Celts: Art and Identity at the British Museum

Entering the always-imposing British Museum and fighting through the crowds of tourists to get into the exhibition room for Celts: Art and Identity, you face three symbols of Celtic identity: an Irish harp, a Scottish cross-stone and the beautiful Welsh Gorsedd banner.

Symbols of Celtic identity

Symbols of Celtic identity

Coming into the main room, you are confronted at once with a towering sandstone figure, Janus-faced, with deep eyes and a single slit for a mouth. Around his head are two bulbous shapes, reminiscent perhaps of mistletoe leaves.

Celtic statue, Germany c.1st century CE

Celtic statue, Germany c.1st century CE

He doesn’t look like what you might expect from Celtic art, but there he is. This unusual shape around his head turns up again and again on statues, artwork, faces in shields etc. Picking up Exploring the World of the Druids by Miranda Green in the gift-shop, the mistletoe connection was confirmed, the plant being sacred to the Druids and representative of fertility and virility.

The statue was found in Germany and is over 2,000 years old. But wait…aren’t the Celts British, Irish and Gaulish? Well, it turns out that the various disparate tribes and peoples whom the Greeks called Keltoi (a name they never used for themselves) lived all over Europe from as far East as Turkey to the Western Isles of Ireland. These “Celts” are a cultural group, not a genetic one, linked over time and geography by a shared style of art and visual identity and possibly a shared linguistic and religious heritage.

The British Museum’s exhibition takes you on a journey from the earliest records of Keltoi as seen by the so-called “civilised” cultures of Greece and Rome, through to the conversion of British and Irish Celts to Christianity, and the revival of interest in all things Celtic that began in the 17th century and laid the foundations for much of modern Druidry.

Apart from hundreds of gold and silver torcs (seriously, there were cases stuffed full of them, and some were gigantic!), weapons, shields and miscellanea, one highlight of the exhibition was definitely the famous and vast Gundestrup Cauldron, found in Denmark. I’ve seen many images of this in books, but seeing the real thing was an experience I won’t forget. It is huge and polished bright silver, with details on every panel showing hunts, battles, feasts, deities, heroes and more. The most striking image is that of a figure seated, Buddha-like, amongst a variety of animals. He has antlers on his head and is wearing a torc, while holding another one. In his other hand, he holds a horned serpent.

"Cernunnos" figure from the Gundestrup cauldron, Denmark c. 2nd century CE

“Cernunnos” figure from the Gundestrup cauldron, Denmark c. 2nd century CE

In modern Paganism, this figure has come to be known as Cernunnos, although he is not named on the cauldron and the name comes from a different inscription on the 1st century Gaulish “pillar of the boatmen”. Whatever his name, and whether he was intended to represent a god or a shaman-like figure, we will never know, but his image remains evocative of Druidry and the “wild wisdom” of the forest.

Turning the corner, the exhibition features giant stone crosses from early Celtic Christianity, and comments on how British Celts embraced Christianity as a badge of identity against the invading Pagan Anglo-Saxons. The blend of Celtic, Saxon, and later Viking art and culture all combined to create a distinct British-Celtic art style and identity that would fuel the imagination of the later Celtic revival.

"Archdruid in his judicial habit" from !Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles" (1815)

“Archdruid in his judicial habit” from “Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles” (1815)

The exhibition goes on to feature early modern and Victorian ideas of the Celts, fanciful and romantic reconstructions of “noble savages” and Druids building stone circles (which of course, pre-dated the Celts by some several thousand years). In this section, the exhibition features some really interesting artefacts of modern Celticism, including Archdruid’s robes from the Welsh Gorsedd. This is a cultural, non-Pagan form of Druidry inspired by the forgeries of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams), whose ceremonies and symbols, notably the Awen symbol /|\, have also influenced traditional British Pagan Druidry in a big way.

Speaking of, I was surprised and pleased to see modern Druidry represented, with a case featuring the Druid Animal Oracle by OBOD’s Chief Druid, Philip Carr-Gomm. According to the caption, Druidry is one of the fastest-growing religions in the UK and USA, so go team!

While the price of the exhibition (£16.50 adults, £13.00 students) seemed a bit steep, it was genuinely fascinating and really rather moving, and an excellent way to spend a grey December afternoon learning about our Celtic past and present.

