I have been a four-legged animal

14,000 BC Cave Painting, Lascaux, France

A darkened room. A group of fifteen people who don’t know each other. Quiet. The leader speaks for about five minutes, telling us about the tiny figurines found on archaeological sites, the postures they show, the idea that these figurines might be aids to trance, the research by someone eminent showing that the method can be used in modern times. She seems sensible, and has conveyed a certain sense of trust.

I’m not sure why I’m here. I signed on because the title of the workshop, ‘Trance Postures’, sounded whacky and I thought I could spare a couple of hours in the middle of the conference. I put my arms in the required position (the postures are simple, not uncomfortable) and close my eyes.

The leader starts to drum. A steady beat. It will change our brain-waves. She will drum for 15 minutes. She will be interested in what we see.

The drum-beat enters my senses. Under my eyelids, I see bright lights in different colours. I’m aware that instead of letting my eyes rest and looking inward, I’m looking into my eyelids as though into a forward landscape. The light steadies to a rusty orange and starts to move across my vision from right to left; then it speeds up and begins to take the form of moving animals. A herd of deer, maybe, or wildebeest? More likely the latter – they’re big.

I think, ‘Yes, these are wildebeest,’ and straightaway the words ‘You’ve been watching too much David Attenborough!’ run across my mind. I notice it and let it pass.

Yes, wildebeest – and there are thousands of them. A massive herd, in migration. I’m absorbed into the hammering, thundering movement of their hooves, the individual bodies moving as one, the dust they raise, the heat and sweat of this press and charge, the urgency of the process, its inevitability, like childbirth. I am part of the process. At the same time, I’m aware of my presence in this darkened room in a tall thin building off the main street of an English market town, of my bodily position, of the other people in the room, of the workshop that I’m a part of.

Now I become aware of my skeleton inside me. My spine, my thigh-bones, my pelvic circle, my skull. My jaw-bones! I feel the bone of my lower jaw being stretched forwards. My bone is changing from human to wildebeest. From my bones outwards, I’m becoming one of these wild animals as they run.

I’m one of the young ones, and not strong. We’re being chased by a predator – I can’t see what kind of predator it is, I’m racing too fast and with too harsh a sense of panic. I’m young, I’m fragile, I’m on the outside of the herd, I’ve lost my mother and I’m desperate with fear. I run, run, run….

And, in a shock instant, the back of my neck is seized in huge incisor teeth, in a massive jaw. I am caught. My entire head is jerked upward, my jaw jerked forward. I think, though I’m not sure (and I’m not asking any questions until afterwards), that the position of my human body doesn’t change. I’m sitting as still as before, as still as the other people in this darkened room.

What happens next?

There’s a gap in the film here. Yet it isn’t a film. It’s experience. The form, with its vivid sections separated by hiatuses, is like a dream. Yet it has the hardness, the definition, the coherence of experience. This is trance, trance experience.

I don’t experience being killed and torn apart and eaten. Is it a defence of my brain, or the young wildebeest’s brain, to be saved from remembering this agony?

The next scene is quiet and still. The herd, instead of charging in dust and sweat and panic, have arranged themselves in a huge silent circle. I am the young wildebeest still, but I’m no longer flesh, just bone and spirit. I am in two places at the same time: in the bones that are heaped in the centre of the circle of beasts, and, as spirit, hovering above the circle, gazing down at my grieving family and friends. I love them, and they love me. I know that they are expressing sorrow at their loss of me, and their gratitude for my sacrifice. If it had not been me who was offered to the predator, it would have been one of them. They will miss me.

The drum beat slows, and grows louder. It’s time to come out of the trance, ease ourselves out of the postures, and rejoin everyday life. First we’ll share our experiences in pairs, then we can speak to the leader, in the group or privately, about what we’ve seen.

I tell my partner what happened to me. It seems amazing to hear it coming out of my mouth as a story. Yet it seems oddly ordinary too. It happened. It’s over. My partner listens, and says she doesn’t know what to say. I sympathise with her. I ask her what she saw during her 15 minutes, and she says, ‘Nothing much, a few colours’. Later, aside from the group, I tell the leader about being a wildebeest caught by a predator and being grieved for by my herd. She’s fascinated, and asks if she can quote me. I never see her again, and it’s a couple of years before I even read the book on which the practice is based.

But I am changed. I know that I was once a different kind of animal, wild, a member of a herd. Somewhere inside me, the spirit and even the bone-memory of that wildebeest still lives. I have a different view of the human place in the scheme of things, and, very slowly, that different view begins to change my life.

Alison Leonard

The research on which this workshop was based is Where The Spirits Ride The Wind, by Felicitas Goodman, published 1990 by Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-20566-2.


