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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Druidry: a Somewhat Subjective Account

Text of a talk given to a women's 'Sharing Group' at their request. There was question time afterwards; also much material can be found online, so I didn't include some of the very basic details, e.g. names of the Sabbats, animals associated with the directions, etc.

Thank you for inviting me to tell you about Druidry. The first thing to say is that it’s also known as Druidism. Both terms are correct; they are interchangeable, and which one you use is a matter of personal preference. Some people might prefer ‘Druidism’ because it goes with Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism and so on. I’m a poet, and I like ‘Druidry’ because I think it’s a more aesthetically pleasing word. So that’s how I’ll be referring to it throughout this talk.

The next thing to say is that I’m here under false pretences. For various reasons it’s impossible for me to give you the definitive explanation of Druidry. For one thing, I’ve only formally studied the first of three grades, the Bardic Grade. Secondly, even in that grade some of the material is confidential, not to be shared with non-students. Druidry is a mystery religion, which means that some of the teachings are secret. And thirdly, there are many gaps in the historical records of ancient Druidry – so much so that some people think modern Druidry is just made up.

However, don’t panic – there are things I can tell you, both quoting from scholars, and from my own experience. I have done a lot of private reading beyond my Bardic studies; there is plenty I can share without breaching the mysteries; and the knowledge of ancient Druidry is by no means so incomplete as many people imagine. New fragments of ancient records are constantly being translated, adding to our knowledge. Also, the old ways went underground in full sight – coopted by Christianity, as in the Goddess Brighid becoming Saint Bridget, for instance.  The old stories and rituals continued as folk practices and folk tales. Some of those tales were even written down by Christian clerics. And the Bardic schools survived into the 17th Century.

But a deeper reason why I can’t give you a definitive account is that Druidry is not just one thing on which all Druids agree – except, in the very broadest terms, to say that Druidry is one form of Celtic Paganism.

Within that definition, there are different branches, or orders, of modern Druidry – a little like the different Christian churches. I learned from the largest and best-known, the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) with headquarters in the UK and membership world-wide.

Even within any of the branches, individuals may hold Druidry in different ways. To some it is their religion, to others a philosophy. To still others (such as me) it is not a religion as such, but a personal spiritual path. I choose to express my spirituality via Pagan ideas and practices, because I have an affinity with them; I don’t see this as the one and only right way. 

Druidry has no dogma: no sacred texts, no rules that must be followed, no written principles that must be espoused. This is what differentiates the Pagan paths, which are nature-based, from what we call the Book Religions.

In fact it is possible to combine it with any of the Book Religions. There are Christian Druids, Buddhist Druids, and so forth, even Agnostic Druids, all of whom manage to reconcile both their paths without any trouble.

Then, however one holds it, there are different ways of living it – some of which might apply to any system of religious thought.

A Druid known as The Kite lists them, rather flippantly at times, at his website (I have abbreviated): 

THE CONTEMPLATIVE DRUID
who tends to favour stillness and connection to The Great Unknown, the numinous, and to roam the astral.

Within this category he lists three sub-sets:

The Nature mystic who follows in the tradition of the Romanticist nature poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth, and seeks ultimate meaning in the presence of the Wild Green.

The monk, who takes a more overtly religious stance, fashioning a mystical Druidry out of Zen or Theravada Buddhism, or modelling the Vedic sannyasi, or perhaps following in the footsteps of occultists.

and

The ‘shamanic’ Druid, who may sink deep into trance to commune with the spirits of Nature and of Otherworld.

Then there’s THE ACTIVIST DRUID
The Kite sees Activism as a balancer. He says that the eco-warrior, for example, reminds the contemplative that the future of life on earth and the well-being of the Web of Nature is not simply in the hands of ‘the Divine’ but in the hands of those who care to do something about it, on the understanding that we are not on this earth to escape from it but to engage with it. Others may work with authorities in curating sacred sites, perhaps. Activists protest, lobby, debate, provide practical assistance and perform direct action, all arising from passion.

There’s THE CEREMONIAL DRUID
who looks rather like the Contemplative, but the theurgy is more elaborately ritualistic.

THE MAGICIAN DRUID
draws on the literature of medieval Wales, for example, to find many role-models, including those who style themselves after the cunning men and women of the 17th century onwards, and engage actively with these powers.

