What was Druidry?
The Druids were the educated elite of what is now called the “Celtic” peoples. Many historians and archaeologists now argue that there never was an actual Celtic ‘race’ and that it was more of a shared culture but for the sake of clarity and to give a sense of familiarity, I will use the term throughout this article. The Celts were a tribal people, with each tribe having its own chieftain. They were often at war with one another, raiding nearby tribal villages and stealing their neighbors’ cattle. They were a warrior race who, in one of those strange historical paradoxes, created the most beautiful art and inspired a religion which had a deep respect for Nature.
The Roman invasion of the Celtic regions was made easier because Celtic society was so fragmented. The Romans systematically conquered one tribe at a time. The only common link between the Celtic tribes was the Druids. The Druids were the prophets, magicians, seers, healers, royal advisors and judges. They could move in complete safety between tribes. It was thought by Rome that the Druids could unite the tribes and give them the focus they needed against the invaders. So in the year 61CE, two crushing blows were dealt against the Britons. The first was the sacking of Ynys Mon, the Isle of Anglesey, off the north coast of Wales, which was a major centre of Druidic learning. It was written by Tacitus that the Druidesses were like screaming furies who spat curses across the bay at the assembling Roman armies. Although this chilled the blood of the Centurions, they attacked and won the battle. All of the Druid Groves (sacred clearings within the forests) were destroyed and all Druids, Druidesses and their children were slaughtered. The other blow was the defeat of the Iceni Queen Boudicca whose revolt very nearly put an end to the entire Roman occupation. However, the massacre of the Druids did not destroy them completely, but gradually the remaining Druids were seen as little more than wandering magicians. A far cry from the high status previously held.
The ancient Druids consisted of three “castes”, or divisions – Bards, Ovates (Vates) and Druids.
The Bard learned all of the tales of the chieftain’s victories and the secret lore of sacred poetry. A Bard was an honoured member of the Tribe who was welcome wherever he or she travelled – in a way they were the newspapers of the day. We know from ancient poetry that the Bardic/Ovate crossover was not so defined and that the Bards would traverse the bridge of the Otherworld. They were trained in the Arts of Magic using the power of poetry in either praise or satire. Their Lore supplied the foundation to the religious and magical practice of Druidry, telling the nature of the Gods, the deeds of the Ancestors and the sacred places of the land. Through the power of sacred word, expressed through poetry, storytelling and song, they invoked the blessings of the Spirit of Place, and of the Gods and ancestors of the people.
As previously mentioned the caste known as Bards had their own Otherworldly practices, and it may be that some Bards blended their creative skills with those of the Ovates (or Vates). These were the prophets and seers. They worked with the three realms of past, present and future and entered into trance states, foreseeing the future fortunes of the Tribe.
If the ancient Druids performed sacrifice (there is no hard evidence of this other than Caesar’s account, which could well have been Roman propaganda) then the Ovates would have been the people who oversaw such events. When considering the act of ritual sacrifice we must try to understand that the Celtic tribes lived and died by their crops. If the crops failed, then a hard winter of starvation and disease was inevitable. A whole village could be wiped out through lack of food; therefore, when such a catastrophe occurred, the ancients may have felt they had to offer a gift to their Gods. The true nature of sacrifice was to give somebody who came willingly. To offer themselves as such would have placed them with their Gods and the Tribe revered them as heroes.
To view ancient civilizations from the standpoint of modern ethics is a mistake. We have supermarkets and world trade, which keeps us supplied with wonderful food throughout the year. Now imagine growing all of the food you eat yourself, without the use of pesticides to protect the crop from blight and insect diseases. Then imagine your crop fails and you face a winter of unimaginable pain and suffering. Now imagine it happened for a second year….
The third ‘caste’ was the Druid. Much of what we know about the ancient Druids comes from classical writers, and it might be that ‘Druid’ was a collective term that included the Bards and Ovates, we simply don’t know for sure, but either way, we do know that they were highly respected members of the tribe – the Wise One who had passed through madness and survived. This brought great wisdom and peace; the Druid’s role was therefore that of advisor, teacher and judge. In Celtic mythology tribal chieftains each had their Druid to whom they turned for advice during times of need.
Between 5OOCE and the late middle ages, the Druid tradition was kept alive in the tales and songs of the storyteller and wandering minstrel. It is here that we once more see the blending of two castes, the Bard and Ovate. We see such characters as Merlin and Taliesin emerging as seer-poets, living on the edge of sanity and completely accepted by the spirits of Nature. Much of modern Druidic teaching stems from the words of the ancient Bardic tales and the poetry of Taliesin and Merlin.
