contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: ancestors

CONTEMPLATING FAMILY PHOTOGRAPHS

As we approach the turn of the year, I am thinking of recent ancestors and the visual records they have left. This photograph is of my paternal great grandmother was taken by a professional photographer in the first decade of the twentieth century. You can see that it has been carefully posed. This is before the era of family snaps, let alone selfies. Being photographed is an occasion.

At that time the family were tenant farmers in East Lothian, Scotland, and the photographer was based in Haddington, the county town. I am sad to say that I know very little about my great grandmother as an individual, of who she really was. In her picture I read both dignity and diffidence. A certain natural stillness, perhaps, and inner strength. In a sense she was the matriarch of an family group in which the tenancy was largely worked by two sons, one of whom had a family of his own, though I am not sure of how far she filled that role.

I feel frustrated by my lack of knowledge and understanding even as I write, and I’m trying not to default into writing about my great grand father instead. I do know a bit about him – strong traditional Presbyterian, Elder of the Kirk, political Unionist whose Unionism extended to the whole of Britain and Ireland. I do imagine my great grandmother as being in the slip stream of all this. She didn’t live long enough to be a voter; I don’t even know how she felt about this. She did live long enough to know my father and his sister as children and there is an indirect link through them, though they didn’t actually say much about her to me. The picture below is from 1909, with the two children looking dressed up and solemn.

I do not have to go far back in family history to find myself in an unfamiliar cultural landscape, and to appreciate that I am an outsider to my own family members. I was given little family information about these days when growing up, and the very aspects of pre-1914 history and culture that I have studied or engaged with were ones that didn’t enrol my great grandparents. They were the older generation, defined by both their immediate culture and the reign of Queen Victoria, only recently ended.

The world of these photographs was not to last. When my great grandfather, predeceased by my great grandmother, died in 1916, the tenancy ended and neither of his sons negotiated a new one. My grandfather, grandmother, father and aunt moved to Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, and became a corn merchant. His brother emigrated to Australia. The heavy duty politics and religion were ameliorated. A way of life had gone. My father, born in 1907, moved to England in 1929 and I was born in Somerset in 1949, much closer to my mother’s family who came from Exeter in Devon. The years have continued to roll on. 1949 was only forty years on from the picture of the two children. There have been seventy one years since, which is food for thought in itself. Looking at her portrait, I understand that whilst I do not know, and will never know, my great grandmother, I can appreciate her through the image that’s presented, without narrative information, and also without mythology or romance.

ATLANTIC ANCESTORS

I am beginning to feel the pull of Samhain. It is not here yet, but its themes are drawing my attention. One of these is the remembrance of ancestors.

A recent post by poet and awenydd Lorna Smithers (1) has prompted me to look again at Barry Cunliffe’s work, and the book I have to hand is Facing the Ocean (2). It is about early human history in Atlantic maritime Europe. including Britain and Ireland. One of its threads concerns living with the ocean. Another, related to the first, looks at communication by sea at a time when land travel was difficult. I will follow up these threads in future posts. In the meantime, Cunliffe’s sense of the interaction between nature and culture is shown in the extract below.

“To stand on a sea-washed promontory looking westwards at sunset over the Atlantic is to share a timeless human experience. We are in awe of the unchanging and unchangeable as all have been before us and all will be. Wonder is tempered with reassurance: it is an end, but we are content that the cycle will reproduce itself the sun will reappear. The sea below creates different, more conflicting, emotions. True, there is the comfortable inevitability of the tides, but there is also an unpredictability of mood, the sea constantly changing, sometimes erupting in crescendos of brute force destroying and remoulding the land and claiming human life. The sea is a balance of opposites. It gives and takes. It can destroy quickly and build new; it sustains life and it can kill. Small wonder that through time communities have sought to explain these forces in terms of myth and have attempted to gain some puny influence over them through propitiation.

