Ethics & Values in Druidry I
The death of dogma is the birth of morality.
Many people may wonder: in addition to its spiritual and magical teachings, does Druidry also offer social and ethical teachings? The answer is Yes. Druids in ancient times as well as today have a deep interest in the most important questions of moral and social philosophy. Yet Druidry teaches ethics in a gentle and open-minded way. In a traditional Celtic fashion, the Druid does not pronounce rules or commandments. Rather, he or she poses questions, such as: What does it mean to be a good person, or to live a good life? What values should guide our relationships, our communities, even our nations? What must we do to become responsible for ourselves and our world? The investigation of questions like these has always been a distinctly Druidic activity, even back in the ancient times.
Some ancient Roman and Greek writers who were in a position to observe Druids first-hand made notes about their social structures, their values, and their ethical teachings. In such notes it is clear that our predecessors fulfilled many important social functions for their people, not just the well known religious or ceremonial functions. Prominent among these functions was the role of the philosopher and the teacher of moral philosophy. For instance, here are the words of Strabo, a Roman historian:
The bards composed and sung odes; the Uatis [Ovates] attended to the sacrifices and studied nature; while the Druids studied nature and moral philosophy. So confident are the people in the justice of the Druids that they refer all private and public disputes to them; and these men on many occasions have made peace between armies actually drawn up for battle. (Strabo, Geographica, IV.4.198)
From this quotation it is clear that the Druids were the philosophers of their people, and that they had a deep interest in studying and teaching ethical values. Similarly, Julius Caesar wrote the following in his account of the war in Gaul:
The Druids officiate at the worship of the gods, regulate public and private sacrifices, and give rulings on all religious questions. Large numbers of young men flock to them for instruction, and they are held in great honour by the people. They act as judges in practically all disputes, whether between tribes or between individuals; when any crime is committed, or a murder takes place, or a dispute arises about an inheritance or a boundary, it is they who adjudicate the matter and appoint the compensation to be paid and received by the parties concerned. (Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, VI.13.1)
It is clear, therefore, that the Druids acted like magistrates or judges, resolving conflicts of various kinds among their people. Thus not only did the ancient Druids study ethics in a speculative way, they also put their studies into practice. Here is an observation from the Roman commentator Diogenes Laertius, who described part of the actual content of the Druidic moral teachings:
Druids make their pronouncements by means of riddles and dark sayings, teaching that the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done, and manly behaviour maintained. (Diogenes laertius, Vitae, I.5)
By ‘riddles and dark sayings’, it is probably intended that the Druids taught their ideas using a stock vocabulary of proverbs, symbols, metaphors, and the like, which they would have learned during their training, and which may have sounded obscure (ie dark) to outsiders like Diogenes. The triad that Diogenes mentions next suggests that the Druids valued piety, non-malfeasance, and honour, among their ethical teachings. Furthermore, these classical sources attest a Druidic belief in the immortal soul. Pomponius Mela wrote this about the beliefs of the Celtic Druids:
One of their dogmas has come to common knowledge, namely, that souls are eternal and that there is another life in the infernal regions, and this has been permitted manifestly because it makes the multitude readier for war. And it is for this reason too that they burn or bury, with their dead, things appropriate to them in life. (Pomponius Mela, Factorum et dictorum libri, II.6.10)
This belief in the immortal soul was also observed by Julius Caesar: “A lesson which they take particular pains to inculcate is that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another…” (Caesar, Conquest of Gaul, V.16.5) However, there is no evidence to support the idea that people were punished or rewarded in the afterlife for the way they lived their mortal lives. Instead, the classical writers made favourable comparisons to the Pythagorean belief in ‘Metempsychosis’, a form of reincarnation. It also appears, on the basis of other classical writings, that the Celts believed that the next life would be rather a lot like this one. Indeed Pomponius Mela observed that “in times past they even used to defer the completion of business and the payment of debts until their arrival in another world.”! (Mela, ibid.)
