What is Druidry – an article by Robin Herne

Druidry is a term used to describe the religious practices of two main groups of people, one historical and one modern.

The original Druids were the priestly and intellectual caste of the pre-Christian tribes of Britain, Ireland and Gaul (modern France) ~ the Druids may also have been part of tribes from a wider area of what are now loosely described as culturally Celtic peoples, but the evidence is currently too ambiguous to say for certain.

Modern Druid groups around the world are a very varied bunch. Some strive to maintain a strong continuity of belief and practice with the original Druids, whilst others engage in practices that are as much inspired by concepts from Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, Christianity etc as they are by any Insular Celtic ideas. For some people the term Druid is used more to convey a suggestion of “nature priest(ess)” than it is to imply a specific link to ancient practice.

Druids work to build harmonious relationships with deities, ancestors, spirits of the land, animals, trees, rocks, rivers and humanity, both through ritual activity and through their everyday actions. Some modern Druids perceive these spirit beings as real, whilst others regard them as more metaphorical or archetypal. For the sake of brevity, this article will focus on those who see them as real (polytheist Druids), with subsequent articles on those approaching Druidry from either a monotheist or archetypal angle.

There are literary sources that give us small snippets as to how Druidry was practised before the coming of Christianity, and during the early years of that faith within these lands. The main such sources include the medieval records of myths and legends as recorded (in altered form) by monks, legal texts, and the commentaries of ancient Roman and Greek travellers. None of these sources are known to have been recorded by Druids speaking of their own beliefs and activities ~ though some of the early monks may have been recent converts, or have come from families in which a relative was a Druid.

The Welsh tales were recorded many generations after those tribes ceased to be Pagan, so the monks may not necessarily have realised that these old stories related to deities (indeed, as recorded, they do not describe their protagonists as gods buts as kings, queens, wizards etc.)

Many Irish tales were recorded at an earlier date, when Paganism coexisted with Christianity. Changes there may have been made for reasons of politics (advancing one tribal power-base over another.) Some myths strongly echo biblical tales, possibly because of universality of theme, or because the monks could find no surviving old tales to express a particular point, and so created tales of their own based on biblical stories and given an “old world Irish” feel. Archaeological evidence continues to be discovered which supports this picture of tribal religion amongst the Celtic-speaking peoples conveyed by classical and medieval literature. Alongside these historical sources, modern Druids experience their own, personal, understanding of their religion as lived today, and their own relationship with their gods.

Priests and Laity
In ancient times the Druids were a high-ranking caste who performed a number of functions including: judges, political advisers, physicians, astronomers, priests, lore keepers, teachers and magicians. The old Druid was a highly trained and respected member of society who engaged in both religious and intellectual specialities. In modern times some of these functions have fallen by the wayside ~ the political influence of modern Druids is limited, to say the least. The modern Pagan movement in general places little distinction between clergy and congregation, so modern Druids do not have quite the same status or function that the ancient ones did. Therefore some of the people who identify themselves as Druids today may carry out few, if any, of the social duties and specialist skills attributed to the ancient Druids.

Gods and other beings
Druidry, like all ancient European pagan religions, was polytheistic and recognised a large number of gods and other spiritual entities. For a section of modern Druidry, these views remain in place. Accounts of the native Gods are shadowy. The myths that have survived were written down some time after the spread of Christianity, and were recorded in a manner approved of by the early Church authorities ~ how closely they compare to the tales as originally told by Pagans is hard to judge.

With the growing influence of the Mediterranean cultures, it became more common for the native tribes to inscribe the names of their gods and goddesses on altar stones. For a number of deities, the name is all that remains ~ no accompanying stories or commentary to suggest how they were viewed. However, polytheists acknowledge that the Gods remain even if their cult dwindles ~ so the deity can be contacted via meditation etc and reveal themselves to the devotee. All is far from lost!

