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.
“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 email@example.com (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.
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.
It started in 1974, the year I simultaneously discovered Druidry and shamanism and realised that classical Druids must have been the British and North-west European equivalent of shamans in other cultures. I sensed from the beginning that a vital feature of our tradition had been a strong spiritual bond between humans and animals. Twenty years later, I encountered my spirit animal brother in a sweat lodge. Ten years after that, I visited the Quileute people on the shores of the Olympic Peninsula and was honoured to be made a member of their drum circle. The Quileute are descended from shape-shifting wolves.
Then, in 2013, four friends arrived from Norway for my 60th birthday party at the Wild Ways Retreat and Craft Centre in Shropshire. Kyrre Franck and Morten Wolf Storeide are core members of the World Drum Project and, with LeNa Paalvig Johnsen and Will Rubach, members of the shamanic band, Baalfolket, 'the People of Fire.' They brought with them an amazing ceremony, centred around a medicinal fungus called chaga, which grows on birch trees in cold, Northern climes. Among other things, chaga boosts the immune system, reduces stress levels, is used for a variety of stomach ailments and has anti-cancer properties. For use in sacred ceremony, it must be prepared over several hours. I joined our Norwegian friends in our Iron Age roundhouse for the preparation. We drummed and sang as the chaga brewed and Steve Rumelhart and I then acted as doorkeepers in one of the most powerful, beautiful, joyous ceremonies I've ever taken part in.
When Barry Patterson asked me to do something for the White Horse Camps Beltaine celebration at Wild Ways this year, I agreed, if I could think of something genuinely worth doing, rather than just filling a slot in the schedule. It had to be of real, transformative value to the people attending, powerful and enriching of our tradition, and truly honouring of our ancestors. It was a long time coming. Eventually, another visit to the roundhouse gave the answer through a vision in which people in body paint, masks and animal hides burst through the doors, accompanied by Barry, wearing a full set of antlers and a blue cloak (right). So I knew there had to be a ceremony in the roundhouse involving animal guising. Then came the question of how to fully involve people in that ceremony. The single two-hour session originally intended then grew into four interlinked sessions that could also be experienced separately.
The vision given to me in the roundhouse reminded me of traditional Pacific North-western ceremonial societies, including the Quileute Wolf Warrior Society. Like many indigenous ceremonies, those of the Quileute societies performed many functions.
They were communal celebrations as well as offering healing and transformation for individuals, all things I wanted our ceremony to achieve. I realised early on that my connection with the Quileute nation has a purpose meant to be beneficial for all in ways I don't yet fully understand. I believe part of it is to help us, as British Druids, to restore lost aspects of our own native traditions. Knowledge of the Quileute ceremonial societies prompted me to look for evidence of similar societies among our own ancestors. That evidence exists and is compelling, from Central Asia, to Vedic India and pagan Europe to early medieval Ireland. The ceremony shown to me in vision suggested another way in which we might begin a process of re-connection with another lost aspect of our ancestral heritage.
It took a lot of organising and the dedicated assistance of many people, beginning with Morten, who gave us enough chaga for two cups for fifty people, gathered near his house in the forests of Eastern Norway. Morten sees chaga (left) as a sacred gift from Mother Earth to be shared with those who need it and will use it well. Next was Elaine Gregory, who co-runs Wild Ways with her partner, Garth Reynolds. She was unfailingly supportive every step of the way. Then there was Barry, willing not only to allow me to run with my increasingly wild ideas but to actively participate in them in a leading role, a role I forgot I hadn't told him about on the usual planes of existence, but we communicated so well in spirit that he already knew, so that was good. In the event, all our efforts came to beautiful fruition.
I arrived a week before the camp was due to start, much of which was was spent cleaning and arranging the roundhouse, making sure it would accommodate the expected fifty people, stocking up its wood supply, clearing the area around it and rigging a temporary tarpaulin shelter in case of rain, assisted by Elaine. We took down a cauldron and a large cooking pot. As ever, I spoke with the spirits of the place and made small offerings to them.
The background for the weekend's events was explained on May Eve, when I gave a talk in the big yurt entitled 'Humans and Other Animals,' ending with this paragraph:
“I've believed ever since I became involved in Druidry in 1974 that our role in bringing back the ways of our ancestors is to empower ourselves so that we can use our enhanced personal power and our enhanced relationships with the spirits that surround us to make this world we live in a better place, to work with the spirits of nature to protect, preserve, heal and improve ourselves, our families, our tribes and our whole ecosystem. As workers with spirits and as people of power, we have the potential to change the hearts and minds of those whose decisions affect our world for good or ill, shifting them towards the good. Our animal helpers can help us to achieve these goals.”
