Tag Archives: Druids

Celtic Shamanism

The internet offers a vast array of content on the subject of Celtic Shamanism – books, courses, names, symbols, meanings… Which is problematic in all kinds of ways.

There were no historical people who self identified as The Celts. It’s a term applied from outside to describe an array of tribes living in Europe in the Iron Age. The Romans drew a rather arbitrary line between Celtic peoples and Germanic peoples that may have coloured our interpretations ever since. Iron Age Europeans were no doubt a diverse lot, and imagining the existence of a single, coherent Celtic culture is probably unhelpful.

Problem number two is that much of what we know about Celtic culture comes from stories recorded in the mediaeval era by Christians. This clearly isn’t going to be a precise rendering of a Pagan belief system. A brief flirtation with Irish, Welsh and Scottish tales will also give you a pretty clear sense that these are not the same people, even if some figures appear to crop up more than once.

Shamanism is a problematic word. It most probably derived from the Tungus word ‘šaman’ the internet reckons. Its use to describe the religions of contemporary indigenous people around the world is widely considered problematic. Applying it to the Celts also causes problems. It starts from the assumption that what the Celts did was shamanic and that therefore it can be reconstructed by drawing on practices from existing indigenous people. 

We know that the Celts had a lot of gods, and put up statues to them. There are ways of reading the stories that suggest ties with shamanic practices – but perhaps only if you start out looking for that and ignore the material that doesn’t fit. My personal feeling is that the desire to believe in Celtic shamanism comes primarily from a desire to believe that Europe had shamanistic practices comparable to other parts of the world. This, all too often, works as a justification for a bit of cultural appropriation. Druid sweat lodges. Druid animal guides. Druids burning white sage, and smudging their sacred spaces. And so on, and so forth. 

These are all terms deriving from other cultures that I’ve seen Druids using. We aren’t entitled to these words, no matter how much we want them. We aren’t entitled to these practices, no matter how much we want our Celtic ancestors to be like some specific group of contemporary people. We aren’t entitled to steal other people’s words and practices to fill in the gaps in our own history and knowledge. It’s appropriation, and there’s a lot of it out there.

The urge to find a way to be an indigenous person in Europe, is a good one, I think. But we can’t do it by stealing things from other cultures and trying to pretend it was ours all along.


How we understand nature

Nature is incredibly diverse, and it is worth paying attention to the kinds of stories we tell about it. This week I saw a group of Druids (all male, which may not be a coincidence) talking about how brutal nature is – the wolf tears the cute bunny apart. It was part of a conversation about how we have to square up to harsh realities and not wander about whimpering over our wounds.

Of course I know that wolves eat bunnies. But what I also see is the cooperation of the wolf pack. I see the rabbit warren. I see the wider ecosystem that supports them all. I see the way trees share resources through their roots and how they depend on fungi in the soil. I see the many ways that cooperation is built into nature.

I’ve also seen a seagull take a coot chick from in front of its parents. I’ve watched birds of prey hunt, many times. I’ve watched a buzzard take a rabbit. I’ve watched herons and kingfishers hunt fish. I’ve heard rabbits dying, screaming at the attacks of stoats or weasels, most likely. There’s nothing fluffy or uninformed about my perception of nature.

But even so, mostly what I see is the cooperation. The ways creatures look after each other. The way birds of many species cooperate to draw attention to common threats. I see how flocks work together to try and bewilder and overwhelm sparrowhawks.

The perception of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ is a choice. It’s not the only available story. It is a choice of story that validates not helping the weaker ones. It’s a narrative that appeals to people who are safe and comfortable and who do not want to feel any obligation to anyone else. It’s a way of further putting down anyone who seems fragile. Survival of the fittest narratives can leave people feeling like it’s ok to abandon anyone who doesn’t meet their standards. It’s not a huge step from there to more fascist thinking, to embracing eugenics.

Some creatures do extraordinary things for each other – I saw a story the other day about a crow with a broken beak whose mate fed and supported her for many years.  Wild things don’t just leave the vulnerable ones to die. Not always. It’s a choice. It may be a choice that depends on available resources, sometimes.

I choose to see the cooperation inherent in the natural world. I choose to see connection and interdependence.  I choose to see how the wolf eating the deer benefits the wildflowers.  There are lots of stories to choose from. Nature is not averse to kindness. It’s not at odds with collaboration. Being nature-orientated does not mean having to accept and work with brutality. It’s just that people who favour brutality won’t find it hard to see stories that support their own world view.


Druidry and Politics

It always makes me sad when I see modern Druids claiming that Druidry isn’t political. We know the original Druids were political, and we know this simply because the Romans went to some effort to wipe them out.

