A few years ago, I came up with the idea of Druid Hedge Schools, loosely based on the hedge schools held in Ireland following the passage of legislation by the English authorities in 1695 outlawing the teaching of Irish history, language and culture in Ireland. Essentially this was an attempt to stamp out Irish culture. Similar measures were adopted in Scotland and Wales. In Ireland, a network of teachers rapidly sprang up who taught everything from the basic skills of reading and writing through to Latin and Greek. Teaching took place in secret, in barns, private houses, or, literally, behind hedges in fields. Anywhere people could gather together out of sight of the authorities.
The idea of Druid hedge schools is similarly to gather together wherever we can and offer information about Druidry at as low a cost as possible. Thanks to the kindness of the owners of the Henge Shop in Avebury, we are now able to offer monthly sessions there, right in the midst of one of the most remarkable and beautiful sacred landscapes in Britain. Session normally run for two hours at a cost per person of just £5, essentially to cover our costs in putting them on.
The next session is on the Druid relationship with stone circles, around which there is much controversy. Historians long maintained that classical Druids had nothing to do with stone circles, Druidry having arrived in Britain long after the circles were erected. There are, however, contrary views, and not just from Druids. Then there's the whole controversy around access to Stonehenge, around which much anger has been generated over many years, along with a good deal of misinformation. So, what are the links between Druids and stone circles and why do they evoke so much passion? Avebury seems an ideal place to explore these issues.
This session will take place on the afternoon of Saturday, September 22nd, at the Henge Shop. This date is particularly appropriate as that weekend sees the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri, an open group that meets among the ancient stones of Avebury to celebrate the annual cycle of Pagan festivals. As the Gorsedd was my creation, I can offer unique insight into its early years. This session will begin after the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd of Bards ceremony in the South Circle. The next day, Sunday, will be the 25th anniversary of the original Gorsedd. Why are there two groups with almost identical names? This question, and many more, will be answered at the Henge Shop!
“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.
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.
In researching and writing for the British Druid Order's Druid course, I've been working on the sub-stratum of spiritual beliefs and practices that underlies just about every religion there is. This seems to have emerged about 40,000 years ago in Central Asia. By 35,000 years ago, it had spread across a territory extending from Spain to Siberia. A central feature consists of ways in which humans and other animals relate spiritually. I've identified seven animals, or groups of animals, that have maintained key roles in human spirituality for millennia - at least among peoples who have either retained ancestral ways or are seeking to renew them. The seven are:
Eagles: - Eagles are royal birds, linked with the Sun, sometimes regarded as ancestors, and are messengers between our Mid-world and the Upper-world of the sky gods. Because of this, they are often regarded as bringers of storms and winds. They are also invoked for healing and in childbirth. (Picture: shape-shifting Eagle from Woodeaton in Oxfordshire. Late Iron Age)
Ravens: - Highly intelligent birds, Ravens are noted for their wisdom and also regarded as creators, shapers and shape-shifters, culture-bringers, teachers and tricksters. They are invoked, and their movements studied, for divination. As carrion-eaters, they are associated with the Otherworld of the dead and seen as messengers between worlds. What goes for Ravens applies to some extent to most other members of the Corvid family, Crows, Magpies, &c..
Serpents/Dragons/Wyrms, &c.: - By many names are they known. Serpents are chiefly seen as Under-world beings, receptacles of very strong power that can cause earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Some are winged and create thunder-storms. Serpents can also create disease and injury in humans and other animals. Conversely, people of sufficient strength can 'tame' the serpent power and use it just as powerfully for healing. Serpents have long been associated with the Moon, their ability to shed and renew their skins being likened to the lunar cycle. (Picture: Pictish stone with carved Serpent, Moon, lightning bolt and Oghams. Brandsbutt, Scotland. c. 6th century.)
Bears: - Bear cults and societies are pretty much universal wherever there are bears. The bear is seen as a powerful protective spirit, teacher and guide, also as an ancestor, healer and culture-bringer or enhancer. Considered human-like because they sometimes rear up on their hind legs, bears were also invoked by warriors for their courage, strength and stamina. (Picture: The Bear goddess, Artio - from Celtic 'Artos,' 'Bear' - feeds one of her kin. Bern, Switzerland. Late Iron Age.)
Wolves: - Wolves are powerful teachers and guides, also revered as ancestors. Their pack behaviour teaches us the benefits of community. Wolves, like Bears, were also invoked by warriors, Wolf warrior societies having been common in Europe, Asia and America. Like the others mentioned so far, Wolves are hunters or scavengers, invoked to bring success in hunting. (Picture: Pictish Wolf. Ardross, Scotland. c. 7th century.)
Bovines: - The primal bovine of ancient Eurasian cultures was the Aurochs, an animal considerably bigger and stronger than the modern-day cattle descended from it. Its hide was usually black. The other major bovine spirit of our ancestors was the Eurasian Bison. Bulls and Cows are both associated with powerful deities, often the parents of divine dynasties. The first, largest and most powerful prey animal on the list, hunted for meat, skins to make clothing and shelters, bones and horns to make a wide variety of practical or decorative objects. Bovine skulls were often buried as spirit guardians of sacred sites. (Picture: Pictish Bull from Burghead, Scotland, now in the British Museum. c. 7th century.)
Cervids (Deer): - Like bovines, the Deer family have long been a major prey species for humans and wolves. Like bovines, their skins have provided shelter and clothing, their bones tools and ornaments. They are often connected with via antlered deities who ensure their health as a species while giving humans permission to kill individual animals. (Picture: Bronze Stag from Nuevy-en-Sullias, France. Late Iron Age.)
We humans connect with these and other animal spirits in a variety of ways. They often appear to their chosen humans first during life-transforming visions. After the first appearance, their aid can be invoked by mimicking their behaviour and cries and/or dressing as them in ceremonies, by using a feather, tooth, claw or some other token, usually kept about the person for this purpose, by painting them on a drum or making a rattle in their image, or by placing images of them on an altar in the home.
In looking at the copious folklore attached to all these creatures in cultures around the world, I am struck by the fact that folk who study such 'oral texts' these days seem to readily accept them as evidence of ancient beliefs and practices if they are found in, say, Siberia, Nepal or New Mexico. Some of the same researchers then seem oddly reluctant to make the same assumption when very similar folk tales and customs are found in Britain and Ireland. This even applies when the British and Irish tales were collected at the same time and their Asian or American counterparts, usually the late 19th century when interest in folklore was at its height. The folklorists who collected this material at the time mostly believed that it related to ancestral cultures in the same way wherever it was found. Some undoubtedly overstated the case, but the suspicion that overstatement caused doesn't seem to apply to 'exotic' cultures. Could it be that some European scholars, at this point in the 21st century, still feel deep in their bones that 'those people' are 'primitive' whereas our fellow-countryfolk couldn't possibly harbour beliefs similar to ones our shared ancestors held 35,000 years ago? I sincerely hope this isn't so, but the differing attitudes towards different cultures do make me wonder.
The picture is of Alexander Carmichael, who collected folklore in the highlands and islands of Scotland in the late 19th century. He was definitely one of the good ones. His Carmina Gadelica remains a fine source of arcane lore. You can access two volumes of it for free here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/cg.htm
There are, however, more modern researchers who revert to the older notion of accepting folk tales, specifically those written down in the medieval era, as preserving genuine ancient beliefs. One such is Irish archaeologist, John Waddell who, In his recent book, Archaeology and Celtic Myth (Four Courts Press, 2014), quotes his colleague, Tomás Ó Cathasaigh's opinion that: "what is remarkable about the Irish situation is the extent and richness of the vernacular literature which has come down to us from the early medieval period. Much of this literature is firmly rooted in ancient myth and remains robustly pagan in character."
