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.
Sometimes, waves of sadness wash over us, regret comes by unbidden, sorrow for what was lost or might have been. For no particular reason, this happened to me this afternoon and I wrote this poem, the first I've written for a long time, in memory of a lost love. The painting is one I made about 20 years ago in recollection of that same winter. It was a magical, insane time.
Once upon a winter time was I well beloved
with freedom, honesty, openness and joy,
way back when I was no more than a boy,
taught the ways of love by a woman with pale skin,
straight black hair and a taste for heroin,
a mouse that nestled ‘neath the kitchen table
while snow outside fell thick and bluish white
as we walked starlit skies until first light,
the sound of frosted drums on sparkling air,
hearth warmed by broken legs of burning chairs,
illumined by cream candles from a place of sighs,
cavernous and Church of England high,
Victorian Gothic, the essence of our style,
with dark eyes and ever wistful smile,
my shirt that bound your arms in bloody strips,
my squeamishness that turned away from whips,
leaving my sweet Venus wrapped in furs,
your black dog the gentlest of curs,
you covering the pain you gave in part
payment for the track marks on your heart,
the craziness that dragged us to the edge,
with broken fingernails to grip the ledge,
because to slip would take us from this world,
with all its frail faults and failings,
And it’s forever that I should have stayed with you,
as happiness and understanding grew,
but I was still so young and still a fool,
seventeen and barely out of school,
yet once upon a winter time was I well beloved,
in Chapel Park Road in an L-shaped room
that could have been a primal womb
in which love’s endless wonder bloomed,
and yet became instead another tomb
where love was lost and intimacy died,
where lovers rocked as for that loss they cried
and then were gone like flickering stars that hide
when dawn’s light robs them of their morning glory,
as black holes one night will devour their story,
as time’s insatiable maw devours all things,
from babies’ cries to soaring eagles’ wings,
erasing memories of gods below and gods above,
yet once upon a winter time was I well beloved.
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...
In the summer of 2010, archaeologists working on the Isle of Skye at a site called High Pasture Cave discovered most of the charred bridge of a lyre in amongst charcoal that had been scraped to one side in a large, stone-lined fire pit situated in the forecourt just outside the narrow entranceway through which the Cave is accessed. The bridge piece has been dated to around 500 BCE, early in the British Iron Age. Reconstructions of the instrument of which the bridge was a part have generally been modelled on a complete one found in a 6th century CE warrior’s grave at a site called Trossingen in Germany in 2002. It’s quite possible that this was indeed the type of lyre the High Pasture bridge came from.
There is, however, an alternative, which is the type of lyre commonly known as the Lyre de Paule after a small stone statue of a late Iron Age bard unearthed in Brittany. This is a very different instrument, more akin to a Greek lyre. Similar lyres are shown on numerous Celtic coins, while the earliest known representations are scribed onto ceramic pots from the Hallstadt region of Germany and date from around 800 BCE.
This type of lyre, the earliest surviving name for which is chrotta, has fascinated me for decades, ever since I first saw an image of the Lyre de Paule. I now have one (left), and it's a beauty, thanks to the superb craft skills of Koth na Fiach of Dark Age Crafts. However, I also have another, made for me in Oak some years ago by Jim, an electric guitar maker. It came without fittings, the idea being that I would provide strings, tuning pegs, etc. myself. Naturally, what with Druid courses to write, and concern as to whether my craft skills were up to the task, I never got around to it. The Oak lyre therefore stayed propped up in my dining room until my Dark Age Crafts lyre arrived, at which point I decided to have a go at completing the Oak one myself, using the one Koth made for me as a reference guide.
The first piece I’ve made for it is a bridge based on the one from the High Pasture Cave. First, I drew out the profile of the piece on a spare piece of well-seasoned Yew that was about the right thickness. The original being apparently for a three or five stringed instrument, I expanded it a little to accommodate seven strings, the number on the Lyre de Paule. Having sawn the bridge roughly to shape with a tenon saw, I cut out the ‘stepped’ shape at the two ends, sawing down from the top, then slicing in from the side with a whittling knife.
I then drilled two holes through the ends. I’m not sure what purpose these serve. It’s possible that it allowed the bridge to be tied in place on the original instrument, although bridges are rarely fixed in place on modern acoustic instruments, so this seems unlikely. They may be either to make the piece lighter, or simply for decoration, or both.
The next step was to cut the notches in which the strings will sit. For this, I used a small fret saw, clamping the piece to the front of my desk with a G-clamp. In order for the strings to all sit at the same height from the soundboard, it’s vital to get the V-shapes all cut to the same depth. This is fiddly, but will make a real difference to the playability of the instrument.
Next came the most fiddly, delicate and time-consuming part of the process, shaping the whole piece using a whittling knife. I started by hollowing out the base of the bridge, leaving just the oval ‘feet’ at either end. I then used the fret saw to cut along the line of all of the notches at the top at an angle, making them into flat-topped pyramid shapes. Using the whittling knife, I then pared down the ends to a rounded shape and hollowed out one side of the bridge. I then used a counter-sink drill on either side of the already-drilled holes.
