James W. Maertens holds a doctorate in English literature from the University of Minnesota. He is a freelance writer of fiction and scholarly musings on the subjects of myth, Druidry, magic, and history. He is also a wandmaker and full-time, at-home Dad. He’s a Druid Companion of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, a member of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and Chancellor of the Avalon Center for Druidic Studies, which he founded. James’s Druidic name is Alferian and his philosophical interests range from Taoism and neoplatonism to alchemy and ceremonial magic.
Avalon Center for Druidic Studies (http://www.avaloncollege.org) was founded in 2004 to be a school of higher education offering courses and study programs inspired by the ancient Druids, Bards, and Ovates. It is intended to become a center for the serious scholarly study of Druidic philosophy and ancient Celtic traditions. ACDS presently is developing a curriculum of online college-level courses and working towards establishing a physical campus offering residential study. For more information and to apply as a student or a teacher, please see their web site.
1. What is a Druid?
Well, that depends on who you ask. The ancient druids are known to us through the contemporary writings of Classical writers such as Julius Caesar who set out to conquer the Gauls in what is now France and who harassed the British in what is now the British Isles. The Romans tended to describe the old druids as priests of the Gauls and Britons, intellectual leaders, doctors, judges, seers and wizards. We have medieval Irish tales that speak of Druids as cultural and political leaders, advisers to kings, sometimes set in opposition to Christian missionaries such as St. Patrick. Merlin, the wizard of King Arthur in the romances has become a classic image for the Druids of old. Sort of the last survivor of the old class of wizards who advised the Celtic kings.
Today the term “druid” refers to people who are inspired by the bits and pieces of the pre-Christian Celtic myths and legends and the hints we have from the Classical historians. These folks are usually members of one of the many Druidic orders, some dating back to the 18th century. The Druid Revival that occurred in England and Wales in the 18th and 19th centuries attempted to emulate the ancient “priests of nature” and revere them as the indigenous British sages and wise men of the oak groves who fought against foreign conquerors. Some of the early antiquarians who started the oldest Druidic orders sincerely thought they were preserving an ancient wisdom older than that of the Christian church. They were seeking a spirituality rooted in their own land and its peoples, not in the Middle East and the Biblical history of Israel and the Abrahamic religions. Equally well, they sought a philosophy that was not Greek and Roman, for that was considered equally foreign. However, hardly
anyone today claims to be preserving the practices and lore of the Iron Age druids. We are all quite interested in the Celts as a kind of silent lost culture from which most Europeans descend one way or another. It is the part of European culture which was largely unknown until the Druid Revival and the Irish Renaissance in the last century because, unlike the Greeks and Romans, the Celts didn’t write down anything and left almost no stone monuments.
In the middle of the twentieth century, there was another surge of interest in the idea of the Druids both in Britain and in America, spurred partly by the boom in academic study of the ancient Celts. So, now there are several branches of what is sometimes called Druidry or Druidism. I myself categorize modern druids into three types.
First, there are political druid groups in England who aim to protect the people’s right to access Neolithic stone circles such as Stonehenge.
Second, there are religious druid groups who pursue Druidism as a Neopagan polytheism. Some of these don’t even focus on Celtic deities but seek to reconstruct a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European religion.
The third category are philosophical druids, whose organizations operate more like traditional magical orders or lodges, pursuing a particular current of initiation with their own individual ceremonies and approaches to meditation, healing, seership, and magic. The three categories obviously blend and are not meant to be mutually exclusive.
So, you see, because there is no single thing called “The Druid Path,” there can be no easy definition of what a Druid is – or indeed what they were two thousand years ago. And that’s really the center of the deal: Each person pursing their own inner druid and what it means for them to be a druid. It may mean practicing magic. It may mean worshiping Brighid and Lugh or Cernunnos and Cerridwen. It may mean being an ecologist with spritual leanings, or even an atheist who just feels a deep reverence and respect for Nature (however that is defined). Some druids today pursue what they see as ancient Celtic shamanism, a kind of religion that is like the sages and medicine workers of many tribal peoples around the world. Others are seeking connection to their own family roots in one or more of the Celtic-speaking cultures — often Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall. Still others, myself included, are drawn to Druidry as a deep calling that cannot be readily explained by any obvious family connections. So, in the broadest terms, a modern druid is someone who feels some affinity
with those ancient wise men of the legends, about whom we know very little for a fact.
Finally, if that wasn’t complicated enough, the ancient Bards of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and elsewhere are considered to have been a part of the Druid order and the only part of it that survived openly in the medieval feudal courts. The Bards were (and are) storytellers, musicians, keepers of history, flatterers and satirists of the powerful.
In the broadest terms, the Bards were the creative artists of their times and understood how, for humans, reality is woven of words, images, and feelings. This also made a bard something of an enchanter.
2. Is being a Druid different from being a Wiccan or a Pagan?
Some modern Druids are Wiccan or eclectic witches, many consider themselves Pagans, but some are
Christians and some are atheists, so there is a definite difference. Modern Druidry in Britain was revived in the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids around the same time that Gerald Gardner was creating Wicca. Of course, some Wiccans will deny that Gerald Gardner invented Wicca as such, but be that as it may, historically, the Druid orders of the British Druid revival contributed a lot of ritual imagery and structure to Wicca. Gardner was a member of the Ancient Druid Order, and the ADO was itself apparently influenced by the ceremonial magical tradition which draws on medieval and ancient Egyptian sources. So, there is a family resemblance among all these threads of philosophy and practice. And, again, the answer to your question all depends on what sort of Druidry one is practicing. Generalizing is hazardous, but from my experience Druid orders and local groves are
much less intimate groups than a witch’s coven.
