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8

In the folk calendar of Britain, Midsummer's Eve takes place on June 23rd, Midsummer's Day on the 24th. Records of celebrations being held on these days go back at least as far as the 14th century, when a monk of Winchcombe, on the Cotswold edge of Gloucestershire, refers to local folk rolling a flaming wheel down a hill on Midsummer's Eve. A similar rite held on the same day in the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales in the 1820s is described as follows:

“People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If this fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”

A similar ceremony is mentioned in the 4th century Acts of Saint Vincent as having taken place amongst pagans in Aquitane in southern France, who rolled their fiery wheel down a hill and into a river, from which they rescued the charred pieces to reassemble them in a temple to their sky god.
Ronald Hutton, in his 'Stations of the Sun' (Oxford University Press, 1996, page 312), says that Midsummer's Day “occupied much the same relationship with the solar cycle as Christmas day; it represented the end of a solstice, the period in which the sun ceased to move for a short period, but rose and set at the same points on the horizon at the extreme end of its range. Now, however, it was at the height of its strength, and light at its longest, and Midsummer Eve represented the culmination of that period of apogee, just before the days began to shorten again as the sun moved southward. In response to the swelling of heat and light, foliage and grasses were now likewise at their fullness, before the time of fruiting approached. No wonder that it seemed a to be a magical time to the ancient Europeans.” He adds that “In the northern half of the continent the festival was generally the most important one of the whole year.”
Why, then, do most modern Pagans celebrate midsummer on the day of the summer solstice and not, as our ancestors did, a few days later on June 23rd-24th?
The answer is not hard to find. The idea of celebrating the summer solstice comes from William Stukeley, who associated Druids with Stonehenge and, in 1720, was the first writer to mention the solstice alignment of the Hele Stone with the centre of the circles there. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Gorsedd of Bards of Britain in 1792, visited Stonehenge and followed Stukeley in believing that Druids celebrated the solstice there. The same alignment was central to a book called 'Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered,' published by Sir Norman Lockyer in 1906. This book influenced the Ancient Druid Order, who started holding rituals at the henge a few years after its publication. By the time Gerald Gardner and members of his coven were creating Wicca in the late 1940s, the idea of celebrating the solstices had become firmly fixed in the public imagination, and so the solstices became part of its festival wheel of the year. All of them either ignored, or were unaware of, the ancient and pan-European tradition of celebrating on June 23rd-24th.
Why then, you may ask, is the Stonehenge Hele Stone aligned on the summer solstice sunrise, as is an avenue of stones at Callanish in the Orkneys and some of the stone rows at Carnac in Brittany? First, we may question whether the alignments actually are on the solstice or on Midsummer's Day. After all, it is the defining principle of solstices that the sun's rising position barely alters for about a week. Given the once pan-European custom of celebrating Midsummer's Day, it seems likely that the alignments were intended to be watched in the run-up to midsummer, giving those who understood them time to spread the word that the festival day was approaching. Early agricultural communities were spread out over wide areas and travel was largely on foot. We know that people came to Stonehenge from all over Britain and as far afield as Switzerland. A decent amount of advance warning of festival dates was essential.
Incidentally, it is currently fashionable to say that the major alignment at Stonehenge is not on the summer solstice sunrise, but on the midwinter sunset. While there certainly is a midwinter alignment at Stonehenge, there is also, as Stukeley correctly surmised in the early 18th century, an extremely clear midsummer one. One does not cancel out the other.
You may ask if it matters which day we celebrate midsummer or midwinter on? Personally, I think it does. Having been a Pagan for half a century or so, I've observed a lot. One of the things I've observed is that celebrating solstices often causes problems. An obvious example is the amount of aggression that has often been associated with celebrations of the summer solstice at Stonehenge. In the early 20th century, the then head of the Ancient Druid Order became so incensed at being asked to pay sixpence to get in to the henge that he loudly called down a long, angry curse on its owner. The Ancient Order of Druids, who had been meeting at the henge annually since 1905, vowed never to do so again after drunken local youths climbed all over the stones and heckled them during one of their summer solstice ceremonies in the 1950s. In 1985, policemen and soldiers in police uniforms smashed up vehicles attempting to get to the henge for the solstice, beating unarmed men, women and children in what became known as The Battle of the Beanfield. When I tried to hold a ceremony for world peace at Avebury on the summer solstice of 1996, it was disrupted by angry drunks. By contrast, those I've held on Midsummer's Day have been peaceful, joyous and focused.
A kind of testosterone madness kicks in at the summer solstice which has dissipated by Midsummer's Day, a few days later, when the solar tide has turned. If we are truly attempting to restore, or at least be inspired by, the spirituality of our ancestors, then surely it makes sense to try and follow the ways in which they rode the cosmic tides. This is perhaps especially true of the solstices, the two annual festivals our ancestors regarded as vital, pivotal times of the year, times of magic and divination and of great power.
When Emma Restall Orr and I founded the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge in 1997, we made sure it would celebrate on Midsummer's Day. This works out well, with focused ceremonies attended by no more than a hundred people restoring a sense of peace to the place after the wildness of the solstice celebrations a few days earlier which attract many thousands.
In Cornwall, the old tradition has been maintained, and a string of hilltop fires are kindled each year on Midsummer's Eve, June 23rd, just as the sun is setting. The accompanying ceremony is spoken in Cornish and climaxes with a Lady of the Flowers casting into the roaring flames a garland made up of 'good' herbs, those believed to have medicinal qualities, 'bad' herbs, those that are poisonous, and sprigs of oak, rowan and foxglove.
Rolling flaming wheels down hills would certainly land us in trouble with Health and Safety regulations these days, but there's no reason why more of us shouldn't celebrate midsummer at Midsummer.
A Merry Midsummer to one and all,
Greywolf /|\

Now here's a little treat for you for having read this far. "Oh do not tell the priest of our rites, for he would call it a sin, for we've been out in the woods all night, a'conjuring summer in..."

9

Fallow Deer Doe and Fawn edit(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.
Shiva & Leon in the Thali HouseAn 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 Thali House Goddess Yantra editadorn 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.black-tailed deer edit

 

 

 

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.
La Push BeachThe 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.
Third Beach - Red Deer drum & MugworteditAfter 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.A-Ka-Lat
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.
richard-daugherty-ozette editWe 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 emi ishino orcamany 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.
Third Beach Forest Path TreesOn 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.
Quileute beach salmon catch c 1905Long 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 ReedGWat3rdBeachLaPushedit, 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.La Push Border - The Sign 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.
Doug Zilke ThunderbirdThe 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.
Quileute_Masks c 1905After 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. Roger Jackson maskmaker seattle times photoAnother 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.QuileuteDancers2011After 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.
OvateBooklet10_12DoorwaysOn 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 WillowNecklaceconnection 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,
Greywolf

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.'
heron2
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 Golden Eagle2there 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.
wolf5Becoming 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 allWOLF3 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.

albino fallow deerDeer 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 fregerwildermannsuch 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 youtubBrownbear2e 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.
Many blessings,
Greywolf /|\

<>

I've been meaning to record this Wolf Chant for years. It came to me after Ellen Evert Hopman brought a Seneca Wolf Chant to one of our Gorsedd circles in Avebury in 1994 or 95. I thought I'd memorised it, but next time I sang it to some other people who were at the Gorsedd, they told me I'd got it wrong. They taught it to me again. This time, I was sure I'd got it right. However, I was told I'd got it wrong again. This happened about four times and then I realised that what had happened was, I'd taken the inspiration of the Seneca chant, filtered it through my own spirit, and come up with an original, native British Wolf Chant. I've been singing it ever since.

One of the most memorable times I sang it was ten years ago in the Drum Circle of the Quileute people on the Olympic Peninsula on the Pacific Northwest coast. When I sang it in the Circle, I had no idea that the Quileute are descended from shape-shifting wolves. I also didn't know that one of the tribal elders had foreseen my coming five days earlier. The chant created quite a stir and my two sons and I were made members of the Drum Circle.

The chant is part of my regular spiritual practice. Working with spirit wolves, it helps to keep me in touch with them. It is a gift to be used by anyone who wants to connect with the spirit of the Wolf. I've also always felt that it is a spirit call for wild wolves to be reintroduced into Britain, something I very much hope to see during my lifetime.

The drum I'm playing is the first one I've ever made. The hoop or frame is of Ash, the skin is the hide of a red deer from Britain's oldest deer park, dating back to the 15th century. It was quite a journey making the drum, from felling the tree, through treating the hide to lacing it onto the frame.

The film consists of footage shot at the Avebury henge the other day by my son, Mike, cut with other footage and some stills I shot in and around Avebury myself a few years ago.

Blessings from the Wild Heart,

Greywolf /|\

hutton-pagan-britain-yalePublished by Yale University Press, November 2013, xvi + 480 pages, 103 illustrations.

In 1991, a few months before I first met him, my friend Ronald Hutton published Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, at the time a unique, one-volume survey of its subject that quickly, and rightly, attained classic status, being quoted in almost every subsequent work on British prehistory. This new book is designed to supersede it, reassessing its contents and conclusions, expanding on it and adding a huge amount of new information that has come to light over the last two decades. Here's my review:

First impressions are of an attractive, well-produced book, containing many more illustrations than its predecessor, though still in monochrome. The illustrations are well-chosen, including many of the usual suspects – the 'Sorcerer of Trois Frères,' the 'Venus of Willendorf,' and so on – but going well beyond them. For example, a group headed 'Less familiar Palaeolithic images' includes human figurines that were found alongside the much better known 'Venuses' on which whole theories of prehistoric belief have been built. These images and their accompanying text provide one example of a process Ronald follows throughout the book, returning to original excavation reports and re-examining, often at first-hand, the objects described so as to place them in their proper context. He has visited or re-visited many sites where objects were found, often in company with archaeological specialists. This meticulous research is filtered through the Ronald's broad areas of personal interest, including ancient and modern paganisms and shamanism. These interests, however, are never allowed to overwhelm the evidence.

As well as exploring prehistoric sites and the artefacts found at them, the book examines Ronald-Huttonways in which attitudes to the past alter in tandem with more recent changes, so the Victorian era of conquest, colonisation and conversion by the British produced the idea that Britain itself was repeatedly conquered, colonised and converted throughout prehistory. The 20th century dismantling of the British Empire and our joining of the European Economic Union then produced a new vision of prehistory that replaced conquest with trade as the primary means by which the British Isles interacted with the rest of Europe. Pagan Britain offers many such insights into both our remote and more immediate ancestors.

One of my own areas of interest is in what archaeologists call burnt mounds, piles of stones that have been subjected to very high temperatures before being either doused with water or immersed in it. Many theories have been put forward to explain them, including Native American style sweat lodges, Swedish style saunas, cooking sites for joints of meat or breweries for prehistoric beer. Thanks to this book, I now know that a major survey of such sites in Ireland, published in 2011, has shown all four explanations are sustainable for some of the sites. For a modern Druid such as myself who has experienced the power of ritualised sweat lodges and is also partial to the occasional pint of ale, this is welcome news indeed!

One section of the book looks at interactions between professional archaeologists and interested non-professionals, including what might loosely be called the 'Earth Mysteries' community. These are often hostile and have been for a very long time. The story of how archaeology stopped being a hobby and became a profession, and how those who adopted it as such subsequently came to exercise such unquestioned access to, and control over, our shared heritage would make a fascinating sociological study in the development of elite dominance. Another admirable feature of Pagan Britain is the extent to which it continually reveals topics such as this and shows them to be worthy of extended treatment. Hopefully a generation of researchers will be inspired to follow up on them. If so, they, like the rest of us, will owe a debt of gratitude to Ronald for the diligence of his research, the breadth of his vision and his ability to bring so much information and so many ideas together.

william-bucklandRonald writes both for academic colleagues and general readers, achieving this rare double by the simple means of using clear, precise, jargon-free English. If more of his colleagues adopted this habit, they would render their work accessible to a much broader readership. Another aspect of his writing that appeals greatly is his inclusion of illuminating, entertaining, often bizarre incidental details such as the fact that the early 19th century scholar, William Buckland, was often accompanied at academic functions by his pet bear, which he dressed in a student's cap and gown. Such quirky and engaging human touches certainly help bring history to life. The picture here captures Buckland at dinner with friends, human and other.

As with Ronald's previous works on Paganisms, this book will no doubt divide the modern Pagan community, perhaps most strongly in its final chapter, 'The Legacy of British Paganism.' It is here, looking at changing academic and public attitudes towards possible survivals of paganism from ancient times, through the Middle Ages and up to the present day, that the author most maintains his reputation as an iconoclast. Those who dismiss this section as simple iconoclasm, however, can only do so by ignoring qualifying statements as in the following passage: “The former tendency to assume that virtually all traditional British seasonal rites were survivors of paganism was clearly misplaced, but blanket dismissal of pagan ingredients in them would be even more erroneous. Broad themes of seasonal festivity often have more staying power than individual customs, though even some of those can be proved to have survived for millennia.” [My italics].

A word of warning: if you are looking for the sort of certainty found in other books, such as the many claiming to have 'solved the mystery of Stonehenge' once and for all, you should definitely look elsewhere. Ronald is careful not to argue beyond what demonstrable facts allow. Where, as is often the case, the evidence is open to a variety of interpretations, he is equally careful to present a range of alternatives, where possible evaluating which are the most likely, but willing to admit when none are proven or where such proof may not even be possible. Some may find the frequency with which a 'not proven' verdict is returned frustrating, but, as the author makes clear, there are times when our current state of knowledge simply leaves no definitive conclusion possible.

Is Pagan Britain, then, a worthy successor to Pagan Religions...? My answer is a resounding yes. Pagan_Religions_of_the_Ancient_British_IslesLike its illustrious predecessor, it offers a one-stop shop for all who, like me, have an abiding interest in prehistoric British religion, a desire to keep up with the latest information on the subject, but little access to academic journals, field reports or specialist publications. Ronald draws together the whole gamut of recent research along with the speculations and conclusions stemming from it, bringing it all together for us. And for those who want to look further into areas of particular interest, there are extensive endnotes.

As mentioned earlier, what makes Pagan Britain so compelling is Ronald's unusual breadth of personal interests and depth of knowledge in them, spanning paganisms old and new, shamanism, anthropology and archaeology, as well as British, European and world history. This is enhanced by his almost unrivalled list of contacts with colleagues across this wide range of disciplines, his enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy for detailed and thorough research, and his remarkable ability to marshal and make sense of a huge quantity and range of information and present it clearly. In short, the book is a tour de force and, like Pagan Religions..., is essential reading for anyone with an interest in its subject.

Born in India Blood&Mistletoein 1953, Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, where he also heads the School of Humanities. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Society of Antiquaries, a Commissioner for English Heritage and a member of, among others, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Ancient Druid Order and, of course, the British Druid Order. His other publications include The Druids (Hambledon Continuum, 2007) and Blood & Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (Yale University Press, 2009), both of which are also highly recommended.

 If you're encouraged to buy the book, you can find it here on amazon.co.uk, or here on amazon.com

If you're not yet convinced, you could check out this review from the Economist by Erica Wagner, who describes Ronald as "a lovely writer with a keen sense of the spiritual potency of Britain’s ancient landscapes."

Or, for a less sympathetic review, try this one from the Guardian by Graham Robb, who takes Ronald to task for only devoting six pages to the Druids, despite Ronald making it clear in the book that the reason he is not giving more space to them is that he's recently written the two full books on them referred to above. He also complains about Ronald not including evidence for paganism in France, despite the book being called Pagan Britain and Ronald's stated intention in it to maintain a focus within the confines of the British Isles. Robb may have a vested interest, however, in that his most recent publication is a book claiming to have rediscovered a lost 'map' of Pagan Celtic Europe.

6

Gorsedd of Caer Abiri, September 2013
TheGorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri, September 22nd 2013

On Sunday, September 22nd, 2013, about a hundred people gathered inside the vast bank and ditch earthworks of the Avebury henge in Wiltshire, with its huge sarsen stone circles erected by our ancestors in ages past. We were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. To mark the event, I'm posting a pdf file scanned from the first issue of the Caer Abiri Newsletter, published in the wake of the first ceremony way back in 1993. Among other things, it tells how the Gorsedd came to be, and here's a little more background on how it all began.

During the summer of 1993, Tim Sebastion (below), founder of the Secular Order of Druids (SOD), was putting plans together for a multi-faith conference at Avebury. I'd met Tim two years earlier when my British Druid Order joined the Council of British Druid Orders. We resigned from the Council in 1996, along with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and the Ancient Order of Druids, but that's another story. The first Council meeting I attended was at Tim's thatched cottage at Mells in Somerset. In typical Tim fashion, as well as hosting this meeting, he had organised an Irish folk festival over the same weekend, centred around the village pub. So, when my wife and I arrived and got no reply at the cottage, we had a pretty good idea where to look. Sure enough, we found Tim basking in the sunshine of the pub garden, joyfully surrounded by Irish musicians who were regaling him with a spirited rendition of the Irish Rover. It was an auspicious first meeting.

Tim Sebastion at Caer Abiri
Tim Sebastion at Caer Abiri, circa 1994

Tim and I struck up a rapport as a result of which, when organising the Avebury event, he asked me to create a ceremony for it. The brief was to make a fundamentally Druidic ceremony, but one that would feel inclusive to the many and varied folk attending the conference, including Reichian therapists, Earth Mysteries folk, Christian ministers, astronomers from the Royal Observatory and various flavours of Pagans. The resulting ceremony is included in the Newsletter.

