An Oral Tradition

The British Mysteries is an oral tradition. This means it is handed from one person to another in a living chain. There may be many people in the chain or few, but the old adage ‘when the student is ready, the master will appear’ is often true.

An oral tradition relies on human interaction. This means that your ‘master’ is likely to be just another ordinary human being. Actually I prefer to use the word ‘guide’ as this is the role that includes everyone and does not have the idea of one person being somehow ‘higher’ than the other. The only difference between you is that the guide will be able to show you some signposts.

Recently I was at Avebury where there is a great avenue of stones that points the way to the main circle, or gathering place. Once you are at the bottom of the hill facing the stone pathway it is obvious where to go. You follow the stones like a bird following breadcrumbs. At one point the stones disappear because a road has been built through the middle of the approach. A bit of searching, and they reappear, but if they did not, you might need a guide to help you find the next sign. The guide’s function in this oral tradition is to place the signposts for you to follow. You still need to make the journey yourself. A real guide will not make promises, tell you what you will find when you get there, or spoon-feed you answers.

Gateway to Avebury Stone Circle

Gateway

One of the pitfalls of looking for someone to be your guide is that you might look for someone extraordinary. Someone wreathed in a golden glow or with thousands of online followers. Real guides are not gurus and don’t need fanfares. They often work quietly, encouraging their few students by their example of a balanced life, and their in-person presence. I’ve been lucky enough to meet several of these people with wisdom and experience, and they all watch TV just like everyone else. They live in this world, but have access to a greater one.

A guide’s function is to act as a gateway – to show you different ways of paying attention and to give you a structure which will enable you to make sense of these different modes of being. (see this post) You can learn a lot on the internet, (or I wouldn’t be writing this!) but most of this is information, not knowledge. In our tradition we make a distinction between these different forms of knowing – knowledge is only gained by direct experience and not second-hand from someone else. For example; it is the difference between someone explaining in words how to ride a bike from the actual practice and skill of balancing on that very wobbly saddle.

Why seek out an oral tradition?

The British Mysteries are mysterious. And the mystery is not easily explained. It needs to be grasped with all your senses if you are to catch a whiff of it. The old welsh bards called this whiff ‘Awen’.

Awen describes the invisible inspiration of the poets, or bards, or anyone possessed of a kind of flowing energy, or a force that flows with the essence of life.

 Where does this inspiration come from? The Book of Taliesin describes this as proceeding from a trinity:

ban pan doeth peir
ogyrwen awen teir

Translation: “the three elements of inspiration that came, splendid, out of the cauldron”.

Triskelion at Newgrange

But the word ‘peir’ (cauldron) can also mean ‘sovereign’ often with the broad meaning of God or the Divine. Awen is sometimes characterised as consisting of three sub-divisions – the ‘ogyrwen’ of the quotation, so ‘the ogyrwen of triple inspiration’ is suggestive of a structure of three-ness.

A guide might point you to this idea of three-ness and suggest various ways to see this in action. (see the previous post https://ynysprydein.org/2022/06/10/the-bull-tor-triangle/)

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Nature Practice

Nowadays, for many, walking in nature has to be a discipline and a practice. In previous eras it was a necessity, but now people can go weeks or even months without any contact with nature.

The best way to explore our natural landscape is to go alone. Anywhere will do, but the further from traffic, people, and buildings, the better.

Often the natural world has remained unchanged for generations. Even if the landscape itself has altered, the elements of nature – earth, sky, the changing weather, still exist as they did for our forefathers.

This tree is a protected ancient lime, there has been a lime tree in this spot from before Roman times

The benefits of a regular ‘nature practice’ are many.

When we go into nature we escape from other people; it is people that cause us to harden our identity into someone they can recognise as unchanging. Without the reinforcement of other people we are free to drop our egos and our conditioning and spend some time in just ‘being.’

The presence of trees, grass, and flowers, which do not speak or seek to persuade us of their opinions, can encourage the walker to do the same, to let go of the need to project anything of our ‘selves’.

