Category Archives: Becoming a Druid

Druidry, recognition and initiation

Back when I did more formal Druidry, I undertook a number of initiations – at Stonehenge, and through the OBOD course. They were important experiences for me, although at the time I don’t think I could have fully articulated why it mattered and what it changed. For a few years I also initiated bards in ritual, and that taught me a lot about what the process is and does and can mean.

In some traditions, initiation is about dedication. This is definitely the case for anyone self initiating. It is a commitment to yourself, the tradition, perhaps the Gods. It demonstrates intention and sets you on a path. In magical traditions, my understanding is that initiation is itself a magical process, and it is about moving you on with your studies. You are initiated into something new by people who know more than you do. It is a formal gateway you must pass through on your path.

If you are on a taught course, then a Druid initiation can be that kind of initiation into mystery. There are plenty of Druids who self initiate – and even though my OBOD initiation was designed by someone else, I undertook it alone and it felt like a dedication more than a step through a portal.

From what I’ve seen, no two Druids walk quite the same path. We can share insights and experiences, we can teach each other, but part of the nature of the path is that you have to walk it in your own way. Often what we need from initiation isn’t a portal into the next level, but the recognition from fellow travellers that we are also Druids. What makes the initiation powerful is a group of people gathering to say yes, we take you seriously as a Druid. Yes, we see your bardic work. Yes, we think you can carry on and do other things we will respect and value.

This too has its own magic. It’s easy to overlook the power of simple human interactions if you’re looking for big woo-woo stuff loaded with special effects. However, in terms of how we live our lives, human interaction is greatly significant for most of us. The majority of us are more likely to get direct feedback from fellow humans than we are to hear from Gods, spirits or ancestors as we follow our path. It’s nice to get the affirmation of that direct feedback too.

If the Gods don’t talk to you much, or at all, if the woo-woo isn’t part of your path very often, or at all, a bit of recognition from a fellow Druid can help you remember that there is more to this than the big stuff, that the small stuff done well is of great importance to the people around you. After all, what the Gods say to you probably won’t impact on your people much at all, but what you do with it will, so will whatever you do for your own reasons.


Sniffing for Druids

Scent is incredibly powerful especially in terms of bringing emotion and memory to the surface. It’s also a sense we don’t tend to use much. Most other mammals make far better uses of their noses than we do. Admittedly, some have far more powerful noses than we do, but our lack of engagement is a far bigger issue.

I can tell when the fox has pissed on the bushes outside the flat. Sometimes I smell death even though I cannot find the body. At the moment, the woods are permeated with the aroma from the new garlic leaves, but if you get your head in close there are violets to sniff as well. Weather creates smells, so do trees, rotting plant matter, bodies of water. Opening up to smell gives us access to far more than we can know by looking.

Smelling things makes you more of a conscious participant in a place, less the observer of scenery. Of course smell is one of the ways in which your body is permeated by your environment – the smells we breathe in are airborne chemicals that come from their source and physically enter our bodies. And no, it’s not a pleasant thought to recognise that the steaming turd we can smell is also, now, a little bit inside us, but we can’t embrace nature and deny the bits we find distasteful. To many mammals the pile of poo is a veritable newsletter and worth taking the time to sniff.

Sniffing the world and paying attention to smell may change your relationships with human-made smells. Car fumes, artificial scents for the body, factory smells – noticing them can make them harder to deal with. Many of the things humans put in the air do us no good at all, and tuning them out doesn’t protect us from harm.

You don’t need a lot of energy or mobility to go sniffing. It helps if you can cross-reference smells with other sources of information, and of course not everyone has a good capacity for smelling things. Most of us, however, have far more potential in our noses than we normally use, and can snuffle our way into a deeper state of relationship with the world.

Teaching Druidry, Learning Druidry

I have, at various times and by assorted means, tried teaching Druidry. It’s an odd business for me – not least because I dislike dogma and authority, and firmly believe that modern Druidry is something we have to make for ourselves as individuals. Of course teaching doesn’t have to express authority or dogma, but it’s so easy to accidentally fall into either, or both.

I’ve learned a lot when I’ve been teaching people. It’s allowed me to find out a great deal about other ways to see the world. One of the things it taught me is that I enjoy being a student, and always feel a bit out of my depth if asked to taking a teaching role, but that at the same time I find teaching exciting, and watching people find their own way even more so.

