Druid College: Year One, Weekend One.

oaks-995359_960_720Last weekend, I took the car down some windy country lanes to the tiny Essex village of Messing, to gather in the Village Hall for the first weekend of Year One of Druid College.

Under the clearest blue skies all month, some nineteen Druid Apprentices came together from all over the country and beyond, some even making the trip from as far away as Sweden, for a weekend of intense Druid study and practice.

The College (named for the earlier sense of the word “College” not as a physical building but as a group of students in vocational preparation) is taught by the dynamic duo of Joanna van der Hoeven and Robin Herne, with occasional guest tutors for specific subjects. The full programme runs for three years, with four weekend courses a year (and homework and self-driven study in between).

This first weekend was largely introductory, but I was impressed with the sheer amount of material we covered. The first day was largely classroom-based, with Jo and Robin taking us on a journey into Druidry, its ancient roots and modern practice. From the wheel of the year to connection with the gods, ancestors and spirits of place, to storytelling and myth, trees and ogham and more, there was a lot to take in and my hand ached at the end of the day from all the notes I made! Other, deeper, concepts were tackled too, including ideas of truth, honour and service, living with integrity and the role of Druids as peace-makers.

For a change of pace, we had an activity halfway through the day where we went outside and found a spot to connect with the energies of the land. After wandering around the old churchyard opposite the hall for a while, I found a spot beneath an ancient yew tree, probably older than the church itself, and sat down. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, my experience with sensing things has never been exactly overwhelming, but I definitely picked up a feeling of history, of centuries of human and non-human activity, and beneath that, the constant but gentle pulse of the land.

After a night spent in a nearby pub on a very loud road, the second day I felt pretty tired, but excited to continue. This day also began with lectures, after which we had our first guest teacher, Melanie Cardwell, a herbalist and healer, who came to teach us an introduction to making medicine from everyday plants and herbs. We learned about making infusions and decoctions to drink as tea, tinctures in alcohol, herbal oils, and salves made with beeswax (or coconut oil for vegans).

Following that, we went out for a walk, each armed with our trusty staff or wand that we had been asked to bring. Passing the village green and heading out into the fields, Melanie stopped frequently to point out an interesting tree or plant and tell us about its medical properties and how to harvest it safely and sustainably. The walk took us into the woods, which were beautiful in their autumnal hues, and filled with mushrooms, and into a large clearing surrounded by oaks, birch and beech, where we each dedicated ourselves to the journey ahead in a small but very moving Druid ritual.

Then it was goodbyes and home!

I can’t believe a week has already passed, but I also feel like it was ages ago. I have lots of activities and assignments to do before we next meet in January, and I’ll be blogging about them here as I go.

Having studied some distance-learning Druid courses, I feel like I got more experience of real-life Druidry from this one weekend of in-person teaching from experienced Druids and within the context of a community of apprentices. Not to belittle the distance-learning courses, they are wonderful and for many who can’t get to physical Colleges a lifeline, but I learn best in person and in a more traditional classroom/lecture/practical activity format.

A while ago, I wrote about the need to stop dabbling with Druidry and start getting real. To stop reading about Druidry and start practicing it. I feel like Druid College has set me on the path, and given me a map for the first steps on this new journey. Thanks to Jo, Robin, Melanie and all my classmates for the teaching, fellowship and good food! See you all in January!

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Autumn is here

autumn-1757887_960_720According to the Met Office, Autumn officially started ten days ago, on 1 September. Astronomically, Autumn begins in 11 days time, at the Autumnal Equinox on 21 September. Some Druids place Autumn’s beginning at the Equinox (Alban Elfed), while others consider Autumn to begin with Lughnasadh, the harvest festival generally held around early August.

Rather than merely following a calendar, for me, one of the skills and tasks of a Druid was (and is) to know the signs of nature, those subtle hints of trees and birds, animals and stars, that tell of changes in weather or season. The ancient Druids were said to use augury (studying the flight of birds) to divine the future.

One of the benefits of living in the same place for a few years, and making an effort to go out and observe nature as often as possible, is coming to know and recognise these signs. I have a long way to go before I can identify every tree in my local woods, but sometimes nature speaks so loudly it’s hard to miss. And sometimes, it honks.

