This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: April, 2023


Professor Ronald Hutton’s fifth lecture in the Gresham College series on early Pagan history in Britain (1) is called Finding Lost Gods in Wales. Hutton’s main focus is on medieval Welsh literature. This language is a 5th/6th century CE mutation of the Brythonic speech once used throughout Britain, further developed for literary purposes by court bards in the 6/7th century. Hutton describes it as “made for poetry” because of the concentration of meaning in the words. He gives as an example in a literal English translation:

‘Colour light waves spread boiling billows

‘Flood-tide river mouth on sea where nothing waits.’

He contrasts this with an English translation for English ears, demanding more words whilst sacrificing impact and immediacy.

‘Bright as the light that falls on the waves, where the boiling billows spread

That flashes a moment from the meeting of river flood and sea.’

This language was the public voice of a consciously dispossessed people, creating a new sense of Welsh Celtic nationhood in the 9th and 10th centuries, when the English, Scottish Gaels and Vikings had reduced their territory to less that 10% of Britain. It led to a flowering of Bardic culture throughout the medieval period.

Taliesin was celebrated as Wales’ greatest Bard. There is no certainty that he existed, though poems surviving from the 6th century have been attributed to him. There are no recorded statements of his pre-eminence before the 10th century. Later poets inspired by him continued to write in his name for a further 300 years. However his link with Awen as the source of inspiration reveals the mystical roots of the whole Bardic tradition. But for instances or echoes of specifically Pagan motifs we are largely reliant on a small group of texts from the 11th -13th centuries: The Black Book of Carmarthen, The White Book of Rhydderch, the Red Book of Hergest, the Book of Taliesin and the Mabinogion, a collection of prose stories. (The full prose Hanes Taliesin is from a much later date.)

In contrast to Irish medieval literature, we do not find Goddesses, Gods or explicitly Pagan characters in these Welsh texts, even in the four branches of the Mabinogi, though these do seem to be set in Pagan times. Several characters have superhuman abilities, without being presented as Gods. However, we do have Annwn, an otherworldly realm of human-like beings who interact with ordinary humans. We also find shape-shifting abilities – people change into animal forms and back again; humans change their appearance; objects change their form.

There is certainly magic and magical poetry, as in the Preiddeu Annwn (The Lute of the Otherworld). This poem, though hostile to monks and their pretensions to scholarship, is overtly Christian. According to Hutton, poems of this kind delight in being difficult, allusive and packed with metaphor, references and wordplay. No one now can say with any certainty what they were originally intended to mean. But this, suggests Hutton, is a gift and invitation to the poets, story tellers and artists of later generations including our own.

On the specific question of deity, Hutton discusses Rhiannon, Cerridwen, Gwyn ap Nudd, and Arianrhod. None is described in this literature as divine and, according to Hutton, we do not find them in that role in Celtic antiquity.

Rhiannon is superhuman and comes from an enchanted world to find a husband of her own choosing. She stays the course despite horrible experiences. She has been thought of as a horse goddess, but this is not suggested in the Mabinogion and there is no indication of a horse Goddess in the archaeology of Iron Age Britain or in Romano-British inscriptions. She has also been seen as a Goddess of Sovereignty, but she does not confer sovereignty on either of her husbands, and there is no record of any sovereignty Goddess in Europe outside Ireland.

Cerridwen begins as a mother skilled in sorcery trying to empower her son but actually empowering a lowly servant boy instead. By the 13th century she has, through her association with Awen, become the muse of the Bards, giver of power and the laws of poetry. In 1809 the scholar Edward Davies made her the great Goddess of ancient Britain and many people have Iolo seen her in that light ever since.

In 11th and 12th century texts Gwyn ap Nudd was one of King Arthur’s warriors, imbued with a degree of magic power. By the 14th century, poets are making him a mighty power of darkness, enchantment and deception. In the 1880’s the scholar Sir John Rhys made him the Celtic God of the dead and leader of the Wild Hunt. This is largely how he is seen today.

