My father introduced me to the Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids when I was 11, then again when I was 15. His name was Philip Peter Ross Nichols, but I soon came to know him by his Druid name of Nuinn. Shortly after our second meeting, I accepted his invitation to the Order’s celebration of Imbolc on 2 February. That evening, over 20 years ago, as I made my way to Baron’s Court, I felt tired and cold. I had spent the afternoon playing football in the wind and the mud, and I had no desire to celebrate the first day of spring. I wanted a hot bath and an early night. But there I was, walking the dark streets of an area of London in which Ouspensky had lived and taught, and in which the dervishes still whirl silently in white as the trains of the District and Piccadilly lines run by, so near, yet caught in another world.
I was greeted by Nuinn and shown into his sitting-room. He asked me to help distribute sherry and peanuts, and within moments my mood had changed. I was soon talking to a journalist from The Times, and then with an Irish novelist, feeling very adult as my 15-year-old body sipped sherry and relaxed in the warmth of the room. After a while, a blue-robed Bard appeared, inviting us to descend into the basement. There, in the candle-light, was a circle of chairs which were quickly occupied, leaving late-comers to stand behind. On a central table was a glass dish filled with water and strewn with snowdrops, and out of this water rose eight white candles, all alight.
From an open door, which led in fact to Nuinn’s kitchen, the brothers and sisters of the Order emerged in file, Bards robed in blue, Ovates in green, and Druids proper in white. The miracle, the wonderful and extraordinary thing, was that no one burst into laughter. How strange it was to be in a basement room in London’s West Kensington, with two dozen people who had, a few minutes before, been engaged in standard ritual behaviour, now awe-fully and respectfully adapted to a totally new and strange ritual activity. Nuinn had written about this process 20 years before, in 1946, in his book Cosmic Shape: ‘In festival drama is a possible technique whereby the self-conscious modern may learn to partake of mass dramatic action and music without the entry of that paralysing sense of the ridiculous that checks the outward expression of any form of reverence’. So there we were, and none of us were paralysed – we were fascinated. Nuinn now entered, distinguished as the Chief, by a golden emblem of the Three Bars of Light placed on his head-dress, just above the point of the brow chakra, the Third Eye.
‘Let us begin by giving peace to the quarters, for without peace can no work be. Peace to the North. Peace to the South. Peace to the West. Peace to the East. May there be peace throughout the whole world.’
After dedications, explanations and a prayer, Nuinn continued: ‘See at the centre of man are air and fire. The leaves of the trees speak with air. In the heart of wood is the seed of fire. Guardian of the Fire, is warmth prepared?’
‘It is prepared.’
‘O Ritualist, is poetry in readiness?’
‘It is in readiness.’
‘Then I declare that this fire festival of the Bards is open for instruction, for song and for the arts of man.’
A lectern was placed in front of Nuinn, and he began to talk: ‘This is the earliest of the spring celebrations, marking the purity of snow, the clearing of the debris of winter, the First Ploughing and sowing. It is the only one of our eight festivals given entirely to the Mother Goddess under many names, Brighid being the central one of three, each representing a season. Imbolc is a quiet ceremony, with water, lights and readings showing the many forms of the feminine in deity. The ceremony is inductive – that is it aims to encourage the sun, to show that light and warmth are increasing. The First Plough means confidence in the future. There is the washing of the face of the earth – the celebration of the Goddess’ recovery from giving birth to the new year’s Sun God. It is a festival of virginity, as well as a festival of purification after childbirth. In the Christian tradition this celebration becomes the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the time of the Churching of Women. So here we have the use of earth and water and light. The snowdrops are traditionally the first flowers to appear from the snow – they are the flowers of washed purity. We will now celebrate this festival with music, song and readings.’
As we listened to the Celtic harp of a Breton Druid who was staying at that time with Nuinn, I gazed at the eight candle flames and their reflections in the water…..
The other Druids read poems in turn. Then Nuinn again, reading from his long poem Cosmic Legend:
The cup is filled the cup has power
the waters of new vision flow,
the crops upstart, and into flower
the later grasses glow.
A reading on the Goddess from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass brought the festival to an end.
The candles were extinguished ceremonially while Nuinn said: ‘As the flames die down, may they be relit in your hearts. May your memories hold what the eye and ear have gained. I declare this fire festival of the Bards of Caer Lud is closed in the apparent world. May its inspiration continue within our beings.’
