Solstice and darkness

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The Summer Solstice, that great hinge and turning point of the year, is traditionally a time of celebration, perhaps the single most significant celebration in the Wheel of the Year for Druids and Pagans.

But looking at the news at the time of this Solstice, there seems little cause for celebration; in fact celebration feels, to me at least, hollow and even callous in the face of the appalling evils in the world right now. As I write this, the President of the USA, acting under guidance from a far-right activist with links to the neo-Nazi “alt right”, is tearing children from their families and locking them in wire frame cages in abandoned warehouses. Video and audio of these prison camps has been released which I won’t link to here, but which you can find easily enough. It shows children screaming. There have been suicide attempts. By children.

(Update: since writing this, the President has signed an order “reversing” his earlier order to separate children from parents. However, this order has no effect on the children already held in prison camps, who will remain separated. Any new families being imprisoned will be held together, but still in internment camps, and still detained indefinitely. Whole families are being locked up for no crime, and children who were already taken from parents are not being reunited. I’ll believe the President has truly changed his mind when all the camps are closed and families reunited in freedom).

Closer to home, the UK government is steamrollering a destructive hard-right “Brexit” rooted in fear, racism and xenophobia. Climate change is rising, and governments are doing nothing to stop it. Wars, poverty, discrimination, hatred, are rife. At the Summer Solstice, the time of greatest light, the sun shines on an unfair and unjust world.

But the Summer Solstice is a turning point. For as the light reaches its zenith, the year turns towards darkness. As a Pagan, I don’t hold with the Christianised equation of light with good and dark with evil. This idea, which has itself been used to justify colonialism and racism,  has no place in a spirituality that holds the night, the moon and the dark to be as sacred as the sun and the day.

As we turn to the darkness, may we find peace and healing. And may we find something else – power.

There is power in darkness. Witches ancient and modern know this, holding rites beneath the velvet blackness of the midnight sky. In darkness we are unseen, we are changed, we become mystery, magic. And magic can hex as well as heal.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a “love and light” Pagan. Druidry has a dark side.

So this Summer Solstice, this shortest night, this turn towards the dark, once the sun in its glory has set beyond our sight, I offer this hex, a prayer to the darkness.

To all who do evil, and those who manipulate others to do evil;

To all who aid and abet evil, through action or through word;

To all whose works bring division, fear and pain;

To all whose thoughts are malice and hate:

May darkness rise and cover you.

May darkness rise and overwhelm you.

May darkness rise and silence you.

May darkness rise and banish you.

May darkness rise and weaken you.

May darkness rise and take you.

May shadows hold and bind you,

Now and evermore.

Now and evermore.

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Book Review: The Hedge Druid’s Craft

hedgedruidJoanna van der Hoeven, The Hedge Druid’s Craft: an introduction to walking between the worlds of Wicca, Witchcraft and Druidry. Moon Books, 2017

This book will be released on 29 June, but I was lucky enough to win a copy in a competition, so I got to see it early, which was nice.

The Hedge Druid’s Craft is a relatively brief introductory text that “blends the traditions of Wicca, Witchcraft and Druidry into a spiritual path that uses the techniques of ‘hedge riding’ to travel between the worlds, bringing back wisdom and enchantment into our everyday lives”.

Beginning in Wicca, then working with Zen and training with Druidry, Joanna van der Hoeven describes herself as a “Hedge Druid and Witch”, and this book draws on her stores of knowledge and practical experience in both Druidry and Witchcraft to map out a potential path that can bring them together.

In The Hedge Druid’s Craft, Joanna spends some time introducing Wicca, Witchcraft and Druidry for those new to any one of these traditions, and then gets straight into the main focus of the book: the idea of the “Hedge” as delineating a liminal space, going beyond the usual use of the term “Hedge Witch” as simply a Witch who is not connected to a larger religion or organisation, and looking at the idea of the Hedge itself as a boundary between the worlds, one that can be crossed in Witchcraft, ritual, meditation and visualisation:

“Hedges have long been used by Witches in the community, who were often termed ‘Hedge Riders’. They were those who worked between the boundaries of the everyday and those of the wilderness; the wild spirits that dwelt therein.”

The Hedge Druid’s Craft provides rituals and guided visualisations to begin to practice this “Hedge Riding” work, and make connections to what Joanna describes as the lower, middle and upper worlds, taking the concept of the World Tree as a guide.

As well as this, the book is packed full of practical and useful lore, including plant, animal, celestial and weather lore, things that any Hedge Druid or Hedge Witch worth their salt should have at the very least a passing knowledge of. I definitely learned some new information from these sections, not least some basic medical uses of everyday plants such as nettle and dandelion.