Bardic colleges continued to operate in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, for many centuries, but eventually the last one was closed in the 17th century. However, the pull of this tradition was too strong and soon poets such as William Blake rediscovered the voice of the Bard. These Bardic revivalists, who revelled in the beauty of nature, met in the quieter rooms of public houses at the end of the 18th century, and thus the thread spins on….
What is Druidry today?
With the growing awareness many people have towards the environment, there is an understandable interest in the Nature, or Pagan, religions. Druidry means different things to different people. There are those who take their spirituality from Druidry and blend it with their own tradition, be that Pagan or Christian. And there are others who try to follow a rediscovered “Druidism”.
To give an insight into modern Druidry we must start with exploring the symbol and Druidic “sacred mantra” known as the Awen.
Central to Druid philosophy is the force known as the Awen. The closest definition of the words Awen is “Divine Breath” or “Flowing Spirit” and it is this Divine Breath that guides us through the Druid work. It is the energy of divine poetic inspiration, which is held within the three drops of potion brewed in the Cauldron of the Goddess Cerridwen. The tale of Cerridwen and Taliesin is the subject of my song from Antlered Crown and Standing Stone – here are the lyrics:
Silver moonlight dances,
From the mist of Tegid’s shore,
A lady looks upon her son,
Like many times before,
And she touches his face,
Fingers wet with the tears falling.
Her daughter stands beside her,
The fairest in the land,
How her son became so cursed,
She cannot understand.
But this mother’s love is a strong,
As her heart is beating,
And she calls to the Earth,
And the Earth hears her calling.
High up in the mountains,
Dinas Afferaon stands tall,
All magic and all mysteries,
Are held within these walls,
So she walks to the door,
As she does the door it opens,
Teach to me the mystery,
Of the Cauldron’s Brew,
Let Utter Darkness give way to light,
And be reborn anew,
Then the Awen will shine,
From the brow of the Eagle of the Sea,
And all will know his name,
From this land to the People of the Sidhe.
The lady sets the cauldron’s fire,
Tended by the hand,
Of Gwion Bach the innocent,
And Morda the blind man,
Who reached out his hand,
Place more wood,
Keep the cauldron boiling.
Then Morda he fell asleep,
Alas he didn’t see,
Wood upon wood was added,
The inferno was the key,
To unlock the doors,
Of the Awen’s greatest mystery,
Three drops, burning skin,
And it’s Gwion how gained the power to see.
The cauldron cracks, the poison seeps,
Slowly across the land,
To kill the horses of Garanhir,
by the lakeshore where they stand,
Drinking and not knowing their fate,
As a hare runs fast across the land.
Lady of the Cauldron,
Come see what they have done!
Stolen your Cauldron’s power,
And betrayed your only son!
Eyes wide, lips curl,
Anger on your face!
Change your shape now lady!
Be the hound, begin the chase!
I shall be a running hare,
With sorrow and with mickle care,
Then I shall be a greyhound bitch,
And tear you from your skin!
Then I shall be a flying wren,
The King of Birds, the King of Men,
Then I shall be a falcon grey,
And tear you from your skin!
Then I shall be a salmon sleek,
Darting through a shallow creek,
Then I shall be an otter bitch,
And rest you from your skin!
I shall be a grain beneath the sun,
And you will never know which one,
Then I shall be a great black hen,
And take you deep within!
Now you may be forgiven to think,
My tale is over and down,
But nine moons later,
She gave birth to a son,
That she wanted to kill,
But she placed in a coracle on the sea.
Garanhir’s salmon weir,
A catch was guaranteed,
But on this day a baby boy,
Cried out to be freed,
A radiant brow,
Shining bright for all to plainly see.
Taliesin is your name,
The greatest Bard that this land will ever see!
The symbol of the Awen is the “Three Rays of Light” shining from three single points surrounded by three circles. The three points can represent the directions of the sunrises of the Solstices and Equinoxes. On the Summer and Winter Solstices the Sun rises east-north-east and east-south-east respectively, whilst on the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes it rises due east. The Awen also symbolises the three drops of inspiration from the Cauldron of Ceridwen as discussed above. The three circles represent the three Circles of Creation in Welsh cosmology, ie Abred, Gwynvid and Ceugant. The central area represents the realm of Annwn.