I was out in my garden yesterday and I heard a great honking above me. I looked up, and right over my head, flying low as to come in to land, was a whole skein of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), flying in their famous V-formation, instantly recognisable by their brown bodies with white underbellies, and black necks and heads, with a white band around the chin.

These visitors from the North arrive around September each year, albeit at different times depending on how mild or cold the weather has been, and settle by the local river. They are among my favourite birds, and I welcome them as old friends returning after a long absence.

For me, the arrival of the geese is the start of Autumn. There are other signs too, the sloes on the blackthorn, the first leaves falling, the squirrels digging up my lawn! But it’s the geese that always tell me that yes, Autumn is here.

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Pagan Hygge

I first encountered the word “hygge” a few years ago and it always brings to mind the coziness of the homes I saw in Sweden and Norway, each with their little lamps in the window, glowing softly amidst the dark and snow. It’s a quality worth cultivating back home, too, as Joanna Van Der Hoeven points out:

Hygge is a wonderful word. But it’s more than a word; it’s a feeling. Hygge (pronounced hue-gah or hoo-gah) was originally a Norwegian word, meaning “wellbeing” that was adopted by the Danes in the early 1800’s. Nowadays, it’s a very important word to describe a feeling of comfort, security, warmth, friendship, cosiness and more. In […]

via Pagan Hygge — Down the Forest Path

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Running as connection

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I went for a run today.

Not exactly earth-shatteringly important news to share on here, but it was significant for me. I’ve been getting out of shape lately, working a pretty sedentary job and having various mental health crises that led to me not looking after myself very well, so lacing up my shoes and getting out the door was a big deal.

There are some wooded trails around my neighbourhood, which I am very lucky to have, so I went down one of those, and I noticed that running can be more than just pavement-pounding for the sake of losing a few pounds.

I noticed the fruit on the elder tree, ready to be picked to make elderberry wine, and the ripening blackberries on the hedgerows (I even nibbled a couple, the sweetness giving me that extra bit of energy to keep going). I noticed the birds calling, and flying overhead, the squirrels bouncing from branch to branch. I heard the wind whispering through the willow leaves, and felt it on my face, cooling me down as I started to overheat with the exertion of running for the first time in ages.

I felt the earth beneath my feet, felt the change in texture and pressure as I moved from hard pavement to gravel trail to grassy field.

I saw the sun break through the clouds, three rays of light softly cascading down like an Awen symbol, inspiring me to keep going.

And as I ran, I noticed that I had no room in my head for other thoughts, for work or the news or TV or Twitter. Just my body, the earth beneath me and the air around me.

It was a sensation of simply “being”, one part of nature surrounded by other parts of nature, in this moment, sharing a physical connection.

I had never thought of exercise as being in any way spiritual, just seeing it as another tiring chore. But being out in nature, appreciating the air and the sun and the land, felt like meditation (only better as I actually had something to do rather than just sit there). No words, no ritual, no symbols, just the physicality of movement, the inhalation and exhalation of air, and the rhythm of feet on earth.

On a Sunday, while other people may be going to church to connect with their vision of the sacred, I’ll be out in the woods, running along the trails, connecting with mine.

*Note: I don’t intend this to come off as in any way ableist: I am aware that many people who practice Druidry/Paganism have health and/or mobility issues that make running impossible. This in no way limits their ability to connect with the sacred, and in no way suggests that physical activity is “better”. I am simply sharing my experience today.

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What mud and whose blood?

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Update 2:

Greywolf, head of the BDO, left this comment on the original post which explains the origins of the “mud and blood” phrase in detail:

“As, for my sins, the chief of the BDO, I wrote the quoted sentence, “We draw inspiration from the sacred land and from our ancestry; from the mud and blood of Britain, whose myths and mysteries are the wellspring of our tradition.” Had you asked, I would happily have explained what was meant by it.
In 1997, I was working closely with Emma Restall Orr, a.k.a. Bobcat, who I had invited to join me as joint chief of the BDO in 1995. When asked what Druidry is (always a difficult question), she would often reply “mud and blood.” What she meant is that Druidry is a religion rooted in the earth and that direct contact with the earth helps us to engage with it with all our senses. For an example of this in action, check out the video of our appearence in the tv series, Desperately Seeking Something, in which Bobcat gets presenter, Pete MacCarthy, to lie face down in the mud in a wood. The ‘blood’ part of the equation is meant to convey the need to engage with Druidry at a primal level that involves every aspect of ourselves, that it involves our bodily fluids and not just our minds.
My expansion of it to ‘the mud and blood of Britain’ was intended to indicate, as said, the fact that much of the inspiration behind the BDO stems from my own quest to recover a local form of what is now known globally by that much-overused term ‘shamanism.’ There were two reasons for this. One stemmed from my exploration of eastern spirituality in the 1960s and early 70s, particularly Zen Buddhism and Taoism. While both have much to recommend them, I still had the feeling that there were aspects of them I was incapable of grasping because I didn’t have the understanding I would have had if I had grown up in the cultures that produced them. Christianity seemed equally distant to me, with its references to deserts, palm trees and camels, things I was only acquainted with when Carry On: Follow That Camel was being filmed near my childhood home. This set me on a quest to find a spirituality I could fully embrace because it grew from the land in which I was born, a quest that led me to Druidry as one of the two religions Britain has given to the world, the other being Wicca.
The second reason why I embraced Druidry as the earliest native British spirituality for which we have a name stemmed from a growing awareness of the problem of cultural appropriation. This is an extremely sensitive issue for many indigenous peoples. A coalition of Native American tribes went so far as to declare war on exploiters of Lakota spirituality – http://www.aics.org/war.html . I’ve met many Europeans who have adopted Native American spirituality and will only use sacred herbs, feathers, drums and rattles imported from the United States, seemingly oblivious to the deep offense this causes to many American Indians who feel that Europeans have robbed them of their lands, their rights, their language, culture, health and pretty much everything else, and now we’re coming after all they have left, their religion. I have argued for years that this is completely unnecessary when Europeans have a number of native spiritual paths that we can follow, one of which is Druidry.
That said, we have never exercised any exclusivity over who may join the British Druid Order and have members in many countries around the world. A long-standing statement on our website says that: “we welcome all who come to us, and to the lands in whose heritage our tradition is rooted, of whatever nationality, creed or colour. Anyone who knows history knows that Britain is, and always has been, a ‘mongrel’ nation, from the first hunter-gatherers arriving from Continental Europe after the last Ice Age, through to present-day migrants. Many folk have made Britain their home over many millennia and we honour, respect and welcome them all.”

Update 1:

The British Druid Order have issued a Statement on Racism that makes clear that “the BDO wants to add its voice in condemning all manifestations of racism and to clearly state that as an organisation it does not and will not tolerate any form of racism or racial abuse within its membership or affiliates. We stand with all groups, even where we may disagree with them on other issues, that are targeted by racist, fascist and neo-Nazi organisations, whether inside and outside of Paganism.”.

You can read the full statement on the BDO website.

Thanks to everyone on the BDO Facebook group for some wise and illuminating discussion on this topic.

Continue reading

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Book Review: Old Gods, New Druids

20170813_153435Old Gods, New Druids. Robin Herne. O Books (Moon Books), 2009.

There were three reasons for me reading this book (because Druids do it in threes!): One, it looked interesting and I wanted to broaden my understanding of Druidry both ancient and modern; Two, because I promised Nimue I’d do a review of it eventually; and Three, because the author, Robin Herne, is also one of the tutors at Druid College UK and it’s on my reading list!

Well, I’m glad I took the time to sit down with this one and digest it over several cups of tea, lots of biscuits and the occasional whisky.

Robin organises the book into twenty lessons, each with historical background and in-depth discussion of a certain theme, such as the structure of early Gaelic society; the Gods and Goddesses; Truth and Justice; etc, followed by points to consider or discuss and some practical activities to try out.

A diligent reader (alas, not me for I didn’t have the time) who worked through all the discussions and activities, could start the book with little to no understanding of the subject and finish it with a solid grounding and a workable Druid practice.

