A Very Brief History of Mesopagan Druidism

(Version 1.3)

Copyright © 1974, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

This update is primarily a formatting one, with only a few minor changes from the previous version. I have in my files a complex family tree chart of Mesopagan Druid groups prepared (I recall) by Colin Murray, then head of the Golden Section Order Society ten or twenty years ago, which I will eventually append to and use to update this essay. Someday we may even be able to come up with a chronology of the Mesopagan Druid orders which all the current groups will be able to agree upon!

Let me begin by pointing out that I am working primarily on the “Earth Plane” level of materialistic reality in writing these notes, and that legends about the founding of esoteric movements are not unusual. This is especially important as we discuss the Fraternal Druid movements of the British Isles, many of whom sincerely believe that their orders go back in an unbroken line to the original Paleopagan Druids.

If you are unfamiliar with these terms, you may wish to visit my definitions page on Paleo-, Meso- and Neopaganism. Please remember that these are not airtight pigeonholes, but rather broad, overlapping categories.

My discussion of Paleopagan Druidism as the Celtic branch of a common Indo-European Paleopaganism will probably be a useful introduction to this topic. The original Druids were wiped out by the Roman Empire and then the Roman Catholic Church, so that by the year 1,000 of the Common Era, Druidism as an intact belief system, rooted in a common Indo-European social structure and cosmology, had vanished from Western Europe.

It is said by some Mesopagan Druids that in 1245 c.e. a gathering was held of underground Druids and Bards from several parts of the British Isles, and that they managed to agree upon some sort of theological unity. This accomplished, they founded a special group called the “Mount Haemus Grove,” which is said to still be in existence, with an “unbroken” line leading back. Such claims, like those made for Witchcraft groups, need to be treated most carefully. There does indeed seem to be something calling itself the Mount Haemus Grove operating today (or at least within the last ten years), which is recognized by some of the Mesopagan Druids in England, but the fact of its current existence cannot, unfortunately, be taken as proof of either its legendary history or its alledged continuity. It may be possible to show a continued existence back to the 1700’s, but going any further back will require much more research than seems to have been done to date.

In 1659 c.e., the scholar John Aubrey, having done some quasi-archeological (the science hadn’t been invented yet) fieldwork at Stonehenge, made the suggestion that Stonehenge might have been a temple of the Druids. He developed this suggestion cautiously over the next few decades in his correspondence with his fellow scholars and in the notes for his never fully-published work, Templa Druidim.  In 1694, a firey young Deist named John Toland discussed the theory with him and became very enthusiastic about it. In 1695, excerpts from Aubrey’s book were published, including his theory about Druids at Stonehenge, which thus saw wider distribution for the first time.

In 1717 c.e., a young “antiquary” (that’s what such folk were called before the term “archeologist” was coined) named William Stuckeley obtained a copy of Aubrey’s complete manuscript of Templa Druidim, including the portions never published. Stuckeley thought the theory about Stonehenge being a Druid Temple was a terrific idea and began to develop it far bevond Aubrey’s original concepts.

Also in that year, it is claimed, John Toland held a meeting at which Druidic and Bardic “representatives” (elected by whom?) from Wales, Cornwall, Britanny, Ireland, Scotland, Anglesey, Man, York, Oxford and London supposedly appeared and formed the “Universal Druid Bond” (“U.D.B.”). The U.D.B. has supposedly continued to this very day (or rather, at least one current group claiming to be part of a Universal Druid Bond says that it goes back this far) and the present name of the head group of the U.D.B. seems to be the “Mother Grove, An Tich Geata Gairdeachas.”

In 1723 c.e., the Druid stone altar was invented by Rev. Henry Rowlands in his “monumental” work, Mona Antiqua Restaurata. His Druids are Patriarchs right out of the Bible, and the altars they use are cairns (piles of stones) and the capstones of cromlechs (roofs of passage graves). He does at least allow the Druids to remain in their groves, rather than forcing them to build huge stone temples. These Druid stone altars quickly became part of the rapidly growing folklore of Druidism. Prior to 1723, Druids were required to use altars made of sod or tree stumps — adequate, perhaps, but hardly as glamorous.

In 1726, John Toland published his History of the Druids, in which he pictured the Druids as unscrupulous montebanks and theocratic tyrants. This was a rather surprising act for the man who supposedly had, nine years earlier, helped to found the Universal Druid Bond and been its first “Chosen Chief.” He did, however, put further forward the theory that Stonehenge had been built for Druidic worship.

