I published a book with the above title back in 2000. That's it on the left. The circumstances under which it was written were, to say the least, unusual. Ellie, my wife of 15 years, was suffering from Acute Myeloid Leukemia. At the time of publication, she was in a London teaching hospital, recovering from the second time her medical team told me she had less than 48 hours to live. She died some months later. Between caring for Ellie and looking after our two children, then aged 5 and 7, I had neither the time nor the inclination to do publicity for the book. It therefore failed to sell in the numbers the publishers required and they pulped most of the print run. This gave it rarity value so that used copies have subsequently changed hands online for between £20 and £1000.
Friends have often urged me to bring out a new edition. For the last 16 years, however, my writing has been almost entirely for the British Druid Order's distance learning courses. With all three courses now complete and online, work on them now consists of revising and updating, leaving more time for other things, hence the new edition taking shape on my hard drive.
The first edition was well received despite the word limitset by the original publisher meaning it wasn't possible to go into the sort of depth I wanted. Even so, I've heard from folk who discovered Druidry through my little book and have pursued it as a spiritual path ever since. I've also heard from Pagans with decades of experience who tell me it gave them new perspectives on the Druid tradition.
My experience with the first edition persuaded me to self-publish this time, so no word limit and the choice of what to include is entirely my own. Yay! I also have complete control over how the book will look, from choosing the typeface to designing the cover (right click and select 'open in new tab' to enlarge it). Running the new cover past BDO course students, it met with overwhelming approval. I chose the photo, by Elaine Gregory, for several reasons. First, it's good. Second, it captures something of what the BDO is about, emphasizing what's often called our 'shamanic' approach to Druidry. Third, it is diametrically opposite to the common public perception of Druids wearing white robes and bathed in early morning sunlight at Stonehenge. The chosen image is much more in keeping with the lived experience of modern Druidry, which is of a solitary practitioner communing directly with the spirits of place, the natural world, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands. Fourth, the picture was taken in our Iron Age roundhouse, an incredibly powerful place in which to make such communion.
I hope to have the new edition available this summer. It is almost twice the length of the first and, while retaining the same title, basic structure, chapter headings and practical exercises, the text has been largely re-written as well as greatly expanded. As with the first edition, the intention is to bring the BDO vision of Druidry to the wider world because we believe it has a part to play in making our world a better place in which to live. In this time of threatening war and global warming, Druidry's long traditions of pacifism and deep green spirituality have seldom been more relevant or more vital.
The question of whetheror not to robe for ceremonies is one that often arises amongst newcomers to Druidry, usually accompanied by questions as to what type of robes are appropriate. As with so much else, the answers to these questions vary widely between different Druid groups. The Welsh Gorsedd (founded in 1792) led the way among Druid revivalists with regard to robes and remain one of the few groups to insist on the wearing of robes during public ceremonies (see the video). Their founder, the itinerant stonemason, folklorist and poet, Edward Williams, better known by his bardic name, Iolo Morganwg, assigned different colours to the three grades of his bardic order as follows:
“The Bard wore a sky blue robe, to signify peace; the Druid wore white, denoting holiness; and the Ovate green, which was an emblem of progress.” (Barddas, vol. 1, page lvii; vol. 2, pages 24-29)
The Ancient Druid Order (founded circa 1907) followed the Welsh Gorsedd in assigning the same colours to its three grades, and its offshoot, the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids (founded 1964), continued the tradition, both from its original foundation and its later reformation under the leadership of Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. Early OBOD course material recommended a basic robe of white with tabards of blue for a bard, green for an ovate, worn over it.
So far, so good, except that Iolo, for all his many excellent qualities, was a highly imaginative laudanum addict and a prolific forger of the supposedly ancient documents in which he claimed to have found his entire system of Druidry set out. The colours he assigned to the various grades had little basis beyond his fertile imagination.
When dreaming the British Druid Order into being in the 1970s, I looked to what classical Greek and Roman writers had written about Druids 2,000 years ago. The most famous ancient description of a Druid ceremony is undoubtedly that of Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (1st century CE). He writes that, “A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the [Oak] tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe.” It struck me that if a priest is going to clamber into the branches of an Oak tree to cut mistletoe from it, the chances are he would be young and agile rather than a wizened sage, a youthful bard rather than an aged Druid. White having traditionally been connected with purity and innocence also suggested youth. So I settled on a white robe as the BDO’s bardic costume.
