THE LEGACY OF MODERN DRUIDRY
To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye,
to restore it…Margaret Fairless Barber
Ellen Hopman gathered the material for this book twenty years ago. When I was invited to write the foreword, I was hesitant. Would anyone be interested in what some modern-day Druids said or wrote two decades ago? But when I read the interviews Ellen has collected here, I realised that they articulate most of the issues contemporary Druidry is still concerned with today, and the insights they offer are as valid now as they were twenty years ago. This in itself would be sufficient justification for publication, but in addition I found I could engage with the material in another way. In reading the interviews, I had the benefit of hindsight – twenty years on I could see what ambitions had been realised, and whether any fears had proved justified. In addition, I could imagine how a similar collection gathered today might differ, and I could start to get some sense of what legacy modern Druidry might be leaving the world.
As the opening quote suggests, when we look backward, we have the opportunity to refresh our perceptions, and this is what this collection offers – the potential to refresh our vision of what Druidry is, and what it can offer that is of lasting value.
Failed Predictions, Hopes and Fears
Let’s begin with what this collection shows us about the contributors’ hopes and fears. Every so often, someone calls for ‘unity in the Druid movement’ and this call can be found in these pages, and yet – or so it seems to me – this is a futile aspiration. Whether one draws analogies from the apparent inability of Celtic tribes to unite, or simply from observation of social and religious behaviour, it is quite clear that diversity is the dynamic that runs through modern Druidry, not the desire for uniformity, even of purpose. Calls for unity, or for gathering groups under an umbrella organisation, have never succeeded, as the history of the ‘Council of British Druid Orders’ and various other initiatives, demonstrates. The fear, expressed by one of the interviewees, that this inability to achieve unity will harm the movement, has proved thankfully unfounded, and rather than attempting to ‘unite everyone’, it seems a far better policy to accept that this simply won’t happen, and revel instead in Druidry’s diversity, knowing that diversity is a key ingredient in a movement’s ability to be sustainable.
Another fear expressed in this book has also proved unfounded. When the interviews were gathered, Celtic motifs had become popular, and concerns arose that a crass commercialism was exploiting a culture. As it turned out, the vulgar exploitation of these elements was simply a passing fad that continues only in a tired and reduced form in the overuse of images of Celtic knotwork. Instead, the popularity of Celtic inspiration has resulted in an enrichment in many fields, particularly in music and the arts.
Isaac Bonewits, who has proved such a seminal influence in modern Druidry, states in his interview: ‘What I foresee is that within twenty years or so there will be public Pagan celebrations led primarily by Druids in most places, in every major and minor town in America. I see us doing publically televised ritual on the Pagan holidays. I see us having a very strong impact on the environmental movement and vice versa. If anybody are the appropriate chaplains for the environmental movement it is going to be the Druids.’
Twenty years on we can see that none of these predictions have materialized, and maybe that’s a good thing. Druidry thrives as a sub-culture that has shown a steady growth, but not of the kind that would produce the numbers envisaged by Isaac, and as a result it has avoided many of the problems of mass movements. But the ideas central to Druid practice, acknowledging the need for a spirituality that reverences the Earth, and honouring the turning points on the Wheel of the Year, have gained a wider acceptance than any declared affiliation to Druidism. It is likely that Druidry will always represent a minority pursuit, and small, for Druids, really is beautiful. Even so, it can still act like leaven in the wider cultural milieu, producing an impact far beyond its apparent reach, and it has provided both inspiration and support to the environmental movement, as the popularity of John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report shows.
The Core Issues
If some of the hopes and fears expressed in these interviews have failed to materialise, what has been achieved, and what set of issues does this book bring to light? The first question that strikes me as I read through the chapters that follow, is: ‘What keeps Druidry being a subject in its own right at all, when it has so many diverse manifestations?’ The joke within the Druid community, ‘Ask ten druids their opinion and you’ll get eleven answers,’ reflects this diversity, and rather than this representing a weakness in terms of philosophy or identity, I believe this reveals Druidry’s strength. It is an approach which can bring together people with widely differing viewpoints, as this collection demonstrates.
Let’s take the topic of how a Druid is to relate to the question of Celticism to illustrate this point. In these pages you will find divergent views – from the wounded anger of Kaledon Naddair, which holds to the now disproved theory that the term Celtic is a racial definition, to the approach of ADF which sees the phenomenon as part of the great sweep of Indo-European culture; from the exclusivity of Celtic Reconstructionism to the inclusive universalism of groups like OBOD.
Those new to Druidry might find it surprising that there could be such a divergence of views on a topic which some believe represents a defining feature of Druidism, but at around the time the interviews were being compiled for this volume, the academic world of Celtic Studies was in turmoil. Malcolm Chapman’s 1992 book The Celts: The Construction of a Myth had called into question the validity of the term Celtic, and the debate over the possibility that the term was so confused, so riddled with pitfalls once examined dispassionately, that it should be dropped entirely, continued for many years. Simon James’s 1999 book The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention? added fuel to the fire, and the existence of entire university departments was called into question. As one famous Celtic scholar from one of these institutions told me: ‘We’ll just have to continue fudging this issue if we are to survive.” They have survived, of course, but this re-evaluation of what we mean by the term Celtic is one of the major changes that has occurred in the twenty years since these interviews were compiled. Back then, many would have been unaware of the debate.