Here's a quote from the British Druid Order ovate course booklet, The Ways of the Gods. It seems particularly relevant in the light of recent events that have seen a tiny, destructive minority of fanatical members of each of the big three monotheistic faiths invoking scriptural authority to justify violence against others, sometimes succeeding in dragging whole nations along with them. I'm thinking not only of the 9/11 attacks and those that have followed in its wake, but of the continuing strife between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a tragic list that could all too easily be extended:
'I see no harm in applying rigorous analysis to systems of belief. On the contrary, it seems to me a good and useful thing to do. I do so for my own beliefs and feel no sense of threat when others do the same. I admire and enjoy the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who regard all religious beliefs as absurd and dangerous delusions. They are intelligent men who write, and argue their cases, well. I agree with much of what they say and would be happy to debate amicably with them over points of disagreement. As an intelligent, enquiring Pagan, I do not see blind faith as being an adequate substitute for provable fact or observable reality. My own beliefs are based on observations that have been subjected to repeated analysis over a period of half a century or so, as a result of which they have continually changed and evolved as new information has become available and new observations have been made. 'By contrast, some adherents of the big three monotheisms seem to feel deeply and personally threatened by any attempt at objective analysis of the background to their faiths, or any deviation from those faiths, often responding with death threats or actual violence, up to and including murder on an industrial scale. The history of Europe is littered with examples of the latter, from the murder of pagan priests in late Imperial Rome, through bloody campaigns against Christian heretics (right) and 16th century Witch-hunts to the Nazi Holocaust.
'The underlying cause of such deep-seated and destructive insecurity can only be fear; fear of change allied with a fear of being shown to be wrong. What is wrong with being wrong? Surely the path towards ultimate truth requires us to question each step along the way, rejecting those that prove wanting so that we can move on? 'The difference here is one that has been characterised by Robert Anton Wilson (left) as that between dogma and catma. Wilson, co-author with Robert Shea of the Illuminatus! trilogy (Dell Publishing, 1975), said that “Discordians don't have dogmas, which are absolute beliefs; we have catmas which are relative meta-beliefs.” In other words, religious dogmas are regarded as absolute and therefore restrictive of freedom of thought, while Discordian catmas, through not being hard and fast but constantly subject to change and revision, actively encourage freedom of thought.
Discordianism is an absurdist, surrealist, Dadaist religion that Wilson, Shea and others created inspired by the philosophy and spirituality of late 1960s youth culture. I find the idea of catmas admirable and inspiring, while I have always had a problem with dogmas, which is why the BDO promotes the former and rejects the latter. We both expect and encourage you to regard our course material as a series of catmas that you can either take or leave depending on how well or otherwise they resonate with your own experience of the world. We actively encourage a questioning approach to the world in general, and anything we say in particular.
'Incidentally, Wilson also said that “Most religious people take themselves too damn seriously, which is why they act like such damn fools. I'm using the word damn for the paradoxical effect.” I like him.'
I've loved the idea of roundhouses since my teens when I went to a party hosted in an oast house in Sussex. As soon as I entered, I just thought there was something inherently right about living in a circular structure. When everyone sat around the walls in a circle, it seemed to encourage conversation and sharing, whether of conversation or food and drink. Oast houses, incidentally, were traditionally used for drying hops in South East England. Quite a few still exist and they are, I think, beautiful buildings, as you can see from the picture of these Sussex examples.
A few years later I became interested in the ancestral spiritual traditions of Britain and was delighted to find that our ancestors in the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and well into the Roman era had lived in roundhouses, a period of about 4,000 years.
It wasn't until 30 years later that a friend offered me the opportunity to build a roundhouse (above) in a clearing in a wood in Shropshire that she inherited from her parents. Working only in some of my sons' school holidays, it took three years and a lot of help to create our roundhouse. Most of those working on it were Druids, though a few Buddhists and folk of other traditions helped out too. All put great spirit energy into the place and the building. We had to learn a lot of new skills. My design used elements from the archaeology of half a dozen different sites, combining them into something that seemed like it would work and create a good, structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing and useable building. We use it mainly for ceremonies, music and storytelling. The acoustics are excellent.
There's something about learning all these old craft skills, from growing and harvesting the straw and cutting the right wood, through wattling the walls to thatching the roof with the straw we'd grown, that really connects you with the spirits of our ancestors. You get a clear sense of what it was like to walk in their shoes. The fact that the building project was accompanied all the way through by rituals designed to weave the building into the place and integrate it with the spirits of nature helped to build that sense of connection. Our roundhouse has a 22 foot internal diameter, a wheat-straw thatched roof partly supported by an internal circle of ash posts, lime-washed wattle and daub walls and a beaten earth floor (right). For more photos, see the albums on my facebook page, especially the one covering the building process.
Five years on from the completion of that first roundhouse, I'm working again with John and Ken. John's the guy who taught us to thatch and Ken is another core member of the team from the Shropshire build. We're working on a pair of conjoined roundhouses for the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans in South Wales (below). These are based on archaeology from a site on Anglesey called Bryn Eryr, 'Hill of Eagles.' As in Shropshire, we're being aided by many helpers, from archaeological students to men on probation. Also helping out are Ian, the Museum's resident Iron Age reenactor, and Dafydd, whose website, britishroundhouses.com, lists over a hundred reconstructed roundhouses in England, Wales and Scotland with photos of each one.The first of the St Fagans roundhouses is being thatched with a base coat of gorse and heather onto which straw is stitched. We're then stuffing straw into this base coat. This roundhouse is 32 feet in diameter. The second, larger roundhouse (40 foot diameter) will have a short row of gorse around the base of the roof as a rodent deterrent and will then be thatched using a long-straw thatching technique. Neither has an internal post circle, relying instead on very thick clay and earth walls.
Of course, most of what happens above ground in modern roundhouse reconstructions is based on educated guesswork. Almost everything that survives in the archaeological record is at or below ground level. Peter Reynolds set the style for roundhouse reconstructions with his pioneering work at the Butser Iron Age farm in Hampshire in the early 1970s (below). This includes using straw thatch for the roofs. The logic of this is that cereal crops were being grown and the by-product of straw would therefore have been readily available. In other parts of the country, water reeds or grasses such as marram grass may have been used. It's also possible that turf, tree bark or wooden shingles were used.This morning a facebook friend suggested I might go to the USA and show folks over there how to build Iron Age roundhouses. This got me wondering if there weren't already reconstructed roundhouses in America. An online search failed to reveal any Celtic ones. However, there is a Native American tradition of roundhouse building. Here are two examples from California:
First is a 1947 picture of a roundhouse on the reservation of the Tuolumne band of the Me-Wuk (or Miwok) tribe in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. A typical Me-Wuk village consisted of umachas (cedar bark houses), chakkas (acorn granaries) and a hangi (ceremonial roundhouse). The ceremonial roundhouse was the center of tribal life, used for a variety of purposes by different groups. They are typically 30 to 40 feet in diameter and roofed with earth, bark, or, as with this one, wooden shingles. Dances are still held in these roundhouses to give thanks and to honour all that the Earth Mother has given to the people.A second Me-Wuk roundhouse (left) was built in 1974 within the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. As with the Tuolumne example, the door faces East, towards the rising sun. Four large oak posts support the roof of the sixty foot diameter structure (below left). The rest of the roundhouse is constructed of cedar poles secured with grapevine and the roof is topped with cedar bark. Inside is a central fire pit. A fire exit was added in the rear of the structure in 1993 to comply with state fire regulations. The door faces the east to catch the sunrise. The roundhouse is still used today, on occasion, for ceremonial dances. It has a plaque outside designating it as California Registered Historical Landmark No. 1001.
