I’ve seen some discussion about what a Druid actually is around the Pagan blogosphere. Since I call myself one, albeit of the ditzy variety, I thought I should add my two cents for those who are curious. I want you to know right from the beginning that I understand there is more than one tradition of Druidism. I don’t necessarily think any one is right – in fact, I’m sure we could all learn from each of them. Furthermore, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me and I encourage your input. My thoughts on the matter are likely to evolve with time much as your own.
There have been plenty of works dedicated to who the Druids of the past were, or at least who we think they were based on comparative folklore, linguistics, archaeology, second-hand historical documents… See some examples here and here. It is hard to discuss modern Druids without touching on ancient Druids because, in my opinion, they are so much a part of it, and indeed my discussion depends heavily on history. To me, a modern Druid is determined by a few factors: cultural focus, an affinity and concern for nature, self-expression, the search for wisdom, and community. I’m going to break my discussion up according to each of these factors for the sake of simplicity. Magic and ritual weaves it together but doesn’t necessarily make Druidism. Magic and ritual are part of many religions and don’t necessarily distinguish them. These other factors help differentiate the magic and ritual of a modern Druid.
Let me first say that I’m writing this from the perspective of the descendant of Irish diaspora in America. I have ancestors from the North and South of Ireland. I am completely aware that I am not nationally Irish. I am American but, like so many in my country, we celebrate our cultural heritage. This is a huge aspect of my spirituality.
Cultural focus is one of the more contentious issues in some circles, but like others on this path, I firmly believe that it is central to my Druidism. The Druids were the priestly caste of the ancient Celts. Their cultures varied from region to region, but shared many similarities including a language group. I won’t pretend to speak one of them, but I have studied a little Irish Gaelic and am only starting to grasp its linguistic patterns. I think trying to better understand the cultures Druidism sprang from is very important. I tip my hat to those who are fluent in a Celtic tongue, and especially to those diaspora who are involved in cultural centers or academic programs such as Irish studies at Harvard or Boston University. If you cannot throw yourself into it so wholly, the important thing is to at least try. Don’t just read about ancient history – learn about modern Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, etc. See if there are introductory language courses or try out Rosetta Stone Irish. Learn about your Celtic ancestors – why did they come here? When did they arrive? Where did they settle? How did they integrate into a new culture? Don’t turn your nose up at the Christian traditions in Celtic nations. They are very much a part of the culture now and you can learn a lot from its followers if you are open-minded and civil. In some traditional practices, it is hard to tell where the Pagan ends and the Christian begins!
Most major Druidic traditions are firmly rooted in the cultural. The Henge of Keltria focuses on an Irish “hearth culture”, OBOD relies heavily on Celtic-influenced bard craft, and many members of ADF follow a Celtic hearth culture of some sort. ADF is unique among the larger groups in that it encourages members to study and focus on any Indo-European culture. We have Hellenic Druids, Norse Druids, Roman Druids… It can seem very strange at first. To be true, there are days when I think it’s a bit odd, but we know the Celts got around in the Ancient world. They conquered, were conquered, and blended with other groups. What were Roman occupied Celts like? My understanding of Roman and Celtic relations is not the best, but there are examples of seemingly combined Gods, such as a Minerva-Brighid hybrid. When I consider this, different cultural focuses within a Druidic framework seem possible (if not for me). And indeed, for many others, they do work. Part of that is the Druid’s open-mindedness and respect for the Celtic cultures Druidism emerged from.
Celtic cultures appear to have had great respect, even veneration, for their ancestors. Ancestor worship, if I may use that terminology, was and is common in many religions. For someone interested in Druidic practices but from a different heritage, perhaps some sort of blend may be appropriate? And what of the Gods? We know there were thousands of Celtic Gods – once again this depended on the region. Only a small collection seemed to overlap although their names and lore change a bit. There is the potential that traveling Celts would adopt new local deities, perhaps even those of existing cultures in their new home. Shouldn’t modern Druids have that ability so long as they are respectful and informed? And of course there is the option of practicing Druidism sans deity.
