Saturday, April 4, 2015

Shamanic dreaming in ancient Britain: an interview with Manda Scott

Manda Scott’s Boudica novels – from Dreaming the Bull through Dreaming the Serpent Spear – are a magnificent act of historical imagination. We are plunged into the battles of Britain in the time of the Roman occupation, into a maelstrom of deception and divided loyalties, in which the heroism and sacrifice of a warrior queen shines with a clean bright flame. The characters are indelible – the Boudica, horsewoman, visionary, resistance leader - her tormented half-brother, her lover who dreams with the wren, and their fierce but honorable Roman adversary, whose soul is branded and bound by the cult of Mithras.  
   Manda takes us deep into ancestral realms. The Boudica novels are a gift to dreamers everywhere because they show us a way of dreaming – and healing and seeing – that may have been shared by all our ancestors, a way we urgently need to revive to restore our connection to soul and to re-vision our world. Manda helps awaken us to the possibility that dreaming has been a secret engine of history, far beyond what the history books have taught us. The dreamers in the Boudica novels are druids and shamans. They are scouts and trackers for the warriors. They mediate between the living and the ancestors. They fly with the birds, and run with the hound or the deer. They enter each other’s psychic space, and travel at will into other times and other dimensions. They speak to us, across time.
      I talked to Manda Scott in December 2006 about her vision of the ancient British dreaming.


Your Boudica novels beautifully evoke an early society in Britain in which dreamers were of central importance - as military scouts and mediators with the ancestors, and as the conscience of the leaders. What are your sources?

Our ancestors wrote in Greek but  chose not to keep written records of their work, thus we have nothing  from their point of view.  In literary terms, then, I started with the Roman writers and lawmakers. 
   We have to be careful in that they are writing through the lens of their own experience and for an audience which they wish to manipulate, but it is possible to begin to read between the lines and in some cases, I assumed they were speaking without undue spin when, for instance, in de Bello Gallico  Caesar described the 'druids' as the lawgivers and lawmakers and said that the druids of Gaul sent their apprentices to Britain for up to  twenty years' training. 
   Caesar furthermore said that the druids were above and beyond tribal boundaries and that their word was law. He described a society in which the 'men live forever in the eyes of  their gods' and that the principal point of their doctrine was that  the soul does not die, but after death passes from one body to  another.   He states that the druids were not a hereditary order (possibly in contrast to the “nobles” who were the other “rank” in  society, although this may be purely a Roman perspective)
   Later, Tiberius passed a law in which it was a capital offence for any to practice 'soothsaying' which was clearly intended to wipe out  the druids. 
   We can infer further the power of the druids from Rome's actions:  In almost all cases, Roman practice was to enfold the religions of a conquered people into their own relatively peacefully.  This was often a two-way street - the Egyptian cult of Isis became huge in Rome in the early centuries AD.  Mithras was a Persian god before he was ever Roman, the entire Greek pantheon was renamed and subsumed. Only when the priestly class were involved in insurrection did they try to wipe out a religions/spiritual force and this only happened twice: with the Jews of Jerusalem and the Druids of the (later) Celtic lands  of western Europe.  From this and other writing, we can infer that  the druids were instrumental in overcoming tribal friction to unite  the tribes not only within the different nations, but between them in the war against Rome.
    Apart from writing, we have archaeological evidence. this is always prone to subjective interpretation, but it is nonetheless interesting:  An examination of the midden remains of the Eceni in east Anglia showed that they used hides and feathers extensively for  decoration, that black feathers and white were particularly popular but nowhere in all the middens were found the feathers of a magpie - a carrion bird (black, of death, perhaps of Briga) with white on it - the colors of swans and geese, the birds who fly high to the sky gods and can then live underwater.  Neither were there ever otter skins although beaver abounded in those times - so these two, magpies and otters, were so taboo or so sacred they were never used.
   So I can begin to build a picture of a shamanic society in which the people live forever in the eyes of their gods. They live communally in round-houses and have a possibly hereditary nobility but a non- hereditary (presumably skill-based) priestly class.
   I abandoned the  name “druid” because it is too laden with projection - and created the  dreamers and the singers.
    It's important to remember that the tribes were not the militaristic society they have been painted: they were  agrarian, with massive amounts of man/.woman power needed for their cereal based diet and they were tremendous craftworkers in iron and precious metals - they had a love of beauty and a level of skill that was unmatched in the ancient world for at least another millennium.   These two are not going to happen if all the able-bodied men and women are busy fighting their neighbours. A warrior-based society is not necessarily always at war.
    I read a great deal of the Irish “Celtic” laws of the 4th and 5th  centuries.  Rome never conquered Ireland and although there is some Christian spin, the Irish laws are astonishingly egalitarian and quite at odds with the rest of emerging “Roman” Christianity.  In particular, women were able to hold property and to request a divorce, something that we have only recently won back.  I also read the old Irish and Welsh sagas, particularly for evidence of women as  warriors.  When CuChullain wanted to learn truly to fight, he went to a warrior school taught by women. This does not seem to have been thought of as unusual.
   Finally,in the context of the wider culture, for years I indulged in battle re-enactments where I fought as a Dark Age spear/sword-bearer.  I discovered that a) one does not need to be a man to fight and b) what one does need is supreme self- belief - and the skill to back it up.

