Extract from upcoming book, HEDGE DRUID

Here is a little extract of the book that I’m currently working on for Llewellyn Worldwide , to be released hopefully late Spring early Summer 2019. It’s a complete guide to being a Hedge Druid, not only as a solitary path, but as one who walks between the worlds.

Magic

Magic in Modern Paganism is often seen as the ability to make changes through Will, the will of the mind combining with and focusing the energy of the universe. Druid magic is not that different, and there are several ancient accounts of Druid magic that can be found throughout history. As well, there are the Celtic myths and legends to look to, with tales of the spells, feats, incantations and more of certain characters. Indeed, the Tuatha dé Danann, the gods and goddesses that travelled on the North Wind to make their home in Ireland, were also called the Aes Dana or the Gifted People. They were known for their magical ability, and the first Druid magic worked in Ireland was done by them. In Irish, draíocht translates as both spells and magic, and shares its root with the word draoi, meaning Druid.

Druid magic was used for many different purposes: to curse, to bless, to transform, to repel, to create illusion, provide healing, to divine and to bring harmony. There are as many uses for magic as there are intentions of the individual, and so magic was and still is widely used in the Druid tradition. Magic can be empowering to the individual who has tried everything else and has no other recall in a given situation. Many in Modern Paganism adhere to the Wiccan view of the Threefold Law, which states that what you do comes back to you threefold, for good or ill. Druids don’t believe in this law as such, but as those who are questing integration, to create balance and harmony within an environment, performing malicious magical acts isn’t exactly suiting the purpose. Sometimes things will need to be removed, much like pruning a diseased tree. What is most important is that the whole is taken into consideration, and not just the desires of the individual.

A special caste or group of magical workers in Celtic history were the poets, the fili in Ireland, who has the ability to satirize and in this working, force others to obey their will. They could also praise and elevate an individual in form of blessing. They alongside the Druids also cast curses upon people, including the glam dicin, the curse of all curses. This is a “shout”, so we can assume that it was a curse that was shouted upon someone, usually in threes. Druids were sent by Queen Medb to seize Cuchulainn and to perform the glam dicin, which would cause three pimples representing injury, shame and fault upon his face.[1] Culwech threatens a porter when he is denied entrance to a feast in Arthur’s hall, and tells him that he will give three mortal shouts, loud enough that they will be heard in Cornwall and Ireland. These shouts will cause miscarriages and infertility in all the women.[2] The Roman writer Tacitus records black-robed women who ran amongst the Druids on the shores of Anglesey, brandishing torches and shouting curses with wild hair and screams causing fear in the opposing Roman soldiers. There were also curses to cause an unquenchable thirst, as well as to prevent people from urinating and causing them extreme discomfort.[3] This last curse, strangely enough, seems to have been the most favoured by practitioners of magic here in East Anglia, as well as causing disease in cattle and horses (not surprising, being such an agricultural area).[4]

The power of the spoken word was evidently the most important factor in this kind of magic, and others in the Druid tradition. As a mainly oral tradition, this applied to magic as well. To write a magic spell on something would be akin to setting something in stone, most likely irreversible.[5] Oaths were a very serious matter to the Celts, and often included something along the lines of the land swallowing them, the sky falling upon them and more should they break this oath. There is also something known as a geis, which comes from the same root as the word guth meaning “voice”.[6] This can be seen as a form of curse upon someone, or as an limitation upon one’s life that should they break it, has devastating results, often death. The geis, or a geisa, had repercussions in the material and the spiritual world, which to the Druids were interrelated. The fulfill a geisa meant that order was maintained throughout the cosmos. It was the responsibility of the individual to adhere to or take on a geis, and not simply the result of “fate” as normally viewed in other mythologies. The power of words, of your word once given, was all important. These words could be hurled in satire or curses, sung or chanted for victory or more. The voice, when used in a certain manner, saying certain words, could have very real and life-altering power. We will look at the voice later in the Developing Skills and Technique section of this book.

