Winter Solstice

The solstice marks mid-winter, the time when the sun’s path is lowest in the sky, nights are at their longest, and the days shortest. The sun has reached its weakest point, and light and heat are in short supply. It is a time to acknowledge the dark and the cold, but to carry the light and warmth through to the new year.

In the dark a new spark of light grows. This is a moment when change can take place.

The lead-up to the solstice has been unusually cold this year in Britain, and my attention has been focussed onto the temperature – by having my heating break down. How precious warmth and light is, but how easily we take it for granted. The one night of mid-winter is a good time to remember this, and to hold vigil for the light.

It’s not surprising that traditions for marking this time involve light or fire, for example lighting a candle in the dark, or burning a Yule log on the fire. For me, it’s fire embers glowing in the dark, or a candle lit in the room. I like to sit in silence with only the quiet sound of the fire. Of course, watching the sun set and then rise again is also an important part of marking the occasion. I try to keep an awareness of the sun travelling underneath the world from its setting to its rising.

Winter Solstice Sunset

Our ancestors clearly thought the winter solstice was important, and some particularly marked the mid-winter sunset. The Maeshowe chambered cairn on Orkney for example was designed so that the rays of the setting mid-winter sun would shine down the entrance passage to the centre of the tomb. The main alignment at Stonehenge is the mid-summer sunrise, and the mid-winter sunset.

In Carmina Geadelica, Alexander Carmicheal describes a ceremonial way of covering a peat fire for the night:

“The ceremony of smooring the fire is artistic and symbolic, and is performed with loving care. The embers are evenly spread on the hearth–which is generally in the middle of the floor–and formed into a circle. This circle is then divided into three equal sections, a small boss being left in the middle. A peat is laid between each section, each peat touching the boss, which forms a common centre. The first peat is laid down in name of the God of Life, the second in name of the God of Peace, the third in name of the God of Grace. The circle is then covered over with ashes sufficient to subdue but not to extinguish the fire, in name of the Three of Light. The heap slightly raised in the centre is called ‘Tula nan Tri,’ the Hearth of the Three.”

The following protective prayer might be said whilst covering the fire:

THE sacred Three
To save,
To shield,
To surround
The hearth,
The house,
The household,
This eve,
This night,
Oh! this eve,
This night,
And every night,
Each single night.

After the long night, the sun rises again, now getting stronger, with the dark giving way to the light. It is a time for celebration and new beginnings. Some ancient places mark the sunrise instead of the sunset at mid-winter. For example Newgrange in Ireland has a specially designed roof-box which allows light from the mid-winter sunrise to shine into the central chamber.

Winter Solstice Sunrise

Blessings for the solstice!

Ivy Flowers

This time of year ivy comes into flower. The intense perfume of the blossoms has a clean, cold almost otherworldy smell. The flowers also attract the attention of insects, which swarm around this late-season treat. Later in the year, the black berries will form – food for the pigeons during the worst part of the winter.

Ogham and the Celtic Calendar

The poet Robert Graves, in his book The White Goddess, associates Ivy with the Irish Ogham letter gort, and the month running from 30th September to 27th October, a time when here in southeast England the ivy flowers are beginning to fade. There are just a few left at the moment,

There’s plenty to read on the associations that Graves and others make with Ivy (see the links below) but you can also try to make your own connection with a plant or tree and see if part of its nature is revealed to you. Reading what others have written is useful, but you don’t have to be bound by it.

Here are a couple of links you can read on Ivy:

Robert Graves’ associations for the tree calendar originate in an old Welsh poem in the book of Taliesin called Kat Godeu, or Battle of the Trees. The lines about Ivy run as follows (in a modern translation by Marged Haycock):

Privet and honeysuckle,
and Ivy, despite his appearance,
how fiercely [did they go] into the fray!

What does this tell us about Ivy? For one thing, perhaps that his appearance is deceptive!

Seeing for ourselves

How do we approach Ivy – or other plants or trees – to find out more about them? Perhaps we can divide our approach into three categories:

Observation – we can use our senses to try and see ivy – look close, watch it in different contexts, in different seasons. Spend time with it. Use other senses: smell, touch, taste (after of course checking to make sure it isn’t poisonous!), maybe sound?

Investigation – this is where reading can come in, finding out about Ivy, but also we can also try our own experiments. What can we use Ivy for? What can we make from it? How does it fit into the local ecosystem? What does it do?