Some of the Irish wisdom texts are very specific about the ethical teachings of the Druids. There are several “wisdom texts”, or accounts of teachings imparted by Druids or other significant people in old Irish society. Sometimes these teachings were offered at the ceremony of inaugurating a new chieftain, to teach the candidate how to be a good chieftain. Sometimes the teachings were intended for the speaker’s own children or grandchildren, to teach them how to become mature adults. Here is an example of the latter:. Cormac mac Airt is asked by his grandson Carbre “what were your habits when you were a lad?” Cormac replies as follows:
I was a listener in woods,
I was a gazer at stars,
I was blind where secrets were concerned,
I was silent in a wilderness,
I was talkative among many,
I was mild in the mead-hall,
I was stern in battle,
I was ready to watch,
I was gentle in friendship,
I was a physician of the sick,
I was weak towards the strengthless,
I was strong toward the powerful,
I never was hard lest I be satirised,
I never was feeble lest I should have my hair stripped off,
I was not close lest I should be burdensome,
I was not arrogant though I was wise,
I was not given to promising though I was strong,
I was not venturesome, though I was swift,
I did not deride old people, though I was young,
I was not boastful though I was a good fighter,
I would not speak about anyone in his absence,
I would not reproach, but I would praise,
I would not ask, but I would give,
For it is through these habits that the young become old and kingly warriors. (Instructions of Cormac, § 7
Note that there is a certain emphasis here on respect and kindness to others, yet there is no indication that a person should be passively obedient to others. Nor is there any suggestion that he should sacrifice his dignity for the sake of others. Furthermore there may even be an implicit mysticism in this text, as the first two lines suggest that as a lad Cormac simply studied the woods and stars, and was ‘silent in a wilderness’, as if to learn from the elements themselves how best to live. Here is another example, also from the Instructions of Cormac. Cairbre asks his grandfather Cormac how he should behave “among the wise and the foolish, among friends and strangers, among the old and the young, among the innocent and the wicked” – or in other words, how he should act no matter what situation he is in. Cormac answers him as follows:
Be not too wise, be not too foolish,
be not too conceited, be not too diffident,
be not too haughty, be not too humble,
be not too talkative, be not too silent,
be not too harsh, be not too feeble.
If you be too wise, one will expect (too much) of you;
If you be too foolish, you will be deceived;
If you be too conceited, you will be thought vexatious;
If you be too humble, you will be without honour;
If you be too talkative, you will not be heeded;
If you be too silent, you will not be regarded;
If you be too harsh, you will be broken;
If you be too feeble, you will be crushed. (Instructions of Cormac, § 29)
Again, note that something resembling a path of ‘balance’ is advocated here. Cairbre is invited to act in such a way that he neither too hard nor too soft with each of his qualities of character.
It must be noted that the ancient Druids lived in a tribal warrior society, and some of their ethical values make the most sense only within such a society. But in the best philosophical spirit of their predecessors, contemporary Druids are making their own study of ethics and social values. They draw upon ancient sources such as the Greek, Roman, and Irish texts here mentioned, as well as on various more recent sources, and of course their own intellectual and emotional insights.
The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids has its roots in the 18th and 19th century revival of Druidry. Its founders were strongly influenced by Neoplatonism, Freemasonry, some forms of liberal Christianity, and the like. Classical sources concerning ancient Druidry and Celtic culture were becoming available. Yet the founders of British Druidry were looking to find, as well as to create, an indigenous British spiritual literature. At the same time, a few serious studies of Britain’s Neolithic monuments were being published by eminent scholars, many of which attributed the design and construction of such monuments to Druids. As early as 1689, the antiquary John Aubrey published his thesis that the Druids were the architects of Stonehenge and Avebury, and he speculated that the Druids must therefore have been in possession of great mystical knowledge. Some of the writers from this time were keen to portray Druids as proto-Christians. On the basis of the remarks by classical writers concerning the Druidic teachings, the early revival druids came to believe that the ancient Druidic moral doctrines were essentially the same as those of Christianity. For instance, Godfrey Higgins, in the year 1829, translated the word Tara, the name of Ireland’s ancient capital, as “the Tora of the Hebrews” (cited in Matthews, ed. The Druid Source Book, pg. 167. By the way, the word Tara really means ‘wide view’ or ‘spectacle’). The revival of Druidry in Britain was also deeply tied into many public values. It attracted social reformers, activists for various causes, labour organizers, socialists and a host of other wonderful and strange people.
Contemporary Druids, of course, possess better-quality historical, linguistic, and archaeological information about Druids, and about the Neolithic monuments of Britain and Ireland. But they have inherited from this early revival a number of important spiritual ideas, especially including: the unity and one-ness of the world, the immortality of the soul, the presence of ‘Awen’ (magical or divine inspiration), the experience of the divine in trees and landforms and in nature generally, and the inherent goodness of human nature.
Finally, a number of twentieth and twenty-first century Druids have written extensively on Druidry and ethics. In his chapter on Ethics and Values, Philip Carr-Gomm noted that “most Druids have a highly developed sense of ethical behaviour, which is usually implicit in their actions, rather than explicitly stated.” (What do Druids Believe? p. 60) On the basis of his many years of observation, he identified four specific Druidic ethical concepts: responsibility, community, trust, and integrity. This final value, Integrity, is inherited from both heroic-age Celtic culture as well as from the British Revival of Druidry. It is quickly being recognised as one of the most important of all Druidic values.
