A Brief History of Druidry
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Posted: August 11th. 2013
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Although Druidry saw its re-emergence as a spiritual path nearly three centuries ago, it is still a largely misunderstood path. Modern misconceptions about Druidry persist to this day. One of these misconceptions is that since all known Druids died out centuries ago, there can be no Druids today. While it is true that many Druidic practices died out, it is probably also true that some of the practices of Druidry were absorbed into Christianity (for example, the custom of hanging mistletoe at Christmas) . In either case, Druid Reconstructionists painstakingly research historical and archaeological records to discover what ancient Druids believed and practiced. This knowledge is then usually incorporated into the body of practice of modern Druidry.
In the 18th century, largely because of a renewed interest in archaeology in the wake of the Enlightenment, a revival of Druidry began. This revival was inspired by the works of authors like John Aubrey (1629-1697) , John Toland (1670-1722) , William Stukely (1687-1765) and Edward Williams (1747-1826) . In particular, Edward Williams spearheaded the Druid Revival in Wales and England. Williams is better known by his ‘Druid’ name, Iolo Morganwg. He founded the Gorsedd, or ‘gathering of the bards, ’ which still goes on in Wales to this day. Morganwg is often criticized for his tendency to invent things outright, but no matter how imaginative some of his accounts of Druid practice may be, he was instrumental in reviving Druidry as a spiritual path.
Although Druidry has been enjoying a revival for the past three centuries, there is no known straight-line descent from ancient to modern Druidry, just as there is no straight-line descent from ancient to modern times in religions like Christianity and Islam. This does not mean that Druidry is not a legitimate belief system for modern followers of the path. There are thousands of people today who call themselves Druids, and who practice variations of an earth-centered spirituality. Groups like the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids in Great Britain and the Reformed Druids of North America in the United States have members in the thousands. Many other Druids worldwide choose for various reasons not to self-identify as Druids, and decide to remain anonymous. There may be as many as a million or more Druids worldwide.
There are probably as many types of Druidry as there are Druids. Some are polytheistic, some are pantheistic, and some are agnostic or even atheist. Some believe that Gods and Goddesses exist as real, separate entities, and others see Gods and Goddesses as archetypal energies. For most of us, it is our belief as Druids that if the Gods and Goddesses are real, then they will guide us as we recreate Druidry; and if the Gods and Goddesses aren't real, and we're just making this up as we go along, then what was done in the past doesn't matter anyway as long as the rites, rituals and beliefs have meaning for us now.
I began the Druid Path in the late 1970s. Back then there was no Internet. Finding information on Paganism was difficult; finding information on the Druids was nearly impossible. That didn’t stop us from experimenting with Druidry and shamanism. We cobbled together a belief system piece-by-piece from what we learned from shamanic journeying and the inspiration of the Awen. In the early days we were an insular group, having little contact with Druid groups outside our own. As Paganism and Druidry continued to grow and spread, we began to make contact with other groups to exchange information and to learn from each other. Much to our surprise, we soon discovered that these other groups had also replicated much of what we’d created! Although the knowledge of our ancient ancestors may have been lost to us, it is my belief that it is still accessible to those who know how to part the mists and enter into the Otherworld to learn at the feet of those who have gone before us. The fact that many different Druid groups, working independently of each other, have arrived at the same rites and practices seems to indicate to me that there’s magic afoot as we recreate Druidry.
For all the diehards who insist that what Reconstructionists practice isn't 'real Druidry, ' I would say to them, "Okay, then tell me what else to call it, and you can call it that instead.” Ultimately, every spiritual path had a beginning, and was new at one time. Most paths began on the ashes of former systems, and Druidry is no exception to this rule. Focusing too heavily on what ancient Druids may have practiced, is missing the point. Any spiritual path that does not change and adapt with the times is a stagnant and dead or dying path. The world is a much different place now that it was in the time of the Ancients, and from this perspective, Druidry has merely changed and adapted to modern times.
