By Dana O’Driscoll, Druid Adept and Archdruid of Water, AODA
In a comparative study of religion, it appears that all religions (or spiritual paths) have a set of core orientations or philosophies that form the underlying foundation upon which the religion and practice rests. This core philosophy is like the seed from which the entire tree of the religion grows. The tree that grows from the seed might branch in different directions, but all of those branches tie back clearly to that single seed. For example, in many forms of Christianity, we might see that core seed as salvation; this seed forms the bulk of Christian thought, belief, and action. In some forms of Buddhist thought, the seed is freedom from suffering. This core orientation helps shape the path, forms the foundation of what is considered right thought and right action on that path, gives the path purpose, and offers particular gifts to its practitioners or to the broader world. And most importantly, this core orientation drives a number of underlying morals, values, and assumptions that practitioners of that path hold.
Druidry is many things to many people, and the joke is that if you ask five different Druids about what Druidry is, you’ll likely get seven different answers. As scattered and diverse as the modern Druid movement seems to be, and even as diverse as AODA itself is, I believe that we too have a core philosophy and at least three expressions of that philosophy. And so, in this article, I’ll explore and articulate what I believe to be the core underlying philosophy of Druidry: connection.
Sources of Inspiration
The flow of Awen for this article comes from a few places. First, part of my insight comes from being in a leadership role as the Archdruid of Water in the AODA. In that role, I interact with many Druids at multiple points along their paths. This includes those new to Druidry—I hear about what they are seeking, what they hope to find, and why they joined the tradition. Later, I see them as they move through our curriculum, deepening their own understanding and interaction with nature. I also read the exams at the end of their time working through parts of our curriculum—so I’m hearing of the experiences of many on the Druid path who have taken up this spiritual practice in a serious way. Second, part of my inspiration is personal; it comes from my experience in working through the complete curriculum in two Druid orders, AODA (first, second, and third degrees) and OBOD (the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids’ Bardic, Ovate, and Druid courses) and coming to deep understandings over a decade of time about that work. Finally, I have attended and been part of many gatherings, online groups, and various initiatives in the Druid community in the midwestern and eastern United States. This article represents a synthesis of what I’ve read and discussed with others, and what I’ve generally understood over a period of time. But there is also another piece here—I’m also considering the overall trajectory of the Druid tradition itself: not what we are or were, but where we are heading and what potential exists for Druidry in the future.
On the Druid Revival
To understand what I believe to be the underlying core philosophy of Druidry, we first need to delve into the history of the Druid Revival and then move up to the present day. As Grand Archdruid Emeritus John Michael Greer has noted in multiple places, it is no coincidence that the very roots of the Druid Revival were established at the same time that industrialization rose in the British Isles. Farmers and peasants who had lived, sustained, and tended the land for countless generations were driven from their homes to work in factories (e.g., by the highland clearances and enclosure acts in Scotland in the eighteenth century).1 During this time, we see the rise in machine-based worldviews, that is, that humans are machines (and can work like machines, act like machines), and that nature is just another machine (we see the outcome of this thinking everywhere today, particularly in industrialized agriculture).
Our spiritual ancestors watched this scene unfolding: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress, the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities, the rampant pollution and exploitation, the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to the status of a machine. It was during this time that our spiritual ancestors reached deep—and creatively—into their own history to return to an earlier time when humans and nature were connected. This of course, describes not only the work of Iolo Morganwg (Barddas) but many of his contemporaries. The Druid Revival sought to reconnect with nature through ancient roots in a time when society was heading in the opposite direction. I believe it is the same reason that people today are so drawn to the Druid tradition—something is missing for them and a big part of that something is a connection with the living earth.
