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.
A crazy idea came to me on the train taking me to the 2016 White HorseSamhain (Hallowe'en) Camp, held at the Wild Ways crafts and retreat centre in Shropshire, UK. Having seen the already full schedule of events planned for the camp, I had felt there might not be anything I could add to it. For years, however, I had pondered the possibility of holding an all-night ceremony in the Iron Age roundhouse (right) we had built in nearby woods. I thought perhaps this might fit in as it wouldn’t start until everything else had finished, running through until sunrise the following morning, Sunday, November 30th. People would be welcome to come and go whenever they chose to or needed to. Even so, it was a bit of a cheek to arrive out of the blue with this crazy notion without having discussed it with any of the organisers beforehand. However, one of the great things about White Horse camps is the openness of the organisers to the unexpected and strange and their willingness to make room for them.
The idea had three main sources of inspiration; one was the observation that there seems to be an unusual amount of what might be termed ‘weird shit’ going on in the world at the moment; next was the way in which the stand being taken by the Lakota people against a polluting oil pipeline being driven across their sacred land has inspired so many others all around the world to stand up and be counted against ‘big oil’ and compliant governments; third was my own recent journey to deepen my understanding of how our Druid ancestors worked with serpent power. I have no doubt that they did, as evidenced by several representations from around 2,000 years ago portraying native European deities accompanied by serpents. The most famous is that on the Gundestrup cauldron (upper left). Another well-known image from the period overlooks the hot springs in Roman Bath and portrays a bearded god with snakes growing out of his head (lower left). I had worked out some ways in which serpent power was approached, but felt I still lacked a vital key to understanding why it was that British Druids were sometimes called Nadredd, i.e. 'Serpents.'
These threads all came together through a Lakota prophecy that a Black Snake would come to devastate their land, causing people and animals sicken and die. Many Lakota see the DAPL oil pipeline as that Black Snake and, therefore, see opposition to it as both a vital necessity and a sacred duty. I had already been led to the conclusion that individual healing in our Druid tradition comes about partly through invoking the power of a White Serpent of Healing to set against the power of a Black Serpent that brings disease. My thinking for this roundhouse ceremony was to try to harness the power of the White Serpent to oppose the DAPL Black Snake and as many other manifestations of its destructive force in the world as we could fit into one long night.
The ceremony was duly announced to the camp at the first morning meeting, for which I particularly thank Richard and his fellow organisers, Ariane and Hilde. As we wouldn’t be starting until around 11pm at the end of a full day, and would continue until sunrise at 6.50am, I had no idea whether anyone would want to come at all, let alone how many. However, a few friends immediately expressed not only interest but excitement, so there were willing helpers to join me in transporting things to the roundhouse and preparing it. Thanks to Becky, who wields a fine besom, to Amanda, Daru, and Elaine, who not only runs the centre but loaned us two large reindeer hides, some saining sticks and a couple of warm woollen blankets from her house.
When I mentioned our intentions for the ceremony on the BDO Facebook page, people in countries around the world said they would join us in ceremonies timed to coincide with ours. This was a wonderful gift and a further inspiration to us. Thank you friends, heart to heart, spirit to spirit.
Adding to an already potentially rich mix, Elaine also donated a bag of Chaga, a remarkable medicinal plant, a hard, woody fungus that grows on Birch trees in Northern climes. This had been given to her by a remarkable couple, Morten Wolf Storeide and Louise Degotte. Morten organises the global travels of The World Drum, a powerful healing Drum made by a Sami drum-maker following the vision of Kyrre Franck White Cougar. Morten and Kyrre, with their friends, LeNa Paalvig Johnson and Will Rubach, brought us the gift of an amazing ceremony centred around Chaga when we hosted The World Drum at Wild Ways in 2013.
For use in ceremony, Chaga needs to be brewed for at least four hours. This meant that a few of us had to miss the Saturday evening eisteddfod and go to the roundhouse shortly after 7pm to begin the brewing process. Amanda, who had taken part in an initiation in the roundhouse, stayed on to set up the tripods over the central fire to support the two pots in which we would brew the Chaga. The water was already heating when I arrived. We sat and talked for a while as we waited for it to boil. Then we began adding Chaga, taking it in turns to put a handful into the two pots and stir them. We talked through ideas about what we might do during the ceremony and the Chaga crew came up with several ideas while helping my sketchy ones to take shape. For the rest, I was relying on the spirits to guide us, and on all those who came, both seen and unseen, to bring their own inspiration and ideas to the mix.
A few more people drifted in after a while, followed by quite a crowd once the eisteddfod ended. Having doubted whether anyone would come, we found the 20 log seats we’d set out were not enough. Of the 55 people on the camp, about 25 joined us.
As well as making prayers for the protectors at Standing Rock, we had been asked to pray for those standing against another oil pipeline in Florida, which we did. I also wanted to send some energy and protection to the Wolves of Norway, under threat from a decision by the Norwegian government to allow 47 out of the 68 Wolves in the country to be shot. Elaine, recently back from Ireland, asked that we also pray for the Deer over there who are to be shot because there is a remote and unproven possibility that they might be responsible for some cases of TB in domestic cattle. Also present at the camp were several people who have protested against Badger culls in the UK, carried out for the same dubious reason. We added them to our list. I assumed that other things to work for would emerge during the night. They did...
As for how we were going to work, I thought we might do some personal healing, using a technique I developed, or rediscovered, while researching for the British Druid Order ovate course. I felt we should drum and chant for the animals. I already have a Wolf chant (naturally), and a Deer chant, and thought we could come up with something for the Badgers. I also knew we had to work with the power of the White Serpent, though I wasn’t sure how. Again, I trusted the spirits to show us the way.
The fact that we were working through Saturday night into Sunday morning, and that Sunday 30thwas the day of the New Moon of Samhain, helped. Samhain(‘Summer’s End’) is the old Irish name for the seasonal festival known in Wales asNos Galan Gaeaf (‘Nights of Winter Calends’) and in England as Hallowe’en (‘Hallowed, i.e. Sacred, Evening’). Originally held over three nights, it marks the end of summer and the beginning of winter.
The Moon has its own serpentine associations, its nightly waning from the full being likened to a snake shedding its skin. A snake within a Moon appears on many Celtic coins, as in the top left corner of this image from our Druid Tarot deck, taken from one of those coins.