It was said that Druids could call up mists, or create fog banks to hide themselves from their enemies. The art of illusion or misdirection was not unknown. Deirdre was made invisible by the Druid fostering her, so that no one could see or hear her. Aonghus Og covers Diarmuid’s lover, Grania, with his mantle or cloak, thereby making her invisible so that they can escape their pursuers.[7] A mantle is a cloak, and we can still see the use of the word, “to cloak” meaning to conceal. What’s more, mantle in ornithological terms also means the wings of a bird[8], and there are instances of Druids and even the Tuatha dé Danann being described as wearing a cloak of feathers. Some of these cloaks enabled the Druids to fly, such as the blind Druid Mog Roith so that he can direct a battle accordingly.

Divination was a form of magic often used by the Druids. The most popular methods were by determining auguries from the flight of birds, or more gruesomely, through the reading of entrails. The Gauls were said to be unsurpassed in this ability, according to Trogue Pompey of the Voscons (Justin, XXIV, 4).[9] Dreams were also important, and combined with sensory deprivation had valuable results. The Irish imbas forosna is a form of sensory deprivation that excludes all light, and the Druid might go into a trance or even a slumber while he sought wisdom, then to be revealed figuratively and literally in the light of day. The transition from darkness to light is what caused the illumination, if you’ll pardon the pun. Speaking of illumination, there is also the tenim laegda, which means “illumination of song”. An offering or sacrifice is made, a song is sung and the querant touched with a wand, while the spellcaster places a thumb in their mouth, similar to when Finn Ma Cumail gained wisdom from the salmon after he sucked the juices from his thumb that spattered from the cauldron. The fingers could also be used in dichetal do chenmaid, used by Irish Christians as well as it did not include sacrifice or any Pagan deities.[10] How exactly dichetal do chenmaid is performed is now lost to the mists of time.

Shape-shifting is a regular occurrence in magical workings in Celtic mythology. Fith may be a derivative of the Irish word for deer, and often we see people being turned into deer, swans, owls, hares, hawks, even a grain of wheat and more in the old tales. There is a lot of medieval accounts of witches being able to turn into hares, and so the magical working of shapeshifting continued. In relation to fith fath, the actual process itself might not be the physical transformation into a creature, but a journeying of the mind and/or spirit in the shape of a creature. One can become a specific creature in order to see a challenge through, though this requires immense mental discipline and a large amount of practice. The more one practices, the better one becomes. However, it’s not just the practical part of the exercise that is important; researching and learning all that you can about the animal in question is imperative in doing this correctly. Otherwise, what you will be doing is having a nice daydream of what it would be like to be this animal, and not a spiritually transformative magical working. As Druids seek integration with the world, becoming another being in the world allows for a different perspective, and enables us to forego our human-centric worldview. As Druid Robin Herne states in his work, Old Gods, New Druids:

“Shape-shifting… and its importance cannot be emphasised enough. It forms the core of our approach to mysticism – transforming one’s consciousness into something that will have a far greater effect later on… Far from rejecting the world, fith-fath sekks to embrace it in all its diversity, seeks to become the bird or beast or tree.”[11] 

We also have the tarb-feis, which involves a ritual sacrifice of an animal and then part of its flesh is eaten. In eating the flesh, the Druid can become one with the creature or absorb its magical or physical power. For those who are vegetarian or vegan, I personally don’t see why this can’t be done with herbs and other plants. (Note: Druids today do not sacrifice living animals, though they may rear animals for food just as they grow their own vegetables, as self-sufficiency is growing in the tradition.) We know that the Druids used mugwort in divination, both ingesting and using the smoke to induce a trance-like state. Plants have just as much power, and just as much to teach us, as animals do in their being.

There are many various healing techniques in Celtic culture. Healing wells abound through Britain, Ireland and Europe, and are associated with Celtic deities. Other popular magical acts and items include the brat Bríde was a piece of cloth left out on the evening of Brighid’s holy day of Imbolc, and brought back into the house with the power to heal, as well as to protect and ensure abundance of milk in cows and aid in calving, lambing and foaling.[12] This cloth was not to be washed, otherwise its power would be drained. A brat that was seven years old was especially powerful. Herbs were used in healing, and special charms were recited as the herbs were being collected, as demonstrated by many various charms found in Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica. We will look at herb lore in a separate chapter.

[1] Markale, J. The Druids: Celtic Priests of Nature, Inner Traditions, 1999

[2] Ibid.

