When we talk about “the ancient druids,” really, we are talking about ourselves – about our ideas of a better way to live, inspired by a time that seems untouched by the degradations of modernity. And when I revisit the Roman texts (disclaimer: I grew up in a family of Classicists) this is what I find most striking about my adopted spiritual forebears:
The Druids usually abstain from war — Julius Caesar
Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears are bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses. — Diodorus Siculus
The keen-eyed among you will have spotted those qualifiers: “usually”, “often”, but not always. The mind harks back to Tacitus’ description of those women in black attire like Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving flaming torches to defend the sacred isle of Mona. As you might expect among barbarians…
Peace is not pacifism, yet when the debate about the place of peace within druidry spilled beyond the nemeton of the Druid Network and into the more public forms of social media, I often saw the two conflated. People spoke of their need to defend, to resist, to fight for their beliefs.
How much of this, I wondered, is at odds with peace?
I’ll come clean: I am a pacifist, albeit a pragmatic one. I still believe that pithy saying, first encountered in my teens: fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity. I have a partner who works in war zones, friends who have served in military conflicts and other friends who are top-level diplomats (and who would feel horrified at the thought I even mentioned them, so I shall leave it there). The question of whether global peace is attainable or even desirable, and at what cost, is a frequent, uncomfortable presence at my breakfast table.
When I volunteered to co-ordinate the peace pages, it was for the simple reason that it needed doing; in many ways, I feel utterly inadequate, picturing the ideal volunteer as someone who knows the Druid Network inside out, dedicates several hours a day to meditation, and campaigns unambiguously for the cause of peace. By contrast, I am not yet sure of the degree of my pacifism, and the spiritual side of my life (much like the emotional and physical) is rocked with frequent turbulence. But the gods will teach us what we need to learn, not what we want, and I grow more grateful for this opportunity with every passing week – even if the weeks are passing alarmingly quickly…
My spiritual practice is rooted in trees, and in trying to find a way to shape my thoughts on peace into a blog post, I reached for an arboreal mentor. My first thought – culturally instilled – was of an olive tree, the wise, ancient guardian of the Mediterranean shore. The thought of olives took me instantly to Palestine, to the most heartbreaking consequences of the conflict there: the sundering of the people and their land. And I remembered going to a talk in which a young woman described, matter-of-factly, what her life was like in Palestine, to a room of angry, barely-listening Brits. I listened as others shouted angry words about a conflict they would never know, while our interlocutor answered them patiently and calmly. Their anger was on her behalf, but (she kept on explaining) this kind of anger is not helpful here. And so I had to ask her: what is helpful? What can we do to help? Her answer was simply: listen. We have lost our sense of who we are. We have lost the lands that our ancestors have farmed for generations. Our family homes have been razed to the ground. Our history is reported from other points of view, to suit political agendas; all we have left are the stories we can tell about ourselves. If we can tell them, if they can be remembered, then all is not lost.
That was the moment I decided to become an archivist.
Granted, perhaps human rights lawyer or humanitarian aid worker would have been a more obvious choice of vocation – but, no, the role of the archivist was what I saw of myself in the ancient druids: the role of the witness, abstaining from the conflict. I made a vow, then and there, to set aside anger in conflicts (as far as I humanly could) in favour of the wisdom gained through impartial observation. Perspective. Deeper understanding. Whether or not this is the role of the druid (as if there could only be one!), this is what I strive towards. And I write this as an Aries with a temper that could burn the landscape…
There is so much more to say: that is the beauty of starting to (try to) co-ordinate a section of a website themed around a concept that people spend whole lifetimes trying to understand. All I will say for now is that I have learned a lot, since first volunteering to put up the content on those pages (they’re getting there; I’ll tell you when they’re ready). I think this is something I will keep on learning for as long as I’m alive.