In the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, Arianrhod is a powerful, beautiful and selfish enchantress with the capacity to make unbreakable curses. By the 13th and 14th centuries her magical powers are much increased. She can cast a rainbow about a court, and the Corona Borealis is called the Fortress or Arianrhod. In the 20th century she began to be seen as a Star Goddess.

Professor Hutton’s lecture includes a discussion of the Welsh Bardic revival at the end of the eighteenth century, inspired largely by Iolo Morgannwg, here presented as a mixed blessing given his willingness to forge ‘ancient’ documents to advance his cause. Hutton ends with a section on the legend placing Glastonbury as the site of King Arthur’s final refuge and eventual burial, and also the place in which the Holy Grail was buried. Both of these were concocted by the later medieval monks of Glastonbury Abbey as a potential source of patronage and a pilgrimage income. At the same time, post holes linked to a neolithic structure have recently been found near Chalice Well – which may well be a numinous site of great antiquity. Artefacts have also been recently found in the area, including the Abbey itself, from the early post-Roman period in which Arthur’s career has been set. We weave our stories from a mixture of fact, fiction, speculation and deep intuition. Being conscious of this circumstance may make them all the richer.


See also: for my review of Cerridwen Celtic Goddess of Inspiration by Kristoffer Hughes as an in-depth account of the Goddess and her evolution. He also discusses the Welsh Bardic tradition and the later work of Iolo Morgannwg


In Gloucester, England, we are entering the four lightest months of the year. The pictures above and below were taken after 7 pm. This lightness, and the long evening twilight that follows, still feel novel. The day-to-day weather here has been volatile, making evening sunshine all the more precious when it comes. I feel naturally enlivened and blessed, somehow shifted into a more immersive experience of the world around me.

I live in a flat where I have good views of the sky, the sun, the moon and their changes from indoors. This has subtly altered my experience of daily life from before dawn until after sunset – following the wheels both of day and year from a slightly elevated level. But there’s something also in experiencing the effects of April evening light at ground level. It’s an urban, curated landscape and I am (mostly) an urban Druid. I am fond of such spaces when they are done well and preserve a human scale.

In the docks I notice rigging on a sailing boat at rest and brick warehouses reflected in tranquil sunlit water. The cathedral tower is in the distance, still the tallest building in sight. On Brunswick Road, I look into the grassy city garden of Brunswick Square, mostly in sunlight, partly in shade. Immediately in front of me there’s a cherry tree in blossom. Across the square, I enjoy an 1820’s terrace. At this moment in the year, I discover both freshness and familiarity. For me, the experience of an evening like this is an ideal way of being and belonging in place.


“They also serve who only stand and waite” (1) wrote the naturally activist poet John Milton. He was coming to terms with his loss of sight and significant worldly defeat. For him, waiting means waiting upon God, as a servant, rather than waiting for an appointment, waiting for salvation, or stuck in the wounded forever-waiting enacted in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. For Milton, waiting, being available, is a form of engagement and of service.

Contemplative living can be understood as service, even without Milton’s theology or master-servant relationship with the Divine. For contemplative life is more than ‘just being’. It asks us to stay present in the activities of daily life and and in our interactions with others. When present, ideally, we bring spacious stillness into the world. With consciousness comes quality. Every task is sacred. Every event is full of meaning. When we are alive to the experience we are having, we feel our oneness with the whole and the Source. Then we can “affect the world much more deeply than is visible on the surface” of our lives (2).

(1) John Milton When I Consider How My Light Is Spent In Delphi Complete Works of John Milton Delphi Classics, 2012 (e-book)

(2) Eckhart Tolle A New Earth: Create Your Better Life Today London: Penguin Books, 2016 (First Edition 2005). My second paragraph above draws on this source whilst somewhat modifying the message.


