The DRCiids

he great subjugator of the Gauls, Julius Caesar, described this powerful and mysterious priesthood as a hierarchical, pan-tribal organization. Recruits from all over the Celtic world underwent a rigorous 20-year training, where they had to learn the unwritten knowledge of the religious order. By the end of this process the apprentices were welcomed into a secret order that held enormous influence over Celtic society. Druids administered religious sacrifices and ceremonies, but they also served as advisers to kings and tribal leaders, as arbiters in disputes, as justices, and as diplomats. They were also believed to have supernatural abilities, such as knowing the will of the gods. By acting as the link between monarchs and deities, druids held a uniquely powerful position in society.

While it is relatively simple to disregard Roman accounts of the druids as sorcerers, there is evidence that there was a belief in magic and witchcraft during the Celtic period. The ability to heal the sick, predict the future, and to determine the will of the gods through the

A druid prepares to throttle a sacrificial victim. It is likely that human sacrifices replaced the more usual animal offerings only as a last resort in the case of the most desperate threats to a Celtic community.

reading of omens were the three cornerstones of druidic power. While this influence was brought to an end in Gaul and much of Britain by Roman invasion, the druids continued to dominate Celtic society in Ireland until the coming of Christianity. While female priestesses certainly existed in Celtic religion, they never acquired a social standing on a par with the druids, who were ranked alongside the most noble of the warrior aristocrats of Celtic society. Although much of our knowledge about the druids comes from Roman or Christian sources, this offers us a glimpse at the unique role played by druids in the Celtic world.

Celts Civilization Ending

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Cathbad The Druid

Poujen of the Drcciids

In his "History of the Gallic Wars," Caesar presented a concise and usually favorable account of his own military activities. He also touched on several aspects of the Celtic civilization he was trying to destroy. Inevitably, he included a description of the Gallic druids, and the part they played in Gallic society. It is the most comprehensive account still in existence of the role played by druids in the Celtic world.

| acsar wrote: "Throughout Gaul there are two [I classes of men of some dignity and importance... one of the two classes is that of the druids, the other that of the knights. The druids are concerned with the worship of the gods, look after public and private sacrifice, and expound religious matters. A large number of young men flock to them for training and hold them in high honor. For they

The Knights Celtic Priests

tone of his words?

In a word: politics. Caesar quickly recognized that druids held a pivotal place in Celtic society. Not only were they the leading administrators of their tribal societies, they also acted as the interpreters of religion, as historians, as diplomats, as spokesmen, and as the arbiters of justice. Druids held a social position on par w ith the leading members of the Celtic warrior aristocracy. As such, druids had great influence over their tribal leaders, chieftans, and kings.

"Ib Caesar it was clear—break the power of these priests and he would destroy the core of Celtic civilization and deprive the Gauls of their will, even ability, to resist. This perception led to the systematic persecution of the druids by the Romans in both Gaul and Britain.

Above: This Iron Age crown and skull, found at Deal, England, date from c.150 sc. The crown's similarity to ones worn by some priests in Roman Britain, has led experts to conjecture that this may be a druidic head-dress.

Facing: The island of Anglesey abounded with sacred sites, and became a last bastion of druidic power in Britain.

have the right to decide nearly all public and private disputes, and they also pass judgment and decide rewards aiulpenalties in criminal and murder cases, and in disputes concerning legalities and boundaries. When a private person or a tribe disobeys their ruling, they ban them from attending sacrifices. This is their harshest penalty. Men placed under this ban are treated as impious wretches, all avoid them, fleeing their company and conversation, lest their contact bring misfortune upon them; they are denied legal rights and can hold no official dignity.

"It is thought that this system of training was invented in Britain ami taken over from there to Gaul, aiul at the present time diligent students of the matter mostly travel there to study it.

"The druids are wont to be absent from war, nor do they pay taxes like the others... it is said that they commit to memory immense amounts of poetiy. And so some of them continue their studies for 20 years. They consider it improper to entrust their studies to writing... / think they established this practice for two reasons, because they were unwilling, first, that their system of training should be bruited abroad among the common people, and second, that the student should rely on the written word and neglect the exercise of his memoiy They are chief anxious to have men believe the following: that souls do not suffer death, but after death pass from one body to another; and they regard this as the strongest incentive for valor, since the fear of death is disregarded. They have also much knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the earth, of natural philosophy, and of the powers and spheres of action of the immortal gods, which they discuss and hand down to their young students. "

Caesar's key to power

To modern ears, Caesar's account seems well reasoned, even-handed, even favorable toward the druids. It should lie remembered that in general, Rome during its territorial expansion showed great tolerance to local religious customs, rites, and even different deities. The two major exceptions were the druids and—in the early imperial period—the Jews. So why were Caesar's actions so at variance with the anô SoRceRy

Romen Torcery

Druids have long been associated with mystical ritual. Some Roman historians even claimed that they were sorcerers, representing a strong Roman tendency to east druids in a harsh light. What little evidence there is suggests that although druids were no sorcerers, the Celts did believe in witchcraft, and in the power of druids to summon mystical healing forces through a combination of herbal medicine and ritual.

