A lot of things might come to mind when you hear the word druid — Stonehenge, robes, long white beards, and so on.
These mysterious figures stand as a kind of proto-example of ancient magic, but who were they really?
There are very few written accounts about the druids, and none from the druids themselves. Unfortunately, Celtic culture relied very heavily on oral accounts and preserved their history through bardic traditions.
As the Romans swept through Europe, many of these stories were either lost, or altered to fit the conquering culture.
Later, many of them began to include Christian elements. Despite this, through the efforts of modern-day Pagans and Celtic reconstructionists, Druidry has reappeared in a modern form.
What is Druidry?
Druidry, sometimes called Druidism, describes the practices, beliefs, and roles of the druids. They constituted a high-ranking intellectual and spiritual elite class in ancient Celtic culture, serving as royal advisors, legal authorities, and even doctors.
They are first referred to in accounts dating back to the fourth century BCE. The word “druid” is, itself, fairly complicated — nobody really knows what it arose from, but we can take a few educated guesses.
The modern word “druid” comes directly from the Latin word “druides,” which came from what the Celts and Gauls called the druids. There are words in Old Irish and Cornish that refer to the druids but these don’t give much of a hint as to where the words came from. The closest may be Middle Welsh’s “dryw,” which means “seer.”
One possible origin for the word “druid” is from the Proto-Indo-European words “deru,” meaning “tree, oak,” and “weid,” meaning “to see.” Together, this would give “druid” the meaning “oak-seer.”
Druids in Ancient Society
Ancient druids were one of the two most important castes in Celtic society, alongside the nobility. Their responsibilities included organizing worship (including sacrifices), performing divination, serving as advisors, and handling legal procedures.
It was said that it could take twenty years for a novice to complete the study they need to become a druid, and this study was made up entirely of stories, songs, and verses that had to be memorized.
The druids were supposedly literate, and able to read and write, but kept their lore exclusively in an oral form.
Today, we don’t really have any roles that match those of the ancient druids. Religious, legal, medical, and advisory roles are all handled by specialists in their respective fields. Rather than referring to the intellectual elite, the word “druid” has come to refer simply to someone who practices modern Druidry.
Most of the beliefs of the ancient druids have been lost. Old stories ceased to be passed down, and the ones that remained were altered to include Roman and Christian influences.
We do know that the druids served as the communicators between their people and the divine, and some bits and pieces of their philosophy have been preserved in accounts by Roman scholars. They believed that the soul was immortal, and would be reincarnated.
Ancient druids also had sacred groves of trees, called “nemeton” in Gaulish, as well as holy wells. There were many sacred groves and wells all over the Celtic world up until the Roman conquest, and the remains of only a few exist today.
Modern druidic beliefs aren’t a monolith, and can vary pretty widely depending on the particular group or school they come from. Most druids are poly- or pantheistic, but even this can vary in degree:
- “Hard” polytheists believe that there are multiple deities, and each of them exist as distinct individuals.
- “Soft” polytheists believe that there are multiple deities serving as the face of a single divinity.
- Pantheists believe that everything is an aspect of the divine, and nothing exists outside of it.
Nature veneration is very important to modern Druidism. Druids generally try to perform their rituals outside — if this isn’t possible, they still try to have a representation of nature, including branches, potted plants, stones, and cauldrons.
Modern Druidry vs Ancient Druidry: What’s the Difference?
Both modern and ancient Druidry require study, have multiple deities, and venerate nature — so what’s the difference?
Unfortunately, we may never know just how close modern Druidry comes to ancient Druidry. Since no accounts from the druids themselves have survived, the best we can do is make educated guesses based on what outsiders have written, and bits of surviving Celtic culture.
What we do know is that the ancient druids occupied a space in society for which there is no modern equivalent. We also know that ancient Druidry accepted and took part in human sacrifice, while modern druids do not perform any blood sacrifice at all.
It might help to look at ancient Druidry as the equivalent of getting a PhD in a combination of law, medicine, political science, and religious studies.
Modern druidry doesn’t require nearly as much study, and is undertaken by people seeking a closer relationship to nature, the divine, and their ancestors.
To the Celts, the Otherworld was a place of deities, outsider spirits, and potentially the spirits of the dead.
While the druids reportedly believed in reincarnation, there is some evidence to suggest that the ideas and traditions surrounding the fairy folk originally arose out of ancestor worship and veneration of the dead.
The Otherworld is a complex place with many names. It’s uncertain if these names are locations within the broader Otherworld itself, or euphemisms — much like calling the fairy folk “the kindly ones,” it may have been deemed necessary to avoid referring to the Otherworld directly.