During the ceremony, I remembered a widespread folk custom carried out in Scotland until the early 20th century, in which the White Serpent of Bride (i.e. the goddess, Bridget) is said to emerge from beneath the earth at Imbolc (Gwyl Fair, Candlemas) at the beginning of February, restoring life to the world after the long months of winter. The spoken charm that accompanies the re-emergence of the Serpent translates as follows: “Today is the day of Bride; the serpent shall come from its hole, I will not molest the serpent, nor will the serpent molest me.”
It struck me very strongly that the New Moon of Samhain would be exactly the time at which the White Serpent would go down into the earth, as the leaves were falling from the trees and the last of the wild plants dying back into dormancy.
This phase of the year’s cycle is reflected in, among others, the Greek myth of Persephone, and the ancient Middle Eastern legend of Inanna’s descent into the underworld. In native British lore, the goddess who possesses the serpent power appears as Olwen of the White Track, daughter of the giant, Ysbaddaden (‘Hawthorn’), as Creiddylad, daughter of Lludd (or Nudd) of the Silver Hand, and as Arthur’s queen Gwenhwyfar, whose name means ‘White Enchantress.’ All of these three feature in the archaic tale of Culhwch and Olwen, as preserved in the 12th century collection of tales known as the Mabinogi.
The night of our working, then, was the last during which our Serpent Goddess’s power would remain above the earth prior to its descent into the underworld where it would spend the winter. This seemed the perfect time to invoke her aid. In our ceremony, then, we invoked the healing power of the White Serpent against the destructive power of the Black Snake.
I think it was Ariane who drew our attention to the fact that Ineos, one of the companies involved in fracking in the UK are calling their fleet of huge, Chinese-built oil tankers ‘Dragon ships.’ Is this a deliberate invocation of Black Snake energy on their part? Who knows?
The insidious way in which oil companies and governments are conspiring together to force the unwanted, unnecessary and polluting technology of fracking on unwilling populations around the world is symptomatic of a wider malaise in which democracy has long ceased to be what it was in pagan Greece, i.e. ‘people power,’ becoming instead a means by which wealthy and powerful elites retain dominance over increasingly powerless populations. Polls show that 81% of the UK population would like to see more investment in renewable energy sources, while only 19% favour fracking. In Norway, there is an identical split between the majority who want to see Wolf numbers remain the same or increase and the minority who want them killed. Meanwhile, polls in the USA show that 86% of the population are with the protectors at Standing Rock and against the DAPL pipeline. Fortunately for us, this huge public support for what we were trying to achieve through our ceremony meant that there was a huge impetus behind us. Trying to work magic against opposition is hard. It's easier if the vast majority of the people of the world are with you in spirit. Knowing that they areis encouraging, to say the least.
One of our group brought a flag bearing the symbol of the Pagan anti-fracking movement in the UK and we lodged it into the rafters of the roundhouse, where it stayed throughout our ceremony. I'm not sure what it was originally designed to represent, but to me it looks like a Dragon's head!
We drummed to raise energy for ourselves and the groups and causes we had been asked to pray for and send power and healing to. As with the people at Standing Rock, we directed some of those prayers towards those causing the harm, asking that they realise that what they are doing is destructive and wrong, and that it is in their long-term interests to change.
Long ago, in talking with spirit workers from other cultures and traditions, there emerged a strong sense that we should be working together for our shared Great Mother Earth and all her children. Subsequent meetings with healers and fellow spirit workers have strengthened this sense that now is the time for us to set aside the surface differences that divide us and recognise the commonalities that we share. As spirit workers, we regularly work with altered states of consciousness, and so are ideally placed to work towards changing the consciousness of those who seek to despoil and pollute our planet, bringing them to the light of realisation and understanding that will lead them to change what they are doing for the benefit of all.
We cast our circle with sound and saining herbs, we invoked into it all those powers for good that we work with, the spirits of place, the elemental spirits and guardians of the four directions, of our ancestors of blood and spirit, of the old gods of our lands, and of the White Serpent of healing (as painted on my drum, right) and the Dragon power through which it also manifests. We chanted the Awen, the holy spirit of inspiration and creativity. We shared Chaga brewed on our sacred fire. We drummed and chanted long into the night. From around 2am, people began to drift away, thanking our ancestors as they passed across the threshold and went in search of sleep.
By around 3.30am, our numbers were reduced to around nine, of whom eight were lying on the piles of furs we had provided or on the bare earth floor, most under blankets. While they drifted in and out of sleep, I continued to quietly drum and chant. I had thought to go into trance with the drum, but this didn’t happen. I realised that my role was to drum for the others, both seen and unseen, in the roundhouse and around the world. Between drumming, I made sure the central fire was kept fed with logs.
My lone drumming vigil continued until around 6.30am, at which time, without prompting from me, the others began to stir, wake up, and reach for their drums. We formed a circle around the central fire, linked hands and chanted the Awen again. Then we began to drum the sunrise, beginning quietly and building to a thundering crescendo that carried us across the moment of dawn and into the light of a new day, the day of the New Moon, blessed by the White Serpent of Healing.
I shared a gift of insight the Awen had given me during the night; the reason why our ancestors were called Nadredd. As Druids, we are the Serpent, we are the Power, we are the Dragon. Our role is to embody the Serpent Power, to carry it within us at all times, to use it for the benefit of our communities, our Great Mother Earth and all her children. When the White Serpent Power of the Goddess of Life, Light and Healing goes down into the earth for the long Winter months, we, as Druids, continue to embody it in the world so that the light of life never dies.
Our ancestors knew this, and that knowledge was either passed down directly, or rediscovered, in the bardic colleges that flourished in Wales, Ireland and Scotland during the medieval era. Hence, in the probably 12th century CE poem, ‘The Cattle-Fold of the Bards,’ attributed to the semi-legendary 5th century CE bard, Taliesin, he is able to say with absolute conviction and perfect truth:
“I am song to the last; I am clear and bright; I am hard; I am a Druid; I am a wright; I am well-wrought; I am a serpent; I am reverence, that is an open receptacle..."
Wyf sarff, wyf serch... (pronouned ooeev sarff, ooeev serch [‘e’ as in bet, ‘ch’ as in Scottish loch])
“I am serpent, I am love…”
Profound thanks to all who made our ceremony possible and took part in, both seen and unseen, in the roundhouse and around the world. Thanks to the spirits of place, spirit animals, ancestors and old gods of our lands for their gifts of Awen, and thanks to the Serpent Power of Life, Light and Healing. May that power be with all who need it in these strange and troubled times. May the Light shine strong within you.