THE INTELLECTUAL DRUID
This family tree has many branches. It began with the antiquarians, who seemed to like the aura of musty wisdom and the semi-divine air of Classical antiquity. To this day, says the Kite, most Druids he knows are geeks, especially about history.

Reconstructionists might go so far as to try to live like they imagine Iron Age Druids may have lived. They’re big on archeology.

Philosophical Druids are still debating questions arising from the Enlightenment about God, mind and body, and so forth.

Modern Intellectual Druids will have moved on to incorporate New Age thought or pop culture references or modes or some such, which can be said to be keeping the tradition up to date.

The Urban Druid is trying to relate the experience of Druidry to the fact of living in town.

And many many more.

So what have we done? the Kite asks. And answers himself: We’ve distinguished the family tree of Druidry according to type of activity. It will already have dawned on you, he adds, that any given Druid is capable of more than one kind of activity.

The other thing this writer has done, of course, is to identify the various reasons people are attracted to Druidry. Love of nature is a big one. Most Pagans are also pantheists or nature mystics, believing that every form of life carries a spark of Divinity. Hence we not only love but revere the natural world.

That certainly applies to me. I’ve apprehended the world that way since earliest childhood, so it simply seems natural and self-evident to me, though I realise there are other points of view. I grew up thinking of myself as having no religion – not that I dismissed the numinous; more that I couldn’t fit it into any of the orthodoxies I came across.

But I didn’t seek out Druidry, I stumbled across it. I saw an advertisement in a New Age journal, to study with OBOD by correspondence. It also involved becoming a member of the Order, enrolling to study at the level of the Bardic Grade, which is where everyone begins. I received booklets at intervals, taking me through the history of Druidry, acquainting me with the mystical background, and giving me instructions for various rituals and meditative practices. The Bardic Grade has a focus on creativity and artistic expression, which, as a poet, suited me very nicely. We were encouraged in all forms of artistry; in particular to write verse.

This must have been in 1995. Soon after, I read in their newsletter that Australian members of OBOD were soon to have their first national gathering, or Grove, over a long weekend, in a big bush camping ground just outside Sydney.

It was very exciting to meet each other. People came from all over the country; one young man hitch-hiked all the way from Perth. To the best of my recollection there must have been about 20 of us. We shared our expertise in such fields as herbal lore, psychic readings, astrology, etc.; we gave each other healing treatments, from Reiki to flower essences; we sang and told stories into the night around a fire; and we held sacred rituals within circles of trees.

Two years later the current Chosen Chief of the Order, Philip Carr-Gomm, decided to visit OBOD communities around the world, which were growing rapidly; and when he came to Australia we did it all over again. Many of the same people turned up, and many new ones. The number of Druids in Australia had grown and they had become better organised, groups meeting regularly in Groves all over the country; although there weren’t any near enough for me to attend. 

Again, it was a lovely event. Meeting Philip was great; a lovely man with much gentle wisdom and deep scholarship. By now he has authored several books on Druidry as well as the Druid Animal Oracle (co-authored with his wife, Stephanie); he is also a psychotherapist.

He says on his website:

Although my spiritual practice is rooted in Druidry, I believe we have entered an era in which we can move beyond attachments to labels, drawing instead upon the Perennial Tradition, being inspired by the wisdom in all spiritual paths and teachings – following the Way of the Universal Mystic.

Something magical happens when the worlds of mysticism and psychology are brought together. Every discipline in psychology helps to reveal the extraordinary nature of the human being, but add the insights of the Perennial Wisdom Tradition – the ancient knowledge and esoteric teachings passed down through the ages – and we enter awe-inspiring territory that has the power to transform us.

I think that quote gives you something of the measure of the man. 

For this second gathering, we were invited to choose a character from Druid lore whom we could dress up as on party night around the bonfire. We would be asked to guess who everyone was portraying, and then we’d each tell the stories of who we were. I decided to be Merlin, with the help of a white cottonwool beard, a long cloak, a staff and a pointy hat. Then, as the dates of the gathering drew closer,  I started worrying that maybe this would be disrespectful. Merlin was a real being to me, with whom I had had extensive communication.