Now, a lot of the early Druid Revival works and authors have been discredited for creating texts they claimed were ancient, drawing upon found materials that they had created themselves.2 I find these attempts to discredit Revival authors problematic because they do not understand these texts in their own context. These early attempts at bringing back the ancient Druid traditions, I believe, were people’s response to living in an age that was quickly stripping the lands of their resources and filling the skies and rivers with pollution. They were working within the ethical and citation traditions of their age (and not ours) and seeking a response for their time. To me, the most important thing here is that our practice in the Druid Revival movement (of which AODA is a part) is descended from these original Druid Revival works, and that tradition was a spiritual response that emerged during the very beginnings of the current age of industrialization. These historical roots offer us much wisdom as we are living with the outcomes and consequences of the same industrial force.
Industrialization, with so much promise at the time, brought much harm not only to our living earth but to the preindustrial communities, customs, and ancestral legacy of the common people. The persistence and growth of the modern Druid tradition in these times, then, is not surprising. For over 300 years, our tradition has sought sources of inspiration and reconnection from the ancient Druids. It is in this perpetual seeking of reconnection that we can see how Druidry is, in some ways, a very human response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon most of us in the Western world. In other words, Druidry is us finding our way home.
Overall Druid Philosophy: The Power of Connection
What our spiritual ancestors in the Druid Revival were seeking, I believe, was (re)connection, a way to have a closer relationship with the living earth and with their own heritage. Through this history, we can see the seed planted that has grown into the modern Druid movement. It is this same connection that draws so many to the Druid path today and keeps so many of us practicing this spiritual tradition.
In the modern Druid movement, it is through the power of connection that we rekindle and learn how to cultivate a sacred relationship with nature, how to find and express our own creative gifts, and how to practice our path in a way that brings us wholeness and joy. When people come to the Druid path, this connection is what they often are seeking.3
In this way, Druidry is a direct response to the disconnection that those living in Westernized culture have experienced: seeking to reconnect with nature, with our own gifts, and with ourselves. So now, I’m going to walk through three expressions of this underlying philosophy as connection through nature, connection to one’s creative gifts and arts, and connection to one’s spirit. These certainly aren’t the only expressions possible—but I do see them as central to Druidry today.
Connecting to Nature
To say that the Druid path is about nature seems obvious—but Druidry is more than just being about nature. I can read books about nature and never set foot in the forest; I can know things about nature without ever connecting to it through the heart. Book knowledge alone does not give me a connection to nature, but simply some disconnected facts about it. When people ask what Druidry is about, the first thing most share is that it is a path of nature spirituality, that it embraces nature and relationship to nature at the core of its path, or that it honors nature through various activities (like seasonal celebrations). Yet an individual Druid’s relationship toward nature is multifaceted. I see this nature orientation as having at least three different aspects.
Nature Is Sacred
One of the key aspects of the Druid tradition is the belief in the inherent worth and sacredness of nature. In the broader world, many humans focus on what nature offers us, that is, what do we get out of it? What can this plant do for us? I have found that as students begin to delve deeper into the Druid path, a lot of the “what can I get from nature” orientation shifts to “nature has inherent worth.” Certainly, this is present in AODA’s first-degree curriculum, and it’s not surprising that I see this in work I do for AODA—people begin taking up this path without any clear sense of the role of nature in their lives, but after a few years of Druid study, observation, seasonal holidays, and the like, they have a profound shift in orientation toward the living earth. The shift here is learning to value nature simply because it exists and because we are a part of it.
Further, sacredness implies care and connection: we have deep respect, reverence, and awe concerning nature. We see it as something to be protected, preserved, and cherished. In the same way that other spiritual paths may see a shrine, city, or church as holy, we Druids see the living earth, her systems, and all life upon her as sacred. As part of this sacredness, Druids recognize the importance of living in harmony with nature.
