Harvest Ritual, Greek Pantheon- Preface

Even as I type the name of this blog post, I am aware of the conundrum that occurs by referring to my rite as “Samhain” when I, in fact, am a practicing Druid who works within the Hellenic tradition. During the early stages of my Druid practice, this kind of thing troubled me. Not as much these days, and here’s why:

ADF Druidry incorporates all Indo-European pantheons and traditions. Our Druidry, as I embrace it, is more focused on the fundamental religious and magical systems of the IE peoples than on any single cultural reconstructionist expression. Other Druid groups exclusively emphasize Celtic traditions (by which they often mean the Insular Celtic traditions of the British Isles) and others focus on Germanic traditions.

The fact that I choose to work within the Hellenic pagan tradition does not negate my Druidic practice. Although there are important differences between the Celtic traditions and the Greek (to say nothing of the differences in the cultures themselves) there are also fundamental similarities. It is these shared concepts and practices, expressed uniquely in each culture, upon which I focus on in my solitary rituals.

I should also point out that just because I connect to Druidry through the Hellenic culture, does not mean that I don’t also connect to Druidry through other cultures as well. Part of the reason that I was drawn to ADF is because of our emphasis on learning, particularly when it comes to understanding other cultures and hearth traditions. After all, the history of Pre-Indo-European peoples is long and complex, and there were many opportunities for different groups to interact with and influence each other.

One of the most liberating qualities of Neopaganism for me is that I don’t have to be a fundamentalist. I’m just as happy to celebrate your traditions and honor your gods as I am my own. And with that, let’s get on with it.

 

Samhain at Circle Sanctuary

For the past few months, I’ve been bellyaching about my need for a critical mass of pagan folks during the High Days. Even though I enjoy solitary rites and small group rituals, I find that I occasionally need to experience the kind of energy that only comes from being around a big ol’ group of pagans. So off to Circle Sanctuary I went.

Circle hosts a three-day Samhain event that begins on Friday with the Witch’s Ball. I had to work on Friday and had an hour and a half drive to get there, so I arrived around 9 PM. The Witch’s Ball is a great party! About a hundred or so folks in costume, a live band, and lots to eat and drink. I met some cool cats and enjoyed sitting around the campfire with a group of shamans from Chicago.

Saturday’s program was markedly different from anything I’ve done for Samhain before. Instead of a unified and focused group ritual, the ministerial team created an experience that allowed for spontaneity, could accommodate a large group, and let participants design their own Samhain rite.

We began the evening with a mute supper. All of us, around 130 or so, were seated inside a large heated tent (the temperature had dipped into the low 30s so we were grateful for this). We sat, were served, and ate in complete silence. I’ve experienced a similar meal during Buddhist mindfulness retreats, but this was the first time I’ve done so in a pagan context.

The purpose of the silence was to mentally prepare us for the focal point of the night: communion with spirits/ancestors/deities (depending on the variety of pagan) and the transmission of oracles.

After our supper was complete, we gathered inside the tent again to drum and chant. We were introduced to a team of “twilight” folks, men and women who were ministers of some variety, who would take us one-by-one to visit an oracle should we want to do so.

This was a nice touch. When I knew the time was right to see the oracle, I was greeted warmly by a witch in a pointy hat who took me on a short walk to see the oracle of my choice. As we made our way to the temple room, she asked me if I needed any help formulating my question for the oracle. I told her I was in good shape.

The oracle experience was based on Greek culture. It was by no means a reconstructionist motif, and my Hellenic hardline friends might have been displeased, but I thought the design was creative and genuine.

Three oracles were present, each one representing a different aspect of the fates in Greek and Roman mythology. Clothos, the spinner, was dressed in white and, we were told, was there to guide those concerned with beginnings. Lachesis, the measurer, wore red and was there for those who were struggling to find their way in present circumstances. Atropos, the severed of threads, was adorned in black and was the oracle to see if you were focused on an ending of some kind.

I won’t tell you which oracle I saw or what she said, but I walked away from the experience feeling satisfied and overcome with awe. This was a very, very well done ceremony.

