Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Opening the Ways

One important aspect of the spiritual journey, I find, is the art of learning when to take a hint. My spiritual path has been colourful so far, and I have no expectations that it will become any less so. Having always been an instinctive polytheist, some years ago I became deeply interested in the various traditions associated with the Orishas, the Yoruba deities of west Africa who were taken to the New World in the horror of the Slave-trade. There they flourish, especially among Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian communities, and indeed the various forms of Yoruba tradition are widespread among Hispanic communities in the US, especially in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, and anywhere where there has been wide immigration from the Caribbean.

Startlingly similiar to the Greek pantheon, the Orishas are a group of around 20 deities each of which has control over a particular area of life: the one I love and honour most of all, Ochun, is the goddess of fresh water, rivers, love, honey, sweetness, desire, and sensuality, whose colours are yellow and gold. Very often, they are syncretised with Catholic saints. Each of these beings is complex and multifaceted, and it must be emphasised just how immensely profound and beautiful I found Yoruba-derived sprituality to be. Embracing paradox and contradiction, dealing with life as it really is, it is astoundingly sophisticated, leaving any form of western Paganism in the dust, as far as I'm concerned. (After being exposed to the path of the Orishas, a lot of Druidry, for example, just came to seem like self-indulgent buggering about: people turning up to rituals dressed as Hindu brides, for example, or honouring spring with libations of Green Chartreuse, because of the colour.)

Central to all forms of the tradition is a reverence for the Ancestors, the Egun, and their presence and advice is sought in all things. Practitioners will always have a shrine to their ancestors, with glasses of fresh water, white flowers and candles, and perhaps photographs. They will be regularly offered food and drink and cigars. They can also be consulted through divination. This powerful sense of ancestral connection, which is both mysterious and everyday, is one of the most moving aspects of Yoruba tradition. Ancestors are considered to come before the Orishas, in the sense that ordinary worries and problems are taken to an individual's ancestral spirits before being bring them to the great powers.

The pantheon of the Orishas is one of the most vibrant, profound and beautiful spiritual conceptions I have ever come across. They are imagined not as gods and goddesses exactly, but as emissaries or great angels under the One God, Oludumare. Ellegua is the Orisha that you always start with; he is the youngest, and the mischievous, tricksterish, and amoral personification of chance. His colours are red and black, and he is visualised as an old man and as a young child. The chief of the Orishas under Oludumare himself (or herself) is Obatala, the personification of peace and purity, the Father of the Orishas. His colour is white. Yemaya is their mother, the Orisha of salt water, whose colour is blue. There is Shango, the virile god of war and thunder, whose colours are red and white, who is comically syncretised with a female saint, St Barbara. His wife is Oya, the tempestuous Orisha of storms and the whirlwind, but his paramour is Ochun. There is Orunmila, the Orisha who controls the intricate system of Ifa divination. There is Ogun, the blacksmith, who lives in the woods and rules over accidents and metals. There is Ochosi, the hunter, and Babalu Aye, the leprous Orisha of pestilence and recovery, whose sores are licked by dogs and who walks with a stick. There are also a large number of others, who vary between the various traditions. In Yorubaland, each city had a tutelary Orisha, who was worshipped by the people of that town; with the Middle Passage, people from different cities were mingled together, and now all the Orishas are honoured by all practitioners. They also were reduced in number; in Africa, the number of Orishas was given as ‘401’, the ‘one’ signifying potential infinitude. In the New World, the number hovers around twenty.

Anyway. Since moving in with my partner, who finds any form of spirituality wierd and off-putting, I'm sorry to say that my devotion to the Orishas has sagged. (A situation I intend to rectify - I can't continue to operate on spiritual standby in the way that I have been doing for over a year.) You can see the shrine to Ochun that I had in my old house above, by the way. On Saturday last, I picked up a book in Waterstones - Lewis Hyde's fantastic Trickster Makes This World, a poetic and anthropological study of the mythology of the Trickster figure, including Coyote, Raven, Legba, Loki and Hermes. One of the beings discussed is the orisha Ellegua, also known as Eshu. This, I recognised immediately, was a Big Hint. You don't ignore the deity who, like Hermes, represents the wildcard, the twist of fate, the windfall, the threshold and the boundary, the door-hinge, the stroke of luck and the nasty accident which no one could have foreseen. I'm standing at the threshold at the moment - on the verge of my first proper job, a move to a different city, the start of a new book. A new phase of life, in fact. So I took the hint, and last night (Mondays belong to Eshu) I made the prescribed offering: a handful of red and black sweeties, three copper pennies, a white candle, and a glug of dark rum, left at a nearby crossroads. As I did so, calling on Eshu to open my ways to good fortune and close my ways to bad fortune, I suddenly felt a huge sense of homecoming and relief. I walked home and fell asleep almost instantly.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Loyalty to the Real

