Druidry and Education

by Alferian Gwydion MacLir

What is "Druidic Education"? Does the phrase seem strange? We are quite used to hearing the phrase "Liberal Arts Education" or "Scientific Education," or even "Christian Education." We are accustomed to parochial schools and religiously affiliated colleges and universities. Indeed, the modern university had its birth in religious education in the Catholic Middle Ages. The very word "collegium" has at its roots the idea of a gathering of wise men and students. Likewise, the term "Academy" originates with the Academy of Plato in ancient Greece. We believe that there were druid colleges of old. Maybe they even inspired the development of medieval universities. But can we imagine a Druid college existing today?

These thoughts came to me while reading the Harry Potter novels and enjoying the whimsical presentation of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I thought to myself, "What would that look like if it were done seriously, in the real world of magical folk, and inspired by Druidry?" What, after all, does Druidry today teach? Modern Academia, like Hogwarts, organizes knowledge and skills into courses of study and disciplines – History of Magic, Potions, Herbology, Transfiguration. Can Druidry, usually thought of as a spiritual path, be thought of as a body of knowledge and technique? And if it can be thought of that way, should it be? Does that run against the grain of a spiritual path? Does it secularize the spirit? Or could it spiritualize education without devolving into dogmatism?

Gerald Gardner, in his famous book Witchcraft Today, declares witchcraft to be the practice of simple country rituals, witches dancing naked in the moonlight to raise power out of their energy-bodies and their connection to the natural world. The idea of an academy of witchcraft seems highly incongruous, if one starts with that picture. Perhaps that is an inherent irony in J.K. Rowling's Hogwarts – the "witchcraft" she depicts is very far from religious, natural, or ecstatic. Even as Wicca and other witchcraft traditions have come out of the broom closet and been propagated quite widely, the Craft continues to be seen as something that ought to be done in small private and close-knit groups, particularly because of nudity. Covens are like a kind of family. When they are like a school, covens are more like Plato's Academy, with a small group of students sitting at the feet of wise elders.

Gardner, when he wrote of witchcraft wanted to convey an image of it as a wholesome and simple faith involving celebration, healing, and magical practices that were eminently practical and not for the most part malevolent, much less "diabolic." Druidry has, by contrast, traditionally been founded in the romantic image of the wise old men and visionary bards who acted as the leaders of a society, the counselors of kings, and the educators of the Celtic tribes. Today's Druidry is not usually presented as the survival of Stone Age paganism nor as a simple faith, however it is inspired by the romantic image of the Druids of the Iron Age as "priests of nature." The image of the Druids actually includes tantalizing references to Druidic and Bardic colleges where the youth of the Celtic Iron Age were supposedly educated into the mysteries of the Druids. Some bardic colleges are thought to have persisted into modern times.

Lewis Spence in his book The History and Origins of Druidism suggests that the idea of the old Druid Colleges being at all like modern academic institutions with a faculty, dormitories and classrooms is too fanciful and anachronistic. However, today it is only logical to take the traditional academic structures we have inherited from the Middle Ages and the Nineteenth Century and to adapt them to our druidic philosophy. Traditional druid orders have mostly been modeled on Freemasonry, as have most modern magical lodges. That "secret society" model or the model of an initiatory "mystery school" are quite distinct from an academic model. They are designed to transmit a particular set of doctrines and practices and in esoteric terms, a particular spiritual or magical current. An Academy, in the Platonic sense, is designed to foster discussion, debate, observation, and reasoning about the subjects it treats. A modern academic model engages the world of knowledge, not doctrine; it employs methods, not liturgies; it demands critical thought, not faith alone.

This is the model that I have applied to the Avalon Center for Druidic Studies over the past two years. The Center, or college as it may one day become, incorporates structural elements and ideas from schools both ancient and modern. For example, the Center is intended to have a rural campus that would allow us to emulate the caves and wooded grottoes in which we know the ancient druids taught, but which would also supply the modern comforts and conveniences of heated buildings, greenhouses, and an astronomical observatory. Although it would be fun and educational to reproduce some Iron Age village architecture, the goal of Druidic education does not end with trying to experience what it might have been like to live in the Iron Age.

Druidic colleges of the Information Age can take advantage of our modern technology. Central heating and modern Green building ideas such as green roofs and graywater reclamation systems, and the use of sustainable materials for the structural and decorative elements are not only in keeping with modern druidic philosophy, but are important to the curriculum itself which, in my opinion, needs to reclaim the arts of sustainable living. Learning to build timber frame houses or straw bale construction, or learning to grow one's own food, to weave, to hunt, to maintain a forest and herds of livestock for the community's use – these are all parts of the modern druid's way of living. Even those many druids who enjoy urban pleasures and have careers in towns and cities will value a place of rural retreat where one can regain contact with the land, with animals, and working the gardens.

