Truth to power

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The classical authors tell us that one of the roles of the ancient Druids was to act as advisors to kings and chieftains, steering their decisions and offering words of wisdom in times of political trouble.

Those of us who take on the name of Druid in any sense today should feel empowered and inspired to live up to this ancient role. Of course, we don’t have the ear of those in power, but we still have a right and a responsibility in a democratic society to speak our mind, and have our voices heard.

If you’re angry, upset, or shaken by the recent UK election result, and the pending “deal” between the Conservatives and the DUP, a party of homophobic sectarian Christian fundamentalists supported by terrorist groups (and if you’re not angry, as they say, you’re not paying attention), you can step into the role of the ancient Druids and speak truth to power.

Protest. Resist. And write to your MP. You can find their address online via They Work for You.

By writing your words down and sending them to your representative, you can offer advice, voice your concerns and most importantly of all, show them that the people are watching them.

And never feel that you can’t make a difference. The greatest trick of illiberal anti-democratic governments is to make you feel powerless. You are not. People making their voices heard is the only thing that ever creates change. We have the power.

So, when the political establishment is collapsing, and far-right groups are on the ascendancy, ask yourself what would the Druids do?

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Christian Druidry?

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There’s been an *interesting* discussion on various Facebook groups recently about whether Christianity and Druidry are compatible.

Putting aside that fact that the original post linked to a neo-Nazi site (yep, Nazi Christian Druids are apparently a thing now. Welcome to 2017 folks), the question itself is worth considering.

On the one hand, the fact that there are good, intelligent, wise people who identify as Christian Druids means that, at least for them, the two are compatible. OBOD is explicitly open to people of all faiths and none, and has a whole section on its site about Christianity and Druidry. And of course the founding figures of the 18th-19th century Druid Revival period, such as Iolo Morganwg and William Stukely, were themselves Christians, as was Ross Nichols who founded OBOD.

And there’s some beautiful Christian writings that seem to echo Druidic ideals. Christian scribes preserved much of Pagan myth and poetry, and Celtic Christians often wrote of the Divine within nature. St Francis, too, seems almost Druidic at times. The image above this post is of St Finbarr’s chapel at Gougane Barra, also the site of an ancient healing well and sacred lake.

There’s already a great deal of Christian influence in at least some strands of modern Druidry. And you could argue that since western society has been Christian for nigh-on a thousand years, and Christianity is built into our laws, our calendar year and our social rituals (especially in Britain where we have a state church), we all swim around in a Christian milleu which we can’t avoid.

Other Druids take a different approach, such as ADF, who are explicitly Pagan and practice Druidry as a polytheistic religion, and deliberately depart from the Christian influences of the Druid Revival.

The Druid Network takes a nuanced view, and states:

Holding a pluralistic perspective, it is possible that a Druid might find value in and respect the teachings of the Christian religion and its heritage within Britain, including that of the Culdee or Celtic Christian Church. However, the Druid does not acknowledge deity to be existent outside of Nature, for nothing is beyond Nature: the Druidic understanding is of Nature as All, in a process of perpetual self-creating. This is not Christianity.

At the same time, it is possible for a Christian to respect the teachings of Druidry and to perceive the whole of Nature as created by his one god, and thus profoundly sacred. However, the Christian god is supernatural, ie. transcendant of Nature. This is not Druidry.

FWIW, this definition matches my viewpoint pretty closely.

In the end, as Druidry has no dogma, this question is one every Druid, or Druidically-inclined person, has to answer for themselves. So, are Christianity and Druidry compatible for me?

Well, no. I was raised in a pretty strict Catholic household, and there’s no doubt that the church I knew would not see any room for compatibility with Pagan “devil worship”. On the face of it, I see too much difference between Christianity and Druidry to ever see a way of reconciling the two without losing the essential core of one or the other.

I do not believe in a creator God. I see the universe as nature’s unfolding, its self-revelation to itself. There is no room in my understanding for  supernatural deity sitting apart from the cosmos.

I do not believe in original sin, or hell, or the need for a torturous blood sacrifice to redeem us from our deserved punishment. In fact, I reject those doctrines as morally repugnant.

I believe Jesus (if he existed) was an inspired teacher and philosopher, but not that he was the son of a god.

I can’t see how you could reconcile Druidry’s plurality with the command to “have no other gods before me”.

