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Who Were The Druids? And How Authentic Is The Modern Druidic Revival?

As a teenager Philip Carr-Gomm got to know Philip Ross Nicholls, the then head of the Order of Bards, Ovates Druids (OBOD), which he had founded in 1964 after a split with the long-established “Ancient Druid Order”. Because Carr-Gomm was a keen photographer, Nicholls invited him to take some shots of OBOD in action, celebrating their seasonal rites in their trademark white robes.

This led to Carr-Gomm taking a profound interest in Druidry and Nicholls – up until his death in 1975 – acted both as friend and mentor to him. During those years Carr-Gomm took part in the various Druidic rites that took place at such sites as Stonehenge, Glastonbury Tor, and at various oak groves around the country.

Philip Carr-Gomm

After Nicholls’ death, and the subsequent demise of OBOD, Carr-Gomm began to forget about Druidry and concentrated on his career in psychotherapy. But in 1984 an event occurred which was to prove portentous to the current revival of interest in Druidry. Carr-Gomm was meditating one morning when the late Nicholls appeared to him and told him to “have a look at the (Druidic) teachings again and you will find that they are immensely relevant to the problems of our time.”

Shortly after this, Carr-Gomm decided to refound OBOD and promptly set about gathering together all of Philip Ross Nicholls’ writings – both published and unpublished. This was no easy task as they were scattered around various parts of the country.

Finally, however, his efforts paid off and on St. Valentine’s Day, 1988, the “Order of Bards, Ovates Druids” was reborn. OBOD is still very much alive today, celebrating the Celtic seasonal festivals at sacred sites, and offering a training course in what is described as the “three levels” of Druidry – that of “Bards”, “Ovates” and “Druids”. Bardic training involves opening up the poetic and artistic side of the aspirant; Ovate training is concerned with divination and seership; while Druid training entails the aspirant bringing together all aspects of their being.

A social cast not priests

Critics accuse Druid revivalist groups of propagating a fantasy that has little or no basis on historical fact. For instance, they point out that the ancient Druids wore tartan or multi-coloured cloaks, rather than the white robes sported in modern times.

Not only that, but the basic idea that Druids were priests is called into question.

Celtic scholar and author of “The Druids” (1994), Peter Berresford Ellis, insists that: “There is no reference in any ancient text that refers to the Druids as a priesthood. I think it is quite clear that they were a caste similar to the Brahmins of Hindu culture. There would certainly have been a priestly group within the Druids because priests, like doctors and lawyers, were part of the Druids. But Druids were not priests. You have to realize that in the real Celtic world, Druids were not a bunch of people apart anymore than the professional classes in Britain today are apart from the rest of society.”

Peter Berresford-Ellis

Ellis is equally scathing about Robert Graves’ book, “The White Goddess” (1947), which was enormously influential in the revival of Druidry. The book argues that a prehistoric goddess cult was the basis for all poetics, including the Druid bardic system. It also weaves an elaborate theory about the Celtic “Ogham” alphabet, often referred to as the Celtic Tree Oracle, which was used by the Druids.

“Robert Graves was not a scholar and ‘The White Goddess’ is full of a load of rubbish,” Ellis asserts. “Graves didn’t learn any of the Celtic languages and so had to rely on several very bad 19th century translations and on books by people who wouldn’t have recognised a Celt if they’d been walking down the street at twelve noon! ‘The White Goddess’ has deflected people from pursuing the realities of Celtic thought and history, which are highly intriguing in themselves.”

Celtic history

As far as historians can gather, the Celts became an identifiable ethnic group around 2,000 BC in central Europe. By about 1200 BC, they had grown powerful and had spread across the rest of Europe. They started landing in Britain around the eighth century BC, eventually settling and establishing a strong economic base there.

Then, after some initial forays a century earlier, the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, but by the 5th century they were forced to leave Britain due to troubles at home.

