18 April 2016


Paul Davies and Caitlin Matthews (Editors). This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self. Moon Books, 2015.

This is an anthology of essays by thirteen authors exploring the threefold relationship between the landscape, ancestors and ourselves. Each writer gives a unique and idiosyncratic viewpoint on pagan themes of honouring the ancestors, connecting with nature and following a spiritual path or practice.
When we consider the word 'ancestors', we usually think of those unknown human antecedents from whom we have descended. Many of us, but by no means all, had a living relationship with both of our parents, and perhaps with both sets of their parents. It would be quite unusual to know personally the generations above our grandparents, but at least we might have glimpsed them through old photographs and stories. Even with a well-researched family tree, there comes a point where we simply cannot know the thousands of humans who happened to meet and interbreed in a lineage that made you and me as individuals with a unique DNA imprint. It is both science and mystery.

In his Foreword, Graham Harvey, Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University, suggests that modern Western society has largely abandoned interest in, and veneration of, our ancestors. Modern rationalism has tended to replace religion as a modus operandi of organising our societies and deciding our priorities. Yet he claims that "something curious is happening in the world....something to do with ancestors". Religion has not died but seems to be morphing into other forms of spirituality.

In keeping with that Foreword, Paul Davies in his Introduction makes the point that by virtue of our DNA and spirit we are "the ancestors reborn". As a Quaker, Druid, absolute pacifist and holder of degrees related to Archaeology and Anthropology, Davies is known for his work in bringing the subject of ancestors into the public domain. In particular he was instrumental, with others, in a campaign to have ancient human remains from various sacred sites reburied with appropriate ritual. This aroused local and national interest, further stimulating interest in the ancestors and "a sense of self as part of the spirit of the place".

"Time and the Grave" by Emma Restall Orr is a thoughtful and poetic essay on the questions of life and death. This is a deeply felt consideration of questions such as "what happens to us when we die?" She points out the great diversity of beliefs and possibilities, whether they be religious, spiritual, philosophical or scientific, and the resulting dilemma for agnostics. Some may be quite willing to accept death as oblivion, while others may persist in fear and denial. Yet there is still grief at the death of a loved one, and an in-built emotional urge to dispose of the physical remains with respect and honour. All of this is strong food for thought. However, she does not claim to know the answer as she concludes this fine essay: "What happens to this thinking I, this centre of me, will actually remain a mystery to me until, perhaps, the day I die. Whatever happens, I will be thankful for the presence of the ancestors, asserting the importance of that gratitude and the need for true respect".

"Tribes of Spirit: Animals as Ancestors" by Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass) is a personal account of the writer's discovery of his guardian Wolf spirit. His revelation came during a sweat lodge on a Druid camp in England. Such ceremonies and initiations are usually considered to be of Native American tradition, but there seems to be some evidence that they were also used in Bronze Age Britain. From that initiation 20 years before, Greywolf had increasingly intense encounters with his Wolf-spirit. He eventually realised that he had found his true self or essence, for he says: "I am Wolf. Wolf is me." He considers the real possibility of having wolf ancestry. As a Druid, he acknowledges ancestors of "blood and spirit". Therefore kinship may be of both types. Not surprisingly, he likes to wear pelts, drumming, chanting and howling at the moon.

"Ancestors and Place, Seidr and Other Ways of Knowing" by Jenny Blain takes us to the Nordic countries and the practice of Seidr. This is defined as a way of gaining knowledge and insight, and then making desired changes in physical circumstances or in human relationships. The author describes herself as a practising Heathen and first developed Seidr work while in Nova Scotia while she was researching Nordic sagas. "At the centre of Heathenry is the concept of the world tree, Yggdrasil....and the pool of Wyrd at its foot, tended by three women, the Norns, who craft or create fate or Wyrd for individuals or communities." 

Wyrd is not considered as fixed fate, but rather a combination of obligations and potential for change as people create their own lives. In this philosophy ancestors are important, not only in a physical sense but also in a spiritual and cultural sense. 'Oracular Seidr' usually involved a seeress holding a staff and sitting on a raised platform before the people. Singing and chanting would bring about a shift in consciousness and access to 'entities', ancestors or spirits, that could provide the required knowledge. Healing, protection, or exorcisms might be performed. Yet in some cases quite mundane but useful knowledge might be imparted. One seeress reported that she was instructed by departed great-aunts who gave her instructions on cooking and questioned what she was doing.

