A Druidic Wedding

by Jay Hansford C. Vest

A Druidic Wedding: Celebrating Celtic Nature Awe and the Will-of-the-Land

On my mother’s side of the family there was a proud Celtic heritage. It was somewhat distant to me as I had always followed my Indian roots thanks to the stories and traditions given me by my paternal grandparents. They had taught me about Bobtail the great hare, trickster-creator, of our indigenous heritage and there was no one, no storyteller familiar, on my mother’s side of the family. There was a quarter Indian – Nottoway – blood given me from my maternal heritage but with no storytelling elder to recall the traditions. Mother, however, was proud of her Scottish heritage, particularly as a direct descendent of Robert de Bruce – Robert I of Scotland – so I listened to the history she had uncovered and made mental notes affirming our Celtic ancestry. Aside from her references to Scottish Kings – Robert I, Malcolm I, Malcolm II, and James VI or I, in England thereby implicating the present ruling house of Great Britain, we had a formidable host of royals in our genealogical chart. There were as well lineal connections to other nobles including the Kennedy clan, Stewart and others in mother’s ancestral history.

Despite my veneration of Bobtail and our Native heritage, her accounts caught my attention and when possible I listened intently to anything related to the Celts. Perhaps my first visitation of this Scottish heritage came in grade school when we were introduced to the tales of King Arthur. Knowing these had originated with my Celtic forebears, I studied them with relish.

One spring in our little town, which was a mix of indigenous Natives, as well as, Scottish, English, and Germanic immigrants, there was an organized parade devoted to the festivities of May Day. It was a singular event happening only once in the memory of my childhood. Following a parade through our little city, we children who were selected to dance about the May Pole entered the field. There was a great pole with streamers attached its top and we each took a streamer dancing oppositionally with girls going counter clockwise and boys clockwise while ducking over and under the opposite sex. We had drilled on the school grounds for weeks and when the festive day arrived, it made for a magical celebration as we wove the web of creation about the May Pole.

Memories of that May Day dance have remained with me throughout the years. As an undergraduate, I took some steps to study the Le Morte d’Arthur. However, in the spring of 1982, I found myself given to the study of wilderness solitude in the canyons of the southwest. In particular I had just returned from a two week long adventure in the Grand Canyon and while camping about Flagstaff, I was spending my days at the Northern Arizona University library making a study of the literature of wilderness solitude. With this literary study, I intended to reflect upon my wilderness adventures and produce a meditation on the philosophy of wilderness solitude. It was a vital part of my spring road trip and research in completing my thesis project.

As I finished my week in the NAU library, I determined to go to a movie. It was the opening of Excalibur, a film directed by John Boorman and based on Thomas Mallory’s Arthur. Recalling my long interest in this Celtic heritage I was excited at the prospect of viewing the film. While it was characterized as something of a medieval Star Wars, I was intrigued with the film sequences and their referent context back to the Le Morte d’Arthur. In fact, I found myself recalling my studies of the legend as I had gleamed from several books as an undergraduate. It was so exhilarating, I begged the theater attendant to permit me to sit through the second showing that evening. Afterwards in an all night cafe I made comparative notes assessing the film sequences with my memory of the book’s mythic events and motifs.

In the ensuing weeks while spending time at the Canyon recreation center, I began reviewing literature on the ancient Celtic traditions of what I came to call Nature Awe. The study blossomed as I returned to Montana passing from spring to summer and by fall I had generated the makings of a scholarly article. Extending my research to the etymological and mythical origins of the wilderness ideal, I concluded there was a dispositional will-of-the-land within the term and this too became a scholarly article. My study relied upon an investigation of the term wilderness in relation to Indo-European mythology – specifically as centered on the “Thunderer” giving birth to the notion of a sacred grove.

Essential to the will-of-the-land ideal is the context of an unfettered nature where wildness is free of human control and management – that is in its etymological roots the hand-of-man-action. This would seem to convey the “wild” ideal acknowledging “will” that is self-willed beyond human manipulation – hence “wildoer” in the old English as an agent free of external compromise and permitted its own essential “wildness.”

