Over the last 200 years, Paganism – the indigenous belief system of Ancient Europe – has been gradually revived to become what is now the fastest growing religion in Britain. There are estimated to be around 250,000 modern Pagans practicing in Britain today, each adhering to a collection of principles that include a reverence for nature and a pantheistic view on divinity.
This scale of this modern movement was demonstrated to me when I joined a ‘Pagan Pride’ march through the city of Nottingham in early August.
“We are Pagan. We are proud!” was the chant as we paraded in a long snake, 100m long and five abreast. The men dressed in long robes and carried staffs, while the women wore long flowing gowns, their heads crowned with flower garlands and animal horns. The passers by displayed a spectrum of emotions at the spectacle, from looks of unreserved delight to complete bewilderment.
For me, the sight was now relatively familiar, having been surrounded by Druids (Pagan priests) at the Stonehenge Summer Solstice celebrations some weeks prior to the march. This was where I had the pleasure of meeting the self-proclaimed ‘King of the Druids’, Arthur Pendragon.
Arthur – born John Rothwell – was a biker and general odd-jobs man until one night, while sleeping in a squat, his friend told him that he was in fact not John Rothwell, but a modern day re-incarnation of King Arthur. After realising his friend was right, John changed his name to Arthur Pendragon the following week. The first group of people to accept Arthur were the Druids, raising him as an ‘Honoury Pendragon’ in the Glastonbury Order of Druids.
I arrive at the stones at around 11pm to find the place packed with 36,000 merrymakers. The place has the feel of a festival, with litter strewn everywhere and hawker vans selling burgers. Not exactly the spiritual sanctuary I was expecting.
I step over the sleeping bodies, squeeze through the throngs of revellers in the middle of the giant stone formation to arrive at the Hele stone, my pre-arranged meeting point with the King.
“Hi Arthur, I’m Lucy”.
He looks at me with piercing eyes, his long grey hair held in place by a thin silver crown. He wears a tabard bearing a red dragon over a white robe, his sword – Excalibur – is sheathed at his waist.
“What did I say to you in the email?” he says to me in a surprisingly high-pitched voice.
“To bring you cider”, I say handing him a can of Thatchers Gold.
“That’ll do,” he says, opening it and taking a swig.
“I have been relentlessly fighting for peace for the last twenty years”, he begins unprompted, as if he has given this speech hundreds of times. “At the moment I’m fighting the English Heretics to return the remains of the ancestors they dug out of the ground, instead of putting them in a display cabinet in their visitor centre”. He pauses. “Have you got any more cider?” I don’t have any on me so I promise him to bring him another can later on.
The night progresses and I speak to a few more druids, dotted irregularly amongst the sea of partygoers. Amongst the 36,000 people, the druids are insignificant in number (50 or so), with some now refusing to attend because they are disapproving of what the event has become; a drug infused festival or a tick on a bucket list.
One such druid is Damh the Bard, a Pagan musician who kindly agrees to a Skype interview.
His friendly face looks back at me from my computer screen, smiling eyes framed by the usual cascading grey hair. He is sat in the office of Ovates, Bards and Druids – ‘OBOD’- an organisation with a membership of 17,000, for which he is the global ambassador.
“What are the benefits of joining OBOD?” I ask.
“Well, anyone can call themselves a Druid, but there is so much information out there you can become very confused. So OBOD is a teaching order. The course isn’t academic – it’s experiential. The idea is to get people out of their houses and into the woods, doing stuff”.
I can’t help but picture Eglantine Price from Bedknobs and Broomsticks pouring over her course material from the Correspondence College of Witchcraft.
He continues, “Pagan religions are very fragmented because we don’t have a book, we just have nature and stories. For me, that’s what makes Paganism so vibrant and relevant, and for some people that’s what makes it made up”.
Back at the stones, it is now four o’clock and the sky is becoming lighter. We all stand with our eyes glued to the horizon, waiting for the golden orb to make an appearance.
The Druids began their rituals and I wander down to the Hele stone and see a big circle forming. Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury, stands up to lead the crowd in a chant against hunger and fracking. His wild grey hair and long beard blow in the light breeze as he clings to his crooked staff like an old wizard.
A few minutes later the sun finally arrives to cries of jubilation from the crowd, the group behind me burst into a rendition of the Circle of Life.
After the sunset, I go off to find Arthur who has promised me a knighthood. I kneel before him in the middle of a large crowd while he unsheathes Excalibur. A man in full druid tabard plays the drums at the head of the circle.
He places the sword on my right shoulder.
“To speak the truth”, he touches the sword on my right shoulder. “To honour your spoken word”, he touches the sword on my head. “To be just and fair in all your dealings”. He begins reciting some words in ancient Celtic as he mirrors the action with Excalibur. When he gets to my head he pauses.
“If I take your head off, it’s because you forgot the second cider!”
Shit. I had. I am at the mercy of a huge sword and instinctively stand up. Thankfully his face opens up into a grin as he says, “Arise, Warrior Priestess!” He gives me a bear hug and starts laughing as he completes my new title: