Friday, April 7, 2017

Interview with a Druid: Kirk S. Thomas of Ár nDraíocht Féin, Part One

From 2010 to 2016, Kirk S. Thomas served as the fifth Archdruid of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF). The name of the organization is Irish Gaelic for “Our Own Druidry” and refers to a contemporary religion that looks to beliefs and practices of ancient Indo-European cultures for inspiration. ADF was founded by Isaac Bonewits in 1983 and incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in 1990.

Kirk S. Thomas of Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship

After earning a BFA in Theatre Arts from University of New Mexico and a Diploma from Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art (London), Thomas completed an MA in Celtic Studies from University of Wales that included work on Welsh language, women in the Mabinogi, and the role of the Druid in ancient Celtic religion.

He joined ADF in 2001 and was ordained as a priest in 2004. He is past president of the board of directors of Cherry Hill Seminary, an institution providing training for Pagan ministers. He now lives in Trout Lake, Washington, with his partner Kozen, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest.

Published in 2015, Thomas’ Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods provides an in-depth study of the nature of sacrifice in Indo-European religions of ancient times. It has quickly become a standard text recognized not only by Druids, but also by modern polytheists of many traditions. It is one of only five books recommended in the Heathen Resource Guide for Chaplains written for the United States Department of Defense.

As in previous interviews published on The Norse Mythology Blog, some of my questions are rather long. In general, I am providing background for the casual reader unfamiliar with some of the issues discussed. For the academically minded, a complete bibliography of sources referred to in my questions will appear in the final part of this series.

Druid Religion Today

KS – When we first corresponded with each other about Druidry, you told me to “bear in mind that there is a great disagreement on just what that is.” How would you characterize the various strains of modern Druidry today?

KT – I suppose you could look at them as being either devotional, philosophical, or fraternal. This is a generalization, and it isn’t cut and dried, but I think the generalities hold.

The devotional version, like ADF, concentrates on worship through reciprocity. The philosophical version, like the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), is more interested in personal transformation, and the fraternal version, like the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) has its roots in the fraternal order world, like the Masons, etc. AODA also has a religious dimension, though. They accept ADF’s Dedicant Path certification as a replacement for their own early studies.

KS – Does ADF use the term Druid to refer to a specifically Celtic mode of religion, or are you using the term to refer to a broader set of beliefs and practices?

KT – In ADF we look to the entire Indo-European (IE) spectrum for our inspiration. An ADF Druid may worship the gods and spirits of any of the pre-Christian, pre-Hindu, and pre-Zoroastrian cultures in public High Day rites. In our personal work, though, there are no such limitations.

The reason we accept the entire IE spectrum is that we really don’t have enough information to actually be able to reconstruct any ancient religion. We know more about the religions of some cultures – such as the Greek, Roman, Norse, and Vedic – but very little about the various Celtic and Slavic ones. And just how accurate is our knowledge anyway?

Much of what we have from the West has been filtered through Christian lenses (especially the Celtic stuff), since they were the ones who preserved what little we have, and the Vedic materials were oral traditions that carried through the great religious changes in India over the centuries. So we use scholarship, both from IE studies and from comparative mythology studies, to inform our cosmology and Order of Ritual, which we have invented to form a common basis for our work. And this required some compromises, naturally.

Sometimes people ask why we limit ourselves to Indo-European cultures. The reason is that IE is about language, not race or anything like that. The IE languages are all related to each other, having descended from Proto-Indo-European, a language that has only been postulated by linguists, since we have no ancient examples of it. But the thing about languages is that they convey ideas, and related words tend to refer to related ideas. Thus the IE corpus is all related to greater or lesser degrees.

While other, non-IE cultures may share similar ideas – the use of fire, for instance, seems to be ubiquitous – these ideas may not actually be the same as the IE versions. So, for the sake of consistency, we stick to the IE model.

Kirk S. Thomas officiates at an Imbolc ritual in 2016

KS – As a twenty-first century Druid, are you engaged in the reconstruction of an ancient religion, or are you part of a new religious movement (NRM) built on academic studies and spiritual experience? Where is the line between reenactment and invention?

KT – ADF is not a reconstructed religion, strictly speaking. While there are some reconstructed elements, perhaps, what we are doing is reimagining what ancient Indo-European religion might have looked like for each of our various hearth cultures, assuming a fairly – though not completely – common cosmology.

Would an ancient person recognize what we’re doing? Probably not, but many of the things we are doing might resonate with him or her. Based on your question I’d say that we’re more of a new religious movement based on scholarship and spiritual experience than anything reconstructed.

As for the line between reenactment and invention, all I can say is that it’s a blurry one, at best. Are we reenacting anything? In some hearth cultures, where we actually have prayers or ritual segments that have been preserved, I suppose you could say we are reenacting. For the other hearth cultures, where little is known, I suppose you could say that we are inventing the religion. However, almost everything we do is based on the concepts and ideas of the ancient Indo-Europeans, whether we invented our religion or not.

