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

Druidic Schools

It is from Ireland that we have tangible evidence of a tradition of Druidic, or Bardic schools. Dr. Douglas Hyde, in his Library History of Ireland, points out that side by side with the monastic schools of Ireland there flourished the more traditional 'bardic' institutions. 'These were almost certainly a continuation of the schools of the Druids, and represented something far more antique than even the very earliest schools of the Christians, but unlike them they were not centred in any fixed locality nor in a cluster of houses, but seemed to have been peripatetic.' Dr. Hyde suggests these Druidic, or bardic, schools were initially centred around a personality and pupils went where their teacher was pleased to wander. He believed that this was the system until the sixth century AD.

Giraldus Cambrensis claimed that at Kildare, Brigit built her community on the site of an older community of female Druids which was a school where they taught. There are, in fact, references to many such schools in Irish mythology. Indeed, Cúchulainn studied at a Druidic school under Cathbad the Druid. This demonstrates an early tradition of such schools.

The "Sequel to the Crith Gabhlach' talks of the 'Seven Degrees of Wisdom'. The highest degree of all took twelve years of study. After elementary teaching, by the second year, the first degree in a bardic school was fochluc, 'because his art is slender as his youth', like a sprig of fochlacán, brooklime. By the third year the student had risen to mac fuirmid, 'so called because he "is set" (fuirmithir) to learn an art'. By the fourth year the student was dos 'from his similarity to a dos - a young tree'. In the fifth year he had reached the degree of cana and in the sixth year became a cli (clieth is a pillar of a house). After seven to nine years of study, the student could qualify as anruth, 'noble stream'. At the end of the twelfth year of study, provided the candidate had passed all the tests he could achieve the highest degree of ollamh or professor.

The traditions show us that pre-Christian Celtic society had in place a sophisticated educational system long before the start of the Christian epoch.

Druidic Books

The Druidic concept of Truth as the supreme power is found as a basic Indo-European thought. A reason for the Druidic prohibition on writing: that the teaching was the Truth was the Word and the Word was sacred and divine and not to be profaned. The Celts believed in the magic power of the Word. 'Truth is the foundation of speech and all Words are founded upon Truth'. The Druids believed that 'by Truth the earth endures'. It is only Druidic knowledge (the 'Word') that is prohibited from literary form. The most important question is whether any writing relating to Celtic history, philosophy, law and other matters escaped the Druidic proscription.

Certainly in the Irish sagas the Druids read and write in a distinctive Irish alphabet - Ogham. In Irish mythology the invention of the alphabet is ascribed to Ogma, not only god of eloquence and learning but, significantly, of the Druids. However, the bulk of surviving Ogham inscriptions date from the Christian period, that is the fifth and sixth centuries AD. The alphabet itself consists of short lines drawn to, or crossing, a base line. Ogham has been claimed as the Druidic alphabet in popular fantasy and more often 'The Tree Alphabet', for each Irish letter takes the name of a tree: eg, A - ailim (elm); B - beithe (birch); C - coll (hazel) and so on. Dr. Barry Fell of Harvard, and others see Ogham inscriptions practically everywhere - both in Spain and even in America, and date such 'inscriptions' to 500 BC! Unfortunately, Ogham does not survive from before the fifth century AD.

Mention of the use of Ogham frequently occurs in the ancient Irish myths. Druids put down magic incantations and spells in Ogham. The Ogham was cut on bark or on wands of hazel and aspen. Leabhar Buidhe Lecain (Yellow Book of Lecan), compiled about 1400 by Giolla Iosa Mór Mac Firbis, containing many earlier texts such as another copy of Leabhar na gCeart (Book of Rights), a political treatise on the constitutions of the Irish kingdoms, compiled, it is said, in the fifth century AD by Benignus. The work records that Patrick, in his missionary zeal, burnt 180 books of the Druids. This destruction of books by the zealous Patrick, adds Mac Firbis, 'set the converted Christians to work in all parts, until in the end all the remains of the Druidic superstition were utterly destroyed'.