Afterwards, we had the opportunity to visit the Circle labyrinth, which was candlelit and decorated in harmony with the theme of the Fates and divination. As people drifted out of the labyrinth and towards the bonfires (one of which was massive!) they were mostly quiet, speaking sometimes in vague terms about their experience with the oracles.

The drumming and chanting continued under the main tent as I made my way home for the night, driving on dark and desolate roads under a bright half moon and the cloak of a frost-kissed night.

This was the best Samhain I’d had in a long time.

Book Review – Drawing Down the Moon

Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America.  Penguin Books. New York: 2006.

 

Summary

In the preface to the 2006 revised edition of Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler observes that “the dominant spiritual trend of our time is militant fundamentalism” (x). From this point of departure, Adler begins a survey of Neopaganism in the 21st century that explores not only the history of this spiritual movement but also the political forces from which it arose and which continue to shape it.

Adler considers the political implications of a polytheist system of belief in a world in which monotheism prevails, explores the relationship between the Neopagan movement, the earth, and environmentalism, and provides a thorough historical overview of the relationship between witchcraft and feminism. In the new edition, Adler covers additional topics such as Heathenism and the intersection of the LGBT movement and Neopaganism.

Adler’s warm style, her inclusion of firsthand interviews as well as personal stories, and the scope of her research make Drawing Down the Moon a delight to read and a critical starting point for anyone who wants to understand Neopaganism. Adler sorts through the current state of academic research in order to distinguish fact from fantasy, and she does so without ever diminishing the importance of the imaginative aspect of Neopaganism. Many of the most well-known leaders and figures from across the Neopagan spectrum are interviewed here, and most of the major Neopagan organizations are described in detail. Adler also captures the remarkable diversity of the Neopagan movement: she considers a range of philosophies, approaches to ritual, and life experiences.

What I enjoyed most about Adler’s book is the emphasis she places on the relationship between Neopaganism and the political forces that continue to shape it. Her consideration of the works of Arnold Toynbee and Lynn White provided a crucial introduction to (or reminder of) the stakes for Neopaganism in the debate over environmentalism. Adler uses the question of earth-centered spirituality as an entry point to another illuminating topic: the differing political repercussions of polytheistic and monotheistic systems of belief.

Adler focuses on the political elsewhere as well. Chapters 4 – 8 explore the history of witchcraft and the related questions of women’s oppression and feminism. This section of the book covers a great deal of historical ground and sets aside many of the popular misconceptions about witchcraft, Wicca, and witches. I found the section on Heathenism in Chapter 9 to be extremely helpful when it comes to understanding the different branches of Heathenism as well as the variety of Heathen perspectives on the topics of race, family, and conservative values.

Finally, one real gem of the book is that it is filled with insights from Isaac Bonewits. It is clear from the beginning that Adler held his opinions in high regard, but she also notes his sometimes turbulent relationships with other personalities in the Neopagan movement. Adler even provides a brief overview of Druidry in North America and summarizes the founding of ADF (pp 336-343).

Neopagans and the Environment

The value of Adler’s first chapter lies in her ability to clearly identify and define the concepts and terms crucial to an understanding of Neopaganism. In addition to examining terms such as “pagan,” “Neo-Paganism,” and “witch,” Adler begins by setting forth a few ideas that are shared across the Neopagan spectrum. She observes that “most Neo-Pagans sense an aliveness and ‘presence'” in nature…they share the goal of living in harmony with nature and they tend to view humanity’s ‘advancement’ and separation from nature as the prime source of alienation” (3-4).

The Neopagan relationship to nature is given a more thorough analysis in Chapters 2 and 13. First, Adler points to Toynbee’s 1972 article “The Religious Background of the Present Environmental Crisis,” in which he argues that the monotheistic worldview and value system have encouraged the exploitation and abuse of the environment and our natural resources. Adler also cites Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” and identifies similarities with Toynbee’s article. She quotes White’s assertion that “by destroying Pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feeling of natural objects” (17).

