In May I am giving a presentation at Lake Harriet Lodge in Minneapolis about the relationship between Freemasonry and traditional British druid orders. This is a talk that is easier to give to Masons than to druids because while Masonry requires one to be circumspect about details of ritual, druidry does not. Nevertheless, it is a challenge either way because one has to expect that one’s audience will be familiar with one or the other ritual form and not the other.
So, here are some preliminary observations. It may be necessary first of all to give the reader some idea of the form of each system, but first let me say a word about the historical connections.
The modern druid revival has been going on for the past three centuries. It began when the antiquarians in Britain began to explore such ancient stone monuments as Stonehenge and Avebury, recognizing them to be pre-Roman artifacts. This was in the 17th century, the period of history when we mark the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Enlightenment. That is, European culture had been undergoing a rediscovery of ancient hermetic and alchemical writings, ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, and artistically was breaking away from the narrow focus upon Biblical themes and moving toward a more humanist approach. The Humanists were not neo-pagans in our current sense, but they might be considered to be somewhat pro-pagan in their recognition that, however valuable the Christian revelation of salvation and love might be, the pagan philosophers had a lot of good ideas too.
The Enlightenment period is that time following the Reformation of the Catholic Church and the resultant wars between Christian sects — the Roman Catholic faction versus various Protestant factions. The Enlightenment, as a philosophical movement, was a response to the public realization that priests were not the unassailable and infallible creatures they had once been taught to believe. The educated intellectuals of France, Scotland, and England began to see empirical science as a better way to approach cosmology and physics than theology. Freemasonry was a part of that shift in thought. Under the protection of the lodge, men of good will and high morals could come together “on the level” and act “by the square” to set aside doctrinal differences and share their common love of God and Man.
There can hardly be any question that Freemasonry was and remains most influenced by Christian and Judaic theology and mythology. Biblical stories and sentiments were used throughout Masonic rituals and this should hardly be surprising in an age when it was still impossible for most people to question the literal truth of the Bible as a book of history. It was not until the 19th century that Biblical higher criticism emerged and the Bible began to be explored using the same interpretative tools as those applied to every other ancient book.
But in the 17th to the 19th centuries we find a growing interest in the streams of culture and thought other than those officially presented by the theologians of the great universities. Even within the bastions of education, such as at Cambridge in England, alchemists and free-thinkers such as Isaac Newton hid their more unorthodox beliefs in order to keep their jobs. In the Masonic lodge men like Newton and Elias Ashmole and William Stukeley could find a safe space in which to talk to like-minded men in a spirit of religious tolerance that did not exist outside the lodge.
Druids of this early modern period could hardly be expected to gather in groves as we do now. That would have been too pagan. Only a few radicals and rakes apparently managed to hold private gatherings. The famous Hell-Fire club comes to mind. Then as now, paganism got very quickly entangled with the idea of free-love. Nonconformist religious ideas emphasized freedom of conscience, and poets such as William Blake freely employed what we would now call “pagan” themes and images in his work. Classicism was so fashionable during the Enlightenment that painters could easily employ Greek and Roman gods and goddesses in their work without causing much religious stir. But this Classicism also is a part of the history of modern paganism as it exists today. It shows a gradual loosening of the negative stereotypes of ancient non-Christian cultures as “idol-worshippers” and so forth.
At the earliest stages Bardism and Druidism emerged as a cultural movement within Wales and Scotland and it walked hand in hand with Romanticism. The Ossian poems of James MacPherson (presented as translations of genuine Gaelic poetry) and the Barddas of Iolo Morganwg emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as highly attractive faiths. Such writers and artists were presenting alternative mythologies to the Biblical stories. Artists were looking for a different way of explaining the world and were becoming increasingly aware that the stories of the Bible — especially the account of creation — could not be taken literally but were in fact poetry, legends.
