Tag Archives: ancient druids

Crafting for Druids

When a person starts out along the Druid path, there are so many things they might potentially learn that it can all be a bit overwhelming. I don’t have (as yet) an easy route map for all of this. For those signed up to a teaching order, there’s at least a framework (The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, The British Druid Order and ADF all offer distance learning support and there are probably others). Many would-be Druids however have to go it alone.

When looking for ancient spiritual wisdom, many of us default to books. The ancient Druids didn’t write anything down, all we have is modern thinking. Arguably, there is no spiritual authority in anything any modern Druid writes. I think this is excellent because it puts the onus on each of us to find out own truth.

So, why crafting for Druids? Having traditional skills connects us in really direct ways to the lives of our ancestors. Doing the things they did will teach us about their lives and brings them closer. Traditional skills also bring a person in relationship with the living world. To make a fire, to grow vegetables, weave a basket or throw a pot you have to deal directly with real things. Too many of us have working lives that put us indoors, looking at the world through a screen and typing (I’m stuck with this too). Traditional skills ground and rebalance us. They make us a part of the living world.

Learn to do something – anything – from scratch. We’re constantly bombarded with the idea that we need labour saving, time saving for-sale interventions. There’s a radical aspect to ignoring that. Doing things from scratch gives you something unique and personal. It forms a connection between you and what you make. It allows space for creativity and inspiration. In all of this we challenge the shrink-wrapped one size fits all culture that is so stifling and destructive.

Learning a craft won’t teach you everything you need to know in order to be a modern Druid, but it will teach you a lot. The insights, like the things you make, will be entirely your own.

Writing Druid, Speaking Druid

One of the few things we know for certain about the ancient Druids, is that they did not write anything of their own down. As a modern Druid with literary inclinations, this is a bit of an issue. Part of the point of not writing everything down was probably to avoid it falling into the wrong hands. It stops your enemies having easy evidence to point at and use against you. It means your own thinking is not tied to what you wrote five years ago. Thus far I’m still ok with the kinds of things I was saying in my first books. Many of my ideas are presented as works in progress not absolute truths so I won’t have the same problems some writers would, if I then change my mind a bit!

It occurs to me that books prior to the printing press and writings of the Druid era, required drudgery. Some poor sod had to sit there and copy them by hand. There’s enough bored annotations from later copying monks to know that this was not a lovely job. Intentional or not, that the ancient druids did not write, no doubt spared a lot of people the tedium of copying everything out.

The spoken word is more immediate. You bring your whole body to the idea, and there’s an intimacy in it that comes from being in the same space and moment. Books of course transcend space and time easily and get ideas to people who would otherwise never see them. Working purely orally, you can’t do that, and you can view that as a strength or as a weakness depending on your own biases.

I’ve been a performer on and off for about 15 years. I sing, I play various instruments (mostly the bouzouki at the moment). I’ve run a folk club, I’ve busked. I do talks and workshops at Pagan events as required. Things happen between performer and audience in such spaces. Things are said that were not thought of before, and will never be said in quite that way again. It’s a living, breathing process of exchange, and because it is intense and concentrated, it can invite the awen in.

As a modern Druid I have options the ancients did not have, and I’ve chosen to use them. Even so, I can’t put in a book what it means to me to sit on a barrow for an afternoon – I can only share that bodily with others, and speak with people who are there too, or not speak, and let the silence do everything. I can also record myself as a talking presence and put that out, which is very different again from writing. I’ve a few new videos up on my youtube channel, which may be of interest. They are all things I could not have done with the written word alone.

How I came To Druidry – https://youtu.be/vK5U6DSUGEk

Druid Tabard – https://youtu.be/RzD4Q8oN2a4

A review and reading from Claire Hamilton’s Tales of the Celtic Bards – https://youtu.be/fqp5u0wu1VE

Interpreting the cranes

Poke about online and you’ll find a lot of references to the ancient Druids using ogham for divination, and as a consequence being described as having ‘Crane knowledge’. There is much to be cautious about here. Firstly the ogham itself, which might well not be ancient, and the relationship between Druids and cranes. The idea of the crane bag – a tiny bag of wisdom items carried by Druids, may be something derived wholly from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. The idea of ogham as ancient, sacred, mystical language of the Druids, and as method for divination, probably comes from there too.

