The Heart of Samhain

I was asked very recently why Druids celebrate such a dark festival as Samhain. What is it about this shadowy and occult time, where the land is overrun with ghosts and ghouls, that makes us want to associate ourselves with it. I found it a really odd question, but I think it’s a topic that, unless you are involved with Paganism, can be confusing. To the mass populous Samhain is Hallowe’en. A time when children knock on the doors of strangers asking for sweets, when demons and ghosts run riot, where we carve pumpkins into scary Jack o’ Lanterns. So in a way it’s not surprising that some wonder why we would celebrate this as a spiritual festival. So I replied that it isn’t dark. That the darkness some people perceive comes from a fear and distance from death.

The feast of Samhain comes from a time when people didn’t have world trade. They couldn’t just pop to the supermarket to buy their food. They had to grow it all themselves. Samhain as Summer’s End marks the obvious slip into the darkness and cold of the Winter. There would be the slaughtering of cattle and salting of meat to preserve it, the bringing in of crops, and some would look at the older members of their community and wonder if these frail people would live to see another Spring. The Sun’s arc is in decline, bringing shorter and shorter days, and with these thoughts of darkness and death comes our memories of those that have past on before. The Otherworld lies close at this time of year, and sometimes it feels so close you can almost touch it. So, being so distant from those tribal peoples what relevance does Samhain have today?

Today most of us are so distant from even the idea of death that we find it dark and scary. Dead bodies are taken away, hidden from view, filled with chemicals, then put straight into a box, then into the ground or cremated. Death is such a part of life that this distance is, in my opinion, unhealthy. Many of us British people take that another stage further with the idea of having to keep our chin up, or that emotional-baggage inducing stiff upper lip. So many of us either will not allow ourselves to mourn, or are not allowed to by our peers. The act of crying is such an important part of letting go that in the end this pent up emotion has to come out in some way, and sometimes this is in illness or misplaced anger. So during our Samhain ritual we say that all the time the names of our loved ones are spoken into the air, they will know they haven’t been forgotten, and sometimes that very simple act of saying their name out loud, of bringing their faces into our memories, is enough to break that barrier of held grief, and allow people to begin to let go. A powerful and truly human thing.

A part of any spiritual path deals with what happens after we die. In the end none of us will truly know what will happen until we take that journey, but while we are here these spiritual teachings can bring us comfort and peace. As a Druid I believe in reincarnation. That when I die my spirit will travel to the Blessed Isles of the West, to rest, reflect on my life, and then to return to the Cauldron to be reborn again. I don’t know this, but I feel that it’s what will happen. I wonder if our journey after death reflects our beliefs in life. We shall all find out in the end, and maybe that is the real essence of Samhain that people find frightening and dark. That death is life’s one inevitable, and every day we are making our way on a journey towards that moment. Let’s spend the majority of our lives living, but once a year it’s good to ponder our mortality.


Twa Corbies on video

I love to see what people do with my songs and recordings on video and I was recently sent the links to two versions of the classic folk song Twa Corbies that I recorded on my album Tales from the Crow Man. If you like Ravens you’re going to love them. Enjoy!

The One Tree

After a lovely concert at the New Horizons moot in Stockport I drove the next day to the Shri Venkateswara (Balaji) Temple of UK, Tividale, for the One Tree Gathering, a convention of Druids and Hindus organised between the International Centre for Cultural Studies and the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. I had been asked to organise the Druid section of the musical ‘cultural exchange’ that was due to take place in the afternoon so asked my good friends Claire Hamilton to tell a harp-accompanied story, and Kate and Corwen to play some music and song. I’d join them as the third act.

My TomTom guided me into the middle of a housing area, and then told me I had reached my destination. I looked around and thought, it must be in one of these houses. But I stopped in a local garage and they told me to head back into some roadworks, then turn right. I followed his directions and found the Temple. It was a massive area of land, I’d say around 12 acres, upon which a number of Hindu temples had been built. Some additional building was still going on. My next quest was to find out where within this complex the One Tree Gathering was taking place. There  were hundreds of people walking around, taking photos, heading off to ritual, taking in the vibe of the place. I eventually found the reception who vaguely told me to “go outside and turn right”. I did, nobody there. Eventually I asked another person and they pointed me to one of the temple buildings, and when I got inside I saw the One Tree Gathering logo. I was in the right place but everyone had gone to lunch, so I just hung out and had a tea, and eventually I was joined by the others, returning from lunch.

The cultural exchange was due to start at 5pm, so I had arrived early enough to take part in the afternoon’s activities. The first of which was to watch Satish Kumar’s Earth Pilgrim film. I remember watching this on the BBC and blogging about it a couple of years ago. If you’ve never heard of Satish, head to his website, he is an amazing man. Earth Pilgrim really set me up for the next activity which was for the Druids to take part in some Hindu ceremonies, and the Hindus to go off with Philip Carr-Gomm and Thea Worthington who would lead them through a Samhain Druid ritual. We did a Hindu tree blessing, a birthday blessings, and a Puja in honour of Ganesh. What quickly became apparent is that their religious ceremonies are still a vital part of their everyday life. There was no separation between their spirituality, their family life, and their culture. This is something I think our society has sadly lost. Much of the time our traditional folklore is practiced as a tip of the hat to older ways, as a curiosity from days past rather than as a valuable continuation of a ancient custom. But here the rituals were still relevant, still an active part of everyday life, and I found that very inspiring. It was deeply moving to have been a part of these rituals, and I’m sure they will influence my own practice and dedication to my Druid ways.