I then found a translation of a poem by the 1st century CE writer, Strabo, in which he refers to Druids wearing red robes trimmed with gold. I’ve since been unable to track down the quote, but it was enough to suggest adopting a long red, sleeveless tunic as our ovate vestment. Red, being the colour of blood, is associated with the cycles of life, including the menstrual cycle with its lunar associations, and the ovate path is the path of natural philosophy, learning from life.
My third classical source was the Roman historian, Tacitus, whose account of Roman legions attacking the Druid isle of Anglesey in 61 CE (Annals XIV, 29-30) tells us that “Along the shore stood the enemy in a close-packed array of armed men interspersed with women dressed like Furies in funeral black, with streaming hair and brandishing torches.” It has long been conjectured that these women were Druid devotees of a native Raven or Crow goddess. If so, it is possible that their black dress took the form of cloaks that would flap like dark wings. Add traditional European associations of black with old age and death and a black cloak seemed suitable garb for a BDO Druid. The fact that this white, red and black colour scheme has associations with the modern Pagan concept of a triple goddess as Maiden (white), Mother (red) and Crone (black) was an added bonus.
Prior to the arrival of my first Wolf-skin cloak in 1994 then, my accustomed gear for public ceremonies was an unbleached woollen robe, a long, red velvet tunic with gold satin lining and a hooded black woollen cloak.
Subsequent research added further possibilities. The archaeology of Iron Age Europe reveals the popularity of tartan-like woven cloth and images of bards show them wearing long, tight-sleeved tunics and trousers made from cloth with a diagonal, tartan-like weave (right). Enough of these exist to suggest that this combination of tunic and trousers was the standard clothing of bards from around 900 BCE through to at least the 1st century CE. Classical sources refer to the bardocucullus, a short woollen travelling cloak with a hood whose name suggests it was favoured by bards as they travelled around the country.
A bronze figurine from Western France(right) is our most likely representation of a late Iron Age Druid in ceremonial dress. He sports a neatly trimmed beard and wears a loose-fitting, knee-length robe with wide sleeves that appears to be plain apart from a decorated edging around the lower hem.
A number of crowns have been found in the British Isles, formed from a circlet of sheet bronze over which rises a crossed arch made from two strips of the same metal (below). It has been speculated that these were part of the ceremonial regalia of Druids. This make sense to me as there is evidence for a native belief that a place on the crown of the head allows the ‘breath of life’ to pass in and out of the body, making it peculiarly vulnerable to attack.
Medieval Irish sources suggest that social status was indicated by, among other things, the number of colours one wore. Given the high social status of bards and Druids, one might, therefore, expect some spectacularly multi-hued garments.
There are, then, a range of possibilities for Druid robes and regalia that have at least some basis in history, whether from the early Bronze Age or the Druid revivals that began in the 18th century.
Some Druid group simplify things by settling for just a white robe, usually hooded, sometimes embroidered with symbols or otherwise decorated.
Many Druids, however, probably the majority, don't wear robes at all, preferring everyday clothing, albeit often augmented by decoration or jewellery suggestive of their spirituality.
Few Druid groups insist on robes, even for formal public ceremonies. The only two I can think of are the Welsh Gorsedd and the Ancient Druid Order. OBOD recommend robes for public ceremonies but don’t, as far as I’m aware, insist on them. In the BDO, we pretty much wear whatever seems best and are happy for others to do the same.
Over the years, we have increasingly adopted clothing that speaks of our personal spiritual paths. So I often wear a dark green linen tunic bearing tokens of my alignment with Wolf spirit. I have a second Wolf-skin cloak that came to me at a time of particular need a decade after the first and wear this when it feels right. I have a dance cloak (left) bearing images of Wolves drawn from a medieval manuscript.
For the first open, multi-faith Gorsedd ceremony in Volunteer Park in Seattle, my friend, Leon Reed, sent out a message asking potential participants to, as he put it, “wear your power,” that is to don whatever ritual gear best expressed their spiritual path and made them feel most strongly connected with it. This struck me as a brilliantly inspiring phrase. I’ve since adopted it as my own policy, wearing whatever seems right for the ceremony or other event I’m taking part in. I’m very happy for others to do the same, and they usually do. This means that BDO ceremonies tend to be quite colourful affairs.
