Overview of Modern Druid Groups: Introduction
2020 note: I wrote this this over 15 years ago. Some of the information may be outdated. Of the six groups I focused on, one has since disbanded. Some of the smaller groups mentioned in the text may have also disbanded. I have occasionally added updated information with the header,“2020 note:” or just “2020:” if I found new information or revised links when checking links for the 2020 update, but I have not done a thorough revision of the text to update the information to what exists for these groups in the summer of 2020.
Many people don’t realize that there is a wide variety of groups that call themselves Druids that have different ways of “doing Druidry” and are then puzzled by conflicting information about what Druids “do” or “don’t do.” This is my attempt to clarify some of the differences and similarities among some prominent Druid groups and lessen the confusion. I will present an overview of six modern Druid groups including: the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), the British Druid Order (BDO), the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA), Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF) and the Henge of Keltria. I chose these groups because, with one exception, they are fairly well-known and they are good representatives of the range of spiritually-oriented Druid groups that are out there. In this article, I will explore the histories, the organizational philosophies, beliefs, and guiding principles of these organizations, the ways these organizations are structured, their membership and training programs, and some comparisons of ritual for each of these groups.
I am a member of two of the groups I will be discussing (an active member of OBOD and a rather inactive member of the Henge of Keltria) and have participated in a number of meetings, workshops and rituals with a local ADF grove. So I have some first hand knowledge of several of these groups and I also gathered information from the groups’ web sites, published books and articles by prominent members of these groups and from discussions on various druid-oriented message boards and forums. 2020 note: I now only belong to OBOD.
What Is Druidry? What Is Druidism?
There are no simple definitions about what modern druidry or druidism is. Each group conceives of druidry/druidism in its own way and we will be looking at how six groups interpret druidry for themselves. You will often see the terms “druidry” and “druidism” and may have wondered if there was any difference between them. Until recently, I had thought that the two words were pretty much interchangeable, but I recently encountered this explanation by John Michael Greer, who has done much research into the development of Revival Druidry (another term I will discuss later):
The term “Druidry” was a creation of Ross Nichols, one of the major luminaries in the English Druid community in the mid-twentieth century. He wanted to stress that the Druid path was not an “ism,” an ideology or set of beliefs, but a craft, a set of practices and traditions sharing common principles. The English language gives the suffix “-ry” to any number of crafts, such as pottery and forestry; the example of Freemasonry was probably also in Nichols’ mind (nobody talks about “Masonism”). More recently the two words have become convenient labels for the two main approaches in the Druid community, with “Druidism” used most often by recent Celtic Reconstructionist groups [and certain Neo-pagan Druid groups] who base their versions of the Druid way on modern scholarship, while “Druidry” is used most often by older groups who work with the heritage of the Druid Revival. (1)
Druid groups that have evolved from Revival Druidry tend to prefer “druidry” and perceive its meaning much as is described by John Michael Greer above. Druid groups that were created in the latter half of the 20th century and that define themselves as “religions” more often tend to use “druidism.”
Of the six groups we will be exploring today, AODA, an offshoot of revival Druidry, uses “druidry” exclusively. OBOD, also an offshoot of Revival Druidry that is evolving into a religious path, uses “druidry” more often, but considers “druidry” and “druidism” to be interchangeable. ADF and the Henge of Keltria define their paths as religions. ADF uses both terms, but uses “druidism” more often and the Henge of Keltria uses “druidism” almost exclusively.
The British Druid Order seems to define itself more as a religion, but follows the British traditional usage of “druidry.”
Classifications of Druid Groups
Isaac Bonewits classified Pagan religions and Druid groups as one of three types based on when the religion or group was founded. He used the term, “paleopaganism” or “paleo-Paganism” as a term for the “original polytheistic, nature-centered tribal faiths from around the world.” Most of these belief systems are now extinct, but a few have survived to the present day.
“Mesopaganism” or “meso-Paganism” is a general term for a variety of movements founded in the 17th through 19th centuries that created spiritual/magical/philosophical systems or methods of practice based on what was believed to be the best of paleopagan beliefs, as they were known at that time, but influenced by the religious and/or philosophical ideas from that time. Often there was an attempt to reconcile these “reconstructed” or “revived” practices with then contemporary beliefs and practices.