[3] Herne, R. Old Gods, New Druids, O Books, 2009

[4] Pearson, N. The Devil’s Plantation: East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft and Folk Magic, Troy Books, 2016

[5] Markale, J. The Druids: Celtic Priests of Nature, Inner Traditions, 1999

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sutton & Mann, Druid Magic: The Practice of Celtic Wisdom, Llewellyn, 2013

[8] Ibid.

[9] Markale, J. The Druids: Celtic Priests of Nature, Inner Traditions, 1999

[10] Ibid.

[11] Herne, R. Old Gods, New Druids, O Books, 2009

[12] Loughlin, A. ” Là Fhèill Brìghde”, online: http://www.tairis.co.uk/festivals/la-fheill-brighde

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The Myth of Duality

It’s hard to escape the ingrained duality of our culture and mindset in the Western world. For so many hundreds of years we have listened and taken as fact that the mind and body are separate, that the individual is separate from nature. This is a concept that abounds even in Modern Paganism, which in my opinion hinders the way forward for many people who are truly trying to integrate, to live in harmony with the natural world. By creating a divide we are instantly alienated from a world to which we have a natural birthright.

Even some proponents of non-duality still can get caught out on certain issues – take the Otherworld for instance. If we truly believed in an inclusive and shared reality, a shared experience in which there is no subject and object, but instead a collection of subjects in shared experience then we come close to the core of animism. However, many Pagans still believe that when we die, our soul splits from our bodies and goes “somewhere else”: The Otherworld, the Summerlands, etc. What I would posit is that there is no “other”, just as there is no such thing as “away”. I am fully aware that not all Pagans are animists, but for me personally they go hand in hand.

Jason Kirkey touches on this subject in his book, The Salmon in the Spring. He sees the Otherworld as a different mode of perception, more than a physical place that is different to this world. By opening our perception we can see the Otherworld, which really is our world in its full entirety, unhindered by concepts of dualism.

We live in a shared reality, though many choose not to accept this. We are, in each and every second, undergoing a shared experience. There can be no such thing as a solitary experience. We are in contact with the world each and every moment. As I sit here typing, I am experiencing the clack of the keyboard and its plastic keys, the light from the monitor, the air around me, the draft from the window, the light filtering through the cloudy skies, my cat complaining for more food. I am experiencing all these things, and all these things are also experiencing me. In this context, there is no subject/object, for in order for there to be an object there needs to be separate reality and experience entirely isolated from everything else. This is simply not possible – no one lives in a vacuum.

When I am walking to my Tai Chi class in the rain, I am experiencing the rain and the rain is experiencing me. When I am in class, I am experiencing the instructor and other class members, and they are experiencing me. When I place my foot carefully on the floorboards of the hall, I am experiencing the floorboards and the floorboards are experiencing me. As an animist, for me there is no such thing as inanimate objects, or even objects at all – everything is filled with energy in motion, which creates mass and density, and everything is subject to the world around it.

Creating a division, between Us and Them, between animate and inanimate is a huge cause for the troubles we are now experiencing politically, environmentally and socially. When we realise that everything is shared experience, then we automatically work for the benefit of the whole rather than ourselves, for we realise that there is no such thing as just “ourselves”. We are an integral part of the whole, and being integral it only comes as natural that we should live our lives in service to the whole.

This is the main focus of Druidry for me in my personal life. Living a life in service means thinking, acting, living for the whole rather than the self. It’s not done in an altruistic sense, but in a holistic sense. By dropping the illusion of separation I can experience the world on a much deeper level, and have a greater relationship because the illusory barriers and boundaries of dualism have simply disappeared.

In my opinion, Descartes has a lot to answer for.

Darkness, the Self and Release

I wept this morning, over a photo of a man fleeing his Syrian homeland with his two children, stepping out of the boat, clutching his loved ones close to him and weeping himself. What uncertainty faces this family, along with the other refugees arriving on the islands of Greece? What could it possibly feel like to leave all that you know, out of fear for your life and those that you love, hoping that your decision will be the right one?

This is probably not a decision that I shall ever have to make in my lifetime. It is moments like these that remind me to step beyond myself, to get outside of my head, to stop thinking in the context of “me” and move forward into integrated relationship. Doing this keeps things in perspective, and keeps my own troubles, pains and dark wolves at bay. When the weight of the world seems to push me under, I get beyond myself and into the wider web. It is something that I’ve been writing about for months now, about deep integration, about dropping the illusion of the self, about seeing the interconnectedness of all things.

