This passing year has been notable for the significant number of key figures for the Druid movement who have died – leaving a legacy of inspiring writings and memories that have helped to build and colour our tradition.
Last year, in April, John Michell, the well-known writer and past Presider of the Order, died in London at the age of 76. John Michell lived in Notting Hill Gate, often holding impromptu salons in the cafés of Portobello Road. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, he wrote more than a dozen books, and continuing in the great tradition of Aubrey and Stukeley, he captivated the readers of his books on the sacred landscape of Britain. In 1969, his View Over Atlantis became a cult classic, popularising the notion that Britain was criss-crossed with lines of magical earth-energy that our ancestors understood, but which we have forgotten. Blending Alfred Watkins’ ideas about the ‘Old Straight Track’ with cabbalistic numerology, sacred geometry and theories drawn from the Chinese geomancy of Feng Shui, View Over Atlantis suggested that Stonehenge and the other great prehistoric monuments of the English landscape are laid out in accordance with sacred geometry to fulfil a magical purpose: to bring harmony to the land. At a summer solstice ceremony on Primrose Hill in 1992 we awarded him with the title of Presider, and I still remember him standing in the middle of the ritual circle surrounded by dozens of participants cheering him as various people presented him with gifts in honour of his work. In the end he was standing there so laden with offerings he could hardly carry them. Next year we are planning an event in honour of him, in conjunction with the John Michell Network, and more news will follow as soon as plans are finalised.
In January this year Hamish Miller died at the age of 82. Hamish was the author, with Paul Broadhurst, of The Sun and the Serpent, a seminal book that recounted their tracing of the Michael and Mary leys across Britain. Although not a druid, Hamish was a friend to many members and helped bring knowledge of dowsing and Earth Mysteries out into the open, helping to enrich everyone’s understanding of these subjects.
In February Douglas Lyne, an old friend of Nuinn, archivist of the Father Ignatius Memorial Trust and moving figure in the history of the Order, the Council of British Druid Orders and The Iolo Morganwg Fellowship, died at the age of 88. It was Douglas who on February 14th 1988, along with two colleagues, asked me to lead the Order, and then who encouraged us to hold a bicentennial conference and ceremony to commemorate the Gorsedd held by Iolo Moganwg on Primrose Hill in 1792.
In April Alexei Kondratiev died in New York at the age of 61. Author of The Apple Branch, which explores Celtic myth and magic, Alexei was a gifted linguist, reportedly speaking over sixty languages, and being fluent in at least a dozen. He was a key figure in the Celtic Reconstructionist movement and a teacher of Celtic languages, folklore and culture at the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan from 1985 until his death.
In July Gordon Strachan died in Edinburgh died at the age of 76. His essay on the theory that Jesus may have learnt from the Druids during his ‘silent years’ appeared in the collection The Druid Renaissance in 1996, and he expanded this into his book Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries and the Dawn of Christianity in 2000. In November last year Gordon had the pleasure of seeing the launch of his film ‘And Did Those Feet’, based on his book, at the British Film Institute, and he must have enjoyed the headlines around the world which followed, including: ‘Did Jesus Headline Glastonbury Before Springsteen?’
The following month Isaac Bonewits died in Nyack, New York, at the age of 60. Isaac played a vital role in the development of contemporary Druidry in the USA, founding the ADF in 1983, and tirelessly writing and speaking about Druidism and related subjects, and in particular magic and Wicca. Although he retired from leading ADF in 1996, he retained the title Archdruid Emeritus and continued to act as an inspiring force within the Druid and Pagan communities – his keen wit and far-seeing mind was admired all over the world. When I wrote the foreword to his book Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism I decided that John Lennon’s reference to ‘druid dudes lifting the veil’ in ‘Mind Games’ described Isaac best, and wrote: ‘If you want a Druid dude to lift the veil on Druidism, you’ve come to the right place. Isaac is like an eccentric and dedicated botanist who has decided in this book to recount his view of the exotic jungle that is modern Druidism. He’s well placed to do this because he’s been in the thick of it for some time. In fact he’s played a crucial role in its development in the modern era.’ As his family wrote in their announcement of his death: ‘During his forty years as a Neopagan priest, scholar, teacher, bard, and polytheologian, Isaac Bonewits coined much of the vocabulary and articulated many of the issues that have shaped the rapidly growing Neopagan movement in the United States and Canada.’ He will be greatly missed.