The goal is not to reconstruct a historical era of the past. Rather it is to create a new kind of community and farm that employs the advantages of machines without losing touch with the value of hand tools and simple hard labor. One of my touchstones in the literature of sustainability is E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful. I remember reading that in my first year at college and being mightily impressed by the idea that bigger is not always better, nor is it usually sustainable. It is the small, local community and agriculture that has always historically survived every empire and is the promise for our future, not more and bigger industrial agriculture controlled by fewer and fewer powerful people exploiting larger and larger populations.

To embrace a Celtic consciousness, as we druids usually wish to do, means in part to reject the idea of centralization and infinite growth. Kings and emperors have always been suspect among the Celts. Our modern Western culture has lost the local, close-knit and cooperative community and turned over our destinies to impersonal corporations motivated solely by profits and economic models that all too often neglect the individuals that make up a community. Our lives are too often ruled by people we never meet and our very food and clothing comes from thousands of miles away made using processes that implicate us in social injustice, economic exploitation, and the destruction of the land.

These three principles -- community, simplicity, and smallness -- seem to me crucial to the creation of druidic colleges. It is the foundation of community and cooperation that is necessary to build and sustain such institutions. Such cooperative community structures are for us today what the medieval church and its parish system were to the creation of colleges in the past. Churches provided the institutional means by which money and other resources could be accumulated to create schools and colleges. As modern druids we lack such organized church structures and so must find other models and structures through which to create and maintain our revenues. The cooperative business model, the co-housing village, and community supported agriculture seem to me a three-pronged approach that could establish the basis for a sustainable druid college. There are undoubtedly other economic approaches.

Once the fiscal and material basis for establishing a community and campus for the college has been met, what would actually be taught at a druid college today? Would it be, as it is in most Christian colleges, the liberal arts and sciences presented alongside religious services and perhaps a few courses in religious studies? Such programs of study hearken back directly to the medieval universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge. That clerical model does not seem to suit our more integrated and ecological philosophy. Druidry or Druidism is embraced as a religion by many, but it is not a religion like most of the large established religions which exist as pockets of spirit neatly set aside within the larger secular industrial culture. If Druids want a secular education to further their careers or bolster their resumes, they can turn to the many secular universities that already exist. The purpose of a druid college must be to integrate druidic philosophy completely into the acts of learning and teaching, and to focus, at least in the beginning, on those areas of understanding that are largely ignored by secular academia. This means, for example, that druidic meditation and visualization would be a central part of the learning process. No matter what one was studying, a life of contemplation, observation, and engagement with Nature would inform the learning process and the subject matter. Similarly, awareness of the world of spirits and the ancestors must inform every subject. Classes would be conducted outside in Nature as much as possible, and would include artistic and magical engagement with trees, plants, animals, stones, water, fire, air, and the soil.

Let me take an example from my own teaching. When I teach the ancient Celtic myths and legends as literature or as a basis for understanding pagan Celtic culture, I do not merely ask students to look at texts objectively as cultural artifacts that can be analyzed. I do not ask them to produce sophisticated critiques based on Marxist or Deconstructionist literary theory. They can do so, of course, but in addition I expect my students to engage the figures of literature as gods, goddesses, and heroes. This means to accept them, not as literally "historical" figures who really lived in elder days, but to accept them as spiritual presences in our imaginations here and now. Students do not merely read about Gwydion and Rhiannon, Lugh and the Morrigan; they engage them imaginally as presences and powers that exist in the Otherworlds of our imagination.

The key difference between the perspective I am suggesting and the approach taken normally in mainstream university literature departments is in the suspension of a purely objective attitude. The tendency in modern academia as in modern Western culture is to treat everything as an object and to try to adopt the objective stance of the modern scientist – seeking to eliminate subjective elements in our analysis of things. For the modern druid, that is not how we view the world. The world is not an object, but a living entity with which our subjective mind is always engaged in relationship. Such relationships are very personal. There are relatively few druidic communities in which the goal is for everyone to think alike and have the same relationship to their divinities or their ancestors. In Druidry today the tendency is to respect differences and to encourage one to form one's own relationships, one's own rituals, one's own connection to Nature and to the Otherworlds. That is a sort of religion that is quite compatible with modern ideas of academic freedom and free thinking.

