In a Celtic society of the ancient world, the tribal communities were divided into various classes. Above the common people such as the peasants and the artisans, there were the warrior classes, and then the ruling classes, such as the kings or the chieftains, who were are above the rest. But there was another class of people that enjoyed a very status. They were known as the druids.
This page covered both historical and mythical accounts of the learned men and women. The first part of the page contained background on the origin of druids in ancient Gaul and Britain, as well as their place in the Celtic society.
The second part there is a list of articles on the mythical characters in Irish and Welsh literature. The characters are not only about druids, but there are also articles about bards.
|Most of what we know about the ancient Celtic people in history, come from observances of classical Greek and Roman writers, as well as from archaeological evidences such as from the possessions of dead in burial sites and from shrines found throughout central and western Europe, as well as from the British Isles.
See Who Were The Celts? in About Celtic Myths.
Historical writings about the Celts began in the 1st century BC, by the Greeks and the Romans. Though, the Romans and the Greeks had encountered the Celts in wars centuries earlier, it is only the 1st century BC that historians began to observe their cultures and customs.
The first important description about the Celts, come from the writing of Posidonius (c. 135-51 BC), the Syrian Stoic philosopher, who described the Celtic society. Posidonius may have provided extensive description of the Celts, none of his works survived, except from references from other works, most particular by Strabo, Greek geographer of the 1st century AD. Strabo mentioned Posidonius as his main source about the Celtic society.
Contemporary to Posidonius, was the great Roman general and statesman, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), who described the barbarians in his memoir, the Gallic Wars, during his campaigns in Gaul (France and Belgium) and southeast England. It seemed that Caesar’s writing was probably influenced by Posidonius’ description on the Celts, but Caesar did have first-hand encounter with the Celts, some of them serving him in his army as allies, such as the Aedui.
Both writers give us descriptions of the priestly class, known as the druids and druidesses.
Caesar wrote further that druidism had probably originated in Britain, and later introduced druids into Gauls. Whether this statement is true or not, many modern scholars and historians had researched and speculated endlessly upon the origin of the druids.
To Caesar, the druids were secretive but learned group, who enjoyed special privileges among the Celtic population. They did not have to fight in wars and they were exempted from paying taxes. They acted as judges in disputes and they presided over those who commit act of crime, as well as setting penalties. They could travel any where without hindrance from any tribes.
Though, there are many benefits of becoming a druid, it is still not an easy life. It may take over 20 years to learn the philosophy, divination, poetry, healing, religious rites and magic. And all this without committing anything to writing. The druids, or any Gaul for that matter, were fully aware of writing down their knowledge, but chose not to do so, because they preferred to rely on memories. For the druids, their pupils were required to exercise their mind.
The Gauls and the druids were not illiterate. Because of the trades between the Gauls and the Greek city of Massilia (modern Marseille) in southern France, the Gauls had earlier used Greek letters, mainly for trade purposes. The druids had never used the Greek writing to record their knowledge and customs. After Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain, later the Celts had adopted Roman letters for mainly commercial purposes. There are some inscriptions found in sacred sites, such as in shrines and sanctuaries.
Caesar observed that the Gauls were very religious, and they always wait for the druids to perform the necessary rituals or sacrifices. The Celts didn’t build any temples to their gods. The druids practised their worship in the open air, such as at sacred groves or near sacred lakes.
According to Caesar and other classical writers, the Gauls believed in the souls being immortal, where it passed on to another body after death. In another words, they believed in reincarnation or eschatology.
See Druidic Beliefs about Celtic religions and on eschatology.
|In ancient Gaul, the druidical order was divided into three groups: druidae, vates or uatis, and bardi. Likewise, Ireland had similar classes, and they were called druidh, filidh and baird. However, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish one group from another, because the druids are required to learn all skills.
Druidae or druidh
Classical authors described the ancient druids in Gaul and Britain having many different duties. They were teachers, philosophers, physicians, priests, seers and sorceress.
They were generally responsible for teaching the noble class and their druid apprentices. With the noble class, they mediate any dispute. They have jursidiction over disputes, as well as trying cases and setting penalties of criminal acts. They could travel to anywhere without restriction and receive hospitality from all household.
As a priest, the druid was responsible for performing sacrifices. Sometimes, the druids would perform human sacrifices. The druids were the priests who would communicate with the gods on behalf of the Celtic people.
As seers or soothsayers they were known as vates, while the Irish called them filids. See the next section for more detail.
In the Irish and Welsh texts, the druids were seen as teachers, healers, seers and wizards, but not as priests. Unlike the Gallic druids, they didn’t pray to any god nor did they ever perform sacrifice.
With the Irish myths, the druids were more like sorcerers than priests. The druids were not just confined to the Danann people. There were druids among the Partholonians, Nemedians and Milesians. Even the Fomorians had their own druids. Unlike the druids of historical Gaul and Britain, there was no rules against writing.
In the Welsh myths, a druid was called dyn hysbys, which means wizard.
Vates or filidh
The Gaullish vates or uatis and the Irish filidh were the seers and soothsayers, gifted in divination.
Both Caesar and the orator Cicero (106-43 BC) wrote of meeting a druid, named Divitiacus, an Aeduan, whom they highly respected. Divitiacus was known for divination by the means of augury.
According to the classical writers, these druids would butcher a man, to foretell the future. How they bled and observing their convulsions of their victim’s limbs can tell them about the future, or at least read or interpret omens. Modern scholars are dubious of some of the accounts of the classical writers on ritual sacrifices, who were probably political motivated to record such events, as a mean of propaganda, to stamp out the druids.