In the year 2008, two comprehensive books on ethics and values from a Druidic perspective were published, both of which discussed Integrity, among other values. One of which is Living with Honour by Emma Restall Orr, head of The Druid Network. In her text, Honour, linked with integrity, is first explored through its traditional association with social standing and reputation in a tribal society. In her closest analysis, she understands Honour as that which emerges from human, ecological, and spiritual relationships. In her words:
Because Paganism is based upon reverence for nature, its religious practice is all about our each and every interaction. Pagans don’t reach for a supernatural deity, a god that exists outside of nature… the focus of their living is this planet, its environment, its ecologies and tribes. How we perceive and treat another - whether that other is a human being, a cat, a beetle, tree or stream - is the foundation of Pagan theology. It is in this crafting of relationship, as a spiritual act, that I place the word honour in order to find its essence. (Living with Honour, p. 128.)
Thereafter, Orr discusses Honour as the sum of three specific virtues: courage, generosity and loyalty. Each of these, in her view, are involved in various sacred relationships with other people, one’s tribe, and the Earth as a whole. Much of the rest of her text is then devoted to an examination of how these values can be applied to practical problems, such as medical issues, environmental protection, wealth and poverty, the importance of empathy, and especially the importance of human relationships.
Another significant book-length treatment of Druidic ethics is The Other Side of Virtue by Dr. Brendan Myers, a philosophy lecturer from Canada and one of the Order’s Mt. Haemus scholars. His book makes a comprehensive study of the mythology of the Celtic people, as well as the Norse and Scandinavians, the Germans, the Greeks, and other people of the ancient world. Through this study of mythology and history he discerned the world-view of Iron-age ‘Heroic’ societies and state-level ‘Classical’ societies. As he sees it, ethics and virtues emerged as responses to universal problems such as transience, fate, destiny, social and political conflict, and death. Then he makes a close philosophical examination of the results of that study. In his view, ethics is not a matter of obeying rules nor following laws. Rather, he says that ethics is a matter of becoming the sort of person from whom goodness and virtue flow naturally. The Druidic person seeks a good and worthwhile life, and develops in her character the qualities and virtues necessary for such a life. In pursuit of this principle, Myers developed an original philosophical system called ‘The Theory of the Immensity’. The argument has a threefold structure, as Myers describes it:
1. First and foremost, life involves inevitable encounters with events that seem, at least at first, to impose themselves upon you. Fortune, nature, other people, and death itself, are among them.
2. Second, these events also invite us to respond. The response generally involves the development of various human potentials and resources. Some of these are social, such as one’s family and friendship ties, and some are personal and internal, like courage and integrity.
3. And third, that if we respond to these imposing events with excellence, and if the excellent response becomes habitual, they can be transformed into sources of spiritual meaning and fulfillment. This transformation opens the way to a worthwhile and flourishing life. (Myers, The Other Side of Virtue, p. 7)
This article has looked at Druidry’s moral and ethical concepts in only the simplest, most introductory way. Among Druids today, there is no universally accepted formal doctrine. As noted by Philip Carr-Gomm, “most Druids are keen to avoid the problems caused by dictating a morality to others”. (Carr-Gomm, What do Druids Believe? p. 59) There is, however, an emerging consensus that Druidic values emerge from our dialogue with each other, with nature, with Deity, and with the flow of Awen in our lives. There is also an emerging agreement that Druidry’s ethical values are character values, and are not rules, dogmas, nor utilitarian calculations. Each major contributor, from ancient times to today, has produced his or her own ‘catalogue of the virtues’. But there are a number of values that tend to appear on most catalogues. Here are a few of them, as discussed by three prominent Druidic writers.
In every group I have assembled to talk of Pagan ethics, after the main sources have been unravelled, the answer becomes clear. It is simple: relationship. Pagans find and craft their ethics through the experience of relationships. (Emma Restall Orr, Living with Honour)
The Druid will tend to see many of the world’s problems emerging from a refusal to take responsibility and to act for the greater good of the whole. By not taking responsibility for environmental degradation, for example, they see politicians and corporations acting simply for the short-term gains of power and profit… Druidism encourages the taking of individual responsibility – first in our own lives, then in concert with others for our community, and for wider issues that affect the community of all life. (Philip Carr-Gomm, What do Druids Believe?)
The call to Know Yourself permits no self-deception. It calls for an acknowledgement of both the fire of the divine within us, and also the earth of mortality upon us. (Myers, The Other Side of Virtue)
It is a common experience among people who are aware of the spiritual dimension to find that when they trust in life they find it easier to enter a ‘flow’ which carries their life along with a quality of lightness, joy, and effortlessness, that also keeps them aligned with their spiritual purpose. Of course trust will sometimes give way to its opposite – mistrust and fear – but by believing that life is fundamentally good, that there is meaning and purpose to existence, the spiritual seeker finds it increasingly easy to come back to the position of trust. The more we can trust in life, the more we can encourage this flow. (Carr-Gomm, What do Druids Believe?)