One notable similarity between the two roundhouse-building traditions is that both British and Native American examples have doors oriented to the East, or an arc between East and South-east. The practical reason is to allow maximum daylight into the roundhouse via the doors. The spiritual reason, which I'm sure is the same in both traditions, is that the sun is recognised as a divine source of light, warmth and healing.There's archaeological evidence that some larger British roundhouses were used for ceremonial purposes during the Iron Age, as ours in Shropshire is and as the Me-Wuk ones are.
One difference between the two traditions, obvious from the photos here, is the pitch of the roof. Having a straw-thatched roof on a roundhouse means you have to apply a fairly thin thatch so that smoke from the central fire will filter out through it. A thin thatch means you have to rake up the angle of the roof so that rain will run off it quickly and not have time to soak through. A bark or wooden shingle roof with a central smoke-hole allows for a much lower pitch that will still shed rain off successfully.
There's an idea that leaving a smoke-hole in the roof of a British-style roundhouse will create a funnel that will draw up sparks and set fire to the thatch. Having lived with a roundhouse for six years now and lit many fires in it, I'm not convinced of this. I think that if the smoke-hole is created by pulling out a ring of thatch towards the top of the cone, you'll have a way for smoke to get out but will still have enough inside the upper part of the roof that any sparks going up above the rafters will be extinguished from lack of oxygen. I'm going to try it with ours in Shropshire (above right).
Will I end up teaching Iron Age roundhouse building techniques in the USA? It's a thought. After all, there's a lot of interest in Celtic heritage in the USA. You only have to look at the string of American presidents since at least John Kennedy who have traced their roots to villages in Ireland or, occasionally, Scotland. Many European-Americans do have Celtic ancestors and value those ancestral links. Helping to build, or being able to visit, the kind of houses their ancestors lived in would be another powerful way to honour and enhance those ancestral connections.
(To expand any of the pictures, just click on them)
As my sons and I were walking up the hill out of our Wiltshire village, heading for the bus stop where my journey was to begin, a mother fallow deer and two young fawns emerged from the hedgerow and crossed the road a few yards ahead of us. I took this as a very propitious sign.
The ostensible purpose behind my trip was three-fold; to visit old friends in Seattle, to offer teaching in Druidry, and last but by no means least to spend time at La Push, home of the Quileute people out on the Pacific coast of the Olympic Peninsula. The Quileute connection began ten years ago, when my sons and I were made members of the drum circle at La Push following an extraordinary series of 'cosmic coincidences', not least of which involved one of the tribal elders having a vision of my coming five days before we arrived. All three purposes were achieved, but another soon became apparent: a dear friend had been diagnosed with cancer and was going into hospital for exploratory surgery shortly after our workshop weekend at La Push. An important part of my Seattle home from home is the Travelers Thali House Indian restaurant on Beacon Hill, run by my friends, Leon and Allen. Allen is an artist and an amazing cook who has spent time travelling around India gathering recipes, so the food at the Thali House is about the most authentic Indian dining you'll find outside of India. Allen's own art (that's his Goddess Yantra below left) and many beautiful Indian artefacts adorn the restaurant, adding to its relaxed, peaceful atmosphere. However, I only had a couple of days in Seattle before heading to LaPush for the first of the trip's workshops.
As we approached LaPush, we passed two black-tailed deer (below) grazing at the side of the road. Another propitious sign and another link between my Wiltshire home and the Olympic Peninsula.
Our workshops being so far from the city and stretching over three days, we didn't bring a huge crowd with us, but one was provided for us by a surfing contest taking place over the same weekend all along the beach in front of the lodge building my friends had hired for us. This mostly ruled out moving any of our sessions onto the beach, though we did drum on the last evening as a brilliant moon created a path of light out across the Pacific to the far horizon. The talks and workshops went well, particularly a drum journey to find one's personal place of healing. My friend with cancer, who'd been feeling understandably rough for quite a while, was particularly blissed out by the journey, which was good. I also shared a system of healing I'd found in a medieval Irish manuscript. After the weekend, I stayed on at La Push in one of the little A-frame cabins, sharing it with a friend who was to drive us back to the city after the Wednesday evening potluck feast and drum circle at the Community Hall in the village. I'd brought along a new drum I made earlier this year, a big thunder-drum with an Ash hoop and Red Deer skin (left). Previously, I've used a Remo Buffalo Drum with an artificial skin, bought on my previous trip to Seattle and first played in ritual with the Quileute Drum Circle.
On Monday afternoon we walked along the beach and watched seals fishing close inshore. To my delight, they were joined by a small flock of my favourite Druid birds, cormorants. The beach ends in a narrow spit that juts out to the base of tall island stacks that lie just offshore. One of these is called A'ka'lat in the Quileute language, meaning 'top of the rock.' 8-9,000 years of tribal chiefs were lain to rest there in cedar canoes placed in the branches of the trees that cover the top of the island. A'ka'lat (below) is a powerful spiritual focus of Quileute life.
On Tuesday, my friend wanted to find a beach she'd last visited more than 30 years ago. She recalled it being called Third Beach but decided that it wasn't the Third Beach just along from La Push but another, further North on the Makah reservation. So we set out in her car in search of a memory. We called in at the Makah Tribal Museum, a wonderful place, containing a full-scale replica of a Makah longhouse, based on those excavated at Lake Ozette in the 1970s. These had been remarkably well preserved due to the village having been swamped by a mudslide some 5 or 600 years ago. The picture (left) shows Richard Daugherty, who led the excavations and changed American archaeology forever by working on the site mainly with local Makah folk. He died earlier this year aged 91. The carved and decorated whale-fin in the picture is one of many objects from the excavations housed in the museum which is large, well laid out, and covers all aspects of tribal life, weaving, fishing, woodworking, decorative arts, myths and legends and much more. In common with other peoples of the Olympic Peninsula, the Makah hold the Orca (left) sacred and have legends of a Thunderbird who brings storms and of Raven as trickster and culture hero. They call the Orca the Sea-Wolf. The first exhibit I came across, however, was devoted to the eagle and its role in tribal culture. This was interesting as I'd spent much of the drive thinking about eagles, a spirit bird with whom I've worked a lot in the UK.
We drove on to the end of a trail that leads out to a clifftop perch that is the furthest Northwest tip of the United States, at least before you get to Alaska. The cliffs there have great caverns that pierce right through them. Just before we arrived, folk had been watching an Orca circling through these sea-caves. We drummed and sang, much to the delight of an 11 year old girl who sang along, and of her grandfather, who turned out to be a retired professor of environmental science and a really nice guy. No memory beach though. On Wednesday morning, we decided to try the Third Beach that's near La Push. It turned out to be the one. My friend remembered the trees as being huge. However, a sizeable part of the tribe's income is derived from logging, so most of the big trees had been felled and the area replanted since her previous visit. There were, however, some big stumps left, some still several feet tall. We followed the long path down to the beach.
During the walk, I felt a sense of sadness from the earth for what had been lost through the long years when the government had banned the Quileute from speaking their own language or conducting their sacred ceremonies. This, however, was overlaid with a sense of returning power and growing strength. I felt that this stems from the tribe's renewal of traditional ceremonies through the Drum Circle, and through other renewed traditions, like that of holding an annual canoe journey along the coast in company with other coastal tribes. This was revived in 1997 and has grown larger each year since. Long ago, K'wati, the Transformer, changed wolves into humans to create the first members of the Quileute tribe. He told them their descendants would always be brave and strong because they were descended from wolves. He was right. In the late 19th century, the government told the Quileute to move to a reservation on the land of their Quinault neighbours. They refused and stayed in their own village. They're still there. Some years later, a white settler burnt down most of their houses while the villagers were away working. They rebuilt. The photograph (left) dates from around 1900 and shows members of the tribe on the beach at LaPush dealing with a fish catch. In the early 20th century, the tribe were denied their fishing rights, removing both an important source of income and a primary source of food. In the worst of times, Quileute numbers fell to below 50. Now, there are around 750 Quileute, they have regained their fishing rights, built a tribal school in which their language is being taught, have seen tourist numbers and the resulting revenue increase tenfold in the last ten years and have been given back an area of their original tribal land on which to rebuild their public buildings inland, away from the coastal tsunami zone.