Now we come to "Wights, Ancestors, Hawks and Other Significant Others: A Heathen-Archaeologist-Falconer in Place" (sic). This rather unlikely title belongs to an author by the name of Robert J. Wallis. Mr Wallis may be a lovely man to know, I am quite sure, but getting to know him would appear to be quite a difficult challenge, nigh on impossible if you get off on the wrong foot with him. 

His essay begins thus: "'What do you do?' a question I dislike, as if my working life in a university defines me. 'Are you married?' and the subsequent, 'Do you have kids?' presume a heteronormative frame and a requirement to procreate when perhaps unusually, Claire and I have lived happily together for half of our lives and children are still not top of the list. 'What are your hobbies?' suggests work and play are separate, leisure activities, a distraction or escape, when as a falconer my relationship with a hawk, a significant other and companion species, requires daily commitment, involves emotional investment, is a research subject (Wallis 2014) and bleeds into my 'spirituality' (a term that's a poor fit for what I'm getting at). Worse yet, 'What do you believe?' - the wrong question for a non-believing heathen animist whose Gods are ancestors, ancestors sometimes animals, plants occasionally allies, and allies wights. I fit in, but not quite. I'm an archaeologist, but I don't dig holes. I identify as a heathen animist (in understated lower case) but not Asatru, Odinist or Shaman. I recognise my grandmother Gladys, Gyr-falki, Woden, the plant Mugwort, the builders of Bush Barrow, yew trees and the hare Freyja caught a few days ago, within my loose approach to 'ancestors'. I'm a hedge-sitter, an out-sitter, and the ancestors are all around me and within me, part of my identity although I would not necessarily say that mine is an 'ancestral heart'. Let me attempt to explain, by starting here, in this place, just now."

I suspect that after such an eccentric and irritating introduction many readers will not wish to stay on for the attempted 'explanation'. Enough already. Quite why Mr Wallis is so tetchy at being asked what he does and then tell us in such excruciatingly pompous style what he does is a mystery. But this book is full of mysteries. Actually, it's not such a bad essay, with some nice poetic touches to the prose, if you manage to get past that introduction.

Moving swiftly on to what may be considered the keynote essay, Caitlin Matthews, co-editor of this anthology, is on solid ground with "Healing the Ancestral Communion: Pilgrimage Beyond Time and Space". As a seasoned writer of over 60 books Matthews has a concise readable style that draws you in, as in a conversation, with human warmth. She opens with a comparison of human life to a pilgrimage. The longed-for place is where we are in communion with all that is and has been. It is always within us, and is always within reach, but somehow we keep losing it. Modernist culture defines ancestors as the bloodline from which we descended, but the ancient wisdom is that we are truly related to everything in existence.

Matthews draws on her family history to illustrate our need for family and a place of belonging. I was touched by her description of her mother's life-long sense of loss for being adopted and raised separately from her parents and brothers and sisters. So much of society's ills can be traced back directly to the breakdown of the extended family and a link with the land. Her essay is filled with practical techniques for healing these painful rifts that lie within our souls, or, to use her phrase "restoring the ancestral communion". That is how we can finally "come home".

"Memory at Sites of Non-Place: A Eulogy" by Camelia Elias starts with the author's reflections on her thoughts when asked to submit her contribution to this anthology. For some unknown reason she comes up with the word "symmetry" and spends most of her essay trying to fit her concepts into that single theme. It doesn't work for me, but there are many useful points of information nonetheless. One of these concerns Colin Murray, a great Celtic scholar and founder of a Druid order who ended his life at the age of 44 by ingesting yew leaves. He had apparently made a pact with trees shortly after a near-fatal motorcycle accident. "In other words, trees had become mediators between life and death." It seems like a tragic waste of a young life with much unrealised potential. There is no explanation given for his motives. For that reason I have some difficulty with the author's statement: "From the standpoint of storytelling, Murray's life and death strike me as fascinating, precisely as it ties in with the man's sense of symmetry and what he was trying to achieve...." However, I do fully agree with her later observation: "What we call the Ancient Heart has to do with the ineffability of the mystery that always stares us in the face."

