Elen Sentier: British Shaman
Elen Sentier walks in the Deer Trods of Elen of the Ways, and has written about this and many other magical topics. She is awenydd, spirit keeper, and keeps old British ways alive, passing them on for future generations. Elen spoke to Mabh here at Pagan Pages about her books, her magical life and more.
Mabh Savage: Your most recent release is Merlin: Once and Future Wizard. What inspired you to write this volume?
Elen Sentier: Well, actually, my publisher had the idea and commissioned it. It was great fun, and it seemed that he was thinking about Merlin at the same time as I was, and more than that, he didn’t want yet another academic-style treatise but something more personal. Our conversation ended with me saying, “Well, I’ve known him [Merlin] all my life.” To which Trevor replied, “Well, you’d better write him then.” Trevor also dreamed up the title – Merlin: Once & Future Wizard. He must have read the English author TH (Tim) White’s lovely sequence of Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King. It certainly fits Merlin as I’ve always known him.
MS: What were the biggest challenges writing this book? And what did you enjoy the most about it?
ES: Oooo heck! Challenges … I suppose, really, the worst was, and still is, exposing myself. In this day and age of debunking, especially esoteric stuff, it’s very scary to come out about have a personal relationship with someone known as perhaps the most famous wizard in the world. I could imagine the comments of “Oh come off it!”, and the potential shredding by academics. I talked about it with my husband who reminded me of the Hamlet quote, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” It worked, began a new way of feeling for me. And then I remembered some work, early on, with my psychology teacher, Ian Gordon-Brown. He disagreed with an experience I’d had in an active imagination exercise, shredded it in fact. Then, at the end of the session he came over to our little group and said, “Wait! I must say something. I’m sorry, Elen, you were right and I was wrong. Your experience is yours, I should not have shredded it.” Remembering those two things, Hamlet and Ian Gordon-Brown, gave me a new vision of reality, and so the courage to get on and write the book as Trevor had asked me to.
I still worry, on and off, now, and I’m slightly nervous when people ask me about it, but I’ve got a handle on it now. It’s mine, it’s real, it happened and – even more important for me – it’s useful to others.
What did I enjoy most? Oh, the memories. I loved reliving the memories. Time-travelling. That’s what you do when you go over memories, you travel in time. Remembering the journey with my French teacher, when I was sixteen, was amazing and has encouraged me to spend a week in Brittany this summer, going there on my own two feet instead of in a spirit-journey. There was also a wonderful closeness feeling as I retold the story of how I came to live where I do. That’s all Merlin. After all, hereabouts is both one of his birthplaces and, nearby, is one of the places where his crustal cave is in the stories. I’ve been there, to the top of the little mountain called Mynydd Myrddin, taken students there, and every one of us has had a marvellous journey to the cave.
MS: Your author page tells us you grew up surrounded by mythology and cunning folk. What’s the most enduring memory of your formative years on Exmoor?
ES: There are so many! I loved going out with Uncle Jack. Sometimes we would sit under a tree most of the night, in the dark, watching and listening to the wild night-animals come round us. We sat very still, I learned what fun it was to be still from a very early age, how wildlife would come up to you, and that if you screamed and fussed and shouted you never got to see anything. Uncle Jack could call wild hawks down to his wrist, and owls too, and I’ve sat beside him when he had an adder twined round his wrist, stroked her even. And I can still call owls now, and ravens.
MS: What inspired you to pass on the old ways of British shamanism and magic?
ES: I think it was the shouting! Otherworld can be rather like the Vogon guards in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I sometimes think they’re only in it for the shouting! They pestered me, shouted at me, hung spirit-carrots in front of me to lure me on, fed me fun happenings, and generally coerced me into passing them on. And they’re right, it’s great fun, students are great fun and so are readers. Readers quite often come back to me, through Facebook usually, with comments and questions and descriptions of things that have happened to them. I love this, and I often learn from them too. I’m always happy when I get feedback from readers.
Also, I feel it’s absolutely vital that we remember that, here in Britain, we have our own tradition. Archaeology tells us there’ve been humans here for at least one million years, and they even found little goddess amulets. Then there’s the cave with the sophisticated abstract reindeer drawing over in West Wales; the faint scratchings on the wall show a reindeer with a spear in its neck, and date back 14000 years. We have plenty to know and learn here, from our own spirit of place, spirit of Britain, we don’t need to look abroad, and the world will be richer for us remembering and bringing the old ways to light.
MS: Do you feel more at home in the Welsh Marches than you did on Exmoor, or does each place have its own magic for you?
ES: I love both, and Dartmoor too which is where I was born and lived until I was about seven years old. And part of my soul always lives in the far north Highlands of Scotland, in Assynt, and also on Orkney. I have spirit-memories from many places. I love living in the Welsh Marches now, it’s home, and although I still travel it wonderful to come back. And I love going back to Exmoor which I do with my students every autumn for their practical workshops. Each one has its own magic, its own spirit of place within the over-lighting spirit of Britain.
