The Pagan Druid

Having grown up with Christian beliefs and then experimenting with Spiritualist and New Age ideas in my teens, I didn’t start an active spirituality until I discovered Neo-Paganism. Here I started to examine my previous ideas and experiment with new ones.

Modern Paganism offered me a spirituality that was non-dogmatic and experiental, leaving me to experiment and investigate various beliefs without committing myself to any particular one. Above all, it offered me a spirituality connected to nature, affirmed life and inspired me with myths and symbols forgotten after the coming of Christianity.

Pagan (or pre-Christian) religions represent a long buried source of spiritual inspiration that is not Christian or an exotic Eastern one. They are native to the Western psyche, with symbols and myths corresponding to a deeper “archeological” layer of our cultural psyche.

Neo-Paganism is often described as a Revival or Reconstruction of ancient pagan religion, but I would not describe it like that but I think of it in terms of Reconnection: we can reconnect to the ancestral traditions, which can bring us insights about ourselves, our world and the universe, insights that can reconnect us with our instinctive selves and with nature. This also means that other sources of spiritual inspiration are not precluded; Paganism represents just one layer in my spirituality, one of primal religion, connected to instincts and nature. Christianity provides another substantial layer in my thinking, as do Buddhism and science.

Aspects relating to this “primal religion” are polytheism, pantheism, Goddess worship, animism, shamanism, celebration of the seasons and reverence for the ancestors and their ways, which I’ll describe briefly here:

Pantheism and Polytheism the universe and the natural forces that comprise it are divine and so sacred and worthy of our respect, individually and as a whole.

Goddess Worship for many centuries Western culture has held fast to the image of the Divine as masculine, a significant part of Neo-Paganism is to redress this imbalance, reviving the image of the Divine Feminine. In it, women may find empowerment and respect, positive “feminine”* qualities can be given due credit, and we can find ways of living harmoniously with the Earth Mother instead of exploiting her. (*here I talk of a cultural definition of gender that is by no means pan-cultural, and may in fact belong to men as much as women).

Animism the universe is alive, as something organic and not merely mechanical. Each being and presence in nature deserve recognition and respect.

Shamanism the awareness of hidden aspects of ourselves and the world around us, we see all things as interconnected, and the human mind reveals itself to be something more than just a conscious ego, but contains upper, middle and lowers worlds through which we can “travel”.

Celebration of the Seasons a major part of modern Paganism is the use of the Wheel of the Year. With eight, roughly equidistant festivals we observe the changing seasons, celebrating them and integrating our observances into our lives, which all too often are urbanised and disconnected from nature.

Reverence of the Ancestors the past is often forgotten in the rush to get the newest, shiniest electronic devise before the next one comes along in six months. We advance in ignorance of our roots at our own risk! To know our roots or ancestors is a way of knowing the ground we walk on and the wisdom (or lack thereof) of its stability. But here we must also apply discrimination, sorting the wheat from the chaff, as not all we inherit has necessarily been for our own good or that of the future. And let us not forget Reverence for the Descendants, those who will be left with the legacies (good and bad) that we leave behind.

From this we have a life-affirming spirituality that is ecological in nature, integrating all that is organic, interdependent, primitive, wild and instinctive in harmony with our modern intellectual and technological ways. I feel this integration is an important part of gaining stability as we advance into the future.

Samhain

Samhain is the traditional name for Gaelic festival that precedes Halloween and the Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls. It observes the end of the “light” half of the year and the beginning of the “dark”.

Like any Celtic festival, it starts at dusk and ends at dusk the next day. So this Samhain started last night and will continue until tonight. This is because the Celtic day, like the Jewish day, starts at dusk and ends at dusk the next day. And so it is also that Samhain has been described as the Celtic New Year (some neo-Pagan groups may even sing Old Lang Syne at this time).

The symbolism is interesting, showing that the “new” starts in the darkness. Before the tree there was a seed waiting in the darkness of the soil, before birth there was the infant waiting in the darkness of the womb,  before the Big Bang there is a Mystery that lies beyond the light of our knowledge, and for a while the Universe was a soup of matter and energy long before stars came to shine, and certainly before there were eyes to see them.

We are in darkness, and it is a time to look inwards, our thoughts perhaps turning to the ancestors, death and the past. In an age of plastic, hand-held Internet technology and convenience, these must seem very unusual, and yet they have been and are important aspects of our lives, whether we heed them or not.

