Review: Bard Song by Robin Herne

Bard SongThis review is long overdue. Coincidentally I was re-reading Bard Song with the intention of reviewing it at the time Robin published his recording of Gwynn’s Guest, dedicating it to me, which has spurred me along.

I’m not sure if I can give this book an objective review as I’ve owned it so long and like it so much. The pages are scored with under-linings. Against many of the poems are pencilled a’s, b’s and c’s from my attempts to decipher complex metres. The spine bends open on my favourite poems, which I return to frequently, have shared with my local Poetry Society and used as examples in Bardic workshops. But I’ll give it a go.

Robin Herne is a polytheist Druid based in Ipswich. Bard Song provides an introduction to reading and writing honorific and seasonal poetry (in English) in mainly Welsh and Irish metres. This fulfils an important role in Brythonic and Gaelic polytheism, giving people like myself who have not yet mastered the language of their gods the tools and inspiration to compose poems based on Celtic metres. It also opens new and exciting vistas for future developments within poetry as a whole.

In his introduction Robin speaks of the Awen, the source of Bardic inspiration as ‘a wild spirit, a passionate and consuming Muse that imparts not just pretty turns of phrase, but a new vision of the world.’ Poetry is a magical art which can be used to commune with and honour gods and ancestors, attain and express a spiritual vision, record history, praise (or deride) a person and for fun. Its ultimate purpose is re-enchantment.

The first four parts of the book are divided in accordance with the Gaelic festivals; Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasadh. In each section Robin introduces the festival with associated myths, traditions, deities and suitable metres before sharing a selection of his poems, many of which have been used by his clan in ritual.

For Samhain, Robin introduces the forsundud, an Irish genealogical poem for the ancestors. We meet the Cailleach holding ‘cold vigil’ in ‘The House of Winter’ and rutting stags. ‘Gwynn’s Guest,’ one of my favourite poems of all time (written in tawddgyrch cadwnog metre) records St Collen’s encounter with the Welsh Fairy King on Glastonbury Tor. The first stanza captures Gwynn’s wild nature so perfectly I can’t resist quoting it;

‘Wind tears the Tor, unravels hair
Bound in plaits fair, wild blood yearning
For thunder’s roar, this hill my Chair,
Blessed wolf’s lair, white fire burning.

Tribes rise and fall…’ And the ending is wickedly humorous.

At Imbolc’s core stands the hearth of Brigit. ‘Sisters of the Hearth’ introduces her triple role as smith, healer and poet. ‘Brigit’s Song’ takes place in her Hall. Robin’s words in ‘Three Flames’ resonate most strongly with my personal experience of her as Brigantia, goddess of northern England and the fires of inspiration which consume and heal;

‘Light of compassion white burning
Thaw the ice that scalds my mind
Stir the flesh from torpor afresh,
Night-blind, scars mesh; pray be kind.’

The section on Beltaine speaks of magical and military poetry. ‘Cu Chulainn at the Ford’ provides a heart-wrenching representation of Cu Chulainn and Ferdiad’s tragic battle in Ae Freisilighe metre. On a more cheerful note we find ‘The Honey-Tongued,’ dedicated to Ogma ‘carpenter of song,’ who is the patron god of Robin’s Clan. Since its publication this poem has fittingly given its name to a new brand of mead.

Lughnasadh introduces the stories of Lugh and Tailtiu, recording Lugh’s arrival ‘At Tara’s Gates’ and Tailtiu’s death and ‘funereal commemoration.’ It covers the story of Gobanos, a god of smithing and brewing and there is also discussion of famed cauldrons in Celtic mythology and the important role of select brews in the arts of inspiration.

I have mentioned only a small selection of poems and themes. In later chapters Robin shares poems devoted to Heathen, Greek and Roman gods and those written for fun. In the appendices he provides guidelines for writing in Irish and Welsh metres. These are clearly introduced with rhythmic and syllabic patterns with examples. For Englyn Penfyr;

‘######a##b
###b##a
######a’

‘The old hunter sought the beast in the night,
Though without might, hope never ceased,
Yet frail, his skill found the feast.’

I have learnt vast amounts from this book about Celtic metres, composed some poems of my own in the Welsh ones and found it to be an excellent resource for use in Bardic workshops. Robin’s dedication to the Old Gods shines throughout his work and this alone has inspired me on my path as an Awenydd and polytheist.

Bard Song is a must read for Bards, Fili and people of Celtic and other polytheistic religions. I’d also recommend it highly to all Pagans and to poets looking for new and exciting metres with origins in the British Isles.

***

Bard Song can be purchased through Moon Books: http://www.moon-books.net/books/bard-song

Robin’s most recent poems, which continue his exploration of world mythology in carefully chosen metres can be found in Moon Poets: http://www.moon-books.net/books/moon-poets

His blog ‘Round the Herne’ is here: http://roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk/

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Personal Religion?

