Penny Billington is a Druid author and speaker who has had a significant role in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids for many years, and has edited their magazine Touchstone for 15. She regularly leads ceremonies and workshops.
Published work includes The Path of Druidry; walking The Ancient Green Way, a best selling Druid study course and guide, The Wisdom of Birch, Oak and Yew and The Keys to the Temple, Unlocking Dion Fortune’s Mystical Qabalah Through Her Occult Novels in collaboration with Ian Rees. (all pub. Llewellyn Worldwide) as well as a series of Druid detective novels. Find out more at www.pennybillington.co.uk.
You recently ran a project called the Druid’s Hide. Could you tell us a bit more about that experience? What is the main lesson you took away from that?
The Druid’s Hide was part of my ongoing druid mission to prevent my sleepwalking through life! At the start of a spiritual path we wake up to wonders, but if we don’t keep our practice fresh, we can soon nod off again; it’s human nature. I regularly devise projects to keep myself engaged and often invite others to join me. The word ‘Hide’ meant an amount of land to support oneself – tradition says that the monks of Glastonbury were given 12 hides of land. For this project I interpreted ‘Hide’ as the area that could be easily walked every day from one’s doorstep. Most participants chose a circular route of around 20 minutes, and we became intimately involved with its nature, through the senses, the elements and the realms, as expressed by the immediate landscape. It was a satisfying experience that had a profound effect upon us all. Mostly, it revealed how facile and superficial our usual ‘knowing’ of our own land is, and what a joy it is to deepen that understanding.
If you go out and listen to the land these days, what does it tell you?
I always listen when I walk, usually tuning in after a few moments to settle down and allow my more intuitive senses to wake up, and sometimes I’ll also ask a question if I have a particular need…
Every time, the land reminds me that the wisdom we imbibe just by being quiet, open and receptive in nature cannot be explained by the rational mind. It can only be understood at a deeper level: but we all recognise the feeling that results: a profound sense of well being. The land, the breeze, the birdsong, tell me to be open to this deep knowing; to be aware of being just another part of the landscape for a few moments. I remember that I don’t have to earn my place or be worthy; I am accepted and I have a proper (if tiny) place in the grand scheme of things. As soon as I slow down, I feel what a privilege it is to play my part, by witnessing every aspect of this magical world – from a huge sunset to a miniscule, perfect spider.
During a panel discussion at Druid Camp a few years ago, when asked ‘What is a Druid’, you answered that a druid is a priest of the land. What are, in your opinion, the implications of that definition for the modern practitioner of druidry? Myself I would say that a Priest is a servant of the sacred. So, if we hold the land as sacred, how does one best serve it?
There is the exo-and the esoteric way of looking at this. From a mundane perspective, we serve by being active, as far as each of us can, in supporting a natural world increasingly under threat: and this usually involves local, national and global involvement. Many people are taking these physical actions – direct action, letter writing, petition signing, local groups, personal responsibility such as always looking for the non-plastic option and so on. The druid has an extra responsibility in seeing all aspects of nature as sentient and enspirited, and communication between sentient beings as essential to their and our well being. So from the esoteric standpoint, we serve the sacred land by taking the ideas of our ancient forebears – some of which continue to this day in tribal cultures across the planet, some of which we can glean from traditional sources, stories and archaeology. By incorporating these into a regular, semi-formal ritualized practice – by treating the sacred in as matter-of-fact a way as the brushing of our teeth, we assert its importance. By giving it regular time, we make a strong connection with the wider conscious world. We are serving just by keeping the sacred at the forefront of our minds.
Practices I’ve found very helpful include greetings to the day/season/god/dess/natural elements as one prefers at the beginning, middle and end of the day: naming spirits and landscape features – and this is borne out by the epigraphical evidence we have in Britain of hundreds of god/dess names intimately connected to small localities; and lastly, regular semi-formal gift-giving – which can be as simple as placing a fallen leaf on a tree stump, or refilling the bird feeder. These are obligations but the very opposite of chores: they are part of a rhythm of daily life that are the source of many joyful – and fun – moments of allowing the meshing of our two ways of relating to the world; practical/mundane and intuitive/magical.
What, in your opinion is the place of animism within druidry?
The spirit of druidry is intensely animistic: the two are inextricably linked in my druidry. The Celts believed in the enspirited world and didn’t make a clear distinction between mundane and ritual interaction with the world: and we carry that tradition forward by endeavouring to gain rapport with our natural surroundings. We have an understanding that this is a situation of mutual benefit, and that our connections to all life interweave effortlessly with our everyday lives.
