First and foremost, I feel there must be made the extreme clarification that the druids that I write of in my fiction are simply the best interpretation I have made of the druids of the past. I have then applied this interpretation to the fantastical world that I have created. In this world, they face realities and challenges that the druids of old did not have to face, and as such take actions that the druids of the past could never have conceived. Even so, it is important to me, as an author and writer to portray as accurate a depiction of these mysterious peoples as I can, given the constraints of my fantasy realm. A great challenge to this attempt was the fact, however, is that the history of the druids was never set upon paper. Much of the druid society that we know of today is limited to information compiled after the fact by Greeks and Romans who observed the druids as mere spectators. All of this aside, it can be said with fair warning that the research that I have done, and perhaps even the research other esteemed scholars and experts have completed, might be complete and utter hogwash.
Without further ado, the conclusions of one very tired, but motivated writer:
The Romans saw the Druids as bizarre, barbaric priests who indulged in the most horrendous human sacrifices, searching for auguries in the entrails of their victims.” “Those readers who have encountered Celtic mythology” understand that the Druids were “depicted as an all-powerful and essential element in society,” which had been reduced over time to become the simple wizards or parlor trick wielding “soothsayers.”
The problem posed by Ellis, is one that poses the ultimate conundrum of the Druidry rabbit hole, “who is right in their perception of the Druids?” The Romans or The Greeks, who opposed the Celts? The several centuries removed descendent groups of the Ancient Order of Druids? Ellis’ answer to this problem is simple: “Everyone is wrong but everyone has glimpsed a tiny part of the reality, so everyone is right and we all get a prize.” Ellis also cautions against blindly accepting the early tales written by the Greek and roman writers, in that it would be like accepting, without question, the account of the “American Indians from the perceptions of nineteenth century white American settlers.” Ellis offers that the Druids were an “intellectual class who could, and did, organize national revolt against Rome,” elucidating the Roman rhetoric against them, insinuating that they were in the conduct of “inhuman rites.”
From the Outside Looking In:
The teachings of the druids were conducted exclusively orally, due to the “religious prohibitions on committing their knowledge” to writing such that their knowledge would “not fall into the wrong hands.” Julius Caesar expanded on this, explaining that “Druids believe that their religion forbids them to commit their teachings to writing,” but Caesar additionally believed that “this rule was originally established… because they did not want their doctrine to become public property, and in order to prevent their pupils from relying on the written word and neglecting to train their memories.” Ellis surmised that it could take anywhere from 12-20 years to reach the highest level of understanding and knowledge among the druids.
Ellis proposes that the druids were not simply “barbaric priests or priestesses,” but that they made up the highly intellectual caste in the Celtic society, being not just those of religious roles, but those who were “philosophers, judges, teachers, historians, powers, musicians, physicians, astronomers, prophets and political advisers or counselors.” Additionally, Ellis believes that on occasion, druids could also serve as “kings or chieftains.” He also contends that “Druids, of course, were both male and female.” Ellen Evert Hopman agrees with this concept, saying that druids were the “history-keepers” and the “repositories of lore and wisdom. Hopman believes that Druids were considered the ultimate source for “law, medicine, the knowledge of nature and the gods and goddesses, the Otherworld, and the timing of ritual and agricultural cycles.”
Ellis concludes that Druids “were an indigenous Celtic intelligentsia, evolving from original wise men and women during the age of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ among the ancient ancestors of the Celts, losing their original functions… They were found in every part of the Celtic society, but it was not until the second century BC that the Greeks realized that these individual learned functionaries had a collective name – the Druids.”
Ellis recounts Diodorus Siculus (c.60-c.21 BC) and Strabo’s (64 BC-AD 24) perspective of the classes of intellectual Gaul society into three categories: the Bards, the Vates and the Druids. “The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates interpreters of sacrifice and natural philosophers, while the Druids, in addition to the science of nature, study also moral philosophy. They are believed to be the most just of men and are therefore entrusted with the decision of cases affecting either individuals or the public.” Diodorus agrees with this categorization, believing that Druids were held in high prestige in society, and that they would “foretell the future by the flight or cries of birds and slaughter of sacred animals” (Ellis, 51, 1994). It was Gaius Julius Caesar who wrote in De Bello Gallico, Book VI, that there were what he would describe as “three classes in Gaul – the intellectuals called Druids (Druides), the military caste (Equites) and the people (Plebs).” Author Ellen Evert Hopman writes that broke down three similar sections within the Druid order, being the “Brehons, Vates, and Bards” who all had “separate functions.” She contends that the “Bards specialized in poetic composition and singing, whereas the Vates practiced divination and seership.” The Brehons, Hopman contends, were the “judges” and “arbiters of the ancient Brehon laws.” She contends that the clergy, being made up of both priests and priestesses, were known as the Druids.
