Living Druidism as an American

Feet in Clayton, NY
Hubby and I relaxing in the St. Lawrence River, 2011.  Each year, my relationship with the local spirits strengthens. – Photo by Weretoad.

Sometimes, I ponder my path in relation to my location and nationality. There are times when I can’t help but wonder if my Druidism is somehow “less connected” than if I were actually living in Ireland, Scotland, England, Cornwall, etc…  Am I less connected to the Tuatha de Danann who are so intimately intertwined with the land of Ireland?  What of the myriad of other unseen spirits connected to Ireland?  And what of the spirits native to America and living cultures who still work with them?  When I make offerings to the Local Spirits, am I talking to spirits who followed my ancestors from their homeland, the Native spirits who dwell here, or both?

This post from August, particularly the last paragraph, had me thinking about it once more.  Are we, the descendants of Celtic and English diaspora, trying to overcompensate in the form of Celtic Reconstructionism and its methodology?  The seed of ADF was planted in America.  Although it is an international Druidic organization, the girth of its membership continues to be in America.  Compare ADF to OBOD, as John Michael Greer did and you’ll notice some interesting differences.  Having been a member of OBOD for a few months* I came to the conclusion that its rituals were more similar to Wicca, although still very beautiful!  So what does it mean when the biggest Druidic tradition in the UK feels more like Wicca compared to the American-born ADF with it’s reconstructionist methods?  As Greer notes, neither tradition is “real Druidism” as in historically handed down from the ancients.  Similarly, both address different needs and can be combined.  Indeed, some folks on the ADF e-lists were just discussing how they’ve successfully combined ADF and OBOD in their personal lives.

But let’s move beyond the organizations because, when it comes down to it, the bulk of a modern Druid’s time is spent in his or her home and environment.  What about living modern, American Druidism?  You know – connecting to the spirit world in all we do every day.

When you start studying the folk beliefs of the Celts, it becomes clear how location-centered it is.  Well X has a being associated with it.  The spirit of Well X lives in Well X, not Well Z over in America.  At least, so the old beliefs would make it seem.  The Ancient Celts did migrate, and some deities seemed to travel with the tribe.  Peter Berresford Ellis writes, “There are over 400 names of Celtic deities, male and female, recorded but the vast majority would appear to be local deities, tribal gods and goddesses.  However, that leaves some hundred or so who are to be found throughout the Celtic world; indeed, many of the deities are clearly the major deities of the Celts” (160).  What this says to me is that the tribal deities, beings like Lugh, Brighid, and An Dagda, are concerned with humanity and open to communication regardless of location.  My theory has been that, by creating welcoming altars, we create a means of communing – a “spirit phone” or a “guest house”.  But the spirit of Well X?  He or she is only reached at his/her well.  Make a pilgrimage and visit, be inspired by that well’s lore, but otherwise you must find new well spirits in the “New World.”

But who are these American spirits?  Nature Spirits?  Gods?  Demigods?  Nature Spirits elevated to some Godhood status through increase worship thus power?  Are they Native or immigrants like our ancestors?  The answer seems to be, “It’s complicated.”

Arch Druid Emeritis of ADF, Rev. Skip Ellison, presented a workshop called “The Fairy Races of the British Isles” a few years ago in Utica, NY.  He explained the various beings and how to work with them, of course, but he also shared his theory with regards to the question above.  Ellison postulates that some spirits emigrated with the diaspora.  It makes sense if you consider beings attached to tribes or households.  Why wouldn’t they follow the people they have a relationship with?  Ellison suggests they settled where their humans settled.  If so, is there antagonism between those spirits and the Native?  If spirits mate, did they mate with Native spirits?  Is thinking this horrendously disrespectful to Native American cultures?  Add to that the reality that the Ancient Celts would take up worshipping the spirit of the rivers they settled near, what do us modern practitioners do in America?  I feel very drawn to the rivers I live near, particularly the St. Lawrence.  Before their lives and traditions here were disrupted by white settlers, the Iroquois who lived in the North Country called the Thousand Islands “The Great Spirit’s Garden” and considered it a sacred hunting ground (Jacox and Kleinhans, 7).  When I go to honor the spirit of the St. Lawrence, am I disrespecting Native culture?  The Ancient Celts saw rivers as female spirits, and I have felt similarly about the St. Lawrence – but is that just my intellectual assumption or genuine unverified personal gnosis?  It is difficult to find information on Native beliefs surrounding the river.  Did they believe it to have a guardian spirit?  Was it female or male?