We are Nadredd and we offer this Awen and these blessings to all in need,
Greywolf /|\ the Chaga Crew /|\ Wildways /|\ and White Horse Camps /|\
PS. If I've got anything wrong or forgotten to credit anyone who should be credited, please let me know 🙂
It started in 1974, the year I simultaneously discovered Druidry and shamanism and realised that classical Druids must have been the British and North-west European equivalent of shamans in other cultures. I sensed from the beginning that a vital feature of our tradition had been a strong spiritual bond between humans and animals. Twenty years later, I encountered my spirit animal brother in a sweat lodge. Ten years after that, I visited the Quileute people on the shores of the Olympic Peninsula and was honoured to be made a member of their drum circle. The Quileute are descended from shape-shifting wolves.
Then, in 2013, four friends arrived from Norway for my 60th birthday party at the Wild Ways Retreat and Craft Centre in Shropshire. Kyrre Franck and Morten Wolf Storeide are core members of the World Drum Project and, with LeNa Paalvig Johnsen and Will Rubach, members of the shamanic band, Baalfolket, 'the People of Fire.' They brought with them an amazing ceremony, centred around a medicinal fungus called chaga, which grows on birch trees in cold, Northern climes. Among other things, chaga boosts the immune system, reduces stress levels, is used for a variety of stomach ailments and has anti-cancer properties. For use in sacred ceremony, it must be prepared over several hours. I joined our Norwegian friends in our Iron Age roundhouse for the preparation. We drummed and sang as the chaga brewed and Steve Rumelhart and I then acted as doorkeepers in one of the most powerful, beautiful, joyous ceremonies I've ever taken part in.
When Barry Patterson asked me to do something for the White Horse Camps Beltaine celebration at Wild Ways this year, I agreed, if I could think of something genuinely worth doing, rather than just filling a slot in the schedule. It had to be of real, transformative value to the people attending, powerful and enriching of our tradition, and truly honouring of our ancestors. It was a long time coming. Eventually, another visit to the roundhouse gave the answer through a vision in which people in body paint, masks and animal hides burst through the doors, accompanied by Barry, wearing a full set of antlers and a blue cloak (right). So I knew there had to be a ceremony in the roundhouse involving animal guising. Then came the question of how to fully involve people in that ceremony. The single two-hour session originally intended then grew into four interlinked sessions that could also be experienced separately.
The vision given to me in the roundhouse reminded me of traditional Pacific North-western ceremonial societies, including the Quileute Wolf Warrior Society. Like many indigenous ceremonies, those of the Quileute societies performed many functions.
They were communal celebrations as well as offering healing and transformation for individuals, all things I wanted our ceremony to achieve. I realised early on that my connection with the Quileute nation has a purpose meant to be beneficial for all in ways I don't yet fully understand. I believe part of it is to help us, as British Druids, to restore lost aspects of our own native traditions. Knowledge of the Quileute ceremonial societies prompted me to look for evidence of similar societies among our own ancestors. That evidence exists and is compelling, from Central Asia, to Vedic India and pagan Europe to early medieval Ireland. The ceremony shown to me in vision suggested another way in which we might begin a process of re-connection with another lost aspect of our ancestral heritage.
It took a lot of organising and the dedicated assistance of many people, beginning with Morten, who gave us enough chaga for two cups for fifty people, gathered near his house in the forests of Eastern Norway. Morten sees chaga (left) as a sacred gift from Mother Earth to be shared with those who need it and will use it well. Next was Elaine Gregory, who co-runs Wild Ways with her partner, Garth Reynolds. She was unfailingly supportive every step of the way. Then there was Barry, willing not only to allow me to run with my increasingly wild ideas but to actively participate in them in a leading role, a role I forgot I hadn't told him about on the usual planes of existence, but we communicated so well in spirit that he already knew, so that was good. In the event, all our efforts came to beautiful fruition.
I arrived a week before the camp was due to start, much of which was was spent cleaning and arranging the roundhouse, making sure it would accommodate the expected fifty people, stocking up its wood supply, clearing the area around it and rigging a temporary tarpaulin shelter in case of rain, assisted by Elaine. We took down a cauldron and a large cooking pot. As ever, I spoke with the spirits of the place and made small offerings to them.
The background for the weekend's events was explained on May Eve, when I gave a talk in the big yurt entitled 'Humans and Other Animals,' ending with this paragraph:
“I've believed ever since I became involved in Druidry in 1974 that our role in bringing back the ways of our ancestors is to empower ourselves so that we can use our enhanced personal power and our enhanced relationships with the spirits that surround us to make this world we live in a better place, to work with the spirits of nature to protect, preserve, heal and improve ourselves, our families, our tribes and our whole ecosystem. As workers with spirits and as people of power, we have the potential to change the hearts and minds of those whose decisions affect our world for good or ill, shifting them towards the good. Our animal helpers can help us to achieve these goals.”
This was followed by the Otherworld journey in search of spirit animals, for which I drummed. As it happened, most people on the camp already knew their spirit animals, but some had not encountered them in the Otherworld, some took the opportunity to check in with them, others undertook the journey for other reasons. The few newcomers were in uncharted territory. This being the last event of the evening, I hoped it would create or renew links between people and their spirit animals which would then continue to 'brew' overnight in dreams and visions, preparing people well for the transformation they would engage in in the woods next day.
The fact that so many people did know their spirit animal or animals was interesting. If you'd asked the same question twenty years ago, when we started holding Druid camps, few would have known. Another measure of how much Druidry has changed, and how rapid those changes have been.
On May Day morning, having reminded everyone that there was to be no photography during the animal guising or the following ceremony, and that it was to be an alcohol free and caffeine free day, because neither work well with chaga (it was, in any case, an alcohol free camp), our Chaga Crew set off for the roundhouse shortly before 11 am. The Crew was largely recruited at the last minute from the ranks of campers and consisted of Amanda Foale-Hart, a great and loving soul I'd seen in action in ceremony many times; Paul Beer, remembered from our World Drum gathering at Cae Mabon in North Wales; Hilde Liesens, who took a central role in our Midwinter ceremony a couple of years ago; and Ariana Power, who was so keen to be a part of the team I just couldn't refuse; Elaine and myself. Never having worked together as a group before, I was a little apprehensive as to how we would jell for what needed to be done. I decided to trust in the spirits. It was a good choice.
Our job for the next several hours was to oversee the brewing of the chaga, stirring into it all the magic we could muster between us. Part of this process was to come together as a group and discover what we were going to do during the ceremony itself.
