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AmmerdownConferencePhotoThe 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 CushOur moderator for the talks and the discussions that followed them was Denise Cush (left), Professor of Religion and Education at Bath Spa University. She was also our first speaker, her topic being, 'Setting the Scene: What are the Issues and Challenges that We Face?'

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 burningtimesbelief 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.

Sally Griffyn, Wiccan WisdomkeepersDenise 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.

celtic-knot-heartOn 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 Ammerdown Chapeldisplaced 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 SONY DSCrecently-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.Animation_candle_flame2

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...

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.