Druidry is a rich, rewarding Pagan path for many across the globe. In fact, a lot of Wiccans practice an Eclectic version, adapting many paths, including Druidry, into their lives.
To better understand what it means to be a member of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, or OBOD, I thought it best to let the experts speak and explain it all. I thought this especially appropriate because almost all of the history of Druidry was preserved via an oral history, rather than through sacred documents!
While there are dozens of fine OBOD organizations, one of the oldest and most acknowledged is the British Druid Order. So, even though most of us Yanks may never have a chance to take one of their courses in person, I have utilized the information from this wonderful organization’s website below, including British spellings:
About the BDO
The British Druid Order teaches and practices a creative, celebratory, elemental, shamanic Druidry, drawing inspiration from the past, yet deeply relevant to the needs of the present: caring for the earth, empowering the spirit, promoting peace and understanding. Inspired by the rich heritage of the British Isles, we see Druidry as a path without boundaries, open to all.
BDO Druidry is animistic, recognising all things as imbued with spirit. It is polytheistic, acknowledging many gods and goddesses. It is shamanic, knowing the reality of spirit worlds and their inhabitants. We honour our ancestors of blood and of spirit, i.e. those who have walked similar paths before us.
Teaching is offered through our distance learning course, our other publications, and through workshops, meditational retreats, weekend gatherings and longer camps, and in local Groves.
Our Gorseddau (gatherings of Bards) offer open, multi-faith celebrations of seasonal festivals at sacred sites in Britain and elsewhere. Local Groves offer deeper ritual, teaching, companionship and support.
We encourage the growth of Druid communities in towns and villages around Britain.
What is Druidry?
Druidry is a living spiritual tradition. It is the earliest recorded native spirituality of Britain and Europe. It developed during the European Iron Age that began almost 3,000 years ago, but grew out of an even earlier stratum of practice and belief.
Druidry is traditionally divided into three areas of study and practice; those of bard, ovate and Druid. Bards are keepers of tradition, storytellers, singers, poets, musicians, creative artists; Ovates are seers, diviners, philosophers and healers; Druids are teachers, ritualists, counselors and shamans.
Druidry has been renewed or reinvented by successive generations in ways relevant to their own time. Ancient Druids left no written record of their beliefs and practices, though Greek and Roman writers refer to them. Modern Druid groups draw on different aspects of the past and rework them in different ways, from friendly societies founded in the 18th century to wild eco-warriors.
Modern pagan Druidry offers ways to reconnect with the cycles of life, the spirits of nature, our ancestors and their gods. Like all spiritual traditions, its ultimate goal is unity with the infinite.
Bard, Ovate and Druid
"There are among them composers of verses whom they call Bards; these singing to instruments similar to a lyre, applaud some, while they vituperate others. They have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour and are called Druids; they have soothsayers too of great renown. It is a custom of the Gauls that no one performs a sacrifice without the assistance of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to the gods ought only to be made through the mediation of these men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak, familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the blessings of the gods should properly be sought."
Diodorus Siculus, Histories, V, 31, 1st century BCE
From Strabo, a close contemporary of Diodorus Siculus, we learn that the soothsayers were called Ovates. Modern Druidry still honors this threefold division. Bards are storytellers, poets, musicians, historians, artists and performers. Ovates are prophets, diviners and philosophers, studying natural cycles. They also study healing and herblore. Druids are ritualists, teachers, counsellors and walkers between worlds.
What is a Bard?
"There are among them composers of verses whom they call Bards; these singing to instruments similar to a lyre, applaud some, while they vituperate others."
Diodorus Siculus, Histories, V, 31, 1st century BCE
The bard is both a creative artist and a custodian of lore and tradition, a scholar, poet, composer, performer, musician, storyteller, historian, and mythographer. To these traditional roles, we may add the visual artist, actor, playwright, dancer and, yes, even the humble web-designer. The central principle of the bardic path is communication, chiefly through word and sound.
