Druids were the Priests and Law keepers of the Celtic Tribes.
Druidism, or Druidry as it is often called, is for some a spiritual path, for others a religion, and for others a cultural activity.
One of the most striking characteristics of Druidism is the degree to which it is free of dogma and any fixed set of beliefs or practices. In this way it manages to offer a spiritual path, and a way of being in the world that avoids many of the problems of intolerance and sectarianism that the established religions have encountered.
There is no ‘sacred text’ or the equivalent of a bible in Druidism and there is no universally agreed set of beliefs amongst Druids. Despite this, there are a number of ideas and beliefs that most Druids hold in common, and that help to define the nature of Druidism today.
Since Druidry is a spiritual path – a religion to some, a way of life to others – Druids share a belief in the fundamentally spiritual nature of life. Some will favour a particular way of understanding the source of this spiritual nature, and may feel themselves to be animists, pantheists, polytheists, monotheists or duotheists. Others will avoid choosing any one conception of Deity, believing that by its very nature this is unknowable by the mind.
Monotheistic druids believe there is one Deity: either a Goddess or God, or a Being who is better named Spirit or Great Spirit, to remove misleading associations to gender. But other druids are duotheists, believing that Deity exists as a pair of forces or beings, which they often characterise as the God and Goddess.
Polytheistic Druids believe that many gods and goddesses exist, while animists and pantheists believe that Deity does not exist as one or more personal gods, but is instead present in all things, and is everything.
Whether they have chosen to adopt a particular viewpoint or not, the greatest characteristic of most modern-day Druids lies in their tolerance of diversity: 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 others’ company – realising that none of us has the monopoly on truth, and that diversity is both healthy and natural.
Nature forms such an important focus of their reverence, that whatever beliefs they hold about Deity, all Druids sense Nature as divine or sacred. Every part of nature is sensed as part of the great web of life, with no one creature or aspect of it having supremacy over any other. Unlike religions that are anthropocentric, believing humanity occupies a central role in the scheme of life, this conception is systemic and holistic, and sees humankind as just one part of the wider family of life.
The Otherworld Edit
Although Druids love Nature, and draw inspiration and spiritual nourishment from it, they also believe that the world we see is not the only one that exists. A cornerstone of Druid belief is in the existence of the Otherworld – a realm or realms which exist beyond the reach of the physical senses, but which are nevertheless real.
This Otherworld is seen as the place we travel to when we die. But we can also visit it during our lifetime in dreams, in meditation, under hypnosis, or in ‘journeying’, when in a shamanic trance.
Different Druids will have different views on the nature of this Otherworld, but it is a universally held belief for three reasons. Firstly, all religions or spiritualities hold the view that another reality exists beyond the physical world, rather than agreeing with Materialism, that holds that only matter exists and is real. Secondly, Celtic mythology, which inspires so much of Druidism, is replete with descriptions of this Otherworld. Thirdly, the existence of the Otherworld is implicit in ‘the greatest belief’ of the ancient Druids, since classical writers stated that the Druids believed in a process that has been described as reincarnation or metempsychosis (in which a soul lives in a succession of forms, including both human and animal). In between each life in human or animal form the soul rests in the Otherworld.
Death and Rebirth Edit
While a Christian Druid may believe that the soul is only born once on Earth, most Druids adopt the belief of their ancient forebears that the soul undergoes a process of successive reincarnations – either always in human form, or in a variety of forms that might include trees and even rocks as well as animals.
Many Druids share the view reported by Philostratus of Tyana in the second century that the Celts believed that to be born in this world, we have to die in the Otherworld, and conversely, that when we die here, we are born into the Otherworld. For this reason, Druid funerals try to focus on the idea that the soul is experiencing a time of birth, even though we are experiencing that as their death to us.
The Three Goals of the Druid Edit
A clue as to the purpose behind the process of successive rebirths can be found if we look at the goals of the Druid. Druids seek above all the cultivation of wisdom, creativity and love. A number of lives on earth, rather than just one, gives us the opportunity to fully develop these qualities within us.
The goal of wisdom is shown to us in two old teaching stories – one the story of Fionn MacCumhaill (Finn MacCool) from Ireland, the other the story of Taliesin from Wales. In both stories wisdom is sought by an older person – in Ireland in the form of the Salmon of Wisdom, in Wales in the form of three drops of inspiration. In both stories a young helper ends up tasting the wisdom so jealously sought by the adults. These tales, rather than simply teaching the virtues of innocence and helpfulness, contain instructions for achieving wisdom, encoded within their symbolism and the sequence of events they describe, and for this reason are used in the teaching of Druidry.
The goal of creativity is also central to Druidism because the Bards have long been seen as participants in Druidry. Many believe that in the old days they transmitted the wisdom of the Druids in song and story, and that with their prodigious memories they knew the genealogies of the tribes and the stories associated with the local landscape. Celtic cultures display a love of art, music and beauty that often evokes an awareness of the Otherworld, and their old Bardic tales depict a world of sensual beauty in which craftspeople and artists are highly honoured. Today, many people are drawn to Druidry because they sense it is a spirituality that can help them develop their creativity. Rather than stressing the idea that this physical life is temporary, and that we should focus on the after-life, Druidism conveys the idea that we are meant to fully participate in life on earth, and that we are meant to express and share our creativity as much as we can.
Druidry can be seen as fostering the third goal of love in many different ways to encourage us to broaden our understanding and experience of it, so that we can love widely and deeply.
Druidry’s reverence for Nature encourages us to love the land, the Earth, the stars and the wild. It also encourages a love of peace: Druids were traditionally peace-makers, and still are. Often Druid ceremonies begin with offering peace to each cardinal direction, there is a Druid’s Peace Prayer, and Druids plant Peace Groves. The Druid path also encourages the love of beauty because it cultivates the Bard, the Artist Within, and fosters creativity.