And I am wary, perhaps suspicious even, of any attempts to bring Christian moral constructs (especially with regard to LGBT rights etc) into Druidry.

So, speaking just for me, I don’t see my Druidry as compatible with the Christianity I know from experience. My Druidry is a deliberate turning away from a religion of churches, books, priests, popes and laws, to the wild wisdom of trees and rivers, stars and stones, fur and feather.

That others have a different view is up to them, and I have no issue with people believing in God and Jesus if it helps them live well. I’m far more interested in whether your belief inspires your life than whether it is the same as mine. And Druidry is big enough for all sorts of beliefs and interpretations, from atheist Druids to Buddhist Druids to Christian Druids to polytheistic and Pagan Druids.

This isn’t to erase our differences, though. As Druid writer John Beckett points out,  those differences are important. The God of Christianity is not the Goddess of modern Paganism, is not the many gods of polytheism, is not the Great Mystery that I seek to approach.

But we can all be Druids, as long as we acknowledge that within those differences is the simple fact that we are all human, all on this earth for a brief time.

But not the Nazi Druids. They can fuck off.

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Pagan enough

DSCN0990So there’s been yet another internet dust-up between non-theist and polytheist pagans over who is and is not a “real” pagan. And while in the past I may have engaged to defend my own non-theist position, this time around I find myself not caring.

If you’re interested, I point you to this rather brilliant post by John Halstead at Humanistic Paganism (or really all the posts at that blog):

Literal gods are for the literal-minded: re-enchanting polytheism

As for me, I don’t care if Mr. Random Internet Pagan number 4537 thinks that my paganism isn’t real, or that I am a vile blasphemer for not believing in gods. There will always be someone who disagrees with you, and, in matters of religion, this disagreement can easily turn hateful, and I want no part of that.

I don’t find my paganism on the pages of Facebook. I find it in the land beneath me. On my lunch break yesterday, I sat under a willow tree by the riverbank. Sunbeams filtered through the leaves, casting interplays of light and dappled shade onto the grass. A light breeze moved the branches, making them sigh and whisper, the sound mingling with the tinkling flow of the river washing over the stones on its banks, and the choir of birds, each singing their own song, calling for mates or territory. Because the riverbank area is common land, there were cows grazing, occasionally lowing softly to each other. Being in the centre of town as well, there was the sound of traffic buzzing past, and people talking, out enjoying the sunshine.

All these sounds combining to produce the song of the land, the Oran Mor.

And I sat, feeling the warmth of the sun above me and the softness of the earth beneath me. Everything, from the grass to the rocks to the clouds overhead seemed to tingle with life and vitality. The edges of “me” blurred until all there was was this moment, this connection, one life in many forms.

This is how I perceive the sacred. No gods required, just this.

To me, “pagan” means “of the land”, as its Latin derivation suggests. To be truly of the land, to know it and love it and connect with it, is to be pagan. If that means reifying bits of it as gods and doing elaborate rituals, that’s your prerogative. If that simply means sitting under a tree and letting the infinite now carry you beyond yourself, then that is pagan too. And nobody can take that from me.

Truthfully, since coming back from Ireland, I have removed all trace of gods, even as archetypes or personifications of natural forces, from my practice. Not consciously, but they have just fallen away, an old crutch no longer needed. I still love the old stories,  of course, and have a deep respect for the power of myth, but my daily paganism is of the sun, the land, the river, the trees, the moon, the stars and the stones.

And it feels deeper. Less structured perhaps, less formalised, less “religious”, but more real, more from the heart and blood and bone. I am here. The earth is here. That is pagan enough for me.

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Spiral

maze-56060_960_720The journey, we are told, is linear. The hero leaves “here” and goes “there”. Mountains are climbed, distances are crossed. Time itself we perceive to be linear. Past-Present-Future. One arrow, pointing one way.

This is not how it works. Modern physics suggests that time is not a straight line, but something much more complicated.

And journeys, too, are more complicated. Is a journey even a good metaphor for a life? Where is the “there”, the destination? Surely not death, although of course that is the ultimate destination for all travellers. But that is rarely what is meant by the journey metaphor. People generally use it to mean some state of achievement, success, self-actualisation, enlightenment, whatever.

