I record a range of podcasts to entertain me during my happy but isolated days as a self-employed gardener. One I have always avoided is BBC Radio 4’s ‘Ramblings’ hosted by Clare Balding. You can’t blame me; of all the BBC’s sports presenters, I think most normal people would opt to go bog-snorkelling with Bob Wilson or cock fighting with Frank Bough than enter into some arduous muddy yomp along Hadrian’s Wall with Ms Balding. However, I made exception and recorded an episode billed as a ramble with a druid, a cult I knew little about but had always intrigued me from afar, in the same casual way as I’d occasionally wondered, without being arsed enough to find out, what they must do to chickens to get them to lay the tubular eggs they insert in pork pies.
When it subsequently came up on my playlist, the recording was free of any sacrificial virgins or any mid-hike turning of Ms Balding into a ferret, but more a tame and friendly chat with couple of modern Druids as they stumbled along some footpaths or other, while the drizzle didn’t soak into their robes, but rather ran off their Gore-Tex windcheaters. Still, I enjoyed the show, and through all the humble, worthy talk about being close to nature and living off the land, it was the druid’s beliefs and attitudes to the seasons that appealed to me most and I felt merited further investigation.
I learned that Druids observe four annual solar occurrences as significant markers to celebrate the progression of each yearly cycle. You don’t need to be stuck in traffic on the A339 on June 21st to cast aspersions on their Summer Solstice shenanigans at Stonehenge, but I didn’t realise that Druids hold equally important festivals on the shortest day in mid-December, as well as the two annual Equinoxes, when the hours of day and night are balanced. These tie in broadly with the four seasons as we non-Druids understand them, and while we in our modern lives may be aware of longest and shortest day each year, the vast majority of us are unaware of the coming and passing of the equinoxes unless the BBC make mention of them in their weather forecasts. This is a shame, as I now realise we are missing out on a further four jolly good reasons to party every year, but this is not all: on top of this, Druids recognise and get to celebrate EIGHT seasons, thanks to another four ‘cross-quarter’ lunar cycles; their dates associated more with traditional livestock farming.
Ok, we don’t all rear sheep today, but should that preclude us from celebrating these cycles too? Having eight brand new reasons to have a shin-dig each year – that’s one every six weeks or so – sounds a wizard wheeze (pardon the pun), and could at least relegate ‘Beaujolais Nouveau Day’ and ‘International Speak Like a Pirate Day’ to comparatively minor events in the calendar.
Druids certainly love a party. Their seasonal festivals can be held as large public events; all robed-up at sacred sites, such as Stonehenge, Avebury, or Glastonbury in England, or as informal small groups of Druids and friends who have gathered together in a park or garden. At the other extreme, they can be very private events celebrated by a single Druid in his/her living room, and as we all know, drinking on your own is a very underrated pastime.
The larger events traditionally included activities such as storytelling, music and poetry with children scattering petals or blowing bubbles and fire eaters who blessed the festival with flames and water. Such celebrations often included a central circle where anyone could express their creativity known by the Welsh word ‘Eisteddfod’ which meant literally ‘a festival of sitting’. They were true communal events, and though certain participants may have guided the festival, they were community-led events with no one acting as a priest or priestess, in the sense of being an intermediary between the other participants and Deity. These eight festivals allowed for a few hours’ pause so in a busy and often stressful way of life and be a reminder of the magic of being alive and to feel the influence of the seasons.
The Celtic Year kicked the cycle going and marked the end of the previous year at the end of October:
1 – Samhuinn – from October 31st to November 2nd This was a time of freedom from the strictures of rules and order of society when chaos could reign. It sounds a hoot. Time was abolished for the three days, and people did crazy things – men dressed as women and women as men, farmers’ gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples’ horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbours’ doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en. But behind this apparent lunacy, lay a deeper meaning. The veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside, and on nights where there was no moon to obscure mortal sight, Druids concerned themselves with making contact with the spirits of the departed, who were seen as sources of guidance and inspiration rather than sources of dread, and feasts were held in their honour. With the coming of Christianity, this pagan festival was hijacked into All Hallows (commonly referred to as Hallowe’en on October 31st), All Saints (November 1st) and All Souls (November 2nd). Not only does the purpose of the festival match the original one, even the unusually long length of the festival is the same.
2 – Alban Arthan (the Light of Arthur)- the Winter Solstice -21st December approx Signified by the Pole Star, the Solstice was considered a time of death and rebirth when the dark nights were at their longest. A highlight of the festivities would be the climbing of the oldest mistletoe-clad oak in the community by the Chief Druid, who chopped off a clump with a gold sickle to be caught in a blanket by the cheering gathering below. The white berries would be distributed among the crowds as a symbol of fertility. What fun. Although the Bible indicates that Jesus was born in the Spring, it is perhaps no accident that the early Church chose to move his official birthday, ie Christmas, to the time of the Midwinter Solstice when light slowly starts to enter the darkness of the World.
3 – Imbolc (the fire festival) – February 2nd, or the eve of February 1st. Despite being in the depths of Winter, this represented the first of a trio of Spring celebrations, being the time that snowdrops start to appear, the worst of the snows have melted and the debris of Winter cleared. This first glimmer of Spring when lambs were being born was a great reason for feasting. The Mother Goddess Brighid was honoured with an Eisteddfod symbolised by eight candles rising out of the water at the centre of the ceremonial circle was dedicated to poetry. Druids would lay out a bed for Brighid, food and drink would be set aside for her and items of clothing would be laid out for her to bless. In return, she was invoked to protect homes and livestock. For years successive Popes tried to stop parades of lit candles in the streets of Rome, until seeing that it was impossible to put a stop to this pagan custom. So they suggested that everyone enter the churches so that the priests could bless the candles, so creating the Christian development of Candlemas.
