A few years ago, a group of BDO members revived a lost ceremony of Toad blessing I’d learned about while researching for the British Druid Order’s distance learning courses. A reference to it appears in Cotton MS Claudius B VII, a manuscript in the British Library that was assembled from earlier materials for Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504 - 1575, right). Its contents include (1) legal proceedings; (2) Roger of Howden, Chronicle, (3) Pseudo-Turpin, De gestis Karoli magni; ‘Prester John,’ Epistola ad Manuelem imperatorem, etc.; (4) extracts made in the time of Matthew Parker; (5) Pseudo-Dares Phrygius, De excidio Troie historia; Geoffrey of Monmouth, Prophetiae Merlini; (6) legal proceedings. It runs to 242 pages, the first half on paper (ff. 2–113), the second on parchment (ff. 1, 114–242). In 1574, Matthew Parker left a large collection of manuscripts, mainly rescued from former monastic libraries, to his college at Cambridge. The Parker Library at Corpus Christi bears his name and houses most of his collection, with some volumes in the Cambridge University Library. Parker was the college’s Master between 1544 and 1553. He also served as chaplain to Anne Boleyn, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1559–1575. He was particularly interested in collecting and preserving manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England as evidence of an ancient English-speaking church independent of Rome. His bequest to the college consisted of about 480 manuscripts and around 1000 printed books spanning the 6th to the16th centuries. Section 4 of the MS Claudius B, ‘extracts made in the time of Matthew Parker,’ includes the following:
“In Oxfordshire on the first day of December each year is celebrated a Feast called the Blessing of the Toad, in which libations are offered to the spirit of that ill-favoured creature which, at that season, does burrow into holes in the earth, there to remain until the sun’s increasing light stirs all Nature back to life in springtime. This barbarous custom is of uncertain origin and antiquity but is said by those partaking of it to bring good fortune not only to the toads but also to those humans who engage in this antique revel in their honour. In drinking health to the beast they do cry ‘Wassail!’ and ‘Hail to the Toad!’ and other such heathen things as though the words of scripture are to them entirely unknown. In former times it is said that all orders of society, from the wealthiest lords to the lowliest peasant, observed this pagan rite. In latter years, however, it seems confined to the scholars of the colleges of Oxford town itself. Some colleges preserve the dried body of a Toad that is passed from hand to hand around the table while its health is drunk. That otherwise learned men should engage in such an idolatrous practice must surely inflame the sensibilities of all good Christian men.”
As a dedicated Cambridge man, Parker perhaps included this passage, the original source of which is not identified, in his ‘extracts’ because of the poor light he perceived it as casting on the rival scholars of Oxford. The existence of the feast itself should not come as a surprise since Toad people have figured so strongly and persistently in British and European folklore, belief and practice. There is, for example, the existence in Wales of ‘Toad Men,’ which I first heard about in a documentary on BBC Radio 4 in the 1980s. As described in the program, the prospective Toad Man had to bury a dead Toad person in a hidden place until only the bare bones were left. Gathering those together and keeping them tightly in his hand, he sat atop a prehistoric burial mound for a whole day and night. At sunrise, he took the bones to a fast-flowing river or stream into which they were cast. All but one would be drawn downstream by the current. The one that floated against the current was caught and kept about the person. Its possession gave the owner power over all animals and entitled him to be known as a Toad Man. I subsequently found an almost identical rite existing in Germany. Toads regularly feature as ‘familiars’ in the Witch trials of the early modern era. Mummified Toad people are sometimes found secreted in old buildings where they presumably acted as spirit guardians. The Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft has a number of them in its collection, though some were sadly lost in the flood of 2004. Then there’s the Toadstone, a jewel supposedly found in the skull of the Toad that offered protection to its owner. Since the 16th century, Toads have been reported found alive encased in flint nodules, lumps of coal or other stones, some millions of years old. Experiments have shown that Toads can survive in small cavities inside plaster or limestone blocks for up to three years. A ceremonial celebration of these remarkable creatures seemed well worth reviving and so we did, at Wild Ways in Shropshire during a feast held on December 1st, 2018. Elaine, our host, had a mummified Toad which was reverently passed around the table as we drank toasts to the Toad and bid it Wassail. Our ceremony was evidently effective as several of those present, myself included, saw toads in the days immediately following. First was Adam who, while driving home that night, was amazed to see a huge Toad person, the largest he’d ever seen, leap across the road in the beam of his headlights. I saw a Toad the following day outside the front of the house where the feast was held. Three other celebrants had Toad encounters either that day or the next. So, Hail the Toad! Wassail! Greywolf /|\
“Today is the day of Bride; the Serpent shall come from its hole, I will not molest the Serpent, nor will the Serpent molest me.”
This Scottish folk charm is from Alexander Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica. The Serpent referred to is the power of life and growth which, at this time, returns to us from its long winter sleep in the Underworld. To ensure peace with the Serpent, offerings of incense, milk or mead are often made.
Bride (pronounced ‘Breed’) is Saint Bride or Brigid, an early 6th century Irish nun, often known as 'the Mary of the Gael,' and sometimes as 'Christ's foster-mother.' In Wales, she is known as Ffraid. The widespread veneration of the popular Christian saint, however, is often carried out in forms like the prayer above that hark back to an earlier Brigid, a pagan goddess whose name derives from the Proto-Celtic Brigantī, meaning 'High, or Exalted One.' Her Irish incarnation is a daughter of the great Irish father-god, the Dagda, sometimes known as 'the god of Druidry.' The pagan Irish Brigid is associated with childbirth, poetry, smithcraft, sacred wells, the brewing of ale and mead and fire. A shrine containing a perpetual fire dedicated to her and tended by women devoted to her is believed to have become a convent of nuns devoted to her Christian namesake in Kildare ('Church of the Oak') in Ireland. Folk lore and folk traditions associated with the goddess seem also to have passed over seamlessly from paganism to Christianity. The following video explores Irish customs associated with this remarkable goddess turned saint:
Moving sunwise around the sacred circle, this festival has its home in the North-East, where the elements of Earth and Air combine. It marks the first of the English cross-quarter days, Candlemas, falling on February 2nd. February 1st is celebrated in Wales as Gwyl Forwyn, 'the Feast of the Virgin,' and in Ireland as Imbolc, possibly meaning 'in bud.' It marks the time when trees are beginning to bud, the first wild flowers are appearing, and ewes begin to lactate, all of which herald the coming of Spring and the return of life to the land. It is traditionally a celebration of lights, candles being lit to illuminate homes and places of worship. As at the other quarter days, offerings of food and drink, particularly milk, are put out for the Faery Folk or poured over standing stones.
