Written: 15 December, 2003
Ta muid anseo na dheithe adhragh. “We are met to honour the Gods. Oh Gods, you who give life and breath and movement to everything that lives and breathes and moves upon the Earth. We greet you, we honour you, we invite you to this feast.”
My mother, a Druid High Priestess, begins every ritual in this manner. This is a Grove Meeting. The Grove is a group of people with Druidic beliefs; the Meeting is our gathering. A Grove Meeting consists of casual conversation, religious meditation, music, ritual, and feast. A typical ritual actually begins casually with a statement of the purpose of the celebration. There are four traditional Druid holidays: Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasdh, and Samhain. Imbolc is the festival of the Goddess Brighid, who is a healer, an inspiration of poetic creativity, and a smith, fashioning physical and magical weapons. “Imbolc” means “in the belly”, which pertains to the idea that during this celebration, young lambs are forming in the bellies of the ewes. This feast takes place in early February. Beltaine, which means “bright fire” is a fertility feast, which takes place in May and embodies the coming summer and the return of greens and planting and a fertile growing season. Lughnasdh is a feast and festival for the funeral assembly of Lugh’s foster mother. Lugh is a young hero god, and the god of storms. This festival takes place in the beginning of August, and includes games and such, as traditional for a Celtic funeral, and also incorporates the barley harvest with much bread and beer. Finally, Samhain is the Celtic New Year, celebrated in late October or early November, which celebrates summer’s end and the last harvest. This celebration usually calls for bonfires, for fire is a symbol of transformation, as the leaves have turned and fallen and the winter begins.
After stating the purpose of the meeting, we make invitations to our ritual and feast. The offerings are made to the Nature Spirits, the Ancestors, and the High Ones, usually in the form of bread, as a volunteer from the grove takes the offering and brings it outside the sacred space, speaking to the invited kindred assumed not present. Once they return to the circle, the next offering is made, until we’ve made all our invitations. This tends to be rather casual, and on more than one occasion we’ve gotten neighbourhood dogs or squirrels that have interrupted our ceremony to partake of our offering.
After all have been invited (and some have actually shown up) we give our praise. Many members speak of new jobs, developments in personal and professional life, obstacles they’ve overcome, and other things they’ve accomplished. This can be quite casual and has been, on occasion, in the form of poetry, music, or a reading from a book. After the praise has been given there is typically a reading and identifying of omens, through trance, meditation, fire scrying, runes or tarot (though tarot is not traditionally Druidic). These are not the only ways to read the omens, but some of the most commonly used.
Next comes the making of requests and the Cauldron of Intent. The small cauldron, filled with oats or barley, is passed counterclockwise along the circle, each participant taking a moment to make their requests (things they wish to be rid of in the coming time) either aloud or to themselves, stirring the cauldron with their hands for a few moments counterclockwise. Once the cauldron has gone around the circle, the Priestess takes it and throws the contents into the fire (in seasons when a fire is not practical or handy, these may just be spread over the surrounding grass). Then the cauldron is refilled with clean, fresh oats or barley, and passed around the circle clockwise. Now each participant takes a moment to make their requests for things they wish to have, receive, or hold during the coming months, for clockwise is the direction of closing, binding, and holding in. Once the cauldron has passed through all the intending hands, it is placed on the Priestess’ altar.
“What does the Earth Mother give that we may know of the continual flow and renewal of life?”
“The waters of life.”
“Whence do these waters flow?”
“From the bosom of the Earth Mother, the ever-changing all-Mother.”
“And has she given forth of her bounty?”
This is the Litany of the Waters taken from the Reformed Druids of North America. Several American Druid groups use this in their rituals, and the responses to the last question change depending on season. “She has” is the response given during Beltaine and Lughnasdh, when the seasons for growing and harvest are upon us. At Samhain and Imbolc, the response is “She has not, but thanks to the wisdom of the Ancestors we have stored up against need.” We then share the “waters of life” and sing an appropriate song, usually decided by the Priestess or the general mood of the Grove, either “Share the Waters“, “Fur and Feather”, “Hail All the Gods”, or “Mothers and Fathers of Old”. Occasionally we pass the water and other beverages (juice, whiskey, beer, mead) around more than once (especially if something is particularly good).
After the Litany of the Waters, the ritual proceeds depending of the occasion. At Imbolc most dedicate or rededicate themselves to the path of Druidism. At Beltaine the Maypole is usually raised, adorned with ribbons. Lughnasdh was always one of my favourite celebrations growing up because we played games to finish off ritual. I never understood how games fit in with the funeral assembly, but much like the idea of loud music and partying at a wake in honour of the dead, this was apparently the Celtic tradition. Samhain, which I favour above all the rest of the occasions, is where we take down the Maypole, cut it up, and use it as ritual firewood. Weather conditions permitting, we build a bonfire (a dry season may prevent that), which I’ve always enjoyed, being a fire maiden.
The minor celebrations of the year, which have very little accompanying practice within the ritual, are Mean Earrach: the Spring Equinox, Mean Samhradh: the Summer Solstice, Mean Foghamhar: Fall Equinox, and Mean Gheimhreidh: the Winter Solstice, know more commonly as “Yule” (Reformed 204).