This was followed by the Otherworld journey in search of spirit animals, for which I drummed. As it happened, most people on the camp already knew their spirit animals, but some had not encountered them in the Otherworld, some took the opportunity to check in with them, others undertook the journey for other reasons. The few newcomers were in uncharted territory. This being the last event of the evening, I hoped it would create or renew links between people and their spirit animals which would then continue to 'brew' overnight in dreams and visions, preparing people well for the transformation they would engage in in the woods next day.
The fact that so many people did know their spirit animal or animals was interesting. If you'd asked the same question twenty years ago, when we started holding Druid camps, few would have known. Another measure of how much Druidry has changed, and how rapid those changes have been.
On May Day morning, having reminded everyone that there was to be no photography during the animal guising or the following ceremony, and that it was to be an alcohol free and caffeine free day, because neither work well with chaga (it was, in any case, an alcohol free camp), our Chaga Crew set off for the roundhouse shortly before 11 am. The Crew was largely recruited at the last minute from the ranks of campers and consisted of Amanda Foale-Hart, a great and loving soul I'd seen in action in ceremony many times; Paul Beer, remembered from our World Drum gathering at Cae Mabon in North Wales; Hilde Liesens, who took a central role in our Midwinter ceremony a couple of years ago; and Ariana Power, who was so keen to be a part of the team I just couldn't refuse; Elaine and myself. Never having worked together as a group before, I was a little apprehensive as to how we would jell for what needed to be done. I decided to trust in the spirits. It was a good choice.
Our job for the next several hours was to oversee the brewing of the chaga, stirring into it all the magic we could muster between us. Part of this process was to come together as a group and discover what we were going to do during the ceremony itself.
Our first task, though, was to get the fire going. A couple of bits of log from the previous night were still glowing, so we began blowing dragonwise, as only Druids can. We blew and blew and took it in turns to blow, and eventually fire sprang into being. Building up a cone of sticks we soon had a good blaze going. There's a real art to building fires in roundhouses so that they don't smoke too much. Part of it is using very dry wood, another is maintaining a cone shape so that the wood catches quickly and burns brightly rather than smouldering for a while before catching.
We filled our cauldron and big pan with water, hooking the former on a chain suspended from a wrought iron tripod and standing the latter on a horseshoe trivet. We then waited for them to boil. With so much water in them, even with a good fire directly underneath, this took a while. As we waited, we talked about what we were going to do when folks arrived and drummed together for the first time, tentatively at first but with growing confidence.
I talked a bit about chaga and our native spirit of the birch tree, on which the chaga fungus grows. In Scotland, he is known as Ghillie Du (pronounced Gilly Doo), 'the Dark Lad.' In Welsh, that's Hogyn Ddu (pronounced Hogun Thee). He is a friendly, helpful spirit, small and wiry with tangled black hair, dressed in birch bark, leaves and moss. If you come across him when you genuinely need help, he will help you. If you try to find him for the wrong reasons, you will fail. I also revealed the name and identity of the roundhouse's deer spirit guardian, something I rarely do.
The cauldron, being smaller, boiled first, noisily boiling over, causing hands to quickly reach in and pull it away from the fire. I reduced the level of the fire and we returned the cauldron to its place. Once the big pan was also boiling, we began adding chaga, each of us putting two handfuls into the big pan and one into the cauldron, adding more until we'd used the whole bag. We took it in turns to stir the brew with the hazel stirring stick I'd made, into which John Whittleston had burned the Ogham letters for Birch and Hazel. And so the brewing began.
We continued to drum and sing. I suggested a few chants we might do, including, in view of the powerful deer energy in the place, my native British Deer chant.Of course, I couldn't resist adding my Wolf chant too, excused by the fact that many of those attending the ceremony would first have spent time in the woods being their spirit animals. Paul started to drum and Amanda began to chant the word chaga. The rest of us joined in and a rhythmic chant soon evolved that sounded good and felt as though it had power. Another time, Paul started drumming and chanting the name of the Birch spirit, Hogyn Ddu, which morphed into “Come to me, Hogyn Ddu,” to which I added, “Hogyn Ddu, Hogyn Ddu, spirit of the great Birch tree.”More chaga, more stirring. I started a beat that fit with the name of our deer spirit guardian and we began to chant his name. After a while, I started improvising calls over the chant such as, “I hear your hoof-beats thunder through the forest, I hear your hoof-beats coming to our circle, I hear your hoof-beats dancing in our circle...” By the time the first people arrived at the roundhouse for the ceremony at 3.45 pm, we had quite a repertoire of chants ready.
