Tag Archives: modern druidry

Writing Druid, Speaking Druid

One of the few things we know for certain about the ancient Druids, is that they did not write anything of their own down. As a modern Druid with literary inclinations, this is a bit of an issue. Part of the point of not writing everything down was probably to avoid it falling into the wrong hands. It stops your enemies having easy evidence to point at and use against you. It means your own thinking is not tied to what you wrote five years ago. Thus far I’m still ok with the kinds of things I was saying in my first books. Many of my ideas are presented as works in progress not absolute truths so I won’t have the same problems some writers would, if I then change my mind a bit!

It occurs to me that books prior to the printing press and writings of the Druid era, required drudgery. Some poor sod had to sit there and copy them by hand. There’s enough bored annotations from later copying monks to know that this was not a lovely job. Intentional or not, that the ancient druids did not write, no doubt spared a lot of people the tedium of copying everything out.

The spoken word is more immediate. You bring your whole body to the idea, and there’s an intimacy in it that comes from being in the same space and moment. Books of course transcend space and time easily and get ideas to people who would otherwise never see them. Working purely orally, you can’t do that, and you can view that as a strength or as a weakness depending on your own biases.

I’ve been a performer on and off for about 15 years. I sing, I play various instruments (mostly the bouzouki at the moment). I’ve run a folk club, I’ve busked. I do talks and workshops at Pagan events as required. Things happen between performer and audience in such spaces. Things are said that were not thought of before, and will never be said in quite that way again. It’s a living, breathing process of exchange, and because it is intense and concentrated, it can invite the awen in.

As a modern Druid I have options the ancients did not have, and I’ve chosen to use them. Even so, I can’t put in a book what it means to me to sit on a barrow for an afternoon – I can only share that bodily with others, and speak with people who are there too, or not speak, and let the silence do everything. I can also record myself as a talking presence and put that out, which is very different again from writing. I’ve a few new videos up on my youtube channel, which may be of interest. They are all things I could not have done with the written word alone.

How I came To Druidry – https://youtu.be/vK5U6DSUGEk

Druid Tabard – https://youtu.be/RzD4Q8oN2a4

A review and reading from Claire Hamilton’s Tales of the Celtic Bards – https://youtu.be/fqp5u0wu1VE

Pondering modern Druidry

Yesterday I talked about religion in context, and the way in which many religions have belonged to specific peoples and places. The idea that a religion should be universal, is a very Christian-centric one. So where does that leave modern Druidry? We don’t have much direct connection with the past – some of us more than others, through location, ancestry, deliberate research. Some of us embrace the idea of modern Druidry without wanting to be too bogged down in the details of trying to be authentically Celtic. Modern Druids are all over the world, on every continent. Some have ties of blood if not of earth, many do not.

However, there are some very important ways in which Druidry differs from other religions. There were many Celtic deities who have left one occurrence of their name, one shrine, one carved stone. It may well be that the vast majority of deities belonged to a specific tribe, and a specific place. There’s no reason to think that the Celts as they and their culture spread, took one coherent pantheon with them everywhere. Spirits of place are of course by definition, local. This tree, that cave, the big waterfall, each one is unique, and we recognise their spirit, or what resides there, as a distinct entity. It doesn’t matter where you find yourself in the world, these ideas still make sense. The local aspect of Druidry works anywhere, because ‘here’ is local to us, wherever we are.

Trees are important to Druids, and probably always have been. The trees that grow in this soil, are the ones I am engaging with. Whichever soil I am upon. It is the native trees of the land I am in that will be the ones that matter. Now, even within the UK, tree distributions are not universal. The south east was originally a mix of small leaved lime and oaks, but the small leaved lime are not useful for much that humans do, and have not been encouraged. Where I come from, beech is the predominant wood. In wet areas, alder and willow predominate, and on high ground you get the pines. Some of the distribution of trees has to do with the long history of human use. Some of it has to do with the landscape. Trees are not an abstract concept, and in terms of how we practice, this is very important.