Once satisfied that I’d got the overall shape as near as I could to the original, the last stage was to sand it down with two different grades of glasspaper, one rough, one smooth.
I have to say, I think the finished piece looks great and I’m really pleased with it. Just as well, as it took me the best part of five hours!
Now I just have to wait for some violin pegs and a hole reamer to arrive, make a tail-piece, find some strings, and put the whole thing together.
My Dark Age Crafts lyre having nine Nylgut strings, the Oak one is going to have seven wire strings. It’s going to be a semi-acoustic too, once the pick-ups I have on order arrive. Why semi-acoustic? Well, I have a hankering to see what a wire-strung Iron Age lyre sounds like when run through an effects unit and amplified. If I was an Iron Age bard, I’d have wanted that...
More pictures and sound files will follow. Meanwhile, here’s a tale of the Irish god of Druidry, the Dagda, and how he summoned his Oaken harp (bearing in mind that the words for ‘harp’ and ‘lyre’ in Celtic languages were interchangeable for several centuries):
Now Lugh and the Dagda and Ogma pursued the Fomorians, for they had carried off the Dagda’s harper, whose name was Uaithne (pronounced Oona). Then they reached the banqueting-house in which were Bres son of Elatha and Elatha son of Delbaeth. There hung the harp on the wall. That is the harp in which Dagda had bound the melodies so that they sounded not until by his call he summoned them forth when he said this below:
Come, Oak of two plains,
Come, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come summer, come winter, Mouths of harps and bags and pipes!
Now that harp had two names, Daurdabla ‘Oak of two plains’ and Coircetharchuir ‘Four-angled music.’
Then the harp went forth from the wall, and killed nine men, and came to the Dagda. And he played for them the three things whereby harpers are distinguished, to wit, the sleeping-strain and the smiling-strain and the wailing-strain. He played the wailing-strain to them, so that their tearful women wept. He played the smiling-strain to them, so their women and children laughed. He played the sleeping-strain to them, and the company fell asleep. Through that sleep the three of them escaped unhurt from the Fomorians though these desired to slay them.
At midnight on Monday, August 14th, 1967, the Marine Offences Broadcasting Act became law in the UK. This draconian piece of legislation, brought in by Harold Wilson's Labour government, made it illegal under UK law for anyone to broadcast a radio or tv signal outside of UK territorial waters if such a signal was aimed at an audience in the UK. Anyone assisting in such a venture, whether by actually taking part in such a broadcast, or by providing food or other supplies, was liable to imprisonment.
Until that time, from 1964, British listeners had enjoyed a number of what were dubbed 'pirate' radio stations, mostly broadcasting from ships anchored just outside UK territorial waters. Prominent among them were Radio London, Radio England, and Radio Caroline, the latter run by an Irish national, Ronan O'Rahilly, whose grandfather, Michael O'Rahilly, had died in Dublin in 1916 during the Easter Rising, fighting for Irish independence.
In support of the legislation, the UK government told a series of blatant lies, falsely claiming, among other things, that the 'pirate' radio ships were a danger to shipping or that signals from them were interfering with aircraft and police, fire and ambulance services. The real reason for the Act was that the UK government were able to exercise control over the BBC and ITV, to the extent that, for most of its existence, MI5 maintained an office inside Broadcasting House. The 'pirates' were beyond state control and, therefore, deemed a potential threat to the state.
Ironically, Harold Wilson had gone out of his way to be photographed with prominent pop starts of the day, including The Beatles, just as his successor, Tony Blair, would do with the stars of 'Brit-pop' thirty years later. The BBC, at that time, broadcast very little pop music, so the burgeoning UK music industry was delighted with the additional airtime that artists got from the commercial 'pirate' stations. Support for the pirates was strong amongst the artists too, since it meant that millions more people were able to hear their work.
The 'pirate' stations also benefited from independent-minded and musically knowledgable DJs. One such was John Peel, whose Perfumed Garden Show, broadcast between midnight and 2am on Radio London, was required listening for anyone with a freak mind. He played poetry readings from Roger McGough and strange ditties from Tyrannosaurus Rex, interspersing them with tales of the Dibblers who lived at Peel Acres. Peel's final farewell from the Perfumed Garden is revisited here with a full track listing. Running Peel a close second was Johnnie Walker, whose shows on Radio Caroline would sometimes feature entire new LP releases being played in their entirety, without interruption. Again, for those of us who cared about music, this was bliss.
On the day that the Marine Offences Act came into force, most of the 'pirate' stations ceased broadcasting, and most of their personnel would go on to join the new BBC Radio 1 station, which essentially tried to clone Radio London, even to the extent of repurposing its jingles. What Radio 1 lacked, however, was any sense of independence. DJs' freedom of choice over what they played was replaced by an approved playlist. Eventually, John Peel managed to carve out a career for himself on Radio 1 that, in many respects, carried on what he had been doing in the Perfumed Garden Show, championing artists that his fellow DJs wouldn't, or weren't allowed to, play.