The object of druid groves is not usually to perform magical rites, however the more polytheistic sort of druids do raise “energy” in group rituals for transformative purposes.
One generalization that is sometimes made is that druids are more cerebral and witches more ecstatic, but I think it’s very hard to generalize about either movement. For me it is more about quiet meditation and communion with trees and animals and plants and about creative endeavors, such as writing and wood-carving. For other druids, it might be about quite different things, but the desire to commune with nature and sacred places seems very common among druids. In America, I suspect the tendency is to want to commune with and connect to wilderness or places of great natural beauty, while in England and Ireland the desire is to connect to places of particular historical significance or places such as Glastonbury Tor and Stonehenge, which are obviously sacred places in the landscape of our British ancestors, even if we can only guess at the details of their practices and beliefs.
3. I’m (insert any religious denomination here). Can I be a Druid?
Yes, as long as your religion is compatible with a philosophy that is completely open to individual conscience, inspiration, and respect for all people and all beings. A lot of Neopagans were raised in Christian or Jewish households and have turned to Neopaganism of one sort or another as a way of finding a religion that was more respectful of Nature, sexuality, women, and which was not steeped in the ideas of sin, punishment, and authoritarianism. Certainly, some ancient European pagan cultures were quite patriarchal and did not take an ecological point of view. But still, the root ideas of these religions of the country folk (the “paganus” in Latin) inspire a religion that returns modern people to a deeper connection with Nature and the cycle of the seasons, instead of the profound alienation that most people experience in modern Western culture.
One can find similar movements within Christianity certainly. The Traditional British Druid orders were founded as fraternal organizations and, like Freemasonry, did not require a member to renounce his or her religious beliefs, whatever they were. Orders such as OBOD and the AODA (Ancient Order of Druids in America) are not constituted as strictly “pagan” organizations. Avalon Center is the same way. While the study programs we offer are often of particular interest to Neopagans, the Center does not promulgate any particular religion,nor is it a religious organization.
4. I have horrible allergies. Seriously, I’m allergic to just about anything that grows outside. Is my destiny as a Druid ruined?
No. While druids do like to carry on outdoors and in the Natural surroundings, there is a side to Druidry,
especially as expressed in orders like the OBOD, which is mainly contemplative and focused on work in one’s “inner grove” within the imagination that is the doorway to the Otherworld.
Study of divination, healing, and the bardic arts are all part of OBOD’s Druidry and certainly the Druidry that Avalon Center embraces. And, of course, many if not most druids today live in cities. My own vision of a center for Druidic learning places our campus in a rural setting and has the students working with gardens, animals, and forestry, as well as learning the arts of sustainable living, but there is such a range of interests and ways of pursuing one’s own sacred expression that it is pretty wide open.
5. If I become a Druid do I get to have some cool magical name?
You can do that without becoming a Druid. Many druids today follow the tradition of magical lodges and take Druidic names, sometimes at each grade of Druidry (if they have grades in their particular tradition).
My own Druidic name (Alferian Gwydion MacLir) combines three parts that were bestowed on me by my inner guides at the grades of Bard, Ovate, and Druid within OBOD. The three names are actually from three languages — Elvish, Welsh, and Irish — and that triplicity and interweaving of language influences is part of my own peculiar Druidry. The purpose is not to get a “cool” name but to take a name that signifies your self-transformation into something new. Many druids take names from Celtic mythology or one of the Celtic languages, but many also follow the Native American tradition and chose animal names. A magical name is sometimes kept completely secret, like a secret identity, distinct from one’s public face. Many receive their names from their inner guides during meditation.
6. Do I have to be British to be a Druid, or does it just help?
No, you do not have to be British or have Celtic blood ancestry to be a druid in most groups. Very few modern druids consider it to be a matter of nationality. The larger druid organizations draw members from all over the world and the AODA is a specifically American group that has historical connections to the traditional British orders. ADF (Ar n’Draiocht Féin) is a different sort of organization that promulgates religious Druidism and Neopaganism more generally, but has separated itself from the Wiccan traditions. But nevertheless, ADF is primarily an American organization and most of its members are American. Traditional British Druidry does, however, focus a good deal on the sacred landscape of Britain and Ireland and on the languges and concepts of those cultures in their pre-Roman forms. The Arthurian legends also figure prominently in the teachings of orders such as the OBOD. So, if you are an American Anglophile like me its fine, but if you have no interest in the history and culture of Britian and Ireland (or some region of Old Celtic Europe), then your druidry will probably take a somewhat different form. I believe many American druids are influenced strongly by the shamanic spiritual culture and myths of Native American tribal peoples. Indeed, so are many of the British Druids.
7. Your school talks about the “Bardic tradition”. If you would kindly demonstrate this by writing a poem about The Magical Buffet?
There once was a girl named Rebecca
Whose tastes ranged from London to Mecca
She offered up choices
From alchemy to oysters
In a buffet for magical trekkers.
8. Who is your favorite character from The Lord of the Rings trilogy?
Oh, that’s a tough one. Galadriel, I’d say. I quite identify with Bilbo, however.
9. Arthur or Lancelot?
10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question?
What is the capital of Assyria?
(Ahem, cough) Assyria in earliest historical times referred to a region on the Upper Tigris river, named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assur. Later, as a nation and Empire, it also came to include roughly the northern half of Mesopotamia (the southern half being Babylonia) the capital being Nineveh. (thank you www.wikipedia.org!)