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HISTORY OF DRUIDISM

THE ORIGIN OF THE DRUIDS

Selected writings from renowned Druidic historian Peter Berresford Ellis
© Peter Berresford Ellis

Druids existed throughout the entire Celtic world. No Classical writer ever referred to the Druids as priests, nor is Druidism depicted as a religion. The Druids were an indigenous Celtic intelligentsia, evolving from the original wise men and women during the age of the 'hunter gatherer' among the ancient ancestors of the Celts, losing their original functions but retaining the Celtic name of those with 'oak knowledge'. They were to be found in every part of Celtic society but it was not until the second century BC that the Greeks realized that these individual learned funtionaries had a collective name - the Druids.

The first references to the Celtic people generally began to appear in Greek sources from the sixth and fifth centuries, almost four centuries before the first references to the Druids.The Druids were to be found throughout the Celtic world. Did the Druids exist in native Celtic culture before the second century BC? Berresford Ellis believes they did, but that no commentator used that native Celtic caste name, simply referring to them by their individual rather than their collective function.

How did the Druids emerge in Celtic society? What were their origins? A Druid was one who was 'immersed in knowledge' or one with 'oak knowledge'.The origins of the Druid caste had its roots in the 'food gathering age' when extensive oak forests covered Europe. The oak was a symbol of plenty. Acorns were collected as a means of food and were easy to store for more difficult days. Some say the acorn was ground and baked into bread. Early Europeans observed that the oak was the most venerable tree of the forest, the hardiest and most useful. There developed a veneration of the oak and the rise of 'the wise ones of the oak', which is a central belief in most ancient Indo-European religions. To have a knowledge of the trees endowed one with survival techniques and therefore wisdom. As the Celtic societal system developed, over many centuries, the learned men and women of the tribes simply retained the title of those with'oak knowledge'.

Nothing in accounts of Druids suggests a priesthood nor do Classical writers call them priests or sacerdotes'. Their oral tradition existed because they placed a prohibition on committing their knowledge to written form, in order that it should not fall into the wrong hands. It took between twelve and twenty of study to reach the highest level of learning among Druids. The Druids were the parallel caste to the Brahmins of the Hindu culture. The Druids were a caste incorporating the learned professions. The caste not only included those who had a religious function but was also composed of philosophers, teachers, historians, judges, poets, physicians, astronomers, musicians, prophets and political counsellors.Druids could even be kings or chieftans, but not all kings were Druids.

GREEK AND ROMAN FALLACIES

Greek and Roman writers are the earliest and most extensive sources of Druid information. Unfortunately, these writers were alien and extremely hostile to Celtic culture. And equally unfortunate is the ACCEPTANCE of these writings without question even by scholars. This can be compared to scholars accepting the culture and history of Native Americans as written by nineteenth century white settlers. This view would be extremely prejudiced. And what about the commander of a foreign army sent to conquer and destroy a people and then writing a book about the culture and customs of those people being accepted by subsequent generations as having been written without prejudice? We are expected to accept Julius Caesar's accounts of the Celts and Druids as completely accurate.It is a traditional Imperialist maxim that to conquer a nation you must first remove the class which is most dangerous to your objectives, that is - the intellectuals.

Professor Jean Markle said, "The Druids represented an absolute threat to the Roman State, because their science and philosophy dangerously contradicted Roman orthodoxy. The Romans were materialistic, the Druids spiritual. For the Romans the State was a monolithic structure spread over territories deliberately organized into a hierarchy. With the Druids it was a freely consented moral order with an entirely mythical central idea. The Romans based their law on private ownership of land, with property rights entirely vested in the head of the family, whereas the Druids always considered ownership collective. The Romans looked upon women as bearers of children and objects of pleasure, while the Druids included women in their political and religious life. We can thus understand how seriously the subversive thought of the Celts threatened the Roman order, even though it was never openly expressed.The talent of the Romans in ridding themselves of the Gallic and British elites is always considered astonishing, but this leaves out of account the fact that it was a matter of life or death to Roman society." Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24 - 79) was the first to raise questions about the reasons for the decline of the Druids and had no qualms in blaming it on Roman repression.

FEMALE DRUIDS

In Rome and Greece women had little or no rights. In Celtic society, however, the position of women was vastly different. From history we find numerous female figures of supreme authority, for example Boudicca (Boadicea), the ruler of the Iceni, who was accepted as war leader by the southern British tribes in AD 61. She is, perhaps, the most famous of the female Celtic rulers. Boudicca was a Druidess as well as a queen. From Plutarch's (the Greek historian Ploutorches - c.AD 46-c.120) essay, 'On the Virtues of Women', we learn that Celtic women were often appointed ambassadors. They were involved in a treaty between the Carthaginian general Hannibal and the Celtic Volcae. Plutarch also says that women took part in the Celtic assemblies, frequently smoothing quarrels with their careful diplomacy.

