Tag Archives: celtic

Celtic Hospitality

We know that our Pagan ancestors considered hospitality a virtue. You don’t have to go that far back into human history for hotels, inns and other such accommodation not to exist. If you were on the road, you were dependant on the hospitality of strangers, so a lot of older cultures have all kinds of rules about the obligations between host and guest.

For most modern folk, taking in the stranger who knocks at your door is unthinkable. We see the potential danger, and that’s about it. That there are bed and breakfasts, hotels and so forth reduces the need for it in the first place.

I’m fortunate in that it is something I have been able to do repeatedly both as a guest and as a host. When you’re a not-especially-famous person doing events, accommodation is an issue. I used to run a folk club and book guests, and would often give that guest a bed for the night. It was normal, for some years, to have people I’d never met before turn up on the doorstep. I’ve also put up wandering Pagans in the same way – notably Pete Jennings and Brendan Myers.

Going to evens I’ve been accommodated by people I had never met before. It makes a huge difference if you aren’t being paid much, or the event is too small to afford accommodation. A free bed for the night makes it possible to come out ahead on small scale work, and that’s a huge blessing for people like me.

I’ve met some wonderful people this way, and had some fantastic experiences. I’ve never had a bad experience doing it. I think it helps that most of the time, my experiences of hospitality have been held by a wider community and culture.  When you are part of the same community, reputation matters and people tend to act in ways that will maintain theirs. If you mess up with this sort of thing, in a small community, people will hear about it. Equally, if you’re a good host you get a reputation as a safe house and people come back, or seek you out when they are in the area.

I think we’re better people when life requires us to cooperate and trust each other. We’re better people when other people can see and judge us, often. And life is more interesting with these sorts of opportunities.

Druidry and Animals

Modern Druidry includes quite a bit of animal lore. There’s what various people have gleaned from mediaeval Celtic sources, from folklore, folk song and other sources no doubt more and less historically accurate. Like most Pagan paths, our creature lore tends to focus on larger, higher status animals. The Druid Animal Oracle is a fine case in point here – it’s a lovely pack and I treasure my copy of it, but there’s more missing from it than is included.

So, what about all those other creatures? The ones we don’t have myths for. The ones that don’t crop up in Pagan conversations about animal spirits and Celts and whatnot? We’ve lost a lot of larger mammals from the British landscape, and these must have been significant to our ancestors. We’ve lost the stories that go with them, too. And size isn’t everything – some of our tiniest neighbours, like the earthworm, are intrinsic to life as we know it.

In the coming weeks I’m going to explore some of these creatures as best I can. I’m going to be focusing on the ones that don’t have roles in epic tales, that aren’t traditionally used as metaphors for human behaviour. I’ll be drawing mostly on personal experience and things that I have feelings about, so it’ll be a random list with no obvious logic from the outside. I’m totally open to suggestions for what to include – depending on me knowing anything at all about the being in question!

Druidry and Sacrifice

While I wasn’t raised Christian, I went to a Church of England primary school and it was there that the concept of self-sacrifice entered my consciousness. I took onboard that it was a good thing, and that we should be willing to help others even when that’s painful or difficult. I wondered, sometimes, how a person could tell when they qualified as the ‘others’ who needed helping. I did not find an answer.

I feel confident that for our Celtic ancestors, sacrifice was not self-sacrifice. It was other people, and creatures. There might have been an element of giving things up when people threw swords and bling into bodies of water, but there’s also status to be derived from ostentatiously giving things up, so I’m not sure.

When it comes to modern Druidry, we’re clearly not going to be sacrificing what is other than ourselves. As an animist, I find offerings difficult because they remain their own thing, and not you. A picked flower is not your sacrifice, it’s just a less bloody way of sacrificing something else. So we may talk instead about sacrifices of time, energy and the like. And always, there’s that question of when you get to say that perhaps making the sacrifice shouldn’t be on you. What looks like a small sacrifice to a well resourced person who lives in comfort is a much bigger deal if you don’t have those privileges.