The Irish Christian sources are fairly clear that books existed in Ireland before the arrival of Christianity and that Christian missionaries caused these 'pagan works' to be burnt. Many pre-Christian poets and their work are still remembered in later Irish literature. Is it possible that instead of being committed to oral tradition, texts were set down on the 'rods of the Fili' and kept in the various Tech Scretpa until burnt by enthusiastic Christian missionaries? The Ogham inscriptions which survive only do so because they were carved on stone. It is obvious that the wooden wands, if they had existed, would have been more easily burnt or, if they survived the Christian zealots, that they would have perished by decay over the years. And an interesting point is that the Ogham inscriptions which did survive are shown to be an archaic form of 'literary Irish'; archaic even at the time that the inscriptions were made. As the language of the people changed, the ancient texts did not. They were, presumably, handed down in a strictly memorized oral tradition from ancient times until the point where they were committed to writing.

A tremendous literature and learning has been handed down to us from Ireland. But, even so, we can still lament the apparent destruction of the Druidical books by the zealot Christian missionaries which was clearly a crime against knowledge.

Druids as Philosophers

Much has been discussed about Druidic moral philosophy. Diogenes Laertius summarized that the Druids' chief maxim was that the people should 'worship the gods, do no evil and exercise courage'. To summarize, from various sources, the Druids taught that one should live in harmony with nature, accepting that pain and death are not evils but part of the divine plan and that the only evil is moral weakness. The Druids were concerned, above all things, with Truth and preached 'An Fhírinne in aghaidh an tSaoil' (The Truth against the world).

The clearest indication of Truth can be found in the audacht or will of the famous Brehon, Morann Mac Cairbre, who left instructions for the High King, Feradach Finn Fachtnach (AD 95 - 117) which are recorded in Leabhar na Nauchonghbala (Book of Leinster):

Let him magnify the truth, it will magnify him.
Let him strengthen truth, it will strengthen him.
Let him guard truth, it will guard him.
Let him exalt truth. it will exalt him.
For so long as he guards truth, good shall not fail him and his rule shall not perish
For it is through the ruler's truth that great clans are governed.
Through the ruler's truth mighty armies of invaders are drawn back into enemy territory.
Through the ruler's truth every law is glorious and every vessel full in his lands.
Through the ruler's truth all the land is fruitful and every child born worthy.
Through the ruler's truth there is abundance of tall corn.

Several linguistic concepts of this idea of Truth survive. The Old Irish word for truth is also the basis for linguistic concepts of holiness, righteousness, faithfulness, for religion and, above all, for justice. Even in modern Irish one can say: 'Tá sé/sí in áit na fhírinne anois' to express that a man/woman is dead. This literally means 'he/she is in the place of Truth now'. This is clearly a teaching of the Druids.

For the Druids and Brahmins, the life-giving principle and sustaining power was the Word or Truth, the ultimate cause of all being. We also find in many Celtic myths the idea of some retribution for the person not speaking the truth. A further demonstration of the Word is seen in the concept that the naming of things brings them into being. Until something is named it remains unknown, without place or purpose. In Old Irish, as well as Modern Irish, we find the ainm was not only the word for name but for soul (as opposed to body) and life.

The Celts evolved a doctrine of immortality of the soul and were one of the first European peoples to do so. Ammianus Marcellinus observed: 'With grand contempt for the mortal lot they professed the immortality of the soul'. And Lucan, in his poem Pharsalia addressed the Druids thus: 'It is you who say that the shades of the dead seek not the silent land of Erebus and the pale halls of Pluto; rather, you tell us that the same spirit has a body again elsewhere, and that death, if what you sing is true, is but the mid-point of a long life.' The Alexandrian School were divided as to whether the Celts had developed their doctrine themselves or whether they had borrowed the concept from the Greeks, notably from Pythagoras.

It is Clement who puts the proverbial cat among the pigeons by saying that it was not the Druids who accepted Pythagoras' doctrine of immortality of the soul, but Pythagoras who had accepted the Druid's doctrine. Clement sites Polyhistor as his source. 'Alexander (Polyhistor) desires to state that ...Pythagoras was one of those who hearkened to the Celts (Galatae) and the Brahmins.'

