Category Archives: What is Druidry?

Druidry and Spirits of Place

As my contribution to Pagan Pride in Nottingham, I talked about Druidry and spirits of place. It’s not the first time I’ve talked about this at a Pagan gathering. Spirits of place are pretty much at the heart of my sense of what Druidry is and how to approach it. I tend not to label it as such when I’m blogging because I tend to be focused on something specific – bats this summer, trees, foxes and so forth.

Over the last few years, what I think of as my Druidry has been increasingly about the spiritual aspect of connecting with what’s directly around me. I’ve become less interested in the eight main festivals than I was before. For me, they are purely about community and human tradition, and that’s fine and I can make room for it, but they aren’t where my Druidry lives. Formal ritual doesn’t do it for me in terms of personal practice. I’m more interested in contemplation and communion and the process of being a body in a landscape. I’m interesting in encountering and being encountered.

What flows from this is a growing number of relationships at various stages of development. There’s no feeling of a need to do anything with this – it does not call for rituals, or dramatic action, or big declarations. It is small scale, day to day stuff and it is the fabric of my life. There is nothing in this I can use as a power base – it does not give me magical power, or uncanny insight, or the backing of Gods. It does not give me anything to call upon for my own ends. What it does give me is a keen sense of the numinous in the familiar, and a lot of encounters with wild beings.

This is not a path. This is a relationship with a place, in which there are many paths that I walk in the most literal sense of the words. I walk the paths of the place where I live. I walk, and I encounter and I experience. I do not transcend, or progress, or ascend, or become enlightened. I’m just another mammal moving through the trees. I’ve been exploring Druidry for about sixteen years now. I’ve done the OBOD course, I’ve stood in big public rituals, I’ve hung out with The Druid Network, I’ve read a lot of books. What I want from Druidry is my own intimate relationship with the world, and increasingly, that’s what I’ve got.

On Sunday, one of the people who came to my talk asked if I’d got a book on the subject. I don’t, but I’m seriously considering writing one. It will likely be a slow process, and if I do it, it will take a year or more, most likely. I’m not sure how attractive a book it would be – I can’t offer power, or conventional magic, or progress or status with this kind of work. I know at the same time that this whole way of being and doing is working really well for me and that there could be a few other people who would be interested to know what I’ve done and how I’ve gone about it.

So I’m just floating it out there to see if this is something I should try and write.

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Writing Druidry, living Druidry

To what degree is it fair to say that writing about Druidry is Druidry? Clearly it can’t be the entirety of what you do – or you wouldn’t have anything to write about! With creativity and the bard path very much part of modern Druidry, it makes sense that writing can be part of how we explore spirituality.

My experience has been that when I’m writing, I get flashes of inspiration that impact on the rest of my druiding. Things rise up that I’ve not seen before. Threads pull together to create a meaningful picture. Possibilities emerge as I reflect on my experiences. Patterns suggest themselves. When I challenge myself to answer questions, I learn things about how I think. Writing is a process of reflection that brings cohesion to what I know.

I use the written word to share my experiences with other people – first and foremost I do that on this blog, but I’ve also written books (available from places that sell books). I find there’s an ongoing tension between sharing what I experience and avoiding dogma or giving myself too much authority. I like that tension, I try to stay alert to it.

I think I benefit personally from the challenges of trying to express experience in words. I don’t feel I lose anything or dis-enchant myself by exploring the mechanics, but that might not be true for everyone. I recognise that there is also sometimes a tension between lived Druidry and written Druidry and that too much of the one can mean there’s very little space for the other.

I’ve also found that over time, as I’ve deliberately brought more ideas from Druidry into my daily life, that it gets harder to separate out what is ‘Druidry’ and what is ‘life’ and I’m never sure if that’s even a relevant question to ask. I keep asking it because I don’t want to get complacent about what I’m doing, or make lazy assumptions that my life is Druidry and therefore I can just do anything and call it Druidry and this will somehow be fine.

