The image of an ancient Druid suggests the archetypal wise person – a forest sage steeped in knowledge of the Old Ways. Even the etymology of the word Druid points to wisdom – with the first syllable – Dru – coming from the Proto-Indo-European root meaning tree, especially the oak, and the Id syllable coming from the term ‘wid’, meaning to know or to see, from which we derive the word wisdom. So the idea of wisdom is embedded in the very word and in the image we hold of the druid. But is there really any wisdom to be found in Druidry today? And if so, where does it come from, and of what use can it be to us?
In the type of Druidry taught by The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids, wisdom is one of a triad of qualities we seek to foster, the other two attributes being love and creativity. Here we are going to focus on just the one quality of wisdom.
Notice that in the Order we haven’t chosen the term ‘enlightenment’ as an aim, even though on many paths that is considered the most important goal for an individual to attain. This is because, from our perspective, if we choose to focus on enlightenment the tendency is for that to lead to provisional living – a state of mind that believes all will be well at some future date. For some, provisional living involves the belief that their ideal state will be achieved when they win the lottery or get married or divorced. If we have spiritual ambitions and hold enlightenment as our goal, we believe we will find fulfilment in the future when the moment of enlightenment occurs. But imagine for a moment our goal is not enlightenment but wisdom. As soon as we entertain that notion, something changes. The soul breathes a sigh of relief – it doesn’t have to wait. It is not currently inadequate or insufficiently evolved or awake. Wisdom grows slowly like an old oak, and one’s aim becomes not striving to get somewhere, or waiting for illumination to occur, but instead a work in progress – a fostering of qualities that we already possess to a greater or lesser degree. Instead of seeking the bolt of lightning that hasn’t yet come, we find ourselves thinking in terms we associate with gardening: wisdom grows in us, it’s something we cultivate, nurture and harvest.
In Druidry, wisdom is symbolized by the salmon. There is a medieval Irish tale which talks about this Salmon of Wisdom – the story of Fionn McCumhaill’s boyhood exploits. Finn was reputedly descended from the Druids. Let’s hear T.W.Rolleston’s version of the tale:
“Now it is to be told what happened to Finn at the house of Finegas the Bard. Finn did not deem that the time had come for him to seize the captaincy of the Fianna until he had perfected himself in wisdom and learning. So on leaving the shelter of the old men in the wood he went to learn wisdom and the art of poetry from Finegas, who dwelt by the River Boyne, near to where is now the village of Slane. It was a belief among the poets of Ireland that the place of the revealing of poetry is always by the margin of water. But Finegas had another reason for the place where he made his dwelling, for there was an old prophecy that whoever should first eat of the Salmon of Knowledge that lived in the River Boyne, should become the wisest of men. Now this salmon was called Finntan in ancient times and was one of the Immortals, and he might be eaten and yet live. But in the time of Finegas he was called the Salmon of the Pool of Fec, which is the place where the fair river broadens out into a great still pool, with green banks softly sloping upward from the clear brown water. Seven years was Finegas watching the pool, but not until after Finn had come to be his disciple was the salmon caught. Then Finegas gave it to Finn to cook, and bade him eat none of it. But when Finegas saw him coming with the fish, he knew that something had chanced to the lad, for he had been used to have the eye of a young man but now he had the eye of a sage. Finegas said, “Hast thou eaten of the salmon?”
“Nay,” said Finn, “but it burnt me as I turned it upon the spit and I put my thumb in my mouth” And Finegas smote his hands together and was silent for a while. Then he said to the lad who stood by obediently, “Take the salmon and eat it, Finn, son of Cumhal, for to thee the prophecy is come. And now go hence, for I can teach thee no more, and blessing and victory be thine.”
The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland.
T. W. Rolleston, ed. Illustrations by Stephen Reid. London: G. G. Harrap & Co., 1910. 106-115.
The idea that wisdom is symbolized or conveyed by an animal is ancient and worldwide – think of the fish in Christian & Hindu tradition – Vishnu appears in the form of a fish to save all humanity during a flood – he is a Saviour. In Druidry the Salmon is seen as teaching us to return to Source.
So wisdom is being conveyed by a fish but also of course by a story, because we are hearing about the fish through the medium of the story. The fact that story conveys wisdom starts to provide us with an answer to the question ‘What sort of wisdom can be found in the Druid tradition?”
Story itself can convey or help us to cultivate wisdom, which is why the storyteller, poet or Bard, holds such a revered position in cultures all over the world. From this part of the world, in pre-Christian times and into the Christian era we have the Bard, who according to Strabo was immersed in one of the three streams of learning within Druidism.
The Bard, Ovate & Druid Wisdom Streams
Within the Bardic stream, wisdom is cultivated through poetry and story. And contemporary Druids, drawing on the insights of Psychology, add to their appreciation of story in general, and the old myths in particular, an understanding of the value of coming to know the story of their own lives and of those around them.