The position of women as it emerges in the Brehon Law system of Ireland, at a time when women were treated as mere chattels in most European societies, was amazingly advanced. Women could be found in many professions, even as lawyers and judges, such as Brigh, a celebrated woman-Brehon. Women had the right to succession and could emerge as a supreme authority, though kingship, in the historic period, was mainly confined to males. A woman could inherit property and remained the owner of any property she brought into marriage. If the marriage broke up, then she not only took out of it her own property but any property that her husband had given her during the marriage. Divorce, of course, was permitted and a woman could divorce her husband just as a husband could divorce his wife. If a man had 'fallen from his dignity', that is, committed a crime and lost his civil rights or been outcast from society, it did not affect the position of his wife. A woman was responsible for her own debts and not those of her husband.

The introduction of Christianity gave the last kick to what had once been the equality of male and female in Celtic society. The uniqueness of Celtic society lay in the fact that such concepts had lasted so long. As the society disintegrated into patrirchy, changes from the initial 'mother goddess' concept had altered into a 'father of the gods' idea and slowly the male warrior society was replacing earlier perceptions.

In any study of the Druids, inasmuch as they represent pre-Christian Celtic religious concepts and philosophy, one has to acknowledge not only the importance of the role of women, but, indeed, the very centrality of their position enshrined as the supreme 'mother goddess', the symbol of knowledge and freedom, and as the moral pivot of Celtic society. It is not by chance that in the Irish sagas sovranty is consistently portrayed in the person of a woman. The woman usually appears in the form of a hag until the hero embraces her and is then hailed as the rightful ruler, with the woman turning into a beautiful woman. The union between the king and the goddess of the land was essential and, in this act, ancient Ireland is no different from other civilizations such as that of Mesopotamia where the Sumarian kings married symbolically with the goddess Innana. Medb of Connacht comes out of the myths as the wife of nine kings of Ireland in succession.

The northern British Celtic tribes, the Cruthin of Caledonia, popularly known by their nickname as the Picts, are said to have had a matrilineal succession of kingship. The Northumbrian historian Bede (d. AD 735), in his Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, says that the Pictish kings and chieftans took Irish wives on the condition that the kingship passed through the female line.

The name of Ireland itself, Eire, is the name of one of the triune goddesses; her sisters being Banba and Fotla. Each goddess asked the Milesians to remember her by naming Ireland after her. Banba and Fotla were often used as synonyms, particularly in poetry, for Ireland. But the Druid, Amairgen, promised the goddess Eire that the children of the Gael would use her name as the principal name of the country.

RELIGION OF THE DRUIDS

Celts were not inclined to abrogate their will to anyone but themselves. The Celts were polytheists and not monotheists. It is a fact that there are extant some 374 names of Celtic gods and goddesses throughout the vast area once inhabited by the Celts in Europe. Of these names, 305 occur only once and have been thought to be names of local deities (teutates), particular to each tribe. However, 20 names occur with great frequency in those areas where the Celts were domiciled. Berresford Ellis argues that the main Celtic pantheon of gods numbered thirty-three. The Hindu gods and those of Persia were also thirty-three in number. Thirty-three seems to be a number of significance shared with other Indo-European cultures, even Rome.

This number thirty-three has significance in Celtic culture. The Irish gods and goddesses, the Children of Danu, have thirty-three leaders at the battles of Magh Tuireadh, although only five of them, another significant figure, confer before the battle. The Fomorii also have thirty-three leaders. Nemed lost thirty-three ships on his voyage to Ireland. Cuchulainn slays thirty-three opponents in the Otherworld. In the Tain Bo Cuailnge the men of Ireland are mustered in companies of thirty-three. The Druid/solar deity, Mug Ruith, was said to have studied with Simon Magus for thirty-three years. The Cruithin (or Picts) had thirty-three pagan kings and thirty-three Christian Kings. The children of Calatin, of Fergus, of Morna and of Cathair Mor numbered thirty-three each. In some versions of the Welsh historian Nennius, the great cities of Celtic Britain are listed as thirty-three, not twenty-eight accounted in other versions. It is obvious that the numeralis, therefore, of significance.

Pomponius Mela states that the Druids "profess to know the will of the gods' which, clearly means that the Druids were the 'middle-men' and 'middle-women' between the mortal and immortal world. But, this was only one of their functions.

