Celts and the Druids
Celtic Society and Druids
The Druids were the wise men and women of the Celtic peoples. So before we describe the Druids let us describe the Celts.
From about 1800 BCE on, a new cultural impulse flowed across northern Europe. It descended from Indo-European roots, and brought with it new technologies especially in metal-working. Its people spoke the family of languages known as ‘Celtic.’ By the first millennium BCE (the Iron Age), this culture dominated central and western Europe. The evidence suggests that this domination did not occur forcibly, but by a process of slow assimilation with the earlier peoples. It is likely that the older Native European Tradition in its shamanic form continued in an unbroken line into this, the Celtic period.
A specifically "Celtic" style appeared in central Europe as early as 1200 BCE with the advent of the Hallstatt Culture. The development of this culture was influenced by the control of trade routes. This culture declined after 600 BCE, but there arose from it a new and vigorous impulse known as La Tène. These peoples, composed of many different tribes, had contacts with the raw material hungry Mediterranean world. Through this trade they became wealthy and populations expanded. By 400 BCE large groups were migrating east and southwards. Celtic Gauls sacked Rome in 390 BCE, while other tribes moved eastwards, occupied the Danube area and threatened Greece. In the third century BCE, Celtic culture was at its peak. Although still extremely diverse, the many tribes shared the exquisite artistic traditions of La Tène. They possessed a similar social structure, they were able to understand each other, and an immense wealth flowed between them in the form of ideas, stories, myths, laws, values, wine, weapons and trade goods.
By the fourth and third centuries BCE, urban centers and social stratification increased. Charismatic men, and sometimes women, gained power through control of trade and resources with the support of a warrior elite. Some of these centres verged on statehood, with cities, ”national“ boundaries and sanctuaries, nobility and kings, and several classes of subjects. The wise men and women comprised one of these classes. They gathered around the halls of the aristocracy to supply their needs. Their functions included entertainment and genealogy - music, songs, the telling of stories and poems, especially those that praised the exploits of the ruler and his warriors. They provided the old shamanic functions such as herbalism, healing, divination, sooth-saying, and dream-interpretation, but took them in a new direction to serve the needs of the more complex society. These people were the Druids.
By the end of the first century BCE, Celtic society was crumbling before the power of Rome. Resistance in Gaul was at an end, and Julius Caesar had already launched the first invasion of Britain. With the second, Claudian invasion of Britain, the Druids were singled out and massacred. The Romans deliberately undermined Druid leadership and power among the conquered Celtic peoples. But in the long occupation of Britain that followed, 43 - 410 CE, local Celtic practices merged with Roman to produce a synthesis that did maintain many ancient customs - they were both, after all, pagan.
Pressure from the east finally ended both the Roman Empire and Celtic society. Nomadic tribes from the Caucasian steppes invaded Europe in the fourth century CE, and lack of space forced the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples west. The Angles, Jutes and Saxons defeated the newly independent Celts of Britain, and drove them into Wales, Brittany and the never-defeated Celtic fastnesses of Ireland, Scotland and the Isles. It is unlikely that the Druids ever staged a comeback at this time. The tales of King Arthur and Merlin represent what might have been if the Celts had been successful in defeating the Northmen. Christianity followed hard upon the heels of the Germanic invaders, and challenged any remaining Druids. Druid Brehon law however prevailed in Ireland until the Cromwellian invasions. These forces irrevocably changed the face of Celtic culture forever.
In summary, ‘Celts’ was the name given to the European tribes north of the Mediterranean by the Greeks and Romans. This covered an extremely diverse group of peoples none of whom called themselves by this name. ‘Celtic’ was adopted by linguists to refer to the family of languages of Indo-European origin spoken across a broad area of Europe and introduced there from as early as 2000 BCE. ‘Celtic’ was later used by historians to describe the cultural impulse that began in central Europe (Hallstat) before 1000 BCE, and achieved its full flowering with the La Tène era after about 500 BCE. This culture (with the virtue of combining all the above definitions) developed towns, and a highly centralized, hierarchical and socially stratified society. Its features included classes of nobles, priests, warriors, craftsmen and farmers, characteristic of its Indo-European origins. Growth depended upon trade with the Mediterranean world, and for many centuries the Graeco-Roman world mirrored the Celtic and vice-versa. The Druid class grew in response to these social developments and, like the priests of Etruria and Rome, largely served the warrior class and nobles.
