Gorse

Gorse, or Onn. My Ogham few from Druid Camp.

Gorse, or Onn. My Ogham few from Druid Camp.

At Druid Camp, everyone at the opening ritual was given a gift of an Ogham few, cut from the wood of one of the Ogham trees and inscribed with its corresponding symbol.

My wife received oak, and I was instantly jealous. I mean, come on…we’re Druids, who wouldn’t want to get oak, right? I, on the other hand, got gorse. A small, prickly, shrubby little thing that clings on to cliffsides at the coast. Hmm…not exactly the proud, tall tree of the forest I was hoping for.

But, it turns out that it kind of suits me, and that gorse has its own lessons to teach.

Gorse (Ulex europaeus), also known as “furze”, is an evergreen shrub related to broom, and adapted to dry conditions. It is extremely thorny, the thorns being modified leaves and shoots. It has small yellow flowers which bloom between January and June, and is often found on open moors or coastal grasslands. The flowers are edible and can be used to make tea or wine, and the foliage is often used as animal fodder. Famously, Winnie-the-Pooh falls into a gorse bush while trying to find honey in A.A. Milne’s story.

In the Ogham, Gorse is called Onn and is associated with the sun, due to its yellow flowers which bloom even in the winter snows. It is a symbol of encouragement and optimism. The small piece of paper that came with my gorse stave associated it with transformation and wisdom.

In the main group ritual at Druid Camp, those of us who had the gorse few crowded around the “travellers” journeying through the Ogham, closing in with our thorns, before crowning each traveller with the crown of wisdom. Gorse can be prickly, but look beyond the thorny exterior you can find wisdom, hope and encouragement on the journey.

In The Druidry Handbook, John Michael Greer refers to gorse as “a few of attraction, combination and possibility”, that can portend “opportunities, though not without potential problems”.

I see gorse as being a difficult plant to deal with, as it fiercely defends itself with its spiky armour, but it also provides food and shelter for many birds and insects. Once you get beyond the thorns, gorse can be protective. Clinging on to clifftops and inhospitable environments, gorse teaches the importance of tenacity and determination, even stubbornness.

And since I’m a short, frequently spiky-tempered and often stubborn bugger, gorse is actually the ideal Ogham tree for me!In spending time with gorse, with Onn, in ritual and meditation, I find that far from being hostile, it is a plant of protection, of hope, and a reminder of the power and wisdom of small things. It is not as grand as the oak, ash or willow, but it is hardy and tough, and can survive things other trees cannot. I’m sure that gorse has many more lessons to teach me, and you know what? Looking back, I’m glad that I got that particular Ogham few.

Gorse. Image from Wildlife Trusts.

Gorse. Image from Wildlife Trusts.

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Delicious Druidry

Some blackberries from the harvest, ready for washing.

Some blackberries from the harvest, ready for washing.

One of the things I took away from Druid Camp, mostly thanks to the prompting of my brilliant wife (who has recently rebooted her Druid blog The Green Hedge Druid…go check it out!) is the idea of making Druidry more practical, more grounded in nature and down-to-earth skills of making and crafting. Since I tend to live in my head, this is a great reminder that Druidry is not just an intellectual path, but a gloriously physical one too.

So with that in mind, we set off to our local hedgerows to forage an early crop of blackberries (Rubus fruticosus). After being at first disappointed that so many brambles still had tiny green berries on, a narrow path led to a blackberry bonanza, and after a few cuts and thorns (which Druid writer Penny Billington might describe as a “shamanic experience”) we gathered a goodly sum of rich ripe fruit.

So what to do with them? Make a crumble of course! Handily we had some apples that were just on the turn, so we threw those in as well, along with lots of brown sugar. The crumble top was flour, butter and more brown sugar (there are various recipes online, we used a variant of the one HERE) and then the whole thing baked away in the oven for about 45 minutes.

Blackberries and apples.

Blackberries and apples.

Crumble!

Crumble!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crumble and custard.

Crumble and custard.

Serve with custard, and NOM!

What does this have to do with Druidry? Well, the way I see it, Druidry is a way of life and these simple acts of getting out into nature, foraging a harvest and bringing it home to make great food can be a way of expressing Druidry in the outer world in a very practical and useful way.

And the experience of knowing when fruit is in season, recognising it in the hedgerows, and seeing all the birds and creatures that also live in those hedges was a great way to reconnect to the life of the land.

Plus, it was delicious, and brought joy to us and our neighbours, and to me that’s what Druidic living is all about!

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Druid Camp…it was In-Tents!

druid camp signSorry about the bad pun, but I couldn’t resist!

For the past five days, I have been in a field in the middle of nowhere (actually a lovely spot overlooking the River Severn) with about 300 Druids for Druid Camp 2016!