Unfortunately, for the literalist mentality that dominated European society, this meant that such stories must be lies and therefore ought to be thrown out completely. It is the bardic tradition, I believe, which emerges at this time, precisely because it is so needed to readjust the understanding of the West, to help people to shake off the mind-forged manacles of literalism and use their imaginations without shame. I believe it is a very Celtic trait. It seems to me that it is the Romans who had trouble accepting imagination and magic. The Celtic undercurrents of European culture, however conquered by the dominant Roman society, kept alive imagination’s fire.
Historically, then, Freemasonry and modern Druidry are part of the same cultural movement toward a freer expression of spiritual belief and a more creative and imaginative use of ritual and mystery play. Both understood the value of initiatory rituals. The 19th century writers, such as Albert Pike, quite clearly thought the druids represented one of the great ancient mystery traditions, quite comparable to the Greek schools of Dionysus and Demeter. This meant that they saw nature as the Book of God, as the Holy Bible (for “bible” is simply the Latin word for “book”). Nature could be “read” and the secrets of the cosmos and the Creator understood from it.
Embracing the idea of the Book of Nature did not necessarily require one to abandon other books of sacred writ. But it did suggest that the old scriptures were not unique. Contact with ancient Egyptian thought, after the Rosetta stone was discovered and deciphered, was another epiphany for Western intellectuals and spiritual leaders. The Theosophical society turned its attention to the Hindu and Vedic arts and scriptures for inspiration as yet another ancient civilization with wisdom to offer. Tibet emerged into the European consciousness as another such repository of vast numbers of religious texts.
Theosophists and Druids very often started out as Freemasons. Druid fraternal orders emerged within the family of Masonic concordant bodies and others were founded as organizations for men and women. The history of the Ancient Order of Druids in America is instructive in that it shows us the split that occurred in one druid order between those who wished to require that all druids be masons and those who did not.
The antecedents of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, which is now the largest and most vibrant of the modern druid orders, were in the Masonic tradition of lodge and ritual and also in the new movements of vegetarianism, naturism, and alternative health. Druidry has also often touched upon socialism and other progressive economic theories as the orders pursued their liberal goals of free-thought and also their interest in learning about ancient British culture, which was tribal and communal compared to modern urban life.
The principal philosophic or spiritual distinction between Masonry and Druidry might be pinpointed in the attitude to the land. Masonry is informed by the legend and symbolism of the stonecutter, architect, workman’s lodge, and the temple. The Temple is a metaphor for Creation as a whole. The lodge is a metaphor of the workplace of each individual human being — our bodies, minds, and spirits — which we seek to perfect through ritual and contemplation of the symbols of Masonry and through its mysteries.
It is important to understand, as the great Masonic writer W. L. Wilmshurst has said, that the term “mysteries” of Masonry does not mean “secrets.” The word is not used in the 20th century sense of “mystery novels” but in the medieval sense of “mystery plays.” These dramas were the enactment of Biblical stories performed for audiences, but were also rooted in the ancient mystery schools in a time when drama was religious ritual. To take on a role in a play was a religious experience that took one outside of one’s ordinary self and into other parts of one’s being. It allows one to explore those other parts in a structured safe way. Anyone who has been an actor, especially on the stage, can affirm the psychological power of drama. Indeed, anyone who has attended life theater has an inkling of it for it works its magic on the audience as well.
The early Masonic rituals and early druid rituals are a body of work that deserves more research. I am not familiar enough with the early material to discuss it. However, I am familiar with the rituals we have today which descended from those earlier forms and one can make a guess at their parallel evolution. Let me proceed then to compare and contrast the lodge and the grove.
First of all, the metaphor of the grove is deliberately divergent from that of the Temple. Ancient temples, whether pagan or Jewish were elaborate formal structures, usually of stone in which rites were performed and often statues of deities or some other representation of them (like the Ark of the Covenant) served as the focal point for religious attention and awe. We know little about the groves of the ancient druids but their main feature was that they were spaces in nature. They were sacred groves presumably chosen according to some wisdom connected with the spirits of the land. I imagine they were places of special beauty where the druids could commune with the Divine. But they were not man-made.
