Ellen Evert Hopman
Herbalist, Scholar, Celtic Pagan
Interviewed by Carl McColman
Ellen Evert Hopman is an herbalist and one of the leading figures in the Druid renaissance. She’s the author of A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year, (Destiny Books), Tree Medicine, Tree Magic (Phoenix), Walking the World in Wonder: A Children’s Herbal (Destiny Books) and with Lawrence Bond is the co-author of Being a Pagan: Druids, Witches, and Wiccans Today (Destiny Books).
The daughter of an American diplomat born in Europe, Ellen Evert Hopman describes herself as a global person, with a passion for the Celtic spiritual revival on a global level. For nine years she was the vice-president of the Henge of Keltria (one of the largest North American-based Druid organizations); she is also the co-founder of the Order of the White Oak (Ord na Darach Gile), a Druid order dedicated to scholarship and Druid ethics. Her Druidic “mission” has taken her to the British Isles, France, and other parts of the world, where she has been involved in the larger Celtic Neopagan community. And of course, she’s taken her networking efforts to the Internet, where she’s reached Druids (and would-be Druids) from places like Japan and Peru–all in the cause of moving the Druid revival forward into the new millennium.
But what exactly is the Druid revival? Is it just a matter of silly old Anglican ministers in white robes, prancing about at Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice? Not hardly! As it stands today, prominent Druid leaders like Isaac Bonewits, Philip Carr-Gomm, and Hopman are working to revive the ancient Pagan traditions of the Celtic people–in a scholarly, carefully-researched fashion. Such devotion to research and intellectual rigour makes the Druid community unique among Pagans, who, in carrying out their spiritual practice, often rely more on imagination than the intellect.
In describing how she came to understand herself as a Druid, Hopman never talks about magic or mysticism, but instead begins with her lifelong love for Celtic art and culture.
“I was born in Salzburg, Austria, which is the birthplace of the Celtic culture–the Halstatt area. When my mother, who was an artist, was pregnant with me, she was very interested in the archaeological digs that were going on. So she was following the archaeological discoveries, they were finding Celtic artificacts, bodies out of the salt mines–and she was really interested in all this stuff. So from the time of conception, or even before, all through the pregnancy and the first few years of my life, my mother would always talk about the Celts. I figured that’s what everybody’s mommy talked about!”
In college, she pursued degrees in art education and art history–but found her main interest was in Celtic artifacts. “Even though in school I studied artists like Leonardo and Botticelli, what really got my heart was the Battersea Shield,” she says with a laugh. “It’s an iron age Celtic shield that was dragged out of the Thames River. I remember when I saw that, my heart stopped; I just couldn’t believe how exquisitely gorgeous it was, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. So that was another hint.”
Like many people of our generation, Hopman developed a strong interest in mysticism, and explored Zen, Sufism, and other paths, but eventually chafed against the asceticism often found in such traditions. “The whole idea was that you were supposed to transcend the earth, everything of the earth was to be discarded.” By the time she distanced herself from the world-renouncing types of spirituality, she says “I felt like I was starving, because I had lost contact with the earth. So the first thing I did, I started hanging out with Native Americans, getting in touch with the earth. I did that for five years, and then one day it was a Native American who said to me, ‘It’s really wonderful that you’re honoring our ancestors, but you really need to honor your own.’ And I had no idea who he was talking about.”
Shortly after that, Hopman met Isaac Bonewits, author of Real Magic and founder of Ár nDraoícht Féin, a prominent Neopagan Druid group. “A client of my herbal practice actually told me about Isaac, and mentioned that there were Druids in this world! And as soon as I heard there were Druids, I knew that was it. Some people hear the witch word and they know that’s what they’re supposed to be, but not me, I was never interested in witchcraft. But when I heard that there were Druids, I just knew that was it. I was one of the original members of ADF, in 1985.”
For Hopman, adopting the Druid path–the path of indigenous Celtic paganism–was easy because of her experience with the indigenous spirituality of Native American people. “Moving from Native American spirituality to Druidism was very, very easy. Native American spirituality honors the Earth; and Druids have sacred trees, we have sacred herbs, sacred animals, ritual fires, we honor the water–there’s so many similarities. So moving from the indigenous Native American worldview to the indigenous Celtic worldview was no problem at all. It really is the same worldview.”