It was a first time going there for my wife and I and we had no idea what to expect. The ever-brilliant Kris Hughes of the Anglesey Druid Order had told us about the camp via Facebook, and encouraged us to give it a go.

While I have been hovering around the periphery of Druidry for several years now, I had not up to this point ever been to a Druid gathering or experienced Druidry in community, and honestly (as an introvert at the best of times) I was pretty nervous.

But it was amazing! I was originally planning on breaking things down into a blog post per day, because there was simply far too much on to cover in any detail, but I couldn’t do it justice by simply listing events.

There were insightful, erudite and often incredibly funny talks each day from Penny Billington, who spoke about divination ancient and modern (with a bonus Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference), Philip Shallcrass, who utterly skewered the myths about the Ogham being a tree alphabet or calendar, before concluding that it really doesn’t matter, because Druids have been using Ogham that way for centuries and it works, and Kris Hughes who gave a talk that was part timeless wisdom, part comedy stand-up and had the audience in turns of laughter and deep contemplation. I regret having to leave early for a train on Sunday and missing Graham Harvey‘s talk on divination, elephants and elbows, because I had some great chats with him over the camp and would have loved to hear what he had to say.

Each day also had workshops on everything from divination via “found objects” to the music of plants (literally putting electrodes on a plant and feeding the current through a synthesiser so the plant can “sing”), and practical skills such as knitting, leatherwork, baking and my personal favourite, mead-making!

druid camp 2There were Druid rituals every evening, including a beautiful Lammas ritual (which was helpful seeing as I forgot to do a Lammas rite beforehand…bad Druid) with Kris resplendent in a voluminous black cloak in the role of the Reaper. On the first evening, everyone present was given a gift from the Green Man of an Ogham stave from one of the sacred trees of the Druid tradition (I got Gorse, and have already learned quite a bit from the prickly little shrub)…little did we know this was also a way of determining our group in the Community Ritual on the Saturday! Each group took on the role of a different tree and created a mini-drama that came together to tell the journey of the Ogham.

Having only ever experienced Druid ritual in my back garden before, holding hands in circle with lots of other Druids and intoning the Awen was an experience that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It felt primal and real in a way I haven’t known before.

Evenings then transitioned into entertainment, music, poetry, an Eisteddfod, and the hilarious “Just a Druid Minute” which I can say without hesitation, and which bears repetition, was a very amusing deviation from the usual proceedings. Graham Harvey’s tactic of challenging himself to gain points was inspired, and Penny Billington brought the snark brilliantly!

But above all, what made Druid Camp such a memorable experience, and already makes me look forward to next year, were the people. Going there knowing nobody very well was daunting, but after a day or so, I felt very welcomed and like I was part of an exciting and vibrant community. It was especially wonderful to be able to sit in the cafe or by the campfire and talk to people whose names I only knew from books, and it turns out that Druids are generally a pretty lovely bunch!

So after that, I definitely feel more confident in my own Druidry, and want to get more involved in the Druid world in whatever way I can. When being a solitary Druid can feel isolated, and the Druid/Pagan internet can seem hostile, it’s great that places like Druid Camp exist to remind me that Druidry is about community, friendship and fun. Many thanks to Mark Graham and all the camp organisers and volunteers for their incredible hard work to create such a wonderful space. If you get the chance, I heartily recommend going to Druid Camp next year…I’ll be there!

druid camp 1Note: I totally didn’t take enough photos, mostly because I was too engrossed in what was going on but also because I didn’t want to be the guy snapping pics during a talk or a sacred ritual, so images in this post come from the official Rainbow Druid Camp Facebook page and are used in good faith.

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Urban nature meditation

Ideally, take yourself outside in an urban space. If outside is unfeasible, inside at a window will do, to hear or look depending on which senses work best for you. Sit, stand or walk as you prefer – make sure that you are safe to ignore things like traffic, pick somewhere you can afford not […]

via Urban Nature Meditation — Druid Life

A simple yet effective meditation for nature awareness for those of us in suburbs and cities from Nimue Brown at Druid Life.

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Book review: Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival. Image from the Book Depository.

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival. Image from the Book Depository.

Melusine Draco, Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival: A Magical Anthropology. Moon Books, 2013

I’m not a witch, and witchcraft has never been my spiritual path, although I know that for many people Wicca is their first exposure to Paganism. However, I have always seen Druidry and witchcraft as cousins, or as different branches on the same tree, and I have a passing interest in the practices and history of witchcraft, ancient and modern. So when my amazing wife came back from a trip to the library with a copy of Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival, I knew I was in for a treat.

