Thoughts on a Druid College
For about four years or so between 2005 and 2008 I served as Chancellor of Avalon College of Druidry, which was re-named for legal reasons The Avalon Center for Druidic Studies. The Center is closed now and has been dissolved as a corporation but in the time it was operating dozens of people assisted me in trying to create a new school based on druidic principals and what we might call a druidic worldview.
Some would call this “paganism” or “neopaganism” but I did not see it that way. For me, trained through the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids the point of modern druidry was not to start an alternative religious movement, but to engage nature and imagination in a way that honors the idea of the sacred and the spiritual, while also honoring the natural sciences.
For me “druidic studies” is a field of knowledge, an academic field presently without any supporting Academy. My vision (and the vision of those who joined me) was to create a druidic academic institution that focused not on the usual modern university discipines but which returned to something more like the original medieval idea of liberal arts and sciences — that is art and science (making and knowing) in the context of a spiritual view of the world. Not a spiritual view or religious view that was blinkered and narrow, but a way of seeing that did not dismiss spiritual and imaginal experiences.
Today’s academia has developed (over the past century) into a strictly secular sort of education, based on the rules of philosophical materialism. Those colleges affiliated with churches or other religious organizations do give the nod to such fields as “religious studies,” “biblical studies,” and include mandatory or voluntary attendance at chapel services. Seminaries (of which there are many) are academic institutions whose aim is to educate ministers or priests or other religious leaders.
Druidic education by nature must be quite different as there is no single sacred text upon or body of doctrine upon which to base it. Instead, modern druids embrace gods, spirits, faerie folk, otherworlds, natural healing, divination, and sometimes magic — all subjects of study that are effectively taboo in secular academia and mostly treated as false in Christian-based colleges and universities. There is today no such thing as an academic institution in the West that accepts fully the student’s interest in talking to multiple deities or the denizens of the Otherworlds. Magic is still considered part of “the Occult” in the West, even though a few publishers have in recent decades produced many books on the subject.
Magical studies, to the extent that it presently exists, does so mostly in the context of Wiccan covens and hermetic (or otherwise magical) lodges. These institutions, modeled upon Freemasonry have embraced the idea of a closed, secure, and private society. entrance to such lodges or covens is through recommendation and initiation and often involves solemn vows of secrecy and service to the authorities in charge of them. An academic model, by contrast, if it is to be a modern one, must embrace openness and transparency. Magical arts and sciences must be held up as legitimate subjects of study for those whose beliefs and philosophical bent permit them to engage in them. They cannot be treated secretly as “hidden knowledge” or a means to “occult powers” even though, for the most part, the “powers” we are talking about are literally “occult,” which is to say invisible and not generally part of the reality paradigm of our culture.
I have every respect for Occultism, but the term seems dated today. It comes from an age when a small number of intellectuals were interested in studying the mysteries of the ancient classical world, Egypt, Greece, and the traditions of India and Tibet. “Occultism” means literally the study of hidden things, or invisible natural forces. Unfortunately, Christian critics have cause the word to have connotations of “Devil Worship” and “Dark Magic” that have overpowered its denotative meaning. The study of powers and forces that are “invisible” or unquantifyable is not more “devil worship” than subatomic physics. In the 21st century, I would hope we could get over the confusion of religious myths with scientific facts. Druidry today aims not to create new religious myths so that we can have more religious wars about whose myths are factually true. It aims to destroy this illusion that has for so many centuries been used to justify wars of conquest and so-called “holy wars.”
The movement in which modern druidry has evolved attempts to find the native wisdom of the Celtic and Germanic tribes of the pre-Roman and pre-Christian era. But not the violent warrior culture of the past. We still have that part. What modern druids want to recover is the imagined spiritualty of the old druids that we think was based on respect for nature and respect for other people. It was tribal and did not rule out conflict on moral grounds, yet it was most certainly not “nationalistic” — that modern political idea that has been the cause of so many wars and so much division. Druidry is the search for something better than these old illusions about “Nation-States” and religions confused with empirical facts. At the same time, it is not nihilism and positivism that denies spiritual life entirely. Druidry aims to disabuse the world of the completely false notion than religion and science are intrinsically at odds with each other.