The following is an article I (Mark) wrote for the Druid Network a few years ago.

We have died, and now we are in love with the world.

- a Greek Orthodox hermit

Druid: a maddening paradox. The following is merely a series of thoughts on what Druidry means to me. It is thus personal, and what I write here is simply my understanding, filtered through my own personality and circumstances.

* * *

I adopted the term ‘Druid’ because it was the nearest fit to the spiritual longing which is integral to my soul - so a passive rather than an active decision. This longing is difficult to put into words without lapsing into cliché. As a child, it manifested as a delirious sense of kinship with the natural world matching a sense of alienation from the human one. I could only really breathe when out in the woods, on my own, where I never felt in the least bored or lonely. Out in the wildness and wet, I found the soul dilates. The twilight thrush on its branch calls within your skull. You taste the dewfall in your mouth. The smell of rotting leaves wafts like incense. The human world seemed (and seems) garish, frenetic, unreal. I also knew instinctively that nature was what I was made of, that there existed an inner landscape that too was part of nature, with its own wilderness and its own seasons. Of course as a child, this was entirely unconscious, and it was only as an adolescent I realised this perception was a ‘spiritual’ insight, and that it had ethical implications. As soon as I became aware of nature religion, something profoundly devotional awoke inside me - a sense of the presence, both intimate and inexplicable, which I now term god or the gods. Everywhere I look, I see your face. Something inside broke open to this terrifying, almost unbearable joy, like a camera being shattered and the film being exposed to light. Whatever part of the soul’s membrane broke back then, I’ve never managed to mend it. Despite my stupidity and self-distraction, somewhere that light, or perhaps something more akin to a lustrous darkness, ceaselessly seeps in.

So Druidry for me is a shorthand term to indicate that nature and especially the landscape of Britain is at the heart of my spirituality. Druidry for me flows first from a feeling, and my loyalty is to that longing, and only to the label in so far as it is congruent with the longing. I am not by nature a very gregarious person and find large ‘faith’ gatherings difficult. Ideally, Druid ritual for me takes place in the context of the small Grove which I jointly run, or as part of a pair, or alone. Jointly leading a group of fifteen people in ritual is exhausting. Being part of a circle of several dozen is impossibly jarring and makes me want to run away screaming.

The necessity of any link between this longing that I have been describing and ‘Druidry’ is beginning to elude me. A lot of modern Druidry mystifies me. I suspect it would be entirely possible to be true to this unassuageable inner conviction and not call myself a Druid at all.

* * *

To me, Druidry is loyalty to the Real.

This doesn’t mean ‘loyalty to the merely tangible’. But it does mean that, for me, being a Druid integrally involves of stripping away layers of ignorance and fantasy. This means being aware of where your food comes from, and who is being paid a fair or unfair wage for it. It means being responsible for what you buy, where your clothes come from, what your government is up to. It means keeping your eyes and ears and heart open, and confronting the urge to seek refuge in fantasy yourself. It means keeping grounded, not drifting off into New Age sentimentality or solipsism. (‘Sentimentalists always have brutal eyes’, as Gore Vidal said.) It means connecting with the real world, real rain, real wind, real seasons. Real earth. Not dressing up or sci-fi. In relating to the ancestors, loyalty to the Real means honouring them for who they really were, as far as we are able to discern that, not our fantasy of what we would like them to have been. This goes for our ancestors of two thousand years ago as much as for our grandparents.

In our creativity, loyalty to the Real means trying to root out that which does not flow from the deepest parts of us, in order to find the untamed life which dwells there. Virginia Woolf said something like this in her diaries:

If I could catch the feeling I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.

