If you’ve ever wondered what modern Druids believe and what they get up to inspired by their beliefs, then this book is a must for you. It had already created quite a buzz in the Druid community prior to its publication and it not only lives up to expectations but exceeds them. Here I must declare an interest, having been a Druid since 1974, founded the British Druid Order, having many friends in other Druid groups and having worked full-time as a Druid since 1995. This makes me an ideal market for the book, but you don’t need a similar level of commitment to enjoy it. Indeed, anyone with an interest in modern Druidry, Paganism or what academics sometimes call ‘New Religious Movements’ will find it a fascinating and incredibly rich source of detailed, well-researched information. Nothing like it has been attempted before and it will undoubtedly stand as a definitive work for years to come, informing current researchers and hopefully inspiring further research on its subject as well as providing unprecedented insights for the general reader.
It draws on a world survey of Druids conducted by the author(right) over a two-year period. The questionnaire (still available online) is very well constructed, consisting of 189 separate items, allowing respondents to expand on their answers and providing 18 open-ended questions specifically aimed at encouraging longer responses. The fact that the author is a Druid herself encouraged Druid groups to promote the survey online, resulting in 725 respondents from 34 countries returning completed forms, providing detailed insights into all aspects of modern Druidry. White carefully analysed this mass of information, breaking down the results into the book’s eight chapters. These cover Druidry as a personal path, how Druids interact with the world, Druid theology, ritual, meditation, seasonal festivals, etc. In short, all of present-day Druidical life is here, all illustrated with relevant quotes from practising Druids. The sheer quantity of information is astonishing and the author has done a remarkable job in breaking it down into accessible chunks. Whenever the data looks like becoming too complex for words alone, she provides clear, informative bar or pie charts to make it clear.
Having been involved in Druidry for nearly half a century, you’d think there wouldn’t be much I didn’t know about it. You’d be wrong. While the book supports much that I already knew or suspected, either anecdotally or from personal observation, it also contains several surprises, some welcome, others less so. In the latter category, I was shocked to learn the extent to which modern Druids are actively persecuted, primarily by Christians. I genuinely thought we had progressed beyond the kind of medieval thinking that prompts such persecution, yet some Druids, particularly in the USA, still fear to ‘come out’ about their beliefs, even to members of their own families. Globally, the survey reveals that 19% fear discrimination, 17% fear harassment and 8% fear physical assault. These numbers are significantly higher in the USA.
A more welcome finding is the extent to which Nature plays a part in modern Druidry. Those of us who run Druid groups are always banging on about communing with the natural world and its indwelling spirits, but it’s hard to know to what extent the message actually gets through. At least, it was until this book arrived. When asked to rank the importance of different influences on their spirituality, 91% put Nature at the top of the list, 71% Nature spirits. Yay! It’s working! Clearly Druidry warrants its description as a ‘Nature Spirituality’ in the book’s subtitle. 85% of Druids, for example, report being actively engaged in some form of environmental stewardship.
Having spent the last 15 years creating distance learning courses for the BDO, I was also pleased to find Druid courses cited as a major influence by around half of Druids worldwide. That said, another surprise was how many Druids practice their path alone or with a partner, rarely if ever engaging with group celebrations.
As a ‘hard polytheist,’ defined by the author as one who sees their gods as “objectively real,” I was intrigued to find that this belief is shared by only 15% of respondents, while 49% identify as ‘soft polytheists,’ i.e. those who “typically work with their pantheons in a symbolic manner,” and 37% as ‘pantheists,’ regarding “all of Nature [as], in essence, a single, divine consciousness.” The sheer variety of belief revealed in the survey is remarkable. By contrast, chapter 8 is devoted to “Druidry’s Spiritual Common Core.” This finds a shared set of core beliefs that define modern Druidry. Again, engagement with the natural world features prominently.
At the end of the book, the author provides a useful and admirably clear Glossary offering succinct definitions of terms used in the text, including deities from numerous pantheons, folk and seasonal festivals engaged in by Druids, and terms such as ‘animism,’ ‘awen’ and ‘imbas.’ The survey form is included as an Appendix while another lists 147 Druid groups worldwide.
A final thing to commend the book is simply its look and feel. The hardback is a thing of genuine beauty. The attractive, dark blue dust jacket is printed on a high quality paper that feels like velvet while the book inside is fully cloth-bound in a matching shade of blue. It’s a joy to handle, the text clear and readable, the photographs well-chosen and clearly reproduced.
In bringing together such a wealth of information and presenting it with such crystal clarity, Larisa A. White has done a great service to the Druid community, the broader Pagan community, those interested in ‘New Religious Movements’ and general readers with an interest in contemporary spirituality more broadly and with how spirituality impacts on environmental concerns. I therefore wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend this unique and fascinating book.
