What Makes a Druid a Druid?

Druids Cutting MistletoeBrowsing through the Druidry related groups on Social Media, most of us have probably seen this question — in many variations — pop up every now and then: “How do I know whether or not I am a Druid?” This is a very important question, actually, one that shows that the one’s asking is not blindly running down a path, hoping that it is the right one. Rather, folks asking that do have the appropriate level of skepticism and self-doubt that is so important for seekers, to stay on track and not get lost.

It is equally important for those who have been on the path for a while to give actual, helpful advice. Yet, we all face the problem that there is no silver bullet, no one-and-only way to answer this question. I certainly don’t have this all-encompassing elevator-speech-length answer that explains it all. But I can offer food for thought.

Obviously, one limitation to giving a comprehensive response is that in Social Media, particularly Twitter, there is the inherent need to be extremely concise. Too concise in many cases, to be perfectly honest. So, here is the long(er) answer.
To make things easier, let’s first ask:

What Does One NOT Make a Druid?

Before we go a little more into detail, let me just give anyone new to Druidry this advice: There are typically two types of answers that should be taken with quite a load of salt (a grain is not enough).

There are the no, just no responses. You see them as “If you feel you’re called to be a Druid, then you are one” or “When you know your are” or something like that.
No. Druidy is a path. There are steps. And since it’s a long path, there are many steps. Some are harder than others; most of them require some level of learning. What that learning may be depends on a few factors, but let me assure you of one truth: You won’t become a Druid without work.

Then there are the yes, but answers. You spot them easily, because they are short and concrete. “Hug a tree.” “Seek the truth.” Or “Take a walk in the forest.” Well, they are not wrong per se, but neither single one of them will make you a Druid. I know many tree huggers who don’t even want to be Druids. They just want to hug trees, for whatever reason. Pretty much any person following any spiritual path (including religions) is seeking the truth. They may come to different conclusions, but their intent is just the same. Some of them might be offended if you were to call them Druid. My grandfather was something like a hunter-forester. He took walks in the forest almost every day, no matter the season. Not a Druid.  Yes, any  of these responses state something you most probably will do on your Druid path, but one single one of them won’t make you a Druid.

And finally there are the don’t even go there responses. When you read something like “You must have Celtic DNA” or “You must come from a direct line of Druids” just simply move on and forget these answers. Actually, don’t forget them, but research why that’s totally bogus and let anyone who posts such ignorant nonsense know what’s real.

So, How Does One Know?

Well, as with all Druidry, there is no straight forward answer. Which doesn’t mean that you can’t come to your own conclusion. It’s just that this, whatever it is, is your personal opinion. Yet, the more this opinion is based on knowledge and rational thought, the closer it’ll come to the truth.
One way to approach an answer is to consider the three major eras of Druidry and look for clues there.

Ancient Druidry: In “Druid antiquity” and early mediaeval times, very roughly 500 BCE to 500 CE, one would first become an apprentice of a Druid or a student in a Druid College (Anglesey comes to mind) and learn history (in form of hundreds of epic poems) and genealogy, music, law, brewing, the healing arts including herbalism, divination, how to tell and predict time with the Sun, Moon, and the Stars, how to conduct rituals, and how to teach all this stuff. All that learning took about 20 years. When your Druid teacher(s) deemed you ready and learned enough, they gave you the insignia of the Druid (certain clothes, a branch with bells) and sent you off to serve a clan, tribe, or kingdom. While it was very easy to figure out what made one a Druid, our problem today lies in the details of the “how”. They didn’t write down anything, and their Roman and Greek contemporaries weren’t nit-picky like the modern anthropologist. One of them, Claude Levi-Strauss for example dissected one single story from a Native American tribe into a mathematical formula and wrote a whole book about it with mindboggling details. Herodot, Caesar, and Pliny, to name a few, did not only have some ulterior motives and hidden agendas, but were just fine with writing down what they heard that someone heard someone say. Pliny, whose description of the ritualistic cutting of mistletoe might just be one of the most detailed accounts of Druid work we know, probably heard that from some travelling folks in what’s Marseille, France today, without ever venturing into Gaulle to see himself. When it comes to trusting Pliny, consider that he also reported in his pompous historia of some folks in the Sahara who have only one leg with one enormous foot. When the Saharan sun got too hot around noon, they would lay on their backs, stretch their one leg into the air and use their large foot as a sun umbrella. Fact checking? Not so much.
All that is to say that while we know what made one a Druid in antiquitiy, we have too little information on how one would go about this work.

There is much more meat in the mediaeval literature helping us figure out what Druids did and how they worked. Yes, the fact that Christian monks wrote it all down and threw a “Christ” and “Holy Spirit” into the text here and there makes those accounts not too reliable, but at least we know some details on the Insular-Celtic Gods and Goddesses, divination practices and so on. Again, still not in the detail we would like and are used to today, but more than what we have from the Greeks and Romans.

What remains is that becoming a Druid meant a lot of learning, and being a Druid meant providing an important service to their community.

