The answer is not to be found in books

240px-awen_symbol_final.svg_A month ago when serious quarantine measures started to be required here in the U.S., Scribd announced they were giving a free 30-day trial of their service: e-books, audiobooks, and access to podcasts, documents, articles, and other such entertainment. I’ve never not been interested when someone waves a book at me–like a dog is never not interested in a strip of bacon in front of its nose–so I signed up.

After three weeks, I dropped my subscription to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, and today, I paid for my first month of Scribd, for $8.99. I’m still paying for Netflix, but I’ve made far more use of Scribd in the past month, let me tell you. You can legally read all sorts of books, even very recently published ones, even books from niche publishers like Llewellyn and Weiser and the like. I have a reading list of probably a hundred titles saved, at least, sorted into topic lists. I have marked thirty books on Druidry alone for my reading pleasure.

I haven’t read any of them.

I’ve read and listened to a book on Celtic (Christian) spirituality, The Soul’s Slow Ripening by Christine Valters Paintner (which I recommend). I’m reading and listening to my gwersi, the lessons of the OBOD course; I decided to get them in dual format, booklet and CD. I’ve rearranged my shrine with more druidic ideas in mind (though Antinous still has a corner and a lotus candle-holder). And I indulged in an Awen pendant from OBOD, a beautiful silver item I will be happy to show off when it arrives. (It just seems so… English to me that the OBOD office takes things to the post for shipping once a week, on Thursdays. Only on Thursdays.)

Today, after faffing around online with Tumblr and Facebook for far too long, I suddenly got up out of my chair, clapped my hands, and shouted, or at least declared, “The answer is not to be found in books!” And immediately thereafter muttered, “I can’t believe I just said that.” Because for 99% of my life, the answer has always been found in books. In school, the answer was in the textbook, and my mother once went to bat for me because my social studies teacher did not accept my answer to the test question, “Who was the founder of Buddhism?” I wrote “Siddhartha Gautama”, having at that point read half a dozen books on world religions. The textbook, however, said “Gautama Buddha”, so the teacher took off points. Except for that question, I would have had a perfect score. Yes, I am still mad about this.

At church, the answers were in the Bible, but also in the Prayerbook and the Hymnal. In college, the answers were in the textbooks. When I was curious about something, when I was bored, when I was anxious or frightened, the answer was pretty much always to be found in a book. You just had to find the right book–and holy gods, have I spent a lot of my time and money looking for that One Right Book. One time when I didn’t do that so much was when I started taking yoga classes. I found that I liked it; I had a wise, gentle teacher who taught modifications for those of us who couldn’t do the postures perfectly already, like the models in yoga calendars. And it felt right in my body, in a way that no other form of exercise ever had. I think I had a sense that books would only take away the great gift I had found in yoga, of getting out of my head and into my body. I didn’t want to think about yoga; I just wanted to go to class and sweat. A lot.

I do want to read about Druidry, to learn more than I already know, but to tell the truth, I’ve already read so much. I know a great deal about Druidry, about various forms of the Craft, about Christianity, Judaism, Tibetan Buddhism, and other traditions. I don’t really need more intellectual knowledge. What I need is practice, something embodied, something that brings knowledge down into the heart and the gut. And while my first thought is often to make a plan, compose a rule of life, write a liturgy, I know from experience that the best practice often results from wading in, splashing around, and eventually finding a rhythm.

Which is why, once I post this offering to my blog, I’m going to pour clean water, light an candle and incense, and sit to meditate in front of my shrine. And see who or what comes to me, and where I go.

The practical druid

The Seer from the Wildwood Tarot by John Matthews, Mark Ryan, & Will Worthington

The first practicum or weekly exercise for the OBOD correspondence course asks a very practical question: “What do the Druids and Druidry mean to me?” Despite this practicality, this very necessary clearing of the ground before we start trying to plant new seeds, part of me wants to skip over this step, as if I’ve done it all before. Well, I have. But that was years ago, and I both am and am not the same person who wanted to join OBOD when the order and its correspondence course were new. Part of coming back to Druidry is my discovery of how I have not changed, not been molded, by everything that flowed over me since then.

