I’ll confess up front that when I first came to Druidry I knew very little about the history of Druids. There were many things I did know a bit about… Taliesin and Amergin were familiar names, for a start. I was taking an interest in Paganism from late in my teens, exposed, inevitably at that time, to people who claimed ancientness for Witchcraft, and expecting Druids to be to some degree at least, peppered with genuine survivals from the Celtic era. I was young, I ask that you cut me some slack!
I went to my first few Druid-led rituals, rather thinking they would be based on ancient wisdom. No one told me what they were based on. I looked around at the Druid Orders, especially the Ancient Druid Orders, and a niggle of doubt crept in. At what point would an ancient Druid Order have been re-named to remark upon its ancientness? I started reading, and asking, and poking about and slowly got some sense that the idea of modern Druidry as a direct descendent of ancient Druidry, was actually a bit daft. There are fragments we use that are older, but much of it comes from the revival Druids, or more recent invention.
Then I read Blood and Mistletoe, which demonstrates that we really can’t be too confident about anything.
This has led me to several conclusions. The first is to note that modern Christianity looks nothing like Mediaeval Christianity, which is a long way from what people were doing in those first few hundred years AD. Secondly, all religion is made up. Even if you postulate some divine inspiration, religion is a human response to the idea of the sacred. Every word of ritual, every prayer, every rule and idea was made by a person at some point. Those which have been tested over time may have more substance. However if only age confirmed authenticity, then we might all still be Catholics believing in a flat earth. Alchemy is older than science. Judaism is older than Christianity. Paganism may be older again, but we don’t know enough about what they were doing in the first place. Using age to prove authenticity is not reliably a good idea.
We cannot have authentic ancient Druidry. They did not write anything down. If we did find something written down by ancient Druids, we’d pretty much have compromised the whole process because that basic tenet of their being an oral tradition would have gone. If we did today what Celts of thousands of years ago did in the context of their times and culture, would that be authentic? You only have to glance at the Christians to see that other religions evolve over time to respond to the world. So not only can we not have the past, but we also can’t have the trajectory Druidry would have taken had it been left to continue. It wouldn’t have been called Druidry, that much at least we can be sure of.
At which point the temptation to quit and just call yourself an animist, or go back to ‘pagan’ is huge. Many people who start out as Druids find the language and history so problematic that they leave. This is in many ways a shame because it knocks out the people who often know most about the history and its implications, leaving behind people who know so little that they can still image they really are doing ancient Druidry and the people who get excited about titles. Of course in between there are a lot of people who stay, and who know and who grapple continually with the issue of what it means to use the word ‘Druid’. We should be uneasy about it, that uncertainty stops us getting smug or complacent.
Something about the word ‘Druid’ and the idea of Druids keeps drawing people. Not just for the romance and the beards, but a sense of something deeper, a possibility waiting to be embraced. Beyond the titles and the history, beyond the endless squabbles about who isn’t doing it right, there’s a sense of something. A glimmer of possibility that there may be a real thing out there, intrinsic to the land and the natural world, awash with inspiration and creative potential, spiritual and rational all at once, and just waiting for us to listen. Druidry seems as good a name for it as any other. Names are, after all, just feeble human attempts at making sense of the world. Actual Druidry, is bigger than us and surprisingly tolerant of all our silliness.