Of course it all gets very meta. A blog post in which I write about writing. I suspect that the issue of how I write about Druidry and what role that holds in my path should be explored through interpretive dance, or action painting, or something a bit less wordy. I keep coming back to words though. I’m a story telling creature, and part of what I do is try to tell a story to myself about what on earth is going on in my life right now.


Druid seeks bat

For the coming weeks, I’m in the blessed and exciting position of doing some bat surveys at night. A charity that acts to protect wildlife in my area is surveying ahead of work on one of the local cycle paths, and my household have stepped up to do some night surveying. We’re looking for mammals, listening for owls, and we have bat detectors to take out.

This is going to be what we do on Saturday nights for some weeks now. There are two kinds of bat – pipistrelles and noctules, who appear at sunset – which at the moment is a bit before 9pm. Other bats won’t show up until it’s actually dark – after half past nine, and getting later all the time. For me, this means a relatively late night.

Our first survey was a great success – we identified lots of pipistrelles and noctules. You can identify a lot of bat species from the frequency at which they emit sound. Pipistrelles it turns out are much more variable in the sound emissions, but as we also saw them in the twilight, we can be confident about identifying them. We also saw a roe deer with a very small fawn, which was exciting.

This is very much what I want from my Druidry at the moment. Direct encounters with the wild world. Deepening my relationship with my locality. Doing something that helps protect what is wild in my locality. Sharing all of this with lovely people. Coming back from the surveying with good stories to tell.


Trees, Druids and life after Ogham

Tree-related spirituality in Druidry may first present itself to us as ogham – an old listing system, for which tree lists are just one of the many options. Ogham is problematic in terms of who used it when and for what. I think it’s much more problematic in terms of how we use it now.

For me, the single biggest problem is the absence of the small leafed lime. Most of us in the UK are more familiar with the large leafed lime, brought in by the Victorians to decorate parks and cities. Once upon a time, the small leafed lime share with oak the role of main woodland trees. It was a massive part of our ancient woodland, but it served no purpose for humans, while oaks do. Woodland management favoured oaks, and the small leafed lime is a rarity these days. Why is it missing from the supposedly ancient ogham list of ancient trees?

There’s a lot missing. Beech, juniper, evergreen oak, chestnut, guelder rose, larch, horse chestnut, sycamore, field maple, wild fruit trees other than apples. Willow is not a single tree, but a whole family with many different characteristics, but we only get one generic willow.

Of course if you live somewhere other than northern Europe, your most important trees may well be missing. The less like Europe your environment is, the less relevant the ogham list will be. As a Druid, you need to connect with what’s around you. It’s interesting to learn about ancestral things, but first and foremost, a Druid must relate to the landscape they inhabit and all that lives in it.

The ogham lists give us meanings associated with trees. What we don’t get is the history of the tree, which other trees it is related to. We don’t get the properties inherent in the wood, and the uses the trees have been put to and how this has affected them, and the humans using them. We don’t get much folklore, either. We don’t get the folklore of specific ancient trees. It’s all a bit generic. It leaves me wondering why our ancestors would make a list of trees that didn’t include much about their inherent properties.

What would be far more productive, would be a personal list of local trees. From there, a person could compile whatever they needed to know in terms of use, history, place in local eco-systems and folklore, including local folklore.

If you aren’t the list making type, a relationship with actual trees that live around you is a much more valuable thing to pursue than the learning of ancient lists that have no immediate relevance for you.


Experimentation or dedication?

As we go through life, we need space to change our minds and explore new directions. This is true of jobs, romantic attachments, friendships, politics, spirituality, where we live, how we live – everything. There is no magic formula to tell us how much we should experiment, or when we should dig in.

Experimentation brings the excitement of new experience and possibility. It may take us towards what we most need and desire. On the other hand, we may be so hooked on novelty that we can’t commit to anything. We may use changes of direction as a way of avoiding ever finishing anything or doing it properly. We may flit and skim, never making much of anything and never finding anything truly satisfying.

