Where I live, we are in the last stages of the rising year, the sweet period from Beltane to the Summer Solstice. The sun’s energy is waxing. The days feel abundantly alive and are marked by beauty. It is my favourite time of year, easy to enjoy. It reminds me of my debt to the sun.
Yet this period and its bounty are also fragile and evanescent. They pass soon enough. For me, peonies in a bowl are a perfect representation and celebration of this early summer moment – speaking also to the tender poignancy of impermanence, as the wheel continues to turn.
“There are seven primary materials of the world: the Blue Bard of the Chair has said it.
“The first, earth, from which are every corporeity and hardness, and every firm foundation;
“The second, water, from which are every humour and freshness;
“The third, air, from which are all respiration and motion;
“The fourth, sun, from which are all heat and light;
“The fifth, nwyfre, from which are all feeling, affection, and wantonness;
“The sixth, the Holy Ghost, from Whom are all understanding, reason, awen, and sciences;
“The seventh, God, from Whom are all life, strength, and support, for ever and ever.
“And from these seven primary materials are every existence and animation; and may the whole be under God’s regulation. Amen.” (1)
The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg, by J. Williams Ab Ithel, was published in 1862. It was presented as the lore of traditional Welsh Bardistry going back to Druid times, based on the earlier work of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams – 1747-1826). Iolo had organised the first Gorsedd of Bards for several hundred years at Primrose Hill, London, on 21 June 1792, thereby initiating the modern Welsh Eisteddfod movement. He was a personal friend of Tom Paine and George Washington subscribed to his first volume of poetry. He is said to have influenced William Blake’s poetry and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess.
Iolo described himself as a Unitarian Quaker in religion, and a revolutionary Welsh nationalist in politics. In the later 1790’s the Glamorgan magistrates sent the yeomanry (a volunteer cavalry force drawn from the property-owning classes) to break up an open-air Gorsedd led by Iolo in that county. The reason given was that it was being conducted in the Welsh language and allegedly included a toast for Napoleon – then admired by radicals as defender of the French revolution. This is also a time of revolt in Ireland and the birth of Irish republicanism.
Culturally, Iolo was, as well as a poet in his own right, “a first-rate forger of literary Welsh; some have commented that his forgeries were as good or better than the real thing. Furthermore, he wrote much of the Barddas under the influence of laudanum (an opium-based medicine which he took for asthma)” (1). In consequence he has been widely dismissed as an embarrassing fraud. My response is more complicated. There is something poignant for me about ‘forgeries’ that are “as good or better than the real thing”. On the forgery question, I am sad that Iolo could not openly be a catalyst for the creation of new culture inspired by an old one, rather than having to pretend, even to himself, that he was recovering an old one as it had been (in his own mind perhaps through psychic means). As for medicinal laudanum, I wonder why this should be stigmatised in Iolo whilst accepted in his contemporary S. T. Coleridge. It may be is because Coleridge’s work was unambiguously original, and therefore seen differently. The issue of new culture creation in Druidry is a significant one to this day and is well discussed in Philip Carr-Gomm’s preface to Contemplative Druidry (2) where the voices of a number of open culture creators are included.
Going back to The Seven Primary Materials of the World, I feel friendly to this text despite its patriarchal language and its statement of a world view significantly different from my own. In my reading, it suggests a seven-step ladder from matter to the divine, with four material elements that point also to non-material qualities, where the the fourth and highest is not on the Earth. Then there are two subtle elements (though the first finds room for ‘wantonness’) and an ultimate ascent to the divine. It is the kind of evolutionary spiritual scheme that many transcendentalists down the ages have related to. Written at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and edited in mid Victorian times, it seems to me congruent with the outlook of medieval Welsh Bardistry as expressed in The Book of Taliesin (3), and the theology of the ninth century Irish scholar and contemplative mystic John Scotus Eriugena (4). It is a Christian referenced path that is not sin and fear based, and I am sure that many people involved in Druidry and Celtic Spirituality today would be in essential sympathy with it. Made up by Iolo or not, it reads as a clear and simple expression of a universalist and transcendentalist stance within a specific cultural setting. I find nothing fraudulent about it. It is what I would expect from place, time and person.
Indeed, key concepts remain relevant to my own Druid practice. I work with the wheel of the year and with the four classical elements, including fire. I am concerned with the Earth’s relationship to sun and moon. I work with my body and my sense of energy and think of nwyfre as synonymous with prana or chi, now well-known thanks to the popularity of yoga and Chinese energy arts.