Experience – maybe we can interact with ivy on a different level, where we are not dealing with it as an object in our familiar world, but as an agent in a bigger, less familiar world. Perhaps we can meet the ‘spirit of the ivy.’ To do this we would need to keep a level of inner silence so that we can perceive the ivy, and also a certain courage to allow us to meet the spirit of the ivy as equals.

The Three Winter Berries

The berries of mistletoe, holly and ivy work together in the winter woods. Mistletoe – the golden bough of the druids – born from heaven without touching the ground. His berries are white – the male seed. Holly is shiny and sometimes prickly, flickering light in its leaves. Her berries are red – the female seed. Ivy climbs around and over the other trees and its berries are black – the seed of spirit. Together the three winter berries echo the beginning of the world.

The Diamond Mirror and the Four Worlds – Part 2

The Elemental world

“It is like standing by a lake… On the surface we see the reflection of the world, but in the depths there are those mysterious things that alchemists show in their books – dragons, ravens, eagles, wolves, suns, moons, and the like.”

Sphaera Elementum, from Liber Sphaerae by Colin A. Low

The Diamond Mirror is centred on our sense of ‘I’, with the familiar world around it, shown in white on the diagram below. As discussed in Part 1, we can become more aware of the workings of this world, but the diagram also shows other, less familiar parts of our being, which operate outside the familiar world, often without our awareness.

Instinct and the Elemental world

At the base of the Diamond Mirror is instinct. When we were born, instinct was all that we had. Our bodies worked, we breathed, cried, shat and suckled. Instinct still lives in us. We can be more or less aware of it, and we only have a little control. For example we can adjust our breathing, and breath is an important gate into instinct.

We call the world of instinct the Elemental World. This emphasises the physicality of the world – made from the four elements of fire, air, water and earth.

We may think that we live in the physical world, but we’re not really aware of it. It’s a bit like the two pictures below – zooming in on a carrot in a magazine picture, we see the reality behind the illusion: just coloured dots. We see an alien world under our familiar one.

Extending your awareness

You can extend your awareness and move beyond concepts and constructs towards the raw physical reality you are part of. You could spend a little time out in nature. Settle down and try to be aware of your body, and of the reality and individuality of living beings around you. Set aside your own thoughts and preoccupations for a while. Be aware of the clouds moving in the sky, the air moving on your skin.

“The gods of ancient Ireland, the Tuatha De Danaan, or the Tribes of the goddess Danu, or the Sidhe … the people of the Faery Hills … still ride the country as of old. Sidhe is also Gaelic for wind, and certainly the Sidhe have much to do with the wind. … When the country people see the leaves whirling on the road they bless themselves, because they believe the Sidhe to be passing by.” 

W.B. Yeats’ Notes on his poem The Hosting of the Sidhe
Riders of the Sidhe, 1911 By John Duncan (
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Can we? Should we?

Before we begin exploring unfamiliar worlds, we should be aware of the potential dangers. There are borders to the unfamiliar worlds for good reasons. For example, interfering with the automatic processes of the body such as breathing can sometimes lead to problems. Maybe it’s dangerous or unnatural to extend our range – after all, we can get by in the familiar world, and in a sense it’s designed for our comfort: in fact we ourselves have designed it for our own comfort.  Many people live all their lives in the familiar world with maybe just a glimpse outside it now and then. But for some people it’s not enough. It’s true that there is danger in going beyond the familiar world, and it is important that we have a strong foundation in the familiar world before attempting to explore beyond it. There are stories of problems that meet the incautious visitor to the otherworld.

Merlin’s warning in the Ballad of Childe Rolande:

“After you have entered the land of Fairy… bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again.”

Our body is our passport

The elemental world has many different scales, from the smallest particles up to the largest clusters of galaxies. It also includes the messy internals of our own bodies: the sinews and flesh, the guts and pulsing heart.  It can be an uncomfortable places for us to visit because of its rawness and sometimes scary power and scale.

One way into the elemental world is through the body, where instinct rules. Think about your body. It has amazing intelligence and endurance. It preserves itself, fighting off disease and repairing damage. It can deal with a wide variety of food, transforming whatever you eat to sustain and fuel itself. It can adapt to different environments, and activities, employing long-term and short-term strategies for survival. But you are probably not aware of all this intelligence and activity unless something goes wrong.

