Monday, February 9, 2009

Book Learnin': A Helpful List of Books on Druidry

I have been attempting to develop a kind of flow of interconnected ideas and concerns, from one post to the next, in this blog lately... but every once in a while, I find myself struck by a sudden rant that just needs expression. Now. This is one of those rants. Enjoy (or be annoyed), and I hope you'll come back when I return to writing more directly about the problem of spiritual growth.

See, this is why AODA annoys me sometimes. In general, members are very kind, supportive and helpful, but every once in a while, they go in for this "sabotaging the newbie" nonsense. It might not even be intentional. Perhaps they do not even realize that, collectively, they're coming off as very intimidating and discouraging, at times even obnoxious. The latest example that set me off (and has happened at least twice in the past month) concerns what I will flippantly refer to as book learnin'. Someone sent a post to the online forum asking for recommendations on good, reliable (and accurate) books on Druidry. Now, this is a perfectly understandable request, especially if you're just starting to explore the Druid path, because there is a ton of misinformation out there on the Druids ancient and modern, some of it more or less intentional and misleading. Asking for advice on where to begin looking for a foundation of scholarly information as well as insight into modern practices is not only a good idea, but perhaps an essential early step for a neophyte (especially one not lucky enough to have other practicing Druids around to offer in-person guidance and discussion).

But what do the members of this AODA forum do? They respond with things like, "O well, it really depends on what kind of Druidry you mean, because there are so many, such as [insert long list of all the variations and "denominations" of Druidy here, many with names that sound like paleontology prefixes and which you've probably never heard of unless you've been studying two or three years already].... Which one did you mean?" Not one helpful recommendation of a good, solid text that covers a wide variety of information to provide a beginner with a bit of foundation. (Such general introductory texts do exist, I assure you, and I would bet money that every person who responded to this inquiry with nitpicking has probably read several such books.)

O, and my favorite: "Druidry isn't something you can learn from books. You have to do it and experience it for yourself. How can someone possibly understand [insert name of exotic sounding ritual involving fire and possibly pain or blood sacrifice] and even attempt to write about all its important lessons when such things are beyond words?"

How is this helpful? It's not. It's a way of avoiding giving anything away or giving up any of the aura of authority you get by knowing more and having more experiences under your belt than a neophyte. If I were new to Druidry, I would be immensely discouraged, not to mention as annoyed as I am now, by such replies. Luckily, I adore books and you couldn't stop me from reading them if you tried, no matter what kind of sanctimonious the-reality-is-beyond-words nonsense you bombarded me with.

Perhaps it's because I came to Druidry through my poetry (which I've been writing since about the age I could first hold a crayon) and I continue to adore Druidry because of its bardic traditions, which embrace and celebrate music, song and the power of words... but I have never understood the kind of response that rejects book learnin' as somehow less important or more dangerous than direct experience. To me, reading and exploring ideas in books has always inspired and sewn in me the seeds of desire: desire to move ideas into the real world and bring their beauty into participatory being, and desire to meet the challenge of articulating my own experiences in meaningful ways that can sew those seeds in others. If it hadn't been for a few incredibly well-written books on Druidry, I wouldn't have ever bothered to begin the real life practice that has given me so much and opened me to so many experiences (I wouldn't even know what a [insert exotic sounding ritual here] was or why it might matter to other people, let alone what it might someday mean to me).

Somehow I doubt people who post requests for book recommendations are looking to replace the actual activity of walking a spiritual path in real life. I don't see why it should be a problem to provide suggestions about a few well-researched and insightful books about Druidry, which is after all not only a personal path but a community spiritual tradition (and a diverse and diffuse community at that, which has developed its own customs of discussion and often communicates its shared interests and values through text, in books as well as in online forums and blogs like this one). If this were still an oral culture and non-textual sources of information were more readily available, perhaps an avoidance of books might be more justified. But the truth is, this is a literate culture we live in today, and if a new student of Druidry is to find her way into the tradition, it is not enough to set her loose in the forest without a teacher or a mythology to guide her, and say, "Well, go to it, go do 'Druidry'."

On that note, these are a few of my favorite books on Druidry and modern Druidic practice:

  • Way of the Druid: Renaissance of a Celtic Religion and its Relevance, by Graeme Talboys With a bit of historical background, this book explores the "Celtic metaphysic" and how it relates to modern practice. It's the first book I would lend to a non-Druid friend or family member interested in understanding the spiritual tradition I follow.