The back-cover blurb of the book says:

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival takes us on a journey int the past, along the highways and byways of our pagan heritage to discover when the different aspects of magical influence entered traditional witchcraft. It will appeal to everyone with an interest in magic, witchcraft and paganism – from grass roots to the more advanced levels of Wicca – who wish to learn more about the different traditions and their antecedents.

In just under 200 pages, Melusine Draco, herself a traditional witch, takes us from stone age pre-history through the Celts and Druids, the Romans and the imposition of Christianity, to the witch-hunts, the Elizabethan revival of Ceremonial Magic and the construction (or reconstruction) of modern Wicca and Paganism.

While there is a lot of misinformation out there about the history of witchcraft, Draco admirably uses real scholarship, real history and real archaeology to piece together what we actually know or can infer about how practices we now know as “witchcraft” may have developed over the centuries. She is bluntly (and rightly) dismissive of what she refers to as “fake-lore and fantasy” in modern Paganism and takes a refreshingly factual approach to figuring out what is real history, what is folklore and what is modern invention.

Where Draco does tend to speculation, for instance about the survival of “Old Craft” practices through to the modern age, or the intriguing proposal that faery legends “may have evolved from far-off memories of a Stone Age race that once lived in these [British] islands”, she is clear in letting the reader know that this is one possible interpretation and that the evidence is ambiguous at best.

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival is a well-structured book, not only in that it proceeds chronologically but each chapter is also connected thematically, and one nice device which ties the different themes and time periods together is a summary at the end of each chapter showing the “Story so Far”, which recaps what we have learned and connects ideas across chapters.

Draco does argue for some survivals of ancient Pagan practices, but makes no grand claims about modern witchcraft being transmitted unchanged for thousands of years.She writes that we should not be “fooled by a tradition that claims to trace its antecedents back to medieval or even pre-historic times…In all reality, the tracing of any genuine Old Craft coven back more than 150 years is a challenge in itself.”

The book’s style is easy to read and, while clearly well-researched, wears its scholarship lightly, never becoming “dry” as some history books can tend to be. For me personally, Draco’s discussion of the Druids was obviously of interest, and the way that Druidry both connects to and is independent of witchcraft practices is probably worthy of a book in itself.

I found one comment in Draco’s introductory chapter very interesting. After a discussion of animism, syncretism and eclecticism she writes about the various Pagan gods, saying:

“It is also important to accept that Names of Power do not represent real people, semi-divine or otherwise: this is a Christian concept that God is sitting there just waiting for our call. It is also detrimental to effective magical thinking. In magic, we use these mind-pictures, or correspondences, as a means of invoking (or evoking) the conceptualised power of individual energy-sources. In ancient times the priesthood understood this – even if the common man did not.” (Emphasis in the original).

This seems very close to a non-theistic, archetypal, understanding of the Pagan gods, which ties in with Draco’s repeated references to the Jungian idea of the “collective unconscious” throughout the book and hints at a non-literal form of Paganism as being not a modern abberation, but one line of thought that may have ancient roots.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism and want to tease out the real history from the “fake-lore and fantasy” out there. Draco also has a range of books on practicing traditional witchcraft in different locations, from forests to cities, and I am definitely planning on giving some of those a read too.

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Paganism and Politics

Sigil of the Warriors' Call: Pagans United Against Fracking. Image from druidry.org

Sigil of the Warriors’ Call: Pagans United Against Fracking. Image from druidry.org

I haven’t really been following the Pagan blogosphere as much as usual lately, which to be honest has been good for my sanity and good for my Druidry as I’ve been able to focus instead on daily practice. However, I have noticed that there’s been a bit of discussion of late about the relationship between Paganism and politics. In the wake of the disaster that is Brexit, the new Tory government, and my recent decision to join the Green Party, this got me thinking.

Of course, other writers have spoken far more eloquently than I can about these issues. For a good look at both “sides” of the debate, read John Beckett’s article Why the Gods come before politics which argues that Paganism is a set of religions without a “political test” for membership, and where the gods should take priority over politics; and John Halstead’s rebuttal How “Gods before politics” perpetuates privilege, which argues that being non-political is only an option for people who are not already marginalised by contemporary politics, and so is a statement of privilege.

For what it’s worth, I lean more to John Halstead’s view (I know, shocking, right?), but I also see John Beckett’s point about wanting to keep the *religion(s)* of Paganism separate from the *politics* of Paganism. Yet, as John H. points out, when John B. says there is no room for racism or transphobia in his Paganism, that is a political viewpoint. Conversely, ignoring racism and transphobia so we cal all get along as Pagans is also a political stance.

In general, I am a pretty passionate secularist, up to being a fully subscribed member of the National Secular Society. Secularism in this context is not, despite the misuse of the term by religious apologists, the same as atheism. The NSS defines secularism as “a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.”

