contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Paganism

CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY JULY 2021

This post updates the description of Contemplative Inquiry, using the text my newly revised ABOUT.

“I am James Nichol and I live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. I began Contemplative Inquiry in August 2012 as part of a project within modern British Druidry. My book, Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential, was published in 2014. It includes a foreword, Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth, by Philip Carr-Gomm, at that time Chosen Chief of OBOD (https://www.druidry.org). There are major contributions in the main text from 14 other Druids offering diverse perspectives on the topic: https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

Contemplative Inquiry includes personal sharing, discursive writing, poetry and book reviews. It reaches beyond Druidry into a wider exploration of contemplative spiritualities, drawing on the enduring wisdom of many times and places. Over time, I have  found an ‘at-homeness’ in the present moment, which nourishes and illuminates my life. It is not dependent on belief or circumstance, but on the ultimate acceptance that this is what is given.

“I find that this perspective supports a spirit of openness, an ethic of interdependence and a life of abundant simplicity. My practice seems to have its own evolving trajectory, whilst drawing on two spiritual families as active points of reference – OBOD Druidry (https://www.druidry.org) and the Eckhart Tolle Community – https://eckharttolle.com/.”

HIGH SUMMER 2021

It is some time since the solstice. Where I live, the time between sunrise and sunset has shortened by about 20 minutes. Though the change is still slow, it is noticeable now. But I do not yet feel a pull towards Lughnasadh/Lammas. I took these pictures on 11 July, and this is its own time, a time of abundance and ripening. They give me the sense of a summer that has kept its promise and is managing to mature despite a year of patchy weather.

At this stage, the willows below, early to leaf, remain majestic in their abundance – whilst hinting at a tiredness that will manifest in late summer, when energy starts to withdraw, and turn inwards.

But this isn’t the case with the treescape as a whole. In the woods I continue to find the fresh green of a vigorous life energy. It is the time when I get the strongest sense of a canopy, even in a relatively small and modestly wooded space. It hints at the glories of old forest, even though it isn’t one.

Whilst there is a sense of flora moving into new stages of their cycle, the process is gradual. There is time and leisure for slow change. There is no sense of having to be perfectly one thing and then, immediately, perfectly another.

Above all. I notice subtle differences in shape and colour within a setting of predominantly green growth. My gaze is drawn by intricacies of variation, contrast and patterning within this always astonishing display of life, and its natural will to be and become.

In mid-July, life rests in its moment, with harvesting some way off.

TREE MANDALA: GORSE

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

(3) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/rowan/

(4) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/three-trees/

(5) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2020/mr-bramble/

BOOK REVIEW: A STORY WAITING TO PIERCE YOU

Peter Kingsley is a scholar of early Greek philosophy, and A Story Waiting to Pierce You (1) links Pythagoras (ca 590-470 BCE) with central Asian shamanism. Pythagoras got most of his own education outside of the Greek cultural sphere, and Kingsley focuses here on his relationship with Abaris the Hyperborean*, using ancient texts to guide him.

Abaris is not a personal name. It places its bearer as an Avar. The Avars are one of the peoples ancestral to modern Mongols. They still and still live under their older name in Dagestan, a Russian republic in the northern Caucasus. Kingsley’s Abaris walked, or in some sense flew, from his homeland to meet Pythagoras. He carried a golden arrow in his hand, though in a way it carried him. For Abaris was a wind walker, and on a mission.

Kingsley explains, using evidence from pre-Buddhist Tibet (where the practice has survived within Buddhism) as well as Mongolia: “Wind walkers could go anywhere; cover enormous distances with apparently effortless ease; find their way over every conceivable obstacle and straight past the most impassable landscapes … in one unbroken trance, holding their god inside them. That single-pointed focus, just like the intense attention required of an arrow maker or demanded of someone shooting arrows at their mark, had to be totally undisturbed”.

Abaris had been shown by the god within him that in Pythagoras he would find a living incarnation of the same god. Greek texts name the god as Apollo –  understood here primarily as a god of healing, trance and prophecy. Abaris gave his arrow, as planned, to Pythagoras, in recognition of his true nature. Through Pythagoras, he hoped, the Greek world would be healed and purified.

Pythagoras had considerable success. He attracted an enthusiastic following, and coined the term philosopher (lover of wisdom) to describe his work. He taught kindness to humans and animals and championed an honest and simple life. He believed in metempsychosis (transmission of the soul after death into a new body, human or animal), and in the explanatory power of number. But he was one teacher among others, and even his enthusiastic followers played down the influence of Abaris and his culture. It did not suit the self-image of the Greeks to recognise nomadic barbarians as possible teachers. They were not alone in this. A similar view prevailed in China.

