Emma Restall Orr is one of the best-known names in British Druidry. Joint chief of the The British Druid Order for nine years and founder of The Druid Network, Emma has published more than a dozen books on Druidry and Paganism. She now focuses much of her time on Honouring the Ancient Dead, a project promoting the respectful treatment of ancestral remains. Find out more about her on her website.
Hi Emma. Many people know you from your work with the British Druid Order, the Druid Network, and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. In your biography, you say that you no longer term yourself a Druid. Would you mind talking a little about that?
Thank you for starting with such a sharp question: straight to the heart of it. To state publicly that I no longer consider myself a Druid took serious thought, and I have received responses from some whom it upset and unsettled. The majority of responses were, however, from people eager to understand. The truth is that it was not about a change in my beliefs. My spiritual, my religious and my philosophical perspective is no different from what it was. Indeed, I would say that my beliefs are deeper than ever, my practice more profound.
However, for me, the word Druidry does not describe a specific belief system. My beliefs are animistic, pantheistic, deep green, polytheistic, and I have met Druids who are Christian, who are wholly polytheistic, who are anthropocentric. Druidry, I think, describes instead a path of service. The work of the Druid is to be a teacher, a priest, a leader, a guide. You cannot decide one day to be a Druid. It not only takes years of serious study, but also the acknowledgement and acceptance of your peers and your community before a person should consider taking the word to describe oneself. Of course, we can study Druidry, and practice within the traditions of Druidry, without ever taking the word Druid, but I was known as a Druid. I worked as a priest and teacher for some twenty years. When I stepped away from those roles, I laid down the word as well.
The reason I stepped away has another answer. The deeper mysteries were pulling apart the structure of my being. The universe was breathing its dark emptiness into my soul, calling me to explore places that are formless, wordless, timeless. My ability to hold space, gently and with wakeful responsibility, was eroding. Furthermore, as a person who was widely known as a writer and teacher, the sense of my self was becoming unbearably uncomfortable. People wanted me to be who I had been, who they needed me to be, who they expected me to be, rather than what I was becoming. In the end I had no choice but to let go, to run with the wind on soft paws, into a silence where there was no I.
Now that you no longer term yourself a Druid, how do you feel towards your earlier works, such as Living Druidry and Druid Priestess?
Now and then, someone will ask me about some particular point that I wrote in one of my earlier books, and I will dig out a copy to reread it. “On page 127 you said… What did you mean by…”. More often than not, I am surprised at how much I am still wholly in tune with what I wrote, albeit 10 or 15 years ago. Of course, you must give me the possibility of having matured in my thinking, and at times the perspective does seem to hum with a youthful energy and naiveté that I may no longer have; at times embarrassingly so. I don’t know how much of that is obvious to the reader! Certainly, the anecdotes that are scattered throughout those two books are from a life I no longer live, but that isn’t to say that I don’t have warm feelings about those days. The stories make me smile, reminding me of people and places I knew, many of which I loved deeply.
A direct answer to your question would be: yes, I am still the person who wrote those early books – just a little wrinklier, quieter, more peaceful; a little further down the same old track.
The London 2012 Paralympics included a reading from a gorsedd ritual written by yourself and Philip Shallcrass. Did you know about that at the time, and how do you feel about it now?
Yes, we knew. I was contacted some months before by one of the team creating the closing ceremony, and asked if they might use the gorsedd ritual. We spoke about options and I went to Philip to see what he thought. It was important to me that the magical spirit of the ritual was allowed to feed into the ceremony they created, so that – performed as a piece of community art, not a religious ritual – it retained that magic. However, in the end, Philip and I signed the forms to allow them to use it without knowing what the end product would be. We had to have faith that our words would hold their power, and in many ways I think they did.
It was an honour to be involved in the event. The Paralympics are such an expression of human strength; individuals rising through and above such tangling challenges. Furthermore, Philip and I had worked so very closely for so long with the British Druid Order, it felt like a wonderful gift to that magical relationship, and I am grateful for that. I believe he is too.