Alternatively, there is another reference to sorcery in Celtic society. An inscribed lead sheet dating from the late La Tene period was found in a tomb in southern France. The tablet was written in Gallic using Latin script, and was found broken into two pieces, covering a pot containing female remains. It describes the existence of two "women endowed with magic,"

Right: This Gallo-Roman forest god from Mont St. Jean, France, signifies the importance the Celts placed on the spirituality of the natural world.

ater writers allude to the fact that the druids practiced magic. The Egyptian historian Hippolytus writing in the late second century AD referred to the druids as "magicians." Similarly the Greco-Roman writer Diogenes Lacrtius in the third century AD spoke of their "riddles and dark sayings." Of course, these historians never encountered a Celt, let alone a druid. They were passing on the rumors that had accumulated over the centuries, developed around a morbid interest in the secretive nature of the druidic order.

To Romans, Celtic religion was a practice that ran contrary to their religious belief. These mystical aspects were fascinating, but did not reflect true belief, in much the same way as doctors today sometimes look disparagingly at the practiccs of alternative medicine. During Caesar's invasion of Gaul, the Romans who encountered evidence of human sacrifice and blood rituals saw the druids as an evil force. And seen in this light, they were thought easily capable of sinister practices such as sorcery.

The extremely superstitious Romans were no strangers to magic. The)' offered up prayers to their gods for divine intervention on a regular basis and looked for omens and portents in almost every natural occurrence. The desire to portray the druids as evil sorcerers suited Caesar's policies, and had an impact on all subsequent representations of druids, and of Rome's dealings with them. However, there is no hard evidence that the druids ever participated in witchcraft, sorcery, or magic, other than invoking the mysticism associated with religious rituals.

and how one had attempted, to harm the other through the use of magic. The second woman used wise women to counter these evil spells. This is similar to the curse tablets (deftxiones) which existed in Roman society at the same time.

Ritual and healing

European societies believed in witches until the late 17th century, and accounts of witchcraft can be found in Celtic society just as in contemporary Rome or Greece. There is circumstantial archaeological evidence for witchcraft in Roman Britain, since a few burials of older women during the third and fourth centuries AD have produced evidence of ritual decapitation, and the removal of lower jaws. It has been suggested that this indicates a desire to deprive the dead of speech, and so prevent the casting of spells from the afterlife.

The Greek historian Flirty in hfs Natural

"The dm ids of Gaul have recorded that [the selago plant] should be kept on the person to ■ward off all fatalities, and that the smoke of it is good for all diseases of the eyes. " To the druids, selago was a plant with magical qualities. Pliny also recounts the importance that mistletoe had for the druids, along with the ritual manner in which both plants were gathered, and used for medicinal purposes. This is hardly the basis for sorcery, but represents an awareness of the healing properties of nature. It has been argued that the ceremony involving cutting mistletoe was important because it reinforced the superiority of the druids over others in society. If anyone could cut mistletoe and heal themselves, then there would be little need for druids.

Above: Mistletoe growing on poplars near Valencay, France. The white berries of the parasitic mistletoe are poisonous, and only druids would have touched them.

According to classical Roman historians, one of the principal roles of the druids was to know the will of the gods, and therefore predict the future. This was usually done through the medium of omens, whose accurate interpretation was one of the druidie preserves. The druids sometimes aeted as prophets for their people, and evidence of this role is provided by both archaeology and Celtic literature.

n his Library of History, the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus wrote: "The Gauls likewise make use of diviners, accounting them worthy of high approbation, and these men foretell the future by means of the flight and cries of birds and the slaughter of sacred animals, and they have all the multitude subservient to them."

The ability to foretell the future was a skill that ensured the respect of tribal chieftains and

Below: The ritual slaughter of animals for the purposes of divination was a common practice by druids. Detail from the Gundestrup cauldron.

kings, and a place for the druids in the planning of almost every event, be it military, social, or political. This was achieved in a variety of ways, the most popular of which involved the observation of omens or naturally occurring phenomena. This included the behavior of animals or birds, such as the study of birds in flight.