“Nowhere is this relationship more apparent than in the legends and folk traditions of Brittany. In the howl of the wind can be heard the screams and laments of those drowned at sea, and much of human life – birth and the gender of the newborn and death – was believed to be conditioned by the tides. Below a thin veneer of Christianity lie beliefs deeply rooted in time. A century ago, in the parish of Ploulec’h on the north Breton coast, the first Sunday in May saw the people in procession climb to La Croix du Salut – an isolated landmark that could be seen from far out to sea offering assurance of the approach to a safe haven. Here the sailing community gave thanks for their safe returns before descending to the chapel of Notre-Dame across the bay on the headland of Le Yaudet. In the church today, fine model sailing ships hanging from the roof beams are among the more evocative offerings made to the Virgin by grateful mariners. The deep underlying awe of the ocean is poignantly expressed by the Breton poem

War vor peb ankenn

War vor peb peden

(Sur la mer toute angoisse, sur mer toute priere

At sea all is anguish, all is prayer).”

(1) https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2020/10/04/britain-begins-debunking-the-myth-of-celtic-invasions/

(2) Barry Cunliffe Facing the Ocean: The *Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500 Oxford: the University Press, 2001

*NOTE: I wish the subtitle had specified ‘eastern Atlantic’, since every corner of the Americas has been populated for periods ranging from 12,000-24,000 years. The western Atlantic coastal people amongst them are not my focus, but in a post about ancestors I don’t want them to be implicitly erased.

HONOURING ‘THE WAY OF MERLIN’

The Way of Merlin came into my hands at the right time. It seeded a number of key understandings, which nudged me onto a Druid path in October 1993. The first is that “sacred space is enlivened by consciousness. Let us be in doubt that all space is sacred, all being. Yet if human beings dedicate and define a zone, a location, something remarkable happens within that defined sphere of consciousness and energy. The space talks back”. Author R. J. Stewart backed this up with the further declaration that “The mystery of Merlin is a backyard mystery, for it declares the smallest, most local space to be sacred, to be alive, to be aware.” I was living in South London at the time and remember being challenged in this book to befriend a spring and a tree. At first, I thought, ‘what?’. Then I found them both, on the day I started looking, in a local park.

Such activities went with the view, “yourself and the land are one”, and that this apparently humble work has a larger context of “holism … identical to the deepest perennial magical and spiritual arts”. Magic is seen as a process of having intent and applying energy and imagery in service to it. Working within mythic frameworks asks for an enabling suspension of disbelief rather than a dogmatic literalism.

I did not work with the suggested programme of visualisations and rituals concerning Merlin, the weaver goddess Ariadne, and other scenes drawn largely from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin. As practices they seemed too long and formal. But reading Stewart’s text was psychoactive in itself. The weaver goddess Ariadne is a key figure, and the vision of Ariadne reveals a cosmic mother at the threshold of Being and Unbeing. She draws us into the empty silence of the Void, out of which emerges the sound of breath – our own breath and at the same time the breath of all Being. Being breathes through us, “and we realise that we have a body that is the body of all Being. The stars are within us. We are formed of the weaving”.

The specific image of Ariadne never took root in my imagination. But I acknowledged the power of this Pagan Gnostic creation myth. Its sense of our reality emerging from empty potential at the behest of a cosmic mother has stayed with me. My work with Sophia earlier in this inquiry pointed in the same direction. So does my recent post about Dancing Seahorses and Modron (2). I am happiest with the Modron image, because it is less defined and anthropomorphised than those of Ariadne and Sophia. At at the threshold of being and unbeing, she shows us that we are not separate from the divine breath that forms us, or from the creation that is formed. The stars are indeed within us, whether we know it or not.

The Way of Merlin has something like an ancestral role in my spiritual life. R. J. Stewart and I were born in the same year, but he was doing this pioneering work in the 1980’s when I was busy with other things. He influenced me in the period immediately before I embarked on a Druid path, and I have revisited his work over the years. It still has riches to offer.

(1) R. J. Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/06/25/dancing-seahorses/

IMBOLC 2020

Spaces ‘between’ can be numinous. They feed the soul. Imbolc for me is like a pre-dawn light. I am not yet out of winter, but something else is happening, and palpably growing in strength.

The hierophant of the Wildwood Tarot – the Ancestor – is placed as a power of Imbolc. An antlered figure clothed in reindeer skins and evergreen leaves, she has a resonance of Elen of the Ways, the reindeer goddess who stands for the sovereignty of the land. She calls to us from a deep past where Ice Age hunters followed reindeer through ancient forest, “following the deer trods” (1,2) responsive to the herds and attuned to the landscape. They lived with little personal property and without long hours of alienating work. The Ancestor invites us to wonder what these early ancestors  might have to teach us under our very different conditions.