In the past, I have made all kinds of sacrifices to Druidy. As a younger person, I repeatedly sacrificed both my bodily and mental health through my volunteering. Because sacrifice is what you do when you’re serious about your path. I can’t say it led me to any kind of spiritual experiences and it didn’t make me a better person. If sacrifice is supposed to be utterly selfless, then there’s a case for saying that regular burnout and trashing my health is good Druidry. But no matter what I did, it never really felt sacred to hurt myself like that. It just hurt.

Except I’m entirely sure it was a terrible way to carry on, and that a culture that encourages this is an awful idea. I do not, at this point in my life, believe that this kind of sacrifice is a good idea at all. I think we’re much better off looking at sacrifice in terms of rebalancing. If you have a lot, and more than you need, sacrifice. Give away. Share. Offer up. You can afford it. If you’re struggling, ill, under too much pressure, I don’t think it should be your job to make sacrifices, or for that matter to become some kind of living human sacrifice.

There was no one to tell child-me when you get to say ‘I am the one who needs helping’. We need to do this for each other. We need to avoid competing for the best excuses not to give, and we need to avoid putting pressure on people who need taking care of. We need to recognise that what we give comes at different costs, depending on circumstances. We need to keep an eye on our own privilege in terms of where we let ourselves off the hook, and what we expect of others.

The Path to Celtic Buddhism – a review

When I offered to review The Path to Celtic Buddhism by Dru, I assumed it would be a book approaching Buddhism from a Celtic perspective, because I’ve seen that before. I was entirely surprised by what this book is and where it took me.

It turns out that there is a Celtic Buddhism movement that comes from the Buddhist side – specifically Tibetan Buddhism. This is because Tibetan Buddhism has its root in Bon, an older, animistic religion that I am now eager to learn more about! Tibetan Buddhism considers it important that a person understands who they are and where they come from in order to meaningfully engage with Buddhism, because culture and background shape us, and shape what from a Buddhist perspective, are our illusions. And so a movement has emerged to look at a grounding in European identity for people of a European background wanting to explore Buddhism. This makes a lot of sense to me.

The author – Dru – tells the story of his own curious life path. Having spent time as an angry punk in his teens, he went on to spend 21 years in Trappist monasteries. As part of his monastic experience, he spent time in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery. Dru explains his transition from Trappist to Celtic Buddhist and shares some of his understanding of spiritual life. It is a fascinating read, there’s a clear sense of a man who hasn’t got a lot of ego and who is living in a profoundly spiritual state, and grappling with language to try and get the sense of that across to those of us who are not living it.

This is not a how-to book, it offers no rules or dogma, but it does gift the reader with insights and possibilities. Dru’s path is his alone, and has clearly brought him a lot of insight, but the odds are no one is going to read this and want to take exactly the same route. I like that about this book. It’s an invitation, not a guide.

I really enjoyed reading it. This is quite a raw text, it clearly hasn’t had a professional editor on it. I noticed it but did not find it a barrier to reading. This is the kind of book conventional publishers don’t do – too niche, too personal. I think there’s a lot to be learned from non-dogmatic personal testaments of experience. I don’t think this is a book for everyone, but if it sounds like your sort of thing, do check it out.

More information here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Path-Celtic-Buddhism-initiation-forgotten/dp/1978178077

Unbound Publishing, Ashael Rising

A guest blog from Shona Kinsella (requested because I’m really interested in how publishing house Unbound is doing things). Over to Shona…


My debut novel, Ashael Rising, is currently being crowd-funded through the world’s first crowd-funding publisher, Unbound.

Unbound give readers the chance to choose what books are published. You find a book you like the sound of and pledge your support. At the basic level, you get your name in a list of supporters in each edition as well as a copy of the book and the rewards go up from there, tailored to each book. When a book has reached its funding target it gets published and marketed in the same way as it would with any traditional publisher. Authors receive royalties of 50%; considerably higher than the standard 10% – 15%. Unbound is a truly innovative way to approach publishing and I’m really excited to be involved with them.

