Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

Re-reading my MA dissertation

I’ve just been reading over the dissertation I submitted for my Masters degree in Religion and Magic back in September 2006. I can’t believe it was over two years ago! Here’s synopsis of The Foundations of Modern Druid Spirituality from the opening preamble:

This study explores the phenomenon of modern Druidry, one of the most rapidly-expanding forms of alternative spirituality in Britain today. It investigates why, despite the fact that there is so little verifiable evidence relating to the spiritual practices of the ancient Druids inhabiting Britain prior to the Roman invasions of the first centuries CE, modern Druids continue to look to their forebears as a source of inspiration and guidance.

I argue that modern Druids tend to have a much more sophisticated grasp of the foundations of their spiritual practice than many academics claim. This attitude to the past has much in common with recent developments in post-modern historiography, including a realisation that it is impossible to isolate a single, objective past without relying on written accounts, which are in turn subject to the politics of representation.

Using Horkheimer and Adorno’s concept of disenchantment, I argue that this attitude has been marginalised since the onset of the Enlightenment project, when the separation between history and myth was consolidated, and the latter came to be regarded as little more than a poetic lie about what really happened. Since that time, the texts surrounding Druidry have proliferated, to the extent that the connection between the Druid mythos and the true past has been lost.

As a result, the mythos exists today in something akin to what Baudrillard terms hyperreality, in that it represents not the historical Druids but the tradition of representation itself. This recognition renders a conventional mode of assessing the past obsolete. A more sophisticated attitude is required, and is demonstrated by members of the modern Druid community. 

I was quite surprised at how pertinant some of the issues seemed following the recent controversies surrounding the authenticity of identifying with the ancient druids when we have so little verifiable evidence of them.

It’s interesting to see how my outlook has changed in the past two years. It appears as if I have begun to yearn after the very logocentric fallacy I so criticised back then, as if I can regain some authenticity through reducing things to the tangible.

Though it’s not as if I have lost sight of the technologies by which history presents itself as fact. Nor have I lost the sense of wonder at the chase, of the signifying process through which the world is enchanted. In fact, I think that an emphasis on the simple and the tangible only heightens the wonder, stripping back the layers of misdirection that maintain the notion that human culture is in some way natural or universal.

My feeling is that tangible sanctity and the ‘mythic approach’ to the foundations of Druidry are not necessarily incompatible, and may even be mutually supportive. I will give it some more thought.

I did plan to carry on with this work, looking specifically at the disenchantment that occurred around the sixteenth century, exploring a possible re-enchantment through a post-structuralist dismantling of Enlightenment ideologies, leading to a more sophisticated and robust philosophy of Paganism and the magic upon which it rests. Either that or working to rescue Romanticism as a philosophically-sound approach to nature-based spirituality. I was never able to formulate these into a coherent PhD proposal though, and was somewhat exhausted at the thought of the work involved.

I also began to plan out a book looking at the relationship between Pagan spirituality and the re-enchantment of language, which incorporated many of these ideas. Perhaps I will have another look at that instead.

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Winter solstice

The solstice this year is at four minutes past midday on Sunday (21 December). I’ll be marking the end of the old year and the start of the new year, if there is such a thing. I usually tend to think of time as cyclical rather than as a succession of discrete units.

I certainly don’t recognise the arbitrary Gregorian calendar date of 1 January, and have never really got on board with the theory that Samhain marks division between one year and the next.

The only seasonal festivals I really recognise now are the two solstices marking the rise and fall of the sun, Beltane and Samhain as the beginning and ending of the fruitful season and a main harvest festival in August/September. Other than those, the only points I really take any notice of are the moon’s fullness and darkness.

‘Craft’

I find this a fascinating word, in that, like ‘tangible sanctity‘, it links together the physical and the spiritual. Crafting is the physical process of creating something, as opposed to artistry, which has more cerebral overtones. The Craft is also another name for witchcraft, an earthy spiritual practice that has been reborn as Wicca in the twentieth century. There’s something very compelling about a word that blurs the boundaries between the mundane and the sacred.

‘Craft’ comes from the Old English and originally meant ‘strong’ or ‘powerful’, just as ‘kraft’ in Swedish means ‘strong’ today. It is linked with notions of authenticity through physical presence, strength and longevity.

‘Craft’ has its negative, as well as positive, associations, with definitions around ‘deceit’ or ‘cunning’. Is it a coincidence that the art of the witch so readily took the name ‘witchcraft’ rather than ‘witchery’? The cunning man or woman was the local practitioner or folk magic in centuries past, synonymous with the witch.

There’s something authentic and inspirational about ‘crafting’, with body and mind working together to create harmony between crafter and material world, crafting objects in accordance with pure will. You might almost say craft and magic are one and the same, our craftspeople akin to powerful and respected witches or cunning folk.

A craft is also a vehicle, but more specifically a small boat. Crafting an honourable relationship with our sacred environment and heritage is much like manoeuvring a small boat. Sometimes the waterways are calm and reflective, sometimes stormy and tempestuous, but we are always reliant upon our skills and our appreciation of the power of nature, and how to work with it rather than fight it.

Archery

I’ve been doing an evening class in archery since September and last night was the last class before the yuletide break. If only more people got involved in adult education classes; they’re such a great way to meet likeminded people.

I’m hooked on archery now. There’s something very elemental about shooting a bow. Its very ritualistic – the approach, the stance and the zen-like moment of peace and utter concentration just before the release. It’s almost a meditation. This combined with the veneration of the equipment, the physicality of the draw and the satisfying sound of arrow hitting home makes archery a wonderful example of tangible sanctity.

