Tag Archives: celt

Modern Druidry and Priesthood

One of the most striking ideas in 20th century Paganism was that we could and perhaps should all be our own priests and priestesses. In many ways this is a wonderful idea: No submitting to someone else’s authority, no dogma, and the equality of all being able to speak to the divine on our own terms.

There are however, downsides. Being a priest or priestess is a lot of work. I’ve sauntered towards it in the past. What I notice is how often I wish there was somewhere I could easily, regularly go and just sit in, where showing up would feel meaningful. Sometimes, finding the ideas, energy and inspiration for maintaining your spiritual practice is hard. Sometimes guidance is needed, or just not having to carry the weight of the whole thing.

Of course historically, the people we tend to think of as Celts were not Druids – Druids were a group within that culture, performing specific roles. A Druid community made up entirely of people doing the Druid priest thing is going to have rather a lot of healers and diviners and all the rest of it, but perhaps not enough people focused on other things. It’s not easy being a Druid if you don’t have someone to be a Druid for. Historically, being a priest meant mediating between the divine and the people, it’s what defines that role. So, if we are all our own priests and priestess, what does that job even involve?

It’s not a question I find easy to answer. The thing about ministering is that we often need it doing for us – to be taught. To be guided through times of crisis. To be inspired and uplifted. To be healed when you need it, to be held and comforted by your path – these are really hard things to do for yourself.

Perhaps the answer is to aspire to be a part time Druid. Right now we need to re-skill and decarbonise, we need growers and makers and doers in all areas of life. To serve the earth or to serve your people or any deity associated with the natural world, I think you have to be considering climate chaos and the need to reduce consumption. We need the equality of having the right to stand as our own priests and priestesses and the right to be our own spiritual authority. That protects us all from dogma, and power gaming and gurus and all the problems that brings. But at the same time, we will all have days when we need ministering to, when we need someone else to be our Druid for a bit.

By not aspiring to be full time, and not aspiring to hold positions of authority, we might be able to have something egalitarian that is also supportive and that shares out all the different kinds of work that needs doing. I think that’s what I can see happening across the community – that full time Druids are rare and few people seem to aspire to that position any more.


The hero who was not a Celt

I love the work of author Lord Dunsany. He’s an interesting figure and nothing like as well known as he deserves to be, and his relationship with Celtic nationalism/revivalism is interesting to say the least. I’m rubbish at dates, but, Dunsany was writing up to and around the time of the First World War, making him contemporary with Yeats. He was an Irish Lord, at a time when Irish national identity was being constructed in part, through literature. W.B. Yeats being a fine example of this. I’ve read letters, I think, or excerpts of letters from Yeats to Dunsany in which he complains bitterly that Dunsany does not tap into the rich heritage of his nation, for the good of the nation.

So much of our modern notion of ‘Celtic’ nations owes everything to the nation building at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. But Dunsany wanted no part of it. He wrote about the Gods of Pagana, instead, who were wholly of his inventing. He’s one of the great grandfathers of the fantasy genre, with The King of Elfland’s Daugther far pre-dating the more famous Tolkien elves. With his lyrical style, dashes of humour and wild imagination, I think he’s brilliant. I wonder to what degree his lack of widespread current fame is due to him not being caught up in the political agenda of his day, though.

I can’t point at Lord Dunsany and claim him as a proto-Druid in the way that we like to claim Yeats retrospectively, and all those other folk working with mediaeval ‘Celtic’ myth at the time. But read his work and the love of landscape, the sense of magic, and the biting religious satires are thoroughly resonant. He reads like a pagan, to me.  Bits of more personal writing give me a sense of Dunsany as rather alone and isolated in his life and his work. There’s a mournful longing to his stories that result in me picturing him staring into the middle distance from high windows, utterly and totally alone. That may of course just be me, and not him at all, but it’s what I get.

