One of my primary introductions to Druidry was from an online course run by the Order of the Mithral Star (OMS) and Ellis ‘Sybok’ Arseneau. The order is an aspect of the ‘Reformed Druid Movement’ which began in 1963 at Carleton College in Northfield, MN USA with a group who called themselves the RDNA or Reformed Druids of North America, a protest group started in opposition to orthodox religious requirements by the university. By 1980 the movement had grown to include 10 groves throughout the USA, and one key member Isaac Bonewitz broke away to form a new organization which he called ‘Ar nDraiocht Fein’ (ADF) or Our Own Druidry. This modern pagan movement which pursued a Celtic spirituality splintered once again into the ‘Henge of Keltria’ creating yet another contemporary aspect of Druidism. The Order of the Mithral Star is very much like these modern, alternative groups seeking a definable Celtic, Druidic spiritual path, although the OMS grew out of an institution called CAW or the Church of All-Worlds.
As part of the modern neo-pagan movement OMS and Ellis Arseneau believe that no-one really knows what the ancient Druids did, because there are no written records, some of their activities can be surmised from archeological records, many of the modern interpretations of Druidry are educated guesses based on mythological readings, fantasy and the appropriation of practices from varied pre-Christian cultures. Arseneau expresses the maxim “We’re doing religion the old fashioned way, we’re making it up as we go along.” In essence, building a tradition based on modern relative experience, with the argument that all religious movements are initially based on myth and fantasy.
In the first lesson Arseneau quotes Professor Ronald Hutton, a historian at Bristol University (UK);
“All that we know about the Druids is that they were the most highly respected magical practitioners and spiritual experts of the tribes of northwest Europe. The trouble is that we don’t have a single word of writing left by a Druid, and we don’t have a single archeological artifact that everyone agrees is associated with the Druids. We know so little about them in fact that they are almost legendary characters.”
The purpose of this paper is to discover whether this really is true. Can the Druid be defined and explored within an impartial historical context, what was their role in, and what did they contribute to Celtic society, and what sources are available for this research?
Many of the leading and active authorities on the subject define druidry within an evolutionary process. Philip Carr-Gomm (Chief Druid of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids ‘OBOD’) classifies four developmental stages of Druidry; proto-Druidry, an animistic and shamanic phase of the Paleolithic age. The classical, between 400 BCE and 100 CE when Greek and Roman authoritative writer documented the Druids and Celtic/Gallic life and customs. Underground Druidry, the continuance of certain pagan practices opposed to christianisation and conversion and a revival phase in the 18th century, beginning with John Toland (1670-1722) and continuing to the present in various forms. Carr-Gomm emphasizes Druidry as a system that has constantly evolved and changed over time, that its principle dynamic was communion with nature and understanding the relationship between the ‘God/ess’ source, the individual self and the soul with respect to the earth, and that it is influenced by other great classical (mystery) traditions. In ‘Touchstone’ magazine, June 1997, he says:
“Our task is not to try to recreate a Druidry that existed thousands of years ago, but instead to respond to the source and interpret it for today. If only we can do this, the gap between ancient Druids and modern one disappears.”
The Druidry of Philip Carr-Gomm is essentially a spiritual path, by which revelation comes through a series of initiations (or the essential dynamic of their correspondence course in Druidry). The goal of this path is to connect the individual soul with the external environment; the earth, sky, moon, stars, elements, seasons, animals, plants, and tree’s. The vehicle used to enable this connection with the natural world and the ‘Divine Source’ is an eightfold cycle or series of festivals, each with specific and symbolic ceremonies. Within OBOD the Druid is defined as a ‘spiritual-ecologist.’
Isaac Bonewitz (of the ADF) views Druids as the intelligentsia and religious clergy of the Celts, part of a greater Paleo-pagan culture, which also includes the Slavic, Baltic, Germanic, Aryan and Vedic cultures. He divides the development of Druidry into three interlocking phases: an Indo-European Paleo-Paganism (from 4000 BCE) where a common Indo-European culture has a base community or ‘mother-culture’ in the region of the north-west Black Sea and undergoes a series of migrations (over centuries) to various parts of the world, yet still retaining identifiable Indo-European characteristics (such as similarities in language, cosmology and ritual.) This culture, with bronze forged implements, which we recognize as ‘Celtic’ pushes westwards to dominate the pre-existing Neolithic (stone-age) communities, Meso-Paganism from 1245 to the 20th century. Although Bonewitz states that by 1000 CE the Druids were completely wiped (or appear to have vanished)out by the Romans and later Christians, he leans towards the theory that a small group of ‘underground’ Druids formed a brotherhood which they called ‘Mount Haemus Grove’ in the vicinity of Oxford University in 1245. Bonewitz mentions several reformers in the modern druid movement, John Aubrey (1659), who initially formed a theoretical connection between the Stonhenge monument and Druidic ritual at midsummer, John Toland (1694), who formed the UDB or Universal Druid Bond and wrote a history of the Druids, William Stuckeley (1717), Henry Rowlands (1723), Jean Martin (1727), Henry Hurle (1781) who formed the AOD or Ancient Order of Druids, Thomas Jones (1789) who organized the first Bardic gathering or Eistefodd, and Edward Williams or Iolo Morganwg (1792). Bonewitz’s last phase he terms Neo-Pagan, or the reform movement of Druidry (or Neo-Druidry), which traces the formation of several modern Druid groups such as Ar n’Draiocht Fein (or ADF), The Henge of Keltria and The Insular Order of Druids.
