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!
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall...”
This opening line of Philip Pullman’s ‘The Northern Lights’ introduces us to one of the core concepts of the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, that humans have a sort of external soul, which Pullman calls the daemon. The daemon acts as a counsellor and guide and is intimately linked to our own life force. When we are children, our daemon can take any number of animal forms. With the onset of puberty, the daemon settles to a single animal form.
Pullman’s idea of the daemon was inspired largely by the ancient Greek use of the word to denote a benevolent, guiding spirit gifted to each of us at birth. Similar concepts exist in many other cultures, being perhaps best known in the West through the traditions of many Native American peoples.
I found my own ‘daemon’ with the help of a remarkable Dutch woman called Georgien Wybenga.
Coming from a family that accepted clairvoyance as an everyday reality, Georgien experienced a ‘shamanic crisis’ when she broke her back in 1986. Having to learn to walk again radically altered her relationship to her body and to being alive. It opened her up to new possibilities, which she began to explore with a Hungarian shaman named Jóska Soós (1921-2008). It was while attending her first shamanic circle, guided by Jóska, that Georgien first encountered her own spirit animal, a Red Fox, who has been with her ever since.
I met Georgien at the first ever OBOD camp in 1994. She and her fellow countryman, Walter, invited people to join them in creating a sweat lodge. I had heard of sweat lodges, but never experienced one. This seemed an ideal opportunity.
Sweat lodges are a contentious issue. Many Native Americans object to their use by non-native people, regarding such use as the worst kind of cultural theft. There is, however, evidence that Britain, Ireland and Europe had their own sweat lodge tradition. In Britain and Ireland, there are hundreds of piles of rocks showing signs of burning, dating from the Neolithic right through to the Iron Age. Archaeologists refer to them as burnt mounds. Many were associated with light, temporary structures similar to traditional Lakota lodges. More permanent buildings were used in British prehistory for the same purpose though, as recently revealed in the Orkneys and at the Marden henge in Wiltshire, near where I live. Stone and turf-built sweat houses continued in use in Ireland until comparatively recently. The illustration (click on it to enlarge) shows a reconstruction of a Bronze Age sweat lodge at Rathpatrick in county Kilkenny.
Georgien’s personal journey with sweat lodges began during a year-long shamanic training course in the Netherlands in 1990, with teachers including Sun Bear (First Nations, Ojibwa, 1929-1992), Jamie Sams (First Nations), Archie Fire Lame Deer (First Nations, Lakota, 1935-2001), Ailo Gaup (Sami, 1944-2014), Juan Camargo (First Nations, Inca), Annette Host (Scandinavian), Everett Burch (First Nations), Philip Carr-Gomm (Druidry), Thea Worthington (Druidry), Luisah Teish (Yoruba), Freya Aswynn (Northern tradition), Johnny Moses (First Nations, Tulalip) and others.
I’ll let Georgien take up the story:
“Archie [Lame Deer] came to the spiritual centre the Elfinbench in the Netherlands. It was the first time I attended a sweat lodge. Archie liked to set people off on the wrong foot, so often he then started the sweat at one o’clock in the morning. He honoured his tradition, so women and men were in separate lodges. We should have had the traditional 4 doors or rounds, but after 3 doors he pointed to me saying, ‘you are leading the next door.’ Total surprise, but there I went ‘cause he just got up and left!
“You will not believe that this happened to me twice. In the first sweat with Sun Bear he also asked me to lead a door, not knowing me at all. I was just a participant at that time.
“Archie always said ‘I am not teaching anybody.’ So again, I had to find my teachings just by being there, and this is how it went with all the so-called ‘teachers.’ This is how I felt I had to learn more, just from the ceremony of the sweat lodge, by giving them myself. One needs a strong urge to do some learning and I did travel around the world to find some.
“Archie brought me awareness of the power of ritual and unravelled the romantic idea we have in Europe about the First Nations. He knew a great deal about plant spirits and awoke in me an interest to want to know more about them, enhanced by Anette Host and Everett Burch, when I learned to journey to plant spirits and learn from them.
“As a person, Archie was somewhat unapproachable on first meeting, but when he got to know you better he would tell about his life in the film industry with great humour. There is a book, Gift of Power, written about his life.”
