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DRUIDIC RITUALS

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

According to Irish sources, the Druids had a form of baptism. As baptism was not confined to Christianity it is certainly reasonable to accept the evidence of pagan Celtic or Druidic baptism. The Irish Druidic baptism was called baisteadh geinntlidhe, which appears to mean 'the rain wedge of protection'. There is an old Irish proverb, which might even date from this time, gan bheo, gan baistedach - without life, without baptism. When the Red Branch hero Conall Cernach was born, 'Druids came to baptise the child' and they sang a ritual over him. Ailil Ollamh of Munster was 'baptised in Druidic streams' while Druidic baptism is also mentioned in the case of the three sons of Conall Derg. Druidic baptism was not confined to Ireland. It seems likely that the ritual purification was widespread through the Celtic world as it was among other Indo-European societies.

The veneration of water, particularly in the form of rivers, was clearly a major factor in pre-Christian Celtic religion. In looking upon the Danube as the great 'mother goddess' the Celts had developed a concept of water veneration so ingrained in their folk-conciousness that Christianity could not overturn it but had to adapt it for its own uses; hence the preponderance of Holy Wells in the Celtic countries. In fact it was Pope Gregory in AD 601 who told the missionaries of the church not to destroy the pre-Christian sites of worship but to bless and convert them 'from worship of devils to the service of the true God'. We find Colmcille doing just that in blessing a Druid well in the land of the Picts.

Insular Celtic literature indicates that the ancient Celts believed that the wells were formed by deities. In Gaul, Grannos, a god of healing and solar worship, was associated with well-worship. Another Gaulish god associated with wells was Borvo, also Bormo or Bormanus. The name seems to denote seething or turbulent waters and survives in several place names.

The Dagda or Nechtan had a well which was called the Well of Segais (also called Conlai's Well). Nine hazel trees of wisdom grew over the well and the hazel nuts, described as rich crimson in colour, dropped into the well causing bubbles of mystic inspiration. Only the Dagda/Nechtan and his three cup-bearers were allowed to go to the well to draw water.

The veneration of both wells and rivers, which has strong paralells with Hindu worship, has caused Professor Bradley of Reading University to argue that the Thames (tamesis - the dark or sluggish river) occupied the same place among British Celts that the Ganges now occupied with Hindus. Skulls, swords, shields and other items, which have been deemed votive offerings, have been found in the Thames, especially in the London area.

A case can certainly be argued for the Druids, or pre-Christian Celtic priests, performing rituals at wells or river sources. The evidence provided by votive offerings found in such places is overwhelming.

Publius Terentius Varro (b. 82 BC), who was a Narbonese Gaul who wrote in Latin, mentions that the Druids practised walking on fire at some of their festivals, walking slowly over a bed of burning coals, which they were able to accomplish by aid of a certain ointment which they had put on the soles of their feet. Varro's work, unfortunately, has been lost and is quoted only in extracts. We do know that 'fire-walking' is a ritual practised in many parts of the world. Fire played a central role in primal religious experiences and obsession with fire is of very ancient origin.

Following one's birth, the Irish Druids, at least, saw a person's life divided into two halves of three periods each. Cormac's Glossary puts these six ages of Man into colonna ais or 'columns of age'. The first half of life was 1) náidenacht (infancy); 2) macdacht (childhood); 3) gillacht (puberty). The next three stages were 1) hóclachus (manhood); 2) sendacht (old age); 3) díblidecht (senility).

Druids had rituals for the funeral of a departed person. In Ireland there was a feast, fled co-lige, followed by funeral games, cluiche caintech. The whole was a form of celebration because, as Philostratus pointed out, the ancient Celts celebrated the rebirth of the dead one in the Otherworld. It was a custom to wash the body and then wrap it in a racholl, a shroud, or winding sheet. The body was watched or waked for one or more nights. Depending on the rank of the person, this could be as long as twelve nights. "Among the pagan Irish, seven nights and days was the usual time for great persons'. The body was then placed on a bier or fuat which was afterwards destroyed to prevent evil spirits using it. In pre-Christian times the body was usually brought to the grave in a covering of strophais or green bushy branches of birch. According to Cormac's Glossary the Druids used a or rod of aspen, with an Ogham inscription cut into it, with which they measured the graves. It was regarded with horror and no one touched it except the person whose job it was to measure the grave. Among the pre-Christian burials in Ireland, a dead warrior of note, or a king, was buried standing upright with his weapons. Cremations have also been found.

