It was 26 November 2022, 11 a.m. I was at the Gloucester end of the Gloucester-Sharpness canal. I found myself accepting the arrival of winter. I was observing three cygnets, now without their parents but still keeping company with each other. The underlying temperature was around 7 C (44.6 F) and good for walking, But I was feeling the pinch of a cold wind. In memory I am feeling it now. The water and sky looked grey. The trees were starting to feel skeletal, whilst still retaining some leaves. My lingering sense of autumn had finally drained away.
To accept winter’s arrival in the presence of swans felt numinous. Swans are otherworldly birds in Celtic tradition. The three together, not yet in their full adult plumage, seemed auspicious. They suggested coming opportunities for creativity, love and celebration. Winter can be a preparation for renewal, both as season and as state of mind. My acceptance goes with a faith in winter’s regenerative darkness, and the riches this can bring.
In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), gorse covers the period from 9-31 July. It is the last tree of the summer quarter, handing over to apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas on 1 August. The illustration is from The Green Man Tree Oracle (2).
I know from my childhood that gorse can make a tame, gently sloping hill seem wild and edgy. Navigating through gorse requires an eye to self-care. Flowering gorse is not confined to summer, but for me it is anchored to summer in memory. Seen from afar, gorse was a vivid harbinger of the summer holidays with days of warmth (rising to heat) and freedom to roam. It carried a hint of adventure and disinhibition. Sometimes the promise was fulfilled. Sometimes there was a hot heavy dullness broken by only storms, and a degree of frustration. July days were unpredictable.
Gorse (ogham name Onn) was sacred to the Irish god Lugh, and thus to light, to all manner of skills, and to the fire in the head of ecstatic creativity. Lugh has a trickster aspect, and can be seen in certain lights as more a god of lightning than of the sun. He has a cousinship with the Brythonic Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the warrior magician of the fourth branch of the Mabinogi. He has also been linked to the Norse Loki, for tricksterism is an aspect of the smouldering fertile mind.
Gorse makes good fuel and so has an obvious role in fire festivals. In Brittany, 1 August was marked by the Festival of the Golden Gorse and gorse has has strong associations with the faery folk. It is a plant of power. We cannot make assumptions about how we stand with it. A wary respect might be wise.
NOTE: This post brings to an end a year in which I have featured the sixteen trees in this mandala. I began on 16 July 2020 with an out-of-sequence Rowan (3), because I had had a vivid encounter with a rowan tree in the woods. (Its time in the mandala is 9-31 October.). Then I moved on to apple(4) and blackberry (5). From the Autumn Equinox (1) the enterprise became more systematic. As a blogger, I won’t be repeating the cycle in the same way in the coming year. Once for the record feels enough.
(1) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/
(2) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003
This post is about a midsummer day’s dream in the the Scottish border country, a dream which included a certain kind of waking up. I have written about it before (1,2) but this is the first illustrated version. Fourteen years have passed since that day, which in many ways determined the form which my expression of Druidry would take.
I was near Melrose. The wild rose was one of many on the banks of the Tweed. In this photograph, I am on a riverside path, with my back to the river. I keenly noticed then, as I notice now, the difference between a wild rose and the more familiar cultivated ones. I love both. But I remember feeling a particular delight at the simplicity of the native flower, a sense of easy integration into habitat, and of a plant not committed to being red or white.
Looking more deeply, I have said in my earlier writing how I had a momentary experience in which, gazing at a rose, subject/object distinctions disappeared and it is as if time intersected with eternity. I have identified this with the Seeing experience more systematically explored by Douglas Harding and the community built up around his work (http://www.headless.org). This was the beginning my sense that direct experience of the world, manifesting through a form of nature mysticism, would be my way forward, eventually becoming a contemplative Druidry and the backbone of my contemplative inquiry. I experience this as a direct and simple route to stillness, presence, resting in being., and identifying with source.
