Druidry and Shamanism

Thanks to Ian for this entertaining and informative summary of his own path of Shamanic Druidry.

Let’s Start with the Druids!

You may already be familiar with the fact that the classical Druids could be broadly defined by three ‘types’: the Bard, the Ovate and the Druid. The Bards explored the arts and crafts, drawing their inspiration from nature to provide both entertainment and education around the evening campfires with music and the tales of the ancestors. Some Bards would progress to the grade of Ovate, developing their skills as seers using a variety of divination tools and methods while still working in harmony with nature. The third grade, the Druid, was for the most experienced elders taking on roles such as philosopher, judge and acting as a mediatory in community disputes.

What has all of this got to do with Shamanism?

Shamanism is probably the oldest spiritual practice on Earth, predating ‘organised’ religion by thousands of years. There is evidence of rock carvings and painting being found almost everywhere from the Arctic Circle, Americas, Europe and Australasia. In some cultures, such as in Mongolia and South America, it continues to this day. The interesting thing here is that there is a strong commonality between the totems and gods of all these ancient cultures across the world – sometimes even the names are similar.

Typically, a Shamanic practitioner will have undergone various trials in life, lengthy training or perhaps suffered misfortune causing him or her to have a different perspective on life to his or her peers. A Shaman will often use devices to help reach an altered state of consciousness where he can then converse with otherworld spirits to perform healing or receive guidance through divination.

The most familiar method used by a Shaman to enter this altered state of consciousness is the steady, monotonous beating of a drum or rattle. In the Seidr tradition of Northern Europe helpers would chant the seer into an otherworldly state of mind (and then chant them safely back again). Other commonly used ways of entering an ecstatic state are dance and using mind-altering plants and fungi. [Legal Note: please see our FAQ for a discussion of the use of drugs in pagan ritual and worship today.]

Some people feel that the basic principles of Shamanic practice and the Ovate skills of nature-based divination work together exceptionally well. By using combinations of drumming, song and dance or medicinal herbs the practitioner will enter a deep meditative state where he or she will work with sacred Totem Animals for divination, guidance and personal development. They may even become that animal – experiencing life lessons through ‘being in its shoes’ (or paws, claws or hooves!) for a while, known as shape-shifting. They may also work with people – the ancestors – in the otherworld, having conversations with Spirit Guides who are storehouses of great knowledge and wisdom.

It might be argued that it would be unusual if the ancient Celtic peoples of this land had not had some spiritual practices that are built on the same Shamanic principles that are seen around the whole world.

Druidry and Shamanism together! Where’s the proof?

Easy one to answer – there isn’t any. Written accounts by the Druids are non-existent. What does exist is sparse and was written down by third parties such as the Romans at the time of invasion or Christian monks several centuries later – both of which would have influenced the writings with their own viewpoints. But it is known that the Ovates were experts in nature-based divination, sacrifice and the medicinal use of herbs (Strabo described them as ‘interpreters of nature’).

It is important to remember that people who choose to work with both Shamanism and Druidry today do it because they feel right together. Not because they are on some fruitless quest for authenticity or to ‘prove’ this is how things were done thousands of years ago.

OK, tell me a bit more then.

Tales such as the Story of Taliesin (Wales) or Suibhne Geilt (Ireland) are accepted to be many centuries older than when they were first written down in medieval times and contain clear shamanic references.

The Story of Taliesin

The story of Taliesin is not long but is exceptionally rich in symbolism – I’ve been studying this tale for around a decade now and still find new things in it. Very briefly:

The Goddess Cerridwen has a delightful daughter and an ugly son, Afagddu (Utter darkness). No mum likes to see their lad have a bad start in life so she decides to make a magic potion to give him supreme knowledge and the wisdom to use it. For this she enlists a simple local boy, Gwion Bach, and an old man, Morda to stir the potion in the cauldron (it takes a year and a day, and being a Goddess she has other things to attend to). Right near the end, the pot boils over and spits three drops onto Gwion Bach’s hand. As it is boiling hot, he says ‘oh bother!’ and instinctively licks his hand. He then becomes a right clever chap – clever enough to know Cerridwen will be well miffed with him for ruining the brew so he runs off sharpish.
Cerridwen gives chase as young Gwion shape-shifts into various creatures of land, sea and sky. Cerridwen shape-shifts into their natural predator and continues the chase. Using his new-found cunning, Gwion shape-shifts into a grain of corn. He sits there all smug, hiding in a pile of corn until Cerridwen shape-shifts into a chicken and picks/pecks him out then eats him.

The seed of corn grows in Cerridwen until eventually Gwion is reborn where he is sent packing in a leather bag down the river, found by a couple of nice folk who name him Taliesin, or ‘Radiant Brow’ on account of how clever he looks. He then grows up to become the best wit, social raconteur and Bard in the land, even serving at King Arthur’s court.

Sorry for the highly-abridged bedtime story, but it you are still awake you might have spotted some shamanic themes here. Taliesin shape-shifts into creatures of the elements earth, water and air. There is a period of initiation before he is reborn from his original form of Gwion Bach and reaches enlightenment as Taliesin. After all of this, Taliesin has ‘special’ insights and wisdom from his experiences which are valuable to others – even King Arthur. There are many, many more, but discovering them for yourself is the best way by reading the original story.

Anyway, back to the plot.