From the time I began exploring Druidry in 1974, I have never thought of it as anything other than ‘shamanic.’ I discovered Druidry through Robert Graves’ remarkable book, The White Goddess (3rd edition, 1961). For all its fame in Pagan circles, it is far from an easy read, laden with classical Greek and Roman references, many not translated into English, with arguments flung at the reader in a flurry of seemingly random and unrelated facts and fancies, laced with folklore and poetry. Realising that regular breaks would be needed if I were to get through it, I began alternating chapters of The White Goddess with those of another dense, difficult read; Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964). Graves appealed to my poetic nature, awakening me to Druidry as a pagan spiritual path native to the British Isles, where I was born. Eliade awakened me to the existence of traditional societies where strange children were treated as peculiarly blessed and potentially cursed rather than simply insane, which was my experience growing up in a Sussex village with vivid dreams, nightmares and terrifying waking visions. Reading Graves and Eliade in tandem convinced me of the ‘shamanic’ nature of Druidry and that it might be a spiritual path capable of restoring my sanity, shattered by a severe mental breakdown in 1971. My experience of walking the Druid path for the last 47 years has powerfully reinforced these convictions. I am wary of the term ‘shamanic’ because it is so overused whilst having no widely agreed definition, hence the inverted commas. Thanks in part to Eliade, ‘shaman’ has become a catch-all term for pretty much anyone in any traditional society who undertakes healing, works magic, uses divination or otherwise tries to aid their community by means that could be described as magical or spiritual. Eliade was keen to play up what he saw as similarities between people all around the world whose practices fell under his use of ‘shaman’ as an umbrella term. He did so by being extremely selective of the material presented in his book. He has also been accused of altering or fabricating quotes to support his thesis that ‘shamanism’ represents a worldwide, and therefore very ancient, system of belief, which does not necessarily mean that the thesis itself is wrong. The use of the term became even more problematic after it was taken up by an American anthropologist, Michael Harner, in the 1970s. Harner wove together fragments of spiritual cultures from around the world to create a synthesis he called ‘global, or core shamanism.’ His California-based School of Shamanism has since taught students around the world, including in Siberia, where the term ‘shaman’ originated, but where the native practice of it had been all but wiped out by the mid-1950s. Despite my doubts about its use, the term ‘shamanic’ remains a useful shorthand that is widely understood to signify a person who engages with spiritual realms and their inhabitants in a variety of ways that could loosely be described as ‘magical.’ For me, Druids definitely fall into that category. The idea that ancient Druidry was ‘shamanistic’ has been around for a long time. The earliest reference I’ve located so far is from Welsh scholar, Sir John Rhys, in 1901. In Celtic Folklore: Welsh & Manx, he writes of “the druid, recalling as he does the magician of the Egypt of the Pentateuch and the shaman of the Mongolian world of our own time.” The whole range of primary evidence for ‘shamanistic’ practices existing in the British Isles and finding its ultimate flowering in Druidry was first gathered together by Nikolai Tolstoy in his book, The Quest for Merlin (1985). A few years later, John Matthews used the same evidence to create the first ‘how-to’ book on the subject, The Celtic Shaman (1991). The idea of the Druid-as-‘shaman’ has even gained academic respectability, featuring, for example, in The Quest for the Shaman (2005), co-authored by one of our finest Celtic scholars, Miranda Aldhouse-Green. Some evidence is archaeological, such as the antlered figure from the 1st century BCE Gundestrup cauldron, found in a Danish peat bog in 1891. In his right hand he holds a torc, the gold, silver or bronze neck-ring that was a symbol of status in Iron Age societies. In his left hand, he holds a huge, horned Serpent by the neck. His antlers may be seen as part of a ceremonial costume or as evidence that he is partway through shape-shifting into a Stag. A similar antlered figure had been etched into a stone wall in Valcamonica in Northern Italy about 300 years earlier. He also has his arms raised in the ‘orans’ gesture of prayer. A torc hangs from his right arm and a Serpent coils at his left side. Both figures are often identified as horned gods but could equally be Druids. If the latter, then their appearance is remarkably similar to that of 18th and 19th century ‘shamans’ in Siberia and their equivalents in Scandinavia. Much of the evidence drawn on by myself, Tolstoy and Matthews, however, is found in the medieval literature of Britain and Ireland. In Britain, much of it is found in the mystical poems attributed to the 6th century bard, Taliesin, but probably composed in the 12th century. The most famous of these are ‘The Battle of the Trees’ and ‘The Spoils of Annwfn.’ Taliesin refers to himself as a Druid and, in these poems, he takes on innumerable forms, many animal but some apparently inanimate objects such as a spear point or a sword. Many of his transformations sound very much like the shape-shifting undertaken in some ‘shamanic’ traditions. On first reading the Taliesin poems and that great Welsh compilation of mythology, history and folklore, the Mabinogi, in the 1970s, my initial intuition of the Druid-as-‘shaman’ seemed to be confirmed. Take, for example, the story of ‘The Lady of the Well’ where the protagonist encounters a huge, black-haired man seated on a mound in the middle of a forest who strikes a Stag, causing it to bellow, at which vast numbers of wild animals crowd into the forest grove, bow down before the black-haired man “and did homage to him as obedient men would do to their lord.” This immediately reminded me of the antlered figure on the Gundestrup cauldron who is also flanked by wild animals. The passage in ‘The Lady of the Well’ refers to many animals entering the grove, but specifies only three species, Stags, Serpents, and Lions, all of which appear on the Gundestrup cauldron. In Ireland, the evidence is scattered across a number of manuscripts, perhaps the most persuasive being those dealing with the chief Druid, Mogh Ruith, ‘Servant of the Wheel.’ Most appear in a portmanteau text called ‘The Siege of Druim Damhgaire.’ In it, Mogh Ruith wraps himself in the hide of a speckled Bull, wears a feathered cloak, flies through the air and creates magical fire-balls that he hurls at his enemies. Twenty years after I conceived of the idea of the Druid-as-‘shaman,’ final conformation came in the form of a large, adult Wolf who appeared to me during a particularly intense ceremony. He showed me how to shape-shift and walk between worlds, adding whole new dimensions to my already visionary spirituality. Because of him I now bear the craft name, Greywolf. The ceremony in which Wolf first appeared led me to explore whether the British Isles had ever had a tradition of spiritual ‘saunas.’ I discovered a tradition that began in the Neolithic, elements of which continued in rural Ireland into the late 19th century. Irish ‘sweat houses’ were sometimes located close to ancient sacred sites such as stone circles and the Hill of Tara, inauguration site of the pagan High Kings of Ireland. Their spiritual use invoked the aid of the goddess, the Morrigan, ‘Great Queen.’ Their pre-history, history and use is detailed in our Druid course. Despite all this, some question whether Druidry is ‘shamanic,’ preferring to follow the classical Greek portrayal of Druids as white-robed philosophers. The BDO vision of Druidry has room for that too. Philosophy features strongly in all our courses, particularly the ovate. But the exercise of intellect doesn’t prevent us from gathering together in our Iron Age roundhouse by the flickering firelight, drumming to open our passage between the worlds in search of visions and spirit helpers who may guide us in the realms of the Faery folk, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands. For Druidry to be of real value, it must embrace the whole of life, from the cradle to the grave and beyond. Many blessings, Greywolf /|\
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.
Despite having been a Druid since 1974, I learned much that was new to me while researching and writing the British Druid Order's courses. This post deals with just one of the many discoveries made during that research. It is a chant in the ancient language of Gaul.
The chant is derived from an inscription on lead sheet, dating from the 1st century BCE, found at Rom (Roman Rauranum), Deux-Sévres, in Western France. The inscription details a sacrificial ceremony carried out in honour of the Horse Goddess. The chant was created by taking the names and titles of the Horse Goddess in the order in which they appear in the inscription and adding one of the names by which she is most commonly known, but which does not appear in the inscription, i.e. Rigantona, meaning 'Great Queen.'
The resulting chant naturally lent itself to a drum-beat that seems to replicate the gait of a Horse person. It moves from a walk to a full gallop.
A Horse chant developed a particular importance for me some years ago when I realised that the part of south-west England where I live is home to a White Horse Woman who appeared to our ancestors in the Bronze Age (perhaps earlier) to show them the sacred ceremonies. Her name and parts of her legend were passed down by generations of bards, finding their way into that great collection of ancient British lore, The Mabinogion, where she is known as Rhiannon, a name derived from the Gaulish Rigantona and having the same meaning, 'Great Queen.' For the last few decades, she has been appearing in various guises to members of the Druid community to show us again the sacred ways of our ancestors.
Winter Wolf Healing Ceremonies are found in many cultures across the whole of the Northern Hemisphere and some of the Southern. In some cases, they can be traced back thousands of years. They have three primary purposes: to re-connect us with our power animals in order to stave off the physical and psychological illnesses that often come with the winter months; to enhance the well-being of Mother Earth and all her children; to perform initiations into the Wolf Society.
