Profile: Avalon Center for Druidic Studies

Article Provided by Alferian Gwydion MacLir

Avalon Center for Druidic Studies was founded in 2005 as an institution of higher learning based in Druidic philosophy. The Druids were, of old, the judges, wizards, and priests of the ancient Celts and the modern Druidic revival is inspired by the Romantic image of priests of nature, wise men of the oaks and the sacred groves. To the antiquarians of the 18th century, such as William Stukeley, and the Romantic poets, such as William Blake, the ancient Bards and Druids became symbols of a native British spiritual tradition, one in tune with the land itself, not based on worldwide conquest and conversion or notions of orthodoxy and conformity. Today’s druids are inspired by that tradition, creating the modern Druidic philosophy as an earth-based spiritual path, a pagan religion, based in the love of the Earth and the respect for all species. Modern Druid philosophy forms the basis of Avalon Center’s approach to education – a philosophy that acknowledges the validity of both spirit and science.

The Avalon Center takes its name from the Isle of Avalon, so prominent in Welsh myth and the Arthurian legends. Avalon is the Otherworld, the world of the dead and the world of Faerie and for us it signifies the Druid devotion to the Ancestors and to the non-human spirits of Nature. The Center is inspired by the Bardic Colleges of old, where the Welsh, Irish, and Scots bards once learned the complex poetic forms of their language and the mysteries hidden in the poetic triads and visionary verse of such legendary figures as Taliesin and Merlin. The bardic ideal is founded in the idea that knowledge may be pursued through imagination as well as reason. Music, poetry, literature, myth, studio arts, and drama are at the core of Avalon Center’s curriculum. Magical arts, divination, energetic healing, and herbalism coexist as disciplines alongside natural history, philosophy, history, legal studies, and Celtic languages. The Center is embarking on a five year program of course development to create college-level courses in all of these subjects and programs of study that are inspired by the traditional Druidic grades of bard, ovate, and druid. In addition, the Center offers an introductory study program called the Awenydd program, named with the Welsh word meaning “one blessed with inspiration.” The Awen, is one of modern Druidry’s key concepts: the inspiration that links each of us to the Divine Imagination.

Avalon Center is committed to representing Druidry, or draiocht, as it is in Irish Gaelic, as a field of knowledge and practice, not as narrowly defined doctrines of any single “tradition” within paganism or occultism. In Irish draiocht can be translated simply as wizardry or magic, and at Avalon we interpret that in the broadest way, seeking to create a college of Druidry that can include lore from magical traditions across the world. It is the hope of the Governors and Faculty of Avalon that the Western magical tradition will come into open dialog with Eastern traditions and spiritual traditions from all nations. Taoism, Shinto, Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American traditions, African and Oceanic traditions all share common roots with Druidry in the human interconnection to the land, water, sky, and energies of the Earth, and the respect accorded to the spirits of place. These spiritual beings include the various beings commonly referred to as Faerie folk in the British tradition, but known by other names in almost all human cultures. They are beings of the land and of the elements. In modern Druidry such a animistic view is coupled to modern scientific explanations for natural phenomenon, and both ways of seeing are held as equally true in their own ways, not inimical to each other.

Pagan and magical education has been carried on for generations in secret, either in Wiccan covens, Druid orders and groves, or magical lodges. Secrecy has long been a part of this tradition of training and for initiatory orders and covens, this will undoubtedly continue to be the case. However, it is my hope, as Chancellor of Avalon Center, that the pagan community is ready to develop its own institutions of higher learning. Largely excluded from mainstream academia which sees magical philosophy as incompatible with scientific thought, the lore of wizards and witches, magicians and druids, has been forced into the margins, moved underground, and adopted by various counter-cultural movements. Avalon Center is founded in the hope that magical folk and those moved by a spirituality of Nature, can take the next step “out of the broom closet” and out of the margins of our culture.

