§ 12. What is Celtic spirituality like today?
The revival of Celtic spirituality in the modern period begins with the Renaissance in England. Classical thought was being re-introduced into European universities, and there was an interest in what theological ideas God had revealed to humanity prior to, and “in preparation for”, Christianity. British intellectuals sought sources indigenous to Britain and Ireland, and discovered the caste of the Druids. The Druids, as portrayed in various Roman historical accounts and fragments of Bardic poetry, had an image and reputation as sorcerer-priests and possessors of divine knowledge which still commanded respect. They saw in the Druids parallels to the spiritual philosophy of ancient Greek figures like Pythagoras and Plato. A study of Britain’s stone age monuments was carried out, most notably by the 18th century antiquarian John Aubrey who was the first to interpret Stonehenge as a Druidic temple. These ideas were further developed by other antiquarian scholars at the time, such as John Toland and William Stukeley. Theologically, these men were Deists: they believed that God created the world, set its laws in motion, and then generally left it alone but gave evidence of his presence in the order of nature and the cosmos. Many were also Pantheists: they believed that God was everywhere, within and part of the world of nature, rather than separate from it in a transcendent realm. They believed that the geometrical proportions and astronomical alignments of Stonehenge and other monuments was proof that ancient people were Deists and Pantheists, too. They may have been first to claim that the diameter of Stonehenge’s measurements are the same as the width of the Great Pyramid of Giza and the alleged width of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem (outer ring: 316 feet or 200 cubits; inner ring 96 feet or 60 cubits). Other British stone circles, like Stanton Drew, had the same measurements as well. Toland, who was born in the northern Irish city of Derry (Londonderry as he would have called it), founded in 1717 a Druidic group called the Universal Druid Bond, in a London pub called the Apple Tree Tavern (an auspicious name!). Britain’s largest Druidic organisation, the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, grew from this organisation, and Toland and Stukeley were its first and second Chosen Chiefs. This form of Druidry is now usually called “Revival” Druidry, “Theosophical” Druidry, or more simply, “Meso-Druidry”. Incidentally, The Apple Tree Tavern, in London’s Covent Garden, was one of four pubs which early Freemasons used as meeting places, and 1717 was the same year the Grand Lodge of London was created. Stukeley became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1717, a Freemason in 1720, and Chief of the Order of Druids two years later. There was a lot of crossover membership between Druids, Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and similar groups during this period.
The intention of the early modern Druids was apparently to create a spiritual movement that would be genuinely British, owing nothing to Christianity yet compatible with it. It was to be practiced as a supplement to whatever religion one already professed. It had two main sources of inspiration. One was a “sacred geometry” or “geomancy” in which the divine plan of God was revealed in the mathematical proportions of astronomical bodies, living plants and animals, and the structure of ancient megaliths. The other main inspirational source was the mythology of King Arthur. Arthur is treated a bit like a savior-deity in his own right, who will come again to restore peace, beauty, and justice to the world. Revival Druidry has a history spanning almost 300 years, and it has produced its own art, literature, and architecture. For example, the Circus and the Royal Crescent of the city of Bath, England, is a Druidic sun and moon. It was designed by architect John Wood, a Mason who was obsessed with Druids, and incorporates the sacred measurement of 96 feet. The poetry of William Blake is another example — he was, so they say, Chosen Chief of the British druids from 1799 to 1827. Blake’s religious views were profound — they expressed a Gnostic monotheism with a profound confidence in human goodness. Although he called himself a Christian, his religious views were quite radical, in that they were spiritual yet humanist, and also deeply anti-authoritarian. His vision of a “New Jerusalem”, a society structured like a kind of egalitarian Gnostic theocracy, is described with megalithic architecture.
