Druids Part 2: Druids and Celtic Culture, Revised


Book of kells artBefore delving into Druid beliefs and practices, it’s important to know a little about the Celtic culture. Unfortunately, knowledge about the Celts who first settled in the British Isles is sketchy. Some of it comes from classical authors and from ancient Irish literature. Little firsthand information exists.

“The Celtic settlement of Britain and Ireland is deduced mainly from archaeological and linguistic considerations. The only direct historical source for the identification of an insular people with the Celts is Caesar’s report of the migration of Belgic tribes to Britain, but the inhabitants of both islands were regarded by the Romans as closely related to the Gauls (Celts of France).” ̴ ̴ quoted from the International World History Project

Since my research has dealt mainly with Irish Druids and Celtic Ireland, I won’t be discussing the Druids of Britain. Suffice it to say that they and their Celtic brethren were invaded and brought under Roman rule during the time of Julius Caesar. Except, that is, for the tribes in Scotland and Wales.

According to a 1996 article in British Archaeology, written by Richard Warner, there is archaeological evidence of a Roman presence in Ireland. However, that doesn’t mean Hibernia – the Latin name for Ireland – was actually conquered by Rome. Rather, the “invaders” apparently assimilated into Ireland’s Celtic culture.

Information about early Irish society comes from legendary sagas, annals, genealogies and ancient law-tracts. The law-tracts are invaluable because they are unique in the existing history of western Europe. The customs of law they preserve open a window into the distant Celtic past.

According to one source, there were two politically powerful groups in old Ireland. One group, the tuathas (tribes) were warriors. It appears from ancient tales such as the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) that both men and women served as warriors. They raided cattle and fought to defend their land.

The second group, the Aes Dana (men of art) wielded power through magic and art. Magic, real or pretense, exerts power over believers, while art influences many people. The Aes Dana belonged to no tribes. They included bards (wandering poets/musicians), filí (household poets and historians), druids (druí in old Irish) and various artisans. Their positions may have been hereditary, but in some cases they could move into a higher ranking role. Children of druids were not necessarily druids.

As members of the Aes Dana, the druids of Ireland were given special privileges. Along with the filí, the druids were often supported by aristocrats and chieftains who required their service. For this reason many druids and filí lived in one place, unlike the wandering bards.

The social hierarchy within a tuath (tribe) consisted of a king, warrior aristocracy, and freemen farmers. Druids were recruited from the warrior class but ranked higher. Celtic families were patriarchal. Most engaged in mixed farming, living on single family farms. In areas of rough terrain or poor climate, cattle raising became more important than crop farming. During times of strife, families might seek refuge in hill forts, but warfare often consisted of single challenges and combat, rather than massed battles.

The Irish tradition of storytelling reveals a link to their Celtic past. The Celts greatly valued music, poetry and oral recitation of ancient heroic tales. They are also well known for their La Tène art. Dating from around 500 B.C., the La Tène period was distinguished by beautiful, intricate designs and knot patterns. One of the finest examples of La Tène art is the Book of Kells. Created by Irish monks ca. 800, this illuminated manuscript, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament, is lavishly decorated with human figures, animals, mythic beasts and Christian symbols, intertwined by Celtic knot designs. It is considered to be Ireland’s greatest national treasure.

Book of Kells.1

Book Sources:

The Celtic Realms, The History and The Culture of The Celtic Peoples From Pre-History to the Norman Invasion by Myles Dillon & Nora Chadwick

The Celtic Druids’ Year, Seasonal Cycles of the Ancient Celts by John King

The Book of Kells

Web sites:

“Yes, the Romans did invade Ireland” — British Archaeology, no 14, May 1996, by Richard Warner

Celts — International World History Project

Wikipedia: The Book of Kells

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