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Rediscovering Old Gaul: Within or Beyond the Nation-State?

Independent Scholar, 94300 Vincennes, France
Religions 2019, 10(5), 331;
Submission received: 19 March 2019 / Revised: 22 April 2019 / Accepted: 8 May 2019 / Published: 16 May 2019


Paganism is an umbrella term which, along with Wicca and various eclectic Pagan paths, encompasses European native faiths or, in other words, autochthonous pre-Christian religions. Thus at the intersection of Paganism and indigenous religions the contemporary return of European native faiths arguably constitutes an example of European indigenism on the model of autochthonous peoples’ liberation movements. This paper furthers my previous analysis which addressed the theme of European native faiths and ethnopsychiatry (Ferlat 2014), where I began to explore the idea that European native faiths might offer a route for healing traumas resulting from waves of acculturation which, throughout history, have undermined specific groups in Europe nowadays labelled “ethnocultural”. Such traumas are the object of study in ethnopsychiatry and cross-cultural psychology among people who face the consequences of violent acculturation. Considering the role played by the revitalization of cultures on other continents, I continue here my reflection about the way that European indigeneity and indigenism might be incarnated by European native faiths. I focus in particular on a reconstructionist Druidic group in France, the Druidic Assembly of the Oak and the Boar (ADCS). I introduce the concept of “internal colonialism” as an analytical tool to understand the meaning of one of its rituals which relates to Old Gaul and epitomizes a decolonizing stance. I conclude that the ADCS embodies a specific native project: an internal decolonization and peaceful indigenization process at work within a nation-state. However given a context where internal colonization is not officially recognized, the potential resilience of such a process remains uncertain.

1. Introduction

On the model of autochthonous peoples’ liberation movements, European native faiths might well provide examples of European indigenism, or indigenisms, as far as they reveal common features with indigenous peoples and other cultural minorities. Considering the assimilation and acculturation that European peoples have undergone, raising the question of the intersection of European native faiths and indigenous religions means raising the possibility of European indigenisms. In this context the first objective is to understand the notions of “indigenous”, “indigeneity” and “indigenism”. Secondly, it is worth examining the reasons for the emergence of native faiths and defining their primary purpose. Then it becomes possible to determine whether and how they contribute to the liberation of individuals and communities from actual or perceived oppressive conditions.1
This paper extends my previous work which addressed the theme of European native faiths and ethnopsychiatry (Ferlat 2014), where I explored the idea that European native faiths might offer a route for healing both the collective and personal traumas resulting from waves of acculturation (Berry and Sam 1997) which, throughout history, have undermined in Europe specific groups nowadays labelled “ethnocultural”, in the same way that autochthonous peoples on other continents have tried to recover their psychological integrity (including abstaining from harmful behaviors such as various addictions) by revitalizing their ancestral traditions. Here I continue my reflection on the way that European native faiths embed concepts of indigeneity and indigenism by analyzing the case of a reconstructionist Druidic group in France, the Druidic Assembly of the Oak and the Boar (ADCS). I present, in particular, one of the rituals the members of the ADCS perform, a ritual called “the ritual of the mac fuirmids”, which aims to represent and embody the unity of the various groves within the Assembly. I chose this case because of its symbolic function in respect of the French national narrative as I will show.
I conclude that the ADCS embodies a specific native project: an internal decolonization process by which the ADCS divests itself of cultural references imposed by the nation-state, as well as an indigenization process at work in reclaiming an ancestral culture. The project is not unproblematic given that the concept of internal colonization is not a widely used or nationally shared concept, contrary to societies in which colonization is recognized precisely because it is externally imposed.
Before proceeding, I need to specify that the term “Gaul” is the one used by the ADCS. It was formalized by Caesar and does not correspond to the current territory of France; at some point it represented a form of colonial description. Nevertheless, the newest research regarding this subject (Arbabe 2018) states that the attribution presented by Caesar rests on concrete facts: a political unity existed historically, which included the holding of assemblies and fighting against invaders under the aegis of a joint head (Vercingetorix, for instance) being the key elements.