Our first task, though, was to get the fire going. A couple of bits of log from the previous night were still glowing, so we began blowing dragonwise, as only Druids can. We blew and blew and took it in turns to blow, and eventually fire sprang into being. Building up a cone of sticks we soon had a good blaze going. There's a real art to building fires in roundhouses so that they don't smoke too much. Part of it is using very dry wood, another is maintaining a cone shape so that the wood catches quickly and burns brightly rather than smouldering for a while before catching.
We filled our cauldron and big pan with water, hooking the former on a chain suspended from a wrought iron tripod and standing the latter on a horseshoe trivet. We then waited for them to boil. With so much water in them, even with a good fire directly underneath, this took a while. As we waited, we talked about what we were going to do when folks arrived and drummed together for the first time, tentatively at first but with growing confidence.
I talked a bit about chaga and our native spirit of the birch tree, on which the chaga fungus grows. In Scotland, he is known as Ghillie Du (pronounced Gilly Doo), 'the Dark Lad.' In Welsh, that's Hogyn Ddu (pronounced Hogun Thee). He is a friendly, helpful spirit, small and wiry with tangled black hair, dressed in birch bark, leaves and moss. If you come across him when you genuinely need help, he will help you. If you try to find him for the wrong reasons, you will fail. I also revealed the name and identity of the roundhouse's deer spirit guardian, something I rarely do.
The cauldron, being smaller, boiled first, noisily boiling over, causing hands to quickly reach in and pull it away from the fire. I reduced the level of the fire and we returned the cauldron to its place. Once the big pan was also boiling, we began adding chaga, each of us putting two handfuls into the big pan and one into the cauldron, adding more until we'd used the whole bag. We took it in turns to stir the brew with the hazel stirring stick I'd made, into which John Whittleston had burned the Ogham letters for Birch and Hazel. And so the brewing began.
We continued to drum and sing. I suggested a few chants we might do, including, in view of the powerful deer energy in the place, my native British Deer chant.Of course, I couldn't resist adding my Wolf chant too, excused by the fact that many of those attending the ceremony would first have spent time in the woods being their spirit animals. Paul started to drum and Amanda began to chant the word chaga. The rest of us joined in and a rhythmic chant soon evolved that sounded good and felt as though it had power. Another time, Paul started drumming and chanting the name of the Birch spirit, Hogyn Ddu, which morphed into “Come to me, Hogyn Ddu,” to which I added, “Hogyn Ddu, Hogyn Ddu, spirit of the great Birch tree.”More chaga, more stirring. I started a beat that fit with the name of our deer spirit guardian and we began to chant his name. After a while, I started improvising calls over the chant such as, “I hear your hoof-beats thunder through the forest, I hear your hoof-beats coming to our circle, I hear your hoof-beats dancing in our circle...” By the time the first people arrived at the roundhouse for the ceremony at 3.45 pm, we had quite a repertoire of chants ready.
While we conjured, sang and stirred inside the roundhouse, other things were happening outside. Barry shepherded about thirty people to the log store at the back of the roundhouse where we had provided body-paints Elaine and I had made from charcoal from our fires and coloured clays dug from the land. Some opted to go naked apart from body-paint. Others donned animal hides and masks on top of face and body-paint. Some wore ragged clothing of leather or wool. Once their spirit animal guise was complete, Barry led them into becoming their animals, after which they ran off into the woods. There was a boar, a horse, fox, raven and various other creatures among the guisers, even a chameleon and a hedgehog. They snuffled among bluebells, climbed trees or trotted along paths, according to their nature.
A dozen or so early arrivals who had opted not to do the animal guising saw some of the animals in the woods as they made their way along the deer path to the roundhouse. We opened the doors to them and they were sained and blessed by Elaine and Hilde, our doorkeepers for the night, who marked their foreheads with an awen symbol. They were then welcomed in and shown to their seats. Saining is a native tradition of purifying and sanctifying with smoking herbs, leaves or strips of animal hide. We used a saining stick made from St. John's Wort (left) and Meadowsweet. St. John's Wort is a protective and cleansing herb with a very long history of magical use. Meadowsweet is one of the ingredients from which the enchanters, Math and Gwydion, create the maiden, Blodeuwedd ('Flower Face') as a May bride for the young god of light, Lleu Llaw Gyffes in the Branch of the Mabinogi called Math, son of Mathonwy.
About ten minutes later, we heard the yowls, growls and howls of many animals outside, racing around the roundhouse while Barry's bagpipes skirled them on. A bang on the doors, we flung them open, and in charged thirty or so wild animals. They cavorted, leapt and crawled around the roundhouse interior, shrieking, screaming, grunting, howling, eyes wide and wild. It was an amazingly impressive entrance, exceeding my wildest expectations. To enhance the sense of natural chaos, the Chaga Crew drummed wildly. Barry entered amongst the untamed ones, ducking low so that his antlers wouldn't catch on the roof, wearing his full red deer hide and head (known as Donald), and my dark blue cloak underneath. The scene exactly mirrored what I'd seen in my vision. It was a wild, wonderful, magical moment.
Following the rampage, the animal folk exited the roundhouse. Once outside, they reverted to more human form before re-entering, carrying cups for the chaga. As they came in, each was sained and blessed. After the last person was admitted, the doorkeeper's role reverted to guarding the doors against any unhelpful spirits who might try to get in. When you're doing powerful magical work, good spirits are attracted to it, but more tricky ones sometimes also try to get in, hence the need for doorkeepers. Paul (left) ushered our new arrivals sunwise around the interior, pointing them to their seats.
When everyone was seated, we began ladelling out the chaga brew into the cups they'd brought with them. I couldn't resist throwing in a little Mrs. Doyle impersonation (from Father Ted in case you were wondering), saying “Will you have a cup of chaga now? Ah, g'won, g'won' g'won, you know you want to.” Other Chaga Crew members joined in, and this set off Bee with a fit of giggles. It is in the nature of Bee that when she laughs, she finds it very hard to stop. She told me later that she forced herself to stop when it got too painful to continue. Her joyous, bubbling laughter spread around the circle and was a perfect start to our ceremony.
The roundhouse is a perfect setting for ceremonies, not only inherently beautiful in a way that sings powerfully of our ancestors, but also interwoven now with seven years of ceremonial use and sliding between the worlds, and filled with good, strong, protective, guiding spirits. Such an environment tends to bring out the best in ritualists. Having realised how easy all our chants were to join in with, we encouraged everyone to do so. Then we began.