Consumed by fire

Our fire at Woodbrooke

Our fire at Woodbrooke

Ray has added some beautifully atmospheric pictures of our Saturday night fire at Woodbrooke to our picture gallery

Full Moon Brigid

Brigid by Joanna Powell Colbert www.joannapowellcolbert.com

Brigid by Joanna Powell Colbert

Some years ago I wrote a poem about Bridget, the Celtic goddess of smith-craft, healing and poetry whose time of the year this is – Imbolc.

The poem is a sonnet – a very traditional, literary form of 14 lines with a strict rhyme scheme. (For the poetry students among you, the rhyme-scheme here is ABBA, ABBA, CD, CD, EE – though some of them are half-rhymes).

This strict form seems wonderfully inappropriate for the rebellious pagan heart, and I like the contrariness of that.

Full Moon Bridget

Pregnant as she is with silver fire
gently she takes as gift my molten soul
and channels it into her waiting mould.
High above, the stars present a choir
to sing the labour rising like a smoke
from all the sweated achings of my heart
there in the smelt: the rusted rock, the fraught
old ore from my beginnings, each break
of hope, each abandonment and fear.
Pouring, melding in the silver air,
it settles in her mould, and cools, and stills.
Then she prises it, and hurls. It falls
clang! on her anvil… I am taut, and taught
that I was wracked, and now I can be wrought.

Alison Leonard

Thanks to Joanna Powell Colbert for the use of her beautiful drawing of Brigid

Kevin’s recommended books

Waterlog by Roger DeakinWaterlog Roger Deakin £8.99 0099282550

Iinspired by John Cheever’s memorable classic short story The Swimmer, Roger Deakin decided, whilst swimming in his garden moat, that he would undertake his own adventure and swim across Britain.

Waterlog, is Deakin’s lyrical and evocative account of this journey as seeks out tarns high in the hills of north Wales, swims with salmon in Somerset and eels in the Fens. The British Isles are blessed with a whole variety of waterways often encompassed within beautiful valleys, rolling hills, green fields and rugged coast lines.

He describes the nature he sees around him from his unusual perspective inches above water level. This is a sight of Britain that only a frog will have experienced. His love of swimming away from the confines of a swimming pool comes through strongly in his writing. Wild swimming is an unusual hobby in modern society as we are constantly told how our rivers and lakes have become polluted by large industries disposing of waste via waterways and chemical fertilisers washing off farmers fields into out rivers. Well if the diversity of wildlife is any indication, I would say that the days of river pollution are behind us. What more powerful way of connecting to the natural countryside around you could there be, as you slip into the earth’s ecstatic skin and immerse yourself in the gentle current? The softness of the water on your skin will take your breath away. Either that or the temperature will.   A wonderful read. If this doesn’t get you swimming in the lake at Woodbrooke, alongside the Moorhens, nothing will! Buy at Woodbrooke

Soil and Soul Alastair McIntoshSoil and SoulAlastair McIntosh £8.99 1854109421

A must read, that I believe is as important for our generation as Silent Spring was to our parents.  Alastair McIntosh reckons that this book is his masterpiece and it is hard to disagree with him.  On the surface, it tells such stories as growing up in Lewis, land reform on Eigg and the spirited campaign that stopped the Harris superquarry.

But the real message of the book, and the reason why it has sold into five figures, is much deeper and wider. He uses factual campaign stories as a carrier to express the deeper stories of our times – the struggle of the human spirit to shine, the imperative of making community, the recovery of a credible spirituality. It’s an entirely factual book and yet much of its poetic impact derives from real-life magical realism. Alastair touches some of the deepest hopes and possibilities within us all.

I absolutely love this book. It took me out of myself and really challenged me to dig deep into finding my own ministry as a twenty-first century environmentally-challenged Quaker. Buy at Woodbrooke

Pandaemonium by Humphrey JenningsPandemonium – The Coming of the Machine Age as Seen by Contemporary Observers

Humphrey Jennings 0333638379

This may seem a rather unusual choice in a Quaker website bibliography but it is one that I turn to time and time again to help me put the rapid development of current technologies into historical perspective.  It is an extraordinarily moving anthology of how the human imagination experienced the full might of the Industrial Revolution.  The texts, dating from 1660 – 1886, are drawn from letters, diaries, old journals, reports, newspaper cuttings and novels to create a seamless narrative as the age of the machine unfolds.  Jennings (also a brilliant film-maker) had an exceptional combination of intellectual curiosity and a deep humanity that helped him draw inspiration from the most unlikely of sources.  Here is his text for the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851 – ‘But if the other parts of the Great Exhibition are curious and instructive, the machinery, which has been from the first the grand focus of attraction, is on the ‘shilling days’ the most peculiar sight of the whole. As you pass along you meet a member of the National Guard in his conical hat and red worsted epaulattes and then you come along a long, thin, bilious-looking Quaker with his tidy clean-looking Quakeress by his side’. Reminds me of the elders bench in Dublin when I was a very young child. Buy at Woodbrooke