As a bookend or complement to the question of Neopaganism’s relationship to the natural world, Adler closes her book with a chapter titled “Living on the Earth.” At this point, Adler argues that while most Neopagans do share an interest in environmental causes, there is no consensus on how to approach the issue. She notes a “deep split between Pagans whose commitment to ecological principles was strong and practical and those whose commitment was limited to a religious view” (396). In other words, there are Neopagans whose spiritual and political values are so indistinguishable that political action on behalf of the environment is an integral part of their religion. On the other hand, there are also Neopagans whose connection to the environment is of a purely spiritual nature: political activity is an entirely separate matter.

The Pagan Worldview

In Chapter 3, Adler sketches out what distinguishes a Neopagan philosophy from those of other religions and traditions. She writes that “at some level, Neopaganism is an attempt to reanimate the world of nature; or, perhaps more accurately, Neo-Pagan religions allow their participants to reenter the primeval world view, to participate in nature in a way that is not possible for most Westerners after childhood” (23). This is a passage with which I can readily identify. I too was drawn to Neopaganism because it offered an opportunity to experience the world in a mystical sense, as opposed to an inanimate landscape to be used for the benefit of myself and other humans.

Another benefit of Neopagan philosophy which is particular relevant during times of conflict is its openness to multiple worldviews and value systems. Adler writes that “polytheism has allowed a multitude of distinct groups to exist more or less in harmony, despite great divergences in beliefs and practices” (23). She also notes that the decentralized nature of Neopaganism and its flattened hierarchy of leadership may have “prevented these groups from being preyed upon by gurus and profiteers” (23). In other words, the Neopagan openness to new ideas, its rejection of fundamentalism, and relative lack of structure allow for an environment in which individuals are free to adopt ideas that work for them while discarding those which do not.

Finally, Adler uses part of her third chapter to consider theories of anthropology which claim that systems of belief evolve in “linear fashion” (24) and that monotheism is therefore superior to polytheism. Throughout this chapter, Adler gives voice to those who see the benefits of polytheistic religion and who are critical of the influence of monotheism, including Theodore Roszak, David Miller, and Isac Bonewits. Adler quotes Bonewits’ assertion that monotheism is “particularly useful in history when small groups of people wanted to control large numbers of people” (Adler, 32).  Further, Adler quotes Bonewits’ elaboration on monotheism that appeared in The Druid Chronicles (1976):

“far from being the crown of human thought and religion as its supporters have claimed for several bloody millennia, it is in fact a monstrous step backwards–a step that has been responsible for more human misery than any other idea in known history.” (Bonewits in Adler, 32)

Another salient point that arises in this chapter is the possibility that some traditions, including Wicca, could be perceived as monotheistic. This is especially true of Neopagan groups which focus exclusively on the worship of a great mother goddess. According to Adler, “one truly serious criticism of feminist Witchcraft has emerged…the fear that exclusive goddess worship can lead to a transcendent monotheism” (213). Put another way, a Neopagan system of belief that does not accommodate multiple points of view and which denies the validity of polytheism is no different than other forms of monotheism. Such a system of belief risks incorporating the very fundamentalism it denounces.

Witches

Adler devotes more than a third of Drawing Down the Moon to the history and theories of Witchcraft. Her survey of academic and historical accounts of witches and the craft offers a unique glimpse into a religion (or practice, depending upon your point of view) that has been plagued by misconceptions, poor scholarship, false narratives, and controversial figures. Adler relies on interviews with leaders in various witchcraft traditions as well as her own research and personal experiences. The result is a gentle but through account of the origins of Witchcraft and an overview of the diversity among those who consider themselves to be witches.

Of all the information Adler presents in this section, Bonewits’ attempt to classify witches into three categories is some of the most useful. In doing so, Adler helps break open the spectrum of witchcraft and the various traditions/sources/histories that accompany it. Bonewits identifies three primary witchcraft traditions: Classical, Gothic, and Neopagan. According to him, Classical witches were those for whom the craft was a practice rather than a religion, a way of dealing with the world that called upon wisdom, insight, and cleverness. These were the wise women of the village: resourceful, shrewd, and knowledgeable. Gothic witches were those whose practice was an inversion of Christianity, a popular notion of witchcraft but one with few actual practitioners. Neopagan witchcraft is another term for Wicca.