This has led me to the conclusion that most of the time, creating space is more productive than any attempts at formal teaching. It’s also less demanding in terms of time and effort. Give people a space, an opportunity, and let them do it on their own terms, and what they find will be their own, and will have its own shape. It removes all temptation for the teaching to be about how clever and important the teacher is, and it frees the student from any dogma the teacher might have been hauling around.

Too often, teaching can mean imagining the student as the blank page onto which the teacher must write their great wisdom. But, if you start from the idea that what the student needs to do is discover their own wisdom, everything changes. If you aim to have the student find their own inspiration, their own insight, their own magic… then giving them yours is of limited use.

There are a great many ways of creating opportunities, and this is something we can all do for each other without needing a hierarchy of teachers over students. Anyone can make a space, and anyone can work within a space to experience and develop. All that is required of a space is that it gives people room to have experiences. That could be a moot set up to talk philosophically. It could be a ritual or a bardic circle that doesn’t overly direct participants. It might just be a walk, a few pointers for a drawing exercise, a meditation space or room to dance.

I think the best scope for learning occurs when we are least invested in controlling each other’s experiences. One person cannot teach another person to have a spiritual experience – it’s just not possible. All we can do is show each other the things that might lead to spiritual experience.

Deep or shallow spirituality?

This was inspired by Tommy Elf’s recent post –

What makes a spiritual practice deep or shallow? It’s no doubt easier to judge others from the outside than it is to make a fair assessment of our own spiritual paths. On reflection, what I have is odd, to say the least…

When I was trying hardest to be ‘deep’ I was at my most obsessed with surface and appearance.

When I tried to be important, I was at my least spiritual.

When I tried to teach others, I did a great deal of learning.

When I stopped striving and started seeing what happened, more happened.

When I was kinder to myself, I found more reasons to practice gratitude.

When I went to the woods for the sake of the woods, and not in search of anything sacred, I found something sacred.

When I let myself enjoy the surfaces of things, it stopped feeling like something shallow.

When I stopped trying so hard to seem deep, I learned how sacred mirth can be.

I suspect I could go on with this almost indefinitely. Spirituality is paradox. It’s the learning that teaches you how little you know.  It’s the wisdom to realise you are an idiot, and the devotion to be able to handle things with a light touch. But beyond that, it’s whatever makes sense to us, regardless of what sense, if any, that makes to anyone else.

Crafting for Druids

When a person starts out along the Druid path, there are so many things they might potentially learn that it can all be a bit overwhelming. I don’t have (as yet) an easy route map for all of this. For those signed up to a teaching order, there’s at least a framework (The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, The British Druid Order and ADF all offer distance learning support and there are probably others). Many would-be Druids however have to go it alone.

When looking for ancient spiritual wisdom, many of us default to books. The ancient Druids didn’t write anything down, all we have is modern thinking. Arguably, there is no spiritual authority in anything any modern Druid writes. I think this is excellent because it puts the onus on each of us to find out own truth.

So, why crafting for Druids? Having traditional skills connects us in really direct ways to the lives of our ancestors. Doing the things they did will teach us about their lives and brings them closer. Traditional skills also bring a person in relationship with the living world. To make a fire, to grow vegetables, weave a basket or throw a pot you have to deal directly with real things. Too many of us have working lives that put us indoors, looking at the world through a screen and typing (I’m stuck with this too). Traditional skills ground and rebalance us. They make us a part of the living world.

Learn to do something – anything – from scratch. We’re constantly bombarded with the idea that we need labour saving, time saving for-sale interventions. There’s a radical aspect to ignoring that. Doing things from scratch gives you something unique and personal. It forms a connection between you and what you make. It allows space for creativity and inspiration. In all of this we challenge the shrink-wrapped one size fits all culture that is so stifling and destructive.

Learning a craft won’t teach you everything you need to know in order to be a modern Druid, but it will teach you a lot. The insights, like the things you make, will be entirely your own.

Challenges on the Druid Path

Faiths can be a lot like love affairs. You start out full of excitement and enthusiasm. This will be the one! This will change your life, heal your broken heart and make everything perfect. For the honeymoon period, you do all the things. You carefully celebrate seasonal festivals, make and maintain an altar, have a daily practice…

And then you don’t achieve enlightenment. You don’t become a super-capable magician. Your problems still exist. Your broken heart is not perfectly restored. Maybe it wasn’t the faith for you. Maybe it’s time to try another, to fall in love with a new set of ideas. We can end up wandering about being offered fantastical, magical answers, and never really getting what we wanted.