Did your own dreams and visions contribute to your understanding of 
Boudica's people?

Yes, massively, continually and through every sentence of the writing.

Will you identify and explain some of the specific shamanic dreaming practices you describe in the novels?

 There are “night” dreams, in which a sleeping dreamer is sent specific information, regarding (For instance) a flood which will wipe out the steading if they don't move). There are waking dreams in which the gods visit specifically to give information - Valerius has those regularly, even when he is fighting for Rome. There are visions sent to non-dreamers, particularly to the Boudica in order to bring her closer to her destiny.  These often happen in or around grave mounds or passage tombs left over from neolithic and megalithic times. 

Do you personally practice any of these techniques?

All of them.  My intent with the first book was that every part of the dreaming, from Breaca's “vision quest” through to the end where  Macha and the dreamers call down the mist to confound the legions,  was something I had either done personally, or had seen done - mostly the former.  By the second book where Breaca helps Airmid cause the 
death of a Roman governor and where the bear-cult begins to arise, we are stepping beyond things I have done or seen done, into the realms  of what I believe may be possible, but wouldn't choose to do.  I also  highlight, where I can, those practices I believe to be dangerous. In addition, because I am a teacher, I have made an effort to be sure  that the books can be used as a learning by those who follow, if they so choose.

How did you learn them?

I learned mostly from men and women in this country who learned them from Native American teachers and later branched out to learn from others who have tried to explore Britain's past.  The problem we have  is that there is no direct lineage - the druids really were wiped out  and we have no true lineage.  Thus, to reach again the gods of this  land, we have to listen and learn from those who have never stepped  away from their own true connections.  I learned basic journeying to a drum and progressed from there.  The writing of the books themselves grew out of a vision quest and my dreaming moved in unimaginable ways during the six years of writing.
    The books arose when I was at the end of my crime thriller, No Good  Deed.  I was contracted to write a sequel and was out with my (then)  two lurchers walking, thinking about the new book.  They put up a  lactating hare and, eventually, caught and killed her. I was devastated.  Hares are sacred and she had young, which meant if I couldn't find them, they would die.  I couldn't find them, though I did spend a long time looking.   I sat down and decided that if something had to die to show me that I was walking along with my brain in neutral going in the wrong direction (which I was - I could have  stopped the dogs if I'd noticed what they were doing) then I had better pay attention.
   I went out into the woods alone with the specific question, “What do you want of me?”  The answer very clearly was to write Boudica - I  had made a commitment to write about her in a ceremony some years  before, but had added the coda, “when I'm a good enough writer” -  which of course was always going to be at least a decade away.
     But no, they wanted it NOW.  I argued that I wasn't a historian, an archaeologist, an anthropologist and I knew nothing about the subject. I also had no money and had been paid to write a different  book. It wasn't negotiable. I agreed that I would spend a month doing the research and if I still didn't think I could do it, I'd be back.
     By the end of the month, I had a 23 page synopsis and the beginnings 
of the first book. I also had a new editor, and a new publisher, and enough money to continue with something that required quite astonishing amounts of research.

