I've had so many enquiries about the above gathering if felt useful to give a few words about how i came to think about teaching it. An over night decision of about twenty years.
Back in the last century:
the timber heaved with orange slashes of flame then crashed down around the rocks. All afternoon a small band of us had laboured under uncertain Welsh skies to build a substantial fire, substantial enough to heat to a red glow the rocks required for entry into the sweat-house later that day. The house is small structure, close to the ground, just enough to squeeze in about twenty five folks, made from hazel, its roof at about chest height. It’s heavily covered, to block out any light. At its centre is a small fire pit. The real hot spot is opposite the door. It’s a place of singing, prayers, story and healing.
So the fire is cooking the rocks good - “cherry reds” is what the medicine man wants - and it looks like he’s going to get them. Our small crew are blearily proud of ourselves and then stop short. The sky is changing. This is not the usual uncertain scudding of a British sky, this is a coal black entourage of alpha-clouds, ready to sluice emphatically our blaze. We won’t stand a chance against this billowing ensemble of soon-to-chuck rain-gods. I see the first drop drip from the slightly out-sized trilby rim of a startled work mate. “Bugger”.
Through the dusking comes the old man. Plaits to his waist, a head taller than anyone, immeasurably ancient, from some other place, Turtle Island. Everybody stiffens and throws themselves more fervently into the work of keeping the flames in excitement. There’s the first peal of thunder.
Old man pulls me away from the fire a moment and glances up through the strangely glittering light. “Have you told them a story yet?” he croaks in that otherworldly badlands drawl. I don’t understand. Who? The crew? I haven’t told stories since i was a kid. “Sorry grandpa, what do you mean?” I think i blushed as i spoke, wriggling with ignorance.
He points upwards to the dark wings of the air. “Them beings. That’s what they’re here for. Charm ‘em. Barter for us.” With that he hurled some language into the fast coming night. Elegant language, a storied tongue, using the currency of his jaw to claim relationship to raindrops, weather patterns, and the old and secretive desire of a darkening sky to be held for a moment in the fragility of the human imagination. I’d never seen an adult doing anything remotely like it. I just did not know such a thing existed. It touched me deeper than all of Shakespeare.
Then he stopped. “You come from here. You have to continue. Keep talking to them.” He turned, kneeled and inspected the antlers we would soon be carrying the rocks in with. Oh no. So i squinted upwards to the assembled gallery of deities and began. It was pitiful, bereft of any remote shred of courtship, just my stumbling pony of words, making it quite clear that any significant vocabulary i possessed had long since been shuffled off to the abattoir. It was kind of heartbreaking. Lots of un-earned confidence with nothing beneath it. I mean zero. All hat and no cows.
For a couple of weeks i travelled on and off with the old man - nothing special - just part of his loosey-goosey ensemble. Lots of carrying water, chopping wood, building sweat-houses, witnessing ceremonies so archaic, so vivid, so extraordinary it was like watching a cave painting peel itself off the wall, and dance in vivid colour right through the soul-black dark of the sweat-house. No metaphor here, not a jot.
So my time is up. The old man is going back across the waters and i’m carrying my sore little heart back to the rinky-dink caravan that i called home. Its gently mooted by a few that i could save pennies, cross the pond, and properly apprentice. As you can probably imagine, that’s a dizzying proposition. Like getting airlifted out of hell
into a place where real live human beings exist and remember the old arrangement we used to have with the earth. The old man’s people need a response, so i take a few hours to go mull in a nearby copse, after we’ve prepared the final sweat.
I'm just struck dumb with it all. Can’t go. Just can’t. Want to. Want to so bad my shoulders are shaking as i make the decision and my throat is hurting with all the tears i can’t quite get out. I come from somewhere else. This place. The country we used to call Clas Merdin - Merlins Enclosure, goddamit, to bring in the big speech - Albion. I can’t go the road of the Red Man, it’s simply not mine. My bones stay here.