2. Indigenous, Indigeneity and Indigenism

The term “indigenous” has experienced a semantic shift as well as amplification: from a word used merely to classify species before the 1970s, it has become a term embodying a notion of protection, designating discriminated peoples that should be protected by, for example, NGOs and international institutions (Bens 2018, p. 248). It therefore includes a notion of vulnerability, but without any connotation of inferiority. In the humanities and social sciences it replaced the word “primitive” with its pejorative meaning (Cox 2007). While continuing to rely on the importance of ancestorship, “indigenous” now refers to multiple approaches, each with its own political origins and implications (Niezen 2003, p. 19), as well as some similarities which define a set of peoples exhibiting disparate lifestyles (Niezen 2003, p. 87).
The term “indigeneity”, for its part, has been subject to criticism because of its arguably essentialist character which emphasizes essential commonalities among indigenous peoples, rather than uniqueness and diversity (Kuper 2003, 2006). Some contemporary scholars, however, assert that “essentialism” and essentialist characteristics do not take on significant meaning in themselves (Verkuyten 2005). The attribution of fixed and inherent characteristics to individuals (Verkuyten 2005, pp. 123–24) depends on purpose: essentialism is potentially useful to protect people, for example, to present people as individuals responsible for their attitudes, beliefs and achievements and able to engage in a relationship with the other, not only as passive and inferior recipients of an omnipotent culture which deprives them of their critical thinking skills and capacity for action (see Verkuyten 2003). The terms “essentialism” and “indigeneity” are not by definition either oppressive or emancipatory (Verkuyten 2005, pp. 140–42). I use essentialism here to refer to the essential, distinguishing characteristics of an indigenous people that may well distinguish it from other indigenous peoples. For example, the recovery of their ancestral cultures has become a way for Native Americans to assert their essence, one that assists them to construct a path towards their roots that does not expose a split between essentialism and constructionism (Tripathy 2006, p. 318).
Today “indigeneity” not only relates to a fixed identity, but also may be considered an analytic category which emphasizes notions of “relationship” and “link” which precisely allow indigenous peoples to continue to exist thanks to their creativity in every field while keeping their own identity (Arvin 2015, pp. 119–26). According to Arvin and Diaz (2010), indigeneity must be studied in articulation with coloniality and raciality to deconstruct representations of colonial power and the way that such power perceives lands and territories. Thus, an historical exploration of indigeneity focuses also on the future and on who a group of people might become. The United Nations (2007) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) lists the following criteria: “an experience of subjugation, marginalization, dispossession (‘non-dominance’), a priority in time (the principle of ‘first arrived’) and the voluntary perpetuation of cultural distinctiveness and self-identification as indigenous people”. Indigenous peoples are not so much the primordial origin of humanity as “the oppressed and subaltern side of colonial and postcolonial states” (Halbmayer 2018, p. 4; see also Saugestad 2001). In this respect, specific European groups nowadays labelled “ethnocultural” fit this definition as they have been colonized over their history by the centralized states which marginalized them.
Native identity is defined according to several patterns and levels depending on context (Tripathy 2006, p. 315). The relational dimension of indigeneity does not rest upon external factors which define it as such, but correlates first with a land, a community, an ancestorship and a cosmology. Ties make binds. The aim of indigenous movements is to rediscover the relational, to restore ties that have been apparently cut or weakened. In other words, an essentialist and a relational approach to indigeneity are not mutually exclusive but serve the self-expression of both individual and communities.
One of the specific features of indigeneity has been described as the relationship between a tribe’s, people’s or individual’s soul and a particular place. This symbiosis holds that any purely conceptual representation which separates the human being from a place is artificial and does not fall within the constructionist spectrum (Tripathy 2006, p. 316). In this spectrum the attachment to place and the connection with the immediate environment prevail. According to James Cox (2007, p. 69), “the one central belief found among indigenous societies everywhere” emphasizes being bound to a location. Participants in the religion are native to a place, or in Harvey’s (2000, p.4) words, “they belong to it”. Past and present are linked as “ancestors are known by name; they belong to a place just as their descendants do and they relate to living communities as spirit conveyors of ancestral traditions”.
Indigenism, which applies indigeneity, was first associated with liberation movements in Central and Latin America. This political fight is of two kinds nowadays: the first involves actions conducted by tribal peoples in order to keep their territory, a type of indigenism supported by international institutions (Benjamin 2017, p. 368). Indigenism appears as a global, transautochthonous movement impelled by the will to bring forward its claims politically, in particular its ancestral rights and the retrocession of confiscated lands (Cameron et al. 2009, p. 356).
As well as making territorial claims, indigeneity may be put into action through a “pervasive revitalization process” (Kvernmo 2006, p. 233) enabling us to speak of “indigenous epistemologies” (Denzin et al. 2008). Whereas “indigeneity” was once a synonym for “vanishing people” and cultures (Arvin 2015, p. 119), scholarship in the field of Indigenous Studies now stresses presence instead of absence (Banerjee 2016; Te Punga Somerville 2017) in order to emphasize the vital element of indigenous cultures. For instance, Te Punga Somerville, a scholar of Māori literature, explains how she developed a methodological approach to archival research emphasizing indigenous presence and proximity rather than distance. Likewise, Mita Banerjee gathered scholarly studies from different disciplines in a book which “highlights the ways in which indigenous cultures have resisted, time and again, the myth of their own disappearance” (Banerjee 2016).
Thus, indigenism conceived as an implementation of indigeneity exhibits a relational dimension involving a dialectic founded on absence and presence in which the felt absence of ancestors and traditions forms the starting point for restoring a structured world. Both terms can be conceived as dynamic concepts embedding and supporting life rather than indicators of cultural loss and death. Only in this way can they contribute positively to indigenous resilience.