Dirt - The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth
William Bryant Logan £14.95 1573225460

A beautiful and lyrical collection of short essays and meditations on Dirt, which as Logan writes in the book  ‘ Dirt is a good word. It goes straight back to the Anglo-Saxon and the Norse. Like “love,” “house,” “hearth,”, “earth,” “sky,” “wrath,” and “word ”   it is short and strong .  Therefore even before you know what it means you want to get a hold of it and chew it.’

He gets hold of dirt, with both hands, and dives deep into the humus and layers of geological strata to astonish our creative imaginations about this extraordinary substance.  The chapters headings alone sound like lines from a rooty fruity poem: Stardust, Sweet and Sour Soils, The Foundations of Cathedrals, Perception in Earthworms, The Theory and Practice of Manuring, The Dung Beetle, The Compost Man, Fire and Ice, Moonquakes,  The Theory of Silt,  Old Quarries and the Pharmacy of Molds.

This is a book to treasure and will make you realise that your garden soil is as alive and as riveting as a Victorian novel. Buy at Woodbrooke

First Communion

Lammas Sunrise, Glastonbury Tor

Dear Friends who gathered at Woodbrooke for the Pagan-Quaker weekend –

Just to thank you all for making the weekend so rich and creative.

Here is the poem about my ‘First Communion’. After years of frustratedly trying to connect with the Divine through the Anglican sacraments, and decades of peaceful worship in Quaker Meeting, this was my experience on Glastonbury Tor at Lammas in 1998:

First communion

Fifty-four years on a hill I’ve been
waiting for the wind to blow
and all it did was blow the other way.

Sixty-six women and a few men and kids.
Two of them specially got up at five
so as to be ready with this and that.

This was a corn sheaf, tacky, maybe varnished,
and that was sage, which means something,
I don’t know what. The incense wouldn’t light.

Someone played a flute, I only noticed
when it stopped. Dancing also ended
so we were still, and maybe wondering

what they would do, the two of them,
or we either. It was wonderfully simple,
they took a wooden bowl of seeds, a clay

goblet with sips of strong drink where you
could see an imprint of the potter’s rough thumbs
and waited for the wind to blow the spirit round.

I knew, seventeen women and a few men and kids
away, that this would be for me, true.
Fifty-four years of waiting fell down the hill

and I stood wet, alone, and part of it all.
There was nothing that was not me,
or Spirit, or wonder, or seed, or dancing.

Alison Leonard

Woodbrooke workshop booklist

Here are a few of the books that were selected by the Woodbrooke library team for our book trolley during the weekend. Warm thanks to Bettina Gray for her very thoughtful selection.

The Paganism Reader Chas Clifton and Graham Harvey 0415303532

‘The Pagan revival of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries endeavoured to revitalise ancient Pagan symbols and traditions into a meaningful spirituality for the contemporary West. The Pagan Reader is the first to bring together some of the formative writings that have given birth to the Pagan revival and gives readers a fascinating insight into influences on contemporary Pagan thought.’ – Vivien Crowley

‘If you’re wondering why people want to be pagans today – or want to be one yourself – this book provides you with a rich variety of pagan voices: guiding, feeling, thinking, arguing. Clifton and Harvey have given pagans a voice and an understanding of themselves – with enviable sympathy and authority.’ – Ken Dowden, Professor of Classics, University of Birmingham and author of European Paganism

Buy at Woodbrooke

Pagan Theology Michael York 0814797024

Michael York provides an introduction to, and expansion of, the concept of Paganism and provides an overview of Paganism’s theological perspective and practice. He demonstrates it to be a viable and distinguishable spiritual perspective found around the world today in such forms as Chinese folk religion, Shinto, tribal religions, and neo-Paganism in the West.