There can be a tendency in modern paganism to be over-fond of the 8 festivals, but for them to make any sense, they too must be adapted to where you live. Pagans in the southern hemisphere swap the festivals over to fit what they’ve got. No point celebrating spring in late summer. For any aspect of Druidry to make sense it has to be related to nature as you experience it. Living close to the Severn river, it would make sense to honour the tides. A person on the coast might have a daily practice that reflected the ebb and flow of the waves. A person ten miles inland might well have no reason to doing that, just going down to the shore occasionally and working with what they find. No point talking about John Barleycorn if your part of the world is mountainous and grows sheep, but Imbolc will likely be a lot more resonant.

Then in ritual, sometimes the landscape affects the shape of what we do. If you’re facing a mountain and have a river at your back, then earth is in front of you and water is behind you, and sticking to the usual ‘quarters’ would be weird. We have to respond to what we find. It may make more sense in such a context to scrap the quarters entirely, hailing spirits of mountain and lake, rather than earth and water generically.

Wherever we are in the world, our Druidry has to reflect nature as we experience it. Therefore I would argue that even if you are in Australia and drawing heavily on the Celts what you do will still be essentially local. This land. These plants. Those creatures. A druidry that isn’t, to some degree, local, doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Some people complain about the degree of looseness in modern Druidry – that it isn’t pinned down or firmly enough defined. That’s only, arguably, true, when considering the international picture. The Druidry of Here and Now tends to be a lot more specific. The looseness of the overall tradition gives us room to respond to Here and Now rather than clinging dogmatically to fixed ways of doing.

In space, Druids would still be able to adapt to their circumstances and make it work. Because we don’t have to pray to the East, for example. It would be interesting to consider how the less planet-orientated religions would actually work, if you tried to take them off the planet.

Aspiring Druid, still learning

When I started exploring druidry, I read all sorts of books with content about who the druids were and what they did, and not wholly identical content about who druids are and what they do. I came to the conclusion that while modern druidry cannot be ancient druidry, in many ways it isn’t even trying. There is reason to think that the ancient druids were the learned, educated class of the Celtic peoples. Modern druidry focuses almost entirely on personal, and sometimes group spirituality. I do know plenty of individual druids who do strike out to learn other things or who are already intellectuals in their own fields though.

By the time I finished my degree I’d figured out that, while I enjoyed the learning, I hate the assessment process. It was getting in the way of the interesting stuff, and it seemed ever les relevant to me. I didn’t want marks out of a hundred, I wanted to push the boundaries of my own understanding. Since then I’ve frequently been a self taught student of all manner of subjects. I love learning. There are however, a number of ways in which a person can learn.

Skill learning, the mastering of an art, craft, instrument, or other form of physical activity. The Celts valued skill and respected their craftspeople, so I feel that this kind of learning entirely supports my more spiritual druid work. I don’t have a Celtic tribe to live in, and I cannot know what that would have been like, but I can take inspiration from what I do know about.

Fact learning can be very important when it feeds into developing a skill. It can also take a person into learning number three (bear with me). However, it’s very easy to go round acquiring facts in the same way that others might accumulate money, or possessions. Bland, irrelevant information cluttering up the mind and glittering like fool’s gold. Do we need the football results or the music charts of the last fifty years committed to memory? Do we need to know the population of Beijing? We probably don’t. The kind of fact learning good for pub quizzes and trivia games doesn’t tend to give us much else.

Then there is learning that leads to understanding. It’s like the difference between knowing all the prime numbers from zero up to a million, and knowing what a prime number is. In theory, you could commit them all to memory without knowing what they mean or why they might be interesting. Understanding is a form of learning that takes us into relationship with the subject matter. It enables us to recognise, to adapt, change, re-imagine. Fact based knowledge can be sterile, understanding is much more likely to breed creativity.

There is a tendency in modern culture to compartmentalise. We keep work, family, leisure time separate. We don’t take our spiritual lives to work, or our families to college. We divide intellect from emotion, mind from body. Most importantly, we tend to hive the spiritual life off, away from the rest of who we are and what we do. What we need to do with spiritual life, is take it other places with us, and actively seek those other places.

