Kristoffer Hughes is a native Welsh speaker, born to a Welsh family in the mountains of Snowdonia. He lives on the Island of Anglesey, Wales, the ancestral seat of the British Druids. His love of Celtic literature and traditions guided his path into the exploration and practice of Celtic Paganism. He is the founder and Head of the Anglesey Druid Order and studies with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.
He has worked professionally as a Anatomical Pathology Technologist at public mortuaries throughout the UK for the past 25 years. He is a semi-professional funeral celebrant, officiator and funeral advisor, having written and officiated 25 funerals.
Kris has published five books, including From the Cauldron Born: Exploring the Magic of Welsh Legend & Lore and The Journey Into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective On Death, Dying & Bereavement, which was just released in the US.
John: What attracted you to Druidry?
Kristoffer Hughes: It may sound like a cliché, but the concept of Druidry has always been a part of my life. Welsh children are generally brought up to embrace and also participate in the National Eisteddfod of Wales, which is presided over by an Archdruid and a Gorsedd of Druids, ranked into the three traditional divisions of bards, ovates and Druids. However, this is very much a cultural celebration that embraces language, music, the arts and above all, bardic prowess and skill. Ceremony and ritual are a rich aspect of the National Eisteddfod and the Gorsedd, albeit it is not conducted with any religious allegiance to any single tradition. It is Druidry without the spirituality.
Something about the pageantry and drama of it caught my imagination from an early age. It is something I am very much in love with to this day. But more than that, it captured my imagination and caused me to want to peer into the past and discover more about these Druids, who they were and what they did. I had always been in love with the mythologies of this land, many of which contain references to Druids. It was all of this that caused me to step onto the path of spiritual exploration. My initial exploration into Christianity did little to quench my thirst for the spiritual, and I eventually discovered that what I actually sought, what would nourish my spirit, was right here, right beneath my feet.
I didn’t necessarily identify it as ‘Druidry’ per se, and I was oblivious to the rise of Druidry in England and the rest of the Western World. The Eisteddfod seeks to express the Awen, it was all about the Awen for me, I took to a path that we refer to in Wales as ‘Awenyddiaeth’ or the language of Awen – this in turn was to lead me to the worldwide explosion in the interest of Druidry.
What is the heart of your Druidry?
I believe the answer to that question lies in one word – service. With my upbringing influenced by the National Eisteddfod the concept of service was taught to me from an early age. The bards, ovates, Druids and all other participants of the Eisteddfod serve the Awen, they become mouthpieces for the Awen itself. The Druidry that I practice is fundamentally based on the foundation of service – to the wider Druid community and to our local community. The Anglesey Druid Order works with our secular community to serve the island and its population, to promote the island’s rich heritage and ancestry, to educate and inform. It also serves the wider Druid community by offering workshops, ceremonies and teaching. By proxy of all this we serve the gods of this land, what we do is in honour of them and the ancestors, but I fear that subject would fill another book!
The gods, goddesses and mythological archetypes that now form a central aspect of my spiritual practice have always been a part of life. They were there before I was able to articulate them in a spiritual manner. Listening to the old tales of these lands in school was always like hearing news from home; it all tasted and felt so familiar.
I used to make games with Pwyll and Pryderi in the woods at the back of my Grandmothers house; I would battle on a little bridge with the mystical Hafgan pretending that I was Pwyll in Arawn’s form. I would embark on great adventures into the mountains in search of the Twrch Trwyth boar from the legend of Culhwch ac Olwen, although I probably never veered more than a mile from home! I spoke with Math and Gwydion in the woods and with them I would stir a cauldron (well actually an old tin bath!) and summon the maiden of flowers. It was child’s play, sheer imagination and the wonder of invisible friends. I never once considered that these things did not exist – of course they existed, I used to play with them.
The mythical, sacred landscape that the legends sprang from is still my home, it sings of this place, of a connection between a people and its land. One can hear the song of the valleys, the mountains and the forests in the native myths of Wales; they are the history of the heart, the voice of a people that have inhabited this land for millennia. The Druidry that I practice is mytho-centric, wherever I go in my homeland the gods and archetypes are there, written in the landscape, and falling from the lips of our bards. My relationship with the old Celtic gods has only changed slightly; deep down, I am still that same child who would summon them and make games with them in the woods – I genuinely hope that that will never ever change.