Once more, the answers seem complicated, and I suspect my perspective will grow and evolve as I learn and practice more.  Despite the uncertainties, it feels important for me to connect to this land.  My time spent in England, Cornwall, and Ireland was precious.  I felt a deep reawakening, a feeling of ‘coming home’ in some ways, and a connection to the history and my ancestors there.  When I went to Ireland, I could not help but wonder if my ancestors who left it all those years ago for a chance at a new life were looking at her again through my eyes.  When I visited ancient, sacred sites, I felt that I was visiting the oldest and most favored “homes” of the Gods I love.  Yet when I returned to Upstate NY, although the Nature Spirits have their own personality, the Old Gods I strive to honor were still there to listen.

In this month of October, as we move towards Samhain, I am going to explore, research, and reflect on my relationship to the ancestors.  I cannot do that without considering my place as the descendant of the diaspora who came here over a century ago.  Without a doubt, it influences my Druidism.  The question is how?  I hope you’ll join me in my thoughts and discussion.

* I left OBOD because the study program was too expensive for me and, as Greer’s article points out, it’s a huge part of the organization.  There are also fewer groups in America.  Community is important to me, and ADF just has more easily-found groves in the US.  I may look into OBOD down the road when I have more funds, especially because their approach is so beautiful and lyrical.

Ellis, Peter Berresford.  The Celts: A History.  Carroll & Graf Publishers, NY: 2004.
Jacox, Helen P. & Kleinhans Jr., Eugene B.  Thousand Island Park: One Hundred Years, and Then Some.  Valhalla Printing Co, T.I.P., NY: 1975.

Published by M. A. Phillips

An author and Druid living in Northern NY.

15 thoughts on “Living Druidism as an American

  1. Interestingly enough, as you mentioned the Celts saw the river spirits as female, my first thought was to realize I’ve always considered the creek outside my door to have a male spirit attached to it. I believe ‘Oswayo’ is a Native name and perhaps that is the spirit that is out there. Funny how these flashes come to us.

      1. Kevin – thank you for your meditation! I will definitely take a look at it. As my study group gets going, I think an activity like that would be really great to do. I will work on a future post about my attempts to grow closer to the local rivers. So far, it’s been slow, but I feel it’s an important step in getting to know the land. I know Skip and others at Muin Mound have done some work (prior to my joining) with their local river. They have a lot to share!

  2. I’m surprised you find OBOD to be the more wiccanish of the two. I’m rather anti-wiccan, and definitely get more of the sense of it from the ADF gatherings I’ve been to than at least the Bardic grade of OBOD.

    1. It should really be no surprise. The founder of OBOD, Ross Nichols, was a good friend of Gerald Gardner. Ross adopted large aspects of Gardner’s Wicca to add to OBOD, such as the calling of the quarters.

    2. Thank you for your thoughts. As always, I enjoy seeing different perspectives – and you never disappoint in that area! Keeps me on my toes. 😉

      Along with what Kevin Silverstag said in his reply, my experiences with OBOD have been limited to the website, videos of rituals, and the first few packets of study materials. Much of it was very impressive. Their attention to bardcraft and presentation is simply breathtaking. They do incorporate much lore into their teaching materials, which is very nice. In particular, I liked their focus on a triad each lesson.

      My experience with OBOD ritual has been, as stated, limited to videos and solitary work. Their example liturgy reminds me of my experiences with Wiccan groups. They seem to cast a circle and call the quarters. While I wouldn’t call myself “anti-Wiccan”, that approach simply didn’t work for me. What I do like about it is how they utilize traditional costumes, dance, and music.

      My time with Muin Mound Grove of ADF has been very satisfactory. They use the core order of ritual from ADF which feels similar to the CR rites I’ve done. There was no circle casting in the Wiccan sense. I have heard of groves that have many members who are also Wiccan. Perhaps that adds to the flavor of the grove? I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. I wonder if that has something to do with your experience? Since each grove has its own personality, it is possible that some are more “new agey” than others.

