Author’s Note: The Valley is the second book in The Druid Chronicles, a five-part historical fiction series based on the premise that the remnants of a once powerful pagan cult have survived into the last years of the eighth century, a time when the conversion to Christianity is all but complete throughout the rest of the British Isles.
Had a previously-unknown populace maintaining otherwise lost traditions been discovered in the modern era, it would have been the subject of ethnographic study. Finding this idea intriguing and having the great good fortune to be acquainted with a socio-cultural anthropologist whose research interests have included the religious change among indigenous peoples, I ventured to ask whether he would join me in imagining a “key informant” interview with one of the stories three main characters.
Here I would like to give my grateful acknowledgement to Dr. John Barker, Professor Emeritus of the University of British Columbia and author of numerous publications including Ancestral Lines: The Maisin of Papua New Guinea and the Fate of the Rainforest, for his good-humored willingness to be the voice of the cultural anthropologist (CA) who interviews Olyrrwd (O), the chief healer of the Shrine of the Great Mother Goddess.
—A. M. Linden
[Note from the cultural anthropologist’s field records: The society under study is a small, isolated population of polytheistic Britons. The community has a hierarchical structure with upper classes of Druid priests and priestesses and lower classes that include the Druid’s servants as well as artisans and laborers. The reigning priests and priestesses subscribe to the belief that they are the mortal descendants of a supreme mother goddess whose spirit inhabits the body of their chief priestess. As a result of this conviction, that priestess wields absolute authority over their cult, although by tradition she rules with the advice of a high council that includes three men—their chief priest, Herrwn, who is a bard, Ossiam, their oracle, and Olyrrwd, their healer. The following is the record of an interview conducted with the healer Olyrrwd.]
CA: Thank you for agreeing to spend some time with me today. I’m a scholar amongst my people who attempts to learn about the ways of different communities so we can learn about the things we have in common and how we differ. Having given my solemn pledge not to reveal the secret of your valley’s location, your chief priestess has agreed to allow me to observe your daily life and ask questions. In return, I will answer as best I am able whatever questions you have for me. I have carried out this kind of work for many years. People usually find it interesting to hear the simple questions of an outsider, which often touch on aspects of their lives they don’t often think about.
O: As there are no seriously ill patients in the healing chamber and my assistant is brewing a particularly vile-smelling potion today, I am happy to be sitting here in the fresh air, so do ask as many questions as you wish.
CA: I understand that in your society, the chief physician usually prepares one of his sons to eventually replace him. Could you tell me about your own experience? Did you have a choice to become the healer, or was it simply expected of you?
O: There were three of us, me and my two cousins, going through what you might call our basic training together—getting the same lessons and expected to demonstrate our mastery of the men’s rites and rituals before being chosen for our discipleships. And yes, my father was the shrine’s chief physician, Herrwn’s the chief bard, and Ossiam’s the chief oracle. As for having a choice, no. Whether an initiate in our order is to be a healer, a bard, an oracle, or left relegated to the lower ranks of subpriests, is decided by a council of elders. And I will tell you, that on the day of my eighteenth birthday, when I waited on that cold stone bench at the bottom of the stairs to the tower where they were deciding my fate, I was quaking in my sandals. Then they came down the stairs, my father in the lead, and even before he put his finger out to touch my forehead as the sign I was to be his disciple, I saw the smile on his face, and that, I can tell you, was the happiest moment of my life.
CA: Was your father trained by his father? How many generations back does your line go?
O: Yes, my father was trained by his father, and, if my family’s stories are to be believed, the same is true going back to the first of our forbearers to be instructed in the healing of illness and treatment of injuries by—and here I quote my erudite cousin, Herrwn—“Amirddirenon, the first-born son of the Sun God and the Great Mother Goddess, who spent his short but brilliant life in human form bestowing the gifts of song and dance and healing on his mortal brothers and sisters.”
CA: What is the most valuable lesson you learned from your father?
O: To always give three reasons for the instructions you give your patients, for with only one or two, they will whine and complain, but with three, they will give up and do as they are told.
CA: I am learning about the goddesses and gods that look over your community. Are there particular deities associated with good health and with healing? If so, how do you approach them in your practice?
O: Hmmm . . . not counting conception, pregnancy and birth, which obviously are the concern of the Great Mother Goddess, that would be Amirddirenon. I make it a point to see He gets His share of the annual tribute, and when we’re hit with a plague, I say my evocations loud enough to try to get Him to stop dancing and help out. Beyond that, it’s mostly a matter of doing regular incantations to cleanse the healing chamber of the spirits of fevers and festering.
