If you’ve ever wondered what modern Druids believe and what they get up to inspired by their beliefs, then this book is a must for you. It had already created quite a buzz in the Druid community prior to its publication and it not only lives up to expectations but exceeds them. Here I must declare an interest, having been a Druid since 1974, founded the British Druid Order, having many friends in other Druid groups and having worked full-time as a Druid since 1995. This makes me an ideal market for the book, but you don’t need a similar level of commitment to enjoy it. Indeed, anyone with an interest in modern Druidry, Paganism or what academics sometimes call ‘New Religious Movements’ will find it a fascinating and incredibly rich source of detailed, well-researched information. Nothing like it has been attempted before and it will undoubtedly stand as a definitive work for years to come, informing current researchers and hopefully inspiring further research on its subject as well as providing unprecedented insights for the general reader.
It draws on a world survey of Druids conducted by the author(right) over a two-year period. The questionnaire (still available online) is very well constructed, consisting of 189 separate items, allowing respondents to expand on their answers and providing 18 open-ended questions specifically aimed at encouraging longer responses. The fact that the author is a Druid herself encouraged Druid groups to promote the survey online, resulting in 725 respondents from 34 countries returning completed forms, providing detailed insights into all aspects of modern Druidry. White carefully analysed this mass of information, breaking down the results into the book’s eight chapters. These cover Druidry as a personal path, how Druids interact with the world, Druid theology, ritual, meditation, seasonal festivals, etc. In short, all of present-day Druidical life is here, all illustrated with relevant quotes from practising Druids. The sheer quantity of information is astonishing and the author has done a remarkable job in breaking it down into accessible chunks. Whenever the data looks like becoming too complex for words alone, she provides clear, informative bar or pie charts to make it clear.
Having been involved in Druidry for nearly half a century, you’d think there wouldn’t be much I didn’t know about it. You’d be wrong. While the book supports much that I already knew or suspected, either anecdotally or from personal observation, it also contains several surprises, some welcome, others less so. In the latter category, I was shocked to learn the extent to which modern Druids are actively persecuted, primarily by Christians. I genuinely thought we had progressed beyond the kind of medieval thinking that prompts such persecution, yet some Druids, particularly in the USA, still fear to ‘come out’ about their beliefs, even to members of their own families. Globally, the survey reveals that 19% fear discrimination, 17% fear harassment and 8% fear physical assault. These numbers are significantly higher in the USA.
A more welcome finding is the extent to which Nature plays a part in modern Druidry. Those of us who run Druid groups are always banging on about communing with the natural world and its indwelling spirits, but it’s hard to know to what extent the message actually gets through. At least, it was until this book arrived. When asked to rank the importance of different influences on their spirituality, 91% put Nature at the top of the list, 71% Nature spirits. Yay! It’s working! Clearly Druidry warrants its description as a ‘Nature Spirituality’ in the book’s subtitle. 85% of Druids, for example, report being actively engaged in some form of environmental stewardship.
Having spent the last 15 years creating distance learning courses for the BDO, I was also pleased to find Druid courses cited as a major influence by around half of Druids worldwide. That said, another surprise was how many Druids practice their path alone or with a partner, rarely if ever engaging with group celebrations.
As a ‘hard polytheist,’ defined by the author as one who sees their gods as “objectively real,” I was intrigued to find that this belief is shared by only 15% of respondents, while 49% identify as ‘soft polytheists,’ i.e. those who “typically work with their pantheons in a symbolic manner,” and 37% as ‘pantheists,’ regarding “all of Nature [as], in essence, a single, divine consciousness.” The sheer variety of belief revealed in the survey is remarkable. By contrast, chapter 8 is devoted to “Druidry’s Spiritual Common Core.” This finds a shared set of core beliefs that define modern Druidry. Again, engagement with the natural world features prominently.
At the end of the book, the author provides a useful and admirably clear Glossary offering succinct definitions of terms used in the text, including deities from numerous pantheons, folk and seasonal festivals engaged in by Druids, and terms such as ‘animism,’ ‘awen’ and ‘imbas.’ The survey form is included as an Appendix while another lists 147 Druid groups worldwide.
A final thing to commend the book is simply its look and feel. The hardback is a thing of genuine beauty. The attractive, dark blue dust jacket is printed on a high quality paper that feels like velvet while the book inside is fully cloth-bound in a matching shade of blue. It’s a joy to handle, the text clear and readable, the photographs well-chosen and clearly reproduced.
In bringing together such a wealth of information and presenting it with such crystal clarity, Larisa A. White has done a great service to the Druid community, the broader Pagan community, those interested in ‘New Religious Movements’ and general readers with an interest in contemporary spirituality more broadly and with how spirituality impacts on environmental concerns. I therefore wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend this unique and fascinating book.
Yale University Press, 2017 ISBN 9780300229042 xv, 360 pages, illustrated
‘The Witch’ is a work of huge ambition, spanning tens of thousands of years and taking in every inhabited continent. The title, even including the subtitle, scarcely does it justice. While it’s main focus is on the image of the witch across time and in many cultures, it ranges far beyond that central theme, taking in religious and political history, folklore, ceremonial magic, shamanism and more, in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Its scope is an important part of the book’s raison d’etre and appeal. Rather than focus on a narrow exploration of Witchcraft trials in early modern Europe, it seeks to place the phenomenon of European witchcraft in a deeper historical and global context. In doing so it opens up new debates and offers fresh perspectives on existing ones. Few historians are better equipped for this task than Ronald Hutton, whose previous work has ranged from the Reformation to Druidry via modern Wicca and Siberian Shamanism.
In discussing witchcraft and perceptions of it, it is necessary to define what the term witchcraft has meant to most people in most cultures and at most times. In making such a definition, it is necessary to compare witchcraft with other forms of human engagement with spiritual forces including religion, shamanism and ceremonial magic. To do so requires defining each of these. This the author does with admirable lucidity. Of course, not everyone will agree with the definitions arrived at, and Hutton himself admits that they are contestable. The chosen definition of witchcraft itself may prove contentious, even though it is firmly based on the most common use of the term over many centuries, that being a means by which individuals seek to harness spiritual powers and/or magic to harm others.
For this reason alone, The Witch may prove as divisive of opinion in the Pagan community as Hutton’s previous works on the subject, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford University Press, 1999), and Witches, Druids & King Arthur (Hambledon, 2003). For those who might get apoplectic, it is worth remembering that this is about witchcraft as commonly defined throughout history, not about the present day constructs of Wicca, ‘white’ witchcraft, ‘hereditary’ witchcraft and related Pagan traditions that were the subjects of those earlier works. Having trained in Alexandrian Wicca in the late 1970s, I have often suggested to Wiccan friends and colleagues that a simple way to improve the public image of Wicca would be to discard the use of the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ in describing themselves and what they do. Having described myself as a Druid from the mid-1970s, before joining my coven, I have long been aware of the very different public responses to the terms ‘witch’ and ‘Druid,’ the former being largely hostile, the latter largely positive, albeit tarnished in recent years by the aggressive militancy of an unfortunately vocal minority.
One of the book’s innovations is the creation of a new description of those who use magic largely to benefit others, often in return for payment, as ‘service magicians.’ This useful term covers a wide range of medicine men, witch doctors, wise women, cunning folk, shamans and the like who may use techniques similar to those attributed to witches but who use them, on the whole, benevolently rather than malevolently, defensively rather than offensively, often for reversing the perceived effects of witchcraft.
My one problem with the book results directly from its ambitious scope: even with 300 pages of text and the use of a fairly small font, there are innumerable points passed over in a single sentence about which one would like to know so much more. Just on page 224, for example, there is a brief reference to a 16th century male magician in Dorset who contacted the fairy folk “in their homes inside prehistoric burial mounds.” Living in the West Country, not too far from Dorset, I would love to know more about John Walsh, as he is named in the endnotes. The same paragraph refers to a “Susan Swapper, a reputed service magician at the Sussex port of Rye, in 1609.” I went to school in Rye for 12 years, yet had never heard of this woman and would love to know more about her. Knowing the way publishing works, I imagine that the publisher insisted on a page limit. If this is so, I wish Yale University Press had been a lot more generous with their allowance. Under the circumstances, it’s as well that the author provides nearly 50 pages of carefully referenced notes. These have led me to seek out John Walsh’s confession online and to invest £15 in the book, Rye Spirits, by Annabel Gregory (The Hedge Press, 2013), and £60 in The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, by Emma Wilby (Sussex Academic Press, 2010).
