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Ancient Druids show and tell?

By Bonnie Wells

Could it be the ancient Druids are going public?

Last month in Stanway, England, archaeologists uncovered what is thought to be the first Druid grave ever found. According to a report published in the journal British Archaeology, the contents of a wooden burial chamber dating to 40-60 A.D. included a wine warmer, cremated human remains, a cloak pinned with broaches, divining rods, surgical instruments, a strainer last used to brew a tea containing the herb artemesia and other objects suggestive of the Druids.

A class of sacred priests and priestesses, the Druids led the ancient Celts in a nature-based religion long before St. Patrick was a gleam in the eye of Ireland. Druidic men and women were the healers and magicians, advisors to the kings and sacred storytellers. They were the keepers of the rituals that marked life and seasonal passages, the prayers that insured an abundant harvest, well-being for the villages and victory for the warriors.

Since theirs was an oral tradition, not much is known about their specific practices. Incursions by Christian missionaries, beginning in about the third century, both sounded a death knell for the old ways and also captured in writing some of the ancient myths. Some of the most detailed accounts are said to have been written in 55 B.C. by Roman political and military leader Julius Caesar. Still, daily life in Iron-Age Britain is pretty much a mystery.

A new book by herbalist and present-day Druid Ellen Evert Hopman of Belchertown aims to fill in some of the gaps.

“Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey” (Llewellyn Publications, 2008), Hopman’s first novel, invites a reader into third-century Ireland, to follow the fate of a young Druid herbal healer named Ethne, who has been assigned to service in a remote forest cabin to heal the odd wayfarer who turns up at her door.

The confluence of the discovery of the first Druid remains and a new novel about Druidism in and of itself might not signify anything. After all, fiction based on Druidic myths is plentiful. It’s the way the book came about that has Hopman saying hmmm. Partly because she didn’t set out to write a novel at all.

Along with articles, videos and audio tapes on topics of paganism and herbalism, Hopman has written several non-fiction books published by Inner Traditions, including the 2001 “Being a Pagan: Druids, Wiccans and Witches Today,” the 1995 “New Pagans Speak Out” and “A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year,” 1994, and “Walking the World in Wonder: A Children’s Herbal.” Nine years ago, as the founder and co-chief of the Druidic Order of the White Oak, she set out to write a manual of Druid rituals.

“My original intention was to write a training manual for people who wanted to follow the Druid path,” Hopman said. But, as she began to explain the first ritual, “All of a sudden, there’s this full- blown ritual,” spooling out like a movie in her mind. “The characters just took over,” she said. “I had very little control over what happened after that.”

It took a year to complete her first draft, and at that she said she had to race to keep up. “I felt like I was on a shamanic journey. I turn on the computer and a movie starts.”

Her best explanation? “I think that, since I work with the ancient gods, the gods I work with are trying to speak and are using me as a vessel,” she said.

The story they told is set in third-century Ireland.

“There were no nations then,” the book opens. “The world was a vast oak forest that stretched from sunrise to sunset, where solitary hawthorns growing on hills above sacred springs marked an entrance to the land of Faery. It was a time of bog sacrifices and of calling to Brighid and Danaan, of visions and stories about ogres and sea beasts. It was a time of raids from the Men of the North, and sporadic winds of change.”

Enter Ethne. Hardly has a reader made her acquaintance and learned the uses of the healing plants stored and drying in her hut, when there’s a knock at the door, bringing an injured Fennid. The Fennedi are independent bands of warrior-hunters who patrol the coast, fending off the Men from the North, who pull up in their longboats to pillage the villages.

What happens next is an absorbing adventure that leads from Ethne’s remote forest to the court of the Ard-Ri, the High King of the island, as incursions of Christians bearing gold signals a sea change in a culture that had stood for hundreds of years. It’s partly a love story, partly an imaginative peek into another era, and partly a manual of the spiritual wisdom of the Druids.

Hopman provides a glossary for the old Gaelic terms sprinkled throughout the book as well as a list of the characters and a guide to pronunciation. All of the Druid earth-centered holy days are included in the narrative, along with their attendant rituals, designed to recognize and honor the nature spirits.

If the ancient Druids are speaking up, Hopman has a guess as to “why now?”

“With the age of oil ending, the society is going to go through a huge transformation,” Hopman said. “Because we can’t transport food for long distances, people will turn back to the earth, agriculture and the seasons.”

Hopman will give a talk on Druids Saturday at 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble Booksellers at the Ingleside Mall in Holyoke, followed by a signing of her book. To set a mood, live Celtic harp music will precede and follow the talk. For more information about the author and her various workshops and classes, a quick google of her name brings up her Web site.

Originally Published in the Amherst Bulletin

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