This is not peculiar to druids. Many of these methods of divining omens from the gods were used by Roman priests in religious ceremonies. Until the beginning of Roman Christianity, Rome's priests took auguries from the entrails of freshly slaughtered "sacred" animals. To Romans, a sudden flight of birds from the right (dexter) was auspicious, whereas the same from the left (sinister) was unlucky. The importance of this kind of div ination was widely acknowledged throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

What was less acceptable was the use of

Celtic Culture

humans in sacrifice. There are numerous examples of references to human sacrifices in classical writings, and archaeological evidence supports this. One method was to execute a bound prisoner and watch the way in which he died, the way he fell, the amount of blood he lost and so on. These practices appalled the Romans (other than the very Roman fight to the death in gladiatorial combat, itself probably derived from earlier religious rites), and Julius Caesar used the evidence of human sacrifice to encourage the destruction of religious sanctuaries and sacred groves which they would normally prefer to leave alone.

Felling of omens

Druidical ability to foretell the future was recorded by Cicero, who wrote that the pro-Roman druid Divitiacus could predict events through the reading of omens through augury and by inference. Later Roman and Greek historians continued to report that the druids practiced divination. In his second century AO work Oratorio, Dio Chrysostom referred to the druids' ability to use oracles, and a century later the writer Hippolytus referred to the druids as prophets. He expanded on this claim, stating that they used cyphers and numbers to determine future events, which may form a

Left: Found in Westmorland, these spoons of c.50 bc to ad 100. are suspected of having a religious significance. A liquid, perhaps water, ale, or blood, might have been allowed to drip through the hole in one spoon onto the other spoon during attempts to see into the future.

reference to the importance placed on the calendar in Celtic religion.

The Celts saw evidence of their gods all around them: in the streams, forests, and animals of the natural world. It is hardly surprising that these same natural elements were seen as providing omens that could determine the will of the gods. Certain animals and birds were especially favored by the gods, and both doves and ravens had "voices," and so omens involving these birds were regarded as particularly powerful. Similarly, certain sacred places were honored by the druids since they provided a source of divine inspiration.

Sometimes this ability to act as seers went beyond reading omens. In Irish Celtic literature a series of druids are recorded who acted as prophets for their royal masters. Cathbadh, the druid of King Conchobar of Ulster is reputed to have advised the king and acted as a soothsayer. Other late Celtic prophets, such as the Scottish Brahn Seer, continued this belief into medieval times. For the Celts, the gods provided clues to their will, and the druids were able to interpret these messages. The power of this belief is reflected in the continued appearance of soothsayers and messengers of god throughout history.

Chapter 7 — THE DRUIDS

Women and the Pmesthooó

Celtic Druid Females

prisoner who was held over the vessel's rim. Others then cut open the body, and after inspecting the entrails would foretell victory for their tribe."

This is similar to accounts of the ritual human sacrifice of prisoners of war by druids. A wooden figurine ot a Celtic woman was discovered in a spring at Chamalieres, in central France. Clearly a votive offering, like the thousands of other wooden statues and figurines recovered from the site, the woman is shown wearing a tore (signifying aristocratic status), and a drape covering her head. The figurine has been interpreted as that of a priestess, as the draping of a cloth over the head has been linked to druid sacrificial rituals.

Rites and ruthlessness

Strabo also described an account of a Celtic religious ceremony recorded by his fellow historian Posidonius. A colony of female priestesses inhabited an island near the mouth of the Loire, on the west coast of Gaul. Men were never allowed on the island, which was seen as a sacred place to the Gauls, although the priestesses were free to come and go as they pleased. According to Strabo: " is their custom once a year to remove the roof from their temple and to roof it again the same day before sunset, each woman earning part , of the burden; but the woman ki whose load falls from her is ■ torn to pieces by the others, who then carry the pieces around the temple crying I 'euoi,' and continue until their madness passes." This reference to a female religious community reflects ' other accounts from classical sources. In the first century AI) the Roman Fomponius Mela described an island called Sena, part of the archipelago known as Cassiterides (now the Scilly Isles). The island was the home of a Gallic oracle, serviced by nine virgin priestesses. These women

Women eould attain powerful status in Celtie society. L'nlike other contemporary civilizations, women eould and did hold high social and political positions. Obvious examples include Boudieea, Queen of the leeni, Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, and the semi-legendary Irish Queen Medb (Maev) of Connaeht. Although women do not appear to have been allowed to join the order of druids, several examples of female prophets and lower priestesses exist.

Below: In this carved stone votive offering found at Alesia, a priestess is shown offering a token to a Celtic deity.

he Roman historian Strabo writing in the late first century BC recounts the role played by women among the Cimbri {see pages 84-85 ). Priestesses were also described by Caesar and Tacitus in their histories. Strabo reported that: "...women would enter the camp sword in hand, and go up to prisoners, crown them, and lead them up to a bronze vessel... one woman would mount a step, and leaning over the cauldron, would cut the throat of the

could control the elements, predict the future, and heal the sick.

