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Druid Village or Druid Ashram?

Published by Philip Carr-Gomm

In thinking about our vision of Druidry in the world today – about how it can best be conveyed or taught – two models come to mind: from the East we have the model of the guru in the ashram, whereby the transmission of teachings occurs through one person, although sometimes subsidiary teachers will be authorised: swamis who have trained with the guru. From the South, the Land of the Long White Cloud – New Zealand – we learn of another model. There, in the old days in Maori villages, those who were skilled in different crafts or branches of knowledge, often the elders, would carve sticks that would symbolize their specialty and these would be placed outside their houses, stuck upright in the ground, to announce that they were available for consultation. If someone visited or if they didn’t wish to receive visitors, all they had to do was bring their stick into the house.

Though it’s an appealingly romantic image, it would be stretching things to wonder if the ancient Druids did likewise, with sticks carved in ogam announcing the owner’s skills in divination, prophecy, woodworking or healing being placed outside their bothies. But perhaps a similar method has been used in other cultures: in Africa, South America, Asia. It certainly feels one that is ancient and grounded.

In its essence the system fulfils the functions of advertising and appointment management: in its simplicity and elegance it avoids the potential vulgarity of advertising, while making it clear which service is on offer. At the same time it resolves the practical issue of telling people whether or not you are up for a visit.

But notice two things: it requires a different relationship to time than the Eastern model and a different social context. The activity is taking place in a village, not an ashram. An ashram is a place set apart – a spiritual oasis with its own codes of conduct, which requires  a deliberate separation from the workaday world.

A village is the building block of society. The model of a village in which one can wander, with healers, astrologers and craftspeople announcing their services in such an unobtrusive way does not require a separation between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘mundane’. In India and other countries one can find a variation on this theme, with astrologers and healers announcing their wares on every other street, though the carved sticks have become gaudy signs. And a New Age fair or festival works in the same way: as you wander through the town hall or across the field, various stalls or tents offer consultations of all kinds. In both these cases the commercial transaction has gained a hold, and often the upper hand: rents or stall fees must be paid. In the Maori model people are working from home and their services are part of the everyday life of the community.

And that is where the different relationship to time comes in. At the ashram, satsang is at 6am or whenever it is, just as in the Western equivalent – say a Christian retreat centre – services, consultations and seminars are at specific times. A system as practised in the Maori village could only work if you were living there: you would need the time to wander over to old Mother So-and-So, find her stick was not outside and wander back later that day or another day.

It’s such a natural idea that you can imagine the way a version of it operated in a village in Europe in the past. Everyone would know that if you walked over to the cottage of the local cunning woman and found her broom by the door she was ‘open for business’.

The village system is organic, and recognizes that many people are skilled in different ways. There might be a ‘head man or woman’ of the village, equivalent to the mayor, who is called upon to deal with the authorities, greet arriving dignitaries, and so on, but there is no one ‘guru’ responsible for passing on the heritage of the community.

Druidry today is a community effort and a culture, and not simply a ‘spiritual teaching’. It may have its pioneers and spokespeople, its eloquent sages and bards, but in the end it will thrive if we allow everyone to express their potential and the inspiration this culture brings to them in their own way. In the end perhaps we can even have carved sticks outside our homes that say ‘I am a bard in training. I may not have learned much yet, but I can play a mean fiddle and if you want to pop in and listen I’m free now!’

Philip Carr-Gomm

2013