  • Spirits of the Sacred Grove: The World of a Druid Priestess, by Emma Restall Orr A wonderful memoir that follows the cycle of the seasons, this book expresses in beautiful, powerful writing the kinds of personal experiences at the root of practical Druidry and gives you that itch to go out and spend long hours in the local woods listening to the breathing of things. A very nice counterbalance to Talboys' more theoretical focus, though it may come across as "too weird" for non-Druids... I wouldn't recommend it to my mother, anyway!

  • The Mysteries of Druidry: Celtic Mysticism, Theory, & Practice, by Brendan Myers This text focuses a bit more on various common themes and symbols that echo throughout Celtic mythology and lay a foundation for creative, engaged work with the Druidic tradition.

  • The Rebirth of Druidry: Ancient Earth Wisdom for Today, edited by Philip Carr-Gomm A collection of essays, this is the very first book that shook me awake and inspired me to seek out Druidry in my own life; all sorts of topics are covered, from the personal to the traditional, from theory on seasonal calendars to explorations of self- and social-identity, and more.

  • The Druidry Handbook: Spiritual Practice Rooted in the Living Earth, by John Michael Greer A very good how-to kind of handbook that talks a bit about some of the concepts central to Revival Druidry in particular, and lays out the First Degree curriculum for AODA in depth.

All of the above focus on contemporary Druidic practice from various perspectives. As far as scholarly historical works, Ronald Hutton wrote a fascinating introductory text entitled, Druids: A History, that traces the development of the idea of Druidry and Druidism throughout the past several hundred years. He has a more extensive book due to be published in June, 2009, called Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain that will expand on this topic, and which is bound to be great. Beyond this, I'd recommend any of Miranda Green's work (I just got her Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art, which I can't wait to tear into!), as well as most of the books written by John and Caitlin Matthews, which usually explore mythological themes and have a bit of an historical/academic bent, if not much at times.


  1. I agree that the response is a little annoying, but to be fair, that sort of thing is hardly unique to the AODA. You could probably go on any email list on any topic imaginable and ask a general question like that and get a similar range of answers. Model train enthusiasts would probably give the same kinds of answers to newbie questions on model train books.

    I think your book recommendations are spot-on.

  2. I so agree with you on this [and the book list :-) ], and whilst it is true what Nettle says, one might expect a slightly more enlightened approach from the likes of Druids. Sadly, there are many who are happy to adopt the name, but never get to the joined up thinking required of them if they are to honour what the title implies.

    In the absence of a small population, tribal culture, and a handy Druid in the roundhouse just down the track, books are almost certainly the way in which anyone is first going to learn the basics. And any good introduction to the subject will point out that if you want to get beyond academic study, books are just the start.

    For anyone interested in Celtic history and ancestral Druids, I would highly recommend the books of Peter Berresford Ellis. For archaeology, Barry Cunliffe.

  3. Nettle, I suppose it's not unique to AODA--but then, AODA is the only Order that I actively belong to, so they have the burden of being my example (and sometimes my punching bag ;). As Graeme says, perhaps I just have higher expectations for Druids to live up to that role of counselors, poets and philosophers.

    In any case, I don't think you'd run into that kind of dismissive response in all groups. Within, say, a group of musicians, certainly someone asking for book recommendations on music theory or perhaps memoirs written by musicians probably won't be attacked for not just picking up an instrument and practicing. Probably because music is so obviously something you do that it doesn't need clarification or qualification. If we believe so strongly that Druidry is an active, personal practice, then why should we be so quick to assume the opposite when asked? I'd like to see people giving newbies the benefit of the doubt once in a while. And, also as Graeme points out, any good book on modern Druidry will take pains to point out that it's not just a theory, it's a practice.

  4. Graeme, Thanks for the historical text recommendations. I'm only slowly working through those kinds of sources (history was never really my thing--comparative religion, philosophy, warm-fuzzy memoir on contemporary spirituality... that's my cup of tea ;). As I mentioned, I've read three books by Hutton, and two now by Green, and have been very impressed. I also enjoyed Jean Markale, but I understand he's a bit controversial with some Druids for being too... what's the word? "Christianized," maybe? Anyway. Peter Berresford Ellis is definitely on my to-be-read list (along with about a hundred others ;).

