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Posts Tagged ‘alphabet’

An Alphabet of Druidry: D

D is for Druid. The Druids were the priestly and intellectual class of the Celtic peoples in the ancient world, equivalent to the Brahmins of India and to the flamens of ancient Roman religion.  They were priests, sacrificers, poets, diviners, lawyers, judges, astrologer/astronomers, experts in every theoretical discipline.  While they may have been a kind of caste, such as the Brahmins were in India, those distinctions, and the druidic role, passed out of Celtic cultures as Christianity took root there, and perhaps even earlier, under pagan Roman hegemony.

D is for Druid. In the eighteenth century in England, a number of men who were looking for spiritual alternatives got together and took for themselves the name of Druid.  They were interested in the prehistoric monuments of England, although they didn’t know just how old they were; they believed them to have been built by the ancient druids, which we now know is not the case.  They were concerned about the increasing industrialization of England, about pollution, factory labor, and the displacement of populations from the land.  They were repelled by the dogmatic positions then current in the Church of England and in other Christian sects in the country.  With little firm knowledge of the pre-Christian past, with a distinct tendency to read all religion and spirituality through the Christian lens, still they identified themselves with the priests and intellectuals of that long-gone pagan era and with the values they imagined there–reverence for the land, freedom of opinion, and creative fervor.  They organized themselves on the model of the fraternal lodges, such as the Masons, which were then becoming public and writing down their charters for the first time.

D is for Druid. Why am I a druid?  Why do I call myself a druid?

I am a druid because I am a member of the Ancient Order of Druids in America.  AODA traces its lineage back through the Ancient Order of Druids, a British fraternal order, to the Druid Revival of the eighteenth century.

I call myself a druid because I look for inspiration to those men (and a few women) who created a new form of spiritual practice in eighteenth-century England and Wales and called themselves druids.  Even though they didn’t know how much they didn’t know about the ancient Druids of the Celtic peoples, they were inspired by what they knew.

I call myself a druid because I am interested in and inspired by what the ancient Druids thought, believed, and did.  I don’t confuse what the Revival Druids thought about the ancient Druids with the facts, any more than I confuse Aristotle’s biology with his philosophy (he was very, very wrong about the female role in reproduction, for one thing).

I call myself a druid because I find meaning in both the Druid Revival’s teachings, which were the product of early industrial Western society and the search for an alternative to that society and its emerging values, and in the ancient Indo-European worldview which the Celtic cultures and their druids shared with other cultures across Europe and in Asia.

I don’t call myself a Celtic Reconstructionist because I don’t consider the practices of the ancient Druids normative for my practice.  They are informative, but not normative; instructive, but not limiting or defining.

I don’t call myself a Witch or a Wiccan because I have never formally studied the Craft or been initiated into a coven, even though I may use some of the tools of the Craft.

I call myself a Buddhist because I have taken refuge and because the Dharma has become my superstructure or metastructure for understanding spiritual experience, and all experience.  I call myself an Anglican but not a Christian because I have been formed and am still influenced by the Anglican spiritual tradition, even though Christian doctrine and practice are no longer normative in my life.

I call myself a Druid because Druidry today can include my being Buddhist and my being Anglican, my borrowings from the Craft, my learning from Hellenismos.

I call myself a Druid because it is simply the best short summary of who I am and what my religion is.  And the proof that I am one is that I am a member of a Druid Order.  One of the things which “druid” has meant for the last two hundred years is “a member of a fraternal order that is descended from the Druid Revival and/or inspired by the ancient druids”.  And by that definition, I am a Druid.

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C is for Culhwch. “Culhwch and Olwen” is one of the earliest stories that concerns King Arthur, and may be the earliest which is plainly story and not history. Culhwch is a young hero whose mother gave birth to him prematurely when frightened by pigs; his name is said to mean “pig run”. His stepmother lands him with a stepmotherly sort of curse: That he shall marry no one but Olwen, daughter of the terrible giant Yspaddaden Pencawr, whose name means “Hawthorn Chief-Giant”. Culhwch at once falls madly in love with this maiden whom he has never seen, and he goes to the court of the great Arthur, to whom he is distantly related, to ask for help in winning the maiden. What ensues is a long, confusing, rollicking series of adventures involving haircuts, a roll call of every member of Arthur’s court, boar hunts, Kai being sarcastic, and consulting the oldest animals in the world to find the whereabouts of the mysterious Mabon, the missing youth who is the only hunter capable of helping them. I am hoping that someone will make a film of this story with Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint as Culhwch, before he is too old to play the role.

C is for Cerridwen. Cerridwen is another of those mysterious figures of medieval Welsh literature who, like Culhwch, Taliesin, and Arthur himself, has become firmly embedded in the experience of Revival Druidry. In the “Hanes Taliesin” or Tale of Taliesin, she appears as a witch or sorceress or possibly a goddess, the mother of the ugliest boy in the world and of the most beautiful maiden. To help her ugly child, she determines to make a potion which will compensate for his looks by making him the wisest person in all the world. This potion must boil in her cauldron for a year and a day while she adds new ingredients at the proper intervals, so she enlists two helpers to keep it going: an old blind man named Morda, and a boy named Gwion. Cerridwen is out of the house when the potion at last peaks and boils over. In classic fairy-tale fashion, three boiling hot drops land on the hand of little Gwion, who promptly sucks his hand to ease the pain and thus imbibes the potion and gains its benefit. Cerridwen, enraged that he has taken what was meant for her son, flies upon him, but Gwion, with his newly acquired wisdom, eludes her by shifting shape and running away. Each time he changes shape, Cerridwen changes to a creature that can hunt his form, until at last he turns into a grain of wheat and hides in a heap of grains. Cerridwen, however, becomes a chicken and eats him (I find this irresistibly amusing), only to find herself pregnant later. She bears the child who was Gwion and sets him adrift on a stream in a leather bag, where he is found by a nobleman who adopts him and names him “Taliesin”, radiant brow. Cerridwen’s role in Taliesin’s enlightenment is seen by Druids as a classic pattern of initiation; she challenges and provokes her student in order to make him excel, finally providing the period of incubation and darkness necessary before his full emergence into the light.