3. The European Context

These issues are particularly tricky when addressed within a European context in relation to native European movements and faiths, firstly because of the ideological stance those movements may take regarding both the trauma of WWII and the beginning of the postcolonial era, which deconstructed national and nationalist narratives in Europe. Consequently, it is difficult to consider such issues outside the debates which have taken place within nation-states.
It must be remembered here that the ideological issue has already been raised by Kuper (2003, p. 390), who analyzed the overall situation of indigenous movements claiming rights to self-determination. He asserted that the concept and rhetoric of “indigenous” had to be analyzed in the mirror of ongoing Western ideological debates which justify anti-immigrant policies by invoking ties of blood and soil. According to Kuper, this rhetoric rests on the assumption that descendants of the original inhabitants of a country should have privileged rights, perhaps even exclusive rights, to its resources, while immigrants are simply guests who should behave as such. Such political measures are proposed by extreme right-wing parties in Europe even though they do not argue that descendants of the oldest European peoples, the Celts and perhaps the Saxons for instance, should be given special privileges. Kuper further argues that where hunters and nomadic herders are concerned, they do not only represent the first inhabitants of a country, but are the original human populations of the world. This primordial quality might therefore be regarded as an additional factor legitimating special privileges. Some authors have criticized this contention asserting that there is a significant difference between the Eurocentric, caricature of land rights based on a right-wing ideology and the inclusive social systems of Central African hunter-gatherers which are based on egalitarian social and economic practices (Kenrick and Lewis 2004, p. 263).
European native faiths have now been studied extensively in a way which allows a finer analysis of their ideologies (Aitamurto 2016; Aitamurto and Simpson 2013; Amster 2015; Harvey 1997, p. 68; Simpson 2017; Shizenskii and Aitamurto 2017; Strmiska 2005, p. 24). Those analyses contribute to distinguishing right-wing elements from relevant autochthonous elements, in other words to differentiating a right-wing perspective from an autochthonous one.
Secondly, the term “indigenous” sometimes sounds problematic in regard to a possible appropriation. Anna Fisk (2017, p. 27) writes: “Rountree’s arguments have led me to question whether western use of, or claims of affinity with, indigenous concepts of relations between the human and other-than-human may be critiqued as an imperialist appropriation of these cultures”. The use of some terms reserved to cultural areas outside Europe can be regarded as cultural appropriation, but such terms may also assist scientific accuracy based on an observation of invariant features: in the case of shamanism, for example, is it acceptable to speak of a European shamanism, when the term “shamanism” might be considered an appropriation, even though some historical and literary facts advocate for it (Barillari 2017; Buchholz 1971; Ferlat 2004; Ginzburg 1992, 20192)?
Such an argument could mean that it is impossible either to look at European peoples as indigenous peoples notwithstanding the historical ruptures across Europe, or to appreciate the ways that they have endured various forms of colonization. I have already alluded to specific ethnocultural groups, such as the Basques and the Bretons living in France, for instance. Nonetheless, the ethnic origins of nations are nowadays acknowledged and have been the subject of research in respect of modernity, demonstrating ethnic links to territories (Smith 1986, pp. 25–30). For the record, as this paper draws on a sample anchored in Celtic traditions, it is worth recalling that Wales was united with England in 1536, Scotland in 1707 and Ireland in 1801 with the subsequent tragic events we all know. Brittany for its part was attached to France in 1532 and still claims its autonomy. Those political affiliations were accompanied by consecutive acculturations, both socially, as the social structures themselves were disrupted and damaged (the Celts3 often being forced to migrate to cities) and culturally, as they were still prohibited from speaking their language on their own land two generations ago.
Of course who the Celts were and what “Celtic culture” means is a matter for debate. In any case, the territories associated with the Celts correspond to lands which were already home to autochthonous peoples4 and it would be too simplistic to assert that Celts were already migrants. The question about the appearance of the Celts is complex and unresolved; new answers and theories will derive from research in the future (Cunliffe 2018).
Moreover Celticity might be interpreted as a myth which does not reflect the reality of past tribes, but rather helps groups to self-identify. In this respect Dietler (2006) establishes a distinction between Celticism, Celtitude and Celticity. Celticism would correspond more to this self-identification by social groups, while Celtitude and Celticity emerged as a counter-reaction to globalization and mass-capitalism, with neo-Druidry exemplifying this counter-reaction. It is stressed here that a deeper analysis is needed in order to distinguish precisely “neo-Druidry” from “reconstructionist Druidry”. If we refer to indigenous peoples, the same issues can be raised: many tribes were relocated and no culture is stagnant as cultures undergo changes over time. Nohelani Teves et al. (2015, p. 111) note that proving historical continuity requires adjudication at state, federal and global levels. Even the UNDRIP is ambivalent on this subject, and the risk is to deserve recognition only when those peoples cease to be static and engage with modernity (Nohelani Teves et al. 2015, p. 112). Consequently, in Europe, the ethnocultural origins of nations may serve to restore ties despite discontinuities.
Although he did not address the ethnocultural differences within Great Britain, and thus between the Celts and the British, Karl Polanyi (2001, p. 164)5 has asserted that cultural destruction undermined English people at the beginning of the 19th-century, thereby highlighting a destructive cultural mechanism inside the country:
Not economic exploitation, as often assumed, but the disintegration of the cultural environment of the victim is then the cause of the degradation. The economic process may, naturally, supply the vehicle of the destruction, and almost invariably economic inferiority will make the weaker yield, but the immediate cause of his undoing is not for that reason economic; it lies in the lethal injury to the institutions in which his social existence is embodied. The result is loss of self-respect and standards, whether the unit is a people or a class, whether the process springs from so-called culture conflict or from a change in the position of a class within the confines of a society.
Polanyi (2001, p. 172) continues:
Now, what the white man may still occasionally practice in remote regions today, namely the smashing up of social structures in order to extract the element of labor from them, was done in the eighteenth century to white populations by white men for similar purposes.
Michael Hechter (1975) went further in applying the theory of internal colonialism to the Celtic fringe of Great Britain. The concept was born earlier when Marx, before Lenin and Gramsci, used it to designate European underdeveloped areas in European countries (Stafford 2008, p. 503). Internal colonialism resurfaced in the 1960s in the context of the anti-colonial movements. In particular, when the Black Power movement emerged, its theorists used the term to explain the politics of discrimination against Black people in the United States (Smith 2003a, pp. 46–47; Smith 2003b, p. 184), but not as phenomenon linked to a peripheral portion of a territory under domination.6
The thesis of the diffusionist school postulates that the expansion of administration allows ethnic groups to merge and participate equally in the life of the state, a situation thanks to which the nation-state developed. Countering this, Michael Hechter argues that in Great Britain, both cultural assimilation and economic equalization did not occur on the whole Celtic fringe of the country. Rather, that situation actually perpetuated the Celtic identity. Hechter first tells how the history of Great Britain was predominantly a fight to control the fertile lowlands, especially in Celtic areas. But after the 16th-century numerous aspects and elements belonging to the Celtic traditional social structure were declared illegal. Nevertheless, the union between the Celtic fringe and England, unlike the preceding unification of the English counties during the Anglo-Saxon period, did not establish the state-wide legitimacy of the government in London. The weapon of resistance used by the Celtic fringe against English authority was the development in the 19th-century which took the name “Celtic culture”, even though, according to Hechter, it had few elements in common with its past counterpart.