I look out my window and see a leaf on the beech tree. That leaf is not separate from the other leaves. That leaf is not separate from the branch, or any part of the tree. The tree is the leaf and the leaf is the tree. Even when the leaf falls in the autumn, it lands on the ground at the base of the tree, decaying into the soil, feeding the roots and is still a part of the tree. Watching this cycle, witnessing it from a Druid perspective I see how the illusion of separateness causes us so much suffering. There is no “Us” and “Them”. There is only life.

Deep integration and dropping the sense of self. Seeing beyond the “me, myself and I” keeps my head above the water, rafting the currents of life. When things are at their darkest, I can release into that darkness, dropping the edges and boundaries and allowing a greater perspective than could ever be achieved thinking that I am confined to this body and this mind. When the sheer stupidity of the human race threatens to drag me down, when my body is in great pain, when I see others suffering, I release into the darkness and there find the potential that awaits, like the seed in wintertime. If I fail in that endeavour, then there is always a back-up, words spoken by someone whose name I cannot remember, but goes something along the lines of:

“When I am in pain, show me someone who is in agony. When I am hungry, show me someone who is starving…”

Again, this lets me step beyond my self, to allow me a greater perspective. Pain and suffering, cruelty and bad behaviour all stem from misperceptions. If we can get past that notion of the self, that self-centredness, then we can dance with the divine in a beautiful, graceful round surrounded by the stars, galaxies and all life as we know it. In doing so we are free.

No Hope

It is so hard to live life as it is, to accept life as it is.  Our mind does everything it can to avoid it, for various reasons.  In Zen, we often see the mind often trying to avoid suffering in any way it can. This could be suffering in the conventional sense, but it also has a deeper meaning – dukkha, a Sanskrit word which in Buddhism means dissatisfaction, or a sense of unease, or even dis-ease.  We are all dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, and it is so easy to live in the “if only” reality – the world of possibility instead of the world that is. Why? It’s nice in there.

Yet, to achieve enlightenment, one of the main ways to banish dukkha from your life is to simply live in the present moment, to accept it for what it is. Neither pessimistic, nor optimistic – just life as it is.  When judgements of good or bad are seen for the illusions that they are – things that make us attach to a situation – then they simply fall away and we can truly see clearly.

Surya Das emphasizes the matter-of-fact nature of dukkha:

Buddha Dharma does not teach that everything is suffering. What Buddhism does say is that life, by its nature, is difficult, flawed, and imperfect. […] That’s the nature of life, and that’s the First Noble Truth. From the Buddhist point of view, this is not a judgement of life’s joys and sorrows; this is a simple, down-to-earth, matter-of-fact description.

This was brought home to me over 10 years ago when, after visiting her dying sister in the hospital, my mother came home and told me something that really changed her viewpoint and mine on the situation.  She said to my aunt, “But why you?” to which my aunt simply replied – “Why not me?”

This simple acceptance of life as it is, instead of railing against it, led to a life of less suffering.  I still carry those words with me today, when I think that things or life is happening “to me”, instead of just happening.  Life isn’t good or bad, it simply is. Things aren’t happening to me, things are happening.  Good and bad are judgement calls that we make to avoid living in the present moment most of the time.

Charlotte Joko Beck wrote of No Hope in her book, Everyday Zen.  This wasn’t the same as hopelessness – it simply meant not wishing for things to be other than they are, for the moment we are doing that we lose the gift of the present moment. Now, while a prisoner of war might wish not to be tortured at this very moment, most of us aren’t living in that situation.  Even as my aunt was dying, she accepted the situation. It simply was. It was stepping outside of the mind trap of living in an alternate reality where our dukkha doesn’t exist and seeing that it is a part of life that we cannot “escape” from. All the wishing in the world cannot change the world.  Only actions taken in the present moment can change the world.

So it isn’t a passive response to the world – oh, there is nothing I can do, I should live without hope.  If we are in a harmful situation, then we take action in the present moment to change it if we can. If we are being abused, mistreated, see others being hurt, we take action in the present moment to change that. We have the ability to respond – responsibility.  Life is constant change. We can also work to sustain that change for future generations. But it requires us to live with the courage to be fully present in our lives as they are.  Step outside of your head for a moment, and take a look at the world around you, without judgement, seeing things clearly.  It could change your life.