Every time I read his work, I come away with the desire to be able to make him a nice cup of tea and say ‘well I get it, and you’re not on your own.” He writes like a man who has glimpsed the colours of faerie, who has heard the last, drifting notes of a song from the otherworld, and who would risk life and limb to see a unicorn for himself. Or anything else otherworldly for that matter.

To the best of my knowledge, Dunsany did not associate himself much with any traditions, new or old. He satirised religion, especially the Church. He was not afraid to mock gods, but not as an atheist might, more as a man who has seen the nature of small gods, and knows their terrible limitations. Whether he would have liked it or not, Dunsany gets me as a creative descendent. He also gets Neil Gaiman, which is probably far more cheering and much less complicated.

He chose not to be an overtly Celtic, druid revivalist type at a time when to do so would probably have done his writing career an abundance of good. Instead, he kept dancing to his own tunes, and to those echoes of otherworldly tunes that were so evidently in his ears. He was true to his awen, and I love his work. Having Dunsany as an ancestor of tradition, given where I stand as an aspiring druid and author, is an interesting place to be. Of all the people I would like to sit down and talk with, he’s one at the top of my list. And like most ancestors of tradition, his opinion isn’t available and he has no scope to rein me in, tell me off or point me in the right direction. This is usually part of the nature of ancestry.

If my own passions are not in tune with the zeitgeist, and are not tapping in to the next big commercial thing, then so be it. Like Dunsany, I can’t be what I am not, and I’d rather follow my inspiration than shoehorn it into a shape that feels unnatural to me. And for all that he did that, Dunsany was, in his own time, prolific and successful and while he may not get the attention he deserves, he’s not lost in the mists of time yet, and hopefully never will be.


Guest Blog: Folk Magic and Folk Religion

By Nukiuk

In folk religions respect is of the utmost importance because everything has a vitality, every thing has a life and so any action will have an impact on another soul which has its own powers and its own ability to impact the world. Thus a person’s interaction with the magical world must be about seeking to have respect for one’s fellow humans, for nature, for objects, and the spirits, fairies, kami, etc that inhabit all of these.  With this in mind there are three fundamental types of spells and prayers which people use in Folk Religions.

1-Respectful Actions.
Not so much spells as a way of interacting with the things around a person to ensure that they have good luck, while avoiding bad luck. In Celtic lore such respect meant asking permission before moving a stone or cutting a tree so that the fairy within wouldn’t be offended. In Japan such respect included warning the spirits that live within the earth before peeing on the ground so that they could move out of the way and wouldn’t grow angry and curse the one who had wronged them. To utilize respect people would think about what might be offensive to nearly every object/spirit and try to mitigate it. This doesn’t usually mean not doing something, rather it means giving fair warning that one is about to do something, while apologizing and or asking permission to do it. Such respect keeps a person safe while making more likely that their spells wills succeed.

2-Charms or Spells
Charms utilize a person’s own abilities and powers as well as those of other spirits in order to achieve a goal. There are two things one must keep in mind when crafting charms and spells. First that Celtic lore states that humans are related to the fairy, thus the Celtic Folk Religions tells us that we can potentially have great abilities and knowledge. Second one must keep in mind that everything has certain powers and so these powers can be used to enhance the impact of one’s own powers.
Thus charms involve a person utilizing certain objects, herbs and or short chants in order to gain help from other powers as well as well as a short set of words or actions designed to draw out a person’s own powers (such as sympathetic actions and poems). For example, one Cornish charm used to remove corns from one’s feet called for a person to show their bare feet to the moor while telling the corns to vanish nine times.

An interesting charm of Finnish origin to prevent wasp stings is as follows;

O Siilikki, woods’ daughter-in-law, pray discipline thy wee ‘winged bird,’ hide away thy ‘feathered chick,’ bind up its wings, confine its claws, to prevent it stabbing with its pike, to prevent it sharpening its steel. Kuutar, conceal thy children now, hide, Päivätär, thy family, and follow not a wizard’s wish, don’t be made jealous by jealous folk.

