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Druids in History

From the very earliest times ancient man has had his tribal holyman, or shaman, to answer those esoteric questions which defied his logic or reason. This position of holyman can be found within the ancient cultures of tribal societies throughout the world. The early Celtic peoples were no different from any other tribal society in this respect.

By Maria Palmer  

There were several levels of training which led to the ultimate level of Druid. There were also several sections within the order in which people could specialise.

At the height of their power the Druids were prominent as a powerful group in Celtic society with wide ranging powers, encompassing religion, the judicial system and the education of their people.

Historically the picture we have of the Druids is almost entirely due to people who traded with the Celts, such as the Greeks, or to the people who fought against them, such as the Romans. Sadly, it is for the main part, during the downfall of the Celts, in Roman occupied Gaul, that we hear the most about the Druids.

The Celts, though never a united force, were the first masters of Europe. Their influence stretching from the North western fringes of Greece, across the top of Northern Italy and into Spain. Going up into Austria, Southern Germany, Gaul and Scandinavia and finally the British Isles. It is generally agreed that the Celts evolved from populations already resident in Europe during the Bronze Age, from earlier Indo-European tribes. Where this becomes obvious is in the tribal structure, adopted by the Celts, common to all Indo-European cultures.

The Celts first get a mention by name in the sixth century BCE when a Greek, Hecateus, states that the Celts were neighbours of the Ligurians, and that a remarkable feature of their society is the social structure, which was a hallmark of that society. However, it is not until 200 BCE that the Druids get a mention, by another Greek called Sotion. His work 'Succession of Philosophers' was lost, but a reference was preserved by another writer Diogenes Laertius: There are among the Keltae and Galatae those called Druids and Semnotheoi...' (Semnotheoi were presumably Galatian priests).

That the Druids were known to the outside world by 200 BCE would suggest that they were already a powerful, well established group amongst their own people, with wide ranging powers. The reports from Julius Caesar in his 'Gallic Wars' (sixth book) certainly agree on this point.

The Celts who had continued their migration into Britain and Ireland became separated and isolated for many centuries from the Celts of Gaul. Language, culture and religion developed along different lines, and Druidism, as pictured in native records, was in Ireland considerably different from that of Gaul. The religion of the pagan Irish is commonly designated 'Druidism' and in the oldest Irish legends the Druids figure conspicuously.

In all the early invasion myths, the colonisers come with their Druids, who are mentioned as having high rank among kings and chiefs. In the coming of the sons of Mil, the Druid Amergin places his right foot upon Ireland and utters a poem which gives their coming no little significance.

I am a wind on sea, I am Ocean wave, I am Roar of sea... (Rees, p 98)

Joyce states that: "No trustworthy information regarding the religion of the ancient Irish comes to us from outside: whatever knowledge of it we possess is derived exclusively from the native literature."

There were several levels of training which led to the ultimate level of Druid. There were also several sections within the order in which people could specialise. There were several areas within the Bardic order such as the filidh, who were also heralds and would march into war, wearing their distinctive cloaks, often accompanied by the oirfidigh, or instrumental musicians. Thus, as storytellers, they would have first hand knowledge of the atmosphere and outstanding feats by any warriors and bring the whole occasion alive, to those who hadn't been there. These events could be recorded in song, story or rhyme. Great battles, feasts, marriages, births and extraordinary happenings were remembered, and handed down to others orally, by these society storytellers. The seannachaidh were the historians and genealogists. The Breithaimhain (Brehons) were the tribal judges and law givers. The musicians were known as oirfidigh and a master musician was an ollamh re ceol. A master musician should be capable of playing the three strains of music, first played by the Dagda on his harp, Oaithne. The three strains were the suantraighe, or lullaby, the golltraighe, or lament, and the geantraighe, or merry, happy music.

Training for the level of Druid would often take twenty years and was an entirely oral training, although reading and writing were taught, and many Druids read and wrote and could speak Greek. However it is believed that the Celts did not commit anything to paper, even though they did not prohibit writing. It was just felt that some things were sacred and should not be written down for everyone to read.