While it would be certainly possible to found a druidic college based on a narrow dogmatism and one particular type of ritual practice, for me that would rather defeat the purpose of following an academic model. We would be creating parochial schools in that case, merely inculcating in our children a system of beliefs that was handed down to them as truth. That is not consistent with the mainstream of druidic thought that has come out of the twentieth century. The Druidic philosophy propounded by the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and by the Reformed Druids of North America, as well as by the Ancient Order of Druids in America, is one that encourages individual soul-searching. It does not aim to create uniformity, but rather to offer a space in which one can create one's own Druidry according to the dictates of one's own conscience.

Let me hasten to say that I think it is quite appropriate and good for particular druidic orders and groves to teach their own brand of Druidry, their own rituals and doctrines. Orders, churches -- such as the American Ar n'Draiocht Féin (ADF) – henges, and groves, fill a need by creating systems that are consistent and have a particular ethos. But that is distinct from the mission of a college of Druidry. A college must embrace Druidry as a whole field of knowledge, a complex interrelated web of knowledges and practices that comprise today's Druidry and what we know of the past. These knowledges and practices are sometimes at odds with the conventional ways of thinking about the world, but it is important to recognize that they are not disconnected from them. The study of magic or alchemy today, for example, is not a retreat to the mindset of the Middle Ages. It is a continuation of a way of thinking about the universe that exists in relationship with modern empirical physics and chemistry. They are cousins and not mutually exclusive, as modern science has tended to teach. Students of the Magical Arts and esotericism see them as alternative currents of ideas and images, rather than supposing that one paradigm always supplants its predecessor.

The Work of Bards, Ovates, and Druids

There are traditionally three grades to the Druid order of ancient times – Bard, Ovate, and Druid. These distinct roles provide the basic brush-strokes of Druid education. The work of the Bard is the work of creativity, whether that be in poetry, mythmaking, storytelling, film making, drama, or any other of the arts through which creativity is expressed. But the Bard is not merely a word-smith in the ordinary sense. As most writers know, the Bard's expression and response to his or her muse has a spiritual dimension. Poetry, and all art, has been excessively secularized, perhaps most especially in American culture. The work of the true Bard, as William Blake envisioned him, stimulates the Divine Imagination. Through meditation and gesture, the four elements are enlivened within the student and connection to the elements in the external world of Nature is at the same time fostered. Enlivening the elements within and connecting to the elements without – that is the preparatory work which lays the foundations for the journey inward into the Otherworlds, the worlds into which our own minds are the hidden doorways. If one were to pursue the creative, musical, and poetic work of the Bard it would lead to the mysticism and magic of the ovate. We think of the journey into Otherworlds as the work of the Ovate or Seer. Bards are also visionaries and the ovate carries that vision into the sphere of astral travel. The journey inward is a journey to understanding and awakening the Feminine, the goddess-energy of the cosmos.

The work of the Druid grade is two-fold (at least) consisting of the continuation of the Ovate's inward journey to engage the Masculine as a form of divine energy, becoming actively transmissive as well as receptive to the communications of the Divine. While the Feminine -- maiden, mother, crone, and Sovereignty -- enable our connection to the natural world and the formative worlds underlying it, the masculine energy of the king, warrior, magician, and lover carry us into realms of action, stewardship of the land, and pointedly directed power.

However, there is another part of the Druid grade work and that is the concentration on the realm of the Light which draws together and transcends the polarity of masculine and feminine, solar and lunar. The Bard seeks an understanding of Abred, the world of forms and the center of the circle squared. The Bard comes to understand creative consciousness in the here and now, the expression of the Self. The Ovate seeks to know Annwn, the cauldron of creation and the depth of the forest as that mystic and magical Otherworld in which animals and trees speak and bestow wisdom. The Ovate delves deeply into the shadowlands of the unconscious mind, the soul, and so searches for the soul-image, Anima. The Druid then rises to Gwynfid, glimpsing the realm of the white life, from which the transcendent Light of understanding descends. Alternatively, this white life is the realm to which all things aspire and evolve. If indeed, as so many esoteric adepts have said, humankind is evolving into new and higher forms of consciousness, then it is this Light that we call Divine which directs us, fills us, and draws on the forces of that evolution.

