It being May Day and the weather cool but fair, I wandered through the woods and scrambled down to a hidden hollow by the brook, where water tumbles over rocks and makes a magical sound that eases that slide into reverie in which awen flows and words emerge. With mobile phone as notebook, I jotted down the basis of this poem. It hasn't reached its finished state yet, at least I don't think it has, perhaps it never will, but I wanted to share it now, while the inspiration is still fresh. I am grateful for the gift of a poem made from just the interweaving of awen with the spirits of a special place and time... /|\
Beside the brook I sat a while
and watched the water flow
through the lichened rocks below
with rush and tumbling foam.
Astride a lichen-cushioned log
I perched and heard Sabrina’s song
as glistening waters ran their course
across the ages long.
Ancestral race, this mystery
had so sat contemplating,
this unceasing rush through time
on to an ever waiting sea.
Spirit-full and ever changing,
silver flow will make its way,
stopping not for tree or boulder,
save to skirt them both around,
for water’s wisdom is the gift
of ever finding ways anew,
unerring and unstoppable,
ageless and unwavering,
yet constantly renewed.
And so to you, great goddess,
I give thanks beside your play,
for filling all my senses
on this first day of May,
reminding me that time and tides
will bear all things away,
and for the gift of awen,
thus to weave these words in rhyme,
from mortal to immortal passed
until we merge in time.
Yale University Press, 2017
xv, 360 pages, illustrated
‘The Witch’ is a work of huge ambition, spanning tens of thousands of years and taking in every inhabited continent. The title, even including the subtitle, scarcely does it justice. While it’s main focus is on the image of the witch across time and in many cultures, it ranges far beyond that central theme, taking in religious and political history, folklore, ceremonial magic, shamanism and more, in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Its scope is an important part of the book’s raison d’etre and appeal. Rather than focus on a narrow exploration of Witchcraft trials in early modern Europe, it seeks to place the phenomenon of European witchcraft in a deeper historical and global context. In doing so it opens up new debates and offers fresh perspectives on existing ones. Few historians are better equipped for this task than Ronald Hutton, whose previous work has ranged from the Reformation to Druidry via modern Wicca and Siberian Shamanism.
In discussing witchcraft and perceptions of it, it is necessary to define what the term witchcraft has meant to most people in most cultures and at most times. In making such a definition, it is necessary to compare witchcraft with other forms of human engagement with spiritual forces including religion, shamanism and ceremonial magic. To do so requires defining each of these. This the author does with admirable lucidity. Of course, not everyone will agree with the definitions arrived at, and Hutton himself admits that they are contestable. The chosen definition of witchcraft itself may prove contentious, even though it is firmly based on the most common use of the term over many centuries, that being a means by which individuals seek to harness spiritual powers and/or magic to harm others.
For this reason alone, The Witch may prove as divisive of opinion in the Pagan community as Hutton’s previous works on the subject, The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford University Press, 1999), and Witches, Druids & King Arthur (Hambledon, 2003). For those who might get apoplectic, it is worth remembering that this is about witchcraft as commonly defined throughout history, not about the present day constructs of Wicca, ‘white’ witchcraft, ‘hereditary’ witchcraft and related Pagan traditions that were the subjects of those earlier works. Having trained in Alexandrian Wicca in the late 1970s, I have often suggested to Wiccan friends and colleagues that a simple way to improve the public image of Wicca would be to discard the use of the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ in describing themselves and what they do. Having described myself as a Druid from the mid-1970s, before joining my coven, I have long been aware of the very different public responses to the terms ‘witch’ and ‘Druid,’ the former being largely hostile, the latter largely positive, albeit tarnished in recent years by the aggressive militancy of an unfortunately vocal minority.
One of the book’s innovations is the creation of a new description of those who use magic largely to benefit others, often in return for payment, as ‘service magicians.’ This useful term covers a wide range of medicine men, witch doctors, wise women, cunning folk, shamans and the like who may use techniques similar to those attributed to witches but who use them, on the whole, benevolently rather than malevolently, defensively rather than offensively, often for reversing the perceived effects of witchcraft.