Just from a week in Norway during which Elaine Gregory and I spent four days representing the British Druid Order (BDO) at the Annual Shamanic gathering, organised, as ever, by Sjamanistisk Forbund (the Shamanic Foundation). This year’s event was called Naturfest and was amazing. So many wonderful, lovely people. Little kids and dogs of varying sizes wandering and playing in the sunshine, fantastic music, magical ceremonies, and a beautiful new venue, almost an island, connected only by a narrow isthmus with a road across it, surrounded by a clear blue lake and blessed with the characteristic Norwegian trees, tall pines and graceful birches. For us Druids, there was the added bonus of a young oak tree.
When we go to Norway, one of the greatest pleasures is staying with our friends, Morten and Louise, two of the nicest, warmest, most generous human beings I’ve ever known. We also share a silly sense of humour, which always helps. Their house is surrounded by a wild flower meadow in the middle of a forest and is so soothing to the soul. There’s a lake within easy walking distance, Elk (aka Moose) wander past the back window, Deer graze at the front.
The venue for the gathering is about a two hour drive from their house. To stock up on supplies for it we crossed over into Sweden to a huge shopping complex. Kyrre had asked us to bring a British Druid Order flag to the event. We didn’t have one, so I designed one and ordered it online. Unfortunately, it hadn’t arrived by the time we left England. Wandering around the Swedish shopping centre, however, we passed a store where I saw a large psychedelic duck suspended from the ceiling. I pointed it out to the others and we went in to get a closer look. It was so weird, we just had to buy it, deciding it would make a good substitute for the missing BDO flag. We called it PD, short for psychedelic duck.
We arrived, unpacked and settled into our tiny attic room in time for the opening ceremony which began up by the barn that was being used as office space, market and healing centre for the weekend. From there, we made our way to the central ceremonial fire. Two ceremonies then celebrated the feminine and the masculine before a sharing circle brought the first evening to a close.
Next day there were traditional games, a workshop on Sami healing led by Robert Vars Gaup, a nature walk and the first part of a drum-making workshop, among other things. It was a very crowded schedule, with events running right through Friday and Saturday nights as well as all day.
After 45 years as a Druid, it is my life and I know no other. Living in the British Isles, I forget that there are places where Druidry is little known. Norway is one of those places. When organiser, Kyrre Franck, asked if there was anything Elaine and I wanted to do other than the chaga ceremony we were helping out with, we couldn’t think of anything in particular, so he suggested a sharing circle about ceremony. I was a little concerned that the sharing circle was booked for 11 o’clock at night, the chaga ceremony for 2 o’clock in the morning! I had forgotten that, at Midsummer in Norway, it doesn’t actually get dark. However, once word got around that there were two Druids on the camp, people started asking if there was going to be a workshop on Druidry, so I asked Kyrre if we could fit one into the already very packed schedule. He said he’d see what he could do and, 10 minutes later, a handwritten poster in big blue letters was pinned up above the printed timetable announcing a Druidry workshop in the Lavo (a sort of wooden tipi) at 12 noon on Sunday. We’d suddenly got star billing and had to figure out how to live up to it!
Our sharing circle was fun, though I’m never all that comfortable with the format. The chaga ceremony was very good, as they always are. On this occasion, we had to contend with a plague of midges and the fact that an amplified open mike night was being held as part of the gathering not far away from where we were doing our preparation for the ceremony. In making a chaga ceremony, it’s necessary to spend about four hours preparing the chaga, boiling the water, adding the chaga a small handful at a time, stirring the pot, chanting, singing, drumming, making prayers and offerings to the spirits, in particular to Nivvsat Olmai, the chaga and birch tree spirit. Chaga (a woody fungus that grows on Birch trees) is already blessed with many healing properties. By adding this ceremonial element to the brewing, we seek to enhance those existing properties and maybe add a few more.
When the brew was ready, we carried it down to the open air ceremonial circle on the site, with its central fire pit surrounded by stones. Elaine welcomed folk into the circle via the eastern entrance and then remained to guard it. Yes, although it was 2am, people still came! Morten and Louise conducted the ceremony. I prowled around the outside of the circle sunwise with my drum. One particularly memorable part of it was when Morten set up a heartbeat rhythm with his drum as he circled the ring of people sitting on the ground while I drummed the same heartbeat rhythm from the outside. For the people between the two drums, the vibrations must have been quite strong. During the ceremony, the Moon rose from the forest treetops across the lake. Not long after we finished the ceremony, the Sun rose to join it.
We finished at 3 am. At 4 am there was to be a men’s sweat lodge, which I was booked into. In the event, I helped a little with the building of the fire but then had to make my apologies and leave, realising that, having been up all night, I was simply too tired.
