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.

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.

Video for a new song – please share!

Some of you might not have heard my single The Sons and Daughters of Robin Hood. I’ve just found this video, complete with lyrics, on YouTube, so here it is!

Considering the current political climate I think this song should be heard far and wide, so feel free to share the link as much as you like!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8DoHLdYrdo

And the live version from the OBOD Summer Gathering!

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.

There is no separation, you are part of me

As I sit here writing this I can look outside and see clear blue skies, the Bluebells are growing, the Daffodils are in flower, and the Willow is budding. Spring is knocking on the door and, as I do every year, I give thanks to the turning seasons we have here in the UK.

I watched the new science program by Professor Brian Cox last night during which he tried to show the life cycle of the Universe. It was an amazing program that illustrated what lots of us already know – that to have life there needs to be change. The Universe is on its own journey through its own seasons and it is only during this time in its existence that life is possible, not just here on Earth but anywhere in the Universe. I found that incredibly inspiring – not just how lucky I am that, of all of the creatures in the Universe I could have been, I am a Human Being, but now that I have even been born at all! In countless years from now the Universe will have passed the point where life is possible. These ideas push my spiritual beliefs and make me look at what that means for the Green Man, for this beautiful and precious Earth. That’s a topic for another blog post in the future though, because what is currently on my mind is not the end of the Universe, but where we are right now, deep in the life of it!

The feeling I have inside at this point of the year is almost indescribable. I am not a fan of the Winter but I am deeply grateful that we have that dark time for without it, there would not be this moment when life is just about to burst back once more. Every year my life has this renewal, a rebirth with the year. I too have retreated into the darkness over the Winter, and like the plants, trees and animals I am a part of this rebirth.

I also watched Countrytracks last night during which the presenter went to a lonely island off the western isles of Scotland. She said, “No one lives here, but there’s lots of wildlife.” I had to laugh as within that comment she illustrated what many humans honestly feel, that they are separate from nature and are not Wildlife. But it is obvious to me when I go outside at this time of year that I am Wildlife – I am feeling the same as the bird, the waking insect, the opening leaf and flower, and it’s wonderful! Even in what appears to many as a ‘mundane’ reality I can encourage this same sense of renewal and leave behind those things I no longer need, knowing that they’ve fed and nourished me (even if sometimes it doesn’t feel that way!) during my dark time, because now is the time for my rebirth. Let’s face it, the energy that feeds plants and trees comes from waste, I’m pretty sure I’m the same too! There is no separation, I am Wildlife, a part of the life of this planet, of this Universe.

So I give thanks for my life, for who I am, where I live, what I have in my life, and the wonders of nature that surround me, and are within me!

Major Influences Part 1 – Phil Lynott

One of the things I am asked more than any other is who have been my major influences when it comes to songwriting, so I thought it would be nice to write a series of blog posts addressing this subject. The question is where to start? So I think I should start with the first time I consciously became aware of the skill of the songwriter. For that I need to go back a number of years…

When I was 12 I asked my parents to buy me the latest album by David Bowie. I remember putting Heroes on my simple record player and listening to the opening music. I liked it, but it didn’t move me. I had loved his earlier album, Diamond Dogs, but there was a quality to his voice on Heroes that I just couldn’t get on with. I loved the songs, but wasn’t keen on the direction of the delivery. At the same time my friend had bought the new album by a band called Thin Lizzy called Fighting. He brought the album around and we played that, and Heroes over and over again (as children are apt to do with new favourite records). I still had trouble accessing Bowie’s new album, but when I heard the opening notes of Fighting I was immediately hooked.

When the first notes of Rosalie played I guess that was probably my first conscious encounter with a real guitar ‘riff’. There had been others – Blockbuster by The Sweet, Rebel Rebel by David Bowie, but there was something that shifted within me when that Lizzy guitar lick flew from my speakers. And then there were the lyrics. Within Phil Lynott’s music the lyrics and music are formed together in a vital marriage where the music holds the song, and the lyrics tell the story, but the music also acts as a kind of film score, changing here and there to emphasise and add accents where needed, but not overtly so anyone would really notice how their relationship with the song had been influenced.