“Both cultures are tribal-oriented; women are understood to be capable of leadership and equals in intelligence and craft and every area of accomplishment; in Native American tradition you have female deities, like the Corn Maiden and Tobacco Maiden and Spider Woman; there’s the idea that there’s both male and female divine forces out there, the same as in Druidism.”
I asked her what sets Druidism apart for other forms of Neopaganism.
“Well first of all, there’s a difference between witchcraft and Wicca–not everyone who calls themselves witches would consider themselves to be Wiccans, or Neopagans, so it’s very complicated. And there’s different kinds of Druids. Without wanting to sound prejorative, there are some people who read fantasy novels, or books written out of the author’s fantasies, who then might call themselves Druids. But there’s a whole other, completely different level of Druidism, and those are the people who are very concerned about scholarship, about the Gaelic language, about trying to find out what really happened in ancient times in order to bring it forward and recreate it–the Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans. Not long ago I was at a Pagan gathering in Ireland–and in Ireland, like America, the typical Neopagan is a Wiccan–where I posed the same question: ‘What is the difference between witchcraft and Druidism in Ireland?’ An Irish Druid replied, ‘Wicca is an Anglo-Saxon import, and Druidism is the indigenous religion of Ireland.'”
But what exactly do Druids believe? Like other tribal religions, the emphasis tends to be less on belief, and more on practical spiritual techniques. Still, Hopman points out specific ways in which Druid religion and spirituality differ from other Pagan paths.
“We work with the three worlds–land, sea, and sky–and with ancestors, nature spirits, and deities. Although we recognize the four directions, that’s not a major part of our orientation. We are polytheistic, unlike Wicca, where the standard expression is ‘All the Goddesses are one Goddess, and all the Gods are one God.’ A Druid would never say that. We know, from personal experience, that the deities are individual, with completely individual energies. There are some Druids who follow the Hindu model, which is the idea of the Oversoul or the Atman–we don’t have a Druid word for it yet–out of which the various deities emanated, but it’s not a Goddess or something like that, but simply ‘the mother of ten thousand things,’ as the Taoists would call it. But then there are others who would disagree with that and say there was no primal cause. So that’s a matter of ongoing debate. And of course, witches like to wear black, which is a very sacred color for them, but Druids tend to wear white or blue or green, or distinctly Celtic garb like kilts, so there’s a different look and feel to it.
“As Druids we also try not to mix different traditions. One can go to a Wiccan ritual where they will be quite comfortable invoking an Egyptian Goddess, and a Greek Goddess, and a Roman God and a Scandinavian God, all in the same ritual–because if you believe all the Goddesses are one Goddess and all the Gods are one God, it doesn’t matter, you just pull in whoever you want and bring them all in to the Circle. Whereas Druids don’t do that, the same way that Native Americans don’t do that. Druidism is an indigenous native tradition, that belongs to the Celtic areas, so it has its own inherent logic, its own deities, its own traditions, its own way of understanding the universe; thus it just doesnt make sense to pull in other indigenous traditions; we just keep to our own.”
Like Wicca, Druidism is a branch of the Pagan (or Neopagan) revival. Hopman’s book Being a Pagan explores the landscape of contemporary Paganism, through interviews with key Pagan leaders (such as Bonewits). What makes the book valuable is the way in which it uses interviews with individuals to depict the diversity in this new religious movement.
“Paganism is an over-arching term. The same way that Christianity includes Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists and Pentecostals, so Paganism includes Druids, Wiccans, witches, and Asatruar. It’s important for people to see the breadth to the Pagan community, even though there’s a lot in Paganism that I personally would not subscribe to–just because it’s such a diverse community. The book really does have everything, from the scholarly end–people like Alexei Kondratiev who is one of the most respected Celtic scholars right now in the Druid world, a very conservative gentleman in his personal behavior–everything from that end of things all the way to the Sacred Prostitutes! We’re all caught together in this same kettle of fish; it’s a fascinating mishmash. We have Druid and Wiccan scholars who are like the Jesuits of our movement, but then we have the people who are simply out to shock, who wear the most outlandish clothing–the kids, the fantasy crowd. We have that whole incredible spectrum. But at the same time, everybody is so passionate about what they’re doing. It’s this roiling sort of movement that most Americans, to this day, are largely oblivious to–that on every block, there’s probably a Pagan. It’s one of the most well-kept secrets in our culture.”
