Some say that the study of philosophy was of barbarian origin. For the Persians had their Magi, the Babylonians or the Assyrians the Chaldeans, the Indians their Gymnosophists, while the Kelts and the Galatae had seers called Druids and Semnotheoi, or so Aristotle says in the ‘Magic’ and Sotion in the twenty-third book of his ‘Succession of Philosophers’… Those who think that philosophy is an invention of the barbarians explain the systems prevailing among each people. They say that the Gymnosophists and Druids make their pronouncements by means of riddles and dark sayings, teaching that the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done, and manly behaviour maintained.
Following the Druid Way involves leading a way of life that helps us get back in touch with the Natural world. As Druids we find our spiritual nourishment in the sense of joy and communion we experience out in the woods, by the sea, standing on top of a hill gazing at the panorama around us. That is why Druid ceremonies usually take place out of doors, unless the weather is really bad. We celebrate in the ‘temple not made by human hands’ – under an open sky, beneath the eye of the sun or the light of the moon.
Most Druids celebrate wearing their everyday clothes, or they put on special robes, which help them become more aware of working within the sacred space of their circle, and which free them from some of the associations and perhaps ‘energies’ that their everyday clothes carry.
Some Wiccans, and more recently some Druids, take the process one stage further and conduct their ceremonies naked, or ‘skyclad’. By freeing themselves of clothes and even of robes they feel closer to the natural world, and feel they can perform their magic more effectively – with their energy unimpeded by shoes or clothing.
Although we tend to associate skyclad worship exclusively with Wicca, in reality it is a concept that has inspired many spiritual seekers across the centuries and around the world. And in recent times it is a concept that inspired the founder of the Order, Ross Nichols.
Ross Nichols was a Naturist and believed that Druidry may have originated amongst the Dravidians of India. The Jain religion has Dravidian roots, and it has naked devotees amongst its followers who call themselves ‘Sky-Clad’. Alexander encountered these devotees in 326 BC and called them gymnosophists (naked philosphers). As we see from the classical quotation above, in ancient times there were those who believed that the naked philosophers and the Druids offered similar teachings.
Nichols was interested in Jainism – he liked its philosophy of non-violence, vegetarianism and non-attachment, and he once wrote that ‘Of the known cultural communities it is the Jains who seem most like a society from which Druidry could have originated.’ He then went on to explain their two divisions: those who wear no clothes and are called Digambara, which means literally ‘clothed in the quarters of the sky’ usually translated as ‘atmosphere-clad’ or ‘sky-clad’; and those known as Shvetambara, translated as ‘white-clothed’ or ‘white-robed’.
Both Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner (who developed Wicca from the 1950s) had discovered the joys of Naturism, and had found that freeing oneself of clothes in a natural setting also frees one’s mind and spirit. While Gardner took the bold step of introducing a spirituality which took this sense of freedom into its acts of worship, making use of the Jain term and decreeing that Wicca should be practised ‘skyclad’, Nichols confined his Naturism to his own personal life and when meeting with Druid friends at his private woodland retreat in Buckinghamshire, or at the Naturist club in Hertfordshire that he and Gardner frequented. In his public Druidry he was ‘white-robed’.
It is possible that Nichols introduced Gardner to the term ‘skyclad’, though it is equally possible that Gardner came across the term in his own researches.
Although the majority of Druids, and probably the majority of Wiccans, prefer to remain clothed, a number of them have discovered that working skyclad, far from encouraging salacious voyeurism, exhibitionism or sexual misconduct, actually engenders a sense of community, of closeness to Nature and the Divine, and induces feelings of humility and innocence.