Other insights in this section include Adler’s overview of the “family traditions” of witchcraft, feminist witches, and the politics of the larger witchcraft movement. She argues that “most revivalist witches in North America accept the universal Old Religion more as a metaphor than a literal reality, a spiritual truth rather than a geographic one”(82). She also points out that for many witches, belonging to a particular tradition such as Alexandrian or Gardnerian is of no import; newer traditions are just as valid as those with lineages.

Finally, Adler repeatedly uses the term “bending” when referring to the craft, For her, witchcraft is adaptable, creative, and resourceful. As a result, it is a practice/religion that naturally mutates and proliferates.

Book Review – The Druids

 

The Druids. Ellis, Peter Berresford. Constable & Co. London: 1994.

 

Ellis’ book is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in Druids or Celtic society, but it is especially helpful for those exploring ADF Druidry or beginning their Dedicant Program. Ellis is clear from the very beginning that the historical information available about the Druids is incomplete and that what information we do have may have been distorted or fabricated. Ellis provides an excellent overview of the historical writings which describe the Druids and/or Celtic society while at the same time remaining in conversation with other recent or current scholars and their interpretations of these writings.

In his own words, Ellis acknowledges from the beginning that “no Druid, nor sympathetic contemporary observer, ever committed to writing the necessary unequivocal information” (11) of the sort that would provide an undisputed, historical account of who the Druids really were. Instead, he reminds us that that “one person’s Druid is another person’s fantasy “(11) and that in the pursuit of any sound understanding of who the Druids were or what they believed depends upon the quality and scope of the inquiry.

Ellis also uses his introduction to sketch out his own theory about the Druids. According to his argument, the Druids were a kind of specialized group within Celtic society, a “parallel caste to the social group which developed in another other Indo-European—the Brahmins of Hindu culture” (14). If Ellis is correct, then the Druids may have served a number of functions throughout Celtic Europe, occupying such specialized occupations such as judges, lawyers, teachers, poets, political advisers, historians, or musicians.

From this starting point, Ellis embarks upon a thorough survey and analysis of the few written records regarding the Druids. In his second chapter, Ellis reviews theories about the origins of the Druids, including several possible meanings of and sources for the word “druid” itself. Ellis is convinced that the term druid means something akin to “[those with] oak knowledge” (39). He argues that the “Druid caste” (39) originated among forest dwelling societies as a group of men and women(!) who accumulated practical knowledge and survival techniques, and who became associated with the oak tree because of its role as a source of food and shelter and its prominence in native folklore and mythology. Ellis spends much of the chapter exploring the veneration of the oak tree throughout Europe and concludes that “the symbolism of the oak is all-pervasive in ancient Celtic culture” (42).

One critical point that Ellis makes in this chapter is that, as MacCulloch observes elsewhere, “there is no reason to believe that Druids did not exist wherever there were Celts” (46). He goes on to argue that throughout the Celtic world, there were groups of men and women who appear to be “Druids by other names” (46). This is especially significant considering the extensive influence of Celtic culture throughout Europe and the influence of a common Indo-European language. For those interested in ADF Druidry, this insight cannot be overstated. Since ADF Druidry includes the whole of the Indo-European spectrum, it is helpful to remember that the Celtic peoples and culture were not restricted to the British Isles or Western Europe.

The third chapter of The Druids provides a survey of Classical writings which describe (however inaccurately) the Druids, their practices, and their beliefs. The real value of the chapter lies in the way it traces written texts on the Druids to their common sources, and dissects the information through which modern understandings of the Druids have come into being. Ellis explores the political impulses behind many such writings, as in the case of Strabo and his Geographica. Ellis observes that the work “was a pointed attack on the Celts, which was written as a justification for Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and the subsequent attempts to suppress the Celtic intelligentsia and their centers of learning” (53).