Some people prefer the label 'neo-Druid' for contemporary Druids because there is no straight lineage between ancient and modern Druidry. They use the 'neo' to differentiate modern Druids from the Ancient Ones. Isaac Bonewits, founder of Ár nDraíocht Féin (‘Our Own Druidry, ’ in Gaelic) , broke this down even further, into ‘Paleo-Pagan, ’ ‘Meso-Pagan, ’ and ‘Neo-Pagan.’ Bonewits used ‘Paleo-Pagan’ to refer to the original Pagan indigenous tribes of Europe. He used ‘Meso-Pagan, ’ to refer to Pagan-based systems inspired by the Enlightenment era, such as Theosophy, Rosicrucians, and the Druid Revival, and ‘Neo-Paganism, ’ to indicate modern-day Pagans.
I don't use the term 'neo;' I refer to myself only as a Druid. I also refer to my fellow Druids as Druids without the 'neo' prefix. My reason for this is simple: Druids learn from nature. The natural world is our 'holy book.' Since the natural world was around for billions of years before the human race, and will likely continue to be around long after we're gone, our 'holy book' hasn't been significantly altered since the time of the Ancient Ones. Therefore, if we're learning from nature, we're learning from an ancient source. Hence, I don’t refer to myself as a ‘neo-Druid’ or a ‘neo-Pagan.’ This viewpoint helps me to keep the focus on allowing Nature to be my guide rather than relying on the sometimes dogmatic teachings of others. From this viewpoint, Druidry becomes a more experiential and individually significant path.
Another misconception about modern Druidry, probably inspired from 18th century engravings of the aforementioned old men in white robes, is that women cannot be Druids. Even in ancient times, there were female Druids. Certainly today, in modern times, there are female Druids as well. And even though Druidry was originally a Celtic path, there are modern Druids from every race and culture on Earth. Modern Druidry is a path that is open to people of all races, genders, and nationalities. Since Druidry is more of a life philosophy than a religion, there are people who are Christian Druids, or Buddhist Druids, or even Atheist and Agnostic Druids.
If you have ever seen a discussion of Druids in the popular media, you probably saw pictures or video of Druids gathering at Stonehenge. The hidden implication of these depictions is that the Druids built Stonehenge. The Druids were a Celtic priesthood and class, and the problem with such implications is that most historians and anthropologists agree that the Celts did not arrive in Britain until around 500 BCE. Stonehenge was probably built around 1550 BCE, over a thousand years before the Celts, and therefore the first Druids, would have arrived.
On the other hand, The Celts were more of a culture and a language group than a race of people. It could be that an earlier people built Stonehenge, and when the Celts arrived on the British Isles, they incorporated the beliefs of those earlier people into their own spiritual practices. The Druids were and are attuned to the cycles of nature, and Stonehenge is nothing if not a place to mark and celebrate the passing seasons.
The association of the Druids with Stonehenge probably began during the Druid Revival of the 18th century, when historians of the period had a tendency to associate anything mysterious with the Druids. This association may or may not be erroneous; time will tell as more archaeological evidence becomes available. What is certain is that the modern pairing of the Druids and Stonehenge has now been indelibly stamped into the collective consciousness. This can be demonstrated by the fact that modern Druids celebrate the solstices at Stonehenge. Some Druid groups have even replicated this enigmatic stone circle in places as diverse as Washington State, Missouri, and New Zealand.
One final misconception about Druidry stems from Judeo-Christian heritage; and that is that Druids worship Satan. There is a tendency among many interpretations of Christianity to depict any other Gods and Goddesses as ‘Satanic’ in origin. In fact, Christianity’s depiction of the Devil as a horned man was taken from the Celtic horned God Cernunnos.
Cernunnos is seen as the physical embodiment of Nature in human form. He is a God associated with wildness and fertility. The early fathers of the Christian church associated him with their Devil in order to discourage Pagan practices. Celtic spirituality and religion has no concept of Satan. The Druid path does not divide the Universe up neatly in black-and-white, good vs. evil terms. While many Druids honor Cernunnos, in Druidic practice he is not associated with evil. Instead, he is the bringer of prosperity and joy.
So who were the Druids, and who are they today? The earliest known reference to a people called ‘Druidae’ was by the Greek author Soton of Alexandria (circa 200-170 BCE) . Although Soton’s original writings no longer survive, Diogenes Laertius quotes him as giving a very favorable opinion of the Druids as learned scholars.
