A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, in short, a sum of human relations which were poetically and rhetorically heightened, transferred, and adorned, and after long use seem solid, canonical, and binding to a nation. Truths….are coins which have lost their image and now can be used only as metal, and no longer coins.”
“On Truth and Lying in a Moral Sense” Nietzsche, P. 250
There seems to be a preoccupation with “authenticity” and “truth” within the druid community (and outside of it). Time and time again, people have asked me a lot about the history of the tradition, the “truth” of the druid revival material, the lack of knowledge about the Ancient druids, and how we can be a “legitimate” religious or spiritual tradition. This has come not only from the outside, but also from members of the two druid orders to which I belong, including new folks that start digging into some of the history of the druid revival. Because, as soon as one starts reading on either the ancient druids or revival druids, truth and authenticity seem to be a never-ending focus. For example, from the back cover of The Druids (Ellis, 2005), “Finally, a book that separates fact from mythology, telling us what we can and cannot know about the ancient Druids.” In the same book’s opening pages, Ells says, “The simple truth is that one person’s Druid is another person’s fantasy. The Druids have been conjured in a wide variety of perceptions, as to who they were, what they believed and what they taught, since the sixteenth century” (11). In 1927, Kendrick writes of the “prodigious amount of rubbish” written on Druids in The Druids: A Study in Celtic Prehistory. These scholarly sources, of course, have their own bias situated within the realm of what is acceptable scholarly work. However, even within our own druid orders, similar conversations are also being had.
The underlying questions seem to be: is this an authentic tradition? Is it true? From where does our truth derive? Is it real, even if some of what we based our practices on is historically suspect or created by our spiritual ancestors? These are very good questions for those who have been practicing druidry to ask, especially concerning the rather “colorful” past that the Druid Revival tradition has had. This questioning typically comes from two sources: first, we have A) so little left of what the Ancient Druids actually did/believed/practiced (less than 12 pages in total, written mostly by the enemies of the druids, the Romans) and B) the Druid Revival itself is, in part, assumed to be based on elaborate “forgeries” and “creative repurposing” from leaders of the early Druid revival (like Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas). Further, the question of authenticity is the basis of one of the larger rifts within the modern druid community in terms of where we base our practices (Celtic Reconstructivism vs. Revival Druidry). So let’s dig into this a bit today and see how deep this rabbit hole of authenticity really goes.
“Authenticity” Challenge 1: On the Changing Nature of Text and Text Ownership
There is little doubt that the history of the Druid Revival is clouded with many inaccuracies, misunderstandings, and downright fraudulent texts. Iolo Morganwg as his contemporaries claimed to be working from ancient lost texts, and in some cases, they certainly were. But as much “ancient knowledge” might be true within their texts, there is also a lot of their own original material (creatively repurposed and or heavily adapted) to fill in the gaps. For a while, it was accepted that much of what Revival Druids believed was a carefully constructed fable perpetuated by Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg); now, some recent scholarship (such as John Michael Greer’s work on the Coelbren), shows that it might be based on more original material than originally believed.
One of the most important issues to understand within Revival Druid tradition is the radically changing definitions of history, accuracy, and plagiarism. In the 20th and 21st centuries, we are very concerned—one might say obsessed—with copyrights and originality. I’m a writing professor by trade, and I can speak from direct experience at the near obsession our current academic culture has with plagiarism: a plagiarizing student is subject to severe academic sanctions that can, in certain cases, lead to them being permanently expelled or losing tuition money. If I were caught plagiarizing a professional academic publication, I would lose my job and be permanently ostracized from my field. When examining figures like Iolo Morganwg who developed original works based on earlier manuscripts, we often apply the same academic standards, viewing them as frauds or fakes; someone who committed serious crimes against history and accuracy.
