As a spiritual tradition based on reverence for and connection with the powers of nature, more than anything else Druidry teaches us to honour life… Druid ethics are built upon the release of ignorance and the respectful creation of deep and sacred relationships.
Emma Restall Orr, Druidry and Ethical Choice
The classical author Strabo wrote that the Druids studied ‘moral philosophy’. The author Brendan Myers concludes that the first moral principle of the ancient Druids was a devotion to truth. In the Testament of Morann, a document traced to the period between the 7th and 9th centuries CE, but which seems to emerge out of the pre-Christian Druidic period, advice is given on how a prince should rule:
Let him magnify Truth, it will magnify him.
Let him strenghen Truth, it will strengthen him.
….Through the ruler's Truth massive mortalities are averted from men.
…Through the ruler's Truth all the land is fruitful and childbirth worthy.
Through the ruler's Truth there is abundance of tall corn.
St Patrick was said to have asked Oisin, the son of Fionn MacCumhall, what sustained his people before the advent of Christianity, to which he replied: “the truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our arms, and fulfilment in our tongues.” Myers concludes: ‘It is interesting that he should cite truth first, as though truth had an overriding place in the culture. This evidence leads me to believe that the first moral principle of Druidism is this: in a situation where a moral decision must be made, we should always choose truth, in the expansion and enrichment of human knowledge, in ourselves and others, and at all levels of our being.’
In the final analysis, though, Myers suggests that the Druids may not have adhered to specific rules and authorities to determine proper ethical conduct. Instead he sees them striving to become a certain kind of person, out of whom ethical behaviour naturally arises.
Athelia Nihtscada also turns to Irish source material to explore Druid ethics. The old Brehon laws, which were recorded by Christian clerics in the 5th century CE, pre-dated Christianity and offer a fascinating insight into early Irish society. By studying these laws and seeing how they might be applicable to modern living, Nihtscada has articulated eleven principles or codes of conduct for the contemporary Druid:
1. Every action has a consequence that must be observed and you must be prepared to compensate for your actions if required.
2. All life is sacred and all are responsible for seeing that this standard is upheld.
3. You do still live in society and are bound by its rules.
4. Work with high standards.
5. Make an honest living.
6. Be a good host as well as a good guest.
7. Take care of yourself. (Health was held in high esteem amongst the Celts, so much that a person could be fined for being grossly overweight due to lack of care.)
8. Serve your community.
9. Maintain a healthy balance of the spiritual and mundane.
(Nihtscad writes: ‘Ethical and self respecting Druids did nothing without being properly schooled or aware of the consequences ahead of time. They knew when it was appropriate to visit the Otherworld and immerse themselves in the spiritual as well as when it was appropriate to be fully in this world.’)
10. Uphold the Truth, starting with yourself.
11. Be sure in your convictions, particularly when judging or accusing someone, but also when debating. Ask yourself: are you really sure? Do you really know that this the case?
Apart from the work of Myers and Nihtscad, little has been written about ethics in contemporary Druidism since most Druids are keen to avoid the problems caused by dictating a morality to others. So much suffering has resulted throughout history because one group of people have decided that it is good to do one thing and bad to do another. Just as most Druids have avoided dictating which type of theology someone should adopt, so too have they avoided telling each other, or the world, how to behave.
Nevertheless, most Druids have a highly developed sense of ethical behaviour, which is usually implicit in their actions, rather than being explicitly stated by them. A person can only act ethically if they hold to certain values, and by talking about these values we can avoid the pitfall of suggesting ethical guidelines which can then so easily turn into a dogma which condemns those who do not follow it. Instead of imposing a code of conduct upon people, we can return to Myers’ suggestion to practice a Druidry that helps us become a certain kind of person, out of whom ethical behaviour naturally arises.
Druidry asks us, above all, to open ourselves to the inspiration and beauty of Nature and Art, through its love of creativity. By nourishing ourselves with contact with the natural world and with art of every kind, and by holding to the core beliefs of Druidism, the following qualities emerge naturally as values that can form the basis of ethical decisions and behaviour.
Taking Responsibility and Feeling Empowered
It is easy to see yourself as a victim in life – as a tiny cog in a vast and impersonal machine driven by others for economic and political ends. But by holding to the belief that everything is connected, that another reality exists beyond the everyday physical world, and that everything we think, feel or do has an effect, the Druid is able to assume an attitude of responsibility, and to feel empowered to be of value in the world. Like everyone else, they will sometimes feel the victim of others or of circumstances. While that feeling may come and go, the predominant belief will be that each of us is a causal being who exists in a web of life that unites every living creature. This means that each of us can choose to act as a force for good in the world.
The Druid will tend to see much of the world’s problems emerging from a refusal to take responsibility and to act for the greater good of the whole. By not taking responsibility for environmental degradation, for example, they see politicians and corporations acting not for the greater good, but simply for the short-term gains of power and profit. Many political systems and most corporations do not to encourage the taking of individual responsibility or the value of personal empowerment. Instead they need consumption and compliance. Druidism encourages the taking of individual responsibility – firstly in our own lives, then in concert with others for our community, and for the wider issues that affect the community of all life.
Taking responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and actions leads to acting responsibly towards others, and the world needs responsible people now more than ever.