If the terms ‘Celt’ and ’Celtic’ are hard to define, the word ‘Druid’ is problematic too, and one of the horrors or delights of this field of study comes from grappling with such questions. Are we dealing with a religion or a philosophy, an invention or an authentic spiritual movement? How those in the Druid community relate to these questions often seems to vary from one side of the Atlantic to the other. If I can risk making generalizations and exaggerating, to tease out some of the differing viewpoints expressed in this book, I would say that twenty years ago, many Americans probably believed that British Druids exerted no historical rigour, were duped by or deliberately ignored the provenance of Revival Druidry, and if English, engaged in cultural misappropriation. In contrast, those on the other side of the pond probably believed American Druids were unaware of the problematic nature of the term Celtic, and being separated from their ancestral homelands romanticised Celticity. They failed to appreciate the value of Revival Druidry, and focused obsessively on the futile search for authenticity rather than on the pragmatic evolution of Druidry.
When Isaac Bonewits and others began writing about Druidry from the 70s onwards, Revival Druidry was a sitting target. So much of the material being used by Druid groups in Britain seemed to be derived from material produced by a forger – Iolo Morganwg, a laudanum addict who had duped the world with his fantasies. The obvious approach seemed to be to ditch the entire corpus of Revival material, but what this ignored was the simple fact that over two hundred years of practice makes a tradition, and tradition is hard to undo. Despite the attempts of Celtic Reconstructionism to create an authentic practice, British Druids stubbornly seemed to continue in their ways. In reality, great changes were afoot – a sort of triage and revision was occurring, with material being dropped or changed. In a parallel way to the revision of Wiccan history that was occurring at the same time, Druidry in Britain was coming to terms with its past. Most Wiccans probably know now that their tradition was developed by Gardner and his friends in the 1950’s, just as most Druids know that Iolo was a fraud. But many also believe that somehow these maverick characters tapped into information, and maybe even practices, that were either ancient or inspired, and whether or not this was the case, they take the pragmatic approach that ‘it works’ and that a tradition does not require a long time to gain traction.
I can think of three players in this process of historical revision that occurred in the years after these interviews were gathered: two from the United States and one from Britain. By 1999, Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at Bristol University, had already initiated the reappraisal of Wiccan history that resulted in his book Triumph of the Moon. In the opening years of the new century, Hutton turned his gaze towards Druidry, and in a research project that included a Mt Haemus paper for OBOD, and two books, The Druids: A History (2007) and Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (2009) he reviewed the history of Druidry with precision and genius. Already, on the other side of the pond, Gordon Cooper, one of the founders of Celtic Reconstructionism had ‘defected’, and as archivist of OBOD, he busied himself reviewing all the OBOD course material with the eyes – as he put it memorably – of ‘an authenticity Nazi.’ He had been given this epithet in a message board spat. Hutton also scanned the entire OBOD course, again with a view to historical accuracy, and as a result of both these reviews, the material emerged enlarged and enhanced. While this process was going on behind the scenes, a third Druid, John Michael Greer, began leading the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and he openly championed Revival Druidry in his books and through his order.
All this has occurred in the twenty years since the interviews in this book were compiled, and it means that, in broad terms, as our understanding of the history of Druidry, and of the complexity of the meaning of the term Celtic, has deepened,
the tensions between reconstructionist and revival views no longer exist, or are no longer significant enough to feel relevant. Isaac Bonewits, and other contributors from American Druidry and the reconstructionist movement found in this volume, had challenged British Druidry’s complacency in relation to their history, and thanks to the exhaustive work of Ronald Hutton and others this challenge was answered, to the great benefit of Druidry worldwide, which now possesses a thorough and honest revision of its history. Twenty years ago there may have been the differences between the views of Druid history held on either side of the pond that I outlined in exaggerated terms earlier. Today these seem less likely.
Meanwhile, there are differences of opinion within the Druid community that are mentioned in this book, which still exist today. The two that stand out, for me, are between those that view Druidry as a religion, and those that don’t, and between those who see Druidry as definitively Pagan, and those who don’t.
We are back to terminology again – to what we mean by certain words, and if the terms Celtic and Druid are problematic, so too is the word religion, which to some offers food and drink, and to others seems like poison. Those who dislike the term religion prefer to see their Druidry as a spiritual or magical path, a philosophy, or even as a type of culture, which includes many dimensions including the spiritual and artistic. But others like to see Druidry as a religion, with its own clergy and theology. These two very different views are reflected in the interviews that follow.
In a similar way, you will find here contributors who feel Druidry must, by definition, be Pagan, while others espouse a universalist approach which allows the individual to find their own relationship with the spirit of Druidism, whether that be by following it as a Pagan religion or by combining its practice with another way, such as Wicca, Christianity or Buddhism, or by approaching it as one aspect of the Perennial Wisdom Tradition.
Rather than regretting these divergences of opinion, which exist today as strongly as they did twenty years ago, I think we should delight in them. Historians say that the old Celtic tribes showed more differences than similarities between each other, which is one of the reasons why they now question the label. But using the label for a moment, we could say that modern Druidry is truly Celtic in its inability to cohere, in the way it can embrace a wide range of approaches, in its love of braggadocio, in its tendency to enjoy cattle raiding (in its eclecticism and attempts at the bricolage beloved of all magical groups and even religions), and in its love of music, story, and celebration. Seen in this way, this book is indeed a celebration – a gathering in the feasting hall of the Druids!
And Druidry’s legacy? It has become a vibrant alternative to the more mainstream religions and spiritualities – one which ironically may have been seen as an anachronism, but which has in reality proved itself to be more attuned to the current needs of humanity and the Earth than them all. As I write this, Pope Francis has just made a statement on the threat of climate change, and the Dalai Lama has also just spoken of it at the Glastonbury Festival. The Druids were warning us about this more than twenty-five years ago.