It’s getting dark again, and the old man comes through the glimmer to hear what’s what. I tell him. He’s not happy or sad or anything, he just is. Final words; “keep talking to your bush-friends, and don’t expect your teachers to be human”. That night he sang the old songs in the lodge and i felt very foolish. I never saw him again.
I didn’t expect it to be nearly twenty years of labour before i would be prepared to talk about some of what transpired publicly. Hints of it are in the books - four years in a black tent, indeed continuing to talk to my “bush-friends”, and learning the elaborate courtship required to just attempt to carry stories in such a manner where this lively, heart-sore kind of elegant magic that the old man demonstrated could, just for a moment, appear in a way that felt authentic to someone from here.
Living in a circle, bent by weather, stewarding grief, apprehending the powers that still stalk the old fields and gullies of this gorgeous island, wearing my mistakes like a gaudy cloak, it’s exacting.
You probably remember: in the nineties everyone wanted to be a shaman, now they all want to be farmers. This is a very good trade in my opinion. Immeasurably more healthy, more real, visceral and properly more spiritual. I can’t stress enough the wisdom in losing our seduction to be the one wielding the rattle. (other than little babies of course, which is a scary analogy for the west).
Shaman is a word that has been ripe for hallucinatory levels of personal inflation, tyrannical behaviour, and a lot of nonsense. We try it on like a hat in a junk shop. At the same time there seems to be a little protein on the bone, areas of mystery left to the term that can prove useful in a strip-lit, sound bited world. They are kind of hard to pin down. Maybe with everyone now knee deep in kale and sacred grains we can have a slightly more useful conversation.
My own work has not entertained the paraphernalia of shamanism too much, but the shard that cut me so deep is this vitality and generosity of language. That thing that happened as we peered up to a story-starved thunder being and began to use the dusty old language of praise. That's the shard that will go with me into the ground.
Cautions: Stories that have this kind of currency come with a price-tag: they are not one-size fits all, they claim you not the other way round, and to speak them prematurely is rash to put it mildly. I’m still fifteen years into the courtship of some of them and have not yet uttered a word. So there’s a little apprehension about even shimming the word storyteller and shaman into the same many acred corral.
But in a time when many storytellers pride themselves at being “professional” or “performance” storytellers, it feels salient to remember the older arrangement that tellers used to have, and the skill (i.e. labour, time and discernment) required to steward such a position without recourse to too much hubris and premature flowerings. Swimming and drowning can look like the same thing from a distance.
So i’ll be teaching as much about Dylan Thomas and Lorca as i will be Black Elk. What’s at the centre of it is a lot of love, study, and a great lintel of language under which us and our kids and their kids may grow.
Ok, that’s the disclaimer.
WHEN WORDS WERE LIKE MAGIC: The Shaman and the Storyteller
Sat Feb 7th, Dartington Village Hall, Devon. £50 to book email: firstname.lastname@example.org
From the bardic schools to contemporary Turkic storytellers, there has long been an understanding that speech elegantly crafted has the capacity to “drink down the moon”, and in doing so revives culture, steals fire from the gods. Language, with its capacity to bless or curse, is magical currency: words are alive.
The tradition of the storyteller has almost always faced in two-directions; to both the village and the forest. They are a hinge. This edge position has jostled up against such vocations as a hedge woman, cunning man or even the shaman. We will court the words and images such characters used, and see where they hide out in fairy tales and tribal stories. Why do this? to rub up once again to the warm flank of antlered language, to track the immense distance such energies have hoofed
to get to our flowered tongue.
Over a day, myth-teller and author Martin Shaw will use story, rumination, humour and that high art - conversation - to open up the power of words. Witnessing Inuit incantations to the brilliance of Dylan Thomas we will ask: if mythology is the heart of ecology, then how can we use story to bring an animistic universe right into the very centre of our times? Expect electrifying myth, troublesome ideas and a widened palette. Speech is how we taste our ancestors.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2014