I was still in this dilemma when I went for a walk one day through the bush near my home, and heard a bird giving a repeated cry somewhere close by, as if trying to attract my attention. Finally it flew across the road in front of me, slowly, so that I got a good look at it. I saw that it was a small hawk.

It dawned on me a little while later that in Celtic terms merlin is a word meaning small hawk. So I took it as a sign that I had his approval for my costume. Then, on the first day of the gathering, in our opening session, Philip had each of us draw a card from the Druid Animal Oracle, to indicate the energy that would be with us during our three days together. I drew the Hawk. The opening words on that page of the oracle say: ‘This card shows a merlin, the smallest of the hawks’.

At home I have a picture of Goddess Brighid over my desk – though this is more to do with my witchy than Druid persona – because among other things she is a patron of writers. Today, before coming here, I did a ritual for the success of this talk, in another room. When I came back to my desk, a blue feather which had been in front of the picture was lying on the floor – in a place that it was inconceivable it could have got to without some agency. So I took it as a sign that she was blessing my talk today.

So you see, there is both magic and mysticism to be found in Druidry.

I found in it, also, a sweetness which I had previously found only in Reiki. However I didn’t continue beyond the Bardic Grade, although I thought for some time that I would. I became diverted onto the other great Pagan path: Witchcraft. All my life people had said to me, only half-jokingly, ‘Oh you’re a witch!’ and I always had a huge knee-jerk reaction: ‘Don’t call me that!’ (I believe I must have suffered for it in other lifetimes.) But then one day, out of the blue and quite quietly, I had the realisation, ‘Of course you’re a witch. You’ve always been a witch.’ And suddenly I wasn’t scared of it any more. So then I explored Wicca – which IS a religion, albeit one without dogma – and that exploration took up years of time and attention. Eventually I reached a broader position, and now don’t call myself Wiccan but simply a Pagan witch, again holding this not as a religion but a spiritual path.

I also call myself a Druid, if the subject comes up with members of the general public. I use it as a blanket term which people will, hopefully, understand. If I were in a company of other Druids, I would refer to myself as a Bard, the only Grade I completed – a term less readily understood by non-Druids.

In fact, although I completed the course, I never got around to sitting the exam for the Bardic grade. If I were to resume my studies now, after so long, I’d need to repeat that first year all over again – which would be a pleasure actually, as it’s a lovely course of study. I haven’t ruled it out, but at this stage it seems unlikely.

Not that there’s any difficulty in being both Druid and witch, or even Wiccan. Quite a lot of people are. Philip Carr-Gomm has even written a book called DruidCraft in which he argues that, far from being different Pagan traditions, they are two branches from a single root.

They certainly have many similarities. For instance, in ritual they both work with the four directions and the elements; and they both observe the eight seasonal festivals known as Sabbats (not to be confused with the Christian Sabbath). There is even some similarity in the fact that formal training officially lasts three years. In Wicca there are three Degrees, in Druidry there are the three Grades of Bard, Ovate and Druid. 

The Druid Grades, however, are very specifically Druidic, and are the same that pertained in ancient times.  The Bardic Grade I’ve spoken about already, as being about creative and artistic expression. The Bards were traditionally the poets, musicians, entertainers, inspirers, and keepers of the lore.

In fact, although there are many tales of Celtic deities which form part of Druidic lore, the supreme power that we call on is the Awen. A Welsh word, sometimes translated as ‘flowing inspiration’, the Awen has been defined as ‘describing the spark of creative or divine inspiration or illumination. Awen is what sparks an idea and gives it form’.  We are told that it’s what the ancient bards drew on to compose their stories and music. Its symbol is three rays of light.



(It doesn’t have to be drawn within a circle, and often isn’t.)

The Ovate Grade focuses on healing and divination. The OBOD website says, regarding 'The Druid Way':

In ancient times an Ovate was a prophet, seer, healer and diviner. In modern times, an Ovate is one who studies or practices herbalism, healing and divination within a Druidic context, or who has entered the Ovate level of training within a Druid Order.

The Druid Grade was traditionally concerned with philosophy, teaching, and counselling and judicial tasks. In ancient times this included being a magician, giving advice to rulers, and presiding over ritual. They were the wise elders of the community.

