In the preface to his book, Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, James Bonwick stated about the Druids, “They were, doubtless, neither so grandly wise, nor so low in reputation, as represented by tradition. Their ethical lessons must have assuredly prepared the way for Christian missions.” (First published in 1894)
According to Bonwick, early Christian writers believed the Druids possessed a literature. Some of these writers claimed St. Patrick burned 180 Druid books, setting off a book burning spree by his converted followers that eradicated Druid manuscripts. Truth or legend?
Archaeological evidence proves Celts used a written language for everyday matters. Yet, Julius Caesar states the Druids studied up to 20 years, memorizing huge quantities of poetry (knowledge) rather than writing it down. But why?
One source quotes Caesar: “I believe they practice this oral tradition for two reasons: first, so that the common crowd does not gain access to their secrets and second, to improve the faculty of memory.”
However, Peter Berresford Ellis, in his book A Brief History of The Druids, suggests the answer lies in the Druidic concept of Truth as a supreme authority. They believed the Word held magic power, that all Words, and even the earth itself were founded upon the Truth. Ellis says, “Truth was the Word and the Word was sacred and divine and not to be profaned.” Thus, it violated Druid beliefs to write down sacred knowledge.
We should also keep in mind that Caesar was writing about the Gaulish Druids of Europe, not Irish Druids. Had the Irish broken away from that ancient taboo against recording their teachings? We don’t know. But if this was the case, they may well have possessed the books that St. Patrick reportedly burned. If so, what a tragic loss!
The Druid belief in the sacred Word bears a striking resemblance to this passage from the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1. Is this similarity mere coincidence? Maybe not if we remember that many cultures, including the Jews and early Christians, were influenced by the pre-historic Indo-Europeans, from whom the Celts and Druids sprang. Fascinating, isn’t it, how interconnected we all are through our long ago ancestors. But I’m drifting here. Back to Druid religion.
Although Romans claimed the Druids practiced human sacrifice, no Celtic insular writings back this up. Keep in mind that the Romans sought to undermine all “barbarian” groups they conquered. Their writings were often intended to vilify Druids because they were spiritual leaders who wielded great power among the Celts. Therefore, while it’s possible the Druids did practice human sacrifice, we can’t know that for certain.
(NOTE: one reader informs me there is proof of some ritual sacrifices among the Druids. She suggests this source: http://www.connellodonovan.com/lindow.html .)
Whether or not there were female Druids has also been disputed. Considering the Celtic attitude toward women, it seems certain some would serve as Druids. If women could be warriors, why not priests? My sources bear out this conclusion.
Both classical and indigenous writers refer to the role of the “prophetess,” a diviner of future events, but this term came from the Greeks and Romans. Other indigenous texts call such women Druidesses or Vates. In his book War, Women and Druids, Eyewitness Reports and Early Accounts of the Ancient Celts, Philip Freeman says: “. . . that of the few individual Druids known from antiquity, some are women.” In a later chapter he sites three passages from a 4th century collection of (Roman) imperial biographies, which mention Gaulish (Celtic) women called “Dryades,” meaning Druidesses. That’s good enough for me!
Sadly, no record exists of the original Celtic creation myths. However, Irish mythology does speak of Danu, the mother goddess, and her children, the Tuatha Dé Danaan. Danu’s name relates to the Danube River, whose headwaters spring from the area where early Celtic tribes evolved. As in other countries, the concept of a sacred river flowing from a divine source existed in Ireland. Irish bards believed wisdom, knowledge and poetry sprang forth at the river’s edge. The worship of sacred springs and wells also traces back to this belief in waters from heaven.
Despite the Druids’ belief in Truth as the wellhead of existence, the ancient Irish also worshipped a large pantheon of hero gods and goddesses. I don’t have the time or space to go into all the old hero legends here. If you’d like to learn more about them, and about Druid ceremonies, astrological work and views of nature, I recommend the following sources.
A Brief History of The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis
Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions by James Bonwick
by Philip Freeman **This book is a little gem!
Celtic Gods and Goddesses **A lovely site!
Remember, I love hearing from you! Whether it’s Druids or some other hint of magic, do you try to add that extra bit of “something more” to your stories? Do you find these differences help you answer some questions, or that these legends and special abilities bring up more questions? I’m interested to know!
Watch for the fourth and final post in this series, which will focus on modern day Druids.