Not all druids believe the same things, of coursse. There is a particular division among modern druids between two broad uses of the word “druid.” On the one hand are those who seek to reconstruct the ancient religious practices of the Iron Age and make a new “paganism,” which is to say a polytheistic or animistic religion with or without temples. Others seek to create something modern (or even postmodern) inspired by the ancient druids, ovates, and bards — a new kind of spiritual philosophy that is unlike ancient cults and unlike modern institutionalized religions. Each group might be interested in a druid college for different reasons. Those seeking to understand ancient Celtic, Germanic, Greco-Roman or other polytheist ways of the spirit might desire courses in the archaeology and history of those cultures and periods. Some might like a seminary of some sort, to ordain “clergy” in much the same model as the established sects of Christianity. But that latter sort of Druidry, which I have found through the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids does not require priests or clergy and does no require one to pin on the word “pagan” to oneself. It would seek in a druid college the kind of open and accepting approach to spiritual experience and religious ideas that values reason and intution, personal subjective experience and scientific interpretation from objective facts.
Ancient druids may have been “priests” as the Romans described them. Then again they may have been “philosophers” as the Greeks described them. We do not really know. But the clues we have from the surviving literature of Ireland and Wales before Romanization and Christianization suggests that the “philosopher” is the more likely model. That is, druids were deep thinkers, not temple functionaries. They may have presided over sacred acts and performed divination and magic and healing, but there is no evidence of the kind of temple cultus that the Romans and Greeks created. Indeed, there is some evidence that the Celts derided the Greeks for their anthropomorphic deities. That suggests a worldview and indeed a theology that we would recognize today as quite sophisticated. The ancient Greek philosophers also criticized the anthropomorphic literalism of the religion of their own time, both in the classical era and in the Hellenistic era of the Neoplatonists.
For me, the core of a druidic worldview lies in the attitude towards bards and stories. A culture that places storytellers at its center is one after my own heart. It implies a culture that recognizes the power of imagination and fantasy, symbolism, and allegory which lies at the heart of most religious thought. Churches and priesthoods tend not to like imagination because they want to be able to claim that they have all the answers and that their version of history or theogony is “fact” not fancy. Bards can never be so self-deluded. They know they are telling stories. They are craftsmen of the imagination. That is the spirit of the poet.
So, imagine a college or university modeled not on the stark materialist literalism of modern science, but upon the imagination and inspration of poetry and fiction. Such an institution would have to acknowledge that all forms of knoweldge come to us as stories, as symbols, as shifting beliefs, and that the aim of education is not to learn how the world works as if it were a machine and university classes were an owner’s manual. Rather, druidic or bardic education would aim to get students to realize that they actively create their own worlds. That the way the world “works” is through our imagination and perceptions, through the arts of interpretation and discourse. The center of such an educational institution would be Logos and Mythos.
Logos, as St. John the Evangelist, and the Neoplatonists of his time indicated, is rational discourse. It is the ability of human beings to talk to each other about things that they do not fully understand and to make sense of them through the give and take of thoughts in words. When St. John in his gospel says that the Logos was God, I believe he means that rational discourse, language itself, and the art of homo poeticus is God. The very essence and definition of Divinity is the rational mind and not only that but more than one rational mind engaged together in discourse. “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am,” says the Rabbi Yeshua be Yoseph from Nazareth. This simple observation has been completely misunderstood by the literalist thinkers who absconded with the good rabbi’s words and created their own notions of a literally incarnate Son of God. That isn’t it at all. You need two or more humans together because that is the minimum to create a conversation — discourse. “I am there” means that God is there — that is, Divinity lies in discourse and reason. It is a very rabbinical thing to say, really. But he knew how radical it was in his day and fully expected that eventually the literalist priesthoods (including the Roman government with its literalist cult of Emperor-worship) would crucify him for his ideas.
Freemasonry, as an institution was founded to fight against the sort of pig-headed literalism that insists that one’s own interpretation of the world is the only correct one. In the seventeenth century the scientists were on the side of radical thinking and open-mindedness in the face of governments that had modeled themselves on that of Rome. They wanted one version of reality, one Cult, and wanted to supress all those who refused to toe the line. Modern druidry grew out of Freemasonry — that seems fairly clear — and as such it went beyond merely interpreting biblical stories allegorically and fostering free-thought. Druidry embraced a completely different worldview founded on the ancient Irish poets and Welsh bards. Instead of the biblical “Holy Spirit” they made Awen (inspiration) their Divinity.
