It was Julius Caesar who famously reported in his book, The Battle for Gaul (c. 50 BC), that training to become a Druid took 20 years. Whether or not such training was in fact exactly 20 years may hint at something else. I think we might agree with Caesar that it took a long time. Three facets of that number are of continuing interest.
One is that the Druids had established the first national education system in the Western world. It was the longest education in the ancient world. Many years ago I read (in a source now forgotten) that the entire Western university system was founded upon the Druid school system. It is known that the ancient Bardic colleges survived in Scotland into the 18th Century. In my more recent reading, in Graham Robb’s The Discovery of Middle Earth (see my Reading resources site), he mentions the national education system, the geodetic sciences applied to the landscape, the yearly pan-Gallic conferences, the long-distance surveying system, the high-speed telegraph system across all of Gaul, and other features of Celtic Druid intelligence which became part of Celtic education. By the time Julius Caesar entered Gaul in the mid-first Century BC, Gaul was already organized into centralized governments that were in constant contact with each other, whether in peace or conflict due to shifting alliances.
Those qualities are in addition to what we know of Druid medical knowledge; their understanding of plants relative to ailments; their exceptional repute as eloquent, persuasive speakers in other nation states; their abilities in divination; their social status that could give them precedence over even kings; their singular devotion to literature (especially in Ireland); and their accurate descriptions of the known movements of earth and heavenly bodies. Reports by Greek and Roman writers and by early Christian theologians point to their philosophy and to their theology. No matter what their opinion of Druids, Celtic achievements were acknowledged.
Added to those accounts is the entire realm of sacred knowledge, of rituals wisdom and sacred education. That was not written down in order to preserve the sanctity of the wisdom itself. Hence, Druid education could be largely an oral project. They were literate, but they did not write down their sacred knowledge. Religious and such sacred natural studies were transmitted by hanging out with a known Druid. Education takes a long time via oral transmission, particularly when mere intellectual acquisition is only one facet. When wisdom is at stake, its inculcation into the human spirit is a lengthy endeavor.
Second, a suggestion has been made, though probably impossible to verify, that the 20 years represents about how long it takes to study the Metonic calendar. The Metonic calendar was known to the ancient world by at least the Second Century BC. It is a calendar that covers the cycles of the lunar phases, which lasts about 19 years. (One such calendar, made by pieces of regularly arranged, standing slabs of rock, is still visible at Chaco Canyon, NM.) The idea is that for a Druid to complete studies with personal observations of celestial knowledge, that study would ordinarily incorporate full awareness of the lunar phases; hence, about 20 years.
But third, based on our experience these days in learning animism and Druidry, I think the problem is simply that it takes a long time to piece the world together and to make comprehensive sense of its naturally occurring parts and relationships. For example, it’s one thing to say, “Yes, everything is sacred,” but it’s another to perceive that way from the heart and with any sort of consistent behavior in all aspects of one’s life and home. For an animist Druid, deity is immanent, here, present, in this life. Deity is not transcendent, not part of another world (or heaven) separate from this one. This, this, this is home. Here is awe, wonder, challenge, and the persistence of curiosity to explore every aspect of our home. The phrase “other worldly” would make no sense, except by way of intellectually comprehending some one else’s beliefs. And that shift in consciousness, beginning with curiosity, takes a long time. 20 years seems hardly enough time. Or perhaps it’s more than enough. Whatever….the careful crafting of consciousness relative to the land itself and to all that live on it and in relationship to it (such as winds, waters, the moon and sun, and so on), is an extended education in developing sacred-soul relationship.
The result, however, is a person who perceives and languages their experiences in non-dualistic, relational words and phrases. The result is a person who is entirely at home on the earth, who honors the earth as home and not as a bus stop to hang out on their way to some other destination post-death. Such an ethically aware person does not diminish one feature of creation to enhance another (such as devaluing the dark while cherishing the light–not even in matters of spirituality), but inquires after all aspects of creation to hold them all as inherently valuable simply because they exist and are integrated to everything else.
Sacredness, then, is not a religious application onto an inert field. Sacredness is a fundament of an awakened mind. Such an awakened person perceives that consciousness is inherent within all life, and thus he walks in a literally enchanted (that is, “minded”) universe. Sure, anyone can read about it and even accept its precepts, but only an apprentice or a practitioner can actually embody such wisdom and walk within it as much as she walks on the earth.
One of my students inhabits this awareness and is behaving accordingly. For Winter Solstice this year (2013), he will make his way to the East River and there on the border of land and water lay an offering to the newly lengthening light, so that when the new sun returns on that morning, he will have honored the turning of the seasons, honored the shift of the earth relative to the sun, welcomed back the sun towards coming warmth and renewal of visible life and abundance. He will have done, in other words, a prototypically animist act: on one liminal place (border of land and water), he greets another liminal boundary (dark and light) within the working of another (gravity of earth and solar system). He will have engaged that time-space transparency which holds the world together. In his consciousness and in his honoring, he invokes our animist ancestors and stands firmly in that tradition.
It is that kind of creative awareness that sometimes takes 20 years to learn. Some, like this young student, are quick learners. On the other hand, he has been practicing his relationship to the land most of his life and he can point to specifics. He came to his apprenticeship with that awareness already woven into his consciousness.
Imagine a world in which all of our children are woven into the land from birth.