Authenticity and Authority in Druidry

by Caitlín Matthews

Talk given at OBOD 50th Anniversary – 7th June 2014

caitlin-matthewsYou would think that 50 years were long enough and yet, we still hear, ‘By what authority do you call yourself a Druid? Or ‘You’re not a real Druid! You’re just a neo Druid!’

In the face of a society that dismisses spirituality to this degree, it is hard not to harbour a sense of fraudulence. Is my Druidic avocation founded upon anything? Is mine an authentic path and so do I act with authority? A sense of fraudulence is something that many seekers are subliminally aware of when they approach a tradition that has had no living elders for centuries.  By what right are we here? Where are the druids of yesteryear?

When When a tradition loses its living practitioners, it doesn’t mean that the tradition dies. Like water that goes deep underground, it will find another place to come up. This has been my experience since I was 12. The mixture of land, ancestry and the inspiration that connects us to spiritual sources weaves its own golden thread which we follow as best we may. If we follow faithfully, it leads us onwards and we find the tradition to which we have already been connected without knowing. People seek druid initiation in different ways.

Some folks try for complete authenticity by druidic re-enactment, learning a Celtic language, dressing the part, living in the Iron Age. But, as Bob Truscott points out in the recent issues of Touchstone, these people still bring their own mindset with them.  It is not by copying the past that we continue the druidic tradition, although the past can inspire us.  Some join a druid order and commit its literature to memory: but druidry doesn’t lie in what is written.  Some folk perform rituals that mark initiations: but it isn’t in the ritual that initiation lies. Some seek a line of transmission: those who have been druids before, but  druidic authority doesn’t lie in having an ‘apostolic tradition.’

When we want to properly orient ourselves, we study the cardinal directions, north, south, east, west, and map our course from the clues that they give us.  Each of the directions feels different; each speaks about, teaches different things. When we stand in the place of our true abiding, we can be aware of the powers of the cardinal directions that are unseen but also just as real.  In a similar way, Druidic initiation involves us finding the internal compass points of druidry.

The 10th century Middle Irish Saltair na Rann or Psalter of Verses advizes that there are five things a wise person should know: ‘the day of the solar month, the age of the moon, the tides of the sea, the day of the week, the calendar of holy days.’  Although this was written down in the Christian era but we still catch the druidic necessity to understand time and our surroundings.

In the not so ancient days of my youth, analogue televisions came with what used to be called the horizontal and vertical hold  – buttons that controlled how the picture was delivered to our tiny screens. Loss of horizontal synchronization usually resulted in an unwatchable picture; loss of vertical synchronization would produce an image rolling up or down the screen.  We are living in times when a similar problem is afflicting people too: a lack of primary coordinates is making life unbearable, disabling understanding and connection.  Wherever we live in the world, in whatever circumstances, we can still find our horizontal and vertical hold.  They are essential for druids.

Our ‘horizontal hold’ is what makes us a native of the place where we live, regardless of whether we were born there or not; it entails knowing the orientation of the celestial bodies – the sun, moon, stars and planets – over that place, in every season; knowing the plants, rocks, animals and trees in our region; being aware of the spirits of that place, the unseen and manifest life both in, and out of time, in that location.

Our ‘vertical hold’ transects time and place, for it is made up of the ancestral and inspirational rivers that flow into our being.  The ancestral tributaries are those of blood, of genetic and epigenetic tendency that inform and shape the life of our bodies. Ancestors of blood and spirit become aware of us. The inspirational tributaries carry the influences that inform and shape our souls.

With our internal compass of the unseen and manifest directions, and with a well practised horizontal and vertical hold in place, we become established and seen, both in our communities, where we can be of service, as well as to the unseen witnesses who observe and support us – the spirits and ancestors who are part of a living spiritual continuum.

Initiation means simply ‘to go into it.’ Our druidic initiation is about going into and becoming part of that living continuum. Recognition by the spirits and by the community, who are the joint witnesses, has a very pragmatic manifestation. It is an unfortunate fact that those who didn’t go into that continuum yet, often set themselves up as druidic practitioners, but it is only those who’ve been initiated into the living continuum who are asked by their community to be of service, because people can tell when we have not.  It is only by becoming part of that living continuum that we have initiation: when we enter into it, then we have the authenticity that we seek.