So what does druidry mean to me? First off, it means a spiritual practice in which nature and creativity are both core values. Druidry values nature, the spirits of nature, and alignment with nature, but it also encourages personal gnosis, personal creativity, personal adaptation of druid ideas and practices to one’s own needs. It has a great reverence for trees and flowers, stars and rocks, birds and beasts, winds and waters, and likewise a great reverence for song and story, music and poetry, oral tradition, improvisation, and all creative acts.

Druidry for me is primarily the tradition of the Druid Revival, which dates back to the early 18th century. The Revival gave us both the cultural institutions of Welsh and Cornish druidry, preserving those languages and literature by putting them in a spiritual context, and the druid spirituality that many practice today, the alignment with nature and with one’s own creative spirit. As former ArchDruid John Michael Greer has pointed out, Revival Druidry is a spiritual tradition that’s three hundred years old; that’s quite a respectable age, much older than Wicca, and enough time for considerable development.

However, I’m also interested in what we know about the original druids and willing to take that as informative if not normative. I’m not a reconstructionist and have never claimed to be. Who and what the ancient druids were still seems to be a contentious issue, but as I understand it, they are best seen as the religious and intellectual caste of the Celtic cultures, akin to the Brahmins of India. Their roles in different times and places ranged from diviners, healers, philosophers, educators, poets, priests, sacrificers, and even magicians or shamans. They often appear as advisors to kings and chieftains, and have the distinction, shared with Christianity, of being prohibited by the Roman Emperor. If you’ve ever watched Babylon 5, the religious caste are druids, and vice versa.

It’s important to me that Druidry is a Celtic thing. Because “Celtic” is often such a fuzzy word, I’m going to go a little further and say that Druidry is the product of a group of cultures linked by language–Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, Manx, and Breton. Linguists often remind us that “Celtic” is primarily a language designation, not a cultural one. Actual Irish, Welsh, and other “Celtic” people like to remind everyone else that their cultures are very much alive, despite being threatened for hundreds of years by English political domination. I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think the Celtic cultures share certain core values that are also druidic: again, reverence for nature, honor for creativity (especially in words and music), and bloody stubborn independence. Which, as you might guess, are some of my core values, too.

Druidry seems to me to be a spirituality and a practice that has a lot of room in it. There is room for Christians and pagans, atheists and polytheists (I am the latter), artists, magic workers, and mystics. There is room for people with the gift to lead public ritual, for those who can guide and counsel others, and for those like myself who basically want to be contemplative monastics, but are neither Christians nor Buddhists. There is even room, I think, for the devotional and erotic side of my spirituality, although the erotic is far more emphasized, even central, in some witchcraft traditions (such as Anderson Faery).

Finally, I think that the Forest God, with whom I have been dealing for about a year now, has been gently herding me toward this path. I ask to go forward with his blessing.

The hermit in the forest

My taste in books took shape pretty early in my life. The Oz books were probably the first complete series I owned, followed by the Chronicles of Narnia. I first tackled The Lord of the Rings when I was around ten, and began reading books about Star Trek around the same time–books about the show, and novelizations of the animated series, as this was after the show originally aired and before its first movie came to the big screen.

Then there were the books influenced by Welsh mythology: Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, a wonderful series of children’s books that should be more widely known; and the Mabinogion Quartet of Evangeline Walton and the Deryni Chronicles of Katherine Kurtz, which were not children’s books but that never stopped me. And with them, perhaps before I read LOTR, even, the stories of King Arthur.

There were always versions of the Matter of Britain in print and available. I believe I had a copy of Sidney Lanier’s retelling that had belonged to my sister, eleven years older than me. I read several but not all of Howard Pyle’s retellings, owned by my neighborhood library; I was more influenced by Pyle’s Robin Hood than by his Round Table. (Pyle introduced words like “marry!” as an oath and “victuals” into many a young reader’s vocabulary.) I read The Sword in the Stone as a separate book but got nowhere with the rest of The Once and Future King. And I was in my early teens when The Mists of Avalon dropped into my life, as an anvil drops on the head of a wiley coyote.

