What is the Druid Revival?

What is the Druid Revival?

(from Chapter 1 of Druidry: A Green Way of Wisdom

©2003 by John Michael Greer. All rights reserved.

Most spiritual traditions began, or claim they began, with a revelation of absolute truth that gave them all the answers. Druidry is a different kind of spirituality, and its history traces out a different story. It doesn’t claim to have all the answers – in fact, it’s much more interested in asking the right questions – and it didn’t start with a revelation. It started with a quest.

That quest began in Britain some three hundred fifty years ago. For thousands of years people all through northwestern Europe have inhabited a land shaped by ancient hands. Tall stones loomed out of the grass, alone or in patterns. Long barrows and round barrows marked the skyline or rose in the middle of pastures and fields. Odd customs lingered around some of these, preserved by habit or a vague sense that ill-luck would follow if they were neglected. Living close to these things for countless generations, country folk in the seventeenth century barely saw them at all.

Thus when the gentleman scholar John Aubrey rode up to the little Wiltshire village of Avebury on a cold January day at the beginning of 1649, he had no idea that he was about to enter the greatest surviving temple of prehistoric Europe. Locals knew that hundreds of massive stones lay scattered across Avebury’s fields, but the broader pattern they formed – a vast triple circle inside a bank and ditch of gigantic scale – lay hidden in plain sight by its sheer size. Familiar with Stonehenge a day’s hard riding to the south, fascinated with the lore and legends of the English countryside, Aubrey saw meaning where others noticed only large inconvenient stones, and commented later that Avebury “did as much excell Stoneheng, as a Cathedral does a Parish church.”

Aubrey was a new kind of scholar, poised between the fading Renaissance and the first stirrings of the modern world. Like the great minds of the Renaissance, he sought what we would call a holistic view of things, a way of knowledge that took in all relevant information. Like the first proponents of the Scientific Revolution, he drew information first and foremost from the world around him, breaking free of the obsession with written texts that shackled the Middle Ages. The book he valued most, to use a common metaphor of the time, was the Book of Nature.

Like many of his contemporaries, Aubrey stood between a fading age and a dawning one in another way. He rode into Avebury less than a year after the end of the Thirty Years War, a nightmare struggle between Catholics and Protestants that left most of central Europe in smoking ruins. A few weeks after his visit, England’s King Charles I was beheaded in a savage finale to the English Civil War, a political and religious struggle that ripped English society to its core. These explosions came at the crest of a century of ferocious conflict over religion that left the moral claims of organized Christianity in tatters.

Many people of good will, horrified by the carnage, turned to the scientific materialism then being proposed by philosophers such as René Descartes. Yet the “mechanical philosophy,” as it was called, had problems of its own. Its vision of a clockwork universe set in motion by an absentee god threatened to empty the world of meaning. Reduce the entire cosmos to atoms in a void, a few insightful minds had already grasped, and every human value dissolves: courage, compassion, reverence, and love become meaningless mechanical reactions in the nervous system of an unimportant animal.

The forced choice between murderously dogmatic religion and spiritually barren materialism drove many people to look for a third option. Whispers of other possibilities were in the air, for those with ears to hear. Ancient manuscripts rediscovered by Renaissance scholars offered glimpses of long-forgotten spiritual paths. Travelers from far countries brought back stories of shamanic traditions in North America, Lapland, and the eastern reaches of the expanding Russian Empire.

Another factor lay closer to home. Monuments such as Avebury and Stonehenge posed a silent challenge to the British culture of Aubrey’s time. As Aubrey and other British antiquarians discovered the scale of their country’s megalithic ruins, their attention turned to what little was known of ancient Britain. What they found there, all but forgotten in a handful of Greek and Roman writings, were fragmentary references to a mysterious group of people called Druids.

Who were the Druids? The honest answer is that we really don’t know. Most of what was written about them in ancient times vanished forever when the Roman Empire collapsed. Every surviving text written about the Druids while they still existed, put together, add up to ten pages or so in English translation.