Sometimes today’s neopagans deride the thinking of the early druid fathers of the 18th and 19th centuries because they were still absorbed in a biblical view of world history. This is hardly surprising when we consider that there were no other ways to think about the past. It took a good deal of biblical historical-critical scholarship before new ways of seeing opened up in the early 20th century. Geology, archaeology, and anthropology caused a huge paradigm shift for Western culture that permitted us to accept the idea of vast millions of years of human culture and the very idea of “prehistory.” Suddenly tribal cultures were not “barbarians” or “savages” — that is they were not viewed as culturally retarded and mired in “superstitions.” Instead, anthropology emerged to teach that tribal cutures were rich in their own ways of seeing the world and every bit as complex, and functional as the so-called “civilized” cultures of the world.
City folk have always derided country folk. Druidry, like the neopagan movements that grew alongside it, reject that dichotomy. It rejects the vilification of the “uncivilized” and “illiterate” and it also rejects the romanticization of “noble savages.” Instead it takes a completely modern anthropological view that says, “tribal cutures may be different but they are not inferior and may even in many points be arguably better than civilized cultures.” Better in terms of mental health, humility, and staying close to nature in a sustainable way of life. A druid college would have to embrace this view of humanity too. It is a sort of humanism, I believe, but one that locates the spiritual world within the human, and also outside it in nature. The one thing it does not do is locate the world of spirit in some far off inaccessible future Heavenly realm. “The kingship of God is within you” or to translate that difficult term otherwise: “The imperial reign of God is within you.” That is, early kings and potentates are but hollow men, elevated to symbolize and personify for a people that soveriegnty that actually lies within every single human being, and every other living thing too.
Poetry, art, music, fantastic stories — these things are still relegated in our culture today to the nursery. They are childish things, not manly things. Some like to say in rebuttal that they are “childlike” things — that adults may fully embrace such things and that we adults do not need to set ourselves off as separate categorically from children. Children are supposed to beleive things because they are uncritical. But anyone who has actually talked to a child knows they are extremely critical, analytical, and skeptical. Their willingness to belief in elves or Santa Claus or Jesus are willing beliefs. They want to believe because believing is good.
Adult cynicism is taken as the norm in Western culture to the point where adults are not permitted to have any real spiritual life at all. That is they are not permitted to use their imagination. Is it any wonder that so many turn to various forms of fantasy to “escape” such a narrow cell of cynical materialism. Adults are told again and again by the mass media that sex is the only thing they should or can strive after. Is it any wonder that out of this culture, some occultists turn to “sex-magic” as a way out? They can keep the “adult” focus but add the magic of the child. How much energy and money is directed in our adult Western culture toward the creation of sexual fantasies, many of which are dogmatically believed to be real in just the same way a small child may believe that Santa Claus is real.
The bard is an adult who recognizes fantasy for what it is. Like tribal societies, it is not “childish” nor is it “false” nor is it the opposite of “science.” It is a kind of understanding that is deeply human. Indeed, the fantastic is perhaps the most human of all traits, which no other animal species may share. Why then is our educational system geared to stamp it out? To call it nothing but lies and childishness or superstition?
Humans have lost their capacity for magical power because of such education. In the minds of most educators today that is seen as a good thing. There is no such thing as magic, as Uncle Vernon Dursley says to Harry Potter. I wonder if J.K. Rowling was aware that the name “Vernon” derives from the Latin word meaning a “small alder grove” and is related to the root of vernal, as in “springtime.” Indeed, in the Gaulish vernemeton is the name of a druid’s sacred grove.
The alder tree is a tree renown as a “fairy” tree and one that resists rot when growing in (or placed in) water. It is thus well-suited for building bridges. And bridges are the very stuff of so much symbolism. The Roman term for a “priest” was a pontiff, literally a bridge. The bridging of lands, the bridging of worlds is the stuff of the religious imagination at its very core. We often today call this “shamanism” after the shamans of the Tungus people of northern Siberia. The term is widely applied to a type of spiritual experience or practice in which a person bridges the gap between the human world and the non-human world (or worlds).
Anthropologist may like the term “shaman” better than “magician” or “mage” because it avoids connotations of doing magical “tricks.” In the modern secular world of academia it is considered intellectually “bankrupt” to believe in magic, except as a quaint “primitive” belief, and those mages of our own early modern era, such as the famous Dr. John Dee, or his partner the alchemist and scryer Edward Kelly, are considered rather embarrasing examples of pre-scientific thining in our own culture’s “childhood.”