My friend, Leon Reed, Seattle's longest-serving Wiccan Elder and Druid priest, had suggested I bring with me to La Push a wolf-skin he'd been given many years ago. It's a single hide of what must have been a huge grey wolf. It's now moulting, though the leather is still in very good shape. Since we'd been on the coast, I'd envisioned myself drumming whilst wearing this wolfskin, but it had never felt right to do so on First Beach at La Push. Third Beach turned out to be the place of my vision, so I fastened the hide across my shoulders, picked up my drum and walked to the shoreline where waves were breaking across the sand.
It had been misty, cool and damp for the previous couple of days so my drum had absorbed moisture and not been at its best. A minute of holding it up to the bright sun and blue skies that greeted us on Third Beach was enough to bring back its voice and it sang for me. As the drum sang, so I began to sing with it, wordless sounds that expressed and evoked a powerful, joyous energy rising up in me. There was something so right about being there and doing what I was doing.
Eventually, realising that time was passing, I drummed and sang a farewell song to the spirits of the place. Again, it consisted of whatever sounds or words came to me and whatever rhythm seemed right. This is often the way. Songs come for whatever your intention is, stay long enough to do what they are needed to do and then float away on the wind, perhaps never to be heard again in this world, or maybe to come back as and when they're needed. That time on Third Beach was beautiful, soul-nourishing and filled with power and magic. It will long stay with me.
Back to the cabin for a quick change and a short rest before making our way to the Community Hall for the evening's feast and Drum Circle. The Hall was not where I remembered from last time, but we encountered a couple who showed us they way. We came in through what turned out to be the back door and were among the first to arrive. Preparations for the feast were, however, well under way. We added the flagon of fruit juice and the big water melon we'd brought with us to the stock in the kitchen. One of the elders spotted my 10-year-old Drum Circle T-shirt, smiled and said, “Ain't seen one of them for a while.”
The feast was laid out on trestle tables near the kitchen and consisted of two big trays full of fresh cooked salmon, a big cauldron of beef stew, a range of vegetables and bread. There was plenty to go around. Soon two lines of trestle tables filled up with villagers and visitors sharing this rich feast. We sat opposite a mother whose 12-year-old daughter was a huge Twilight fan.
In case you've missed the Twilight phenomenon, it began as a series of books written by Stephanie Meyer and burgeoned into a series of incredibly successful films. Apparently Meyer wanted to set a vampire novel in the wettest part of the United States and a google search revealed that to be the town of Forks, located on the Olympic Peninsula not far from the Quileute reservation. She noticed the presence of the village of La Push and then found the Quileute sacred legend of their descent from shape-shifting wolves. She therefore decided to portray the young males of La Push as werewolves. As far as I can discover, she has offered the Quileute nothing from the millions she's earned from this bastardisation of their sacred history and nor has the film company. The Burke Museum in Seattle hosts an excellent site that looks at the reality of Quileute life as compared to their Twilight portrayal. The tribe has seen some benefits as Twilight-related tourism has swollen tribal coffers and created some new jobs. Native American actors from the films have lent the weight of celebrity to local causes. Twilight's huge popularity amongst children has helped pressure politicians into acceding to the tribe's request for the return of some of their land. This road sign greets visitors.
At my first visit to the Drum Circle, there had been a Potlatch ceremony after the feast in which gifts were exchanged between members of the tribe and given to visitors. It was during this that I'd sung my wolf chant, leading to myself and my sons, Joe and Mike, being made members of the Drum Circle. Incidentally, at the time when I sang the wolf chant, I had not known that the Quileute are descended from shape-shifting wolves. Cosmic coincidence...
Ten years later, much had changed. There was no Potlatch giving ceremony apart from three youngsters who had birthdays who sat on chairs in the middle of the dance circle and were given small gifts, mostly dollars. The dance circle now is painted on the floor of the Hall, marked with the four directions. Chairs were placed in a circle around it, where before they'd just been pushed back against the walls.
Before the dances began, three men of the Drum Circle led songs in rich, vibrant baritone voices that filled the hall with powerful waves of sound. The format was for one of the three to begin, then for others who knew the song to join in. The Drum Circle then gathered in a corner of the Hall next to the gap between chairs that formed the entrance to the dance floor. The drummers were mostly younger than I remembered. I joined them, as did a handful of other non-Native folk. The only comment to me from a member of the Circle was “Big drum.” Being a drummer, you naturally take a keen interest in everyone else's drums. These were a varied group, some clearly hand-made, several small Remo drums whose artificial hides are not prone to changes of tone in the same way that natural hides are, a real bonus in a climate as wet and cool as that of the Northwest Pacific coast. Some were painted, others not. Of the painted ones, the ones that registered most strongly with me was painted with an image of T'ist'ilal, the Thunderbird (left).
Then we started. Again, the format was for one of the three lead singers to start a song and for others to join in after the first round. Drumming was carried out the same way, the lead singer starting to drum, the rest of us joining in after a few beats and following his rhythm. I had my back to the dance circle, focused on following the lead drummer. The rhythms were powerful, strong, the varied voices of the drums blending well together. A shortish, thin guy in the corner was one of the three lead singers and had a big Remo drum. It was he who'd commented on mine. He smiled a lot, laughed a fair bit, had a great singing voice and did a good deal of the leading of both songs and drumming for the first part of the evening.
The songs were very different this time. Gone were the cowboy songs that had formed part of the repertoire a decade earlier, replaced with a more structured programme of local, traditional songs. The dances too were more formal. After the first few songs and dances, dancers wearing traditional masks appeared among us. Some masks were of wood, others of thick card, each painted with a character from Quileute sacred history, powerful spirit beings such as Thunderbird (T'ist'ilal), Wolf (K'wali) and Orca (K'wal'la, literally 'Wolf of the Ocean'). Photography is not allowed during the ceremony. The picture here, taken around 1905, shows two Quileute men with carved wooden dance masks.
There were, if memory serves, six masked dancers, the youngest of whom seemed about nine years old, the oldest perhaps early twenties. The young boy showed a focus I've rarely seen in one so young. They took the lead in the next group of dances while we drummed and sang for them. The power in the hall and amongst the drummers and dancers seemed to ramp up several notches.
When the masked dancers arrived, the grey-haired man who had earlier commented on my T-shirt came and drummed beside me. He wore a traditional hat of woven cedar-bark and a red blanket around his shoulders. The dancers wore similar colourful blankets which flew out around them as they danced. The next image shows Quileute mask-maker, Roger Jackson, with some of the dance masks he's made. Another of the three main singers took the lead for the masked dances, a big guy with a lined face, dressed in blue. He handed over his drum and used a fan of dark feathers to beat out time. When a dance was coming to an end, he inverted the feathers and beat downwards with them until the stop. These stops came suddenly and I admit to missing a couple of them and throwing in an extra beat after everybody else. I'm reminded of a piece of liturgy I've found in several places, from ancient Greece to modern America. Basically, it asks the gods and ancestors to forgive us for our mistakes in sacred ceremonies. Mostly though, I stopped along with the rest. The use of the feathers really helped a novice like me, unfamiliar with the songs, giving a clear visual focus.