My friend preferred the Bowie album, I preferred the Lizzy, so we swapped. I must have played that album to death – I still have it. Phil Lynott was a writer of real quality, his music had meaning and depth, but it also made you want to bang that head! This wasn’t something that was usual at the time. Even Ronnie Dio’s Sword and Sorcery lyrics were often confusing to me – they promised a lot, but actually when I listened hard I was often left not really understanding what he was singing about. Phil Lynott left no such grey areas, he delivered great words, and blended them with melodies that just didn’t leave you alone. My love of Thin Lizzy continued and they were the first rock band I ever saw live in 1979 on the Black Rose tour. I saw them many more times, and each time was a treat. Phil Lynott was not only a great lyricist, but also a brilliant bassist, singer, and an incredible front man and entertainer. I’m sure he also inadvertently taught me how to interact with an audience too.

I was at a rock club in Sussex the night I heard about his death, and it was on that night I realised that the golden age of rock, at least as I had known it, had died with him. After that the sounds of LA Hair Metal, Thrash and Death Metal became the major trend. But years later in my mind it is the music of Thin Lizzy that has proved its longevity. I listen to Boys are Back in Town, Waiting for an Alibi, Suicide, Black Rose – the list is endless, and they sound as fresh to my ears as they did when I was 12 years old.

So a big HENGWAH to Phil, now rockin’ out in the Otherworld with Gary Moore, and what a party I’m sure they are having!

A Lyric – That Happily will no longer be Used

Lore says that the ancient Bards could raise welts on the faces of their enemies just by using the magic and power of words. I rarely write political songs but sometimes the energy of the moment just gets to me and a song is the only way I can let off steam. Only Human was one, Pagan Ways and Tomb of the King were another two. I’m so glad that my most recent political song, written about the UK Government’s plans to sell of England’s forests, will now no longer be recorded. Yesterday they announced they are scrapping the idea. I never entirely trust politicians so I’ll be watching closely, but on this occasion common sense and people power have won, and although the other parties are now chasing Cameron down calling out ‘U turn’ etc, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say thank you.

However…

Just in case they decide that, while we aren’t looking, to implement an equally idiotic forestry scheme, I’ve decided to print the lyrics of the song what would have been flying around the internet. It’s an angry song, because I was angry when it was written. “If you thought that we would do nothing, you’ve misunderstood…”

 

The Sons and Daughters (of Robin Hood) – Damh the Bard

Verse 1:

We all watched you on our TV,

Right Honourable Gentlemen, apparently,

Different voices with only one aim,

To win my vote, to win the game.

People have died to pave the way,

So we can vote come polling day,

X marks the spot that gives us our voice,

But how do you vote when there isn’t a choice?

 

Chorus

If you thought that we would do nothing you’ve misunderstood…

For we are the Sons and Daughters of Robin Hood!

 

Verse 2:

See I remember exclusion zones,

At Solstice time around the Stones,

Poll Tax riots at Trafalgar Square,

The rich they got richer, the poor were stripped bare.

Building new roads with no thought for the land,

And the blood of the Beanfield is still on your hands,

Now drilling off Shetland will do just fine,

And you’re selling off forests like you closed down mines.

 

Chorus

If you thought that we would do nothing you’ve misunderstood…

For we are the Sons and Daughters of Robin Hood!

 

Bridge:

Nothing to see, there’s nothing to see, there’s nothing to see here…

Nothing to see, just look away, there’s nothing to see here…

 

Verse 3:

England’s green and pleasant land,

Is not there to put cash in your hands!

I see your symbol is the English oak tree,

Is that your idea of irony?

Now thousands of eyes will fall upon you,

Each watching closely what you will do,

All are ready to spoil your game,

For the blood of an outlaw flows in our veins!

 

Chorus

If you thought that we would do nothing you’ve misunderstood…

For we are the Sons and Daughters of Robin Hood!

