This article was written in September of 2004, and much has changed since then. ADF is now a church with an initiatory current, rather than simply a church, which brings the value of both types of groups (initiatory groups and churches) into ADF. ADF has created and performed initiatory rites, as well. ADF also has a complete three level Clergy Training Program and several additional guild programs for specialization, all of which were incomplete at the time of this writing.
As of this writing, the largest Druid organization in the world is the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD), and the largest Druid organization in America is Ar nDraiocht Fein (ADF). While there are dozens of other Druid groups in the American Druid community, ranging from independent local groves to Druid orders with international membership, these two between them probably account for something close to a majority of American Druids who belong to any organization at all.
The relationship between these two Druid organizations is complex and fraught with misunderstandings. As a member of both, I’ve had to field more than a few questions by members of one about the doings of the other. This essay is an attempt to clear up some of the misunderstandings and provide ways for people to make sense of the differences between them. Those differences are substantial; in fact, of all the Druid groups active in America today, OBOD and ADF have perhaps the least in common. The two organizations differ in almost every imaginable way, and what’s true of one is pretty consistently untrue of the other. The distance between them offers some sense of the extraordinary complexity and richness of the modern Druid movement.
What is Druidry?
These differences start with the most basic issues of all. ADF is a church, and its teachings define a religion. OBOD is an initiatory order, not a church, and its teachings provide a spiritual path compatible with many different religions.¹
Let’s take a moment to look at this more closely, because from this difference unfold many other differences between the traditions. A church is a group of people who gather together for organized worship within a common framework. That framework can be symbolic (a set of specific symbols or conceptual structures), it can be ceremonial (a set of agreed-upon ritual procedures), or it can be doctrinal (a set of accepted opinions about certain theological questions). ADF’s common ground includes all three. In ADF we have common symbols, such as Fire, Well, and Tree; we have common ceremonies, such as the Order of Ritual; and we have common beliefs, such as the real existence of many deities.
One consequence of being a church is that there’s inevitably some attention paid to what does not belong within the common framework. In ADF, for example, monotheism—the belief in one and only one god—and non-Indo-European traditions are explicitly ruled out. If you’re in an ADF context and you invoke a god as the one and only god, or offer prayers to Amaterasu or Amun-Ra, other people are going to get uncomfortable and you’ll likely be asked not to do that again. Such exclusions are an inevitable part of defining a common framework of worship.
By contrast, an initiatory order is a group of people who gather together to transmit a particular current of initiation to those who want to receive it. The current of initiation may include doctrines, practices, and symbols, but at its core it’s a current of energy that shapes the awareness of its initiates in certain ways, and gives them the ability to connect to the spiritual world through specific points of contact.
People who belong to an initiatory order routinely have one or more spiritual commitments outside the order. Just as many Freemasons, say, go to church on Sundays or synagogue on Saturdays, initiates of a Druid order often have religious commitments outside the order, and just as many Freemasons also belong to the Elks or the Odd Fellows, many initiates of Druid orders also have been initiated into other orders inside or outside the world of Druidry.
Thus one consequence of being an initiatory order is that the sort of exclusions you find in churches rarely have a place. Initiatory orders flourish by making their teachings and traditions compatible with as many religions as possible, since this broadens the potential pool of initiates. Put another way, churches need to practice exclusion (of things that don’t fit their common framework of worship), but initiatory orders need to practice inclusion (of as many different belief systems as possible).
As a result OBOD, as an initiatory order, embraces many viewpoints that ADF specifically excludes. In OBOD there are monotheist Druids, polytheist Druids, pantheist Druids, atheist Druids, and more, participating in OBOD activities together in perfect amity. There are also OBOD Druids who are Christians, Buddhists, and observant Jews alongside those who are Pagans of various traditions. This would be problematic in ADF, as it would be in most churches, but it’s entirely workable in OBOD, as it would be in most initiatory orders.
A Question of Origins
This diversity is rooted in the way the two organizations relate to issues of Druid origins. It deserves to be said first off that neither group is descended from the original ancient Druids. The very last of the ancient Druids went extinct in the ninth century, and the surviving scraps of their teachings and lore are so fragmentary, diffuse, and contradictory that they don’t form anything like a workable system. All modern Druid groups—OBOD, ADF, and everyone else—were invented in the last three centuries by people who used some mix of scholarly writings, personal spiritual insight, speculation, and sheer fantasy as raw material for their concoctions.
Thus if “real Druidry” is defined as the sort that was practiced by Druids in Celtic countries before the arrival of Christianity, all modern Druids practice fake Druidry. That can’t be avoided, since “real Druidry” hasn’t existed anywhere for more than a millennium. What differentiates one modern Druid tradition from another is the particular kind of “fake Druidry” each practices.
ADF’s version of Druidry has been created using a good deal of material from late twentieth century scholarship on Celtic and other Indo-European Pagan religions. That material has been filled out from many other sources, but ADF takes pride in the scholarly basis for its Druidry. Any element of ADF practice that can’t be supported by at least some bit of current scholarship in the field of comparative Indo-European religion faces constant challenge from within the organization.
