Neodruids and the neopagans - Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe

Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe (2010)

Chapter 9. Neodruids and the neopagans

The creation of neodruidic societies, beginning with the formation of the Druidic Society of Anglesey in 1772 and the Ancient Order of Druids in 1781, was, as we have seen, rooted in late 18th-century Romanticism. This was the time of a nation-wide vogue for societies of all kinds - societies serving new-found needs for people to come together with like-minded fellows in gatherings focused on mutual interests, offering the reassurance of group identity at a time when rapid social and economic change was disrupting and destroying traditional values. Societies took many forms. One of the more common were the charitable institutions set up for the benefit of members and their families, often with a wider brief to help society at large. These were the Benefit and Friendly societies inspired by the ideals of Freemasonry. Many adopted a distinct theme around which to organize their beliefs and ceremonies and it was only to be expected, in the age of Romantic Celtomania, that druidism would commend itself as an identifier - thus, the Druidic Society of Anglesey and the Ancient Order of Druids.

The Druidic Society of Anglesey included among its membership most of the local clergy and landowners. They contributed an average of 34 guineas annually to a fund used for a variety of good causes - most notably supporting apprenticeships for poor children and funding local agricultural societies by offering prizes for agricultural innovation. Grants were also given to support hospitals in Chester and Liverpool, as well as to help the poor and needy. The trappings of druidism were kept to a minimum, though harpists were employed to enliven the meetings. When eventually the society was wound up in 1884, the remaining funds were divided between hospitals and supporting rescue at sea.

The Ancient Order of Druids was set up by a London carpenter and builder, Henry Hurle, in the Kings Arms tavern in Oxford Street as a simple Benefit Society, but it soon grew in popularity taking on the structure of Freemasonry instituted in the early decades of the century. In its early years, the Ancient Order of Druids was essentially a social club for prosperous working people who came together for entertainment—listening to music and singing, reading poetry and attending talks on scientific and artistic themes; they also supported charitable aims. As its popularity grew, Lodges were set up in other parts of the country and abroad, and by 1831 total membership numbered over 200,000 spread over 193 Lodges, with some as far afield as America, Canada, and India.

With the growth came greater constitutional complexity which coincided with the changing needs of members, particularly those in the industrial areas of the Midlands and the North. Tensions emerged which led to dissent and division. The principal issue of contention was the desire of many of the Lodges in industrial regions to adopt the structures of a Benefit Society so that funds could be more easily used to support members in need. This was resisted by the wealthy Grand Lodge. Matters came to a head in December 1833, when the movement split, the Grand Lodge and its supporters retaining the original title while the rebels re-formed under the title of the ‘United Ancient Order of Druids’.

The subsequent history of both Orders was dominated by fission and secession, too tedious to recount. The only linking factor between them was the retention of the word ‘Druid’ in the title. One of the scions, the United Ancient Order of Female Druids, founded in 1876, reflects the growing recognition of women in Victorian society.

Whilst these ‘druidic’ organizations usually enlivened their proceedings with the trappings of romantic druidism - white robes, false beards, mistletoe, oak leaves, and the like - and used terms like ‘Archdruid’ and ‘First Bard’, some making quite spurious claims to legitimate descent from the Druids of the Classical world, they were, in essence, Benefit Societies and Freemasonry organizations serving the real social, economic, and emotional needs of a significant sector of the population caught up in the exponential changes spanning the period from the late 18th century to the early decades of the 20th century.

With the development of the Welfare State in the post-Second World War period, the need for such organizations greatly diminished, and the trappings and rituals of these old societies, still steeped in the fustiness of the Victorian era, became increasingly irrelevant to the post-war generation. Gradually the factions have died away through inertia or fission to the point of extinction. One of the last to go, towards the end of the 1990s, was the United Ancient Order of Druids, leaving the original parent, the Ancient Order of Druids, as the last survivor of its many offspring. One reason for its longevity probably lies in its ‘aristocratic’ tradition. Before the schism of 1833, the Ancient Order had adopted a hierarchical structure which allowed an elite to distinguish itself from the general membership. This made it more attractive to the upper classes who could meet among their peers. Perhaps the most famous occasion, in the public domain, was the meeting of the Oxford-based Albion Lodge of the Ancient Order on 15 August 1908 in the grounds of Blenheim Palace at the invitation of the Duke of Marlborough, who was himself a member. It was at that meeting that the young Winston Churchill, recently appointed as President of the Board of Trade, was initiated into the Ancient Order. A photograph of the occasion shows the young man, in a tightly buttoned suit with wing collar, surrounded by sickle-carrying Druids looking decidedly uncomfortable in ill-fitting white robes and hoods and ungainly long white beards. In later life, as a serious historian, one suspects he might have regretted the photograph, if not the occasion.