My Red and White Dragon

The young Myrdhin when taken to the doomed tower of King Vortigern saw a vision. He saw that beneath the tower were two dragon eggs out of which hatched one white dragon and one red dragon. There have been many theories as to what this vision might have meant but the most popular is that it describes the oncoming battle between the Britons (the red dragon), and the Saxons (the white dragon). The red dragon is still on the Welsh flag, but the English sadly adopted the George Cross.

For many years it was thought that the English were the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, a simple dividing line that separated England from Wales, Scotland and Cornwall quite neatly. But some years ago extensive DNA tests revealed that it was not that simple. That a good majority of people living all over England also had within them the genetics of the indigenous Briton, as well as the Saxon and (in some areas) the Viking. This suggested that although there certainly were battles, these battles were not constant over time, and that the Saxons, rather than invading and forcing the indigenous population to the western fringes of the island, actually lived together with the Britons, and obviously found companionship in each other, and gave birth to children of both Briton and Saxon parents.

Therefore I know that within me flows the blood of the red, and the white dragon, and I find that very exciting. I am Briton, and Saxon (and many other things too I’m sure!). I have spent, and will continue to spend, much time with my inner Briton, and right now I can feel the eyes of the white dragon turning its gaze towards me – beginning to stretch its wings. Among the voices of the Horned One, Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd and Taliesin, I also hear strange voices in another language speaking of Woden and Wayland. The Gods of the Briton and the Saxon are not at war within me, they are seeking a better understanding of each other, as they meet in this one body. Who knows what I might hear them say, what they might tell me, but their songs need to be sung too.

Sources of Inspiration 2 – Places of Peace


The Quest for the Awen, yearning for those three sweet drops to fall upon my tongue, to open my eyes and see the world through the eyes of a poet is still a Quest that drives me every day. Nature is the world’s most intoxicating drug and the great thing is that in all of my encounters with her, the side effects of this particular addiction have all been, without exception, completely positive.

I am blessed by the fact that my chosen medium, acoustic folk, is infinitely portable – from an acoustic guitar or for even more portability, the tiny mandolin. I have written many songs in the quiet of my own home, but a number of the songwriting experiences I remember with most fondness are the songs that I caught whilst playing outside.

Some people find inspiration in conflict. Friction can be a wonderful source of inspiration and it has been for me a couple of times, Only Human instantly springs to mind, a song that I had to write after watching a program about animal experimentation, but for me the main source of inspiration is peace. I guess some may find no inspiration in peace at all, finding it too dull, still or quiet, but I have always known that I have within me an inner hermit who yearns for that sacred solitude that opens us up to the Divine.

Oak Broom and Meadowsweet was written in a woodland near Beltane, the floor covered with bluebells, and the voices of the Faerie almost dictating the words; Noon of the Solstice was written in the same woods, near the time of the Solstice, singing the words to the Horned God standing with my back to a mighty Oak; Hills they are Hollow was written in the stone circle at Merrivale with the ‘Tors standing as Guardians to the rites to Nature’s Gods of darkness and of light’; and Grimspound was written in the large roundhouse at the site listening to the calling Ravens and the voices within the fallen walls.

Other sites have inspired songs that have arrived some time after getting home. Land, Sky and Sea was inspired by a visit to St Ninian’s cave in Dumfries and Galloway where every day St Ninian used to make a pilgrimage down to the sea, to sit in this tranquil cave, and here he said he could talk to God and hear his reply. When I went to the place I also sat and spoke aloud, possibly to different Gods, but still there was a sense of connection that I can vividly remember whilst writing this. It is taking these experiences and putting them into words that have been a large part of my songwriting over the years.

So what to do? Well, I get on my walking boots, go outside, take my instrument with me, and a pen and paper. Choose a site that I love, and make a sacred pilgrimage to the place, making my intent the connection to the Site, not writing a song – the song comes from the connection.

