As seems to be the case in a lot of areas of my life right now, it’s two steps forward, one step back as I work my way through the 30 Days of Druidry project. I’m doing my best to see it as a dance.
At the beginning of the month, I wrote a poetic contemplation inspired by the prompt “Why Druidry?” Today, the excellent Druid writer and blogger Nimue Brown shared her thoughts on becoming a Druid, exploring questions of authority and authenticity as they play out in our messy-crazy-beautiful community. She ends her post with these thoughts:
You become a druid, by becoming a druid. And your first job as you take up the path, is to figure out, for yourself and on your own terms, exactly what that’s supposed to mean. To become a druid, you have to plough through all the things you will find and read about other people’s methods and definitions. You will have to cut a swathe through impenetrable and incompatible ideas, and you will be puzzled a lot. For every person who has so far embarked on that journey there will be a different story of routes taken, dead ends banged against, paths that just melted away in the night, teachers who were idiots, books that were unhelpful, rituals that didn’t work. And somehow, through it all, there is a not giving up. That’s probably the core of it. Decide you want to be a Druid. Weather the confusion. Seek your own path. Don’t give up. Get to the point of being able to call yourself a Druid.
Nimue articulates beautifully this sense of Druidry as a process. She doesn’t say that all it takes to become a Druid is to decide that you are a Druid. That journey would be a short and simple one for sure! No, instead she says that to become a Druid, you must decide to become a Druid — and to accept the process of becoming that will spiral out and take root as a result of that choice. Because becoming a Druid is and always will be a process, not an end in itself. It will always be something towards which we strive, through our commitment to learning and exploration, through our service to our community, and through our devotion to Spirit however we understand it.
I shared Nimue’s post on Facebook, where it sparked some discussion between myself and a reader named Jordan. I’m not sure if Jordan considers himself a Celtic Reconstructionist or not, but he brought up some interesting objections to Nimue’s post that I’ve often heard raised by those who are. Most importantly among them, he saw Nimue’s willingness to trust in people’s autonomy to determine for themselves whether or not they fit into the Druid community to be antithetical to the role played by Druids among the ancient Celts. The ancient Druids were required to study for twenty or more years, to memorize a large corpus of key poetic works that contained the histories and genealogies of their communities, and to serve in the capacity of adviser to prominent political figures, chiefs and kings. Not just anyone could call themselves a Druid. And so Jordan objected to Nimue’s claim that “you become a Druid by becoming a Druid,” by weathering the confusion and seeking your own path as a member of the broader Druid community. Wasn’t this exactly the opposite of what the ancient Druids really did?
Jordan’s objection definitely carries weight, and it’s reflected in Nimue’s first response to the question of how a person can become a Druid: “You can’t.”
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a modern “Druid” as the word was used in the ancient Celtic sense. Even if we knew all of the qualifications that ancient Druids had to possess to be worthy of the title (which, despite the excellent scholarship available in Celtic studies today, we don’t), there would be no way to fulfill some of those qualifications in a modern context because our socio-political structures are vastly different from those of the ancient Celts. Though Jordan compares the practice of Druidry to holding a particular job title, such as that of professor or doctor, this is not really an accurate analogy. The Druid in ancient Celtic society was more akin to the Brahmin in the Hindu caste system, a position within a hierarchical class structure that brought certain responsibilities, privileges and social roles with it. Even if a person today were to earn an advanced degree in Celtic studies, speak and read fluently all of the Celtic languages, memorize the ancient lore, practice the ancient rites as they were practiced so long ago, and even serve as a political adviser to President Obama himself…. it would still not make that person a Druid in the ancient sense of the word. Why? Because the community structures that made the title “Druid” meaningful for the ancient Celts have long since been replaced with ones specific to our time and place in history as modern, multi-faith, multi-cultural communities. In other words, the class system that the Druids were a part of no longer exists.
Those of us who choose to call ourselves Druids today are keenly aware of this disconnect between the past and the present, this disruption in tradition that leaves us sometimes at a loss for how to move forward. Another Druid, Heather, writes about her own on-going struggle with personal and universal uncertainty as a scientist seeking a spiritual life:
What do you do when you reach a point in your life when you don’t know how to go on, when you no longer know where to go or what to do? It feels as though you have found a trail in the forest that looked promising and you followed it faithfully for many years. Over time, however, the path grew fainter and fainter, and you picked your way through the trees and underbrush with greater hesitancy and uncertainty. Finally, you cannot see the path at all and you come to a halt. The forest stretches away from you in every direction, and any path you might take seems equally forbidding, equally full of promise or lack of promise. You cannot even go back, for the path you reached here on has vanished. You know that you cannot remain here, that the key to your survival is your continual movement along the path, but in despair you do not know where to turn and you have lost sight in any light that may have guided you along the path. What do you do? Where do you go?
