by Tara Miller
The rolling dark waters of the Mississippi crashed high upon the gravel bank where my husband and I were standing. The bright mid-morning sun was our only warmth from the chilly April wind. The concrete , protective, flood wall behind us, and the mountainous pile of drift wood several yards up shore did not provide adequate shelter.
I was gazing at the muddy currents splashing and tumbling to the rhythmic, hypnotic, dance of nature in a trance- like state, when Michaelís movements caught my attention. He was drawing a small circle with his staff in one of the few sandy patches. As he brushed back his shock, red hair, I caught an impish grin on his face and knew he, too, felt the power of nature flowing through us like the rushing of the river. He had drawn two lines, cutting the circle into four segments to represent earth, air, fire, and water. I picked up a stone, sparkling with quartz and put it in the center of the circle to represent earth. Then I plucked a bundle of purple wild flowers to represent air and placed them in the center as well along with a water symbol; a tiny mussel shell we had found earlier. Mike aligned four gleaming quartz stones on the edge of the circle in correlation with the four cardinal directions.
"It is missing something," he said.
"We need something to represent fire," I said.
He smiled and retrieved a cigarette from his pocket and tore it in half. He lit the tobacco end and tossed it into our circle. I closed my eyes and leaned against my staff, swaying to the swishing, and bubbling of the river. My life, the life of the planet, the life I shared with Mike, and my devotion to the Creator, all filled my soul at one time. I felt so alive and powerful. What had started as a walk by the river to escape the trials of life, ended in a powerful Druidic rite. My husband and I are one of the many people who have turned to Neo-Paganism as a way of life. According to Margot Adler there are 50,00 to 100,000 active, self-identified Pagans in the U.S. This number could be far greater then estimated. Because Paganism is open enough to incorporate other beliefs, many Pagans identify themselves, in surveys, with their major religious counterpart. This makes it very difficult to get an accurate number. The fact is, there are many people around the world, who hold Pagan beliefs. Interest in Paganism may be explained by peopleís disillusionment with the dogma of mainstream religions, dissatisfaction with the way the world is evolving or de-evolving ecologically and spiritually, and the realization that materialism leads to emptiness.
Neo-paganism has absolutely nothing to do with the devil, and it is not another word for atheism, which is disbelief in God. The only connection Paganism has with Satanism is through the exclusive attitudes of some major religions that if you arenít a member of their group, you are a follower of Satan.
The Pagan ideal is love for and kinship with nature, instead of the more conventional attitude of aggression and dominance over the earth. Neo-paganism combines this ideal with the customs of ancient indigenous religions and twenty-first century knowledge. There isnít a strict belief system in Paganism, and it is usually non-centralized and non-hierarcal. Anyone considered a leader within an organized Pagan group, is more of an advisor than someone who tells each member what to do. Each person is free to chose the path that is right for them. Many Pagans decide to become sole practitioners and follow their personal path to enlightenment. Because of this diversity, you would have to ask each individual what their beliefs are. Maybe even someone like Alex Blum, who practices Druidism, one of the most popular and public forms of Paganism.
Alex is a twenty-two year old college student who lives in Laramie, Wyoming, "The Gem City of the Plains" nestled in a valley between the Snowy Mountains and the Laramie Range. Its a quiet western town of about 20,000 to 40,000 people, if you count the students, and according to Alex, the only thing that will get you killed is saying you hate beef.
I interviewed Alex, because I was curious about the beliefs of other Druids, and I wanted to see what was drawing people to its customs.
"I was raised Presbyterian, and for some time was very active in my church," which was in Corvallis, Oregon. "I had looked at other Christian [denominations] and found them all to be about the same. I didnít have the same prejudices that some Christians have toward other religions such as Islam and Buddhism, [because] I considered all gods one from an early state."
In the summer of 1991, when he was 15, his step-mother got a professorship at Wyoming State university and the family moved to Laramie. Alex had a hard time finding the same type of friends to hang out with that he had in his Oregon Church.
"I stopped going to church and did some serious soul searching. Along my search, I ran into two other people who were in the same position, more or less."
They named themselves the "trinity".
"We began building our religion; our own beliefs and our own ideas. Then we started to do research. It was then that we had a name for what we were [Druids]."