Each contemplation of a living tradition of wisdom has its own light which is reflected through and beyond time. The light that was shed in ancient time is thrown from its place of concealment to become the visible means by which we walk our road.  It reveals to us the task that calls us home, which is the living druidry.  The stillness and attention that we give to druidry causes its interior light to shine into our perception: our own witnessing of the druid light causes it to be reflected and amplified. When we do that,  we too are witnessed as druidic successors.

Making a place at our hearths and community gatherings for our ancestors is the first step in continuing the traditions and wisdom with which every land is endowed. When this happens, when we honour ancestors and their wisdom at a national level and things will change for the wellbeing of All That Is and for our children’s children.  When we have done this, then we have authority indeed.

A tradition that gives life has no need to reinvent itself: it has a continuity of its own. We are part of that continuity.

When we acknowledge and live the internal compass points of our tradition by our authentic connection with ancestral wisdom and true service to our community, then we stand in the light of our forebears, becoming in our turn, ancestors of blood and spirit.

So when someone says, ‘So you call yourself a druid,’ you can, with authority, look them in the eye and say, ‘I don’t call myself a druid, I AM a druid.’

Seamus Heaney and Me

A Druid Way

Irish poet, Nobel Prize winner, essayist and translator Seamus Heaney died earlier today in Dublin at 74.  More than once I’ve quoted Heaney on this blog, not least because his work is accessible without being Hallmark-y, literate but not stuffy, and redolent of earth and earthy intelligence.  In other words, delightfully Druidical.  Rather than go all lit-critic here, I’ll give a tribute in the form of a modest personal anecdote. If I need any justification, we’re both farmers’ sons.

heaney2In January 1984 Heaney offered a 7:00 pm reading and book-signing as part of the long-running Brockport Writers Forum at the College of Brockport, a school that’s part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.  I mention this because at the time I held an unhealthy disdain for the SUNY schools.  They weren’t Ivies, and though a farmer’s son, I cultivated a decided snobbery that looks simply ludicrous now.  I…

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Circles, Why are they Important (or not) in Modern Druidry and Pagan Practice?

I had someone ask why we were ‘breaking’ the sacred circle boundary so often during our Samhuinn ritual on Saturday. My response.

Thanks for the note (name with held). Remember that any circle you may perform magickally is a construct to keep your mind focused. It is not required to do any healing work, or workings in general.. That being said: When we do public ritual with moving parts and invocations, we move ritual participants in and out of the circle. In this specific case, we invoked Cailleach – which was an exterior entry to the circle and ritually brought forward for the purpose of the Rite. The interesting thing is that it was one of the participants that transformed to that energy. No new energy added or removed from the ritual circle. So in a poetic way, we drew the Cailleach from the energy in each of us… If you reference some modern thought on magick circles and magick in general, you’ll see advice not to get too hung up on constructs cause you’re just weakening your own magick capabilities by relying on them. Kerr Cuhulain in his book ‘Full Contact Magick’ is a great reference guide for more contemporary quantum thought on Magick and less 18th century ‘mechanicalism’. He is a Wiccan practitioner and his book is great for any pagan tradition to draw from. It is very much in line with the OBOD traditional thoughts on the subject (druid and ovate grade) and expands a bit on areas of Magick that aren’t heavily outlined by the order. I have a few hard rules I use for our public rituals. This is to keep them grounded well and understood by a wide range of participants that may or may not be druids:

  • Don’t let people leave or join a circle where deep work is taking place (judgement call of the ritual leader). The energy being added or taken away is far more disruptive than crossing some imaginary boundary, though they are related loosely to understand who has ‘joined’ or ‘left’ the circle, or merely watching. You have to be strong practitioner to do public ritual because you are limited in your control of geography.
  • I ensure that we always do a standard opening and closing based on OBOD tradition. This creates sacred space (less about boundary) and more of a sacred place within each participant.
  • Certain level of uniformity in dress and ritual tools for the main directions and principals of the ritual. This shows unity and balance of the circle – also is a powerful effect on the dignity of the Rite itself.

John Beckett also wrote on the subject. You can check out his blog article at the link below. “The circle is also an organic arrangement for gathering. It gives everyone unblocked heat from a common fire. It allows everyone to see everyone and facilitates conversation. Like King Arthur’s Round Table, it promotes egalitarianism. The idea of gathering in circles is a very old, very natural, very pagan idea. While we can only guess at the purposes behind such ancient monuments as Stonehenge and Avebury, it is no surprise they are circular.”