Druids and Celtic Religion
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‘Tis indeed a pity we don’t know more today about the Druids—the
ancient Celtic priestly class—and their religious practices. The
Celts were very secretive about their religion, and guarded their beliefs
closely, only handing them down orally in story and verse. Any contemporaneous
accounts of the Druids were written down by very negatively biased sources,
the Roman and Greek conquerors, who held the “barbaric” Celts
in very low regard. To obfuscate matters further, some deliberately false
information was flat-out made up by Britishers of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries seeking to establish themselves at the head of a growing congregation
of neo-Druid true believers; these men forged documents that they passed
off as ancient Welsh religious texts. Somewhere in the process of passing
down all these untruths, the real truth about the Druids was lost permanently.
The Fragmentary Truth
For the reasons given above, possible truth (and fragmentary at that) may be as close as anyone can get. Here’s what is known about the Druids:
The Druidic Priest Class. As is common among ancient civilizations, the most learned men in the culture were assigned a role of priest—they performed the most important rituals of the culture, and preserved all of the traditions, mythos and knowledge for future generations. In addition to learning this body of knowledge, as well as the large collection of songs and verses by which the knowledge was passed on, the men given the rank of Druis (or Druid) advised the chief or king. The priests’ duties and functions may also have included interpretation and administration of the law. Also highly learned men, but ranking below the Druis, were the uelites (poet-magicians) and the uates (prophet-magicians). Female druids, called ueleda or bendrui, were priestesses who headed up local goddess cults, often living separate from the tribe with other female devotees in the cult.
One reason the Romans may have considered the Celts so primitive was their lack of temples and other religious buildings, which were so central to the classical civilizations. Instead, the Celts conducted their ritual activities outdoors in the natural environment, in tree groves or by the lake shore. The Greek and Roman accounts present evidence that their rituals included human sacrifice, but the practice does not seem to have been a prevalent one. Classical accounts also recount the Celtic emphasis on the soul’s passage from one corporeal host to another. Archaeologists have unearthed burial sites in which material goods are buried with the deceased, further indicating the Celtic belief in an afterlife.
The Celtic Pantheon. The Celts had many gods, who were immortalized in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the so-called Irish Book of Invasions, as well as in the Fenian and Ulster mythological cycles. These stories constitute a fairy tale history of Ireland, in which the gods occupy starring roles.
These five gods occupy the top rungs of the Celtic pantheon known as the éDanann deities:
- Lugus the Long-Armed, the magician-king
- Noudons the Silver-Armed, the judge-priest
- Ogmios, the warrior
- Epos Olloatir, the horse god
- Epona, the horse goddess
A significant portion of the Ulster cycle is devoted to tales of the heroic deeds of Cu Chulaind, said to be an incarnation of Lugus; in a similar way, the Fenian cycle focuses on the exploits of Finn Mac Cumhail, an incarnation of the warrior-poet god Cernunnos. Both the Fenian and Ulster cycles contain tales filled with magic.
Epona, the mare goddess, symbolized the "Great Mother," and
each touta (or tribe) had its own manifestation of the mare goddess. The
tribe sacrificed a white mare to release her spirit, and then devoured
the mare’s flesh, the better to assimilate her essence. Strangely,
some modern neopagans and Wiccans have mistakenly adopted this goddess
and employ her in their own feminist Mother Goddess worship rites. However,
Epona was anything but a matriarchal figure; she was instead a symbol of
all that men desired sexually. In fact, when the chief was called to rule
over the touta, he first had to be ritually married to Epona.
Forging a New Truth
When an old truth doesn’t suit your purposes, it may be time to forge a new one. This was the approach taken by some noted charlatans in the 1800s. For decades prior, British curiosity about the Druids had been building; it was theorized that the Druids were responsible for erecting megalithic sites such as Stonehenge. When Romanticism arose as a backlash to the Age of Reason, the stage was set for Edward Williams. Williams took the name "Iolo Morganwg," forged some religious texts written in Welsh, and invented a fake source for the documents, a Welsh bard named Llywellyn Sion. Along the way, Morganwg invented his own modified Welsh alphabet, called the coelbren y Beirdd, supposedly the antecedent of the modern Welsh version.
Meanwhile, in the Scottish highlands, another forger was hard at work. James MacPherson wrote some ancient Celtic tales in old Gaelic, convincingly forged them using appropriate materials, then tried to pass them off as original stories from the Fenian cycle. MacPherson’s inventions motivated Romantic composers to create new symphonies inspired by his frauds, and interest in medieval literature enjoyed a boom across Europe. Writers such as W. B. Yeats and Douglas Hyde joined a movement of scholar and folklorists who set about compiling and retelling the old Celtic myths. Yeats alone authored many books containing his skillful retellings of old Irish folk tales.
New Forms for Ancient Beliefs
What of Druidic beliefs has survived to the present day? Sadly, not much. Most neo-Druid movements are too New Age, too feminist-centric, and too “magickal” (misspelling intentional) to have a factual basis in the religious practice of the ancient Celts. If you try to research the topic, you’ll find yourself wading through volumes on Druid astral projection (not kidding), Wiccan spellbooks, neopagan ritual manuals and Mother Goddess mullarkey trying to find some reasonably true historical information on the Druids. (See the end of this article for some recommended books).
Several groups have sprung up, however, with interest in preserving a more pure view of Celtic religion, instead of the bastardized hybrid of the neopagans. Druidiactos is one such organization, described as a grass-roots Celtic renaissance movement. On a more individual level, Celtic heritage is alive and well all over the world. There are descendants of the ancient Celts in Australia and New Zealand, and throughout North America: pockets of repatriated Celts settled Nova Scotia, Acadiana, the Appalachian mountain range, Louisiana and the major metropolises of Canada and the United States.
As with other aspects of Celtic culture, ancient Celtic religions traveled well, spreading across the globe in the hearts and minds of emigrants who carried the Celtic dialects and customs to the four corners of the earth.
Astute cultural observers since the times of the classical Greeks have commented upon the strong similarities between the Druids, the Persian Magi and the Brahmans of India. All three were polytheistic religious systems preserved by a strong class of priests, which incorporated similar ritual practices and passed down tales of their gods reincarnated as human heroes. In many of the above respects, the Druids share a resemblance with the Krishna and Shiva cults and Jainism in India and the Mobads, a tribe of Persian Zoroastrians, who have preserved their practices to the present day. Similarly, the Tuatha Dé Danann deities of the ancient Celts are said to resemble the Aesir and Vanir divinities of Germanic Celtic tribes, the Devas of India, immortalized in the Vedic scriptures, and the Olympian gods of ancient Greece. No matter where you go on the planet, the archetypes of ancient Celtic religion are alive and well, in eastern cultures as in western ones.
For Further Information
The following books are available through AnIrishChristmas.com.
The Druids (Ancient Peoples and Places Series)
by Stuart Piggott
The best thing about this book is its intellectual honesty. Piggott presents his voluminous historical research in a straightforward way, dividing it clearly into three categories, which he calls: "Druids as known," "Druids as inferred," and "Druids as wished-for." Along the way, the author exhaustively examines the archaeological record of the Druids and what can be deduced from that, and also takes a careful look at the more contemporary history, in which the truth about the Druids’ practices was distorted in bizarre directions by people with very strong romantic and nationalistic biases.
A Brief History of the Druids
by Peter Berresford Ellis
Noted Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis presents the facts on who the mysterious Druids really were, based on both archaeological and etymological findings. Ellis places the Druids as the intellectual elite of the ancient Celts, rather than as a barbaric priesthood practicing human sacrifice and arcane nature magic.