5pm arrived and all of the attendees gathered for the Eisteddfod. The first act was Claire Hamilton, a renowned harper and storyteller. If we were to present the Bardic Arts to another religion what better way to begin. I explained that the harp is the only instrument that can trace its origins to the bow – a weapon became the source of an instrument of peace – and my feeling that the Faerie had given that inspiration, and that whenever we play the harp, they listen. Claire did a marvellous version of the tale of Taliesin and Ceridwen, beginning with the forming of Morfran in the womb, with images of him ‘wrapping swirling mists of darkness around himself’, wonderful. Next up was Kate and Corwen, two people who are currently dedicating their lives to the rediscovery of ancient festivals and songs, trying to re-introduce us to our own history. Their set, as ever, was a journey through time, and emotion. I joined them on backing vocals for their rendition of the classic song Lowlands.

Then it was time for the first Hindu performance. A carpet was placed on the stage and about 7 people sat down, cross-legged ready to sing and play. They invited Kate and Corwen to join them on shruti box and drum. For the next 20 minutes we were treated to Hindu chant and song, each one sung by a different person, yet also joined by the audience in a ‘call and response’ pattern. The words were all in Sanskrit so I found it hard to sing along, but that didn’t matter, the Hindus sung with gusto! It was raucous in places, magical in others, and all the time I knew that this was their way of worship – celebratory and inclusive. I thought of the magic of language, and that when my friends in the Czech Republic call to the Quarters in their mother tongue it also holds such magic. I wondered what ‘We all come from the Goddess’ sounded like to someone who couldn’t understand the words – whether or not they also felt the magic within? Or do we need more celebratory chants in our modern Pagan movement, rather than the three note chants we currently hear around our campfires? But that’s a topic for another blog post.

This was followed by an energetic performance of music with drum and chanter. I was next on stage, and time had moved on – we were running a little late. It seems that there is not just Druid Mean Time, but Hindu Mean Time too! We were never going to keep to the time plan! So I thought I’d just cut my set to three songs. I started with Song of Awen (surprise, surprise…). As I played this song I realised again how universal the lyrics are, and it was lovely to see the Hindu people in the audience nodding, smiling, then joining in as they listened. I followed that with The Wheel, and finally Kate and Corwen joined me on Hal an Tow. I thought that would be it, but the final presentation from the Hindus was a sacred dance, and the dancer was still getting ready, so the three of us burst into on final song, Child of the Universe, a cover of the old Heathens All song – a perfect lyric that summed up the unity that I had felt there all day. It was after this that a dancer, dressed in beautiful traditional costume, took the stage. It was the perfect gift with which to finish the day. Graceful, sensuous, sacred, a blessing.

After we all retired for a meal together in the temple (complete with the best lime pickle I have ever tasted!), and after much hugging and exchanging of contact details, I headed back home.

I love being around open people of Faith. That open exchange of beliefs, practices, respect, and peace is something I dearly cherish. Strange then that the next day at our Anderida Gorsedd open samhain ritual at the Long Man of Wilmington, where around 85 people had gathered to celebrate together, to speak the names of loved ones who had passed into the Otherworld, to share a symbolic feast with them, to meet in circle in open friendship with people of many Paths just as I had done the day before, that an elderly gentleman approached us. He asked me and Cerri what was going on and Cerri said it was an open Druid ritual for Samhain, and that he was very welcome to join us. “Oh no!”, he replied. “I follow Jesus” And then shouted “Jesus is Lord!” across the circle. Cerri said, “That’s very nice, but we are in a ceremony and we would respect your ceremony.” So he moved away for a while, before approaching a couple of relatives of people in the ritual, continuing his research. When they explained, he began muttering under his breath, praying and chanting. On the way back he approached a number of the participants, trying to call them to his God. From tolerance and acceptance of belief  from one faith, to the fear and judgment of another in less than 24 hours. I just wish that sometimes these people would really read the New Testament, of the love Jesus showed, of the way he taught to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies and neighbours, rather than the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament.

So much love to all of my new Hindu friends, and love also to our visiting Christian, and all brothers and sisters from other spiritual paths, faiths and religions. We are all branches of The One Tree.

New Lyric – Down in the Garden

Death is a lifetime’s inevitable climax.

As a Pagan I believe that death is not the end, but a door that opens onto a new adventure. But nonetheless when someone we are close to passes through that veil our beliefs, although they can give us strength, cannot sometimes entirely balance our sense of loss, and of that longing for one last hug, one last conversation, to say those things we needed to say.

Here is a new lyric about crossing that veil.

Down in the Garden – Damh the Bard

Verse 1:

Down in the garden there’s a Willow tree,

Its hair in the breeze,

Whispers to me.

A voice is calling, from deep inside,

It’s longing to find,

One of its kind.


I am the rising Sun,

I am birdsong when the day is done,

I am the tear in your eye,

I am alive.

Verse 2:

Down in the garden, where the mushrooms grow,

The moss-covered stone,

Shows me home.

Damp soil on my fingers, I draw back the veil,

And say a prayer,

I’m not scared.

Verse 3:

Down in the garden, leaves will fall,

To the ground,

Without a sound.

If ever you need me, there’s a Willow tree,

Its hair in the breeze,

That’s where I’ll be.

Chorus 2:

I am the rising Sun,

I am the birdsong when the day is done,

I am the tear in your eye,

But I am alive,

I am the Buzzard on the wing,

I am the snowdrop of the Spring,

Wipe your tears from your eyes,

I am alive.