Another equally charismatic character, Sid Rawle, died in the same month on this side of the pond, at the age of 64. Called by the media ‘King of the Hippies’, Sid was a leading figure on the Stonehenge festival scene. The Guardian’s obituary describes the way ‘he became a key figure in the summer solstice celebrations there from 1976 to 1984, performing an almost priestly role’. Having formed a squatters’ group, ‘The Hyde Park Diggers’, he was famously given custody of Dorinish, an Irish island, by John Lennon to start a utopian community – a project which lasted two years until it was abandoned due to inhospitable conditions on the island. In recent years Sid hosted the Druid Camps at his Rainbow Spirit campsite, and it was there that he died of a heart attack as the camp was being broken down at the end of the season. Part of a book he was writing with the help of a friend, the playwright Jeremy Sandford, conveys very well the way in which Sid’s ideas were in harmony with much of modern Druid thinking:
‘Although we’ve given the world so many of its institutions and, for so much of the world, a common language to communicate to each other in, we’ve lost our own real ancient roots. We don’t know who built our stone circles, how they did it, how they loved, what their economic system was, what their religion was.
All over the world there are other peoples who do remember what their roots were, people who are still in touch with their tribal history. What lies deep in their systems must also lie deep within our system. We have to learn to find it again.
We have to reclaim or rediscover some of their ancient wisdom, the wisdom of ancient Albion. There’s no magic in this, no mystery. The mystery is that we keep ourselves in hell when we could be in heaven. That’s the mystery.’
By the time you read this, Samhain will have already passed, but I know many of us will have remembered these seven – especially as these words were spoken within the sacred circle: ‘O dear Spirits, you who were our predecessors, our friends, our guides, come to the help of those who are striving strenuously upon the path…’
Although the passing of these seven, and undoubtedly others associated with Druidry who had less public profiles, has made this a difficult year, there have also been many signs of new growth and exciting developments, including the big story that broke at the end of this year, with the Druid Network gaining charitable status in the UK. Five years of hard work by the Druid Network were finally successful and although the media reporting was often incorrect, as in the headlines that announced ‘Britain recognizes Druidry as a religion’, the resulting decision made by the charity commissioners means it should now be easier for Druid and Pagan groups to achieve charitable status, and we will certainly be exploring this possibility. Congratulations to the Network for having achieved this!
Some members have been delighted at the news, others have expressed concern that this move will define Druidry in a limiting or even detrimental way that aligns what we love with the ‘established religions’. Is the news evidence of our decline into the ossifying world of ‘respectability’, or evidence of our growing commitment to our values being officially recognized? This has raised an interesting debate that will undoubtedly continue for a while. Meanwhile our tireless media officer, Adrian Rooke, has been fielding enquiries from the media worldwide, who want to cover the story.
In the October edition of ‘Druidcast’ Damh interviewed Phil Ryder of the Druid Network, who undertook most of the work in gaining charitable status for the Network over the last five years. Many of the opinions expressed by concerned members have hopefully been allayed as a result of the interview.
This recent development highlights the positive way in which Druidry is developing today, with a variety of organisations and support now available to anyone who wants to explore this path. The Druidic Dawn community, the Druid Network, OBOD, the BDO, The Hedge Druid Network, and the various groups within COBDO, or independent from it, offer a whole range of different kinds of support that complement each other. How different this is to the world of Druidry when I joined it forty or so years ago! Then there was only OBOD and the ADO, each with just a handful of members. All the groups mentioned are based in Albion although many reach well beyond its borders, but of course there is the AODA, ADF and Keltria and other groups in the USA, and the groups and orders that are developing in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. A rich diversity is what most of us surely want, not a mono-culture – which is why we are always happy when a member announces that they are starting an initiative to form a new group or express a different approach to Druidry.
Within OBOD a major change this year came when Will Worthington, known to so many around the world as the illustrator of the Druid Animal and Plant oracles, the DruidCraft Tarot and many other works, after 19 years of service, handed over his role of Pendragon to Damh the Bard. The moving ceremony that took place in Glastonbury Town Hall during the Summer Gathering included the hymn to the moon of the Druid priestess from Bellini’s ‘Norma’, sung for us by member and opera singer Henriette De Groot. Earlier that day many of us had woken at 4am to travel to Stonehenge for an early morning ceremony, and the day before had climbed Glastonbury Tor for another ceremony. When Shaun Hayes, our Herald for the ‘Succession of the Pendragons’ ritual in the town hall, called for three cheers for the new Pendragon, the resulting roar from over a hundred of us must have stopped passers-by in their tracks.
Over the last twenty years we have talked little about the four figures who act as spiritual guardians of the Order: Chief, Pendragon, Scribe and Modron. This is because we have always seen them not as a hierarchy who ‘rule’ the Order, but as office-holders who instead support the work of the Order, and who therefore need to be unobtrusive, to avoid getting in the way of each member’s experience of Druidry. This year, though, in the interests of clarity we’ve started to discuss these roles and Touchstone is now running a series of articles about them. In addition, over the coming year we plan to review how the Order is structured to make any improvements necessary, and if you have any suggestions, please send them in to the office.
