Look far off to the north-east
On the ocean so splendid
Teeming with life
Home of the seals
Shining and playful in the full tide
Irish ninth century
Imagine that you are in a forest glade, a clearing lit by shafts of sunlight that filter down through the canopy of leaves high above. For a moment it seems as if you are alone in this clearing, but then you hear the sound of scuffling hooves, and all of a sudden you see a young white hind approaching you – its graceful body caught in the sunbeams. She stops, and for a moment the two of you simply stare at each other – each surprised, each entranced for a moment. Then she turns away from you, slowly and deliberately, and walks – not runs – back into the forest from whence she came. She moves so slowly she seems to want you to follow her. You can almost hear her saying “Come with me. Follow me deeper into the forest.”
Just as every plant and tree is considered sacred in Druidry, so every animal, fish and bird is seen as sacred too. But in the same way that some trees and plants, such as the oak and mistletoe, receive special veneration, so too do certain creatures receive particular attention within Druidry. The hind, which is a female red deer, is one such animal, and it is considered especially sacred by Druids. In Scotland they are called ‘fairy cattle’ and the old people tell stories of seeing these cattle being milked on the mountaintops by the fairies. Some say that the hinds are in fact fairy women themselves who have shape-shifted into these graceful creatures. To have a hind appear in our lives - either in the outer world or in the inner world in meditation or dreams – usually means that we will soon experience great happiness – that our lives are about to change in positive ways.
Inner Knowledge, Vitality and Healing
Each creature is seen in Druidry as offering gifts of inner knowledge, vitality and healing. We know that animals can provide us with food and clothing, but here the idea is that they can offer us much more – they are not simply ‘dumb animals’, fit only for our tables or shoes. Anyone who has kept, and truly loved, cats, dogs or horses, for example, will know of the extraordinary bonds that can form between us as humans and the animals we love. Telepathic connections with pets are frequently reported, and have become the basis of scientific experiments, and it has now been proved that pet ownership in the elderly prolongs life and promotes good health. All this shows that animals do indeed offer us the gifts of vitality and healing, and clearly we in turn can help them with our care and affection. In Druidry we go one stage further and suggest that each animal carries a different and very particular kind of ‘energy’ or healing potential – ‘medicine’ in Native American vocabulary. This energy is available to us not only by physically connecting with an animal. Sometimes it simply isn’t practical to stroke a snake or lion for example, but Druids believe they can still receive this energy and interact with the animal in the Otherworld. This mysterious realm is sometimes called the Spiritworld. Some might think it imaginary, others might see it as another term for the Collective Unconscious, but Druids believe it is a world to which we sometimes travel in sleep or meditation, and which we enter at the death of our physical body. There, in this parallel universe of the Otherworld, are trees and plants, animals and birds, humans and nature-Spirits. Just as our outer world contains a host of different environments and beings who inhabit them, so too with the Otherworld, and part of the training of Druidry lies in developing the ability to consciously travel in this world – so that in dreams and meditation, and on death, we can navigate within it. Many of the old Celtic folk-tales that derive from the Druid tradition speak of this realm and of the exploits of mortals who enter it. In the story of the Well of Segais from Ireland, for example, we learn of King Cormac, who loses his wife and children to a mysterious warrior who spirits them away to the Otherworld. Cormac gives chase with an army, but a mist descends, he is separated from his troops, and he finds himself alone by a well. Around it grow nine hazel trees, and swimming in its deep waters are five large salmon who feed on the hazelnuts. Five streams representing the five senses flow from the well, which is also described as a fountain or pool. The mysterious warrior reappears and reveals himself as the god of the sea, Manannan, who reunites Cormac with his wife and children. He then explains that the wise drink from each of the five streams and the central pool – suggesting an approach to wisdom that represents the very essence of Druidry as a sensuous spirituality that seeks wisdom and nourishment from the still centre of Spirit deep within and through each of our five senses.
The salmon is the creature that swims in the streams and the pool, and which represents the goal of every Druid – the Salmon of Wisdom. The salmon is perhaps the most sacred of all creatures in the Druid tradition, and it is known as the Oldest Animal. The fish as a central symbol within a spiritual tradition is ancient and ubiquitous – not only does it appear in Irish and Welsh legend, in the Vedas, in Hinduism and Buddhism, but also in Babylonian and Sumerian mythology. Orpheus was depicted as a fish, and later Christ and the Philosopher’s Stone of the Alchemists. Christian fish symbolism, including the custom of eating fish on a Friday, is believed to derive directly from the Jewish tradition, which in turn probably drew this element from Syrian belief. The fish and the fisherman were both intimately related symbolically from the earliest days – the first Avatar of Vishnu the Creator was a fish, both the Buddha and Jesus are referred to as fishermen, the Babylonians had a fisher-god and the Fisher King is the central figure in the grail legend.
