Not long ago Ellen Evert Hopman, a druid priestess with whom I’m acquainted, was asked, “What is the essence of druid practice?”
The asker was a very old friend who had just had a powerful mystical experience, and came to her for help. They talked for most of the day, having tea, walking in the forest, and so forth.
Asking the Priestess
At first, when he asked her this question, she was speechless. Ellen is a priestess of great experience, a master herbalist and researcher in the old ways; so if anyone knows Druidism, she does. But Druidism is not a cohesive faith. There is no World Archdruid, no Universal Grove; there is no Druid Bible or Founding Father; there are no druid missionaries carrying the True Faith around the world. Each druid is called, one by one, alone, to the path, by whatever gods, guides, or spirits there be. So naturally there’s a certain amount of disagreement about what the essence of Druidism is.
Probably the biggest split within Druidism is between what are called the “Revival” druids and the “Reconstructionist” druids. Very simply put, Reconstructionist druids are those who try to cleave most closely to the practices and beliefs of the ancient druids of pre-Roman Europe, according to the best historical and archaeological evidence. “Revival” druids instead adhere to a body of practices and beliefs that arose first in the 18th century among British antiquarians, a reaction against the upheaval and chaos of the Industrial Revolution — a mixture of ancient druidism and early modern mysticism, further influenced by 19th century movements such as theosophy and ceremonial magic. Both groups rightly claim to have a rich tradition and a long history, but they are very different as well: they may celebrate different holidays, with different rituals, and even call upon different gods. Where is the essence there?
Somehow, Ellen found a way to answer him.
Druid practice, she said, can be boiled down to three things: Water, Fire, and Trees.
All over Europe, sacred springs are found — springs where supplicants come to draw strength, health, or wisdom. People still come to them and tie rags to the branches of trees hanging over the holy waters, binding there their hurts, worries, and ailments. For druids, water is also the element of the otherworld, of the ancestors, and the realm of the Sidhe.
The fire that cooks our food, forges our metal and warms our bones is also the vehicle that carries sacrifices into the beyond. It is the spirit that sparks creation, the mother of poetry and magic. It is the element of the sky, the stars, and the gods.
If there is one thing that all druids agree on, it is reverence for trees. The oak was especially sacred to the ancient druids — one etymology for druid is “oak-wise” — but for druids, all trees are ladders to heaven, links between the earth and the sky. The tree is the giver of gifts and knowledge, the friend that stands guard round your house and the watcher in the shades of the night.
Notice in particular two things about this list: first, it is a list of natural things, elements of the earth. Druidism is thus foremost a nature religion, with reverence for the sacred earth at its heart. Second, it is a list of three things. Three is a number that appears again and again in Druidism, both ancient and modern, in all things.
A Triad of Gratitude
I can’t presume to speak to the essence of Druidism myself, since I’m so new to it; I started down this path less than a year ago. But I can speak to what drew me to Druidism — the essence of why I am a druid.
One of the great traditions of Celtic literature is the triad: a saying that compares or contrasts three things (there’s that number again). Here are some examples:
- Three glories of a gathering: a comely mate, a good horse, and a swift hound.
- Three false sisters: “perhaps”, “maybe”, and “I dare say”.
- Three things not loved without each one its companion: day without night, idleness without hunger, and wisdom without reverence.
I saw a triad recently that summed up what drew me to Druidism; here it is:
Three whose debt can never be repaid: parents, a good teacher, and the Mighty Ones.
Extended to include ancestors, this debt we owe to our forebears is too great to be imagined, much less paid back. Those of us living in the Western world at the beginning of the 21st century are sailing on a sea of material wealth and knowledge that is impossible to really comprehend. There is an unfortunate tendancy to congratulate ourselves on how very clever and rich we are, instead of acknowledging that it was all handed to us, for good or ill, by previous generations. What we have today, we owe to our parents, our grandparents, our ancestors of 500 years ago, a thousand years ago, 100,000 years ago — these people who were born, made their way as best they could, loved their children, and ended their lives in glory and tragedy. The debt of gratitude can never be repaid, but it does us good to try.
A Good Teacher
All of us have had teachers that challenged us, drew us in, and made us more than we thought possible. Teaching is at the heart of Druidism: classical writers spoke repeatedly of aspiring students who traveled across Europe to learn with certain druids. Those who were fortunate enough to be chosen pursued their studies for twenty years. One of the more famous druids of Irish lore, an advisor to a king, had one hundred students at a time. In modern Druidism, there is a long tradition of druid orders offering coursework in all manner of arcane lore, from astrology to herbalism. The teacher stands between the student and the knowledge, between the child and the adult, drawing the two closer together, like a tree between the earth and the sky.
The Mighty Ones
As the Earth and our ancestors support us from below, the Mighty Ones reach down and draw us up. They give inspiration for creative acts, grant fertility and bounty in our endeavors, and guide us between the worlds. The spirits, guides and gods — Lugh of the Long Arm, Bridget of the Sudden Flame, and their kind — are the sky and stars towards which we reach.
Druidism shows us gently everything that has been done, and is being done, for us; and asks us to give of ourselves in return. For while our debts cannot be repaid — while the sacrifices of our ancestors and the Earth can never be sufficiently honored — we can choose to make those sacrifices worthwhile.
Note: This essay is cross-posted at Pagan Sojourn.