What does it mean to attempt walking an ancient path within modern British culture? To be honest, it means walking a broken path filled with a million pitfalls and dangers, it often seems like an almost impossible task. There is a lot to say on this matter so I hope I don’t labour on too much!
A Broken Path
The ancient ways of British people have been lost in their original form for at least 1600 years, this is due to the aggression of the Roman empire, the Christian church and in modern times, the use of fashion and popular opinion to make such things “strange”, “weird”, “unhealthy”, “fantasy” or the conjurings of the mentally ill. Very few British people are aware of their cultural heritage and of the few that are aware, very few care. Of the few that care, due to the culture of convenience, very few take it seriously, instead ceremonies are performed when and where it is convenient, read from scripts printed on paper in safe, dry, warm human places. Forgive me for asking, but where is the difference between a sterile, neo-pagan, indoor ritual performed under the watchful eye of an arch-druid or high-priest, and a mass in church? The method is the same, the names of the objects of devotion are different, both are separated from the natural world and the realm of spirit.
But this is not the fault of the practitioners, this is just a symptom of a broken culture, we cling to what we know, and for 1600 years, bar an incredibly small minority, what we have known is church mass. On the fringes of society, rooting through hedgerows, working their craft under cover of darkness in secluded locations, far from the watchful eye of good Christian folk, there have been a few people carrying remnants of the ancient ways, whether you would call them Witches or Cunning folk, these are the last of the British “Shamans”.
While Witchcraft is by no means a British tradition: it originates with the clash between the Anglish and Saxon invaders and the native British, two old spiritual paths coming together despite their differences, outside of the political and military struggle between the two cultures; it keeps the flame of the ancient British tradition alive. It is important to note that this does not include the New Age versions of Witchcraft which are misappropriated jumble-sales thrown together from occult, masonic textbooks, Eastern mysticism, Yoga and Christian ritual. I want to make it clear that I have nothing against the New-Age religions, they are very clearly helpful to people seeking shelter from the status quo, however I feel that they should make it clear that they are not original traditions!
It is very likely that ancient Druidry, the path of the Dryw (early Welsh word meaning “Seer” or “one who sees”), was the culmination of the ancient British spiritual path until it was almost stomped out of existence in 60CE under the orders of Emperor Nero. Sadly modern Druidry bears little to no likeness to ancient Druidry as it is almost entirely a creation of Freemasonry, Occultism and wishful thinking. The simple truth is that the Druids did not write down any of their lore and with their defeat on Ynis Môn (Anglesey), what existed of Druidry was all but wiped from history. It is extremely unlikely that all the Druids in Europe were killed at that battle, many surely would have chosen to flee to Ireland or Scotland or to go underground and it may well be that this formed the British thread that wove into Witchcraft.
Drawing on other cultures without stealing from other cultures
Neo-Pagan paths allow for personal interpretation, this is something essential to a healthy spiritual lifestyle. However we live in a culture which is now more used to literal translation rather than metaphorical interpretation, this often means that practitioners of these paths prefer to follow a leader of some sort, whether that is an Arch-Druid, High Priest, High Priestess, Goði or other Guru type character, here we run the risk of allowing our ego to dictate a path based on a position of assumed authority. Due to the fact that no European pagan culture has been left untouched by the Church, the stories we have from that time were written down by Christian monks and were obviously changed for the benefit of the Church and the campaign against Pagans. Because of this tendency toward literal translation and the ancient stories being changed, we often fail to see the common threads across our European spiritual cultures: Many people do not see that Thor, Thunor and Taranis are the same deity, separated only by the language of the culture. With our further separation from even older roots to our cultures, we often fail to see links to other cultures, for instance Audumla (Old Norse), Kamadenu (Hindu) and Hathor (Egyptian) all very possibly being the same deity, Cernunnos, Pashupati, Sylvanus, Pan, Freyr all being possibly the same deity or the glaringly obvious Kali, Morrigan, Cadbodua, Valkyrie, Freyja, Isis, Nekhbet all very possibly being the same deity! If we were able to see these links and the obvious links in ritual, lore and even language, we would be able to draw from other cultures to recreate our own, whilst never losing sight of the great truth; that we are all one. It is important to note however that the stories ARE different about each of these deities and are associated with the cultural history and the landscape in which each story has evolved. There are common threads, some of which are near universal such as the purpose of thunder deities, carrion birds and nature gods, but just as each forest or river in the world is different from all others, so too are the variations of these deities. These beings are not to be taken literally!
The Neo-Pagan calendar of eight fire festivals is entirely modern. The names of the festivals are a mix of British, Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian, there is no clear evidence of a ritual calendar in Britain and the only Celtic calendar we actually know of is the Coligny calendar (there is NO Celtic tree calendar or Celtic zodiac!) which is a complicated procession where an entire extra month is inserted every two and a half years.
Britain has a sacred tradition, it is alive, but it is in serious need of care and attention. The flame needs fuel, it needs to be fed in order to grow, but herein we face a problem. We must look to other cultures to find similarities with our own ancient path, we must look to the tribes of other lands, but we MUST NOT copy them! Europeans, British included, have a long history of cultural oppression against one another, but also of conquest, colonisation and domination over cultures beyond our borders. The Siberian and Mongolian tribes have been devastated by Russian colonisation, Native American, African, Polynesian and Australian Aborigine cultures have been oppressed by Europeans and sadly, due to our own feelings of loss, we appropriate these cultures to try and fill the gaps in our own.
