Druidism and Neo-Druidism
Druidism is the umbrella-term used to describe the religion of the `Celtic` people, and specifically the Priest-Judge Caste of the `Druids`. Because `druidism` was an oral tradition, we have no written materials from the Celts themselves.
What we know of the religion of the Celts we have learnt from a variety of sources. The main problems we have is in interpreting these sources, especially in seperating the facts from the classical and later literary inventions. Archaeological remains show us solid material objects, and although open to personal interpretation votive offerings, burials and inscriptions give us a physical `feel` of the people.
The Classical Writers, though often with personal agendas, provide us with first-hand knowledge of `Celtic` peoples. From `Classical Sources`, the main references to Druids is in regards to `sacrificial ceremonies`. Caesar, Tacticus and Strabo all refer to human sacrifice. Pliny refers to a Druidic ritual in which a Druid cuts Mistletoe before two white bulls are sacrificed. The problem with interpreting the Classical material is that its authors are not a part of the culture that they are describing, much in the way `Western Culture` has interpreted African or Native American Cultures. Often the dominant culture views them as childlike warriors or as the noble savage, merely caricatures images of a culture.
The Insular Writers, whether Irish Monks, Gildas, Giraldus or whoever, are often heavily tainted by `Christian` thought. However, without these Dark Age and Medievel Writers much would be lost to us forever, and despite the `Christianisation` of the Mythologies and Poetry most of what we refer to as `Celtic` comes down to us from this period.
Finally, there is still much to be learnt from the traditions and folk tales of todays `Celtic` peoples. Many people are beginning to recognize how much of the customs and traditions of the 'pagan' Celts continued after their christianisation.
It can only be by studying the whole that
we can learn anything of `Celtic` Culture.
So, what do we know? The Classical Sources portray the Druids as either great Philosophers, seekers of Knowledge, keepers of Tradition OR blood-thirsty priests, sacrificing, burning, killing in the name of their pagan gods. The Insular Writers, despite their obvious Christian bias seem on the whole rather sympathetic to the Druids. Cathbad, the chief Druid from `the Tain` is a wonderful figure, as is the Druidess Fidelma, also from `the Tain`. Though the tales have obviously been embellished they seem to me to be as close as we can get to an acurate description of a living Druid.
We know that they were held in high regard, their wisdom was sort by Kings. We know that they performed rituals and shaman-like acts of magic. We know that they met in Nemetons, places held sacred. We know that there were both male and female Druids. We know that the training to become a Druid was very extensive.
Neo-Druidism, Druidry and Neo-Celtic, are modern interpretations of Celtic religion, and are a very diverse grouping.
Many groups who claimed to be Druids or to teach Druidry began but a few hundred years ago. They are mostly based around Freemasonry, as are a number of other `esoteric` groups that began around this period. Often very `Christianized`, they make little attempt to be historically acurate. Without wishing to judge them too harshly, they`re main problem is that they are synthetic belief systems, in that although they draw upon (or sometimes merely refer to) the `Celtic` past, they haven`t really evolved from it. Its like `the belief system` without the cultural experiences that have molded that belief system, and thats where I think they go wrong. Sadly, instead of trying to remedy this they just claim `ancient pedigrees` to cover the cracks.
Although there is much learning in `Neo-Druidry` it can be open to sentimental `Noble Savage` wish fulfillment.
Some Neo-Pagan groups use nothing from Celtic Culture other than deity names, superimposing them on other magical traditions. Some groups are little more than `Earth-Wisdom` traditions with the label `Celtic` or `Druidic` attached. That is not to say that it is all bad, indeed much of the current enthusism for `Celtic Studies` is linked to the growth of Neo-Pagan spirituality. The only danger is that `New-Age Culture` will be superimposed over `Celtic Culture`, leaving little or nothing of the original.
One broad grouping that are addressing these issues has collectively become known as Celtic Reconstructionism. Not confirmed to any one Order or Group it is rather like a movement that aims, to varying degrees, to add historical accuracy to the beliefs and practices, as the basis of what can be authentically described at Druidic tradition.
J. Craig Melia - Sept 1997
The comments made above are my own views on the subject and are not intended to cause offence. If you have your own view on the subject you are welcome to your opinion...... :)