The Circle of All Beings
Increasing urbanisation, growing populations, the commercialisation of culture, the development of consumerism and globalisation, have all tended to undermine our sense of living in a community – close to our fellow human beings, close to animals and the land. Many people are drawn to Druidry because they find it helps them get back in touch with ‘the circle of all Beings.’ By its reverential attitude to Nature, by its belief in the sacredness of all creatures, and by its belief in the holistic relationship between all things, Druidry fosters the value of community – of relationship with others.
There will be times when we need solitude, and like all spiritual paths Druidry recognises the need for retreats, when we let go of our concerns for others and focus instead on our personal quest or upon Deity. But Druidry is not a path that advocates a permanent detachment from others or the world. Instead it urges a pro-active and enthusiastic, Awen-filled engagement with others and the world, seeing life on earth as meaningful and purposeful – as an adventure to be undertaken rather than as a prison from which we should escape, or as a bridge we should simply cross.
There will be times when a Druid feels alone, isolated or alienated from others. While that feeling may come and go, holding to the value of community will enable them to return to a bedrock of feeling and belief in which they are part of one family - the web of life, the circle of all beings.
The Power of Trust
Coming to place a value in community and in being in relationship with the circle of all Beings comes from the simple observation of Nature, and the way in which everything is connected.
In a similar way, contemplating the flow of a river brings us to the value of trust. It is a common experience amongst people who are aware of the spiritual dimension to find that when they trust in life they find it easier to enter a ‘flow’ which carries their life along with a quality of lightness, joy and effortlessness, that also keeps them aligned with their spiritual purpose. Of course trust will sometimes give way to its opposite - mistrust and fear - but by believing that life is fundamentally good, that there is meaning and purpose to existence, the spiritual seeker finds it increasingly easy to come back to the position of trust.
By affirming the value of trust, and by returning constantly to this position, whatever setbacks may occur, our life – the decisions we make, the relationships we form – begins to be built on trust rather than on fear: on the need to conform, to maintain status, or to protect ourselves, for example.
The magical understanding of Druidry that our state influences the world around us tells us that as we connect to the value of trust in life, this trust will start to radiate, and will in its turn attract trust from others, generating a beneficent cycle.
Although the term integrity is often used to mean ‘the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles and professional standards’, its deeper meaning is defined in the dictionary as ‘the state of being complete and undivided. The state of being sound or undamaged.’ Before a mission is sent into space, for example, the integrity of the spacecraft is checked again and again.
Used in this deeper sense, integrity becomes a value or quality sought by Druids, just as it is sought by all spiritual seekers. The spiritual journey begins for us when we sense that we are lacking something. We feel incomplete, and so we begin to strive towards Deity, enlightenment, wholeness. Further along the track we discover that these realities exist within us and that it is only our mind that believes we are separated from them. Slowly, through meditation and spiritual practice, we open to an awareness of our completeness, our wholeness. We find integrity. And from this place of integrity we can act with authenticity – not trying to be someone other than who we simply are.
Again, as with all these qualities, there will be times when we lose our sense of integrity, when we feel desperately incomplete or divided, and when we act not honestly and from our deepest feelings but inauthentically out of fear or misunderstanding. But one of the values of following a spiritual path lies in its acting as a gentle reminder, and offering particular disciplines that help us to constantly return to a contemplation of these core qualities. In this way, over time, our experience of a lack of any quality will start to diminish as our spiritual life connects us to these core values.
The Value of the Opposite
It is important to understand, though, that the holistic stance of Druidry does not deny the value or purpose of experiencing the lack or opposite of any of these values. Our depth of humanity comes precisely from our experiencing the contrasts of life: without the experience of unhappiness we would not be able to fully appreciate happiness, maturity of character and soul seems to require some amount of suffering, and we need to experience the feeling and effects of irresponsibility, alienation, disempowerment, fear and lack of integrity, in order to be complete human beings.
In the end values or principles such as those stated here, with others that are related to them or flow from them – such as honour, courage and respect – can form the basis out of which ethical and moral decisions can be made. Rather than internalising a moral code developed perhaps centuries ago by the ruling religious or political elite, we can develop a strong individual sense of morality and ethics born out of our own inner connection to these values. Blaise Pascal succinctly summarised, in the following triad, the ingredients we need to develop this morality, when he said simply: “Heart, instinct, principles.”
Being of Value to Others and the world
Druidism does not encourage us to focus exclusively on our own spiritual development. Druids care passionately about the state of the world – about the suffering of humans and animals, and of Mother Earth. The belief that many Druids hold in the importance of Peace influences their actions profoundly, and most Druids are involved in initiatives to protect the environment. Some may simply contribute to Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, others may be more actively involved in trying to protect species or habitats. Most will support tree-planting and reforestation projects in particular.
Over the last fifteen years dozens of sacred groves have been planted by Druids all over the world and examples of these can be seen in the Sacred Grove project section on this site. An example of a Druid initiative to support an animal species can be seen at monarchbear.org
The maxim ‘think globally, act locally’ has been taken to heart by many Druids, who are involved in local community initiatives to protect and improve the environment, and the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids promotes a Campaign for Ecological Responsibility.
Even when Druids work on themselves they believe they are directly helping those around them. As they develop their humanity – their wisdom and compassion – and as they cultivate qualities of soul and character, they relate differently to the world, becoming – they hope – forces for good in a world that often needs healing.
Excerpts from What do Druids Believe? by Philip Carr-Gomm, Granta 2006