here is an increasing need among folk to explore a more shamanic path in their spiritual connection to the isles of Britain; I hear folk saying that they are looking for something authentic!
The word “Shamanism” tends to lead folk down a particular path of assumptions leading them to the Native Americans, the Amazonian Indians, Peruvian Shamans or the Sami or Siberian Shamanism. Folk feel the traditions authenticity, visiting far-flung lands to taste the spirit of these cultures and indulge in their ceremonies, sacred sites and visionary practices. All of these wondrous paths, can call to us, we feel that by immersing ourselves into these exotic traditions, it carries us spirituality further; a living, vibrant spiritual expression. But you then relate it to our land, our island on the north-western edge of Europe, where the climate is changeable, as such consisting of all four seasons in a day. The connection works as there is a common thread to these practices, often referred to as “Core Shamanism” yet the language of our hills, valleys, mountains, rivers and woods are very different! It’s a much harder path to find such authenticity in a British shamanic spirituality, for as a largely secular society, we don’t invest in the spiritual heritage of this land beyond archaeology and Christianity.
As a teenager exploring my spiritual understanding of the world that was relevant to my skewed mortal vision of the place where I live, I stumbled and fumbled my way through the stories and shadows of this island past. Here I found the practices of traditional witchcraft, the cunning folk, the Druids of Iron Age eloquence but it was the ancient dead that carried me to the dreaming of my land.
At the age of eleven, weeks away from leaving the comfort of primary school, our class was taken on a field trip to the Margaret Macmillan Field Centre, in Kent; A week of outdoor pursuits, natural history, geology and history. What more could I ask for. Although born and raised in the heart of the City of London my familiarity and understanding of the countryside and its history was second to none. My parents feeding my interest and thirst for knowledge by taking my sister and I on holiday to places of wonder within the British Isles and much time spent in a hidden valley within the Kent countryside.
The week began and so was to begin a journey of self-discovery and inner bliss; albeit with present day hindsight! One fine sunny, balmy, summer’s day the center decided that we were to have the experience of being an Iron Age community. The class was divided up into three groups or tribes, and with potatoes sacks as clothing we were to survive the day simply from the fat of the land and our ingenuity to trade and barter. My tribe was the woodland Edge Tribe; we set up camp on the edge of wood and field. Food was required, and since we found a source of clay in a natural pond we proceeded to make clay pots and vases to trade for some tasty morsels to eat. Reality soon showed us that we were going to need a fire, not only to cook our food but to fire the pots in the first place. We tried to remain authentic by rubbing sticks and striking flints but with our stomachs empty and our patients wearing thin, we asked one of our peddlers how we could light our fire. We were told that all the tribes were suffering because of this, but we were approaching the task incorrectly. We were told to gather everyone together and to assemble in a circle around the sacred tree, deep in the wood. The air of mystery and magic was set and frantically everyone gathered around this huge, mighty beech tree deep in the centre of the wood. Holding hands we began to sing, dance and chant to the sacred tree to help us to light our fires. I felt myself grow ten feet tall, the energy rush was thrilling and everyone was laughing, singing and rolling around in true childhood freedom. As we ended we were told to bow before the tree. As I reverently bowed I could see behind me, our teacher throwing lighted fire lighters into our bonfires! We all stood up and raced back to our camps to find our fires raging. Despite the shattering of my illusion of the magic we had cast to light our fires, I could not under-estimate the adrenaline rush, the sense of community and the mighty tree, I felt alive. A shy, bullied young boy became alive, extrovert leader of his small tribe! With the chins of teachers falling to the floor!
The following day was to be spent walking in the local area visiting some ancient stones and a quarry to search for fossils. By lunch time that day we arrived at the ancient stones, the Coldrum Stones – a Neolithic long-barrow. We sat down to eat our lunch, expect for me, I was intrigued as to what they were used for. Staff told me from the centre that it was an early cemetery and believed to be older than Stonehenge. But I wanted to know more, asking questions that could not be answered. Soon lunch time was over, and with the teachers having to drag me away to reach the quarry in time for our planned tour, I said ‘One day Miss I am going to live here!’ with a toss of the head and a look of no hope the teacher hurried me along the path.
The week ended and I returned home with many tales and stories to tell my parents and younger sister. At the age of eleven I was not fully aware of the importance of this visit upon my life until some ten years later.
In 1993 my parents were given the opportunity to fulfill a dream of moving out of London and into the Kent countryside. At this time, at the age of 21, I had finished my education within medical laboratory sciences and faced the reality that my colour blindness would render me unemployable in this field of work. With the exacerbated stress of moving not only house but from inner London to the Kent countryside, I began to slide deep within myself and a depression that was to lead me to face my own demons and those of my Pagan spirituality. Moving at the time of Samhain, the festival of the New Year and the ancestors was to place me in direct contact with the fear of my own death.
