No martyrdom in Druidry?

I have on a number of occasions described Druidry as a tradition which does not reward or encourage martyrdom. There are no tales of Druid martyrs, and there is no encouragement to suffer. Except…

I’ve also been thinking lately about how many Celtic stories feature heroic death. Heroism was celebrated in many of our ancestral cultures – the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples were big on it too. Proper heroes risk death, for a cause, for the tribe, for glory, to uphold their honour… and may well encounter it.

Martyrdom and heroism both work on the same basic principle that acting well and upholding your beliefs regardless of the risk or cost, is more important that whether you suffer or die. We tend to see martyrdom in religious terms and heroism as more worldly, but when your spiritual path doesn’t separate the spiritual from the physical, that division isn’t worth much. Heroism suggests personal glory, martyrdom is supposed to be more self effacing… except I think we know that doesn’t hold up because religions with martyrdom elements celebrate their martyrs.

It’s not even clarified by the issue of death – yes, martyrs normally die for the cause, but the Celts invented the White Martyrdom – leaving your ancestral community for the church, which was such a huge personal sacrifice that it counted as a form of martyrdom.

In fact, regardless of which term you favour, ‘sacrifice’ or the willingness to be sacrificed is definitely part of the deal.

‘Martyr’ can be flung as an insult where ‘hero’ lends itself far less. Calling someone a martyr can imply needless suffering, a form of attention seeking, smugness, holier than thou attitudes and other less desirable things. To make ‘hero’ an insult depends on using it ironically, and does not come so easily, I find.

Both are social constructs. If no one is looking who cares as you bleed to death, you will be neither hero, nor martyr, just corpse.

I realise that I would like to be heroic. I would like to do potent, risky things for good causes. I would gladly risk my life to protect others, or to make the world a better place, but there’s just not much call for that where I am. I know other parts of the world could use heroes, but my lack of language skill, physical prowess and political insight are something of a barrier. Dying uselessly for a cause has never seems that appealing. And so, unable to express anything heroic, I step up to things that look a lot more like martyrdom. Things that come into my life as slow exercises in being stripped of skin and bled dry. It’s not proper martyrdom, because there is no one to celebrate it, the way (for example) the quiet martyrdom of many mothers of small children goes unnoticed. The martyrdom of those who go without in small ways so that others can have what they need.

It might, on the whole, be a lot easier for me if Druidry did offer a martyrdom tradition that would allow me to feel differently about what I end up doing. The concept of martyrdom can, at least, convey a degree of dignity and nobility to situations that are otherwise entirely devoid of those things.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. 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

8 responses to “No martyrdom in Druidry?

  • Aurora J Stone

    If we go back to he Greek word it means: Witness. It has come to have to do with suffering and dying for the cause, but I wonder it that did not happen because of the early Christians using it in that way, during the early years of the persecutions. It was taken up by others who came after and has become synonymous with sacrifice of self, whether it be red or white martyrdom or of the current death cults ravaging the Middle East.

    If the word is taken in at its literal Greek meaning then you are a witness for Druidry. You share your experiences of how Druidry is and works in your life. Our ancient Druid forbearers doubtless witnessed, not in the evangelical sense, but perhaps in the more juridical sense, and they also saw and paid attention to what was going on around them. I don’t think taking on the martyr word is all that useful now, it has rather been corrupted and co-opted, but witness has more latitude, even today.

    It is not so easy to be a hero now in the big scale sense we so often think of it in the Hero Tales of old, of mighty sacrifices. I’m not big on the sacrifice mentality. Witness in the sense of mindfulness and engagement is more constructive. I do not think willful self-destruction is a positive religious stance for most people. There are selfless people willing to put themselves in harm’s way.I applaud them, but they do not do it with the taught of dying for the cause — like those working with Ebola patients. They do not do it to die, they want to live. They may die, but that is not what motivates them.

    Very thought provoking post.

  • Nimue Brown

    Thank you. I’m not sure I’m at all pro martyrdom in practice, but it was realising I didn’t know how to differentiate between that and heroism that has taken me in this direction. It probably worked very differently in more communal cultures where giving to your tribe was respected. as well.

  • Robin Herne

    There are a few stories of druids being killed by St Patrick (or his god, depending on how you interpret it) in contests to prove which religion was better. Not martyrdom in the usual sense, but still dying because they held to their faith rather than jumped ship.

  • Éilis Niamh

    Interesting post, Nimue. I used to think it commendable to die for it’s own sake, for a belief or idea. Now, I don’t value the desire to die for anything just to say I did so. I would willingly die for my family, in defending myself, or to ensure myself and others remain free persons. This feels necessary and even perhaps sometimes unfortunately so, rather than a preference or ideal to strive after. I love living in this world, and cherish every day I have in it. I’d like to stay here as long as possible, preferably and ideally. I think you’re right, druidry doesn’t have the concept of martyrdom built into it– that was honestly a relief for me. I define martyr as a person who neglects care and love for herself in exchange for acolaides from others, for example when a professor comes to class even though her mother just died an hour before, or how my mom did things like raise three children without doing anything for herself and now uses this as a point to insist on as a victim so she can get her way. It can be an incidious kind of codependency. I understand that’s not exactly the way you are using the term. I think it’s incredibly important to have integrity and live actively in accordance with the beliefs and convictions you hold meaningful and true. If you practice that everyday, you may occasionally be heroic–certainly counter culture!– though that’s not, in itself I think, the reason to act with personal integrity but a side consequence you cannot forsee. There’s a difference between honor and being honored, and yes, our ancient ancestors did actively seek paths in life through which they could be remembered, but you never know which actions will make the biggest difference, which lives you will impact the most, who will remember you well and who will resent you. Some ancient heroes are still changing the world thousands of years later. Some men and women whose names are lost to history are still changing the world through the projects and children they leave behind. Change happens either way. Everyone in this world is needed, it’s just some get remembered globally, quite often inaccurately, and others don’t get remembered beyond a handful of people who loved them fiercely. I don’t think it’s worth cutting life short just to gamble as to whether you’ll become one of the former or one of the latter. The many make up the one and if even one of us had not come here, the pattern of what is could not be complete. So I say, live, out loud, wholeheartedly, put yourself out into the world and shine, you will, and have, touched so many lives that you will not face the erasure of the forgotten. You are. You are alive. 🙂

  • Who does the Druid serve? | Druid Life

    […] then something has to nurture you, or you end up drained and defeated, or going mad in other ways. Paths of martyrdom offer their own interesting temptations, and people who are most ostentatiously self-sacrificing […]

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