Thursday, February 27, 2014
Wherein I Digress ... A Lot
Wow. When I noted here on my blog that "I belong to two Druid orders" in a list of personal trivia items, I had no idea that there would be so much response and curiosity from people who read the post. Because I've done a few of these little awards that require the publication of these lists, I was running out of even marginally interesting factoids. This apparently was an interesting one. Who knew? Since I am not sure whether folks want to know about Druidism generally or my interest in the discipline specifically, I'll address both as succinctly as I can.
There's a lot to say about contemporary Druidism. There excellent books on the subject and dumb ones, and a lot of places to find out about it, but I think just an attempt at the basics will satisfy curiosity here.
To begin with, I want to point out that Rowan Williams, a recent and former Archbishop of Canterbury, is a member of a Welsh Druid order, his designation part of the Gorsedd of Bards. As is Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family because of their special connection to Wales. Their induction was into a cultural and social order, promoting the preservation and development of the Welsh language and cultural traditions.
Princess Elizabeth, 1946 Glamorgan, Wales
Although this order dates from the Celtic Revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, it's survived as one of the oldest of the many contemporary groups that seek to make a modern connection with the ancient Iron Age social and spiritual structures that defined Druidism. There has been lots of interest from the children of the Celtic diaspora. In the US, one of the first organized attempts began with students at Carleton College who, in 1963, established the RDNA (The Reformed Druids of North America) as a Monty Python-esque political response to a requirement that students attend regular religious services. The idea evolved into something more serious minded, and the RDNA is still around with some 400 groves (affiliated groups) and as many as 4000 self-identified Druids. The Wikipedia entry on Druidism says that " According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), there are approximately 30,000 Druids in the United States. There are approximately 50,000 Druids worldwide." These figures come from their2001 survey.
And before I go much further, I also need to point out that the image of a Gandalf-class wizard with blue fire springing from his fingertips has nothing at all to do with the practice of contemporary Druidism. This figure now belongs in cos-play and gaming and epic sci-fantasy fiction, although he has his origins in Celtic folklore and mythology.
In a big, fat, seriously oversimplified nutshell, the ancient Druids were the functionaries of the educated classes of the cultures that spoke the Celtic languages. Those languages evolved in parts of the ancient world that are now continental Europe and the British isles. Where there were Celts, there were Druids. They were the teachers, judges, lawyers, priests, politicians, poets, musicians, storytellers, historians and other intelligentsia of their tribes. We know precious little first-hand information about them because, while many were literate and could read and write in Greek and Latin, they did not leave written records of their own. The corpus of written history comes primarily from the Roman records of their occupation of Britain and the parts of conquered Europe inhabited by the Celtic tribes. Essentially, they are reports about the vanquished by the victors, and have to be approached with care. We have other information from remnants of oral tradition and folk tales, and most interestingly to me, the early medieval records of very ancient Irish Brehon law. We have educated assumptions based on archeology, anthropology and linguistics. However, there is no direct, unbroken connection between Iron Age Celts and modern Druidism. No matter how much people would like there to be one, there just isn't. It is a part of a repeating revival of interest in all things Celtic, and a deliberate effort has been made to reconstruct the essence of the real thing.
Today, modern Druidism is as varied as the groups and individuals who claim it as a philosophical or spiritual pursuit, or both. It can be practiced in highly stratified orders, or small casually organized groups or it can be an individual pursuit. It is one of the rare spiritual disciplines that has connections with both Christianity and the neo-pagan belief systems of the Western World, and has acknowleged roots in early Indo-European religions.
To further oversimplify using the time-honored nutshell method; here are some of the primary ideas understood and accepted by most Druids and Druid organizations:
A highly valued relationship with the natural world, and by extension all our primary human relationships, an understanding of the connectedness of everything. Most Druids consider the relationship to the Land as primary sacred concept, and are consequently concerned in some way with environmental issues. From this understanding of the natural world flows the more poetic approach to life and death, ancient beliefs in reincarnation, rebirth and renewal, and the idea of otherworlds.
Druids are universally tree lovers.
There are four major celebrations inspired by ancient agricultural festivals, the seasons of nature and survival ... this is one area that is more or less traceable to actual practices. There are four more dictated by solar and lunar events that are sometimes included in modern tradition, but not viewed as historically likely. Not all are celebrated universally.
Values, Virtues and Ethics
Druidism places high value on the virtues of truth, wisdom, honor, courage, personal responsibility, integrity, self-knowledge, hospitality, friendship, generosity, and creativity. Especially creativity, which is honored within the concept of "Awen," the divine fire of inspiration.
Ancestors are venerated. That extends to intellectual or artistic lineages and inspirators. Family and community are valued, but those ideas are not limited to only the most traditional versions. There are lots of ways to experience family through Druidism.
Theology (a discussion that is just too big to be tackled here ...)
But, on the subject of deity, I can say that Druidism acknowledges monotheism, polytheism, all the isms. Or none of them, and there are lots of Druidy types who are not religious at all and regard their practice as pure philosophy.
(A personal note on one of the reasons I appreciate Druid theology; Druidism is non-dogmatic. Philip Carr-Gomm, a well respected author closely associated with The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) was right when he wrote; “most Druids are keen to avoid the problems caused by dictating a morality to others.” (What Do Druids Believe? p. 59.) Consequently, there is no proselytizing by modern Druids. I particularly like that. )
Most believe in gravity and the scientific method.
There is an acknowledged value attached to any honest pursuit of knowledge, the attainment of education, scholarship and academic excellence. Critical thinking is valued as well as creativity.
This last virtue brings me to my personal response to Druidism. It is important to me that my spiritual life is able to exist comfortably with my intellectual life. Contemporary Druidism allows that. Druidism is not a received and revealed religion, and there is no sacred text to define it's parameters. But it is an inspired response to some of the cultural values that were likely part of the lives of my own ancestors and now resonate with my own life in the modern world. The Druids of the Iron Age Celtic tribes were the stewards of all that we now define as civilization. It was their job to seek order, justice and peace and to promote reason, beauty and spirituality within a warrior culture. The intellectual legacy of ancient Druidism belongs not only to men but to women as well, who we know participated in these important civil functions and public life more fully than elsewhere in the classical world. I'm drawn to Druidism's beauty, and I practice the elements of it that give me the most satisfaction.
Modern Druidism is a system of many uses for me, inspired by ideals that can be thoughtfully and happily applied to my personal life and my response to the world around me. The idea isn't to try to act as an ancient druid in a modern time, or impose the culture of ancients on our own era. It is to approach the above values and virtues with an evolved understanding and then apply them to the issues that we face in a modern world.
I belong to the moderately-sized but international Order of the White Oak (Ord na Darach Gile) and to the very small Triskele Oaks Grove, a small independent group. Beyond that, I'm pretty much a garden variety contemporary Druidess. Any more than that, I only feel comfortable keeping to myself or sharing with those who love me and therefore have to put up with me.
If you have other questions that you'd like me to address, you can reach me through my email address: kelts at centurytel dot net.