Druidry and the English Tradition

One of the subjects that seems increasingly topical within modern Druidry, at least within the circles I am familiar with, is the move away from a Celtic centred perspective which some Druids seem to be currently exploring. Traditionally seen as the native religion of the Celtic Peoples of the British Isles, in particular since its modern revival, Druidry is most commonly associated with the mythologies, gods and stories of the Welsh and the Irish. It is an ancestral tradition, one based solidly upon the reverence that the people of these islands have held and continue to hold with their landscape. Whether we believe that its roots stretch back directly in an unbroken line to the ancient Druids, or whether we work with the understanding that our tradition is a modern construction which uses the old stories and writings from those cultures to construct our version of modern Druidry, the importance of ancestors and landscape cannot be understated. I am seeing this exploration outside of widely accepted Celtic culture happen within a variety of settings from online forums and gatherings, to the conversations I have with other pagans and the kind of speakers invited to Druid events. But, what I am not seeing is a great amount of writing on the subject, perhaps because it is a new school of thought and the ideas are not yet developed sufficiently, perhaps there is a fear to rock the boat a little. But for the time being at least, this seems to be a grass-roots movement, not widely articulated, yet it is there, real and growing.

So what has provoked this exploration outside of these mythologies and where are folk looking for inspiration? Mainly I am referring to the cross over between Druid and Heathen practice which is becoming increasingly common. Personally, and within my own craft, this has developed for a number of reasons. Firstly it has been with the understanding that history may well not be as we have been traditionally led to believe, where the ‘Celts’ and the peopling of the British Isles over the last few thousand years has been concerned (a whole new blog post in itself). Secondly, as an English woman, practicing my Animism within the Druid community, where do I look for the songs and stories of my own ancestors and nature? Where are my mythologies upon which to base my relationship and reverence with landscape? These two questions are of course inextricably bound, as Druids, our understanding of where we have come from and who we are profoundly affects our interaction with the world and where and how we find sanctity within it.

Whilst I have Welsh blood and indeed a Welsh surname by birth, a Scottish grandfather and an Austrian great, great, great somewhere along the line, my ancestry for generations back is predominantly English. My family has nestled within the rolling countryside of Oxfordshire for hundreds of (probably a thousand or two) years; I can trace my eight times great-grandmother and beyond, back to the village where I grew up. My religious practice yearned for stories which were about the places I lived, loved and recognised. The tales of the Mabinogion and the wilds of Wales evoke within me a time and place that is not my own and Ireland, well I’ve never even been there, I don’t know about the mud, or how the rain tastes, the people are unfamiliar. That is not to say that I don’t find relationship with the Celtic gods at all, I do have one or two powerful relationships with those deities, just as many Druids profess a dedication to Isis or Hecate and Pan, but they are not the main focus of my practice. Where I name deities at all, nothing makes my heart sing or my blood race in the way that the gods and stories of the Saxon folk do.

This body of lore, writing and material is often referred to as the Northern, Norse or Germanic traditions, Asatru or Heathenry, certainly, it is not usually associated with Druidry. Personally I prefer the term ‘English Tradition’. ‘Northern’ or ‘Norse’ suggests to me somewhere or a people other than here, something which is not native, which I believe is actually misleading. ‘Germanic’ of course is a technically accurate term when referring to the English language, but it still conveys to me a sense of something which is not entirely of this land. For me there are differences in the mythology which at first seem subtle but on exploration become quite distinct, the landscape and people who inspired the stories and our interpretation of the them, is after all completely different from continental Europe and I believe that the English have explored and used these stories, differently, claiming their own versions of them for much longer that was previously thought.

