Alban Eilir is the Welsh druidic name for the Vernal Equinox. It is a joyous celebration of one of the two points in our astronomical year when light and darkness are held in perfect balance. I’ve been asked whether druids “worship nature” and I usually reply that they do, but you have to understand the root meaning of worship. As in Freemasonry, worship and worshipful are used in the somewhat outdated idiom in which they mean simply “respect.” For some reason, over the past hundred years or so in America the word “worship” has been relegated entirely to religion where its meaning has become lost.
When I was raised, I thought “worship” meant something like going to church, singing hymns, and praying. It never quite made sense to me. Encountering the term in Freemasonry prompted me to examine its etymology and other uses. Not so much in the U.S. but in the U.K. and other English-speaking parts of the world high officials and especially magistrates may still be addressed as “your worship.” So, clearly the word is not religious in its meaning, but has been applied to the forms of respect and high courtesy that one should address to one’s superiors, especially a judge. The fact that Jehovah is most well-known in His role as judge in the Final Judgment can lead us to well-understand why He might be addressed as “your worship” as well as “Lord.”
The Great Magistrate of the Universe is the God of many Christian sects and denominations, but druidry has no Final Judgment in a cosmological sense. And what this idea of Doomsday refers to is really everyone’s “final judgement” at death. The ancient Egyptians and Hermetic wizards understood (and still do understand) this to refer to a process whereby a living soul is evaluated and its time in the body living a mortal life is examined. For druids there is no particular god, such as Thoth in the Egyptian pantheon, who writes down our deeds and weighs them. No Maat to put our heart in a balance and see if it is heavier than a feather. I like the Egyptian story, the idea that one’s heart should be “light” as a feather. “Light” has that double meaning of luminous and weighing little. Our hearts, at death, should not be heavy with guilt, shame, or regret.
The Celts seem to have been remarkably free of guilt and shame (until they became Catholics). Warriors gaily went screaming into battle naked and painted with woad in the strong faith that they would be reborn in a better life in the Otherworld. The Romans noted particularly that they even passed their debts on to be paid in the otherworld. Quite a good solution to all that credit-card debt, I must say.
But Alban Eilir is a time when we are just itching for Spring. In Minnesota we are enduring March, the month that typically comes in like a lamb with temperatures in the 40s and goes out like a lamb, but is a lion all through the middle full of snow and slush and freezing rain. It’s a time when one wishes one could pass into the Summerlands. But it is a time of balance, when the Sun himself may invite us to weigh our hearts in the balance of light and darkness and examine our feelings and deeds.
In our mundane lives it is all too easy to fall into the trap of being cranky or short with people and forgetting to pause and appreciate those in our lives for what they are. That is, to respect them, regardless of their quirks or faults; indeed to worship them. In the Far East one bows to another person in greetings and says “namaste” to honor the god within that person. Americans could do well to take up that custom and to pause when greeting each other to really take a look at the other person and realize that the divine is within each of us. Those of us who are hypercritical of others or of ourselves, need to remember that. There is too much hatred in the world today. Probably there always has been in the West. People are too prone to see the Devil in the people they meet, to consider their fellow citizens to be obstacles and adversaries at best, and at worst conspirators who are trying to destroy the middle class either through too much taxation or too few public services and an economy geared only for corporate bosses and a few oligarchical families.
It is especilly obvious during a political campaign that we fail to see the divine in other people, and if we cannot see it in others, we probably are not attending to the divine in ourselves.
When someones says that pagans “worship the Sun” or “worship Nature” they all too often seem to think it is some sort of “idolatry”. Sunday school lessons and sermons teach us that idols are things that pagans mistake for the True God. That is an unfortunate judgement and one that I doubt is true in most cases. People of any religious faith who have statues of their divinities do not think that statues magically contain the deity or that a mere statue is a god. That would be silly and extremely ignorant. Gods are beings and statues represent the god. A god dwells in a statue the same way each of us dwells within a photograph of us, or the same way George Washington dwells within a bust of him. No one with an ounce of sense mistakes the representation for the absent object, but representations have the power to bring absent objects (especially people) into a state of presence for us. That is one of the miraculous powers of the human imagination and human art. We can make representations of things which are not actually present, or are invisible and can only be symbolized. Statues of pagan gods are almost always symbols.
But so is the Sun. Druids do not worship the Sun as a god in some sort of exclusive and simply literal sense. I doubt our ancient ancestors were more stupid than we are, especially in matters of spirit and worship. God is a profound mystery. The Creator, the Creation, the cosmos, and our own bodies and minds, are all mysteries. Scientists have misled the public at large into supposing that all mysteries can be “solved” and thereby “mystery” can be eliminated. There is no evidence for that. Some puzzles can be solved, but inevitably in Nature you end up with nine more puzzles generated by the solution to the first. And the first mystery seems alwasy to go away only for a while and then re-emerge as a mystery again.
Isaac Newton, the famous alchemist, gave us calculus and formulas for describing how gravity works, but that does not make gravity any less mysterious. It is still an invisible force that we cannot understand and barely can define. We can only describe its effects in a crude way. If that makes you think that you understand gravity and it is no longer mysterious, then you need to clean your glasses. The Sun is a marvelous mystery and we barely understand it at all. Science has added to its story and has spoiled the old stories with its myopic disdain for personification and poetry. But only fools mistake poetic tropes for literal descriptions. The Sun is a big burning ball of gas, but it is so much more than that in the life we actually live and experience. Our lives would not be richer if we convinced ourselves that the Sun was “nothing but” a big burning ball of gas. Our lives would be poorer for the loss of poetic vision.
Druids in the Bardic tradition love poetry and therefore offer up their profoundest respect to the Sun and preserve its mysteries rather than striving to believe they have been explained away. Druidry is not about explaining. It is about respecting, worshiping, and appreciating the marvel, wonder, and mystery that is in every part of Creation. Most especially, the mystery that lies at the center of the human being. Intellectuals in the West have spent almost two hundred years trying to explain away human beings along with everything else in nature. I do not consider that to be the Druid Way. There is not any one single Druid Way, of course, but in any event, that doesn’t seem like it.
So, here’s to the balance of light and darkness. Here’s to the Sun as he returns to that perfect place rising in the East and setting in the West. And here’s to the wonder of the faith we can place in the return of Summer. Unless we — or a volcano — create another ice age or a period in which Winter will never lift because the Sun is obscured by dust and particles in the air, we can rely on the return of Summer. Druids are not, however, complacent about it. Druids know that nature is change and that catastrophes happen often and it is only a matter of time before we experience one of those terrible times of famine, due to some cataclysm or another. Those catastrophes are not signs of “the End Times” for druids; they are part of nature and however disastrous for us or for other species, they are not primarily a punishment for our behavior or beliefs. Catastrophes are indeed a time of judgment, however. They are a time for us to pause and judge ourselves, to consider our lives, and weigh our hearts and to take action to lighten them by doing good and loving others.