Spiral

maze-56060_960_720The journey, we are told, is linear. The hero leaves “here” and goes “there”. Mountains are climbed, distances are crossed. Time itself we perceive to be linear. Past-Present-Future. One arrow, pointing one way.

This is not how it works. Modern physics suggests that time is not a straight line, but something much more complicated.

And journeys, too, are more complicated. Is a journey even a good metaphor for a life? Where is the “there”, the destination? Surely not death, although of course that is the ultimate destination for all travellers. But that is rarely what is meant by the journey metaphor. People generally use it to mean some state of achievement, success, self-actualisation, enlightenment, whatever.

I prefer the image of a labyrinth. Not a maze, in which you might get lost, but a traditional labyrinth of the kind you might walk as a meditative practice. There is one path, but the path weaves in and out, doubling back and over on itself, sometimes coming tantalisingly close to the centre, and then looping back out again.

And note here the destination is the centre. Not an external point of reference, but something integral to, and inseparable from, the labyrinth itself. The centre that is nowhere, but is now here.

In nature, we see how life moves through spirals of great activity and then stillness, the hibernation of the hedgehog, the dormancy of the tree, the new life in spring, the punctuated equilibrium of evolution.

And so, too, in any spiritual practice.

Since coming back from Ireland, a trip whose subtle effects I am still working through, I have been busy. I’ve started a new job, one which finally brings me back to the work I want to do as a librarian, the work I trained for and studied for.

This busy-ness and new wave of information, expectation and responsibility, has left me with little time for Druidry. So my practice spiralled into dormancy. And that’s OK. I think I always feel a sense of guilt in these times, like I’m not doing enough, I’m not “Druid” enough unless I do all the things. But that’s not true. I simply had to shift my priorities around to accommodate this new Big Thing in my life.

But it’s been three weeks, a good Druidic triad of time, and things are starting to level off. So my Druidry is emerging again, like a small shoot on a branch, fragile and delicate, but filled with the hope of new life.

The sun still rises. The earth still turns. The birds still sing. The wind in the trees still whispers “all will be well”.

All of which is a long and flowery way of explaining why I haven’t been blogging of late, but there you go!

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Ireland

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So I got back last week from a trip/pilgrimage to Ireland, and was swiftly thrown into the deep end of a new job, so I didn’t have the time to reflect much. But it would be a shame not to post some pretty pictures at least!

Ireland is the place of my ancestry, and I was raised by my grandfather to have a very deep sense of rootedness and connection to my Irish heritage (legend has it we’re descended from a long line of ancient chieftains going back to around the 3rd century), yet it isn’t somewhere that I visit very often. So it was great to have a chance to go back, and also to go to some parts of the country that I haven’t been to before, especially the amazing scenery of the Wild Atlantic Way on the west coast.

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One thing that struck me was simply the beauty of the landscape, truly like nowhere else on earth, and all in a relatively small space. Mountains, sea, lakes, rolling fields, all seem nestled up to each other and you can drive through several strikingly different landscapes in one three-hour jaunt across the country.

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The peace of nature was literally breathtaking, in places like Gougane Barra in West Cork or Lough Leane in Killarney. I can see why so many poets, artists and mystics have come from this island and drawn inspiration from it.

There were always reminders of the innate spirituality of the land, whether in the form of Catholic roadside shrines or the older and more numinous places like stones said to have associations with the Druids, dolmens known to be doorways to the land of the Shide, healing wells and sacred lakes.

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I was pleasantly surprised to see that even in Blarney Castle, one of the more tourist-trap locations, there were remnants of the ancient past, and also a recently-restored “Druidic” stone circle originally built around 1703, at the very earliest stages of the Druid Revival period.

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The trip was a busy one, visiting around 7 locations in 6 days, but it was also a wonderful way to take a break from the daily world of work and reconnect to something deep and ancestral. And of course, lots of good food was eaten and local beers were drank!

 

 

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Is Druidry dying?

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Over at Gods and Radicals, Druid Jonathan Woolley has written a rather excellent essay on the decline of young people in Paganism and specifically Druidry. Go and read the whole thing, it’s long but worth it. Link below:

British Paganism is Dying. Why?

Read it? Good.

