“After long study and experience, I have come to the conclusion that  all religions are true;  all religions have some error in them;  all religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism, in as much as all human beings should be as dear to one as one’s own close relatives. My own veneration for other faiths is the same as that for my own faith; therefore no thought of conversion is possible.”
M. K. Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as told in his own words, Paris, UNESCO 1958, p 60.
A Gathering of Contemporary Wisdom Keepers from Europe and the Americas
November 21-23, 2008; Northampton, MA
Be a part of the premier gathering of some remarkable individuals. In her recent book Soul Companions: Conversations with Contemporary Wisdom-Keepers – A Collection of Encounters with Spirit, British author Karen Sawyer interviewed over 40 “Wisdom-Keepers” from all over the world to describe their fascinating encounters with spirit beings, and to communicate the powerful and inspirational messages they have received. This conference, which mirrors another one held in Wales this autumn, brings Karen Sawyer together with six of the Wisdom-Keepers included in her book for a weekend-long series of workshops, ceremonies, lectures, panel discussions and more.
Featured presenters from the book include: David Spangler, Llyn Roberts, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, Andras Corban Arthen, Michael Dunning and Joel Kaplan. Also featured are Janet Scott (Sacred Circle Dance), Sarah Stockwell Arthen (musical performance) and Amanda Brooks-Clemeno (yoga). We hope that you will join us for this extraordinary opportunity.
For more information please visit www.tamelinproductions.com/soulcompanions
or call 413-238-4240.
Have you noticed how there’s always something to worry about? No sooner have you recovered from that troublesome ailment that you discover you’ve got no money, and so it goes on. Behavioural psychologists have invented a treatment method known as ‘flooding’ whereby you swamp the psyche with the very thing that bothers it, so that it effectively gives up and moves on to greater things. If, for example, you are afraid of spiders, the flooding approach recommends dipping your hands in a bucket of rubber spiders, then later playing with lots of real ones.
Applying the same concept to worry I’ve had the idea of introducing an occasional series here of ‘things to worry about’. With enough of them hopefully we will find ourselves strangely calm and happy with life – achieving that state of equanimity so sought after in most spiritual traditions.
The Association of the Bar of the City of New York has published a report on “privacy concerns with respect to mental and cerebral functioning as delineated through brain imaging and other neurodiagnostic techniques — or what will be referred to here as ‘neuroprivacy'”. The report gives particular attention to so-called “brain fingerprinting.” An article in today’s New York Law Journal (not available free), entitled “Are Your Thoughts Your Own?”, describes the report and some of its authors:
Subtitled “‘Neuroprivacy’ and the Legal Implications of Brain Imaging,” the 24-page report is meant as a call to action in light of existing and future developments in the scientific detection of subliminal preferences, hidden knowledge and “bad thoughts” some might say could predict dangerous behavior.
Joking aside, this is a serious issue – and one more thing to worry about.
Just over a year and a half ago Damh the Bard suggested we create a podcast for The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids. I was dubious about whether it would have any success, being an old stick-in-the-mud who didn’t quite understand what a podcast could do. Within a few months over 2,000 people were regularly listening to the show.
The other day I listened to episode 19 as I drove in the Autumn sun to Glastonbury. The show Damh had put together is so good I’d like to share it with you here:
Secret? There is no secret. Anyone with eyes can see the way to live. By watching life, observing nature, and cooperating with it. Making common cause with the process of existence. By living life for itself, don’t you see? Deriving pleasure from the gift of pure being. Life is its own answer. Accept it and enjoy it day by day. Live as well as possible. Expect no more. Destroy nothing, humble nothing, look for fault in nothing. Leave unsullied and untouched all that is beautiful. Hold that which lives in all reverence. For life is given by the sovereign of our universe; given to be savored, to be luxuriated in, to be respected. But that’s no secret. You’re intelligent. You know as well as I what has to be done.
This weekend sees the master of improvisation, Ken Campbell, performing a 50-hour improvathan. Get your sleeping bags ready …
Off the cuff … The Goons having trouble controlling their scripts. Photograph: Chris Ware/Getty/Hulton Archive
Speech-based improvisation seems a pretty familiar routine, perhaps rather too familiar. Some witty people on stage pick up a few cues and “amusing” props from the audience and riff a bit, usually spluttering into incoherence and dead ends pretty quickly.
It’s an impressive trick, but the results are more or less the same: a twitchy race for the next gag, before which any kind of plot and character gives way. Not something that compares to the rich artfulness of a script.