Can you tell us a little about your writing process? Where do you write, do you enjoy writing, and how organised are you?
I love writing. Words fill me with delight and wonder, in the same way that others are delighted by little children or butterflies. As an animist, I perceive words as creatures: spirits, patterns within nature, coherences within the whole that have evolved over time, that arrive in moments then slip away, leaving the world quite changed. As powerful creatures with the power to affect relationships, they need to be respected. I write in part to play with words, as we might blow bubbles on a summer’s day, or splash paint upon a canvas, but far more importantly I write to explore the bridges of communication. Not all of my words are set down, or offered as communication to other human beings. If not, they are still part of the experience of communication, as I converse with the gods, my ancestors, the spirits of the landscape around me.
When I am writing a book, I tend to write for an hour or two a day, often on a laptop, on the sofa, on my bed, or outside; seldom at a desk. I have prepared the structure of the book carefully in advance, and sketched the structure of each chapter in a dozen lines or so – then I write. I may sit for twenty minutes, finding a word or sentence, but I don’t edit much. Once a book is finished, I might rewrite the first few thousand words, bringing it in line with the character of the completed text, but otherwise I don’t edit. I’ll give it to a few key readers, and take note of their suggestions. Usually there are sentences that sound archaic which I bring into modern English.
I wholly detest the marketing process. When I worked as a Druid I did book tours and lectures, TV and radio. Now I tend to hand a book over to the publisher and let them do what they wish. The occasional talk or interview is all I concede to. Once a book is done, my soul moves on fairly quickly, immersing myself in the next project.
In your article This Much I Know for The Guardian, you mentioned that Asterix first sparked your interest in Druidry as a child. Do you still look back on Asterix with fondness? Do you think the things that fascinate us as children often shape what we pursue as adults?
I still love the Asterix books. My brother was given them as a child and we’d sit and read them together for hours on end, not just in English – I’m quite sure we had versions in French, Spanish, Latin. As a child, I was fascinated by the Getafix/Panoramix character. As for how much childhood heroes shape us, I would guess that would depend on the individual and their hero. For myself, I was not strong physically as a child and I loved to read about this funny old man who kept the whole Roman Empire at bay with nothing more than, what seemed to me to be, soup. I can make a pretty good soup…
In the write-up for your book Kissing the Hag, it says that it brings us face to face with the raw elements of womankind, and ‘all that makes [women] unacceptable and badly behaved.’ Do you consider yourself badly behaved, and has writing this book changed your own relationship with the Hag?
Badly behaved? - not any more. I was an angry soul through my teens and into my twenties, dealing with physical pain, but the study of nature that is at the heart of Druidic practice includes human nature, our own nature. I find it almost impossible to behave badly now, when I have the slightest inkling that it may be so. I tend to freeze until I can reconfigure my perspective. As human beings, the emotional and instinctive drives can be so powerful, it is a task to learn what these are, how they rise within us and propel us into action, and how not to allow ourselves to be flooded, behaving badly as a result. Emotion should be a guide, another source of information, not a decision-maker. I think most bad behaviour is based on emotionally-fuelled reaction.
Unacceptable is another matter, though. In terms of social conventions, there are still a good many elements of my life that are unacceptable. In many ways the book, Kissing the Hag, is about understanding the distinctions between social rules, human woman nature, honourable interaction and disrespectful actions. The lines can be fine at times.
Of all the ancient places you have visited, do you have a favourite?
The places that inspire me most are those where human impact is minimal or absent. Being in the Amazon rainforest, with untouched forest for many hundreds of miles in every direction, was a formative experience. Of human-made ancient places, as I pause to consider an answer, dozens of images and memories slip into my conscious mind, of many places across Britain: chanting in trance through the night at West Kennett Long Barrow, at Stonehenge, at Rollright, at standing stones in Dartmoor, glorious moments, and so many of them. Then there are places rich with history where I have spent time around the world, ancient Shinto shrines in Japan, Mayan temples in Guatemala. I have no favourite, just a fat pocketful of memories.
