Last night I dreamt of my grandfather. I quite frequently do – he was an important influence in my childhood, and I remember him often. He is one of the reasons I value education. Having left school at 15 because of poverty, he did years of night school to gain his degree and ended up with a great job in the Civil Service. He loved languages and creativity – he wrote the most fantastic stories – and I think he had a spiritual side that he didn’t talk about much. His stories about the woods near his house gave me inspiration to see forests as living, enspirited places.

In the dream, I had run into my Grampy somewhere random, a hotel I think. He had been living under a false name in a new city. He was tight-lipped about why he hadn’t contacted me for ten years, but he was very pleased to see me (and especially pleased that I’m doing a PhD, partly funded by the money he left me). He was different: more serious, with only occasional flashes of the humour that he was well-known for, but absolutely himself. It was a strange dream – I was remembering that he had died and that I’d been to his funeral, but I also knew he was sitting in front of me. I’m not usually that analytical in dreams. Mostly, I was just pleased that I could talk to him again.

For the past two weeks I’ve been doing 12 days of ancestor meditations. I dedicated my ‘folding table’ altar to them for the period, setting the altar out in a style inspired by another culture’s ancestor veneration approach. As a starting point, this approach did the job I wanted, which was to focus my mind on the ancestors for a specific period of time. I didn’t manage to do 12 completely consecutive days, for health reasons – but I mainly did four days on, a day off, rinse and repeat. I tried to meditate at sunset each time, but that was impossible on days when I was in the office, in which case I did the meditation before bed. I used a modified version of an ancestor meditation from the BDO bardic grade material.

Since the beginning of my exploration of my Pagan path, I’ve found it difficult to connect with ancestors. Honouring gods was not a problem, which surprised me, having come from a monotheist tradition. But I’d heard the myths of these gods since childhood, so it wasn’t so difficult to talk to them. Ancestors, though, were another thing entirely. A lot of Christian groups have a major prohibition on attempting to contact the dead (others less so, what with the saints, but I didn’t find saint-honouring traditions until I was a bit older). I can’t deny that the thought of ancestor work made me a lot more nervous than other aspects of Pagan/Druid practice – which, realistically, should have been equally nerves-inducing. Human beings: not really very rational creatures. I did have a fairly successful ancestor meditation that a priest friend led for me, which made me realise that talking to my ancestors is not as difficult as I thought. Since then, I’ve found that spending time at my ancestor shrine is a more useful experience than it was – but it’s still difficult.

And then I was in Ireland over the summer, in the Beara Peninsula, where my ancestors come from. A goddess that I believe my ancestors worshiped (UPG) was very present there. And, after some work on my part, so were my ancestors themselves. Back in Britain, though, they were much quieter again. So when a friend told me about his ancestor meditations based on a voodoo altar setup, I was interested. I didn’t want to indulge in cultural appropriation, though. I like hoodoo, but voodoo is a complete mystery to me, and I don’t really have time to study either of them in depth at the moment. So I just took some inspiration – a sustained period of meditations, a dedicated altar with belongings and photos of my ancestors, and food and drink offerings. I have some Irish whiskey made in the Beara Peninsula, I made the black coffee that my grandfather loved, I offered chocolate one day (since Grampy was also a fan of that), and on other days I left other food depending on what I felt inspired to offer.

It’s hard to explain the effects of the ancestor work, either during the meditations or at other times during the 12 days. Suffice it to say that things happened. I did much more writing than I usually manage each day – academic and creative non-fiction alike. I started working with Ogham, including having a good idea about how to take it further, and I did some interesting work with my tarot deck. I was asked to contribute to creative projects, and had others accepted where I’d been waiting on a decision. I suddenly got very decisive about Druidry, and joined ADF formally – I’ve been doing a lot of ADF-style work recently, based on materials they’ve made public, but for many months I’d been really unclear about what direction to take my Druidry in, until I started these meditations. Simultaneously, the British Druid Order set up a support system for their Bardic Grade students, something I’ve been waiting for, as I’d been finding it hard to work on their course without help. And while my health was as dodgy as ever, I somehow felt more able to cope with the severe pain and other illness symptoms that I deal with every day – which is an amazing gift.

Did I experience my ancestors? That’s the really interesting bit. Outside of specific meditations, I only feel their presence occasionally. I’ve been learning a language for the past year-and-a-bit, because I’d like to be able to communicate better with my bilingual partner’s family – and just sometimes, during lessons and practice, I feel like my Grampy’s pleased that I’m taking his linguistic interest forward. (The difference is that he was great at languages – he spoke fluent Spanish and French, decent Welsh, and wasn’t bad at a couple of others, while I am absolutely rubbish at them. But I think he likes the fact that I’m trying!) And sometimes I feel a general presence of anonymous ancestors. But mostly, it’s the gods that I connect with in daily life. I’m not honestly sure that I felt the ‘mystical presence of the ancestors’ much more, in the rest of life, than usual.

