Real Druids (2006)

This year's Earth Day in Ashland, Oregon, where I live, featured an interfaith service at the local Unitarian church, and I wasn't too surprised to get a call inviting me to be one of the presenters. Like the other interfaith events I've been to, this one was sparsely attended but enthusiastic; a choir sang upbeat songs about saving the planet in between snippets of Buddhist sutras, Baha'i prayers, Taoist poetry, and yes, a bit of Druid ritual. Afterwards, though, as I was folding up my robes, a kid about eight years old came into the little alcove where the presenters stashed their gear, looked up at me and asked, "Are you a real Druid?"

Half an hour later, as I walked home through Oregon rain, the question still burned.

It's not an easy question to answer. The original Druids, the priests and wizards of the ancient Celts, went extinct more than a thousand years ago, and all their beliefs, practices, and teachings went with them. Maybe they were the wise oak-priests of today's historical fantasies, maybe they were the "obscure barbarian priesthood of interest only to specialists" that historians like the late Stuart Piggott prefer to imagine. We'll never know, because they and almost everything connected with them vanished in the early Dark Ages.

Some modern Druid groups in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to their lasting discredit, claimed direct connections to the ancient Celtic Druids they didn't have. The real roots of the modern Druid movement go in a different direction: to the first stages of the Industrial Revolution in early 18th century Britain, and the Hobson's choice between dogmatic religion and materialist science, the two victors in the reality wars of the late Renaissance. Plenty of people sought a third option that embraced nature and spirit alike, and some of them found inspiration in the scraps of classical writing, medieval legend, and Celtic folklore that referred to the ancient Druids.

Historians call the result the Druid Revival. By the middle years of the 18th century there were organized Druid groups active in Britain, and by the beginning of the next century the Revival spread to America and France. The Druid order I head, the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), was founded in 1912, so to some extent we're the new kid on the block: part of a tradition that's been active in the western world for close to three centuries, proclaiming in its quiet way the holiness of nature and the need for human beings to return to harmony with the living earth.

That's a message that could bear repeating these days. I don't think it's an accident that the Druid Revival started alongside the Industrial Revolution, as the western world began to launch itself on a trajectory that's bringing it up against hard planetary limits in our own time. Those first modern Druids pointed out the road our civilization didn't take, a sustainable path in harmony with the living world. The ancient Celtic Druids whose example inspired them lived in a different age, with different challenges, but their reverence for forests and the powers of nature still guides and motivates Druids today.

I can't say that all this went through my mind as I fumbled for an answer to the kid's question, but when you use the word "Druid" for yourself and your spirituality nowadays, issues like these are never far away. "Yes," I told him finally. "Yes, I am."

He grinned, and said, "I thought so. Thanks!" Then he scampered off, and I walked home through the rain with history spinning in my head.