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Sacred Trees in the Americas: American Hazel (Corylus americana) Magic, Ecology, and Sacred Uses

American Hazelnuts in a cluster getting ready to ripen

For three years, I have had my eye on our American hazel bushes here at the homestead. When we first moved to the property, much of the understory was damaged with the logging the previous owners did and it took time for the hazels to recover.  Thus, for the last few years, I’ve watched the hazels grow taller and larger each year and kept looking excitedly for any signs of nuts setting. This past fall, I was delighted to find handfuls of delicious wild American hazelnuts and connect with the incredible wisdom that they offer.

While Hazel is a critically important tree in the mythology and magical tradition of Druidry and in Europe more broadly, The Hazel is one of the sacred trees identified by the druids as a tree tied to wisdom and the flow of Awen, and it is one of the sacred trees found in the Ogham.  But here in North America, despite having our own native hazels (American Hazelnut and Beaked Hazelnut), we often turn our eyes towards Europe’s mythology and understandings. Thus, in this post, I’d like to share more about the American Hazelnut, and the ecology, uses, herbalism, magic, and myths of this most sacred tree.

This post is part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast. Other trees in this series include Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

The American Hazel is an understory tree that is native to the eastern half of the United States and into the Eastern half of Canada. The second native Hazel we have is the Beaked Hazel (Corylus cornuta), which has an even wider range in North America–both have fairly similar growth habits.

As a deciduous tree, the American Haze produces brownish-yellow foliage in the fall and is in the birch (Betulae) family. It can tolerate a wide range of soil and light conditions, including acidic or alkali soil and full sun to part shade.  I’ve primarily seen it in the Allegheny mountain region of Western PA either as a full shade understory tree or along part-shade edges of damp deciduous forests.  It has simple, alternate leaves that are shaped like a heart or oblong (which have some variation from region to region) and tiny little hairs running up the branches.  The leaves are toothed and soft to the touch.

Hollie and Ivy Goose help me with this year’s hazelnut harvest!

The Hazel only reaches a height of about 12-15 feet at maturity and spreads in a thick cluster where many smaller hazel trunks will grow out of a single root structure and span 10 feet or more.  Thus, when you find one American Hazel tree cluster, you will often find many more  Hazel grows quickly once planted; it can grow 12-24″ in a single season.  Within seven years (planting from seed), it can produce its first crop of hazelnuts and most of these trees can produce nuts for over 40 years.

While hazels will produce both male catkins and female flowers on the same plant, they are not self-fertile, and thus, require several in order to properly reproduce.  Thus, if you are planning on planting some, keep this in mind.  The male catkins are visible all winter.  In early spring, like spicebush, tiny red clusters (the female flowers) burst forth.  After pollination, the male catkins dry and drop off leaving the female flowers to transition into nut pods that feature two large green bracts (one of the characteristic looks of the hazel).  When the nuts are ripe in the fall (here, this is sometime in September), the green bracts start to go yellow and then brown. An easy way to spot these in the fall as just as the leaves are beginning to come down, you can

Not only are the nuts delicious for humans, they are also highly sought by wildlife including squirrels, deer, turkey, woodpeckers, grouse, pheasants, beavers, fox, quail, and even blue jays.  The male catkins, which stay on the trees all winter, are foraged by ruffed grouse during the lean winter months.  Of course, like all other nuts in the region, nut weevils may be present (in this case, hazelnut weevils, curculio neocorylus).  When you harvest hazels, its a good idea to let them sit for about 7-12 days and let the weevils come out.  I return those to the land and enjoy the rest!

Food Uses

Most obviously, American Hazel produces delicious nuts and they are well worth seeking out if you do any foraging.  Here is a great blog post on foraging for either variety of hazelnut that grows wild in the Americas: beaked hazel or American hazel.   It is important to realize that the wild American Hazelnut is going to be smaller and more flavor intensive than the domestic counterpart; this is because most commercial hazelnuts sold are either European Hazels (about twice the size of American Hazel) or are hybrids.  This is a very common thing among wild foods: the domestic varieties have been bred for size or hybridized, but often at the expense of flavor.  A wild hazelnut will be so rich and flavorful compared to what you will find in the store (also true of wild strawberry, wild raspberry, etc).

Hollie and Ivy can’t wait to try the hazelnuts!