The key to the way of the bard lies in contact with the inspiring spirit traditionally viewed as flowing from and gifted by the gods, in British tradition most especially by the goddess Ceridwen. In the old British language the spirit of inspiration is called awen, literally the flowing spirit.
Diodorus Siculus refers to two traditional roles of the bard as praise-poet and as satirist. To have a praise-poem composed about you ensured that your name would live forever. To be satirized by a bard would cause blemishes to appear on your skin; an outward sign of the inner corruption that the satire unveiled. Poetic language is viewed as essentially magical, with the power to shape and transform.
A Little Bardic History
The earliest representations of bards are found on pottery found in modern-day Austria, dating from about 800 BCE. The bards are shown playing lyre-like instrumentsand wearing shirts and trousers with diamond patterns.
The picture to the (above) shows a bard of the 1st century BCE, wearing a torque, or neck-ring, and holding the Gaulish lyre called a chrotta, forerunner of the traditional badic harp...
From classical writers such as Diodorus Siculus, we know that bards of these early times composed verse of praise and blame. Julius Caesar (c.100-44 BCE) tells us that "students of Druidism... have to memorize a great number of verses – so many, that some of them spend twenty years at their studies." (De Bello Gallica)
Medieval British and Irish literature confirm these roles. Medieval bards studied in colleges, a system that survived until the 18th century in some areas. Even at this late period, there were teaching methods in these bardic colleges that hark back to a much older time. One is the emphasis on learning by rote rather than relying on books. Another is the practice referred to as 'the cell of song,' in which bards were shut up alone in darkened, silent cells for a day and a night to 'incubate' a poem.
In earlier times, bards were part of the retinue of the nobility, and it was to them that much of their praise poetry was directed. In Britain, this system began to break down in Tudor times, when many of the Welsh nobility moved to London. It ended completely following the closure of the last of the bardic colleges in the 18th century, after which bards turned to the general population for support, setting up 'hedge schools' and entertaining in taverns.
In 1760, James Macpherson, a Scottish schoolmaster, published poetry dealing with the exploits of legendary Irish warrior, Fionn mac Cumhaill. MacPherson claimed they had been composed in the 2nd century CE by Fionn's son, Ossian, and had survived in Scots oral tradition. Although they were forgeries, they were very fine poems and sparked a revival of interest in genuine bardic poetry and traditions.
Public interest was further fueled in 1792, when a Welsh stonemason called Edward Williams held a ceremony on Primrose Hill in London, claiming it to have been handed down from time immemorial by the bards of his home county of Glamorgan. It was the ceremony of the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain, and Edward Williams promoted it under his bardic name of Iolo Morganwg. He had, of course, written it himself, just as he invented the costumes, stone circles and other regalia that went with it. Nevertheless, it sparked the imagination of the public and to this day, Iolo's ceremony can be seen every year at the National Eisteddfod in Wales. Notable members of the Gorsedd today include the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Iolo was also a talented poet, though he often passed off his own poems as the work of earlier, better-known bards. He was also a great promoter of Welsh language and culture, whose enthusiasm ultimately led to the foundation of the National Library of Wales and the University of Wales.
The 19th century saw the publication of English translations of medieval bardic works such as the Welsh Mabinogion and poems of Taliesin, the Irish Book of Invasions and many others. These in turn fuelled the Celtic literary, artistic and cultural renaissance that came to be known as 'The Celtic Twilight.' Notable figures of this time include W. B. Yeats, AE (George Russell), Lady Augusta Gregory, and Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp).
There are many fine bards operating today, among whom I would single out Robin Williamson and Alan Stivell as two of the finest. The new generation of bards draw inspiration from the past, learning and performing older poems, stories and songs as well as composing new material of their own. To see a fine bard in performance is a deeply magical, profoundly moving experience. Touched by their gift of awen, we find our own inspiration and creativity awakened. And so the awen is passed on...
