Graeme K Talboys & Julie White
Avalonia Author Interviews
( February 2005: GKT indicates answer by Graeme Talboys and JW indicates answer by Julie White,
Q indicates questions by Avalonia)
Q: – Arianrhod’s Dance is a great title for a book, how did you come to decide on it?
GKT / JW : Titles are extremely important and we wanted something that conveyed both the Celtic roots of the Druid Way and the cyclic nature of life and ritual. Arianrhod is a daughter of the Great Mother Goddess Dôn. She plays an important part in Welsh mythology, but we chose her specifically because of her astronomical associations. Her name means ‘silver wheel’ and she is closely linked both with the Moon and the great circle of the constellations. As an important part of ancient Celtic and modern Druid ritual has been based on the dance of the Earth, Moon, and Sun against the background of the stars, we felt that Arianrhod’s Dance would be a fitting title. It also pays homage to an oft-neglected deity whilst also, we hope, conveying something of the celebratory nature of ritual.
Q: – How important is the Goddess Arianrhod to Druids?
GKT / JW : Druids have a curious relationship with deity (and a few would contend they have no relationship at all – but that’s another discussion!). Rather than worship the deities they recognize as distant and omnipotent beings, Druids work closely with them to learn the lessons they can impart. They strive to understand the actual and symbolic strengths, roles, and spiritual meaning of individual deities and the myths in which they feature, working through them to invoke a deeper understanding of the universe. This means that all deities are important, but for different reasons. The importance waxes and wanes in accord with the seasons or with whatever other rites are being enacted. Nor is the relationship with deity confined to ritual, for Druids believe that spirit resides in all things at all times and this is often symbolized by or focussed within a specific deistic form. Thus, the Land, which is of vital importance to Druids, is often symbolized in the form of a goddess of sovereignty. Specific locations may also be associated with specific deities whose personality or story is reflected in the landscape.
The differences in importance also extend to the relationships that individual Druids develop with deity. We are all different and respond to the world according to our own natures. In working with spirit and deity, each Druid tends to develop a special relationship with one or two deities. These may change over time, but many Druids work with and are guided by the same deity throughout their life. Julie, for example, works most closely with Morgan – a healer and teacher. Graeme has a particular affinity with Lug and, as a consequence, with Myrddin. Coming from a long line of farmers, shepherds, and smiths, he also has a great affection for Brigid.
Q: Do you feel that it is important for someone wishing to practise Druidry to have a connection to the places in which it originated? Would it, for instance, be as appropriate to practise Druidry in Tasmania (Aus) as it would be in Wales or Scotland?
GKT / JW :This is an extremely complex subject. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18) states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change their religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest their religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’ It is a right that we support absolutely. In that respect one has the right to be Druid irrespective of whether you live in Snowdonia, the Freycinet Peninsula Tasmania), or a pressure dome half way up Mons Olympus on Mars.
Whether it is entirely appropriate is another question. It is a matter of roots. To be Druid is to draw from Celtic heritage. The Celtic speaking peoples derived their understanding of the world and their spiritual and religious beliefs from the land in which they lived. Yet they were (and still are) inveterate travellers and they took their vision of the world with them. However, they always applied it to the place in which they found themselves. That is why, for example, Welsh, Breton, and Irish mythology are different in detail and ambience whilst clearly having a common genesis.
We do not know how the beliefs of ancestral Celts would have evolved beyond Europe, although there are clear signs that along the borders with the Germanic tribes there was a melding of ideas and beliefs. Did, for example, the Celts that formed the personal bodyguard of the Ptolemies continue with their native beliefs, or did they immerse themselves in Greco-Egyptian culture? And those Celtic remains found in China. Would they have become Taoists or Confucianists, or would they have sought for signs of Celtic deity in the alien landscape?
Of course, the world is a very different place. Celts have been instrumental in most of the great colonizations of the planet – often forced out of their homelands. And for all that they were nominally Christian; they no doubt took many of the old ways with them. It is no surprise, therefore, that the old ways are re-emerging all over the world. The pagan impulse is deeply embedded in the human psyche.
Those who become Druid in places that were not originally Celtic, are aware of the local deities and work in sympathy with them – which is not the same as appropriating them. Pre-Christian Celts did not proselytize, nor were they imperialistic. Like modern Druids, they would probably have kept their own ways in private whilst also acknowledging that they were guests in another land that has its own spiritual traditions.