It means living at the edge of ourselves, clear-eyed, always seeking for depth. Real suffering, real pain, real fear, real justice. It means a process of self-emptying, of becoming clear. This definition applies to what I believe is the necessary heart of any authentic spirituality. I’m not going to attempt to define ‘the Real’ here, though this is a profound philosophical problem which I am unqualified to address. I personally equate the Real with the Universe, in both its seen and unseen aspects. A panentheistic monotheist would see it as God, Ultimate Reality; a Buddhist, as the web of interdependent co-arising. My definition is thus a form of mysticism, or mystical activism, recognisable to anyone from any tradition, and involving a purification of the soul. Perhaps I should qualify it slightly – Druidry, for me personally in practice, is loyalty to the Real as it manifests through the web of life here where I live, in Britain. This definition also allows me to side-step the things about contemporary Druidry which are not to my taste, and also allows me to insist loudly that calling oneself a Druid whilst behaving grossly unethically is not attending to the singing of the real world.

* * *


Who but I
Speaks for the mute stone?
For fragile water feels
With finger and bone?

- Kathleen Raine

We know that the Bard was an institution in the ancient and medieval Celtic world. The bard is the living link between the past and the present, maintaining the old lore and the deep memory. The bard is guardian of the songlines of the land. The bard is a preserver and remembrancer of language. A good example might be the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones (1895-1974) who saw his own bardic art as being in a specifically Celtic mode, the hallmarks of which he saw as intricacy, complexity, and ties to culture and place. He wrote:

My view is that all artists, whether they know it or not, whether they would repudiate the notion or not, are in fact ‘showers forth’ of things which tend to be impoverished, or misconceived, or altogether lost or wilfully set aside in the preoccupations of our present intense technological phase, but which, none the less, belong to man. People think one is being deliberately obscure or affected, but the fact is that one ‘thinks’ in those obsolete or becoming obsolete terms. This all sounds as though I thought that poetry could not be written (in English or Welsh or double Dutch or what will you) without this reference back. I don’t think that at all; I mean only that for me it gets difficult if people don’t know what Aphrodite, let alone Rhiannon, signifies.

The bard mediates the past to the present, certainly; but her role is also fundamentally to praise. Though she mediates the past, she lives in the present, and her role is to use metaphor to unconceal the being of things. Using her language, by likening unlike things, she is able to cleanse our vision and let us see the world afresh, letting us feel our way into a new connection with reality. The bard is one who renders-strange; she uses language to defamiliarise the world, only to hand it back to us a second later, made new, so that we can experience its wonder afresh. This is why cliché is not just bad poetry – it’s the opposite of poetry, because it deadens our experience of the world. This is also why writing bardic poetry isn’t just an attempt to write down your feelings as a kind of therapy; it must break new ground. The bard’s consciousness must revolve and rhapsodise around another being, to reveal its nature, its inner being. It is from metaphor that we can lay hold of something fresh. The bard should lay the world before us in its prismatic brilliance.


The Bard is concerned with remembering the past and transmitting it to the present. She is skilled at setting the world afresh before us through art. She is rooted in the present moment. But the Ovate is different. She comes to us bearing the perspective of Eternity. With the Ovate stage, the letting-go of the self begins. The Bard mediated the world to us through her own self (I am a wind on the sea, I am a wave of the ocean, I am…I am…I am sings Amergin.) But the Ovate begins to dissolve herself away. The Bard speaks, but the Ovate rests in a great silence. By removing herself from herself, she enters a dark and empty space where she can perceive dispassionately. She becomes intimate with endings, untyings, grief and dissolution. The Ovate remembers that death is inborn in us. To be an Ovate is to begin to disappear. The mystic Simone Weil expressed the same idea when she said:

If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.

Who could live up to this all the time? Nevertheless, the longing comes to you and must be followed. I once wrote a poem about this feeling, which I experienced sitting in the middle of nowhere in the Hebrides:

O holy rain, strip me bare.
Make me nowhere.

Wind which grinds heather,
pluck my teeth,
Pare bones and hair.
Make me air.

Fern and falling hawk,
my self discern,
In darkness and dearth.
Make of me earth.