Hazelnuts are able to be enjoyed directly from the tree.  When you harvest them, simply peel off the catkins and you will be left with a nut surrounded by a thin (and easy to crack) shell.  This is for American hazel specifically; the beaked hazels are much harder to shell and you usually have to rot the catkins away (Sam Thayer discusses this technique more in his  You can eat them like this and store the nuts for up to 18 months in a cool place.  If you want to take it a step further, you can  I prefer to roast them slightly in the oven.  To do this, you can crack the nuts and then roast them at 275 for 15 or so minutes–you want them slightly brown but not scorched.  Or, if you have a wood-burning stove, you can just put your nuts on the top of the stove for 10 -15 minutes in their cracked shell and roast that way.  If you have enough, you can grind up your roasted nuts and make incredible nut butter. Beyond roasting, you can use American Hazelnuts in any recipe that would call for commercial hazelnut:  cookies, ice cream, sprinkled over salads, etc.

In Edible Plants of Eastern North America (1943), Fernald and Kinsey note that American Hazels were harvested extensively in the country and ground into a meal, which was then baked into a cake-like bread.

John Eastman in Forest and Thicket notes that the hazelnut oil, when pressed, can be used for perfumes and that the wood has traditionally been made into charcoals for drawing.

Other Uses

Within the permaculture community, Hazelnuts are an important crop for food forests and to support perennial agriculture.  The entire idea behind perennial agriculture is that we can plant trees or other crops once and then gain many harvests, and cultivate a food forest rather than an annual vegetable garden.  This has made nut crops, like chestnut and hazelnut, important symbols in that movement.

Beautiful Hazels

American Hazel, like all other hazels, has the ability to be coppiced.  This means that once established, you can cut the tree back to the roots and harvest the thin trunks. There are coppiced hazels in parts of Europe that have been a continual source of raw material for centuries; this is a very sustainable and regenerative practice. Within a few years, the hazel will send up new wood and regrow.

Because Hazels are understory trees without thick trunks, most of the wood applications in Hazel have to do with their ability to produce lots of small, flexible branches and be coppiced. Hazelwood has been traditionally used for building small structures like fences, in wattle and daub natural construction, in building the traditional coracle boat, or for creating supports in a garden.

Native American Uses

American Hazel in Winter with large Catkins

Erichsen-Brown notes in Medicinal and other uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to Eastern Indian Tribes the extensive uses of Hazelnut among Native Americans in North America. Archeological evidence demonstrates Hazelnuts at an Iroquan site and in caves in what is now Ohio in Pennsylvania; this evidence dates from 800-1400 AD that large amounts of nuts were consumed by the tribes living here.  Hazelnuts were dried, ground up, made into meals and gravies, and used to create mush.  The oil was also used for hair and mixed with bear grease by the Iroquis.  

Medicinally, the Hurons used a bark poultice of the hazelnut tree for ulcers and tumors.  The Chippewa used hazel and white oak roots combined with the inner bark of chokecherry and the heart of ironwood for hemorrhages or serious lung conditions.  Similarly, the Ojibwa used the bark poultice on cuts.

The inner bark was used by the Chippewa (along with butternut or inner bark of white oak) as a dye for blankets, rushes, and more.  A recipe given in Erichson-brown is to use the hulls from the nuts to set the black dye of butternut when boiled with tannic acid.  The Chippewa and the Ojibwe also made drumsticks of hazel along with brooms and twig baskets.  The bark was also used to expel worms, in a similar fashion to walnut.

Hazel does not appear to feature much in the legends that I have read of Native American traditions. Since so much was lost due to the cultural and physical genocide of many tribes, however, it is hard to say what magic the Hazel may have had to these amazing peoples.

Hazel in the Western Magical Traditions

Simple Hazel wand

In Celtic mythology, Hazel was an extremely important tree and tied directly to the mythology of the druid tradition. In Irish mythology in the Finnean cycle, it is written that the Hazel tree is the very first tree to come into creation and that all of the knowledge of the world was contained in the Hazel tree.  The Salmon of Wisdom (An Bradán Feasa) lived in the Well of Wisdom (Tobar Segais) which was surrounded by nine sacred Hazel trees with their wisdom-containing nuts. The nuts of the trees dropped into the water and eaten by the Salmon. The first person to catch and eat the Salmon would gain this knowledge.  While many tried and failed, Finnegas spent seven years fishing and finally caught it. Finnegas sets his apprentice, the young Deimne Maol, to prepare the fish but not to eat it.  Deimne sets the fish upon a spit and begins to cook it. In the process of cooking when the fish is nearly prepared, Deimne burns his thumb and puts his thumb in his mouth to ease the pain–and, of course, acquires all of the knowledge from the Salmon of Wisdom. Deimne becomes Fionn mac Cumhaill (Fin McCool), the leader of the fabled Fianna and hero of many Irish tales. Those students of Welsh druidry will note the similarities between this story and the one describing how Gwion became Taliesin.  In modern revival Druidry, the wisdom of the hazel and the Salmon of Wisdom in the sacred pool remains very important symbols of our tradition.