I’ve read The White Goddess. I’ve also read a Peter Beresford Ellis essay on the subject of Graves’ ogham fabrications, and I’ve read Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess, which flags up many issues around Graves’ work, including the ancientness of ogham. The trouble with Graves is that his influence is widespread, and his ideas are touted around the Pagan community as ancient truth in ways that are bloody difficult to unpick.

It is therefore entirely possible that Druids did not spend any time at all reading mystical ogham messages in the flight of cranes.

However, of all the birds a person might look to for mystical signs in flight, cranes strike me as the most interesting. I’ve spent a lot of time sat in hides and windows watching birds. The thing about most birds, is that once you get to know them, there’s plenty of logic to what they do. They have methods for flying that suit their purposes. Little birds, vulnerable to predation, fall like leaves out of branches. Large winged buzzards soar on the thermals, because they can. Crows attack falcons, not to proclaim coming revolution, but to defend nests and territory. Fishing birds get active when the fish do. They have patterns that repeat over days, habits, preferences, tastes. Spend enough time watching, and the mysterious behaviour of birds resolves into something wholly intelligible.

Except for the flight of cranes, that is. I’ve seen cranes in flight a few times now. They have huge wingspans, long, delicate legs, long necks, and are capable of making a lot of shapes in the sky. Most birds tuck their feet in when in flight, but crane legs seem to get all over the place. The shapes they make are many. They also like posing when on the ground and court with a crane dance that offers all kinds of interesting moves. I would bet that what cranes do makes perfect sense to cranes, but for the observer it’s not too easy to match the shapes they make with obvious intentions. The bigger a flock of cranes, the more complex things they may seem to write across the sky. With their otherworldly calls, and their rather glamorous presence, they really do stand out as birds that might be embodying messages from the divine.

A scatter of wings and legs across a wintery sky. A flash and arc of cranes in flight as they move between feeding places. The human temptation to see a message, written in bird form. What did it say? What did it mean? To the cranes, it meant they were shifting field, for whatever reason. Did the universe pick the moment of their flight to have a little conversation with itself?

Then there were the great flocks of lapwings, weaving across the sky – an act of alarm at the possible presence of a predator, but those swirling bird forms paint the sky in ways that suggest meaning. Crows and lapwings flying across each other in the high wind, a tapestry of bird forms. Does it mean something?

The human mind is predisposed to look for patterns and meanings. That’s one of the features that has turned us into what we now are. We see meaning in randomness – as the Rorschach ink blots have taught us. We find it reassuring to have meanings, and we have a collective obsession with the idea that patterns can be interpreted to give us some control over the future. Be that patterns in currency markets, education outcomes, political policies or the flight of cranes. We really don’t want to believe that the world is a random place that has nothing to say to us. However, in our desire to impose a meaning, I wonder if we miss the subtle things that might be actually there. A lack of meaning would sometimes do a lot more to comfortably explain life, and even more critically, death, than this desire to interpret.

The thing about trees

The whole Druids-trees thing is undoubtedly my favourite available Druid cliché. I don’t do white robes, am notably lacking in the beard department and am very seldom at Stonehenge, but trees, absolutely. Any chance I get. One of the problems with the last few years of boat life, is that trees have been in short supply. There are some willows, ash, and even hawthorn along my stretch of canal, but only on one side. Being near trees is nice, but it’s not the same as under them. There’s evidence that time under trees – just 5 minutes a day, improves mental health. I find that very easy to believe.

I like willow a lot, its resilience and utility make it deeply appealing to work with. However, I’m also very partial to beech trees, and un-shockingly, I like oak, hazel and yew as well. Hey don’t grow around here much. I didn’t used to get on with yew trees, but we seem to have reached an understanding now.
Being amongst trees is very different from being near a few trees. Ancient woodland is a whole other thing again. This is more than just trees, it’s about the fungi in the soil, the undergrowth and other denizens. A proper wood is far more than just trees. This is something that bothers me with tree planting, because while, yes, you can plant trees, if you don’t have the rest of the community, it’s not a wood, just a big clump of planted trees.