During a Druid ritual, the Awen can be intoned as a single monotone note using three syllables “Ah-oo-en”(some Druid Orders intone the three letters I. A. U. in a similar way). The power held within the Awen mantra can be used in many ways – from initiating poetic inspiration, to drawing down the blessing of the Gods, or evoking a change in the atmosphere of a ritual circle.
It is truly a sacred word.
Like many others, the Druids honour the eight seasonal festivals of our modern Pagan traditions. These being:
The Solar Cycle
Alban Arthan (Winter Solstice):
The time of the rebirth of the Sun, and of Light. At this point the Sun is at its southernmost point almost disappearing beyond the horizon, and the days are at their shortest. This was a time of dread for the ancient peoples as they saw the days getting shorter and shorter. A great ritual was needed to revert the course of the Sun. This was probably calculated by the great circles of stone and burial grounds that are aligned to this festival, such as Newgrange in Co. Meath, Eire. For three days after the Solstice moment, the Sun’s arc is constant and unchanged, but on the third day there is a visible change, and the Sun begins to grow higher into the sky, signifying that the Sun has indeed been reborn once more. There are tales of the battle of two great Kings, one of Holly, the other of Oak, and each Solstice of Summer and Winter they do battle to take the crown of the Waxing and Waning year. Listen below to a story of one such battle.
This time of year is very cold and bleak, which is why so many celebrations are needed to help people get through the Winter months. It is significant that many civilisations welcomed their Solar Gods at the time of greatest darkness – including Mithras (the bull-headed Warrior God), the Egyptian God Horus and Jesus Christ.
Alban Eilir (Spring Equinox):
As the Sun grows warmer so life begins to show through the soil. Small signs at first – the daffodils and crocuses – then more green as the bluebells and wood anemones spread through the woodland. Plants are seen by some as inanimate greenery with no actual feelings and life force. But Druids see life in all living things, from rocks and stones, to rivers and springs, plants and trees – all life is sacred. Have you ever thought about how you recognise the beginning of Spring? Is it the plant life? The weather? How does a plant know when it is time to grow? It cannot tell the time or see a calendar. Yet it knows. If it has senses then it has consciousness, if it has consciousness then it is more than an inanimate life form. So it is the return of life to the Earth that is celebrated at Alban Eilir, the time of balance.
One of the inner mysteries of Druidry is the Druid’s egg. Life-giving, it is the egg protected by the hare, which is the symbol of Alban Eilir – still celebrated by the giving of Easter eggs by the Easter bunny.
Alban Hefin (Summer Solstice):
Druidry has a great respect and reverence for places that are “in between” worlds. There is great power in places such as these, and the Solstices are liminal spaces in time. It is the time of greatest light when the Solar God is crowned as the King of Summer. It also brings some sadness because from now until Alban Arthan the Sun’s strength is declining and we have entered the waning year. At this time the Dark Twin, or Holly King, is born – he will take his crown at Alban Arthan. Of all the festivals Druidry is mostly associated with Alban Hefin. The wonderful white-robed figures filmed at the dawn rituals at Stonehenge are testament to this. However, to many Druids it is the turning seasons and the cycle of life, death and rebirth – reflected in the Wheel of the Year in its completeness – which are significant.
Alban Elfed (Autumn Equinox):
The Wheel turns and the time of balance returns. Alban Elfed marks the balance of day and night before the darkness overtakes the light. It is also the time of the second harvest, usually of the fruit which has stayed on the trees and plants to ripen under the Summer Sun. It is this final harvest which can take the central theme of the Alban Elfed ceremony. Thanking the Earth, in her full abundance for the great harvest. It is the beginning of Autumn.
The Agricultural Cycle
On or around the 1st February – This is often seen as the first of three Spring festivals. It is hard sometimes to think of Spring in what feels like the depths of Winter. But if we look at the ground we can see the first shoots of green beginning to reach towards the Sun. Imbolc can be celebrated on either the 1st or 2nd February, or more naturally when the Snowdrops cover the ground.
Imbolc by Damh the Bard
As the dark, cold morning gives way to light,
And the world shows its face dazzling in her nakedness,
So the twigs and leaf-bare branches,
Bow to the passing dance
Of old Jack Frost.
His crystal breath on the earth,
And the corners of houses weep icicles of joy.
But where is the Sun’s warmth?
Where is life?
A small flower, delicate and pure-white,
Looks to the earth,
As if talking to the waiting green,
“Not yet,” it seems to whisper.
“When I fall, then you can return.”
And she nods her head,
as the Lady passes by,
Leaving more flowers in Her wake.
