Saturday, October 1, 2011
The Druid Way
Book Review: The Druid Way by Phillip Carr-Gomm (Element Books 1993)
This was a rather contemplative book by one time chief of the UK based Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. He is also a psychologist. He studied under his Druid teacher, Nuinn, from the age of 15. This book is not a systematized explanation of Druid teachings at all as one might expect from the title, but a book about the quest for knowledge by making oneself available to communication from ancestors and place by walking the ancient pathways between sacred sites. I had opportunity to ask an Arch Druid of the US-based ADF Druid organization about the book and he noted that it was disappointing. I definitely disagree. Perhaps the title was a bit misleading. I thought the book itself is a good exploration of what modern forms of questing for visionary knowledge and experience might be.
The author is part of a modern Druid group in the UK that practices rites together, occasionally at some of the sacred Celtic sites. It seems that there are two sources of magickal connection always available to us. These would be the magick of place and the magick of ancestors. We are always connected to the place we are and the places we frequent. We are always connected to our ancestors. In the author’s case he is accessing both of these in his quest for knowledge and vision. Accessing the magick of place can best be done by being there for long periods. Accessing the magick of ancestors can also potently be done by being in the places frequented by them and exploring their works. I have done this sort of thing here in the US in Native American sites with meaningful experiences. Having a small amount of Native American ancestry may or may not have been a factor. Another source of magickal connection that is likely available to us is that of the connections we have to our previous incarnations and those relationships to people and place. Of course, these are less directly knowable.
The author provides his account of walking journeys over a few month’s time in south-eastern England near the sea that include several ancient sites from the Megalithic period, many even before the arrival of the Celts. Here he walks along “the old track” as a meditation as some older writers have fancied. His journey was conceived during a Winter Solstice rite on the Lewes Tump. From here he walked along the South Downs Way and on to Alfriston and the Wilmington Giant at Avronelle and returned along the same path.
“The Druid tradition is first and foremost a tradition of the land. It is an earth-religion. It requires a listening to the earth. But it is also a wisdom tradition, and as such carries a heritage of written material.”
Symbolically, he begins his journey by passing through what he identifies as a magical gate made by a yew tree and a beech tree, both sacred to Druids. Hew notes the tradition of planting yews in graveyards – the exoteric explanation that because they are poisonous they keep animals away from the cemetery. The esoteric explanation is that the yew is a tree of life and death, of eternity (they can live fro 3000 years), and the main sacred tree of Irish Druids as the oak was to English Druids. In the eastern US it seems that a similar-looking tree, the juniper often called Eastern Red Cedar has taken the place of yews as a cemetery tree. This is definitely so in West Virginia where many folk are of Irish and Scottish descent.
His first visionary experience is of a young woman who says, “I am Niwalen, my name means the White Track. I am the goddess of the road. I am the spirit of the journey.” He sees her later standing with a blackbird on her shoulder. The blackbird was known as the bird of the Druids. Another name for Niwalen is Olwen, as goddess of the track. The author scrys for vision by walking the ancient trail and also by meditating and lying down on the ancient mounds. He notes a visionary experience where he presumably falls asleep on a mound and has a vivid dream conversation with his deceased teacher Nuinn as they observe together the goings on of a long past culture in the area. The key thought revealed here was that: “The songs of our ancestors are also the songs of our children.”
“If someone asks what Druid practice consists of, one way of answering is as follows: it involves working with the chalice and the wand or sword. The chalice is the magic circle, the circle of stones, or the grove of trees. The sword, or wand, is the Old Straight Track, the path, the journey. Our lives consist of rest and motion, alternately, of being and doing as alternate states. In the Sacred Grove we find rest, we are calm, we are seated. We work our magic, we open ourselves to the breath of Awen, of inspiration. We find support in letting go of our obsession to do and to have. With the wand, the lance, the spear, the dagger, the sword, we move into the realm of Doing – we act in the world – we ‘go forth’, we journey.”
The author sees this journey as the notion of ‘walking the old tracks.’ Here the outer journey becomes a metaphor for the inner journey. This is akin to vision questing or hero-questing and can help in integrating one psychologically. He contemplates the psychological meaning of dragons and how we relate to our inner monsters – fears, desires, greed, and lust for power. We can fight the dragon which may lead to repression. We can flee from it which may lead to life long fear and regret. We can befriend the dragon or at least live in some sort of harmony with it so that dysfunction is limited in both us and the dragon-force. As the author point outs, in many stories the dragon represents the wild energy of the land, of nature in all its biological urgency.