"Tuning into the Landscape" by Sarah Hollingham is a delightfully light piece, filled with the simple joys of finding stillness within and tuning in to nature. As a Quaker, the author attends meetings where participants sit in silence until the spirit moves them to speak. She transfers this practice to solitary meditations in a natural setting such as woodland. As an exercise, using a technique called 'soundmapping', she describes the great insights provided by simply listening to all of the sounds around us. At first you may find that your mind is full of inner chatter.

By paying attention simply to everything you are hearing, and mapping it, you can attain much greater inner peace and harmony. Using a pen and paper, you can write a word or draw an image of each sound around you, with yourself as a circle in the middle and the location of sounds in front, above, behind, and either side. Some sounds, such as traffic noise, may seem to clash, but they still belong to the 'here and now'. There is no need to block any sound, as many do these days with headphones and earphones. Wherever we are it pays benefits to be mindful of what is happening around us. Finally, the author reminds us of the joy and pleasure of taking off our shoes and feeling the grass and earth under our feet. This is simple and direct communing with Nature.

"How Genetics Unravels the Role of the Landscape in the Relationship Between Ancestors and Present" by Luzie U Wingen looks in great detail into the subject of genetics and DNA. It is a most useful and necessary addition to any anthology concerning ancestry. Technology has advanced so far as to allow genetic signatures to be analysed and compared. These show differences between geographical areas, but still confirm a common ancestry for all of humanity.

"Ancestors (Anck-est-ors)" by David Loxley is a robust, no-nonsense essay that reappraises common words and language in the light of deeper knowledge and insight. As might be expected from the Chief of the Druid Order since 1981, he speaks with some authority. From his first paragraph he makes it clear that objects and words may represent a dead past. We may think of ancestors as dead and gone, and these things as their relics. Can we break through the wall between life and death? Letting go of our beliefs may be difficult but necessary to see the larger picture. He speaks about religious beliefs and fixed histories giving birth to all kinds of stupidity, conflict and disease. "Healing, vision and understanding are born out of the present tense." He links the word 'ancestor' with the Egyptian word 'ankh' meaning 'life'. This is to remind us that we are the ones who pass between birth and death. "The true purpose of who and what we are is to shine like the sun." "Now is the reality, now is a sun; the future and past do not really exist." The most obvious opportunity to experience passing between life and death comes every day in the form of sleep, in which we become virtually nothing and nobody. Loxley gives several practical suggestions for spiritual development and meditations to "assist communication with the ancestors, immortals or our own internal light". This is no wishy-washy New Age amusement or pastime. It is serious work. In conclusion "When an idea's time has come the people will see the need. When we ask a question the answer will also appear. Create the conditions and we will get the results. When we are ready the ancestors will answer the call."

The final essay is 'The Heart of the Land: The Druidic Connection' by Penny Billington. She emphasises the growing urge to re-connect with the earth and nature in all its forms. Pilgrimages to sacred places, festivals and gatherings at ancient mythical locations such as Glastonbury and Stonehenge are signs of an awakening that is gathering pace. Druidry is particularly strong in Britain and has a lineage that goes back to the mists of pre-history. Julius Caesar wrote a detailed account about Druids' beliefs and practices when he was in Gaul (France) between 59 and 51 BC, asserting that they came from Britain and were already an ancient order possessing arcane knowledge.

An Afterword written by Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, provides a fitting conclusion to this anthology. He poses the question "What is Nature?" and determines that in some parts of the world it means a genuine wilderness where humans occasionally intrude, whereas in Britain today it generally means the 'countryside'. Our landscape has been progressively tamed and adapted to our benefit. This leads into a series of searching questions about humanity's place in 'nature'. There are no simple answers, but a growing sense of crisis in our precious world is making us think even more deeply about our personal place and purpose in all of this. -- Kevin Murphy.

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