Julius Caesar also mentioned the Druids in The Gallic Wars, written around 50 BCE. In this work, Caesar tells of Druids practicing human sacrifice by burning victims alive in a giant wicker man. Since Caesar was attempting to conquer the Gauls at the time, many scholars question the accuracy of this claim. It may be true that The Gallic Wars was nothing but propaganda, at least in Caesar’s account of the Druids. It is also true that many cultures throughout the world at that time, including the Romans, practiced human sacrifice. Attempting to judge cultures of the past through modern eyes is futile without a full understanding of the historical context. Whether or not it was true that ancient Druids practiced human sacrifice, it is certainly not true of today’s Druids.
What does the word ‘druid’ mean? Strabo and Pliny the Elder claim that the word derived from the Greek word for ‘oak, ’ which is ‘drus.’ If this is the case, then the word ‘Druid’ could have come from the Greek for ‘oak, ’ plus the Sanskrit word for knowledge: ‘vid, ’ transliterated into the Greek form ‘uid.’ The combination of these would result in ‘dru-uid, ’ or ‘oak knowledge.’
Another possibility is the Celtic word for oak tree (doire in Irish Gaelic) , a word whose root also means "wisdom." The oak was considered ‘the king of the forest’ to Celtic people. It is associated with strength and greatness. Therefore, Druids were the 'Wise Ones of the Oak, ' or 'those who see all, ' or ‘they whose knowledge is great.’
This association with trees in general and with the oak in particular is probably responsible for the popular misconception that Druids worship trees. As with most misconceptions, there is a bit of truth in it, but it is not entirely accurate. Druids don’t exactly ‘worship trees.’ Instead, Druids see that the energy of a creative force is present in the trees, and Druids honor and hold that life energy sacred. While Druids run the gamut in their personal expression of spirituality from monotheistic Druids to polytheistic Druids to agnostic and/or atheist Druids, we almost universally agree that the life force, called ‘nwyfre’ (pronounced ‘noo-ev-ruh’) in Welsh, is sacred. So trees are just one of the many manifestations of the nwyfre. The Druidic concept of the ‘life force’ has been embodied in the word ‘nwyfre.’ The word nwyfre is a Middle Welsh word meaning ‘sky’ or ‘vigor.’ It was usually used to refer to a windy sky.
Iolo Morgannwg popularized its use as a ‘magical’ word. He probably misunderstood the etymology of the word, which originally had no mystical connotation, but ‘nwyfre’ has taken on a life of its own (no pun intended) among contemporary Druid circles. The way modern Druids use the word, it now means ‘life force’ or ‘life energy.’
To a Druid, everything is alive, including rocks, trees, plants, animals, and even the Earth itself. Everything has the potential to generate energy, and the sum total of the energy in the universe is the life force itself. This is the concept Morgannwg was trying to get across when he chose the word ‘nwyfre.’
You might ask, “How can rocks be alive?” The answer is that they contain potential life force, rather than actuated life force. Rocks become dirt. Plants feed on dirt, converting its material into life energy. Then animals eat the plants, and humans eat both the plants and the animals. Think of it this way: If you take a vitamin pill with mineral supplements, those minerals came from rocks. At what point in the digestive process does that mineral cease to be inanimate, and become alive by being a part of you?
One of the deeper mysteries of Druidry is that we are all interconnected. A quote attributed to Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe says that we are all part of the ‘web of life, ’ and that what we do to others, including our four-legged brothers and sisters, we do to ourselves. This is sometimes expressed in Wicca as the Threefold Law, or the Rule of Threes: What you do comes back to you threefold.
When a Druid talks of ‘magic, ’ she is referring to the use of nwyfre (pronounced ‘NOO-ev-ruh’) to achieve a desired end. One of the shades of meaning of the word 'nwyfre' is the idea of ‘weaving.’ So Druids are those who ‘weave’ the ‘life force’ to evoke changes within themselves. These inner changes lead to a higher consciousness and a deeper connection to nature and to others. This higher consciousness is the Awen. It gives our lives purpose and meaning.
Copyright: copyright by Charlton Hall
Location: Marietta, South Carolina
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