Within the Ovate stream – where Divination and healing is studied, wisdom is found within Nature Herself, and through bodies of lore, folklore, that have been passed down to us today: stone-lore, star-, animal-, bird-, plant-, tree-, herb-, weather-, seasonal-lore.
And within the Druid stream, wisdom is found in the study of the Ethics & Philosophy of Druidry, and in its application in Rites of Passage, Ritual and Initiation. Here is an example from the field of Ethics. I’ll quote from an article on Druid Ethics on the Order’s website by Dr Brendan Myers:
Some of the Irish wisdom texts are very specific about the ethical teachings of the Druids. There are several “wisdom texts”, or accounts of teachings imparted by Druids or other significant people in old Irish society. Sometimes these teachings were offered at the ceremony of inaugurating a new chieftain, to teach the candidate how to be a good chieftain. Sometimes the teachings were intended for the speaker’s own children or grandchildren, to teach them how to become mature adults. Here is an example of the latter: Cormac mac Airt is asked by his grandson Carbre “what were your habits when you were a lad?” Cormac replies as follows:
I was a listener in woods,
I was a gazer at stars,
I was blind where secrets were concerned,
I was silent in a wilderness,
I was talkative among many,
I was mild in the mead-hall,
I was stern in battle,
I was ready to watch,
I was gentle in friendship,
I was a physician of the sick,
I was weak towards the strengthless,
I was strong toward the powerful,
I never was hard lest I be satirised,
I never was feeble lest I should have my hair stripped off,
I was not close lest I should be burdensome,
I was not arrogant though I was wise,
I was not given to promising though I was strong,
I was not venturesome, though I was swift,
I did not deride old people, though I was young,
I was not boastful though I was a good fighter,
I would not speak about anyone in his absence,
I would not reproach, but I would praise,
I would not ask, but I would give,
For it is through these habits that the young become old and kingly warriors.
(Instructions of Cormac, § 7)
Where do these streams come from? What is the source of Druid Wisdom?
In legend, the source of all wisdom is described in the story of Cormac mac Airt when he finds the Well of Segais. If we see the well as that of the Druid tradition, what could we say flows from this source?
Historically, we can pinpoint 4 streams of writers and scholars that flow from it: 1. Classical, 2. Medieval, 3. Revival, 4. Modern writers of the last 25 yrs.
Once we have identified these four streams of writers within the Druid tradition, the next issue to identify is what is informing their work? Where is the wisdom they are seeking to convey coming from? We’re going deeper down into the well now to see what is feeding it. And here we can identify four sources of inspiration. One source lies in the information available from a study of folklore & mythology, particularly Celtic mythology. Another source of inspiration comes as a result of modern Druidry’s fondness, from the 18th century onwards for Universalism (seen in its connections with both Unitarianism and the Universalist Church). From this stance has flowed in more recent times a willingness to draw upon the ideas and practices common to many paths – to draw, as Druids would see it, upon the inspiration of the Perennial or Word Wide Wisdom Tradition. A third source of inspiration is recent – within the last 50 years – and is seen in contemporary Druidry’s interest in the insights of anthropology & psychology, with writers such as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell helping to illuminate our understanding of the spiritual journey. Finally, it feels important to mention an often unacknowledged source that is at work in every field of spiritual endeavour: Personal Gnosis. In Druidry this is partly comprised of Awen – a Welsh term that refers to the source of inspiration that is coming not from other people’s books or accounts of folk practices, but from deep within oneself or from the spiritual world. Of course this is ‘a can of worms’, for once we accept individually received spiritual insights or teachings how do we prevent delusion and fantasy? Because this is such a tricky issue, Personal Gnosis, particularly when it is contemporary and does not have the patina of age to lend it credibility, can often be left out of any account of sources, but it’s a vital and important part of any spiritual tradition.
To illustrate and explore what this all means in practice try looking at the Druid Animal Oracle. If you pick a card, asking your soul to guide your hand to the one that will give you just the sort of advice you need today, and then read the few pages of text relating to it in the accompanying book, you will be able to discern some of the streams we have been exploring: you will find examples from different streams of writing – Classical, medieval, Revivalist, or modern. And you will be able to see, perhaps, the sources that have fed these streams and the text you are reading: folklore, myth, Personal Gnosis, the Perennial Wisdom Tradition, the work of anthropologists and psychologists. Hopefully all these factors will combine to convey some wisdom which is of use.
I began this essay by asking, “Is there really any wisdom to be found in Druidry today? And if so, where does it come from, and of what use can it be to us?” Hopefully I have been able to address these questions sufficiently for us to be able to say, “Yes indeed, there is such a thing as Druid wisdom, which has identifiable sources, and which can help us in our lives today.”