A number of names crop up on a good many altars, suggesting a widespread popularity to some deities whilst others may have had a relatively small following. Examples of widespread names include Lugos (associated with light), Brigantia (a regal goddess of agricultural and domestic concerns), Nemetona (a goddess who protects sacred places), and Epona (a goddess tied to horses.) Some names may actually be variant titles for the same deity.

In addition to gods, Druids recognise and relate to a wide variety of entities who concern themselves with the home, with forests, fields, mountains etc and various non-human animal species. There are also spirits closely associated with “inanimate” objects, such as those that were regarded as dwelling within swords. Some of this multitude of beings are friendly to humanity, some utterly indifferent, and some downright hostile (often with good reason.)

Another feature of Druid practice is the respect given to ancestors in general. These may be a person’s literal forebears, or may be people now dead who have inspired them in some way ~ perhaps sharing a common interest in music, gardening, medicine etc.

There are no central authorities throughout the whole of Druidry and no single organisation to which all Druids belong, though there are national and international Orders and organisations created to facilitate networking and study between Druids.

Many Druids belong to small groups made up of friends and family members who share their views. These groups are sometimes called ‘clans’ or ‘groves’ and meet for religious rituals in members’ homes or in outdoor spaces. Some groups have recognised leaders, who may or may not have titles to signify their status. Others are largely egalitarian, and may alternate administrative functions between members. Some of the Orders are very large, with many hundreds or even thousands of members. Such groups are often headed by a leader known as an Arch-Druid (a title first mentioned in accounts of ancient Gaul) or Chosen Chief.

Festivals, rites and celebrations
The main rites celebrated in Druidry are called gwyliau (Welsh), or feillean (Irish), or a comparable word in whichever Celtic language is favoured within the group (or referred to simply as festivals, for those favouring modern English!). Druids hold feasts and celebrations at rites of passage (such as weddings or funerals), seasonal holidays, rites in honour of a particular deity, etc.

The primary seasonal festivals are Samhain (Calan Gaeaf), Imbolc (Gwyl y Forwyn), Beltane (Calan Mai) and Lughnasadh (Calan Awst). Samhain is the principle time for honouring the dead and the start of winter, often in the person of An Cailleach the Old Woman of Winter; Imbolc is focussed upon the fiery goddess Brigit or Bride; Beltane marks the start of summer and the old campaigning season; Lughnasadh coincides with the harvest, and re-enacts the funeral rite of the goddess Tailtiu who died after preparing the land for agriculture ~ the feast takes its name from her foster-son Lugh, who instituted the day in her honour. The Brythonic (Welsh/Cornish) understanding of these festivals is slightly different. Quite a few modern Druids also celebrate the solstices and/or equinoxes. The evidence for how the early tribes saw these events is scant indeed, so some groups turn to more recent conceptions (eg Wiccan ideas), devote them to a favourite deity who inspires them as to how to celebrate, or ignore them entirely.

A variety of activities may be incorporated into a Druid festival, but often include toasts to gods, ancestors and local land spirits; the making of gifts to the spirits; poetry and storytelling; celebrations of the beauty of Nature; offerings of food and drink, etc.

The Welsh concept of Awen stems primarily from a medieval text detailing the story of a witch, Ceridwen, who brews a magical potion to give her ugly son mystical powers to compensate for his appearance. The potion is accidentally drunk by a servant, who undergoes many amazing transformations. Words of equivalent meaning (“poetic inspiration”) from Gaelic are imbas or aì. Many modern Druids tend to focus on Awen not only as a form of poetic inspiration, but as a sort of divine flash of understanding. Rather than trying to brew up the magical potion, they normally chant the word as a mantra. It is unclear how far back this word goes, so it cannot be said with certainty that ancient druids held to such a notion, though linguists regard the word as of very early origin and not a medieval invention.

The servant boy who imbibed the Awen potion acquired the power to shapeshift. There are many Celtic tales in which Druids, warriors and other people assume animal and other shapes. Such tales are echoed in countless cultures round the world. One understanding of this is that the shifter gains insights into the world from the perspective of another creature ~ that whilst the myths tend to emphasise the adventurous aspects of the situation, the Druid practitioners themselves would have entered into trance in order to have visionary experiences of life as a dog, hawk, eagle, mouse etc.

