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….”
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!
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall...”
This opening line of Philip Pullman’s ‘The Northern Lights’ introduces us to one of the core concepts of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, that humans have a sort of external soul, which Pullman calls the daemon. The daemon acts as a counsellor and guide and is intimately linked to our own life force. When we are children, our daemon can take any number of animal forms. With the onset of puberty, the daemon settles to a single animal form.
Pullman’s idea of the daemon was inspired largely by the ancient Greek use of the word to denote a benevolent, guiding spirit gifted to each of us at birth. Similar concepts exist in many other cultures, being perhaps best known in the West through the traditions of many Native American peoples.
I found my own ‘daemon’ with the help of a remarkable Dutch woman called Georgien Wybenga.
Coming from a family that accepted clairvoyance as an everyday reality, Georgien experienced a ‘shamanic crisis’ when she broke her back in 1986. Having to learn to walk again radically altered her relationship to her body and to being alive. It opened her up to new possibilities, which she began to explore with a Hungarian shaman named Jóska Soós (1921-2008). It was while attending her first shamanic circle, guided by Jóska, that Georgien first encountered her own spirit animal, a Red Fox, who has been with her ever since.
I met Georgien at the first ever OBOD camp in 1994. She and her fellow countryman, Walter, invited people to join them in creating a sweat lodge. I had heard of sweat lodges, but never experienced one. This seemed an ideal opportunity.
Sweat lodges are a contentious issue. Many Native Americans object to their use by non-native people, regarding such use as the worst kind of cultural theft. There is, however, evidence that Britain, Ireland and Europe had their own sweat lodge tradition. In Britain and Ireland, there are hundreds of piles of rocks showing signs of burning, dating from the Neolithic right through to the Iron Age. Archaeologists refer to them as burnt mounds. Many were associated with light, temporary structures similar to traditional Lakota lodges. More permanent buildings were used in British prehistory for the same purpose though, as recently revealed in the Orkneys and at the Marden henge in Wiltshire, near where I live. Stone and turf-built sweat houses continued in use in Ireland until comparatively recently. The illustration (click on it to enlarge) shows a reconstruction of a Bronze Age sweat lodge at Rathpatrick in county Kilkenny.
Georgien’s personal journey with sweat lodges began during a year-long shamanic training course in the Netherlands in 1990, with teachers including Sun Bear (First Nations, Ojibwa, 1929-1992), Jamie Sams (First Nations), Archie Fire Lame Deer (First Nations, Lakota, 1935-2001), Ailo Gaup (Sami, 1944-2014), Juan Camargo (First Nations, Inca), Annette Host (Scandinavian), Everett Burch (First Nations), Philip Carr-Gomm (Druidry), Thea Worthington (Druidry), Luisah Teish (Yoruba), Freya Aswynn (Northern tradition), Johnny Moses (First Nations, Tulalip) and others.
I’ll let Georgien take up the story:
“Archie [Lame Deer] came to the spiritual centre the Elfinbench in the Netherlands. It was the first time I attended a sweat lodge. Archie liked to set people off on the wrong foot, so often he then started the sweat at one o’clock in the morning. He honoured his tradition, so women and men were in separate lodges. We should have had the traditional 4 doors or rounds, but after 3 doors he pointed to me saying, ‘you are leading the next door.’ Total surprise, but there I went ‘cause he just got up and left!
“You will not believe that this happened to me twice. In the first sweat with Sun Bear he also asked me to lead a door, not knowing me at all. I was just a participant at that time.
“Archie always said ‘I am not teaching anybody.’ So again, I had to find my teachings just by being there, and this is how it went with all the so-called ‘teachers.’ This is how I felt I had to learn more, just from the ceremony of the sweat lodge, by giving them myself. One needs a strong urge to do some learning and I did travel around the world to find some.
“Archie brought me awareness of the power of ritual and unravelled the romantic idea we have in Europe about the First Nations. He knew a great deal about plant spirits and awoke in me an interest to want to know more about them, enhanced by Anette Host and Everett Burch, when I learned to journey to plant spirits and learn from them.
“As a person, Archie was somewhat unapproachable on first meeting, but when he got to know you better he would tell about his life in the film industry with great humour. There is a book, Gift of Power, written about his life.”
At the OBOD camp, those of us taking part in the sweat lodge committed to spending the whole day helping to prepare it. My own preparation had actually started a few days earlier when I began a fast. The day of the lodge was my fifth day of fasting. During the day, we dug a fire-pit, collected firewood, cut hazel poles to construct the lodge and built it. We were blessed and purified with smoking bundles of herbs. We were then gathered together and asked to pull a card from a deck designed by Lame Deer. The cards were spread on a canvas ground sheet and I drew Unci, the Grandmother. As I looked at the card, a vision engulfed me in which I was standing in the middle of a desert of pale orange sand under a blazing sun. The distant horizon was ringed with blue mountains. A dark spot appeared in the eastern sky. As it drew nearer, I saw that it was a huge Eagle. Swooping down, it grasped my shoulders in its claws and lifted me into the sky. We flew swiftly towards the eastern mountains, where we circled one of the snowy peaks a few times before the Eagle delivered me back to the middle of the desert. All this was completely unexpected, but, I thought, boded well for the sweat lodge to come!
We lit the huge fire to heat the rocks for the lodge, and as sheets of flame spread sparks on the evening breeze, we drummed and danced and sang. It was beautiful.
In the lodge, we did four doors, or rounds, guided by Georgien. The lodge was incredibly hot. I had no point of comparison, but folk with years of experience later told me it was the hottest they’d ever been in. Recalling it many years later, Georgien commented, “Great balls of fire! The fire was so hot that the sunglasses of our fire-keeper, Walter, melted on his head!” The heat was indeed so intense that I struggled to remain upright and conscious, and it took a real effort of will to do so.
During one of the rounds, Georgien called to the animal spirit guardians of the four quarters, as she had been taught to do by Lame Deer. One of them was Coyote in the south. This jarred with me, since we were in a field in southern England, and I was pretty sure we’d never had an indigenous Coyote population. I wondered what our native equivalent would be. In British folklore, the answer should have been Fox, since Fox fulfils the same kind of trickster role in our traditions that Coyote does for many American First Nations. The answer that came, however, was Wolf.
As soon as the word ‘Wolf’ popped into my head, a large, stocky, full-grown adult Wolf appeared in the centre of the lodge. He was curled up in the central pit that held the hot rocks from the fire. The glowing red rocks were inside his body. He raised his head and looked at me, then stood up, the hot stones still inside him. Still looking at me, he jerked his head towards the door of the lodge, gesturing for me to follow. He then walked out through the closed door of the lodge. Leaving my physical body behind me, I got up and did the same.
