The Druid Tradition
The spiritual tradition of Druidism can be traced back through historical and archaeological evidence to about 9900 BCE. The archeological evidence includes burial chambers called’ “long barrows”, “Dolmens” or “Cromlech
s”. These were burial chambers made of massive stones and covered with mounds of piled stones or earth. Even after so many years of destruction, over 40,000 of these structures still exist across Europe, England and Ireland. These monuments have been documented to be the oldest human monuments on earth, far older then the pyramids of Egypt, and slightly older than the table platform temples of Mesopotamia. These structures were built by the early inhabitants of Europe who were people of small stature and dark complexion. They were related to the Egyptians, the Etruscans, the Trojans, and the people of Crete. They were devotees of the Earth Mother Goddess. The early peoples of Britain and Ireland were closely related to the early people of Spain and therefore are often called, “Iberians”. These peoples between 3300 and 3000 BCE began building huge stone monuments, temples, in Britain, Ireland and Europe. The people of Britain became fascinated with round shapes during this period. The sacred circle as a spiritual symbol became universal around 3200 BCE. These indigenous people of Europe practiced shamanistic, animistic Earth-based Goddess traditions. The Celtic peoples, one of the Aryan peoples of middle Europe, began a massive migration into Western Europe, Britain, and Ireland about 800 BCE. The Celtic peoples tended to inter-marry and meld with the people of the lands they invaded. The marriage between the old ones (Iberians) and the Indo-European Celts; physically, emotionally and spiritually, created a very vibrant and colorful culture about 800 BCE. From this the Druid tradition developed in Britain, Ireland, and Europe. Most of Europe from 800 BCE until the Roman conquest was Celtic from Turkey to Ireland, and from Northern Italy to Germany, including Spain, France and Austria, etc. Druid tradition developed and was common from Turkey to Ireland. The Romans and Greeks considered the Celts one the three great “barbarian” peoples. Druid colleges existed in Britain and Ireland. In these colleges Druids were trained from the age of 12. The Druid courses in ancient times took many years to complete: 12 years for Bardic training, four more years for Ovate (priest or priestess) training, and an additional four years for Druid or teacher/judge training. Druid means “oak-person”; the oak tree was sacred to the druids. Druid rituals were conducted outside and within oak groves.
A good deal of historical evidence indicates that ancient Druids were part of a caste system similar to Brahmans in Hindu tradition. Particularly bright people who were not part of the Druid caste were found and adopted into the Druid caste and accepted into the Druid colleges, which is different from the Hindu traditions. The ancient world was much more sophisticated and international than most modern people realize. Druids traveled all over the ancient world where they studied and taught. There are records of Druids teaching in Alexandria, as was the case as in Rome and Roman territories. Druids were respected in the ancient world for their knowledge of science and the ancient mysteries. Many ancient Druids were known to be able to write in Greek and were literate. Druid tradition, however, honored greatly the oral tradition and forbade the writing of the ancient traditions even though many Druids were capable of writing. Druids were particularly well known for their ability to memorize long complicated poems and stories.
By the first century, Rome dominated Celtic lands in its western and northern territories up to and including the southern portion of the island that now comprises Britain, Wales and Scotland. For brevity, we will refer to this Island as “Britain” in this article. Attacks and destruction of the Druid colleges and sacred groves in these lands took place over an unknown period of time. Meanwhile, north of Hadrian’s wall on the Island of Britain, as well as on the island of Ireland, Druid centers of learning and spiritual practice continued outside of Roman influence, which incidentally at that time was also Pagan.
Roman influences across Europe remained Pagan at least until the early part of the fourth century CE when the influence of Rome’s newly adopted state religion of Christianity changed the nature of Rome’s imperial presence in Europe. Any direct religious influence the Romans may have held over the Celts prior to the Christian period would most likely have come by way of Rome’s occupation troops and entrepreneurs, most likely Pagans themselves. As an imperial power, Rome was more interested in extracting resources from its occupied lands, such as taxes, inscription of troops and taking of slaves. Military Roman legions in Britain came from as far away as Syria. Thus the Christian influence under Roman imperialism did not affect Celtic traditions until some time later.
When Christian influences did arrive on the islands that comprise Britain, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, it would have been through cultural channels established during the times of Pagan Roman influence. This would have taken place, for the most part, in the centers of learning, where Druids would have held an exalted status throughout Europe. One can only imagine what discussions with Druids might have taken place when fourth century Christian theologians proposed their beliefs about spirit existing contrary to flesh and the natural world.
As the influence of the Roman Christian church increased over the centuries, there were various amounts of tolerance (and intolerance) between Christians and Pagans as the Christian church took on local traditions throughout Europe. The Celtic Christian church in Britain and Ireland developed with a close relationship to Druidism and incorporated a great deal of its ritual and philosophy. Druid and Wiccan (witch) traditions continued to survive in the country areas throughout Britain, Scotland and Ireland during the Christian era. The Bardic tradition continued to prosper in Celtic lands and maintained the Druid tradition in song and myth until about the fourteenth century, when following the Black Plague, there were massive witch burnings. At this time there was a large attempt to destroy the old pagan earth-based traditions throughout all of Europe.
The order of Bards Ovates and Druids surfaced in Britain in 1717 following the repeal of the witch burning laws. This was the beginning of the neo-Druid revival that has continued to the present time. Neo-Druidism for its first two hundred years was heavily Christian oriented and male oriented unlike ancient Druidism.
Neo-Druidism, however, over the last twenty years has been moving towards its Pagan and Goddess oriented roots. Neo-Wiccan traditions beginning in the 1940’s have had a good deal of influence upon reshaping modern neo-Druidism. Neo-Druidism and neo-Wiccan traditions are both derivative of ancient Celtic spiritually and are very inter-related. Modern Druidism has made a major attempt to welcome women and go back to the old concept that Druids are both male and female.
For further information upon Druidism see http://www.druidry-sf.org (website of the local Druid Manannan Mac Lir Grove of Order of Bards Ovates and Druids OBOD) and http://www.druidry.org (website for the international Order of Bards Ovates and Druids OBOD). Dr. Rodney Karr is the Chief Druid of Manannan Mac Lir Grove of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. He has been a member of OBOD since 1992. The Order of Bards Ovates and Druids offers a postal course to train people in becoming a Bard, Ovate, and a Druid. The Order of Bards Ovates and Druids which traces it’s origin to 1717 and it’s first Chief, poet William Blake is dedicated to preserving the ancient Druid tradition which is totally relevant to the needs of our time, and yet which is firmly rooted in its ancestry and heritage. For further information on druids please see the following recommended reading:
Carr-Gomm, Phillip, (1996) The Druid Renaissance, Thorsons, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Glasgow
Nichols, Ross, (1990) The Book of Druidry: History, Sites and Wisdom, Aquarian Press, London and San Francisco
Spence, Lewis, (1947 / 1995) The History and Origins of Druidism, Ryder and Company / Newcastle Publishing, Van Nuys (Last Printing)