This meager harvest offers little solid knowledge. Druids lived among Celtic tribes in Gaul (modern France) and the British Isles, and apparently nowhere else. Their name might have meant “wise ones of the oak.” They taught a secret wisdom that had something to do with trees, and their sacred places were in forests. Some of the old writers call Druids philosophers, others call them wizards. Not once are they called priests, though they were present when offerings were made to the Celtic gods. Several writers divide them into three categories, Bards, Ovates, and Druids, the Bards being poets, the Ovates diviners, and the Druids teachers.

Druids in training memorized many lines of verse, since it was forbidden to set down their teachings in writing. Some students took twenty years to complete the course of study, which included theology, astronomy, and divinationand lore about an afterlife, though writers disagree on its nature. After finishing their studies, Druids formed a privileged class, exempt from taxes and military service. They settled disputes, and could part warring armies on the brink of battle.

Crucial questions about ancient Druids remain unanswered, and often unmentioned. Their origins? Julius Caesar, whose book on the Roman conquest of Gaul is the most detailed source on the Druids, noted that Druidic teachings were thought to come from Britain originally, while a Greek scholar claimed that the Druids got their lore from the Greek philosopher Pythagoras; no other writer refers to the subject. Their ceremonies? The unreliable Roman author Pliny describes Druids gathering mistletoe from an oak with a sickle of gold, several others refer offhand to Druids officiating when animals or humans were sacrificed, and most say nothing. Their organization? Caesar claimed that an Archdruid of Gaul was elected by other Druids; no one else refers to anything of the kind. Their daily life? No ancient writer mentions it at all.

After the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain, Druids fade from classical sources. A few references from the third and fourth centuries suggest that they were still around, but had come down in the world; one third-century Gaulish Druidess worked as an innkeeper. A few other Latin texts from the early Middle Ages, mostly biographies of saints, refer to Druids but provide nothing new.

These scraps are what the scholars of Aubrey’s time had to go on. Old Irish literature had more to say, but two centuries passed before anyone outside of Ireland realized that. Until then, ten pages of Greek and Roman references comprised nearly everything known for certain about Druids. Folklore, tradition, and mute evidence offered by old stones and earthworks of a forgotten age provided other information of uncertain value.

Yet it was enough. People all over Britain started trying to tease out Druid secrets from any available source. A surprising number of them went on to become Druids – to embrace a Druid spiritual path in their own lives. The idea of a green way of wisdom, a spirituality rooted in nature and the living earth, exercised a powerful attraction on many people who could not stomach either the rigid dogmatism of organized Christianity or the equally rigid nihilism of the emerging new science. Thus the study of a long-forgotten tradition gave birth to a serious attempt to revive it.

The Revival developed in many different directions, and never settled on one fixed form of belief or practice. Some Druids sought to reshape Christianity, the established religion of the age, while others rejected Christianity altogether and sought an alternative faith. Movements in this latter direction had to deal with serious legal problems, since believing in more than one god or questioning the doctrine of the Trinity were crimes under British law until the early nineteenth century, punishable by loss of civil rights and imprisonment. Pagan Druids had to step warily, but some amazingly innovative religious thinking went on in Druid circles despite the potential for legal trouble.

The core of this new spirituality was pantheism, the belief that the universe itself is a divine being. To eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pantheist Druids, Nature was literally divine, the material body of God, and nothing natural was to be despised or rejected. In the society of the time, with its rigid moral codes and formalities, this was explosive stuff.

At the same time, the first century and a half of the Druid Revival saw large overlaps between Druidry and the Latitudinarian movement within the Church of England. Latitudinarians hoped to turn Christianity away from doctrinal squabbles, urging tolerance for dissent and a personal spirituality based on meditation and individual study. Latitudinarian Druids such as William Stukeley (1687-1765) suggested that Druid nature mysticism was entirely compatible with this sort of Christianity. Meanwhile Druids borrowed a great deal from Anglican works on meditation and spiritual exercises.