This charm is interesting because in not only makes a request of a nature spirit to keep wasps away, it makes a request of two other magical beings to keep wizards from using their magic to make wasps from stinging.

3-Closer Relationships and Contracts
The most complex of all three forms of folk magic involves both the development and utilization of a relationship with spirits which in many ways can be likened to a contract. Sutras, prayers, songs, offerings and similar things were done either to create a contract between a person and spirits, deities, fairies, etc; or to honour a pre-existing contract. Songs, feats, celebrations and sutras are useful to this end because they attract spirits and fairies to a place and allow these beings to enjoy the company of humans. This is a large part of what Samhain, Beltane, Yule and similar holidays were and are.
In many cases such celebrations involved things specifically designed to invite fairies to come among the people. Yule and Beltane both involved bringing trees and greens into the village and home so that fairies and similar nature spirits would have a place to reside among humans during the festivals. Other celebrations involved actually building figures out of straw or similar materials for the spirits to reside in so that people might dance with them or make offerings to them directly.
Not all contracts are so simple to honour as creating beautiful music and celebrating an event. Often such contracts require that those humans honouring them follow a very specific set of instructions involving; chants, songs, movements, specific offerings, and formulas which must be followed to the letter. It is these more complex contracts that required druids to learn for years, even decades to learn to fulfil.

Because folk magic is about relationships rather than formulas the exact nature of any contract, charm or respectful action is based not only one what a person is trying to accomplish but whom they are requesting help from. This is why understanding the nature of fairy and deity as well as the personalities of specific fairies and deities is the most important part of folk magic.

 

 

Nukiuk is a folklorist who has been studying the relationship between Eurasian Folktales and beliefs in order to better understand the ancient religions. You can find more of his research of fairies at http://www.zeluna.net/fairies. You can review many of his resources at http://fairies.zeluna.net/p/resources.html


Religion in context

The converting tendencies of Christianity and Islam have given a perspective of the place of religion at odds with many perspectives. Most religions are not universal, nor meant to be. Judaism is the religion of a people, and I have recently discovered that Shinto is Japanese to a degree that would make a nonsense of outsiders trying to practice it. Romans venerated their Emperors. Faiths do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in a social context, as part of a culture. They may be interacting with other cultures – the relationships between Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto are, from a superficial look, clearly very complicated. The relationship between politics and religion is equally long and messy. Just think of the divinely sanctioned rulers, and the rulers who became gods.

There is a vast difference between mediaeval Christianity, and any of the modern interpretations. And I would bet at least as much difference again to the people who started it. How much of Christianity belongs in the landscape of its origin? What happens when we take a religion out of its place of origin and give it to people from a different culture? Can it hope to be the same religion? If I took up Buddhism, or Taoism, could I really follow those paths with the same depth as someone whose whole culture was steeped in them?

Then there’s issues of language. Words in translation are always imperfect, there are seldom tidy matches that carry all the same subtext and nuance. Often, there are words that just don’t exist, ideas that one language cannot embody. I see this in Buddhist writing, where words like ‘ego’ and ‘empty’ are employed to mean things that we do not usually use them to express. I have a feeling that if I read these ideas in their original language, and met those words in their true form, I could have a chance at understanding something that currently is beyond me.

I’m very conscious of not living in a Celtic culture. My blood ancestry has some Celtic in it, and, having grown up with folklore and mythology, I got steeped a bit, I feel this culture as my own heritage, which may help me. But I’m aware that I can only ever be a Druid of my time. This is one of the reasons that I think deep relationship with the land, the trees, the spirits of place, is so vital. Religions do pass through cultures and different ways of seeing the world. Something survives, but something also changes. Interesting to ask what is vital and intrinsic, and what we can afford to let go of. It’s easiest to keep the surface things like costumes and settings, hardest to keep the understandings that belong to another time, another people. But should we? How important is continuity? Should we be more concerned with who we are and what we do now? I see a risk that we will imagine continuity far more easily than we will truly find it.