Why does this matter to us? Because we have kept on making the same mistakes. The early stigmatisation of Hyperborean culture in the ancient world has been repeated in the stigmatisation of the cognate cultures of First Nations people in North America. The Chinese version survives in their current governance of Tibet and Xinjiang. In the spiritual domain, we still maintain a disparaging distinction between shamanism and ‘higher’ traditions. By contrast, Kingsley describes shamanism as “constantly engaged with practising respect and consideration towards all forms of life in an overall framework of concern for both visible and invisible worlds” He adds, “the fact that a transcendent realm beyond the senses happens, in the hands of most true elders and shamans, to be seamlessly interwoven with this world to the point where the two become one is a sign not of inferiority but of a far greater capacity for integration.”

A Story Waiting to Pierce You is not Peter Kingsley’s most recent book, but for me it is the most accessible, in both price and presentation. The first half is written in a simple, spacious, almost mythic style that goes straight to the heart. The second half, comprising notes, offers more than a set of references, looking at scholarly arguments and matters of interpretation. I find this arrangement a satisfying way of handling the material overall. I strongly recommend this book for people interested in the cultural history of spirituality and the issues it raises.

(1) Peter Kingsley A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet, and the Destiny of the Western World Point Reyes, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, 2010

*Hyperborean = from Hyperborea, beyond the north wind.

MIDSUMMER STASIS 2021: A CELEBRATION

A blue sky frames quiet branches. It is the midsummer standstill in my neighbourhood – a period extending over several days. I took the picture on 23 June, in the early afternoon, a time of soft warmth and sunshine, with me able to meet it. I had been prepared to miss it this year, and was delighted when the opportunity came.

The picture below shows the play of afternoon light and shade in a semi-sheltered spot, where a footbridge crosses a stream.

The next picture makes it clear that there is substantial built environment too here – one of the things I like about this landscape – in the form of weathered railway arches visible behind the foreground green.

The nearby canal looks sleepier than the stream, as if dreaming in the lushness of the moment.

Below, water margin nettles stand out as part of the richness and fecundity of this space, calling for my attention. Clearly capable of being an irritant and seen largely as a nuisance today, the nettle was highly valued by our ancestors for food, fibre and medicine. The Druid Plant Oracle (1) describes it as “a storehouse of goodness” bearing hidden gifts. Nettle tea is widely thought of as health promoting, and modern research confirms that it is rich in antioxidants and vitamins. It is suggested that its polyphenols are helpful in managing chronic illnesses that involve inflammation. I am taking it up as a drink.

There are other, varied riches beside the path, easy to ignore, but also easy to notice and enjoy for their beauty and vitality alone.

I went for this walk without any intention of taking photographs and I travelled quite a way before I began. I felt as though the landscape was persuading me to record the day, and thus bear witness to the midsummer stasis. Yes, it happened in 2021, as it happens every year. Here is the evidence. I am glad I showed up to be part of it,

(1) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Plant Oracle: Working with the Magical Flora of the Druid Tradition London: Connections, 2007 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

A MIDSUMMER DAY’S DREAM

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.

(1) James Nichol Contemplative Druidry: People, Practice and Potential Amazon/Kindle, 2014 See: https://www.amazon.co.uk/contemplative-druidry-people-practice-potential/dp/1500807206/

(2) https://contemplativeinquiry.blog/2019/07/16/seeing-contemplative-druidry/

(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

DANCING SEAHORSES II

I have already written about the Dancing Seahorses image (1) found on a Pictish stone from Aberlemno in the Scottish county of Angus. After seeing the stone on a visit there, in 1992, I bought Marianne Lines’ painting. I have felt strongly involved with this image ever since. I think of it as a friend and guide. In a sense, this post is about the modern use of archaic images by people, like Druids, who are drawn to them.

I do not know the intentions of the original carver. beyond celebrating beings who are half of this world, half of the otherworld, and who embody powerful water energies for Celtic peoples on the Atlantic coasts of Britain, Ireland and Brittany in ancient times. They are remembered in folklore to this day. I do know that the carving made a strong impression on me, when I first saw it on the stone itself. It stayed in my imagination, and over time has deepened and grown new meanings.

