I don’t generally attend Neopagan festivals these days—been there, done that, used the T-shirt to mop up a variety of messes—but I made an exception a few months ago for ConVocation, a midsized event in the greater Detroit area. It was pleasant enough that I’m seriously considering going back, which is saying something given my general experience of the species. That said, just as every rose has its thorns and every blog its trolls, there was one decidedly awkward moment.
I hasten to say that the moment in question was not the fault of the event, or of the harried and genial crew of people who run it. Rather, it’s something that every public figure in my end of the alternative spirituality scene gets to deal with on a regular basis. As I think most of my readers know, I’m a Druid—specifically, an initiate of several of the traditions of the Druid Revival, the astonishing rebirth of Western nature spirituality that emerged among circles of eccentrics in 18th-century Britain and hasn’t slowed down yet—and for reasons we’ll get to presently, some members (though only some) of a more recently minted brand of Neopagan spirituality seem to find it necessary to throw hissy fits in public whenever the Druid Revival comes within shouting range.
Yes, that’s what happened this time. I was one of the guests of honor, and there was a meet-and-greet scheduled with me as the designated target. To this event came a certain person who’s something of a big cheese in the Celtic Reconstructionist movement, the freshly manufactured brand of spirituality just mentioned—those of my readers who are familiar with Celtic Reconstructionism will know his name, but it could have been any of several dozen others, and those who don’t follow the vagaries of that particular sub-subset of the Neopagan scene have probably never heard of him, so we’ll leave him his anonymity here. Of course he had to launch into the standard canned rant about just how much more authentic than mine he thought his traditions were, and did so at sufficiently great and dreary length that most of the other attendees were looking around in evident embarrassment by the time he finally got off his hobby horse and let someone else talk.
Under other circumstances I’d simply have rolled my eyes and gone on to the next event. As already noted, you can count on facing this sort of tirade on a routine basis if you’re into the Druid Revival traditions and show your face at Neopagan events. Still, reflecting on that overfamiliar experience over a pleasant glass of scotch later that evening, I realized that there are actually a couple of lessons worth learning from it all.
To get to those lessons, it’s going to be necessary to take a couple of backward glances, first across the history of American Neopaganism and then across the history of American culture itself. I apologize to any of my readers who find this uninteresting, but there it is; across the board, whether we’re talking about the gyrations of alternative religious subcultures or the great arcs by which civilizations rise and fall, you can’t understand the present without getting some sense of how we got here.
In the case of modern American Neopaganism, “how we got here” starts in the 1960s, when Wicca—the brand new “Old Religion” that Gerald Gardner patched together out of a grab-bag of modern occultism, mid-20th century pop culture, and remanufactured medieval lore—leapt across the Atlantic to provide a more fashionable alternative to the traditions of American occultism then in circulation. Central to the rhetoric of Wicca in its early missionary days was the claim that it really was the Old Religion, the original Neolithic goddess cult of Europe, driven underground by a series of patriarchal religions that culminated in Christianity but passed down intact over the centuries by an unbroken sequence of third-degree grannies. Those third-degree grannies really got around; for a good many years in the 1970s and 1980s, everyone who was anyone in the Neopagan scene had at least one.
The difficulty with these ebullient claims was that they didn’t happen to be true. As Wicca matured, and a new generation of initiates started asking for hard evidence to back up the historical claims made by Gardner et al., it became increasingly clear that the evidence in question simply didn’t exist. Most Wiccans responded sensibly enough by recognizing that a religion doesn’t have to be ancient to be true, and kept on worshipping their goddess anyway. Some, by contrast, clung to their traditional history in the teeth of the evidence, in much the same way as those fundamentalist Christians who keep insisting that Noah’s flood must have happened even though all the geological evidence says otherwise.
There was a third response, though. Some people in the Neopagan scene responded to the disproof of Wicca’s ancient origins by deciding that they were going to find the real Old Religion and practice that instead of Wicca. It was out of that reaction, by and large, that the Reconstructionist movement emerged over the last decades of the 20th century.