At the OBOD camp, those of us taking part in the sweat lodge committed to spending the whole day helping to prepare it. My own preparation had actually started a few days earlier when I began a fast. The day of the lodge was my fifth day of fasting. During the day, we dug a fire-pit, collected firewood, cut hazel poles to construct the lodge and built it. We were blessed and purified with smoking bundles of herbs. We were then gathered together and asked to pull a card from a deck designed by Lame Deer. The cards were spread on a canvas ground sheet and I drew Unci, the Grandmother. As I looked at the card, a vision engulfed me in which I was standing in the middle of a desert of pale orange sand under a blazing sun. The distant horizon was ringed with blue mountains. A dark spot appeared in the eastern sky. As it drew nearer, I saw that it was a huge Eagle. Swooping down, it grasped my shoulders in its claws and lifted me into the sky. We flew swiftly towards the eastern mountains, where we circled one of the snowy peaks a few times before the Eagle delivered me back to the middle of the desert. All this was completely unexpected, but, I thought, boded well for the sweat lodge to come!
We lit the huge fire to heat the rocks for the lodge, and as sheets of flame spread sparks on the evening breeze, we drummed and danced and sang. It was beautiful.
In the lodge, we did four doors, or rounds, guided by Georgien. The lodge was incredibly hot. I had no point of comparison, but folk with years of experience later told me it was the hottest they’d ever been in. Recalling it many years later, Georgien commented, “Great balls of fire! The fire was so hot that the sunglasses of our fire-keeper, Walter, melted on his head!” The heat was indeed so intense that I struggled to remain upright and conscious, and it took a real effort of will to do so.
During one of the rounds, Georgien called to the animal spirit guardians of the four quarters, as she had been taught to do by Lame Deer. One of them was Coyote in the south. This jarred with me, since we were in a field in southern England, and I was pretty sure we’d never had an indigenous Coyote population. I wondered what our native equivalent would be. In British folklore, the answer should have been Fox, since Fox fulfils the same kind of trickster role in our traditions that Coyote does for many American First Nations. The answer that came, however, was Wolf.
As soon as the word ‘Wolf’ popped into my head, a large, stocky, full-grown adult Wolf appeared in the centre of the lodge. He was curled up in the central pit that held the hot rocks from the fire. The glowing red rocks were inside his body. He raised his head and looked at me, then stood up, the hot stones still inside him. Still looking at me, he jerked his head towards the door of the lodge, gesturing for me to follow. He then walked out through the closed door of the lodge. Leaving my physical body behind me, I got up and did the same.
When we got outside, instead of a field in southern England, we were on the snow-covered lower slopes of a mountain. About a mile away from us was a dark treeline, and the Wolf padded off through the snow towards the trees. I followed, taking care to step in the Wolf’s pawprints so as to leave the pristine snow undisturbed.
We reached the edge of a thick forest of tall pine. A path ran off into the forest, vanishing into its deep shadows. A short way along the path, the Wolf stopped and turned to face me. Speaking directly into my mind, he told me I had to go back to my body, but that next time we met he would lead me deeper into the forest. I went back the way we had come, again stepping in the pawprints. Re-entering the lodge, I rejoined my body, becoming aware again of the darkness, lit only by the faint glow of the hot rocks, and of my brothers and sisters in the lodge with me. A physical memory of the snow outside stayed with me and enabled me to cope with the heat of the lodge much better.
When the lodge came to an end, I crawled out onto deliciously cool dewy grass and a starry night sky. I couldn’t stand. All I could do was roll over onto my back. Eventually, I managed to get to a water barrel by the side of the lodge and drink deep of the icy water. I felt an amazing sense of elation and a new openness to the universe. It was a genuine experience of rebirth.
Later that day, I had to conduct a ceremony for several hundred people among the ancient stones of Avebury in Wiltshire. I was so ‘blown away’ by the experience of the night, the visions, the fasting, the lack of sleep, that I seriously doubted my capacity to hold a ceremony. I intercepted Walter, our fire-keeper, as he crossed the field, told him that the night before had been my first experience of a sweat lodge and asked him how long the effects were supposed to last. He looked at me as though I were a fool or a madman, raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, forever.” I laughed, went to Avebury, and all was fine.
I also told Walter of my Wolf vision and asked what I should do about it. He said that it was traditional to find something that linked you to the animal you’d seen in your vision. I thought this pretty unlikely, never having seen a single tooth or claw, hide nor hair of a Wolf in my entire life. I should have known better. Spirit certainly did.
Eight days after the lodge, back home in Sussex, a friend invited me to a garage sale at his parents’ house. On arriving, the first thing I saw was a large animal hide draped over an old water tank. I looked at it and thought, “No, it can’t be.” But, of course, it was. A Wolfskin rug had been in the house when my friend’s parents bought it in 1947. They hadn’t liked it, so bundled it into a bag and stowed it away in the loft. There it had remained for nearly half a century, until the day of my sweat lodge vision, when my friend had found it and added it to their garage sale.