But a deeper examination of the changing historical ethics at the time they were writing paints a different picture. Copying and creative expansion were used as teaching tools and often considered the highest form of flattery for most of human written history. Consider a work like Virgil’s Aneaead, which is a near-copy of Homer’s Odyssey (and Homer himself was likely several storytellers who based their work on still older works that were passed down from one poet to the next). Despite the “plagiarism”, Virgil’s work is still lauded as a masterpiece in its own right. Even William Shakespeare considered one of the greatest playwrights, borrowed extensively from previous predecessors and contemporaries for his manuscripts, including his famous Romeo and Juliet. Ronald Hutton in The Druids, writes, “Ancient historians simply did not work according to the same priorities and conventions as their successors in the twentieth century. They were less concerned to establish the exact truth of the past than to propose lessons from it, of utility to present to future readers” (p. 5). In “What is an Author” Foucault (1977) describes the rise of the concept of ownership of a text—this ownership itself as a product of the commodification of goods and the rise of the consumerist society. In other words, “ownership” of texts in this way has everything to do with the rise of our particular form of capitalism. Foucault demonstrates that before the 18th and 19th centuries when writing was commodified, writing was an act, not a product or thing. Through this Foucault demonstrates that the very idea of “Authorship” and “ownership”—ideas which we so highly prize in our materialistic and post-industrialized world—were nearly non-existent through most of human history.
And so, we have a long-held historical and literary tradition of adapting material to suit a common purpose—often with cultural significance. Hutton demonstrates that much of the renewed interest in the Ancient Druids during the early Druid Revival attached the term druid to all kinds of things. For example, John Seldon, a politician living in the 14th and 15th centuries said that druids were the foundation for free assembly and the British Parliament while Thomas Caius in the same time period claimed the Druids were the intellectual heirs to Cambridge University (Haycock, 2001). Obviously, none of these things were necessarily true, but they were done as part of a cultural reclaiming act and in a way that was within acceptable bounds at the time.
To be clear: I think part of the reason that the Druid Revival materials are “suspect” and treated with disrespect compared to say, Shakespeare or Virgil, has everything to do with time. Apparently, 156 years is simply not long enough. Shakespeare or Virgil are older, established in the canon, and therefore, not suspect of the same criticism that Iolo Morganwg and his contemporaries are. If Morganwg’s writings were from 1000 years earlier, there would be no suspicion. And because of the long historical and literary tradition present in many ancient texts, it is likely that many sacred texts, from all around the world, were probably created in the same way. It’s just that those mysteries are lost to time in ways that Barddas is not.
This is one important lesson for us to take away from the “authenticity” debate–we cannot apply the same standards of scholarship present in the 21st century to the 19th. There is a lot more to Barddas than what has been espoused by academics, that’s for certain.
“Authenticity” Challenge 2: On the Industrial Revolution and Changing Ecological Realities
The other piece of this, of course, is the relationship between our spiritual ancestors and the crushing force of the industrial revolution. Two hundred and fifty years ago, our spiritual ancestors faced a radically changing world: a stable agrarian society, where the common people shared common lands and people made their own home-crafted goods quickly disappearing. Their society was being quickly replaced by an exploitative society that forced farmers into factories, filled the skies with pollution and the rivers with poison, undermined traditional ways of life, and pillaged the natural world for raw materials. Of course, our spiritual ancestors looked to their own past histories, drawing deeply from what materials remained, to offer some alternative perspectives to what was unfolding before them.
I come at this particular issue from a place of deep compassion and understanding, as I, too, live in a region, a culture, and a civilization that continued to perpetuate the myth of progress, and whose ultimate aims are profit and exploitation. I wonder what any one of us would have done during that era—and I am grateful for the work that these spiritual pioneers did so that today, I have the tools and knowledge to thrive in these difficult times, to connect with the living earth, and to heal and regenerate the land because they paved the way for it.
Reclaiming our History and Honoring Our Ancestors of the Druid Revival Tradition
At this point, I’ve offered two key arguments that help us shift our understanding of the origins of the druid revival. First, Morganwg and his contemporaries that helped found the Druid Revival tradition were working under very different cultural and scholarly values and it isn’t appropriate to hold them to our standards of today. Second, Morganwig and his contemporaries were responding to the beginning of an ecological and social crisis (of which we are now experiencing the final act). If we accept these two arguments, the question now is, what do we do with this information? I see at least three pathways forward: reclaiming our history and honoring the ancestors, recognizing druidry as a “living tradition”, and reframing authenticity as a direct experience. We’ll now explore each of these in the second half of this post.