My walk amongst the wild roses had a prequel. Firstly, I had already spent time in the well-preserved ruins of Melrose Abbey. It was a building of Green Man carvings, but, sadly, neither the monks who occupied it nor the iconoclasts who abandoned it had access to the Gospel of Thomas (3) or the words:
“His disciples said to him:
‘When will the dead be at rest?’
‘When will the new world come?’
He answered them:
What you are waiting for has already come,
but you do not see it.” (3)
Here I see the abbey as a solid, material buildings, built with love and care. Even today, it belongs in its landscape, as much as the Tweed or the nearby Eildon Hills, with a semi-wild orchard of apple, pear and cherry trees. What I haven’t written before, in times when I was busy making distinctions between available paths, is that time and eternity intersect in this place too. But, on the day in question, I didn’t have that experience in the abbey grounds. I had it only among the wild roses, down by the river.
The Eildon Hills are also part of the same landscape, indeed a more primal one. But they are fairy hills and they can hide themselves. On that day, they hid from me. There was no invitation – or, rather command – from the Queen of Elfland, who had once ridden out to summon Thomas the Rhymer to her service:
“But you maun go wi’ me now Thomas
True Thomas ye maun go with me
For ye maun serve me seven years
Through weel or wae as may change to be.” (4)
At midsummer in 2007 I was looking for a spiritual home that offered both depth and simplicity. The grim half hidden hills were not appealing to me and I was closed to their magic, with an invitation or without one. I did not want to court danger by ascending into their conceivably treacherous mists. The low road by the river was the one for me.
It was a good decision, and good came of it. But I do also understand that on a different day, those hills could be seen in a different light. I do not now feel constrained to make a neat choice between a broad road, a narrow road and a bonny road. Two cycles of seven years on, well rooted in a nourishing life and practice, I find myself in a more open space, wondering what lessons this Otherworld might yet offer.
(3) The Gospel of Thomas: the Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus (Translation from the Coptic, introduction and commentary by Jean-Yves LeLoup. English translation by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman) Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005
(4) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985
As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features;
‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man.
‘I speak through the oak says he'” (1)
In my wheel of the year tree mandala (2), oak covers the period from 16 June-8 July and thus includes Alban Hefin, the summer solstice. I am starting to bring it in. The oak has many associations – regal strength, for example – but for me the sense of the green man, the archetype of our oneness with the earth, speaking through the oak, is the most numinous. At Dodona in ancient Greece (3) an oak shrine was “guarded by priestesses who interpreted the future from the rustling of leaves on the great tree, the voice of the sacred spring that rose at its root and the behaviour of birds in its branches”. Celtic tradition describes a number of sacred oak trees, themselves roosting places for sacred birds. I like the sense that the oak does not stand alone and autonomous in these stories. For leaves to rustle, the wind is needed. Birds and springs may also participate in the ecology, of a distributed wisdom – a wisdom of interdependence, of interbeing. The oak’s great branches are matched by still greater roots, and therefore an underground network of communication and exchange that we now know sustains a mature forest (4).
The ogham name for oak, duir, means door in both Sanskrit and Gaelic (5). This can bespeak solidity and protection, for the oak can survive lightning. It was sacred to Taranis, the Celtic god of lightning and storms, to Thor in the Nordic pantheon. and to Zeus among the Greeks. But a door isn’t just defensive. It is there to be opened as well, with a sense of welcome and relationship. Dagda, father god of Ireland, was associated with the oak and never failed to give hospitality to those who asked for it.
For Druids (whose name means ‘oak wisdom’) oak was the central tree in their mysteries. There is a theme, in these mysteries, of communication between worlds, with a sensed Otherworld being less than a heart beat away. The power of the oak combines strength and sensitivity. My mandala links oak to the period in which the light has its greatest expression, and then gives way, at first very slowly, to its necessary descent into the dark. The tree bears witness as the wheel continues to turn.
(1) William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth Harper Collins: London & San Francisco, 1990.
