DRUID Nuevy coloursm

Bronze figure, probably a Druid, from a 1st century BCE hoard found at Nuevy-en-Sullias in Northern France.

Druids and Trees

O Druids, … the innermost groves of far-off forests are your abodes.” – Lucan, Pharsalia, c. 60 CE.

The Druids … worship only in oak groves and will perform no sacred rites unless a branch of that tree is present.Pliny the Elder, Natural History, c. 70 CE.

Quotes like these from writers of the 1st century CE established the idea that Druids of the classical era invariably gathered together in sacred groves to conduct their ceremonies, regarding the trees within those groves as sacred beings in their own right, whose presence was essential to the proper performance of Druidical rites. Archaeology supports this notion to some extent, and there is evidence from Britain and Europe that some Iron Age holy places were constructed within woodlands.

Place names recorded in the same era as our quotations contain the word nemeton, an old Celtic term meaning ‘a sacred grove,’ as does the related Latin word, nemus. Drunemeton, meaning ‘Sacred Oak Grove,’  was located in a Celtic enclave in Turkey; Medionemeton was in Southern Scotland;  Nemetostatio in North Tawton, Devon; Vernemetum at Willoughby, Nottinghamshire; Aquae Arnemetiae in Buxton, Derbyshire, where the thermal springs were associated with a sacred grove. The word survives in the Irish fidnemed, ‘a sacred grove within a wood.’ There’s a great page here identifying many more sacred groves in England, Scotland and Wales. Check it out, maybe there’s one near you?


Altar to Nemetona and Mars Loucetius from the hot springs at Bath (Aquae Sulis).

The names of some Romano-British deities also include the word nemeton, the most famous being Nemetona, ‘Goddess of the Sacred Grove,’ recorded in an inscription from Bath in Somerset, where the natural hot springs were the focus of a healing sanctuary known to the Romans as Aquae Sulis. She is associated with the god, Mars Loucetius (‘Shining Mars’). An inscription from Lincoln refers to the god, Mars Rigonemetis, ‘Mars, King of the Sacred Grove.’ These names reflect the Roman habit of merging their own gods with those of the peoples they conquered.

The sacred significance of trees to our ancestors survives in the medieval literature of Wales and Ireland. The great collection of Welsh myths, legends and folk tales known as the Mabinogion contains the following magic charm in the Branch called Math, Son of Mathonwy. The young god, Lleu (‘Light’), is slain by his rival for the love of the goddess of Springtime, Blodeuwedd (‘Flower Face’). Lleu’s spirit leaves his body in the form of an eagle. The divine magician, Gwydion ap Don, tracks the eagle through a forest. Finding him perched in the upper branches of an Oak tree, Gwydion sings the following verses:

Oak“Oak that grows between the two lakes;
Darkened is the sky and dale.
Should I speak true,
These feathers come from Lleu.”

Upon this the eagle came down until he reached the centre of the tree. And Gwydion sang another Englyn:-

“Oak that grows in upland ground,
Wetted not by rain nor putrefaction,
Supporting a score of crafts,
Now it bears in its branches Lleu Llaw Gyffes!”

Then the eagle came down until he was on the lowest branch of the tree, and thereupon this Englyn did Gwydion sing:-

“Oak that grows upon the slope;
Refuge of a fair prince.
Should I speak true,
Then Lleu will come to my lap.”

Gwydion then touches Lleu with his magic wand (made of wood, of course), restoring him to his human shape and to life.

01 Birch 2013Also of significance to modern Druids is the Irish Ogham alphabet, often called a tree alphabet as most of its letters are named after trees or shrubs. Created in Ireland around the 2nd century CE, this alphabet came to be used as a musical notation, as well as in magic and divination. The illustration here is from the Ogham divination deck designed by Greywolf and Steve Rumelhart.

With such a wealth of information pointing to the importance of sacred trees and groves among our ancestors, it’s hardly surprising that modern Druids are involved in the conservation of woodland and the planting of new sacred groves. The oldest of modern Druid groups, the Ancient Order of Druids, founded in 1781, ran a tree planting campaign in the first decade of the 20th century, while the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids has been running a successful Sacred Grove planting campaign since the late 1980s. The British Druid Order’s constitution allows for any excess funds raised to be used for the creation of sacred groves under the Nemetona Trust. The Druid Network website offers a range of information concerning sacred trees.

In common with our pagan ancestors, modern Druids honour trees as living beings with whom we share our planet, and with whose indwelling spirits we may communicate. Our spiritual connection with trees also encourages us to connect with them for the many physical gifts they bring to our lives, not least their transpiration of water into the atmosphere, their cleansing of carbon dioxide, which is inimical to human life, from the air, while trees breathe out the vital oxygen we need to live. Our ancestors built sacred sites that incorporated circles of timber posts, built shrines in the form of roundhouses structured around similar circles of timber posts. They carved images of deities in timber, from which material they also constructed musical instruments, ritual tools, images of body parts that were deposited in sacred springs for healing, and much else besides.

