Our interview this week is with Damh the Bard, who I am sure does not really need an introduction anymore, as I am sure most of you will know at least a few of his songs. Yet, music is not what this interview is about. I was mostly interested in interviewing him because of ‘that other side of Bardism’: the art of storytelling, and its connection to animism.
Damh’s most recent projects have been retellings of the First and Second Branch of the Mabinogion. And that these stories are very much alive in an animistic sense seems the obvious conclusion to draw when you read his blog posts recounting the experience of recording them. And so I was curious to find out more…
(If you want to experience the full magic of these tales for yourself, here’s the link to Damh’s shop).
Many stories have a very strong connection to their land of origin. For instance, the tale of Cerridwen and Taliesin is tied to the area around Lake Tegid in Wales. How do you think these stories were born? How did the first bard that ever told them get to know them? What role did awen play in that? Is the land speaking to us through these stories?
My romantic notion is that these are our versions of the Aboriginal ‘Songlines’. Tales that the Spirits of the Land themselves tell us, and then we hold those tales sacred to us. We can see from the poems left us that the ancient Bards were visionary, Shamanic, travelling in trance and communing with the land through music, drum, plant power.
One dawn, hundreds of years ago maybe a Bard stopped on the banks of Llyn Tegid. They drank their potion, then played their harp, opening to the power of the water, the land, the mountains, and in that vision they were told the tale of the Awen, of its power, of its magic, of its gift, and that high in the mountains there were the Druid Alchemists who knew the secret of making that brew. Maybe that Bard, on that inner Journey, travelled and was chased by the initiator, Ceridwen, and was given the gift of prophecy, of the Elements, of vision. Maybe that Bard was called Gwion… Who knows. To modern Bards that is part of the wonder, because we also must open to inspiration and the power of the Awen to lead us deeper into the Mysteries.
The bard and the shaman. What is their relationship? After all, both have connection to otherworlds as the core of their life path. It is also the case that in many traditions there is a strong connection between poetry, wisdom and magic. What are your thoughts on that?
When we live in a world where music is so readily available it’s so easy to forget that, once, the only way to hear music was when a travelling Bard visited your village, and sat down to play, and tell their tales. They were the newspapers of the day, and a well-told story can take you away on inner Journeys just as easily as any guided meditation. We can still hear poetry in magic in a well constructed chant or spell. Words have power, combined with intent and knowledge and then you have the Bard as Magician. Taliesin, Myrddin, Amergin, Gwydion, all magicians, all Bards who know the power of language, poetry and magic.
How were you called to the path of the bard?
A combination of a love of music, and growing up in Sussex, yet knowing that my bones were built drinking the water of Cornwall. That led me from a very early age to learn about and love mythology, particularly Arthurian and Faerie Lore. When I sent off for the intro leaflet for the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids and read about the Bardic tradition, well, like many people say, it felt like I had finally come home.
If stories are alive, can we use that to change reality, to heal the land? Is there a way in which we can use the reenactment of the tales to help us gain deeper understanding in our relationship to the land and each other, and then reinfuse that wisdom into the tale as a kind of magic spell?
Absolutely. Me and Cerri used to run camps where we would chose a theme for the weekend (often a myth), and then immerse ourselves within that theme, culminating in a huge ritual that brought that myth to life. People actually entered the tale and became a part of it. We did the Spoils of Annwn where we all travelled in Prydwen to the Otherworld, we did the Battle of the Trees where everyone encountered the Army of Ghosts with the Spirit of Trees as their allies, we did the tale of Ceridwen and Taliesin that culminated in a 120 foot fire labyrinth that took 365 steps to walk 13 turns as they were confined in the belly of the Goddess and then reborn. So many. Living the myth is a huge way of understanding the magic held therein.
About the Mabinogi. If I read your accounts on your blog, it is clear that that story is very much insisting on becoming active in the world again. Why do you think that is? Why these particular stories? Why now?
Last night I watched a program on the TV about Sacred Wonders. On it they showed two young girls, Apache Indians, who were being initiated by the Tribe into Womanhood. The whole tribe were there to enable that transformation for those two young girls. It was intense and powerful. In our Western Culture we have made great technological advancements, that’s for sure, but we have also lost so much when it comes to a connection with the land and to each other. Our culture when it comes to things like that is broken. I think these tales are becoming more important and visible because they can help heal that fracture. They remind us who we are, and of our ancestors’ relationships to the land, sea and sky. They bring Magic back into peoples’ lives.
And how does it feel for you to act as an intermediary in this? How big is your personal input? Or does it feel more like being used as a doorway making it possible for two worlds to start connecting again?
A bit of both. I cannot lie, I’ve done a huge amount of research into the linguistics and occult meanings within the tales, but there is also no doubt in my mind that I am also being very consciously led. When I finished the First Branch I through I would have a little break, but then I had a number of encounters with two crows, and it became obvious that Bran and Branwen were ready for their tale to be told. I’ve always loved the tales of the Four Branches, but this project has brought them even more to life for me, and hopefully to all of the people who have listened to the two albums so far.
Finally, some questions about the grail and druidry, a topic which you have been exploring on your blog recently.
What do you think the grail ultimately represents? Is it a pathway to healing, or more a beacon that makes it possible for us not to entirely get lost in times of darkness? And which part of the journey is more important: the seeking or the finding?
Wow. A huge topic. The Grail is different for everyone, and I think we each need to step out on our own personal Grail Quests, to once more become Knights and see where the Quest leads. That would be different for everyone. For me, it is about re-enchantment. Of bringing magic back to people through music, song, and story. A kind of re-membering as we are brought back together into relationship with the stories. I do think the Journey is equally as important as the arrival.
And about that healing: how can a druid play a role in healing the world? There are inner and outer paths, those of the mystic and the magician. How do you see their interplay?
I don’t want to sound like a broken record… 🙂 but getting into relationship with the land, sea and sky through developing a deeper relationship with those, the ultimate result of that is healing.
Beith is a druid who likes to wander through the forest, inviting the trees to be her teachers in life. She also runs a personal blog about her druid journey, that can be found at wandering-the-woods.com. In real life she’s a mathematician, trying to walk the boundary between the rational and the irrational.