Over the years, Professor Hutton has done a great deal to inspire academic research into paganisms old and new. This book represents a summary of the current state of research into the historical figure of the witch and other magic users and, as such, also points to where gaps in our knowledge remain to be filled. From the chapter devoted to ‘Witches and Fairies,’ for example, there is clearly scope for a substantial book just on the relationship between British magic users and the fairy folk as recorded in trial documents and other sources from the mid-15th century to the 18th. Throughout this period and right across the British Isles, such relationships often involved accessing the fairy realm via earthen mounds, meeting with a fairy queen and being taught various healing techniques by the fairy folk. The fairy folk referred to are not of the tiny, Edwardian, butterfly-winged variety, but are human sized, often spirits of dead humans known to the magician, sometimes shape-shifters.
In a brief review, it is impossible to do justice to the sheer range of information contained in this book. It is stuffed to the gunwales with everything from illuminating minutiae to grand ideas, all woven together with Hutton’s accustomed skill, clarity and insight. It’s not surprising the book was twenty-five years in the making, nor that research assistants were employed to make possible the task of sifting through the vast number of works consulted.
Having read most of the author’s books since 1991’s seminal Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, I am increasingly impressed by the care with which he credits previous researchers in the fields covered. In this, as in much else, Hutton shows an unusual generosity of spirit. The present work is no exception. At each step of the way, full and fair acknowledgement is given to earlier writers and their ideas. This is part of what might be called the Hutton Project, which is not only to present histories of the various topics on which he writes, but to detail the history of those histories through reflecting on the lives and opinions of the historians who have formulated our understanding of the past.
The book is in three parts, Part 1, entitled ‘Deep Perspectives,’ consists of the first three chapters, ‘The Global Context,’ ‘The Ancient Context,’ and ‘The Shamanic Context.’ Part 2, ‘Continental Perspectives,’ consists of four chapters, ‘Ceremonial Magic – An Egyptian Legacy,’ ‘The Hosts of the Night,’ ‘What the Middle Ages Made of the Witch,’ and ‘The Early Modern Patchwork.’ Part 3, ‘British Perspectives,’ discusses ‘Witches and Fairies,’ ‘Witches and Celticity,’ and ‘Witches and Animals.’
I suspect that this is a book that will resonate in the academic study of witchcraft and magic for some time to come, helping set the agenda for future research and encouraging that research to expand its range and ambition. I certainly hope so. For the non-academic, it is not an easy read simply due to being so densely packed with information. For this reason, I suspect its impact in the modern Pagan community will be considerably less than many of Hutton’s previous works. This is unfortunate, since it offers not merely food for thought but a veritable ten course banquet.
A new TV series called Britannia takes as its setting the Claudian invasion of Britain in 43 CE which began almost 400 years of Roman occupation of England and Wales. In the community at large, the main talking point seems to be whether or not Britannia is trying to be another Game of Thrones clone. In the Druid community, the major topic of debate is the show’s portrayal of Druids. In weighing into these discussions, I am at the considerable disadvantage of being unable to see the programme in question due to not being a subscriber to Sky. That said, I’ll have a go based on what little I’ve been able to glean from brief clips online and other people’s comments.
The chief Druid in the series is portrayed by Mackenzie Crook (above), most recently gracing our screens in the excellent BBC series, Detectorists. In Britannia, he is heavily made up and seems to portray his character as something between a circus performer and a homicidal maniac. Some modern Druids have been quoted in the press as being deeply offended by this portrayal on the grounds that modern Druids are peace-loving people who honour the cycles of nature. In most cases, this is undoubtedly true. I’m a life-long pacifist myself. We may, however, legitimately ask whether the same was true of Druids two thousand years ago. Classical Druids’ ability to bring peace to warring factions is evidenced in Diodorus Siculus’ 1st century BCE statement that, “Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses.”
On the other hand, classical Druids relied for their livelihood on the patronage of the warrior caste that formed the upper echelons of Celtic society, while some Celtic sacred sites were decorated with human skulls (right) or piled with the bones of the dead. Then there are the Druids in medieval Irish literature who use battle magic against their enemies, hurling balls of fire or causing rocks to rain down from the heavens. There is also evidence for human sacrifice among the Celts, albeit on nothing like the industrial scale suggested by their Roman conquerors. Need these have involved Druids? Diodorus Siculus (left) suggests that they did, writing that the Celts “have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour and are called Druids. It is a custom of the Gauls that no one performs a sacrifice without the assistance of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to the gods ought only to be made through the mediation of these men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak, familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the blessings of the gods should properly be sought.”
Even from this fragmentary and at times dubious evidence, it seems likely that classical Druids were considerably more robust in their approach to life and death than many contemporary Druids are willing to believe.
The makers of Britannia, however, clearly take Roman descriptions of Druids as the basis for their portrayal. This is problematic in that the Romans were intent on conquering the Celts and as part of that agenda they needed to demonise their intellectual caste, the Druids, since they represented the only organisation in Celtic society capable of uniting warring tribes to resist Roman plans for conquest. To this end, Roman writers characterised Druids as the most bloodthirsty members of a savage race, accusing them of all manner of barbarity, including nailing people’s entrails to trees and making them run around them, divining the future from their death throes. Greek writers, by contrast, who were well acquainted with the Celts, described Druids as wise philosophers, eloquent speakers and counsellors to kings. From what I can gather, Britannia over-emphasises the brutality of Druids for dramatic effect while downplaying the other activities for which Druids were noted, like storytelling, genealogy, healing, music, poetry and the aforementioned counselling.
It seems that the Druids in Britannia are also portrayed as regular drug users. There is absolutely no evidence for this. On the contrary, I suspect that the inhabitants of 1st century CE Britain would have felt much that same as the more recent inhabitants of Siberia, i.e. that any Druid or shaman who needed drugs to access the Otherworld was pretty lousy at their job.
On the whole, then, it looks as though the portrayal of Druids in Britannia revels in dope and gore to excess and ignores most of the other priestly functions Druids fulfilled in their communities. This should go down well in America, where, for historical reasons, the Roman view of Druids as barbaric monsters has always been prevalent.
Incidentally, I note that Britannia Druids are shown gathering in a sort of two storey Stonehenge (above). This will doubtless revive the old argument about Druids being a Celtic priesthood and the Celts not arriving in Britain until many centuries after such megalithic monuments were abandoned. Here again, all may not be as it seems. Julius Caesar, one of the few classical writers who actually met Druids, was told by them that the Druid faith originated in Britain (Gallic Wars, bk.6, ch.13). Celtic culture, on the other hand, originated in central Europe. Assuming Caesar’s informants were accurately reporting their tradition and that Caesar accurately passed on their words, this means that Druids were not Celtic in origin, but native to Britain before Celtic culture arrived here. In which case, as many reputable archaeologists have argued, it is possible that Druids were directly descended from those who built and used Stonehenge and other monuments. There were Iron Age shrines in southern Britain which, like many of their megalithic predecessors, consisted of timber circles enclosed by earthwork banks and ditches, arguing for some continuity of tradition. Iron Age and Romano-British finds at megalithic sites such as the Medway tomb-shrines show that they continued to be visited, though for what reasons we can only speculate. The Iron Age hill fort known as Vespasian's Camp lies a little over a mile from Stonehenge, a short stroll away and Iron Age and Romano-British pottery and other artefacts have been found within the henge. It seems impossible to believe that Druids would not re-use at least some of the stone circles built by their, and our, ancestors. It is hard to imagine that they would not have felt the same sense of ancestral connection and simple wonder that we ourselves feel when we visit such places, even harder to believe that they would simply ignore them.
