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In The Grove of the Druids

The Druid Teachings of Ross Nichols

Author: Philip Carr-Gomm
Publisher:
Watkins Publishing/Duncan Baird
Hungarian edition: Gold Books, 2005
Publication date:
2002
ISBN:
184293032X

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In the Grove of the Druids is a major study of the work of one of the seminal thinkers in Western Paganism. Ross Nichols was Chief of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids until his death in 1975. He was a man who believed passionately in the power of myth, poetry, ritual, and drama, and in the interconnectedness of the world’s great religious systems. This fascinating biography and wide-ranging selection of Ross Nichol’s work contains writing on key themes including ritual, festivals, mythology, symbolism, temple architecture, and archeology, and the links between Druidry and other ancient wisdom traditions.

It is the essential resource for students of Druidry and lovers of Celtic spirituality.
Includes a biography of Ross Nichols, a Foreword by Professor Ronald Hutton, rare archive photographs, sketches and letters of Ross Nichols, a complete Chronology, Bibliography and Index. From the Introduction: ‘Much of the pleasure of reading Ross lies in finding the gems embedded within his work: a turn of phrase, an image, a connection between two ideas or facts which you hadn’t seen before…he is a weaver of ideas, images, facts and details.’

264 pages including 8 pages of photographs. Foreword by Ronald Hutton.

Listen to Philip talking about Ross Nichols’ life on Druidcast – the Druid Podcast – Part One here Part Two here

REVIEWS

‘In The Grove of the Druids presents the life and thought of one of the twentieth century’s ‘hidden’ spiritual teachers – Ross Nichols, Chief of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. An incisive Foreword by Professor Ronald Hutton provides the historian’s view of Nichols, evaluating his importance to future generations, and Philip Carr-Gomm, who trained with Nichols and now leads the Order, offers a picture of the man he knew, reviewing his life and legacy.

The book then presents Ross Nichols’ work in four sections: teachings on Druidism; essays on a range of spiritual and esoteric subjects; letters and essays on Christianity; and finally his essays on Mythology. Carr-Gomm introduces each contribution with background information – offering glimpses into Nichol’s life, and teasing out the themes and gems embedded in the text.

Ross Nichols was a poet and a painter, as well as a Druid and a scholar – and his writings evoke rich imagery and offer tantalising glimpses into the arcane knowledge of ancient civilisations: in one breath he speaks of Persian Magi and Celtic Druids, of Ancient Egypt and the mysteries of Stonehenge…

Philip Carr-Gomm writes: ‘To complete ‘In The Grove of the Druids’ I have just emerged from several months’ immersion in a collection of papers, photographs, watercolours, sketches, notes, and travel diaries that I built up over ten years ago. They were all produced by one man – the Druid Chief Ross Nichols – who was my spiritual teacher in the 1970s. He died in 1975 and years later I was asked to lead the Order that he founded. Since Ross was such a prolific writer, out of the essays and the teaching discourses that he wrote for his Druid students, I was able to create a course in Druidry that has now reached many thousands of people across the world.

As we entered the new millennium it felt right to make some of these teachings available to a wider audience, and to also publish some of Ross’ teachings and essays on a whole range of spiritual topics. The result of this project is ‘In The Grove of the Druids’, which combines a collection of his most inspired writing with introductions by Ronald Hutton and myself to Ross’ life and work. In this collection, in addition to a whole set of teachings on Druidism, you will find essays, for example, on the use of ritual gestures, a new vision of the Qabalah, the Zodiac of Glastonbury, William Blake, the Arthurian Myth, and a devastating critique of Christianity, but a reinterpretation of its value too.

Ross was a scholar and a historian, but because he was also a poet and a painter, his writing can be powerfully inspirational. Grounded in a knowledge of the details of history and myth, but connected always to spiritual purpose and meaning, it manages to reach deep into our souls. Here is an example of his writing. For more, turn to ‘In The Grove of the Druids’:

Any grotto, cave or dolmen is a veil for the Unknown.
Any darkness in these places is meant to show forth a greater splendour. You go through a dark tunnel or a black mirror to a brighter sky to meet a brighter sun.
Respect always therefore the place of the dark, for it is the fosterer of splendour.

Not all his writing is of this aphoristic inspirational nature, though – much of it deals with the matter of the Western Mysteries – with the power of number and symbolism, with the uses of myth and archetypes. And certain themes continually appear within his writing: he is fascinated by Ancient Egypt and by the work of Jung, and his enquiring mind encompasses the work of archaeologists and historians, classical scholars and the work of his friends of the occult intelligentsia, such as Gerald Gardner, the founder of the modern Witchcraft movement.

Illustrated with photographs and line drawings, and including a full Chronology and Bibliography, together with excerpts from his verse as well as his prose, this collection represents a treasure trove – a distillation of the legacy Ross has left the world.’  Watkins Magazine

‘A valuable contribution to the history of our tradition.’ Druid’s Voice magazine

‘Carr-Gomm, who succeeded Nichols as Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), has produced a curious work which is part eulogy, part magickal biography and part edited selection of Nichols’ writings. Being partly so many things it isn’t really any one of them, which makes it somewhat difficult to review meaningfully but perhaps we can sum it up as an appreciation of an individual, a history of an order and an introduction to the ideas upon which the latter was founded.’ White Dragon

‘For those readers to whom the name Ross Nichols is unfamiliar, as it was indeed to me prior to reading this book, a few biographical words are in order. Ross Nichols was a seminal figure in British Druidry and also played a part in the creation of modern Wicca. To earn his crust Ross Nichols was a poet, journalist, teacher and administrator. He also inhabited that peculiar British environment of dissent, which encompassed (during his lifetime, 1902 – 1975) such ideologies as pacificism, vegetarianism, socialism, naturism, theosophy and the occult. It is a matrix that is perhaps more familiar to more mature readers of the journal as it is from this very milieu that the British counter-culture of the 1960’s sprang and which forms part of the background to this very journal. Yet he also remained a devout Christian throughout his life, and attended his local Anglican churches religiously. However he was also attracted to the more obscure variants of Christianity and was ordained an Archdeacon of the Ancient Celtic Church in 1963, whilst simultaneously also being deeply involved in Druidry. He joined the Ancient Druid Order in 1954 which, on the death of the ADO Chief Robert MacGregor Reid in  1964, he left and founded his very own “Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.” He died in 1975 soon after finishing his “Book of Druidry” which was finally published in 1990.

