Ghostvillage.com author interview
John Michael Greer is the author of numerous articles and books, including The Druidry Handbook. A highly respected Druid scholar, he is an expert on nature spirituality. Greer and his wife Sara live in Ashland, Oregon. John, let me start this Review by asking, what motivated to you to become a Druid?
I first became interested in Druidry in my early teens, when I was just starting to find my way into the study of occultism and esoteric spirituality. I read everything I could find on the subject, but at that time, in the mid-1970s, there was very little. I filed that interest away as I found other traditions to study that were more accessible to me. It was in 1992 that I finally made contact with a Druid order, the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), and joined an OBOD study group in Seattle. I’m still active in OBOD, and I received OBOD’s Mount Haemus Award for Druid scholarship in 2003. I became involved in several other Druid orders as well, and in 2003 I was also elected head of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a Druid order founded in 1912.
What appealed to me then about Druidry, and still forms one of the main appeals now, is that Druidry combines a profound, inner-directed spirituality with an orientation toward the world of living nature. From childhood on, many of my most powerful spiritual experiences have been centered on nature, and the presence of divine energies in nature. Druidry places that sort of experience at the center of its worldview, and that makes the Druid tradition deeply meaningful to me.
In The Druidry Handbook, you state that becoming a Druid is a lifelong work. Please share your thoughts on this with the audience as to the beginning steps which are most helpful.
In the Druid order I head, we like to describe the basic steps in terms of three paths — the Earth Path, the Sun Path, and the Moon Path. The Earth Path consists of reconnecting with nature through study, living a sustainable lifestyle, and the simple but powerful spiritual discipline of spending time outside in nature. The Sun Path consists of celebrating a seasonal cycle of festivals; the solstices and equinoxes are the traditional festivals, but we encourage students to add any others that are relevant to them. The Moon Path consists of meditation. Those three things — reconnecting with nature, celebrating the seasons, and practicing meditation regularly — are the most important steps to start with, and they remain the most important steps as you proceed along the path. They aren’t things you outgrow.
Define Druid and Druidism from your perspective.
I’m going to quibble a bit, because I’ve never liked the term “Druidism” — that suggests that being a Druid is or ought to be an “ism,” an ideology, and it’s not. Ross Nichols, one of the most influential Druids in the 20th century, coined the term “Druidry” for the tradition, because it sounds like a craft; think of carpentry, for example, or pottery. The example of Freemasonry may also have been on his mind; nobody talks about “Masonism,” because Freemasonry is a set of practices and rituals, not an ideology. Druidry is similar.
The word Druid has two different definitions. On the one hand, it refers to the priests and mages of the ancient Celtic peoples of Ireland, Britain, and France. On the other, it refers to followers of a set of modern spiritual movements inspired by the ancient Druids, that emerged in Britain in the early 18th century and in other countries a while later. Modern Druids draw their inspiration from what little is known of the ancient Druids. It needs to be said, though, that nobody nowadays can honestly claim direct descent from the ancient Druids. They went extinct more than a thousand years ago, and except for a few scraps preserved in bardic sources in the Celtic countries, their teachings were lost with them.
So Druids, in the modern sense of the word, are people following traditions of nature spirituality inspired by the ancient Druids but created in the 18th, 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries, and Druidry is the term for these traditions. That’s one definition. Other Druids have their own; Druidry’s a diverse movement. The standard joke is that if you ask the same question of three Druids, you’ll get at least five different answers.
Do you see Druidry as an ongoing spiritual journey to last a lifetime, and beyond?
If it was anything else I’d have a hard time seeing any reason to practice it.
Do you see a conflict between contemporary Druidism and Christianity?
That’s a more complicated question than it might seem, because there’s more than one kind of Christianity out there. There are people who follow the teachings of Jesus, and then there are people who have hijacked those teachings and distorted them in the service of political ideology. These latter call themselves Christians, but seem to think that religion is about bullying people you disagree with; how they square that with the "Sermon on the Mount" I have no idea, but there it is. Obviously there’s a conflict between that and Druidry, because one of the central values of the modern Druid tradition is tolerance. We believe that everyone has the right to make up their own mind about spiritual issues, and nobody has the right to force others to conform to some set of dogmas.