CA: The Christians say they brought a new powerful god to this land. Do you think that god is real? If so, does he have any influence on your practice?
O: Boastful buggers, those Christians. Still, I expect their god is as real as any of them. If I ever have any Christians to heal, I’ll give him an invocation or two and see how it works.
CA: You sit on your shrine’s high council. Does this mean that you principally serve the higher classes?
O: That seems to be Ossiam’s view of things, but no, like the rest of the upper ranks of priests and priestesses, I sit on both the high council, which is, at least in theory, there to provide advice to the chief priestess, and also on the low council, to which villagers bring their complaints to be resolved. The healing chamber is there for anyone who needs healing.
CA: Are there other types of healers in your community? If so, what do they do that is different from you?
O: Lucky you asked me that and not our chief midwife. She’d likely set you straight about what she does that’s different—delivering babies and tending to women’s ailments—and see if she’d let me offer a cup of willow bark tea to a village girl with her monthly cramps.
CA: In many societies, there are ‘wise women’ who provide medicines and healing practices for ordinary folk. They are also known to cast evil spells. Is this also true in your community?
O: No question about Rhonnon and rest of the midwives and herbalists being wise women. They know more than I do about potions and unguents, and—since you’re asking me—our supreme priestess would do well to listen to what Rhonnon has to say before she makes her decrees according to Ossiam’s reading of some goat’s guts. As for casting evils spells, I once made the mistake of offering Rhonnon my opinion of what to do for a servant’s inopportune pregnancy, and I can tell you I’m not about to risk getting the look she gave me again any time soon.
CA: Do you worry that healing knowledge you got from your ancestors might be lost over time? What steps do you take to make sure knowledge is preserved and passed down accurately?
O: [Interviewee rises abruptly and paces in a circle, clearly upset by this question.] You’ve been in our shrine—in our classroom! How many priests in training did you see? One! I’ve gone to the chief midwife and told her there need to be more boys born starting this year! All she says is that it’s too late for her, Aolfe or Lunedd to give birth, so unless Feywn changes her mind, we’ll have to wait for the priestesses in training to be old enough. But I’m not going to live that long so everything I know, every ingredient of every potion, every symptom of every ailment, every healing incantation, must be instilled in Caelym or it will die with me. [*See footnote.]
CA: In your community, three men serve as bard, oracle, and healer. In other places I’ve visited, individuals sometimes combine two or all of these roles—
[CA’s concluding entry: Before I was able to complete asking whether there were any conflicts between the interviewee and his cousins over how to share their one disciple’s training and, if so, how such disputes were resolved, the interviewee, who until this point had been amicably engaged in our exchange, turned and shouted, “Why are you asking that? Did Ossiam put you up to this? If Ossiam thinks he’s going to take Caelie away from me and turn him into a self-serving fraud—” He then broke off the interview and stamped down the path in the direction of the healing chamber. I deeply regret asking what was obviously an insensitive question and sent my apologies, but unfortunately received no response prior to my departure from the valley.]
*The chief midwife, Rhonnon, is a woman estimated to be in her mid-fifties, approximately the same age as Aolfe, the chief herbalist, and Lunedd, the keeper of the cult’s calendar. Feywn, the shrines supreme priestess and ultimate authority figure, appears to be in her late twenties. There are five priestesses in training, the oldest of whom is twelve. Caelym, the only priest in training, is fifteen. From other informants, I understand that priestesses choosing to have children may elect to take a consort from the available priests or become impregnated as part of a ritual conducted at the summer solstice. The reference to Feywn changing her mind seems to refer to their supreme priestess having taken a vow of celibacy following the death of her consort some years ago.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ann Margaret Linden was born in Seattle, Washington but grew up on the east coast, returning to the Pacific Northwest as a young adult. She has undergraduate degrees in anthropology and in nursing and a master’s degree as a nurse practitioner. After working in a variety of acute care and community health settings, she took a position in a program for children with special health care needs. where her responsibilities included writing a variety of program related materials. In a somewhat whimsical decision to write something for fun, she began what was to be a tongue-in-cheek historical murder mystery involving Druids and early medieval Christians. Prior to her retirement, this remained an after-hours endeavor that included taking adult education creative writing courses and researching early British history, and was augmented with travel to England, Scotland, and Wales. Over time, the characters seemed to acquire lives of their own and their story grew to become The Druid Chronicles.