I told my friend and his mother about my Wolf vision and they gave me the hide. It was made from the hides of six Wolves, stitched together and given a woollen backing. The lanolin in the wool had preserved the skin in very good condition. I removed the backing, added a couple of ties, and made the rug into a ceremonial cloak. That's me wearing it while drumming with Georgien in 1999.
The next Pagan event I was invited to was a venison feast, ‘coincidentally’ hosted my one of my companions from the sweat lodge. I was a vegetarian at the time, but the Wolves weren’t, so I accepted the invitation. I sat at one end of the table, our host at the other. The venison had been steeped overnight in red wine. Before it was brought in, our host told us the story of how it was hunted. As the first mouthful of the tender, succulent meat slid down my throat, I felt the Wolfskins across my back and shoulders ripple with life and power as the Wolves came back to life.
All those present at the feast were leaders of Wiccan covens. As the leader of a Druid Order, I was accepted due to the fact that I had also been initiated as a High Priest of Alexandrian Wicca in the 1970s. Our host told me that one of those present at the feast returned to their coven and told them that Druids were really cool and all wore Wolfskin cloaks!
I should add that, soon after that sweat lodge at the OBOD camp, Georgien, working with myself, Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and others began the process of re-creating a native sweat tradition based on the archaeology referred to above and our understanding of our native spiritual heritage.
Many other Wolf-related ‘coincidences’ followed, including being given a native British Wolf chant, and being made a member of the drum circle of a Native American tribe who trace their descent from shape-shifting Wolves. As a result of that first sweat lodge encounter, and my subsequent work with Wolf spirit(s), I have used the craft name, Greywolf, for many years. I paint Wolves on my drums. I was given a second Wolfskin cloak.
Virtually everyone has a spirit animal who acts as a guardian, guide and teacher, whether we know it or not. I say virtually, because I once met someone who had driven his spirit animal away. He was a long-term drug addict, petty criminal and generally unpleasant person. Most of us are more fortunate, since our spirit animal helpers tend to be extremely patient and faithful. Some of us who have had the privilege of meeting our spirit animal face to face are given the opportunity to work with them on a regular basis. They can unlock many doorways for us. In my own case, among much else, Wolf brought me the ability to shape-shift.
The relationship with one’s spirit animal is a very special one, due to the intimacy of the link and the extraordinary potential for power it offers. It is an exchange. Your ‘daemon’ will look after you to the extent that you look after it. You feed it when you yourself eat. You may be given a spirit song that will help strengthen and maintain the link between you. You may find a dance that has a similar effect, perhaps replicating the movements of your animal helper.
My own journey with Wolf continues, and it all started with that sweat lodge with Georgien Wybenga.
Georgien is returning to the UK this year to offer a workshop weekend in Glastonbury devoted to spirit animals. This is a rare opportunity to work with one of the purest, most naturally gifted teachers I’ve ever encountered. At a time when almost everyone who’s ever attended a workshop now seems to be proclaiming themselves a ‘shamanic’ teacher, making it hard to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, Georgien is absolutely the genuine article. She changes lives. She certainly changed mine!
To book for the weekend, contact Esther Robles by email at email@example.com (putting ‘Georgien’s Workshop’ in the header) or ‘phone +44 (0) 7742 418219. Incidentally, if you book before April 30th you'll save £25 on the fee.
The painting at the top of this page is by Georgien.
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.
Many Druids and Pagans are vegetarian and vegan, a far greater proportion than in mainstream society. This is commonly on ethical grounds, with many rejecting the exploitation of animals by humans, whatever form that may take, whether for food, clothing manufacture, drug testing, or any other reason. There are also telling arguments that a vegetarian diet is much better for the planet than meat-eating. Despite which, even within Druidry, vegetarians and vegans are a minority, with most Druids eating meat, often locally and ethically sourced, though often not due to cost factors. Even meat-eating Druids, though, will usually have concerns about animal welfare and will happily contribute to, or act in concert with, conservation groups.
