I’ve finally finished Ronald Hutton hefty tome Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. If you’re familiar with Hutton’s other work, the basic premise is the same: There’s no concrete evidence for actual Pagan survivals in Britain; very little is known about the native (in this case Druidic) religious systems and what little is known is tainted by bias and ambiguity; and finally, various factors and characters in modern times spurred the creation of new spiritual/religious systems that claim to be continuations of ancient ones.
Hung on those basic assumptions are reams and reams of historical facts, texts and research — and above all, characters. In the final paragraph of his conclusion, he remarks on the three major catalysts for the inclusion of Druids in cultural discourse: William Stukeley, Iolo Morganwg and George Watson Reid, noting: “Each was, depending on the person and the judgement of observers, either a romancer, a crank, an eccentric or a charlatan.” The heavily documented characterizations given throughout the book support such an interpretation.
And so, I’m left to wonder: “As a modern Druid, am I a crank, eccentric, romancer or charlatan?”
Avowed atheists — I’m looking at you, Dad — would be inclined to think so. So would proponents of traditional religion, in this case Christianity, which has always inhabited a special place seemingly free from criticism of this sort. (Good to be on top, I guess.) Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans would argue that they’re meticulously piecing together ancient religion, but I have my personal doubts. You can’t overcome what I’ll call “the Hutton problem”: the lack of definitive evidence. In short, that’s the fault of ancient Celtic cultures, in that most seemed to have taboos when it came to writing — unlike, say, Greek and Roman cultures. Oral tradition is lovely and amazing, but it can’t advocate for you throughout the ages.
My own answer: We may be inspired by the past, but what we’re creating is a religion of today, that responds to today’s spiritual needs. Veneration of the natural world is different in a culture where that natural world is omnipresent and can kill you any day, than in a culture such as ours in which human decisions can have a profound negative impact on ecosystems and entire species. Not that humans didn’t drive critters to extinction in the past, but it took longer and the tools were less efficient.
To me, “Druid” is just a term for a priest or priestess involved in Celtic-themed Paganism. Usually, I’ll just refer to myself as a priestess, since that reflects more of the ritual and religious role I adhere/aspire to; Druid, on the other hand, makes me sound like a character in a role-playing game good for X-number of magic spells. As a Druid, my goal is to live in accordance with the sacred round: the wheels of time, seasons, duties. I revere and honor the Celtic Gods, the nature spirits and spirits of place, and the ancestors.
I read a lot of ancient history and modern scholarship. While I can say I’m inspired by it, my own spiritual work is modern. I’m an initiate of the Henge of Keltria, which split off from ADF in the 1980s. ADF itself formed in the 1980s, after the New Reformed Druids of North America in the 1970s; ultimately, much American Druidic activity stems from the older Reformed Druids of North America, which began in the ripe old 1960s.
Now, revivalist Druid orders in Britain date back to the 1600s. Many of the early ones were fraternal organizations, which functioned as both insurance agencies for members and social groups. Others had national pride as a goal. Eventually, some orders formed that moved into the spiritual sphere, inspired by Stukeley, Iolo, Reid and others. These were not consciously Pagan and often had Christianity as a base, which is entirely in keeping with the times and culture.
Now, being a member of a way-minority faith path (although I’m pretty sure religious Pagans outnumber Quakers these days), I’m used to being considered an eccentric. Heck, even a crank; I expect that view from atheists and conventional Christians. I’m “out there.” A romancer? I have no real desire to live in ancient times and think that humans are humans, whatever the time period. However, if my veneration of a Celtic pantheon means I’m a romancer, then so be it.
A charlatan? No. I’m an honest sort. If I tell you I spoke to Brighid, it’s because I literally have had the experience of speaking to my matron goddess (and have had many times, as it happens). I don’t care whether people believe me or not. It’s my experience and real to me. I don’t use said experience to manipulate others, at least in any conscious way.
Does Druidry have its charlatans? Certainly, if you look at the history of the British orders. I can’t offhand think of any in my specific “lineage” (and I hate using that term; it makes me sound so hoity-toity) here in the U.S. Yeah, there are people who claim they had to rape or murder because they’re Druids or Wiccans; I’ve seen these folks in the news. But I don’t think of these people in any way representative of my “lineage” as Mormons do of the crazy guy who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart, or Catholics do of priests who molest children. You get nutjobs in all faith paths — or indeed, all walks of life.
Along that line, if Druids are charlatans, it’s because everyone else in the good green world is, too. And on that cheerful thought, I think I’ll go do some yoga.
(P.S. the book is really good and highly recommended.)