Ashael Rising is the story of a tribal filidh (healer and spiritual leader) who finds herself in the position of having to protect her people and her world from the evil Zanthar, invaders form another world who extend their own lives by feeding on the life force of all around them.

When I decided to write a novel, I knew that it would be epic fantasy, and that it would have a female protagonist, something that’s not particularly common in the genre. That was about all I knew at that point. You see, I’m a discovery writer so every day I sit down at my computer and see what words fall out. I was surprised at how much I came to love Bhearra, Ashael’s mentor and the spiritual leader of her people. I love how vibrant and complete she is and she became one of my favourite characters, despite being old enough to be my grandmother.

Iwan, a slave of the Zanthar sent to spy on Ashael’s people, started out as a plot device but as I wrote him, he came to life and demanded to have his story told. He is a man of principle, who has to walk a tightrope between protecting his mother and protecting the woman he has come to love.

As I wrote, I realised that Ashael and her people were not white, though I initially pictured them that way. I wrote a same-sex couple who are accepted and loved for who they are. I tried to imagine a community of gender equality.

I also came to realise that much of the spiritual story came from my own beliefs and experiences as a Celtic Polytheist. The Heart-Fire that serves as the heart of the community is kept burning eternally and given offerings for the gods. It reminds me of Brighid’s sacred flame. The folk even take shifts to tend their sacred flame just as I and my Cill mates do.

Bhearra’s and Ashael’s relationship with the All-Mother reflects my own relationship with Brighid, leaning on Her, serving Her, asking Her for guidance and giving Her thanks. Ashael’s certainty in the presence of the All-Mother is the same as my own certainty in Brighid’s presence in my life.

Ashael Rising is ultimately a story about balance and relationships. It explores the nature of our relationships with each other, with our gods and with the earth that we live on. It is my attempt to find a world that I would want to live in.

I can’t say for sure if this book would be accepted by a traditional publisher because Unbound is the first publisher I submitted it to. I have my doubts though. Within the fantasy adventure, there are lots of unusual aspects and that’s the kind of thing that gets books rejected. One of the reasons for that, is that traditional publishers don’t believe that there are readers for books that do things differently. With Unbound, we have the chance to prove them wrong, to show that we do want female protagonists in our fantasy, that aged characters can still be exciting, that we want PoC in the lead roles.

We have an opportunity to change publishing. I would love it if you joined me.

Find out more about Unbound and about Ashael Rising at: https://unbound.co.uk/books/ashael-rising where you can read an excerpt of the book and pledge your support.

Shona is running a prize draw at 50, 75 and 100% of her funding target. When each of these are reached, Shona will draw the name of a pledger from a hat and that person will win an Amazon gift voucher, signed page of the manuscript and a handwritten thank you note from Shona. For further details, read the post here: https://unbound.co.uk/books/ashael-rising/updates/prize-draw

You can connect with Shona on Twitter (@shona_kinsella) or Facebook as well as following her blog at www.shonakinsella.com where she blogs about the experience of being a writer, warts and all.


Bloody, bold and resolute?

My understanding of what Druidry might be, and how I might manifest it, is an ongoing project. I doubt I’ll ever settle into a state of thinking I have it figured out. It’s complicated, because we don’t have the details of ancient practice, and if we did it probably wouldn’t translate well into another setting. There are many things influencing the varied approaches to modern Druidry, too. Rationalism, Christianity, eastern religions, and shamanic traditions from around the world can all be looked to for ideas and inspiration. What is my Druidry? How am I doing it?

Meditation has always been an important part of the mix for me, but western approaches tend to stand on the shoulders of eastern ones. I don’t do well with the meditation of the empty mind. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the possibilities of calm, unattached, in the moment and the like. Occasionally I find it helpful in small doses, but as a direction to move in, I find it unsatisfying, and it makes me uneasy. My emotions are part of how my body works, my body is a manifestation of nature, and anything that moves me towards tidying up my emotional responses reduces my experience of inspiration and by extension my creativity.

