Who Were the Druids?
by Chris Travers

Throughout the past few centuries there has, perhaps, been no group of people which have so fascinated the popular mind of those inhabiting the British Isles than the druids. Some people see them as priests from Atlantis washed ashore somewhere in Wales, while others see them as savage barbarian priests who cruelly sacrificed animals, and even people in their abominable rites. Yet, these images are heavily tainted with bias, speculation, and even down-right forgeries (such as the famed Barddas manuscripts). When scholarship is applied to the evidence, a clearer, more realistic picture emerges.

I intend to pursue this image in this paper. As evidence, I will be drawing from the legends, laws, and languages of the ancient Celtic tribes, as well as from archeological finds, such as Lindow Man. I intend to try to answer many questions regarding the druids, but there are some things which cannot be found. Such short-comings are inevitable, and, in this case, informed speculation is in order, but only after the evidence is considered.

The Men of Art

Celtic Knot In Ireland, there were two separate groups of political institutions. Both of these groups of people were powerful in the politics of the ancient Irish, but the power was fundamentally different. These two groups were the members of the tuathas ("tribe") on one hand, and the Aes Dana (men of art) on the other. Their balance of power ensured that tyranny could not take place, nor could a true caste system be set up in Ireland as it existed in India. While the members of the tuatha would be the warriors, possibly of great power, the Aes Dana derived their power from another source: magic and art. Magic, whether "real" or not, has great sway in the minds of those who believe in it, while art can move the masses.

It seems that the members of the tuathas, whether male or female were required to be warriors. The archeological record points to widespread employment of female warriors until they were outlawed by the pope in the ninth century. They raided cattle, as are told in many different tales and historical accounts even up until the mid-eighteenth century in Highland Scotland, and even here, women often fought in defensive battles. At any rate, little magical power, if any, was credited to these warriors save the ecstasy of battle which was said to shine from their heads in a crimson glow.

In contrast, the Aes Dana were artists and belonged to no tribes. They included bards (traveling poets/musicians), filí (household poets and historians), druids (Old Irish: druí), metal workers, and other artists /artisans. It has been proposed that the positions were hereditary and hence composed a caste-like system, but role did seem to include some social mobility, albeit early in life. Also, the children of druids were not always druids. For instance, Concobar Mac Nessa was the son of Cathbad and Nessa. He grew up to be king of Ulster. For further justification of this point, I will take a closer look at the Fenians of ancient Ireland.

The Fenians were a group of warrior-nomads skilled in poetry and magic. Only answerable to the king, they roamed the country in search of invaders. What is noteworthy about the Fenians is their initiation ordeals. Like other warrior cults of the ancient world, the initiation process was brutal and demanding, requiring the utmost in agility, strength, and stamina. However, the initiation test also included rote memorization of twelve books of poetry. This is not a physical test, but a mental and magical test, for it was believed that the poems themselves had magical effects, such as blessings and curses. In essence the Fenians were also masters of poetry and war, operating outside the tuatha’s military and economical structure, and as such, were probably part of the Aes Dana. It has also been suggested that the "invaders" sought were, in fact, the Formoir, the dreaded giants who were the bane of many waves of settlers. Again this theory would suggest a classification of Aes Dana to their ranks.

Anyone could join the Fenians, provided that they could pass (and survive) the initiatory tests. Their role was most certainly not hereditary, but passed on to those who had talent and skill. There is no reason to suspect that it was any different for the other groups. However, we might assume that the roles would have been more common in the families of those who were already in these positions, as some of a person’s personality and abilities do seem to be hereditary.

The Aes Dana also enjoyed a privileged place in Irish society, and their counterparts probably did in Britain and Gaul as well. A member of the Aes Dana was allowed to pass between clans without delay, questioning, etc. Even the chieftains did not have this luxury. They were also provided for by whoever were their hosts, and the penalties for not doing so, especially for the wealthy could be severe. In a tale in the Mythological cycle of Irish myths/legends, Bres fails to show hospitality to Cairbry, a poet. In response, Cairbry composes a satire which overthrows the Bres as the King of Ireland.

As noted before, the Druids of Ireland were members of the Aes Dana, and as so were given the special privileges noted above. Also, the druids and filí were often supported by the aristocrats who solicited their service. In the Táin Bó Cuailgne, there is a druid named Cathbad, who is in the service of Culainn. Many other stories tell of druids hired by the kings (or chieftains) of old Ireland. Unlike the bards who wandered, many the druids and filí were more or less stationary, living either in their own homes or in those of another.

