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Druids Defined: A Reconstructionist Druid's Commentary
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Modern Druidry has put a completely new spin on exactly what a Druid is today. Because of the New Age movement and the combined restoration of Paganism that started in the early 1900s, the way Druids are viewed today has been drastically changed from what Druids were in the ancient Celtic culture. While the Neo-Druidic movement is a very respectable one of peace and acceptance, the ancient Druids may not have always been so kind.
In the mid 1700s, groups like The Druid Circle of the Universal Bond (1717) and Ancient Order of Druids (1781) were formed as offshoots of such popular groups as the Freemasons and the Illuminati. These groups were formed to give men some sort of close-knit brotherhood away from the outside world. While they claim some Druid influence, their religious affiliations were that of Christians and Deists. There was no real Pagan influence within these groups and they really had no real historical connection to the Druids of the Celts.
In the late 1800s, there arose more of an interest in the ancestry and folklore of the Gael Isles. Authors like W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory found interest in compiling and translating the surviving myths of Ireland. In Britain, we have Edward Williams (aka Iolo Morganwg) who claimed to have translated Ancient Welsh texts supposedly passed down from ancient Druids and which became known as the Barddas (1862). With the increased popularity of this rekindling of ancient knowledge came the evolution of Meso-Druidism into Neo-Druidry.
In the early to mid 1900s, a member of the Ancient Order of Druids, Ross Nichols, began to expand his ideas on Druidism and eventually he branched out from the earlier Ancient Order of Druids. He, too, explored the folklore of Britain and began to combine those folk traditions with modern belief. He befriended a man who was also on a similar journey named Gerald Gardner. Their friendship would bring about the tossing around of ideas and of possible belief structures.
They found common ground in the ancient traditions of honoring the nature cycles and held similar beliefs in regards to a possible higher power. Though they branched off in the rigidity of their practices and beliefs, the common ground kept them friends. Nichols would even go on to edit Gardner’s first non-fiction work, Witchcraft Today, about the religion (Wicca) that Gardner would go on to found.
It wasn’t until 1964 that Ross Nichols would found the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Nichols would keep the hierarchal structure of the early fraternal group, but it became open to both genders and to those of any religion. They would go on to honor eight holy days, the same eight honored by those of Wicca. Druidry, as Nichols called it, held the belief that there is a divine power and all could acknowledge it because all gods are a reflection of the divine.
Gardner would teach in his Wicca similarly that every god is either a reflection of the masculine divine or the feminine divine. Because the divine is all encompassing, it is also viewed as omnipresent making everything around us part of the divine. This is where nature reverence comes from. There is more to this belief, but any symbology beyond that simple statement is merely elaboration on the divinity of nature.
I'm not going to look any further into the modern druid movement. I simply wanted to give a little background on the neo-druidic influence to establish the difference between it and the ancient Druids. As a Reconstructionist, I am much more grounded in scholarship and less in spiritualism. That is not to say that I don’t commune with the Gods daily or that I don't participate in the Fire Festivals. It simply means that I am much more concerned with what has a basis in history, myth and literature rather than in a feeling.
I do not discount the need for spiritualists in the modern Celtic restoration movement. I believe it is the combination of the spiritual mind and the scholastic mind bringing academia and feeling together to form religion; however, I simply happen to be more of the scholastic mind. I believe that is part of what makes me a Druid: my pursuit of truth through study in a world of feeling and conjecture.
Most Druids and Celtic scholars tend to agree that the ancient Druids were an educated group within the Celtic culture. Many have argued that they were not the only educated group and therefore there was much more to being a Druid than ‘knowledge’. I disagree.
Julius Caesar wrote that becoming a Druid required twenty years of study though he did not elaborate on their exact topics of study. He also wrote that Druids must be present at any sacrifice and it was the Druid who decided whether or not someone was allowed to attend sacrifice. Not being allowed to attend the sacrifice was considered to be the ultimate form of punishment.
I see no bias undertones in these observations, so I will take them at face value. Through examination of these claims, we can deduce that the Druids were indeed an educated class who not only oversaw the sacrifice to the Gods -- perhaps making them communicators between man and the Gods -- but also stood as judges to their people. Nowhere does Caesar specify that the same Druid held all of these positions, just that the possible purpose of those with the title Druid encompassed the actions of an educated overseer and judge.
As we know from such legends as the Colloquy of the Ancients and the Tain Bo Cuailgne, the pursuit and defensive of truth was one of the (if not the) greatest moral imperatives of being a Celt. As we know from the writings of Julius Caesar, Dio Cassius and Tacitus the Celts were a warrior culture. It can then be assumed that as a warrior culture (though there were those who focused their lives on specifically being Warriors), all members of the tribe were trained to fight and defend not only their tribes, but also truth. Though all were trained in its defense, the simple mention of truth brings up the question of whose truth? That is where the Druids come into importance.