The gentle rhythm of breath and footsteps can lead to a quietening.

In the quiet of nature we are more inclined to listen – not for anything in particular, but to sense our surroundings more intensely. The wind, the direction of the sun, the ground under our feet, the buzz of insects, the cry of a bird. It is surprising what insights these can bring.

Many people are hardly ever alone and are afraid of being alone in a remote location. We are lucky in England that predators are few, but we can still use the fear of being alone to our advantage. It makes us more alert, we become more like what we are – an animal in the wild.

In this alert state, with our senses open, we are at once both bigger and smaller  – we are in an expanded condition, yet small in comparison to the immensity of nature and its longevity.

There are special places in the landscape that people have sought out for generations – a spring, a lake, a mountain top, a particular tree. These are places of pilgrimage. The English term ‘pilgrim’ originally comes from the Latin peregrinus (per = through and ager = field or land), someone on a journey. Often the sites have been marked in some way, but you could always find your own resonant spot, and mark it yourself.

A regular journey to the place you have chosen will mark that place for future pilgrims, even if there is nothing externally visible – very much in the way that continual journeying across a field wears a footpath. The process of doing this regular practice, alert to the changes of seasons both inside and outside yourself, is the transformative thing.

Honouring the landscape in this way, by your particular and decisive presence, connects you to all the others who have done the same, those from before, and those that will come after you.

When your time is over, the traces of your practice will still remain.

The Wearing of Horns 2 – Ram’s horns

I’ve been experimenting with the idea of wearing horns as a way of connecting with different states of awareness, and activating different parts of the brain. In my last post about this, I looked at antlers; today it is the turn of the ram. If left alone, ram’s horns are not shed like antlers but the horns grow throughout the lifespan of the animal, and eventually they may form a full spiral. These are different from the horns of goats which usually grow backwards from the skull.

The idea of a horn that curls around your ears is an old one, and the natural spiral is one of the most obvious in nature to early mankind. Sheep are one of our earliest domesticated animals, and the ram is traditionally the undisputed leader of the flock. In a fight for supremacy, competing rams would butt heads in shows of strength, and to show dominancy over the flock.

My main interest in the ram’s horn is that the imaginary wearing of these horns is a way to encourage deep listening. The ram’s horn was possibly one of our earliest instruments, and there is also something haunting about the sound made by the blowing of a horn, the most basic of ways to amplify the human breath. It survives still as a call in hunting, where the simple hunting horn is still used as a signal to riders and hounds. Despite its limitations of tone, many different signals can be given with this instrument in the right hands.

14th Century hunting horn players. Reproduction from a book by the French hunter Gaston Phoebus (Febus) count of Foix (1331-1391), showing a group of hunting horn players. Picture from the SciencePhotoLibrary

Just ‘Google’ ram’s horn, and the sound of it is enough to awaken some deep recognition of the call.

The word for “horn” in French is “cor,” and in Italian “corno” originally meaning an animal’s horn, directly expressing the animal origins of the horn. The word survives in the word ‘cornet’ and in our designation in the orchestra of the ‘horn section’. The British still find echoes of this in the brass band, that most quintessential sound at rural fairs and fetes.

Ram’s horn (Wikipedia)

The ram’s horn has long been used as a way to summon people to meet. In the Basque Country there is an old practice of blowing the horn from five mountains once a year. These mountains are called the montes bocineros, or ‘hornblower mounts’. Up until the late 16th century the people were summoned to the General Council in the town of Guernica by the blowing of horns from the summits. Biblical ‘trumpets’ were probably ram’s horns and survive in the Hebrew shofar, the horn used in various ritual calls to prayer.