Diogenes Laertius cites his main authority on the Druids as Sotion. Sotion, writing in the second century BC, is therefore the earliest surviving authority on the idea that the ancient Greeks took their doctrine of immortality of the soul from the Celts. Diogenes Laertius also cites the anonymous writer of the second century BC, whose work Magicus was wrongly ascribed to Aristotle. Kendrick has pointed out that such works, written long before the Romans conquered Gaul, showed that the Druids had a great reputation as philosophers outside the Celtic world and that this must have been a long established reputation.

In reality, just how close was the teaching of the Celtic Druids to that of Pythagoras? The first thing we must remember is that Pythagoras wrote nothing which has survived nor, indeed, is he known to have written anything. He is a figure of mystery and legend with the traditions for his life as contrary as any pre-Christian Irish philosopher or king. Heraclitus regarded him as a fraud while Xenophanes mocked his teachings on immortality. From later writers we hear that Pythagoras taught that the soul is immortal, a fallen divinity imprisoned in a body.

The basis of the Celtic idea of immortality of the soul was that death was but a changing of place and life went on with all its forms and goods in another world, a world of the dead, the fabulous Otherworld. When people died in that world, however, their souls were reborn in this. Thus a constant exchange of souls took place between the two worlds; death in this world took a soul to the Otherworld, death in that world brought a soul to this. Philostratus of Tyana (c.AD 170 - 249) observed correctly that the Celts celebrated birth with mourning for the death in the Otherworld, and regarded death with joy for the birth in the Otherworld. One Classical writer observed that so firm was their belief in rebirth in the Otherworld that some Celts were quite happy to accept promissory notes for debts to be repaid in the Otherworld. The source is Valerius Maximus in the early first century AD, who says of the Celts that 'they lent sums of money to each other which are repayable in the next world, so firmly are they convinced that the souls are immortal'.

Pre-Christian Celtic graves, throughout the Celtic world, are filled with personal belongings, weapons, food and drink and other items to give the departed a good start in the Otherworld. The grave of a forty-year-old Celtic chieftan, buried around 550 BC, at Hochdorf, at the edge of the Black Forest in Southern Germany, is one of the best examples of such pomp and circumstance. Discovered in 1968, the chieftan, six feet tall, was dressed in robes of silk, richly embroidered and a hat of birch-bark. Gold brooches fastened his cloak. He wore a gold bracelet, a wide leather belt with a gold band, a gold dagger of exquisite craftsmanship, and his shoes were decorated with gold. Significantly, a great cauldron stood nearby in which there was four hundred litres of fermented honey-mead, alongside nine drinking horns, one of which was able to hold nine litres. His grave goods included weapons, cooking and eating utensils, knives, a four-wheeled wagon made of ash, elm and maple, and many tapestries. There were also iron nail-clippers, wooden comb, fishing hooks and other items. Thus did the Celts prepare their illustrious dead for the journey to the Otherworld. What is clear from all the evidence is that the Celts believed that life in the Otherworld was essentially the same as life in this world. Pharsalia actually maintains that the Celts believed that their souls remained in control of their bodies in the Otherworld.

The similarities of the doctrines of the Druids and Pythagoras are so superficial that they do not really exist. The Pythagorean belief was in the transmigration of souls through all living things in this world. The Celtic belief was in two parallel worlds and the rebirth of the soul in human bodies from one world to the other. It could therefore be argued that the Celtic and Pythagorean doctrines were mutually exclusive.

One thing that is agreed upon is that the Druids were admired for the sincerity of their belief and teaching. Diodorus Siculus observes: 'They are of much sincerity and integrity, far from the craft and knavery of men among us, contented with homely fare, strangers to excess and luxery.' And Strabo confirms this with his comment that 'the Druids are considered the most just of men.' The philosophy of the Celts, as instructed by the Druids, was certainly a moral system based on distinguishing right (fas) from wrong (nefas), what was lawful (dleathach) and unlawful (neamdhleathach), and it was impressed on people by the series of taboos (geasa).

Classical writers, sometimes in perplexity, speak of the Druids teaching by way of riddles. From the story of 'The Wooding of Ailbe' several riddles are recorded.

What is sweeter than mead? - Intimate conversation.
What is blacker than the raven? - Death.
What is whiter than snow? - Truth.
What is swifter than the wind? - Thought.
What is sharper than the sword? - Understanding.
What is lighter than a spark? - The mind of a woman between two men.

The Celtic philosopher Pelagius (c.AD 354 - 420) was a Celt considered by some to be an Irishman. The name is considered to be a Hellenized form of the Celtic name 'Morgan', meaning sea-begotten. If Pelagius was truly echoing the philosophy of the Druids, what was this philosophy? The essence of Pelagianism was that men and women were responsible for all their acts and that though there were several governing outside factors, the final choice was their own. There is, and can be, no sin where the will is not absolutely free; where one is not able to choose between good or evil. Pelagius taught that we are born characterless (non pleni) and with no bias towards good or evil. To distinguish good from evil, one has to be taught (ut sine virtute, ita et sine vitio). He argued that we are not already damned by Adam's sin save in so far that it gives us an example from our ancestors of evil which can influence or mislead us (non propagine sed exemplo). The power of choice, which reaffirms the freedom of will, means that in each choice in life, at each moment of life, no matter what has happened previously to the individual, he or she is able to choose between good or evil.

Pelagius used a triad - 'posse, velle, esse: the ability, the will, the act. The ability is in Nature, and must be referred to as God. The other two, the will and the act, must be referred to mankind because they flow from the fountain of free will. It is the human will which takes the initiative and is the determining factor in the salvation of the individual, whether men and women use their lives for good or evil'. A common set of philosophies of several other Celtic philosophers gives creedence to the view that Pelagius was espousing a pre-Christian Celtic philosopy.

One of the most important functions of the Druids, noticed by both Strabo and Caesar, was that of judges in the Celtic law courts. Strabo mentions that they were entrusted with all legal decisions, both in private and public cases. He says 'The Druids are considered the most just of men.' The Druids' ability to go on to a battlefield between two opposing armies and stop them, implies that the Druids had the authority as 'international judges'. This role of the Druids as international arbiters and ambassadors has been confirmed from several sources.

Henri Hubert:

The solidarity of the Celtic peoples, even when distant from one another, is sufficiently explained by the sense of kinship, of common origin, acting in a fairly restricted world, all the parts of which were in communication. But the Celts had at least one institution which could effectively bind them together, namely the Druids, a priestly class expressly entrusted with the preservation of traditions. The Druids were not an institution of the small Celtic peoples, of the tribes, of the civitates,; they were a kind of international institution within the Celtic world...

In other words, the word of the Druid as arbiter of the law had equal weight in Galatia, Gaul, Britain or Ireland and even kings had to succumb to the rule of that law. Dio Chrysostom indicates that the legal authority of a Druid was above that of a king when he says 'the kings were not permitted to adopt or plan any course, so that in fact it was these (Druids) who ruled and the kings became their subordinates and instruments of their judgements.' The brief, though explicit, references by Classical writers also imply that the Celtic peoples had developed a sophisticated law system which applied to them all wherever they were found and that the Druids controlled this legal system. Can this be substantiated by Celtic records and traditions? Yes. There survives codification of two Celtic legal systems from which we may learn much: the Irish Brehon Law system and the Welsh Laws of Hywel Dda. A comparison of the two systems indicates a Common Celtic law at some period, for both systems have developed from identical basic principles.

Evidence points to the existence of a sophisticated legal system among the ancient Celts whose administrators were, in those pre-Christian times, the Druids.

Druids as Historians

The Druids, as the intellectual caste, were also the source of all the wit and wisdom, the poetry and literary endeavor and the history, genealogy and custom of the Celtic people. Timagenes was an Alexandrian living circa the mid first century BC. He collected many traditions relating to the Celts and is cited as an authority on the Druids by both Diodorus Siculus and Ammianus Marcellinus. Not only does Timagenes say that the Druids were the authorities on Celtic history but he relates one of their teachings on the origin of the Celts which is not at odds with any modern view, archaeologically or historically, on early Celtic history.