If a place has been wooded in the last fifty years, a surprising amount of what it takes to really make a woodland can be sat there in the soil, waiting for the trees to show up. This awes me.
The air is different, under trees. You can smell it, and that means, as you inhale woodland air, you are also inhaling something that is of the trees. I’m not sure what it is, but I do know how much it calms and settles me, how much cleaner and more whole I feel for getting to do this. I am also affected by the softness of light in woods, especially in summer. I’ve read a lot of tree related science (Colin Tudge, The Secret Life of Trees, Diana Beresford-Kroeger The Global Forest, assorted articles). Enough to know that from a scientific perspective, the impact of trees on people is huge, and often to our benefit. Enough that, if you did not have a handle on the science, you’d have to call the power of trees magical.

I have a very keen sense that my ancestors evolved to live in close proximity with trees. I like open spaces, hill tops, open sky, but not all the time. I crave the dappled light and greenish air, the companionable rustling and the sense of peace. My absolute favourite is woodland that has water running through it. Happily, I found some of that this morning. Leaving the canal will not be hard, because I know where to find the things I need.
The ancient Druids did not have a sacred book. They had trees. Individual trees. Groves of trees. Woodlands. There are things to be learned in the company of trees that one human cannot hope to write down for the benefit of another. It’s something you breathe in, I suspect.

Peaceful protest

There’s a lot of talk on various Druid groups at the moment about both the warrior path, and the peace path. There are Druids who subscribe to both approaches. The Ancient Celts after all were not averse to a punch up, but the Druids could, it is said, step out between two armies and instruct them to stop.

I don’t think a modern Druid has much scope for stepping in front of the EDL, or other angry people, and making much progress by asking them to stop, but perhaps it would be worth a go anyway. Part of me suspects that’s a one way ticket to getting shouted at, if not thumped, but as I’ve not dealt directly with anyone from the EDL, I’m hardly in a position to comment.

I’m a rural Druid at the moment. About the closest we get to conflict within the community round here is when two tractors are trying to go in opposite directions down the same lane. This is a quiet place. No one is going to riot, or march, or do anything else. That has let me off the hook a bit, and not having a car I’m not well placed to travel to where there are problems.

What would I do if there was unrest on my doorstep? I think it would depend a lot on the nature of the unrest. There are plenty of things I think need protesting about and that I would march over, were there anyone around to influence. The sheep are pretty disinterested on this subject, although my local badgers are developing an unfortunately large degree of political awareness, I suspect.

I would not take arms, or go out expecting to fight. Partly because I am woefully out of practice, partly because a quarterstaff would draw all the wrong sort of attention in the first place, partly because I have no desire to hit anyone. I would like to think that if it came down to it, if people where I lived were marching with hatred and an intention to do violence, I would find in myself the courage to take my body into that space and simply put my flesh in their way. Not aggressively, but accepting the likelihood of violence in order to slow down, protect, discourage.

It’s one of those things. Until we are tested, all the ideas about what we *might* do are hypothetical. Would I have the courage to face being arrested if honour demanded that I put myself in opposition to the police? I think about activists who have gone to court, and sometimes won, standing up for the idea that powerful entities do not have the right to run roughshod over individuals. Would I be brave enough to do that? I think of the three women in Woolwich who tackled the psychos still holding weapons, who had killed Lee Rigby. Do I have what it takes to walk forward in such a situation?

I do not know.

We only find out whether we can truly walk our talk when we are tested to our limits and beyond. What I do know, is how grateful I am for the times when I am not being tested, when I am not overwhelmed by impossible choices or being asked to put my life on the line for honour or justice. Some people do that every day in their normal line of work, and I am deeply grateful to them for shouldering that weight for the sake of the rest of us.

Bubbling Up

This week’s instalment of Theo Wildcroft’s Sacred Body series contains my favourite bit – the idea of Bubbling Up https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/sacred-body-part-2-bubbling/. I’ve been studying Druidry for some time now, I’ve read Blood and Mistletoe, I’m conscious of the flaws in writing about Druids from the time and the likely weaknesses of mediaeval texts as source material. For some, that pretty much makes impossible the idea of authentic modern Druidry. However, the one idea I keep coming back to, is that the ancient Celts got their Druidry from somewhere. Not in the sense of revelation, monotheistic style (I assume). My belief is that ancient Celts got their Druidry from the land, the rivers and trees, the mountains, the cranes, aurochs, badgers, buzzards, mice and so forth. Most of that is still here.

