Books To Read: A Druid’s Primer

druid's primer bookLuke Eastwood, ‘A Druid’s Primer’. Moon Books, 2012. ISBN 1846947642.

Eastwood has created a really interesting approach to modern druidry here. He’s done a lot of good research into histories of pagan practices, both ancient and modern. He then merges everything he’s learnt into a mix of existing and new philosophies and practices. This is a good book for anyone fairly new to druidry who wants to be better informed about some of the sources we draw on, as well as for more established druids who want to try a new approach to mixing the old and the new. It’s a very Irish-focused book, which won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (though you won’t be surprised to hear that that worked well for me), but he does draw on British and other myths and folklore too.

But the problem with separating books into ‘recommended’ and ‘not recommended’ categories is that most Pagan books have parts that I like and parts that I… don’t. This book is no exception. Overall, I really enjoyed it. But let’s get into the things that I didn’t enjoy.

I’m getting really tired of books that repeat myths that we know are simply not true.

First myth: Let’s address this once and for all, shall we? The snakes that St Patrick drove out of Ireland were NOT THE PAGANS. There is absolutely no evidence that anyone thought they were, until very recently. The first reference that I can find to this idea is in Marion Zimmer Bradley – from the 1980s. It’s a modern Pagan idea. And I really wish this particular myth would burn and die. Eastwood doesn’t endear himself to me by repeating it.

Second myth, more problematic as it runs through the whole book: Modern Druidry is not ancient. Eastwood has a good grasp on the history of modern druidry, and that of ancient druidry (as far as we know anything about it). His problem is mixing the two up, believing the commonly-held view that modern Druids are the direct inheritors of the wisdom and knowledge of ancient druidry.

And that’s not entirely his fault. This myth is everywhere, after all. OBOD has its own version, as do other druid orders. But it really is a myth. Modern druidry has very little to do with ancient druidry, other than basic inspiration – and everything to do with being a beautiful modern spirituality rooted in the old sacred earth that we could do worse than embracing as, well, modern.

So now that I’ve started with the things I disliked about the book, let’s get into the good stuff – and there was quite a lot of it.

For example, he has some great chapters that merge ancient myth with modern druid ideas, such as the light body exercise. He relates the modern sun and moon cycles celebrated by most modern druids, to ancient myths that contain echoes of cosmological and solar folklore – including the myth of the Dagda and Aengus at Bru na Boinne, and the story of the Mabon. The chapter on elements is largely based on the Western magical tradition, but mixes some Irish mythology in. His chapter on healing, with botanical information on herbs/plants and their mythical and folkloric uses, is a lovely addition that I didn’t expect to see, but enjoyed.

My favourite chapter was on Ogham. This was a surprise, as I’ve done a lot of work with Ogham, using both new and old ideas on it, and I find that a lot of what’s written on it can be fairly terrible. But Eastwood’s extensive research really comes into its own here. He combines medieval and neo-Pagan sources on Ogham into a really lovely set of interpretations on each of the feda. He could have written a whole book on Ogham – as he says, he’s only had time here to skim the surface of all the sources, myths and ideas relating to it. If he does write more on the subject, I’ll read it!

As long as you’re aware of the limitations, this is a really good book with some refreshing approaches to the modern druid way of drawing on the old while being rooted in the new. I’ll be using a lot of this book in my own practice.

My rating: 7/10.

S is for… the Shadow and the Flame

I had been struggling with the meditation for weeks. It was a visualisation based on the myth of Ceridwen and her children, Creirwy and Afagddu. In the tale, Creirwy is the beautiful child (and no doubt good and kind and virtuous – the sort of child who plays the violin, gets consistently good exam results and is always extremely polite to her parents’ friends). And then there’s Afagddu. I’m told his name means ‘utter darkness’, which rather says it all. He’s horribly ugly (and in my imagination he’s not very good at maths and always gets picked last for PE). In despair at the ugliness of her son, Ceridwen sets off on a quest to find a source of Awen – inspiration – so that Afagddu can be wise and highly-favoured, to make up for his ugliness. The story gets quite a lot more complicated from there on, but this meditation was focusing solely on the first detail of the story. It was to be an encounter with Afagddu, at least partly as a metaphor for our own inner darkness.

Now, I’ve spent a fair bit of time exploring my inner darkness. I’ve tried all the buzzwords, from counselling and NLP and CBT to ‘positive thinking’. I’ve done lots of the new age stuff, from alternative therapies and cringeworthy self-help books to those terrible affirmations that tend to leave me in fits of giggles. I’ve had more labels than I really wanted. And if you go far back enough, I’ve had some surreal experiences – from being in and out of hospital, to some interesting and not-nearly-recreational-enough drugs. Some of it helped. Some of it was an atrocious waste of money. And while it involved more distraction from the demons than facing them, there was hard work in there too.

Which is where my story meets Ceridwen’s. I’ve been meditating for a long time, but this approach to visualisation was a bit different. And I’d been having a lot of trouble connecting with Ceridwen’s story at all. But like the good, obedient druid-in-training I am, I was diligently trying. So on an appropriately dark and stormy evening in January, I sat down to read the instructions and attempt to work through the meditation.

I start at my sacred grove. There are others there, as there sometimes are. A woman sits by the fire, holding a baby. Over the fire hangs a cauldron. A smith dressed in brown works with iron in the corner.

I leave the grove with the intention of seeking the castle. At first I am drawn back to my grove – I need more meditation before I can find it. When I feel more ready, I look for two mountains with a castle between them. The doors of the castle are heavy, iron. I drag them open.