This year the office, and its counterparts in Holland, Portugal and Italy have been busy. In Holland, Jurre has moved the office of the Phagos Press from Rijen to Breda, and has started distribution of the Ovate course in German. Alexandre and Sofia in Sintra in Portugal have been delayed with their launch of the Bardic course in Portuguese, but it will be published in December. In Italy, Hagal and Isabel have been working through the summer to prepare the Bardic course in Italian, and have launched it on November 1st. Earlier in the year they launched their internet radio and TV station, Keltoiradio, with interviews and music. Some of their video interviews are in English, and can be accessed in their archive.
While Italy and Portugal begin to build communities and interest in their countries, activities in the well-established communities of Holland, Australia, New Zealand and the USA have continued to diversify. This year both west and east coast American members held gatherings: in California during Lughnasadh at a Buddhist retreat centre in the redwoods overlooking Monterey Bay, and in Pennsylvania at Alban Elfed at a woodland camp in Milford. In Holland the third Dutch camp hatched plans for an ‘international OBOD camp’ in 2011, and a new kind of gathering was held: entitled ‘The Bard’s Journey’. Henk, who helped to organise it, explains: ‘Almost 60 members gathered with their families in the centre of the Netherlands for a full day of Bardic Inspiration. It was born out of the wish to create a low cost gathering where new Bards could get introduced to the Dutch-speaking community and where families of members could be introduced too. All weather reports in advance had promised us a drowsy day, but magically we opened the morning with rays of sunshine just when we invited Great Spirit and the elements into our circle. Then people circled out towards workshops on the Tarot, King Arthur, Healing with the Elements and Dowsing. Taco & Esther together with some members cooked us a fabulous lunch, with ingredients from their biological farm. During lunch, people could meet up with their Bardic Mentors from the Message Board forum, or their Ovate tutors. It’s always great to see faces that go with the nicknames online. Pumpkin or tomato soup, great salads and wonderful bread made us ready for our autumn ceremony together. With 80 people crammed into a small circle, we stood shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, to celebrate the festival of Alban Elfed. After another round of workshops we ended in a circle where we shared our feelings about the day. Community, connection, love, inspiration and many other words described this special event.’
The New Zealand camp and the Australian Gathering, which are now well-established traditions, were as successful as ever, and I enjoyed participating remotely via the wonders of skype. In Brittany, Olivier has master-minded a series of wonderful retreats in the magical forest of Broceliande, at Beltane and Samhuinn, and in Italy a group keen to begin studying the Italian edition of the course have experienced a workshop with JJ and Adrian up in the Alps, and came to England for Alban Eilir for a workshop with me and Cairisthea Worthington by the Long Man in Wilmington.
In Britain OBOD activities continued with the Summer and Winter gatherings in Glastonbury, four camps impeccably managed by the Camp team working with the new constitution, a number of camps held by individual groves such as Anderida, Silvan and Cornovii, the Druid Gorsedd, and a five day retreat in September at the Earthspirit centre in Compton Dundon. Kate and Barry’s ritual workshops continued, as did our new Pendragon’s Bardic pilgrimage around the world. Somehow Damh manages to fit working in the office and producing a monthly podcast with touring the world with his music (this year Australia, the US, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic) and making a new album: the fantastic Crowman. Damh was also able to help me produce a CD of meditations based on Druidic ideas but suitable for anyone, and this was released this summer in a download-only version on itunes entitled ‘Wild Wisdom Meditations’.
In the world of podcasts, there is not only Druidcast (which you can access by typing ‘Druidcast’ into google or itunes) but druid-themed podcasts are now produced by the Druid Network, the New Order of Druids, ADF and ‘The Hedgedruid’. In addition to the Order’s in-house journal Touchstone, Druid magazines Aontacht (from Druidic Dawn) and Eolas (from the reconstructionist group the Order of Whiteoak) continue to flourish.
While much in the world of Druidry and the Order simply continued to build or establish itself, there were other developments. A few years ago we were alerted to the fact that i rather than u should form the plural ending for gwers, and we began correcting all references on the website before moving on to the printed references. As the year ends we have made the change to all of the Ovate gwersi, all of the Druid Grade revision (which will be available from 1st January 2011) and the introductory materials. Next year we will change all Bardic grade gwersi (the hardest for us for software reasons).
Almost as hard as changing so many references scattered throughout all the booklets we produce was the job undertaken by members and friends of the Cornovii grove at ‘Wildways’ – the woodland where our Imbolc camp is held. Philip Shallcrass describes this heart-warming example of Druidic cooperation and determination: ‘The roundhouse is a community project bringing together members of the BDO, OBOD and others. The setting is a secluded grove within 40 acres of beautiful broadleaf woodland, frequented by deer, fox and badger, circled by buzzards overhead and buzzed by dragonflies in summer. Working with the Shropshire-based Cornovii Grove, we are building this 22ft diameter Iron Age roundhouse as a venue for talks, workshops, rituals, meditation, retreats, rites of passage, bardic sessions and more. In other words, it will be a Druid shrine, a place where our spirits will grow and change, protected, guided and nurtured by the spirits of the place, our ancestors and the old gods.’ Started in 2007, it was completed this summer.