In Irish, the Otherworld was called Tír na nÓg (“Land of Youth”), Tír nAill (“The Other Land”), or Emain Ablach (“Apple Island”), among other names. In Welsh, the Otherworld was called Annwn. Time is said to move differently there, and no one ever grows old or falls ill.
The Otherworld exists in parallel to the mundane world. In some legends, heroes are able to enter and leave it, and the boundary is often marked by fog, mist, or a body of water. In some cases, burial mounds serve as gateways to this strange, sacred land.
Some modern druids practice a hybridized form of Druidism and shamanism, in which there are three distinct realms, with multiple layers of each: The upper world, the middle world, and the lower world.
The upper world is a realm of deities and higher beings, the middle world is the world in which we exist, and the lower world is a place for nature and animal spirits.
Reincarnation in Druidry
As hinted at above, reincarnation is controversial. Ancient Celtic mythology indicates that the dead occupy a separate realm from the living.
In Annwn, the survivors of a fierce battle feast forever, oblivious to pain, sorrow, or the passage of time. The ability to enter the Otherworld through burial mounds at least suggests a connection to the spirits of the dead.
Nonetheless, there are also strong themes of reincarnation. Julius Caesar wrote of the druids instilling “a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another[.]”
Some modern druids believe that the soul is reincarnated in perpetuity, some believe that it eventually leaves the reincarnation cycle, and others believe that the soul may choose to go to the land of the dead.
Magic in Druidry
Ancient druids were feared as much as they were revered. In old stories, their gifts of prophecy were legendary. Cathbad, chief druid of King Conchobar, foretold the entire tragic story of Deirdre of the Sorrows in great detail. When his prophecy went ignored, every word came true.
Druids are also strongly associated with weather magic. Mug Ruith, a blind druid, could cause storms with his breath. The druids of the Tuatha Dé Danann raised powerful storms to try to drive invaders from their land.
It’s important to note that magic in modern Druidism is distinct from witchcraft. Witchcraft comprises a variety of ceremonial and folk traditions, where Druid magic is almost entirely ceremonial.
Druids seeks to facilitate communication between the mundane world and the divine, and their ritual magic takes place in a defined ceremonial space. This isn’t to say that druids don’t practice witchcraft, however. Some modern druids are perfectly comfortable performing ceremonial magic with a defined ritual structure, and also using folk magic when necessary.
Ancestors and Deities in Druidry
Druidism venerates ancestors, deities, and spirits of nature. Some also choose to pay homage to “outsider” spirits, but this varies from individual to individual.
During rituals, it’s common practice to give offerings of seeds, food, water, or flowers to nature spirits, food or beer to the ancestors, and incense, oil, food, or alcohol to deities.
Most druids worship members of the Welsh or Irish pantheons, but some follow the Norse or Gaulish deities instead. Others may take an eclectic approach, building their own pantheon from the deities of their ancestors, or whichever gods and goddesses they feel the most drawn to.
“Outsider” spirits are those who may seek to cause trouble for the druid. They aren’t exactly venerated in Druidism — more like appeased. They may receive simple offerings, like apples or beer, placed at the edge of the ritual space.
Every culture has their own troublemakers, from malicious faeries to spirits of the unquiet dead, and these offerings are a small price to pay to keep them from interfering.
Ancestors encompass a broad range of the spirits of the dead. There are blood ancestors, including distant relatives who’ve passed on. There are also cultural ancestors, which can include folk heroes or modern role models.
There are even non-human ancestors, which cover all of the species between the first bacterium formed in the primordial sea through to modern humans.
Venerating the ancestors is a way to remember and respect those who have gone before us, as well as recognize the connection between nature, plants, animals, and the human race.
In some schools of Druidry, the druid makes offerings to the spirit of the Earth, the sacred well, the sacred fire, and the world tree, followed by offerings to the spirits of nature, ancestors and spirit guides, and whichever deities are relevant to the ceremony.
They may also call upon whichever deity is believed to guard the gateway between the mundane world and the Otherworld in their chosen pantheon — in the Irish pantheon, this may be Manannán mac Lir, a king of the Otherworld.
Each High Day is associated with a god or goddess. Lughnasa, for example, is tied to the Irish god Lugh, and Imbolc with Brigid. Each deity has different food, drink, herbs, flowers, or objects that they prefer, so it’s common to offer them their favorites on their High Days.
Law of the Harvest
Druidry doesn’t have a set dogma — there is no druid bible that everyone must adhere to. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a moral code, however.
