Book Review: Old Gods, New Druids

20170813_153435Old Gods, New Druids. Robin Herne. O Books (Moon Books), 2009.

There were three reasons for me reading this book (because Druids do it in threes!): One, it looked interesting and I wanted to broaden my understanding of Druidry both ancient and modern; Two, because I promised Nimue I’d do a review of it eventually; and Three, because the author, Robin Herne, is also one of the tutors at Druid College UK and it’s on my reading list!

Well, I’m glad I took the time to sit down with this one and digest it over several cups of tea, lots of biscuits and the occasional whisky.

Robin organises the book into twenty lessons, each with historical background and in-depth discussion of a certain theme, such as the structure of early Gaelic society; the Gods and Goddesses; Truth and Justice; etc, followed by points to consider or discuss and some practical activities to try out.

A diligent reader (alas, not me for I didn’t have the time) who worked through all the discussions and activities, could start the book with little to no understanding of the subject and finish it with a solid grounding and a workable Druid practice.

Unlike many other “introduction” books on Druidry out there, Old Gods, New Druids is based heavily in the history of the early Celtic tribes in the Iron Age, and examines carefully what we know (and what we don’t know) about how they lived, loved, worshiped and legislated. The sheer amount of facts, and the tongue-twisting names of ancient Celtic sources crammed into this relatively short book did have my brain spinning in places, but Robin’s conversational and easygoing writing style stopped it from feeling too dense or dry.

Robin writes from the perspective of both an academic and a practicing Pagan, and the lessons are often put into both the historical Celtic context and the context of how his own group, the Clan, work with the gods and myths today. He tackles the ever-present question of whether we can even be Druids today by saying:

Do we consider ourselves modern counterparts the the ancient Druids? The answer is: sort of. Druids performed many functions for the old tribes. Some of the duties are beyond our league…However, there are functions that we certainly perform in our daily lives. Some of us teach, some heal the sick, we all perform ritual…etc.

It’s clear that Robin’s view of modern Druidry is one influenced by the ancient past, but also rooted firmly in the real world in which we live today, and specifically rooted in community and service.

While I am generally less interested in how ancient Celts organised their societies than perhaps some modern Druids are, I still think it is absolutely worthwhile to know your background and know your history; by which I mean real, documented and archaeological history rather than the mish-mash of folklore and fake-lore that is often propagated in some Pagan communities. With this in mind, Old Gods, New Druids is an excellent sourcebook for gaining a decent foundation in what the ancient Druids might have actually believed and actually done.

That said, the book isn’t just an historical miscellany. We are invited to consider what implications the past has on how we practice and live our Druidry now. What do we want to keep? What do we want to discard? What do we want to change?

Myth inspires the future. A romantic past that just leads one to gawping passively into dreamland is of little use. A vision of the future that inspires us to strive forward, to make that ideal a reality, is far more practical.

I would probably not recommend this book as the very first thing someone should read about Druidry if they had absolutely no background knowledge or experience; some of the history and references to ancient texts can seem a bit overpowering, and there isn’t much on modern Druid orders, ritual, the wheel of the year etc. This is intentional, and I’m glad to see that it isn’t a book filled with the usual rehashed information and padded out with ritual scripts, but I would probably recommend this for people who are either already practicing Druidry and want to learn where it all comes from in order to deepen their connection to it, or at least for people who have read a book or two on modern Druidry first.

That said, it’s an informative and entertaining read and well worth a place on any Druid’s bookshelf, and after reading it I’m very much looking forward to learning from Robin as I commence my Druid College studies in October.

 

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Book review: Nature Mystics

nature mysticsBeattie, Rebecca. Pagan Portals: Nature Mystics: the literary gateway to modern Paganism. Moon Books, 2014.

This book, another title in the short Pagan Portals series from Moon Books, introduces the reader to a variety of modern (generally 19th and 20th century) writers who may be said to have influenced “the cultural environment that allowed modern Paganism to develop and flourish throughout the twentieth century”.

Beattie makes it clear that none of the writers chosen were Pagans themselves (indeed some, like Tolkien, were devoutly Christian), and she sets the date for the inception of “modern Paganism” as being around 1951 with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, to 1954, with the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today. This date is generally agreed by scholars like Ronald Hutton, so by definition most of the writers in this book could not be modern Pagans, although some such as W.B. Yeats and E. Nesbit were members of occult societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, from which much modern Paganism developed.

The writers chosen are, as Beattie’s title suggests, all to some extent “Nature Mystics”, which she defines as “someone who has mystical experiences in nature, or connects to the divine through nature, and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration”. What the divine looks like differs from one Nature Mystic to another, but it is this connection that is all-important, and it is this that can be seen as a thread linking the Nature Mystics to the worldview and experiences of nature that are central to modern Paganism.

