Authors: Brian Bates
Tales of an Anglo-Saxon Sorcerer
© Brian Bates, 2004
The moral rights of the author have been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced by any mechanical, photographic or electronic process, or in the form of a phonographic recording; nor may it be stored in a retrieval system, transmitted or otherwise be copied for public or private use, other than for ‘fair use’ as brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews, without prior written permission of the publisher.
The author of this book does not dispense medical advice or prescribe the use of any technique as a form of treatment for physical or medical problems without the advice of a physician, either directly or indirectly. The intent of the author is only to offer information of a general nature to help you in your quest for emotional and spiritual wellbeing, In the event you use any of the information in this book for yourself, which is your constitutional right, the author and the publisher assume no responsibility for your actions.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN 9781848504486 in Mobipocket format
ISBN 9781848504493 in Epub format
PART I: The Way of Wyrd
PART II: Journeys into the Spirit World
About the Author
When The Way of Wyrd was first published in 1983, few people knew about Anglo-Saxon spiritual teachings—or even that there were any! People of English, West European and Scandinavian heritage had been left with the sense that wisdom traditions were something other cultures had. We could learn from them, but we did not have such a deep inheritance from our own past. However, in the twenty years since, times have changed. The huge response to this book worldwide over the past two decades has inspired many thousands of people to learn more about this sacred heritage.
At its heart is the experience of ‘wyrd’. Today, the term ‘weird’ means something strange, bizarre or supernatural. But in its archaic and original sense, it meant that aspect of life which was so deep, so all-pervasive and so central to our understanding of ourselves and our world that it was inexpressible. Wyrd refers to our personal destiny. It connects us to all things, thoughts, emotions, events in the cosmos as if through the threads of an enormous, invisible but dynamic web. Today, through a deep connection with wyrd, we are inspired to see our lives in a new and empowering way. It restores our experience of the healing power of love, nature and creativity. It is about letting into our lives the guidance of an extended universe of spirit.
The wellspring of interest in The Way of Wyrd led to support from other traditions. People affiliated with Christian, Buddhist, Taoist and other religious organizations requested instruction in wyrd, as well as those already associated with Western earth-based spirituality, such as Wicca and Druidry.
In particular, Native Americans have recognized through this book an affinity with the beliefs and practices of ancient England and the associated peoples of old Europe. Their Worldwide Indigenous Science Network is helping me to establish a research and training programme to recover ancient Anglo-Saxon tribal wisdom and to bring it to the forefront of 21st-century inspiration. In my work as Senior Adviser to the Ford Foundation-funded project on worldwide indigenous wisdom—called ‘The Council of Elders’—I have worked closely with tribal elders, shamans and medicine people to protect and document their knowledge. In return, to mark their recognition of and respect for the ancient teachings of wyrd, and my work in its reconstruction, these elders recently honoured me with the title of ‘Wizard’—an ancient English equivalent to their terms for medicine people and sacred practitioners.
At the University of Sussex in England, I established and taught a large course in ‘Shamanic Consciousness’ and as a psychologist, I have introduced the concepts of wyrd to medical doctors, psychotherapists, ecologists, scientists and people in business. There are other influences at work too. Even our fantasy life has been newly energized by images from this world at once so ancient and yet so modern. J.R.R. Tolkien has been rediscovered in film and his The Lord of the Rings fantasy was inspired by the real Middle-Earth culture of the Anglo-Saxons. But today the teachings of the great wizards of the past are glimpsed not only in the shadowy guise of romantic fantasy figures such as Merlin and Gandalf.
The book you hold in your hands tells the story of a wizard and his apprentice in ancient England. But it is not a fantasy—it is based on historical facts, including a thousand-year-old wizard’s spellbook preserved in the vaults of the British Library. That manuscript is a handbook of healing remedies, sacred ceremonies and spiritual secrets—teachings for today from our ancient past.
For a thousand years, the concept and energy of wyrd have lain just beneath the surface of our consciousness in a shadow world, awaiting the time when it may again be needed in the light. Now is that time. This book is about that wisdom of wyrd, how we can rekindle it in the intimacy of our own lives and allow its light to illuminate our personal search for spiritual insight. The Way of Wyrd brings the wisdom of a wizard from the past to inspire your life today and to take you on a journey to discover the nature of your own soul.
Middle-earth is a term which evokes the time and culture of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and ancient Western Europe: a time of saga, spirits and sorcery. This book documents the teachings of a sorcerer from that culture, a spirt-diviner and mystic who practised his art in Anglo-Saxon England. His views of life and death, psychological and paranormal powers, omens and journeys into the spirit-world are chronicled by an apprentice who was the direct recipient of his knowledge. The book recreates and makes accessible a remarkable path to psychological and spiritual liberation; a way of being in the world that challenges our very notions of body, mind and spirit. I believe the teachings of the Way of Wyrd to be as potent and challenging today as they were a thousand years ago.
I am a psychologist and this book is a report of a major research project into the nature of Anglo-Saxon sorcery.