  5. How is this helpful? It's not. It's a way of avoiding giving anything away or giving up any of the aura of authority you get by knowing more and having more experiences under your belt than a neophyte.

    Well said Ali! And thank you. The resistence and opposition to learning from books is an instance of what I percieve to be the anti-intellectual attitude so common in the movement. I've known to many people who have been turned off of Druidry or who left it in disgust because the encountered this attitude among experienced people too often.

    Also, thank you for recommending one of my books. :-)

  6. I, too, enjoy Markale. I know he is considered a bit 'poetic' with some of his interpretations, but he is a great deal more accurate that Robert Graves was in 'The White Goddess', and he usually makes it clear where he is speculating.

    Hutton I won't touch. The one book of his I started to read was so riddled with factual inaccuracies and disparaging of female scholarship that I threw it in the bin.

    Miranda Green is very good for historical and archaeological stuff, as is Anne Ross.

    Marian Green, although ostensibly a witch, considers herself very close to druidry and has written some good introductory books to working with natural magic.

    I can also recommend John Darrah's 'Paganism In Arthurian Romance'. It's a scholarly work, but packed full of useful information and a real pointer to the way in which pre-Christian beliefs and practices survived well into the historical period.

  7. Bren, Of course I recommended one of your books. :) I think yours, Graeme's and Emma's make a nice triad together--you each have your own particular styles and approaches that compliment each other nicely. Of all my books on Druidry, these three have been the ones I've reread at least once (and often get the urge to go back to, even when I can't indulge it because I have too many other books yet to be read even once ;).

    And yes, I know what you mean about the anti-intellectual approach. It seems a bit weird coming from members of AODA, considering how reading-intensive our program of study is (I forget exactly how many books are required during the one-year First Degree program, but it's over twenty for sure). Of course, their recommended reading list hasn't been updated in fifteen years, and I wonder if there's some hesitancy to suggest newer books that haven't been "approved" by the Grand Grove.

    I also noticed a similar response when anyone brings up the use of technology in Druidry or Paganism in general. Usually a few disparaging remarks about how Druidry has to be done outside in touch with real nature (ignoring the fact that we're online right now having this conversation), and then the discussion turns to amateur ham radio and how amazing a metaphor it provides with its frequencies and energy waves and such. No reason why cyberspace can't also provide fascinating metaphors and powerful experiences. As far as I can tell, ham radio is just the thing nerd-types did in their garages before they migrated to the basement with their computers and internet cables. In other words, the bias isn't against technology in general, but particular kinds of technology that certain leaders of the Order don't have a personal interest in. I wonder if this is a common aspect of anti-intellectual responses: "some reading and contemplation is good, but it has to be a particular kind and we're not going to make it easy for you to figure out which that is."

  8. You seem not to have noticed, Ali, that several people *did* provide book recommendations, myself among them. I find some of the authors you mentioned to be unbearably soporific, but it is a positive rather than a negative that different people practice different druidries and find help and inspiration from different authors.

    On the other hand, the question of "What kind of Druidry?" is far from irrelevant, considering that many people, both pagans and scholars, reject the right of orders such as AODA and OBOD to use the term "druid" at all, since what we practice does not go back to the Druids of pre-Christian Celtic cultures. Is the inquirer seeking knowledge of the ancients or of current practice in the Revival, or of the Druid Reform, as exemplified by such groups as the RDNA and ADF? As it was, in my own response to that post, I specified that I was talking about the Druidry of the Revival, which is the standard in AODA, and recommended titles based on that assumption.

    And believe me, if you had ever been on any other druid forum, you would not dream of describing interaction on AODA Public as "intimidating and discouraging, at times even obnoxious".

  9. I think books, as well as Internet resources, are essential to studying Druidry. Without these resources I would never have even known that there was such a thing as modern Druidry. And although not specifically about Druidry, I think that a selection of field guides to local animals and plants would also be an essential addition to the reading list.

    I'm still rather new with this so I haven't done a lot of reading yet, but as far as Celtic history and archaeology go, I found Barry Cunliffe to be quite helpful. And I would also add some good translations of the Welsh and Irish myths.