Some weeks ago I saw something that affected me profoundly. I saw Robin Herne at Leaping Hare, telling a tale from Irish mythology. It was a very human story, full of pride and ambition, and jostling for position in a complex society. It was also a story about wisdom, courage and mostly avoiding either violent or cowardly outcomes. Robin laced the tale with ribald humour, and he told it with passion, bringing to life the intensity of characters for whom pride, honour, status and action all matter more than death. The story, and the manner of its telling left me thinking about who I am, and who I want to be. It’s taken me a while to process that, but coming out of a depressed patch, it’s something I want to think about.

So often, the very idea of spirituality seems to be about resolving ourselves into peaceful, unconflicted, uncomplicated, at one with everything, able to take anything calmly in our stride sort of people. Either by letting go, or by faith in deity, or the calming influences of the right practices, we can free ourselves from trouble and discomfort. I’m not that. Too much of my identity is tied up in being a bit unseelie, mournful, gothic. I’m passionate by nature and passion is not reliably peaceful. I think too much and feel too much for such a path, and I have no desire to relinquish that for a spiritual idea that not feeling what my body feels would somehow be a good thing.

I have a confession: I like trouble and discomfort far too much to want to get rid of them entirely. Not because I enjoy being ill or hurting, but because on a good day, I can respond to a challenge. Trouble tests my wits, skills, honour and abilities. Trouble is when I get the chance to do something heroic, to be more than I had thought possible. Discomfort pushes me to learn and adapt, to take onboard difficult things, to open myself to the world or to protect myself from it, depending on the lessons. Peace, comfort and stability may seem nice, but if I seek those states and try to hang on to them, how am I also to be open to the pain of others and to their challenges? I can’t get freedom from pain for terminally ill friends, I can’t magic peace for the heartbroken and depressed. I can at least be there for them and try to understand, but I have no sense this is possible unless I am willing to share their distress, and be uncomfortable too.

Do I want to offer everyone else a simple, peaceful, untroubling and uneventful sort of tranquil life? I admit that I do not. I would prefer to be the grit that makes pearls, the spur to action. I love the primal figures who step out of myths with challenges and trials for mortals. Such beings I hold as sacred. Bloody, bold and resolute seems like a good way to go.

Celtic bragging culture and stuff I did

One of the bits of Celtic tradition that I struggle with is the boasting culture. It’s not the done thing these days to leap on a table and proclaim just how bloody awesome you were recently. We may, on the whole, be a lot the poorer for this. Bragging and talking up our achievements is a joyful sort of thing to be doing if the people around you get stuck in, either cheering or offering their own counter-brags.

But then, our Celtic ancestors, by the looks of it, were not afraid to be theatrical, or full of themselves. How many of us grew up being told that modesty is a virtue, and not to be too big for your boots, and that showing off is a shameful thing and that it isn’t nice to draw attention to your own brilliance?

As an author, this is a doubly complex dance. Like every other author out there right now, I have to work to sell books. It doesn’t matter how big a name you are, how famous or how good, your publisher will expect you to get out there and sell your work, and your sales figures will drop if you don’t. People are attracted to success, will pick up books that are popular and authors who have a readership. It’s the buzz, the sense that if a lot of people think someone is good, maybe it’s worth checking them out. And so authors, and other creative folk have to go up against a culture that often says ‘be modest and self effacing’ and wave their credentials, achievements and wins about like bait in the hopes of being able to earn enough to live on.

So on one side, I’m by nature a touch shy and retiring and I find it hard to announce that I’ve done a thing, much less ask people to buy it. That habit of playing down success is hard to break, but it affects my own relationship with my achievements, and I’m interested in changing that.

So, here is a thing I did (it’s free, you can just listen online) http://nerdbong.com/nerdbongs-splendiferous-stories-slumber-s01e03-skin/

And here is Philip Carr-Gomm saying things about me that caused me to make happy squealy noises.


No martyrdom in Druidry?

I have on a number of occasions described Druidry as a tradition which does not reward or encourage martyrdom. There are no tales of Druid martyrs, and there is no encouragement to suffer. Except…

I’ve also been thinking lately about how many Celtic stories feature heroic death. Heroism was celebrated in many of our ancestral cultures – the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples were big on it too. Proper heroes risk death, for a cause, for the tribe, for glory, to uphold their honour… and may well encounter it.