Wilderness, in this context, is the place of an absolute freedom from control – unfettered or un-netted by human activity and hand-of-man action. In the wilderness etymology that yields – will-of-the-land – there is a double entendre associated with the “ness” suffix. In the first case, “ness” conveys land as both a promontory or headland, which when coupled with “wild” as in self-willed serves to yield “self-willed-land.” The double entendre is raised, however, in the associative simile of “ness” with “naess” that is the root word for nose. Here then there is reference to breath as in the anima or life breath that is at the heart of the creative force of being and associated with spirit. Thus in wilderness, there is “self-willed breath or spirit” invoking creation so that the term also yields “self-willed creation or life” and it is realized in the unfettered land or in wildlands.

Returning to the initial wilderness – will-of-the-land – insight, my original article focused upon primal Indo-European practices of worshiping or meditating in sacred groves or wild places known to convey intrinsic power or anima. In this context, I looked to the precedent of shamanic figures who took their insight from within such sacred groves and I relied upon the role of the thunderer in mythically designating such groves of mysterious power as sacred places.

In another of my early articles on the subject titled: “Nature Awe: Celtic Views of Nature,” I noted the cultural presence of sacred groves known among the Celts as nemetons – nemu as in divine and ton conveying place. Here it was said the shamanic figures known as druids found their wisdom of “leaf and flower.” A druid is thusly translated as the wise or all seeing one of the oak. In this context, there is an association with the vortex of creation. Again turning to the thunderer, whom I identified earlier with the sacred grove, there is the presence of an agent of creation or creative power in the process that is the thunder.

Once again in the ancient Celtic views of nature, there is the wonderful poem known as “the march of the trees” credited to the druidic bard Talisan. In it, he metaphorically explores the advance of spring with the leafing of arboreal species and the associated cyclic process of vernal creation. In this vortex, there is the advent of thunder and lightning that was most highly regarded by the ancient druids who attended the wisdom of the oak. As I noted in my original article, probability studies conclude the oak is more prone to be struck by lightning than any other tree in the forest. Hence, the advent of the Donner’s oak or thunder tree in ancient Germanic mythology. The wisdom of the druidic shamans is thus centered upon the oak and its proclivity to be struck by lightning thereby indicating its chosen status by the creative force that is the thunderer.

At the heart of the sacred grove, there is thus the mystery of the sacred oak. Again adding to its uncanny power, there is the mysterious plant dwarf mistletoe, which feeds as a parasite directly off the oak while remaining green throughout the yearly cycle. Properties of dwarf mistletoe are associated with the inducement of dreams and visions; hence the use of the plant in ritual meditation gave insight into the eternal mysteries associated with the sacred grove as designated by the thunderer. Hence the wise one or all seeing one of the oak turns to the mysterium, in seeing manifest within the neither world of the spirit by way of the herbal – mistletoe – induced trance.

As my work began to get noticed among my peers at the university and beyond, I secured a place in the program at the Third World Wilderness Congress scheduled for the fall in Inverness, Scotland. Over the summer, I had begun working a pleasant enough student job at the new Kinko’s Copies store. As serendipity would have it, I met a newly hired professor of poetry who was also scheduled to present at the Wilderness Congress. Although our travel plans were different, it made for a reassuring thought to know someone from home at the far away conference.

Routed from Missoula through Salt Lake City and New York, I arrived in Glasgow with virtually no sleep and bone tired. There remained a significant overland train trip to Inverness that in itself presented some adventure. At first, there was exquisitely pale, a whiter shade of pale, lady who took a seat across from me. With the appearance of Guinevere, this lady Margaret told me she was from southwest England in the fair land of Cornwall so that I fancied her within the Arthurian imagery as Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall. Despite my fatigue we had a nice visit together and there was some chemistry afoot when abruptly she prepared to disembark for her studies at Dundee.

