Here’s the first of this year’s podcasts, with a little background info on how I came to Druidry. This podcast is free to listen to, but if you’d like to hear them all (and I intend to release one a week) then you can subscribe for only £15 a year. You’ll also get the audio book The Awen Alone: Walking the Path of the Solitary Druid, my music album, talks, meditations and more.
The candles were lit, the incense smoking, and the bells of the church ringing in the still night air. Friday night is the practice night for the village bell-ringers, and so our ritual was accentuated by their skilful tones. The moon was riding high in a hazy sky, and haloed with an ever-widening ring that spoke of the Otherworld.
We raised our boundary, which was to the whole of the property, and called to the realms of Land, Sea and Sky. We honoured the ancestors at the full moon of Samhain, as well as the spirits of place. We invited the Fair Folk who were in tune with our intention, as they have been a part of our rituals since we began. We sang to the four quarters, and then invoked the gods. We invited all who were harmony with us this Samhain night. This was our first time in invoking the god into our full moon ritual, but it felt right. How right, we were just about to discover.
We honoured the tides of Samhain, the winter months of darkness. We then performed our magical working at the fire, and gathering our clooties: ribbons of intention that we tie to the branches of the apple tree at the bottom of the garden every month. Walking back to the terrace where the bird bath, now a sacred basin of water reflecting the moonlight, served as our vessel as we drew down the moon into the water. The church bells rang in time to our working, and stopped just as we finished. The air was utterly still.
Suddenly, a loud bark sounded from the other side of the hedge, down the track a little ways. A fallow deer stag, wandering the moonlit night. We stopped and turned to the noise, and he barked again, this time a little closer. We looked to each other and smiled, feeling blessed by his presence. Then an enormous bark, just the other side of the cedar boundary, which made us all jump. He was right up against the hedge, near the little hole that the muntjac, fallow deer and badgers made.
And he was trying to come through.
We could hear him brushing against the hedge, wanted to come through the doorway, but his antlers preventing him from doing so. The firelight made the area where the entrance lay shadowed from our sight. Our breath quickening, we looked at each other. The God was here, and he was making himself known. He paced along the back boundary, trying to come through first one hole in one corner, and then the other. He then returned to the middle of the hedge, where the boundary between the civilised and the wild lay, that doorway to the Otherworld that lay in the hedge, and pawed the ground, sniffing the night air, sniffing the scent of the three women gathered around the sacred pool. Gathered around the sacred pool, with hearts beating loudly in their breast.
“A blessing to you, God of Samhain, Lord of the Wildwood. May your journey into darkness be blessed, and we are honoured by your presence,” I whispered softly into the night, tears falling down my cheek.
We heard him still sniffing, and we felt his eyes upon us. The world stood still, and we hardly dared to breathe. Would he change his shape and come through? What would we do if that happened? A hush descended, and we no longer heard him just the other side of the hedge. With hands slightly shaking, we dipped our clooties into the water and walked down to the apple tree, right where he had been sniffing just the other side. As we walked, we sang to let him know we were approaching. “Deep into the earth I go, deep into the earth I go. Hold my hand, brother; hold my hand. Hold my hand, sister; hold my hand”. We bravely tied our ribbons to the branches, knowing that the God stood only a few feet away from us. Stepping back, we finished the chant, and bowed to the apple tree and hedge, bathed in the soft moonlight. Silence reigned. We knew he was no longer there, and we didn’t hear him leave. He simply disappeared through the veil between the worlds.
We made our offering, and gazed into the mirror at the fairy portal shrine I made under the beech tree. We saw things: bonfires on the hills of Tlachtga, owl-faced warriors, deep caverns beneath the earth, the land of the sidhe, and the Mari Lwyd. We circled the fire clockwise three times for blessings, and then ended our rite, breathless and filled with wonder.
May the Lord of the Wildwood bless you all this season, may you find nourishment in the darkness of winter.
© Joanna van der Hoeven 2017
Meditation can be done for many different reasons. Some use it to find inner peace, others to help find a focus in their lives and their work, others to increase compassion in their lives and for others. But for the most part, I think an aspect of meditation that is often over-looked is the simple aspect of it being nice to just stop every once in a while, sit down and enjoy the moment.