      1. I’m fully aware of Nichols’ connections and predilections, but Bonewits’ delineation of differences between the two practices is a straw wall, so to speak. If everyone who recognized cardinal directions or circles was a witch, then virtually everyone from the Babylonians to the Native Americans would be, and Silva would be as offensive to a Christian as Samhuin. Look at the ogham examples in the book of ballymote, for counterpoint, or the archeology of Celtic roundhouses with four supports: Circles and quarters galore, and Occam’s razor does not fit between these and the classical druids in either time or space.

        I think it has much more to do with the heavily wiccan background of a majority of ADF and its founders, a tendency towards a comprehensive view of the subject by OBOD, and yes, as you assume, a palpable difference in professionalism and the compassing of differences in the latter, compared with the rigorous artificiality of the former (i.e. ADF actively denies its own synthetic nature in its actions, while OBOD has gone through the intellectual steps to justify its own). All of this definitely places ADF closer to the wiccans than OBOD is, in both substance and flavor.

      2. I’ll also say that I’ve been to Druidic rites that pray for peace in each direction. I’ve seen reference to that in lore and it makes sense to me. I view that differently from calling quarters.

      3. I found this on ADF which shows it doesn’t “deny” the modern aspects of its COoR: http://www.adf.org/rituals/explanations/ritual-faq.html

        I also posted above that I’m aware neither is handed down from the ancients.

        Since your reply, I’ve been reading more about OBOD rites and have seen quite a bit of variety! More than was presented in the training material I have. I’m excited to see that. ADF’s style is more in tune to my life right now, and after reading more I can see how there are ADFers who are also OBODies.

        I’ll look into the other things you mentioned.

    3. I must add that ADF does do it’s rituals in a circle. The symbolism of a circle is still emphasized. When I said that about casting circles, I meant we don’t necessarily draw out our ritual space in the same way.

  3. Great post, Grey. I absolutely believe that as Druids it is essential for us to form a connection with the land upon which we live and do our workings, and the spirits that are attached to that land. We North Americans are at a bit of a disadvantage since we don’t have the cultural history of the land that you find in Europe, and in trying to find our connection we generally want to avoid the impression of appropriating First Nations culture. So, it is hard but I think you are on the right track.

    1. Thanks for your reply, Kevin. 🙂 Appropriating the First Nations’ cultures is a concern for me. There is a woman in the area who has both Celtic and Native heritage. I’ve been talking with her about meeting to discuss these concerns. Otherwise, I haven’t been able to find enough resources.

  4. I’m a little embarassed to find another blogger who happens to be using the same wordpress template as myself; it’s like when two girls go out wearing the same dress. And I have to laugh.
    I find in your writing an underlying sense of longing, which actually reminded me of something I wrote last year (if you’d be curious). More and more I find how very much strangers on the internet have in common, and it makes me wonder why there is so much anger and loneliness going around.
    http://rainewater85.wordpress.com/identity-crisis/

  5. Hi Raine!

    Oh, no need to feel embarrassed. We’re using the same template, but we have different colors and my hubby made my banner. We have our differences, and are still united by similar tastes! 😉

    I definitely have a longing to be better connected to the land, my ancestors, and the Gods I so adore. I wouldn’t say I don’t know who I am, though. Of course, we probably never have the best grasp on our identify – it’s always evolving – but I have a better sense of self than I did when I was a teenager. I definitely don’t find myself lonely compared to a few years ago. I’ve become part of a thriving community of local Pagans, some of which include Druids! Huzzah! We’re building our own cultural traditions from the ground up, inspired by our heritage.

    I did read the post you shared, and with much interest! I can identify with the feeling of loss with regards to my immigrant ancestors. They came here and gave up so much, by choice and/or force. When St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, I always bemoan the lack of understand so many have for the culture they are celebrating. The same goes for a lot of other culturally-based celebrations. I went to a local Oktoberfest recently and only the older people wear the traditional outfits now. Crowds came for the country band but left when the German band hit the stage. Very sad.

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