On the card, the Ancestor is sounding a drum and calling us into another consciousness – one more open and aware of our place within the web of life. In her world, deer and people are kin. She herself is ambiguous – she might be wearing a mask, or she might be a truly theriomorphic figure. I respond to her call by sinking deeply into my felt sense – the embodied life of sensation, feelings and belly wisdom. The call of the Ancestor  is a pathway to greater wholeness and connection, both personally and collectively. As the year wakes up, it is a good call to hear.

(1) Elen Sentier Elen of the Ways: British Shamanism – Following the Deer Trods Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2013 (Shaman Pathways series)

(2) Elen Sentier Following the Deer Trods: A Practical Guide to Working with Elen of the Ways Arlesford, Hants: Moon Books, 2014 (Shaman Pathways series)

See also book review at: https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2014/06/22/

BEING IN TRANSIT

If I ask myself, ‘where is my spiritual centre?’ I do not find an answer within any named tribe. Spiritual friendships, communities of practice and generic webs of connection can all help, and I hope that I give something back. But my path is fundamentally solitary. Perhaps even the notion of having a centre is limiting.

I’ve learned a lot from Druidry. Partly thanks to Druid practice, I experience myself as more fully alive on a living Earth. I honour the wheel of the year as it turns in my locality. In Druidry, I’ve been enabled to explore a contemplative dimension within Earth spirituality. I have also connected with ancestral threads I might otherwise have neglected. But I’m not a polytheist Pagan and I have never felt attracted to Shamanism. I’ve learned from Buddhist tradition too. I’m a meditator. I have a deepened sense of interconnectedness and the call to kindness that goes with it. But I have not adopted the four noble truths as the basis of my path, and I do not seek refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I am grateful for my connections to Druidry and Buddhism and will continue to take an interest in their literature. I also sense that, with certain understandings and practices now ingrained, their active roles in my life are over.

My creative edge has for some time been elsewhere. I have been working with the insight that perceptions, apparently of the world, do not establish the existence of a world, but only of perceiving (or awareness, or being). Sensations, apparently of a body, do not establish the existence of embodiment, but only of sensing (or awareness, or being). Thoughts, apparently of a mind, do not establish the existence of a mind, but only of thinking (or awareness, or being). This can seem destructively sceptical, even solipsistic. Yet for many people it signals the possibility of a ‘more than’ (or awareness, or being), rather than a dissociated ‘less than’. Mind, body and world can return enhanced rather than diminished by this kind of exercise, with a sense of a ‘not I not other than I’ connection with primordial awareness or being.

This is the basic stance of nondualist traditions, ancient and modern. In Indian culture, the stripping down and reduction to nothingness is sometimes identified as Vedantic, and the subsequent return and flowering in everything as Tantric. In the Gospel of St. Thomas, a Christian Gnostic text, Yeshua (Jesus) says: “I come from the One who is Openness” and the aspiration of disciples is to make themselves “the abode of Openness, a house that welcomes the breeze, a body that has become transparent, like a crystal flooded with light”. Here, a metaphor concerned with transparency emphasizes power and energy rather than vulnerability and exposure.

I am not a member of a nondualist group, or a Christian Gnostic. But I am moved by these spiritual currents. I am in dialogue with them. I think that ‘being in dialogue’ is a good place to be. For me, certainly now, it has more integrity than formal membership or adherence to a system.

(1) Jean-Yves Leloup The Gospel of Thomas: The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2005 (English translation and notes by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman)

GLASTONBURY REMEMBERED

I am five or six years old, the year 1954/1955. I live in Yeovil, Somerset. My mother wants me to have proper shoes. When my feet are measured up in the local Clark’s shop, we find that I need a broad fitting (E) and they don’t have quite the right shoe for me in stock. After talking to the manager, who makes a phone call, my mother decides we are going to the factory shop in Street.