Finally, the book has suggestions (not scripts) for rituals, spellwork and daily charms that could easily be adapted to suit different situations and act as a helpful toolkit to customise as you see fit.

My own path is primarily a Druid one, as I am training with Joanna and Robin Herne at Druid College UK at present. But I have also had a long fascination with Witchcraft, particularly in its more earthy forms, of plant and animal lore, of connecting with the wild within and without. I haven’t really explored or experimented with Witchcraft practices though, beyond reading about them, and this book has definitely given me the inspiration to give it a try. I feel that after one read-through, the next thing I want to do with this book is go through it again, this time with a notebook to jot down some of the rituals and practical things I want to try out, or learn more about. Thankfully, the book has an excellent bibliography at the end for those who want to dive deeper into this expression of Wicca, Witchcraft and Druidry.

Joanna writes: “For those whose paths meander and often overlap, and those who would not be constrained by labels, yet who seek some definition, perhaps this work will speak to you”. The Hedge Druid’s Craft is a worthwhile addition to any Pagan book collection, and sits very well alongside Joanna’s other works such as The Awen Alone and The Crane Bag.

Explorations in Ogham: Week 10 – Ceirt, Apple

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On Wednesdays, I’ll be exploring one of the original 20 Ogham letters and the trees associated with them. If you want to catch up on last week’s, follow the “Ogham” tag at the bottom of this post, or see the link HERE.

As always, I’ll be using my wonderful set of Ogham fews made from the correct corresponding wood by Green Woman Crafts, and two books: The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer, and the Collins Tree Guide by Owen Johnson and David More, as well as the Woodland Trust website.

This week, let’s look at the fifth letter in the second aicme, the tenth letter overall:

10. AppleCeirt (or Quert), pronounced “Kweirt”, which corresponds to the sound “kw” or in modern usage the letter Q.

“A few of delight, celebration and choice” (Greer)

While Ceirt has been compared with the Runic letter Peorð, associated with the Pear tree, most Druidic Ogham correspondences places Ceirt with Apple.

There are over 7,500 varieties of apple, Malus x domestica, or in the wild Malus pumila, with specific cultivars grown for eating, cooking and cider. The trees are small, and tend to be under 10m high. Leaves are dark green and typically oval in shape with serrated edges. Apple trees are known for their beautiful blossom, which tends to be white or light pink, and blooms in May-June. The fruit, of course is instantly recognisable!

Apples are not only an important food source for us humans, but also for wildlife. Birds and mammals such as badgers feed on fallen fruits, and bullfinches are often seen eating the buds. The blackbird, known in Druidry as Druid Dubh, enjoys bushier apple trees as a nesting site.

As you may expect, apples feature prominently in the mythology of several cultures. In Norse legends, the goddess Idunn provides apples of youth to the Aesir to keep them young and strong forever, and in Germanic Pagan burials, apples have been found among the grave goods, perhaps to ensure health in the next world, or as the “apples of Hel” referred to in an 11th century poem.

In Greek myth, Herakles was tasked to pick the golden apples from the Tree of Life that grew in the garden of the Hesperides; and in another tale Eris, goddess of discord, caused chaos by throwing an apple inscribed “for the most beautiful one” into a crowd at the wedding of Peleus. The apple was claimed by Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, and Paris of Troy was chosen to select which of the three goddesses was in fact the most beautiful and so deserving of the apple. The ensuing strife was, it is said, the ultimate cause of the Trojan War.

In Christian mythology, of course, the apple is the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the book of Genesis, which the serpent persuades Eve to eat.

The eating of apples, far from being a sin, has clear health benefits, as the fruit is rich in nutrients and phytochemicals, which preliminary research suggests may be preventative against the development of certain cancers. As the 19th century saying suggests, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”.

I have been lucky enough to live near orchards all my life, and some of my fondest early memories are of scrumping granny smith apples from a local farm. As an adult, cider is one of my favourite drinks on a hot summer’s day, and a fresh apple still my favourite fruit. Apple is also the wood from which my “Witch’s Runes” were made, which I use regularly in divination (more on that in another post).

In divination, Ceirt can signify happiness, healing and recovery, awakenings and new experiences, an unexpected gift, the rewards of success, an opportunity to live more fully.