Greer notes in the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic that Hazel has been used by magicians extensively throughout the West.  Hazel is best used for wands and various kinds of divination rods and sticks (including dowsing).  Cut the hazel with a single stroke with a consecrated knife at sunrise on a Wednesday for the best effect.  Hazelwood makes an excellent wand and transmits energy effectively. Greer also notes that the nuts are excellent for communing with Mercury or connecting with Mercurial energies.   One area that I disagree with Greer about, however, is that he says that Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana) and American Hazel are interchangeable. In my own experience, while witch hazel became the traditional wood for dowsing rods, I do not believe these woods serve similar functions on the landscape, and thus, I have found them to have different magical qualities.

In Celtic Tree Mysteries, Steve Blamires notes that the wood was used for dowsers extensively in the British Isles.  In the Ogham, hazel is noted as the “fairest of the trees” and is tied to the flow of Awen, divine inspiration, particularly for the crafting of poetry.  The other thing Blamires notes, which I have not been able to find an original source for, is that there is a ritual by the druids called “Diechetel Do Chenaid” where chewing hazelnuts were used for inspiration or to learn of something lost.  I’m not sure if this ritual comes from myth or is speculation, so if anyone knows more about it, I would appreciate them sharing!  Finally, Hazel wands (probably due to their Mercurial connections) were used as a symbol for a herald.

Hazelnut does not appear to have any uses within other folk traditions in the Americas, such as Hoodoo.

The Divination and Magic of the Hazel

American Hazel Harvest

Given everything above: the ecology, food uses, and mythology surrounding hazel, I’d like to propose the following three divination and magical uses for American Hazel.

Wisdom.  While the mythology surrounding wisdom and creative inspiration comes from the British Isles, I think that mythology is strong for those of us practicing druidry in the US today.  Thus, the American hazel is associated with Wisdom and knowledge, just as the British counterpart.

Creative Inspiration and the flow of Awen. Flowing inspiration of all kinds comes from working with the Hazel tree.  Be inspired by the joy and connection this tree offers.  Eat of the hazelnuts and find your inspiration!  Bring hazel into your life through the crafting of wands, amulets, and more to encourage that flow.

Renewable tools.  Hazel offers many tools and gifts for those seeking a sustainable lifestyle and to transition to more sustainable practices.  Thus, Hazel offers the knowledge and uses of its many tools and the idea of sharing these practices widely.  Hazel offers much hope for us to think about how to transition from mono-crop agriculture that is destroying the land to instead, work with the energy of the hazel, a tree that can be infinitely renewable and incredibly generous.

Friends, readers, I would love to hear your experiences with the Hazels where you live!  What have you experienced or discovered about them?

Rituals and Activities to Enhance Creativity and Support the Bardic Arts

This is my song, this is my voice,
These are my words, this is my choice.
Hear me now, take heed of my words.
Love me now, and your spirit will fly.

Hear me in the howling of the wolf,
My voice is the song of the Bards,
I am the power that helps the salmon leap,
I am the very first breath of a child.

From Damh the Bard’s Song of Awen.

 

It has been a long journey into considering the role of the bardic arts in the druid tradition and the role that creativity plays in spirituality. I realized that one final thing was missing from our discussion–a set of practical exercises and rituals that you can use to better work with the flow of awen and embrace the path of the bard. And so, to finish out my long series on the Bardic Arts in the Druid Tradition, we turn today to some practical rituals and practices that you can engage in to help cultivate your own bardic practice. If you haven’t read the other posts in this series, you might want to start there.  They are, in order: the cultivation and flow of awen, cultural challenges surrounding taking up the path of the bard, tips for how to cultivate the bardic arts, the fine art of creating functional things, and finally, the bardic arts as a path of spiritual development.  And so today, we look at five practices that can help you further cultivate the bardic creative arts in your life and in the lives of others: the bardic circle/Eisteddfod, a bardic storytelling ritual, a ritual for invoking the awen, setting up a magical creative working space, and a ritual for cultivating the bardic arts.  I hope that these suggestions offer you some practical tools as you continue on your own path of the bard and embrace the creative flow of awen in your life!