A day or two later, we walk to the Yeovil Town railway station and board a train for Glastonbury & Street. We are going to make a half day of it. So leaving the train  we first take a short bus ride from the station to Street and get the shoes. Then we take a longer bus ride to Glastonbury and I get my first glimpses of the Tor and Abbey. Somewhere in town, we stop for tea and cake, possibly ice cream. Then a brief bus ride back to the station and the journey home. I remember liking the visit. It was a bit special, but I don’t remember it being particularly magical or numinous.

Two years ago I gave a talk in the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms to the OBOD Winter Gathering about contemplative Druidry and my book of that name. Later in that day I found myself in the car park in town. I remembered childhood visits to the town and, looking up, I saw the railway station roof. And I thought, ‘how did that get here?’ (I have since discovered that it was moved there as a means of conservation).  I  felt a pang of loss for industrial age Glastonbury, with its good railway connections and neighbouring Street with its solid manufacturing base. (Yeovil Town was closed in 1962. Glastonbury & Street went in 1966.) Clarks shoes were a highly respected local employer, with a national and indeed international name. They are still around, still respected, but no longer a local (or national) manufacturer.

It’s happened before of course. For many centuries, the Abbey, as landowner and pilgrim destination, was the economic centre of the town as well as the spiritual one. Henry VIII’s re-arrangement of his own and the nation’s life ended that at a stroke. But the Abbey will always be remembered. Glastonbury is a pilgrim’s town again, though after another fashion. I just wonder if the culture of my childhood, of easy local train rides and proud local shoe making, will be remembered in quite the same way. At least the station roof is something.

ANCESTORS

I watched the BBC series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice recently and felt depressed – addicted as well, but depressed. My problem? I didn’t feel connected to anybody in the story. I couldn’t fully empathise. I acknowledge descent from people like them – probably in a humbler station of life than those who got the attention. I could offer gratitude and respect for their fecundity/virility, for their resilience, for doing the best they could with the life on offer. I felt uneasy at the display of their mortal remains on TV. But connection? Not really.

So where would I look for living ancestry? If we take the Eurasia of the time as a whole we find, as part of the cultural mix, an acute consciousness of something painful and awry in the military-aristocratic cultures of the day, perhaps in the very cosmos itself. We can follow this as a persistent theme in powerful emergent literatures. Such indeed was the revulsion that some teachers and writers became world and life denying. But that’s not true of everyone. The words below, attributed to the early Chinese Taoist Lao Tzu, seem grounded enough:

Brim-fill the bowl,

It’ll spill over.

Keep sharpening the blade,

You’ll soon blunt it.

Nobody can protect a house full of gold and jade.

Wealth, status, pride

Are their own ruin.

To do good, work well, and lie low

Is the way of the blessing. (1)

In Athens, a little closer to home, Socrates suggested that our highest good lies in our moral centre and best self, and that all external goods, such as bodily pleasure, health and social reputation are correspondingly of subordinate value. Essential good was to be sought within rather than in externals. Socrates himself was famous for the simplicity of his way of life. His ascetic follower Diogenes, a kind of crazy wisdom master described by Plato as “Socrates gone mad”, is said to have had a late life encounter with the young Alexander of Macedon, soon to become ‘the Great’. Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, reckoning that if Diogenes came up with something it would establish a relationship of patronage and dependency. Diogenes was sitting against a wall and had been enjoying the sunshine until Alexander came along and loomed over him. So he requested the King to stand away from his sun. Alexander went on to fight his way through the Persian Empire all the way to India. There he cornered a group of gymnosophists (= naked sages, either Jain or Yogi) and happily repeated his pattern of asking clever questions and receiving sagely answers.

I am not a follower of Lao Tzu, Socrates or Diogenes, but I do feel connected to them. I have involved them in my contemplative inquiry. In this sense they are my ancestors. Edited and mythologised though they may be, they speak to me over the centuries. I realize that literary wisdom comes out of older, oral traditions. Humans are capable of wisdom and it doesn’t depend on writing. The Tao Te Ching is an anthology of verses passed from teachers to pupils who were expected to memorise them. I understand that their initial recording and publication were controversial in their day. Socrates and Diogenes didn’t care much for writing: they left that to others. I do not doubt that there were paths and people of wisdom in the Celtic-speaking lands – people who stuck by the way of personal relationship and oral transmission in their teaching: this is, after all, the rumoured way of the Druids. I just doubt that we would find them amongst the princes, warriors and court Druids presented in The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice.