This is, I think an important aspect of being on a path, and one we probably don’t talk about enough. It’s too tempting to focus on the more meaningful experiences, and on times of change, even though that’s not what day to day spirituality looks like. I’ve been exploring Druidry for years. There is so much I do not know. There is so much that I am not. Dramatic events and big revelations are scarce through to non-existent. There’s a slow process of building on what I know, and changing how I am in the world. Druidry has not solved all my problems, but it has given me some ways to handle things better.

The divine does not speak to me, mostly. There are odd moments that leave me wondering, but nothing clear enough to be comforting. Birds do not fly to my hands. I do not see the future. I cannot heal people with the power of my mind. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges Paganism offers us, is that having invested in these magical, enchanting ways of seeing the world, we still have to deal with the mundane realities, socks still get dirty, injustice still stalks the earth, bad things happen. We aren’t magically protected from all things in all ways, and we probably know we shouldn’t be anyway. To embrace the idea of magic while accepting the frequent absence of it isn’t easy.

Real growth, and real learning are often about tiny shifts that aren’t visible while they’re happening. It’s natural to crave the dramatic revelation, but what you’re more likely to do is get evolution by tiny increments over a long time. Shifts in how you see and feel that are subtle, and that you don’t register as they happen. We’re changing all the time, but we won’t see it until more time has passed.

The faith we thought was our one true love maybe hasn’t let us down after all, maybe we just had unrealistic expectations. Part of why we have those expectations is the way others sell ideas of rapid progress and instant development, and the way some people play up their own experiences and fail to mention the boring bits.

I’ve been a Druid for over a decade, and mostly it’s very quiet. There are moments of wonder and inspiration, there has been a slow change taking place in me. I get excited about ideas and connecting with other people but I’m still basically a flawed, often confused human muddling along as best I can. All of us are, to at least some degree.

Becoming the Very Important Druid, and other quests

What first brings a person to Druidry? There are of course, many answers. A desire for knowledge and experiences, a hunger for mystery, wonder and the numinous. Wanting a place to belong, feeling a kinship, needing or longing for something. We all have our own reasons and all of those reasons have their own validity.

Once you get onto the path and start learning, those initial desires can rapidly stop being relevant, or can evolve. In the first year of Druidry, working on the wheel of year can seem massively important, but that very work will show you what the wheel doesn’t do, where it fails to connect with your experiences, and so one quest can lead to another, very different sort of quest, as an example.

Sometimes the way a path grows and changes is very smooth and makes total sense. Sometimes the things we start with, and the things we come to want are quite at odds with each other. The very idea of spiritual growth can create interesting tensions. I came to Druidry in no small part because I wanted to learn, grow and change, to acquire spiritual depth. The steps from here to thinking yourself better than other people, succumbing to ego, to hubris, to self importance, are not many. It’s a potential pitfall for anyone who organises, writes or leads – that you start to think of yourself as an important Druid. Being A Very Important Druid doesn’t sit well alongside a deeply lived spiritual life. The more invested we get in our own importance, the harder it is to show up to the spiritual life.

At the same time, there is a real need for people who can organise, lead, teach, write and generally share the wisdom they have gained. There’s a need for celebrants and ritualists that isn’t just about the hungry ego of the individual. What little we know of the history of Druidry suggests that ancient Druids were very much in those places of leadership and wisdom for their tribes.

How much do we quest for the role of the important Druid? How much tension is there between role and personal spirituality? How do we treat those who take on such roles?

For me, the key to all this is service. If you show up to do the job – as writer, teacher, celebrant etc – and your focus is the job, it works a lot better. If you show up to be adored and looked up to, then it’s not about the job, it’s about the self importance. However, these are hard things to admit to. We’re all fragile and human, wanting to be loved and admired is natural. So is wanting to be valued and respected for what we do. The risk is that if our Druidry is all about seeming fabulous to other people, it may well not be giving us anything we need. It’s a shallow pool to paddle in at the best of times. I’ve certainly put my feet in it more than once.

Turning up to serve, the only questions are ‘is this working?’ ‘is this useful?’. If someone finds it useful, then you’re doing the work. If the focus is on doing the useful work, then any larger profile gained is recycled into the means to do the work and to reach and help more people, landscapes, causes. A Very Important Druid who uses their prominence to inform, enlighten and uplift others, is a person to support. If all the fame does is serve to bring adulation to the famous one then they aren’t doing themselves or anyone else any favours. Any attempt to knock that kind of activity down only feeds it though, because someone invested in their own superiority will see only trolling in the behaviour of people who do not like them. If a person is on an ego trip, then any attention paid to them, will feed it.