Four years after acquiring the painting, I had the image tattooed on each arm. By that time I knew of the way in which it had influenced the cover design for R. J. Stewart’s The Prophetic Vision of Merlin (2). This variant form was used to refer to the story of the young Merlin at Vortigern’s subsidence prone tower in Snowdonia, prophesying his way out of becoming a human sacrifice, and identifying two contending dragons under the foundations. In the book illustration, there is a yin-yang reference, with a suggestions of interdependent primal forces, each of which already contains the seed of the other, seeking balance and alignment. In the Western Mysteries quest for healing and transfiguration, the energy bodies of the land and of humans are deeply interwoven.

There is another, more recent level of understanding, that I derive from the painting and tattoos, but not evident in The Prophetic Vision of Merlin. I see both the dancing seahorses and a second image, behind and containing the immediately apparent one. As I wrote before, “the space where the horses legs are raised defines a shape, suggesting a head. The very emptiness there is a paradoxical mark of presence. To me it became the head of a goddess, with the seahorses then becoming her body. Still clearly appearing as a water being, her arms – if they are arms – are raised in blessing”. I would now add that in this way, she demonstrates the dance of emptiness and form. They are balanced. Neither is privileged over the other. The Celtic knot points both to interconnection and infinity.

I identified the Goddess whilst gazing directly at the original Dancing Seahorses picture, which hangs of a wall directly above my altar. However I believe I received a subconscious nudge from the High Priestess card in The Druidcraft Tarot (3). She wears the image herself. Her hands are raised. She stands as the Goddess. In the Druidcraft narrative, she “represents the magical power of stillness and depth”. For me, the Goddess in Dancing Seahorses represents the ultimate union of emptiness and form, and the rebirth of the cosmos in each moment. Her representation combines the aware potential of the void and a primal aquatic generativity that can inhabit other elements. The Druidcraft priestess is human, but one who wears an image that bespeaks the divine to me, and her role asks for “stillness and depth”.

In my work, the entry into stillness and depth is, firstly, to enter into I-Thou communion with the primal Goddess (Modron) and then to recognise my own true nature, as (mythically) her divine child (Mabon) – sensitive and busted open to the world. This recognition becomes a prayer of gratitude and a surrender of my passing private concerns to Who I really am.

Words and pictures are not enough, but, cherished and contemplated lovingly over time, together they can point the way..

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

(2) R. J. Stewart The Prophetic Vision of Merlin London & New York: Arkana, 1986

(3) Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druidcraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004 (Illustrated by Will Worthington)

REMEMBERING THE GLASTONBURY THORN

In my wheel of the year tree mandala (1), hawthorn presides from 1-23 May. It celebrates Beltane and the rising strength of the sun. Looking forward to that time, I think particularly of a specific tree, the Glastonbury thorn at Wearyall Hill, to represent that period. But the tree is gone, and is now unlikely to return, though ever-living in my heart and imagination..

It was a variety of common hawthorn (crataegus monogyna biflora) that flowered twice a year – first around Christmas and then in spring. I took the photograph in a misty Imbolc moment in 2007, between flowerings. It is the only one I will ever have, and for that reason I treasure it. The much revered tree was vandalised in 2010. New shoots appearing from March 2011 mysteriously disappeared. A new sapling, grafted from a descendent or the original tree, was planted in 2012 and consecrated – only to be snapped in half and irreparably damaged 16 days later. In May 2019, after some years of hesitation, the tree was entirely removed by the landowner in a final acceptance that the tree was lost. Sacred thorn trees, said to be descended from the same original, can still be found in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and at the Church of St. John.

I particularly liked the Wearyall Hill tree, because it was physically removed from the bustle of Glastonbury as a twenty-first century spiritual centre. The hill just seemed quietly natural – pagan, if you wanted to think of it that way, or Christian, if you wanted to link it to the story of Joseph of Arimathea’s staff, and how it came to life and flowered when planted in a new land. I was shocked by the violence against the tree and against other people’s love for it.

An ancestor of thee thorn (the individual plants do not last forever) had been cut down before, probably in 1647 by a Parliamentary soldier in England’s civil war. For the thorn was strongly linked to royal patronage, the miracle of a Christmas flowering, and a link between sacred land and sacred kingship. The kind of Royalism represented by this constellation of ideas and images was strong in Somerset at that time, but so was religious Puritanism, allied to a wish for constitutional change. The war was bitterly fought within the county. The legend of the thorn, cultivated by one group of people, made it vulnerable to another group of people identified with different loyalties.

The modern destruction of the thorn also seems not to have been casual, or it wouldn’t have been repeated so systematically. But I am not sure of the motivation. I find myself understanding a seventeenth century act of violence better than the modern one. Was this venerated tree the victim of a current human culture war? Are there potential lessons for Avalonians? Whatever the case, I am still in mourning.