This fact alone separates druidry from masonry rather starkly. The metaphor of men as stonecutters building the Temple is gone. So is the lodge, that working place next to the Temple where the masons gathered to plan their work and enjoy refreshment and rest. The grove is not man-made and it is therefore a very different symbol for the Creation, the cosmos. It is not historical, for a grove is to human minds something that has always been there and always will be there, ever renewing itself. If one seeks a Biblical analogy, the sacred grove most resembles the Garden of Eden.
This may be one simple reason why early antiquarians looked to ancient druidry as a place where the antediluvian religion of Adam may have survived. It was thought that Noah’s descendants spread through the world and some ended up in Britain and Ireland and so the druids represented the descendants of the primal religious knowledge, before so much was lost in the Great Flood and subsequent history. The Bible told the story of how the Jews were first made captive in Egypt and then escaped and then after a few centuries of flourishing monarchy were taken off to captivity in Babylon and then escaped from that bondage, and so forth. The whole history of the Bible is one that suggest knowledge lost. It also suggests the accretion of many extraneous new ideas to whatever the old religion of Abraham and Noah and Adam was.
Taking the Bible as history, it was obvious to anyone that Adam would have had the true religion and whatever followed afterwards was bound to be corrupted, or at least watered-down. So, there developed this Romantic hope that in ancient Bardic and Druid stories and the curious poetry that survived, a more pure and perfect link to that early religion. It is interesting that almost exactly the same romantic impulse has motivated some modern neopagans who, taking up the linguistic theories of an ancient Indo-European culture underlying all of the Aryan peoples, looks for that earliest and most pure set of beliefs as if they must necessarily be better than what men and women have thought during the intervening millennia.
In whatever form, Druidry and Masonry do share a love of ancient wisdom and the romance of searching for lost knowledge. Where Masons focussed on studying the literature of the Middle East, and Theosophists upon the literature of the Far East, the modern druids focused on the ancient literature of Wales and other Celtic lands. If anything the romance of Celticism is even stronger at the beginning of the 21st century than at the beginning of the 19th. While some of this appeal derives from music, whiskey, and beer, these aspects cannot really be dismissed as trivial since all were an integral part of the ancient bardic way of life. Spiritous liquors can give inspiration and vision as well as drunkenness. They can be used in healing too. And music is at the center of most druidic and bardic rituals, enjoyed as part of community as much as for its inspiration and sheer joy.
Another difference between lodge and grove is in its geometry. I wonder in fact whether Masons were inspired to explore their druidic ancestors in part because of the study of geometry. The ancient neolithic stone circles and alignments, the passage tombs, and other relics of ancient Britain still hold our fascination and remain mysterious (in the sense of being not entirely explicable). Modern engineers still attempt to figure out how Stonehenge was built and puzzle over the passage tomb at Newgrange in Ireland. But we also know that these stone age peoples were not Celts. That is, we cannot attribute to them the same Celtic language group that we can attribute to the peoples of the Bronze Age and Iron Age encountered by the Romans. In fact, we have no idea who they were or what language they spoke, or what they thought. That lack of knowledge is perhaps one reason why public sentiment continues to give Stonehenge and like monuments to the druids. At least we have a name for them. I mean, who wants to form a movement called “the beaker people”?
The geometry of the lodge is rectilinear. Squareness and moral rectitude are metaphorically linked. To say that a man is upright is to say he his worthy of trust and admiration. The plumb. level, and square all refer to this metaphor of rectitude and rectilinear perfection, so beloved by the classical architect. There is an unquestionable beauty and grandeur in these temple geometries. The lodge imitates the architecture of Solomon’s temple as it is described in the Book of Kings. There are two columns prominent at the entrance to the lodge and the brethren are seated also in two “columns” along the north and south “sidelines” of the lodge in seats.
The lodge has three principal officers and five other officers arranged around the room. The three principals – the master and two wardens — sit in the east, south, and west respectively. This arrangement was not always true, but came to be the accepted custom over time. W. L. Wilmshurst, in The Meaning of Masonry, points out the symbolic meaning in many features of the lodge and its symbolic furniture. Among the most interesting is is suggestion that the two pillars or columns symbolize the legs of a human being, upon which it is founded. Between the pillars are the organs of generation through which every man (and woman of course too) enters the world of forms.