Q: Which is your favourite sacred site in Britain? Why?
JW – My favourite sacred site is Arbor Low in Derbyshire. A Druid friend was kind enough to take me there once when I visited the Peaks. I was so shocked at the power of the place. When the visitors left and we were alone, about to start an Autumn Equinox ritual, the place seemed to hum and you could see lights flashing round and round. I ended up having to lie down. Over forty ley lines converge there and it is the most central of all the stone circles. It is certainly well worth a visit. My other two sites are Hollingbury, an ancient Druid site that overlooks my house, and any place where water meets the shoreline. I do like Stonehenge, and had the honour to preside over a ritual there sometime back, but it seemed to me to be tired of all the people who take from it without ever giving back.
GKT – For me, it has to be The Mount in Lewes, East Sussex. This is an artificial mound made of chalk and covered with turf. The structure bears an uncanny (and possibly deliberate) resemblance to Silbury Hill, although it is considerably smaller at forty-feet in height. A spiral path winds its way about the hill, originally starting at the north east and completing one and a quarter turns before reaching the flattened summit. Although a number of theories exist about its origin, it is almost certainly late Neolithic in origin.
Quite apart from its antiquity – or perhaps because of that – it has exerted a magical influence on my life. I passed The Mount twice a day (and sometimes more) on my way to and from school. It became a familiar site in what was a fecund and largely happy time of my life. It was also a favourite haunt – far enough from school to get away from the less edifying aspects of state education (of which there were mercifully few for me) and close enough to reach without wasting too much time.
On its slopes, I would enjoy the long summer days everyone seems to have had in their youth; watch the summer stars and listen to the distant sounds of the worlds; talk with friends and share hopes and ideas; write poetry; read; listen to music; and dream. It was the hub of a wider circle in which much of my social life was lived and in which I developed my love of words – both spoken and written. It was also at the heart of that place where my spirit flowered and I began my first steps along the Druid Way.
Wherever I go now, The Mount is always with me, part of my sacred inner landscape – a place where the latent spirit within me was given form and shown a way to travel that would honour the Land and the Goddess in whose honour the Hill was first raised.
Q: Do you think that there has been a lot of cross fertilisation between the rituals of Druidry and that of Wicca?
GKT / JW : We are not sure that either of us knows enough about present-day Wiccan practise to comment. However, as both groups are pagan and both groups are to be found largely in north western Europe (and emigrant communities derived from north western Europe), there will inevitably be similarities. There was certainly a great deal of communion between Druids and Wiccans in the earlier parts of the twentieth century that led to a common approach to ritual.
There is, now, a growing movement within druidry, especially amongst Hedge Druids, that sees much of the last few centuries to have been a journey deeper and deeper into a cul-de-sac. The recent flowering of study into ancestral Celts has allowed the opportunity to begin uncovering what is currently known as the Celtic metaphysic and exploring modes of thought and ways of seeing the world that motivated ancestral Druids. From this, new approaches to ritual are emerging which, whilst they may be no more ‘authentic’ than any other, are based directly on readings of pre-Christian material.
Q: If you were asked to describe Druidry to someone who has never heard of Druids, what would you say?
GKT / JW :In a single sentence, it would be something like: “It is a pagan Way that understands and relates with the world through the medium of ancestral Celtic understanding and beliefs.” Of course, that would require a good deal of explanation – especially the word ‘pagan’, which can elicit such antipathy.
Q: What is the most important aspect of Druidry – the quintessence without which it would not hold the same appeal and mystery?
JW – The most important aspect of Druidry for me has to be Service. That is, teaching and helping others walk their Way; giving back to the Land, the Goddess, and the ancestors; and keeping the tradition alive.
GKT – Truth. This has always been of paramount concern to Druids. Their many roles in ancestral Celtic society demanded it of them. They were witnesses to all the events of Celtic life and needed to be able to recall and recount these events accurately. But the notion of Truth is much wider than a mere accuracy of recall. Truth is the very foundation of existence and equally the foundation of the way in which ancestral Celts and modern Druids view the world. This is not just the veracity of language, but also the Truth of thought and action, the Truth of dream and relationship. It is the very measure of how much we are in accord with the natural world. That is the paradigm. We cannot, as human beings, avoid having an impact on the planet (both materially and spiritually), but we can try to live our lives as individuals and collectively in a way that mitigates that impact. Acting in accord with natural systems is the basis of Truth. It is a matter of having reverence for the Land, the Mother who gave us life. This has wide reaching implications for all that we do and gives rise to all the other qualities that are held dear by Druids, especially Service (which is the active element of Truth), honour and responsibility, respect, justice, and courage.