But it’s a mistake to think, as too many people in the alternative spirituality scene think, that the bigots and the ideologues are all there is to Christianity. They’re not even a majority — they’re just the ones with the biggest bullhorns right now. The majority of Christians are compassionate, caring people, who are happy to share their faith with others but accept that not everyone is going to agree with them. Between their Christianity and our Druid faith there’s no conflict at all. In fact, there’s a growing number of Christian Druids — people who share the Druid reverence for nature, and participate in Druid traditions, but believe that the divine power present in nature is the Christian god. That’s been one option for Druids for close to three centuries now, since the very beginning of the Druid Revival, and it’s a perfectly valid path.
What is your view on the revivals of Druidism in contemporary times?
I’m very much in favor of them! All we have nowadays are revivals, since the teachings of the ancient Celtic Druids died out more than a thousand years ago. The Druid Revival, as the rebirth of Druidry in modern times is called, is one of the most remarkable events in the history of religion, and it’s given rise to some profound and deeply meaningful spiritual teachings.
Recently in the Druid scene there’s been a bit of a scuffle between the older Druid Revival traditions with roots in the 18th and 19th centuries, on the one hand, and a group of traditions founded in the 1990s called the Celtic Reconstructionists, on the other. The Reconstructionists are the new kids on the Druidic block just now, and a very small minority among Druids as well, and that’s made some of them quite vocal in claiming that they’re “real Druids” and the older traditions aren’t. That’s something brand new traditions do, of course, and doubtless they’ll get over it eventually. It’s caused some heat on a few email lists but it hasn’t slowed the growth of Druidry any.
What are your thoughts on the Ancient Order of Druids in America (www.aoda.org), and the direction it is going? What do you see as your role in it now and in the future?
The AODA plays a large role in my vision for Druidry, partly because that’s the Druid order I was elected to head, but also because it’s a traditional order with roots in the Druid Revival of the 18th and 19th centuries, and this gives it a heritage that’s extremely relevant to the present crisis of industrial civilization. The people who founded the Revival lived in the opening years of the Industrial Revolution and created Druidry as an antidote for industrial society’s rejection of the value of living nature and its cult of the machine. Those first modern Druids saw a need for a new spirituality of nature as a way to balance the psychological and spiritual costs of life in an unnatural society.
Nowadays that’s even more desperately needed than it was then. It’s not just that our lives are even more out of step with the rhythms and patterns of nature — it’s also that industrial society itself is starting to crack under the burden of its own alienation from the living earth. Starting in the 1970s some of the world’s top scientists started issuing warnings that unless something was done, our society would run up against hard environmental limits in the early 21st century. Now here we are, nothing was done and the limits are showing up on schedule, with global warming sending our weather spinning out of control and peak oil turning from a theory into a very awkward reality.
At this point we face a choice between accepting those limits and embracing sustainable lifestyles, or ignoring them until we crash head-on into the consequences of our own folly. If our society makes the first choice, Druidry has a lot to offer; we in the Druid community can help others make the transition to sustainability, and show them that a life in balance with nature isn’t about deprivation and suffering. If our society makes the second choice, Druidry may be even more necessary. There’s been serious talk in the Druid community about Druids filling the same sort of role that Irish monks did in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, preserving the heritage of the past while the society around them fell apart. That may seem like a tall order, but we haven’t seen anyone else stepping up to the plate, and the work needs to be done.
As for my place in AODA, I was elected Grand Archdruid, and that’s a lifetime post — I’m only the seventh person to hold that office since the order was founded in 1912. It’s my responsibility to see that the order remains true to its ideals and the principles of Druidry. That’s something best done through personal example, of course, and through whatever influence my books, lectures, and online classes may have.
What is the Buddhism and Hinduism connection to Druidism?
Well, that depends on the Druid, and also on the Druid tradition. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Buddhist and Hindu teachings were among the main alternative spiritualities available to people in Britain and America, and some elements of both were absorbed by certain Druid orders. Some people today use those, others don’t. Of course since tolerance is an important value in Druidry, you’ll meet Druids who are also Buddhists, or who practice various branches of Hindu spirituality.
What are the three Druid elements and what is their importance?
The Welsh traditions of Druidry, which are an important part of the AODA’s heritage, include a set of three elements — a little different from the four elements of most Western esoteric traditions. They’re called calas, gwyar, and nwyfre. Calas is solidity, stability and manifestation; its image is stone. Gwyar is flow, transformation and impermanence; its image is running water. Nwyfre is life, meaning and context; its image is blue sky. Like every elemental system, the three Druid elements are a way of making sense of experience. Everything corresponds to one element, and where there’s one, the other two are also always present.
What is Ogham?