Prediction of the future in Irish and Welsh myths are numerous to tell here. Among the famous, predictions were Cathbad foretelling the tragedy that would upon Ulster because of Deirdre, or Fedelm foretelling the defeat of Medb’s army was the result of a single hero, Cu Chulainn.
Bardi or baird
The bardi or baird were the poets and singers. They seemed to be the lowest order of the enlightened ones, yet in Irish and Welsh myths they can sometimes play even more important roles than a king or a warrior. They were often known for their wisdom as well as for their poetry.
Historically, Irish and Welsh poetry mainly survived in oral tradition, not in writing. However, the oral tradition was well developed before writing were used. By the time the poems were written down, it may have been influenced by Christianity.
Whether in Gaul, Wales or Ireland, the bards commanded almost as great a respect as the druids. In some cases, the bards played a prominent role in Irish or Welsh narratives. Amairgin, son of Míl was able to counter any sorcery of the Danann druids. Taliesin had used his poetry to spellbind the court of Maelgwn Gwynedd.
Taliesin was a shadowy figure, because he was said to have been a historical person, but he is mainly known for poems attribute to him and the legends were more substantial than any historical account we have of him. The 9th century historian, Nennius, had listed him as one of five early great poets, known as cynfeirdd, who were said to have live in the 6th century. The other poets were Aneirin, Talhaiarn Cataguen, Bluchbard and Cian (Guenith Guaut). No works survived from the last three poets.
You will find a list of bards that appeared in Celtic myths in the Bards page.
|The druids were responsible for the religious teaching and practices of the Celts. They preserved the knowledge of the gods and were responsible for the sacrifices of animals, and sometimes of human sacrifices.
The Gaullish druid was a mediator between the mortals and gods; they stand between worlds, and in the case of Irish and Welsh myths, between the otherworld and mortal planes. The druids derived part of their magic powers and their divinations from the Otherworld.
There were no temples built for the Celtic gods in the pre-Roman conquest. Shrines and sanctuaries were found outdoor at sacred groves or near sacred lakes. Sacrifices, human and animal, took places at these sacred sites. Icons made of either of wood or stone, were stored in the shrines, along with sacred, precious artefacts. Hauls of silver and gold were deposited into the holy lakes and rivers.
According to the Roman historian Tactius, one of the centre of the druids were at the sacred grove on the island of Anglesey. In AD 61, because of human sacrifices that took place, the Romans under Suetonius Paulinus took action to eradicate the bloody practices; druids were massacred and groves were destroyed.
Julius Caesar could only observed the deities of Gaul, and designate Roman names to the Celtic gods where they are familiar to the Roman pantheon. The Gallic Mercury was the most important god. Other important deities were Mars, Apollo, Jupiter, Minerva.
It was only when Gaul and Britain had become provinces, did the Celts have temples built and the Celtic deities receive Romano-Celtic names. Despite these names, all the inscriptions on these Gallic and British deities were written in Latin, since neither Gauls nor the Britons have their own writing systems. The Romans were renown for adopting new gods and religions. Some of the Romans, who lived aboard, had adopted these Gallic deities. Only the horse goddess Epona was worshipped in Rome itself. See Gallic Deities and British Deities.
If we wished to know about the Celtic deities we must investigate them from ancient Celts and not from writing preserved in the medieval manuscripts. Though the Irish and Welsh people found in literature were thought to be gods originally, they were not worshipped, but they did have special power that kept them young.
The only source in the Irish literature that indicate that Irish worshipping a god, in the usual sense, come at the reign of the high king, Tigernmas. Tigernmas was said to have introduced the worship of Crom Cruach. Human sacrifices were performed before the stone idol of Crom Cruach.
Some ancient Gallic deities such Belenus, Danu, Lugus, Ogmios and Epona survived the early spread Christianity to be transmitted into Bel, Ana, Lug or Lugh, Ogma, and Macha – the Irish deities of the Tuatha De Danann. However, they were not “gods” in the usual sense of the word, but have being watered down as fairies, by the Christian authors. See Tuatha Dé Danann (Irish Deities).
While the Welsh had transmitted Belenus/Bel into Beli, Danu/Ana into Don, Lugus/Lug into Lleu, and Epona/Macha into Rhiannon. The British god Nodons was transmitted into the Welsh Nudd, who was sometimes equated with Nuada Airgetlám. See Welsh Deities.
Ignoring the Irish and Welsh literatures, and concentrating on the ancient Gaul and Britannia during the Roman empire, you will find that there is no Celtic pantheon, such as the Greek and Roman Olympians or the Norse Aesir. There are hundreds of Celtic gods and goddesses, where some are more popular in Continental Europe and the British Isles (such as Lugus, Belenus, Epona, Matres, etc), while others are only worshipped in certain region or by a tribe (such as Vosegus, Nehalennia, Sequana, etc).
There no ancient record about Celtic Creation, and it is not certain that there were any. Though Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) did write that all the Gauls had originally descendants from Dis Pater (Pluto), the Roman god of the Underworld and god of the dead, it can not be verified.
Neither the Irish nor Welsh literature provided anything about the creation of the world and mankind. However, in Lebor Galaba (Book of Invasions), the Irish pseudo-historical account of successive people settling in Ireland, until the arrival of the Gaelic-speaking people known as the Milesians. According to this account, the Partholonians, Nemedians and Milesian were descendants of the Biblical Noah. The Partholonians and Nemedians had come from Japheth’s line. The Firbolgs and Tuatha Dé Danann were descendants of the Nemedians, so they were ancestors also come from the time of Noah.