While adherents to many of these traditions do not use the word “pagan” to describe their beliefs or practices, York contends that there is an identifiable position possessing characteristics and understandings in common for which the label “pagan” is appropriate. After outlining these characteristics, he examines many of the world’s major religions to explore religious behaviours in other religions which are not themselves pagan, but which have pagan elements. In the course of examining such behaviour, York provides rich and lively descriptions of religions in action, including Buddhism and Hinduism (Description from Amazon.com) Buy at Woodbrooke

A faith to call our own Alex Wildwood 0852453124

The book forms the basis of Alex’s Swarthmore Lecture, given at Friends House in London in 1999. He provides fresh insights on early Friends and meeting for worship today, through a striking personal journey from institutional Christianity into feminism, therapy and ‘green’ spirituality, arriving at a re-visioning of our Quaker faith. Buy at Woodbrooke

The Celtic Year Shirley ToulsonThe Celtic Year Shirley Toulson 1852303611

Celebrate a full year’s worth of everything Celtic, from the lives of the Celtic saints to annual festivals and traditional tales handed down through generations uncounted. The rich essence of Celtic spirituality is revealed through an illustrated treasury of traditional prayers, accompanied by suggested pilgrimages to Celtic shrines and historic sites throughout the British isles, one for each month of the year. The pilgrimages are described in vivid detail, with maps, walking directions and colorful descriptions of what you’ll see along the route. And because not everyone can visit these sites in person, the journeys need not be undertaken in the physical sense, but rather they may be used as launching pads for your own spiritual journeys of discovery (from Amazon.com) Buy at Woodbrooke

Creation was Open to Me  An anthology of Friends’ writings on that of God in all Creation.  Compiled by Anne Adams.  0951876627 Published by Quaker Green Concern (now QGA).  Limited remaining stocks. Contact Friends House Bookshop, London

Rekindling community - Alastair McIntoshRekindling Community: Connecting people, environment and spirituality Alastair McIntosh 1900322382

Climate change, species extinction, war and alienation. These are just some of the threats that imperil our world. There is no single solution, but one thing is certain. Unless we learn how to rekindle community, all other efforts will wither on the vine. Alastair McIntosh’s Schumacher Briefing explores three integrated pillars of community – with one another, with the natural environment and with the spiritual ground of all being. McIntosh draws not just on his own extensive experience, but also on the work of a dozen associates at the Centre for Human Ecology – mostly his former students. These have carried out research into the spirituality of community regeneration, assisted by WWF International. Each of them provides a summary of their findings, weaving a rich tapestry that illustrates community.With its emphasis on spirituality, the Briefing examines the implications of living as if all life is interconnected. It addresses both the theory of community and its practical regeneration. The contexts range from remote islands to inner city deprivation and even the world of corporations and government. The results fortify our capacity to face the future and point to ever-deeper meanings of love (from Amazon.com) Buy at Woodbrooke

An introduction to Quakerism Pink DandelionAn Introduction to Quakerism Pink Dandelion 0521841119

Pink Dandelion thoroughly and thoughtfully describes the many aspects of Quakerism as they were and are lived. Especially good for serious inquirers, new Friends, and renewal study groups. Bibliography. Buy at Woodbrooke

The Quaker Condition Pink Dandelion and Peter CollinsThe Quaker Condition – The sociology of a liberal tradition Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins 1847185657

This book focuses primarily on what we have termed the Quaker Condition. It looks sociologically at the condition of present-day British Quakerism. This original and innovative collection contributes to several different, though obviously connected, fields within the study of religion. It operates on five levels. In the first place, the volume is the first to represent, substantially, the contribution of social science to the study of Quakerism and therefore provides useful comparative material for those whose focus is on other faith groups. Second , the book focuses largely on British Quakerism and so enriches the pool of resources relating to the sociology of British religion and British culture more generally Third , there are very few sociological volumes dedicated to the analysis of a single faith group. Fourth, the book represents an in-depth study of a liberal faith group, when liberal religion is the focus of much scholarly debate at present particularly with reference to the secularisation thesis. The study of British Quakerism is especially fascinating in this regard, given how the group can be described almost as hyper- or ultra-liberal, prefiguring many of the developments which may overtake currently more conservative groups. Fifth, the volume represents a particularly collective way of working of interest to all those concerned with the methodology of social research, with the design and construction of the volume jointly agreed by all the authors. Regular meetings of the group and a conference based on these chapters has culminated in a book far more interwoven and layered than a typical edited collection. Buy at Woodbrooke

Quaker Pagan, Pagan Quaker

Whilst Quakerism is rooted in the christianity, it is also open to new light from whatever source it may come (QF&P 1.02 §7)  and that for me is the revelatory springboard. ‘New light from whatever source it may come’ So, Friend go out and find it! When Alison and I ran our first Goddess and Green Man workshop at Woodbrooke four years ago, the ‘Pagan’ word was locked away in the closet.  For some Friends at that workshop, it was the first time they had uttered it in a circle of Quakers, and it proved to be a personal revelation when they did.  They weren’t eldered or admonished, or invited to attend a meeting for clearness.  They were accepted and loved as a part of the worshipping circle.  The poor old P word still carries a lot of baggage but one of the best interpretations I have read is on the BBC website – Pagann. One who adheres to a belief system outside that of established Orthodoxy. Two Quaker Pagans in Massachusetts run a really insightful blog about their spiritual journeys and their commentary on ‘What do you mean, Quaker Pagan?’ is the best I have ever read.