Twenty years on, the memory of that first Druid ceremony shines like a beacon in my consciousness. Each of the following ceremonies has added colour and depth to an inner mandala that acts like a compass, as I move through my life and through each year. Imbolc was followed by Alban Eilir, the Spring Equinox, celebrated looking down upon London from Parliament Hill. Then came Beltane, when on May Day we climbed Glastonbury Tor to perform a ceremony filled with deep and ancient symbolism. We were back at Parliament Hill for the Summer Solstice, which was followed six weeks later by the celebration of Lughnasadh in a private country garden. Alban Elfed, the Autumnal Equinox at Parliament Hill, was followed by the inner and magical ceremony of Samhuin at Hallowe’en, which we celebrated in Nuinn’s house. The eightfold mandala of the Druid year was completed with the celebration of Alban Arthan, the Winter Solstice, on December 21.
In 1975 Nuinn died and with his death the Order moved into a period of winter sleep. I began training as a psychologist, and the romantic years of initiations on Glastonbury Tor, and ceremonies on sacred hills, gave way to a decade of academic work and family life. The ability of psychology to address human suffering became my main concern, and the teachings of the Druids seemed to me at that time of little relevance to the problems of the contemporary world. I had seen that the path of the esoteric could provide as many pitfalls and cul-de-sacs as it could provide insights and inspiration, and it seemed that only a thorough analysis of the human mind and character could safeguard one from the escapism and distortions of the occult.
Looking back it seems as if the post-war generations have been accelerated through an unparalleled process of psychic development – the decade of material stabilization of the fifties was followed by the mass initiations of the flower power era in the sixties. No one would deny that the excesses and abuses of the drug culture caught many in a dangerous blind alley. But most of those souls who had been initiated by the expansions of consciousness triggered by either psychedelics, or simply the extraordinary energy generated during this era, were carried into the next chapter of their development by the evolutionary wave that moved them in the seventies towards the spiritual guidance of gurus and teachers, who evoked not only devotional qualities in individual souls, but awakened thousands to the power of group consciousness.
As the decade drew to a close, the power of the gurus seemed to turn negative, just as the quality of flower power turned bad at the end of the previous decade. But the wave carried on, and although the undertow caught some souls in the cult-trap, the crest of the wave carried the majority forward into the eighties – to a time in which the empowerment of the individual became the prime work. The external way-showers of psychedelics and gurus were no longer appropriate. Human Potential training in all its guises became the dominant vehicle for human transformation. Still seated in a circle, it was no longer the sacred pipe that was passed, nor the guru that was adored, but it was the individual self in relation to all the other selves in the group that was honoured. And what circle will we be seated in, as we move into the final decade of the millennium?
Way back in other lives, we have been seated in tipis and in groves; our grandparents sat in spiritualist circles, and we – as we were hurled through the post-war psychlotron-have sat in occult and psychedelic, and new age and growth group circles. But I ask again – which circle will hold us as we move into the nineties?
1984, nine years after Nuinn’s death, found me practising as a psychotherapist. Although I had kept all my Druid papers, I had not thought of Nuinn or the Order for years. I was meditating one morning, when suddenly, he was there – six feet in front of me. ‘Look around you,’ he said. ‘There is a place for Druidry now. Man has lost his connection with nature. Any thing that can help heal the split is of value. Druidry can offer a way to reunite man with his home, which he is destroying.’ He then gave instructions which were to result in the Order beginning a new cycle of activity – with astonishing consequences.
After this experience it became clear to me that the final decade of this millennium would be a decade of the ‘Turning Without’. We had been accelerated through 30 years of soul development, of building a knowledge of the inner, precisely so that we would be ready to turn outwards with that awareness, to the planet and to all its realms – human, animal, plant and mineral – in order to redress the imbalance we have created since the scientific revolution.
The only circle that would hold us now would be the circle of the whole earth – and the physical circles that we would sit in, would be formed not only for self-development and support (for those needs will never cease) but would also be for the work of planetary healing and for the building of concrete and specific projects to aid this work.
The fact that in the coming decade we will turn increasingly in our work to resolving the planetary crisis does not mean that we will cease the treading of our spiritual path. Just as outer reflects inner, we step forward on our journey whether that step results from concern for the outer world or concern for the inner. The following notes of an inner experience of guidance by Nuinn will make this clearer.