“Neopaganism” or “neo-Paganism” is a general term for a variety of religious/spiritual movements started since the 1960s or so based on what was known about paleopagan practices at the times of their founding and blended with more modern ideas about religion, history, psychology, etc. (2)
The University of Virginia’s (UVA)New Religious Movements web site uses a similar scheme with slightly different terminology. What Bonewits calls “paleopagan Druid,” the UVA web site calls “classical Druids”; what Bonewits calls “mesopagan Druids,” the UVA site calls “revival Druids”; and what Bonewits calls “neopagan Druids,” the UVA sites calls “modern Druids.” I mostly use the UVA terminology. (3)
How do Classical Druids relate to Revival and Modern Druid groups?
We don’t know much about what the the classical druids did or thought. Although we are gaining increasing amounts of information from archaeology and through multi-disciplinary examination of literary sources and material culture sources about Celtic religions, we still do not have enough information to form definitive pictures of what the religions were like or how the druids were involved in them or how the druids were involved in the structures of various Celtic societies. Based on Irish literature and some ancient Roman commentaries, it appears that the classical Druids were a class of intellectuals and priests in their society and that Druids filled many roles, including teaching, presiding at rituals, being judges and lawyers, being poets, philosophers, prophets, and many other roles. But exactly how it all worked over time and within each Celtic society is unknown.
This lack of knowledge has made “druid” a useful name for spiritual/magical societies. One can ascribe all sorts of knowledge and practices to druids and it would be hard to disprove them. The Reformed Druids of North America consciously used “druid” in just that way — they were looking for a name that had connotations with spirituality and religion, but for which little was known.
Revival Druid groups did try to model themselves on what, at the time, was the cutting edge of scholarship on the classical druids. To fill in the gaps, they added influences and ideas from hermetic magic, masonry and Judeo-Christian mysticism and created working systems that have stood the test of time.
Many modern Druid groups also try to model themselves on what is now the cutting edge of what is know about the classical druids and fill in the gaps with ideas from other paleopagan religions or from Asian religions, with different interpretations of hermetic magic and with modern psychology.
Some Currently Existing Revival Druid Groups
There are a number of Revival Druids groups still in existence. Many of these are now charitable/social/fraternal organizations similar to the Masons or the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, but others still have some mystical/spiritual emphases. Some examples of Revival Druid groups that still survive are the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond, said to be formed in 1717; the Ancient Order of Druids, formed in 1781; and the Gorsedd of Wales, formed in 1792.
Some Modern Druid Groups
In addition to the six groups I will be exploring in this article, some other active modern Druid groups are: the Covenant of Avalon, the Tuatha de Brighid, the New Reformed Druids of North America, the Loyal Arthurian Warband, The Berengaria Order of Druids, The Druid Order of the Yew, and many others.
What do Druid groups have in common?
Common to both Revival and modern Druids is the idea that Druids were intimately connected with the study of nature and the one widespread characteristic I have found for the Druid groups I have studied is a devotion to and study of nature to a degree not found in other Neo-pagan religions I have encountered. They also tend to honor a Celtic heritage to one degree or another. Each group, in its own way looks to what is or was known about how Druids functioned in Celtic societies and have tried to incorporate that into its philosophies and practices. The quest for “awen” or “imbas,” respectively Welsh and Irish words that can be loosely translated as “flowing inspiration,” is also a prominent feature of many of the Druid groups, especially those that are British-based or Revival-Druidry-based.
- Greer, John Michael and the Ancient Order of Druids in America. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed July 16, 2004. <http://aoda.org/aoda-membership/frequently-asked-questions/> Insert in brackets is my own. 2020: AODA FAQ
- Bonewits, Issac. “Defining Paganism: Paleo-, Meso-, and Neo- 2.5” Published 2001. Accessed July 16, 2004. <http://www.neopagan.net/PaganDefs.html>
- Junker, Karen. “The Religious Movements Homepage Project: Druids” Published 2001. Accessed July 16, 2004. <http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/drud.html> 2020 note: A copy of this can be found at: <http://wp.wiccanweb.ca/2004/02/20/druidism/>.