This secular separation of religion and politics not only protects non-religious folk, but “seeks to ensure and protect freedom of religious belief and practice for all citizens. Secularism is not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.”

So as a secularist, I want to keep my Druidry and Paganism separate from my politics. I don’t want to see people in government making political decisions based on their interpretation of the Barddas any more than I would want to have politicians legislate based on their interpretation of the Bible or Qu’ran.

Yet, the problem with this strict secular separation is that life is not so simple. You can’t compartmentalise aspects of your worldview neatly into boxes marked “religion” and “politics”. Especially when both religion and politics are concerned with how we should live, what is morally right, how to create a good society, what are our ultimate concerns etc.

A person’s religion will, if they take it seriously, influence their politics. And a person’s politics will, if they take it seriously, influence their religion.

I can’t deny that my first decision to look into Druidry was inspired by my own environmentalist (political) leanings. Likewise my Druidry (religious for want of a better word) has inspired my environmentalism and also led me to be more concerned with issues of freedom, equality and social justice that has directly led to me being more involved in political activism.

Where I think that both the Johns (narrowly) miss the mark is in the suggestion that one or the other, gods or politics, must “come first”. I would assert that rather than a hierarchy, what we see here is a spiral, or a turning wheel. At times, it is important for politics to come to the fore and to speak out against inequality, injustice and environmental devastation. At other times, it is right for religion (or spirituality, or whatever your preferred term is) to take priority, and to focus on the fundamentals and practices of your path.

In neither case are you putting one before the other, or ignoring the influence each have on the other. It’s like how we can’t fight all the battles at once. Sometimes we need to focus on LGBT rights, sometimes on poverty, sometimes on anti-fracking campaigns, and sometimes, yes, we need to recognise what we can’t (immediately) change and focus on our Pagan paths, our spiritual community, our rituals and the Sacred.

All that said, I do think that when we are talking politics in the public sphere (as opposed to on a private blog etc.) we should leave Paganism out of it, unless we’re specifically dealing with issues of minority religions and freedom of worship. No MP is going to be persuaded to back down on, say, a road being built through a wood because a Druid thinks it’s sacred space. But they might be persuaded by secular arguments and evidence of rare ecosystems, the value of the wood to local communities, the effect of the trees and roots on soil erosion and flooding etc. We need solid, secular, reasons for our political views, reasons which are understandable by everyone and support everyone regardless of religion.

If in our private practice we see the wood as sacred and do a protection ritual for it as well, that’s up to us. But to expect the religion to work, to make change in the world, without the politics is naive. And to expect the political to inspire our hearts to work for change without a “religious” sense of the Sacred is perhaps equally so.

Image from Joanna Van Der Hoeven.

Image from Joanna Van Der Hoeven.

*Note: in this post, I use the word “religion” in the broadest sense, without narrow reference to theistic belief. I normally don’t like the word, but as both John Halstead and John Beckett use it in their blogs, it made sense for me to speak in those terms. Feel free to substitute “religion” for “spirituality” or “life-way” or whichever term you prefer throughout.

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Down to the sea

Norfolk coast, image by me

Norfolk coast, image by me

Has it really been over a fortnight since I posted here? Blimey! Truth be told, I’ve not had time for blogging because the past couple of weeks have been pretty busy. I’m still looking for a job, but now I’ve started doing some volunteering in local museums to pass the time and gain some new skills, and I’m taking on a couple of online short courses as well.

Combine that with my OBOD coursework, learning guitar, working through my ever-increasing reading list, and trying to squeeze in something like a social life, I wonder how I ever had time for a full-time job as well!

So to take a break from taking a break, I went (with my wonderful wife) to the seaside for a short getaway. Whenever I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, the sea is always my refuge. There is something magical about the liminal space of a seashore, the place where the land meets the sea and the sky, where the three realms join together.

Sunset, image by me

Sunset, image by me

I’m incredibly lucky that I live in a part of the world where I can hop on a train or bus and be at the coast in just over a couple of hours, and I try to get away there as often as time and money allows.

The sound of the waves on the pebble beach is like a meditative breath, and it’s surprisingly easy to just sit on the seashore and gaze out to the water, then check your watch and find that an hour or more has passed by.

While I rarely do any formal Druid/Pagan rituals or meditations while on holiday, I always find that simply sitting and being in the presence of Nature and the Sacred is more authentically “spiritual” than saying scripted words.

As always, I collected a couple of small stones from the beach (including one with a self-bored hole in the middle) which now sit on my Home Shrine as a reminder of my connection to this special place.

Land, sea and sky. Image by me

Land, sea and sky. Image by me

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