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


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

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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.