He gives a chapter comparing Druidism and Wicca, as a newer manifestation of the Old Religion associated with Witchcraft. Here he notes also various cross-influences of Wicca, Druidism, and various magical orders such as the Rosicrucians and the Golden Dawn, as well as some of the reformed Druid groups that have popped up through the centuries.
In a section about ordeals the author notes:
“Our major initiations do not take place in temples or even stone circles. For most of us in the west they take place in bed. Our most powerful initiations are the great Rites of Passage – being born, dying, making love for he first time ...”
He visits an old church along the Cuckmere River that was likely built on an old Celtic Nemeton, or Sacred Grove. At Avronelle he visits the Giant of Wilmington, the Long Man, the great effigy that is the 2nd largest in the world. He contemplates its position and the reasons why he is without phallus quite unlike the Cerne Abbas Giant. He compares the history and lore of the two giants. The author does manage to tie in the healing potential of ancient fertility rites to modern psychological dysfunctions perpetrated by the demands and persecutions of the Church. He talks about the ‘goddess who has been denied.’ He talks about our seeming desire to destroy the earth by our greed of progress. He apparently experiences much of this in vision where his teacher is talking to him. Nuinn mentions that it is not only significant that he has no phallus but also that he has no mate. He contemplates the loss of the phallus as possibly a mythical wounding of sorts. Such mythical wounding is common in myth, particularly in shamanic cultures. The wounded Fisher King in Arthurian lore is one such story. He said he was awoken when his wife found him lying there in the grass by the road – so I guess it was profound experience for him.
Whilst falling asleep in a presumed hypnagogic state (where visions and aha! experiences are known to occur) the author is given a technique by the Long Man himself for accessing the Otherworld. The giant holds two staves extending from his head to the ground that even look as if he is guarding a gateway defined by the staves. The Long Man tells him to stare at both staves. When the author does this he has a short vision then falls asleep. When he wakes he sees that he has written a note to himself to go back and see the giant as there is something he missed. He does so at the Spring Equinox. Due to the angle of the morning sun he notices that the giant looks more like a woman and may be a goddess of the land. He sees breasts and a depression for the vulva and this is his revelation.
He goes along his journey noting other sacred spots, local history both ancient and recent, old word and place-name etymologies, and notions and stories of myth and Druidism. He tells a sad story of the accidental death of a child of a dear friend and how the Druid folk ritualize the passing as a way to help deal with grief and promote healing.
He tells the story of Rhiannon form the Mabinogion where she is falsely accused of killing her newborn child and must do a penance which lasts several years. For her penance she had to recount the story of her killing her son to each visitor while bringing them to the court on her back. The author notes that Rhiannon is doubly wounded – by false allegation and penance and by the loss of her child. He also notes that the story indicates that we can never truly be separated from those we love. Rhiannon was a Queen of the Otherworld who had crossed over to live among humans and her son was really taken by a king of that realm who later returned him seeing that he was the son of a human. The author also notes the Otherworld Journey as part of the “Druid Way,” where one is trained to explore the inner realms – maybe through incubatory sleep and dreaming techniques, fasting, vision questing, or whatever.
His last visionary experience is a contemplation of death and the meaning of being re-integrated back into the land and then reconfigured into a new life – in the sense that the Celtic tradition accepts reincarnation as likely.
“THIS STORY OF A JOURNEY from Lewes to Wilmington and back is partly an account of the evocatory power of Place. Becoming aware of, and then working with the magic and presence of Place is probably one of the most direct and immediate ways of opening ourselves to the meaning and value of Druidry today.”
He notes entering the magic of Place as a way to integrate the inner and the outer worlds. He also notes the value of appreciating and honoring Time. One can do this, he implies, by accepting that we are temporary, that we are subject to the stages of life, death, and to being recycled into the next life.
“We are given a body through the act of our parents mating – and here we see the connection between sex and death and initiation. Our major initiations are given to us as we take on or let go of our bodies. Our bodies are given to us through the sexual act. Therefore the sexual act is sacred, since it provides the vehicle for our initiations and our learning in this world.”
Nice book – well worth reading with both interesting info and practical psychology.