Was it the sound of the wind or the bird song
from the meadow that brought Olwen’s voice
to me that day, as I sat on the edge of
the earth mound at Old Sarum
on the Salisbury Plain, in England? I looked through
her eyes, and saw life as it was then.
She spoke through me, telling her story.
(introduction to "DRAGONS IN THE SKY: A Celtic Tale.")
When I was 17 years old, in my last year of high school, I wrote a novel about a girl in Thebes who was kidnapped on her wedding day by Macedonian soldiers who had stormed the citadel and killed or took citizens as slaves in retaliation for the Thebans defying Alexander the Great. It was a monumental work for a kid like me aspiring to be a writer, and although it did make it to the hands of a publisher, I was advised to put it away until I and my writing had 'matured', then rewrite it. I had become entranced by Alexander at the age of 16 and spent many hours researching his life. Some years later, when I looked at the old manuscript I was amazed at the detail of research that had gone into it and people asked me if I thought I had ever really 'been there' because I seemed to know the characters and settings so well. I puzzled over this. How could a girl of a Celtic background ever come to know so much about ancient Greece and the people who populated Alexander's world. Had I 'been there' in another lifetime? I put away that old manuscript, but kept pondering this question.
I don't recall exactly when it was that Olwen first 'spoke' to me. I know it was some months before I embarked on a trip overseas with a stop in southern England to visit Aunt Edie, an elderly woman who was a psychic and the last remaining member of a coven. I had already 'heard' some of Olwen's story before that time, but wasn't sure as yet where it was she had lived. This is partly what she 'told' me on our first connection:
On the southern plain of Albion, where the borders of our tribe enclose the Great Stone Circle, the hill fort of Caer Gwyn guards the passages of the Chalk Trail. In this day only a mound of earth rises out of the grassy fields like an inverted bowl, but when I was a child there were greenwoods and beech groves where I collected roots and herbs, and an oak grove where the Druids worshipped at a secret shrine. The Druids are the Oak Seers and they know all the Mysteries.
Our village was enclosed within a circular palisade of staves. It was a small village with wattled huts, like rounded straw stacks with low roof thatches. Inside the stockade an outer circle of stables and cattle sheds ringed the craftsmen’s huts; then the houses of the freemen, and in the centre of the whorl, like the hub of a wheel, stood the timbered lodge of my grandfather, the elder priest.
Outside the palisade, the fields were bright with wild flowers and our cattle grazed in the lush green pastures along the muddy river bank. Our yeomen herded cattle and raised small crops of barley and wheat, protected by the warriors of the King’s Royal War Band who kept our borders safe from the raiders of rival tribes
My idea of what Olwen's settlement looked like
A few months later I was in southern England visiting Aunt Edie, on my way to Stonehenge. Aunt Edie instructed me to go into the inner circle there to 'see what spirits' I could conjure. (At that time you could still get into the inner circle.) The day I went there weren't many other people around so it was an extra-special experience standing in the midst of the tall ancient stones. Nothing much happened while I was there, but later as I waited for a bus at the Salisbury bus depot I noticed a sign advertising "Old Sarum" where there had been an Iron Age hill fort. I decided as I had time to kill, to wander there, about a 4 km walk beyond the town limits.
As I approached the site of the ancient earth mound, a strong feeling of deja-vus overcame me. I began to hear Olwen's voice again, speaking to me, and the closer I got to the site of the hill fort the stronger her voice and the feeling that I had been there before. I knew that this was the place where Olwen's story had taken place.
Old Sarum hill fort
I have returned to Old Sarum several times, and each time I've learned more about the Iron Age settlements that were there at Olwen's time, around 325 BC. This past year I visited again and found this plaque that show what the fort had been like at her time.
Who was Olwen? In her own words, this is what she told me:
The Song Of Olwen
I am the Druid.
The Druids teach of the stars, the world
and the nature of the gods.
The Druids are the Spokesmen of the gods.
The Goddess speaks and says:
Olwen is the fairest among flowers,
daughter of the hawthorn,
Child of the Raven,
The Druid’s child.