I’ll probably watch Britannia when it comes out on dvd. After all, when Emma Restall Orr and I (left) sat on a bench watching the rough, grey winter sea at Eastbourne way back in the 1990s, discussing the future direction of the British Druid Order, we decided to make it our goal to bring sex, fear and death back into Druidry. In Britannia, we may have found an ally. In any case, a show that uses Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ as a theme tune can’t be all bad…
“Histories of ages past, unenlightened shadows cast down through all eternity the crying of humanity. ‘Twas then when a hurdy gurdy man come singing songs of love….”
by Brendan Myers 2013, Moon Books, Winchester (UK) and Washington (US) 313 pages £11.99 UK, $20.95 US Listening to religious broadcasts on BBC radio for many years, I'm frequently struck by the easy assumption of so many speakers that only monotheistic faiths have ever made any valuable contribution to culture. This despite the fact that pagans invented philosophy, democracy, scientific enquiry, medicine, representational art and much else besides. I've often thought that someone should write a book detailing the history of pagan contributions to the world in general, and the Western world in particular. Brendan Myers has written just such a book on the theme of philosophy, and a very welcome, highly readable book it is too, full of illuminating insights. I know some folk are put off by the very mention of philosophy, thinking that a book on the subject must be dry, dusty and full of abstruse terminology and highly abstract notions that have nothing whatever to do with life as it is lived. In these areas, Myers scores very highly by not burdening his text with technical jargon, explaining with precision and clarity the terms he does use and, with warm humanity, revealing the many ways in which philosophy not only effects us, but in many ways defines us, individually and collectively. At the heart of the whole project of philosophy is the search for answers to questions concerning reality, divinity, humanity and our role in the universe, what happens to us when we die, and how should we best live our lives? With this in mind, Myers (left) introduces us to a range of philosophers, from the classical, Graeco-Roman era through to the present century, setting out with admirable brevity the ideas that are central to their philosophies. Those of us with an interest in the subject, but neither the time nor patience to wade through thousands of pages of texts in search of hidden nuggets must be hugely grateful that a writer with such a keen mind has done the wading for us, located the nuggets and set them out before us so clearly. The philosophers we meet along the way represent a wide spectrum and some may seem like surprising inclusions. Some historians may question the inclusion of medieval texts produced in Iceland and Ireland, arguing that they were written well into the Christian era and cannot, therefore, accurately reflect pagan beliefs. Their influence on modern Pagans is, however, unquestionable, and one could convincingly argue that they deserve to be included on that score alone. That said, I am convinced that Myers has teased out from among them a set of values that is authentically pagan. We're on less contentious ground with our next batch of philosophers, beginning with the Pre-Socratics and taking in such famous names as Pythagoras (left), Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Plotinus, as well as a number of lesser known luminaries. Once again, Myers succeeds in making their contributions to human understanding readily comprehensible to any moderately intelligent reader. He places them in their historical context, outlines the various schools of philosophy they founded or influenced, and explains how they fit into the evolving scheme of human understanding of our place in the universe. This section closes with a consideration of how pagan ideas returned to the mainstream of European thought during the Renaissance, revitalising not only philosophy, but art, literature and politics. The third section introduces us to a rebellious group of free-thinkers whose work enlivened the so-called Age of Reason, from the mid-17th century through to the 19th. These include two names familiar to anyone who knows the history of Druidry; the Irishman, John Toland (1670-1722), and the Welshman, Edward Williams (right), a.k.a. Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826). Again, it's good to have such a clear, concise exposition of what these colourful characters actually believed. Others in this section include Spinoza, Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Schopenhauer and Neitzsche. As Myers admits, none of these gentlemen would have called themselves pagans, yet it's clear from what they wrote that they were part of a tradition of thought that can justifiably be described as pagan. Usually, it is a spiritual, inspirational, sometimes visionary relationship with Nature that marks them out for inclusion in this book. The next section leads us through the lives and thoughts of another disparate group of colourful eccentrics and outsiders whose thinking has had a profound influence on the modern resurgence of Paganism. These include the founder of Theosophy, H. P. Blavatsky; Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough; the poet, Robert Graves (left, with one of his muses), whose book, The White Goddess, became, despite its author's protestations, a foundational text of both modern Wicca and Druidry; Aleister Crowley, George Russell (AE), whose Candle of Vision, I learn from Myers, was written as the core manual for a Celtic magical order, the Castle of Heroes, proposed by AE's friend, W. B. Yeats; Stewart Farrar, who annotated and published the first full version of the Wiccan Book of Shadows; and Isaac Bonewits, founder of the influential American Druid group, ADF. Along the way, we are guided through the birth of American feminist Wicca, the rise of eco-spirituality and the development of the Gaia hypothesis and the Deep Ecology movement. Given the deep impact that both feminism and ecology have had, and continue to have, on our world, it is fascinating to know where, when and how they developed and to learn more about the individuals involved. We move then to living Pagan thinkers, several of whom would not describe themselves as philosophers, but whose writings have been profoundly influential on the development of Paganism in the present century. These include such well-known figures as Starhawk (Miriam Simos), Emma Restall Orr (Bobcat), John Michael Greer, Michael York, Vivianne Crowley (right), Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone. I realise that I'm less familiar with the works of Greer and York than I should be and intend to remedy that as soon as possible. It's one of the joys of books like this one that they inspire us to explore further. I'm honestly awestruck at the sheer range of ideas included in a book just a little over 300 pages long. That they are all explained with such clarity is a huge bonus. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the enormous contributions pagans have made to human understanding, in what leading modern Pagans think and believe, and in where pagan philosophical thought might go from here. In creating this book, Brendan Myers has done a huge service to the Pagan community. Exceptional and highly recommended. Many blessings, Greywolf /|\
by Barbara Meiklejohn-Free & Flavia Kate Peters Moon Books, Winchester, UK & Washington, US, 2015 £9.99 (UK) $16.95 (US) 146 pages There may be those who feel the following review is a case of, as the old adage goes, “the pot calling the kettle black.” I disagree, but then I would, wouldn't I? Knowing how much work goes into producing a book, and, as a writer myself, aware of how much bad reviews can sting, I really, seriously dislike writing negative ones. Hence I've sat on this review for several weeks, arguing with myself and others over whether to publish it or not. However, having been given the book to review by the publisher, I feel obliged to offer an opinion, and, of course, it has to be an honest one or what's the point? The authors of The Shamanic Handbook both seem to live in England, yet refer to the “British Celtic Lands” with no acknowledgement that England, for better or worse the dominant British nation, has a culture that is predominantly Romanised, Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman, not Celtic. To call these islands “British Celtic” is, therefore, to ignore the last 2,000 years of their history. Perhaps they mean the term to apply only to Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and perhaps Cornwall and Ireland? If so, it would be good to know that and not simply have the contentious term, 'Celtic' bandied about without explanation. Despite many references to these “Celtic lands,” most of the Old World traditions referenced in the book are either Graeco-Roman or Egyptian. This gives the impression that the writers are following in the footsteps of numerous New Age authors and simply using 'Celtic' as a popular buzz-word. On her website, Barbara Meiklejohn-Free claims to have been born in Scotland. The book, however, has no mention of this in the short chapter on ancestors, which ends in a very non-Celtic way with the Lakota phrase, mitakuye oyasin, usually translated as “all my (or our) relations.” The term, 'shaman' is used with equal abandon, though with a little more explanation, albeit not until page 130, when it is acknowledged that the word “most likely” originates with the Evenk people of Siberia. On the same page, the authors admit that “There have been many heated debates about using the name 'Shaman.'” They conclude that “This is an individual and personal choice, which carries a great personal responsibility, for words have power and names have meanings.” Words also make up languages, and languages are a vital component of the cultures in which they develop and are used. Personally, my choice is informed