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.

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Anderida Gorsedd Spoils of Annwn camp

The theme of this year’s Anderida Gorsedd Autumn camp was the Taliesin poem The Spoils of Annwn.

From Friday night through to Sunday midday around 80 people worked with the powers and hidden mysteries of this poem that has been attributed as the origin of the Arthurian Grail Quest. On Saturday night the people at the camp boarded Arthur’s ship Prydwen that has been built in the field, and crossed the Waters of the West to walk through the Spiral Castle of Caer Siddi and travel to the Seven Caers – to look deep into the Cauldron of Annwn.

The following short film was taken during Saturday night with sensitivity to the magic of the moment, and I’m so glad it was as it captures the magic of the Anderida camps beautifully.

Questions, questions

One of the mainstays of my spiritual practice is to ask questions of myself and my teachers. I remember, as a child, asking questions of the vicar who would come into my school. These were good questions, questions like “How does the wine turn into the actual blood of Christ?” “How did Jesus manage to roll back the stone placed at the entrance of his tomb? Surely he was really tired!” But these were never answered adequately enough for me. All I usually got was, “Keep reading the Bible, and stop asking questions.” But I’ve never stopped asking questions of my spiritual teachers, or of myself, and I think this is a really healthy approach to one’s religious and spiritual path.

There have been some tough questions too over the years too. Like How can you call yourself a Druid? and If you revere Earth-based Gods, what about the rest of the Universe? These are great questions, and although some have been cast my way by people who have asked themselves these questions, and have not been able to find the answer within themselves, so have stepped off their path and onto another, I have each time found my own answers. So although asking, and being asked these kinds of questions has sometimes challenged the very foundation of my spiritual beliefs, I have to thank the people who asked them, as each time they help me to see clearer my Path through the Forest.

So I say never stop asking questions of yourself, or your teachers, if these questions need to be answered. Sometimes the answer will take a while, but the clarity that the search brings is priceless.

Magic in Avalon

Here is a lovely video presented by the website Druidic Dawn taken at the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids ceremony on Glastonbury Tor at this year’s Summer Gathering.

Land, Sky and Sea on video

I just found this on YouTube. I love stumbling upon videos where people have placed my songs and this one just nails it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Story of the Song – The Greenwood Grove

From the album The Hills they are Hollow.

As with many of my songs I had the tune for this song for a number of weeks before the lyrics finally arrived. Looking back I think I wrote two sets of lyrics for this and both ended up in the bin. But finally I was noodling with the tune on my mandolin in the living room and it was the chorus that came first.

Come follow me, come dance with me,

Come with me to the Greenwood Grove such magic there to see,

The Lord of the Wild with his Faerie Kin,

Deep within the Greenwood Grove,

We’ll dance the Magic Ring.

I remember looking at these words and thinking, ‘the only way I’m going to find out what this song is about is to do as the chorus asks, and follow the Lord of the Wild into the Grove itself.’ So I carried on playing the song, and closed my eyes.

Music takes me away. I can lose hours simply playing an instrument, closing my eyes, and riding the notes to wherever they take me. On this occasion I was taken into a woodland (no surprise there then!) and pretty soon I heard the sound of music being played, coming towards me through the woods. I hid behind an oak and waited as the music drew closer and closer. A huge horned figure led a procession of dancing spectral figures past me. Then came others walking behind, laughing and smiling, and others on horseback. Now I’m quite familiar with the stories of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, but I had to follow, I had to, the music was irresistible.

I kept a small distance so as not to be seen, and soon the host began to gather in a clearing up ahead – an almost perfectly circular Grove. There was a hill in its centre that reminded me of a large round barrow, and the large horned figure slowly climbed the hill, and silence began to fall around the glade. He had a large club in one hand which he raised above his head, then brought it down onto the hill which resounded with a deep, hollow, sound. He raised it again, and once more it fell upon the Hollow Hill below, and then again, and again, until I realised he was creating a consistent bass rhythm, as other drums began to join him. The figures began to circle and dance in a magical ring dance around the edge of the Grove, then from the hill emerged a Man of Birch, followed by a Lady of Rowan. Other leafy-faced figures began to step from the Otherworld, through the Hollow Hill into the grove, and join the dance. I realised I was watching the Spirits of the Ogam trees join the dance, and in that moment the words of the song began to form.

I am the Birch of the new beginning,

The Rowan star with magic guarding…

The images around me began to fade, and I became aware that I was still playing the tune on my mandolin, and had been throughout all of this, and that it was this tune that the Faerie Host had been dancing to. I became more and more aware of the room around me, until I opened my eyes, and began to write. It was finished in no time at all after that. A gift from the Spirits of Nature!

Art is Magic – Alan Moore

Cerri showed me this piece and I posted a link to it on my Facebook page but I think it’s so good that I’m going to blog it too.

This piece is dark, and honest, as Alan Moore speaks his truth directly with no frills or fluffy language, and to me it sums up how I feel about Art and it’s relationship with Magic. To me the Bardic Path is a magical and Shamanistic tradition and an artist, be that a musician, writer, painter, sculptor, like the skilled storyteller, can change consciousness and guide us through Other Worlds. See what you think.