While we conjured, sang and stirred inside the roundhouse, other things were happening outside. Barry shepherded about thirty people to the log store at the back of the roundhouse where we had provided body-paints Elaine and I had made from charcoal from our fires and coloured clays dug from the land. Some opted to go naked apart from body-paint. Others donned animal hides and masks on top of face and body-paint. Some wore ragged clothing of leather or wool. Once their spirit animal guise was complete, Barry led them into becoming their animals, after which they ran off into the woods. There was a boar, a horse, fox, raven and various other creatures among the guisers, even a chameleon and a hedgehog. They snuffled among bluebells, climbed trees or trotted along paths, according to their nature.
A dozen or so early arrivals who had opted not to do the animal guising saw some of the animals in the woods as they made their way along the deer path to the roundhouse. We opened the doors to them and they were sained and blessed by Elaine and Hilde, our doorkeepers for the night, who marked their foreheads with an awen symbol. They were then welcomed in and shown to their seats. Saining is a native tradition of purifying and sanctifying with smoking herbs, leaves or strips of animal hide. We used a saining stick made from St. John's Wort (left) and Meadowsweet. St. John's Wort is a protective and cleansing herb with a very long history of magical use. Meadowsweet is one of the ingredients from which the enchanters, Math and Gwydion, create the maiden, Blodeuwedd ('Flower Face') as a May bride for the young god of light, Lleu Llaw Gyffes in the Branch of the Mabinogi called Math, son of Mathonwy.
About ten minutes later, we heard the yowls, growls and howls of many animals outside, racing around the roundhouse while Barry's bagpipes skirled them on. A bang on the doors, we flung them open, and in charged thirty or so wild animals. They cavorted, leapt and crawled around the roundhouse interior, shrieking, screaming, grunting, howling, eyes wide and wild. It was an amazingly impressive entrance, exceeding my wildest expectations. To enhance the sense of natural chaos, the Chaga Crew drummed wildly. Barry entered amongst the untamed ones, ducking low so that his antlers wouldn't catch on the roof, wearing his full red deer hide and head (known as Donald), and my dark blue cloak underneath. The scene exactly mirrored what I'd seen in my vision. It was a wild, wonderful, magical moment.
Following the rampage, the animal folk exited the roundhouse. Once outside, they reverted to more human form before re-entering, carrying cups for the chaga. As they came in, each was sained and blessed. After the last person was admitted, the doorkeeper's role reverted to guarding the doors against any unhelpful spirits who might try to get in. When you're doing powerful magical work, good spirits are attracted to it, but more tricky ones sometimes also try to get in, hence the need for doorkeepers. Paul (left) ushered our new arrivals sunwise around the interior, pointing them to their seats.
When everyone was seated, we began ladelling out the chaga brew into the cups they'd brought with them. I couldn't resist throwing in a little Mrs. Doyle impersonation (from Father Ted in case you were wondering), saying “Will you have a cup of chaga now? Ah, g'won, g'won' g'won, you know you want to.” Other Chaga Crew members joined in, and this set off Bee with a fit of giggles. It is in the nature of Bee that when she laughs, she finds it very hard to stop. She told me later that she forced herself to stop when it got too painful to continue. Her joyous, bubbling laughter spread around the circle and was a perfect start to our ceremony.
The roundhouse is a perfect setting for ceremonies, not only inherently beautiful in a way that sings powerfully of our ancestors, but also interwoven now with seven years of ceremonial use and sliding between the worlds, and filled with good, strong, protective, guiding spirits. Such an environment tends to bring out the best in ritualists. Having realised how easy all our chants were to join in with, we encouraged everyone to do so. Then we began.
We started with chants honouring the spirit guardian of the roundhouse and of the many Deer spirits who inhabit the place, as well as the living Muntjac, Roe and Fallow Deer who inhabit the surrounding woods. These were followed by the chants we had created during the day to honour the spirits of Chaga and of the Birch trees on which it grows. Here I found myself adding a variation, “Hogyn Ddu, Hogyn Ddu, bring your healing gift to me.”
At one point, while Ariana, Paul and Amanda were busy refilling cups with the sacred brew, I started idly tapping a gentle heartbeat rhythm on the drum and adding a wordless song. This was soon picked up and embroidered on by people around the circle so I kept drumming but stopped singing to listen to the sounds being woven by the group. It was a rising, falling chant in which voices merged together and wove around each other in ever-evolving patterns. It was utterly beautiful. When it came to a natural end in silence, I was so moved the I was unable to speak for a few moments. I dubbed it the Song of the White Horse Tribe.
We performed my wolf chant, giving folk the opportunity to howl along at the end. We ended with what was, at one time, the closing song of the Quileute Drum Circle. The chant presented perhaps the best singalong opportunity of the night, since pretty much everyone knows it. I shan't spoil it for you, in case you happen to run across one of our ceremonies. It's right to maintain a little mystery.