We started with chants honouring the spirit guardian of the roundhouse and of the many Deer spirits who inhabit the place, as well as the living Muntjac, Roe and Fallow Deer who inhabit the surrounding woods. These were followed by the chants we had created during the day to honour the spirits of Chaga and of the Birch trees on which it grows. Here I found myself adding a variation, “Hogyn Ddu, Hogyn Ddu, bring your healing gift to me.”
At one point, while Ariana, Paul and Amanda were busy refilling cups with the sacred brew, I started idly tapping a gentle heartbeat rhythm on the drum and adding a wordless song. This was soon picked up and embroidered on by people around the circle so I kept drumming but stopped singing to listen to the sounds being woven by the group. It was a rising, falling chant in which voices merged together and wove around each other in ever-evolving patterns. It was utterly beautiful. When it came to a natural end in silence, I was so moved the I was unable to speak for a few moments. I dubbed it the Song of the White Horse Tribe.
We performed my wolf chant, giving folk the opportunity to howl along at the end. We ended with what was, at one time, the closing song of the Quileute Drum Circle. The chant presented perhaps the best singalong opportunity of the night, since pretty much everyone knows it. I shan't spoil it for you, in case you happen to run across one of our ceremonies. It's right to maintain a little mystery.
When we were done, the roundhouse end everyone in it were buzzing with energy and joy. People got up, hugged each other, and began to filter out through the double doors. The ceremony complete, photography was allowed and Elaine got some great shots of blissed out smiling faces as folk emerged into the late afternoon light. There's a palpable sense of joy, wonder, and a kind of elevated calm produced by a chaga ceremony that it's hard to describe but beautiful to observe and to feel. That's why the Chaga Crew are smiling so broadly in this photograph. We did a good job, folks, as did all those who attended. If you want it enough and put the work in, there's no reason life shouldn't always be this good. Smile on!
People were so well attuned with their spirit animals by the work we did together over the first weekend that animal energy continued to flow through the rest of the week, being especially apparent during the lodges into which the camp divided mid-week. From my own point of view, I'd had the opportunity to test a type of ceremony that has several millennia of history behind it but that I'd not tried before. I was delighted with how well it worked and it will form the basis of ceremonies in the BDO Druid course. I've also been drinking chaga daily since the May Day ceremony in the roundhouse and am feeling physically, psychologically and spirititually better than I have done for years!
Ever since 1974, I've been trying to re-create the vision of Druidry that came to me then, a wild, animistic, magical, powerful image encapsulated for me in the antlered man portrayed on the Gundestrup cauldron (right). Over the years, I've come to call this process of re-creation 'rekindling the sacred fire.' The sweat lodge Wolf vision, the Quileute drum circle, building of the roundhouse, drum-making, creating ceremonies based on those of our ancestors, and sharing these things with others on the path, are all a part of this rekindling.
The seventh prophet of the Anishinabe had a similar vision for his people.A young man with a strange light in his eyes, he said, “In the time of the Seventh Fire New People will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail. Their steps will take them to the Elders who they will ask to guide them on their journey. But many of the Elders will have fallen asleep. They will awaken to this new time with nothing to offer. Some of the Elders will be silent because no one will ask anything of them. The New People will have to be careful in how they approach the Elders. The task of the New People will not be easy. If the New People will remain strong in their quest the Water Drum of the Midewiwin Lodge will again sound its voice. There will be a rebirth of the Anishinabe Nation and a rekindling of old flames. The Sacred Fire will again be lit.”
This prophecy suggests that the Anishinabe, in common with many other indigenous peoples around the world, and in common with us as Druids, are in a period of recollection and restoration of ancestral ways.
The prophet added that, “It is in this time that the light skinned race will be given a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and final Fire, an eternal fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood. If the light skinned race makes the wrong choice of the roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth's people.”
Part of my vision for Druidry is that we, having chosen the right road,may take our place around the sacred fires alongside folk of other indigenous cultures. Through a growing network of links, the process of rekindling has already begun. In coming together, we, the spirit workers of the world, may yet kindle that Eighth, eternal fire.
So may it be.
Photographs mostly by Elaine Gregory, with others by Adrian Rooke, Bee and me...
The first stage in preparing a ceremony is to know its purpose. There's little point creating a ceremony just because it's that time of year, or there's a slot to fill at a camp, or someone's asked you to. There has to be a valid, spiritual imperative to it, otherwise there's no point. Ceremony should always be, first and foremost, a sacred act, rather than a theatrical performance or an historical re-enactment, although it may include elements of both these things.
When I was asked to do something for the White Horse Beltaine camp at Wild Ways this year, it took me a long time to work out what to do and why to do it. It wasn't until I visited Wild Ways again and sat in our Iron Age roundhouse that an answer came to me. As so often in that magical place, I slipped between worlds and had a vision. I saw a stream of people entering through the double doors. They were naked apart from animal hides, masks, face and body paint. They danced into the roundhouse and circulated around the central fire while I drummed along with three or four other drummers, all with frame drums. At the end of the line came Barry Patterson, wearing a dark blue cloak and a deer mask with a full set of antlers.
Following this vision, what I felt it right to do on the camp came into focus. Central to it is our sacred relationship with the rest of animal life on our planet. This is, in itself, a complex web rather than a single relationship. It is also a foundation stone of our spirituality. Not just Pagan spirituality either. The spiritual links that humans have had with other animals since the remote depths of prehistory underlie all religions. For our pagan ancestors, and for many modern indigenous peoples, animals were/are models of strength, speed, intelligence, kinship bonding, hunting ability, and spiritual connectedness. More recent faiths have significantly altered these relationships, introducing the idea that we are in every way superior to other animals, and that, because of our innate superiority, we are justified in exploiting 'lesser' animals in any way we see fit.
So the theme for my contribution to the camp is to be our spiritual relationships with animals.
Saturday Evening, 7.30-9.30 pm: Working with Wildwood Spirits
The next question was how to make that work in the context of a Beltaine camp. I already had the vision of the roundhouse ceremony to work towards, so the question became how to get there. An obvious way in is to offer a talk on the spiritual links between humans and other animals and then, for those who want to explore those links more fully and deeply, to offer a spirit journey in search of spirit animals. Which begs the question, what do we mean by spirit animals?