A book called “The Barddas” was part of the literature of the Revival, and was alleged to contain ancient Bardic and Druidic knowledge from Wales. It was written by an 18th century stonemason and Neo-Platonist named Edward Williams. In order to give his work some public attention, he used a Welsh-sounding pen name, Iolo Morganwyg. He also claimed that the book was based on an ancient text which he never showed to anyone. The ideas and teachings embodied in the Barddas are products of the modern Druidic revival and not the ancient Celtic age. But they display an extraordinary originality, having philosophical and artistic merit that one would be wrong to deny. By the way, “secret documents” are time-honored propaganda devices. When Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the first comprehensive written account of the life of King Arthur in the 12th century, he claimed his story was based on a secret document given to him by his uncle. And in the 20th century, the author of a popular book on Merlin’s lessons to the child Arthur also claimed to possess a secret text, the “Book of Pferyllt”, which he refused to reveal. I personally have no opinion whether any “secret documents” actually exist, although I am inclined to believe they do not.
Ireland produced a “Druidic” literature of its own in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Irish Literary Revival which, while not a neo-Druidic movement, included authors who were deeply interested in Celtic myth and magic. W.B. Yeats, George “A.E.” Russell, Lady Augusta Gregory, and Ella Young all made collections of folk storytelling, and produced some of the finest original poetry and prose the world has ever known. Two novels, Cuchullain of Muirthemney and Gods and Fighting Men produced in 1902 and 1904, written by Lady Augusta Gregory, are excellent source texts for the study of Celtic spirituality, as they integrate the original texts with the oral folklore available at the time into an original and beautiful synthesis. These books were accused of being ‘neo-pagan’ by some of her critics (and this appears to be the first use of the word in the twentieth century).
Yeats and Russell were both, for a short while, members of an occult society called the Golden Dawn, and both were interested in re-shaping its theology and rituals into a uniquely Irish form, based on Irish mythology. What has come to be called the “Faerie Faith” was in part their creation. Yeats and Gregory both published collections of folk storytelling, and Russell was the anonymous mystic interviewed by the folklorist W.Y. Evans-Wentz in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. They believed that a kind of pristine spirituality could be found in the folk practices and even superstitions of ordinary country people, uncorrupted by priests, church hierarchies, or intellectual theology. Its scripture was folk memory — and seeing how industrialization was making Britain and Ireland more and more urbanized, collections of folk storytelling and traditional practices were considered enormously valuable. Faerie faith believers were (or are) ordinary people, but for whom the world is also populated by faerie beings, ghosts, prophetic signs, and the like. They might know a magical cure or two, or could predict the weather, or could tell when someone far away was in danger or about to die. In every other respect, such a person was likely to be an ordinary member of the community, even a devout Christian. Instead of priests and ministers, the Faerie Faith has “wise women”, “cunning men”, and “faerie doctors”; individuals who have experienced the faeries and possess the knowledge and skills to see them, identify their handiwork, and solve any problems caused by disturbing or angering them. An example of such a person is Biddy Early, the famous Wise Woman from county Clare, Ireland. She had a little glass bottle which she always kept close to her, with which she could see the future or see far distant places.
In the mid 20th century there emerged an “eclectic” Celtic mysticism, which grew within the New Age movement and in the Neo-pagan Witchcraft movement. These movements made it possible to break from Christianity more radically than ever before. We know that Druidry influenced both of them. For instance, Ross Nichols (Chief of the British Druids from 1964-1975) gave to Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, the idea of restoring the eight-fold Celtic festival calendar now known as the “Wheel of the Year”. For Eclecticism, what matters is not the connection to the historic past but the connection to Tir na n-Og, the dream-like Otherworld described in Celtic mythology, and the use of imaginative creativity to create that connection. It adopted the Faerie Faith, as well as some ideas imported from astrology and occultism through association with the astronomical alignments of ancient monuments. It declared its belief in a monotheistic principle of being, “the Light”, which would bring contentment and personal empowerment. It also rejected the spoken word and any “book knowledge” as valid ways to understand the Light, and took pure inner experience as its main source of inspiration instead.