Put yet another way, the bard's work is to open the doors of perception, to sing of the Otherworlds and the Shining Ones. The ovate's work is to step through that doorway and visit the Otherworlds. The Druid's work is to become the door.
Druidry and Druidism

Such inner spiritual transformation has long been the province of esoteric orders. Like witches' covens, cloaked in secrecy, these orders have sought to teach the mysteries, the abilities and skills of opening the mind and soul to their full potential. The knowledge such orders taught has long been considered dangerous to reveal to those not properly prepared and trained. Persecution has also been feared and still is feared. The modern version of witch-burnings appears in the form of character assassination – one not perhaps losing one's life but easily losing one's social position and career if one becomes labeled as a "crank" or "crackpot." Among religious fundamentalists who believe in a dichotomy of good and evil, Witches and wizards are still relegated to the sphere of "the Devil" and individuals who follow such religions can respond with violence when they see the world only divided into the sheep and the goats. Certainly esoteric realms of knowledge and practice have been excluded from the halls of Academe. Can we imagine a place where they are openly embraced and discussed without a cloak of secrecy?

Openness of discourse is implicated in the philosophical and ethical dimensions of Druidry. It seems central that Druidry does not aim to inculcate dichotomies such as traditional Christianity has so often done. The cosmos is not divided into realms of good and realms of evil, nor into good and evil beings. All things contain the potential to do good or ill, and Nature herself is an amalgam of fortune and misfortune, joy and sadness. There is nothing maleficent in Nature's disasters, however we may grieve when our loved ones are killed or harmed. Evil lies in human behavior, in acts of selfishness, indifference, and cruelty. But no being is purely good or purely evil and that realization is central to all the study of Druidry – its descent into Annwn and its tales of knightly nobility and idealized romantic love. Similarly, Druidry and Wicca both follow Eastern philosophies such as Taoism when they assert that all things have in them a mixture of masculine and feminine. The world, and people, are not divisible into simple categories of sex, gender, or sexuality. Natural science concurs in this, but Druidry accepts that essences such as masculine and feminine, yang and yin, have a intersubjective reality.

All of this is Druidry as I have come to understand it through OBOD. There is, however, another strong strain of practice, which we might call Druidism just to verbally distinguish the two. While engaged in study through OBOD, I have also sought to understand more about the indigenous North American Druidism represented by Ar n'Draiocht Féin (ADF) and Keltria, which grew as two of several ADF offshoots. ADF, which started at Carleton College in my home land of Minnesota, had its birth as a kind of rebellious joke. The students who did not want to attend the mandatory school chapel services applied to be exempt from it on the grounds that they were druids. I have yet to determine what experience the founders of the Reformed Druids of North America had of traditional British Druidry, but they were moved to create "Our Own Druidry" rather than simply join an existing Druid order. Probably this has something to do with the state of the British Druid orders in the 1960's, and it may well have something more esoterically to do with the Ray (to borrow a term from Dion Fortune) that seems to have caused the renewed energy of the Druid Renaissance.
Through my small experiences in ADF and with the Keltrian grove, Mists of Stone Forest, I have come to understand some of the characteristics that set apart these North American neopagan druids from traditional British Druidry (at least so far as I have come to understand it). One must always be wary of overgeneralizing but it seems to me that OBOD's Druidry has a far more developed spiritual core focused on inner work. ADF and Keltria may employ guided meditations similar to those used by OBOD but the ethos of these orders and their groves is much more focused on worshipping the old gods and goddesses. The inward work, what I've come to see as the esoteric philosophy in OBOD, seems lacking in ADF. The kind of quasi-Christian quasi-Buddhist esotericism we can trace in Theosophy and Fortune's Society of the Inner Light, was rejected completely by the founders of ADF. It may exist in the inner teachings of Keltrian Druidry, with which I have no experience, but from what I have seen, the emphasis is on restoring and practicing a reconstructed Celtic paganism, the community cultus of a polytheistic religion which invokes the ancestors, the nature spirits, and the Tuatha Dé Danann as sources of comfort, healing energy, and power.

These North American Druidisms are not aiming to revive what the Druids did (Druidry) so much as what the Celtic people did in their worship (Celtic Neopaganism). I have come to define the term "Druidry" as essentially "what Druids do" – as, for example, cookery is what cooks do, or wizardry is what wizards do. Each cook or wizard will have a highly individual technique and application, each will follow his or her own genius, but nevertheless there is a level at which we can say, here is the craft and art of the Druids. In OBOD that means a craft which sees into the underlying magic of the cosmos, the subtle forces at play through and in our imaginations, the spirits which live in us and which live in nature, and the Light which informs all with mysterious union. ADF, as far as I can tell, lacks that kind of teaching. Although it is considered to be a Neopagan church, nevertheless it has few specific doctrines about the three kindreds it invokes – the ancestors, nature spirits, and gods. Like other modern Druidic groups, it leaves the details up to the individual's conscience and devotional experience.

