Neo-Druidry: The Birth of a Religion
The Ancient Druids
There are a couple things that are pretty well agreed upon about the ancient Druids, but not many. They are from the Gallic Empire circa 260 AD, which was in the area of modern day France, Spain, Britain, and Northern Italy. The Gallic Empire was a breakaway from the Roman Empire and as such, they did not get along perfectly. The Druids were scattered throughout the Gallic Empire, and may have been the only group spread though the empire. They are consistently referred to as not just priests but teachers, builders and thinkers (Dewitt 320). The word Druid itself is thought to mean highly (dru) learned men (id) maybe because they were the educated and literate men of the time, or maybe because the Druids were said to have secret knowledge of how to communicate with the Gods. The Druids were openly against writing down their traditions, because their secret knowledge, whether magical or scientific, is useless without the secret part (Dewitt 322). As literacy became common, the old Druids mostly melted away into society, and the name was only applied to practitioners of old religion, fortune tellers and such. This further complicates research about them, because it led to their history being written by Romans who had political motives not to write fairly (Dewitt). So at this point in history we already have two ideas of Druidry, the bardic idea and the witchcraft idea.
Overview of Neo-Druidry
With modern media availability we know everything and nothing about Neo-Druidry. They put almost everything out there, but there are so many sects with different practices, and so many sources and individuals saying different things. In this way our knowledge of modern Druidry is as broken as our knowledge of ancient Druidry. This is because Neo-Druidry is an imagined religion. This is not inherently bad at all, but what it is, is fascinating. Because it is an imagination and because it had taken off, it gives unique insight into what people want from a religion. It also demonstrates the relationship of sociological events to the alteration and invention of a religion. Note that while most other religions have a distinct point of creation, they recognize themselves as God-given, or created by divine knowledge or intervention. Modern Druids however, mostly recognized that their beliefs were invented, until the 1980s when naïve America took hold of the idea, and all doubts about its authenticity faded (Hutton 259).
The Invention of Neo-Druidry
Iolo Morganwg, previously Edward Williams, upon the discovery of Stonehenge being a ritual site of the ancient Druids began to look intensely into explaining their beliefs and practices. When he discovered that there simply wasn’t enough information, he made stuff up and published it as true (Hutton 253). This was believed for long enough to take hold in a place which was longing for an ancient tradition, and pieces of his “work” remain today. Iolo, as part of his deception, invented the solar 4 days as part of the Druid calendar. The solstice and equinox celebrations are his work entirely (Hutton 254). Then the Enlightenment happened, and to justify the murders of hundreds of witches, scholars said their witchcraft was fake but their “bloodthirsty and orgiastic” behavior warranted their deaths.
Several people tried to make the claim that the pagans had been peaceful, nature-loving people, one of the most adamant was Margaret Murray (Hutton 256) who created the other 4 celebration days, the markings of the seasons, along with the nature centric idea, based on bad research practices and questionable sources.
Her apprentice, Gerald Gardener, who was a high ranking official of a Druidic order, and the possible creator of Wicca, a very similar neo-pagan tradition further propagated this idea of ancient celebrations, and he, very importantly, wrote lots of books about what Margaret taught him. Then a perfect collision of time culture and circumstance happened when Aidan Kelly read some of Gardner and Murray’s works, along with others, and brought the movement to San Francisco in the early 1980s (Hutton 263). Hippie culture was rapidly waning, but people still sought new ideas and new ways to reject modernism. A generation of people raised by nature loving, do your own thing, reveler parents now heard about Wicca and Druids. These thoughts were left to stew until 1983, when greenhouse gas troubles went mainstream, then continued to snowball as a problem (Global Warming Timeline). A google ngram study of the usage of the words “Druidry” and “Wicca” show a dramatic spike in usage starting in 1983. Curiously the word Druid had far less of a spike, perhaps explainable by sources now talking about the cultural movement not the ancient people. This correlation gives very viable evidence that the growth of Druidry and Wicca were a direct reaction to the cultural green movement.
Ross Nichols was a good friend of Gardener (Hutton 259). Ross Nichols also is the founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, one of the oldest modern Druid organizations there is. Around 1980, he brought Wicca and Druidry to San Francisco, but with his own additions and leaving things out. As he believed the work of Murray and Gardner both, he included everything they had done, but left out the part about their research being invalidated (Hutton 260-261). He also is the one who added the word Celtic to the mix which is why people now associate that with Druidry (Druid Grove…), which isn’t hardly any different from original scholars saying the ancient druids were Gallic, but calling them Celtic makes it a bigger geographical area and time span, so more people can connect to their “ancestors”.
