Review of Pagan Dreaming by Nimue Brown

jhp551bfc27c579fIn the last year, I have made a couple of practical changes in our house to improve the quality of sleep. Our bedroom has moved to the attic, and has become a serene space, low in stimuli. We also treated ourselves to a new bed, simple but proper. I really like going there these days, and it has vastly improved my sense of well-being. As a consequence, I have been more susceptible to vivid dreams, or at least, to remembering them.
Last week I read ‘Pagan Dreaming’ by Nimue Brown. I found this to be an excellent guide for a newcomer to vivid dreams myself. Nimue does not claim to be an expert on dreams and sleeping problems in general, but speaks from her own experience as a Druid working with dreams. I found the book knowledgeable in a down to earth, accessible way, a bit like listening to a well-informed friend. The book is not just about dreams and their meaning, but also offers sound advice towards healthy sleeping. An interesting point she makes, is that our “normal” sleeping pattern, 7 to 8 hours a night, has only become the norm until very recently. Indeed, this is shown by the prayer times in convents and cloisters, but apparently, sleeping patterns were generally more erratic in pre-industrial societies. I would like to know more about that, because I find it very hard to conform to the regular sleeping pattern. I usually go to bed fairly early, to wake at the crack of dawn. When I get the chance (rarely of course), I like to take a little nap. Having friends over is not much fun if you’re yawning all the time. Other people have other quirks when it comes to sleeping, my love for instance is a true night owl. Of course, most of us can do very little to incorporate these personal preferences into our daily lives, but it is good to acknowledge them and be aware of this.
‘Pagan Dreaming’ is not a dream dictionary, and the book explains why that would never do in the first place. Our dreams are shaped by our own personal language and symbolism, and only the person who has the dream can safely attempt to explain them. In the past, people often shared each other’s background, religion and life experiences, which made it easier to interpret someone else’s dreams. In our highly individual society, this cannot possibly work. To show how dreams could be interpreted, Nimue offers an excerpt of her own dream diary (which I found very brave!)
If you have been involved in advanced dreamwork for years, many of the subjects discussed may well be known to you. This book might serve as a reminder of all the mind-body aspects involved in the process of dreaming. For someone like myself, only barely starting to discover the potential of dreams, this book is especially useful. I’m looking forward to working more with my own dreams.


Review of “Nature Mystics” by Rebecca Beattie

NatureMysticsThis week I read ‘Nature Mystics – The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism’ by Rebecca Beattie. Nature Mystics discusses a varied group of writers: John Keats, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, W.B. Yeats, Mary Butts, J.R.R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit. The author asserts the work of these ten writers contributed to the cultural environment that allowed Modern Paganism to develop throughout the twentieth century.
With the exception of John Keats, all of these writers lived in the industrial age. The disparity between the man-made world and their love of nature, seemed to have sparked these extraordinary creative minds to seek out alternative ways of looking at the world and led them to explore different visions of experiencing life and love. Different as they are, they are bound by their vivid imagery of the natural world, its mysteries and our distinctly human position in it.
I like writers biographies, as they reveal certain things about the why of their work, and leave other questions unanswered. Extraordinary writers are of course shaped by their place in the world, but not defined. Understanding their background makes it easier to pinpoint at their uniqueness.
What struck me about the female writers in this group is the lack of acclaim they received in their lifetime and beyond. I had never even heard of a few of the female writers, whereas I read at least something either inside or outside of school by all the male writers. My personal favourite in this group, however controversial, is D.H. Lawrence. What I love about him -among other things- is the sexuality in his work: untamed, raw imagery of womanhood and manhood. I find the author’s inclusion of J.R.R. Tolkien debatable, as he was a devout Catholic throughout his life. Yet the author makes a strong case why he should be included. More than any of the other writers, his works of fantasy kindled the interest of the masses in the actual mythology of northern and western Europe. Did I miss anyone? Of course. “Nature Mystics” is an exploration, not a course book, and without a doubt many other authors could be perceived as having influenced the development of Modern Paganism. The poetry of Walt Whitman, for instance, has a distinct Pagan feel to me, even though he self-identified as religious sceptic.
If you are looking to loose yourself in literature this summer, Nature Mystics is a good guide to discover writers who are perhaps new to you. It might also be an invitation to get reacquainted with well known authors and read their works in a different light.

Celebrating Planet Earth

Today is Earth Day, I understand. I would not have known if I had not been reading in the larger blogosphere, as it is not really a holiday here. What does Earth mean to us? Is Earth divine itself, an emanation or just a creation of the divine? For me, these questions are pivotal and mark one of the great differences between Pagans and Christians. I am very much a seeker hovering at the outskirts of Christianity, the City of God, if you will, but also drawn to the darker dense woods of Paganism. Spiritually, I feel I have no home, but I quite like to live at the edge of the forest. Maybe I get to taste the best of both worlds this way, although staunch advocates of either tradition would probably beg to differ. Regarding these questions, I read an interesting book this week.