There’s not much I would disagree with in Jonathan’s essay, but I wanted to add some of my own observations as a young-ish (recently turned 30) Pagan myself.

I might start by questioning the initial premise. At Druid Camp, I saw a wide range of ages represented, from the “old guard” in their 60s and beyond through to plenty of people roughly my age or younger, including students and young parents bringing their small children along. In particular, I noticed that the people volunteering to clean the loos or run the cafe were mostly on the younger end of the age range. But that may be an isolated case (it does suggest, however, that in-person community gatherings are still an attractive proposition for the internet Pagan generation).

But, if we assume (and the above notwithstanding I see no reason not to) that there is a decline in young people becoming Druids, why might this be?

Ancient-Druid

Well, let’s take a look at the idea of “the Druid”. What do you think of when you hear the word Druid? Chances are it may be something like the guy on the left here. Old, white, male, in a funny robe. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being any of those things. But it’s not the most appealing image to people today, especially young people whose views and expressions of gender, race and social privilege are more liberal and progressive than this image seems to imply.

Of course, this is a stereotype, but let’s face it, there are some people in the Druid community who seem determined to live up to the stereotype whenever they get in front of an obliging camera or film crew.

There is much more diversity in the modern Druid community than people might think, but we’re not exactly great at coming forward with promoting this fact.

Then there’s the way Druidry is disseminated. The proliferation of books, blogs, YouTube vloggers, websites and the like about Druidry suggest that there is a good amount of interest in Druidry (and in Paganism more widely), but I am hardly surprised that membership in the more structured Druid Orders is falling.

I work as an Information Professional for a large university, and I deal with students and researchers usually in their 20s or so, and the way they approach knowledge is different from how people in their 40s and beyond approach knowledge. Now, I don’t believe there is any such thing as a “digital native”, this is itself a stereotype and one which does not match the academic evidence. But, the knowledge landscape is changing, and open access (and Open Access) to knowledge online is the driving force of this change.

Knowledge exchange is increasingly seen as collaborative and horizontal, rather than pedagogical and vertical.

So, with this in mind, a formal, structured, graded (hierarchical) correspondence course, in paper, by the post, especially one that you’re not allowed to discuss or share freely with non-members, can seem like an oddity at best and a cult at worst.

As well as this, these courses can be pricey, especially if you’re on a low income, or a student budget, or have small kids to feed. I’ve gone into this more in my post on Paying for Paganism, so I won’t recap it all here, but young people are often not in the most financially secure positions in their lives, and if the choice is between chucking a hundred quid or more on a Druid course, or paying the rent, I know what the decision’s going to be.

So people turn online, for free information. And what do they find? In my experience, generally a lot of insularity and sometimes outright hostility to newbies, people who don’t know the intricacies of various Pagan traditions, and “outsiders” more generally. It isn’t appealing, or easy, to become part of a community where you’re not made to feel welcome and offered support.

This is of course not true for all online Pagan/Druid communities, but the ones that are like this tend to shout the loudest. And these groups tend to be less than constructive. Srsly, the number of times I’ve seen the same five conversations going round and round (especially the who is/isn’t a real Pagan controversy) is ridiculous.

Groups like this are not engaging young people precisely because they’re not really engaging at all. They’re echo chambers for a few loud voices to hear their opinions reflected back at them. And those voices are often old, white and male, so reinforcing the image mentioned above. So yeah.

But I don’t think we should be too hard on ourselves, as I said, I saw all-age community being created at Druid Camp, and Pagan festivals, Pride events and the like seem to be growing every year. The Druid Network even got Druidry legally recognised as a religion in the UK. Thousands of people, many of them young people, flock to Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, and while most of them are perhaps there for a party more than anything else, it still shows the power and “draw” of Druid and Pagan ideas.

And there is some truth to the oft-mentioned idea that people turn to Druidry as they get older, experience more of life, have more free time on their hands, and want to seek something “more”. I’ve come across many people who first encounter Druidry in their 30s, 40s and beyond. Their presence is valuable too.

So when the current generation of young people age, how many of them may look for that “something more” and find it in Druidry? And what new form might that Druidry evolve into?

Something less structured, less hierarchical, and more open-source would be my guess. It may not resemble Druid Orders, but nor do today’s Orders resemble the 18th century Druid Revival lodges, and nor do they resemble the ancient Celtic Druids. But they’re all Druidry.