by sensitivity towards the people amongst whom spiritual traditions originated, who have guarded and transmitted them for untold generations, and who see them as vital to the survival of their cultures and peoples. Few of my friends who follow paths that might be described as shamanistic call themselves 'shamans.' Most, like me, either use terms specific to their own cultures or non-culturally-specific terms such as 'spirit worker.' Another aspect of the book I find problematic is that Native American concepts, terminology and ceremonies feature prominently throughout it, with no attempt whatsoever to address the question of cultural appropriation. A gathering of the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota peoples more than twenty years ago declared war on non-Native New Agers who 'steal' Native American spirituality and sell it for profit, and many other Native Americans equally strongly oppose what they see as the ultimate act of theft committed against their people. Hence my unease that so much of the spiritual language in this book is couched in Native American, specifically Lakota, terms, and that several exercises given in it are derived from Lakota sacred ceremonies. We are given no indication as to why, or by what right, two British women are offering these things to us. Without such background information, this smacks of 'Wannabee Indian Syndrome.' A Native American friend, TC (short for Thundercloud), once asked me to convey a message to people in Europe. He said “Tell 'em not to put us Indians on pedestals; we're liable to fall off.” Based on the contents of this book, it seems that its authors have not got this message. The path I was drawn to is Druidry, in large part because, so far as we can know, it originated here in Britain, where I was born, where I still live, and where my ancestors lived as far back as it is possible to trace. My ancestry combines Welsh, Scottish and Anglo-Saxon blood lines, so while my spirituality is rooted in Druidry and its antecedents, I also honour Anglo-Saxon deities. This makes sense to me, genetically and geographically. Like the authors of this book, I sometimes travel to other parts of the world. I have taken part in drum circles with Quileute and Makah folk of the Pacific Northwest. In doing so, I follow the beats and, so far as I am able, the words, of the chants and songs, but do so as a British Druid, not as a Wannabee Indian. Like the authors, I gain great inspiration from interactions with indigenous peoples, but that inspiration helps me to renew, refresh or restore long-lost parts of my own native heritage. For example, I make drums with one of my sons. Some aspects of the process derive from videos posted online by Native American drum-makers, others were inspired by Central Asian, Norwegian, Siberian and Irish drum-making practices. I believe that frame drums of a similar type were once made in Britain, though I know of no specific evidence. Being organic and quite thin, frame drums rarely leave any archaeological trace. We use locally sourced materials. Barbara Meiklejohn-Free has drums made in the USA and imported to the UK to sell. They are mentioned many times in the book and described in detail. I'm sure they're very good drums, but the trees from which the hoops are made, and the animals whose hides form the drum-skins, lived in a land thousands of miles away, separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean. When there are many fine drum-makers here in Britain, why import drums from such a distant land? Apart from anything else, what about the carbon footprint from having them flown all that way? The same goes for Californian Sage, also referenced repeatedly in the book, which she also imports and sells. Again, why? Clearly because it's used by Native Americans. However, we have our own British tradition of cleansing and purifying with smoke, commonly known by the Scottish term, 'saining.' We have our own native herbs that can be used for this, including Mugwort (left), St. John's Wort, Yarrow, Meadowsweet and others. None are mentioned here. Instead, the section on herbs is basically one long advert for the imported Sage bundles that Barbara sells. This seems doubly strange since she claims to have been taught “the Old Ways” by a Scottish seer from the age of twelve. Perhaps saining was not one of the old ways he introduced her to. In curious contrast, the authors refer to “dire consequences” resulting when hallucinogenic plants, or “plant medicines” as they call them, are used away from their native geographical and cultural context. Here I am in agreement with them, but this simply makes their failure to apply the same principle to other sacred herbs and tools all the more baffling. The sheer quantity of product placement in the book means that at times it reads more like a sales catalogue than a guide to a spiritual tradition. While I am the first to acknowledge that spirit workers have a right to be paid for what we do just as much as any other profession, I am uncomfortable with the amount of overt advertising here, where we are continually told of products available at the back of the book. Ironically, on turning to the back, there is no information about the products. This calls attention to other technical problems with the book, including many typographical errors, the seemingly random ordering of information, and the frequent repetition of the same information in slightly different forms. I'm not sure what went wrong here, as Moon Books are usually good on proof-reading. The book is clearly pitched at people interested in the Michael Harner, Californian school of New Age global shamanism. Although there is no shortage of advice for them, and some of it is good, it is a shame that it is wrapped up in so much that is contentious, poorly explained or entirely unexplained. My advice to those seeking spiritual sustenance is to first look to the traditions of your own land and ancestry. If you live elsewhere in the world but your ancestors are European, look to your ancestral traditions first. For other combinations, use your common sense. Begin with those traditions with which your ancestry gives you a natural affinity. Engage with them as fully and deeply as you can, immerse yourself if them, allow them to become your key to engaging with the spirits around you. Then, when you are fully and firmly grounded in your own native tradition, you can engage on an equal footing with practitioners of other traditions wherever you go, with mutual respect and without accusations of cultural theft. Books offering sound, practical introductions to native British traditions have been available since the early 1990s and there are many to choose from. For those seeking an overtly shamanistic approach to those traditions that is well-written, inspiring, practical, and culturally coherent, I recommend 'The Druid Shaman,' by Danu Forest (Moon Books, 2014). OK, it does have that problematic word, 'shaman,' right there in the title, but the author is aware of the problem and uses it in its broad anthropological sense as a shorthand to alert potential readers to the style of Druidry found within it. As a title, 'The Druid Shaman' is considerably less ungainly than 'a Druid way of engaging with spirits of plants and animals, land, sea, sky, gods and ancestors for the purposes of bringing about healing or divining hidden knowledge for the benefit of one's community.' I still look forward to the day when we no longer need to use 'shaman' as a shorthand because people understand Druidry as an indigenous tradition without the need to qualify it as 'shamanistic.' One day... Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass) October 9th, 2015
This little book is a joy to read, delving into the lives and works of some well-known, and many lesser-known, British and Irish literary figures in search of the origins of contemporary Paganisms. The writers, five men and five women, are selected because the philosophies that underpin their writings place them all in the category of Nature Mystics, defined by the author as “someone who has mystical experiences in nature, or connects to the divine through nature, and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration.” The familiar writers are John Keats, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit. The less familiar are Mary Webb, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth von Arnim and Mary Butts. Rebecca Beattie (left) writes with admirable clarity about her chosen authors, her format being first to give a brief overview of them, followed by an account of their lives, their spirituality, and then their writings, quoting passages to show how their spirituality is expressed in their work. Within this format she offers many, often surprising, insights into both the authors and their works. The only writers about whose lives I knew much were Yeats and Tolkien, plus a little about D. H. Lawrence, so it was a pleasure to learn more about the others. About the life of Sylvia Townsend Warner (below), whose work I have admired for many years, I knew nothing. It turns out to have been every bit as unusual as her published work. In her youth, she was a member of the 'Bright Young Things,' the 1920s equivalent of the 'Swinging London' scene of the 1960s and just as interested in drugs, sex and parties. At 19, she began a lengthy affair with a much older, married man. At 34, she fell in love with another woman, a transvestite poet called Valentine Ackland, and they set up home in rural Dorset, living together as though married for nearly forty years. Her first novel was Lolly Willowes, published in 1926, in which the eponymous heroine moves to a country cottage and joins the village's coven of witches, going out with them once a month to dance with the devil. Lolly, however, finds that she fits in with this rustic coven just as poorly as she fitted in with the well-to-do county set of her youth. Telling the devil she finds the coven boring, our heroine walks off into the night. In Nature Mystics, we learn