Of course, there are many among both fundamentalist Christians and orthodox scientists who reject the idea of magic and divination. This is one reason pagans need their own institutions and academic standards applied to areas of knowledge that are typically rejected as superstition or delusion at best, devilry at worst. Because of this, Avalon Center is founded on the principles of religious tolerance and open discourse. Members of the Avalon Center faculty come from all philosophical backgrounds, including skeptics and atheists as well as witches and Druids of various theological opinions – pantheist, polytheist, panentheist, Gnostic, and agnostic. While we do cater to modern pagans, we also offer courses of study that will benefit students of other paths, or who are seeking their path. The Center’s history courses and proposed language and mythology courses will interest students whose principal desire is to discover their Celtic heritage. There is ever-increasing interest among those of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish descent in the study and revival of the native Celtic languages of Gael and Briton. Those not of direct Celtic descent will also find great rewards in the study of this almost lost culture that once dominated Northern Europe and extended from Iberia to Anatolia. A culture very different from that of Rome and Greece, which are so often thought to be the foundations of Western civilization. It might be said, that we represent the “barbarians.” But what is revealed is a complex culture that was rejected by the Romans in the same way that many other tribal cultures were, in the 18th and 19th centuries rejected by European imperialism. In the twentieth century and the twenty-first we have come to understand the value of these so-called “primitive” cultures and the hubris that drove the European empires that inherited the mantle of Rome.

So, one may well ask: What does an academic institution look like that is founded on the culture of barbarians and which embraces non-conformity and free-thought rather than conformity and orthodoxy? The Awenydd program in effect asks and addresses this very question, opening up students to dialogue about the nature of magical philosophy and of the spiritual ideas if the Celts and the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe.

The Center’s advanced study programs go beyond an introduction to magical philosophy and Celtic history. The Magister of Bardic Arts program interprets the role of the modern bard broadly. While revering the training of the ancient bard or filid of Celtica as poet and musician, we recognize that the core of bardic work is Awen, inspiration, and that creative expression and the preservation of myth and lore may take many forms. The required courses of the program focus on history and literature, myth, and lore. Through electives each bard can pursue artistic expression in music, poetry, prose, drama, or studio arts. In addition bards may choose to focus on the magical and divinatory arts.

The Magister of Ovate Studies program includes many electives to permit students to concentrate in areas such as healing, divination, magical arts, or natural history. The ovates of old were seers and diviners, often conducting the blood sacrifices and reading of entrails that were the stock in trade of the Iron Age. In our modern information age, it is the hope of the Center’s governors and Faculty that ovates will bring together such modern forms of augury as statistics and the ancient arts of intuition to follow their professional interests and healers, diviners, mages, or scientists. Avalon Center is unique at the present moment in developing an academic environment in which the intuitive and the empirical sciences can both be studied hand-in-hand.

For students who have achieve one or both of the Magister’s diplomas, further study is available at what is intended to be a doctoral level. The Ollamh of Druidic Studies program provides advanced students with training to become teachers of Ovates and Bards, to assume leadership roles as Druids within their local groves and Druid orders, and also to fulfill the role of pagan clergy, mentors, and counselors. Ollamh is an Irish Gaelic word that refers to non-medical doctors and was more anciently the title given to the highest rank among poets. In addition to courses in leadership and advanced meditation, students are expected to work closely with their dissertation adviser to write a substantial thesis of high scholarly merit on an appropriate topic, approved by the student’s dissertation committee.

At each level of study, the work is treated not as the pursuit of initiatory degrees, as such, but rather as work which can lead to traditional academic degrees. Once its curriculum is fully developed, Avalon Center intends to pursue registration as a college of higher learning in the State of Minnesota and accreditation by the regional accrediting body. This is a long and difficult process and it may prove that a pagan school will never be able to satisfy the standards which have been built up around modern research universities and financially well-endowed private colleges. There is talk among the heads of several pagan schools and seminaries to form a professional association that might further lead to the establishment of an accreditation system within the pagan community.

Now, some modern Pagans find the idea of pagan credentials to be almost a contradiction in terms. Many pursue the path out of a counter-cultural urge to reject both the Christian and the scientific Establishment. The desire to define oneself a pagan comes from a desire for simplicity and authentic living. It is a way of life, a way of living in Nature, not something that can be reduced to degrees and diplomas. Some Wiccans and druids object to the idea just as strenuously even where those traditions acknowledge degrees and titles of initiation. The very real objection lies in the feeling that initiation and esoteric knowledge cannot be measured by academic standards and that academia has, historically, focused on the teaching of dogma. I do not disagree with these objections. However, the Avalon Center is not setting out to issue credentials in Paganism – or for that matter in Druidry or Wicca as religions. Rather it is founded on the ideals of the cutting edge of educational thought today, which seeks to break away from the dogmatism and “correct answers” of the past. It sets out to offer, not a religious eduction, but study programs that are challenging and thorough, and which some individuals may enjoy for the love of learning. The pleasure of pursuing a course of study, carrying on discussions with like-minded (or different-minded) fellow students and teachers, of writing papers and even passing exams in a subject leading at last to a diploma – this is a particular pleasure enjoyed by some and not by others. It is by no means for everyone and it certainly should not imply that one is a “better” person, pagan or otherwise. A diploma merely signifies a certain achievement of serious study and writing or other creative work.