In Terms of defining the Druid, Bonewitz concludes that they were the clergy of an Indo-European culture, the intelligentsia of that culture, being poets, musicians, historians, astrologers, geneologists, judges, diviners, and religious leaders, and Druids were part of a caste system (which in some form is still in operation in India today) which included the ruling monarchy, the clergy and intelligensia, warriors, artisans and outsiders.
Brendan ‘Cathbad’ Myers, a lesser known scholar of Druidism has evolved a sharper and distinctive definition of the Druid, based on his research in classical literature, archeology and the mythological cycles:
“A Druid is a professional invigilator of living spiritual mysteries as expressed by Celtic cultural forms.”
For Myers, the role and definition of the Druid comes from the society in which he/she existed, they are inseparable. A careful and methodical study of Celtic society as it existed, using the above mentioned (three principle) sources will reveal the nature of the Druid.
Miranda Green (Author of ‘The World of The Druids’) takes a more academically rigid and detached approach to Celtic and Druid history, based on sound principles of referenced research. Her sources of information are strictly derived from historical documents, archeology and previously published reliable research papers. Green covers five broad phases; the archeological, classical, missionary/Christian phase, renaissance and modern. Green describes the earliest evidence of a Celtic culture is at Hallstatt. The emergence of an Iron age (750-500 BCE) culture called ‘La Tene’ (after artifacts found at Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland). Green states that although there is no literary evidence for the existence of a Druidical priesthood at this time, the fact that Classical writers recorded them and their practices later, does not exclude the notion that they existed within the La Tene culture. Green charts the European pre-history, where evidence of Bronze age (1200-1300 BCE) and Iron age communities suggest hierarchal societies with ceremonial structures and organized religions. The Classical period where Greek and Roman writers expressed observations on Celtic, Gallic and Druid life, such as Strabo, Diodorus, Siculus, Julius Caesar, Timaeus and Herodutus. Then the missionary phase, between the persecution of the Druids by Roman forces (form the texts of Seutonius, Tacitus and Pliny), to the wholesale indoctrination and conversion to Christianity in Western Europe. Clashes and struggles recorded in vernacular writings between missionaries and Druids. Green’s assessment of the Druid renaissance is one that combines romanticism. Idealism and borrowings from classical sources between the 17th and 19th centuries. Green records the serious, misinformed, academic, archeological, religious, artistic and eccentric contributions to the Druid revival. Finally Green covers the modern Neo-Pagan movement, where Druidry, in part is classified with other revivalist faiths such as Wicca, Shamanism and Asatru, however she defines the Druid movement as nature/earth focused with strong links between the present and remote past, exhibiting a cyclical nature.
A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE PALEOLITHIC ERA AND EVIDENCE OF DRUIDIC PRACTISES WITHIN ARCHEOLOGICAL REMAINS OF CULTURES IN THAT TIME-FRAME
The very earliest notions of a Druidical (or Celtic) presence are placed in the last stages of the Paleolithic era by Philip Carr-Gomm, at the end of the last ice age approximately 35.000 BCE. This stage is termed by modern practicing scholars paleo-paganism or proto-Druidism, and typified not by organized religious practices but rather a primal form of spiritual animism or shamanic. The core structure of human communities or tribes at this time were the basic family unit, perhaps a form of extended family. Primary activities involved hunting, food gathering, procreation and basic survival (in what must have been an extremely hostile environment). It is at this stage that tool making developed into a complex art, the intelligence behind the recognition of an object as a suitable form for affecting a desired function, together with the appreciation for form and function is confirmation of a developing human logic, understanding the environment and the search for possibilities to enable successful development. It is in this era we find the first archeological evidence of artistic activity, sites discovered in 1940 at Lascaux (Dordogne) in France, the cave of Addaura, Monte Pelligrino (Palermo) Italy and at La Magdelaine cave, Penne (Tarne) France show a variety of paintings, engravings and rock carvings dating between 15.000 to 10.000 BCE. Images of animals, incised, painted, sculpted of deer, bison, horses and cattle, produced as part of magical hunting rituals (to ensure success?). It is suggested that the superimposition of certain images (of animals) reflects the inability to distinguish between the image and the reality, that overall the appreciation of the environment is animistic in the sense that everything is equally sacred. As a whole the creation of images, the notion of grasping, possessing and killing the ‘vital spirit’ is wholly connected to a ritual process. The animal is of no consequence after death, hence superimposition. Other samples of cave art feature fertility and dance rituals. It has been suggested that the dance is the earliest form of artistic expression, the human inspired or moved by a transcendent power, an expression of his role in the environment and an emotional desire to connect with unseen divine forces. Perhaps the most famous depiction of the synthesis between dance, spiritual expression and primitive belief systems is the so called ‘masked sorcerer’ at Les Tres Freres at Arriege in France, described and interpreted by Maria-Gabriele Woslen:
“Prehistoric cave paintings show man clothed in animal skins and masks, dancing and celebrating the animals strength, following his prey and appeasing the animal spirit when he had killed it. Vestiges of such ancient ritual behavior may still be observed in the ceremonies of the North American Indians”