Unlike many other “introduction” books on Druidry out there, Old Gods, New Druids is based heavily in the history of the early Celtic tribes in the Iron Age, and examines carefully what we know (and what we don’t know) about how they lived, loved, worshiped and legislated. The sheer amount of facts, and the tongue-twisting names of ancient Celtic sources crammed into this relatively short book did have my brain spinning in places, but Robin’s conversational and easygoing writing style stopped it from feeling too dense or dry.

Robin writes from the perspective of both an academic and a practicing Pagan, and the lessons are often put into both the historical Celtic context and the context of how his own group, the Clan, work with the gods and myths today. He tackles the ever-present question of whether we can even be Druids today by saying:

Do we consider ourselves modern counterparts the the ancient Druids? The answer is: sort of. Druids performed many functions for the old tribes. Some of the duties are beyond our league…However, there are functions that we certainly perform in our daily lives. Some of us teach, some heal the sick, we all perform ritual…etc.

It’s clear that Robin’s view of modern Druidry is one influenced by the ancient past, but also rooted firmly in the real world in which we live today, and specifically rooted in community and service.

While I am generally less interested in how ancient Celts organised their societies than perhaps some modern Druids are, I still think it is absolutely worthwhile to know your background and know your history; by which I mean real, documented and archaeological history rather than the mish-mash of folklore and fake-lore that is often propagated in some Pagan communities. With this in mind, Old Gods, New Druids is an excellent sourcebook for gaining a decent foundation in what the ancient Druids might have actually believed and actually done.

That said, the book isn’t just an historical miscellany. We are invited to consider what implications the past has on how we practice and live our Druidry now. What do we want to keep? What do we want to discard? What do we want to change?

Myth inspires the future. A romantic past that just leads one to gawping passively into dreamland is of little use. A vision of the future that inspires us to strive forward, to make that ideal a reality, is far more practical.

I would probably not recommend this book as the very first thing someone should read about Druidry if they had absolutely no background knowledge or experience; some of the history and references to ancient texts can seem a bit overpowering, and there isn’t much on modern Druid orders, ritual, the wheel of the year etc. This is intentional, and I’m glad to see that it isn’t a book filled with the usual rehashed information and padded out with ritual scripts, but I would probably recommend this for people who are either already practicing Druidry and want to learn where it all comes from in order to deepen their connection to it, or at least for people who have read a book or two on modern Druidry first.

That said, it’s an informative and entertaining read and well worth a place on any Druid’s bookshelf, and after reading it I’m very much looking forward to learning from Robin as I commence my Druid College studies in October.

 

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Druid Camp and Druid College

2014.07.24-01-Druid-Camp-Windmill-aI’m back from my second time at Druid Camp, and it was brilliant again!

This year’s camp had a very different feel for me than the last one. Part of that was the weather (last year was glorious sunshine, this one was near-constant rain), part of that was the different theme and speakers and part of that was the simple fact that it wasn’t my first time any more.

Different isn’t bad though, by any means. Just that while last year’s camp felt exuberant and fun, this year was more challenging. The workshops I attended and the group work involved facing up to some of my own fears and anxieties, and overcoming them, at least in part. Hey, I only had a social-anxiety panic attack once, which is pretty good for me!

The highlight of the camp was the amazing gig by Inkubus Sukkubus on the Saturday night, which had everyone up and dancing, cold and rain be damned!

And, as before, the real fun was found in the impromptu conversations over tea in the cafe, or by the fire (when it was dry enough to light), with old friends and new, including the ever-wonderful Penny Billington and Philip “Greywolf” Shallcrass.

In other news, since I had my “get real” moment where I decided to stop dabbling with Druidry and start getting serious, I emailed Joanna van der Hoeven of Druid College UK. Knowing their course starts in October, I wasn’t optimistic about enrolling this year, but by one of those amazing bits of “cosmic coincidence” (to borrow a phrase from Greywolf), there was one place left. And, the day before I started packing for Druid Camp, I got an email to say my application was accepted!

So, I plan on finishing my Bardic Review for OBOD this week (just to get it done), and then I have a reading list to work through to prepare for the start of my Year One studies with Druid College UK. Druid College does in-person residential weekends, and works to train apprentices of Druidry rather that just students of Druidry. I’m seriously excited by this, and am really looking forward to seeing where this new journey on the Druid path will take me.

*Header image from http://www.druidcamp.org.uk

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