Friday 18 February 2022

Robin Herne - Storyteller, Poet, Dog-Owner & Druid

Robin Herne is a prolific pagan author and describes himself as a storyteller, poet, artist, dog-owner and Druid. I interviewed him for A Bad Witch's Blog:

Q: A lot of your books include storytelling and poetry. How important do you feel storytelling and poetry are in pagan spirituality in general and druidry in particular? 

A: In the ancient world oral storytelling was central to the transmission of polytheist religions from one generation to the next. This is still the case in many part of the world today where literacy is not always widespread and people prefer to attend to the spoken word rather than the written one. Storytelling thrives within India, rural China, throughout the African continent, and beyond. Many cultures regard listening to certain sacred stories to be an act of transformative communion, where the teller becomes a conduit to the deities and other spirits, and the listeners can sense their presence. Quite a few cultures tell stories in poetic form rather than prose and as often as not sing them – poetry becoming lyrics. While blank verse can sometimes be good, I am fascinated by the metres used in earlier societies. Concentrating on a rhythm really focuses the mind on what is being communicated or conjured up by the poem – the mental effort involved concentrates the mind in much the same way as working an act of magic. Indeed, I’d argue that it is essentially a form of magic, a spell to have an effect on the audience listening to it or reading it. A poem might conjure an emotional state or a vivid memory, it might invoke a deity or other spirit, it might create a doorway into another world. In this respect a poem can have the same impact as a well-told story. Poetry can heal or equally harm, as the Brehon judges of early Ireland knew when they placed legal restrictions around the composition of lyrical satires intended to destroy the reputations of those being lampooned. An unjustified satire, akin to the modern notion of slander, carried heavy judicial penalties.

This latter is a reminder of the potency of poetry and story to the mystics of the old Celtic tribes, whose identities and histories were preserved through oral traditions long before Christianity standardised literacy amongst those people. Only with the arrival of the Bible did people start to preserve the traditions of their ancestors in a written format. Caesar suggested that the druids of Gaul committed two decades worth of study to memory, much of which may well have been in verse or story form to enable ease of retention.

Q: What would be your advice to someone wanting to learn about Druidry? 

A: Spend plenty of time outdoors getting to know the place in which you live (and work, if they it is a different location). A large part of druidry is understanding the potency of place and its resident spirits – both those incarnated as plants, rocks, rivers, hills, animals etc. and those that are discarnate entities. Humans are also spirits that inhabit the land and need to be valued accordingly. It is not uncommon to hear pagans expressing rather misanthropic views at the same time as extolling their love of nature, as if somehow humans were not part of the natural world. Whilst it is true that our species creates a monumental mess, we are still as much part of the Great Tribe as wolves, bears, or ravens. As the knowledge of Land deepens so relationships with its residents will improve. I am a polytheist (not all modern druids are) and so look to include relationships with the deities as well as the localised entities. Whatever your readers conceive the Transcendent to be, I recommend they develop or deepen their relationship with that.

One of the sects of mystics among the early Insular Celtic tribal nations and the Gauls was the poet-storytellers, called variously bards or filidh depending on region. One of their sacred tasks was to preserve the history of their people. In an era before libraries were common, these men and women were walking libraries. Understanding the histories of those peoples amongst whom the original druids existed gives a real insight into the mythology and traditions. Many people drawn to those tales may well hail from different cultures and it is just as important for them to have awareness of their own cultural heritage and how that is similar or different to that of the early Insular and/or Gaulish Celts. While we obviously now have plenty of books, websites and so forth to store information in, there is still a role for the lore-keeper to remember the old stories, histories, customs, songs, poems etc. The human mind can be a conduit for the ancestors, the deities and other spirits that live through the lore in a way that books or computers cannot.

The original druids were central to the cultural lie of the tribes. It is important to bear that in mind today. Whilst there are few tribes left on Earth, and most of the 21st century people who might want to carry the title of druid are seldom members of those few tribes, we are nonetheless part of various communities. Some modern communities are immediate family and friends, some are neighbours united by geography rather than closer forms of kinship, and some exist more in cyberspace than the actual world. All of these communities can involve those who are not human – the fellow animals, plants, discarnate entities and so forth with whom we share the planet. Just as the old druids provided vital services to their tribal nations, so their modern counterparts have networks to be of service to.

Q: What advice would you offer someone who was interested in learning the art of storytelling or poetry from a pagan perspective? 

A: Being a perversely boring person, I read old dictionaries. Aside from disconcerting people on public transport, it is a great way of collating obscure words and strange meanings. There are words to describe things which few people realised they needed a word for (till they hear it, at least). Like bibliochor, which describes the deliciously musty smell of old bookshops and libraries. Or the Greek word meraki, which means to create something with love and devotion – conveying the sense that objects created with passion are uplifted beyond the average and feel better than those mechanically produced. Or one of my favourite Gaelic words, cuanach – a place haunted by wolves. Just imagine such a place, filled with flitting grey shadows and yellow eyes! If you can imagine it, you are halfway to a poem or story.