that Warner's account of the coven was inspired by Margaret Murray's book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, and that Warner sought Murray out, got to know her, and expressed a wish to “join her coven.” Numerous other biographical details prove equally illuminating. Who knew, for example, that Edith Nesbit(left), beloved author The Railway Children, Five Children and It, and other childhood classics, was also a member of Britain's most famous magical society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn? I certainly didn't. Nor did I realise that some of her lesser-known children's books contain plots and passages clearly influenced by her knowledge and practice of ceremonial magic with Golden Dawn colleagues that included W. B. Yeats, another of the featured writers. It is a credit to Rebecca Beattie's own gifts as writer that, as I read her accounts of these literary figures, I often found myself thinking, “Hmm, I must look out for a copy of ...” whichever of their books she happened to be discussing at the time. Two examples are Mary Webb's Precious Bane (1924) and her husband, Henry's, The Silences of the Moon (1911). Beattie has also inspired me to go back and read Sylvia Townsend Warner again. I first discovered Warner's work through a collection of short stories entitled Kingdoms of Elfin, in which her funny, charming, magical, often anarchic tales rescue the Faery Folk from their twee, butterfly-winged Victorian portrayal and return them to their origins as shape-shifting illusionists, scary pranksters or courtly nobles. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the literary background to modern Paganisms, or simply interested in learning more about the lives, loves, longings and spiritual insights of a wide range of great English writers. Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass) August 31st, 2015
eds. Paul Davies & Caitlin Matthews Foreword by Graham Harvey Afterword by Ronald Hutton Moon Books, Winchester (UK) & Washington (US), 2015. £8.99 UK, $14.95 US 198 pages
This book explores how we humans in the 21st century relate to the spirits of the lands in which we live, their other-than-human inhabitants, and our collective and individual ancestors. By a series of turns of fate, I'm writing my review in the ideal setting of a quiet garden, overlooked by an ancient oak tree that occasionally drops acorns around me as a pair of hunting Buzzards circle overhead, their piercing cries borne on a soft summer breeze. Ideal because it chimes so well with the subject matter of this hugely enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking book. Each of the thirteen writers brings a unique perspective, making it an absolute pleasure to read. Remarkable for its breadth and depth, this is the best-written, most refreshingly original anthology I've come across in years, and I'm not just saying that because I wrote one of its chapters. The book opens with a foreword by Graham Harvey (right), a Pagan academic who has done much to popularise the philosophy, or life-way, of Animism amongst modern Pagans and to enhance our understanding of it. The introduction by Paul Davies, known to his friends as Oddie, follows, setting out the parameters of the book and briefly running through each of its chapters and the areas they cover. The first chapter is by my friend, colleague and long-time companion, Emma Restall Orr. It is written in her unique style, combining poetry with precision, asking searching questions about dying, death, afterlives and how we, the living, interact with the dead. As a true visionary who genuinely does see dead people pretty much all the time, she is ideally suited to her task. My own chapter follows, detailing my personal relationship with Wolf spirits and with animals as ancestors, a concept that occurs in many archaic cultures, including those that comprise the British Isles. Emma is far from the only friend and colleague in these pages. The next chapter, by Heathen academic, Jenny Blain (left), outlines a Heathen approach to ancestors, land wights and other spirit beings, particularly through the type of trance mediumship known as Seidr. Another Heathen academic, Robert Wallis, follows this with what is, for me, one of the stand-out chapters of the book and, indeed, one of the best pieces of Pagan writing I've ever read. He describes in clear, poetic prose how his practice as a Heathen intersects with every aspect of his life, weaving his spirit and spirituality into the landscape around his home in so many ways, from early morning hunting forays with his hawk companion to acknowledging the lives of the labourers who built and dwelt in the 18th century cottage he now inhabits. Honestly, this chapter is such a joy to read that I would recommend the book on the strength of it alone. It is, however, far from alone. The next chapter is by Caitlin Matthews (right) who, with her partner, John, has done so much to enhance Pagan awareness of the Celtic heritage of the British Isles. Her chapter is the first to offer specific meditation exercises aimed at enhancing our relationship with spirits of place and, through them, with the earth and the ancestral chains of being to which all living things belong. That's not to say that previous and subsequent chapters won't also encourage you to find, form and maintain new, different or enhanced relationships with the natural and spirit worlds. Each contribution is, in its own way, written with that aim in mind. Camelia Elias (right) found inspiration for her contribution in the work of Colin Murray, late chief of the Golden Section Order, who expressed his own quest for spiritual meaning in part through complex drawings interweaving symmetrical shapes with natural forms. Camelia explains this far better than I can, but I was touched to find a reference to Colin Murray here, having enjoyed meeting him briefly at a festival in Polgooth many years ago. Another outstanding contribution follows, this from Sarah Hollingham, who eloquently describes her experiences of tuning in to the spirits of the natural world as a Quaker. Her description of a Quaker group forming a circle in the open air in a field and attuning to nature through meditation reminded me so much of so many Druid camps. The more I learn about Quakers, the more I admire their approach to life. Yet another stand-out chapter follows, this by Luzie U. Wingen (left), a geneticist who offers fascinating insights into the role of genetics in carrying information across time, and how what is carried may be altered by factors that include not only the survival of the fittest, but human manipulation and also sheer dumb luck, or the lack of it. Her primary examples are wheat, from its Anatolian origins to modern mono-cultures and beyond; oak trees and the ways in which they re-colonised the British Isles after the last Ice Age, some species becoming localised while others did not; and humans, in all our diversity, sprung from a single African origin. The clarity with which she writes is an object lesson in how to make science not only approachable but compelling. The next chapter, by David Loxley, head of The (Ancient) Druid Order, proved enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. He writes in a style that characterised New Age writing before the term New Age came into vogue, i.e. from about 1930 to around 1980. To take one example out of many, he relates the first three letters of the word 'ancestors' to the Egyptian symbol, the ankh, then goes on to claim that “The word 'ankh' is hidden in the English language in the word England, Angleland, or Ankhland.” Other equally bizarre assertions tell us that crowns worn by royalty were “originally a statement that they were representatives of the pole star on earth,” and that “shopping is a fertility rite, which we have inherited and interpreted into the past tense.” What does the latter sentence even mean? As said, I thought this school of spurious and illogical reasoning had died out decades ago. To find it here, amongst so many well-researched, well-argued pieces by other writers, merely adds to the impression of stumbling across a quaint relic of a bygone age. Then again, I suppose it has its place, if only on the grounds that The (Ancient) Druid Order were ancestral to the modern era's most successful Druid group, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. The latter are ably represented in the book's final chapter by Penny Billington (left), who has edited OBOD's Touchstone newsletter for the last fourteen years. Penny reflects on ways in which British legends are woven into our landscape and our national and personal identities, and how these affect our spiritual relationships with ourselves, our lands and our ancestors. In this brief run-through it's impossible to give more than a fleeting glimpse of the riches this collection has to offer. It concludes with an afterword by another old friend, Professor Ronald Hutton, Britain's leading historian of Paganism. Ronald's approach to history is rigorous and demanding, so it should come as no surprise that he brings a critical eye to this book, asking probing questions of the contributors before ending with these words, “This collection of essays shows how well a language of communion with the natural world and ancient peoples can still be expressed in the current time. If we can go on to work through the issues I have raised here, then we stand a very good chance of using our beliefs to make a real impact on society at large.” To which I can only say, Awen to that, brother … and I feel a sequel coming on. If you've ever wondered how modern Pagans and other spiritual folk are currently responding to issues to do with connecting with the spirits and the physical realities of nature and of our communal and individual ancestors, or if you are looking for ways to enhance your own relationships in these areas, then this richly rewarding, varied and profoundly inspiring book is the ideal place to look. Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass) 30th August, 2015.