What it does indicate is that the so-called Irish people had come from another kingdoms, or in the case of the Tuatha Dé Danann from the Otherworld.
What do the Celtic people believe in the afterlife?
What is evident among the ancient Celtic custom in regarding the dead is that the more prominent members of the community were buried with their earthly possessions, such as their cauldrons, jugs, ornaments, jewellery, and weapons. Sometimes a whole chariot was buried with them. Even their favourite animals, such as horse or hound, were buried with them.
Some of these burial indicate that they were nobles or chieftains; even possibly druids. There were even a few that were actually tombs for women. These women were probably druidesses or women chieftains. Like many other different culture they believe that the dead may need these possessions in the transition to their afterlife.
According to the ancient classical writers, they believed that the Celts were followers of the Pythagorean philosophy. The Greek philosopher, Pythagoras (c. 580 – c. 500 BC) from the island of Samos, taught that human soul was immortal and instead of the shades going to the Underworld, they find another body to enter. Transmigration of the soul (reincarnation), known as eschatology, was also the belief of Hinduism, and number of other cults, such as the Orphic Mysteries.
Though, the Celts may believed in the souls passing from one body to another, but claiming that the druids were followers of Pythagoras, this is probably an overstatement or exaggeration of their belief and knowledge. I very much doubt that the druids knew anything about Pythagoras’ philosophy.
It is this belief about the soul, which made the Celtic warriors fearless in battles. Since they believe that their souls would always find new bodies, they didn’t fear dangers or death. They were known to have thrown themselves at the Roman swords with reckless abandon.
It is not certain if the Irish or the Welsh believe in eschatology or not, but there are couple of indication that reincarnations were possible.
A number of Danann were listed in the Lebor Gabala, having died either during and after the Second Battle of Mag Tuired and before the Milesian invasion, particularly Dagda, Lugh and Macha, but in other tales they are alive and living in sidhe (otherworld). This does sort of suggest reincarnation, or even deification.
In the Irish romance, Tochmarc Étaín (Wooing of Etain), Etain was transformed into a butterfly, by her husband’s jealous first wife. A thousand years later, a queen accidentally swallowed the butterfly, the queen became pregnant, and Etain was reborn. See Etain in the Ulster Cycle.
A similar metamorphoses and reincarnation like that of Etain occured in the Lebor Gabala, where Tuan mac Cairill was the reincarnation of Tuan, son of Starn and brother of Partholon. This earlier Tuan was the sole survivor of Partholonians that were wiped out by the plague. Tuan survived for many generations in various animal forms, such as a stag, a boar and a eagle. During his life in these forms he witnessed successive invaders in Ireland. That was until one day, he was caught in the shape of a salmon, he was eaten by the wife of Cairill, and Tuan was reborn in human form as Tuan mac Cairill. It was this reborn Tuan who was said to have written about the early history of Ireland.
Similarly, in the Welsh tale (Mabinogion), Gwyon Bach changed into various animal forms to escape the goddess Ceridwen. When he changed himself into a grain, Ceridwen turned into a hen and swallow the grain (Gwyon Bach) and the goddess became pregnant. Gwyon Bach was reborn as the famous bard, Taliesin. See Taliesin in the Mabinogion.
Roman and Greek historians have recorded that the druids were responsible for the sacrifices of animals, and the more grisly ritual, human sacrifices. Most classical accounts say that the Gauls doesn’t perform any sacrifice, large or small, without a druid doing the rite.
These sacrifices were performed to appease the gods, for people suffering from famine or disease. Another purpose for the sacrifice is when a tribe is engage in a war.
Caesar reported unusual sacrifices where men were confined in large wickerwork images of men, filled with twigs, before they were set on fire. Lucan wrote that the human sacrifices were frequently performed for the Gallic gods Esus, Taranis and Teutates.
Other writers reported different types of human sacrifices, for divinatory purpose. Diodorus Siculus (late 1st century BC) wrote the victim were stabbed above the midriff. The druids were able to foretell by the way the blood flow and by the convulsions of the limbs. See Druidic Magic, Divination.
Usually the sacrificial victims were criminals or slaves, but the druids would sacrifice innocent, if there were shortage of criminals.
Human sacrifices are rare in Irish mythology. During the reign of Tigernmas, this high king had introduced the worship of Crom Cruach, where people were sacrificed before the stone idol of Crom Cruach.
In the Irish Echtrae Airt meic Cuinn (or the “Adventure of Art Son of Conn”), the druids advised Conn Cétchathach, the high king of Ireland, to find and sacrifice a boy from sinless parents, named Ségda Sáerlabraid. However, this was not a sacrifice to the gods; the boy was to be slain before Tara, and his blood was to mix with the soil. Rígru, the boy’s mother, saved her son and warned Conn that it was his second wife, Bé Chuma, who caused the land not to have any corn or milk. Bé Chuma had been exiled from the Otherworld for transgression, and for unjustly banishing Art from Ireland.
Modern scholars and historians expressed doubts about human sacrifices, because there are so few evidences, and we only have classical authors as witnesses. Some believed that these ancient historians were either exaggerating or they were using as propaganda to suppress druidism. Human sacrifices may have taken place, but it was probably not a daily rituals or occurences, unless there was real need, such as in wars or famines.
There is great difficulties in distinguishing killing in war and murder from ritual killing such as sacrifice. Perhaps the best evidence of human sacrifice come from the body recovered from the peat bog in Lindow Moss, at Cheshire. This body was called Lindow Man. The bog had kept the flesh well-preserved, showed evidence that his throat was cut. Not only that, he was also bludgeoned, strangled and drowned. Some German tribes also sacrificed human in the same manner, such as cutting throat, stabbing, strangling or hanging, or drowning.