In 42 years as a Druid, I have found that most of us are accompanied by one or more spirit animals, of which one is usually dominant. They fulfil many roles, acting as guardians, guides and teachers, all of which come together in the word 'helpers.' They fulfil this role whether we are aware of their presence or not. Once we do become aware of them, we are obliged to interact with them more often and more deeply; the relationship becomes reciprocal, and we need to work to maintain it. For what our animal helpers give us, we take on the responsibility of keeping them strong and well nourished. We do this by entering into a new level of relationship with them. If you feel ready to take on this level of commitment, then connecting with your animal helpers can be an incredibly enriching experience. When I first encountered my wolf spirit brother, it completely altered my approach to my spirituality and, therefore, my life.
The next question is how to connect this session with my envisioned ceremony...
Sunday, May 1st Roundhouse Animal Spirit Ceremony
The purpose of the ceremony is to cement our relationships with our spirit animals, encountered during last night's spirit journey if not before, and to explore ways in which we can strengthen and maintain them.
Getting to the ceremony itself will require a certain amount of preparation. The roundhouse will need to be cleaned and arranged, and a plentiful supply of dry wood got in. Water, a large cooking pot and various other items will need carrying down. Then, on Sunday morning, I will need three or four people to help me in and around the roundhouse for the rest of the day. They will need to have frame drums and be able to play them well and keep good time. Ideally they should be fairly strongly connected with their own spirit animals. Our role from straight after morning meeting will be to prepare chaga. Chaga is a medicinal fungus that grows on Birch trees in Northern climes. It's most important effect is in strengthening the immune system, and it is widely used for this property throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. To prepare it for use in ceremony requires several hours. I should add that it is not hallucinogenic. The 'chaga crew' will have important roles during the ceremony.
After lunch, folk planning on attending the roundhouse ceremony will need to prepare for it by creating their animal guises. One way to cement our relationship with our animal helpers is to dress ourselves as them. This can be achieved by wearing hides, masks, body painting, etc. As said, my vision had people entering the roundhouse naked apart from animal accoutrements and body paint. We have some water-based stage paints that can be used, but we will also have natural paints made from clay-based pigments dug at Wild Ways. Our idea is for everyone to get into their animal guises at (but not in) the roundhouse. You'll need to bring all your costume bits and a bag in which to store your clothes. You'll also need to bring a cup for chaga. You might also like to bring a cushion if you want to sit more comfortably in the roundhouse where the seats are logs or the hard earth floor.
Once into your animal guise, you'll become your animal, roaming off into the woods and behaving as that animal. After a while, you'll be called back to the roundhouse. Staying 'in character,' you'll roam sunwise around the roundhouse making as much animal noise as you like. At an appropriate point, the doors will be flung open and you'll rush in, still in your animal form. This will be chaotic. That's fine. It's supposed to be. You'll then leave the roundhouse again, still in animal form. Once back outside, you'll 'humanise' yourself. Once the roundhouse is clear of everyone who isn't a member of the 'chaga crew,' two of the 'crew' will take up places on either side of the doors. Everyone else will pick up a cup and re-enter the roundhouse calmly (and walking upright!), being blessed and sained on the way in by the two doorkeepers. Then take a seat and sip your chaga. There should be enough for two cups each. We will be in the roundhouse from around 4 pm to 6 pm.
If you don't want to be an animal guiser, you can still take part in the ceremony. You'll need to arrive at the roundhouse a little before 4 pm (with cup and cushion as required), and take a seat in the roundhouse before the animals arrive. Likewise, if you're not comfortable with nudity, it is not mandatory. Wear whatever you are comfortable with. No one will berate you or think less of you 🙂
So, what to bring: things for animal guising (furs, masks, antlers, what-have-you), body painting (we'll provide some, so don't worry if you don't have any) - a cup - a cushion (optional but useful)...
It would be good to have a follow-up session in which we share any visions we've had or animal spirit songs we've been given ... I'm sure we can work that out 🙂
There will be about 50 people on the camp. We have previously managed 47 people in the roundhouse. It is quite tight, but it can be done.
Sunday will continue with dinner followed by the Beltaine fire ceremony on the stone circle field.
As a native British Druid for the last forty years, one of my greatest joys has been to make ceremony alongside spirit workers of many other traditions, finding fundamental similarities in how we understand the world and what we do underlying our cultural differences. This is the story of one such ceremony.
After all our travels with The World Drum, it was good to be back at Wild Ways, the spiritual centre in Shropshire created by Elaine Gregory and Garth Reynolds that has been a second home for myself and my sons for about a decade. We've had some great times there, and this weekend looked like being one of those very special ones. We had the launch of the Druid Hedge Schools project on Saturday, followed by a music session featuring Robin Williamson, who I consider the finest exponent of the bardic arts, and my old friend, Andy Letcher, no slouch himself in weaving word and sound, plus other friends. Then, on Sunday, we would bid our very, very fond farewell to the World Drum. Oh, and it would be my 60th birthday. However, before all that, on Friday evening, there was to be another event that had blossomed over the previous few weeks from the seed of an idea into what turned out to be an amazing, magical reality.
On Thursday, we greeted the arrival of the man whose vision had led to the creation of the World Drum, White Cougar. With him were Morten Wolf Storeide, who gently steers the Drum's journeys around the world, and Lena Paalviig Johnsen and Will Rubach of the shamanic band, Baalfolket. I find it hard to get to know people. I spend most of my time writing. It's a solitary profession. But with I felt an instant rapport. They were just so damn happy. It was like sunlight breaking through the moment I met them, like I'd known them forever, like we were family. They had flown over from Norway at their own expense to make music and ceremony with us. The first ceremony was to be a gift White Cougar wanted to share with us, centring around a herbal medicine I had never previously heard of called Chaga.
Chaga is a hard, woody fungus that grows on birch trees. In Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and much of Asia, it has been used as a medicine for thousands of years, its chief property being that it boosts the body's own healing mechanisms, making it effective for a wide range of conditions. It also has psycho-spiritual properties that may be described as lifting the spirits. I hasten to add, we're not talking psychedelics here. You won't find yourself hallucinating swarms of rainbow butterflies whilst giggling hysterically because your legs have turned to rubber. It's not that kind of mushroom. In some countries it's used as a coffee substitute. White Cougar, however, works with it in a spiritual, ceremonial way. Chaga, like all things in this world, has a spirit, and his name, in Norway, is Nivvsat Olmai. He has appeared to White Cougar in the form of a bird.
On Thursday afternoon then, six of us, White Cougar, Morten, Will, Lena, my old friend, Steve Rumelhart, and I set off along the winding Deer Path that leads to our Iron Age roundhouse. I was keen to introduce our visitors to this place that meant so much to me, the construction of which had been such a transformative experience, not only for me but for others who took part. They were equally keen to see it. Naturally, we took our drums.
