Druids and canon

There is an ongoing discussion in the Henge of Keltria concerning whether Druids have a canon, or sacred texts. Some of my thoughts, culled from my response to the list and fleshed out:

I think, back in the wilds of history, Druids once did have a canon, covering liturgy and ritual at the least, if not theology, etc. As a point of comparison, consider another class of religious persons: the brahmins of classical India. Like the original brahmins — before someone took an inkwell and parchments and started recording the Vedas — knowledge would have been passed down orally from one generation to the next. I’ve seen theories that many Indo-European cultures in antiquity had taboos against writing down sacred lore. Interestingly, modern brahmins still memorize their sacred knowledge and recite from memory during ritual.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, recently went to a Hindu temple-blessing rite, an hours-long ceremony involving multiple offerings. The pandit chanted and performed the offerings in the right order throughout — strictly from memory and without missing a beat. It was amazing to watch. That is the tradition Druidry most likely had, and lost once the Romans and then the Christians intervened.

In short: There’s a reason that it took twenty years to train a Druid; there was a lot to remember!

Time-travel to today. Our Northern neighbors in the modern Pagan world, the Asatruar, at least have the Eddas to draw from; although Snorri Sturleson was a Christian, he kept a good deal of Christian philosophy out of it (albeit not all, I’m told; the concept of the end-of-days may have been Christian in origin). What modern Druids, at least those following an Irish/Scottish path, have are the myths and sagas — the Tain, Midhir and Edain, etc. — written down by Christian monks. The other elements we have left to us include folk tradition from out-of-the-way places, such as the Hebrides.

There’s the ogham, too, but there’s no indication that this was extensively used during Pagan times. Heck, there’s Biblical interpretations of ogham as well; it’s not just a tree alphabet. But yes, if you like, throw that into the concept of “canon.” Throw in the various Celtic languages and the concepts contained within its words; throw in the poems and other literature stemming from ancient times, even if Christian.

However, there’s a caveat; much of this isn’t some sort of sacred compendium, but shreds of lore mixed with a whole lot of Christianization, which needs to be winnowed out. I use comparative Indo-European mythology for that purpose.

As Keltrians, I’d suggest our canon is actually the ritual process and its order. In my personal rites, I often do it from memory alone.

Ultimately, though, the concept of canon may have a limited usefulness. It derives from the “Peoples of the Book,” the Abrahamic traditions and their texts. Pagan traditions can have sacred texts, true, but rarely a single one. Think of the sacred literature of the Hindus: mythological epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the hymns of the Puranas, the philosophical explorations of the Upanishads, the ritual instructions and hymns of the Vedas. There are many sacred texts and they’re being written all the time.

“Canon” implies that there is a single revelation of truth: the teachings of Christ, or Mohammed, or Moses, with everything thereafter following a set pattern. The universe is created, once and for all; the truth is revealed, once and for all. However, I don’t believe polytheism necessarily supports this view. Creation and destruction are ongoing, dancing back at forth, a spiral that may emulate but not repeat the infinite past as it swirls into the infinite future. There are many Gods, spirits, truths — many worlds and ways of being.

So, to expound, there is no “canon” in Druidry, in the sense of Ultimate Revealed Truth Without Sequel. The myths, triads, poetry, etc. provides a cultural commons — a place we all share, which helps us define ourselves as, say, Keltrian Druids rather than Hellenic Pagans, Zoroastrians or eclectic Wiccans. But there is no sense that this is the one truth, the only truth, the sole revelation.


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