Issues Facing Contemporary Druidry

by Emma Restall Orr

One of the most common phrases we hear from folks who have newly come into Druidry is that what they are experiencing is a return to the way they were. They marvel at how they are once more discovering the openness of childhood perception, with its optimistic innocence, trust and lack of inhibition. They are finding that, within Druidry, what they are being guided towards is a natural safe space : a haven that feels like home, to whatever extent 'home' has been real or conceptual. It is the first glimpse of that elusive place where they know they belong.

When, as Druids, we discuss these feelings of that deep inner haven, many common threads and images are revealed. In ceremony or by the warmth of the hearth, as we share the joy and inspiration that it brings to us, a sense of spiritual kinship rises up around us. That energy is so rich and potent and with such a clear directedness, when channelled into some task the spirits of the Earth and Sky seem to open to their very essence, and their laughter guides its flow.

It is only when we begin to express or explain how that spiritual haven manifests that the diversity of humankind, of our differing needs and experiences, comes to the fore. While as a species we can accept that we are all very different, culturally and through the individual experiences of many lives, within a faith it can be hard. As a species still rich with animal instinct, our need to survive is still paramount, and is further heightened by our gift of self-consciousness.

Walking along the pathway, between our ancestors and our descendants, it is natural perhaps for us to crave a bonding with our fellow travellers, a pact of agreed reality more profound than that sharing of the inspiration of the haven. We long for trust on levels that go deeper and deeper into our soul, where we are increasingly naked and vulnerable. To realize that those who walk with us, apparently within the same tradition, are revering or worshipping Gods with whom we have no link or contact, listening to guides whose advice we cannot understand, whose conditioning and basic principles of life seem so utterly different, can turn a dance among the flowers into a painful hike.

As animists and pantheists, of all colours and descriptions, most Druids have within their foundation teaching, the concepts of equality that encourage absolute tolerance and respect for all of Creation : be it oak or couch grass, crystal or pebble, cat or wolf or little red spider, philosopher or warrior. Yet, while there are certainly many within the community for whom the diversity within Druidry is a blaze of rich colours, there are some for whom it is a crazy minefield.

One of these hazardous zones is, of course, the jumble of issues that surround the old temple of Stonehenge. Here we can see with some distinct clarity the diversity within Druidry. For many years, after my first visit to the stones in my early teens and later finding myself, by chance, at the time of the horrific confrontations between police and protesters in the late 1980s, working in a solicitors' office that coped with many of the arrest cases, my attitude towards the temple was that it was desecrated ground. I did not want to get involved.

While my own tendency has always been to find temple space deep in the forest or on the shifting ocean shores, as my life brought my Druidry more into the open, I found the energy of Avebury to be a profound spiritual home. Living for some time close by, I used to walk the Circle each day at dawn, and my relationship with the Gods and guardians of the place grew stronger as the cycles flowed. The energy was warm to me, feminine strength, curvaceous and nurturing.

Some time ago, however, my guides brought the problems of Stonehenge onto my agenda. I was asked, as Druid Priestess, to do ceremony there. It isn't my way to fight, so I wrote and requested time in the temple. The effect of my letter was a long telephone conversation with the current site manager, and a resulting clear and honest relationship. When I did first go into the temple, I sensed the energy to be tight, flinched, bitter. Translating my perception, it felt like an reclusive and angry young man.

Since that first visit, I have been a number of times, mostly out of opening hours with special access permits, and both alone and with fellow Pagans I have sung my reverence for the spirits of the temple there, the ancestors in residence and the Old Gods, with the intention of recreating a bond of trust between them and us once more. With our talks to English Heritage, there is an increasing understanding on their part of who makes up the Druid community, and access permits have been easier to acquire. More and more Druids are taking the opportunities offered to visit the great stones, to offer their respect and share the healing energy, through the light body and their spirit allies, through love and honour, through the bardic arts. When I go now, the difference is astounding. While still very male, the energy of the temple is usually now open, open to the potential for healing and joy.

