Often when one thinks of Druids, a picture of mystical characters wearing strange robes and performing secret rituals springs to mind. Perhaps we remember tales of human sacrifices and the worship of violent old gods along with the deflowering of young virgins. If we are less imaginative we may simply think of robed "weirdos" demonstrating for free access to Stonehenge. The fact is that none of these images have anything to do with the reality. It is my intention with this article to hopefully dispel some of the ridiculous untruths by presenting a more accurate view of Druidry, especially as it is practiced today.
Perhaps the best way to start a study such as this, is by asking the question "What Is Druidry?" For those unfamiliar with the term, it could be described as the Native Spiritual Tradition of Britain, Ireland and Europe. Druids are concerned with the study of the natural energies of the universe, and how they relate to the seasonal cycles of the Earth, our home and Mother, and also with the honouring of our Ancestors. Druids have been described by some, as the Priests of the ancient Celts, although there are those who would disagree with this description.
Unfortunately, whenever the subject pops up, people tend to speak in the past tense, referring to the Druids of thousands of years ago, due to the commonly held belief that Druidry died out with the coming of Christianity. This however couldnít be further from the truth as Druidry is very much a part of the "here and now".
As the purpose of this article is to introduce readers to the concept of Druidry being a living, vibrant and evolving tradition, which is as relevant now as it was in the past, it would be inappropriate to spend too much time discussing the Druids of early history. I do believe however, to fully understand how Druidry fits into the present and future, it is important to see the past as the foundation upon which all else lies.
Celtic society was very ordered, with every member of the tribe having a specific role, which contributed to the smooth running of the whole. Druidry was certainly no less structured and was divided into three main areas of study and practice. The first of these was "Bardism", which comes from the Gaelic word "Bŗrd", meaning "Poet".
"What is Bardism?" One may ask. The answer to this can take on many different forms, each explaining only a portion of the bigger picture. The Bard is concerned (as are the practitioners of the other areas of Druid work) with connecting to, and working with Awen. Awen means literally "flowing spirit" and it is through contact with this energy and by "listening" to the inner sounds of Nature that s/he can find Inspiration. This inner knowledge is then translated into the physical world via songs, poetry and stories etc. Bardism could be seen as the study and awakening of the artist within and the connection to oneís inner realms. It is the area of Druidry where the practitioner is attuned to the Elements; the very building blocks of existence and where one can hopefully find oneís place in Nature and indeed the universe. Bardism is about studying the old songs, as well as developing the creativity of the individual.
In ancient times it was the Bardís responsibility to record the events of the day. After a battle for example, a Bard would sing of the heroes, and mock those not so heroic. It was considered a great dishonour to be publicly scorned by a Bard, and anyone who had brought shame to the clan would have to suffer this, regardless of his or her rank. Even a King would have to face humiliation by the Bards had he behaved in a dishonourable way.
The Bard was also responsible for passing on the knowledge of the clan and this was done in the form of songs and poetry and passed on from mouth to ear. Songs and poems were also created for magical purposes. This traditional method of instruction was partly due to the belief that the knowledge would be protected if not written down. Also, written words were considered "dead" and Bardism was (and is) a living, evolving tradition. Unfortunately the ban on writing (in some areas) has led many people to believe that they were illiterate which was certainly not the case. Whilst admittedly the early Celtic languages had no written form, the Druids were very learned in Latin and ancient Greek.
We can see then that Bards were (and are still), poets, musicians, singers, keepers of sacred knowledge, magicians and even news reporters. I doubt therefore that anyone would disagree with me when I say that Bardism is the very foundation of Druidry.
Any discussion on Bardism, in my opinion, would be incomplete without mentioning Taliesin, perhaps one of the better-known Bards of all time. He lived in Wales during the 6th Century and was known as Taliesin Pen Beirdd, The Primary Chief Bard of the Island of Britain. Throughout his colourful lifetime he wrote many poems and songs which were lost for centuries until the 1700`s. Translating his work has been a mammoth task especially when considering that much of the material attributed to him was actually written by others during later times. Another problem that the 18th Century translators would have had to face, was the fact that to anyone untrained in the Bardic Mysteries (and especially being from another time) most of the material would have made very little sense. As a result of this, much of the work would have been lost in the translation. Thankfully more accurate translations have been done in recent times and we can now begin to understand some of the hidden meanings behind his / their compositions.
That Taliesin underwent some kind of shamanic initiation is evident when studying his beginnings. He was born as Gwion and eked out a meagre existence as servant to Ceridwen. One day he was told to mind her Cauldron and to keep it simmering as she had some important work to do. Apparently the intention was to concoct a brew for the purpose of initiating her buffoon of a son. Gwion was told not to touch it but somehow three drops found their way onto his hand. As the drops were scalding hot he sucked his hand and thus began an incredible transformation. Ceridwen became aware of what was happening and so Gwion fled, changing himself into a hare to aid his escape. Unfortunately for him, Ceridwen changed into a greyhound so he shifted again, this time into an otter. Yet again, Ceridwen had no problem in keeping up with him as she had altered her form to that of a hound. Next Gwion changed into a bird but to no avail as his pursuer instantly became a hawk. In a final effort to avoid capture, Gwion changed himself into a grain of wheat and hid in a pile of chaff. Unfortunately this was a waste of time, as Ceridwen in the form of a hen had no difficulty in locating him and gobbling him up. There in her womb he stayed until he was reborn as Taliesin.
