Some time ago, I was surfing online looking for websites about shamanism and Native American culture. I wanted to find some information that might help me to interpret a strange dream I had and the strange circumstances that followed in the weeks after I had the dream. On one website I found, a person on a forum asked, “Why do white people always have to hijack the shamanistic teachings and practices of other cultures?”
The poster went on to say that we have our own heritage and history we could study and it would probably satisfy our hunger to get in touch with the earth and shamanism better, because it would be a bit “closer to home”. I’m paraphrasing the person’s comments. I don’t remember the website I found them on, or I’d quote them directly.
Though the post was written in a somewhat angry way, the person had a point. I’d like to state before I continue though, I’m not criticizing people who look to other cultures to learn, or people who find something of value in other cultures. I also want to state that this blog post isn’t meant to be dissing on anyone for following any kind of religious or spiritual practice. I think there is wonderful truth to many teachings and paths, Christianity included. The purpose of this post is to explore what came before Christianity, and a revival of those beliefs that is now taking place.
Most of us with Celtic roots consider Christianity to be our heritage and many feel a definite longing for something different, but don’t know where to look. We turn to different shamanistic teachings and practices to fill the void that Christianity leaves us lacking. We end up forgetting that Christianity is, in fact, a foreign eastern religion for the Celts, just as it was for Native Americans and others. This causes people to feel like they don’t have any options available to them when it comes to following shamanic paths based off their own heritage. Christianity is not native to people of Celtic decent, we just happen to have been under its influence a little longer. Celtic roots can be traced back to Gaul, Britain, and Ireland.
I grew up in a Christian household, and for me it always felt like something was lacking, I could feel a sort of disconnect from the earth and nature, and magic. It never sat well with me, this idea that nature was sin and evil. It didn’t sit well with me either the idea of god being an angry vengeful entity. In my mind, nature and god were one in the same, there’s a beautiful balance and a flow, everything has a purpose, a reason. Personally, I found it blasphemous in my soul the fact that the church would seek to elevate itself above nature.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t glimmers of truth and hope in Christian teachings; in fact, we can thank the early Christian scholars for preserving some of the history of Druidism and Celtic Lore that we have today. Considering the Celts practiced mostly oral traditions with knowledge being passed down from word of mouth, much of that knowledge was lost to time.
It is interesting to note that Christianity seems to have assimilated many of the pagan beliefs and rituals that the Celts practiced. That’s part of what made Christianity so strong, it assimilated, instead of simply annihilating. Pagans of old would be more likely to convert if they felt like there were still pieces of their traditions present in the teachings of Christianity. Resistance is futile. o.O
You can see evidence of this with the fact that many churches and chapels were built on pagan sacred sites, as well as the fact that many of the Christian holidays seem to incorporate pagan traditions.
The most commonly known example of this is Halloween or Samhain. This holiday marks the day when the old god dies and goes into the underworld.
The bunnies, eggs, chicks and other symbolism we see in Easter traditions represents appears to come from Ostara, or the spring equinox. Ostara is the end of winter, the beginning of spring.
Another name for Christmas time which we’re all familiar with; Yule, represents the winter solstice, when the days start to get longer, it’s a celebration of the return of the sun and the god who dies at Halloween. In Christianity, it represents the Birth of Christ, the son of god. Interesting.
Modern Druids celebrate 8 seasonal holidays that when combined are known as “The wheel of the year”, these are special times throughout the year that mark such things as the solstices and equinoxes as well as other cycles found in nature. Celebration can include hundreds of people gathering for festivities in and around sacred sites like Stonehenge or even the simple observance of an individual in nature or even their home.
Though these observances exist people are not required to follow them. There is evidence that ancient Celts and Druids also observed these sacred days, which can be seen in astrological alignments in sacred sites, much of the modern practices are adopted from nature and the little bit we can divine from archaeology and old family traditions.
Many people think of ancient Celtic cultures and assume they were a savage, barbaric people. I would consider them more a fierce and proud people, even fearless. We tend to put the label of savage and barbaric on anything we don’t understand. Some people think of Druids and images of sacrifices and wicker men come to mind.
Wicker men were said to be giant man-shaped cages, effigies supposedly filled with people, usually criminals though it is said innocent people would be used if no criminals were to be found. The story is that these people would be burned in the wicker cages and offered as sacrifice to the gods. It is said that the gods preferred the blood sacrifice of criminals and evil-doers. This story comes from Julius Caesar, in his commentary on the Gallic war.