Sometimes people speak of the Celts in the past tense, as if referring to something that has been and gone, but we haven’t gone anywhere – we are still here. All of this inspires and strengthens my connection to the land. I am man in love with a place.
What let you know you needed to found a new Druid order?
In 1990 I was one of a handful of individuals who established a small group to explore our native spirituality; we called it Cylch Awenydd – The Circle of Those Who Are Inspired. Whilst we generally just stumbled along an ill-defined track, we actually did learn an awful lot about the significance of Anglesey to the ancient Druids and the richness of culture and spiritual expression that lay just beyond the mists of time.
And then, one blustery winter day I stumbled across the records of the Anglesey Druidical Society who were formed in 1717. This charitable company of wealthy men sought to give something back to the island’s populace, and they did some pretty amazing things, and all under the guise of Druids, albeit in the image of those created by the Romantic Movement. But they did something remarkable: they sought to honor the island’s druidic past.
Suddenly other members of Cylch Awenydd started voicing that perhaps we should establish something that sought to rekindle that spirit, to re-establish a seat of learning. So in 1999 we changed the group’s name and started to formulate our mission for the future – the Urdd Derwyddon Môn (Anglesey Druid Order) was born.
How did you come up with the idea of forming an in-person teaching order, as opposed to a distance-learning order like OBOD?
The Order’s training programme was developed over several years and is continuously evolving. The in-person nature of the course just felt natural and organic. The course is based primarily on the development and nurturing of relationships and the primary one is with our patron deity Môn, the Mother of Wales. We could not fathom how one could be in relationship with Môn fully without actually being here, walking on her skin, and swimming in her waters. Our course was not created to compete with any other structured course or teaching, but to offer an experiential, hands-on, in-person experience of exploring Occult teachings in an incredibly magical place, and a place that has such a position in the history of Druidry. We have absolutely no plans on creating a correspondence course.
What have you learned from running a teaching order?
Oh my Gods, where do I even start to answer that question! We only take a maximum of 21 students a year, and every individual’s unique experience of the course brings something new to the table. As facilitators and teachers (there are four of us in total) we learn so much by-proxy of the students’ experience. I absolutely love the moments where someone recounts an experience or a journey into the themes that we explore and I think to myself “How did I not see that! That is amazing!”
The logistics of running a residential, immersive course has taught me a lot about organization, structure and the kind of mundane stuff that goes hand in hand with herding a bunch of Druids. But on a subtle level it is life-changing. The course is classroom based during the day and then in the evenings we engage with the landscape itself in a ritualistic sense, taking the students to meet some of the island’s most remarkable locations. Not only do I get to share this amazing stuff with so many people every year, but I also get to actually do it all over again, seeing things anew each time. You would imagine that the experience would always be the same, but on the contrary, every weekend – whilst the teachings follow the same pattern – the actualization of them is so different. I love it, absolutely love it.
You’ve recently started an Anglesey tour service. Given the large number of ancient sites on the island, how do you help visitors decide what to see in the time they have available?
Offering tours of the island’s sacred sites is something I have always enjoyed doing. For over 20 years I have been guiding tourists and pilgrims to some of the wonderful ancient monuments and sacred places of Anglesey.
In early 2014 I was invited to attend a tourism training day facilitated by the Anglesey County Council and tourist association. It was apparent that nobody was conducting tours that would appeal to those on a spiritual pilgrimage or with an interest in Anglesey’s Pagan heritage; the popular secular tours tend to focus on castles, churches and mills. I realized that I could combine my love of Anglesey with the fact that I love to talk! And so the tours were born.
Thus far they fit into my busy lifestyle rather well, and I thoroughly enjoy gauging what people would like to see and formulating an itinerary based on the amount of time they have on the island. Anglesey has a plethora of ancient, sacred places and many are off the beaten track, my knowledge of these places and their history is something that is a pleasure to share with those wanting to experience the islands magical past.