Celebrating Planet Earth, a Pagan/Christian conversation

Celebrating Planet EarthThis book, edited by Denise Cush, came about as a result of an interfaith meeting in the U.K. last year and offers perspectives by Philip Carr-Gomm, Alison Eve Cudby, Denise Cush, Graham Harvey, Steve Hollinghurst, Simon Howell, Viannah Rain, Philip Shallcrass, Bruce Stanley, Tess Ward and Liz Williams. The book is divided into three sections. Section A deals with mutual fears and prejudices, section B discusses possibilities for co-operation and section C focuses on how art could aid understanding and commonality between these two faith groups.

Paganism and Christianity have, like many other faiths, a troubled history together. Theologically, these two traditions are very much at odds with each other. Even though I am not a great fan of theological debate, it should be an inevitable part of true interfaith meeting. There is no use pretending the gap is non-existent. Anyone in the twilight of these two traditions must acknowledge the towering presence or absence of Jesus. No matter how I choose to feel about Him, it is very clear what He Himself has said: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. This question, however, is not addressed in depth in this book. Yet it is important to remember that most of our ancestors had no problem whatsoever with syncretising and localising their Christianity with ancestor and nature veneration. They did not perceive a great divide between the two and bridged the gap by ritual, following a Christianised Wheel of the Year and in art. This is exactly where the two traditions do have a strong overlap. Both more or less indigenous to Europe (Western Christianity at least came of age here and has a lot of Pagan trimmings), there is common ground to be found in form and expression of the divine. The texts in this book offer a range of possibilities for common ritual and religious experience.

At the end of the book, editor Denise Cush takes stock of their meeting and these texts. She herself acknowledges the lack of theological debate and discussion, partly due to the fact that predominantly liberal and open-minded representatives tend to be involved in efforts like these. Her conclusion is called ‘Where next?’ and indeed this book might prove to be a starting point for a wider respectful exploration of difference and commonality. It seems many more people are struggling but finding ways to incorporate these two traditions that seem to be at odds, Paganism and Christianity, into their spirituality. Especially the emergence of the Forest Church, unknown to me before reading this book, was an eye-opener. If you are either looking for a rich perspective on how to practically integrate these traditions or if you are involved in interfaith work, Celebrating Planet Earth is a great anthology.

Pathworking Through Poetry

Last week I read Pathworking Through Poetry by Fiona Tinker, a most unusual book. Even though it is slender, it took me quite some time to get through it. It is not the kind of book you read systematically, but a great bedside companion to read in from time to time, truly tasting the words. It discusses how poetry can be used as a framework for pathworking and meditation. It focuses on a few poems by three poets: William Butler Yeats, Fiona MacLeod and Seumas O’Sullivan. I was taught English by Irish teachers and as a consequence I read Yeats extensively in secondary school. I was only superficially acquainted with the two other poets.

I love poetry, both reading it and creating it myself, but to me it was an acquired taste. My teachers taught me to truly weigh the words and their backgrounds. I still remember the quiet delight when I felt I had grasped the meaning of the words, and felt, only for a little while, the way the poet must have felt when he wrote it. Appreciating and enjoying poetry can be compared to enjoying good wine but also to the pursuit of a spiritual path. Poetry and meditation require similar skills. You need time, peace of mind but also learning to enjoy both at their fullest. It is a craft like all others and cannot be taught in a day.
This book either gets you started on this path or reminds you to weigh and taste the words. It stirs the imagination and helps you fill in the blanks regarding the poets’ background. That makes it easier to understand where they were literally coming from, acquaints you with the Gods of their land. Reading poetry crosses the blurred line into a spiritual experience.

For me, this book was a most welcome nudge to reconnect with my teenage infatuation with poetry and Celtic/Irish culture, and hopefully integrate it with my spiritual practice once again. If you love poetry and/or guided meditation and like a little help with delving into a text to find the hidden meanings, Pathworking Through Poetry is a great way to get started.

The Druid’s Primer

The Druid's Primer by Luke Eastwood Over the last few weeks I have been reading quite a few introductions to Druidry, all with their own specific ways of approaching the subject. This week I read ‘The Druid’s Primer’ by Luke Eastwood. Reading this book, and others before this one, has made one thing abundantly clear to me: the Druid’s path holds an wealth of variety and experience. All these books discussed the history of Druidry, but ‘The Druid’s Primer’ in particular focuses on what we know about Druids in the historical era. This book is not for someone interested in a simple Druidry 101 but rather for someone who likes to learn more about the original Druids and how this relates to Druidry today. As I am not a Druid myself, I had been wondering how the historical knowledge fits in with Druidry today, and this book provides excellent answers.

The book is structured around specific themes and the author is clearly very knowledgeable on all of them. He effortlessly connects various sources and ideas from different historical eras. I can see how this could be confusing for someone  less interested or versed in history, but it makes for an engaging, active reading experience.

