A summary of a talk given for The Plant Consciousness Conference at Regent’s University, London 4th October 2014 with material added that I didn’t have time to include on the day!
What a stimulating day of talks we’ve had so far! I’d like to weave together some of the themes suggested by the previous speakers, so we can trace the threads that connect our presentations, which will make what I am about to say another piece of the mandala we have been building today.
Sir Julian Rose and John Perkins both spoke of our relationship with plants with an emphasis on activism – on what specific acts we can take to protect and preserve the biosphere. Julian focused on the soil and on our food, and our responsibilities towards these for our own health and the health of the planet. John talked about the way plants can heal us at a level of consciousness and of how we can influence policy-makers and corporations, because the people who run them also have grandchildren, and care about the future. From there we moved to Simon Powell’s presentation of the inherent intelligence of Nature which he convincingly argued is not recognised by science. The driving force of evolution is still considered to be without consciousness (‘blind’, as in Richard Dawkin’s book title ‘The Blind Watchmaker’) whereas Simon sees intelligence everywhere, and gave plenty of examples. Simon’s conception should not be confused with the idea of ‘Intelligent Design’ used by Creationists – his view does not necessitate the existence of an outside force guiding this intelligence. See his amazing film ‘Metanoia’ here.
After Simon, we had Tigrilla demonstrating the extraordinary research of the Damanhur Federation on plants’ ability to communicate. About ten potted plants were wired up on the stage and they sang to us. An amazing effect, that Tigrilla explained with reference to 40 years of research at Damanhur.
Then we had Pam Montgomery, who works with Plant Spirit Healing, who talked about our symbiotic relationship with plants.
So, looking at these presentations we can see how an appreciation of plants as living Beings, living Spirits, who give us life, who are magnanimous, is vital if we are then to communicate more effectively with them, to hear their music, their messages for us, so that we can recognize the inherent intelligence in Nature, and cooperate with it, rather than working against it, out of the ignorance and greed that has created the political and social problems we face today, which require the activism Julian and John urged us towards.
The bit I’d like to contribute is the way in which a spiritual practice rooted in Nature can be of value – to resource us in activism, which can so easily engender despair and burn-out without spirituality; and to give us a means of more effectively being in communication with Nature and the resultant healing and deepening of awareness that this can produce.
To do this, I’ll talk about Druidry as one of a number of Nature or Earth-based spiritual paths that exist in the world today. People who follow or are inspired by Druidry today love the way it helps to open them to the natural world – to the world of plants, animals, stones and stars, the way it helps them to feel connected to an ancient pre-Christian heritage – an indigenous magical, spiritual, shamanic heritage of these islands.
And at the heart of Druidry stand the trees, which we sense as our teachers, our companions, and as Beings with whom our destiny is intimately related – without them we would not and could not be here. The very word Druid probably comes from root-words which mean ‘Oak’ and ‘Knower’ – so the Druid is the Forest Sage, and a group of Druids is indistinguishable in our terminology from a group of trees: if a friend invites you to a Druid Grove, you will not know whether that means you will attend a meeting of fellow humans, who are Druids, or whether you will find yourself in a woodland sanctuary. Ideally you’ll meet both! To give you examples, here’s a link to Druid groves of our Order, and here’s a link to our Grove planting project.
Where does it all come from? The roots of Druidry can be traced way back into the Iron Age and beyond, over 2,500 years ago, but with the coming of Christianity, much of the tradition was lost. About 300 years ago, there was a revival of interest in the subject, which means that the Druidism practised today has a recorded history of almost three centuries – and it has roots that go down much further into the past.
We know from the writings of the classical authors that the ancient Druids revered, and worked with, certain plants in particular: there was the mistletoe, and Pliny tells us how they culled it with a golden sickle on a waxing moon; there was Vervain, known as the Enchanter’s Plant; and two mysterious plants he calls Selago and Samolus, by which he probably meant fir club moss and water pimpernel.
But then – as far as the classical accounts go – the trail goes cold.
