Introduction to Celtic Paganism and Modern Druidry

Let me blow the dust off you, resurrect your breath.” 

Lola Ridge, Irish anarchist, 1873 – 1941

The Druid or Druí in Old Irish is a title filled with wonder, mystery and an internal and deeply personal call back to a more primal, knowledgeable and Native way of living with the land around us. The technological age has allowed us the invaluable privilege to study the topics and beliefs surrounding the Druids in a much deeper and authentic way. We count ourselves incredibly lucky to be on the cusp of a much more collective and genuine understanding of our past. We are incredibly indebted and offer our sincere thank you to the scholars that came before us painstakingly studying the scant remnants of the Druids in libraries, devoting endless hours translating Old Irish texts or simply uploading these texts online. We have made use of all available sources and earnestly endeavored to study these topics from anthropological, archaeological and historical viewpoints combined with a first hand love for practicing and breathing life into these traditions that are over 2,000 years old. This journal is as much about academics and evidence as it is about intuition and healing, physically, spiritually and mentally. Our ancestors gifted us countless stories and traditions to work within that have stood the tests of time for thousands of years and there is good reason to mind their lessons. Naturally, we’re not endeavoring to emulate exactly what our ancestors did but rather simply, are seeking what they sought and using their footsteps as inspiration. 

This bygone faith has inspired the world with noble dreams and endless content regarding esoteric magic. We value what the Druids would have practiced from an evidence based perspective to not only avoid misrepresentation but also with respect that the Druids were products of their time. That is, a time more in line with what our human experience is supposed to be, and was for thousands of years, a much slower, cyclical, seasonal living based on direct interactions with our natural and supernatural surroundings. We see the Druids as not only deeply inspirational figures but co-conspirators in a collective effort to add deeper meaning to our lives and ultimately to that end, make the world a better place. The past is always here with us in spirit, and at minimum we carry it with us in our blood and bones and in our subconscious or soul conscious memory. Our ancestors the world over are perhaps calling us to remember and use what we’ve already long been given to shape new human technological developments into something more usable and healthy. We find the critical ecological and societal issues of our modern and unbalanced world are ailments to be addressed that are deeply embedded within the Druid tradition. The reinvigorated interest in these ancient ways of being and natural living is timely and necessary. The Druids were there to solve their people’s problems from the biggest to the smallest, namely how to live on the land and amongst themselves without spoiling it or each other. 

Eleanor Hull – Queen Maeve consulting her Draoi

We are finding ourselves reaching back as far as recoverable history will allow us to go and the Druids are on the precipice of that which we’re still able to recover. Amazingly, the age old principles that guided our ancestor’s lives are still just as relevant today and a deep inspiration for so many. Against all odds, we’ve been allowed a fragmented framework to painstakingly piece together, to evaluate and learn from. To try and summon a dead belief structure would typically require a time machine but what if that structure was never really gone, only scattered and transformed? The bells that ring true are still being rung even if at times, they’ve been very dim. The call of a more primal and ‘Celtic’ existence was minded through the ages by liminal people right up into the present moment. Often we find that only by coming to know a single belief structure very deeply may we come to know all things more deeply, particularly where our shared human experiences are concerned. In our commitment and sheer love of these Native belief practices, we joyously dig our bare feet and hands into the earth beneath us, shake off our modern guise, lay our shame to rest, and reintegrate our primal selves into our daily living. Ultimately our goal and the purpose of this journal is to pass on these sacred lessons, practices and ways of being onto the next generation. Our hope is to not only provide evidence based practices where the Druids were concerned but to speculate on their inner spirit and the heart of their motivations; to bring their traditions into a usable means of personal growth both individually and as a community. Let your ancestors surround, support and guide you. They are calling you home to yourself.

Many people that are curious about Celtic paganism, Irish paganism or modern Druidry as a spiritual or lifestyle framework often wonder what sets it apart, and the similarities and differences between other paths and this one. This introduction will give you a little bit of an explanation in that regard as well as a strong idea of what will be covered in the following sections.