When we were done, the roundhouse end everyone in it were buzzing with energy and joy. People got up, hugged each other, and began to filter out through the double doors. The ceremony complete, photography was allowed and Elaine got some great shots of blissed out smiling faces as folk emerged into the late afternoon light. There's a palpable sense of joy, wonder, and a kind of elevated calm produced by a chaga ceremony that it's hard to describe but beautiful to observe and to feel. That's why the Chaga Crew are smiling so broadly in this photograph. We did a good job, folks, as did all those who attended. If you want it enough and put the work in, there's no reason life shouldn't always be this good. Smile on!
People were so well attuned with their spirit animals by the work we did together over the first weekend that animal energy continued to flow through the rest of the week, being especially apparent during the lodges into which the camp divided mid-week. From my own point of view, I'd had the opportunity to test a type of ceremony that has several millennia of history behind it but that I'd not tried before. I was delighted with how well it worked and it will form the basis of ceremonies in the BDO Druid course. I've also been drinking chaga daily since the May Day ceremony in the roundhouse and am feeling physically, psychologically and spirititually better than I have done for years!
Ever since 1974, I've been trying to re-create the vision of Druidry that came to me then, a wild, animistic, magical, powerful image encapsulated for me in the antlered man portrayed on the Gundestrup cauldron (right). Over the years, I've come to call this process of re-creation 'rekindling the sacred fire.' The sweat lodge Wolf vision, the Quileute drum circle, building of the roundhouse, drum-making, creating ceremonies based on those of our ancestors, and sharing these things with others on the path, are all a part of this rekindling.
The seventh prophet of the Anishinabe had a similar vision for his people.A young man with a strange light in his eyes, he said, “In the time of the Seventh Fire New People will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail. Their steps will take them to the Elders who they will ask to guide them on their journey. But many of the Elders will have fallen asleep. They will awaken to this new time with nothing to offer. Some of the Elders will be silent because no one will ask anything of them. The New People will have to be careful in how they approach the Elders. The task of the New People will not be easy. If the New People will remain strong in their quest the Water Drum of the Midewiwin Lodge will again sound its voice. There will be a rebirth of the Anishinabe Nation and a rekindling of old flames. The Sacred Fire will again be lit.”
This prophecy suggests that the Anishinabe, in common with many other indigenous peoples around the world, and in common with us as Druids, are in a period of recollection and restoration of ancestral ways.
The prophet added that, “It is in this time that the light skinned race will be given a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and final Fire, an eternal fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood. If the light skinned race makes the wrong choice of the roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth's people.”
Part of my vision for Druidry is that we, having chosen the right road,may take our place around the sacred fires alongside folk of other indigenous cultures. Through a growing network of links, the process of rekindling has already begun. In coming together, we, the spirit workers of the world, may yet kindle that Eighth, eternal fire.
So may it be.
Photographs mostly by Elaine Gregory, with others by Adrian Rooke, Bee and me...
The first stage in preparing a ceremony is to know its purpose. There's little point creating a ceremony just because it's that time of year, or there's a slot to fill at a camp, or someone's asked you to. There has to be a valid, spiritual imperative to it, otherwise there's no point. Ceremony should always be, first and foremost, a sacred act, rather than a theatrical performance or an historical re-enactment, although it may include elements of both these things.
When I was asked to do something for the White Horse Beltaine camp at Wild Ways this year, it took me a long time to work out what to do and why to do it. It wasn't until I visited Wild Ways again and sat in our Iron Age roundhouse that an answer came to me. As so often in that magical place, I slipped between worlds and had a vision. I saw a stream of people entering through the double doors. They were naked apart from animal hides, masks, face and body paint. They danced into the roundhouse and circulated around the central fire while I drummed along with three or four other drummers, all with frame drums. At the end of the line came Barry Patterson, wearing a dark blue cloak and a deer mask with a full set of antlers.
Following this vision, what I felt it right to do on the camp came into focus. Central to it is our sacred relationship with the rest of animal life on our planet. This is, in itself, a complex web rather than a single relationship. It is also a foundation stone of our spirituality. Not just Pagan spirituality either. The spiritual links that humans have had with other animals since the remote depths of prehistory underlie all religions. For our pagan ancestors, and for many modern indigenous peoples, animals were/are models of strength, speed, intelligence, kinship bonding, hunting ability, and spiritual connectedness. More recent faiths have significantly altered these relationships, introducing the idea that we are in every way superior to other animals, and that, because of our innate superiority, we are justified in exploiting 'lesser' animals in any way we see fit.
