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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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!

Daily Practice

Last week I interviewed the author and teacher T. Thorn Coyle for DruidCast, the monthly podcast by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. One of the questions I asked her was what advice she could give to more experienced spiritual practitioners? The answer she gave was to make sure to have a regular daily practice. She also said to stop using the word ‘mundane’ to describe our everyday activities. That the spiritual can encompass everything we do, be that sitting in quiet meditation in the woods, working a deep magical ritual, or doing the washing up.

For many people I’m sure that this apparent simple answer could actually appear quite hard. Time is one thing. Where is the time for a regular daily practice, and how can washing up be seen as a spiritual pursuit? Her answer to time was also simple, most of us find time for Facebook and Twitter… It’s true with me, sometimes the way I use my time is not always the best and most spiritually nourishing. I’m sure many of us procrastinate, waste time, even use other tactics to self-sabotage our well-being, and then say ‘I just don’t have any time for myself’.

Thorn’s answer was to use some of that Facebook time, some of that TV-watching time, just 30 minutes a day, to take that walk in the woods, to go to another room in your house, away from distraction, and meditate. There’s no doubt that a daily practice reminds us who we are, and why we are doing this work. The opposite is also true – the longer we leave it, the harder it can be to make that connection with our spiritual selves again. Questions like, ‘I used to feel so much more, and now it feels like it’s all gone’ begin to arise. I’ve been there on a number of occasions when I’ve had a prolonged absence of spiritual practice. I know I’m not the only one.

And the spiritual connection of washing up? It’s obvious. These are the plates, cutlery, and pans that cooked the food that keeps us alive and feeds not just our bodies but our spirit. The food was grown from our Mother Earth, maybe an animal gave its life so we could eat. To make them clean again shows respect for that food, and for ourselves.

So that’s it. No more excuses. I can find that 30 minutes each day. If you’ve found yourself diverting your attention away from your spiritual needs, why don’t you join me?

So what’s this Druidry all about then?

I’m sure many people who walk this wonderful and sometimes labyrinthine Druid path are asked this question – I know I am – and it’s often a difficult question to answer, but I think the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids‘ new video goes a long way in offering a visual and aural taster of the kind of things we experience as modern Druids. I’m really proud and honoured to be a part of this vibrant and exciting tradition, and to be a part of the OBOD.

I hope you enjoy the film!

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.

Sources of Inspiration – part 1

One of the questions I am asked more than any other is – where do I get my inspiration? There are many, many sources of inspiration so I thought I’d tackle a few in a series of blog posts.

It might seem like an easy topic to write about but it’s actually quite difficult because, for me, inspiration is a feeling more than observation. I can feel it descend over me like a second skin, my breathing changes, colours change, there is a sweet feeling in my chest, a lightness. It can come during a walk on the moor, the downs, or just while ‘noodling’ on an instrument (noodling is literally just playing and singing nonsense until some hook, or phrase, catches your attention). Only rarely have I sat down specifically to write a particular song. I did this with Isis Unveiled, Only Human, Immrama, and a couple of others, when some outside stimuli has inspired me, but on the whole they seem to just appear.

The feeling is pure magic, like tapping into a flow of power from some Otherworld, but I also know that I’ve only got it for a limited time. If I don’t sit and write the entire song in one sitting, it’s so difficult to come back to at another time and try to get back into that flow. A song that I lost the feeling halfway through was The Cauldron Born. That song originally had a completely different set of lyrics, but it didn’t get finished. When I came back to it, they had gone, and I couldn’t finish it. I sat with the tune for many hours just playing the melody, opening up to see what would come through, and nothing did. I had the tune for 2 years before the lyrics finally arrived. I had finished recording 8 of the 10 songs on The Cauldron Born album, and only then did the lyrics arrive, and with them the title of the CD!

So what is my process? I make sure I have a clear space of time. I pick up an instrument (it’s not important which one, just the one I’m called to that day). I have one book in which all of my songs have been written for the past 7 years, so I get that book, and a pen. I open to a clean page, and write the alphabet across the top line. Then I close my eyes, find my centre, and open up, and just begin to play – never something I’ve already written, if I do that I’ll lose the feeling, it has to be new. It’s like an old vinyl record I guess – I put the needle on, and at first it just stays there, but if I’m lucky, it’ll slip into the groove, and a song will begin to play.

At this time I have no idea what I’m going to write about, but I’ll sometimes just get an opening line, so I write it down. I might get two, and then the alphabet across the top does it’s job. I look at the word I need to rhyme with at the end of the phrase and, using the alphabet, I say the sound until I find a good rhyme. This will often create the next line. There is a lot of fiddling about with words and lines as the song develops, and during this time something will hopefully click and I’ll see what the song wants to say, what it’s about. Once this happens the ‘aha!’ moment then points me towards the finishing direction of the song.

An important thing to remember is not to over analyse while you’re writing the song. Just get it down on paper in some form. The creative process engages the right side of the brain, the analysis engages the left. If I swap from one to the other I know I will lose the connection, and the song will literally die on the page. So I tend to write the whole song, including some dodgy lines, then once it’s all there, only then go back to re-write some of the lines I’m not entirely happy with.

So I hope you found that interesting! More thoughts on inspiration to come.