To be a druid is not just to sit in a tree somewhere contemplating the wonders of nature. Druids need one foot in the wild, one in the civilized world. One foot in the emotional realms, one foot in the land of intellect. One foot in the spirit planes, the other firmly on solid, material ground. One foot on the goat, the other on the well. I now have an image in my head of an eight legged octopus druid, tentacles all over the place.

Moving swiftly on… working with the intellect in any field is still druid work. It’s not separate. We’re pretty good at recognising skill learning as part of the bardic path. There are other kinds of arts I think Druids need to be studying and exploring. The art of good relationship is central. And beyond that, the occult science that is the blending of intellectual understanding with spiritual insight. I think the technical word for that is ‘wisdom’. That’s something to quest after.

I’ve just read a Catholic book on prayer and am now tackling a Protestant text on the same subject. It’s made me remember just how much I love studying, how fired up I am by working with ideas. Some of my other druid tentacles keep waving though, not letting me shift into an entirely head based view. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is just another thing to collect and horde. I keep asking, where am I going with this? What can I do with it? No grand epiphanies yet, just more signposts along the path.

Druidry and authority

My turn to answer http://www.kristofferhughes.co.uk/1/post/2012/01/dilute-to-taste.html

For me, one of the great joys of paganism is that the aspect of personal responsibility, and that none of us should feel bound to have some authority figure mediate between us and the gods, or spirit, or anything else.

Most of the time I do not experience deity. I experience spirit, and a keen connection with that which is around me. I imagine deity might exist, though. I imagine that deity would probably transcend our human ability to name, and comprehend it. I also assume that the gods, if they exist, are not petty, insecure or just sitting around waiting to take offence.

I remember a few years back another chap making a lot of noise to the effect that the gods were angry because modern druids were doing it all wrong. This latest outbreak of ‘purist’ druidry feels much the same to me. It is, as I see it, all about individuals asserting that they understand druidry better than others and have the right, based on that superiority to tell others who can and cannot be a druid and what ‘proper’ druidry looks like. Part of me is tempted to say ‘fine, have the title, I shall go away and do what I do with other likeminded souls and call it something else.’ Only, I like the word ‘druid’ and I don’t see why the man who self-promotes with most enthusiasm should carry the day. And oddly, it does seem to be very male led, this kind of druidry that wants to build boundaries and reject those of us who aren’t Celtic enough, aren’t using the right god names, aren’t ticking some box or another.

When someone loudly proclaims, in any spiritual situation, that they have the monopoly on truth, my instinct is to walk away.

But here’s a funny thing. In terms of ancestry, my people include Welsh, Forest of Dean, Cornish, Irish, as well as English and probably a dash of Jewish. That’s a decent basis for claiming a bit of Celtic descent. The Mabinogian stories were part of my childhood reading. I am steeped in traditional British folklore, I know my land, and its creatures and plants pretty well. I actively engage with nature on a daily basis, I study the history books and I’m not mixing my druidry with any other traditions. However, when it comes down to it, I would prefer to align myself with every Christian druid, every atheist druid, Zen druid, Buddhist druid, Shamanic druid, animist druid, heathen druid… everyone who mixes their inspiration but who walks their path quietly and with honour, than with this other stuff. I would rather be part of the allegedly vague and wishy washy community that embraces all those who come, than be the kind of druid who says ‘you aren’t a proper druid and you have no right to use the word.’ I’d rather be inclusive, and I’d rather be part of something that welcomes, nurtures and encourages, rather than involved with people who spend any of their time feeling slighted by how others express their path.

When I ran a folk club, I learned that people new to folk would turn up without knowing a single folk song. They might sing a pop song, because they wanted to offer something. Some clubs would say ‘we don’t want that here thank you’ and never give them another chance. We always accepted and encouraged. I have watched plenty of people down the years come in through pop and rock, find a space, discover the folk tradition, and become a part of it. Druidry is no different. If we hold the door open, people on the fringes can come in. If we close the door against anyone who does not sufficiently look the part, based on our own limited perspectives, we deprive far too many people of the chance to learn. Long term, that kind of attitude kills communities. I’d rather be a nurturer.