Our answers reflect our natures. Julie is more inclined to practice whilst Graeme inclines to philosophical enquiry (which is probably why we write so well together).
8 – Just like the stereotype for a Witch is an old woman with a crooked nose flying on a broomstick, so many people hold the image of men in white robes, carrying staffs and swords, descending on Stonehenge for Midsummer, as being the archetypal image of a Druid. Do you feel that this image is damaging to Druids in any way?
Whilst it is annoying (like all those programmes on television that cannot mention paganism without the need for gothic imagery and mention of human sacrifice), I suspect that the Druid Way is far too deeply embedded in real people and the real world for such images to be damaging. However, whilst it may not damage those who are already Druid, those who play up to the stereotype and indulge in strange antics do have the potential to put many people off investigating the Druid Way and finding their intended spiritual path. That is reprehensible and is something all Druids – indeed, all pagans – should consider when they put themselves in the public eye.
9 – There are many training courses and workshops being offered all over the UK for people wanting to learn more about Druidry. What do you feel the best way to be for someone wanting to learn more and become a Druid?
What makes a Druid has much more to do with how they conduct their lives than it does with ‘esoteric’ knowledge (there is none in the Druid Way), book learning, or belonging to an Order. We have both studied with and graduated from an Order (OBOD), we have both studied the material produced by other Orders and groups, and we have both attended other courses and workshops. Neither of us has found any of them entirely satisfactory. This is partly because we both came to such things after many years of personal study and practice.
This is not to condemn such material or courses and workshops. For those new to the Way, they provide a structured introduction to what can be a daunting landscape of new ideas and understanding, as well as the companionship of fellow travellers and experienced practitioners. By all means, people should consider such a way into being Druid. However, they should do so with two things in mind. The first is that such things are just introductions. Completing a course does not make anyone Druid; it merely starts them on a lifelong path where learning and practice go hand in hand. The second is that for all our ancestors were introduced to the mysteries (and a whole lot else) in schools and colleges, they did not belong to Orders as some modern Druids do (for they are an invention of the Revivalists). Whilst they kept in close touch their fellows, ancestral Druids spent their lives working in and for their own communities.
By far the best way to become Druid is to make contact with the Land. This requires no grand ritual or initiation, no special knowledge. It means taking notice of what is happening to the world just outside your door, it means tending your garden (if you are lucky enough to have one), it means walking in woodland and opening yourself to the experience, it means slowing your life and living as simply as you can. These are the best first steps as they produce a new way of looking at the world, one that our ancestors possessed. Then you are ready to learn more specific things about ancestral Celts, their Druids, and how that applies in the world today.
Q: What were your own first steps on the path of Druidry? Do you think things have changed much since then?
JW – My first steps in Druidry go way back nearly fifty years when I was about four. My father taught me all about nature and would take me to see hares and sunrises. I still love both. I knew way back then that they were important. I was also extremely interest in Faerie from early age and believed in Arthur the moment I heard of him. Later in the 1960s, I knew a few witches who were in Alex Saunders coven, but the Craft did not ring true to me, although much of the paganism did. I always saw the Solstice Sunrise, honoured the Land, Sea and Sky and just got on with my own brand of Celtic based spirituality.
Much later, in the early 1990s I joined OBOD and went through their three-grade system, ending up as a tutor for five years. I left, as I felt the Order was far too large. When I left, I formed the Spiral Light Grove with some other women. This was a ‘closed’ Grove and it went very well for a few years until we all decided to work alone. We are all still good friends and keep in touch. I met Graeme through OBOD (for me the best thing to happen throughout those years in the Order) and we both share a common core in our Druidry, even though we live at different ends of the country.
Has Druidry changed? Yes, but I don’t feel it is for the better. I honestly believe that huge organizations are counter-productive as people have a tendency to focus on the organization and follow the leaders rather than the tides of the Land. Many people believe that these leaders know all the answers, and I know they don’t. The answers are inside us and in nature. We need to ask the Goddess and listen to what she has to say. I also think many of the teachings have become watered down and far too New Age. Much of the Celtic metaphysic has gone. My own Druidry has changed because I have gone full circle and I now feel as I did when I was a child.