What to do then, if you wake up one morning and suspect that the desire to be seen a certain way has somehow taken over from the work of being a Druid? Go back to the trees. Back to the soil and the mud. Find a hilltop and be really, really small under the sky. Seek out the ancient dead and consider how long ago they lived, and step back into a more reasonable perspective on your life. I find it helps, at any rate.

Bird watching for enlightenment

There’s an issue I’ve been wrestling with for a while, and reading Mark Townsend’s work has really brought it into focus for me. There’s an aspect to following a spiritual path that says ‘you are not good enough right now, but if you do all the things you will get a better outcome’. Whether that’s enlightenment, heaven, or some other notion varies, but the idea of improving yourself is part (surely?) of what religion is for.

The idea of improvement creates problems though. I strive, and study and try and do all the right things. (Thank you Mark, for letting me know it isn’t just me, or I would not have been able to admit this). Sometimes, I start to feel like I’m getting somewhere. External achievements help with this. Ooh look, X has occurred and therefore I’m a better sort of Druid! Which on its own would be fine, but it raises the temptation to look around and see who isn’t this far down the path, isn’t this clever, or this good. It may be one of Druidry’s saving graces that we don’t have an agreed model for what the perfect Druid looks like, whereas Christianity suffers a good deal more from the effects of this because there are clearer patterns to follow.

I catch myself doing it sometimes, and it leaves me uncomfortable. In the recognition of this as ‘failure’ is also the sense that there should be some other, better way of doing this that doesn’t risk replacing wisdom with smugness or experience with superiority. It also makes me anxious because I worry about being judged by others, not being a good enough Druid myself, not keeping up, not knowing enough or being clever enough and all the rest of it.

I may have come up with something.

When you take up bird watching, there’s a sudden learning curve as all the anonymous and familiar birds around you become individuals you can name. It’s exciting. You move on to less common birds over time, you get more confident about telling one from another from a burst of song or a flash of tail. Then, quite possibly, a thing happens. It stops being the birds that are exciting, and starts to be about the bragging. It’s not the seeing the crane, it’s the knowing how jealous other people will be when you tweet about it (sorry, couldn’t resist). You travel hundreds of miles to see a bird that isn’t rare where it lives, but is blown off course. You dash in, get a picture, dash out – you’re a hardcore birdwatcher now, and you don’t bother yourself with boring, everyday birds.

I think this is how it can go with religion, all too often. The practice, the trappings, the process start to take over from the thing that is the core of what you are doing. In the case of bird watching, what’s called for is just being able to enjoy what is there, still being excited about the everyday birds. What is the equivalent for Druidry? As Druidry is harder to define in the first place, I think the short answer is ‘showing up’. Be present, do the things (whatever they are for you) show up and experience, and don’t let the idea of big shiny things take you away from the little everyday things. Get excited about seeing something rare and precious – that’s a blessing – but maybe it doesn’t mean much. Maybe it doesn’t mean we’re getting somewhere, maybe it’s just luck, or grace and we do not need to feel important.

I’m a cheerful, naive bird watcher who still gets excited about robins and blackbirds. I’m going to try and take more of that mindset into the Druidry, and see if I can fret less about being a good Druid.

Beyond being a Druid student

Most people who come to Druidry will start out making no claims about themselves. Recognising that ‘Druid’ is a weighty word implying a lot of things about your role, knowledge and how you are seen by others, new-to-Druidry folk tend to talk about themselves as being students of Druidry, on the Druid path and the like. At some point, a transition will happen from student of Druidry to Druid. Where and when it falls will vary, but there’s often an external trigger. Completing a course can feel like qualification. Leading your first ritual, or Grove, being asked to act as celebrant or to teach something to someone else are also points of transition. Once people ask you to do the job, they will use the ‘Druid’ title in regards to you, and you may as well get used to it!

Many routes to Druidry are self determining. Even in a structured course like OBOD, the responsibility clearly lies with the student, and as they come into their own power there will be a smooth transition from student to practitioner, most often. Where the difficulty often comes is around more personal teaching, where the student submits to the authority of a teacher. That creates a very particular dynamic. It is all too easy for the student to decide their teacher is the all knowing Guru, and refuse to move on from that into responsibility for their own spiritual lives. It is equally easy for the teacher to fall into the ego trap of feeling important because they have all these students following them around being terribly impressed by them, and want to maintain that.