But in the meditations: yes, absolutely, I believe that my ancestors responded and were present. I got different (and very interesting) messages and ideas each time. Decisiveness about directions was the order of the day. My visualisations were much more vivid than they usually are – I have some difficulty visualising, most of the time. One night I desperately needed sleep but attempted the meditation anyway, and was told quite firmly that they would rather I was looking after myself. One night I focused very strongly on my grandfather, and had a very thought-provoking request from him – that I have no idea how to honour, but I will try. On other nights I focused on other family, and felt the need to stay more in touch with cousins overseas and at home. And on some nights I just had a general sense of ‘ancestors’ who I thought of as ancient and mighty. Power and numerousness. And the idea that there are projects in store for me that I will love. And that I should have more self-esteem and be more proud of the good work that I do in the world. And do more for my community…

Like I didn’t have enough to do. ;)

Ancestor altar

Are the dreams about my grandfather relevant? There’s a nice mundane explanation – I ran into an old university lecturer last week, who I knew in my undergraduate days, and who did rather remind me of my grandfather. Reconnecting with old influences was on my mind, and that’s probably the extent of it. But maybe not. Still, I dream about him often, and the dreams often feel quite significant. If it’s only that I think he would be pleased that I’m doing the education thing that he loved so much, I’m glad I had a little reminder.

Druidry, and All That

Hello. I’m Leithin*, known elsewhere online as Sophia Catherine. I wanted a blog that was focused on my Druidry, and this is it.

I’ve been exploring Druidry for about eighteen months. I was researching Paganism for quite a while before that – I didn’t want to jump in and just ‘try things’ without any kind of framework, and I wanted to know what spiritual path(s) really called to me. But I think I was first put on this path a while before that. The first conscious experience I had with the spirits of the land was in Ireland, when I was about 18. My family is from the Beara Peninsula in County Cork. Nowadays I go back every two or three years, but as a child, my father didn’t like going back, since the roads were bad and it took hours to drive from the ferry port to the south-west coast, and so we didn’t go very often. When I was 18 I persuaded my mother to take me to Ireland, for the first time since I was a child. We took the bus down from Dublin to Cork, and I spent three hours staring out of the window, enraptured. I remember saying to my mother that “These mountains are in my blood.” I didn’t know what I meant then. It makes a bit more sense now.

One morning on that trip, while we were staying by the sea, I got up early and went for a walk. I walked until I reached the edge of the world, the sea, where chaos meets order. The bay that I had reached seemed to be surrounded by mountains on every side, with no glimpse of civilization except a boat moored at a little wooden boathouse. The spirits of the mountains and the sea were deeply present, and more real than anything I had ever experienced. I think I met Manannan mac Lir that day, although it would be thirteen years before he appeared in a dream and I knew enough to recognize him.

From there, it was a long and winding road before I realised that Druidry was a pretty good fit, as these things go, for my spirituality. What ‘kind’ of Druidry, though, is a question I’m still exploring.

I’ve been writing a post about what principles my Druidry is based on, but I got caught up short by the realisation that, ultimately, my Druidry is about experience, not definition. The spirits of the land defy the boxes that I like to put things into and call it ‘religion’. Sometimes they’re the spirits of mountains, lakes or trees – ancient spirits that have existed for years or aeons, sometimes individual, sometimes blending with each other into beautiful colours, patterns and realities. Sometimes they’re the fae – very Otherworldly.  Sometimes I encounter a god or goddess that I will never be able to understand, whose name was lost before writing, before speech, before thought. I met a goddess at a loch on the isle of Skye whose name I will never know, but who I often think of when I pour water into my Well.

Other things I’m exploring in the realm of Druidry at the moment include beginning to learn divination (including Ogham, which I’m just starting to work with, and which is absolutely beautiful in terms of land spirituality), and very stop-start attempts to connect with my ancestors. I’ll write about my recent ancestor work when I’m done with something that I’m working on at the moment. I’ve also been practicing little bits of magic for a while, trying to start from (what I think of as) the Druid principle that magic is about connection, with the land, the spirits, the universe. I tend to start with journey-work. For anything more complicated, I draw on some things that are not particularly Druidic but which work for me. My background in NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) helps. I’m reading John Michael Greer’s ‘Druid Magic Handbook’ which is incredibly detailed and complicated, so I’m going to need to take some time over it, but it’s fantastic and is helping me to fit things into a framework.