Sometime later another fellow took the seat across from me and he immediately ordered a beer. His brew came in a slick aluminum can featuring the image of a lovely woman identified as Lorain, which he devoured with relish. Subsequently I noticed there were three variations to this clever marketing ploy which suggested that you imbibe the very essence of a stunningly beautiful woman with each sip.

A friendly fellow, he began speaking to me and at first I could not understand a single word he was saying. His lips appeared to utter a harsh Germanic sounding English that led me to inquire – “Are you speaking German?” More careful with his articulation, he responded to me again in an heavily accented English but I was beginning to comprehend his words. He offered to buy me a beer but I settled for a coffee and we began to understand each other. It seems he was from the north of England in what had been the Dane Law where tenth century Vikings had taken residence thus explaining his accent. He worked at a nuclear power plant in the far north offshore islands of Scotland. With long shifts on and off, he lived there in relative isolation between his journeys home to England.

Biding my new friend adieu at Inverness, I had little idea of how to reach the conference center at the Lindisfarne commune but somehow I managed to find it. Snoring my way throughout the night, I gave my roommate, a Forest Service employee from Alaska, a start so that he angrily awoke me demanding I cease my involuntary breathing. Of course, I prepared to protect myself and he secured a new room in the morning. There was also a fellow from Australia sharing the accommodation but he had no complaint against me. Jet lagged and disoriented, I was happy to be at the conference when we took our seats in the great hall.

In conjunction with my scheduled appearance at the conference, my “Nature Awe” paper was published along with a poem titled “Great Bear” that celebrated my totemic vision in the affiliated journal – OnEarth. On that first morning, there was scheduled a discussion around Roderick Nash’s snobbish idea that wilderness was initially a uniquely American institution in the preservation of nature. Encountering Bill, the poet from Missoula, we decided to skip the afternoon session with its “American ethos” and go in search of “Nessie,” the mysterious monster of Loch Ness. As it turned out, we missed some fireworks when the world contested Nash’s American origin of the wilderness ideal.

During the following morning, there was a bear biologist from Abruzio National Park, north of Rome, who gave a report on the European brown bear. Akin to our grizzly, these bears had somewhat adapted to human activity over time to manage survival in northern Italy and a region across the Adriatic Sea in Yugoslavia. Franco Zunnio, this bear biologist, had learned to read English from the study of scientific papers as such he had no idea how to pronounce the language. Listening to him was indeed a challenge but his presentation was nonetheless fascinating and the Italian demeanor of the bears was nothing less than charming.

Following his presentation, Franco made his way to were I was sitting; he had apparently discovered my poem – “Great Bear” – and someone had pointed me out to him. He pointed to my name tag and uttered “ousa” for USA and ever since I have thought him a genius in the expropriation of the American national ethos. It was a challenging conversation but delightful as he shared some charming Italian brown bear photos with me. These bears truly looked Italian!

As the conference proceeded and I met my session, there was a stir as the great wilderness advocate Ian Player, a founding activist behind the Congress, came to my seminar. He was a man of both immense in bearing and humbling in demeanor so that I was at first somewhat worried but as the session progressed the audience became engaged with enthusiastic participation. In his concluding plenary address, he cited my seminar as one of the highlights of the Congress. There was also the pleasant meeting of a professor, Daniel Henning, from Eastern Montana University who became a long term friend. Dan was a genuine personality, exuding honesty and professionalism so that it became a pleasure to later work with him on wilderness issues in Montana.

Following the Congress, we set out for the north and later to the Isle of Skye on a “Highlands and Islands” tour of Celtic Scotland. Gaelic replaced English as the language of choice and given my week long stay in the area, I acquired a little book on the subject – Gaelic Without Groans. It being my intent to become somewhat conversant in the old Celtic tongue while sharing this magical landscape with my Scottish hosts. As I began my study, I was arrested with an epiphany surrounding the dog. In English we are taught to say “I have a dog” with the emphasis on ownership and control over the other. Conversely in Gaelic I learned you say “Ha Cu Acum” which translates “a dog is at me” implying in this context a volition or choice on the part of the other in the relationship. Hence the linguistic configuration acknowledges value intrinsic to the dog.