At the borderline of the familiar world is breath. Breathing can be automatic, but it can also be under conscious control. The nature of your breathing tells you something about the state of our body, and being aware of the breath can help you to be fully present.

There are many practices which can help us to become more aware of the body and the breath. One that I personally find helpful is the first part of this morning exercise.

I’m in a stone circle in the middle of the night. I’ve been here a while, keeping a vigil, and my hold on the familiar world is beginning to loosen. Standing in front of one of the large stones, I see it begin to come to life, breathing in and out.

Is it real?

One of the key issues that we deal with in going beyond the familiar world is the question ‘So is it real?’ Experiences we have outside the familiar world by definition don’t make sense and can’t be explained, so we are inclined to either reject them or attempt to rationalise them. A more profitable approach is to leave the experiences as they are without trying to explain them, or to fit them into our familiar world-view.

And you?

How about you? Have you had any strange experiences? You could ask your friends if they have – you might get some interesting stories!

Next time…

More to come on the Dragon World and the Shining World!

The Bull Tor triangle

There’s a part of us that likes patterns, and this can be played out in the landscape through alignments marked by ley lines or more complex arrangements like the Glastonbury zodiac. Significant places are linked together in a pattern, which amplifies their significance.

In the Peak District of Derbyshire, there is a triangle formed by three ancient sites: in the northwest, the Neolithic henge circle called The Bull Ring, in the northeast, the Eyam Moor stone circle called Wet Withens, and in the south the Arbor Low stone circle.

The triangle is not quite equal-sided. The distance between The Bull Ring and Wet Withens is about nine miles, compared to more than ten miles for the other two sides. 

This triangle is a central theme in a recently published book called The Dancing Circles, by Andy Leaver Davies. I really enjoyed the book, which describes a tradition of journeying between the circles, and performing particular exercises at each of them. So here’s a bit about the circles and how they are described in the book.

The Bull Ring

The Bull ring, photo credit Dave Dunford, via Wikimedia

The Bull Ring is located on the edge of the village of Dove Holes, by the Cricket Club and Football field. It may have been a stone circle once, but now all that is left is a round circular earthwork with a mound in the middle. In the book, The Bull Ring is used as a place to bring the body into balance, using a simple circle dance.

Arbor Low

Arbor Low, photo credit Wikimedia

The 50+ stones which make up Arbor Low are all on their sides now, on a raised mound surrounded by a ditch and earthen bank. It’s located on high moorland, with long sight-lines to the horizon. In the book, Arbor Low is a place to learn how to open up and apply the mind.

Wet Withens

Wet Withens Chair Stone

For me, Wet Withens is the most elusive of the three circles – it took me three trips before I found it! Located on a gentle slope overlooking the River Derwent, the stones are mostly hidden in the heather, but there are a few large ones. The photo shows the largest stone, called the ‘Chair Stone’ (because of the ledge cut out of its face). Notice the similarity in shape of the top of the stone with the outline of Higger Tor on the horizon behind it. In the book, Wet Withens is linked to the development of feelings.

Bull Tor

Roughly at the centre of the triangle is a hilltop by the river Wye called Bull Tor, and in The Dancing Circles, this is the central place of the triangle, where the journey leads after building strength in the body, opening the mind, and developing the feelings. In the book, Andy’s teacher Tom talks about the people who started the journey and built the stone circles:

“For them, life was hard, dealing with pain, death and suffering. They had to look to their bodies to stop them getting ill. They had to learn about time and how to use it, because life was short. They had to learn to see through pain and suffering to the meaning behind it all. So they learned to join themselves to the land, to what came before and to what was to come. They learned to make themselves part of something, to see their short lives as a part of something bigger so that no matter how short, each life was part of the big plan. And they had to pass this down to the next generations so that each knew of their part in that bigger world. Their feelings of anger, hate, and love meant nothing by themselves. They just come and go like life comes and goes. If it’s not joined to something bigger, it means nothing at all. But if those feelings can be joined to something bigger, it can make them grow so someone can have feelings bigger than themselves. When that happens, all the pain and suffering can be put up against the bigger feelings and can have a meaning. The meaning in everything becomes clearer. There is still and always will be pain, but like life, it will come and go. The world can be faced.”