Included in it was a handfasting, a Druid wedding, largely for the benefit of myself and my late wife, Ellie, though other couples took advantage of the occasion to be handfasted too, as hundreds more have been since. The handfastings were conducted at the Ring Stone (see the newsletter for the reasons why) by Philip Carr-Gomm, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and Shan Jayran, founder of the House of the Goddess. Ronald Hutton took the two photos included in monochrome in the newsletter and reproduced here in colour.

Handfasting at the Ring Stone
Handfasting at the Ring Stone, 1st Caer Abiri Gorsedd, September 19th 1993
CaerAbiri1993Handfasting2x800
Tim Sebastion (standing left with staff), Philip Carr-Gomm (white robe, centre), Ellie Shallcrass (in red and blue, holding our son, Joe, then 1 year old), Shan Jayran (in dark robe checking script), Caer Abiri, September 19th 1993.

As you'll see from the list of names at the back of the newsletter, those attending included several who were already Pagan celebrities and others who would become so. Among the former were the aforementioned Philip Carr-Gomm, Shan Jayran, and Ronald Hutton, whose Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, published two years earlier, was already recognised as a definitive work. Also with us was John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis, the book credited with having kick-started the whole Earth Mysteries movement. Among the latter were Graham Harvey, now one of our most respected Pagan academics, Jacki Paterson, whose highly regarded book, Tree Wisdom, was published three years later, and a young OBOD member named Emma Restall Orr, who went on to become joint chief of the British Druid Order from 1995 to 2002 and is now probably the most famous female Druid in the world.

Celebrities notwithstanding, the reason we were assembling among the stones 20 years on was, as the title of this piece suggests, an accident, if indeed there are such things in Druidry.

The Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri is a name I invented for use during a short bardic initiation that formed part of the original ceremony. The reason for including an initiation is simple. Two members of the British Druid Order, Gary and Debbie Turner, asked for bardic initiations while I was composing the rite and I thought that Avebury would be a beautiful and appropriate place for them to take place. As explained in the newsletter, when the moment for Gary and Debbie's initiation came and I asked those who wished to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd of Caer Abiri to step forward, I was expecting only Gary and Debbie to do so. They were, after all, the only ones primed in advance to expect this request. Thhe spirits of the place, however, determined otherwise. Gary and Debbie hesitated and the momentary pause was enough for others in the circle to make up their minds to respond to the invitation.

And so it was that more than half those in the circle stepped forward to be initiated as bards of the Gorsedd. Philip Carr-Gomm, standing next to me at the time, leaned over and whispered, “Erm, what do we do now?” and I replied something to the effect of, “Well, er, we carry on I suppose.” Thus were the first thirty-or-so bards of Caer Abiri initiated. During the initiations, I did something ritualists really should not do. I stepped out of the circle with a camera and snapped a couple of shots. I know I shouldn't have, but something prompted me to capture the moment. I'm glad I did, as I believe the pictures I took, reproduced here, are the only photographic record of that part of the ceremony.

Bardic Initiations at the 1st Gorsedd
The first bardic initiations at the first Avebury Gorsedd, September 19th 1993
CaerAbiri1993Initiationx800
The first bardic initiations at the first Avebury Gorsedd, September 19th 1993

The initiation included one of my favourite pieces of ritual of any I've composed and performed either before or since. As shown in the photo, the inner circle of bards turn to face outwards and link hands, those in the outer circle also link hands, and all of them chant the awen, the spirit of inspiration and creativity, directing its flow in to those in the centre. Immediately after this, the following blessing is spoken for the new bards:

Wisdom of serpent be thine,

Wisdom of raven be thine,

Wisdom of the valiant eagle.

Voice of swan be thine,

Voice of honey be thine,

Voice of the son of stars.

Bounty of sea be thine,

Bounty of land be thine,

Bounty of the boundless heavens.

These are beautiful words to hear spoken in ceremony, and I can't claim credit for them. They are from a collection of Scottish folklore called Carmina Gadelica, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael. They were spoken again during the 20th anniversary rite (below) and I took my place amongst the bards at the centre to receive the awen. It knocked my socks off.

Bardic initiations at Caer Abiri, 2013
Bardic intiation at the 20th anniversary Gorsedd, September 22nd 2013

That the initiation in 1993 had the desired effect was proven a couple of weeks later when I got a letter from Gordon Strachan, the Church of Scotland minister who had addressed the conference. It was written on a hillside in the Lake District and Gordon told me he was writing poetry again for the first time since he'd left university forty years earlier. He soon began work on his book, Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries & the Dawn of Christianty (Floris Books, 2000), in which he puts forward the theory that Jesus came into friendly contact with Druids during childhood visits to Britain.

It was clear that something very magical happened in that circle twenty years ago, something that came about because the nature of the rite as it had come together resonated powerfully with the spirits of the place and with our ancestors who had constructed Avebury for similar purposes, gathering families together from all over the country to celebrate rites of passage and have those rites witnessed by their community. It was this sense of having connected with the spirits of the place that prompted me to go around with a notebook, collecting contact details from those present with a view to putting together the newsletter.

Subsequent events only increased the sense that we had made a potent connection with the spirits of Caer Abiri. Within two years, our celebrations were being held at each of the eight festivals of modern Paganism and attracting hundreds of people. Ronald Hutton went so far as to describe them as the central event of the New Druidry (Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Hambledon & London, 2003, pages 255-256). The second anniversary Gorsedd remains the largest on record, estimates of numbers attending ranging from 500 to over 1,000. This produced another inspirited moment when those in the circle were asked to link hands and swear the Oath of Peace. The circle began to expand, not stopping until it had spread to the fence line on one side of the field containing the South Circle and to the inner ditch on the other side. I remember having to shout so that those on the far side of the circle would know when to begin.

Caer Abiri circa 1995
Caer Abiri circa 1995, Emma Restall-Orr as Guardian of the Stones, barefoot Greywolf, Mark Graham with antlers...

Around this time I came up with a motto for the Gorsedd: “In the spirit of freedom, and for freedom of the spirit.”

There were many reasons why the Gorsedd proved so successful. We offered many within the Pagan community their first opportunity to celebrate our seasonal festivals in public. Another factor is the multi-faith nature of the ceremonies, strengthened further in subsequent revisions of the ritual text. Followers of any and all traditions felt able to stand together as one and speak from the heart of their own faith within a circle of many faiths. Celebrations attracted not only Druids but Wiccans, Heathens, Buddhists, Bah'ai, Christians, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals and followers of Japanese Shinto among others. Avebury is also, of course, a place of great beauty and inherent power as well as being reasonably accessible from most parts of the UK, and, because it has a village within it, it is freely open to the public. Its appeal is not confined to the UK though. Some of those attending in the 90s flew in from places as far away as Australia, Japan and the USA specially to attend our celebrations.

 It was always my hope that others would be inspired by the Avebury Gorsedd to set up others elsewhere and this has happened. Similar gatherings now take place at each of the festivals at the Long Man of Wilmington, the Stanton Drew circles south of Bristol and elsewhere, both in Britain and overseas.

 Of course, there are always some who, usually through some deep, personal pain of their own, greet any outpouring of magic, joy and wonder in others with bitterness and resentment. Why this should be, I don't know, but life seems to need to maintain an equilibrium, balancing the helpful and the hurtful, following bliss with dull despair. In the case of Avebury, a few individuals seemed to feel they had some sort of territorial claim over the place. Even as the ceremonies grew bigger and more joyous for most of us, these few voiced objections to everything about them, including where, how, when and why they were held, who was conducting them and who was attending. They spread their bitterness to others whose own resentments left them open to receive it. Ceremonies began to be disrupted by drunks shouting at, and occasionally physically attacking, those taking part. Following on from the increasingly disrupted ceremonies, these same folk would get into drunken fights in the Red Lion pub in the village, often resulting in the police being called. One Lakota visitor from the Pine Ridge Reservation had flown over to be with us following a vision. He was singing a spirit song for us in the circle when the drunks began yelling abuse at him. He commented afterwards, "You get folks like that in all traditions. We get 'em at home too."

 Things came to a head when, during one ceremony, I found myself expending most of my energy keeping a lid on a small group of angry, noisy drunks rather than focusing on the rite itself. As that realisation hit me, I had a vision of a black whirlpool opening up in the centre of the circle and spreading towards its edges, threatening to suck us all down into its gaping maw. This stark warning led us to move our celebrations to other locations, founding new Gorseddau as we did so. These included the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge and others at Dragon Hill in Oxfordshire, the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex, various other locations in Britain and as far afield as Seattle in the USA.

 After a year, however, we returned to our spiritual home in Avebury and rites have been regularly celebrated there ever since. For the last nine years, they have been coordinated by Morgan Adams, who also runs a Grove and offers regular celebrations in her home town of Glastonbury.