The “Nature Awe” epiphany was further affirmed during our stay in Portrey when we were treated to a traditional Kaylends gathering that featured song, poetic recitation and dance. In this context, I suspected something akin to our traditional Native ritual practices associated with revivification. Over the years, I have reflected upon this coincidence in linguistic orientation as an expression of value for the other and my conclusion is that Gaelic unlike English retains a higher degree of residual orality characteristic of primal linguistics before the debilitating effects of literacy.

In the years following my visit to Scotland and the publication of my scholarly studies addressing Celtic “Nature Awe” and the Will-of-the-Land ethos, my reputation as something of a druid grew within the local community. While notwithstanding thoughts of myself as more of an indigenous shaman or medicine man, there were young people of European descent casting about for a more primal nature ethos to connect with their ancient ancestral heritage. To this end, there was little surprise one day when I received a letter from a couple living in Bozeman who were wanting a Celtic marriage ceremony.

Recalling the memory of the Maypole dance from my childhood, I concluded by virtue of my participation and traditional knowledge of the ritual that I had the right to conduct the ceremony. Reflecting upon the ritual needs and requirements, I responded to the couple with a set of instructions necessary to prepare for a Maypole centered wedding ceremony. They selected a marvelous site within the Bozeman National Forest that included a maidenhead stone guardian to the access of the trail. After some distance, the trail opened up on a nice meadow along a stream making an ideal place for the ceremony. We prepared a sweat lodge ceremony for ritual purification of everyone involved and early the next morning we set out in search of a Maypole.

Along the trail coming in I had noticed a suitable tree, it was deciduous and about eight inches at chest height with few limbs before reaching twenty feet. We hiked back down the trail, struck the tree and gave a loud shout signifying a war cry. With vigorous chopping, the tree was felled and limbed in preparation for its place in the meadow. Several of us took it in hand and began carrying it back up the trail but then by taboo we could not cross any water even a rivulet. So at one point we were forced off the trail to go up and around a small spring. While a hole was dug to plant the pole in the meadow, we attached thirteen streamers to the pole reflecting the annual lunar cycle. Smudged and made fast in the earth, it stood erect like a phallus piercing the sky as I sang spirit songs and everyone began weaving over and under a canopy symbolic of spring. Repeated in reverse order, there was a song for each of the four directions as the dancers wove in and out about the Maypole. At last the dancers tied off their thongs and backed away. Bringing the couple to the center, they exchanged vows while the dancers sang and oscillated in and out about them with a joyous embrace of the couple about the pole. Affirmed by all present, the wedding was complete and their was joy in the meadow as we shared the wedding feast.

Later I signed the marriage decree affirming myself a Scots-Monacan traditionalist. It was something to be proud of and I have often thought about the young couple keeping them in my prayers to the spirits. With a year or so elapsed, I entered my favorite coffee house – Butterfly Herbs – in Missoula to find them ensconced there in a booth. There were smiles and pleasant greetings all around as I assured them of nature’s blessing upon their marriage. Should there be any troubles, I told them you must go back to the meadow and work things out there with the spirits. Sadly I learned the Forest Service had come later that spring and taken down the Maypole. They chopped off the streamers and left the place empty of the ritual manifestation. While the pole no longer stood, I assured the young couple their vows echoed in the meadow resonating with the Nature Persons while revivifying the May.

Jay Hansford C. Vest, Ph.D.
Enrolled member Monacan Indian Nation
Direct descendent Opechanchanough (Pamunkey)
Honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) in Ceremonial Adoption (June 1989)
Professor of American Indian Studies
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
One University Drive (P. O. Box 1510)
Pembroke, NC 28372-1510 USA