The renaissance of Celtic culture, the beginning of Celtic nationalism and of the distinctive electoral behavior of the Celtic territories were all responses to a situation which might be usefully depicted as colonial with regard to the characteristics of a colonial situation, in which a cosmopolitan culture is promoted as being of a higher level in order to achieve the universal paradigm, epitomized by Christian salvation, then industrialization. Hechter also reminds us that discrimination, based on language, religion or other cultural norms form the colonial agenda to impose domination. In this context, it must be noted that English political expansion into the Celtic periphery was accompanied by measures aimed at suppressing Celtic culture (Hechter 1975, p. 74). Laws were passed to encourage the Celts to embrace English culture in its various forms, as it was promoted as superior.7 A cultural division of labor also contributed to maintaining a differentiation.
While it has been subject to methodological and theoretical criticism (Hunter 1977; Hanham 1978; Jackson 1978; Michie 1978; Page 1978),8 Hechter’s model is based on historical facts and echoes the aforementioned research in cross-cultural psychology. It also means that postcolonialism is a conceivable concept in a European framework. The history of postcolonialism alone is too wide and too complex a subject to be tackled here. Suffice to say, postcolonialism went through different stages and was enriched at some point: in turn, decolonial thought forms a set of complex theories (Lentin 2017), which are not to be confused with decolonization per se. It originates in the liberation movements of Latin America and advocates delinking decolonial thought from Eurocentrism, that is, the stance supporting European colonial expansion by legitimating colonial empire, law and historical argumentation, especially when it came to subjecting and excluding “others” (Stanziani 2018, p. 46), and at a political level, defending the idea of a precolonial political governance. More specifically, it argues in favor of an epistemological contextualization for “the postmodern debate in Latin America, for example, it reproduced a discussion whose problems originated not in the colonial histories of the subcontinent, but in the histories of European modernity” (Mignolo 2000, p. 64). The promotion of socialist alternatives to liberalism in Europe were taken, in the colonies, as a path of liberation without making the distinction between emancipation in Europe and liberation in the colonial world. Thus decolonization means taking a different perspective and adopting, for instance, the perspective of the indigenous in the social sciences “to the point of revealing the colonial difference in the social sciences (Mignolo 2000, p. 74)”, then to leave space for alternatives.
Decolonial thought can be then deepened by another epistemological contextualization, by including the various European epistemologies embedded within the mosaic of peoples who fell victim to a particular kind of Eurocentrism as an agent of destruction of its ancestral cultures, customary laws, and languages.
Unlike indigenous peoples in other global contexts, Europeans did not enter the postcolonial era, precisely because they do not interpret their history from such a perspective. However, with the aim of presenting another view of history, postcolonialism and decolonial thought offer a conceptual tool which contributes to the analysis of European native faiths, notably in respect of the traumas which people underwent in Europe, enabling participants in these faiths to mark a new stage in a process of distancing themselves from other traumas and ideological considerations (such as right- or left-wing affiliation). The postcolonial positioning that may inspire the actions of European native faiths and their raison d’être is rarely discussed,9 but could constitute a reading grid of this action and raison d’être for those movements.
While promoting pre-nation-state worldviews, European Pagan movements today do not get themselves through a decolonizing process; in other words, they do not structure a system of thought according to specific epistemologies. The main pitfall relates to the possibility of focusing on themselves and providing a conditioning-free reflection by referring solely to the ancestral past as far as its exploration is possible. Thus, an awareness of self-ethnicity is possible but does not seem to stimulate a decolonizing phenomenon. Furthermore, these movements are not close to being politically autonomous, independent movements and the separatist political movements in Europe do not tackle the religious question with a Pagan perspective either.
Consequently, if nationalist impulses with their pejorative connotation still guide the actions of some European native Pagan movements, this reveals that they did not conduct an in-depth reflection on the meaning of “nation” or its governance model in order to deliver a mature discourse and incarnate indigenous values and perspectives in a robust manner. The nationalism of indigenous populations derives from oppression, but is always connected to a holistic worldview while the political references of European native faiths, when they are mentioned or referred to, do not take place within an indigenous space accompanied by territorial or environmental claims. Indigenous peoples claim the retrocession of precise territories and demand food sovereignty, for instance, which is not the case with European native faith movements. Members of European native faiths promote the “local”, but if they support sustainable development, their discourse rarely endorses the overall dimensions for achieving a political project. In order to do so, they might ask themselves some questions such as: “What kind of organizations do we display? What do European native faiths build? Are they condemned to live as a kind of marginal community? What is their image of nations? Do they even question it?” Members of native faith movements do not struggle for the right to political, economic and environmental self-determination. Whereas a holistic dimension prevails among autochthonous peoples, native faiths’ concerns seem restricted to the religious dimension and embrace only a few political and ecological elements, and their claims are not elaborated. The type of “indigenous” people they may be regarded as deserves thorough analysis.
From the point of view of internal colonialism, the notions revolving around “indigenousness” are not so problematic (Rountree 2015, p. 8). They just question the way Europeans situate themselves in regard to their history and the issue to address is then how to embed Pagan movements within it and, perhaps, which nations those movements could contribute to defining. Here is where “indigenous”, “indigeneity” and “indigenism” become useful tools to understand what European native faiths and indigenous peoples have in common from a cultural resilience perspective.
It seems that those notions in the literature about European native movements can only be interpreted as exclusion of others. My contention is that it is important to find a more nuanced understanding of the potential relationships between the concepts of “culture”, “essentialism”, “ethnicity” and “indigeneity” concerning European peoples with a goal of strengthening the links between them. It is not so much a question of exclusion of others as a question of interchangeability of people which prevents any affiliation, then strong ties and healing. This does not mean, however, that those concepts convey exactly the same meaning for all indigenous people and entail identical actions; nuances are important. Otherwise, the risk for researchers in the social sciences is to behave in the same way as scholars of past centuries who denied the religious and cultural values of indigenous peoples, and thus to perpetuate another form of colonialism: internal colonialism.
Thus, the question remains about the potential resilience that European native faiths might offer depending on the inner and outer allocated space, on the religious practices within communities and on an insidious conflict with society, for instance, in cases where they feel marginalized by internal agents. The potential resilience depends also on the degree of analysis of past traumas and their consequent effects. European native faiths cannot offer resilience if members are not aware of traumas endured by populations over history.