(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/

BOOK REVIEW: CERRIDWEN CELTIC GODDESS OF INSPIRATION

Highly recommended. Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration (1) is by Kristoffer Hughes, Chief of the Anglesey Druid Order (2) and a prominent figure in modern Druidry and Paganism. His aim in this book is to “provide you an in-depth exploration of Cerridwen, where she came from, the landscape and peoples that perpetuated her, and who she is today”.

Hughes, born in Anglesey and a first language Welsh speaker. is a scholar and practitioner of his inherited tradition. He has also embraced Druidry as an international movement within modern Paganism. He is at ease, too, with the Cerridwen of modern witchcraft. His whole stance is one of cultural generosity and active support for “appropriate appropriation”.

In its quest for Cerridwen, the book combines close reading of Bardic texts dated from the post-Roman period to early modernity; personal sharing of Hughes’ own path; and opportunities for experiential work. Like many people, my introduction to Cerridwen was through Charlotte Guest’s English version of the late-appearing Hanes Taliesin (Hughes provides his own version early in the book). This shows Cerridwen as a noblewoman skilled in the magical arts, not a Goddess. Like many people, I assumed that this was a demotion going back to the Roman period or the coming of Christianity. Hughes does not share this view. He cannot find Cerridwen among the goddesses of Celtic antiquity, but he welcomes her recent apotheosis within neo-Paganism and witchcraft. He is a devotee himself, and writes: “the New Age traditions, whilst inspired by the distant times, do not need or require to be authenticated by the past; it is a living, breathing spirituality … if it works, keep doing it, and the more you do it, the more life you breath into it”.

Hughes sketches out Cerridwen’s history in the early written material. Sometimes her presence is only implicit – glimpsed, perhaps, as the Annuvian sow (hwch) who guides the magician Gwydion to the base of the world tree in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion. Sometimes we find her lauded and identified as the Mam yr Awen (mother of the Awen). Later, after Wales’ loss of independence and the decay of the Bardic tradition, we find her stigmatised as an evil hag with her connection to Awen erased. But when we come to the Hanes Taliesin, her connection to Awen, and to the initiation of Taliesin (radiant brow) is plain and clear. Her best time is now, though her modern strength lies largely outside her country of origin.

For Hughes, Cerridwen (pronounced Ker ID ven) is a goddess “of angular, bending magic”, and her cauldron is “a vessel of inspiration, a transformative device, a vessel of testing”. This Cerridwen is “the divine conduit of transformative, creative, magical inspiration gleaned from the cauldron of Awen”. Awen itself is “the creative, transformative force of divine inspiration that sings in praise of itself; it is the eternal song that sings all things into existence, and all things call to Awen inwardly”. Gwion, who tastes the three drops distilled from the cauldron in Hanes Taliesin, after a series of further trials becomes Taliesin, “the outward expression of the power, magic and action of the Awen”, indicated by his radiant brow. The final section of the book, Stirring the Cauldron: Ritual and Practise, offers readers a chance to meet Cerridwen and work with her Bardic mysteries themselves.

As issues relevant to Cerridwen and what she stands for, the book looks at the meaning of annwfn and its denizens the andedion. ‘Underworld’ and ‘Otherworld’ are not quite accurate as descriptors, and the andedion, though different from us, are not best thought of as ‘supernatural’. Hughes also explains that medieval Wales, except to a limited extent in the border counties, did not share in the English and continental persecution of witches. Swyngyfaredd (enchantment/sorcery/magic) was part of life and its practitioners respected. This changed only with the early modern Anglicisation of culture. Hughes also includes a chapter on Iolo Morganwyg (Edward Williams, 1747-1826) and his ‘awen-filled legacy’. It was he who invented the awen symbol /|\ and much else in modern Druid and Bardic culture. He is often remembered as a literary forger because he presented his contributions as a rediscovery of lost texts. They nonetheless revitalised a dying culture at a time when sensibilities were changing again, and becoming more receptive to the value of old traditions.

With all these riches, Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration is a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in modern Druidry.

(1) Kristoffer Hughes Cerridwen: Celtic Goddess of Inspiration Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2021

(2) http://www.angleseydruidorder.co.uk/

THE SACRED HEAD OF BLADUD

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.

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Good lives on our one planet

John Halstead

The Allergic Pagan; HumanisticPaganism.com; Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Paganism; A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment; Earthseed

The Hopeless Vendetta

News for the residents of Hopeless, Maine.

barbed and wired

not a safe space - especially for the guilty

Down the Forest Path

A Journey Through Nature, its Magic and Mystery