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Neo-Druidism Since the 1700s

This article was written by Tadhg MacCrossan on February 25, 2003
posted under Druidism

The last vestiges of the Filídhecht schools were stamped out in the 1600s as Elizabethan English conquered and destroyed most of Ireland’s remaining Gaelic culture. The "plantations" of Ulster, and the extension of the Pale beyond Leinster into Munster and all the way to Connacht wiped out the old Gaelic aristocracy and most of it’s culture. Later came Cromwell, who sent many Irish leaders off to "Hell or Connaught!"

In Scotland, a few Bards and Vates were left in the Gaelic areas of the Hebridean islands, but the old Gaelic order was in for more English oppression. Ironically, it was the English who first took an interest in the Druids of antiquity in the 1700s. William Stukeley fancied that they were the builders of Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments. Naively, the English Masons invented mock orders of Druidism incorporating various speculative ideas with flights of fancy. Welshmen such as Edward Davies took off with these new fads during the Age of Enlightenment when Romanticism was growing as a movement against the Age of Reason. The pendulum swung, and when the Romantic era began, Edward Williams dubbed himself "Iolo Morganwg," invented his own form of Druidism (or "Bardism"), and forged documents which he attributed to a Welshman named Llywellyn Sion.

He wrote his forgeries in Welsh and had them published with his own English translations as the Iolo Mss by the Welsh Manuscript Society in the early 1800s. Two posthumous volumes of forgeries, edited by John Williams were published together in 1862 as the Barddas. This was at first proudly hailed as a book of ancient Welsh mysticism, but as early as the late nineteenth century was suspected as fraudulent. In the twentieth century, it was conclusively proven to by G. J. Griffiths to have been a forgery.

Trying to establish a great bardic tradition for South Wales to compete with North Wales, Iolo Morganwg falsified an historical account indicating Druidism had survived into the 1600s. He claimed that the information he presented had come from earlier bards such as Llywellyn Sion.

While Morganwg did help to establish a southern Welsh eisteddfod (eye-stedh-vod) tradition, his phoney neo-Druidism reflects Deism, Unitarianism, neoplatonic ideas. His doctrines of reincarnation involved a place of punishment known as "Annwn." "Abred" for this world, "Gwynfyd" for heaven, and "Ceugant" for God, reflect Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics, as well as Deism.

Morganwg invented the coelbren y Beirdd, a primitive version of the modern Welsh alphabet of Latin letters designed for carving in wood. He also created the motto Y Gwir yn erbyn Y Byd, "The truth against the world," and four "Albans" (Hefin, Elfed, etc.) The three vertical lines called a trilithon, (also known "as rays of Awen") are his creation as well. Other concepts include the dasgubell rhod, the Hirlas horn, the Gorsedd and the mistransliteration of Uates as "Ovates."

Morganwg must have been well-read in the classical commentaries, but unfortunately he knew nothing of Irish tradition, which had better preserved Druidic ways. The Gorsedd of Bards, "Ovates," Druids at Welsh eisteddfodau and the organizations which spawned English Druidic Orders (such as those run by Thomas Maughan and Ross Nichols) all incorporated the pseudo-Druidry of Morganwg (Williams) into their degree workings.

Later, ideas from Gardnerian Wicca were incorporated, as well as the usual Hermetic and Cabalistic grimoire magic. Sadly, and ironically, it seems that neo-Druidry made up for its lacking in authentic Druidism by borrowing materials from various other systems. Druidism is Celtic, and would naturally be better represented in a Celtic country such as Ireland or Scotland than England; unfortunately Wales had been more dominated by English culture than Ireland.

Celtic culture blossomed in Ireland’s late nineteenth century literary renaissance. Even Anglo-Irish writers such as W. B. Yeats and Douglas Hyde, became enthralled with Ireland’s Celtic past. Renewed interest in folklore and folk custom set the scholars, philologists, folklorists and musicians off collecting materials in Ireland’s Gaeltachts (gayl-tokhts), where people still spoke Irish Gaelic as an everyday language.

Great medieval Irish books were finally getting translated and published. Renowned scholars such as George Calder, Robin Flowers, Lady Gregory, R. A. Stewart Macalister, Rudolf Thurneysen, Osborn Bergin, Myles Dillon, T. F. O’Rahilly and Sean Delargy made seminal contributions to the study of Irish historical and literary antiquity, in the process influencing Ireland's great modern day bards and poets.