In Scottish folklore, Candlemas is the time when a White Snake, the Serpent of Bride, emerges from underground where it spends the Winter months, a potent image of life returning to the land. The huge popularity of the canonized goddess in Scotland and Ireland ensured that her festival has been celebrated in those countries for the longest time and with the greatest gusto. In Scotland, the period of Winter from Hallowe’en to Candlemas is said to be under the control of the Cailleach, a mountain-dwelling crone who blasts the land with cold winds and frosts. According to one legend, on Candlemas eve, the Cailleach returns to the Land of the Ever-Young, the Otherworld of the Faery Folk, the ancestors and the gods. There she makes her way to the Well of Youth that lies in a wood at the heart of that magical land. Before the Sun rises on Candlemas morn, she drinks from the Well, returning to our world as the beautiful goddess Bride whose touch causes the grass to green and the white and yellow flowers of early Spring to bloom. Alexander Carmichael, who collected folklore in the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, describes one Candlemas custom as follows:
“On Bride’s Eve (January 31st) the girls of the townland fashion a sheaf of corn into the likeness of a woman. They dress and deck the figure with shining shells, sparkling crystals, primroses, snowdrops, and any greenery they may obtain. A specially bright shell or crystal is placed over the heart of the figure. This is called the guiding star of Bride. The girls call the figure Bride, and carry it in procession, singing the song, Beauteous Bride, Virgin of a Thousand Charms. The Bride maiden-band are clad in white, and have their hair down, signifying purity and youth. They visit every house, and every person is expected to give a gift to Bride and make obeisance to her. The gift may be a shell, a spar, a crystal, a flower, or a bit of greenery to decorate the person of Bride. Mothers, however, give a Bride bannock, a Bride cheese, or a Bride roll of butter. Having made the round of the place, the girls go to a house to make the Bride feast. They bar the doors and secure the windows of the house, and set Bride where she may see and be seen by all. Presently the young men of the community come humbly asking permission to honour Bride. After some parleying they are admitted and make obeisance to her. “Much dancing and singing, fun and frolic are indulged in during the night. As the grey dawn of the Day of Bride breaks, they form a circle and sing the hymn, Beautiful Bride. Then they distribute the fragments of the feast among the poor women of the place.”
The arrangements for such folk celebration of Candlemas often seem to have been planned and carried out by women and girls, with men and boys being invited in if they ask nicely, behave themselves and show appropriate reverence for the goddess. At home, you might celebrate Candlemas by lighting candles and decorating your dining table with Snowdrops, Dandelions or Primroses if they are available, and with shells, crystals and other things that will sparkle and shine in the candlelight.
An archetypal emblem of Brigid in Ireland is the Brigid's Cross, woven from Willow withies, straw, reeds, grasses, etc. This symbol seems to be another pagan continuation, the cross representing the four directions and a simplified form of the Solar wheel of the year. The following video gives a step-by-step guide to making one.
In the strange, dark times we have been experiencing for the last year, the idea of light and life returning to the world in any form seems a wonderful one to embrace. When we consider that the White Serpent has ancient roots in British and Irish traditions as a bringer not only of light and life but also of health and healing, it becomes even more enticing. In our tradition, the White Serpent is the regenerative power that combats and ultimately defeats the dark Serpent that embodies disease as readily as it defeats the dark and cold of winter. The conflict between the light and dark Serpents features in the most famous of the poems attributed to the legendary 6th century bard, Taliesin. In Cad Goddeu, 'the Battle of the Trees,' illness is characterised as "A Serpent, speckled, crested, a hundred souls for their sins are tormented in his flesh," while the bard himself says, "I was a speckled Snake on a hill, I was a Viper in a lake." Taking on the form of the White Serpent of healing, the Serpent of the goddess that brings new life to the earth each Spring, Taliesin defeats the dark Serpent of disease. Hence we should invoke the White Serpent with renewed fervour this year, that the healing, life-restoring power of the goddess of springtime flows once more through the land, bringing her gifts of light, life and healing to all. So may it be!
Blessings of Gwyl Forwyn, of healing, strength and renewal, to one and all, Greywolf /|\
Just from a week in Norway during which Elaine Gregory and I spent four days representing the British Druid Order (BDO) at the Annual Shamanic gathering, organised, as ever, by Sjamanistisk Forbund (the Shamanic Foundation). This year’s event was called Naturfest and was amazing. So many wonderful, lovely people. Little kids and dogs of varying sizes wandering and playing in the sunshine, fantastic music, magical ceremonies, and a beautiful new venue, almost an island, connected only by a narrow isthmus with a road across it, surrounded by a clear blue lake and blessed with the characteristic Norwegian trees, tall pines and graceful birches. For us Druids, there was the added bonus of a young oak tree.
When we go to Norway, one of the greatest pleasures is staying with our friends, Morten and Louise, two of the nicest, warmest, most generous human beings I’ve ever known. We also share a silly sense of humour, which always helps. Their house is surrounded by a wild flower meadow in the middle of a forest and is so soothing to the soul. There’s a lake within easy walking distance, Elk (aka Moose) wander past the back window, Deer graze at the front.
The venue for the gathering is about a two hour drive from their house. To stock up on supplies for it we crossed over into Sweden to a huge shopping complex. Kyrre had asked us to bring a British Druid Order flag to the event. We didn’t have one, so I designed one and ordered it online. Unfortunately, it hadn’t arrived by the time we left England. Wandering around the Swedish shopping centre, however, we passed a store where I saw a large psychedelic duck suspended from the ceiling. I pointed it out to the others and we went in to get a closer look. It was so weird, we just had to buy it, deciding it would make a good substitute for the missing BDO flag. We called it PD, short for psychedelic duck.
We arrived, unpacked and settled into our tiny attic room in time for the opening ceremony which began up by the barn that was being used as office space, market and healing centre for the weekend. From there, we made our way to the central ceremonial fire. Two ceremonies then celebrated the feminine and the masculine before a sharing circle brought the first evening to a close.