Modern Druid beliefs as explained by The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, can be mono, duo, or polytheistic, can be seen as a religion or a way of life, share a love of nature and a belief in the Otherworld, a place you can’t be in but can touch though concentration. Druids are pluralistic by nature, and they may subscribe to one or more other religion. Most believe in reincarnation in some form, some believe you die in the otherworld to be born here and you die here to be born there. There is a huge emphasis on the cyclical nature of things, with reincarnation and the cycle of 8 seasonal festivals that Druids are most known for. This cycle of holidays marks the beginning of each season, the solstices and the equinoxes, with each holiday having a special meaning and name.
Inferences from the Nature of Neo-Druidry
So do modern Druids and ancient Druids have anything in common? Short answer, no, probably not, save for the rare few who turn to the Gallic pantheon, which was probably worshipped by a few ancient Druids but not exclusively. The only other obvious commonality is that both were cultural more than religious.
When a person writes a book, you can see a piece of their soul in the work. Likewise, when a society deliberately invents and adopts a religion, you can see a reflection of their needs that aren’t being properly met. The needs I believe were not being met in the US in 1983 were: a rejection of modern civilization, a non-judgemental social network, a bacchanal worldview, and lastly and most powerfully, a pluralism of religion.
With the 70s including the end of the Vietnam War, with global conflicts coming to a head and everybody scared, the urge to go back to a simpler, small community based lifestyle would have been understandable. Also, more phones, televisions and noise would be easy to want to turn away from. Druidry held out a hand that said, come on, party in a toga and meet in the woods with some close friends. It was a rejection of globalized post-industrial America. It was a return to something safe and familiar.
Most religions provide a social network. Most of these social networks have a specific set of rules to follow to be included. You can’t be a Catholic with kids from 4 men you didn’t marry and still be fully accepted into the community. You can’t be an alcoholic Mormon and be accepted by your church. Rules like these don’t exist in Druidry. You get the social network regardless of what you do, for better or worse, unless it violates an essential human ethic, like kicking puppies or murder. This social network didn’t care who your husband was, if you were male or female, if you drank, and that was liberating (Druid Grove…).
Related to this acceptance, Druidry also offered majority Christian America a Bacchanal worldview. In an age of sexual repression and behavior modification, the opportunity to revel with friends in a wild, carnal way, would have been attractive in a rising religion.
The 1950’s were glowing Christian America. The 60s brought questions about who was really in charge and the 70s brought religious conflict (1970-1979 World History). With the invention of birth control pills, and second wave feminism, questions were brought to the church that they couldn’t answer. In 1978, the Jonestown Massacre shook everyone religiously. Follow this with the republican presidencies of the 80s, and the conservative pope, and people were religiously divided in the US in a whole new way. This division brought in diversity, which brought more conflicts. These conflicts, I believe, brought in a need for a pluralist religion, and Druidry stepped up to the plate. Even within Druidry there is a kind of pluralism, with different ideas about how many Gods there are, hat our purpose is, what happens when we die, the big questions, and Druids today simply don’t care how you answer them. No one puts it better than the Mr. Nichols’ Order of Bards Ovates and Druids “a Druid gathering can bring together people who have widely varying views about deity, or none, and they will happily participate in ceremonies together, celebrate the seasons, and enjoy each other’s company – realising that none of us has the monopoly on truth, and that diversity is both healthy and natural.”
Then and Now
To wrap all these ideas together, look to Stonehenge festivals today. Ironically located at a site probably built by the Ancient Druids, each year Neo-Druids can approach the stones to worship, but the stones only might have been for worship in the first place. E. Herbert Stone gives a list of the more popular theories about its purpose, “-Astronomical observatory, Calendar for the seasons, Temple for some form of worship, Headquarters of a priesthood, Sepulchre for chieftains, Sepulchral use connected with barrows, Memorial hall or monument of victory, Palace for a great king, Hall for ceremonial meetings of chiefs, Court of justice, Theatre for contests or ordeals, To rival or supersede Avebury (40).” And only two are even kind of religious. Yet they gather by the thousands for music and dance, intoxication, rituals invented by Mr. Nichols, and a gathering of a huge community, some in old dress, some in modern, everyone looks different, some wildly so. So this tradition is satisfying the carnal needs, social needs, the need to connect with your past, and it is evidence that an “expert” opinion can change history, as so many did in this revolution.
"At the first glance of the sun people cheer. Traditionally the druids blow horns and there is then a chant, where you are raising energy and focusing it from the circle and radiate out around the world – it's a group prayer, not high magic or anything. Sometimes we recite the Druid's prayer. We close the circle by saying thank you to the spirits and the gods that have been present with us and say farewell to them." Frank Somers told the International Business Times this, and with this, it is really important to realize that made up or not, unusual or not, this has a realness to it that refuses to be defined by historians or scientists, and it’s a very human realness, one that touches on the need to be connected, to feel very small but very meaningful. Philosophers call it the oceanic feeling, Marx called it an opiate, it is called faith, or meaning, or bliss, or understanding, but that feeling is why I believe no one cares that this isn’t “real” in a worldly way.