A pleasure to have John Matthews here with us on Examiner. We will be discussing materials from two of his books entitled "Walkers Between the Worlds: The Western Mysteries from Shaman to Magus" and "Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman". Centering on the spirituality and beliefs contained within and focusing on Celtic Shamanism. John is a wealth of knowledge and I have grown up reading his books and his wife Caitlin's works as well. Caitlin who often writes with him and both of course have their own projects. Besides the sheer wisdom of the topics involved, their dedication and stamina impress me heavily when it comes to creating so many great materials. I hope you enjoy this interview. Presenting.
1. Could you tell us your motivation behind creating your two books Walkers Between the Worlds: The Western Mysteries from Shaman to Magus and Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman?
JM: When Caitlín and I is first came up with the idea for walkers between the worlds – or is it was originally called: The Western Way – we wanted to create an overview of the Western mystery tradition, which at that time, back in the 1980s, was far less widely known about than it is today. We had actually met a senior Orientalist at a party who, when we were introduced to him as followers of the Western mystery tradition, looked at us wisely, and said: “But surely, there is no such thing!’ On the way home at night, (despite the fact that this was obviously a generalization) we decided to prove that there was, and to write a book about it. In the end it became two books, one dealing with the Native Traditions, the other with the Hermetic; it took two years of intense research and lead us into some very interesting places – places which we have continued to explore ever since. My own book: Taliesin, came much later. I had been fascinated with the story of the sixth century bard that came from a collection of mythic stories known as the Mabinogion. But I’d never looked very carefully at the poetry. At the time, I was beginning to explore the world of the Shaman, and any possible remains of such a tradition in Britain. As I began to read the poetry attributed to Taliesin, I realized that what I was reading was actually a series of accounts of shamanic vision journeys, in which the poet had described his own experiences. But the translations, mostly from the 19th century, were not very good, or indeed accurate. So Caitlín and I sat down and started to make new translations of the poems. As we did so we found even more parallels between the world of the Celts and the worldwide practice of shamanism. In the end the book which became Taliesin: the last Celtic Shaman, was both a history and a study of where these two worlds met. After this I wrote The Celtic Shaman: A Handbook, which has become the text book underlying my own teachings of the tradition.
2. In Walkers Between the Worlds you connect the path of Shamanism and the path of the Magus in the Hermetic tradition. Could you go into this a bit?
JM: Though the path of the Shaman and the path of the magus may seem very different, in fact both are really about the same thing – a journey inward into altered states of being, exploring the inner nature of the cosmos from within. The Shaman journeys inward in a state of altered consciousness; the magus explores the inner worlds through ritual gesture, speech, and intent.
3. What are some differences between lets say Native American Shamanism and Celtic Shamanism? Are they very different or is there some cultural broad differences?
JM: There are very many overlaps between the shamanic practices of other cultures and our own. At one time shamanism was a worldwide practice, and we can find traces of it in most of the major continents. The differences are easier to spot, and are mostly to do with timing, seasons and natural surroundings. Here in the North of the world we have different animals, different traditions relating to the seasons. But essentially all practitioners and followers of shamanism work with the same ideas – a belief that everything is sentient and has spirit, traditions of working with animal spirits, and knowledge meant of the ancestors, and so on.
4. In Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman you share his poetry and story. Could you tell us a bit about Taliesin and tell us why he was the last Celtic Shaman?
JM: Most of what we know about Taliesin comes from a collection of 77 ancient poems preserved in at manuscript known as The Book of Taliesin. This is actually a mediaeval book, and therefore written down a long time after the sixth century, when Taliesin supposed to have lived. But what’s interesting is that the mediaeval writers, who were monks, preserved so much of a much older tradition. The other part of the story is contained in a 14th century account known as the life of Taliesin. This tells of an initiation, of shape changing, of rebirth, in terms that are very clearly shamanic. The subtitle the last Celtic Shaman was actually applied by the publisher, and not by me, but it seemed to fit quite well. Not of course, that Taliesin was the very last Celtic Shaman, but that he represents the end of an era in which the people of this country were still connected to their traditional roots. So the poetry, and the story, really represent something much more ancient than the period in which they were written down. Today we can scarcely imagine the world in which Taliesin may have lived, but I believe we can still learn from his work. Hence the book.
5. Would you share a poem or two with us from Taliesin?
JM: For copyright reasons I can’t share a whole poem with you, as these are all included in the book, but here are some lines from one of my favorites, which will give you some idea of the style and content of the poems.
