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Ellis, Peter Berresford.  A Brief History of the Druids. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers,

2003.

Each Summer Solstice the news media releases a handful of articles on a modern group of Druids worshipping near Stonehenge.  The photos are of regular looking people wearing long white robes and sometimes white head coverings that look more akin to Egyptian head dresses.  They stand in a circle and perform their ritual to the Gods.  One has to ask whether what they are doing is historically accurate or not.  To answer such questions, Peter Berresford Ellis’ book, A Brief History of the Druids, is an excellent starting point.

Ellis’ book is earnest in admitting that he does not know everything about the Druids.  In fact, there is very little in which he could possibly know in our modern times.  Relying on archaeology, linguistics, history, and lore, Ellis explains what is and isn’t known about this mysterious group of people while debunking several myths at the same time.  The book is organized in such a way that he starts with a generalized introduction and then narrows the topic down chapter by chapter.

He begins by describing what is generally thought about the Druids.  Most of our perceptions are shaped by the reports of foreigners such as Caesar and Pliny and are therefore often full of anti-Celtic propaganda (11).  Much of the remaining evidence comes from Christianized Celts.  Everything else must be surmised through linguistics and archaeology for the Druids left no literature of their own due to a taboo against writing (13).  It is therefore difficult to fully understand the Druids.  Everything examined must be taken with a proverbial grain of salt.

Having provided a few disclaimers, Ellis explores the world of the Celts beginning with what little is known of their origins.  These people lived “north of the Alps … from Ireland and Britain in the west, as far east as the central plains of what is now Turkey” (23).    They are defined as Celts based on the similarities of the languages they used which survive today as modern Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton (25).  The Celts, Ellis explains, lived in a society divided by classes: workers, artisans, warriors, and the Druids who represented the highest level of academia in Celtic society (29).

So what of the Druids themselves and where do they come from?  Ellis first delves into the etymology of the word Druid to come to various possibilities.  The first is that the word Druid means “oak knowledge” as drus is Greek for “an oak” and wid means “to know” (37).  Another meaning could be “immersed in knowledge” due to the similarities found between old Celtic and Sanskrit words for water and dew.  Either way, the Druids are already connected with knowledge, trees, and water – three very important things in both ancient and modern Druidry.  However the Druids evolved, they came to be the priestly class who oversaw religious, judicial, medical, political, scientific, and educational matters of the Celtic people.  According to the Greeks and Romans, the Druids were divided into three subclasses: Druids, Vates, and Bards.  The Druids were basically the teachers, philosophers, and scientists.  Meanwhile, the Vates focused more on nature and divination and the Bards were historians, musicians, and poets (51).  This special class of intellectuals, which was made up of both men and women (91) held a lot of power – so much so that not even a king was allowed to speak before a Druid (75).

No discussion of the Druids would be complete without a chapter or two dedicated to their religion and rituals.  So many of the ancient texts refer to them as performing mysterious rites and worshipping various deities that we know religion played a large role in the life of a Druid.  Ellis explains that the Celts were polytheists although several modern men have tried to mold the Druids into proto-Christians who worshiped a single God (114).  There are actually over three hundred known Celtic deities, and several are localized meaning that they are associated with only one place (114).  There are a few Gods who were known in many places.  Ellis provides brief descriptions of some of the better known deities such as Danu, Dagda, Bel, Cernunos, Nuada, Lugh, Taranis, Ogma, and the Mórrígán.  Although the explanations are short, they are fitting for a work dedicated to the Druids rather than the Gods.  There is the possibility that the sudden deluge of Celtic Gods and mythology could confuse and overwhelm a novice, but I’ve found that further reading will help to better familiarize the curious mind.

In dissecting the wisdom of the Druids, Ellis breaks the chapter down topic by topic so that we are given an in-depth look at what we know of their skill in various areas such as magic, astrology, and medicine.  I found this section of the book to be the driest, possibly because I am most interested in the Druids’ function as priests rather than judges and astronomers.  However the section should not be overlooked as it truly shows the rich knowledge of the Druids. They were not simply a barbarian people as the Romans were so fond of thinking.  The Celts and their Druids were very well versed in science and enjoyed many accomplishments.  Anyone of Celtic background should feel a sense of pride when reading about such feats.

