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Defining “Druid”

What is a Druid?

Ask an hundred, you’ll get two hundred answers—so says an old adage. What the term “Druid” means, really depends on the person answering the question.

I’ve been a pagan since I was about twelve years old, meandering hither and yon, as my intuition compelled. In that time, I’ve changed my focus from (particularly Traditional) witchcraft, to Wicca, to shamanism, to Native American (read, “Canadian”) spirituality, to Druidism, to Druidry. I’ve seen the term “druid” defined by various authors and individuals I’ve known in-person, ranging from the self-styled “black magician” (essentially, a role-playing magic-dabbler on an ego-trip) who strutted about proclaiming himself to be one of a limited number of “Merlins” on Earth, to the WINO (Wiccan-In-Name-Only) who thinks the term “Druid” sounds more manly than “Witch,” though he isn’t really interested in practicing any paganism, because he doesn’t want it to “control his life,” to members of the British Druid Order (BDO), to members of Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), out of which emerged the Henge of Keltria, an Irish-focused Druid tradition, to members of Hermetic druid orders, like the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), and The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD)—the latter of which I’ve been a member for a few years. Sometime in the past quarter-century, I encountered the use of the term in reference to environmentalists, and it was this usage that really caught my attention.

I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to investigate the Orders I’ve mentioned above, and the numerous others that exist around the world; for now, I want to address matters not specific to any particular Order, and in the course of things, to discuss my own usage of the term.

What do Druids believe?

Here’s the first sticky-wicket in the quest to define the term “Druid.”

Over the years I’ve encountered, and read about, Druids who held naturalistic-pantheist ideas about the Multiverse and its nature, and more animistically-oriented Druids of a Deep-Ecological bent—in both these cases, there were strong tendencies toward anarchy and environmentalism. In these cases, the label was applied more to a philosophy or worldview, than to a belief-system.

There are Druids who are drawn to forge relationships with deities, who believe in the Fair Folk, and so-on. There are also those who combine their Druid practice with other religions: Dru-Witches, Dru-ish practitioners (Jewish Druids—not just the folks from Druidia are Druish), Buddhist Druids, Unitarian Universalists, and so-forth.

Because of the diverse groups who call themselves “Druids,” it’s not at all surprising to find that there are those who become “Druid-er-than-thou” about the path they’ve chosen to walk. Humans are, by nature, a tribally-oriented social primate, who naturally forges elitist viewpoints and builds social-groups around them, to the exclusion of dissidents.

What do Druids know?

The second major difference between various druidic practitioners is in the kinds of knowledge they accrue.

Author Jean Markale (one of my first sources of druidic information)—whose books I recommend more for information’s sake, than for useful knowledge—defined druids, basically, as pantheistic woodsmen—using a definition of the “oak-knowledge” that druids are supposed to possess, which included practical knowledge of wild foods and medicines, and skills for living in the wilderness; as well as being mediators, spokespersons, and so-forth. This definition spoke loudly to me, as a boy—the type of quiet, introvert boy-scout who took to the woods, studied science and nature, spent a lot of time in wooded areas and abandoned lots, and running about in a breechcloth.

Hermetic orders tend to intertwine Celtic mythology and spiritual alchemy, and their practices tend to lend themselves well to combo-paganism, and to a fluid Universalism, which might have them defining deity as non-existent, or in plural, as the mood strikes them.

The most common form of belief among Druidic practitioners seems to be animistic or polytheistic, similar to Wicca’s practitioners, where a follower of the path might forge a relationship to one, or many, of the deities of Celtic nations.

The general study of Druids will involve some degree of knowledge of Celtic mythology, Ogham, plants, and so on–not to forget the belief or non-belief in, and subsequent study of, magic and the supernatural.

It’s all a matter of personal preference, as with much of paganism, and each of us is freed to pursue a worldview that suits us well in a given period of our lives.

What of Druid tools?

Druids of every stripe have as much appreciation for the tools of their path, as do most witches, Buddhists, Jews, and practitioners of many other religions.

Of the trappings and trinkets associated with a Druidic path, the most popular, and enduring, seems to be the staff. Varied traditions will add to this a ceremonial knife, wand, sword, cauldron, bracers, cloaks, robes and so-forth, but a walker of the path needn’t have any tool to mark him or herself as one of us—they’re just tools, as we said in our episode on the topic.

How the tools are used varies by tradition, as well. In my own case, while I have wands, cups, swords, and other claptrap, my own staff is nothing more than what we, in scouting, called a “thumb-stick,” and was a scoutmaster’s walking-stick. In my case, I add to it only two things: a set of coloured hair-elastics, used as measuring devices in the following of tracks, and the wing-feather of a Northern Flicker, which I acquired in a town I once lived in, after requesting the feather of that species as a marker of my readiness to move onto other training. I don’t ascribe any power to it.

What about Druid rituals?

This is another thing that varies by tradition. Most modern Druids follow the Wheel of the Year, devised by Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols, some sixty-plus years ago, and some Orders focus on the four “fire-festivals,” while still-others pay greater attention to the seasonal equinoxes and solstices.

Primarily due to my solitary practice, and pantheistic worldview, I focus on only a few festivals: Winter Solstice, Samhain, and Beltane. I do acknowledge the summer solstice and the equinoxes, but my practice is generally not heavy-laden with ritual. To these, I may occasionally add Earth Day (April 22nd), as I see fit, but as a hedge-druid, I usually don’t celebrate anything in a major way.

How can you identify a Druid?

This is an interesting issue, because of the many ways someone can be a druid, but our appearances can range anywhere from ordinary man-on-the-street, to hard-core paper-gamer, to Goth, to Ren-Faire attendee, to (on the more extreme end) a Mick Dodge-type, buckskin-clad wild-man, reminiscent of Merlin in Geoffrey Monmouth’s Vita Merlini. My own appearance tends toward earth-tone clothing and camouflage, with an Awen pendant and a hemp necklace bearing a silver oak-leaf, but it’s really another personal thing. I’m a grown-up version of the tree-hugging dirt-worshipper I was in my youth, with greater skill, experience, and knowledge.

What I think truly marks a modern Druid, though, for those who seek us, is the aura of earthiness and wisdom that surrounds many of us, particularly when we’ve spent a long time on the journey.

In the long-run, it’s up to each of us to define our own Druidic path as we see fit, and to walk it with a sincere and ever-seeking heart. Read all you can, learn all you can, and seek guidance from those who’ve walked before you.


Brian is an Animist, with Naturalistic-Pantheist leanings, exploring Transpersonal and Ecopsychology. He has a lifelong fascination with myth and folklore, comparative religion, herbs, beekeeping, and rites of passage.

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