This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Awen


Fair gift to Merlin given

Apple trees seven score and seven;

Equal all in age and size;

On a green hill-slope, that lies

Basking in the southern sun

Where bright waters murmuring run.

Just beneath the pure stream flows;

High above the forest grows;

Not again on earth is found

Such a slope of orchard ground:

Song of birds, and hum of bees,

Ever haunt the apple trees.

Lovely green their leaves in spring;

Lovely bright their blossoming:

Sweet the shelter and the shade

By their summer foliage made:

Sweet the fruit their ripe boughs hold,

Fruit delicious, tinged with gold.

Gloyad, nymph with tresses bright,

Teeth of pearl, and eyes of light,

Guards these gifts of Ceido’s son,

Gwendol, the lamented one,

Him, whose keen-edged, sword no more

Flashes ‘mid the battle’s roar.

War has raged on vale and hill:

That fair grove was peaceful still.

There have chiefs and princes sought

Solitude and tranquil thought:

There have kings, from courts and throngs,

Turned to Merlin’s wild-wood songs.

Now from echoing woods I hear

Hostile axes sounding near:

On the sunny slope reclined,

Feverish grief disturbs my mind,

Lest the wasting edge consume

My fair spot of fruit and bloom.

Lovely trees, that long alone

In the sylvan vale have grown,

Bare, your sacred plot around,

Grows the once wood-waving ground:

Fervent valour guards ye still;

Yet my soul presages ill.

Well I know, when years have flown,

Briars shall grow where ye have grown:

Them in turn shall power uproot;

Then again shall flowers and fruit

Flourish in the sunny breeze,

On my new-born apple trees.

This is my second poem drawn from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829 and based (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin. The Bard Taliesin has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales by winning a Bardic contest at the court of the High King, Arthur. Victory entitles him to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the work of Merlin, also a contestant. The audience response is described thus: “this song was heard with much pleasure, especially by those of the audience who could see, in the imagery of the apple trees, a mystical type of the doctrines and fortunes of Druidism, to which Merlin was suspected of being secretly attached, even under the very nose of St. David”. In a future post I will also present Taliesin’s winning entry.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy. Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, and also recommends the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog in Merionethshire for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.


Last of flowers, in tufts around

Shines the gorse’s golden bloom:

Milk white lichens clothe the ground

‘Mid the flowerless heath and broom:

Bright are holly-berries, seen

Red, through leaves of glossy green.

Brightly, as on rocks they leap,

Shine on sea-waves, white with spray:

Brightly in the dingles deep,

Gleams the river’s foaming way;

Brightly through the distance show

Mountain summits clothed with snow.

Brightly where the torrents bound,

Shines the frozen colonnade,

Which the black rocks, dripping round,

And the flying spray have made:

Bright the ice drops on the ash

Leaning o’er the cataract’s dash.

Bright the hearth, where feast and song

Crown the warrior’s hour of peace,

While the snow storm drives along,

Bidding the war’s worst tempest cease:

Bright the hearth flame, flashing clear

On the up-hung shield and spear.

Bright the torchlight of the hall

When the wintry night winds blow;

Brightness when its splendours fall

On the mead-cup’s sparkling flow:

While the maiden’s smile of light

Makes the brightness trebly bright.

Close the portals; pile the hearth;

Strike the harp; the feast pursue;

Brim the horns; fire, music, mirth,

Mead and love, are winter’s due.

Spring to purple conflict calls

Swords that shine on winter’s walls.

This poem comes from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829.  The story is (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin, in which the Bard Taliesin he has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales.  Taliesin has to win a Bardic contest at the court of the High King Arthur and thus be able to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the work of Prince Llywarch, one of the contestants. It is well received: “Llywarch’s song was applauded, as representing a series of images with which all present were familiar, and which were all of them agreeable”.  It treats winter as, among other things, a period of respite from warfare. In future posts I will also present the entries of Merlin and the winner Taliesin.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy.  Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, also recommending the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog, Merionethshire, for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.


jhp5423fc87b679cThe full title of this book is Following the Deer Trods: a practical guide to working with Elen of the Ways. It is written as part of Moon Book’s Shaman Pathways series, and is positioned as a stand-alone introduction to its topic, which includes working methods for the aspiring practitioner. As such this book certainly meets its criteria.

I personally think it works best in tandem with Elen Sentier’s other book on the topic, also a Shaman Pathways book, Elen of the Ways; following the deer trods – the ancient Shamanism of Britain, which I reviewed in July 2014. This earlier book establishes the overall context much better and for me they belong together.

Following the Deer Trods begins with a summary of the ideas offered in Elen of the Ways. This works well, even magically, in the opening pages – but I was saddened by a seeming loss of perspective when we get to the Romans and beyond. The author shows no recognition of Christianity as a diverse, complex and internally contested path, not least in the Celtic lands; or of the effects which holding political power can have on religious traditions, regardless of the actual faith. There’s also no clear flagging of the extent to which the positive, Pagan side of the story is necessarily reliant on intuitive reconstruction, relevant records being sparse and problematic, oral traditions highly mutable over time, and material remains providing only limited insight into hearts and minds. There is so much we don’t know, and will never know, about our ancestors, their traditions and what it was like to be them. When talking about them, we do best to avoid the language of certainty.

For me the book picks up from that point, providing the promised guide to working in a series of well-organised practice chapters. The main areas covered (in my language) are meditation, energy work, service, shamanic journeying, relationships with familiar spirits (power animals), and working with trickster figures. The author also discusses the ‘journey horse’ or method of trance induction – and the relative merits for this purpose of drumming, the sound of waves, rain, or a flowing stream; the steady roaring of wind; the recorded purring of cats. That bit of the discussion is a true gem, reflecting a lot of playful trial and experience.

These chapters also lay out a basic cosmology for the work – a cosmology of three worlds (middle, lower, and upper) on the vertical axis and four elements radiating out from the middle world on the horizontal, with the nigh universal notion of the world tree/tree of life very much in mind. Elen describes the image of the six armed cross as a means of bringing them together. She talks about her understanding of the inner world of the journey as a place of ‘interface’, the portal which she, as awenydd, and the Otherworld co-create as a meeting place between them.

The instructions for practice are highly specific and directive and therefore best-suited to people who are new to this kind of work, who don’t have access to hands-on teaching or established learning communities, and who need nonetheless to be strongly held as they begin their exploration. Other readers will look to the offerings provided as a source of new or variant ideas, or information about a specific way of working.

My heart didn’t sing, when I read this book, as it had when I read its predecessor. But it makes its contribution and, with the one significant reservation about the presentation of history, I’m happy to recommend it.


Sweet Awen

sing me a song

of direction

down hills,

over terraces,

past old mills

and factories.

Sing me a song

of poppies and bees

where the bramble

unbridled roams

hedgerows with ease.

Sing me a song

where the first fruits

are born by the light

of a sun who has never

known war.

Sing me a song

where loss no longer

beats like a smith

at her forge

in the summer’s heat.

Sing me the years

that I’ll never meet.

Sweet Awen

sing to me

my impossibilities.

A poet’s take on Awen, in the traditional sense of poetic and vatic inspiration, written by Lorna Smithers who is a poet and Druid based in Lancashire. This poem is from the collection ‘Moon Poets: Six Pagan poets’ published by Moon Books and edited by Trevor Greenfield. The collection also includes work by Robin Herne, Tiffany Chaney, Romany Rivers, Martin Pallot and Beverley Price.


I’ve heard it said that attempting to describe actual spiritual practice is folly. It’s like pinning up butterflies for display – you retain the husk whilst losing the flight. But sometimes the endeavour seems worth the risk. I want to talk about the group practice of ‘awen space’ that forms a part of my Druidry.