Like Theo, I am conscious of how many artificial structures surround our daily lives. Sat here in my metal boat, with this box of plastic wizardry on my knees, typing words that will be read by people I’ve never met… we’ve created a rather fantastical and unreal sort of world. And yet… every few seconds I inhale. Air, one of the elements, with me moment to moment. Real. My boat depends on a stove for heating, I cook on gas. There’s fire in my life, every day, another element, another realness. Water, hopefully on the outside of the boat. The earth is right next to the canal, I tread on it regularly. The sky is above me every day. My food came from plants that lived, grew in soil, experienced light. If I raise my head I can see the willows, thinking about leafing, tentatively getting busy out there. Even in my constructed, human environment, nature is present. I also notice that the moss growing on my boat’s fenders do not see human construct, just a place to call home. Birds shit on the roof just as they would on the ground. I may see a human construct, but to the rest of nature, it shows every sign of just being more environment. Maybe a bit sterile and drab, but the spiders do their best to correct this.

It’s terribly easy to go ‘ooh, nature is my sacred text’ and then not really do anything with that. What can you do? It’s out there, we’re in here… and as long as we see the divide, holding ourselves as separate, we are separate.

For the ancient Celts, survival meant understanding the natural world. This soil. That tree. Those weather conditions. All of it immediate, some of it longer term – when to plant, when to harvest, what to kill and what to leave. I don’t claim to know what the ancient Druids got up to, but understanding nature must have been in the mix. That doesn’t have to mean placing ourselves on the outside with a clipboard. You can stand on the shore and watch the sea, or you can get in it and learn how to rise and fall with the waves. Or you can drown.

Druidry, for me, is increasingly about participating. Not standing back as an intellectual observer, but being in the scene, in the moment, acting and reacting, and paying attention. This land, that tree, another seagull crapping on my boat…

Revival revival

Much of modern Druidry comes not from the ancient Druids, but from the revival Druids – and that great fraudster Iolo Morganwg in particular. The period of revival Druidry (read Ronald Hutton if this is unfamiliar territory) was both mad and wild. Speculation about ancient sites, mediaeval texts, invention of texts by Morganwg, and a wider culture full of secret societies, curious regalia and funny handshakes made for a crazy sort of time.

These days we have far better scholarship and everything has settled down a bit. While I’m all in favour of the more rigorous scholarship, we have lost something. That energy of mad creativity has gone, on the whole. Now, back in the day if you wanted to get all inventive you’d probably start by inventing an even more ancient and venerable history for you group, book, dining table, than anyone else had in order to establish seniority. I think we all know what the score is now, so those games should not be revived unless you’re being shamelessly tongue in cheek about the whole thing. (With all due reference to my most excellent colleagues, the Time-travelling Order of Ancient Druids, or Toads, definitively more ancient than anyone else!)

It is possible to innovate honestly, without needing to imagine a historical basis. We might look to our relationship with our specific bit of land, to invent a Druidry that is totally about where we are, responding to local flora, fauna, seasons and quirks. We might look at our ancestors of land, and innovate based on them. We might think about what else goes on where we are, and Druid our way into it. This would in turn inform how we do ritual and everything else.

The revival folk went in for costume in a way that puts our occasional white robes to shame. I’m not wild for robes, they aren’t very practical, but the whole ‘robes’ thing comes from a revival mistake about statues of Greek philosophers (Hutton again). We don’t really have a strong, exciting Druid aesthetic, in terms of how we might dress, or what imagery we stick on our book covers, or next to articles. Trees feature a lot, but there is no reason to get comfy with what is, in essence, a pretty dull visual tradition at the moment. We could do something. We could invent something new. We could have a really cool Druid aesthetic.