When we got outside, instead of a field in southern England, we were on the snow-covered lower slopes of a mountain. About a mile away from us was a dark treeline, and the Wolf padded off through the snow towards the trees. I followed, taking care to step in the Wolf’s pawprints so as to leave the pristine snow undisturbed.
We reached the edge of a thick forest of tall pine. A path ran off into the forest, vanishing into its deep shadows. A short way along the path, the Wolf stopped and turned to face me. Speaking directly into my mind, he told me I had to go back to my body, but that next time we met he would lead me deeper into the forest. I went back the way we had come, again stepping in the pawprints. Re-entering the lodge, I rejoined my body, becoming aware again of the darkness, lit only by the faint glow of the hot rocks, and of my brothers and sisters in the lodge with me. A physical memory of the snow outside stayed with me and enabled me to cope with the heat of the lodge much better.
When the lodge came to an end, I crawled out onto deliciously cool dewy grass and a starry night sky. I couldn’t stand. All I could do was roll over onto my back. Eventually, I managed to get to a water barrel by the side of the lodge and drink deep of the icy water. I felt an amazing sense of elation and a new openness to the universe. It was a genuine experience of rebirth.
Later that day, I had to conduct a ceremony for several hundred people among the ancient stones of Avebury in Wiltshire. I was so ‘blown away’ by the experience of the night, the visions, the fasting, the lack of sleep, that I seriously doubted my capacity to hold a ceremony. I intercepted Walter, our fire-keeper, as he crossed the field, told him that the night before had been my first experience of a sweat lodge and asked him how long the effects were supposed to last. He looked at me as though I were a fool or a madman, raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, forever.” I laughed, went to Avebury, and all was fine.
I also told Walter of my Wolf vision and asked what I should do about it. He said that it was traditional to find something that linked you to the animal you’d seen in your vision. I thought this pretty unlikely, never having seen a single tooth or claw, hide nor hair of a Wolf in my entire life. I should have known better. Spirit certainly did.
Eight days after the lodge, back home in Sussex, a friend invited me to a garage sale at his parents’ house. On arriving, the first thing I saw was a large animal hide draped over an old water tank. I looked at it and thought, “No, it can’t be.” But, of course, it was. A Wolfskin rug had been in the house when my friend’s parents bought it in 1947. They hadn’t liked it, so bundled it into a bag and stowed it away in the loft. There it had remained for nearly half a century, until the day of my sweat lodge vision, when my friend had found it and added it to their garage sale.
I told my friend and his mother about my Wolf vision and they gave me the hide. It was made from the hides of six Wolves, stitched together and given a woollen backing. The lanolin in the wool had preserved the skin in very good condition. I removed the backing, added a couple of ties, and made the rug into a ceremonial cloak. That's me wearing it while drumming with Georgien in 1999.
The next Pagan event I was invited to was a venison feast, ‘coincidentally’ hosted my one of my companions from the sweat lodge. I was a vegetarian at the time, but the Wolves weren’t, so I accepted the invitation. I sat at one end of the table, our host at the other. The venison had been steeped overnight in red wine. Before it was brought in, our host told us the story of how it was hunted. As the first mouthful of the tender, succulent meat slid down my throat, I felt the Wolfskins across my back and shoulders ripple with life and power as the Wolves came back to life.
All those present at the feast were leaders of Wiccan covens. As the leader of a Druid Order, I was accepted due to the fact that I had also been initiated as a High Priest of Alexandrian Wicca in the 1970s. Our host told me that one of those present at the feast returned to their coven and told them that Druids were really cool and all wore Wolfskin cloaks!
I should add that, soon after that sweat lodge at the OBOD camp, Georgien, working with myself, Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and others began the process of re-creating a native sweat tradition based on the archaeology referred to above and our understanding of our native spiritual heritage.
Many other Wolf-related ‘coincidences’ followed, including being given a native British Wolf chant, and being made a member of the drum circle of a Native American tribe who trace their descent from shape-shifting Wolves. As a result of that first sweat lodge encounter, and my subsequent work with Wolf spirit(s), I have used the craft name, Greywolf, for many years. I paint Wolves on my drums. I was given a second Wolfskin cloak.
Virtually everyone has a spirit animal who acts as a guardian, guide and teacher, whether we know it or not. I say virtually, because I once met someone who had driven his spirit animal away. He was a long-term drug addict, petty criminal and generally unpleasant person. Most of us are more fortunate, since our spirit animal helpers tend to be extremely patient and faithful. Some of us who have had the privilege of meeting our spirit animal face to face are given the opportunity to work with them on a regular basis. They can unlock many doorways for us. In my own case, among much else, Wolf brought me the ability to shape-shift.
The relationship with one’s spirit animal is a very special one, due to the intimacy of the link and the extraordinary potential for power it offers. It is an exchange. Your ‘daemon’ will look after you to the extent that you look after it. You feed it when you yourself eat. You may be given a spirit song that will help strengthen and maintain the link between you. You may find a dance that has a similar effect, perhaps replicating the movements of your animal helper.
My own journey with Wolf continues, and it all started with that sweat lodge with Georgien Wybenga.
Georgien is returning to the UK this year to offer a workshop weekend in Glastonbury devoted to spirit animals. This is a rare opportunity to work with one of the purest, most naturally gifted teachers I’ve ever encountered. At a time when almost everyone who’s ever attended a workshop now seems to be proclaiming themselves a ‘shamanic’ teacher, making it hard to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, Georgien is absolutely the genuine article. She changes lives. She certainly changed mine!
To book for the weekend, contact Esther Robles by email at firstname.lastname@example.org (putting ‘Georgien’s Workshop’ in the header) or ‘phone +44 (0) 7742 418219. Incidentally, if you book before April 30th you'll save £25 on the fee.
The painting at the top of this page is by Georgien.
Donovan Leitch is a forgotten superhero of ‘60s music, so deeply attuned to the era that when its core messages were abandoned by mass media and fashion in the 1970s, he was abandoned with them. In the late ‘60s, however, he was troubadour to the court of rock royalty, courted by Bob Dylan and friends with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He also produced some wonderfully innovative music that was ahead of the curve of most musicians of the time. His late 1965 LP, ‘Fairytale,’ contains two tracks, ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ and ‘Candyman,’ that overtly reference cannabis use. His classic single, ‘Sunshine Superman,’ released in December 1966 though recorded a full year earlier, was still at no. 3 in the UK singles chart in the first week of 1967. Both its sides reference LSD, the B-side being a remarkable, driving slice of prime early psychedelia called simply ‘The Trip.’