Having long believed that ancient Druids were the North-west European equivalent to shamans in other cultures, some BDO ceremonies call for a “wearing of power” that can take on a decidedly ‘shamanistic’ look, with the wearing of animal tokens, costumes or actual hides, face and body painting and other adornments (below).
What you choose to wear as a bard, ovate or Druid, then, depends on many things. One is which group or order you belong to and what their policy is. Another is which, if any, historical inspirations you draw on, from prehistoric archaeology to 21st century Druid courses. Another is what works for you personally, spiritually, psychologically and aesthetically. As said, some Druids eschew robes altogether, preferring plain street clothes. Others, myself included, kinda like dressing up, although it is, for us, always dressing up with a purpose. Donning special items of clothing for particular types of ceremony enhances the specialness of the occasion, focuses us on what needs to be done, and physically reminds us of our spiritual connections, thereby strengthening and enhancing them.
Leon’s expression still sums it up best though: “wear your power!”
The chant for which you'll find sound and video links below is extracted from one of the booklets of the British Druid Order's ovate course. It draws inspiration, language and symbolism from a poem in the medieval Irish Metrical Dindsenchas. The story in which the poem is contained describes actions taken by the Irish god of healing, Dian Cécht, to quell a disease outbreak by destroying the serpent that embodies the illness, reducing its remains to ashes and then washing them away in the purifying waters of a fast-flowing river (a reminder to keep up regular hand-washing).
In the medieval literature and later folk medicine of Britain and Ireland, disease is often represented as a dark serpent. Representations of sickness in animal form are common to many indigenous cultures, with snakes, lizards and toads frequently being the form taken. This suggests a very early and extremely long-enduring stratum of belief.
An obvious advantage of seeing disease in this way is that it gives spirit workers, often called by that overused Siberian term, 'shamans,' a clear, easily visualised image against which to work healing magic. My sense of the original Dindsenchas text is that it recounts precisely such a spiritual conflict against disease, one that is ultimately successful.
I should add that by no means all representations of serpents in our indigenous literature are dark and ill-favoured. On the contrary, there is a bright serpent of healing. Hence the long-standing link between serpents and medicine, pre-dating the Greek healer god, Asclepius, with his serpent-entwined staff, continuing to the present day with the caduceus wand of Mercury, wound with light and dark serpents, being the symbol of the modern medical profession. Also, I believe, accounting for the several representations of serpents coiled around lightning bolts that appear in Pictish stone carvings, a couple of which feature in the long version of the chant video.
In these stressful times, it seems particularly appropriate to release this chant online. Whether or not your personal belief system is animistic enough to believe that such chants have an actual impact on a physical illness, if the sound of the chant appeals to you, then joining in with it can certainly lift your metaphorical spirits. As I've found, even just listening to it lifts my spirits and leaves me smiling. If, however, your belief system is significantly animistic/shamanistic, then you may feel that, repeated worldwide and often, the chant may help us all get through this current crisis in a variety of useful ways.
So please do join in. Sing, drum, dance, howl, stomp, clap, holler and yelp along! Maybe fling wide your windows while you do (always allowing for the sensibilities of your neighbours)! Let's all boost our collective spirits!
Blessings to all,
First, here's the 9 minute 35 second long sound file...
Now here's the video that goes with that 'short' version...
... and here's the extended, 1 hour 7 minutes video for those who want to get totally immersed in it... /|\
Credits: I composed the chant and recorded it on the desktop computer in my home office using a tiny lapel mic to multi-track the vocals and drums. The main drum is the frame drum I made myself a few years ago. It's painted with, among other things, a Wolf (surprise, surprise) and a bright Serpent of Healing. The second drum is another frame drum I made, with assistance from my son, Joe, and which I recently dubbed the Pretani Drum. Panned way off to the right speaker is a little clay drum a photo of which appears partway through the long video. It's based on a Bronze Age original that was found within 20 miles of my house. In the left speaker there's a larger clay drum based on an original apparently found at Avebury, again within 20 miles of my house. A picture of it also appears in the video. The original was claimed to be Bronze Age, but I think it may be Iron Age. I made the clay drums. The running water in the background is a recording of Borle Brook in Shropshire I made a few years ago. The photos are either by me or Elaine Gregory, who took the main photo which shows me drumming in St. Nechtan's Glen in Cornwall. The drum I'm playing in the photo is a Remo Buffalo Drum that I bought in Seattle and painted with Wolves, Eagles and Serpents. I put the videos together using the free, open-source OpenShot Video Editor.
