The full Moon gazes down upon the hilltop, her light illuminating the erected stone circle casting mystifying shadows upon the white robed and cowled individuals gathered there. Each bears a torch lighting the night as they encircle a pyre of sacred woods, Oak, Ash, Hawthorne, Holly, Willow, Alder, and Apple. Chanting flows on the night wind, joining together with the sounds of the night birds, the rustling of leaves, and the mumble of the wind to knit a tapestry of power around the hill. In unison, the robed figures stop, turn to face the pyre and then one by one, pitch their torches on the pyre setting it ablaze.
On the nearby lake bob boats stacked high with weapons, cauldrons, vases, mirrors, musical instruments, furniture, jewelry of gold, silver and copper. This is a full quarter of the tribe’s wealth to be sacrificed to Lugh, the God of Light. At the climax of the chanting, the fire reaches its zenith, an ethereal finger of smoke and flame reaches upwards towards the full moon. Then, the apparent leader of the robed priests and priestesses throws a sachet on the fire transforming the color of the flames from yellow and red to yellow and green, a sign to the warriors standing in the boats to heave the treasure overboard to sink to the bottom of the loch.
This is the sacrifice requisite for the Sun God to gift his light power, the power of life over death, to the body of Mother Earth to guarantee a good harvest by the time Samhain (sow – een NOT SAM-HANE as it is commonly mispronounced), the third and final harvest rolls around and winter sets in. Such sacrifices were critical in a time when the darkness and cold of winter could mean death if the crops were to fail.
This is the festival of Lughnasadh and is one of the four chief Celtic/Druidic festivals of the year. Lughnasadh along with the three other fire festivals, Beltane, Samhain, and Imbolc, all symbolize vital changes in the seasons and in the cycle of life that the Celts witnessed on a yearly basis. Is it possible that this festival was celebrated in this dramatic a fashion? Yes. Do we, as modern scholars, know for sure that it was celebrated in this dramatic fashion? No. The only thing we know for certain is that tons of treasure has been discovered by researchers at the bottom of lakes in lands that were traditionally Celtic.
Who were these robed men and women around the fire? These men and women were the Druids.
What is Druidry? To answer that question one must understand what a Druid is and what it is not.
It’s much easier to tackle what Druidry is not. Druidry is NOT any sort of devil worship. It is not any sort of demonology; the ancient Celts did not even have a concept of a demon or malevolent spirit. The Christian church spread rumors and propaganda that Druids were a gang of murderous baby-blood-drinking demon-worshippers who were regularly defeated by the miraculous actions of their missionaries with the blessing of the “one true god”.
The dilemma presented to scholars when trying to affirmatively classify Druidry is a distinct lack of hard evidence. As is common during this time period, much of the population of Celtia and Gaul was illiterate; this included not only the lowly pig farmer and many craftsmen but even extended all the way up to even the warrior kings, with the Druids being the only truly educated class it seems. As such, the Druids themselves practiced an oral tradition in which the myths and legends of the Celts and Gauls were memorized by bards and told or sung to the people to pass them down. Therefore, I must caution my reader, that this article, as a very brief overview of a faith and culture that is rich with history that spans Europe may create more questions than provide answers! But, as a Druid, I know and accept that this is the way things generally are, the more you learn, the less you know. So let’s get on with it, shall we?
The earliest known writings about the Druids were by the Greeks; for better or worse, these writings are lost to antiquity. The earliest writings about Celtic and Gaulish culture that remain available to us are from the Roman invaders of Gaul and the British Isles. Julius Caesar himself wrote of the Druids between 58 and 49 B.C.E. during his conquest of Gaul. Today one can still purchase a copy of The Conquest of Gaul in which Caesar describes the Druids as practicing a cruel and beastly faith of human sacrifice. It was Caesar who spread the belief that the Druids practiced ritualistic human sacrifice in the form of the “Wicker Man”, a huge woven figure in which men were placed and then set ablaze. It is now known that Julius Caesar never witnessed or even spoke to any witness of a “wicker man” sacrifice but relied on second and third-hand testimony for his descriptions. Today, many Neo-Druidic traditions have adopted the “Wicker man” ceremony as part of their Samhain festival to welcome the coming of the Celtic new year (sans the human sacrifice of course).