Listen to my song: I am an honoured child.
I am Olwen, daughter of the Earth Mother,
Child of the Raven
My voice is the bird’s song: my music is the wind’s harp.
My guardian Essylt was a medicine woman and high priestess of our cult. She was small and bright-eyed, lively as a sparrow; but that winter seemed to tire her, and she began to look grey and care-worn. As the wind howled outside our wattled hut she brooded and I saw her watching the flames of the hearth fire, staring silently as though her thoughts had drifted off to other worlds. She kept me busy taking votive offerings to the woodland shrine. The snow was too deep on the trail for her to struggle through, but I made a child’s game of it, and kept the pathway tramped clear, carrying offerings of things like dried berries, cups of grain, and sometimes a sprig of mistletoe.
The winter’s cold took its toll. Almost every day Essylt went out to administer medicines, or to say some words of enchantment against the Raven of Death. We could not wait for the spring thaw to lay our dead in their barrows, so the bodies were burned on pyres outside the palisade. Most of the victims of the raw weather were the old ones, but cone a little child wandered out into a storm and force, buried in a snow bank. I saw them carrying him home, like a stiff little pup, wrapped in a wolf skin. It grieved me for days, and in spite of the wind and the drifts that reached above my knees, I struggled to the woodland shrine, bringing the last sprigs of vervain to make a supplication for the Mother Goddess.
It was my thirteenth year with the Druids. I had learned all the incantations of magic before I was ten years old. Essylt, being a sorceress and diviner of the auguries, was both my guardian and my teacher. I called her Modryb, Auntie, because she had nursed me in infancy as though she were my natural mother. The Druid said my real mother died in childbirth. I would have been exposed for the wolves if someone had not brought me to the Great Stone Circle on the Plain.
The Druid was an old sage related to my father. His name was Maelgwyn but to me he was Grandfather. As elder priest of our tribe, and one of the Sacred Brotherhood of Derwydds, he knew the mysteries of the heavens and the secrets of the forest and he taught me these things.
Iron Age Village HousesDuring my research for "Dragons in the Sky" I have not only visited Old Sarum but also had the opportunity to see an Iron Age village at the St. Fagan's Heritage Village in Wales. These houses would be exactly like the ones Olwen described to me in her village of Caer Gwyn.
I listened to Olwen 'tell' me her story and wrote it down for more than a year. I felt I 'knew' the characters: Essylt was like Aunt Edie. Maelgwyn, the Druid, was like my dear old Welsh Uncle George. At the time I was taking some writing courses and the instructor kept insisting that I should write is in third person. About half way through the novel I took her advice and tried switching, but only succeeded in botching up the whole project. Discouraged, I set it aside and started working on a new novel — one that I intended to be a short juvenile historical about the little known son of Alexander the Great. After more than a year I showed this draft to another writer and explained it was difficult to write as a juvenile as it was a very political story. She suggested starting over, which I did, in multiple point of view. And of course the novel became a major piece of work spanning almost 15 years until recently it was finally passed on to an agent. Now I have returned to Olwen's world, retyping the old manuscript into the computer. I've finally reached the place where I left off but now I must channel Olwen's voice again. I don't remember how I wrote the Bardic verses that make up some chapters. I must capture the cadence of her voice and let her tell me the rest of the story which, yes, has an Alexander connection.
Now I wait, hoping to hear her speak, for her story is my story — a coming of age tale of adventure and self discovery.
Those days Caer Gwyn’s timbered Hall rang with the bard’s songs and in the hidden grove the Oak Seers prophesied Fortune, War and Death. Now the Council Hall and the King’s lodges have decayed into earth. The mound is bare except for small shrubs and wild grasses. The oak grove that once held the mysteries of the gods has been burned and ploughed into the soil.
Here, in the stillness of the summer afternoon, with the sun dappling the countryside a green-gold, and the air redolent with the scent of fallow earth and meadow grass, listen to the gods speak.
The God Speaks and says:
Who knows the secrets of the Oak grove? The spirits of priests and kings are here.