One bright, cold, autumnal day I packed my rack sack with a flask and set off to explore the woodlands not knowing where I was going or if I would return alive! Following animal tracks, unmarked paths and my pain, I found myself at the foot of the North Downs, upon a track called the Pilgrims Way. Walking along the pilgrim’s way I remember the tales of Chaucer and all the pilgrims that must have walked this path as they ‘wend thy way to Canterbury’. Out of the corner of my eye, my attention was averted to a fallen, rusty metallic sign. I soon recognise the sign as belong to the National Trust. Clearing away the mud and dead vegetation the sign was revealed and read ‘Foot path to the Coldrum Stones’ my breath caught in my throat, my heart skipped a beat and soon I found myself walking along the path in the direction of this sign. Soon my pace increased, a walk became a jog and a jog became a scramble of knee-deep mud as I tried to sprint to the end of the path. I reached the end and ascended some stairs. At the top I fell to my knees, suddenly tears began to flow and I remembered a boy of eleven saying ‘One day Miss I am going to live here!’ I had come home, my healing was to begin and I was reborn and my native spiritual heritage was to be remembered from deep within my essence and dreaming on the land. I continued to work both physically and spirituality with this site which led me to discover that I could label my spiritual path as being within the Druid tradition.
The term “Druid” for me was more than a word to describe my spiritual expression, it was more than a reconstruction of the priestly organised religion of Iron Age Britain; it was an invocation of native spiritual heritage that emerged, evolved from the very fabric of these Islands. Being exposed to many different teachers within Druidry, Shamanism, Witchcraft and Spiritualism I was encouraged to allow my spirituality to evolve from my connection to the Coldrum Stones and the dreaming of the ancient dead, whose bones once laid there; eventually having the opportunity to actually meet with the bones, to hold, to touch and to sing to them.
Recently feeling the constraints of where I seem to spiritually be; a neat little box (either of your own choosing or my others proclamation) labelled Druid Priest, I soon realised that I’m an Animist, a priest of nature, I’m a dreamer of my land, working shamanically to build, strengthen and deepen my connection to this land, its stories, it magic, its dead. I wouldn’t call myself a Celtic Shaman, I wouldn’t call myself a Shaman, but I’m a druid using shamanic practices to deepen my sacred relationship with land, nature, gods and our ancestors; Singing their stories alive in today’s world. Some may call this “British Shamanism” but does such a thing exist, is there really a British Way? After all the British is made up of a horde of conquering nations of our historical past, each adding their flavour to the lands spiritual expression.
I think the very nature of this island with its changeable temperate climate is one of constant evolution, the downside, some may say, is that we lose the authenticity of a truly native spiritual tradition that is rooted in the very land itself. Yet if we dream further back, we find our early ancestors, on the edge of the great ice, carving and painting the walls of caves, with symbols and animals as if they dance from the very otherworld itself, as in the caves at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire. The dead being laid to rest in caves with goods of stone tools, plants and food. As farming became more established so monuments and tombs begin to emerge, giving us a clear indication of ritual activity, a belief in the afterlife and an acknowledgement of spirits. Moving into the Bronze and Iron Age, spirituality becomes a little more organised and perhaps the shamanic version was not as raw – life becoming domesticated and urbanised.
We have to work harder in Britain, to find these roots, this authenticity, but it is there, forgotten, asleep in mountains, valleys, pools and ragged rocks. Here is the British way; found through the dreaming of the land, being on the land, with the land, in the land. The stories come flooding back, the spirits respond and more importantly we remember.
I use the term dreaming to refer to the shamanic journey undertaken on these shores. It’s a phrase that is often used among the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, but was brought into poplar use in Britain by Manda Scott and her Boudicca novels. There is no archaeological evidence of drums being used in Britain’s pre-history, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It’s believed in some circles that animal skins were stretched over clay pots to create drums; some evidence does seem to suggest that rocks were carved into small drum like carvings that were struck to give sound. My own experience tends towards the idea that pot drums may have been used, but the British journey; the Dreaming often involved chanting, experiencing extremes (temperature – hot and cold, light and darkness etc.) to assist in the shift of consciousness. And then there are actual sleep dreams, that too can allow a shift into other forms of reality, with a process known here in Britain as the ‘Incubation of Dreams’ In Lydney Park, Gloucestershire the remains of a Romano-Celtic ‘dream temple’ have been found. It’s believed that people would visit the temple to dream to gain answers to questions, for healing or for some insight; indeed a very ‘shamanic’ practice.
So I find myself treading the questions in spirals, for we do indeed need to work hard, go deeper to find a British way to our shamanic/druidic spirituality, we don’t have a reservation to visit, we don’t have a book to refer too, we don’t have a guru to whom we can become an apprentice, but we do have the land, the hills, the mountains, the rivers and seas, the trees, the caves, circles of stones and chambered tombs, we do have the stories of our ancestors of this land, we simply need to dream them alive for ourselves once again; It’s here we find an authentic British way.