(2) This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the summer quarter from Beltane, 1 May, the positions and dates of the four trees are: Hawthorn, south-east, 1-23 May; Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June; Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July; Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July. The autumn quarter then starts with Apple at Lughnasadh/Lammas. For a complete list of the sixteen trees, see https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/autumn-equinox-2020-hazel-salmon-awen/
(3) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Tree Oracle London: Connections, 2003.
For R. J. Stewart (1), the deepest vision and reality of the Underworld is “that the stars are within the Earth, within ourselves, not distant and remote”. He explains a vision in which our habitual awareness, personal and collective, “is on the surface of existence” and that “the primal reality is in the depths, not only of ourselves, but of the land and planet, which are of the universal Being. So we do not reach out and away from ourselves, but plunge into the otherworld that is the source of our own and, more important, is the source of the stars themselves. In the Whirlpool realm, we find the deepest intimations of our inherent universal Being. It leads us to the sacredness of the planet, of the body, for deep within is all that is, the source of the four Powers emerging from the Void”*.
The Dreampower Tarot, which Stewart devised together with artist Stuart Littlejohn, is structured around a descent from the surface through three realms: stone, pearl and whirlpool. To a large extent these correspond to the traditional western distinctions of body, soul and spirit, though emphasising a journey of descent rather than ascent. The Whirlpool realm, and the individual Whirlpool card, involve a quest “for truth and reality that reaches within towards the source of Being. In this sense it also shows wonder and awe, the Mystery within that turns all existence, setting the worlds in motion through the cycle of the Powers and Elements.” Hence the Whirlpool can be called an archetypal image – putting a star field in the foundational depths of consciousness. The use of the term ‘whirlpool’ for a “spiralling nebula of stars” skilfully introduces water references into the picture, offering further disruptions of common sense for the imagination to make use of.
In an earlier work (2), Stewart places a star field at the centre of a creation myth, one that begins with darkness and void until light begins to appear, and “the light that spreads through the darkness is starlight, and we find that we are in the centre of a vast wheel of stars, rising and falling all around us”. Here he introduces the Goddess Ariadne, “Weaver of Being and Unbeing”, creator of form. Her description is too specific and too anthropomorphic for me. But there is something in the process which unfolds that resonates: “Out of the silence a sound emerges … It is the sound of breath. We become aware of a breathing in and out, and realize that this breathing is our breath and yet the breath of all Being. We breathe, Being breathes. Slowly we feel form assemble from the breathing, and realize that we have a body which is the body of all Being. The stars are within us, we are formed of the Weaving.”
I have a powerful sense of the motherhood of the cosmos, and of being companioned, though not instructed, in learning to breathe. I have intrauterine and early post natal experiences – not readily accessible, but held within me – to influence my shaping of experience. I have adult experiences of rebirthing and holotropic breathing that have enabled me to reprise the original process and helped me distinguish personal from transpersonal and universal elements. Today I can add the sense of a universe born with every breath, here and now. Somewhere here I do indeed find the Goddess, as I also find her in everything around me.
(1) R. J. Stewart The Dreampower Tarot: The Three Realms of Transformation in the Underworld London: The Aquarian Press, 1993 Illustrated by Stewart Littlejohn
(2) R. J. Stewart The Way of Merlin: the Prophet, the Goddess and the Land London: The Aquarian Press, 1991
*In this vision the Void is the source of all being, and the four powers are life, light, love and law – with the last being alternately understood as liberation. These powers are associated with the four elements, respectively air, fire, water and earth.
The historic city of Bath is about thirty miles from where I live and – from another direction – thirty miles from where I was born. It has always been part of my psychogeography. This post concerns both its ‘historical’ and ‘legendary’ past.
“A satisfying connection between modern archaeology, ancient legend, sacred kingship and Celtic religion is found at Aquae Sulis, the Roman name for Bath, England. In his legendary Historia Regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain] (1) Geoffrey of Monmouth reports that King Bladud, grandfather of Bran and Branwen, founded the site and taught the druidic arts of ancestor magic and flight, eventually crashing to his death on the site of what is now London (the name Bladud means ‘light-dark’ or ‘bright-shadow’). In his Vita Merlini [Life of Merlin] (2), Geoffrey of Monmouth has Bladud and his consort Aleron (‘wings’) presiding over the hot springs of Bath, which are at the centre of the Bardic universe described by Taliesin to Merlin, forming the gateway to the Otherworld.
