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Living Druidry

Page history last edited by Yvonne 11 years, 8 months ago

by Bo Williams


I have reached a firm if polemical conviction. There have been no real-life druids since the early Middle Ages, when Irish legal texts and penitentials quietly stop speaking of them as a going concern around the year 800AD. Plenty of people have subsequently called themselves druids, but this has no bearing on the issue in hand. I may go out into the garden, dig myself a ceremonial firepit and pour ghee on it whilst chanting the oldest bits of the Rigveda, but I am not thereby a Vedic rishi, even if I am firmly convinced that I am. In modern paganism – that loveable, frustrating, velvet-cloaked mix of wisdom and fecklessness, kindness and backbiting – there is a reluctance to look this one fact in the face: we know next to nothing about the ancient druids. Indeed, I would argue that the epithet ‘ancient’ when applied to druids is more or less pleonastic. 


Our sources cover a few pages of description, some secondhand, from various classical writers, and a very few scraps of material from early medieval Ireland. (On the whole we are safer not to take the literary druids of medieval Irish saga as historical sources; if we must do so, then extreme caution is needed.) None of it is in a druid's own words. From this ramshackle dossier, we can say one thing, and only one thing, with confidence. Ahem. 'The druids were the magical and religious specialists of at least some Celtic-speaking peoples in Northern Europe in the centuries immediately either side of the birth of Christ.' Beyond that, we are in the realms of supposition, speculation, informed guesswork, dream, and ultimately outright fantasy. 


The ancient druids have been on the receiving end of a growth industry of the imagination since the early modern period, lending them a vast literary, artistic and spiritual afterlife. With his usual eloquence, Ronald Hutton has shown how selective reading of the classical authors has brought about several different but overlapping ways of thinking about druids: as noble patriots, as wise natural philosophers, as proto-ecologists, as demonic and bloodthirsty idolaters. The influence of one or other of these templates tends to be present unconsciously even in people who think they are being objective and scholarly about the druids. The contradictory variety of these images serves only to underline how very little we know about them, and thus how versatile they are historical figures onto whom contemporary concerns can be projected. 


But the druids from their rediscovery have attracted people who want to adopt their name and mantle, usually imagining them in either their guise as noble patriots or as a combination of the natural philosopher and green guru. It is worth pausing over quite how remarkable a fact this is: you don't get people wanting to be flamens or vestal virgins or Etruscan haruspices, on the whole. (Don't write in.) It may even be the very paucity of known facts about the druids that allows people to want to imitate them: if we knew more, I think it likely that they would emerge as less attractive figures. One can play the game of Cleopatra's nose with this - how many more facts would we need to know about them for the historical impulse to play at being druids to have failed to take?


Anyway, as a result, within the enormous body of writings since 1500 about the druids, there is now a large subsection of material by and for people who regard 'druidry' as their spiritual path. But the exiguousness of our knowledge of the ancient druids (I reiterate that it amounts to next to nothing) has meant that neo-druidic authors have had to employ great cunning to use up all that ink and paper. 


The usual strategy until the 1990s was a maximalist one. Absolutely everything that could possibly be related to the ancient druids was brought in. Romantic Celtic pseudo-scholarship was repeated as fact, and prehistoric monuments of all kinds were interrogated until they yielded up Pythagorean doctrine. A dash of eastern philosophy went in, folklore and Frazerianism lent a hand. The best example of this sincere if sententious approach is Ross Nicholl's The Book of Druidry, which is full of evocative twaddle like the following:


From the trees Teut draws out many beautiful spirits with healing, cathartic and defensive powers, whose chief is Esus. Into the stones Teut writes the records and infuses the messages of the higher worlds. (The Book of Druidry, p. 127).