Therefore many hundreds of stories had to be memorised, some to be told only on special occasions, some to be told only at certain times of the year, for instance only after dark, during winter months.

The Druids believed the queen represented the Goddess and the land. The King as consort to the queen represented fertility. In this social status lived the powers of nature which the Druids believed in and upheld. There is no documented evidence of human sacrifice in Ireland by Irish Druids, although it is well documented in Gaul, especially during times of crisis. Other differences of note with the Gaulish Druids were that the Gaulish Druids were under the influence of a head Druid chosen or elected at their periodic councils.There was no such system or institution in Ireland. The Druids in Ireland did not worship the oak as is popularly believedinstead their venerated trees were the hazel, yew and rowan. Mistletoe was probably introduced into Ireland in the 1800's. It is thought that the word 'druid' comes from 'dru', the Celtic for oak, Irish 'dair'. However, some think the root of the word means very knowing or wise one.

At the height of their power the Druids were prominent as a powerful group in Celtic society with wide ranging powers, encompassing religion, the judicial system and the education of their people. They also had a great deal of political power. They studied herbal medicine, astrology and philosophy. The Druids were great believers in the sanctity of life, of fertility and life after death.

The brahmans of India had the same proud way of looking at deity that the Gods were there to serve the priesthood!

The Romans disliked the way the druids could unite a normally disunited people and provide an element of cohesion and resistance.

They also learned about immortality, theology and ancient folklore. They were the tribal historians. Valerius Maximus wrote in the early part of the first century about the Celtic belief in an afterlife, which was so strong that there was a tradition of being able to repay a debt in the afterlife.... "for it is said that they lend to each other sums that are repayable in the next world, so firmly convinced are they that the souls of men are immortal. And I would call them foolish indeed if it were not for the fact that what these trousered barbarians believe is the very faith of Pythagoras himself..." (T.D. Kendrick questions whether this is in fact a Pythagorean theory. He suggests not !). Certainly the science of philosophy was flourishing among so called barbarians, the tribes of the Egyptians, the Chaldeans of the Assyrians and the Druids of the Gauls, whether from the theories of Pythagoras, or otherwise.

There is a suggestion from available records that although all Celts followed a form of nature worship not all Celtic tribes had druids. There is also an opinion that the Druids as an institution were not known in Iberia (Spain), Italy or Galatia. However, just because we have, as yet, not found conclusive evidence, it would be premature to discount their existence in these areas. And after all did not the sons of Mil come to Ireland and set foot on it with the aid of Amergin? The peoples of Miled were supposedly from Spain.

In the ancient order of social class, a person's place in society was known by the number of colours s/he wore in her/his garments. Peasants and lower orders were only allowed to wear one colour. Principle nobility and the warrior classes could wear five. The ollamhs and significant druids and bards six, and royalty itself seven. It is clear from this that men of letters and learning were ranked higher than even the warriors.

Tara was itself the seat of the High Kingship of Ireland, situated in the central province of Meath. Uisnech was considered the spiritual centre of Ireland, as Fintan said: "It is long since I drank a drink of the Deluge over the navel of Uisnech". It was Mide, chief druid of the people of Nemed, who lit the first fire, at Uisnech, from which all other chief fires were lit. That fire was supposed to have blazed for seven years.

Traditionally in various cultures around the world it is shown that power struggles have taken place between the priestly castes and the warrior castes. This is very clearly illustrated in the classic Tain Bo Cuailgne where the province of the west, Connacht, representing the priestly province, and led by Maeve, rises up against the Northern province of Ulster defended by Cuchulain. This shows the ever continuing struggle of power between men of learning and warriors, each trying to usurp the power and privilege of the other.

Although Celtic beliefs were at their very root of Indo-European origin, the ethics and charm of their religion was entirely Celtic, with their love of nature, hero and ancestor worship. The attitude of the druids towards their religion was also typically Celtic, although here again we see far older roots. The brahmans of India had the same proud way of looking at deity that the Gods were there to serve the priesthood! With this attitude it was easy to see why the druids were so disliked by the new humble Christians, who saw them as arrogant. Another intolerable state of affairs to the New Faith was the women druids or bandruidh. St. Patrick says of them in a dictat to a king: "Give no countenance to magi (druids) or pythonesses" (female druids!)