30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 11 – Relationships: Ritual and Worship

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Ross Nichols, one of the major figures in 20th century Druidry, described ritual as “poetry in the world of acts”. In The Druidry Handbook, John Michael Greer writes that “just as a well written poem can reshape the awareness of its reader or hearer, revealing connections that might otherwise go unnoticed and highlighting neglected meanings, a well-performed ritual can do the same for those who take part in it.” For Joanna van der Hoeven, Druid ritual is “about connection and relationship – it is a way of experiencing a moment, of taking the time to stop and honour the sacredness of the time and place.”

Ritual is a cornerstone of much modern Paganism, and Druidry is no exception. When Druids gather in groups, we tend to do ritual. When Druids want to do their Druidry alone, we tend to do ritual. There are the seasonal rituals of the great festivals of the Wheel of the Year, rituals for full moons, rituals for namings, marriages, funerals and other rites of passage, daily rituals to greet the sun in the morning and the moon at night.

These rituals can be elaborate, scripted, choreographed affairs featuring dozens of people, or simple impromptu words of gratitude from a single Druid in their own back garden, or anything in between. It’s intention that matters – ritual that is simply rote repetition of words without thinking of the meaning behind them is worthless. Ritual, as van der Hoeven puts it, “allows time for our souls to grow, to expand, to drink in all that the Awen, inspiration and the world have to offer.”

Some practice ritual more than others: I tend not to go in for big rites in my personal practice. The Awen Alone has some really helpful tips for creating your own personal rituals that are simple but meaningful.

Ritual is not limited to saying words. Having your morning coffee can be a ritual, if you do it mindfully, taking time to savour it and being thankful for the beans, the farmers who harvested them and all it took to bring it to your cup. In regular life, we have rituals all the time: take birthday parties as an example. There, we sing a specific song, light candles, make wishes and share food. It’s practically a magic spell!

The beauty of Druid ritual is that it takes us out of the routine concerns of the everyday, and connects us to nature, recognising that, in the words of one Druid ritual, “this is sacred time. This is sacred space. We are fully present, here and now”.

And what of worship?

When I was starting out as a Pagan, I avoided worship like the plague. Having come from strict Catholicism via equally dogmatic atheism, the word was too loaded, and I didn’t want anything to do with it, or with deities.

I’ve softened my position over time, and come to realise that worship does not mean the absolute submission to some authoritarian god that I thought it did. The word “worship” comes from the Old English weorþscipe, meaning “worthiness”, literally worth-ship, to give worth to a person, object or deity.

Taking the older definition, worship is simply to enter into an honourable relationship with another. When that is applied to the gods, who are, as Emma Restall Orr writes, “the forces of nature: the winds that race through the valley, the valley itself crafted by mud and rock and water, the ancient rivers that flow across and beneath the land, the woodland and meadows, the sun that holds our planet in thrall”, then that relationship is the acknowledgement of that which is greater than ourselves.

This worship brings with it a sense of humility, and perspective, realising how small and short-lived we are compared to the mountains, rivers and trees. This is not sumbission, no sense of being a sinner in the hands of an angry god, but simply a reverence that comes from knowing our place within this wider ecosystem of spirit.

Worship presupposes belief, and increasingly I am beginning to see the value of holding some, at least tentative, belief in the divine. Anna Walther at Wildseed Within writes about choosing to believe in the Star Goddess, saying: “because I’m happier and more engaged with the world for believing so, I believe that the World As It Is, the Reality of Which We Are All a Part, the Whole Cosmos, is God Hirself.”

Choosing to see the world as sacred, as worthy of worship, is one way of re-enchanting our relationship with the world, of un-learning old religious and atheistic assumptions, and re-learning to see the world as alive, aware, in awe, rather than as inanimate resources there to be used.

Ritual helps connect us to worship by giving us a framework, a language, a shared or private symbology through which to mediate that emotional response and connect with each other and with the sacred, however you perceive it.

As the old meme has it: I worship nature; don’t laugh, at least I can prove it exists!

References:

Greer, J.M. The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. Weiser, 2006.

Restall-Orr, E. Living With Honour: a Pagan Ethics. O Books, 2007.

van der Hoeven, J. The Awen Alone. Moon Books, 2014.

Walther, A. “Choosing to believe in the star goddess”, Wildseed Within, 2018 [https://wildseedwithin.com/2018/05/29/on-choosing-to-believe-in-the-star-goddess/].

30 Weeks of Druidry: Week 10 – Relationships: the Spirits of the Land

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Sitting barefoot in the woodland grove, the Druid listens. The wind whispers the leaves in the beech trees overhead, and blackbirds in the branches sing their songs of Spring, of love and beauty. Through the soles of their feet, the Druid feels the pulse of the land, the slow but steady movement of soil and stone, of worms and tree-roots. In the distance, the Druid hears people walking their dog in the same woods. Silently, the Druid reaches out to the spirits of this place, in honour and friendship.