It is important to note that historical sources who claimed the Celts practiced sacrifice (namely Greeks and Romans) were known to embellish their accounts of other cultures to promote the idea that those cultures were barbaric, and inferior, to foster support for their invasions, as well as promote the belief that they were a superior culture. They have made similar claims about early Christians as well as Jews. While there is some evidence of sacrifice being preformed, there is also evidence that the sacrificed were willing participants in the ritual.
Some archaeologists point to the discovery of mass graves as proof of mass sacrificial practices carried out by the druids; other archaeologists criticize this perspective, claiming that the mass graves found could belong to honored warriors who had fallen in battle. A national geographic documentary on Druids suggested that they not only performed human sacrifice but also cannibalism. The archaeologist associated with these findings points out that cannibalism appears to have been extremely rare and even if it was practiced it could point to other factors such as famine caused by the war with the Romans.
It’s important to note that if these practices existed, they are not carried out by modern druids, and the claims about the existence and extent of human sacrifice appears to be exaggerated or perhaps misunderstood. It is also important to note that the world was a vastly different place in those times. There were practices all over the world that were regarded as normal which we would find a bit horrifying today.
Due to the oral traditions of the ancient Celtic people, much of the Celtic tradition has been lost to time. Though we don’t know much about the ancient Druids, we can divine something about them through the bits and pieces of knowledge that have been recovered through the scholarly writings of church clergy, historians, archaeology, and somewhat through family traditions passed down through the generations.
History has shown us that the Celts actually had quite a sophisticated culture, with laws, an understanding of math, science and astronomy and complex social structures. In some tribes, Celtic women appeared to have an equal social standing with men, and owned land and held important positions in society, and even joined them in battle. Druids played an important role in Celtic society they could be male or female. Druids acted as teachers, mediators, judges, and were valued for offering counsel and advice to tribal leaders.
We are currently (and have been for around the last 300 years) undergoing what some are calling a ‘druid renaissance’. As time passes more and more people are turning to old ways such as Druidism to fill the void caused from our disconnect with the earth and our true heritage. This is a subject I’ve found fascinating for a many years, the more I learn about it, the more I want to know about it.
Although modern Druidry calls on history for inspiration, we can’t say that it’s exactly the same as the ancient practices, we don’t know enough about them to make that claim. However, I think that it’s remains a viable option for people who are looking for a spiritual path that is similar to what our ancestors practiced.
All things evolve, religion and spirituality are no different. With regard to modern Druidry, it seems there are three different aspects or streams, they correspond three important values in Druidry today, which are wisdom, creativity, and love.
These values are manifested as Bards, Ovates, and Druids.
The bards are the poets, the singers and artists, they represent creativity. Bards were known commit the tales and traditions of their tribe to memory and share them with the people.
Ovates are the shamans, seers and healers, they would divine the future and heal the sick and wounded, they represent love, not only for each other, but for nature and the world around us.
Druids are sages, scientists, teachers, philosophers and judges who offered political council to leaders and kings. Because they were held in such high esteem and respect, Druids were said to have the ability to stop battles with their words alone. They represent wisdom.
One thing I find interesting about Druidry today, is that it’s not so much a religion, as it is a philosophy, a spiritual practice, even a way of life. There are druids that follow many paths, some are monotheists, some are polytheists, some are agnostic. There is no religious dogma, people are free to live their lives according to what resonates with them. However, Druids today share a reverence for nature, people, creativity, love and wisdom.
There’s a willingness to jump in and experience life, there’s an acknowledgement of other realities and spaces, there’s a connection to god and spirit, and there’s the observance and reverence of nature and her patterns. Druids of old were said to spend 20 years in training; they had to devote a year at a time to observing a single tree and they had to observe 20 different kinds of trees. Druid roughly translates to “Oak Wise” Trees remain an important part of Druidism today, and there are some groups who are also helping out with reforestation and repairing our environment. If you’ve read any of my other stuff, you’ll know that resonates quite well with me.
If I’ve ever found anything that feels right to me, and jives well with my own belief system it would be Druidism. There is much more I could write about with regard to Druidry however, this is getting to be a rather long read. In my next post on the subject, I want to cover more in depth the practices and beliefs of Druids today.
In the meantime if you would like to learn more about modern Druidry, as well as ancient Celtic history, I’ve added some links below.