The Origins of Wicca & Druidry

"I fancy that certain practices, such as the use of the circle to keep the power in, were local inventions, derived from the use of the Druid or pre-Druid circle." Gerald Gardner, Witchcraft Today

Druidry and Wicca represent the two main streams of indigenous ‘earth spirituality’ of western European culture. But though their roots are buried deep in the foundations of that culture, the ways in which they are practised today were formulated only recently, and as we shall see, there are many connections between the two approaches.

In the 1930s or 40s two men met and became friends and co-workers, probably first at the idyllic naturist community of Spielplatz in Hertfordshire. one was a Druid, the other a poet and historian. Gerald Gardner, a member of the Ancient Druid Order and the Folklore Society, met the poet and teacher Ross Nichols, and discovered that he shared his interest in magic, the occult and the pre-Christian past of Britain. After more than a decade of friendship, Ross became a Druid too, joining the Ancient Order in 1954. This was the same year that Gardner’s first work of non-fiction on Witchcraft was published – Witchcraft Today. This book heralded the popularisation of Wicca and began the process that led to it becoming such a significant and dynamic spirituality today.

At about the time the book was published, Ross took my father to meet Gerald Gardner at their naturist club. They lay in the sun, talked about history, and swam in the pool. My father, as editor of a history magazine, would later commission Ross to write articles, but at this time it was Ross who was the editor. He had just finished editing an English translation of Paul Christian’s massive History & Practice of Magicand had gone on to edit Gardner’s book – quite a task according to writers Francis King and Doreen Valiente, since Gardner was not a skilled author.

Already, before the book was published, Gardner had established a coven, and was hoping to start a Druid group on the Isle of Man. As far as we know Ross did not join his coven, and although interested in Wicca, never considered himself a Witch. Instead he continued to pursue his interests in mythology and the seasonal festivals, and began to develop a passion for Druidry. In the end, when Gardner and the old Druid Chief died in 1964, Ross introduced a new kind of Druid practice into the world. It was based on the old lore – on the mythology of Britain and Ireland, on the old Bardic tales, on the practices of the Ancient Druid Order, and on ideas drawn from folklore, depth psychology and legend.

But it was new because it took all of this material and presented it through the structure of a Mystery School that, like Wicca, drew much of its practical inspiration from the immense heritage of the Western magical tradition, which – in a perfect arc – connected the Pythagorean and Neo-Pythagorean roots of western magic to the Pythagoreanism of the ancient Druids. Just like Wicca, this Druidry worked with the magic circle blessed by fire and water, with the four elements and the fifth being aether, or Spirit, symbolised by the Pythagorean pentagram. It offered three grades or degrees, entered by initiation, of Bard, Ovate and Druid, as opposed to Wicca’s First, Second and Third Degrees. And it celebrated the same eight seasonal festivals.

Gardner, in a later book, The Meaning of Witchcraft, speculated that the ancient Druids represented the scholarly elite while Witchcraft was the religion of the peasants, and whether or not this is true, this perception has affected our views of the two paths. Druidry often appears to be the more scholarly or learned path, while Wicca appears to be the more earthy, intuitive or instinctual way. The two founding fathers of these types of practice certainly embodied these differences – Ross tended to be the dry academic, Gardner the earthy maverick. But things have come a long way since they presented their systems to the world – scholarly approaches in Wicca have developed in tandem with the development of instinctual and intuitive approaches within Druidry, and now many people creatively blend Wiccan and Druidic approaches and find them complementary.

Spiral triskelion (formed from mathematical Archimedean spirals), occasionally used as a Christian Trinitarian symbol

Founding Mothers

Although Gardner and Nichols were undoubtedly seminal in their influence on these two strands of modern spirituality, we must remember that new movements that capture the public imagination and grow in popularity do not arise in a vacuum. Both men were influenced by the Spirit of the Times, whose agenda in post-war Britain urgently required a return to a peaceful harmony with the land. They were both driven by the need in the collective soul for spiritualities that honoured and celebrated the earth and all life, rather than for religions that urged us to transcend Nature and the body. And they were influenced, too, by other people – particularly by two women, Doreen Valiente and Vera Chapman who, if we are to term Gardner and Nichols Founding Fathers, we should term Founding Mothers of the movements they initiated.

Gardner met Valiente in 1952 and immediately encouraged her to improve and augment the rituals in the Wiccan Book of Shadows – a term for the book used to record Wiccan rites, which Gardner apparently adopted on reading of its use in India in an article published in The Occult Observer by a friend of Ross. Valiente, who knew Ross too, wrote inspired poetry with an unashamed expression of sensuality and Paganism. Vera Chapman, who matched Ross in both her depth of learning and her fascination for history and poetry, was a successful author, keen proponent of women’s freemasonry, a member of the Woodcraft-related Kibbo Kift movement, and the founder of the Tolkien Society. Like Ross she was also interested in a fairer distribution of wealth, and supported the Social Credit movement. Ross appointed her Pendragon of his Order, and after the success of her Arthurian trilogy, Warner Bros. bought the film rights, using her work as the basis for a disappointing cartoon film – Quest for Camelot.

Since Valiente and Chapman, other women have contributed immensely to both traditions – bringing a depth and warmth to these spiritualities that appeal now to women just as much as men. Leaders of Druid groups today tend to have a grounding in Wicca as well as Druidry, and many Wiccans study Druidry, in addition to Druids studying Wicca. Each system is complete in itself and some people choose to practice just one, or to practice both at different times. Others choose to eclectically combine elements of both ways. Wicca tends to work with the gods, and with the power of the union of the opposites, whereas Druidry tends to work with the results of this union in creativity, and deals not so much with the gods, as with the fruit of their inspiration in poetry and story. Both ways of working are powerful and valid in their own right and need no additions, but there is also no reason why they cannot be combined .

There are many varieties of Wicca now, just as there are many different styles of Druid practice, which makes it hard to offer comparisons. Solitary practitioners of Wicca, often calling themselves ‘Hedge Witches’ are practically indistinguishable from solitary Ovates, or ‘Hedge Druids’.

Adapted from Druid Mysteries by Philip Carr-Gomm