These two currents, pantheism and Anglican Christianity, pulled the early Druid Revival in different directions but never quite pulled it apart. The two wings of the Revival sniped at each other, to be sure; Toland wrote a History of the Druids that was an extended satire on the Anglican Church, while Stukeley offered Druid teachings to Christians as a way to counter Toland’s ideas. Both currents spoke to the needs of their time, though, and made it possible to see Druidry as a spiritual path for the present. Most eighteenth-century Druids worked out a synthesis of the two while drawing on any source that seemed worthwhile, including personal inspiration and spiritual experience.

With nothing to go on but fragmentary Greek and Roman references, scattered folk traditions, the work of contemporary scholars, and the mute testimony of the British landscape, evidence was squeezed for whatever it would yield. Anything connected to Druids was fair game. An offhand comment by Caesar that ancient Druids taught lore about the planets sent a dozen Druid writers roaming Salisbury Plain, hoping to tease out secrets of Druid astronomy and cosmology from the ancient sites there. Two Greek authors compared Druids to Pythagoreans, a Greek sect devoted to sacred geometry and number mysticism; that was enough to put eager Druids in hot pursuit of Pythagorean lore, much of which ended up incorporated in Druid teachings.

Even more important was the simple comment in old texts that Druids worshipped in groves and forest glades. This glimpse of woodland spirituality evolved into a potent theme of the Revival. Druids and forests fused so totally in the imagination of the age that a 1743 book on growing oak trees, among the first English books of silviculture, was titled The Modern Druid. This needs to be understood in the context of the age. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution was under way, and its human and ecological costs were soaring out of sight. Mines, factories, and vast, fetid slums sprawled across England. In urban slums and factory districts, a new industrial landscape took shape, defined by brick, iron, and choking clouds of coal smoke.

This desecrated landscape gave a potent new meaning to Druidry. In an age drunk with the power of an earth-damaging technology, the vision of an older wisdom learned among trees and green places posed a forceful challenge to the new industrial order. The Anglican church offered no such challenge, and as the eighteenth century continued it lost touch with its own mystical traditions as well.

Contemporary scholarship also fed into the developing Druid tradition. Druids made an eager audience for books and articles about the Pagan past, comparative religion, myth, and folklore. These sources became fodder for reconstructions of ancient Druid teachings. Most of these reconstructions were far off the mark by today’s standards, but they were on the intellectual cutting edge in their own time. They also gave Druids tools that could be used to challenge the religious and social orthodoxies of the day.

Thus early eighteenth-century theories traced Pagan faiths back to the time of Noah via a hypothetical Helio-Arkite cult worshipping the Sun and Noah’s Ark. Druids borrowed these ideas, linked them to figures in Welsh myth, wove them into their rituals and teachings, and proceeded to claim that as good Helio-Arkites their religion was older and purer than the Church of England’s. By the second half of the same century, scholars were arguing that all religions evolved from the worship of penis and vagina as symbols of life and fertility. Druids borrowed these theories and applied them to Christianity itself, proposing calmly that Jesus was a phallic symbol and churches were immense stone vaginas – and this in the middle of the Victorian era!

The deadpan humor of these examples was another of the Druid Revival’s traits, and it showed up early and often in Revival writings. Thus William Stukeley poked fun at the wild theories circulating around Stonehenge in the early eighteenth century by proposing, with a straight face, that a tribe of intelligent elephants from Africa might have built the great stone circle. A century and a half later Owen Morgan, Archdruid of the Druids of Pontypridd in Wales and a strong supporter of the sexual theory of religion, prefaced a book full of vivid erotic symbolism and sexual interpretations of Christian myth with a prim little note suggesting that only those with depraved imaginations would find anything offensive in its pages. Puckish comments of this sort kept Druidry’s critics off balance, and kept Druidry itself from becoming too pompous.