In a way, decapitation was a form of sacrifice, and the Roman writers had often remarked about the Celtic custom of severing heads of their enemies, as if warrior would gain the defeated enemy’s power. The Gaullish warriors fought with reckless bravado, with their slashing swords. They took heads as trophies, as well as a mean of gaining the mystical power of the severed heads.
Decapitation is also found very frequently in Irish literature, more than in the Welsh texts. In the Irish tale, called Fled Bricrenn (Briccriu’s Feast), a warrior (Cu Roi) allowed his head to be severed from the three Ulster’s champions, in return that he was allowed to take the champion’s head in the next day. When this mystical warrior head was severed, it picked up his head and walk away, returning the next day. Only Cu Chulainn was brave enough to put his head on the chopping block, but the warrior didn’t harm Cu Chulainn. Obviously magic was involved.
However, the most amazing incident happened in second branch of the Welsh Mabinogion (Branwen Daughter of Llyr), where the head of Bran the Blessed, or Bendigeidfran, continue to talk to the seven survivors of the war against Ireland. Bran’s head made the survivors forget the loss of their king and army.
In some graves, there were heads severed from elderly women. What was interesting is that the head was placed either the corpse’s legs or at her feet. Also the lower jaw was removed from skull. The women were probably executed because of sorcery or witchcraft. There is speculation that the lower jaw was removed so that the dead woman couldn’t speak or incant a spell. Another theory suggested that it was to send the woman quickly to the Underworld.
|There are very little evidences of magic from the ancient druids in Gaul that appeared frequently in Irish and Welsh literatures. The classical authors believed that druids practised magic and witchcraft, but were very vague to what sort of magic. What is clear is that the ancient druids took special interests in healing and divination.
Like shaman or medicine man, the druids made charms and talisman to ward off evil spirits.
As physicians and healers, the druids gathered herbs and poultice. They gathered plants known as selago, without using iron. Another special plants were the marsh plant, known as the samolus, used as charm against diseases of cattle.
Pliny the Elder (AD 29-79), philosopher and natural scientist, wrote that druids held the mistletoe and oak trees (genus Quercus) as sacred. The mistletoe were rarely found on oak trees. The druids would cultivate mistletoes with great ceremony on the sixth day of the moon. They always used golden sickle to carefully cut the mistletoes, and gathered them in white cloak. It was said that mistletoe contained special properties that would cure all illness and diseases. It was said to be antidote to all poison, and impart fecundity to barren cattle.
However, in the medieval Irish literatures, it was ash trees, often called rowan and quicken trees (genus Sorbus aucuparia), and the yew trees (genus Taxus) that were sacred. They contained magical properties. Also sacred were the apple trees (genus Pyrus malus) and the hazel (genus Corylus).
In Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmait and Gráinne), the giant Searbhan (Sharvan) guarded rowan-berries on the Quicken Trees, in the forest of Dubros. The magic berry could restore an old man of 100 to his youth of 30-year-old.
The Welsh legend, seemed to favour the apple trees. In the poem attributed to Myrddin, the antecedent of Merlin, he hid up in the apple tree, when the men of Rhydderch, but he was hidden by the magic grove.
Though, druids could heal, using some sort of magic or just using herbs, it was mainly the work of physicians. The most famous physician was the Danann Dian Cécht and his children. Dian Cécht had blessed the spring, which healed the Danann warriors during the Second Battle of Mag Tuired. His son Miach had restored Nuada’s arm.
The magic is more explicit in Irish and Welsh literature. Some druids used wands, especially when transforming another person into an animal, plant or rock. See the next section on Metamorphoses.
A sorceress or witch was called bantuathaig. Be Chuille and her sister Dianann were the sorceresses of the Tuatha Dé Danann. They used their magic to conjured up host of warriors from the grass and leaves, during the war against the Fomorians.
In Irish and Welsh legends, prophecies and divination were frequent in the literature.
In ancient Gaul and Britain there are many artefacts showing strange creatures. One wondered if they are gods or human transforming into some sort of creatures, through shift-changing or metamorphosis? Gods transformed into creatures, trees or rocks are abundance in Greek and Roman literature, but no such records are kept by the ancient Celts.
However, there are abundant of such transformation in later literature found in Ireland, Wales and Brittany.
The people of Tuatha Dé Danann, through their own abilities or power.
In Hanes Taliesin (Mabinogion), Gwyon Bach (or Gwion Bach) gained such power after tasting the brew from Ceridwen’s magic cauldron. He used his power to escape Ceridwen, by transforming himself successively into a hare, salmon, a bird and lastly a grain of wheat.
Though, there are other cases, where they need special means to make such a transformation, such as the potions or wands, particularly when used against another person.
Aiofe, stepmother and aunt of the children of Lir, had used a wand to turn her stepchildren into swans. The Danann druidess Fuamnach, jealous first wife of Midir used a hazel wand to turned Etain into a butterfly. Similarly, the Dark Druid had turned Sadb, wife of Finn Mac Cumhaill and mother of Oisín, into a doe.
In Math Son of Mathonwy, the third branch of the Mabinogion, each year Math turned his nephews, Gwydyon and Gilvaethwy, first into a stag and hind, then wild sow and boar, and then into a wolf and she-wolf. After three years punishment, he turned his nephews back into human forms.
It is not just transformation of human to animal or plants. Anyone can transformed themselves to look young or old, beautiful or ugly. Goddesses frequently have three aspect, appearing a young maiden, mother and old crone.