MS: Do you have a favourite book that you have penned so far?
ES: Very difficult, I’ve loved writing them all. I think, if pushed, I go back to the novels. I love writing fiction and all my fiction is bound up with the old ways of Britain while, at the same time being stories of mystery, danger and love. I’ve learned a great deal throughout my life from reading good fiction, probably more from that than from non-fiction, after all we all live a good story, don’t we? I hope I’m slowly contributing to those.
MS: And what’s your favourite book to read for pleasure?
ES: It changes all the time, with my mood, the seasons, the weather. If the house was burning down, or I was about to be dumped on the desert island I’d have to demand to be left with more than one. At the moment the choice would be The Wood Wife by Terri Windling, The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart, Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K le Guin, and the 10 Amber novels by Roger Zelazny. There, you see? All fiction LOL.
MS: Who or what inspires you the most, either as an author or as a magical person?
ES: Waking up every day to something new to do. Working for otherworld – which is what I do – is such fun, and anything that’s fun inspires me. I really do get something new to do, write, explore, teach, tell, draw, paint, sing or just enjoy, every single day. Oh, and the dreams each night are good too *smile*.
MS: What new books can we expect from you in the coming months/years?
ES: Well, I’m under contract to finish the Numerology book at the moment, it should go into production over the summer. Then I’m contracted to do a compilation book called “Conversations with Witches”. It will be a collection of conversations with witches coming from all sorts of British traditions and will be a lot of work but great fun to do. And I’m going great guns with the third novel too. It’s another mystery, and romance, set in London and down in the Cathar country of southwest France, which I know very well. And no, it’s not another variation on the Da Vinci Code! It’s being great fun to write and I hope you’ll all enjoy reading it as much as I am writing it.
MS: Most people might not be aware that there is a tradition of British Shamanism. Can you tell us a little bit about being a British Shaman?
ES: Ooof! There is one fundamental principle to the old ways of Britain and that is to ask. We ask everything, all the time. Other traditions speak of anima (spirit or soul) in all things and we know this too, and we act on it. We ask the trees and the spirits of place, the rivers and the hills, and all the spirits of otherworld … but we also ask things many folk consider inanimate like our car, fridge, computer, teapot, the house we live in, the central heating, etc etc. That likely sounds fairly weird because most people are not used to it. But it works. You can ask my students if you like.
Asking, being able and willing to ask, put you in a whole different relationship with everything. By asking, you acknowledge it has spirit, is alive in its own way, can help you, and also has its own opinion on what you’re doing. That is truly acknowledging you are connected to everything. It’s hard to learn for many, they come to it in the middle of their lives, already very well ingrained in the idea that humans are top-dog and everything else is here just for us to use. Learning to ask tips all those ideas on their heads.
So we truly work with everything, knowing ourselves to be the most junior species on the Earth, and learning from everything else, for everything else is our elder brethren – and all shamanic traditions teach that, including ours.
MS: How have your presentations on Merlin, Thresholds and the Fatherless Child been received?
ES: Very well, very enjoyable. I’m now looking forward to do the workshop on it on 2-4 June at my home here in the Welsh Marches. There are a couple of places left … but probably not for long.
MS: Once and Future Wizard is a Pagan Portal, an introductory volume; would you expand upon this at any point to give us a larger volume on Merlin?
ES: I really don’t know. It’s one of the questions I’ll be asking when I go to Brittany this summer. I’ll be staying in what was the old Broceliande so it’s a good place to ask. It’s possible …
MS: What is your favourite time of the year, or festival, and how do you mark or celebrate it?
ES: I love all our seasons, and the eight seasons of the year in our old ways. The busiest season for me is from Midwinter through Sun-Return and on to 12th Night. I’m working every day then, partly because of the biodynamics we do. Midwinter is the turning of the year, the real new year because this is the time the sun itself turns around, from midwinter the days begin to get longer again, so this is my new year celebration, not the silly human calendrical 1st Jan. I celebrate from Midwinter’s Eve, 20th Dec, right through to the Wassail of 6th Jan. perhaps the most important part of the celebration is making the biodynamic potion of frankincense, gold and myrrh, the three things represent upperworld, middleworld and lowerworld. It begins on Midwinter’s Eve and the potion is gradually made up to 5th Jan then, on 12th Night (6th Jan) I sprinkle it on the garden.
MS: And finally, what are you looking forward to most in 2017?
Finishing the novel! It has to be that, I’m loving writing it but I need to get it out there … it needs to come to birth.
Mabh Savage is a Pagan author and musician, as well as a freelance journalist. See is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft. Follow Mabh on Twitter, Facebook and her blog.