In Irish myth, the goddess Brigid, a member of the tribe the Tuatha de Danann and the daughter of The Dagda was the owner of Cirb — king of all the rams and sheep of Ireland — including the seven legendary magical sheep owned by the sea god Manannán. These magical sheep were able to produce enough wool to clothe every man, woman and child in the world. So the ram and its horn was associated with plenty, both in the Irish myth and in other cornucopia myths. Many of these myths have the quality of infinity embedded in them – of the ‘never-ending’ ; never-ending food, never-ending riches.

Once a sound is begun, it keeps on reverberating, though it may now be inaudible to our limited ears. The waves of sound are continuing. A sound from long ago is still reverberating now. I have found this a helpful idea to sit with, as I stretch my hearing sense to listen during contemplation.

The ram’s horn signifies the hunt, the summons, the alertness and readiness of the sheep before it was domesticated. Put on the horns and heed the call.

Once Upon a Time – the Birds of Rhiannon

Their song can “wake the dead and lull the living to sleep”. These three legendary birds, traditionally ravens or blackbirds, are connected with Rhiannon the Queen of Dyfed who is thought to be a British horse goddess, in the Welsh mythology of The Mabinogion. Rhiannon herself possesses various magical powers, so one might expect her birds to be harbingers of her presence. Like all winged creatures the birds of Rhiannon evoke ideas of freedom from the tethers of the earth.

Timeshifters

The singing of the birds of Rhiannon also alters the passing of time – making days seem like years when in fact only a short space of time has passed. One of their other qualities is that when you hear them they can be remote but the song sounds close by, or they can sound near when they are far away, thus their song has the effect of distorting time and space, or perhaps it is vice-versa and the loss of time and space creates their song.  

In one of the stories, the chief giant Ysbaddaden sets Culhwch, our hero, a number of impossible tasks – tasks he must perform before he will bestow the gift of his daughter Olwen’s hand in marriage. One of these quests is to bring him the birds of Rhiannon, to soothe him with their magical song on the night before his death. For Ysbaddaden is doomed to die on his daughter’s wedding night and lose his kingship, so he hopes Culwhch will fail, that she might never marry, and he might live. The birds are retrieved, although the tale does not explain how. An earlier and fuller version of the tale may possibly have been lost. The birds seem to be associated with the transition time between the living and the dead, the inference being that you may hear them at this liminal time. The fact they have the power to wake the dead, or put the living to sleep speaks of their ability to draw attention to a person’s shift or change of state.

Photo by Natalia Yakovleva on Unsplash

Three Birds, Seven Years

The birds of Rhiannon are also mentioned in the second branch of the Mabinogion, in the tale of Branwen. After the war against the Irish, the fatally wounded British king orders his seven surviving men to decapitate him and take his head to the White Tower of London to bury it as a form of national protection. Are the tower ravens that still protect the Tower of London, a reminder of the protective birds of Rhiannon?

Before setting off, the seven survivors feast at Harlech for seven enchanted years, (seven often being the number of enchantment) whilst they are serenaded by the three birds of Rhiannon. Although Rhiannon’s name is not given it is likely that the three birds in this passage are the same as the ones described in Culhwch and Olwen story.

“As soon as they began to eat and drink, three birds came and sang them a song, and all the songs they had heard before were harsh compared to that one. They had to gaze far out over the sea to catch sight of the birds, yet their song was as clear as if the birds were there with them. And they feasted for seven years.’

Birdsong

The sound of birdsong is ancient, and speaks to us without language. I am reminded of the birds of Rhiannon whenever I hear the song of the blackbird in my garden. To hear the birds of Rhiannon you have to be in a place where you are free to really listen.

The birds from the trees upon the hill

announce, as they will and have since

they began to sing, the new millennia.

~

For what is new is only old tempered

by wind of changing circumstance.

~

Cry Jubilee unheard: the Lord shall

hear your song and speak it to the

wind. The birds will sing it then as now.

Standing Stone

This is Mayburgh Henge.

It survives as a single standing stone within a circular depression, around which is an impressive bank made of river pebbles culled from the nearby river. When you see the scale of the embankment, you realise just how much effort has gone into dragging that tonnage of river pebbles to the site. The site dates to the end of the Neolithic period or the beginning of the Bronze Age, which makes it about 4,500 years old.