The opening lines of ‘Sunshine Superman’ are:
"Sunshine came softly through my window today Could've tripped out easy but I've changed my ways.”
This is a reminder that Donovan was not only one of the first UK musicians to embrace LSD as a means of spiritual exploration, he was also among the first to publicly abandon it in favour of transcendental meditation.
The last verse of the song references two DC comic book superheroes:
"Superman or Green Lantern ain't got nothin' on me, I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea, You you you can just sit there a-thinking on your velvet throne, About all the rainbows that you can have for your own...”
Prior to the mid-’60s, superhero comics had been considered disposable fodder fit only for pre-adolescent boys with juvenile power fantasies. This began to change when comics legends, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, introduced new kinds of superheroes at Marvel Comics. Kirby’s Fantastic Four feuded like a real family, Ditko’s Spider-Man was the kind of geek who might previously have scraped by as a teenage sidekick to a ‘proper’ superhero. Kirby’s Thor was a god of Asgard sent by his father, Odin, to walk the Earth, while Ditko’s Doctor Strange was an astrally projecting, spell-casting magician, a veritable ‘Master of the Mystic Arts.’ The comic book geek in me can’t help but note that Donovan refers to two DC heroes in the song, saying that they “ain’t got nothin’ on me.” This could be a recognition that, in the mid-’60s, the cool kids were all reading Marvel Comics with their more relateable characters and superior art. Incidentally, Kirby's Thor was my introduction to Paganism, while Ditko's Doctor Strange introduced me to many core concepts of ritual magic.
Suddenly comic books were being read and enjoyed by college students. Donovan was, I believe, the first musician to refer to this phenomenon, recognising that, for people in their teens and twenties, these colourfully costumed super-beings with their god-like powers were increasingly taking the place once occupied by the gods of more ancient mythologies. In the last verse of ‘Sunshine Superman,’ he also shows clear recognition of the fact that the popularity of superheroes was largely driven by a feeling that we could become them or, as is the case here, exceed them, by expanding our consciousness. This is the essence of what anthropologists now like to call ‘shamanism.’
Donovan, in common with other musicians of the era, perhaps more than most of them, recognised the power of music to alter perceptions and devoted his art to putting out ‘good vibrations’ into the world. This is why, 50 years on, his music still resonates, still calls on us to excel, to pursue those rainbows for the ones we love, to become the superheroes of our own life stories.
“It was fifty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught a band to play ...”
I was fortunate enough to turn fourteen in April 1967, just in time for what became known as the Summer of Love, the high point of the hippy movement. The central philosophy of that movement is the unarguable one that if people were nice to each other rather than doing each other down or beating each other up, the world would be an enormously better place. This was more pithily summed up in the slogan of the time, ‘Make Love, Not War.’
The other great slogan of the hippy era was ‘Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.’ The message here is to ‘expand your mind through meditation and/or the use of hallucinogens, particularly Cannabis, LSD, Peyote, Mescaline or Psylocibin, allow these to open your mind to layers of reality beyond the physical, then follow the promptings of what you find to step aside from the culture of consumerism and personal greed and create a new society based on shared values of peace, love and understanding.’
Although I would argue that the hyping of hallucinogenic drugs in the late 1960s as a ‘short-cut to God’ was naively optimistic, the rest of the message again holds true and has withstood the test of time.
The Summer of Love was followed by 1968’s year of global revolution as what had been the ultimate pacifist movement was infiltrated by promoters of violence, while governments around the world realised that they could force peaceful demonstrators to resort to violence by having the police and the military launch increasingly violent attacks against them. Any hint of resistance from a single protestor could then be used by government forces as an excuse to further increase their own levels of violence. This is a tactic still in use today, enabling increasingly oppressive regimes around the world to maintain control over their populations. While it is common wisdom that the 1968 riots in London, Paris, Tokyo and many other cities came close to toppling several governments, what has been largely buried by history as ‘an inconvenient truth’ is that what really terrified those governments was the global movement for peace that had preceded the riots. Governments understand war and violence and have ample firepower with which to quell riots. What they really don’t understand are peace and love, especially not when, as with the hippy movement, those core values are spread through the arts and with healthy doses of surrealist humour.
A hallmark of the Summer of Love was the ‘Love-In.’ Love-Ins were events that were simply announced rather than organised, on a principle similar to the ‘flash-mobs’ of social media, except coordinated almost entirely by word of mouth and beautiful posters. People would congregate at a chosen venue, normally a public park, musicians would play, dancers dance, painters paint canvases or people’s bodies, and everyone would have a good time. Naturally such events were frowned upon by the authorities, bureaucracies being notoriously incapable of tolerating the idea of people having good times, especially if they didn’t have a license.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the music of the time is the extent to which it both reflected and drove the global movement for peace. One of the key tracks of the year had actually been recorded over an unprecedented six months during 1966. Released in October '66, it remained high in the US and UK singles charts at the beginning of 1967 and did much to set the tone for the year ahead with its aural complexity and its lyrics that seemed to blend individual with universal love. It remains one of the finest singles ever recorded, a tribute to the extraordinary genius of its composer, Brian Wilson, lyrically assisted by Van Dyke Parks and Mike Love. It is, in case you hadn’t guessed, The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ (see video below). Wilson has stated on many occasions that his aim with all the music of the Beach Boys was to put out good, positive feelings into the world. ‘Good Vibrations’ is the ultimate expression of that aim and still, to my ears, sounds as fresh today as it did half a century ago coming out of the little transistor radio I had permanetly clamped to my left ear. May it be heard again around the world in 2017 and usher in another Summer of Love to counteract the negativity that seemed to characterise so much of the preceding year. As The Beatles sang in the middle of 1967, "All You Need is Love."
A crazy idea came to me on the train taking me to the 2016 White HorseSamhain (Hallowe'en) Camp, held at the Wild Ways crafts and retreat centre in Shropshire, UK. Having seen the already full schedule of events planned for the camp, I had felt there might not be anything I could add to it. For years, however, I had pondered the possibility of holding an all-night ceremony in the Iron Age roundhouse (right) we had built in nearby woods. I thought perhaps this might fit in as it wouldn’t start until everything else had finished, running through until sunrise the following morning, Sunday, November 30th. People would be welcome to come and go whenever they chose to or needed to. Even so, it was a bit of a cheek to arrive out of the blue with this crazy notion without having discussed it with any of the organisers beforehand. However, one of the great things about White Horse camps is the openness of the organisers to the unexpected and strange and their willingness to make room for them.