So the theme for my contribution to the camp is to be our spiritual relationships with animals.
Saturday Evening, 7.30-9.30 pm: Working with Wildwood Spirits
The next question was how to make that work in the context of a Beltaine camp. I already had the vision of the roundhouse ceremony to work towards, so the question became how to get there. An obvious way in is to offer a talk on the spiritual links between humans and other animals and then, for those who want to explore those links more fully and deeply, to offer a spirit journey in search of spirit animals. Which begs the question, what do we mean by spirit animals?
In 42 years as a Druid, I have found that most of us are accompanied by one or more spirit animals, of which one is usually dominant. They fulfil many roles, acting as guardians, guides and teachers, all of which come together in the word 'helpers.' They fulfil this role whether we are aware of their presence or not. Once we do become aware of them, we are obliged to interact with them more often and more deeply; the relationship becomes reciprocal, and we need to work to maintain it. For what our animal helpers give us, we take on the responsibility of keeping them strong and well nourished. We do this by entering into a new level of relationship with them. If you feel ready to take on this level of commitment, then connecting with your animal helpers can be an incredibly enriching experience. When I first encountered my wolf spirit brother, it completely altered my approach to my spirituality and, therefore, my life.
The next question is how to connect this session with my envisioned ceremony...
Sunday, May 1st Roundhouse Animal Spirit Ceremony
The purpose of the ceremony is to cement our relationships with our spirit animals, encountered during last night's spirit journey if not before, and to explore ways in which we can strengthen and maintain them.
Getting to the ceremony itself will require a certain amount of preparation. The roundhouse will need to be cleaned and arranged, and a plentiful supply of dry wood got in. Water, a large cooking pot and various other items will need carrying down. Then, on Sunday morning, I will need three or four people to help me in and around the roundhouse for the rest of the day. They will need to have frame drums and be able to play them well and keep good time. Ideally they should be fairly strongly connected with their own spirit animals. Our role from straight after morning meeting will be to prepare chaga. Chaga is a medicinal fungus that grows on Birch trees in Northern climes. It's most important effect is in strengthening the immune system, and it is widely used for this property throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. To prepare it for use in ceremony requires several hours. I should add that it is not hallucinogenic. The 'chaga crew' will have important roles during the ceremony.
After lunch, folk planning on attending the roundhouse ceremony will need to prepare for it by creating their animal guises. One way to cement our relationship with our animal helpers is to dress ourselves as them. This can be achieved by wearing hides, masks, body painting, etc. As said, my vision had people entering the roundhouse naked apart from animal accoutrements and body paint. We have some water-based stage paints that can be used, but we will also have natural paints made from clay-based pigments dug at Wild Ways. Our idea is for everyone to get into their animal guises at (but not in) the roundhouse. You'll need to bring all your costume bits and a bag in which to store your clothes. You'll also need to bring a cup for chaga. You might also like to bring a cushion if you want to sit more comfortably in the roundhouse where the seats are logs or the hard earth floor.
Once into your animal guise, you'll become your animal, roaming off into the woods and behaving as that animal. After a while, you'll be called back to the roundhouse. Staying 'in character,' you'll roam sunwise around the roundhouse making as much animal noise as you like. At an appropriate point, the doors will be flung open and you'll rush in, still in your animal form. This will be chaotic. That's fine. It's supposed to be. You'll then leave the roundhouse again, still in animal form. Once back outside, you'll 'humanise' yourself. Once the roundhouse is clear of everyone who isn't a member of the 'chaga crew,' two of the 'crew' will take up places on either side of the doors. Everyone else will pick up a cup and re-enter the roundhouse calmly (and walking upright!), being blessed and sained on the way in by the two doorkeepers. Then take a seat and sip your chaga. There should be enough for two cups each. We will be in the roundhouse from around 4 pm to 6 pm.
If you don't want to be an animal guiser, you can still take part in the ceremony. You'll need to arrive at the roundhouse a little before 4 pm (with cup and cushion as required), and take a seat in the roundhouse before the animals arrive. Likewise, if you're not comfortable with nudity, it is not mandatory. Wear whatever you are comfortable with. No one will berate you or think less of you 🙂
So, what to bring: things for animal guising (furs, masks, antlers, what-have-you), body painting (we'll provide some, so don't worry if you don't have any) - a cup - a cushion (optional but useful)...
It would be good to have a follow-up session in which we share any visions we've had or animal spirit songs we've been given ... I'm sure we can work that out 🙂
There will be about 50 people on the camp. We have previously managed 47 people in the roundhouse. It is quite tight, but it can be done.
Sunday will continue with dinner followed by the Beltaine fire ceremony on the stone circle field.