In the Arthurian legend, Merlin certainly had this ability to look either an old man or a boy, merchant or beggar. One of the more famous metamorphosis occurred when Merlin had transformed Uther, king of the Britons, to look like Igraine’s husband, Gorlois duke of Cornwall, which caused the conception of Arthur. Morgan le Fay at one time changed herself and her followers into rocks, to hide from her brother, after her treachery. Morgan could also appeared as beautiful maiden or an ugly hag.
Divination is a way of foretelling the future or to understand hidden significant of events. There are different forms of divinations, such as astrology, augury, listening to animals, dreams and visions. According to the classical authors, the druids were renowned in this sphere of arcane practice.
Some of the skills were not so much as innate abilities but interpretation of the signs, such as in astrology or the flight of birds (auspices).
Some divinations, such as haruspicy, required cutting open the belly of animal and observing their entrails, similar to those performed by the Etruscan priests, which the Romans adopted.
The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (fl. late 1st century BC), reported a druid sacrificing victim, by stabbing him in the midriff. The druid could determine event by the mean of observing how blood from the wound and the convulsions of victim’s limbs. The geographer Strabo had similarly reported druid striking a person’s back with the sword, and observing the convulsive throes. Strabo listed other means of human sacrifices, such as shooting the victim with arrows, crucifying and burning. Other sacrifices, human or animal, were not only used for divination, but also as a mean of appeasing the gods. See Human Sacrifices in Druidic Beliefs.
In Táin Bó Cuailnge, Queen Medb encountered the seeress Fedelm. Fedelm had the imbas forasnai, or the “Light of Foresight”. The imbas forasnai was was not limited to seers; poets of the highest rank could have this prophetic gift. Scáthach, the woman warrior and teacher of Cu Chulainn, was also to have this gift.
There other forms divinations. One of them called teinm laída, involved chewing and chanting. The Fenian hero Finn Mac Cumhall had the strange ability where he can gain knowledge or foresight, just by sticking his thumb in his mouth and chewing it.
The third form, called díchetal do chennaib, which required incantation. Divination probably required contact or close promxity with a person or object.
Part of divination come from interpretation of event. An example of this, is when Conchobar Mac Nessa and his retinue heard the unborn child could be heard screaming from the womb of the wife of Fedlimid Mac Daill. Conchobar’s druid, Cathbad interpreted that the omen would be ill for all Ulster, if any king was to marry her (meaning Conchobar). This unborn child is Deirdre. Conchobar unheeding to Cathbad’s warning, decided to marry the girl, when he heard that she would be beautiful beyond compare.
In the Welsh legend, divination was known as awenyddion or awenithion, which was a power of poetic insight. The insight or divination come from sleeping and dream, where the sleeping person would speak during a rapt ecstasy.
In the legend of Taliesin, Gwyon Bach gained the ability of inspiration (poetry), wisdom, magic and divination, when he accidentally tasted three drops from Cauldron of Inspiration. Gwyon was reborn from Ceridwen’s womb as the bard Taliesin.
According to the Welsh and Arthurian legends, Myrddin or Merlin was the most prominent seer or prophet. Merlin not only could see into the future, but his wisdom enabled him to understand any significance or symbolism that happened in the past or present. With the Welsh Myrddin, he gained his ability when he became mad during the Battle of Arfderydd and living in the Caledonian forest as the Wild Man of the Woods. Geoffrey of Monmouth tells a similar story in Vita Merlini.
Merlin’s power in prophecy in Vita Merlini are derived from several ways. Perhaps, most essential to his prophetic power come from his madness. One, he can look at person and see that person’s fate. Living for years in the forest, Merlin also had the ability to talk to the animals. The last method of looking into the future, was through astrology. Merlin’s sister, Ganieda, had built a large house in the woods, with seventy doors and seventy windows, so Merlin can have unobstructed view of the heaven.
But in Geoffrey’s earlier work, Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1137), Merlin was born with the ability, because he was the son of devil or incubus. Instead becoming a force for evil, Merlin’s mother immediately had her baby baptised. Merlin retained knowledge of past and the future, because he actually became a servant of God.
|One of the problems when dealing with the Celtic people, particularly with druids, is that we don’t know how much truth is found in the ancient and medieval writings. A lot of theories about the druids and druidism over the last four centuries, and lot of it either wrong, gross exaggeration or misleading. None of the theories in the past and present have any more proof, and our inquiries often leave more questions to be asked. Even some of the things that I write about druids are probably wrong.
Most of what I have written so far about the druids and druidism (ie. origin, religion, magic, etc), come from either ancient or medieval sources. They come from classical Greek or Roman authors, or from medieval Irish and Welsh literature. The writings of the Irish and Welsh authors give us a different light to what was written by the ancient authors, but their works often hindered our understanding of druidism.
We are in debt to the age of Romanticism and the Celtic revivalists (from 17th century to the early 20th century), for keeping alive the Celtic mythology, either by preserving the old writings or transmitting them into English or other languages. Yet, at the same time, we can also blame them for giving us distorted interpretation of what the druids and Celtic people did in the past. The modern druidic movements still accept some of their concepts and speculations.
Some of their theories and speculation are as fantastic as the medieval literature, and are either wrong or an exaggeration. These Celtic experts had perpetrated their own myths, especially on the origin of druidism. Many bogus writing and scholarship were penned from the 17th century to the 19th century. Among them was John Aubrey (1626-1697), William Stukeley (1687-1765), Godfrey Higgins and Iolo Morganwg, an alias of Edward Williams (1747-1826). Iolo Morganwg was largely responsible for the invention of modern druidic movement, or neo-druidism.