4. France, Old Gaul and the ADCS

Unlike more homogeneous countries in Europe, France personifies internal colonialism in the sense that it is composed of a mosaic of territories and peoples with different roots—Celts, Latins, Germans and Basques—all together within a nation-state after the helter-skelter of history10 which did not achieve a complete alchemy, as shown by the example of Brittany claiming its autonomy (Pasquier 2010; Tourault 2018). As a territory which lived under the Roman yoke for several centuries and being the “eldest daughter of the Church”, the country of Enlightenment which inspired numerous revolutions, it is finally difficult to know what remains of old Gaul. Even when one wanders the roads of the French countryside, its Celtic foundations unveil themselves, especially thanks to the Celtic names which sometimes also appear through the names of wines.11 Beneath the French surface, one may encounter Celticity. It just sometimes requires that people experience a different view and learn to develop a new way to connect themselves to the environment in order to overcome the cultural layers built up over time. This implies an ability to know history and to distinguish Celtic cultural characteristics—thus the indigenous characteristics from the Roman ones, for instance—or from those of later time periods. The endeavor is still more difficult within the major cities where urban planning has covered over Celtic traces. In such a context, the analysis of Celtic Pagan movements becomes even more complicated in comparison with such analysis in Celtic countries belonging to geographical areas which form cultural unities, such as Ireland, for instance.
France is also a laic state (Baubérot 2013) and the number of people who declare themselves Pagans has not been estimated. Pagans represent probably between a few hundred and a few thousand people in France and claim their Wiccan, Asatruar, or Druidic belonging, all bearing nuances and spread between various shades as in the wider Pagan community globally.
About Druidism in Ireland, Jenny Butler (2015, p. 199) writes:
In the Irish context, the endeavor of reconstruction is tenuous as relatively little evidence exists of the precise religious beliefs and practices of people in the country prior to Christianity. While there are archaeological, mythological and Early Irish literary sources (mediated through Christian authors), no first-hand accounts are extant from the pre-Christian Irish themselves. Pagans are aware that it is not possible to “revive” ancient religious practices per se, or even to reconstruct accurately what pre-Christian religions might have been like based on disparate pieces of historical information. Rather, Pagans collate various bits of available information and use them as a foundation to design their own rituals.
The same goes for Pagan Druidic movements in France, and to a greater extent, because the sources and materials are still more fragmentary than in Ireland and the Gaulish language became extinct over a thousand years ago. Of course, some scholars as well as some followers of Druidic movements attempt to reconstitute this language (Delamarre 2008; Lambert 2018), but this research has not produced sufficient results to cover the whole of the elements attached to their religious practices and beliefs. I chose the Assembly of the Oak and of the Boar (ADCS) for its reconstructionist stance and its organization as a federation of groves, comprising about ten groves spread throughout France. These groves are conceived of as tribes which aim to restore past religious practices in a given territory, practices based on the historical elements they have at their disposal, drawing their sources from local traditions. They share a reverence for ancestors and nature worship, and celebrate the same eight festivals in the year.
The ADCS was born in 2007 as an emanation from the Order of the Children of the Earth (ODET), a Druidic group born in France in 2000s and whose current activity is more confidential. Its founder had followed the teaching of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD)12—an international Druidic group based in the UK which has branches all over the world—before joining ODET and creating the ADCS when ODET stopped its activity. This does not mean that the ADCS embedded an imported form of Druidry. Its rituals are elaborated from available sources even though there is some ongoing debate among its members about the calendar, for instance, regarding the celebration of the solstices and equinoxes which are not considered by some as traditional Celtic festivals. In its expression and choice of cultural elements, the ADCS demonstrates a Celtic eclecticism in accordance with Strmiska’s model (Strmiska 2005, p. 20) embracing, among its Gaulish words, numerous Irish Gaelic terms which compensates for the partial state of knowledge relating to Gaul and the Gaulish language.
Apart from the functional partition between Druids, Ovates and Bards, which is common in Druidic movements whatever the country and corresponds both to a path and a teaching, the ADCS has created a special function devoted to the grove itself. The name mac fuirmid, which comes from the Auraceipt na n-éces (Calder 1917, p. 21),13 means “son of effort”.14 Within the ADCS h/she has mainly the function of organizer responsible for the cohesion of the grove and its methods of working.