The increasingly sophisticated appreciation for artistic form extended to the production of small sculpted objects, carved using flint tools, figurines made from mammoth ivory (the Vogelherd cave, Germany circa 28.000 BCE) the famous ‘Venus of Willendorf’ a fertility figure from Austria circa 25-20.000 BCE, bison carved from reindeer horn at La Madeleine near Les Eyzies (Dordogne, France circa 15-10.000 BCE). Another aspect of pre-historic spiritual life was created and carved in the form of beads, an undeniable desire for self adornment, decoration and expression. Beads have an elaborate structure of symbolism; ritualistic, ceremonial and magical, and thus show evidence of a developing notion of spirituality. At the Grotte du Renne cave in Arc sur Cure, France, a cache of beads was found, carved, grooved and notched teeth of fox, hyena, wolf, reindeer, bear, marmot for hanging on a necklace circa 31.000 BCE. According to Lois Sherr Dubin (author of ‘A history of beads’), the beads are created to cope with a hazardous environment, self conscious expressions of prowess in hunting, symbolic of a need for ‘spiritual assistance’, obtaining necessary resources and talismanic; the by-product of hunting. The Paleolithic era could therefore seen as an environment where the roots of a Celtic spirituality and cosmology first developed, a progressive process to establish communities and relationships with the seen and unseen world, nature and natural forces, creating tools and language in preparation for the ‘Neolithic’ revolution. Celtic jewelry is one form in which we can trace the establishment and subsequent continuation of practices formed in the Paleolithic era, Tessa Murdoch comments:
“The selection of materials chosen for amulets was very important, amongst the Celts, for instance, the boar was admired for its strength and ferocity, by wearing a tusk from the animal it was hoped that these qualities would be transmitted to the wearer. Their natural crescent shape, resembling the moon, may have increased the tusk’s amuletic properties”
Although there is nor direct, specific or definitive evidence for the existence of a druidic or shamanic practice amongst the Celts, recent archeological finds suggest practices which bear similarities (to shamanic practices) and indicate a thread of continuation from the Paleolithic era; men assuming the forms of animals in order to enter into a spiritual connection occur in images depicted on the Gundestrop cauldron. At Neuvy-en-Sullias on the river Loire in France a horde of 1st century BCE bronzes were recently discovered, a statuette of a boar, a stag and a horse dedicated to a God called Rodobius, human figurines include dancers, musicians and what may possibly be a representation of a Druid priest. A 4th century discovery of red deer antlers designed to be worn as a headdress establishes links with Paleolithic practices. The wearing of golden torcs is also well documented amongst Celts (Polybius, and Dio Cassius). The golden torc found at Snettisham, Norfolk from the early 1st century BCE is a good example; the Cernussos type figure found on the Gundestrop cauldron is pictured wearing a torc together with an antler headdress, interpreted by Miranda Green as a shaman communicating with a spirit world.
THE NEOLITHIC REVOLUTION, CELTIC COMMUNITIES AND DRUIDS
The Neolithic revolution began in the Near East approximately 8000 BCE. Some of the earliest examples of Neolithic activity are at Jericho in Jordan (plastered skulls-painted). The Neolithic people are characterized by the cultivation of crops as grains for food, the domestication of animals, the establishment of food supplies, communities, tribal discipline, new crafts and inventions including pottery, weaving and spinning, architectural constructions in wood, brick and stone. There is little evidence of the spiritual condition of Neolithic humans, but in the change from the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer to organized husbandry we must recognize also a profound change in the human appreciation of themselves and their relationship to the world. From Catal Huyuk in Anatolia circa 6000 BCE we find houses and shrines with specific worship patterns attached in the form of ‘fertility Goddesses. To Cernavoda in Romania circa 5000 BCE the progress of the Neolithic took a slower pace in Western Europe. In the West the Neolithic is characterized by the construction of stone sculpture, Stonehenge on Salisbury plain is dated to 2000 BCE with religious functions attached, dolmens or tombs indicate an awareness of the spiritual aspects of death, cromlechs and religious observances. Ross Nichols links the construction of Stonehenge to the Druids. At Paspardo in the Camonica valley in Northern Italy there is rock art dating from the late Neolithic to the end of the Iron age circa 150 BCE, the Camunian tribal religion is expressed here in symbols of the sun and stag which they appeared to have venerated. The specific carving of most interest with respect to this study is one which combines a composite image of a man wearing antlers, a torc with a dagger and a sun symbol, clearly a representation either of the God Cernussos or a tribal shamanic figure. It is the opinion of Miranda Green that these images belong to a proto-celtic phase of the bronze age (3000 to 1000 BCE). Further (important physical) evidence of Neolithic spirituality was discovered in 1991, in the Austrian Alps near a melting glacier the body of a man was discovered dating from circa 5000 BCE. The man was nicknamed ‘Otzi’ the Iceman, he had been frozen, mummified and preserved in the ice, perhaps originally caught in a blizzard as he attempted a mountain crossing. Otzi is tattooed, wears a stone disc around his neck on a leather thong and carries dried medicinal mushrooms. By comparing Otzi with other discoveries of bodies from the Iron age, such as Lindow man (discovered in 1984) we can build up a picture of the development of faith systems amongst tribes in Europe. Whilst there can be no unequivocal evidence for the existence of Druids in the Neolithic age and that all conclusions are purely speculative, we can assume that Druids existed in some ‘shamanic’ form. In realizing any connection between the Druids and Paleo-Neolithic forms of worship or ritual I consider Eliade’s view that;
“(The) dialectic of the sacred tends indefinitely to repeat a series of archetypes, so that a hierophany realized at a certain historical moment is structurally equivelant to a hierophany a thousand years earlier……….in the most elementary hierophany everything is declared. The manifestation of the sacred in a stone or a tree is neither less mysterious nor less noble than its manifestation in a God, the process of sacralizing reality is the same; the forms taken by the process in man’s religious conciousness differ”.