More on Druidic Origin
I have already said in the article Druids in Ancient Europe that Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) mentioned that the place of possible origin of druidism was in Britain. Some have argued over the centuries in favour and against this statement. Caesar was only stating the possibility, because he doesn’t know for fact of the druidic origin.
The Greek city in southern France, Massilia (modern Marseille), had traded with the Celts in the 6th century BC. The Romans have known the existence of Celts or the Gauls, as they called them, when several Gallic tribes had crossed over the Alps, settling in northern Italy, exerting pressure upon the Etruscan city-states during second half of the 5th century BC. The Roman had their own encounter with Gauls, when they were defeated at the Battle of Allia, in 391 BC. In the following year, the Gauls sacked Rome before leaving. The Romans had also fought the Gauls before (in the battle of Telamon, in Eturia, 225 BC) and during the Second Punic War against the Carthaginians, in third-quarter of the 3rd century BC. In none of these cases, was there any mention about the druids.
Some Celtic experts believed that this is proof that the druids didn’t exist among all Celtic people, such as those living in Gaul, Central Europe and in Galatea (in Asia Minor), so the druids must have come from Britain. There are even some who believed that the druids were not at all of Celtic origin. Some of the Celtic scholars believed that the druids were originally pre-Celtic people living in Brittany, Britain and Ireland.
Arguing against that, it should be pointed out neither the Romans nor the Greeks had time to observe the customs of Gauls, and one could not possibly distinguish a druid when faced against the charge of fearless, sword-waving, (happy) head-hunting Gaulish warriors. There was probably existence of druids in Gaul 390 BC and even before this time, even though no one has seen one.
There are some who believed that the druids had lived in the time of the megalith period. One of the persistent, erroneous concepts about the druids is that they were the megalithic builders of burial mound or chamber, the standing stones and stone circle found throughout Europe, like the Stonehenge. See People of the Stone.
There are many large burial mounds can be found throughout central and western Europe. What is interesting is that there are spiral carving upon stones that are similar design to that we normally associate with Celtic work. But these meglithic carvings are actually pre-Celtic, during the Neolithic period. These spiral carvings are often associated with the belief that it helps the passage of the soul to the Underworld. Yet, these megalithic carvings of spirals are not confined to British Isles and France. What can be found in Newgrange in Irleand or Garvrinis in France, can also be found in Spain, Sicily and Malta.
I am very sceptical about these claims, particularly those about the druidism was of pre-Celtic origin. Even more preposterous, when John Aubrey (1626-1697), claimed in his writing that druid’s origin come from India into Britain, as well as linking their customs with the American Indians.
I have already mentioned that some Celtic revivalists and romanticists (since the 16th century) and modern-day druids believed that the ancient druids were of not Celtic origin at all. They believed that the druids were pre-historic, indigenous people, who had always lived on the British Isles and in Armorica (another name for Brittany, in France). When the Celts to these regions, the Celtic people adopted the religious customs and rites of the druids.
Part of the reason, is that they like to believe that it was druids who had erected the standing stones and the stone circles, particularly the Stonehenge in southeast England.
Either this theory is true or wrong. The problem is that we can’t prove this theory.
This megalithic culture used huge stones, usually unadorned, which they sometimes erected the individual stone in the upright position from the ground. While there were others, where one large stone were lay horizontally over two or more standing stones.
These stones can sometimes be found group together in some sort of pattern. There were couple different arrangements, such as the concentric circles like the Stonehenge. An even larger circle could be found not too far away from the Stonehenge, in a place called Avebury, in Whitshire, England. Avebury is about 30 kilometres north of the Stonehenge and it occupied 28 acres.
Another pattern was paralleled alignment of stones, such as those found in Carnac, near the village of Auray, in Brittany.
There are thousands of individual standing stones all over Brittany and Britain. In Brittany, they were called menhir. The Bretons and the Irish also called them dolmen. While in Wales and Cornwall, these stones were called cromlech.
They were erected during the Neolithic period and during early Bronze Age. Before I continue any further, it must be understood that the Bronze Age occurred later than the eastern part of Europe (like in Crete and Greece) and in the Middle East. They were constructed from 4000 BC, to the early Bronze Age in 1100 BC.
All of these stones were built before the arrival of the Celtic people arrived in these regions.
The construction of the Stonehenge began perhaps around 3100 BC, by the Neolithic people living in the area. The building continued in two other stages, about 2100 BC and later at 2000 BC. It was finally completed in c. 1400 BC.
There are some of the medieval and modern scholars, who think that the druids erected the Stonehenge or other stone structures, which is misleading and misrepresentation. I would like to dispel these myths about the druids and the Stonehenge. Though, there was many stone circles and dolmen erected throughout the British Isles and in Brittany, the monuments were actually pre-Celtic. All these structures were erected long before the Celtic people had ever arrive in these regions.
Who were these pre-Celtic people, remained unknown, but they belonged to Neolithic people during the megalithic period. Were these megalithic people actually druids? I remain dubious over the claim that the druids were not of Celtic origin, because there is less proof.
I believe that it is a mistake to assume that one culture from one region had come from one group of people during the Neolithic period, which then spread their practice through migration to other part of Europe. It would be more safer to assume that the megalithic arts and monumentals were created independently in many different times and places.
We discount the possibility that the druids have all these megalithic monuments built. So the origin of druidism will probably remain just that – an unsolved mystery.