 The unpleasantness of the mid-1990s led to the formation of a second Gorsedd in Avebury, calling itself the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri. This now meets on the nearest Saturday to each of the eight festivals, while the original Gorsedd continues to meet on the nearest Sunday. Incidentally, it amused me to hear that on the day before our 20th anniversary celebration, the 'Free and Open' Gorsedd had met and claimed to be celebrating their 21st anniversary, despite having been founded in 1996. Hey ho...

 The anger that divided the Gorsedd left me with a certain ambivalence about my role in creating it. It put Avebury on the Pagan map as a ceremonial location, but attracted in the process those whose relationship with the spirits of the place included setting fire to parts of it, scrawling graffiti over others, getting drunk, fighting amongst themselves and behaving aggressively towards those trying to meet there in peace to celebrate their spirituality. For me, the greatest sadness has always been that the loud, angry, disruptive minority drove hundreds of genuinely spiritual people to abandon the Gorsedd and even, in some cases, to turn their backs on any engagement with Druidry and Paganism. This is doubly tragic given the ecumenical spirit that flourished so strongly in the early years.

 The split in the Gorsedd also drove a wedge between Tim Sebastion and I. I never knew until after his death how devastated Tim had been by the split. I learned then, too late, that he had spent whole days wandering the paths around Avebury alone and in tears.

 The role of Guardian of the Stones was taken in the first Gorsedd ceremony by my wife, Ellie, then pregnant with our second son, Michael. Ellie subsequently died from leukaemia, and each time I see another woman in the role it brings back memories, some joyous, others painful.

 On the plus side, the Gorsedd helped broaden public understanding and acceptance of Druidry and other Pagan traditions as the early celebrations attracted a good deal of attention from the media, both nationally and internationally. This led to a spate of favourable newspaper and magazine articles and TV programmes featuring Druids and Druidry. I've posted one short video of the Gorsedd circa 1994, filmed by a TV news crew, on youtube, accompanied by music and poetry. In its early days, the Gorsedd also helped to promote peaceful, helpful connections between the Druid and Pagan communities and bodies such as the National Trust and English Heritage, official custodians of Avebury, Stonehenge, and other ancient sites. However, this further angered those who were already angry and who viewed NT and EH with implacable hostility due to their perceived role in restricting access to Stonehenge during the 1980s.

 As well as inspiring the creation of other open, public celebrations of Pagan faiths, in the twenty years since its creation, the Avebury Gorsedd itself has initiated some 3-4,000 people, maybe more, as bards. Many have found huge inspiration as a result. To quote just a few examples, a leather-clad biker who came to an early Gorsedd rite returned a few months later having learned to play the harp beautifully; an office worker who attended quit his job and now runs the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle; a couple who came to several early rites now run a 12-acre spiritual and woodland crafts centre in Hampshire. Others have had their lives changed in other ways. Following one rite I heard from three people whose partners had recently died, each saying that as a direct result of our ceremony, the atmosphere surrounding them had cleared, their sorrow had lifted, and they now felt able to move on in their lives. When people's lives are transformed in such ways, it's hard to argue that the ceremonies that bring about such changes are anything but good.

 The Gorseddau founded in the 1990s, both in Avebury and elsewhere, have long since passed out of my hands as I always hoped they would. Others have taken up the challenge and are making them work, and all good blessings to each and every one of them for doing so. If the 20th anniversary gathering at Avebury was anything to go by, they are in good hands for the next twenty years.

 Incidentally, three of those who were at the very first Gorsedd were in attendance again for the anniversary: these were Ronald Hutton, a humble Doctor at the time of the first rite, now a full Professor and one of the country's leading historians, myself, and my son, Joe, who was one year old in 1993 and whose baby blessing during the first ceremony paved the way for hundreds of others over the last twenty years.

Three Gorsedd Originals
Ronald Hutton (in glasses, behind redhead), myself (with BDO banner), and Joe (seated on the ground), Caer Abiri, September 22nd 2013

The 20th anniversary celebration was a joyous, magical event, featuring one of the most potent bardic initiations I've ever taken part in, a beautiful moment when we chanted the awen to direct spiritual energy into a beribboned wreath to be used in ceremonies for the protection of our land and her creatures (below), and one of the best eisteddfod sessions ever, during which we were treated to some wonderful poetry, fiery drumming and utterly superb bagpiping.

Blessing with Awen
Raising energy for the protection of our Mother Earth, Caer Abiri, September 22nd 2013

As my own contribution, I sang the same Robin Williamson song I had sung at the end of the very first rite back in 1993, the appropriately titled The Circle Is Unbroken:

Seasons they change, as cold blood is raining,

I have been waiting beyond the years.

Now over the skline I see you travelling,

Brothers from all times gathering here.

Come let us build the ship of the future

In an ancient pattern that journeys far.

Come let us set sail for the always islands,

through seas of leaving to the summer stars.

 Seasons they change, but with gaze unchanging.

O, deep-eyed sisters, is it you I see?

Seeds of beauty you bear within you

Of unborn children, glad and free.

Within your fingers the fates are spinning

The sacred binding of the yellow grain.

Scattered we were when the long night was breaking,

But in bright morning, converse again.

So may it ever be.

 And here's a date for your diary: the 30th anniversary will be on Sunday, September 24th, 2023. See you there...

 Blessings to all,

 Greywolf /|\

Greywolf at Caer Abiri, 2013
Blissed out at Caer Abiri, 20 years on...

 

1

As a native British Druid for the last forty years, one of my greatest joys has been to make ceremony alongside spirit workers of many other traditions, finding fundamental similarities in how we understand the world and what we do underlying our cultural differences. This is the story of one such ceremony.

After all our travels with The World Drum, it was good to be back at Wild Ways, the spiritual centre in Shropshire created by Elaine Gregory and Garth Reynolds that has been a second home for myself and my sons for about a decade. We've had some great times there, and this weekend looked like being one of those very special ones. We had the launch of the Druid Hedge Schools project on Saturday, followed by a music session featuring Robin Williamson, who I consider the finest exponent of the bardic arts, and my old friend, Andy Letcher, no slouch himself in weaving word and sound, plus other friends. Then, on Sunday, we would bid our very, very fond farewell to the World Drum. Oh, and it would be my 60th birthday. However, before all that, on Friday evening, there was to be another event that had blossomed over the previous few weeks from the seed of an idea into what turned out to be an amazing, magical reality.

Will, Lena & White Cougar in the woods at Wild Ways
Will, Lena & White Cougar in the woods at Wild Ways. Photo by Morten.

On Thursday, we greeted the arrival of the man whose vision had led to the creation of the World Drum, White Cougar. With him were Morten Wolf Storeide, who gently steers the Drum's journeys around the world, and Lena Paalviig Johnsen and Will Rubach of the shamanic band, Baalfolket. I find it hard to get to know people. I spend most of my time writing. It's a solitary profession. But with I felt an instant rapport. They were just so damn happy. It was like sunlight breaking through the moment I met them, like I'd known them forever, like we were family. They had flown over from Norway at their own expense to make music and ceremony with us. The first ceremony was to be a gift White Cougar wanted to share with us, centring around a herbal medicine I had never previously heard of called Chaga.

Chaga growing on Birch
Chaga growing on Birch

Chaga is a hard, woody fungus that grows on birch trees. In Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and much of Asia, it has been used as a medicine for thousands of years, its chief property being that it boosts the body's own healing mechanisms, making it effective for a wide range of conditions. It also has psycho-spiritual properties that may be described as lifting the spirits. I hasten to add, we're not talking psychedelics here. You won't find yourself hallucinating swarms of rainbow butterflies whilst giggling hysterically because your legs have turned to rubber. It's not that kind of mushroom. In some countries it's used as a coffee substitute. White Cougar, however, works with it in a spiritual, ceremonial way. Chaga, like all things in this world, has a spirit, and his name, in Norway, is Nivvsat Olmai. He has appeared to White Cougar in the form of a bird.

Greywolf heading down the Deer Path
Greywolf heading down the Deer Path. Photo by Morten.

On Thursday afternoon then, six of us, White Cougar, Morten, Will, Lena, my old friend, Steve Rumelhart, and I set off along the winding Deer Path that leads to our Iron Age roundhouse. I was keen to introduce our visitors to this place that meant so much to me, the construction of which had been such a transformative experience, not only for me but for others who took part. They were equally keen to see it. Naturally, we took our drums.

We arrived, knocked to wake the spirits, opened the double doors fully to let in the light, stepped over the threshold and found our places, unpacking our drums. It was almost as if planned. Natural, good. I told them about the guardian spirit of the roundhouse and its surrounding grove, an antlered figure who has been with us from the beginning, since my toe stubbed on a deer-skull when we were clearing the ground to build the place.