Modern Druidism is based on the traditions of the ancient Druids and Druidesses, who were the highly intellectual, mystical advisors of the Celtic society from around 900 B.C.E. (Before Current Era) to AD 563. Druids were also the lawyers, healers, philosophers, historians, musicians, and poets of that time period. Druid combines the word "drui" for oak with the Indo-European root "wid" -- to know. It means "One with knowledge of the oak". The oak was a very important symbol to the Druids. To them if was an indicator of the divine, the omnipresence of the spiritual otherworld.
Druidism is of interest to many archaeologists, historians, and mythographers who donít particularly consider themselves Druids or Pagans. Thus, there is a plethora of serious academic material available concerning the Druids on the internet and in books. Many people, such as Alex and his friends, have discovered Druidism through these sources. "We found beliefs before we had ever known they were in a set religion," Alex explained. "As I put it, I now fit my round peg into a square hole.
"To me Druidism is a way of life, a philosophy to live by and a religion to practice. Many people these days just seem to be going through the motions of being religious. They go to church, say their words, bow their heads and that, but they donít actually LIVE their religion. They donít follow it with their heart and soul. To be a Druid is to walk that path every moment of my life. Druidism is a nature-based religion with deep ingrained philosophical undertones and moral guidelines. It is a way to change people, body and soul, not just a quick way to salvation. We are a religion that works toward the betterment of the soul; to grow beyond what you are now, and become a larger part of the divine."
The "trinity" continued to expand over the years as they were joined by people with similar principles and philosophies. Today, the Clan of the Dragonfly has twenty-three members. "Our symbol is a creature with the body of a dragon and the wings of a dragonfly. The name is unofficial since it is only known, really, within our clan," Alex said. He explained that they chose the name because the dragonfly is a small beautiful insect that can live anywhere. Like the dragonfly, the clan members can and do live anywhere. The group stretches from Laramie, to Boise, Idaho, and Omaha, Nebraska.
"A clan is a group of people who stand by each other, one and all. We keep in touch by phone and snail mail. Our group tries to meet as a semi-whole every Monday night at the Provisional, a coffee shop run by Pagans. It is a fine little place. We donít have our own room. We just meet at tables thrown together out in the middle. We usually talk about small things -- what we have been doing, what we have heard, our lives, and that sort of thing."
Alex and his two friends were the most practiced and knowledgeable of the group, so they became the leaders of the Clan of the Dragonfly. Each one is the Chief of a traditional grade of Druidism: Bard, Ovate, and Druid. In the past, Druid was the highest grade because, to become a Druid you had to complete at least twenty years of training in the first two grades. However, in modern Druidism, people can choose any grade which suits them and then study that level or all three. There are formal Druid organization which require members to work through each grade.
Alex told me that the Chief Ovate was Tina. "Tina is a women I often tease because she is very small and has to buy shoes in the little boys department. She is like a fairy."
Druidic philosophy points to knowledge as the key to self-awareness. Druids view the realm of the ancestors not as a realm of the dead, but as the repository of wisdom where the ancestors awaited reincarnation. Ovates are trained to communicate with the spirit world, so they may receive a vast amount of knowledge from their ancestors.
"I believe that the spirit, call it a soul, is energy, and energy is a totally renewable resource," explains Alex. "When death comes, the soul can travel to the Summerland, or any view they find of the afterlife." In this Otherworld, "they are in the presence of some part of the Divine. When they return, though, is what makes the difference. Some might even remember details from their past lives. Those that do are the powerful people. They are the ones you meet and go, ĎWowí. You can feel their knowledge. I believe that only by remembering and doing the tasks you were sent to do, can you grow and become even closer to the Divine."
Alex was taught stories, poems, and Druidic ways by Keith, whom he met at age eighteen. Keith is a big boned, quiet, Chief Druid of another clan, whose long brown hair is streaked with gray, an indicator of his forty-some odd years of age. Alex told me that, "he is the one person I have meet who is a Druid, raised by Druids, in this case his grandfather."
Keithís wife Rusty, the Chief Bard of their clan, was impressed by one of Alexís poems and told him about Bards.
