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History of Neo-Pagan Druidism, Requirement 9

Discuss the origins of the Druidic revival in 18th and 19th century England, naming its key players and describing their contributions. (minimum 600 words)

The Druidic revival of the 18th and 19th centuries began two hundred years earlier with the Renaissance. Starting in Italy, a rediscovery of the classical sources of Caesar, Pliny, and Tacitus lead to the translation and publication of numerous classical sources, which were translated into English near the end of the 16th century. (Ellis, 253) While early on, the English didn't take much interest in the Druids because of their "Irishness" and "Welshness" (indeed, it was the Germans who, in their constant search for national identity, first claimed the Druids as ancestors), the desire to have something nationalistic to grab onto became quite strong in the late 17th century.

The interest in Druids (and the misinformation about them) really began in 1649, when John Aubrey declared that the Druids built Stonehenge, even though leading experts of the day condemned the theory. (Ellis, 256) Following this, Henry Rowland, taking on the arduous task of legitimizing the Britons as better than those around them, declared that the Druids were descended from Noah, and that they were the "Fountains of true Religion." (Ellis, 258). Of course, this "true Religion" was a monotheistic pseudo-Christianity, but given his source material (or rather, the lack of material on the Druids and Celts at the time), it is unsurprising that such a conclusion could be drawn. To him, it seems that creating pseudo-Christian Druids was indicating that the Britons had the right religion all along, unlike that other northern Pagan religion, the dirty Norse polytheists.

John Toland's work is still being published in the United States, under the title "The History of the Druids." Originally published in 1726, it was republished in 1740 and added spark and flash to the world of the Druids (if, indeed, "spark and flash" is a good way to describe short haircuts, long white beards, and "habits" with white surplices over them as their usual clothing). (Ellis, 258-259) His work stands tall in making Druids dress in silly ways.

William Stukeley, an ordained minister in the Anglican Church, was a strong proponent of Aubrey's theories on Stonehenge, and published a book on the subject in 1740. In it he declared that the Druids worshipped a giant serpent at Stonehenge named "Dracontia," traced the lineage of the Druids from Abraham to a Phoecian colony in Britain (possibly the origin of the idea of Druids being "from the sea" which later translates into the Druids being from Atlantis), and painted them as wonderfully grand religious theologians. It is Stukeley, really, who first truly captures the mind of the people with the romantic idea of Druidism. (Ellis, 260)

The poet William Blake also became enraptured with the Druids, and his poetic genius can still be seen in modern Druidism. Several poems from Jerusalem and the Prophetic Books speak directly to Druidism, using them to symbolize Deism, but also painting them as terribly bloody sacrificers of humans.

These men laid the founding work for Druidism in England, and in 1789, the large eisteddfod was held in Corwen, and groups such as Gwyneddigion sponsored other events and published Welsh newspapers. One member of Gwyneddigion, Edward Williams (the much maligned Iolo Morganwg), was the first to "prove" an unbroken lineage of the Druids. He wrote what he claimed was a Druid ritual and performed it on the 21st of June, 1792. Williams created the idea of three orders, with the Druids wearing white, having made a "substantial contribution to Wales;" the Bards in blue, having passed their "final examinations;" and the Ovates in green, having passed two exams or been honoured for services to Wales. (Ellis, 269) His work brought about a revival in interest in the Cornish language, really put spark into the movement, and brings in the basis of a lot of the Freemasonry that is often confused with Celtic practice. The most interesting thing about his work, though is that at least half of it is forged. (Ellis, 271) The common question, usually asked with some amusement, is, "That's all well and good, but which half?!?!"

The most important thing to come out of the Druidic Revival, though, are the reactions against it. From Isaac Bonewits' somewhat derisive term of "Mesopaganism" to ADF's statement that scholarship is of the utmost importance, the creation of ADF and some other Neo-Pagan groups is a direct response to the poor scholarship and (occasionally) lunatic ideas that the early Druidic revival brought about. ADF (as well as these other groups) owe quite a debt to those first Druids, as much as we generally hate to admit it. While we have the responsibility to remind ourselves and others what is fantasy and what is fact, we also need to recognize that without them, most of us would still be searching for a religious home.


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