To see and hear a good storyteller in full flow is to be transported to other worlds and to experience other lives. And when the tale is accompanied by music, as many bardic tellings are, then, for me, the magic is complete and I surrender to the journey. There is, indeed, an aspect of traditional bardic storytelling specifically designed to take the listener on a spirit journey. In Ireland, such tellings are called imramma. While telling of magical, otherworld journeys, they can take the audience to the places described. This is where the bardic arts achieve something akin to the intensity of a shamanic experience.
All cultures have their traditional tales and those of your own land are as good a place as any, and better than most, to look for inspiration for your own tellings. As with the dreamtime tales of Australian aboriginal tradition, the old tales of our own lands can awaken the spirits of the land and of our ancestors, brough to fresh and vivid life through the storyteller's art. In taking up and retelling these old tales, we also link into the chain of previous tellers, perhaps feeling their hands patting our shoulders in encouragement as the tale unfurls before our audience. And so the awen is passed on.
The old bardic colleges of Britain and Ireland laid down how many hundreds of tales and poems bards were to learn by heart. Books and television having dulled our memories and our minds, few modern bards are capable of such feats, but most will have a tale or two they can spin around the flickering fire of an evening.
As a member of the British Druid Order, you will be expected to be familiar with the Story of Taliesin and the four branches of the Mabinogion at the very least...
To kick off this (section,) here's a poem of Greywolf's that, when it appeared on our old website, elicited more responses from around the world than anything else on (our) website.
Finding the way
When this search began I was a child and you an unborn, unthought dream.
Looking for your smile among the golden brown I scattered autumn leaves,
watched the silver moonlight dancing on the waves and felt you move,
caught the sun and burnt my skin in summer to honour your shadow,
gave birth to paintings and drama in the corners of dark houses all for you.
I wrote poems and played marbles and strummed a cheap guitar to win your heart,
posing in the mirror with childhood`s ageless wisdom dropping tears in my eyes.
I fabricated shirts of many colours hoping one day to see you smiling, naked.
I wore my hair long for you and fought everything that was not perfect,
for all that was not perfect I knew could not be you. And then I waited.
I grew older, carrying longings like leather suitcases on pointless journeys.
I filled my veins and lungs and brain with things to make you come to me,
thinking you might be a hallucination that would twist into reality if I just
closed my eyes and felt with sliding fingers through the multi-coloured nights.
I slept in fields, in hedges, on cold streets and strangers` beds, wondering
where are you tonight? Where are you tonight? Where are you tonight?
And in the morning I walked down to the beach before the dawn
and watched the sunrise and the fading star of morning, wondering
if your eyes were open and, if they were, what was it that they saw?
And when you came to me the fragments of a broken mirror pieced
themselves together, the scattered leaves of autumn sang and returned
to waiting trees whose voices spoke in blossoms of the spring, and birds
built nests in your honour and bees gathered nectar sweeter than before,
the sun rose brighter and more vivid, the moon-splashed waves danced more
and more and I saw the endless textures of life and love and mystery unfold
in the heavy-scented splendour of a blood red evening rose.
You fill me with the spirit of all that I have been or may some day become,
and all the years of searching fall away and I am young and old and old and young.
Naked to my soul I stand before you. I bring you gifts as tokens of the one
gift I waited all those years to offer you: myself, heart and soul, and all my love.
"The Dagda ... played for them the three things by which a harper is known: sleep music, joyful music, and sorrowful music. He played sorrowful music for them so that their tearful women wept. He played joyful music for them so that their women and boys laughed. He played sleep music for them so that the hosts slept."
Elizabeth A. Gray (translator), The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, 9th century CE Irish text
This quotation, written over a thousand years ago, speaks of powers inherent in music that are still recognized in the Hindu musical tradition and are borne out by modern science. Recent research projects have shown that hospital patients can reduce their need for pain-killers by 50 per cent by listening to certain types of music. Music has been shown capable of effecting everything from plant growth to the performance of marathon runners or how much we spend in shops. These studies show that the power of music is emotional, psychological and physiological.