I use meditation for all the reasons given above, and more. But it’s in the simple pleasure of stopping where perhaps it is of most use. Taking the time to light some candles and incense, get some cushions out and just simply “be” is a great gift that I can give to myself at the end of a busy day or week. As I sit in front of my altar, I allow all the thoughts that are running through my head to make themselves known to me, rather than just being background stress and noise. Eventually, the thoughts slow down, quieten and then comes that exquisite moment when all is still. No more mental gymnastics. No more body twitches, itches or squirming trying to find a comfortable, relaxed position. Everything settles, even if this feeling lasts for just ten seconds, and it is good. Better than good. The heart opens, the mind and body are one. There is nothing but myself and the world, here and now, sitting, breathing, peaceful.
Having even ten seconds to still the mind, to allow it to take a break from all the thoughts has an enormous effect on you for days afterwards. Taking the time to allow you to set aside the cares and worries, the reminiscing and the to-do lists, the work and the family issues has a profound effect not only on your mind but also on your body. Have you ever just sat on the couch after a busy day, flopped onto the sofa and just stopped for a minute or two? Meditation is the same thing, for your mind and your body, allowing it a moment of rest.
In that deep silence, when that moment is achieved, we can have some profound realisations as well. When we stop the mental chatter, we allow ourselves to refocus on what really matters in our lives. Just a few seconds of that blissful silent state can alter our perception and allow us to put things into perspective. What really matters? Not what the guy said to you in that social media group. Not the office gossip or your infuriating work colleague. We find that spending a little time in the quiet of our homes or meditation space, whether inside or outside, allows us to see that it’s in the joy of being alive right now, and the people that we actually physically share our lives with that really matter. Our family and friends. Our home. Our gardens. Our religion or spirituality. The Earth. Our perspective can get so skewed by what is happening in the world around us. Allowing us to stop and refocus changes everything.
It’s amazing what ten little seconds can achieve.
To find out more about meditation, stillness and finding peace, try my little e-book, The Stillness Within: Finding Inner Peace in a Conflicted World.
Here’s a taster of a blog that I put up yesterday for SageWoman’s channel at PaganSquare. To read the full post, click HERE.
Calan Gaeaf (Welsh) or Samhain (Irish) begins at sunset of 31st October and runs to to sunset 1st November according to most Western Pagan traditions. If working by the moon, it is the first full moon when the sun is in Scorpio. If working by the natural landscape, it is when the first frosts bite. Samhain was termed the Celtic New Year, as it marked the ending of one cycle and the beginning of another. The Celts reckoned their days from sunset to sunset, and so the start of the year would begin in the dark time at the beginning of winter. Samhain marked the first day of Winter.
Calan Gaeaf, however, is a time that is not a time, and therefore some Pagans honour this tide and season from 31st October right through to the Winter Solstice. It is a time after many things have died, and there is a stillness to the air, an Otherworldly feel in the silence. It’s a dark time here in the UK, with long nights on our northerly latitude, and usually a very wet time as well. It’s not hard to see how these months could be seen outside of time, outside of the cycles of life, death and rebirth.
Calan Gaeaf, Samhain, Hallowe’en, All Soul’s Night – for many pagans this is the ending of one year and the beginning of another. It is often seen as the third and final harvest – with the last of the apples harvested, the cattle were prepared for winter and the grain stored properly. It is also a time when it is said that the veil between the worlds is thin, and the realms of the living and the dead are laid bare to each other. We are approaching the darkest time of the year, and the killing frosts and snows await just around the corner. It is a time of letting go, of releasing into the dark half of the year, and getting rid of the dross in our lives so that we do not have to carry them with us through the long winter nights. We consciously make the effort to live better, meaningful lives and let go of all that holds us back – our fears and worries, our anger and hatred. We nurture the beneficial and the good that we have in our lives, ensuring that they are well kept for our plans to come at the winter solstice. So the cycle continues. READ MORE…
So, I’m deep into writing my sixth book on Druidry. This is a full-length book with Llewellyn Publishing, which I am so honoured and excited to be working with now! I have a working title of “Beyond the Hedgerow: The World of the Hedge Druid” but that may change. It’s nice to be able to sink my teeth into such a project, and I hope that it will be well received. Here’s a little sample from the introduction 🙂
She walks towards the hedge, the boundary that separates the farmer’s field from the village, a line that runs down to a wooded area and the heathland beyond. When she reaches the hedge of hawthorn, blackthorn and dog rose, a triad of wild and native plants that hold ancient and special meaning, she smiles and reaches out to stroke a rose hip. The cool autumn breeze plays in her hair, whipping it around her face as the sun spills its light in waves across the landscape, the sky dotted with huge fluffy clouds. It is harvest time, when nature’s abundance is at its peak. She feels the strength of the ancestors flowing through her blood and bones, and hears their song in the wind. She says a quick prayer to the ancestors and blesses the land and the ongoing harvest, even as the sound of farm machinery floats upon the breeze.