I prefer the image of a labyrinth. Not a maze, in which you might get lost, but a traditional labyrinth of the kind you might walk as a meditative practice. There is one path, but the path weaves in and out, doubling back and over on itself, sometimes coming tantalisingly close to the centre, and then looping back out again.

And note here the destination is the centre. Not an external point of reference, but something integral to, and inseparable from, the labyrinth itself. The centre that is nowhere, but is now here.

In nature, we see how life moves through spirals of great activity and then stillness, the hibernation of the hedgehog, the dormancy of the tree, the new life in spring, the punctuated equilibrium of evolution.

And so, too, in any spiritual practice.

Since coming back from Ireland, a trip whose subtle effects I am still working through, I have been busy. I’ve started a new job, one which finally brings me back to the work I want to do as a librarian, the work I trained for and studied for.

This busy-ness and new wave of information, expectation and responsibility, has left me with little time for Druidry. So my practice spiralled into dormancy. And that’s OK. I think I always feel a sense of guilt in these times, like I’m not doing enough, I’m not “Druid” enough unless I do all the things. But that’s not true. I simply had to shift my priorities around to accommodate this new Big Thing in my life.

But it’s been three weeks, a good Druidic triad of time, and things are starting to level off. So my Druidry is emerging again, like a small shoot on a branch, fragile and delicate, but filled with the hope of new life.

The sun still rises. The earth still turns. The birds still sing. The wind in the trees still whispers “all will be well”.

All of which is a long and flowery way of explaining why I haven’t been blogging of late, but there you go!

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Ireland

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So I got back last week from a trip/pilgrimage to Ireland, and was swiftly thrown into the deep end of a new job, so I didn’t have the time to reflect much. But it would be a shame not to post some pretty pictures at least!

Ireland is the place of my ancestry, and I was raised by my grandfather to have a very deep sense of rootedness and connection to my Irish heritage (legend has it we’re descended from a long line of ancient chieftains going back to around the 3rd century), yet it isn’t somewhere that I visit very often. So it was great to have a chance to go back, and also to go to some parts of the country that I haven’t been to before, especially the amazing scenery of the Wild Atlantic Way on the west coast.

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One thing that struck me was simply the beauty of the landscape, truly like nowhere else on earth, and all in a relatively small space. Mountains, sea, lakes, rolling fields, all seem nestled up to each other and you can drive through several strikingly different landscapes in one three-hour jaunt across the country.

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The peace of nature was literally breathtaking, in places like Gougane Barra in West Cork or Lough Leane in Killarney. I can see why so many poets, artists and mystics have come from this island and drawn inspiration from it.

There were always reminders of the innate spirituality of the land, whether in the form of Catholic roadside shrines or the older and more numinous places like stones said to have associations with the Druids, dolmens known to be doorways to the land of the Shide, healing wells and sacred lakes.

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I was pleasantly surprised to see that even in Blarney Castle, one of the more tourist-trap locations, there were remnants of the ancient past, and also a recently-restored “Druidic” stone circle originally built around 1703, at the very earliest stages of the Druid Revival period.

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The trip was a busy one, visiting around 7 locations in 6 days, but it was also a wonderful way to take a break from the daily world of work and reconnect to something deep and ancestral. And of course, lots of good food was eaten and local beers were drank!

 

 

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Is Druidry dying?

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Over at Gods and Radicals, Druid Jonathan Woolley has written a rather excellent essay on the decline of young people in Paganism and specifically Druidry. Go and read the whole thing, it’s long but worth it. Link below:

British Paganism is Dying. Why?

Read it? Good.

There’s not much I would disagree with in Jonathan’s essay, but I wanted to add some of my own observations as a young-ish (recently turned 30) Pagan myself.

I might start by questioning the initial premise. At Druid Camp, I saw a wide range of ages represented, from the “old guard” in their 60s and beyond through to plenty of people roughly my age or younger, including students and young parents bringing their small children along. In particular, I noticed that the people volunteering to clean the loos or run the cafe were mostly on the younger end of the age range. But that may be an isolated case (it does suggest, however, that in-person community gatherings are still an attractive proposition for the internet Pagan generation).

But, if we assume (and the above notwithstanding I see no reason not to) that there is a decline in young people becoming Druids, why might this be?