Yesterday morning I finished proof-reading the last four booklets of the British Druid Order’s Druid course. It’s been 13 years since the idea of creating these distance learning courses for the BDO was first mooted. Since then I’ve written, researched, edited, illustrated, designed and formatted around 3,400 pages of course booklets containing around 1.3 million words. That’s equivalent to seventeen 200-page books, more than one a year. Not a bad work rate...
Who ever knew there was so much to say about Druidry, an ancient, ancestral tradition many believe lost in the mists of time? Well, not me for one. When we started in 2006, I was convinced we’d have three courses up and running in three years. After all, I’d already written one book and many articles on Druidry. Surely just combining those would get us halfway there? Steve said he’d write the rest. No problem then.
Our bardic course finally went online in June, 2011. The reason it took so long was that I kept finding gaps that could only be filled by further research that generated new material. Lots of new material...
The first half of our ovate course went online only 14 months later, in the autumn of 2012, because I’d set aside material for it while working on the bardic. Also, we’d put so much into the bardic course that there couldn’t possibly be much left to say in an ovate one, could there? Wrong again. The ovate turned out to be 200,000 words longer than the bardic. In the end, each package went online just ahead of our students only because I worked on them for an average of 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the last three months.
I decided to take it easier with the Druid course, hence the 3-year gap between the completion of the ovate and the first half of the Druid going online. I then had 6 months to finish the second half. Again, I thought there couldn’t be that much that hadn’t already been covered in the bardic and ovate. Again, I was wrong. The Druid course turned out to be the longest of all, running to well over half a million words, 100,000 more than the ovate, and there still didn’t seem to be enough room to say everything that wanted to be said.
I started work on the courses, two of my kids were still in primary
school. They’ve since passed through secondary school, dropped out
of uni, and are now in their mid twenties. During all this time,
they’ve had to put up with me disappearing into my office, setting
my music player on random play and working for hours on end, day in,
day out, and often nights too.
Along the way, I’ve learnt a lot and made many original discoveries. These include practical ways of working with two archaic Irish texts dealing with the Three Cauldrons and the Twelve Doorways of the Soul. Both turned out to have amazing spiritual and medicinal possibilities. I’ve pieced together a convincing reconstruction of the prehistory, history, spiritual and medical use of sweat houses in the British Isles. I’ve also produced the first complete English translation of arguably the most pagan Druidical text in the whole of medieval Irish literature. Incidental discoveries include a new interpretation of one of the most famous medieval Welsh poems, Cad Goddeu, ‘The Battle of the Trees,’ that actually makes sense of it for the first time in centuries. These and many other things have been gifted by the spirits who guide my path, and I give thanks and blessings to them for the sips of awen granted me from the sacred cauldrons.
Other revelations along the way include a Welsh warrior princess who may have been behind the creation of the Mabinogionand a medieval Welsh bard who wrote a poem in praise of her vagina, in response to another who wrote one in praise of his penis! Yes, I’ve learned a lot about our bard and Druid forebears, not least the inspired poet, forger and laudanum addict, Iolo Morganwg, who invented the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards, of which the Queen is an honorary member, and the gloriously eccentric Dr. William Price, who wore a Fox-fur hat, called his son Iesu Grist, and revived the practice of cremation in the UK.
Among the benefits derived from working on the courses are that I now have a bardic Branch of Peace I made (bardic course); I designed and published an Ogham oracle deck (ovate course); made myself a dance cloak, and am working on a dance mask (Druid course). Along the way, and still relating to the courses, I designed and oversaw the building of an Iron Age roundhouse, learned to thatch and started making frame and clay drums.
has not, of course, been a solitary journey. Far from it. Many have
contributed to the courses and I owe them all a great debt of
gratitude. Here are just a few, with apologies to the unnamed many...
For our bardic course, the children of renowned Pagan poet, Robin Skelton, generously allowed us to quote many of their late father’s poems, written in traditional metres, in their entirety. Legendary Scottish bard, Robin Williamson, kindly allowed us to quote from his songs and writings, some illustrated with his beautiful artwork. Musician and author, Andy Letcher, wrote on being a bard and engaged in an interesting discussion on the use of mind-altering plants.