Ellis also focuses on criticism by other historians including Chadwick, who describes one passage of Pliny’s account of the Druids as “picturesque fantasia” (61). However, Ellis detects some truth in Pliny’s writings, particularly with regard to the association of the Druids with oak groves. Ellis notices that other authors similarly describe this association and concludes that it does not derive from a common source; he thereby enlists its support in defending his own position.

In chapter 4, Ellis examines the Christianization of Europe and its impact on Celtic culture. The first salient point he makes here is that it was the insular Celts (i.e., those of the British Isles), who most absorbed Druidic knowledge and practices. Ellis gives proper due to the Celtic monastic tradition and its emphasis on writing for providing access to our most illuminating insights into both Celtic and Druidic culture. Two insights presented by Ellis that were new to me include the incorporation of the Druidic tonsure into Celtic monasticism, and the relative omission of the Druidic tradition from Welsh narratives when compared to the Irish. The chapter focuses on the historical and cultural relationship between Druidism and Christianity, and concentrates on the literary traditions of the insular Celts.

Chapter 5 of The Druids is perhaps one of the most significant in terms of ADF Druidry. Not only does Ellis provide substantial proof that women were included in the ranks of the Druids, he also pays attention to the role of women in Celtic society in general. Ellis points out that the portrayal of Celtic culture by classical writers was distorted by their own biases towards women. He writes that “what we are actually looking at is a more permissive and open society, not fully understood by the foreign observers” (95).
Ellis reviews a selection of Welsh and Irish literature in which female figures are depicted as leaders, warriors, and sources of community power.

The first impressive moment of chapter 6 occurs when Ellis takes MacCulloch to task for a passage in The Religion of the Ancient Celts in which he describes the Celts as submissive to the will of the Druids. Ellis argues that what MacCulloch is doing is projecting his own experience as a Christian minister onto a culture that he does not fully understand.

Ellis also warns his readers that “no clear knowledge of the Druidic system of worship or ritual has come down to us in spite of romantics such as Edward Davies…” (114). He goes on to say that “having said this…we can glimpse some of the religious ideas and rituals connected with the pantheon of the Celtic deities and their roles by studying insular Celtic literatures and comparing them with the archaeological evidence and place-name references” (114).

The remainder of the chapter focuses on Irish and Welsh myth, including an examination of the great mother and the relationship between god/esses and heroes. Here, Ellis touches upon more well-known figures such as the Dagda as “the patron of Irish Druidism” (123), Cernunnos, the Gundestrup Cauldron, and the Stone of Destiny, as well as Celtic origin myths.

One last note on this chapter: Ellis observes that “the ancient Irish bards deemed that the river’s edge, the brink of water, was always that place where éicse, wisdom, knowledge and poetry was revealed” (118).

Chapter 7 is particularly fascinating for its insights into Celtic ritual practices. Ellis explores a range of rituals including “Druidic baptism” (133), the veneration of wells and springs, the ritual use and importance of fire, and Celtic funeral customs.

Another important point that Ellis brings up in this chapter is the dubiousness of Pliny’s description of the ritual significance of mistletoe. Ellis points out that Pliny is the only source of this information and directs his readers’ attention to similar practices in ancient Egypt. In other words, Ellis wonders whether or not Pliny has simply confused (deliberately or not) a practice of one foreign culture for that of another.

With regard to human sacrifice, Ellis concludes that “the idea of widespread human sacrifice among the Celts was mere Roman propaganda to support…imperial powers in their invasion of Celtic lands and destruction of the Druids” (154). Ellis takes strange turn here and redirects his argument toward supposed evidence of human sacrifice “occurring widely both in Greek and Roman civilizations” (154). Other scholars, including Elisabeth Vandiver, have observed that human sacrifice was detested by the Greeks and the Romans. Even though Rome was famous for its gladiator battles and blood spectacles, the ritual sacrifice of humans was rare.

