How the Cotswold Order of Druids celebrate the Winster Solstice
- Credit: ©Russell Sach
Archdruid Veronica Hammond introduces Siân Ellis to the seasonal festivals of a nature-based life path
Many things have been written about druids: from Roman historian Tacitus describing fear-inducing figures showering imprecations as legionaries invaded the Isle of Anglesey in the 1st century AD (one of my more vivid memories of school Latin lessons!) to weird, wonderful tales of strange practices (least said, the better). So, ‘what is druidry’ is my first, obvious question to Veronica Hammond, Archdruid and founder of the Cotswold Order of Druids.
‘It’s a nature-based life path,’ she replies. ‘It is believed that the ancient druids came to the British Isles from the East, roughly about 500BC. They were purported to be knowledgeable in things like astrology, astronomy and numbers, and they were widely believed to be doctors, physicians, teachers, adjudicators, judges and advisors to kings.’
There were three grades within druidry: bards trained in poetry, music and storytelling who memorised and told of a tribe’s history and lineage; ovates that ‘learnt about the magical properties of trees and plants, healing and esoteric mind work’; and druids that were concerned ‘with the laws, adjudications, public speaking and ceremony.’
The revival of druidry in modern times stems from 1717 in London, Veronica says, and over the years different orders have been formed. She belonged to the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids, then in 1995 set up the Cotswold Order of Druids, which is a member of the Council of British Druid Orders.
‘We’ve got about 22 members in the Cotswold Order, quite a loyal crowd: men, women, everyone is equal in their own right and they bring different talents, they all have their different roles in the Order,’ Veronica says. ‘Druidry is about spiritual welfare, psychology and all sorts of esoteric knowledge, as well as about honouring the seasons and paths of the planets.’
We have a fascinating discussion about the importance of living in harmony with and within nature, as well as the four elements of fire, water, air and earth central to druid beliefs and essential to life. It strikes a highly pertinent note given today’s greater mainstream understanding of the benefits of nature to our wellbeing and concerns over human activity and climate change unbalancing the world.
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The Wheel of the Year
‘Most druids celebrate eight festivals a year,’ Veronica explains. ‘Four of the festivals celebrate the solstices and equinoxes, and we have four that celebrate new beginnings, growth, fertilization and death. As Archdruid I host the ceremonies. We do a lot of open public ceremonies and also private ones.’ Veronica wears a tabard bearing the emblem of the Cotswold Order of Druids: an acorn on a bed of oak leaves, ‘representing the idea that from small acorns, mighty oaks grow.’
The Neolithic/Bronze Age Rollright Stones on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border is one of the settings the Order uses for ceremonies – a place alive with history, mystery and legend. Over the years investigators (unconnected to the druids) have detected magnetic fields at work around the stone circle and associations with leylines linking to other landmarks have been suggested too.
‘Nobody really knows what the site was originally all about, there are all sorts of ideas around stone circles: a meeting place, somewhere to go to be quiet and meditate, a sound chamber or energy bath,’ Veronica says. ‘There are some nice energies at the Rollright Stones.
‘When we start a ritual, we go in at the eastern entrance because the sun rises in the east. Then we walk around the circle stamping our ground, making a magic circle.’ There’s a meditation to the surroundings, getting in touch with the four elements; a call for peace; opening (and later closing) the quarters, east, south, west and north. ‘We invite the guardians – we believe there are spirits of the place – and at the end we say, thank you for joining us. It’s about being honourable about where we are. I’m aware that these stone circles are quite obliging to our presence.’
Each of the eight festivals has its own focus and specific rituals. Imbolc (February) is for the reawakening of the earth after winter; Spring Equinox (March) marks growth springing from the earth as the planet moves around the sun; Beltane (May) celebrates the earth blooming with flowers and plants; Summer Solstice (June) honours the sun at its height; Lughnasadh (August) is a time of harvest and thanks for the bounty of the land; Autumn Equinox (September), observing the orbit of the planet, is another harvest festival; Samhuin (November) remembers ancestors and family members who have lived on earth and died, and whose spirits are still present. Later this month is Yule, or the Winter Solstice, again celebrating the movement of the planet, now at its farthest from the sun, but also a moment of rebirth with the coming of the new sun.
At the solstices there’s a battle between the oak king and the holly king, each of whom reigns for half the year. Samhuin at the Rollrights features a fire bowl ritual, with names of people to be remembered written on a scroll thrown into the flames. At Beltane there’s a King and Queen of May who lead people out of the stone circle through two blazing Beltane fires to a Maypole and dancing before returning to the circle for mead and cake. Lughnasadh, also celebrated at the Rollrights, includes Lammas games symbolic of rejoicings after harvest home, and a small ‘gorsedd’ arts competition when people step forward with a song, dance, poem or story.
‘Those who win the games get a little sheaf of corn and the winner of the gorsedd gets a tiny pewter acorn, which we call the Rollendrich Acorn, after the 15th-century name of the Rollrights.’ Veronica says. ‘It's all symbolic of times past.'
In a hasty, modern world there’s something ‘grounding’ in such festivals that root us in nature, landscape and the seasons, and in the dark depths of winter as Yule approaches it’s a welcome thought that the oak king will triumph and the sun will return as the days draw out.
You can find out more about the Cotswold Order of Druids on Facebook.
The Cotswolds National Landscape is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which is looked after by the Cotswolds Conservation Board. For more information, visit cotswoldsaonb.org.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org