Challenges are essential on a personal spiritual path. Call yourself a Druid, and they come regularly: the image is deep enough in our national psyche for everyone to have their own particular views, whatever their religion. This is a great thing; it allows our thinking a chance to mature, to shift and adapt with the deeper understanding that time brings. It keeps our practice fresh and relevant and authentic.
A few weeks ago, a major challenge came my way. It came as the result of an invitation, so settle down for a moment and I’ll tell you a tale…
Glastonbury festival hosts Arcadia Spectacular and its presiding geniuses, the technical director Bertie Cole and creative director Pip Rush Jansen, got in touch. The Arcadia Spectacular stage set takes the form of a gigantic spider the size of a two storey house, with glowing eyes, flashing appendages, and shooting huge columns of fire into the air. Trapeze artists and aerialists swing from its huge body in a thrilling display.
And Spider, Pip and Bert had their own story….
In 2016 transporting it in 4 huge shipping containers to Perth Australia brought them into contact with the local aboriginal people. In Perth they met a different kind of engagement with spider energy – one that goes back further than recorded history; they met Barry McGuire, an aboriginal guardian for the Spider Tribe. Arcadia’s performance was enriched and enhanced and bedded into the land by the wonderful welcome that the tribe gave them. Led by Barry, there was traditional dance and song then, for the first time in the city’s history, the community, of all ethnicities, had felt truly united, dancing beneath the spider. It was a profoundly healing event.
Well, the natural response to Barry’s generosity in sharing his ancestral practice was to invite him to see the spider in its native land, at Glastonbury festival in 2017. So flying forward in time and space to England, enter one local Druid…
Arcadia Spectacular invited me to devise a ceremony of welcome for Barry and three other visitors; two First Nation activists from Standing Rock, Doug and William, and an African Griot*, Nfaly Kouyate, from the Afro Celt Sound system.
It is a little intimidating to expose one’s handcrafted spirituality to such eminent people …
Challenge! Their path has been honoured by their culture for countless generations; mine is still finding its feet in the world.
Challenge! These visitors all have a recognised position in their communities and now, at last, in the wider world: by comparison, I and my spirituality have no status.
Challenge! The practices have been hallowed and handed down for generations in an unbroken line, whilst I’m helping to forge a new tradition, whose value will be to future generations.What a privilege, what an opportunity to examine what I did. And I devised something which I feel is rooted in the traditions of these islands.
The first essential was choosing trusty companions to share the adventure; Matt McCabe, the apple-orchard Druid of Bath, and Arthur Billington, an Honorary Bard of OBOD: a Druidic trio. I was concerned to avoid any hint or suggestion of cultural misappropriation. Aspects of my tradition are lost, but it seems obvious that traditional practices have many overlaps worldwide. One example of that is purifying with smoke, so I am happy to do that in most ceremonies, but on this occasion, lacking written authentication from those Romans and Greeks, smudging was out. So what did I put in the ceremony?
I drew from three sources; mythology, archaeology, and good old common sense, and this is how it went…
With the Arcadia crew, we opened a circle of community, trust and love by holding hands, whilst I cast it using a silver branch of apple wood and ringing bells – just as the interface of the worlds was heralded by Manannan Mac Lir and his silver branch.
Then the ceremony was divided into three parts…
Honouring the ancestors of this land and this place – ratified by all that archaeology reveals about activity in/around our long barrows: this was a simple invocation, with a call and response.
Blessing the visitors and company with water from the sacred red and white springs of Glastonbury, only 5 miles away. Earlier, over dinner, I’d explained the ancient custom of giving votive offerings to water, and had invited the visitors to have a small silver coin if they wished to join in this custom: they did, and I returned their offerings to source later. Whilst Matt blessed each visitor personally, Arthur and I asperged the crew.
Extrapolating from evidence of feasting, meat eating and celebration at sacred sites, I decided that gift-giving would finish our ceremony.
This was important because another part of the intention was to establish a bond of trust and safety amongst the crew. There were to be nearly 100 of them present: so how to give a meaningful gift? It came courtesy of my favourite local Scots pines, which happily had been shedding cones in abundance. Everyone was able to have one, with a reminder that the pine is the far see-er, the guardian of the high places, the fixed yet flexible safe mover through the airy realms – just as the crew, working on the giant construction as aerialists or in any other capacity, would be. Arthur explained the many qualities that connected pine and human – including the outpouring of creative offerings that the assembled talent represented. He invited them to imbue the cone with their wishes and hopes, then return that to spirit by throwing it into the fire: we were overwhelmed by the joyous rush!
Most importantly, the holding nature of the ceremony allowed space, between the honouring and blessings, for all of our visitors to speak about their own paths and what had brought them here. So we were blessed with First Nation and African magical songs and a rare insight into their own ancestral paths from people who, by living them, are holding them safely for the future.
As I have written before; living Druidry is a privilege and an adventure.
And what of my sensitivities around cultural misappropriation? The last word is from First Nation William to Matt – ‘Fantastic ceremony… you should have smudged us!’
Huge appreciation must go to Simon Emmerson – record producer, guitarist, DJ, and founder of the group Afro Celt Sound System. A large part of his musical life has been steeped in fusion and connection between Irish and West African and electronic music and bringing together many guest artists. So how appropriate that he was the vital link that connected us all to bring this into being. Thanks, Simon.
(*a member of a class of travelling poets, musicians, and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa.)