Next term I hope to be buying a bow of my own to look after and begin building a relationship with. Eventually I hope to craft my own traditional bow from yew and sinew, but that is a huge commitment. To begin with I’ll be buying a simple recurve bow and becoming familiar with that.

Severn barrage debate

I’m not sure where I stand on this debate. A two-year feasibility study on a possible Severn Barrage was launched last year following a report from the Sustainable Development Commission. The proposed Severn Barrage project would stretch nearly 10 miles from Lavernock Point west of Cardiff to near Brean Down in Somerset. It would cost around £14 billion.

Backers include the Welsh Assembly and the Southwest Regional Assembly, a number of cross-party MPs and Gaia theorist James Lovelock. Opponents include the Green Party, Friends of the Earth, the WWF and the RSPB.

The Friends of the Earth website explains some of the risks:

Why would the Barrage be environmentally damaging?

  • The Barrage wall would create a 5 metre deep lake to its eastward side, losing an inter-tidal habitat, feeding grounds for tens of thousands of birds
  • The Barrage would halve the tidal range and sensitive flora and fauna would be lost, and the famous Severn Bore diminished
  • The Barrage could also have a significant impact on fish species of conservation interest, through use of fish sluices within the barrage wall
  • The Barrage could significantly damage the viability of ports. It would also generate new traffic on existing road networks around Lavernock and Cardiff airport and cause development pressures in rural Somerset
  • The government’s own statutory advisers state that ‘a Severn Barrage project would not be possible within the current legal framework provided by the EU Habitats and Birds Directives. The estuary is also being proposed for designation as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), the highest protection in European Union law

It recommends a number of other means on generating energy from the Estuary, such as tidal lagoons located a mile off the Severn coast, a shorter flood defence barrage near the Second Severn Crossing, marine current turbines, wind energy or Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) fitted to coal or gas power stations.

My gut reaction is that Sabrina should be protected, that her tidal activity is the essence of her nature, and that as a result she would be desecrated by such a violation.

I have a particular interest in this issue, as the proposed Barrage would link my family home in Somerset with my chosen home in Cardiff, and Sabrina has been a constant presence throughout my life. I am also a member of the Flatholm Society, although I don’t know if they have an official view on this. I will try to find out.

The possibility of so much renewable energy is massively attractive, but not at the expense of our land and its heritage. I think the money would be better spent on education programmes teaching us how to live within our energy means, simplifying and reducing our need for energy. This, combined with a wind generation and CCS programme would be my favoured approach. While there is still so much invested in a growth economy, however, this seems doubtful.

Roundhouses at St Fagans

I took an unplanned trip to St Fagans today for a cup of tea and a wander around the Iron Age roundhouse village. It was the first time I had been there with a fire lit in the largest of the roundhouses. I was wonderful to see the smoke wisping out from the thatch like steam. And inside was even more impressive, with thick smoke above the top of the door line, but perfectly breathable air below. Sitting there around the fire not being able to see the roof I imagined what it would be like to spend an evening there listening to a storyteller or musician and letting your imagination wander up there into the void.

The small wattle-and-daub roundhouse was closed because of the roof sagging in. There was a notice to say they were waiting on advice whether to repair or rebuild.

Simon Dale’s low-impact homes

After reading Radical Simplicity, I have signed up on Simon Dale’s website to get involved in some low-impact building.

Simon built his family’s house in Wales with help from his father-in-law, passers-by and visiting friends. Four months after starting the family moved in.

The house was built with maximum regard for the environment and by reciprocation gives us a unique opportunity to live close to nature. Being your own (have a go) architect is a lot of fun and allows you to create and enjoy something which is part of yourself and the land rather than, at worst, a mass produced box designed for maximum profit and convenience of the construction industry. Building from natural materials does away with producers profits and the cocktail of carcinogenic poisons that fill most modern buildings.

Simon applied for planning permission retrospectively, and while this has not yet been resolved, the family have had at least four years’ worth of use out of their home.

Radical Simplicity

I’ve just finished reading Radical Simplicity by Dan Price. This is an illustrated story of how Dan gave up the everday life and went to live in a meadow in Oregan US, which he leased from some neighbours for $100 a year.

Starting off with a tipi, Dan recounts the various bright ideas for alternative shelter over the course of a number of years, from elaborate connected domes to simple holes in the ground. As time goes on, he realises that he needs fewer and fewer possessions and a smaller and smaller amount of space, until his shelter is little more than a sleeping bag and plastic sheet.

As his possessions and responsibilities decrease he feels a wonderful sense of freedom and connectedness that manifests itself in the things he notices and the way in which he describes his world through his writing and illustrations.

After the process of minimalising reaches its peak, Dan settles for a simple and effective hobbit hole, measuring little more than eight feet across, in which to live out his days. This is complemented by a small office constructed of sturdy planks and boulders from which to send out his illustrated journal, and the ever-present ‘Old Man’, the sauna.

This book has put my mind into overdrive with possible designs for alternative living and a desire to get rid as many of the things I own (or the things that own me) as possible!

Why ‘tangible sanctity’?

Sanctity n.
Because so much around us is sacred – the land, sea and sky, their plants and animals, our ancestors and their gods.

Tangible adj.
Because sanctity is immanent, not separate from the physical or the mundane. And because modern Paganism, with all its wild and wonderful distractions, can be so ephemeral and vague.

I will endeavour to focus on the tangible, on the nature and culture we share with our ancestors, and on the traditional crafts that helped forge their mutually rewarding relationship with the land, to honour the sacred and to live within my means.