What do you get when a Druid decides to hold a public ritual in a small rural town in Tennessee? Controversy that’s not unexpected but still disappointing in 2018.
Several weeks ago Angela Wilson, Archdruid of the Wayist Druid Order, announced plans to hold a Samhain ritual in a public park on a Saturday afternoon in Athens, Tennessee. As soon as the word got around, some local churches started complaining and planning events to counter the ritual. Television stations in Chattanooga (40 miles to the south) and Knoxville (60 miles to the north) ran news features.
The Wild Hunt had a brief write-up last Wednesday. Here’s a preview from the local newspaper. Here’s one of the TV reports on Christian opposition. Rather than attempt to summarize the news, I want to offer my own perspective as a Druid and as someone with ties to the area.
Everybody knows about Athens, Georgia. It’s the home of the B-52s, REM, and the Georgia Bulldogs. The population is 127,064.
Not so many people know there’s also an Athens, Tennessee. If you look at a map, it’s on I-75, about half way between Chattanooga and Knoxville. The population is 13,615. In 1960 the population was 12,103. Things change slowly in small rural towns.
I grew up in Chattanooga and lived there most of my life, until a job change sent me to Indiana in 1995. I’ve been to Athens many times – I still have extended family in the area. It’s a small rural town, typical not just of the South but of pretty much any rural area in the United States. This story could be playing out anywhere, but it’s playing out here.
The Wayist Druid Order
When people ask me about Druidry, I usually refer them to the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), which is the largest Druid order in the world. Or I refer them to Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), the largest Druid order in this country. I know of a handful of other Druid orders and traditions.
But Druidry is like Wicca in that for every large well-known tradition, there are dozens and perhaps hundreds of smaller, lesser-known traditions and groups. The Wayist Druid Order is one of those smaller groups. Because I knew nothing about it, I asked Archdruid Angela Wilson for some background information.
- The tradition claims heritage from families who followed “the old ways” in Britain and immigrated to North America in the early colonial period. Some were deists or Freemasons.
- One of their leaders received teachings in Tibet in the early 20th century.
- Several families formalized the order at a meeting in Kentucky in the 1940s.
- There are Wayist groups in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The Canadian and European groups are closed, but the American groups are open to new members. Those interested should contact Angela Wilson, who was elected Archdruid following the death of her initiator Fr. David Springer.
How much of this is historical and how much is apocryphal is impossible to say, and not particularly important to this story and this event. We still don’t know if Gerald Gardner really was initiated into an existing coven in 1938 and that hasn’t stopped Wicca from becoming a major religious movement. And for that matter, there is still no conclusive evidence Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person.
Following The Way
The group is called “Wayist” because their members follow The Way – “a way of life, that is also our religion.” Here are a few quotes from the document Angela shared with me.
“We believe in honoring our word, respecting all life, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions.”
“We believe in doing the right thing no matter the outcome, every time.”“We believe in our individual and our community service to our Gods, Aspects, Concepts and Precepts of our Gods, along with our Ancestors and all of Nature around us.”
“We venerate the Nature that is all around us, and we also believe in ourselves as well as others through the Awen.”
“We honor an oral teaching, through our traditional religion, with stories and teachings to honor them, by remembering them throughout their history, as handed down to us in an oral fashion, thus teaching and learning of The Way.”
The group claims no lineage from other Druid orders, but they are clearly in the spiritual tradition of the Revival Druids of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The willfully ignorant opposition
This is one of the times when the phrase “marketplace of religions” is quite accurate – because some religions use false advertising… including those whose sacred text includes the commandment “thou shalt not lie.”
In an interview with WTVC, Richard White, pastor at Athens Christian Church (which appears to be a non-denominational church) claimed the Wayist Druids are “satanic” and “involves human sacrifice.” Another local Christian claimed the ritual would “bring forth demons.” They presented no evidence whatsoever for these slanderous claims: nothing from the Wayist announcement, nothing from their teachings, nothing from past events by the Wayists or even from other Druid groups.
No, they remembered that someone somewhere claimed the Druids practiced human sacrifice. That was Julius Caesar, seeking moral justification for invading Britain. Not exactly an unbiased source, much less a current source. And they assumed that any religion that isn’t theirs is “satanic.”
It’s one thing to point out that another religion is different from your own. It is quite another thing to make up lies about another religion and attempt to hinder them from gathering in peace.
Fortunately, the local government fulfilled their responsibility to make public facilities open to people of all religions. And some Christians were confident enough in their faith to understand that a religious event from a different religion was no threat to them.
The theme of the ritual was “Find Your Tribe.” Angela said “So many Pagans in my area are alone and fearful thinking that they are alone. So I decided to do this to show they aren’t – they in fact do have a tribe.”
The event went off peacefully. The opposition held their own prayer meeting at the courthouse and the Wayist Druid ritual was undisturbed. About 250 people came out and participated.
There’s a cell phone video of the ritual on YouTube. The ritual was “talky” but that’s what you’d expect for a public Pagan ritual in a place where many people have never seen anything like it.
I asked Angela what she would say to those who worry about being Pagan in small towns all over the country. This was her response.
Be brave, be bold, and know you are protected by the constitution.
We aren’t promised tomorrow so don’t live one day in fear.
Work with your government first if you plan an event – they will help you.
Be kind and cheerful if unkind words are thrown at you.
Exercise your freedom of religion muscles – they will only get stronger.
The Wayist Druid Order is not my path, but I’m happy to have them in the wider Druid family, and I’m happy their ritual was a success.