My local contemplative Druid group met for two hours last Tuesday, 9 December. We connect for two hours in the afternoon on the second Tuesday of every month, except for May and November – a pattern that has now lasted for just over a year. In those months we meet for a full Saturday, sometime after the festivals of Beltane and Samhain. The days offer the advantage of time for a greater variety of practice, the presence of people from outside our local catchment area, and an introductory space for new members. 19 people are now at least provisionally involved, and we have decided to close the group. The Tuesday sessions offer a greater sense of continuity, a more intimate atmosphere, and even greater focus and simplicity. Attendance currently fluctuates between five and nine. This week eight of us were present.

Our usual structure for a two hour session tends to be

  • Pre-meeting for greetings and refreshments
  • Entry into sacred space through a brief ritual opening
  • Group check in
  • A period of silent sitting meditation (about 20 minutes)
  • A move into the awen field (for about 35-40 minutes)
  • Group check-out
  • Exit from sacred space
  • Farewells

Although our use of ritual is lean and parsimonious, it is a very important part of this process. It is the first step in making our attention intentional, and in turning a domestic hearth into a nemeton. Over time, we have tended to favour putting our personal check-ins and check-outs within the nemeton, since we are entering into sacred relationship as well as sacred space, tuning into each other as part of the practice – not just as a preliminary or warm-up. We use a talking stick process for this, to emphasise the intentional and ritualised aspect of what we are doing.

I think of the awen space as being the most distinctive part of the session. We enter the space through a repeated chanting of awen – how much, or whether we ‘cascade’, depends on our sense of the moment – and then enter silence, consciously together rather than meditating side by side as in the simple sitting meditation that precedes this practice. We may maintain this collective and relational silence or we may choose to sing, chant or say things. In this sense it is an interactive practice albeit a subtle one. It is most powerful when we can hold back from entering into actual dialogue and exchange whilst at the same time moving with the current of communication and relationship which we are generating both through our silence and our utterance. There’s a fine point of balance and tension here. When the awen space is over – it’s over, so it’s not strictly timed. There’s a person whose job it is to lead us both into and out of the space and they make the call. Usually it reflects everyone’s sense of the appropriate ending. We chant awen on our way out of this space as well as into it.

In this context we experience awen, Druidry’s subtle magic, as an energetic field in which we are inspired to be more open and receptive to each other – and at times to find authentic here-and-now language for our felt sense of co-presence and connection within an enlivened space. So it’s something within and between us when we are together, not so much a lightning flash from above. Sometimes our experience completely flows; sometimes it’s more halting. The space gives us a mirror, say rather an echo, of what we bring to it on the day. The physical space matters too – on Tuesday it was a space of wood burner glow and tiny lights in a deepening dusk, and a circle of people working gently together. For me, the feeling-tone and the imagery of this space, lodged in the shifting ever-now of memory, are my key reference point for ‘contemplative Druidry’ as a unique spiritual note. And I am made even more grateful to be able to practice in this way with a group of good companions.



jhp53e87afc5058eThe Awen Alone, by Joanna van der Hoeven, is an economically and elegantly written introduction to modern Druidry for readers with a serious interest in practising. I like the use of awen, Druidry’s subtle magic, as the key word in the title. In the way that the author uses the term, it gets us straight to the point of why we practice.

The introduction skilfully builds rapport by bringing us into the rhythm of a normal working day. Only it isn’t quite everybody’s normal – it’s a reframed normal for a re-enchanted world and an intentional relationship with it. Joanna starts, in a matter-of-fact way, with a “Hail to the Day and Days Sons; farewell to Night and her Daughters” and ends with “Farewell to Day and Day’s Sons; hail to night and her Daughters”.  In between, there are grumbles about the price of ethical toiletries alongside an affirmation of their value; a commitment to emotional intelligence amidst the stresses of working life, a noticing of what is going on in the landscape whilst travelling and in the garden at home, a soft threshold prayer to Nemetona, Lady of the Sanctuary, and a period of formal meditation.

