AWEN AND CONTEMPLATIVE DRUIDRY
A Contemplative Druidry (1) reader has asked me to say more about Awen, which had a chapter in the book. Introducing interview extracts in my Awen chapter, I wrote, “Awen is classically seen in Druidry as the power of inspiration, and in particular the creative force for poetry and prophecy. It is what transformed the boy Gwion – though not before further trials and transformations – into Taliesin, the radiant browed Bard. Many of the participants in this work uphold this tradition in its conventional form. Others seek to extend the traditional meaning better to express their own experiences and aspirations. Some don’t connect with Awen experientially and treat it as a convention – mainly as a shared chant, which brings Druids together”.
My self-criticism here is that the chant is itself an experience, frequently state-altering for both the chanters and in a sense for the space. I might have done better to say, ‘some don’t connect with it conceptually’. I see from my interview questions appendix that the Awen question was about meaning. If I did this work again, I would start with the sound, the feeling, and senses of occasion, and work out from those.
Pondering Awen afresh, I find myself drawn to deep human ancestry, and especially the early emergence of speech and music. These brought a new kind of identity: new experiences, new awareness, new feelings, new understanding, new forms of connection and solidarity – new worlds. Unsurprisingly, many cultures have subsequently developed creation stories linking origin with sound. In India, the phrase Nada Brahma tells us that God is sound/the world is made of sound. OM is the primordial sound form, the vibratory essence from which the universe emanates – and the universe needs to emanate only the smallest step (if any) to get to us. Kabir said, “if you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth. Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you” (2). A major philosophical school, Kashmir Shaivism, is referred to as ‘the doctrine of vibration’ (3). It talks of ‘spanda’ as “the primordial vibration at the root of all manifestation, a form of Shakti” (a term equally meaning ‘power’ or ‘goddess’).
Welsh Bardistry gives us Awen and the Taliesin story, which can be read as working with related themes, whilst diverting our main attention to the Bard as trickster/hero. In the old Gaelic world, we have the term Imbhas, equivalent to Awen, and a more touching story about the eating of the salmon of wisdom, in which the old Bard (as I read it) sets himself up to pass on the true nourishment to a promising youth. We also have the notion of the Oran Mor (Song of the World). Frank MacEowan (4) writes: “a conscious knowing of the ancient ‘music behind the world’ has always been woven into the daily awareness of the adherents of various Celtic traditions. In the words of Stuart Harris-Logan, a Gaelic healer, scholar, and author of Singing with Blackbirds, ‘out on the Isle of Barra, the people have long spoken of the Oran Mor as one of the old names of God. The Oran Mor is the Great Song from which all things have arisen’”.
Jason Kirkey (5), an associate of Frank MacEowan, treats ‘Oran Mor’ and ‘Divine Ground’ as synonymous both with each other and with David Bohm’s ‘implicate order’, in which the world of space, time and individual particles are enfolded into an undifferentiated wholeness that provides the holographic pattern (each part contains the pattern of the whole) by which reality unfolds. In Ireland, a sense of the Oran Mor could legitimately continue into Christian times. St. John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” (6) This greatly moved John Scotus Eriugena, the great Irish philosopher/theologian of the ninth century – the time of Viking invasions in north west Europe. In his commentary on the Gospel he says, “John, the theologian – ascends beyond all visible and invisible creation, passes through all thought and intellect, and deified, enters into God who deifies him … John, the observer of the inmost truth, in the paradise of paradises, in the very cause of all, heard the one Word through which all things are made … Therefore, most confidently he cried out, ‘in the beginning was the Word.” (7) True knowledge and experience of the primal Word are divinizing – a remarkable statement for a western Christian of the day. John Scotus had learned Greek at a monastic school in his native Ireland (then not an available option elsewhere in western Europe) and was familiar with neo-Platonist thought. Perhaps that and his indigenous culture together allowed an understanding that the Word calls us to recognize our own divinity.
Modern Druidry was Universalist before it was Pagan, and retains a willingness to learn from other traditions. I believe that we can use the wider cultural history I’ve identified to inform our sense of what we are invoking when we chant the Awen. This chanting is something which Druid contemplative practitioners share with other Druids. Our unique practice is the ‘Awen space’ that follows the chant. Like other Druids, we do not require people to gather together under the umbrella of a common cosmology. It is OK to have different understandings, and it is OK for us to change and develop our personal understandings over time. That said, I end this piece with a reflection about the broad intentions behind our inherited Celtic spirituality, to provide a cultural context for Awen/Imbhas and where they might fit. It’s from Frank MacEowan (8): “The ancient Celts … were … ever yearning to connect with divine inspiration (imbhas), and ever longing to live a life of beauty imbued with connection and spirit. We are also on this path, and the fulfillment of our collective task as a human community lies in the process of actualizing a deeper communion with these same life-affirming powers. Celtic spirituality is an ongoing initiation into a life of beauty and a mindful preparation for the passage of death. The ancient spirituality of the Celtic peoples has always been a dynamic orientation to the ebb and flow of the seasons, daily practices that foster an awareness of the passage of our lives and of thanatology (a vision and study of our death and dying). This vision is of a life ending in a wondrous death journey to a home we have all been away from. When death is really an experience of going home, what is there to fear?”.
(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: people, practice and potential Amazon/KDP, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
(2) Sally Kempton Meditation for the love of it: enjoying your own deepest experience Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2011 (Foreword by Elizabeth Gilbert)
(3) Mark S.G. Dyczkowski The Doctrine of vibration: an analysis of the doctrines and practices of Kashmir Shaivism Delhi, India: Divine Books, 1987
(4)Frank MacEowan The Celtic way of seeing: meditations on the spirit wheel Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)
(5) Jason Kirkey The Salmon in the spring: the ecology of Celtic spirituality San Francisco, CA: Hiraeth Press, 2009 (Foreword by Frank MacEowan)
(6) Holy Bible (authorized version)
(7) The voice of the eagle: John Scotus Eriugena’s homily on the prologue to the gospel of St. John Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2000 ed. (Translated by Christopher Bamford, foreword by Thomas Moore)
(8) Frank MacEowan The mist-filled path: Celtic wisdom for exiles, wanderers and seekers Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002 (Foreword by Tom Cowan)
Hi, James, and thanks for this post. I’ve chosen it to be the featured blog post of the month on the OBOD site at http://www.druidry.org/druid-way/resources/druid-blogs/blog-month. Hope lots of people see and read it!
Thanks Selene. It’s an honour.
I like Kristoffer Hughes’ definition of the Awen as the song of the universe. This resonates very well with my intuition of Ceridwen as Old Mother Universe and the Awen being born from her cauldron/womb.
What you say makes complete sense to me. I didn’t know that Kristoffer Hughes defined Awen in that way. I would be very happy to adopt that definition.