According to Pliny, the Celts "call the mistletoe (viscum) by a name which in their language means "all healing".' In modern Irish mistletoe is known as Drualus (Druidh lus, Druid's weed). In Welsh it is called uchelwydd or uchelfar, in Breton the word is uhelvarr and in Cornish ughelvar. This predisposes one to believe that the Gaulish word would have been a similar compound for they all mean 'high branch', mistletoe usually being seen high above the ground though not on top of trees.

In Celtic terms we gather from Irish sources that the geis (geasa - a prohibition or taboo) was the prime power placed in the hands of the Druids, both male and female, to give authority to their edicts. The problem of accepting authority was more likely to arise in Celtic society than it was in Roman society. The Celts had a tendency to natural anarchy. Druids could pronounce the glam dicín or the geis to assert their authority. The geis was primarily a prohibition placed on a particular person and since it influenced the whole fate of that person it was not imposed lightly. Anyone transgressing a geis was exposed to the rejection of his society and placed outside the social order. Transgretion could bring shame and outlawry and it could also bring a painful death. The power of the geis was above human and divine jurisdiction and brushed aside all previous rulings, establishing a new order through the wishes of the person controlling it.

The glam dicín, like the geis, was only invoked by Druids and was a satirical incantation directed against a particular person which imposed an obligation. It was a curse which could be pronounced for infringement of divine or human laws, treason or murder. Its pronouncement was feared as its victims had put upon them a sense of shame, sickness and death. The person subjected to the glam dicín was rejected by all levels of Celtic society.

Another method of exerting authority, available to all members of Celtic society, was the ritual fast - the troscad. As a legal form of redressing a grievance, this act emerged in the Brehon law system. That it was an ancient ritual can be demonstrated by the fact that it bears almost complete resemblance to the ancient Hindu custom of dharna. The troscad was 'identical with the eastern custom, and no doubt it was believed in pagan times to be attended by similar effects'; that is, if the one fasted against ignores the person fasting then they would suffer fearful supernatural penalties. The troscad was the means of compelling justice and establishing one's rights. Under law, the person wishing to compel justice had to notify the person they were complaining against and then would sit before their door and remain without food until the wrongdoer accepted the administration or arbitration of justice. 'He who disregards the faster shall not be dealt with by god nor man...he forfeits his legal rights to anything according to the decision of the Brehon.' The troscad in ancient times was the effective means of someone of lesser social position compelling justice from someone of higher social position. Thus Druids could fast against a king, or even a man or woman in the lower order of society could fast against their chieftan.

Pomponius Mela of Tingentera (near Gibraltar) c.AD 43, does not refer to the Druids as being in any way connected with sacrifices. O'Curry in his Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, maintained: 'in no tale or legend of the Irish Druids which has come down to our time, is there any mention of their ever having offered human sacrifices'. Celtic law systems are opposed to capital punishment and to slavery in the form understood by Greece and Rome. According to Dr. Joyce: 'There is no record of any human sacrifice in connection with the Irish Druids; and there are good grounds for believing that direct human sacrifice was not practised at all in Ireland...' The idea of widespread human sacrifice among the Celts was mere Roman propaganda to support their imperial power in their invasion of Celtic lands and destruction of the Druids. Additionally we can argue that we have more evidence of human sacrifice occuring widely both in greek and Roman civilizations.

We must agree with the conclusion of Doctor Brunaux:

In the present state of research, knowledge of human sacrifice rests upon the texts that have a tendency to distort the reality of the facts and to exaggerate their frequency in order to make them more sensational. In this area, despite important discoveries, archeology has nothing new to contribute. The absense of conclusive evidence, despite more and more numerous excavations, tends to confirm the hypothesis that the practice was rare. The ancient ethnographers had not actually witnessed any of these deeds with which they reproach the Celts. While exploring Gaul, like Poseidonios, they can only have seen skulls nailed above doors of houses and sanctuaries, for which there is some archeological proof.

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Tigh Na Feidh: The Second Druidic Seat