My one problem with the book results directly from its ambitious scope: even with 300 pages of text and the use of a fairly small font, there are innumerable points passed over in a single sentence about which one would like to know so much more. Just on page 224, for example, there is a brief reference to a 16th century male magician in Dorset who contacted the fairy folk “in their homes inside prehistoric burial mounds.” Living in the West Country, not too far from Dorset, I would love to know more about John Walsh, as he is named in the endnotes. The same paragraph refers to a “Susan Swapper, a reputed service magician at the Sussex port of Rye, in 1609.” I went to school in Rye for 12 years, yet had never heard of this woman and would love to know more about her. Knowing the way publishing works, I imagine that the publisher insisted on a page limit. If this is so, I wish Yale University Press had been a lot more generous with their allowance. Under the circumstances, it’s as well that the author provides nearly 50 pages of carefully referenced notes. These have led me to seek out John Walsh’s confession online and to invest £15 in the book, Rye Spirits, by Annabel Gregory (The Hedge Press, 2013), and £60 in The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, by Emma Wilby (Sussex Academic Press, 2010).
Over the years, Professor Hutton has done a great deal to inspire academic research into paganisms old and new. This book represents a summary of the current state of research into the historical figure of the witch and other magic users and, as such, also points to where gaps in our knowledge remain to be filled. From the chapter devoted to ‘Witches and Fairies,’ for example, there is clearly scope for a substantial book just on the relationship between British magic users and the fairy folk as recorded in trial documents and other sources from the mid-15th century to the 18th. Throughout this period and right across the British Isles, such relationships often involved accessing the fairy realm via earthen mounds, meeting with a fairy queen and being taught various healing techniques by the fairy folk. The fairy folk referred to are not of the tiny, Edwardian, butterfly-winged variety, but are human sized, often spirits of dead humans known to the magician, sometimes shape-shifters.
In a brief review, it is impossible to do justice to the sheer range of information contained in this book. It is stuffed to the gunwales with everything from illuminating minutiae to grand ideas, all woven together with Hutton’s accustomed skill, clarity and insight. It’s not surprising the book was twenty-five years in the making, nor that research assistants were employed to make possible the task of sifting through the vast number of works consulted.
Having read most of the author’s books since 1991’s seminal Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, I am increasingly impressed by the care with which he credits previous researchers in the fields covered. In this, as in much else, Hutton shows an unusual generosity of spirit. The present work is no exception. At each step of the way, full and fair acknowledgement is given to earlier writers and their ideas. This is part of what might be called the Hutton Project, which is not only to present histories of the various topics on which he writes, but to detail the history of those histories through reflecting on the lives and opinions of the historians who have formulated our understanding of the past.
The book is in three parts, Part 1, entitled ‘Deep Perspectives,’ consists of the first three chapters, ‘The Global Context,’ ‘The Ancient Context,’ and ‘The Shamanic Context.’ Part 2, ‘Continental Perspectives,’ consists of four chapters, ‘Ceremonial Magic – An Egyptian Legacy,’ ‘The Hosts of the Night,’ ‘What the Middle Ages Made of the Witch,’ and ‘The Early Modern Patchwork.’ Part 3, ‘British Perspectives,’ discusses ‘Witches and Fairies,’ ‘Witches and Celticity,’ and ‘Witches and Animals.’
I suspect that this is a book that will resonate in the academic study of witchcraft and magic for some time to come, helping set the agenda for future research and encouraging that research to expand its range and ambition. I certainly hope so. For the non-academic, it is not an easy read simply due to being so densely packed with information. For this reason, I suspect its impact in the modern Pagan community will be considerably less than many of Hutton’s previous works. This is unfortunate, since it offers not merely food for thought but a veritable ten course banquet.