She turns and follows the hedgerow down to the little woodland, a special place that bursts with bluebells in the spring. In this place she stands for a moment, utterly still, listening to the sounds of the spirits of place: the robins and blackbirds, a pheasant squawking, a hawk crying high overhead riding the thermals. This is the edge, where the hedge meets the wild, where the known meets the unknown, the civilised comes up against the wild. Here, at the edge, is the special place, the in-between place. This is where she belongs.
Inviting the power of the ancestors to flow through her, inviting the gods and goddesses that she loves, inviting the spirits of place to join with her intention, she turns three times anti-clockwise and sings. Once she has stopped, she knows that she walks between the worlds, that the Otherworld is all around her, and she can seek its wisdom and guidance, while testing her courage and her wits. Here she will find the answer to help her in her quest. Here she will find the inspiration, known to the Druids as awen. Here is where the magic happens.
Druidry is a deeply fulfilling earth-based spirituality. I have followed the Druid path for the last decade and more. Born a witch, I have followed a Pagan path for over twenty-five years now. I had always had the gift of prophetic dreams, of knowing more than is apparent in one’s actions or speech, and having a “way” with animals. I have always been slightly fey, different from others. Sensitive to noise and light, weather patterns and more means that I sought out different things growing up. I spent a lot of time in the forest and fields behind my home, preferring the company of the grazing horses and woodland creatures to most humans. I was able to do magic, though I did not know it for what it was at the time.
When I was in my late teens, I discovered Wicca. Here was a religion that made some sense to me, that honoured nature and had a goddess as well as a god. I studied and practiced Wicca as a solitary for many years, dedicating myself to the goddess Morrigan.
Time passed on, and I found myself travelling and living thousands of miles away from where I grew up. Feeling a bit lost, physically and emotionally, I was also spiritually bereft. I had no roots, and did not know how to find or put new ones down. I stopped practicing for a couple of years, not feeling quite at home with myself or my spirituality any longer.
That time passed, and I came across Druidry. It interested me, but mostly all I knew of Druids came from fantasy fiction novels that I had read. I had not studied the Celts in any great detail, though my patron goddess was Morrigan. I had felt a calling, but only half-answered it in my work and in my practice. And so I continued to drift, learning a touch more about Druidry but finding all the material dry and a little dull.
Then I found Buddhism, and Zen. My world found a sharp focus, and for a couple of years that was my sole path. It helped me to stop for a moment, to sit long and meditate, to know myself more and in doing so, learn more about others. I began to live with a bit more intention, instead of reaction. I visited sacred sites in England and Wales, and finally came to Glastonbury. There, at Chalice Well, I did not have the usual epiphany that many speak of, but rather came across a book in the gift shop that changed my life. The author was Emma Restall Orr, and her wild, muddy version of Druidry rang true to my soul. I read all her works, and then studied with her for a year while she was running courses in the beautiful Cotswolds countryside.
That’s when everything began to come together, both in my spiritual life and my practical life. I was the sum total of my experiences, but also more than that. I was a part of the web, part of an ecosystem and as such I had to give back for what I received. I had to be a functioning and intentional part of the weave of life. I found that I could blend all that I had learned throughout my life into my Druidry, and now it has led me to wonderful places where I feel that I am fulfilling a purpose. I’ve come to understand that the meaning of life is to give your life meaning.
And so here I am, sharing with you what I have learned. My learning has mostly been a solitary experience, therefore I call myself a Hedge Druid. I have been part of larger organisations, having studied with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and been a trustee for The Druid Network. I’m now the founder and director of Druid College UK, and am pretty much a full-time Druid. I’ve been blessed that I’m able to do this, with the support of my husband, my family and my friends. It’s been a long and sometimes difficult journey to get to where I am today, but I can honestly say that Druidry has changed my life.