The ritual of initiation, like virtually all such ceremonies, imitates a symbolic rebirth, death, and resurrection. This is equally true in modern druidic rituals, and also in the initiations of Wicca. The influence of Masonic initiation comes to these 20th century pagan forms partly from founders who were Masons or familiar enough with the Masonic initiations to imitate them. It comes partly more indirectly through the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which latter organization is clearly inspired by Freemasonry and was unquestionably founded by Masons in order to further explore the hermetic and Rosicrucian wisdom. The Golden Dawns officers, grades, and initiation rituals all influenced subsequent pagan and druid groups. Some would later organize their rituals in rebellion against the Masonic system, for various reasons, but all were a response to it.
In modern Druidry (as also in Wicca) we find three grades or degrees, just as in Masonry. We find, generally, that passing through all three grades is a requirement for leadership in a grove or coven, just as it is for a lodge. Furthermore, we find an attitude that a member of any grade is considered a brother or sister of equal merit within the group. This is not always the case, of course, but the attempt at equality is made as it is within the Masonic lodge where apprentice, fellowcraft or master are all equally brothers.
The geometry of the druid grove is markedly different from that of the lodge and yet clearly may be considered in the light of that other great masonic symbol, the compasses. For the grove is circular. In Masonry, the compasses teach us to keep ourselves in due bounds, which is to say, keep our tempers and conform to certain moral limitations. They are the usual things: a Mason is not to lie, cheat, steal, defraud, murder, or break promise with his brothers, and with all mankind. The compasses teach us to subdue our passions. Here again, the word may need clarification for “passion” has come to be used largely today to mean sexual arousal or jealousy caused by that emotion. The original meaning of “passion” in Latin is “suffering” and it is used thus figuratively to indicate all those emotions that cause us pain or anguish such as unrequited love, anger, betrayal, jealousy, envy, avarice, and even gluttony. All these “passions” are emotional extremes, accompanied by actions that lead to an attempt to control the world or other people or to hurt them.
For the brothers of the 18th century and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, to subdue one’s passions was akin to subduing the animal nature that in humans all too often will override reason and all finer virtues. This is not to say that one’s animal nature is all bad or should be rejected. It simply needs to be domesticated, controlled, and kept in bounds. This idea of subduing the passions is also not to be confused with repression of desires. The compasses inscribe a circle, a boundary beyond which we will not step. That circle is the boundary of honor, the limits of good behavior, laid down, not by some arbitrary external authority so much as by each one of us, guided by faith in wiser souls.
Druidry has no Ten Commandments. The ancient druids upheld the tribal laws of their peoples and some of these laws have come down to us in the Irish brehon laws. But there is little doubt that the druids of old represented the lawgivers who held the moral compasses of the people and drew the circle limiting their behavior. They also recognized that humans will fail and step over the line and so consequences for bad unlawfulness were also carefully stipulated in the brehon laws. It is notable that these laws often stipulated the appropriate payment to compensate the offended party rather than such draconian punishments as death or torture. The idea of Christian penance must have seemed familiar to the druids of the Iron Age when they encountered the teachings of Jesus. At the same time the radical idea of forgiving ones’ enemies may have appealed to them as a remarkably good idea for subduing the passions of the warrior class. After all, if you cannot stop humans from offending each other in their passions, at least you might teach them to forgive each other out of a deeper emotion of love and brotherhood.
Whatever the ancient druids taught morally, modern druid orders tend to teach a morality based upon universal respect. Now, there are some exceptions. Some who call themselves druids today have founded their whole system as a protest against the dominant Judeo-Christian-Islamic People of the Book. Modern Wicca was created in large measure as a rebellion against Christianity out of shame for the past atrocities of Christians and out of sheer disagreement with the mentality of conversion and conquest that has driven Christendom for so many centuries from the time of the crusades to the present day.