Lena with her drum
Lena with her drum. Photo by Morten.

Then we began to drum. I know that Steve is a solid, reliable, listening drummer. I assumed our Norwegian friends would be too. How right I was. Since they were bringing us this gift of ceremony, it was they who began the drumming. Each of them has a markedly different drum, each handmade in the Saami manner of their home country, the frames bent by hand so that their shapes are never quite round, but always oval or egg-shaped. The frame of Lena's, being wide but not very deep, had twisted after the skin was stretched over it, creating an off-kilter curvature across the drum. She told me later that her drum-maker had offered to fix it for her. She loved it just as it was, and that's the way it's stayed. As soon as they began to play, I knew we were in safe hands, not that I ever doubted it. They quickly fell into a natural rhythm together, playing off each other, weaving the very different tones of their drums into a single, magical web of sound.

Greywolf & The World Drum in the roundhouse
Greywolf playing The World Drum in the roundhouse. Photo by Morten.

I was sitting in my accustomed place near the altar in the north-east, my 'Thunder-drum' at the ready, beater held lightly in my right hand. I listened to the emerging, subtly shifting rhythm patterns Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will were playing, and to how they were playing. Many drummers in Britain tend to play quite loudly and, well, sort of aggressively. I've been guilty of this myself at times. These guys played in a way that was gentler, more contemplative and, I found, much easier to trance out to.

Then they began to sing. Wow. Hard to find the right words. They draw inspiration from the spontaneous, improvisatory Saami singing tradition called joiking. Will has quite a deep, resonant singing voice anyway, but also uses throat-singing, producing an eerie kind of deep, rasping growl that sounds barely human and sends shivers down the spine. Lena has a voice of soaring, skylark beauty and clarity. Woven together, the effect is … what word to use? … Awesome? Magical? Inspiring? Uplifting? Entrancing? All of those and more.

It didn't take long for my drum to tell me it was time to join in. Such was the rapport I felt with these folk already that I found it easy and natural to fit the bass of my own drum in with theirs, weaving my patterns into the flow. What surprised me was that I also began to sing. Normally, I don't, unless it's some pre-planned chant for a specific purpose. Now I found myself vocalising strange noises and parts of words in no language I consciously knew. Very strange. And suddenly I knew where these sounds were coming from. I was listening fully to my drum. It's main beat is a low bass note, but it resonates with a full spectrum of overtones up into a very high register like a bird or a bat. Within these overtones, I noticed wave patterns that were generating the songs I was then translating into the sounds I was singing. This was a new way of interacting with my drum, learned in that moment.

Steve drumming in the roundhouse
Steve drumming in the roundhouse. Photo by Morten.

We played on, except I noticed Steve had not yet begun to play. This was weird, as he's usually the first to reach for his drum whenever there's the chance. He sat by the door, listening intently, for a long time. Finally, he began to play. As said, he's a good drummer, so his octagonal skin drum was soon sounding along with ours. The sound revolved around the roundhouse, reverberating from the timber posts, walls and roof in an enchanting cascade. Again, lost for words. Magical will have to suffice.

Finally, the sound wound to a natural conclusion and fell into silence. We were still for a moment, breathing with it, thinking about it. Then we looked around at each other, smiled, and made a chorus of “woos,” “yeahs,” “hms,” and similar sounds in wordless appreciation of what we'd just made together, for that one time, in that special place. It was a profound sense of rightness.

I spoke to Steve later and asked why he'd taken so long to start drumming. He said “Are you kidding? Those guys are GOOD!” I laughed. It was the first time in twenty years I've known Steve to be intimidated by other drummers.

Back at the house that evening, we talked about the ceremony we were to make next day. White Cougar told us that the chaga had to brew for at least two hours, preferably four. The brewing was to be done by our four Norwegian friends and White Cougar asked me to join them. He asked if I would guard the doorway against any unwanted spirit intrusions during the ceremony, keeping the dodgy ones out whilst letting the good ones come and go. Some weeks earlier, as soon as I heard the ceremony might happen, I had seen myself guarding the doors of the roundhouse along with Steve, me on one side, him on the other. I told this to White Cougar who smiled and said, “Ah, I see I have asked you this before.” Again, the easy smiles and laughter that usually comes with long familiarity. So it was settled, the six of us would prepare the chaga and make the ceremony.

At 4 o'clock the next afternoon, we set out again for the roundhouse, taking with us an aluminium cooking pot from the kitchen big enough to brew enough chaga for 45 people and some two-gallon drums of water. Once in the roundhouse, we set the pot on an iron stand over the central hearth and laid our fire underneath it. The ceremony began.

We gathered in a circle around the hearth, crouched down, hands close to the floor, and started vocalising low, growly noises. Then, slowly standing up, hands held out in front, our voices got louder and higher, until we all came fully upright, let out a great whoop and then, inevitably, broke out in laughter. A good way to start a ceremony. There's strong magic in laughter. We poured about a gallon of the water into the big pot and lit the fire under it.

Brewing the Chaga on the Roundhouse fire
Brewing the Chaga on the Roundhouse fire. Photo by Morten.

Then we began to drum. Again, it was easy, natural and joyous to join with these folks in drumming up the spirits we would need to protect, help and guide us through the rite. Again, a natural flow emerged, beginning when one of our drums would speak, ending when all that needed to be said had been said.

White Cougar drumming in the Roundhouse
White Cougar drumming in the Roundhouse. Photo by Morten.

Between drumming, we chatted, shared water, laughed, cracked jokes, and talked about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. Cougar had brought extra dried chaga and sage with him to burn at either side of the doors so that people would be sained with it as they entered the roundhouse. Saining is our native British version of the Native American practice called smudging i.e. blessing and purifying people, places and things with smoke, usually from smouldering herbs. We had little charcoal blocks to burn it on, plus Steve's ever-ready lighter. Steve and I set them up by the doors. I told Steve which side I'd seen us standing on in my vision and we agreed that those were the sides we'd guard. We also agreed that Steve would be our 'soul guide' when evening came, going back through the woods to gather people for the ceremony, reminding them to bring a cup each but leave their mobile phones, and asking them to maintain silence once they'd reached the gateway to the roundhouse grove.

After a while, the water boiled and White Cougar brought out a bag of chaga, adding handfuls to the pot. He asked the chaga-spirit, Nivvsat Olmai, to be with us, to help and guide us and bring healing. He found a straightish stick and we used it to stir our gently bubbling cauldron of inspiration. The chaga, mostly bright yellow when it went in, quickly turned the water a rich, dark brown and a curious, earthy scent began to blend with the firesmoke. The six of us took turns at stirring the pot. We drummed and sang some more. More jokes and laughter, more drumming, more stirring. For some, breaks outside for cigarettes. It pleased Steve greatly to have others who smoked. Increasingly on Druid events he's felt like a Pariah because of his addiction to the noxious weed.

Oh yes, and we drank chaga. This, Cougar assured us, was necessary for those preparing the ceremony, and I wasn't about to argue. My first uncertain sip introduced me to a taste I can best describe as earthy, a little musty, with a vague hint of weak coffee, and not at all fungus-like. A few sips later, I'd got quite used to it. A few more and I kinda liked it. Now I love the stuff.

And the effects? Well, as said, we're not talking pixie caps or peyote. The effect initially seemed to consist of enhancing the feelings of elation and connectedness that being there doing what we were doing had already engendered. It was, however, a calmer, more controlled exhilaration than coffee's jagged buzz. As said, a lifting of spirits.

Will Rubach with painted drum bag in the Roundhouse
Will Rubach with painted drum bag in the Roundhouse. Photo by Morten.

For four and a half hours, we nurtured the spirits swirling around in that dark, earthy, bubbling brew, in the roundhouse and in the grove around it. Finally, time came for Steve to go and bring people down the Deer Path. People in the UK often don't take the idea of ceremony all that seriously and therefore often don't arrive attuned to the spirit of the rite but will chatter inconsequentially, sometimes even after ceremonies have begun. This is why we'd decided that Steve should stop everyone at the gateway to the grove and get them to stop talking before they came to us. This he did very effectively, as I knew he would.

As the first person arrived at the doors, passing the guardian on the ash post, I realised that I was about to greet forty-plus people with no real idea of what I was going to say. I was, as my friend, Leon Reed says, “wearing my power,” i.e. dressed in my wolfskin cloak and other ritual gear, so I guess I looked the part. Then, words came tumbling out that sounded right, so I used them again for the next person, and again, with variations, for those who came after. It was a short, simple blessing that they would gain from the ceremony what it was they most needed. If you think about that, that is a powerful thing. I asked the first people to go in by the left side of the door, make their way clockwise around the central fire, and find a place against the wall. Elaine had given us a load of Hessian sacks that we'd stuffed with straw and placed in a ring against the wattle-and-daub walls for seating. People needed to follow these instructions as we knew we only just had room for everyone. Bless 'em, they did. Later arrivals sat on log seats closer to the fire. As each person passed through the doors, they were wafted with the combination of chaga and sage incense that Steve and I kept burning throughout the ceremony.