At this stage in my personal journey, I am in renewed inquiry with awen. For the Barddas, it is a distinct higher mental faculty, close to the divine source like Coleridge’s primary imagination. In my own work I get a sense of energised and articulated insight. I do not think of awen as a substance in itself, but rather a quality of how we express ourselves when at our most enlivened and ‘on song’. But this inquiry is far from concluded.
Where the Barddas speaks of God, I speak of nature. I think of the web of life, and of our interbeing within it. I also think of the mysteries of quantum events, dimensions that we cannot perceive directly, galaxies flying apart and the possibility of multiple universes. But to me nature’s most extraordinary phenomenon is the gift of aware experiencing, with all the joy and suffering it brings, in the apparent here and now. To this I add the capacity to bear witness to this miracle through words, non-verbal media, silence, celebration and action. Here, I find myself still using most of the key terms from The Seven Primary Materials of the World. In this sense, I am happy to have The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg as part of my spiritual ancestry.
J. Williams Ab Ithel The Barddas of Ilo Morganwyg, Vol I & II: A Collection of Original Documents, Illustrative of Theology, Wisdom, and Usages of the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1862)
James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Create Space, 2014 (Foreword by Philip Carr-Gomm)
William F. Skene The Four Ancient Books of Wales Forgotten Books, 2007 www.forgottenbooks.org (First published 1868)
There is a world through my window. April has often been a magical month in my year, and 2020 need not be an exception. I link April with intensified and palpable greening, of soft sunsets at an attractive time of day. It is still happening out there and when I lose myself in the image it is happening in here too. Essentially there’s no difference. It is wonderful. of an evening, to follow the sunset process through its many stages of development.
I notice that, here in the UK, some attitudes to the current lockdown have been utilitarian to the point of puritanism. It is not enough for our behaviours to be safe in relation to Covid-19. They have to be ‘essential’, and it seems that essential activities can’t be tainted with any suggestion of idleness or pleasure. I can jog through a beauty spot, but I’m letting the side down if I sit down to rest or enjoy it – even if there’s no-one else around. This goes against everything we know about mental and emotional wellbeing, where such opportunities can be vital resources in the face of stress and depression.
I don’t like this and I am confident that I am right. Yet something in me has been influenced by this atmosphere and has started to feel that outdoors is a forbidden zone. When I do go out, I have to push against this and feel slightly transgressive. Of course, something else in me quite likes that, too. But it’s not the sort of enjoyment I’m really looking for, and I’m experiencing this whole cultural overlay – one that’s arisen so quickly – as saddening.
I like my home and garden and I can enjoy looking out through upstairs windows. I’m concerned that others don’t have this advantage and may be deprived of a vital safety valve. I am also aware that the lockdown has to work, especially since it was initiated later and more haltingly than the pandemic requires, and not in tandem with the testing and contact tracing that have been working well elsewhere. I understand the public policy difficulties in the place where we are.
One way or another, indoors or out, I will not miss out on the magic month of April and the merry month of May. After a rugged winter, I will open myself to nature’s change of energy.
NOTE: Earl Livings lives in Melbourne, Australia and edited Divan, Australia’s first all-Australian online poetry journal from 1999 to 2013. His first poetry collection Further than Night, was published in 2000, and in 2005 he won the Melbourne Poets Union International Poetry Competition. His poetry and fiction have been published in journals and anthologies in Australia, Britain, Canada, the USA and Germany. He is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection.
In my part of the world, we have begun the greening of the year. But I can’t go out to meet it, or if so, only a little. I can’t go out, so I have to go in. In the greening of my contemplative life, a sense of ‘living presence’ has been the key.
My bespoke liturgy speaks to me and at times asks for change. A section of my morning practice, an affirmation of ‘at-homeness in the present moment’, wants to expand into a ‘celebration of living presence’. At-homeness stood for a place of safety and regeneration. ‘Living presence’ includes that and points to more. In the celebration, I affirm myself as ‘living presence in a field of living presence: here, now and home’. I’ve added a period of walking meditation (20 minutes or so), mindful to breath and footfall and also including liv-ing pres-ence as a mantra over two full breaths.
The Phrase ‘living presence’ came up spontaneously but realising that I didn’t actually make it up, I checked up on where I first came across it. It comes from the Sufi teacher Kabir Edmund Helminski (1). “Presence signifies the quality of consciously being here … the way in which we occupy space. Presence shapes our self-image and emotional tone. Presence determines the degree of our alertness, openness and warmth. Presence decides whether we leak and scatter our energy or embody and direct it”.