The last thirty years have seen an increasing acceptance of the concept of the Druid as animist, that is, one who sees all things as imbued with spirit, including not just humans and other animals, but plants and even apparently inanimate creatures such as rocks, clouds or stars. Seeing our human selves as part of an interlacing network of living, inspirited, intelligent beings that inhabit realms above, around and below us enhances our sense of the value of all these other lives. We see ourselves not as occupying a privileged position above, or somehow separate from, the rest of the natural world, but as a part of it. For me, this is a core aspect of being a Druid. This perspective of equality inevitably calls into question the over-exploitation of natural resources and the resulting degradation of our environment and our spirits.
The same time frame has seen an increased acceptance of the related idea of the Druid as shaman, in part meaning one who works directly with spirits, including those of animals. Many Druids who work with animal spirits have craft names that reflect this, including Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr) and Greywolf (myself). Bobcat was given her name by one of her teachers. Mine derives from a vision of a Wolf that came to me in a sweat lodge, transforming my spiritual life. I was subsequently shown that I could switch bodies with my Wolf spirit brother, experiencing for myself what it is like to be a Wolf.
Immediately after my vision, Walter, who acted as fire-keeper for the lodge, suggested I should find something physical to link me with the Wolf. This seemed incredibly unlikely. I was around 40 at the time and had never seen hide nor hair of a Wolf. However, the day after I got back from the sweat lodge, a friend invited me to a garage sale at his parents’ house. The first thing I saw on arrival was a large pelt draped over an old water tank. A closer look confirmed my first impression, that the fur was Wolf. The pelt consisted of six Wolf hides, trimmed to rectangles and stitched together as a rug. It had been in the house when my friend’s parents bought it in 1947. They hadn’t liked it, bagged it up and put it in the loft. There it stayed until the day of my vision, when my friend found it and added it the garage sale.
I told them about my vision and they gave me the hides. I removed the woollen backing, added a couple of ties and started wearing the hides as a cloak in ceremony. As a connection with Wolf spirit this exceeded my wildest expectations. The six animals who died to make that Wolf-skin rug came to me during the next Pagan event I was invited to, a venison feast hosted by Ronald Hutton. They became a pack under my Wolf alter-ego’s alpha male. I recognised my responsibility to them by ‘feeding’ them with regular ingestions of meat, despite myself having previously been a vegetarian. I wore them regularly in ceremonies. I also wore them to give talks, including some to animal welfare groups. Once I had explained the circumstances by which I acquired ‘my’ Wolves and the ways we worked together, there was never any question of our relationship being ‘wrong.’
A few years later, at a medieval re-enactment, I found a stall selling Wolf pelts, complete with faces, limbs and paws. I asked the stall-holder where they came from. He said they were Siberian and derived from a cull of animals that were elderly or sick. You can tell if a canine is sick from the state of its coat, just as you can estimate its age by the size of the pelt. The stall-holder was clearly lying or, being generous, was grossly ill-informed. This left me with a quandary: did I leave the pelts to be bought by people who might not honour the spirits of the animals who had worn them in life, or did I buy one myself, albeit at the cost of giving a substantial amount of money to a man who had, I was fairly sure, lied to me, thereby supporting a trade that involved killing healthy young wolves? I spent much of the day arguing the ethics of these options with myself and others. Eventually, honouring the animal’s spirit won out and I handed over the money, albeit with a prayer that the trade in Wolf skins would soon come to an end. International trade in Wolf pelts was restricted under a CITES agreement not long after, and I’ve never since seen a complete Wolf pelt, or even a tail, offered for sale in the UK. This is, of course, a good thing.
In 2012, at a time of family crisis, another Wolf cloak came to me, similar to the one I was given previously, only in even better condition and with longer, redder fur. I found it in an antique shop in Rye, Sussex, less than five miles from the friend’s house where I’d encountered the first one. Like that first one, it also consisted of six pelts, trimmed down and sewn together. It was of a similar vintage too, the London-based company who made it into a rug having ceased trading in the 1940s. The first cloak having become a little worn and frayed from years of use, the second arrived at precisely the right time in my life, helping to renew my relationship with Wolf spirit. It has since become my primary ceremonial cloak.
My strong feeling is that the Wolves whose hides I wear brought them to me so that I could work with them, wear them and honour them. Too many ‘coincidences’ have piled up surrounding the two Wolf-skin cloaks for that not to be the case. Plus I have the evidence of my own senses. I have seen the Wolves themselves frolicking on my bed where I keep the hides. They have also joined my Wolf alter-ego in spirit journeying. Others, of course, may think me mad or deluded. I can only report what I have seen, heard and felt.
To work successfully with animal spirits, you have to a) believe in their existence, and b) honour them. I believe that animal spirits come to us to lend us spiritual power as well as to teach and guide us, and that failing to properly honour them can lead to a loss of purpose, health and sanity. This is not something we can afford to be casual about, take for granted, or play with for effect.