For beginners, our best advice is read in the order of… #1 history and factual evidence of the ancient Celtic people and Druids, #2 surviving myths, legends and folktales, #3 modern Druidry interpretations, #4 niche topic interests such as herbalism, Ogham or any number of related topics. There is a book list in the following section on sources. Settle in, keep a journal of your thoughts and inspirations and give yourself space and permission to absorb the information at your own pace. This often takes years to fully absorb and memorize various information so there’s no need to feel rushed. Keep in mind, there are many variations in beliefs and practices. This is all of course, only a suggestion and ultimately it’s good to do that which calls to you and in what order you wish to receive the information.

There are different facets of Celticity in regards to educational studies, with lots of overlap… First, there are surviving Celtic nations with a cultural fabric uniquely their own. These are Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Mann, Cornwall, Brittany and some include Iberia. Next, are Celtic language studies, Old Irish, Modern Irish Gaeilge (3 different dialects) or Scots Gaelic. Finally, there is ‘Celtic’ or Indo-European Native culture where modern Druidry beliefs stem from that once spanned nearly the entirety of Europe from Germany to Turkey, Spain to Ireland. That is not to say these were homogeneous or united nations, just that there were underlying cultural patterns being spread by trade. There is going to be a lot of cultural crossover but it’s important to at least recognize this, respect, value and contribute to the living cultures. Celtic has become a modern catch all cultural phrase but when we discuss educational topics, we generally try to reference who and what specific literature, countries, groups or places we’re talking about in an effort to give credit where credit is due.

Druids chose not to write much down or it has been destroyed or lost in the sands of time. The idealisms we generally support to be true are those that can be corroborated by multiple sources in archaeology, quotes, mythology, folklore and traditions passed down through generations. That’s not to say one biased quote or romantic sentiment from the revival period isn’t interesting to ponder. It’s just important to keep in mind the validity of the source. Modern druidry was heavily influenced by the Celtic Romantic period and revival. Some of which is incredible and fantastic and other texts, are partial or complete fabrication.

Collection Abecasis

What are the basics of Celtic (Irish, Scottish, Welsh etc.) paganism or modern Druidry?

• It’s not an exact recreation of ancient times as of course, that is impossible. The social role of the Druid has somewhat been replaced by the modern judge, teacher or doctor. We are simply using old knowledge, inspiration and a personal calling to formulate our own modern path. The traditional role was likely first and foremost a community support role and has mostly continued on as such today.

• There are variances in how people use the term Druid. For example, some people prefer to say they are a Celtic pagan or follower of Druidry instead of a Druid. That is, at least until they have studied at length or completed an official course and initiation ceremony of sorts which can be done solitary just as well as with a group. This is completely a matter of personal choice and preference on what we call ourselves. The Druids of Gaul were famed for studying for 20 years and the Irish Filí memorized countless poems and songs. It’s a life’s work. We support doing some sort of program and initiation and studying deeply for many years, rather than just using the title flippantly which only adds value to our experiences and the role itself.

Middle Temple Library

• It’s still a cultural practice. The various individual nations and related Druid and spiritual framework were again once Native throughout Ireland, Britain and a good portion of Europe. Undoubtedly, there were quarrels between them but they also had to be somewhat peaceful as there is archaeological proof of vast trade networks between them. The remnants of the Druids were best preserved in Ireland, where a ‘Celtic Christianity’ evolved from both traditions embedded in the folk practices, historical references, mythology as well as the Brehon Law code. The role of the Irish Bean Feasa, Fear Feasa, Bard and the Filí, historically Druid type roles were maintained in Ireland at least through the 1700’s but were deeply impacted by colonization and Catholicism which really only took a stronger foothold after and in direct relation to societal and cultural hardships, of which we will explore.