Since the 1960's, Neopagan Druidism has evolved as a religion, seeking to fill the vacuum in people's lives when they have abandoned Christianity or other dominant Western religions. It offers ritual forms and looks to academic scholarship for information about how the ancient Celts may have lived and what they may have believed. Despite this rather loose and potentially malleable structure, it is essentially about belief. It sets itself up as a "faith" comparable to other religions who use that term, and its ministers speak of "interfaith" dialogues. OBOD and other traditional British orders, by contrast, are not about "faith" so much as about what Coleridge called "the willing suspension of disbelief." We do not seek to simply believe in our gods or in the sidhe, the devas, or the Faerie folk. We understand that from some points of view such things are the creatures of myth and literature. But we suspend our disbelief in them in literal terms in order to understand their inward psychic reality. We learn, in other terms, that there are levels or dimensions to reality, different sorts of reality that impinge on us and on the cosmos. Psychic reality is not "merely" in our heads. It is part of the Imagination that shapes the cosmos. Ultimately, for me, Druidry is about understanding the place and power of imagination in forming our intersubjective reality. It is not about naïve faith that our myths are the one and only truths, and it does not claim that our myths are better than someone else's myths. Rather, as Joseph Campbell suggested in his work, all the myths of the world reflect deep spiritual desires, the animal nature of humankind as well as the transcendent idealism and altruism of our nature. This kind of Druidry, for me, is philosophy not religion.

Now philosophy – literally the love of wisdom – is not inimical to religion. It is only since the 18th century Enlightenment that this has been so. Prior to that moment in history, philosophy was the very center of religion, approaching the Divine and the questions of human ethics with the inquisitive power of the intellect. It is quite possible, and common, to take a non-philosophical approach to religion. One simply accepts the myths and rituals as right and good and piously performs them. Not everyone, after all, has the time or inclination to endlessly think about things.

The bard caters to this piety – the need for stories to shape the cosmos, to make sense of the world and our society. Poems, stories, adages, as well as music and dance, are all most people ask of their religion. They don't want to question whether the stories are right or true. They just want the stories. When life challenges them and they seek healing or comfort upon the death of loved ones, or when they need help in a birth or a ritual rebirth during a rite of passage, they turn to the ovates. Like witches might have been in a time before they were driven into hiding, ovates provided these practical bits of magic and wisdom for their community: ritual solutions to otherwise insoluble problems, and a good tea to settle the stomach or a poultice to dissolve warts. Midwifery and the bringing in of new lives was undoubtedly at the center of Ovate practices at one time.
The Druids, however, were philosophers. Like their kindred Brahmins in the East, they did have the inclination, and their society gave them the time, to ponder the imponderables and discover new ideas, to gaze at the stars and wonder what they were, to wonder about the nature of truth. Can we imagine a school that fosters and acknowledges the supreme value of philosophy, the love of wisdom for itself?

It seems in some ways almost counter-intuitive. Schools, after all, are all too often hidebound, encumbered with rules, pragmatic thinking, and conformity. The Avalon Center for Druidic Studies is intended to avoid these stereotypes and approach education as something both spiritual and flexible. It is composed of a faculty of professors of various ranks, one that aims to gather together the many threads of Druidic and Bardic lore and treat them with the same kind of respect and seriousness that we give to other kinds of knowledge and other arts. Professors in such a college of Druidry might be members of Druid orders or solitary students of the Druid Ways. They might be witches or wizards of some other esoteric tradition too. Beyond these affiliations, however, they would be professionally encouraged to identify themselves as masters and doctors of their craft who publish papers and books, lead classes, seminars, and workshops, and can expect to be advanced and nurtured in their careers as producers of knowledge. One of the central differences between this concept and some of the other organizations that have been launched over the past generation is that it is not intended as the venue for a single person's teaching. Rather it is intended to assemble a first-rate faculty to share their many individual approaches to Druidry and nature-spirituality. A college does not propagate a single tradition, but seeks to draw together knowledge from them all.


