On Saturday evening our Druidic Circle did our usual Dragonfest roundtable discussion on Druidry. One of the questions that came up was, “Why druidry?” Why not one of the other Pagan paths, like Asatru, or Wicca, or Universal Shamanism?
It’s a personal question, of course, and we went around the circle and gave our various answers. Mine is simple: Druidry — modern Druidry in the OBOD tradition — requires no vows.
I don’t do vows.
If I had to summarize the traumas of my life in a succinct phrase, it would be that my life has been a workshop in the destructive potential of vows. I’ve broken every vow I’ve ever made, for the good of everyone involved. That’s why I no longer make them.
What is a vow, really?
I’ve never heard anyone vow to take their next breath. It makes no sense to vow to die someday. No one vows to do something that they are inevitably going to do anyway. Vows are always about things you might not do, given the choice.
Nor is a vow merely a psychological affirmation to get you over a rough patch, though many people think of them that way. I once did. I thought of a marriage vow as a “promise that stays the slaying hand.” When you get furious with your wife over something stupid and want to say, “I hate you, and I want a divorce,” the promise makes you zip your lip and sleep on it. But that’s merely prudence, not a vow. A vow is something entirely different.
A vow is when you commit to serving something other than yourself even when it is not in your best interests. In fact, if you are called upon to fulfill your vow, it will NOT be in your best interests. That is precisely why you take a vow.
Consider the soldier who takes an oath (a vow) to serve country and to obey the orders of his commanding officer(s). It’s unlikely that it will serve his own best interests when he is called upon to fulfill this vow.
A marriage vow sets the marriage above the good of the individuals involved. It says that even when the marriage causes both parties to suffer, they will continue to support the marriage.
A religious vow sets the needs and strictures of the religion, and the gods it serves, above the needs of the individuals who take the vows.
All of this sounds noble and pious. But it is easy for a vow to get twisted.
A soldier’s oaths are some of the clearest, but it is easy to see where they can go horribly wrong. Consider standing behind a line of Jews who kneel before the open trench you forced them to dig at gunpoint, as your commanding officer says, “Pull the trigger. After the first few, it gets easier.”
For a more contemporary example, consider a prison full of Iraqi shopkeepers, as your commanding officer orders you to “soften them up” for questioning. It does get easier after the first few, as the photographs from Abu Ghraib so eloquently testify.
Given the nature of my life, I’m thankful that I’ve never served in the military. My karma would undoubtedly have placed me in exactly such a predicament. I’d have disobeyed orders and faced prison time and a dishonorable discharge. At least I’d like to believe I’d have had that much courage. I’m not sure I would.
Marriage vows are no different. I can see where they might have made some sense for royalty in an age of royals, since dissolving a royal marriage would likely dissolve treaties and alliances and lead to war. A king would remain wed to his queen, no matter what poison lay between them personally.
Even here, however, it can get twisted. Some royal marriages, through misjudgment or change in circumstances, cause war and civil unrest. King Edward’s marriage to the twice-divorced Mrs. Wallis Simpson on the eve of Britain’s entry into World War II nearly destroyed the government. The first, infamous divorce of King Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon revolved around her inability to bear him sons, which he believed (rightly or wrongly) necessary to secure the kingdom. Should a marriage vow really be placed above what we would now call national security?
Most of us experience marriage vows as between equals in an age of equals, not as the consummation of international treaties. I remember the words of my vow — “I do plight thee my troth.” Ancient words that once applied to dynastic nobility in a long-gone age. But I have no lands to deed to sons, nor tenant farmers who depend upon my armies for protection, nor monetary wealth to hoard and maintain, nor even an ancestral heritage — my surname is a common pejorative for “German” in my grandparents’ native tongue, and I have no information whatsoever about my father’s grandparents. The only thing bigger than myself in marriage is the abstraction called the “nuclear family,” that last stronghold of stability in the lives of children already stripped of the village and the tribe and even the extended family in our “upwardly mobile” consumer society. Nuclear stability is valuable for the children, but I can personally testify that it isn’t always served by honoring marriage vows, as can many others. And what does the vow serve once the children are grown and gone?
Religious vows abound, in overt and hidden forms. We vow submission, obedience, loyalty, renunciation of this and worship of that. In mystery religions, we vow secrecy. Franciscan monks vow poverty and chastity. We pledge our immortal souls to our gods, whether we call our gods Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or Isis and Osiris. In traditional Wicca, I would be measured with a red cord, and the cord would be kept by the high priestess of the coven as a binding and a surety of my oaths. In Christianity, the fires of Hell await the apostate.
Religious vows, like other vows, do not serve my best interests. They serve the interests of the religious community, the priesthood, and the gods, specifically when their best interests come into conflict with my best interests. When there is conflict, I am expected to put my interests aside, on pain of severe and eternal consequence.
In a different time, a different place, this might make sense. For me to secretly practice the rites of Isis with others in Inquisition Spain (far worse, to pray to Mecca or light Shabbat candles), it would make sense to vow secrecy, even on pain of death — to protect my brothers and sisters in the faith. It was no different as a secret worshipper of the new god, Iasus, in Diocletian’s Rome.
But here and now? In a nation bound by its constitution to have no national religion, where freedom of religious practice is guaranteed by law and long custom? Where mind-control cults and looney fringe faiths crop up by the thousands, fleece people of money and property, and vanish into the night, leaving them to wander for a bit and then pledge themselves to someone or something else.
I think not.
The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids offers a more gentle practice. Let me quote from the first lesson in the Bardic course, from the initiation rite itself:
Just as in freedom you chose to enter the fellowship of the Bards, so must you know that our fellowship is one of freedom. Here there are no bindings, and as in freedom you joined this fellowship, so in freedom may you leave, should ever you, your guides or stars ordain so.
This spoke to me the first time I read it, and speaks to me still.