The Dagda's harp was magical, but many of its powers are available to anyone who makes music. As with any powers, they may be used for good or ill. We have the choice to create music that creates, increases or enhances love, harmony, beauty and healing, or anger and disharmony. The hippy movement for global peace in the 1960s was, to a large degree, driven and inspired by the music of that era. George Harrison summed it up in his song, 'Within You, Without You,' from the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album: "With our love, we can change the world."
The harp, a development from the earlier lyre, is the archetypal bardic instrument. The traditional bardic harp (known as a lap harp, knee harp, Celtic harp, or Clarsach) is much smaller and more portable than the modern concert harp. The guitar has arguably taken over from the harp as the bardic instrument of choice, while flutes continue their ancient popularity into modern times.
There's widespread agreement in the Druid community that the best bard currently working in the tradition is Robin Williamson. Robin mainly plays harp, guitar, fiddle and penny-whistle. His live shows often include poetry and storytelling along with some of the finest music you'll ever hear. As well as performances, Robin, seen here with his wife, Bina, also offers bardic workshops. His website lists tour dates. Numerous solo recordings are currently available, but you might also like to check out the ground-breaking work he did with The Incredible String Band during the 1960s and 70s.
Another superb exponent of the bardic arts is Breton harper, Alan Stivell, who has been playing the Celtic harp since 1953, making albums since 1961, and is still touring today. As well as composing for the harp, Alan was an early pioneer of folk-rock fusion, working with the Moody Blues and appearing with his own band at the Reading Festival. His beautiful 1970 album, Renaissance of the Celtic Harp, is widely regarded as a classic.
From his early days with Fairport Convention, through to the present day, Richard Thompson has produced work of a consistent brilliance almost unparalleled in modern music. Acknowledged as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Richard's poignant, sometimes witty, sometimes tragic chronicles of life and love are presented in styles ranging from gentle acoustic folk to all-out rock'n'roll. Richard tours frequently with both solo performances and one of the finest live bands I've ever heard.
Telling the Bees
Telling the Bees are the multi-talented team of songwriter, Andy Letcher (mandolin, mandolute, pipes, vocals), Josie Webber (cello, vocals), Jane Griffiths (fiddle, vocals) and Colin Fletcher (bass). Their first two albums, Untie the Wind (2008) and An English Arcanum (2009) have already won them a reputation as leading exponents of superbly-crafted, beautifully-played, melodic, mind-expanding indie folk. Wonderful stuff.
"Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything." Plato (427-347 BCE)
Sources of Inspiration
"When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds; your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be."
From the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2nd century BCE Hindu philosopher.
Awen, the flowing spirit of inspiration and creativity, is the key to the Druid path. As the quotation from Patanjali suggests, inspiration may be defined as that which raises the human soul towards a state of joy, wonder and ecstasy. The sources from which we draw inspiration may differ for each of us, but the feelings raised in us by those sources will be essentially the same.
What is an Ovate?
"...they have soothsayers too of great renown."
Diodorus Siculus, Histories, V, 31, 1st century BCE
The ovate, or ofydd, explores the roots of things, seeking the philosophy that underpins Druidry, and life itself. What is the nature and destiny of the human spirit? What is the nature of destiny itself? What happens to the human soul and psyche after death? Who or what are the spirits of nature? How do we relate to them? The ovate seeks answer to such questions through understanding the natural cycles of time, and the processes of birth, growth, life, death and decay, both on a smaller scale by studying plants and animals, and on a larger scale by studying theoretical science and cosmology.
The ovate is a seer, combining mental and spiritual discipline with the intuitive gifts of the bard, seeking through awen-inspired vision to understand the flow of events, past, present, and future. A primary ovate skill is divination, seen in its literal sense as communication with the divine. Another is healing, the ovate practice of healing drawing on an understanding of the flow of spirit, the will of the gods and the nature of human destiny.