Donovan Leitch is a forgotten superhero of ‘60s music, so deeply attuned to the era that when its core messages were abandoned by mass media and fashion in the 1970s, he was abandoned with them. In the late ‘60s, however, he was troubadour to the court of rock royalty, courted by Bob Dylan and friends with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He also produced some wonderfully innovative music that was ahead of the curve of most musicians of the time. His late 1965 LP, ‘Fairytale,’ contains two tracks, ‘Sunny Goodge Street’ and ‘Candyman,’ that overtly reference cannabis use. His classic single, ‘Sunshine Superman,’ released in December 1966 though recorded a full year earlier, was still at no. 3 in the UK singles chart in the first week of 1967. Both its sides reference LSD, the B-side being a remarkable, driving slice of prime early psychedelia called simply ‘The Trip.’
The opening lines of ‘Sunshine Superman’ are:
"Sunshine came softly through my window today Could've tripped out easy but I've changed my ways.”
This is a reminder that Donovan was not only one of the first UK musicians to embrace LSD as a means of spiritual exploration, he was also among the first to publicly abandon it in favour of transcendental meditation.
The last verse of the song references two DC comic book superheroes:
"Superman or Green Lantern ain't got nothin' on me, I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea, You you you can just sit there a-thinking on your velvet throne, About all the rainbows that you can have for your own...”
Prior to the mid-’60s, superhero comics had been considered disposable fodder fit only for pre-adolescent boys with juvenile power fantasies. This began to change when comics legends, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, introduced new kinds of superheroes at Marvel Comics. Kirby’s Fantastic Four feuded like a real family, Ditko’s Spider-Man was the kind of geek who might previously have scraped by as a teenage sidekick to a ‘proper’ superhero. Kirby’s Thor was a god of Asgard sent by his father, Odin, to walk the Earth, while Ditko’s Doctor Strange was an astrally projecting, spell-casting magician, a veritable ‘Master of the Mystic Arts.’ The comic book geek in me can’t help but note that Donovan refers to two DC heroes in the song, saying that they “ain’t got nothin’ on me.” This could be a recognition that, in the mid-’60s, the cool kids were all reading Marvel Comics with their more relateable characters and superior art. Incidentally, Kirby's Thor was my introduction to Paganism, while Ditko's Doctor Strange introduced me to many core concepts of ritual magic.
Suddenly comic books were being read and enjoyed by college students. Donovan was, I believe, the first musician to refer to this phenomenon, recognising that, for people in their teens and twenties, these colourfully costumed super-beings with their god-like powers were increasingly taking the place once occupied by the gods of more ancient mythologies. In the last verse of ‘Sunshine Superman,’ he also shows clear recognition of the fact that the popularity of superheroes was largely driven by a feeling that we could become them or, as is the case here, exceed them, by expanding our consciousness. This is the essence of what anthropologists now like to call ‘shamanism.’
Donovan, in common with other musicians of the era, perhaps more than most of them, recognised the power of music to alter perceptions and devoted his art to putting out ‘good vibrations’ into the world. This is why, 50 years on, his music still resonates, still calls on us to excel, to pursue those rainbows for the ones we love, to become the superheroes of our own life stories.
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,
the Chaga Crew /|\
and White Horse Camps /|\
PS. If I've got anything wrong or forgotten to credit anyone who should be credited, please let me know 🙂
If we truly learn by our mistakes, then I must have learned a lot over the last few months whilst struggling to master the art of drum-making. There are workshops up and down the country in which you can learn the necessary skills, but, as ever, my guiding spirits led me to do it the hard way.
My initial inspiration for wanting to try came from a film I first saw many years ago called The Shamans of the Blind Country (1981, directed by Michael Oppitz - scroll down to watch it), about shamans in a remote region of Northern Nepal. A group of them set out with a young apprentice to help him make his drum, the most important tool of his trade. First, he must dream of a tree, then lead his elders to it in the physical world. Next, to ensure that he has found the right tree, he must sleep by the base of its trunk and report any dreams he has to the elders next morning. Only if they agree is the tree felled. He found a tree, the dream was good, the tree was cut. The young apprentice and his companions then split it to make two rough, thick planks and set off back towards their village carrying them, stopping every now and then to reduce their thickness and smooth them down using a billhook, an adze and a machete (left). They make two in case one breaks when they try to bend it. Wise advice.