I do not want to delve into the arguments of cultural appropriation, mixing traditions, or any of that. I’m only looking at other possibilities for consideration and admitting that I don’t have all the answers. I simply want to leave you with my belief that entirely removing the cultural focus of Druidism leaves you with… what? Well, for starters, it leaves you with the other factors that I intend to visit in a moment, but is that a specific tradition with a name or something … new? Perhaps something else? I’m not sure. Goodness knows I have encountered Druids who are not as focused on the cultural. Far from the disrespectful monster some would accuse such a person of being, he seems like a pretty swell guy who means no disrespect and is simply trying to find his place. I’m more one to call a spade a spade, and I also feel that a cultural focus helps crystalize a person’s symbolic comprehension, but I recognize that no tradition is directly linked to old Druidism, and playing the cultural police is not my calling.
I think this facet of Druidism calls more people than any of the others, quite honestly. The romantic then transcendentalist movement created this archetype that even the more academic Druids find difficult to get away from. And perhaps that is part of the evolution of Druidism? Most of our assumptions about Druids, the Ancient Celts, and a respect for nature are simply that – assumptions. Or, to be more generous, inferences. There seems to have been knowledge of a connection, a balance… Beyond that there is little evidence about stewardship and certainly nothing on the level of environmentalism that exists today.
That said, the Ancient Celts, like most Pagan cultures, were animists, and most modern Druids are as well. Being modern people, we look to science and see that there are serious issues that need to be addressed. If we believe that nature is imbued with spirit, it only makes sense to try and honor it, preserve it, and live in harmony with it. A modern Druid doesn’t necessarily have to live off the grid and eat nuts and berries – but he or she should be trying to learn about the natural world and preserve it. This often combines with our magic and ritual. Many modern Druids use symbols or tools inspired by nature. My grove makes a point to worship out of doors, rain or shine. To connect with the natural world is integral.
The arts were valued by our Celtic ancestors. Go to a museum that features their artifacts and you will see beautiful examples of blacksmithing, jewelry making, and carving. We know from lore that bards were honored. Many modern Druids express themselves in some way. We aren’t all artists or bards, but we learn how to integrate our spirituality into our hobbies. We find it in the physical activities we do, our cooking, our liturgy, or our gardens. Some may accuse Druids of wearing their spirituality “on their sleeve” in the form of spiraling jewelry, tattoos, long beards, waving hair, or historically-inspired garb. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. (In fact, I have a Druidic tattoo.) Don’t let it stop there, though. Express your Druidism, but also live it.
Search for Wisdom
The Druids of old were the learned caste – the scholars, healers, judges, advisors, poets, teachers, and scientists. While a modern Druid doesn’t necessarily have to hold a higher degree (it doesn’t hurt!), those who aspire to the path should be life-long learners. We shouldn’t stop with the New Age section. We should delve into history, mythology, anthropology, ethnobotony, and other sciences. We should learn from our elders and in turn assist those younger than ourselves, but we should be critical and independent thinkers too. I wouldn’t say I am the perfect scholar, but again – it’s about trying and continually improving. Druidism is not just about meditation, prayer, or magic – it is also about deep thinking, constructive criticism, discussions, research, and learning how to respectfully disagree.
Finally, I think Druidism is about community. The Druids of old were part of a society. Hell, it seems they practically ran it… It’s important not to have any delusions of grandeur when coming to this path. History has moved on and most of us live in relatively democratic societies. There are no kings for us to advise and, in most cases, the rest of society looks at us as curiosities rather than sources of wisdom. And yet most of us are integrated into communities. We have families and friends and most Druids I know are very tribal in some ways. We love our families and our spiritual friends become part of that family. We form groups called groves that represent the trees we worship in. (Yes, there are still plenty of us that actually do go out and worship in a dedicated grove of trees!) We help each other, learn with each other, and grow together. Outside of our tribes, we are still part of society at large. We take our talents and share them as doctors, librarians, teachers, farmers, coaches, electricians, artists, performers, soldiers… Our role in society has changed from one of spiritual authority to one of simply existing along with others and sharing what we can. Some in the community see us as models for what could be – a more egalitarian, earth-friendly movement. We shall see.
As of February 2012, this is what I think a modern Druid is. Maybe my concept will change in a day or a year. Maybe you will contribute to that change, or maybe my thoughts will impact your own ideas.