Martyrdom and heroism both work on the same basic principle that acting well and upholding your beliefs regardless of the risk or cost, is more important that whether you suffer or die. We tend to see martyrdom in religious terms and heroism as more worldly, but when your spiritual path doesn’t separate the spiritual from the physical, that division isn’t worth much. Heroism suggests personal glory, martyrdom is supposed to be more self effacing… except I think we know that doesn’t hold up because religions with martyrdom elements celebrate their martyrs.

It’s not even clarified by the issue of death – yes, martyrs normally die for the cause, but the Celts invented the White Martyrdom – leaving your ancestral community for the church, which was such a huge personal sacrifice that it counted as a form of martyrdom.

In fact, regardless of which term you favour, ‘sacrifice’ or the willingness to be sacrificed is definitely part of the deal.

‘Martyr’ can be flung as an insult where ‘hero’ lends itself far less. Calling someone a martyr can imply needless suffering, a form of attention seeking, smugness, holier than thou attitudes and other less desirable things. To make ‘hero’ an insult depends on using it ironically, and does not come so easily, I find.

Both are social constructs. If no one is looking who cares as you bleed to death, you will be neither hero, nor martyr, just corpse.

I realise that I would like to be heroic. I would like to do potent, risky things for good causes. I would gladly risk my life to protect others, or to make the world a better place, but there’s just not much call for that where I am. I know other parts of the world could use heroes, but my lack of language skill, physical prowess and political insight are something of a barrier. Dying uselessly for a cause has never seems that appealing. And so, unable to express anything heroic, I step up to things that look a lot more like martyrdom. Things that come into my life as slow exercises in being stripped of skin and bled dry. It’s not proper martyrdom, because there is no one to celebrate it, the way (for example) the quiet martyrdom of many mothers of small children goes unnoticed. The martyrdom of those who go without in small ways so that others can have what they need.

It might, on the whole, be a lot easier for me if Druidry did offer a martyrdom tradition that would allow me to feel differently about what I end up doing. The concept of martyrdom can, at least, convey a degree of dignity and nobility to situations that are otherwise entirely devoid of those things.

Pagan pondering the Mediaeval

I’m in the process of reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and I think it has implications for the mediaeval texts beloved of modern Pagans. I’m very aware that I’m wading in to a topic I barely know about, so, I’m just waving a thing because it may need waving.

The first section of Don Quixote was published in 1605. It’s a satire on what was at the time a popular genre across Europe, namely the chivalric romance. By the looks of it the chivalric romance goes back to the 12th or 13th century, easily. There were enough texts and readers for a satire of it to make sense. The premise for Don Quixote is that the man has been driven out of his wits by reading too many of these things, and has come to believe they are true.

Chivalric fiction, as far as I can make out from this book, is all about your knight errant, who has to have some largely unrequited love interest and run around performing impossible feats in her name. The Arthurian myths are specifically referenced by the Spanish author, as being examples of this. I was aware of Chretian de Troys, (is that how you spell it?) and that Lancelot came to the Arthurian tradition from the French authors, but had no idea why. The answer, it would appear, is because this is a genre and it was happening across Europe. It’s like superhero fiction and romance combined. There’s magic in it, and mighty feats. There’s also a drawing on actual historical figures and events such that many romances of this genre are a tangle of the two, again, from what I can make out.

There are so many texts beloved of Pagans that were recorded in the Mediaeval period, and that purport to represent something older. I’ve read The Tain, I’ve failed to get through Le Morte D’Arthur, there’s all the wondrous Welsh stories, and they exist in a context. A genre that spanned the continent and centuries, full of heroes, epic fights, marvellous heraldry, lavish descriptions of costume, unlikely speeches, magic, impossible acts… and a tendency to draw on history for inspiration. Of course this does not rule out drawing on myths as well, authors are seldom averse to stealing good material and recycling it.
When we come to these texts as Pagans, it is often with our eyes to the ancient past, and what might be revealed, and not to the context of the stories themselves. I suspect the context matters. Genres tend to shape the ways in which stories are told, the elements you play up, the things you skip over. In this case it may explain both Lancelot and the grail myths, which always struck me as a bit shoehorned in. Maybe they were. But what else owes to literary habits of the time and not to the ancient Celts?