I've recently been exploring prehistoric pottery, putting what I've learned into practice by making four Bronze Age pots (left) using only Bronze Age techniques (coil-building) and tools (hands and animal bones). Once they're fired, my intention is to turn them into clay drums. What inspired me to do this was reading claims by archaeologists that there is no evidence for the existence of drums of any kind in British prehistory throughout the whole of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, a period of more than 3,000 years. This seems extremely unlikely and would make the ancient peoples of the British Isles unique among ancient or modern cultures, percussion being fundamental to music-making and music-making being fundamental to humanity.
The first step was to find the missing drums. Knowing that timber and hide frame drums would be unlikely to survive long in the British climate, and knowing that clay drums were made during the Neolithic era in Europe, I started looking at clay pots in museums in Britain. It didn't take long to find numerous exapmles that looked as though they would make fine drums. Some replicate the shapes of the Neolithic European clay drums, in common with which other British examples have pinched and pierced lugs (see below) that would be ideal for threading rawhide through to attach drum skins. Then there are the hundreds of collared urns that have survived more or less intact from the Bronze Age. Though often called cremation urns, many do not contain cremations, some being buried alongside cremated remains but not containing them, others with un-cremated remains, while some are not found with burials at all. Then there's the question of what the collar is for that gives them their name? It would certainly be a convenient way to anchor a strip of rawhide cord, through which further cord could be threaded to hold a drum skin in place. I've been unable to think of another reason for it being there and would welcome any suggestions.
Having selected four specific Bronze Age pots, two made close to my home in Wiltshire, the others from neighbouring Berkshire, I decided to create replicas to see how they might work as drums. Making them has been an education in itself, and one that has given me an even greater respect for our ancestors. The collared urn in particular took four days to build using the coil method used by our ancestors before the introduction of the potter's wheel. Building a big coil pot requires it to be left every now and then to partially dry before the next stage can be added without causing the lower part to buckle or collapse. The process of pinching down the coils and then working them to produce a smooth surface is painstaking and time-consuming. Decorating a pot of this size (over 12 inches tall and 10 across) also takes hours, even when the decoration consists of relatively simple geometric patterns.
The presence of decoration on the upper part of many collared urns has been put forward as an argument that they can't have been used as drums because attaching a skin would obscure the carefully applied decoration. I'm not convinced that this argument stands up. A skin cut carefully to size and secured with narrow rawhide strips would cover very little of the decoration, as this rather crudely photo-shopped image shows. The rawhide cords shown are much thicker than they need be, so in practice even less of the decoration would be covered.
Incidentally, one of the things I learned during my researches is that, in all cultures of which we have any knowledge, pots are always made by women, until the introduction of the potters' wheel, at which point men take over. Hmmm...
My theory is that many 'collared urns,' and some other pottery types, including some identified as 'food vessels,' were made and used as drums, perhaps presented to their owners as part of a rite of passage into adulthood. These would then be used throughout their lives, not just to produce music, but also to access altered states of consciousness, as is common in cultures all over the world. Having been used for travelling between worlds while their owners were alive, what better thing to be buried with them after death, accompanying them on that journey too? Simon Wyatt has a similar theory in regard to the Neolithic clay drums of Eastern Europe.
I'm not the first person to come up with the idea that some Bronze Age pots were used as drums. That collared urns may have been drums was suggested by Ian Longworth, a former Keeper of Prehistoric and Romano-British Antiquities at the British Museum. In his 'Collared Urns of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland' (Cambridge University Press, 1984, page 6), he says “The function of the collar elements remains debatable... The basic role of the Collared Vessel in a domestic context is likely to have been as a storage vessel. The need for a cover would therefore have arisen spontaneously. The ability to secure a cloth or skin cover firmly on the top of the vessel raises the possibility that some may have enjoyed a secondary use as drums.” The difference between us is that I'm suggesting a primary use as drums and a secondary use as grave goods.
My friend, Elaine Gregory, on whose land we dug the clay, and in whose pottery I made the pots, suggested that I could either make some more to sell or run workshops on how to make them. The problem with making them to sell is that they take such a long time to make, even more once you factor in the time to treat and fit the drum skins. The collared urn was worked on over 20 hours plus. Being big and thick-walled, it then required several days to dry before firing. Firing them on a fire in the open would take a further 10-12 hours, although several can be fired at once. Treating and fitting skins takes around two weeks, though most of that is waiting for things to happen 😉
Estimating that a complete 'collared urn' drum requires around 40 hours of work, even calculated at the national minimum wage of £6.70 an hour, adding on materials, one would have to cost £300 or so. That said, they'd hopefully last a lifetime and beyond - I intend to have my ashes interred in mine when the time comes 🙂 Even a beaker like the one on the left would have to sell for around £150 to be viable. Which leaves the problem of how and where would you market them to folks who would, a) be interested, and b) be able to afford the cost?