The idea had three main sources of inspiration; one was the observation that there seems to be an unusual amount of what might be termed ‘weird shit’ going on in the world at the moment; next was the way in which the stand being taken by the Lakota people against a polluting oil pipeline being driven across their sacred land has inspired so many others all around the world to stand up and be counted against ‘big oil’ and compliant governments; third was my own recent journey to deepen my understanding of how our Druid ancestors worked with serpent power. I have no doubt that they did, as evidenced by several representations from around 2,000 years ago portraying native European deities accompanied by serpents. The most famous is that on the Gundestrup cauldron (upper left). Another well-known image from the period overlooks the hot springs in Roman Bath and portrays a bearded god with snakes growing out of his head (lower left). I had worked out some ways in which serpent power was approached, but felt I still lacked a vital key to understanding why it was that British Druids were sometimes called Nadredd, i.e. 'Serpents.'
These threads all came together through a Lakota prophecy that a Black Snake would come to devastate their land, causing people and animals sicken and die. Many Lakota see the DAPL oil pipeline as that Black Snake and, therefore, see opposition to it as both a vital necessity and a sacred duty. I had already been led to the conclusion that individual healing in our Druid tradition comes about partly through invoking the power of a White Serpent of Healing to set against the power of a Black Serpent that brings disease. My thinking for this roundhouse ceremony was to try to harness the power of the White Serpent to oppose the DAPL Black Snake and as many other manifestations of its destructive force in the world as we could fit into one long night.
The ceremony was duly announced to the camp at the first morning meeting, for which I particularly thank Richard and his fellow organisers, Ariane and Hilde. As we wouldn’t be starting until around 11pm at the end of a full day, and would continue until sunrise at 6.50am, I had no idea whether anyone would want to come at all, let alone how many. However, a few friends immediately expressed not only interest but excitement, so there were willing helpers to join me in transporting things to the roundhouse and preparing it. Thanks to Becky, who wields a fine besom, to Amanda, Daru, and Elaine, who not only runs the centre but loaned us two large reindeer hides, some saining sticks and a couple of warm woollen blankets from her house.
When I mentioned our intentions for the ceremony on the BDO Facebook page, people in countries around the world said they would join us in ceremonies timed to coincide with ours. This was a wonderful gift and a further inspiration to us. Thank you friends, heart to heart, spirit to spirit.
Adding to an already potentially rich mix, Elaine also donated a bag of Chaga, a remarkable medicinal plant, a hard, woody fungus that grows on Birch trees in Northern climes. This had been given to her by a remarkable couple, Morten Wolf Storeide and Louise Degotte. Morten organises the global travels of The World Drum, a powerful healing Drum made by a Sami drum-maker following the vision of Kyrre Franck White Cougar. Morten and Kyrre, with their friends, LeNa Paalvig Johnson and Will Rubach, brought us the gift of an amazing ceremony centred around Chaga when we hosted The World Drum at Wild Ways in 2013.
For use in ceremony, Chaga needs to be brewed for at least four hours. This meant that a few of us had to miss the Saturday evening eisteddfod and go to the roundhouse shortly after 7pm to begin the brewing process. Amanda, who had taken part in an initiation in the roundhouse, stayed on to set up the tripods over the central fire to support the two pots in which we would brew the Chaga. The water was already heating when I arrived. We sat and talked for a while as we waited for it to boil. Then we began adding Chaga, taking it in turns to put a handful into the two pots and stir them. We talked through ideas about what we might do during the ceremony and the Chaga crew came up with several ideas while helping my sketchy ones to take shape. For the rest, I was relying on the spirits to guide us, and on all those who came, both seen and unseen, to bring their own inspiration and ideas to the mix.
A few more people drifted in after a while, followed by quite a crowd once the eisteddfod ended. Having doubted whether anyone would come, we found the 20 log seats we’d set out were not enough. Of the 55 people on the camp, about 25 joined us.
As well as making prayers for the protectors at Standing Rock, we had been asked to pray for those standing against another oil pipeline in Florida, which we did. I also wanted to send some energy and protection to the Wolves of Norway, under threat from a decision by the Norwegian government to allow 47 out of the 68 Wolves in the country to be shot. Elaine, recently back from Ireland, asked that we also pray for the Deer over there who are to be shot because there is a remote and unproven possibility that they might be responsible for some cases of TB in domestic cattle. Also present at the camp were several people who have protested against Badger culls in the UK, carried out for the same dubious reason. We added them to our list. I assumed that other things to work for would emerge during the night. They did...
As for how we were going to work, I thought we might do some personal healing, using a technique I developed, or rediscovered, while researching for the British Druid Order ovate course. I felt we should drum and chant for the animals. I already have a Wolf chant (naturally), and a Deer chant, and thought we could come up with something for the Badgers. I also knew we had to work with the power of the White Serpent, though I wasn’t sure how. Again, I trusted the spirits to show us the way.
The fact that we were working through Saturday night into Sunday morning, and that Sunday 30thwas the day of the New Moon of Samhain, helped. Samhain(‘Summer’s End’) is the old Irish name for the seasonal festival known in Wales asNos Galan Gaeaf (‘Nights of Winter Calends’) and in England as Hallowe’en (‘Hallowed, i.e. Sacred, Evening’). Originally held over three nights, it marks the end of summer and the beginning of winter.
The Moon has its own serpentine associations, its nightly waning from the full being likened to a snake shedding its skin. A snake within a Moon appears on many Celtic coins, as in the top left corner of this image from our Druid Tarot deck, taken from one of those coins.
During the ceremony, I remembered a widespread folk custom carried out in Scotland until the early 20th century, in which the White Serpent of Bride (i.e. the goddess, Bridget) is said to emerge from beneath the earth at Imbolc (Gwyl Fair, Candlemas) at the beginning of February, restoring life to the world after the long months of winter. The spoken charm that accompanies the re-emergence of the Serpent translates as follows: “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.”
It struck me very strongly that the New Moon of Samhain would be exactly the time at which the White Serpent would go down into the earth, as the leaves were falling from the trees and the last of the wild plants dying back into dormancy.
This phase of the year’s cycle is reflected in, among others, the Greek myth of Persephone, and the ancient Middle Eastern legend of Inanna’s descent into the underworld. In native British lore, the goddess who possesses the serpent power appears as Olwen of the White Track, daughter of the giant, Ysbaddaden (‘Hawthorn’), as Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd (or Nudd) of the Silver Hand, and as Arthur’s queen Gwenhwyfar, whose name means ‘White Enchantress.’ All of these three feature in the archaic tale of Culhwch and Olwen, as preserved in the 12th century collection of tales known as the Mabinogi.
The night of our working, then, was the last during which our Serpent Goddess’s power would remain above the earth prior to its descent into the underworld where it would spend the winter. This seemed the perfect time to invoke her aid. In our ceremony, then, we invoked the healing power of the White Serpent against the destructive power of the Black Snake.