So my Samhain thoughts this year turn to exemplars, teachers and sharers of wisdom – firstly and obviously those who are publicly known and remembered; secondly and perhaps more importantly with those who remain unknown but whose invisible influence has leavened the life of the world.

  1. Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: a book about the Way and the Power of the Way (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998.

BOOK REVIEW: THIS ANCIENT HEART

A good book review of This Ancient Heart, copied from A Bad Witches Blog – http://www.badwitch.co.uk

 This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self is a new compilation of essays on subjects at the core of many pagans’ spiritual beliefs – the relationship between the landscape, our ancestors and ourselves.

“Edited by Caitlín Matthews, author of dozens of books including Singing the Soul Back Home and Celtic Visions, with druid and activist Paul Davies, This Ancient Heart offers ten different perspectives on how our place of birth, the country we live in, those who have lived before us and those we share the land with now, can inspire and affect our spirituality.

“It starts with beautiful and inspiring writing from Emma Restall Orr and Philip Shallcrass (Bobcat and Greywolf) and ends with an afterword by celebrated historian Professor Ronald Hutton, author of Pagan Britain. The words of other luminaries grace the pages in between.

“Emma offers an impassioned call to respect the bones of those who have died – for them to remain buried rather than be dug up by archaeologists and put in museums. She has long campaigned for this as a founder of Honouring the Ancient Dead, and in her essay here she explains her thoughts and feelings on this subject. I know her writing is powerful because it made me question how I had thought about this in the past.

“Questioning is good. This is, overall, a book that makes you question preconceived ideas, not a book that reaffirms comfortable complacency. Professor Ronald Hutton, at the end of the book, states that some may feel aggrieved over this, ‘but they should not, if they really intend this book to have some effect on readers.’

“The essays are extremely wide-ranging in their subjects and styles. Greywolf talks about his connection with a tribe of wolf spirits – how that came about where it led him, including his own questioning of whether to eat a venison feast offered to him despite previously having been vegetarian.

“Jenny Blain looks at how the ‘spiritual ways of ‘seidr’ might give some insight to an understanding of the interaction of place and human-person, and how in turn relationships with wights [land spirits] and ancestors form part of how seidr is worked’.

“Robert J Wallis offers an evocative description of falconry on a cold winter morning and how it fits into the world-view of a heathen archaeologist.

“Caitlin Matthews, as well as co-editing the book, has written a chapter called Healing the Ancestral Communion: Pilgrimage Beyond Time and Space. This offers a practical guide to spiritually connecting with the land in which one lives and also the land of one’s birth. As Caitlin points out, these can be very different. She provided meditative and sensory exercises to heal the rift of disconnection.

“Camelia Elias offers a eulogy for a modern ancestor of tradition, Colin Murray. Throughout the 1970s and 80s Murray was responsible for the revival of all things Celtic in a way that was quite unprecedented”

“Pagans are not the only ones who find meditating on nature can be a spiritual practice. Quaker Sarah Hollingham offers examples and practical exercises in Tuning into the Landscape, that people of all spiritual paths and none could learn from.

“Science is addressed in How Genetics Unravels the Role of the Landscape in the Relationship Between Ancestors and Present by Luzie U Wingen.

“David Loxley looks at linguistics and how the way we frame sentences affects our view of the past, present and future.

“In The Heart of the Land: The Druidic Connection, Penny Billington looks at the importance of keeping balance – symmetry – between literal reality and spiritual yearning. She asks the reader to ‘imagine yourself for a moment on a hill at sunset, with the quiet buzzing of the insects invisible in the soft light.’ She continues: ‘From your vantage point you look over the dark lake to the west, where the molten streaks of light reflect in a shimmering water-path leading to you, and with the quiet stars appearing in the deep blue overhead. This momentary turning of our attention to the world of nature, even in the imaginal realm, can prompt a surprising sense of relaxation that slows our breathing and our over-busy brains’. She points out: ‘Science backs up these instincts’.