Among the many events across the weekend, I was intrigued by a series of workshops being given by a Tuvan shaman called Dimitrij Markov. Dimitrij, turned out to be a really nice guy with a dry sense of humour. In his first session, he showed us how to build a spirit house. This consisted of sticks of firewood arranged in tipi shape, modelled around slabs of butter and cheese and set on a strong cardboard base. The whole thing was then placed on the central fire as an offering to the ancestors. Dimitrij conducted the workshop in Norwegian. I know hardly any Norwegian, but was able to follow what was going on by the few words I could pick up and Dimitrij’s actions. I noted that he always went sunwise around the fire, just as we do in Druidry.
An outstanding feature of Dimitrij’s ceremonial creation is his costume, hung with colourful plaited cords, bells, signs and symbols, topped off with an extraordinary headdress comprised mainly of Eagle feathers. These he dons immediately before ceremony begins and takes off as soon as it is finished. His ceremonies often end with him standing quietly for a few seconds, then saying, “That’s it,” walking out of the circle and disrobing.
One of the things I love about these gatherings is that you get to see both the surface differences in the ways we work and the underlying similarities that make it so easy to understand and communicate with each other across cultures.
Saturday night was the Sami Midsummer ceremony, which I’d been part of on our last visit two years ago. This year’s was conducted by Kyrre, Robert and Elin Kåven, a noted Sami musician. Offerings of seasonal flowers from everyone were placed around the central fire with prayers made for those in need. There was much drumming and dancing. Central to the rite was the raising aloft and honouring of a wreath of greenery tied with coloured ribbons, raised in honour of the gods of earth and sky.
Later that evening, Rotha (it means Roots) treated us to a fabulous musical set. They are a three-piece consisting of guitar/bazouki, Elin on vocals, and percussion, the latter including the biggest frame drum I’ve ever seen. The sound blended traditional and modern really well, while several lyrics were drawn from the Icelandic Eddas. Morten tells me that although the musicians are Sami, they draw much of their inspiration from Norse mythology. They are very, very good.
The band having done their encores, having been up until at least 3am the night before, we were all prepared to go to bed when Kyrre announced an addition to the program: a Wolf healing ceremony with Dimitrij, due to take place around the ceremonial fire at 1am. Had it been anything other than a Wolf ceremony, I would have gone to bed. As it was, Morten, Louise, Elaine and I all went down to the ceremony site. Dimitrij donned his costume, pulled on his headpiece and picked up his drum. Having promised my own drum a rest after the exertions of the Sami Midsummer ceremony earlier, I had left her hanging on the wall of our room, so was unable to join in the drumming. Dimitrij made up for it. His drumming began fairly quietly but quickly gained pace and volume. He began waving his drum back and forth. He started behaving as Wolf, lowering his body. At one point, he fell over and rolled on his back, kicking his legs in the air. Rising again, he stood still for a while, lifting his drum towards the sky, which was as dark as it gets, though still not dark enough for stars to be visible. He began to howl. I began to howl. Some of the others began to howl. After drumming vigorously for about half an hour, during which Dimitrij continued to move and I continued to rock from one foot to the other, we stopped. Dimitrij stood still for a few moments, facing the central fire, then said “That’s it.”
During the ceremony, I felt a kind of expansion from my primary place of power, located near my solar plexus. The following day, I woke up feeling better than I had for ages, emotionally, physically and psychologically. Further proof that, as I said during our sharing circle about ceremony, “This shit works.” Thank you again, Dimitrij.
After a few hours’ sleep, at midday on Sunday it was time for our Druidry workshop. Elaine and I had discussed a brief outline which we followed, allowing space for whatever the awen dictated to happen. We opened our circle as usual with calls for peace at the four quarters, wove the circle, invoked the powers of the four directions, honoured the spirits of place, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands, in all of which Elaine took the lead. I then spoke of the survival of Druidry for many centuries after the Roman invasion of Britain in 55 CE, through to the time when the great Welsh and Irish legendary tales were written down. I told the story of Ceridwen and Taliesin and the brewing of the cauldron of inspiration. We then chanted the awen, filling the tall wooden structure with our voices so that they rolled and echoed in tumbling cascades of sound. It was beautiful. Then, having started late due to the previous workshop overrunning, we hurriedly closed our circle and left to allow the next workshop to begin. Afterwards, we were told of overflowing emotions and of visions occurring during our session. These things are always reassuring that we have done our job well. Many thanks to all who came and made ceremony with us, both seen and unseen.
