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Druids mark winter solstice, return of longer days

For the valley's several dozen Druids, the big event of the holiday season comes when winter solstice arrives Friday and they gather in circles to honor the return of lighter and longer days, then feast together.

That's what's important to Druids — nature and honoring markers like the shortest day of the year that promises a return to spring and warmth. And, although almost all written accounts of the ancient Druids have been lost, modern followers in three local groups (called "groves"), will gather to thank and celebrate the sun and all living things, then have songs and a potluck dinner.

Most people have never heard of Druids, ancient or modern, explains John Michael Greer, author and head of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (www.aoda.org). What they look like is regular folks, often wearing long white robes, "receiving the immense gifts of nature" and celebrating the start of the four seasons and midpoints between them, starting with a proclamation of peace.

Druids, who were the philosophers and spiritual advisers of the ancient Celts of the British Isles, eschew scriptures, since there aren't any in their belief, and think religion should be a cross between a fun field trip in nature and a good party, sprinkled with talks about the meaning of life, and all tied, of course, to nature. Greer and his wife, Sara, are members of the Grizzly Peak Grove. Others are the Dragon and Rose Grove in Ashland and the Clan of the Triple Horses in Medford. Together they have about 50 members.

Being an alternative to mainstream religion, Druidism attracts individualists who like to decide their own ethics by listening to their inner voice and the wisdom of nature, says Ashland Druid Vern Crawford, author of "Druidic Paths: A Naturalistic Druidism."

"Hard facts about Druids are hard to come by. We do know for sure that they existed and were the upper crust, educated intelligentsia, not serfs and also not often kings or warriors," says Crawford, who also co-wrote "Lithia Park Woodland Trail, a Guide to Trees and Shrubs" in 1984.

However, people claiming to be carrying on the religion of the ancient Druids don't know what they're talking about, he adds, since the original Druids memorized their knowledge, refusing to write it down, so only a few oral legends survive.

Honoring nature is foundational, so one will often find Druids out bird-watching, cleaning streams or planting trees, which they love (especially oaks) because they use the four elements — earth, water, air and sun, says Medford Druid Mark Teeters.

"Trees are a symbol of growth, they observe the four seasons and they're useful as tools, building materials and for their fruits and nuts," says Teeters, a former Lutheran, who found his Druidic path from extensive "rim racking" — free-wheeling in nature.

"I realized I gained much more emotional clarity in nature, in the presence of something much greater, than in my very liberal and loving church," says Teeters, noting that in Druidic ceremonies, "the emphasis is on giving thanks and focusing group thought on things other than oneself."

The attraction of Druidism, says Dianne York of Phoenix, is the camaraderie and the honoring of nature and its cycles, especially as felt in water, rivers, seas and rain, which bring home the reminder of life's cycles of change.

If you don't hear much about Druids, it's intentional, as there's still violent prejudice against anything pagan or outside the monotheistic "Abrahamic" (Christian, Jewish, Islam) religions. Druids tend to be polytheistic, though their religion persisted alongside Christianity for many centuries after the conversion of the Celts of Britain, Ireland and Scotland.

"Get three Druids together and you'll get five opinions about that (monotheism)," laughed Greer. "There's no flock, no overbearing patriarchy and when that does pop up, people walk away from it. Druids aren't interested in power trips."

Greer, who is also a Mason and an Odd Fellow, studied and took courses for six years to become Grand Archdruid of AODA. He and his wife have made pilgrimages to the main sacred prehistoric sites of Britain — Avebury, Glastonbury and Stonehenge, although these have been found to pre-date the Celts.

For Druids, three is a magic number and they joke that there are three vital senses — common sense, a sense of proportion and a sense of humor.

"Whether you're walking to the store or praying in your garden," says Sara Greer, "if you try to use those three all the time, life will be healthier, more balanced and whole."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Local Druids demonstrate a ceremony in Ashland honoring the upcoming winter solstice, practicing for the celebration of the shortest day of the year and the promise of life and warmth’s return. John Michael Greer, in the long white robe, leads the ceremony with, clockwise from top, his wife, Sara, Vern Crawford and Mark Teeters.