Those who adopt druidry as their religion often do so because they reject the literal-mindedness and hypocrisy they have experienced in Christian circles. This sometimes takes the form of seeking a plurality of gods and goddesses and has been motivated particularly by the patriarchalism and misogyny inherent in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The image of the witch in particular appeals to women and men as a figure of rebellion and defiance against a cruel and oppressive spiritual orthodoxy that denigrated women and insisted they were subordinate to men.
While Wicca has become a spiritual system seeking balance between the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine, Druidry is much more polymorphous. Druids today tend to welcome and embrace gods and goddesses from many pantheons and cultures. Some focus upon the ancient Irish or Welsh deities, but the Gaels and Britons had so many local spirits of land, sea, mountain, and spring that there is not any single neat pantheon such as those developed by the urban temple cultures of the Greeks and Romans. There is not much evidence that the druids themselves worked to create an official pantheon or homogeneous cult observance across the diverse Celtic tribes. Indeed we see the same lack of unity in their political attitudes. Empire and union were not seen as something to be sought until after the Celts had been thoroughly Romanized.
We in our culture now are so thoroughly Romanized ourselves that we seldom question which is superior — tribal cultures or empires governed by a unified central authority be it king or congress. The Celtic mind seems to have been much more focused on the local group and living on the local land, immediate and tangible. Theirs was not a mind prone to mapping the world and seeking to conquer abstract far-flung places, nor so far as we can tell did any Celtic king have illusions of global domination. For the Celts, and so for the modern druids, men and women were considered socially equal, each accorded rights of property, each accorded the right to make or dissolve a marriage, and there were several degrees of marriage to chose from depending on what one wanted out of the union. The tribe and the village took care of the children and made sure they were raised and it was the tribe, not individual family lines, that accumulated wealth and prosperity. Which is not to say that they were socialists. Celtic society had its class structure and some were more wealthy than others according to their station. There were kings and there were also slaves in ancient Celtic culture just as in Roman and Greece.
We have been taught to abhor slavery today to such an extent that I wonder if it does not distort our understanding of the reasons that we find it in ancient cultures. In the United States and the colonial slave trade with Africa, we see a modern system in which slavery is a matter of commerce. In earlier times it may have been easier to see that the people being sold as slaves were the people who had lost everything. Either by being captured in wars or for other reasons, this class of people had been deprived of their family connections and often separated from their tribes with the result that they were completely dependant upon others. They had to sell their labor to survive, and because of their destitute condition even this exchange of labor for shelter and food and clothes was mediated by another person, the slave dealer.
We can shudder at such a social system, but yet our modern urban world has produced a class of homeless and destitute people with no one helping them to exchange their labor for shelter, food and clothes. Moreover, we have a class of criminals who make their livelihood from breaking the law and preying on their brothers and sisters. Is this a more noble system than slavery? I defend neither system, but it is part of modern druid philosophy to consider such questions and recognize that we have not achieved anything like an ideal social system. Many druids today look back upon the more local politics and economics of village and tribe not as “primitive” and inferior to urbanization and industrialization, but perhaps as something better and indeed desirable, if suitably updated to modern needs and technology.
There are quite a few druids too who enjoy the idea of returning to nature, whether wearing robes and tunics or running about naked in the woods. Camping and drumming around a fire, holding sweat lodges, and other activities that hearken to a tribal culture of earlier ages is widespread among druids today. None of these things form a part of the formal rituals of druid orders but might be considered among their “landmarks.” Even druids who do not like to camp out in tents or yurts can appreciate the value of wilderness experience and getting out for a tramp in the woods or the fields. These are not just a matter of physical health, but of spiritual health. Direct contact with the land and the elements is central to the practice of druidry.
