Here is the text of a talk I gave at the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of our Order – first at the Dryade International Camp in the Netherlands, and then a short while later in the marquee in the Glastonbury Abbey Grounds
We are Reclaimers of Stories
One of the reasons we are drawn to Druidry is because we are aware of its love of story, which lies at the heart of the Bardic tradition. We know stories are important: they are healing and inspiring – they deepen our sense of who we are in the world.
Imagine the petals of a flower that overlap around its centre. And at this centre lies our personal story – who we are – our individual journey. But that story is embedded in or linked to another story – that of our family as it exists today, and then our ancestral story that travels way back into the past. It is also embedded or linked in some ways to the story of our country, or perhaps of our ethnic origin. And all these are embedded in a wider story still – that of all humanity and of the planet we live on: the World Story.
Being unaware of a story, or disliking some of the stories we’re involved in, creates tension and suffering, but sometimes this dislike is unavoidable. How many of us like every single aspect of our ancestral or family story for example? How many of us like how the story of our current civilization is unfolding? But to put our heads in the sand is not an option if we are treading this path, which is the way of the Bard, the Reclaimer of Story, the person who can sing praises or scold with satire.
But to cast stories as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is too simplistic, and the Bard knows that the sounds of mirth and sorrow go hand in hand through much of our tales. The psychotherapist knows that reclaiming, redeeming, stories can provide the keys to healing. The Bard knows this as well – knows that stories can not only enlighten and entertain, but can also act like a healing balm.
In addition to our personal story, our family story, our ancestral story, our country’s story, and the world story, we are a part of other peoples’ stories – the stories of our friends, and the story of any group we may be in, or affiliation we may have: our religion, or school, or employer, those groups we have joined. Our role in these stories may be minor or they may be major, but the difference between them and the other kinds of story is that we have a choice over whether we wish to be a part of them. When it comes to those other stories we don’t have a choice – in this incarnation we’re stuck with them. But with these stories we can choose whether or not they become a part of our life.
Together, the given and the chosen stories combine, intersect and interlace like Celtic knotwork or the weave of a tapestry, to make the story of our lives in all their richness and depth.
One of the threads in the tapestry of all our lives is the story of the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids. Now this may represent a big strand in our life, or a minor one. But either way each of us here is involved in it, otherwise we wouldn’t be here!
So let me take this opportunity of the 50th Anniversary of the Order to talk a little about the story of the Order, and in particular, the context, the environment in which that story has arisen, to bring more colour to it, to make it more alive.
The Story of the Order
People talk about the 1960s being a seminal time – a time in which – certainly in Europe and America – some of the weight of the suffering of the Second World War and the weight of outdated tradition fell away, and a new impulse came into the world. The Civil Rights Movement took off in the United States; the Feminist movement and Gay Rights took to the stage. The gurus arrived from the East, Flower Power sprang up borne on the winds of the Peace movement, and in the heady atmosphere of parts of San Francisco, Amsterdam and London, change was in the air. And so it is perhaps not surprising that the story of our Order begins at that time – in the London of the mid 1960s.
It was then that our founder, Ross Nichols, along with other members of the Ancient Druid Order, broke away to form their own group which they called The Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids. This process of breaking away, of hiving off, which is such a common phenomenon in any grouping of individuals, is often described as schismatic, and is seen as something negative. But when we look at the history of virtually every movement, whether it is religious, political or social, we see this process at work, and it is so ubiquitous our conclusion must be that it is a natural phenomenon, like the process of cell division, the very process of life itself and of fertility. Nature wants diversity. Monoculture is unnatural, and it seems we can only enforce it on people with a police state, and on agriculture through its equivalent in Monsanto-style regulation and enforcement.
When separations or hiving off occurs we don’t have to make one group right or wrong – it is natural that people should have different approaches and should want to form different configurations, and this is what happened fifty years ago. A new chapter in the story of Druidry began.
In 1964, after a great deal of heart-searching, and after ten years of being in the Ancient Druid Order, Nuinn broke away from that group to found OBOD, and in doing so he sowed the seeds which have resulted in what we see in the order today – half a century later.
I first met Nuinn in 1963, and seven years later, in 1970, when I was initiated at a Beltane ceremony on Glastonbury Tor, there were only about a dozen members in the Order – and most of them seemed very elderly to me. But as we stood in the circle, just below the summit, the Third Ear Band played for us – wearing blue Bardic tabards supplied by Nuinn. The year before, they had issued their album Alchemy, which included tracks with titles like ‘Druid One’ and ‘Stone Circle’ – with later albums being called The Elements, and Magus.
1970 was also the year John Michell had published his book ‘A View Over Atlantis’- which became a cult best-seller and introduced a generation to the idea of the British mysteries. Although Nuinn was in many ways an old fashioned man, preoccupied with heritage and the past, he could sense the new tides being borne into humanity – re-articulating the age-old esoteric tradition in new ways – and so he made contact with the Third Ear Band, and with John Michell.
And as I stood there on the Tor, my 18 year old self bemused by being in a ritual with the unlikely combination of an avant-garde hippy band with these people who seemed genuinely ancient druids to me – and who kept forgetting their places in the ceremony – I was also inspired by a vision of how it could be: of how there could be hundreds of people standing on the Tor. Of how it is in fact now, when we climb the Tor to perform our ceremony each year in June. This afternoon there will be hundreds of us there.