Also at the camp, and another great guy, was István Zsolt Barát, founder and head of the Four Elements School, ceremonial leader, healer, singer, artist, drummer and a traditional bearer of Hungarian Shamanism, which he studied in Carpathian region. He has worked as co-organizer of Kurultai, the largest gathering of Central Asian tribes, a biannual festival that gathers up to 300,000 people.
A remarkable woman we had made ceremony with two years ago in Sweden, Inger Lise Nervik, was also there. She’s one of the organisers of Sjamanistisk Forbund and co-founder of the Beaivi Shamanic School. So many other great people it would take a book to name them all. What characterises them all, apart from our shared spiritual vision, seems to be a wonderful, off-the-wall sense of humour. This, I think, is one of the most important tools we have in our line of work.
Speaking of which, back to the duck. Sunday morning, I got up early and decided if we were going to introduce the camp to the duck, it would have to be today. Fetching the foot-pump, I set to work and PD grew and grew and was a magnificent sight to behold. He proved a considerable hit with the campers, especially the smaller children, who were soon climbing all over him. Then, at the end of the day, the moment came to launch PD on the lake. It had to be done. Two of the younger campers came with us, including new friend, Jorgen, whose first shamanic camp it was. PD was duly launched onto the water, carefully roped to shore as we had no idea of the currents or of PD’s manoeuvrability. Stripping to my underpants, I climbed onto PD’s back and set sail. It was the most wonderful fun I’ve had for ages. PD was very comfortable and I could happily have floated off on his back to who knows where, but time being pressing, after much splashing, giggling and ill-advised photographs, I clambered back onto the jetty. Our two young friends then took their turns, Jorgen attempting running dives, the second of which sent PD onto his side and Jorgen into the very cold water. Fortunately, he’s a good swimmer and after a little reassurance, PD was happy too. Thus, amidst much laughter, our time at Naturfest came to an end.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that very early on the morning after our chaga ceremony, I was fetching a few things from the car when a tiny just fledged bird landed on my arm. I think he was a Goldcrest. Having latched his little talons into my coat, he started preening his feathers, shaking himself and looking around, then doing a bit more preening. After a while, it became obvious that he wasn’t going to leave without some encouragement. I moved towards what looked like a good perch for a small bird, shook my sleeve gently and he fluttered off. It was a small, magical encounter, adding one more joyous element to a wonderful weekend.
After a couple of days back at Morten and Louise’s house, it was time to head home. Before we did, however, Morten had one more surprise for us. Bringing out a familiar flight case, he opened it to reveal The World Drum. This extraordinary shamanic instrument was created by a Sami drum-maker following a vision that Kyrre Franck had. The Drum has spent many years travelling all over the world, crossing cultural, linguistic and political boundaries, uniting people with its message of care for our Mother Earth and peace between her children. The British Druid Order first hosted the Drum in the UK in 2008, visiting Dragon Hill and Avebury. In 2013, we journeyed with her to Glastonbury Tor, Anglesey and many other places. It was so good to see her again. A wonderful close to a beautiful trip...
I’m already looking forward to next year!
Oh, yes, and that BDO flag I ordered arrived while we were away. And here it is:
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!
A new TV series called Britannia takes as its setting the Claudian invasion of Britain in 43 CE which began almost 400 years of Roman occupation of England and Wales. In the community at large, the main talking point seems to be whether or not Britannia is trying to be another Game of Thrones clone. In the Druid community, the major topic of debate is the show’s portrayal of Druids. In weighing into these discussions, I am at the considerable disadvantage of being unable to see the programme in question due to not being a subscriber to Sky. That said, I’ll have a go based on what little I’ve been able to glean from brief clips online and other people’s comments.
The chief Druid in the series is portrayed by Mackenzie Crook (above), most recently gracing our screens in the excellent BBC series, Detectorists. In Britannia, he is heavily made up and seems to portray his character as something between a circus performer and a homicidal maniac. Some modern Druids have been quoted in the press as being deeply offended by this portrayal on the grounds that modern Druids are peace-loving people who honour the cycles of nature. In most cases, this is undoubtedly true. I’m a life-long pacifist myself. We may, however, legitimately ask whether the same was true of Druids two thousand years ago. Classical Druids’ ability to bring peace to warring factions is evidenced in Diodorus Siculus’ 1st century BCE statement that, “Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses.”
