Ellen is a druid, an herbalist, and a prolific author. She runs the Willow’s Grove shop through her website. She also runs a course in herbalism for those wanting to learn the marvellous powers of plants. I was fascinated to find out more about this incredibly busy and talented woman. Ellen was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.
Mabh Savage: Tell us a bit about your upcoming book A Legacy of Druids. How did it come about? What drove you to write this book?
Ellen Evert Hopman: I have been a Druid officially since 1984, which was the year I joined ADF which is an Indo-European Druid Order. I received my “Second Circle” initiation from Isaac Bonewits and then went on to co-found The Henge of Keltria, a Celtic Druid Order. I was Vice President there for nine years and I am a Keltrian “Ring of the Oak” (which is basically a “third degree” for those who think in Wiccan terms). Along the way I kept running Groves, initiating Druids, studying Celtic history and plant lore and writing books.
One of those books is called Being a Pagan – Druids, Wiccans and Witches Today, which is a book of interviews with Pagan leaders from across the USA. The Huffington Post named it one of twenty-seven essential books on Paganism and I know of at least one comparative religion class that used the book as a text for understanding the Pagan religions of today.
I had the idea that a follow up volume about Druids would be logical, so when my father died and I had a very small inheritance, I used the funds to travel to Britain and Ireland. I had a strong desire to see what Druids on the other side of the pond were up to. I wanted to see how British Druids were the same or different from American ones, since I was teaching other Druids and writing about Druids and answering people’s questions.
Despite the importance of that book in terms of illuminating our path, the sales for “Being a Pagan” were not that robust compared to my other books, so I kind of lost interest in publishing the follow-up Druid material. I wondered if there were enough people who would want to read it, to justify the hard work of seeing it published. After hand typing everything from audio tapes I basically sat on the Druid interviews for almost twenty years.
In the meantime, I went on to found the Whiteoak mailing list and then co-founded The Order of Whiteoak which is a Celtic Reconstructionist Druid Order. I was co-Chief there for five years and initiated a bunch of folks and kept writing other Pagan and Druid books; both fiction and non-fiction.
Then the Gods came along and hit me on the head as they often do. I woke up one morning with a sudden determination to get the Druid interviews out to the general public. I asked Philip Carr-Gomm who I should send the manuscript to and he said “Moon Books”. So I finally sent them the typed interviews and the book was accepted within twenty-four hours.
MS: Who is the book aimed at? Who will get the most out of it?
EEH: I think that Druids here and in Britain and Canada will be fascinated by the material because it shows the amazing diversity of thought and opinions held by the elders of our tradition. I suspect that most Pagans know very little about Druidism and this would be a very rich introduction to the faith for them. Religion scholars and those teaching comparative religion should find it a basic text for understanding the breadth of Druidism as it is practiced in the world.
Another aspect of the book is the descriptions of how people came to be Druids; what thoughts and impulses motivated them and how they were raised as children. Sociologists and students of modern culture will find a gold mine in there.
MS: What did you enjoy most about putting this book together?
EEH: I was pleasantly surprised by the graciousness and willingness of Druid elders and teachers to speak with me. I had a vague sense even then that the work was historic; I don’t think anyone has quite done this before. Over time the work has become even more valuable since a number of the persons interviewed have now crossed the veil; Isaac Bonewits, Lady Olivia Robertson, Tim Sebastian and most recently Septimus Myriddin Bron. These are probably the very last interviews anyone will see with them.
MS: You also have an upcoming book about medicinal plants. Is this a passion of yours? How did this start?
EEH: My newest herbal is called Secret Medicines from Your Garden. I have been teaching and practicing herbalism since 1983. herbalism is an ancient Druidic calling – in the Whiteoak Druid tradition everyone who is an initiate must “declare a major”, that is swear to master a traditional skill and pass it along to future generations. To that end I have written a number of books on Celtic herb lore; A Druid’s herbal for the Sacred Earth Year, A Druid’s herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine, and Scottish herbs and Fairy Lore. I also penned a children’s herbal called Walking the World in Wonder – A Children’s herbal which is a book for parents and teachers to teach herbalism to kids. Home schoolers really like it. Another book that is geared to beginning herbalists is Secret Medicines of Your Kitchen which is about making home remedies from foods, herbs and spices already in your home.
So, yes, this is a passion of mine. I wrote in depth about how it all started in Secret Medicines from Your Garden but basically I had a mystical experience when I was on a religious retreat in Assisi, Italy. A voice told me I was supposed to be working with plants and I believed it.
MS: Do you have your own herb garden?
EEH: I live in an oak forest (perfect place for a Druid!) so there is not much sunlight here, except in a narrow strip around the house. I do grow a few herbs; angelica, comfrey, echinacea, blood root, nettles, elderberries, raspberries and blackberries, but most of what I use I wild craft. Of course I am surrounded by trees and I often use them for medicines and food; pines, hawthorn, birch, oak, and maple.
