Last week, Druidry became an official religion in Britain. Yesterday, a journalist named Melanie Phillips wrote a piece in the Daily Mail attacking this decision and what she had to say upset many of my pagan and Druid friends. No one has asked me to speak out on their behalf, but I’ve chosen to do so in an open letter to Melanie Phillips, below.
My Dear Melanie,
Earlier today (Monday) I was quietly minding my own business, when the tranquillity of my day was interrupted by some outraged phone calls from some pagan and Druid friends of mine. They were absolutely horrified by what you’d chosen to write about them in the Daily Mail, and I must admit that when I looked at your piece, I was mildly surprised as well. The recognition of a new religion is surely a landmark occasion for us all, so it’s worth going over what I’m sure were some of your considered views.
It’s difficult to know exactly where to begin, because there’s such an embarrassment of riches in your article, but let’s start with your description of pagan beliefs as “totally barking mumbo-jumbo”. Mumbo jumbo – now there’s an expression to conjure with, because it’s right up there with “hocus pocus”, and how did we get “hocus pocus” as a term used to describe nonsense?
It derives, I believe, from the Latin words intoned by a Christian priest during the Mass, the Latin being “Hic est corpus” or “This is the body (of Christ)”. The reason we now have “hocus pocus” as a derisory term is because the peasants in the Middle Ages didn’t speak Latin and therefore didn’t have a clue what the priests were talking about, whereas in all fairness, the English spoken by Druids and other pagans today is perfectly intelligible, even if what they have to say about peace, tolerance and a reverence for nature isn’t entirely to your tastes.
As for what may others might call “mumbo jumbo”, then I can’t help but be reminded of some words written by Richard Dawkins on page 208 of his book “The God Delusion”:
“I believe 2000 years ago a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
I believe the same fatherless man called out to a friend called Larazus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.
I believe the fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
I believe that forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.
I believe if you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his “father” (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
I believe if you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
I believe the fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but “ascended” bodily into heaven.
I believe that bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), “become” the body and blood of the fatherless man.”
Well, I’m not one to sneer at the beliefs of others, but with the best will in the world, an impartial observer would have to say that Richard Dawkins has made just as good a job of defining “mumbo-jumbo” as you have, when you hold forth about the absurdity of pagan or Druid beliefs, Stones of Praise and so forth.
With all this in mind, I was mildly surprised that you came out with the bold statement “There is nothing remotely enlightened about paganism.” Well, you might think so, but these unenlightened beliefs were good enough for Aristotle, Socrates , Plato, Archimedes and a whole host of other great thinkers without whom we would all be very much the poorer. Aside from the philosophers and engineers and astronomers, we have been blessed with the verse of women such as Sappho and of men such as Ovid, Horace and Juvenal, whose satirical observation “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” or “Who will guard the guards themselves?” has promoted many a fine investigative piece in your paper, if my memory serves me well.
One pagan poet, Virgil, wrote sublime and evocative verse, and prophesied the birth of a boy who would usher in a golden age, an event that many people later understood as being the birth of Christ. So impressed were these later generations that this pagan poet became an honorary Christian in medieval times, while Dante wrote him into the Divine Comedy as a guide in the Christian afterlife, so I would argue with you when you say “There is nothing remotely enlightened about paganism.”
I would differ with you, equally politely, when you write that “true religions surely rest on an established structure of traditions, beliefs, literature and laws. Above all, they share a belief in a supernatural deity (or more than one) that governs the universe. By these standards, Druidry is surely not a religion but a cult – a group defined merely by ritual practices but which stands outside mainstream religion.”
Fascinating. Now, I don’t know if you’ve heard of this man, but someone called Julius Caesar told us a great deal about the Druids and as he twice invaded Britain in 55 and 54 BC, my guess is that he knew a thing or two about them. In his De Bello Gallico (vi, 18, 1) he tells us “The Gauls affirm that they are all descended from a common father, Dis, and say that this is the tradition of the Druids.”
Elsewhere (vi, 16), Caesar speaks of the Druid reverence for the immortal gods and earlier, in vi 14, he records their interest in “the strength and power of the immortal gods.” As for this being a British matter, Caesar also told that “It is believed that their rule of life was discovered in Britain and transferred thence to Gaul; and today those who would study the subject more accurately journey, as a rule, to Britain to learn it.” (vi, 13).
As for the matter of the Druids claiming descent from a single heavenly father, Dis Pater, the pagan philosopher Maximus of Tyre wrote “Let all nations know the divine, that it is one; and if the art of Phideas arouses the Greeks to the remembrance of God, the worship of animals the Egyptians and a river others, and fire others again, I do not find fault with their differences. Let them only know, let them only love, let them remember.”
I’d say this was a rather beautiful observation, expressing great religious tolerance, and I have to say I was slightly shocked when I read your mention of “all creeds, however absurd”. As well as Julius Caesar, you may well have heard of William Wordsworth, one of the greatest English poets ever, and Poet Laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850. He clearly had an admiration for paganism, when he wrote:
I’d rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”
More recently, I made the acquaintance of Professor Michael T. Cooper, an Evangelical Christian who came to Britain from America to study paganism because he was fascinated by its appeal and patent vibrancy, something that appears to be lacking in the Christian faith. In his recent visit to these shores, the Pope himself complained bitterly of an aggressive secularism, so I would have thought that both he and you would positively welcome any flourishing of any spirituality in Britain, but apparently not.
It rather reminds me of 2007, when Doretta Peppa, a High Priestess, managed to stage a landmark (pagan) ceremony at the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, announcing “We are a legitimate religion. But the authorities don’t let us do this, but we shall claim this right through the European Union.” By way of response, Father Efstathios Kollas, the President of Greek Clergymen, had this to say of the pagans: “They are a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion who wish to return to the monstrous dark delusions of the past”, which sounds rather similar to your take on the British matter, Melanie.