In the 22 years I’ve been wearing Wolf-skins in ceremony, I’ve been criticised for doing so only by people who didn’t know how the hides were acquired and didn’t bother to ask. It would be interesting to know how many of them would have voiced similar criticisms had I been a Siberian shaman or a First Nations medicine man instead of a British Druid. I wear them not as a fashion choice or a pose, or for warmth, but as a deep, inherent and vital part of my spiritual journey, in which I am honoured to be accompanied by fellow Wolves who choose to walk the path with me.
After Wolf, the spirit animal I’ve worked with most is Eagle, and I’m blessed to have been given three beautiful Eagle feathers, gifts from a shamanic practitioner, a Druid and a shamanic Druid. The feathers were all found in the wild by the individuals who gave them to me after having been shed by their winged owners. One came from Siberia, one from an island off the Norwegian coast, the other from Australia.
In my work, I sometimes use a Cormorant wing for fanning smoke, summoning spirits of Air, or linking me with the spirit of Morfran, son of Ceridwen. In the middle of winter, many years ago, I was walking my children through a park to their primary school when I saw a dead Cormorant floating in a hole in the ice on a lake. It being a Friday, I decided that if the Cormorant was still there on Monday, that would be a sign that I should take it and work with it. Not only had it not been removed from the lake by Monday, the hole in the ice had expanded and the Cormorant had floated to the shore so that I could reach it without even having to step onto the ice.
I took it home, removed a wing and the tail, and buried the rest in my back garden with prayers for the spirit of the animal. Returning alone to the lake, I allowed my spirit to slip back a few days in time and to inhabit the body of the Cormorant, then still living. I dived with it, seeking fish below the water on which to feed. On the third dive, a fish darted off beneath the surface ice and the Cormorant followed, couldn’t get back to open water in time, and drowned. I experienced this directly, having projected my spirit into the Cormorant. I made further prayers for the Cormorant and its family, members of which stayed at the lakeside for several weeks after the drowning. I still have both wing and tail and still use them in ceremony.
Other people I know in the Druid and shamanic communities use animals who have died a natural death or as roadkill wherever possible. In my case, few Wolves are killed on the roads, our ancestors having eradicated them from Britain centuries ago through ignorance and fear.
I make drums. To do so, I fell trees for the timber hoops and use Red Deer hides for the skins. I seek permission from the spirits of the trees. The deer hides are from Bradgate Park, Britain’s oldest continuously managed deer park, enclosed since the 13th century. As an enclosed park, space is limited, limiting the number of deer that can successfully graze it and remain healthy. Since all natural predators on deer, apart from humans, have been eradicated, the number of deer born in the park always outstrips the number who die from natural causes. Therefore, to maintain the health of the herd, some animals are killed every year. Their meat is sold, raising money for the upkeep of the park and the deer. Prior to my arrival, the hides were thrown away. Now, I get them, fur on, and make them into drums and rattles. During the process, I sense from the hides that the spirits of the deer are willing to work with me, and to work with the person the drum then goes to. If it were otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.
My belief is that the spirits of the deer continue to live in this world through the drums I make, especially when they are played in ceremony. As part of the process of bringing the drum into use, I recommend that their owners travel in spirit to meet the spirits of the tree that died to make the hoop and the deer that died to make the skin, to witness their whole life cycle, through to the moment of death, to ask them to inhabit the drum, empower it and continue to live through it. Tree and deer thus maintain their place as part of the wider community of spirits that includes us as humans and all of nature.
My criteria is, as I believe it was for our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors, the absolute conviction that the plants and animals themselves are willing to work with us through giving us their parts after death. Here, in our largely secular, post-industrial society, we encounter a problem. Most people, even in Druid and Pagan circles, do not communicate either with the dead or with animals or plants, and many do not believe those of us who say that we do. There’s nothing I can do about that. I can only speak for myself and from my own experience, and pass on what the animals and plants tell me. Those who work with me through feathers, wings, fur, skin, teeth and claws, do so willingly. If they didn’t, rather than gain power through forging a bond of kinship with them, they would ensure that I lost power and suffered, mentally, spiritually and physically. In working with spirit animals, unethical behaviour will ultimately receive its just reward. By the same token, ethical behaviour brings great rewards in, among other things, expanded understanding, altered perspectives, spiritual enrichment, enhanced health and greater ability to help others.