The ritual overrides the label or identity of the individual who initiates the performance, whether we choose to discriminate between shaman, Druid, Priest, or ‘Holy-man is irrelevant. Ross Nichols points out the mythic ‘unknown’ origins of Druidry;
“Druidry is the Western form of an ancient universal philosophy, culture or religion from the days of early man”.
This early stage of Druidry is characterized by the pagan Celtic belief in an ‘all encompassing’ divine presence in the landscape/environment, a spirit or spirits which permeate, infuse or represent the hidden mechanics behind the seen world. This belief is purely animistic and represents the link between the Paleolithic, the Neolithic, the Stone age to the Classical period. The question of whether the Druids were shamans or if they actually existed in the name by which they eventually became known is purely linguistic, Shaman is a term used by Siberian tribes (the Evenk, Even, Nanay, Orochi and Udegay) in Russia to denote a tribal priest and actually means ‘The ecstatic one’. The ultimate origin of the term is the Sanskrit srama, meaning ‘religious exercise’ and in Pali, Samana is a Buddhist monk. The Gaelic term may be asarlaiocht or ritual magic or asarlai meaning sorcerer. The conclusion drawn by me is that individuals in Celtic society were elected, volunteered or chosen as spiritual leaders, they performed sacred rituals in order to make connections with a landscape (physical and spiritual) that they perceived as suffused with living energy.
THE CLASSICAL PHASE OF DRUIDRY
The Classical phase of Druidry is defined as written evidence and observations of Celtic society and the Druids by Greek and roman authorities (documents written in the Classical languages of Latin and Greek). Some of these records no longer exist but are mentioned and quoted by later writers. The earliest known references to the Celtic tribal community were by Hecataeus of Miletus in the 6th century BCE. Herodotus observed a tribe living in the area of the Danube in the 5th century BCE and named them ‘Keltoi’, a Greek term meaning stranger. The earliest literature to mention the Druids specifically may have been Timaeus circa 450-350 BCE, then Posidonus circa 135-50 BCE who was a Greek philosopher resident in Syria but who traveled extensively in Gaul. The bulk of Classical information about the Druids are Roman, from the 1st century BCE onwards to the 3rd century CE. The most important source of reference is Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) who wrote extensively on the Gaul’s and Druids in his memoirs ‘The Gallic Wars’. Cicero, circa 50-60 BCE, wrote of Divitiacus, the Gaulish Druid in Rome.
As the Roman empire expanded across Western Europe, conquering and occupying those lands principally inhabited by Celtic people, the Roman authorities naturally recorded their observations of the people they subjugated, for several reasons, to maintain their power and control through understanding and knowledge. We learn from Roman sources that the Druids never wrote anything down, but preferred memorization (a practice common amongst nomadic tribes), Julius Caesar comments in his Gallic Wars (VI-14);
“They (the Druids) consider it improper to entrust their studies to writing………I think they established this practice for two reasons, because they were unwilling, first, that their system of training should be bruited abroad among the common people, and second, that the student should rely on the written word and neglect the exercise of his memory. It is normal experience that the help of the written word causes a loss of diligence in memorizing by heart……... they use the Greek alphabet in nearly everything else, in their public and private accounts”
When the sources are viewed as a totality, the image constructed of the Druid’s role in Celtic society is both intriguing, opinionated, sometimes contradictory but on the whole positive;
Druid’s held power over and maintained social order in Gaulish/Celtic society (Caesar), were Judges and arbitrators (at the Carnutian assembly of Druid’s), rulers, chieftains and/or politicians (Diviaticus the Aeduan chieftain; Cicero), healers, herbalists and magicians (Pliny, Hippolytus, Diogenes), educators, religious doctrinarians and a tax exempt professional class, not obliged to serve in war (Caesar), were classed into Bards (poets/musicians), Vates and Druids (Strabo), philosophers (Diodorus), magistri sapientae or ‘masters of wisdom’ (Pomponius Mela), had a lofty intellect, investigators of things secret and sublime (Ammianus, quoting 1st century Timagenes), the Druidic philosophy compares with the great civilizations of Egypt, Persia and India (Dio Chrysostom), astrologers (Pomponius Mela), capable of reckoning time by the moon, capable of mathematical calendrical calculation (Caesar, Pliny), capable of Pythagorean reckoning and calculation (Hippolytus), rhetoricians and orators (Ausonius). Many scholars of Druidism and the Celts regard the classical sources of information as dubious, that many of the writers are acting as hostile witnesses in their capacity as invaders and colonialists. It is clear that many of the comments on the Druids and Celtic society which appear in the reign of Claudius (who officially banned the practice of Druidry) are based on propaganda type motives.