Workshops would be fairly costly too once time, materials, accommodation and food are all factored in. Again, I wonder if there's enough interest to make them viable? Also, from a practical point of view, workshops might have to be spread out, with one devoted to actually making and decorating the pots. Depending on the size and design, this could take from two to four days. Then there would need to be a break while they dried, followed by another workshop to fire them, hopefully fitting a pre-prepared skin on the same weekend once they'd cooled down. Hmm, that would require a fair level of commitment. Still, if I'm nuts enough to do it, maybe others might be interested too? And even if I only get a few clay drums out of the experience, it's still been a fascinating adventure!
I've also been in touch with Andrew Appleby, a.k.a. the Harray Potter, who has been making Neolithic pots based on originals found in the Orkneys since 2007. He has made several into drums and tells me they play brilliantly. He has made a set for percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. He's also written a pre-historical novel, Skara, which features characters playing his drums in context, and which is being turned into an opera. In the book, he refers to the drums having rounds of pitch applied to the skins, as is the case with tabla drums. Interesting idea. I might try that... 🙂
by Barbara Meiklejohn-Free & Flavia Kate Peters Moon Books, Winchester, UK & Washington, US, 2015
£9.99 (UK) $16.95 (US)
146 pages There may be those who feel the following review is a case of, as the old adage goes, “the pot calling the kettle black.” I disagree, but then I would, wouldn't I?
Knowing how much work goes into producing a book, and, as a writer myself, aware of how much bad reviews can sting, I really, seriously dislike writing negative ones. Hence I've sat on this review for several weeks, arguing with myself and others over whether to publish it or not. However, having been given the book to review by the publisher, I feel obliged to offer an opinion, and, of course, it has to be an honest one or what's the point?
The authors of The Shamanic Handbook both seem to live in England, yet refer to the “British Celtic Lands” with no acknowledgement that England, for better or worse the dominant British nation, has a culture that is predominantly Romanised, Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman, not Celtic. To call these islands “British Celtic” is, therefore, to ignore the last 2,000 years of their history. Perhaps they mean the term to apply only to Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and perhaps Cornwall and Ireland? If so, it would be good to know that and not simply have the contentious term, 'Celtic' bandied about without explanation. Despite many references to these “Celtic lands,” most of the Old World traditions referenced in the book are either Graeco-Roman or Egyptian. This gives the impression that the writers are following in the footsteps of numerous New Age authors and simply using 'Celtic' as a popular buzz-word. On her website, Barbara Meiklejohn-Free claims to have been born in Scotland. The book, however, has no mention of this in the short chapter on ancestors, which ends in a very non-Celtic way with the Lakota phrase, mitakuye oyasin, usually translated as “all my (or our) relations.”
The term, 'shaman' is used with equal abandon, though with a little more explanation, albeit not until page 130, when it is acknowledged that the word “most likely” originates with the Evenk people of Siberia. On the same page, the authors admit that “There have been many heated debates about using the name 'Shaman.'” They conclude that “This is an individual and personal choice, which carries a great personal responsibility, for words have power and names have meanings.” Words also make up languages, and languages are a vital component of the cultures in which they develop and are used. Personally, my choice is informed by sensitivity towards the people amongst whom spiritual traditions originated, who have guarded and transmitted them for untold generations, and who see them as vital to the survival of their cultures and peoples. Few of my friends who follow paths that might be described as shamanistic call themselves 'shamans.' Most, like me, either use terms specific to their own cultures or non-culturally-specific terms such as 'spirit worker.'
Another aspect of the book I find problematic is that Native American concepts, terminology and ceremonies feature prominently throughout it, with no attempt whatsoever to address the question of cultural appropriation. A gathering of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota peoples more than twenty years ago declared war on non-Native New Agers who 'steal' Native American spirituality and sell it for profit, and many other Native Americans equally strongly oppose what they see as the ultimate act of theft committed against their people. Hence my unease that so much of the spiritual language in this book is couched in Native American, specifically Lakota, terms, and that several exercises given in it are derived from Lakota sacred ceremonies. We are given no indication as to why, or by what right, two British women are offering these things to us. Without such background information, this smacks of 'Wannabee Indian Syndrome.' A Native American friend, TC (short for Thundercloud), once asked me to convey a message to people in Europe. He said “Tell 'em not to put us Indians on pedestals; we're liable to fall off.” Based on the contents of this book, it seems that its authors have not got this message.