Since that time, the Order has grown from a handful of members who lived mostly in London, to become a truly international group with over 17,000 members in 69 countries. Today in this marquee there are members from 19 countries present. They say ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’ and that has certainly been true in the Order’s case. But how has the mighty oak, or more accurately the forest, which is now OBOD, grown from the handful of seeds cast on the ground by Nuinn half a century ago?
Perhaps the most significant of the seeds that Nuinn sowed were – first and foremost – the founding of the Order itself: the establishment of a mystery school with the three levels or grades of training of Bard, Ovate & Druid. But he was also responsible for the introduction of the observance of the Eightfold Year into modern Druidry, as his friend Gerald Gardner was responsible for its introduction into Wicca. And in addition, he introduced an emphasis on the Bardic Arts, and an appreciation of the value of Celtic myth and treelore, which had been surprisingly absent within Druidry until his time.
To grow, seeds require the right soil and conditions, and the 60s provided fertile ground for planting – it was a time when radical ideas could be aired, when an interest in magic and mysticism could surface again after the decades of the 40s and 50s, which had been focussed on war and then reconstruction.
Nuinn sowed these seeds for just 11 years, until he died in 1975. There were even fewer members by then, almost all of them were elderly, and after his death, there just wasn’t sufficient impetus for the Order to keep going. It was closed in the apparent world, and lay fallow for thirteen years. And it did this as we started to move into a different era.
The mid-seventies and 80s were the Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher years. It was the time of the splurge generation, rampant consumerism, of hostile takeovers – the era of laissez-faire economics and neo-liberalism. The turn towards the soul of the 60s had morphed into the hedonism, narcissism and materialism of the Me, Me, Me Generation of the 1980s. It wasn’t a conducive atmosphere for the pursuit of the spiritual quest – particularly a quest not so much concerned with personal salvation, but more with developing a reverence for the Earth.
This feeling of a need to revere the Earth was stimulated to a great extent by the increasing awareness of the threats faced by our planet. Some people had awoken to the environmental crisis in the 60s of course – 1962 was the year of Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’. More had awoken in the 70s – the Club of Rome’s important book ‘The Limits to Growth’ had been published in 1972. But it wasn’t until the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s that large amounts of people began to realise the enormity of the threat to the Earth. By 1992 the first Earth Summit had been convened, and the giant fires in Yellowstone Park in 1998 contributed to greater awareness in the United States.
And it was in anticipation of this greater awareness in the 90s, that the Order awoke again, as if out of a winter’s sleep in 1988. The winds of change had blown once more, and there was a wave of interest in the last decade of the century, not only in the fate of the Earth, but in the fate of indigenous peoples and tribal cultures. And a wave of interest too in nature-based spirituality that avoids the dead weight of the established religions, with their centuries of dogma and rigid hierarchies. Once more there was fertile ground for the sapling trees of the Order to begin growing again.
And so it was in the second half of the Order’s fifty year period, that it experienced its tremendous expansion, and that was due to a message I received from Nuinn in Spirit in 1984. He told me to put the Order’s teachings in the form of a distance-learning course so that more people could benefit, and this very common-sense advice bore fruit. Membership was no longer limited by geography. It took four years to organise, but then when the Order was refounded in 88 it took only a year for it to have 200 members. In the second year there were 500 and so it grew. And then of course the world wide web arrived, and by the end of the millennium the Order had its own website, and membership began increasing more or less steadily ever since, just like an oak tree.
After more and more people became aware of the threats to Mother Earth during the 90s, we were catapulted in the new millennium into an even more worrying era, when the September 11 attacks occurred and the War on Terror began – a war, it turned out, that only served to increase our fears rather than create more safety. It began to feel as if the Story of Humanity was being written by a deranged script-writer, and at OBOD HQ we noticed a sharp increase in membership, as if the need for spiritual connection and refuge became ever more urgent as the world seemed to have gone mad. 2001 was also the year that the first foreign edition of the course, in Dutch, was published.
Despite the difficult chapter in Humanity’s Story that we have entered into in this new century, over these last 14 years something very interesting and positive has also been going on: a movement amongst many away from greed and exploitation and the cult of ‘Me’ to a genuine opening of care and concern towards others and the planet we live on – a collective move from ‘Me’ to ‘We’ – from ‘Ego’ to ‘Eco’.
The environmentalist Paul Hawken has written about this powerfully in his book ‘Blessed Unrest’ which tells the story of the vast amount of initiatives being undertaken by individuals and groups to change our world for the better. He tells the story of the incredible numbers of people and grass-roots groups around the world who are filled with love for humanity and for the earth – who are resisting injustice, and remaking, restoring, renewing, revitalizing their communities.
I see the Order as being one of these many thousands of movements and groupings that now exist around the world, that act as forces for positive change. What we’ve done, all of us collectively, in these last 26 years has been to take a Mystery School – a magical, spiritual group – and to make its work relevant to our modern age. We’ve managed to turn a group that started with those few people on the Tor all those years ago, into a truly international organisation. That Mother Grove planted by Nuinn fifty years ago has now spread its seeds across the Earth – and that has occurred not through the efforts of one, or even a handful of dedicated individuals, but through the contributions of thousands of people all over the world. A huge thank you and a cheer for all us who have achieved this: to Nuinn and his Pendragon Vera Chapman who founded the Order, and to all of those, all of us, who have built on these foundations and created what we see around us today. And here’s to the next fifty years!