On of around the 1st May – Beltane can be seen as the beginning of Summer, or the height of Spring. It is thought that the ancients only recognised two seasons, these being Summer and Winter. Beltane is the time when the Earth is literally buzzing with fertility. Life springs forth in all of its richness, and the land is covered with beautiful flowers, the freshly opened leaves of the trees are a quality of green that they only show at this time of year. At Beltane the Lady of the Land takes the hand of the Horned God, and together they walk into the forest. Their cries of love bring all life from the Earth. Some celebrate Beltane on the dates given above, whilst others look to the flowers of the May tree as their signal that Beltane had, at last, arrived. Beltane isn’t just about sexual union, because most of the time when people make love they are actively trying to avoid having children. Beltane is about the burgeoning of new life, of the fresh growth of the crops, the flowers offering their nectar to the bees and insects and the fruit that will grow from that union. It is a celebration of the continuity of life that brings the harvests.
On or around the 1st August – Lughnasadh is the first of two harvest festivals, the other being Alban Elfed (the Autumn Equinox). At Lughnasadh we see the golden fields of corn being cut, and for some this is the true time of the festival. In the mythology of the Corn King John Barleycorn, who laid with the Lady in the woods at Beltane, has grown old, and now stands bent and bearded with a crocked cane. He looks to the Sun as he has changed from green to gold, and he known that his time has come. His life will feed the people, and it is this sacrifice that we honour at Lughnasadh.
On of around the 31st October – This is the festival where we honour the dead, a festival of remembrance of our dear departed friends and relations. It is said that, at Samhain, the veil that separates the worlds is at its thinnest. So our world, the world of Faerie, and that of the dead, blend as one. It is no wonder then that this night has become so wrapped in superstition. It is a night of wonder, and magic. On this night the Cailleach (the Crone) comes to strip the leaves from the trees, to quicken the decay of the flesh of the year, so that it may feed the new life to come. We can also ask Her to take the unwanted aspects of our personal year away, so that this too might be transformed. Yet even on the darkest night of Samhain, whilst our minds ponder our mortality, if you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of a new-born child crying for its Mother’s breast, for shortly it will be Alban Arthan, the Winter solstice, and the Wheel will turn once more.
Druid ritual takes many forms and has many functions. Druids draw on various sources for ritual – including mediaeval and later Celtic literature, previous generations of Druid revivalists, archaeology, ancient poetry, and other traditions. But they draw mainly on their own judgement, and experience, of what is right for a given moment. Most rituals begin with the call for peace for, as is said within Druid teaching, “without peace can no work be”. The Druid will approach each quarter and say “May there be peace in the (direction).” Then the Sacred Circle is cast, followed by calls to the Spirits of the four directions. Rituals are frequently composed for a particular combination of time, place and people. They vary from the open celebration of the Bardic Gorsedd to the intimacy of personal Rites of Passage. They may take place anywhere – from great Stone Circles to private rooms. Most take place outdoors, since contact with the Earth, Sea and Sky is very important to the practice of Druidry. Group rituals commonly celebrate the eight major festivals. Rites of Passage include the naming or blessing of children, the onset of puberty, Druid weddings (handfastings), and passing on. Rituals may also be directed towards healing or spiritual growth. Most of the common elements of Druid ritual are those associated with the Bardic tradition. These include the Gorsedd Prayer, written by lolo Morganwg:
Grant, Oh God/dess, thy protection,
And in protection, strength,
And in strength, understanding,
And in understanding, knowledge,
And in knowledge the knowledge of justice,
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it,
And in that love, the love of all existences,
And in the love of all existences, the love of God/dess and all goodness.
Although this prayer occurs widely in Modern Druidry, there are many who do not use it.
Another widespread element of Druid ritual is the Oath of Peace:
We swear by peace and love to stand,
Heart to heart, and hand in hand,
Mark, 0 Spirit, and hear us now,
Confirming this, our Sacred Vow.
Druid ritual brings the participants into contact with the Spiritual. Thus our lives are touched with the deep sources of inspiration, creativity, wisdom and healing.
Oh that I could see to the Other Realm –
that I could learn the magic of the Ancients.
Oh that the secrets of the Druids
could be whispered in my ears
that I might know their beauty and their power –
that I might love again this land
and hear the voices of the Goddess and the God
in the trees and in the rivers.
For more information about Druidry go to www.druidry.org
For details of open rituals, moots, camps and conferences in Sussex: www.anderidagorsedd.org