Aerial view via English Heritage

No one knows exactly what this site was for. We can only look and imagine. But from historical records we know there were more standing stones here, and that the site was built near a spring and the confluence of the rivers Eamont and Lowther.

Map of 1769

The single remaining stone is like a spindle at the centre – and the large depression forms a navel in the landscape, which curves in towards the site on all sides. The stone is taller than a man, and is exactly at the centre of the circular boundary.

It is single, embedded in the earth, yet pointing up to the sky.

The stars have turned around this axis over millennia.

It occurs to me that this is like the thoughts that are always circling around us, ready to take root.

The thoughts don’t belong to us, though sometimes we mistake them for ours. But we can let them pass, just the way this standing stone lets the turning of the stars pass. Lifespan after lifespan, it has been a witness to the ever-changing sky.

One of the attractions of this standing stone is its aloneness, its stillness and its silence.

The stone cannot speak.

Yet it stands for something.

The Wearing of Horns

Part One – Antlers

Red deer

One of the enduring images of our British animals is that of the stag with its crown of antlers.

Antler – from the old French antoiller – ante (“in front of”) + oueil (“eye”)

Imagining you possess a crown of antlers encourages you to take your attention right out above your head and to sense and feel with the tips of the antlers. During their growth period, the deer’s antlers are very sensitive and full of nerve-endings. The deer are aware of the space above and around their heads.

In Celtic lore, the stag was a symbol for the god Cernunnos, or The Horned One. Cernunnos was often portrayed with antlers himself, and was a god of the forest and wild animals.

Cernunnos on the Gundestrup Cauldron

Horn Dance

The idea of wearing horns survives in the ancient Horn Dance of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. Not only do the horns remind us of the symbolism of strength, power and speed associated with the stag – the King of the Forest, but the dance is also interesting because of its underlying structure, which points us to something bigger with its numerical symbolism of 3, 6, 12 and the division of the horns into two differentiated sets of three. The dance was obviously designed to tell us something.

The first recorded reference to the dance is in Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire, written in 1686, but a carbon analysis done in the 1970’s reveals that the actual antlers used in the dance date back to the 11th century.

Nowadays the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance takes place on Wakes Monday, which is the first Sunday after 4th September, although in previous times, according to Violet Alford, a well-known folklorist, it used to be performed on Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night was traditionally a day when the usual order of things was reversed, and there was a temporary suspension of societal rules and norms. On this day servants could become masters, wise men fools and vice versa.

photographer unknown

The actual ‘dance’ starts with a service of blessing in St Nicholas Church, where the horns are housed. The “horns” are six sets of reindeer antlers, three white and three dark. Since there are not believed to have been any reindeer in England back in the 11th century, the horns must have been imported but it is a mystery as to who brought them here and why, and to why they were divided into two sets of three.

There are 12 dancers, traditionally all male. Six carry the horns and they are accompanied by a musician, a man playing Maid Marian, plus the Hobby horse, a jester, a child with a bow and arrow, and another with a triangle. (The hobby horse deserves a post on its own, so more of that later.)

Many videos of the actual dance exist on Youtube. They are well worth watching to see tradition in action. Here is a personal favourite, a more abstract interpretation by the band Stick in the Wheel.

But it’s not only at Abbots Bromley that this idea can be found. The use of deer masks, fashioned from the skulls and antlers of red deer can also be found at Star Carr, a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire, 9000 years old.

Archaeologists’ research suggests that, rather than being used as hunting disguises, the masks were used in dances and ceremonies as part of a ritual costume.

What does it all mean? What is it trying to tell us?

You don’t need the real thing to find out. You can discover a lot by trying on the imaginary antlers for size, taking a walk in the forest, and seeing where they take you.

For the latest news about the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance go HERE

all images in the public domain or from Wikipedia.