The messages I would get from this as an inquiring reader are the intended ones. Druid life is shown to be the same life as anyone else’s, albeit lived with a distinctive quality of wonder and attention. Moreover, it is entirely possible to live such a life without being part of a Druid community.

The book is carefully structured into three parts.

  • The first is about the basics of Druidry. It covers current views of Druid history; looks at what Druidry is; investigates the meaning of the key term awen (more about this below); explores deity in Druidry (some modern Druids are theistic and others not); affirms connection to ancestors (of blood, place and tradition); and describes the eightfold wheel of the year and its celebration.
  • The second is about Druidry in practice. This looks at the roles of meditation, prayer, inner pathworking (guided meditation), outer pathworking (walking with awareness outside); altar creation and sacred space; seasonal rituals and other work connected with the seasons; and craft names.
  • The third is about creating one’s own path and includes chapters on designing Druid ritual, daily practice and a more general consideration of “walking your own path”.

All of this work is well presented and gives a good overview of the way many Druids today think and practice. For me however, the really distinctive feature of this book is its discussion of awen. Awen is classically thought of as creative inspiration in a sudden, lightning flash form. But Joanna links awen, as inspiration, to the breath. The air we breathe is all around us. We take it in and give it back, a little bit changed. “The inspired Druid exhales the inspiration gained”. Awen is right here, in the web of what is, inherently present in the communication and relationships which make our interdependence work, enabling our creative choices and their results. For Joanna, awen is therefore linked also to our responsibility for personal awakening:

“Awake to our own energy and stretching out towards the energy of nature around us, we begin to see just what awen is.  It is the opening of oneself … to see into the nature of all beings and indeed to see into the nature of simply being. … For awen to exist there must be relationship. We cannot be inspired unless we are open and we cannot be open unless we are in relationship, whether that is with the thunder, the blackbird or a god”. Joanna develops this theme further, seeing a cyclical process of giving and receiving at the heart of awen as we release ourselves “into the flow”. Ultimately we can be so attuned to “the threads that connect us all” that we can be inspired all the time – moving into the “bigger picture” of a compassionate and integrated life.

With this view of awen, at least as I understand it from reading the book, Joanna integrates her ‘Zen’ more fully into her Druidry. In the original Zen Druidry book, ground breaking as it was, I still had a sense of their being on parallel tracks. Thus The Awen Alone, although an introductory book, also offers an evolutionary step in the ‘Zen’ iteration of Druidry. For this reason it has importance not only to the inquirer and the newcomer, but to also to any Druid practitioner interested in the questions raised by this valuable work. Highly recommended.

Joanna van der Hoeven (2014) The Awen alone: walking the path of the solitary Druid Winchester: Moon Books


Thanks to the interest generated by Contemplative Druidry, members of the Gloucestershire contemplative group have set up an entity called Contemplative Druid Events. So far we have a blog at and a forthcoming retreat.

The retreat is being held on the weekend of 17-19 April 2015 at Anybody’s Barn, Birchwood Hall, Storridge, Nr. Malvern, Worcestershire WR13 5EZ.  Details of the retreat can be found on the blog.

I am excited by this prospect. It provides the opportunity to work with a larger group of people and to learn from them. Contemplative Druidry doesn’t come with a long specific tradition or an inherited set of practices and teachings. As modern Druids, we are engaged in an exploratory and co-creative enterprise. Events will extend the experience and understanding of participants and facilitators alike.

At the same time we do have a vision of what we are offering, and a sense of how the retreat will work. We will use the Friday evening to enter sacred space and move into introductions and a culture setting process. I consider the way in which we enter into relationship with the space and each other to be a highly significant part of the event and not just a warm up or preamble. It does much to determine the quality of living presence in the space, as important as any practice or activity. As for practices and activities – there will be sitting meditations and an introduction to what our existing local group calls “Awen Space”. Other offerings may include chanting, sacred movement, outside walking meditation and ‘lectio divina’ from the book of nature. We will likely make use of a fire pit on the Saturday evening.