At its core, Druidry is about creating knowledge and understanding, which is to say Truth. We do not "search" for Truth; we make Truth. Which is to say, the Druid must understand that Truth is not some fixed object passed down from one generation to the next. It is a process, a creative act, and we ought to approach it as artists to make our truths beautiful and surprising, and perhaps sometimes disturbing. The work of academic institutions is to make knowledge by looking at facts, speculation, insight, and inspiration to make sense out of our world and our humanity. A Druidic academy must take a step beyond academia, as we usually conceive it, for a Druidic academy must accept and include information gathered and woven from at least six senses, not five.

This opening of the doors of perception is what distinguishes a Druidic academy from the secular, scientific institutions that populate the world of higher learning these days. Avalon Center does not limit knowledge to the product of the five senses, nor even to the product of strict logic and rationality. It acknowledges that "non-rational" ways of knowing have their value alongside scientific reasoning and proofs. Openness is the key quality of Avalon Center – an openness to debate and the sharing of ideas. That does not mean that there will not be a certain amount of shared ideas and terms, but they will not be taught as simple dogmas – the body of light and the inner grove are ideas central to OBOD and other Druid orders, as well as other magical orders, and some of these concepts will be shared by students and faculty at a Druidic college, not as "beliefs" but as theories and experiences. Beliefs are seldom really open to scrutiny in a religious context, but in an academic one they are and they are questioned down to their roots in experience.

Thus, Avalon College does not take up Druidic Education as a kind of religious education, simply teaching a particular religion. It offers tools by means of which a student of Celtic paganism can pursue Druidism as a religion, but it does not aim at propagating a faith. It is ultimately an organization that can teach and practice magic and Druidry without the aura of secrecy and closed doors employed in the learning model of hermetic or esoteric lodges. Does this drain the mystery out of the mystery school? It might, but I don't think it must inevitably do so. In forming a college, the institutional structure is not invested with mystery and secrecy; rather, the mysteries of Nature and the Otherworlds and the human soul are allowed to simply present themselves in all their wonder. The institutional structure itself is de-mystified.

Avalon Center has been founded and has been in operation almost two years. In that time she has succeeded in offering online courses in a distance-learning format that does not achieve the main dream of the Center's Governors -- that is, the creation of a physical campus where students and faculty can gather face-to-face to live the Druid Way daily. Is there a will to create such collective institutions that can rise out of a community of ordinary people? Will pagans and other magical folk see the value of colleges based upon their truths and their culture, as Christian sects have repeatedly seen the value of creating their own colleges? It comes down to the very mundane business of fund-raising and donations and is especially dependent upon the donation of land. Nearly every college in the world was started with a donation of land and then followed by what we now refer to as a capital campaign to build the buildings and maintain them. We as modern Druids lack the social infrastructure that once supported our Druid ancestors, but it may be that something is about to coalesce.

I have come to feel that it will take a village – a real physical community -- to support a college. Finding suitable land is really the least of the difficulties. Finding the human skills of management and administration is much more tricky. Not because those skills do not exist in the community of the sacred grove, but because it is hard for anyone to commit to a new business enterprise unless it is going to provide them with a living. This is why I feel that the college must be grounded in providing community for bards, ovates, druids and indeed witches and others seeking a sustainable lifestyle in touch with the land. Not only is the community needed to help foster the campus, but also it provides opportunities to teach what is a central component of modern Druidry, that is the arts and crafts of sustainable living.

A Druidic Curriculum

Setting aside the search for donors and the founding of eco-villages for the moment, let me turn to the question of content. What does a Druidic curriculum look like? What would be included in the course catalog and the degree programs? The whole range of subjects encompassed by the Druidry of the ancient Celts is pretty marginal in modern academia, and that is one of the reasons for founding our own institution rather than simply trying to infiltrate some university with a few courses in Celtic studies. Divination, for example, is still these days relegated to the “counterculture” or the sphere of “entertainment.” The use of magic (apart from stage illusions) is regarded by the mainstream as a delusion that contradicts the scientific worldview, or worse, a malefic practice that contradicts the will of God. At best it is a topic that can be studied as the stuff of silly children's books or "primitive" religions. Outside of occult bookshops and the people who buy books from them, the magical arts, alchemy, divination, communication with spirits of the ancestors or the Faerie races, and work with the astral body are virtually unknown.