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16. A meeting of the Ancient Order of Druids held at Blenheim, Oxfordshire, on 15 August 1908, at which Winston Churchill was introduced into the Order

If the post-war period saw the virtual demise of the fraternal Druids, it was by no means the time of the decline of neodruidism. The 1960s, with its sense of new freedoms and new values tinged with an eagerness to explore mysticism, proved to be fertile ground for what has come to be a rapid growth in the invention and practice of neopagan beliefs. More recently, as the ‘green’ movement has gathered strength, so neopaganism has increased in its popularity.

Neopaganism takes many forms, with Shamanism, Odinism, Wicca, and Neodruidism being among the more prominent. All share a reverence for the natural world and a sense of being one with it, and all respect the rhythm of the seasons, many choosing to hold their ceremonies on the solstices or at the time of the four major ceremonies of the Celtic calendar. There is also a widespread belief in the polarity of the deity - the competing but balanced opposites of the male and female components. In professing these values, the neopagans have gone back to some of the essential elements that can be discerned in the belief systems of pre-Roman Celtic Europe and, in particular, of Ireland. This has been a conscious seeking-out and selection of those values and beliefs that satisfy current needs. With growing concerns about the future of the planet, it is likely that this form of paganism will attract increasing numbers of followers.

Within this broad neopagan context, a number of groups styling themselves Druids have emerged. One of the largest and more successful of these is the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids which was founded in 1964. Its principal aims are to help the individual develop his/her innate capacities to the full and to respect and care for the natural world. Its well-organized website (http://www.druidry.org) begins with the all-embracing statement:

Druidry has become a vital and dynamic Nature-based spirituality that is flourishing all over the world, and that unites our love of the Earth with our love of creativity and the Arts. And flowing through all the exciting new developments in modern Druidism is the power of an ancient tradition: the love of land, sea and sky - the love of the Earth our home.

The Order runs a correspondence course enabling members to aspire to the grades of Bards, Ovates and Druids (the first course is currently available also in an audiovisual version). Another group, the Insular Order of Druids, founded in 1993, recognizes the same three grades, basing their understanding of the attributes and functions of each closely upon those defined in the Posidonian tradition; thus the Bard is the storyteller and the singer of ballads; the Ovate practises divination and is proficient in philosophy; while the Druid helps initiates to harmonize with the natural world.

Druidic groups are proliferating worldwide and take on many different forms to cater for the particular needs of their memberships. The old Ancient Order of Druids still retains the predominantly male orientation of its Masonic tradition, but most of the more recent groups are open equally to both sexes. In America, the Golden Gate Group of San Francisco caters for gay and lesbian Druids who worship at a stone circle dedicated to members who have died from AIDS. Another specialist order are the Hassidic Druids, who combine aspects of Hebrew tradition with Druidic beliefs.

The followers of druidism have responded creatively to the hippy counter-culture of the 1960s and the growing interest in green politics and the environment: their modified style of druidism, in harmony with nature, sits comfortably with the broader concerns of an increasing sector of the world’s population. But some groups are now moving into more controversial areas by claiming rights over prehistoric burials unearthed in archaeological excavations: this is bringing them into direct conflict with the scientific community. How this phase in the evolution of druidism eventually plays out it will be interesting to see: it would be a pity if what is now a gentle and broadly sympathetic package of beliefs and practices were to take on the hectoring and aggressive mode of many of today’s other belief systems.

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17. One of the many groups of modern Druids, meeting at Stonehenge in 1983