Review: Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism

Isaac Bonewits’ Essential Guide to Druidism is an exceptionally entertaining book and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Bonewits is a major figure in recent Neopaganism: his name’s cropped up in most of the reading lists in the books I’ve read, at least, and he founded the ADF, the largest Neopagan Druid organisation in the US. He is, in other words, An Authority.

The Guide doesn’t really cover the philosophy of Druidism in any great depth; instead, it discusses its history, both ancient and recent, suggests some liturgies and practices, and looks a little at the state of Druidry today.

The first three sections of the book are devoted to history. Bonewits identifies three different eras of paganism: Paleopagan, the “original tribal faiths” that were (or are) practised as “intact belief systems”; Mesopagan, religions based on perceived Paleopagan practices that are also heavily influenced by monotheism and dualism; and Neopagan, new religious movements seeking to distance themselves specifically from monotheistic faiths while drawing on Paleopagan and Mesopagan ideas. Some of this discussion can get a bit dense: the Paleopagan section especially goes deeply into anthropological detail about the roles of people in Indo-European societies and how those roles tie into Paleopagan faiths, none of which I have the knowledge or background to evaluate.

Once out of the Paleopagan weeds, however, Bonewits’ irreverent, down-to-earth approach comes to the fore as he imparts gossip from the recent history of Druidism, rants about the various con artists and cultists operating in Neopagan communities and describes some Druid rituals. Here he is on “Fam-Trad” Druids, people who claim to be descended from Druid families and that such descent has bestowed special magic/religious status upon them:

“…although some supposed “Fam-Trad” Druids may speak a modern Celtic language, not one of them that I’ve met so far has been fluent in Old Irish, able to recite their ancestry for twenty generations, willing to compose alliterative Old Welsh poems on request, prescribe twenty-seven uses for oak bark, oak leaves, and acorns, etc.”

His down-to-earth, sceptical practicality is a refreshing antidote to the vaguely spiritual, unscientific woo that seems to pop up in a lot of Pagan writing. I am reassured by down-to-earth Pagan writers, down-to-earthness being at least nominally a core principle of Paganism.

I mean: probably don’t only read Bonewits if you’re looking for an introduction to Druidism; you want something a little less granular, a little more accessible, as your entry point. But if you’re craving some humour, some scepticism in your Pagan reading, then yes, come here. I also want to seek out his Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca, which I think will be a little more applicable to my own Pagan path. (I would probably enjoy being a Druid, but a) there aren’t any groves nearby and b) I can’t subscribe to the gender binary God/Goddess concept, so, there’s that.)

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