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StJ’s Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements

LOCATING CONTEMPORARY DRUIDRY1 Michael T. Cooper The religious identity of contemporary Druidry relies upon the historical record of the Celtic people. Much of what is known about the ancient Druids, the priestly class of the Celts, comes from Greek and Roman written sources as well as archaeology. There are no primary source documents of this ancient people due to the reliance on oral tradition as a means to pass on cultural patterns. The religion of the Celts, like many indigenous religions of Indo-European origin, was characterized by nature veneration, polytheism and worship of both male and female deities.2 It is almost impossible to identify the Celtic pantheon in any precise manner. However, the Celtic Studies scholar, Nora Chadwick surmised, “devotees might have sought from their deities such benefits as protection in war, succour in distress and guidance in life generally.”3 Among ancient sources, Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars identified Celtic deities with those of the Romans. He recounted their beliefs in a sovereign power as well as gods of art, manufacturing, healing and war. The religion seemed to be tribally focused with no real congruence of the gods and goddesses. The cult of a deity was identified with a location whether a spring, lake, river or forest. While the Celts had sacred enclosures or temples for laypeople, the Druid central places of worship were situated in the natural environments. Greek and Roman writers suggested that the Druids worshiped gods in uninhabited groves of trees.4 Groves were considered sacred places held in great awe and only approachable by the Druids. In part, the responsibility of the intellectual and religious life of the Celts resided with Druids. They studied for as long as twenty years to master their societal role and Chadwick described their teaching as “on a lofty plane and included such subjects as the stars and their motions, the nature and greatness of our earth, the power and majesty of the immortal gods, and other matters which comprised natural and moral philosophy.”5 Caesar relates that the Druids knew both Greek and Latin and were active in the political and military aspects of their people. He considered them the scientists and moral philosophers of the people as well as judges and arbitrators in public and private disputes. They taught that the soul was immortal and a part of the deity known to Caesar as Dis Pater. Instead of being extinguished at death, the soul’s existence would pass to other bodies. Such belief in the after-life gave credence to accounts of the Celts fearlessness in the face of death.6 Reliance upon a historical record of mainly secondary and tertiary

Locating Contemporary Druidry


sources of the Druids can be problematic. In the case of Caesar, there were clear political ambitions in mind in his relationship with Druids, at least two of whom he knew personally. Nevertheless, as Monica Emerich recognized, contemporary expressions of this ancient religion can generally be regarded in two ways. On the one hand, a revivalist movement is understood to utilize history simply as a starting point for the development of religious practices. Thus, revivalist movements incorporate traditions and practices of other Pagan religions since many ancient Druid practices are unrecoverable. Revivalist movements are typically labeled Neopagan since they are adding something new to their historical understanding. A reconstructionist movement, on the other hand, places greater significance on history and believes that ancient practices can be discovered and reconstructed by studying archaeology, epigraphs, historical records, folk traditions and the early literature of the United Kingdom.7 Admittedly, there is uncertainty over the understanding of contemporary Druidry as a revivalist or reconstructionist religion. Michael York’s threefold taxonomy for Paganism – geo, reco, neoPaganism – offers a helpful set of definitions for locating Druidry. He suggests that geopaganism’s source of religious identity is in part derived from nature veneration. It is typically a folk religion. Neopaganism is understood as referring to religions that have created practices without an identifiable ancient antecedent such as the Wheel of the Year. While Druidry does follow this cyclical calendar based on nature, it best fits with what York calls recopaganism, “Recopaganisms are the various attempts at reconstructing or reviving particular pagan traditions of the past.”8 One informant trying to explain ADF Druidry stated, “ADF Druidry is a reconstruction religion. We do this by researching history, archaeology and the way humans lived and their belief systems and their migrations.”9 There are certainly aspects of contemporary Druidry that fit each of York’s taxonomies. Even so, it is important to understand how the Druids self-identify. Ar nDraiocht Fein describes Druidry in the following manner: NeoPagan Druidry is a group of religions, philosophies and ways of life, rooted in ancient soil yet reaching for the stars. We are part of the larger NeoPagan movement, one of the world’s most vital and creative new religious awakenings. Like much of that movement we are polytheistic nature worshippers, working with the best aspects of the Pagan religions of our predecessors within a modern scientific, artistic, ecological and wholistic context using a nondogmatic and pluralistic approach.10 One informant responding to my initial contact described ADF as follows: There are other Druid churches just as there are Christian churches other than the EFCA [Evangelical Free Church of America]. And


