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.

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Book review: The Crane Bag

cranebagJoanna van der Hoeven, The Crane Bag: a Druid’s guide to ritual tools and practices. Moon Books, 2017.

Joanna van der Hoeven is one of my teachers at Druid College UK, but I have been reading her books (and blog) for years previously, and always found them a delight.

The Crane Bag is the book I wish I had when I was first starting out with Druidry, dabbling with different Orders and practices, finding rituals on the internet and making no end of silly mistakes. As with all the books in Moon Books’ excellent Pagan Portals series, The Crane Bag is small, but like its namesake, is packed with useful and practical tools and advice to Druids at any stage on their journey.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of the Crane Bag, Joanna writes:

“The crane bag is a wonderful theme in Celtic mythology, found mostly in the tales of the warrior-poet Fionn Mac Cumhail, who inherited the crane bag from his father. This bag held the special treasures of the land, and was made from the skin of a crane who was, in actuality, a woman enchanted into crane form.”

In modern Druid practice, a crane bag is often a leather bag or pouch that is used to hold a Druid’s ritual tools, such as the ones detailed in this book, including the silver branch, the sickle, the cauldron etc.

In The Crane Bag, Joanna van der Hoeven discusses the commonly used tools of the Druid tradition, providing details of their mythological origins and significance, as well as practical information about how to make and use them. That said, Joanna recognises that “a Druid doesn’t need any tools at all. What matters most in ritual is the intention”. But tools, especially ones we have made ourselves or had made for us by fellow Druids, can help to focus that intention and they become imbued with power and sacredness through use.

The Crane Bag also provides a clear outline of the steps of Druid ritual, not intending to set a prescribed “script” that all Druids must follow, but to give a framework rooted in tradition within which each Druid can work with inspiration to create ritual that is personal, meaningful and organic, in a “shared language that most will understand if they have studied the Druid tradition at any length”. The point of Druid ritual is not the recitation of the right words, but “a time set apart from daily life to reconnect the threads that bind us together with the land, with nature”.

Together with The Awen Alone, also by Joanna van der Hoeven, The Crane Bag provides a pragmatic and down to earth introduction to walking the Druid path, and enough information and inspiration to get out there and get started. I feel that this may become one of my most frequently consulted go-to books for Druid practices and ritual. Now I just need to make my own crane bag!

Book Review: Australian Druidry

australian-druidry-coverAustralian Druidry: Connecting with the Sacred Landscape. Julie Brett. Moon Books, 2017

I was really intrigued when I first came across this book, one of the short Pagan Portals series. While I am a UK-based northern hemisphere Pagan, I am always fascinated by how people practice a nature-based path around the world.

The wheel of the year followed by most modern Pagans was developed in, and for, a British agricultural context. And, as Julie Brett shows, it isn’t as simple as just turning it on its head to fit into the quite different context of Australia.

Throughout the narrative, this book explores the symbolism of peculiarly Australian animals and plants, and how they can form part of a nature-focused Druid practice for Druids “down under”. It also considers the different climate and different seasons encountered in different parts of Australia, and how connections, associations and stories of them can be developed to create a local wheel of the year, and Druidic practice, that grows from personal experience of the land. As Julie says in this book:

The more you take the time to step outside and feel into what is going on around you, the more you will learn, and the closer you will be to having a wheel of the year for your own area. This can take a number of years to develop, but it always begins with today.

By taking notes and observations of weather and wind patterns, keeping a nature diary, watching plant and animal behaviours, and walking the land, Julie has been able to experiment, refine and develop a unique and truly natural wheel of the year and a Druidry rooted in the land of Australia itself.

When working in a country like Australia or America, it’s also a fact worth noting that other people have had nature-based practices there for centuries before European colonists arrived. The challenge for Pagans is to respect those traditions without appropriating them. Australian Pagan Johoanna Robson’s review of Australian Druidry says it better than I could that:

Within the words and ideas in these pages there is an honouring of the indigenous Australians. Nothing is appropriated. Everything is written with respect and sensitivity.

But this isn’t just a book for Australian Druids, or those curious about how Druids live out their path the other side of the world. By observing nature, and connecting to the land, the seasons, the animals and the trees, Julie Brett gives us the tools to do the same wherever we are, keep our own nature diaries, and create our own Druidry that is not based simply on traditional dates and associations, but that is in harmony with, and grows organically from, our connection to nature. Which makes it a valuable and inspiring book for all Druids, those in Australia and those elsewhere in the world.

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.

 

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”.

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.

Book review: Whispers from the Earth

wfteWhispers from the Earth: Teaching stories from the ancestors, beautifully woven for today’s spiritual seekers. Taz Thornton, Moon Books, 2016.

I have a confession to make. I picked this book up because of the cover. Also because I have been enjoying the short books in the “Pagan Portals” series by Moon Books, and this seemed to fit right in to my collection, but mostly the cover.

Well, despite the old saying, I made the right choice in this case. Whispers from the Earth is definitely not the sort of thing I would normally read: I tend to go non-fiction or else huge multi-book series, but this collection of short teaching stories was a breath of fresh air.

Teaching stories are, of course, as old as humanity itself and quite possibly older if our neanderthal and australopithecine ancestors told tales around their fires or huddling up in caves. Parables have been used by Aesop, Jesus, Buddha and pretty much every wise teacher you can think of, and I think the tales woven in this book could stand shoulder to shoulder with any of them.

The back cover blurb tells us:

“Throughout time, indigenous cultures have used storytelling as a way of spreading important teachings to the tribe. Much of our own rich, ancient heritage has been lost over the years, eroded with the coming of mainstream religions and new ideas, yet those teachings and stories are still there, waiting to be rediscovered and told”.

Taz has gathered and woven these tales together from her own connections with the land and the ancestors, and they are not re-tellings of familiar fairytales, but are new-old stories, channeled and brought to life for us all today.

The book itself is split into two sections, Taz’s own channeled stories, and a selection of stories from other people Taz has worked with in story-weaving sessions. Between these two sections is a practical guide to channeling your own stories through meditation, connection and inspiration, definitely useful for anyone looking to try out a Bardic exercise.

The stories themselves are remarkably diverse and drift through a range of landscapes, themes and ideas, each one short enough to read in a few minutes on a lunch break, but each one with a point, a lesson, a seed-thought, that you will spend the rest of the day thinking over.

I don’t want to give any details of the tales included, you should read them for yourself, but I will say that the stories of The Man and the Frog and The Listening Tree were particularly moving and relevant to me personally.

I’m sure that I will find myself re-reading this little book months or even years from now, and finding whole new lessons contained within.