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The Druidry Handbook
Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth
By JOHN MICHAEL GREER
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2006 John Michael Greer
All rights reserved.
CIRCLES AND STANDING STONES
Most spiritual traditions trace their history back to a revelation that gave them all the answers. Druidry is a different kind of spirituality, however, and its history tells a different tale. It doesn't claim to have all the answers—in fact, it's much more interested in asking questions—and it didn't start with a revelation. It started with a quest.
For thousands of years the British have inhabited a land shaped by ancient hands. Tall stones loom out of the grass, alone or in patterns. Long barrows and round barrows mark the skyline or rise in the middle of pastures and fields. Odd customs linger around some of these, preserved by habit or a vague sense that ill luck will follow if they are neglected. Living close to the shapes of the land and the echoes of tradition for countless generations, country folk in the seventeenth century came barely to see them at all.
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 ride to the south, and fascinated with the lore and legends of the English countryside, Aubrey saw meaning where others noticed only large inconvenient stones. He later commented 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 now call a holistic view of things. Like the first proponents of the Scientific Revolution, many of whom were among his friends, he drew information first and foremost from the world around him, breaking free of the obsession with written texts that had shackled the Middle Ages. The book he valued most, to use a revealing 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 apart the core of English society. These explosions capped 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 offered by philosophers such as René Descartes. Yet the "mechanical philosophy," as it was called, had problems of its own. Founded on a materialism that was just as dogmatic and rigid as the religions it opposed, the new vision of a clockwork universe set in motion by an absentee god threatened to empty the world of meaning and make humanity lose touch with its own spiritual possibilities. Reduce the cosmos to lifeless atoms colliding in a void, insightful people had already realized, and every human and spiritual value gives way to a universe ruled by blind necessity and brute force.
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 distant countries brought back tales of what we now call shamanic traditions in North America, Lapland, and the eastern reaches of the expanding Russian Empire.
Another potent 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 students of British antiquities discovered the sweep and magnitude of their country's megalithic ruins, their attention turned to what little was known of ancient Britain. What they found, all but forgotten in a handful of Greek and Roman writings, were fragmentary references to a mysterious group of people called Druids.
Diviners, Poets, and Teachers
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 in the fifth century of the Common Era. All the surviving texts written about the Druids when they still existed add up to a total of ten pages or so in English translation.
This meager harvest offers little solid knowledge. Druids lived among Celtic tribes in Gaul (modern France), Britain, Ireland, and apparently nowhere else. Their name may have meant "wise ones of the oak," although scholars have suggested many other interpretations. They taught a secret wisdom that probably had something to do with trees, and their sacred places were groves in the forest. Some classical writers call Druids philosophers; others call them wizards. Not once do the sources call them priests, although this is how most archeologists interpret them today. Several sources divide them into the three categories of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, the Bards being poets, the Ovates diviners, and the Druids teachers.
Custom forbade writing down Druid teachings, and Druids-intraining had to memorize prodigious amounts of lore in verse form. Some students took twenty years to complete the course of study, which included theology, astronomy, and divination. 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. Their origins? Julius Caesar, whose book on the Roman conquest of Gaul is the most detailed source we have, noted that Druid 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 playing some role when animals or humans were sacrificed to the gods. Most authors say nothing. Their organization? Caesar claimed that an Archdruid of Gaul was elected by other Druids, but 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 the classical sources. A few references from the third and fourth centuries suggest that they could still be found, but had come down in the world; one third-century Gaulish Druidess worked as an innkeeper. A few Latin texts from the early Middle Ages, mostly biographies of saints from the age of Christian conversions, refer to them but provide nothing new.
These scraps were all the scholars of Aubrey's time had on which to base their studies. 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 about Druids. Folklore, tradition, and the mute evidence offered by the old stones and earthworks of a forgotten age provided other sources of uncertain value.
Yet it was enough. People all over Britain started studying Druids, writing about Druids, trying to tease out Druid secrets from any available source. A surprising number of them went on to become Druids, to embrace Druidry as a spiritual path in their own lives. The idea of a green way of wisdom, a spirituality rooted in nature and the living Earth, had a potent attraction for people who couldn't stomach either the rigid dogmatism of organized Christianity or the equally rigid nihilism of emerging modern science. Thus research into a long-forgotten tradition gave birth to a serious attempt to revive it.
The Rebirth of Druidry
According to traditions current in English Druid orders, a crucial step in this process took place on 28 November 1717, when a meeting of Druid enthusiasts at the Apple Tree Tavern in Covent Garden, London, founded the Ancient Druid Order, the first Druid organization of modern times. Some overly enthusiastic modern Druids portray this meeting as a grand event drawing white-robed Druids from far and wide. The reality must have been more prosaic: a dozen men in ordinary dress in a private room of a middle-class pub, taking the first uncertain steps toward a Druid revival between tankards of ale and cider.
To date, nobody has found solid documentary evidence of the 1717 meeting, but the tradition is plausible enough. Eighteenth-century England was bursting at the seams with societies, clubs, and secret or semisecret orders, most of them poorly documented. Even such famous organizations as the Freemasons, who founded their first Grand Lodge earlier that same year, preserved few records from this time. A Druid society could well have flourished in London at that time and left only equivocal traces of its existence. Still, whether or not the 1717 meeting happened, it's clear that, in these same years, the broader Druid Revival was under way.
The earliest modern Druids came to the Revival with diverse agendas. Some sought to rework Christianity into a greener form, while others rejected Christianity altogether and sought an alternative faith. Movements in this latter direction faced serious legal problems, since believing in more than one god and questioning the Christian doctrine of the Trinity were crimes under British law until the early nineteenth century. Druids with alternative views had to step warily. Nonetheless, some amazingly innovative religious thinking occurred.
The central theme of this new spirituality was pantheism—a belief that the universe itself is a living, divine being. The word pantheism was coined by the Irish writer John Toland (1670–1722), whose many interests included Druid lore. Toland is among those said to have attended the 1717 London meeting, and certainly his views on religion had a major impact on the Druid Revival. To 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 formalities and moral codes, this was explosive stuff.
Yet the first century and a half of the Druid Revival also saw important links between Druidry and the Latitudinarian movement in the Church of England. Latitudinarians hoped to move the Church away from doctrinal squabbles, urged tolerance for dissent, and proposed a personal spirituality based on meditation and individual study. Latitudinarian Druids such as William Stukeley (1687–1765), whose Druid path led him to the Anglican ministry, held that Druid nature mysticism was entirely compatible with such a personal, non-dogmatic Christianity. Meanwhile, Druids of all kinds borrowed freely from the extensive Anglican literature on meditation and spiritual exercises.
These two currents—pantheism and Latitudinarian 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 promoted Druid teachings among his fellow Anglicans as a way to counter Toland's pantheism. Both currents spoke to the needs of their time, however, and helped people see Druidry as a path for the present, not simply a curiosity from the past.
THE REVIVAL TRADITIONS
The sheer limitations of the sources at hand forced Druidry to borrow and innovate from the very beginning. With so little to go on, the Revival squeezed the available evidence for whatever it would yield. Anything even slightly connected to the ancient Druids was fair game. An offhand comment by Caesar that Druids taught lore about the planets sent half a dozen Druid writers roaming Salisbury Plain, hoping to tease out secrets of Druid astronomy and cosmology from the megalithic sites there. Two ancient 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 Revival teachings.
Even more important was the simple fact that the ancient 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 British imagination that a 1743 book on growing oak trees, among the earliest books of silviculture in English, was titled The Modern Druid.
All these patterns, the borrowing and innovation as well as the Arcadian vision, need 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. The urban poor, most of them country folk driven off land their ancestors had farmed for generations, faced a world in which children as young as eight had to work sixteen-hour days to keep their families from starving. In urban slums and factory districts, a new industrial landscape took shape, defined by red brick, black iron, and choking clouds of coal smoke.
This desecrated landscape gave 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 forcefully challenged the legitimacy of the new industrial order. The second half of the eighteenth century, the first great flowering of Revival Druidry, was also the seedtime of modern ecological thought, the years in which British naturalist Rev. Gilbert White (1720–1793) wrote his pioneering Natural History of Selbourne and German polymath Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832) laid the foundations of a holistic science of nature. Insights such as these, and the broader movement of principled opposition to industrialism, played a crucial role in the growth of Druidry and helped shape its vision of a spirituality of green nature.
Historical scholarship also fed into the developing Druid tradition. Revival Druids made an eager audience for books about the Pagan past, comparative religion, myth, and folklore. From the beginning of the Revival, such works served as raw material for reconstructions of ancient Druid teachings. Most were far off the mark by today's standards, but were on the intellectual cutting edge of their own time. They also gave Druids tools that could be used to challenge the religious and social orthodoxies of the day.
Thus early nineteenth-century theories traced Paganism back to Noah via a hypothetical Helio-Arkite cult worshipping the Sun and Noah's ark. Druids borrowed these ideas, linked them to 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 last decades of the same century, scholars were arguing that all Pagan religions evolved from the worship of penis and vagina as symbols of life and fertility. Druids borrowed these theories and applied them to Christianity, proposing calmly that Jesus was a phallic symbol and churches were immense stone vaginas—all this in the middle of the Victorian era!
The deadpan humor of both of these examples was another trait that showed up early and often in the Revival. 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 could have built the great stone circle. A century and a half later, Owen Morgan, Archdruid of the Druids of Pontypridd in Wales and a supporter of the sexual theory of religion, prefaced a book full of vivid erotic symbolism and blatantly 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.
Druids and Masons
Another current that flowed into the Revival came from Freemasonry. The Order of Free and Accepted Masons started out as a medieval guild of stonemasons in England and Scotland. In the seventeenth century, Masons' lodges began admitting "accepted Masons"—members from outside the building trades who were attracted by Masonic rituals and symbolism as well as the social side of membership. By the first years of the eighteenth century, accepted Masons formed a majority in most lodges, and Freemasonry transformed itself into a men's social club dedicated to self-improvement and charitable assistance, as it remains today.
Excerpted from The Druidry Handbook by JOHN MICHAEL GREER. Copyright © 2006 John Michael Greer. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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