Tag Archives: Ronald Hutton

If Women Rose Rooted

I’ve spent rather a lot of the last week slowly reading and thinking about Sharon Blackie’s book, If Women Rose Rooted. It’s a fascinating mix of autobiography, Celtic mythology, the stories of modern women, and the idea of the heroine’s journey.

I’ve read some Joseph Campbell, and he’s certainly very interesting, but the reduction of all story down to this idea of a hero’s journey has never agreed with me. Story should mean more than this, surely? I’ve never been able to see myself in the hero’s journey, not even when Martin Shaw reworked it so beautifully in his book ‘Snowy Tower’.

Before this starts to sound like a gender issue, I should flag up that the point at which I really started thinking about multiple narratives, was when, in 2013, I interviewed Ronald Hutton for the Moon Books blog (http://moon-books.net/blogs/ronald-hutton/) Hearing him talk about story and interpretation at the PF Wessex conference recently means this has been on my mind.

Stories shape who we are, and where we are going. What we say and how we say it can define a culture. The stories of the hero’s journey – as Sharon Blackie illustrates – are stories of adventure and conquest, triumph and dominance. These are the stories that celebrate ‘power over’, competition and winning. These stories underpin capitalism and the destructive exploitation of the planet.

I found Sharon Blackie’s book to be a fascinating and rewarding read, full of ideas that resonated with me and lessons I needed to learn. Even so, I’m not going to rush out and restyle my life along the lines of the heroine’s journey either. It’s just too gendered for me. Too defined.

What I am going to do is keep thinking about those other story shapes. There have to be other ways of writing and other kinds of stories to tell. We’ve got used to certain forms and habits in stories, certain shapes and underlying ideas about what a story should be. Not least, we favour stories that are tidy, with clear endings, clear meanings, with winners and losers. I guess people have been telling these kinds of stories for a long time, but perhaps not forever.

More about the book here – https://ifwomenroserooted.com/

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.

Chanelling the folk

For a long time it was a commonly held belief that folk customs could be assumed to contain ancient Pagan remnants. After all, the common folk are so often an illiterate, uneducated lot, not too bright… what can they do but repeat what they’ve always done? Clever people from the literate classes can interpret things into the unwitting actions of the folk people.

I’ve been doing some deep, deep work over the last few days, listening to the voices of my peasant ancestors, and this is the wisdom I have brought back to you.

We have to make our own fun, and so we make stuff up. We tell stories. Some stories are old and some are new and some are the kind of new stories that are really the old stories in new skins.

Begging is mostly illegal and shameful. None of us are beggars. Although, if you get a nice bit of greenery and a dead bird to show people, that’s not begging, that’s tradition. Sing the song, do the dance, pass the bowl round. That’s not begging either, that’s a custom and it’s heritage and thank you yes, a pint would go down very nicely just now. Got any apples? How about a nice bit of pudding? We’re very good at coming up with things that aren’t begging at all, but that result in people who have a lot of money, food and drink passing it around to those of us who don’t have quite so much.

But we’re just simple country people acting out the timeless traditions. So that’s different. If you don’t pay up, we’ll plough your drive, or piss on it, or put a rude verse in about you for next year. That’s traditional too, that’s not menacing anybody, it’s how things are done.

It’s amazing how many ancient folk traditions involve passing round a bowl or demanding refreshments. We could talk about the symbolic sharing of wealth to encourage the fertility and wellbeing of the tribe… we could shoehorn that into what we want to think ancient Paganism looked like, but I’m not convinced. I’ve been out with mumming sides, I’ve carol sung door to door. Most of the year you cannot knock on doors and demand money in exchange for a song, but in the week before Christmas, it’s fair game. Most of the year you can’t turn up in a costume and demand sweets, but on the 31st of October a lot of people will have sweets in, just in case. Penny for the guy? Ritualised begging. It’s mostly about the begging, and the sweets. I wonder how long we’ve put a skim of religion over the top of that? Because of course if you let yourself believe it’s religion or tradition, you can also pretend that the people you are ritually relieving of distress aren’t also bloody poor and in need the rest of the year.

It’s not poverty, it’s not begging, it’s traditional, and therefore the rest of the time we can pretend the need doesn’t exist. Because we’re clever and literate and we can read in the signs of ancient religion that tell us these people are just fine, and acting out ancient Pagan heritage, and not actually starving.

Most mummers these days aren’t starving, but as Christmas is the season of token-gesture charity giving, it’s worth a ponder.

(Also, I owe a lot to Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun for this.)

Of Graeme and Ancient Druids

Continuing then, with the story of what underpinned writing Druidry and the Ancestors. It was one of those serendipity things, that not long after reading Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe, I was sent some very relevant review books. Graeme K Talboys’ Way of the Druid, and The Druid Way made easy. I review quite a lot of Pagan and Druid writing for The Druid Network.

In many ways, the larger, more detailed Way of the Druid is the perfect companion to Blood and Mistletoe. Where Ronald Hutton carefully deconstructs certainty, Graeme Talboys shows the means by which something of Druidry might have survived. We’re in the realms of interpretation here, and he never creates a false impression of certainty, which I like. After the necessary doubts Blood and Mistletoe creates, Way of the Druid offers possibilities, potential, and hope.