Such arguments are quite insupportable, but are accepted without question by academics trained to believe that there is no such thing as magic and that alchemists were all charlatans or at best proto-chemists barking up the wrong tree. For the secular cynic, alchemists discovered chemistry by accident while engaging in an incomprehensible crazy mish-mash of neoplatonic and magical thinking mixed up with Christian angelology and demonology. Sigh.
A Druid college could not accept such blinkered prejudice. Indeed, if we take the ancient druids, bards, and ovates for our models we must first of all suspend our disbelief in magic. For magic is the manipulation of reality through imagination, often with the assistance of complex symbolic systems that identify spiritual intelligences within nature. Nature is taken, a priori, as a living thing and humans as a part of that living thing. The natural world is the Divine, and therefore studying the natural world is the same thing as studying divinity. But the mistake made in the Christianized European world of the early modern period (the 16th-18th centuries) was to believe that “God” or “Theos” was a particular personage defined by a single religion and its authorities. This is a mistake that is made over and over again throughout human history. The “Occultist” on the other hand, tends to realize that Theos (God) is Logos (discourse and reason).
I mentioned before that a Bardic College or Druid University would take as its two pillars Logos and Mythos. By Mythos I mean stories. The Greek word mythos (or muthos) means simply “a story.” Often stories in the ancient world were stories of heroes and gods. Indeed, they are often so today. Look at fantasy literature or films. Full of superheroes who are the direct descendants of Heracles or Cuchullain. Anthropomorphized gods are sometimes dismissed by scholars today as mere “personifications” of natural forces. So-called “primitive” minds didn’t understand lightning, to take one example, so they invented Zeus or Thor to explain it.
Such a statement is true as far as it goes. That is to say, Zeus and Thor are certainly associated with lightning , thunder, and storms. But the notion that they are simply personifications of natural phenomena that inspired awe and fear and had to be appeased by “primitive minds” is untenable and has been rejected even by most scholars of myth in secular universities today. It is a quaint old theory of a Victorian forefathers. Anyone who bothers to actually read or recite ancient myths aloud would see at once that there is a great deal more to these gods than pseudo-science. Only someone who believes that “science” represents truth and all else is falsehood could even begin to arrive as such a reductive notion.
The poet’s mind sees in nature the force of the non-human world and gives it a human face through the device of personification, but it doesn’t end there. The mythos of these deities and heroes and elves, tomten, ladies of the lake, and so on, are all explorations of that connection between humans and the trans-human. Not to say “transcendent” as that term is often used by mystics — that is we do not aim to cast away our humanity. Rather, we mean to bridge the apparent gap between the human and non-human and thereby look back and see that the gap was in part an illusion of our way of seeing ourselves and the world.
I spent time theorizing druidic education along these lines and I believe I achieved some success in the mental act and even its representation in words. However, creating a human institution of education requires more than words. It requires people, bricks and mortar, land, and money. An institution is built out of ideas, certianly, but until they become shared ideas, ideas that exist in the continuous and growing discourse of human minds meeting in conversation and creating for themselves meeting places where nature and human nature can be observed directly, we cannot say we have created a college.
The Latin word “collegium” from which our English word “college” comes, means a gathering. A collegium of druids is a place where druids gather together to talk, to engage in both Logos and Mythos together. Today’s druids are for the most part solitary. Even when they are members of a druid order or grove, such connections are tenuous and part-time. The idea of a university is a place where men and women can take on the social role of “scholars” and engage in that ellusive and undervalued enterprise we call “scholarship.” American culture pays very slight lip service to scholars and scholarship. Rather than considering our wise men and women to possess understanding beyond the range of ordinary common working folk, we deride them as “eggheads” or say they live in “an ivory tower” and that schools are not “the real world.” Even in the Middle Ages, when scholars were all clerics and monks, they were derided in the same way and considered strange and a bit unnatural. But partly that attitude may be a function of the sad fact that monks had been forced to give up magic. The likes of Dr. Dee were rare birds in their time. Today, a professional wizard would be considered an utter crackpot by many, if not indeed most people. Physicians are revered beyond all sense today, as are scientists, because after all, they do “perform miracles” and make such impressive magic as thermonuclear bombs.
Druids, in their heyday, were feared and respected because if you gave them any of your lip you were likely going to be turned into a pig or handed over to the fairies. Our religious leaders are, for the most part, given very little respect and are not taken seriously. They are taken as a sort of necessary furniture of a worthy life of piety. That lack of real respect is what makes me disinclined to pursue a definition of the druid as a priest or cleric. Who wants wide-eyed and uncritical groupies? Well, quite a few people do, but once they have them they invariably come to regret it or come to a bad end.