I look at the picture with fresh eyes. It is already a record of the past, and it is much too still. Yet I feel drawn towards this image. I enjoy the tree shapes in their starkness. I sense resilience in the plant life pictured here. I am writing now with sunlight intermittently on my shoulder, and the sounds of wind and rain beyond my strong glass doors.

I am also reflecting on writing as a practice. Natalie Goldberg (1,2) writes books about this and her description of ‘writing practice’ seems to me to have two entirely compatible meanings. The first is that it trains people for the writing of poems, stories and novels. The second points to a form of life practice flowing from the view that “writing is the crack through which you can crawl into a bigger world, into your wild mind” (1).

In Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life Natalie Goldberg compares writing practice with journaling. “Journal writing has a fascination with the self, with emotion and situation. It stops there. Writing practice lets everything else run through us; in writing practice, we don’t attach to any of it. We are aware that the underbelly of writing is non-writing. Journal writing seems to be about thought, about rumination and self-analysis. … We want to get below discursive thought to the place where mind – not your mind or my mind but mind itself – is original, fresh. It’s not you thinking. Thoughts just arise impersonally from the bottom of our minds. That is the nature of mind – it creates thoughts. It creates them without controlling them or thinking them … Writing practice knows this, knows how we are not our thoughts, but lets the thoughts, visions, emotions run through us and puts them on the page.” (1)

In her earlier book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg quotes Jack Kerouac as saying that a writer should be ‘submissive to everything, open, listening’. She also recommends that “we stay in the trenches with attention to detail”, avoiding escape into abstraction. She points to poetry in particular, “because it brings us back to where we are. It asks us to settle inside ourselves and be awake”. She reproduces the famous William Carlos Williams poem:

“So much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


I remember this poem from my childhood. I liked it a lot, but couldn’t find anything to say about it in the class room when it was expected that I would. I was embarrassed then. I wouldn’t be now.

Natalie Goldberg also practices Zen Buddhism, with Katagiri Roshi until his death and more recently as an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. She acknowledges the role of Zen in developing her insights into the creative process. I find her approach, including her practical exercises, very helpful.

(1) Natalie Goldberg Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life New York, NY: Open Road Integrated Media, 2011 (first published 1990)

(2) Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016 (30th anniversary edition)


Seeing bluebells

In verdant grass.

Will summer really come?


My inquiry moves slowly. But it doesn’t stand still. So from time to time I update the ABOUT section of my blog. Sometimes I discuss my changes in a post. Occasionally it seems as if the blog has its own life and writes itself through me. I’m not sure that I would claim the word Awen here, but I can end up surprised at what appears.

This time there seems to be a settling, an emphasis on continuity. I recommit to a contemplative inquiry, grounded in modern Druidry and with the inquiry process itself as my core practice. I am now assuming that this will be lifelong. In the past I have tended to believe that the inquiry would eventually lead to a conclusion of some kind, or become redundant for other reasons. Another project would then emerge – or maybe I would retire from projects and put my feet up. That belief has gone, for my inquiry is no longer a ‘project’.

As I was writing this morning, I became conscious of the change. ‘My inquiry’, I wrote ‘has shifted from a focused experiential investigation into a more relaxed, at times meandering process that brings illumination, healing and peace’. I have always had, in the back of my mind, prestigious models of both academic and spiritual inquiry that do not encourage relaxed meandering. In the academic models, results like ‘illumination, healing and peace’ are beside the point. In the spiritual ones, they are mostly reckoned to be very hard-won. But there it is. I am moving into a life-lived-as-inquiry space by softening and reframing my idea of inquiry. I seek support and nourishment rather than new and different ‘results’. Looking at these words now, they seem obvious, not even new – but I’ve only just caught up. It does seem, experientially, as if the blog has become the voice (spirit?) of the inquiry and intervened to educate me. It’s an odd feeling.

Here is the new ABOUT text:

“I am James Nichol and I live in the city of Gloucester, England. My contemplative inquiry began in 2012. It is grounded in modern Druidry, though I have drawn on the enduring wisdom of many times and places. I am also influenced by the current turn towards an eco-spirituality that meets our own historical moment. The inquiry itself is my core practice. I see it as a lifelong journey. In my blog I include personal sharing, discursive writing, photographs, poetry, and book reviews.

“Over the years, my inquiry has shifted from a focused experiential investigation into a more relaxed, at times meandering process that nonetheless brings illumination, healing and peace. In the contemplative moment,  I am living presence in a field of living presence, at home in a living world. This is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the recognition of what is given, in joy and sorrow alike. I find that this simple recognition encourages a spirit of openness, the acceptance that nothing stays the same, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity.

“My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014. It includes a foreword, Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth, by Philip Carr-Gomm. There are major contributions in the main text from 14 other Druids offering diverse perspectives on the topic:


Where I live, April 2023 brings qualities and freshness and new growth. My heart meets the moment as I walk in the bracing breeze. Sunny and overcast periods succeed each other. Moving through this enlivening space, I naturally welcome the energy of change it embodies.

But it’s not quite that simple. There’s an underlying turbulence too, which can easily challenge my balance. Slogans like ‘I am the sky. Everything else is weather’ aren’t enough. I, as natural man, have to ground and embody them. They have be be aligned with my felt sense.

I wasn’t sure how to talk about this when I discovered that someone else had done it for me. Philip Carr-Gomm, who until recently led OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids), offers a regular podcast: Tea with a Druid. No 249 is about ‘finding calm in chaos’. It is up on YouTube as:

Philip suggests that the best way to deal with chaos, turbulence, or the everyday stress of modern life, is to turn to the stillness inside. Then it becomes possible to stay in the moment whilst expecting nothing. It takes work to get there – to identify ways of finding stability and calm even when all around is unstable and unpredictable.

Philip understands modern Druidry as a tradition of ‘mindfulness in natural settings’, whether real or visualised. The stillness found in those settings isn’t a dead stillness but a living one – leaves rustle, waves crash. The refreshment is somewhat different from that of a more abstract meditation where we sit with thoughts and feelings, finding the space beyond. In the podcast, Philip takes us through a meditation of the kind he describes. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone, whether or not involved in Druidry.

Returning to my recent walk, and the record of it, I see branches, buds and sky. I remember the movement in the sky, and a slight quivering of the wood. Records have their limitations. The stillness wasn’t one of complete stasis, as it may appear below. My current response is complicated by the human gift of memory, which is not the original experience. I am also absorbing someone else’s input. I am in a completely different here and now. But I am held within an enlivened tranquility, not at all that of the ‘tranquiliser’, and this is certainly a wonderful resource. Gratitude to the culture that has enabled it.


Selkie Writing…

Charlotte Rodgers

Images and words set against a backdrop of outsider art.

Professor Jem Bendell

Strategist & educator on social change, focused on Deep Adaptation to societal breakdown


The pagan path. The Old Ways In New Times

The Druids Garden

Spiritual journeys in tending the living earth, permaculture, and nature-inspired arts

The Blog of Baphomet

a magickal dialogue between nature and culture

This Simple Life

The gentle art of living with less

Musings of a Scottish Hearth Druid and Heathen

Thoughts about living, loving and worshiping as an autistic Hearth Druid and Heathen. One woman's journey.

The River Crow

Druidry as the crow flies...

Wheel of the Year Blog

An place to read and share stories about the celtic seasonal festivals

Walking the Druid Path

Just another site

anima monday

Exploring our connection to the wider world

Grounded Space Focusing

Become more grounded and spacious with yourself and others, through your own body’s wisdom

The Earthbound Report

Good lives on our one planet

The Hopeless Vendetta

News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.

barbed and wired

not a safe space - especially for the guilty

Down the Forest Path

A Journey Through Nature, its Magic and Mystery

Druid Life

Nimue Brown, David Bridger - Druidry, Paganism, Creativity, Hope

Druid Monastic

The Musings of a Contemplative Monastic Druid