[Updated 25 Sept 2016]
/|\ A SPIRITUAL PATH
Above all else, Druidry means following a spiritual path rooted in the green Earth. It means embracing an experiential approach to religious questions, one that abandons rigid belief systems in favor of inner development and individual contact with the realms of nature and spirit (1).
I find this succinct summation of Druidry by J. M. Greer especially useful as a corrective when Druids and other Pagans get bogged down in semantics. It’s a good “elevator speech,” too: your perspective presented in the amount of time it takes a typical elevator to travel a few floors and either you or the other person gets out. It leaves room for other persons to breathe and think, without hitting them over the head with either excess or irrelevancies. If they want more, they might even feel comfortable enough to ask. And if they don’t, they’ll go away with a useful starting point to mull over, if they choose.
Why do some Druids (I count myself among them) call it “Druidry” rather than “Druidism”? The former name emphasizes that Druids study to master a craft, a set of skills (carpentry, dentistry, heraldry, falconry, animal husbandry), rather than professing an -ism — a doctrine or creed or set of beliefs. (Some people prefer calling themselves “druidists”).
The sections below develop this idea of practice of a craft.
/|\ ROOTS AND BRANCHES
The word “Druid” comes from Latin druidae, Latin and Greek druides. It’s related to Old Irish druí “druid, sorcerer” and early Welsh dryw “seer.”
Ultimately all these come from the “grandmother tongue” of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) — the asterisk * associated with PIE words indicates a form reconstructed from surviving descendants. Thus, PIE *dru-, *deru, a root appearing in words meaning “certain, true, fixed, oak tree.” Compare Engl. true, troth, tree, trust; Greek δρύς (drus), “oak-tree.” The second part of the word may derive from PIE *(w)id- “know.” Compare Engl. wit; Latin video “I see”; Sanskrit vidya “knowledge” etc. So “druid” may mean something like “strong knower, oak wisdom, true knowledge, etc.”
All this said, Archdruid J M Greer’s comments on “meaning” are apposite here:
An astonishing number of the squabbles that have kept the magical community from accomplishing much of what it could have accomplished in the last thirty years could have been avoided with even a little undergraduate philosophy. A few years back the meaning of the word “witch” was a hot button that drove endless bickering; in some circles the meaning of the word “druid” is becoming the same sort of rhetorical football today. Nearly everyone involved talked as though the word had some fixed, essential meaning that you could get from its etymology. It doesn’t take much philosophy of language to show that words are tools, not truths; that the meaning of a word is determined by usage, not etymology. The word “black” originally meant “white;” it’s an exact cognate of the French word blanc. Attention to that might have spared the community a good deal of bickering and saved time and effort for something more useful (Greer, “A Magical Education” ).
/|\ A RANGE OF SOURCES
Contemporary Druids draw on a range of sources for their practices. This matters, because while you can find a considerable range of beliefs among Druids, what makes a Druid is what each one actually does each day. Belief usually matters less among Druids than it does among followers of revealed religions, which typically ask adherents to profess a creed, or subscribe to a theology whose implications they may never have actually tried out for themselves. To quote Alice in Wonderland,
Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Many Druids, then, aspire to believe less and experience more, with the latter often trumping the former. We want to explore after breakfast, too.
While ancient sources from outside the Celtic world are not extensive (2) — historically, Druid teachings were passed down orally (3) — the few accounts of Greek and Roman authors which we do possess establish a written starting point for a tradition that was without doubt older than their encounter with these teachers and culture-bearers of the Celts. And we also have the much richer and more evocatively instructive legends and stories preserved in Welsh and Irish literature, including some of the earliest myths and epics of Europe, which can provide valuable guidance for what living Druidically in the present can mean.
/|\ AUTHENTICITY AND VALIDITY
Are contemporary Druids the lineal heirs of those ancient Druids? In a word, no. To claim otherwise discredits Druidry. But things of worth and value are in no way diminished simply because their lineage can be counted in mere years or decades rather than millennia. Mere age is no guarantee of quality, after all. With a little reflection, you should be able to name several ancient practices which we’re much better off without. However, some of the most valuable material we do possess in the form of old Irish and Welsh myths and poems and stories (e.g., the Mabinogion) has indeed survived largely intact into modern times.
These stories of wisdom and lore and initiation have much to teach the modern Druid, and feature in the teachings of several contemporary Druid orders. And there are surviving legends, folk practices and traditions that also may date from those times, and may have things to teach us, too. (From these come some of the spurious claims people have made to being “hereditary Druids.” Families may indeed preserve traditions they pass down to descendants. But the test remains: “Does it work? Is it still worthwhile today?”)
To put it another way, plenty of practices may be “authentic” — like slavery, for one, which the Celts practiced before the Romans came. But slavery certainly is in no way valid or appropriate today (though it remains a scourge in the present). Likewise, a contemporary visualization or chant or perspective may not draw on explicitly Celtic symbolism — it may not be “authentic” in any way, though it proves in practice to be completely valid and helpful. Do we really need to be hung up on authenticity and validity? If you’re buying an antique, you want authenticity. But if you’re trying to figure out your life, validity comes first, and authenticity a very distant second, if at all.