While we’re on the subject, we don’t have many prayers, or Druidic works of fiction either. We don’t have enough teachers or celebrants, and we don’t do enough real world stuff (yes, I know, I’m blogging….) We’ve settled into this comfy place of 8 festivals, a couple of prayers, a fairly staid way of doing ritual, and optional white robes. We’re rather inoffensive, and if you look at us collectively, we are a lot more bland than our Druid revival ancestors.

About the only thing you cannot safely accuse the revival era Druids of being, was bland.

Which brings me round to Steampunk, anachronism, fakelore and making stuff up. (What is a Secret Order of Steampunk Druids for, anyway?) If you aren’t mad for Steampunk, we can just come back to that central theme of the awen, inspiration and creativity. We can bring all that stuff to how we do our Druidry. We don’t have to get everything we do out of books or from courses. We don’t have to do it the way everyone else does it. Most importantly, that ‘stuff we all do’ the truth against the world and swearing by peace and love to stand, the awen and all that? Revival Druidry, for the greater part. Not ancient Druidry, not unassailable truth about what it means to be a Druid, just people making stuff up. We are people, and we ought to be perfectly capable of making stuff up.

That’s an invitation to listen deeply, to respond, to understand, to see the need and answer it. If Druidry is more, really, than people making stuff up and wearing silly costumes, then it comes from somewhere. It comes from the land and our experience of being human. It comes, I think, from deliberate and soulful interaction with the world. We should be doing that thing. I want to look to the revival folk for the inspiration of their energy and creativity, not to replicate what they were playing with.

What makes a Druid?

Following on from Those other people who should not be Druids, and the many fascinating and thought-inspiring comments. What makes a Druid?
It isn’t the name, really. We aren’t even sure where ‘Druid’ comes from as a word – there are many theories – and we don’t entirely know what it means, and we don’t know what the Druids called themselves, although we have guesses there too.

It isn’t the robes (those came from a mistake about some statues of Greek philosophers, apparently) or the beards, and it can’t be the gold sickles because no one has ever found one, and they wouldn’t work anyway.
I’m guessing that in ancient history, you were a Druid if you’d been taught by Druids and those who were already established said that you could be. Although given the speed of travel and communication in the ancient world and the general tendency of people to hive off and start new things, I’m also prepared to bet that even then, there was more than one kind of Druidry about, and probably a fair number of people who hadn’t got *proper* Druid qualifications and still used the title, or who were called it by people who assumed they were because they did the job. Even with the best organised system of education and regulation, there are still people who make stuff up and claim to be things they are not and I doubt that’s anything new. There are also people who just intrinsically are something, and for whom the piece of paper that confirms it hardly seems appropriate.

Buzzard commented yesterday that Druidry is heartfelt, and Symbian remarked on the importance of caring about what we do and giving it our best. Only in the safety of our own heads do we know what we’ve done, and whether we did it well or not. You can have a qualification and only the most superficial understanding of how to do the job. With the right coaching, you can fake a pass at most things, when you wouldn’t be able to sustain the work alone. This is not purely a Druid issue. How is anybody an anything? What makes me an author? What makes my bloke an artist? So often in life the titles aren’t really handed out. Anyone can write a book, does that mean everyone can realistically claim to be ‘an author’? As Wendy pointed out yesterday, many titles are so diluted as to be meaningless.

Part of me likes that. I’m not keen on authority, and the weakening of titles weakens arbitrary authority too. Part of me finds it frustrating, because the multiplying of meaningless titles makes it harder to see where the good stuff is, and makes the accolades less meaningful where they are deserved. On the plus side it means we’re all called upon to pay attention, to judge people by their actions and not the bit of paper (thank you Silverbear). We are all thinking creatures, and we can think for ourselves. When it comes to making judgements about what we do, and what other people do, your own mind is actually the only useful thing you’ve got. All the rest is just propaganda.

What makes a Druid? I still haven’t answered that, have I? I know what I think makes me a Druid, but that wouldn’t necessarily define anyone else. Nor should it.

Thank you everyone who shared thoughts and ideas yesterday, I greatly appreciate the comments, even if I don’t reliably respond to all of them.

Without a script

I want to talk today about the importance of not depending on a bit of paper in ritual. We don’t know much about the ancient Druids, one of the few things there is no doubt about is that theirs was an oral tradition. Bards and Druids alike expected to dedicate a lot of material to memory. This is a good thing, it means you have the words with you wherever you go, and no one can take them from you. I do understand that modern life tends not to encourage the hard work involved, but if you are serious about Druidry, this is a great place to start with really, seriously, doing it.