It should be absolutely clear that this has no relation at all to an accurate understanding of Gaulish religion, whence come the deities Esus and Teutatis. With the arrival on the druidic scene of Caitlín and John Matthews in the 1980s, the use of medieval Celtic sources became commoner. But unfortunately, their ahistoricist approach meant that they worked in isolation from the Academy, where research then in full swing was demonstrating that medieval Irish sources in particular were less transparent pictures of the pre-Christian world than had once been thought. Instead they were in fact early medieval creations of great artistry, and needed to be read firmly in that context. Medieval Celtic sources were seized upon as new material from which to (re)construct druidry, and this inclusive spirit is represented by books such as Maya Magee Sutton's Druid Magic. This throws conception and misconception alike into the mix to produce a fat, glossy tome for the New Age market. As a primer for today's seeker, I'm sure it's delightful. It's also almost entirely pseudoscholarly fantasy. Inevitably, there's a confident chapter called 'Divining with Ogham', the mystical and arboreal nature of the ogham alphabet being an article of faith among Gaelicising neo-druids - ideas long shown by scholars of early Ireland to be built on very shaky foundations indeed.


And so it goes on. But there have been other attempts to get to grips with the fact that we know rather more about, say, ancient horticulture than we do about the druids. The fashionable response to this quandary in recent years has been that of Emma Restall-Orr and her erstwhile colleague Philip Shallcrass, who have a surer grasp of the Reality Principle than many of their forebears. Theirs might be termed a minimalist approach, in that they do not attempt to use sources to reconstruct ancient druidry, whereas writers from Nicholls to Sutton firmly believe that they are meticulously unearthing a dormant western wisdom-tradition. 

Shallcrass founded the British Druid Order in the early 1980s, and he and Restall Orr made the idea of 'inspiration' central to their version of neo-druidry. The Welsh word awen is frequently pressed into service to denote this concept, though neo-druids with an Irish bent often prefer the term imbas. In Restall Orr’s usage, the word is used to mean something like the axé of Brazilian Candomblé: the élan vital, the life-force of nature experienced as spiritual, even divine, energy, bringing about a state of ecstasy that is both intoxicating and clarifying. 


This is certainly an expansion of the word’s Welsh meaning, where it refers primarily to the poetic inspiration of the professional poets, the quasi-divine afflatus of the Muse. It possesses a long and noble history in Welsh poetics, in which it is difficult to assess to what degree the term itself is a rhetorical figure. Such niceties of literary and cultural history, however, are a little lost on the majority of modern druids. Restall Orr has, to be fair, emphasised that awen when properly experienced results in creativity, although medieval Welsh poets would have found the idea of needing awen for non-poetic purposes absurd, and the modern expansion of its range of application is an anachronism. In recent times, the former emphasis on the creative products of awen has faded into the background somewhat, especially with regard to poetry; one wonders, basely, whether this is an act of discretion given the quality of so much neo-pagan verse. Awen is most often presented now as a kind of flow of imaginative connection, rather than the Castalian draught than allows one to fashion a poem.


Shifting a term drawn from a medieval poetic vocabulary to the centre-stage of a neo-pagan religion is also a bit of a fudge. (I entertain fantasies of Wicca adopting the literary conventions of amour courtois to describe the relationship of the devotee with the Goddess.) It is well-known that there was a degree of connection between the ancient druid and the professional poets of Gaul, so that they formed in a sense one order. That much is uncontroversial. What is much more controversial is the question of to what degree there was historical continuity between the ancient druids and the poets of medieval Ireland and Wales. It used to be thought, for example, that the Irish fili, or learned poet (a title which etymologically means ‘seer’) was merely a druid under a threadbare Christian cloak. This view cannot be maintained, and has been under strong critique in the Academy for many decades. Still less can it be said of the medieval Welsh pencerdd or bardd teulu. My own view is that the poetics of medieval Wales and Ireland show certain shared features suggestive of Celtic antiquity, and reminiscent of what ancient authors tell us of poetry among the Gauls: an emphasis on somewhat impersonal elegy and eulogy as the dominant poetic modes, a strong link between the nobleman and his praise-poet, the stress laid on memorised genealogies. How much that had to do with what Caesar’s druides got up to is wholly unknown. It has become increasingly hard to maintain that the kinds of obscure knowledge boasted of by medieval Irish and Welsh poets possess any real continuity with the world of the ancient druids. Upon expert examination, such vaunted knowledge usually turns out to be in the mainstream of the medieval European curriculum, or, in Ireland, to draw on the vast body of learned pseudo-history created under ecclesiastical influence after the conversion. 