Anyone who feels offended by someone else’s spirituality should look to themselves as the source of the problem. If you are happy and secure in what you do, and walking your own path with integrity, what does it matter if someone else is different? And why are we pouring so much energy into this? There are people fighting, dying, starving out there. There are creatures on the verge of extinction. Ask not whether my druidry is better than yours, ask what we can do to save spoonbilled sandpipers, and sunbears. Ask about who, or what, is suffering in your part of the world, and pour your energy there. Ask what in this word needs your love, your compassion, your druidry walked, not talked. And get on with it.

Sacred Inspiration

In modern Druidry, inspiration is sacred. To the best of my knowledge, this is one of the things that separates Druidry from other modern pagan paths and so might be less familiar to non-druid readers. After the ‘why does television matter?’ question, I feel this is an issue I need to explore properly.

The history of how inspiration came to be central to modern Druidry is murky, and I could spend a whole blog on it to little useful effect. The Awen is the name we give to the flows of inspiration. The three lines /I\ of the awen symbol (which often have three dots over them) represent the awen. For many of us, these are the three drops of inspiration from the cauldron of Cerridwen. The Taliesin story is a key one for modern Druids – if it’s not familiar the gist is that a young boy is employed to watch over a magic potion meant to impart wisdom to Cerridwen’s son. Three drops spring out of the potion, scalding the boy’s thumb, he gets all the wisdom, there’s an epic shape shifting chase at the end of which he is eaten, and reborn from Cerridwen as the poet Taliesin.

Talking about sacred inspiration suggests something that happens in ritual, deep in meditation or as a consequence of years of bardic training. It’s easy to perceive magical inspiration as distant and unobtainable. However, that’s not how modern Druids see things. All inspiration is sacred. The experience of being inspired, of the fire in the head, is pure magic. When we make our bardic oaths, we swear to use our inspiration for the good of our communities, and the land.

Now, the vast majority of folk who work in creative industries are not bards, have made no such oaths and probably don’t see creativity as either magical or spiritual. Consequently, we have ‘industries’. With my other hats on, I have a fair amount of contact with ‘creative industries’. In these, books and albums are products, creators are producers and everyone is expected to do their market research and keep an eye on trends, and work with an eye to being sellable.

The majority of modern entertainment in all mediums, was not designed to be soulful. It’s meant to be catchy, or a page turner. It is a product for you to buy and part of an industry that aims to make a profit. Creative industries play safe and often stifle creativity and originality as a consequence.  Everything we buy has been designed, invented, created by people. Everything we buy has the potential to be a thing of beauty as well as utility. There is nothing we might own that could not be made with love and offered as an exquisite and unique creation. However, our society likes to pile it high, sell it cheap and not care about it too much. That’s also a long way from being a green ethos.

If you see inspiration as sacred, beauty as essential and soulfulness as a requirement in all things, then cheap plastic entertainment, like cheap, plastic disposable toys becomes repellent. For me, prizing inspiration and deeply in love with the awen, banal low brow entertainment of any sort is distressing. It is, quite literally, a violation of something I hold sacred.

I know we can do better, as a culture. The arts, crafts, and bardic skills in pagan communities are astounding. I’ve been watching the rise to international repute of Damh the bard, whose work is lively, inspiring, soulful, catchy, great to dance to, and lots of fun. He’s out there doing it, and lots of people love him. He’s about as far from shiny plastic pop as a person can get. There are others following behind him, a rising tide of pagan musicians. On the poetry side there’s the radical green agenda of Awen press and folks like Kevan Manwaring, who fill me with hope. I could go on about crafters and skilled, inspirational people doing magical things.

The mainstream still thinks it wants cheap, mass produced, anonymous, ugly trash; the buying and disposal of which continually harms our planet. There are other ways, but converting people is a slow process and quiet revolutions take time. Entertainment is a pagan issue, a soul issue, a green issue, it’s part of our relationships across communities and our relationship with the planet. It is how we express our spiritual selves, or squash that down and bury it under a ton of shiny insipid trash.