As for the book, Phillip Carr-Gomm needs congratulating in assembling this collection of miscellaneous writings by Ross Nichols and arranging them under the following themes: Druid Teachings; Esoterica; Christianity; and Mythology. The blurb claims this a study of these works but it is more a collection of writings with short introductions. To which one can add Ronald Hutton’s Foreword and a biographical essay by Carr-Gomm. As to the quality of Nichols’ writings, to say they are uneven is an understatement. Some were polished pieces that were published in journals such as “The Occult Observer” (of which he was Assistant Editor) and the “New English Weekly”. Others were drafts for chapters in his book “The Land of the White Bull” (which sadly was never published and much appears to have been lost.) Whilst others are rough drafts or notes for talks which were not intended for publication at all.

He was obviously widely read in many religions and mythologies and in psychoanalysis as well as more occult arts. His attempts at symbolic synthesis now read rather dated and confused. His take on Christianity is more a statement of his inner conflicts than necessarily stating more “universal” truths. Nichols obviously found enough in the structure and teachings of mainstream Christianity for some of his needs, but equally, it was insufficient on its own and needed supplementing from a variety of outside sources.

As for the Druid material, to me this is some of the weakest in the book. That said certain themes will be familiar to those who read International Times in the 1960’s. (Indeed there is a letter to IT which shows that Ross Nichols was familiar with this younger generation of dissidents and seekers.) Historically the material is questionable at times, for example, I’d like to see more evidence of William Blake not only claiming to be a Druid on one occasion but actually being Chief Druid for some 18 years! Nichols also discusses the Glastonbury Zodiac at some length in an article taken from The Occult Observer c.1949/50, which is a classic of sorts. (I have to confess to having a two-pamphlet set of Mary Caine’s ruminations on the “Glastonbury Giants” which drew upon the works of Katherine Maltwood, not to mention the collection of articles by Anthony Roberts on Glastonbury published by Zodiac House.) I doubt if many people take this material seriously these days.

As for his discussions on esoterica, these are, to the uninitiated (like myself) pretty incomprehensible. They reveal a mind that was adept at piling symbolic systems on top of each other in some form of equivalence. Some readers may find this type of material of use, but it completely baffles me.

Personally I found his writings on mythology to be the most interesting. Nichols was very aware of the power of myth, and longed for the filling, he perceived, of the lack of a specifically English (Celtic-Scandinavian in his terms) myth system to equal those of Ancient Greece and Rome or even Scandinavia. He is dismissive of earlier attempts and tried to address the problem himself in his magnum opus “The Land of the White Bull” which, sadly, was never published. The fragment and other essays on the theme that are presented here show an awareness of the social construction of myth and how it cannot be determined from the top down (either by the state or by elements of the intelligentsia) but that it grows “organically” from below from the people, responding to their needs, its authors anonymous. (Here I note that Nichols’ socialism means he is conversant with Marxist writings on the matter, which he includes in his discussion.)

Nichols was also very determined that an English mythos should restore the relationship between the land and the people, reconnecting them with the cycle of the seasons in a meaningful manner (and here we see why his religion took the form it did). To objections that the Arthurian material could form the basis of such a mythos, he carefully distinguishes between legend and myth. Here one can usefully quote at some length the “Statement of Intention” that Ross Nichols co-signed with James Kirkup (the same poet who caused such a furore with his poem about Christ in Gay News.)

“Myth is understood as the presentation of imaginary figures incarnating natural processes, or types expressing aspects of a consciousness of man as nature and nature as man under various aspects, both normally conveying a tragic sense of life and values. Legend is understood as the use of figures originally human, to which heroising transformation has been applied, rendering them to a greater or less degree mythical, as distinct from the fantasy wish-fulfilment of the Fairy tale…” (p.229)

But as Frank Kendon says (p.221) “Myths to be effective sources of power must not yet be seen as myths. Once you have said ‘let’s pretend’ you have killed all the vital power … ”

Nichols also knew that the old gods could never be resurrected on a mass scale, they had been shown to be deficient, and that Christianity was unable to provide the symbolic format for his purposes.

So he created his own religion: “The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids” which continues to prosper nearly 30 years after its founder’s death. Yet I doubt that the writings in this book will do much to encourage people to join it. As a historic document of a nexus of English alternative culture (in its broadest sense) it is quite illuminating, showing that the 60’s counter-culture didn’t spring up from nowhere (and neither was it a purely American import) but that the seeds were sown in the 1940’s and 1950’s by people such as Philip Ross Nichols, Gerald Gardner (who knew each other very well) and their colleagues. Alternatively one could argue that Nichols and his cohort, kept alive ideas and developed them which have surfaced at various times in British history. But his attempted synthesis of religions, mythology and psychoanalysis fail to convince, however brave the attempt.

To conclude, this is a well-produced book, which for me, at least, was worth reading more for its value as social history than for its religious importance or contemporary relevance.’   Richard Alexander, Counter Productions