Two weeks ago, I was asked to speak at our local UU Church (First Unitarian Universalist Church of Indiana, PA) on the druid tradition. Of course, given the diversity of the druid tradition and the perpetual challenge in answering the question “What do druids believe?” it took some time to sort out what I wanted to say. I thought I might share these thoughts here as a good introduction to the druid path for those wanting to know more and/or as a resource to share with non-druids.
I grew up in the beautiful Laurel Highlands region of Western PA. As a child, I spent every free hour in the forest behind my house, building cabins, exploring, and talking with trees. When I was fourteen, the forest was logged, and my heart broke. For weeks, the grind of the chainsaw was in the air, and I suffered as the forest suffered, my own pain and past trauma welling up within me. I went down into the forest after it was over, to see which of my tree friends had remained–and it seemed like almost nobody had survived. It was so heartbreaking, I ended up not returning to the forest for many years. Almost a decade later, a friend who was dying of cancer insisted I return with him to that forest—and so we did. A miracle had occurred. No doubt, the forest was still full of downed trees and brush, but the way was passable, and the land had done tremendous healing. That step, back into the forest, and seeing the healing present, was the first formal step I took on the druid path, a path I’ve now been walking for over decade.
Druidry today has both ancient and modern roots. The tradition is inspired by the ancient Druids, wise sages who kept history, traditions, and guided the spiritual life of their people. The ancient Druids had three branches of study: the bard (a keeper of history, stories, and songs), the ovate (a sage of nature or shaman), and the druid (the keeper of the traditions, leader of spiritual practices, and keeper of the law). Much of what we know about the Ancient Druids today comes through their surviving legends, stories, mythology, and the writings of Roman authors: the druids themselves had a prohibition against writing anything down that was sacred, and so, we have only fragments. But fragments cannot be a full spiritual tradition.
In the period between 1700 and 1800, radical changes were happening in the British Isles, here in the USA, and across much of the western world. The rise of industrialization shifted many relationships between humans and the land. Farmers and peasants who had lived, sustained, and tended the land for countless generations were driven from their homes to work in factories. My spiritual ancestors, those associated with what we now call the “Druid Revival” watched this scene unfolding: the land stripped of her resources for industrialization and progress; the growing emphasis on produced goods over communities; the rampant pollution and exploitation industrialization was creating; the relegating of humans, animals, and the land to a resource for extraction, a machine. The importance of balance and nurturing the land was quickly being replaced by the ideas of infinite growth at any cost and exploitation. It was during this time that those that founded the druid tradition reached deeply–and creatively–into their own history to the ancient druids, to a time when humans and nature were more connected. And thus, the beginnings of my tradition, “Druid Revival” was born.
Industrialization, with so much promise at the time, continues to cause considerable pain to our earth and our human communities—and certainly each community and person experiences this in extreme ways.
It is in this seeking of reconnection to nature that we can see how for two and a half centuries, modern druidry is a human spiritual response to the larger wheels of industrialization that have been thrust upon us in the Western world.
The ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis as much as it is a crisis of culture. Druidry is us finding our way “home”; back into deep connection with the living earth. Many people today are drawn to the druid tradition there is “something” missing for them and it is that connection to nature.
Like the ancients, the modern druid tradition still recognizes the three divisions in druidry, and each druid embodies aspects of each of the paths of the bard, ovate, and druid. So, now that we’ve talked about the history of this tradition, I’d like to share information on each of these paths.
The first path of druidry is the Druid Path which focuses on dedication, magic, and mystery.
In druidry, nature is our sacred text, and each druid’s relationship and interaction with nature is different–we live in different ecosystems and climates, we are engaged in different kinds of work with the land, we have different cycles and seasons. Because of this, the druid revival tradition recognizes and cultivates the development of a personal spiritual path, and in the druid tradition, these differences are encouraged rather than minimized. In this way, revival druidry has a very similar philosophy to the Unitarian Universalists – belief is an individual choice. Being a druid doesn’t mean you can’t also hold Christian, a Buddhist, a UU, Pagan, or Atheist perspectives. Some of us are simply druids, and many of us are on a pagan path, but we have plenty of others who combine druidry with other things, like Christianity or Hinduism. All are celebrated.
Of course, in the druid tradition, we have common frameworks inspired by our spiritual ancestors. I belong to two druid orders: the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD), which is based in the UK and is the largest druid organization in the world, and the Ancient Order of Druids in America (or AODA), in which I currently serve in a leadership capacity and is focused on North American druidry. In AODA, for example, we have a common set of practices and a three part study program that people can engage in to spiritually connect with nature. These practices include celebrating the solstices and equinoxes, working a daily energetic practice called sphere of protection, engaging in lifestyle changes that honor the earth, planting trees, observing nature, daily meditation; honoring our ancestors of land, tradition, and blood; and practicing of the druid, ovate, and bardic arts. However, the specific expressions of a particular member’s own inner truth are central to the way in which those practices manifest. In fact, different views of the druid tradition interpret the “druid” path in various ways: the druid path is a path of magic, a study of the esoteric arts, a path of advanced practices, and/or a path of leadership.
