I’ve just started reading Blood and Mistletoe by Ronald Hutton, tracing the perception of the druids through history – which is probably easier than trying to figure out what they actually were. We are given various descriptions from Greek and Roman authors with motives of their own to describe the druids the way they did – can’t be relied on for accuracy. They are vilified or romanticised, depending on who is writing.
The image (or images) of the druid, though invented, adapted or exagerrated, have proven to be a useful resource for propoganda through history and also to become the basis of a whole movement which may emphasise their social, cultural, spiritual, religious, magical, shamanic or political functions.
The druids are many things to many people, but using historic persons in this was is no new thing – the Jesus of the Roman Catholics is different from the Baptist Jesus is different from the Lutheran Jesus; the Buddha emerging in the West has diverged in some ways from his traditional portrayals in the East. Their personalities and roles are adapted to the needs and wants of the people, and yet they are the basis of legitimacy for their respective cultures and religions.
In this context, I think it’s significant that one of the central concepts of modern Druidry is “Awen” or Inspiration, something that just about all druid groups after the Druid Revival share. It is described as a divine source of creativity, but not only that, I think it symbolises modern Druidry itself as something creative and versatile, that the nature of those ancient druids is determined by the use of their image. As I read through Blood and Mistletoe, I shall reasses the various images and my own of them and share my thoughts here. It’s certainly a good read, and I’m only on the second chapter.
Carrying on from the idea that modern Druidry is based on Awen and invention…
What if, just what if there were no druids, that Celtic society had no specific caste/class that specialised in education, justice, healing, philosophy, magic or religion, and that the “druids” that the ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about were not members of said caste/class but were simply individuals taken from any part of their society – warrior, aristocrat, craftsman, farmer, merchant – with the relevant skills and knowledge. They were not organised or perennial enough in Celtic society to be seen as A Thing, but a semi-coherent variety of things that have been lumped together under the convenient label of “druid” (in modern times we could do the same and say that doctors, judges, solicitors, diplomats, artists, journalists, historians, theologians, priests are all “druids”).
This is perfectly possible, but has big consequences for how we view the neo-druid movement: everything we do or believe that we call “druidry” is based on a fantasy (shock-horror)!!! But fret not, this can be asserted with a fair amount of confidence about any spiritual or religious tradition. At some point they were all “invented” by other people, it’s just some have age and social prestige in their favour, making them a little more credible.
Tradition, History and Fiction
Druidry is here and well-established, and continues with whatever “facts” are facing it. What we know of the druids comes from biased and/or invented second-hand reports. Whatever wisdom they left might be found in medieval sources and folklore, but not without heavy alteration over time and by the hands of Christian scribes. Any connection between archaeology and the druids is, necessarily, speculation. And yet modern Druidry continues unabashed.
Some druids will, like many, ignore the evidence, and carry on believing what they want (this is common enough, many still hold to Genesis over geology, and even new scientific theories must wait for the new vanguard to replace the old vanguard). Others will “lose faith” and go seeking for that fabled legitimacy elsewhere – they’ll just find the same, I reckon. And yet others will do something with the evidence and use it to see their traditions in a different and more honest light.
Fiction may not be true, but it can still be meaningful and inspirational. If this weren’t the case, all science fiction and fantasy would just shrivel up and die. And most religion too, I shouldn’t wonder! I’m reminded of what AMORC says about their history that it “may be divided into two general classifications: traditional and chronological. The traditional history consists of mystical allegories and fascinating legends that have been passed down for centuries by word of mouth. The Rosicrucian Order’s chronological accounts are based on specific dates and verifiable facts.”
“Traditional” accounts of Druidry may be found in Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas or Ross Nichols’ The Book of Druidry (a related account of the latter may be found here). A chronological account would be Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe, which effectively dismantles the historical legitimacy of the previous two, but doesn’t quite strip away their value, bringing it more into focus, but only if viewed creatively, through the lens of Awen and applicability.
Fantasy and Function
Nothing is real in Druidry? Indeed, nothing, but that is the challenge of any modern movement, religion or spirituality – our ideas, theories and fantasies need to be applied in the living world and have a relevance in our lives. This relevance needs to be proved in the world and the lives of people, i.e. have a function. They are not real in themselves – they need to be made real.
How, though? What is its value in the modern world? We can rule out historicity, but after that is anyone’s guess/invention. There are fraternal druids with social, charitable and philanthropic themes, cultural druids that use it to celebrate and strengthen their Celtic identities, activist druids that see it as a way to make changes in the world and spiritual/religious druids that seek to reconstruct, revive or reconnect with ancestral ways as they imagine it. These continue because they have value for someone in some way.
My own Druidry is of a spiritual stripe, combining reverence of nature with inner human development. The definition that most rings true to me comes from the Ancient Order of Druids in America which “understands Druidry as a path of nature spirituality and inner transformation founded on personal experience rather than dogmatic belief.”
In Druidry I found a path that turns towards nature instead of turning away from it, a quality that is vital in our age of ecological crisis, it also allowed me to experiment and investigate my beliefs without passively following an arbitrary list of them, and with this comes my own inner healing and development. I am a being with a lot of potential, and this, for the sake of myself, humanity and the world, needs to be developed and allowed to breathe. Other spiritual traditions also contain these, but its myths, archetypes and images developed out of a Western mindset and so are suited to a Western mindset, so we don’t need to seek out and appropriate exotic paths – we can find what we need “at home”.
As I said in my article on the Three Functions of Druidry “My interest in Druidry is mainly about what their function and role was within society and how that image can inspire the role of Druidry today.” I think the image of the ancient druid speaks to us and shows a powerful figure of authority and wisdom that is at the same time a nature mystic, at harmony with nature. This image, true or not, is inspiring and continues to inspire, which is nice and everything but…
is it really real? For me, as a “druid-in-training” this is an ongoing process and a lifetime’s work. Druidry is nothing if it cannot be effective and of service to the world.