Bloodwater midges,
dark-mirrored pool,
Drain me dry.
Take from me this I.

The Ovatic stage is the point in Druidry equivalent to that found in all mystical traditions, at which what you experience as most real ceases to be you. You begin to find your own self a tiresome distraction to the task of faithfulness to the Real. A profound peace wells up in the soul as you begin to be emptied of yourself. For a time, you become a vessel waiting to be filled. This, I think, is why the Ovate is associated with the darkness and emptiness of night and winter. The speech of the Ovate is prophecy, because in her heart a dazzling darkness has come to dwell. It is as though she always holds within herself that moment of midwinter, just before the mistletoe touches the earth: an enfolding darkness, holding seeds of uncreated light.

* * *

All we can say for certain about the ancient bards and ovates is this: bards praised and ovates prophesied. My definitions above are nothing but meditations on the labels and would certainly be incomprehensible to the ancient bards and ovates. I we could go back and hear it, the poetry of the pre-Christian bards would be uncongenial to us – rhythmic and metrical, glorifying the violence and profligacy of warlords and petty chieftains, boastfully obsessed with their aristocratic pedigrees.

I often wonder also what the Druids would have looked like too. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find them chanting immense bodies of complicated, subtle scriptures from memory, describing the relationship of gods and the world, much like the Indian Rig Veda. It’s entirely possible that they had an intricate polytheology of the soul rooted in the landscape of Gaul and Britain, perhaps expressing the idea of the continuous recreation of the world through sacrifice. Their Indo-European cousins, the Vedic rishis, or seers, had precisely such as system in India at the time. On the other hand, I’d also be entirely unsurprised to find that they regularly performed human sacrifice, and that their teachings would strike us as violent, hierarchical and concerned with safeguarding their own privileged social status. Of course, I’d like the first picture to be true, but the second is just as likely, and so are a lot of things between those two extremes. Loyalty to the Real means not getting stuck on any pet vision of the druids and just accepting that we know next to nothing about them. We need a peaceful resting in uncertainty, without free-association or agenda-driven shrillness.


Why Druids? So much depends on with whom we confuse ourselves, as Elias Canetti said. The only constant in the tangle of associations clustering round the word ‘Druid’ through the years is this: that being a Druid puts you a special category of person. It makes you different. In using the term, isn’t there a kind of hidden threat of self-aggrandisement? As Bobcat has suggested, ‘Druid’ perhaps shouldn’t be a self-applied term: it is something one can aspire to be, but never become.

So am I Druid? As I wrote this I realised slight shifts in emphasis would make entirely different labels possible. I playfully tried ‘British Folk-Buddhist’ on. That fitted remarkably well. ‘Nature Mystic’ also was comfortable. Sufism inspires me deeply. Is what I do ‘Druidry’? I have absolutely no idea, especially as I am left completely bemused by the concept of the ‘Druid Tradition’, for reasons partly outlined above. I reverence my ancestors and various divine beings (principally Brighid), and nature is both the absolute heart and context of my religious life. Is that Druidry? Perhaps. But I have no time whatsoever for most of the extraneous trappings, finding them an irritating distraction.

I keep coming across artists and poets who express a devotion to the spirit in nature in these islands with clarity and longing. We have an immensely rich tradition of such people. It is this devotion to the texture of the world, with its sense of historical consciousness, which I mean by ‘loyalty to the Real.’ There is a shock of recognition when I find it. Andy Goldsworthy’s organic, evanescent sculptures are exquisite offerings to the spirits of place. Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart is a songline, a rich watery spool of words in the voice of the goddess of the river Dart in Devon. Ted Hughes’ stark mythic poems enshrine him as ‘a guardian spirit of the land and language’, as Seamus Heaney called him. There are many others – Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Richard Mabey, David Jones, and Kathleen Raine. And further back, the Gawain poet, John Clare, and Dafydd ap Gwilym. Their work and lives reverence the fragile wilderness and fragile histories of Britain. They used and use their imaginations to unconceal its being, to reverence the Real with both joy and heartbreak: stars, strata, leaf-litter, trees, tears, time.

That, for me, is Druidry enough.

