Tales from the Road – Oh Vienna!

Vienna is one of my favourite cities. It seems to have such a relaxed atmosphere, and I adore its relationship with the Arts. I guess having such famous offspring helps, and it seems to value the Arts extremely highly, and I have never felt that being a musician is an undervalued profession here. This would be my fourth annual concert in the city, and my third visit to the Austrian Broomstick Rally.

We were collected from the airport by our dear friend Siggy, the person mainly responsible for my connection to the harp, and taken into Vienna to chill out for a few hours before going to the concert venue. I’d woken up at a Premier Inn at Heathrow at 4.30am so needed a power-nap before the gig that night. So rested we made our way into the city.

There was a buzz in the air that night. Everyone was in high spirits and the evening was opened by the Pagan Piper Project, a mass of singers and musicians who I had seen play a few songs at last years Broomstick. They were wonderful. Check them out atwww.paganpiper.com . The venue was full, with a few standing, and the atmosphere this year was fantastic. From the opening song we were all singing together and I don’t know if I was imagining this but it felt like there was some release of tension in the air – our lives do seem to be complicated right now with work, and the political climate – it just seemed like we were all thankful of the opportunity to just let go for a few hours.

The next day we hopped onto a tiny train that took us into the Austrian mountains. As each mile passed we were taken deeper and deeper into the countryside, and what countryside! Eventually we arrived at the tiny village of Anneberg and picked up from the smallest station I’ve ever seen to be taken to the new location for this year’s Broomstick Rally. It was pretty dark by then so I couldn’t see what was surrounding us, but when I got up the next morning I found that we were surrounded by mountains, held in a kind of natural cauldron. Again I felt that the atmosphere of the Broomstick was filled with joy and that same feeling of letting go.

On Friday afternoon I helped Cerri as she took the participants through a two and a half hour workshop and ritual based on the Taliesin poem The Spoils of Annwn. Then in the evening there was the annual Broomstick Eisteddfod with music, storytelling, poetry, and dance. Yes, dance. Great Breton dancing to harp. Wonderful.

On Saturday morning Siggy guided us through a brilliant candle decorating workshop, and then later there was a fantastic Pagan Treasure Hunt, and the traditional game of Pentacle Rounders. As night fell we once more gathered around the fire for more music and story, under an amazing star-filled sky.

The Sussex Broomstick Rally was the first Pagan camp I ever attended, back in the early 90s. The Austrian Broomstick Rally was start by Karen, a woman with a vast amount of energy who attended one of those early camps and took the format to Austria when she later moved there. The Sussex Broomstick Rally hasn’t been held for a number of years but it is wonderful to go to another country and go to workshops of depth, and also take part in some of those crazy games I remember with such fondness.

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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 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!

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.

Return of a Dear Old Friend – The Mabinogion

1994 – I joined the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.

1995 – I saw Fiona Davidson play the harp. Went to my first Druid camp where I met Siggy, and there I played the harp for the first time. I fell in love with the instrument. I also met Andy Letcher, Bard and Storyteller, and heard him tell his tales and play his music.

1996 – At a PF conference I bought a copy of a double tape album of The Mabinogion, told by Ronald Hutton.

I was a sales rep at the time – travelling the country in my company car, visiting farm stores, staying in pubs and inns whilst on the road. After I finished work for the day I also had time to visit the stone circles, long barrows and other ancient monuments that were in the area I was visiting at the time. But there was lots of driving between meetings. My area spanned from Cornwall to Scotland up the western side of Britain. I spent a lot of time listening to music, but I was also keen to learn the tales of this island. So when I found the tape that took over, and I spent miles and miles listening, learning, repeating, thinking about the underlying currents of meaning behind each tale, honing my Bardic craft.

The Queen Elizabeth Bridge over the Thames had yet to be opened. There was only the two-way Dartford Tunnel, and my day often started with a half hour queue to get through and on my way. Many times I caught myself looking across at the car beside me, quoting tracts from whichever branch I was learning that day, and seeing the odd look from the driver within. I just smiled and pointed to the car phone…

Some years later and I’m working for the Order. My suit has been hung up only to be taken out for weddings, funerals and the occasional visit to Glyndebourne Opera House. But I find the tape once more entering my life as the creator passes over the distribution to the Order, and for a number of years I am posting the tapes out to members all across the world. But progress is unstoppable, and the CD took over, then even this great breakthrough in audio technology begins to fade as the download starts to take hold… The Mabinogion, read by Ronald Hutton, disappears for many years.