The neo-Pagan wheel of the year is cyclical in nature, reflecting on the turning of the natural year equating them with human life phases (Samhain with death and Winter Solstice with birth, etc.). Each festival becomes a natural time to reflect of aspects of our own lives as well as the changing of seasons.

Right now many people will be experiencing the change of the season differently, depending on climate and hemisphere, and perhaps the traditional associations of Samhain don’t always apply – Spain certainly differs from England in many ways.

Recently the black redstarts have arrived from elsewhere in the Penisula, the ash trees have lost their leaves, the fig tree is still in the process of losing its own, and the mushroom-picking season is drawing to a close. And one day shortly I will be eating chesnuts cooked over a fire!

Words!

I was reading through the European Unitarian Universalists’ website and I found an interesting article called May I have a Word with You? (last article on the page).From it I saw a quote from Mark Twain:

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightining and the lightning bug.

There are many moment when I have read or heard something that made me think “I agree wholeheartedly… except for that one little word, which changes everything.” Sometimes I can overlook it, taking a “between the lines” interpretation, so that my own bias towards certain word doesn’t get in the way of communication. Other times I have to take a word seriously because it changes the sense of a sentence too much for me to ignore. Words aren’t just intellectual categories, they have instinctual and in intuitive aspects to them, too.

Words fascinate me for a number of reasons (or perhaps one reason dressed as many). I’ve written a lot of poetry, which I used as a device to express my inner process. As a writer, words gives form to my thought processes, so I can share ideas; it can also help me create whole new worlds and characters from the imagination. I am a student of languages, Spanish, French and Catalan, learning their similarities and difference (and a student of English – even though I’m a native speaker, there are still things I can learn about it), and a creator of others, inventing news vocabularies, grammars and pronounciations for my invented peoples.

In ecopsychology we learn of “verbalisation”, which has the scientific quality of sharing emprical data through language, and just as (if not more) importantly it has the psychological function of making the unconscious conscious, enhancing experience and impressions by giving it definition instead of letting it sink into anonymity and another thing that we “take for granted”.

Between the anonymity of birth and the anonymity of death there is life. But life doesn’t have to be anonymous, so long as we verbalise.

Today, through a mistake in Spanish, I learnt that emersion and immersion are opposites, where I’d been thinking of them as “immersion”. There’s little difference in pronounciation (or pronunciation for the orthographically correct); both can be /i-MUR-shuhn/, though emersion can also be /ee-MUR-shuhn/). I pronounce them both /i-MUR-zhuhn/ (zh as in viSion, Genre or miraGe), but who’s being picky, right?

Though just to be picky, I pronounce emersion /i-MURJ/ and spell it <emerge>. ;)

The Christian Druid

My earliest religious experience was within the context of a Christian church, a “happy-clappy” Baptist church, an overall positive experience with singing, celebration, fun Sunday school games and the love of a benevolent God. It left me with a lasting interest in all things religious and spiritual. During my adolescence I identified with Spiritualist and New Age ideas, though continued visiting the local Christian youth group. I then discovered Paganism, rooting my idea of spirit in nature and ancestral Pre-Christian traditions. But Christianity, or at least Christ, was always there, and if I were to be consistent in recognising and honouring my ancestors, then I would have to look to Christianity as well as Pagan religions for inspiration and understanding of my roots. Perhaps the pre-Christian religions of Europe represent a long-forgotten “deeper” legacy than Christianity, but that doesn’t make Christianity’s impact on my life and culture any less true or relevant.
Modern Druidry has its own roots in Christian tradition, with specifically Pagan Druidry emerging in the 20th century. Some 18th century Revivalists saw in the ancient druids a precursor to Christianity, perhaps containing little or no differences in doctrine. At other times Christian gentlemen in long, white robes would gather at Stonehenge or other significant places to conduct “druidic” ceremonies, though for fraternal or cultural motives rather than the revival of ancient religion. And today there are still plenty of modern druids that identify as Christian, combining a faith in Christ with a druid-inspired nature-based spirituality.
I’m not a follower of Christ or a believer in Christian doctrine, but I recognise the impact of it on my life and the inspiration that the teachings of Christ continue to have for me. And I can say, as Columcille once said, that “Christ is my Druid”, seeing in him a model for being a Christian, a druid and a human.