Although the term integrity is often used to mean ‘the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles and professional standards’, its deeper meaning is defined in the dictionary as ‘the state of being complete and undivided. The state of being sound or undamaged’… Used in this deeper sense, integrity becomes a value or quality sought by Druids, just as it is by all spiritual seekers. The spiritual journey begins for us when we sense that we are lacking something. We feel incomplete, and so we begin to strive towards Deity, enlightenment, wholeness. Further along the track we discover that these realities exist within us and that it is only our mind that believes we are separated from them. Slowly, through meditation and spiritual practice, we open to an awareness of our completeness, our wholeness. We find integrity. And from this place of integrity we can act with authenticity, not trying to be someone other than who we simply are. (Carr-Gomm, What do Druids Believe? Pp. 63-4)
In the old conundrum “Who is more courageous—the one who feels fear yet acts, or the one who feels no fear at all?” the answer is the one who feels the fear, and yet acts. Someone who doesn’t feel fear when about to undertake something dangerous may be someone who doesn’t fully understand what he is about to do, nor the risks involved to himself or others, nor the likelihood of success… A courageous person aims to benefit others, and benefit the society she lives in, and perhaps future generations too. And courage ultimately benefits its possessor, and not just because the courageous person has less fear. It is an affirmation of the world’s potential for goodness and beauty, and an active will to participate in the world. To be prepared to accept danger, suffering, hardship, and even death in the attempt to change the world is to be most fully courageous, and most sincerely loving. These qualities are, it seems to me, self-rewarding; a worthwhile and flourishing life cannot do without them. (Myers, The Other Side of Virtue)
When I say that Pagan ethics are based upon relationship, it is with this perception of nature’s consciousness and energy as the essence that both underlies and connects all of life. As the rain is intrinsically connected to the stream and the sea, so is every human connected to the mud and the wheat, to the water they drink, to the dead and to the children yet to be born. And through every gust of wind into which my breath disappears, I breathe the breath that has been breathed by each fox and roe and mouse in the forest, air that has moved through the leaves of the trees, that spills out into the stillness of dusk in the song of the wren and the call of the buzzard who rides the thermals above us all. (Emma Restall Orr, Living with Honour)
And if we are to find within us the willingness to give with generosity, we can look to the need for personal responsibility to guide us: as an integral part of nature, we must retain conscious responsibility for our every action and inaction, understanding the impact our living has upon
both humanity and the environment within which we live. We are responsible, in part, after all, for the honour of our race, our species, our nation: for the face of our tribe. (Emma Restall Orr, Living with Honour)
Our friends make life valuable and meaningful, and that the things we do together with friends is our most important source of happiness… In a heroic society, by contrast, a person’s social relations are all-important: they help constitute his very identity. Friendship is more than a matter of survival expediency, although it does grant large survival advantages. In times of accident or calamity, one will need friends for help or rescue. One earns the right to call upon this help by being there for others in their time of need. It is in one’s interest, then, to be respectful and cooperative. But the spirit of heroic friendship is intrinsically valuable as well: it is the friendship of those who find in each other a second self. (Myers, The Other Side of Virtue)
To live with honour is to face each one of those connections, as awake to the relationship as we can possibly be, engaging with courage in honesty, with generosity and responsibility, with the respect that comes of loyalty. Doing so because we choose to, having questioned, and where necessary challenged, explored and found a path of integrity, in each action we represent our tribe - of family, community, humanity - and thus the moral identity of that tribe. To do so without shame or ignorance allows a deep and vital pride that comes from knowing that we have shared well, in truth and in freedom. (Emma Restall Orr, Living with Honour)
The Worthwhile Life
Everyone’s life is inevitably bound up with the lives of other people, the natural world, the accidents of fortune, and the transience of existence. All these things figure into of everyone’s life story irrevocably. A spirited person responds to all these things in a life-affirming way. And in that response, she may find within herself a revelation of self-knowledge, and purpose, and
happiness… The worthwhile life is an active life. It is characterised by the feeling that the world offers itself to you as a place where your purposes may be fulfilled. Or, perhaps, the world appears as a place which has its own purposes which are being fulfilled in you. For that is how we often experience it. A good dialogue with the Immensity tends to arouse the feeling of being alive, being whole, being most fully ourselves. Indeed, happiness itself is the feeling that life is beautiful and good. (Myers, The Other Side of Virtue)
In the end values or principles such as those stated here, with others that are related to them or flow from them can form the basis out of which ethical and moral decisions can be made. Rather than internalising a moral code developed perhaps centuries ago by the ruling religious or political elite, we can develop a strong individual sense of morality and ethics born out of our own inner connection to these values. Blaise Pascal succinctly summarised, in the following triad, the ingredients we need to develop this morality, when he said simply: “Heart, instinct, principles.”