5. The Gaulish Tribes Within and Beyond the Nation-State: the Ritual of the mac fuirmids

For this paper, I interviewed the founder of the ADCS who is also the creator of the rituals performed within the ADCS and of the specific ritual I describe below. He lives in the East of France and I was able to ask him questions on several occasions.
The founder of the ADCS, whom I shall refer to as B., begins by underlining that the work of the ADCS is based on both initiation and inspiration through the mediation of the land and nature which encourage individuals to transform themselves. The path entails exploring one’s interiority in order to spark an ontological transformation and to acquire greater psychological autonomy. The question of the meaning of the path is the most important and must win acceptance from people. B. says this kind of transformation is the exact opposite of mere seduction (a superficial approach which manipulates people in order to attract them. Consequently, it does not demand any work on oneself). This initiatory path aims at suggesting another model, another way of relating to the world without prejudice or judgment. When an individual acknowledges his or her shadow side, according to B, h/she is then able to build a balance and to develop his/her potential. If the path did not lead to a transformation, B. asserts that their spiritual practice would be deprived of meaning and sense. But he adds that if this transformation is personal, it does not only operate on a psychological level; it is about deconstructing one’s way of thinking and acknowledging other psychological and cultural patterns, an approach which can qualify as decolonial thought in this particular case.
While he does not use the terms “indigeneity” and “indigenous”, B. describes Druidism and the set of practices proposed by the ADCS, mainly the teaching it offers and the ceremonies it performs, as a possible link to an ancestral pattern and network meant to be activated by those practices. The pattern and network form a psychological model of the world which lies behind the construction of individuals and which supports them. They are embedded in a cosmogony which sustains both individuals and the community they form together.
He then brings the second central issue to be addressed and which, according to him, constitutes a milestone in Druidism: the affiliation and transmission which has been carried out through parents and ancestors—even though the spiritual journey today diverges from the transmission of parental values and the journey presumably taken by the ancestors. His statements reveal a view and felt sense of the world which is shared with indigenous approaches, blending essentialist and relational aspects: “Druidism helps us to find who we are as individuals sharing a common founding myth, and it helps us as well to be connected with the world around us by allowing us to position ourselves. It does not separate us from others but enables us to assume our difference within this world”. This view is observed equally in the third central issue in Druidism according to B., a view asserting that place conveys ancestorship because there is an unwavering connection between the two.
To B, the Druidic practice and attitude consist in following what might be considered the spirit of Old Gaul. He underlines that of course this is only an “idea of” the spirit of Old Gaul supported by a founding myth connected to the spirit of past Druids, a characteristic that establishes a clear distinction between spirituality and historical reenactment.
Henceforth, considering its initiatory dimension and the main characteristics and values which are brought forth, the basis of the ritual within the ADCS is ontological. B. posits that in order to be effective, a ritual must include an intrinsic order, a unity of sense that gives both direction and significance. For instance, a purification in spring water allows the rediscovery of what might be the sensation and meaning of an original water purification. According to B., this purification acts as a return to an illo tempore origin, a Golden Age which has not been marred with any element which could prevent people from living in harmony with their environment.
Rituals are based on a structuring concept and organization, a worldview which corresponds to the three-levelled cosmic tree,15 incorporating a polar tension that makes up life. However, rituals are not inflexible acts deprived of life and creativity. They are carriers of life, a form of indigenism which, similar to some indigenous methodologies I alluded to, relies on a dialectical relationship between absence and presence, the absence being compensated for with tangible elements such as historical, archaeological and linguistic finds. Druids may have vanished, Old Gaul seems to have disappeared, but there are still people claiming this heritage and reactivating those elements they have at their disposal.