I strongly suspect, however, that the relationship between the professional praise-poet and his patron did bear certain similarities to that between the ancient Celtic chieftain and his druid. It would have been rhetorically presented as uniquely intimate, for example. Such an arrangement would perhaps have persisted over many generations, successive sons and grandsons of a particular druid serving the successive descendants of a given chieftain. (Note that I say ‘sons’ – I find the evidence for ancient female druids to be extremely thin. If they occurred, then like female professionals in early medieval Ireland, I suspect that they would have been very much anomalous exceptions brought about by a druid failing to have male heirs. Ideas of early Ireland as a kind of feminist paradise are nonsense.)

However, placing awen – poetic inspiration - at the centre of neo-druidry in this way has one great advantage. It elevates the unbidden and subjective intuitions of the individual to the status of sacred revelation. The neo-druid, by following inner promptings, by chanting, by creative responses to sacred sites and the natural world, can as it were weave the very bolt of cloth from which their personal spirituality is to be cut and tailored. The resonance and suggestiveness of ancient fragments, whether of words or in the landscape, when duly mortared by the imagination, thus bypass the awkward question of continuity between ancient and modern and cause religion to condense out of the air. As awen was important to the poets of medieval Wales (for which Shallcrass et al. encourage us to read ‘the Druids’), it is suggested that this modus operandi somehow represents being true to the ‘spirit’ of ancient druidry. (A spirit of which, needless to say, we know nothing.)


In fact, it is an ingenious strategy for coping with the fundamental problem of modern druidry, which is that it is an inverted pyramid in time. As we have seen, a vast body of modern material – books, blogs, workshops, courses, camps - depends on a smaller corpus of Romantic writing, which in turn depends upon, ultimately, only a tiny number of passages from classical authors of varying knowledge and attitude. Thus any attempt to return ad fontes means that one slips down the underside of the inverted pyramid and is left, at the final remove, with next to nothing. Shifting ‘inspiration’ to centre-stage neatly solves this problem, because anything at all can be made use of and labelled ‘druidry’, so long as it ‘inspires’.


To live this kind of spirituality requires an immense amount of personal responsibility, and - dare I say it - character. One has to continually inspire oneself to keep working at it and deepening one's perceptions, and if Restall Orr's books are anything to go on, she does this with great single-mindedness and a curiously paradoxical kind of ascetic sensuality - lingeringly smelling apples instead of eating them, for example. When one depends on inspiration alone, I fear that the Scylla of sentimentality will raven on one side whilst the Charybdis of monomania yawns on the other. As a result, many people who follow neo-druidry end up closely imitating Restall Orr, whether consciously or unconsciously. 


Restall Orr’s agenda – and she has been quite explicit about this – is to create a kind of British animism or shamanism whilst still sheltering under the lea of the term ‘druid’. Ultimately, her version of druidry resembles the religion of the Algonquian tribe heart-breakingly depicted in Terence Malick's The New World, say, far more than it does any realistic picture of Iron Age belief. Indeed, in this kind of neo-druidry there is no temporal focus on the historical period of the real druids at all. The entirety of the pre-Christian past of the British Isles and Ireland - from the neolithic to the Norsemen - is co-opted and incorporated under the heading of 'honouring the ancestors', and because, inevitably, it is found to be 'a source of exquisite inspiration'. 


It is clear that one should applaud the creation of a new and tolerant eco-spirituality; but what is less clear is what on earth any of it has to do - has ever had to do - with our ancient Celtic magico-religious functionaries, apart from the use of that evocative name. After all, sometime in the 8th century, that last Irish druid died peacefully in his bed, or fell off a roof, or his horse, or had his throat cut by brigands. Since then, there have been no others, and there cannot be.



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