On show in the museum at Bath is a superb Celtic solar head (often inaccurately called a Gorgon’s head). The carving is a circular relief of an imposing male face with wild hair, long moustaches and staring eyes. He has wings on either side of his head and is surrounded by flames. Beneath his chin are two serpents, linked in the manner of a torque, the Celtic symbol of royalty. This solar deity is probably the being called Bladud in the legendary histories, connected to magic, flight and a fall from the heights to the depths. He has upon his brow the mark of the three rays, which are very often described as the primal three powers of universal creation.
The goddess at Bath, presiding over the sacred hot springs, was called Sul or Sulis, which means ‘eye’ or ‘gap’ (with a sexual connotation), for she is a variant of Ceridwen, the goddess of the Underworld. The entire Celtic/Roman complex of Aquae Sulis is an excellent example of ancestral Underworld magic refined by Roman politics into a temple of Minerva.
“The sacred or prophetic head is an embodiment of the relationship between the three worlds, for it is aware in all worlds, through all time. While we may have ideas that an anthropologist would suggest originated in primitive head-hunting magic, the theme of the sacred head becomes an allegory of divine and human perception and declaration.
“There is a further element to the sacred-head theme, for it is also interlinked with beliefs and practices concerning the regeneration of life, particularly with the cauldron. Titanic figures such as Bran, acting as sacred kings and guardians of the land, also partake of the mystery of the sun at midnight, light regenerating out of darkness. And this, after all, is the secret of inspiration, a sudden light born out of fruitful darkness.”
R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford, 1996
(1) Geoffrey of Monmouth History of the Kings of Britain London: Penguin, 1966 (Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe)
(2) Mark Walker Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Life of Merlin: A New Verse Translation Stroud: Amberley, 2011
NOTE: the first illustration is from R. J. Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003 , illustrated by Miranda Grey. The Bladud image is on the reverse of each card, implicitly re-ascribed to Merlin as embodying the same archetype in a different way. The second illustration can be found on http://www.romanbaths.co.uk – click on discover and then walkthrough.
Elder is the tree of the caileach, the crone, the wise older woman. The image above comes from the Green Man Tree Oracle (1), but for me an earlier work, Liz and Colin Murray’s The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination (2), offers a more illuminating narrative:
“This Ogham card is linked to the eternal turnings of life and death, birth and rebirth. It represents the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end; life in death and death in life; the casting out of the devils of the old year and the renewal of creativity of the new; the timelessness of the cycle by which the fading of old age is always balanced by the new start of birth.
“The card has no reversed position. The circle will always turn afresh, change and creativity arising out of the old and bringing about the new. All is continuously linked as phases of life and experience repeat themselves in subtly different forms, leading always to renewal”.
In my sixteen tree mandala of the year (3) elder covers the period from 24 November to 16 December, following Yew and preceding Holly. If the winter quarter beginning on 1 November is a time of dying and regeneration, then elder deepens the descent into death signalled by the yew, whereas holly brings in the note of regeneration and makes the transition into rebirth. So it is not surprising to me that in Christian folklore elder provided the wood both for the cross of Christ and the self-hanging of Judas Iscariot. There was also a belief that people living in houses built in the shadow of the elder were likely to die young. Indigenous folklore, more benignly, said that to sleep beneath an elder tree is to wake in the Otherworld. If you stood under an elder tree on Midsummer’s Eve you would see the faery troop go by. Casting away fear, and whatever the weather, we may find magic in this tree.
(1) John Matthews & Will Worthington The Green Man Oracle London: Connections, 2003.