For our ovate course, my old friend, Leon Reed, gave us the complete herbal he’s compiled and used in his practice as a herbalist for 30 plus years, a work on star lore and, for our Druid course, an encyclopaedia of Celtic Otherworlds and their inhabitants. Blue Fox provided exercises, musings and meditations for the bardic and ovate courses, plus insights into Oghams as a divinatory system. Elaine Gregory created a complete cycle of seasonal ceremonies and rites of passage. Elen Hawke contributed a series of workings based around the cycle of the Moon.
For our Druid course, the Quileute Drum Circle and Norwegian friends, Kyrre Franck White Cougar, Morten Wolf Storeide, LeNa Paalviig Johnsen, Bobby Kure, Anita Dreyer and Will Rubach opened my eyes to different ways of creating and conducting ceremonies. Kate Fletcher and Corwen Broch gave us their wonderful recreation of a midwinter Bear Feast. Pagan philosopher, Brendan Myers, gave us a beautiful piece on Pagan ethics. Amanda Foale-Hart helped bring alive the Twelve Doorways healing technique and shared her spiritual experience. Paul Badger has written on gender, politics and working with gods and spirits. Geoff Boswell has contributed on community engagement, politics, ecology and teaching. Accomplished Welsh bard, Derwydd Newydd, has provided English translations of medieval Welsh material.
Pagan historian, Ronald Hutton, has read every booklet of each course and he and his partner, Ana Adnan, have offered constructive criticism that has improved them greatly. Another old friend, Philip Carr-Gomm, has done likewise. Kris Hughes of the Anglesey Druid Order has also assisted. Graham Harvey has kindly tracked down obscure documents via various academic networks.
and many others have contributed their knowledge and expertise
freely, hugely enriching our courses through their generosity. I am
humbled by their kindness and cannot thank them enough.
but far from least, I am immensely grateful to the core circle of BDO
Elders, whose unswerving support has been a vital component not only
in creating our courses, but in creating and maintaining the BDO as
it now exists in the world.
To name just a few, Adam has maintained our online presence for more years than I can remember, performing acts of IT magic beyond my ability to comprehend. Amanda has demonstrated an uncanny ability to herd cats whilst maintaining grace and good humour. Elaine has given us the wondrous space of Wild Ways for AGMs, facilitated the building of our roundhouse, run our online shop and so much more. Flick has been a wonder in her role as head tutor and her unfailing devotion to our vision of Druidry. Geoff, a BDO stalwart since the mid-90s, has given us the benefit of his invaluable expertise in many areas. Joe has kept me company on innumerable train journeys, manned our stall at events, operated projectors, etc., etc.. Paul has overhauled our social media presence, creating and putting out a regular flow of brilliant material via facebook, twitter and youtube. It’s been an honour and an inspiration to share ceremonial space with each and every one of you.
The task of letting the world know our courses exist now begins in earnest. We’ve been quite low-key up to this point, waiting until all three courses were complete. From now on, we’re yelling it from the rooftops. Why? Because we believe, indeed we know from student feedback, that our courses genuinely enhance lives and make our world a better place. They are three cauldrons brimful of awen, magic and transformation.
Which brings me to the greatest joy of putting these courses together; hearing from students who are actively benefiting from them. From being inspired to take up poetry or learn to play the harp, to coming within a hairsbreadth of winning the poetry crown at the National Eisteddfod, initiating and coordinating green initiatives in the workplace, finding the strength to make long-delayed changes in career and direction, recovering from trauma, or simply finding inner peace amidst the turmoil of life, lives are being enriched and enhanced by our courses in many ways in countries around the world, from Aberdeen to Australia. This is why I’ve kept working on them all these years, because BDO Druidry, blessed and inspired as it is by our ancestors, spirit allies and the old gods of our lands, is not role-playing or dressing-up, nor New Age navel-gazing, but an active engagement with a deeply transformative ancient magic that has real power, proven time and again by the simple fact that it genuinely works!
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...