Since the conquest by Rome, Celtic or Gaelic-speaking culture only remained on the northern and western fringes of Europe, but has had an enormous effect on the Western world, especially in North America. This is the Celtic diaspora, a rich and varied culture that is giving rise to Druidry again today. ^ back to top
The Original Druids
After about 500 BCE, in the northern and western part of the patchwork quilt of Celtic Europe, wise men and women emerged as the Druids. They came from out of the old, indigenous, shamanic worldview. The Druids organized knowledge, passed it on through oral tradition, and served the political, social and spiritual needs of the people. The primary purpose of this emerging class of scholars and bards was to nourish the soul of the tribe and people. They did this by venerating the ancestors and spirits of place, and by supplying words to an increasingly sophisticated society so it could describe and think about itself. The Druids told and remembered the stories, songs and myths. They knew the ancestries, the prophecies, the pledges, treaties, alliances, and the legal codes.
Increasingly they had to organize, to systematize and pass on this growing body of knowledge. They became arbitrators, lawyers and judges. They were advisors to the kings, negotiating alliances, making prophecies, describing the law. They became teachers, and took into their schools children who showed skill in any of the branches of learning. And as the poets and bards, they praised and celebrated the achievements of their nobles, their champions and their tribe.
The organization of the Druids had a price. It meant that they no longer participated in the grass-roots level of society where traditional shamanism continued to thrive. There was a distinction, but not a split between Druidry and shamanism. At best they complemented and recognized the strengths and weaknesses of each other. A further distinction was that the Druids, serving the elite, became increasingly male-dominated, while women continued to serve the needs of the far-greater body of the common population.
The name, Druid, may have applied to any woman or man wise in the native tradition of their ancestors. The herbalist, the midwife, the seer, the storyteller, may all have been called druids, generically meaning "truthful," "firm" as a tree is firm, or "wise ones." The training of most Druids began on the grass-roots level, and many would have remained there, serving the land, the tribe and people. Only a few went on into the service of the king or clan chief, and there they established schools and selected the pupils who would be their successors.
By the time the Romans conquered Gaul and Britain, circa 0 B.C.E., a distinction had arisen between Druids who advised the nobility, and local practitioners, mostly women, who birthed babies and cast spells. The latter who provided cradle-to-grave magical care were to become known as witches and sorcerers. The Romans set about systematically exterminating all organized Druidic practice, while it is likely that the "hedge-row" witches with their ancient shamanistic roots survived.
Early Irish literature uses "witch" and "Druid" in a similar way. Both are men and women, with more Druids being men, especially in the royal courts. The stories list shape-changing, illusion-making and weather-craft as the particular skills of the witches. Both witches and Druids were oriented to nature and had reverence for the ancestors. This was all part of the flavour of pagan spirituality at the time. The negative connotation of "witch" derives from later Christian transcribers of the early Irish texts and subsequently, the Inquisition.
In summary, the Druids codified and developed the knowledge of the Celtic branch of the Native European Tradition. They organized traditional knowledge, taught it in schools, and served the needs of a complex, growing society. Druids were exterminated to the extent that no-one can claim to have received anything in a direct line from Celtic times to this time. Although the context in which Druidry operated is now entirely lost, the early literature of Ireland and Wales contains records of their work. Such material has to be treated cautiously as it contains many overlays, interpretations and omissions. On the other hand, some witches and folk tradition survived. Despite persecution they have handed down some of the ancient ways to the present day. Folk tradition, however, was not organized to the philosophical level of Druidry and fulfilled a different social need. ^ back to top
Druids in Celtic Mythology
Early Celtic myths and legends are full of things called Druid spears, Druid cloaks, Druid wands, rods, spells, songs, harps and other instruments that seem to be in the preserve of almost everyone. Just about anyone could apply "Druid herbs," and some who are obviously not Druids have access to "Druid wands." At times the sources use "Druid" as a catch-all description for anything mysterious, especially if it comes from the fairy world. In ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’, for example, both Aoife and Bodb Dearg of the fairy race use "Druid rods" to effect transformations. In ‘Dairmuid and Grania,’ Angus Óg of the Sidhe of Brú na Boinne uses a "Druid cloak" to conceal and help Grania fly away from several entrapments. This frequent use of the word "Druid" probably entered the texts during the Christian era. Apart from this usage, there is another class of Druid descriptions that refer to specific Druids, often named, who feature in the stories. These descriptions are of special interest as they are likely to have originated in the pre-Christian era. ^ back to top
Druids as Teachers and Diviners
Cathbad ‘the Wise’ foretells the fate of Cuchulainn and gives him his name in the ‘Boyhood Deeds of Cuchulainn.’ He combines this role with that of a teacher. It is likely Cathbad was divining from the stars.