As Emma Restall Orr, in her recent book Living Druidry, says:
There is a cliché about Pagan religion defined as naked mud-splattered women in the midst of the forest, dancing uninhibited around a fire. Some of those who participate in Western Pagan practices shy away from the possibility, denying its existence as nothing more than media fantasy. Yet such wild expression is an important practice in Pagan Druidry, and for a number of reasons. In terms of deep reverence, being naked allows us to feel more acutely the relationship with the breeze, the wind, the skies, the light and dark, the ground beneath us, the warmth of the sun or flames, the touch of snowflakes or raindrops, the fullness of the natural world, and so encourages a richer, more genuinely felt interaction. Nakedness can also provoke or intensify the falling away of more than physical barriers, evoking an holistic vulnerability, a tangible soul honesty, not only in terms of how we relate to those around us – trees, rocks, moonlight, people, rain – but also with ourselves. Clothes allow us to hide truth, even from ourselves.
We do not know whether the ancient Druids, like the Jains, ever worshipped naked, but classical authors did recount that Celtic warriors sometimes charged into battle naked, and Geraldus Cambriensis recounted that in pre-Christian Ireland, when Druids were advisors to kings, the future king would have to show himself naked to his people, slowly turning in a circle, so that he could be seen to have no blemishes, and perhaps symbolically demonstrating that he would be truthful, and would hide nothing from them. As Emma Restall Orr points out, clothes allow us to hide the truth, and the king was quite literally showing his people-to-be who he was, with no attempt to cover anything up.
Whether Druids in the past performed skyclad rites is debatable but essentially immaterial. Druidry is constantly growing and evolving, and the ideals of Naturism espoused by Nichols are in complete agreement with the ideals of Druidry. These ideals include a belief in the sacredness of the natural world and the human body, and a rejection of the idea that we should feel ashamed about our bodies.
In The Druid Way Philip Carr-Gomm writes:
After a while I reached the outer ramparts of Mount Caburn. Entering the gateway of mound and ditch, I came to the centre of this high and powerful place. Despite it being in the middle of summer, there was no-one there: not a soul in this ancient and beautiful spot. And then I just followed my instincts and took off my clothes and spun and danced around in the sunshine, then lay on the grass feeling its softness on my back, and the sun and gentle breeze on the front of my body. I sat up and was filled with a simple, clear feeling of joy, as if, like Horace Walpole, I had cast off my cares as I had cast off my clothes. I wondered for a moment whether I was mad or indeed legal – could I be arrested for simply being myself here? Was I somehow only legally entitled to exist if covered? Why was it so pleasing and more than that, why did it feel so important to be naked at this moment?
I remembered the grand tradition of Naturism – born out of a love of the sun, the fresh air and of Nature herself, and born too out of a struggle with the grey repressive forces of prudery and Puritanism. Nakedness means freedom, and although dancing on a sun-kissed hillside with shorts on seems pretty similar to dancing with shorts off, there is all the difference in the world. It is as if your clothes take on the weight of your worries and concerns – they come to embody your defences against the world, and if you can feel confident enough and safe enough, then taking them off evokes a powerful sense of liberation, of joy and freedom; and more than that – of innocence and of openness to the world. That explained to me why I felt joyful and why I felt it important to do this. I was open to the world here, high on Mount Caburn. There was nothing between me and Nature. I felt at one with it.
I realised that this was why so many writers who loved Nature waxed lyrical about the joys of being naked outdoors: Richard Jefferies, Francis Kilvert, George Bernard Shaw, Edward Carpenter, Thoreau, Walt Whitman. They had all discovered the ‘secret’ that you don’t need any thing to be happy. As if in an opposite process to consumerism, which feeds us the lie that only more things can make us happy, the minimalism of Naturism tells us that we don’t even need clothes to find happiness. Less truly becomes more, and in this moment I found an even greater respect for the Naturism of my teacher Nuinn, and of his friend Gerald Gardner, who adopted the Jain term ‘skyclad’ as a poetic alternative to the starker term ‘nude’.