Once we’ve finished whatever the occasion calls for, we feast, without ending ritual. Ritual doesn’t exactly end at all, it just sort of continues. The feasts call for food from the three realms: land, sea, and sky, and so we have things like chicken, turkey, duck or goose, salmon, and beef, pork, or lamb. The salmon is has an accompanying story, which my mother tells as we all sit to feast:
There was a young man, Fionn MacCumhail, who was apprenticing for an old Druid, Finegas. The Druid told Fionn of nine trees that grew hazelnuts of knowledge. Below these trees there were pools (or wells or streams, depending on which version of the story you are familiar with) with salmon in them. When the hazelnuts fell from the trees they dropped in the pool where the salmon ate them and became wise. The Druid intended to catch the largest salmon and eat of it to become wise. Fionn helped the Druid catch a salmon, and the Druid left Fionn to cook the salmon on the spit. At some point the salmon began to slide from the spit, and Fionn pushed it back up with his thumb. Then he licked his thumb and found himself wise. The Druid came back to find Fionn pondering this new wisdom and sent him off to found the Fianna. The Fianna were the warrior-band, which protects Ireland and enforces law and justice. The Fianna are actually a historically documented group whose training and principles are outlined in the O‘Curry manuscripts.
Looking back at legends one begins to wonder how modern Druids came to be as they are. American Druids, specifically, are so casual in their practice, gathered on cushions on a living room floor or in a suburban backyard. Other Druids practice in meadows, ancient dolmen sites, and/or forests, but how did modern Druidism develop to what it is now? I often wondered this, growing up, having images of robed priests and ancient languages dancing in my head as I looked at the laid-back average American Druids of today.
What do we know of Indo-European Paleo-paganism and the priestly castes, who may have been our spiritual ancestors? Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans gives theories about the ancient fore-bearers who spread their beliefs, practices, evolving languages, and people, across Europe. George Dumezil’s analysis of the three main functional divisions of people in Indo-European societies -protectors (warriors and kings), priests (sacrificers, mediators, interpreters of Divine Will, poets, and judges) and producers (the worker class)-is standard in Indo-European scholarship.
The cosmology of the Indo-European people seems to have included polytheism, a cycle of seasonal holidays (varying by local climate and growth cycles), with the end of the growing season rather than the planting seen as the beginning of the year (and dusk rather than dawn the beginning of the day), sacred trees, reciprocal relationships between nature spirits, ancestors, High Ones (gods), and living mortals, and patterns of death and rebirth, with a belief in reincarnation (MacCrossan 31-47). The Celts carried the magic, science, and religion of the Indo-Europeans to a high state of development, as did their distant relatives in India.
What do we know about the Druids of thousands of years ago? As Hutton points out in Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, our knowledge is based on late Celtic manuscript materials (500 to 1200 Common Era), such as Audacht Morann, and conjectures of other ancient peoples, and modern “reconstruction” in religion.
Isaac Bonewits (whose personal website is www.neopagan.net), Archdruid Emeritus for Ar nDraiocht Fein, divides Druidry into Paleo-pagan (described above), Meso-pagan, Neo-pagan, and Celtic Reconstructionist. His 1974 essay, A Very Brief History of Mesopagan Druidism (re-edited in 2001), discusses the mythical/historical/inspirational development of the Meso-pagan Druid groups in England, some of which claim (without evidence) founding as early as 1245 c.e., but most of which are clearly part of “Celtic Revivals” from the 17th century on. Such groups were (and are) Masonic in structure, often with mixed Christian and pagan beliefs. Chosen Chief Philip Carr-Gomm (author of Elements of Druid Tradition and The Druid Way) of Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD) is in this line, as was his late mentor Ross Nichols (author of The Book of Druidry) of British Circle of the Universal Bond (of which statesman Sir Winston Churchill was an initiate).
The common threads in modern Meso-pagan Druid groups are: a heavily ceremonial ritual form, an emphasis on a noble Celtic past, and use of the Universal Druid Prayer:
“Grant, O God/dess, thy Protection
and in protection, Strength
and in strength, Understanding
and in understanding, Knowledge
and in knowledge, the Knowledge of Justice
and in the knowledge of justice, the Love of it
and in the love of it, the Love of all Existances
and in the love of all existences, the Love of God/dess and all Goodness” (Nichols 305)
The American Neo-pagan and Reconstructionist Druid Movements are generally agreed to have had their beginnings at Carleton College in 1963 (Hansen 19). The evolution of that group, Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA), and their influence on other groups, has been well chronicled in A Reformed Druid Anthology. From Carleton, initiates of RDNA moved on to found congregations in such places as Berkeley, California (where Isaac Bonewits was initiated in 1969), Winchester, New Hampshire, Edina, Minnesota, Kansas City, Kansas, and Seattle, Washington. There are a dozen or so active RDNA congregations today, perhaps another dozen New Reformed Druids of North America (NRDNA), and hundreds of locals congregations belonging to other groups which are results of schisms within American neo-pagan Druidism: Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF), Keltria, Celtic Traditionalist Order of Druids, Druidic Association of North America (DANA), and others. Bonewits, Arch-Druid Emeritus for ADF, founded ADF to bring some sort of structure to neo-pagan and Druidic practice and study, but wished to remain open to interpretation, development, and individuality so he invited people who disagreed with his ideas to form their own groups, and many of them did.