Scholarship of equal value was, of course, being produced in France as well. In 1727, Jean Martin presented Patriarchial Druids (Christian style) in his Religion des Gaulois. Throughout this century, on both sides of the Channel, ancient Druids were being invented, though in France these “Pre-Christian Christians” tended to be patriotic heroes resisting invasion, while their English counterparts were the greatest mystics in history.

In London, Druid groups appeared along with Rosicrucian and Freemasonic organizations. As the Druid Order/B.C.U.B. (see below), put it in their introductory booklet, The Ancient Druid Order:

“The 17th century saw the emergence of the Order into its more modern shape. In the 17th and 18th centuries there was a complex of mystical societies, Hermetes, Rosicrucians, Freemasons and Druids, who often had members in common.”

In 1781 c.e., Henry Hurle set up the “Ancient Order of Druids” (“A.O.D.”), which is sometimes just called the “Druid Order,” (D.O.), as were a few other groups, leading to no end of historical confusion. Hurle’s group was a secret society based on Masonic patterns — not surprising, since Hurle was a carpenter and house builder, and thus would have been familiar with Masonry. The A.O.D., like most of the similar mystical societies formed at the time, was heavily influenced by Jacob Boehme.

(Jacob Boehme, 1675-1724 c.e., was a Protestant Christian mystic, greatly involved with alchemy, hermeticism and Christian Cabala, as well as being a student of the famous Meister Eckhart. His mystical writings attempted to reconcile all these influences and had a tremendous impact upon later generations of mystical Christians, Rosicrucians, Freemasons and Theosophists.)

Overseas, the link between Deism, Masonry and Druidism was once again established, in the small town of Newburgh, New York. G. Adolf Koch has an entire chapter on “The Society of Druids” in his book Religion of the American Enlightenment. Deism (the belief that a Supreme Being created the universe, then essentially ignored it) and downright atheism were popular during the 1780’s and 90’s among the American intelligensia, especially those who had supported the American and French revolutions. In fact, a rather large number of the key political figures involved in both revolutions were Deistic Masons and Rosicrucians (see The Illuminoids, by Neal Wilgus), which rather dampens claims by the Religious Reich to America having been founded as a “Christian nation.”  Koch tells the story of the Newburgh Druids thusly:

Some influential citizens of Newburgh had organized themselves into an interesting radical religious body called ‘The Druid Society.’ Like its sister organization, the Deistic Society in New York, it was a radical offshoot of an earlier and more conservative society. A Masonic lodge had been established in Newburgh in 1788, and it seems, as one attempts to piece together the fragmentary facts, that as the brothers, or at least a number of them, became more and more radical in the feverish days of the French Revolution, the metamorphosis from Mason to Druid resulted. The Druids held their meetings in the room formerly occupied by the Masons and continued to use a ceremony similar to the Masonic. It is interesting to note, too, that as the Druid Society died out contemporaneously with the end of [famous Deist of the time] Palmer’s activities in New York City, a new Masonic lodge was instituted in Newburgh in 1806.

The question naturally arises as to why those apostate Masons chose the name of Druids. It seems that when they abandoned Christianity, with which Masonry in America had not been incompatible, they went back to the religion [as they conceived of it] of the ancient Druids who were sun worshippers. It was commonly believed at that time, by the radicals of course, that both Christianity and Masonry were derived from the worship of the sun… The Druids thus went back to the pure worship of the great luminary, the visible agent of a great invisible first cause, and regarded Christianity as a later accretion and subversion of the true faith, a superstition, in short, developed by a designing and unscrupulous priesthood, to put it mildly in the language of the day.”

It appears that the famous American revolutionary Thomas Paine, among other radicals of the time, was convinced that Masonry was descended from Druidism. Koch refers us to an essay bv Paine, The Origin of Freemasonry, written in New York Citv in 1805. In this essay he mentions a society of Masons in Dublin who called themselves Druids. The spectacular fantasies and conjectures that have been offered over the centuries to explain the origins of Masonry and Rosicrucianism will have to await another article to be properly discussed. Suffice it to say, for now, that the sorts of Druidism with which Paine and his friends might have been familiar were far more likely to have been offshoots of Masonry than vice versa.

As for the group of Druid Masons in Dublin, I know nothing else about them. I will speculate that they may very well have been intimately linked with Irish Revolutionary politics, which might or might not have strained their relations with Druid Masons in England. There doesn’t seem to be much data about Irish Masonic Druidism available in this country, but we do know a bit about developments in Wales.