A Brief History of the Druids should be essential reading material for anyone aspiring to the knowledge of the Druids.  It first provides a good historical background of the people we in ADF are hoping to emulate and also grounds us in our practice by providing the context for our rituals.  Ellis’ discussions of holy wells, trees, divination, and fire in connection to the landscape, festivals, and mythology help to make sense of our liturgical practices.  A good understanding of why a person practices what he or she does is essential for a truly spiritual, intelligent, and introspective human being. Aspiring Druids should hope to be all three of those things.

The book ends with a discussion on the Druidic revival that has been going on for a few hundred years.  It is an interesting although lacking explanation of modern Druidry.  I say that because Ellis focuses on the romantic Druidic groups and only briefly mentions the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, one of the largest Druidic groups today.  There is no reference to Ár nDraíocht Féin or even Celtic Reconstructionists.  This is too bad because he leaves the unknowing reader under the impression that many modern Druidic groups rely on poor research to create their traditions.  He ends the book by reminding the reader that many Celtic countries are forgetting their language and losing their social customs which is truly sad.  He bemoans the fact that many modern Druids are more concerned with the esoteric aspects of Druidry and not the cultural.  I believe that this is a legitimate concern, however, once more, by failing to explore Ár nDraíocht Féin or Celtic Reconstructionism he is overlooking groups who do require learning about the cultures and at least a minimal amount of language study.  Although students of Druidry must be aware of the historical realities of their Druidic homelands, I feel that the pessimistic ending spoiled what was otherwise a very well-written, informative book.

 

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Jones, Prudence, and Nigel Pennick.  A History of Pagan Europe.  New York: Barnes & Noble,

1995.

 

A side of history that has remained silent for many years is finally revealed in Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick’s work A History of Pagan Europe.  Through exploring the tomes of history, lore, and archaeology, the authors have put together an impeccable overview of the various ancient people of Europe.  In doing so, they exhibit not only how Europe became Europe, but how modern Paganism came to be.  A History of Pagan Europe is an excellent source for Pagan students.  What I found most fascinating were the similarities shared by the various cultures discussed.

Many people of European descent know very little about their ancestors.  The authors begin their work by stating that most people “are more familiar with native traditions from outside Europe than with their own spiritual heritage” (1).  This is sad, particularly so because many European descendants vehemently distance themselves from Paganism even though it has always been there and continues to exist, as Jones and Pennick argue, within our modern society, intertwined in some of our most seemingly secular institutions (1) such as democracy the celebration of Christmas.  The authors set out to debunk the misconceptions about Paganism held by society and show that we really aren’t so different from our ancestors.

The authors attempt to define what Paganism actually is.  I’ve found that it’s difficult to do so in this modern age because so many people, in particular Pagans themselves, refuse to be defined.  I feel that Jones and Pennick come to a satisfying conclusion.  If Paganism is ever to become unified (even though, again, some modern Pagans would argue against this notion), we have to unite under a name and group definition.  The authors first describe how people have defined Pagans in the past.  From country bumpkins to “non-combatants” (as opposed to the “soldiers of Christ”), the word “Pagan” has had a more or less pejorative meaning for the past few hundred years (1).  Jones and Pennick then look at the modern, spiritual definition and conclude that Pagan religions, past and present, share some common traits: polytheism (or some form of worshiping more than one deity), the view of nature as a theophany, and the recognition of Goddesses as well as Gods.  While some Pagans will argue with this, I feel that it covers many of our past and present traditions.  In my opinion, the authors do Paganism at large a service by providing a positive and academic definition.

We then delve into the history of the Greeks and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Romans and the Western Mediterranean, the Celts, the Germanic people, the Baltic people, and the Slavic people.  I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between these different cultures.  For instance, sacred trees kept revealing themselves in each culture.  The authors explain that in Greece “[m]any sanctuaries in later Greek culture centered on a sacred tree…”(6).  Later they explain that “[n]o temple was dedicated unless there was a holy tree associated with it” (20).  The Celts were said to worship in groves of trees (81) and some Germanic tribes also met in such places (116).  The Baltic people had celebrations revolving around ritualized trees that Pennick and Jones argue represented the “axis of the Earth’s rotation” (174).  In Lithuania, there were also sacred groves that were not to be cut  (176).  Everyone seems to have had a sense of the importance of the forest.  I was surprised, however, that the authors did not discuss the world tree of Norse tradition.