Sweatlodges are not British and while many neo-Druids will claim that there is sufficient evidence of their use in Bronze age Britain, I am yet to find that evidence despite searching for it. Animal totems ARE British, but we must be careful not to mix up cultural associations with those from elsewhere. A popular practice of smoke bathing DOES exist in British (or at least Gaelic) spirituality, however Saining (as it is called here) is different to Smudging and neither white sage or palo santo would have been used, rather juniper, fir, birch and other native plants would have been. Using such plants as white sage, sweetgrass or palo santo in New-Age practice is actually very harmful to the proper cultures as the mass demand for them has created unhealthy farming practices. In much the same way, the modern craze for Ayahuasca has created a devastating tourist trend which destroys the habitat of that plant and the cultures who use it properly. Using the word Shaman is a tricky point, it is a Siberian word meaning “one who knows” or “one who sees”, (Tungus ‘Saman”) and the same title has its own words in our own culture as in the case of both Dryw (early Welsh), Cunning Man or Cunning Woman (Proper name for a Witch) where the word Cunning which comes from Old English Kenning, means ‘to know” thus a Cunning Man is a knowing man or a man who knows. However, the word Shaman is a modern alteration of the Tungus ‘saman’ and has long since been recognised as an umbrella term for practitioners of an ancient spiritual practice which appears worldwide.
Neo-Pagans are quick to complain that Christianity has stolen its festivals from pre-existing European Pagan cultures, but are equally as quick to defend the misappropriation of other cultures while trying to fill in gaps of their broken heritage.
I’m only Human
I am not innocent in this, during the early part of my learning, while following the path of Druidry (without realising how removed it was from its ancient namesake) I would be swept up by the latest things to be “rediscovered” or to be blatantly misappropriated. I have attended Druid Sweatlodges and found them powerful, I have also attended a sweatlodge facilitated by a Native American lady which was far more powerful an experience. While living on a protest site in Oxfordshire the Druids at the camp would get up for sunrise and perform a “Lakota dance of life” which was in all fairness probably not Lakota at all, though the singing used did appropriate the style used by American tribes of the plains. I learned to smudge before I learned to sain. I have used white sage, palo santo, sweetgrass etc. I have read both of Sarangarel’ s brilliant books on Buryat Mongolian Shamanism and practiced each item as described, going so far as to learn a little Buryat, but I wonder now how insulting that must be for actual Buryat Mongols that a man in his (at the time) 20s was enacting their ways without ever even meeting a member of their culture much less asking for formal training and permission. I have been lucky enough to have had some tutoring from a man claiming Mohawk heritage, however I wonder whether he was telling the truth. But why has this been part of my path? Because there has not been a clear path in my own culture! I feel bad for taking part in these things without even stopping to think if it may be appropriate for myself or insulting to others, in my defence, I didn’t know better and was only imitating supposedly respected British or Druid leaders.
The only New-Age path that openly admits drawing from global Shamanic cultures and respectfully steps aside from the religious and cultural influences on what it creates, is Core Shamanism, a modern path with an ancient heritage which aims to reconnect Europeans with their spiritual heritage. This is a path created by Michael Harner however this is a path which is not always well received in the global Shamanic community and does in fact require large sums of money to take part in.
What DO we know?
There are some things that we do know about the ancient British which may help in creating a new path from the flame of the old.
- Ancient British people were Animists, the land and all that was in it are alive, and are our ancestors.
- The Otherworld was entered during life via a pool or the sea and at death by being eaten by Carrion birds, cremated and interred in a burial chamber (a three-fold funeral).
- The number three was sacred, however there is no evidence of a triple Goddess which was a creation of Robert Graves.
- Animal totems and animals as names were common in the ancient culture.
- Saining is similar to smudging but not the same, it is however authentic.
- British spiritual culture evolved over thousands of years from the various cultures which evolved or came into contact with the people of the Island.
- With care, medieval Celtic literature can be picked apart to see some threads of the ancient path.
- Stone circles have nothing to do with Druidry and predate British culture, though they very likely had a large part to play in British culture.
- Trees, forests and hunting were very important to British culture.
- Reincarnation is certain for the majority though moving to another world after death is also mentioned.
- Faeries are NOT your friends! The overwhelming majority of ancient charms were created to protect people from the attacks of faeries or to appease faeries. It is likely that Faeries are the land spirits which are known by other names in other cultures such as Wights (Old English), Burhan (Buryat Mongol), Trolls and Elves (Norse). They are however very real.
Laying a New Path
There is no easy way to say this, but we will never again have our ancient British spiritual path, however, there is a good chance that we can use the flame that has been kept safe to build a new, authentic British path. It MUST be done with the utmost respect for the cultures we ask to inspire us and with respect for our own ancestors. It is imperative that we learn to be discerning when picking through the bones of our own culture and the things that we are told by organisations and some individuals who offer what they claim to be authentic elements of the path.