The Dancing Circles, p.148

Notes and Links:

The Dancing Circles: An extraordinary journey to a different way of living, Andy Leaver Davies, ISBN Dancing Circles Publishing (6 April 2021), 978-1838487515. Available on Amazon:

The Bull Ring on

Arbor Low at English Heritage

Wet Withens at

The Diamond Mirror and the Four Worlds – Part 1

The diamond mirror is a map of our faculties, based on the experience of explorers. It’s an interpretation and a simplification of what is actually there, so that we can get a grasp on our own experience as we explore the range of being human for ourselves. The map is not a substitute for the experience but it helps us organize it and understand where the experience is coming from.

My life as a ghost

We usually operate with only a small part of our capacity. We see what we expect to see and repeat learned actions without thinking very much. I’m a modern-day hunter-gatherer. I go to the supermarket and I walk around, looking for the things on my shopping list and putting them in my basket. Then I queue up, put my shopping onto the conveyor belt, pack it away, and pay the bill. But how aware am I of the other people in the supermarket? They have their own lives and shopping lists, but I’m not really interested in them unless there’s something unusual about them. It’s like we’re ghosts in each other’s worlds. And how much attention do I pay to the process of packing up my shopping? I’ve got my particular method. The heavy stuff goes in the hessian bag, and the cold stuff in the plastic bag, squashy stuff at the top. I don’t think about it that much. I’m usually thinking about something else, like what I’m going to have for dinner. It’s almost as if I’m not there.

Of course, all this is a choice. I can choose to be more aware of the other people and I can pay more attention to what I’m doing. Try it sometime. How does it feel to be more present? How long can you keep it up for? What takes you away from being present?

In order to work with the mysteries, you need to be present.

Mindfulness practice can help us become more present. For example:

The Familiar World

Most people, most of the time, live in quite a small, familiar world, a slice of reality that we’ve learnt about over the years, the home of ‘I’. It’s like a bubble we’ve built around ourselves, a bubble of perception we’ve learnt to deal with, a place of supermarkets, phones and clothes, flowers, friends and nights out, woods and seaside and stories. It’s made of everything we know about. We need the familiar world. We’d literally be like newborn babies without it, struggling to make sense of our perceptions and not knowing how to act. But it’s not all that there is.

Being more present can help us to be more aware of how we operate in the familiar world. We begin to see factors at work, such as conditioning and associations.

On the way to Bull Tor


Conditioning is the set of habitual patterns and learned responses to things, built up over the years, often accidentally, sometimes useful and sometimes not. For example, when I’m going to the supermarket, I usually take the same route. It’s not necessarily the best route, but it’s the one I found when I first went there. The good thing is that I don’t have to spend energy thinking about how to get to the supermarket every time I go, but on the downside, maybe it’s not always the fastest route.

One of the main problems with conditioning is the way that it limits the way we see things.

I sit watching a tree blowing in the wind, but that’s my conditioning. I try to watch without conditioning, and I see the tree alive, moving, and I feel its movement on my skin, hear it talking. Is this true seeing? Conditioning wants me to say yes or no, but if I say neither what happens then?


The associative or formative mind is the system we use for a lot of our thinking. This level of mind is organised by links or associations between different memories, in the form of feelings, thoughts or sense impressions. One thing leads to another. The associative can work well in some circumstances. For example, in the supermarket I see some lemons and a whole bunch of associations fire off – kebabs, aubergine, hummus, celery. My associative mind is thinking about what to have for dinner. The operation of the associative mind can be seen sometimes when we are trying to be mindful, and sit and watch the thoughts that come and go. When you realise you’ve drifted off, you can often trace back the steps by which you became distracted.

Sitting watching the pond, and a bird calls. Is that a Chiffchaff? Maybe it’s one of the Iberian Chiffchaffs that all those bird watchers came to see. That couple conducting the bird survey last month were nice. Maybe I should join the group. Do they meet in Surbiton? I’ve got to go there tomorrow. When do I have to be there? *I remember what I’m doing, and go back to watching the pond*

Watching the pond

The usual way the mind works in the familiar world is through a kind of flow. It works automatically, using conditioning and associations, linking one thing to the next so that our thoughts flow in a misleadingly named ‘stream of consciousness’.  

I can be more aware of what I am doing and where I am (being present) through for example practicing mindfulness, but only for a few moments, and then I am carried away again by the stream.


