Over the last few days within the Druid community, there has been much discussion about what essentially constitutes Druidry. It is a wonderful and interesting discussion and one, I believe, that is not at all new particularly since the 18th Century Romantic Revivals. Whilst I have not been following the many discussions on Facebook and the online forums, I have been following the more stately and considered pace of the blogsphere where opinion is perhaps slower and more considered. The discussion surrounds, in the main, whether the practice of Druidry should centre on devotion to the Celtic Gods of Britain and if the many other gods that the majority of folks I know work with, are diluting the tradition beyond all recognition. For other view points on this subject see http://www.rosher.me.uk/wordpress/?p=776&cpage=1#comment-46597 http://www.kristofferhughes.co.uk/1/post/2012/01/dilute-to-taste.html http://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/druidry-and/
My interest in the discussion is piqued because in many ways, my Druidry could be seen to fall outside the accepted norms although it is still wholly within the definition of the constitution of the Druid network http://druidnetwork.org/constitution which was agreed at the time of its publication by every Druid group it was sent to, and there were many hundreds consulted. It has been copied and pasted in to countless Druid websites around the world helping others to define and refine their own particular strand of Druidry. I hold a proud, firstly English and secondly British, identity, I am not immersed in the Celtic culture of Wales or Ireland or indeed Scotland and I am more interested in the landscape of my immediate locality than the Welsh mountains or valleys (although I am fond of them too), which for my ancestors would have been a week or more of hard walking away, if it ever even occurred to them to go. If I work with named gods at all, they are most likely to be those of my English ancestors: Freya, Frigg, Ing, Nerthus and Woden, Skadi and Njord, because they are the most immediate to me, singing within my ancestral blood and reflecing my home landscape. I say usually, but it is not exclusively; there too are my relationships with Rhiannon and Cerridwen, Black Annis, Isis and Pan. So am I one of the folks diluting Druidry? I guess many with a Celtocentric view-point would say ‘yes’ but that too depends on how you would define Druidry, and I know many more who would say ‘no’, understanding that a part of the tradition’s essential nature is diversity and perhaps always has been.
My firm belief (for it is important to remember that what we are working with here is belief and individual interpretation of source material upon which even the historians don’t agree) is that Druidry as a religion, from which the 18th Century revivalists drew their inspiration, finds its historical roots, as a priesthood with a recorded history, in Iron Age Wales. The Druids, as far as we can say anything about them, were the intelligensia, priests, philosophers and teachers, perhaps a sophisticated cultural movement in themselves. Yet where did the inspiration for this tradition come from, where are its roots? I for one do not believe that it appeared fully formed from nowhere, or that pagan religion in Britain began with the Welsh Druids in the Iron Age as a complete expression of a tradition that must be followed to the letter today in order to retain any authenticity. What of the priests of the British Isles before this time? What of the folk, the beliefs and traditions outside Wales in the Iron age and back further into the mists before the Iron Age migrations to Britain? As is widely acknowledged in the Druid Network; ‘Druidry was the native spiritual tradition of the peoples who inhabited the islands of Britain and Ireland, spreading through much of Europe. Though many consider it to have been a religion or political force that came to Britain with the influx of culture concurrent with the Iron Age, it is increasingly understood, and within the Network acknowledged, to be of an older indigenous if ever-evolving religious tradition sourced within these islands’. And this for me hits the proverbial nail on the head; an older, indigenous, if ever-evolving religious tradition. Druidry comes from the place where people and landscape find a relationship and that is true for the whole of the British Isles and probably beyond. It is older than the first records of the Iron Age Druids and has been here as long as there have been people in these Islands, long before the stories of the Mabinogion were thought of, let alone written down. It is the wind and the sun, the sea and the moon, the crops and the cycles, but most specifically it is our relationship of devotion with them.
We have a particularly strong and beautiful thread of Druidic Tradition in Wales and within the Mabinogion (although Druids are never actually mentioned within it) but for the majority of us, this does not exclusively define the tradition although it is a deep vein within it. It does not even do so historically when we look further afield to Ireland, Scotland and Gaul. That is before we even consider that the old texts were written in around the 14th Century, probably by Christians and the stories they tell may well not have been in any way recognisable to the Iron Age Druids, 1000 years is a long time in cultural evolution and oral tradition. They are a rich and strong source of shimmering inspiration, that has been foundational to much of my learning, but I wonder how many other threads of myth and legend have been lost; how different our picture of history and our tradition might be had we more of the old songs and stories that didn’t make it this far, fell beside the way. We can only build a picture based upon what we have, but we make a mistake if we assume that our version of history is complete, or that we know conclusively what happened and to whom, as the wonderful Ronald Hutton points out in his book, which vividly deconstructs Druidry and many of our strongly held notions of it. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Druids-History-Ronald-Hutton/dp/1852855339
Ultimately, if we are to acknowledge that the spirit of Druidry within these Islands is older than the Iron Age (and it is fundamental to my Druidry that it is), that it did not just rock up fully formed as the first, only and authoritative expression of priesthood in Britain; we must acknowledge that confining it to one pantheon, manuscript or location is to acknowledge only one facet of its breadth, depth and history. It is a tiny moment in the continuum of thousands and thousands of years of pagan tradition within these lands. I cannot imagine that we are not as different from the Druids of 2000 years ago, as they were from the Druids 2000 years before them, our attitudes, culture, gods and lore as distinct and different. It would be possible to confine Druidry to one pantheon, many do, and this is fine when it is not prescriptive. Because far from being based in truth and authenticity, this is a modern interpretation and perspective that does not well represent a tradition where every tribe in every valley of Britain probably had a different name for the mud. We might call her Rhiannon, we might call her Nerthus or Cudda; some may complain about the diversity but I think we know fewer names now than our ancestors did then and with archeological evidence of travellers and migrations to these islands stretching back as far as the first settlers, there is no reason to believe that Britain has been stuck in a bubble. New peoples and their gods have arrived and departed and settled many, many times adding new names to the cauldron, like the stones brought from all over Europe to create Silbury Hill. One only has to look at these many migrations to understand that in Britain, ‘native’ is a relative term with regards to humanity and the gods. Everything arrived here sooner or later except the land itself, even the Celts (and lets not even go in to deconstructing that one, here). I see Celtic culture as a part of the continuum, not the whole of it.
Through all of this I start to wonder how much, throughout history, the Druids have themselves been the suppressors or oppressors, dictating how and who a tribe worshiped, with constant squabbles over who is ‘right’. They wouldn’t have been the first priesthood to do so, organised religion is rarely without its corruption or power games. Against a violent and rapidly changing political Iron Age back-drop, I see no sense in romanticising our forebears, they were after all human, just as we are, the same drives and lusts, motivations and mistakes. We honour our ancestors for this very stuff, the stuff of being human. I hounour all my ancestors, every one who brought me to this point, The English, the scattering of Scotts and Welsh, the Cornish, the Devonians and those from Somerset. Their rich blend of heritage and culture and relationship with their lands is my religion. I don’t selectively honour the ones the fit the bill and discount all the rest. This tradition lives, it grows, it changes like the land which is not forever constant. If I am judged not to be a Druid by some, then so be it. Yet I was never one to toe the line or conform to the status quo, so I shall just continue to walk this path, serving my gods and ancestors.
If the Druids before us did occasionally play the role of the oppressor, dictating the gods we should worship and the way we should do it, lets chose not to make that mistake again now. If they never did before, surely let’s not start today. Rather, let us continue to allow folk to walk this path in freedom, expressing a Druidry that is bigger and stronger, deeper and broader than any of us individually. Somehow I imagine it will weather the storms.