Identity and Self-Knowledge

Three keys essential on the path to self-knowledge: acceptance, rejection and synthesis.
Acceptance of those elements that are ours but we have rejected; rejection of those elements that aren’t ours but we have accepted; a synthesis with a more adjusted sense of wholeness and centred in a more essential sense of self.

I’m a regular reader of Druid Life, which has interesting articles such as Know Thyself. Nimue Brown was also helpful in publicising the Vote for the Conservation of the Glorieta Stream. Occasionally I comment on Nimue’s blogs, like Know Thyself, which I share here:

Identity and self-knowledge are very interesting subjects, which are two different but related things. The former gives us material to work with, the latter, a means to make sense of it.
The ego is a fragment that thinks it’s a whole, but once it realises that the human psyche is higher, deeper and wider than it’s own limits, well, we have a whole journey on our hands!
The closest I come to a “pure self” is the “I” without identity, it is the conscious, directive element in the psyche, and around this has formed the baggage of the ego (i.e. identity – there is a distinction here between identity and identifier). Roberto Assagioli said: “We are dominated by everything with which our self becomes identified. We can dominate and control everything from which we dis-identify ourselves.”
Identity has it’s function, but it is less fundamental to my being than I often think. In studing Psychosynthesis, I’m learning that this “disidentifiying” has nothing to do with rejecting my identity (who I think I am), but simply changing my perspective of it as something that is not at the centre of the whole psyche. I “disidentify” from the ego’s box, which allows me to integrate and accept elements of the psyche that don’t fit in with the ego’s prejudices.
Sense of self expands and the process of psychic wholeness, or individuation, begins, moving the centre from the ego to the Self.

Here’s an article by Will Parfitt on Identification and Disidentification, and an exercise for it here.

The Humanist Druid

As a human being and druid, I believe that being human and human beings are important and valuable. This value transcends culture, religion and nationality. Human nature is something that is universal, and over which no one has a monopoly; it is something that connects us all. What it is and how to recognise it are on-going processes involving the self-discovery of each individual and the evolution of the human race as a whole as we realise just how many ways there are to be “human” and how deep our cultural conditioning goes.

One image of the ancient druids that inspires me is that of a network of Celtic intelligensia that worked between tribes, kingdoms and cultures that make up the diverse range of peoples we call “Celtic” (with an area stretching between the British Isles, Iberian Peninsula and Turkey). Their wisdom and training transcended their tribal loyalties and traditions to bind them together with a common human spirit. The value of this image is not whether it is fact or fiction but how it inspires us to live our lives.

A modern druid, like anyone in the world today, is in contact with and influenced by international ideas and relations. Indeed, they may even find themselves outside the traditional range of the Celts, and perhaps not even with Celtic ancestry. Modern druidry and its ideas themselves are not limited to Celtic tradition, but have for centuries been mixed with others.

We live in an era where international human rights have been developed and agreed upon, we are connected by the Internet and other forms of media that stretch across the world, bringing us information instantly. Inevitably, the mix of cultures can prove a volatile powder keg, provoking much conflict. But a modern druid takes all this in their stride, joining with the flux of culture that lays over the undercurrent of humanity.

This particularly resonates with me, being a British expat living in a bilingual part of Spain with a French-speaking Swiss family. I have gone beyond the “comfort” of my anglo-centric box and discovered other cultures and other parts of the world. And when relating to other human beings, I cannot rely on the familiar or conventional ways I was brought up with, but must learn to relate to other human beings, not as a druid or a Brit, but as a human being.

I don’t think we have to deny our cultural backgrounds, and trade them in for something more universal, but simply put them into perspective. To misquote Jesus Christ, “Humanity was not made for culture/science/art/religion; culture/science/art/religion were made for humanity.”

The Gaian Druid

Gaia philosophy has deep roots, with ideas abounding for millenia about the Earth being a single organism, and ourselves being a part of this. This forms a very important part of my worldview, which you can see a glimpse of in my previous blog post on The Three Circles, and there are a number of my blog posts on Gaian philosophy and science – just look through the Gaia tag on The Grove of Quotes. In the last century it has been given substance by the scientific work of James Lovelock and his Gaia Hypothesis. The Earth, together with its atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere, is a life-sustaining system that can adapt and evolve like an organism, and may be described as a superorganism. The scientific name for this is geophysiology. Though Gaia works just as well for me.