It is possible to be more aware of the raw interactions we have. I can try to be aware of sense data for example, before it is processed by conditioning and starts to trigger associations. By maintaining awareness I can try to act on a different level.  This is not entirely unfamiliar. For example, sometimes when I wake up and open my eyes there’s something in my field of vision, but I don’t recognise it. It takes a few seconds for it to click that I’m looking at a chair. This can also happen when you’re out and about and maybe see or hear something but can’t place it. That moment before pigeon-holing the impression has a different quality. Scary perhaps, but full of potential and energy.

I’m out walking in the dark, in the woods. I can’t see much at all, but every now and then a shape or a rustling sound triggers a fear reaction. My body is alert, I am aware of my breath. I half see something and my mind wants to identify it: is it an animal, a branch, another person? Can I hold back from making it into one thing?

Night walk

Eating is another good field of practice for getting to raw interaction. Usually I gulp my food, not really paying much attention – perhaps reading or watching TV at the same time. If I try to pay more attention to the eating, I can literally get more out of my food.


Another way of extending the familiar world is to become aware of a level beyond associations, where instead of being taken by the flow from one association to another, we can step back to watch the associations a little bit. We can sometimes see this in dreaming. A dream can take us from one scene to another, following associations seemingly at random, but sometimes there is some pattern behind the dream, a meaning which can perhaps be difficult to put into words. Maybe there’s one character in the dream that has a particular quality, or maybe a situation that seems to be significant. We can also use this level to create meaning in writing poetry.

I used to have many dreams about tidal waves, where I would be by the sea, and then suddenly a huge wave would rush in, swamping everything, including me. I kept a dream journal partly so that I could learn more about this type of dream. It seemed to me that a dream that repeated must be significant. After a while, the dream began to change.

To be continued…

Three Realms


The blessing of heaven, cloud blessing,
The blessing of earth, fruit blessing,
The blessing of sea, fish blessing.

The first three blessings from The Story of the Finding of Cashel.

There are many ways to organize our view of the world. One that I like is a division of the world into three realms – the sky above, the earth below, and the waters around us. I find this a useful way of picturing things and placing myself in the landscape.

When I’m out in nature I try to become aware of where I am standing – the sky extending above my head into the unknown, the hidden depth of the earth under my feet, and my place on an island, surrounded by sea on all sides. A proper awareness of the three focuses attention on the here-and-now and fosters stillness.

I imagine that in the olden days, when people dug ditches around holy places, it was so that the place would seem more like an island, and so encourage a more direct awareness of the three realms at that place.

It’s also possible to work with each realm individually, exploring its qualities and finding places, stories and objects that resonate with it.

Sky – the realm of light

What are the qualities of light? In the daytime light defines everything around us, the uncertain possibilities of darkness laid to one side. It has a quality of contact at a distance, openness and great space. Look up into the sky and you see a long way. At night you see light from stars and galaxies across the universe. The sun is our main provider of light, energy and warmth, and indirectly food for everything living. High places are the place of light, where we can see far to the horizon.

Holyhead, Anglesey


The sea is the great water, trackless, powerful, deep and fertile. Its power cannot be resisted. The cycle of water makes mists, rain, lakes, rivers and springs. There is no life without water. It alone bring motion. In the abstract water is flow and balance, a spiral energy, connecting one thing to another. A whirlpool in the sea, a tornado or the spirals of a galaxy are the work of the waters. Sitting by water there is usually sound – waves breaking or the roar of a fast river, or a gurgle, splash or drip. Sometimes a voices can be heard in the sound.

Port of Ness, Isle of Lewis

Earth – the underworld or fields of space

Beneath our feet, the earth is a largely hidden realm of darkness and quiet, and yet it anchors us down, and provides the material for our bodies. We can approach it through caves, and man-made caves such as barrows, cairns and dolmen. Sometimes in the darkness there might be treasures to be found, and strange half-living shapes to be touched. The great classical mystery religions were centred around the descent into the underworld and our life after death. In the abstract, the underworld has a quality of fields – not only the field of gravity that holds the planets in relationship, but the electromagnetic fields which at the smallest scale mediate physical contact, and at the largest scales form the cosmic web which links the galaxies. Its nature is substance and influence.

Porth yr Ogof cave

If you want to work with the three realms, a good starting point is to spend some time in places which resonate with one of the three realms. Maybe find or make an object which can symbolise that realm. Read (or write) stories or poems about the realm. It’s also a good idea to work with all three together. Ask questions. For example, which god or goddess might belong in each realm? How do the three realms work together to make a tree? What in you reflects each of the three?