A relatively new movement in modern Druidism in the US is the growth of Celtic Reconstructionalist groups. These include Ellen Evert Hopman’s Order of the White Oak, which emphasizes study of early Celtic law manuscripts, The Hedge School, founded by Erynn Rowan and Gordon Cooper in Seattle, and Nemeton, an online community of neo-Celtic scholars. There are Reconstructionalists within ADF and DANA, who speak, read, and write Celtic languages and study Celtic manuscripts (such as my mother).
Increasingly, formal training programs for Druid clergy have arisen, such as the study places of OBOD, ADF, and the Hedge. Druid priests are engaging in prison and hospital ministry in many areas of the US, with ADF’s Camille Grant well known for her work with death-row prisoners in Texas. Isaac Bonewits has been a presenter at the World Parliament of Religions. Local Druid clergy are active on interfaith boards and councils in such diverse places as Seattle and Vancouver, Kansas City, Dallas, and Baltimore.
Crossover groups that combine elements of Wicca, Druidry (usually Meso-pagan), Native American practices, and other American religious movements (such as Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) also may call themselves Druids. The late Grandmaster Eli (Barney C. Taylor), founder of Druidic Craft of the Wise, was an excommunicated Mormon who claimed to have been a member of Eisenhower’s staff during World War II (according to Army historians, he was not), an initiate of British Circle of the Universal Bond (also untrue, according to their records), and an initiated Gardnerian Wicca (also untrue, according to their records), among many other things. His group, stressing personal allegiance to Eli, tithing, and Mormon cosmology, spawned dozens of congregations around the country, many of which were investigated by law enforcement for “marriage” of under-aged girls (Hansen, 111-114).
Divine Circle of the Sacred Grove, a Druidic Craft of the Wise offshoot founded by Lady Janette, a woman who has many names and a long police record, and who has variously claimed to be Grandmaster Eli’s daughter, wife, or former High Priestess, teaches a similar mish-mash of belief. The group has moved from place to place, often while under investigation by local law enforcement (Hansen, 105-109).
The New Forest Druids, founded by Douglas Monroe, a convicted pedophile, teach a mixture of Arthurian materials, Ceremonial Magic, and a “brotherhood” which excludes and avoids women, under the name of Druidry (“digital medievalist” Lisa Spangenberg, a PhD candidate in Celtic Studies, has an extensive discussion of Monroe on her web site).
So, what is Druidism today? Anyone can call themselves a Druid. Some cult-like groups use the name to encompass beliefs and practices, which may be outside of conventional morality and law, as many others have done under the title of Christianity. However, most modern Druids are serious parishioners of modern religions with ancient roots.
The beliefs of Druids vary from group to group, for Druidism is practiced openly and often incorporates the beliefs of many to suit a unified purpose. There are some Christians who call themselves Druids, but consider Druidism to be a philosophy. Many American Druids aren’t sure if Druidism is a religion or a philosophy. In my own Grove we have several people who consider themselves Druids, along with a few Wiccans, a few Christians, and a Jew. Open circles tend to be a part of Druidism, which is very inclusive.
One of the questions I’m asked most often, as a Druid is what I believe in. I spent time among Christians who were intrigued to see much of their “love thy neighbour” teachings in my own beliefs. I am polytheistic, I believe in many Gods; I have a patron Goddess, Brighid, who I’ve felt called to since I was quite young. I also believe in reincarnation; when I die I believe I am to return to “tir nan og”, or the land of youth where my spirit will rest with the High Ones until I am prepared to return to Earth. Most Druids believe in a variant of this, the most common version the “Summerlands”. I also believe that when I return to Earth, I could come back as anything, an animal or a human, and in that life I will collect knowledge and wisdom, which will collect in my spiritual self. As I go through lives and collect this knowledge and wisdom, I will some day reach a point of completeness, when I can return to the Gods and stay with them, living as a High One in the land of tir nan og. Perhaps one day I will come back to Earth and guide a follower of Druidism as a patron deity. I do not know if this is a common faith among most Druids (I suspect it is not) but it feels right to me and therefore, as a Druid, it is what I practice and hold as a belief. I rather enjoy Druidism’s inclusiveness.
Finally, I draw your attention back to the development of Druidism, as one can see it has developed and split and combined and grown. Like all religions, Druidism has rejected some of its own history (human sacrifices are not considered appropriate practice anymore), and we’ve learned much over the years, compromising our practices. Modern Druidism is an open, developing practice, faith, lifestyle, and/or philosophy based vaguely on some traditions of a time long gone. The number of people calling themselves Druids is growing, and perhaps someday we will be seen as an acceptable religion in mainstream society. But as Bonewits says, these things take time, but we press on, “fast as a speeding oak”.
Articles gathered from http://www.neopagan.net:
Copyright Avens "Dagny" Nibhriain