Words are the first way of refiguring our world view – I learnt many years ago from Professor Graham Harvey to speak of each genus as ‘people’; tree people, rock people, human people … sharing that label gives us an immediate connection and point of communication. We take it from there. He also asks why we talk about ourselves and nature, when we are nature. Because of our talents and propensities – especially the ability to mess up on a global scale – we have a responsibility not shared by a badger or a rainforest – and that can sadly obscure the fact that we are just a part of it; no more, no less. Use of language is very useful in showing us our disconnects and how choosing our words carefully can help our druidic understanding of relationships.
Besides the connection to the land, another core notion of druidry is awen, inspiration. Would you agree that part of that inspiration comes precisely from our connectedness to other beings?
Awen as inspiration is sudden and sometimes shocking; always coming from left field, in my experience. ‘From whence does inspiration flow?’ is a good question – if Taliesin didn’t ask it, he should have done! The more connected we are, the subtler the levels we work on, and the easier the free-flow between ourselves, the three realms, the elements and every aspect of life. This opens us up to the whole creative energy that is flooding through the cosmos as a source of inspiration; we just have to tune in. Stage one is to expand our thinking to be less literal and rational when considering things of the spirit. Each plane, realm and world has its own laws and I don’t expect the subtler worlds to intrude literally on the physical world – indeed, sci-fi is always throwing up warning scenarios of how dangerous that would be! On the spiritual plane, we can experience a profound communication with all aspects of the creative spirit. The trick is not to try to validate spiritual experience as something that can be proved objectively, but to accept it fully as a plane of existence as potent and effective in our lives as the mundane, and as capable of causing change.
If magic works, then couldn’t one of the core reasons for that be the fact that we are all fundamentally connected, and share a common core of consciousness? Magic is then a ripple through that web, a song that we all share in, so that our whispers are heard and carried, and can effect change in other places of the web. That would make magic a practical application of animism. What is your view on that?
I couldn’t better what you’ve said: very true, and beautifully expressed. The image of the trembling of the web is beloved of pagans as it is so very evocative and, like magic, most webs are often invisible but always real. To see a field full of them shining in the September morning sun is truly to see the world through the child’s eyes of wonder – a tiny visible hint of the immense invisible reality that informs the physical world.
We both share a deep love for trees. Do you have a favourite one? Would you care to share a moment of communion you’ve experienced with it/them?
Trees – our wise cousins – stand as living communicators of non-judgment and service: an oak, a birch, a yew, are equally different, equally beautiful, equally useful. Loving each for its own characteristics can help us to accept and love ourselves. I love the druidic understanding of tree qualities as it isn’t conjured from someone’s imagination, but from study and interpretation. So the birch, the first to colonise in Europe after the Ice Age, we associate with new beginnings. The oak we accord kingship for its strength and ability to support hundreds of lifeforms; the yew, through its habit of decay through its trunk and the rooting of its mature branches, becomes the living embodiment of immortality. This understanding helps to point me at the tree which might be most helpful to me in any situation. But to move from study to personal feelings … horse chestnuts have always been particularly supportive – you can tell them your troubles; and our local hornbeam and plane trees are so extraordinarily huge that I chat to them as wise elders. My first memory is of a beech which kept me dry during rainstorms – a very potent childhood image. Then of course the obvious seasonal markers – rowan for its ruddy berry clusters, apple blossom turning to miniscule fruits; the Lughnasadh flush of the new oak leaves – are joyful connections to the rhythms of life. Every tree is a favourite!
What are you up to these days? Any new and exciting projects you are working on?
There are always exciting projects on the go! At the moment, I’m preparing for a summer of talks, for my first visit to Sweden and for a workshop in Germany: I haven’t been to the forests there since I was a child. As druidry is about making relationships worlds-wide, I’m constantly researching story and seeing what hints for our practice we get from legend, myth and fairy story. This season Merlin has a particular fascination for me, as a far more complex archetype than is generally supposed. It’s about the stimulation of learning always: a druid is a perpetual student, ready to be constantly surprised, energized and enlightened by the next revelation, which might come from a wise elder, birdsong or a soap commercial. We just have to allow our normally dormant senses to slumber more lightly, so they can easily jolt awake to receive the hints that the sentient world constantly sends us. It’s pure delight! I invite all druids, each time they go for a walk, to say out loud to the enspirited world, ‘May I see wonders.’ And the really wise ones will add the caveat, ‘And may I recognise them when I see them!’ Then just see what many, tiny moments of joy that brings you, and be thankful. It’s a magical world.
Featured photo courtesy James Moore