POSSIBLE MEANINGS OF THE TERM ‘DRUID’
The term ‘Druid’ has a varied etymology, and is the cause of much debate amongst scholars. The earliest generation of Celtic scholars regarded Druidism as a ‘cult of the oak’, basing their assumptions partly on the testimony of Pliny the Elder;
“The Druids, so their magicians are called, hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe (Viscum album) and the tree (the oak – Quercus robur) that bears it, But they chose groves formed of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, they never perform any of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it; so that it seems probable that the priests derived their name from the Greek word for that tree.” Pliny, Natural History XVI. 95
In Greek the term for the tree (oak) is druas, from drus and extended to describe a nymph or spirit of that tree, termed ‘Dryad’. The Dryad was an oracular priestess, of Artemis, a cult moon Goddess. In the Ogam alphabet the oak (known as Duir) is the seventh letter, recognized as a chieftain tree in the Book of Ballymote, the King of the woodland. The Gaelic name duir reflects both the practical and magical nature of the wood itself. The oak is connected to the Gaelic God of thunder Taranis, and to the supreme God of Irish-Celtic mythology The Dagda, who owns a harp named Dur-da-Bla (the Oak of Two Blossoms). There are many examples and much evidence for Druidical oak groves; On the Isle of Skye in Scotland and oak grove near Loch Siant was held sacred.
THE DRUID IN VERNACULAR, INSULAR AND MYTHOLOGICAL TRADITION
A wealth of information may be gathered from the analysis of vernacular texts. These manuscripts were written not in the classical languages (of Latin or Greek) but the common insular Gaelic of Britian, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The majority of these manuscripts primarily date from the 6th to 14th centuries CE, and are concerned with such diverse subjects as law, mythological tales and epics, geneology, history, triads and poetry. Care must be taken in their reading, since many of the scribes assigned to write down the information did so from a Christian perspective, in their professional capacity as monks and agents of the Church in Rome. Very often they submitted to redaction in rewriting ideas, to conform and fit in with their theological and spiritual beliefs. It must also be pointed out that the Irish and Welsh mythologies should not be taken as being totally representative of Celtic culture as a whole, which was a loosely connected society stretching from the west of Ireland, Spain, France, parts of central Europe, Hungary, to the Eastern Mediterranean in Galicia (Turkey).
There are four primary mythological cycles in the Irish tradition, being the Book of Invasions (Lebhor Gabhala Erren) which gives an account of the history of Ireland and its successive inhabitants – the Partholonions, Nemedians, the Fomhoire (or Fomorians), the Fir Bholg, the Tuatha de Danann, and the Milesians. The last invasion of Eire is headed by a Druid/Bard called Amergin (a name which means The Birth of Song). The Fenian cycle accounts for the history and exploits of the warrior-band ‘Fianna’ and their leader Fionn Mac Cumhaill, raised by Bodball the Druidess and Liath Luachra. Later Fionn meets Finneces the Druid employed in the pursuit for the salmon of knowledge. The Tain bo Cuailgne (or Cattle Raid of Cooley) is the central story in The Ulster Cycle. Queen Mebh of Connaught amasses a great army to capture a legendary brown bull in Ulster owned by Dare macFiachna. This text mentions two significant persons, Cathbad the Chief Druid in the court of King Conchobar mac Nessa, and the Druidess ‘Fedelm’, giving this detailed description:
“Weaving lace was she, and in her right hand was a bordering rod of silvered bronze with its seven strips of red gold at the sides. A many spotted green mantle around her; a bulging strong headed pin of gold in the mantle over her bosom; a hooded tunic, with red interweaving, about her. A ruddy, fair-faced countenance she had, narrow below and broad above. She had a blue-grey and laughing eye; each eye had three pupils. Dark and black were her eyebrows; the soft black lashes threw a shadow to the middle of her cheeks. Red and thin were her lips. Shiny and pearly were her teeth; thou wouldst believe they were showers of white pearls that had rained into her head. Like to fresh Parthian crimson were her lips. As sweet as the strings of lutes when long sustained they are played by master players’ hands was the melodious sound of her voice and her fair speech. As white as snow in one night fallen was the sheen of her skin and her body shone outside her dress. Slender and very white were her feet; rosy, even, sharp round nails she had; two sandals with golden buckles about them. Fair yellow, long, golden hair she wore; three braids of hair she wore; two tresses were wound around her head; the other tress from behind threw a shadow down onto her calves”.
Fedelm describes herself as a prophetess from the Sidhe (or Fairy-mound) of Cruachan, and recently come from the Isle of Alba (Scotland) after learning prophetic skills there. I have included the description of Fedelma here to illustrate and dispel the (sometimes) misrepresented historical notions of what the Druids looked like; old men in white robes, with long grey beards! Fedelma seems to be more a vision of Walt Disney’s Snow-White than a creaking fantasy of a misinformed Oxford scholar. The final Irish mythological cycle is The King’s Cycle, which gives a history of the legendary kings of Ireland.