On the whole, the Romans took a really inclusive approach to colonialism. They had given some thought to what keeps a population biddable – bread, circuses and continuity. So where possible, your leaders continue to be your leaders, only they are answerable to Rome and send taxes in. Your Gods are still your Gods, although you might get a Roman name tacked on so they become a double-barrelled entity. There’s not much incentive here for the regular working person to rebel. People get grouchy when you take away their Gods and priests, so mostly you don’t, and conquest is easier. You co-opt their Gods and Romanize them too.

One of the few historical accounts we have of the Druids is of the Romans going to Anglesey specifically to wipe them out. Clearly, as an invading and colonial force, the Romans found the Druids a bit inconvenient. Enough to fight them. Enough to describe them for posterity in ways that did not make them look good. Whatever it was the Druids did to cause that much offence, I can’t help but feel it must have had a political dimension to it. Rome just wasn’t that fussed about religious diversity. By all accounts, the Christians of the period really had to make an effort to get martyred.

In face of oppressive, militaristic colonial capitalism moving into their territory, the original Druids put up enough of a fight to justify trying to wipe them out. Now, you can take that onboard and decide that they got it wrong – that the survival of Druidry was more important than resisting Rome, perhaps. You might decide that in the same situation, you’d have been off to some remote and romantic retreat to practice peace and light because your Druidry isn’t political. Maybe there were Druids who did that at the time – we don’t know. But there were clearly Druids who preferred death to submitting to Rome, and that’s about as political a choice as anyone gets to make.

The idea that you can step outside of politics is a mistaken one. The Druid who does not resist the Roman invasion is also making a political choice – to tacitly support the aggressor, to not defend people and traditions, to take what might be the easiest and safest personal path. In times of peril, conflict and great change, not doing politics is itself a deeply political choice with huge political consequences. You don’t get to be a Druid and opt out of politics because you don’t get to be a person and opt out. You do get to decide who you support, and doing nothing is a choice that supports whatever already dominates. Pretending you can avoid politics is a political decision, either to accept what is done to you or because you are comfortable and don’t suffer what the less fortunate do.


Druids and Worms

Worms should be one of the beings we hold most sacred. They are essential to the life of the soil, and human life depends so much on that vitality. Worms pull plant matter down into the existing soil, and eat it, breaking it down and releasing the nutrients back into the earth. The way in which they move through the soil aerates the ground, and is part of how the structure of the soil is created.

Worms are one of the key the means by which death is turned back into life. They are engineers of this most essential process. Pagans honour the cycles of life and death so we should hold in the highest possible esteem the beings who drive that cycle. And yet, I’ve never encountered anyone celebrating worms in this way.

Worms are suffering as a consequence of human pollution. They are the creators of life, and any threat to them is a threat to us all. We need to protect them in any way we can.

An individual worm isn’t a dramatic entity. They are small, quiet, easily overlooked and living underground, are mostly invisible to us. They do not demand our attention. We don’t have famous worm Gods at whose shrines people might make offerings. We overlook their power and their magic at our peril.

The best shrine you can make to the worms, is a compost heap. Feed them, engage with them, make a home for them that you are fully conscious of. Bring them offerings every day of the food you did not want, the peels and skins and inedible bits. Offer up your rubbish to them, in recognition that they will turn that rubbish into rich food for the soil. You give them the most worthless things you have, and in return, they give you life. It is a relationship that should make anyone feel humble, and that reminds us that power is not always self announcing.


Eels for Druids

I have no idea why eels don’t come up a lot more as powerful magical beings in modern Pagan traditions. They aren’t as common as they used to be, but we cope with the mammals on those terms. The UK Druid scene is abundant with the idea of wolves, but not eels.

Eels are beings of mystery. We still don’t properly understand them. They go away to breed, their tiny elvers swim back to us. The bounty of elvers in the rivers must have been a really important food source for many of our ancestors. I have wondered about the mysteriously absent and returning Mabon at Gloucester, on The Severn in terms of elvers.

Eels can live in the sea and in fresh water and can get out of the water to move about on land at night and in damp conditions. They are creatures of many worlds. They are creatures of the margins, of ditches and damp places, hidden waterways and secret paths through the landscape and the night. I have been enchanted by them for a long time.

Eels are really important food for otters. Eels have a lot of oil in them, and our ancestors ate them as well. They are richness embodied. They don’t exist to be eaten – no creature does – but humans and other creatures experience eels as incredible bounty. When elvers come up the rivers they used to do so in great numbers, again, embodying bounty from a human perspective.

They have a curious reputation for ugliness and creepiness. I don’t really get how this works, but there we go. Human aren’t good at night dwelling liminal creatures. We aren’t good at things that aren’t mammals and we are troubled by slimy bodies.

