Sunday, 26 August 2012

Secrets of the Druids

The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids has a course in druidry, with different levels, which take the student to finally "graduate" as a Bard. There is no indication, in fact, that the system like that did actually exist. As Isaac Bonewits pointed out, Ross Nichols, the founder of the group, and a British college professor, mirrored academia with a semi-academic system, with Bards, Ovates and Druids being the equivalent of bachelor's, masters and doctors degrees.

The course materials for training are actually secret, and students have to pledge not to violate that secrecy. Now there's nothing wrong with any society setting up to do anything whatever, and having all kinds of secret passwords and practices, but it doesn't say that it does that on its website.

There's a hint in the FAQ though - "We create the course materials with as much care and attention to detail as possible. They are sent in the 'old-fashioned' way through the mail to you." A suspicious mind might also think that there is less chance of widespread dissemination if that is the case rather than by email. But the material is bound by copyright anyway, and there's no hint of any "hush hush" secrecy about the different grades; OBOD is a fairly opaque organisation. There is a rationale for this, one commentator notes:

"The Bardic grade just lays the foundations for the other two grades.  Philip explained the secrecy of the order to me in this way:  that it was not secrecy to be mysterious but because the material in the lessons is organized in a particular way to guide the student through a series of inward unfoldings and explorations.  Part of the process is not knowing what comes next, but waiting for that to be revealed after the preliminary seeds have been sown."

That's all very well, but it could also be a piece of very selected special pleading.

Part of the problem comes in that part of what it is purveying what it says are historical facts, yet those are not subject to critical scrutiny - in the same way that more public domain history is subject to peer reviewed analysis - and there is no check on what they might be saying is sheer nonsense. Where history is concerned, this is not a good idea. It is all too easy to control how people think by protecting a core  with secrecy. The course, after all, is a course of instruction. It's not clear how critical scrutiny can enter that. Even outside history, the realms of theology, for example, which impinge and draw on history, are open to review and critical discussion in a public domain. It's the fundamentalists who try to apply a protective shell, although they can't use secrecy to do this.

Wicca, as well, has the idea that "generally information must only be shared with those 'properly prepared', and that is the wording of the oaths of secrecy initiates are likely to be asked to make. " Where this covers ritual use, this seems quite proper, but again, where it covers history, it could well mean that the fantastical notions of Margaret Murray about witches is taken as gospel.

But where does instruction end and indoctrination begin? Where there is no critical scrutiny, the secrecy perpetuates an exclusive tradition, and the line is very thin. What would be much better, and what Isaac Bonewits and the reconstructionists were trying to do, was to created a body of shared knowledge and practice that was open to critical scrutiny, which is why Bonewits was so critical himself of various trends which he had come across.

Isaac Bonewits, founder of Ar nDraoicht Fein, asserts in his initial manifesto outlining the principles of ADF that:

there are some definite "nonfacts" about the ancient druids that need to be mentioned: There are no real indications that they used stone altars (at Stonehenge or anywhere else); that they were better philosophers than the classical Greeks or Egyptians; that they had anything to do with the mythical continents of Atlantis or Mu; or that they wore gold Masonic regalia or used Rosicrucian passwords. They were not the architects of (a) Stonehenge, (b) the megalithic circles and lines of Northwestern Europe, (c) the Pyramids of Egypt, (d) the Pyramids of the Americas, (e) the statues of Easter Island, or (f) anything other than wooden barns and stone houses. There is no proof that any of them were monotheists, or "Prechristian Christians," that they understood or invented either Pythagorean or Gnostic or Cabalistic mysticism; or that they all had long white beards and golden sickles (Bonewits 1984

This is a complete contrast to OBOD, which does state:

"Many people believe that the teachings of the Druids were lost with the coming of Christianity, and that we couldn't possibly be teaching authentic Druid wisdom."

OBOD, of course, can recover those:

"We believe these teachings were entrusted to future generations by being encoded in certain ancient stories. Within these stories we can find embedded entire programmes of Druidic training, which form the core of the teachings that we present in the training of the Order. In addition to this material, we draw on the wisdom of the Druidic triads, which were recorded by Christian clerics but which reflect much of the wisdom of their pre-Christian ancestors."

But how do you determine what is wishful thinking, and what is genuine in the "decoding" process? The Eddas, for example, are supposed to preserve aspects of Norse religion, but are at odds with the archeology. The blood offerings of horses, cattle and pigs during great indoor banquets, but the archaeology suggests outdoor sacrifices at the sites of sacred trees. The Bible suggests that the Israelites invaded Canaan after the fall of Jericho, but no such mass invasion seems to have occurred in the archeological evidence. The general practice of history writing was not history in the modern sense, but history reimagined, and often reflecting the culture of the day in what was important, how it was told. It's like taking West Side Story as the only narrative we have of a Shakespearean play and trying to piece together what the original must have been like.

Hypothetical reconstructions are entirely feasible, but weaknesses arising from the reconstruction can only be ascertained in a public peer-reviewed arena. By placing any reconstruction or "decoding" off limits, OBOD effectively closes off debate. But parts leak out, and one commentator noted that "Anyone who has read Ronald Hutton's Blood and Mistletoe will know that the history of OBOD as presented by OBOD is not consistent with the available historical information." This has now apparently been rectified, but the point of history is not just to replace one version with another; it is to engage in historical thinking. Otherwise, it may just be replacing one mythological framework with another one.

The fact that there is a complete framework - Bards, Ovates, Druids - which does have no firm footing in history makes one wonder just how far the "correction of historical errors" has taken place. That's part of the problem. "Celebration of the four Celtic fire festivals" is all very well, but it's decidedly suspect as to whether there were four such festivals that took place across the Celtic peoples. Indeed the very notion of Celtic, outside of a placement in linguistics (of Gaelic languages) is also highly suspect.

And of course, the whole aspect of a course to move up grades and become a druid would have excluded one of the most notable druids of modern times, Dr William Price (1800-1893).

One statement about Druidry (although this is not OBOD's) states (and notice how dogmatic this is!)

"1. Druid training takes around 7 years to complete - and I've NEVER come across ANYONE calling themselves a Druid/Ovate/Bard unless they had actually done the training.
2.   The full training - including correspondence work, research, Grove working sessions with others and One-to-one mentoring etc is about equivalent to a Masters Degree in stuff covered and the depth.  It is really very deep!"

Well, that would have thrown William Price out from being a druid! He became a druid after an visionary epiphany in the Louvre, and returning to Wales shortly after, set himself up as a druid. But then he had the benefit of living in an age where the commodification of knowledge and practice had not become rife.

1 comment:

\Alane said...

Well said, and I'm glad somebody is raising these points at last!