Glastonbury Tor Beltane 2013 102 - CopyA couple of days ago I read write-ups of the OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) 50th anniversary gathering on Glastonbury Tor, on the blogs of Joanna van der Hoeven and Robin Herne.

http://downtheforestpath.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/celebrating-50-years-of-obod/

http://roundtheherne.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-people-of-peace.html

It sounds like they had a grand time. Although one of the things Robin acutely pointed out was the irony that although the main topic was peace, the powers of place, including Gwyn ap Nudd and the Tylwyth Teg (the People of Peace) were not addressed or involved.

Why should that bother me? OBOD aren’t all pagans or polytheists. Hundreds of different religious groups use the Tor for various ceremonies- that’s part of its power and draw, and the eclecticism and chaos that constitutes the spirit of Glastonbury.

It was not until this morning I perceived my vexation was the symptom of an approaching realisation; I awoke with an image of the OBODies on the Tor in my mind combined with an overwhelming gnosis clear as the dawn; THIS ISN’T MY RELIGION.

I know the OBOD doesn’t pretend to be a religious organisation… however my discomfort about the lack of commonality I feel with Druids outside The Druid Network has been growing for a while. I’m beginning to feel the distinctions between my path and those of some other Druids are so huge that there is no meaningful common ground at all.

Plus… I recall Nimue Brown mentioning to be a Druid you must walk your path with conscious intent as a Druid. Looking back, I have done this as a Bard, and now do so as Awenydd. I believed these paths fitted under the umbrella term Druid but now I’m not so sure.

And I’m not so sure I did the right thing in claiming the name Druid for my religion pretty soon after joining TDN, on the ground I was a member of the network and a grove. It was much later I was gifted with the name Awenydd by Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of my local landscape.

So I’m beginning to wonder now whether my path as Awenydd, which is based in these relationships and expressing them through poetry, is not the religion of Druidry but a personal spirituality I live religiously?

I also wonder, because my practice focuses more on ‘anthropomorphised’ deities and spirits than most Druids whether I’m more of a polytheist? In answering that I find myself drawn back to the issue of commonality… I once wondered whether I was a Brythonic polytheist but decided I wasn’t as I don’t know enough about all the deities and their lore in depth, haven’t made enough effort to learn Welsh, and don’t follow a joint ritual structure.

So I wonder now…

Can polytheism be religious without commonality?

Must religion have a name?

Is personal religion a contradiction in terms? And is it possible to live a personal religion?

View from Glastonbury Tor Beltane 2013 120

Review: Old Gods, New Druids by Robin Herne

Old Gods, New DruidsI discovered this book a year ago at the same time I discovered Druidry. On a re-read it has been fascinating returning to parts that have inspired and shaped my relationships with the Old Gods and nature spirits of my local area, as well as finding new meanings to fit the present period of my life. The title alone has a magical resonance.

Old Gods. Robin Herne is a polytheist Druid who lives in East Anglia. He runs an Eisteddfod in Suffolk and is part of a long running Clan whose patron deity is Ogmios. He writes about Druidry due to his conviction `of the existence of the Gods.’ This sense of passion and connection flows through the book, affirming and celebrating their existence. My own life has been characterised by a wild desire to hunt for the divine; my restless and insatiable mind and feet leading me through fantasy novels, horses, crazy festivals and the dirtiest rock clubs, Romanticism, Greek and German philosophy and tragedy, more horses, long walks, and at last to the Old Gods of this land, which has been a huge homecoming.

Reading this book for the first time confirmed my developing intuitions and taught me some important lessons. We can build better relationships with the gods if we address them rather than attempting to invoke them. Instead of approaching them with demands we should get to know them. Rather than turning up with an armful of offerings or a page full of verse we should find out what they want us to do for them.

Until Phil and Lynda Ryder introduced me to Druidry my connection with deities had taken place away from home, and in many ways been an escape from the banality of suburban life. After opening my eyes to what was outside my door I became more aware of the nature spirits of my local area. Robin’s book has been really useful as he offers sound advice on how to connect with them. For example before approaching the spirit of a water course learning if it’s artificial or manmade, whether it’s been diverted and what it’s old uses were. This process turned up some interesting research about my local valley and it’s brook as well as deepening my understanding of the spirits.

As a poet I found the following lines inspirational: `in Clan, we wonder at what body of land-stories may have once existed, that saw and celebrated the spirits of the land. We wonder too at what stories we, and others, could create anew to reinvest the spirit in the Sacred Land.’ They played a part in leading to me writing a book of poetry about the valley to raise money for the Friends group I set up there.

