patriotism, celebration and the sacred landscape

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.

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4 thoughts on “patriotism, celebration and the sacred landscape

  1. One of my local barrows had a Roman buried on the top. I think re-using old sites is something that our ancestors did, I find something resonant in re-use, but for me local sites and not trekking miles tends to make more sense.

    • Yes, I find that resonance in re-use too – there are so many layers of life here, layer upon layer, and every one an inspiration. Rhys Mwyn’s blog even goes on to say that the site in Anglesey is free for everyone to visit and use in whichever way inspires them. And there are some places that I would trek miles to see; my longer answer to his question “what has Bryn Celli Ddu got to do with Lleu? ” is that, if we celebrate Lleu as the light of the rising sun, then the alignment of that monument with the sunrise makes it a magical place to celebrate. But I am still going through this questioning phase, thinking about what I do and why, and I definitely want to avoid the trap of being so drawn to more famous sites elsewhere that I overlook the magic of connection with my local landscape. I am planning to celebrate the summer solstice this year on Bidston Hill, by a carving of a Norse sun deity; not because I claim an unbroken tradition of Merseyside heathenism, but because that carving and my celebration are both part of the long, unbroken story of this landscape.
      Thanks as always for your comments, they always help me tease out the ideas I hadn’t quite reached in the writing :)

  2. I think you raise several interesting points here. If we were more prepared to celebrate the sanctity of our own local environment, we might not only make ourselves happier but also help to keep that environment safer. I know little of other “nations” further afield but, of those in the UK, the English seem the least able to appreciate and celebrate what lies on their own doorstep.

    It has always fascinated me that the Irish have a large number of “folk” songs that celebrate “place” whilst there’s only a handful of English songs that do so. One obvious explanation is that the Irish often had to leave their homes, for example in the Potato Famine days (c.f. “I find it easier to be Welsh outside Wales”), whilst the English could take their own land and their “entitlement” to it for granted – but I’m not sure that that’s all there is to it. I think there’s also a residual guilt now built into the English about our domination and exploitation of others which makes us worry that any celebration of our own land and the culture related to it will raise this spectre of the Empire. Perhaps the recognition by druids that the security of our land is a fragile thing, threatened by pollution, industry, fracking etc is one thing that stops us taking it for granted and makes us more ready to celebrate it at a local level.

    As far as customs such as Morris dancing and mumming go, wherever they originated, they have been established in England for many centuries and have, in that sense, become traditional – but the normal “establishment” response to them for a long time now has been to treat them to ridicule (a bit like the reaction of the same establishment to druids and druidry!) The BBC has long mirrored those establishment prejudices as far as music and custom are concerned. Whilst the regional stations (Ulster, Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales) have weekly programmes dedicated to their traditional, national folk music, there is no equivalent regular programming for English-origin folk, instead tending to feature “folk and acoustic music from around the UK and the world” or “folk, roots and acoustic world music” – and most pieces on local traditions are usually placed as the “amusing eccentricity” 30 second clip.

    Still, I hope things are moving on. More young people are dancing Morris again (a bit like the boom in the 60s) and there are many new musicians who are rediscovering and reinterpreting traditional music and song. Perhaps, as with druidry, the greater accessibility brought about by the internet will allow more to discover what they’ve been missing in music, in traditions and even in an appreciation of what lies at our feet.

    • Thank you for your comment, and apologies for my very late reply! Yes, I think you are on to something there – and perhaps the establishment attitude towards folk celebrations belies the real power of these rituals, and their potential to bring people together in support of common ideals, like land rights and protection against exploitation…

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