 

Hosting a Bardic Circle or Eisteddfod

In the modern druid tradition, an Eisteddfod is a circle of bards who come together to share tales, stories, dances, and more.  We use this term more loosely in the druid community than where it originated historically, and to frame this practice, understanding a bit about the Welsh Eisteddfod is necessary. Welsh Eisteddfods are traditional bardic arts competitions that have been has been held on a national level in Wales since the 18th century, but go back in various forms much further than that. One of the key early figures in the druid revival, Iolo Morganwg, took the Eisteddfod a bit further.  He developed a “Gorsedd,” which was an event within the Eisteddfod that offered various degrees, ritual and ceremony for the for the purpose of promoting excellence in the bardic arts, particularly poetry, music, and literature. To this day the Welsh Gorsedd has druids, bards, and ovates who wear various robes.  The ranks of the bards include individuals who sit for exams in a variety of bardic arts, Welsh language, and more. Ovates and druids are honored for their contributions to Welsh Culture. Both of these practices persist to this day in Wales, and they take on a particular flavor in the modern Druid communities that trace their roots to the druid revival.

 

In modern Druid communities, it is very common to experience an Eisteddfod, sometimes simply for sharing, and other times, for a bardic arts competition.  Most typically, the bardic circles happen around campfires and can last into the wee hours of the morning.  Sometimes, the Eisteddfod is setup as a formal competition with multiple rounds, winners of individual rounds get to compete at the final night of the gathering.  The winner gets a prize, or at least, serious community recognition. But also, just as often, there is no competition and instead, it is a chance simply to share something by the fire: a poem, a story, a song, . Sharing at an Eisteddfod does not come easily to many people due to a lifetime of cultural conditioning, however, sharing at an Eisteddfod  allows you to break the potential years of silence and thinking you aren’t good enough and again realize there you are, telling a tale and hearing a thunderous applause.

 

Starting an Eisteddfod: You can start an Eisteddfod with friends (including non-druid friends). Ideally, you need a circular space where people can gather and enough people to make it a good time. A campfire or fireplace to gather around is a plus, but not necessary. Consider having a potluck meal as part of your Eisteddfod.

 

Damh the Bard Concert at OBOD East Coast Gathering a few years back

Damh the Bard Concert at OBOD East Coast Gathering a few years back

A Simple Setup. For an Eisteddfod, you need a space where people can gather, enough people to share stories, songs, dances, and other creative expressions, and some libations and food. A fire is a bonus, but is by no means necessary. You also need a master of ceremonies of sorts to help keep things going.  If you are doing an actual competition, you need two additional things: a panel of judges who will be able to declare winners and prizes for the winners.

 

The best part about an Eisteddfod don’t need to invite “druids” over or people on a similar spiritual path. Everyday folks from a variety of different traditions and life paths might find the idea of the Eisteddfod appealing and join your circle of bards.  It is a good way for solitary druids to find community without other druids nearby and still engage in a core practice in the druid tradition.

 

A Bardic Storytelling Ritual of Empowerment

The stories of our own past and histories can help shape our present understanding. This ritual is performed by two people. It can be performed in a sacred space, around a fire, or over a period of days where two people are spending them together. In this ritual, we use the bardic art of storytelling to share stories that are themed through one of four Jungian archetypes (the hero, caregiver, magician, and bard). The two people take turns telling their stories, and while one is telling the tale, the other is deeply listening. At the end of the tale, the listener shares the deeper qualities that he/she heard. For example in a tale of the hero, the listener might hear that the speaker showed bravery, quick wittedness, and eloquence. The goal of this storytelling ritual is to allow both participants to recognize the other’s gifts, the things that are already within ourselves, and that we may want to further cultivate.  Write down the qualities that the listener tells you for each of the stories—they are qualities to remember, and draw upon, for our own healing and growth.

 

The following four archetypes can be used:

  • The Hero (a person who employs courageous acts)
  • The Caregiver (a person who protects and cares for others)
  • The Bard (a person who realizes a creative vision)
  • The Magician (one who is able to work magic)

 

Other possibilities that you might want to include beyond the original three.

  • The Explorer (one who goes on a journey)
  • The Lover (one who expresses deep love for another)
  • The Sage (a person who seeks truth and deeper self awareness)
  • The Ruler (one who helps lead others)

Ritual for Invoking Awen

This very simple ritual for invoking Awen connects us deeply with the waters and the flow of Nywfre. You can use it at the start of any creative endeavor.

 

Supplies: Sacred Water. Before you can do this ritual, you will need to gather some water from a place sacred to you. Natural springs or wells are particularly effective for this, as is rainwater. If you are home-bound, even getting a bottle of fresh spring water from a local source will be effective here. Once you have your water, you can “make more” sacred water for this ceremony by simply adding new water (of any kind) to it. This water can also be used in your elemental altar, below. Place the sacred water in a small glass bowl and have it available for the ritual.

