Witch & Druid

The words Witch and Druid evoke a longing in many of us for the wisdom of the past and of the ancestors. They evoke images of mystery and magic, of ancient knowledge of the Earth and her seasons, of star-lore and herb-lore, of primal wisdom and inner knowing. But they are words that can also evoke anxiety. Some people believe that Witches and Druids are members of dangerous cults, and even though we may know that this is nonsense, there is no point in pretending that the words ‘Witch’ and ‘Druid’ are not loaded. Some people think at once of sorcery and Satanism – they see the Witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth tossing bats’ wings into bubbling cauldrons, and Druid priests raising gleaming blades above the bodies of virgins sprawled across the ‘Slaughter Stone’ at Stonehenge.

These negative images of Witchcraft and Druidry come mostly from the scaremongering of fundamentalist Christian groups and from the tacky products of the movie and publishing industries. The genre of the horror movie needs constant feeding, and Shakespeare, together with later writers about ‘spooky Witchcraft’, have provided them with ample material.

It is true that Roman writers talked of Druids being present at human sacrifice, specifically at the execution of criminals, but we need to put this in context: Christian priests are present at executions today, and in ancient times human sacrifice was a feature of many societies. The Romans themselves sacrificed people until the first century BC. After that, they secularized the activity, built the Colloseum, and turned death into public entertainment.

It is also true that during the witch-hunts of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people confessed to being Witches, cursing others and having sexual intercourse with the Devil. But only the most obtuse people fail to see a connection between these confessions and the fact that they were extracted by torture.

Every religion or spiritual path has its share of insane and unpleasant people, and there are likely to have been some malevolent Druids and Witches, just as there have been malevolent Christians. But with the Inquisition and the Crusades, a body count would undoubtedly stack up unfavourably towards the latter.

Another misconception is that Druids and Witches practise Satanism. To do this you must believe in a being called Satan, and to practice it involves performing a reverse Christian ritual known as a Black Mass. Druids and Witches do not believe in an entity called Satan, or one who acts in the way he is supposed to act. They certainly do not perform reverse Christian ceremonies of any kind. In fact, some Druids are Christian and would be deeply offended by being tarred with this brush. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a druid, after all, of the Welsh National Eisteddfod.There have been conferences on Druidry and Christianity held at Prinknash abbey in Gloucestershire, and also conferences in Oxford and Lewes where Witches, Christians and Druids have shared their ideas in a spirit of tolerance and understanding. The two seminal thinkers who developed Druidry and Witchcraft in the modern era, Gardner and Nichols, were both ordained Christian ministers. So, if you want to be spooked, you need to look elsewhere!

The World of the Wise-Folk

Wiccans call their tradition ‘The Craft of the Wise’, and the figures with whom many of them identify most strongly in previous centuries were those people in a community who would be called upon to offer cures, help deliver babies and assist those dying, to find people or objects with psychic sight, and to help in times of individual or communal difficulty: Your spouse is sleeping with another person; there has been no rain on your land for months; your cattle are dying from a mysterious disease; your best knife has been stolen; your baby’s cough will not go away; you know you are dying and are frightened – all these are problems that needed to be faced in the past, as we still face them today. Nowadays we turn to scientists, counsellors, doctors, vets, police officers and priests. In the old days we went to those men and women who knew about the mysteries of life, who were called to heal and to help. Through their own experience, through communion with spirits and teachers from the Otherworld, and through training from those who had been drawn to the Ways before them, they would each come to be known and respected as the local wise woman or man of their community. In parts of Britain they were known as Cunning Men and Women, from the root word ‘con’ or ‘ken’, which means ‘to know’. They were the wise ones, the people with ‘Knowledge’.