Next day there were traditional games, a workshop on Sami healing led by Robert Vars Gaup, a nature walk and the first part of a drum-making workshop, among other things. It was a very crowded schedule, with events running right through Friday and Saturday nights as well as all day.
After 45 years as a Druid, it is my life and I know no other. Living in the British Isles, I forget that there are places where Druidry is little known. Norway is one of those places. When organiser, Kyrre Franck, asked if there was anything Elaine and I wanted to do other than the chaga ceremony we were helping out with, we couldn’t think of anything in particular, so he suggested a sharing circle about ceremony. I was a little concerned that the sharing circle was booked for 11 o’clock at night, the chaga ceremony for 2 o’clock in the morning! I had forgotten that, at Midsummer in Norway, it doesn’t actually get dark. However, once word got around that there were two Druids on the camp, people started asking if there was going to be a workshop on Druidry, so I asked Kyrre if we could fit one into the already very packed schedule. He said he’d see what he could do and, 10 minutes later, a handwritten poster in big blue letters was pinned up above the printed timetable announcing a Druidry workshop in the Lavo (a sort of wooden tipi) at 12 noon on Sunday. We’d suddenly got star billing and had to figure out how to live up to it!
Our sharing circle was fun, though I’m never all that comfortable with the format. The chaga ceremony was very good, as they always are. On this occasion, we had to contend with a plague of midges and the fact that an amplified open mike night was being held as part of the gathering not far away from where we were doing our preparation for the ceremony. In making a chaga ceremony, it’s necessary to spend about four hours preparing the chaga, boiling the water, adding the chaga a small handful at a time, stirring the pot, chanting, singing, drumming, making prayers and offerings to the spirits, in particular to Nivvsat Olmai, the chaga and birch tree spirit. Chaga (a woody fungus that grows on Birch trees) is already blessed with many healing properties. By adding this ceremonial element to the brewing, we seek to enhance those existing properties and maybe add a few more.
When the brew was ready, we carried it down to the open air ceremonial circle on the site, with its central fire pit surrounded by stones. Elaine welcomed folk into the circle via the eastern entrance and then remained to guard it. Yes, although it was 2am, people still came! Morten and Louise conducted the ceremony. I prowled around the outside of the circle sunwise with my drum. One particularly memorable part of it was when Morten set up a heartbeat rhythm with his drum as he circled the ring of people sitting on the ground while I drummed the same heartbeat rhythm from the outside. For the people between the two drums, the vibrations must have been quite strong. During the ceremony, the Moon rose from the forest treetops across the lake. Not long after we finished the ceremony, the Sun rose to join it.
We finished at 3 am. At 4 am there was to be a men’s sweat lodge, which I was booked into. In the event, I helped a little with the building of the fire but then had to make my apologies and leave, realising that, having been up all night, I was simply too tired.
Among the many events across the weekend, I was intrigued by a series of workshops being given by a Tuvan shaman called Dimitrij Markov. Dimitrij, turned out to be a really nice guy with a dry sense of humour. In his first session, he showed us how to build a spirit house. This consisted of sticks of firewood arranged in tipi shape, modelled around slabs of butter and cheese and set on a strong cardboard base. The whole thing was then placed on the central fire as an offering to the ancestors. Dimitrij conducted the workshop in Norwegian. I know hardly any Norwegian, but was able to follow what was going on by the few words I could pick up and Dimitrij’s actions. I noted that he always went sunwise around the fire, just as we do in Druidry.
An outstanding feature of Dimitrij’s ceremonial creation is his costume, hung with colourful plaited cords, bells, signs and symbols, topped off with an extraordinary headdress comprised mainly of Eagle feathers. These he dons immediately before ceremony begins and takes off as soon as it is finished. His ceremonies often end with him standing quietly for a few seconds, then saying, “That’s it,” walking out of the circle and disrobing.
One of the things I love about these gatherings is that you get to see both the surface differences in the ways we work and the underlying similarities that make it so easy to understand and communicate with each other across cultures.
Saturday night was the Sami Midsummer ceremony, which I’d been part of on our last visit two years ago. This year’s was conducted by Kyrre, Robert and Elin Kåven, a noted Sami musician. Offerings of seasonal flowers from everyone were placed around the central fire with prayers made for those in need. There was much drumming and dancing. Central to the rite was the raising aloft and honouring of a wreath of greenery tied with coloured ribbons, raised in honour of the gods of earth and sky.
Later that evening, Rotha (it means Roots) treated us to a fabulous musical set. They are a three-piece consisting of guitar/bazouki, Elin on vocals, and percussion, the latter including the biggest frame drum I’ve ever seen. The sound blended traditional and modern really well, while several lyrics were drawn from the Icelandic Eddas. Morten tells me that although the musicians are Sami, they draw much of their inspiration from Norse mythology. They are very, very good.
The band having done their encores, having been up until at least 3am the night before, we were all prepared to go to bed when Kyrre announced an addition to the program: a Wolf healing ceremony with Dimitrij, due to take place around the ceremonial fire at 1am. Had it been anything other than a Wolf ceremony, I would have gone to bed. As it was, Morten, Louise, Elaine and I all went down to the ceremony site. Dimitrij donned his costume, pulled on his headpiece and picked up his drum. Having promised my own drum a rest after the exertions of the Sami Midsummer ceremony earlier, I had left her hanging on the wall of our room, so was unable to join in the drumming. Dimitrij made up for it. His drumming began fairly quietly but quickly gained pace and volume. He began waving his drum back and forth. He started behaving as Wolf, lowering his body. At one point, he fell over and rolled on his back, kicking his legs in the air. Rising again, he stood still for a while, lifting his drum towards the sky, which was as dark as it gets, though still not dark enough for stars to be visible. He began to howl. I began to howl. Some of the others began to howl. After drumming vigorously for about half an hour, during which Dimitrij continued to move and I continued to rock from one foot to the other, we stopped. Dimitrij stood still for a few moments, facing the central fire, then said “That’s it.”
During the ceremony, I felt a kind of expansion from my primary place of power, located near my solar plexus. The following day, I woke up feeling better than I had for ages, emotionally, physically and psychologically. Further proof that, as I said during our sharing circle about ceremony, “This shit works.” Thank you again, Dimitrij.