 

Sacred Flows from a Local Spring

Sacred Flows from a Local Spring

The Ritual:  Begin by taking three or more deep breaths, settling yourself into your body and allowing your breath to center and calm you. When you are ready, close your eyes and ring out the “Awen” chant three times. Then, with the bowl of sacred water, lathe your brow and your hands, and say “May the Awen flow within me. May the muse inspire me.” Take a moment to visualize the flow of the Awen within you, flowing in from the land, sea, and sky.

 

Setting up a Magical Creative Working Space: A Bardic Altar

 

Setting up Your Altar

We can use the elemental systems present in the druid tradition to help cultivate the right kind of energy for our own creative workings. One very effective way of doing this is to draw upon the power of the elements to create a physical shrine dedicated to helping you with your creative bardic arts.

 

For the bardic arts, we might use a four-fold elemental system as follows:

  • Fire – Beginning projects, gathering steam, projects of passion and intensity, any body-based work
    • Materials for Altar: Candles, igneous rocks, plant material that likes to burn (like white birch, conifers), red altar cloth, images of fire/sun/light
  • Air – Projects that require deep and clear thinking, projects that are mind/language/communication/memory based, writing/poetry/songwriting projects, problem solving
    • Materials for Altar: Incense, white/light gray/light yellow altar cloth, feathers, wind chimes, bells, singing bowls, images of the sky and clouds
  • Water – Building positive emotions towards a project, overcoming challenges, allowing the Awen to simply flow through you, any painting-based work (watercolor), other work that requires flow and fluidity (like dance)
    • Materials: Bowl of water, collection of water from sacred places, shells, river stones, opals, blue altar cloth, images of water/rivers/lakes, lake plants, seaweed/lake weed
  • Earth – Continuing on with a longer project that you are growing weary of, stubbornness and determination, also any wood-based work or earth-based work (clay), any nature-themed work
    • Materials: Stones, roots, nuts, fruit, bowl of earth, brown or green altar cloth, bark, images of caves and mountains

You can create a small elemental altar near where you are working on your bardic arts to help bring in that elemental energy to the space. You can change the “focus” of the altar based on what elemental energy you might need at the moment for your work. An altar cloth and change of materials will allow you to always bring in the blessing of the element.

 

For example, I have a permanent elemental altar on a shelf in my art studio. While all of the elements are present, the major focus of the altar rotates based on the project I’m working on. If I am particularly deficient and having difficulty (for me, this is almost always in earth and maintaining my focus on a longer project over time) I will dedicate the entire altar space to the energies of the earth for that purpose. And so, I gather up things that are representative of the earth: leaves, acorns, roots, soil, and a potted plant and bring them into the altar.  I also include a small bowl of water, incense, and a candle to represent the other elements (as their presence is also needed for any project to come into manifestation).  Finally, I include an awen symbol on the altar to recognize and connect with the divine inspiration that drives the creative work.

 

In addition to the elements, you might want to put other pieces on the altar that are dedicated to your particular bardic arts.  For example, if you are working on writing, an old-style pen and inkwell might be appropriate, or a symbol fo Mercury, who governs communication.  If you are a dancer, an old pair of dance shoes and a photo of a dancer who inspires you would be appropriate, and so on.

 

Earth Altar in Kitchen for Magical Crafting and Magical Culinary Arts

Earth Altar in Kitchen for Magical Crafting and Magical Culinary Arts

Another option if you don’t have space for an altar or you don’t have a dedicated bardic arts space (or it isn’t appropriate due to living circumstances) is to hang an elemental representation (or set of representations) somewhere near where you practice your bardic art.  So if you practice your storytelling in front of the mirror in the bathroom, hang up a painting or photo of the element(s) or a natural place that is strongly aligned with that element that will aid you.  You could also use a simple awen drawing for this purpose.

Using Your Altar

You can use the altar in a variety of ways.  The presence of the altar itself will have a beneficial on the bardic work. Pausing before you begin the work to open up a sacred space (see below) using the altar as a focus is also a useful practice.  Tending the water regularly (changing the bowl of water, regular adding of new things, dusting, etc.) also connects you to that bardic practice.  Even if you don’t have time to engage in your bardic arts that day, visiting the altar and offering an awen chant will continue to encourage the flow of awen in your life.

 

Before you begin to do magical crafting or practice your bardic art, you can use the altar as a focus point to open up a sacred bardic grove, which I’ll now discuss.