For Helminski, presence is also our link to the divine. since in the bigger picture it is “the presence of Absolute Being reflected through the human being. We can learn to activate this presence at will. Once activated, we can find this presence both within and without. Because we find it extending beyond the boundaries of what we thought was ourselves, we are freed from separation, from duality. We can then speak of being in this presence”.
My picture of leaves in light against a darker background is, for me, an image of living presence. It wasn’t intended to look like this, but I’m glad that it does. It said ‘living presence’ to me as soon as I saw it. Each leaf grows out of the tree and is extended by the light of the sun. All are enabled and nourished by ‘interbeing’, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s (2) reframe of ‘dependent origination’. But the elements of darkness and shade, whilst delineating the tree trunk, also suggest the mystery of a primordial nature, no-thing in itself yet making everything possible. The picture seems to be saying that the potential for greening is everywhere, outside and within.
(1) Kabir Edmund Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992
(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017
Reblog of a recent Druid Life post, about the turning of the Wheel in the Stroud district of the English Cotswolds, and the way it is being influenced by the climate crisis. “It feels too early. I’d expect the fruit trees to start flowering around now, but there are leaves unfurling on a number of trees as well – most notably the elders in the more sheltered spots. I can remember springs when there were very few leaves until April and one year, May. Spring did not […]
Blurb note: “Edge contains three poem sequences, Field, Sun and the title sequence, which extend Porteous’s previous work on nature, place and time beyond the human scale. They take the reader from the micro quantum worlds underlying the whole Universe, to the macro workings of our local star, the potential for primitive life elsewhere in the solar system on moons such as Enceladus, and finally to the development of complex consciousness on our own planet. As scientific inquiry reveals the beauty and poetry of the Universe, Edge celebrates the almost-miraculous local circumstances which enable us to begin to understand it. All thre pieces were commissioned for performance in Life Science Centre Planetarium, Newcastle, between 2013 and 2016, with electronic music by Peter Zinovieff.”
In my neighbourhood, there is a distinct mid-February period. Blossom, particularly cherry blossom, is developing. Whatever the weather I feel confidence in the coming of spring.
Humanly, I enjoy a shared experience of extended Valentine. When my partner Elaine and I decided to marry after a decade together, we chose 17 February (three days after Valentine) as our wedding date. So now a four day moment in the year celebrates ever-renewing relationship.
I imagine that most people who consciously live the wheel of the year include dates where a private significance flavours, extends, or indeed reframes a natural or tribal one. Mid February is such a time for me.
I have never been much of a wilderness person. In times past I have foolishly used this to feel like a lesser Druid. ‘Near nature’ is my habitat. It is a world of parks, streams, canals, accessible hills, woodlands and former rail tracks. Human artefacts of varying vintages are very much part of the scene. These places keep on giving. Over the last couple of days a touch of frost coupled with brighter light has changed the feeling tone of a generally wet and clouded winter. Pictures celebrate this bounty.
At the winter solstice, I began a year of enhanced attention to the wheel of the year. I have re-introduced the circle as container for my morning practice. The directions and elements are conventional for my location and tradition. The references are all naturalistic – with ‘heaven’ as the dome of the sky.
The journey around my circle begins and ends at the midwinter moment, in the north, domain of the powers of earth. The patterning is minimalist, though it still took awhile to get a language that feels just right. Now it grows in power and resonance with familiarity and repetition. For me, ritual patterning scarcely competes with complexity and flow of natural patterning, as I look at the pictures above and below. Compared with these, it is something of an abstraction. Yet I value it all the same. This simple patterning embodies my commitment. It will walk with me through the year.
I stand, north, facing south, ring my bells and say: I arise today through the strength of heaven, light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea, stability of earth and firmness of rock.
North, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the north, element of earth, season of winter, time of dying and regeneration. Hail and welcome!
East, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the east, element of air, season of spring, time of early growth. Hail and welcome!
South, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the south, element of fire, season of summer, time of ripening. Hail and welcome!
West, facing outwards: I greet the powers of the west, element of water, season of autumn, time of bearing fruit. Hail and welcome!
Spiralling in to centre: I greet the power at the centre, the one world tree, giver of life and teacher of wisdom. Hail and welcome! Back north, I begin a full round of the circle, sunwise, and say I cast this circle in the sacred grove of Wisdom. May there be peace throughout the world!
My closing is a reversal of the opening, with an uncasting of the circle, a repetition of the opening words and a final ringing of the bells. In the address to the directions, the words ‘thank and ‘farewell’ replace ‘greet’ and ‘welcome’. I have noticed that the other parts of my morning practice are subtly enriched by this new container.