From a matter of historical accuracy, we have challenges to the legitimacy and authority of our tradition from outside of our community. For example, Ellis (2005) writes of the present Druid revival with disdain, “With the onset of the 1960’s ‘Hippies’ and ‘Alternative Religions’ the Druids were fair game again” (277). Ellis is quick to dismiss current Druidic spirituality as a “quick fix on spirituality; because people, in the quest for truth and meaning in life, which seems the perennial human drive, prefer simple answers. It is easier to accept the cozy pictures of non-existent romantic Celts and Druids rather than ponder the uncomfortable realities.” (280). Clearly, Ellis has not dug very deeply in our own rich traditions as a teaching order to understand the kinds of work that a modern Druid does. Druidry is not a passive spiritual path but rather one in which druids must engage both the difficult questions surrounding our colorful past and the ecological and spiritual realities of the present. I think that these kinds of perspectives and challenges will likely always be with us—but these are no different than the same kinds of challenges faced by other religious traditions.
Honoring our Ancestors
However, to address external challenges to our own legitimacy, I believe we first must begin in hearts and minds of those of us who are the spiritual descendants of the Druid Revival. I think, at the outset, we need to seek peace with our history and our ancestors. We might begin to honor those founders of the Druid Revival tradition as ancestors—for that very much is what they are. It is highly likely that, without Morganwg’s work, we might not have a modern Druid spiritual tradition in any sense of the world. Morganwg, Stuckley, and their contemporaries were pioneering spirits whose work and inspiration continue within our tradition. Each time we invoke “Awen” or say the druid’s prayer, or draw upon the three currents or declare peace in the quarters—these basic practices are rooted in their works. We can’t use these, in good faith, while attacking and holding in disregard those who helped bring us these practices. So within our communities and druid orders, I believe it is important to begin to honor them with the due respect given to any other ancestor.
Recognizing Druidry as a Living Tradition
A number of years ago, I was able to attend a workshop with Penny Billington, who published Paths of Druidry and runs OBOD’s magazine, Touchstone. When asked about the colorful history of the druid revival, she gave one of the best answers I had ever heard. She said that we were lucky, as druids, to not have any ancient sacred texts holding us back. She said that druidry is a living tradition that we are co-constructing, and as such, it could adapt to the rapidly changing world. Nature is our text and our greatest teacher. And so, we co-create this tradition as we grow, both as individuals, but also as druid orders and as participants in the broader movement of reconnecting with the earth.
I have found a lot of peace in Penny Billington’s statement. When people ask me things like “Well, how old is druidry anyways?” I know it’s often an underlying challenge to the authenticity of this path. But, as I’ve meditated on her statement over a period of years, I think it holds tremendous value and also tremendous wisdom.
While other traditions struggle to address and interpret ancient texts in a very different day and age, our tradition is at the forefront of adapting. In AODA, for example, we recognize that nature-based spiritual practice is not only rooted in the rituals and energetic work, but also, in our own connection and path to walk more lightly and kindly upon the living earth. This is not something a text of 1000 years ago gave us. It’s something that we know to be inherently true when we look outside of our window or read the news—we know if we are to align with the living earth spiritually, especially in these times, we must also change our physical actions. This is something that even 75 or 100 years ago was not as painfully obvious as it is today, with the rise of climate science and the harsh ecological realities that we experience.
Druidry is helping us lay the groundwork for what is to come if the human race is to survive, both personally but also culturally. We are rediscovering ancient ways of knowing, living, and doing in the world. Nature teaches us this through her own rhythms, cycles, and truths. Our ancient ancestors around the globe learned all they needed to know from observing and interacting with the living earth on a constant basis: and as we return to these same practices, we uncover wisdom lost with the eradication of indigenous wisdom around the globe. It might turn up in a different form, but it will turn up again—because we are getting it the same way our ancestors got it—from the sacred book of nature.
Our tradition has room to grow, to adapt, to change—just like nature herself. By learning from nature, by heeding her voice, we are putting ourselves, and by example, others, on a more earth-centered path.
Of course, there may be a lingering discomfort may be present with the idea that we can create a personally valid and meaningful practice that works for us and that isn’t based on millennia of religious understanding or a holy book. That one can, essentially, call upon nature’s divine inspiration and craft something that works. The question, to me, isn’t whether or not 2000+ years of previous human history validates my practice—the question for me is, “Does it work? Is it meaningful?” To me, it doesn’t matter that some of it is rooted in Iolo’s writings, in the insights and practices of others, and in our own adaptations and understandings. If you are one of those folks who feel this way, consider this: we are working from ancient understandings, even if those understandings are fragmented. We are also working from a 300-year-old tradition that has grown, evolved, and is stronger today perhaps than ever before.