Membership of organised religion across the board is falling in the UK and beyond. In fact, membership of any organised groups such as volunteering societies, community clubs etc is falling. Is this a sign of some spiritual malaise, or a selfish turning inwards to a narcissistic generation of selfie-obsessed phone drones?

Well, no. I would argue it’s a combination of young people being more time and resource poor than previous generations, and a general distrust of organisations and authority, especially religious authority that has been shown to be rife with corruption.

But I don’t necessarily see the decline of numbers in formal Pagan/Druid groups as an intrinsically bad thing. Pagan ideas are still popular, and may even be seen to have gone mainstream. Environmentalism, gender equality and the ability to be spiritual without obeying the dogmas of a church are generally pretty accepted, especially among younger folks. In terms of creating cultural shifts, we’re winning.

I’d rather there be fewer organised, religious “Pagans” and more small-p “paganism” in social discourse amongst people of all faiths and none. I have my suspicions of organised religions, especially those that seek growth-for-the-sake-of-growth and expansion by converting people, and I would hate to see Paganism or Druidry become evangelical.

I see Druidry not as another “alternative religion” but as an alternative to religion.

Isaac Bonewits, founder of the Druid group ADF, said that Druidry moves “as fast as a speeding oak”. Growth is slow, barely noticeable, and happens in cycles.

We’re doing fine.

*Druid image: “An Archdruid in his judicial habit” from “The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles”, S. Meyrick and C. Smith, 1815 (via Wikimedia Commons, CC-0)

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Book Review: When a Pagan Prays

wappBrown, Nimue. When a Pagan Prays: Exploring Prayer in Druidry and Beyond. Moon Books, 2014.

Nimue Brown, a Druid author who blogs at Druid Life, wrote Spirituality Without Structure (my review of which is HERE) in the space between writing this book, and When a Pagan Prays feels very much like a spiritual successor to the former.

Nimue describes When a Pagan Prays as not one book, but two:

“One of those books is an amateur attempt at some academic writing, featuring comparative religious studies, psychology, sociology and a bit of research. The other book is an experiential tale of what happened to me when I started to explore prayer as a personal practice”.

While I found the academic analysis of prayer (what it is, what it’s for, why people pray etc) interesting, not least because of my own background in religious studies, it’s the “other book” that makes When a Pagan Prays stand out.

Nimue is frank and open in her exploration of prayer, and comes to it from a position of agnosticism (“maybeism” as she describes it) rather than one of faith. This makes her exploration all the more interesting to read, especially as her theological starting point is strikingly similar to my own. She says “while I am not an atheist, I’m not very good at belief either”.

So why pray? Well, this is the very question that Nimue sets out to explore, through personal practice and experience. Taking it pretty much as a given that materialistic “God give me a pony” type petitionary prayers not only don’t work, but are described by several religious writers Nimue cites from all over the theological map as being the least important form of prayer, Nimue instead looks at prayer as “entering into a mystery, not getting a result”.

One fascinating concept Nimue introduces is what she calls the “nontheist test”. That is, if a spiritual practice has real-world benefits, then it should, in theory, be able to be practiced by a nontheist. In other words, you should not have to assume the existence of any deity in order to do a particular practice. Meditation, for instance, would pass the nontheist test, as it has clear and well-documented benefits. But prayer?

When it comes to whom to pray to, Nimue explores various approaches and ultimately finds the Shinto concept of the Kami one that fits well with her approach to Druidry. The Kami are similar to the concept of Nature Spirits one often finds in animist and Pagan worldviews, and are more immanent and approachable than a distant and omnipotent God-concept.

But you can also pray to ancestors, aspects of nature (the Earth, the Sun), or even to other people. Prayer in this sense becomes a way of deepening connection to all that is, and there is no need to adopt any specific beliefs to do this. As Nimue writes: “If you are willing and able to be open, vulnerable, listening, if you are here to be changed, that’s a very realistic possible outcome, no matter which tradition you follow or the methods you adopt.”