Below are a list of druids and druidesses that appeared in Celtic literature.
|Nemedian chieftain. Iarbonél was known as the Soothsayer or the Prophet. Though strangely enough, he never utter a single prophecy in the Lebor Gabala.
Iarbonél was the son of Nemed and Macha. Iarbonél was also the brother of Starn and Ainninn, and half brother of Fergus Lethderg. Iarbonél married Machu and became the father of Béothach.
As Nemed’s son, Iarbonél was one of the four Nemedian chieftains and he fought against the Fomorians in battles. Iarbonél and Fergus was the only brothers left, surviving the last battle with the Fomorians, before they decided to leave Ireland. Fergus migrated east to Alba (Scotland), where they became the ancestor of the Britons, and Britain Mael, Fergus’ son, was eponym of Britain. While Semion, the great-grandson of Starn, migrated to Greece, where his descendants became the Firbolgs.
Iarbonél and Béothach chose to migrate north where they became ancestors of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
See the Nemedians in the Book of Invasions.
|According to the Irish myths, the Tuatha Dé Danann come from four cities: Falias, Gorias, Finias and Murias. In each city, there was a wizard-bard (druid). Each one would teach the Danann the various knowledge and skills, which include art, science, poetry and magic.
There is not much detail about these four druids, except for their names, the cities that they belonged to, and the four gifts (talismans) from the goddess. The four druids were named Morfesa of Falias, Esras of Gorias, Semias of Murias and Uiscias of Findias. See the table below:
Figol was another druid of the Danann, who took part in the battle against the Fomorians.
|Chief druid of Manannán Mac Lir. Gebann was the father of a daughter named Clídna. Gebann was sometimes said to be also the father of Étaín.||
|Birog was a druidess of the Tuatha Dé Danann and friend of Cian.
Birog assisted Cian with the entry to Balor’s tower, where Cian seduced Eithne, the daughter of Balor. Balor knew from the prophecy that he will die because if his grandson survive. So Balor ordered that the Eithne’s son to be killed. The Fomorian guard carrying out the order, but drop the infant into the water. Birog rescued the baby, whom was named Lugh.
|Druidesses or sorceresses. Bé Chuille and Dianann were daughters of the woodland goddess Flidais. They were sister of Bé Téite, and possibly of Fand, wife of Manannán Mac Lir.
Bé Chuille was among those listed who fought in the First Battle of Mag Tuired, when the Tuatha Dé Danann fought against the Firbolgs.
In the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, the two sisters aided the Tuatha Dé Danann in the war against the Fomorians, using their sorcery to conjure grass and leaves to create illusions a host of Danann warriors. The Fomorian warrior, Dé Domnann killed Dianann in the fighting.
Bé Chuille was also gifted with divination, and she foretold the number of Danann who would die in the battle against the Milesians.
|Caicer was a druid of the Milesians, who had foretold that the Milesians would one day live in Ireland.
Caicer was listed as one of the chieftains who had sailed with the Milesians, though his part in the tale was minor compared that of the bard, Amairgin.
|Cathbad was the Ard-Druid (“high druid”) of Ulaid (Ulster). Cathbad married Maga, former wife of Ross the Red, king of Ulster. Cathbad was the father of three daughters – Deichtine, Elbha (Elva) and Findchaem (Finchoom).
Deichtine was married to Sualtam, but was mother of Cu Chulainn (Setanta) to Lugh Lamfada, a Danann sun god. Findchaem was married to Amorigin, and was the mother of Conall Cernall. While Elva married Usna, and became the mother of three sons – Noísi (Noisi), Ainhé (Ainhe) and Ardan. All of his grandsons played important roles in the Ulaid Cycle.
Cathbad also have two foster-sons, named Crom Deroil and Crom Darail, where they appeared as druids of Ailill and Medb, in Mesa Ulad (“The Intoxication of the Ulstermen”).
Cathbad was the chief adviser of Conchobar. Cathbad was also a seer, who made several predictions that were fulfilled. Cathbad foretold that the beauty of Deirdre would be destruction to Ulster, if she were to marry a king. Conchobar foolishly thought that Cathbad referred to kings of the other provinces or the high king himself. Conchobar decided to marry her, when she reached the right age. It was Cathbad’s own magic that captured Deirdre and his grandsons, the sons of Usna.
Cathbad also prophesied that the greatest hero (Cu Chulainn) in Ireland would have a very short, but glorious life.
|A chief druid of Ulster. Barach served as chief druid to Conchobar Mac Nessa in the later part of the king’s life.
It was Barach who interpreted the signs of the darkening sky, told Conchobar about the death of Jesus Christ. Conchobar became enraged over Christ’s death, furiously began hacking a tree, until he was overcome and died, from an old wound to his head.
|Cailitín Dána (Cailitin or Calatin) was the chief druid of Medb and Ailill. Cailitin was known most for his fight against the Ulster’s hero, Cu Chulainn, in the Táin Bó Cuailnge.
Cailitin had many sons and several daughters, and they were all known as the Clan Cailitin. They were all described as hideously deformed druids.
Twenty-seven sons joined Calitin, when they crossed over to Ulster with the large army of Medb. Just before the single combat between Cu Chulainn and Fer Díad Mac Damann, Calitin and his sons fought an unfair combat against the Ulsterian hero. Actually, 29 of them fought against Cu Chulainn, one of them was named Glas Mac Delga, who was either Cailitin’s grandson or nephew (sister’s son).
