The Apocalypse in Druidy
As if the pandemic had not been enough, Europe has been at war since 24 February 2022. We have to fear that the conflict will spread from Ukraine to other countries. In any case, we are feeling the effects, prices are rising rapidly, and the army is preparing for an emergency, including a nuclear one. The looming climate catastrophe has shown itself with all its harshness this summer; the rivers are drying up, the groundwater levels are dropping threateningly and the forests are dying. Uncertainty is in the air and people are preparing for a winter with gas shortages and an impending blackout.
The Apocalypse, i.e. Revelation, deals with the last things in the Bible and is addressed to all people at all times. The word apocalypse has also become common for the end-time myths of other religions. The parallels between the biblical apocalypse and today's situation are obvious. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse have appeared. The first horseman stands for war, the second horseman for civil war, the third horseman for inflation and famine, and the fourth horseman for pestilence and death. The horsemen are not called by God or the angels, but by the animals of the four elements. Hildegard von Bingen sees this as the revenge of the elements for the misbehaviour of humans. Who would want to contradict this? Karma, the Buddhists would say. The end-time, religious myths often serve to motivate their followers to behave in a desired way, e.g. to devote themselves intensively to religion in order to avert the described horror scenario, to delay it, to be spared or to offer hope if it comes to that.
The historian Strabo wrote that the Druids taught that fire and water must one day triumph over existence, which is an obvious belief in an end-time catastrophe. The Gauls feared that the sky would fall on their heads. Other Irish stories describe how the world will end when the sky collapses, the earth cracks open and the sea swallows everything. Here too, the elements seem to play a role and the consequences of global warming can be glimpsed, floods, droughts and rising sea levels. If one takes into account the confident belief in one's own rebirth of the Celts, the fear of the end of the world may have been greater than of one's own death, because then there is no longer any place where one can be reborn. There is a parallel to this in Tibetan Buddhism, where the apocalypse consisted in the downfall of the Dharma and the fear that one would no longer have a chance to attain enlightenment in the next life.
Two stories describe end-time events in a Celtic context from which we can derive concrete wisdom for today, namely the battle of the Tuatha Dé Danann against the Fomorians and the story of the Holy Grail from the Arthurian legend.
The deity of the Tuatha Dé Danann had once conquered Ireland from the Firbolg, the giants, at the Battle of the Field of Towers (Mag Tuired). In the process, King Nuada had lost his right arm, which cost him the royal crown according to the rules of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The new king was Bress, who was half Fomorian and half Tuatha Dé. The Fomorians were fierce and greedy creatures. He turned the land into a wasteland, a desert, and hospitality withered in his kingdom. The healers Miach and Airmed regrew Nuada's arm and so he was able to regain the crown. This greatly angered Bress and so he went to the king of the Fomorian Balor. Balor was a one-eyed, hateful giant whose gaze could kill on the spot. For this reason, he had to wear an eye patch that could only be lifted by seven men at a time. A war was brewing between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorian, to be decided at the second battle on the Field of Towers. Lugh the Artful realised that only under his leadership could the war be won. He was the grandson of Balor and it was prophesied that he would one day kill him. At birth, Lugh was thrown into the sea by Balor, where he was rescued by the Druidess Birog. He was raised by Mannan mac Lir, the god of the sea, the nurse Tailtiu, an earth goddess who died while doing hard field work, and her husband Eochaid, the son of heaven. He had a special connection with the elements and their gods, just as the Druids still connect today: "with the earth beneath us, with the sky above us and with the sea around us". He went to the royal court and gained access, and when it was clear that he was more capable, Nuada gave him dominion over the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Druids pledged their support to him and the battle began. Nuada died in the battle by the evil eye of Balor and when the fight against the Fomorians seemed already lost, Lugh grabbed a stone, in other versions a spear, and threw it through the eye of Balor, so that he died. The falling eye saw the fomorians´ own ranks and killed them all. The wasteland was healed and evil was defeated.
In a figurative sense, Balor stands for today's economic system that devours everything it sees with its greedy eye. Lugh, through his connection to the elements, stands for closeness to nature and the fight against the greedy economic system. Little Lugh overcomes the giant Balor. Who might Lugh stand for in the present day? Maybe Greta Thunberg, who knows? The story encourages struggle and activism against the impending doom of the world as a result of the greenhouse gas emissions of a greedy economic system. In the extreme, it can also encourage real struggle against attacking Fomorians, whoever they may be. Tailtiu, the earth goddess who died while working in the fields, represents the exploited earth. She teaches us to take care of our earth and not to overtax it.
The wasteland and the desert also play a role in the story of the Holy Grail. Since the king and guardian of the Grail has been wounded beyond repair, his land, with which he is mythically connected, also suffers. Only when the king is healed can the land also be healed. In another version of the story, the wasteland is created by a broken Accord with the Fairies, the nature spirits. The Fairies are hospitable by nature and allow the land to flourish. When the relationship with them is violated, for example through greed, robbery, deceit or violence, the land decays and becomes wasteland. By re-establishing the relationship with the nature spirits, the land can blossom again. And in this there is also the possibility for us to re-establish the relationship, e.g. by renaturalising areas and not taking more from nature than is absolutely necessary.
The stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Holy Grail reflect two approaches that we find among us Druids today and sometimes polarise, activism in the form of protest action on the one hand and tree planting and renaturation on the other. Celtic mythology recommends both. The stories teach that there is hope if we act vigorously, but only if we do. "Business as usual" is not offered as an option. In most apocalyptic texts, the elements seem to play a role, both in their mistreatment and in their healing.
Modern Druidic literature also addresses climate change and dwindling resources. Already for many years, the Archdruid John Michael Greer has been dealing with the ending age of oil. For him, this means the collapse of our economic system to a much lower level. In his book of the same name, "Collapse now, avoid the rush", he recommends that we can already prepare for this age by lowering our personal demands and living as self-sufficiently as possible.
To what extent should Druids today be guided by a possible apocalypse? The one extreme would be to deny the issue and retreat into a 'cure-all' mentality, the other would be to bunker down and disconnect from normal life and become a prepper. Neither sounds very mature or spiritually evolved. We must not deny both individual death (memento mori) and the end of the world, but should become aware of them from time to time. We must look the impending dangers and grievances in the eye with open eyes and act courageously, creatively and decisively. The Celts were always aware that both the world and their lives would one day come to an end and at the same time were connected to it in space and time with all their senses. They celebrated, loved, fought, suffered and mourned, all in their own time. Wholeness is the ideal of Druidry; this includes both the unpleasant truths and the joy of life.
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I am Stefan Kaiser, a Druid and environmental activist living in Germany.