One station, however, remained on the air; Radio Caroline South, moored off the Frinton, Essex coast on the good ship, Mi Amigo. As midnight struck and the Act became law, two DJs and a skeleton crew remained on board. Those DJs were Johnnie Walker and Robbie Dale. They celebrated their new status as literal outlaws by playing The Beatles 'All You Need Is Love' and Pete Seeger's 'We Shall Overcome.' For the next few days, they kept up 24-hour broadcasting between the two of them until a tender arrived, bringing another DJ to help out. From now on, Walker and Dale could not set foot on British soil without fear of arrest. Any UK citizen who gave them a Mars bar or a bite of a sandwich risked the same. However, thanks to their efforts, the ideal of free radio survived.
Johnnie Walker wrote the following piece, broadcast repeatedly from Radio Caroline during that summer, in which he speaks of freedom and hope, ending with the words, "No man will ever forget Monday, August 14th, nineteen hundred and sixty seven." This man hasn't...
About a quarter of a century ago, I became fascinated by a musical instrument called a chrotta, a type of lyre played in Iron Age Europe from at least 800 BCE up until around 400 CE and the forerunner of many modern instruments, most notably the harp. At that time, no one was making replicas of them or even seemed interested in them. Despite the prominent role played by bards in early European societies, a role maintained to some extent in the countries of the ‘Celtic Fringe’ to this day, most books on the European Iron Age ignore the music of the period completely.
As a musician, I wanted to get my hands on a chrotta, to see what they sounded like and to figure out how they might have been played. One way and another, from building roundhouses to making frame drums and bone flutes, I’ve spent a good deal of the last 20 years doing things that increase my sense of community with our ancestors. Unfortunately, my craft skills are not up to making lyres from scratch.
Now, thanks to the far greater skills of fellow chrotta enthusiast, Koth NaFiach of Dark Age Crafts, who I had the good fortune, or gods’ guidance depending on your belief system, to meet at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival this year, my 25-year quest is finally fulfilled. Here, then, is my Iron Age lyre. I've added a soft leather back strap by which to support the instrument when playing it standing up, as was the common Iron Age practice so far as we can tell. I’ve also made a plectrum from a piece of horn. At my request, Koth made a bridge for the lyre based on this Iron Age one found on the Isle of Skye.
I still have a couple of other things to do, like painting Wolf heads on the tops of the uprights and possibly adding a horn wrest plate like one found at Dinorben in North Wales. I also need to make a padded bag to carry it in. Incidentally, I will also be making an Iron Age bardic costume when I have time and enough floor space to mark out and cut the material...
As for how it sounds, it's hard to describe in words, but I'd say that, appropriately, the chrotta has a more 'primitive' sound than my harp when playing the same notes with similar length strings. It sounds like the hand-made, one-off folk instrument it is, rather than a production line ‘concert’ instrument. Another way to put it is that the chrotta sounds 'real.' The harp is nylon strung and the chrotta strung with Nylgut, an artificial material designed to have a sound close to the quality of real gut strings but with a better ability to maintain tuning, and without animals dying. While I get my own recordings together, check out this video of Koth playing my lyre's big sister (mine has nine strings, allowing almost two octaves using pentatonic tuning, Koth's has twelve)...
Koth's not the only one making reconstructions of these ancient lyres now. There's even a place in France that's holding regular lessons in how to play them. Chrotta-mania appears to be catching, even if it does take 25 years to spread!
I’m really looking forward to getting to know this beautiful instrument over the coming weeks and trying some recording. There are a number of early medieval stories, poems and prayers that I’d like to set to music with it. There’s even a genuine Gaulish healing spell I might have a crack at. Sounds amazing in the original, although, when translated, it's all about expelling phlegm!
Stay tuned for further adventures as I transform myself into an Iron Age bard.
Meanwhile, if you'd like to join the chrotta revolution, Koth is still taking commissions. Here's a link to his Contacts Page...
Since around 2005, the British Druid Order and friends have been holding a blessing ceremony for the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, the largest historical re-enactment event in Europe, which takes place annually on the second weekend in July. This came about because the festival, which has been running since 1984, had always had a blessing from a Christian priest on the Sunday morning, but the organisers had become increasingly aware that a significant proportion of the re-enactors and stall-holders are not Christian, but Pagan. They therefore asked us if we would provide a ceremony on the Saturday morning before the public are admitted to the field. We’ve been doing so ever since. We began with about eight of us. This year there were more than thirty people in our circle, which isn’t bad considering most of the entertainers, stall-holders and re-enactors who would like to come are attending meetings or preparing for the day’s events at the time our ceremony is held.