The world I live in is not the world of my grandmother. My son will inherit a place that could be as different again. The language evolves continually, along with understandings of the world. Belief cannot be a constant in a changing world, belief too must inevitably be changed by everything else that we do and know. Perhaps that means that the greatest scope for Druidic thinking lies in the future, not in the past. Who knows?


Aspiring Druid, still learning

When I started exploring druidry, I read all sorts of books with content about who the druids were and what they did, and not wholly identical content about who druids are and what they do. I came to the conclusion that while modern druidry cannot be ancient druidry, in many ways it isn’t even trying. There is reason to think that the ancient druids were the learned, educated class of the Celtic peoples. Modern druidry focuses almost entirely on personal, and sometimes group spirituality. I do know plenty of individual druids who do strike out to learn other things or who are already intellectuals in their own fields though.

By the time I finished my degree I’d figured out that, while I enjoyed the learning, I hate the assessment process. It was getting in the way of the interesting stuff, and it seemed ever les relevant to me. I didn’t want marks out of a hundred, I wanted to push the boundaries of my own understanding. Since then I’ve frequently been a self taught student of all manner of subjects. I love learning. There are however, a number of ways in which a person can learn.

Skill learning, the mastering of an art, craft, instrument, or other form of physical activity. The Celts valued skill and respected their craftspeople, so I feel that this kind of learning entirely supports my more spiritual druid work. I don’t have a Celtic tribe to live in, and I cannot know what that would have been like, but I can take inspiration from what I do know about.

Fact learning can be very important when it feeds into developing a skill. It can also take a person into learning number three (bear with me). However, it’s very easy to go round acquiring facts in the same way that others might accumulate money, or possessions. Bland, irrelevant information cluttering up the mind and glittering like fool’s gold. Do we need the football results or the music charts of the last fifty years committed to memory? Do we need to know the population of Beijing? We probably don’t. The kind of fact learning good for pub quizzes and trivia games doesn’t tend to give us much else.

Then there is learning that leads to understanding. It’s like the difference between knowing all the prime numbers from zero up to a million, and knowing what a prime number is. In theory, you could commit them all to memory without knowing what they mean or why they might be interesting. Understanding is a form of learning that takes us into relationship with the subject matter. It enables us to recognise, to adapt, change, re-imagine. Fact based knowledge can be sterile, understanding is much more likely to breed creativity.

There is a tendency in modern culture to compartmentalise. We keep work, family, leisure time separate. We don’t take our spiritual lives to work, or our families to college. We divide intellect from emotion, mind from body. Most importantly, we tend to hive the spiritual life off, away from the rest of who we are and what we do. What we need to do with spiritual life, is take it other places with us, and actively seek those other places.

To be a druid is not just to sit in a tree somewhere contemplating the wonders of nature. Druids need one foot in the wild, one in the civilized world. One foot in the emotional realms, one foot in the land of intellect. One foot in the spirit planes, the other firmly on solid, material ground. One foot on the goat, the other on the well. I now have an image in my head of an eight legged octopus druid, tentacles all over the place.

Moving swiftly on… working with the intellect in any field is still druid work. It’s not separate. We’re pretty good at recognising skill learning as part of the bardic path. There are other kinds of arts I think Druids need to be studying and exploring. The art of good relationship is central. And beyond that, the occult science that is the blending of intellectual understanding with spiritual insight. I think the technical word for that is ‘wisdom’. That’s something to quest after.

I’ve just read a Catholic book on prayer and am now tackling a Protestant text on the same subject. It’s made me remember just how much I love studying, how fired up I am by working with ideas. Some of my other druid tentacles keep waving though, not letting me shift into an entirely head based view. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is just another thing to collect and horde. I keep asking, where am I going with this? What can I do with it? No grand epiphanies yet, just more signposts along the path.


Fighting trousers or bending reed?

