When I write an article on an ancient British deity it is always done with great difficulty. We do have some of the names of the deities and spirits and we have the quietest whisper of their associations, but there is almost no indigenous lore left about our practices other than horrific Roman propaganda and Christianised stories.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge when trying to write about a British Animistic path is accepting the painful reality that we have almost completely lost all traces of our ancient Animistic culture.
The second hurdle is knowing that most of what I write conflicts Neo-Pagan ideas. I am fighting against an enormous quantity of New-Age nonsense, 18th century, masonic occultism and outright misappropriation of other indigenous Animistic cultures which gets printed and passed off as “Celtic”.
In ancient times the Animistic priests of Britain and other parts of the Celtic world were the Druids. There is however one important statement that I will repeat throughout this blog, we need to stop living in a fantasy that we have somehow already reclaimed our spiritual heritage, the simple truth is that modern Druidry is NOT Druidry; it is a reconstructed mess formed over a couple of hundred years after the almost total loss of any of the ancient indigenous knowledge of this land.1
Seeing with Ancient Eyes, Speaking with an Ancient Voice
I cannot claim to be an expert anthropologist or anything more than a home-educated historian, however my Autism gives me a fascination in both subjects to the point that my reading list goes beyond the commonly available sources and into the depths of serious academic research papers. I love it, and I love to try and see if I can experience deity, spirit and ceremony from the perspective of an ancestor. I try to put myself into the position of an ancestor, crouched ready in a hunt, stood proud as battle horns sound or seeking shelter in a cave. I throw myself back down the history written in my DNA to see through the eyes of those who have gone before me.
The Importance of the Ancestors
The ancestors have always been an important part of British spirituality, even through the Christian period and we owe a lot to the cultures which came after the Celtic period, for although they systematically persecuted the native Brittons, they also gave us tools to record the names of the people, their lineage and their deeds.
The Spirits Speak Through Us
From a spiritual, Animistic perspective, we all share spirit with ancestors who are not direct relations, even those of different cultures. Their bones are in the ground nurturing the crops that we eat, being eroded into the water we drink, feeding the trees which create the air that we breathe. I was born in the land of the Catuvellauni, the Norse settled this area, the Romans had forts, the Saxon chieftain Bucca led his people to defend their portion of Wessex against the Danish army. Cunobelin gave his name to some of the villages, some towns have Viking names, some Norman, some Saxon and some Brythonic. 2 These people are in my bones, as are the beasts and birds of the land, sea and sky.
From the chalk hills of Calchfynedd, to the clay soil in the Vale of Æglesburgh, to the the Viking burials at Secklow and Taplow, the land sings through my voice as it can for everyone. It is all about learning to listen to it.
Bringing a Forgotten Deity to Life
When writing about Taranis (Thunderer) and Cernunnos (Antlered One) I have tried to get a picture of their backstory, the reason they became important enough to our ancestors to see them as Gods. It’s easy to understand see that Taranis was representative of lightning, storms and the wheel, his statues display that, his name means ‘Thunderer’, but WHY was this so? Why was thunder important? I had to look at other thunder deities around the world, from Indra to Thor, Zeus to Perun. What do they all have in common? What kind of people might have venerated him? Warriors, smiths, farmers? How were we first introduced to him? What gifts did he give?
With Cernunnos we probably have more of an idea about his history, though he is much clearer to see in other cultures, from Pashupati to Pan, but the specifics of the Celtic understanding of the antlered (or bull horned deity) are lost and so again it requires a lot of comparing cultures, seeing the common themes and stripping away the specifics of those other cultures.
Sad to say though, this is still reconstructionism, and it always will be. We have lost the ancient knowledge forever (unless it turns out that the Celts did in fact write it all down and it has been stolen and stored in the Vatican library).
Are my assumptions about the deities correct? From the perspective of Bioregional Animism 3 yes, these are my experiences of these great beings. Are they right for you? Maybe not, but that’s the beauty of an Animistic spirituality, it is about YOUR direct experience with the natural world that shapes your own spiritual relationship. What I write on this blog is what I assume to be the closest I can get to the real meat and bones of British deities and spirits, but I cannot stress enough that we have lost the ancient knowledge, I can only go on what I experience.
Animal Lore is Easier!
We DO have a lot of evidence for the roles of certain animals in British culture, this comes through archaeological evidence, medieval Welsh, Scottish, Irish and European literature and certain cultural practices which still survive. Some of the animal totemic lore remains in our language still; ‘Strong as an Ox’ for instance. Writing about Animal and Tree lore is much easier although it has certainly been tainted by the same New-Age threads as Druidry.
There are more deities I will be writing about and more animals whose lore I will be sharing too. Some deities will be well known, such as Tigernonos, Rigatona, Taruos and Nantosuelta, some are more localised such as Tamesis and some are more personal such as the Ridgeway path. I hope you will continue to join me on this journey and I also hope that you will go out and find your own relationship with them and with nature!
- British culture was an oral culture in that the ancient Brittons (the Celtic tribes of the pre-Roman British Isles) had no written language, their lore was passed down in an oral tradition by the tribal priestly castes known today as Bards, Ovates and Druids. Even this caste has been reinvented by 18th Century, masonic men’s clubs who based their so-called Druidry on a misunderstanding of the sacred places of the British Isles, the timeline of Celtic and pre-Celtic cultures and on the writings of frauds such as Iolo Morganwgg (Edward Williams) whose work, though very convincing, was proven to be forgery in the 19th Century. As such much of the lore passed on by expensive “Druid” courses is based on lies and new-age reconstructionism; modern Druidry bears little to no resemblance to ancient Druidry. In fact modern Druidry bears more in common with Wicca as one of the founding members of the largest Druid order, OBOD (The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids), to which I once belonged, was Ross Nichols, long time friend of Gerald Gardner and both Neo-Pagan religions, Wicca and Druidry, were born from the work of these two men.