All of these strands of thought and values inform the druid circle. I will not attempt to draw further comparisons with Wiccan circles because I have no first-hand experience of them. Nor would I wish to over-generalize about druid groves, since each is left largely to itself in matters of ritual form as well as belief. Druid orders are, on the whole, far less rigid in their ideas of ritual form, much less verbal content, than is Masonry. While ritual liturgies have been written, orders such as the OBOD encourage members to be creative and make changes to suit themselves. Unlike Masonic rituals, druid rituals may be performed solo and in private and many druids must do so because there are so few druids and they are scattered so thinly. Others choose to be solitary practitioners simply out of temperament.
My own grove has existed for only a few years, so there is nothing like the stability one feels in an established Masonic lodge. Most groves lack the kind of written official charter from a central authority, though some druid orders do have a Grand Grove that is equivalent to the Masonic Grand Lodge, empowered to issue charters to groves. OBOD operates less formally as a matter of principle, partly because its chosen chief has served for decades in the position and believes in letting the order evolve of itself from its members, not from the top down. This means that druid groves have greater autonomy that Masonic lodges, but the idea of the autonomy of the smallest unit of the society is the same. The principal difference is that druid groves may organize themselves however they wish and conduct rituals however they choose. It is only to be expected, however, that members of an order, having learned a particular form of ritual will probably stick with it for the most part.
Perhaps it would be more correct to say that which Masonic lodges and Druid groves have the same kind of autonomy, groves often have more flexibility and that because druid rituals are so much newer, they are regarded with less awe and respect in terms of getting them verbally correct and perfectly memorized.
This brings me to another difference between Masonry and Druidry and this is secrecy. Druid rituals are written down. Ironically, the ancient druids were notorious in the time of Caesar for refusing to write down their teachings, much less their rituals. The more Masonic fraternal druid orders have maintained their privacy, and their rituals are in fact at present unknown to me. However, Ross Nichols, the founder of the OBOD, felt it was important to write down and disseminate the teachings and rituals of druidry and Philip Carr-Gomm, his successor and current chief of the order has continued this practice. Only members of the order have copies of the lessons and teaching materials of the order and thus far they have been kept within the order and no one has broken their promise by publishing them, as happened with the rituals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Druids are not bound by vows as masons and witches are to never reveal their practices and rituals. Nor are their secret forms of recognition among druids. If one claims to be a druid, then one is accepted as such based upon one’s behavior and character. There are certainly good druids and worse ones, but that has been true from the beginning. Just read the Irish myths. The word druid might be best translated by the English word wizard. He is a student of wisdom, a philosopher, and also a student of the magical arts, spiritual dimensions of being, of healing, of divination, and of natural history.
Without a system of petitioning for membership and examination by a committee, there is even less assurance within druid orders of every member being a good man or a good woman than in the Masonic lodge. In organizing my own grove, I instituted a petition process similar to that used in the lodge for precisely this reason. A close-knit group of people working on their own spiritual development and enlightenment need to agree as a group to accept new members. They need to discuss and they need to have ways of reprimanding, suspending , or expelling members. But at this date, such procedures are largely left up to each individual grove and this perhaps accounts in some measure for the relatively short lifespan of groves.
The geometry of the circle in druidry bears less reference to the moral limits of behavior than it does to the circle of the horizon, the year, the seasons, and our lives. The perambulation of the circle sunwise (clockwise) imitates the movement of the sun. The honoring of the four directions, as in Masonry, is symbolic, but the meanings are perhaps slightly different. Let me compare and contrast the two systems.
In Masonry East is the place of the Master of the Lodge. It is also the direction one symbolically travels to seek enlightenment (“Light”). This accords with the central legend of Solomon’s Temple which, for the European, is “in the East.” Theosophical Masons have taken this quest even further to look to the East even farther away, to Tibet, India, China, and Japan. The West, by contrast is the place of darkness, which is not to say, evil, but a place of relative ignorance, the place from which one begins one’s journey. One can see a hint of the Crusader’s quest in this directional idea. The West is also the place of the setting sun, and so associated with the loss of light, the lost logos, and so with ordinary human Reason, as Wilmshurst suggests.