Paper is a problem in many ways. In low light, rain and wind, it can be unreadable, so if you were depending on it, you may be stuffed. It is a literal barrier between you and everyone else, it may seem small, but you will try to hide behind it. When you’re reading, you’re thinking about reading, not the meaning, not the people around you or the below or the sky above. With the words in your head, you have space to connect mentally with the space as you bring the words forth. If you’ve learned the words you’ve given time to pondering their depth and meaning, and you will speak them with feeling, insight, understanding, you will bring them to life. Even if you stumble and muff up a bit, it will be more alive. Lastly, if you really work and still don’t feel able to go without the paper, you’ll do a far better job for having tried to learn than if you’d gone the easy road in the first place.

I’m a big advocate of speaking in the moment. This takes confidence and practice, you need to know broadly what sort of thing to be saying, and so spending time with scripts can be a good preparation. Speaking in the moment, you can invoke awen and inspiration, you can respond to what’s around you, with feeling, making sense of your ritual space, your people, your experience. A script will not give you that, ever, it’s an imposition on the moment devised in advance based on assumptions about what you will get.

Part of this is about permission to mess up. You may forget the words. You may not spontaneously spout poetry. You may pause. But, you’ll have your head up, and you’ll be present. Whether working from memory or inspiration you will inherently be honouring the Druid tradition. You’ll be more real. We all muff up, that’s fine, it’s part of the learning process. You can’t open to the awen when you’re clinging to a bit of paper for protection, it doesn’t work that way. Learn the words, or don’t, but either way, dare to trust yourself. Dare to speak your Druidry in the moment, like you mean it. The difference is huge.

Druidry outside

As a modern Druid, you may well be drawn to doing your rituals and celebrations outside. I’ve read descriptions by fellow Druids of getting soaked and frozen, being out all night, covered in mud and so forth, and I find myself wondering, is this what the ancients would have done, or is it actually both a reaction to, and a consequence of modern life?

Oddly enough what started me down this line of thought was a blog post about the archaeology of homelessness, and a dig in Bristol. Homeless people were invited to get involved, but most didn’t want to do any actual digging because they had nowhere to clean up and dry off, and so couldn’t afford to get wet and filthy in a hole in the first place. Our ancient ancestors had roofs and fires, but they didn’t have hot showers or tumble driers. Get a garment absolutely soaked, especially if it’s a wool garment, and then try to dry it, with just wringing out, and fire heat. It takes a while. Now, if you have lots of other clothes, this may be no big deal, but if you don’t… it’s a crisis.

I know runners who go out in all weathers and get soaked to the skin, and are fine with this. But they have places to dry their clothes, are not running water from a water tank for that hot shower, and I think this makes a lot of odds. I’ve been soaked to the skin a few times this winter. I have towels and changes of clothes, but what’s at a premium is drying space, and so I don’t get wet voluntarily. Not even for ritual. I can’t afford to.

I’ve also found that, since taking up residence on the boat, I’ve not felt the same need I used to, to reconnect with nature at regular intervals through the year. I’m living in such intense relationship, day to day, with the outside, that this has changed me. Light levels, weather conditions, visiting wildlife all impact directly, so there is no ‘reconnect’ issue. I’m here. Nature is all around me. I don’t especially need to sit on a hill all night to remind myself of the realities.

Our ancient ancestors owned a lot less than we do, lived far closer to the land than we do, and did not have anything resembling tumble driers. Did they go out and freeze their ancestral bottoms off, and get themselves soaked, for the sake of the Gods?

Maybe they didn’t.

Which does not invalidate our doing so, if we feel the need. If mud, cold, wet and the immediacy of living reality are not a normal part of life, those acts of reconnection are very important. You could do it by running just as well as by ritual, with the right intent and consciousness.

I’ll finish with a half remembered quote from Good Omens, in which it is observed that the female heroine, Anathema, had a mother who spent six months living in a field in order to get back to nature and understand why humans had spent thousands of years trying to get away from nature in the first place…