The Law of the Harvest recognizes that we receive what we put into the world. Just as humanity is inextricably connected to nature, and man is not separate from the world around him, all of our actions affect the world around us.
These actions ripple through the interconnected web of life, and eventually return to us. If we put good into the world, good will return. If we put evil into the world, evil will.
This is distinct from the idea of karma. Karma originated in eastern philosophy, and describes the mechanism by which a person’s actions in this life will affect their reincarnation into their next life.
In western beliefs, karma is interpreted as the way by which a person experiences the consequence of their actions. The Law of the Harvest arose out of the observation of the natural world.
If you sow wheat, you will harvest wheat. If you cut down an apple tree, there will be nothing to harvest. It isn’t a punishment from a deity, or the universe responding to an infraction. It is simply the natural course of things.
Ceremonies and Rituals
Ceremony and ritual structure varies from druid to druid. Some prefer to practice in groups, with a very formalized structure. Others are solitary, with a much looser interpretation.
Rituals are seen as a way to open the gateway between worlds, allowing the druid to communicate with their gods, ancestors, or other spirits as necessary. They may include magic, or may not. Some druids hold ceremonies just to honor the gods and spirits.
The concept of reciprocity is vitally important to these ceremonies. Just like humans aren’t separate from the natural world, we also aren’t separate from our gods, ancestors, or other spirits. These things all co-exist in a reciprocal relationship — that is, each party responds appropriately to the actions of the others.
This also ties in with the Law of the Harvest. If a druid makes the appropriate offerings and shows respect to their deities, ancestors, and nature spirits, they can expect to be rewarded in turn.
Some schools of Druidism teach a ritual structure than includes an exchange of gifts. After the druid makes offerings to the deities, ancestors, and nature spirits, they may perform a divination to see if the offerings were accepted and, if so, what gifts the spirits and deities offer in return.
These gifts are symbolically infused into a beverage (usually water), which the ritual participants drink.
There are modern druid orders in the US and UK. Even if you don’t have an actual physical grove near you, you can still join one of these orders as a solitary practitioner. They all offer distance learning programs that allow you to engage in whatever aspects of Druidry call to you the most.
Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD)
OBOD was formed roughly 50 years ago by the poet and historian Ross Nichols. Since then, it has grown to encompass over 20,000 members worldwide.
The Order is not a hard polytheistic group — they are open to people of any faith (or none), as well as all genders, ages, and ethnicities.
It seeks to use the ancient druids as an inspiration for a modern philosophy, rather than attempt to reconstruct ancient practices. Information on joining OBOD can be found on their website.
Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF)
ADF seeks to re-create ancient practices as closely and ethically as possible, bringing old deities and the spirits of nature into modern relevance through public worship.
ADF has created a rigorous study program that requires students to verse themselves in the roots of modern Paganism, the religious history of ancient Europe, and the mythology of an Indo-European culture of the student’s choice.
While not strictly a reconstructionist group, ADF seeks to create a skilled priesthood and temple akin to the druids of old. Information on joining ADF can be found on their website.
The Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA)
The AODA was formed in the early 20th century as a branch of the Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids. They are committed to ecological awareness and personal development, and support multiple environmental charities through their work.
They also offer a transfer credit program, by which members of OBOD or ADF can transfer their studies to AODA. Information on jointing the AODA can be found on their website.
Tools and Attire
Tools and attire differ between groups, or even practitioners. In Druidism, it’s common for an altar to have a representation of fire (usually a candle), a well, and a tree. Some practitioners may choose to include symbols of the four elements, while others may recognize the land, sea, and sky instead.
Other than some form of altar, the only other required tool is a method of divination. There is no set divinatory method in Druidism — some druids use Ogham staves, some use runes, and others use tarot cards.
It all depends on whichever method makes the most sense and can integrate the most seamlessly into the ritual structure.
As far as attire goes, this also varies. Some people prefer to practice in the nude, or wearing only natural fibers. Some wear hooded robes, and some practice in street clothes.
It’s common to have some article of clothing — even as small as a necklace or scarf — that’s reserved for ritual purposes. This helps emphasize the ceremonial mentality and enforce a spiritual boundary between the ritual space and the mundane world.
It’s generally preferable to make your own tools and attire. Not only will this help strengthen your connection to these objects, it’s usually more environmentally sustainable, too.
Mass-produced tools and clothing create tremendous amounts of waste, use up thousands of gallons of water and fuel, and greatly contribute to pollution. Creating your own tools is a way to get what you need, while being mindful of your impact on the environment.