While scholars of the times of yore (and presumably the Roman Senate) took these works on their word (after all, this was Julius Caesar), today, there is more skepticism about the veracity of such writings. Scholars have developed a bit of healthy skepticism about these writings and after a bit of legitimate research it is now held that while the Celts and Gauls had capital punishment, no evidence exists supporting the notion of ritualistic human sacrifice amongst the Druids.
It has been suggested the Caesar embellished his tales to gather greater monetary, political and military support from Rome. And let’s be honest here, asking Romans to describe Druids, even the redoubtable Caesar of the Juliei, is a lot like asking Klansmen to describe African Americans, or Nazi’s to describe Jews.
DRUIDRY’S MYSTERIOUS ORIGINS:
There is an old saying amongst neo-pagans, “Ask two pagans, get three answers”. This holds true with Druidry and the history of Druidry as well. This is partly caused by the wide scope of Druidry, which extended from the British Isles, into Gaul (France) on up into Germany and parts of Scandinavia. Some evidence exists that Druids may have had contact as far away as India. So logically, having such a large range and touching on so many diverse cultures, Druidry comes in many “flavors” so to speak. Even so, much of the focus of the modern (20th Century) Neo-Druids (and of this article) has been on the Celtic Druidry of the British Isles.
Depending on whom you ask, Druidry originated in Czechoslovakia, Egypt, and India or even, yes, say it with me, Atlantis. There are even some who claim that Joshua of the Old Testament, or even Jesus Christ himself brought Druidry to the British Isles. As Druidry was written of at least 2500 years ago, legitimate scholars find both claims pathetically lacking in either evidence or historical accurateness and have generally been dismissed.
What is known is that the Druids were the learned class of the Celtic people and acted as priests, magi, and judges. They filled a role similar to the Brahmans of Indian society. In an exciting twist of history, scholars are coming to realize that the nature worship in the Indus valley is likely the foundation for many European tribal faiths which started spreading approximately 5000 years ago from the Indus Valley up through Europe and over to the British Isles. This potentially includes Druidry! At this time little “hard” evidence exists to support these theories. There is however an unusual synchronicity linking language, stories, myths and song that exist between modern Druidry and modern Hinduism.
For instance; cut to County Kerry, Ireland, where historian, Dr. Bryan McMahon sings an Irish folk song and then asks Indian guests to complete the tune. Almost always they will correctly finish the song. There is evidence in similarities of practices; the horse sacrifices of the Irish kings mirror those of the Brahmin to commemorate battle victories. Both Celts and Hindus worship a Goddess named Danu, a mother goddess that is astonishingly similar in both cultures (Appendix A). Even the Greek historian, Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55 B.C.E. –c.117 C.E.) commented on the similarity between the Brahman and Druidic ritual of bathing in rivers at the break of day to welcome the Sun. Other observations of cultural similarities include a lack of slavery, a warrior/king class, and strong ethical systems.
HISTORY OF NEO-DRUIDRY:
The ascendancy of Christianity saw the collapse of Druidry and paganism in Europe. Some Druidic orders died off, others went underground and still others converted to the new faith and commenced to record Druidic lore as Christian mythology and convert Celtic Gods and Goddess into the Catholic saints of Ireland, Scotland and England.
The Goddess Brigid (pronounced breed or bride depending on the dialect) is a direct example of the Celtic Goddess of Healers, Poets, Smiths, Childbirth and Inspiration being converted to Catholicism. The newly frocked monks started converting the old ways and adapting them to the new, now, St. Brigid is recognized as the patron saint of Ireland.