6. The Ritual

B. narrates how the ritual of the mac fuirmids, which has been performed for five years now, was elaborated from the available sources belonging to a compendium of “Celtic matter”: courses, monographs, mythological and folkloric elements. At the beginning, it was performed only during the Samonios festival on November 1st, which marks the beginning of the year for Druidic groups; and nowadays during the Beltane festival on May 1st as well, upon the request of the Assembly members. This ritual was nourished from messages received during B.’s dreams, and B. tells how those messages always come to endorse resonances previously established during the elaboration of the ritual itself. They show synchronicities which confirm or inform the elements that have been incorporated within the rituals. B. starts with notes made while studying various resources that he keeps in a notebook; he then builds on the ritual.
He says that this ritual aims at materializing the links between the members of the groves and at raising questions about the nature of the links, about the elements they are linked to, about the reason for the links’ existence, and about their mysterious dimension. According to B., such a ritual cannot assume an initiatory dimension if it does not incite questions about its foundations themselves: when someone is linked to roots, he/she is linked to a territory. The ritual of the mac fuirmids represents the application of a principle to reality: in this case, the function of the links and the interaction between the groves and the territories which are connected this way. He asserts that what is experienced must resonate with the individual, even though this ritual is about the notion of clan which embodies a wider family, and which implies that fraternity must not be artificial and corresponds to real feelings and sensations.
The ritual takes place in a clearing in the wood and begins with about fifty participants standing in a circle around ritual objects which have been laid out on the ground. These include a cauldron into which each mac fuirmuid will pour water from his/her pagus (territory), a wooden statue representing the ancestors, four cups to consecrate the ritual circle with the elements fire, water, earth and air, and some mead to share at the end of the ritual. A wooden axis has been set up in the middle of the circle representing the cosmic axis, but when possible, the axis is replaced with a tree which has been favored to fulfill this function. Each mac fuirmid holds a sword modelled on those of the early Middle Ages, often bought in a medieval shop. This sword symbolizes his/her action and his/her powers of protection and discrimination. Each mac fuirmid also has a ribbon, its color associated with his/her pagus, and carries a pennant which symbolizes his/her pagus. Both the colour of the ribbon and the design of the pennant have been chosen by the members of the grove.
The spirit of the place, named for the particular place if toponymy allows an interpretation concerning this name, or named as a general spirit of the place, is invoked by a specific member of the group who thanks it for its presence. Then a member of the Assembly calls on the spirits which guard the groves. The ritual circle has a protective function for the members of the Assembly at this moment and serves to establish a boundary between the sacred and the profane. This circle is then consecrated by water and fire: an ovate holds a cup with water and moves around the circle sprinkling it while saying some words about the meaning of water, then a second one takes a turn with a cup containing a candle and saying some words about the meaning of fire. This action is repeated with air (incense) and earth. The spirits associated with the four directions are appealed to in turn; they are generally named after animals which are considered the guardians of those directions.
The heart of the ritual is formed by three stages. These are (1) the “union”, during which each mac fuirmid places some water brought from his/her territory within a cauldron in the middle of the circle; (2) the oaths, during which each mac fuirmid approaches the wooden axis set up in the middle of the circle or the tree and expresses his or her awareness of the responsibility and gifts h/she has received and must transmit. The final stage is “the binds”, the part of the ritual during which each mac fuirmid asks a member of his/her pagus to position their banner in the middle of the circle. All the banners are then dug into the ground together and attached with a rope, and the mac fuirmids raise their swords toward the banners. The members of the Assembly take their places behind the mac fuirmid of their pagus and put their right hand on the shoulder of the person who stands immediately in front of him/her.
The ritual then comes to the end. The people who invoked the spirits at the beginning thank them and enjoin them to return to their dwelling places. For confidentiality reasons, it has not been possible to provide all the details; nevertheless, the conduct of the ritual of the mac fuirmids epitomizes a counter-example of the narrative which invokes a monolithic union under a same flag by enhancing the egalitarian aspect of gathered tribes.

7. Function and Meaning of This Ritual

In attempting to reconstruct a tribal vision of power free from an authority perceived as absolutist, this ritual mirrors a vision which differs from that of a centralized power with institutions that disallow freedom outside their own rules. An analysis of indigenous approaches and modern Western Pagan approaches (Fisk 2017, p. 35) often highlights the countercultural stance of any so-called Western indigenous reconstruction. The ritual presented in this paper would thus be countercultural, but I would argue that it is not question of swimming against the cultural tide but an attempt to swim in other tides and travel with other flows. This is related to decolonial thought, the ability to adopt a self-centred position, far from perspectives ingrained in modernity and postmodernity.
The indigenist paradigm does not describe a countercultural impulse as much as it expresses a will to rehabilitate and revitalize a culture which was halted at some point and which requires a genealogical approach. As to whether or not modernity itself is concerned, or the fight against it maybe (considering that globalization arguably brings another reason to fight), this struggle becomes an attempt to repossess one’s culture. If the action of a Druidic movement as exemplified here is a real starting point of such a struggle, then it would be right to assert that a will to rediscover one’s own culture through decolonization—modernity being fully a part of colonization—becomes the point of these people’s ritual action. In other words, modernity is in itself a counterculture for some followers of European native faith movements.
Léon van Gulik argues that there are no more authentic Celts as Celtic culture vanished (Gulik 2015, p. 231). Nevertheless, the actions of Celtic native faith groups such as the ADCS, which attempt to reconstruct and restore past traditions from a founding myth and known elements, demonstrate more processes at work than an achieved indigenization. And apart from the obviously postmodern (eclectic, syncretic, creative) features which can be clearly identified in the ritual, it is difficult to determine, or agree about, what authenticity means. Indigenization constitutes a spectrum and would require a quantitative analysis based on a measurement scale.
The ritual of the mac fuirmids belongs to an indigenization process and epitomizes an aspiration to liberate oneself from a kind of oppression, but not as a symbolic resource which would support a new nationalism tainted by historicism with a political objective as Léon van Gulik argues. Its characteristics pertain more to a peaceful revitalization than to neo-nationalism. The ritual discussed above is a discrete assertion, a way to show that indigenous Europeans may revitalize their traditions without seeking to have a visible impact. It exemplifies a will towards spiritual indigenization as its only purpose.
Perhaps we are witnessing the beginning of an indigenous European presence built upon the dialectic of presence and absence in the manner of indigenous peoples in other global contexts, constituting an emerging story of European indigenism. In this light, the activity of the ADCS partially falls within the model formulated by Kathryn Rountree (2014, pp. 87–88): “Paganisms and Native faiths are engaged in two broad processes: 1, the retrieval, reconstruction and re-imagination of pre-Christian religions, in some contexts associated with a new nationalism and 2, the adaptation of Anglo-American Pagan traditions to local contexts, thereby indigenizing them to some degree. By engaging in such processes, they draw on other (earlier) times and other (British American) places”. Notwithstanding the context, if such an European indigenism is emerging, it requires a finer definition of what a nation might be according to its view.