Ancient-Druid

Well, let’s take a look at the idea of “the Druid”. What do you think of when you hear the word Druid? Chances are it may be something like the guy on the left here. Old, white, male, in a funny robe. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being any of those things. But it’s not the most appealing image to people today, especially young people whose views and expressions of gender, race and social privilege are more liberal and progressive than this image seems to imply.

Of course, this is a stereotype, but let’s face it, there are some people in the Druid community who seem determined to live up to the stereotype whenever they get in front of an obliging camera or film crew.

There is much more diversity in the modern Druid community than people might think, but we’re not exactly great at coming forward with promoting this fact.

Then there’s the way Druidry is disseminated. The proliferation of books, blogs, YouTube vloggers, websites and the like about Druidry suggest that there is a good amount of interest in Druidry (and in Paganism more widely), but I am hardly surprised that membership in the more structured Druid Orders is falling.

I work as an Information Professional for a large university, and I deal with students and researchers usually in their 20s or so, and the way they approach knowledge is different from how people in their 40s and beyond approach knowledge. Now, I don’t believe there is any such thing as a “digital native”, this is itself a stereotype and one which does not match the academic evidence. But, the knowledge landscape is changing, and open access (and Open Access) to knowledge online is the driving force of this change.

Knowledge exchange is increasingly seen as collaborative and horizontal, rather than pedagogical and vertical.

So, with this in mind, a formal, structured, graded (hierarchical) correspondence course, in paper, by the post, especially one that you’re not allowed to discuss or share freely with non-members, can seem like an oddity at best and a cult at worst.

As well as this, these courses can be pricey, especially if you’re on a low income, or a student budget, or have small kids to feed. I’ve gone into this more in my post on Paying for Paganism, so I won’t recap it all here, but young people are often not in the most financially secure positions in their lives, and if the choice is between chucking a hundred quid or more on a Druid course, or paying the rent, I know what the decision’s going to be.

So people turn online, for free information. And what do they find? In my experience, generally a lot of insularity and sometimes outright hostility to newbies, people who don’t know the intricacies of various Pagan traditions, and “outsiders” more generally. It isn’t appealing, or easy, to become part of a community where you’re not made to feel welcome and offered support.

This is of course not true for all online Pagan/Druid communities, but the ones that are like this tend to shout the loudest. And these groups tend to be less than constructive. Srsly, the number of times I’ve seen the same five conversations going round and round (especially the who is/isn’t a real Pagan controversy) is ridiculous.

Groups like this are not engaging young people precisely because they’re not really engaging at all. They’re echo chambers for a few loud voices to hear their opinions reflected back at them. And those voices are often old, white and male, so reinforcing the image mentioned above. So yeah.

But I don’t think we should be too hard on ourselves, as I said, I saw all-age community being created at Druid Camp, and Pagan festivals, Pride events and the like seem to be growing every year. The Druid Network even got Druidry legally recognised as a religion in the UK. Thousands of people, many of them young people, flock to Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, and while most of them are perhaps there for a party more than anything else, it still shows the power and “draw” of Druid and Pagan ideas.

And there is some truth to the oft-mentioned idea that people turn to Druidry as they get older, experience more of life, have more free time on their hands, and want to seek something “more”. I’ve come across many people who first encounter Druidry in their 30s, 40s and beyond. Their presence is valuable too.

So when the current generation of young people age, how many of them may look for that “something more” and find it in Druidry? And what new form might that Druidry evolve into?

Something less structured, less hierarchical, and more open-source would be my guess. It may not resemble Druid Orders, but nor do today’s Orders resemble the 18th century Druid Revival lodges, and nor do they resemble the ancient Celtic Druids. But they’re all Druidry.

Membership of organised religion across the board is falling in the UK and beyond. In fact, membership of any organised groups such as volunteering societies, community clubs etc is falling. Is this a sign of some spiritual malaise, or a selfish turning inwards to a narcissistic generation of selfie-obsessed phone drones?

Well, no. I would argue it’s a combination of young people being more time and resource poor than previous generations, and a general distrust of organisations and authority, especially religious authority that has been shown to be rife with corruption.

But I don’t necessarily see the decline of numbers in formal Pagan/Druid groups as an intrinsically bad thing. Pagan ideas are still popular, and may even be seen to have gone mainstream. Environmentalism, gender equality and the ability to be spiritual without obeying the dogmas of a church are generally pretty accepted, especially among younger folks. In terms of creating cultural shifts, we’re winning.