To expand on Caesar’s understanding of Druids, he said that they were known to “officiate at the worship of the gods, regulate public and private sacrifices, and give rulings on all religious questions. Large numbers of young men flock to them for instruction, and they are held in great honour by the people. They act as judges in practically all disputes, whether between tribes or between individuals… Any individual or tribe failing to accept their award is banned from taking part in sacrifice – the heaviest punishment that can be inflicted upon a Gaul.” Caesar additionally contends that the Druids were organized such that they were led by one individual who held the highest regard and respect of them all. Upon that head’s death, there would be the selection of one to take his place, given that there was someone of proper merit available. If there were multiple claims, Caeser contends that they would decide upon their next head by voting, “though sometimes they actually fight it out.” Caesar makes an interesting observation on the selection of Druids, stating that they are “exempt from military service and do not pay taxes like other citizens” leading some to “present themselves of their own accord to become students of Druidism,” with others simply being sent “by their parents and relatives.”
Caesar’s understanding of druids is not so different from Hopman’s. The author simply further broke this group of druids down further into the three tiers: Brehons, Vates, and Bards. The Bards, by Hopman’s assertion, “were the storytellers.” Hopman believes that it was the bard’s responsibility to perform at ceremonies, such as at “night vigils at holy wells” or “before a hunt.” The importance of the bards lay in their responsibility to upkeep the “heroic cycles and of rhymes, riddles, songs, prayers, proverbs, traditions, and genealogical lore.” A master poet or bard was one who retained and recited as much as 350 stories from their repository. Hopman believes that the Ovates, or Vates, “were keepers of prophecy, divination, and sacrifice.” They also delved out deaths through sacrifices, according to Hopman, being “death by air (hanging), death by water (drowning), death by fire (cremation) and death by earth (burial alive).” Hopman contends that while druids practiced sacrifices, Julius Caesar had no evidence of burning wicker men, as he had published in his propaganda against the Gauls.
Caesar believed that Druids had a cyclical perspective on life, in that the soul of a druid “does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another.” Hopman agrees with this understanding, in that she endorses the belief that the Druids believed in reincarnation. There are many druid origin tales, ranging from Amairgen the first Druid of the Gaels to the third mythical invasion of Ireland, and the three Druids: Fios, Eolas and Fochmarc. It is believed that it was Mide of the Nemedians “who lit the first Druidical fire at Uisneach,” a sacred fire that was lit at “the exact centre of the country.” Eliis explains that the Druids “gathered every year to light the famous Fire of Bel at Uisnech where stood the Stone of Divisions.”
Delving into the Lore and Origins:
Ellis touches on the Tuathe Dé Denaan, the Celtic gods and goddesses, in that they also incorporated Druids. The tales say that the gods and goddesses came from four cities; Falias, Gorias, Finias and Murias, where the gods were instructed by the Druids Morias, Urias, Arias and Senias. Urias was of “noble nature,” and lived in Gorias. Morias lived in Falias. Arias was a poet who lived in Finias. Senias lived in Murias. (Confused yet?)
Here’s a little breakdown to make things simpler:
- City of Falias, lived the druid Morias
- City of Gorias, lived the druid Urias (of noble nature)
- City of Finias, lived the druid Arias (the poet)
- City of Murias, lived the druid Senais
The god of the druids was Ogma, son of The Dagda, the Father of the Gods. Ogmas was the god of “eloquence and poetry.” It was said that the druids of the De Denaan could conjure storms when they wished to. Mug Ruith, a sun god, was also categorized as a druid who could dry up waters.
J.A. MacCulloch wrote in The Religion of the Ancient Celts (1911), that the Celts had “strong ties to the unseen,” and were “eager to conquer the unknown by religious rite or magic art.” Pomponius Mela said that the “Druids profess to know the will of the gods.”
When writing a druidic language, bear in mind that “Goidelic was the earliest form of Celtic spoken.” Various other dialects developed, such as the Brythonic and Gaulish dialects. Ellis explains that the modern day survivors of the ancient languages are Irish, Manx and Cornish Gaelic or Goidelic and Welsh, Cornish and Breton.”
While there is skepticism at specific breeds, there does seem to be a cohesive agreeance that there is a connection between Druids and trees, ranging from Oaks, Hazels, Rowans, and a variety of other trees that existed and served symbolic purposes.