When I get there I open up to the spirits of place, sit and open my senses – look, listen, smell, and touch deeply. A technique I learned from my Bushcraft training was to see with the eyes of the deer, listen with the ears of the hare, feel with the skin of a new born baby, smell with the nose of the wolf. This intense opening to the senses quiets the voice that chatters in my mind about the washing up, the bills to pay, that I am wasting my time and shouldn’t be here, that kind of thing. If I turn my attention away from that voice and solely to my senses, that
voice cannot get through. Combine this with conscious breathing and the connection with the place, and its energies, open to me, and then, sometimes, something wonderful happens, and I begin to hear the words of the Ancestors, then voices of the Faerie, the stories of the Stones.

Usually I just ‘noodle’ on the guitar, playing the words I hear with notes. We know that sound is vibration, that music is tuned vibration, and notes do not end after the string is played, but rather carry on out into the universe, and endless space. That is the space I get into, and if I am lucky I will catch a word or two, and begin to sing over the tune, and sometimes these words become a song.

It is the sense of peace I feel at these places that lets me open up to the flow of Awen. It is when I allow my inner hermit his space that the songs I feel most connection with are given voice. Do you have an inner hermit/monk? Do they get enough space? If not, try to give them time and space, and there you too might find peace, and taste the Awen.

A Worldwide Pagan Community & the PSG

So I’ve been home for a few days now and have had a little time to reflect on my time in the USA. Thinking of the Pagan Spirit Gathering I have one overriding impression – that there is a worldwide Pagan community. Some people say that Paganism is so diverse that it has ceased to be anything more than a word to describe a fractured spirituality. That there is nothing that holds it together. But for me that view was proved utterly wrong when I crossed the Atlantic ocean to play music, and offer a couple of talks, to over 900 American Pagans and find that I feel utterly at home – that the rituals, the chants, the viewpoints being discussed, the general vibe of the camp felt just the same as our Anderida camps, and that these also share much with other camps and events that are happening throughout Britain. Maybe it is just that Paganism appeals to people on a spiritual quest, and that after a while their path might lead away from it, so they can continue their Journey elsewhere. I wonder whether those who see Paganism as fractured are just being called away from it, and rather than just open to that new path, they see their old path as broken, rather than their new path as a continuation of their life quest – who knows. Any relationship can end in either co-operation, or anger, and I guess spiritual relationships are no different… So I’ve come away from the PSG feeling a renewed hope, a renewed connection with my own quest, and a revitalised energy to do even more in service of this community I love so much.

The PSG also gave me time to reflect on my appointment as Pendragon of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. As darkness fell one night I walked to the ritual field to see a massive candlelit Labyrinth. Some people were sitting, just looking at this beautiful thing, whilst others had been called to walk it. I sat for a long time, looking at the spiral path laid out before me. Thinking of it as my own path that, although it has appeared to take sudden twists and turns throughout my life, had been just one path, spiralling, but leading me directly to where I was sitting now. The decisions I’ve made, the changes I’ve undertook; learning to play the guitar, sending off a stamp for the OBOD course, giving up my own company in the Agri-business as I just couldn’t square it with my spiritual beliefs anymore, relationship changes, making friends, and losing some along the way, had all led me to this point, and to taking up the sword for the Order.

The peace of the night was enticing, and so I stood and walked across the threshold into the Labyrinth. Around the outer edge altars had been set up in the four directions, so at each I stopped and made my offerings and prayers. It was a long walk to the centre, with plenty of time to think, to remember, and eventually I came to the centre. Here I sat, soaking up the night, feeling the circling, spiralling people who were either walking into or out from this still point all around me. And there I opened even more and listened.

The Pagan community exists, without doubt. I think it is coming of age and is calling out for a rite of passage. But just as our modern society has abandoned these so we no longer mark when a child becomes a man (other than being able to drink legally), or when a girl becomes a woman, it’s up to us to guide it though this process. After all it is us who are the Pagan community – our spirits make up it’s body. Although we can sometimes see our own bodies as separate from who we are, just a vehicle to carry us around, it is good to recognise that the body, the community, is not separate, and if it is nurtured, honoured and loved, it’ll serve the whole, and the individual.