Though still, admittedly, purely my own perception, I like to equate the work done at Stonehenge with the changing face of our society, the loosening of patriarchal autocracy and pedantry, the softening of the edges and the strengthening of the foundations of equality. Yet as the male dominating society falls away, we are also aware of the crisis of male identity. Over-authority surely comes from insecurity, the wounded male or animus. Not only does he need healing but he needs to find the deep strength that was lost long ago, he needs to find his true identity. So perhaps it is with Stonehenge.

Many have said that they sense it is the spirit of the place itself that has raised the wires and kept out the hordes. Out of all the people I have taken to the site, I am overwhelmed by the number who declare that it should never be opened to the public - amongst these are even some who fought in the beanfield riots. I am aware of how many who declare that it must be open to the public have never been inside the Circle, and certainly not for a ceremony. It is a powerful place.

But when overrun with those whose mission is to take possession, climbing the stones, screaming their victory, and not to revere, it seems to me that the temple flinches. It isn't that long ago that the last stone fell; I wonder sometimes if the temple spirits will cause another to fall.

English Heritage has a vision of the temple being fully open to the public, the roads taken away and a visitor centre at more than a respectful distance. As they grow to understand that there are large bands within the Druid community with whom they can speak, they are increasingly willing to discuss the problems and interested in our perspective and spiritual concerns. When the work of changing the roads begins, Druid may well be consulted on various issues, if our negotiations with them continue in peace. In my work at Stonehenge, I have seen an awesome reverence for the spirit of place and the spirits of the stones in the security guards who have lived and breathed the site for over ten years. Neither they nor English Heritage want a 'Disney'-fication of the site any more than we do. They want the place honoured, respected, as do we. They want to work with those in the Druid community for whom it is a temple. They want to stop the fighting, as do we.

But I have expressed my own opinion, and having begun this article acknowledging the diverse needs and priorities of all those within the Druid tradition, I now stand back and accept that there are many for whom my words will make little sense.

I add only that when last I was at Wayland's Smithy I had a distinct vision of that mound also being closed to the public. The National Trust are already questioning how they can sustain guardianship for the West Kennet long barrow considering the recent problems. The graffiti and fire damage at both sites is consistent and heartbreaking. In my vision it was not the government or NT whose authority was brought into action, but the power of the spirit of the place that had closed itself off. I was told clearly in the vision that it was a possible outcome of continuing damage.

It is easy for us as Druids and Pagans to blame some outer force. Yet it is people who are apparently of our community who are lighting the fires in the barrows that are cracking the stones. It is an issue which we must address.

Are we so keen to have the ancient sites open and in use that we are willing to see them fall and crumble? Is our right to walk to the top of Silbury Hill of more importance than stopping the erosion? Should we be creating new sites, directing all the energy spent on reclaiming the old and ancient temples into building new mounds to honour the Gods and our ancestors, new forests to honour our dead, new temples to honour the cycles? There would be no fights with tourists and archaeologists.

Essentially it was the issues around Stonehenge that eventually broke up the old bond of the Council of British Druid Orders (COBDO). As Druidry's public image became more prominent and the Loyal Arthurian Warband's battle for access to the temple rose into the national news, some members of the Council were finding that the public's image of Druidry was changing in a way which was deeply affecting their work. From the archetypal old sage in white, to Druidry through the media came the figure of a modern day bearded motorbike hero in the form of King Arthur, getting arrested. The Warband has undeniably done some wonderful work, Arthur recently spending some time at the Newbury road protest, but for the members of the Ancient Order of Druids this image was simply too far from their own, and as a charitable organization they were feeling the effects.

At the beginning of this year and after some considerable thought, The British Druid Order resigned from COBDO and were shortly followed by the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. The Council's founding aim, to set up an organization in which Druid chiefs and their representatives, could discuss the nature of Druidry, had got lost. It was a political forum, struggling to grasp together a unified voice of Druidry which would be strong enough to make a dent in the armour of whomsoever it was disagreeing with. While there is without doubt a valid need for such an organization, it was decided that it could only work effectively if created out of an agreed standpoint; within Druidry itself the difference of opinions was simply too great. It was time to accept that there was no unified voice spanning the whole community. Acknowledging this, honouring it and committing to celebrating this diversity, the new 'Druid Forum' is in its fledgling stages. News of its growth and schedule will be published in the Druid's Voice magazine (formerly the voice of COBDO and now of the wider Druid community), OBOD's newsletter Touchstone, the BDO newsletter, this Web site and no doubt further afield as well.