Starting in the late 18th century C.E. the Druid Revival started with several fraternal and cultural Druidic organizations came into being culminating in 1874 C.E. with a group of Freemasons organizing the Ancient & Archaeological Order of Druids (AAOD), a group that is historically significant in that it included several famous members including one Sir Winston Churchill (left).The AAOD was not a religious organization but was instead a fraternal organization meant to support members and charitable causes. It was in the early 20th Century that Druidry emerged as a spiritual path in its own right.
In Britain, George Watson MacGregor-Reid founded the Ancient Druid Order from which modern Druidic organizations such at the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD) and some Wiccan paths (particularly the highly ritualistic Gardnerian Tradition) have branched off.
Today, the major Druidic organization include, the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, based out of Great Britain, The Ancient and Archeological Order of Druids and The British Druid Order both also based out of Great Britain, The United States based organizations include the Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, the Henge of Keltria and the Reformed Druids of North America. See Appendix B for a list of internet links to these organizations home pages.
SO WHAT THE HECK IS THIS DRUIDRY* STUFF ANYWAY?
According the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, Druidism, or Druidry is for some a spiritual path, for others a religion, and for others a cultural activity. Well, that narrows it down to… well, pretty much anything doesn’t it?
Here’s where I stand. The OBOD elders pretty much got it right in most respects, except where they place an “or” in their description; I place an “AND” in mine. Modern Druidry (or Neo-Druidry) is a way of thinking. It includes a spiritual path, a religious affiliation and a cultural activity. As with Buddhism, anyone, Pagan, Christian, Hindu, Jew, whatever, can be a practitioner of Druidry.
Druidry’s prime focus is a desire to know and understand the universe around us. It is holistic in nature in that a modern Druid, while honoring the God(s) in which he or she has faith, tries to comprehend the supernatural, natural and man-made around him/her and using this knowledge (imperfect though it may be) attempt to minimize the harm they do in this world.
Like their cousins the witches, Druids today also study and teach of those things that are unseen in the physical realm. Psychological animalistic transformation, the study of lore, study of nature, and the study of magick* and divination are all a part of Druidry.
Druids had (and have) a close connection with nature, a deep knowledge of the plants and animals, it is said that when the Gods vanished from the face of the Earth, that they passed their knowledge of healing plants and herbs to the Druids. Much of this knowledge has been lost over the years.
As with Hinduism and other eastern religions, the ancient Druids believed in transubstantiation. Reincarnation into human and animal forms as well as trees, rocks, and features of the geography of the Earth are all supported.
A belief in the “Otherworld” included a belief that to be born in this world meant one had to die in the “Otherworld” and vice-versa. Thus the “Otherworld” is another life entirely, in a universe or existence that is unseen to most. Others represent the “Otherworld” as the “Cauldron of Rebirth” in which souls rest awaiting their next lives.
Neo-Druids, and Neo-Pagans in general, have also adopted the concept of Karma from Eastern faiths often expressed in the Law of Three Fold Return which states, “That which you send out, returns three times”. Meaning that if one does good, then good shall be visited upon him three times, but if one does evil, the three times rule applies also to the evil that will return upon him. I have seen no evidence indicating that the ancient Celts held a similar theory, but I admit my research in this particular area may be lacking.
As to being able to prove any of this to the satisfaction of naysayers, to quote Chakotay from the Star Trek series Voyager, “I accept there are things in the universe that can’t be scanned with a tricorder.”
Druids today do everything they can to cause as little harm to the world around them as possible and in general follow a creed that is commonly referred to as the “Wiccan Rede” (Wicca is probably the most studied neo-pagan faith) which states; “And that it harm none, do as thy will”. When pagans refer to the one rule and one law, the one rule is the Rede while the one law is the Law of Three Fold Return discussed in the previous section.
Many Druids however add to that a profound belief that it is their duty and obligation to prevent harm from occurring as well and recognize that in the course of a “normal” life one will cause harm! While it is common to hear of “bunny-huggers” within Wiccan circles, these are pagans who take the Rede to the extremes of total pacifism in an attempt to literally “harm-none”. In the most extreme cases, these individuals are willing to accept being harmed by others to avoid what they feel would result in an accumulation of karmic debt if they harm anything even by protecting themselves. While some may see this as a laudable goal, most modern Druids would see it as foolish and an attempt to live “outside” the real world. Humanity is not meant to contemplate their belly buttons!