The Sacred Kingship

Celtic Knot There was one position in Celtic society which stood between the warriors and the men of art. This position was the king, and a king had to be perfect in every way. Kings were ritually married to the land and it was believed that an abuse of power would make Eire (the land-goddess) hostile. Such hostilities could, in the Celtic mind lead to droughts and plagues. The connection was so important that if a drought or a plague occurred, the king was sacrificed to supplicate the land. Boudicca was the queen of the Iceni, in what is now England at the time of the Claudian invasions. For her actions, the Roman soldiers raped her daughters. Swearing bloody vengeance, she rose and raised a massive army which nearly had the capacity to remove the Romans from Britain. Her army numbered as much as eighty thousand strong by some estimates and it was sufficient to slaughter one of the three Roman legions in Britain. Before battle, it is said that she released a hare, making prayers to the goddess of victory, to divine the results of battle. Because of her strong influence and her priestly rituals, Anne Ross has speculated that she must have been a druidess. However, as a semi-divine figure, as an intermediary between the gods and the people, she was a typical Celtic queen.

Two more pieces of evidence point toward a divine position of kingship: speculations regarding Boudicca, and medieval attitudes toward kingship in Scotland. In both of these cases, there is evidence that the monarchs were considered to have divine wisdom and power.

In medieval Scotland, the king was still considered to be of great spiritual leadership. A Scottish king was not answerable to any man and had only to answer to god for his actions. A monarchs word was law, sacred law, for he was the intermediary to the divine. Similarly, an Irish king was allowed seven colors on his cloak, more than anyone else except the Ollamh, who was his equal. As the color scheme is based in socio-religious scale, this makes the kings the true leaders.

Caesar also seems to have noted an interesting piece of data. He notes that anyone in public office was required to have training at the hands of the druids. Presumably this training included the metaphysical and even, perhaps, magical. If Boudicca was, in fact, doing divination and prophesy, then she must have had some esoteric training from the druids.

If the kings were then the religious heads in ancient Ireland and Britain, then the druids were not. The druids often appear as advisors and physicians to the kings in the Irish legends, but never as leaders themselves.

Such a picture of kingship, while seemingly correct in most cases, poses an interesting problem: what of the queens? History and legend speak of Celtic queens, such as Boudicca and Medb, and the Brehon Code (ancient Irish law) seems to imply that queens could rule. So what of the land goddess? This is an interesting problem which I will explore more closely.

It seems to me, the most likely possibility of a solution to this problem is that the queen, rather than marrying Sovereignty, became a manifestation of her. The Reeses point out that Medb is considered by some to be a manifestation of Sovereignty. Yet there is the explicit idea that Medb is also a mortal woman. Such a concept of becoming the divine is found in another similar culture: the Norse. In the Second Lay of Helgi Hjorvarthson, a mortal woman is mentioned by the name of Sigrun ("Knower of victory spells"). It is said that she became a valkerie, learning how to walk on the waves and in the wind. Later on, she displays her supernatural powers by shielding Helgi’s ship during a storm. The valkeries are generally presumed to be spiritual entities who bear the dead to Valholl ("Hall of the Fallen"). The fact that Sigrun becomes a valkerie seems to indicate that she can take on this divine role.

The White Robe

Celtic Knot One of the enduring images of the druids is the white robe. As we will see, it has its roots in mistranslations and unjustified extrapolation. The direct source is Pliny the Elder, from Rome. He describes a Gaulish mistletoe-cutting ritual where a druid, in what is generally translated as "white robe" climbs an oak tree and cuts the mistletoe (which has white berries) with a golden sickle. The plant is then caught in a white cloth, never touched by human hands, and two white bulls are sacrificed.

Many modern neo-druids take this passage to mean that the druids wore ceremonial white robes for all rituals. However, this does not hold up to scrutiny. First of all, in Pliny’s account, the druid is described as wearing a white garment, not necessarily a robe, as Tadhg MacCrossan points out. Climbing an oak tree, which is difficult to begin with, would seem to be next to impossible wearing a robe. Given what is known about Gaulish costume, it seems likely that the white garment was a tunic, not a robe. Also, we must consider that everything in the ritual was white. A more justifiable interpretation would be that the Gaulish druids associated white with mistletoe.