In the Welsh Celtic heroic poem Preiddu Annwyfh which survives in an early medieval form, King Arthur is described arriving in Wales to steal the holy cauldron of Annwn (the underworld). It was guarded by nine virgin priestesses, just like the oracle on Sena mentioned centuries earlier.

A series of later Roman accounts describe encounters between leading Roman historical figures and Gallic priestesses, who foretold their futures. While he was still a mere soldier, Diocletian encountered a Celtic priestess who told him he would become emperor after he slew "the boar" (Aper). He duly became emperor after killing the Aper, interpreted as the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard. The emperor Aurelian consulted a Gallic priestess, who assured him that although his descendants would become emperors after him, they would not be considered more illustrious than the descendants of Claudius. Another emperor, Severus, was warned by a Celtic priestess not to trust his soldiers. She turned out to be right—they eventually murdered him. Although female priests and seers lacked the respect granted their male druidic counterparts, they played a significant role in the Celtic system of belief.

Right: Stone bas-relief depiction of a female deity or a priestess recovered from Alesia.

Drcuids in Celtic Mcyfh

Although the power of the druids was destroyed by the Romans in Gaul and most of Britain, it remained part of Celtic society' in Ireland. Irish mythology provides a rich source of information about druids, their power, and their abilities. Although only myths, many of these accounts are based on true observations of Celtic society. As such, they provide a link with the Celtic past that cannot be ignored.

Below: The oak tree was held sacred by the druids, and oak groves formed a central part in both druidic practices and in Celtic myth.

vidence for druidic activity in pre-Christian Ireland comes from two sources; accounts of the lives of Christian saints such as St. Patrick, and from Irish mythological texts, such as the Annals of Ulster. Both sources were compiled after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, written at some time between the seventh and eleventh centuries AD. In one important respect, the writers of these accounts some hundreds of years after Julius Caesar had something in common with him. The Christian monks who recorded these tales had a vested interest in portraying these pagan religious figures in a poor light. It is likely that—like the earlier classical accounts of the druids—these early Irish accounts contained some accurate aspects, but the accounts need to be viewed with caution.

To the Celts in Ireland, learned men were divided into three overlapping groups; bards, seers, (filidh) and druids. The druids are shown to have wielded significant power in their community, influencing both secular and religious affairs with equal ease. They are portrayed as advisers to the Irish kings, like the relationship between the druid Cathbadh and Conchobar of Ulster (see page 102). As advisers in spiritual as well as temporal matters, they relied on divination to assist their monarch in his decision-making.

The link between druid and king was therefore a strong one, and the king risked his special relationship with the gods if he ignored his druid's advice. Of the three groups of

Druidic Ceremonies

Above: In Wales, the bardic element of Druidic tradition survived through history and today forms an important part of Eisteddfod ceremony. Here a bard is honored by being offered a drink from a drinking horn.

learned men, the druids were by far the most powerful. Bards kept alive the tribe's oral traditions, and entertained the court with tales of past bravery. Seers had some of the powers of druids, such as divination, but lacked the divine power of their druidic betters. Significantly, the seers continued to thrive under the Christian system, replacing the druids as prophets to the Irish kings, although they remained careful to place this advice in a suitably Christian context. Bards, too, continued to thrive after the advent of Christianity, no doubt because their more secular function as historian-entertainers retained its importance in parallel with the clerical Christian story-telling. The tradition of kings or lords appointing bards in Wales continued well into the medieval era.

A pre-Celtic order

According to the Book of Invasions, the first colonists in Ireland brought three druids with them, named Intelligence, Knowledge and Enquiry. They were followed by the Tuatha De Danann (People of the goddess Danu), who tried unsuccessfully to keep the Gaels (Celts) out of Ireland. These accounts indicate that the druids were perceived to have existed in Ireland before the Celtic migrations of the Iron Age.

The Celts brought their own druids, one of whom reputedly established his dominance over the indigenous druids in Ireland. In the Tain Bo Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), the great Irish warrior hero Cu Chulainn (seepage 175) won a string of victories for Conchobar of Ulster (and his druid Cathbad) before succumbing to the magic of the sorceress Queen Medb of Connacht and her own druids. This link between kings, druids, magic, and the spirit world remained a recurring theme in early Irish mythology.

There was also a link between druids and kingship. Kings were seen as sacred, chosen by the gods, and their accession was marked by extensive rituals, supervised by the druids. These rites included sacrificial ceremonies and divination; attempts to determine the divine destiny of the new king.

This close relationship ended with the coming of Christianity, and at this point the Irish writings lapse into Christian moralizing. Kings who retained their druids and pagan beliefs are reputed to have met their fate, and St. Patrick portrays the druids he encountered as hostile and reactionary. Given that Christianity brought an end to their unique power in Ireland, their antipathy toward the saint is understandable.

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