The History of Modern Druidism

Any study of the druids must begin with a process of demystification...
Jean Markale, The Druids - Celtic Priests of Nature

Druidism is rooted in the culture and mythology of Western Europe - in particular in those cultures which have come to be known as Celtic, which stretch from Ireland and parts of Portugal in the West to France, Switzerland and Austria in the East. We first hear of it in the writings of Julius Caesar, who in about 50 BCE wrote that Druidism originated in Britain. But some say that it originated elsewhere and much earlier, in Egypt or India , while mystics such as Dion Fortune and Rudolf Steiner point, with what they believe to be clairvoyant rather than historical evidence, to the even more mysterious land of Atlantis.

Whether Druidry's roots are indeed so exotic, or whether the historical understanding that Druidism evolved in the British Isles about 2,500 years ago is correct, the current revival of interest in Druidism depends not so much upon the ancient past as upon very recent history.

Modern Druidism, as it is practised by most Druids today, emerged out of two acts of rebellion during that fertile and tumultuous period of the 1960s. Virtually simultaneously, on both sides of the Atlantic, revolutions occurred in how Druidry was understood: in 1963 on the Carleton College campus in the USA a group called The Reformed Druids of North America was created as a humorous protest against mandatory Sunday morning chapel attendance, while the following year in England a historian, Ross Nichols, rebelled against the election of a new Druid Chief, and established his own group, The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids.

Although both the RDNA and the OBOD were initially small groups, they exerted an influence over the coming years which resulted in Druidism finally emerging in the last decade of the twentieth century as a viable alternative to the more well-known and established spiritual paths.

Prior to the mid 1960s almost all Druid activity over the previous few hundred years had been confined to the cultural efforts of the Welsh Druids and the fraternal activities of the English Druids – neither of which treated Druidry as a spiritual path in its own right. An exception could be found, however, in one type of Druidism that did focus on spiritual practice - even though it attracted only a handful of followers. At the dawn of the twentieth century a dynamic and vocal individual, George Watson MacGregor Reid, began promoting Druidism as a spiritual path that could unite followers of many faiths, and the group that he led, The Universal Bond, became a vehicle for conveying many of the ideas that had been expressed by groups such as The Theosophical Society and The Order of the Golden Dawn in the previous century. Through the Universal Bond a complex tapestry began to be woven, which drew on the inspiration of the ancient Druids, the work of the Revival Druids of the previous three centuries, the teachings of the world religions, and the Western Mystery Tradition. The group held ceremonies at Stonehenge, campaigned for social justice, and promoted the Universalist Church, which later became incorporated into the Unitarian Church.

In the 1940's and 50's the Universal Bond, which had gradually evolved into being called the Ancient Druid Order, attracted to it two figures who would act as catalysts for the explosion of interest in Paganism that is occurring today: Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols. Gardner became the seminal figure in the promotion of the religion of Wicca, or pagan witchcraft, while Nichols developed Druidism by focusing its concerns on Celtic lore and mythology. Both Nichols and many Wiccans were inspired by a book which has influenced much of the modern Pagan movement - Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, which claimed to have discovered a Druidic tree alphabet and calendar. Both Nichols and Gardner came to adopt an eightfold cycle of observances which now lies at the heart of both Druid and Wiccan practice.

Gardner died in 1964 and so did the chief of the Ancient Druid Order- MacGregor Reid's son Robert. A new chief was elected, but Nichols decided he wanted to work with Druidism in a different way, and formed his own order, which has since grown to become the largest Druid group in the world. While his group was formed out of a serious desire to deepen Druidism as a spiritual practice, the Reformed Druids of North Americawere founded a year earlier partly as a prank to avoid church services, and partly as a protest against compulsory attendance. The initiative proved creative: since students who claimed they were Druids were obliged to hold alternative rites, they found themselves becoming seriously interested in new ways of worship - and Druidism. The writings and activities of the RDNA inspired the creation of the largest Druid group in America today, the ADF, out of which other groups have emerged to develop and enrich contemporary Druidism.

By 1969 Druids were starting to feature in the burgeoning counter-culture. John Lennon consciously or intuitively knew that Peace and Love, the cornerstones of counter-cultural idealism, were deeply connected with Druidism, and so he sang about this in his 'Mind-Games':

We're playing those mind games together,
Pushing the barrier, planting seeds.
Playing the mind guerrilla,
Chanting the Mantra, 'Peace on Earth'.
We all been playing those mind games forever
Some kinda druid dudes lifting the veil.
Doing the mind guerrilla,
Some call it magic - the search for the grail.