One day, Cathbad the Druid was in his house...teaching Druid lore to many studious men, and a pupil asked him what the day would be lucky for. ”The man who takes up arms today or mounts his first chariot today will have his name enduring for ever in Ireland with his mighty deeds,“ Cathbad said. ”But his life will be short.“
The ‘Fate of the Sons of Usnach’ makes the role of the Druid as teacher especially clear. The woman-Druid, Levorcham, is not only an herbalist, astronomer and natural scientist, diviner and dream interpreter, but also a poet.
Deirdre was raised in a remote place so that none should see her until she was ready to be the wife of the king of Ulster. Only her foster parents were allowed to be with her, and the old woman Levorcham, a satirist, to whom nothing could be refused. Deirdre grew up straight and clean like the rush on the moor, her movements were like the swan on the wave or the deer on the hill. She was the woman of the greatest beauty and the gentlest and kindest nature in all the provinces of Ireland. Levorcham taught her every skill and knowledge that she had herself. There was not an herb on the ground or a star in the heaven or a bird in the wood that Deirdre did not know the name of, and besides these skills Levorcham taught her the Druid crafts of poetry, dreaming and seeing. ^ back to top
Druids as Healers
There are many references in the texts that describe Druids as herbalists and healers. The following extract is typical. The great epic known as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, 'The Cattle Raid of Cooley,' has as its centerpiece the combat between Cuchulainn and Ferdiad. After a day of fighting the heroes break off for the night:
Cuchulainn and Ferdiad threw their spears into the arms of their charioteers, and came up to each other and put their arms around the other and exchanged three kisses. Their horses passed that night in the same enclosure, and the charioteers shared the same fire and they made up beds of rushes for the wounded men. Druids came and put healing herbs in Cuchulainn’s wounds, but they could do little but chant spells and lay magic amulets on them to staunch the spurts of blood for the deepness of the wounds.^ back to top
Druids as Counsellors
The Druids had immense authority in the great houses, and their word was law. Sencha ‘the Great,’ could "pacify the men of the world with his three fair words." This account of Sencha at work is from ‘Bricriu’s Feast.’
Then chairs flew and tables overturned. One side of the hall filled with the fire of clashing swords, while the other side was like a flock of white birds from the glaze flying from the surface of the shields. There was a great alarm and fear for their lives on the people of the gathering. King Conchobor and Fergus were angry to see two men fight together against Cuchulainn. But no one moved or dared to part them, until the Druid Sencha rose.
"Part these men," said Sencha.
Conchobor and Fergus stepped between the fighting men and made them drop their hands to their sides. "Will you do as I advise?" said Sencha.
"We will," said the three men.
”Then divide the Champion’s Portion between the whole of the gathering tonight," said Sencha. ^ back to top
Druids as Mediators
There are several episodes where Druids mediate between opposing forces. Although the Druid fails in this extract from the ‘Death of Cuchulainn,’ it is nonetheless informative for his method.
”Cuchulainn is upon us,“ said Erc. ”Let us form a fence of our shields, and let three pairs of men appear to struggle here and there among us. They must call on Cuchulainn to help them resolve their dispute, and have a Druid beside them to ask him for his spears. We must get his spears, for it is in the prophecy of the daughters of Catalin that a king will be killed by those spears in this battle, and it will be hard for him to refuse the request of a Druid.“
------... Cuchulainn came to one of the pairs of men that were put to quarrel with each other, with a Druid beside them. ”Help us put an end to this quarrel,“ cried the Druid. ”Give me your spear.“
-----"You are not so much in need of it now as I am,“ said Cuchulainn.
-----"A bad name upon you if you refuse me,“ said the Druid.