OBOD, by contrast, was created using a good deal of material from late nineteenth century scholarship on Celtic and other Indo-European Pagan traditions. This was unavoidable, since OBOD is directly descended from the Ancient Druid Order, a group founded around 1900. Since much of nineteenth-century scholarship has been discarded by more recent research, many of the central elements of OBOD practice are based on ideas about the ancient Druids that are considered inaccurate these days. Yet these elements can’t simply be discarded; they form core ingredients of a system of knowledge and practice that works on its own terms.
In a study of the remarkable shamanic forgeries of Carlos Castaneda, anthropologist Richard de Mille has pointed out that there are at least two different kinds of truth at work in discussions of spiritual traditions. First is authenticity: does the tradition come from where the author or teacher says it comes from? Are the claims the author or teacher makes historically or anthropologically accurate? This is one obvious form of truth, yet as de Mille points out, it must not be mistaken for the whole. There is also validity: is the tradition effective? Does it accomplish what it says it can accomplish? Are the claims the author or teacher makes spiritually accurate?
A tradition can be authentic but not valid, and it can also be valid but not authentic. Much of the material in OBOD these days is valid but not authentic. There’s no good evidence that the ancient Druids had anything to do with Stonehenge, for example, but OBOD still does summer solstice rituals there. I can testify from personal experience that those rituals can be overwhelmingly powerful.
To OBOD members, the validity is justification enough for the practice, and some OBOD members make the mistake—a very common mistake in alternative spirituality, as it happens—of assuming that validity is evidence of authenticity, that the rituals must be historically accurate because they are spiritually powerful. Meanwhile people critical of OBOD—and this has included some ADF members—fall into the opposite mistake of assuming that inauthenticity is evidence of invalidity, that the rituals must be spiritually ineffective because they are historically inaccurate.
The same pattern shapes many differences between the two organizations. OBOD uses a great many things, such as Robert Graves’ writings on Ogham, that ADF rejects out of hand. OBOD embraces these things because they work; ADF rejects them because they’re inaccurate in historical terms. Once again, this reflects the difference between a church and an initiatory order. In the Western world, at least for the last two thousand years, organized religion has been deeply concerned with issues of truth and falsehood, while initiatory orders have been more interested in what works and what doesn’t.
Traditions of Ritual and Practice
These same differences spill over into the realm of ritual and practice. OBOD and ADF both celebrate the days of the modern Pagan eightfold year-wheel, but the ceremonies they use differ not only in form but in intention. ADF rituals, drawing inspiration from historically attested Pagan ceremonies, make offerings to gods, goddesses, and other spiritual entities, and ask these entities to grant various favors and blessings to the congregation and the community. These rituals are straightforwardly religious, in the sense that the word “religion” has most often been used in the modern West; they serve as frameworks by which people communicate with spiritual powers. Most ADF rituals are also culturally specific, drawing on the pantheon, mythology, cultural forms, and sometimes also the language of a particular Indo-European culture.
Precisely none of these things are true of OBOD rituals. OBOD celebrations of the eight Pagan holidays draw their inspiration primarily from nineteenth- and twentieth-century magical and Pagan traditions, so that such standard elements as invocations of the four elements in the four quarters of the circle have an important place. A certain amount of Celtic material does play a part in OBOD rituals, but the sort of careful reconstruction of cultural patterns that guides much ADF ritual has no place there. Only rarely in OBOD ritual are offerings made to spiritual beings, or favors asked of them. Instead, figures representing the Earth, the growing grain, or other symbolically powerful realities enter the circle, speak to the assembled Druids, and give them gifts appropriate to the season. Where ADF rituals invoke, OBOD rituals enact.
These differences, again, rise out of the basic difference between ADF and OBOD. Since OBOD is not a church and does not teach a religion, its seasonal ceremonies are not means of religious worship. Instead, they provide a framework for people of many different religious backgrounds to celebrate the cycles of nature together. The symbolism and language of OBOD rituals is kept as nondenominational as possible so that everyone can share in the ritual, whatever their personal religious beliefs might be.
As an initiatory order, OBOD has another set of rituals that have little parallel in ADF: its initiation rituals for the grades of Bard, Ovate, and Druid. These are the ceremonies which, combined with the practical work of the OBOD study course, bring members into contact with OBOD’s initiatory current.
The OBOD study course represents another difference between the organizations. There are superficial similarities between this course and the study programs ADF has been developing for the last decade or so, but an essential difference of focus and approach distinguishes them. The ADF course is recommended but optional; some of the most active and respected ADF members have never completed the Dedicant Path, much less ventured into the Guild programs beyond it. That’s because it serves as a way for worshippers to deepen their participation in their religion; it’s not the core of the ADF path.
By contrast, the study course is the core of the OBOD path. To join OBOD is to enroll in the study course, and advancement in the organizations depends utterly on progress in the course. In the same way, what turns an OBOD seed group (the equivalent of an ADF protogrove) into a full Grove has nothing to do with the number of members in the group; it depends solely on having two or more members reach the Druid Grade, the highest level of initiation in OBOD. Since study and initiation are the keys to participation in the initiatory current that’s central to OBOD, this is entirely appropriate—just as it’s entirely appropriate for a church such as ADF to confer different titles on local groups depending on their ability to attract members and create a functioning religious community.
