When describing the thinking of John Michael Greer as ‘druidic’ – as this series has cheerfully done – the adjective has been primarily philosophical in direction. It has been used only to indicate that an identifiable, and remarkably coherent, presupposition about the governing nature of time anchors Greer’s particular analyses, which draw out the implications of an unsurpassable cosmic cyclicity, and apply them deftly to a wide variety of concrete problems. ‘Druid’ and ‘radical cycle theorist’ have been treated as roughly equivalent terms.
It is worth noting at this point, however, that Greer is not only conceptually druidic. He is a public proponent of Druidism in a far richer, culturally-elaborate sense, which includes service “as presiding officer — Grand Archdruid is the official title — of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a Druid order founded in 1912.” This vocation slants his perspective in important (and productive) ways. Our concerns here, tightly focused on the question of time, are able to extract considerable intellectual nourishment from a digression into this thick druidism.
Like other forms of occult Occidental religion, Druidry has an attachment to the deep past that is not tacit and traditional, but overt, modern, and creative. Greer admits readily – even gleefully – that his ‘Ancient Order’ is not in fact ancient at all, but instead belongs to a project of restoration – and actually reconstruction – that dates back no further than the mid-17th century. From its inception, it was bound to a lost past and to inextinguishable doubts about its own authenticity. Greer only very rarely uses his Archdruid Report platform to discuss druidism explicitly. On the first occasion when he does so, his reflections are triggered by the question of a young boy: Are you a real Druid?
It’s not an easy question to answer. The original Druids, the priests and wizards of the ancient Celts, went extinct more than a thousand years ago, and all their beliefs, practices, and teachings went with them.
More specifically, he explains:
Who were the Druids? The honest answer is that we really don’t know. Most of what was written about them in ancient times vanished forever when the Roman Empire collapsed. Every surviving text written about the Druids while they still existed, put together, add up to ten pages or so in English translation. … Druids in training memorized many lines of verse, since it was forbidden to set down their teachings in writing. … Julius Caesar, whose book on the Roman conquest of Gaul is the most detailed source on the Druids, noted that Druidic teachings were thought to come from Britain originally, while a Greek scholar claimed that the Druids got their lore from the Greek philosopher Pythagoras; no other writer refers to the subject. … archeologists and historians were able to prove conclusively that the Druidry of the Revival was a modern spiritual movement, not an ancient one.
Modern druidry is a revival, which is to say that it originates through identification with something that is dead. Its modernity is stretched and activated, to become more than mere succession, and more even than self-conscious, differentiated succession — or ‘advance’. The discontinuity that defines ‘the Revival’ cannot be reduced to a transition, however radical. Instead, it corresponds to an uncertain reaching back, through the still-living past and beyond, towards a lost beginning. In this way it initiates a process — and a new tradition — that cannot easily be resolved into distinct elements of invention and re-animation. In its quest for ancient origins, it relocates the present within an expanded comprehension of historical time. This complex, quasi-paradoxical cultural undertaking, is at once typically modern, and anti-modern. By distancing itself from passive accommodation to its historical moment, it epitomizes this same moment in its concrete historical reality — as a revolt against simple continuity. It represents a dramatic neo-traditionalism, of an Occidental type.
The time-traveler tends to produce — or become — a double, and the modern Druid is no exception. Something ‘ancient’ is returned to life, so that re-animator and re-animated co-exist in a folded present, cross-identified, and ambiguously co-original, or coincidental. Do the Druids of the Revival ‘still’ believe the archaic wisdom of cyclicity, now rediscovered, or do they project it back onto the blank screen of an erased antiquity? Who is the copy here? We are returned, inexorably, to a problem of identification (“Are you a real Druid?“), model and derivation, originality and repetition. A search for reality has become inextricable from an exercise in duplicity, twisted into a reflective or introspective circle, and spun out into an investigation of time.
As this perplexity develops, the term ‘Druid Revival’ comes to seem like something more than an arbitrary conjunction. Its two words are not merely joined, but doubled, as an echo of time disturbance. Each points independently towards a pre-implanted pattern of return, with the cycle already registered on both sides. Greer traces the ‘real roots’ of this doubling to a discontinuous connection:
Some modern Druid groups in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to their lasting discredit, claimed direct connections to the ancient Celtic Druids they didn’t have. The real roots of the modern Druid movement go in a different direction: to the first stages of the Industrial Revolution in early 18th century Britain, and the Hobson’s choice between dogmatic religion and materialist science, the two victors in the reality wars of the late Renaissance. Plenty of people sought a third option that embraced nature and spirit alike, and some of them found inspiration in the scraps of classical writing, medieval legend, and Celtic folklore that referred to the ancient Druids.
“Historians call the result the Druid Revival,” he continues, as if determined to separate this twin term from anything that modern druidry first said about itself. He recognizes, perhaps, that druidism is the philosophy (or religion) of revival — or of the full ‘ecological’ cycle through life and death — so that to draw upon this word (‘revival’) threatens to represent the return of druidic thinking through itself, in a closed circle of self-confirmation, persuasive only to those of prior druidic (or, more narrowly, cycle-theoretical) inclination. Better, then, that ‘historians’ seal this circle, from outside, and thereby demonstrate its real coincidence, or simple reality. The Revival is noticed as historical fact, before it is cycled back into druidic intelligence, as a doctrinal expectation.
Each year is a cyclical time unit of death and revival, and in this it is a primordial teacher, in a way that no scripture could ever be. That, at least, is the folk pagan understanding that Druid Revival restores to ritualistic primacy, and adopts as its guiding cognitive model. Its own revival, therefore, is ‘only natural’, or self-explanatory.
To bring thinking into compliance with the great cycles is immediately to participate in a speculative super-tradition, sustained by a structure of ideas and apprehension that cannot but return. In the thought of the cycle there is already implied a non-originality, binding the thinker, across time, to all those who necessarily understand the way things have to happen again. What, then, is ancient origin, and what revival? When would one look for a ‘real Druid’?
[This digression has a little further to stray, along a more concrete path, before critical distance is restored.]