C is for Coll. Coll is the name of the ogham which is associated with the hazel tree, and the nuts of the hazel are a prime symbol of wisdom in Irish and Welsh tradition. Wisdom is a nut, sweet, crunchy-chewy, hard to get at but richly nourishing. The hazelnuts fall into the well of Segais, owned by the god Nechtain, where the five salmon of wisdom eat them, and the husks of the nuts flow out into the world along seven streams that flow from the well. Lloyd Alexander, in The Chronicles of Prydain, named one of his characters Coll, son of Collfrewr–a name which is found in the rollcall of Arthur’s court, in “Culhwch and Olwen”–a stout old bald man who helps raise the orphan Taran and care for Hen Wen, the oracular pig (whose name also derives from “Culhwch and Olwen” and means “old and white”). Alexander’s Prydain books were my first exposure to the riches of Welsh literature on which the Druid Revival has drawn so much; his characters, Taran, Coll, Dallben the enchanter, Eilonwy the princess, and Fflewddur Fflam, the king who would be bard and his harp that breaks a string every time he embellishes the truth, are lifelong friends of mine and bearers of the nuts of wisdom.

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B is for Bear. The bear is the guardian of the North, the sleepy cave-dweller whose image in the sky dances round the Pole Star.  There is some archaeological evidence that the earliest religion of humankind may have been the worship of the bear by Neanderthals living near the Arctic Circle, which evidence no doubt inspired the popular book The Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequels.  Yet this beast worshipped by primitive cave-dwellers points to the primal Hermetic axiom: “As above, so below.”  Arktos the bear walks both on earth and in the skies.

B is for Bobcat. Bobcat is the druid name of Emma Restall-Orr, author of Druid Priestess and Living Druidry. Orr is British and co-founder of the British Druid Order, and her take on druidry is decidedly animistic and shamanistic rather than ceremonial or fraternal.  Her books are highly regarded, and her latest title is Living with Honor, on pagan ethics.

B is for Belenos. Belenos, whose name means “bright”, is the name or one of the names of a Celtic, British god whom the Romans compared to Apollo: a god of light, healing, and prophecy.  The bearded face with flowing hair, wings at the temples, and snakes for a torc on the pediment of the Temple of Aquae Sulis may be his image, although many people still identify it as a “Gorgon’s head”.  (I never heard that Gorgons had beards.)  The name mutated to Beli or Belin in Welsh, where it stands at the head of many legendary genealogies in the Mabinogi and other sources.  The Greeks said that Apollo went to Hyperborea every year, the land beyond the north wind; perhaps he used Belenos as a by-name on his travels.

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An Alphabet of Druidry

This idea came to me from a popular meme on Livejournal: The reader offers the journaller a letter of the alphabet and accepts one in return.  Both of them write about five topics which the given letter suggests to them.

Five is not a Druidic number, so I shall endeavour to write about three topics for each letter.  I reserve the right not to use letters that don’t appear in Druidic languages.  :D

An Alphabet of Druidry: A

A is for Apple. Nowhere in the book of Genesis does it say what sort of fruit grew on the forbidden Tree of Knowledge.  Since God makes rudimentary clothing for Adam and Eve out of fig leaves, one might think it was the fig.  But the apple is so pre-eminently the fruit of knowledge, wisdom, and more-than-human life and vitality, in the lore of northern Europe, that when artists began to paint the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent, it was inevitably the apple tree which sprang to mind.  Even today, if you see the story referenced in a television commercial, it will be a juicy red apple that Eve hands over and Adam does not refuse.

A is for Avalon.
Avalon is the island where the apple trees grow.  Long before it was identified with Glastonbury in the marshes, the place where Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff and hid the holy Grail, it was named in early stories about Arthur of Britain as the place where he went to rest and heal after his final battle, the home of nine sisters led by one called Morgen who might or might not be a goddess or Arthur’s sister.  Dion Fortune identified it with Glastonbury, Inis Witrin, on the basis of visionary work; Marion Zimmer Bradley made it famous as the home of a mystical sisterhood.  But Avalon’s true location, perhaps, is and always has been in the Otherworld.

A is for Arthur.
Arthur, Dux Bellorum, victor over the Saxons, High King, Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus, is an integral part of the lore of the Druid Revival.  He is the sun rising and setting to rise again; he is the golden grain thrusting up only to be cut down; he is the pole star about which the stars called the Bear, Arktos, Arth, reliably swing; he is the exemplary monarch, the protector of religion or its attacker, the perfect Christian, the imperfect pagan.  The relevance of Arthur and the stories clustered about him can be seen in the never-decreasing number of novels, children’s books, films, and other works of art inspired by the tradition.  We are not tired of King Arthur, and perhaps we never will be, until he returns.

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