Celts: Art and Identity is on until 31 January 2016. For more information see the British Museum website.

You’re unfortunately not allowed to take photos in the exhibition, so all images in this post are by the Museum/via press reports of the exhibition.

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Eighth High Day recap: Winter Solstice

Home shrine set up for Yule. Image by me

Home shrine set up for Yule. Image by me

For the Winter Solstice, I celebrated a Norse Yule, using the Yule rite from Egelhoff’s Sunna’s Journey: Norse Liturgy through the Wheel of the Year. My home shrine was decorated with holly and mistletoe, traditional evergreen plants used in many Pagan celebrations of the season.

Since I was unable to have a Yule log, I adapted the rite to us three tea-light candles instead, lighting one for each of the Three Kindreds addressed in ADF ritual. The gatekeeper for the rite was the Jotun and goddess of the winter hunt, Skadi, while the main offerings of the rite were to Mani, the moon god. This was particularly auspicious since there was a full moon on the night of the ritual (24 December), which shone brightly in the clear night sky as the ritual was conducted.

As with the Samhain/Winternights rite, the ritual featured a story, this time telling the tale of Odin and the Wild Hunt, a ghostly hunt which ride the winds on the darkest and coldest nights of the year.

Offerings were made with German wheat beer, and the omen was taken using runes. The reading was very positive, with runes indicating gifts, reciprocity, and guidance.

Following this, Yule was celebrated with feasting, presents, drinks, good cheer and a long winter walk (as well as the obligatory Doctor Who Christmas special)!

Rune reading and kindred candles. Image by me

Rune reading and kindred candles. Image by me

Eighth High Day: Winter Solstice

Image from livescience

Image from livescience

The Winter Solstice occurs on or around 21 December, and marks the point of the shortest day and longest night of the year. This is due to the axial tilt of the earth as it orbits the sun. At the Winter Solstice, the northern hemisphere is inclined away from the sun, even though the planet is actually closer to the sun by some 9 million miles than at other times of the year. It is this axial tilt which causes the days to grow darker and shorter until the Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer once again.

The word “Solstice” comes from the Latin sol sistere, meaning “the sun stands still” as it appears to do so in the sky. The season of the Winter Solstice is celebrated by cultures throughout the world and in many forms, from the Norse Yule to the Christian Christmas.

The date of Christmas was not set until the mid 4th century CE, and may have been deliberately chosen to coincide with, or co-opt, existing Pagan festivals celebrating the birth of the sun at midwinter. Many existing Christmas traditions, including decorating homes with evergreens, lights and mistletoe, feasting and giving gifts, may have originated in Pagan celebrations of the Solstice.

Bonewits states that “while the Celts don’t seem to have paid much attention to it, the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic cultures certainly did. Also known as Yule or Midwinter, this is a day sacred to sun, thunder and fire deities”. It is also likely that the pre-Celtic megalithic cultures of the British Isles celebrated the Solstice, as monuments such as Stonehenge and Bryn Celi Du are positioned in such a way as to be illuminated by the first rays of the rising sun at the Winter Solstice.

In some forms of modern Druidry, the day is called by the Welsh name, Alban Arthan, and Hutton points to Welsh literature as providing evidence of a “new year’s feast” celebrated at this time. In most modern Paganism, however, the day is called by the Norse term, Yule, a word that has connections to “wheel” (as in the wheel of the year) and also the word “jolly”.

Higgenbotham writes that “Yule traditions include the burning of the Yule log, which represents the increasing light of the season. It is a common practice to keep a piece of it to light the next year’s Yule log, and to scatter some of its ashes over the fields”.

References:

ADF. Our Own Druidry: An introduction to Ár nDraíocht Féin and the Druid Path. Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

Bonewits, Isaac. Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism. New York: Citadel Press, 2005.

Higginbotham, Joyce and River. Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-centered Religions. Woodbury, Llewellyn Publications, 2008.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Image from sodahead

Image from sodahead

Book review: The Awen Alone

awen aloneI’ve been meaning to do a review of Joanna van der Hoeven’s The Awen Alone: Walking the Path of the Solitary Druid for ages. I recently re-read this wonderful little book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in a brief introduction to Druidry, especially those who are not a member of an Order or other organisation, or who practice their Druidry alone.