I think it was Ariane who drew our attention to the fact that Ineos, one of the companies involved in fracking in the UK are calling their fleet of huge, Chinese-built oil tankers ‘Dragon ships.’ Is this a deliberate invocation of Black Snake energy on their part? Who knows?
The insidious way in which oil companies and governments are conspiring together to force the unwanted, unnecessary and polluting technology of fracking on unwilling populations around the world is symptomatic of a wider malaise in which democracy has long ceased to be what it was in pagan Greece, i.e. ‘people power,’ becoming instead a means by which wealthy and powerful elites retain dominance over increasingly powerless populations. Polls show that 81% of the UK population would like to see more investment in renewable energy sources, while only 19% favour fracking. In Norway, there is an identical split between the majority who want to see Wolf numbers remain the same or increase and the minority who want them killed. Meanwhile, polls in the USA show that 86% of the population are with the protectors at Standing Rock and against the DAPL pipeline. Fortunately for us, this huge public support for what we were trying to achieve through our ceremony meant that there was a huge impetus behind us. Trying to work magic against opposition is hard. It's easier if the vast majority of the people of the world are with you in spirit. Knowing that they areis encouraging, to say the least.
One of our group brought a flag bearing the symbol of the Pagan anti-fracking movement in the UK and we lodged it into the rafters of the roundhouse, where it stayed throughout our ceremony. I'm not sure what it was originally designed to represent, but to me it looks like a Dragon's head!
We drummed to raise energy for ourselves and the groups and causes we had been asked to pray for and send power and healing to. As with the people at Standing Rock, we directed some of those prayers towards those causing the harm, asking that they realise that what they are doing is destructive and wrong, and that it is in their long-term interests to change.
Long ago, in talking with spirit workers from other cultures and traditions, there emerged a strong sense that we should be working together for our shared Great Mother Earth and all her children. Subsequent meetings with healers and fellow spirit workers have strengthened this sense that now is the time for us to set aside the surface differences that divide us and recognise the commonalities that we share. As spirit workers, we regularly work with altered states of consciousness, and so are ideally placed to work towards changing the consciousness of those who seek to despoil and pollute our planet, bringing them to the light of realisation and understanding that will lead them to change what they are doing for the benefit of all.
We cast our circle with sound and saining herbs, we invoked into it all those powers for good that we work with, the spirits of place, the elemental spirits and guardians of the four directions, of our ancestors of blood and spirit, of the old gods of our lands, and of the White Serpent of healing (as painted on my drum, right) and the Dragon power through which it also manifests. We chanted the Awen, the holy spirit of inspiration and creativity. We shared Chaga brewed on our sacred fire. We drummed and chanted long into the night. From around 2am, people began to drift away, thanking our ancestors as they passed across the threshold and went in search of sleep.
By around 3.30am, our numbers were reduced to around nine, of whom eight were lying on the piles of furs we had provided or on the bare earth floor, most under blankets. While they drifted in and out of sleep, I continued to quietly drum and chant. I had thought to go into trance with the drum, but this didn’t happen. I realised that my role was to drum for the others, both seen and unseen, in the roundhouse and around the world. Between drumming, I made sure the central fire was kept fed with logs.
My lone drumming vigil continued until around 6.30am, at which time, without prompting from me, the others began to stir, wake up, and reach for their drums. We formed a circle around the central fire, linked hands and chanted the Awen again. Then we began to drum the sunrise, beginning quietly and building to a thundering crescendo that carried us across the moment of dawn and into the light of a new day, the day of the New Moon, blessed by the White Serpent of Healing.
I shared a gift of insight the Awen had given me during the night; the reason why our ancestors were called Nadredd. As Druids, we are the Serpent, we are the Power, we are the Dragon. Our role is to embody the Serpent Power, to carry it within us at all times, to use it for the benefit of our communities, our Great Mother Earth and all her children. When the White Serpent Power of the Goddess of Life, Light and Healing goes down into the earth for the long Winter months, we, as Druids, continue to embody it in the world so that the light of life never dies.
Our ancestors knew this, and that knowledge was either passed down directly, or rediscovered, in the bardic colleges that flourished in Wales, Ireland and Scotland during the medieval era. Hence, in the probably 12th century CE poem, ‘The Cattle-Fold of the Bards,’ attributed to the semi-legendary 5th century CE bard, Taliesin, he is able to say with absolute conviction and perfect truth:
“I am song to the last; I am clear and bright;
I am hard; I am a Druid;
I am a wright; I am well-wrought; I am a serpent; I am reverence, that is an open receptacle..."
Wyf sarff, wyf serch... (pronouned ooeev sarff, ooeev serch [‘e’ as in bet, ‘ch’ as in Scottish loch])
“I am serpent, I am love…”
Profound thanks to all who made our ceremony possible and took part in, both seen and unseen, in the roundhouse and around the world. Thanks to the spirits of place, spirit animals, ancestors and old gods of our lands for their gifts of Awen, and thanks to the Serpent Power of Life, Light and Healing. May that power be with all who need it in these strange and troubled times. May the Light shine strong within you.
We are Nadredd and we offer this Awen and these blessings to all in need,
the Chaga Crew /|\
and White Horse Camps /|\
PS. If I've got anything wrong or forgotten to credit anyone who should be credited, please let me know 🙂
"I am song to the last; I am clear and bright; I am hard; I am a Druid; I am a wright; I am well-wrought; I am a serpent; I am reverence, that is an open receptacle."
From 'The Cattle-Fold of the Bards,' attributed to the legendary 5th century bard, Taliesin.
The Lakota people of Standing Rock, North Dakota, supported by allies from over 300 other indigenous American nations, and others from Europe and beyond, are making a stand against the building of a massive, $3.8 billion pipeline across their land to carry fracked oil. The very real fear is that the pipeline will rupture, as many others have, and poison the water of the Missouri river on which the tribe depends, as do millions of others downstream. The Lakota stand is inspiring people around the world to defend their own land and health where they are also threatened by industrial processes forced on them by huge, multi-national corporations, backed by compliant governments. Many of the more than 300 other tribes who have travelled to North Dakota to lend their support, bringing food, clothing, timber and other supplies, have faced similar problems themselves. Sometimes, as with the Lummi in the Pacific Northwest, they have triumphed over the big corporations and have saved their land and water for future generations.