In essence, we ask the spirits of the place, our ancestors and the old gods of our lands to bless and protect all those taking part in the weekend. Perhaps our greatest success so far came in 2007, the summer during which Britain was hit by unprecedented floods. Large, open-air events were being cancelled all over the country. Tewkesbury was one of the few that went ahead as planned. Yes, it was very muddy underfoot, but the rain held off for most of the weekend and the event was a success.
For the last five years or so, the BDO and our friends from the Wild Ways retreat centre in Shropshire, have rented adjacent stalls at Tewkesbury. We stay over for the whole weekend, arriving on Friday afternoon and leaving on Sunday evening. This means we get to enjoy the bands who play in the beer tent on those two evenings. We have also developed a tradition of drumming the sun down on Friday evening. We meet lots of old friends and make lots of new ones. It’s a joyous event and one we wouldn’t miss.
This year was a particularly good one for me. A little 8-stringed lyre (left) had arrived a couple of days before the festival weekend. For about twenty-five years, I’ve been obsessed with the Iron Age Gaulish lyres called chrotta and this little one was the nearest I’d ever come across to the best existing image of a chrotta, a stone statue dating from the 2nd century BCE, found in Brittany and called the Lyre de Paule (right).
Having arrived and set up our stalls in the marquee, I was standing behind the BDO stall playing my little lyre, when, to my amazement, a guy walked through the door of the marquee carrying a much larger lyre, clearly based on the same Lyre de Paule statue that had always intrigued me. When I’d recovered from the surprise, I went over and introduced myself. The guy with the chrotta turned out to be Koth NaFiach of Dark Age Crafts, and he makes them.
Starting out as a guitarist, he became intrigued by early European stringed instruments, then obsessed by Gaulish lyres to the extent that he had to make one for himself. Then other people starting asking if he could make them one, and so began a new career. He now tours festivals as a bard, telling stories and singing songs to the accompaniment of these beautiful instruments. As a musician, he has learned how to create them so that they not only look great, but sound wonderful. As a spirit worker, he crafts them to bring out the magical qualities of the materials so that to play them, or to hear them played, is to be transported to another world, to have the spirit truly uplifted.
We talked a lot over the course of the weekend, mostly about our shared obsession with these almost unknown instruments. We talked about possible playing styles, how we both concluded that the Gauls probably used something similar to ancient Greek musical modes for tuning, about the paucity of images of them other than tiny ones on coins, about the relative merits of metal, gut or Nylgut strings, about tuning pegs... We also discussed what the chances were that the two people in the UK most obsessed with Gaulish lyres should be allocated stall spaces right opposite each other at an event covering about 20 acres. This is the type of one-in-a-million chance that I refer to as a cosmic coincidence, that happens when the universe wants it to.
Koth loaned us a chrotta and Ariana, Amanda and I played it pretty much all day behind our stalls. Many people asked about it and we pointed them across the way to Koth’s stall. We were happy to do the advertising in exchange for the spiritual and emotional uplift we got from playing the chrotta. We were truly enraptured. Ariana and Amanda both said they had no musical ability, but that they were able to make entrancing sounds with both my little lyre and Koth’s larger ones. With lyres, it’s all in the tuning. All the strings are in the same key, so it’s pretty much impossible to play a wrong note!
In other news, Bernie the Bolt, who’s been supplying quality cloth to the masses at Tewkesbury pretty much since it started, was having a sale this year. For the tiny sum of £30, I am now the proud owner of 10 metres of 60 inch wide, beautifully soft wool and polyester mix tartan. Why so much? Because I’m going to make myself and my son, Joe, Iron Age bardic costumes. Do we know what Iron Age bards wore? Yes, we do, because there’s this beautiful little bronze figurine of one that dates from the 1st century BCE and was found near a sacred shrine at a place called Neuvy-en-Sullias in Western France. His long tunic and trousers are clearly marked with a lozenge or diamond pattern, which is what you get if you turn a tartan through 45 degrees. Why would you do that? Because cutting cloth at such an angle wastes more material, thereby proving the wealth of the lord who provided the bard with his uniform. Other images of bards from centuries earlier and the other side of Europe confirm the universality of this style of bardic dress.
I also think I may have finally found someone who can make bags with the BDO Awen symbol embroidered on them, and can print the Fionn’s Window design on cloth so that I can make Ogham divination sets of the type described in the medieval Irish Scholar’s Primer.
Coming full circle, I picked up a bag of horn offcuts that I can use to make plectrums for lyres. If I can get the manufacturer to make a couple of changes, I’m going to import some of the little lyres I mentioned earlier and offer them for sale at events and on the BDO webshop. Amanda has already said she wants two of them! They are sweet little things and amazingly portable, made from such a light wood that the whole instrument probably weighs less than a pound. They’re a nice starter instrument to learn your way around and try out different tunings. Then, once you’ve got the hang of the lyre, you can graduate to one of Koth’s amazing chrotta reconstructions, like the one he's playing in this video from the Dark Age Crafts website.
