Article Provided by Damh the Bard
The Druid/Pagan world in the early 1960s, when the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) was created, was very different than it is now. Occult exploration was directed very much by ideas and rituals developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Theosophical Society, which, over the course of a very short time, helped to define the Western Mystery Tradition. At this time, ‘Druid’ and ‘Freemason’ were almost the same thing, with the dominant Druid groups being more like ‘Friendly Societies,’ mainly made up of men, and with very little spiritual direction. One of these groups would begin their meetings by placing a Bible on a table, and then banning the mention of religion. This was the Druid world in which Ross Nichols, the founder of the OBOD, began his life-long love of the Druid tradition, and all things Celtic. So how did Druidry get from this to become the dynamic and thriving spirituality we have today?
Ross had become friends with Gerald Gardner (who many now view as the father of modern Wicca) at the utopian Naturist resort of Speilplatz near St. Albans, Hertfordshire, and it is probably here that the foundations of the modern Pagan movement were laid. Between them, they set about creating the now familiar ‘Wheel of the Year,’ the cycle of eight seasonal festivals that divided the year up into approximately six-week parts. Each festival celebrated the changes in the agricultural and celestial worlds, which symbolically represented the dance between the Pagan God and Goddess of the Land. At that time, Druids only celebrated the two Equinoxes of Spring and autumn, and the Summer Solstice. Gardner introduced the wheel into his then-fledgling Wicca almost immediately. Druidry, on the other hand, had to wait until Ross formed the OBOD.
In 1964, when Ross was 62, three of the main influences in his spiritual life died. These were Gerald Gardner, the Ancient Druid Order’s Chief Macgregor Reid, and the Archbishop of the Ancient Celtic Church. Ross did not get on with the new Chief of the Ancient Druid Order, so took this opportunity to leave and start a new Order, one whose focus would be on re-introducing spirituality back into modern Druidry. So in 1964, the OBOD was born, and modern Druidry began the first steps that would lead it towards the Druidry practiced today.
Ross spent the next 11 years of his life exploring, developing, and creating. During the years, that Ross spent, as Chief of the OBOD one of his students was a young man named Philip Carr-Gomm. Ross had a great love of the energy of young people, and regularly included them in the open rituals performed by the Order at places like Primrose Hill in London, and Glastonbury Tor. Philip was a keen photographer, and Ross asked him to help create a photographic archive of the Order’s activities. Then, in 1970 at Beltane, Philip was initiated into the OBOD on Glastonbury Tor. At the time, the OBOD was still a small group, and when Ross died suddenly in 1975, the Order almost went with him; for 13 years, it slept. Then, in 1984, during a meditation, Ross appeared to Philip. He told him that the way of the Druid would become more and more important, that the teachings of the Druids would be of great relevance to our future, and that Philip should make them more widely available. So, for the next four years, Philip searched for anything that Ross had written down, finding the original manuscript of the Book of Druidry, much of his teaching material, and through a series of amazing coincidences, managed to piece together enough material to begin to create a teaching program. Continuing Ross’ structure of the three ‘grades’ of Bard, Ovate and Druid, the material was also so divided, which helped people to sustain a focus, and travel through a personal experiential journey. Then, in 1988, Philip was asked to re-form the Order, and to be its Chosen Chief.
It was the teaching program Philip created, and the method chosen to teach it, that would be responsible for the incredible growth of the OBOD in the late 80s and 90s. Now, in 2004, the OBOD is the largest and one of the most dynamic Druid organizations in the world.
The OBOD Now
The OBOD Druid tradition reflects the teachings of the ancient Druids; it helps provide a way to develop a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the Spirits of the Land and our ancestors. It also addresses a driving need to open up our inner creativity – to learn to see the world through the eyes of a poet. It also teaches the arts of seership and divination. There are no ‘thou shalt nots’ within the OBOD teachings. Each member is encouraged to discover their own individual relationship with the Divine, in whatever way it shows its face to them, be that through God, Goddess or Great Spirit. All the time with the knowledge that, although they develop this personal relationship, they have others who walk the Path beside them.
Organization of Groups:
Since the first people joined the Order in 1988, thousands of members have walked this path, creating a network of Druids with over 80 Groves and Seed groups around the world, and providing the basis of a real Druidic community. These groups are autonomous and are individual groups in their own right. However, what links the members of these groups together is the OBOD course – they have all walked a path that has been tread many times before, by many other people. This kinship is a bond between members of the Order. One of the benefits being that it avoids the intrusion of the ego. In the end, all members, if they wish, can move through the grades (or schools), and as each grade teaches different skills, the Bard is not inferior to the Ovate, nor the Ovate inferior to the Druid.
As a part of the natural growth of this community, the OBOD also hold camps and assemblies in the UK, Europe, North America and Australia.
Although the OBOD’s structure is divided into ‘grades’, they are more like ‘schools’ – each one teaching different skills, each one building on the other in a journey of spiritual discovery.
