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An instant classic and introductory primer on modern Druidism
on August 24, 2006
FIRST, THE QUICK EXECUTIVE REVIEW
Bonewits' Essential Guide to Druidism (BEGD) is a masterpiece in the vibrant growing field of modern Druidism. It is an indispensable library addition not only to the new folk interested in joining a Druid organization, but also to the veteran Druid who is teaching a study course at her/his own Grove. BEGD is a succinct and refined introduction (267pgs) to the variety of Druidisms now practiced in America and Britain. It clearly shows how they developed, compares their structure, and gives enticing examples of their words, sample rituals, and introduces some of their colorful leaders.
BEGD is the first book one should read on modern Druidism, but it is certainly not the last one; the reader's appetite should be whetted for yet deeper material afterwards. Indeed, after dispelling myths and correcting misconceptions and providing a framework of accepted facts, history and eye-opening comparisons; the BEGD's priceless bibliography and internet web-links illuminate several ways to pursue further trustworthy academic studies and also where to find 'inspirational' and contemporary works (and he explains the difference between the two). In conclusion, it will give prospective Druids (and less-well-connected old-timers) a firmer foundation of background information, reliable resources, and a view of the "big picture" of this fascinating religious movement. And now for the rather longer, more nuanced review that this book richly deserves...
* * * * * * * * NOW, THE LONGER DETAILED REVIEW * * * * * * *
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (& THIS ARTICLE'S REVIEWER)
I (Mike Scharding) have run the International Druid Archives since 1992; cataloguing magazines, historical records, pamphlets and books by and about modern Druidism, that first appeared in the early 1960s in the U.S. with surprisingly little connection to their older British siblings; whose predecessors might date back to the 18th century. With their often obscure roots, modern Druidism is a confusingly diverse genre of religious sub-groups, with up-to-now few authoritative reference guides.
Indeed there are dozens of Druid organizations today clamoring for attention, besides the "big four" (RDNA, ADF, Keltria and OBOD). Although cross-memberships occurs frequently among the 50,000 plus modern Druid practitioners today, there are literally only a handful of Druids who have been intimately familiar with these groups over the decades AND are also talented writers and gifted speakers. Isaac Bonewits is probably the most famous, well traveled, and prolific publishers amongst these few revered elders. Therefore, this book has been highly anticipated, and I would be frankly stunned if BEGD isn't quickly found at every Druidism 101 class offered to incoming members of all groups, or on the shelves of the quite numerous solitary Druids.
Bonewits' straight-forward advice and careful scholarship are influential and often trendsetting. What he predicts, is usually accepted as the common standpoint about 10 years later, by some estimates. I, myself, have not always agreed with Bonewits on some finer tangential points (such is our argumentative nature) and I gently resist the allure of his "progressivism" or the lightly implied inevitable "development" of Druidism. That said, however, I have grudgingly developed an admiration for his tireless dedication and ability to repetitively explain the basics of Druidism to any-and-all crowds on the lecture circuit and numerous articles in various journals and websites. Bonewits is a networking extraordinaire, one who either personally met all the major players, or has corresponded with them. This is a vital resource for any researcher of Druid groups; where the personality of the leaders gives key momentum to their (more-or-less democratic) group's direction. As with most similar groups, you'll find exceptions, and he acknowledges that frequently enough.
And yet despite his great talents, this book is not about Bonewits himself, a surprisingly modest and humble fellow (and straightforward about his biases and limits) with a rich sense of humor. The BEGD is really about DRUIDISM; the true passionate love of his life. Even for those hard-core scholars of these movements, familiar with his widely scattered and reprinted essays, much of this book will be pleasantly familiar to you, with a few surprises. Like a necklaced-string of fine pearls, most of the 33 short essays have been lovingly polished by decades of rewrites, painstaking draft reviews by fellow Druid leaders (including myself), and critical input from innumerable public lectures on these topics. Now, finally, they have all been seamlessly integrated in a single affordable book, where the true genius of the author, with his hand ever on the pulse of Druidism, can be better appreciated. It is my pleasure to now convince you of BEGD's charms.
SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS IN THE BOOK? (WHY IS IT SO GREAT?)
Naturally, the 33 essays of the book have been divided into nine parts (i.e. three times three, which is very Druidic, of course). The first three parts deal with the three different "stages" of Druidism; a catchy historical division that Bonewits invented by himself during the 1970s. Each section discusses the rise and fall of various organizations, who influenced them, and what they professed.
PART ONE, Paleopagan Druidism. He broadly chronicles the development of Indo-European customs and emergence of Celtic Druidism across Europe, until their disappearance soon after 500 CE. The underlying story being that religions, ethnicities and peoples changed and redefined themselves throughout history. He discusses ramifications of potential biases in academic research of books from different centuries.
PART TWO, Meso-"pagan" Druidism. During the chaotic efflorescence of the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, there was also growth of Celtic folk studies and melding of liberal Christianity and fraternal groups from 17th to 20th century. Many of them styled themselves "Druids", and continue to this day, often capturing the attention of world media with their flamboyant annual festivals.
PART THREE, Neopagan Druidism. This phase began with efforts by "Mesopagan" Druidic groups in the 1970s to dispense with monotheistic concepts and adopt polytheism and magic, while making timely adaptations and accommodations to modern society, and a greater environmental appreciation. These types of Druids are still in a stage of rampant diversification and development, and is the special focus of concern for the BEGD.