Working with the Abstract

Nowadays people often favour working with the complexity and variety of nature, rather than the simplicity of the abstract, but in our work we need both.

Mind strives for simplicity. It transforms our complex experience into simpler but perhaps less tangible mental images, thoughts and feelings.

At its deeper levels, beyond the rational and verbal levels, mind works with symbols and archetypes. Rich with meaning and significance, these archetypes are in some sense the pillars of mind, the building blocks of meaning.

Beyond even this, the mind works with the pure abstract – with number and pattern.

One way of working with the abstract is what we now call sacred geometry. Some of the oldest examples of this activity are the 5000-year-old stone balls found in Scotland.

Stone balls, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow (via Wikimedia)

Hundreds of carved stone spheres, roughly three inches in diameter have been found over the years in Scotland. Many form regular polyhedra, and some depict platonic solids, long before the Greeks wrote about them. As to the purpose of the stone balls – no one knows. Perhaps they were used as weights, as dice for oracles, in ball games, or just as ‘prestige objects’. Or maybe the Neolithic people used them as objects of contemplation.

Stone ball from Towie in Aberdeenshire, dated from 3200–2500 BC. (via Wikimedia).

I have a replica of the Towie stone. It has four large knobs on it, each decorated with a different pattern. It forms a tetradedron – a triangular-based pyramid.

All of the stone balls are of a size to fit comfortably in the hands. I sit in the dark with the replica, feeling the shape with my fingertips. After a while it warms from my body heat. I sense the fine patterns of decoration. There is nothing to say about it, except that something in me responds to its shape. I wonder if our ancestors made a similar use of the stone.

Valley of the Ancients

Valley of the Ancients was a name I first came across on a South Wales Druid website. Described as the most holy pagan site in Wales, it has a stone circle complex and many other special places. It took a bit of exploring to find it, but it was worthwhile, and I have been back there a number of times over the years.

The valley is the upper reach of the River Tawe, which flows down to the sea at Abertawe (Swansea).

River Tawe in the Valley of the Ancients (some megaliths in the distance).

A small road runs through the valley from the A4067 in the Brecon Beacons just north of Glyntawe. On the approach from the south, you can see the Sleeping giant of Cribarth, a recumbent giant figure which guards the southern entrance to the valley.

There is a megalithic complex in the valley called Cerrig Duon (the black stones), with a stone circle, some stone rows, and some large single stones, including this one, called Maen Mawr (Big Stone). To get to the stones you need to cross the river, which is always a challenge, and I suspect dangerous after rain!

Maen Mawr

The valley runs north to Glasfynydd Forest, and to the West lay the two ‘lakes of the peak’: Lyn y Fan Fawr and Lyn y Fan Fach, respectively the source of the Tawe, and source of the legend of the Lady of the Lake.

I’m sure I’ll be back again to explore more of this special place.

Bran and the British Mysteries

This is from a talk I gave some years ago about Bran the Blessed, who features in the second branch of the Mabinogion, the Tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr

It seems to me that the story of Bran was not just put together for entertainment, and that Bran himself was more than just a fictional or half-remembered historical king. The characteristic of the old stories that interests me is their long life being passed on by word of mouth. These stories would have changed and developed as they were told generation after generation, and I think there’s a parallel here to the ‘survival of the fittest’ in evolution, so that only those stories which resonate within us survive in the long term. At some level, these stories tell a truth, which is as relevant to us now as it ever was to our ancestors.

Apart from the otherworldly nature of Bran in the story, it may well be that Bran was one of the ancient gods of Britain. As in the other stories in the Mabinogion, which were written down in Christian times, the old gods appear as kings, queens and wizards. We have to dig beneath the surface of the story to uncover some glimpses of the meaning that Bran held for the ancient Britons. My interest in doing this is not so much historical or scholarly, but to try and see what significance Bran might have for the way we live today. So what does the story of Bran tell us?

Bran’s Buried Head

Let me start from the end of the tale, where Bran’s head is buried under the white mound in London:

“And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, inasmuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.”

Bran’s head is a clearly a guardian talisman, but it is only effective whilst it is concealed under the white mount. The disinterral mentioned was by King Arthur, who according to another legend, decided that he wanted to protect Britain by his own strength alone, and dug up the buried head, which resulted in the fall of Britain to the Saxons. This episode provides a linkage between Bran and King Arthur, both guardians of Britain, and can be read as Arthur claiming for himself the mantle of Bran. We will see further links between them later.