So why do I not call myself Heathen or Asatru? Neither are terms which sit well with me, to begin with I am not ‘true to the Aesir’ as the root of the word Asatru implies, most often my gods are the Giant folk of wild nature, regularly shunned by those who work with the civilised gods of human nature that those of Asgard represent. But perhaps most importantly, just as for our ancestors, religion is not only about the gods that we are devoted to but about the community and culture we chose to inhabit. Of course, we are able to make a conscious choice about this to a certain extent, certainly within the context of our chosen religious communities, in a way that our ancestors perhaps were not. I am at home in the deep green environmental ethic, the focus on absolute personal responsibility, and culture of learning and philosophy inherent within the Druid community. I like the people, they feel like ‘tribe’. It is distinct from the Heathen community in this respect, at least I have never found those things to my satisfaction there. To use the language of the senses, simply put, Heathens smell odd, like someone else’s house. Not necessarily unpleasant, just different.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have met with all kinds of reactions to the phenomena of a Druid working with these traditionally Heathen gods. Everything from open hostility and the sense that it is somehow blasphemous, to confusion and misunderstanding, but also and more often than I would have thought, a recognition and understanding that others work this way too. I have to say that I don’t understand the blasphemy reaction at all. I don’t believe that Heathens have the monopoly on English gods, any more than Druids have the monopoly on Celtic ones, to imagine that we have a true enough version of history to accurately recreate ‘what our ancestors did’ is deluded and falls into the same traps of the atheist movement in asserting that there can be one truth, one way of perceiving which is right and unquestionable. How do we know that the few remaining Druids, from the time of the Saxon migrations of the 5th Century  did not adopt some of the gods of the incoming tribes as the people married and interbred, or that the Saxon folk did not adopt some of the gods they found here, finding relationship with the landscape as they moved across it? I would imagine that they probably did. As you may have guessed, I am not a Reconstructionist.

If we are to examine the perception that it is possible to achieve any kind of purity or historical accuracy of religious tradition through Reconstructionism (and I don’t believe it is), the question quickly becomes one not only of IS this accurate, but WHEN was this accurate, and at what precise point in history? Just as our pagan religious traditions do not stand still or constant now, those of our ancestors did not either, history is testament to that. It is so vital that we continue to explore, without fear of diluting a purity of tradition, when that idea of purity is an entirely modern construct, created by revivalists. As an Animist who bases her religion on the sanctity of relationship, it is entirely my relationship with the gods, my ancestors and the world around me that guides and creates the reality of my practice which shifts and changes almost constantly. As one who has always been fascinated in the dark mixed up brew of English Pagan Tradition it seems only natural, in the true spirit of the Craft and within the parameters of honourable and conscious relationship, to just use what works. I believe our ancestors most certainly did!

Edited 18:13 10/11/12 for clarity and typo’s

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9 thoughts on “Druidry and the English Tradition

  1. druidcat says:

    Wonderful words, lady. As another English Druid lady, I entirely agree that our history does often seem to be subsumed by ‘outside’ (geographically speaking) forces. I used to wonder as a child why we weren’t good enough to have our own history!
    But while it’s hugely interesting to investigate, something I think some Reconstructionists might miss is how such practise is relevant NOW. And I think you have it – the taste of the rain, the feel of the grass. HERE, NOW. This is our practise, today – our history informs it, but we’re part of that, not slaves to it. What are we making it? :)
    Clearly you’ve inspired m ;) xx

  2. Nimue Brown says:

    Although I’m ethnically and geographically English, I talk online to a lot of druid folk who aren’t, who feel their druidly keenly but do not feel that ancestral call, because it’s not their ancestry, or the call to these lands, because they are heeding a land call that is immediate to them. It is most certainly a subject that need more airing and exploring, and I very much hope we’ll see more writers emerging.

  3. bish says:

    Interesting and provoking thoughts, Red. As much as the term Druid holds full worth for my own practice, the truth is that my blood is west of England for one generation, and south east for ten before slipping back into the south of France. That’s not merely a paternal or a maternal line, that’s most of me and mine back to long long ago, as genealogy has revealed. My own head space is Gloucestershire / Severn Vale – that is the land that owns me. The Irish and Welsh takes hold immense truths and inspiration, but they don’t own me as I know they own others on the path. Perhaps that is something I need to explore more fully, to find my own druid foundation, and it’s certainly something I’ll end up blogging about in time. Hugs from Gloucestershire, albeit written in deepest South Wales…

    • Good words, Bish. Yes, my sense has always been that Druidry is about relationship with landscape first and foremost and primarily the landscape that we are devoted to. In as much as that is true, the term Druid holds full worth for me too. Our ancestry is not inevitably where we end up being the most deeply devoted, the Lizard Penninsula in Cornwall holds so much of my heart, yet I cannot find a single ancestral record connected to there although I have a good branch on Dartmoor. I am sure that our affinity with place is as much a reflection of who we are in the here and now, our own bodily bundle of memories and stories finding reflection in our sense of place, as where we come from ancestrally. When we start to look outside of humanity in terms of ancestry to the landscape and find our mothers in the mud, our grandfathers in the clouds and the air we breathe, I think that is where we find our own foundations xx

  4. Nellie says:

    Oooo just found your blog. Brilliant stuff – I don’t always whole heartedly agree with everything but you make me think about things differently which is ALWAYS inspiring.
    I’m not sure how alike our practise might be but ye-gods! Our motivation is exactly the same. I’ve just begun exploring heathenry (though I don’t identify as ‘druid’) because after considering myself almost-cr (with a little bit of wiggle room) I’ve come to think that there’s a damn good chance that my lands, my home, was never celtic to begin with. And for me it’s about seeking relationship with my land. Though I don’t know nearly enough, what I have read so far has been enough for me to believe that Britain wasn’t necessarily pan-celtic when the Romans came on the scene. Anglo-Saxon started to change shape in my thoughts and emotions after I started to think that through ;-)
    What you say makes an awful lot of sense to me. I’m looking forward to reading new posts!

  5. John says:

    I just discovered your blog, wonderful! I consider myself a Heathen Druid, my Gods are Odin,Thor,Sif, Frey and Freya. I consider myself mostly Vanic, I also Honor Celtic Gods, especially Cernunnos and Ceridwyn. So I don’t feel welcome in the holier than thou “Heathen” community.Pagans in the past were a lot more syncretic, and the reconstructionists try to recreate a monolithic tradition that never existed. Among the Norse, Germanic Tribes, including the Anglo Saxons, and the Celtic tribes there never was an overarching mythology embraced by all.

  6. Thanks, Jon and Nellie too! It’s always nice to ‘meet’ a kindred spirit. I too feel that mythologies were far more syncretic, the coherency of a tradition held within a tribe rather than an overarching belief system. Those monolithic traditions really are a modern invention in my opinion. Please do keep commenting, I dont always post as often as I’d like but your input is always welcome.

  7. Fox of the Oaks says:

    Hi Red, I enjoyed reading your post and can really relate to it.

    I was born in Australia, and live here still. My ancestry is a majority of English, then some Cornish and Scottish, and less French, Dutch, Scandanvian, and some slithers of others. I’m also Druid.

    While I enjoy the Welsh and Irish myths and teachings, I can’t honestly say they are my ‘spiritual home’. The Cornish feels closer, yet even during my time exploring Vedic and Chinese traditions, I felt a resonance with these, so how I am to know what is truly ‘home’, if such a thing is even possible to clearly define. (I do believe it is possible to find this, but on a spiritual, not intellectual level.) The Germanic myths and lore does hold a certain place in my heart, and more-so those that are found in England. As such, the uncertainty serves to inspire an ongoing quest as part of my druidry.

    The germanic worship of the Oak would seem to me a significant commonality with the English, the Celts and druidry. I’m often curious about the Germanic tradition, because wasn’t there Celtic peoples (and druids) in those regions before the well known later viking/heathen times? The oak was venerated. From what I have researched, it seems the line dividing the Celtic and the Germanic is more of a convenience than a reality, and there is much mixing, as you say, in the past.

    I totally appreciate what has been written about connecting with the immediate land beneath and around oneself. Being in Australia, that adds another dimension to all this. My family has been here for 5 generations. I do feel in some ways away from (but connected to) something deeper that resides in Europe and England. I feel the ancestral aspect of my druidry is something within me; it connects to my past and my genetics, and is the roots of what I do. How I apply and express my druidry is inspired by these roots, but finds its reality as is relevant to the present time and place. Other more immediate ‘ancestral connections’ come, for example, with the world around me, from my culture and family, and from other druids/pagans/people, as living traditions today, or as remnants of those of the past, carried on to this day in healthy, or unconcious or even distorted forms. It’s all a rich tapestry really.

    So I continue searching for my ancestral-spiritual home, as part of an unfolding quest in my practice of druidry; as the roots are always seeking deeper nourishment.

    Thank you for writing on a subject that is quite relevant to me at the moment.

    With peace,
    Fox of the Oaks.

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