The OBOD website says:

We tend to think of the Druid as a sort of priest – but this is not borne out by the evidence. The classical texts refer to them more as philosophers than priests. At first this appears confusing since we know they presided at ceremonies, but if we understand that Druidry was a natural, earth religion as opposed to a revealed religion, such as Christianity or Islam, we can see that the Druids probably acted not as mediators of Divinity, but as directors of ritual, guiding and containing the rites.

In addition to this, we know that they fulfilled a number of other functions … as astronomers and mathematicians, as philosophers discussing the powers of the gods, and as teachers passing on their wisdom.

Modern Druidry, in its search for wisdom, has been influenced by psychology, and by the holistic and environmental movements.

To quote the OBOD website again:

The Bard in their training has opened to the artist, the creative Self, that lives within them, the Ovate in their training has opened to the shaman who lives within – the one who can travel in the inner realms to explore the fluid nature of time, and the inner power of trees, herbs and animals. The Druid, in their training, opens to their inner Wise Person, the inner Sage who is Philosopher and Counsellor, who judges and discriminates and who teaches perhaps too.

Although the training progresses through these three levels, it is not seen as hierarchical but as explorations of Art, Nature and Philosophy, three aspects of a whole person. We can unite them, and/or we can start over and move again from Druid back to the playful Bardic Grade.

In his book Druid Mysteries, Philip makes the point that we urgently need spiritualities which can help us get back in touch with nature, as our separation from it has created the risk that we may not survive as a species.

He says that modern Druidry’s reinterpretation of the Old Ways brings us seven gifts (which I’m paraphrasing rather than quoting in full):

1. A philosophy which emphasises the sacredness of all life, and our own part in the great web of creation.

2. Putting us back in touch with nature with a set of practices that help us feel at one again with nature, our ancestors,  our own bodies and our sense of spirit.

3. Healing, with practices that promote healing and rejuvenation, using spiritual and physical methods.

4. Affirming our life as a journey with rites of passage for blessing and naming children, and for marriage, death, etc.

5. Opening to other realities, with techniques for exploring other states of consciousness, other realities, the Otherworld .

6. Developing our potential, offering a path of self-development that encourages creative, psychological and intuitive abilities, intellectual and spiritual growth.

7. Magic – opening to the magic of being alive, how to bring ideas into manifestation, and the art of Journeying in quest of wisdom, healing and inspiration.

He also states that a central aim of Druidry today, via OBOD, is ‘to encourage us to broaden our understanding of love – so that we love widely and deeply.’ OBOD sees Druidry fostering, through its teachings and practices – and here I’m quoting directly –

·    Love of the Land, the Earth, the Wild – with a reverence for Nature.
·    Love of Peace – Druids were traditionally peace-makers and still are: each ceremony begins with Peace to the Quarters, there is a Druid’s Peace Prayer, and Druids plant peace groves.
·    Love of Beauty – The Druid path cultivates the Bard, the artist within, and fosters creativity.
·    Love of Justice – Druids were judges, and law-makers, Traditionally Druids were interested in restorative, not punitive justice.
·    Love of Story and Myth – Druidry recognizes the power of mythology and stories.
·    Love of History and Reverence for the Ancestors  Druidry recognises the forming power of the past.
·      Love of Trees – Druids today plant trees and study tree lore.
·    Love of Stones – Druids today build stone circles, collect stones and work with crystals.
·    Love of Truth – Druid philosophy is a quest for wisdom.
·    Love of Animals – Druidry sees animals as sacred, and teaches sacred animal lore.
·    Love of the Body – Druidry sees the body and sexuality as sacred.
·    Love of the Sun, Moon, Stars and Sky – Druid star lore, embodied in the old stories and in  the stone circles, teaches love for the Universe.
·    Love of Each Other – Druidry fosters the magic of relationship, of community.
·    Love of Life – Druidry encourages celebration and full commitment to life – it is not a spirituality that wants us to escape from life.


In conclusion, the final reason I can’t tell you definitively what Druidry is, is because it is not static.  It existed in ancient times, went underground, was revived  in the 17th and then again in the 20th centuries,  keeps its ties to the past and also builds on the Old Ways to bring them into the present. It doesn’t change so much as evolve; while it keeps its essential character, it continues to grow – though perhaps not away from so much as more into itself.


Note: For this talk, in addition to texts mentioned above, I consulted The Druid's Primer by Luke Eastwood.

(Picture: Fair use)