Relationship to Nature
When we think of how humans treat a sacred thing, a couple of possible iterations occur. One is that we might put it on a pedestal (literally or figuratively) and admire it from a distance, keeping it safe and secure. Although some conservationists take this approach (for very good reasons), this is typically not the orientation that Druids take toward the living earth. Instead, most prefer to cultivate a sacred and powerful relationship with nature by interacting with her, connecting with her, and learning how to tend their relationships effectively instead of just observing from afar. Part of this relationship is that nature offers us teachings and deep understandings when we connect. This may involve regular visits to natural places and simply being in nature or performing various ceremonies in natural settings. Many Druids take this relationship further, working to tread more lightly upon the earth and live sustainably, participating in active healing of the land, planting trees, and more (and practicing permaculture; see “A Druid’s Guide to Permaculture” in Trilithon, volume 4). Relationship implies that we not only take, but also give back.
Connecting to Nature’s Cycles
Another major part of orientation toward nature is becoming an active observer and participant in the cycles of nature. Nature has many cycles through which we can observe and participate, cycles of the celestial heavens (the cycles of the sun or moon) that are tied to the land (seasons), or the cycle of nutrients through plants, fungi, and soil, or even the cycles of water upon the land. The cycle is a critical part of the way that Druids think about nature, and we build our sacred holidays and sacred activities around it, through gardening and foraging and other such activities.
And so, connection with nature is certainly at the core of the Druid tradition, but at least two other types of connection also seem central to this path.
Connecting with One’s Creativity and the Flow of Awen
A rekindling of our creative gifts, the bardic arts, and our human gifts is a second core part of the Druid path. In fact, one of the core symbols of Revival Druidry, and a term we chant in our rituals, is Awen. A common definition for Awen in the Druid community is “creative and divine inspiration.” It was likely Awen that flowed through the ancient bards as they crafted their stories and songs and delivered them to audiences all over the British Isles.4 It is Awen that flows from an inspired pen, hands, and body as we learn to once again express ourselves and be whole. It is Awen that has been systematically stripped from us as we allow commercialized creations to take the place of our own. And it is the inspiration of Awen we seek as we reconnect with our own creative gifts and expressions.
Let’s again tie this to how Druidry itself came to be and what it responds to. Modern commercialization and commodification teach people how to be good consumers rather than to provide for their own needs. Today’s entertainment industry in the United States is a trillion-dollar affair, and a big part of cultural participation is watching TV and movies, playing games, listening to music—all created by other people and purchased at a price. Our core birthright, that of performing our own stories, songs, poetry, dance, music, visual arts, sacred crafts, has been stripped away by these industries. It is a sad thing, I think, to sit around a fire in silence with a group of people in the twenty-first century because nobody knows what to do or how to entertain themselves (instead, they pull out the cell phones). The fire is silent, the stories and songs are stilled—the Awen has yet to flow into the hearts and spirits of those there. But each person has an inherent ability to let the Awen flow—through music, drumming, dance, song, stories, artwork, woodwork, and so many more things. In fact, if you come to a Druid event you’ll see a different kind of thing: a vibrant eisteddfod. An eisteddfod is a bardic circle, a chance to share one’s creative gifts with a larger community, and it is one of the many ways that the Druid path encourages people to reconnect with their own creative gifts. It is through the practice of the bardic arts that we can reconnect with our own spirits and create incredible things that empower us, encourage us, and help us heal.
Connecting to Individual Truths and a Personal Path
Most traditions have a set of core teachings, a sacred book, and a big part of the transmission of that tradition is to teach these materials to others and ensure that the beliefs and rules are followed by practitioners. In Druidry, nature is our sacred text, and each human’s relationship and interaction with her is different—we live in different ecosystems and climates, and engage in different kinds of work with the land, different cycles and seasons, and different needs. Because of this, we recognize and cultivate the development and pursuit of a personal path, and in the Druid tradition, these differences are celebrated rather than minimized. If you join a Druid order descended from the Druid Revival, we do have some common frameworks and practices, of course. In AODA, we have a common set of practices that gives us a framework; these include celebrating the solstices and equinoxes, working a ritual called the Sphere of Protection, engaging in lifestyle changes, planting trees, observing nature, discursive meditation, and practice of the Druid, ovate, and bardic arts. However, the specific expressions of a particular member’s own inner truth are central to the way in which those practices manifest, and are central to which additional practices are taken up.