Nimue guides the reader through her own explorations of prayer, and never says that because she did it this way, therefore her way is the right way, or that all Druids must pray, or that any particular belief is necessarily the right one. I appreciate that, and it is fitting in a tradition such as Druidry which has no Holy Books, that every Druid find their own way to pray, if indeed they choose to at all. The final few chapters look at creating Druid prayers and working in group prayer and ritual, and are doubtless of use to any Druid who is involved in creating and leading group rituals.

My own theological framework tends to non-theism, agnosticism and animism, and I find that I have no frame of reference for traditional-literal concepts of God or the gods. But this book has made me look at prayer in a new light, and think about my daily practice of greeting the sun in the morning and the moon at night as a form of prayer.

In the end, it seems that prayer is what you make of it, and that it works in mysterious ways. Whatever your theological persuasion, I would recommend this book to anyone, of any religion or none, who is curious about maybe starting a prayer practice or just wants to take a refreshing new look at the subject.

As Nimue writes:

“Mostly, prayer doesn’t work. Except that to a degree I find quite disconcerting, mostly it has”.

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Interview with a Druid

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Kirk Thomas. Image from the original article.

Dr Karl Seigfried over at The Norse Mythology Blog has done an interview with former Archdruid of ADF, Kirk Thomas.

It’s a fascinating piece (part one of two), and gives a great look into Druidry from an ADF perspective, as well as touching on questions of reconstruction and reinvention, ADF’s Indo-European focus, orthodoxy vs orthopraxy and racism . So go read it!

The interview is available via The Norse Mythology Blog.

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Druidry in simplicity

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At times, working through courses of study from various Druid groups and orders, or reading certain books, Druidry can seem like a very complicated thing; full of long, wordy rituals that require you to face certain directions and recite certain prayers, or use specific equipment, or venerate certain gods, or wear particular coloured robes.

For the longest time, I was worried that by not doing these things, I wasn’t actually doing Druidry, or at least not doing Druidry the *right* way. Of course, there is no right way. Druidry, and Paganism more generally, does not proceed from a Holy Book or a Divine Revelation. There are no Pagan Popes, and no Book of Liturgy.

Druidry is one branch of a spiritual tree that sprung from people’s relationships with the land, the sea and the sky. Pagan religions tended to evolve organically and shift naturally over time as people moved around, grew crops, faced winters and summers, exchanged ideas and gods with others, developed linguistic differences or similarities etc.

Modern Druidry can be seen to have developed in similar ways: from the earliest days of the Druid Revival there was no “master plan”, just different people rediscovering Druids and redeveloping, or making up, new forms of Druidry for their times. And so it is today.

In the end, all the orders and books and courses (and all the long-winded rituals, and all the gear) are just maps, they are not the territory. At most, they can tell you what someone else thinks about Druidry and what has worked for them. But each of us who wants to take this Druidry thing to heart and make it part of our lives has to find their own Druidry, one that fits with your own life and commitments and, more importantly, your own ecology.

If Druidry is meant to be nature-focused, then it must be rooted in the nature around you. There’s no point looking for snowdrops for an Imbolc ritual if they don’t come up in your area for another month, or if it’s been so warm that the daffodils are already blooming.

And there’s no point in reciting words written by others that don’t hold any meaning for you, or which you find objectionable. One of the great strengths of Druidry is its diversity. That’s why the oft-used “Druid’s Prayer” has so many variants. You may call on different gods than the Druid next to you, you may be a Christian Druid and dedicate your rites to the Holy Trinity, you may be an atheist or agnostic Druid and not call on personified deities at all. It really doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t make anyone less of a Druid. Nobody can say you’re “doing it wrong”. This may sound like a license for “anything goes” make-it-up-as-you-go spirituality, but is that such a bad thing? Let a thousand flowers blossom, and all that.

For me, my Druidry is best expressed in simplicity.

I greet the sun in the morning, and the moon at night.

I touch the earth when I leave the house for work and when I return.

I give silent thanks to the earth for my food.

I feed the birds (and squirrels and hedgehogs, and the occasional neighbour’s cat) in the garden, and grow veg and herbs.

I recycle about 80% of my household waste, and cycle rather than drive to work.

I sit under trees and be still.

I don’t very often do anything that looks like formal meditation or ritual, and I’m more likely to be found doing something seasonally appropriate like planting seeds on the Spring Equinox, having a barbecue for Summer Solstice or decorating a tree for Yule, than standing script-in-hand waving a wand around.