The differences between OBOD and ADF are just as substantial in the organizational sphere as in any other. Ironically, though, a chapter of historical accidents has led each organization to embrace a mode of organization more typical of the other’s basic type. Most churches, especially new churches on the cutting edge of religious innovation, have minimal organizational structures and center around a single charismatic individual. Most initiatory orders, by contrast, have ornate organizational structures festooned with titles and formal offices, and take elaborate steps to be sure no one individual ends up in control of the entire order.
OBOD was originally founded in 1964 as a schism from the Ancient Druid Order after a disputed election. The leader of the schism, Ross Nichols, was effectively the heart and soul of the entire order, and when he died in 1975 none of the other members had the ability or enthusiasm to keep the order going. It languished in an inactive state until 1984, when one of the youngest initiates from the Nichols era, Philip Carr-Gomm, was elected Chosen Chief and for all practical purposes reinvented the Order from scratch.
The constitution of the Order confers nearly all responsibilities on the Chosen Chief; the complicated checks and balances common in most other initiatory traditions were almost all eliminated under Nichols, and Carr-Gomm has done nothing to restore them. Many of the day-to-day operations of the Order are now in the hands of others, but major decisions are still made by Carr-Gomm directly with the advice and support of an inner circle of OBOD members. The result is a style of organization, as mentioned above, more typical of innovative churches than initiatory orders.
ADF, by contrast, was created some twenty years later in 1984 by Isaac Bonewits and a collection of American Pagans, many of whom were survivors of other Pagan traditions and had a hearty distaste for the personality cults and sheer confusion that burdened many American Pagan groups in the 1970s and 1980s. Bonewits himself had been active in the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA), whose utter organizational nonstructure seems to have been a major source of frustration to him. Liberal political views favoring participatory democracy and limitations on power were also very popular among ADF members. As a result, from its inception, ADF has worked at building a complex system of democratic governance, guided by a comprehensive set of laws, rules, policies, and procedures—a structure, as mentioned above, more typical of initiatory orders than new churches.
Each type of organization has its advantages and disadvantages. The minimalist approach followed by OBOD has resulted in a streamlined and efficient structure that needs to devote very little time to organizational matters, and has played a large part in helping OBOD go from the edge of extinction to become the largest Druid order in the world in only ten years. On the other hand, its success depends almost entirely on the personal qualities of the Chosen Chief, and members who are dissatisfied with OBOD policies have very few options other than voting with their feet. By contrast, ADF has achieved impressive organizational continuity and has extensive checks and balances in place to prevent malfeasance; this has been paid for by a need for so much involvement in organizational issues that many other matters have had to be neglected for years running.
Bridging the Worlds
Thus ADF and OBOD have little in common other than the fact that both make use of the ancient Druids as a source of inspiration and an ideal toward which they strive. Yet this has an interesting corollary: the two organizations and their traditions have almost no points of conflict, and it’s quite possible to be enthusiastically involved in both at the same time.
A bit of personal history may be relevant here. I came to Druidry by way of OBOD in 1995, and progressed through the complete study program, receiving my certificate as a Druid Companion in 2002. As my studies were winding down, though, I decided to pursue my involvement in Druidry further by joining another Druid order, preferably one with a different approach to the subject. As a result I became a member of ADF in 2001 and have been active in Our Druidry to one degree or another ever since.
The differences between the two organizations make it surprisingly easy to switch gears and participate in one or the other, depending on where you are at the moment. Just as a Catholic who is also a Knight of Columbus never has a moment’s trouble remembering whether he’s in church at Mass or in his Knights of Columbus hall at a meeting, and acting accordingly, it’s never been a problem to figure out what form of Druid practice is appropriate at any given time. Thus I have an altar to my patron deities, and do a devotional ceremony adapted from ADF teachings there each morning and I also practice the OBOD light-body meditation daily—and the two complement each other.
Of course the combination of the two isn’t for everyone. It requires a willingness to shift from one paradigm to another, and to remember that neither tradition has a stranglehold on truth. It also presupposes interest in both a religion and an initiatory order—and of course not everyone wants or needs to belong to both. Equally, there are many other Druid organizations, some of them churches, some initiatory orders, and still others something else again; each of these has something to offer the open-minded Druid.
Thus there’s something to be said for belonging to more than one Druid tradition—ADF and OBOD, or either of these and something else, or all of the above. The Druid community has on occasion been racked by squabbles between traditions, caused as often as not by simple misunderstandings that could have been quickly cleared up by people familiar with more than their own tradition. Since none of us have any right to claim possession of the One Genuine Real Live Druidry, a willingness to share the world with other Druid traditions, and to participate with them in celebrating the cycles of nature and the miracle of the living Earth, is a virtue that may well be worth cultivating by Druids of all kinds.
“ADF and OBOD.” submitted on 15 May, 2019. Last modified on 12 January, 2021.