Joanna van der Hoeven is a Canadian Druid based in the UK, and has trained with OBOD and with Emma Restall-Orr. Her Druidry, therefore, is very much in the shape and form of what you might call “traditional British Druidry”, which is very different from the Druidry of ADF. There is a lot of wisdom in this book that is applicable to Druids and Pagans of all persuasions however.

The book is organised into three sections: the basics of Druidry, Druidry in practice and creating your own Druid path. The first is a short but effective overview of Celtic and Druidic history, as well as discussion of concepts such as gods, ancestors and nature. The second and third sections provide, for me, the most interesting parts of the book, featuring practical suggestions for meditation, nature awareness, “inner pathworking” and rituals to help create your own personalised Druidry.

Van der Hoeven’s Druidry is emphatically non-dogmatic. She says:

“In Druidry, there is a broad interpretation of just who or what the gods are. Some Druids are monotheists, believing in only one god. Some are polytheists, believing in many gods. Some are pantheists, believing that everything is an interpretation of the divine, and this seems to bridge the two strands of monotheism and polytheism. A benefit of the solitary path is that we can choose our own path, which may or may not lead to relationship with deity or deities. We may choose to see Druidry as a religion, with deity concepts, or see it as a philosophy, and leave deity out of it.”

This openness is, in my opinion, one of the great strengths of Druidry, but it does not mean that Druidry is a pick-&-mix, flaky spirituality. Van der Hoeven discusses Druidy’s commitment to nature and the practical ethics that flow from it, for everything from choosing what to eat to how to live lightly on the earth. She writes:

“Being a Druid is about taking responsibility for one’s actions, as well as for one’s environment. No longer can one be ignorant about either – it is waking up and making a commitment to understand, to the best of our abilities, everything that we do and say”.

At the heart of this Druidry is the Awen, a Welsh word meaning “inspiration”. Awen is central to traditional British Druidry, and is often chanted in ritual. For van der Hoeven, Awen is:

“an awareness, not just on a physical and mental level, but also on a soul-deep level of the entirety of existence, of life itself. It is seeing the threads that connect us all. It is the deep well of inspiration that we drink from, to nurture our souls and our world, and to give back in joy, in reverence, in wild abandon and solemn ceremony”.

The Awen is something I miss in my current ADF Druid practice, and van der Hoeven’s book reminds me why it is so important in the Druid tradition.

Van Der Hoeven is also the author of Zen Druidry, which discusses her personal practice combining Zen Buddhism and Druidry, and this aspect is referred to here in the section on meditation. I would recommend Zen Druidry as another short read for anyone interested in either, or both, paths.

The Awen Alone is a short book, only 101 pages, but it packs in a wealth of information and practical exercises that help you to not only know about Druidry, but experience it.

 

Nine Virtues: Perseverance

Image from "Successmohawk"

Image from “Successmohawk”

Our Own Druidry defines perseverance as “Drive; the motivation to pursue goals even when that pursuit becomes difficult”. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success”, while “persevere” is defined as “to continue in a course of action in the face of difficulty”.

The version of the Asatru Nine Noble Virtues in Our Own Druidry makes the above points in stark language: “We hold to the path until its completion and are not ashamed to be strong. The cult of the anti-hero will find no support in us, and the gods we follow are not for the weak”.

I find the Asatru language hostile, and unforgiving for people with conditions such as depression, that can weaken our resolve and make perseverance more difficult, but the general sentiment of all the above definitions is clear. In the words of Winston Churchill (who was a Druid), “KBO: Keep Buggering On”.

Perseverance is to continue in a task even when the end seems far off, or the task is difficult. In Joseph Campbell’s monomyth of the hero’s journey, perseverance is always required for the hero to complete their quest, to reach their destination, slay their monster or find their reward.

In the Dedicant Path, perseverance is essential to keep going, even when exercises like the mental discipline requirement, or the seemingly-endless stream of essays, look impossible to finish. To have perseverance, the virtue of vision is also needed: you need a clear goal to pursue.

The ancient Pagans, especially those in harsh climates such as the Celts and Norse, would have valued perseverance highly, as it meant you could keep fighting, keep surviving in the sparse landcape and cold winters. In Norse myth, you can see Odin’s nine nights of hanging on Ygdrassil to gain wisdom as an example of perseverance, as he kept going through his long ordeal.