The love of Justice is developed in modern Druidry by being mentioned in ‘The Druid’s Prayer’, and many believe that the ancient Druids were judges and law-makers, who were more interested in restorative than punitive justice. Druidry also encourages the love of story and myth, and many people today are drawn to it because they recognize the power of storytelling, and sense its potential to heal and enlighten as well as entertain.
In addition to all these types of love that Druidism fosters, it also recognizes the forming power of the past, and in doing this encourages a love of history and a reverence for the ancestors. The love of trees is fundamental in Druidism too, and as well as studying treelore, Druids today plant trees and sacred groves, and support reforestation programmes. Druids love stones too and build stone circles, collect stones and work with crystals. They love the truth, and seek this in their quest for wisdom and understanding. They love animals, seeing them as sacred, and they study animal lore. They love the body and sexuality believing both to be sacred.
Druidism also encourages a love of each other by fostering the magic of relationship and community, and above all a love of life, by encouraging celebration and a full commitment to life - it is not a spirituality which tries to help us escape from a full engagement with the world.
Some Druid groups today present their teachings in three grades or streams: those of the Bard, Ovate and Druid. The three goals sought by the Druid of love, wisdom and creative expression can be related to the work of these three streams. Bardic teachings help to develop our creativity, Ovate teachings help to develop our love for the natural world and the community of all life, and Druid teachings help us in our quest for wisdom.
DRUID FESTIVALS Edit
At the heart of Druidism lies a love of Nature and of her changing faces as the seasons turn. Eight times a year, once every six weeks or so, Druids participate in a celebration that expresses this love. These seasonal festivals can be large public events with hundreds of adults and children gathering at sacred sites, such as Stonehenge, Avebury, or Glastonbury in England, or at the other extreme, they can be very private events celebrated by a single Druid in their garden or living room, or by a small group of Druids and friends who have gathered together in a park or garden.
These eight seasonal festivals consist of the solstices and equinoxes - four moments during the year which are dictated by the relationship between the Earth and Sun – and the four ‘cross-quarter' festivals which are not determined astronomically, but are related to the traditional pastoral calendar.
The summer and winter solstices are celebrated when the sun rises and sets at its most southerly point (the northern hemisphere's midwinter) and at its most northerly point (the northern hemisphere's midsummer). The summer solstice occurs on the longest day of the year, usually the 21st or 22nd June in the northern hemisphere and the 21st or 22nd December in the southern. The winter solstice occurs on the shortest day of the year, usually the 21st or 22nd December in the northern hemisphere and the 21st or 22nd June in the southern. The equinoxes occur when day and night are equal. The spring equinox usually occurs on the 21st or 22nd March in the northern hemisphere and the 21st or 22nd September in the southern. The autumn equinox usually occurs on the 21st or 22nd September in the northern hemisphere and the 21st or 22nd March in the southern.
The other four festivals are also related to the seasons, but are not tied to specific astronomical events. Instead they have evolved from traditional festival times linked to farming practices begun in western Europe thousands of years ago: lambing in early February, bringing the cattle out to pasture in early May, the start of the harvest at the beginning of August, and the preparations for winter at the end of October.
Druids observe this eightfold cycle of festivals by meeting together, or celebrating on their own. Sometimes the celebration will be informal – a picnic with friends, or a party during which someone will speak about the time of year and its significance, with perhaps storytelling, music or poetry. At other times the celebration will be formal. When the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids celebrates the summer solstice at Stonehenge, for example, we are all robed and enact a formal ceremony amongst the stones. But when we are on Glastonbury Tor, we try to combine a formal ritual with informal elements: several hundred adults and children, and often a few dogs, will gather together in a circle. Some people will be wearing robes of different colour and design, others will be dressed in everyday clothes. A circle will be cast by children scattering petals or blowing bubbles, and a fire eater will bless the circle with fire, while the circle is also blessed by someone sprinkling everyone with water from Chalice Well. The ritual itself is formal, in the sense that it has been prepared in advance and includes traditional elements, but the ambience is informal and joyful. Every so often all participants will cheer ‘Hurrah!’, will laugh or clap, and at the closing of the ceremony the crowd will gather in clusters to sit and chat, to admire the view, or to picnic together.
Similarly, when celebrating the festivals with a grove of Druids in Wellington, New Zealand, twenty or thirty of us, colourfully dressed, gather in a garden and celebrate the festival while honouring the Druid heritage and respecting the indigenous Maori festival time too. Visiting Maori elders are welcomed, we tell stories, recite poetry, and sing and dance together.
Often these Druid festivals include a central section called by the Welsh word ‘Eisteddfod’ which means literally ‘a festival of sitting’, but which is really a time for the expression of creativity by anyone in the circle. Although certain participants may guide the festival, and have various roles within it (such as casting or blessing the circle) no-one is acting as a priest or priestess, in the sense of being an intermediary between the other participants and Deity.
The purpose of celebrating the eight seasonal festivals is to create a pattern or rhythm in our year that allows for a few hours’ pause every six weeks or so in our busy and often stressful routine, so that we can open to the magic of being alive on this earth at this special time. It gives us a chance to fully enter the moment, to connect with the life of the earth and the land around us, and to feel the influence of the season in our bodies, hearts and minds. If we celebrate on our own, it is a time when we can enter into meditation, perhaps reviewing our life since the last festival, thinking forward to the next one, then returning to open ourselves fully to the Here and Now – soaking in the energies of earth and sky, and the trees and plants around us, and radiating our love and blessings to the Earth and all beings.
Philip Carr-Gomm. What Do Druids Believe?. Granta, 2006 ISBN 1862078645