They dug a circular pit the size of the required drum and banged a circle of wooden stakes into its floor. One of the prepared planks was then held over a fire for a few moments (right), after which one end was hooked into the staked hole and the remainder bent around the stakes (left). When the two ends overlapped, the whole was tied tightly around to hold it in shape. It was then fixed with iron nuts and bolts, the local belief being that iron is a powerful, magical material.
This all looked reasonably simple. Ha! If simple is what you're after, buy ready-cut timber. If you want even simpler, you can buy ready-made drum hoops online for about £30. I decided to find a tree. Here it helps if you have friends who live in 80 acres of woodland. I am so blessed. I was led to a thickly wooded bank where I found a couple of tall, straight trees that looked about the right size. However, when I placed my hands on their trunks, I got no indication from them that they were willing to work with me. I moved on and found an Ash tree that looked perfect and was located right next to a broad path. This time, when I touched the tree (right), a buzzard rose up from the trees a little way off, took to the sky and flew overhead towards the West.
Further confirmation of the rightness of this tree came when felling it. I cut a notch into the downhill side with a billhook then sawed through the trunk from the other side with a bow saw. The saw went through it with amazing ease and the tree fell perfectly down the side of the path.
I had thought of attempting to split the logs myself and pare them down to the required thickness using an adze. However, while building a roundhouse a few years ago, I'd tried log splitting using a billhook and mallet. It was a hopeless failure, the split twisting in all directions. I decided then to take up the kind offer of local all-round handy-man, Ben, and resident cabinet-maker, Garth, in shaping the wood. Ben has an ingenious chainsaw rig that did the initial cutting (left), while Garth's workshop (below) provided the tools and expertise to produce strips of timber 9 feet long, 3 inches wide and ¼ inch thick. The actual length needed to make an 18” diameter drum is about 5 feet, but you need an extra foot or so to give you leverage during bending and, as an absolute beginner, I wanted to err heavily on the side of caution.
It was after the timber was sliced to size that I made my first mistake. It was beautifully flexible and I should have bent it there and then. However, it was the end of a long, hard day and mealtime beckoned. I thought the timber would be OK overnight. I was wrong. By the next morning it had lost most of its flexibility.
Nevertheless, I took the four cut lengths down to the roundhouse and tried the Nepalese shamans' technique of cooking it briefly over an open fire (left). I transferred it to my circle of stakes and tried bending it. It hadn't gone round much more than the first couple of stakes before it broke. OK, that wasn't going to work then.
I'd seen another film online in which a Native American drum-maker had hauled his timber out of a river and, without heating or any other treatment, had successfully bent it around an iron former. Right, let's try that then. Off to the Borle Brook, tributary to the River Severn with its inhabiting goddess-spirit, Sabrina. Roped the three remaining pieces together, weaving rope between them so that water would be able to circulate all around them, and put them into the Brook, holding them underwater using a conveniently placed tree root at one end and a rock at the other. The guy in the video neglected to say how long he soaked his timber for, so I figured I'd leave mine overnight and then try it. Obviously not long enough. Another break. Left the remaining two another night, then tried again. One broke, the other, with a bit of help, held. Hooray! Well, it had one split that was caught and clamped to some of the extra length I'd cunningly left. Even so, back at the workshop, I had to resort to using bolts to hold it together as well as the rawhide thongs I'd intended to use. This held it together, though at the expense of increasing the weight. Nevertheless, I had my first useable drum hoop (above) and, in fact, given that my original inspiration had been the Shamans of the Blind Country, the presence of the steel bolts was appropriate: in their part of Nepal it is traditional to add iron to every shaman's drum hoop for its magical protective properties.
I helped Garth reduced the second log to five strips of the required size. These were again roped together and placed in the caring waters of the Brook. Then I had to go home.
Tune in next time for the further adventures of a Druid drum-maker. Most of the photos are by Elaine Gregory and a couple by me, apart from the screen-shots from Shamans of the Blind Country.