The Gaian Druid sees themself as part of Gaia and seeks to turn their qualities to the service of Gaia and all the life that she sustains. Everything we are and everything we do can be seen as part of the way Gaia functions, all our technologies, sciences, religions, spiritualities, arts, cultures, traditions, etc.. Though many have had a tendency to go astray, and we live in a state of disharmony with the earth, in much the same way that the human brain may seek to own, control and coerce the body and its functions to its own goals, instead of providing a useful function for the whole organism. The Noosphere/Gwynvid (as manifest in humanity) is an infant quality of Gaia, and has a lot of things to offer but a lot of challenges to overcome too. The Gaian Druid is there, acting as midwife to support this process within themself and the world around them, as Gaia gives birth to a new phase of her life: self-awareness.

“Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe.” James Lovelock

One day I imagine all word prefixed with “eco-” (ecopsychology, ecotechnology, ecobusiness, ecovillage, etc.) will become meaningless as we realise that all aspects of human life are essentially “eco”, i.e. fundamentally related, interrellated and identified with the natural world. As David Richo said “We are not living on the Earth, we are part of how it lives.”

And some more of my favourite quotes on this subject:
“You did not come into this world, you came out of it. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.” Alan Watts

“Concern with the environment is no longer one of many “single issues”; it is the CONTEXT of everything else- our lives, our business, our politics.” Fritjof Capra

The Three Circles of Existence

The Three Circles of Existence can be traced back to Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg by his bardic name) who claimed they were part of ancient druid tradition but are largely accepted to be inventions of his own. Still, much of his work has contributed to modern druidic tradition, such as the Druid’s Prayer, and even the Three Circles can provide inspiration for modern druidry.

The Three Circles through which a soul journeys are Annwn, Abred and Gwynvid. Finally there is Ceugant which represents the Infinite, God or Spirit. The journey of the soul begins in Annwn, the Cauldron of Rebirth. From here souls are incarnated in the physical world, Abred, and when the body dies the soul returns to Annwn with the lessons learnt. The soul continues evolving through mineral, vegetable, animal and human forms, until finally it reaches a spiritual perfection where it may then enter heavenly realm of Gwynvid, from where it need not return.

In naturalist terms this doesn’t hold water, but I have found a parallel in Teilhard de Chardin’s work on cosmology: Annwn represents the geosphere (inanimate matter), Abred represents the biosphere (biological life), and Gwynvid represents the noosphere (human consciousness and its development). Annwn is the entire material universe, within which we can find the living world of Abred, and from that evolves Gwynvid.

There is a constant “reincarnation” or recycling of matter through biological lifeforms: soil is consumed by a plant, incorporated into the plant as a leaf, the leaf then dies and returns to soil (or it is eaten and recycled/reincarnated through the food chain). Life evolves, and from it appears the noosphere, specifically human consciousness.

For me, this fits with the Gaian worldview (see Gaia Theory by James Lovelock), where the planet as a living system has developed a mind through humanity, which forms a network of consciousness (noosphere). At present the noosphere is disparate and even volatile, and certainly not a harmonious contributor to the ecosphere, but we can see through history how it and human culture have developed, and how ideas have travelled and helped form a globalisation of culture (and with the advent of the Internet, information can now travel round the world at the blink of an eye, making the Internet function like a nervous system for the noosphere). As each individual develops noetically, the noosphere in turn evolves, becoming more refined and coordinated, and it becomes another part of the evolution of Gaia, a composition of Annwn, Abred and Gwynvid.

Ceugant is a bit more difficult to include, but we could say it parallels Teilhard’s Omega Point, the apex of the evolution of consciousness. Ceugant stands beyond what we can know, and perhaps represents an “infinite mystery”. We may never reach beyond the known, but there is always the possibility that the unknown can, progressively, become known. There are plenty of horizons of potential!

The Pacifist Druid and Budo

“Let us begin by giving peace to the quarters, for without peace can no work be.” from OBOD ritual

One theme that is strong in modern Druidry is that of peace. The image of the ancient druids as “peacemakers” (whether accurate or not) is a compelling one, such as the one of a druid walking between two armies to stop them from fighting.