The path I was drawn to is Druidry, in large part because, so far as we can know, it originated here in Britain, where I was born, where I still live, and where my ancestors lived as far back as it is possible to trace. My ancestry combines Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon blood lines, so while my spirituality is rooted in Druidry and its antecedents, I also honour Anglo-Saxon deities. This makes sense to me, genetically and geographically. Like the authors of this book, I sometimes travel to other parts of the world. I have taken part in drum circles with Quileute and Makah folk of the Pacific Northwest. In doing so, I follow the beats and, so far as I am able, the words, of the chants and songs, but do so as a British Druid, not as a Wannabee Indian. Like the authors, I gain great inspiration from interactions with indigenous peoples, but that inspiration helps me to renew, refresh or restore long-lost parts of my own native heritage.
For example, I make drums with one of my sons. Some aspects of the process derive from videos posted online by Native American drum-makers, others were inspired by Central Asian, Norwegian, Siberian and Irish drum-making practices. I believe that frame drums of a similar type were once made in Britain, though I know of no specific evidence. Being organic and quite thin, frame drums rarely leave any archaeological trace. We use locally sourced materials. Barbara Meiklejohn-Free has drums made in the USA and imported to the UK to sell. They are mentioned many times in the book and described in detail. I'm sure they're very good drums, but the trees from which the hoops are made, and the animals whose hides form the drum-skins, lived in a land thousands of miles away, separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean. When there are many fine drum-makers here in Britain, why import drums from such a distant land? Apart from anything else, what about the carbon footprint from having them flown all that way? The same goes for Californian Sage, also referenced repeatedly in the book, which she also imports and sells. Again, why? Clearly because it's used by Native Americans. However, we have our own British tradition of cleansing and purifying with smoke, commonly known by the Scottish term, 'saining.' We have our own native herbs that can be used for this, including Mugwort (left), St. John's Wort, Yarrow, Meadowsweet and others. None are mentioned here. Instead, the section on herbs is basically one long advert for the imported Sage bundles that Barbara sells. This seems doubly strange since she claims to have been taught “the Old Ways” by a Scottish seer from the age of twelve. Perhaps saining was not one of the old ways he introduced her to.
In curious contrast, the authors refer to “dire consequences” resulting when hallucinogenic plants, or “plant medicines” as they call them, are used away from their native geographical and cultural context. Here I am in agreement with them, but this simply makes their failure to apply the same principle to other sacred herbs and tools all the more baffling.
The sheer quantity of product placement in the book means that at times it reads more like a sales catalogue than a guide to a spiritual tradition. While I am the first to acknowledge that spirit workers have a right to be paid for what we do just as much as any other profession, I am uncomfortable with the amount of overt advertising here, where we are continually told of products available at the back of the book. Ironically, on turning to the back, there is no information about the products.
This calls attention to other technical problems with the book, including many typographical errors, the seemingly random ordering of information, and the frequent repetition of the same information in slightly different forms. I'm not sure what went wrong here, as Moon Books are usually good on proof-reading.
The book is clearly pitched at people interested in the Michael Harner, Californian school of New Age global shamanism. Although there is no shortage of advice for them, and some of it is good, it is a shame that it is wrapped up in so much that is contentious, poorly explained or entirely unexplained.
My advice to those seeking spiritual sustenance is to first look to the traditions of your own land and ancestry. If you live elsewhere in the world but your ancestors are European, look to your ancestral traditions first. For other combinations, use your common sense. Begin with those traditions with which your ancestry gives you a natural affinity. Engage with them as fully and deeply as you can, immerse yourself if them, allow them to become your key to engaging with the spirits around you. Then, when you are fully and firmly grounded in your own native tradition, you can engage on an equal footing with practitioners of other traditions wherever you go, with mutual respect and without accusations of cultural theft. Books offering sound, practical introductions to native British traditions have been available since the early 1990s and there are many to choose from. For those seeking an overtly shamanistic approach to those traditions that is well-written, inspiring, practical, and culturally coherent, I recommend 'The Druid Shaman,' by Danu Forest (Moon Books, 2014). OK, it does have that problematic word, 'shaman,' right there in the title, but the author is aware of the problem and uses it in its broad anthropological sense as a shorthand to alert potential readers to the style of Druidry found within it. As a title, 'The Druid Shaman' is considerably less ungainly than 'a Druid way of engaging with spirits of plants and animals, land, sea, sky, gods and ancestors for the purposes of bringing about healing or divining hidden knowledge for the benefit of one's community.' I still look forward to the day when we no longer need to use 'shaman' as a shorthand because people understand Druidry as an indigenous tradition without the need to qualify it as 'shamanistic.' One day...
Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass)
October 9th, 2015