As the former Archdruid of ADF Isaac Bonewits remarks,
The Earth-Mother and the other Gods and Goddesses do not need us to tell lies on their behalf, nor can we truly understand the ways of our Paleopagan predecessors by indulging in romantic fantasies, no matter how “politically correct” or emotionally satisfying they might be. So we should promote no tall tales of Stonehenge being built by Druid magic, nor of the ancient Druids originally having been shamanic crystal-masters from Atlantis. We need not whitewash the occasional barbarism of our predecessors, nor exaggerate it. We should use real archeology, history and comparative mythology–by which I mean current (within the last thirty years or so) academic research and theory that reflects the highest aspirations of modern scholarship. We should be willing to change our opinions when new information becomes available, or more sensible interpretations are offered, even if to do so damages our favorite theories. Until recently, this approach has been rare in both Druidic revivals and the Neopagan community. Nevertheless, it is vital if we are to avoid the sort of doctrinal traps that other religions so often fall prey to, which force them to suppress whatever new learning contradicts their dogmas (4).
/|\ THE DRUID REVIVAL
Another and important source for contemporary Druidry is the Druid Revival, dating from the 17th through 19th centuries in the United Kingdom. Antiquarians, poets, visionaries and seekers like John Aubrey, William Stukeley and Iolo Morganwg drank at, and broadened, several streams that still nourish Druids today. The poet William Blake has also been claimed as a Druid, and — according to one writer — is listed on the membership rolls of the Ancient Order of Druids, one of the first Revival groups, of which he was Chosen Chief from 1799-1827, according to another source. At any rate, Blake wrote more than once about Bards, Druids and Druidic perspectives.
As a modern scholar (5) has observed, it can hardly be an accident that the beginnings of the Revival coincided with the Industrial Revolution and its blighting effect on human lives and the land, in spite of its admitted benefits and ongoing development. Things have a habit of coming into balance, generating their own equilibrium. Or as the Tao Te Ching serenely observes, “Extremes do not last long.” For the last several decades, we’ve been moving into the beginning stages of one such planetary re-balancing. Hold on, and let go! (6)
/|\ OTHER INSPIRATIONS
Other inspirations and sources for modern Druidry include the practices and beliefs of indigenous and tribal peoples of many lands.
Is this cultural (mis)appropriation? All cultures have learned and borrowed from their predecessors. If we wish to do the same, there’s good Druidic guidance for doing so honorably. As Druid and blogger John Beckett puts it in a wry modern Triad: 1) Give credit where credit’s due. 2) Don’t claim to be someone or something you’re not. 3) Steal from the best.
Any people who live close to the land and depend on it for their food, clothing, shelter, livelihood and cultural expression have discovered how to listen to the land and learn from it. In this sense, Druidry could still be reconstituted even if everything — all of its perspectives, skills and knowledge — were “lost.” How, after all, did humans first learn which plants and animals to eat, which to heal with, and how to prepare them? Which animals can be domesticated, which are indicators of a good harvest or hard winter, and what weather presages frost or drought or storm? How may humans live in harmony, as much as possible, in a world they share with other beings?
Knowledge of and skill with these things form the beginnings of much Druid wisdom and lore. We can account for how earlier humans gained this ancient earth-wisdom through a combination of trial and error, inner guidance, careful observation of and interaction with animals and plants, and learning by analogy with what was already known. In this way, today’s Druidry can be just as “authentic” and useful as the Druid practices of any other time. Does it work? Does it improve life? Does it bring greater wisdom and harmony into the world? These are the practical tests any spiritual teaching must address if it is to serve its practitioners well.
Finally, the experiences of contemporary Druids, and their outpouring of music, art, poetry and crafts, rituals and songs and visions, care for the earth and its creatures, and insight into living life joyfully and well, contribute to the ongoing enrichment and flowering of this path, and to human experience generally. A tradition has value, after all, only if it lives and grows and resonates in people’s experience — something contemporary Druidry definitely continues to do.
/|\ DRUID ORGANIZATIONS
If you’d like more information, the Wikipedia entries on druid and neo-druidism are serviceable and can get you started; the bibliography at the end of the second entry includes links to numerous Druid organizations. Four well-established and reputable groups that I am personally acquainted with are OBOD (the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids), ADF (Ár nDraíocht Féin/A Druid Fellowship — literally, “Our Own Druidry”), AODA (the Ancient Order of Druids in America), and BDO (the British Druid Order). All three offer valuable training programs and guidance, a community of supportive, fun and like-minded people, and a sustaining vision of present and future.
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1. Greer, John Michael. Druidry — A Green Way of Wisdom, qtd. in Carr-Gomm, Philip. What Do Druids Believe? London: Granta Books, 2006, p. 34. (Note: This is a correction of the source text actually cited.)
2. The total extant ancient material from outside observers concerning the Druids would fill no more than a short booklet. Almost all the citations have been conveniently assembled here, with both original text and translation, allowing anyone the opportunity to double-check both translation and original, and compare it with other editions.
3. Apparently, though the Druids were literate, they preferred oral transmission of their knowledge. Caesar notes (De Bello Gallico 6.14): “And they do not think it proper to commit these utterances to writing, although in almost all other matters, and in their public and private accounts, they make use of Greek letters. I believe that they adopted the practice for two reasons — that they do not wish the discipline to become common property, for those who learn the discipline to rely on writing and so neglect the cultivation of the memory; and, in fact, it does usually happen that the assistance of writing tends to relax the diligence of the student and action of the memory.”
4. Bonewits, Isaac. Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism. New York: Citadel Press, 2006, p. 282.
5. Author John Michael Greer; full citation forthcoming when located.
6. Part of my philosophy of life: hold on to what matters, let go of the rest, and learn to tell the difference from any source at all that helps me do so.