Secondly, the Brehon Code, a set of Old Irish laws originally written probably in the eighth century list the numbers of colors which could be worn on the cloak of a person depending on his (or her) station. More colors were allowed to those in higher stations in a socio-economic and religious order. Druids were allowed to wear up to six colors, and only kings and Ollamhs ("professors?") were allowed seven.

Also, there are other references to Britain (most notably Caesar’s) and Ireland (most notably in legends) which indicate that dark robes were favored in many rituals and, most notably, curses. Caesar speaks of dark-robed women weaving in and out of the British soldiers, while the Fenian cycle speaks of a dark-cloaked druid who curses a woman for spurning his sexual advances by turning her into a doe.

In addition there is some evidence that some rituals were performed nude. While it is well documented that many warriors would often fight unclothed (perhaps to help induce a battle-rage), there is also a good deal of evidence that some rituals were done the same way. In the early 1980’s a body was recovered from the peat bogs of Cheshire, England. Nude, except for an arm-band of fox-skin, he had been slain three times over and thrown in the bog. It is now generally accepted that Lindow Man (named in keeping with the custom of naming preserved bodies by gender and location) was the subject of a human sacrifice. If so, then nudity would have been part of the ritual. Also, in the Ulster cycle, it is mentioned that Cathbad spent a good deal of time in the nude. Perhaps this was also for magical/ritual reasons.

In short, the druids may have worn many things in their rituals, but white robes were probably not among them. Some rituals may have been done in everyday costume, while others may have been done in dark clothing, or even in nothing at all!

The word "Druid"

Celtic Knot The word druid is an anglicized and probably latinized form of the Gaulish "druvis." The word itself has been subject to intense speculation as to its origins, though most scholars associate it with the Greek "drus" meaning oak. An alternate, and perhaps better explanation is based on the Indo-European roots *deru, meaning "steadfast" or "strong," and *wid connected with knowledge, and wisdom, presented by Edred Thorsson, Ph.D. Hence, the original word may have been something like *deruwid, meaning "one of steadfast knowledge." Below is a table of the various forms of the word "druid:"

Druid Words

Druid in Three Languages

Old Irish druÌ
Middle Welsh derwydd
Gaulish *druvis (from '*druvids')

As one can see, different sounds were changed or dropped in each of the languages, suggesting that the early form was, in fact, *deruwid. However, if this is so, the majority who link "druid" and "drus" are not altogether wrong, but the link would be secondary. Drus in Greek is derived from *deru as is druid. Both *deru and *wid were extremely influential roots to the Indo-European languages. Below are some of the words derived from these roots:

Indo-European: *deru
Greek: drus (oak)
Latin: dryad (tree-nymph)
Old Irish: druí (druid), duir (oak)
Old Norse: trú (faithful, true, one who pledges troth)
Modern English: door, tree, truth, troth, true
Indo-European: *wid
Old Norse: vitki (one of wisdom), Alvis (all-wise, a dwarf)
Middle Welsh: derwydd (druid)
Modern English: wit, wise, wisdom, wizard

As one can see, the roots mentioned have had a profound impact on the English language and also on others. I firmly believe that the word "druvis" is derived from an early Celtic word *deruwid, and that, in Gaulish the "w" changed to a "v" (a common shift). Again, the linguistic connection with oak seems secondary, as the name of oak in Old Irish (duir) refers to its solidity and steadfastness. Perhaps as important is the linguistic connection to the English word truth. Truth is steadfast knowledge, as our word for it implies. Druvid, derwydd, and druí could then each be translated as "Knower of truth."

Women of the Druids

Celtic Knot It has been argued that the druids were exclusively male. While in the classical world of Greece and Rome, male and female mystery schools were separate, there is little reason to believe that the same held for the Celts. While the early Greek and Roman sources do not mention women as druids, some of them do give some suspicious descriptions which suggest that they were seeing such. In our Irish legends, we also see female druids playing prominent roles.

The classical world was also much more segregated genderwise than the Celtic world. This contrast has been noted by several scholars, such as Ward Rutherford. In the classical world, women played a largely subservient role, while in the Celtic world they were warriors, poets, farmers, sailors, military leaders, etc. In short, the Celts did not see the gender boundaries as important concerning occupation. Sure, women were not as prevalent in positions of military command as were men, but this is better explained through the socio-economic system of the Celts, and is beyond the scope of this paper.

