The image of ancient Druids is very much one of guardians of civilization. Law makers, historians, story tellers… advisers of Kings too. Your historical Druid was evidently right at the heart of what it meant to be civilized. Then there’s that other image, of the worshipping in Groves, cutting mistletoe off oaks and being priests of nature. Many modern Druids are drawn more to this second image, not least perhaps because humanity has got a bit carried away with the idea of being ‘civilized’ and keeps forgetting that we are nature, too.
There is an ancient Welsh story about Llew Llaw Gyfess, who can only be killed when he’s stood with one foot on a goat and the other on a well. We’ll skip over the vast amount of other story around this, or it would take over the post. I like this image though. It’s fairly improbable and impractical, which is part of the point. It also echoes riddles and challenges that crop up in other stories from all across Europe. You must come to me neither dressed nor naked, neither riding nor walking comes up all over the place. (The answer tends to be to show up in just your underwear, with your bum on a goat and your feet trailing along the ground, in case anyone was wondering…)
There’s an element of being in an inbetween place, or state here. We know the ancient Celts had a bit of a thing for the inherent magic of liminal places. Those in between states, neither one thing or another, create borderlands, from which we might touch other borderlands. It’s often the light at sunset, between day and night, that is most suggestive of faerie otherworlds. Getting in between, you might step cross into something else entirely. For anyone interested in magic, spirit or otherness, the applications are many.
But let’s come back to the goat for a moment. Stroppy, eternally hungry things that they are. Unpopular with Christians, who preferred the placid and easily led sheep. Agile, mountain climbing, independent and very good at surviving, and one of the least sensible domesticated mammals to try and stand on, at a guess. Then there’s the well, which takes us down into the earth to the source of water. The water is natural, the well is man-made. The goat is natural, but somewhat domesticated. Nature and human civilisation combine. The well stays put, the goat moves, and somehow, Llew has to stand on this. He’s not killed, even though he should be. He transforms into an eagle. The place of fatal vulnerability turns out to be not quite as advertised.
It’s a striking image.
For me, being a Druid means finding the things that are separate and having a foot in each of them. Nature and civilization are an obvious place to start. Thinking and feeling. Belief and doubt. Life and death… with one foot in each camp, the Druid connects what is separate, just by standing there. One foot on the goat, the other foot on the well. And I suppose yes, there are days when that does seem like it might be going to kill you, but somehow it doesn’t.