Druids today are in a position rather like the goddess Airmid of Irish mythology, whose father the god of healing Diancecht, scattered the 365 herbs of tradition to the four winds, obliging Airmid to slowly try to recover the lost knowledge.
And rather than seeing this as a problem, I like to see it as a way in which it avoids the burden of dogma that comes to any tradition that is conserved apparently intact across the centuries. And so because Druidry has followed a natural cycle of death (with the coming of Christianity) and then a rebirth (from the 17th century), we are free of such a burden, yet we can also still sense our connection way back into the past. In addition, this situation encourages us towards looking deeply and connecting to the wisdom that lies within – within ourselves and within the Otherworld. And outside too – scattered in the folktales and literature. And so from those sources we have the wonderful Ogham – an alphabet drawn from trees and woodland plants that has become known as the ‘Druids’ Tree Language’, and we have the story from the Welsh Mabinogion of ‘Flower-Face’ the goddess Blodeuwedd formed by the magician Gwydion:
Not of father nor of mother
Was my blood, was my body.
I was spellbound by Gwydion,
Prime enchanter of the Britons,
When he formed me from nine blossoms,
Nine buds of various kind;
From primrose of the mountain,
Broom, meadow-sweet and cockle,
From the bean in its shade bearing
A white spectral army
Of earth, of earthly kind,
From blossoms of the nettle,
Oak, thorn and bashful chestnut –
Nine powers of nine flowers,
Nine powers in me combined,
Nine buds of plant and tree.
Long and white are my fingers
As the ninth wave of the sea.
‘Hanes Blodeuwedd’ translated by Robert Graves
This woman, formed from plants, is then transformed by Gwydion into an owl, the bird that unlike all other birds, can see in the darkness. Like Blodeuwedd, we must look into the Otherworld, the night world of secrets, to discover more of our plant lore.
(Then in the talk we undertook a journey to Lake Llyn y Fan Fach in visualisation, to commune with a plant. We then stood up to do the ‘Deep Peace of the Tree Meditation’ to ground ourselves, and shared our experience with a partner).
It is from this lake that the Physicians of Myddvai say a ‘Lady of the Lake’ emerged to teach the secrets of herbal healing to the first in their line of healers. This might be just a legend, but above the lake a Bronze Age burial of the remains of a young girl was excavated in 2004, and meadowsweet offerings were found amongst her remains – traceable by the science of archaeobotany even after all this time. See The Human Flower Project for more information here and another article here.
As a herb associated with a rite of passage into the Otherworld 4,000 years ago, how fitting it is that the story of the Lady of the Lake features three rites of passage! So here in this glimpse into mythology and archaeology we can see a bright trail of shimmering light that travels back through time, and which we can both follow and draw upon in our current practice.
Today, as Druids, we use plants in at least thirteen ways, and I’m going to invite you to a Druid ceremony to experience how we do this. At the end of the month in the Southern hemisphere, Druids will be celebrating the Spring festival of Beltane, but here in the northern hemisphere, as we enter the dark time of Winter, we conduct a ritual at the time of Samhain between October 31st and 2nd November. In this rite, we sense the old year dying, and we remember the Ancestors, the people we love who have shed their bodies in this earthly existence. We’re here in London, so imagine you’ve come to a Druid’s house in the city. You are invited to sit in a circle which has been prepared with an altar in the centre of the room, and four smaller altars at each of the directions.
The Druids come into the circle wearing robes of linen, dyed in different colours with woad, madder or weld. They have bathed beforehand in water that has had Agrimony steeped within it, and you are invited to bathe your forehead in water that has been similarly prepared.
Once opening prayers and invocations have been said, a Druid casts a circle using a hazel wand, then lights blocks of charcoal and sprinkles on to them an incense made from crushed and dried juniper berries and bark, mixed with agrimony and mugwort. Small muslin bags with eyebright are handed to each participant to pin to their clothes – this, they say will protect them from malign spirits. A further precaution is taken. As one of their number opens a window, letting the cold air of the city into the room, they first sprinkle cloves of garlic on the windowsill, again to ensure only good spirits make contact, and then the ‘Spirits of the Departed’ are invited to a feast. Offerings of honey, bread, salt and wine are thrown into a fire bowl. They crackle and hiss as the fire consumes them. Everyone in the circle then partakes of the feast in silence, communing with their loved ones. It is one of the most solemn and touching moments in the eight seasonal festivals we celebrate.
