Custom contrived: Tower Hill Druid Ceremony of Spring Equinox

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One of the most wonderful things about our great capital is its juxtapositions and on the spring equinox, either the 20th or 21st of March, a curious and ancient assemblage can be seen undertaking a timeless ritual on London’s Tower Hill.

London’s Tower hill has changed over the years, where the area was once one big open space, it is now carved up into areas for ticket booths, cafes and souvenir shops it has much changed since the times when this hill was sacred to the Celts and their Druid order and even since 1956!

Spring into action

Despite train delays and no Circle or Hammersmith and City Line I managed to arrive at 11.30. The sun was beginning to shine suggesting that yes spring was finally arriving. A small crowd had assembled on the Tower Hill platform. I was informed that they were waiting in the café. I thought I would investigate…I was rather intrepid in my investigation. Let me explain. I had always been fascinated by ‘modern’ Druids. Who were they? Why were they Druids? What did they do? In the days before the Internet, information was hard to come by and although I had read about the Druid’s equinox ceremony, finding any information back in the 1980s when I had first become aware of it, was difficult. Did they not want tourists to know? I was also slightly intrepid, as I thought I’d find the Druids sitting around having a latte and a piece of carrot cake. It would spoil the mystical illusion. Fortunately they were not hob-nobbing with an Earl Grey but were standing silent in their pristine white cloaks, in a small space beside the church. A symbol perhaps of their older association with the established church as many revival druids were also vicars!

Druid awakenings

Revival!? Of course these Druids are a revived group. That is not to say its members feel affinity and maybe even DNA with those ancient Celtic priests, the custom, a contrived one, in the nicest possible way. The revival of this ancient order came in the time of great enlightenment combined with a great love of the Classical and Celtic worlds and a desire to learn about the great stone circles such as Stonehenge fostered by the works of antiquarians such as William Stukeley, John Aubrey and John Toland, author of History of the Druids. It was their fascination with Avebury and Stonehenge which must have fostered a desire to restore the Druid to Britain. Stukeley is perhaps the most well-known of these ‘druids’ who despite being a vicar, sermonised Druid ideals in his church and even built a Druid Grove in his vicarage garden. He appeared to be the Arch Druid but perhaps the three men’s interests never spread further than that!

However, it another group of men, who met in taverns in London to form the Ancient Order of Druids in 1781. In the 19th century, an Edward Williams became publishing books on Druidism, said he claimed to have been based on ancient Welsh manuscripts he had discovered. Taking the name Iolo Morganwg he composed the Iolo Manuscripts in 1848 and Barddas in 1862. He held gatherings, which he called the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isles of Britain. Long after his death it was discovered his so called ancient manuscripts were fakes but nevertheless his teachings remained of importance to the growing movement. Since then the Druids appear to have quietly thrived, although divisions and tension, like any faith have and do exist. For example a break away Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids were established in 1963 leaving the Druid Order celebrate at Tower Hill.

Why the Tower of London? For the Druids it was believed that the ancient the head of the Celtic God king Bran was buried beneath the hill (his birds being the ravens which still guard over the Tower). It was also thought that the site was aligned with the midsummer sunrise. It was identified as one of the city’s sacred sites being called Bryn Gwyn. Thus in 1956, the Ceremony of the Spring Equinox was established at there and has continued ever since and say its 60th anniversary in 2016.

Towering above

The Druids process in silence behind their sword bearer out the side of the church, along Byard Street, passing iconic red telephone boxes and the dreaded Tower green across the road and even KFC and onto their ceremonial arena. Here the order form a large circle and the ritual begins. Despite the roar of the cars on the road nearby and the strange smells from KFC down below us it was still possible to be drawn into the spell of the Druids and feel as if we were experiencing this ancient ritual divorced from the hubbub of the metropolis.

The Druids like any group have specific roles. The sword bearer, the triad, the Chief, Pendragon and scribe representing the rays of Awen, the herald, who organises and announces, the Lady, brightly coloured with flowers in her crown represents the Earth Mother, Ceridwen.

 

The circle is in silence awaiting the church chiming 12 one of the congregation raises a trumpet and a blast signals the start the ritual. This ritual is done with a smooth almost mesmeric pattern, each activity set to pronounce and energise.

Indeed the ceremony’s purpose was clearly to reconnect with our natural world on this day when the day slightly becomes longer than the night. To retune and realign. The Earth Mother must be thanked, so seeds were ceremonially spread across the ground by the Presider and water libated upon the earth to simulate the rise in fertility. Indeed it was this idea of spring fed fertility that was the focus of the Chief’s ‘sermon’ who spoke of the role of the adrenal gland in our awareness of nature’s demands.

Spring into action

Despite train delays and no Circle or Hammersmith and City Line I managed to arrive at 11.30. The sun was beginning to shine suggesting that yes spring was finally arriving. A small crowd had assembled on the Tower Hill platform. I was informed that they were waiting in the café. I thought I would investigate…I was rather intrepid in my investigation. Let me explain. I had always been fascinated by ‘modern’ Druids. Who were they? Why were they Druids? What did they do? In the days before the Internet, information was hard to come by and although I had read about the Druid’s equinox ceremony, finding any information back in the 1980s when I had first become aware of it, was difficult. Did they not want tourists to know? I was also slightly intrepid, as I thought I’d find the Druids sitting around having a latte and a piece of carrot cake. It would spoil the mystical illusion. Fortunately they were not hob-nobbing with an Earl Grey but were standing silent in their pristine white cloaks, in a small space beside the church. A symbol perhaps of their older association with the established church as many revival druids were also vicars!

 

Indeed the ceremony’s purpose was clearly to reconnect with our natural world on this day when the day slightly becomes longer than the night. To retune and realign. The Earth Mother must be thanked, so seeds were ceremonially spread across the ground by the Presider and water libated upon the earth to simulate the rise in fertility. Indeed it was this idea of spring fed fertility that was the focus of the Chief’s ‘sermon’ who spoke of the role of the adrenal gland in our awareness of nature’s demands.

A pause came when the congregation held hands and for a moment, just for a small moment, their silence appeared to permeate across the hustle and bustle of Tower Hill’s tourist traps. A well needed silence in our busiest time. Then at the end, four Element –bearers representing the four elements stand in the centre facing North, South, West and East to pass on the energy to re-align and re-tune.

Whatever you feel about Druids and what they represent, who they are and why they do it, it is clear that they consider two things I feel we miss in our urban life – a time to reflect and a time for nature and I for one cannot disagree to with this. The ceremony was a very uplifting and poignant one.

 

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