Here in the UK, we also face a collaboration between our government and companies like Cuadrilla and Ineos, determined to begin blasting oil and gas out of the earth using the process known as 'fracking.' Fracking relies on drilling boreholes straight down until they reach the shale level, then turning horizontally and drilling along the shale deposit. Explosives are then laid along the horizontal borehole and detonated to shatter the rock. Then water, chemicals and silica is pumped in at high pressure to hold the fissures apart.
There are many problems with this, including methane migration (i.e. if there's an easier escape route, the gas doesn't necessarily go into the horizontal borehole when it's released), pollution of the aquifers, rivers, streams and drinking water. Meanwhile the above-ground destruction caused by the process involves the industrialisation of the countryside with pipelines, roads, heavy traffic, drill pads, portacabins, compressor stations, water and chemical storage tanks, mud tanks, etc. Plus fracking releases methane into the atmosphere, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Plus getting out profitable amounts of gas requires hundreds of boreholes all along the shale beds and, while the risk posed by a single borehole might be small, multiplied by hundreds or thousands of wells, the potential for harm is similarly multiplied. In areas prone to seismic activity, the dangers from fracking are multiplied still further. Finally, being fossil fuels, all the products produced by fracking cause more pollution when used and add to global warming.
Because of these things, recent polls have shown that only 19% of the UK population favour fracking, while 81% favour more investment in renewable energy sources. Groups are being formed across the UK to oppose fracking. Information about many of them can be found here: http://frack-off.org.uk/locations/fracking-sites/
As with the Lakota, opposition to fracking is being seen as a spiritual, as well as a practical, struggle, between those who see the Earth simply as a resource to be exploited for financial gain and those who see the Earth as a Great Mother, whose children we are. Hence the number of spiritual groups who are coming together to oppose fracking and other destructive and unnecessary technologies.
Throughout my life, I've heard calls and prophecies saying that the time is coming for all the spirit workers of the world to come together, stand together, pray together and work together for our shared Mother Earth. The message I hear now, emanating from Standing Rock and many other places, is that that time is here, and we must all answer the call and live up to the prophecies.
The Lakota refer to a tribal legend about a black snake called Zuzeca that brings destruction in its wake. They say that the proposed oil pipeline is that black snake. An early Irish poem from that great collection of Irish place-lore, the Metrical Dindsenchas, has the healer god, Dian Cécht, slaying a serpent to prevent it laying waste to the land. He then reduces its remains to ashes and throws them into a river, causing it to boil, from which the river is called Berba, (Anglicized as Barrow) meaning 'Boiling,' to this day. This is my translation:
The river Barrow, enduring its silence, that flows through the folk of old Ailbe; a labour it is to learn the cause whence it is called the Barrow, the flower of all famous names. No motion within it was there made by the ashes of Mechi the strongly smitten: the stream made sodden and silent past saving, of the fell filth of the ancient serpent. Three full turns the serpent made; it sought out the soldier so to consume him; by its nature it would have wasted the kine of the indolent hosts of ancient Erin. Therefore Dian Cécht the healer slew it: rude reason there was to cleanly destroy it, preventing it thus forever from wasting, above every resort, from utter consuming. Known to me is the grave where he cast it, a tomb without walls or roof-tree supporting; its evil ashes, no place ornamenting, found silent burial in noble Barrow.
Ailbe, meaning 'White,' is one of many ancient names for Ireland. The name Mechi (Meche) probably shares a common root with the name of Miacha, Dian Cécht's son. The Barrow is the second longest river in Ireland and is known as one of the Three Sisters, the others being the rivers Suir and Nore. All three join together before flowing into a bay South-west of the city of Waterford.
Piecing together information from this and other early European sources, I constructed a rite of healing that forms part of the BDO ovate course. In it, disease is seen as a black snake that has wormed its way into the body and is wreaking havoc within it. The aim is to drive out the serpent and dispose of it in such a way that it can do no more harm. The weapon used is a bundle of dried herbs with protective or healing properties, or having power over serpents, such as Wormwood, Feverfew, Vervain, St. John's Wort, Mugwort, Adder's Tongue and Agrimony. When fresh, the herbs are bundled together, pressed tight with the hands, then wound tightly around with thread and hung up to dry where air can circulate all around them.
The sick person lies down with whatever part of the body is affected reachable and bared. The healer (preferably accompanied by a drummer) then beats the affected area with the bundle of dried herbs, chanting something like this:
Herbs of healing and protection, beat the serpent from its lair. Fell filth of ancient serpent, beat the serpent from its lair. Three turns the serpent made, beat the serpent from its lair. Sought the soldier to consume him, beat the serpent from its lair. it would have wasted by its nature, beat the serpent from its lair. So it was the healer slew it, beat the serpent from its lair. Ready reason to destroy it, beat the serpent from its lair. Preventing it from wasting others, beat the serpent from its lair. Kept it ever from consuming, beat the serpent from its lair. Known to me is where he cast it, beat the serpent from its lair. Without walls or rising roof-tree, beat the serpent from its lair. Burned the evil all to ashes, beat the serpent from its lair. Cast them into flowing water, beat the serpent from its lair, Carried far in flowing water, beat the serpent from its lair, Purified in flowing water, beat the serpent from its lair.
A shortened version, using just a few of the lines given here, should be equally effective and easier to learn.
Through the process described, the serpent is driven out from the patient and enters into the nearest available object, that being the bundle of herbs. The healer then takes the bundle of herbs and burns them to ash in a suitable fireproof receptacle. When there is nothing left but ashes, these are carefully collected and taken to the nearest running water, preferably a stream or river, into which they are cast, the receptacle that held them being washed in the same waters. The Anglo-Saxon ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ suggests that a process similar to this causes weeds growing in the river to turn into healing herbs. The fire transforms the dark serpent energy, the water completes the cleansing process. From this point on, all being well, the patient will begin to recover.
I'm wondering if maybe this chanted spell, or an edited version of it, could be used against the Black Snake of fracking here in the UK and elsewhere? Ineos, one of the companies seeking to make money from fracking in the UK are, incidentally, calling the ships they will use to transport the product Dragon Ships. Maybe saining (our native term for smudging) proposed or active fracking sites with bundles of dried herbs, then beating drums and chanting the “beat the serpent from its lair” chant might be a way to drive out this sickness from our land? Well, it's worth a try …
An alternative is found in the Old English Lacnunga manuscript (circa 1000 CE), which preserves an Old Irish chant that has exactly the same intention as the above. My translation of it runs as follows:
“In case a man or beast should drink a wyrm (i.e. serpent); if it (presumably the patient not the wyrm) be of male gender sing this song, which is written below, into the right ear; if it be of female gender sing into the left ear: ‘I wound the beast, I cut the beast, I kill the beast, a death-cloak comes rowing, the tongue is not hollow, not hollow the sharp-pointed stake, part cut away, part hollow, part wolf the creature [to whom] the death-cloak is rowing.’ Sing this charm nine times into the ear...”