So, maybe see you at Tewkesbury next July? I'll be the guy in the twisted tartan Iron Age bardic costume playing the wolfshead lyre 🙂 'Til then...
Arriving at GaiaGarden in Sweden on Thursday, there was much to be done, including putting up awnings around the ceremonial area, and to cover the place where food would be served. There were also wooden benches to make for 150 people. Luckily, we had Melchior, who handles a circular saw and an electric screwdriver like Jimi Hendrix played guitar. It was awesome to see.
A fire-pit was made with a circle of stones around it. Morten didn’t believe the compass on my phone for marking out the directions. I wanted to believe because it showed there to be a garden gnome hiding in the bushes at the North. Next day, we came back with Morten’s mechanical compass. It disagreed with my phone, so we had a gnome in the North-East, which was fine.
Birch logs were ported across from the log store by wheelbarrow. Many trips were needed before a good pile of logs was made. A basket of kindling was gathered from the woods and all was ready for our sacred fire to be lit.
We rigged up a green tarpaulin over the stage, between timber posts at the front and a set of goalposts at the back. If musicians were not too tall, they’d be OK. Guy Bijl said “We play sitting down, we’ll be fine.” We tried a straight Birch branch to hold the tarpaulin up, but settled for rope rafters in the end, which worked pretty well. With coloured lights hung from them, the stage looked pretty good. Maybe more early 70s free festival than 21st century Glastonbury, but pretty good.
Meanwhile, Morten roped off almost everywhere with striped ribbons. A sign appeared saying Seremoniplass so that we would know the way, and all was ready.
Vehicles began to arrive, tents sprang from the ground like giant mushrooms, and the Gathering steadily grew. By the time of the opening ceremony at 6pm, we must have been about 80 strong. During the opening ceremony, the sacred fire was lit, always a nervous moment as I’ve seen a lot of matches fail to strike and lighters refuse to work over the years. Not this time though. The fire kindled quickly and burnt well.
A second fire had already been burning a few yards away, and a large pot full of chaga had been brewing on it, tended by Morten, Louise and Kyrre Franck. This meant that we could flow straight from the opening ceremony into a chaga healing ceremony, during which we sent out prayers for healing to those in need. Then there was a fifteen minute break before our Druid Midsummer ceremony.
We based our ceremony on traditional Midsummer celebrations in Cornwall, where hilltop fires survived 1500 years of Christianity, died out briefly in the 1890s, but were revived in the 1920s. Part of the tradition there is for fitter folk to take part in a Serpent Dance, linking hands and running through the streets in towns, or around the bonfires. Torches lit from the fires are then carried through the fields to bring the cleansing blessing of the sacred flames to crops and animals.
This video contains a version of the traditional ceremony. The sound quality isn't brilliant, but there's a lengthy section where the Lady of Flowers attempts to lob her garland of herbs onto the fire which is quite fun...
We’re always a little nervous before a ceremony, wondering how it’s going to go. Bringing one of our ceremonies to a shamanic gathering in Sweden, we were even more nervous. How would people react? We had no idea. All was good, because the people who came to the weekend were so wonderful, with such good humour, and willing to join wholeheartedly with all that was on offer.
Of course, we included typical pieces of Druid ritual, opening with the Call for Peace, chanting the Awen, the flowing spirit of inspiration (which may have increased the rain a little), holding hands to swear the Oath of Peace. Arthur and Kyrre helped us with calls to the quarters. We thought Arthur would be good for the North, since his name comes from Arctorus, the Bear, and the Bear is the animal we associate most with the North. Kyrre called to the spirits of Water in the West. We included Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Tree Song,’ which has been adopted by a lot of Druids and other Pagans as a Midsummer anthem. I think we did OK?
Saturday morning began (after breakfast and coffee, of course), with the music of plants, brought to us by our wonderful host, Ingvild, and her magical plant music machine. Beautiful, gentle start to the day.
After a short break, we rowed a spirit canoe on a journey of healing for someone who had arrived the night before feeling very unwell. We were guided by Inge Lise, who did a fantastic job keeping all us crazy people focused and on track, making sure our boat didn’t run aground or sink. The healing worked.
Elaine and I helped Louise serve lunch, then it was time for the Himalayan healing ceremony, but both Elaine and I realised that we were too tired to go to it. Instead, we drifted in and out of sleep as the ceremony went on in the room above us. From what we could hear, it sounded like a powerful experience.
In the evening, we were treated to magical music from the Bijl Brothers and Cromlec’h, both from Belgium, both excellent. The Bijl Brothers’ Cuckoo Song was particularly memorable for the humour of the performance. Steve’s playing of an Eastern European instrument called a Faljar was also an outstanding moment for me as I’m a collector of obscure musical instruments and had never heard of a Faljar before Morten introduced me to one. It’s a sort of giant flute, played upright. It doesn’t have many finger holes, so most of the note range is achieved by regulating the breath. You’re also supposed to sort of sing into it. The resulting sound is unique and amazing. I want one!