After a few hours’ sleep, at midday on Sunday it was time for our Druidry workshop. Elaine and I had discussed a brief outline which we followed, allowing space for whatever the awen dictated to happen. We opened our circle as usual with calls for peace at the four quarters, wove the circle, invoked the powers of the four directions, honoured the spirits of place, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands, in all of which Elaine took the lead. I then spoke of the survival of Druidry for many centuries after the Roman invasion of Britain in 55 CE, through to the time when the great Welsh and Irish legendary tales were written down. I told the story of Ceridwen and Taliesin and the brewing of the cauldron of inspiration. We then chanted the awen, filling the tall wooden structure with our voices so that they rolled and echoed in tumbling cascades of sound. It was beautiful. Then, having started late due to the previous workshop overrunning, we hurriedly closed our circle and left to allow the next workshop to begin. Afterwards, we were told of overflowing emotions and of visions occurring during our session. These things are always reassuring that we have done our job well. Many thanks to all who came and made ceremony with us, both seen and unseen.
Also at the camp, and another great guy, was István Zsolt Barát, founder and head of the Four Elements School, ceremonial leader, healer, singer, artist, drummer and a traditional bearer of Hungarian Shamanism, which he studied in Carpathian region. He has worked as co-organizer of Kurultai, the largest gathering of Central Asian tribes, a biannual festival that gathers up to 300,000 people.
A remarkable woman we had made ceremony with two years ago in Sweden, Inger Lise Nervik, was also there. She’s one of the organisers of Sjamanistisk Forbund and co-founder of the Beaivi Shamanic School. So many other great people it would take a book to name them all. What characterises them all, apart from our shared spiritual vision, seems to be a wonderful, off-the-wall sense of humour. This, I think, is one of the most important tools we have in our line of work.
Speaking of which, back to the duck. Sunday morning, I got up early and decided if we were going to introduce the camp to the duck, it would have to be today. Fetching the foot-pump, I set to work and PD grew and grew and was a magnificent sight to behold. He proved a considerable hit with the campers, especially the smaller children, who were soon climbing all over him. Then, at the end of the day, the moment came to launch PD on the lake. It had to be done. Two of the younger campers came with us, including new friend, Jorgen, whose first shamanic camp it was. PD was duly launched onto the water, carefully roped to shore as we had no idea of the currents or of PD’s manoeuvrability. Stripping to my underpants, I climbed onto PD’s back and set sail. It was the most wonderful fun I’ve had for ages. PD was very comfortable and I could happily have floated off on his back to who knows where, but time being pressing, after much splashing, giggling and ill-advised photographs, I clambered back onto the jetty. Our two young friends then took their turns, Jorgen attempting running dives, the second of which sent PD onto his side and Jorgen into the very cold water. Fortunately, he’s a good swimmer and after a little reassurance, PD was happy too. Thus, amidst much laughter, our time at Naturfest came to an end.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that very early on the morning after our chaga ceremony, I was fetching a few things from the car when a tiny just fledged bird landed on my arm. I think he was a Goldcrest. Having latched his little talons into my coat, he started preening his feathers, shaking himself and looking around, then doing a bit more preening. After a while, it became obvious that he wasn’t going to leave without some encouragement. I moved towards what looked like a good perch for a small bird, shook my sleeve gently and he fluttered off. It was a small, magical encounter, adding one more joyous element to a wonderful weekend.
After a couple of days back at Morten and Louise’s house, it was time to head home. Before we did, however, Morten had one more surprise for us. Bringing out a familiar flight case, he opened it to reveal The World Drum. This extraordinary shamanic instrument was created by a Sami drum-maker following a vision that Kyrre Franck had. The Drum has spent many years travelling all over the world, crossing cultural, linguistic and political boundaries, uniting people with its message of care for our Mother Earth and peace between her children. The British Druid Order first hosted the Drum in the UK in 2008, visiting Dragon Hill and Avebury. In 2013, we journeyed with her to Glastonbury Tor, Anglesey and many other places. It was so good to see her again. A wonderful close to a beautiful trip...
I’m already looking forward to next year!
Oh, yes, and that BDO flag I ordered arrived while we were away. And here it is:
Commenting on a recent post on the BDO facebook page, someone described the Mabinogion stories and Taliesin poems included in our courses as ‘filler.’ I was somewhat taken aback by this. To me, this is equivalent to a Jew, Christian or Muslim describing the Torah, Bible or Koran as ‘filler.’ How is it that people in other traditions and cultures first learn about the gods and heroes of their ancestors? Through stories. Always through stories. And next come poems. Why poems? Because rhyme and rhythm are wonderful aids to memory.
In the British branch of Druidry, we are blessed to have a whole library of ancestral stories and poems, mostly gathered together and committed to writing in the 12th century. There has been much argument as to whether, and to what extent, this medieval literature retains enough of the pagan past to be of interest to us as modern pagans.
Brief diversion: Yes, pagans. I know a lot of modern Druidry, taking its cue from 18th century revivalists, is not pagan. I have always been a pagan Druid and the British Druid Order is openly and proudly pagan. It’s hard to argue that classical Druidry was anything but pagan, and it’s the archaic forms of the tradition that interest me more than the recent revivals.
As for the tales and poems containing anything that survives from the pagan past, it seems blindingly obvious to me that they do. Take the deity from which the whole Mabinogion may well take its name, the Mabon. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, the Mabon must be found in order to hunt the Twrch Trwyth, a gigantic wild Boar person who is ravaging the land. Why the Mabon? Because he is recognised as the greatest of hunters, and the only one capable of handling two magical hunting hounds. Mabon means ‘Son,’ and he is the son of Modron, meaning ‘Mother.’ Roll back in time a thousand years and an altar is erected and dedicated to the god Maponus near one of the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall. A badly worn scene on one side of it represents Maponus as a hunter, armed with a bow and accompanied by a hunting dog, and an adjacent side shows two Deer. Maponus is the Romanised form of the native British Maponos, which evolved into modern Welsh Mabon and retains the same meaning. Five dedications to him occur in the same area, as also does a large boulder called the Mabenstane, formerly a meeting place for the local population. It is impossible to compare what we know of the native deity with the medieval tale and not conclude that Maponus and the Mabon are the same figure.