Of course, as Druids, we are serpents ourselves. There’s an old tradition that Druids were called Nadredd, ‘Serpents,’ for the great power they possessed either to hram or heal, for it is the nature of serpents in spiritual traditions around the world that they can either kill or cure. This dual nature of serpent power is often represented by a pair of serpents, one black, one white, the former bringing disease, the latter bringing healing. The caduceus wand of the god, Mercury, entwined with two snakes, is the symbol of the medical profession to this day. On the Gundestrup cauldron (left), an antlered god or Druid is shown controlling a huge, ram-headed serpent, a symbol that appears elsewhere in ancient Celtic iconography, also associated with deities.
Let’s end as we began, with a few words from the poem, ‘The Cattle-Fold of the Bards,’ attributed to the great bard, Taliesin: Wyf sarff, wyf serch... (pronouned ooeev sarff, ooeev serch [‘e’ as in bet, ‘ch’ as in Scottish loch])
“I am serpent, I am love…”
As Druids, this is the power we seek to and need to invoke, the power of love and healing to set against the followers of the black snake, those who see our Mother Earth purely as a resource to be exploited and despoiled. Water is life, and we are one people, strong of voice, strong of spirit. Like our ancestors before us, we must realise that we are the serpents, we are the power, we are the Druids, and, working with our friends in other cultures who walk spirit paths akin to our own, we will prevail, because we must! Just like a tree that's growing by the water-side, we shall not be moved.
Blessings to all,
With thanks to Paul Beer for his invaluable advice and assistance.
For more Druidical serpent lore, see my previous blog.
Many Druids and Pagans are vegetarian and vegan, a far greater proportion than in mainstream society. This is commonly on ethical grounds, with many rejecting the exploitation of animals by humans, whatever form that may take, whether for food, clothing manufacture, drug testing, or any other reason. There are also telling arguments that a vegetarian diet is much better for the planet than meat-eating. Despite which, even within Druidry, vegetarians and vegans are a minority, with most Druids eating meat, often locally and ethically sourced, though often not due to cost factors. Even meat-eating Druids, though, will usually have concerns about animal welfare and will happily contribute to, or act in concert with, conservation groups.
The last thirty years have seen an increasing acceptance of the concept of the Druid as animist, that is, one who sees all things as imbued with spirit, including not just humans and other animals, but plants and even apparently inanimate creatures such as rocks, clouds or stars. Seeing our human selves as part of an interlacing network of living, inspirited, intelligent beings that inhabit realms above, around and below us enhances our sense of the value of all these other lives. We see ourselves not as occupying a privileged position above, or somehow separate from, the rest of the natural world, but as a part of it. For me, this is a core aspect of being a Druid. This perspective of equality inevitably calls into question the over-exploitation of natural resources and the resulting degradation of our environment and our spirits.
The same time frame has seen an increased acceptance of the related idea of the Druid as shaman, in part meaning one who works directly with spirits, including those of animals. Many Druids who work with animal spirits have craft names that reflect this, including Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and Greywolf (myself). Bobcat was given her name by one of her teachers. Mine derives from a vision of a Wolf that came to me in a sweat lodge, transforming my spiritual life. I was subsequently shown that I could switch bodies with my Wolf spirit brother, experiencing for myself what it is like to be a Wolf.
Immediately after my vision, Walter, who acted as fire-keeper for the lodge, suggested I should find something physical to link me with the Wolf. This seemed incredibly unlikely. I was around 40 at the time and had never seen hide nor hair of a Wolf. However, the day after I got back from the sweat lodge, a friend invited me to a garage sale at his parents’ house. The first thing I saw on arrival was a large pelt draped over an old water tank. A closer look confirmed my first impression, that the fur was Wolf. The pelt consisted of six Wolf hides, trimmed to rectangles and stitched together as a rug. It had been in the house when my friend’s parents bought it in 1947. They hadn’t liked it, bagged it up and put it in the loft. There it stayed until the day of my vision, when my friend found it and added it the garage sale.
I told them about my vision and they gave me the hides. I removed the woollen backing, added a couple of ties and started wearing the hides as a cloak in ceremony. As a connection with Wolf spirit this exceeded my wildest expectations. The six animals who died to make that Wolf-skin rug came to me during the next Pagan event I was invited to, a venison feast hosted by Ronald Hutton. They became a pack under my Wolf alter-ego’s alpha male. I recognised my responsibility to them by ‘feeding’ them with regular ingestions of meat, despite myself having previously been a vegetarian. I wore them regularly in ceremonies. I also wore them to give talks, including some to animal welfare groups. Once I had explained the circumstances by which I acquired ‘my’ Wolves and the ways we worked together, there was never any question of our relationship being ‘wrong.’
A few years later, at a medieval re-enactment, I found a stall selling Wolf pelts, complete with faces, limbs and paws. I asked the stall-holder where they came from. He said they were Siberian and derived from a cull of animals that were elderly or sick. You can tell if a canine is sick from the state of its coat, just as you can estimate its age by the size of the pelt. The stall-holder was clearly lying or, being generous, was grossly ill-informed. This left me with a quandary: did I leave the pelts to be bought by people who might not honour the spirits of the animals who had worn them in life, or did I buy one myself, albeit at the cost of giving a substantial amount of money to a man who had, I was fairly sure, lied to me, thereby supporting a trade that involved killing healthy young wolves? I spent much of the day arguing the ethics of these options with myself and others. Eventually, honouring the animal’s spirit won out and I handed over the money, albeit with a prayer that the trade in Wolf skins would soon come to an end. International trade in Wolf pelts was restricted under a CITES agreement not long after, and I’ve never since seen a complete Wolf pelt, or even a tail, offered for sale in the UK. This is, of course, a good thing.
In 2012, at a time of family crisis, another Wolf cloak came to me, similar to the one I was given previously, only in even better condition and with longer, redder fur. I found it in an antique shop in Rye, Sussex, less than five miles from the friend’s house where I’d encountered the first one. Like that first one, it also consisted of six pelts, trimmed down and sewn together. It was of a similar vintage too, the London-based company who made it into a rug having ceased trading in the 1940s. The first cloak having become a little worn and frayed from years of use, the second arrived at precisely the right time in my life, helping to renew my relationship with Wolf spirit. It has since become my primary ceremonial cloak.