Nature was repeatedly venerated in some way from culture to culture. Sacred springs or wells played central roles to many of the old religions.  Slavic Pagans had rituals in which ceremonial dancers “undertook a nine-day ceremony [in which they] visited nine boundary-points, filled a ceremonial vessel with water from nine springs, and prayed to their patron goddess Irondeasa” (190).  The Celtic tribes felt that springs were sacred places as well.  There were springs at Bath associated with the Goddess Sul and “[s]sometimes these springs were thought to cure eye diseases, bringing the light of the Sun to the eye of the sufferer” (88).  In Ireland, “well-worship continues in a modern form, sometimes as a local folk-observance but more often by adoption into Christianity in the form of ‘well-dressing’” in which the well is decorated by the community and then blessed by a local priest (83-84).  The Greeks also recognized sacred springs (10).  The various cultures covered also had strong beliefs associated with fire and/or solar powers, nature spirits, agricultural festivals, and honoring the Earth.  It was interesting to see that, although the cultures venerated nature, they also exploited it. Unlike our modern world, however, our ancestors were very aware of the balance and the need to give back to nature and the Gods.

The dead and the Otherworld were also a common theme.  In Rome, “the remains of the dead were elaborately honored and they were housed in elaborate necropolises…” (26).  Obviously, there existed a concern with the afterlife. We know from Celtic lore that there were times of the year when the dead and other beings of the Otherworld could commune with the world of the living (90).  We know of some Germanic funeral traditions, some from direct observation.  While we may not know the meaning behind the traditions, it is, again, obvious that the dead were being taken care of and that they seem to have been sent into the Otherworld fully prepared for renewed life (138).  In addition, Pennick and Jones point out that the Germans were a bit different from other European Pagans in that they actually felt that their tribal ancestors were Gods (116).  In my opinion, this adds a whole new layer of sacredness to ancestor worship.

There were so many common themes that it would take pages and pages to discuss them all.  Reading about the various similarities helped to reinforce the customs of Ár nDraíocht Féin.   The creation of our altars and what goes on them makes more sense when viewed as a continuation of our ancestral religious traditions.  The tree represents the sacred tree that reveals itself again and again throughout the pages of the book.  The well represents the many sacred springs.  The cauldron represents the sacred fire.  We give offerings to the nature spirits because, like our ancestors, we believe that we need to give back to nature in thanks for what it gives us.  We honor our ancestors like our forefathers and mothers did.  We set up temples and worship in or around sacred trees.  Having read A History of Pagan Europe, I’m filled with a more academic understanding for all that we do in our tradition and it fills me with pride. It almost seems that through practicing as my ancestors did I am honoring them.

Reading the book hasn’t really changed how I practice my religion.  I’ve been recognizing the importance of the sacred tree, well, and fire for awhile now, and have been observing the other customs of ADF because they felt right. Reading about the historical background of everything only reinforces my spiritual practices and gives me a better understanding for other cultures that I may otherwise have never read about.  As someone who has clergy aspirations, it is useful to know that many of our practices are universal throughout Europe.  If I was required to do a Norse ritual, for instance, I wouldn’t feel too out of place after doing the appropriate amount of research on the pantheon.

The book ends by discussing how Paganism has been reestablishing itself, first through the Renaissance, and finally through the various modern movements.  The authors briefly touch on Druidry and Ásatrú, however I felt that they were more favorable of Wicca.  While Ásatrú has more of an honorable mention, Druidry is made to look like a fantasy-based fraternity (211).  Some of the first modern Druids do have Masonic roots, but the authors have failed to take note of other viable Celtic-inspired traditions that do more research and rely less on romantic fancy.  Perhaps it’s because the book was written before Ár nDraíocht Féin and Celtic Reconstructionism were as known as they are now. Meanwhile, Wicca is praised as the “kind of Paganism [that] looks ahead, offering a new philosophy, more strongly than it looks to its roots in the past” (220).  While I’ll never condemn Wicca, I do think that the authors have ignored the fact that many groups, including Ásatrú groups, take on the Reconstructionist principal that religions should be updated for our modern world while holding onto those traditions that are still applicable.  Meanwhile, many branches of Wicca have become just as fantasy-driven as the old Druidic orders.  I believe that having an understanding of history is very important, especially where religion is concerned.

