Originally published in Touchstone magazine, July 2006
From my observation those who describe themselves as Druids appear to often fall into one of two categories; these two categories I would describe as ‘Reconstructionist’ and ‘Revivalist’. These two categories appear to be at odds with each other but I believe the reality of modern Druidry is that elements of both are valid and indeed necessary for a viable and living spiritual path.
Taking the ‘Reconstructionist’ approach first – there are those who in the name of truth, purity and other lofty ideals reject anything that cannot be traced back to ancient Celtic society, this may also include exclusion of all information not originally in a Celtic language and people of non-Celtic ancestry. Whilst one must respect the ideals and single-mindedness of such an approach I believe that it is somewhat impractical attitude and also not really true to the spirit of Druidry. For a start the ancient druids worked in their own tongue which at the time was a Celtic language; over time these languages have been unfortunately surplanted leaving English as the most common first language. It is documented that the Irish medieval bards spoke and wrote a dialect which had long since ceased to be in common use, hence providing a common tongue which all could work with. In this current age how many of us are able to comfortably converse in Irish, Scotts Gaelic, Welsh or Breton yet alone conduct a ceremony or compose a poem in an ancient dialect? Sad as the demise of Celtic languages may be, English is the common tongue for most Druids today and it would seem wise to use it, perhaps in conjunction with the native language where possible.
Looking at what we know of the druidic system of learning, how many of us are in a position to take 12 or 19 years full-time to study as did our predecessors? In our current society such a thing is only possible for those who have no financial burdens to carry. Unfortunately for us patronage of poets by kings and nobility is no longer practiced; druidic medical practitioners have long been superceded by hypocratic medicine and eastern alternative methods and as a true sign of the times, various oracular/divination services are now available to the public at the end of a telephone line.
As for ritual and ceremony as practiced by the ancients, there are some clues given in ancient sagas (e.g. selection of the Ard-Rí) and classical accounts, however these are only outlines and there are no known exact details of procedures as practiced by any of the Celts in the pre-christian era. All of the ritual and ceremony that is currently practiced appears to be based on residuals from the Druidic era and extrapolations from medieval works , but at best they are like jigsaws where half of the pieces have been made to replace those which were missing. As far as my investigations have led me I am as yet unaware of one verifiable unbroken link to the ancient form of Druidry either via literature or by a continuous verbal tradition.
With regard to the spirit in which Druidry should be undertaken, it is well known that the Druids were familiar with the Greek language in both written and spoken form. There would also have been considerable trading interaction between the Celts and non-Celtic neighbours and also occasional military alliances down through the ages (e.g. Dermot MacMurrough’s unfortunate alliance with the Normans). The Celtic peoples obviously attempted to rebuff destruction of the their culture by aggressors but I can find no evidence of the ancient Celts adopting an totally isolationist stance, hence I feel that such an approach in modern times would not be in the Celtic or Druidic spirit. Most modern Druid Orders encourage an attitude of respect and tolerance of other religions and variations within Druidry itself, surely if we are confident in our own beliefs such an attitude should not present a problem?
So far this all paints a very bleak picture for the ‘Reconstructionists’ however, although there are huge problems in trying to accurately recreate Druidry in its former likeness, taking this approach does encourage a ‘return to the source’ and reveals a vast treasure trove of literature which if not useful as a methodology throws considerable light on the history, mindset and culture of the ancient Celtic peoples. For that purpose alone I would consider serious study of the ancient literature an invaluable tool simply because it puts our modern practices into context.
Moving on to the ‘Revivalist’ approach, much of what is currently practiced is based upon medieval or later works. The Celtic revival of the 1700s onwards led to many translations of Celtic works into English and German, some of note and others highly suspect. Many translations of that era are Christianised or heavily edited - ‘awkward’ passages were altered for the social mores of the time or worse still, omitted altogether. The creation of Druidic orders inspired by the likes of John Toland, William Stukeley and Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams) it could be argued were based on romantic notions of the time about Druids rather than actual historical facts and accurate translations.
I fear that for many who take the ‘Revivalist’ approach this is as far back as they will look, that is if they have made it beyond the myriad works on Druidry produced in the last thirty years. I am not trying to rubbish modern works but I think that in order to make a clear judgment about what Druidry actually is it is necessary to delve into ‘source’ material rather than blindly accepting second or third hand interpretations and opinions. A common thread in modern Druidry is a ‘mix and match’ technique in following the spiritual path. Some Druids happily combine Tarot with Kabballah, Yogic meditation, Ogham and Wiccan ceremonial methods and indeed some may also be Buddhist or Christian in addition to druids.
I would not like to pass judgment on such people as wrong or misguided, but I would ask ‘is what you do really Druidry?’ After all, one cannot be both a Jew and a Christian or both Muslim and Taoist; to resolve this problem one must ask the question ‘is Druidry a religion or just a philosophy?’ Personally I regard Druidry as a religion, and although I have an interest in other religions and magical techniques I am wary of diluting the Druidic path to the extent that it becomes a meaningless hotch-potch of other cultural values. In the end this is a personal choice and it would be intolerant and narrow-minded to condemn other Druids for incorporating non Druidic practices into their work.
Although use of ‘authentic’ Druidic practices may be desirable it is obvious that various aspects of ancient Druidry are not viable in the modern world. For instance inducing the three blemishes on enemies, aiding tribes in war, imposing a geis on someone, sacrificial and divinatory use of animals/people, collection of dead enemies’ heads etc. poses difficulties in a modern context and hence such behaviours need to be either eliminated or altered for the world in which we live. Adjustments must be made but they should be made from a position of knowledge and understanding of the past and not a position of ignorance.
There is a definitely a tendency to ‘go with the flow’ or adopt any technique or method that ‘feels right’, which is not surprising given the increased interaction between different cultures in the last century. Whilst I can see the value of diversity I think that this must be tempered with a respect for the ancient Celtic traditions and culture, underpinned by a genuine understanding of what this means. After all, if an ancient Druid had to sacrifice years of his or her life to the study of poetry, geneology, divination, healing arts and Brehon law then surely simply donning a cloak and staff does not give one the right to confer the title of Baird, Fili or Drui upon oneself!
Druidry should be a serious business and if we wish to be taken seriously as a religious community it is necessary to maintain genuine continuity between the past and the present. I think that the extremist view of both the ‘Reconstructionist’ and the ‘Revivalist’ as I have described is flawed and those who take either path cannot be reconciled with those of the opposite path. I believe that the way forward is the combination of an experiential approach with continued exploration of the ancient roots of Druidry, only through sensitive application of both approaches can we maintain a spiritual path that is progressive and alive whilst remaining true to the traditions and culture of the ancient Celtic peoples.