There was, it’s worth noting, nothing whatsoever wrong with such a response. Returning to ancient roots, real or imagined, is one of the most common themes in American popular religion, and it’s among the creative ironies of our cultural history that most of our really innovative movements got their start from some such attempt to go back to one primal source or another. Most of the communities that emerged out of the Reconstructionist movement, for that matter, found their feet relatively quickly and don’t count any more belligerent bullies among their members these days than any other alternative religious scene. Unfortunately for the Celtic Reconstructionists, they discovered that the notional territory they wanted to claim for their own was already occupied.
Yes, that’s where the Druid Revival comes into the picture. Back in the 18th century, when nobody but a few British eccentrics interested in nature spirituality had the least interest in what little was still known about the ancient Druids—the priests and scholars of the Celtic peoples of Ireland, Britain, and Gaul—those eccentrics borrowed the label and a handful of surviving traditions and ran with them. Now of course the founders of the Druid Revival knew even less about pre-Christian Celtic religions than scholars do nowadays; nor were they particularly fixated on authenticity. They were more interested in having something that worked.
Two other factors made this latter detail particularly objectionable to the Celtic Reconstructionists. The first was the legacy of that force of nature, Edward Williams aka Iolo Morganwg. It’s not going too far to call Iolo the Gerald Gardner of the Regency era. He claimed to have inherited authentic ancient Welsh bardic traditions passed down straight from the days of the ancient Druids, and his claims, like Gardner’s, were broadly accepted in the counterculture of his time. It’s worth noting, in the light of what came later, that Iolo was in fact a Welshman, not merely in the sense of having been born in Wales of Welsh parents (which he was) but also in the sense of growing up speaking Welsh from the cradle and being utterly fluent in traditional Welsh culture from earliest childhood (which he also was).
He also studied traditional Welsh poetry with several elderly poets who had as much right to the title of bard as anybody did in 18th-century Glamorganshire, and even those scholars who critique him most harshly admit that he knew medieval Welsh language and literature as well as anybody alive in his time. That was exactly the problem, because he used his extensive knowledge to pass off his own very good Welsh poetry as the work of important medieval Welsh poets such as Dafydd ap Gwilym. The 18th century was one of the great ages of literary forgery, and Iolo was right up there with the best.
In the 19th century, when Iolo’s legacy was incorporated into the burgeoning Druid Revival, none of this mattered in the least. The extent of Iolo’s forgeries had not yet even been guessed, and a great many people took his invented bardic traditions at face value, as part of the heritage of the ancient Druids. That was only a small part of why the Druid Revival adopted his work, though. To 19th century Druids, what mattered was that Iolo’s inventions worked—that they made great raw material for ceremonies, meditations, and spiritual practices that furthered the Revival’s goal of a living spirituality of nature. To a sizable subset of the Celtic Reconstructionists, though, none of this mattered; the Druid Revival was using material that they considered inadmissible, and that was that.
The second factor referenced above fed into that reaction. Until the late 20th century, it was pretty much de rigueur for any alternative spiritual tradition in the western world to claim some ancient and romantic origin. When Gerald Gardner backdated his newly coined religion of Wicca to the Neolithic, he was following a grand tradition; in those days everybody, but everybody, had some equivalent of Wicca’s third degree grannies to provide them with a backstory. Sometimes the granny-equivalents were taken literally by the founders and promoters of newly minted spiritual traditions, sometimes they were simply part of the PR, but you couldn’t do without them if you wanted to find an audience.
A personal reflection may be relevant here. When I became Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) in late 2003, one of the first things I urged on the other members of the Grand Grove—all of whom were much older than I was—was that we ‘fess up about the order’s real historical roots. They were horrified by the suggestion, not because they had any particular illusions about AODA’s origins, but because they believed that nobody would join it unless it had a putative ancient source. I got my way, and people joined anyway; times had changed—but I don’t think the older members were just shoveling smoke. As recently as the 1970s, they would have been right.
None of that mattered to a sizable subset of the Celtic Reconstructionists, though. As far as they were concerned, all that mattered was that when they set out to revive ancient Celtic religious traditions, the territory was already occupied by a mob of horrible fake Druids, who had to be driven off or shouted down so that the Celtic Reconstructionists could take their place as the spokespersons for ancient Celtic spirituality. This a certain large fraction of them proceeded to do, or at least to attempt.