References:

ADF. Our Own Druidry. ADF Publishing, 2009

Oxford English Dictionary for Students. Oxford University Press, 2006

Dangler, M.J. The ADF Dedicant Path through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010

 

Mental Discipline essay

Meditating. Image from TBYH on Flickr (CC 2.0)

Meditating. Image from TBYH on Flickr (CC 2.0)

The meditation/mental discipline challenge was one that I had dreaded at the start of the Dedicant Path, as I have a very active mind, and am also not very good at sticking to a structured routine. All told, this was easily the most difficult challenge in the Path so far. Five months of meditation practice felt, at times, to be a long sentence!

Starting in March this year, I tried to make time in the mornings for a short 5-10 minute meditation at my home shrine. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sit still for longer than that, no matter how much I might want to be like some mountaintop  monk in perfect stillness for hours at a time.

While I have not managed to keep up the “daily” part of this practice every day, I have managed to keep to at least 2-3 sessions a week, so have not had to restart at any point (the DP manual states that if you have a 7-day period of no meditation, you need to re-start the 26 weeks all over again).

Dangler writes that the mental discipline requirement cam be fulfilled in a number of ways, including regular seated “passive” meditation, moving meditation, mantras, oracular meditation and daily devotions.

I began with a simple breathing meditation at my home shrine. I lit a candle, and counted the rhythm of my breaths in a “4-2-4-2” pattern (breathe in for 4 beats, hold for 2, breathe out for 4, hold for 2) as suggested by Dangler. I found counting to be distracting, so after a few weeks I moved to trying to be aware of my breathing, its pattern and flow, how it feels in my body. When thoughts emerge, I noticed them and then tried to shift my awareness back to my breathing.

I found this form of meditation to be quite difficult to work with, as my mind just wouldn’t stay still. I realised that I needed a focus for my thoughts, rather than trying to silence them completely. So, with the help of Dangler’s A Crane Breviary and Guide Book, I began to do daily devotionals at my shrine, with a silent meditation in the middle.  This worked a lot better, as the short ritual format gave me a focus and structure that I didn’t have before. I also drew an Ogham stave to give me a “thought for the day” to focus on throughout the day.

After learning the Two Powers meditation, I began to incorporate that into these devotionals. Visualising the powers of earth and sky came surprisingly easy, and reminded me of some of my OBOD exercises such as the “Light Body exercise”. Using the Two Powers as my meditation deepened my practice and my sense of connection. On holiday, I had the opportunity to do the Two Powers sat on a glacial boulder by a fjord in Norway, which was a very intense and moving experience.

After deciding on a Norse hearth culture for the Dedicant Path, I switched from using Dangler’s devotions (which have a Gaulish focus) to those in Egelhoff’s book Sunna’s Journey, which has a similar short rite focused on the Norse “deities of the day”. Saturday is the only day of the week not named after a Norse god or goddess, so I decided to take it as a day off! At this point, I also switched out the daily Ogham for Runes instead, and used this as an opportunity to learn to recognise the runes and their meanings.

As well as doing a daily devotional/meditation in the mornings, I have found that my Nature Awareness exercises have also acted as a form of moving meditation. I regularly take walks by the river or in local woods, in silence, observing nature around me. Sometimes I sit and do the Two Powers meditation outdoors, which always feels much more “real” and physical than at the indoor shrine. I make sure to do this at least twice a week.

Over the past months, I have found meditation to be challenging and often frustrating, but also (when it feels right) calming and helpful. Meditation has been shown to help with depression and anxiety, which I suffer from, so I fully intend to keep up a meditation practice after finishing the Dedicant Path.

Mental discipline is still a struggle, especially on a cold morning when all I want to do is stay in bed for 10 more minutes, but I have found that on days when I do meditate, the day seems easier and more productive afterwards. The virtues of Piety, Vision and Perseverance certainly come in useful in deciding to meditate on days when I don’t feel like it. While I haven’t been able to do more than 10 minutes at a time, I hope to work up to a regular 20-minute meditation over the next few months.

References:

ADF. Our Own Druidry. ADF Publishing, 2009.

Dangler, M.J. The Dedicant Path Through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2010.

Dangler, M.J. A Crane Breviary and Guide Book. Garanus, 2010.

Egelhoff, N. Sunna’s Journey: Norse Liturgy Through the Wheel of the Year. Garanus, 2012.