An Absence of Ancient Druids

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.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

27 responses to “An Absence of Ancient Druids

  • Rober Leland Hall

    Dear Nimue—–This recent blog is so honestly presented as to shock me—-so many human souls find meaning where there isn’t any—-However –for me—what is sacred is the search and an openness of the mind that is thoughtfully inclusive——I have found very few great answers in the world just ever greater questions——-In this article–for me–You have demonstrated by your words —-the “True Wisdom of the Spirit” that I believe Druidry embraces—To say thank you is not enough!!!

  • Angharad Lois

    This is why I love your blog!

    Of course, I’m also pretty fond of romance and beards… 🙂

  • verdant1

    I’m falling in love with your blog!

    Beautiful analysis of the historical situation and elegantly written ❤

    (You're also winning me over to Druidry – I've been an eclectic, animistic pagan for a long time, but this is looking more and more like an 'organised' label I'd be willing to explore)

  • D.L.

    That simple statement that all religions are made up is what’s kept me away from most religions, because there is frequently no room for questions or challenge, but it’s also what’s kept me with Druidry, because there /is/ room for those things. Being a questioner of all things, this fits me, even when it doesn’t.

  • Bruin Silverbear

    A recent article on Druids in Maine written by Leslie Bridgers of the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald elicited a few comments about this very subject. It was very frustrating for me to see these comments, few though they were. The gist of the loudest voice was “You can’t call yourself Druids, they were wiped out by the Romans” which is, in all actuality, not entirely true. However, it was difficult for me to formulate a response to this person that had not already been stated in a much less heated fashion than I would have endeavored.

    In essence though, this makes a lot of sense to me. When I say I am “Walking a Druid path”, what I am really trying to say is that there is something about Druidry that appeals to me that has nothing to do with recreating their life or culture. It means admiring what they were and what they represented to their tribe/people. It also means exploring the ways in which I can fill a similar niche within my tribe/people.

  • Ziixxxitria

    First of all, as we speak of titles, I think I shall proclaim myself to be “Her Earthiness, Supreme Tree-hugger and Flower-skipper Ziixxxitria”. That sounds both appropriately pretentious and silly.

    Now to get into the meat of my comment. I have only come to Druidry recently, and I rather like that it both is and is not ancient. It isn’t, obviously, by the way that what we do now is connected rather loosely, based on ideas that we have formed from history and other people’s writings on things Druids did or didn’t do.

    However, I think there is still something old, something visceral in Druidry. It calls to the parts of me that dig my toes into the dirt, and listen to the birds call. I think many ideas that we have about being good to each other, feeling our ways into nature, learning about the world… I think those have echoes all throughout history, and through many different cultures separated both spatially and temporally.

    I agree with you that something’s “oldness” doesn’t mean it is more valid than something else, but it is a cozy idea that other people, in some other time or place, were trying to reach out and make sense of the world in a way that was somewhat similar. I think if we focus on how good Druidry can be for people (and very different people they can be!), instead of whether or not we have the steps exactly right, we are still participating in something beautiful.

    Thank you for writing down your ideas. They often provide me with stepping stones for my own thoughts, and you have a nice perspective on many things.

  • Treeshrew

    I’m just sticking a toe into druidry again after a while away, and I must say I’m one of those people who doesn’t particularly care much what the ancient druids did or believed. Knowledge develops over time, and what we know now about medicine, astronomy, evolution and science would far surpass even the greatest of the ‘ancients’. When I talk about druidry, I almost always mean modern druidry as it is practiced here and now.

    I always find it amusing that certain people who would balk at owning a computer more than five years old would insist that a religion or philosophy is only valid if it’s ancient.

  • helgaleena

    The issue you address is the crux of many schisms in modern Druid organizations, including my own (Reformed Druids of North America). I am constantly questioned about calling myself by this label ‘Druid’, when I am not ethnic Celtic, or even pagan! Ultimately, it boils down to what other seekers we fall in with in our lives who share our connections to Nature on a level that transcends mere existence here and now.

    I met Druids, I discovered I was one as well, and that is that. The ancients are a source, one source among many, the most important of which is Earth.

    • Nimue Brown

      The very definition of ancestors of tradition, is people we claim for ourselves. No one should therefore try and dictate who has the right to claim interest in Druidry. There are no modern people who are vulnerable to exploitation, ergo appropriation of Druids just isn’t an issue. But, ‘purists’ they turn up everywhere. Meh. If Druidry speaks to you, it seems only polite to answer 🙂

  • siatsenetnetjeru

    Hat dies auf Dance of the dragon rebloggt und kommentierte:
    Spricht mir aus der Seele.

  • alainafae

    Reblogged this on A Vital Recognition and commented:
    This is a recurring theme for me lately, that “modern” does not need to be at the exclusion of tradition nor defined by it. Modern times, modern ways.

  • vehemenceandemergence

    Have you read Robert Graves ‘The White Goddess’? I know that there is a huge focus on the spiritual relationship with nature, which I totally appreciate. But for me, the Druid tradition is not old in the sense that very much alive in poetry and philosophy and has always been. The ancient Druid theories of language, time, space, etc. that have been passed on are, in my work, among the most influential ideas. Though I do not identify as a “druid”, or anything for that matter, I find a tremendous connection to the intellectual merit of their teachings. and I really love trees!

    • Nimue Brown

      I have, although I think it’s a deeply problematic book. I can recommend Stalking the Goddess as a companion text for it.

      • vehemenceandemergence

        I’m curious now! What did you find problematic?
        Thank you for the recommendation!

      • Nimue Brown

        Well, Graves himself describes the work as poetry and not history, which makes me reluctant to sue it as a source, but there’s also a great deal of detail missing, the throws concepts in the mix without saying where they came from or how they fit – that’s why I found Stalking the Goddess so helpful, it puts the book back in context, explores references and possible sources.

      • vehemenceandemergence

        I honestly never thought I would hear that there wasn’t enough detail in that book lol! I guess for me what graves was doing was what joesph Campbell did too: reading the patterns of human experience.

      • Nimue Brown

        Yes, I’d agree he does that, but I think there are many flaws – his attitude to women, as muse and not creator, is intensely annoying as well 🙂 I’m ambivalent about Joseph Campbell, too.

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