Inside the stone building, a hallway, then a room. Two children – Afagddu on the left, Creirwy on the right. I sit and watch Afagddu for a while, but I feel very little. I’m worried that I’m ‘getting it wrong’.

And then I look at Creirwy.

I’m flooded with emotion for her. It is she that I identify with. She is a paradox – the focus of all of Ceridwen’s expectations, as the beautiful child – and yet totally overlooked, as her mother devotes a quest, and a year and a day, first to her brother, and then to a stranger who will become the renowned Child of the Goddess. Creirwy, though, will never be renowned. Like so many women in so many tales of our society, she is a ‘prop’ for the story. I feel how overlooked she is, how many expectations her mother places on her, and how she is expected to be everything that her mother wants, without ever complaining or asking for more. But she deserves more. She works hard to be good and talented and beautiful, and she knows that her mother will never look upon her as she does upon Afagddu. What is a beautiful daughter compared with a son? And still she tries so hard to live up to expectations.
For me, these twins do not represent ‘darkness’ and ‘light’. That kind of duality is unhelpful. They are different sides of life – different aspects of myself that I treat in very different ways.

I spend a lot of time working on my ‘dark side’. I steadfastly ignore the part of myself that I expect to be perfect. The academic who should write the very best thesis. The student who should be learning more, and faster, than I would expect of any of my own students. The wife who should be the perfect wife. The dedicant of gods who should be the perfect dedicant. The activist who should achieve more than any activist ever has before. Is it any wonder that I regularly burn out? Is there a part of myself that I should be kinder, gentler and more attentive to, whether or not she achieves greatness?

And from there, the story can no longer be told in words.

The Shadow and the Flame

Sometimes you play in dark corners, on the edge of sight,
The glimpse of a shadow,
the trace of a forgotten dream.
Sometimes you pursue me from the grey
and outrun me in fire and lightning.
Battle-scarred and branded, I am still here,
counting the bones in your attic,
slaying your monster,
rolling your boulder uphill.

Once I tried
to entomb you in numbers
to cage you in words
to drown you in oblivion
to silence your accusations with noise.

But you are
the Flame and the Shadow
the ugliness and the radiance
the searing white light forged in the bleakest primeval chaos
children of the demons of the storm and the fires of the hearth.

Let the Wind Gods shriek and the Lord of Lightning strike
let the Storm Hags cry into the arid night
let the Master of the sea call it back to Himself
and the Wild One raise the waters and drown the land.

You are my light and my darkness and my strength,
little Flame and its Shadow,
and you will endure.

Druidry 2013

I had an absolutely fantastic time at the Druidry 2013 conference yesterday. It was diverse and fascinating, with input from lots of different druid organizations and styles, and much food for thought. I wasn’t feeling too well, but I managed to stay awake and interested throughout, which is a sign of how good it was! Continue reading

Ogham (OR: Blogging some actual work)

It occurred to me today that I talk a lot here about my theology and ideas, but not so much about my practices. And while I do write in my druidry journal, about once a week, it can be tricky to get an overview when I look back on what I’ve written.

So. There are (at least) two things I’m doing at the moment that I need to write about here a bit more. The first is the ADF Dedicant Path. The other, which I’m doing on my own, is work with Ogham. I should take these one post at a time, so – Ogham first.

Continue reading

Stymied

I am stuck. Really, really stuck.

I’ve spent over a year working through the OBOD Bardic Grade. I’ve had some interesting experiences during this time (not all as a result of the course, but many related to it). I’ve done some hard work and loved what I’ve discovered as a result. I’ve learnt that, while I’m not sure whether OBOD is entirely my ‘thing’, there’s some good stuff there and a whole lot to learn from it.

And now I’m attempting to write the final review for the Bardic Grade, and – well, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

I kept a detailed journal while I was following the course. I took pictures during my struggles forays rambles out into the land. My plan was to pair the pictures with written work based on  my journal, and add other creative responses that I was inspired to include. Easy…

A lot of academic types talk about ‘imposter syndrome’ – known in the less-pretentious world as an inferiority complex based on the impression that you’re an ignoramus among knowledgeable types. In short, you feel like you’re faking it. I know imposter syndrome well from my studies. I didn’t expect it in my Druidry. I’ve done the course, so why can’t I write about it?

Every word I write feels like I’m making it all up for effect. I’m far too focused on sounding like I’ve got enough out of the course, on sounding like I’ve had spiritual experiences. I did. Realistically, those experiences were nothing special, and I’m not sure I was much changed between the beginning and the end of the course. But I did experience at least some of what I was supposed to.  So why am I so desperate to prove it, primary school style? “What I Did On My Bardic Grade Course. This year I did the OBOD Bardic Grade course. It is a thing that you can do if you want to be a Druid. There are many parts to the Bardic Grade. There are some things to do with elements and some words to say and some stories about a boy who turned into a seed and got eaten…”

And you know what I think it’s (at least partly) about? That Word. Druidry. I resisted the term for ages, with its connotations of highly educated, deeply accomplished people, community leaders and judges and instruments of the gods. I’m still resisting it. I know that modern Druidry is not an attempt to reconstruct the roles of ancient Druids that we still keep around somewhere in our cultural memory – but I think I have to address the inheritance of those images, these concepts, in some way. I just have no idea where to start.

In the meantime, though, I should get back to the more immediate task. “Also on my Bardic Grade I went for some walks…”

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.