PART FOUR responsibly reminds the reader that every movement has its charlatans and con artists to be wary of. BEGD provides a useful guideline chart (1-10 scale) [called "ABCDEF"] to evaluate any prospective religion for 13 key oppressive elements. For those concerned about "cults", it is intriguing that many mainstream religions score far less favorably than the average Druid group; most of whose members have strong aversions to such groups that they grew up in. It is a stern recommendation of certain baseline expectations of treatment that modern Druids have come to expect for their members.
PART FIVE describes the general beliefs of modern Druids, as far as they can be ascertained from printed statements, and Bonewits' own extensive conversations with members of every group over 35 years. While they might not be officially adopted, or believed by every member of every group, they would likely be acknowledged as exemplary by most Druids that I know. No book on Druids would be complete without an explanation of how the eight major festivals of Neopagan Druids developed (a mixture of Celtic and SURPRISE! Anglo-Germanic events) to make a "Wheel of the Year" with eight spokes at regular six week intervals. Many pre-1970 mesopagan Druid groups had only a few large annual events (such as the Summer Solstice), and more frequent lodge-type meetings. Always the fashion-diva, Bonewits wryly comments on the distinctive clothes, tools and symbols of Druids; with amusing insights on where they actually came from. Finally, he has always stressed that being a Druid isn't just about having fun outside, but also comes with self-enforced sobering responsibilities and/or obligations to ourselves, Nature, other religious minorities, and ultimately for the human-race.
PART SIX is a delightfully handy collection of sample official rituals from the "big four" Druid groups (OBOD, RDNA, ADF, Keltria). His most intense hobby over the years has been that of liturgical analysis (see his lengthy book "Rites of Worship"). He demystifies these four services, breaking them into steps, and briefly explains WHY they do things in a certain order in a practical down-to-earth manner. All too often people approach Druidic liturgy as too-reverenced-to-be-questioned, with the sometimes sad result that liturgies don't get adapted for changing needs of the group.
PART SEVEN, in addition to the liturgy of groups, Bonewits includes a treatise on Druidic divination and one on Druidic magic, (a bit more often practiced by individuals, but sometimes by groups). He discourses on the much-misunderstood Ogham "alphabet", and shows how many groups have added and encouraged non-ancient-Celtic forms of divination. Previous to BEGD, Bonewits wrote two "nuts-and-bolts" books in a sociological and rational manner on the 26 general principles or laws that explain why people do magic in certain formats (see "Real Magic" and "Authentic Thaumaturgy" on Amazon). He also provides a few example of how modern Druids have taken surviving semi-Christian folk charms and "repaganized" them, and stresses the importance of incorporating poetry, dance, song and arts into liturgy.
PART EIGHT. As I mentioned before, Bonewits is great at rationally showing the historical development and diversification of Druidism, but he also has an irrepressible vision and hope for the future of Druidism. He has repeated this chapter's contents for decades, and inspired legions of Druids; and bit by bit, elements of it are coming true. For example, he encourages Druids to focus on improving training programs, attain legal tax-exempt status as religious charities (true for three of the four big groups today), start greater advocacy campaigns, start giving their priests a working salary like mainstream faiths, and hold large public services for Druids and members of the general Neopagan community.
Finally, don't overlook the appendices ("PART NINE"). The lengthy bibliography and internet resources are up-to-date, listing 100 books that I believe I've seen on most reputable reading lists of the big four groups. You see, the number of books on "Druids", modern and ancient, have been exponentially increasing since the 1950s; some of them dry and academic, others wildly inaccurate (but interesting), and some are just pleasant personal observations. I agree with Bonewits, that a firm foundation in known facts, an informed awareness of disputed issues, and a liberal splash of inspirational works makes for a well-educated modern Druid. Being the indefatigable networker he is, Bonewits also provides the weblinks to most of the known Druid groups, for you to explore those that have caught your interest. He also mercifully moved some extra, detailed, background information on the Celtic language, terminology, Indo-European religious system to the appendix, to shorten the earlier introduction to Paleopagan Druids in part one.
SIMILAR BOOKS TO B.E.G.D.
It should be noted, that BEGD did not spring from the void. If you enjoy Bonewit's approach to the history and practice of modern Druidism, you'll probably like the following four books:
Rebirth of Druidry (aka Druid Renaissance) by Phillip Carr-Gomm of OBOD, 2003. Bonewits assisted in this book, writing a chapter on American Druidry. Rebirth of Druidry goes into extensive detail about the legion of British groups that have called themselves Druids, while BEGD focuses more on the American groups.
The Solitary Druid by Robert Ellison of ADF, 2005. This makes a fine complement to BEGD, which focuses on groups. 80% of most modern Druids don't have regular access to groups, and communicate by mail, or prefer their own company. This a book for them on do-it-by-yourself Druidism.
American Druidism by Daniel Hansen, 1995. Now out of print, but sometimes available, was a slimmer (160 pgs), a much simpler publication that I helped to edit, that discussed some of the same BEGD topics.
Drawing Down the Moon, by Margot Adler, 1979, 1986, 2003. DDTM talks of Neopaganism as a whole, with each edition updating the current history of the movement.
MIKE SCHARDING, ARCHDRUID OF D.C. GROVE, OF THE R.D.N.A.