At the same time, the so-called "counterculture" is booming because of the increased levels of communication on the Internet. No longer marginalized eccentrics keeping a low profile in their local communities, people with psychic abilities, magical talents, or an eldritch awareness of the spirits of nature and the Otherworlds, are now able to connect to a worldwide community and hundreds of small groups meeting online. The Internet has thus become a medium for a kind of underground. It is a metaphor for the Otherworlds of spirit. I am struck also by the fascinating synchronicity that just at this juncture in history J.K. Rowling and many other writers have launched a whole genre of juvenile literature that develops the idea that there is a secret world of magical folk operating in the shadows of our ordinary “muggle” culture. Is it perhaps time for us to take a leadership role in that shadow-culture and move it out of the realm of fiction?

When I speak of a "Druid" college, I mean the term in its broad sense, which I think has been its sense in most of the literary sources about the old Druids. It is a word that refers to wizards generally, those who in some way have the Sight and work magic, and who may, if given the chance, teach and counsel kings. Today, mainstream society doesn't have much room for wizard counselors. Can you imagine a candidate running for Congress or Parliament with a wizard as his right hand man? I'm not sure that King Arthur even got away with that. We can hardly expect to bring about the return of the ancient Celtic culture of warriors, workers, and wizards, except possibly on a small scale. Today's wizardry has more to do with individual spiritual development and transformation. Indeed, that is what higher education should be all about too: Growth of the spirit, the imagination, the capacity for empathy, expression, compassion, insight, inspiration. It is hoped by many that by transforming individuals, we may come to transform our culture. Druid philosophy is not alone in promulgating such growth and transformation, and so it seems to me that a Druid college should not remain too narrow. It should invite scholars from many traditions who seek this common goal.

Because of this openness to wizardry in its most general sense, I would include some study of witchcraft and its traditional herbal healing and magic, ritual magic of many schools, including those of the Hermetic current. Ceremonial magic in the Golden Dawn tradition, chaos magic – these are part of the modern Druid's world also. I do not myself see Druidry as an exclusively "pagan" pursuit, and for that reason, I would not exclude Christian mysticism, Sufism, Kabbalah, and the mystical traditions of the East either – Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, and tribal animism from all parts of the globe. How wonderful it would be to join the ancient indigenous animism of Europe to modern institutional structures and technologies, instead of pretending that they are poles apart. How wonderful to include in the curriculum of such a school, the wisdom of all lands and all peoples.

The Druid curriculum ought not to be only focused on magic, of course. The Druids of old were more than "magic users" – they also understood much of natural history, natural philosophy, astronomy, and law. Today's Druid is likely to be keenly interested in ecopsychology and the technologies of sustainable architecture, and sustainable energy production. We may still like our peat and wood fires, but modern Druids are not likely to abandon electricity or the internal combustion engine entirely. Personally, I would hope to see a community that did not worship electronic gadgets and cars (or trucks) as fetishes, and who could keep machinery in its place, so to speak, rather than turning it into a god. This does not mean abandoning machinery but rather abandoning the dichotomized way of thinking we have inherited that places Nature on one side of the line and Artifice on the other side of the line, and then proceeds to claim that Artifice is superior to Nature and must overmaster it, control it, and "improve" it.

So, the Druid college would have its gardens and farm animals and would teach not only magical rituals but also the magic of organic farming, biodynamic agriculture, horticulture, and animal husbandry. It would grapple with the balance needed between raising food and respecting animals and plants as fellow beings in the greater worlds that go beyond the merely physical, mechanistic worldview of modern secular materialism. The curriculum might include the studio arts as well as the arts of story and mythmaking. It would certainly offer education in music and drama, ethics, history, and perhaps even law. A Druidic Law school? Well, that might be hard to imagine in the current hegemonic culture, but certainly a place where alternative ideas about law and the rule of law could be studied, particularly such nearly lost legal traditions as the Brehon laws of Ireland.
Literature and language would be central to a Druidic college education as well, founded as it must be on the Bardic ideal of poetry. The Romantic poet William Blake saw this clearly when he considered that Poetry was at the center of understanding the world. How different is that philosophy from the one that dominate in modern universities! Let us move accounting to the margins and place poetry at the center of our idea of higher education. What would happen then?

Academic Degrees or Mystical Degrees?

Let me conclude with just a suggestion of what Avalon Center's degree programs are like, as a model of what a Druidic college might be. We have taken the traditional roles of bard, ovate, and druid and on them modeled two master's programs and a doctoral program. The Magister of Bardic Arts (MBA) focuses on study of Celtic language and literature, history, music, and art. It can, if the student wishes, also include deeper study into the magical arts, creativity, and enchantment. I should personally like nothing better than to turn out a class of harpers capable of using music and enchantment to bring their audiences to laughter, tears, and blissful sleep.
The Magister of Ovate Studies (MOS), encompasses a wide range of fields too and permits the student to specialize. As the Bard can choose from music, poetry, prose, studio arts, drama, and history, so the Ovate can specialize in herbology, healing, divination, shamanic work, or magical arts. Or the student may wish to take a master's degree as a generalist rather than specializing.

