Gods of Modern Druids

(Exerpt from Druidry by Emma Restall Orr)

With local gods and spirit guardians overwhelmingly the most common form of deity for our ancestors, the deities of the local environment are still the principal focus of devotions amongst dedicated Druids today.

However, many look back to find the gods of the old tribes too and medieval literature offers information about many of these deities, both the spirits of place and the mythical heroes. It is difficult to correlate the mythology in the literature with the archaeological finds and the Classical evidence. This also reveals the problems of working with texts so profoundly influenced by other cultures, not least the Christian. Nonetheless, Druids who now wish to work with Celtic gods other than their local spirits of place will find many books that reveal their stories. Here I offer a brief outline.

British gods

Of the key figures, one of the most commonly invoked in modern Druidry is Arianrhod, daughter of the mother goddess Don and of Beli Mawr, from whom all medieval dynasties claim descent. She is a goddess of the stars, in particular the constellation Corona Borealis. She is called the Lady of the Silver Wheel, and rules over birth and initiation. Her lover is Gwyddion, one of her brothers. He is a lord of the skies – the Milky Way is Caer Gwyddion – and a god of words, a Bard.

'Lleu of Skilful Hand' is a god of many skills and a favourite amongst modern Druids. Manawyddan, a god of the sea, was married to Rhiannon, the horse goddess and so also a goddess of the land. Her first husband was Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and a lord of Annwn, the underworld. The god of the underworld is Arawn, a hunter of souls who rides his gray horse through the dusk with his pack of white hounds with alarming red ears. Bran is a guardian of the land and a god of war, while his sister, Branwen, is a goddess of love and death. Ceridwen, holder of the cauldron of inspiration and rebirth, is a dark mother goddess and possibly the most important goddess in the Welsh medieval literature.

The Irish Gods

Many of the Irish gods now revered within Druidry are of the Tuatha de Danaan, the Children of Danu, a superhuman race who at Beltane in some year of prehistory conquered the Fir Bolg and took the island as their own. When later they themselves were overwhelmed it is said that the Tuatha disappeared into the sacred hills of the Earth where they became the Faery folk, the Sidhe.

Dagda is the father god, known as the Good God and Lord of Knowledge. He is coarser than the other members of the Tuatha de Danaan. Dressed as a peasant, pot-bellied and dragging a vast club set on wheels, he is lord of life and death, offering abundance and rebirth from his vast cauldron of plenty. In many ways similar to the Dagda, yet younger and more refined, is Lugh, the 'shining' god. Lugh's son is Cu Chulainn, one of the great mythical heroes of the Irish texts.

Danu (or Anu or Don) is a mother goddess of the land and a river goddess. She is also considered the mother of all the Celtic gods. Her name means 'sacred gift' and for some within the tradition it is used in the same way as the Welsh word Awen, denoting inspirational energy. Among the other Irish gods, Bile is a god of death, some say husband to Danu. Mannanan Mac Lir is the sea god. Goibhnue is god of smithcraft and beer making, similar to the Welsh Govannon.

Other Gods

Not all modern Druids who work with non-local deities honour those of the Irish or British myths. The old Gallic gods are also acknowledged in some parts of the tradition. Esus, whose name means 'lord' or 'master', is said to be god of the sacred oak. Cernunnos, a horned fertility god, is one of the most popular gods in modern Paganism, while many Druids revere the Saxon and Norse gods, such as Woden (Odin) and Freya.

An important element in the tradition is the goddess of the land, in particular through her relationship with the king. If the bond between them was strong, the goddess would bless the land with abundance, but if he dishonoured her she would cause devastation. There are many stories in both the Irish and Welsh texts of how the bond between goddess and king was made.

The connection between horses and the goddess of the land is also common. One of the best known myths is that of Pwyll who, sitting on the mound of Arberth, is captivated by the sight of Rhiannon riding past on her white mare. The ancient chalk figure at Uffington, Wiltshire, is a particularly sacred place for many Druids, its white horse symbolizing the essential power of the land.

Perfect Exchange

Relationship is the key to the way Druids work with their deities. While there is clear acknowledgement of the gods' power, there is no sense of hierarchy between gods and humankind. A Druid will strive to enchant a deity with whom she'd like to work. Giving offerings of reverence to nature and to the ancestors, she will endeavour to remain open, listening, waiting for a god or goddess to come to her. After the connection has been made, the process is then about building a strong relationship, learning through respect to understand the divine power and learning through devotion how she can give to that god of herself. There is surrender, yet no sense of submission.

The Druid will be uncovering too, through a growing clarity and consciousness, what it is that she wants. It may be protection, love, security, freedom, healing, teaching. But more often than not, within the tradition nothing more specific is requested than simply inspiration. The Druid knows that, with the gift of divine inspiration (Awen) received, she will have all she needs: the idea or solution and the energy to make it happen.

To fully accept any gift, though, we need to have given sufficiently in return. Our relationships with the gods are built on this need for perfect exchange. We offer of ourselves, through both sacrifice and joy, giving back to the gods the creativity born of our inspiration. As our offerings are accepted, so we succeed in holding the attention of the deity, thereby nourishing the relationship. And as the relationship develops, the flow of divine energy that we are offered also grows, as does our love and trust, together with our ability to give...and to receive.

The experience of communion, of sharing energy with spirit, of opening to receive the Awen, intensifies the Druid's perception and experience of the worlds within which she lives, because of the heightened awareness caused by the increased flow of energy. This in itself opens the mind to different levels of reality, broadening the perception and experience of life as a whole.