The Celts worshiped in line with the “mother goddess concept,” where the “mother goddess was Danu.” The Celts did not seem to begin as a patriarch dominated society, however it made a transition over time, aided in part by the influence of Christianity.
The druidical year was “divided into two halves,” being Samonios from October/November to Giamonios (April/May), and from Giamonios to Samonios. Samonios to Giamonios was the dark half of the year, and Giamonios to Samonios was the light half of the year. Certain days were special above others, to include: the winter and summer solstices, a festival “equivalent” to Lugnasad, and a festival at the same time as Beltaine. Though no specific day was set for Samhain or Oimealg, these times were also special.
- Samonios Oct/Nov “seed time/summer’s end”
- Dumannios Nov/Dec “dark”
- Rivros Dec/Jan “frost time”
- Anagantios Jan/Feb “time to stay indoors”
- Ogronios Feb/Mar “cool month”
- Cutios Mar/Apr “time of wind”
- Giamonios Apr/May “shoot time/winter’s end”
- Simivisonios May/Jun “bright spring”
- Equos Jun/Jul “horse racing/trading”
- Elembivios Jul/Aug “wooden fence”
- Edrinios Aug/Sep “hot time”
- Cantlos Sep/Oct “song month” (celebrate harvest?)
Female Druids – Druidess/Bandrui:
To understand the role of female druids, or Dryades/Druidesses, Ellis contends that one must “bear in mind the fascinating role of women in Celtic society as opposed to their position in other European cultures,” in that the role of women in the Celtic society “far exceeded those of Greece or Rome.” Women in the Celtic community could be leaders, chieftainesses, priestesses, and lead their people into battle. Boudicca, Medb of Connacht, Scathach and many more stand as examples of these unique roles. There was Chiomara, wife of Ortagion, who was a chieftain of the Tolistoboii. During the Roman invasion, Chiomara was captured by the Romans and was raped by a centurion. When it was discovered who she was, a ransom was sent to her husband, who agreed to pay it. Ortagion met with the centurion upon the bank of a river, and Chiomara had him decapitated, keeping the head in Celtic fashion, and taking it to her husband. The Greek report of their conversation is cited to have gone along like this: Ortagion – “Woman, a fine thing is good faith.” Chiomara – “A better thing only one man be alive who had intercourse with me.” Now can we just have a round of applause for such a great exchange, whether true or fanciful. According to Plutarch, Celtic women “were often appointed ambassadors.” This perspective of equality caused quite the stir in the time of the Romans, as indicated buy Tacitus’ comments in his Annals, in that the “celts had no objection to being led by a women,” and affirms this point in his Agricola, saying that “there is no rule of distinction to exclude the female line from the throne, or the command of armies.” This perspective of equality perplexed the Romans. In the Celtic society, “women could be found in many professions, even as lawyers and judges, such as Brigh, a celebrated woman-Brehon.” Inheriting property, divorce, settling debts were all items that could be handled by the individual, regardless of gender. Ellis and Professor Markle point out that “Druids included women in their political and religious life.” Ellis elucidates that “in Celtic tradition the existence of female druids is explicit,” with references to the “bandruaid,” or druid women. Alternate spelling can be found in the Rennes Dinnsenchus, where Brigit was said to have been a ban-drui before converting to Christianity. The epic told that she was raised up in the druidic traditions, and potentially was “nourished on the magical milk of Otherworld cows.” Adding to the mixing of magic and druidry, T.D. Kendrick mentions a community of Druid women, “who could raise storms, cause diseases and kill their enemies by supernatural curses.” The art of prophesizing is called the imbas forasnai, or the Light of Foresight. A druidess who is cited as using this gift is Fidelma, who gives advice to Medb, the queen of Connacht in the Irish epic, the Tain Bo Cuailnge. Fidelma is described as having yellow hair and wearing a speckled cloak. Her eyebrows are uniquely described as being pitch black, and her eyes even more interestingly described as having triple irises.. She is painted in beauty, in that the tale is told such that “her lips were inset with Parthian scarlet” and her teeth “were like an array of jewels between lips. She is described as holding a light gold rod in her hands, inlaid with gold. By the tenth century, the role of the Celtic woman was transitioning due in part to the impact of Christianity upon Ireland. It became such that laws were created that were “considerably less generous to women.”
- Ellis, P., 1994. The Druids. London: Constable and Company Limited, pp.1-278.
- Hopman, E. E. (1994). A Druid’s herbal for the sacred earth year. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.
All imagery credits from this article go to Paul Kerby.