An exercise that stuck in my mind was a visualisation where Robin says `you may feel the urge to chant, sing, clap a beat with your hands, or do various other activities. Go with the flow…’ Whilst I’ve found other people’s visualisations don’t work for me these words stuck in my mind, because I knew, frustratingly, this was something I’d never been able to do. Following a prompt to sing one of my poems to Belisama, the goddess of the Ribble, I recalled these words, with my frustration. I decided to try it, an experience which has transformed and deepened our relationship. Building on this I’ve learnt to let go entirely, allowing a song to take me into a trance, strangely and inexplicably met Gwyn ap Nudd, a deity whose wild, terrifying nature connects to my soul, and journeyed with him to the Otherworld.

New Druids. Robin’s values as a young man coalesced `in the mythic image of the Druid.’ The label of `Druid’ has been a sticking point for me. Up until last year my world view was based on Nietzsche’s artist’s metaphysics and William Blake’s visionary excavation of London, combined with my growing intuitions about the local land, its Gods and their myths and stories. This amalgamation made me see myself as some kind of pagan poet-philosopher, my totem mare fleeing tradition, stamping and shaking her head like a horse refusing to go into a box.

For Robin to reject tradition involves dismissing `those ancestors that adhered to polytheism within that time and who might well guide the living from beyond the grave.’ A question I ponder frequently is why am I called to the Gods of ancient Britain and the tribes who lived in relationship with them, and to the divine figures whose tales, hunting horns and battle cries, with the scream of ravens echo from The Mabinogion and The Books of Ancient Wales? Why me? Why now? Why is Druidry returning, or perhaps, why is Druidry being brought into being by those who are called by the land and its Old Gods?

Robin’s suggestion is that `Gods are astounding entities and a new spirituality could be built around them that would enlightening, liberating, awe-inspiring and magnificent. If the world had never had a body of polytheistic naturalists seeking meaning and beauty and sapience in the land around them, then the 21st century would be a fantastic time for it to gain one.’ `Myths inspire the future.’ For Robin the draw of the mystical religions is their capacity to restore wonder, mystery and enchantment to the world. This restoration does not take place solely in ritual and meditation but by working with and sharing the energy and inspiration that are gifts of the land and its deities, a task Robin performs through teaching, storytelling and poetry.

Englyns on Auroch Skulls

Auroch Skull, the Harris Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staring from the museum
eye pits glare beneath fierce horns,
haunted wells of atrophy,
gazes flee their blind prisons

back to Taurean eras
of thunder down the river,
reeking ride of reddish hides
steaming wild to the water,

skidding sudden to a halt,
thick bones trembling, muscles taut,
bullish courage killed by fear
of men’s spears and swift assault.

Seeing skies alive with darts
herd wheels, swings and departs.
Knees buckle and hocks collapse
at the agony of barbs.

Most escape, some are slaughtered,
five stagger, tidal water
rises as they struggle and sink.
Its cold brink claims their corpses.

Tides turn. Sediments heap.
Silt and till on layered peat
bury bones in sunken sands,
erred, abandoned for centuries

until wrested from repose
five bovine skulls are disclosed
by dockland’s excavation,
shivering blind and exposed.

Breezes trace visages bared.
Tongueless trophies taste the air.
Denied thunder impaled rage
hangs displayed, an endless stare.

Skull songs lie trapped in the eyes.
Visions burst where times collide.
Bones cry for wind-swept stampede,
aurochs released to the wild.

Auroch Skulls, Harris Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

* This poem is based on a simplified variation of Englyn Cyrch, which I learnt from Robin Herne’s Bard Song.

Winter Vale

Greencroft ValleyI.
Snow fall lies broken
On dark ground dreaming.
Woodland’s limbs frozen
Hold ice sky reeling.
Huddled denizens
Sequester sleeping.
Imagination
Brings all that’s living.

Greencroft ValleyII.
Holly and Ivy,
A passion of green
Sounding survival
Twist blade and wrap leaf.
Foiling all rivals
On a pitch white scene
Evergreen striving
Boasts a battle supreme.

Greencroft ValleyIII.
Under bridge snow stacked
Each pebble glistens.
In a dress of bags
Lives a cold woman,
Deep echoing hag
Of water’s lament.
Her passing price:
Mere acknowledgement.

Greencroft ValleyIV.
By lamppost and Oak
A song I follow.
Playing wild wood dark,
A satyr shadow
With a smiling heart
Pipes warm tomorrows.
Nature’s chiefest arts
Transform her sorrows.

Greencroft Valley

V.

Absorbing the vale
A youthful Yew dreams
Of colours and stars;
Eternity’s weave.

~

Observing each part
Winter’s wise King
Drawing back the veil
Ends his masterpiece.

* This poem is written in Breccbairdne metre- another metre learnt Robin Herne’s Bard Song.