As if in reaction to this, there also emerged a “Neo” Druidry, also called Reconstructionist Druidism. In the eyes of both meso-Druids and neo-Druids, the Eclectics lacked connection to tradition and the past, and sometimes also to reality. In my own experience New-Age Druids speak and behave as if they believe that faeries, ghosts, earth-energies, and spirit guides are more real than shopping malls, landfill sites, or tax inspectors. But in the eyes of Neo-Druids, the Meso-Druids lacked an appropriate relation to history as well. Neo-Druidry sought an ‘authentic’ spirituality through a re-enactment of what Iron Age Celtic religious custom was actually like, as much as was possible using available historical information, and as much as the law would allow. (So human sacrifice was of course right out!) Books like James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, enormously influential on the Celtic revival when first published, were regarded as untrustworthy. The neo-Druids refused to accept that any direct ancient survival of original Celtic beliefs existed, which many Revival Druids wanted to believe. They also refused to accept any “secret documents”, since they knew from Roman historical accounts that the Druids taught their doctrines by word of mouth and never wrote anything down. Instead they thought that Druidry had to be “reconstructed” from historical, archaeological, and literary accounts. They encouraged polytheism, the worship of many distinct gods and goddesses, instead of deist monotheism, and claimed that the gods are immanent (part of the world) rather than transcendent (separate from the world). They emphasized that the spiritual importance of nature was not its geometry but its beauty. And they took a great interest in the language, storytelling, and native practices of ordinary people, which the 18th century revivalists never did. The most prolific Reconstructionist Druidic groups that currently exist are American, such as Arn Draoicht Fein (“Our Own Druidism”), the Henge of Keltria, and their offshoots. The figure most responsible for the rise of this kind of Druidry in America is Isaac Bonewits, an occultist and author who founded Arn Draiocht Fein and a number of other groups. He is also well known for earning a Bachelor’s degree in Magic from the University of California. (Afterward, the embarrassed university disallowed the granting of degrees in magic from then on.) Most British groups, including OBOD, were perfectly happy to accept many of the insights of neo-Druidry, such as the need to respect actual Celtic traditions. Indeed they already professed the (poly)theological principle of immanence. However, they kept to their own roots and continued to use the Barddas and other “unhistorical” texts as inspirational sources.
The Reconstructionists were worried about a peculiar problem which is in part academic but is also a problem of spiritual identity. I would like to call it the “problem of history”. Like any revival movement, the revival of Celtic mysticism is subject to the needs, wishes, beliefs, and desires of the people who revive it. Therefore concessions are made to accommodate their way of life, and of course their preconceptions. The problem was essentially this: the more concessions we make for our own time and our own beliefs, the more we weaken the ties with the past, and so the less justification there is for calling our revival genuinely “Celtic”. The neo-Druids had charged the meso-Druids of having no historical basis whatever, and denied their claim to be “real” Druids. But the neo-Druids quickly found their own connections to history were similarly shaky. Ancient Celtic warriors were head hunters, for instance, and nobody wanted to revive that! So the problem became: What is to be revived, and what left behind? It cannot be denied that history and the past figures into all of our present day identities, and so cannot be ignored by someone seeking to “know herself”. That very connection to the past was precisely what both kinds of modern Druids were seeking. But where the meso-Druids of the 18th and 19th centuries sought confirmations of what they already believed, the neo-Druids of the 20th century wanted something new and different. They wanted to re-create the beliefs and customs of the Celtic heroic age. For they thought that only a careful study of history would give their religion legitimacy in their own eyes and, potentially, in the eyes of the wider society. I find no fault in this aim in itself. However some critics observed, quite rightly in many cases, that they were hiding a resentment for real or imagined deficiencies in their own society, or even in themselves, and that they were looking for ways to feel empowered, or even to feel superior.