 

 

Opening up a Sacred Bardic Arts Space

As the druid tradition recognizes that the bardic arts are inherently connected to spiritual practice, you can create a sacred space in which to engage in your bardic arts by using a simple sacred grove opening. This practice is particularly effective if you are working on a project that is new, challenging, or spiritual in nature.

 

This could be very simple:

  • Declaring that you are opening a space for working in your bardic art
  • Declaring peace in the quarters
  • Drawing upon the four elements for strength (see below)
  • Asking the Awen to flow within (see below)
  • Putting up a sphere of protection (AODA) or a simple protective circle (OBOD) for the duration of your crafting experience.

 

Here is some elemental invoking language you can use:

  • May the blessings of the Air inspire me and give me focus and clarity for my creative work.
  • May the blessings of Fire inspire me and give me passion and creativity for my creative work.
  • May the blessings of Water inspire me and allow the work to flow.
  • May the blessings of Earth inspire me and give me grounding and strength.

 

You can also get more specific with the language based on the bardic art.

 

To invoke Awen, yo might use a simple poem:

I call upon the Awen, the ancient source of divine inspiration,

I call upon the muses, the hallowed ones who guide my hand/voice/body
[as appropriate]

I call upon the living earth, the force of nature that inspires my craft.

I call upon my ancestors, whose creativity flows within me.

[Add any additional calls as is appropriate]

May the blessing of the awen flow within me this day and always. 

 

And with that, you can open your sacred space for creating the bardic arts, and leave it open as long as you plan on working that day.

Taking up the Path of the Bard, Part I

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!

Bardic Artistic Expression through Clay, Sand, and Straw (cob)!  (This is part of a tree piece I collaborated on at Strawbale Studio in Michigan)

A group of people sharing stories and songs by the fire. A fine pair of leather shoes. A beautiful woven garment. A tale full of twists and mystery. Finely wrought iron doors. An amazing wood carving on a stump. A marble sculpture. A wildly painted mural on a wall. A cob structure with whimsical trees and forms. A song that reaches deep within you when you hear it.  A rousing speech. Each of these, and so many others, represent the natural creative expressions of humanity. Taking up the path of the bard is one of three paths in the druid tradition (along with the work of the Ovate and the Druid). Yet, many people aren’t sure how to take up the path of the bard because they don’t think they are “creative” or “talented” enough.  However, the bardic arts are part of our human heritage and birthright, and each of us has that possibility. I believe it is essential that we have an opportunity to cultivate them and to embrace the flow of awen in our lives. This post, part my longer series on the bardic arts, explores the nature of the bardic arts, how to take them up, and how to become proficient at them. The goal of this two-part post is to answer the two basic questions:

 

  • How can we make the bardic arts accessible to every person?
  • How can you begin to take up a bardic art yourself, regardless of skill level?

 

To explore our two questions, in this week’s post we’ll begin by examining some definitions of the bardic arts.  Then, we’ll explore common challenges people face with taking up the bardic path and the roots of some of these challenges.  Next week, we’ll discuss how, regardless of “talent” or starting point, you can become proficient at a bardic art and offer you tools to get started or continue that process.

 

What are the bardic arts?

For the druid path, the bardic arts, or a wide variety of creative expressions, are central to the practice of druidry.  The ancient bards invoked the “Awen”; the awen is  the inspiration, the muse of inspiration, or the spark of creativity that flows. Likewise, modern druids intone and invoke the Awen in our practices often and draw upon the flow of awen for creative works. I talked more about the awen in last week’s post and more about this centrality of connecting to the creative arts in my recent post on connection as the core philosophy of the druid tradition. 

 

By “bardic arts,” I refer to a wide variety of creative and skilled expressions that can fall into four broad categories:

 

  • Performing arts: including music, theater, dance, movement, storytelling, singing, acting, and so on.
  • Fine arts: including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, printmaking, and so on.
  • Literary arts: including writing poetry, songwriting, writing prose, and any kind of writing that requires craft and skill
  • Fine crafts: including fiber arts, metalwork/smithing, pottery, glasswork, woodwork, bookbinding, papermaking, and so on.

 

I recognize that many of these categories overlap, and all are inherently performative in nature and allow a bard to engage in some form of self-expression.  One possibility to add to this list might also include “digital arts” of various kinds (film, 3d design and printing, etc) although I’m sticking here to comments on more traditional bardic arts. A second possibility might be culinary arts or other kinds of creations.