It occurs to me that we might have a better shot, as a community, at finding the truly old stuff in these stories, if we went in by first pinning down the rules, conventions and normalities of the chivalric romance genre, and then looked for what doesn’t fit. Giants and wizards, princess and challenges, they all fit the genre, from what I can see. I’m not sure we’d have much left. Of course that a thing fits in a time and place does not rule out its being older, but it does raise questions.
I know I have neither the time nor the skill to do the work that might be useful on this score, and I have no idea if anyone out there is working on this stuff, and from a Pagan perspective. So, I’m waiving and waiting to see what anyone else comes up with.

Druidry and western philosophy

I find myself once again thinking about the relationship between philosophy and Druidry.

Modern philosophy grew out of a tradition that goes right back to the ancient Greeks. Not the ancient Celts. Most of what we know about ancient Celtic philosophy comes from what we can extrapolate from Roman writing and mediaeval texts. At best, it’s an inexact science, but I think it would be entirely fair to say that whatever Celtic (and therefore ancient Druidic) philosophy looked like, it did not look like the history of philosophy that we now have. There’s plenty of Roman writing to suggest that the Celts had their own philosophers, and that the Druids were the thinking classes. But what did they think?

As a modern Druid, I felt pretty much obliged to poke around in philosophy. I did not enjoy the experience. To me, what I encountered felt too sterile, too abstract. That which pre-dates science is in many ways proto-science, trying to make sense of reality. In many ways the models we have now, based on empiricism, research and observation, are better models than the random guesswork of the ancients. So, while there’s an element of academic interest, it does feel a bit pointless to me getting bogged down in the history of human guesswork and confusion. I would rather turn to psychology research to ponder the workings of the human mind, than to philosophy, which depends almost exclusively on introspection and self reporting to try and make sense of mental phenomena. Again, philosophy was the proto-science for psychology. I am not at all fascinated by all the debates spawned by Christianity. I am sad about the history of fear that goes with how the church responded to thinking, I feel it’s useful to know the gist, but I have finite time, and learning the ins and outs of who burned whom when and for what bit of heresy, does not inspire me.

My feeling, undereducated in this area as I am, is that philosophy as a subject rapidly gets bogged down in its own language and habits of thought. To someone who is not an initiate of the mysteries, encountering it is often bewildering and frustrating. I ask this, what does it achieve? Are the dominant thought forms of our times driven by academic philosophy? Or by the mentality of the marketplace? Are we driven by a desire for truth, or political expediency? There seems to me to be a horrible gap between where academic philosophy goes, and where the unconsciously held philosophies that guide us all, get their power from.  I guess that makes me more interested in social science, some kind of anthropology of the here and now.

Being able to think, question and reason are liberating, powerful tools that can help us fight superstition, stupidity, short term thinking and self destructive behaviours. Most people will not turn to Plato or Spinoza for that.

I confess that I’m not that interested in who exactly came up with what about where ideas come from when pondering the issue thousands of years ago. I care about how people here, and now, think, and don’t think. I don’t see any place for Druidry, modern or historical, in the tradition we’ve got, and I wonder about the potential for new lines of philosophy. What happens if we take what we know, and start asking all the basic questions about how and why again, looking at now, looking at the future not the past, looking at need, and what would help rather than throwing energy into pondering impossible intangibles that do not help us to be better people, live richer lives or take better care of what is around us. I don’t give a shit about Kant. I don’t think he can tell me how to turn public thinking away from short term profit towards long term survival.

We need a Druid philosophy stream that is not about mainstream academic philosophy, but is about us, here and now. Maybe all that means is that we need to keep asking awkward questions in public places and challenging each other to come up with something resembling answers.