Tacitus tells us that in AD 69 the Druidic historians of Gaul had kept a knowledge of how the Cisalpine Gauls, led by Brennos, had, in c.390-387 BC, defeated the Roman army and sacked Rome, capturing the city but with the notable exception of the Capitoline Hill. Three hundred years after this event, the Druids of Gaul appear to be lamenting that their ancestors had not finished off the job instead of accepting payment of a tribute and withdrawing to leave the Romans to rebuild their city and create the empire which was now swallowing their civilization. For such detailed knowledge as this to have been handed down in oral form is fascinating but not surprising.

In Irish mythology, the Druids are clearly represented as the authorities to turn to for information and advice in respect of history and genealogy.

One of the Roman historian Livy's (59 BC-AD 17) sources was a Celt who was then writing in Latin and making no secret of his Celtic origin - this was Cornelius Nepos (c. 100-25 BC) who boasted that his Celtic ancestors had been established in the Po Valley long before the capture of the Veii (396 BC). He was a member of the Insubre tribe and wrote a universal history, Chronica. Nepos was only one of many Celts from Cisalpine Gaul who were making a name for themselves by writing in Latin. Today, we mistakenly think of them as Roman writers; poets like Catullus and historians like Trogus Pompeius (27 BC-AD 14), a Vocontii Celt from Transalpine Gaul, who wrote a universal history in forty-four books. Undoubtedly, these Celtic writers in Latin were heirs to the Druidic traditions.

There is no question that Livy was using Celtic traditions when he recorded the reasons for their early expansion into Cisalpine Gaul. He recounts that there was an excess population in Gaul so the king of the Bituriges ('kings of the world'), Ambicatos ('he who gives battle everywhere') ordered his nephews to take certain tribes and seek out new lands to settle. His nephew Sigovensos ('he who can conquer') went to what is now the Central German plains while his nephew Bellovesos ('he who can kill') took his followers to northern Italy.

By the time the Irish laws were codified, history was the prerogative of specially trained men and women. The Senchus Mór states that the historian or ollamh has to be specially learned in chronology, synchronism, antiquities and genealogy. He or she had to know at least 350 historical and romance tales by heart and be able to recite them word perfect at a moment's notice. They had to know the prerogatives, rights, duties, restrictions and tributes not only of the High King but all the provincial and petty kings. The Leabhar na gCeart (Book of Rights) states: 'The learned historian who does not know the prerogatives and prohibitions of these kings, is not entitled to visitations or to sell his compositions.'

By this time, the profession had become one for men rather than women. Henri Hubert speaks of the Christian 'process of depriving woman of her powers which everywhere accompanied her loss of the privilege of conveying descent'.

One of the last in the tradition of the native Irish genealogists and historians was Dubhaltach Mac Firbisigh (1585-1670) whose family were chroniclers to the Ó Dubhda (O'Dowd) chieftans of Sligo. He compiled his famous Genealogies of the Families of Ireland in about 1650 but when Galway fell to Cromwell's soldiers, he fled to Dublin where he sought the protection of Sir James Ware. Sir James commissioned him to make translations into English of some ancient Irish annals.

In spite of the destructions of the English conquests, many Irish annals and chronicles survived. The value of that which has been lost can be judged against those works which, despite all odds, have survived. Scolars have reflected on the accuracy of the Irish annals. The old oral records of the Irish Druids, relating to Irish history, were being transmitted into written form by the fifth century AD, although, there is also good reason to believe in literacy before this period.

The same wealth of historic material has not survived in other Celtic literatures, although a tradition of historians does emerge in Wales. While Gildas (c.AD 500-d. c.570) wrote a first hand account of the devastations of the Anglo-Saxons in De excidio et conquestu Britanniae (Concerning the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) it is only history in retrospect. The first Welsh historian emerges as Nennius (fl. c.800) who appears to have been a deciple of Elfoddw, a bishop of Gwynedd who died in AD 809. Nennius wrote his Latin Historia Brittonum which is a primary source for British Celtic history. Individual scraps, pieces from the lives of saints, lead to the Annales Cambriar (c.AD 955), a Latin history of the British Celts, and to the thirteenth century compilation Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes).