How closely this imagery echoes Nimue’s description of the Druid’s willingness to “plough through” all the chaos and complexity of living in community with others, to “cut a swathe through impenetrable and incompatible ideas” and to follow “paths that just [melt] away in the night.” This is why Nimue writes of seeking you own path. Not because she’s advocating an “anything goes” attitude (though I think she appreciates and celebrates the challenges of striving for a community that embodies openness and diversity) — but because, as she points out, no matter what external authority we seek to lend authenticity and legitimacy to our self-definition as a “Druid,” that authority will eventually run out. And when it does, we will find ourselves in the midst of a spiritual wilderness, with only our commitment to the work and the sense of our own worth and worthiness to use the name as tools to help us move forward into the unknown.
So why use the name “Druid” at all, if it carries such difficulty and uncertainty with it?
To me, Druidry will always be a kind of mysticism or mystery religion, a spiritual path grounded in the ecstasy, creativity and vision that takes root in wildness. As a religion, modern Druidry has grown up around the archetype of the Druid as the wise sage, the inspired poet, the bright-eyed seer and the lover of nature. That archetype of the Druid is the acorn from which the oak of Druidry as a religion grows and expands, reaching limbs in all directions, sending down roots deep into the earth and the present moment. The Druid archetype is the ideal that helps to shape and guide the religious lives of those who practice Druidry — just as the acorn contains within itself the genetic patterns necessary to create the mature oak, and yet each oak itself must draw nutrients from its immediate environment and will grow in its turn to fit its own place and time. No two oaks that grow in the wild will be the same, and that process of growth is never-ending as each new branch, twig, leaf and root seek their own way towards sunlight and soil.
In this way, we choose the name “Druidry” for our religion to honor the archetype and ideal that guides and shapes us, without necessarily treating the name as a title that we take on ourselves in arrogance or self-satisfaction. We call our religion Druidry because at its heart is the ideal of the Druid — in the same way that the central archetype which guides and shapes the religion of Buddhism is the ideal of the Buddha as the “awakened one.” And just as in Buddhism there is the hinted-at promise that each person is capable of aspiring to and embodying the archetype of Buddha in their own life through discipline, study and devotion — even if they were not lucky enough to be born a Brahmin — so too in Druidry do we value and honor the striving that the ideal of the Druid inspires in us.
Of course, people who practice Buddhism have the advantage of avoiding confusion by calling themselves Buddhists, not Buddhas. An accident of language has left us with no satisfactory name to use for ourselves when we follow the Druid’s path, other than to persist in stubbornly calling ourselves “Druids.” Druidist? It just doesn’t have the same satisfying ring of simplicity. (Some of us like to poke fun at our own community by describing ourselves as “Druish.” Plus, Spaceballs reference!) And so, we rally ourselves as best we can, and generally treat the word as a convenient description of our tradition, rather than a personal title. A person who practices Druidry is a Druid, regardless of how much experience or knowledge they might have — and their right to the name rests on their willingness to face all the challenges that that self-definition is likely to provoke from others. In accepting this usage, most of us who are practitioners of Druidry acknowledge that our understanding of religion has changed from what it once was in ancient times, and we now live in a multi-faith society where it is often useful to have a simple label on hand to identify our own primary religious affiliation.
Still, in light of the analogy between Druidry and Buddhism that I’ve drawn above, I also like to think that we are tiptoeing around another kind of Mystery in choosing to call ourselves Druids. As the old Buddhist saying goes, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Some Buddhist traditions even teach that upon escaping samsara and entering nirvana, you realize that they are in fact one and the same, and you have been in nirvana all along. This rejection of duality, and the irreverence that guards against our natural tendency to transform an inspiring archetype into an unobtainable ideal, might also be captured in our tongue-in-cheek presumption in calling ourselves Druids. We know that, in the most literal, original sense of the word, being a Druid today is impossible. We also know that as an archetype and inspiration, it holds great value and depth even despite its impossibility. As Druids, we take the third way: we leap ahead, we name ourselves what we value most, we celebrate in ourselves our capacity to become that which we aspire to be, and then we buckle down to the long, arduous, uncertain process…. of becoming Druid.
This post is part of the 30 Days of Druidry creative writing project.