If you have never previously done so, start a word hoard. Whether you keep it in your “mind palace” (for you Sherlock fans), in a notebook, on a laptop, or wherever else you fancy, have it to hand and add to it as the opportunity arises. Be a dragon sprawled on a pile of shining words. But do not be a miser – spend those words with extravagant abandon.

Many poets write in blank verse and occasionally they are actually quite good. Metrical poetry can seem off-putting to some, but please consider trying it. It does not matter which metres you try, just have a go at something – be it sonnets, limericks, quatrains or anything else. As your confidence builds, consider the metres used in the ancient world (some advice on writing in those metres can be found in my book Bard Song). Not only does learning those metres keep elements of ancient cultures alive, it also intensely focuses the mind on conveying precisely what you want to say within the structure of rhyme and metre – without one syllable wasted.

Poetry and storytelling are akin to painting with words. Visualising the characters, places, and events in one’s mind before articulating them for others is key – and to return to an earlier point, the combination of mental concentration, visualisation, and becoming a conduit for the real of spirit all sound rather like magic. This is with good reason, because if done well poetry and storytelling are a form of magic. Spoken aloud, the poem becomes a spell, an enchantment, an invocation. 

Q: You have also written about the Egyptian pantheon. What do you feel is the importance and relevance of Ancient Egyptian magic and religion to contemporary paganism? 

A: A dominant form of Egyptian magic was heka – a style of oral magic in which sacred words (renu) are sung or resonated to create or reshape the world in accord with the will of the magician. Other traditions have similar concepts, such as the Heathen practice of galdr-singing. One might speculate that period of time spent by the early Hebrews in Egypt may have shaped their later understanding of the cabala and gematria. Indeed, that famous phrase, “In the beginning was the Word” may owe a great deal to the Egyptian belief that the world was spoken into existence by the words uttered by a primordial deity.

Even now we can understand that language has a transformative power. Speaking a word like “tree” clearly does not cause one to pop into existence, but the way we talk about other people, ourselves, and the other living beings around us can radically alter how we view them and so how we behave towards them. Most magic could be said to start with a change in consciousness.

Egypt had a considerable impact on Greek culture and religion. The Greeks in their turn had a profound influence on Rome and via the Empire most of Europe and swathes of Africa. The ripples spreading out from Egypt cannot be underestimated. 

Q: What are you currently working on? 

A: I am in the process of writing a book about wolves in mythology and magic, as part of a larger series of animal-related books. I have also been adding to a work of fiction set in the 18th century which I hope to finish this side of the grave (though my career consumes so much time that it seems to be taking me a ludicrously long time to complete the novel). Beyond that I have ideas for some teen fiction, works about Greek mythology, and possibly another book on druidry.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

A: The impact of the pandemic lock-down has had a significant impact on Pagan communities (as no doubt on all others). Not only have some people died or lost loved ones, but many moots and other regular gatherings have seen people drifting off as momentum has dissipated. Quite a few meeting venues such as pubs have gone bankrupt and closed. We all need to rethink what community means to us – what we want from it and, perhaps more importantly, what we are prepared to put into it to help it to revive and once again flourish. Some might want more virtual interactions, others might want physical yet socially distanced events, yet others will want to leap back in to old-style “full fat” gatherings. The future may involve an extensive rethink about what we want. Some of the larger Druid Orders have professional standard newsletters, conventions, training courses and so forth. Not all druids belong to such Orders, and the majority of pagans are not druids anyway. Some organisations may be able to achieve that level of infrastructure, but plenty will simply not have the resources even if there is an interest in highly organised services. Plus there are plenty of people who are mostly solitary and rarely if ever want to engage socially. It concerns me that many local groups may simply not survive, such that if the solitaries have the sporadic urge to participate or newcomers arrive seeking something, there simply will not be much left for them – at least at the grassroots level.

Q: Please tell me about your dog. What is their name and do they help you with your spiritual practices?

A: I have one ancient Jack Russell called Cafall, who in Welsh mythology was King Arthur’s dog who helped him to hunt the great boar Twrch Trwyth. I used to have a husky as well, but he died 18 months ago and took a large chunk of me with him. Cafall is quite frail now and not up to participating in rituals or other spiritual activities. Nonetheless, he is a comfort to have around and I can still see echoes of the mad puppy inside the venerable beast. It is painful to watch him reaching the end of his life and wondering what comes next for either of us.

Robin Herne's books include Old Gods, New Druids; Bard Song; A Dangerous Place; and Pantheon - The Egyptians, all published by Moon Books. You can view Robin Herne's author page on Amazon.

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