Deep in a quiet wood in Buckinghamshire Nuinn would go for periods of solitude and communion with nature. He owned a small piece of natural woodland that was part of a much larger private forest. He had bought it before the war from friends of my god-mother, and there he had built a few wooden huts, and there he would cook by an open fire, meditate and walk in the forest, storing up energy in preparation for his return to the city.
One of the main effects of a retreat there came from the utter simplicity of the place. There were very few things. He kept warm at night by using a thick sleeping bag, and in the evenings by making fires of the dead wood he had gathered during the day. It was like camping, but with the pleasant difference of having a dry wooden hut to sleep in, rather than a cramped tent.
I never managed a visit to his woodland while he was alive, always leaving it to a later date – even when people are old it’s easy to forget they may soon not be with you any more. But after he died, I imagined what a retreat there with Nuinn would have been like:
The simplicity of surroundings matched the simplicity of diet that I submitted to, during my retreat in Nuinn’s wood.
‘You will eat nothing but apples for three days, and drink nothing but hot water and apple juice,’ announced Nuinn eagerly scrutinizing my face for signs of resistance.
‘So that’s what that crate of apples is doing in the corner of the hut?’ ‘Yes, what more can we need?’ he said with a smile.
‘Nothing, absolutely nothing’ I murmured, thinking that maybe my friends were right and that he was slightly mad. Maybe I’d get ill, or go green.
‘I undergo this retreat eight times a year.’ I was astonished – he had never mentioned this before. ‘For a week before the Solstices and Equinoxes and for three days before each of the Fire Festivals, I come here to rest and fast and be transformed. Do you know how old I am?’ ‘No. About 50 I suppose.’ ‘I’m 69. The reason I look younger is because I have followed this practice for years, which was taught me by my predecessor. If you can follow it, you will find it will change your life – increasing your energy, vitality and health, and ultimately your longevity. There’s nothing complicated about it, just as there is nothing complicated in Druidry. You just have to remember a few things. Firstly, the psychological and emotional attitude should be one of freedom, detachment and rest. Tell yourself that during this period you will set aside all your worldly concerns and cares. Live in the greatest simplicity – it helps to be without electricity and all which that brings – telephones, televisions and radios. Try not to think overmuch, but commune as much as possible with Nature – with the sun and stars, the trees and the earth. Spend your time watching animals and birds, and allow yourself time to dream.’ He said this last phrase with emphasis, looking at me kindly, as if to say ‘This is particularly for you’. I was a serious sort of person, and looking back, he was quite right – I needed to give myself the freedom to dream.
‘Physically, it should be a period of rest and regeneration and cleansing for your body. We all eat far too much, and the wrong kinds of food. The Ancients have always carried as part of their tradition, a teaching concerning the proper use of fasting and diet. As regards the subtleties of the esoteric doctrine of diet you must wait awhile, but as regards cleansing and fasting, and the elementaries of our understanding of diet, we can begin now.’
As if he realized that he had provoked a fascination within me, he changed tack, and having poked and adjusted the fire, he said ‘The whole question of glamour and fascination and mystery must really be thought through by you. You must ask your self why you are interested in the Druid and Arthurian mysteries, in ley lines, megalithic remains, astral travel, numerology, sacred architecture, alchemy, mythology, ritual, festivals, and all that sort of thing. I would say that this interest has both a healthy and an unhealthy side to it. The healthy or beneficial aspect lies in the fact that these studies can promote self-knowledge, spiritual development and a greater awareness of the wonder and complexity of life. The unhealthy, disturbed, or hindering aspect lies in the possibility that these interests could be a form of escape from the real world – from properly and creatively engaging in the outside world and its challenges. This is a danger we should always bear in rnind. It is one of the functions of a spiritual guide to ensure that this happens as little as possible.
‘If you are attentive to your own psyche and to events occurring in your life, you will see that these interests follow cycles – wide patterns like the seasons. There will be times when you will set aside these concerns and work openly and vigorously in the world -turning towards inner things at such times in your life may even seem distasteful, because your psyche will not need it, and to force it would be like forcing yourself to eat a food that your body reacts against. I sometimes sense these periods as summer times when we are outside working in the sun, intensely aware of the outer world. At other times, autumns and winters of our psychic lives perhaps, we turn towards these inner studies and practices, and we feel depths which were not satisfied by our outer work. And again, if we force ourselves to carry on in our outer way, we will feel uncomfortable. We will sense, even if unconsciously, that we are unbalanced, that our concerns are superficial, that our inner selves are not satisfied. Of course these seasons occur in miniature cycles within the wider ones. In other words, during one day you may well move from one to another; but there is a way in which these patterns also occur over a longer time-scale, lasting months and years, sometimes even lifetimes. If a soul has spent a whole lifetime in contemplation and inner work, as a monk for example, he may spend his next life in almost total outer activity as a compensation.’
