The Winter King – Where it was written

A couple of weeks ago I played at the PF Devon and Cornwall conference, a gig I love to play each year, and a great reason to step foot upon my home county of Cornwall. On the Sunday after the conference the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft opens for that one Sunday, so many of the people at the conference descend upon the town to see what’s been happening at the museum.

Now I cannot go to Boscastle without walking to the top of the cliffs to look out upon the mightly Atlantic ocean, and it was here, about 14 years ago that I heard the refrain that opens my song The Winter King in the sound of the sea as it struck the cliffs below. So this time I took some footage on my walk up to put into a video to go with the song.

It’s VERY shaky, but it does show the beauty of the place, and the inspiration behind the refrain, and the rest of King Arthur’s song. I hope you enjoy it, despite the wobbly videoing!



Druid – Damh the Bard

I look behind me and see the face of a poet,
Flaming eyes that know no bounds,
Who understands the secrets of the land, the sea, the sky,
And the language of the birds,
Who can hear the message in the cry of the gull,
In the voice of the wave,
And the cold, dark, Earth.
I look before me.
And see my reflection
And our voices sing the tales of the land,
As the old Druid whispers them to me,
From tree, river, from land of old.

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.

The Power of Initiation

When I began to turn my attention to seriously explore Paganism much of the conversation was about magic, which path you would end up following, and initiation. It was like I stood outside of something, and all of these choices stood before me, leading to that final decision, and the initiation rite that would bring me from that feeling of standing outside, to being inside. I had already been studying magic for many years having taken four initiation steps along the path of Ceremonial Magic. These had all been powerful experiences, but none had asked the questions I was being asked now.

It seemed very important at that time to make a decision about which path to follow. The eclectic Pagan was still a growing phenomena amongst the seemingly far more committed, and recognised, Pagan traditions of Wicca, Witchcraft, Druidry and Asatru. These were the four well trodden tracks that lay before me. Like standing on the edge of a forest I could see the beginnings of each path, I could find out and walk a little way along each, but then darkness lay before me, a darkness I knew would illuminate once I had made my decision, but until then, I could merely strain to see further, to no avail.

So I met with some groups, going to their open evenings, discussing aspects of their traditions. I sent off for the intro pack for the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids to find out more of this path, I joined in with the Pagan Federation’s open rituals, and went to some camps. And all the time I could see this beckoning finger in the mists, calling me forward, but into what I still didn’t know. You see I loved the tradition of the Witch and the ceremony of Wicca. My past lay in Ceremonial Magic, and I could tell just by talking to Witches and Wiccans that their path’s history also came from that same place. There was a familiarity that was compelling. However my big stumbling block was the initiation. From all I had been told if I were to step upon this path I would be making a commitment for lifetimes. Not just this one, but the next, and the next, forever. This is something I just couldn’t do. If it turned out that in my next life I also felt the call of the Wiccan then I would find that place once more, or it would find me. But the lessons I needed to learn next time might well be different – how was I to know what lay in my future, for eternity? I couldn’t make that choice, so the path of Wicca shimmered and then gradually disappeared, as the path blended back into the forest – or so I thought, more about that later…

The problem with Asatru was finding anyone locally who practiced and ran a group. Considering I was living in Sussex, the land of the South Saxons, it was really hard to find anyone to talk to about this path. So reluctantly I took this as a sign that it was not for me.

The same could almost have been said for Druidry. This was 1993-4 and the main thrust of Paganism was definitely held within the hands of the Craft. I tried to find Druids and found one, only one. Luckily she was a member of the local Druid Grove run by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm in Lewes, the headquarters of the OBOD, the largest Druid Order in the World. So on the Winter Solstice of 1994 I found myself in their home, celebrating the Solstice within a Druid Grove. I hadn’t needed any initiation, I hadn’t sat down and spoken with anyone in the Grove. I was just openly invited to join in. Because all of the inner workings of Wiccan group ritual had been closed to me unless I could make that commitment to join the path, I couldn’t feel the magic of those ceremonies. Here for some reason I could. I could fully experience Druidry before I made that step. As the circle was cast, and the lights turned off as the candles were lit, as the incense was taken around, and I heard the Awen sung for the very first time I felt like my heart was going to burst. This was it, I was home.

