Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Under the mistletoe

The Druid Revival is a “new religious movement” the roots of which go back to the 18th century. Originally British (English and Welsh), the Revival has spread to many other parts of the world. The editor of this collection, John Michael Greer, was until recently the Archdruid of AODA, a small Druid Revival group in the United States. The Revival achieved mainline status in Wales during the 19th century, where it was connected to a general nationalist/national romantic awakening. Overall, however, Neo-Druidry is considered to be a fringe or even crank phenomenon. As a high school student in Sweden during the 1980's, me and my friends were aware of the would-be Druids who gathered at Stonehenge, and (of course) considered them crackpot. Still, the fact that the Druid Revival has survived for three centuries and appeals to non-Celts shows that there is *something* to this form of spirituality. Greer believes that the X factor is its emphasis on the sacredness of nature, in other words the pantheistic tendency. This makes the Revival an attractive alternative to both modern materialism (which wants to conquer nature) and many forms of Christianity (which either want to conquer it or strive to transcend it).

“The Druid Revival Reader” is a collection of “pro-Druid” articles written over the course of almost 200 years. I admit that I mostly skimmed it (I've read some of the pieces before, in other collections), but when doing so, it struck me that there may be another reason for the enduring fringe popularity of Neo-Druidism: the tradition is highly adaptable. A wide variety of religious, occult and alternative views have been combined with “Druidism” into ever new forms of spirituality: Christianity, Freemasonry, cultural nationalism, Arthurian romance, belief in reincarnation and spiritual evolution, an interest in ancient mystery religions, and perhaps even sex magic. The collection closes with an article explicitly arguing in favor of the creative power of myth! One strand of the Druid Revival tradition not mentioned are the attempts to combine it with the ritual magic of the Golden Dawn, an idea going back to W B Yeats, and which the editor promotes in other works. Nor does the volume cover texts only published in Welsh, Breton and French.

Among the texts included in this volume are Thomas Paine's “An Essay on the Origins of Freemasonry”, Rudolf Steiner's “The Sun Initiation of the Druid Priests and their Moon Science” (a typical Steiner title!) and “Druid Teachings and Initiations” by British ex-Theosophist and esotericist Lewis Spence (who also wrote about Atlantis). There is a text by William Stukeley from 1743, a British clergyman and the first person in the modern age to celebrate “Druid” rituals. Another highlight is the selection from the writings of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams), a colorful Welsh nationalist and bard who forged many of the “ancient” traditions he claimed to represent. His “Barddas” seem to be the closest thing modern Druids have to a holy scripture. When reading Iolo Morganwg, make sure to have a Welsh pronunciation guide close at hand!

Due to its eclectic nature, “The Druid Revival Reader” could make a bewildering impression on those new to the subject. If you want to know what most now living Neo-Druids think most of the time, you're probably better off reading, say, “The Druidry Handbook”, written by the very same John Michael Greer who edited this reader. However, if you are a more advanced student of the subject, and don't mind excursion to almost any place except the sacred groves of the ancient Celtic priests, this might be something for your private reference library.

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