'Steer by the Stars' is the latest offering from the wonderful Telling the Bees, fronted by my friend, Andy Letcher. The first thing to catch attention is the exquisite artwork by Rima Staines, as subtly executed, magical and strange as the music itself. The opening moments of each TTB album demonstrate what a pleasing texture of sound their mix of instruments creates, a silken pillow on which the band weaves our dreams and an encouraging glimpse of what's in store. On this album, when Andy's vocals come in on 'A Puppeteer Came Into Town,' the dream is a darkly Gothic one in which a travelling puppeteer receives and a somewhat mixed reaction to his shows. "With Bango, Beelzebub, Old Mr. Punch, I will jiggle the arcana round with my touch lest the shadows they grow ever longer." A lovely tune, picked out chiefly on the Anglo concertina. Track two is a lively bit of jiggery-pokery called 'Oxford May Song,' recounting the revels and capers that break out amongst the dreaming spires when May Day rolls around. Great interplay between Jane's fiddle and Josie's cello, plus a driving bass line from Colin that should have everyone up and dancing in seconds when played live. The next track is 'Windflower,' which has a gentle driving energy appropriate to the title. It's a love song and a lovely, deeply felt one at that, beautifully carried once again by the interplay of strings and bass with a perfectly-placed Anglo concertina augmenting the beat. Jane's fiddle soars gloriously in the instrumental section. 'Astrolabe' is not a word one finds often in modern music, but here it's the title and main feature of this mysterious ode that begins with the intriguing line, "Last night I saw Rachel turn into a bird..." The body of the beguiling tune is held together by the skeleton of Andy's gently strummed mandolin, embellished with Jim's Anglo concertina and subtle strings, plus beautiful backing vocals from Nomi. This song contains one of my favourite lines on the album: "Last night a whole generation turned to stone." I was there and he's right... Next up is 'One More Mazurka,' for which I can best quote a couple of lines: "The beautiful freaks are still dancing like it's the end of the world." It's easy to love a band who can take an old dance form and make of it a song that is by turns touching, melancholy, oddly uplifting and gloriously strange. Track 6 is, apparently, a traditional Swedish tune called 'The Oxberg March,' and features Andy's beautiful, haunting playing on the English bagpipes. It's the kind of march one imagines the inhabitants of Summerisle hearing as they weave their way towards their May Day sacrifice in the Wicker Man. 'St. Kevin and the Blackbird' is an uplifting tale of, well, a saint and a blackbird. 'Babylon' intelligently combines the mythical with the political, Middle Eastern religion with Middle Eastern wars, it's call for radical rethinking carried by a driving yet appropriately fragmented tune. "And still we bomb Babylon..." Picking up the political theme, 'I Fear These Tory Radicals' might, you'd think, be a brand new lyric composed for 2015. You'd be wrong. The words were penned in the first half of the 19th century by John Clare. "And they will be themselves as silent of our suffering as an old maid of her age..." The more things change, the more they stay the same. The newly written tune that accompanies the lyrics is suitably downbeat, with a decidedly funereal feel although, as ever, beautifully played. 'The Scholar Gypsy' is an old tale from Oxford town, and one that resonates with Andy's soul, causing him to admit, "I want to follow in his footsteps." "Now what he wanted above all else was Nature's secret commonwealth." The jaunty tune will keep your feet a-wandering like the Scholar Gypsy himself, bouncing along as the band build once again on the firm foundation of Andy's strummed mandolin. Finally, the title track of 'Steer by the Stars' opens with gentle guitar from Colin. Andy's vocals are floated into new and misty mystical heights with the addition of a wash of reverb. The bass line has the feel of ocean waves, the concertina provides instrumental hooks between lines as other instruments move hypnotically through the mix as the track moves towards silence following Andy's assurance that "wherever we land, the stars will guide us safely in." So may it be. This is Telling the Bees' third album and the musicianship, already brilliant on the first, continues to mature, taking on extra layers of subtlety and assurance. Andy's song-writing continues to be a strong element in the mix, combining unpretentious lyricism with a scholar's grasp of history, a poet's turn of phrase, a romantic's yearning and a knife-edged political awareness. This collection also benefits from superb production by the band themselves, resulting in some of the clearest, warmest sound quality I've heard on a CD for quite a while. Each instrument is perfectly balanced in the mix, as are the vocals, making a splendid set of songs even more of a joy to listen to. I was hooked on TTB from the first track on their début album, 'Untie the Wind.' The second, 'An English Arcanum,' established that the first had been no mere flash in the pan but that here is a band to be reckoned with. 'Steer by the Stars' confirms Telling the Bees as one of my favourite bands of all time*. Wonderful, magical, at times disturbing, often deeply strange ... just like life. Hail the Bees! Long may they reign!
Our afternoon session was on the theme of Celtic Connections and was opened by Simon Howell, interfaith officer for the diocese of Bath and Wells. Howell is, of course, an honest-to-goodness, proper Celtic name. On first seeing Simon at the conference, my assumption was that he was part of the Pagan group; shaven head, mainly black clothing, great line in cool t-shirts, etc. Indeed, looking at one of the group photos from the event, one Pagan friend commented that, twenty years ago, you could tell the Christians from the Pagans really easily. Simon's look was explained by his revelation of having been a drummer in various bands. He spoke of holding a drum workshop at Ammerdown with a group consisting of Christians, Jews and Muslims. In a fine tribute to the bardic aspect of our traditions, he said that a transcendent moment of the workshop came at its end when all joined in singing the great pacifist anthem of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement, 'We Shall Overcome,' most famously performed on record by the peerless Pete Seeger.
He said that interfaith dialogue often worked through telling each other stories of a Golden Age when the groups involved got on well together. In this context, Simon quoted John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis and many other works, referring to Druids as setting the scene for the coming of Christianity and as being a sort of spiritual fore-runner to it. He endeared himself to me further by then quoting my old friend, Ronald Hutton, on the same topic, saying that, far from being a time of harmony, the change of faith in Europe was fraught with difficulties, tensions and hostilities, with Roman Christians evincing an extreme dislike for pagans of all flavours. Simon quoted Ronald as describing John Michell as a visionary and romantic, both of which are admirable things to be.
Simon concluded his talk by expressing the widespread opinion, shared by both Pagans and Christians, that the modern age “lacks transcendence,” but that this may be reintroduced into our lives by stories, through which we may be “lifted through the veil and reach the peace of the Otherworld.”
Our second speaker in the afternoon session was another old friend, Philip Carr-Gomm, who began by explaining that interfaith dialogue between Druids and Christians is by no means new, going back at least three centuries. Indeed, many of the founding fathers (and yes, they were all men) of some branches of modern Druidry were Christian ministers. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Welsh Gorsedd, of which the Queen and former archbishop, Rowan Williams, are members, authored a number of popular Christian hymns. He explained that Iolo's Druidry represented what might be called a cultural Druidry. He suggested that the Ancient Order of Druids, of which Winston Churchill was a member, represented a similarly cultural rather than spiritual take on Druidry, and one that is essentially Christian.
Ross Nichols, who founded OBOD in 1964, was what Philip called “a questioning Christian,” an ordained deacon of a group called the Ancient Celtic Church. It may surprise many to know that, as Philip went on to say, Nichols' friend, Gerald Gardner, the father of modern Witchcraft, was also an ordained deacon of the related Ancient British Church.
Philip then asked “Is our conversation an appropriate one to be having?” He quoted the composer, John Taverner, as saying that “the mature religions are dying.” He also asked whether it was appropriate for Pagans to be looking back to the past for inspiration, suggesting that it might be moreso if we were doing it to slough off the accretions of the past and start afresh.
He spoke of aspects of contemporary Christianity that he saw as feeding back into Paganism as well as attempting to work alongside Pagans, suggesting that the two represent distinct and separate paths that can yet be combined. He said that he felt the overlap between Christianity and Druidry in particular was a potentially fertile one, and that the existing overlap could be strengthened through a shared concern for things like growing our own food, reverencing the Earth and celebrating the cycle of the seasons. He added that such collaborations already exist, citing as an example his own regular cooperation with a local vicar in staging celebrations of the eightfold festival cycle on Firle Beacon in Sussex, celebrations that attract both Pagans and Christians.
He then spoke of a group called the Celtic Orthodox Church which consists of Christian Druids who live completely “off the grid” in woodland in Brittany, growing their own food, generating their own power, etc. They are a proper community, ranging in age from infants to OAPs. They are inspired by the example of Saint Francis and “came out” publicly as Druids only last year (2013), following which Philip gave them a talk on the Wheel of the Year. Philip suggested that similar communities might be possible that put Druidry to the foreground but had Christianity in the background, ending his presentation by saying that he now felt we had reached a point at which combining various traditions is possible.
Greywolf the Bard
And so to dinner, followed by our evening music session, led by Forest Church alumni, Alison Eve and Paul Cudby, whose band is called Eve in the Garden. Ali plays harp, Paul percussion, and they're augmented by guitar and bass. Their music is a lively blend of traditional folk style with Christian lyrics, though thankfully not of the typical happy-clappy variety. In breaks in their set were the guest slots, one of which I blagged to perform a few of my songs, 'Song at Wodnesbeorg,' 'My Lady of the Greenwood,' and 'Lord of the Wildwood.' The latter includes a wolf chant that came to me about twenty years ago that ends in wild howling. I was pleased to note that both Christians and Pagans were joining in with this enthusiastically.