I’d rather there be fewer organised, religious “Pagans” and more small-p “paganism” in social discourse amongst people of all faiths and none. I have my suspicions of organised religions, especially those that seek growth-for-the-sake-of-growth and expansion by converting people, and I would hate to see Paganism or Druidry become evangelical.

I see Druidry not as another “alternative religion” but as an alternative to religion.

Isaac Bonewits, founder of the Druid group ADF, said that Druidry moves “as fast as a speeding oak”. Growth is slow, barely noticeable, and happens in cycles.

We’re doing fine.

*Druid image: “An Archdruid in his judicial habit” from “The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles”, S. Meyrick and C. Smith, 1815 (via Wikimedia Commons, CC-0)

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Book Review: When a Pagan Prays

wappBrown, Nimue. When a Pagan Prays: Exploring Prayer in Druidry and Beyond. Moon Books, 2014.

Nimue Brown, a Druid author who blogs at Druid Life, wrote Spirituality Without Structure (my review of which is HERE) in the space between writing this book, and When a Pagan Prays feels very much like a spiritual successor to the former.

Nimue describes When a Pagan Prays as not one book, but two:

“One of those books is an amateur attempt at some academic writing, featuring comparative religious studies, psychology, sociology and a bit of research. The other book is an experiential tale of what happened to me when I started to explore prayer as a personal practice”.

While I found the academic analysis of prayer (what it is, what it’s for, why people pray etc) interesting, not least because of my own background in religious studies, it’s the “other book” that makes When a Pagan Prays stand out.

Nimue is frank and open in her exploration of prayer, and comes to it from a position of agnosticism (“maybeism” as she describes it) rather than one of faith. This makes her exploration all the more interesting to read, especially as her theological starting point is strikingly similar to my own. She says “while I am not an atheist, I’m not very good at belief either”.

So why pray? Well, this is the very question that Nimue sets out to explore, through personal practice and experience. Taking it pretty much as a given that materialistic “God give me a pony” type petitionary prayers not only don’t work, but are described by several religious writers Nimue cites from all over the theological map as being the least important form of prayer, Nimue instead looks at prayer as “entering into a mystery, not getting a result”.

One fascinating concept Nimue introduces is what she calls the “nontheist test”. That is, if a spiritual practice has real-world benefits, then it should, in theory, be able to be practiced by a nontheist. In other words, you should not have to assume the existence of any deity in order to do a particular practice. Meditation, for instance, would pass the nontheist test, as it has clear and well-documented benefits. But prayer?

When it comes to whom to pray to, Nimue explores various approaches and ultimately finds the Shinto concept of the Kami one that fits well with her approach to Druidry. The Kami are similar to the concept of Nature Spirits one often finds in animist and Pagan worldviews, and are more immanent and approachable than a distant and omnipotent God-concept.

But you can also pray to ancestors, aspects of nature (the Earth, the Sun), or even to other people. Prayer in this sense becomes a way of deepening connection to all that is, and there is no need to adopt any specific beliefs to do this. As Nimue writes: “If you are willing and able to be open, vulnerable, listening, if you are here to be changed, that’s a very realistic possible outcome, no matter which tradition you follow or the methods you adopt.”

Nimue guides the reader through her own explorations of prayer, and never says that because she did it this way, therefore her way is the right way, or that all Druids must pray, or that any particular belief is necessarily the right one. I appreciate that, and it is fitting in a tradition such as Druidry which has no Holy Books, that every Druid find their own way to pray, if indeed they choose to at all. The final few chapters look at creating Druid prayers and working in group prayer and ritual, and are doubtless of use to any Druid who is involved in creating and leading group rituals.

My own theological framework tends to non-theism, agnosticism and animism, and I find that I have no frame of reference for traditional-literal concepts of God or the gods. But this book has made me look at prayer in a new light, and think about my daily practice of greeting the sun in the morning and the moon at night as a form of prayer.

In the end, it seems that prayer is what you make of it, and that it works in mysterious ways. Whatever your theological persuasion, I would recommend this book to anyone, of any religion or none, who is curious about maybe starting a prayer practice or just wants to take a refreshing new look at the subject.

As Nimue writes:

“Mostly, prayer doesn’t work. Except that to a degree I find quite disconcerting, mostly it has”.

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