The idea that Bran’s head was only an effective guardian whilst it was hidden in the earth gives a hint, I think, that Bran’s power is linked to the hidden depths of the earth. In a sense, he can guard the land because burying his head makes him (and his tribe) a part of the land itself.

Traditionally, the white mount is located at the Tower of London, the central Norman white tower having been built on top the white mount. Surprising there is still an echo of Bran’s guardianship at the Tower.

I don’t know how many of you have visited the tower of London, but you may know that they keep ravens there – the only place ravens now live for hundreds of miles around. And there’s a legend about the ravens, that if they ever leave the tower, then the tower would crumble and a great disaster would befall Britain. In earlier times the ravens lived there naturally, but nowadays they clip the ravens’ wings, so they can’t fly away. The fortunes of the Tower ravens reached their lowest point after the second world war, when only a single raven remained. There is a tradition that Winston Churchill arranged that young ravens should be brought to the Tower from Wales and Scotland. In any case, the ravens were soon restored, and a complement of six birds still guard the Tower. Now the significance of the raven is that it is Bran’s totem bird. His name, Bran, is the welsh for crow or raven. So the legend of Bran’s protection of the realm still remains current, and in some sense is taken seriously, at least on a symbolic level.

How does Bran’s head come to be this protective concealed talisman?

It may be that there is an element of a sacrificed king about the tale – someone who can go ahead into the land of the dead and from there provide protection and guidance for the tribe. There are clues to this in the story. The cauldron in the tale, which was originally in Bran’s care, was clearly a gateway between life and death, the difference being that the warriors returned unable to speak, perhaps a sign that they could not profane the mysteries they had experienced. In contrast to this, as Bran lies wounded, he tells his companions what will happen to them, already seeing into the future and guiding them, and then the greatest mystery: the severed head continues to speak and takes the whole company into the otherworld for their 80 year feast. Perhaps there is a parallel between the otherworld feast, and the burial of Bran’s head. The feast comes to an end when a door is opened, just as Bran’s guardianship comes to an end when his head is revealed. These episodes portray Bran as an underworld figure, rooted in the hidden secrets of the earth, but that’s not the whole story.

Bran the Giant

Remember that Bran was a giant. In legend, Britain was first inhabited by a race of giants, and they got a very bad press as being evil, cantankerous, and rather stupid, but Bran is very different in character to your typical big, stupid giant. A giant usually represents primal, earthbound qualities, and indeed this is recalled by an earlier section of Bran’s tale. When he waded through the sea to Ireland, some swineherds saw him approaching and thought it was a mountain moving through the sea, Bran’s eyes appearing to them like lakes, and his nose a lofty ridge on the mountainside. This is the traditional earthy giant, a son of his mother the earth. And yet, in most of the tale Bran has a very different character. He is generous and wise, and usually acts as a peacemaker rather than seeking war.

Bran is a different kind of giant I think – a giant in stature rather than bulk. It was said of Bran several times in the tale that no house ever built could contain him. I don’t think this just means that he was too big to fit, but that it was a kind of need that he should always have the sky open above him, so that the earth would be under his feet, and the heavens over his head. In this way, Bran the giant could always be a link between the heavens and the earth, or more to the point, Bran was a giant because he maintained this link. I feel this connection sometimes myself – when I stand outside, feeling myself grow tall under the stars, and then imagine Bran walking across the countryside, the ground shaking at his step, but with his head way up in the night stars.

Bran is to do with the hidden and mysterious, certainly, but not just with the earth. He is connected into the unseen, he works in the domain of the invisible fields that lie above and below the middle-realm that we inhabit – our familiar world of cars and shops. Like gravity, these fields permeate and influence us – but how often are we aware of them? Can you feel the earth’s gravity now, pulling you down into the earth’s embrace? But don’t forget that it is that same gravity which rules the majestic dance of the stars and planets. Physicists today identify four primordial fields from which the whole universe was built, and the only one we can directly sense if that of gravity. These fields are a scientific paradigm of the hidden roots of the world, linking everything that exists, just as the otherworld is a more human paradigm of the hidden connection between all that lives.

To return to the Tower of London – it is a rather dark and bloody place, and one can easily imagine a sacrificed king being buried there – there have certainly been plenty of executions there over the years. But amongst the military background there is a contrasting vision – the crown jewels, which are housed there now in a rather cave-like vault. There you can see the diamonds and rubies glittering like stars, treasures taken from the depths of the earth. Again this contrast reflects the connection between the earth and the heavens, and the connecting link. Bran is guardian of these hidden treasures, and we must go into the dark to find the light.