The academic model of the scholar is one that, I think, could be ressurected from its fallen state into a more respected position again, especially if our culture came to have a real understanding of magic instead of the credulous sort of mistaken notions that too often today pass for understanding. Magic is not glamorous, ironically, though casting a glamour (in the old sense of the word) is certainly magic. Does one have to cast a glamour to be respected by the uninitiated? Can druids be once again respected as philosophers? The answer clearly is that they can be so respected only if our common culture re-learns the value of philosophers (literally lovers of wisdom).
Popular culture seems to like fools better than wise men. Comedy has become the dominant genre of our time. Next to that, in hollywood and the New York Times bestseller list comes demagoguery, science, and cynicism. Fortunately, today we do have scientists who are also philosophers and not merely technicians and rhetoricians. But they are rather few and far between. The social role of “philosopher” does not exist, except in one way: the Doctor of Philosophy, the holder of a Ph.D. But hardly anyone would call the average Ph.D. a “philosopher.” the majority of Ph.D.’s would not even refer to themselves as such.
Ask the man on the street or the ladies next to you in the cafe what a philosopher is and you might get some very curious answers. It would be an instructive social experiment no doubt. The social role we have today is that of “professor.” Professors are supposed to have a Ph.D. but even if they work in a Department of Philosophy, they are not considered to be philosophers because we have eliminated that role from our vocabulary. It has gone the way of “bard” into archaic obscurity. How telling that is. A society without bards and without philosophers. Without honored poets and without honored lovers of wisdom.
Oh, of course, we do still have poets, and we have novelists, and playwrights. They live in the margins of our culture and are considered to fill the role of “artist” or “entertainer.” Not quite the same thing as the bard who was respected, feared, and welcomed in every feudal court of the Middle Ages and the ancient world.
This does raise one final question, however. Would we be better off if we had honored philosophers and bards? If these social roles were treated the way we treat pop music idols or sports heroes or powerful and rich business executives? Would we be better off? In the ancient society of our Celtic forebears we believe a class system existed something like the castes of India; that is, therer were different tracks, so to speak, to honor. One might achieve honor as a military hero or king, a political leader as we might say today. One might achieve honor as a business man (or we migh also say business woman) in the commercial track of society. One might achieve a certain honor as an artisan or farmer in tht track. And one might be a Brahmin or a Druid — one intimately knowledgeable about all the wisdom literature, the divine poetry, the Logos and Mythos of our culture, its sciences and its literature, we might say. Wise men.
In such a social order, with separate tracks to greatness, there is less danger of confusing a successful businessman with a wise man, or a successful soldier or football player with a wise man. Nor would we confuse a successful farmer or artist or artisan with a wise man. Wise men (wizards) would be a class in themselves. Physicians, lawyers, psychologists, anthropologists, economists, teachers, professors, mathematicians all might aspire to be wise men, successful in the role of a “lover of wisdom,” one who has accumulated thought, engaged in discourse about matters of spirit and the underlying hidden forces of nature and human nature. But the successful wizard would not be a narrow specialist working from a textbook or familiar with only the research papers of a single academic field. The true philosopher must embrace knowledge and nature comprehensively and holistically. Or so it seems to me. And this is the essence of the druid path. Specialists too often become sterile technicians in their field — highly adept in a narrow range of ideas and discourses. But these are the philosophers who get sidetracked and shunted off into obscurity rather than continuing to pursue Wisdom, Sophia, the Divine Logos and Mythos. Or might we say the Divine Trinity of Logos, Mythos, and Anima — the Soul itself.
A truly successful doctor of divinity would pursue the gods and the spirit, and seek them within his or her own soul. This, to my mind, is the druid way. To see the Anima in ourselves and recognize the Animal Mundi. That act of comprehension is what leads to talking to trees and elves and gods and goddesses in a discourse that does not leave this world behind, but sees it in its full context of wonder and light.
I must believe that the paradigm shift that could usher in this kind of worldview as a shared collegium is necessary in addition to the hard work of business managers, financiers, patrons, and the other staff that makes a college or university function as an institution within a human society and economy. But we need all the tracks of society on our side — the farmers, builders, managers, laborers, and stewards. All of these are essential, and must be allied as a social order to support the existence of bards, ovates, and druids — poets, visionaries, and philosophers. The head is not more important than the body but the headless body is nothing.