And as for fire-bowls, sage smudges and incense? Nope, I live in a rental and have small rodents as pets. The most I can do is the odd tealight candle.

And the rare occasions when I feel a need to mark a Solstice or Equinox with a ritual, it tends to be a small, short one, often without a script, just raising a glass of mead or whisky and toasting the spirit of the occasion.

It’s a different form of Druidry, one more everyday, more low-key, but I still think it’s Druidry all the same. Sometimes, though, I feel inadequate compared to the more ornate, ritualised forms of Druidry, like I’m not putting in enough effort.

That’s when I need to remember to go outside and look at the trees and the birds.

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth. -Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”

 

 

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Book review: Nature Mystics

nature mysticsBeattie, Rebecca. Pagan Portals: Nature Mystics: the literary gateway to modern Paganism. Moon Books, 2014.

This book, another title in the short Pagan Portals series from Moon Books, introduces the reader to a variety of modern (generally 19th and 20th century) writers who may be said to have influenced “the cultural environment that allowed modern Paganism to develop and flourish throughout the twentieth century”.

Beattie makes it clear that none of the writers chosen were Pagans themselves (indeed some, like Tolkien, were devoutly Christian), and she sets the date for the inception of “modern Paganism” as being around 1951 with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, to 1954, with the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today. This date is generally agreed by scholars like Ronald Hutton, so by definition most of the writers in this book could not be modern Pagans, although some such as W.B. Yeats and E. Nesbit were members of occult societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, from which much modern Paganism developed.

The writers chosen are, as Beattie’s title suggests, all to some extent “Nature Mystics”, which she defines as “someone who has mystical experiences in nature, or connects to the divine through nature, and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration”. What the divine looks like differs from one Nature Mystic to another, but it is this connection that is all-important, and it is this that can be seen as a thread linking the Nature Mystics to the worldview and experiences of nature that are central to modern Paganism.

Beattie’s selection of writers is, as she admits, not an exhaustive list, but she does an excellent job at selecting a diverse range of writers (five men, five women) who represent a wide selection of different approaches to nature mysticism in literature. The familiar figures one may expect are there (Yeats, Tolkien, Hardy) but also several whom I had not before encountered such as Mary Webb, Elizabeth von Arnim and Mary Butts. It’s interesting to note that it is the women writers who have been less well-received and less well-known throughout literary history, which is doubtless telling of the nature of literary criticism’s treatment of women.

Standing out as an outlier in the book is Keats. Beattie writes that Keats very nearly didn’t make the cut, as he was an earlier writer than the others discussed, but that people clamoured on her blog for him to be included. And I’m very glad he was, because not only is he my favourite poet, but his writing has had a big influence on my own Pagan path and worldview.

Beattie states, however, that there is little evidence of Keats as a nature mystic, and describes him instead as a “Human Nature Mystic”, whose poetry was inward looking for inspiration rather than out to nature, and, while he wrote about nature as beautiful, it was not necessarily seen as a connection to the divine.

This is one point in the book where my views differ from that of the author. Lines such as:

For what has made the sage or poet write
But the fair paradise of Nature’s light?

Alongside Keats’ invocations of the Classical Pagan landscape in Endymion, or his poems dedicated “To Autumn”, or “On the Sea”, seem to me to fit Beattie’s definition of a nature mystic as one who “has mystical experiences in nature…and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration”. In some of Keats’ lesser-known works, he comes even closer to what we might consider to be the ethos and even the forms of modern Paganism:

‘Tis ‘the witching time of night’,
Orbed is the Moon and bright
And the Stars they glisten, glisten
Seeming with bright eyes to listen –

But this is a minor criticism for an excellent book which provides a great potted introduction to some very interesting and influential writers, some of whom deserve to be better-known than they are, and all of whom (consciously or not) have influenced ideas which led to, and continue to inspire, modern Paganism today.

As with all the Pagan Portals book, this is a quick read, and one which is lovely to devour on a sunny afternoon or two. I’m definitely going to look up some of the authors mentioned and read their works thanks to Beattie’s introduction, which I think means that Nature Mystics is a definite success.

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