You work in a public morgue that conducts post mortem examinations on the bodies of the dead on behalf of Her Majesty’s Coroner. How did you get into this work?
Not one single member of my immediate family has any interest in the subtle or the spiritual, I was alone in that respect. I had always been aware of something ‘other’, something on the edge of reason, something that I could not articulate or express fully, but was a part of my experience of the world. I was fortunate to live next to a rather magical wood in the valley where I grew up, but these were more than trees, I could not help but know that they were people too. Alive. I daren’t say anything to anyone, lest they considered me unhinged, so I learnt to keep things close to my chest.
This sensing of the subtle lead me to sense other things, in particular the shifting patterns of death and how it struck the village and the people in it. But what fascinated me more than anything was the manner by which people reacted to death. It made them uncomfortable, they would fidget awkwardly when I questioned them. I was never a morbid child, and would not consider myself to be a morbid individual, but something in my childhood called me into service of the dead – professionally we call that the moment when the hand of the reaper comes about the shoulder and it claims one as someone bound to be in its service.
Human biology and physiology fascinated me; I have a very analytical, scientific mind. The progression to autopsy work seemed quite natural. I started my training as an Anatomical Pathology Technologist in 1990 – since then I have shared my life with the dead.
Do you work with, honor, or worship any particular deities of death, transition, or the Underworld?
I have a particular affinity with Gwyn Ap Nudd who I consider to be a Psychopompic deity / archetype. Within my work in bereavement and also during times of personal bereavement I work closely with Rhiannon.
Your third career is acting, and acting skills can be useful in ritual presentation. How do you make use of your acting skills without feeling like you’re cheapening or profaning or playing at the ritual?
Ritual is the original form of theatre, having some degree of acting skill is important, particularly for projection of the voice and commanding what can sometimes be an audience / participants ranging from dozens to sometimes hundreds of people. I love performing whether on stage or TV or as a speaker and workshop leader – in a sense they are all aspects of performance. The skills are the same in whatever capacity we use them; it is the platform or stage that differs. One aspect is to entertain the other to hold a space in which ritual is undertaken.
I rather like the fact that my life has a tripartite structure to it – how Druidic is that! I prefer to be busy: we can rest when we are dead, right? I love that all three aspects of my life are very different; the various masks I wear – depending on the job at hand – brings so much colour and variety to my life. I thrive on being busy. To keep from overloading I will have a crash day, where I permit myself an entire day to do something completely inane and indulgent. Study is wonderful, but sometimes one needs pure brain-dead entertainment, currently it’s ploughing through all six seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race – how’s that for variety! It appeals to my inner Drag Queen.
How do you balance your job of working with the bodies of the dead with your calling to work with the spirits of the dead?
When I am at work my responsibilities are to protect the dead and give them a voice (in a medical jurisprudence manner) and to care for the bereaved. I have various tools that I employ to ensure that my position as a professional is never compromised by my subtle senses. Primarily and of utmost importance in maintaining my professional integrity and my role as a priest to the dead, is ensuring that the dead are honoured and that the bereaved are offered a safe space to grieve. I would say that I balance the two worlds effectively.
You’re very open about all your careers. Do any of them cause complications for the others?
I have never encountered any prejudice at work or at home. I am quite open about my Druidry and often consulted by the media to speak about it. I am a rather public Pagan. I live in a small community on Anglesey, everybody knows who and what I am – it has never posed a problem or issue. The professional body which governs my career with the dead are also open to my position and invited me to speak at our annual conference in 2013.
I live in Wales and work in England, I never hide who I am and what I practice, thus far all reactions have been positive. Druidry is a quintessential component of Welsh society; we are used to seeing Druids. In 2012 I was invited to speak about Pagan Druidry at the National Eisteddfod, the first time that a Pagan had been given audience at the event. I’m also a gay man; I live with my husband of 23 years in a little Welsh cottage with a cat.
A gay Druid, you’d think I’d really be up against it with that combination – but so far, so good.