For a couple of decades, as a result, the sort of rant I observed in Detroit was something that pretty much everyone in the Druid Revival community had to put up with on a routine basis. Of course it was worst on the internet. When AODA launched its first-ever email list in 2004, we very quickly found that the mere fact of our online existence was enough to bring a steady stream of drive-by trolls, who wanted to join our list for the sole purpose of posting lengthy denunciations of us as horrible fake Druids. We ended up having to make our email list 100% moderated so that members of the order could carry on conversations about anything else. Elsewhere? A lot of people in the Druid Revival scene simply stayed off other Neopagan forums entirely because the bullying was so pervasive.
I’m glad to say that things have calmed down somewhat since then. Partly that’s because the Celtic Reconstructionist movement got over its early growing pains, and a fair number of its members seem to have realized that the mere existence of the Druid Revival doesn’t pose any threat to their adopted identity; partly, it’s because people began to notice that the campaign of denunciation had the effect such things usually do, and spurred a remarkable increase in membership among Druid Revival traditions; and partly, it’s because those Celtic Reconstructionists who chose to throw stones were doing so from within some remarkably fragile glass houses.
The awkward fact is that we know very, very little for certain about the religious beliefs and practices of the Celtic peoples before the arrival of Christianity. The ancient Druids themselves had a rule that none of their teachings were to be written down, and apparently kept it, since exactly nothing survives of their lore. In terms of the broader popular traditions, what has survived is a very modest number of texts written down by Christians in the Middle Ages, some of which contain some material that may—scholars disagree about this—date back to pre-Christian times. Add to that the equivocal evidence of archeology and an assortment of folklore collected in various Celtic countries, and you’ve got the sum total of raw material the Celtic Reconstructionists had to work with.
Is that enough to build a valid spiritual path? You bet, and at least some of the Celtic Reconstructionists did so. The difficulty, though, is that they had to engage in a lot of creative interpretation, add their own personal experiences, and bring in material from other sources to do it. That’s not a problem if all you want is a meaningful spiritual path; it only becomes a problem if you also want to insist that your spiritual path is more authentic than someone else’s. That insistence became unavoidable, though, because of another factor over which neither the Celtic Reconstructionists nor anyone else had any control: the vagaries of a certain enduring theme in American pop culture—and this is where we leap from the history of American alternative spirituality to the history of American culture in general.
Beginning in colonial times, American culture has had a complex and problematic relationship with its more-or-less parent cultures in the Old World. Among intellectuals, that’s generally expressed itself in one of two ways. There have always been some intellectuals who focused on the unique elements of the American experience, and sought to distance themselves from the Old World, and others who went the other direction, and emphasized their participation in Old World cultures. Among the latter, it’s long been fashionable to take this to the extent of pretending not to be American, and adopting the manners and traditions of some older culture instead.
For a very long time—from colonial times, again, until the first years of the twentieth century—the usual target for such exercises among white American intellectuals was England. All through those years, you could find people in the United States who aped English cultural fashions, rhapsodized about Ye Olde Days when knights were allegedly bold, went to the Episcopal (that is, Anglican) Church, and put on their best imitation of an English accent whenever they thought they could get away with it. For a variety of reasons, though, Anglophilia lost its exclusive grip around the time of the First World War, and things got colorful from there, as an ever-expanding smorgasbord of faux identities became fashionable in the American intelligentsia.
Those of my readers who were around in the 1960s and 1970s will remember when the standard pose was Indian—at the time, this could mean either Hindu or Native American, take your pick. The avant-garde in those days produced a bumper crop of (mostly) young men in Nehru jackets who claimed to be mystics and brandished paperback copies of the Bhagavad-Gita and Autobiography of a Yogi, and another bumper crop of (mostly) young men who’d bought ersatz buckskins at the local Tandy Leather store and brandished paperback copies of Carlos Castaneda and Black Elk Speaks. I don’t happen to know what the Hindu-American community thought of all this, but I knew Native Americans then and thereafter who rolled their eyes in sour amusement and referred to the young men in question as registered members of the Wannabee tribe.