“Perhaps that is the overall message of the book; that it is good for us to feel a connection with the landscape and with those who have gone before us. Whether we follow a religion or spiritual path, or whether we are atheists, it is good to know where we are and where we come from, and spending time in the natural world can be healing.

This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self is published by Moon Books

BOOK REVIEW: ENCHANTING THE SHADOWLANDS

product_thumbnailIn formal terms, this is a five star review of Enchanting the Shadowlands, a book of numinous poems and short stories by Lorna Smithers. She describes it as “gathered from my local landscape in response to an imperative from a Brythonic god called Gwyn ap Nudd”. If you have any interest in the lingering subtle resonance of the old Celtic and pre-Celtic world in parts of England like the poet’s native northwest, you will appreciate this volume. If you have any interest in ‘awen’ as an inspirational force or creative current, and what it is to be ‘awenydd’, you will appreciate this volume. If you have any interest in poetry and landscape, or what is now called psycho-geography, you are likely to appreciate this volume. I strongly recommend this book.

More deeply, I am hoping in a small way to share something of the magic of the work as I have experienced it. I find that the best way in is to say that, for me, the resonance of the project, its feeling-tone, can be found in the first two verses of ‘A Journeying Song’, one of the later poems in the collection.

1: Horse and Hound

She will carry me

down invisible horse paths.

He will lead us

to invisible lands.

She will carry me

beyond the stolen skyline.

He will lead us

to where horizons end.

2: The Dreaming Land

The dream is not a dream

it is the life force of the land.

A living memory,

it is the dawn. It is the damned.

The dream is not a sleep.

It is a wakefulness

of past people and their dreams.

It is mistakes and shining laughter.

When I read these lines, I can feel myself riding the mare who will “carry me down invisible horse paths”, led (in my mind’s eye) by a large and shaggy hound. I can easily accept that, surrendering to the instinctive wisdom of these animal powers, I might find myself beyond a “broken skyline” at a place where “horizons end”.  I can settle into the felt apprehension of a Dreaming Land where the dream is not a dream, but “the life force of the land, a living memory” and a “wakefulness of past people and their dreams”. The words are a portal to the living reality of the experience itself. In that sense, these two brief verses stand as a microcosm of the whole book.

Peneverdant/Penwortham, the locality described, is a watery place. Its first human inhabitants are called “The Dwellers in the Water Country”, drawn by the obvious attractions of auroch and deer and also by destiny and “the dream of a bard”.

They came with the splash of oars

and the steady splash of feet

drawn by auroch, deer and destiny,

the dream of a bard

who saw the green hill rising

from a wilderness of carr and marsh.

The awenydd poet’s own seership, her own process of inspired and connected reaching back, is caught in her ‘Prayer for Netholme’.

I write this prayer for the White One

Who loaned to me a mare of mist,

Led me across the marsh of time

And granted me the seer’s gift.

For later periods, the poetry is sometimes dialogical with older texts – such as the Domesday Survey of 1086, or James Flockhart’s ‘De Mowbray:A legend of Penwortham’. The latter is referenced in in ‘St. Mary’s Well, Twilight’ – a poem that also includes finely wrought observation of nature and the meaning it makes for the observer/the observer makes for it.

The setting sun is casting his vast aura

With a majesty I never dreamt him capable of

Enflaming clouds in luminescent orange and red,

Purple like mountains behind the trees.

The birds are singing as if it is their last dusk song.

I enlist bold robin, blackbird and little wren …

As if this is the evening of all evenings

And will be their last so better make it their best.

It is hard to write freshly about sunsets, though I do think this is well-managed even in the first four lines, especially through bringing in a delighted shift in the observer’s perception, and then going on to dare purple poetry. But what makes this section of the poem for me is the succeeding lines, which create a foreground for the majestic sunset background through the activity of the birds and their commitment to Being while it lasts.

Throughout the book we are aware of the interweaving of two worlds. This is done particularly well in the stories, which are every bit as inspired as the poetry. I was especially moved by the last, called ‘The Brown-Eared Hound: Rivington, October 31st. 1917’. It concerns sudden, shocking bereavement and also a direct experience of Gwyn’s wild hunt. I could almost see a novel, or at any rate novella, in this story – bringing together the world of Wilfrid Owen, D.H Lawrence and Virginia Wolf with that of living Brythonic myth. At the same time the piece as written did everything it needed to.

