NOVEMBER 28, 2017 BY JOHN BECKETT
November 28 marks an uncertain but important anniversary: 300 years of modern Druidry.
On November 28, 1717, the Ancient Druid Order was founded at the Apple Tree Tavern in London. Or at least that’s what Ross Nichols – the founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids – said in The Book of Druidry.1 Historian Ronald Hutton says there’s no evidence this meeting took place and puts the first documented Druid order as beginning in 1792.2
So do we have anything to celebrate or not? Like Christians arguing over whether Jesus was really born on December 25 (it’s uncertain but unlikely), finding the exact date is less important than picking a date and celebrating.
The re-imagining and re-creation of Druidry is very much worth celebrating.
The Ancient Druids
There is very little we can say with certainty about the ancient Druids. Based on the evidence we have, we think they were judges, healers, and keepers of records and lore. They were probably priests, though how closely they resembled the temple priests of the Greco-Roman world is difficult to say. Whatever they were, they were important enough for the Romans to go to the trouble of wiping them out in the Anglesey massacre of 61 CE. The Roman historian Tacitus reported:
On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair disheveled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands.3
What the Roman armies could not destroy, the coming of Christianity did. Druids lost their positions as priests, then as advisors, then as healers. By the 7th century, their only role was as bards who may not have known anything about their predecessors.
The idea of underground survivals is attractive and therefore persistent. In The Book of Druidry (1975) Ross Nichols wrote:
Intermittent recognition of Druidry as a possible philosophic system or a local cult seems to have occurred from time to time since AD 1245 and obviously the tradition went on in hereditary groups who kept it to themselves.
Yet there is no evidence for these “obvious” hereditary groups, and it seems highly likely at least one would have come out of the shadows by now. As with the claims of witchcraft survivals from ancient Paganism, the claims …