Our role was not only to drum and sing for the dances themselves, but also to drum fresh energy into the masked dancers between them. When each dance came to an end, they would file out from the dance circle and hunker down on the floor in the middle of our little group of drummers. We would then abandon rhythm, close in around them, and just drum powerfully and fast to raise power for the dancers. This was also amazingly powerful for us, renewing our own energy to drum and sing for the next dance. I was being terribly English and taking a respectful step back each time the dancers rejoined us until one of the dancers waved me back in to the knot of drummers. From them on I made sure I leaned in close with the others. As said, photography is not allowed during these ceremonies. The wolf-masked dancers here were photographed in 2011 at a public event, the Northwest Native Community Celebration.After the masked dances, there were a few more songs and less formal dances. The evening ended with a light-hearted exchange between the male drummers and singers and a party of female dancers. This took the form of a mock singing contest in which the women would sing a verse while the men pretended to be straining to hear them and made comments to each other like, “Do you hear something? Nope, me neither.” Then the men would sing a verse, sometimes wandering over to the group of women and making a cheeky comment, to which the women would respond either with a similarly cheeky comment or by bopping the miscreant on the head with a plastic water-bottle or whatever else came to hand. It was very funny. Afterwards, we all drifted out into the night.
I feel honoured to have had this opportunity to be a part of such a powerful ceremony. The Quileute are the People of the Wolf and, as such, I think of them as brothers and sisters. On Saturday we made a sun-blessed ceremony with the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Pugetia (aka Bards of Turtle Island) in a Seattle Park. On Sunday I conducted a workshop on the '12 Doorways of the Soul' healing technique that features in the British Druid Order ovate course. This took place at the Seattle healing practice of my friend, Amy, who I'd shared the technique with earlier in the week. It was a very successful session and I've accredited Amy as a practitioner of the technique. She's since used it with clients with great success. Amy, a Reiki practitioner for many years, was kind enough to pass on comments from a regular client who told her that the 12 Doorways technique seemed much more potent than Reiki.
On Monday, we visited a lovely house in a part of the city I'd not been to before. There I introduced BDO-style Druidry to a group of about 20 people. On of them, Gail, has family ties with both the Quileute and Makah tribes. She and her husband, Ted, live on the Makah Reservation. Her nine-year-old grandson was one of the masked dancers I'd drummed for at LaPush. She confirmed that the Quileute recognise my connection with them and said she'd been told to tell me that I have Wolf on one side and the Wolf of the Ocean, the Orca, on the other. She presented me with a woven pouch decorated with beads and shells that she and her husband had made. I placed in it a beautiful crystal-hung calendar necklace Leon made me. Another friend, Willow, made and gave me a coyote-tooth and mammoth ivory necklace at the Gorsedd. I'm wearing it now as I write. That's it in the picture. Not the best photo ever ... I'm rubbish at 'selfies.'
Incidentally, in case anyone's wondering, I am not a Wannabee Indian. I'm an English Druid, have been for forty years and will continue to be so 'til my last breath. I do, however, greatly enjoy sharing ceremonies with folk of other cultures, whether that be joining ceremonies in LaPush or welcoming Lakota or Australian Aboriginal visitors to Druid ceremonies at stone circles in the UK. I am always delighted to find how much we have in common. Through honouring and learning to work with our own ancestors and the spirits of our own land, we open our hearts, minds and spirits to others who do the same in other lands. Spirit workers from many traditions I've communicated with over the years agree that if humanity is to be steered away from its current path of destruction, it will be the spirit workers of the world who bring it about. Shifting consciousness is, after all, a basis of our art and a shift in conscousness is what's required to open humanity to a better path. This won't be easy, but by sharing ceremonies, knowledge and understanding, we strengthen and support each other in the difficult task that faces us.
My friend with cancer has had some good news. Following chemotherapy and good vibes flowing in from around the world (he's very well liked), the tumour has shrunk and medics are discussing whether they need it to shrink further or whether they can operate to remove it without another course of chemo.
This latest trip to the Pacific Northwest was a remarkable one, as each previous one has been. There is undoubtedly a powerful link between my sons and myself and the land and people of this distant region, the two-legged, the four-legged, the feathered and the finned. It's a great mystery how I allowed ten years to pass between visits and I shall strongly endeavour not to let so much time elapse before the next.
With profound thanks, much love and many blessings to all my friends and extended family in the US,
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth. So they show their relations to me and I accept them, They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession. Walt Whitman (1819-1892), from 'Song of Myself.'
You may have noticed that I have a bit of a thing about animals. As a child, I had an instinctive understanding that they were a special breed of people. I suspect this is an extremely common human experience. After all, traditional stories told to children around the world are full of talking animals, animal helpers, teachers and guides, and animal transformations.
One of my earliest connections with a non-human species was with herons. As a misfit amongst family and contemporaries, I was naturally drawn to these solitary birds. I saw them standing perfectly still at the edge of the ditches that criss-crossed Romney Marsh, on the borders of which I lived. They would hold this pose for hours at a time, just occasionally shifting from one leg to the other, waiting for fish or, more likely on the Marsh, eels, to swim past and provide them with food. There was a calm simplicity, an unpretentious dignity, about them. Their muted colours, pale grey with flashes of white and black, added to the sense they exuded of being “so placid and self-contain'd.” My first recollection of anything resembling meditation, before I even knew there was such a thing, consisted of trying to put myself into a similar state of calm, to render myself unruffled and untroubled like the heron. I did indeed “stand and look at them long and long.”
In my book, Druidry: A Practical and Inspirational Guide (Piatkus, 2000), I wrote of an experience at a Druid camp of swapping consciousnesses with an eagle and soaring high above the world on powerful wings. I've also written of the sweat lodge in which I first encountered the spirit wolf who was to become such a central part of my life and from whom I draw the craft name, Greywolf. He and I have also traded spirits so that I perceive the world through his eyes and he through mine. In other circumstances, when called for, I have become a serpent or a dolphin.
These experiences of becoming other-than-human are well described in Whitman's poem, famously quoted by Lord Summerisle as played by Christopher Lee in the film, The Wicker Man.
I share Whitman's sense of animals having a different, much clearer, less encumbered engagement with life than we humans with our tangled webs of guilts and fears. They perceive clearly what needs to be done and go about doing it in the most efficient way possible. We, on the other hand, often fail to act, held back by worry about possible consequences. While in many cases this is clearly a good thing, we often take it to extremes where we are paralysed from taking any action at all, even when circumstances demand it. The results of inaction then often add to our worry and frustration, erode away our sense of self-worth, and can lead to severe psychological imbalance. Becoming animal breaks us free of this destructive cycle by allowing us a clearer perspective, enabling us to see what is really important and to discard the rest. This has been proven to me time and again. Things that have angered and frustrated me as a human and which I have felt unable or unwilling to address have often melted into insignificance when I have become wolf or eagle. Either that or, in animal form, the right and only course of action to pursue has become crystal clear and my animal self has had the strength and courage to follow it through.
In shape-shifting, the physical perspective alters, so that as an eagle you see fields and houses way below and have a clear, unbroken view to the far horizon, while as a wolf, your visual perspective is much nearer the ground while your sense of smell and hearing are hugely enhanced. However, it is not just the physical perspective that shifts. Inhabiting the body of an animal, seeing through its eyes, experiencing the world through its other senses, also changes how we feel about the world and our place in it. As Whitman says, animals “do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.” For us as humans, this psychological shift is profound, freeing us from doubt, fear and all the other stifling emotions that prevent us from achieving clarity and acting decisively on it. The importance of this gift cannot be over-stressed.
In my experience, we all have spirit animals who protect and guide us. At least, I've only ever encountered one person who didn't. He was a long-term drug addict whose physical and mental state had deteriorated to such an extent that no spirit animal had felt able to remain with him.
It is my belief that we do not choose which spirit animals we have, but that they choose us, drawn to us by who we are, how we think and what we do. When these things change, one set of spirit animals may leave us and another take their place. With me the major transition was from solitary heron as a child to pack animal wolf as an adult.
How we discover our spirit animal guardians, guides and helpers varies from person to person and place to place. They may be encountered in vivid dreams or spontaneous or deliberately sought for visions, or may emerge simply through a deep fascination with one particular species.