Not long afterwards, a new set of invaders began raiding the South Eastern shores of Britain. These were the Saxons, Jutes, and other Germanic tribes. They eventually took over nearly all of what later became known as England, driving the Celts into Wales, Scotland, and into the far South Western fringes of England.

Tuatha De Danann

Religion was a central force in Celtic culture and it was administered and generally controlled by the Druids. The Celts had a pantheon of gods known as the Tuatha De Danann, which meant “tribes of the goddess Danu” (Danu being a primeval mother/water goddess whose name is remembered in the River Danube in Central Europe, once a homeland of the ancient Celts).

Amongst other things, the Tuatha De Danann represented order, wisdom, courage, fertility and beauty. At the head of the Celtic pantheon was Lugh the Long-armed, a magician king; followed by Nuada the Silver-armed, a judge priest.

Then there were the goddesses, such as Brigid who represented poetry, healing, smithcraft, birth and motherhood; and Morrigu whose name meant “great queen”. Morrigu would appear in the form of a crow on the battlefield, leading those favoured by Lugh or Nuada to victory, as well as leading the slain to the otherworld.

Druid belief in reincarnation

The most intriguing – if not extraordinary – side of Celtic and particularly Druidic thought was their ideas on life after death, and on rebirth. The Celts were one of the first European societies to believe in reincarnation, but not reincarnation in terms of being reborn in other forms, such as animals or insects. They believed that when someone died in this world, their soul would be reborn in the “otherworld”, which was basically a parallel universe.

And when the soul died in that world it was then reborn in this world. As a consequence of this belief, the Celts actually celebrated when someone died in this world, because it meant that they would be reborn in the fabulous “otherworld” (the Irish ‘wake’ actually stems from this system of thought). Then when someone was born in this world there would be a mourning ceremony for the soul that had left the otherworld.

Fact or fantasy?

So in the light of the facts about Celtic culture and religion, is a revival of the Druids valid in today’s world? Much of the Druid revival, which began in the 17th century, has been based on either out and out fantasy, or else on an unlikely blend of Celtic romanticism, occult lore and freemasonry.

Writer and Celtic expert John Matthews agrees with this and says in “The Druid Sourcebook” (1996) that: “Those who call themselves by the name ‘Druid’ today often seem unaware that the heritage into which they have come is largely the invention of antiquarian romantics from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries.”

But he does go on to stress that the majority of new Druid orders today are very concerned with discovering the truth about their origins; and strive as far as possible to establish beliefs and practices that reflect those of the ancient Druids.

The KLF

In 1991, Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty of the now-defunct pop/rave band, KLF, flew fifty unsuspecting music journalists to the Hebridean island of Jura to participate in a Druidic summer solstice rite. This was to culminate in the sacrificial burning of a 60ft wicker man. But unlike the ancient Druids – who used to fill their wicker men with people – the KLF stuffed it with cash.

After the press people had been dressed up in bright yellow hooded robes, they were led down a winding hillside path to the coastline, where the enormous 60ft wicker man stood. At the wicker man’s feet was the chief Druid (Bill Drummond), who was dressed in white robes with a unicorn horn strapped to his forehead.

Through a concealed sound system, Drummond asked them all to give a sacrificial offering to the gods – cash would do, he said. Almost without hesitation, each of the press people pulled out fivers, tenners, twenties and even fifties, which were hoisted up into the heart of the great wicker man. Then without further ado, a match was put to the wicker man and it burst into flames…

Interview with Philip Carr-Gomm

Philip Carr-Gomm is head of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), having studied as a teenager under veteran Druid revivalist Philip Ross Nicholls. He is author of numerous books on the Druid path, including “The Druid Way” (1993) and “The Elements of The Druid Tradition” (1994).

I asked him if you have to have Celtic ancestral roots, to become a member of OBOD?

CARR-GOMM: Some people have over-emphasized the Celtic nature of it. Almost to the point of saying that if you’re not Irish, Welsh, or Scottish you can’t be interested in it. But that’s not really the case. At its heart, the spirit of Druidry has no boundaries and is open to all regardless of cultural background.

