The roots of druidry are truly shrouded in mystery. Other than a few writings by classical authors, including Julius Caesar, there is precious little to go on. Many scholars, such as Prof. Ronald Hutton, have done an excellent service in casting light on the roots of druidry and it is not intended in this short piece to attempt an original work in this regard.
- What is known about them is that:
The Druids flourished in the pre-Roman cultures of Northern and Western Europe
They were a priestly caste whose roles also included teaching, healing, advising and acting as independent judges.
They were highly regarded, even by their enemies, as scholars, astronomers and social leaders. The Greeks, in particular, regarded them as sources of great wisdom and credit them with many discoveries.
They seem to have originated in Britain and spread west. Not, as is commonly thought, to have come with the Celts from their Indo-European roots.
They revered a wide range of Gods and spirits and met often in wooded groves, sometimes called 'nemetons'.
Training to become a druid was a long and arduous process. It followed a carefully laid-down structure that demanded a lot of knowledge, wisdom, verse and stories. It could easily take 20 years.
They regarded the written word with some suspicion and did not commit their knowledge to it. They had a highly developed oral culture.
The last great centres of druidry were deliberately targeted and destroyed by the Romans in the 1st Century AD.
Still, druidry never went away. Much of their knowledge and wisdom continued to flourish in the more remote parts of the British Isles until the coming of the Christian missionaries. St. Patrick, among others, is said to have met them. The establishment of Christianity in these areas merely made druidry change its coat. It continued in the Colleges of Bards of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, in the folklore and customs of the 'common' man, among many families who continued to revere the 'old ways', and within the Christian Church itself.
In their rush to assimilate the British, the Christian missionaries converted many of the old gods into saints. A good example of this is the Irish goddess Brigidh, patroness of smiths and poets, who Yeats famously thanked for putting the 'fire in his head'. She became St. Bridget, the supposed midwife of Christ. She quickly became one of the most popular saints in Ireland. The Catholic Church recently recognised this 'conversion' and de-canonised her. Despite this, the Irish still love her and some of her nuns have gone on to create an independent shrine to her.
In the 18th Century the first of the modern orders of druidry appeared. As first the Reformation and then the Age of Reason freed many Northern Europeans from the dead hand of Catholicism, some began to explore their own native spiritualities. Though at first quite Christian (or in the case of some, freemason) in their outlook, they slowly recovered much of that which was lost and became the ancestors of most modern druidry.
However, these orders remained secretive and small in number for there was still much to fear.
The 20th Century has seen a renaissance in druidry. In the 1950s the repeal of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 in Britain, allowed many non-Christian and native spiritualities to emerge from the shadows.
During the 1960s and 1970s there was a huge increase in interest in these native spiritualities and this led to the founding and re-emergence of many druid orders. Many people who felt constrained or even betrayed by the failure of the Christian churches to provide a meaningful spiritual path turned to the ways of their ancestors. For many it was a passing fad, but to some it provided a solid foundation for an earth-based and very personal spirituality.
By the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of people had become more aware of the earth and her natural cycles and rhythms, often through involvement in the environmental movement. Many of these sought a spirituality to match this new awareness. Some came to witchcraft and Wicca, others turned to druidry.
Now, in the 21st Century, the neo-pagan faiths are some of the fastest-growing spiritualities in the world, especially among those of Northern European ancestry (though by no means all). It is becoming recognised by national governments and is now even included as a choice in censuses. In the midst of all the excitement and growth the druid orders continue their work, as they have done for the last 5,000 years (a bold claim, but one founded in fact).
So What is Modern Druidry?
It is often said, somewhat wryly, within druid circles that if you ask five druids a question you will get five different answers and probably several questions in return. As in most spiritualities there are many colours to druidry's rainbow. There are points of harmony though and we will explore a few of these.
It must be understood though that the only way to truly experience druidry is 'in the field' with a druid. These words are a poor substitute for this experience. Some druid orders carry out public ceremonies at the equinoxes and solstices at such places as Stonehenge and Avebury. Polite enquirers are always welcomed.
All druids honour the earth and hold it, and all things upon it, to be sacred. They understand and work with the natural cycles of the land, celebrating these at the equinoxes, solstices and the 'fire' festivals. This is seen in the eightfold festival calendar, where there are celebrations every six weeks or so. Although many druids celebrate together in 'groves', as many, if not more, celebrate either alone or in small groups of two or three.