The issue of the public image of Druidry is an important one. While Wicca and the Craft have suffered considerable defamation in the press and public consciousness through an infuriating lack of understanding, modern Witches more often than not have come to celebrate their faith behind closed doors. Druids, on the other hand, are more likely to struggle through pouring rain, thigh high snow drifts and tearing gales, and, in the summertides, sway sweating in the noon sunshine, just to feel the breath of nature in every pore. The COBDO Parliament Hill ritual at the Summer Solstice in London is an event that is becoming well known. The Avebury Gorsedd is growing, with rituals at every festival, the last one before writing (Beltane 96) having some 280 people in the Circle, and included four handfastings, the blessing of perhaps two dozen children, initiations into the Gorsedd of Caer Abiri and a wonderful eisteddfod.

Public ritual isn't for everyone, but when one celebrates out of doors, after some years of walking the Path, unless one lives close enough to an utterly isolated spot, passers by, tourists, dog-walkers and even UFO crews (?) start to become acceptable parts of the watching countryside. Our image in the public consciousness is growing. Everyday folk are beginning to know we exist. It is interesting, a topical concern, as to exactly how we are being portrayed.

OBOD has brought together an advisory pack for anyone approached by the media but still recommends that newcomers to the wiles of the media reroute any enquiries to their central office.

In an local newspaper article after our Newbury healing ceremony, I was pronounced to be 'Oxfordshire's very own Pocahontas'. I may well have some Native American physical qualities, such as long black hair and a strong 'injun' nose, and my faith is particularly animistic and nature-based in a similar way to many Native American traditions, but my family didn't stop laughing for a week. I was happy in some way that as a Druid priestess I was compared to this 'modern' heroine; it was a sure way to gain a wider public empathy or understanding. I was sad too, though, that the archetype of the Druid who was my inner hero was so lost from the British psyche that a model from across the great waters had to be used in order to explain who I was and what I did to the people of society in which I lived.

On the whole, much of the sensible press has lost the idea that anything Pagan will be a source for scandal. Indeed, when they had to admit that there was nothing innately dreadful and amoral about Druidry, they tried to hurl us down with the declaration that we were 'boring' and without substance. It's an easier label to live with than the other extreme. As I have said many times before, it is all too easy for people who are not finding that safe space within their own community, especially youngsters, to come into Paganism and Druidry, tempted primarily not for the spirituality but to be accepted into a community which itself is ostracised or outside of mainstream society.

I believe this is changing. As Druidry, presenting itself as a celebratory faith, in tune with the natural world, uninhibited by the light of day, becomes more widely known, its spiritual wealth overwhelms and heals any underlying need for alienation.

Being a strong and joyful part of society, as individuals and as a recognized faith, is the impetus behind much of the interfaith work which so many Druids are currently involved with. Details of workshops and conferences, including the Meeting in the Presence III at Calne in June, and the Long Man Inter-traditional seminar in October 96, can be found on this Web site, through OBOD or the BDO.

A number of things have occurred to me through my experience of attending and organizing interfaith gatherings, most of which have been Pagan / Christian. One of the most formative was a vision of how our land has been populated, conquered, overrun and the way in which at each stage the incoming peoples have acknowledged and absorbed the resident Gods (however willingly or subconsciously, repressively). Through the experiences and scattered memories of so many lives, so many cultures and eras, we are each one of us such a fantastic constellation of being and knowing. It is easy to try to hold ourselves together in one box, one faith, denying all else, denying the teachings which have brought us to our current knowledge. In March 97, a purely Pagan interfaith conference is being held in Oxford, to acknowledge the diversity and the connecting threads between the different native and polytheistic spiritualities practised in Britain today. One of the key focus points is the honouring of how we have come to where we now stand. Indeed, what does make up modern Druidry and Paganism? The nature of OBOD is without doubt rich with the textures of Philip Carr Gomm's previous spiritual journeys. The BDO is spiced with its chiefs' past experiences in the Craft, shamanism, Taoism, Christianity, atheism and more. Order members also add their energy, their wisdom gained, their spices bartered and won, into the cauldron that is constantly creating the faith as we practise it.

