Interfaith Blog Event #7: Gender in Druidism: Girl Bullying

Once again I’m delighted to participate in an interfaith blog conversation held by Mike (writing from the Mahayana Buddhist perspective), Jon (a Protestant Christian), Sojourner (pagan/UU), and Matt (an evangelical Christian) and myself, a Druid. Every month (or thereabouts), we write on a topic of interest to us all. This month’s topic is gender:

What does gender have to do with divinity?

The links to the other articles in the conversation will be updated as they are posted:

[Mike’s Essay] [Jon’s Essay] [Sojourner’s Essay] [Matt’s Essay]

The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls

My wife and I just picked up some amazing books on “girl bullying”, as explained in the bestseller Odd Girl Out and other follow-up research by Rachel Simmons. The gist is that bullying is common between girls — at least in US American culture, between the ages of about 10 and 18. From the LA Times review:

The code is unwritten, a conspiracy among girls to turn on one of their own. Secret pacts made among middle and high school girls to ruin reputations, to humiliate–whisper campaigns that so-and-so sleeps around; barking like a dog at another girl in the hallway; shifting to exclude someone from her usual lunch spot.

Such behavior goes on behind the backs of parents and teachers or is dismissed as gossip or teasing, said Rachel Simmons, author of the new book “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls” (Harcourt). Finally, Simmons said, people are beginning to realize that the covert aggression by girls has a name: bullying….

In middle school, girls are hyper-sensitive to small slights and what such actions mean to their place in the social structure, said Casey Schuur, 16. For instance, said Casey, a seventh-grader might say in the group: “‘Someone didn’t let me have some of her cake for their birthday. What was that about?’ You can’t really go up to your mom, like, ‘Mom, Janie didn’t give me some of her cake.’”

Sixth- and seventh-grade girls are scared to confront, and possibly aggravate, friends who hurt them, Vanessa said. “It’s fear of not having friends or walking down the hallway alone or having your lunch and not having a group to go to.”

Simmons began studying female bullying and the psychology of girls three years ago in graduate school at Oxford University. A Rhodes scholar who lives in Brooklyn, she interviewed more than 300 girls between ages 10 and 14 during prime bullying years.

We have three young girls of our own, so this issue strikes close to home. What is the root of this behavior, and what can be done about it?

Simmons suggests that girls haven’t been taught how to release aggressive, confrontational energies. Boys are taught — implicitly, in the way parents and teachers react — that physical aggression is not an abhorrent thing; rather, punching and pushing are just how some boys release frustration. As a result, when boys turn to bullying, it’s obvious to everyone what’s going on.

But girls are taught that “nice” girls do not react physically — on the contrary, they’re quiet and demure and friendly and sociable and not too smart and not too proud and they don’t call attention to themselves… So when girls turn to bullying, it takes a more covert form, one that’s almost invisible, but emotionally devastating.

So what’s the answer? Several things.

  • First, adults need to be made aware of the problem, so that it can be detected and headed off.
  • Young girls today need to know how to react to this kind of aggression: they need to learn to confront bullies directly.
  • And most fundamentally, girls need to be given a strong foundation in self-worth, firm knowledge of their own strength and power, so that
    • they have the backbone to stand up to bullies, and
    • fewer girls feel the need to bully in the first place.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, we’ll head off somewhere that seems completely unrelated, but is in fact intimately connected to the above.


In the town of Vix in France a grave mound was unearthed in 1953. The king there had been laid down 2500 years before, during the rise of Celtic art and culture on the continent. There under the mound with the king were all the rich accouterments associated with royal burials at this time: golden jewelry, bronze tableware, and rich weaponry, much of it imported from Italy and Greece. The king was laid out in state on a dismantled chariot.

Imagine the surprise of the archaeologists when they analyzed the remains and realized that the “king” buried there was a woman.

In ancient Irish literature, we find Queen Macha Mong Ruad, who secured her kingdom for herself after her husband the king died by defeating all other claimants to the throne (all male) in combat. The greatest warrior in Celtic myth, Cú Chulainn, is not a woman, but he is trained by one — a warrior woman named Scathach. In the tale The Cattle Raid of Cooley, Macha, the wife of a cattleman is forced, by her husband’s rash betting, to race the chariot of the king of Ulster while heavy with child. She wins the race, collapses on the finish line, gives birth to twins, and pronounces a curse upon the men of Ulster to suffer labor pains in the hour of their greatest need. And the women are not all wives, queens, and warriors: Birog, Bodhmall, and Thachtga are female druids mentioned in mythology and folklore.

The Celtic pantheons were stocked with more strong important goddesses than any other I know of. Perhaps the best known, Brigid and her two sisters (goddesses of flames, mourning, music, holy wells, highlands, hill-forts, and uplands of all kinds, wisdom, poetry, smithcraft, healing, home and hearth) were only the tip of the iceberg. There is the Morrigan, associated with war and death on the battlefield, premonitions of doom, and cattle, and her sisters Badb (confusion, prophecy) and Macha (sovereignty, battle, horses, and the heads of the slain — her “acron crop”). And the ones less known these days: Aine (love, growth, light, the sun, and cattle again), Cliodhna (love and beauty), the three patron goddesses of Ireland (Eriu, Fodla, and Banba), the Sheela na Gig (protection from various kinds of evil), Tailtiu (agriculture), etc., etc. Beyond that, each of the major rivers of Ireland was named after, and under the protection of, a goddess, and patron goddesses dotted the Celtic countrysides.

