the inheritance of Welshness

There are roughly 700,000 Welsh-speakers worldwide, and I am one of them.  I am also, incidentally, a druid.

When I first started following a consciously pagan path, I was naturally drawn to druidry – not for any mystical strain of Celtic magic latent in my bloodline, but because the language of its rituals felt so reassuringly familiar to one brought up with eisteddfodau and the tales of Gwydion and Manawydan.  I knew from the outset that this familiarity was only superficial; I also knew that modern pagan druidry was at first an English phenomenon, however inspired by Celtic myth (or Welsh forgery).  But most importantly of all, as a religion crafted around sacred relationship with the gods, the land and the ancestors, I knew this path was mine as much as anybody else’s, and that there would be space within its sanctuary to explore the weight of my cultural inheritance.

I am not entirely, uncomplicatedly Welsh: I was born in England (purely by chance), with an Irish grandfather, a Scottish great-grandfather and a great-grandmother who was adopted, her origins entirely unknown.  My ambiguous cultural identity got me punched on the schoolbus and pushed down the stairs – yes, by the living descendants of the ancient Celtic peoples of this island – at least as many times as it won me the chair in our school Eisteddfod.

Venturing into a pagan community which draws on the sites, sounds and images of Wales for inspiration, I learned fairly quickly that distance bestows the gift of simplicity, and simplicity leaves ample room for the imagination.  I will happily concede that there are some dysgwyr – learners, the lifeblood of any ailing language – in the druid community who have dedicated so much time and effort to their learning that they know more about the old Welsh stories than I ever will.  But there are just as many others (though they tend to hail from further away) for whom ancient Wales seems as long-lost as Atlantis; druid priests who have named themselves baffling combinations of not-quite-words, who speak loudly and confidently about our ancient Celtic forebears, the people who dwelt for millennia in the places I call home.

Mindful of my ambiguous identity and ambivalent inheritance of Welshness, I tend to keep quiet, but I do sometimes wonder if I ought to speak out.  Today, at last, I did just that, and I want to follow up my comments on social media with something a little more heartfelt: an invitation, in the best tradition of sacred hospitality.  You are sincerely welcome to enter the sanctuary of my language and my culture – but please remember, honoured guest, that this is, in some small way, my home.  I will gladly share of it all that I can.  If you enter with an open mind and heart, you will find much of value – more, perhaps, than I could ever find without your help.  But if you cross this threshold without that awareness, much of value will be hidden to you.

Life under our princes was not ideal.  Our legal system, though better than some, was not an absolute paragon of justice.  The people who long ago raised dolmens on our coastline may not have been much wiser than we are today.  But set aside your illusions, and you will find lakes where fairies emerged to marry earthly men, hillsides where kings sat while goddesses rode past, and oak trees where bards and wizards sang their prophecies. And, sure, these stories are no more factually “true” than the stories being told about our wise and just forebears – but with one important difference: they are Welsh, rooted in the landscape of this country.  They carry a poetic, imaginative truth that runs deeper than history: the story of my people, and perhaps your people, too.

This is not the utopia you are looking for; but it is a wellspring of inspiration for those patient and respectful enough to learn from it, just as any other culture will be.

Postscript: in reading back, I’ve been reminded of the many wonderful people I know who take inspiration from the old stories and craft beautiful bardic art.  They don’t necessarily know the language – nor do they need to – but their respect for the source of this inspiration shines through their work, casting new light on the old familiar tales, and I am thankful for it.

Harrowing

The last of the field-crops have been gathered in.  Their stubble in the fields is burning, stubborn stalks reduced to ash.  Soon the earth will broken up by plough and harrow, cold steel overturning layers of life, exposing bare soil to the sky.  Carrion birds will pick over the morsels of life left on its surface.

We are entering the season of death.

This is the violence by which we live; the rhythms of agriculture by which we grow, kill and consume that which sustains us.

In the chaos of these days, this desolated landscape feels profoundly soothing.

There are emotions so suppressed in me that I can only understand them as a scream – a latent howl, wild and wordless, clawing its way out of my constricted throat.  If I opened wide and let it out, I know the force of it could tear down everything around me.  How many times have I swallowed it whole?

I fell into the trap of defining self through circumstance; it happens, sometimes.  Identifying easily with hopes and daydreams, I dwell outside of who I really am.  Then comes the harrowing.  Layers of life I have left undisturbed, growing comfortably (if stiflingly) around me, are torn asunder, overturned – and, underneath them, my bare self is left exposed.

Resisting the urge to cover my rawness, I wait for the birds.

Exposure brings clarity; not kindness, but relentless truth.  Some things, I know, have taken root without my full, conscious intent.  In this broken earth, they are easy to pick out and cast aside.

This is when the magpies come.
Hesitantly, as they cackle and coax, I learn to see as they do – first through one eye, then the other: a new panorama.  I cock my head to gauge the full height of my human form.  Closer to the ground now than ever before, I take one stiff step, then another, lifting my juvenile tail above the earthen clods.

Step step.  Hop.  Hop hop.  Fly.

Two companions guide me, one at either wing.  I am giddy with the flight, a heartbeat away from losing it at any moment.  Flying is not easy; it requires unselfconsciousness as well as concentration.  Muddled with exhilaration and relief, I crash-land into an old familiar beech tree, while my companions deliberate over the next stage of my journey.
They are taking me to Her.

She dwells at the root of all things, in the mist where all dies back into the darkness.  An equivocal vision, vast beyond perception, contained yet not confined within a finite form.
I see Her.
One of her faces is Death.

I know this Lady.
I painted her once, at the age of 12, when I still painted – a palette of greys for the winter; one side shrouded in darkness and another revealed in the clarity of light.

Her season approaches, and it falls upon me now to do Her work.  All that lies ahead is darkness – yet in the darkness, I know, I am touching my own earth; my own ground beneath my feet, my nature.

This is the emptiness before renewal.