NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — Anglesey is the largest island in both Wales and the Irish Sea, and a bastion of the Welsh language. It is also home of the Urdd Derwyddon Môn the Anglesey Druid Order (ADO), founded by author Kristoffer Hughes in 1999.
Hughes is currently in the United States promoting The Celtic Tarot he helped create, and he took time to speak to us about that deck and the form of Druidry he teaches.
Angelsey was the seat of British Druidry in antiquity, until it was sacked at Julius Caesar’s command in 62. The ADO is not an attempt to reconstruct those ancient practices, about which little is known, but rather to build on a tradition of seeking to honor and emulate the first Druids.
Reimagining Druidry is practically a national hobby, to hear Hughes speak of it.
“Caesar felt he had to destroy the Druids because they wielded immense sociopolitical power,” Hughes explains. However, that destruction was not utter. By the sixth century bardic schools had emerged.
These were places where the ancient myths of Britain were re-imagined, he says. The original stories “were a snapshot in time,” when the “Romans were close,” but not yet in Wales. The new bards took those tales and retold them through the lens of their own contemporary experiences.
Another lens was added when the old tales were being written down, which began in the 1200s. While the myths were no longer being passed on only orally, they continued to be shaped by their tellers.
That’s what happened when a group of men formed the Anglesey Druidical Society in 1717. Hughes describes it as a “charitable group of wealthy men” who dressed in robes when they gathered, and who “tried to find an inherently British identity” which suited their Romantic-period sensibilities.
Taking seeds from all these different interpretations of Druidry, Hughes says that the purpose of the ADO is to “reestablish Anglesey as a seat of learning.”
Wales was fertile ground for this mission; events such as the National Eisteddfod, while cultural in nature, are presided over by Druids of a more secular nature. Hughes recalls that while his neighbors on Anglesey regarded the idea as a bit odd at first, they have largely come ’round to the idea that, “these are our Druids,” which he considers quite a coup.
Hughes is a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, finding no sense of conflict despite the fact that the ADO has differences from OBOD. Students at the ADO’s school must be in residence; as Hughes told John Beckett in 2014, that’s because it’s the only way to build a relationship with the Welsh gods.
“We could not fathom how one could be in relationship with Môn [the order’s patron] fully without actually being here, walking on her skin, and swimming in her waters.”
That local requirement is related to another important difference: honoring particular gods. “We’re Welsh Druids,” Hughes explains, tied to the “land, sea, and sky gods of natives mythologies. Did our ancestors worship them? That’s not really the point.”
These gods have changed their names and functions, he explains, “for the needs of the people.” Hughes’ own ancestors were likely among those ancient Druids who knew the old ways, but he stresses that then and now, “Druid” is what one does, rather than a true birthright.
Central to the teaching he offers through the school is expression through awen, the creative force; this is also what goes on at an eisteddfod, a festival of music and literature which stretches back to the 12th century.
He likes to point out that “awen” contains the English word “awe,” and chooses to connect them: “If you stop seeing it, you’ve become disenchanted.”
The tale of how Hughes came to offer a tarot deck through Llewellyn is fraught with magic in his telling. His first deck was a battered and used one he found in a book shop when he was 13 years old. “It felt like I was buying porn,” he says, based on the look the shopkeeper gave as he handed over 50 pence, but he got away with his treasure.
“I had not a clue what any of it meant,” but spent that first afternoon awash in the symbols while sheltering in a woodland den, the soft sounds of rain all about him. It was love at first sight, and set him on the path to becoming a “closet cabalist.”
Some 30 years later, with several published books under his belt, he learned about a tarot book being published through Llewellyn. He sent his contact there some questions, not realizing that he’d outed himself as someone knowledgeable in the subject.
Later that day, during a staff meeting the question was asked: who do we know who is rooted in Celtic lore, and also knows tarot well? It was the beginning of a three-year journey Hughes had not been planning, but nevertheless was thrilled to take.
The Celtic Tarot is based upon the Smith-Waite deck, and one of his priorities was not to trample over the subtle symbolism therein. Instead, he wanted to add a layer of Celtic myth over the top, in much the way Druidry is Wales has been built, each layer atop the last. If anything, he believes he’s helped bring out some of the original meaning, such as what’s in the numerology.
“I try to be kind to readers,” he says, such as adding in a bunch of flowers to signify which cabalistic path is represented therein.
Writing books and creating a tarot deck have allowed Hughes to travel the world, but he emanates the Welsh spirituality he seeks to promote wherever he ends up. The lyrical accent of his homeland comports with his open, welcoming spirit.
His personality is surely part of the success of the Anglesey Druid Order, members of which now express the value of service through a number of collaborative projects. Together with the National Woodland Trust they are creating a natural burial ground, for example.
And, together with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, they oversee solstice rituals twice a year which can draw up to 700 attendees.
It appears that the secularization of some Druidic ideals and customs may have helped preserve it on the island of Anglesey, but the reemergence of a sacred Druid order has nevertheless been embraced by its people. That may in part be due to the demeanor of Hughes himself, but it’s impossible to ignore that he and his fellow Druids are steeped in tradition rich enough to grow many forms of Druidry over the centuries.