(2) Liz & Colin Murray The Celtic Tree Oracle: A System of Divination London: Eddison/Sadd Edition, 1988. (Illustrated by Vanessa Card).
(3) NOTE: This mandala is based on my personal experience of trees in the neighbourhood as well as traditional lore. Moving around the wheel of the year from 1 November, the positions and dates of the trees are:
Yew, north-west, 1-23 November
Elder, north-north-west, 24 November – 16 December
Holly, north, 17 December – 7 January
Alder, north-north-east, 8 – 31 January
Birch, north-east, 1 – 22 February
Ash & Ivy, east-north-east, 23 Feb. – 16 March
Willow, east, 17 March – 7 April
Blackthorn, east-south-east, 8 – 30 April
Hawthorn, south-east, 1 – 23 May
Beech & Bluebell, south-south-east, 24 May – 15 June
Oak, south, 16 June – 8 July
Gorse, south-south-west, 9 – 31 July
Apple, south-west, 1 -23 August
Blackberry & Vine, west-south-west, 24 August – 15 September
In the approach to Samhain, thoughts turn to death. In R. J. Stewart’s Merlin Tarot (1,2) the Death card has The Apple Woman as an alternate name.
Stewart explains that “the original image for Death is that of the taking or destroying Goddess”, for “who but the creatrix may truly destroy and withdraw created life?” He adds that, in Celtic tradition, she often appears as a female power offering magical fruit.
In his source text, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin), we find a mysterious woman – ex-lover of Merlin – who lays out poisoned apples to entrap him. These apples, arranged “under a tree upon a pleasant green”, are eaten by Merlin’s boon companions: they are either killed or driven insane. Although Merlin escapes the apples, he does not escape his own later insanity in the Caledonian Forest, brought on by the traumatising Battle of Arfderydd.
For Stewart, the Apple Tree is one of the simplest expressions of the Tree of Life. “It is the Otherworld or Underworld Tree that reveals eternal potential, the fusion of ending and beginning in one paradoxical form”. The apples are the fruit of raw, untransformed power. Whereas Merlin’s companions snatch at the apples and eat them greedily, the legendary Thomas Rhymer volunteers to pick magic apples for the Fairy Queen, who recognises his gallantry by giving him the bread and wine that can nourish him. He wins the gift of prophecy and the tongue that cannot lie.
Both lover and killer, the Goddess of Death and Change is young and ancient, weaver and unweaver of a web that is the universe. She is destroyer of hope and giver of hope, for “in her hand she bears the fruit of perpetual life and rebirth, and the razor Sickle that cuts the tread of continuity”.
Stewart ends with this reflection: “perhaps Merlin’s sub-story of The Apple Woman simply means that adulthood is our most deluded period of life. We reject understanding and substitute self-image, habit and even dogma, in our convoluted attempts at survival; the hostility we experience is not that of the Goddess, but our own hostility reflected upon us. Reject love, risk poisoned apples – such fruits are deadly to the greedy and unprepared. But if we accept the fruit or any of its many transformations (such as bread and wine) from the Goddess, she blesses us with gifts of timeless understanding. These gifts may appear in the outer world as prophecy, attuning to the land; death itself is a timeless moment of understanding when all relative interactions cease. Ultimately, we are the fruit”.
(1) R. J. Stewart The Complete Merlin Tarot: Images, Insight and Wisdom from the Age of Merlin London: The Aquarian Press, 1992 . Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 1 85538 091 9 No cards, but a full explanation and discussion of the system and its imagery.
(2) R. J Stewart The Merlin Tarot London: Element, 2003. Illustrated by Miranda Grey ISBN 000 716562 5 (First published by London: The Aquarian Press, 1992). Cards, handbook and notebook for record keeping.
This picture was taken early one morning, at a moment slightly defended from the heat of early August. I was walking through woods to shelter from the sun.
Those days, intense in their moment, have already receded into the past. After a period of somewhat lower temperatures, and of flashes and rumblings in the sky followed by modest rainfall, we found ourselves in a flash flood on Sunday evening. For a relatively brief period, the A46 (a main road, locally) turned into a fast-flowing river not far from our house. Guttering held, but needs attention.