This is to say that Druidry is a spiritual path that takes creativity, inspiration, and work: it is up to the individual to establish a personal practice, a personal cosmology, and no two Druids are the same. While most religions tell you what to believe and how to believe it, this is not the case with Druidry. I have found that this particular aspect of the Druid tradition is really difficult for new Druids and non-Druids to wrap their heads around, because to them, religion or spiritual practice requires adherence to a rigid, prescribed set of beliefs and behaviors. It takes a lot of conversation to explain the difference, that a religious practice could actually be something different. The question “What do Druids believe?” doesn’t seem to be right question to ask. Two Druids likely have the same larger philosophical orientations (as shared here) but not necessarily the same specific belief systems with regard to the nature of divinity, the possibility of life after death and reincarnation, the belief in spirits, and so on. For many Druids, there are some common themes, but these common themes don’t extend to all Druids. But what certainly seems to extend to all Druids is the seeking of a personal path and connecting with that personal path at the core of one’s being. And this is an honored and sacred thing within our own tradition. (And so, better questions might be “What do you as a Druid believe?” or “What do you do?”)
I see finding and following one’s own path as an inherently connecting kind of work: you develop a personal Druid path by exploring your own meanings and what resonates with you, what connects to your own beliefs, your lifestyle, the work you feel you are to do in the world. It is through exploring these connections that you are able to settle upon a set of beliefs and practices that ring true. The more you practice, the deeper those connections become. You might think of this like a path through the forest—there is underbrush when we begin, but the more we walk the path and establish what that path is, the easier it becomes and the more it is open to us.
A Triad of Druidry
You might notice that my own presentation of the philosophy of connection in Druidry comes in a three-part form. The following is a triad of this presentation (a triad is a common teaching tool in the Druid tradition descended from Irish and Welsh tradition).
Three philosophies of Druidry:
Connecting to nature
Connecting to our creative gifts
Connecting to our souls
It is through the connection to nature that we can be inspired, foster our creative gifts, and ultimately find our own paths deeper into ourselves and our core beliefs, practices, and work in the world.
1. Richards, A History of the Highland Clearances.
2. See, for example, Constantine, The Truth Against the World.
3. As an aside, interestingly enough, there are at least two denominations of Druidry (philosophies deriving from the Druid Revival and those breaking with the revival and seeking to reconstruct ancient Celtic religions). While all are descended from the Druid Revival traditions, in the 1970s some went on to seek to reconstruct ancient Druid practices and teachings. I think that these two currents of Druidry do still share an underlying core philosophy of connection, even if it manifests incredibly differently and may not have the same three expressions I share below.
4. For example, Taliesin, in the Book of Taliesin from the thirteenth century (likely from much older sources) in the poem “Festival” writes, “I shall sing of the Awen. . . . I know when it minishes; I know when it wells up; I know when it flows; I know when it overflows.”
Constantine, M. A. The Truth Against the World: Iolo Morganwg and Romantic Forgery. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007.
Richards, Eric. A History of the Highland Clearances. London: Croom Helm, 1985.
Morganwg, I. The Barddas of Iolo Morganwg, vols. 1 and 2. Edited by J. Williams Ab Ithel. London: Forgotten Books, 2007.
Dana O’Driscoll spent most of her childhood in the wooded hills of the Laurel Highlands region of Pennsylvania, making mud pies, building brush cabins, and eating berries. Thankfully, little has changed, and she can still be found searching out tasty mushrooms, gathering herbs, and playing her pan flute for the trees. Dana is often covered with paint, dirt, or both. She is a certified permaculture designer and is working toward a more resilient, self-sufficient lifestyle through beekeeping, perennial agriculture, animal husbandry, food preservation, herbalism, and natural building. Dana joined AODA in 2005 and, after completing her first and second degrees, earned the degree of Druid Adept in 2013. Her writings on Druidry and sustainability can be found at The Druid’s Garden.