So on the Spring Equinox 1995 I arrived at the Grove ready for my initiation as a Bard, and I was terrified. All I had going through my head were the tales of people jumping out of windows and legging it down the street being so scared of what was to come. Admittedly all of these tales had come from the Wiccan Coven I had been exploring, but still, was Druidry much different? I didn’t know yet. I was taken away from the main group and sat alone in a darkened room. I could hear sounds from the main living space, but other than that there was silence. Time for me to think about the path that had led me to this point. It was a few moments later that I realised I was not alone in the room. I sensed movement. In this heightened state I through it could be anything. I sensed something moving in the blackness then a book fell from the shelf as Philip and Stephanie’s cat jumped from the bookshelf. A cat, that was all, just a cat.

About 30 minutes later the door opened, and I was led to my initiation.

Having gone through this I wonder now why I hear less talk of initiation. You see on that night I experienced something Other than I had been used to with my Ceremonial Magic grade initiations. I guess I felt this as I knew that I had finally found my spiritual home. Nothing really changed during the ceremony itself, but over the next few days there were subtle shifts in perception, changes in the way I looked at life, at the world. I could feel the embrace of countless other Bards who had taken this Journey – from Philip and Stephanie, to Myrdhin, Amergin and Taleisin. Even then I knew there was no unbroken line, but the Spirit that guides the Bard has ever been the same, and still continues to this day. I found these great Avatars waiting when I closed my eyes, and stepped into the Inner Grove, I found them waiting on ancient hill tops, and in ageless trees. I found them in folklore, in poetry, in myth, and in my heart.

Once I had travelled through each of the grades of the Order I asked my Grove to re-initiate me as a Bard. It was where I belonged, and where, for this lifetime at least, my destiny lay. That re-dedication was even more powerful than the first as I brought all of my knowledge and learning with me. This was not a frightening jump into the dark, but rather a full stop before the next chapter, a chapter of a book I’m still writing to this day.

So I am truly in favour of magical initiations. They are moments in our lives that stay with us forever. They are times when we look to the Universe and shout, “I am ready!” But there is one more story I must tell before this post is done.

Whilst I was still deciding which path to follow, and before I had made contact with the Order I had a dream. In this dream I was in a temple room, it was lit only by subtle torchlight – on the walls, and in the hands of a circle of people that stood around me. The people were all wearing animal masks, and gently chanting. They were all looking at me, looking directly into my soul. In this dream I was led through a ritual that I can still vividly remember to this day. The next day I told this dream to a Wiccan High Priestess. She smiled and said, ‘To some people that dream would have been an initiation. What do you think?” For some reason I said no, I thought it was just a dream. In truth I think I said it to please her – I thought that was the answer she wanted to hear, that I still thought I needed a physical initiation. But inside I always knew that it was real. And this is why I said ‘or so I thought’ when it came to my relationship with the Craft. You see, on that night I believe that I slipped into some Otherworld and received a magical initiation. Not through the physical initiation of a tradition, but by something else. I think it was that dream, and my initiation in the OBOD, that have influenced the way I practice Druidry as a magical Pagan path, and how that has also influenced my music. In this place lies the Chalice and the Blade, the Awen and the Oak, the Sun and the Moon. Here lies Annwn.

I’ll be in the Woods

I saw that the Pagan’s friend the Daily Mail took another stab at us recently asking if we were really innocent tree-huggers or a ‘dangerous cult’. Interesting that they are still giving Paganism the column space considering that we haven’t been in the news for a couple of weeks – I guess we still help sell newspapers. Having said that the time around Samhain is always a little crazy when it comes to the press. I remember sending out letters on behalf of the Pagan Federation to our local newspapers trying to draw their attention away from the fear-mongering of certain fundie Churches, who were also on their own campaigns to make the media aware of how ‘dangerous’ Hallowe’en is, and back to what it was really about.

There is obviously still a need to offer accurate information to the press to counter the fantasies of certain journalists and groups, but one thing I wouldn’t like to see is the Pagan community having to water down what we do, or who we are, to gain some kind of public acceptance. Recently I’ve had a couple of conversations with other Pagans about how we shouldn’t wear robes, should stop talking about Magic, should forget all of this nonsense about the Faerie. That all the time we do these things we will never be accepted as ‘normal’. I really can’t agree with this. If we have to drop anything within our traditions that is not ‘normal’ just to get mainstream acceptance I don’t think that’s acceptance at all. To me that’s being forced to conform, and one of things that I love about Pagans is that conformity is not high on our agenda! When I am in ceremony I wear a robe, be that in a private Grove, or at a public ritual. Just as a Christian Priest dons their dog collar, or a couple dress up in their very best clothes to go to Glydebourne to see an opera, so my robes help me shift from everyday reality to that Other space that lets the Spirits of Place, myself, and the people at the ritual, know that we are here to do ceremony. Nothing wrong with that.