Wales has a comparable and equally rich mythological collection. The Red Book of Hergest and The White book of Rhydderch, together with The Pedair Ceinc y Mabinogi or The Four Branches of The Mabinogi, date to the 13th-14th CE. Lyf Aneirin or The Book of Aneirin contains an epic poem called ‘Y Gododdin’ which describes the defense of Britian under King Mynyddog Mwynfawr against the Angle invasion, and commemorates the Battle of Catterick in 600 CE. Taliesin is sometimes called a Druid, other-times a Shaman, but it is as a Bard that he is most well known, and his poetic fervor is encapsulated in The Book of Taliesin which contains some of the oldest poetry in the Welsh language. The central poem in the book is ‘The Cad Goddeu’ or Battle of the Tree’s, and describes a mighty battle between Gydion and Bran, it also has many Welsh triads and describes the 13 treasure of Britian. The British version of The Lebhar Gebhala Eirren is The Historia Britonium or History of Britian, written by a Welsh monk called Nennius in 820 CE. It is noted for its role in contributing to the myths surrounding King Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth contributed two important manuscripts; Historia Regum Brittaniae or A History of The Kings of Britian in 1136, which is a chronological survey of 2000 years of British history and contains many indigenous myths. His Vita Merlini or Life of Merlin accounts for the archetypal Celtic-British Wizard/Druid, presenting a more ‘mystical’ bard than that offered by the Irish school.
Less well known as a source of Celtic myth is the Barzaz Breiz or ‘Bards of Brittany’, a compilation of Breton folk tales, legends, stories and songs gathered by Theodore Hersart de la Villemarque in 1839. The Carmina Gadelica is a collected mass of historical oral Gaelic literature, songs, poetry, invocations, incantations, and prayers from the highlands and islands of northern Scotland by Alexander Carmicheal, in the latter half of the 18th century. Most of this material is ‘Celto-Pagan’ in subject matter and format, but altered and lightly veneered in the Christian model. It presents an exciting opportunity to explore the rich spiritual panorama and thoughts of the Celtic people.
In 1906, Professor Kuno Meyer published his ‘Trecheng Breth Fene’ or The Triads of Ireland, after some careful and detailed research of several antique Irish manuscripts, principally The Yellow Book of Lecan, The Book of Ballymote, The Book of Hui Maine, The Book of Lecan, a paper MS of 1575, and a paper MS written by Tadhg Tiorthac O’Neachtain in 1745. Published as volume 13 of the Todd Lecture series of the Royal Irish Academy. The collection gives an important insight into the most visible teaching aid of the ancient Irish Druids, an in its entirety a valuable resource.
The Irish Immacallam in da Thaurad or Colloquy of The Two Sages (contained in many differing manuscripts, but principally the 12th century Book of Leinster, the 14th century Book of Lecan, and the Rawlinson B. 502 manuscript) is the dialog between two Druids concerning the knowledge required by individuals seeking the status of ‘Ollamh’ or Doctor/Professor. I would describe it as a fathomless repository of essential knowledge for understanding the mind behind Druidic practice. Nede asks Fechterne;
“Is not hard, the answer; Seer of wisdom, oratorical warrior, interrogator of small statements, courting knowledge, weaving skill, repository of poetry, abundance of the sea!”
Likewise the Cath Maige Tuired or The Second Battle of Mag Tuired gives a detailed account of the origins of the Tuatha De Danann and their further exploits. Originally they existed in the northern islands of the earth and studied the occult, sorcery, druidic arts and magic in four cities under four wizards (Morfesa, Esras, Semias, and Uscias). The text describes the initiation of Lugh Samildanach into the company of the Tuatha De Danann, and the necessary skills required for membership (which may be some of those of necessity possessed by a learned Druid to be established in such a community) such as builder, metal-smith, champion, harper or musician, warrior, poet, historian, sorcerer, physician, cupbearer, and brazier.
The myths present an image of Druids that is both colorful and dynamic, when compared to the dry and academic views of the classical writers. The advancing Christian missionaries across western Europe (beginning in the 3-4th CE) attempted to stamp out Pagan practices amongst communities, and in Ireland they particularly targeted Druids. Muirchu Moccu Machteni of Armagh, in his Life of Saint Patrick written in the 7th century CE, compared the Druids to the wizards of Nebuchadnezzar;
“And it came to pass in that year, that on the same night as the holy Patrick was celebrating Easter, there was an idolatrous ceremony which the Gentiles (The Pagan Irish) were accustomed to celebrate with manifold incantations and magical contrivances and with other idolatrous superstitions when the kings, satraps, chieftains, princes, and great ones of the people had assembled, and when the Druids, singers, prophets, and the inventors and practitioners of every art of every gift, had been summoned to Laoghaire, as once to king Nebuchadnezzar, at Tara, their Babylon”.
In the Leabhar Buidhe Lecain or The Yellow Book of Lecan of the 14th century, we learn from one of the many compiled manuscripts (The Leabhar na gCeart or Book of Rights) that in the 5th Century Patrick enthusiastically burned 180 books written by the Irish Druids, and thenceforth determined to destroy all remnants of Druidic ‘superstition.’ It may be that Caesar, when writing of the Gaulish Druids disinclination to put their thoughts into writing, was observing a limited or specific practice, and that Druids elsewhere (perhaps only in Ireland) were less rigidly attached to the sole practice of oral instruction, and did indeed write down their thoughts, teachings, wisdom and sciences. The episode recorded in this particular manuscript is extremely grave and depressing, indicative of the differences between Christianity and Gaelic Paganism, but evidence indeed that some Druids did put their ideas into books.