"I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech,
in the shape of satirizing fox,
in the shape of a sure swift,
in the shape of a squirrel,vainly hiding.
I have fled in the shape of a red deer,
in the shape of iron in a fierce fire,
in the shape of a sword sowing death,
in the shape of a bull, relentlessly struggling.
I have fled in the shape of a bristly boar
in the shape of a grain of wheat.
I have been taken by the talons of a bird of prey
which increased until it took the size of a foal.
Floating like a boat in its waters,
I was thrown into a dark bag,
and on an endless sea, I was set adrift."
'The Consolation of Elphin' attributed to Taliesin
Trans by John & Caitíin Matthews
6. How are Taliesin's works keys to the Arthurian legends and what is the connection?
JM: The existing works by Taliesin, or attributed to him, are not really Arthurian, though there is a very strong tradition that he became Arthur’s bard. There is one exception to the above statement, and that is an extraordinary poem known as Prieddu Annwfn, or the raid on the in world. This dates from the ninth century, and describes a voyage made by Arthur in search of a great cauldron, in the possession of the Lord of the underworld. Arthur and his warriors set out in search of it and encounter many mysterious creatures. This story is almost certainly the earliest version of another quest, far more familiar in its medieval guise as the quest for the Grail. Both Catlin and I have written extensively about this in several books.
7. In Walkers Between the Worlds you share practical exercises to reawaken mystical awareness and reconnect with the ancient mystery traditions of our ancestors. Would you share one with us?
JM: Again for copyright reasons I can’t really share these literally. But one of the exercises involves a visualization in which the practitioner imagines walking around a lake and between two trees. This is actually a very ancient meditation device, which we have used many times over the years. It offers a way into the other world, and to an exploration of that world which anyone can do.
8. Would you be willing to share some Celtic knowledge with us from their belief system that you find fascinating?
JM: I think if I had to pick one single instance of the beliefs of the Celtic people I would say that it is their connection to the natural world. This gave rise to so much of their practice on a daily basis. A good example of this would be the so-called alphabet known as Ogham, or sometimes as The Tree Alphabet. The letters - or perhaps signs would be better word - were created by making parallel strokes either to one side or other or crossing a single line. A whole world of associations existed for these letters, so that one could mention a tree, a pig, a wolf, or birds in flight, and in so doing pass on a message which only someone else who understood the alphabet could understand.
9. When it comes to shapeshifting in the Celtic tradition what is your perspective on it? I have interviewed many medicine men from Native belief systems but never Celtic. Is it an actual changing or more of a taking on of the traits of specific animals in their human bodies?
JM: Within the Taliesin story, as I mentioned, is a very clear indication of a belief in shape shifting among the Celts. Taliesin undergoes an initiation in which he takes on the form of various animals, each one associated with one of the elements. In the end he enters the womb of the goddess Ceridwen, and is reborn to her. In Irish tradition we hear of Tuan mac Carill who spends several lifetimes in different form, being reborn as animal bird or fish as he transmigrates through time. I’m not sure whether we are supposed to see this in a metaphorical way, or as an actual change of shape, but my suspicion is that this is a spiritual discipline that involves becoming other things – not just animals, but objects as well as Taliesin describes in his poetry.
10. What is John Matthews up to next book wise and project wise and any departing words you'd like to share on Celtic Shamanism or anything else as we end this communication? Thank you.
JM: Right now I’m just putting the finishing touches to a new oracle deck, known as the Oracle of Dr John Dee. This will be published next spring by Connections Publishing in Britain, and Llewellyn in the United States. Just about to be published is The Steampunk Tarot, Gods of the Machine, (Connections/Tuttle) written in collaboration with Caitlín, and illustrated by our friend and colleague Wil Kinghan. This is something of a departure for us, but it does bring the ancient tarot tradition right up-to-date, pushing it well into the future, as well as basing it within a fantastic Otherworld of Victorian and Edwardian life. After that I have two other tarot decks coming, though it’s too early to talk about these in detail. I’m also working on a book called The Shamanism Bible, for a series of books on various subjects published by Octopus. I’m nearly always working on four or five projects is a time, and at the moment also deeply involved in creating two documentaries, and raising funds to make a feature film with my own small production company Mythwood films. So there’s certainly plenty of things to for me to get on with.
Jeffery Pritchett is the host of The Church Of Mabus Show bringing you high strange stories from professionals in the carousel of fields surrounding the paranormal.