Do I know of any positive contributions made by pagans or Druids? Certainly I do. At the last winter solstice, a number of families with young children were drawn to Stonehenge, despite the bitter cold, because it was better than staying inside watching the television. If the pagans can get today’s kids outdoors and imbue them with a reverence for nature and an interest in our prehistoric monuments, as opposed to frying their brains on a Playstation indoors, then these people will get my support every time.
The petition in support of the return of the remains of the Ancestors has attracted signatures from people of all faiths and none, which shows a support for the Druids from Christians, Muslims, Jews and many others. I wasn’t at the last Equinox celebrations at Stonehenge, but I’ve seen some footage of it, and leaving aside the irritating drumming and other nonsense, there was a ceremony praying for peace in the North, South, East and West, which all sounds not only harmless, but extremely praiseworthy.
What else? Earlier this year, at the Summer Solstice, a huge statue appeared at Stonehenge that captivated everyone that saw him and it was thanks to the Stonehenge Druids that The Ancestor, or the Stonehenge Giant, made an appearance there. Local schoolchildren were delighted to be able to help with the preparations and his benign presence captured the attention of the world’s media. While we were waiting to go into Stonehenge that evening, a Druidess taught my daughter to dance in public, but there are many other acts of kindness I could talk about, on that particular night and at other times.
Last year, my niece Lucy fell ill and her suffering was a cause of great sorrow and anguish to all her family and friends. When he heard of this, a prominent Druid went to great personal trouble to acquire a piece of healing bluestone, then he drove a considerable distance to see me and to perform a ritual to make the stone effective. It didn’t work, because Lucy died shortly afterwards, but it’s worth mentioning that she, as a Christian, was delighted and very touched to receive the bluestone, while it also goes without saying that all the combined prayers of her family and friends of different faiths couldn’t save her either. I know of many other examples of Druids and pagans making strenuous efforts to help others as best they can, so I’m at a complete loss to see how this lessens their worth.
In your article, you wrote “The whole thing is beyond absurd. But it is also malevolent. For it is all of a piece with the agenda by the oh-so politically correct Charity Commission to promote the fanatical religious creed of the Left – the worship of equality. The Commission was primed by Labour for this attempt to restructure society back in 2006, when charity law was redrawn to redefine “public benefit” as helping the poor.” Well, I speak as I find, but from my observation and experience, the vast majority of Druids and pagans go to pains to help others as best they can, so I can’t honestly see how you could describe Druidry becoming an official religion as “malevolent”.
There are many other aspects of your diatribe that I could examine, but I’ll finish on one thing that particularly caught my eye, early on in your article. You wrote “Elevating them (the Druids or pagans) to the same status as Christianity is but the latest example of how the bedrock creed of this country is being undermined. More than that, it is an attack upon the very concept of religion itself.”
Well, as you are of course aware, the central figure of Christianity is Jesus himself and there is something of a mystery as to his whereabouts between the ages of 12 and 30. I’ve taken some trouble to look into this matter and all the evidence suggests to me that he spent most, if not all this time in the West of England and South Wales. Now, you can bluster all you like, but when he reappeared in Nazareth aged 30 or thereabouts, all the people that saw and heard him asked “Who is this man? And where did he get these powers?” If you can show the faintest scintilla, the smallest shred of evidence that tells me he was anywhere else but in Britain at this time, I will be truly fascinated to see it, believe me, but I won’t hold my breath.
I’ve been invited to speak about this at St James Church in Piccadilly in November, the place where William Blake was baptised, and it was Blake who gave the legends of Jesus in Britain their most famous expression when he wrote “Jerusalem”. You’re welcome to come along, if you like, either to tell me precisely where Jesus was during this time, if you have any evidence, or you’re welcome to cross-examine me and question me to your heart’s content once I’ve finished speaking.
As I’ve detailed in my book, everything about his early years points toward the West of England as being the sole destination of choice for this young man. Upon his return to his homeland, he exhibits some notable characteristics, any one of which he could have acquired in a variety of places, but he could only have acquired them all in Britain in the early years of the first century, as far as I can see. I’ve gone into this in exhaustive detail in my book and elsewhere in this site, and apart from the evidence in the Bible, there are highly detailed legends of him living in Britain, as well as more tangible suggestions of his stay.
He patently wasn’t in his homeland, nor was he anywhere else apart from Britain, from what I can see, so the inescapable conclusion is that this amazing young man was welcomed by the people of Britain and also by the Druids. It also stands to reason that he lived in harmony with them all and I don’t doubt that he learned a few things from the inhabitants of this island as well.
When he reappeared in his homeland, he was a seasoned mariner, able to sleep through storms of such ferocity that the sailors aboard the ship he was on feared they would die, which suggests to me that he once took a long voyage through the Mediterranean, into the North Atlantic and back. He had astounding powers of oratory, and we know that the Druids were accomplished speakers, while he was also somehow able to melt through hostile crowds in a similar way to how the Druids could walk between warring armies. He had a revolutionary attitude towards women, something that astounded people at the time and which still causes uproar today, yet this attitude of treating women as equals was a firmly established aspect of British society, as we know from the examples of Cartimandua and Boadicea.
Throughout his ministry, he was constantly faced with religious, ethical and moral dilemmas, but he was never once troubled by these things. One cannot learn these skills from a book and realistically apply them to a situation unfolding before you with any realistic hope of success, but you can learn them from others, from people with a reputation for justice. In his Geographica, strangely enough, Strabo described the Druids as being regarded as “the most just of men”, so on this account alone, Melanie, I feel sure that you could learn a thing or two from these much-maligned people and profit from their example.