The enchantment that I felt when I was younger, roaming the forests and fields has returned. I feel it all the time now; a feeling of connection and wonder. Every day is blessed. I’ve found that it’s the little things that matter. Watching the long shadows of the birch trees stretch across my back garden as the leaves flutter in the autumn breeze. Watching the sun or moon rise. Leaving offerings to the Fair Folk at the shrine near the bottom of the garden. A sense of returning to my core being has flowed back into my life. I know who I am and where I am going. It is contentment, though not without challenges. It is a deep sense of peace.
I hope to share with you in this work the inspiration and knowledge that I have received over the years. May you find the path rise to meet your feet, may you walk it with integrity and honour.
An áit a bhuil do chroí is ann a thabharfas do chosa thú.
(Your feet will bring you to where your heart is.)
It’s all 5 star reviews so far! Here’s an excerpt from my latest book, The Crane Bag: A Druid’s Guide to Ritual Tools and Practices which you can purchase from Amazon, Moon Books, Barnes and Noble and all good book retailers!
What is The Crane Bag?
The Crane Bag: A Druid’s Guide to Ritual Tools and Practices is a book in the Pagan Portals series that describes the ritual tools and practices found in the Druid tradition. As part of the Pagan Portals series, it is intended as a brief introduction to the subject, allowing the reader to further develop their own path in their own time and in their own fashion.
“The Crane Bag” is a wonderful theme in Celtic mythology, found mostly in the tales of the poet-warrior Fionn Mac Cumhail, who inherited the crane bag from his father. This bag held the special treasures of the land and was made from the skin of a crane who was, in actuality, a woman enchanted into crane form. We can view the myths that surround the crane bag as those of the gifts of sovereignty, bestowed by the goddess upon worthy heroes as is typical of Celtic mythology. The Goddess held great abundance and gifts within her womb, and only those who passed the test and were deemed fit were able to be gifted with this most precious treasure. As the bestower of sovereignty, the Goddess fades and emerges time and again within the old stories, as does the crane bag, appearing and disappearing from myth when there is need. The sea god, Manannan, is the original owner of the crane bag and through his love for the goddess gives and takes it back throughout the telling of the tales.
Within the mythology of the crane bag, those who follow the Celtic Druid tradition can come to know a very beneficial tool in their learning, the gifts of which are endless. Within the crane bag are not only the tools of the Druid, but also a symbolism of the gift of the goddess, of sovereignty. With the proper use, it can further the Druid in working with the tides of nature, finding their proper place in the grand scheme of things, living in balance, harmony and peace. In ritual use, these tools can guide the Druid to deeper levels of meaning and understanding within the tradition, helping the Druid on her journey throughout life towards integration in a holistic way of being in the world. We are able to find a deep connection, be it with the ancestors, the gods, the spirits of place or the Otherworld. Combined with the tools of the Druid’s craft held within the crane bag, we can learn how to walk the path of the Druid with honour and respect.
What is Ritual?
Ritual consists of a prescribed set of words and actions within a particular context used to bring about a desired outcome. Druid ritual uses words and actions within the context of an earth-based tradition to connect with the landscape, the gods, the ancestors and so on. For the Druid, connection, relationship and integration with the landscape are at the heart of all that she does, whether in ritual or not. Ritual can be seen as a time set apart from daily life to reconnect the threads that bind us together with the land, with nature. We take a step back from what is perceived as the mundane and acknowledge the sacred. Ultimately, the Druid strives to perceive the sacred in everything, and ritual helps the Druid to achieve that vision.
Our modern lives are so busy, with work, family, media, technology and more. Ritual helps us to step back from the busyness, into another way of being. It is a change of consciousness, where we can shift our perception away from a singular view to a more plural view, integrating with the land around us, realising that we are a part of an ecosystem. Ritual is the act in the material world that connects us with a wider reality. It is an experience, not just a thought.
Ritual is that which helps us ground and centre in the present moment. When we stop, when we take a break to perform a ritual, we become aware of who, where and what we are at a particular point in time. We are rooted in the here and now, awake and aware to all that is happening around us. When we are awake, we are able to find our place in harmony with nature, finding a deep peace both within and without. It gives us an intention, a focus with which to work in the Druid tradition, to reweave the threads of connection.