Two of Leagaire's chief druids Lucetmail and Lochris actually foretold the coming of St. Patrick, in which case they presumably also saw the downfall of their order.

Again, it was the considered opinion of St. Patrick that "Tara was the chief seat of the idolatry and druidism of Erin''. He did not like the druids, did he?

One thing people dreaded was to be satirised and that is what happened to Bres, King of the Tuatha, after the first battle of Magh Tuiread. Bres was niggardly and mean and reduced the De Dananns to virtual slavery. When visited by a travelling bard, Bres was not very forthcoming with the expected, traditional hospitality. Cairpre found himself housed in a small, dark, poorly furnished room, and eventually sent only stale, dry cakes to eat. So he served up a satirical rhyme on his host which led to his downfall:

Without food quickly served
Without cow's milk, whereon a calf can grow
Without a dwelling, fit for a man under the gloomy night
Without means to entertain a Bardic company
Let such be the condition of Bres''.

This was the first satire ever pronounced in Ireland.

There were of course other ways to stop people from doing certain things, such as placing a prohibition or geis (plura geissa) upon them, under penalty or misfortune of some kind. It was considered highly dangerous to ignore or disregard a prohibition, and there are many examples in the Irish legends of various characters breaking their geissa, with dire consequences.

The druids were able to exert this sort of power and influence over their people as it was believed they held a great deal of magical power. They could place enchantments on friend and foe alike. Diodorus has described how the druids were able to: "exhort combatants to peace and taming them like wild beasts''. (MacCulloch)

It is said or implied that the druids of Britain were more devoted to magic than the druids of Gaul, and therefore the druids of Gaul went to Britain to finish their training.


Power was exercised over the elements, the weather, shape shifting and invisibility. Great feats could be done to aid battles such as clouds of fire raining down on the enemy by the druid Mag Ruith, or mountains being thrown upon the enemy of Mathgen! Frequently trees and standing stones were turned into armed men. The Tuath De Dannan were especially talented. Their druids were particularly powerful and learned. It is said that they learned druidism from the four great masters from whence they came. More examples can be found in the legends.

Some people are of the opinion that the downfall of the Celts was due to the druids themselves. They did not react well to new ideas and although very willing to enter into lively debate on any level, they were at heart traditionalists. They were hated by incoming invaders such as the Romans because they were so powerful and persistently rallied the Celts to resist. The Romans disliked the way the druids could unite a normally disunited people and provide an element of cohesion and resistance. Many druids were actually also warriors although they were exempt from military duty. Cathbad and Diviciacus were two such druids.

They were totally wiped out on Anglesey and the groves pulled down by the Romans who were actually on the verge of turning tail, so awed were they by the taunts and battle cries of the druids, both male and female.

Whatever their faults, the druids did achieve one amazing feat which was to keep their people together for many hundreds of years. No easy task when we consider how wayward and strong minded the Celts were!

Over the centuries the one enduring figure which comes out of the mists of our pagan past is the image of the old, wise robed man who seems powerful yet kindly. The druid throughout the ages has remained a popular folk image. They were an example of the Celtic way, preaching the continuous voyage of the soul the Celtic seeker of knowledge.

Our race was mighty once when at the head
Wise men like steadfast torches burned and led;
When Ollamhs' law and royal Cormac's spell
Guided the Gael, all things with them went well.
(D'Arcy McGee)


F. O'Neill: Irish Minstrels and Musicians; P.W. Joyce: A Social History of Ancient Ireland; A &B. Rees: Celtic Heritage; H. Hubert: History of the Celtic Peoples; T.D. Kendrick: The Druids

Taken from DALRIADA, the Journal of Celtic Culture, Heritage and Traditions, Volume 14, Lughnasadh 1999, Issue No. 3.

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