This month’s reviews include books on Celtic Paganism, Christo-Paganism, and a very new translation of a very old Shinto text…click here to read them all!
Tag Archives: shamanism
I realised that in my studies of Paganism, I’d read quite a bit on Wicca, Shinto and general Paganism, but little on Druidry. As Druidry is a major branch of Paganism yet one I don’t know so much about, I thought I’d investigate this path further. So I read Living Druidry: Magical spirituality for the wild soul by Emma Restall Orr as a start.
Initially, I had some issues with this book. Although it’s been promoted by its publishers as something of an instructional guide to Druidry, that is not what it is at all. Rather than getting cleanly laid-out chapters on the Whats and Hows of Druidry, I instead got a series of personal mini essays on what it is to be a Druid, interspersed with italicised, present-tense accounts of Druidic experiences. This made me very frustrated, as I felt that I wasn’t getting a clear understanding of Druidry at all.
But Living Druidry demonstrates that perseverance and re-reading can sometimes yield rewards. After my first unsuccessful read-through, I decided to give it another go. This time round, without prior expectations of it being an instructional text, I found I understood its messages a lot more.
Orr views Druidry as a shamanic form of Paganism, in which deepening one’s connection with nature in all its forms is the prime focus. Living Druidry is less about how one achieves this, and more about the philosophies surrounding such a lifestyle. In fact, I found this book to be an interesting exploration of what spirituality itself is, rather than specifically Druidry. Some of the messages of this book I found that resonated with me in particularly include:
- Psychology can sometimes be overly dismissive of the spiritual experience
- “Faith” is not necessary in order to be spiritual (“Instead of faith, what the tradition teaches is trust.”)
- Druidry encourages “child-like” simplicity in one’s worldview
- Historical practices in Paganism are not necessary to validate practices now
- All of nature is sacred and beautiful – including viruses – and there are no dual forces of good and evil
- It’s natural to feel guilty or selfish about spending time at one’s altar, but it is important for individual spiritual well-being
- The ideas of “fertility” and “creation” are much broader than the archetype of male-female union
The book’s style reflects the spiritual lifestyle it promotes – personal, flowing, and contemplative, with no absolutes. Orr’s writing is pleasant and simple, with a lot of consideration for the diversity that exists in Druidry. But while Orr is undoubtedly a philosopher, I’m not so sure that she is an “instructor.” Living Druidry gave me a lot of food for thought, but not so much a clear idea of exactly what Druidry is. But I suspect that is Orr’s intention – she doesn’t want to give an absolute definition of Druidry, but let us find our own path.
One aspect of Living Druidry that I didn’t find very useful, even in the second reading, were the italicised accounts that read like journal entries, which break up the chapters. I’m not sure why Orr included them exactly – they are not given any context which means it’s hard to understand what they’re about, and they disrupt the otherwise gentle flow of the text. My advice to readers who find them distracting is to ignore them completely – I don’t think they really add anything to the messages in the book.
Although Living Druidry presents a very interesting interpretation of the Druidic path, I got the overall impression that it does not give us the whole story; it focuses mainly on personal experiences rather than analysing historical forms of Druidry or Shamanism in other cultures. I feel that if one wants to know more about Druidry, Living Druidry makes an interesting read on the subject, but you’ll probably want to read more conventional texts of a more historical/anthropological/instructional nature in order to get a more complete idea.
You can probably tell that I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge! Which makes sense. The Japanese say that autumn, with its colder days and longer nights, puts us in a more contemplative and nostalgic mood, which is perfect for reading.
I’d had Hedge Witch on my reading wish list for some time, and a friend’s recommendation prompted me to buy it. It is one of the more important works in Pagan-related literature, being one of the earliest works on “Hedgecraft” and solitary practise in general. What makes this work rather unique is that it’s told in a series of letters from the author to her two “apprentices” Tessa and Glyn, passing on her knowledge of the craft.
It’s this unusual format that initially put me off buying it – as a newbie Pagan, I thought it would be better for me to read something more formally instructive, something more like a guidebook than a series of letters. But as it turns out, the “letter” format doesn’t hinder the book’s clarity at all. It provides quite a nice, personal touch. Each letter has a particular topic that it sticks to rigidly, without rambling or side-tracking as you might expect from a letter – in fact, I would say the structure of this book was even better and clearer than some of the more standard guidebooks on Paganism I’ve read! Beth’s writing is concise, simple and at times rather beautiful when she goes into descriptions of the Great Goddess, the Great God and the Five Elements.
Unfortunately, it suffers from one big problem which affects so many works on Paganism. And that is, it offers very little new if you’ve already read some of the other major works on solitary witchcraft. I found much of book was extremely similar to Scott Cunningham’s very similarly titled Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, and I have to admit that I found Cunningham’s book to be a bit more in-depth, convincing and readable.
Another issue I had with Hedge Witch was its overall tone, which I found a little too earnest and solemn. For one thing, Beth cites more dubious aspects of Pagan history as absolute fact, such as claims that neolithic man most definitely worshipped a Goddess but not a God. I find the best books on Paganism and Wicca allow for an element of doubt, presenting multiple interpretations of Pagan history or at least admitting that no-one really knows for sure how our ancestors practised magic and worshipped the Gods. After all, I think most Pagans are willing to accept that how we practice Paganism now is what’s truly important. Beth’s repeated inclusions of historical “facts” about Paganism put me on my guard. Additionally, Beth’s writing doesn’t really convey the joys and wonder of Paganism and witchcraft. She seems quite keen to stress the dangers of magic, as well as the importance and dignity of the Goddess and God, which is all very well – but I’ve always been drawn to Paganism due to the exuberance and passion for life it embodies. I didn’t feel this came through so well in Hedge Witch as it does in some of the other books on Paganism I’ve read.
Finally, Wiccans should note that Hedgecraft of this sort focusses much on shamanic trances and visions, and this is the principal form of magic Beth elaborates on here. While I do like guided meditations and similar (I’ve written my first guided meditation here), I wasn’t so keen on how Beth presents them in Hedge Witch. I feel that she exaggerates the dangers of such psychic experiences just a little too much; not only does she recommend casting a protective magic circle before entering the trance (which is fine), she then suggests that every element you encounter in your vision should be checked, literally at knife-point, to make sure it is truly the thing you wish to perceive and not an imposter. I can’t help but feel that mentally brandishing an athame at everything you meet in your vision would disrupt the flow of the experience and being over-cautious in this way would stop you from becoming truly immersed in the vision. But then I have little knowledge or experience of Shamanism, so maybe I’m underestimating the dangers of these kinds of vision quests!
While it’s an interesting, concise read and a valuable piece of Wiccan literature, I found that Hedge Witch didn’t really inform my own path to a large extent. But Wiccans with a particular interest in Shamanism may find their views differ!