Every form of modern Druidry and Celtic mysticism seems to be driven by a quest for spiritual identity, which is one form of the impulse to ‘know yourself’. Some people find that by identifying themselves as Celts, as envisaged by historical discovery or even imaginative fantasy, they will “know themselves”. And every form of Druidry has its strengths and faults. I am not convinced that Reconstructionism is the complete answer to the problem of history and the need for spiritual identity. One should not fuss too much about the placement of knives and forks on a table when what really matters is how tasty and healthy the food is. However I am not convinced that new-age Eclecticism is the way to go either. People need roots and traditions, which only a connection to family, society, and history can provide. To my mind, what matters most is the pursuit of a worthwhile life. With this aim in mind, we can bring the insights of all the different kinds of Druidry together, and use them to create a grounded spirituality linked to nature which is appropriate for our own needs and our own time. A spiritual seeker is not an anachronism, nor is she a child. She does not wish to live in the past, nor in a fantasy world. She is a hero, on a journey across the ninth wave of the sea, and she wishes to live in the here and now.
It seems to me that some kind of fusion or synthesis between the early Renaissance druids, the modern neo-Druids, and also a level of eclecticism, may be emerging. It is my hope that modern Druids will some day become the philosopher-mystics of the modern Celtic community, as their counterparts were for the ancient Celtic world. It may be many decades before this happens. Indeed it may be a long time before all the different types of Druids can sit at the same table and acknowledge each other as Druids. But there are encouraging signs. For instance, it was through the co-operation of several British Druidic groups that Stonehenge became open to the general public on summer solstice morning. An impromptu festival now takes place there at that time every year, attended by thousands of people. In Ireland, druids are involved in the community summer solstice festival on the Hill of Tara every year, and in the Samhain bonfire festival on the nearby Hill of Ward.
An enthusiasm for history and historical re-enactment can and should be a part of the revival of Druidry today. It can be loads of fun! And it can help to bring history and mythology to life, and so make the origins of our traditions real to us. Similarly, a capacity for imagination and creativity should be part of one’s path as well. Without it, we may not be able to change our lives for the better, for we may not be able to see how things might be made different than they are. Whatever Druidry we eventually settle upon, it will be shaped by our own intentions and interpretations, and so it will inevitably be different than ancient Druidry. Yet the connection to the past cannot be ignored: what we inherit from history and tradition is a large part of who and what we are today. What, then, is the solution to the problem of history? The answer is: we should revive that which will help bring out the best in us. And the Celtic tradition provides many images of greatness we can strive to embody in our lives: gods and goddesses, mythological heroes, historical figures, and so on. How much eclectic invention and borrowing should be allowed? Again, the answer is, that which will help us become the best human beings we can be. What matters here is the degree to which Celtic tradition and imagination promotes human excellence and flourishing. What matters is how the adventure of self-discovery lifts up our lives, and gives us peace, confidence, courage, and happiness. Where the tradition seems incomplete or incoherent, and where imaginative creativity seems disconnected from reality, we may always refer back to the eternal mysteries as revealed to us through honest and open perception of the world, coupled with clear thinking and right intentions.
While there is no doubt that the standards of living and the lifestyles we lead have changed incredibly since the age of the Celts, and even within each of our lifetimes, the human needs for understanding, communication, companionship, and even empowerment have not changed. To questions about human life, the solution is not more right nor wrong just because it is old or new. A revival of the spirituality of the Earth could be a healing force in the world in this life and time. Celtic spirituality today is not a retreat from the world into an illusory garden of delight where problems need not be faced. Rather, it is an affirmation of our needs in this life, and an energetic attempt to take power over them. It is a re-affirmation of the sacredness of the Land, Sea and Sky. It is a re-claiming of the sacredness of the Feminine, the Goddess, whose place in western culture has always been ambivalent, uncertain, downplayed, or even ignored. And it is a re-celebration of ourselves as participants in the on-going and never-ending creation of the world.