I asked her if she had any idea how many Americans identify themselves as Pagan–a difficult question to answer, since so many Pagans are secretive about their spiritual practice. She mused, “I would guess between half a million and a million. But it depends your definition. If you’re including Earth-centered New Agers in the definition, then there’s probably several million of us.”
Yet Hopman is more than just a spiritual leader; she has a successful practice as an herbalist and teacher of medicinal herbalism. I asked how she brought medicinal and magical forms of herbalism together.
“I live in the woods. I talk to the plants every day, and they talk to me. I try to be in total harmony with the seasons; for example in the fall I gather horse chestnuts for making salves and I gather acorns to give to people, just to carry in their pockets. Acorns are symbols of fertility–they are potential oak trees, so when you carry an acorn around in your pocket, you’re carrying a potential oak tree. I also gather and carry hazel nuts–apparently in ancient times, the Druids carried hazel nuts in their pockets, to symbolize the hazels of inspiration which are associated with the salmon of wisdom, the salmon being the creature who knows how to get back to the source. So for Druids to carry hazel nuts in our pockets, it’s a reminder that we are dedicating our lives to getting to the source of truth and knowledge, to understand the ultimate cause of all that is, to seek the depth going back to the origins of who we are, the origins of the universe, and the world of the Gods. So nuts have a very profound symbolism!
Hopman sees the magical use of herbs especially in terms of expressing gratitude to the spirit world, or in asking for spiritual help in energetic healing or cleansing. “I have these little pillboxes that I carry around with ground sage or ground rosemary. When I come to a place, like a garden, and I want to thank the nature spirits, I’ll take a little pinch of the green powder, and I’ll blow it into the air, and I’ll give thanks to the spirits for growing the beautiful flowers. Or if there’s a place that needs healing on the earth, I’ll make a prayer and I’ll ask the spirits to bring good energy to the place so that it gets cleaned up. Even if I’m in a room and energetically a room needs cleansing I can take a little pinch of rosemary and blow it off my fingers and out into the room.”
Despite the role that plant magic plays in her day-to-day spirituality, Hopman remains clear about the boundary between magical and medicinal herbalism. “When I teach my herbs class, as a Druid I try to go into great depth, but I keep medical herbalism separate from magical herbalism, because I feel very responsible about the people I send out into the world. If they’re going to be telling other people what to put in their mouth, I want them to really know what they’re talking about, and know which sources to go to if they have questions.”
As a veteran Druid, I asked Hopman if she had any advice for the neophyte Pagan–especially for teenagers who may be drawn to Earth-centered spirituality for the first time. “First of all, I’d say, ‘Good for you!’ Paganism is a tremendous adventure that you’re about to embark on, and it will take the rest of your life, if not several lifetimes more, to get to the bottom of it. Be aware that there is a huge body of knowledge out there, there’s a lot to be learned; seek out a mentor; try to find somebody who you respect and just be humble at the outset. You can have a lot of fun with this, but it is a serious spiritual path, it’s not just a rebellion or a way to get back at your parents. And by the way–if you’re under 18, get your parents’ permission!”
She offered some insights into the glamour of Paganism and magic–important insights that any budding witch or magician ought to consider: “I think a lot of young people are attracted to the word witch, because they think it’s going to give them some kind of power; of course when we’re young that’s when we feel very powerless, especially in our teen years when everything’s going crazy, our hormones are going crazy, we’re thinking about leaving home for the first time, we want to rebel against our parents, so the word witch is very attractive because we think it’s going to give us some kind of power. Druids have a very different mindset, by and large; our emphasis is on honoring the Gods, and personal sacrifice, and learning and scholarship. If you’re prepared to take this path seriously, with all the beauty and the depth of it, then this is the path for you. But don’t think you’re going to get some kind of instant power to zap somebody–that happens only in the movies.”
This interview, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in the March/April 1999 issue of New Leaves.