Dedication brings depth of insight, continuity and a feeling of rootedness. It can take courage and emotional investment to stay with anything for the long term, and because that asks more of us, it can also give us more. On the downside, dedication can become the empty repetition of habit, it can mean stasis, lack of inspiration. It may not offer real depth at all if we no longer have any passion for it but can’t be bothered to change.

I think it’s as well to have some areas of life that are open to experimentation, and some areas of life that offer stability. These might get swapped round over time, but feeling either that everything is still, or everything is in motion isn’t good.

I experimented once with a change of landscape and it taught me that I need to be on the edge of the Cotswolds, in sighting distance of the Severn. I need that to be a constant in my life. I need creativity to be a constant, but I also need there to be plenty of room for experiment there. Something similar happens with Druidry – it is a constant, but within it I am always exploring. I think dedication works best when it isn’t stasis, when you are involved in something that holds you but also allows you to grow and change within it.

It can take time and a lot of experimenting to find the things you want to dedicate to. My default position is not to judge anyone else over this. A private journey is only my business if it directly impacts on me. But I do wonder sometimes, when I see people who are presenting as experts, and who are suddenly experts in a new thing that’s more fashionable, or who had stopped being centre stage with the old thing. Again, there are natural shifts and progressions in anyone’s life, but certain kinds of shifting about will always look like marketing strategies, to me.


Windows for Druids

I like the idea of going outside every day and spending time under the sky. When I can do it, this is a key part of my Druidry. However, it’s not always an option – extreme weather, illness and simply not having enough energy all keep me housebound at times. This has taught me to be uneasy about any practice that depends on being able to get out.

I’m also wary of what I’ve come to think of as living room Druidry. This is where you do all the rituals and meditations inside based on an intellectual understanding of what nature is and what bits of it mean. This doesn’t have to be a consequence of limited options, and may be a deliberate choice. When nature is abstract, you can celebrate the seasons according to when the wheel should have turned rather than struggling to work out if it has. You don’t get dirty, and no one will interrupt you. This is nature as an idea, not lived experience.

Windows make more direct encounters possible in times of limited options. I can sit at my window to watch the snow or rain falling, to watch the impact of high winds on the trees around me. I can watch the birds, and sometimes I’ve seen foxes go by as well.

With the window open, I can reliably hear bird song and flowing water. I can smell the air from outside. Even with windows shut, if I keep my household quiet, I can still make out the sounds of birds – including owls at night. If I don’t overwhelm my space with artificial noise and light, and if I direct at least some of my attention outwards, my home ceases to be a place cut off from nature. I can make the boundaries permeable.

Even the least promising window will reveal something of the sky – even if its only how the light falls, or when the darkness creeps in. There is so much to gain from experiencing nature as it manifests around you, rather than letting it become something abstract, or something you imagine happening somewhere else.


Calling yourself a Druid

It’s been problematic for as long as I’ve been doing it. We are not the ancient Druids, so how can we claim the name? There are lots of theories about what the word means and where it comes from, and it may well relate to oak or trees, but at the same time, it’s a word we don’t fully understand. We don’t have the same training the ancient Druids did, or access to everything they knew, so how can we claim the title? And it is a title, historically denoting training, and status within a community that no longer exists.

Then there are the modern Druids you don’t want to be associated with. You know the ones. The Druids who are doing it wrong, the ones you find embarrassing and unacceptable and you don’t want to be considered as like them, or supporting them.

Of course all of this is true of any label that lasts more than a day or two. Labels develop histories. Meanings and associations change over time. Just look at how Christianity has changed over its history and how many versions of it there are out there. There are plenty of Christians who are deeply embarrassed by those other Christians who are doing it wrong. There are plenty of feminists who are furious with the other feminists who clearly have entirely the wrong ideas. There isn’t a human project out there free from disagreement, and safe from asshats.

What would it mean to have Druidry be something that no one disagreed over? There could be no new things, no experimentation, no innovation, no personal gnosis, no diversity. The vast majority of people I’ve encountered who want to identify as Druids want to do so on their own terms. We would not function without the room to change our minds.