Likewise, Gwydion, the foremost enchanter and magician of the Mabinogion, is recorded in a much earlier genealogy as Guidgen, and in Roman-British inscriptions as Mercury Uiducus. Comparing the classical character of Mercury with Gwydion as portrayed in the Mabinogion, their natures are so similar that the native deity, Uidicus, can only be the same being as Gwydion. The Horse goddess of the Mabinogion, Rhiannon, was earlier Rigantona, ‘the Great Queen,’ Manawydan is the same as the Irish sea god, Manannan, and so it goes on. These are pagan gods, of this I have not the slightest doubt, and if we are pagans, surely we need to know the nature of our gods and should revel in their tales?
While editing our courses, it became increasingly clear to me that the bardic colleges of the 12th century were spurred into what amounted to a pagan revival by the same events that led them to gather together the oral literature of our ancestors and cause it to be written down. The events in question were Norman attempts to conquer Wales. This 12th century pagan revival caused the bardic colleges to adopt the extremely witchy goddess, Ceridwen, as patroness of the bardic order.
My own Druid path began in 1974, a time when there were no courses or how-to books, indeed precious little available at all from which to construct a walkable path. That first summer, I had Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, Stuart Piggott’s The Druids, Alwyn and Brinley Rees’ Celtic Heritage (borrowed from Hastings Library), and a slightly battered copy of Lady Charlotte Guest’s Victorian translation of The Mabinogion, found in a second-hand book shop. Graves is justifiably criticised for his wild flights of fancy, but his book propelled me onto this path, so I retain a great affection for it. He quotes liberally from The Mabinogion and the poems of Taliesin, hence my delight at finding that pocket Mabinogion. Unlike most modern translations, it includes the Story of Taliesin in which, on first reading, I recognised a threefold cycle of death and rebirth by which the child, Gwion Bach, ‘Little Innocent,’ is reborn as the ultimate enlightened Druid sage, Taliesin, ‘Radiant Brow.’ This story is central to our understanding of British Druidry, which is why it is the first to appear in our bardic course.
In the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, that of Math, Son of Mathonwy, I found a mythic cycle dealing with the birth, growth, life, death and rebirth of a young sun god, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. On subsequently joining a Wiccan coven, I used this cycle as the basis for the eight seasonal festivals we celebrated. That coven became the basis of the British Druid Order. That same cycle of myth forms the basis of the festival cycle introduced in our bardic course and greatly expanded upon in the ovate.
The whole edifice of the BDO is, therefore, built on the foundations of the Mabinogion and the poems of Taliesin, the weirder of which expand our understanding of the Story of Taliesin and his strange relationship with Ceridwen, brewer of the cauldron of inspiration. ‘Inspiration’ is the common English translation of the Welsh word, ‘Awen,’ and Awen is, as I describe it in our bardic course, the Holy Spirit of Druidry, that spirit of creativity and inspiration that flows from the tales and poems of our ancestors, through us, and, from us and our stories, poems and songs, to future generations. Awen ultimately lifts us from the mire and gives us the potential to dance with the gods.
I am constantly finding new levels of meaning in this literature. One of the best known of the Taliesin poems is the Cad Goddeu, the ‘Battle of the Trees.’ I’ve known it for about 40 years, but it wasn’t until preparing a version of it to be performed with harp accompaniment in our Iron Age roundhouse that I realised the whole poem is actually about healing. It has distinct parallels with the Anglo-Saxon ‘Nine Herbs Charm.’ This realisation confirmed another I’d had while putting together the material on native healing techniques healing for our ovate course. Thus, again, these ancestral poems and songs continually work to increase my understanding of our tradition.
‘Filler,’ then, is not a term I recognise.
Having been a Druid for 44 years, it’s often puzzled and, I confess, bothered me, that so many British Druids give so little heed to this extraordinary treasure trove that has come down to us from our ancestors. In putting our courses together, then, I hoped to correct this by presenting it in a visually pleasing form that might help persuade people to read it. I know the gorgeous period font I found has proven a pain for folk who are dyslexic, but we do provide plain text versions as an alternative.
In the bardic course, we offer some indications as to why we see specific poems and stories as of particular importance. In the ovate and Druid courses, we continually refer back to them to enhance our understanding of the nature of the gods and of how our ancestors walked the Druid path, understandings I believe we need if we are to fully immerse ourselves in the path and live it as central to our lives. They are the heart of the British Druid tradition.
Having said all that, even if you skip all the medieval texts in our course material, you’ll still be left with a word count higher than that of any comparable course, so you needn’t feel you’re being short changed. And, in terms of quality rather than quantity, you have Ronald Hutton’s stated view that our bardic course is “the most intelligent and erudite sequential introduction to Druidry available.” Given that Ronald has a thorough knowledge of more Druid courses than anyone else I know, and probably anyone else alive, I’m happy to take his word for it!
I’ll leave you with a short quotation from the Taliesin poem, ‘The Cattle-fold of the Bards:’
“I am song to the last; I am clear and bright; I am hard; I am a Druid; I am a wright; I am well-wrought; I am a serpent; I am reverence, that is an open receptacle.”
And if that’s not convinced you, go and read the piece I wrote some time ago on Awen, the Holy Spirit of Druidry. It’s full of quotations from the writings of our ancestors, writings we are blessed to have access to and that, to return to an analogy I used earlier, are the nearest thing British Druidry has to a Bible, in that they are a collection of ancient, sacred writings intended to provide an introduction to the pagan gods of our lands.
When the first thatch layer on our reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse in Shropshire was finished, we stood with John Letts, the expert on medieval thatching techniques who had taught us how to thatch, and he told us that a thatched roof has been described as “a managed compost heap.” Over the years, the truth of this has become clear. Our roundhouse is built in a wood, meaning that the roof doesn’t get as much sunlight as it should to dry the thatch after rain, therefore it rots more quickly than it otherwise would. Because of this, we have to renew the thatch more often than we would like. We completed the roundhouse in the spring of 2009. Eight and a half years later, we have just completed our third thatch layer.
Rather than stripping off existing thatch and staring again, renewing a thatched roof usually entails putting a fresh layer of thatch on top of what’s already there. Our latest layer is a spar coat, meaning that the thatch is fixed with long hazel ‘sways’ held in place by twisted hazel ‘spars’ pushed and hammered into the existing thatch.
