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Shifting Perspectives: The human druids

Every Tuesday, Shifting Perspectives explores issues affecting druids and those who group with them, brought to you by Dan O'Halloran and David Bowers.

Druids weren't always night elves and tauren, you know. Well, in World of Warcraft they were, but centuries before the first snowflakes started to form in the clouds of Blizzard's creative minds, the authentic human druids actually walked around casting regrowth, shapeshifting, and spamming moonfire.

Or did they? How much of the class that we know and love in WoW is actually based on the real life druids of old? How did the word "druid" come to refer to our fantasy fighters rather than some ancient wise men in robes?

To fill up the abyss of my ignorance on these historical druids, I turned to the ever-accessible Wikipedia (via Answers.com), and their special section on celtic mythology and religion. To my surprise, however, I found that even the best scholars have gaping holes in their knowledge of the ancient druids. Since the druids' teachings and traditions were passed on orally, the only surviving records of them were written by their enemies, the Roman conquerors, and later the Christians, who objected to their beliefs and customs:
Druids' oral literature (sacred songs, formulas for prayers and incantations, rules of divination and magic) not one verse has survived, even in translation, nor is there even a legend that can be called purely Druidic, without a Roman and/or Christian overlay or interpretation.
Modern scholars do know some things, however. For example, just like the druids of Azeroth, the druids of Western Europe performed multiple roles in their group. They were healers, priests, scholars and judges all rolled into one (and we think we have it tough trying to heal, tank and dps!).

They were not nature-worshippers, since they had a developed set of polytheistic beliefs, but they did revere the natural world, particularly the sun and the moon, tree groves, hilltops, lakes, streams, plants, and fire. Their main holy days revolved around the cycle of agricultural life, from the arrival of spring, to the end of the harvest.

One note of interest for us as WoW players involves the etymology of the word, "druid," of which each syllable has a special meaning:
*deru- [3] is reconstructed as meaning "to be firm, solid, steadfast". Thus, the word acquired specialised senses meaning "wood", "tree", and things made from or analogised to trees and wood. Other modern words (here, in their English forms) that trace to deru include: tree, truce, true/truth, troth/betroth, trust, tryst, tray, trough, trim, tar, durum, duress, endure, drupe, dryad, dendrite, philodendron, and deodar.

*weid- [4] is reconstructed as meaning "to see" and, by extension and figurative use, also refers to seers, wisdom, and knowledge - especially secret knowledge or wisdom that requires a kind of deeper sight (or "second sight") to ascertain. Other modern words (again, in their English forms) that trace to weid include: twit, guide, guise, wise/wisdom, wit, witenagemot (the "wit" portion), kaleidoscope (the "eid" portion), view, visa, visage, vision, review, revise, improvise, supervise, history/story, and veda.

Many of these terms and ideas apply particularly well to the druid class in WoW, particularly when we have to be solid and steadfast enough to tank, wise enough to shift to the appropriate form, and ... well... Tree form anyone?

But I digress. Other than such scanty information, the remaining accounts of interactions druids are of unknown validity. Some of the Romans and Christians human sacrifices and rites to predict the future, but how much of that is true is impossible to determine.

But that doesn't stop people from making things up about druids! And not only Blizzard either. In the 18th century, the famous poet William Blake was one of the first to head up new groups of druids trying to reclaim the past. As time went on, they appropriated more and more ideas and imaginations under the neo-druidic banner (most notably saying that the druids built Stonehenge and other such monuments, when in fact these had been built earlier).

In the 19th century, a guy named Edward Williams changed his name to the much more druidy-sounding Iolo Morganwg (good luck pronouncing that) and went on to mix-n-match different ancient sources with his own "wouldn't that be cool" fabrications, and presented it all as the real thing just as archeological and historical methods were developing and getting ready to prove him wrong. The whole movement that spread from him and his ideas doesn't actually have that much to do with the real druids of ancient times. As the British Museum website puts it:
Modern Druids have no direct connection to the Druids of the Iron Age. Many of our popular ideas about the Druids are based on the misunderstandings and misconceptions of scholars 200 years ago. These ideas have been superseded by later study and discoveries.[1]
Neo-druidism is much more like other modern pagan movements, focusing in on their genuine spiritual approach to nature rather than the actual polytheism or long-gone cultural understandings of the ancient druids. One description of the 18th century ceremonies they used to start finding their way on this path struck me as basically just church in the woods with lots and lots of sacred whiskey. A "druid's prayer" written around that time even bears striking similarity to monotheistic Christian prayers. It seems that anyone who wants to be a real life modern druid has to basically look at the very little we know of ancient druids, and combine it with their own related ideas in whatever way is very meaningful to them and their particular association of other like-minded people.

So, how did we get from forgotten culture and modern spiritual movement to a shape-shifting fantasy class in a computer game, you ask? Wikipedia doesn't tell us, but it seems reasonable that all of this creative ideological exploration that went on under the term "druid" brought the word into common use without any strict definition of what it meant. People who heard about druids only got a romanticized sense that they were ancient people who were somehow connected to nature in a spiritual way, and from there it isn't a long jump to think of them as earthier versions of the wizard.

"Shaman" and "priest" are examples of other professions that follow the same pattern. Each one has lots of meanings that people can't sort out very well, and thus are ripe fruit for plucking right into a fantasy context, like that of Warcraft. It would be hard to see the same kind of jump happening with other words with more specific or practical definitions -- could you imagine "Teacher," "Doctor," "Judge," or "Pastor" classes being added to WoW? Yet when it comes down to it, that's basically what real druids were.

Perhaps this is why humans cannot be druids in World of Warcraft, despite the original druids being very human indeed. The idea of what a druid is has changed so much that we no longer see it as something humans really are: it is a magical fantasy for us, a reflection of something we see within ourselves, perhaps, but not without. Druids must either have floppy ears or stiff horns, as well as a powerful connection to their fantastical past -- because we as human beings have really moved on, and live squarely here in the present.

Filed under: Human, Druid, Lore, (Druid) Shifting Perspectives

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