KS – You’ve made a distinction in the past between Druidism and Druidry. Can you explain the difference?

KT – Druidism is the religion or belief system, and Druidry is the practice of Druidism.

KS – How do you view the difference between orthopraxic and orthodoxic religion? Why does the distinction matter to modern Druids?

KT – Modern, monotheistic religion is very much based on belief (orthodoxy). It doesn’t matter if there are inconsistencies in the religion. As long as you believe you will be saved. Ancient religion wasn’t centered on belief. Rather, it was centered on practice (orthopraxy). Of course, most people believed in the existence of the gods and heroes, and may have even believed in the stories told about them, but that really didn’t matter. There was certainly no idea that some book actually held the unerring Word of God, which must be treated as literal truth, like in some of the more fundamentalist monotheisms.

Unlike in monotheisms, based as they are on what they see as actual history, polytheism is far more concerned in forming and maintaining relationships with Spirit, and what anyone actually believes is functionally irrelevant. In ADF, in a High Day rite, we expect you to behave as though the gods and spirits are real and individual beings. Whether you actually believe that or not – and I do – doesn’t matter.

KS – How do you conceive of the difference between individual, small group, and large group ritual practice? Are they qualitatively different in nature?

KT – I would say yes. In individual ritual, words aren’t even necessary – though I personally believe that, until a thought is spoken, it has not actually been manifested. Much of what we experience can be done so silently – or with big shortcuts – because we are totally familiar with what we are doing, and it’s no big deal if we screw up. Individual worship can involve long periods of meditation and trance – or not – and what happens is totally up to the individual.

In small group ritual, everyone has to pay attention to the fact that there are other people participating. Prayers and invocations have to be said out loud for everyone’s benefit, and any trance or meditation work will need to be constrained somewhat to fit the needs of the group. Often, everyone participating will take a part, and the entire ritual is shared among them.

In large group, ritual an important need is for performance. There are too many people present for everyone to take a part, and it’s up to the celebrants to go, spiritually speaking, where the rite needs to go, but they also have to take everyone in attendance with them. Presentation skills, such as vocal production and staging, are essential. The deaf, little old lady in the back row is just as entitled to see and hear everything as the youngster in the front row. And this makes the work of the priest or celebrant all the more difficult and necessary.

Kirk S. Thomas (second from left) at Beyond the Gates Unity Ritual

KS – Do you consider yourself part of a New Age movement? How is the New Age concept generally viewed in ADF? Do views differ by generation?

KT – Personally, I don’t see us as part of the New Age. While I’m sure that we have members who do see themselves that way, I doubt the majority do. The New Age isn’t based in Indo-European ideas at all, rather on Buddhist and Hindu thought, at best. While these are valid and powerful ideas, they just don’t resonate with me. And don’t get me started on the sillier aspects of the New Age.

KS – Archaeologist Michael Dietler has written that “one of the limited bits of reliable observation we do have from ancient texts about druids is that they maintained a strongly oral culture, insisting that vast amounts of information be committed to memory and strongly resisting the use of writing.”

As the internet has grown and become more sophisticated, it has increasingly becoming enmeshed in modern polytheism of all stripes. Isaac Bonewits’ own was an early website for modern Pagans. For a great many practitioners today, the passing on of religious knowledge in face-to-face oral culture has largely been replaced by a turn to online information, print-on-demand texts, and widely dispersed online communities.

How has online Druidry changed during your own participation in the religion? What do you see as the pros and cons of today’s wired Druidry?

KT – Before the internet, the only way that solitaries – those folks who were not part of a group – could interact with others would be by going to a festival somewhere or by reading magazines and newsletters. The one thing the internet has done is allow more folks access to the materials that before were more difficult to get. At the same time, by making it easier to communicate, I believe the internet has also made it easier for folks to not bother with the work of face-to-face communication, and that has hurt the creation and maintenance of physical groups. And that is a sad thing, in my view.

KS – When balancing the historical record with the needs of modern practitioners, how do you view the modern desire to build a personal relationship with a deity? This is the focus of the final section of your book, which focuses on practical ritual. Is the desire to build these personal relationships an outgrowth of American Christian religiosity, or is it something that you see tied to ancient Druidic practice?

KT – Reciprocity is all about relationship. In ancient times, the tribe or state often took care of corporate relationships with gods and spirits, but the vast quantity of small, personal figurines found by archaeologists must mean that the average person also wanted to form relationships with the spirits as well. The desire to form relationships is a human thing, and no one religion has any claim on the idea.

Modern monotheistic relationships seem to center on the idea of submission, where the worshiper has to kneel down before their god in abject humility. While the ancient gods were very powerful and could be very frightening, they were not above nature, but rather a part of it, enmeshed in the natural order of things. So, we can approach them with our own agency and even parley with them.

