Tag Archives: heroism

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.


I work on the comics side sometimes (www.itisacircle.com) and this means an awareness of superheroes. So here’s a question to kick off today’s amble into philosophy. Why is it, in comics, that when a person discovers they have superpowers, the only response to that is to don a kinky outfit and beat up criminals? “God has given me a gift and I shall use it to fight crime.”

There are a great deal of wrongs and injustices out there that have nothing to do with crime. Often it’s the flaws in our legal systems that cause the greatest injustices of all. Most of us will never rub shoulders with super villains either.

In part it’s about storytelling, about easy action and a certain kind of un-complex heroism that has nothing to do with reality at all.

But ask yourself this: If you discovered you had a superpower, would you take it as meaning that you HAD to do something productive with it? Would you feel morally obliged to get out there and fight crime, or some other focal point for wrongdoing? And whatever your answer is, why is that so?

If we look at ourselves in the right way, most of us have some trait that sets us apart. We might not be able to melt metal by glaring at it, or leap buildings in a single bound, but we all have something. I have a knack for putting emotions into words. I’ve found this is tremendously powerful for helping people get to grips with bad experiences. Words are power, sense making, reclaiming control. Many people find talking about emotion hard. This is not a candidate for cape wearing bad-guy-kicking career options. But should I be doing something with it that puts it to use?

How many talents do any of us have? Abilities that lie unexplored, or under developed. Skills we know we have, but do not use much. Are we doing everything we could be? And should we be doing everything we could be? Does having innate ability, in any field, create an obligation to use it? I suspect most people would not consider that it does.

The superhero archetype is an interesting one because it offers us the notion that innate gifts are meaningful. In a superhero world, being blessed with a talent means being obliged to get out and use it for good, or perhaps choosing to be the bad guy instead. It doesn’t mean squandering it, ignoring it or otherwise letting it slip away. If we took our own abilities more seriously, might we not see them the same way? If you can make someone laugh, you might save their life, literally. Everything we do well enriches our own lives and other peoples. We don’t tend to see these small gifts and acts as important, much less heroic, but I think we should. If we view ourselves, each and every one of us as in some way special, empowered, meant for greater things, sent to this world on a mission to make better… what might we do then? It’s not about waking up one morning and finding you can see through the walls, (ah, how I shall foil those criminals now!) it’s about seeing the value of what we have, and not being afraid to get out there and make something of it.

Wear your cape, literally or figuratively as you see fit.