StJ’s Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements

just as your beliefs may differ from those of, say, the Byzantine Catholic Church of Slovakia, so may ours differ from other Druid churches. In fact, since ADF is pan Indo-European in nature, our beliefs may differ from Grove to Grove, i.e. one Grove may have a Celtic focus while another may have a Slavic focus. In this way we are similar to the EFCA, or at least my understanding of the EFCA, which is, I believe, an association of independent congregations with a central mission but no central dogma.11 Isaac Bonewits, founder and first Archdruid of ADF, defined Druidry in light of its relationship with the ancient expression.12 As such, Druidry is a Neopagan religion. By this Bonewits meant that ADF would be a new expression of what he called Paleopaganism. He desired to differentiate Neopaganism from those Pagan religious groups that incorporated elements of Christianity or other religious elements into their practice. These ostensible Mesopaganisms took shape during the 17th-18th centuries and today find their existence in fraternal organizations such as the Freemasonry and Ordo Templi Orientis. These distinctions do not seem to be of necessary importance for adherents, however. Some insight is gained from Breanna’s comment on the subject: As for myself, I respond with a shameless yes to both terms. I am a Pagan and a Neo-Pagan. I find, however, as time goes on, that I call myself Pagan more and more, rather than Neo-Pagan. Probably because I’ve been a Pagan for ten and a half years now. I’m not exactly new to it anymore.13 Nonetheless, ADF has elements that are revivalistic in nature as well as reconstructionistic. They could also be considered geopagan, neopagan and recopagan. Since an exact definition is elusive, it seems reasonable, if only for an academic exercise, to prescribe the following: Contemporary Druidry is a new religious movement attempting to revive and reconstruct ancient folk practices associated with the Indo-European peoples. As such, contemporary Druidry is nature venerating and polytheistic with an explicit attempt to tie into what is known about ancient Druidic theology and practice. Ross Nichols, the first chosen chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), joined the Ancient Druid Order in 1954 and became a leader in the order. Due in part to the Iolo Morganwg’s influence on ADO as well as the influence of the Order of the Golden Dawn and the Theosophists, Nichols left the order to form a group that focused on Celtic mythology and folklore.14 According to Carr-Gomm, The preoccupation of eighteenth-century revivalists with seeing Druidry as a precursor to Christianity, and of nineteenth-century

Locating Contemporary Druidry


Theosophists and Universalists with seeing it as yet another manifestation of the Perennial Philosopy, had obscured the unique and dynamic qualities that Druidry offered the modern world.15 He states that Nichols’ desire was to revive a Druidry that not only drew upon historical roots, but was relevant for people’s lives.16 Nichols died in 1975 and his successor decided to close the Order. It was not until nine years after his death that one of his disciples who had been initiated into the order on May Day 1969 at Glastonbury Tor “suddenly became intensely aware of his [Nichols] presence.”17 Carr-Gomm noted, “After this experience, I knew that I had to gather all the material together, and begin to meet again with others to work with the teachings.”18 On St. Valentine’s Day 1988 the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids was refounded. OBOD’s description of itself is as follows: The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids is a spiritual group dedicated to practising, teaching, and developing Druidry as a valuable and inspiring spirituality. The Order was founded by Ross Nichols and a group of members of The Ancient Druid Order, including the writer Vera Chapman. The Ancient Druid Order developed during the early years of the last century out of the Druid Revival which began about three hundred years ago. The ADO traces its origins to 1717. The term ‘order’ is derived from the tradition of magical orders rather than from the tradition of religious orders. Neither the Order nor Druidry is a cult. A cult revolves around a personality, a charismatic leader, or a particular deity or saint. The Order and Druidry have none of these characteristics. Membership of the Order is open to followers of all faiths and none, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or ethnic origin, and there are currently over eight thousand members in fifty countries. Both the Feminine and the Masculine principles are celebrated and represented in the Order’s teachings and membership. The Order is not patriarchal or biased in favour of men – many women are in leadership roles and over half the membership is female. Although most members practise Druidry on their own, there are over ninety groups around the world that offer the opportunity for members to meet and celebrate together. In addition individual


StJ’s Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements

Locating Contemporary Druidry


members and groups organise gatherings, retreats, conferences and workshops.19 paleo-Pagans as having pre-Christian roots. 13 1

This entry is extracted from Michael T. Cooper, “Pathways to Druidry: A Case Study of Ar nDraiocht Fein,” Nova Religio (forthcoming) and Michael T. Cooper, “The Meaning of Life in Contempoary Druidry,” a paper presented at the Midwest Regional American Academy of Religion (2006) 2 Prudence Jones and Nigel Pinnock, A History of Pagan Europe (London: Routledge, 1995), 81. 3

Nora Chadwick, The Celts (London: Penguin, 1997), 147.


For example, Pliny stated, “The magicians perform no rites without using the foliage of those trees . . . it may be supposed that it is from this custom that they get their name of Druids, from the Greek word meaning ‘oak.’” Natural History, XVI, 95 5

Chadwick, The Celts, 68-72.


See the following ancient secondary and tertiary sources about Druids: Marcus Cicero, Concerning Divination; Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars; Pliny, Natural History; Hippolytus, The Refutation of all Heresies; Tacitus, Annales; Lucan, Pharsalia; Strabo, Geography; Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata; Origen, Against Celsus. 7

Monica Emerich, “Constructing ‘Celticity:’ How Pagans Define Celtic Spirituality Through Popular Discourse on the World Wide Web,” paper presented at the 2002 Annual Meeting of Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Salt Lake City, Utah. See also Marion Bowman, “Cardiac Celts: Images of the Celts in Paganism,” in Pagan Pathways: A Guide to the Ancient Earth Traditions, eds. Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman (London: Thorsons, 1996), 244. 8

Michael York, Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 61. 9

Rita, personal interview 11 March 2003.


Information from Accessed 10 March 2003. 11 12

Paul, personal interview 14 September 2002.

Or paleo-Paganism in Bonewits’s understanding. Bonewits defines meso-Pagans as that group who has Christian roots and


Breanna, personal interview 13 March 2003.

Philip Carr-Gomm, Druid Mysteries: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century (London: Rider, 2004), 48-49. 15 Ibid., 49. 16 Ibid., 107. 17 Philip Carr-Gomm, “Forward,” in Ross Nichols, The Book of Druidry (London: Thorson, 1990 [1975]), 11. 18 Ibid. 19 Information from modload&name= PagEd&file=index&topic_id=2&page_id=79 Accessed 4 June 2007.