In terms of Druid orders, I have a lot of influences. I’ve just finished the OBOD Bardic grade (I need to write my review), I belong to the British Druid Order, and I’ve just joined ADF and started their Dedicant Path. Let’s just say that I’m someone who needs a lot of guidance before I feel like I can do anything. I think my path is somewhere between what the BDO does and what ADF does, with a touch of OBOD’s style – somewhere between earthy and deity-focused, somewhere between spirituality and religion. Balance is good for me. I’ve been really enjoying the ADF Dedicant Path in the short time I’ve been following it. I’m also a member of the Druid Network, because I think that the work they do is absolutely brilliant. Someone who’s been very influential in helping me to understand my emerging Druid path is Cat Treadwell, who is a priest working with the Druid Network who does fantastic community work in my area. I also belong to a fantastic OBOD grove. I’m writing up my OBOD Bardic grade review now, and then I want to finish the BDO Bardic course that I started a long time ago but only got about half way through, while also doing ADF Dedicant Path (I get bored easily). I’ll be blogging about the latter for Teo Bishop’s Solitary Druid Fellowship. The different styles of Druidry in each of the courses are giving me a great overview of things.

I have a polytheistic, deity-focused practice running alongside my Druidry that sometimes overlaps with it and sometimes doesn’t. I think of that side of my life more as ‘religion’ than as ‘spirituality’ – although of course there’s a lot of mixing of the two. And it’s Celtic, I’m afraid – although Gaelic is a more accurate term for the gods I worship, I take my inspiration from pan-Celtic ideas (or from the little that we know of those). My gods are (mostly) not Brythonic or Scottish. The way we think about the Celts today is a social construction, but everything is. You can say that recent ideas have corrupted this social construction, if you like – but corrupt isn’t the right word. Just because they didn’t call themselves Celtic doesn’t mean that these tribes didn’t share ideas, culture and religion – they did, and it was beautiful and terrifying, and war-like and peaceful, and honourable and dishonourable, and all about power and all about the tribe… At the moment, the conclusion I’ve come to about ‘Celtic’ is that there is some complete crap floating around out there about what that means, and there’s also some very good stuff, and my task for myself is to separate the wheat from the chaff and honour my gods in a way that I think they’d like. Among my Druid friends ‘Celtic’ is almost a dirty word, but this grandaughter of an Irish farmer is proud to use it, and my ancestors have no problem with the term. This does not for one minute mean that I think only people of Irish or British ancestry can follow a Druidic and/or Celtic path. It’s simply about what resonates for me, because of my ancestry, my influences, my time spent in Ireland and among Irish family, and the way I’ve always thought about these lands and their people as a result. (And you have to go with what resonates for you, The Anglo-Saxon and Germanic gods, for example, have never said a single word to me, and the runes are nothing but pretty drawings to me, no matter how much I attempt to understand them. You go with what works.)

I may or may not finish that post about the principles that my Druidry is (currently) based on. The danger there is that I’m new to this stuff, and things change. The other danger is that by writing these things down, I codify them, and put them in boxes. And as soon as I write something down about what I believe, the gods laugh, and show me something new that explodes the box. Still, it’s good to have a record of what I think at any given time. I’ll think about the wisdom of speaking these things aloud.

Oh, and I also have Gnostic Christian/Celtic Christian influences that I’ve sort of put on a shelf, until I have time to work out how they relate to the rest of my religion and spirituality. I suspect it will take a while. Occasionally I go back to church – it’s more important as part of my identity than my spirituality these days, but it’s still important. Possibly it’s something to do with needing to know and acknowledge the whole of the journey, rather than throwing out earlier forms of spirituality and pretending they didn’t have any impact on me. “When you know where you’ve come from, you can see where you’re going” – Felicity Hayes-McCoy.

A few other things about me: I’m doing a PhD in sociology of religion, I teach part-time alongside it, I do some writing, and I live with my civil partner, three cats and a hamster in the Midlands of the UK. I’m the co-host of the not-very-often-released podcast Divine Community. Sadly, time is very limited for podcasting, between my PhD, my work, my spiritual practice, my writing, and life with several chronic illnesses. But we try to make episodes occasionally! I’ve also just started contributing to some spiritual/religious writing projects that I’ll talk about when they get off the ground.

Looking forward to writing here. If no one reads it, I’ll talk to a very captive audience of one.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings – John Muir

*Pronounced ‘Lay-in’, as far as I can tell. From the story of an eagle whose search for wisdom was not, it turned out, the most important thing in the world.