It was as if, following a period of contest, water had succeeded fire as the prevailing element. Now, the situation is less clear cut. But we are in a cooler and wetter place than we were at the beginning of the month. Daylight hours are reducing. We are leaning in to autumn.
During this time I have been busy with my own harvesting. The meditations presented in my last three posts (1) complete a basic repertoire of formal solo practice in my renewed Druidry. I have been fruitfully indoors during both heat wave (beyond my comfort zone) and the return of rain. I have been inwardly focused.
In my own Innerworld wheel of the year, apple presides over the first three weeks or so of the post Lughnasadh/Lammas quarter. Apple, in many traditions, is a Goddess tree, associated with both wisdom and healing (2). It is linked to a visionary ability to see beyond the surface: perceptions grow wiser and the heart sees further than it might otherwise do.
In Irish myth, Lugh was sent to collect apples from a Tree of Light found in the Otherworld. In Britain, after the Battle of Camlann, Arthur was taken by three Celtic goddesses to be healed on the Isle of Avalon (=Island of Apples).
In a more everyday way, my meditations serve the same goals. The timing of my work on them wasn’t exactly planned. But it doesn’t surprise me that my commitment to living the wheel of the year has led to this result.
The picture shows the power of sunlight on trees to an observer – me, using my sight and my phone camera. I am not sure what it is like for the trees themselves, but I imagine it to be a positive experience.
This post is about the effects of the same power in my own psychic life. In a personal meditation, “I find myself in a walled garden. It has a fountain at the centre, surrounded by four flower beds of alternating red and white roses. There are fruit trees, apple, pear and plum, trained around the walls. It is a warm and radiant midsummer morning. The full bright sunlight strikes the dazzling water of the fountain, warming and illuminating each drop as it falls. I can hear the plashing of the fountain, and birdsong a little further off. My bare feet are on the lush grass. The air is sweet. The sun is at my back, recharging my energy, in particular activating the sun in my heart”. From that point, the meditation can continue and deepen in a number of ways.
This garden is the Garden of Wisdom, the Wisdom of William Anderson’s Green Man poem (1), a poem of 13 four-line verses, where each line covers a week. Though the Green Man has a lover in the spring, Wisdom is named, as Wisdom, in only one verse.
26 Oct-1 Nov: The reedbeds are flanking in silence the islands
2 Nov–8 Nov: Where meditates Wisdom as she waits and waits.
9 Nov-15 Nov: ‘I have kept her secret’, say the Green Man.
16 Nov -22 Nov: ‘I have kept her secret’, says he.
But at the present time of year, the focus is on the transformation of the Green Man himself, his head having been offed between 25 May and 7 June.
8 June – 14 June: Green Man becomes grown man in flames of the oak
15 June-21 June: As its crown forms his mask and its leafage his features
22 June -28 June: ‘I speak through the oak’, says the Green Man,
29 June – 5 July: ‘I speak through the oak’, says he.
Late in 2019, I stopped calling my inquiry path a ‘Sophian Way’ and re-centred it in Druidry. It was the right decision, and I have found it very fruitful. But at the psychic, Innerworld level, I have experienced a sense of loss concerning aspects of the Sophian Way, especially the space I called Sophia’s Garden. Now, thankfully, I have found that a simple re-naming as Wisdom’s Garden has been enough to re-integrate it within my current Druid practice. A more specific link with William Anderson’s Pagan, earth-centred poem also helps. Wisdom speaks through the wheel of the year, and acts as a companion and guide within my Druid path, on both the physical and psychic levels. She is also Zoe, the life beyond time, and the Green Man Bios, the life which is born, dies and is born again. It seems to me that we are both of them. Perhaps that is Wisdom’s secret.
(1) William Anderson Green Man: Archetype of Our Oneness with the Earth: London and San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990 (Photography by Clive Hicks)