The most illuminating insights from The Druids are presented in Chapter 8, ‘The Wisdom of the Druids.” Ellis begins by asserting that “there is certainly enough evidence to show that the Druidic caste was in charge of Celtic education” (157). But what I find most intriguing in this chapter is the frequency with which Ellis points to the relationship between Druidic philosophy and Indo-European philosophy. He writes that “the Druidic concept of Truth as the supreme power [is]…a basic Indo-European thought” (162).

Ellis examines the Irish teaching tradition and points out that the Druidic influence in the lay schools remained intact far longer than it did in the ecclesial schools. He also claims that the bardic schools lasted until the 17th century, when they were finally suppressed by the Christian Church. Ellis also points out that the Irish and Welsh proscriptions on written records was abandoned when they began writing in other languages. As a result, some of the Irish and Welsh keepers of Druidic wisdom began to write in Latin.

In the section devoted to Druidic philosophy, Ellis offers the following summary of Druidic teaching: “the Druids taught that one should live in harmony with nature, accepting that pain and death are not evils but part of the divine plan, and that the only evil is moral weakness” (168).

Throughout this chapter, Ellis points to similarities between Celtic and Hindu belief systems. For example, he observes that the modern Irish language the dead are referred to as being “in the place of Truth now” (169), a saying which has “an exact parallel in Persian-Iranian Parseeism” (169). As further evidence of the connection between Druidic philosophy and Indo-European thought, Ellis explores similarities in Celtic and Greek philosophy, patterns in mythology, taboos or geasa, and comparisons between Brehon and Hindu legal systems. For example, Ellis writes that “it seems very likely that the Druidic immortality of the soul was indeed a development from a common Indo-European idea, which developed with its own particular cultural attributes parallel to the Hindu philosophies and certainly to the metempsychosis of Pythagoras” (179).

The remainder of this lengthy chapter explores various functions of the Druids in Celtic society, including their work in the legal system, preservation of history, their work in music and poetry, medicine, divination, astrology, and magic.

Ellis begins the ninth and final chapter of the book by repeating and clarifying his thesis. He writes that

“My contention, which I hope I have demonstrated, is that the term Druid, in pre-Christian Celtic society, referred to social stratification, depicting the intellectual class. This division of social groups occurred in all Indo-European societies and is seen at its most obvious in modern times in the Hindu caste system. However, when Christianity established itself, the generic term Druid became corrupt, being connected with pagan society, and only applied to wizards, magicians, prophetic poets, and bards. (251)

The remainder of this chapter (and book) explores some of the ways in which the Druids have been romanticized and reconstructed. Ellis conducts a survey of literature related to the Druids, including some “historical” accounts that were the product of fantasy rather than research. Among his observations are instances in which the Druids were portrayed as “still in their gloomy oak groves with an oak-wreathed Druid, suitably robed, wielding a blood stained sacrificial knife” (253) and alternately, as “patriarchal Old Testament figures” (258).

Ellis also looks at the sources for many of the modern misconceptions about the Druids, including works by William Stukeley, Iolo Morganwg, William Blake, John Wood, and Simon Pelloutier. He then explores some facets of the Druid revival, including the Assembly of the Bard of Britain (1792), the Ancient Order of Druids (1781), the National Eisteddfod Association (1880), as well as more recent examples of uninformed scholarship and fantasy.

 

 

 

 

Morality & my Neopagan path

I grew up in the conservative South, where fundamentalist  Christianity permeated the culture and the value system it espoused was never questioned. I was bombarded by evangelical Christianity and its moral code on every front: at home, in Boy Scouts, at school. It was everywhere.

Fortunately, I was given the gift of an inquisitive and critical mind. I always wanted to know why things were as they were, and despite countless attempts to convince me that the Bible must be read literally, I never found this response satisfactory and so I never bought what they were trying to sell me.

Now that I identify as a Neopagan and Druid, I sometimes think about morality and values in the context of a spiritual/religious movement in which we do not depend on the illusion of absolute truth, a movement in which there are no sacred scriptures which must be taken literally, a movement in which so much emphasis is placed upon personal freedom.

So where do my Druidic, Neopagan values come from? How did I come by my moral compass?

In order to answer this question, I think Richard Dawkins has provided an excellent and concise response here.