Doktor Snake: How do you answer critics who say that the last Druids existed over a thousand year ago and that anyone who says they are a Druid now must be a fake, by definition?

CARR-GOMM: Well that’s seeing the source of Druidry as a particular practice in the past, whereas we see the source of Druidry as being in the spiritual world, or archetypal world, which over linear time has influenced all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways. And so somebody who says they are a Druid in the 1990s is going to be very different from somebody who says they are a Druid in 2,000 BC. And you probably wouldn’t want to be doing what the guy in 2,000 BC was doing! But somehow Druidry is still about being on the land and opening up to the elements and to the stars.

Doktor Snake: OBOD and other revival groups place great emphasis on ancient Celtic myth and legend – what function do they serve in the modern world?

CARR-GOMM: Myths and legends are a way of accessing a certain level of truth that we can’t get to with our rational minds. Somehow they bypass the critical censors that our rational mind puts up, and so they help us to connect with deep eternal truths.

Other aspects of druidry

In the popular mind, Druids are usually thought to have been priests or wizards, but in reality they formed an intellectual class in pre-Christian Celtic society, comprising philosophers, judges, educators, historians, doctors, seers, astronomers, and astrologers. Although they were literate, for reasons of secrecy, their teachings were oral, so much of what they believed remains a mystery.

Wicker man

Various ancient classical sources, most notably those of Caesar and Strabo, make reference to a Druidic sacrifice in which human victims were packed into a great hollow image of a man, made of wicker or straw, and burnt alive as an offering to the gods.

Wicker Man

Druid writing

A unique system of writing called Ogham was used by the Druids. It was in use from the third to the eighth century AD. The twenty-letter script was represented by inscribing grooves or strokes – either crossing or set at different angles – to a vertical line. Ogham-inscribed stones have been found all over Ireland, with dense clusters in the south; they also occur in Wales, Devon and Cornwall and in areas of Scotland.

Ogham Stone found in the ground at Ratass Church in Tralee, Co. Kerry

Some commentators suggest that Ogham was used in magic and divination. This is backed up by an ancient Irish legend which tells of how a Druid called Dalan was consulted to ascertain the whereabouts of a pair of runaway lovers; he did this by consulting Ogham letters, inscribed on wands of yew.

Oak tree

The oak tree was of great importance to the Druids. Indeed, one etymology of the word “Druid” derives from “dru-wid”, “knower of oak” (although it could just as easily mean “knower of the truth”). Oak groves were likely the favored location of many temples throughout the Celtic world, from Britain to Galatia in Asia Minor. It was thought that the bard or Druid could gain special inspiration by eating acorns from an oak tree. The Celts also used to feed their swine acorns – because swine were seen as sacred animals linked to the “otherworld” or Celtic cosmology.

Mistletoe

Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, describes a religious ceremony in Gaul in which white-clad Druids climbed a sacred oak and, using a golden sickle, cut off the mistletoe growing there, letting it drop into a white cloak. They then sacrificed two white bulls and used the mistletoe to cure infertility. Such a cure can be validated by modern science in that Mistletoe, known by the Celts as “All Heal”, has been found to contain high levels of substances similar to the hormone progesterone, adequate levels of which are necessary in conception.

Druids’ egg

Pliny makes reference to a curious Druidic talisman, called an “anguinum”, an egg-like object made from the spittle and secretions of angry snakes. This “Druid’s egg” was used as an amulet to help the bearer gain victory in the law courts. Pliny describes it as “round, and about as large as a smallish apple.”

Beltane

Beltane was the great Celtic May festival. It was celebrated on 1 May, and marked the official beginning of summer, when livestock was moved onto high pastureland. Beltane was a fire festival. In his Glossary, the ninth-century Irish writer Cormac firmly links Beltane with the Druids; he speaks of the two great fires they made, between which cattle were driven as a symbolic protection against disease. The name Beltane probably derives either from “bil” (luck) or “bel” (light).

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