There is something in the nature of Druidry which seems to many of us to be a wonderful gift, and one which is so full with energy it is hard not to be ever searching for a medium through which it can be used : I call it the 'bridge building'. Between Wicca and Christianity lie many Druid paths, and there are many people who walk with one foot in Druidry and one foot in either the Craft or the Church. As such we are in a very auspicious position.

As Druids, most of us agree that our key purpose is the interaction with the natural world, with our Earth. For many Druids, the Earth is their principle deity, the Mother Goddess, nourisher, nurturer, the hands that offer us abundance, the arms that hold us in our fear and uncertainty. Yet as humans, we know that our species has taken too much. We have not only stolen the cookies, but we have emptied the tin, knocked it off its high shelf, broken plates and cups in the fray, and the whole kitchen is starting to flood. We also know that Mum is coming through the door. It is up to us, individually, responsible, to address and redress the balance of energy.

Yet, as is acknowledged in many modern Earth Healing ceremonies, we know it is ridiculously blinkered and self-righteous to offer healing energy to our Mother. She is angry. We've all been kids and many of us parents : we all know how an angry, tired mother responds! While we can and must give of ourselves, our love and honour, our respect and reverence, our energy, back to the Earth, it is within our own species that the problems lie. The focus of our healing energy, then, is more poignantly within ourselves, within our families and relationships, our wider communities, our political systems, our consumer attitudes, our expectations and demands. It is about our decisions, on how many children to have, what to buy and recycle, how to communicate with the Jehovah's Witnesses at the door.

As Druids we have already acknowledged the problem. The Order of Bards Ovates and Druids is at present re-evaluating and updating their Campaign for Personal Ecological Responsibility. Published in Touchstone, is the telephone number for Waste Watch, an agency dedicated to informing the public about recycling and waste reduction, which is 0171 248 0242.

Not only then are we, as Druids, faced with the environmental challenge, but also the challenge of correcting the miscommunications between people, within our own society and the mixtures of cultures, faiths and races of our world. It seems to me that it is our sense of threat, our constant state of competition for resources, money, food, space, attention, that has through the process of our evolution brought us to this desperate state of over-consumption. Yet because it began to build slowly and has only perceptibly run out of control over the century or so of the industrial revolution, it is hard for us to see the fullest extent of our grasping from the Earth.

Perhaps then, were we to release that sense of being permanently threatened by our fellow creatures, our fellow humans, we would be able to begin the process of releasing our desperate grip on consumption. Understanding each other, the ways we think, our beliefs and goals, though we may celebrate different Gods in different languages, is an inspiring step along this path. Acknowledging that we are all growing, increasing our awareness of the Earth and our need to stop and think. The now cliched Age of Aquarius is not only affecting Druids, Pagans and new agers, but the whole world.

Of course, the other aspect of interfaith work which is valid in any of the workshops and seminars that are currently being organized all over the world, is the fact that we do learn so much from each other. The mainstream Christian concept may be that as humans we were given dominion over nature, but there are many Christians whose compassion, caring and practical action for the Earth outstrips some Pagans'. Amongst Pagans, there are many ways in which we work for the Earth : stuck in the mud, clearing riverways; writing letters and working through the law; screaming and drumming eco-magic rituals; teaching and healing, sharing the love.

In my practice of Druidry, it is the interaction with nature - with all creation, both that of agreed reality and beyond into personal perception - that brings to me the power of inspiration. It is not only how I sense my state of being, how I sense the Earth and its resident spirits, but it is also about how I feed back that energy I am given and which is invoked, how I express myself as my relationship with Creation builds. It is about feeling the Awen, that total inspiration, and knowing the strength that it offers - the possibility of living beyond survival, of sharing that with others.

As Druids we learn to access the Awen and to dance its joy in the sanctity of our own blessed haven. We also have the opportunity to open the doors of our sanctuary and led the spirit flow out, out into the whole world.

Emma Restall Orr
June 1996