On the other hand, classical Druids relied for their livelihood on the patronage of the warrior caste that formed the upper echelons of Celtic society, while some Celtic sacred sites were decorated with human skulls (right) or piled with the bones of the dead. Then there are the Druids in medieval Irish literature who use battle magic against their enemies, hurling balls of fire or causing rocks to rain down from the heavens. There is also evidence for human sacrifice among the Celts, albeit on nothing like the industrial scale suggested by their Roman conquerors. Need these have involved Druids? Diodorus Siculus (left) suggests that they did, writing that the Celts “have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour and are called Druids. It is a custom of the Gauls that no one performs a sacrifice without the assistance of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to the gods ought only to be made through the mediation of these men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak, familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the blessings of the gods should properly be sought.”
Even from this fragmentary and at times dubious evidence, it seems likely that classical Druids were considerably more robust in their approach to life and death than many contemporary Druids are willing to believe.
The makers of Britannia, however, clearly take Roman descriptions of Druids as the basis for their portrayal. This is problematic in that the Romans were intent on conquering the Celts and as part of that agenda they needed to demonise their intellectual caste, the Druids, since they represented the only organisation in Celtic society capable of uniting warring tribes to resist Roman plans for conquest. To this end, Roman writers characterised Druids as the most bloodthirsty members of a savage race, accusing them of all manner of barbarity, including nailing people’s entrails to trees and making them run around them, divining the future from their death throes. Greek writers, by contrast, who were well acquainted with the Celts, described Druids as wise philosophers, eloquent speakers and counsellors to kings. From what I can gather, Britannia over-emphasises the brutality of Druids for dramatic effect while downplaying the other activities for which Druids were noted, like storytelling, genealogy, healing, music, poetry and the aforementioned counselling.
It seems that the Druids in Britannia are also portrayed as regular drug users. There is absolutely no evidence for this. On the contrary, I suspect that the inhabitants of 1st century CE Britain would have felt much that same as the more recent inhabitants of Siberia, i.e. that any Druid or shaman who needed drugs to access the Otherworld was pretty lousy at their job.
On the whole, then, it looks as though the portrayal of Druids in Britannia revels in dope and gore to excess and ignores most of the other priestly functions Druids fulfilled in their communities. This should go down well in America, where, for historical reasons, the Roman view of Druids as barbaric monsters has always been prevalent.
Incidentally, I note that Britannia Druids are shown gathering in a sort of two storey Stonehenge (above). This will doubtless revive the old argument about Druids being a Celtic priesthood and the Celts not arriving in Britain until many centuries after such megalithic monuments were abandoned. Here again, all may not be as it seems. Julius Caesar, one of the few classical writers who actually met Druids, was told by them that the Druid faith originated in Britain (Gallic Wars, bk.6, ch.13). Celtic culture, on the other hand, originated in central Europe. Assuming Caesar’s informants were accurately reporting their tradition and that Caesar accurately passed on their words, this means that Druids were not Celtic in origin, but native to Britain before Celtic culture arrived here. In which case, as many reputable archaeologists have argued, it is possible that Druids were directly descended from those who built and used Stonehenge and other monuments. There were Iron Age shrines in southern Britain which, like many of their megalithic predecessors, consisted of timber circles enclosed by earthwork banks and ditches, arguing for some continuity of tradition. Iron Age and Romano-British finds at megalithic sites such as the Medway tomb-shrines show that they continued to be visited, though for what reasons we can only speculate. The Iron Age hill fort known as Vespasian's Camp lies a little over a mile from Stonehenge, a short stroll away and Iron Age and Romano-British pottery and other artefacts have been found within the henge. It seems impossible to believe that Druids would not re-use at least some of the stone circles built by their, and our, ancestors. It is hard to imagine that they would not have felt the same sense of ancestral connection and simple wonder that we ourselves feel when we visit such places, even harder to believe that they would simply ignore them.
I’ll probably watch Britannia when it comes out on dvd. After all, when Emma Restall Orr and I (left) sat on a bench watching the rough, grey winter sea at Eastbourne way back in the 1990s, discussing the future direction of the British Druid Order, we decided to make it our goal to bring sex, fear and death back into Druidry. In Britannia, we may have found an ally. In any case, a show that uses Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ as a theme tune can’t be all bad…
“Histories of ages past, unenlightened shadows cast down through all eternity the crying of humanity. ‘Twas then when a hurdy gurdy man come singing songs of love….”
In the late 1970s, I was asked to compose a set of seasonal ceremonies for the Alexandrian Wiccan coven of which I was a member. One thing that struck me as soon as I started researching for Midwinter was that none of our ancestors seem to have celebrated the winter solstice which normally falls on December 21st, but many celebrated on December 25th, a few days later. Similarly, Midsummer’s Day, the traditional date of Midsummer celebrations across the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe, falls on June 24th, not on the summer solstice, which usually occurs on the 21st. Solstices represent the midpoints of the solar standstills that occur twice a year and span about five days when the sun’s apparent rising and setting positions on the horizon don’t visibly move. It puzzled me that modern Pagans seem to celebrate the solstices and not a few days later, in keeping with ancient practice.