Underlying this there can be discerned a metaphysical goal to attain spiritual growth by experiencing the diversity of the universe, by becoming countless different creatures. Whether this is viewed as an issue of reincarnation, or psychic transformation within the lifetime, or a fusion of both, is a personal matter.

No moral coda has survived from the ancient Druids (assuming they ever had such a thing in the first place) . Modern Druids will tend to express their ethical stance in a variety of different ways. Perhaps one of the more popular ways is to quote the Motto of the Fianna (an Irish warrior band), one translation of which runs ~ “Strength in our hands; Truth in our hearts; Fulfilment on our lips”. This is subject to interpretation, but many would see the strength as a reference to courage, to facing up to ones fears, living honourably, using ones personal strength (be that muscular, intellectual, or whatever) to help those weaker, living life passionately to the full; Truth is also praised in many Welsh and Irish triads, here the Fianna were exhorted to speak honestly (though not necessarily without tact or diplomacy, qualities that Druids were famed for), most especially to know the truth of ones own nature ~ the Truth within the Heart ~ and shun self-delusion; fulfilment on the lips can be taken as the power to speak with eloquence ~ it refers not so much to using fancy words but as to being prepared to speak out rather than hide timidly in the corner, to speak in praise of that which is good and honourable, and to condemn that which is wicked and false.

Other major values of the old tribes (and their modern emulators) included hospitality towards friends, family and strangers, and also generosity with ones wealth (be that financial, intellectual, emotional etc.)

After death
The Irish envisioned the dead journeying to Tech Donn, which they saw as across the sea to the west (there is an actual island of this name.) The Otherworld had many of the same features as this one, and included many of the same favoured activities ~ hunting, feasting, fighting, game playing, romancing etc.

Classical commentators, such as Diodorus, described the old Druids as having held to notions of reincarnation, though with a waiting period between lives (where it was spent was not recorded.) Many, though by no means all, modern Druids also hold to such ideas. Quite a few feel that this includes the possibility of return in a non-human guise (though this is rarely seen as a demotion or regression for supposed spiritual short-comings, rather as simply a chance to view the world from a different angle.)

Druidry and other spiritualities
Druidry is a living religion based on literary and archaeological sources for the religious practices of a particular pre-Christian culture and extended by the relationships of modern Druids with their gods. The historical record seems to suggest that the early Druids were very tolerant of incoming religions (such as the Christian one) ~ though this does not mean that the change was an entirely peaceful one in either direction. Modern Druids likewise tend to be mostly tolerant of other religions, even if not always liking everything that some of them get up to.

There is no presumption that “our” Gods are the only ones in existence, or that other people cannot live perfectly decent lives in relationship to other deities or no deities at all. There is no investment in proselytising, and indeed no reason why a Druid could not also attend rituals to honour Greek, Egyptian, Heathen or whatever other deities they feel comfortable with.

Suggested reading

  • THE MABINOGION Translation by Gwyn & Thomas Jones
  • Everyman Press (collection of Welsh myths). ISBN: 0460872974
  • THE APPLE BRANCH by Alexei Kondratiev
  • (a well researched fusion of Druid and Wiccan practices) The Collins Press, 1998, ISBN: 189825642X
  • Oxford University Press,1998, ISBN: 0198691572
  • CELTIC HERITAGE by Alwyn & Brinley Rees
  • Thames & Hudson Books 1961, ISBN: 0500270392
  • THE TAIN, translated by Thomas Kinsella (major Irish myth)
  • Oxford Paperbacks 1969, ISBN: 0192810901
  • CATTLE LORDS & CLANSMEN, by Nerys Patterson
  • University of Notre Dame, 1994 ISBN: 0268008000
  • THE SACRED ISLE by Daithi O Hogain
  • Boydell Press 1999, ISBN: 0851158560