A History of Pagan Europe should be read by every Pagan and history student alike.  Modern Pagans should have a firm understanding of where their traditions have evolved from.  Even Pagans who do not have European ancestry should give the book a try, especially if they live in a Euro-centric country like America or Canada. It can give a lot of perspective on our culture, especially where holidays and our calendar are concerned. Meanwhile, history students should appreciate the other side of the story and see the many examples of how Paganism was not necessarily stamped out, but rather absorbed into our modern world.

 

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Today was a stressful day.  It was, as I told my husband, the Monday of Mondays.  Getting to work was not difficult, but once I was there it was one thing after another.  There was a lot of absenteeism today.  Many people are out with whooping cough which is kind of uncomfortable.  I took my lunch break to run some errands.  I sent my grad school application off which was good.  The rest is in the hands of the administrators and the Gods. I then took some time to make what I thought would be a quick business call.  It turned into a very long and stressful exchange, but supposedly everything was rectified.  A second time.  Gods willing, everything is fine and I will get my bloody certificate of authority so I can legally sell at the upcoming craft show!  Everyone was very kind, patient, and helpful so I can’t fault them too much…

I’ve come to accept that it’s going to take me awhile to finish my Initiate Study Program.  Hell, it took me at least a year to delve into my DP, and three years after that to finish.  I took my time.  Who can blame me?  I was working on my first degree while working part time and maintaining various hobbies.  Working full time while attending grad school?  I know I’m going to have my hands full.

I am finding myself less resentful and guilty for my limited Druidic studying.  I do what I can.  I do my short daily devotionals, I pray, I make offerings to Brighid when I sew, and I do my weekly ritual complete with ogham reading.  I practice bits of kitchen magic here and there.  I try to make time for meditations and walks in the woods.  I listen to Pagan music and podcasts.  I alternate fiction with Pagan studies when I read before bed.  I get in touch with my inner self and the spirits through my art.  That is how I am living and experiencing Paganism now.  Do I feel like I could do more?  Sure.  But I’m not beating myself up over it now.

( For My LJ and FB Friends: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ )

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Although I’m not finished with my Magic 1 essays, I have started to read books on ogham for Divination 1.  I’m not merely looking at the course as a way to learn about divination.  I see learning ogham as a next step in my magical practices.  Not only can it be used as a way to commune with the spirits, but the symbols can be used in magical acts.  I also want to take this opportunity to grow closer to the trees.

I was having a conversation with a friend yesterday about crystals.  She was telling me about her sister and how she has a spiritual connection to amethyst.  I shared a story about friends of mine who are equally enamored with the crystal.  During this exchange, I admitted that I’ve never been very drawn to crystals in a spiritual way.  I find some stones more interesting than others, and I enjoy learning the correspondences and symbolism, but I’ve never felt a pull to learn crystal healing or such.  I thought about it later and realized that what I am drawn to are trees and other plants.  I am interested in their properties, healing potential, symbolism, and history.  I don’t discount the divine significance of crystals, but my talents do not reside within that realm.

After work, before delving into anything else, I put my green galoshes on, trudged through the muddy hedges, and went into the forest.  It was cold.  The deciduous trees were practically bare.  The setting sun sent an orange, misty light through the woods.  There weren’t any mosquitos or flies.  There was a stillness broken only by a crow flying north and my own footsteps and whispers to the kindreds.  I found myself near a birch tree and I spoke to it, touched, it, hugged it and just sat for a time.  I felt the stillness and firmness of the tree.  I felt the sleep of winter.  I heard the rustle of wind through pine needles.  I saw the still waters of the marshland slowly reclaiming territory amidst the other birch and younger trees.

I encourage you to go out and hug a tree, as silly as that sounds.  Literally hug it and be silent.  Close your eyes for a little, then open them.  Watch.  If a tree is not for you, find a rock, a flower, a moss-covered hill.  Git outside and be still.  Open yourself to the aged wisdom and chaos around you.  If anything, you will feel more relaxed for it.

( For My LJ Friends: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ )

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I think I’m finished with exit question 1 of Magic 1.  For now anyway.