Morgaine and the priestesses of Avalon swirled together with The Spiral Dance and other books about paganism and Goddess religion made an intoxicating brew that I quaffed for many years. (I think I learned the word “quaff” from Howard Pyle, too.) And I continued to sample various retellings of the Arthurian legends, though I wasn’t enthralled by many of them; Lawhead’s Pendragon books, Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, and T.A. Barron’s Lost Years of Merlin all left me unenthused.

Then I came across some nonfiction books about the Mabinogion and the early Arthurian legends by a couple of British writers named John and Caitlin Matthews. Their work unfolded magical and spiritual meanings out of the Welsh myths and legends, as others had done for the myths of Greece and Rome, and they have continued to do so for over thirty years. Their books drew me as strongly and steadily as the stories themselves had, and they led me to Ross Nichols and The Book of Druidry.

I confess that I never read all the way through Nichols’ book. It’s an intimidating melange of archaeology, poetry, speculation, what we now call UPG couched in 19th-century language. It is perhaps more akin to the work of Sir James Fraser and Margaret Murray or to Gerald Gardner writing about the witchcraft he was discovering and inventing than to what is now taught and practiced by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids that Nichols founded and his protege, Philip Carr-Gomm, revived.

Carr-Gomm was a stringy teenager when he met Ross Nichols and began to learn druidry from him. He was in his thirties when he became the Chosen Chief of OBOD and began, with the help of the Matthewses and other contributors, to put together a correspondence course that would soon be used by people around the world. Today OBOD is the largest druid organization in the world and Carr-Gomm is stepping down as Chosen Chief, handing the office over to a woman.

I remember that back in 1990 or thereabouts, when I was just discovering that there were people who called themselves druids (not witches or pagans) and that they found meaning in stories that had possessed me for most of my reading life (which was most of my total life), I wanted to join OBOD and take their correpondence course. My ex, or husband or fiance as he may have been at the time, was also interested (he was always interested in my spiritual pursuits… but that’s another post). The course just wasn’t affordable, even for one of us; we were pretty broke for much of our marriage, as it happens. I let it go and for a couple of years we experimented with a DIY version of pagan practice that was something of a fusion of witchcraft and druidry (and that, too, is another post).

Thirty years later, I am single, solitary, and not in terrible shape, financially, although I’ll never be rich or win any prizes for money management. More importantly, other than my bird, I have no one to please but myself–and my gods. And the god with whom I have been most deeply involved for the past year, the antlered one whom I know only as the Forest God, has led me back to the forest, to druidry.

I joined OBOD earlier this year by signing up for the correspondence course. I’ve received two installments so far. I am slowly reshaping my shrine, my altar, and my daily practice into something I can call “druidic”. And it’s not easy–not because the OBOD material is difficult, not because I don’t want this, but because I have wanted it for so long, and now I have to let go of so many things that were once good in order to move forward and welcome this new thing. I love so many things about Anglican Christianity, and the Christian tradition has wisdom I think pagan traditions desperately need, but I cannot go back to just being a Christian. I have loved Antinous dearly and the initiation he gave me moved down to the deepest levels of my being, but my relationship with the god has changed; it feels like he himself wishes me well but is telling me to move on.

What strikes me most when I think about my early reading, and especially about the Arthurian legends, was that as a child, I didn’t want to be a queen or a damsel or even an enchantress. I wanted to be a knight, with a sword and shield, or one of Robin Hood’s band, dressed in green and armed with a bow. Or, even more than that, I wanted to be the wise old hermit in the forest, the one who always had provisions and wisdom to offer the knight errant or the lost damsel, along with a safe place to sleep. Druidry is my path, I think, I hope, to becoming that wise hermit, a sort of pagan Julian of Norwich, my cell open to nature, the gods, and wandering travellers.

Image by silviarita from Pixabay