I have another book that is currently out of print called Tree Medicine Tree Magic. That was my first book, written while I was in grad school. When I first moved to New England I was astounded by the short growing season and I couldn’t imagine how the Native Americans or the settlers survived here with fresh greens available for only a few months of the year. Then it dawned on me that they must have been eating the trees. I looked around for a book that would show me how to do that, and even though I was working in a library at the time (in the early 1980s) I couldn’t find such a book. So I made a supreme leap of illogic and decided I had to write it myself! I had no training as a writer but that never stopped me – I just plunged in and, being me, injected magical and spiritual lore along with the herbal basics of how to use trees for food and medicine. I think I must have been a teacher or a writer in a past life.
MS: You’ve written numerous books over the years. How do you find the time?
EEH: It’s not easy. My brother recently asked me why I do this when I have an education and could be making a lot more money. I said; “Because I can’t not do it” which he accepted as a perfectly valid response. He is a trained musician after all.
The way I have structured my life is to always work part time at a “day job” and teach on weekends. The rest of the time I write. As you know authors generally make very little, as do Druids and herbalists. That has meant a life of poverty but it has been an interesting life and I do live in a beautiful part of the world, in a forest, so who am I to complain?
MS: What inspires you as a writer? Is there a particular place, or time of year, or the company of certain people?
EEH: I have been churning out books since the mid-1980s. I never know what is going to inspire the next one. For example, I wrote a trilogy of Druidic novels; Priestess of the Forest – A Druid Journey, The Druid Isle, and Priestess of the Fire Temple – A Druid’s Tale. I started writing these fictional tales of Iron Age Ireland and Scotland because each time I came back from my travels I was brimming over with ideas about certain ancient sacred sites and how they might have been used.
I also wanted to find a painless way to teach Druid spirituality to beginners who didn’t necessarily want to delve into intense scholarship (we Druids have always been and still are intellectuals, anyone who is seriously dedicated to this path is going to do a serious amount of reading and scholarship).
The third novel happened because I read just one sentence in a history book. It said that Saint Brighid of Kildare’s fire temple was based on an “earlier Pagan model”. No more details were given. The whole book came out of my visions of that Pagan temple and my personal experiences at Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne) in Ireland.
I usually wake up at five AM with a vision of the structure of a book and then all I have to do is go and write it. That’s how it happens for me.
MS: What first drew you towards Druidry?
EEH: I was born in Austria, in the Hallstatt, which many believe to be the place that Celtic culture first emerged. The culture was already around in other places but it wasn’t until the Celts were mining salt in the Hallstatt that they had enough wealth to commission distinctive jewellery, weapons and so on.
When I was a baby there were a lot of archaeological digs going on in the area and my mother, who was an artist, was fascinated by what they were finding. She used to tell me about the Celts with such reverence. I thought everyone grew up hearing about the Celts so I thought nothing of it. I tucked it all away in my memory and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties and I heard Irish Celtic music for the first time and then heard about Druids that it all came rushing back. I have been a Druid ever since.
MS: What is the role of the Druid in our modern world?
EEH: If you read the new book A Legacy of Druids you will quickly learn that there is no one role for a Druid in the modern world. Ask any Druid what they think and you will get a different answer. But at our core we all feel an intense mystical relationship with the Earth and her seasons.
In ancient times Druids were the intellectuals of the tribes, the “people of arts” or “Aes Dana”. For me the word “Druid” means “an expert”.
Druids were the teachers of the children of the nobility, the lawyers, judges, ambassadors, genealogists, history keepers, doctors, herbalists, sacred singers, philosophers, magicians, poets, seers, harpers, sacred singers, and public ritualists for the tribes. To be a “Druid” was to perform a tribal function. The idea of a “solitary Druid” makes little sense in that context. The Druid served the tribe. Every ruler had to have a Druid at their side because the Druids knew the laws and precedents and could advise the king or queen who was basically trained as a warrior and then elected or elevated to the office.
It bothers me when someone reads one book and then declares themselves “a Druid”. Or says they “love trees” so they are a Druid. Or they had an Irish grandmother that makes them “a Druid”. I think that is very disrespectful to the memory of the ancient Bards and poets and Druids who mastered the mysteries and arts. It also bothers me when people assume the Druids “were all men”. We have plenty of evidence for female Druids and female poets. I wrote an article about that called “Female Druids”.
Obviously we can’t all be advisors to the nobility as we were in times past. Druids were intimately involved in the politics of the tribes which is a major reason the Romans took such pains to try and wipe them out. I think it’s important for Druids of today to be well educated about the political systems of the countries they find themselves living in and to be a voice for justice; for the animals, for the land and for the people.
MS: And what is your role as Arch Druid? What does this entail?
EEH: At the moment I am Arch Druid of a teaching Grove within Whiteoak called “Tribe of the Oak”. The Grove is not public; it is somewhat hidden because everyone in it is a serious student working towards initiation. My goal is to train a bunch of competent Druids so they can in turn keep training other Druids and keep the tradition alive.
