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‘Shamanic’ Druidry

From the time I began exploring Druidry in 1974, I have never thought of it as anything other than ‘shamanic.’ I discovered Druidry through Robert Graves’ remarkable book, The White Goddess (3rd edition, 1961). For all its fame in Pagan circles, it is far from an easy read, laden with classical Greek and Roman references, many not translated into English, with arguments flung at the reader in a flurry of seemingly random and unrelated facts and fancies, laced with folklore and poetry. Realising that regular breaks would be needed if I were to get through it, I began alternating chapters of The White Goddess with those of another dense, difficult read; Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964).
Graves appealed to my poetic nature, awakening me to Druidry as a pagan spiritual path native to the British Isles, where I was born. Eliade awakened me to the existence of traditional societies where strange children were treated as peculiarly blessed and potentially cursed rather than simply insane, which was my experience growing up in a Sussex village with vivid dreams, nightmares and terrifying waking visions. Reading Graves and Eliade in tandem convinced me of the ‘shamanic’ nature of Druidry and that it might be a spiritual path capable of restoring my sanity, shattered by a severe mental breakdown in 1971. My experience of walking the Druid path for the last 47 years has powerfully reinforced these convictions.
I am wary of the term ‘shamanic’ because it is so overused whilst having no widely agreed definition, hence the inverted commas. Thanks in part to Eliade, ‘shaman’ has become a catch-all term for pretty much anyone in any traditional society who undertakes healing, works magic, uses divination or otherwise tries to aid their community by means that could be described as magical or spiritual. Eliade was keen to play up what he saw as similarities between people all around the world whose practices fell under his use of ‘shaman’ as an umbrella term. He did so by being extremely selective of the material presented in his book. He has also been accused of altering or fabricating quotes to support his thesis that ‘shamanism’ represents a worldwide, and therefore very ancient, system of belief, which does not necessarily mean that the thesis itself is wrong.
The use of the term became even more problematic after it was taken up by an American anthropologist, Michael Harner, in the 1970s. Harner wove together fragments of spiritual cultures from around the world to create a synthesis he called ‘global, or core shamanism.’ His California-based School of Shamanism has since taught students around the world, including in Siberia, where the term ‘shaman’ originated, but where the native practice of it had been all but wiped out by the mid-1950s.
Despite my doubts about its use, the term ‘shamanic’ remains a useful shorthand that is widely understood to signify a person who engages with spiritual realms and their inhabitants in a variety of ways that could loosely be described as ‘magical.’ For me, Druids definitely fall into that category.
The idea that ancient Druidry was ‘shamanistic’ has been around for a long time. The earliest reference I’ve located so far is from Welsh scholar, Sir John Rhys, in 1901. In Celtic Folklore: Welsh & Manx, he writes of “the druid, recalling as he does the magician of the Egypt of the Pentateuch and the shaman of the Mongolian world of our own time.” The whole range of primary evidence for ‘shamanistic’ practices existing in the British Isles and finding its ultimate flowering in Druidry was first gathered together by Nikolai Tolstoy in his book, The Quest for Merlin (1985). A few years later, John Matthews used the same evidence to create the first ‘how-to’ book on the subject, The Celtic Shaman (1991). The idea of the Druid-as-‘shaman’ has even gained academic respectability, featuring, for example, in The Quest for the Shaman (2005), co-authored by one of our finest Celtic scholars, Miranda Aldhouse-Green.
Some evidence is archaeological, such as the antlered figure from the 1st century BCE Gundestrup cauldron, found in a Danish peat bog in 1891. In his right hand he holds a torc, the gold, silver or bronze neck-ring that was a symbol of status in Iron Age societies. In his left hand, he holds a huge, horned Serpent by the neck. His antlers may be seen as part of a ceremonial costume or as evidence that he is partway through shape-shifting into a Stag. A similar antlered figure had been etched into a stone wall in Valcamonica in Northern Italy about 300 years earlier. He also has his arms raised in the ‘orans’ gesture of prayer. A torc hangs from his right arm and a Serpent coils at his left side. Both figures are often identified as horned gods but could equally be Druids. If the latter, then their appearance is remarkably similar to that of 18th and 19th century ‘shamans’ in Siberia and their equivalents in Scandinavia.