What is the strangest thing that has ever happened to you during a ritual? (That you are willing to share).
Your parenthesis helps me answer, because most ritual is private and to share stories would be to break confidences. Having said that, the elements of ritual that I have most enjoyed for the unexpected have mainly been moments of divine presence. I’m sure most of your readers will have experience of ritual where gods are invoked, and nothing happens. In most open ritual the prayers are of appreciation not invitation, and there are many whose prayers of invitation are never answered.
I recall being at Stonehenge at a Christian Pagan Druid ceremony. I had brought with me two friends, a Druid who worked with the dark gods of the Welsh tradition, and an evangelical Christian. It was delicious to feel their invocations, both empowered by utter devotion and sincerity. To stand in that old temple with Yahweh and Ceridwen was rather cool. Not so cool was the conference, the organisers of which I will not disclose, where a roomful of people were asked to invoke their own particular deities to bless some aspect of the event. Most people called out their liturgy, then sat down in ignorance, but some invoked their gods effectively as if it were an almighty contest of strength. The room was suddenly seething with gods of every era and pantheon, most of whom had no desire for peace. I left, along with a fair few others.
The strangest, however, was perhaps a public rite held in the middle of a large English city. I had been asked to create an opening rite for an event that was to showcase different kinds of Paganism. Not knowing many in the crowd, I was guided by locals, and found four different groups, each of whom would honour a cardinal direction. I don’t recall the details, but I seem to remember that there were fairly traditional Wiccans to honour the west, sturdy great Asatru to honour the north, a shamanic band in feathers and fur to honour the south, and in the east a group who followed Star Trek. I shrugged and agreed, keen not to offend the locals. There were a few hundred at the rite, and there was an awkward moment when the police, who were roaming the perimeter, were somewhat unsettled by the well-armed Heathens assuring their gods of their commitment to feasting and fornicating. What unsettled me, though, were the Trekkies. They made their prayers in Klingon, and they had more of a magical vibrational response that any of the others. I might emphasise that I had requested no one invoke anything, but simply honour with appreciation. I don’t know what these silver-painted folk said, but they called upon something, and that something arrived.
There are so many stories, and many are far more strange than amusing. There was drumming up power at a concrete Stonehenge replica on the Columbia River gorge in Washington, there was an event with Brian Blessed and a helicopter, there was Blackpool - but the Klingon always makes me smile.
Are you still involved in organising festivals? Have you noticed any difference in the types of people attending over the years, or has the community stayed fairly steady?
No, I no longer organise festivals, nor do I attend many. My journey has taken me from those huge people-full gatherings to quieter paths of service. However, from what I have attended, and news I hear from others, it seems a key difference is that there were many more youngsters in years gone by. It seems that those who were young have grown and remained faithful, but there is no longer such an inflow of new youth coming into the traditions as there was. Where are they? Playing make-believe on the internet, perhaps. I think the truth is that most come into spiritual and religious traditions for the community, not the mystery. The mystery requires hard work, commitment, devotion, and that means the ordinary things of life are set aside. Few are willing or able to make the necessary sacrifices. The majority who came to gatherings, festivals, public rituals and gorseddau, came to be with other like-minded souls, to share all the fun of the fair within a magical Pagan context – they didn’t come for the intense ecstasy of mind-blowing communion with the gods. Young folk now get their community online, and those that want it can find the magical element in games written with those realities. Who knows, perhaps the would-be priests amongst them are finding their divine encounters in digital ways that I am not versed in.
No doubt, when this younger generation are in their fifties and sixties, they will be wondering what on earth their children are doing...
In the Philosophy section of your website, you talk about ‘wakeful respect without prejudice or assumption.’ Are you particularly engaged with politics in Britain at the moment? Do you have any thoughts on the current climate which seems to favour disrespect and prejudice towards others? Is this a storm we will weather, or a sign of something deeper and harder to remedy?