The Celts did not look upon the gods as their creators but as their ancestors - more as supernatural heroes and heroines, in which form they also appear in Hindu myth and saga. We have no record of the original Celtic creation myths. We can only speculate on how much the Christian/Hebrew tradition of the writers of the Celtic sagas intruded on, and distorted, the original traditions. We must remember that the ancient Celts believed that the soul reposed in the head, not in the region of the heart as Western Christians have it. This is why the head was so venerated and prized in ancient Celtic society.

The Dagda is father of nearly all the Irish gods and is also known by the names of Eochaidh Ollathair (Father of All), as Aedh (Fire) and as Ruadh Rofessa (Lord of Great Knowledge), making him a triune divinity. The Dagda appears as the patron of Irish Druidism. He is visualized as a man carrying a gigantic club which he drags on wheels. One end of his club can slay while the other end can heal. He has a black horse named Acein, or Ocean, and his cauldron, called Undri, is one of the major treasures of the De Danaan, brought from the fabulous city of Murias. It provides food so that no man went away from it hungry. It is the'cauldron of plenty' which later generations of Christianized Celts developed into the Holy Grail of Arthurian myth. The Dagda also possesses a magic harp.

Among the names of the Celtic gods which appear most frequently is that of Lugh in Irish, Llew in Welsh and Lugas in Gaulish. The inscriptions and monuments to him are more numerous than to any other Celtic god, and it is generally accepted that when Caesar spoke of the Gaulish 'Mercury' it was to Lugas that he referred. The name appears in place names in many of the former Celtic territories. It has been argued that the name of London, now the capital of England, also derived from Lugdunum, as did Lyons, in France. Hence the Latin form Londinium. Lugh was the greatest of all gods. The Dagda actually yields command to him at the second battle of Magh Tuireadh.

Another god with a widespread following was the Gaulish Ogmios. Ogmios had his equivalents in Ireland (Ogma) and Britain (Ogmia).In Britain, a piece of pottery from Richborough depicts a figure with long curly hair and sun rays emanating from his head with the name Ogmia inscribed. In Ireland, Ogma was the god of eloquence and literature, and a son of the Dagda. He is credited with the invention of Ogham script, named after him, the earliest form of Irish writing.

We find Irish gods and goddesses, such as Badb, Brigit, Bron, Buanann, Cumal, Goibniu, Manannan, Mider, Nemon, Net and Nuada, all have recognizable equivalents in Britain and Gaul.

Many Celtic gods were worshipped in triune or triple form. The concept of a three personality god seems to have its roots in Indo-European expression. Pythagoras saw three as the perfect number of the philosophers - the beginning, middle and end - and used it as a symbol of deity.

The Celts saw homo sapiens as body, soul and spirit; the world they inhabited as earth, sea and air; the divisions of nature as animal, vegetable and mineral; the cardinal colours as red, yellow and blue and so forth. Three was the number of all things. Most of their gods were three personalities in one. Combinations of the figure three occur often in Celtic tales such as nine (three times three) and thirty-three.

Mother symbols werre also worshipped in triple form; in Gaul the title matres or matronae was used, because the dedications on the monuments survive only in Latin. Mother Earth was the symbol of fertility and figures with children, baskets of fruit and horns of plenty are found all over the Celtic world.

The Druids taught in the form of Triads. This is confirmed by the literary traditions of both Ireland and Wales.

The great rivers of northern Europe tend to still bear Celtic names, many associated with goddess figures. The Seine takes its name from the Celtic goddess Sequana. In England the Severn takes its name from Sabrann, which is the name of another Celtic goddess also found in the name of a Bedfordshire stream and in the old name for the River Lee in Ireland. The Boyne in Ireland is named from a goddess, Boann, the consort of the Dagda. And the Shannon named from the goddess Sinainn. The Celts regarded rivers as bestowers of life, health, and plenty, and offered them rich gifts and sacrifices.

After Christianity achieved its dominance in the Celtic world, the Celtic gods were relegated to dwell in the hills. In Irish, the word sidhe means mound or hill and denoted the final dwelling places of the De Danaan, the Immortals, after their defeat by the Milesians. The ancient gods, thus driven underground, were relegated in folk memory as aes sidhe, the people of the hills, or in later folklore as simply fairies. The word sidhe is now the modern Irish word for fairies. The most famous is the banshee (bean sidhe), the woman of the fairies whose wail and shriek portends a death, in later Irish folklore. Each god was alotted a sidhe or hill in Ireland by The Dagda, another proof of his role as 'father of the gods', before he gave up his leadership of the gods.

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