Thursday, 10 January 2008


We're coming up to the Feast of the Epiphany, and to Orthodox Christmas, so I reproduce here a poem by Anne Stevenson, from her Poems 1955-2005 (Bloodaxe, 2005), with the Orthodox ikon of the Nativity.


The scene they play
is the midwife's
without the midwife.

Blood, groans,
have drained into the gold,
and all her pain

is inward and to be.

The child
is like a prophet
on her knee.

A Doctor of Science.

In joy
his forehead
flexes in its sphere.

His hand
that claws her face
catches her tear.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Pascal's crisis

Samhain, and the whole winter season, is a time for reflecting on existential issues, and confronting - even submitting to - periods of nullity, nihilism and despair. Blaise Pascal (1623-62), the French mathematician and philosopher, described this feeling rather wonderfully. I find myself asking if this passage should become part of our Winter Solstice liturgy.

'I do not know who put me in the world, nor what the world is, nor what I am myself. I am in a terrible ignorance about everything. I do not know what my body is, or my senses, or my soul, or even that part of me which thinks what I am saying, which reflects on itself and everything but knows itself no better than anything else. I see the terrifying spaces of the universe enclosing me, and I find myself attached to one corner of this expanse without knowing why I have been placed here rather than there, or why the life alloted to me should be assinged to this moment rather than to another in all the eternity that preceeded and which follows me. I see only an infinity on every side, enclosing me like an atom or a shadow that vanishes in an instant.'

Monday, 5 November 2007


It has been curious not doing a Samhain ritual this year. My grove has always pulled the stops out for Samhain, and I'm feeling the lack of the yearly excitement as we all dress in black and go deep into the dark, frosty woods early in November. The trees drip with moisture and the smell of smoke and leafmould hangs on the air. (We normally sing the Dead Can Dance song performed on the video above.) Amid the piles of rotting leaves, we sink into what Angela Carter described as 'nearly, but not quite, the saddest time of the year.'

And it is sad. I sometimes feel the Druidic emphasis on darkness doesn't quite ring true, at least not for me: yes, it is rich, yes, it is voluptuously inspiring, velvety, exquisite, all those other words which get tokenistically overused. Not yet at that time of winter, in late December or early January, when the cold rings like a bell and the fields are like locked rooms, Samhain has a heavy, emotional feeling. The season bears a weight of grief.

This year, I decorated my altar with red and yellow leaves, the last of the scarlet dahlias from the garden, and twisted black branches. I collected little golden apples, and have piled them up with some rabbit bones. The ikon of Brighid is swathed in black cloth (to honour the Gaelic goddess of winter, the Cailleach, whose name means 'Veiled One', and who is a kind of wintery alter ego of Brighid.) There are photos of my ancestors: I treasure one of my great, great-grandmother, Elizabeth McRae, whose is standing holding my great-grandmother as a babe in arms in a back garden of turned earth. I looked out at the earth I have just turned in my new garden and thought of her. I burned some sage from the garden, lit the candles and stood by the open back door looking up and the stars through the trees. The squealing of rockets and the bangs of fireworks made the night sound like a flock of shrieking gulls had been disturbed by mortar attacks. But in the flat, silence reigned.

I put on Lisa Gerrard's last album and let myself fade into it; the freezing night air, the candlelight, the smoke, the stars. I had a little cry. I thought of all the suffering in the world: maudlin, I know, but at least it cut through my ingrained compassion fatigue. It tenderises the heart. I recited to myself part of the liturgy that Justine and I had cobbled together from Carol Ann Duffy for our Samhain ritual:

Learn from the winter trees,
the way they kiss and throw away their leaves
and hold their stricken faces in their hands
and turn to ice;
winter flays them to the bone.
We are sinking into darkness,
we are sailing through the night.
For man and woman,
the days turn into years
and the body is a grave filling up with time.
We are drowning.
All that rescues us is love.

And then I sat in darkness and let the cold wash in. Welcome, winter.

Friday, 21 September 2007


Prayer, by Carol Ann Duffy

Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre

Sunday, 9 September 2007


The so-called 'Angel with the Golden Hair': a Russian icon, from the Novgorod school, mid to late 12th century. Keep looking. It's a deeply strange and beautiful image.