Caesar pointed out a period of twenty years of study. When one studies anything, they do so in pursuit of knowledge. It is this knowledge that leads them to truth. The same truth that any tribe member would give their life for. As the intelligentsia, Druids were privy to a level of knowledge that most other members of the tribe did not have. I am sure we have all seen the term KNOWLEDGE = POWER. In the case of the Celts, KNOWLEDGE = TRUTH and, to take it one step further, TRUTH = DIVINITY.
This theory isn’t too far fetched because if we look to the culture of the Hindus, a culture that has often been compared to that of the Celts, we see the importance of enlightenment to reach Brahman.
Brahman to the Hindus was the goal of life; once it was reached you would become part of the universal whole and would no longer be reincarnated back onto this earth. In the Hindu culture, those closest to Brahman were the Brahmins. They, too, were the enlightened class of their culture. They, too, were the judges and divine communicators.
What if Celtic truth was the equivalent to this enlightenment to Brahman? What if, through this truth, they reached the enlightenment of the Gods? I am not stating that the Druids were at all equal to the Gods in any sense, but that perhaps that truth was their direct connection to the Gods. Perhaps it could be said that they were the divinely enlightened.
With that being said, I do not make the contention that Druids were solely communicators to the Gods or priests by any means. Cornelius Tacitus wrote of the Druid historians who kept the knowledge of the Cisalpine Gauls victory over the Roman army and the sacking Rome. Diodorus Siculus wrote of Druids as philosophers stating that they spoke about the universe and the indestructible human soul. Dio Chrysostom even made references to the King having to first consult his Druid before he could create or adopt any plan of action.
As we know from the legends, Arthur was a King, a Warrior and a Druid. Cuchullain was trained both as a Druid and as a Warrior. Scathach, Cuchullains female martial arts instructor, was also both a Druid and a Warrior by occupation. We see examples similar to these throughout all of Celtic myth.
I have heard those argue that to be a Druid was much more than just being the intelligentsia of the Celtic culture. My contention is that if that were true then there would be no need for those who had combined occupations. Why would you need to combine if being a Druid was more so than stating that one was part of the learned class?
In that case, being a Druid would be your sole occupation.
I have heard the argument that kings were educated as well. In specifically Irish legend, we know that the land chose who the king would be. In British legend, we see that the King was named through blood, much like many other cultures of the time. In either circumstance, it is said that the King is divinely chosen either through birth right or directly through the Gods. There is no education required.
Also, the Kings had Druids as their advisors. As we have already established, Druids were privy to the truth through knowledge. If Kings were privy to this information, why would they need Druid advisors?
I am by no means stating that non-Druids went through their lives ignorant to any substantial information. Of course they had life lessons like everyone else. What was particular to Druids was specifically their formal education in a range of different areas of study. These teachings included the history, the legends, musical instruments, divination, and herbalism to name a few. This was a rounded education for them. From these, they could branch out into a specialty not unlike our formal education in modern society.
Unlike the Druids, we are not a chosen few; formal education is now the standard for everyone. But not unlike the Druids, we gets bits and pieces of specific paths of study and from there we branch into a specialty.
A Druid could choose to pursue a path as a Bard, as an Historian, as a Warrior, as a King, as a Priest, or as anything other focus of interest. That was the beauty of their education. They were held in high regard not only because of their enlightenment because of their vast knowledge in many areas and their expertise in specific areas.
I have used the past tense to signify what the ancient Celtic culture deemed a Druid then as opposed to what the title of a Druid may mean in the modern context. But as I am a Reconstructionist, I put to use in the modern world what the Celts held true in the ancient one. In the ancient world, the Druids were the learned class and, as such, they are still the learned class. Placing that into a modern context, anyone who has gone to school and received a formal education has a leg up on becoming a Druid.
Like the Druids, we focus on the foundations of our current culture. Unlike the Druids though, we do not tend to study herbalism, divination, or -- being that we do not live in a Celtic tribe -- Celtic history and legend. It is the addition of these studies through out many years to our formal education that we become Druids.
I am not stating that anyone can be a Druid because they have studied or that it is an overnight process by any means, but in our modern society, it doesn’t take twenty years on top of the twelve that we have already spent becoming enlightened. Through the addition of this knowledge and the dedication and embracing of Celtic culture, we come to know truth. It is when we get to that place of truth that we can lead others.
As the Druids were to their tribes, we too must become advisors; not just for the good of the tribe, but for the good of the truth that we hold dear. The good of the truth leads us to understand the Gods.
That is what defines a Druid.
Celtic Heritage - Alwyn and Brinley Rees
Colloquy of the Elders - Anne Dooley and Harry Roe (translator)
Encyclopedia of Magic and Witchcraft - Susan Greenwood
The Annals - Cornelius Tacitus
The Arthurian Encyclopedia - Norris J. Lacy (editor)
The Druids - Peter B. Ellis
The Gallic Wars - Julius Caesar
Roman History - Dio Cassius
Tain Bo Cuailgne - Thomas Kinsella (translator)
Wars of the Irish Kings - David McCullough (editor)
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