8. Perspectives, Not a Conclusion

As it is not constructed within a postcolonial or decolonial discourse, European indigenism can only, at this point, represent an unachieved process. Followers of European native faiths generally reside physically within a nation-state, but on a religious and spiritual level, they exist beyond it. However, despite the absence of a postcolonial awareness, the example of the ADCS and its ritual represent a symbolic decolonization showing clearly that a step has been taken in this direction. The question of the potential and ultimate resilience engendered by the spiritual practices of the ADCS and more generally by those of European native faiths will, in turn, become a matter of further inquiry.


This research received no external funding.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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As France is a mosaic of peoples aggregated within a nation-state, I am referring here to the concept of “internal colonialism”, a concept coined by Michael Hechter (1975).
The famous and controversial study by Ginzburg about the benandanti folk custom in 16th–17th century Friuli, was first published in 1966; the debate is ongoing about this matter (see Ermacora 2017).
Celts are identified as such by scholars because of the geographical, historical and linguistic spaces they were from.
See, for instance, Cunliffe (2018), in particular about how the Celtic language developed as a lingua franca along the Atlantic façade of Western Europe and the localized DNA signatures which show early settlement along the Atlantic façade probably after mesolithic migrations (Cunliffe and Koch 2012, 2016).
Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation was published first in 1944.
In the second edition of his book, Hechter recognizes that it is “very much a product of its time” (Hechter 1999, p. xiii).
For instance, the Act of Union imposed both English Law and English religion on the peoples of Wales outlawing traditional Celtic customs. With regard to propaganda, a mid-nineteenth-century report on the state of Welsh education conducted by three English education commissioners for the House of Commons in 1846 accused Welsh language, religion and character for being responsible for social unrest in Wales, a statement about a Celtic culture which was not exceptional (Hechter 1975, p. 74). This report exerted a strong psychological impact among the Welsh people who came to believe that the way to escape from poverty and illiteracy was to learn English (Parry and Williams 1999, p. 19).
Page, for instance, does not demonstrate that the process of development in the British Isles cannot be described as colonial (Page 1978, p. 96). His criticism concerns the way Hechter uses some concepts as well as some of his statistical methods. Furthermore, the book’s reception was different in England, Ireland and Scotland (Hechter 1999, pp. xiv–xviii).
Pietr Wiench (2013, p. 18) has shown how native faith movements in Central and Eastern Europe can be analyzed in terms of a postcolonial critique of modernity and as a reaction “against foreign cultural hegemony and against the invasion of foreign patterns of culture at the cost of local or native tradition”.
I do not deny border changes, or the rise and fall of different nations. However, France is a highly centralized state.
Thus, the name of the Bourgogne, “Morgon”, comes from the goddess Morrigan.
“Druidry has three main areas of study and practice, those of the bard, ovate and Druid. Briefly, the bard is the keeper of tradition and a creative artist, traditionally a musician, poet, and storyteller; the ovate is a philosopher, diviner, and healer; the Druid is a priest, ritualist, counselor, teacher, guide and walker between worlds” (Rabinovitch and Lewis 2002, pp. 83–84).
This medieval Irish linguistic tract is a poetical and grammatical miscellany and has been dated to the 7th-century.
According to a medieval Irish linguistic tract, the mac fuirmid is the poet in the second year of studies. “Fuirmid is the verbal noun of the verb fo-ruimi and the meaning of the substantive is apparently ‘a violent, aggressive effort’, ‘blow’, ‘thrust’ etc. We must therefore understand mac fuirmid literally as ‘the son of effort’, which evokes the work of poetic training and, at the same time, scholarly restraint” (Guyonvarc’h 2002, p. 132).
Concerning the pre-Christian Celtic origin of a cosmic axis as a tree, see Claude Sterckx (2009, pp. 170–78). The levels correspond here to a logical structure and the number three is frequent in Celtic mythology. The cosmic axis includes also the spatial horizontal dimension with four quarters around our world according to Celtic myths about the creation of the world (see Sterckx 2009, p. 169 for references).

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