The degree of Ollamh in Druidic Studies is a doctoral program that includes work in leadership studies, advanced meditation, and theology, alongside a large number of electives that permit the doctoral candidate to specialize and develop a research interest which may draw upon any of the specialties of the Bard or Ovate. The center of the Ollamh program is the writing of a dissertation of book length and defending it before the Faculty. This old academic ritual should, among Druids, be taken in a spirit of serious fun, not as a way of enforcing the "old boys net" but instead a way to cap off a marvelous achievement and engage in the serious expression of ideas in a careful and scholarly way. I look forward to the day when Avalon Center can send its doctoral students to Ireland and the U.K. to delve deeply into hitherto unstudied manuscript sources, or around the world to work with the energies of the stones and the land. I would hope their books would not be stuffy theses doomed to gather dust on library shelves, but would be dynamic explorations of the world of ideas, published and in every book shop.

In addition to these graduate level programs, it seems necessary to provide something preliminary, a program for the new seeker who has perhaps not yet studied with one of the traditional druidic orders, or joined a coven or lodge. In the world of magical folk today, there are a lot of solitaries, and there should be no stigma attached to that status. Spiritual transformation is ultimately a rather solitary endeavor. A preliminary program could hardly be a fully developed baccalaureate program, nor does it really seem that there is much need for a Druidical bachelor's degree, although that is certainly something to consider in the future. Instead, what has been developed at Avalon Center is a one-year full-time program called the Awenydd program resulting in the degree of Scholar in Druidic Arts (SDA). It is not intended to correspond to an undergraduate university education, but offers a basic course in Druidry that is preparatory to more advanced study. It includes work with the elements, an introduction to the history of Druidry, a course in practical techniques of meditation and magical work, and a course focused on the eight festivals of the modern pagan ritual calendar, among others. The intention of the Awenydd program is to help each student find his or her path and gain focus through reading, writing, and contemplative practice.

Such "degree programs" should not be thought to compete with study in particular Druidic orders and mystery schools. Rather, they complement the deep learning that traditional methods of teaching offer. A Druidic college does not in itself transmit a particular tradition or current, nor teach particular religions, but rather acts as a place where all currents and faiths can meet in a spirit of collegiality. Kept small and in accord with Druid values, a Druid college can offer the kind of structuring of knowledge and room to explore that Academia should offer at its best. A Druidic college ought to have about it a little of the magic and peace of Rivendell in Tolkien's great novel The Fellowship of the Ring -- a place to go to read the Táin in good company, perhaps aloud, perhaps even in performance. A place to discuss and write about the old tales, and so discover what one thinks. A place one can toss the ogham fews or the runes, study tarot and many other forms of divination that are not specifically tied to the ancient Druids but are a part of what many Druids do these days. Given a large enough population of students gathered together, there might even be student groves, covens, and lodges on campus, instead of fraternities and sororities. There ought also to be hermit huts for those seeking solitude. As wonderful as the Internet is, a Druid college should, above all, be a place of green hills and oak trees where you can come to study or vacation with other Druids and magical folk. And there we shall be waiting for you, with a seat by the inglenook in the Flaming Head Pub. You will come in out of the rain after a long journey, open the door to the smell of smoke and ale and wet dogs, and the company will shout, "Hail and well met traveler!"


Works Cited

Carr-Gomm, Philip. Druid Mysteries: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century. Rider, 2002.

Ellison, Robert Lee. The Solitary Druid: Walking the Path of Wisdom and Spirit. Citadel, 2005.

Greer, John Michael. The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth. Red Wheel, 2006.

Myers, Brendan Cathbad. The Mysteries of Druidry: Celtic Mysticism, theory, and practice. New Page Books, 2006.

Orr, Emma Restall. Living Druidry: Magical Spirituality for the Wild Soul. Piatkus, 2004.

Ross, Anne. Druids, Preachers of Immortality. Tempus, 1999.

Schumacher, E. F. Small is Beautiful. Harper, 1973.

Spence, Lewis. The History and Origins of Druidism. Newcastle, 1995. Originally Rider, 1947.

Talboys, Graeme K. Way of the Druid: The Renaissance of a Celtic Religion and its Relevance for Today. O Books, 2005.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Many editions.