Although the book tells the compelling story of a sorcerer and his apprentice, it is not strictly a work of fiction, for the mission, historical settings, sequence of events, details of the teachings—even the character of Wulf, the sorcerer—are reconstructed from research evidence. A bibliography of the main sources is provided at the end of the book. The Way of Wyrd had its beginnings in the early 1970s when I was researching, both as a psychologist and in my personal life, the teachings of Zen and Tao. But I soon became interested in discovering Western parallels to these remarkable Eastern traditions, for it seems to me that every culture has at some time in its history evolved teachings and techniques which enable individuals to transcend the layers of conventional reality to experience a separate vision: a dimension in which our notions of time, space and causality are suspended. I began searching for a Western tradition which might encompass some of the perspectives of the East.
After some interesting but false starts in alchemy and medieval witchcraft, I came upon a thousand-year-old manuscript from the Anglo-Saxon period, preserved in the British Museum (ms Harley 585). It is a collection of magical/medical remedies probably recorded by Christian monks in the tenth century, but reflecting a tradition several hundred years earlier. In contrast with other monastic collections, which were usually translations of classical medical texts from the Greek, this particular manuscript records the medical practice of pagan practitioners operating within the indigenous Anglo-Saxon culture. Each magical/medical remedy has one or more of the following features: a plant-based concoction to be applied to the patient, a set of rituals associated with the treatment and an incantation, spell or charm to be sung as part of the treatment. In the text of these magical remedies, I saw the possibilities of finding a Western spiritual tradition containing some of the features of the systems of the East.
The medical manuscript has been translated into modern English several times by Anglo-Saxon scholars, but has never been subjected to the depth of psychological analysis that formed the basis of this research project. Using the medical remedies as a focus, I began research in two directions. The first was to build a picture of the world in which the Anglo-Saxon sorcerer lived and worked, a task which led me into areas as far afield as the history of medicine, comparative mythology, Anglo-Saxon archaeology, folklore, Old English literature and, of course, the social history of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. The second line of research concerned humanistic and transpersonal theories of psychological development, altered states of consciousness and psychological studies of traditional Eastern spiritual disciplines. The evidence very quickly confirmed that in a then very heavily forested land, populated by perhaps one million people divided into small, competing kingdoms, there thrived a powerful tradition of sorcery and mysticism. Individual sorcerers practised healing and divination, presided over worship rituals and festivals, and sometimes served as advisers to the kings. Most importantly, analysis of the evidence has revealed that the teachings, beliefs, practices and ways of initiation of Anglo-Saxon sorcery constituted a Western way of psychological and spiritual liberation.
By AD 1000 the sorcerers and mystics of the indigenous population had been largely replaced by Christian missionaries, at least in the official circles of courts and kings, although of course the popular appeal of the traditional ways survived for a further several hundred years. The women practitioners—sorceresses who had for the most part been ignored by the original Christian missionaries—continued to flourish for so long that, several hundred years later, the institutionalized church had to mount the now infamous witch-hunting trials in an effort to control their activities.
Elements of Anglo-Saxon sorcery and mysticism survive today only in fragmentary form, but similar concepts and perspectives are undergoing a dramatic resurgence in the last third of this century, particularly in the areas of medicine and healing, meditation and mysticism, parapsychology and personal transformation, ecology, and most recently in theoretical developments in the physical and natural sciences. Much of the work in these areas has profited from the teachings of the great Eastern spiritual traditions, which complement our scientific and technological developments in important ways. I believe that we may equally well enrich our notions of life and of being in the world by travelling in time into our own cultural past as by travelling in miles to study distant cultural traditions. The Way of Wyrd is a path to knowledge that offers teachings, concepts, perspectives and experiences that speak to us with a provocative and compelling relevance to modern existence.
While the reader may find within this book teachings of personal significance, there are a number of general and far-reaching dimensions of The Way of Wyrd which are immediately apparent. Most fundamentally, the Middle-earth sorcerer lived out a view of life called wyrd; a way of being which transcends our conventional notions of free will and determinism. All aspects of the world were seen as being in constant flux and motion between the psychological and mystical polarities of Fire and Frost: a creative, organic vision paralleling the classical Eastern concepts of Yin and Yang, and echoed by recent developments in theoretical physics in which the world is conceived as relationships and patterns. Following from the concept of wyrd was a vision of the universe, from the gods to the underworld, as being connected by an enormous all-reaching system of fibres rather like a three-dimensional spider’s web.
Everything was connected by strands of fibre to the all-encompassing web. Any event, anywhere, resulted in reverberations and repercussions throughout the web. This image far surpasses in ambition our present views of ecology, in which we have extended our notions of cause and effect to include longer and more lateral chains of influence in the natural world. The web of fibres of the Anglo-Saxon sorcerer offers an ecological model which encompasses individual life events as well as general physical and biological phenomena, non-material as well as material events, and challenges the very cause and effect chains upon which our ecological theories depend.
The Anglo-Saxon sorcerer dealt directly with life-force, a vital energy which permeated everything but which in humans was generated in the head, flowed down the spinal column and from there throughout the body. This system of energy, which has intriguing similarities to Eastern concepts of prana and chi, encapsulated physical, psychological and spiritual domains within a single, unified system. The manipulation of life-force was central to the sorcerer’s healing work and has implications for much of the contemporary debate in holistic medicine concerning mind/body interaction, healing energies and complementary approaches to health. Life-force connected individual human functioning with the pulse of earth rhythm, a psychological and spiritual dimension of life which has been excluded by our technological cocoon.