Answers emerged in the 1990s through the researches of Ronald Hutton, Steve Wilson and others. Steve Wilson was among those researching the origins of the eight seasonal celebrations that are a feature of modern Paganism, certainly of Wicca and Druidry. They discovered that the festival cycle known to many of us as the Wheel of the Year was formulated in the late 1940s and early 50s by Gerald Gardner (right), the father of modern Witchcraft, and Philip Ross Nichols, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Both were keenly interested in Celtic folk traditions and discovered that a sequence of cross-quarter day festivals that fell between the solstices and equinoxes had been widely celebrated in Ireland under the names Beltaine, Lughnasad, Samhain and Imbolc. Each had an equivalent in English folk festivals: May Day, Lammas, Hallowe’en and Candlemas. Dubbing them Fire Festivals, Gardner incorporated them into his version of Witchcraft.
Nichols (left), who knew Gardner well, liked the balanced mandala created by the eight seasonal rites, the solstices, equinoxes and the quarter days. They gave a communal celebration roughly every six weeks throughout the year. Nichols tried to persuade his colleagues in the Ancient Druid Order to adopt the eightfold scheme but they refused, preferring to stick to celebrating only the two equinoxes and the summer solstice. The Wheel of the Year finally made its appearance in Druidry when Nichols incorporated it into the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, which he founded in 1964. Prior to the modern creation of this festival wheel, each of the festivals had been celebrated by some people in some areas, but no community or group had ever celebrated all of them.
This still leaves the mystery of why most modern Pagans now celebrate the solstices and not Midsummer’s Day and Christmas Day, as our ancestors did. To unravel this, we need to go back a little further, to the Druid revivals of the 18th century. By this time, the science of astronomy had taken over from astrology and the dates of the solstices were predictable and understood. When William Stukeley (left) surveyed Stonehenge in the 1740s, he noted the alignment of the Heel Stone with the summer solstice on June 21st. This spectacular piece of ancient engineering caught the public imagination and that of the Druid revival groups that began to emerge a few decades later so that they made the assumption that Druids celebrated the summer solstice. This in spite of the fact that a fair had long been held at Stonehenge on Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, and that the Heel Stone sunrise alignment is equally good on that day. The idea having taken hold that Druids celebrated the summer solstice, the further assumption was made that they celebrated the winter solstice too.
Ronald Hutton brought together a wide range of sources in his 1996 study of the ritual year in England, Stations of the Sun. In it, he addresses the discrepancy between ancient and modern pagans/Pagans in celebrating summer and winter. He concludes that what our ancestors actually celebrated was not the solstices, but the point a few days after the solstices when the sun’s rising and setting positions begin to move again. At Midwinter, this is the time at which the light was considered to be reborn, hence the birth of children of light at this time in various ancient pantheons.
In Druidry, many of us celebrate the rebirth of the Mabon (‘Child’), son of Modron (‘Mother’), whose story features in The Mabinogion tale of Culhwch and Olwen. The antiquity of the Mabon is affirmed by inscriptions to a god, Maponus, in Romanised Gaul and Britain and by the Lochmaben Stane, a large solitary boulder on the Scottish Borders that was formerly the focus of large regional gatherings. Modron is reflected in numerous inscriptions to the Matronae (‘Mothers’) on groups of three female deities that cover a similar geographical range to the Maponus inscriptions and appear at more-or-less the same time. Our Scandinavian ancestors celebrated Christmas Eve as Modranicht (‘Mother’s Night’) and it is likely that the Gallo-British Matronae were celebrated as giving birth to Maponus, the child of light, on the same date, the moment of his rebirth being sunrise on the old Midwinter’s Day, December 25th.
So, the doubts about the timing of modern pagan celebrations I had in the 1970s were confirmed in the 1990s, since when I have been regularly reminding anyone who’ll listen of the times when our ancestors actually celebrated Midsummer and Midwinter. How little impact my efforts have had should be plain to anyone remotely connected to modern Paganism, where greetings always go out on the solstices. Ah well, one can but try.
In the BDO courses, we recommend celebrating the original dates for the original reasons. As the popularity of our courses grows, perhaps the old ways and days will undergo a revival. My early 1990s translation of ‘awen’ as ‘the flowing spirit’ (based on what turned out to be a very inaccurate Victorian Welsh dictionary) has certainly caught on and is now used by Druids and others all over the world, so anything is possible!
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 🙂