• The ancient Druids were possibly pantheists, animists or polytheists as well as likely believed in reincarnation and an Otherworld after death. Druidry today is generally free of dogma. That is, there are no absolutes in regards to Otherworldly belief and we recognize the growth that occurs when our knowledge about our world and ourselves, advances. With that said, our group is mostly polytheistic and believes in the autonomous old Gods and Goddesses traditional to the Irish mythical tales.

Leon Benett

• The four Irish fire festivals are celebrated that tied into the natural ebb and flow of the year that relates to the weather and agricultural changes. Within these festivals, certain Gods and Goddesses are recognized, for some literally (autonomous beings) and for others allegorically (characters in mythology, possibly ancestral stories, designed to teach lessons). Many also celebrate the solstice and equinoxes as well as recognize the moon cycles and take their studying the movement of the stars and general reverence of the moon as evidence enough they would have recognized these events.

• The idea that the Druids were connected to the standing stones or other Neolithic and Mesolithic structures is debated although historian and writer Barry Cunliffe, deducing from genetic and language studies, believes there has been a somewhat stable population in Ireland, Scotland and Britain alluding to a continuity for at least the last 6,000 years and that the ancestors of the ‘Gaels or Celts’ in essence built the structures. This also falls in line with the claim of the Druids studying of the movement of the stars, moon and astrological bodies and the structures being aligned to these or rare celestial events. Many scholars call these people Proto-Druids or Proto-Celts. This is all still a matter of debate. One of the most recently built burial mounds dubbed the Black Forest Stonehenge in Germany was only completed in 600 BC. The purpose of the stones are also debated with a wide range of beliefs based around local folklore. The largest held belief is that the stones were ancestors, giants, turned to stone by draíocht (magic) and the circles and other structures served as some sort of ritual burial ground and symbols for rebirth as bodies or ashes have often been found buried in or among the structures. They may have been ritual places to commune with ancestors in general for inspiration, guidance and as stone oracles. Of course, this is all speculation. What we do have that was definitely ‘Celtic’ and possibly Druidic are the numerous carvings, iconography and structures dated to the time period between approx. 300 BC and 600 CE give or take a few hundred years in each direction.

• Another contested idealism is whether the ancient Druids participated in human sacrifice or not. The only sources they did are firstly, the classical Roman and Greek sources, particularly Caesar which were known to be somewhat politically biased. Additionally, many classical quotes were second hand and without cultural context. The next source is an early Christian poem in Ireland regarding sacrifices to ‘Crom Cruach’, a likely Christianized version of Balor who also asked for sacrifices in mythology. This one source was later repeated incessantly throughout various Irish and British romanticized literature. Bodies (bog bodies) have been discovered that seem to be ritualistically murdered. However, ritualistic burials were common throughout the entirety of ancient Europe. Oftentimes, it’s unknown if children or people buried under homes died of natural causes, a rare occurrence in any case and a practice also unanimous throughout ancient Europe and Asia. Any odd death or burial may have been the result of an individual or individual group. Criminals, or ‘failed’ kings may have been executed and sacrificed but this was also not a unique practice in the ancient world. It’s worth mentioning that Vedic spirituality (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism) highlighted throughout the ancient Rigveda text is loosely similar to other Indo-European beliefs. Sacrifice is mentioned in the text and practiced by Hindu Brahmins but it is the ‘sacrifice’ of animals, bread, milk or other food items over a fire. We see this echoed in Celtic belief in the reference to the Druids of Gaul sacrificing two white bulls after collecting mistletoe. They did however seemingly have a head cult and fascination with the head as being possibly the source of our soul or consciousness. Overall, there is challenging evidence to sort through on both sides of this argument. Considering the difficulty of survival in a more harsh natural environment, we’d find it highly doubtful that innocents were sacrificed but can imagine criminals or captives from war being held to this religious function.

• Some other modern generalizations that we usually have in common are having a connection to nature, respect for the earth as well as animals and living things, tolerance and non-judgement, equal male and female presence, having a celebratory and loving nature, living simply and sustainably as well as cultivating knowledge and creativity. In essence, living our best lives and most importantly, passing on what we learn to the next generation.