Celtic sources played an important but complex role in the Revival. Druids survived in Ireland and Scotland long after they vanished elsewhere, and scraps of Druid teaching could be traced in Irish and Scots Highland bardic schools that still existed in the early years of the Revival, but politics made these sources too hot to handle. The heirs of the exiled House of Stuart, driven from the British throne and widely hated in England for their attempts to erase civil and religious liberties, could count on armed support from Ireland and the Highlands through most of the eighteenth century. This helped poison relations between English and Gaelic communities, and made it impossible for English Druids to make use of Irish or Scots material until the threat of a Stuart reconquest was long past.

Wales was another matter. While Wales became Christian as early as any country in western Europe, remarkable survivals can be traced. Oxen were being sacrificed in half-Pagan rites at Clynnog Fawr as late as 1589. A few centuries earlier, during the last years of the Welsh struggle for independence, something very like a deliberate revival of Celtic Paganism seems to have taken place, setting mythic figures out of Welsh legend – Hu Gadarn, Ceridwen, Gwyn ap Nudd, and the like – in place of the Trinity and saints of conventional Christian devotion.

This shadowy medieval revival set the stage for the rise of Welsh Druidry in the nineteenth century. The Welsh poet and scholar Edward Williams (1747-1826), who wrote under the bardic name Iolo Morganwg, launched this branch of the Revival with a series of books and public rituals based on lore allegedly passed down through Welsh bardic circles. The trickster of the Druid Revival, Iolo was not above giving out his own exquisite poetry as the work of medieval Welsh bards. His writings are a mix of traditional Welsh lore, material borrowed from earlier Druid Revival authors, and his own brilliant inventions. For good or ill, no other individual had so great an impact on the nineteenth-century Revival.

Three main themes drawn from all these sources formed a broad consensus within which nineteenth-century Druids worked out their individual paths. First was a deep sense of reverence for the land, as living Nature and as the fabric into which ancient hands had woven mysteries of earth and stone. The image of the Druid sitting beneath a tree or a standing stone contemplating hidden mysteries, a commonplace of poets through the eighteenth century, became common reality in the nineteenth, though the white robes and pastoral staff of the image generally gave way to the wool jacket and walking stick of the middle-class Victorian out for a day in the country. Druids were also at the cutting edge of movements supporting natural medicine, healthier diet, and lifestyles more in tune with nature’s cycles.

A second common theme was personal spiritual development. Druid spirituality saw human souls working out their salvation from life to life, rather than facing divine judgment after a single life. Methods of meditation borrowed mostly from Anglican sources formed the most common system of inner development, though Druids borrowed freely from other traditions as well. Druids also used poetry, music, and the arts as tools for personal development.

Public ritual formed a third theme that set Druidry apart from most other alternative spiritual traditions in Britain. From midsummer of 1792, when Iolo Morganwg and a group of friends celebrated a gorsedd on Primrose Hill before a small crowd of baffled and fascinated Londoners, Druid tradition affirmed that certain ceremonies were best done “in the face of the sun, the eye of light.” Druid ceremonies could be performed at any equinox or solstice. Over the next century and a half this evolved into the familiar eight festivals of the modern Pagan year.

Though it had its problems, public ritual had a spectacular advantage: it made the Druids familiar. Few people in England harbored dark suspicions about Druids, since anyone curious about them could walk up to the ritual circle, look at the billowing robes and ceremonial banners, watch the sword thrust into its sheath as peace was proclaimed to the quarters, and hear the words of the ritual. Many people thought that Druids were dull or silly, but very few thought they were sinister. This gave them a respectability that helped keep Druidry out of the scrapes suffered by more secretive traditions.

It’s interesting to compare these central themes with core elements of other spiritual traditions then and now. Notably absent from traditional Druidry was any sense that Druids ought to hold any particular set of beliefs or restrict themselves to any particular set of practices. This freedom of thought and action ran straight over barriers few other people in the Western world could conceive of breaching. To most Victorians, for example, differences among religious beliefs opened up into vast social and cultural chasms. To commit oneself to any one set of theological opinions was to reject all others, and to embrace a radically distinct approach to the world.