"The cardinal doctrine which they seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one to another; and this belief, as the fear of death is thereby cast aside, they hold to be the greatest incentive to valour. Besides this, they have many discussions as touching the stars and their movement, the size of the universe and of the earth, the order of nature, the strength and the powers of the immortal gods."
Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallica
Caesar was writing of the beliefs of Druids in his time. Elsewhere it is said that our ancestors belief in the afterlife was so strong that they would often agree to repay debts in the Otherworld. The afterlife was considered so blissful that death was a cause for celebration. The surviving echo of this belief may be seen in the Irish tradition of the wake.
Druidry is not a religion of the book. It draws instead on dreams, visions and encounters with the spirits of our gods, ancestors and the living world around us. Such spirits are our teachers and guides and a large part of the ovate study is to learn to listen to them and heed their words.
The Native American leader, Chief Seattle, is reported to have said:
"To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors – the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night by the Great Spirit; and the visions of our sachems (chiefs), and is written in the hearts of our people.
"Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the happy hunting ground to visit, guide, console, and comfort them."
Chief Seattle, 1786 - 1866.
These words could equally have been spoken by a Druid ovate. We too seek to commune with our ancestors. We speak of ancestors of blood, our direct genetic forebears, and ancestors of spirit, those who have walked a spiritual path similar to our own. Sometimes the two are the same.
As bards, we begin to open our ears to hear the messages brought to us on the wind from our ancestors, our gods and the spirits of the natural world. As ovates, we seek to open our eyes to visions of these beings. This enables us to penetrate deeper into the mysteries of time and space, of spirit and being. This is why Strabo refers to ovates as 'natural philosophers.'
"Among the Welsh there are certain individuals called awenyddion who behave as if they are possessed... When you consult them about some problem, they immediately go into a trance and lose control of their senses... They do not answer the question put to them in a logical way. Words stream from their mouths, incoherently and apparently meaningless and lacking any sense at all, but all the same well expressed: and if you listen carefully to what they say you will receive the solution to your problem. When it is all over, they will recover from their trance, as if they were ordinary people waking from a heavy sleep, but you have to give them a good shake before they regain control of themselves... and when they do return to their senses they can remember nothing of what they have said in the interval... They seem to receive this gift of divination through visions which they see in their dreams. Some of them have the impression that honey or sugary milk is being smeared on their mouths; others say that a sheet of paper with words written on it is pressed against their lips. As soon as they are roused from their trance and have come round from their prophesying, that is what they say has happened..."
Giraldus Cambrensis in his late 12th century Description of Wales (Penguin Books, 1978, p.274 ff., translated by Lewis Thorpe).
Giraldus here describes just one form of ovate prophecy practiced by our ancestors. Others include; augury from the behavior of birds; divination from cloud formations; the casting of lots, sometimes in the form of sticks carved with letters of the ogham alphabet; the second sight, in which information is gleaned either from natural occurrences in this world or from seeing into the spirit world, or a combination of the two; fasting at sacred sites to commune with spirits and ancestors; calling the spirits of the dead; imbibing sacred mead or special foods; oracular dreaming; sensory deprivation; and studying the movement of stars.
Some of these practices are reminiscent of the Native American concept of the spirit quest.
To these traditional methods we may now add the use of oracle cards such as the Druid Tarot, the Druidcraft Tarot, the Druid Animal Oracle (shown left), the Druid Plant Oracle, the Celtic Tree Oracle, etc.
As ovates, we use divination in its original sense of communicating with the divine in order to understand the cycles and patterns of our lives, of the wider world, and of past, present and future.
The Ogham Alphabet
"That sacred tree whose bark I touched,
whose leaves did tell to me,
the ancient tales that made me sure
my friend would come to me..."
From the song, 'Greatest Friend,' written by Mike Heron, from the Incredible String Band, Wee Tam and the Big Huge, Elektra Records, 1968.