How do you get a space free from asshats? Perhaps you have some people with the power to police who is allowed to call themselves a Druid and to throw out those who don’t make the grade. I can’t think of a single Druid I know who would be happy to be on the inside of that. Most of them would make an effort to get thrown out at the first possible opportunity. For every training order that confers titles there are plenty of Druids stood on the outside, shaking their heads and saying they wouldn’t have done it like that. For every person willing to stand up and say ‘Druidry is this’ you can count on their being at least one other person willing to stand up and say ‘oh no it isn’t.’

There are people doing Druidry who I don’t like at all, whose actions I despise, whose words I find ridiculous. I expect there are Druids who would say the same of me. Does that mean some of us can’t be Druids? Arguing about Druidry is entirely Druidic. Arguing with other Druids for the sake of arguing with other Druids is not the basis of a spiritual path. Trying to assert who is and is not a Druid is a waste of time and energy because there will only be arguments on that score. We can reject teachers and leaders personally – we should always be free to do that. We can talk about why we object to ideas and behaviour – that’s important. But, these are things not to get bogged down in.

The failure of other people to do Druidry in a way we like is not the failure of Druidry. You will not find a human project of any substance that doesn’t have dissent, its own heresies, heretics and dodgy characters. There isn’t a human project out there someone hasn’t tried to abuse to get power, or tried to dumb down, or used as a tool for hatred and discrimination. Shitty people get everywhere. Including Druidry. We are not magically better than any other human project.


Solitary Druids

When I first came to Druidry some fifteen years ago, it seemed very much a collective activity. Groves, orders, networks, study groups, circles… it was more likely that any given Druid would be a member of multiple groups than that they would be solitary. Seven years ago when I found myself obliged not to be an active member of a group, a friend joked that the name for a solitary Druid, is a hedge witch.

There are good reasons for wanting to be part of something. Being part of something is a pretty basic human need for most of us. We went to groves and orders to learn what it is that modern Druids do. There were fewer books back then. We gathered together because the history of modern Druidry has been one of gathering together for key festivals to do Druid things. There’s affirmation to be had in doing something you call Druidry with a bunch of other people who are also inclined to call it Druidry.

There’s also power to be had. A big group is a power base. To be an Archdruid, you need to be in charge of an Order. To be a Very Important Druid you need people who follow you round and do the Druidry in the way that you say it should be done. Good leadership can be a very good thing indeed, but the desire for power always has the potential to corrupt.

I know of a large number of Druids who have the knowledge and the skill set to lead, but mostly aren’t. I know a lot of Druids who are out there quietly walking their own paths and not wanting the limitations and responsibilities that group membership involves. When I asked, some time ago, what’s happening in Druidry, why it seems to have gone so quiet, people talked to me about their solitary work.

Clearly we have not all become hedge witches.

The Druidry we had grew out of modern reconstruction. It grew from a desire for alternative religion, but also from ego and a yearning to ponce around in white robes wearing fake beards. It came from Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner agreeing on a wheel of the year. It brought us a style of ritual that owes to the western occult tradition. You could be a bard without having done a single bardic performance. You could be a Druid without being able to identify trees.

To go further, deeper, into Druidry it may be necessary to take off the costumes and set aside the props and the desire to be important. I think it is necessary to give up our ideas about nature in favour of direct personal experience. Seasonal ritual becomes less important than a lived experience of the seasons.

I feel increasingly that Druidry is going underground, into quietness and contemplation, into personal experience and exploration. Perhaps at some point in the future it will turn out that seeds were germinating and something new and alive will spring up, but maybe it won’t, and that’s fine too.


Unspeakable Druidry

Unspeakable in the sense that I seldom have much idea how to explain it to anyone else. However, putting words to experiences is one of the things I think I’m for. My hope is that at some point I’ll understand enough of what I’m doing to be able to come back and talk about it coherently, but for now, it’s a case of trying to speak the unspeakable in the hopes that someone finds it at least a relevant signpost for their own journey.