Shamans of the Blind Country, Part One (be aware, this film contains images of animal sacrifice that you may find disturbing):
Shamans of the Blind Country, Part Two (be aware, this film contains images of animal sacrifice that you may find disturbing):
Recent discussions on one of the BDO's facebook pages prompted me to think again about the power of words. I say 'again' because, having grown up with a deep love of music, especially of vocal music in which the lyrics convey real depth of meaning and promote thought, and also as a ritual magician, Druid, sometime Witch and practising Druid bard, the power of words is something I've been aware of for most of my life.
Living through the near global revolution of the 1960s, it was clear that much of the fuel that kept the revolutionary flame alive was carried through the lyrics of the songs we heard every day on the radio. Overt 'protest songs' from politically aware singers obviously played their part. 'We Shall Overcome,' particularly as recorded by Pete Seeger, became an anthem for the American Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War and hippy movements. Bob Dylan's early political/social commentary songs such as 'Blowin' in the Wind,' 'With God on Our Side,' and 'It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' were hugely influential, not only on his own fans, but on virtually every subsequent pop and rock performer with anything resembling a social conscience. They inspired the most active minds of an entire generation in countries all around the world to band together under the rainbow banner of peace and love and aspire to put an end to war and bring about a better, saner world.
The later 60s saw a wave of music termed psychedelic, exploring the potential for global political change to be brought about by changes in individual and collective consciousness. Prime exponents included Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Misunderstood, The Moody Blues, The Pretty Things, Quintessence and many others. All of them used words and music with the intention of producing heightened states of consciousness in listeners. They inspired my own spiritual journey and those of millions of others, encouraging us to shake off the shackles of the material world, to see and experience worlds of spiritual wonder.
The power of words in combination with music has been explicitly understood by many significant pop and rock musicians. Brian Wilson has stated his intention to use the music of the Beach Boys to increase the amount of joy, love and beauty in the world. The ultimate expression of this is their song, 'Good Vibrations.' John Lennon recognised both his 'clout' as a former Beatle and the potential of music and lyrics to change the world, using them to promote peace through songs like 'Give Peace a Chance' and 'Happy Xmas, War is Over.' His Beatle colleague, George Harrison, inspired by his musical mentor, Ravi Shankar, used music and lyrics to promote a more spiritual world through songs such as 'Within You, Without You,' 'The Inner Light' and 'My Sweet Lord.' Quintessence had the same aim, as did the more recent band, Kula Shaker.
Spiritual paths other than Druidry have long recognised the power of language. Hinduism and Buddhism employ chanting to create spiritually heightened states. 'Shamanic' cultures around the world similarly use chanting, often with music and/or rhythm, to evoke altered states of consciousness. Norwegian band, Baalfolket, are fine exponents of this, as in their the title track from their album, 'Forandring/Change.'
The Hebraic family of religions attribute great power to speech, maintaining that God created the universe wholly or partly by speech and that one of the names of God, if spoken in a certain way, can undo creation and bring the universe to an end. Australian Aboriginal folk have traditionally held that the continued existence of the world and its inhabitants relies on songs, chants and stories being repeated at specific sites to which they relate. The magical Grimoires of medieval Europe employ the power of words in many ways, spoken aloud, written on talismans or engraved around protective circles.
Words do have power, and this is something we really should keep in mind, not least when posting our thoughts online. Despite the old saw that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me," words can and do cause real emotional hurt. They can generate anger and ill-will. Those so affected may carry these hurts with them for days, even years or whole lifetimes. On the other hand, words can also heal, bring joy, build bridges and, of course, enchant.
Words express thoughts, and what we think and say is a potent expression of who we are. There are many ways in which we can use words both to reflect who we are and to bring about change in ourselves, in others and in the world. We may, for example, choose to express positive thoughts and ideas, or alternatively, we may choose to express and, therefore, define ourselves in terms of our opposition to other people, ideas and institutions. If we choose the latter, what we say is most likely to be framed in negative terms. While this may be useful to do in our own minds, when we put it out into the world, such expressions are likely to simply generate more negativity. Stating opposition to, or dislike for, an individual or institution, will obviously lead that individual or institution to see us as being in opposition to their own ideas and beliefs and will increase their opposition to us and our ideas. They will be less willing to engage us in discussion, feeling that it would be pointless since they already know that we are in mutual opposition.