I especially enjoyed how the author, in his treatise of Celtic cosmology, links various elements to other European cultures, like Norse, Teutonic and even Greek concepts like metempsychosis. This makes sense: the Druids did not exist in a vacuum. Certainly, in Gaul and Britain (in Ireland perhaps to a lesser extent), there must have been a cross pollination with Germanic culture and Roman (and therefore Greek) philosophy.

The book raised one specific issue that has always interested me: the origin of the megalithic structures like Stonehenge and Newgrange. We seem to know little to nothing about the people that built these, whereas we are fairly certain these structures predate the arrival of the Celts. Who were they and in what respect was the Druidic wisdom also an element of these pre-Celtic cultures?

Although very rich in historical fact, the book also provides you with personal experiences, anecdotes and down-to-earth good advice. If you want to know more about classical Druidism and its connection to Druidic practices today, this book will serve not only as an excellent primer, but as a sound basis for further historical and practical exploration.

The Handbook of Urban Druidry

The Handbook of Urban DruidryLast week, I read a second introduction to Druidry: The Handbook of Urban Druidry – Modern Druidry for All by Brendan Howlin.
This introduction is wholly different from the more historically oriented ‘Way of the Druid’ I read earlier. This book reads effortlessly: the author has a conversational and even funny style, little found in the spiritual genre. This easy tone will no doubt appeal to young people especially.
The first part of the book consists of a introduction to various concepts and especially practices. Each chapter ends with a list of pointers, questions or ideas for incorporating these practices into your daily life.  Many of these practices are not specific to Druidry and could be described as mindfulness techniques. Druidic concepts like the Wheel of the Year are also introduced. While the techniques and the practical pointers in the first part of the book were not new to me, it is always useful to re-read these. My spiritual habits fall by the wayside every now and again.
The last part of the book explains the Druidic system of grades and provides you with a little more information on what you can expect if you decide to proceed with Druidic training.
If you have been on any kind of spiritual path for some time, this book will not bring you grand new insights. However, it would not be fair to expect this from a book that primarily aims to make the Druidic path accessible for the greater public. I consider it a cordial introduction to earth-based spirituality for people who are not necessarily interested in religion, but are generally looking for a better way to live in our postmodern society. Had I been given a book like this as a teenager or a young adult, it would have helped me a great deal. I will surely introduce my son and daughter to this book, when they are a bit older.

Way of the Druid

I believe most of us have a particular connection to a being or a presence in the material world. It may be misappropriation to describe it as such, but for want of a better term I will call this a totem. For some, it might be a certain animal, a bird for instance, for others it is tied to a certain element: water, earth, air or fire. For me, I’m fairly certain that I am ‘tied’ to the trees. Nomen est omen, apparently: both my first name (the Linden) and my last name (literally Beechwood) derive from the names of trees. When I was very little and not even aware of being a namesake of the trees, I always felt very much at home in the woods or playing around a solitary tree or copse and often sought the presence of these tame suburban trees by myself. In all of my years as a seeker, it would have made sense to seek out the movement whose very name is connected with the lore of trees and the natural world at large. But I never crossed paths with Druidry in my own country, although it does indeed exist, and only encountered it in many years of reading and the short while I have been writing in the international blogosphere. Over the past weeks, I have been reading two separate introductions to Druidism.

Way of the Druid – The Renaissance of a Celtic Religion and its Relevance for Today by Graeme K. Talboys

Way of the Druid‘Way of the Druid’ is a comprehensive introduction to Druidry. Structured in a chronological way, the author takes you from the origins of the Celtic people through prehistory and historical times, through the revival and re-invention of Druidry in the early modern age, towards its relevance and practice today. During this journey, a wide range of subjects are covered, with an emphasis on metaphysics, cosmology and ethics. Considering the scope and variety of topics covered, the book is remarkable concise and accessible.
The author does not glorify the past and acknowledges the Celts were a tribal people, who did indeed also have traditions and views we, as post-modern people, regard as less desirable. I found that refreshing: in a lot of Pagan literature there is a fair share of idealising the past. This book does nothing of the sort: it rather seeks for a universal common ground and aims to preserve what was good in the Celtic cultures by making these concepts accessible and applicable to post-modern life. Pivotal is the understanding that we live in a society in which there is a clear division between the sacred and the profane, whereas in the Celtic culture the division between science, law, religion and cosmology was non-existent. Towards the end of the book, the book becomes more hands-on and presents you with an overview of the ritual and the practice of contemporary Druids. I consider this book an excellent introduction for a serious reader who is interested in Druidry but not yet ready to commit to a course, or a good starting point for those who prefer a solitary practice.
I am weary and wary of organised spirituality these days and shy away from even naming my experience of the divine. I do not know yet whether I will walk further along the Way of the Druid. This book has left me with a taste for more, though.