A ‘Shamanic Druid’ or Celtic Shaman’ will embark on a lifelong journey of healing and self development supported by a variety of totem animals and spirit guides. The inspiration will be found through a close affinity with the nature, the myths and history of the Celtic lands of Western Europe, Britain and Ireland.

Here is a quick taster of some of the different qualities animal spirit guides can offer:

Stag: Noble, sharp senses and agility.
Blackbird: Can help point the way and move between the worlds.
Salmon: Long associated with wisdom and knowledge by the Celtic people.

Over time, relationships are built up with individual creatures that can provide practical lessons on dealing with the ‘real’ world. Some will be lifelong companions; others will be there for a short time to help with a specific problem or time of life. Most are faithful and helpful – occasionally one can be awkward or mischievous. But all present you with something to learn from.

Many shamanic practitioners work with a concept of three worlds – a Lower World (where most will work most of the time with earthly beasts), the Middle World (normal reality where the gas bill still has to be paid and there is red wine on the carpet) and an Upper World (which reaches out to the wider cosmos). Some refer to this as ‘the tree of life’ with the upper branches representing the Upper World and the root system the Lower World.

What gear do I need?

This is all about becoming comfortable with being you, being open minded, able to listen and relaxed enough to leave ‘normal’ time and space for a while. So turning up in the Otherworld with a Gucci bag and Prada trainers won’t provide any practical benefits whatsoever (apart from possibly pointing out the materialistic futility of it all).

Most practitioners will have a frame drum made from hide or deerskin tensioned around a round, or oval, wooden hoop. This is viewed as a sacred object, being the vehicle that allows you to ‘travel’ to the Otherworlds. It does not need to cost a fortune – the best one is definitely acknowledged to be the one you made yourself with due reverence to the spirit of the animal that ‘donated’ their skin for it. Many will paint their drums and adorn them with feathers/fur of particular totem animals they happen to be working with at that time. You might find that adding bells makes it easier for you to journey, or drumming faster or slower. If it works for you, that’s great. Your neighbours or housemates might have a view though, particularly if you like to journey at antisocial times (such as when Coronation Street is on). For this reason some people offer CDs of drumming that you can listen to on an iPod. You could also record your own to use any time you like.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not a prerequisite of shamanism to have a cupboard full of illegal substances. You only need to be able to relax completely so that your conscious mind can go somewhere else and then safely come back to reality again afterwards.  Some people need some help with this or search for something ‘extra’ (rightly and wrongly).  Incense or herbal teas can help (make mine a mugwort tea please). Afterwards a drink and a snack can help ‘ground’ you in reality again – exactly like Wiccans do with ‘Cakes and Ale’ at the end of a Sabbat.

You will often see people on a Druid path with a ‘Crane Bag’. Mine is usually hung from my drum and contains small items such as feathers, stones from sacred sites, leaves from particular trees, etc. Anything that reminds, inspires or helps you ‘connect’.

After that, it is up to you. You might like to wear something special for journeying, or feel fine in your jeans…or nothing at all (it’s ok, I’ll try not to picture it and we’ll move on quickly!). You might cast a circle (like a regular Druid or Wiccan) and sit within it or in a particular direction. You might like to be outside in a favourite grove of trees or near ‘real life’ versions of an animal spirit guide. The important thing is to be able to relax undisturbed for a while (it kind of throws you for a while if the window cleaner knocks on the door in the middle of you having a perfectly serious conversation with a bee!).

OK, thanks for the introduction, where can I learn more about it?

Firstly, this is intended merely to whet your whistle and not be an authoritative guide. Here are some suggestions for finding out more:

Books and Drumming CDs

Two of the most prolific authors linking shamanic practices and a Celtic-based / Druid path are John and Caitlin Matthews:

The Celtic Shaman – A Practical Guide, John Matthews. ISBN 0-7126-1417-6
Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom – A Celtic Shaman’s Source Book, Caitlin and John Matthews. ISBN 1-85230-560-6

John Matthews also has a box set which is good for those exploring this path for the first time called Celtic Totem Animals. It includes a CD of drumming and a book on how to journey to meet your animal spirit guides for the first time. Plus there’s a set of totem animal cards to help remind you of their wisdom and inspire you back in the ‘real world’ afterwards.
Barbara Meiklejohn Free also produces guided journey CDs with drumming along with lots of other shamanic crafts: www.barbarameiklejohnfree.com

Druidry in general:

The order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, www.druidry.org

Art, Crafts and Equipment:

Hand crafted shamanic frame drums, beaters and rattles made in Derbyshire, England: www.dunnwooddrums.com Pat and Del who run this also hold one- day courses where you can build your own drum with supervision all materials included, highly recommended.
Nicholas Breeze-Wood – shamanic arts, crafts and even an occasional podcast on Shamanism. www.nicholaswood.net
Nick is also the editor of the UK’s only dedicated magazine on Shamanism, Sacred Hoop, www.sacredhoop.org

4 thoughts on “Druidry and Shamanism

  1. There is another UK magazine on shamanism. Indie Shaman was launched in 2009 and has been ‘made’ in Chesterfield since it’s editor (that will be me so please excuse the shameless self-promotion) returned to living in Derbyshire. If anyone is interested in chatting about shamanism I can usually be found at the monthly drumming meet up at Eyre’s Chapel.

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