Others inspired by both Druidism and Naturism include the poet William Blake and his wife who may have enjoyed sitting naked in their garden, and the eccentric Welsh Druid and gifted healer of the 19th century William Price, who enjoyed striding free of clothes across the Welsh hillsides on his way to treat patients. (NB New research indicates that although William Price’s nude rambles have been widely written about, it was almost certainly his father who undertook these walks, and although the story about Blake and in his wife being found sitting naked in their garden is often repeated, the latest biographers, such as Peter Ackroyd, point out that it comes from an unsound source.)
Dr Adam Stout, in his biographical study of the Druid Chief George Watson Macgregor Reid for the Fifth Mount Haemus Award, notes that Reid ‘was a believer in the healthful effects of nudism, and on one occasion dreamed of buying a tract of land somewhere cheap and remote, upon which “an opportunity be given to all to go back to Nature for a given period, at as low a rate as possible.” It was no longer possible to be naked by the sea-side, as it had been when he was a child: “This is a something lost that must be regained”’. MacGregor Reid’s support of a simple back-to-nature lifestyle (which he called ‘simplicitarianism’) married perfectly with his support of Naturism, and we can now see that an interest in both these ideals can be found amongst Druid leaders spanning at least three generations, from the early years of the last century to the present day.
1. Read an OBOD member’s moving account of their first experience of a skyclad ritual: ‘Naked with Nuinn’.
2. For a full discussion of the relationship between nakedness, spirituality and religious practice see A Brief History of Nakedness by Philip Carr-Gomm, Reaktion, 2010.
3. Interesting related material can be found in the essay ‘A Modest Look at Ritual Nudity’ in Witches, Druids and King Arthur, Ronald Hutton, Hambledon & London 2003
4. It should be noted that although Jainism does have Dravidian roots, and in the past some scholars have seen links between the Dravidians and the Druids, both the Druidism reported by the Classical authors and its modern manifestations seem to bear little resemblance to Jainism past or present. If there is a connection it is likely to be very distant in time and will require considerable research to uncover. Ross Nichols’ writing on the Jains can be found in the following two books:
Druidcraft – The Magic of Wicca & Druidry, Philip Carr-Gomm, Thorsons 2002
Researchers may be interested in the following detail:
In the Ross Nichols Archive collection of the Order, there is the draft of an essay entitled ‘Archaeologists and Druids’. Attached to the draft is a letter commenting on it by the archaeologist T.C.Lethbridge.
‘A more freewheeling archaeologist, T.C. Lethbridge, points out the common factors in the practices of Druids, witches and the early Aryan invaders of India. In Druidry and Hinduism he finds a similar separated holy body, Brahmin or Druid, which manages the educational-religious life and is superior to the chieftain-rulers. There is in each culture wisdom conveyed in long memorised poems, not written down, or not until much later. Each reverences both moon and sun, has circular motions in worship around either single stones or stone or wood circles, and holds certain creatures tabu. In each there is a sacred nudity in some aspect. Above all, both taught reincarnation or metempsychosis. The witches share some of this – the earlier moongoddess, who in this version rather dominated the ‘devil’, her coven-mate; circular and frenzied dancing, and rebirth after death ‘from the goddess’. He considers that these half-a-dozen features in common point to a common cultural origin perhaps about 3,000 B.C.’
This draft is accompanied by a 1961 letter from ‘Tom’ Lethbridge with comments and a quotation from Pliny which Ross uses in his final version of the essay, having struck out the sentence marked above in bold. In the final version, having removed the sentence, he adds a later paragraph as follows: ‘If one adds to Lethbridge’s links the several indications of deities in common between the ancient west and India, of which the most striking is the almost unqualified identity of Kali, the destroying aspect of Siva, with the Cailleach (‘Kaliach’) of Scotland, the case is greatly strengthened. one may also add the factor of sacred nudity in some form, the Celts in battle, the witches in ‘working’, the Aryans with the non-possessiveness of the faquir, above all the early and religious nudity of the Jains. Pliny says that British women went to their ceremonies completely unclad.’