Historians now believe that it is unlikely that these people ever met together in ‘covens’ to work magic in the way that witch finders and modern writers have described. Instead, it seems far more likely that they worked as the local wise person, using their knowledge of spellcraft, herbalism and natural magic to help the local community in the ways described. It is also likely that they trained one or two other people in their craft, often from within their own family. Clearly, the Cunning Folk were in positions of great influence within their community. They seemed to possess the power of life and death, and of secret knowledge, and if they failed to save a life or if a villager grew worse under their care, one can imagine the hatred this might have provoked. Powerful people evoke respect and admiration, but they can soon be turned upon with a fury that matches in intensity the awe in which they are held. To become a Cunning person required devotion and courage, as well as both practical and psychic skills. As with all professions that require the use of power, there would always be unscrupulous practitioners who would prey on the gullibility and superstitions of others, and who would do anything for money or favours, hence the fear of ‘wicked Witches’, ‘evil magicians’ – people who would, for a price, use their abilities not to heal but to harm.

The World of the Druid

While the Cunning Folk worked alone or in small groups, and were the local wise people and healers in rural communities, the Druids were an organized elite, exempt from warfare and paying taxes, and they acted as judges, teachers, philosophers and advisers to chieftains, kings and queens. They seem very different to the image that we hold of Witches, until we examine them in more detail.

The origins of Druidism are lost in the mists of time. All we can say is that gradually, as successive migrations of peoples from as far away as Anatolia and Caucasia arrived in Ireland and the British Isles, their spiritual beliefs and magical practices mingled with those of the indigenous population, and at a certain time these became focused within the great stone circles. Later, as more migrations occurred, tribes which have come to be labelled as Celtic settled in these lands, and Druidism evolved as both a spiritual and cultural force that existed from Ireland in the West to Brittany in the East, and possibly as far as Anatolia, now Turkey. Druidism flourished for over a thousand years until the arrival of Christianity. By the sixth century it had ceased to exist in its complete form, and it was only revived after another thousand years, in the seventeenth century.

During the time that Druidry flourished, the classical writers tell us that they were organized into three groupings – Bards, Ovates and Druids. The Druids were teachers and philosophers; the Bards were poets, storytellers and musicians, who used their knowledge of the power of the word and of sound to inspire and enthral, to entertain and to charm – and even to bewitch.

The Ovates were seers and diviners, and it seems likely that they were also healers, herbalists and midwives. They have been variously termed by classical writers as Vates, Uatis, Euhages, and the word ‘ovate’ may derive from the Indo-European root uat, ‘to be inspired or possessed’. The classical author Strabo described the Ovate as ‘an interpreter of nature’. It was the Ovates who were skilled in reading omens and divining auguries – whether from the flight of birds, the shape of clouds, or the behaviour of animals or the weather – and it was the Ovates whose task it was to heal, using their knowledge of herbs and spells to cure disease in humans and livestock. The Ovate seems, in many ways, identical to the type of person many people would describe as a Witch. But what became of the Ovates?

With the triumph of Christianity over all indigenous faiths in Britain by about the sixth century, the Bardic tradition continued, with schools of Bards existing in Ireland, Wales and Scotland until the seventeenth century. The Druids, being the professional elite, were absorbed into the new dispensation. Nothing more is heard of the Ovates, who seem to simply disappear. Or did they? If you knew how to cure someone, would you stop doing this under a new religious order? Would you refrain from passing on your knowledge to your children, or to your students, so that they too might cure others? The same goes for midwifery skills, for the knowledge of tree, herb and animal lore, and for the ability to do magic, to make spells and potions. It is likely that, with the coming of Christianity, the Ovate stream of Druidry went underground but did not die out, because you cannot prevent this kind of knowledge from being passed on – even though it may change in the passing.

It is possible that through word-of-mouth tradition, the Ovate stream of Druidry became one of the sources that fed later generations of healers and followers of the Old Ways, until they came to be known as the Cunning Folk. And it is primarily these Cunning people who are now seen as Witches in modern popular perception.

Those who study Druidry today find that as they enter the Ovate period of their studies, they seem to develop and get in touch with precisely those parts of themselves that are now associated with the Witch, and that others associate with the shaman, including the ability to navigate the inner world, and develop seership.

When the two worlds of Witchcraft and Druidry are brought together, we find at the place of their meeting the figure of the Ovate-Witch who presides over a knowledge of the mysteries of Life and Death, whose cauldron offers the wisdom that is known in Druidry as Bright Knowledge.

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