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