We arrived, knocked to wake the spirits, opened the double doors fully to let in the light, stepped over the threshold and found our places, unpacking our drums. It was almost as if planned. Natural, good. I told them about the guardian spirit of the roundhouse and its surrounding grove, an antlered figure who has been with us from the beginning, since my toe stubbed on a deer-skull when we were clearing the ground to build the place.
Then we began to drum. I know that Steve is a solid, reliable, listening drummer. I assumed our Norwegian friends would be too. How right I was. Since they were bringing us this gift of ceremony, it was they who began the drumming. Each of them has a markedly different drum, each handmade in the Saami manner of their home country, the frames bent by hand so that their shapes are never quite round, but always oval or egg-shaped. The frame of Lena's, being wide but not very deep, had twisted after the skin was stretched over it, creating an off-kilter curvature across the drum. She told me later that her drum-maker had offered to fix it for her. She loved it just as it was, and that's the way it's stayed. As soon as they began to play, I knew we were in safe hands, not that I ever doubted it. They quickly fell into a natural rhythm together, playing off each other, weaving the very different tones of their drums into a single, magical web of sound.
I was sitting in my accustomed place near the altar in the north-east, my 'Thunder-drum' at the ready, beater held lightly in my right hand. I listened to the emerging, subtly shifting rhythm patterns Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will were playing, and to how they were playing. Many drummers in Britain tend to play quite loudly and, well, sort of aggressively. I've been guilty of this myself at times. These guys played in a way that was gentler, more contemplative and, I found, much easier to trance out to.
Then they began to sing. Wow. Hard to find the right words. They draw inspiration from the spontaneous, improvisatory Saami singing tradition called joiking. Will has quite a deep, resonant singing voice anyway, but also uses throat-singing, producing an eerie kind of deep, rasping growl that sounds barely human and sends shivers down the spine. Lena has a voice of soaring, skylark beauty and clarity. Woven together, the effect is … what word to use? … Awesome? Magical? Inspiring? Uplifting? Entrancing? All of those and more.
It didn't take long for my drum to tell me it was time to join in. Such was the rapport I felt with these folk already that I found it easy and natural to fit the bass of my own drum in with theirs, weaving my patterns into the flow. What surprised me was that I also began to sing. Normally, I don't, unless it's some pre-planned chant for a specific purpose. Now I found myself vocalising strange noises and parts of words in no language I consciously knew. Very strange. And suddenly I knew where these sounds were coming from. I was listening fully to my drum. It's main beat is a low bass note, but it resonates with a full spectrum of overtones up into a very high register like a bird or a bat. Within these overtones, I noticed wave patterns that were generating the songs I was then translating into the sounds I was singing. This was a new way of interacting with my drum, learned in that moment.
We played on, except I noticed Steve had not yet begun to play. This was weird, as he's usually the first to reach for his drum whenever there's the chance. He sat by the door, listening intently, for a long time. Finally, he began to play. As said, he's a good drummer, so his octagonal skin drum was soon sounding along with ours. The sound revolved around the roundhouse, reverberating from the timber posts, walls and roof in an enchanting cascade. Again, lost for words. Magical will have to suffice.
Finally, the sound wound to a natural conclusion and fell into silence. We were still for a moment, breathing with it, thinking about it. Then we looked around at each other, smiled, and made a chorus of “woos,” “yeahs,” “hms,” and similar sounds in wordless appreciation of what we'd just made together, for that one time, in that special place. It was a profound sense of rightness.
I spoke to Steve later and asked why he'd taken so long to start drumming. He said “Are you kidding? Those guys are GOOD!” I laughed. It was the first time in twenty years I've known Steve to be intimidated by other drummers.
Back at the house that evening, we talked about the ceremony we were to make next day. White Cougar told us that the chaga had to brew for at least two hours, preferably four. The brewing was to be done by our four Norwegian friends and White Cougar asked me to join them. He asked if I would guard the doorway against any unwanted spirit intrusions during the ceremony, keeping the dodgy ones out whilst letting the good ones come and go. Some weeks earlier, as soon as I heard the ceremony might happen, I had seen myself guarding the doors of the roundhouse along with Steve, me on one side, him on the other. I told this to White Cougar who smiled and said, “Ah, I see I have asked you this before.” Again, the easy smiles and laughter that usually comes with long familiarity. So it was settled, the six of us would prepare the chaga and make the ceremony.
At 4 o'clock the next afternoon, we set out again for the roundhouse, taking with us an aluminium cooking pot from the kitchen big enough to brew enough chaga for 45 people and some two-gallon drums of water. Once in the roundhouse, we set the pot on an iron stand over the central hearth and laid our fire underneath it. The ceremony began.
We gathered in a circle around the hearth, crouched down, hands close to the floor, and started vocalising low, growly noises. Then, slowly standing up, hands held out in front, our voices got louder and higher, until we all came fully upright, let out a great whoop and then, inevitably, broke out in laughter. A good way to start a ceremony. There's strong magic in laughter. We poured about a gallon of the water into the big pot and lit the fire under it.
Then we began to drum. Again, it was easy, natural and joyous to join with these folks in drumming up the spirits we would need to protect, help and guide us through the rite. Again, a natural flow emerged, beginning when one of our drums would speak, ending when all that needed to be said had been said.
Between drumming, we chatted, shared water, laughed, cracked jokes, and talked about what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. Cougar had brought extra dried chaga and sage with him to burn at either side of the doors so that people would be sained with it as they entered the roundhouse. Saining is our native British version of the Native American practice called smudging i.e. blessing and purifying people, places and things with smoke, usually from smouldering herbs. We had little charcoal blocks to burn it on, plus Steve's ever-ready lighter. Steve and I set them up by the doors. I told Steve which side I'd seen us standing on in my vision and we agreed that those were the sides we'd guard. We also agreed that Steve would be our 'soul guide' when evening came, going back through the woods to gather people for the ceremony, reminding them to bring a cup each but leave their mobile phones, and asking them to maintain silence once they'd reached the gateway to the roundhouse grove.
After a while, the water boiled and White Cougar brought out a bag of chaga, adding handfuls to the pot. He asked the chaga-spirit, Nivvsat Olmai, to be with us, to help and guide us and bring healing. He found a straightish stick and we used it to stir our gently bubbling cauldron of inspiration. The chaga, mostly bright yellow when it went in, quickly turned the water a rich, dark brown and a curious, earthy scent began to blend with the firesmoke. The six of us took turns at stirring the pot. We drummed and sang some more. More jokes and laughter, more drumming, more stirring. For some, breaks outside for cigarettes. It pleased Steve greatly to have others who smoked. Increasingly on Druid events he's felt like a Pariah because of his addiction to the noxious weed.