Kirk S. Thomas at the White Mountain Temple Complex in Trout Lake, Washington

KS – Everything written about ancient Druids at or near the time of their existence was written by outsiders. Ancient Greek and Roman sources tend to portray Druids as either learned philosophers, powerful judges, or bloodthirsty sacrificers of human victims. In Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain, University of Bristol history professor Ronald Hutton challenges the trustworthiness of each of the major sources as reliable reports of reality. How do you yourself address the nature and veracity of the ancient texts, and how does that assessment affect your beliefs and practice?

KT – We have to balance the views and evidence presented by the various scholars and come to our own conclusions. Hutton challenges the ideas of human sacrifice as opposed to, say, Miranda Green, who very much supports them. But Hutton doesn’t claim that it didn’t happen, but rather that it may not have happened so much. We do know that on a few occasions even the Romans sacrificed people, so it was certainly not unheard of. I suspect that it was rare and mostly limited to times of great stress, but I’m sure it did take place. Even the Christian mythos is based on a human sacrifice, isn’t it?

This brings up the whole issue of the ancient sources again. It’s best when we can substantiate these writings through archaeology, but that often isn’t the case. Hence the need for comparative IE studies and comparative mythology becomes clear.

KS – Modern American polytheists of many stripes make pilgrimages to what they consider to be sacred sites in continental Europe, the United Kingdom, and the Nordic countries. We know the Celtic and Germanic tribes were great travellers and great migrators. Why should an American Pagan view a distant land as any more sacred than the land in which she was born and nurtured?

KT – They shouldn’t. Our land is just as special as foreign ones. And while it’s great to visit the ancient sites in Europe and India, they are no substitute for the relationships we have to build here with our own land, and the spirits who abide here.

KS – There has long been a construction of Celts as naturally spiritual people, as somehow more in touch with both the natural and the invisible world. For many years, American seekers of various types have read their own ideas of Celticity onto people living in Celtic lands today. Having spent so much time studying the ancient Celts, have you built relationships with modern Celts – people today living in Brittany, Ireland, Wales, and other modern Celtic areas? What reactions have you experienced from locals as a visiting American Druid?

KT – This is a difficult one. I don’t believe that the Celts are any more spiritual than anyone else, and I can assure you that in Ireland most folks are devoutly Christian and things Pagan are seen as silly, or worse. I have relatives in Wales and visit them when I can. And some of my gods are Welsh in ancestry. For myself, a bit of the old cultures in my rites and understanding is a good thing, but my understanding of the spirits is broader than that. I can worship Lleu Llaw Gyffes here in Trout Lake as easily as in Wales.

Kirk S. Thomas performs Lughnasadh ritual at White Mountain Temple Complex

KS – According to the British Druid Order, the religion of Druidry – or at least their version of it – draws “inspiration from the sacred land and from our ancestry; the mud and blood of Britain.” This seems just a stone’s throw away from German racialist nationalist Romantic ideas of Blut und Boden [“blood and soil”] as the defining elements of cultural authenticity.

Religious Studies scholar Marion Bowman has written of “Cardiac Celts,” people who “feel in their hearts that they are Celtic.” Anthropologist Amy Hale has drawn an opposition between “Cardiac Celts” and “ethnic Celts,” people who seem to be again defined by notions of Blut und Boden.

Does ancestry matter in Druidry? Is an Irish Druid more closely connected to the gods than an Irish-American Druid, and an Irish-American one more closely connected than an African-American one?

KT – No. Not at all. This is just racist bullshit. The gods don’t give a damn about your genetic ancestry. They are only interested in receiving our worship and forming relationships with their worshippers.

KS – Some practitioners and scholars have made a distinction between Paleo-Druidry of ancient times, Meso-Druidry of the nineteenth century, and Neo-Druidry of more recent times. Does anything remain in today’s practice from Meso-Druidry, or do you turn away from anything created between the ancient and the modern era? Is there anything valuable that you can take from early charismatic figures like Iolo Morganwg (inventor of the awen symbol of modern Druidry) or from the regional cultural nationalist Druid orders of the nineteenth century?

KT – Ah, Iolo, the great forger. He wrote some very pretty stuff and created the modern Welsh Gorsedd and I honor him for that. But the Meso-Druids were overtly Christian and also tried to prove that Druidism was Christian, and I have no time for that.

KS – Has ADF consciously worked to push against images of Druids from the Romantic era, or have they adopted some of the concepts and imagery?

KT – Well, we wear robes, often – though they are not required, and some do not. And many of us like to wear white robes, based on Pliny’s description of a Druid rite, the only description we have from the ancient world. But other than that, remember that ADF is not just Celtic. We have many Norse and Hellenic members as well, and they certainly don’t find inspiration in the Romantic era’s depiction of Druids.

To be continued in Part Two.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating interview, thanks! I'm looking forward to part 2.

Unknown said...

Hey there Thomas this is Jason I was at Stafford Creek corrections and I was involved in the druidry group there. I met you at the annual event they held this last event they had there. I am interested in coming to Norse rituals and doing dedicates studies as well to keep on my path of druidry. Please get back to me. Have a great day.

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