Kevin Redpath

Evaluating the weekend!

Woodbrooke Labyrinth by Joseph McGarraghy

Thank you so much for completing the evaluation forms, which really helps the Woodbrooke team to assess the course.

They also provide very useful feedback for Alison and me to design further courses.

What did you originally hope for in attending this event?

I hoped to learn about Pagan ways and celebrations and how they connected with the Quaker Way

Help with how to integrate my own pagan leanings with Quaker Orthodoxy

Confirmation that it is ‘alright’ to be a Pagan Quaker

Some understanding of the Quaker Way and about the Pagan Way too as I have been drawn to both but believed them to be mutually exclusive

Exploring where Pagan and Quaker ways touch and overlap and a clearer idea if where I stand on this

What, for you, was good about the event?

The generous acceptance of my ignorance and finding out that Pagan Quakers exist and maybe I can work towards being one

The sensuality, joy and juiciness of the activities. Connecting and re-connecting with like-minded people. Ideas on how I might find ways to embody my own spirituality and express my experience of the divine in ways which are personally meaningful

It dispelled some fears and it was good to be with like-minded people including the tutors

The fire! The walk! Licking dewdrops from the branches

The Woodbrooke ethos

What was not so good for you?

Could have used a little more discussion/analysis on how meetings deal with Pagan/Quaker spirituality

I would have liked to have learnt more about pagan ways

A lot of time thinking

How would you rate the event as a learning experience for you


Average 12.5%

Good  37.5%

Very Good 50%

Thinking of your experience of Woodbrooke as a whole, how would you rate it?



Good 12.5%

Very Good 87.5%

Alison’s recommended books

In the Footsteps of the GoddessChristina Biaggi £14.95 1879198304

Cristina Biaggi has gathered together an extraordinary circle of women (and some men) and allowed us to eavesdrop as they recount their poetic, illuminating and deeply moving stories of meeting the Goddess. One of the best things about this book is the variety of people and experiences. The goddesses encountered come from every corner of the world and from a multitude of religious traditions; the writers include the famous and the less well known. Some accounts, like Sandra Barnhouse’s tale of meeting the Goddess in a field of corn, took my breath away. What a treat to have at your bedside. There are passages here you will want to read aloud to your closest friends.” — Margot Adler Buy at Woodbrooke

A Celtic Devotional Caitlin Matthews £11.59 0717137465

Drawing from the spiritual current of Celtic tradition, which encompassed all aspects of daily life with prayer and invocation, and from Celtic Christianity, Celtic Devotional combines traditional blessings with specially written prayers and meditations. Many new prayers, blessings, and ceremonies appear in this revised edition of a much-loved book. The marking of time by prayer or special periods of devotion is common to all spiritualities. This book follows the seasonal pattern of the Celtic world. It is divided into five sections; the first four correspond to the Celtic seasonal quarters of the year. The last one contains prayers and blessings for special occasions.                                Buy at Woodbrooke

Where the Spirits Ride the Wind – Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences  Felicitas Goodman  £12.99 0253205662

“The book is clearly written for the general reader and includes many descriptions of trance experiences. It may serve as a good introduction to the nature and appeal of the shamanic revival in modern Western cultures.” — Theological Book Review

“… a case study in experiential anthropology that offers a unique mix of autobiography, mythology, experiential research, and archaeological data to support a challenging thesis — that certain body postures may help induce specific trance states.” — Shaman’s Drum Buy at Woodbrooke

The Serpent and the Goddess – Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland Mary Condren  £18 (secondhand)

‘One for the theologians amongst you!’ Using Ireland as a case study, this book provides an account of the decline of matriarchal power in Western civilizations and analyzes its implications for today’s women and today’s Catholic Church. From the age of Eve to the age of Brigit to the age of Mary, the author traces the rise of patriarchial consciousness. Mary Condren is a former editor of Student Christian Movement Publications and the author of articles on men written for feminist liberation theory. The author has taught in the Women in Religion Program at Harvard University. Buy from Woodbrooke

Paul’s pictures added to workshop gallery

Lickey Hills Green Man sculpture

Some beautifully atmospheric pictures, taken by Paul,  of the sculptures and trees on the Lickey Hills, have been added to our workshop gallery

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