I don’t think it is possible to do this volume justice in a single review. It’s hard, with poetry. So I’m suggesting that readers also have a look at Crychydd’s review in https://barddos.wordpress.com/2015/02/04 and the author’s own discussions about her work and its continuing development at: http://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/

Lorna Smithers Enchanting the Shadowlands Lulu, 2015

ANCESTORS

I generally meditate in a Druid circle sitting in the northern quarter, facing south. It is early morning and my eyes are open, ideally with a soft and panoramic gaze. There is a curtained window in the south east, so I am alerted to the coming of the light. At one level, subtle shifts in the quality of light are just passing phenomena. At another level I experience myself in a liminal, numinous space, not entirely of this world, as I slowly re-engage with daily life.

According to the archaeologist Francis Pryor my positioning, and to an extent perhaps its meaning, is deeply traditional. In the long transition from ‘neolithic’ to ‘bronze age’ culture, north was the direction of the dead and the ancestral realm, and materially marked by stone; south was the domain of the living and the everyday world, and materially marked by wood. So I’m working with a spiritual sense of direction which in some ways echoes theirs, without being the same. It would make sense to me if this were true, for I am here on the same part of the earth, with the same relationship to the sun, as my ancestors of this period.

Talking in more detail about Avebury and Stonehenge specifically, Pryor proposes (1) that the great stone complexes, when fully developed in stone, were a place of the ancestors, of the dead. The place of the living, the place of wood, was to their south. Here is how he describes it:

“The second main period of ritual landscape development at Avebury recalls that at contemporary Stonehenge. Again we see the henge suddenly ‘harden’, with the construction of the great outer circle of massive stones, spaced around the inside of the henge ditch and two (actually three) inner circles of stones. This marks Avebury’s change into a new monument. The domain of the living would have been south of the Kennet, and access to the no man’s land between it and the realm of the ancestors would have been via the river and the great complex of great timber circles and enclosures  recently excavated by a team directed by Alasdair Whittle. From this ‘reception’ area funeral parties would move to the West Kennet Avenue. Turning right, to the south, would bring them to the Sanctuary, which had also ‘hardened’ from a timber to a stone circle by this time. … Most parties visiting the ritual landscape in ancient times would have taken the processional route northwards, leaving the vast bulk of Silbury Hill on the left, a silent outpost on the edge of the next world. Eventually they would pass through the enormous portal stones that still guard Avebury’s southern entrance into the West Kennet Avenue. They were then within the circle of the ancestors.

“If travel, or some form of symbolic progression from one state to another, did play a significant part in the way ritual landscapes were experienced, it may also have been important to look backwards and forwards at the same time: backwards towards previous or existing states of being, and ahead towards worlds that were yet to come. Maybe that was why certain key transitional places, such as the Sanctuary or the King’s Barrow ridge at Stonehenge, were so important. To be able to look both ways can be a humbling experience, but it can also sharpen one’s sense of self and appreciation of the here and now. Archaeologists, in their natural enthusiasm to explain the workings of prehistoric minds and the landscapes they inhabited, should be aware that we will never explain all aspects of past spiritual experiences. There will always be lost dimensions of meaning and mystery – which is one of the things that make the subject so addictive.”

I don’t have the knowledge or standing to say whether Francis Pryor is right in his hypothesis, which as he says himself can only be tentative and provisional. I do deeply appreciate him for being willing to risk using his imagination, whilst informing that imagination with the best evidence that he can muster. He looks back to ancestors who in their turn show a high level of imaginative engagement with their own. We can read what he writes in our here and now and thus, within that here and now, are able to anchor a sense of continuity and connection, through our own imaginative openness. The people who built those monuments were essentially like us. They were mortal like us, and they knew it like us. They had a relationship with the earth, sun and stars like us. They had imagination like us. And they had a relationship with death and the unknown like us. Something to do with these characteristics that we share moved them to change their physical landscape. Those are the things that connect us, more importantly than details of custom or belief – rightfully fascinating though they are.

  1. Pryor, Francis Britain BC: life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans HarperCollins e-books (Hardback first published 2003)
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