When a druid isn't a druid

Dr Rowan Williams, the next Archbishop of Canterbury, has joined the Gorsedd of the Bards at the National Eisteddfod. He has been criticised for dabbling in paganism. But it's not quite like that.

The setting for the first meeting of the "druids" of the Gorsedd of the Bards? A mist-shrouded moor amid standing stones? A forest clearing by a mistletoe-wreathed ancient oak?

No. It was Primrose Hill, London.

From its birth in 1792, the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain - the white-cloaked organisation Dr Rowan Williams joined on Monday - has found itself confused with the pagan rites of druidism.

By joining the druid bards - which include the Queen, opera singer Bryn Terfel and Welsh rugby star Gareth Edwards - Dr Williams has been attacked for "dabbling" in a non-Christian faith.

But Dr Cathryn Charnell-White, an expert on the group's founder, Edward Williams, says: "There's no pagan link there at all."

"The Eisteddfod druids are Edward Williams's druids. Other druids stem more from the traditional or popular vision of druidism."

Ancient rites

The 10,000 druids who receive all the attention on mid-summer's day try to follow the religious beliefs of the Celts - which is not so easy, since in 500 BC details of the rituals were not written down.

Among the core beliefs of this druidism is that the soul is immortal. After a person dies, argue druids, their soul is transported to the Otherworld, only to come back again in another human body.

While Edward Williams borrowed some elements of druidism for the Gorsedd of Bards, he remained a committed Christian.

"We will reverence the piety of those who may be alarmed at the idea of Druidism (which they will be ready enough to call Paganism) being still alive in this Island," he wrote.

"But let them examine it a little, they will find that the Ancient British, Patriarchal Religion, is no more than that of Noah, Abraham or Job, inimical to Christianity. A man is no less a Christian for being a Druid, or a Druid for being a Christian."

Eclectic and eccentric

A self-educated Welsh stone mason, Williams found inspiration in Welsh poetry, agriculture and archaeology..

While putting "his own idiosyncratic spin" on Hindu and druid influences, Williams remained firm in his Christian beliefs and even helped foster Unitarianism in Wales, says Dr Charnell-White of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies.

While religious druids chose such esoteric names as Greywolf and Bobcat, Williams' chosen handle, Iolo Morganwg, translates as nothing more pagan than Ned of Glamorgan.

That he chose to stress his Welsh identity and language in this way points to the primary mission of the Gorsedd of Bards, to honour the literary achievements of Welsh poets and prose writers - and certainly not pagan gods.