During his life he never mentioned fasting to me, nor did he speak to me in the way given above, but in writing this imagined piece of guidance from Nuinn, I found it clarified my awareness that we should create forums and vehicles which can express both our need for outer activity and for inner work – with both of these contained within an all-embracing spiritual context. Said another way, for many of us there has been a conflict between our ecological concerns and our spiritual concerns. Some of us opt for outer action in the political, social or environmental arena, having decided that inner concerns are an indulgence we can ill afford in such troubled times. Others of us, knowing that changes in consciousness precede changes on the physical level, opt for inner work and self-development, seeing outer work as labouring with effects rather than causes. The rhythmical seasonal analogies of this teaching helped me to see that we can integrate both approaches, fulfilling the need for both outer and inner work, and that the ‘earth religions’, such as Druidry offer a way of doing this. The revival of interest in these ‘earth religions’ points to the growing awareness of the necessity to combine our spirituality with a reverence and care for the earth.
It is undeniable that there is a renaissance of interest in these natural religions throughout the world. A part of this renaissance reflects the need in the collective unconscious to redress the balance that has been disturbed by the dominance in our religious consciousness of the patriarchal religions of the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic worlds. This imbalance has resulted in a disturbed relationship to the planet herself, and the renaissance can be seen as the manifestation of human and divine concern that this relationship be made harmonious and the earth be thereby saved. Rather than seeing the revival of interest in earth religions as regressive – harking back to primitive times – the upsurge of interest demonstrates quite the opposite trend – one of progression, in which we meet the old wisdom at a new turn of the spiral, and see that we need its sense of the sacredness of all life if we are to survive as a species and planet.
The renaissance of these natural spiritual paths coincides with the world ecological crisis. As half the forests of Scandinavia and Germany are diseased or dying, and as only 30 years remain, according to some estimates, before the world lung of the Amazon forest is totally removed, some of us become concerned with the spiritual power and meaning of trees. As the air and sea and land become polluted, and as the sun’s rays become capable of endangering our lives due to the ozone layer damage, some of us look at the four elements in a new light, and want to work with them in a spirit of reverence and respect.
The Old Magic sought to command the elements, but in this age we are seeking not to command or dominate, but to venerate and learn from these forces which we have threatened so severely.
The upsurge of interest in natural ways has its distortions, as does any great movement in consciousness. Just as the flower power, guru and Human Potential movements had their charlatans and their casualties, so too does the new wave of natural spiritual concern have its pitfalls of the escapism or glamour of occult or tribal culture, and a regressive interest in the sexual or spell-working aspects of Paganism, but this should not blind us from appreciating the value of this new movement, for it is not the externals to which we should pay attention, but the inner attitude and direction – which is one of deep concern for the environment, and one of following a spiritual way which unites the natural earthly self with the divine, spiritual self.
Earlier I asked what circles we will be seated in, as we move through the final decade of the millennium. The answer comes to me that perhaps they will be ones which recognise and work with the qualities experienced in the previous decades – with the power of love, the power of reverence and group consciousness, and with the understanding of the needs of the individual. But hopefully there will be no manipulations by charismatic figures, no leaning on externals other than the support of the group and its work. They might use as their compass the mandala of the natural world, which is the mandala of the earth and her seasons. The ecological crisis would act as a focus for both the inner work of the circles, and for particular projects which they may initiate in response to the needs of their local environment. Understanding that crisis precedes evolution, they would be able to work with hope and confidence in the future, but with their feet firmly planted on the ground.
Now I know why Nuinn took the trouble to pay a visit after he had left this plane. The Druid path was too important to remain hidden in the times that lie ahead, and although it can by no means be treated as a panacea for all the problems we face, it clearly offers a dynamic way of working in the world through this coming decade and beyond.
Reproduced, with amendments, from the collection Voices From the Circle edited by Caitlin Matthews & Prudence Jones, Aquarian 1990