In the same year that this song was released, a book about Stonehenge and ley lines appeared which rapidly became a cult classic. A View over Atlantisby John Michell appealed to the baby-boom generation who were living through the era of 'Flower-Power' and had become attracted to eastern religions. Michell's book introduced them to their own exotic and mysterious heritage, and although A View over Atlantis was not directly about Druidism, Michell succeeded in educating the counter-culture in the power of this spiritual heritage that, just like the similar tradition of Hinduism at the other end of the Indo-European arc, seemed to speak directly to their spiritual needs.

Despite the popularity of Michell's book and a growing interest in the pre-Christian heritage of Britain and Ireland, with its sacred sites, and the mysterious lines or 'leys' of energy that were said to connect them, the practice of Druidry as a spiritual way was still confined to a handful of people: those members of the Ancient Druid Order founded by MacGregor Reid, and those of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids founded by Ross Nichols. It wasn't until the 1980's that this handful began to grow into the thousands of Druids who exist today.

As the popularity of alternative approaches to healing and spirituality, loosely termed 'New Age', grew during the decade or so after the appearance of A View over Atlantis, there developed a thirst for Celtic spirituality, stimulated to a great extent by two prolific writers: Caitlin & John Matthews. From the mid eighties they began to mine, articulate and popularise the treasure-trove of spiritual wisdom found in the old Welsh and Irish manuscripts, which, up until then, had only been studied by academics. Druidism was often the subject of their researches, and their work provided much of the source material for numerous writers on Celtic mythology, the Grail, Druidry and Paganism, and succeeded in fuelling a widespread interest in Celtic spirituality in Britain and the United States.

By the eighties the time was ripe for a growth in the popularity of Druidism. The ‘New Age' was in full swing, the Church, and monotheistic religions in general, were seen by many people as increasingly part of the problem rather than part of the solution to the world's ills, and in addition there was now an intense awareness of the environmental disaster that threatened the planet. Even though Druidry had no practitioners who had inherited their traditions in an unbroken line from their ancestors, and even though it was no longer taught or practiced in a tribal context, it still represented to many the indigenous pre-Christian spiritual and magical heritage of the far west of Europe - a territory that included Brittany, Ireland and the British Isles.

Once more, simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic, Druidry took a leap forward in its development. In 1984 Isaac Bonewits founded a Druid group, Ar nDraoicht Fein (Our Own Druidism) and I was asked to develop a course of teaching in Druidry.

Bonewits, the first American student to complete a university degree in Magic, five times married and an enthusiastic advocate of polyamory, had been a member of the RDNA and combined their ideas with his own researches to offer a Druidism that was distinctly religious - with a polytheistic theology and an emphasis on the importance of scholarship and the development of liturgy.

I had known and studied with Ross Nichols, had trained in psychology and psychotherapy, and in 1988 was asked to lead the Order he had founded twenty-four years previously. The Order published the course that I had created with the help of a number of writers, including Ross Nichols and John & Caitlin Matthews. Rather than presenting Druidry as a religion, the course offered a journey of spiritual and psychological exploration inspired by Druidry, and based upon the philosophy and the ideas that had become associated with it. The course seemed to answer a need, and by the close of the millennium six thousand people around the world were working with it. In the USA thousands had also become attracted to Druidism through the work of the RDNA, ADF and other groups, and in doing this had begun to practise Druidism as a spiritual way. Soon after the twentieth century had opened, a handful of people had begun doing this. Now, as the century closed, thousands were. Helped by two impulses of renewal and change, in the 1960s and the 1980s, Druidism was now more popular than it ever had been. But it was not the thoroughly modern creation it appeared to be at first sight. Its rebirth in recent times was entirely dependent upon the past - and it developed out of a period of more than two centuries of scholarship and speculation.

The Roots of the Tradition

As we settle into this new century it is of vital importance that we reconnect with our Druidic roots.
Tom Cowan, Of Ancient Shapes and Memories

In the late seventeenth century a complex of influences converged to trigger an intense interest in the Druids that heralded a period often called the 'Druid Revival', the most important part of which occurred during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The modern Druid movement, that started in the early twentieth century and gained momentum in the 1960s, has grown out of this Revival period in both senses of the term, having developed out of it, and in reaction to it.

The Druid Revival began as the influence of the Enlightenment encouraged enquiry and diminished the necessity to conform with Church doctrines. As the classical texts describing ancient Druids became more readily available in translation through the development of printing, scholars in Britain, France and Germany became fascinated with the Greek and Roman accounts of their pre-Christian ancestors.

Two of the most significant of these accounts, written by Julius Caesar and Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, painted a picture of the Druids as scholars and religious leaders who functioned in a similar way to the priestly caste of the Hindu Brahmins: officiating at sacrifices, teaching philosophy and star-lore, and conveying an oral tradition that required students to learn many verses by heart. Druids were exempt from military service and the taxes raised to pay for it. They advised Chieftains and had a reputation for pacifying armies about to fight.