In OBOD ritual we are taught to call for peace to each of the cardinal points (North, South, West, East) for “without peace can no work be.” Many modern druids have different ideas about peace and pacifism, but for me peace is an important part of my druidry, and I look for practical and creative ways to live my life by it. One way, perhaps surprisingly, is through martials arts, more specifically aikido, which has a philosophy of non-violence and peace. It emphasises harmony between humanity and nature, mind and body, attacked and attacker, all of which are intimately related.

Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, learnt various forms of jujutsu. Later he became involved with Ōmoto-kyō, a Shinto sect where pacifism is very important, and so he began to develop his martial art in a way that not only became effective way of defending oneself, but also a way of not harming your attacker, if done skilfully. There are ways to let their energy pass, reflect it back or use their movement to unbalance them.

In aikido you don’t attack first because 1) it is a response to violence, not a way to achieve it and 2) when someone initiates an attack, their own aggression becomes a source of imbalance, and can be used against them. All techniques are defensive, and any strikes and punches are for distraction. Having said that, all techniques have their origin in causing pain and damage; where one technique involves an elbow strike to the throat, in aikido this becomes a way to simply touch the chin and tip over the opponent with little effort.

Ueshiba included Budo, or the Way of the Warrior, as part of his philosophy, but it is not a way to hurt or destroy others. It includes, instead, a martial attitude, discipline, sense of honour and inner rectitude for facing the “enemy”. Not the outer enemy that attacks us, but the inner enemy that produces weaknesses in us and prevents us from living life harmoniously.

Here is something that Ueshiba said about Budo.
“The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter – it is the Art of Peace, the power of love.”

I think there is an idea about pacificm (which I’ve held) that is about avoiding violence or “being passive”, even. Budo, in the context of aikido, does not avoid violence, it faces it. But then, instead of responding to violence with violence we learn to face it and actively transform it, neutralising it through harmony. This principle can be applied not just to martial arts but to different aspects of our lives, which is certainly something to be encouraged for any Pacifist Druid.

Druidic Theism

Within modern Druidry there is a wide range of theistic belief. Most Pagan druids will describe themselves as polytheistic or pantheistic, though there are others that embrace monotheism, duotheism, monistic-polytheism, panentheism, and even atheism and agnosticism. In this post I describe a little about my ‘theistic’ beliefs and how atheism, polytheism and pantheism have inspired me.

So, since I’m a naturalist and materialist/physicalist, that must mean I’m an atheist or agnostic. Well, yes… and no. I don’t subscribe to traditional theistic beliefs, meaning that labels such as personhood, consciousness and purpose can only be fully applied to humans (acknowledging other forms personality, awareness and intention in some life forms). As a basic intellectual statement of belief I could describe myself as an atheist or agnostic. But the gods that appear in world mythology do exist… albeit within the confines of the human imagination. But we can say that they represent something real, dressed in human form to make them more relatable.

Looking at definitions of polytheism, there is a weak polytheism that regards the gods as aspects of the One or as representing archetypes and natural forces, and a strong form that believes in them as literal beings, not just symbols. If this is so, then I am a “weak” polytheist. I don’t believe that archetypes and natural forces are endowed with consciousness or purpose; they are forces that follow inner patterns without planning or reflection.

One definition of theism I like is that of pantheism, or more or more accurately scientific or naturalistic pantheism. As Paul Harrison defines it “Pantheist beliefs are above all statements of an emotional response of reverence and belonging to Nature and the wider Universe in all their power, beauty and mystery.” I am in constant amazement of the Universe, and find science a wonderful source of inspiration and wonder, which leaves me with a sense that the universe is indeed “divine”. The gods represent parts of the whole or All that is the universe.

C.G. Jung said “You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return.” Certainly, in terms of natural forces and archetypes we can strip away consciousness, purpose and the anthropomorphic appearances from the world myths, but the underlying realities that they represent remain. Gods can also represent our highest values and aspirations, an aspect of human nature, and even if we remove the images of the gods, the underlying values remain. Money, science, family, work, art are all things we can find valuable in our lives without having to mention “God”. They give us sense, meaning and direction without being labelled “gods”. But they represent the focus of meaning and direction in our lives. In this sense, theism is not a statement of intellectual belief in something, it is an innate sense of value within each of us.