  10. If there are any groups of Enlightened Druids out there who totally lack irritating personality issues, please tell me where to find them! Or maybe not; I might not hold up so well myself in such a group.

    I'm not a huge fan of Ellis - he does far more speculation than seems appropriate to me from a supposedly scholarly writer. He's not bad, just not as wonderful as I was led to believe before I actually read him. And yet, I really love Markale, who is much guiltier of unsourced speculation and giant leaping illogical connections, but I read Markale as a mystic, not a scholar. I love Markale because he is not afraid to let his mystical bent roam free but he stays rooted in the textual source.

    I liked your book list, Ali, precisely because it is so balanced - Myers gives a solid, basic historical background, and Talboys helps to place that in modern context. Orr is such an unabashed nature-mystic, and if it wasn't for her I'd be a little hesitant to call what I do "druidry" - other sources accessible to newbies can make it sound so dry and formal, and there's Bobcat out there getting dirt under her fingernails in the woods.

    Makes for a very neat trio, and once you've got those, you've also got all that bibliographic information to chase down for further study as well as a great foundation on which to build a practice.

    I haven't read Darrah but it's now at the top of the list of Books to Get when Money Happens. (strike that - I just checked Amazon and found an inexpensive used copy. woot!) Thanks for the tip - it sounds like exactly the book I was hoping existed somewhere.

  11. Heather,

    "I think that a selection of field guides to local animals and plants would also be an essential addition to the reading list."

    O, definitely very useful! I always forget to mention these because I grew up with a dad who was a nature nut, so I just automatically inherited all his bird and animal and plant guides. :)

    This was mostly a list of books about Druidry--the list of books useful to the practicing Druid is probably always going to be much more expansive and unique to each person's interests.

  12. To everyone following this particular thread:

    It seems my issues with AODA have been resolved for me, with saddening results. I have been put on moderation pending a decision from the Grand Grove to ban me permanently from the group (whether this means the email forum or the Order itself, I am unsure, though with AODA's limited real-world presence, it amounts to much the same thing).

    Whatever the decision.... well, the experience has left me feeling uncomfortable and disappointed. Sigh. What a frustrating and alienating day it's been.

  13. Written by John Michael Greer himself:

    "In the final analysis, Druidry isn't about orders, teachers, and books. It's about each person's experience of living nature, and if the orders and books and teachers get in the way of that, set them aside, go out beneath the open sky, and find the Druidry that works for you. Ultimately, that's what matters."

    Please don't be disheartened, Ali. You, from what you share, are doing what is right for you and expressing it beautifully.

  14. And I tend to agree with Nettle on Ellis. I had high hopes but was disappointed. I wasn't impressed with Hutton either.

    Most of those you've listed I have read and agree whole heartedly that they are excellent. Those that I've not yet read have certainly been on my list.

  15. Thank you for posting that list, I'm very new to Druidry and have been looking for books :).

    And I do agree, that response is very annoying. It's a valid question, especially when learning; teachings by others is great, but that's not always available and books are always a great way to gain knowledge & understanding.

    Anyways, thank you for the book recommendations & I love your blog!

  16. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  17. Sorry about that too many typos...

    Not to worry, if you are banned there are many other organizations out there. FODLA is one, still a bit of a re-constructionist group, but never the less they are trying to approach Druidism from a modern viewpoint (note the intentional use of Druidism rather than Druidry). There are many others out there and I only recommend this one as it is one that I have a small amount of experience with.

  18. I love a good rant.

    But I'm puzzled that no one has mentioned Celtic Heritage by Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees. That's almost always the first book pointed out on CR and recon-minded lists and groups I'm in.

    Is this indicative of the difference between druidry and CR? I don't think so. I hope not.

  19. Finn, Good point, and I have read that book and thoroughly enjoyed it! I think one reason no one brought it up was that the question that prompted the list seemed more focused on how-to-practice-modern-Druidry and all the books I recommended were in that genre; whereas the Rees' book struck me as much more historically focused. Not that this isn't important, but it certainly isn't a "beginner's book" in the Revivalist Druidry circles, where getting your feet wet with simple daily practice comes first and scholarly research supplements it with more in depth reading. Maybe that is a difference between Druidry and CR--my experience of Druidry has been a lot more "doing," whereas CR folks tend to have a lot more opinions about things. ;) Is this bad? I don't think so, just different approaches.