Who were and are the Druids?

AveburybeechdruidsIt still comes as a suprise to some that Druids even exist in the 21st century. After all, weren’t Druids an Iron Age Celtic priesthood who were completely wiped out by Roman legions in the 1st century CE, and didn’t they leave no record of what they believed or did? Druids certainly flourished in Iron Age Europe, where they formed an educated elite, specialising not only in spiritual matters but also in law, medicine, music, poetry, storytelling, divination, history and genealogy, among other things. Tradition recognises three main areas of study within Druidry. Bards were the poets, musicians, storytellers, historians and genealogists. Ovates were diviners, seers, healers and natural philosophers. Druids combined all these roles as well as being judges, teachers, priests and counsellors.

Interest in Druidry revived during the 18th century thanks to the rediscovery of Britain’s Neolithic heritage at sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury, sites that were recognised as pre-Roman and therefore attributed to the Druids as the earliest native priesthood of which we have record. This attribution has since been questioned on the grounds that Druids were part of a Celtic culture that didn’t reach Britain until more than a thousand years after the construction of Stonehenge was completed. Some archaeologists have, however, questioned this, citing Julius Caesar’s Druid informants who told him that Druidry originated in Britain and was still found there in its purest form in his time (De Bello Gallico, chapter 13). If Druidry did indeed originate in Britain, then it can’t have originated with Celtic culture, because that began in central Europe. The implication is that Druidry was a pre-existing tradition in Britain, perhaps dating back to the Bronze Age or Neolithic, long before Celtic culture reached these lands, and that it was adopted and spread across Europe from Britain during the Iron Age.


Philip Ross Nichols (Nuinn)

The Druid revivals that began in the late 18th century were very much products of their time, being patriarchal, monotheistic and sub-Masonic in nature. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Druidry began to grow in a more pagan direction with the foundation of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids by Philip Ross Nichols (craft name, Nuinn). Nichols himself (left) was a regular church-going Christian, albeit an eclectic and very tolerant one, with a deep fascination with the pre-Christian religious practices of the British Isles. Being founded in 1964, however, and holding ceremonies at charismatic places such as Glastonbury, OBOD was well-placed to attract the era’s youthful spiritual seekers, many of whom were drawn to alternative spiritual paths.


Philip Carr-Gomm

One of these young seekers was Philip Carr-Gomm, who was initiated into OBOD by Nichols during one of the Order’s ceremonies on Glastonbury Tor in 1969. It was Carr-Gomm who picked up the threads of the Order following Nichols’ death in 1975, relaunching it a decade later and, ably assisted by his wife, Stephanie, building it into the most successful modern Druid group. OBOD today has become a thriving spiritual community with members across Europe, Australasia, and the Americas, that bases its teachings and ceremonies on nourishing creativity, fostering wisdom, and building communion with the natural world.


Greywolf. Photo by Elaine Gregory, 2014.

The British Druid Order grew out of founder, Philip Shallcrass (a.k.a. Greywolf)‘s, personal quest for a type of Druidry that resembled his vision of classical Druids as the ‘shamans’ of Britain and much of Europe. This vision was very much at odds with the image of Druids as white-robed sages, as promoted by previous generations of Druid revivalists. It has since, however, been recognised by many archaeologists and historians, including noted Celtic scholar, Miranda Aldhouse-Green.

In about 1990, the Philips Shallcrass and Carr-Gomm met, having discovered they lived about 20 miles apart in Sussex. They have remained friends ever since and OBOD and the BDO have cooperated in many areas over the years. Both Orders publish distance learning courses and increasing numbers of people are following both sets of courses, finding they complement each other extremely well.

Emma Restall Orr was an OBOD tutor and joint chief of the BDO from 1995 until 2002, when she stepped down to form The Druid Network, which she envisioned as a kind of clearing house for information about Druidry. When she relinquished her role as its head to focus on establishing and running a green burial site, the running of TDN passed to Phil (yes, that’s right, another Philip!) and Lynda Ryder. In 2010, TDN became the first Druid group in the UK to be granted charitable status as a religious organisation. The TDN website hosts a course in Druidry put together by Emma Restall Orr, along with much else besides, and is a fine resource for the global Druid community. Much additional inforation on Druidry can also be found on the OBOD and BDO websites.

You don’t have to be called Philip to run a Druid Order, but apparently it helps. Here’s a recent picture of the three Philips together. From left to right, that’s Philip Carr-Gomm (OBOD), Philip Shallcrass (BDO), and Phil Ryder (TDN). Photo by Lynda Ryder.