The understanding I have gained from working with Wolves, and more especially from the experience of being a Wolf, has greatly increased my concern for the welfare of my Wolf kin in the wild. It has also increased my belief that wild Wolves should be reintroduced into the UK, beginning in Scotland. Reindeer were successfully reintroduced there some years ago and have since thrived. In the absence of predators, their numbers have increased so rapidly that there is now an annual cull, with large numbers being shot. There is a similar over-abundance of Red Deer. The reintroduction of Wolves would eliminate the need for a cull while ensuring that it is mainly weak, ill and elderly animals who were killed, thus improving the overall health of the herds.
I conclusion, while I fully support many of the arguments in favour of vegetarianism and veganism, oppose the cruel methods used to farm animals for food, and appreciate the validity of the ecological and ethical cases against farming animals for food, I will continue to work with animal spirits and with animal parts in the ways that I do. Doing so is crucial to the spiritual path I have been guided into. I am a Wolf. Although Wolves do eat berries and roots, the main part of their diet is meat. The spirit Wolves who work with me like to be fed. Shamanic friends have told me repeatedly that I must feed my Wolves. I know they are right. In order to sustain my relationship with them, I must feed them, and the food they crave most is meat.
Having come to that space between the worlds where the Wolves and I eat meat, we are also at a place where we converse regularly with other animal spirits. If they are willing to work with us, we work with them. This is my way. It is not everyone’s way, and I’m not suggesting it should be or could be. Bobcat chose a different path and adopted a vegan diet, albeit as much for reasons of health as for ethical concerns. Nevertheless, she often wore a Bobcat tail on her belt and was not averse to working with other animal parts and, through them, with the spirits of the animals from which they came. We each have our path to follow. Along the way, we must each come to ethical decisions we can live with and live by. I respect and honour those who choose paths other than mine.
by Brendan Myers
2013, Moon Books, Winchester (UK) and Washington (US)
£11.99 UK, $20.95 US Listening to religious broadcasts on BBC radio for many years, I'm frequently struck by the easy assumption of so many speakers that only monotheistic faiths have ever made any valuable contribution to culture. This despite the fact that pagans invented philosophy, democracy, scientific enquiry, medicine, representational art and much else besides. I've often thought that someone should write a book detailing the history of pagan contributions to the world in general, and the Western world in particular. Brendan Myers has written just such a book on the theme of philosophy, and a very welcome, highly readable book it is too, full of illuminating insights.
I know some folk are put off by the very mention of philosophy, thinking that a book on the subject must be dry, dusty and full of abstruse terminology and highly abstract notions that have nothing whatever to do with life as it is lived. In these areas, Myers scores very highly by not burdening his text with technical jargon, explaining with precision and clarity the terms he does use and, with warm humanity, revealing the many ways in which philosophy not only effects us, but in many ways defines us, individually and collectively. At the heart of the whole project of philosophy is the search for answers to questions concerning reality, divinity, humanity and our role in the universe, what happens to us when we die, and how should we best live our lives? With this in mind, Myers (left) introduces us to a range of philosophers, from the classical, Graeco-Roman era through to the present century, setting out with admirable brevity the ideas that are central to their philosophies. Those of us with an interest in the subject, but neither the time nor patience to wade through thousands of pages of texts in search of hidden nuggets must be hugely grateful that a writer with such a keen mind has done the wading for us, located the nuggets and set them out before us so clearly.