In other words, if you ask five different druids about their beliefs and spiritual path, you’ll likely get seven different answers. But inherent in each of those answers would be an acknowledgement of the sacredness of nature, the power of nature to teach us the deepest lessons, and the importance of reconnection with nature, our creativity, and our spirit.
The second path of Druidry is the Path of the Ovate, which focuses on the sacredness of nature.
When people ask what druidry is about, the first thing I share is that it is a path of nature spirituality, that it embraces relationship to nature at its core, and that it honors nature through various activity (like seasonal celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes, nature awareness, and ecological study). And yet, an individual druid’s relationship towards nature is multifaceted: we see nature as sacred, it is our source of wisdom, our sacred text, and our church/sacred space.
We recognize that in order to treat nature as sacred, we must align ourselves with nature and her cycles. For us, druidry is a path we strive to walk in each moment and each day, and we work to align our inner truths with our outer actions. We focus on healing the relationship between ourselves and the living earth (and each of us does this in our own way; you might note the number of plant walks I do for charitable causes each year—this is part of my own work on the ovate path). The more that we, as druids, understand the living earth, the more we are able to reconnect with her, but also, to protect and heal what we hold sacred.
Another part of the ovate path isn’t just learning about nature and honoring her, but recognizing the inherent role in humans have tending to nature. Many druids find themselves connecting their spiritual life to outer physical practices that give them tools to work with nature. I, for example, practice permaculture, which is a nature-oriented design system that offers me tools to regenerate damaged ecosystems and rather than focus on doing “less harm”, I focus on doing “more good.”
Part of the ovate work is the energetic work we do with nature—for example, fracking wells are present throughout the world. Each year, at certain points, druids and other like-minded folks organize to send healing energy to the earth surrounding fracking. We recognize that even if we are physically unable to heal the land, we can energetically support it (much as the practice of Reiki supports a sick person). This practice aligns with a truth known in the druid tradition: as above, so below. As within, so without.
Writing in the early 20th century, Max Weber, a strong supporter of capitalism and industrialization, wrote that the world had been disenchanted. Druids, however, know that this is not the case: despite the many imbalances caused by humans in our age and in recent ages past, nature has not lost her magic. Druids see the land as not only a physical thing but a metaphysical thing. Most druids believe in animistic views of the land, recognizing the soul or spirit in all living things (and often, in places as well). We have experienced, firsthand, the sacredness of the living earth, and it is a powerful thing.
The third path of druidry is the Path of the Bard, where Creativity is Sacred.
As the story of Taliesin in the Mabinogion describes, an emphasis on rekindling of our creative gifts is another central aspect of the druid tradition. It is our belief that a core birthright of humanity is to be able to use our bodies, minds, hands, and hearts for creative expression.
In fact, one of the core symbols of revival druidry, and a term we chant in our rituals, is “Awen” (Welsh term pronounced “ah-wen” or chanted “Ah-Oh-En”). It was “Awen” that flowed through the ancient bards as they crafted their stories and songs; it was this same awen that flowed through Gwion who became Taliesin. It is Awen that flows from an inspired pen, hand, and body as we learn to once again express ourselves and be whole. It is the “Awen” that has been systematically stripped from us as we allow other people’s commercialized creations to take the place of our own. And it is the inspiration of Awen we seek as we reconnect with our own creative gifts and expressions and reclaim them.
At our gatherings, you will often see an Eisteddfod, or bardic circle, where we share stories, songs, music, poetry, dance, and more while we sit around a roaring fire. Image it—a hundred druids or more gathered to appreciate and honor our creative gifts. In sum, the third path of druidry is in rekindling our own creative inspiration and recognize the inherent sacredness of our creative work.
Let’s return to the forest of my childhood for just a moment. When I walk in that forest now, my studies in the ovate arts have helped me to understand the landscape: I can see the changes in the ecosystem based on different microclimates, I know the names and uses of many of the plants and trees. However, my years of mediation and energy work also allows me to sense the spirit of things; I can hear the laughter of the creek as it cascades down the blackened stones, and I can hear the message in the creak of the two old trees rubbing together. I come to the ancient Eastern Hemlock stumps that once were my friends and now are gracefully returning to soil, covered and moss and bright red shelf mushrooms. A closer look reveals that these stumps are growing Ganoderma Tsugae, the hemlock reishi, one of the most medicinal mushrooms in the world.
Nature’s response to the logging of the forest by human hands was a simple one: to regrow, to heal, and offer humans her own sacred medicine. In a time very soon, the forest may be logged again. But even if that were to happen, nature will heal. And in the process of that healing, she will welcome us into her sacred places, into her circle of stones and trees, with open arms.
PS: I have been selected as the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus scholar and am currently working on a research project about the bardic arts (tied to the learning research I do professionally). I am conducing a short survey to start the project off–if you are willing, I would very much appreciate it if you took my survey! The link can be found here.