But suppose we’re missing something really extraordinary with this rather modest estimation? Ken Campbell has made a career pursuing the far reaches of human imagination, with shows weaving together extraordinary notions from quantum physics to early Christian heresy. He’s now set his sights on improvisation as a means to trump the entire corpus of written literature, setting out to prove that scripts are really unnecessary once you have a team of sufficiently fluent improvisers.
All you need to do is “turn on the bardic tap”, he explains to an audience at the Hen & Chickens theatre in north London. Eyes popping with mischief, he leads us through what he’d have you believe is the long, secret history of making stuff up on the spot.
With the help of a team of four actors whose poetic plumbing seems to work pretty well, he says that the sonnets of Shakespeare (who may possibly have written his own plays, but it’s pretty unlikely) are nothing to get over-excited about. His own actors can recite them with metric precision while counting down noisily from 100 to 0. In a “book launch”, Campbell can start the actors reading from a novel, remove the book, and have them continue seamlessly, in the same prose style.
Literature, after all, began with rhapsodes who could bewitch with extemporary epics tailored to the preoccupations of any given audience. And we’re all familiar, aren’t we, with Iharu Saikaku, the 17th-century Japanese writer who extemporised a 23,500 poem timed to match the lifespan of a mayfly.
Campbell’s own ambitions are moving into similarly expansive territory. At the 2006 Edinburgh festival his actors performed Cardenio, Shakespeare’s lost play, off the cuff. This weekend he is performing a 50-hour play at the People Show Studios in Bethnal Green in London, upping the ante from a 36-hour drama delivered in west London a couple of years back. Campbell and his School of Night – named after Walter Ralegh’s secret society whose members included Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare – have been working together for some years now.
“I don’t understand the worship of writers in this country,” says Campbell, “since none of them are much good.” It’s a giddy notion, and a bracing wind-up to the theatrical establishment, but after an hour in his company, it’s on the brink of credibility. Mike Leigh, after all, works all his plays up from improvisations (although it takes three months and a lot of editing) and Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of many shows on TV and film where the script is missing.
This weekend’s two-day play will be a stern test of everyone, audience included (lightweights like myself can drop in for an hour or two). It’s bound to be on the baggy side. But the plan at the moment is to have a string of hour-long performances that pass an even stricter test. A series of critics will be invited to these, and turn up with a sealed envelope containing their own, five-star, review of a show nobody’s ever seen. The review will be read out to the actors and audience. It will then be performed.
I remember hearing Campbell on a radio talk show where he complained of his fellow guests that “you’re all talking about stuff that is. I’m interested in stuff that isn’t.”) And the reviewer’s fantasy-made-real clearly isn’t. But I’ll be booking a ticket.
Ok the last of the Italian diaries – just a few photos and captions to finish the story:
Three days in Rome absorbing its art and architecture. Here in the garden of the Galleria Borghese:
Here at the Castel Sant’Angelo – where the Medici pope Clement VII holed up while Rome was sacked in 1527:
And here, above the Spanish Steps looking on to the Egyptian obelisk. Isn’t it interesting that London, Paris and Rome (and perhaps elsewhere?) a symbol of power from Ancient Egypt stands majestically in the city – put there as a trophy of conquest, perhaps, but in reality connecting us to one of the most (or even the most) potent magical source-point of the world? The Christian symbol mounted at its summit will hopefully be removed one day:
Stephanie then revealed to me a secret she had managed to hide from me throughout our marriage. She took me to the head office of her fashion house:
After three days in Rome we returned to Milan. I did a workshop, Stephanie looked for new designs for her fashion house. Then on the last night our hosts tried to kill us. After seven courses we were still alive and they gave up, telling us that every year there is a festival in August where Italians take huge picnics out into the sun to celebrate the joys of eating. Apparently every so often there is a casualty. Sometimes as many as three people die during this festival as a result of over-eating! It made us think of that wonderful film ‘La Grande Bouffe’. We just made it to the plane, easing ourselves carefully into the seats and vowing to sip only water on the flight…
Many many thanks to all friends in Italy new and old who made our visit so memorable, so educational and such fun!
After two days we reluctantly left the magical Damanhur Federation and headed south for Rome to stay with an old friend, the gifted photographer and Times correspondent Paul Bompard. Paul and I learnt photography together when we were school friends and traipsed around Rome 30 years ago trying to learn as little as possible about its history. Here is an unfortunately out of focus photo of Paul and Stephanie investigating the remains of a magical ritual discovered in an abandoned village outside Rome. You can make out a half-circle traced in flour, inside which were traces of 13 candles.