Elaine's drawing of the Chaga Ceremony
Elaine's drawing of the Chaga Ceremony

When everyone was safely inside and settled, Steve and I took our places on either side of the doors. Inside, Cougar, Wolf, Will and Lena began the public part of the ceremony. I glanced behind me at times and saw an amazing sight. The interior of the roundhouse was filled with people and lit by the central fire on which we'd brewed the chaga. My Norwegian friends were illuminated most, moving around the fire, close to it. All around them, the seats by the timber uprights were filled, every one of them, by a golden, glowing figure, men and women, woven into the fabric of time and space we had spent so many hours creating for this night, although those hours had seemed to fly by. Behind them, in flickering shadows, were those seated around the wall. Above them the looming cone of the thatched roof, glowing golden from the firelight or rendered the dark brown of chaga by shadows. It was beautiful. This was what we had built the roundhouse for. It was meant to be exactly as it was in those golden moments, on that hallowed evening. Of course, no photography was allowed during the ceremony, but Elaine later made this drawing from her memories of it.

As said, all this was taken in at a glance, most of my attention being cast around the surrounding woods, looking for any problems that might arise. To be honest, I wasn't expecting any. I've worked with that place for a long time and know its ways and the spirits that come and go pretty well. I know how strong the protection is that we've woven into ever fibre of its construction, as not just our antlered guardian, but other spirits have come to aid and guide us. Nevertheless, I had a job to do and, well, you never know. What I did know was that I could absolutely rely on Steve to pick up and deal with anything I might miss. That's why he had to be there beside me.

Behind us in the golden light, the drumming had begun. As before, the effect of the sound in that already magical space was enchanting and entrancing in the fullest sense of those words. There was singing, of course, and chanting, and spoken prayers. In my occasional glimpses, I saw Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will moving around the fire, their bodies and drums casting leaping shadows behind them, around them those circles of glowing people. At some point, I guess, chaga was distributed to everyone. I missed that, though Steve and I did get our cups filled somehow. After everyone had received their chaga, Cougar beckoned me to join him in the circle round the fire. Stepping into that gleaming circle was both beautiful and humbling. My drum merged with the beats of the others and I quickly tranced into the rhythm. I didn't stay long though for three reasons. First, I took my role as guardian very seriously. Second, I wanted to allow Steve a chance to step in and drum and knew he wouldn't leave the doors unguarded. Third, in our roundhouse, packed with people, standing so close to a roaring fire, drumming and wearing a thick wolf-skin cloak, it got very hot very quickly.

I stepped back in a few times to join the others, drumming with them for a while before resuming my post at the doors. Each time brought the same surge of energy. Dusk fell as we looked out into the darkening woods while the great thatched beehive of swirling, whirling, driving, growing, glowing magic buzzed and hummed behind us. The 'doctored' picture below was taken earlier, while we were preparing the chaga, but conveys some idea of how the place felt that night. It was … I don't know … words are hopelessly inadequate. I've been involved in a lot of ceremonies, often shared with folk of other traditions than my own Druidry. This was without doubt one of the most extraordinary and powerful I've ever taken part in.

The Roundhouse during the Chaga preparation
The Roundhouse during the Chaga preparation. Photo and psychedelia by Morten.

Eventually, the drums reached a final crescendo and halted, brief words were spoken and the ceremony was declared complete. There was a rush of sound from folk inside that carried a sense of elation out into the night sky. Soon, people began pouring out, glowing gold like honey pouring from a doorway in a hive. Telling the Bees. Joy in their hearts and shining from their faces. It was extraordinary in the truest sense. Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will stepped out as they felt ready. Our eyes met, we smiled the pure, grateful pleasure of a job well done, guided by our spirit companions, helpers and guides, our ancestors, the spirits of the place and, of course, by Nivvsat Olmai, the blessed spirit of the chaga. We'd been making this ceremony together for eight and a half hours, and it felt better than good.

Morten Wolf Storeide with The World Drum
Morten Wolf Storeide with The World Drum

Folk stood around talking. The words 'amazing,' 'fabulous' and 'wonderful' were frequently heard. Subsequent feedback suggests that some of those in the roundhouse that night have had their lives transformed by it, truly receiving the blessings they most needed. I feel privileged to have been a part of it, and to have had the opportunity to work with such wonderful people. I'm delighted that White Cougar, Morten Wolf (that's Morten on the right) and Lena are returning to Wild Ways in May 2014, along with the other two members of Baalfolket, Anita and Bobby. Click here for our Events Page for the weekend event we're calling Norway's Spirit Ways at Wild Ways. They'll also be offering a whole day of workshops plus an evening concert in a reconstructed Saxon Hall in Worcestershire.  I, for one, can't wait. My drum is ready.

As a footnote, I later found a native British equivalent of Nivvsat Olmai in the form of 'the Dark Lad,' or Ghillie Dhu, the Scottish name for the spirit of the chaga-bearing birch tree, translating into Welsh as Hogyn Du. He's said to be shy of human company but very fond of children. He dresses in moss, leaves and birch bark. Here he is, in a drawing by the great Brian Froud.

Ghillie Dhu, 'The Dark Lad,' by Brian Froud.
Ghillie Dhu, 'The Dark Lad,' by Brian Froud.

Blessings of the changing seasons,

Greywolf /|\

 

2

Sun & MoonWith the liminal time of Hallowe'en almost upon us, a time when the veil between the realms of the living and the ancestral dead is at its thinnest, I've been pondering the ways between the worlds. Since early childhood I've been fascinated by shifts in consciousness, including that surreal space between waking and sleeping that psychologists call the hypnogogic state. In this state strange things can happen. You may find yourself able to see through closed eyelids and note that the world you are seeing is not quite the one you see when you open your eyes. You may hear voices or see people or other animals that seem fleetingly very real even though the still waking part of your mind knows that they are not there at all. Or are they?

This childhood fascination was an important factor in guiding me towards the visionary form of Druidry that has been my path for the last forty years. One of the primary attributes of this style of Druidry is the ability to shift between worlds or states of awareness. One of the primary ways of doing this is through music, often that of the drum, though it may be argued that the bardic harp is the more traditional native instrument to initiate shifts in consciousness, while I've found that an acoustic guitar works just as well.

DragonbreathThe other night I was very tired, but had said I would drum in the roundhouse with my friend, Elaine, and I like to be true to my word if at all possible. So, wellies on, we plodded through the mud 'neath the full moon's light. It had been weeks since anyone restocked the wood supply in the roundhouse with other than a few bits of kindling, so the fire we lit was very smoky. We threw both doors open wide to the night and smoke rolled out in great clouds. It took about half an hour to encourage the fire to produce more flame than smoke, by which time I was even more tired. As a gentle opener then, I played my flute. When we finally brought out our drums, I began with the gentle heartbeat I usually start with these days, but it quickly morphed into a much stronger, much faster beat that was needed to try and wake myself up. It kind of worked, but was hardly cooking.

I tried initiating another rhythm, one that might encourage me to sing with the drum. The idea is that you listen to the overtones the drum produces, find words or sounds within them and then try to reproduce them or harmonise with them with your voice. I tried but it wasn't really working. I was almost ready to give up, only I had promised to send healing vibes across the ocean to friends in the Pacific Northwest, so I felt I had to make one last effort.

Greywolf drummingThere's something about being pushed to one's limit that aids the process of transition. Sweat lodges work on this principle. Pushing through tiredness can sometimes have the same result. About a minute into that last drum session, I felt something give, almost as though a door opened in my head through which I began to see another world beyond the physical. I recognised when it happened because I began to smile broadly. I sang into the drum, the taut skin bouncing the sound back to me, resonating with the overtones produced by the beater. Now I could send out those good vibes across the great Atlantic, my lightness of being lending them wings.

I began to howl, weaving the rise and fall of my howling with the voice of the drum. It was working and it was beautiful. The contrast with the earlier listless efforts was amazing. Finally, the howls died away, replaced by wind sounds that I blew across the surface of the drum as the beats on it grew softer and softer, fading into silence.

As drum and voice fell silent, sounds from the night outside came through the open doors to fill the silence. They sounded remarkably like the last few moments of singing and drumming.

I looked towards the doors. The roundhouse on either side of them was illuminated by the fire and candles. I looked with other eyes and it seemed to exist in another realm. Part of me knew the physical reality of dirt under my fingernails, the cuts and bruises from having built this structure of timber, mud and straw. Now, however, this place I had designed and knew so well seemed no more real than a dream, and less real than many of those. I sat back in my mind and saw my surroundings as though watching a film or looking at a painting. It was not a solid world any more but an imaginary one, a realm of insubstantial ghosts and shadows.