Yet Druidry made room for monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, and more. A tradition that directed its reverence toward Nature, its disciplines toward the inner dimensions of the self, and its ceremonies toward the turning seasons had no need to impose some fixed definition on the higher realities behind these. People of many different theological opinions could all agree that Nature deserved reverence, hidden potentials of the self were worth uncovering, and the year’s cycle offered good reasons to celebrate. More than that, Druidry did not demand.

From this commitment to tolerance and openness grew a sense that Druidry had something to offer the world as a whole. While a few Druid organizations remained fixed in various nationalist creeds, most others began to see that Druidry transcended limits of place, culture, or ethnic background. To these Druids, the path they followed was a timeless spiritual possibility, open to all who shared its principles and was willing to learn its ways. In a world where strife between followers of dogmatic religions was a daily event, many Druids placed high hopes in a spiritual path that built bridges instead of raising walls. As the nineteenth centucry progressed, Druid teachings spread to Brittany, France, America, and Australasia, turning the Revival into an international phenomenon.

All these patterns continued into the twentieth century, yet powerful factors forced a reassessment of three hundred years of Druid tradition. The most important was the rise of scientific archeology. As scholars found ways to make the past yield up its secrets, core assumptions of many Druid orders turned out to be incorrect. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century image of the Druid, wise in the ways of green nature, gave way in scholarly literature to an “obscure barbarian priesthood” of no great interest to anyone but specialists.

This dismissal of Druidry was neither as objective nor as disinterested as its promoters sometimes claimed. Archeology in the twentieth century was a new science, eager to secure prestige and funding by staking out a territory and defending it against all comers. Thus the archeologist Glyn Daniels wrote letters demanding that “those horrid bogus Druids” be barred from Stonehenge, while his colleague Stuart Piggott condemned “self-styled Druids which today represent the fag-end of the myth” as “pathetic”

Despite biases and mixed motives, though, archeologists and historians were able to prove conclusively that the Druidry of the Revival was a modern spiritual movement, not an ancient one. Many Druids refused to accept this. By the nineteenth century, some Druid orders claimed unbroken lineages back to Stonehenge, or even less likely sources such as Egypt or lost Atlantis. Such claims became hard to defend, but once made they were even harder to give up, and some Druids clung to historically unlikely claims of a continuous tradition as though the spiritual validity of Druidry depended on them.

In fact, though, the spiritual validity of Druidry does not depend on history. The content of a spiritual tradition, not its pedigree, determines its validity. A tradition can be gray with the dust of centuries and still be useless, or even actively harmful, while another tradition freshly devised by some modern visionary can be a wholly valid path. Many Druids came to see this in the late twentieth century. They saw that Druidry’s relevance and power are a function of what it is, not where it comes from. As a living and vibrant spiritual tradition with three centuries of achievements to its credit, it can stand on its own, without enlisting ancient Druids to prop it up.

The rise to prominence of the Neopagan movement in the late twentieth century has brought Druidry new attention, though it also sparked quarrels. An even more powerful force bringing attention to Druidry is the growing ecological crisis of the late twentieth century. The industrial revolution launched in seventeenth-century Britain has come three hundred years later to dominate the globe, with ever more problematic consequences as each year follows the last.Druidry’s principled refusal to share in industrial society’s war against nature gave it a strong appeal to people seeking a saner way of relating to the world. At the same time, many Druid organizations took up the cause of the environment with enthusiasm. Druids who had long revered trees learned to plant them as well.

What will happen next? It’s anyone’s guess, since Druidry is a living path, not a rigid ideology. The Druid Revival is an ongoing quest, shaped by the challenges and needs of each age. The ecological troubles and inner discords that threaten an increasingly fragile industrial society make Druidry at least as relevant today as it was when John Aubrey rode into the village of Avebury and discovered a riddle written in ancient stone.