The crown jewels are not just for rich display, but are the symbols of Britain’s sovereignty, modern-day equivalents of the thirteen sacred treasures of ancient Britain. In the coronation ceremonies, the crown jewels are used, in effect, as magical instruments to bind the monarch to the land and to the people.

Bran the Bridge

In an earlier part of the tale, Bran and his men are marching across Ireland and they come to a river where the only bridge has been destroyed by the fleeing Irishmen to stop Bran crossing after them. In a curious episode, Bran says ‘he who would be a chief, let him be a bridge,’ and then Bran lies down across the river so that his armies can march over him to the other side. This saying of Bran is quoted as if it was a common proverb, and this episode is being given as the origin of the saying.

This idea of a chief being a bridge is one worth looking into. In ancient times, part of the role of the chief of a tribe was to build and maintain relationships with neighbouring chiefs on behalf of the tribe. In effect this has carried on into modern times in the guise of a passport. In the front of my passport it says:

“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let and hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”

In this sense, the queen is acting as our bridge when we go on holiday to Spain!

There is also another aspect to this role as a bridge, which is of more interest to us. The king was supposed to build and maintain another relationship – one to the otherworld, which was considered the source of power, justice and fertility. The king was in some traditions treated as the consort of the land, and the health of the land was the responsibility of the king – bringing a literal meaning to husbandry of the land.

This link between the king and the land is most famously presented in the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail. In this legend, there is a wounded king whose land is a wasteland, with the presumption being that it is the king’s wound that causes the wasteland. In the first part of the story, the rather naïve knight Perceval visits the wounded king and at the evening feast, the grail is carried out in procession in front of them. Despite his curiosity about the grail, Perceval asks nothing, because a nobleman friend had warned him about talking too much in polite company. The next morning the castle is deserted, and Perceval learns that his failure to ask a question about the grail had been a terrible missed opportunity to heal the king and the land.

Another tale continues the story of the grail at King Arthur’s court. The knights were all sitting at the round table when a thunderclap sounded and the grail magically appeared in the centre of the room, spreading a fragrant scent and filling each knight’s plate with their favourite food. Then the grail disappears, and King Arthur’s knights set off in quest of it.

In these stories the grail is both a means of healing and a horn of plenty, and in the later tales it is treated as a symbol of holy spirit descending to earth. Above all else, it is mysterious and holy. It is, like Bran the bridge, a link between heaven and earth, and between this world and the otherworld.

This brings us nicely back to where we started, with Arthur, having taken on Bran’s responsibility as guardian after having dug up Bran’s head, now following Bran’s advice and seeking to be a bridge in order to heal the land.


To summarise, an important part of Bran’s story is about guardianship and kingship, centred on the importance of maintaining connections between this world and the otherworld. Bran’s head can guard Britain because of his connection with the hidden depths of the earth. As a giant, Bran provides a connection between heaven and earth, and as a king he is a bridge to the otherworld.

But we shouldn’t just look on Bran as something outside ourselves, a figure of legend, perhaps telling us a little about the duty of ancient kings. I think the story is giving us clues as to how we ourselves can live a magical life.

Let’s look Bran the giant – no house could contain him. How would we apply this to ourselves? On a literal level perhaps we might spend more time outdoors, with our feet on the earth and our heads open to the sky above. This certainly would give us more opportunity for rich perception of the world around us – more food for the spirit perhaps. On another level, we are perhaps living in houses built of our habitual perceptions and thoughts, which whilst being very convenient and comfortable, may be rather limiting. Leaving this house may let us become giants as well – stretching up into the heavens, and shaking the ground as we walk!

What about Bran’s proverb on chiefdom – let him be a bridge. I think it is quite interesting here that the metaphor of a bridge is used rather than a gate or a door. We could interpret this to say that we need to maintain an open relationship with the otherworld. We should be seeking not so much to enter the otherworld, leaving this world behind, but to keep a leg in both camps, so that we can bring the riches of the otherworld through into this world. The relationship between the two is what is important.

The final clue I think is in the story of the grail: none of this is without effort. The grail may appear to us unbidden, as it did to Arthur’s knights, but it is then up to us to join the quest and go out and find it.