In the highlands of Scotland, a great Celtic renaissance was also spreading. Indeed, interest in early Celtic folklore had begun in Scotland soon after the James MacPherson forgeries were exposed. MacPherson had claimed to have collected ancient Celtic lays from the Fenian cycle, although he himself had composed them in the original Gaelic. In Mack’s Fenian tales, Finn Mac Cumhail was called "Fingal," and Oisín (usheen) was called "Ossian" (awshin). This Fenian material was so influential that the Romantic movement’s passion for medieval literature spread because of the popularity of his literary creations. Even symphonic music was composed under the inspiration of MacPherson’ s Fingal and Ossian stories, and it was very popular on the continent.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Alexander Carmichael began collecting Highland material from folklore. It is still being published long after his death, but his eight-volume collection Carmina Gadelica remains a greater source for those interested in late forms of Celtic folk magic.

In the United States, the Druidic movement began somewhat hazily through North American versions of the Druid Orders of England. Later, during the time of Irish emigration, in the twentieth century, interest in Irish romanticism grew but Irish- and Scottish-Americans’ Celtic interest was still limited. (Unfortunately, many Welsh-Americans had also forgotten their Welsh roots, since their ancestors had come over in the 1700s.

In Great Britain, though, a full-fledged revival was brewing. From London, the late Colin Murray ran an organization called the G.S.O. (Golden Section Order) and published a beautiful, hand-colored, illustrated newsletter called the New Celtic Review. In Scotland, the Keltic Research Society was formed by J. A. Johnston. ("Kaledon Naddair"), who published the Inner Keltia journal, reprints of folktales, and The Pictish Shaman. He set up a College of Druidism in the early 1980s out of Caer Aedin, or Edinburgh, teaching Cabalah and Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas tradition, as well as some genuine Celtic lore.

Pristine Celtic religion seems to be the main interest of only a few groups today; most of them are focused on Mother Goddess worship or pan-European mixed with neopagan Wicca. There are several "groves" and other covens of Dianic Wicca, most of which are devoted to Mother Goddess worship and to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. Except for a few scattered Celtic groups around the English-speaking world, comardia Druuidiacta Bitons, headquartered in America, is one of the few purely Celtic spiritual and cultural movements to be found. It has spread from Australia to Quebec and France. Druidiactos is not just another neopagan organization, but a postmodern Celtic renaissance movement starting at the grass roots level. The Breton Druids’ organization (allied with Druidiactos) is called Comardiia Druuidiacta Aremorica. It publishes materials in French which authentically represent a revival of the Druidic or Celtic religious system. Their Ver-Druis (Chief Druid) is called Esunertos, and their Allio-Ver-Druis (Assistant Chief Druid) is Gobannogenos.

I have led Comardia Druidiacta Bitons and Uxsello-Druidiaxton (the Druidic college). To my Breton colleagues I am known by their translation of my first name into Gaulish: Tasgos (Gaulish for Tadhg). The Allio-Ver-Druis is Uindoderuos (M. G. Boutet) of Quebec. The Celtic spiritual path is Druidism, which is the magic of the Druidecht (modern Irish draíocht) of the Druids, the Filídhecht (modern Irish, filíocht) of the filídh, and the Celtic magic of the whole Celtic culture and mythology.

Not everyone is a Druid in the Celtic path of Druidiactos anymore than all Hindus are Brahmans, all Christians are priests, bishops or ministers, or all Jews Rabbis. The Druid is the priest of the people of the Celtic path. His or her job is to direct ceremonies, make sure mistakes are not made in ritual, organize gatherings, and to help others. The Celtic path also involve Warriors, the martial arts traditions, chivalry, manners and etiquette.

Druidiacta is also very much a cultural organization devoted to studying the Celtic ways, past and present, and preserving ancient Celtic heritage. Much of this work is being done in the Gaeltachts of Ireland, Scotland, and many areas of Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. Celtic heritage can also be found intact in Nova Scotia, the Appalachian mountains, and many large cities around the United States and Canada. There are Celts in Australia and New Zealand who are preserving their heritage for these nations as well.

Druidism is not Iolo Morganwg’s Bardism, nor the British-Israelite faith, nor Cabalism, nor neo-platonism, nor Pythagoreanism, nor Wiccans nor is it feminist Mother Goddess worship. It is the cultural and spiritual heritage of the Celtic peoples, a polytheistic religion descendant from the archaic proto-Indo-European past. It was carried into western Europe by Indo-European who spoke the Celtic dialects.

The Celtic folk—kings, mothers, druids, warriors, milkmaids, farmers and herdsmen, settled and conquered western Europe and taught the Stone-Age people there to use bronze, to speak Celtic, and of the magic of Druidism.

Before I met Merlin Stone I was blind. It took her a little time; she gave me a strong dose of love, and from then on I could see—see the world as a feminist, that is. Merlin converted me, so if you haven't yet read her work, be prepared to bring the Goddess into your own life as well. I'm Lenny Schneir. Shortly after meeting Merlin in 1976,... read this article
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