The Ogham alphabet is a system of writing developed between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE in southern Ireland, probably in response to the adoption of the Roman alphabet in neighboring Britain. Each letter consists of a number of strokes, from one to five, cut across a central stem line. This form suggests that it derived from an earlier system of counting by cutting notches into tally sticks. Hundreds of examples of Ogham script carved on standing stones survive, all dated to between the 4th and 8th centuries CE. These are believed to be either memorials or boundary stones, possibly both.
In the later medieval period, the Ogham alphabet formed the basis of a complex system that combined poetry and grammar with mnemonics, mythology, divination, musical notation, written cyphers and encoded speech. It is these later developments that are of most interest to modern Druids. Various methods of divination using the Ogham alphabet have been devised. Most are inspired by the poet, Robert Graves, whose book, The White Goddess (Faber, 1948), suggested that each letter of the Ogham alphabet was represented by a different tree or shrub. Graves also derived a calendar from his tree alphabet.
The image on the left shows the 20 original letters of the Ogham alphabet as it appears on stone inscriptions. The later manuscript tradition added a further 5 letter shapes. From top to bottom, the letters shown here are: B L N F S H D T C Q M G Ng R St A O U E I. Most Ogham inscriptions were written from the ground up using the edge of the stone as a stem line. If the inscription were too long, it would be run over the top of the stone and continue down the other side.
Irish legend holds that the alphabet was created by the god, Ogma Sun-Face.
"... at a place near Dol Howel, at the Mountain Gate, still called Llidiad y Meddygon, The Physicians' Gate, the [Lady of the Lake] appeared suddenly, and accosted her eldest son, whose name was Rhiwallon, and told him that his mission on earth was to be a benefactor to mankind by relieving them from pain and misery, through healing all manner of their diseases; for which purpose she furnished him with a bag full of medical prescriptions and instructions for the preservation of health. That by strict attention thereto he and his family would become for many generations the most skilful physicians in the country. Then, promising to meet him when her counsel was most needed, she vanished. But on several occasions she met her sons near the banks of the lake, and once she even accompanied them on their return home as far as a place still called Pant-y-Meddygon, The Dingle of the Physicians, where she pointed out to them the various plants and herbs which grew in the dingle, and revealed to them their medicinal qualities or virtues; and the knowledge she imparted to them, together with their unrivalled skill, soon caused them to attain such celebrity that none ever possessed before them. And in order that their knowledge should not be lost, they wisely committed the same to writing, for the benefit of mankind throughout all ages."
Extract from The Physicians of Myddfai, 1861 edition published by the Welsh Manuscript Society.
The above extract demonstrates an ancient belief in the power of spirit beings to impart knowledge of healing techniques. The earliest surviving manuscript copy of the remedies of the Physicians of Myddfai is contained in the 15th century Red Book of Hergest. The remedies consist mainly of combinations of herbs to be taken as infusions or applied as ointments.
The growing sensitivity and awareness of the ovate makes possible a truly holistic approach to healing. Ovates use herbs, massage, spirit healing and other techniques. Some undertake orthodox clinical training, becoming nurses, midwives or doctors. Others train in various branches of complimentary medicine. Others rely solely on spiritual guidance and their own innate abilities.
What is a Druid?
"They have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour and are called Druids. It is a custom of the Gauls that no one performs a sacrifice without the assistance of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to the gods ought only to be made through the mediation of these men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak, familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the blessings of the gods should properly be sought."
Diodorus Siculus, Histories, V, 31, 1st century BCE
If the role of the bard is to listen to, learn about, speak and sing of spiritual realms and their inhabitants, and that of the ovate is to see them, then the role of the Druid is to enter into those worlds and meet directly with the spirits who inhabit them; spirits of nature, the ancestors, and the gods. The Druid is the walker between worlds, the shaman, shape-shifter, priest, teacher and sage of our tradition.
"Druids ... said that it was they that made heaven and the earth and the sea – and the sun and moon."