I have seen wild eels on a few occasions. Distressingly for me, my first wild eel was dangling from a fisherman’s hook alongside the canal. I have seen small ones swimming in the water. They make me intensely happy and I watch for them wherever there is water.

 


Druids and butterflies

The butterfly is always a popular metaphor for any kind of transformation. That whole stodgy caterpillar to elegant fluttering beauty gives us a story about the soul that many find appealing. The butterfly has also become the story we tell each other about how tiny things can have a massive impact. The imagined butterfly flaps its wings and this sets of a chain of events leading to a massive storm far away. These are good stories, although I think they tell us far more about what we want from a story than they tell us anything about butterflies.

The thing I find most interesting about butterflies, is their gender issues. My understanding is that butterflies cannot easily gender identify other butterflies. This is why we get the lovely phenomena of butterflies dancing together in the air. Two, sometimes three of four butterflies all flying together in a small area, figuring each other out. Sometimes this causes two butterflies to go off together and make eggs. Sometimes it doesn’t. Outside of observable reproductive activity, we don’t really know what’s going on here.

I can say with confidence that there is no violent rejection between butterflies when they turn out not to suit each other. They have no problem doing this exploration in threes and fours, there is no territorialness, no chasing off of rivals. As a queer and plural sort of person, it is tempting to me to read things into the way butterflies dance together. That maybe they enjoy being three or four butterflies figuring things out. That not getting to egg making might be ok, that the dance might be a thing in its own right. I acknowledge that I am bringing my own needs and stories to the table here, but there is nothing in what butterflies do to say otherwise.

That weaving air dance of two, three or more butterflies is without a doubt, an act of beauty and gentleness. There is so much unkindness, rivalry, jealousy and possessiveness in how humans court each other, but there’s no intrinsic reason to interact that way. We could choose to be more like butterflies, dance with each other for the joy of it, be relaxed about where we don’t suit each other, and let it be what it is. For Druids interested in peace, they’re a helpful being to contemplate.


Druid Leadership

When I first encountered Druidry about twenty years ago, it seemed structured. Groves, Orders, arch-druids, hierarchy and Very Important Druids. Perhaps it was quite anarchic all along, but from outside, it looked like a movement with a few key leaders and a lot of followers.

I’m reasonably confident that I’ve seen a shift since then. I think there are a lot more Druids who, while interested in learning from others, have no desire to submit to anyone else’s leadership. I think a lot of membership now is held more lightly, and people turn up when it suits them. I think there are not many people coming forward to be Druid leaders. I also think these are all good things.

One of the problems inherent in leading is that to do it well takes time and energy. Of course for the person on a bit of an ego trip, this isn’t always a problem. I see experienced Druids who could have stepped forward to lead choosing not to do so – in no small part because they want to be Druids far more than they want to be leaders. I see such people sharing experiences and teaching in lighter and less authority-laden ways, and I like how that looks. We don’t have to follow someone to learn from them, we do not have to surrender power to them or imagine they are better than us. We can just swap notes and pick up whatever seems useful.

What I see increasingly is Druids communicating through networks of interactions. I see something that looks a lot more organic than the Druidry of twenty years ago. There’s less drama in it. Wind the clock back fifteen years or so and I looked after the Druid Network’s Directory for a while, which meant I was in touch with a great many orders, groves, arch-druids and whatnot. It was drama-laden work, and frequently full of weirdness. I see all the same odd assertions, beliefs and ego stuff playing out in Druid groups online, but without the same power base. Without the confidence that having self-identified as an arch-druid should mean something. We still get our fair share of preposterous folk with outrageous ideas, but with a wider community full of people who know about Druid history, there are plenty of folk able to step in and offer some reality.

It suited our ancestors of revival-druidry to adopt a hierarchical view of Druids. It fitted the patriarchal, colonial times in which they lived. It fitted their desire for fame, fortune, notoriety and followers. Druidry as it exists today has grown out of that revival period stuff, and become something a lot more anarchic. There’s a much more democratic sharing of ideas, much more room for more people to be heard, and far fewer people who want to start their own even more ancient than anyone else’s Order so that they can get invited to meetings of some sort or another and get angry with other near-identical Orders consisting of one arch-druid and his dog…


Druidry and Politics

There are some people who feel that belief and politics should be kept separate. My understanding of the role of ancient Druids is that they were political. If you have the reputation of being consulted by kings, and being able to get onto battlefields and stop the fighting, you have a political role. Further, what we believe invariably colours what we do politically. There’s also the issue of what right wing folk claim to do in the name of Jesus (which has precious little to do with actual Christianity, Jesus or the Bible). That needs resisting.

There are no rules about what a Druid does around an election. We aren’t high profile enough for anyone to want to co-opt us – this is good news for us.