On the other hand, if we use our words to express our own ideas, not framed in terms of opposition to anyone else's but purely in terms of the kind of outcome or world that we would like to see, then we are offering an extra possibility into the world, and doing so without immediately upsetting or angering those we might see as being opposed to our ideas, but who may not actually be so, or who may be open to persuasion. Telling someone that you are opposed to them is an almost guaranteed way of ensuring that they are, and will remain that way, thereby closing off any possibility for constructive dialogue and for the change such dialogue might create. I've seen this happen again and again and it always saddens and frustrates me.
Having spent the last 6 or 7 years researching, writing and editing courses for the BDO has made me extra-conscious of the power of words. The intention of these courses is to offer a world-view that sees the universe as filled with spirit, wonder, magic and life.
Focusing so intently on words and what they convey over such a long period has caused me to review many things in my life. One result has been my choice to no longer read newspapers or watch TV news bulletins, the reason being that they promote an overwhelmingly negative view of the world and of humanity. The impression given is that virtually all human interactions are ruled by bigotry, anger and violence and that we should, therefore, be perpetually afraid of the world and of each other. This is arrant nonsense. Interacting with actual people on a one-to-one basis, you find that the vast majority of them want exactly what you want, i.e. to create a better life for themselves, their families and friends and, in doing so, to bring about a better world for everyone. This is the exact opposite of what the news media would have us believe. The disjunction between the world as it is and the world as presented on the nightly news was starkly portrayed by Simon and Garfunkel in their 1966 song, 'Silent Night/7 O'clock News.'
By ceasing to pay attention to the constant drip-feed of negativity through the printed page or TV screen, I resist buying into their false view of the world. Instead, I find myself better able to open up to its inherent beauty and to find joy in a great deal of it. Freed from repeated daily doses of negativity, I find myself more able and willing to try and make my own words, thoughts and actions more positive. What is the point, after all, in increasing the amount of negativity with which we are already bombarded on a daily basis? Is it not much, much healthier for ourselves and for the rest of the world to at least aim to increase the amount of beauty, wonder, joy and creativity in it, even if we don't always succeed? Put like that, the answer seems blindingly obvious, though you'd hardly think so to see and hear some of the garbage fed to us through the media that increasingly swamp our lives and act as a barrier to interaction with the real world, or even with our own thoughts.
I had an idea for a global internet radio station called 'Good Vibrations' after the Beach Boys' song. I wanted to fill it entirely with songs, poetry and stories designed by their creators to increase the sense of joy and wonder we should all experience in being alive on a planet so full of beauty, courage and kindness. It hasn't happened yet through lack of time, expertise and the complexity of copyright laws, but don't you think it's a great idea? If you have the time and know-how, feel free to start it up yourself. I shan't mind, especially if you invite me to DJ on it. I already have a title for my show: Greywolf's Random Radio Hour. The tracks linked to from this blog will give you some idea of what I have in mind. Maybe one day ...
In the meantime, I promise to do my very best to make all my interactions with the world as positive as they can be, not to criticise others, to praise where praise is due, and to make music, poetry, pictures and words that assist, uplift, inform and enlighten. In other words, to use my awen and its magical, transformative power for good. Being a flawed human (at least when I'm not being a wolf, eagle, snake or other creature), I doubt that I'll always succeed, for which I apologise in advance, but the intention is sincere.
As George Harrison said, “with our love, we can change the world.”
Peace, love and blessings to all,
PS. If you got all this way without following any of the links provided, please go back and try some or all of them. A lot of time and thought went into finding them and you're almost guaranteed to find something you like, find interesting, amusing, entertaining and/or just plain weird. Enjoy!