From Senchus Mor, i. 23 (Irish MS., quoted in James Bonwick, Irish Druids & Old Irish Religions, London, 1894, p.19)
This quotation implies a belief among Druids akin to one of the key aspects of Hindu Tantric philosophy; the idea that within each of us is the spirit that continually creates our universe. This concept has huge ramifications for our understanding of the universe and our role within it. It represents a radically different worldview from that of most western philosophy and that presented by the monotheistic faiths.
Judeo-Christian tradition holds that creation was a one-off event taking place at the beginning of time, initiated and controlled by a single, all-powerful creator god. If this is accepted, it leaves humans and all other life forms as little more than puppets of this great creator. It becomes easy, therefore, to give up all idea of controlling one's own destiny and hand over all responsibility to this all-encompassing deity. By contrast, to the Druid, we are each our own deity, each responsible for every aspect of our world. As Druids, our ultimate aim is to attain oneness with all things, to encompass infinity, becoming as gods, able to take our full role within the great dance of creation.
"I have been in many shapes
Before I took this congenial form;
I have been a sword, narrow in shape;
I believe, since it is apparent,
I have been a tear-drop in the sky,
I have been a glittering star,
I have been a word in a letter,
I have been a book in my origin,
I have been a gleaming ray of light,
A year and a half,
I have been a stable bridge
Over confluences of compassion,
I have been a pathway, I have been an eagle,
I have been a coracle on the brink,
I have been the direction of a staff,
I have been a stack in an open enclosure,
I have been a sword in a yielding cleft,
I have been a shield in open conflict,
I have been a string on a harp,
Shape-shifting nine years,
In water, in foam,
I have been consumed in fire,
I have been passion in a covert.
Am I not he who will sing
Of beauty in what is small;
Beauty in the Battle of the Tree-tops
Against the country of Prydein."
Excerpt from 'The Battle of the Trees,' attributed to the bard, Taliesin, translated by Greywolf.
"The Druids usually hold aloof from war, and do not pay war-taxes with the rest; they are excused from military service and exempt from all liabilities. Tempted by these great rewards, many young men assemble of their own motion to receive their training; many are sent by parents and relatives. Report says that in the schools of the Druids they learn by heart a great number of verses, and therefore some persons remain twenty years in training. And they do not think it proper to commit these utterances to writing, although in almost all other matters, and in their private and public accounts, they make use of Greek letters. I believe that they have adopted the practice for two reasons - that they do not wish the rule to become common property, nor those who learn the rule to rely on writing and so neglect the cultivation of the memory; and, in fact, it does usually happen that the assistance of writing tends to relax the diligence of the student and the action of the memory."
Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallica, VI.13-14
Julius Caesar's not the kind of man you'd trust. He was, after all, a politician and his own very effective spin doctor. However, when he says that Druid teachings were passed on orally, he's supported by the fact that not a single word of classical Druid lore written by a Druid has come down to us. And when Caesar says that Druid learning lasted twenty years, this is supported by later Irish literature although, to be fair, the Irish writers may have got the idea from Caesar. It is likely, though unproveable, that the bardic colleges that survived in Wales, Scotland and Ireland as late as the 18th century were descended from former Druid colleges. The records of these colleges agree with Caesar's account in having pupils learning by rote.
Taking the surviving threads of evidence together suggests that Druidic training was equivalent to about six modern degree courses, not surprising given that Druids are reputed to have been lawyers, judges, doctors, philosophers, counselors, historians, prophets, musicians, storytellers and poets as well as teachers. Modern Druids still fulfil many of the same functions. Although modern Druid training takes full advantage of printing and the internet, there is still a lot to be said for teaching face to face. To this end, we plan on having regular hands-on teaching sessions to supplement the BDO course.