Magic. I guess we either believe in it or not, and with many aspects of our Pagan Ways there is no ‘Thou Shalt Believe in Magic’ to follow. But I do believe in this strange occult power, and I’ve felt and seen it at work. I’m not about to drop this belief just because it makes someone else feel uncomfortable.

And then there’s the Faerie… Not those dainty winged creatures created by the Victorians and so loved by Disney, no not those Faerie at all. I am talking about the Sidhe, the Spriggan, the Elf, the Wight – beings that live in another reality, another realm, a place so close to our own that sometimes they meet. This realm has many names but the one I use is Annwn. I ask no one else to believe in this realm, but I will not deny something so important to me just to fit in. It’s too important to me.

I’m quite happy to exist on the fringe of society and still hold true to my feelings. It’s nothing new for Druids – look at the myths surrounding Merlin, the Wild Man of the Woods, and Suibhne. The Druid, like the Shaman, has always had one foot in society, and the other in the mists. Indeed almost any inspired poet who looked beyond what was accepted by society, who had never lost the wonder of the child (or maybe another way of saying the same thing would be succumbed to the cynicism of adulthood) has been viewed as a weirdo. So what.

So if it takes me to drop all of the things that make me Damh just to be accepted by the mainstream press, or society as a whole, well, I’ll be in the woods, or on the moor, running like a lunatic, screaming to the Moon, stepping through the Gateway in the circle of stones, and playing my mandolin with the Seelie court. I may be some time.

How to write a song – songs and poetry continued…

Following on from yesterday’s post on songwriting I’d like to delve a little deeper.

It certainly helps me when I sit down to write to know what it is I’m going to be writing, ie whether it’s a song, or a poem. If my drive is to write a poem, I won’t grab one of my instruments. All I need is a pen and piece of paper. I feel an incredible sense of freedom when I write poetry. I let my mind and emotions free and follow the stream of consciousness as it appears on the page before me. My poetry tends to follow this pattern. When the poem is finished I often feel washed clean, purified – somehow the world changes when a new poem has been written.

Here’s one of my poems – a seasonal one for Imbolc:

By Damh the Bard

As the dark, cold morning gives way to light,snowdrops1.jpeg
And the world shows its face dazzling in her nakedness,
So the twigs and leaf-bare branches,
Bow to the passing dance

Of old Jack Frost.

His crystal breath on the earth,
And the corners of houses weep icicles of joy.
But where is the Sun’s warmth?
Where is life?

A small flower, delicate and pure-white,
Looks to the earth,
As if talking to the waiting green,
“Not yet,” it seems to whisper.
“When I fall, then you can return.”

And she nods her head,
as the Lady passes by,
Leaving more flowers in Her wake.

Writing a song is a very different experience.

I’ll often feel the need to write a song, so will grab an instrument and just noodle, playing with chords, fingerpicking, singing nonsense words to find a melody that fits with the chords. Sometimes something comes, sometimes it doesn’t. But the melody is the hook of the song for me, so other than two of my songs when I wrote the words first and then found the tune (Only Human and Immrama, both from my new CD), the tune always comes first.

I can sometimes have a tune for months before I discover what the tune will be about. The song The Cauldron Born from my new CD, I had the tune for nearly 3 years before the words finally came through. Others, like Merlin am I, I’ll write the tune and the words in one sitting, and will often look at the page afterwards, totally exhausted, and wonder where it all came from.

Either way, for me songwriting is more like giving birth to a child. It can be painful, exciting, frustrating, risky, but at the end there is something that breathes for itself, and like a child, continues to grow and change with every performance.

The Seven Gifts of Druidry video

I created this little video some months ago, and I don’t know why I didn’t post a blog about it then. The words are from a poster produced by the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, written by my good friend Philip Carr-Gomm. The music is Merlin am I from my Hills they are Hollow CD. I can’t believe it’s been viewed nearly 10,000 times already. Let me know what you think of it!