The roundhouse is thatched with long straw as being more period authentic than the now far more common ‘combed wheat reed.’ Long straw thatching requires considerable preparation. The straw must first be layered into ‘beds,’ each layer being thoroughly wetted. The beds are then ‘drawn’ or ‘pulled.’ You grab a few ends of straw from somewhere near the bottom of the bed and tug firmly. As the straw slips out of the bed, it is straightened out and most of the leafy bits that will prevent rain from running smoothly down the thatch are left behind in the bed. More handfuls of straw are then pulled with the left hand and transferred to the right. When the bundle in the right hand is thick enough, you grab it firmly at one end and give it a shake. Then you run your fingers through it like a comb, stripping out more of the leafy bits. Then turn it over 180 degrees and do the same again, shake and comb. The cleaned straw is then laid across a length of string on the ground. Then you pull some more.
When your bundle of straw on the ground has reached a size where you can just about get two hands around the end of it, you tie the string around it. This bundle is called a ‘yealm.’ This preparation is hard, time-consuming work, and we were very glad to have such a great group of people arrive to lend a hand.
At John’s advice, the lower three layers of thatch were stitched in with tarred twine, tarred so that, in theory, mice won’t chew through it. In practice, they must have a hardier breed of mice in Shropshire, and we’ve had to replace some of the stitches with spars. Ah well…
Ideally, you need a ladder with nice, wide rungs for thatching. This is because the ladder lies flat against the roof and you need a wide rung to give your toes something to stand on. One of our ladders had rungs only half an inch across. Ah well, all along the line, since 2006, when we planted the seed for the straw with which to do our first thatch, we’ve had to make do with whatever tools we can find or make, and whatever time we can spare from other work. Under the circumstances, we’ve done pretty well.
The other-than-human inhabitants of the grove in which we built the roundhouse have been open to us from the start, when I found a deer skull on the first day we started clearing the ground.
We had wrens nest inside during the build, and there are still wrens who nest under the eaves. Buzzards have circled overhead, deer visited at twilight and, during this last thatch session, we were entertained one day by a group of wood mice who were remarkable friendly, strolling around our feet while we ate lunch and posing for Elaine’s camera.
We completed all the thatch we could on Sunday morning. We had used almost all the last batch of straw Elaine had bought in. We didn’t go right to the top of the cone, because, in the spring, we’re going to remove this part of the thatch, exposing the roof timbers again. Then we’re going to erect a new timber structure consisting of a downward-bending roof pole at either end of which will be a triangular opening to let out the smoke from the central fire.
Roundhouse reconstructions have, until now, followed Peter Reynolds, who built the first such reconstructions at the Butser Hill Farm in Sussex. Reynolds copied African roundhouses, but decided not to include a smoke hole in the belief that the smoke would permeate out through the roof. If the thatch is thin enough, a lot of it does, but a lot more doesn’t. It then depends how big your roundhouse is and how high its roof as to whether the resulting smoke layer is above or below head height. Our roundhouse is only 22 feet internal diameter, and that’s not quite big enough, so the smoke layer comes down to chest height, which means that unless you build the fire with very dry wood and keep it burning strongly, you’re breathing smoke whenever you stand up. Having had pleurisy a few years ago, I’m reluctant to expose my lungs to too much more smoke.
Fortunately, I don’t have to. It turns out that roundhouses had not one, but two smoke holes. Our evidence for this comes from little clay or metal models of roundhouses dating from the late Bronze age and early Iron Age and known as Villanovan hut urns. They seem to have been used as incense burners. Their roofs clearly show two triangular vents at either end of a downward-curving ridge pole. The same style of roof is being used in the Baltic region to this day. Given that it has been in use for 3,000 years or more, my assumption is that it works. In the spring, we’ll find out. Many thanks to Corwen Broch for drawing my attention to this hopefully elegant solution to our smoke problem in this excellent blog post.
A bonus in this year's thatching session was that Amanda, Ariana and Pete re-whitewashed the roundhouse and added spiral decorations on either side of the doors (see photo below).
Huge thanks to everyone who has worked on the roundhouse over the years. Between us, we have created an amazing, magical place, filled with ancestral voices, woven with music, poetry and ritual, a perfect venue for ceremony, journeying between worlds and communing with the spirits of the place and of the old gods of these lands.
Archaeoacoustics is a fairly new branch of archaeology that studies the acoustic qualities of caves inhabited, or used ritually, during prehistory and ancient buildings such as the Newgrange tomb-shrine and Stonehenge. Studies sometimes include the use of instruments contemporary with the sites themselves.
I visited Avebury last weekend with my friends, Amanda and Pete, taking with me the newest of my Celtic lyres, wire strung and made from Oak. Towards the end of the day, we arrived at the huge southern entrance stone known in local folklore as ‘the Devil’s Chair’ due to a natural cleft, the base of which forms a comfortable seat in the southern face of the stone, the face that greets people arriving into the henge from the processional route along the West Kennett Avenue. At Amanda’s request, I broke my usual protocol against sitting in the seat so that she could photograph me with the lyre. It was then that we made a remarkable and surprising discovery.
Sitting in the notch in this enormous sarsen stone, I began to play the lyre. As I played, I moved the instrument across my lap until it was facing into a hollow depression in the stone beside my right thigh. I don't know what prompted me to do this, presumably the spirits of the place, but I noticed as I did so that the volume of the lyre increased dramatically when the soundhole was aligned with the hollow and pointing at it. The amount of amplification was quite startling. So much so that I decided to explore it further. Standing up, I held the lyre as far away from the stone as I could lean and still manage to play it, then, continuing to play, moved it towards the stone. From about a foot and a half in front of the stone’s face, the increase in volume was very marked indeed, maximum amplification being achieved when the soundboard of the lyre was almost inside the hollow ‘seat.’ Such was the acoustic feedback coming off the sarsen stone that the last note played on the lyre sustained for much longer than the instrument was normally capable of, continuing to ‘ring’ for several seconds. I didn't count, but I'd guess a good ten seconds longer than usual, probably more.
