Factsheet: Druids

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By Sarah Harvey

Background

Most (but not all) Druids are Pagans who are inspired by the traditions and mythologies of the Celts — the tribal peoples who were in Britain before the arrival of the Romans; the Druids were their priestly class.

  • It is a tradition tied to land and place, including sacred sites, and to an engagement with the past.
  • Some Druids see their tradition as the native, pre-Christian spirituality of Britain. However, there is no direct continuation with the ancient Celtic Druids.
  • A revival of Druidry began in the 18th century when the idea became popular that the Druids were responsible for building such monuments as Stonehenge and Avebury.
  • The revival took the form of an interest in studying ancient Celtic (usually Welsh) literature and culture and was not necessarily religious in nature.
  • For example, the Ancient Order of Druids, founded in London in 1781, is a non-religious benevolent society which still exists today.
  • The first modern eisteddfod — a meeting, festival and competition — was held on Primrose Hill in London in 1792.
  • The National Eisteddfod, held annually in Wales, is described “a celebration of the culture and language in Wales”. It is a continuation of this revivalist tradition but is not connected to modern Pagan Druidry.
  • Today there are secular, Christian and Buddhist Druids, although the majority are Pagan. The rest of this factsheet is about Pagan Druids.

Organisation

There is no formal organisation within Druidry and no overarching body to which all Druids belong. Some may choose to join the Pagan Federation. There are also a number of national and international Druid orders to which individual Druids can choose to affiliate. In the UK, these include:

The Council of British Druid Orders, established in the late 1980s, primarily to facilitate ceremonies at Stonehenge. Members include:

  • Glastonbury Order of Druids
  • Druid Clan of Dana
  • The Druid Network established by Emma Restall Orr (known as Bobcat) in 2003. In September 2010, the Druid Network became the first Pagan organisation to be accepted as a charity by the Charity Commission. In 2016, it became a full member of the Inter Faith Network.
  • The Druid Order claims to trace its line back to the early 18th century.
  • There is no single organisation to which Druids belong, which makes it it difficult to know the number of Druids in the UK.

Numbers

  • More than 4,000 individuals identified as Druid in the 2011 Census of England and Wales — but it is likely that many Druids listed their religion as Pagan (over 56,000 individuals identified as Pagan in this Census).
  • The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids claims 20,000 members in 50 countries worldwide.
  • There are also likely to be countless number of Druids or Celtic Pagans who do not join an established group.

Beliefs

  • Druidry, like other Pagan traditions, emphasises practice and ethical living over religious beliefs, which vary between individuals.
  • Druidry, like most other Pagan traditions, is a polytheistic religion that sees nature as sacred; the divine is immanent within nature.
  • The deities it works with are often those of the Celtic tradition, such as the Welsh and Irish pantheons.
  • Many Druids believe in the transmigration of souls, an idea similar to the eastern concept of reincarnation. This is based on the Welsh idea that there are three circles of existence, journeys through Annwn, Abred and Gwynvid.
  • Life begins in the realm of Annwn.
  • Once the spirit takes a physical form it enters the realm of Abred, the realm of life as we know it.
  • The spirit may then return to Annwn to be reborn, or continue to the realm of Gwynvid, the dwelling place of the enlightened ones.
  • Ceugant is the realm of the great spirit, the one source of all being, to which all will eventually return.

Practices

  • A central teaching of Druidry is the “quest for inspiration” (Awen).
  • Awen is a Welsh word described as “breath” or “flowing spirit”, and it is often considered the source of poetic inspiration.
  • Much of Druid ritual practice is concerned with connecting with Awen — for some, creating a relationship with the divine.
  • During ritual, this force can be invoked through the recitation of the word Awen (pronounced Ah-oo-en) as a mantra. It can then be directed towards such practices as healing, divination, or creative performance in the form of music and poetry.
  • Some Druid orders follow three levels of initiation: those of Bard, Ovate and Druid. Other orders see these as just different types of practice or expertise. The three terms encompass different aspects of the Druidic tradition.
  • The Bard focuses on creative skills such as poetry, storytelling, music and art.
  • The Ovate practises the skills of divination, prophecy and healing.
  • The Druid combines these skills to become a priest/ess and a teacher. A Druid may lead a grove (a small gathering for ritual practice).
  • Many Druids engage in some solitary practice on a day-to-day basis. This may involve a ritual to greet the sun, creating an altar to chosen deities, composing a piece of creative work, or meditation.

Festival bates

As with other Pagan traditions, Druids also hold rituals with fellow practitioners. The life cycle is marked in rites of passage and the seasonal cycle is marked by many Druids with the eight festivals of the Year Wheel (held in common with Wiccan traditions):

  • Samhain (31 October)
  • Winter Solstice (21 December)
  • Imbolc (1 February)
  • Spring Equinox (21 March)
  • Beltane (1 May)
  • Summer Solstice (21 June)
  • Lughnasadh (1 August)
  • Autumn Equinox (21 September)

Festival venues

  • Some Druid groups hold their seasonal celebrations at ancient sites around the UK and are well known for their gatherings at Stonehenge (and, in the past, occasional clashes with the authorities over right of access).
  • At these open rituals, a sacred space is created in the form of a circle and the elements of nature as well as the deities are invoked for protection and blessing.
  • A central act of most Druid rituals is the eisteddfod, a sharing of creativity in the form of poetry and song.
  • Many Druids dress in long ceremonial robes, frequently white, for ritual practice.
  • Rituals may also be performed for such specific purposes as healing, a request for inspiration or divination.
  • A Druid form of divination uses the Ogham (the Celtic tree alphabet), and the oak tree is an important symbol to Druids.

Further information

As with other Pagan traditions, there is much overlap between academics and practitioners. Academics who study Paganism are sometimes practising Pagans and practising Pagans (especially published authors) sometimes have an academic post.

Blain, Jenny, Douglas Ezzy and Graham Harvey (eds.) (2004) Researching Paganisms, AltaMira Press.

Blain, Jenny and Robert Wallis (2007) Sacred Sites — Contested Rites/ Rights: Pagan Engagements with Archaeological Monuments, Sussex Academic Press.

Carr-Gomm, Philip (2011) Druid Mysteries: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century, Ebury Digital.

Carr-Gomm, Philip (2014) Druidcraft: The Magic of Wicca and Druidry, Thorsons.

Crowley, Vivianne (1994) Phoenix from the Flame: Pagan Spirituality in the Western World, London: Aquarian.

Harvey, Graham (2006) Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism. London: Hurst.

Hutton, Ronald (2009) Blood and Mistletoe. The History of the Druids in Britain, London: Yale University Press.

Jennings, Pete (2002) Pagan Paths: A Guide to Wicca, Druidry, Asatru, Shamanism and Other Pagan Practices, Rider.

Nichols, Ross (1996) The Book of Druidry, Thorsons.

Owen, Suzanne (forthcoming) Contemporary Druidry: A Native Tradition?, Bloomsbury.

Restall Orr, Emma (1998) Principles of Druidry, Thorsons.

Restall Orr, Emma (2004) Living Druidry: Magical Spirituality for the Wild Soul, Piatkus.

Worthington, Christine (1999) Druids: A Beginners Guide, London: Headway.

EXPERTS

Professor Graham Harvey, Department of Religious Studies, the Open University.

Professor Ronald E. Hutton, Department of History, Bristol University.

Jenny Blain, previously senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University.

Dr Suzanne Owen, Leeds Trinity University.

Dr Sarah Harvey is senior research officer at Inform, an independent, educational charity based at King’s College London, which provides information about minority religious, spiritual and political movements