For Druids, the phrase “it does little good for the sheep to vote for vegetarianism, if the wolves do not agree” holds truth. No matter how much an individual may wish to not do harm, they must be prepared to appropriately deal with individuals whose goal is to do harm. Thus, Druids practice martial arts, both old and new. The taking of life in self-defense does not conflict with Druidic religious beliefs.
As previously mentioned, not much is known of the rituals practiced by the ancients. What those who conquered Great Britain wrote cannot be taken as an objective chronicle of ancient Druidry. Later, during the start of the Christian era, the Druids were for all intents and purposes wiped out and their religion and ceremonies banned in an attempt to gain control of the people, and to replace their gods and beliefs with Christianities god and dogma. Thus the Druids were discredited and painted as ‘barbaric, sadistic priests of a dark religion.’
Neo-Druidic organizations have pieced together the writings of ex-Druid Christian monks, ancient historians, archeological evidence and many other sources to develop ceremonies for today.
The celebration of Beltainne (or Beltane, or Beltaine, or any number of other regional spellings representing the Rite of Spring) is one of, if not the most important of the four fire festivals.
Follows is just one example of a Neo-Druid Beltane Rite of Spring.
Todd D. Rainer
The Senior Druid blesses the ritual space, the cauldron, the chalice and the water/wine used in the ceremony.
The ceremony begins with everyone gathered outside the Western edge of the ritual space (usually defined as a circle). As people enter the Senior Druid and the Holly King greet them:
Holly King: Do you enter this circle with peace in your heart and of your own free will? (In some groves, the Holly King, who is charged with protecting the circle from danger, holds the point of a dagger (also called an athame) to the heart of the supplicant. This practice has fallen into misuse for safety reasons).
Supplicant: Answers the Holly King’s question. Answer TRUTHFULLY! There is nothing that can destroy the power of a ceremony quite like a foul spirit of one of its members! This is what destroyed Brie Leigh Grove. If you feel any negativity, hate or doubt then a magick circle is not place to be and you should bow out.
However, assuming that the supplicant answers in the affirmative
The Senior Druid States: Then join us in this holy rite my brother/sister.
- The supplicant is allowed to enter the circle and take their place.
Once the circle is complete the ceremony proper begins.
Purpose and Precedent
Generally spoken by Chief Druid, but can be split up as necessary:
“Slainte agus failte! Welcome to the offering rite of Beltainne, the Hinge of Summer, and the Day of Blessings. Now the earth grows green again in fact, warmed by the power of the Sun and the Waters’ cool strength. Shoot has become bud and bud is flowering as all life burns with the kindling of love’s fire. Now we rejoice in the heat of May, and look forward to the greater heat of summer.
In elder days the feast of Beltainne was a day of power and duty, when every fire was extinguished and every clan held fast to its luck for the coming season. The folk left their work and went into the fields and the greenwood. They roved among the blossoms and made love to one another to celebrate the Power of Life. They went into the Groves and made their worship of the Gods and Goddesses that sustained them.
As the ancients did before us, so we do now, and so our descendants may do in the future. We are come into the Grove to worship as they did, to offer to the Ancestors; to offer to the King and Queen of the Sidhe clans and all the Nature Spirits; and to offer to the beloved Shining Ones. Today we honor Aine, the Queen under the Mound, and the erotic power of renewal. Today we honor the Mac Oc as Aengus the Harper, the enchanting life of the Earth. Today we kindle new flame in ourselves as we dance among the Beltainne fires. And tonight, may we practice the Rites of Love in whatever way our spirit may guide us, to sustain the Power of Life. Ta go maith!”