The philosophers we meet along the way represent a wide spectrum and some may seem like surprising inclusions. Some historians may question the inclusion of medieval texts produced in Iceland and Ireland, arguing that they were written well into the Christian era and cannot, therefore, accurately reflect pagan beliefs. Their influence on modern Pagans is, however, unquestionable, and one could convincingly argue that they deserve to be included on that score alone. That said, I am convinced that Myers has teased out from among them a set of values that is authentically pagan. We're on less contentious ground with our next batch of philosophers, beginning with the Pre-Socratics and taking in such famous names as Pythagoras (left), Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Plotinus, as well as a number of lesser known luminaries. Once again, Myers succeeds in making their contributions to human understanding readily comprehensible to any moderately intelligent reader. He places them in their historical context, outlines the various schools of philosophy they founded or influenced, and explains how they fit into the evolving scheme of human understanding of our place in the universe. This section closes with a consideration of how pagan ideas returned to the mainstream of European thought during the Renaissance, revitalising not only philosophy, but art, literature and politics. The third section introduces us to a rebellious group of free-thinkers whose work enlivened the so-called Age of Reason, from the mid-17th century through to the 19th. These include two names familiar to anyone who knows the history of Druidry; the Irishman, John Toland (1670-1722), and the Welshman, Edward Williams (right), a.k.a. Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826). Again, it's good to have such a clear, concise exposition of what these colourful characters actually believed. Others in this section include Spinoza, Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Schopenhauer and Neitzsche. As Myers admits, none of these gentlemen would have called themselves pagans, yet it's clear from what they wrote that they were part of a tradition of thought that can justifiably be described as pagan. Usually, it is a spiritual, inspirational, sometimes visionary relationship with Nature that marks them out for inclusion in this book. The next section leads us through the lives and thoughts of another disparate group of colourful eccentrics and outsiders whose thinking has had a profound influence on the modern resurgence of Paganism. These include the founder of Theosophy, H. P. Blavatsky; Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough; the poet, Robert Graves (left, with one of his muses), whose book, The White Goddess, became, despite its author's protestations, a foundational text of both modern Wicca and Druidry; Aleister Crowley, George Russell (AE), whose Candle of Vision, I learn from Myers, was written as the core manual for a Celtic magical order, the Castle of Heroes, proposed by AE's friend, W. B. Yeats; Stewart Farrar, who annotated and published the first full version of the Wiccan Book of Shadows; and Isaac Bonewits, founder of the influential American Druid group, ADF. Along the way, we are guided through the birth of American feminist Wicca, the rise of eco-spirituality and the development of the Gaia hypothesis and the Deep Ecology movement. Given the deep impact that both feminism and ecology have had, and continue to have, on our world, it is fascinating to know where, when and how they developed and to learn more about the individuals involved. We move then to living Pagan thinkers, several of whom would not describe themselves as philosophers, but whose writings have been profoundly influential on the development of Paganism in the present century. These include such well-known figures as Starhawk (Miriam Simos), Emma Restall Orr (Bobcat), John Michael Greer, Michael York, Vivianne Crowley (right), Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone. I realise that I'm less familiar with the works of Greer and York than I should be and intend to remedy that as soon as possible. It's one of the joys of books like this one that they inspire us to explore further.
I'm honestly awestruck at the sheer range of ideas included in a book just a little over 300 pages long. That they are all explained with such clarity is a huge bonus. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the enormous contributions pagans have made to human understanding, in what leading modern Pagans think and believe, and in where pagan philosophical thought might go from here. In creating this book, Brendan Myers has done a huge service to the Pagan community. Exceptional and highly recommended.
eds. Paul Davies & Caitlin Matthews
Foreword by Graham Harvey
Afterword by Ronald Hutton Moon Books, Winchester (UK) & Washington (US), 2015.
£8.99 UK, $14.95 US
This book explores how we humans in the 21st century relate to the spirits of the lands in which we live, their other-than-human inhabitants, and our collective and individual ancestors. By a series of turns of fate, I'm writing my review in the ideal setting of a quiet garden, overlooked by an ancient oak tree that occasionally drops acorns around me as a pair of hunting Buzzards circle overhead, their piercing cries borne on a soft summer breeze. Ideal because it chimes so well with the subject matter of this hugely enjoyable, informative and thought-provoking book. Each of the thirteen writers brings a unique perspective, making it an absolute pleasure to read. Remarkable for its breadth and depth, this is the best-written, most refreshingly original anthology I've come across in years, and I'm not just saying that because I wrote one of its chapters. The book opens with a foreword by Graham Harvey (right), a Pagan academic who has done much to popularise the philosophy, or life-way, of Animism amongst modern Pagans and to enhance our understanding of it. The introduction by Paul Davies, known to his friends as Oddie, follows, setting out the parameters of the book and briefly running through each of its chapters and the areas they cover. The first chapter is by my friend, colleague and long-time companion, Emma Restall Orr. It is written in her unique style, combining poetry with precision, asking searching questions about dying, death, afterlives and how we, the living, interact with the dead. As a true visionary