Having discovered one's 'power animal', what happens next? In my case, the discovery of 'my' wolf was quickly followed by the acquisition of a wolf-skin cloak, wolf stories and images, a wolf tooth and a wolf chant. The chant as originally given to me in the 1990s originated with the Seneca people of North America. However, it immediately transformed into a native British wolf chant very different from the Seneca original. I posted it on youtube a while ago.
Deer are prey animals to wolves and, as such, have an important place in the wolf's world. Visiting a deer park one day about ten years ago, an albino fallow deer shed one of its antlers next to our car. I accepted this rare and precious gift, gathered it and took it home. Washing it off in the shower later, the deer's spirit gave me a song that I recently posted on youtube. I still have the antler...
Having studied other cultures and shared ceremonies with indigenous peoples including the Quileute ('Wolf People') and Makah tribes of the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest U.S.A., I know that such animal spirit songs and chants are common around the world. In Britain and Northern Europe, they have been largely lost to the erosion of history and in particular to the onset of Christianity. Early Christian edicts specifically outlaw dressing up as, and acting like, animals. In spite of this, animal-like costumes are still worn as part of folk festivals across much of Europe. Charles Fréger has photographed several such costumes in a series called Wilder Mann.
While some of these folk figures may have traditional songs that accompany their appearance, as does the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss in Cornwall, they have no doubt changed considerably over the years under the influence of a hostile church.
Having been given the two chants featured here, it struck me as a good idea to try and restore a set of spirit animal power songs to our native tradition. The wolf and deer chants represent a beginning and other chants will be added as they come. I've worked with eagle quite a lot, so have high hopes there. My son, Joe, has strong bear magic, so I hope we can come up with a good bear chant. I already have a serpent chant, though not yet recorded. The plan is to establish a collection of songs and chants relating to some of our most prominent native (or formerly native) species and to put them out on CD. In the meantime, I'll post them on youtube and facebook as and when they emerge and I have time to record them. I'd appreciate your help. If you work with an animal spirit and have a song or chant that you use to help maintain your link with that animal, please record it (however roughly), post it (letting me know where), and we'll polish it up, re-record it if necessary, and add it to the collection. When the CD comes out you will, of course, be fully credited. Having no idea how much interest in this project there might be, I'm unable to make any estimate as to what, if any, royalties might flow from it. To be honest, that's not my concern. The intention is simply to restore or re-create another, potentially very powerful, aspect of our native spiritual tradition and to share it with those who might find it useful in making, enhancing and maintaining their own relationships with the spirit animals who have so much to teach us and share with us.
I wanted to make drums with Red Deer hide. I have an affinity with these animals from a variety of angles. For one thing, over the last year or two I've developed a deeper knowledge and respect for one of our native deities, Gwydion ap Don. For a variety of reasons, I've come to recognise him as our local representative of the widespread antlered Lord of the Animals. Also, in 2008, when we started clearing the land on which our roundhouse was to be built, I immediately stubbed my toe on a deer skull hidden in the tangled undergrowth. The skull is now buried in the NE corner of the roundhouse. Above it (left) looms a massive pair of antlers belonging to a great old Red Deer stag called Rufus, who lived in the same valley. A powerful, shape-shifting deer spirit is the protector of the roundhouse, while another potent antlered spirit cares for the whole valley. I have communicated regularly with both for the last seven years. Plus there are few finer natural sights in Britain than a Red Deer stag walking through a forest. And then, of course, there's the fact that I'm a wolf, and wolves certainly do like the strong, gamy taste of venison.
My initial problem was to find deer skins. I read online that the skins and other unwanted parts of many deer farmed for venison are simply thrown away, either burnt or buried, because they are viewed as having no economic value. I asked on facebook if anyone knew of where I could obtain some of these skins. I got a response from Peter Tyldesley, who manages the deer herds at Bradgate Park, Britain's longest continuously operated deer park, dating back to the 14th century. He does make use of hides, antlers, etc., to the greatest extent possible. However, none of his hides had been used for drum-making. Peter gave me a good deal on five hides and they duly arrived. Four of them fitted into my freezer. The fifth didn't. One slightly panicked phone call later, I had arranged to travel to Wild Ways, the woodland retreat centre run by my friends, Elaine and Garth. They had all the space and equipment I would need to treat the hide.
Never having treated a hide before, I resorted to the modern Druidical trick of appealing to the Internet. There I found a number of sites, some decidedly more useful than others. I discovered that a natural substance that can be used to de-fur a hide is wood ash. It so happens that almost all the heating at Wild Ways is provided by wood-burning stoves. Garth kindly sieved a quantity of ash for me to get out most of the charcoal and other impurities.
The hides as Peter sent them had been well cleaned and salted. The first thing to do was to remove the salt. This was achieved with the aid of the brook that runs through Wild Ways, a tributary of the nearby River Severn, sacred to the native goddess, Sabrina. I tied the hide by its tail to an underwater root, weighted down the hide with stones and left it for a couple of days (left).
In the meantime, I built a frame on which to stretch the hide and tried to find out how much wood ash to use. Eventually, one website gave me the necessary key: you mix wood ash with one gallon of water until a fresh hen's egg floats upright in it with a disc about an inch across showing. Brilliant!
Then it was time for a body-painting weekend, but that's another blog.
Elaine loaned me a plastic dustbin, which I took down to the brook to carry the hide in. I washed the river mud off the hide as best as I could, wrung it out and put it in the bin. A thoroughly soaked hide from an adult Red Deer weighs quite a lot. Elaine helped me carry the bin across the field and lift it over the gate, where we had a wheelbarrow waiting for the rest of the journey through the woods.
The hide was then washed with spray from a hose, then again in clean rain water in the bin. Then I made up the wood ash solution in a bucket, added it to a further four gallons in the bin, stirred it around thoroughly with a stick, then lowered in the hide. NB. As I found when I searched the web, there are many approaches to curing hides for drum-making. I chose the techniques that felt right to me and it's those I outline here. For another, equally valid, approach, see my old friend Corwen's comment below...
The natural tendency of a hide with fur on is to float, so it's necessary to weight it down with a flat rock. This then has to be left for a few days, during which time you take out the rock and stir the mixture with the hide around. The wood ash solution is alkaline. The effect it has is to cause the cellular structure of the hide to expand, loosening the follicles that hold in the fur. Test the fur every now and then. You'll know it's ready when you can run your hand across the hide and the fur just falls off. When this happens, pull out the hide and fully de-fur it. Because hides de-fur unevenly, you will probably need to scrape some of the fur off. A not-too-sharp knife works well for this. Put the hide on a flat surface, hold the knife so that the blade is at a little bit of an angle (as shown in the picture) and pull it towards you in even strokes, being careful not to apply so much pressure that you go through the skin.
Then you need to flip it over and work on the flesh side (some recommend scraping the flesh side first). This needs to be scraped to remove any remaining bits of flesh and also to take off the layer of membrane covering this side of the hide. The wood ash solution should make this much easier. The worry is in knowing how far to go. Obviously you don't want to go so far that you weaken the skin. The key seems to be to take it down until the flesh side shows clear white. I don't think I'd left this first hide in the wood ash long enough because the flesh side proved something of a challenge. Back it went into the solution and back home I went for a few days while Elaine and Garth went to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. After which, they gave me a lift back to Wild Ways.
More hide scraping on the flesh side, following which the hide was washed before going into another solution, this time of a handful of baking soda to four gallons of rain water. The idea of the baking soda is that it neutralises the Ph level of the hide after its long alkaline bath. After an overnight soak in the baking soda (right) and some more flesh scraping, the hide was washed again before being placed in four gallons of rainwater to which about a 1/3rd of a pint of clear vinegar had been added and left for about eight hours, stirring occasionally. This has the effect of raising the acidity level of the hide back to something like it was when you started. It also, usefully, takes away some of the strong smell the hide develops while soaking in the wood ash solution.
