My name is Jonathan, and I’m a druid. Yes, one of those irritating, beardy people who celebrate the solstices at Stonehenge, in an act of abrasive anachronism. However, I’m also a fan of your work. I’ve listened to a talk you chaired at the Institute of Art and Ideas, I’ve read a couple of your blog posts and I devoured The Dark Mountain Manifesto. You’ve given eloquent voice to ideas and sentiments I’ve had for years, and have already started the sort of work I myself would like to do – calling people away from the neon hearth of consumer capitalism, to a more honest aesthetic; rooted in the land and the realities of living with it. So your tweets about contemporary Druidry being “mass historical silliness” didn’t actually provoke me to anger, despite your rather unpleasant re-assertion of first-century blood libel against our own ancestors. Instead, I found them thought-provoking. I myself worry, as you do, about how certain English people seem to be somewhat coy about embracing their nation’s own traditions. And I agree, this needs to change. But I think that the case of Druidry is a little more complex than you seem to acknowledge, and I’m hopeful that we could be allies, rather than enemies, in this common cause.
Firstly, I have to say, I accept that contemporary Druids are “Victorian Romantic Fictions”, as you suggest. All the Druids I know would agree. As a community, we happily acknowledge that what we do has its roots in the taking up by early 20th century occultists (such as Ross Nicholls) of a nationalist ball first rolled by men such as Iolo Morganwg and Edward Llwyd. And those of that latter rogues’ gallery that weren’t charlatans who falsified historical records, were in most cases quite simply incorrect – hence Stonehenge. But just because they got their history wrong, doesn’t mean that some of their ideas don’t have validity independent of historical authenticity. The intent with which modern Druids conduct rites at Stonehenge, or study the writings of Morganwg, is not to give or get an idea of what “real” Druids did. It is simply to take inspiration from the idea of the Druids, and to build something of our own in response. Because Stonehenge was built by pre-Christian ancestors, celebrating the solstices there inspires us, whether the Druids used it or not. And the fact is, that all nationalisms/spiritualities/aesthetic movements work in precisely the same way. The Native American Ghost Dance borrowed aspects of Millenarian Christianity. Snorri Sturlusson used Roman divinities to help order his account of the Aesir, and now it’s difficult to tell to what extent he adapted the latter to imitate the former. Creating a sense of a collective culture isn’t an exercise in finding some essentialist Bible-surrogate which we can quote faithfully to give us our sense of ourselves. It is instead an act of creative re-assembly; of syncretism of the old and the new. Druidry is no different – not a revival, but a use of the past to inspire the present.
But English Druids? The English people, if Bede and others are to be believed, are a Germanic society, not a Celtic one. Although this is the source of much debate in academic circles, it’s not unfair to say that the culture of the east of Britain had been significantly Germanicised by the year 1000 AD. We spoke a Germanic language. We used runes. We worshipped gods like Woden, Eostre and Tiw, rather than Gwydion, Rhiannon and Lludd. So why Druids in England? Well, in my case, I’m part Welsh, part Irish, part English. Therefore, practicing a faith that draws on Welsh and Irish epic literature for guidance in self-development therefore connects with a big part of my ancestry, and evokes my memories as a child of being driven to a wild, mountainous land across the water, to see “the family” and learn who I was. However, this Winter Solstice, rather than go to Stonehenge, I was in a field near my home, pouring a libation to the Sun-child Maponos and to Ingue Frea, the Lord of Peace and Plenty, in the hope that he’ll send me some good fortune as the Sun grows stronger and the winter wheat grows taller. I’m a child of mixed ancestry, and so I don’t see why I don’t have a claim to both Germanic and Celtic heritage. And the point is, that most of us probably are. Regardless, I’m no fan of essentialism, so I fail to see why, if somebody feels drawn to the culture of the Celtic west, why shouldn’t they honour that connection, even if it isn’t reflected in lines of descent?
In one of your blog posts, you’ve cited Druidry as an example of how English people don’t look to their own heritage – of Wayland, of Puck of Pook’s Hill, of Elves and Ents and Wotan – to help give us a sense of rootedness and identity. I don’t think Druidry is necessarily an example of that, for the reasons I’ve given above. It doesn’t forge links to our deep past through true-to-life recreations of ancient rituals – we have neither the evidence nor the inclination to engage in such things anyway – but instead it connects us by reaching out to our ancestors in our own way. Stonehenge stands as a place made by the ancients, and so it is in such a place that those who love those ancients cluster. And although I agree that the English need to be put in touch with the heritage of their Anglo-Saxon roots, there is no reason why that is where the roots must terminate. England was as much part of the “Druidic sphere” as France, Wales or Ireland in their time, and to ignore that heritage, in my view, would be a true denial of fullness of the variegated nature of this land.
So, having given you my reasons for identifying as a Druid (and standing by stones), I’d like to know a bit more detail about your reasons for criticising us. Like I said above, this does not come from a place of hostility (despite my somewhat terse tweets – they were delivered when I was tired and not at my best), but in the spirit of genuine interest.
I hope to hear back from you,