-----"I have never had a bad name put on me yet on account of a refusal,“ said Cuchulainn. He threw the spear, handle foremost, at the Druid and killed him. ^ back to top
Druids as Magicians
Magic is a common task of the Druids in the myths. It often involved shape-shifting or the creating of illusions. When Cuchulainn becomes distraught at discovering he has killed his son, the Druid Cathbad casts a spell of glamoury upon him that makes it seem an army is coming against him from the waves. Cuchulainn fights against the waves until his fury and hurt are spent. On another occasion the Táin Bó Cúailnge describes Cuchulainn as follows:
Then the hero Cuchulainn took his battle-array of contest and strife. On his head he put his crested battle-helmet, from whose recesses his scream echoed so that his enemies thought the fiends of the air called out from it. And about him he cast the cloak of concealment, made of cloth from Tir Tairngire, the Land of Promise, that was given to him by his foster father, an expert in the magic of Druidry.
Finally, in the mythic narratives of the ‘Book of Invasions,’ it falls to the magical abilities of Birog of the Mountain, to bring Cian to Eithlinn. The result of their union is the pan-Celtic deity, Lugh.
Cian went to the woman-Druid, Birog of the Mountain for help. Birog gave Cian the appearance of a queen of the Tuatha Dé Danann, dressed him in woman’s clothes and took him on the winds to the tower where Eithlinn lived. She called out to the women in the tower and asked them to shelter a high queen from some hardship. Because the women did not like to refuse a woman of the Tuatha Dé Danann they let them in. When they were inside the tower Birog cast a spell on the women to send them to sleep. Cian went to Eithlinn, and the moment she saw him she recognized his face from her dreams and gave him her love.^ back to top
Although being a Druid originally meant being of the priestly order of a Celtic society that no longer exists, today it is essentially a matter of self-definition. Being a Druid means identifying oneself as a Druid, and choosing to follow the tradition of the Druid path. To have an idea of what a Druid is today, look deeply into what the word means to you. You may be thinking, however, that simply calling oneself a Druid does not a Druid make. There must be something - a belief or training perhaps - that graduates and qualifies the aspirant into the title of Druid. At present, this is difficult to answer, and until an answer appears you can do what many do which is consider themselves "Druids in training."
There are however many Orders of Druids here in Britain and around the world. They have different styles. Some base themselves on the Druid revival which has been slowly taking place since the 17th century. Others base themselves upon native traditions, such as the Welsh Gorsedd. Most grew out of the tremendous revival of earth-centred spirituality which took place in the latter part of the 20th century. This revival, as well as many branches of paganism, is continuing. Their websites can be found alongside this one. Books on Druidry are in most bookstores.
Although no single Order or author can claim to possess the "true" path of Druidry, most agree that Druidry was in the past and is now polytheistic, pantheistic, animistic, bardic, poetic, life-affirming, earth-honouring, law-abiding, civic-minded, rational and intuitive. It was and is not belief or faith based, religious or dogmatic.
If there is one thing Druids today may have in common it is a reverence for life: for nature and the Earth. Do you? Whether this view defines a Druid is impossible to say. Another unifying factor among all contemporary Druids of whatever order or inclination is very likely the wish to give something back to the earth. This is indubitably something the Druids of old did, so here indeed is a common tradition. In the same way as the ancient Druids presided at rituals where offerings were made to the earth so Druids today are rediscovering the results of gifting. It is through gifting that service to life begins. It is through gifting that it becomes possible to arrive at a true understanding of our place in all things. We are indebted to life. We are sustained in every moment by water, earth, fire and air. Coming into an understanding of how we can give back to these things allows the possibility of consciously re-entering the sacred web of reciprocal relationships that make up all life. ^ back to top
The universe itself is infinite. Without beginning and without end. Spirit is without time and matter. It exists outside of the world as we understand it. Linear time and space are foreign concepts in the other worlds. The task of the druid is to fully realize this and our connection with the world on multiple levels of consciousness. We seek to become one and understand the universe and how it works by observing and learning. When we come to fully realize this and we have learned all the lessons we need to learn we become an Ascended Master or a soul which can become one on a fully conscious level with the Universal Soul.
