Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Druidism was the ancient magical religious faith found to be operating in Gaul and later England and Ireland as the Romans pushed northward that has been revived as a twentieth century Neo-Pagan religion. The name derives from an old Welsh term for oak, implying that they are the people who know the wisdom of the trees. Julius Caesar encountered the Druids in Gaul in the first century B.C.E. where, among other duties, they oversaw the human sacrifices that were then part of the Celtic religion. From that time forward, a number of Romans chronicled their life, especially after the conquest of Britain in the next century. Gradually, Christianity was introduced into England and then in the fifth century into Ireland. Over the next few centuries, it replaced the Druid religion.

The ancient Druid tradition, largely passed through the oral tradition, was rendered into written form in the Middle Ages in two primary texts, the Mabinogion and the Book of Taliesin. Various elements of Druidism passed into folklore and survived in local customs and folk songs. Numerous archeological remains have been discovered and through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, efforts to reconstruct the history and belief of the Druids have proceeded. It is now generally believed that the Druids were firmly in place by the sixth century B.C.E., and evidence has emerged that suggests that Druidism may be traced to the time of the monolithic culture that built Stonehenge and related structures across the British Isles. Druidism may have survived in remote corners of rural Britain, and some have suggested that it could be found on the island of St. Kilda as late as the eighteenth century.

The fragments of literature on ancient Druidism leave considerable room for interpretation of Druid belief and practice (thus providing the base for the broad spectrum of belief and behavior among contemporary Druids). It is known that the community was organized around the three groups of functionaries. The bards were the keepers of the wisdom tradition. They memorized the key material of the tradition, much of which was put into poetic form and made it available to the people. The Ovates were the mediums/shamans of the community. Among their duties was the establishment of contact with ancestors in the spirit realm. They also engaged in divination of various kinds, including the reading of entrails, in attempts to predict the future. The Druid priests were the most powerful leaders in the community. They presided over worship and group ceremonies, and often served as advisors to the secular rulers.

The Druid religion was nature-based and its worship cycle was marked by the movements of the Sun and Moon. The year was marked by the changing positions of the rising sun, the solstices and equinoxes, and the four additional festivals halfway between these four that marked important points in the agricultural seasons. These were known by different names in different locations and at different times. Among the major contemporary British Druids, these are known as:

Samhuinn (October 31–November 2)
Winter Solstice (December 21 or 22)
Imbolc (February 1)
Spring Equinox (March 21)
Beltane (May 1)
Summer Solstice (June 21 or 22)
Lughnasadh (August 1)
Fall Equinox (September 22)

Today, the most notable date in the calendar is the summer solstice, when British Druids gather at Stonehenge for a sunrise service.

The Druids were especially associated with oaks and the mistletoe that grows as a parasite on it. According to Pliny, they gathered the mistletoe in a ritualized manner, used it in their rites, and drank its juice for its medicinal value.

Among the most controversial practices associated with Druids was human sacrifice. In their priestly service  mong the Celtics in Gaul, it was noted by Julius Caesar and Strabo that they oversaw the sacrifice of humans. Caesar mentioned the immense images which they filled with living victims and burned to death, a practice that was vividly pictured in the 1975 movie The Wicker Man.

Modern interest in Druidism can be traced to an amateur antiquarian, John Aubrey (1676–1697), who delved into the classical Druid texts and suggested that the Druids had worshiped at the old stone monuments in Wiltshire. His work began the association of Druidism and Stonehenge. A modern Druidism emerged into public notice in the next century when, in 1717, Deist writer John Toland (1670–1722) was  elected the chief of the first modern Druid order, An Tigh Geatha Gairdeachas. Reportedly Druids from previously existing groups from across England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany attended the inaugural meeting in London. Toland spent the last years of his life working on a history of the Druids, excerpts of which were posthumously published. 

Building on Aubrey’s work, the physician William Stukeley (1687–1765) did extensive observations in Wiltshire and brought the monumental structures to public attention. He published a book on Stonehenge in 1740 and on Avebury three years later. He described Druidism as the aboriginal patriarchal religion and reputedly succeeded Toland as the second chief of the modern Druid order. Stukeley was himself reputedly succeeded by the likes of poet William Blake and writer Geoffrey Higgins.

Interest in Druidism as the traditional pre-Christian religion of the British Isles led to the formation of several Druid organizations through the eighteenth century. The most important was the Ancient Order of Druids founded in London in 1781 by Henry Hurle. It is the largest Druid body in England with some 3000 members. Of interest, the order is primarily a male group, with women not permitted entrance to the majority of their lodges. There are some all-female lodges. Also founded at the end of the eighteenth century was a  uniquely Welsh Druid tradition centered in the channeled material of Edward Williams, better known by his Druid name Iolo Morganwg. A controversial figure, Williams offered his channeled material as genuine remnants of ancient Druid wisdom, and they were so accepted by some who did not understand their origin. When their origin was discovered, many dismissed Morganwg as a fraud; however, his group, the  Bardi/Druidic Eistedfoddau, still exists.

In the nineteenth century, the Druid movement spread across Europe and through the British Empire, though the groups that formed remained small and ephemeral. It was only in the context of the emergence of a larger Neo-Pagan movement, spearheaded by the new Witchcraft created by the British witch Gerald B. Gardner, that Druidism has found a friendly environment in which to grow and proliferate. Among the important groups to emerge in England in the post-Gardnerian context are the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids founded in 1864 by Ross Nichols and the Golden Section Order founded in 1975 by Colin Murray. Recently, a Council of British Druid Orders has emerged to provide fellowship among the many independent Druid groups.

In America, a new and separate Druid tradition was initiated in 1963 by students at Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota, as part of a protest of compulsory chapel at the churchrelated school. In order to gain permission not to attend chapel, the students fashioned a separate religion based upon their reading of books on ancient religion. Once the rules on compulsory chapel were dropped, the Druids discovered that they liked what they had created. Thus was born the Reformed Druids of North America that spread through the Neo-Pagan subculture. In Berkeley, California, the movement found a new leader in the person of Isaac Bonewits, who emerged as the most visible spokesperson of Druidism in North America. In 1983 he left the loosely organized Reformed Druid coalition to found Ar nDraiocht Fein, currently the largest  Druid group in North America. It has in turn given birth to additional groups such as the Henge of Keltria.

Carr-Gomm, Philip. The Elements of the Druid Tradition.
Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element, 1991.

Matthews, John, ed. The Druid Source Book. London: Brandford, 1998. 

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