Religion and spirituality

There’s an interesting difference between learning the practice of a religion, and being a spiritual person. It is entirely possible to learn all the rules, and uphold them, master all the ways of doing things, commit all the important bits of writing to memory, and go through life espousing them, without ever once feeling anything other than the satisfaction of having learned and done the prescribed things.

Spirituality is all about first hand experience, encountering the divine, feeling awe, being moved. It doesn’t inherently call for a religious structure to place it in, and it can be at odds with structure based religion, particularly once you throw authority in the mix. Such a lot of the history of Christianity seems to involve authority – to me at least. The authority of the Bible as literal truth has gradually been eroded by science. The authority of religious leaders is not what it was, but the Pope is still supposed to be infallible, bishops still sit in the House of Lords and priests still mediate between their flock and divinity.

Is it possible to be a spiritual person if your feeling, and individual responses have to be mediated by any kind of structure or any other person?

Is it possible to operate within a religion, respecting its rules and boundaries, whilst holding your own sense of integrity and having your own, unmediated spiritual experiences?

I see modern Druidry as an attempt to reconcile the structure of religion with the scope for personal spirituality. I also don’t think it’s unique to us – all pagan faiths are involved in this, and many branches of Christianity that I’ve encountered are moving away from authority towards personal spirituality. But it does create some interesting tensions, not least when it comes to authority. Who has the right to teach? Who has the right to reject someone else’s vision? Who makes the structures? How do we hold those structures in any meaningful way if we are all striving to be enlightened individuals in our own right and on our own terms?

I think the very nature of this makes it a continuous experiment. It’s not something any group will be able to resolve once and just get on with, it will call for continual negotiation between collective and individual ways of being religious, and it will always be easy to tip things too far one way or the other.

Then we can also ask, if this works for Druidry, what other aspects of our lives might be re-worked to better balance between individual needs and collective identity. That has the look of a worm-laden can to me.

The problem with festivals

Having just taken on a new Druidry student who isn’t English, I’m thinking (and not for the first time) about Druid festivals. I previously had the joy of teaching someone in America, and although that culture is rooted in some of the same ancestry as the UK, there are a lot of differences. With Druids all over the world – North and South Americas, Middle East, Russia, Australasia, Europe… I’m not aware of druids in Africa, but maybe there are – seasonal festivals create some interesting issues.

The festivals we have, and share with the wiccans, are a 20th century innovation. There is evidence in the alignments of prehistoric sites for celebration of the solstices. The Celtic festivals – Imbolc, Beltain, Lugnasadh and Samhain no doubt existed historically and are very old, but as far as I can tell, not all were celebrated in all places. The addition of the equinoxes makes for a nice, balanced wheel of the year, but I’m not aware of historical celebrations of this before Stukely in the 1700s. So the idea that ancient druids celebrated these 8 festivals, seems a bit ropey.

Then there’s the issue of what happens on the ground. Druids in the southern hemisphere have a totally different relationship between calendar dates and seasons to their northern counterparts. The seasons themselves differ depending on how far from the equator you are, as do day lengths. A Druid in the Arctic Circle would surely want to honour the patters of light and darkness they experience, not seasonal celebrations pertaining to an entirely different relationship with the sun.

In my own part of the world, there are local events to celebrate – bores on the river (as mentioned in a recent blog) and the coming of migrant swans in the winter. Things that as little as twenty miles away, it would make no sense to be working with. Every place has its own events, history, landscape, and even climate. Different ways of working, different forms of farming or the realities of industry colour how we relate to the seasons. The further one is, physically or conceptually, from rural Britain, the less relevant the 8 festivals become.

Do we follow in the traditions of Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner and stick to the 8 festivals? Do we assume that these 8 are representative of what ancient British Druids did, and therefore give them priority, no matter how they fit with life as we experience it? How we answer that is going to inform a great deal about how any of us understand and live our own Druidry. Which is more important? The historical Druidry as best we understand it, or the land we are living in? Do we look to British ancestry, no matter where in the world we are, or do we look around us?