           

Challenging Social Structures and Creative Expression

So now that we have some idea of what the bardic arts are, we can begin to dig into the challenging social structures and cultural inhibitions against creating that prevent more people from taking up the path of the bard. Because it isn’t until we understand the problems we face in cultivating the bardic arts that we can find ways of addressing those issues.

 

Growing Up and the Langauge of Disempowerment

Children are the most natural bards of all. Young children do not have the cultural inhibitions against creating that many adolescents and adults later develop.  In fact, young children instead create constantly: a group of children with crayons and paper will quickly create numerous colorful drawings, sharing them with each other. Another day, children might create complex sandcastles or fingerpaint on the wall or draw pictures in the soil outside.  They are happy to sing, dance, and create anything. No one has to teach these children to be creative; they might need to be taught how to use the markers, but a healthy child will create, often to excess, without hesitation or judgment.  Further, children aren’t judgemental of their creative work: they create becuase it brings them joy, not necessarily, because they are creating masterpieces.

By the time that that bardic-arts loving child goes through mass education, however, his or her willingness to pick up a crayon again is often greatly diminished. By the time that child is a teenager, their creative spirit is often replaced with narratives of disempowerment.  They might now say, “I’m not creative” or, when experiencing another’s bardic expressions say, “I could never do that” or “I’m not talented* like you.” They say, “I could never be a [musician/artist/etc.].”

 

How many of you have heard statements like these or said them yourself?  I have heard hundreds of people over the years say these things. Our words have power,  and the kind of statements above is the language of disempowerment. This kind of language prevents us from taking up the path of the bard, and it stifles any chance of creativity. The more we say these things, the more we reinfoce the idea that we are not creative, not talented, and not capable of creative work.

 

(*The etymology of the term “talent” is also worth exploring here. The original term “talent” is a unit of Roman currency. The “Parable of the Talents” within the Christian tradition tells a story of a master who gives three servants different numbers of coins. Two of the servants invest their coins and gain additional talents. The third servant buries it in the earth to prevent losing it; this servant is punished by his master. The moral here is that if we invest in our talents, we gain.)

 

Cultural Sources of Creative Disempowerment

Playing music from the 1750's

Playing music from the 1750’s

What exactly happens in western culture to turn happy and creative children into disempowered teens and adults? I hold that it has at least six sources of disempowerment, each of which is worth considering to help us begin to remove the cultural blocks on the creative spirit and the flow of Awen.

 

Celebration of the Exceptional. Because western culture celebrates and elevates that which is exceptional, it makes average people believe that the bardic arts are only worth pursuing if they are highly “talented.”  Mass media constantly parades exceptional skill/talent in our screens and in our faces, making any of our own efforts appear less than satisfactory. For example, the culture of celebrity prevalent in Westernized media elevates professional entertainers, craftspeople, and artists. It is their work that we consume and their work fills our homes and our lives, stifling our own. The phenomenon of television shows celebrating exceptional “talent” (The Voice, America’s Got Talent, American Idol, etc.) is a telling example here. Tens of thousands of people come out to compete for a chance to win what is, essentially, a highly publicized talent show. Those who aren’t exceptional are literally mocked on national television, and as the show goes on, in the end one or two are elevated to celebrity status. Their music or other creative talents are consumed by millions across the land.

 

Active and Passive Entertainment. The above example directly leads us to the second cultural challenge: the everyday people are discouraged from actively providing their own entertainment. The proliferation of mass media being broadcast into every home ensures that one is so immersed in the creations of others that one has little time, or desire, to create for themselves. One of the things the modern druid movement does is bring back the Eisteddfod, the bardic circle, and celebrates the telling of stories, singing of songs, playing of music, and encourages each person (regardless of ability) to share, actively taking entertainment back into our own hands.

 

Deferring to the Experts. The culture of celebrity also encourages us to “defer” to the experts—those professional entertainers, artists, musicians, and so on who hold exceptional talent are the only ones who hold power. In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry cautions against trusting a “specialist” for everything: we have specialists who are in charge of our health, specialists who are in charge of growing our food, and specialists who are in charge of our entertainment (among many other things). An adult living in western society has, literally, decades of practice being conditioned to defer to experts for his/her basic needs, and unfortunately, the creative arts are no exception.  This is disempowering and doesn’t encourage one to take up the bardic arts.

 

Remote Creative Expressions. A fourth challenge present that the celebrity/expert culture puts creative expression in the hands of distant strangers rather than local people in the community. You don’t personally know the celebrities that are providing your entertainment or arts; they are remote, distanced strangers who aren’t accessible to you in any other way. This reduces the chance for you to learn, to ask questions, and to see that any person can cultivate a bardic art.