The position of filead (singular of filí) was regarded as feminine. We also have good legendary evidence of women in this position as well, and because the line between filead and druid is often blurry, it seems to add to the pile of evidence in support of feminine druids.

The Role of the Druids

Celtic Knot As I have mentioned, the druids do not appear as religious leaders of the Celts. Instead they appear as scholars, poets, and magicians. As masters of ceremonies, they administered animal, and even human, sacrifices. As workers of magic, they influenced battles, war, and politics. In addition, they functioned as teachers, philosophers, and diviners. All of these roles are attested to in the legends, mythology, and classical sources. While space does not allow me to verify all of the above roles, I shall verify a couple of them.

In The Excellence of the Ancient Word, several druids are mentioned with translations of battle spells. Such spells include Lug’s charm ("Crane Magic") cast before the Second Battle of Magh Tuiredh, Kenmare’s conjuration of the bog monster, and many others.

In the Tain, Cathbad is seen teaching the art of prophecy to a group of boys when he makes a prediction that the child who takes up the chariot on that night will become famous. CuChulainn overhears the speech and, with his friend, takes up the art of chariot riding. Later on, of course, he earns great fame.

In the Fenian Cycle, Fionn MacCumhaill studies under a druid living out in the woods, fishing for the Salmon of Knowledge. Only when Fionn shows up is the salmon is finally caught, and the druid instructs Fionn not to eat it. However, Fionn burns his thumb on the salmon, so the druid recognizes that the fish was meant for him. Many more examples can easily be found.

Esoteric Mythology and Druid Philosophy

Celtic Knot Unlike the Norse, the Greeks, or the Romans, the Celtic gods seem blurry and ill-defined. This impression is only the surface, it has to be. Not only can such a mythology as that of the Celts not fulfill its function, but there are also echoes which indicate that some of the gods were more defined first appearances might suggest. Equally problematic is the lack of a surviving creation myth. Mythology must fulfill a vital function in any mystery school, past or present, as a model for the universe, and most important are creation myths. Creation myths do not tell us merely how the universe began, they tell us how it is being formed. Examples can be found in Hebrew mysticism, Norse mysteries, and many other places. To a Kabbalist, god creates *everything* in seven days (metaphorically, of course) in the same order as occurs in Genesis 1. To a Norse magician, everything is formed in the same way the multiple worlds were formed. For this reason, in a world perceived as dynamic, creation myths must exist.

Yet perhaps, the term "creation myth" should be further defined. Creation myths do not have to necessarily be thought of as how the universe is formed in the first place. Among the Norse, the beginning of the world is not actually the beginning and the end is not actually the end (very Celtic). The worlds arise from the void of potentiality, and the conscious beings formed there (the Aesir) find that they are not alone. It is said that the world tree predated the Aesir, so where did it come from? The Vanir are not formed in the creation myth, nor are they slain (with the exception of Freyr) in Ragnarok. The answers to these paradoxes in thinking of creation as cyclic. It is my opinion that the Celts must have thought the same. Strabo states that the Celts believed in the immortality of the universe, though it would undergo cycles of destruction, and this destruction seems parallel to the destruction at Ragnarok, where the world dies only to be born anew (see Voluspa in the Poetic Edda).

On the surface, the Celtic gods seem humanlike, vague, and ill-defined. However, this is only the surface. There may be many battle goddesses, love goddesses, magic gods, etc., but a closer look reveals another side to the mythology.

Thorsson points out that the Eskimos have many words for "white" because they live in a climate in which they would recognize such minute differences in color. In other words, the Eskimos are intimately familiar with the color "white," so they can divide it up along boundaries almost no one else could decipher. Thorsson goes on to argue that the many words for "soul" in Old Norse stem from a similar situation. To extend Thorsson’s argument, the many war gods of the Norse show a similar pattern. Odhin, Thorr, and Tyr are all war gods, but they are different types of war gods. Tyr is a god of justice and righteous warfare, while Odhin is the god of the battle frenzy and the death associated with war. Thorr is a god of the excitement of battle.

Among the Celts we have a similar situation. Simply because Ogma, Lug, and the Dagda are magicians and magic-gods does not mean that their magic is one and the same. I would venture to say that they reflect different attitudes towards magical traditions, training, and tools. Lug is the Samildanach (or merely Ildanach) meaning all-craftsmen He uses all of his skills to cast spells and make magical objects, such as shoes, purses, weapons, etc. He is the god of true eclectic magic and craftsmanship. Lug was one of the most important Celtic deities, known in Welsh as Llew and Gaulish as Lugus. He may have been the god of the magical craftsman.