And so, having been gently, kindly and very charmingly evicted from the bar for being just a wee bit too noisy a wee bit too late, to bed, just in time for ...
Day Three: Sunday, February 2nd
On Sunday morning most of us trooped off into the soggy, cold parkland surrounding the Centre for a ritual, again led by Alison and Paul. This reminded me of many Druid ceremonies in that we all had printed service sheets, laminated due to the weather, clutching which we all stood in a cold circle not moving much. I was distracted by the sight of a huge, phallus-like concrete monument rising from a hillside a little way off. I have to admit that every time the word 'god' was used in the ceremony I found myself quietly adding an 's'. This reminded me again of the fact that I'd have liked to have seen the weekend's ceremonies jointly composed and conducted by Christians, Druids and Pagans. Something to bear in mind for next time...
Following on from this, our final session was appropriately entitled “Better Together.”
Opening this session was Tess Ward, who said that in prayer, “all is one and only love remains,” a statement that immediately endeared her to me. She said that we face a spiritual and environmental crisis, the latter having been responsible for bringing spirituality and environmental concerns back together. Tess was ordained as a Christian minister in 2000 while she was, as she said, “in a literal and metaphorical dark wood.” She spoke of mystical Christianity as representing a way out of the dark wood, adding the telling phrase that “through religion and out the other side is the divine.”
She spoke of female spirituality not being obvious in the established church. She now runs a Pagan women's circle in Oxford in which she is the only Christian. They meet in the open air with fires, “poetry, silence and Nature.”
She expressed a feeling that “the church needs to die before it can be reborn,” and that one aspect of this had to be facing “the dark shadow” that Christianity has cast over history. She then led the Christians present in speaking a lament regretting the divisions and brokenness of the past, asking forgiveness and help to make good. While this was obviously heartfelt, I couldn't help but be reminded of a Native American woman who once launched into a tirade of complaints directed at myself and Emma Restall Orr in which she blamed us for every evil Europeans had ever foisted upon her people. While we both share her anger at Europeans' historical treatment of Native Americans, neither of us felt that we were personally to blame for it.
Tess then spoke of Christ as a source of union. Again, while I can see where this might be true if you look at the recorded actions and sayings of Jesus himself, many of those who have historically presented themselves as his followers have been responsible for fuelling all manner of hatreds, divisions and even genocides.
She spoke of not pushing our own traditions onto others, but working with others towards “a healing and love beyond ourselves,” adding that “the miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment.”
Our last speaker was Liz Williams, a Glastonbury-based Druid who runs the town's Witchcraft Shop, who began by saying that we had to lay aside the myth of 'The Burning Times' with its erroneous claim that nine million witches were burnt.
She then made what was, to me at least, the contentious claim that we have no structure for analysing the validity of spiritually-inspired claims. In Druidry, at least as we teach it in the British Druid Order, we make such judgements based on the creative output of our students. Central to our path is the creative spirit we call awen. Students on our bardic course create art based on their connection with awen and the art thus produced gives us a basis on which to judge the strength and quality of their link with awen. OK, art itself is prone to subjective judgements, and yet it is still a basis on which judgement can be made.
Liz went on to say that she feels the idea of humans as “guardians of the Earth” is anthropocentric, egotistical and wrong. She then spoke of our perceptions of various faith groups as being monolithic structures all members of which are in agreement, pointing out that Glastonbury Witches are constantly at odds with each other. She said that “cult behaviour” was rare amongst Pagans due to our largely responsible leaders who we don't put on pedestals.
On the downside, she spoke of links between some threads of Paganism and far right and nationalist groups, of Pagans damaging and littering sacred sites, of many Pagans having no conception of the Country Code, and of the natural tendency of internet groups to generate rows, a tendency as prevalent amongst Pagans as anyone else.
On the plus side, Liz spoke of an increase in the debate of ethical issues amongst Pagans, particularly those connected with the ways in which we relate to our environment. She spoke of Pagan involvement with actions against badger culls and fracking. She cited the writer, Richard Mabey, as influential in promoting the idea of re-connecting with Nature as a cure for depression.
In the closing round-table session, many points from the various talks were picked up. Simon Howell, for example, shared my problem with the list of past faults Tess Ward had encouraged the Christians in the room to voice, stating simply that “We are not responsible for some of the things on that list.” He also expressed concerns about the speakers who had been critical of the role of scientists in disenchanting Nature, saying that science was fuelled by a sense of wonder and enchantment. Liz Williams said that Pagans find enchantment in Paganism, but also in science fiction and fantasy.
Philip Carr-Gomm asked what people thought of what has been described as the “pick and mix” attitude towards religion. Graham Harvey said that, as a religious scholar, he felt that religion had always been “pick and mix.” Marcus Small differentiated belonging to a particular group from having a sense of kinship with other groups.
Graham Harvey pointed out that not all gods are nice.
We all, I think, felt the need to end on a positive note. When we hear of renewed tensions between opposing Christian factions in Northern Ireland or continuing murder between Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, it is all too easy to despair of the power of spirituality to better anything, and yet these same things encourage me to thank the gods – all of them – for those who are willing to engage in interfaith dialogues, to look beyond outward appearances that potentially divide us to the fundamental human qualities that can unite us, one of which is an appreciation of the sheer magic of being alive, a magic that, as many of our weekend's speakers confirmed, is most commonly felt by Christian and Pagan alike in the presence of natural beauty.
In this weekend there were things I would have done differently. Minor matters aside though, it was an enjoyable and interesting few days. It seems likely that more will flow from it. Plans for a book have already been announced. Working groups to address specific joint ventures have been proposed. I would love to see joint ceremonies, perhaps joint pilgrimages, as well as combined approaches to ecological concerns and pacifism flow from these.
No doubt there will be problems and stumbling blocks as we make our way forward. There are people in both Christian and Pagan communities who will despise us for the very act of engaging in dialogue with each other. Personally, I agree with the Druid, Winston Churchill, who maintained that “to jaw jaw is always better than to war war.”
With thanks to all who took part for sharing so much with such intelligence, warmth and good humour, and looking forward to the next time,
Incidentally, when I first began publishing my thoughts on interfaith dialogue in the mid-90s in Pagan Dawn and elsewhere, a Liverpool-based Pagan group published a leaflet calling me "Archbishop Shallcrass" and accusing me of trying to convert all Pagans to Christianity. While I appreciated the promotion (and would certainly appreciate the regular income and the place in the House of Lords), if I wielded such powers of persuasion, rather than use them to convert everyone to a faith that is not my own, I would use it to encourge all Pagans to sign up for the amazingly wonderful BDO courses. Is that just a shameless excuse to plug our courses again? Of course it is!
The gang's all here in this great group photo. Well, almost, actually a couple of people are missing. One is Bruce Stanley, because he was taking the picture, the other is Phil Ryder of the Druid Network, who mysteriously vanished. Phil's partner, Lynda, commented about being in the presence of so much Pagan royalty. This confused nearby Christian delegates who had, of course, never heard of any of us! This gathering, which took place at the Ammerdown Centre in Somerset, was so densely packed that I'm going to have to spread it over three or four blogs. Here's the first...
Day One, January 31st 2014
This gathering was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends in the Druid, Pagan and Christian communities and, hopefully, make some new ones. What remains to be seen is whether it will prove to be more than that. From the discussions that took place, both formally and informally, the possibilities are certainly there. What was it all about? Well, the letter of invitation from Ammerdown's director, Benedicte Scholefield, explains it as follows:
“Our ambition is to bring together a select group of Pagans and Christians who share a concern for the future of the planet and an interest in dialogue. Our feeling is that there are many misunderstandings and fears on both sides that divide us and prevent us from working together on common environmental concerns. Our planned conversation aims to encourage a fresh dialogue that would tackle these misunderstandings and fears, and hopefully open up avenues for continuing dialogue and for joint actions.”
As one of the aforementioned friends, Philip Carr-Gomm, Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), pointed out during his presentation, dialogue between Christians and Druids is by no means new, having been going on for at least 300 years. The 'Celebrating Planet Earth' event is, then, an extension of a long-standing tradition within Druidry. It certainly proved a rewarding way to spend a Gwyl Forwyn weekend. Gwyl Forwyn, 'The Feast of the Maiden,' is the Welsh name for the festival known in Ireland as Imbolc and in England as Candlemas, but more of that later.