Then about 6 months ago, like some archaeological expedition, we find an old copy, unplayed. I took it to my Dad’s house (he’s the only person I know who still has a tape deck!) and played it. I’m instantly transported back to those times. The recording still sounds fresh, exciting, and we knew what we had to do. I recorded it onto my MacBook and started the re-mastering process through Apple Logic Studio. It took quite a while to get it right. To me audio has to be as near perfect as it can be before I’m happy to release it into the world. I was working from an analogue tape, complete with hiss, and that all had to go. I also got to the final tape and found that the tape had suddenly slowed down, reducing Ronald’s voice to that of some kind of Dr Who creature. So it was once more back to the beginning with that one.

But on Monday it was complete. I uploaded it to CDBaby, and it’s already beginning to appear on iTunes. It really is a classic performance, and really should be available again. So go and have a listen. If you know the tales, this re-telling I’m sure will inspire knew connections. If you haven’t heard the tales, you now have the gift I had, and be prepared for a journey through time, to hear the tales that introduce us to Gwydion, Arawn, Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd. But as with any myths, listen to the deeper meanings, not just the human tales as they evolve. There is magic here, so step through the hollow hills, and into Annwn once more.

To find it on iTunes just search The Mabinogion in the iTunes store, or click here to go to CDBaby – enjoy!

Let’s catch up! More from Prague and Vienna

Almost a month since I posted on the blog! I’ve had my head deep in recording mode – recording the last few songs, laying down the partIMG_0463s from the guest musicians, then mixing, and mastering, the new CD. I’ll post separately about that another time, but first let’s catch up on what’s been happening in the life of Damh since last time.

We had an amazing time in Prague and Vienna. The day after the concert in Prague we were shown around the city by members of the PF International group. Prague is so beautiful – it’s almost sensory overload! Everywhere there are stunning buildings, then you turn a corner and there are even more! Their snacks are good too! I tried a rolled pastry thingy that was simply divine! We went to Prague castle, saw the astrological clock strike noon, saw where Mozart did his first performance of Don Giovani, and tasted the delights of Czech cuisine. But we only had one afternoon, and then it was farewell and off to Vienna!

IMG_0492I had played a concert in Vienna last year and had had such a great time. We’d made some good friends and I was looking forward to seeing them again, along with the lovely Siggy (who was responsible for me getting my first harp!). We were driven to Vienna which gave us more opportunity to see the surrounding countryside, and we arrived there about 10pm, going straight to Siggy’s where she had prepared some wonderful soup. Yum.

I have been to Vienna about 3 times now and I’m beginning to feel quite at home there. The concert was in a different venue – a great little place that not only hosts music, but also art exhibitions. I set up my stuff and tuned up as people arrived. The two men who run it had prepared some great food for people coming to the show too. Just like last year we had an amazing evening together, and the celebrations continued onwards into the morning.

My first Pagan camp was The Broomstick Rally which was held annually in Sussex and run by the then PF regional co-ordinators, Rob and Fran. ItIMG_0503 was a real party, part bikers’ rally, part Pagan spiritual camp, but one that never really took itself too seriously. There were games like Pentacle Rounders, Tree of Life hoopla, and the infamous Toss the Cross, plus a live band and fireside eisteddfod. One of the people who came to the Broomstick Rally then moved to Austria, and started one there too. So thus it was that many years later I found myself at The Broomstick Rally once more! The venue was an amazing Austrian Palace out in the country. The grounds were stunning, had their own little temple space, and surrounding woodland, and a wonderful covered fire pit circle. It was weird to be at a Pagan camp where I hadn’t been booked to play as a performer, but it was also lovely to just relax and be. Wherever Siggy goes you will find harpers and other musicians, and this was no exception. Plus the PFI people from the Czech Republic were there too, so it was great to see IMG_0507them again. We chilled, played music, read, listened to talks, did workshops, and then as night fell, got wild around the camp fire, and man do the Czechs and Austrians know how to party!!

What is great is that this now seems to be becoming an annual tradition, and we have already been invited back again next year. They are all such amazing people, I can’t wait!