Cultural fashions change, though, and so do the targets for exercises of the sort just described. Over the last two decades, as a result, many American intellectuals who wanted to play at being something other than American chose the Celts instead. As a result, plenty of Irish people these days roll their eyes in sour amusement at the antics of what they call “plastic Paddies”—that is, Americans who didn’t grow up in Ireland, got any knowledge of the Irish language they may have out of books, and in most cases don’t have a single ancestor from Ireland, but ape the manners, customs, and culture of the Irish. The Scots and, to a lesser extent, the other Celtic nationalities have also had to put up with equivalent vagaries from our side of the pond. Again, the Celtic Reconstructionists weren’t responsible for any of this—but many of them were influenced by it, sometimes to an embarrassing degree.
That influence became as pervasive as it did for the same reason that the (mostly) young men just mentioned clutched copies of the books just mentioned: the role of spirituality as a lifestyle accessory in modern American pop culture. The rise of the “plastic Paddies” was thus paralleled by the rise of “cardiac Celts,” people who “feel Celtic in their hearts,” and who adopted some version or other of Celtic spirituality in the mistaken notion that this somehow made them honorary Celts. Of course actual Celts—people who grew up in one of the six existing Celtic nations, participating in the cultures of their homelands and speaking a Celtic language—responded to this wholesale hijacking of their heritage with various degrees of annoyance and amusement. That’s where the fixation on authenticity came in; human nature being what it is, a good many of the “cardiac Celts” started giving themselves more-Celtic-than-thou airs as a way of shoring up their dubious claim to an assumed Celtic identity, and the Druid Revival was a comfortable and convenient target for such airs.
What all this made it hard for many people to grasp, at least for a while, is that authenticity doesn’t actually count for that much in a spiritual context. Every religion and every spiritual tradition changes significantly over time as the various currents of culture and history force it to respond to new conditions. Those Christians who like to sing “Give Me That Old Time Religion” would have a very rough time of it if they actually got their wish, and suddenly found themselves expected to follow the religious customs of Christians in the third century CE; in the same way, if the ancient Irish religion had survived to the present day—let’s say, as a result of the kind of forced political compromise that led to the survival of Shinto alongside Buddhism in Japan—the religion practiced in Dublin and Cork today would, to judge by historical equivalents, have next to nothing in common with the same religion as it was practiced at Tara in the second century CE.
As Richard De Mille pointed out some decades ago in a trenchant analysis, there’s an important difference between authenticity and validity. Authenticity is a matter of whether something has the source it claims to have; validity is a matter of whether it works. A spiritual tradition that fixates on authenticity at the expense of validity is usually slipping down the chute toward extinction, because people don’t generally practice a spiritual tradition because they want to feel more authentically (insert label here) than the next person; they practice it because they want results, and if they don’t get results, they’re normally going to head somewhere else in due time.
In a certain sense, Druidry—the spiritual tradition descended from the 18th-century Druid Revival—is a fine test case for De Mille’s assertion. Is it “authentic”? Depends on what you mean by that. It’s a wholly authentic example of early 21st century Western nature spirituality, and it descends—with a great many modifications, adaptations, and improvements, to be sure—from an equally authentic example of 18th century alternative religion. That’s all it is, and all it claims to be. You don’t become an honorary Celt by joining AODA, the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), or any of the other Druid Revival traditions active these days, but then I trust nobody in those orders thinks otherwise.
The point that needs making, I think, is that the Celtic Reconstructionists can’t actually claim anything else—well, except that they don’t have a continuous heritage of three centuries to draw on, as we do. You don’t become an honorary Celt by taking up a Celtic Reconstructionist path, either; you simply become a modern American, or whatever you happen to be, who draws spiritual sustenance from a recently minted modern spirituality that draws some of its raw material from the fragmentary legacies of ancient Celtic tradition, as interpreted by current academic opinion. That’s an entirely valid choice, and it’s unfortunate that some people who make that choice are sufficiently insecure about it that they feel they have to go around trying to bully people who’ve chosen otherwise.
In unrelated news, I'm delighted to report that my first two books on occultism, Paths of Wisdom and Circles of Power, have just been reprinted in new, elegant, and corrected editions by Aeon Books. These are manuals of classic Golden Dawn occult philosophy and ceremonial magic; Paths is a comprehensive guide to the Hermetic version of the Cabala, the foundation of Golden Dawn practice, and Circles is a hands-on manual of ceremonial magic. You can order those direct from the publisher, along with my other Aeon Press books, here.