who genuinely does see dead people pretty much all the time, she is ideally suited to her task. My own chapter follows, detailing my personal relationship with Wolf spirits and with animals as ancestors, a concept that occurs in many archaic cultures, including those that comprise the British Isles. Emma is far from the only friend and colleague in these pages. The next chapter, by Heathen academic, Jenny Blain (left), outlines a Heathen approach to ancestors, land wights and other spirit beings, particularly through the type of trance mediumship known as Seidr. Another Heathen academic, Robert Wallis, follows this with what is, for me, one of the stand-out chapters of the book and, indeed, one of the best pieces of Pagan writing I've ever read. He describes in clear, poetic prose how his practice as a Heathen intersects with every aspect of his life, weaving his spirit and spirituality into the landscape around his home in so many ways, from early morning hunting forays with his hawk companion to acknowledging the lives of the labourers who built and dwelt in the 18th century cottage he now inhabits. Honestly, this chapter is such a joy to read that I would recommend the book on the strength of it alone. It is, however, far from alone. The next chapter is by Caitlin Matthews (right) who, with her partner, John, has done so much to enhance Pagan awareness of the Celtic heritage of the British Isles. Her chapter is the first to offer specific meditation exercises aimed at enhancing our relationship with spirits of place and, through them, with the earth and the ancestral chains of being to which all living things belong. That's not to say that previous and subsequent chapters won't also encourage you to find, form and maintain new, different or enhanced relationships with the natural and spirit worlds. Each contribution is, in its own way, written with that aim in mind. Camelia Elias (right) found inspiration for her contribution in the work of Colin Murray, late chief of the Golden Section Order, who expressed his own quest for spiritual meaning in part through complex drawings interweaving symmetrical shapes with natural forms. Camelia explains this far better than I can, but I was touched to find a reference to Colin Murray here, having enjoyed meeting him briefly at a festival in Polgooth many years ago. Another outstanding contribution follows, this from Sarah Hollingham, who eloquently describes her experiences of tuning in to the spirits of the natural world as a Quaker. Her description of a Quaker group forming a circle in the open air in a field and attuning to nature through meditation reminded me so much of so many Druid camps. The more I learn about Quakers, the more I admire their approach to life. Yet another stand-out chapter follows, this by Luzie U. Wingen (left), a geneticist who offers fascinating insights into the role of genetics in carrying information across time, and how what is carried may be altered by factors that include not only the survival of the fittest, but human manipulation and also sheer dumb luck, or the lack of it. Her primary examples are wheat, from its Anatolian origins to modern mono-cultures and beyond; oak trees and the ways in which they re-colonised the British Isles after the last Ice Age, some species becoming localised while others did not; and humans, in all our diversity, sprung from a single African origin. The clarity with which she writes is an object lesson in how to make science not only approachable but compelling.
The next chapter, by David Loxley, head of The (Ancient) Druid Order, proved enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. He writes in a style that characterised New Age writing before the term New Age came into vogue, i.e. from about 1930 to around 1980. To take one example out of many, he relates the first three letters of the word 'ancestors' to the Egyptian symbol, the ankh, then goes on to claim that “The word 'ankh' is hidden in the English language in the word England, Angleland, or Ankhland.” Other equally bizarre assertions tell us that crowns worn by royalty were “originally a statement that they were representatives of the pole star on earth,” and that “shopping is a fertility rite, which we have inherited and interpreted into the past tense.” What does the latter sentence even mean? As said, I thought this school of spurious and illogical reasoning had died out decades ago. To find it here, amongst so many well-researched, well-argued pieces by other writers, merely adds to the impression of stumbling across a quaint relic of a bygone age. Then again, I suppose it has its place, if only on the grounds that The (Ancient) Druid Order were ancestral to the modern era's most successful Druid group, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. The latter are ably represented in the book's final chapter by Penny Billington (left), who has edited OBOD's Touchstone newsletter for the last fourteen years. Penny reflects on ways in which British legends are woven into our landscape and our national and personal identities, and how these affect our spiritual relationships with ourselves, our lands and our ancestors.
In this brief run-through it's impossible to give more than a fleeting glimpse of the riches this collection has to offer. It concludes with an afterword by another old friend, Professor Ronald Hutton, Britain's leading historian of Paganism. Ronald's approach to history is rigorous and demanding, so it should come as no surprise that he brings a critical eye to this book, asking probing questions of the contributors before ending with these words, “This collection of essays shows how well a language of communion with the natural world and ancient peoples can still be expressed in the current time. If we can go on to work through the issues I have raised here, then we stand a very good chance of using our beliefs to make a real impact on society at large.” To which I can only say, Awen to that, brother … and I feel a sequel coming on.
If you've ever wondered how modern Pagans and other spiritual folk are currently responding to issues to do with connecting with the spirits and the physical realities of nature and of our communal and individual ancestors, or if you are looking for ways to enhance your own relationships in these areas, then this richly rewarding, varied and profoundly inspiring book is the ideal place to look. Greywolf (Philip Shallcrass)
30th August, 2015.