"Shamanism" was a significant component of the Druidic tradition and as we can see from the story of Taliesinís birth, elements of it were also to be found in Bardism.
The second area of study was that of the Ovate. Some modern Welsh Druids incorrectly perceive Ovatic studies to be the beginning of Druidic training, due to their belief that the word originates from the Latin "ovum" (egg), and therefore relates to beginnings. In actuality however, it is derived from the Greek "ov", Latin "vate", Irish "f-ith", British "gwawd" and means "seer" or "prophet".
The Ovate, as the seer or prophet of the tribe, was trained in divination, tree-lore, herbalism, shamanism, magic, healing and many other skills. Whilst the Bard "listened" to the inner songs and channelled Awen into creativity, the Ovate would use Awen to "see" (and also to develop a connection to the Otherworld). They would use various methods of divination to aid this process, such as scrying (gazing) into water or fire. Sometimes they would throw a handful of small stones or bones onto the ground and interpret the shapes formed as they landed. They would also trigger the "sight" by staring at clouds and seeing shapes and pictures.
One of the most powerful figures in British history was Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, and in preparation for battle with the Romans she used an Ovatic method of divination, to determine the outcome. Dion, the classical writer described this event: "When she had finished speaking to her people, she employed a species of divination, letting a hare escape from the fold of her dress; and since it ran on what they considered the auspicious side, the whole multitude shouted with pleasure, and Boadicea, raising her hand toward heaven, said, I thank thee, Andraste (goddess of victory and battle)ÖI supplicate and pray thee for victory".
Ovates would also study the natural world and make predictions from their observations. For example, by observing flocks of birds in flight or changes in the wind, they were able to forecast the weather. They could detect the presence of water by noticing the vegetation of a particular area, which was useful when the tribe or clan was on the move, and as skilled herbalists and healers they had an advanced knowledge of the local plant life.
By being so in tune with Nature, they had a deep understanding of the cycles of life, death and rebirth. They knew that in order for regeneration to occur, there must first be death, and that this stage is an integral link in the continuous chain of existence. They studied and worked with this "shadow" aspect of the cycle, knowing that without doing so, their work would be unbalanced.
According to the classical writers, it was the Ovates who performed the sacrifices at various ceremonies, and practised divination from their death throes, however it must be understood that these writers were not trained in Druidry, nor were the majority of them even Celts. They had very little knowledge of Celtic society and even less knowledge of Druidry. The Celts were no different from any other culture of those times, in that humans were sacrificed on certain occasions, however, the "victims" were often condemned criminals. To this day, there are still countries that have death penalties and it is quite common to have a Christian priest attend. Iím sure the Christian church wouldnít like to be remembered as being a condoner of human sacrifice, although the behaviour during the Spanish Inquisition and at various other points throughout history may have already damaged their image somewhat. Whatever may or may not have happened thousands of years ago, the thought of any kind of sacrifice is completely abhorrent to modern Druids, and is totally inappropriate to Druidic practices.
The third area of Druidry was concerned with philosophy and "higher" magic. They were priests (depending on oneís viewpoint), judges, teachers and advisers to kings, and were in a tremendous position of power within Celtic society. Modern Druids, whilst they unfortunately may not be as respected by society, still have similar roles. The Druid acts as a guide, teacher, Priest and ritualist. S/he is a traveller between the realms, working with Awen and the energies of the Earth.
When Christianity finally found itís way to the British Isles, some Druids converted, seeing parallels in the worship of the Christ with their own reverence of the "Mabon", and for quite some time, Druidry lived side by side, and in relative harmony with the "new religion". Many foresaw the inevitable "takeover" and decided to continue their practices under the guise of Christianity and so was born the Celtic Church, with Druids becoming Abbots, and Druidic places of learning becoming monasteries etc.
It wasnít until the coming of Catholicism that the Celts saw a decline in the public life of the Druids. Many were executed for refusing to adopt the "new ways" with many more (probably Ovates) disappearing into the depths of the forests to continue as hermits. The Bards however, whilst paying lip service to Christianity, continued their craft more or less unhindered, and could be given much of the credit for the survival of Druidry. The Druidic traditions were remembered and passed on via songs, poetry and folk-lore, right up to the time of the so called Revival Period which began in 1717 and continued up until the present day where they are just as valid. Druidry isnít and never has been something that only pertained to ancient times and the earlier ban on writing is a testimony to the way that it was viewed as a living tradition, contained in the memory of the people. It is in this way that it has survived, and as we continue to unlock our collective memory, we re-connect to this timeless tradition.
With the current environmental situation, there has never been a time in history when Druidry was more needed than now. Our Earth is in serious danger of being permanently damaged, if not destroyed, by our "civilization" and thankfully, more and more people are becoming aware of this problem. The more established religions, with their emphasis on "saving" human souls, has led us away from nature thus contributing a great deal to the present situation and it is to the nature based philosophies of Druidry, Wicca and other forms of paganism, that people are now turning for a solution.
Aside from the obvious environmental problems of severing our ties to nature, we also cut ourselves off from the spiritual and nurturing influence of our Mother, and Druidry is about re-connecting to the Earth and our ancestral roots. It is from walking a path such as this that we may rediscover our heritage and our place amongst the cosmos.