Cromlec’h were short of a member, one of their number being so very pregnant that a long road trip to Sweden probably wasn’t a good idea. Luckily, Louise was a member of the band when she was living in Belgium, so she sat in for a few numbers on bodhran, which was good to see and hear. Their mix of traditional and self-written songs quickly won over the audience and led to an outbreak of spontaneous dancing that lasted as long as the music did.
As midnight approached and the set came to a close, the sky was still quite light, having set just below the horizon not long before, taking a brief rest before rising again a couple of hours later. Not quite a midnight sun, but as close to it as Elaine and I had been. Nights that don’t get dark were a new experience for us both.
Sunday dawned bright and fair.
My presentation took place at 2.30pm in the lecture room so that I could show folk some strange images of Druids through the ages. My intention was to explain my vision of Druids as the shamans of Britain, Ireland, and a good part of Europe North of the Mediterranean.
In the middle of my presentation, a strong wind whipped the curtains out through the windows and crashed the windows against the walls of the building. Sitting smiling in the front row was Kyrre, who told me earlier that he had joiked for the wind on the drive to the venue. Good joiking, my friend!
I ended, of course, with ‘my’ native British Wolf Chant. I like to give it away to groups as often as possible because I believe it has a good effect in protecting Wolves in the wild and encouraging their re-introduction in places where they have been hunted to extinction.
We then watched as people packed up to leave, trying to catch everyone for a hug before they went, feeling deeply that we had made many new friends over the weekend. Then began the task of taking down all the things we had put up a few days before.
Later, the twelve of us who were left held a feast in the dining room. There was so much joy around that table. What a weekend it had been! We ate four enormous pizzas and a giant cream cake, washed down with some lovely elderflower wine and a bottle of Louise. Yes, you can get Louise in a bottle! And she’s delicious!
On Monday, after more clearing up and taking down, we headed back across the border to Morten and Louise’s place in the forest. Then, on Tuesday, home with so many happy memories. Thank you everyone, and thank you, GaiaGarden.
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall...”
This opening line of Philip Pullman’s ‘The Northern Lights’ introduces us to one of the core concepts of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, that humans have a sort of external soul, which Pullman calls the daemon. The daemon acts as a counsellor and guide and is intimately linked to our own life force. When we are children, our daemon can take any number of animal forms. With the onset of puberty, the daemon settles to a single animal form.
Pullman’s idea of the daemon was inspired largely by the ancient Greek use of the word to denote a benevolent, guiding spirit gifted to each of us at birth. Similar concepts exist in many other cultures, being perhaps best known in the West through the traditions of many Native American peoples.
I found my own ‘daemon’ with the help of a remarkable Dutch woman called Georgien Wybenga.
Coming from a family that accepted clairvoyance as an everyday reality, Georgien experienced a ‘shamanic crisis’ when she broke her back in 1986. Having to learn to walk again radically altered her relationship to her body and to being alive. It opened her up to new possibilities, which she began to explore with a Hungarian shaman named Jóska Soós (1921-2008). It was while attending her first shamanic circle, guided by Jóska, that Georgien first encountered her own spirit animal, a Red Fox, who has been with her ever since.
I met Georgien at the first ever OBOD camp in 1994. She and her fellow countryman, Walter, invited people to join them in creating a sweat lodge. I had heard of sweat lodges, but never experienced one. This seemed an ideal opportunity.
Sweat lodges are a contentious issue. Many Native Americans object to their use by non-native people, regarding such use as the worst kind of cultural theft. There is, however, evidence that Britain, Ireland and Europe had their own sweat lodge tradition. In Britain and Ireland, there are hundreds of piles of rocks showing signs of burning, dating from the Neolithic right through to the Iron Age. Archaeologists refer to them as burnt mounds. Many were associated with light, temporary structures similar to traditional Lakota lodges. More permanent buildings were used in British prehistory for the same purpose though, as recently revealed in the Orkneys and at the Marden henge in Wiltshire, near where I live. Stone and turf-built sweat houses continued in use in Ireland until comparatively recently. The illustration (click on it to enlarge) shows a reconstruction of a Bronze Age sweat lodge at Rathpatrick in county Kilkenny.
Georgien’s personal journey with sweat lodges began during a year-long shamanic training course in the Netherlands in 1990, with teachers including Sun Bear (First Nations, Ojibwa, 1929-1992), Jamie Sams (First Nations), Archie Fire Lame Deer (First Nations, Lakota, 1935-2001), Ailo Gaup (Sami, 1944-2014), Juan Camargo (First Nations, Inca), Annette Host (Scandinavian), Everett Burch (First Nations), Philip Carr-Gomm (Druidry), Thea Worthington (Druidry), Luisah Teish (Yoruba), Freya Aswynn (Northern tradition), Johnny Moses (First Nations, Tulalip) and others.