In contrast, the Dagda is the All-father and the patron of druids. He is one of the most powerful magicians of the Tuatha De Dannan. Like Lug, he has many powers. However, the Dagda is also the master of life and death, able to kill a man with his club or raise him back to life. Dagda is also in possession of a magical cauldron which no company ever departs from unsatisfied. Presumably the cauldron dispenses wisdom rather than food, as the Dagda himself goes hungry during Bres’s rule. He is also Lug’s paternal grandfather. The Dagda represents another attitude toward magical practice, namely the mystical end. Those who might approach the Dagda might seem to search for the understanding of the mysteries of life and death. In this respect, the Dagda is almost an exact cognate with Odhin of the Norse.

Yet another magic god is Ogma. He is strong in battle, though is usually depicted with a golden chain running from his tongue to the yokes around men near him. This strange image is usually interpreted, I believe correctly, as a symbol of eloquence; it is Ogma’s speech which enslaves those around him. Ogma seems to be the patron of verbal magic and manipulation, the patron of the Ollamh. Verbal magic seems to be a major aspect of nearly all Celtic magic (or any tradition, for that matter), but perfecting verbal magic to an art in itself is a long, difficult path. Ogma is also the reputed inventor of the Ogam alphabet (and the two names are etymologically related, both stemming from the root meaning "to cut"), and it seems that the Ogam alphabet is linked to the poetics, as it seems to provide a focus for the learning.

A similar scheme could be made for the five main battle goddesses, as could a comparison of love goddesses and healing goddesses, but space does not allow me to go into further detail here.

On the subject of druid philosophy, little can be said about it at this time. The ideas may have been mostly lost, but may have been as complex and elegant as anything in the Greek world. Cicero mentions the druids as possessing "Greek philosophy." Cicero was well educated, and this lends additional credit to his claim.

The Greeks had many great philosophers, including Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. Yet, while we think of these as the main thinkers in Ancient Greece, this is hardly accurate. Many other influential philosophers had an influence on Western thought as great as Plato or Socrates. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was accepted up until the time of Copernicus, and it was based on the earlier models of other thinkers. Also, there were many different schools of thought among the Greeks, so Greek philosophy was by no means unified. Presumably Cicero must have been aware of the lack of unification of the Greek ideas, so he must have been referring to the complexity and thoughtfulness of the ideas the druids possessed. I intend to make druid philosophy the focus my final research paper.

Who were the Druids? (Epilogue)

The picture that emerges of a druid, then, is one of a thoughtful philosopher and magician, schooled in the lore of the traditions, and in charge of the education of the chieftains as well as those who sought esoteric knowledge. A druid is a knower of truth, able to manipulate that truth as well as inform others about it. Scholars, they were advisers to kings. As healers, they treated the ill. These roles may seem to be details, but they are the foundation which a allows a more detailed discussion of magic, philosophy, and the relevance of the druids to today’s world.

These topics I intend to discuss in my final paper, now that the groundwork has been done. Eventually, like Tara, the building, or paper, will sink and become the groundwork for another. Eventually, the result will be the greatest fortress in Ireland. I hope to be a builder of this fortress through books and essays. The greatest adventure always seems to lie ahead.

Select Bibliography:

Cowan, Tom. Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit. San Fransisco: HarperSanFransisco 1990

Ellis, Peter Berresford. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. New York: Oxford 1992
-----. Dictionary of Irish Mythology. New York: Oxford 1991

Hollander, Lee M (tr). The Poetic Edda. Austin: University of Texas Press

MacCrossan, Tadhg. The Truth about the Druids. St. Paul: Llewellyn 1993

ó Tuathail, Seán. The Excellence of the Ancient Word. available via internet at: ftp://bronze.coil.com/pub/nemeton/lore/eaw.cnl

Piggot, Stuart. The Druids. New York: Thames and Hudson 1975

Rees, Alwyn and Brinley. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. New York: Thames and Hudson 1961

Thorsson, Edred. Runelore: A Textbook of Esoteric Runology. York Beach, ME: Weiser 1987
------ A Book of Troth. St. Paul: Llewellyn 1989 (out of print).
------ A Book of Ogham. St. Paul: Llewellyn 1992

Copyright 1996 Chris Travers

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