Politics is a fascinating aspect of human nature, of human culture. Politics entered into my awareness in the mid 1970s, having been brought up in fascist Spain, coming to England as punk exploded, developing a strong socialist belief, which in turn has gently fragmented into a co-operative anarchism. What troubles me most is bullying. It seems to me that there is a tide rising once again. The US has just voted in a capitalist thug as president, Russia is led by another capitalist bully. Such thugs run pharmaceutical, energy, media, financial and other vast corporations. Broad human society is captivated by its various screens. People witness such bullying in factual and fictional stories, day by day in a thousand contexts: in the news, on social media, in movies and TV shows. It becomes increasingly more normal to bully. It becomes easier to bully. It becomes common. It becomes OK. And it becomes OK for the victim to respond by becoming the bully themselves.
The question is, how should one face a bully? How can we honourably respond to someone who expresses their own fears and a consequent need for power by stirring up fear, anger and hatred in others? How can we communicate with someone unwilling to listen or reason? It is often easier to give in, just adapt, bruised and disempowered but still alive. The reasoned path of peaceful resistance can be far harder.
We know that Asterix was a big influence as a child, but what have been the three most important books, or authors, in your adult life?
It is not possible to choose three. I can give you a scattered list of books that come to mind. Books that I have most loved and valued through my life:
Ethics by SpinozaEthics by Peter SingerWalden by ThoreauMeditations by Marcus AureliusTao te Ching by Lao TzuConfessions by St AugustineAnarchism by Peter Kropotkin
Not to mention Kant, Schopenhauer, Seneca, Chomsky, Bergson, David Abram, Whitehead, Mary Midgely, the poetry of Yeats, Emily Bronte and Wordsworth.
If you had a magic pen capable of forming your lost thoughts into a story, what would you like to write about that you haven’t already?
Could you tell us a bit about Honouring the Ancient Dead?
HAD is an organisation that asserts a very clear and simple perspective: that there should be no difference in the way we treat someone who has died whom we have personally known and loved, and someone who died many years ago. Whether a Saxon skull exhumed in a road development, a medieval king searched and found, a body preserved in peat, a box of bones found in a collector’s attic, an ancient thigh bone or urn of ashes, a soldier from 20th century Ypres or 14th century Crecy, whether the individual’s name is known or not, each and every ancestor is no less a person than our own mother, spouse or child. We should treat each with no less respect than we would treat the body and bones of our immediate family, of those we ourselves dearly love. For HAD, that means allowing each person to be laid to rest in peace, and remain at peace.
There are hundreds of thousands of ‘human remains’ in museums and other organisations, boxes of bones with no associated information, bones on display as if they were simply sherds of pottery, skeletons manipulated into poses for gory exhibitions, bones held in store for scientific research for which no funding is ever likely to be found. Of course, there are some who simply don’t care, whose metaphysical standpoint is such that they would be happy for this to happen to someone they love most profoundly. HAD’s remit is not to judge or attack others people's beliefs, but to work for those whose values and interests in the dead accord with its own. From that position, it calls for consultation about ancestors when decisions need to be made. It gives guidance where asked to those whose path brings them into contact with ancestors. It creates best practice guidelines for reburial, for display, for the housing of ancestral bones, and it has what we believe is the most comprehensive current list of ancestors in museums across Britain. Like many charities, its aims far exceed its funding and capacity, but it tries!
What are you working on at the moment?
My day to day work is the creation of a nature reserve and natural burial ground. Like many whose work is with nature, it’s a full-time job, seven days a week, all year through. As a writer, I have spent a year documenting the natural history of the nature reserve; a gentle book of daily observations that will be published online with photographs in time. My hope is that it will be a book that inspires others to notice the moments of beauty, and do more to care for this precious planet.
My next writing adventure, however, is one I’ve been thinking about for some time. A book that follows on from my Pagan ethics, Living With Honour, and my animist metaphysics, The Wakeful World. It explores the politics of human society and religion, how decisions are made and societies formed. Essentially, it is a book about god and anarchy from an animist perspective. However, at the moment, the call of silence is often far stronger, so it may take some time.