Following the successful Eisteddfod (bardic gathering) organized by Thomas Jones in Corwen in 1789 c.e., a huge variety of Welsh cultural and literary societies mushroomed and flourished. In 1792, a stone mason, early agitator for Unitarianism, and member of several of these groups in London, named Edward Williams, later to use the religious/pen name of Iolo Morganwg (Iolo of Glamorganshire), held an Autumn Equinox ceremony on top of Primrose Hill (in London). Along with some other Welsh Bards, he set up a small circle of pebbles and an altar, which he called the “Mean Gorsedd.” There was a naked sword on this altar and a part of the ritual involved the sheathing of this sword. At the time, no one paid very much attention to the ceremony or its obvious sexual symbolism (which, if noticed, might legitimately have been called “Pagan”), at least not outside of the London “Bardic” community.

Iolo, however, was not daunted. He declared that the Glamorganshire Bards had an unbroken line of Bardic-Druidic tradition going back to the Ancient Druids, and that his ceremony was part of it. He said that the ancient Druids had been monotheists and, by an amazing coincidence, Unitarians! He then proceeded (almost all scholars agree) to translate, mistranslate and occasionally forge various documents and “ancient” manuscripts, in order to “prove” these and his subsequent claims. Many people feel that he muddled genuine Welsh scholarship for over a hundred years. It was Iolo who promoted the use of the awen symbol, even though it would have been far more appropriate for trinitarian than unitarian Druids to use.

The effects of Iolo’s work did not stop there however, for later writers such as Lewis Spence, Robert Graves (in The White Goddess) and Gerald Gardner apparently took Iolo’s dubious “scholarship” at face value and proceeded to put forward theories that have launched dozens of occult and mystical organizations (most of them having little if anything to do with authentic Paleopagan Druidism).

By 1796 c.e., all megalithic monuments in Northwestern Europe were firmly defined as “Druidic,” especially if they were in the form of circles or lines of standing stones. In that year, yet another element was added, in La Tour-D’Auvergne’s book, Origines Gauloises. He thought he had discovered a word in the Breton language for megalithic tombs, dolmin, and by both this spelling and that of dolmen the term became part of archeological jargon and of the growing Druid folklore. Of course, none of these people knew that the megalithic monuments, cromlechs, and dolmens all predated the Celtic peoples by many centuries.

By the end of the 18th Century, the folklore, also called “Celtomania,” went roughly like this:

“…the Celts are the oldest people in the world; their language is preserved practically intact in Bas-Breton; they were profound philosophers whose inspired doctrines have been handed down by the Welsh Bardic Schools;. dolmens are their altars where their priests the Druids offered human sacrifice; stone alignments were their astronomical observatories…” (Salomon Reinach, quoted by Stuart Piggott in the latter’s The Druids).

In 1819 c.e., Iolo managed to get his stone circle and its ceremony (now called, as a whole, the “Gorsedd”) inserted into the genuine Eisteddfod in Carmarthen, Wales. It was a success with the Bards and the tourists and has been a part of the Eisteddfod tradition ever since, with greater and greater elaborations.

Throughout the 19th Century, art, music, drama and poetry were using these fanciful Druids as characters and sources of inspiration. Various eccentrics, many of them devout (if unorthodox) Christians, claimed to be Druids and made colorful headlines. Wealthy people built miniature Stonehenges in their gardens and hired fake Druids to scare their guests. Mystically oriented individuals drifted from Masonic groups to Rosicrucian lodges to Druid groves, and hardly anyone, then or now, could tell the difference. Ecumenicalism was the order of the day and in 1878, at the Pontypridd Eisteddfod, the Archdruid presiding over the Gorsedd ceremony inserted a prayer to Mother Kali of India! This might have been magically quite sensible, and was certainly in keeping with traditional Pagan attitudes of religious eclecticism, except for the fact that the British attitude towards Indian culture and religion was not exactly the most cordial at the time. Of course, maybe they were anticipating A.D.F.’s Pan-Indo-European approach to Druidism!

But before this, in 1833, the secret society founded by Hurle apparently split up over the question of whether it should be mainly a “benefit” (charitable) society or a mystical one. The majority voted for being a charitable society and changed its name to the “United Ancient Order of Druids” (“U.A.O.D.”). This group, with branches all over the world, still exists as a charitable and fraternal organization rather like the Elks or Shriners, with both their membership and their rituals overlapping heavily with those of mainstream Masonry.

Meanwhile, the minority group, still apparently calling itself by the old names (A.O.D. and D.O.), also continued to exist, as a mystical Masonic sort of organization. They may have been among the groups known to have held ceremonies (Summer Solstice rites were the only ones held by anyone it seems) at Stonehenge, prior to 1900 c.e. In 1900, one of the standing stones fell over and the angry owner of the land (Sir Edward Antrobus) decided to fence the monument and charge admission the better to (a) keep a closer watch on it and (b) earn enough money to repair the damage being committed by tourists. This caused a problem almost immediately , when a Druidic group was holding the next Summer Solstice ceremonies and the Chief Druid was kicked out by the police (he supposedly laid a curse on Sir Edward, the affects of which are unrecorded).