Paul suggested we visit the catacombs of St.Priscilla – one of 61 catacomb systems beneath the city. During our tour of the subterranean tunnels and burial places a bright-eyed young American leading a group of students with a French beret and moustache responded to our questions about the assumption that all the frescoes were Christian, once the official guide had delivered the stock response. As we left there was a twinkle of recognition in his eyes as we waved goodbye and I thought of the Da Vinci code – with its theme of an art historian who is able to interpret the ‘real history’ of famous works of Christian art.
Our next stop was the headquarters of Opus Dei. We happened to arrive on the 80th anniversary of the movement and a Mass was about to be performed, but they received us very graciously and a charming man showed us around ‘The Prelatic church of Opus Dei’ which is housed in the basement of the very large and anonymous building you see here:
There is a lot more to say about Rome, of course, but let me just mention the deep-fried artichokes we ate in a Kosher Restaurant in the old Ghetto near the Coliseum: a speciality of Roman Jewish cooking. The leaves which with boiling are hard and inedible, are turned into crispy flakes when deep fried and the result is that you can eat them like potato crisps.
The top photo was snapped in a shop window in Rome and was titled ‘Pastor Angelicus’. It was an artwork rather than a clerical vestment that you could buy, but how wonderful it would have been to have seen a priest walking through St.Peter’s Square in it!
By Monday we had managed to escape from Mussolini’s castle. I think the talk I gave (shown in the post below) had lulled the guards into a false sense of security. I had deliberately emphasized Italy’s role in the development of Wicca and this pleased them. Four Druids helped us escape, including the previously-mentioned Ossian, Maria, his dynamic wife from southern Italy, and their two children.Here they are with Stephanie:
They took us to a mountain hideaway, and then left us, and we spent two days there.
Switching now to being serious: the Damanhur Federation who hosted us over these two days is one of the most extraordinary and exciting phenomena I have ever come across. It is a spiritual community of over a thousand people who live in the Valchiusella Valley a few hours northwest of Milan. There they have built underground temples, outdoor temples, and solar-powered eco-houses, and follow an initiatic path that places art at the centre of human endeavour, but also a commitment to being of value and service in the world. I had written about them in ‘Sacred Places’ (turn to page 76 in your copy now!) And now we were shown the temples, their organic farm, their art centre, their eco-houses and – most amazing of all – their tree-house village where they are experimenting with plant-musicians.
Electrodes are placed on a plant and the electrical signals picked up are converted via a synthesizer into musical tones. Slowly the plants learn how to make music, and remarkably those who have developed their musical talents seem to be able to pass these on to other plants simply by being placed next to the new plants.
We climbed up into a tree-house and sat beside an avocado plant in a pot who is a particularly good musician. It was extraordinarily moving to then witness the music he or she emitted.I hope we can arrange a demonstration at an OBOD gathering next year.
I would like to write more but I have a book to write. To summarise both Stephanie and I found Damanhur to be one of the most interesting and exciting places we have ever visited. The people we met were warm, friendly, intelligent, and articulate and we plan to return to learn more. See details of their temples here.
And see this page which has movie clips of the tree village and other glimpses of the community.
Finally, have a look at the Federation’s main site here. And here (photo courtesy of Damanhur) is a picture of one of their temples.
Character & Contribution – The story of those two seminal figures in the Modern Pagan Revival, Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) & Ross Nichols (1902-1975), and the way in which their characters mediated their gifts to the world by Philip Carr-Gomm
This is a story about Witches, Druids, nudism, the opera, and Italy.
I’d like to start by dedicating this talk to my father, who now in his 84th year, can still remember swimming naked with both the protagonists of this talk, at a nudist resort in Hertfordshire – probably Five Acres, part-owned by Gardner and the site of the first shrine of Wicca, the witches’ cottage where his coven meetings were held, or possibly Spielplatz, just nearby and the site of Britain’s oldest Naturist Utopian community. He can’t remember what the three of them talked about as they lay in the sun afterwards, but perhaps one day I’ll ask him to be hypnotically regressed to recall the conversation.
There they were in the pale English sun: the editor of a history magazine and two of the key figures in the 20th century revival of European paganism.