Then comes the fun bit, sewing the hide to your beautifully constructed frame. Woohoo! If, like me, you're lucky anough to have a friend with acres of woodland, you can do what I did and find strong saplings to construct your frame. The small cross-pieces on the corners provide extra strength and help stop the frame twisting out of shape too much as the skin dries and applies more tension to the frame. The corners of the frame shown here are lashed with strips of ash bark, which is remarkably strong. While this looks really neat, I admit that most of what's holding the frame together is the screws I put in before the lashing was done. Some modern innovations are extremely useful. If you don't have access to woodland, 8' lengths of 3" x 3" from your local timber yard will do equally well, and that's what I've used for making my second frame at home. You can use pretty much any kind of string or twine to attach the hide to the frame. I used sisal twine because there happened to be a lot of it going spare. A very useful tip I picked up from the Internet is to sew on your hide in four sections, the head end and tail end and both sides. By using separate lengths of cord for each of these you make it much easier to tighten or slacken them off as needed.
The frame I made at Wild Ways was about 8 feet high and 4.5 feet across. This looked huge, but proved to be only just big enough. It's called a stretching frame for a reason. The hide will stretch a lot. I'd seen an online video of a guy stitching a hide onto a frame, so I followed his lead, which was to use a small, pointed knife to pierce holes through the hide about a ¼ inch in from the edge of the hide. I was sure the wet skin would tear when I pulled the string tight. I was wrong. This stuff is really strong. Put your holes about five or six inches apart or wherever there's a point of skin sticking out.
I started with the tail end. Having the tail still attached meant that I could tie it to the centre of the frame's bottom with a separate piece of string and use it as my fixed point. I then flipped the frame up the other way and started at the former bottom, now top, right corner of the frame and threaded the twine through each of the already-made holes, looping around the frame as I went. I did the head end next as the already tied tail end gave me something the pull against. Same process. Make your holes first all the way across from one front leg to the other, then stitch and loop. Then I flipped the frame back the other way and did the same for the two sides.
At this point, check the tension on the strings. This is done simply by twanging them with a finger. If they are floppy, they need tightening. If you get a good, resonant twang, they're fine. To tighten, work from one end of your side, top or bottom cord, pulling the cord through each threaded hole in turn as you go. At the far end of each run, undo the cord where you tied it in place, take up all the slack you've just created and tie it again. Do this all round until you're happy that you've got all the strings as tight as you can. Don't be afraid to tug quite hard. This is very tough stuff.
Then leave it for two or three days to dry, checking the cords every once in a while to make sure they're still tight. You'll probably find they're tighter. After only about a day, my hide was so tight that it was already starting to sound quite drum-like. This is a good sign.
While all this was going on, I'd been finishing off two drum hoops I'd made at Wild Ways some time before. These were looking really good. The timber they are made from is Ash, a beautiful, pale wood. As is my habit, I'd rubbed linseed oil into them. This acts as a preservative, brings out a really nice golden glow in the wood and makes the grain stand out clearly. One of the last parts of my hoop-making process is to drill five small holes and thread rawhide through them in the form of a pentagram. This helps hold the already glued ends of the hoop together and is also my 'signature' (right).
With the hide drying nicely on the stretcher frame, I held the two drum hoops up against them and realised that, with care, I might get two drum skins out of this one hide. Woohoo!
The smaller of the two Ash hoops is kind of egg-shaped and kind of pentagram-shaped. It seems to want to manifest a vision of mine to create a little British sister to The World Drum, a Britannia Drum. The larger of the two fitted beautifully across some strange markings in the hide. It seems to want to be mine. I shall continue listening to what the hide and the hoops want of me during the rest of the making. The next stage is to cut the hide to size and fit it to the hoops. I'm very excited! See you next time at Greywolf's Lair for Part Three: Making the Drums...
In our increasingly materialistic world, an ethical question that plagues many of us who try to live as persons of spirit is that of whether, and how much, to charge for our services. A vocal section of the Druid and Pagan communities in Britain maintains that it is always wrong, verging on evil, to charge a fee for anything connected with spirituality. A cynic might argue that some who express this opinion do so because they expect to be given everything in life and to offer nothing in return. However, the same argument rages amongst Druids themselves, as it does amongst other indigenous healers, medicine people and shamans around the world.
The problem is that we live in a capitalist, consumerist culture, where, like everyone else, we have to pay rent or a mortgage, electricity, gas, water and telephone bills, feed ourselves and our families, buy fuel for our stoves, clothes to wear and so on and on and endlessly on. To do so, even the most spiritual of us need money, because, for better or worse, money has come to be the accepted means of exchange for virtually every material thing we need to keep us fed, housed and clothed. Therefore we need a way to make money in order to live.
Many spirit workers subsidise their spirituality by having other jobs that they do to earn their keep. I've done this myself, subsidising the growth of the BDO throughout the 1990s out of my earnings from painting pottery and then from writing, giving talks and workshops and appearing on TV, often with Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr). Bobcat and I debated the financial question and reached various conclusions, one of which was not to charge a fee for 'priestly' services such as conducting handfastings (Druid weddings) or other rites of passage, but to ask for a donation of whatever the folk we were working with thought appropriate. This led to us preparing and conducting rites in various parts of the country for anything from a bag of apples to a cheque for £600. It balanced out. This is a technique used by spirit workers in many cultures.
Many of my 'shamanic' friends say that, if you have faith, spirit will provide. Again, this is a widespread belief amongst spirit workers worldwide. At the same time, we're all canny enough to recognise that just sitting around waiting for riches to pour out of the sky isn't going to work. We need to be active participants in the process, from deciding on the forms ceremonies are to take to making travel arrangements and booking venues.
In the British Druid Order, we charge for the distance learning courses we offer. We could give them away, but we don't. Why? Well, I've spent an average of about 40 hours a week working on them over the last seven years and still have at least another eighteen months to go. For six of those years I received nothing at all for this work. Even at the national minimum wage of £6.32 an hour, I could have expected to earn over £75,000 or £12,500 a year. I did it without payment because it seemed like the right thing to do and it was also a good thing to do, in part because of what I learned from it and gained in terms of personal growth. Oh, and because I doubt that the BDO has generated £75,000 in its entire 35-year existence.
Following my wife's death in 2000, I received financial support that enabled me to put in all these hours on the courses whilst bringing up our two sons. Only when that support ended did I, out of necessity, begin to draw any payment from the BDO. Given that the BDO courses are relatively new (our first went online in June 2011) and unknown (we only began to advertise beyond our own websites when our second course went online in 2012), the BDO does not produce much revenue and the amount I draw from it comes nowhere near covering my family's living costs. As I write, myself and two of my sons are living on my savings. I keep working on these courses, however, because I believe in them, and part of that belief is that they will one day generate a living wage sufficient to keep me through my rapidly approaching old age.
My BDO colleagues and I spent about a year and a half deciding how much to charge for our courses. Should we charge a token amount just to cover admin? Should we charge the same as OBOD? No, because our digital delivery doesn't entail anything like the overheads and secretarial costs that OBOD has. But pitch our cost too far below OBOD's and we risk upsetting people who might think we were deliberately trying to undercut them. In the end, we settled on a compromise figure that more-or-less satisfied everyone, and we do consider requests for reduced fees in cases of genuine financial hardship.