The only Druidic group known for sure to have used the monument through the years between 1901 and 1914 c.e. was called the “Druid Hermeticists.” It may have been a member of this group who was the model for Alick P. F. Ritchie’s “Stonehenge 1911” painting done originally for “Vanity Fair” magazine and shown here.

In 1915 c.e., Stonehenge was sold by the owner to someone else who immediately gave it to the British government, at a ceremony in which Druids of some sort assisted. Since 1919 c.e., when Stonehenge became a national monument, many different Druid groups have asked government pemission to use it, while other groups (because of political and metaphysical squabbles) celebrated instead at various nearby spots. Some groups, of course, may have used Stonehenge without government permission or knowledge.

From the 1970’s to the 90’s, under increasingly fascistic governments, Stonehenge has been repeatedly blocked off from use by British Druids and everyone else, in order to control the activities of the British counterculture (which began having festivals nearby, and using the neighborhood for anti-nuclear and ecological protests). A review in the Lughnasadh/Fall ’96 issue (31) of Keltria Journal  highly recommends Who Owns Stonehenge? by Christopher Chippendale et. al., as a source that will provide more details, at least up until 1990 or so. On June 22, 1998 c.e., Maggie Thatcher having been replaced by a Labor Party Prime Minister, the Mesopagan and Neopagan Druids and their friends (at least 100 of them) were once again allowed to exercise their civil rights by celebrating the Summer Solstice inside Stonehenge. The following year, however, conflict between the British Government and protestors again kept the Druids from celebrating within the circle of stones, though things improved again in 2000.

Over the 20th century, events of a Druidic nature were occurring outside of Stonehenge, of course. In Wales, the National Eisteddfod Court runs an Esteddfod every year, alternating between northern and southern Wales, and has the “Gorsedd of Bards” arrange the rituals for each occasion. Bardic and Mesopagan Druidic groups have also arisen in France, Britanny, Cornwall (where they were responsible for rescuing the Cornish language from the very brink of extinction), the Isle of Man, Scotland, Ireland, various parts of England, Australia, and elsewhere. Oddly enough, Mesopagan Druidism proved to be popular in Germanic and Scandinavian countries, despite these regions not thinking of themselves as Celtic.

Counting out and pinning down the number and variety of Mesopagan Druid organizations that have existed, even just in England, may well be impossible. As I have mentioned in discussions of Witchcraft history, and as the A.O.D. booklet quoted earlier hints, the British Isles are very small! Esoteric and fraternal organizations tend to have overlapping memberships, to attend each other’s rites, and to borrow ideas and terminology from each other. Thus where Piggott or another scholar may see a dozen “different” Druid orders, their members may see one or two or three, working along often parallel lines, and all holding to the same ideals of wisdom, character and public service.

Masonic/Fraternal Druidism (by far the vast majority of Mesopagan Druidism) is a religious and philosophical system that has lasted for over two centuries, helping thousands of people to gain a better understanding of themselves and their times. Its attitude of reverent skepticism is fully in keeping with the ideals of the founders of the Reformed and Neopagan Druid movements. These Mesopagans have a great deal of wisdom and experience that we would do well to avail ourselves of, and many of the current Fraternal Druids are right on the borderline between Meso- and Neopaganism. It is to be hoped that more lines of communication will be opened between us in the years to come.

For more details about Mesopagan Druidism, read the essays referenced below.

Mesopagan Druid Literature

The Story of Druidism: History, Legend and Lore This is a booklet I received from the California & Nevada Lodge of the United Ancient Order of Druids (U.A.O.D.) twenty years ago. It expresses clearly the Masonic-style of fraternal dedication and idealism of the order.

The Ancient Druid Order This is a booklet from the Druid Order / British Circle of the Universal Bond (B.C.U.B.), sent to me fifteen years ago.

The Druid Order, by Dr. Thomas Maughan, D.Sc. This is an essay written sometime before 1976, by the then head of the D.O. / B.C.U.B., which I presume owns the copyright. I think it clearly and succinctly expresses the essence of Mesopagan Druid mysticism and folklore.

Obviously, modern science and scholarship (not to mention Neopagan polytheology) disagrees vigorously with many of the statements made in these brochures. So read them as evidence of what the writers believed, not of what “really happened.”

Copyright © 1974, 2005 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained, and everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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