When I think about spirits of the land in Druidry, I do not think of the popular fantasy perception of fairies, elves, gnomes and the like. While I love a good fairytale as much as the next Pagan, I also try to keep my feet on the ground even when my head is in the clouds.

The way in which our modern culture interprets the word “spirit” to be functionally identical to “ghost” doesn’t help much; it creates a dualistic separation between spirit and body (thanks Descartes) that has no place in my more animistic understanding of the world. “Spirit” comes from Latin “spiritus”, and is connected to words like “respiration” and more poetically “inspiration”. It means breath, life. Aristotle thought of spirit as simply the animating principle of all living things, not a separate discarnate entity that could float off somewhere after the body dies.

Modern animists such as Emma Restall Orr and Graham Harvey have a much more nuanced concept of spirit that far better fits a nature-based Pagan approach, and I highly recommend their works.

The spirits of the land are, quite simply, the animating principles within the trees, the animals, the birds, the humans, the rocks, the water, the soil and earth itself. Each individual spirit is not separate, but combine into an ecosystem of spirit, a network of connection and harmony that joins together to form one song, the spirit of that  place.

There is nothing supernatural here. The world is filled with enspirited beings, who are amazing, evolved, sentient creatures who together make up the vast tapestry of life of which we are a part. My pet gerbil, the birds and squirrels in the garden, the vast oak trees, the bugs and spiders, caterpillars and moths, tiny minnows and giant blue whales, elephants and mice and even the microbacteria that live within our bodies and keep us alive, all are spirits of the land, sea and sky.

Have you ever noticed how some places, like particular deep woods or rocky coastlines, feel numinous, feel sacred, the moment you walk into them, inspiring reverence and silence? That for me is the spirit of the land in the place. Or have you noticed how one spot feels different from another? That too, is the spirit of the land, different in different locations. The spirit of a river is different from that of a forest, is different from that of a car park.

Meditating in my back garden and meditating on a glacial boulder at the edge of a Norwegian fjord left me in no doubt as to the presence of different spirits of the land, and yet, all these spirits of place are connected as the spirit of the earth, which some Pagans (and scientist James Lovelock) call Gaia.

In recent months, I have been working on developing a connection with a particular place, a small grassy fen right by the city centre, left to grow and be grazed by cattle, with a stream running through it, that sings joyfully as it splashes over rocks. I visit, I make offerings (usually of clear pure water), and I open myself to connect with the spirit of the land as it manifests there. I feel like something like a familiar acquaintance is forming between me and this place, which may develop into friendship.

Working on the garden, I have felt more connected to the spirit of the land here, which is slowly recovering after being bulldozed and built on to make the houses of which my home is one. Planting bushes, putting in a pond, letting the grass grow, I’ve noticed more birds and squirrels coming to spend time in the garden, and can feel the spirit of the land here exhaling, a sense of relief, of waking up.

Druidry is all about connection, all about relationship, and this goes beyond the usual nexus of human relationships we deal with every day. Connecting to the land, knowing it, living with it (not on it), this is to be “Pagan” in the truest sense, as people “of the land”.

Druidry in the doing

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It feels like I haven’t written about Druidry in ages. I certainly haven’t been keeping to my self-imposed schedule of twice weekly posts on the 30 Weeks of Druidry and Explorations in Ogham challenges, which I feel guilty and anxious about until I remember that I set the schedule, nobody’s checking in on me, and that means I can change it!

But my blog-silence doesn’t mean that Druidry has fallen by the wayside. Far from it: the main reason I’ve been unable to find the time to sit at a computer and write about Druidry is that I’ve been spending more time doing Druidry, at least doing things that I feel are Druidic anyway.

A quote I saw online (ironically) once said that “internet Paganism is not Paganism” and that’s something worth remembering. Especially as a solitary practicioner away from a local Pagan community, my path can easily become “internet Paganism”, more blogposts than blackbirds, more Facebook than forests.

When all your Druidry is digital, what is there of real, physical, nature? How much can you connect to the gods of land, sea and sky sat on your sofa?

I had another study weekend with Druid College at the end of April, just before Beltane. It was a weekend of personal challenges, facing some fears, and also a weekend of sitting barefoot in a wooded grove of oak and beech, meditating, chanting and singing. Without going into too much detail, something happened. Some small, subtle thing shifted in my subconscious, a tiny brain-hedgehog waking up from hibernation, twitching its whiskers in the warm spring air, sniffing at the scent of blossom and new life.

