Blog Post · Folk Music · Spirituality and Philosophy

The (not so) Old Ways

May in the Southern Hemisphere means Autumn leaves and the first taste of winter in the air. For those in the North it is the traditional beginning of Spring, with all the ritual and ceremony that was part of an agrarian culture for as far back as 10,000 years. That is of course until a small cult from the Near East rose to power and took over most of the world, stamping out ancient traditions with coercion or violence wherever they went.

I have made a recording of Hal An Tow on my You Tube channel. This website, focused on Proto-Indo-European Religion, has an excellent few pages covering May Day celebrations, including the Hal An Tow and other Furry Day activities. Furry, as in the Latin Feria, meaning Faire, rather than the Furry types that identify/dress as animals. Though having said that, I am sure there is some crossover with pre-Christian animal totems and personification of deities as animals.

Most sites indicate that the etymology of the name ‘Hal-An-Tow’ is unclear. Some claim a connection with a ‘Heel and Toe’ dance, others imply that the Cornish words mean Calender (Halan) and Garland (Tow). Most are in agreement that the original nature and true meaning of the festival held annually in early May at Helston in Cornwall are lost. The ceremony claims medieval origins, and includes many staple characters of English folklore, i.e. Robin Hood and Marion, St. George and Mary.

Some verses of the song show up in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It:

What shall he have that killed the deer?
His leather skin and horns to wear.
Then sing him home.
(The rest shall bear this burden.)
Take thou no scorn to wear the horn.
It was a crest ere thou wast born.
Thy father’s father wore it,
And thy father bore it.
The horn, the horn, the lusty horn
Is not a thing to laugh to scorn.
Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 4, Scene 2, 1599

Interestingly, the dialogue before this song references the Romans. It is unlikely, after having visited the Roman ruins in Bath and watched my share of Time Team episodes, that many of the Agrarian rituals of the Roman religions did not make their way into the traditions of Great Britain.

This brings me to the crux of my issue, authenticity. Whether it be those attempting to revive the ritual and lore of the Norse, the Greco-Roman mysteries, the Tuatha Dé Danann in Ireland or any other culture where 1500 years of Christian suppression stands in your way, it is a daunting task.

One the one hand, many of us feel a primal pull to the ceremony and ideology. On the other hand, this innocence lends itself to exploitation by charlatans.


I recently became aware of this book, Thought Vibration by William Walker Atkinson. Atkinson operated in the early 1900s in America and wrote under at least three, possibly four or more, pseudonyms. It is not just that he used an assumed name, but that his pseudonyms were tied to assumed identities, Indian Yogi’s, French Mentalists and others. Atkinson was far from a pioneer in this form of con, with L. Ron Hubbard, Helena Blavatsky and William Westcott (Golden Dawn) being other examples. At the risk of the wrath of some neo-pagans I would also put Gerald Gardner in the same basket.

These people all claimed access to higher knowledge either through ancient races, alien cultures or uncovered texts or artifacts and in most cases used this information to part many a person from their money.

The sad reality is that Christianity did a very good job of stamping out all genuine records of the worship of Isis in ancient Egypt, Herne the Hunter in England or Odin in Scandinavia. In fact, the tradition goes back beyond Christianity, with Greek and Roman gods often swallowing the gods of the conquered.

We see only remnants of these ancient characters, so loved and respected or feared by our ancestors. I loved the way that Marion Zimmer Bradley describes the continuation of the Celtic goddesses in the figure of Mother Mary in her book Mists of Avalon. However, it seems unfair that these entities can only persist into the future while in hiding.

The version of Hal An Tow that I recorded owes a lot to The Waterson’s version, but I have also include a verse that Damh the Bard uses as nod to the undeniably pagan origins of the song.

Like many people, I am disillusioned with a belief system that has severed itself from nature. A doctrine of human ‘dominion’ that led to our pollution of the environment, pollution of our bodies and an education system that leans towards facts, impersonal logic and false certainty. I’m not looking back teary eyed at a perfect past, but wishing that there was some way to teach respect for the earth and all its creatures along with the other advances in human knowledge.

So happy May to my northern friends, in the knowledge that the turning of the earth and the movement of the sun still governs our lives, no matter how much we try and distance ourselves from it.

Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

A Magical Voice

My wife and I were discussing when we first saw Wendy Rule, I thought it had been a single concert but the alternate story is that I saw her first and then insisted that we both go along the next time. I guess this is what 40 feels like when it comes to remembering things that happened in a semi-drunken state in my 20’s.

In any case, the concert that I remember in Canberra around 1996/1997 was terrible; terrible because it was in a downstairs club with the house music on and a bunch of patrons talking loudly over a truly incredible voice. I had never before heard someone use their voice like that, conjuring images of a sacred and mystic world, bringing the audience into an ancient grove, a Greek oracle in the mountain mists, an incense filled Egyptian temple. The only experience I have ever heard that comes close to it is the work of Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance.

In the late 90’s I was embarking on a short foray into life as a druid/solitary witch. Reading the work of Scott Cunningham and Douglas Monroe was where I started. Monroe’s 21 Lessons of Merlyn has since received some terrible reviews from those in the druid community. This was one of my greatest frustrations with neo-paganism, each group insisting on the supremacy of their order and the credentials of their texts and practices. In any case, the advent of a singing Witch coming to Canberra was too good to be true for my young self and after hearing Wendy sing I knew this was something special (and genuine).

For all its failings, the books by Douglas Monroe spoke about the importance of music and song to ancient ritual. Whether the chanting of a shaman, the choir in a church or the team song at a football match; there is no denying the capacity of music and song to heighten human experience. As a singer/songwriter, I know there are moments when my voice and the music combine to generate something which makes your hair stand on end and your heart leap into your throat.

If you ever get to attend a concert with Wendy she is quite up-front about the relevance of her singing to ritual. The corners are called (horrendous Hollywood example) with song, and at some concerts Wendy has spoken about using song as a tool of transformation.

In general, I am a sceptic, as I have unmasked and seen the unmasking of too many charlatans to remain trusting. However, just like my experience at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, there is something undeniable about the power present when Wendy sings.

From a scientific point of view, I am fascinated by the question of whether the words are largely irrelevant and the quality of tone, rhythm and power (RMS not the mystical kind) is what generates the experience. In much of Lisa Gerrard’s singing with Dead Can Dance, there are no discernible words, yet the emotion seems to be clearly conveyed.

From the point of view of someone who does meditation in the Buddhist school, I know that intent is also a significant part of any action in the magical world. Both in the magical imaginings of David Eddings and Christopher Paolini the combination of Will and Word is critical, as it is in the more practical world of Aleister Crowley.

I had the great fortune to see Wendy again in Adelaide in 2013, along with Spiral Dance and Kellianna at the Singing Gallery (a very special venue that I also saw Damh the Bard at). Please don’t misunderstand, Kellianna and Spiral Dance are a pleasure to listen to, they have beautiful voices and are musically accomplished, but they don’t do what Wendy can in terms of the conjuring of experience.

In all the heights of human endeavor in music, the Nessun dorma from Puccini’s Turandot, Allegri’s Misere, Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach, it feels like we are touching on the surface of an ocean of potential. Potential that Wendy Rule with the same black Yamaha guitar has been conjuring for 20 years now.

Unfortunately the ‘witch’ label has meant that many people probably won’t get to experience the divine pleasure of sitting in a quiet room and listening to Wendy sing. At the concert Wendy played in Canberra last night I had to chuckle at the ‘what are YOU doing here’ response I got from one of the local neo-pagan community in attendance. Me in my Hawaiian shirt with five kids, what business did I have being at a witchy concert? I smiled and said that “yes”, I was here to listen to Wendy Rule.

If you ever get the chance to see Wendy play live, don’t miss it, even if you aren’t a neo-pagan. And if you can’t make the concert, Black Snake is Wendy’s latest, dark but cathartic and re-awakening, album. The subject matter is human existence, and her talented mastery of the voice is incredible to experience.wendy







Note: My research takes me to some funny places, here is a Sydney Morning Herald article, not even sure if it is tongue-in-cheek, about pagan opposition to Kosher/Halal treatment of meat. Wendy is cited as a random Australian witch, probably because the stock photo was ‘witchy’.