Treehenge Circle
Treehenge Charter Druidry Web Staff

A Brief History of Druidry

Druidry, as practiced today, is a modern system of philosophy and spiritual practice with roots in traditions going back into pre-history.

Druidry has had a long and complex past, and has gone through numerous cycles of evolution and reconstruction.

The earliest known “Druids” predate any historical records. Almost our only knowledge of these people is the great stone monuments they left throughout Britain and Gaul, such as the famous Stonehenge circle on Salisbury Plain in England. Many scholars refuse to call these astronomers, architects, and stonemasons “Druids” precisely because we know almost nothing about them - they instead call these the “proto-Celts.”

The earliest historical accounts of Druids come from Julius Caesar, writing about the Celts during his military campaigns in the first century BCE. At that time, the Celts covered much of Western Europe, from northern Spain to Turkey. Julius’ writing is the earliest detailed record of the organization of the Druid class, or caste, among the Celts of Gaul and Britain. He marked three distinct divisions within this group.

The Bards were the storytellers, artists, minstrels, and oral memory of the Celts.

The Ovates were the diviners and healers.

The Druids served as priests, philosophers, advisors, and judges. They were traditionally held in higher esteem than the kings and clan chieftains.

Although the Celts were literate, writing primarily in Greek and Latin, and had their own runic alphabet, the teachings of the Druids were never written down, but were instead passed from teacher to student as oral history. As a result, there is no authoritative “Book” of the Druids. All that remains in writing comes from records made by Christian monks after the Druids had been removed from power and their religion co-opted by Christianity. While these remaining records constitute a rich tradition of stories and teachings from which much can be inferred, the original curriculum of training for Druids has been lost.

In the 400’s CE, as the Roman Empire lost its grasp of its outlying regions, Druidry was still a strong force in Ireland and parts of Britain and Gaul. Many believe that the historical King Arthur, if he existed, dates from this period of Roman withdrawal, and the mythic figure of Merlin clearly represents the role of the Druid within Celtic society as magician, priest, and advisor to kings. When Rome returned to Ireland in the 800’s in the form of official emissaries of the Roman Catholic Church, they found Christianity already well-established, and no substantial trace of the Druids remaining. However, it appears that the Bards, Ovates, and Druids continued to practice their skills, though under the wrappings of the new religion. The Bards had become minstrels, poets, and scribes. The Ovates continued to practice healing under Christian premises. The Druids openly converted to Christianity and became monks, scholars, lawyers, and judges. The Druidic colleges for Bards, where poetry, music, story and song were taught, were not considered a threat to Catholic Christianity, and continued to exist well into the 1600’s in Ireland, and the 1700’s in Scotland.

In the late 1700’s, there was a resurgence of ‘Romantic Druidry,’ which was more like modern Freemasonry or many of the other lodge activities that exploded in the 1800’s. While it drew from what was left of the original Druidic traditions, as well as from folk tales and folk traditions as they still existed, it had differences. It became primarily a men’s organization, where the original Celtic Druidry had made very little distinction between sexes. In Wales, it was strongly associated with Welsh national pride. Long-disconnected from the necessary matters of keeping oral histories intact, midwifery and medicine, engineering and astronomy, and keeping the peace, the new Druidry was a fundamentally more spiritual and individual pursuit. The evolution of Druidry throughout the 19th and 20th centuries is a complex study in its own right.

The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD) was founded in the 1960’s in England. Like all of the modern forms of Druidry, while it has roots in the ancient past, it is an essentially modern spiritual practice.

What Druids Do

The most visible thing that Druids do, is to celebrate the eight solar calendar festivals of the year in ritual. These are called “solar calendar festivals” because their timing is based on the position of the sun throughout the year. These are (for the northern hemisphere):

Date

Common Name

Celtic Name

Druidic Name

November 1

All Hallows

Samhain

Samhain

December 21

Winter Solstice

Yule

Alban Arthan

February 2

Brigid’s Day

Imbolc

Imbolc

March 21

Spring Equinox

Ostara

Alban Eilir

May 2

May Day

Beltaine

Beltaine

June 21

Summer Solstice

Litha

Alban Hefin

August 2

Lammas

Lughnassadh

Lughnassadh

September 21

Fall Equinox

Mabon

Alban Elfed

The festivals marked in gold are the “Sun festivals,” and are the shortest day, longest day, and the two equal-length-day-and-night days of the year. The festivals marked in red are the “Fire festivals,” and are approximately halfway between the two Sun festivals on either side.