My strong feeling is that the Wolves whose hides I wear brought them to me so that I could work with them, wear them and honour them. Too many ‘coincidences’ have piled up surrounding the two Wolf-skin cloaks for that not to be the case. Plus I have the evidence of my own senses. I have seen the Wolves themselves frolicking on my bed where I keep the hides. They have also joined my Wolf alter-ego in spirit journeying. Others, of course, may think me mad or deluded. I can only report what I have seen, heard and felt.
To work successfully with animal spirits, you have to a) believe in their existence, and b) honour them. I believe that animal spirits come to us to lend us spiritual power as well as to teach and guide us, and that failing to properly honour them can lead to a loss of purpose, health and sanity. This is not something we can afford to be casual about, take for granted, or play with for effect.
In the 22 years I’ve been wearing Wolf-skins in ceremony, I’ve been criticised for doing so only by people who didn’t know how the hides were acquired and didn’t bother to ask. It would be interesting to know how many of them would have voiced similar criticisms had I been a Siberian shaman or a First Nations medicine man instead of a British Druid. I wear them not as a fashion choice or a pose, or for warmth, but as a deep, inherent and vital part of my spiritual journey, in which I am honoured to be accompanied by fellow Wolves who choose to walk the path with me.
After Wolf, the spirit animal I’ve worked with most is Eagle, and I’m blessed to have been given three beautiful Eagle feathers, gifts from a shamanic practitioner, a Druid and a shamanic Druid. The feathers were all found in the wild by the individuals who gave them to me after having been shed by their winged owners. One came from Siberia, one from an island off the Norwegian coast, the other from Australia.
In my work, I sometimes use a Cormorant wing for fanning smoke, summoning spirits of Air, or linking me with the spirit of Morfran, son of Ceridwen. In the middle of winter, many years ago, I was walking my children through a park to their primary school when I saw a dead Cormorant floating in a hole in the ice on a lake. It being a Friday, I decided that if the Cormorant was still there on Monday, that would be a sign that I should take it and work with it. Not only had it not been removed from the lake by Monday, the hole in the ice had expanded and the Cormorant had floated to the shore so that I could reach it without even having to step onto the ice.
I took it home, removed a wing and the tail, and buried the rest in my back garden with prayers for the spirit of the animal. Returning alone to the lake, I allowed my spirit to slip back a few days in time and to inhabit the body of the Cormorant, then still living. I dived with it, seeking fish below the water on which to feed. On the third dive, a fish darted off beneath the surface ice and the Cormorant followed, couldn’t get back to open water in time, and drowned. I experienced this directly, having projected my spirit into the Cormorant. I made further prayers for the Cormorant and its family, members of which stayed at the lakeside for several weeks after the drowning. I still have both wing and tail and still use them in ceremony.
Other people I know in the Druid and shamanic communities use animals who have died a natural death or as roadkill wherever possible. In my case, few Wolves are killed on the roads, our ancestors having eradicated them from Britain centuries ago through ignorance and fear.
I make drums. To do so, I fell trees for the timber hoops and use Red Deer hides for the skins. I seek permission from the spirits of the trees. The deer hides are from Bradgate Park, Britain’s oldest continuously managed deer park, enclosed since the 13th century. As an enclosed park, space is limited, limiting the number of deer that can successfully graze it and remain healthy. Since all natural predators on deer, apart from humans, have been eradicated, the number of deer born in the park always outstrips the number who die from natural causes. Therefore, to maintain the health of the herd, some animals are killed every year. Their meat is sold, raising money for the upkeep of the park and the deer. Prior to my arrival, the hides were thrown away. Now, I get them, fur on, and make them into drums and rattles. During the process, I sense from the hides that the spirits of the deer are willing to work with me, and to work with the person the drum then goes to. If it were otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.
My belief is that the spirits of the deer continue to live in this world through the drums I make, especially when they are played in ceremony. As part of the process of bringing the drum into use, I recommend that their owners travel in spirit to meet the spirits of the tree that died to make the hoop and the deer that died to make the skin, to witness their whole life cycle, through to the moment of death, to ask them to inhabit the drum, empower it and continue to live through it. Tree and deer thus maintain their place as part of the wider community of spirits that includes us as humans and all of nature.
My criteria is, as I believe it was for our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors, the absolute conviction that the plants and animals themselves are willing to work with us through giving us their parts after death. Here, in our largely secular, post-industrial society, we encounter a problem. Most people, even in Druid and Pagan circles, do not communicate either with the dead or with animals or plants, and many do not believe those of us who say that we do. There’s nothing I can do about that. I can only speak for myself and from my own experience, and pass on what the animals and plants tell me. Those who work with me through feathers, wings, fur, skin, teeth and claws, do so willingly. If they didn’t, rather than gain power through forging a bond of kinship with them, they would ensure that I lost power and suffered, mentally, spiritually and physically. In working with spirit animals, unethical behaviour will ultimately receive its just reward. By the same token, ethical behaviour brings great rewards in, among other things, expanded understanding, altered perspectives, spiritual enrichment, enhanced health and greater ability to help others.
The understanding I have gained from working with Wolves, and more especially from the experience of being a Wolf, has greatly increased my concern for the welfare of my Wolf kin in the wild. It has also increased my belief that wild Wolves should be reintroduced into the UK, beginning in Scotland. Reindeer were successfully reintroduced there some years ago and have since thrived. In the absence of predators, their numbers have increased so rapidly that there is now an annual cull, with large numbers being shot. There is a similar over-abundance of Red Deer. The reintroduction of Wolves would eliminate the need for a cull while ensuring that it is mainly weak, ill and elderly animals who were killed, thus improving the overall health of the herds.
I conclusion, while I fully support many of the arguments in favour of vegetarianism and veganism, oppose the cruel methods used to farm animals for food, and appreciate the validity of the ecological and ethical cases against farming animals for food, I will continue to work with animal spirits and with animal parts in the ways that I do. Doing so is crucial to the spiritual path I have been guided into. I am a Wolf. Although Wolves do eat berries and roots, the main part of their diet is meat. The spirit Wolves who work with me like to be fed. Shamanic friends have told me repeatedly that I must feed my Wolves. I know they are right. In order to sustain my relationship with them, I must feed them, and the food they crave most is meat.
Having come to that space between the worlds where the Wolves and I eat meat, we are also at a place where we converse regularly with other animal spirits. If they are willing to work with us, we work with them. This is my way. It is not everyone’s way, and I’m not suggesting it should be or could be. Bobcat chose a different path and adopted a vegan diet, albeit as much for reasons of health as for ethical concerns. Nevertheless, she often wore a Bobcat tail on her belt and was not averse to working with other animal parts and, through them, with the spirits of the animals from which they came. We each have our path to follow. Along the way, we must each come to ethical decisions we can live with and live by. I respect and honour those who choose paths other than mine.