Oh yes, and we drank chaga. This, Cougar assured us, was necessary for those preparing the ceremony, and I wasn't about to argue. My first uncertain sip introduced me to a taste I can best describe as earthy, a little musty, with a vague hint of weak coffee, and not at all fungus-like. A few sips later, I'd got quite used to it. A few more and I kinda liked it. Now I love the stuff.
And the effects? Well, as said, we're not talking pixie caps or peyote. The effect initially seemed to consist of enhancing the feelings of elation and connectedness that being there doing what we were doing had already engendered. It was, however, a calmer, more controlled exhilaration than coffee's jagged buzz. As said, a lifting of spirits.
For four and a half hours, we nurtured the spirits swirling around in that dark, earthy, bubbling brew, in the roundhouse and in the grove around it. Finally, time came for Steve to go and bring people down the Deer Path. People in the UK often don't take the idea of ceremony all that seriously and therefore often don't arrive attuned to the spirit of the rite but will chatter inconsequentially, sometimes even after ceremonies have begun. This is why we'd decided that Steve should stop everyone at the gateway to the grove and get them to stop talking before they came to us. This he did very effectively, as I knew he would.
As the first person arrived at the doors, passing the guardian on the ash post, I realised that I was about to greet forty-plus people with no real idea of what I was going to say. I was, as my friend, Leon Reed says, “wearing my power,” i.e. dressed in my wolfskin cloak and other ritual gear, so I guess I looked the part. Then, words came tumbling out that sounded right, so I used them again for the next person, and again, with variations, for those who came after. It was a short, simple blessing that they would gain from the ceremony what it was they most needed. If you think about that, that is a powerful thing. I asked the first people to go in by the left side of the door, make their way clockwise around the central fire, and find a place against the wall. Elaine had given us a load of Hessian sacks that we'd stuffed with straw and placed in a ring against the wattle-and-daub walls for seating. People needed to follow these instructions as we knew we only just had room for everyone. Bless 'em, they did. Later arrivals sat on log seats closer to the fire. As each person passed through the doors, they were wafted with the combination of chaga and sage incense that Steve and I kept burning throughout the ceremony.
When everyone was safely inside and settled, Steve and I took our places on either side of the doors. Inside, Cougar, Wolf, Will and Lena began the public part of the ceremony. I glanced behind me at times and saw an amazing sight. The interior of the roundhouse was filled with people and lit by the central fire on which we'd brewed the chaga. My Norwegian friends were illuminated most, moving around the fire, close to it. All around them, the seats by the timber uprights were filled, every one of them, by a golden, glowing figure, men and women, woven into the fabric of time and space we had spent so many hours creating for this night, although those hours had seemed to fly by. Behind them, in flickering shadows, were those seated around the wall. Above them the looming cone of the thatched roof, glowing golden from the firelight or rendered the dark brown of chaga by shadows. It was beautiful. This was what we had built the roundhouse for. It was meant to be exactly as it was in those golden moments, on that hallowed evening. Of course, no photography was allowed during the ceremony, but Elaine later made this drawing from her memories of it.
As said, all this was taken in at a glance, most of my attention being cast around the surrounding woods, looking for any problems that might arise. To be honest, I wasn't expecting any. I've worked with that place for a long time and know its ways and the spirits that come and go pretty well. I know how strong the protection is that we've woven into ever fibre of its construction, as not just our antlered guardian, but other spirits have come to aid and guide us. Nevertheless, I had a job to do and, well, you never know. What I did know was that I could absolutely rely on Steve to pick up and deal with anything I might miss. That's why he had to be there beside me.
Behind us in the golden light, the drumming had begun. As before, the effect of the sound in that already magical space was enchanting and entrancing in the fullest sense of those words. There was singing, of course, and chanting, and spoken prayers. In my occasional glimpses, I saw Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will moving around the fire, their bodies and drums casting leaping shadows behind them, around them those circles of glowing people. At some point, I guess, chaga was distributed to everyone. I missed that, though Steve and I did get our cups filled somehow. After everyone had received their chaga, Cougar beckoned me to join him in the circle round the fire. Stepping into that gleaming circle was both beautiful and humbling. My drum merged with the beats of the others and I quickly tranced into the rhythm. I didn't stay long though for three reasons. First, I took my role as guardian very seriously. Second, I wanted to allow Steve a chance to step in and drum and knew he wouldn't leave the doors unguarded. Third, in our roundhouse, packed with people, standing so close to a roaring fire, drumming and wearing a thick wolf-skin cloak, it got very hot very quickly.
I stepped back in a few times to join the others, drumming with them for a while before resuming my post at the doors. Each time brought the same surge of energy. Dusk fell as we looked out into the darkening woods while the great thatched beehive of swirling, whirling, driving, growing, glowing magic buzzed and hummed behind us. The 'doctored' picture below was taken earlier, while we were preparing the chaga, but conveys some idea of how the place felt that night. It was … I don't know … words are hopelessly inadequate. I've been involved in a lot of ceremonies, often shared with folk of other traditions than my own Druidry. This was without doubt one of the most extraordinary and powerful I've ever taken part in.
Eventually, the drums reached a final crescendo and halted, brief words were spoken and the ceremony was declared complete. There was a rush of sound from folk inside that carried a sense of elation out into the night sky. Soon, people began pouring out, glowing gold like honey pouring from a doorway in a hive. Telling the Bees. Joy in their hearts and shining from their faces. It was extraordinary in the truest sense. Cougar, Wolf, Lena and Will stepped out as they felt ready. Our eyes met, we smiled the pure, grateful pleasure of a job well done, guided by our spirit companions, helpers and guides, our ancestors, the spirits of the place and, of course, by Nivvsat Olmai, the blessed spirit of the chaga. We'd been making this ceremony together for eight and a half hours, and it felt better than good.
As a footnote, I later found a native British equivalent of Nivvsat Olmai in the form of 'the Dark Lad,' or Ghillie Dhu, the Scottish name for the spirit of the chaga-bearing birch tree, translating into Welsh as Hogyn Du. He's said to be shy of human company but very fond of children. He dresses in moss, leaves and birch bark. Here he is, in a drawing by the great Brian Froud.