Denise began by saying that she has engaged both practically and academically with Christianity, Paganism and a range of other spiritual paths. As a member of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, she has advocated the inclusion of Paganism in Religious Studies Curricula in schools. She spoke of the use of unhelpful terminology and stereotyping that has often created barriers between Pagans and Christians. The very use of the term, Witch, being an obvious example since its traditional connotations are those of people who use magic to harm others. She then spoke of the often unfortunate history of engagements between the two paths, with Pagan Roman emperors instituting measures to reduce the spread of Christianity, up to and including killing Christians in a variety of unpleasant ways, while, when Christianity became the dominant Roman religion, it then acted in much the same way against Pagans.
She then addressed the issue of mythical histories, such as the widely-held but entirely false belief that 9 million mainly female adherents of a genuinely ancient Witch cult were put to death in Europe during what has become known among modern Pagans as 'The Burning Times,' largely due to an oft-repeated pagan song of that name, which has led to images like the one here being downloadable from Pagan websites. In fact, the numbers put to death during Witch trials across the whole of Europe was somewhere between 13 and 40 thousand, and they were not descendants of an ancient religion with origins in the Neolithic era but mainly people whose neighbours condemned them as Witches in order to get back at or dispose of people they didn't like. We were, incidentally, offered a rendition of 'The Burning Times,' and Christians and Pagans united in declining the offer. Meanwhile, from the Christian side comes the equally prevalent misunderstanding that Paganism is equal to Satanism, missing the point that Satan is an aspect of Christian myth that doesn't really exist in the Bible but is largely a creation of medieval Christianity.
Denise raised the common habit amongst Pagans of defining themselves in relation to the prevailing Christian culture, often doing so from an understanding of Christianity that is unaware of changes that have happened within it over recent decades. A specific result of this is the oft-repeated Pagan statement that “Western, patriarchal religions do not consider Nature or the environment” (Sally Griffyn, Wiccan Wisdomkeepers: Modern-Day Witches Speak on Environmentalism, Feminism, Motherhood, Wiccan Lore and More, 2002). While Paganism has been referred to as “the Green Party at prayer,” Christianity remains identified by Pagans with the scriptural notion of man being given dominion over the Earth and all its (her) creatures. The Pagan Federation website describes Paganism as “polytheistic or pantheistic, Nature-worshipping religion.” Against which is the archaeological evidence that ancient pagans were just as capable of damaging the Earth as we are, albeit on a more localised scale, being fewer in number and lacking technology. Meanwhile, many modern Christians have embraced the concept of 'Creation spirituality' as a foundation for their own engagement in environmental activism. Her conclusion here was that both Christians and Pagans engage with the environment both theologically and practically, or, of course, don't.
She then raised the contentious question of whether perhaps there are elements in both Paganism and Christianity that actually quite like the idea of being persecuted. Equally controversially, she raised the question of whether the Earth might be better served by humanists.
On the subject of selective or elective identities, Denise pointed to the adoption of the romantic myth of the spiritual, ecological Celt by both Pagans, especially Druids, and Christians, leading both groups to identify themselves as, in some sense, 'Celtic,' even when they have no obvious, direct blood-lines amongst existing Celtic nations and when the concept of the Celt employed by both groups is often based more on imagination that actuality. This reminded me of another old friend, Marion Bowman, senior lecturer at the Open University, who came up with the tag, 'Cardiac Celt,' to characterise such folk, I myself arguably falling into this category. Similarly romantic notions of other indigenous peoples are also prevalent amongst both Pagans and Christians.
Denise then turned to the commonalities between us, which she characterised as the shared values of love and compassion, a dislike for rules, the immanence of the sacred, the value of ritual or ceremony, the celebration of festival times (often the same festival times), and activism on a range of social and environmental issues inspired by our spiritualities.
She also addressed borrowings between our paths, suggesting that the kind of 'deep Green' ecology that emerged as a part of Paganism during the second half of the 20th century was a source of inspiration behind the Greening of Christianity that led to 'Creation spirituality.' In the other direction, she suggested that there are aspects of Pagan practice and theology that draw on Christian ideas and practices, acknowledging that some of those may have been 'borrowed' from earlier pagans.
Denise concluded by offering as shared values that could inform our discussions those of generosity, humility and wisdom and by asking, when this weekend together reached its end, where do we go next and how do we build on what's been shared?
The Evening Ceremony:
At 9.30pm, our colourful group of Christians, Druids and Pagans trooped out of the main building to celebrate Gwyl Forwyn, Imbolc, Candlemas, or whatever your preferred name is. In Ireland and Scotland, and amongst many Pagans throughout Britain, this seasonal festival is associated with the Gaelic Brighid, widely accepted as a Pagan goddess whose veneration was partially or wholly displaced by reverence for an Irish saint of the same name. In Gaelic regions, she is known as the foster-mother of Christ, traditionally treated with a reverence reserved in other areas for the Virgin Mary, Jesus's mother. As a bridge between Pagan and Christian traditions, and as it was her festival time, Brighid was to be a focus of our ceremony, music and meditation over the weekend, including this one in the chapel at Ammerdown (left), its high, pyramid-shaped timber roof offering excellent acoustics. Druids, Pagans and Christians all tend to celebrate this festival in similar ways, lighting candles, bringing in snowdrops if they're out in time, invoking the spirit of Brighid, all as a way of welcoming the first stirrings of new life emerging from the earth as light begins to return to the land and the days lengthen following Midwinter's long night.
The ceremony was compiled and led by Alison Eve (right) and Paul Cudby, co-founders of the recently-established Forest Church, a concept derived from Bruce Stanley's observation that almost every fellow Christian he asked said that their first connections with spirit had occurred in response to some aspect of the natural world, most often woodland. Bruce was also present for the weekend. The ceremony included the lighting of a central candle on a low, circular altar decorated with sparkling white, silica-rich stones of a type often found incorporated into megalithic structures, and with emblems of the four elemental quarters; feathers in the East, red wood and stone in the South, a goblet of water at the West and, of course, stones in the North. We were encouraged to join in with Gaelic chants invoking Brighid and aspects of the natural world, led by Alison. A chalice was passed around containing a mix of herbs, grain, milk and whisky, along with baked bannocks. It was well-planned to give those Pagans among us a sense of familiarity. It was also reasonably short and to the point, something Pagan rites sometimes fail to achieve. At the end of the rite, Ali took the remaining food and drink outside to offer it to the Earth.
I was sufficiently impressed with the chapel's acoustics to want to try them out myself later, so I headed across with a yew-wood flute and my drum. I arrived just as one of the Centre's staff was emerging, having turned out the lights and extinguished the candle on the altar, which I had thought was supposed to be left burning throughout the weekend. She put the lights back on for me, relit the candle, and asked me to extinguish it again before I left.
Sure enough, the acoustics were extremely good. The flute sounded wonderful, its sound filling the building. I unpacked my drum bag and, starting in the East, invoked the four quarters using my rawhide rattle, itself having feathers of eagle and buzzard attached to it as well as, inevitably, a piece of wolf fur. South, West, North and back to the East to complete the circle. Then the drum. Having begun with my accustomed heartbeat, I slid into the wolf-chant that had come to me twenty years ago. It was good.
Afterwards, I put out the candle as instructed. Of course, I later discovered that, as I'd thought, the intention had been to leave it burning, it was just that this message had not got to the Centre's staff. It was relit subsequently, and left burning.
Thence to the bar, where stimulating conversation, much of it related to our purpose in being there, continued until 1.30am. Then to my room, finally calming my racing mind enough to sleep at about 3am. It was a promising first evening, and the next day there were scheduled talks from Graham Harvey (Pagan animist), Steve Hollinghurst (Church Army – a name he finds embarrassing), Philip Carr-Gomm (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) and Simon Howell (Interfaith Advisor for the Bath and Wells Diocese). It seemed were in for a good day. I'll see you there...