Women are prominent in real Celtic history, as well. Boudica is probably the most famous of their queens. She was the wife of the king of the Iceni people of Norfolk in eastern Britain, a nation that was friendly to Rome. But when her husband died and left the kingdom to her and her daughters, the Romans, who were extremely patriarchal (they named their daughters First, Second, Third, etc., instead of giving them names) and did not recognize female monarchs, annexed the kingdom, flogged Boudica and raped her daughters. Shortly thereafter, when the Roman governor and his legions were engaged in attacking the Isle of Angelsey in Wales (one of the last Druidic outposts in Britain), Boudica united several tribes and attacked and destroyed several towns in quick succession — Colchester, London, and St. Albans — as well as a Roman legion, before the main body of Roman troops managed to return from Wales and defeat her.

The Well of Memory

Ancient Celtic society is one that venerates and celebrates the feminine at least as much or more than any other. Females are not stereotyped to any greater degree than men are — there are strong ones, weak ones, dutiful ones and headstrong ones, all celebrated in their own way.

And yet the differences between men and women are not glossed over or ignored. In the oldest Irish tradition, the king (who was indeed generally male) was seen simultaneously as the consort and the child of the land itself (quite definitely female); and if he were unworthy of the land — through incompetence or illness — he was summarily replaced. In the Celtic world, the feminine is that which has a deeper and more powerful connection to the forces that shape the world — creating, yes, nurturing, yes, but also destroying — both manifestation and dissolution.

Modern American culture is not as patriarchal as the ancient Roman, but we still have a long way to go. In the Celtic tradition, role models for women are in ample supply — stories of strong, independent, powerful, even ruthless women; but also thoughtful, caring, wise women. I’m thankful that I will have this body of literature to draw on to help teach our daughters to deal with today’s world, and thankful that they will have Brigid, Macha, and Boudica to call upon in their times of need.


7 responses to “Interfaith Blog Event #7: Gender in Druidism: Girl Bullying”

  1. Jeff – Fantastic essay! I think you hit on a very key aspect of our Western Christian society that is missing — deep respect for the spiritual feminine. I’ve talked with Jon a bit on this very topic, and he has told me that in Christianity, the feminine is “personified” in the Church itself. God in heaven represents the male form while the entity of the church receives God’s grace, hence its feminine nature. While I can see what he’s saying, I personally think it’s a bit of a stretch and have always felt that the Pagan mythologies represent the most accurate portrayal of the spiritual genders.

    I am very glad that your daughters are fortunate enough to have Brigid, Macha, and Boudica to guide them through their childhood into strong, loving adults.



  2. Some other heroines for your daughters (and son!) to read about: Christine de Pizan, Vera Brittain, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

    A few books for you and your wife to read on the subject: Queen Bees and Wannabees and Reviving Ophelia. Not specifically teen centered: Slut, Catfight, and my favorite: Womans Inhumanity to Woman.

    Great post!


  3. Mike, thanks! Your comment makes me wish we had a Catholic Christian on board our interfaith discussion, who could comment on the Virgin Mary as the instantiation of the divine feminine in Christianity. For a very great number of Catholics, she seems to serve quite well as a center of feminine divinity. This was something that was essentially dropped by the Protestants, which was a loss for them, I feel.


  4. Wow, Nio! Thanks so much for those recommendations. I’ve heard of Queen Bees… and Reviving Ophilia, but not the others. And you’re absolutely right: my son needs to hear these stories, too.


  5. Jeff, thanks for educating those of us who don’t know much about Celtic history. We all need to see examples of strong women in history.


  6. The Progressive Faith Blog, which I think has gone defunct at this point, has a variety of faiths represented. You may want to approach someone there to blog from the Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim belief systems.


  7. I’ve recently read a book on Druidism that explored the druids through the classical wittings, and Celtic mythology. Most of the previous books on the Celts I’ve read only focused on the writings of Poseidonios and others (including Julius Ceaser) who borrowed heavily from his work. It was good to get some insular info on the druids from Irish and Welsh mythology, and was surprised how many female druids that are are mentioned.

    There was also some speculation that the druids and Brahmin priestly caste share a common Indo-European heritage.

    A few years ago I studied gender roles within Hinduism, and discovered that there was greater religious equality between men and woman (in the priestly class at least, I think). Over time , however, as the rituals become more complicated things became more male dominated, and woman’s roles became purely domestic.

    When I was a Christian I always viewed God as more than male, despite all the endless Biblical references to God as he and father, the verse ‘God created man and woman in his image’ seemed to have more of an influence over my thinking. I didn’t think of god as male and female, but rather transcending gender.

    At the moment I’m not sure if it would be better to think of the divine as both male and female or containing masculine and feminine principles, or transcending gender.


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