Yesterday was St George’s day, and although our household generally disapproves of killing dragons, I like to take a little time on 23rd April to reflect on the many good things about the land where I have made my home.
Coincidentally, this week also saw the announcement of the BBC folk awards, which – though hosted in Cardiff, with the wonderful 9Bach winning album of the year – gave us plenty to celebrate about Englishness. But the folk scene still makes mainstream media uneasy. The guardian, in the past, has described this music as “arthritically white,” linking it to Nick Griffin’s toxic brand of nationalism. Political ideologies of the far-right have always been prone to poisoning the wellspring of national celebration, and there is always work to be done to filter out the toxic elements. But far from being divisive, the English folk tradition shows us (in Eliza Carthy’s words) “how to celebrate the ancient culture of where you are from without pushing anyone away.” Celebration is key: without honouring what you have to offer, you cannot invite anyone to share in it.
Folk traditions are rooted in the land, the cycles of the seasons, and the common human experiences of birth, love, loss and death. English folk songs, in particular, sing of market towns, native birds, seaports and wars; they are all indisputably English, and they all articulate something that is common to human experience the whole world over. Love of the land is, I think, the purest form of patriotism, and it comes easily to pagans. The places I hold sacred in my local landscape are part of the nation which we now know as England, and have given rise to some of the cultural and historical flavour of that nation; this is something I honour, in my celebration of them. I have my own struggles with national and cultural identity; in many ways, I find it easier to be Welsh outside Wales. But being (relatively) secure in my identity as a Welsh person makes it easier for me to celebrate the things I love about England. When I celebrate, as a non-English person resident in England, it is clear that I am sharing in something joyful, not participating in something divisive.
Questions about how and why and where we celebrate are never too far away in druidry, especially where rituals are conducted out in the land, “in the eye of the sun.” After observing the ADO ritual for Alban Arthan at Bryn Celli Ddu, Rhys Mwyn (Wales’ very own punk antiquarian) wrote a thoughtful blog post questioning the suitability of ancient monuments such as Bryn Celli Ddu – which were almost certainly not created by whatever we understand to be “the ancient druids” – for use as sacred sites in neo-pagan ritual. This is something I have often pondered, being more inclined to celebrate special places in my own landscape than traipse across Britain to a monument created for an unknown purpose.
(In the unlikely event that Rhys is reading, the answer I have come up with for myself is that sites like these give a focus for communities to gather. It’s not about belief; it’s about shared celebration.)
Reflecting on the ritual, he asks: “are these people creating false histories, and does that matter?” The unspoken assumption is that, for druids to legitimately use these sites as the focus for a celebration, they should have been created by historical druids specifically for the purpose of this kind of celebration. This point of view – which is not necessarily wrong, and not unknown within neo-paganism either – does not recognise the wider sense of reconnection, in which numinous places can be used as the focus of a celebration centred on a sense of what is sacred about the landscape, whether that be geological features or continuous habitation stretching back across millennia.
A lunchtime chat about morris dancing on St George’s day raised a similar argument about origin and authenticity: it (probably) isn’t really English, in the sense of having originated entirely in England without any outside influence. So should we really be using it to celebrate a sense of Englishness? My answer would be yes: no culture exists in isolation, and there is no such thing as a culture without any outside influence, but morris dancing as we know it today – complete with beards, wonderfully-bedecked hats and pints of real ale or scrumpy cider – is now an English tradition. Whether or not you feel it should be used to celebrate Englishness, its “authenticity” is not the issue.
So what should we celebrate, and how, where, and why?
Those questions seem to be at the centre of a quiet national identity crisis in this country – and for good reason: celebrations create and reinforce our values, and from those values our sense of identity is formed. Consciously or not, the choices we make about what we celebrate as druids are part of a much wider picture of what it means to live in our respective nations, wherever those nations happen to be. Something to think about.