What was the inspiration that led you to write your new book The Journey Into Spirit?
It was the death of my little sister that caused me to start penning the words.
My world fell apart. Rachel was the youngest sibling of four. I adored her. Her death was sudden and unexpected and she left an 8 month child motherless. I had the usual amount of time afforded one for bereavement leave, but it wasn’t as if I was going back to an ordinary job. Still bereft and hurting, I had to deal with other people’s grief. It was perhaps, the most difficult time of my entire career and life. I received bereavement counseling, twice a week to begin with, to help me assimilate the experience and continue to work without falling apart.
The grief counselor suggested I write, and so it started. I needed to voice it, to put the words down on paper, to demonstrate that those who work and live with death are not cold, empty automatons but feeling human beings. But, doing this job brings one into the company and energy of death, and that does something to you, it changes you. I am hopeful that the progression of that journey is demonstrative in my book.
The publisher’s website says Journey is “challenging many status quo beliefs about the afterlife.” Without giving away the whole book, what common beliefs do you think need to be challenged? What do most people (Pagans or otherwise) misunderstand about death?
I could never grasp the Pagan concept of an individual being personality intact in a world that more or less mimics our own – that eternity is informed somehow by the human experience. I could also never fathom the need to learn, to be given lessons – by whom? And what for? None of it sat comfortably with me and my own experience with the dead.
We take a lot of things on face value – they’ve passed over, they’ve gone to the summerlands, we meet again those who we loved – do we, really? Does nature really repeat itself? Where has all that come from and why do people never question it? My book challenges the concept that the apparent identity survives death, and aims to peer into the nature of the permanent identity. It also aims to open channels of discussion, to encourage individuals, families, groups, covens, groves etc. to engage with death in a transformative and positive manner.
How do you deal with the inherent uncertainty around death and what comes after?
I don’t have all the answers – death is the ultimate mystery. This book is deeply personal, and an expression of my relationship with death and bereavement. I hope that I have written a book that will give pause for thought, an opportunity for my readers to engage with and talk about death, to prepare. We will never know for certain, that is why we have spiritual traditions and religions – they exist to provide hope and tools for assimilating the experience of living and dying.
What’s your next big project?
I am currently working on a Tarot deck for my publishers Llewellyn Worldwide – it is called the Celtic Tarot. I am really excited about it. I have always adored working with the Tarot, being a closet Cabbalist (shhh – don’t tell anyone!) it appeals to the Occultist and magician in me. I am working closely with a super talented artist from Wiltshire, it’s an incredible journey.
I am also working on a new proposal for Llewellyn, a book which contains a translation of the Mabinogi and how to work with it.
What are your goals as a Druid over the next few years?
For the foreseeable future I am happy to continue with my work on the island and within the wider Pagan community. The Anglesey Order continues to grow and demands a lot of my time, balancing that with everything else in my life is a full time in its own right, but one that I thoroughly enjoy.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you and your work?
I am an irreverent, colorful individual, I use humor a lot – I have to, it takes the edge off the horror that I witness every working day. I think I am well known for my rather frivolous nature, a bit of a comic perhaps, I love to make people laugh, after all how many other Druids out there are open about being a Drag Queen from the ankle down? Laughter is such a joyous, transformative energy. For me it’s a coping mechanism, it helps me to make sense of the tragedy and horror that I encounter; symptoms of mankind’s cruelty and malice towards itself.
If living a life in death has taught me anything it is that we cannot cure the world of its sorrows, but we can chose to live with joy. Even when nights are the darkest, when the heart shatters in a red mist of grief and sorrow, the dawn will come. The sun will rise. This life is incredible, and even the terrible things that happen to us are valued by the spirit, they all add to this human experience. But by the gods there is also joy, so much joy!
I love the fact that the word Awen contains the English word ‘Awe’, I am in awe of this life and this world that we live in, and whilst an element of my life is immersed in sorrow and tragedy, a huge chunk of it is filled with glee. I hope that a smattering of this spirit is perceived in my work, that people sense the joy that I glean from the different facets of my life, and that some of that joy rubs off.