In the folk calendar of Britain, Midsummer's Eve takes place on June 23rd, Midsummer's Day on the 24th. Records of celebrations being held on these days go back at least as far as the 14th century, when a monk of Winchcombe, on the Cotswold edge of Gloucestershire, refers to local folk rolling a flaming wheel down a hill on Midsummer's Eve. A similar rite held on the same day in the Vale of Glamorgan in south Wales in the 1820s is described as follows:
“People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If this fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”
A similar ceremony is mentioned in the 4th century Acts of Saint Vincent as having taken place amongst pagans in Aquitane in southern France, who rolled their fiery wheel down a hill and into a river, from which they rescued the charred pieces to reassemble them in a temple to their sky god. Ronald Hutton, in his 'Stations of the Sun' (Oxford University Press, 1996, page 312), says that Midsummer's Day “occupied much the same relationship with the solar cycle as Christmas day; it represented the end of a solstice, the period in which the sun ceased to move for a short period, but rose and set at the same points on the horizon at the extreme end of its range. Now, however, it was at the height of its strength, and light at its longest, and Midsummer Eve represented the culmination of that period of apogee, just before the days began to shorten again as the sun moved southward. In response to the swelling of heat and light, foliage and grasses were now likewise at their fullness, before the time of fruiting approached. No wonder that it seemed a to be a magical time to the ancient Europeans.” He adds that “In the northern half of the continent the festival was generally the most important one of the whole year.” Why, then, do most modern Pagans celebrate midsummer on the day of the summer solstice and not, as our ancestors did, a few days later on June 23rd-24th? The answer is not hard to find. The idea of celebrating the summer solstice comes from William Stukeley, who associated Druids with Stonehenge and, in 1720, was the first writer to mention the solstice alignment of the Hele Stone with the centre of the circles there. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Gorsedd of Bards of Britain in 1792, visited Stonehenge and followed Stukeley in believing that Druids celebrated the solstice there. The same alignment was central to a book called 'Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered,' published by Sir Norman Lockyer in 1906. This book influenced the Ancient Druid Order, who started holding rituals at the henge a few years after its publication. By the time Gerald Gardner and members of his coven were creating Wicca in the late 1940s, the idea of celebrating the solstices had become firmly fixed in the public imagination, and so the solstices became part of its festival wheel of the year. All of them either ignored, or were unaware of, the ancient and pan-European tradition of celebrating on June 23rd-24th. Why then, you may ask, is the Stonehenge Hele Stone aligned on the summer solstice sunrise, as is an avenue of stones at Callanish in the Orkneys and some of the stone rows at Carnac in Brittany? First, we may question whether the alignments actually are on the solstice or on Midsummer's Day. After all, it is the defining principle of solstices that the sun's rising position barely alters for about a week. Given the once pan-European custom of celebrating Midsummer's Day, it seems likely that the alignments were intended to be watched in the run-up to midsummer, giving those who understood them time to spread the word that the festival day was approaching. Early agricultural communities were spread out over wide areas and travel was largely on foot. We know that people came to Stonehenge from all over Britain and as far afield as Switzerland. A decent amount of advance warning of festival dates was essential. Incidentally, it is currently fashionable to say that the major alignment at Stonehenge is not on the summer solstice sunrise, but on the midwinter sunset. While there certainly is a midwinter alignment at Stonehenge, there is also, as Stukeley correctly surmised in the early 18th century, an extremely clear midsummer one. One does not cancel out the other. You may ask if it matters which day we celebrate midsummer or midwinter on? Personally, I think it does. Having been a Pagan for half a century or so, I've observed a lot. One of the things I've observed is that celebrating solstices often causes problems. An obvious example is the amount of aggression that has often been associated with celebrations of the summer solstice at Stonehenge. In the early 20th century, the then head of the Ancient Druid Order became so incensed at being asked to pay sixpence to get in to the henge that he loudly called down a long, angry curse on its owner. The Ancient Order of Druids, who had been meeting at the henge annually since 1905, vowed never to do so again after drunken local youths climbed all over the stones and heckled them during one of their summer solstice ceremonies in the 1950s. In 1985, policemen and soldiers in police uniforms smashed up vehicles attempting to get to the henge for the solstice, beating unarmed men, women and children in what became known as The Battle of the Beanfield. When I tried to hold a ceremony for world peace at Avebury on the summer solstice of 1996, it was disrupted by angry drunks. By contrast, those I've held on Midsummer's Day have been peaceful, joyous and focused. A kind of testosterone madness kicks in at the summer solstice which has dissipated by Midsummer's Day, a few days later, when the solar tide has turned. If we are truly attempting to restore, or at least be inspired by, the spirituality of our ancestors, then surely it makes sense to try and follow the ways in which they rode the cosmic tides. This is perhaps especially true of the solstices, the two annual festivals our ancestors regarded as vital, pivotal times of the year, times of magic and divination and of great power. When Emma Restall Orr and I founded the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr at Stonehenge in 1997, we made sure it would celebrate on Midsummer's Day. This works out well, with focused ceremonies attended by no more than a hundred people restoring a sense of peace to the place after the wildness of the solstice celebrations a few days earlier which attract many thousands. In Cornwall, the old tradition has been maintained, and a string of hilltop fires are kindled each year on Midsummer's Eve, June 23rd, just as the sun is setting. The accompanying ceremony is spoken in Cornish and climaxes with a Lady of the Flowers casting into the roaring flames a garland made up of 'good' herbs, those believed to have medicinal qualities, 'bad' herbs, those that are poisonous, and sprigs of oak, rowan and foxglove. Rolling flaming wheels down hills would certainly land us in trouble with Health and Safety regulations these days, but there's no reason why more of us shouldn't celebrate midsummer at Midsummer. A Merry Midsummer to one and all, Greywolf /|\
Now here's a little treat for you for having read this far. "Oh do not tell the priest of our rites, for he would call it a sin, for we've been out in the woods all night, a'conjuring summer in..."