And so, as softly as a summer breeze, my Druidry (or what I thought of as my Druidry) was blown off course, and all I could do was ride the thermal current, a leaf on the wind. It led me away from the screen and away from books and essays (*cough – sobehindonmyhomeworkandstartingtopanic – cough*) and outdoors. Not to wild rugged romantic places, but to my own back garden, my local paths, the intriguing beauty of the fens.

I’ve been working in the garden more, putting in a pond for frogs and toads, planting wildlife-friendly shrubs, leaving a patch of lawn to become a grass-and-wildflower meadow. As I do so, I notice nature more. The species of trees that make up my mixed hedgerow, the movement of the great old willow, the play of squirrels, the territorial scraps of robins and blackbirds, the rooks who leave their roosts as I leave for work and return home as I’m having dinner in the evening.

I celebrated Beltane (which is, as all Pagan festivals are, a season not just a day), with a small ritual but also by going to a local folk festival and seeing Green Man costumed morris dancers, drinking local beer and cider, and later by cooking over an open fire in the garden. To me, all this is Druidry.

Waking, I greet the sun and the new day. Retiring, I greet the moon and the night. Cooking, I honor the plants I eat. Walking, I try to notice the land and hear its song, not be wrapped up in my own thoughts. Exercising, I strive to honour my own body as part of nature, as a sacred creature to love not to hate. Relaxing with my partner and our pet gerbil, I experience the bliss of connection to another living being.

None of this is particularly mystical, or intellectual, or specifically Pagan. But all of this is Druid. As my Druid teacher, Joanna van der Hoeven put it, “Druidry is loving nature and allowing that love to inspire you to live your life accordingly.”

And you know what? Stepping away from the screen and finding Druidry in the small daily moments has deepened my practice. Knowing about Druidry and actually being Druid are not the same thing, and it’s important sometimes to leave the books and websites and study, and get your hands dirty.

Explorations in Ogham: Week 9 – Coll, Hazel

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On Wednesdays, I’ll be exploring one of the original 20 Ogham letters and the trees associated with them. If you want to catch up on last week’s, follow the “Ogham” tag at the bottom of this post, or see the link HERE.

As always, I’ll be using my wonderful set of Ogham fews made from the correct corresponding wood by Green Woman Crafts, and two books: The Druidry Handbook by John Michael Greer, and the Collins Tree Guide by Owen Johnson and David More, as well as the Woodland Trust website.

This week, let’s look at the fourth letter in the second aicme, the ninth letter overall:

9. HazelColl (pronounced “Cull”), which corresponds to the letter C.

“A few of knowledge, creativity and inspiration” (Greer).

Coll means “Hazel tree”. There are around 15 Hazel species, and the Latin name for the genus, Corylus, has a linguistic connection to the Irish Coll. The most common Hazel in the UK is, unsurprisingly, Common Hazel, Corylus avellana.

Often coppiced or used in hedging, if left to grow Hazel can reach up to 12m and live for around 80 years. If coppiced, a Hazel’s lifespan can be greatly extended to reach several hundred years.

Hazel can be recognised by its oval, toothed, hairy leaves which turn vivid yellow before falling in autumn; and by its large yellow catkins which appear around mid-February before the leaves develop, and which hang in large clusters to spread pollen by the wind. Bees find it difficult to collect Hazel pollen and can only gather it in small loads. This is because the pollen is not sticky and actually repels one grain against another.

Hazel also produces nuts in autumn, which are edible by both humans and other animals. In Druid myth, Hazelnuts are seen as bestowing wisdom and inspiration. There are numerous variations on an ancient tale that nine Hazel trees grew around a sacred pool, dropping nuts into the water that were then eaten by a salmon, who became the Salmon of Wisdom (later caught by Fionn MacCumhail).

Hazel provides habitat for caterpillars of many moth species, and has long been associated with the dormouse (sometimes called the Hazel Dormouse). Not only are Hazelnuts used by dormice to fatten up for hibernation, but the dormice also eat the caterpillars that live on the leaves.

Hazel wood is used for fencing, and making the frames of traditional coracle boats. In spring, the young wood is so flexible it can be tied into a knot without breaking. Older branches are strong and sturdy and used for making walking sticks.I have a Hazel hedgerow in my garden, and my Druid staff is made from Hazel, which given its associations with wisdom and inspiration seems an appropriate choice.

In divination, Coll can signify knowledge, wisdom, talent, transformation and flexibility, the beginning of a new stage in life, communication and teaching.