They described a darker side of Druidism too, in which Druids were present at the sacrifice of criminals, or sometimes innocent people, who were burnt alive in wicker cages, or killed in the attempt to divine the future from their death-throes. We cannot be sure that any of the classical authors were recounting the truth, but the description they have left us of wise sages calming warring tribes and teaching in forest groves has tended to endure over the image of their presiding over human sacrifice. Likewise, medieval Irish literature contains references to Druids as the wisest and most learned people of their time, who acted as advisors to local political leaders, and as wizards and magicians.

Inspired by these positive images of the ancient Druids, 17th and 18th century scholars saw them as 'noble savages' - an elite who were the guardians of an indigenous religion which was the precursor of Christianity. This perception was reinforced with reports of the 'noble savages' living in America, who reminded Europeans of their pagan forebears.

It wasn't long before the ancient guardians of the indigenous religion became associated with the many mysterious monuments which scattered the land. In the 1660s the versatile scholar John Aubrey suggested that the megalithic remains of Britain were built by the Druids, and intrigued by this, a man who was to become one the founding fathers of the modern science of archaeology, William Stukeley, visited Stonehenge in 1719. For the next five years he made annual visits to Wiltshire - carrying out a detailed study of both Stonehenge and Avebury. In his book Stonehenge Restored to the British Druids, he popularised the notion that the Druids built the most famous of stone circles, and that they were also responsible for the other megalithic monuments that were so well distributed throughout Britain.

The haunting presence of Stonehenge, and the classical texts describing the Druids, were inspiring, but the texts also reported disappointingly that the Druids conveyed an oral teaching, leaving eighteenth century scholars impotent to explore in any detail the philosophy and practices of these elusive figures. They combed both the classical sources and medieval Welsh and Irish literature for clear and extended statements of what the Druids had believed and taught, and found none. Into this vacuum stepped an extraordinary character: Edward Williams, who lived from 1747 to 1826, and who took on the name of Iolo Morganwg. A stonemason and accomplished poet, who played a significant role in promoting Unitarianism in Wales, Iolo set about constructing a body of lore that he then passed off as authentic ancient druidism. His extensive knowledge of Welsh literary traditions, his theological explorations, and perhaps his use of laudanum, helped him to create a system that succeeded in providing much of the inspiration for the writing on Druidism into the modern era.

Woven into Iolo's work are strands of inspiration drawn from his knowledge of Welsh folklore and literature, and his visits to many of the old houses and libraries of Wales. It took nearly a hundred years for academics to prove that he had fabricated his material, and even though no expert in Welsh literature now believes that Iolo drew on any pre-existing tradition, an increasing number are coming to respect and celebrate him as an original genius. He is now seen both as a literary fraudster and as a social reformer with a positive legacy that continues to this day.

The Eisteddfod movement only experienced a revival and grew to become a major feature of Welsh culture once it had adopted Iolo’s Druidic institution, which he called ‘The Gorsedd’. He introduced the idea of the Gorsedd in 1792, when he led an Eisteddfod on London’s Primrose Hill, and it was adopted by the Welsh Eisteddfod in 1819. The Eisteddfod, as a cultural phenomenon, has genuine roots in the ancient past of the Celts and Druids, whereas the Gorsedd is Iolo’s invention. Its honorary members include the Princess Elizabeth being initiated into The Gorsedd of Bards of the Island of Britain 1946Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Every school in Wales now holds an annual Eisteddfod, and the national event acts as a focus and stimulus to a broad range of cultural and literary initiatives. once the Eisteddfod movement had adopted the ritual and institution of the Gorsedd, its influence extended to Brittany and Cornwall. In a time when their languages and culture had become marginalised, Iolo Morganwg's Druidism restored a pride in their heritage to the Bretons, Cornish and Welsh.

Just over a decade before Iolo’s introduction of the Gorsedd in 1792, a Druid organisation had already been created, but it was a distinctly different phenomenon: its purposes were social and fraternal rather than cultural. The Ancient Order of Druids, founded by a man named Hurle in 1781 in a pub in London's Poland Street, was formed to provide mutual support for members - modelling itself along the lines of Freemasonry. It offered social gatherings, and a type of ceremonial similar to those of fraternal societies, where a Bible was placed on the lectern at each meeting, and discussion of religion prohibited. Most lodges were open only to males, though some ‘Ladies' Lodges’ were opened.

These lodges proliferated throughout England, and then abroad in most corners of the British Empire and in parts of Europe. By 1933 the Order had over a million and a half members . The lodges produced engraved certificates, rings and even porcelain tea sets, which are sometimes discovered in antique shops or are unearthed as ancestral heirlooms, with families remembering that 'Granddad was a Druid'. But even though the Druid was used as a symbol of the wise philosopher, most members of the Ancient Order of Druids, like most members of the Gorsedd, considered themselves Christian, with the Order's main purposes being charitable and social.