The Druid Revival: If one were to determine what it means to become, and be, a Druid through the lens of the Druid Revival (approx. 18th and 19th century CE), one would get an entirely different picture. While folks back then did know about the writings of the Roman and Greek historians, the conclusions they drew from those sources where a bit different than those we think are the right ones today. For example, Pliny’s account of the Druid climbing the tree and cutting the mistletoe clad in white led to the well-known picture of the Druid as the bearded sage wearing a long, white robe with a sickle in his belt. As good an image as any, but it’s not like that we have an actual description of the white garment Pliny claimed to have seen; could’ve been a robe, could’ve been breeches and a shirt. All we “know” (with the limitations stated above) is that the garment was white.
The Druid Revival happened in the era of Romanticism, so much of the old reports was fantastically embellished and dreamed up under that somewhat bombastic lens (and as far as the the Welshman Edward Williams aka Iolo Morganwg was concerned, also under the influence of laudanum).
But Druid fashion was not even the focus of the Revival era, it was poetry. The Bardic arts were core and center of Druidry during that time, which is why the Welsh Gorsedd, the Olympics of the poets so to speak, was revived back then. Healing and the occult arts, like divination, played a lesser role, if at all, and the Druid jobs of old — judge, brewer, or counselor to the monarch — were already outsourced to normal, non-druidic people. The Revival Era Druids were for the most part Christians, despite some interest in Pagan life and belief. The service element that was so important to the Druids of antiquity was reduced to forming clubs in which they collected donations from the members; money that was either used for a member falling into poverty, of for charity.
One other component of Druidry next to poetry did flare up in that time: ritual. Especially ceremonial rituals, for larger groups, partly accessible to the public. Since there was nothing to be gathered from the accounts of antiquity, the new Druid-Poets borrowed a lot of ritualistic elements from the Free Masons. It worked for them, and if nothing else, the work the Druid Revival Druids built the base for us even talking about Druidry today. There is a good chance that without them, the idea of Druidry may have been lost completely.

Thus, if you were to define “Druid” from the vantage point of the Druid Revival, being an excellent poet, knowing masonic ritual, donating money to charity, and participating in some club would make one a Druid.

Contemporary Druidry: While some refer it to Neo-Druidry, I prefer the former expression. Neo would indicate that it is something new, an idea that wasn’t there before. Contemporary, for me, just indicates that “this is what we do now“. Even if you were a staunch Celtic re-constructionist, you live now, and act out your Druidry today. Since it might be somewhat difficult for you to slaughter a pig in public and divine the future from its steaming and still twitching entrails, even the reconstructionist would either have to adapt to today’s world as well or just don’t practice.
Contemporary Druidry is much based on the Revival, and somewhat on what the Druids of antiquity and of the early mediaeval era did. And it brought back an element that was missing at least in the early days of the Revival period: Magic. That was in part a direct result of the uprising of occult and magical societies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Celtic Golden Dawn, lead by figures like Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune. Later in the mid 19th century, the very good friends Gerald Gardner (Wicca) and Ross Nichols (Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids) took this element of Magic and wove it into their respective spiritualities. With that, Nichols’s contemporary Druidry became a conglomerate of history (ancient and mediaeval Druids), masonic ritual, witchcraft and magic and the occult arts. All that within the framework of philosophy, ethics, and integrity, ensuring that, should such a contemporary Druid in fact offer their service to their community, this is done without harming people left and right.
Started in the 1950ies, this version of Druidry has developed manifold, not only in Nichols’s own order, but also by Druid Orders that were founded since. In essence, they are very similar, and is mostly their focus that distinguishes them from one another. One order is more into psychology, another into shamanism, a third has a more priestly orientation, and some are focusing on reconstructing their heritage, locally or often enough by emigrants in remembrance of their homeland.
In addition to these organized bodies, the Orders, there are the independent Druids, the hedge Druids, who derive their knowledge from a variety of sources; books, the Internet, or simply from Nature and Spirits.

Clearly, this wide spectrum in Contemporary Druidry makes it inherently difficult to define what a Druid is. This openness, certainly amplified by the structural culture change in the 1960ies and 1970ies, is why we find us confronted with this question in the first place. What was clear — yet entirely different — in antiquity and in the Revival Era, has become a bee hive of attempted answers in Contemporary Druidry. Granted, within the structure of an Order, things are much clearer. You have a body of work to go through and learn, you were initiated, and exposed to the order’s mysteries; at some point, folks invested with the power to administer your Order would check your work and hopefully deem you ready to go out and druid away. But for those outside any Order, how are we supposed to know, how can we trust that they are what they claim they are?

Putting it all together

Personally, I am always one who goes the middle path. I like some reconstructionism, and therefore the clear order of Druid antiquity; I also like the Druid Revival’s call for creativity (poetry or otherwise); and I like the freedom of Contemporary Druidry to practice in a way that helps me along the path, and supports my work for my community. If I were to define a Druid thusly, I would say:

  • They have to awake their creativity; become learned in the lore of the Celtic lands as much as in that of their own culture (if that’s different); embed themselves into the seasons and their cycle; and understand the basic elements of life.
    In other words, they would become a Bard.
  • They have to learn about the healing arts, including herbs and magic, and at least one occult technique of divination; they have to understand how time and death play into our lives; and learn the language of the trees.
    In other words, they would become an Ovate.
  • And finally, they would begin to understand the ethical implications of their work and study to some extent the laws of old; they’d learn about chronometry, based on the movement of the celestial bodies, and how to determine the time for celebrations; and they would dedicate their lives to serving their community, possibly as celebrants.
    In other words, they would begin the life-long journey of the Druid.

These are, of course, just the roughest bullet points, and they contain a myriad of detailed learning. Druid Orders follow these schematics, some switch the first two. But even for Druids outside any Orders, I would say that having touched upon, if not deeply studied these components of Druid learning, and, more importantly, having the will to delve ever deeper into these mysteries, is what makes a Druid a Druid.

The writer is also the author of the book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.

Available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com


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1 Response to What Makes a Druid a Druid?

  1. mkdwicca says:

    Excellent and enlightening article..thank you.

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