I’ll let Georgien take up the story:
“Archie [Lame Deer] came to the spiritual centre the Elfinbench in the Netherlands. It was the first time I attended a sweat lodge. Archie liked to set people off on the wrong foot, so often he then started the sweat at one o’clock in the morning. He honoured his tradition, so women and men were in separate lodges. We should have had the traditional 4 doors or rounds, but after 3 doors he pointed to me saying, ‘you are leading the next door.’ Total surprise, but there I went ‘cause he just got up and left!
“You will not believe that this happened to me twice. In the first sweat with Sun Bear he also asked me to lead a door, not knowing me at all. I was just a participant at that time.
“Archie always said ‘I am not teaching anybody.’ So again, I had to find my teachings just by being there, and this is how it went with all the so-called ‘teachers.’ This is how I felt I had to learn more, just from the ceremony of the sweat lodge, by giving them myself. One needs a strong urge to do some learning and I did travel around the world to find some.
“Archie brought me awareness of the power of ritual and unravelled the romantic idea we have in Europe about the First Nations. He knew a great deal about plant spirits and awoke in me an interest to want to know more about them, enhanced by Anette Host and Everett Burch, when I learned to journey to plant spirits and learn from them.
“As a person, Archie was somewhat unapproachable on first meeting, but when he got to know you better he would tell about his life in the film industry with great humour. There is a book, Gift of Power, written about his life.”
At the OBOD camp, those of us taking part in the sweat lodge committed to spending the whole day helping to prepare it. My own preparation had actually started a few days earlier when I began a fast. The day of the lodge was my fifth day of fasting. During the day, we dug a fire-pit, collected firewood, cut hazel poles to construct the lodge and built it. We were blessed and purified with smoking bundles of herbs. We were then gathered together and asked to pull a card from a deck designed by Lame Deer. The cards were spread on a canvas ground sheet and I drew Unci, the Grandmother. As I looked at the card, a vision engulfed me in which I was standing in the middle of a desert of pale orange sand under a blazing sun. The distant horizon was ringed with blue mountains. A dark spot appeared in the eastern sky. As it drew nearer, I saw that it was a huge Eagle. Swooping down, it grasped my shoulders in its claws and lifted me into the sky. We flew swiftly towards the eastern mountains, where we circled one of the snowy peaks a few times before the Eagle delivered me back to the middle of the desert. All this was completely unexpected, but, I thought, boded well for the sweat lodge to come!
We lit the huge fire to heat the rocks for the lodge, and as sheets of flame spread sparks on the evening breeze, we drummed and danced and sang. It was beautiful.
In the lodge, we did four doors, or rounds, guided by Georgien. The lodge was incredibly hot. I had no point of comparison, but folk with years of experience later told me it was the hottest they’d ever been in. Recalling it many years later, Georgien commented, “Great balls of fire! The fire was so hot that the sunglasses of our fire-keeper, Walter, melted on his head!” The heat was indeed so intense that I struggled to remain upright and conscious, and it took a real effort of will to do so.
During one of the rounds, Georgien called to the animal spirit guardians of the four quarters, as she had been taught to do by Lame Deer. One of them was Coyote in the south. This jarred with me, since we were in a field in southern England, and I was pretty sure we’d never had an indigenous Coyote population. I wondered what our native equivalent would be. In British folklore, the answer should have been Fox, since Fox fulfils the same kind of trickster role in our traditions that Coyote does for many American First Nations. The answer that came, however, was Wolf.
As soon as the word ‘Wolf’ popped into my head, a large, stocky, full-grown adult Wolf appeared in the centre of the lodge. He was curled up in the central pit that held the hot rocks from the fire. The glowing red rocks were inside his body. He raised his head and looked at me, then stood up, the hot stones still inside him. Still looking at me, he jerked his head towards the door of the lodge, gesturing for me to follow. He then walked out through the closed door of the lodge. Leaving my physical body behind me, I got up and did the same.
When we got outside, instead of a field in southern England, we were on the snow-covered lower slopes of a mountain. About a mile away from us was a dark treeline, and the Wolf padded off through the snow towards the trees. I followed, taking care to step in the Wolf’s pawprints so as to leave the pristine snow undisturbed.
We reached the edge of a thick forest of tall pine. A path ran off into the forest, vanishing into its deep shadows. A short way along the path, the Wolf stopped and turned to face me. Speaking directly into my mind, he told me I had to go back to my body, but that next time we met he would lead me deeper into the forest. I went back the way we had come, again stepping in the pawprints. Re-entering the lodge, I rejoined my body, becoming aware again of the darkness, lit only by the faint glow of the hot rocks, and of my brothers and sisters in the lodge with me. A physical memory of the snow outside stayed with me and enabled me to cope with the heat of the lodge much better.
