Some of the most important figures in ancient Celtic society were the Druids. In Ireland, Druids were considered among the most well-educated in society. They had expertise across a range of disciplines including medicine, the creative arts, law and teaching. However, what they are most famous for is their knowledge and leadership in spiritual and magical beliefs. Their legacy in these matters is famous worldwide and shrouded by an air of mystery and mysticism.
The Druids were the religious leaders in Ireland before the arrival of Christianity. Society in these days was predominantly illiterate, and though it is thought that the Druids were literate, they must have passed on their knowledge verbally as they left behind no written sources of their own. Instead we have sources from other cultures such as the Romans, who mentioned the Druids in some of their writings, and from the Christian Monks who inhabited Ireland in later centuries. They recorded many of the stories, rituals and actions of the Druids.
Origin of the Druids
Although we do not have written references to the Druids until the fourth century BC, it is thought that they existed in some form in Ireland long before this. Ancient megalithic monuments from the Neolithic period such as Newgrange are thought by some to have been designed with the advice of people like Druids, as extensive expertise in astronomy would have been required to align it with the Winter Solstice sun. It is almost certain that these sites were used for the rituals and traditions, but sadly we will never know for sure what these would have involved.
The first comprehensive account of the Druids comes from the writings of Julius Caesar. He described with great detail the Druids he encountered while acting as the Governor of the Roman province of Gaul. He described their power structures, their ritual sacrifice and some of their beliefs. Although we must keep in mind while reading it that this may not be an entirely reliable source, it is fascinating to read the words of someone who lived in the same period as these mysterious people.
Some of the best accounts of the Druids are from medieval Irish monks. They recorded an extensive history and mythology that are still well known to this day. The tales that these Christian monks told form the backbone of all Irish mythology, though they also have a lot of bias against their Pagan ancestors that should be kept in mind while reading them.
Customs of the Druids
The word ‘Druid’ is thought to mean ‘oak-knower’ or ‘oak-seer’ in the old Celtic languages. And it is clear that trees were of huge importance and value to them. For Irish Druids particularly, the oak tree was a hugely important symbol of spirituality and power. Oak trees are thought to have been meeting places and sites for performing rituals, and to have had magical properties.
Human sacrifice was another alleged custom of the Druids, which was written about extensively by Julius Caesar. In his records, he notes that the victims of sacrifice were most often criminals who had been found guilty of serious offences. The Druids offered these sacrifices to appease the Gods, and they had several methods of killing their offerings.
According to Roman sources, some were hung, some were burned, and others were subjected to ritualistic torment. The Iron Age bog bodies found in Ireland are thought by some to have been part of a ritual killing like this. However, it is worth noting that not everyone agrees with this interpretation of the bodies. It is also worth noting that we do not know the extent to which the writings from Rome served as propaganda for the Roman Empire.
Celtic society was unusual compared to other civilisations of the time, such as the Romans and the Greeks, in that women were seen as mostly equals to men and there were few distinctions made between the sexes. Female Druids are thought to have been common, and in Irish mythology from the medieval period there are a number of them named who take part in the adventures of the famous heroes and villains. Female Druids were known as Bandrúi, and they held the same important roles as their male counterparts in cultural and religious matters.
One such Bandrúi is Biróg, who uses her magic to assist Cian of the Tuatha dé Danann on his quest to where he meets Eithne. Eithne had been imprisoned in a tower by her father Balor, a Fomorian chieftan, because it had been prophesised that he would be killed by his grandson. Eithne and Cian conceive a child, who Balor throws into the sea as soon as he is born. The child is rescued by Biróg, who saves him and brings him to safety. This child grows up to be a famous warrior named Lugh, who goes on to slay his evil grandfather and become the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
The End of The Druids
The end of the Druids and their Pagan traditions began when Christianity arrived in Ireland. For a while, the two religions co-existed on the island, but eventually the Druids were marginalised and frowned upon and became a very small aspect of life in Ireland. However, Ireland and Britain did manage to hold on to many of their old Pagan beliefs and customs, and a lot of them are still practised to this day. Many were also appropriated into Christian customs to make them more palatable to the native people. Sadly, with the coming of Christianity, women lost their equal status in society and were stopped from leading communities and running religious orders.
In recent years, following the Celtic Revival in the 18th and 19th centuries, the interest in Druids and their ancient beliefs and customs has experienced a huge increase among the general public. This has created a movement of people who seek to reconnect with nature and return to a more indigenous spirituality. The popularity of the Druids is enduring, as people endeavour to understand the mysteries surrounding their beliefs and magic. This, along with the beloved mythology of Ireland will ensure that the Druids and their traditions will continue to live on for many years to come.