Your love of animals, and your deep affinity for them, shines through all of your writing. Do animals dream? Do your dream with  the animals who share you life, and those you have helped?

Animals definitely dream - my lurcher (a hunting dog which is a cross 
between a greyhound and a collie) always dreams more of hunting when she has recently put up a hare -  her feet paddle, she yelps exactly as she does when running and she  breathes in a running rhythm.  My cats used to display REM and I'm as sure as I can be there were dreaming.  Inca (my lurcher) dreams with me regularly and if I'm in trouble in a dream and am unable to wake up, she will stand over me and put her nose on my brow until I  wake.   
     In general, I think that if we live with animals as genuine members of the family, accepting them as equals, not repositories of our projections or our insecurities, they will dream with us.  One of my most profound spiritual experiences was when I was out with my two lurchers and a pair of working cocker spaniel bitches, both of whom had given birth five weeks previously.  We were casting through bracken, not thinking very much and suddenly I was aware that I was one part of a five-parted being in which I knew where each other part was  (though I could see none of them) they knew where I was and we all worked as a unit.  It was quite astonishingly profound. I realized then that my dogs live in this state all the time and that I could do so too if I stepped away from my 'head-mind' into my 'heart-mind'

Your ancient dreamers are closely identified with animal guardians. Tell us about the animal guardians, and their role in shamanic dreaming. Will you share something of your personal experiences in this area?

The animal guardians mirror my own experience in that animals have always
formed a more significant part of my emotional life than  (most) people and this extends tothe dreamworld where they can and do represent and lead to aspects of reality that I
might otherwise be unable to access.  In the books, I have extended it and embraced slightly the concept of animal “totems” where a man or a woman, on coming to puberty may (but not necessarily) find an animal or a  bird to which they form a unique bond during their “long nights'” -  their dreaming time at which they cross from childhood into  adulthood. This animal is either a specific one - as in Hail the Hound with whom Valerius dreams, or they are generic, as in Airmid and her frog-dreaming. 
   My own experience is that I bond with specific animals, but also that many of us, including me, bond more solidly with other things - elements (fire, water, storm, earth) or  ancestors.  The animal dreaming grew out of the story, but I think it's important that people realize they may not make an animal  connection and if they do, it may take many years to work through  their projections before they make one that is genuine.


Tell us about the relationship between the living and the dead, as it is lived by your characters.

The boundary between the living and the dead is as thick - or as thin  - as we choose to make it.  Because my characters live in a society where the elderly and the ancestors are held in high regard, and where the soul does not die at death, then they live in the constant awareness of their ancestors, particularly those with whom they have  been close in life.  These act as guardians and guides.  They also, for a short time, see the dead as they leave the lands of the living  and walk towards the lands of the dead.   
    In the start of the third  book, Dreaming the Hound, Breaca speaks for a while with the spirit of a Roman standard bearer whose throat she has just cut.  The Romans choose not to listen to their dead (as we often do) and so are the weaker for it. Moreover, they are the invaders in a land where their gods do not tread, so their spirits have a longer journey when they die than do ours, who cross the river immediately to the lands of the dead.  Thus also, when it comes to personal sacrifice, Dubornos can offer himself as a living/dying mediator between the tribes and the  gods in the time of greatest need and his offer is perceived as entirely noble - and worthwhile  - not a waste of a life, or a loss  to him.  


Manda Scott is a veterinary surgeon, writer and climber, not necessarily in that order.  She was a horse vet in Newmarket, home of English thoroughbred racing, when she first began to write the Boudica: Dreaming series.  She now lives in Caradoc's land in the west, in the threshold place between England and Wales, a few miles south of Caer Caradoc.  She has been actively working with dreaming since she was a student in Glasgow. Visit her website here.

© Robert Moss and Manda Scott. All Rights Reserved.

1 comment:

A Renee Hamilton said...

Robert, thank you for this very much needed gem. Manda, well done!