I’ve just read Jo’s excellent post http://octopusdance.wordpress.com/2012/02/07/meh/ where she talks about achieving detachment so as to be more in control of our emotions, and our lives. She makes some very good points about the ways in which our desire to be in control of things and people we have no control of, can prompt really unhelpful emotional responses. I’m sat here nursing a bucket load of those – fear, anger, resentment, fear, more fear. I’m not good at situations where I feel entirely unable to control what’s happening in my life. I’m very tired of facing situations where assorted official bodies have the power, at least, to strip me of every last thing I care about for reasons that have a lot to do with their subjective views and my failure to be quite normal enough. Meh indeed.

In my teens I explored Tai Chi and a little Taoist philosophy. One of the ideas I encountered was of yielding rather than resisting. It underpins the Tai Chi discipline. We bend, and by doing so, overcome the force and aggression of others. In not fighting, we triumph. Now, compare that with what we get in the Celtic myths, full of strident warriors out doing crazy heroic things. Cu Chulain tied to his rock and fighting until he dies. Macha running the race that kills her. And even Rhiannon, offering to carry all comers as she takes punishment for a crime she never committed, doesn’t seem to be yielding so much as enduring. My impression of the Celts is of a proud people who, when challenged by life, faced it down or died trying. Often the latter. Assuming the mediaeval tales are any kind of insight into Celtic mythology, they suggest an ethos all about doing what honour demands, and dying if needs be. On the whole that’s easier to do when your enemy is also holding a sword, or happens to be a wild boar. Trickier when you are fighting against the hideous tides of paperwork, red tape, crazy laws, kafka-esk systems, a society that doesn’t have room for you, or any of the myriad other things a modern druid can wind up banging their head against.

The scope for going out into the world and fighting injustice with a big weapon, is not what it used to be.

While I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself a ‘druidry and something’ druid, there are other influences. Aside from the Taoism, there’s existentialism in my head, and post modernism, green politics, a fondness for rationalism, a profound respect for humanist and atheist thinking and probably a lot more. Inevitably I am to some degree a product of my own times, and my own reading.

Do I bend in the gale to avoid breaking, or do I make like a Celtic warrior and fight to the death? Nothing I am up against will give a poo either way. It’s a case of do as you’re told, or be harassed, threatened, and legally forced to comply. There are a lot of situations in which a person has no legal right to decline, or to hold an opinion. There is yielding, or being flattened. The pragmatist in me does not see a great deal to be gained in being flattened. The powers that be are indifferent to heroic gestures, or principles other than their own. I know of people who have given their lives for causes they believed in, and I have a depressing sense of how much difference that makes. Being alive, and continuing to make a nuisance of yourself appears to be more productive.

Being a druid is of course not entirely the same as being a Celtic warrior. There’s the whole peace angle to consider for a start. Usually there are other paths aside from direct conflict. Sometimes conflict is the only way. All I can hope for is the wisdom to figure out when to be a Taoist and yield before the unstoppable forces, and when to be a Celt, and dig out the fighting trousers and refuse to go quietly.

I owe the idea of Fighting Trousers to an excellent chap called Professor Elemental, who you can find on youtube, and, should. Today is not the day for donning the fighting trousers. Tomorrow, who knows?


Druid News

This week has seen a lot of drama within the druid community, with a debate sprawling across forums, facebook, blogs and probably other places too. The initial gist of it revolved around how much Celtic inspiration you need to have any right to call yourself a druid, but this developed a second debate about who has the right to assert what about druidry. The case for Celtic druidry was made passionately by Welsh Druid Kris Hughes on his blog –  http://www.kristofferhughes.co.uk/1/post/2012/01/dilute-to-taste.html He has some very valuable points to make about identity and the relationship between druidry and the Celts, although some of us – me included, do not agree with his interpretation of history.  My favourite response so far is http://bloodandbone.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/cultural-dilution-in-druidry/ which tackles much of the emotional complexity other druids may feel in facing Kris’s words. I also recommend taking a look at Bish – http://www.rosher.me.uk/wordpress/?p=776 and Red http://theanimistscraft.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/druidry-ancient-and-modern and also Damh the Bard – reflecting on his own relationship with druidry and celtica http://damh.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/proof-and-faith

I have no doubt there are other excellent posts on both sides that I’ve missed, so don’t hesitate to add links in the comments section.

While this has produced uncomfortable feelings all round and ruffled some feathers, I think it’s critically important that we are able to challenge each other and debate issues of identity and discuss the nature of druidry. However, we shouldn’t let this swamp us either, what we do as druids in our day to day life is far more important than arguing over who has the right to call who what.

 

 

Share your news

If you want to get your news mentioned here, mail brynnethnimue (at) gmail (dot) com – short and sweet is good, by all means include links. Don’t send pictures, I have a hard time of it uploading anything big and complicated. I’m happy to include events, courses, book releases, new websites, new groups, things druids have been up to, or things you’ve spotted in the news that seem relevant to the druid community. Arty, crafty, musical or literary people with stuff to sell are welcome to present themselves if they can find a news angle. I’m not averse to personal news. No witchwars content, no conspiracy theories, no ‘I know a bloke who met this guy down the pub who said…’ tales. I’m looking for good news where possible. The mainstream does plenty enough of the miserable content already.


Living History

I’ve just had a weekend full of people dressed in mediaeval gear, doing re-enactment, and living history, cooking the food, brandishing the weapons and otherwise entertaining everyone. Years ago I had a brief stint as a Viking. It’s a lot of fun, casting off your regular life, donning the exotic gear, cooking on an open fire and not washing much. At the end of the weekend you go home, to showers, normal beds, modern medicine and a total absence of rats, amongst other things. Playing at history is fun, but most of us would not choose to live there full time.

We might get closer to our Druid ancestors by dressing like them, sleeping in Celtic roundhouses, eating the same food and exploring their crafts. Anyone doing so would learn something – about themselves at the very least. The practice of Druidry itself can very easily turn into something like a living history exercise – the pageantry and costume, the gear, the heading out into the woods for a break from regular life. We might learn some ancient Celtic words to spice up rituals, we might go deep, deep into what is learnable about ancient practice. And still at the end of it we’d be going home to modern life, and we’d still be playing.

We are not living in the past, no matter how much we might imagine we want to. I have nothing against playing, re-enacting, role play games and any other kind of lighthearted dressup a person might imagine. But if we are pretending to be ancient Celts and Druids, we are not being modern druids. For all that we might learn from history, we are not living in those same social structures, we do not have the same immediacy of relationship with the land – our food comes from all over the world. We are not farming, fishing, hunting, walking and experiencing the land around us in the ways that our ancestors did. There is so much that we can’t replicate, that taking bits of it and imagining they are viable on their own, seems like madness to me. In just the same way that dressing up as Henry the Eighth for a weekend does not mean, come Monday morning, anyone at work will relate to you as a monarch.

The more historically orientated we make Druidry, the more exclusive it becomes. It’s not just about having the time to study, but the means to make or buy, own and transport kit,  the capacity to learn ancient languages, or even modern ‘celtic’ ones… Historical Druudry is impossible druidry. It so often begins by saying that the only real druids lived thousands of years ago and that we cannot use that word, or claim that identity. Proponents then often go on to demand rigorous historical study, language learning, and whatever else seems to them as relevant. I do not think that the only modern Druids should be historians. It reminds me rather of the opening to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, where the only magicians left are theoretical ones, largely because none of them dares even try any real magic.

Even if we could know everything our ancestors did, if we could replicate their lives (at the weekend) how viable, or useful would that be? We would not be them, and we would not be relevant to the world we live in. Just another subset of Celtic re-enactors, available for hire to the tourist industry and film makers. Something to peer at over a hot weekend. That would not make us Druids either.

With all due reference to those most excellent philosophers, Bill and Ted, we are here, and now. The past is not available to us, the future is ours to shape and if we spend too much time looking backwards, we’re going to miss it.