How much to charge for individual events is also a cause of much debate within the BDO. My parents never had much money, I was raised to be frugal and, in my hippy youth, lived for some time on nothing but the kindness of strangers. The result was the malnutrition that contributed to my mental breakdown at the age of 18, but that's another story 😉 As I've tried to make clear, my motives for being a Druid are not financial. I'm reminded of Robin Williamson's joke, “Did you hear about the Irishman who became a folk musician for the money?” Druidry is not a cash cow. However, if they're well-planned and conceived, Druid events can make a bit, or at least break even. When Elaine Gregory and I, ably assisted by many wonderful friends and colleagues, hosted The World Drum in April 2013, we took it to ceremonies all around the West and South-West of Britain for six weeks, culminating in a wonderful weekend at Wild Ways in Shropshire. Most of the ceremonies were free. Two events were charged for. At the end of the time the Drum was with us, we managed to break even and were delighted to do so.
Part of the reason we were able to charge so little for the World Drum 2013 events is that many of our teachers and musicians gave their services for nothing, including World Drum founders, Kyrre Franck White Cougar and Morten Wolf Storeide, and their friends, Lena Paalviig Johnsen and Will Rubach, who travelled over from Norway at their own expense to bring us the amazing Chaga ceremony and to be with us in other ceremonies with the Drum.
In May this year, White, Morten and Lena are coming back, accompanied by Bobby Kure and Anita Dreyer, members of the shamanic band, Baalfolket. This time we hope to make a few quid. We obviously need to in order to cover the hire of two venues, travel expenses and other basic costs, but we also want to be able to pay the guys something for coming over to the UK for 12 days. Like us, they have to have money to live. I even hope to make a few quid myself to compensate for the many hours work involved in putting these events together, producing leaflets, visiting venues, generating advertising. And why not? If I were doing these things in any other sphere of activity, no one would bat an eyelid at my being paid a reasonable sum for my time and expertise.
Why then do I still feel vaguely guilty about it? Partly, it's a hangover from my impoverished youth, partly it's because I view the whole capitalist enterprise as deeply and irrevocably flawed. It rewards the basest of human motives, relying on the vast majority of the world's population having next to nothing so that a tiny, obscenely wealthy minority can lord it over the rest of us. It stinks. No wonder I feel guilty. It baffles me that anyone doesn't. And yet, as said, until we demand and get a better, purer, more equitable way of running human affairs, my family and I need money to live.
For most of the existence of classical Druidry, of course, we were supported by the warrior aristocracy of Iron Age Europe (OK, this guy may not look like a patron of the arts, but take my word for it, he loved nothing better than a finely honed poem), a patronage that was transferred to the bardic colleges of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. We were part of society's elite, fed, housed, clothed, provided with musical instruments and given high social status because our services were deemed worthwhile. We sang for our supper … in the case of bards, literally. We advised kings, divined, prophesied, oversaw ceremonies, told tales of gods and heroes, judged legal disputes, healed the sick, created poems of praise or blame, and, for many centuries, were both honoured and handsomely rewarded for doing so. We still do many of these things, but without either the social status or the payment, bed and board that came with it. We are, instead, looked upon as colourful eccentrics at best, dangerous loonies at worst, occasionally despised, more often simply ignored by our wider society. Hence our need to find new ways of making a living.
Druidry is no longer viewed as a job but as a hobby. For some of us though, it wholly defines who we are and what we do. For this minority of driven individuals, Druidry is our calling, and one that we see as every bit as valid and valuable as more recognised fields such as traditional teaching or medicine or, of course, priesthood in the more mainstream religions. I very much hope that our courses demonstrate both the breadth and the worth of Druidry. I know from my own experience that Druidry can and does regularly transform and even save lives.
The Druid Network undertook a three-year campaign, the result of which was to have Druidry as they understand and practice it recognised as a valid religion, the Druid Network itself achieving the status of a charity. This status means, among other things, that they can legally accept donations and bequests and have certain tax and planning advantages. Such charitable status for 'alternative' religious groups is commonplace in the United States, where freedom of religion is written into the Constitution and, as a result, has traditionally been taken seriously by legislators. The presence of Native Americans endeavouring to maintain their own religious cultures has also played a part in ensuring that religious balance under law is maintained in the USA. In the UK, on the other hand, we have had a state religion since Henry VIII's decision to abandon Catholicism so that he could get a divorce. This state religion, Anglicanism, as manifested through the Church of England, has, until recently, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on state support and the status and financial advantages that such support brings.
However, the Druid Network case does not mean that all Druid groups now have charitable status or official recognition. Should other groups such as the BDO decide that charitable status was a good idea, we would need to go through much the same bureaucratic process that TDN went through in order to prove that our brand of Druidry is also worthy of the name religion and that we too have purposes in mind that come under the fairly broad umbrella of 'charitable.' If we wanted to, I'm sure we could, but it would involve precisely the kind of bureaucracy that our current constitution seeks to avoid while gaining us very little.
The most successful Druid group in the world currently is the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. My friends, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, have been running it for nearly thirty years. During that time, they have also been running a Montessori School, Stephanie has worked for Glyndebourne Opera House and Philip has written numerous books (some with Stephanie) and lectured widely. It is these latter activities that have kept the roof over their heads and food on the table, not running a Druid Order. Some folk have the mistaken impression that they were making loads of money from OBOD camps. On the contrary, it was only the Summer Camps that ever made a profit at all, and that was used to subsidise the camps in the rest of the year that ran at a loss. Druidry is not a cash cow, one simple reason being that it is a minority interest, best estimates being that there may be 10,000 Druids in the UK, or 0.01% of the population, though the true figure may be less. There's also the fact that many of us attracted to Druidry and other 'alternative spiritualities' are, to a greater or lesser degree, outsiders within our society, a position that leaves us ill-placed as well as un-inclined to benefit from its capitalist structures and agendas.
Ours is by no means the only culture to wrestle with the uncomfortable clash between spirituality and commerce. A Lakota healer called Gary Holy Bull (his Lakota name is Ampohiksila, which means 'Sunrise') has spoken of his own struggle with this dilemma:
“Prior to 1942, everyone took care of their healers and medicine people. They understood the sacrifices that they made. Today, unfortunately, too many people feel that giving a K-Mart blanket is a sufficient offering for seeking spiritual help. It's a very difficult life that we live. We have to pay bills, have a home, drive a car, and place groceries on the table.
“I was always told to ask for nothing. If a person asks you to do a ceremony, they will give you what is needed. The Creator helps you in this way. When you seek the help of a spiritual person, think about the price they pay to help you.
“I was taught that you should give to others because the Creator will return it to you. You will get twice as much back as you put out for others. You give because you have compassion for children and for families.
“Here's the advice I give to others who want to know how to approach a medicine person. First, don't call them. Go find them, no matter how far you have to drive. Then offer them some tobacco*. This is called a binding ceremony. Then tell him or her what you need. Don't insult him by leaving a skull of an animal, a seashell, or a feather, because his family doesn't eat animal skulls or seashells. If you don't want to leave money, then buy some groceries, or some fuel oil for his stove. Don't insult him with five dollars. Give in proportion to the value of what is being done for your life. Show your sincere appreciation. Demonstrate your compassion to the Creator through generosity and sharing. In the old days, a family would give up several horses to be healed. What price is enough for your life?”
So you see it's not just us. Similar views are expressed by spirit workers around the world. The big, organised churches can pay their clergy a living wage because they have, over many centuries, demanded payment from 'the faithful' and expected many of them to leave their entire fortunes to their church when they die. Groups such as Scientology have flourished financially by being arranged as pyramid selling schemes designed to generate wealth for those at the top. The Guru Maharaj Ji, founder of the Divine Light Mission, became hugely wealthy by exploiting his followers, buying himself a fleet of Rolls Royces, yachts, personal jets, etc. Fortunately, such exploitation is anathema to all the Druids I've ever met.
I think the answer is that when everyone else stops demanding money from us for taxes, services and goods and adopts a barter system instead, we'll be utterly delighted to do the same. In the meantime, we'll continue to struggle with our consciences and the Druid community will continue to benefit from those struggles as we strive to do everything for as little as we can feasibly manage and still put food on the table.