To provide a training that works on both the surface and at a far deeper, inner level, members are offered the support of a personal mentor. Members can request a tutor from a network of over 70 worldwide, who they can correspond with about their experiences with the course. The mentor’s role is not to ‘teach’ but to ‘walk the path’ with the member as tutor and friend.
The OBOD course takes its inspiration from the ancient Druids, but for it to be of value to us today, Druidry cannot simply be re-enactment. We need to allow ourselves to look at how the ancient teachings can help us grow and become more at one with the Natural World in our modern age. Druidry is not a ‘revealed’ religion, and therefore has no dogmatic ‘thou shalt nots’ – instead it is a living, breathing, thriving spirituality that the world needs now, more than ever before.
The Bardic Grade
The Bards were the shaman poets of the Druidic caste, and much of the knowledge we have about the ancient Druids comes from the old Bardic tales. One of these tales is the story of Taliesin, the Primary Bard of Britain. The OBOD Bardic grade uses the skill of Bardic teaching through story and poetry; we take the same journey as Gwion Bach (Little Innocent) so that through the experiences of the story, we can gain insight into the Wisdom of the Bards. So often people see spirituality as a way of escaping the world. But the Bardic course helps us become rooted in the Natural World that surrounds us, opening our eyes to the wonders that are there, just waiting to be discovered.
The Ovate Grade
If the Bardic grade teaches us of the wonders of the Natural World, then the Ovate grade takes our hand, and leads us into the deep forest. The Druids and trees are inextricably linked, and it is here, in the Ovate grade, that the work with trees and herbs begins. The Ovates were the Druidic seers, so it is within the safety of the forest that we begin to work with the skills of divination, healing and the magic of the Earth. Exploring our relationship with our ancestors of blood and of spirit; stepping into the dark Grove of Yews to commune with them and learn the wisdom of the night, and of the moon.
The Druid Grade
After the re-enchantment of the Bardic grade, and the deep discovery of the Ovate grade, the Druid grade then guides us towards an exploration of the mysteries of the stones and stars, and of those powers symbolized by the Dragon – deepening our learning and experience of Druid philosophy and magical practice. It will have taken at least two years to reach this point, and we will have journeyed to many places, both within and without. Our experiences will have taught us much and it is here, within the Druid grade, that we might be inspired to step into some form of service to the Druidic tradition.
Like many other paths, the OBOD honors the eight seasonal festivals of our modern Pagan traditions. These being:
The Solar Cycle
Alban Arthan (Winter Solstice): Alban Arthan means the Light of Arthur. Some Druid Orders believe this means the Light of the hero King Arthur Pendragon who is symbolically reborn as the Sun Child (The Mabon) at the time of the Solstice. Others see the Light belonging to the star constellation known as the Great Bear (or the Plough) – Arthur, or Art, being Gaelic for Bear. This constellation shines out in the sky and can symbolize the rebirth of the Sun. 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 reverse the course of the sun. This was probably calculated by the great circles of stone and burial grounds, which are aligned to this festival, such as Newgrange in Co. Meath, Eire. Sure enough, the next day the Sun began to move higher into the sky, showing that it had been reborn.
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 civilizations welcomed their Solar Gods at the time of greatest darkness – including Mithras (the bull-headed Warrior God), the Egyptian God Horus and, more recently, Jesus Christ
Alban Eilir (Spring Equinox): Alban Eilir means the Light of the Earth. 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 recognize 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): Alban Hefin means the Light of the Shore. Druidry has a great respect and reverence for places that are "in between" worlds. The seashore is one such place, where the three realms of Earth, Sea and Sky meet. There is great power in places such as these. Alban Hefin is the time of greatest light when the Solar God is crowned, by the Goddess, 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 is significant.
Alban Elfed (Autumn Equinox): Alban Elfed means the Light of the Water. 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 as Mother and Giver, for the great harvest. It is the beginning of autumn.
The Agricultural Cycle
Imbolc: On or around the 1st of February – This is seen in the OBOD 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.
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 danceOf old Jack Frost.
His crystal breathe 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.
Beltane: On or around the 1st of May – Beltane is the beginning of Summer, or the height of Spring. It is thought that the ancients only recognized 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 and 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 has, at last, arrived.
Lughnasadh: On or around the 1st of August – Lughnasadh is the first of two harvest festivals, the other being Alban Elfed (the Autumn Equinox). At Lughnasadh we see the fields of corn being cut, and for some this is the true time of the festival. In the fields 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 knows that his time has come. His life will feed the people, and it is this sacrifice that we honour at Lughnasadh.
Samhain: On of around the 31st of October – This is the festival of the dead, a festival of remembrance and honoring 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.
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.
Reading and Other Resources:
Phillip Carr-Gomm. The Druid Mysteries. Rider 2002
Druidcraft. Thorsons 2003
The Druid Animal Oracle. Connections 1996
Ross Nichols. Book of Druidry: History, Sites and Wisdom. Thorsons 1992.
Emma Restall Orr. Druid Priestess. Harper Collins 2001
To find out more about the OBOD or to contact the Order:
PO Box 1333
Lewes, E. Sussex, BN7 1DX.