The retreat also gives us the chance simply to be, alone and with fellow travellers, in a beautiful nurturing space. (After the opening process, every activity is an invitation to the participants, rather than a demand on them.) We will work with a maximum of sixteen people, including ourselves – there are five of us with facilitator roles from the Gloucestershire group. This is not the full capacity of the centre we are using, for we wanted a spacious environment on the physical as well as other levels.

I have a strong belief in this way of working and look forward to sharing it with new people.


As part of my solo practice, I sometimes do Awen mantra meditation. Aah comes in with the inbreath and wen goes out with the outbreath. Classically, I have followed these two syllables into a felt sense of what has been called the Shakti of the mantra, the power of the mantra, its inner pulsation and grace. In my embodied poetry of practice, Awen resonates like the primal breath and energy of the Cosmos, a subtle vibration underlying the apparent world, welling from a paradoxically creative emptiness. Visually, if my eyes are shut, the world tends to dissolve into a river of tiny lights, set wide apart from each other. If they are open, my visual experience of space changes and boundaries become more porous. This tends to be a place of deep receptivity and renewal.

Just lately I have been experiencing Awen mantra meditation differently. I believe this relates to being more active in the world – paradoxically through the contemplative Druidry project itself, with its relationship building, writing and now publicising ‘Contemplative Druidry’, and the beginning of plans for retreats beyond the local group level. I like this side of things more than I anticipated, because it connects me in a different way. And I also find that, in these times, the Awen mantra meditation becomes more focused and directional. I start to have the traditional understanding of Awen, as creative inspiration, more in mind.

So working with the mantra takes on a sense of dedication and intent, and also an aspect of invocation. There is still a receptiveness in there, of making myself available to Awen, as a vehicle for it. But it’s not in the manner of possession or channelling, or any obvious sense of psychism. I have to keep my wits absolutely about me, hold my intent actively, use discrimination and make decisions.

When my contemplative work became a project as well as a practice, I feared that I would saw off the meditative branch that I am sitting on, and fall into a sort of repetitive busyness syndrome. Now I see a greater range of possibilities. Life and awareness are always moving, always in process, and require different means of grounding and centring at different times.


jhp5135021762fb1Highly recommended both to a core readership interested in British indigenous Shamanism and to anyone uneasy with a world where loss of connection with nature (and thus spirit) is so prevalent.  Author Elen Sentier describes herself as “awenydd, a spirit weaver and tale keeper from a long family lineage”. The word is from British Celtic tradition, but it is being used to name a quality of being extending back much further in time, and of universal application. “Walking the deer trods is to learn how close we are to nature … how we are connected to anything whether or not it appears inanimate and this is what the awenydd knows”. The presiding spirit of this path is the elusive deer goddess  Elen of the Ways, who the author encountered as a young adult, thereby entering a lifetime of service to her. This book is about both context and story of this service, an invitation to “open yourself to Elen’s complex, multiple and beautiful ways”.

Elen Sentier takes us back to an archaic northern world in which most people lived by following herds of reindeer on their migrations – following rather than leading or managing: the deer decided when and where to go. She evokes the culture and spirituality of this relationship, describing a hunter gatherer society that once lived well without private property or long hours of work. She talks about communities that understood reciprocity and interdependence and lived by a practice of gift-giving and receiving both in the everyday world and that of spirit – themselves seen as hardly separated from each other. She sees this as a culture of sensitivity to all life, including the interconnectedness of “what you eat and what eats you”, and alive to the energies of the land itself.

The book traces this history through iconography and myth – with the figure of the antlered reindeer goddess standing for the Sovereignty of the land. It also describes “journeying” as a here-and-now practice for being in natural settings, tuning in with respect, entering relationship, preferably with a minimal reliance on satnavs, compasses and maps. Here is nourishment for spirit, available if we are.


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