 

Belief in Innate Talent. Fifth, we have a powerful and prevailing cultural belief in innate talent. This has two sides. First, there is the belief that only those with innate or extraordinary talents should take up creative expressions (because those are the only people who could make money at doing it, see next challenge below). Schools–and individuals–work to elevate those rare individuals with “gifted” or extraordinary people while serving to disempower those who don’t immediately display such gifts. Secondly, there is the idea that a person must already be good at something in order to pursue it. Often, others seek to disempower you if you aren’t as good or are just learning–and this can be stifling.  There is no room for practice or someone who is just “good enough.” Over a lifetime, these beliefs severely disempower those who may have an interest in learning a new bardic art but aren’t immediately masters when they begin (and really, who is?). This leads to disempowerment and people not even trying a new bardic art becuase they aren’t immediatel good at it.

 

Creative Gifts tied to Material Wealth. A final source of disempowerment comes in the form of the expectation and assumption of financial gain. In a materialistic culture, every serious pursuit is expected to be of some financial benefit. This discourages both those who want to enjoy creative gifts for their own sake in a position of constantly explaining “I don’t sell my work” and those who are interested in taking up a bardic art in a disempowered position.  This also leads to the idea that if your work isn’t good enough to sell, you shouldn’t be doing it.  If it can’t be monitized, it has no real value and isn’t worth your time.  Obviously, this is false, but it is still pervasive.

 

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I did with the help of the flow of Awen

Spirit of Poison Ivy, a recent painting I finished with the help of the flow of Awen

To demonstrate some of these cultural challenges, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a panflute, which I play occasionally. Although I have a good ear for music, I’m not that good at my panflute because I don’t practice enough. This is because I choose to devote most of my time to my writing and visual arts.  So when I play my panflute,  I usually mess up a bit – it is a challenging instrument to play. I don’t care if I make a few mistakes, and neither do the trees I am playing for. But people do–they expect flawless, expert performances. I have had people tell me, “don’t quit your day job” after hearing me play. My singing is even worse–I have not taken voice lessons nor do I have a very strong voice, but I like to sing anyways.  If I sing or play the flute and others hear me, it is not seen as a positive thing, but rather, I experience a lot of discouragement.

 

On the other hand, I am a highly skilled artist.  This is becuase I grew up in a house with two parents who were professional artists and because I have dedicated myself to my art and practice it at least several times a week for over decade.  If I share my work, I often will hear the “you are so talented, I could never do that” statements.  These statements both disempower the speaker and disregard the thousands of hours that I have put into my artwork to be able to get to the level where I am. I also hear, “you should sell your work” as if commercializing it is the ultimate compliment.  My art is part of my spiritual path and making money from it isn’t the point of it. But the only models we have, culturally, suggest to be successful as a bard is to be *really* good at it and to make a profit.

 

Breaking Away from Cultural Challenges: Local Bardic Communities

Despite the above cultural challenges, a good number of everyday people break out of these narratives and engage in the bardic arts, often developing local communities of bards. You see these endeavors through initiatives such as community theaters, community orchestras, local wood carving guilds, artist associations, local art shows, local singing groups, local craft guilds, and more. These groups not only support those engaged in the bardic arts in further developing their talents but offer places for everyday community members to be exposed to artists who are ordinary people and who are engaged in the creative works. In other words, these local community groups serve as counter-narratives to the above problems in at least four ways:

 

  1. They demonstrate that everyday people (neighbors, friends, family members) can engage in creative expressions
  2. They demonstrate active role in one’s own entertainment/creative expression rather than handing this over to specialists
  3. They accept the idea that being “good” at something is good enough*
  4. And, they demonstrate that bardic arts don’t have to be done only for profit, but simply, for pleasure

 

Here, I point to a scene in John Michael Greer’s Retrotopia, where the main character goes to see a theater performance and comments that the singing and acting were “good” and an enjoyable time was had by all. The point being made here is that entertainment doesn’t need to be done by only the exceptional—being “good enough” still leads to enjoyment.

 

Despite serious cultural challenges, the creative flow of awen hasn’t completely been lost from the common folk! So hopefully at this point, we can see the roots of some of these common cultural challenges and through this illustration, we can begin to break out of the challenges and embrace our creativity. Next week, we turn to a discussion of how to cultivate your creative gifts as a bard and cultivate and join communities of bards. In the meantime, perhaps this week, take some time for whatever bardic pursuit you enjoy (or are thinking about taking up!)

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