When the Druid today seeks the Salmon of Wisdom they are connecting not only to a tradition of the ancient Druids, but also to an understanding that is rooted deep in the collective awareness of all humanity.
Ways of Working with Animals
Since Druidry is a sensuous spirituality of the land that seeks an involvement with life, rather than a detachment from it, an essential way of working with animals from a Druid perspective is simply to include animals in our lives – spending time with them, caring for them, becoming involved in conservation projects. Western consumerism has tended to cut us off from much of life, enclosing us in boxes of metal as we shuttle from our brick boxes to our concrete and glass work-boxes. For many of us we work gazing into the screen of a small box all day, to return home to an evening spent gazing at another box before falling asleep. Earth spiritualities such as Druidry offer a way out of these boxes built around us by our modern lifestyle. They encourage us to enter the natural world with an open heart and spirit to commune with the trees and the stones, the animals, the earth and the sky. But in addition to simply being with and caring for animals more, Druidry also tells us that we can develop relationships with animals that go beyond the ordinary, and that animals in the Spirit-world as well as the physical world can guide and counsel, heal and protect us. They may come to us in our dreams, we may see them in our meditations, or we may encounter them in the outer world in magical and synchronistic ways. Sometimes the animals that become meaningful for us are, in fact, symbolisations of parts of ourselves - the bull or horse might express aspects of our sexuality, the hawk or eagle our intellect, for example. A great deal of pioneering work has been done in this field by the psychologist Stephen Gallegos that demonstrates the psychotherapeutic value of working with our hidden fears, urges and wishes which can be evoked as animals that inhabit our inner world. But often the animals that we see in dreams or meditations or shamanic journeys are not simply symbolic representations, but are animals that exist as objective realities in the Otherworld as well as in the physical world. They may still evoke or resonate with our hidden fears or urges, but they exist independently of us – and are not just creations of our subconscious or our imaginations. It is these magical animals that offer us special qualities, special ‘medicines’.
The gifts of the animals
We discover the special qualities and gifts which these animals offer through experience – through exploring the world of animals and relating to them out in nature, and through interacting with them in the Otherworld too. The Ovate work in particular is focused on learning how to do this. But in addition to personal experience, we can also learn from the accumulated experience of our ancestors by studying traditional animal lore, and just as certain trees are associated in the Druid tradition with particular qualities, so certain animals have been found to mediate particular attributes too. For example: the bear, boar, cat, dog, goose, otter and raven are all associated with the quality of protection; the adder, boar, dog, frog, ram and raven are connected with healing; the owl and raven with initiation, and so on. When we need the qualities or abilities that these animals represent, we can call upon them to help us – seeing and relating to them in our inner world, dancing or singing with them, and connecting with them in the outer world too.
In the old stories Druids were sometimes referred to as ‘Adders’ - those with ‘Serpent Knowledge’ – and sometimes they were described as those with ‘Raven Knowledge’. As the associations listed above show, the raven possesses many attributes - mediating healing, prophetic knowledge, protection, and initiatory power. The raven is seen as a messenger between the two worlds – this and the next – and for this reason we find ravens buried at the bottom of ancient ritual pits, such as at Danebury in Hampshire. These pits or shafts symbolised the connection between this world and the Otherworld, and the raven was seen as a messenger between the two. The early Irish Druids divined according to the flight and cries of birds, and in particular the raven, and seeing the raven as a bird of divination and prophecy was lodged so firmly in the folk imagination that as late as 1694 in Hertfordshire a raven was reported to have uttered a prophecy three times. Even today the association of the raven with prophecy and protection is openly fostered in the heart of London at the Tower. In the tale of Bran the Blessed, the prophetic god-king Bran (which means ‘Raven’) asks that his head be cut off and buried on the White Mount in London, facing the direction of France. As long as his head remained buried there it would protect the kingdom. The Tower of London was later built on the site of the White Mount, and the magical protective power of the buried head was symbolised by the presence of ravens, which are kept at the Tower to the present day to fulfil Bran’s prophecy and ensure the safety of the realm.
Animal Oracles, Allies and Familiars
Today we can work with the sacred animals of tradition to gain guidance and insight into our lives, and a number of animal oracles have been developed to help us do this – including The Beasts of Albion and The Druid Animal Oracle.
Sometimes we seem to have a special connection with one or more animals – we feel an affinity with them, they come to us in our dreams, we turn to them in our minds and hearts when we need strength or reassurance. By working with specific techniques to strengthen our bonds with them, these animals can become our spiritual companions, and as our relationship with them deepens, we may feel that they have become our ‘familiars’ - our totem animals – who stay close to us and become our magical allies, partners in our journey through life.
The animals themselves then teach us, and we can draw as well on the fund of animal lore embodied in tradition – in the old stories and sayings that simply need some thought and time to unlock their secrets, as we can see from the old English adage: Ask the wild bee what the Druids knew.