First published in The Cauldron August 2014
The modern Druid movement is an attempt to recapture or recreate something that has been lost – an ancient European, indigenous belief system and culture that has been supplanted by Christianity, technology and rationalism. Of course this was not the only ancient indigenous culture of Europe and in fact one such culture does still exist today in Europe – the Suomi (or Lapp) people of the extreme north-west of Europe, mostly in northern Finland.
By some miracle this ancient culture has survived into modern times, although almost all, if not all, have become acclimatised to modernity to a considerable extent. Like other indigenous cultures around the world the Suomi traditional way of life is under threat, which no-doubt increases their desire to preserve it. However, unlike other truly indigenous cultures, Celtic culture has lost much of its continuity and hence Druidry/Druidism has in effect been reborn or reinvented since the late Renaissance. Much of the elements of Druid belief and practice still exist in the form of folk culture, the ancient Irish, Welsh and Scottish manuscripts and of course the sacred remains that we find in the landscape of the British Isles, although the sum of the parts does not form a coherent, unified whole.
Unfortunately, the passage of time makes it difficult to know what is actually purely Celtic or Druidic and what is a synthesis of Celtic, Viking and English/Saxon/Norman cultures. Given that there as no Celtic peoples that have survived into the modern era untouched by other cultures or the influence of Christianity we can never really be sure of how accurate our reconstructions or re-imaginings actually are.
Some might argue that recreating the past doesn’t really matter and that it is the future that we should be concerned about. Although I have a certain penchant for historical accuracy and a desire not to make a fool of myself, I do believe that in a certain sense this view is correct. After all, as a Druid at some point early on, and perhaps even still, one must ask the question: why be a Druid? At the most basic level I would say that Druids choose to be so because of a deep desire to reconnect with an indigenous world view that is increasingly being wiped out by modernity.
Druidry/Druidism is a form of magic but it is much more than this – it is a comprehensive belief system, a religion, a whole way of life. Ultimately, if lived in a way that closely approximates to the values and culture of the ancient Celts then it is a wholesale rejection of modernity and the increasingly nihilistic values of westernised society.
This finally brings me to the subtitle – the fork in the road. I believe that we are at a crucial point in the development of humanity, a place where the road forward splits in two and we must individually and collectively choose which road we are going to take. For the first time in human history, more than half of the population of the globe are urban dwellers and increasingly living in accordance with modern expectations. Meanwhile simple, self-sufficient and ancient cultures that still exist are going the way of the elephant – vastly under pressure and shrinking in number. Such cultures are fundamentally at odds with modernity and the inexorable spread of progress and destruction that accompanies it.
Druidry/Druidism would seek kinship with these cultures and expresses shared values in terms of simple living, preservation of the environment, nature based religious practises and traditional folk culture. However, in most cases Druids are in fact deeply steeped in the modern world – I myself as I type this onto an old Apple Mac computer draw on my lifetime experience of modern western culture.
I have made certain choices – such as to live in an old house where I can grow my own food and keep animals, to work in an outside job with the natural world, to minimise my consumption and engagement with the commercial world, etc. Despite these serious and heart-felt attempts to create a life that one could call Druidic, I cannot escape the fact that I have grown up and been educated in a modern western society – even though I am lucky enough to have experienced a rural culture since childhood, that many have not.
The great problem for me and all Druids is that this whole movement has developed (in earnest over the last century) parallel to the development of a increasingly secular and commercially driven technological culture. So while myself and other Druids may have a great desire to live simply and immerse ourselves in Celtic culture, the odds are stacked against us as we have all been contaminated by the dominant culture that we were either born into or are surrounded by.
As the speed of progress continues to accelerate I strongly feel that the Druidic community will be forced into a cataclysmic choice, much as the Amish of North America were in the 1860s. In that particular instance the Amish Mennonites attempted to adapt to rapid social change, whilst the Old Order Amish chose to reject modern life and isolate themselves from its influence.
At this point in time the world-wide Druidic community continues to grow but so too does its engagement with the modern world through the internet: forums, social media, podcasts etc. As people who claim to love and be connected with the natural world it is unnerving how easy it is to spend much of one’s time hypocritically engaged in on-line Druidry/Druidism – an oxymoron if ever I saw one! While it is important that Druids be able to engage with each other and use various mediums to communicate important messages to each other and the world in general, it is far more important that we do not lose the run of ourselves and become engulfed by the very processes that we seek to resist.
Technology and its social effects are now moving at such an incredible pace that it is possible to live almost completely detached from the natural world. People can now move from the house to the car, the office, the shops and back again with little or no contact with the natural world, while at the same time being totally engaged in virtual communication – all thanks to mobile devices. Already we are beginning to see huge changes in how humans socialise as a result of virtuality and the removal of the necessity to engage with an environment outside of total human control.
As a Pagan and a Druid I find these developments extremely worrying. Whilst I continue to live much as I have done, if anything engaging less with the virtual world as time passes, I am aware of the fact that the world is changing ever more rapidly around me. As a Druid I must ask myself – do I want to be a part of this brave new world? Is there a point where, like the Amish, I have to say ‘enough, no further’? I would posit that we are rapidly approaching a point of no return where the connection with the natural world and our ancient selves will be forever severed unless we consciously choose to do otherwise.
Of course genuinely indigenous peoples are already confronted (sometimes violently) with this momentous proposition and to some extent all people of ecological or spiritual aspirations also face this problem. Speaking as a Druid, this is not simply a matter of ethics but a holistic crisis that affects humanity on a physical, mental and spiritual level.
Do we solve this conundrum by simply running away and living a separate existence like the Amish or do we fight for change and risk being crushed by the juggernaut? There is of course a risk in choosing either option – to cut oneself off does not guarantee survival and engagement is equally risky: ‘Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.’ the famous Nietzsche quote succinctly expressing that challenge.
Druidry/Druidism has no universal dogma, no Pope or spiritual leader to dictate on such serious and far-reaching existential questions. Ultimately it is up to each of us to plumb the depths our own hopes and fears and follow our own consciences. Whatever we choose, the time for sitting on the fence is rapidly receding, the future beckons and we must decide what part we will play in it.