Will the real Druids please stand up

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By Bill Vanesveld 

The popularity of Druidism of “Druidry,” as those in the know call it, is not surprising.  Author Terry Brooks’ “Shannara” fantasy books, fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons, an abundance of Celtic-y craft-y stuff in alternative stores, all capitalize on that festering, sub-culture world view that gives the magical Druid figure its popular appeal. 

This year saw the fist Druid celebrations at Stonehenge in over a decade, after police closed the site in the 1980s due to a historical society’s concern that it would be damaged.  One hundred invited Druids took part in a dawn ceremony this June 21, chanting “Eye-Ah-Oh” against the sound of a police chopper overhead.  Despite the arrest of 13 henge-crashers, Archdruid Rollo Maughfling was apparently satisfied with the ceremony.  “It’s a great day to be a pagan,” he said.  Archdruid Rollo’s sentiments were echoed by the pithy Steve Wilson, who, when not acting as the media spokesman for the British Druid Orders Council, or as Chief Poet of the Druid Clan of Dana is an accountant for Reader’s Digest.  “It was pretty good,” he said.

It is doubtful if any of these so-called druids are actual adherents to the ancient order.  Not because Rollo and his gang are malicious frauds, but because the history of Druids is a convoluted and confusing lie built upon largely assumed facts and very few provable truths.

Worldwide census figures don’t keep track of the population of active Druids but some Druidic groups estimate 5,000-30,000 people believe they are members of the group popularized by fictional accounts of blue and white robed old men with flowing white beards and a penchant for collecting ivy with sickles.  Most modern-day wannabes think Druidism was centred around Stonehenge, which in fact predated the faith by more than 1,000 years.

The main source for information on ancient Druids is the writings of Julius Caesar, the first emperor of ancient Rome.  He described them as members of a kind of nobility, who acted as educators, priests, and judges in communities throughout much of Western Europe.  Their religion was based on a belief in that the dead could be reborn as animals as well as humans; ceremonies were held in forest clearings.  Druids assembled annually to settle disputes, and, when necessary, to elect an Archdruid, who held the position for life.  After a lengthy period of training and education, Druids could perform religious rites, including human sacrifices to help the gravely ill or endangered.

“Druid” is thought to derive from a Celtic word meaning “Knower of Oaks,” and may imply the practice of fertility rituals.  (Fertility?  Just how well did they “know” those oaks? Knotty, knotty!)  Some scholars suspect that Druids were the Western offshoot of an ancient Indo-European priesthood, the Eastern branch of which became the Hindu Brahmin caste.  As will all accounts of Druidry there is little but speculation and anecdotal logic to support these suppositions.

Other than a few archaeological sites, runes, and details from ancient Irish sagas, nothing else is known.  The last known Druids were suppressed when Christianity came to Ireland, and took on the secular roles of poet (filid), historian (senchaidi), or judge (brithemain).

Much of modern Druidry can be traced to the Druid revival of the 1700s, which did not actually revive, but rather invented rituals and forged documents.  The United Ancient Order of Druids, the first of these fraudulent secret societies, was founded in London in 1787, and soon counted gullible colonials as far afield as Australia amongst its members.

The lack of information on ancient Druid practices has probably made modern Druidry more attractive, as modern members of the grove, or congregation, are relatively free to choose their own spiritual adventure.

The modern interpretation of Druidic faith usually centres around celebrations of the four solstices and during equinox (the summer solstice fiesta on June 21 is the most widespread) and a vague notion of ecological or natural awareness.

Druid summer solstice follower celebrate in various ways.  Two American devouts were arrested for nude cycling this year.  Druids in Alberta have tended to join or appropriate the local Scandinavian population’s solstice rituals, which include drinking schnapps, eating herrings and erecting a kind of Maypole in a rented campground.  But Stonehenge, that 1.8 million kilogram cromlech (circle of standing stones) of dolmens (horizontal stone slabs supports by uprights) and barrows (tombs), is still, erroneously, central to Druids like Archdruid Rollo Mausghfling.

Aside from the solstice, Druidry is a year-round popular culture phenomenon, usually cropping up in connection with magic and sorcery, or affiliated occult activities.  The perfection of an arcane bent to Druidry, which has no basis in the scant facts known about the ancient order, lends logic to the name of “Druid Tech,” a management and consulting company “offering strategy interpretation, business design, and change management and business interpretation strategies,” as well as “working on the Year 2000 problem.”

A modern example of using the Druid myth to fleece kooky occult followers is the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD).  (“Ovate” means “egg-shaped as a solid or in outline; oval,” but it is unclear whether this refers here to the shape of the worshipped object, or to a sect of obese worshippers).  OBOD describes Druidry not only as an “ancient tradition,” but one “root way back in the distant past.”  The website says that “even though it is almost as old as Time, [Druidry] is as relevant and as alive today as it ever has been.”  Presumably, “as alive as ever” does not refer to the 1,500 years when Druids were nothing but a footnote in Ceasars memoirs, but to Druidry’s 500 year lifespan, following its inception in the first century BCE, that is near the beginning of “Time.”

OBOD, despite its ridiculous claims of antiquity, seems more interested in mainting certain aspects of the “Druid tradition” than others.  Human sacrifice, for example, has been discontinued in favour of workshops and courses in Druidry, costing $216 US each which could potentially culminate in a doctoral degree from Westbrook University.

The OBOD website can be accessed free of charge, and includes samples of artwork and literature by some of the Order’s 7,200 worldwide members, such as the poem “My totem – my friend” by Kieron Jackson.  (Knotty, knotty, Kieron.  Does Archdruid Rollo know what you’re up to?)

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