"She told me that being a bard is about passing along Bardic Lore, and the history and the knowledge of the Druids by word of mouth," Alex said, "which, as the Chief Bard [of the Dragonfly Clan], I do know a great deal. Our clan follows these ways because we have taken what we have learned from [Keith], and others, and changed it to fit our current lives. It is a practice that has lived, according to Bardic lore, 12,000 years. It must change to survive.
"How we change it is simple, time. The Celtic Druids worshipped the way they did because that was the best way at their time. Written histories were forbidden in many clans, for example. That has changed over the years. The Celtic Druidís job, so to speak, was to be a Druid. That is no longer the case. Now Druids need to do other things so they can live."
The Druidic rituals have changed, as well, in purpose and style. Beltain, or May Day, is a Spring Festival held on May 1st at dawn, because it is a celebration of life, its renewal. "We did not go through with the total great rite associated with Beltain [this year]," Alex said. "We all would have felt a little uncomfortable with the May Pole dance, calling down the goddess upon the females and the god on all the males, and the traditional sexual act of fertility. The reason we would not feel comfortable as a group, is that many of us are unattached only one "couple" was there. A teacher and his student [of spiritual/magical ways] was there. He has stated that he would never break that trust in any way. Others, myself included, did not choose to partake in that rite, and it was agreed upon that it would be done elsewhere, if done at all.
"The Beltain [fertility] rite, when done correctly, is inductive to childbirth. I have heard of a couple (more than once) who could not get pregnant, even with the help of modern science. They went to the Beltain fires once [traditionally people celebrated around bonfires], and in nine months they had a child.
"We performed [our Beltain ritual} on May 1st and we did it at night, because we couldnít do it at dawn. There were nine of us gathered inside because it was snowing outside. I am serious. There we formed a circle and called upon the Goddess and God. We all believe in the many faces of one god. I personally like the trinity; god, goddess and the One."
Druids realize that the divine being is so vast that it can take on many forms so man may better understand it. Modern Druids chose to worship any number of the divineís "faces" as described in Gaelic, Celtic, Welsh, Greek, or Egyptian cultures. It is similar to the Hindu concept of 330 million gods, which are the numerous faces of the one Creator, Brahman.
"We purified the circle with water, salt, and Frankincense," explained Alex. "We burned a five-fold candle in the center of the room. We went around the circle asking the god/goddess for help in the certain things in our life, and thanking them for things given in the past. Then we harnessed the earthís energy. Energy is controlled through force of will. It is done by imagining the energy flowing into you and then out into the circle of people, and into the center of the circle. In the case of Beltain, the center was over the candle flames. The energy was then released to its task. The purpose of this ritual was to bring Spring, fertility, and life to the earth, and to our are in particular. We must work on a local level to be effective in reawakening the latent powers of the earth, and bring back the feeling of awe about her. Many people can look at nature and simply shrug. Many can look at the stars on a clear night (which are unbelievably clear out here in Wyoming) and not notice the magic there. We are trying to bring the magic back."
As we hide behind the barriers of steel and concrete we have put up to separate ourselves from nature, we forget that we too, are a part of it. Alex believes that, "nature is life. It is a collective whole. We are all a part of [nature], if we only open ourselves up to it. That is why I have no qualms about eating flesh of animals where some others might. (At least one member never eats meat, but that is for philosophical reasons, not spiritual. He doesnít like the way the animals are treated.) The birds, the trees, the rocks, and the water and the wind, all are connected, all are one."
People are beginning to see that our survival depends on the planet, so many people are turning to Paganism as a nature conscious religion. I asked Alex if he thought there was a resurgence in Pagan beliefs.
"Do I think there is a resurgence of Pagan beliefs? Yes, I do. And I will tell you why, because the earth needs it. The forces of nature are fighting to be left whole. I believe it is [humanities] last ditch attempt before something major happens. I only fear that natural selection does still apply to us, and it may already be too late."
Respect for our world can be seen in any religion; however, Druids and other Neo-Pagans donít just respect the world. They revere it. If you think Pagans are a bunch of tree huggers, it is because they are. Neo-Pagans are turning their backs on the materialistic attitudes and the confinement of the dogma of major religions, so they can fully embrace life.
You can find out more about Druidism and Paganism by visiting the Pagan Resource page or reading "Who Are These Pagans?"
Copyrighted Tara Miller 1997
Earth Spirit Newsletter