The last shaman of Britain

I am taking this title from the best and most scholarly work ever written on the Celtic bard Taliesin, by John Matthews. It was my inspiration when deciding to bring Taliesin back to life as a singing-and-breathing character in my own stories that make up The Glastonbury Chronicles.

It is evident, from the substance of Taliesin’s poems and songs, thought to have been composed in the 6th century, that he was trying to keep alive the shamanic wisdom practised by the Druids, which the Romans and then, more covertly, Roman Christianity managed to finally stamp out at the Synod of Whitby.

Taliesin existed, though, in a time of betwixt-and-between – usually considered the most magical of times – when what we term Celtic Christianity was led by those who, it seems to me, were also shaman-types, such as St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and St Columba of Iona. From his works, it is clear Taliesin knows time is running out. In one of his songs he talks about the monks who can no longer read the clouds, the skies and the flights of the birds that used to allow them to predict the weather hundreds of days ahead.

If he had been around this winter, he would have noticed the roses blooming in November and so would have been warning us of a very mixed and wet summer to come.

But Taliesin was just doing what any halfway decent shaman does by seeding the natural fairy lore, star lore, dragon lore and tree lore into people’s minds with catchy rhymes and stories which contain metaphors to both hide their messages from the ignorant and, at the same time, reveal them to those who have the eyes to see.

They based their findings on a natural blueprint which ever revolves through the seasons here below in line with the circling stars above, which I call The Windmill of the Year.

The Windmill of the Year from The Dragon Whisperer’s Son, which will be out in September 2021.
Weather magic

For those who have the eyes to see, Mother Nature reveals Herself as the perfect divinatory system because She knows what’s coming, and so she prepares the growth cycles of her flowers, plants, trees and herbs accordingly.

In pre-Christian times, the druidic monks could predict the weather up to 180 days ahead just by observing the world around them. That’s a much longer long-term forecast than our Met Office can provide today despite all its whizzy technology. But it’s also not in anyone’s interests to fund such far-sighted research in a world where they want to convince us that climate change is man-made, despite them never being able to tell us why the ice caps melted 11,000 years before the industrial revolution and the invention of the automobile.

Be that as it may, I’ve created the above diagram that I call the Windmill of the Year. I don’t think they called it that, but I think it’s a good name for a blueprint or template that when followed correctly, creates abundant harvests. The druids could predict the weather such a long way ahead, and thus know when the crops should be brought in earlier, by observing the direction of the winds on the solstices and equinoxes. The direction of the wind on the Winter Solstice really sets the scene for whole rest of the year. However, on top of that, they fine-tuned and adjusted their forecasts by observing the state of play at the Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox, on the cross-quarter days such as Beltane, Lammas, Samhain and Imbolc and also on what are now known as saints’ days.

Then their bards and minstrels would create rhymes as mnemonics so that everyone could remember and pass on this wisdom, generation to generation, such as “Ne’er cast a clout till May is out” … and hundreds more.

The only saint’s day connected to the weather remaining to us in the 21st century is St Swithins’s Day. You probably know the saying: “If it rains on St Swithin’s Bridge in Winchester on St Swithin’s Day (July 15th), then it will rain for the next 40 days.” But there used to be many more of these saint days, such as St Hilary’s Day, St Benedict’s Day and St Michael’s Day, which all had weather divinatory rhymes connected to them. The Christians just placed their own saints over our own which were probably originally named after Celtic deities such as Govannon, Gwythyr and Gwyddion. We know Imbolc is associated with Brigit… and perhaps the Assumption of the Virgin was about Arianrhod or Rhiannon?

Anyway, all these days actually had a practical purpose – they were markers on the Windmill of the Year when new observations would be made to fine-tune weather forecasts. In my new book, you will follow the dragon whisperer’s son as he learns, along with bird magic, flower magic, tree magic and star magic, how to operate the Windmill of the Year to perform ‘weather magic’. We can call it weather magic because like all magic, it’s really just a more advanced science and technology which has been lost to us today – and Taliesin’s poems reflect that he knew that it was going to be lost.

Last shaman? Perhaps not…

Happily, Taliesin turned out not to be the last shaman in Britain. Yes, there was a yawningly long Dark Ages which was made considerably worse by the woefully misnamed Age of Enlightenment. But then, after the Second World War, something quite extraordinary happened.

First the Professor of Religious Studies at Harvard, Mircea Eliade, published a collation of reports from anthropologists about a variety of shamans they’d visited all around the world. None of them had met each other but they all talked about the same sort of inner experience. Eliade titled his book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy and, of course, the poor chap was called a racist and demonised to hell and back for daring to publish the truth.

Then, not long after that, a handful of enlightened anthropologists decided to stop observing from the outside the shamans of the tribes they were studying in Asia, Africa and South America and instead, experience subjectively the inner shamanic journey, by learning from the shamans themselves. Then they brought that knowledge back to us, and I was taught by one those shaman-anthropologists myself.

So now shamanism is experiencing something of a renaissance in the West, and in Britain too where some of us are busy digging out Taliesin’s verses from the dusty shelves of the academic libraries, and resurrecting the last shaman of Britain back to life once more.

The image of the shaman in the header is a detail from the Gundestrop Cauldron which is dated to hundreds of years before Taliesin lived, when horns and antlers denoted the wisdom that came from the wise serpent.