THE VISION OF CELTS AND DRUIDS THROUGH AN ARCHEOLOGICAL LENS
Archeology is a relatively new science, although it uncovers the most ancient evidence of our ancestors. In 1857 the level of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland dropped considerably, revealing many ancient and important structures. This caught the attention of a local amateur explorer called Friedrich Schwab, and using a homemade dredge he scoured the shallow lake and recovered over 3000 Celtic artifacts, including tools, horse gear, 160 swords and scabbards, and other important relics of Celtic origin dating from 300 BCE. Later archeologists termed the artifacts and their origin in a Celtic community as ‘La Tene’ and dedicated research and study has evolved a considerable amount of interesting details and information of the Celtic tribes living in that area at that time. Of numerous Celtic tribes living in the area we now know as Switzerland, the Helvetii mentioned by Strabo is still celebrated as the ‘Republic Helvetica.’ A remarkable museum of archeology called ‘Latenium’ has been set up on the banks of lake Neuchatel to display the rich Celtic heritage of the area, together with artifacts from several related areas, including the Paleolithic.
Other important archeological finds in the past 150 years which give information on the spiritual and cosmological aspects of Celtic life include the Gundestop cauldron. Found in a dry peat bog in Himmerland, Denmark in 1891 it is believed to be of fine, silver northern Gaulish craftsmanship, composed of 13 separate plates it depicts various figures and cosmological scenes including what is believed to be a representation of the horned god ‘Cernussos,’ and musical instruments called ‘carnyx.’ Dating from the 1st CE, Miranda Green believes it to be an important bowl from a significant shrine and the property of an established Celtic priesthood. The cauldron plays an important role in Druid ritual and magic, we are told that the Daghda, of the Tuatha De Danann brought a ‘cauldron of plenty’ from Murias in the northlands, which possessed the capacity to satisfy any hunger. In the story of ‘Branwen the Daughter of Lyr’ in the Mabinogian we are told of a magical cauldron which has the capability to bring dead warriors back to life, owned by Bendigeid Vran and given to the Irish king Matholwch as a gift.
Another key archeological find is the Coligny Calendar, a shattered bronze tablet found in Coligny, near Bourg en Bresse in France in 1897. Again, dating from the 1st CE, Miranda Green believes it to have been designed and constructed by Druids as a device to help chart predictions based on astronomical observations. The calendar provides evidence for the celebration the four major festivals of Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasadh, and Samhain, and that the Druids may well have been instrumental in deciding on which days these primarily agricultural gatherings should take place. Moreover the bronze tablet dispels myths regarding the observation (by Julius Caesar) that Druids never committed their reasoning into a written form.
Lovernius or the ‘Lindow man’ is analyzed by Anne Rice and Don Robbins in ‘Death of A Druid Prince’ as a historical example of the cult of human sacrifice in Celtic society by Druids. Lindow man is the remains of a well preserved male corpse found in Lindow peat bog in August 1984 in Manchester, Britian, evidence shows that he was executed sometime in the 1st CE. He has well manicured nails, hair and beard carefully trimmed with shears, both indicating that he was no manual laborer, but either a member of the aristocracy or the Druid intelligensia, the fox-fur band around his arm may indicate a spiritual standing in his society. The contents of his stomach revealed a final meal of ‘blackened cake’ composed of grains such as wheat, barley and bran together with mistletoe pollen. This cake, known as ‘Beltaine-cake’ always seems to be the last meal in a Celtic ritual sacrifice. Lovernius experienced a ‘three-fold’ death, his head was crushed with a heavy metal object (perhaps a ceremonial axe), strangled with a leather (sinew) rope, and his throat was cut, then his naked body was thrown into (what was then) a murky black lake called ‘Llyn Cerrig Bach or Lake of Small Pebbles in Welsh.
Searles O’Dubhain in a workshop on human sacrifice in western Pagan society gives a hypothetical (but plausible) account of the events surrounding the sacrifice of Lovernius. In 62 CE the forces amassed by Queen Bodiccea had been defeated by the Roman army under the command of general Seutonius, together with the bulk of Britians Druids on the Isle of Anglesey (or Mona). Perhaps for many Britons this was a vision of increasing darkness and bondage under empirical rule. The Druids sensing that they had failed on the physical plane decided to take the fight onto a higher level, a spiritual dimension, and send a suitable messenger to the gods to request their help. Lovernius was selected and underwent a series of ‘spiritual energy boosting’ sessions, before undergoing the triple death. O’Dubhain is of the opinion that the three aspects of his execution are symbolic of a dedication to three separate gods of the three worlds, being Taranis, Esus, and Teutates of the sky, middle-earth and otherworld. The location of the sacrifice is also significant, a place where sky, water and earth met and provided a direct link with the other dimensions in Celtic cosmology. It is interesting to note the decline of Roman rule in Britian after this event.
The evidence surrounding Lindow man all suggest that he was a human sacrifice, that it was Druids that performed the ceremony, and had several intricate and symbolic elements. I do not feel that this was a commonplace event, but an unusual and perhaps necessary (for the associated morality and beliefs of those individuals) for the events at that time. The greatest achievement of Lovernius is that he has traveled through time and history to us today, and given us important information about our ancestors.
A PHENOMINOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF DRUIDRY.
In a Ph.D dissertation for Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2004, Mark T. Cooper documents the modern progress of Druidry which he sees as a ‘new religious movement.’ Whilst he recognizes some attempt of modern Druids to draw support from pre-Christian European indigenous traditions he regards the claim for a historically continous line from the ancient to the contemporary as invalid. Cooper therefore defines the modern Druid movement as both a cultural phenomena and a religious cult. Despite this he has endeavored to understand the movement from an independent viewpoint and pursued evidence based on primary sources, principally through interviews with those practicing and following this spiritual path.