What do we know about the Druids that helps guide our path today?

Endeavoring to have a meaningful path, we can look to the corroboration of multiple historical sources (quotes, archaeology, literature, traditions passed down) to give us a relatively accurate look into the past and emulate what may have been practiced. Modern Druids typically do love nature (that they’re popularly known for) but there is also a lot more to it as well. All of these topics and much more will be covered with evidence based citations.

• Personal development via the arts and creativity such as poetry and musical abilities.
• Cultivation and appreciation of knowledge in general. A love for learning and deeply studying nature simply for the sake of learning.
• Cultivating our ability to write and tell stories.
• Perfecting our memory.
• Using Ogham.
• Acquiring knowledge on naturally healing herbs, plants and trees and how to use them. Collecting them on the 6th day of the moon’s cycle was considered favorable. ‘Saining‘ or using sacred smoke to heal and otherwise rid ourselves or someone of malevolent forces that were causing an ailment.
• Venerating trees in general. Using various sacred wood for ritual purposes. The seven chieftain trees in Irish Brehon Law were the oak, hazel, holly, ash, yew, pine and apple.
• Celtic language.
• Ritualistic and chanting practices.
• The belief in the sacred center.
• Moving clockwise during rituals. To do otherwise was considered bad luck. Although, many patterns found in nature move clockwise in the northern hemisphere and counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere.
• Reverence in the realms of “earth, sea and sky” and of the four directions.
• Reverence for triplism in general. Working with 3, 9, 27 parts of everything.
• Belief in the power of symbolism, especially through ritual.
• Reverence for the symbols of the well, the sword, the spear, the stone and the cauldron.
• Belief in the powers of water to heal and fire to cleanse.
• Belief in Otherworlds in general as well as ‘liminal places’ and times, and having an interconnection with this world.
• ‘Journeying’ to the Otherworld through an induced trance or asking ancestors/Gods/Goddesses for answers and guidance. In Ireland, from a story telling perspective, this was called an omramh or immrama (through a Christian lens), when a character went on a journey to the Otherworld and was given gifts or insight and sometimes stayed there forever.
• Belief in the spirits and consciousness of the land, waterways, trees, animals and all that is, an overall ‘oneness’ that is also manifested in various unique place and form.
• Valuing and recognizing the reciprocity between nature/Gods/Goddess/the land. Ie. You can only get something if you give something.
• Make offerings to nature/God/Goddesses/the land (considered a social cause in modern times) via our time, resources or efforts.
• Valuing justice, fairness, honor, courage and truth in regards to personal as well as law issues.
• Respecting or venerating animals and their unique attributes. The horse, cow, deer, birds, salmon, wolf/dog and rabbits were particularly significant.
• Reverence for the sun and moon. Reading the signs of the sun, moon, stars, seasons, clouds, thunder, animal migration, plant growth etc. Ie. Paying attention to the natural cycles of everything around us.
• Attempting to use augury or the movement of birds to gain insight. Or simply “talking” and relating to animals and plants.
• Celebrating the four seasonal fire festivals.
• Recognizing the circular year and thinking in circular terms about life in general verses a linear progression.
• Meditation and pathworking.
• Screening and synchronizing new knowledge to the old through experimentation, evaluation and experience.
• Teaching the youth and passing on knowledge and traditions to the next generation.
• Valuing elders and learning from our elders. Ancestor reverence and pride.
• Witnessing, performing or organizing oaths and ceremonies of life and coming of age events.
• Developing our ability of ‘sight’ to predict the future or at least use our insight to anticipate how events will play out through various modes of divination.
• Valuing our physical form, cleanliness and overall health.
• Supporting our local community in the best way we know how, giving our time and energy to the people and ecology directly around us. Supporting the wider world or charitable organizations when we’re able and all in order to improve our world.

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