I thought the effect might be extremely localised and that you’d need to be right on top of the instrument, as I was, in order to appreciate it. Thanks to Amanda and Pete, I quickly learned that this was not the case. They were standing five or six yards away, between the sarsen and the busy main road that runs through the henge. When the lyre was facing away from the stone, any passing traffic drowned it out completely. When it was played facing into the stone, it was clearly audible, even over the sound of large lorries going by. We found that the effect varied depending on where you were standing in relation to the face of the stone, with particularly strong effects heard when standing at a shallow angle to it and at some distance to the side.
I tried calling into the ‘seat’ hollow and found the same effect, my voice being considerably amplified and thrown back at me. This led me to wonder if the effect might have been used to project sound towards the gap between the banks where the West Kennet Avenue reaches the henge. I would imagine that an instrument like a bull horn would have had considerable impact on anyone entering the henge at that point. The fact that the sound was being thrown from the entrance stone would have made its source hard to identify. I’ll have to try it on my next visit.
It’s amazing that I’ve been visiting Avebury for more than forty years, have taken part in ceremonies that have included the southern entrance stone for more than twenty years, but had never previously noticed this acoustic effect.
Pete made some recordings, and if they came out OK, I'll add them to this post.
Incidentally, I don't mean to suggest that an Iron Age lyre, played in Europe from at least 800 BCE, was contemporary with a Neolithic henge constructed between 2800 and 2200 BCE. Clearly it wasn't. The lyre just happened to be the only instrument I had with me. Next time, I'll take a bull horn and a clay drum...
Today’s recollection from the first Summer of Love comes in the form of a talk given on January 18th, 1967, by Dr. Timothy Leary at UCLA, the University of California, Los Angeles.
Born in 1920, the clinical psychologist, Timothy Leary, was one of the leading voices of the hippy era, a proponent of consciousness expansion through the use of psychedelic drugs, combined with more conventional spiritual techniques. He drew on Tibetan mysticism, Hinduism, Yoga, Meditation and other techniques and traditions, merging them into a form of spirituality suited to the young people he taught at Harvard University and talked to elsewhere.
In 1960, he and Richard Alpert began the Harvard Psilocybin Project to research the effects of that natural hallucinogen on prisoners and on students. This was continued in the Concord Prison Experiment. They found, among other things, that recidivism rates among prisoners dropped dramatically once they had undergone psilocybin ‘trips’ in controlled conditions that encouraged them to have revelatory spiritual experiences. Leary and Alpert were both fired from Harvard in 1963. This began a long period during which various American authorities, including the CIA and the FBI, worked extremely hard to shut Leary up. He spent time in prison, escaped, fled the country, returned, got arrested some more. His life and philosophy, not surprisingly, appealed strongly to young people in the 1960s.
Personally, I found that hallucinogens can help people to, as Jim Morrison put it, “break on through to the other side.” I was, however, delighted to discover techniques such as rhythmic drumming, by which it is possible to achieve states of altered consciousness without drugs. Why? Simple. Because, as Leary admits in this talk, hallucinogens confuse the mind and the non-drug techniques don’t.
In this talk, Leary speaks engagingly, often amusingly, and in some depth about his personal history and philosophy, including his famous exhortation to young people to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” He explains that “Dropping out means gently, invisibly, beautifully finding what’s inside and expressing it slowly in a cellular fashion around you.” I like the way he addresses his audience as “Beloved robots.” I love his advice on how to start a new religion. His is a voice that still has relevance and resonance today and it’s good that, although Timothy Leary is dead, through the magic of virtual life, he is still on the outside looking in.
I always find it hard to sleep when the moon is full, so was up and out very early this morning. As the sun rose over the village, I crossed the road and the brook, sacred to the goddess, Sulis, lined with springs. The nearest of these was revered by Anglo-Saxon ancestors as a local manifestation of the Bubbling Cauldron (Hvergelmir) at the roots of the World Tree, around which coils the serpent/dragon, Nidhoggr. Here's my drawing of the World Tree from the BDO Bardic Course. Click the picture to expand it. By the spring, I met an early dog-walker. Her dog, an old black and white collie, adopted me for a while as she went on ahead and he padded along at my heels. Our ways parted and I walked up the Green Path to a space between the trees where I could see out across the fields and the edge of the village, with a clear view of the sun. Took out my drum, held it to the newly risen sun, played and sang. With frost on the grass in the dips, I wondered if the drum would sound. I needn't have worried, the Red Deer's golden skin immediately absorbed and responded to the light and warmth of the golden fireball in the East and the lightest tap of my fingers brought forth a clear, ringing tone. I added another goddess to the list of deities and spirit beings called upon in my morning salutations. Having been with the White Horse Camp until yesterday afternoon, we had discussed honouring this goddess in a ceremony there this morning, and I wanted to connect with my friends at the camp from my quiet corner of North Wiltshire. I live just off the Northern edge of Salisbury Plain, within the territory of the Bronze Age people who created the beautiful chalk hill figure, the Uffington White Horse, etched into the greensward beside a rectangular earthwork on White Horse Hill in South Oxfordshire. Just above the Horse runs the Ridgeway, one of Britain's oldest prehistoric trackways, sections of which are still walkable. The Ridgeway once wound from the Norfolk coast to reach the sea again in Dorset, passing by many ancient sacred sites along the way, including Wayland's Smithy, Avebury and Wodnesbeorg. One of the White Horse's tasks, I believe, was to guide and assist walkers along that ancient track. My area of North Wiltshire is known to have had at least fourteen other chalk hill figures of horses etched into its hillsides. Short digression: In 1996, I led a Midsummer ceremony among the great stone circles of Avebury. Part of its purpose was to honour World Peace and Prayer Day, an idea inspired by the birth of a White Buffalo Calf in Wisconsin two years earlier. This event was seen as being of great spiritual significance by many Native Americans, who greeted it as a sign that their ancestral ways would be returning to them with renewed power. This is because, long ago, it was White Buffalo Calf Woman who brought the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples their seven sacred ceremonies and taught them how to conduct them for the benefit of the tribes and of all beings. Joining us at that ceremony in 1996 was a young Lakota who came because he had a vision of a White Horse while he fasted in a cave on Bear Butte, a sacred, holy place for many Native Americans. His vision led him to Avebury