When we finished putting together our bardic course in the middle of 2011, we'd put so much into it that I seriously wondered if we'd have enough material left to create either an ovate or a Druid course. I needn't have worried. Our ovate course is almost twice the length of the bardic, running to about 400,000 words, with most of the 24 booklets being 52 pages long, the most I've found it possible to get a staple through.
It's now shortly after the Spring Equinox, 2013, and the ovate course is nearing completion. The first 16 booklets are complete, the next 4 just in need of minor editing and 2 out of the last 4 almost complete. That leaves something like 30,000 words or 100 pages to go, about half of which needs to be written, while the rest just needs formatting and editing. I hope to have the whole course completed at the end of May.
As to the content, I couldn't be more happy with it. We have wonderful contributions from Elen Hawke, author of In the Circle: Crafting the Witches' Path (2001), Praise to the Moon: Myth & Magic of the Lunar Cycle (2002), The Sacred Round: A Witches' Guide to Magical Practice (2002) and others. For our course, Elen has written on the lunar cycle and on astrology. We also have a unique compendium of traditional astrological lore from Seattle-based Pagan priest, Leon Reed. Leon, a magical and medical herbalist for more than 30 years, has also given us the herbal he compiled for use in his practice. Elaine Wildways has written a cycle of seasonal festival rites for us, and also a cycle of rites of passage. We include a funeral rite composed by myself and Emma Restall Orr. Nina Milton and her OBOD group helped us put together a series of tree-based exercises in movement and meditation. Blue Fox has provided several pieces, including a wonderfully-accessible Ogham oracle with a card set designed by your humble author. We also have more words and art from Robin Williamson, as we did in our bardic course. It's been a real pleasure to edit such a wide range of well-researched, well-written pieces and I thank all our contributors.
I'm even pleased with my own contributions and usually I am extremely critical of my own work. Part of the process of writing these courses has been to go back to basics. I've stripped down every belief I've developed since early childhood and re-examined each one in detail to see if it still makes sense and if it can be fitted into context with others. This process has been both educational and cathartic. I've also re-explored the medieval literature of Britain and Ireland. While I'd been familiar with it for years, looking at it afresh for the purposes of the course led me to understand sections of it in entirely new ways. One result of this has been the re-construction of a remarkable healing technique and a set of spiritual exercises and meditations, both based on Irish manuscript sources, though there is evidence that both were also known in Britain and have parallels in cultures much further afield.
I'm also pleased with the range of illustrations in the booklets, many created specially for the courses, others sourced from all over the place. One of the great advantages of delivering our courses as pdf files is that we do not have the cost of reproducing so many colour illustrations in print and can therefore include lots of them. Sourcing illustrations for writings on Druidry is by no means easy, particularly if you don't want to just keep using the same ones that everyone else uses. We've out almost as much work into sourcing interesting and information pictures as we have into writing the text that goes with them.
The range of subjects covered in the course is very wide, from the creation of the universe and the myths of creation, through birth to death via health and healing, nature spirits, philosophy, astrology, divination, seership, herbalism, group ritual and more, including the ways of the gods.
With this course, following on from the bardic course, I think we've achieved a turning point in the history of modern Druidry, raising it to a new level of vibrancy and understanding. And I no longer worry about having anything left to put in the Druid course. I'm pretty sure we'll be OK.