Cooper asks five main questions in his interviews with modern Druids; how does Druidry provide an understanding to the meaning of life? How does Druidry provide an understanding to the meaning of death? What must a practitioner of Druidry do to achieve a good life? How does Druidry provide a sense of security and guidance when it deals with the unknown? And what is the Druidic sense of moral order?
In terms of meaning in life Cooper discovered that Druids today base their primary spiritual life around the ‘wheel of the year’ and that this gave them direction and understanding with regard to the experiences in life, they also found inspiration from nature, ancestors and deities. The ‘wheel of the year’ is defined as a series of eight community festivals divided into two sets of four. The first four are tied to celestial movements, thus defined as the autumn and spring equinox, and the summer and winter solstice. The second four are defined as ‘agricultural’ festivals, known as Beltaine, Imbolc, Samhaine, and Lughnasadh. Each festival is separated by an approximate 6-week period. Whilst Cooper suggests that there is no historical data or reference for these celebrations, the general belief amongst practitioners is that they are an important way to connect with nature and the universe, and that it is believed that the Druids enacted these rituals. Cooper quotes Dr. Maya Sutton, adjunct professor of Celtic Studies at the University of New Mexico:
“We use this cyclical pattern in our Druid ceremonies and find that it becomes more relevant and appropriate as time goes by,”
Nature is therefore seen as the principle and greater divine force in a Druids life, providing inspiration, guidance, meaning and revelation. The Druid plays a role in the intricate movements and interplays of the universe and cosmos, the festivals are celebrated as re-enactments of a greater, deeper cosmological belief and understanding.
In terms of death, Cooper has extrapolated three main stands of belief amongst Druids; a belief in reincarnation, an understanding that there is no existence after death – a form of re-cycling, and in transmigration of the soul – where an individual spirit will pass into another body, not necessarily human. Overall death is seen as the doorway to another ‘state’ of existence, although reincarnation is the predominant belief amongst Druids today.
Many Druids had a strong belief in the Vedic ‘Karma’ principle, where deeds that are either good, bad or ugly are at some time in the future rewarded likewise. In terms of guidance, some Druids use divinatory techniques, some seek blessings from ancestors, gods and/or goddesses, others employ self-regulatory techniques such as meditation, whilst some employ starlore or astrology to help define their paths. Guidance is also obtained through a ‘flowing spiritual energy’ called Awen, often called inspiration or creativity, and similar in many ways to the early Christian notion of Gnosis, spontaneous vision and communication with the supernal divine world.
Cooper discovered that Druidry as a whole lacks a belief in the duality of ‘good versus evil.’ In his search for a definable morality amongst modern Druids he came upon some who followed the Golden rule of the Wiccan Rede, which states that ‘one should harm none.’ Another aspect of personal morality, defined as virtues are an integral aspect of the first triad of the Dedicant Program of the ADF, composed of nine virtues which the apprentice is encouraged to interpret in terms of their own life and understanding of order; wisdom, piety, vision, courage, integrity, perseverance, hospitality, moderation, and fertility. Cooper concludes that Druids have a complete understanding of the notion of right and wrong in society. In his concluding observations he remarks that there is no apparent disconnection between what followers wrote, or said, and their general practices, although he points out that (in his opinion) many Druids ‘borrow’ from other religious systems to enhance their own understanding and rituals. Cooper sees a pronounced discord between the modern Druid practice and pre-Christian paganism, although he does not believe that the continuity of such ancient systems are of vital importance in the modern expression. He concedes that, due to the oral nature of pre-Christian Druidry, modern practitioners could interpret the spiritual path of their ancestors with some creative license.
I set out on the path of this essay to try and discover the historical evidence of Druids. And on this journey I have discovered much detailed information, locked away or forgotten in the recesses of cultural memory. In terms of the opinions of academic researchers I found that the distinct boundaries they placed around their studies certainly inhibited examination, expansion and clarification through alternative avenues or approaches (perhaps through other specialist fields). Information on the Celtic people and Druids is certainly fragmentary, of various strands which only a few individuals (principally those labeled “amateurs’) are doggedly prepared to examine and slowly piece together like a highly complex jigsaw, and then creatively compose and enact their conclusions.
I would describe my journey into the ‘world of the Druids’ as beauty of insight, poetic of notions, fragrant of ages, bearing fruits of nature, resonant of long songs, mulling thoughts of the hearth, bending trees in the wind, union of times, regent words, breath of great ancestors. I must see the spiritual path of the Druid both in personal and organic terms, as a personal interpretation which enhances my quality of existence, to see it otherwise would simply be an academic exercise. Druidry cannot be just historical fact, but ever-evolving present, that constantly asks questions of the journeyman in pursuit of the task, that rewards for skills well learned and practiced with diligence, that encourages perseverance in adversity, that gives voice to the spirit.
I see the Druid as a vital component of a vast cultural heritage, as a part of my own history and that of my ancestors, which provides a forum for my continued development and passage into the future. The soft rhythmic words of the Irish Gaelic like the earth dark-peat of ancient times is traversed and cut and used for the warmth of the fire now. And I leave the last words to one of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, who beckons the weary traveler to a land of mystical and mysterious beauty, and a communion with the universal elements;
Into the Twilight
Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight;
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of morn.
Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of slanderous tongue.
Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;
And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the grey twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.
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The Triads of Ireland:
The Tain Bo Cualgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley);