banks and ditches, arguing for some continuity of tradition. Iron Age and Romano-British finds at megalithic sites such as the Medway tomb-shrines show that they continued to be visited, though for what reasons we can only speculate. The Iron Age hill fort known as Vespasian's Camp lies a little over a mile from Stonehenge, a short stroll away and Iron Age and Romano-British pottery and other artefacts have been found within the henge. It seems impossible to believe that Druids would not re-use at least some of the stone circles built by their, and our, ancestors. It is hard to imagine that they would not have felt the same sense of ancestral connection and simple wonder that we ourselves feel when we visit such places, even harder to believe that they would simply ignore them.
I’ll probably watch Britannia when it comes out on dvd. After all, when Emma Restall Orr and I (left) sat on a bench watching the rough, grey winter sea at Eastbourne way back in the 1990s, discussing the future direction of the British Druid Order, we decided to make it our goal to bring sex, fear and death back into Druidry. In Britannia, we may have found an ally. In any case, a show that uses Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ as a theme tune can’t be all bad…
“Histories of ages past, unenlightened shadows cast down through all eternity the crying of humanity. ‘Twas then when a hurdy gurdy man come singing songs of love….”