and to us, since our ceremony was being held at a place sacred to the ancient people of the White Horse. He brought with him a song he had been gifted during his vision and sang it for us in the circle. I am ashamed to say that a few drunken members of the Loyal Arthurian Warband shouted abuse at him as he sang. He didn't let them phase him though. His voice, his spirit and his song remained strong and true. After the ceremony, we talked. He asked if folk in England always yelled insults at people during sacred ceremonies. I explained the behaviour of the drunks as best I could and apologised for it. He said with a sigh, "Yeah, we get 'em back home too." We talked about Wannabee Indians and he said, "If people over here think it's so damn great being an Indian they should try living on the Res for a couple of years." We also discussed his vision. He said he had come to us because he felt there was a link between the birth of the White Buffalo Calf, White Buffalo Calf Woman who taught the sacred ways to his people, and our native British White Horse spirit. I've been thinking about this again recently and am more than ever convinced that he is right. I believe we have our own teacher of sacred ceremonies and spirit ways, centred on this area of rolling downland where the most famous of them all, the Uffington Horse, bestrides the hillside above Dragon Hill. So, who is our native White Horse Woman? I believe she is Rhiannon, 'the Great Queen,' who features in the First Branch of the Mabinogi, where she first appears riding a magical horse and later acts as a horse herself, carrying travellers on her back. Here she is, from the Druid Tarot I designed many years ago (available from the BDO webshop). If I'm right about this image derived from a Gaulish coin representing the same horse goddess (perhaps under a different name), then the spirit of the White Horse reaches far beyond the area where I live. I believe that she is one of the prime movers behind both the White Horse Camps (formerly OBOD Camps) and the Avebury Gorsedd. An interfaith conference organised by Tim Sebastion in 1993 featured the first ever ceremony of the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri, a ceremony I created for the event and which is still conducted at Avebury today. During the same weekend OBOD's chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, and Dr. (now Prof.) Ronald Hutton went for a walk around the stones and Ronald suggested that Philip should organise a Druid camp. The first camp took place at Lammas 1994 and included a trip down to Avebury to join the Gorsedd celebration there, again conducted by me, still flying from having encountered my spirit Wolf in a sweat lodge on the camp the night before.
That first camp became a template for many others and similar camps are now held throughout the year by five different Druid group in the UK and by OBOD and others in the Europe, the USA, Australia and elsewhere. The Avebury Gorsedd also became a template for similar festival celebrations at Stonehenge, the Long Man of Wilmington, Stanton Drew and elsewhere in the UK and, as with camps, at many other sites around the world. Part of the Gorsedd ceremony even featured in the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics, broadcast live to a global audience of millions.
When things have such power, that power must have a source, or several sources. In the case of White Horse Camps and the Avebury Gorsedd, linked by the Ridgeway, the power came from a combination of time, place and people, but also from Rhiannon, our White Horse Woman. I believe that our presence and our intention to revitalise the ways of our ancestors called her forth in the 1990s to teach, inspire and empower us, just as she had our ancestors in the distant past. Long may she continue to guide us in the recreation of our ancestral ways. I trust that many of us will honour her, and give thanks for her gifts, in our ceremonies as we celebrate the first fruits of the harvest this Lammastide. Hail Rhiannon! Hail and blessed be! and a blessed and inspiring Lammas/Lughnasad/Gwyl Awst to one and all! Greywolf /|\
It's good to start the day in a focused, spiritual way. My days begin with a yoga-based series of exercises - called Surya Namaskar (Salutation of the Sun God), though mine vary from the pattern given in the link (and many thanks to Anita Dreyer for introducing me to this). These are followed by an address to various spirits and deities who are important to me. This has grown with my travels through life, in Britain and elsewhere. The current version goes like this:
"Hail to Q'wati, the Transformer. Hail to T'istilal, the Thunderbird, Hail to Woden, wisest of wights, Howls of wolves and ravens' cries, Be sig-runes writ on this bright day. Hail to Freya, fiery love queen, Witchwife, healer, warrior of trance. Hail to Gwydion, antlered lord of forests, Hail to Arianrhod of the starry skies, Hail to Beli Mawr, father of all, and hail to Dôn, the great mother, Hail to Sulis and Sarasvati of the flowing waters, and hail to the white serpent of healing. Hail to the gods and goddesses all, Hail to the ancient ones, spirits most wise. May your blessings of strength, guidance, wisdom and healing Be with us this day, this day and all days. So may it be."
Q'wati and T'istilal are powerful spirit beings among the Quileute people of the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest of America. Powerful spirits brought us together and I look upon the Quileute as an extension of my family and wolf clan. Honouring the Transformer and the Thunderbird each day confirms this connection. Woden and Freya came to me on an ancient chambered tomb-shrine during a pilgrimage many years ago, and part of my ancestral line is Anglo-Saxon, traceable back to Woden. Gwydion and Arianrhod have become increasingly important to my spiritual life as I've learned and understood more about them over the last few years. Beli (Brightness) and Dôn (Flowing) are a divine couple in British mythology, parents of a line of gods, the Children of Dôn, and of humans. I trace my ancestry back to them through the royal house of North Wales that includes Rhodri Mawr.
Sulis is the local water goddess of the area where I live. She is patroness of the hot springs in Bath and, I believe, the goddess after whom the city of Salisbury and Silbury Hill are named. I live within the triangle formed by these three places. A stream runs past my house that flows into the River Avon, past Stonehenge and through Salisbury. A beautiful ebony statue of Sarasvati has adorned my home altars for about thirty years. She is a Hindu goddess of rivers, and also of music, literature, the arts and inspiration. I think of her as a relative of our own Ceridwen, only less harsh. If I'm in Shropshire, staying with my friends there, I substitute Sabrina for Sulis. A brook runs through their land and flows into the River Severn, sacred to the goddess Sabrina.
The white serpent of healing is an almost universal spirit with whom I've been working increasingly over the last few years.
The whole thing, excercises and address, only takes ten to fifteen minutes to perform and is well worth it, especially if, like me, you spend much of your day sitting indoors working. The excercises help keep me healthy, the address links me with the natural world through the spirits that inhabit parts of it, while linking me with my family, clans and tribes whose lives are enhanced and inspired by the same spirits. It also acts as a daily reminder of spiritual blessings already received, helping to maintain the connections that enhance and inspire my path through life.