Herbs occupy a different place in Druidism than they do in Wicca or other religions. That said, there are still multiple ways in which modern druids use plants:
- Medically. It’s said that you should let “food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” Many food plants have deep symbolic connections, and are treated with respect for their life-sustaining abilities.
- As clothing. Druids are environmentally conscious, and many shun synthetic fabrics — especially for ritual wear. Plants like flax and cotton, like food plants, have symbolism attached to them.
- For journeying. While there’s no record of Celtic people using psychotropic fungi, milder entheogens like mugwort were common. Some modern druids use these plants to enhance or produce visions.
- For blessing. Plants have an important role in creating anointing oils.
- As incense. Incense serves as an offering to the fire or the gods, and smoke can be used to cleanse a person or space.
- For washing. Ritual bathing is a common practice, as is adding herbs and flowers to water to wash tools, altars, or rooms. Vervain, one of the herbs most sacred to the druids, is an excellent plant for cleansing.
- Creating talismans or amulets. Druids don’t commonly use herbs the same way witches do, but they may wear or carry a bit of a plant for it’s magical properties.
- In divination. Druids used the parts of some plants to divine messages from the gods. Modern druids may either use the plants themselves, or turn to oracular decks featuring images of these plants.
- As offerings. Plants and flowers make wonderful offerings for nature spirits and deities alike. They can be infused into oil and offered, made into incense, or simply given as they are.
Festivals and Holidays
In Druidism, there are eight High Days, many of which are also observed by Wiccans and other Pagans. These are:
Pronounced “saw-hen” or “sow-in,” Samhain is the first High Day. It marks the beginning of the new year, and the beginning of winter. It takes place around the first of November.
The solstice usually takes place around the 21st of December. Ancient people burned Yule logs and decorated trees to honor the gods and encourage the sun to return and warm the world again.
Imbolc, on February 2nd, celebrates the beginning of spring. This holiday is associated with the goddess Brigid, and the lambing season.
Sheep and goats were vitally important to ancient Celtic peoples, and the birth of new lambs and kids was a cause for celebration.
The spring equinox takes place around March 21st. This is when the frosts begin to abate, and leaves, flowers, and grass start to sprout again. It celebrates the return of life and growth.
Beltane takes place on May 1st, and is Samhain’s opposite. This fire festival celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, and the beginning of summer.
Ancient people would visit holy wells, and kindled special fires they would drive their cattle through for protection. All household fires would be doused and re-lit from the special May bonfires.
The opposite of the winter solstice, the summer solstice marks the time when the daylight hours begin to shorten. This takes place around June 21st.
This harvest festival occurs around the 1st of August. This is when the apples ripen, and it’s traditional to drink copious amounts of cider, applejack, and apple wine.
The last High Day is the autumnal equinox, around September 21st. This signifies the beginning of the hunting season, and the end of the harvests. It’s a festival of thanksgiving, both to the agricultural deities and to the spirits of the animals being hunted.
Getting Started With Druidry
There’s only one thing to remember when it comes to beginning Druidry: Study!
It doesn’t matter if you choose to do this on your own, or join an established grove or organization, reading will be required. We don’t have access to the traditional poems or other oral histories used to train the original Druids, so new students make use of written histories, translated epic poetry, folklore, mythology, herbology texts, and other resources.
This is in addition to studies within the natural world — communicating with trees, learning to identify native plants, and forging relationships with local nature spirits.
You may find it very helpful to join an existing Druid organization, since they’ll have an established curriculum and educational standards for their new students. This is by no means required, however — there are also plenty of books on living as a solo practitioner.
That said, you might find it helpful to explore different organizations and get a feel for their educational programs, if only to offer you some guidance on designing your own.
If you choose to join an existing group, you’ll learn their ritual structure, high day celebrations, and so forth. If you don’t, you’ll have to adapt or create these on your own. It’s entirely up to you how you choose to do this.
Getting started with Druidry can be very challenging, but is ultimately rewarding. Students come away with a deep knowledge of the origins of the Druids, their historical contexts, and ways to develop a relationship with the natural world and the spirits who inhabit it. It can take time (most new students study for a year or more), but you will get out what you put into it.
Though the ancient druids may not have left any written records behind, that hasn’t stopped modern druids from weaving the past and present together to create a beautiful, poetic, and thriving religion.
Modern Druidry seeks to bring the best old traditions into the present, and remind us that we are part of a vast, interconnected web of life. There are many beautiful lessons and opportunities to grow within Druidry, no matter whether you seek to learn more from a formalized druid course, or continue as a self-taught solitary practitioner.