I now believe that one reason I stalled on the essays is because the first question is, in my opinion, worded so awkwardly.  “Discuss the importance of the action of the magico-religious function as it is seen within the context of the general Indo-European culture.”  Over the past few months, as I read book after book on magic, I would return to the first exit question to see if I felt confident to try it.  It always felt jagged going into my brain.  It always sounded convoluted coming out of my mouth. 
  I still worry that I don’t know enough to answer the questions.  I’m probably over-thinking things, but I realized that I now know a lot more about the Greek and Roman perceptions of magic than the Celtic.  I tried to find some old Irish legal manuscripts dealing with magic, but they either haven’t been translated yet or are buried in another law text concerned with something more general.  I know from prior reading that the concept of a witch or a sorcerer who practices dark magic exists in Irish lore, but I don’t know if those aspects are demonized through Christianity or not.  If the ancient Greek and Roman Pagans allowed for conceptions of marginal, ethically questionable magicians, it’s certainly possible that the ancient Celts felt the same way.  That said, the Greeks and Romans were afraid of people who threatened the social balance.  The Celts, on the other hand, have examples of public cursing resulting in the fall of kings –  major social change!  However, the cursing is usually justified because it was the king himself who threw the system out of balance!

Raaarg.  I have a headache.  At least I’m finally starting my essays.

( For My LJ Friends: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ )

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I envy the professional witches and druids out there.  It’s not that I dislike my career.  I get a lot of fulfillment out of it and find that it’s quite compatible with Druidism.  But when I come home, I’m so exhausted.  I focus on my artwork because a) it’s spiritually fulfilling to me and b) it’s easy to focus on while relaxing in front of a show (unless I’m using a sewing machine…  then it’s impossible).  Free weekends are few and far between.  There’s always something happening.  A ritual an hour and a half away.  Family visitations.  Socializing with friends.  Vacation.  Craft shows.

I envy the professional witches and druids who have time to really focus on more than one aspect of their spirituality.  They have the time and energy to, not only craft, but study herbalism, meditate for long periods, take nature walks, study the lore, write essays and/or books, practice divination, and serve the greater community.  I want that!  That is, at least, my goal for retirement.

One of the biggest reasons I started the Initiate Study Program was because I wanted a structured way to help me explore the other areas of Druidism – trance, magic, liturgy, language, etc…  I’ve found myself moving through it slowly – not out of boredom or disinterest!  I merely have little time and energy.  That said, I don’t want to give up.  I know that, if I sit down and focus, I’ll be able to finish Magic 1 (at least a first draft) very soon.

Taking a sick day has helped me once again realize just how little time and energy I usually have.  I took that day and finished the book I had been picking at for months.  I started to organize my notes on it and even started answering the questions.  I had time and energy – it felt amazing.  I felt like I was getting somewhere in my Druidic studies.  In the summer I felt so alive.  I had free time to walk in the woods, explore the plants in the hedges, tend my herbs, etc…  Now it’s back to the grindstone and back to feeling  spiritually stifled.

Except for art.  It’s the one thing I cling to when everything else goes to the back burner.  I really need to focus on and cultivate that.  Perhaps it’s a calling?

Anyway, I find myself questioning my routine and my priorities.  Should I just focus on art and try to make time for meditation and as my schedule and energy levels allow?  Or should I attempt to make myself a schedule?  I like structure and routine, for the most part.  I could benefit from, at the very least, an attempt to meditate/trance once or twice a week on a set day when Weretoad is working.  That could be a start.  Then perhaps I could schedule myself a day to walk in the woods?  A day to study?  It all goes against what should be my Sagittarian nature, but I need to do something to feel more balanced.

Any suggestions?

( For My LJ Friends: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ )

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Sick Days

Today I took a sick day.  I hesitated to do it because I’m not hacking out a lung, don’t want to get too behind in work, and hate having to call in, but I really needed to.  I should have yesterday.  I felt like rubbish all day.  I was able to get my work done and interact well with others, but I felt uncomfortable.  My stomach was acting up and, in addition, I’ve had a sore throat and cough for a few days.  I also feel like I’m burning up at times.  Because my job revolves around communication, and because I don’t want to get any worse, I took today as a day of rest.  I slept in, had a cup of tea, and plan to gargle salt water and just relax.  I should also use my neti pot.  I think my sore throat is due to a nasal drip.  Yuck.

Sometimes I guess you just need such a time – a day in.  Today is a good day to work on Magic 1.  I really need to finish that course.  I’ve been working on it for months…

( For My LJ Friends: http://adfcatprints.blogspot.com/ )

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