It’s an old Irish alphabet that has been adopted by many modern Druid traditions. The letters look like tally marks — in fact, that’s exactly what they are, one through five of each of four different kinds of tallies, plus some extra signs. In the Irish bardic literature, each Ogham letter is associated with a tree, a color, a bird, a craft, and much more; it was an important part of the old bardic studies.
Is Ogham a continuing central theme of Druidity?
It’s not so much a theme as a tool, or better still, an entire toolkit.
Does Ogham serve as a major role as a magickal alphabet in divination, ritual, and other forms of contemporary Druid practice? What is your opinion?
It has that potential, though it hasn’t always been used as extensively as it could be. It’s rich enough in symbolism and meaning to be put to work in all the ways other magical alphabets are used. In my own personal practice, I’ve been doing a lot of work on this, and there will be a book on the subject down the road a little.
The Druidry Handbook is a remarkable book. It is well-researched and well-written. How long did it take you to research and write it?
The writing took about two years. The research? That’s harder to say, since everything I’ve learned and experienced goes into my books in one way or another. That was more true of this one than most. I had to look up details now and again, but quite a bit of what went into The Druidry Handbook has been a daily part of my life for years now. I wrote the section on meditation, for example, drawing mostly on my own meditation practice, which has involved half an hour of meditation every day for more than 20 years.
What do you see as the Druid connection in modern times to King Arthur, Taliesin, and Merlin?
The Arthurian legends are a very important resource for modern Druidry. Quite a bit of our traditional lore relates to these legends, and to the mythic figures you’ve named, among many others. Of course, there’s also a parallel in terms of current events. The historical King Arthur, the historical poets Merlin and Taliesin, lived in an age when old certainties were falling apart; the Roman Empire was collapsing, and none of the old rules worked any more. We live in an age of the same sort, and face some of the same challenges they did.
The Druidry Handbook discusses many themes and topics. You discuss paths, such as the Earth Path, the Sun Path, the Moon Path, and pathways to the Forest Temple. What would you suggest to those approaching these paths?
Take it a step at a time. Too often people try to plunge into a new spiritual path too quickly, and they end up overloaded and bewildered; that way lies burnout. Slow and steady, the way an acorn turns into an oak, is a better option.
Is Druidism for the solitary seeker?
Absolutely. Quite a few AODA members are solitaries, either by choice or because they don’t happen to live near one of our groves or study groups, and the Druid path seems to work quite well for them. Since Druidry is rooted in each person’s encounter with the divine in nature, it’s a path that can be followed alone just as well as in a group.
Does Druidism face competition from Wicca and Witchcraft as a movement?
Who’s competing? There’s a lot of overlapping membership between Druidry and the Craft, and plenty of common ground in terms of ideas, practices, and goals. Instead of competition, I think Druidry can look forward to cooperation.
Why is there disagreement among Druids about which order is the better one to become associated with?
Well, there’s not a great deal of this in the first place, because very few Druid groups are exclusive. You can belong to as many as you want. Some people have strong opinions based on their own experience. For example, I highly recommend OBOD’s correspondence courses for those who want an intensive, structured training program, and AODA’s more freeform program for those who want something more flexible and self-directed, because I’ve worked with both of them. Other people have their own preferences. On the whole, though, the Druid tradition of tolerance has helped people remember that everyone has their own needs, and each Druid order has something different to offer.
Do you foresee a peace between the various Druid factions?
We’re nearly there right now. Most of the large Druid orders and many of the small ones get along wonderfully. Some of the Celtic Reconstructionist groups, as I mentioned earlier, are caught up in the notion that they’re the only real Druids, and denounce everyone else on that basis, but Reconstructionism is a very young movement. They’ll grow out of it eventually.
Do you agree with Jean Markale’s statement that the Druids are the Celtic priests of nature?
Certainly that’s one thing that Druids can be. Not all Druids nowadays self-identify as Celts, and not all of them are priests — or, for that matter, priestesses. As I see it, modern Druids are people who follow a living tradition of nature-centered spirituality inspired by the ancient Druids and shaped by three hundred years of modern Druid tradition. What they do with that heritage is up to them.
John Michael Greer, it has been a pleasure visiting with you. Your interview will help many gain a more insightful analysis of Druidism. Thank you for the interview.
You’re very welcome. It’s been a pleasure. In the final analysis, Druidry isn’t about orders, teachers, and books. It’s about each person’s experience of living nature, and if the orders and books and teachers get in the way of that, set them aside, go out beneath the open sky, and find the Druidry that works for you. Ultimately, that’s what matters.
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