Over the years a number of schisms occurred, resulting in different groups forming, some of which became Friendly Societies that offered members savings schemes and insurance policies.The Druids Friendly Society in Australia flourishes to this day and has an impressive website. Some of these groups are affiliated to an 'International Grand Lodge' which holds congresses and unites groups in over a dozen countries .

Some Freemasons also formed fraternal Druid groups during the 19th centuries, the most famous being The Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids, who inducted Winston Churchill into their order in 1908. In the days before the introduction of the National Health Service, and before adequate insurance cover, a tragedy of illness or bereavement often resulted in families falling into poverty. The fraternal movement gave financial aid to members' families who were struck by illness or loss, and their development in some cases into Friendly Societies was a natural development of this function.

Although fraternal Druidry adopted some of Iolo’s material, his legacy only becomes problematic when we consider the third type of Druid movement, which relates to Druidry not as an inspiration for cultural or fraternal activities, but as a spiritual path in its own right. This movement, starting in the early twentieth century, also drew upon Iolo’s writings – in particular his ‘Druid’s Prayer’, his Gorsedd ritual, and some of his cosmology.

Cultural Druids, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury have found little problem in reciting Iolo's Druid's Prayer while participating in a ritual that uses some or all of his material . Many spiritual Druids also use Iolo's prayer, though they often address it to the ‘Goddess' or 'Gods' or 'Spirit' rather than ‘God’, depending upon their beliefs about the nature of Deity, and they will often use elements of his ritual to open their own meetings.

But not everyone is happy with this use of Iolo's material. In Britain and France, much of Druidry as a spiritual path has evolved as a result of Iolo's influence, and many groups continue to use at least some of his material, while recognising its history - justifying its use on the pragmatic grounds that it has been in use for two hundred years, and has, in this sense, become traditional. But in the USA the tendency has been to reject Iolo's work entirely, although several Druid groups there - notably The Ancient Order of Druids in America - consider Iolo's creations an important part of the modern Druid tradition and use them as such.

Iolo fabricated a body of lore in an attempt to fulfil a desire amongst his contemporaries to learn about the philosophy and ideals of the ancient Druids. The classical authors had written enough about these figures to inspire readers, but had failed to offer more than a brief glimpse into their world. The era of Druidry that they described lasted about a thousand years - from perhaps 400BCE to 600CE. But by the sixth century all of Europe was Christian, and overt pagan practice had all but ceased to exist. Iolo and his contemporaries were separated by over a thousand years from the world of the ancient Druids. Iolo attempted to span this gap in time with his imagination, and perhaps with scraps of genuine lore, but ironically, as Iolo set about his task, a movement was just beginning which would in the end fulfil the yearning for a sense of what genuine Druid lore might have been in a much more satisfying way.

Gradually, from the mid nineteenth century onwards, scholars began to study folklore and there was a revival of interest in Celtic literature, initiating a period known as ‘The Celtic Twilight’, which was stimulated to a great extent by writers such as W.B.Yeats, George Russell and Fiona McLeod. The disciplines of Anthropology, Folklore Studies, Archaeology and History all began to take an interest in the pre-Christian past. Celtic Studies were born as an academic discipline and Celtic mythology and literature began to be researched in earnest .

Some of the material being unearthed and discussed in academic and literary circles was eagerly studied in the twentieth century by the new disciplines of archetypal psychology and mythic studies, but incredibly, it took until the 1960s for the Druid movement to take notice of these developments. Cultural Druids really needed only the pomp and ceremony of Iolo’s Druidism to provide an impressive setting for their Eisteddfoddau. Fraternal Druids were never seriously engaged in research into Druidism, since their purpose lay in social and charitable work, and the spiritual Druids had evolved such a satisfying body of teachings that few of them looked elsewhere for enlightenment.

It required the trauma of a schism for spiritual Druidry to start taking on board, in any quantity, material which would free it of the stigma of being an invented tradition that was based upon a literary fraud. When Ross Nichols broke with the Ancient Druid Order to found the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids,he prioritised the process of focussing on historical and Celtic material. Morganwg’s contributions played a diminishing role in this new Druidism, until by the beginning of the twenty-first century it was confined to the use of his Druid’s Prayer, and a few elements of ritual and lore. In the USA no such break with the recent past was needed, and modern Druidry there began the process of assimilating much of the latest findings in academic research.

After two centuries of an ambivalent history, Druidism has finally emerged over the last forty years, to offer a spiritual way that genuinely draws on an ancient heritage for inspiration, whilst making no claim to be identical to the Druidism that was practised two thousand years ago.

Excerpt from What do Druids Believe by Philip Carr-Gomm, Granta Books, April 2006
 

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