Back when I read Celtic Buddhism (reviewed here) I had my first run in with Tibetan Bon, a tradition that has no formal practices. It is simply what happens to you as a consequence of how you live with the natural world. This chimed with me, and led me to realise that for some years now, my rather ephemeral and hard to pin down take on Druidry has been about me trying to do something similar.

When I first came to Druidry, I was all about study, meditation, visualisation and ritual. It was a very cerebral response to what I already knew about the seasons and the natural world. It’s been a process for me of recognising that when I work that way, I’m working with an abstract concept of nature inside my own head, not directly with anything else. To clarify, I know for some people, interior work means working directly with spirit, but for me it’s mostly not felt like that.

For some years now, what I think of as my Druidry has been solitary, although I can do it when other people are around. It’s about taking myself outside and encountering and being encountered. It has had the discernible effect of me seeing far more wildlife than I used to. It has meant developing a quality of presence that is alert to what’s around me, and open to it, but also involved in the narrative of the place and my history with it. I’m certainly not in the moment to the exclusion of all else, nor seeking to be. All the time I do this, I’m bodily learning – sounds, smells, movement, colours – information from the world around me that helps me know how to interpret other experiences. The sound of the bird connects to the shape of it and the shape of its flight and so forth.

I am changed by this, and not just in terms of what I know. I am changed, and no doubt have more changing to do in terms of who I am when I put my feet on the ground and move. I exist in relationship to a landscape and to others dwelling in this landscape. I feel a profound sense of connection, but beyond that, very little, and that may be significant too.

I do not come back from this with wisdom to rapidly transform your life. I do not have messages from the natural world that I must tell to people. I do not have secret knowledge, magical power, mystical authority or anything like that. I can’t even tell you with confidence what I think is happening when I do this, only that I know something is happening to me. I will never be able to teach this to people over an expensive weekend course. There are no exciting shortcuts to offer, and no easily explained benefits, just a quiet certainty on my part that this is the right thing for me to be doing. I may well need to spend a lot more years doing it before something properly speakable emerges.

There are consequences of being in the world in this way. Every time I go outside, there are moments of joy and wonder. I see, hear, smell and touch things, and am moved by them. I have a body knowledge of my landscape that comes from having moved through it so many times. I find being away harder. I find big groups of noisy people harder some days as well, because I don’t know how to tune them out. I do not feel adrift, lost, or out of synch any more. I know where I stand, in a very literal sense.


What’s new in Druidry?

The developments in witchcraft at the moment seem really exciting to me, looking at them from the outside. Kitchen witchcraft. Fairy Witchcraft. Urban witchcraft. Traditional Witchcraft. I see people drawing on folklore, literature and tradition, and I see people innovating, experimenting and exploring their own ideas, and I see that being brought together to create something vibrant and very alive.

I was excited about Emma Restall Orr’s work some ten years ago and more, breaking away from male stereotypes in Druidry to find something wilder and more feminine. I was very excited about the Contemplative Druidry movement. I am excited about what Julie Brett has done exploring Australian Druidry. I hope we’ll see more Druids around the world finding ways to do Druidry that are about their immediate experience of landscape. But beyond that, things seem quiet to me at the moment. People whose ideas I was really interested in seem to be moving away from Druidry as an identity. I’m short of new Druid books that I’m keen to get my hands on.

It may be that I’m just not looking in the right places. So, if you’re doing something, or know about something interesting happening in contemporary Druidry, do please leave a comment. If you’ve got a blog or a book about modern Druidry, please give yourself a plug!

Traditions have to be living traditions. We breathe life into them with action and innovation. Ten years ago or so it felt like Druidry as a concept could fly apart because so many people were trying to do it in so many different ways and no one knew what was right. There seemed to be more heresy than orthodoxy, and that was fun. It doesn’t feel like we’ve settled down into something calmer and more clearly defined. It feels like we’ve lost something. Perhaps it’s just me.