In honouring the earth most druids recognise and revere the spirits of the land. These can be the spirits of the great stone circles and ancient monuments, the spirits of rivers and forests, and even the spirits of individual trees and rocks. It is a highly animist viewpoint, but if you recognise that the sacred spirit flows in all things it certainly makes you more respectful of the earth and your place upon it. Druids generally see themselves as stewards of the earth, not its masters.
Druids honour their ancestors of both blood and spirit, and seek to learn from them. This has driven the famous scholarship of many druids. In less-informed neo-pagan circles, druids are often seen as stuffy and overly concerned with natural and ancient lore. Some even call them 'geeks', a badge they often wear proudly. In truth, the path of the druid is one of continuous study, and most druids are constantly involved in some type of personal development in order to better serve and honour the earth.
Through their links in blood and spirit with their ancestors, druids become a conduit for their ancient wisdom and try to return to the earth much that was lost or hidden.
Druids work with and revere the gods. Whether this be a single universal force, a belief in 'The God' and 'The Goddess', or a recognition that there are many gods and goddesses in the land. There are even Christian druids, often those who follow the re-emergence of the Celtic Christian path after centuries of suppression by Rome. Druidry is a broad and tolerant path and all are welcome. The key words here are 'work with' and 'revere'. Note that the Researcher did not say 'worship' or 'follow'. Druids tend to respect their gods but not slavishly worship them. Each druid forges an ongoing and very personal relationship with their god or gods.
All druids recognise the Awen. This is a spiritual energy that flows through all things. To the bards of Britain it is the wellspring of inspiration, a source of constant renewal and hope. To be a druid is to feel this energy in all that they do and accomplish. Much of the work of a druid draws them into contact with it. Many people who have turned to druidry, and who previously have not seen themselves as creative, have been astonished by the talents that contact with the Awen has inspired in them.
Druidry is not a path of power. No real druid would claim that they can wield great power over reality, nor bend the elements to their will. Druids work with the cycles of the earth and seek to promote learning and wisdom, responsibility and hope. Druids do work to promote healing both of individuals and the land. Their methods are manifold, from individual counselling to environmental protest. There is a greater magic in the seasons of the year, the birth of a child, the awakening of a mind, the healing of an old dispute, or a poem well put, than in any mere spell or potion.
Above all, druids are seekers of the truth, many truths, all truths. They attempt to walk the earth with the eyes of a child and the wisdom of an ancient. You will not find druids denying the truths of such spiritually-contentious (to some religions) issues as evolution, the birth of the physical universe and other scientific discoveries. To druids these are all parts of the marvellous complexity of the cosmos. Druids though try to look beyond the obvious and easily-proven. They believe in applying wisdom to the fantastic, and are willing to accept the magical in an attempt to understand the earth better.
Although to many druidry remains a highly personal path, the work of the orders must not be underestimated. The orders constantly research and publish material of relevance to the advancement of druidry. They organise teaching, healing and communal celebration. They act as a focus for the druid community as a whole. It is not the intention of the Researcher to recommend any particular order, for each has its strengths and weaknesses. A simple search on the Internet will reveal many. If you are interested, meander through a few of their websites until you find one that feels comfortable to you.
The druid path is not an evangelical one. It has no interest in marketing itself to the wider community. It has found that those who wish to learn more usually find their way to one of the orders or to a willing teacher. This entry itself is in direct response to the many enquiries made to the Researcher during his time on h2g2.
Those who approach druidry will find it an open and welcoming spiritual community. No one is ever asked to give up their own beliefs or commit any more of themselves to it than they feel comfortable with. It is considered that each person must forge their own path, though the teachings and wisdom of our ancestors is available to any that are interested.
If the reader should ever come across an order or individual that demands obedience or binding commitments (or wads of cash) then they should simply ignore them. Every community has its fringe elements and there are those that wish to exploit credulous individuals everywhere. Simply put, if it doesn't feel right, don't do it.
Modern druidry is a vital and growing spiritual path. With open hand, open heart and open mind, it faces the future with hope, love and purpose. To those that seek it out it offers a clarity of vision and freedom of expression not often found among the more dogmatic faiths.