"The Druids ... held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, always supposing that tree to be the oak. But they choose groves formed of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it ... In fact, they think that everything that grows on it has been sent from heaven and is proof that the tree was chosen by the god himself. The mistletoe is found but rarely upon the oak; and when found, is gathered with due religious ceremony, if possible on the sixth day of the moon ... They choose this day because the moon, though not yet in the middle of her course, has already considerable influence. They call the mistletoe by a name meaning, in their language, the all-healing.
"Having made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, whose horns are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe, the priest ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and it is received by others in a white cloak. Then they kill the victims, praying that god will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has granted it."
Pliny, Natural History, xvi, 249
This quote from Pliny is the most famous description of a Druid rite and elements of it have sunk deep into Druid lore, in particular; reverence for the mistletoe; white robes; and the golden sickle. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Pliny himself witnessed such a ceremony and it is quite possible that the anonymous informant who told him about it may have been passing on some half-remembered tale or simply inventing the whole thing. Even if such a rite did happen, it is likely to have been localized to a single tribal area rather than generally practiced among all Druids.
Having said that, there is nothing inherently unlikely about it. White is a symbol of purity in many cultures and therefore appropriate to a sacrifice to the gods. Fixing ceremonial dates by phases of the moon is also common to many ancient cultures. The date of Easter is still fixed by reference to the first full moon after the Spring equinox, a method derived from pagan Babylon. Feasting on sacrificial animals is common in antiquity and in modern tribal cultures. The visibility of mistletoe in Winter, its white fruits, its parasitic growth, its toxicity and its medicinal potential may well have combined to make it specially prized by Druids.
Druid ritual today takes many forms, though animal sacrifice is not one of them. We celebrate the passing of the seasons, the phases of human life or the attainment of life's goals. We make rituals for healing, divination and prayer, or to commune with our gods and ancestors. Our rites may be public, like the open gorseddau (bardic gatherings) that were pioneered by the BDO in the early 1990s, or private and personal. Most rituals begin with casting a circle and calling to the elemental powers of the directions. Such a circle may be blessed and consecrated with herbs, incense, water, light or fire. We will usually ask the blessings of the spirits of the place where we are. Often we invite the participation of our ancestors, gods and other guiding spirits. When a circle has been cast, it will normally be unwoven at the end of the rite.
There are common elements that recur frequently in Druid ritual. One is the call for peace often made at the four quarters at the beginning of a rite. Another is the Oath of Peace:
"We swear by peace and love to stand heart to heart and hand in hand. Mark, O Spirits, and hear us now, confirming this, our sacred vow."
We regard the sacred space in which ritual is made as existing beyond the normal confines of linear time and space yet intimately connected with all existence by the threads of the web of being within which both ritual and life itself are woven.
The Druid Shaman
"...among the Welsh there are certain individuals called awenyddion who behave as if they are possessed... When you consult them about some problem, they immediately go into a trance and lose control of their senses... They do not answer the question put to them in a logical way. Words stream from their mouths, incoherently and apparently meaningless and lacking any sense at all, but all the same well expressed: and if you listen carefully to what they say you will receive the solution to your problem."
Giraldus Cambrensis, from his Description of Wales (trans. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, 1978, p.246ff)
This account of a type of inspired diviner existing in Wales in the late 12th century bears a striking resemblance to descriptions of shamanic trances entered into in other cultures for similar reasons. Other references in the literature and folklore of Wales, Ireland and Scotland speak of Druids shape-shifting, prophecying, controlling the weather, healing, conversing with spirits and wearing feathered cloaks in order to facilitate flight, all activities associated with shamanic figures in other cultures.
Antlered figures representing a Lord of Animals, like the one on the 1st century BCE Gundestrup Cauldron (left), suggest a shamanic belief in the spiritual power of animals. Taken together, these fragments of information give us an image of early Druids that is clearly shaman-like.
In the British Druid Order, we look to the Story of Taliesin, in which the inspired bard gains three gifts from the cauldron brewed by the goddess Ceridwen: poetry (bard), prophecy (ovate) and the shamanic power of shape-shifting (Druid).
— Danu’s Daughter