Reframing Authenticity through Experience
Directly stemming from the acknowledgment of druidry as a living tradition that adapts much like nature herself, one more critical piece seems to be at play in the discussion of authenticity, and that is the role of direct experience, personal knowing, intuition, and heart-centered experiences.
The idea of “certainty” (and to some degree, “authenticity”), stems in part from the rise of what is known as “modernism”: a philosophy rooted in rationalism and the development of the scientific method. It was through the rise of modernism and the industrial revolution that we moved from a “heart-centered” to a “head centered” culture. Modernism displaced the idea that core of the human was in feeling, experience, emotion–centered in the heart (this has been discussed through various; one of my favorite treatments of the topic is in the opening of Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Plant spirit medicine). In a head-centered/rational culture, we live with the not-always conscious assumptions that what is certain or authentic is what can be empirically validated, measured, or assessed.
Some of druidry’s core practices and practitioner experiences don’t fit within these head-centered boundaries. They are in the realm of personal experience, emotional knowing, intuition, and inner experience; they are in the realm of the heart. I can’t empirically validate many of my experiences as a druid, but that doesn’t make them any less meaningful. It seems, perhaps, that a different worldview and basic set of assumptions would better serve us—and simply acknowledging that one can exist and helping us get into the framework for it, would be beneficial. A worldview where scientific knowledge of the natural world (which is useful and wonderful) lives side-by-side with experiential ways of knowing, and that each of these have relevancy and power in our tradition.
I also want to note here: I teach master’s and doctoral courses in social science and educational research methods as part of my profession. I am also well-published learning researcher. It is because of this expertise that I know how very inappropriate the scientific method is for the work of inner spiritual life. There are questions that empirical researchers can answer, through observation and interaction with the physical reality. And, there are questions that are unanswerable with these methods because they occur on a meta-physical (beyond physical) reality that the scientific method cannot reach. Most deep spiritual truths fall into the realm of unanswerable questions—and that is why it is in the realm of spiritual understanding, rather than historical or scientific, that I seek my own inner truth. We seem to forget, as a society, that there is more than one way of creating knowledge. Recognizing these multiple ways of making meaning, and balancing these ways, are critical for the development of a fulfilled spiritual life. And so, while as a professional, I embrace the scientific method as the meaning-making and knowledge-building tools that they are, I firmly reject them as the basis for my inner spiritual life and my tradition.
In the end, the questions I ask about the druid tradition aren’t about if it is authentic or real. I don’t really care. In all honesty, that’s not the metric through which I’m measuring the effectiveness of this tradition. What I want to know is if the tradition “works” for me and others along this path. And the answer has been resoundingly clear to me: druidry is a living spiritual tradition that “works.” If it didn’t work and it wasn’t meaningful, we wouldn’t have so many people seeking it out, going against the grain of the broader religious and cultural traditions, and continuing to persevere with it. To me, that is the measure of authenticity.
Revival Druidry, as a phenomenon and as the forebears to the AODA, OBOD, and other Druid organizations, has much to teach us and how issues surrounding “truth” can, in themselves, be a source of inspiration and education. As druids might consider treating our knowledge of the Druid Revival (and Ancient Druids) in the same manner that we treat the many fables, tales, and stories. It is not the “truth” that we cannot possibly know for certain that is important. Rather, the Druid Revival provides us with something more valuable than a simple historical fact or empirical reality—they provide us with a rich history and framework, and that history can today be used for teaching and reflection. And like all great works, the story changes as the tale is told. It morphs into what is necessary for that era and time. Our druid revival predecessors offered us much in the way of their own wisdom, their own truths—and we can honor them as the rightful ancestors that they are. They also left much up to us, to find our own way in our living tradition, seeking direct wisdom and experience form the living earth.
Ells, P. B. (2005). A Brief History of the Druids. New York: Caroll & Graf Publishers.
Foucault (1977). “What is an Author?” Found: http://www.scribd.com/doc/10268982/Foucault-What-is-an-Author
Haycock, D. B. William Stukeley: Science, Religion and Archaeology in Eighteenth-Century England
Hutton, R. (2007). The Druids. London: Hambledon Coniunuum.
Kendrick (1927). The Druids: A Study in Celtic Prehistory
Nichols, R. (1992). The Book of Druidry. 2nd edition. New York: Thorsons.
Nietzsche (1873). “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873)