I’m in a position where I can very easily do either, and where there is not much direct conflict between seasons as experienced and how the 8 festivals fall. I have spent a lot of years celebrating the big 8, but this last year, I haven’t and I think it’s made me more conscious of what is around me. I am consequently less inclined to want to impose an arbitrary system onto my relationship with the changing energies of the year. I would rather react to what is, and how I feel, than focus on those fixed dates.

When I was looking after the Druid Network’s directory, I noticed that a lot of groups were starting to define their Druidry in terms of their geography. There are older groups, particularly in America, who define as being Welsh Druidry, or Irish Druidry as their tradition, but I was starting to see the emergence of Australian Druidry, and other lands where there is no history of this to draw on doing the same. I like this idea. I think a druidry that is a living, breathing response to where we are and what we experience is far preferable to being caught in the dogmatic structure of a ritual cycle that doesn’t fit. In choosing this, I am also choosing that the land and how I experience nature is the core of my Druidry, not what I know of the history. This is increasingly the case for me, and I realise it has considerable implications not only for how I want to progress in my own path, but also for how I will be supporting others when called to do so.

Druidry old and new

Graeme made a very interesting point in the comments on my Becoming a Druid post – “For me it has always been a shorthand term for someone who learns what they can about ancestral Celtic spirituality and lives their lives in the here and now by those precepts.”

I’ve been pondering to what extent that would be true of me. I’ve spent a fair bit of time poking around reading history, and interpretations of history as part of my ‘becoming a druid’ process. I’m not a historian, and I feel what I do is much more about here and now, than anything that went before me. But, there are concepts that I think are historical in their source.

The single biggest influence on that score for me was Brendan Myers’ book ‘The Other Side of Virtue’ particularly where he looked at ideas of virtue in early heroic cultures. So not all of that was necessarily Celtic, although some is. The idea of living boldly, with style and colour, embracing life rather than being afraid of it, being wild, independent, loyal, passionate, creative, and honourable are all virtues I have come to associate with the Celts and therefore by extension with the Druids.

Things we know about the Druids – that they were the thinkers of their day, the scientists, healers, philosophers, historians and facilitators of justice and advisors to leaders. That certainly colours what I do and how I do it. What we know as a culture and species has changed a lot since then, but that gives me part of my sense of needing to be here and now, alive to contemporary ways of knowing and understanding.

We know that the bards of old also carried news, history, genealogy, and that their satires had political importance. They were more than ‘entertainment’ they were the soul of the community made manifest, and they also worked tremendously hard, like the Druids, committing a vast amount of material to memory. There’s another pointer towards learning, as well as diligence, dedication, and community.

Then there’s the whole worshipping in groves, what I’ve gleaned about Celtic deities, the sense of Druids as connected to the land, but also profoundly involved in culture and civilization – people with one foot in the wilderness and the other at human gatherings. I have a sense of historical druids as balancing between all the things that might be deemed polar opposites – sun and moon, nature and civilization, war and peace, life and death. They walked the edges and the inbetween places (I think.)

So that’s the historical aspect underpinning my perspective. I am also very conscious of its selective nature. No sacrifice of a bloody persuasion. A great deal of me going ‘this is how I understand it, and therefore how I apply it in a modern context’. It’s a subjective process, inevitably. My understanding that ancient cultures had to be far more co-operative than our modern one, points me in certain directions. But at the same time, the Celts of old seem to have had a very different attitude to death, war, feuding, and anything around violence to my own far more pacifist take. I am not them. But if they had continued, uninterrupted by Christianity, I’d be prepared to bet they wouldn’t be the same now either. The evolution of Christianity provides a model for that.

There’s a distinct arrogance in any claim to ‘know’ how the Celtic Druids would have evolved from there to here and in claiming to be doing it. Of course I hope I am. But none of us are never going to know that. I’d rather claim to be modern, and doing what makes sense to me, and not focus so much on the historical side. It means I can’t claim anything else much, and what I do will stand or fall based on whether it works, not where I got it from. That appeals to me.

(Thanks Graeme for the inspiration, I shall be on the lookout for a copy of your book)