It was around 1954 or1955 that this happened: a key time for the emergence of this phenomenon. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in Britain in 1951, and in 1954 Gardner’s book ‘Witchcraft Today’, edited by Nichols, was published which began the process of popularisation of witchcraft and the promotion of Wicca specifically as a religion or magical path. The following year – 1955 – was destined to be the year in which the worlds of opera and the inner mysteries of Paganism and specifically Druidry collided to produce a triad of unique and powerful manifestations: it was the year two of the greatest opera singers the world has ever known began their careers thanks in differing ways to the Druids.
Pavarotti’s singing career was launched at the Llangollen eisteddfod in 1955 when he sung in a male choir from his town in Italy that won a prize. He returned to sing at Llangollen 40 years later in 1995. And Maria Callas’ career was launched when she played the Druid priestess Norma in Bellini’s opera that same year. And in the same year that these two stars began their extraordinary trajectories across the firmament of world opera, an opera – Michael Tippet’s ‘The Midsummer Marriage’ – was performed for the first time in London that also owed its existence in a certain way to one of the inner mysteries of both Wicca and Druidism.
What on earth was going on? What were the stars doing in 1955? Let’s home in on the details to look at the unfolding of this phenomenon more closely.
Let’s go back to 1951 – the year the Witchcraft Act was repealed. Where were Nichols and Gardner that year? In Italy – and specifically at Pompeii. Philip Heselton, biographer of Gardner, feels that “they probably didn’t go together. Gerald was always in the habit of “wintering abroad” for about two months each year, mostly January and February, to avoid the severity of the English winter, which did not suit him and brought on his asthma. In none of his letters does he mention Ross being with him. The most likely thing would perhaps be that Ross went to Pompeii some time during the summer of 1951 and told Gerald about what he had seen, which made Gerald curious to go and see it, perhaps even to choose Italy as the destination of his annual ‘wintering abroad’ trip.”
Let me read you now an excerpt from Nichols’ account of his visit, published in my father’s history magazine Past & Future August 1960 and titled Extract from ‘An English View of Italy – Pages from a Travel Diary in Holy Year 1951’
ITALY – INITIATION AT POMPEII
At Pompeii too graves and darkness dominated. One wanders for hours; everywhere there is the scent of thyme in the quiet air, the ancient shops, the runnel-like streets with stepping-stones, the school and gymnastic ground, the forum, the town’s temples, administrative offices and public lavatories, all stand in a silence of sunlight.
And amid this sunlight the darkest thing was the most impressive, that dim Villa of the Mysteries of Isis or Orpheus. Large painted rooms of initiation and instruction; the mother Isis, Silenus and his masks, Bacchus, the little cupid, the bride prepared for the mystic marriage, the child being instructed in the scripture of the legend. These realistic-imaginative paintings, with their background of heavy red, make a concrete impact on the mind as the reconstructed shops, the statues and the wall inscriptions, somehow do not. Some great emotional discharge had occurred here, an untold story wished to be heard from the pictures. What was it that these walls wanted to say? Some message of discovery of a truth, some deep conviction of the oneness of spirit with flesh, of old Silenus ridiculed with masks, of Venus as a young woman whispering her secrets into the ears of the young bride-to-be with a curved veil… and the young lad being taught from the book, what is he learning? That the mysticism of the flesh is the way of life? I cannot accept that this may be merely a normal villa with eccentric décor, merely because it is not built in temple fashion; nobody really knows, but I feel that this was a place of enlightenment. This ‘villa’ was most probably a temple for initiations into the women’s part of an Orphic cult, exempt from interference, run by an emperor’s sister.
Italy exerted a powerful influence on the development of modern Wicca through the work of Charles Leland, which influenced Gardner and those around him such as Doreen Valiente. The Charge of the Goddess is probably the single most influential piece of writing that ‘sets the tone’ and attracts people to Wicca. Although it has often been re-worked – by Valiente, Starhawk and others – it is the Italian material recorded by Maddelena (depicted on the left here) and translated by Leland, that lies at the heart of the Charge, and I think it is important to recognise the importance of this contribution of Italy to the core vibration or essence of Wicca.
So here these two Englishmen were in Pompeii absorbing the influence of the Goddess, of “Venus as a young woman whispering her secrets …That the mysticism of the flesh is the way of life…”
My proposal here is that they both metaphorically drunk from the cauldron of the goddess – from the well of her inspiration, in Italy but also elsewhere, and that they then mediated the inspiration they received in different ways that resulted in the two most vibrant expressions we have of paganism today: Druidry and Wicca.