Wilmshurst equates the senior warden in the west with the Moon, whose light is reflected from that of the Spiritual Light of the Master. He does not say that the Master is the Sun, but a Light beyond the physical light of our cosmos. The Sun he associates with the junior warden who stands in the south. In his ritual description of his duties, the junior warden says, “As the Sun in the South at its meridian height is the glory and beauty of the day, so stands the junior warden in the south.” So, Wilmshurst interprets the three principal officers as representing three states consciousness — the ordinary reason and sense of the West, the Spritual intuition or vision of the East and their synthesis in the Mason’s mind in the South. North, which has no officer in it, is a place of darkness representing the material body and its merely material senses as yet uninformed by Reason and Mind.
In Druid ritual — and I speak really only of that of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids — associates East with the rising Sun, with Spring, and with the alchemical element of Air. When entering a druid circle each person salutes the east before taking their places. For the East is the direction of the increasing light, the dawning of understanding, and the place of birth and rebirth.
West is, of course, the direction of the setting Sun, but in druidry it is not associated with reason so much as with mature emotion and feeling. It is linked to evening, Autumn, and the waning part of life in which each man and woman has passed his or her noon and reached a greater maturity, beyond the years of adulthood and child-raising focused on family. West is the quarter of the sage or the crone, the wise old man and woman who has learned much from life.
South, for druids is the direction of noon, which signifies young adulthood, strength, beauty, sensuality and sexual reproduction, the raising of children, the building of one’s life in the tribe as an active member serving one’s kin and community. It is the direction of Summer, literally and metaphorically and the highest triumph of light. Similarly, as you would expect, North is associated with the season of Winter and the final time of old age and death for our life cycle. But Winter, and the Winter Solstice that marks its middle, is a turning point that also marks rebirth. For the four directions of the druid circle form a cycle, not a boundary. It is a circle that is moving, or along which the Sun and every person’s soul moves through life and towards rebirth.
This reflects the doctrine of the ancient druids whom the Greeks compared to Pythagoras in this respect. Like Pythagoras, the druids taught immortality of the soul and rebirth. We do not know if their ideas of rebirth were a matter of reincarnation in this world or reincarnation in another world or both. The latter would seem likely as this world and the Otherworlds of the gods and fairy folk had for the druids very permeable boundaries. One could be abducted by the Good People and taken into their world. Or one might get there by dying, it seems, and encounter others who had also died or vanished. For modern druids the belief in reincarnation can take almost any form, including a scientific and material one which sees us reborn as our atoms are recycled by the Earth.
Druids do not necessarily share a belief in the same gods and goddesses or even the same belief in spirit. What they share is a reverence for the cycle of life and death and rebirth exemplified in the seasons and the vegetative cycle. They see in the agricultural year a metaphor of human life – planting, growth, fruition, harvest, dormancy, and re-emergence from the seemingly dead Earth element. The North is associated with the element of Earth as East is with Air, South with Fire, and West with Water. Each is understood as symbolic of an aspect of our being.
Druid circles are sometimes cast in a circle of trees in a clearing. Sometimes they are cast in a circle of stones. Often they are cast indoors when cold or inclement weather makes outdoor ritual inconvenient or downright dangerous. The important thing is that the directions are observed. In the center is sometimes a bon fire, sometimes an altar bearing a candle or many candles. Eight principal festivals are celebrated in the druid year. Four are solar festivals marking the solstices and the equinoxes. Four are agricultural festivals, marking respectively the time of the first lambs born in February (in more temperate climes), the first planting in May, the first harvest in August, and the final harvest in November. These eight festivals are roughly six weeks apart and can be represented by a wheel with eight spokes. The solar festivals correspond with the four cardinal directions and so the other four are sometimes called “cross-quarter” festivals, but also fire festivals because the use of fire features in all of them.
Each of these eight festivals has its own rite. Each seasonal rite is also surrounded, as it were, by the opening and closing rituals, just as in a Masonic lodge. As in the lodge, the opening and closing offer a symbolic explanation of the four directions and work sunwise around the altar to create sacred space, set off from the outside world for spiritual work. One distinct difference in my own grove is that any business meeting we wish to have is carried on after the ritual circle or at another time. It does not involve opening and closing the grove circle, nor is such business conducted within sacred space. Meetings involving the voting on new members would, of course, be conducted in private, but there is none of the ceremony and formality of the Tyler or Inner Guard in druidic workings.