The Clan Cailitin wield 29 poison-tipped spears; if you were killed outright, the victim would die from the poison after nine days of agony. Cu Chulainn caught all 29 spears with his shield, but their superior number would have killed the hero had not one of the exiled Ulstermen, Fiachu Mac Fir Fhebe, come to his aid. With one sword stroke, Fiachu sheared off the right arms of Clan Cailitin. Cu Chulainn killed all the Clan Cailitin, though Glas managed to momentarily escape back to Medb’s camp. Before Glas could disclose the treachery of Fiachu, Cailitin’s nephew was killed by a slingstone of Cu Chulainn.
Despite the death of Cailitin and his 27 sons, Cailitin’s other surviving children became involved with Cu Chulainn’s death. They used their magic to lure the hero away, alone again, to face Medb’s army.
|In Táin Bó Cuailnge, a Connacht seer, named Fedelm, foretold the defeat of Medb’s army that seek to fetch the Brown Bull of Cuailnge, in Ulster.
In the Tain, there is a description of her and the clothes she wore when she Medb. Fedelm was a young woman who wore a speckled cloak held by gold pin and a tunic with red-embroidered hood. Her sandals had gold clasps. Fedelm had yellow hair in three tresses – two were wound upward her, while the third hand behind her, all the way down to her calves. She had broad brow but a narrow jaw. Her eyebrows were dark and her eyelashes long. And her teeth were like an array of jewels. But the most amazing thing about Fedelm’s features, were her eyes: she had triple irises.
Fedelm rode in a chariot, drawn by two black horses. In her hand, she held a light gold weaving rod.
Fedelm have the skill of imbas forasnai or the Light of Foresight. The imbas forasnai is a talent of clairvoyance or divination, where the prophecies come to her in a form of a vision. She learned this and other druidical skills in Alba (name for Scotland in Gaelic).
Three times, Queen Medb of Connacht asked Fedelm what she see when the seeress looked at her host, three times her replies were “I see crimson. I see red.” Medb didn’t believe that was possible, because she knew that the men of Ulster would suffer from the Pang of Ulster, a curse that they would suffer for five days and four nights (or vice versa), because of the curse of Macha.
After her last reply to the queen, Fedelm explained in her song that one lone warrior (Cu Chulainn) would bar their path, delaying their march to raid the cattle of Daire Mac Fiachna and his prized bull, long enough so that the Ulstermen would recover from their pang. The Ulstermen would then muster their mighty forces and defeat her army.
Despite the prophecy and warning, Medb had her army heedlessly march into Ulster, to capture Brown Bull, and in the end, suffered a terrible defeat.
|A Danann druid. Tadg was the son of Nuada and the father of Muirenn (Muirne). It never mentioned it, but Tadg was probably also the father of the druidess Bodhmall, the nurse of Finn, and of Uirne, who was the mother of Bran and Sceolang.
Tadg was a powerful druid and the chief adviser of Conn Cétchathach, high king of Ireland. Tadg objected to his daughter to marriage to a mortal, Cumhaill, captain of the Fianna and chieftain of Clan Baiscne. It was through his machination that he persuaded Goll Mac Morna to challenge Cumhaill for the leadership of the Fianna.
Tadg used his sorcery to cause fear and confusion among the Clan Baiscne. He also used his magic to seriously weaken and hamper Cumhaill during the captain fight against Goll.
When Cumhaill was killed in the clan war, however, Muirenn was already pregnant with her son. His daughter fled and hid in Slieve Bloom, and gave birth to Demna (Finn Mac Cumhaill).
|Sister of Muirenn and aunt of the hero Finn Mac Cumhaill. Bodmall was also the daughter of the druid Tadg and foster-mother of Finn.
Bodhmall followed her sister into the Sliab Bladma (Slieve Bloom), where she acted as a midwife to Muirenn and later as a nurse and foster-mother of Finn.
|A druid or seer. For twenty years (others say 7 years), Finneces (Finegas) had tried to catch Fintan, the “Salmon of Knowledge” from the River Boynne.
Finneces had only caught the salmon when Finn Mac Cumhaill came to him, seeking the druid to teach him poetry. Finneces agreed to teach Finn, if the youth cooked the salmon for him, but under no circumstance was to eat any of it.
After Finn cooked and served the salmon to the druid, Finneces asked him if eaten any part of the salmon, the youth denied doing so, but he did put his right thumb in his mouth after he burned it, turning the fish around the spit.
Finneces realised he was not destined to eat Salmon of Knowledge, ordered Finn to eat all of it. When Finn ate the fish, the young hero gained wisdom and bard skills in poetry. Finn also can gain specific knowledge whenever he put his right thumb in his mouth.
|The Dark Druid or Fer Doirich was a powerful druid, who loved Sadb, daughter of Derg Díanscothach of Síd Ochta Cleitigh or of Bodb Derg son of Dagda.
Because Sadb refused to love him, the Dark Druid transformed her into a fawn. The Fenian hero, Finn Mac Cumhaill found her and broke the magic of the druid that was upon Sadb. Finn fell in love with her and married her. Sadb fell pregnant.
But the Dark Druid took her back, abducting her when Finn was absence in a war. Again, Sadb refused to love him, so he turned her back into a fawn. She gave birth to a baby boy, whom Finn named Oisín. Oisín was the last person to see his mother, as she followed the Dark Druid, leaving him behind.
|In the Breton legend, the Gallizenae were druidesses said to have lived on the Isle de Sein, offshore from Finistère in western Brittany.
Their number varied. Each druidess served on the isle as virgin. They were known for their gifts in healing, divination and controlling the weather and the tides. They could also change to animal forms, as well as the ability to fly.
|Below are list of druids and druidesses, who appeared in Irish myths.