Beattie’s selection of writers is, as she admits, not an exhaustive list, but she does an excellent job at selecting a diverse range of writers (five men, five women) who represent a wide selection of different approaches to nature mysticism in literature. The familiar figures one may expect are there (Yeats, Tolkien, Hardy) but also several whom I had not before encountered such as Mary Webb, Elizabeth von Arnim and Mary Butts. It’s interesting to note that it is the women writers who have been less well-received and less well-known throughout literary history, which is doubtless telling of the nature of literary criticism’s treatment of women.

Standing out as an outlier in the book is Keats. Beattie writes that Keats very nearly didn’t make the cut, as he was an earlier writer than the others discussed, but that people clamoured on her blog for him to be included. And I’m very glad he was, because not only is he my favourite poet, but his writing has had a big influence on my own Pagan path and worldview.

Beattie states, however, that there is little evidence of Keats as a nature mystic, and describes him instead as a “Human Nature Mystic”, whose poetry was inward looking for inspiration rather than out to nature, and, while he wrote about nature as beautiful, it was not necessarily seen as a connection to the divine.

This is one point in the book where my views differ from that of the author. Lines such as:

For what has made the sage or poet write
But the fair paradise of Nature’s light?

Alongside Keats’ invocations of the Classical Pagan landscape in Endymion, or his poems dedicated “To Autumn”, or “On the Sea”, seem to me to fit Beattie’s definition of a nature mystic as one who “has mystical experiences in nature…and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration”. In some of Keats’ lesser-known works, he comes even closer to what we might consider to be the ethos and even the forms of modern Paganism:

‘Tis ‘the witching time of night’,
Orbed is the Moon and bright
And the Stars they glisten, glisten
Seeming with bright eyes to listen –

But this is a minor criticism for an excellent book which provides a great potted introduction to some very interesting and influential writers, some of whom deserve to be better-known than they are, and all of whom (consciously or not) have influenced ideas which led to, and continue to inspire, modern Paganism today.

As with all the Pagan Portals book, this is a quick read, and one which is lovely to devour on a sunny afternoon or two. I’m definitely going to look up some of the authors mentioned and read their works thanks to Beattie’s introduction, which I think means that Nature Mystics is a definite success.

Second book review: Modern Paganism

Image from Treadwells bookshop, London.

Image from Treadwells bookshop, London.

Hutton, R. The triumph of the moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft. Oxford University Press, 1999.

The book I have chosen for the Modern Paganism topic is The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft by Ronald Hutton.

Hutton is an academic historian at the University of Bristol, UK, with a deep interest in modern and ancient Paganism and how it interacts with culture.

The book’s focus is British Wicca, and the reason I’ve chosen it from the reading list is that many of the other books focus on American pagan movements, which are not as relevant to me here in the UK. While I am not Wiccan, Wicca is the source of much of modern paganism, and its ideas and symbolism have percolated popular culture to an astonishing extent. Yet some of it is rooted in outdated scholarship and debunked theories.

According to Our Own Druidry, Hutton’s book “serves as a counter-balance to much of the information and theories that are likely to be encountered when reviewing Neo-Paganism in general”.

The first part of the book explores the background to the creation of modern Wicca, and discusses the influence of Romanticism, spiritualism and Victorian ideas of “nature” (including the archetypes of the wild horned god and the triple goddess, essentially created by Robert Graves) which were brought into Wiccan thought from the very beginning.

Other influences Hutton discusses are Freemasonry (which may have been the source of the liturgical phrases “merry meet” and “so mote it be”), and the ceremonial magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a 19th century magical order which included W.B. Yeats among its members. The Golden Dawn’s ritual structure (casting circles, calling quarters, use of four elements and pentagram symbols) was clearly a major influence on Gardner’s development of Wiccan ritual, which in turn has influenced other Pagan groups including much of British Druidry today.

Hutton debunks several modern Pagan myths in this book, skewering false beliefs with academic precision. The “witch cult” theory of Margaret Murray, the belief in pre-Christian goddess-worshipping matriarchies, the lack of Pagan origins for the Green Man figure seen in English churches…all are shown to be modern interpretations based often on insufficient evidence. Gardner’s own version of the events that led to the founding of Wicca is also shown to be more myth than history: it is highly unlikely that he was initiated into a secretive ancient coven by a mysterious “high priestess”.

The effect of wishful thinking, esoteric fantasy, charismatic individuals and some fairly poor scholarship all played a role in the creation of Wicca, although this does not necessarily mean that Wiccan practices are not valid as a modern religion, but that it cannot be claimed as a survival of ancient Paganism.

Triumph of the Moon also traces the development of Wicca after Gardner, in both Britain and the US, and the growth of modern “eclectic Wicca” or “eclectic Paganism” as well as how Wicca, originally a cult of (hetero)sexuality and fertility, became an environmentalist and feminist nature religion through influential writers such as Starhawk.

Hutton’s work may ruffle the feathers of Pagans who believe in the claims of unbroken ancient traditions, but I believe it is essential to know and understand the true history of modern Paganism if we are to take it forward into the future as a modern, environmentally aware and scientifically conscious way of life for the 21st century.