It also made me realise a thing, and that thing turned out to be critically important.

All of history as a subject, is guesswork, story making, looking for plausible explanations. There is, as Ronald Hutton makes clear, precious little certainty. What I learned from Graeme was that I wanted to believe in the literal and dependable truth of every word he’d written. If I do that, and I carry forward in my own work, inspired by those words and by a possible path, what happens?

All we can ever hope to be, is inspired by the idea of something. Hard, solid truth is never going to be available to us, because other interpretations are also always available. Inspiration is more dependable. Which matters most, the facts, or what we do with them? Well, in terms of life lived in the present, and the future we choose to create, what we think about the past will have at least as much influence as what actually happened. What we do with history, how we use it, what we make out of it, is far more important in terms of our own, individual lives, than anything else. For some, that will manifest very precisely as a quest for truth and accuracy. For some the inspiration of the story will carry more weight. We use and subvert our own and other people’s histories in just the same way that we use and subvert other things in order to make sense of our lives, justify our actions, and craft our futures.

I figure, if I’m going to do it, I may as well do it consciously and deliberately. I may as well knowingly pick the stories and ideas I find most powerful and inspiring and work with those. I want Graeme’s vision of ancient Druids and Druid survival to be true. I have no way of knowing whether it is. I made a conscious choice to take those ideas and run with them, as though they were true. In the same way, others take inspiration from myths, from modern fairy tales like Lord of the Rings, and then there’s the glorious creative, chaotic Steampunk scene which is all about taking inspiration and having a history story that is quite deliberately not history. It’s what we want history to have been, and we have the option to make the future out of that retro-aspiration.

I have huge respect for Graeme’s work and he’s been a source of considerable inspiration to me. Not least, he made me realise that the best thing I can do is choose my story and run with it. I’ll keep following the quest for truth alongside it though, inspired by the greatest Druidic fraud, Iolo Morganwg, who claimed ‘the truth against the world’ as his motto. There is however, more than one kind of truth. Sometimes it is the soul truth, the heart truth of a story that really matters, not the technical accuracy. I think that’s why so many people find things like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings affect them so profoundly. Heart truth matters.

Out of the tension between known history, and the history we might want, came Druidry and the Ancestors. And, for added strangeness, it turns out that Graeme and I have ancestral connections, our people were close neighbours in the past! Sometimes, it’s a very small world.

My love affair with Ronald Hutton

I should begin by saying this is an entirely intellectual consideration and, so far as I know, quite entirely one sided! It began years ago with The Pagan Religions of the British Isles (can’t recall the exact title, but that’s the gist.) Stations of the Sun, confirmed me in my infatuation and I’ve been collecting the good Professor’s pagan books ever since.

There are many things I love about Ronald Hutton’s writing. His uncertainty is incredible. So much writing in all subjects is about asserting theories and showing how the evidence supports it. To read work that picks through the evidence and talks about the limits and inadequacies was a revelation for me. The very notion of uncertainty has become intrinsic to my own Druidry, and to how I think about a lot of things.

Ronald Hutton is present in his own work, in a way many academic writers aren’t. He’s not afraid to say ‘I’ and drop in personal takes, as personal takes, moments of insight and other details that lift the content out of the dry, dusty norms of academia and make it a lot more readable. I read a lot, I read widely, and I’ve crawled through many a book that claimed objective certainty. I’d rather have a sense of person and some sense of who I’m dealing with.

I love the humour. Often cutting, sometimes downright catty, there aren’t many historians who have ever made me laugh out loud. It’s a subtle sort of humour, a tad subversive, and utterly delightful.

Then I read Blood and Mistletoe. Ronald Hutton going in-depth on the history of the Druids. It was a hard read. Like many people, I came to Druidry wanting there to be a clear connection between Druidry old and new. I wanted there to be ancient wisdom, and certainty, and I wanted someone to know what it was, even if I didn’t. This book systematically stripped away many things that I had wanted to believe, and then presented the Monty Pythonesque insanity of the revival Druid movement. Reading it, and for some time afterwards, I felt lost. Where did I fit now? What did it all mean? How do I call myself a Druid and keep doing something that has meaning, in the context of all this uncertainty and more recent embarrassment?

The need to answer Blood and Mistletoe pretty much prompted me to take up the work that led to me writing Druidry and the Ancestors. I did get to swap a few emails with Ronald Hutton as I was working. I didn’t end up asking him to read the whole book because he was clearly very pressed for time, and I didn’t want to impose. He did say nice things about the bit I ran past him, for which I was hugely grateful, and it gave me the courage to keep going with what was a very difficult project.

He remains my hero.

Announcing the next book

I’ve been talking a bit about this on facebook, so I thought a blog post was probably in order too, now that dates and whatnot are confirmed. My second book on Druidry will be out in November of this year. I’ll admit I was surprised by the speed, but Moon Books are a nippy sort of oufit, not like bigger houses, where it can take years for a book to see the light of day.

So, the next one is Druidry and the Ancestors. There were a number of thoughts underpinning the choice of direction. Firstly ancestors come up in Druidry rather a lot but I’m not aware of any books tackling how we relate to our ancestry, as druids.

Secondly, I read Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe, which flags up how little we know about the ancient Druids – we have material to speculate upon, but none of it is issue-free. He also makes clear just how problematic our modern ancestors of tradition were – Iolo Morganwg and his contemporaries. When I read it I felt a powerful need to try and respond, to think about how we construct ourselves as modern Druids, conscious of our history and the problems in it, but still valid. In many ways, this book is me trying to start that process. I’m aware that Hutton’s work has changed what OBOD present to the world, and have no doubt that in coming years we will see more work that tackles the thorny subject of where we came from.

The third thing was my personal life. I spent six months in a cottage that had belonged to my family for many generations, and that had an impact on me. I’m also dealing with a child who detests his birth father, who needs to engage with his bloodlines in meaningful ways (not just my side of the family) and who needs to define himself in ways that do not relate to the birth parent he loathes. Working with pagan groups down the years I’ve been conscious for a long time that many pagans have stepped away from the beliefs of their families, and that many of us have a lot of problems with our most immediate ancestry.

So, this is not entirely a book about the Druids of old, although they are in the mix. It’s about how we think about all kinds of ancestry, how we construct ourselves, and so forth. It was not an easy book to write and I’m conscious that plenty of people might disagree with me. I’ve tested it on enough folk to be confident that it’s not wide of the mark and I have a lot of faith in my publisher and editor, but, I may be going to ruffle feathers.

But, for the extra win, I have my bloke’s art on the cover of this one. And, with all due reference to previous blogs about the covers of Druid books, yes, there’s a tree on it!

As an added bonus, it looks like I get to launch the book at a Druid muster in November, if all goes to plan. Watch this space….

Druidry and the Ancestors

Yesterday I heard from Moon Books that my new title, Druidry and the Ancestors, has a home with them. I am delighted, and feeling very inspired with the work I’m now doing on my third Druidry book (more of that another day). I thought this would be a good day to say a bit more about what I’ve been doing, and why.

It all started when I read Ronald Hutton’s ‘Blood and Mistletoe’ last year. It’s a book every druid should read. It is not comfortable, making clear the many uncertainties in what we ‘know’ about our ancient pagan ancestors, and the sheer embarrassment figures like Iolo Morganwg inspire. Dealing with our more recent Druid ancestors, is a challenge we need to step up to. Out of ambition, imagination, possible insanity, they crafted the roots of our modern practice, and many of us repeat their words without knowing what they are and where they came from. I got to the end of the book and felt an overwhelming urge to try and respond to it in some way.

In the last few years I’ve been living in a land that is full of family history for me, I even spent six months in a cottage where, including myself and my son, 7 out of the last 8 generations of my family have lived. That was a profound experience, bringing me closer to my blood ancestors. What I thought I was going to do, was write a book all about my personal experience of ancestry, recent and historical, and talk about my personal reactions to Hutton’s work.

When I’m writing non-fiction, the extent of my planning is to get down my chapter headings and a few key words as to what content I should cover. In fiction I’m a ‘panster’ working to too tight a plan in either form makes me miserable. The frequent consequence of this is that projects change as I work on them, and what I have at the end is not what I envisaged at the beginning. I got to the end of the first draft of Druidry and the Ancestors late last year, and realised I had accidentally written a history book. This, frankly, was a bit of a shock. It resulted in me doing a lot of things the wrong way round, because I then needed to do some research to fill the gaps in my knowledge and deepen my understanding. Cries for book recommendations ensued. I read a lot more pagan stuff, explored the work of Honouring the Ancient Dead, looked at laws around the dead, treatment of bones, repatriation of indigenous people, radical political history, women’s history, social history, older writers tackling paganism, bad pagan history… the research took over, and anyone so inclined can track bits of where this was going by wading through old blog posts here. It was a learning experience.

The second draft was a much more academic style piece than the first, resulting in a mix of the scholarly-ish and the personal, which may be where I’m going as a writer. I’m not an academic, I’m a mere Bachelor of the Arts, but to write the kind of topics that interest me, I’ve got to wrestle a bit with giants. I don’t want to write impersonal, authoritarian texts, and the only way to avoid that is to keep it personal and individual, I think. It makes for a curious juggling act.

I’ve had one review already, which does suggest some pagans are going to hate what I’ve done. I think I’m ok with that. I believe in what I’ve written, I’ve offered it as my take, not an ultimate truth, if it offends people… so be it. Pagan history is not what we might want it to be, but I think we need to be honest about that.

This time, I’m doing the research first (I think) and I know where I’m going (I think) and probably by the time I’ve written it, I’ll have a whole different book from the one I’m imagining now. Notes from the journey here, as they occur to me, and, thank you all for being part of this. I’ve included an acknowledgment section and it does mention how much I owe to all the people here who feed back. So if that’s you, this is a book that sort of has your name on it. And thank you.