Much of the evidence drawn on by myself, Tolstoy and Matthews, however, is found in the medieval literature of Britain and Ireland. In Britain, much of it is found in the mystical poems attributed to the 6th century bard, Taliesin, but probably composed in the 12th century. The most famous of these are ‘The Battle of the Trees’ and ‘The Spoils of Annwfn.’ Taliesin refers to himself as a Druid and, in these poems, he takes on innumerable forms, many animal but some apparently inanimate objects such as a spear point or a sword. Many of his transformations sound very much like the shape-shifting undertaken in some ‘shamanic’ traditions.
On first reading the Taliesin poems and that great Welsh compilation of mythology, history and folklore, the Mabinogi, in the 1970s, my initial intuition of the Druid-as-‘shaman’ seemed to be confirmed. Take, for example, the story of ‘The Lady of the Well’ where the protagonist encounters a huge, black-haired man seated on a mound in the middle of a forest who strikes a Stag, causing it to bellow, at which vast numbers of wild animals crowd into the forest grove, bow down before the black-haired man “and did homage to him as obedient men would do to their lord.” This immediately reminded me of the antlered figure on the Gundestrup cauldron who is also flanked by wild animals. The passage in ‘The Lady of the Well’ refers to many animals entering the grove, but specifies only three species, Stags, Serpents, and Lions, all of which appear on the Gundestrup cauldron.
In Ireland, the evidence is scattered across a number of manuscripts, perhaps the most persuasive being those dealing with the chief Druid, Mogh Ruith, ‘Servant of the Wheel.’ Most appear in a portmanteau text called ‘The Siege of Druim Damhgaire.’ In it, Mogh Ruith wraps himself in the hide of a speckled Bull, wears a feathered cloak, flies through the air and creates magical fire-balls that he hurls at his enemies.
Twenty years after I conceived of the idea of the Druid-as-‘shaman,’ final conformation came in the form of a large, adult Wolf who appeared to me during a particularly intense ceremony. He showed me how to shape-shift and walk between worlds, adding whole new dimensions to my already visionary spirituality. Because of him I now bear the craft name, Greywolf.
The ceremony in which Wolf first appeared led me to explore whether the British Isles had ever had a tradition of spiritual ‘saunas.’ I discovered a tradition that began in the Neolithic, elements of which continued in rural Ireland into the late 19th century. Irish ‘sweat houses’ were sometimes located close to ancient sacred sites such as stone circles and the Hill of Tara, inauguration site of the pagan High Kings of Ireland. Their spiritual use invoked the aid of the goddess, the Morrigan, ‘Great Queen.’ Their pre-history, history and use is detailed in our Druid course.
Despite all this, some question whether Druidry is ‘shamanic,’ preferring to follow the classical Greek portrayal of Druids as white-robed philosophers. The BDO vision of Druidry has room for that too. Philosophy features strongly in all our courses, particularly the ovate. But the exercise of intellect doesn’t prevent us from gathering together in our Iron Age roundhouse by the flickering firelight, drumming to open our passage between the worlds in search of visions and spirit helpers who may guide us in the realms of the Faery folk, the ancestors and the old gods of our lands. For Druidry to be of real value, it must embrace the whole of life, from the cradle to the grave and beyond.
Many blessings,
Greywolf /|\

Published on Categories 'Shamanism', DruidryTags ,
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About Greywolf

I'm Greywolf (aka Philip Shallcrass). My main claim to fame (such as it is) is that I'm chief of the British Druid Order (BDO). I discovered Druidry in 1974, seeing it as a native British 'shamanic' spirituality. An Alexandrian Wiccan coven I joined in 1978 transformed into the Grove of the Badger as Druidry increasingly replaced Wicca in its rites. The end result was the BDO. Emma Restall Orr was joint chief of the Order with me from 1995 to 2002. I live in rural Wiltshire, not far from my spiritual heartland, the area in and around the Avebury henge. I'm a writer, musician, artist, drum-maker, roundhouse-builder and thatcher. I have three sons who share my obsession with music, books and film. Personal obsessions include the work of Britain's greatest bard, Robin Williamson, the comic books of Jack 'King' Kirby (1907-1994) and the speed-freak rock'n'roll of The Screaming Blue Messiahs.

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