They returned to England and over the next few years cooperated on the book that was to launch Wicca into the world. As a ‘sign that they were free’ they met together at the two naturist resorts I mentioned. In fact they had probably begun meeting, first at Spielplatz and then at Five Acres, during the war.
Here we have the wonderful image of two men sitting naked on a lawn in Hertfordshire talking about the subjects that fascinated them – religion, paganism, history, magic – while German bombs rained down on London. One – Gardner – in his fifties, the other in his thirties.
Both men realised that the world needed a return to a spirituality based upon a love of the Earth and her Seasons – the ravages of war and industrialisation made it obvious. Both men had drunk from the same well, but different hands had cupped the water – so let’s see how different, and yet how similar they were:
Both men never had children, were asthmatics, keen nudists, and well-travelled. They both became ordained as Christian ministers in obscure unorthodox churches. They both became Druids – Gardner at least eight years before Nichols, who joined the Ancient Druid Order in 1954. And they both had significant help in their work from formidable female companions – Doreen Valiente for Gardner and Vera Chapman for Nichols.
But there were critical differences between the two men – Gardner was married, Nichols a life-long bachelor. Gardner was self-educated (he managed to avoid school altogether) while Nichols was a Cambridge Academic. Gardner was a hedonist, Nichols an ascetic. Gardner was a maverick and politically conservative, while Nichols was keen to be accepted by society and was a socialist.
The result of their being so different – almost polarised one could say – was that the inspiration of the Goddess, the need in the World Soul for a new religious impulse, flowed into two complementary channels. The flamboyant maverick Gardner developed a religion that was sensual and worked practical magic, the more restrained and cerebral Nichols threw his energy into promoting an approach that was more intellectual and was concerned with the magic of artistry, of bardistry, more than with the magic of spell-making.
Here is how I explain Nichols’ direction in ‘Journeys of the Soul’: “In 1954, the year ‘Witchcraft Today’ was published, Ross finally became a member of the Order that Gardner had joined at least eight years earlier. He retained an interest in Wicca, but by now he knew enough about Druidism and Wicca to make his choice. The historian, mythologist and poet in him could not help but choose the path of the Bard and Druid. Historically he could trace Druidism far more completely than Wicca, which we now know was so much a product of Gardner’s creative synthesis of medieval magic, Tantric ideas gleaned from his life in the East, mythology and folklore. Having helped Gardner with his book, Ross might well have also realised the degree of ‘creativity’ involved. From a mythological perspective his choice was also clear: the corpus of Celtic and British material arose out of the recorded tales of the Bards – the oral tradition of Druidry being finally encoded in the tales and legends recorded by Christian clerics from the sixth century onwards. And finally, poetically, his choice had to be that of Bardism – he had spent the last thirty years exploring the relationship between poetry and the sacred. We can also suggest that the choice was conditioned by his character – favouring the apparently more cerebral path over the more overtly sensual. Ronald Hutton suggests that Gardner also saw Druidry and Wicca in this light: ‘[Gardner’s] characterization of the presumed relationship between Wicca and Druidry in ancient times, made in that book [The Meaning of Witchcraft], is a mirror image of the contrast between the two men. In this reimagining, Druidry became the more cerebral, detached, elitist and intellectual tradition, while Wicca was made the religion of popular festivity and sensual experience of the forces of nature and divinity’.”
Half a century later, we can see how much the two different paths Gardner and Nichols chose to promote have flourished as a result of their involvement. Just as the two key proponents of Druidry and Wicca in the modern era were united in many ways, so are these two paths, with their (usually) threefold initiation systems, their use of the circle, the directions and the elements, and their 8-fold cycle of seasonal celebrations. But they are also as different as were those two men. Many people find them sufficient paths on their own, but many also find the two paths work well together. If Nichols and Gardner were alive today, many of us would want to hear them speak at the same conferences, teach beside the same well.
Comparing the differences between them and the gifts they gave to the world shows how creativity can arise from the meeting of complementaries – how diversity and difference rather than conformity and unanimity fosters creativity.
And if they were alive today I’m sure both of them would be delighted to tell us of the story of their travels in Italy – and of how they were inspired by the Charge of the Goddess, whose resounding words ‘And so ye shall be free in everything’ echoed through their lives, inspiring them to foster two extraordinary paths of freedom.