Will Avalon Center diplomas be acknowledged by employers or other institutions? Will they, in short, mean anything to anyone but the students and faculty of Avalon itself? That is something that must unfold naturally in time, as with all institutions that issue diplomas or degrees. Standards are set by a community and within a culture more broadly, and programs are evaluated for their merit. I fully suspect it will be a long time before pagan education is acknowledged outside of the pagan community. The idea of applying an academic model to magical philosophy is new. There might have been philosophical schools and even Druidic or Bardic colleges in the ancient world, but of course they were not structured like modern academia with its departments and disciplines.

Avalon Center does not embrace the modern academic model uncritically and indeed mainstream academia is breaking down the divisions of knowledge into “disciplines” in order to promote trans-disciplinary studies and collaborative work from experts in different fields. From the standpoint of Druidic philosophy, as I see it, the reunion of the sciences and the humanities is crucial, and both must be linked together through an understanding of the integral relationship between Nature and human beings. Unfortunately, as the last sentence illustrates, our separation of “us” and “Nature” is so built into our language that it is hard to even express the connectedness without reinforcing the duality. In Druidic philosophy (if one can generalize), human beings are seen to be part of Nature, not distinct from it. We do not have a god-given right to master and subdue Nature, as is expressed in the Biblical traditions. Rather, we are Nature and in this way Naturalism and Humanism merge, so that human nature and the human soul are the expressions of natural phenomena. The reverse is also true: natural phenomena are not soulless mechanisms which we can objectify and reify into “things” apart from ourselves. Natural phenomena are intimately implicated in the human mind and human imagination at all levels.

Such a philosophy is in keeping with the view of many traditional tribal cultures which have survived the attempts by Christianized Europe to “civilize” and “correct” them. What was a hundred years ago still regarded as “barbarism” is now accepted as a type of culture that is not inferior to European modern civilization, but simply different. Druids today, like many pagans, do not uncritically embrace the ideology of the machine which sees progress and “advancement” in purely technological terms. Increased power over Nature, power to change or tamper with nature is not seen as always “improvement.” Similarly, the notion of a landowner “improving” his or her property is not accepted in the typical sense. Nature does not need improving and it may well be that human beings would be more improved by adapting to Nature’s ways than by seeking to strip and cultivate and exploit the land, water, trees, and animals through technology.

Avalon Center intends to embark on a major fundraising campaign once our tax-exempt status has been secured. This campaign will allow us to acquire farmland in rural Minnesota suitable for residential study. On a small and intimate campus, students will be able to work directly with the land, trees, herbs, animals and their spirits. They will be able to take classes in a physical classroom as well as online, and work with teachers and mentors on their chosen academic quest for knowledge and understanding. We plan to engage in cultural education, showing how our Iron Age and Stone Age ancestors may have lived, as well as open community lectures intended to dispel the myths surrounding the practice of magic and its history. It is worth noting that no one at Avalon considers the practice of magic to be in opposition to the practice of religion. Indeed history suggests that the two expressions of human relatedness to the cosmos have always gone hand-in-hand. On the other hand, one may come to Avalon to study merely the magic of music and drama, history and literature and not pursue the magical arts or divination at all. Magic is essentially wonder, and that takes many forms.

Avalon requires students to seek admission to study with our faculty and the application process is made as painless as possible in order to encourage students of all ages and backgrounds to give it a try. Once enrolled, students are given guidance by an academic advisor as well as by individual instructors. Our goal is to support every student to do their very best and succeed in their studies. Online classes are especially challenging because they require so much self-discipline and time management. Courses taken at a physical campus where you have to show up at a particular time and place each week, provide a good deal of structure that is lost in the environment of cyberspace. However, when the challenge is met, one can engage in stimulating discussions with fellow students and teachers in the online classroom as well as in a material space. In time, we plan to offer both options and a fluid combination of the two, utilizing modern web-based technology. It will be a long and gradual process to build this institution, probably covering generations. No college was ever build entirely overnight. But as we druids say, we are growing at oak-speed.

It is my sincere hope that you will visit Avalon Center at www.avaloncollege.org and look at our cyber-classrooms and message board, which we fondly call AvalOnline. Come join us and contribute to the dream of a magical school, a place truly filled with the wonder we bring to our love of Nature and of Spirit.