Our system is very different from most of the British Orders. We are very Irish based and we use a marvellous collection of seventh century Irish writings to illuminate our studies. We treasure the oldest documents because they are probably the closest we will get to what Druids of the past were actually teaching and saying.
Before the seventh century those writings would have been passed down orally. We owe a great debt to the patient monks and scribes who transcribed the stories but we sometimes have a hard time pulling out the Christian bias, the additions and deletions they left in their accounts. We occasionally have to use our “Imbas” or poetic imagination to re-Paganize the material.
We also read the Upanishads, the Rig Veda and other Indo-European wisdom texts, to approximate what Druids of the past were teaching. Druidism and Hinduism both come from the same proto-Vedic roots.
MS: You’ve been on TV and Radio several times. How do you think the media’s perception of Druidry and Paganism has changed in recent times?
EEH: I can’t speak for Britain but here in the USA Druids are still not on the radar of the popular culture. For example, I am on a Facebook list that consists of historians and archaeologists and people who study ancient religions, philosophies and civilizations. There are almost nine thousand people on that list. There are only two Druids and one of the list members expressed surprise when I mentioned I was one, saying they had never met one before. There are three other Pagans there and that’s it, as far as I know. So we are still hiding in plain sight.
The Witch hysteria seems to have calmed down a bit in the USA, especially since Witches and Vampires have become a big facet of contemporary entertainment. I think hard core Fundamentalists are still afraid of Witches but they seem to be afraid of everybody (which is why they love guns so much…but I digress).
In other places like Saudi Arabia and Africa men, women and children are still being burned, hung or stoned to death for being “Witches”. So I guess the West has evolved, somewhat.
MS: You’re qualified in mental health counselling, which I imagine can be challenging at times. Do you think Druids or Pagans often shy away from traditional mental health care, as it often fails to take their spiritual leanings seriously?
EEH: Many years ago Green Egg magazine did a reader’s poll to find out what the dominant professions of Pagans were and how educated we might be. It turned out we were far more educated than the general public and the most popular professions among us were teacher, therapist and computer programmer.
I don’t think that educated people shy away from therapy if they really need it. There are so many options now that there is a wealth of therapeutic practices to choose from. I think the biggest problem for us is people relying on themselves or their Coven mates or Pagan clergy instead of going to a trained professional just because they think their magical tradition has everything covered.
I recently heard of a case where a person had a dream that they thought must be coming from the Gods. They thought the Gods were telling them to sell their house and they “saw” the house they would find in exchange. Well, they never got the new house and now the old one is gone too and they have lost their faith as a result because they think the Gods must have abused them or tricked them.
Any mental health counsellor who was trained in dream interpretation could have walked them through that dream to determine what it was really trying to tell them. As a Druid I know that there are experts in every field and we should take advantage of that. If we don’t like a particular therapist or doctor we can always move on and find another one.
MS: What is your next writing project?
EEH: Right now I am “between books” which is always an interestingly fallow place. I don’t know what the next book project will be. I am currently collaborating with a script writer and an actress (with real Hollywood creds), on a possible film project based on the novel “Priestess of the Forest”. It’s only in the germination phase at the moment so stay tuned.
I just spent the past year working a day job, teaching herbs classes and Druid students, travelling hither and yon to speak, and simultaneously editing two books. Then I got suddenly laid off after being at the same job for almost ten years. I am finally getting some sleep!
MS: You sell elixirs and other items. What’s your most popular product?
EEH: This year I started making an herbal salve that I now sell in five local health food stores and coops. That began when I was invited to teach in California. I am from Massachusetts which has completely different flora so how was I supposed to teach herbalism to Californians? I was at a loss until I looked up which tribe was native to the area and it was the Pomo. Then I looked up what herbs they used traditionally for skin conditions. I discovered that they used herbs like redwood, cedar and bay laurel. So I concocted a wonderful formula using native California plants and taught the locals in northern California how to make the salve. It’s a beautiful green ointment that I call “Green Goddess Goo”. I am not shipping it out too much because the glass jars occasionally break. But folks in my area love it. It is soothing to the skin. I have a few herbalists in California who send me the fresh plants and then I make the salve.
Besides that, what I sell the most of are my books. Folks can order them from me and get a signed copy with a personal note from www.elleneverthopman.com I also have a ‘Moonthly’ blog on that website where I recap the past month’s archaeology, book, religion, Pagan, Druid, herb, nature, political and ethical news.
MS: And finally, what are you looking forward to most in 2016?
EEH: I and my fellow Druids are planning a Druid camp in Massachusetts this summer which is exciting. I would like to see a true Progressive like Bernie Sanders get elected president of the USA. And I look forward to the Gods handing me a new job that will nourish my spirit (and my pocket book!).
If anyone wants to produce a film about Iron Age Druids, with strong female characters and deep Pagan spirituality, please let me know.
I hope this year brings peace, health, prosperity and happiness to everyone who reads this. Thank you for asking.