Although no single folk tradition prior to modern times is known to have celebrated all eight of these festivals, all eight have deep roots with different peoples throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Any agricultural society must keep track of the year, for planting and harvesting, and the major turning points of the year are always marked with celebration and ritual. So it is no surprise that these dates are considered sacred by many people in many unrelated cultures.

As a modern tradition, Druidry is adapted to the times and tastes of modern people. The rituals are all done in the language of the people participating. Flashlights replace candles when appropriate. Candles are lit with a butane lighter. Many concessions are made to modern schedules and comforts. Whatever kinds of sacrifices, animal or human, might have been made in the ancient past to ensure fertility of the crops or the safety of the people, nothing of that sort is ever done in any modern ritual - Hollywood notwithstanding.

Less publicly, Druids meet in large and small gatherings to tell stories, share food and wine and song, and to simply have fun.

Privately, Druids - or Druids-in-training - study and practice a body of material intended to strengthen the intuition, awaken the poetic and artistic spirit, and embrace the joy of living.

One thing that Druids do not do is proselytize. Druidry is not considered necessary for anyone’s salvation or well-being. While it is a gentle and beautiful practice, it is not appropriate or meaningful for everyone. Recognizing this, Druids do not - in general - push themselves or their practices on others.

What Druids Believe

Druidry hasn’t much to do with beliefs: there is no creed or catechism. Druidry has to do with learning and experiencing for oneself. As a result, Druidry can be and is practiced by Christians, by Pagans, by Buddhists, or by scientific materialists.

Druids do have some common attitudes.

One such attitude is toward peace. Traditionally, Druids were peacemakers and advisors to more hot-headed kings and chieftains. They were revered enough in Celtic society that on occasion, they stopped battles with the armies already arrayed on the battlefield. A central piece of every public Druid ceremony is giving peace to the four directions, envisioning it passing out into the world in that direction until it encircles the globe and returns to us. When possible, we seek to manifest that peace within ourselves, our seed groups, our groves, and the larger circles and communities in which we live.

Druids often speak of the unseen world, or the spiritual world. Whether this is viewed as something that exists in its own right, or as “merely” an artifact of our common brain structure as human beings, the unseen world is a common element of human experience. Druids approach the unseen world with respect, and with an open attitude of learning, appreciation, and discrimination. In our ceremonies, we give thanks to the Great Spirit, to the Elements, and to the local spirits of place, time, and community. A Christian can view this as gratitude to God, and awe at the angelic realms. A scientific materialist can view this as an exploration of the numinous collective unconscious.

Druids respect and revere the natural world as our home. We can learn from the trees, the plants, the beasts, and each other. We have an obligation to ourselves, our communities, and our descendants to take proper care of our resources and environment. There is no one attitude or belief system prevalent among Druids as to exactly what this means, but we seek to approach our different beliefs and attitudes in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation.

Druids come freely to the order, and go freely from the order*. There are no binding vows or commitments. The purpose of druidic studies is as an aid to individual experience and spiritual growth. Only the student knows whether this is happening, and the student is expected to seek out other paths if it becomes appropriate.

Druids are not priests*. However, it is generally true that those who seek personal spiritual growth often find themselves called upon by other individuals or their communities to perform ritual or facilitate community closure. The Treehenge Druidic Circle, in particular, enjoys “dressing up” for public ritual, as do many other druidic groups.

*This is not true of all orders of Druidry. Some orders do have postulancies, priesthoods, and vows of service, and some of those organizations do seek full non-profit religious organization status under U.S. tax law, and can perform legally recognized marriage ceremonies and other rites.