4 – Alban Eiler (The Light of the Earth) – the Spring (Vernal) Equinox – 20th March approx The Vernal Equinox marks the more recognisable beginnings of Spring. As the Sun grows warmer, life begins to show. First the daffodils and crocuses, then bluebells and wood anemones, and crop sowing began in earnest. It was this return of life to the Earth that Druids felt deserved celebration. The Vernal Equinox, represented the Reception of Wisdom, as the dawn rays of the rising sun on the first morning of Spring came from the East, which was associated with wisdom and enlightenment. One of legends of Druidry was the Druid’s egg, a talismanic stone. Believed to be Life-giving, the egg was said to be protected by the hare, the symbol of Alban Eilir and still celebrated by the giving of Easter eggs by the Easter bunny.
5 – Beltane – (May Day) 1st May approx Beltane marked the beginning of Summer or the height of Spring, when the world is buzzing with fertility. Some celebrated Beltane on the 1st of May, while others looked to the flowers of the hawthorn tree to open as their signal that Beltane had arrived. Flowers abound and the freshly opened leaves of the trees are a quality of green that they only show at this time of year. At Beltane, praise was offered in exchange for protection of crops and the harvest to come. Feasting would again take place, with dancing round the maypole held to celebrate the fertility of the land. Twin fires would be lit, over which those hoping for a child or good fortune would jump, and between which cattle would be walked into the pastures after their long winter confinement, the flames and smoke believed to have protective powers.
6 – Alban Hefin (The Light of the Shore) – Summer Solstice – 21st or 22nd June. The Summer Solstice, when daylight is at its longest, had deep significance for ancient religions and cultures across the world. Druidry was no different, and having reverence for places that are ‘in between’ worlds, thanks was given in the name of the seashore where the three realms of Earth, Sea and Sky meet. This brought about the most complex of Druid ceremonies. Starting at midnight on the eve of the Solstice, a vigil was held through the night, seated around the Solstice fire. The night would be over in a matter of hours, and as light broke, the Dawn Ceremony marked the time of the sun’s rising on this his most powerful day, with another held at noon. Of all the festivals, Druidry is mostly associated with Alban Hefin as the annual newsreels of white-robed figures at the dawn rituals at Stonehenge testify. It was this time of greatest light that the Solar God was crowned by the Goddess as the King of Summer. It also brought some sadness because they knew the sun’s strength would now start to decline as it entered the waning year. This was marked by the birth of the Holly King, the personification of winter, who would grow to take his crown later in the year at Alban Arthan. The ying of that yang is the Oak King, the symbol of summer, would himself be reborn each year at the Winter Solstice.
7 – Lughnasadh – 1st August, approx This was the first of two harvest festivals and was named after the god Lugh, known for several magical possessions including an unstoppable fiery spear, and for have invented ball games, horse racing and the Gaelic equivalent of chess. Lughnasadh was the time to celebrate the sacrifice of John Barleycorn, who was said to have laid with the Lady in the woods at Beltane, lucky fella, but was now grown old, having changed from green to gold, and now stood bent and bearded with a crocked cane. He had known that his time had come. His life was given on feed the people, and it was this sacrifice that was honoured with more feasting. At this time, the hay would have been brought in, and the time for reaping the wheat and barley was due. It was a time of gathering together, of contests and games and of marriages. Any marriages contracted at this time could be annulled at the same time the following year – offering the couple a sensible ‘trial period’. In some areas a flaming wheel was sent rolling down the hillside to symbolise the descent of the year towards Winter. The Christian version of this festival is Lammas, the word coming from hlafmasse – ‘loaf-mass’ – since bread is offered from the newly harvested grain.
8 – Alban Elfed (The Light of the Water) – the Autumn Equinox. September 21st approx This final festival marked the balance of day and night before the darkness overtook the light. It was also the time of the second harvest, of the fruit which had stayed on the trees and plants that had ripened under the summer sun. It was geared to thanking the Earth for its abundance, with the energy of the rising sun now having moved to the West, where it was associated with introspection, personal reflection of achievements made and the chance of a break from the hurly burly of life. It was considered unlucky to eat the last sheath of corn, so these were often woven into corn dollies and dressed in cloth as a good luck charm. The following Spring, these were torn up and scattered on the freshly ploughed fields to spread their luck to the next harvest. Some less public-spirited farmers would toss their final sheaths straight into a neighbour’s field to ensure any bad luck would be theirs.
And so, another circle of annual life would have come to a close. Of course, we are far too advanced these days to allow such fripperies as the turning of the seasons to impact on our lives, short of the clamour for a summer holiday and our annoyance at the price of flown-in courgettes in February. There’s a danger we can read about past times and look back at what we see as a slower, more wholesome existence and feel regret over the way life has turned out for us modern-day non-Druids. But back then they had a constant life-or-death fear of wolves, rickets, and failure of harvest. Life must have been hard-earned and transient. I don’t think we’d have survived a day back then without our central heating, pension planning and BBC4 to see us through the long, dark evenings.
This said, I think we should honour our Druid forebears by taking time to recognise the rhythms of the year that were so vital to them, and in particular, make a point of feasting every six weeks in their name. What do you think?
Well, I can tell you what my good friend Doug said when I shared my excitement of the eight Druid ‘seasons’ with him. ‘Pah!’ he said. ‘A bunch of crossdressers if you ask me. You stay away from them young feller me lad!’ Perhaps he has a point. Next time I’m rambling with Clare Balding, I’ll ask her.
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