Suddenly the fire collapsed and sparky pieces of glowing red wood spilled beyond its circle of enclosing stones to roll across the earthen floor. Reality was trying to reassert itself and snap me back. It didn't work. I just smiled all the more at the trick it was trying to play on me. A spirit walked in through the doors. I checked that our protection was still in place. It was. Nothing to worry about.

Realising there was no more we could do and no more to be done, we packed away our drums, bedded down the fire, extinguished the candles, closed the doors and made our way back through the woods, the full moon illuminating our path. It was beautiful.

Thinking about it back at the house, I realised the importance of that signifier that let me know I had Holwing Wolf Moonreached the crossing point: smiling. There was a genuine and spontaneous joy at having reached that point, at being once again reminded that the concrete jungles we have built for ourselves, even the roundhouses we have built, are not the only reality we inhabit. There are potentially endless Otherworlds beyond, worlds of magic and wonder where we may converse with other animals, with tree people, the ancestral dead, the Faery Folk, the old gods of our lands, or mythical creatures such as dragons and unicorns. On entering these worlds, we find that they have a reality that goes far beyond that of what we think of as solid matter. Of course, matter is nowhere near solid, the spaces between atoms being vastly bigger than the atoms themselves, comparable to the distances between planets or galaxies. No wonder Eastern religions refer to the material world as Maya, 'Illusion.' It may indeed be more permeable than dreams.

The world of matter is a world full of worries, concerns, fears, while accessing Otherworlds releases a spontaneous burst of joy. Entering them, we are freed from the weight of the material world, while in them we may soar on eagle wings or lope through forests on padded paws, seeing through other eyes. They are our true home.

Some may see these words as further evidence that we modern Pagans are engaged in mere escapism resulting from our unwillingness or inability to engage with the 'real' world. I would argue that, far from escaping reality, we are actually learning to access realities that are deeper, broader, more filled with possibility and more 'real' than the familiar, made in China, plastic, CGI world of car adverts, media overload, political posturing and quantitative easing. Give me the Faery Realms any day.

Blessings of Summer's end,

Greywolf /|\

The pictures:

The one at the top is a mixed media piece I made about 40 years ago, the photos of me blowing the fire and drumming in the roundhouse are by Elaine Gregory and the wolf image is one I found online.

Cae Mabon is a spiritual retreat centre in North Wales. It nestles on a mountainside, a stream cascading through it from which it gets its water supply. The structures at Cae Mabon are eco-homes in an interesting range of styles, from a Hobbit hole to a reconstructed roundhouse, of which more later. It's a beautiful setting, with a large lake at the bottom of the slope and views across to Mount Snowdon.

 

Llanberis PassWe arrived on Friday, April 12th, following a drive through some of the most beautiful scenery in Wales, most memorably the spectacular Llanberis Pass. The 'we' in question were myself, Elaine and my sons, Joe and Mike. Joe is a fine ritualist while Mike, having studied video production, had accepted the task of recording as many of the World Drum events as possible in HD video. Elaine was our driver and chief events coordinator. Also joining us from previous events would be my good friend and BDO stalwart, Steve Rumelhart, musician, Jake Thomas, and Lorraine Munn, organiser of our ceremony at Ironbridge.

 

The last part of the drive was quite interesting as Elaine negotiated a well-laden Subaru down a very narrow, very winding tarmac track, to one side of which was a precipitous drop down tree-covered slopes towards the lake far below. For one not used to mountain driving, it was … erm … educational. However, we reached the car park safely, as did the rest of our merry band. We unloaded our gear, including, of course, The World Drum, and began the steep trek down to Cae Mabon itself. Slippery from recent rain, one had to watch one's footing, but we made it without mishap and were guided to our accommodation. The brilliant Gillian Kavanagh, organiser of this event, was there to greet us. My sons, Joe and Mike, were to sleep in the roundhouse. Elaine, myself and three other women were to sleep in the Longhouse, which turned out to be basically an extended garden shed but with better insulation, beds and a desk.

 

Jeff, Greywolf & Adam at Cae Mabon roundhouseFriday evening was spent greeting new arrivals as they came, exploring the site and buildings, discovering the kitchen and socialising. The new arrivals included the BDO's web wonder and all-round genius, Adam Sargant (that's him, far right), accompanied by a new BDO friend generally known as Farmer Jeff, because his name's Jeff, and he's a farmer (that's him, near right - and yes, that's me in the middle). The excellent bard, Barry Patterson, arrived with his partner, Anne, and a range of instruments including several flutes, bagpipes and a drum. Welsh bard, Gwyn Edwards, joined us too, a delightful man and a fount of lore, legend and laughter.

 

Eric Maddern, the originator of Cae Mabon and its guiding light, treated us to a talk about the place and its history. This took place in the comfortable dining hall, created from the ruins of a former agricultural building. Here an altar was established, decorated with stones and flowers from the area, on which The World Drum was to be placed when not is use. I have to admit, after the experience of soaking the Drum overnight just before setting out for Cae Mabon, I had become more than a little protective of it. It was still very cold and we were instructed to use heating sparingly, which was fine for us but gave me some concerns for the Drum. Hence I put it back in its case and removed it to the Longhouse for the night, reasoning that five sleeping in a small space would generate enough warmth to keep the Drum's skin from losing tension again. This proved correct. However, there was another problem.

 

I sleep very little anyway and, given the excitement of all the ceremonies and events and the strange surroundings, I found it impossible to sleep at all. Instead, I lay listening to the uncoordinated choir of the differently pitched snores of my companions. Finally, at about 5.30am, I gave up and got up, sneaking out as quietly as possible in the half-light. It was Saturday morning, just about, and we were to travel to Anglesey after lunch for a ceremony at 2pm.

 

Caryl DaileyJoining us for lunch and the afternoon ceremony was Caryl Dailey (left), an OBOD Druid and tutor whom I had not previously met. Caryl duly arrived with her friend, Tracy, both beautifully robed and smiling. Caryl turned out to be a bit of a star. She has Sami blood in her ancestry and treated us to a display of joiking, a type of throat-singing practiced by the Sami of Norway that produces some very strange sounds. While Caryl sang in the roundhouse, I was sitting by the central fire with the World Drum held next to me. Whenever she slipped into joiking, the Drum responded, picking up the sound and singing along with her. When she sang with her normal voice at the same or greater volume, nothing. Only when joiking. The Sami are reindeer-herders. The Drum's skin is reindeer. Interesting.

 

After lunch (the food at Cae Mabon was wonderful), we wended our way back up to the car park and decamped for Anglesey. The significance of Anglesey for Druids is that it was long supposed to have been the site of the Druids' last stand against the Roman legions in 55 CE. The Roman historian, Tacitus, gives a wonderfully vivid description of the event, with the legions formed up on one side of the Menai Strait and the Anglesey side lined with Druids perched on every high point and hurling imprecations into the wind while women clothed in black tatters ran amongst them waving flaming torches and screaming. Eventually, the legions overcome their fears, storm across the Strait, murder everyone on the island and burn down the Druidic shrines they find there. Thus ended Druidry in Britain.

 

Except, of course, it didn't end. For one thing, Anglesey had then, as it still has now, excellent sea-borne links with Ireland. It would be absurd had not at least some of the Anglesey Druids jumped into boats and high-tailed it across the Irish Sea, or in the other direction to Scotland, depending on the prevailing winds. For another thing, it would have been equally absurd for every Druid in the whole of the British Isles to present themselves conveniently in the same place on the same day so that they could all be conveniently massacred. Add to that the fact that there were a number of British tribes who welcomed the Romans' arrival and it seems very unlikely that the Romans would have repaid their welcome by murdering their Druids.

 

Barry piping in Bryn Celli DduOur chosen site for the ceremony on Anglesey was the megalithic chambered tomb-shrine of Bryn Celli Ddu, the 'Mound of the Dark Grove,' pronounced something like Brun Kethly Thee. I was happy with the choice, having last visited the Mound almost thirty years ago. It is an unusual site in many ways. Passage graves of this type are generally earlier in date than stone circles. In this case, however, the passage grave, dated circa 2000 BCE, was constructed inside a pre-existing henge and stone circle constructed around a thousand years earlier. It is also unusual amongst British tomb-shrines in having carved decorations on some of its stones, such decorated stones being mainly found in Irish tomb-shrines where they are relatively common. Bryn Celli Ddu's 27-foot long passage is aligned on the sun at Midsummer. Another extremely unusual feature is the free-standing stone pillar that stands inside the central chamber. There has been speculation that this stone is actually part of a petrified tree, or it may have been chosen for this special placing because of its resemblance to a petrified tree. That's Barry playing his pipes next to that very stone pillar.

