How I wish, dear reader, that I might tell you of how blemishless this ceremony was, how perfectly it did unfold, but sadly, it rather unravelled to dismal disappointment.
And so it was, on Friday, December 21, 2018 at 5 o’clock in the morning, that myself, a cohort, a witch and two accidentally encountered friends (plucked completely by chance as we crossed paths with them on the way to an uber pick-up point) did become companions in the most bizarre but heartwarming of undertakings; there was to be a Druidic ceremony, at sunrise, at a Neolithic stone circle near the village of Stanton Drew on the outskirts of Bristol, UK.
We are greeted by a film crew and a small contingency of middle-aged women cloaked in long robes and walking with staffs at their sides. The filmographic team will be shooting a documentary for National Geographic, with the footage of the ceremony to be narrated by Morgan Freeman (who sadly would not be attending our English rural romp in person).
Battered by wind and rain, we moved all of us through the emptiness of this winter night’s morning and into a dark field. Trundling across the expanse, it seemed our numbers did increase as if by magical apparitions of many who came from all directions, all to converge in a central mass, to become a large group, to surround and step into the circle which was the Stanton Drew Stones.
The megaliths loomed out of the darkness as scars of grey, with rippling light, rain running across their listless and ancient surfaces as we shuffled, bustled and edged our way into position. Lights were erected by the film crew but were torn from their hinges by the furious wind, leaving whole swarms of people consumed in pitch black. Thankfully, as if by command, after half an hour, the elements lessened and eased upon us. Shivering in our boots, we were told by the Head Druid assembled with perhaps six or seven of his entourage that the ceremony would soon commence. A single bodhrán (a kind of drum) began playing a steady beat which seemed somehow suddenly louder than the heaviest of the weather—leaving us only with a harsh breeze.
We formed, as instructed, a great circle of possibly seventy people all holding hands. The Head Druid came through the only passage of free movement in and out the circle, a parting at the Western stones reminiscent of the passages often seen in Neolithic round barrows. Followed by the others, this leader of neo-pagan priests began a song with simple words by which all could soon join-in, a pleasant if contrived jaunt of a hymn with text and melody likely an oft-heard ditty in such Neo-Pagan communities, mentioning personification of animals and land with a shared spiritual connection, but probably dating back no further than the New Age movement in the 1970’s.
This man proclaimed the start of this public ritual and the start of a new phase in time, telling us of how this is, at the solstice, a time for new beginnings and rebirth. Our druids then distributed, in perhaps one of the only truly ‘sacred’ moments of the proceeding, branches of mistletoe which had not yet touched the ground. Such a ritual for their procurement, performed by a druid who must climb an oak tree to cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle and allow it to be caught by others in a white cloak, is the only religious practice for which we have definite knowledge, coming to us from the Roman writings of Pliny the Elder. Coupled with the sacrifice of two white bulls, a brew made from this undertaking on the 6th day of the moon was heralded to bestow fertility and cure all ailments.
This connection to mistletoe was later perhaps a little misconstrued at our ceremony—one of the druids giving speeches on behalf of the directions, light, darkness, etc, mentions Baldr, the beautiful god, son of Odin and Frigg, who was slain by Loki with an arrow of mistletoe, for though his mother had endeavoured to ask all things in the land to never harm her beloved child, she had neglected this harmless plant.
In comparative mythology, one might see a link to the Llew of Welsh legends, who is nigh-unkillable until his beloved Blodeuwedd, the maiden made of flowers, betrays his weakness to an enemy. But this would be the only motif we might connect in this narrative to the ‘Celtic’ identity promulgated by these neo-druids. And until we see evidence of this legend being related to the winter solstice, reader, this punter of the ancient, the eldritch and the occult will not be convinced. In considering the fertility aspect of the divine associated with Celtic festivals, one druid opted to describe the passionate and sexual embrace of his male partner, complete with graphic descriptions of everything they would with their tongues and bodies. He also went about anointing this circular congregation with water, many times, even through the speeches of other druids, saying that water was life.
This, along with various (unsuccessful) attempts to set alight a soaked pile of bushes in the centre of the circle, multiple wishes that there be ‘peace throughout all the world’, and the gathering being generally unable to fully hear the druids speaking at a pathetically moderate volume on this magnificently windy morning (a far cry indeed from the thunderous tones of Christopher Lee’s operatic chanting atop the tower of Isengard) made the entire affair seem really rather tame.
After a drab conclusion, having closed once more the gates of the North, the East and company (but mistaking one for the other), the circle, now blessed by dim, grey daylight, concluded the happenings with probably the best part of that morning, this being a great skipping and hopping, a roving of the congregation that so that we became a revolving set of linked lines in a disorganised but joyful dance set to traditional music. We thence went our separate, hitch-hiking ways.
If you ask me – and in fact, ask anyone you like – paganism ought to be something wild. Raw and uncompromising, within reason of course, and putting us in-mind at least in spirit of the fierce pre-Christian people who did once inhabit this noble and ancient land. And yet, bearing in consideration the words of these, in truth, well-meaning hippies, I begin to wonder, as a man must if he is to mean anything to himself and his close ones, what is it I must give up, in the new year? What is it that I must sacrifice? As my ancestors did before. And what is it I hope for in return?
And so I leave you with this; the solstice is a time of loss. With thoughts drawn as to what we must gain and what we cannot live without. In place of new year’s resolutions, let us have new year’s dissolutions, in considering the sacrifices we may make, and perhaps must make, in our personal lives. Here is hoping that one day, we will in the South of Britain be able to put on a show in a ritualistic, religious context the likes of which our friends in the North, the Scots, have achieved every year on April, 30 since 1988 at the Beltane Fire Festival, in Edinburgh. Scantily-clad, red-body-painted dancers, revellers and all. I will look for you in the slithy toves and among the bracken and the rough. I will be there in that wind-scathed paysage, upon yonder scraggy and leering hill. Will I see you?
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