One of the things I’m seeing Druids do that I feel really good about, is simply encouraging people to register and vote. Democracy has its flaws, but works better when more people are involved. It tends to be the most disenfranchised people who feel there is the least point in voting, and these are the people we most need to hear from. One of the great lies of politics that stops us making radical change is the idea there’s no point trying. If people believe that their vote doesn’t matter and that politicians are broadly the same anyway, they may be persuaded not to vote. They may also be overly persuaded by someone who does an effective job of selling themselves as an alternative to all that, even when they are from a ‘ruling class’ background, rich and exploiting the people who vote for them.

When people feel that their vote matters and that they can vote for real differences and real change, they are more likely to show up. When we show up to vote, we send a clear message that we are not to be ignored. If politicians only feel they have to court ‘traditional’ voting demographics, they won’t bother with policies that would help the rest of us.

This election, the thing I’ve felt most moved to say goes as follows. Don’t vote for parties, vote for people. We’ve seen MPs change parties, change leaders, start new parties – a vote for a person is not a vote for their current leader or party in any reliable way. Those parties are full of splits, and who exactly gets in will likely inform the direction any given party takes.

Don’t vote for ‘personalities’ in the usual sense of that word. Do look at the beliefs and intentions of individual candidates. If they have a voting record, check it out. Do they recognise climate change or do they believe it’s not an issue? Are they inclusive? Do they support human rights? Do they mostly seem interested in business as usual? Are they compassionate? Or are they greedy and self serving? Are they more interested in their career and the welfare of their party, or do they show some signs of giving a shit about anything else?

Vote for the future you want to see. Vote for what matters most to you. Vote like lives depend on it – because they do. If you’re going to vote tactically, please be tactical – find out who can win based on who has won before and who came second last time and what happened in recent EU elections. A tactical vote for someone you mostly disagree with isn’t much of a tactic – not all candidates are created equal.

What you do, matters. Business as usual is destroying life on Earth, killing us with air pollution, flooding our homes, depleting our soil and exterminating the bees who pollinate our food. To do nothing is to enable this.


What Druids Do

There are a lot of things that Druids Do in terms of providing service for other people. I’ve explored most of these over the years, and have come to some conclusions about what its feasible for me to do – what I do well and what I can sustain.

Celebrant work – I’ve done several weddings and a funeral. As a person without a car, it’s not sensible for me to go dashing around the country so increasingly requests that aren’t close to home get passed to other people. I’ve found I’m not keen on doing celebrant work – it’s one thing doing it for people I know, that’s fine. I’m not called to celebrancy in a way that makes me want to offer that to strangers. To work as a celebrant, you need to be a good performer and ritualist, and able to work out what people need from their rite of passage, and provide that for them.

Leadership – whether that’s founding a grove, a teaching school or an order, many Druids are called to leadership roles. Not all who wish to lead manage to attract people who wish to follow and that doesn’t always play out well. I’m not much attracted to this because it calls for so much taking responsibility for other people – to do it well. I’m not especially fussed about having people do Druidry my way – my way is probably too idiosyncratic to be of much use to many others. There’s so much organising and work involved in doing leadership well that it does not appeal to me.

Healing, counselling, guidance – I’ve not a lot of skill in this area. I will do my best to offer suggestions when people come to me, and I try and share my experiences in ways other people might find useful, but that’s about it. I believe that often the best way to enable healing is to create a safe and supportive environment for people. There’s a practical limit to what I can do on that score, it’s only really something I can offer to people who know where I live.

Representation – I’ve done a bit of this, and it is quite challenging work. Speaking to people of other paths, or speaking on behalf of Pagans. I live in a place with a lot of Pagan and alternative folk – enough that we’re pretty normal and that representation is seldom an issue. There are also plenty of older, wiser and more experienced folk around who are better placed to do this.

Teaching – I’ve tried mentoring both independently and as part of OBOD. I’ve stepped away from that because I don’t feel comfortable setting myself up in authority over other people’s journeys. I prefer informal approaches, where I just put stuff out there (this blog, books, talks, one off workshops) and people can take it or leave it in whatever way they like. I’m always happy to support other people in their journey. If someone comes to me with questions I’ll do what I can – that approach keeps the power and responsibility firmly in the hands of the seeker, and I think that’s far better.

What I think we need more of, rather than people in these specific roles, is people taking on thinking work. We need ideas, stories, philosophies, methods, inspiration for people to live more sustainably. We need living examples, different ways of thinking, visions of the future and the courage to act. We need people who can overcome despair, campaign, take action and enable others to do so. Looking around I am aware of a lot of Druids who are doing this. I think it’s where we are all most needed, in whatever ways we can engage. So much of What Druids Do comes from conventional models of leadership and human importance revolving around purely human needs. What Druids need to be doing is something less human-centric and I’m glad to say I can see a great deal of that happening already.


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.