Meanwhile a project has been started this summer by member Thomas Daffern, who has also been awarded the Mt Haemus scholarship for 2010 for an ambitious study: ‘to examine developments in 20th century transpersonal psychology, including Jung, Maslow, Wilber and Grof to assess their potential for contributing to the development of Druidic thought, and to assess in particular the relevance of Wilber’s critiques of eco-spiritualities to contemporary Druidry.’ In addition to working on this, Thomas has moved to a lough-side ‘Castle of the Muses’ in Scotland, from which he intends to run seminars and other activities.
As Thomas moved north to his castle, Modron Cairisthea Worthington has moved south from Scotland, settling in Nuinn’s old place of retreat, Spielplatz near St.Alban’s in Hertfordshire, and has already begun working with members in this more accessible location. I have written about this enchanting place in Journeys of the Soul, a biography of Nuinn, which was published by the Oak Tree Press at Alban Eilir. We launched the book at Treadwell’s bookshop in Covent Garden (that features in The Book of English Magic, published in an American edition this October). Since the book features reproductions of some of Nuinn’s watercolours, we decided to hold an art exhibition too and Annie framed all the pictures we have of Nuinn’s and also created an album of archive photographs and letters. The exhibition ran at Treadwell’s for a week.
Fewer books on Druidry were published this year than in a long while, the result perhaps not only of the state of publishing in general, which is in a downturn, but also of the relentless shift from text to internet-based content, reflected in the latest publication, released this October, by Dr.Michael Cooper whose Contemporary Druidry: A Historical and Ethnographic Study is only available as an e-book. I’m glad that Jason Kirkey’s The Salmon in the Spring, published by Hiraeth Press last November, was issued in a paper version. Informed by a Buddhist perspective, it offers a deep and inspiring view of Druidry and Celtic spirituality, and represents a significant contribution to the development of our tradition.
The Druids: A Comparative Study of Indo-European Pagan Practice by G. Alexander, actually published early in 2009 but widely advertised by google ‘ad-words’ this year and self-published through Lulu, offers a brief survey of the subject. Another brief overview, of quite a different subject, came out in April when a book whose inspiration arose in Spielplatz while researching Journeys of the Soul, was published in the UK and the US. My A Brief History of Nakedness (Reaktion) covers, amongst other topics, the use of nakedness to further spiritual aims, and gives a comprehensive account of the use of nudity in Wicca and Druidry, as well as in Eastern religions and Christianity.
Also in April, Ellen Evert Hopman’s second Druid novel appeared. The Druid Isle (Llewellyn) is not only a great story, but acts as a primer in Druidry too. In June Kevan Manwaring’s The Way of Awen was published by O Books. With the aim of encouraging the storyteller and bard within us all, half the book explores the transformative power of the Taliesin story – a subject familiar to all in the Bardic grade – and the other half offers excerpts from Kevan’s diaries and notebooks.
In July William R.Mistele’s Undines: Lessons from the Realm of the Water Spirits was published by North Atlantic Books. Ever since William let us use excerpts from his writings about the elements for the Bardic Grade Eisteddfodau all those years ago, members have been writing to us to find out where they can get more of his haunting, lyrical work. At last we can tell them the good news that his first book is finally out. Another member, Ceri Norman, also had a book published in July. Her Celtic Maidens (Melrose Books) weaves Welsh mythology and history into a gripping story one reviewer describes as a ‘charming dark fairytale’.
G.Alexander’s book on Indo-European practice and Jason Kirkey’s book that blends Druidic and Buddhist perspectives are both indicative of a fundamental aspect of Druidry that is as exciting as it is a live issue in contemporary society. On the one hand there is a move abroad towards ‘indigenisation’ – towards reconnecting with our origins, our roots, even our tribal identities. This will be a familiar feeling for all Druids. Counterposed is the tendency towards ‘globalisation’. The negative side of the movement towards indigenisation can be racism, and the urge towards globalisation can mean the loss of cultural identity, but it can also represent our growing awareness that we are One People on One Earth. We need both tendencies, and the potential for discovering common features and even origins between the Druid and the Dharmic traditions offers one way of reconciling these forces. In looking to our roots we find we are looking at the branches too, and this is how the Druid year will end for some of us as we meet at a Hindu temple in Birmingham for the One Tree Gathering to explore our stories and histories together.
May the coming year be one of great joy and peace for you,