Further on the history and development of modern Druidry

THE DRUIDS

The following consists of edited extracts from a witness statement prepared by Prof Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at Bristol University, for the trial of Arthur Pendragon at Southwark Crown Court in November, 1997, stating the case for Arthur's right to carry his sword, Excalibur. Arthur, who heads his own band of Druidic eco-warriors, won the case. This section of the statement is reproduced here because it gives an excellent and concise insight into some of the history and culture of the Druid movement as it exists today. The section dealing directly with Arthur and his case has been edited out for these purposes but the statement is still available in its entireity on the website of the Loyal Arthurian Warband (see the Links section of this website).

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Virtually everybody in the Western world has heard of the Druids. They are part of the common cultural inheritance of our civilization. This familiarity is increased, rather than diminished, by the fact that the 'original' Druids, of the Celtic Iron Age, remain such shadowy figures.

We can say with confidence that they were the public magicians, soothsayers, religious experts and political and judicial arbitrators of the tribes of north-western Europe at the time when history begins in this region - about two thousand years ago. It is also fairly certain that Britain was recognized as their their original homeland, in which the system of thought and action which they represented was first developed. Beyond these facts, however, we run up against the problem that since their own teachings were never committed to writing, we possess no sources produced by Druids themselves. Instead, we depend on views of them developed by outsiders, either contemporary Greek or Roman writers or those of later Christian Middle Ages, and these varied wildly according to the prejudices and propaganda needs of the authors concerned.

There is thus no 'authentic' original Druidry against which later Druids can be judged. Rather, Druids are powerful symbolic figures, which have been appropriated and re-imagined in different ways by successive generations ever since ancient times. That is their true power to move the imagination.

In the eighteenth century Age of Reason they were most commonly seen as rational, pacific and patriotic thinkers who combined rigorous training and close observation of nature to produce a reasonable and benevolent religion which reconciled God, humanity and the other parts of creation in a harmonious system.

From this time sprang a succession of modern Druid orders, some of which survive to the present day, dedicated to the task of putting together the wisdom of all the world's great religions within a single framework with a distinctively British character.

Since the mid-1980s a set of new Druid groups has appeared, which are devoted to the work of developing a new spirituality based upon the traditions, monuments and landscapes of the British Isles. I have been studying these intensively since 1991 as part of a research project into such new 'native' religious movements. The groups concerned number just over 6,000 (Ed: over 15,000 with recent affiliations) individuals between them and are growing fast. Furthermore, the ideas and images they represent are rapidly spreading among British youth and among specific sub-cultures such as New Age Travellers.

They all have in common a powerful reverence for the land of Britain as something sacred in itself, with this sanctity especially concentrated in certain places, such as Stonehenge. All are also dedicated to improving the spiritual quality of life of the British, by assisting people to greater self knowledge, to a still more positive set of relationships with each other and with the natural environment and to a greater personal freedom, within a framework of social responsibility.

The Druid belief (shared by hundreds of thousands of modern Pagans in Europe and North America) that the land is sacred in itself extends to considering that it represents a living entity, most often called Gaia, Mother Earth, or The Goddess.

All, therefore, feel compelled by their beliefs to oppose specific projects which damage places of natural beauty and historic significance, such as particular road-building schemes and quarries, and to safeguard or extend civil liberties. All are committed to a pacifist ethic which condemns violence and prefers to campaign by employing moral pressure and drawing public attention to the issues at stake.

From that point onward, however, practice between both groups and individuals diverge considerably. Some adopt a quietest stance, preferring to advance their ideals through meditation and personal example. Others prefer to take part in direct and public political action, including demonstrations and protest camps built on the route of controversial developments.

Druids today are contributing to debates which involve a much larger cross-section of the national community and are commonly recognized to possess a great deal of validity. Their religious ideals represent only one part of a constellation of movements, some within established traditions such as Christianity and some outside them, which are striving to develop a spirituality which is more feminist, more sensitive to environmental issues and more dedicated to individual freedom and personal growth, than those which have prevailed in recent centuries.

The specific issue of access to Stonehenge has divided the community of professional archaeologists in the past few years, with some of the most respected figures joining the Druids in arguing for reopening the monument at the key solar festivals with which it is associated. The controversy over national transport policy and the road-building schemes has involved a very large number of people and range of ideologies and interests. The question of who owns the land and who may have access to it or should be concerned in its preservation, has generated another major debate in the past two decades.

The new Druids, and especially those involved in direct action, are therefore not fringe figures with ideals and preoccupations detached from those of a wider national community, but some of the more colourful contributors to a set of arguments and activities which involves a large part of that community.

- Prof Ronald Hutton,
Professor of History,
Bristol University.

>> For much more information on Druidry, visit the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids website at http://www.druidry.org

>>For Island history and information in a pagan context, visit the PF Wight website at http://www.pagans.demon.co.uk/

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