 

We crossed the Britannia Bridge onto Anglesey and turned left towards our destination. Parking nearby, we walked along field edges until we reached the site. With its surrounding bank and ditch, it is an impressive site. The obvious place to old the ceremony was the flat area between the henge ditch and the Mound. I took the World Drum in its case and laid it at the approximate centre of what was to be our circle. While waiting for the rest of our party to arrive, I stood looking around at the place, my mind idling. My eyes were drawn back to the grassy area where the ceremony would be held and I saw beneath the grass the pattern of a huge serpent. Now snakes are very important in Druidry, which has its own equivalent of the Kundalini serpent of Hindu yoga and also sees earth energies as serpents or dragons, so this vision seemed to bode well.

 

Lorraine and The World Drum at Bryn Celli DduWhen about 50 people had arrived, I joined Caryl, Elaine and others to talk about what we were going to do in the ceremony. I had wondered if Caryl might have some firm plan for the rite. I needn't have worried. As with the other World Drum rites, she was happy to start off and see where spirit took us. Our 'plan,' such as it was, included a short introduction to the World Drum, a reading of Morten Wolf Storeide's 'Speech for Mother Earth,' and then for Lorraine, as she had before, to carry the Drum around the circle for everyone to play. Caryl would open the circle and Elaine might recite the ancient Greek 'Hymn to Gaia,' a beautiful piece of liturgy. Our Welsh bard, Gwyn, would speak a piece of Druid liturgy in its original language and in English. And that's pretty much what happened.

 

Serpentine Conga at Bryn Celli DduThe end of the rite, however, took me by surprise. Caryl gathered everyone together for a hokey-cokey, which was followed by a serpent-dance, beginning just where I'd seen my serpent vision in the grass, snaking away around the Mound and returning to its starting point. Serpent energy. Yes! And the drummers, as drummers will, played on throughout.

 

It was a good, energised and energising rite, lighting up the place literally and metaphorically as the sun broke through and smiles broke out.

 

Another surprise was looking to the top of the Mound and seeing there my old friend, Andy Letcher, and his wife, Nomi. This was slightly surreal, since I had last seen them a couple of weeks earlier when they had unexpectedly appeared at our ceremony at Avebury. At Bryn Celli Ddu, they had at least known that a ceremony was due to take place on Anglesey, though they had not known the venue and had made an educated guess. We arranged to meet up again, making sure we wouldn't miss each other by not telling each other where we'd be.

 

After the ceremony, many of us went into the chamber inside the mound, taking the World Drum and other drums, while Barry took his pipes. I caught the end of the session in the Mound, and it was good.

 

Evening in Cae Mabon roundhouseThat evening, we had an eisteddfod session in the roundhouse. It was good. We enjoyed a mix of music, stories, jokes and songs.

 

Having slept hardly at all the night before, I decided to try spending the night in the roundhouse with my sons. Not having bedding or a sleeping bag with me, I figured I'd be OK in my thick woolly Druid robe with my wolfskin cloak over me. Of course, what I hadn't allowed for was that this was the night North Wales would be hit by storm force winds of up to 75 mph and torrential rain.

 

The doorway of the Cae Mabon roundhouse has a heavy woollen blanket hung across it. As the winds rose, this heavy blanket was, at times, stretched out parallel to the ground. Meanwhile, the flames of the central fire, which I was keeping fed to try and maintain a reasonable temperature, were being swung wildly around, sending sparks flying towards the straw-bales placed near the fire as seating. The Cae Mabon roundhouse has a stone wall. The roof poles are rested on top of that wall, the thatch applied on top of the poles. However, the gap between the top of the wall and the thatch has not been filled, therefore the furious winds were blowing into the roundhouse from all sides. Candle lanterns, fortunately not lit, were blown over. Luckily, the sofas and armchair on which Joe, Mike and I were trying to sleep were below the level of the top of the wall and, therefore, sheltered from the worst of the wind. On the other hand, we were not protected from the sound of the wind which roared around us all night with a noise like an express train passing a few feet away. I had not heard winds like it since the night of the famous hurricane of 1987. Needless to say, I did not sleep.

 

On Sunday morning there were more opportunities to talk. Barry and I, as bards will, fell into comparing our various flutes and talking music. There was a final lunch, followed by a farewell ceremony with the Drum, and then it was back up the path for the long drive back to Wildways, passing once more across the beautiful Llanberis Pass.

 

Cae Mabon rocks and treesBefore we left, Cae Mabon held one last bit of magic for me. As mentioned, Mount Snowdon is visible from Cae Mabon. Mount Snowdon is the home of the four storm-bringing eagles who are depicted on my drum. Just before we left, I stepped off on my own and found a suitable perch from which to view the mountain. I wanted to re-connect with my eagle companions. It had been a while. Facing the mountain across the lake, I raised my arms from my sides and spread them as wings. Without even thinking about it, I found my spirit soaring across the waters of the lake in eagle form and heading for the clouds that wreathed the mountain-top. There I found my eagle companions and greeted them. I took a moment to enjoy wheeling around the mountain with them, then broke away to return to Cae Mabon and my body. I knew that my companions would be anxious to be underway. It was a beautiful, magical moment and I give thanks to the spirits.

 

Barry has written a beautiful poem/song about our time at Cae Mabon and Anglesey, which is available online as a rather lovely sound file on which Barry plays the World Drum and his lilting bagpipes while the sound of the Cae Mabon stream rushes along and he speaks/sings his words. The text is on the same page, and you can find both at http://www.redsandstonehill.net/2013/04/world-drum-at-cae-mabon.html

 

Enjoy!

 

As ever, the photos here are by Elaine Gregory, aka Elaine Wildways.

 

On first visiting the Avebury henge in Wiltshire in the mid-1970s, I came to the same conclusion that the antiquary, John Aubrey, arrived at after his first visit in 1649, which is that Avebury "doth as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doth a parish church." In scale, it certainly does, Avebury's massive bank and ditch enclosing an area of 28.5 acres compared to Stonehenge's humble 1.9. In spite of having half a village built inside it and being sliced in two by a busy main road, Avebury also retains an extraordinary atmosphere. On my first visit, it felt like an active, living sacred site.
As I strolled around the south inner circle, I had a vision in which I saw the body of a grey-haired man lying on a wicker-work stretcher next to the base of one of the sarsen stones. Kneeling by him was a woman of a similar age who I took to be his partner. She was singing a keening song and wafting her hands across the dead man's chest. I got the distinct impressions that she was singing the man's soul into the sarsen, and that this was a common practice among her people. About a dozen other women and men stood in a loose semi-circle around the couple, all facing in towards the stone. Some of them were also singing, while the women were supporting the woman's wafting motions. All were dressed in clothing of rough-woven cloth and skins that suggested they had lived about 4 - 4.5 thousand years ago. This vision gave me the clear idea that one of the functions of the stones in megalithic circles was to act as soul-shrines, receptacles for the spirits of the dead in which they would reside after death as continuing members of their tribes.
Avebury Funeral RiteIt is this vision that I've tried to recapture in the illustration here, made for one of the booklets in the BDO ovate course, one on rituals of death and dying. I began with a photo taken by my son Joe next to the very stone where I had the vision 37 years ago. In it, I play the dead man and Elaine Wildways plays my grieving partner. Since our photo was taken on a bright sunny early afternoon, while the vision was set at twilight, I darkened the sky and some of the surrounding landscape. The over-large moon and the rook were added from another photo of Avebury taken at another time. They were added just because I think they look good. The wolfskin covering my body was also added digitally. I also played around with the colours a bit. I thought about including some of the other figures I had seen in the vision but decided not to as they would have partially hidden the central couple. If you're thinking the image really looks digitally manipulated, that's deliberate. There's something about the weird accidents that happen when digitally playing around with pictures that, for me at least, gives them an Otherworldly appearance which is exactly what I was looking for.
Intriguingly, the archaeologist, Mike Parker-Pearson, believes that the stones at Stonehenge are soul-shrines, having been led to this conclusion when he invited
Ramilisonina, a colleague from Madagascar, to visit Stonehenge in the 1990s. Ramilisonina told him that, in Madagascar, there is a still active megalithic tradition in which the souls of the dead are transferred into stones that are regarded as sacred. He strongly felt that the stones of Stonehenge had the same function.
It's interesting, though ultimately futile, to speculate whether Mike Parker-Pearson would have so readily accepted the same opinion from me, an English Druid, if I had shared my vision with him. Somehow, I doubt it. There is a peculiar cultural bias by which spirit vision is perfectly acceptable as 'evidence' if it comes from a person born into a culture regarded as 'traditional,' 'tribal,' 'shamanic,' or 'aboriginal,' but not if it comes from an English, European or American Druid or Pagan. Why this should be so is not entirely obvious, since we are all humans and share exactly the same capacity to have visions and to commune with ancestral spirits. It's almost as if there's a kind of inverted racism at work. Just a thought ...