When the lodge came to an end, I crawled out onto deliciously cool dewy grass and a starry night sky. I couldn’t stand. All I could do was roll over onto my back. Eventually, I managed to get to a water barrel by the side of the lodge and drink deep of the icy water. I felt an amazing sense of elation and a new openness to the universe. It was a genuine experience of rebirth.
Later that day, I had to conduct a ceremony for several hundred people among the ancient stones of Avebury in Wiltshire. I was so ‘blown away’ by the experience of the night, the visions, the fasting, the lack of sleep, that I seriously doubted my capacity to hold a ceremony. I intercepted Walter, our fire-keeper, as he crossed the field, told him that the night before had been my first experience of a sweat lodge and asked him how long the effects were supposed to last. He looked at me as though I were a fool or a madman, raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, forever.” I laughed, went to Avebury, and all was fine.
I also told Walter of my Wolf vision and asked what I should do about it. He said that it was traditional to find something that linked you to the animal you’d seen in your vision. I thought this pretty unlikely, never having seen a single tooth or claw, hide nor hair of a Wolf in my entire life. I should have known better. Spirit certainly did.
Eight days after the lodge, back home in Sussex, a friend invited me to a garage sale at his parents’ house. On arriving, the first thing I saw was a large animal hide draped over an old water tank. I looked at it and thought, “No, it can’t be.” But, of course, it was. A Wolfskin rug had been in the house when my friend’s parents bought it in 1947. They hadn’t liked it, so bundled it into a bag and stowed it away in the loft. There it had remained for nearly half a century, until the day of my sweat lodge vision, when my friend had found it and added it to their garage sale.
I told my friend and his mother about my Wolf vision and they gave me the hide. It was made from the hides of six Wolves, stitched together and given a woollen backing. The lanolin in the wool had preserved the skin in very good condition. I removed the backing, added a couple of ties, and made the rug into a ceremonial cloak. That's me wearing it while drumming with Georgien in 1999.
The next Pagan event I was invited to was a venison feast, ‘coincidentally’ hosted my one of my companions from the sweat lodge. I was a vegetarian at the time, but the Wolves weren’t, so I accepted the invitation. I sat at one end of the table, our host at the other. The venison had been steeped overnight in red wine. Before it was brought in, our host told us the story of how it was hunted. As the first mouthful of the tender, succulent meat slid down my throat, I felt the Wolfskins across my back and shoulders ripple with life and power as the Wolves came back to life.
All those present at the feast were leaders of Wiccan covens. As the leader of a Druid Order, I was accepted due to the fact that I had also been initiated as a High Priest of Alexandrian Wicca in the 1970s. Our host told me that one of those present at the feast returned to their coven and told them that Druids were really cool and all wore Wolfskin cloaks!
I should add that, soon after that sweat lodge at the OBOD camp, Georgien, working with myself, Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and others began the process of re-creating a native sweat tradition based on the archaeology referred to above and our understanding of our native spiritual heritage.
Many other Wolf-related ‘coincidences’ followed, including being given a native British Wolf chant, and being made a member of the drum circle of a Native American tribe who trace their descent from shape-shifting Wolves. As a result of that first sweat lodge encounter, and my subsequent work with Wolf spirit(s), I have used the craft name, Greywolf, for many years. I paint Wolves on my drums. I was given a second Wolfskin cloak.
Virtually everyone has a spirit animal who acts as a guardian, guide and teacher, whether we know it or not. I say virtually, because I once met someone who had driven his spirit animal away. He was a long-term drug addict, petty criminal and generally unpleasant person. Most of us are more fortunate, since our spirit animal helpers tend to be extremely patient and faithful. Some of us who have had the privilege of meeting our spirit animal face to face are given the opportunity to work with them on a regular basis. They can unlock many doorways for us. In my own case, among much else, Wolf brought me the ability to shape-shift.
The relationship with one’s spirit animal is a very special one, due to the intimacy of the link and the extraordinary potential for power it offers. It is an exchange. Your ‘daemon’ will look after you to the extent that you look after it. You feed it when you yourself eat. You may be given a spirit song that will help strengthen and maintain the link between you. You may find a dance that has a similar effect, perhaps replicating the movements of your animal helper.
My own journey with Wolf continues, and it all started with that sweat lodge with Georgien Wybenga.
Georgien is returning to the UK this year to offer a workshop weekend in Glastonbury devoted to spirit animals. This is a rare opportunity to work with one of the purest, most naturally gifted teachers I’ve ever encountered. At a time when almost everyone who’s ever attended a workshop now seems to be proclaiming themselves a ‘shamanic’ teacher, making it hard to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, Georgien is absolutely the genuine article. She changes lives. She certainly changed mine!
To book for the weekend, contact Esther Robles by email at email@example.com (putting ‘Georgien’s Workshop’ in the header) or ‘phone +44 (0) 7742 418219. Incidentally, if you book before April 30th you'll save £25 on the fee.
The painting at the top of this page is by Georgien.
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.