When this happens, the students are not allowed to cross the threshold into their own Druid status. Or won’t let themselves. To move on they will have to break with the teacher – something I’ve seen happen repeatedly. As often as not, this process breaks the student and they retreat from what they were doing. It doesn’t do the teacher much good either, leaving a legacy of wounded feelings that doesn’t make it easier to let future students go. At some point, you have to recognise that even though there are always more things you could teach them, they are ready to go it alone.

How does a teacher avoid this? Not setting yourself up as an authority figure in the first place helps. Avoiding terms that imply power over, or submission to, may help. That way there’s less to break at the end. Don’t teach alone, and if you can, teach with someone whose outlook is different, to avoid dogma and create more space for the student to find their own version of Druidry. If you can’t do that, there are plenty of books now, so you can expose proto-Druids to other perspectives and make it clear you aren’t an absolute authority. If the student is drawn in a direction that is not what you teach, let them go. Don’t make yourself responsible for their spiritual journey. Ideally as teachers we provide tools and ideas from which other people can find out how they want to do things. If we try too hard to make students too much like ourselves we limit them, and take from them the scope to be themselves. If you are taking a formal teacher-student role, have a strategy for how you are going to release them into the wild at the end.

As a student, I would say as a rule the more devotion, acceptance, submission and passivity a teacher asks for (in any context, not just Druidry) the more reason there is to move on. A good teacher will help you be the best you can be, rather than wanting to align you with their own message.

I will always be a student, because there is always more to learn. As a student I have come to value most the fellow travellers who share their experiences without trying to hold authority over me. Where I mentor, I offer myself on those terms as well. One of the things I especially value about OBOD is the emphasis on the responsibility of the student, and the culture of being people sharing a journey. In such company, the transition to self-identifying as a Druid is powerful, but not painful.

Working on your Druidry

When I first came to Druidry in my twenties, I was a serious, diligent student. I read widely, thought deeply, practiced deliberately and pushed very hard to try and be a Druid. With hindsight, I think this is an important opening gambit, and that coming in wholehearted and willing to make radical changes in your life is important, if not essential.

Moving from the mainstream into Druidry requires a consciousness shift. We start asking questions about our relationship with the rest of life, and that can create some challenges and demands. The need to live more greenly, with greater awareness and greater care seems to me an inevitable consequence of taking up Druidry. We might not have any set texts, but there’s a lot to learn around the modern history, mediaeval remnants and ancient fragments. There’s also much to learn about the natural world, your own ancestors, the land you live on.

What kind of Druid role do you envisage for yourself? Teacher, healer, lore keeper, herbalist, seer, peace maker, visionary… the aspect of Druidry that calls you to serve will make demands of your time and will likely require study and effort.

And so when a person comes to Druidry, there’s a lot of busyness in those first years. There’s a lot of work to do, and a lot of changes to make and it feels like a big, conscious investment.

Over time, either you decide it’s not for you and step away, or your efforts start to embed in your life. Remembering to do the recycling becomes normal, it’s no longer an act of dedication to the gods. The herb garden you planted is flourishing and in use, you no longer spend hours reading and learning. You can play the harp, you know some stories, you’ve read everything Ronald Hutton has written, you have a daily prayer practice, and a staff and a set of oghan wands and animal oracle cards and an altar in your home and a circle of Druid people to do ritual with… somewhere along the way it stops being a big, deliberate, conscious fight to radically change your life, and starts being just life.

I strongly suspect this is the point at which many people who lay down the title of Druid, do their letting go. Having done all the really hard work, they may be less conscious of the ways in which they are being actively Druid. It inclines me to think of the difficulties communist China had around the need to maintain the revolution. It wasn’t enough to revolt and start again, the revolution had to be an ongoing process everyone was consciously engaged with, to keep it alive and meaningful. In their case it meant there always had to be an enemy, someone to weed out and destroy. For Druids, the process may be the same but the implications tend to be different. Unless of course this recent bout of online angry infighting is all about keeping your Druid revolution alive by finding people to be cross with.

On the whole we are probably better Druids for letting go of the language, than for holding onto our Druidry by keeping ‘the revolutionary flame alight’ by starting fights with other people who dare to call themselves Druids, but don’t practice in the same way or uphold the exact same beliefs.