In my mind, this concept is not unlike ( try not to laugh here ) the concept of The Force in the Star Wars stories/movies. The Universal Soul or Source is the universal force of life which flows through all things. When we realize it’s presence and reach out to it we can tap into it’s connection with all things. ^ back to top
The Three Realms
The Land of the Living, The Land of Youth, ‘of Women,’ the Blessed Ones, Summer Land, The infinite Universe, The dwelling place of the eternal Soul when it is not with a body (where we go when we die). This realm infuses, surrounds and contains the Otherworld and the Human World. It is vast, and knows no corporal, spatial or temporal limits. It has no beginning and no end. This is the center of the wheel of creation; the hub of life if you will. Divine sacred light of creation and of God emanates from this place that is not a place.
The Otherworld, The realm of the Fae/Fairy, The Land of the Sidhe, gods, goddesses and ancestors. The Otherworld infuses the Human World at all times with its power and influence. It can be seductive and dangerous. This is the resting place of all god archetypes, demons, fairies, familiars, spirit guides, ghosts and mythic places/heroes or those people/things/places that have since passed from the human world. This world is represented as the spokes on the wheel of creation as it lies between the Land of the Living and the Human World. It is also our interface with the Land of the Living while we are in Human form as this world must be crossed in order to access the Land of the Living.
World: The manifestation of Life for us at this time. This is
the here and now. What we know consciously as our world. The embodiment
of the Life of the Universe in Nature on this planet. The Soul is accompanied
by a body in this world, and the physical senses of the body determine
its perceptions. It is possible to journey to the Otherworld or the Land
of the Living from here, or be visited by beings from there. Druids can
learn or remember awareness of the eternal Soul and thereby gain some
understanding of the Otherworld and immortal existence in the Land of
the Living while incarnate, but full memory usually does not return until
death. However, if we learn to listen to ourselves we can usually hear
the whispering of our higher self (soul) whispering and hinting to us
from the full wisdom of our soul gained from our many incarnations in
Pillars of Druidry
Reincarnation: The Soul (anam) comes and goes in an eternal cycle of lives. Between lives in this world, the Soul dwells in the Land of the Living. The Soul may incarnate in any form, animate or inanimate. At death, the Soul generally loses memory of the details of each individual life but carries the result of the experience across the worlds in the form of wisdom. This may manifest as inspiration (awen - Welsh, imbas - Irish), as music or poetry, or in other ways. There is no evidence to suggest that the experience of the Soul as it journeys between the worlds and between lifetimes is sequential. The experience is better understood as being contracted or expanded, shallower or deeper, inner and outer. The beauty of death is that it erases memories of the life, while leaving the soul with the wisdom that the lessons of the life have imparted.
Spirit in All Things: The whole universe is alive with immanent presence. Water, rocks, fires, hills and rivers, even thoughts, shouts, waves and the wind are alive with soul or spirit presence. The spirits of place and especially the Goddesses of Sovereignty represent this power in the land. The Druids revered the landscape, worshipped within it, and let nature be their guide and teacher. Their task was to nourish the Soul of Life with the life of their own soul.
Reverence for Ancestors: The awareness or wisdom that each soul brings into existence is both individual and collective. The life of the individual, the life of the village, and the life of the land, are the same. The lineage and tradition into which the Soul incarnates shapes consciousness. The Druids honoured the ancestors and the tradition, usually expressed as honor for the tribe and its symbols. The community of the tribe is made up of the dead as well as the living. As we are our ancestors (multiple lifetimes concept) we also pay tribute to ourselves and our brothers and sisters as we honor those in the ancestors.
Multiple Worlds: In addition to this world, there are two others: the Land of the Living and the Realm of the Sidhe. These worlds co-exist and interpenetrate each other. It is possible to journey between the worlds, but to do this in human form is dangerous. Time in the other worlds is non-linear, and glamour and the subjective limitations of the physical senses may seriously affect the traveller’s experience. An image for these many worlds is that of a wheel. We live on the rim of the wheel and experience time on the journey around its perimeter. The spokes of the wheel are the many other worlds (Irish myth mentions thirty-three), and the Soul passes through these to get to the hub. The hub is the Land of the Living, where the experience of the Soul is not constrained by birth, death or time. The hub of course, also contains the perimeter, so the wheel imagery turns out upon itself.
The text on this
page is developed from Druid Magic, by Maya Magee Sutton and Nicholas
R. Mann, Llewllyn 2000. It is copyright and presented here for educational
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