Honoring the Patron Powers
A cloaked woman emerges, stands to the north of the Hallows with head bowed and cloak closed. Druid speaks:
In elder days, Erin the goddess was the mother of clans, called Aine, queen of the noble ones. Aine the mighty mated with mighty men and from them she bore many peoples. As each of them grew old she would renew her youth and love again.
So for us is the living earth goddess, who grows old with the winter and renews her youth in this merry, magical time. With each of her renewings she brings the flowing of new life, the erotic blossoming of every kindred, not just for the continuing of clans, but for the delight and regeneration of all beings.
Aine the ancient
Calleach the mighty
Bones of the Earth
Answer your children
Mother to maiden
Winter to summer
Root into blossom
Answer us, changer
Flow now the waters
All hearts rejoicing
Laughter and loving
Bounty and blessing
Now in the hinge-time
Wise ones are calling
Show us your wonder
O maiden of May!
All: Aine, accept our sacrifice!
An offering of scented oil is made to the Fire. The woman removes her cloak to reveal a young maiden, erotically dressed.
All cry: “Hail the queen of the May!”
The May Queen speaks, saying:
“Let the goddess of Earth hear our call as I hear it! Blessings upon all who do honor to the shining ones. In this season of renewal we do honor to the goddess of the wells, for the sacred well is the eye of the earth, the giver and receiver, the gate of the Sidhe!”
Maiden holds large bundle of cut flowers, says:
“Now let the well be dressed, honoring our simple symbol of all the worlds’ sacred wells.”
Nine men come forward in turn to dress the Well, surrounding it with flowers.
All sing ‘Way to the Well’.
When all are finished the Druid speaks:
“Surely it is true that when the maid of May appears in any place or any heart the delight of love cannot be far behind. In Erin the power of love’s joy was worshipped in Aengus Og, the son of Dagda and Baonn. He is the golden harper, whose music wakens longing and fulfillment in mortal hearts. He is the silver voice, calling all to come away from earthly care and join in the joy of May. Now let us welcome the young lord.”
The young son Maponos
Aengus the harper
Son of the Dagda
Whose staff is the strongest.
Born of enchantment
The son of the Mother
Sing, O enticer
Delighter of maidens
Sap in the branches
All making merry
Bee to the blossom
Hie to the Maying
Raise now the May-rod
Aengus we name you
Wonder child rising
Come to our calling
All: Aengus Og, accept our sacrifice!
An offering of scented oil is made to the Fire. The Bile, or other phallic rod is passed from woman to woman with much merry jesting, kissing of the pole, etc…
The May Queen then places the pole in the Earth again, saying:
Awake, O King-To-Be! Enter now the maiden Earth and bring joy and blessing to us all! Beannachtai!
Offering to the Sidhe*
The Faery Tree is brought out, or the Druid walks to the Tree (at the South?) Clouts of many colors, sparklies and amulets are available to hang on the Tree.
“In the elder days Aine the goddess was a queen of the Sidhe-folk, ruling form her mound in the south of Erin. Likewise Aengus was a king of the gentle people, making the faery music beneath the Brug Na Boyne. Now we call to them to open the way to the people of peace.
On the feast of Beltainne the veils between the worlds are thin. Now we honor the noble clans of the otherworld, the spirits of Earth to join our dance and receive due offering.
Come to the gates, gentle and lovely ones. Hear our call, we the children of Earth, who remember you. We offer you our worship, our reverence and our blessing.
You who rule in the wildwood, who give luck or bane, you who teach us the hidden ways and aid the wise, receive now these offerings made in your honor:”
*The Druid will recite the various Powers of the Sidhe, and one of the folk will tie a ribbon or clout or whatever to the Tree for each. This should go on for as long as necessary to raise the appropriate level of power in the circle.