I find this latter difference interesting because it suggests that modern druidry has not felt particularly threatened by cowans and eavesdroppers, probably because in the past century it existed either as an open protest movement for freedom of religion, or else within cultures that legally protected religious freedom, personal privacy, and the right to assemble for peaceful purposes. Wicca has undergone a great deal of sensationalized criticism from those who would still prefer to burn witches as a duty to their god. Druids, mercifully, have been criticized not as sorcerers but as cranks and eccentrics and so escaped the need to post guards. Druids also do not perform rituals nude so there is less need for complete privacy and some druid orders even stipulate that their rituals must be performed publically in order to promote greater awareness of neopaganism as a religious option.
Because OBOD is more philosophical and not exclusively neopagan or religious, its emphasis is mainly on freedom and privacy. When the order gathers twice each year on Glastonbury Tor for public rituals in England, the public accept it with either mild curiosity or polite indifference. In the United States and other parts of Europe the reception will very much depend on where you are.
Finally, there is the role of the officers. Because druid groves are so loosely organized, the form of their business meetings is anyone’s guess. Within most groves there is an office called the chief druid who is to some degree in charge. Whether the person is elected, or more often simply the founder of the group accepted by those who join as the leader, the chief is responsible for the health and welfare of the grove. In my own case, OBOD stipulates that any two or more members of the order can form a seed-group and attempt to grow into a grove. To be acknowledged as a grove, the group must have at least two members in the druid grade of the order.
Not all druid orders have grades or degrees but where they do they follow the system of three which we see in Masonry. The great difference is that each grade is treated as a period of study lasting at least a year. In OBOD one starts as a bard and focuses on the basics of druid sacred geometry, ceremony, the four elements, and particular Welsh poems and myths used for teaching. Certain specific meditations, rituals, and exercises are proposed and certain reading and study recommended at the end of which course of lessons, the student must be passed on to the next degree by his or her assigned tutor. The second grade is the Ovate grade. An ovate is a seer, a healer, and a walker between worlds. One’s ovate years are given over to a variety of different topics and specializations, all revolving around cultivating a deeper understanding of the spiritual dimensions of nature and a stronger connection with ones ancestors. The final grade is the Druid grade, which is parallel to that of Master Mason. It is a grade devoted to the cultivation of spiritual Light, preparation to assume a leadership role and realize one’s calling within the order. It also includes lessons, many of which center on the wand as a symbol of druid power and the esoteric meanings hidden within the Arthurian legends.
It takes a minimum of three years to become a Druid Companion of OBOD. Usually it takes longer. I myself took about seven or eight years to work through the material, but I did so without the support and benefit of a grove. This formal study and inner work associated with each grade of the druid order substitutes for the Masonic system of working through the officers line. W. L. Wilmshurst writes eloquently of the service for several years moving upwards in the progressive officers line within a lodge as intended to be a course of study in which each officer spends a year contemplating the inner meaning of his role and position in the geometry of the lodge. In druidry, the grades are separated from the offices, just as offices in lodge or Scottish Rite or York Rite bodies are separate from the degrees conveyed. OBOD has moved away from the face-to-face communication of degrees as individual lessons, to a system in which each grade contains more than 52 lessons.
OBOD lacks the dramatic quality we find in the Masonic degrees from three to thirty-three, but with larger numbers of order members and a will to do so, it might be possible to devise dramatic presentations to accompany each grade. As it is now, the initiation rituals are simple and symbolic but do not involve large numbers of people or dramatic storytelling.
In sum, there are many similarities and many differneces between these cousins. Each order has its own special initiatory current and its own coherent body of symbolism and legend. They are complementary rather than competing orders, each seeking the same fundamental goal — to increase Light in the world and thereby become better human beings and change society for the good.
Minneapolis, Spring Equinox 2008