GKT – Although my early childhood was largely urban, we were lucky enough to live on the edge of Richmond Park. My very earliest memories include playing beneath the trees and listening to the stags belling in the dusk. By the time I reached my early teens, I was living in Sussex and spent a great deal of time walking on the Downs. There was no conscious feeling of being pagan, but I did enjoy an enormous freedom of body and of spirit, for my parents were trusting and content to allow me to explore where I chose.
I was thirteen (in the mid-1960s) when I consciously began to explore spiritual ideas in general, paganism more specifically, and the Druid Way in particular. I was lucky in having an English teacher who introduced us to ‘The Sword in the Stone’ by T.H.White and further encouraged us to read the rest of ‘The Once and Future King’. I was enthralled. Not just because it is a wonderfully eccentric tale that fizzes with magic and humour, but also because it made sense to me on a deeper level.
Arthurian material became an obsession (it still is) as did Myrddin, who led me to the ancestral Druids and the culture of which they were an integral part. I began to understand the world in a way that made a great deal more sense than that on which present-day society is based. For quarter of a century, I made what sense of it I could through my own researches and by spending as much time as possible in the company of trees.
I joined OBOD around the same time as Julie although, by then, I was living in Jarrow. Although studying their course material presented new avenues of exploration for me – and put me in touch with Julie – I left the Order not too long after I graduated. I have never been comfortable with human authority and, like Julie, feel that Orders can stand in the way of what is really important – our relationship with the Land.
I, too, feel that I have completed a great cycle. I started as a Hedge Druid and have returned to that. I began by searching on my own and have also returned to that. A new cycle has begun for both of us in that we now run the Hedge Druid Network which is, principally, a means for Hedge Druids to exchange ideas and experiences without having to be subject to the strictures of an Order.
Q: Graeme, I noticed that you have a fictional work “Wealden Hill” as forthcoming. When will that be available and can you tell us more about it?
GKT: Production on the novel has been delayed, I’m afraid, partly because I was contracted to write a book on the Druid Way for O-Books (see below). It is in need of some editorial work as I first wrote it twenty years ago, and it shows. I’m hoping that I can work on it later this year and make the prose a little less purple. If all goes well it will be ready by the winter solstice.
The story was inspired by a conversation I overheard one evening whilst quietly supping Harvey’s ale in the Lewes Arms. Two ancient gentlemen – rustic characters straight out of a Hardy novel – were sitting next to me, talking over old times and one of them said to the other that his grandfather had spent time away with the fraeries (a Sussex dialect word for faeries).
As it was a beautiful summer night and I was young(ish) and healthy in those days, I walked home the long way round – about nine miles, with a detour over the Downs before making my way along the river valley to Newhaven. During the course of the walk (across the landscape in which the novel was later set), I mulled over what I had heard and decided to write a realistic story that would recount the experiences of a mid-Victorian man who encountered Faery.
The novel explores the dislocation of a person who is torn between two worlds, two ways of life, and two loves – one of which he is not even certain exists until it is too late.
Q: Any other exciting projects you are working on and are able to tell us about?
JW – My writing is currently focussed on material for ‘GreenWay’, the magazine that Graeme and I produce for the Hedge Druid Network. We are also working on another joint project entitled ‘Answers to some questions you are likely to be asked if you tell someone you are Druid’. It is a book that Druids can give to concerned relatives and loved ones that explains simply what Druids are, what they do, and that they are not a threat to society, family, or relationships. I have also recently started research for a longer-term project, which is unlikely to see the light of day for a year or two. Watch the Grey House in the Woods website for details.
GKT – I am giving a talk at DruidCon later this year [go to click here for details]. Ill-health generally prevents me from travelling otherwise I would do more of this sort of thing. Much of my time these days is given over to writing, to administering Grey House in the Woods, and editing GreenWay.
I have a number of books at various stages of production. Most of last year was spent researching and writing ‘Way of the Druid’ [click here] which is due out at the end of this year.
As well as ‘Wealden Hill’, I am working on two more Greywind books to complete the triad of titles; will be putting the finishing touches to ‘Hob’ (a modern day adventure for younger readers that recounts the adventures of two young people who become involved in a dispute between a pwcca and Gwyn-ap-Nudd); am considering publishing some poetry; and have half a dozen other writing projects at various stages of development.
We interviewed Druids and authors Graeme K Talboys and Julie White about their work, their writing, their favourite sites and their own journeys through the mysteries. We hope that you enjoy this interview!