The Druid recites things, such as:
- To the queens under the hill — Oonagh the Lovely, Cailleach the Ancient, Medb the Mighty and all…
- To the kings under the hill — Finvarra the Handsom, Bodb the Red, Eochaid the Stallion and all…
- To all the Sidhe-folk of poetry and wisdom — Inspirers and singers, you who grant sight and hearing…
- To all the Sidhe-folk who are warriors, wardens and keepers, champions and hunters, wrathful protectors…
- To all the Sidhe-folk of the makers, iron Sidhe and gold Sidhe, wood Sidhe and clay Sidhe and the folk in the loom…
- To all the Sidhe-folk of the soil, tillers and reapers, cattle Sidhe and arbor Sidhe and folk of the hearth…
- To all the Sidhe-folk of the Earth, stone and soil, stream and pool, bird and beast…
- To all the Sidhe-folk of the sea, merrow and selkie, of sunlit shallows and the deeps…
- To all the Sidhe-folk of the air, trooping Sidhe and the voices on the wind…
- To all of you we give these gifts and ornaments, asking you to bless us in the joy of the living…
all: Noble Sidhe, accept our sacrifice!
The company is instructed that if they do not have a praise offering they may come quietly to the Tree through the rest of the rite and make their offering. The Tree will be planted in the country after the rite.
Following the Hallowing and Drinking of the Waters (A ritual performed during the formation of the circle prior to the start of the ceremony) the Druids work the Fire of Blessing.
“Now as we stand filled with the power of our Goddess and God, let us work the spell of the Beltainne fires to drive away ill and bring us luck in the coming summer.”
Two fire-vessels are brought out and prepared. Sacred woods are available as in the charm.
One man and one Woman bring fire from the Fire. Fires conjured, saying:
We kindle these magic fires
In the presence of the mighty ones
In the power of the lovers
By Dagda the fire and by Brigid the fire
By oak — grant strength
By rowan — grant magic
By hazel — grant wisdom
Spring from darkness into light
Rise as the warmth of summer’s sun
This Beltainne day
Kindle within each of our hearts
A flame of love and wit and might
To friend and foe and all beings
Bring peace and beauty to the land
As life begins anew.
Ta Go Maith!
Now join hands all…
Step lightly in the dance and leave your winter cares behind
Receive the blessing of the shining ones
As you pass between the faery fires
Dance now, in the joy of May!
Music is struck up and a line dance led by one of the Druids, dancing between the two Fires, maybe doubling back for kisses.
All finally spiral into clump with a roar or “om”.
Druid deepens trance one last time, then speaks:
Bless, O great ones true and bountiful
Ourselves, our kind and our friends
Our work and our wealth.
May the Waters of Life sustain us
May the Fire of Passion enliven us
From day to day through every turning moon
From season to season
Through all the sacred year.
May the ancestors strengthen us
May the Sidhe-folk open our ways
May the goddesses and gods grant us wisdom.
Let the seeds of spring shoot and bud
And let our lives blossom with the May.
By our magic and gby the blessings of the old ways
Let all our blossoms come to fruit!
Ta Go Maith!
“Now by the keeper of the gates and by my magic I end what I began.
Let the fire be flame,
Let the well be water,
Let all be as it was before.
Let the gates be closed!
We have done as our ancestors have done, and as our children will do and the Kindreds have answered. We go now, children of the Earth, in peace and blessings. The ritual is at a close.
Biodh sé amhlaidh!
Druidry has a rich history and a bright future. Beyond that, it is up to the individual to draw their own conclusions about the importance of the Neo-Druidry movement. I have neither written this, nor intended to ask the reader to come here to pass any sort of judgment on either ancient or modern Druidry.
My first teacher in the Pagan faith told me as I now tell my own students. Read, read, read, read, read, and read some more. When you feel you have read enough, read more. Then speak with those in the know, the elders of the community, the leaders of the order, and even those who would be our enemies.
The more knowledge one has, the better armed one is to make up their own mind about anything.
It is my hope that in this short study that you, my reader, have found something of interest. If not, I apologize. But if so, then I advise you as I would advise my students; read, read, read, read, read and read some more.
Beannachd Dia dhuit*
(*blessings of God be with you – ScotsGaelic)