Ritual also helps us to find stability. When we create rituals to perform repeatedly, we bring that sacred perspective more and more into our everyday life. These rituals needn’t be identical each and every time; what is important is that the ritual is actually done. It is the experience of ritual that helps us to self-locate. We cannot do that simply by thinking about it; we must act as well. When we have acted out our rituals with some regularity, we may find that our connection to the natural world deepens. The ancient philosopher Lao Tzu once said:
Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
We as humans are creatures of habit, and indeed these habits define us as people. A repeated action or behaviour will certainly have an impact on who we are as an individual. By using ritual we can break off from bad habits and thought patterns, for example, and find the sacredness within and all around us. It requires practice, as in the Welsh saying at the beginning of this chapter. We cannot just think about ritual; we must do it. If we take the time to reconnect with our place in the natural world, over and over again, then we will maintain that connection more and more throughout our lives until they are an example of pure integration and harmony.
Druid ritual is also a celebration. The eight seasonal festivals of modern Druidry help us to remember what is going on in nature at the present moment. There are many books that cover the eight seasonal festivals, their origins, meanings and ways to celebrate, and so we will not cover that here (see bibliography and suggested reading for more). Rather, we will look at how Druid ritual is set up, from start to finish, using our tools from the crane bag to find our soul map in our own environment.
Ritual is also a tool for transformation. When we have worked with intention and grounded ourselves in the present moment, we cannot help but be transformed as our perception shifts from one perceived reality to another. Through the experience of ritual, we understand that our point of view is not the only one, and that perception shifts with intention. When we broaden our horizons, we cannot help but be transformed.
Re-enchanting the Soul
Work and familial obligations can sometimes weigh us down in a sea of mundane jobs, tasks, and commitments. With Druid ritual, we can re-enchant the soul to bring the magic back into our everyday lives, as we perceive the sacredness of all things. Then, we realise that there is no such thing as the mundane, only the sacred. The division between the two is realised as an illusion, and we are thus able to “travel between the worlds”.
The Druid is always questing for inspiration, or awen. Awen is a Welsh word, sometimes translated as “flowing spirit” or “flowing inspiration”. Creativity is such a large part of the Druid path, where we are inspired and then inspire others in return. This exchange of inspiration is at the heart of all that we do, in deep relationship with the world around us. When we touch each other soul to soul, where we find intention blending together to work in harmony, then we are inspired. The Druid looks to the natural world around her to gain that inspiration. She takes her cues from nature as to how to live in the present moment, utterly awake and aware. So inspired, she lives her life as best she can as part of that environment, in tune with all that shares the same space. By doing so, she also inspires others in return.
Simply by getting outside and into “nature”, our awareness shifts. Though nature is something that we are a part of all the time, we often see it as something “out there”, as external to ourselves. When we realise that we are a part of nature, we shift from a self-centred perspective to an integrated one, thereby opening our eyes to the beauty and wonder that lies all around us each and every day. Taking a walk helps us to see the beauty of an oak tree in full leaf, to feel the warm caress of the summer wind, to feel the blessing of the rain or the exhilaration of a snowstorm. We awaken our senses to the world around us simply by being out in it, in nature, away from central heating and electricity, away from cars, phones and computers. Though all these things can be of great benefit, when we re-attune our senses to our “natural” environment, we can also reawaken something that has long lain dormant within our souls. We can re-enchant our lives, re-wilding our souls. We can return to the very roots of our being. We can find the child-like wonder while looking at an ants’ nest, or listening to the blackbird at dusk. We no longer become bored or jaded, but rather totally awake to the world around us. Our lives are benefitted from this re-enchantment on every level. This is the awen.
This is also the importance of ritual. When we take the time to re-enchant our souls, we make our lives more magical, more meaningful and more present. We can step outside the realms of 9-5 living. We enter into a state of intention and enchantment, inspired and inspiring others in return. In this, we find true relationship.
May your path be enchanted with the old tales and the songs of the land!
(Extract from The Crane Bag: A Druid’s Guide to Ritual Tools and Practices by Joanna van der Hoeven. www.joannavanderhoeven.com).