One episode in the fabulous and epic Historia regum Britanniae leaps out at the reader. Tacitus had referred to the Gaulish Druids' tradition in AD 69 of the history of the Celtic sack of Rome c. 390/387 BC, led by the chieftan Brennos. As with most mythologies, there are some recognizable facts in the traditions of the Historia regum Britanniae, and doubtless they were the result of centuries of Druidic oral historical tradition.

What is particularly interesting about the basic facts of the sack of Rome by the Celts in the fourth century BC surviving in both the traditions of the Gaulish Celts of the first century AD and in the traditions of the British Celts of the twelfth century AD, is the very fact of their survival. The Celts who sacked Rome were Cisalpine Gauls, yet the historic traditions had not only made their way into Transalpine Gaul but into Celtic Britain and become inseparably linked with the histories of those disparate Celtic peoples. Here is another demonstration of how closely the Celtic world was united by the common bonds which the Druids, as a class, represented.

Druids as Poets and Musicians

Classical writers frequently remark on the Celtic love of poetry and music. Diodorus Siculus and Athenaeus, quoting Poseidonius, point to a class of professional minstrels. Druids, in later Welsh literature, were regarded as poets and musicians. The Druids were an intellectual caste and therefore some of them undertook the role of poets and musicians, as demonstrated in insular Celtic sources.

Siadhal Mac Feradach, known by his Latin appellation of Sedulius Scottus (c.AD 820-c.AD 880) was a remarkable Irish poet of whom it has been said that his voice echoes across the centuries as intensely human. Irish marginalia on a Greek text in the Royal Library of Dresden have been identified as being the work of Siadhal by Professor Ludwig Traube in his study Sedulius Scottus (Munich, 1906):

Téicht do Róim
múr saído bec tobai;
in rí con-daigi i fus
maini mbera latt ni foghai.

Frank O'Connor, who also believed the author was Siadhal Mac Feradach, translated the verse as follows:

To go to Rome -
Is little profit, endless pain;
The Master that you see in Rome,
You find at home, or seek in vain.

Another O'Connor translation from a ninth century AD Irish poem underscores this ancient form of almost haiku teaching which is called Deibhidh:

Sad to see the sons of learning
In everlasting hell-fire burning
While he that never read a line
Doth in eternal glory shine.

Professor Kuno Meyer translated a tenth century Irish poem in this form:

Avoiding death
takes too much time, and too much care,
when at the very end of all,
Death catches each one unaware.

This form of epigram poetry, or Deibhidh metre, also survived in Welsh, more specifically as the englynion as shown in these fourteenth century examples:

No need for jealousy
Because another likes me.
Winds may shake a twig
Only an axe disturbs the tree root.


No traitor, the salmon.
He returns to his home.
When you're tired of searching there
You'll find the answer here.

The Irish have an equivalent of the cynghanedd in the dán dírech, a metrical system of multiple alliteration and rhyme within every line of the strict metre. Professor Carney believed that this form was an essential tradition of 'Druidic' teaching through verse.

Classical writers noted the Celtic use of lyres, drums, pipes and other instruments. On Celtic pottery dating back to the seventh century BC various instruments have been depicted, including a stringed instrument looking like a lyre. Trumpets were also in evidence and a magnificent example of one of them, a bronze trumpet, was found near Navan, Co.Armagh, which is now in the National Museum, Dublin.

One of the most ancient forms of Celtic music which still survives is the marbhnaí or 'death song', sometimes called the caoine (keening). Fanny Feehan noted that the Marbhna Luimni, said to be composed about 1635, was approaching the raga style of India and revolving around three or four notes. The comparison to the Indian raga is made time and again as well as comparison to the basic concept of jazz. There is a theme and then there is improvisation around the theme. The tune is never played exactly the same way twice no matter how well the player might know it. Both Irish and Indian audiences could not anticipate it but would know each small deviation from the main theme.

As the keepers of the intellectual and therefore artistic soul of the Celts, the bardic group of Druids developed a musical culture with forms stretching back millenia towards the hypothesized Indo-European root, which still today shows striking parallels with Hindu musical culture.

Druids as Physicians

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Tigh Na Feidh: The Second Druidic Seat