We see the first evidence of spiritual practice in Europe 25,000 years ago – when candidates for initiation would crawl into caves, such as the Pinhole caves in Derbyshire – or the Chauvet or Lascaux caves in France, or Altamira in Spain, which are dramatically painted with figures of wild animals. After being initiated in the belly of Mother Earth, they were reborn into the light of day. Twenty thousand years later, in around 3000 BCE, we can see the same practice of seeking rebirth within the Earth: great mounds were built, in which initiates would sit in darkness awaiting the time of their rebirth. The best example of this is found at New Grange in Ireland, where a shaft is oriented to the Winter Solstice sunrise, so that the dawn rays can bathe the initiate in sunlight after his or her vigil through the night.
Four and a half thousand years later, in the sixteenth century, the key text of Druid spirituality, transcribed from the oral tradition by Christian clerics, talks of the spiritual and magical training of a Druid, in which he is eaten by a Goddess, enters her belly, and is reborn as the greatest poet in the land. So from over twenty thousand years ago to the sixteenth century, we see a common theme – which we find again in the training of Druids and poets in Scotland up until the seventeenth century. There, to awaken their creative genius, they were told to lie in darkness for days, and after this period of sensory deprivation, they were released into the brightness of the world.
This theme of seeking spiritual rebirth and creative expression through undergoing a simulated death-rebirth experience, runs like a golden thread of spiritual practice through the four major periods of history that relate to Celtic and Druid spirituality:
The first is the prehistoric period: in which as the Ice Age retreats from Europe, tribes from many directions, including Spain and the steppes of Russia, move westwards towards Britain and Ireland. A megalith building culture develops, which raises great mounds like New Grange, and great circles of stone, like Stonehenge. This culture possesses considerable knowledge of astronomy, has engineering skills that we find hard to understand even today, and seems to use Pythagorean mathematics to build their monuments, two thousand years before Pythagoras is born.
This period of pre- and then early Celticism gives way to the period of documented history, in which we can read about the Celts and Druids from the works of classical writers, such as Julius Caesar. We discover that the Celts had developed a highly sophisticated religious system, with three types of Druids: the Bards, who knew the songs and stories of the tribe, the Ovates, who were the healers and seers, and the Druidswho were the philosophers, judges and teachers. During this time there was much cross-fertilisation between Celtic culture and that of Greece and Rome.
With the coming of Christianity, we enter the third period: in which the schools of the Bards became Christian schools, and continued to exist until the seventeenth century; and in which the Ovates probably became the village healers and midwives; while the Druids remained as the intellectual elite, and mostly converted to Christianity. This period lasted for a thousand years: from the triumph of Christianity over all of Europe by the sixth century, to the sixteenth century. During this millennium, Celtic and Druid spirituality was preserved by the Christian clerics who performed the valuable service of recording many of the stories and myths by which the oral teachings of the Druids were conveyed. People who think that Druidry was destroyed with the coming of Christianity fail to understand the resilience of spiritual teachings when they are encoded in myths and stories: and it is thanks to the clerics’ recording of these tales that we can be inspired by them today. St Patrick also recorded all of the old Druid laws in Ireland – providing us with invaluable information on the ethics and social structure of pre-Christian Celtic culture.
The fourth period begins with the sixteenth century, when scholars in Europe ‘rediscovered’ the Druids, and then began to reclaim their Celtic heritage. The Church had taught that we were savages until the arrival of Christianity. But with the translation and printing of the classical texts on the Druids, Europeans discovered that their ancestors were far from being savages. At the same time, reports were coming back from America of Native American people who, like their ancestors, had been untouched by Christianity, and yet were worthy of admiration. This provoked a period known as the Druid Revival in which groups and societies were formed to study Druidry and Celticism. The founding father of the science of archaeology, William Stukeley, formed a Druid society in London and referred to the Princess of Wales as its Patroness. Cultural festivals, incorporating Druid ceremonies, and celebrating Celtic languages, grew up in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. And this period of Revival has never finished. Instead, it has developed into a Renaissance, as more and more people find within Druidry a living spirituality that holds all of Nature sacred, and that offers a path of creativity and freedom, rooted deep in ancient tradition.