The remains of the feast are consumed by the fire, the spirits are thanked for their blessings and we send our prayers and love to them, and then they are asked to leave. The window is closed and sprigs of yew are handed to each participant as symbols or charms that represent eternity and long life. It is possible that members of the circle, or perhaps a new Bard might be anointed too, with an oil which has had primrose and vervain steeped in it.
A member may then wish to cast a spell, and here a Druid would be cautious. A spell is simply a wish or prayer whose efficacy is believed to be heightened by the use of physical acts, such as writing on parchment which is then burned in a fire. Druids very rarely cast spells, particularly not in public festivities, but for the sake of this illustration let us say that one of their company wishes to make a spell to rid themselves of unwanted negative feelings. They might stand before the fire-bowl and, taking a handful of the ground juniper and agrimony that was used as an incense, hold it to their heart and say ‘May I be freed of all negativity!’ and with a sweeping gesture throw the mixture into the fire.
It might then be time to use an oracle to look beneath the surface flow of events – not to tell the future, but to discern the currents that are carrying us forward – to help us make informed decisions about our life. We use various kinds of oracles, but let’s imagine that we use The Druid Plant Oracle that takes the wisdom and teaching of plants and applies it to the dynamics and circumstances of our lives.
At the end of the rite, the Druid will uncast the circle and say, ‘As the fire dies down, let it be relit in your hearts. May your memories hold what the eye and ear have gained.’
And the memories, sights, sounds and smells of such a ritual do indeed stay with you in your heart. I can still remember the very first Samhain ritual I attended in a basement flat in West London 46 years ago.
There in that ceremony you can see all of the 13 ways we use plants:
1. In clothing – made from the humble flax, dyed perhaps with plant dyes.
2. In sacred eating – a feature of many religious rites.
3. Sacred drinking too. In this ritual red wine is used. In other Druid ceremonies it is most often mead.
4. In lustration – for sacred bathing: agrimony for cleansing.
5. In burning – as incense: juniper and agrimony for cleansing, mugwort for psychism.
6. As charms or talismans for protection: the eyebright in bags and the garlic.
7. As offerings – all that was placed in the fire and the yew sprigs at the end.
8. The anointing with oil.
9. In ritual gesture – with the wand of hazel.
11. In an oracle.
12. For healing – these rituals are profoundly healing.
13. For changes in consciousness – your awareness is changed in such a rite, and plants have played their part in effecting this transformation.
These last two, Healing and Changes in Consciousness, are effects that occur wholistically and synergistically as a result of all the ways we have used plants as described, as well as for other reasons. But as well as these two effects occurring generally as described above, we also use plants specifically to heal, and to change awareness. Let me finish this talk by mentioning three which do both.
Dr Angela Paine, author of ‘The Healing Power of Celtic Plants’, believes that the ancient Druids knew about the power of certain plants to enhance and work with the Mind-Body connection, and in particular the little-known plant Rhodiola Rosea, Roseroot, which she believed they guarded carefully in the high places, just as healers traditionally do today in Siberia. And so in The Druid Plant Oracle, Stephanie and I asked Will Worthington, the artist of the deck, to depict an Ovate, a Druid healer, in the mountains of Snowdonia in Wales, working with three plants: Roseroot, St.John’s Wort and Valerian. Now, with the benefits of science we know about the properties of each one, and of the way Valerian can be used to relieve anxiety and insomnia, St John’s Wort depression, and Roseroot to enhance cognitive function, improving concentration and memory, and can lift the mood, relieve anxiety and stimulate the libido. Thank you for listening! To finish, here’s an illustration of a Druid healer in Snowdonia, with those three plants illustrated, and you might like to listen to this musical guided meditation that works with the sacred plants of Druidry: Clothed with Flowers.