Celtic druids have been a subject of fascination in Irish mythology for thousands of years.
Given that we have such limited knowledge of their actual history, there's an air of mystery about these ancient Celts.
Historians, scientists, and scholars have been attempting to connect the dots for centuries.
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While many written accounts of Druids paint them as sinister barbarians, thorough historical research has suggested that this Celtic society was compelling and widely respected.
The Druids were seen as spiritual people of great wisdom with many roles. They were deeply connected to the powers of the natural world and even had diplomatic skills that prevented warfare!
This doesn't mean the Druids were these forest-dwelling wizards, as a lot of fantasy and folklore may lead you to believe.
So what can we say about who these people were and what they thought? Read on to find out!
Who Were the Druids?
The Druids were members of a high-ranking class in ancient Celtic cultures, with tales tracing back as far as the 3rd century BCE. Ancient Druids were spiritual leaders that acted as teachers, legal authorities, medical professionals, and philosophers.
The word "Druid" is presumed to come from the proto-Celtic word meaning "knower of the oak tree."
To Druids, trees were considered sacred, especially the oak. Their practices centered around connecting the people with the gods, whether through contacting the spirit world, their wisdom, or holistic medicines.
The Druids believed in the immortality of the soul and reincarnation. At the time of death they believed that the soul passed on from the dead person to another newborn child.
There's only so much that we know for sure about the Druid community, as they kept no written records of their own. Therefore, we've relied on the ancient Greek writers and Roman authors who wrote (with natural bias) about their happenings.
Were the Driuds Irish or Scottish?
Druidry or Druidism was the pagan spiritual practices found in the Celtic and Gaulish Kingdoms. It is most associated with Ireland and Scotland, but there were also Welsh and English druids.
The Old Irish Druí (pronounced dree) existed at the very top of tiered Celtic societies. The three tiers were serfs at the lowest rung, warriors at the second level, and learned men including the Druids at the top.
The earliest records of the Druids date back to the first century B.C..
However, the Druids probably existed for centuries before their deeds were first recorded. They fulfilled special spiritual roles in Celtic communities all over the British Isles and parts of France.
Druids as Teachers
The Roman Emperor Caesar tells us about Druidry. He noted that it originated in Britain. Students traveled from Gaul to train as Druids.
Early Celtic education systems in the British Isles, including Ireland and Britain, was directed by the Druids. Many young men in Celtic times were educated by the Druidae and attended their schools for instruction.
Training in druidic ways took twenty years. The lore of the druids was passed on through an oral tradition. Their complex knowledge and histories were learned off by heart, and were not committed to writing. The Triads of Ireland are another example of Celtic knowledge passed on through an oral tradition.
Their lack of written source material is one reason why we know very little about the Celtic Druids.
’Some Druids merely taught one or two students who would live with him, like apprentices. However, other Druids taught many students in what would be comparable to a modern day college.
Cathbad, a Druid associated with King Connor Mac Nessa of Ulster was surrounded by hundreds of students according to old Irish legends.
Druids taught many topics from general education to philosophy, law, magic, medicine and healing, plus history and legends.
Druids educated the children of the high and mighty in ancient Ireland. Their students were the children of kings, queens and noblemen.
Types of Druids
The Druids had a sophisticated and structured class hierarchy, and each class was distinguishable by color-coded robes. Within the Druid groups were three main types of Druids: the Bards, the Ovates, and the Druids.
The druids in the Order of Bards were singers and poets. They wore blue robes, knew various songs and legendary stories of the tribe, and recited them daily as keepers of their sacred traditions.
Bards represented the first level of training for a novice Druid, but that didn't make them inferior. They went through intense training that, in many cases, lasted up to 20 years.
The next class level was the Ovates. The Ovates wore red robes and were natural philosophers, healers, and interpreters of animal (and human) sacrifices.
They used said sacrifices to make predictions about the future and understand the mysteries of death and rebirth.
And lastly, at the top of the hierarchy were the Druids, who wore gold and were the philosophers, judges, and teachers.
They were also valued counselors of Celtic kings and even had the power to decide if the king's troops should or shouldn't get taken into battle. A druid is sometimes portrayed as a sorcerer today, but they were the educators in Celtic spirituality in early Ireland.
Druid women, also known as Druidesses, were considered equal to male Druids in many respects.
Many Druidesses were ambassadors, judges, lawyers, and skilled military leaders, which was very puzzling to the more male-centric Romans and Greeks.
The Druids practiced a shamanic religion called Druidism. They worshiped both male and female Celtic gods. They spent most of their lives studying and training in natural philosophy, astronomy, ancient verse, and the lore of the gods.
The ancient order of Druids followed nature's lunar, solar, and seasonal cycles. These cycles were worshipped on eight holy days of the year. Solstices were important times for the Druids, and sunrise was considered a spiritual time.
Newgrange in County Meath is an example of a tomb built to align with the rising sun on the morning of the winter solstice.
The Druids played a vital role in society that exempted them from paying taxes or even being enlisted for military service.
The Druids chose quiet, secluded areas for their places of worship and Druidic rituals. Forest clearings, sacred groves, and stone circles like Stonehenge in England, or Drombeg in County Cork, are among the most common ancient places of Druidic worship that we know of today.
Other possible archaeological evidence dates back 25,000 years to caves in Europe. Druid Stones, found in Ireland, are natural rock formations with manufactured passages carved through their center.
Mistletoe was an important shrub for the rituals.
Julius Caesar and the Druids
Julius Caesar, Pliny the Elder, Tacitus, and other Roman writers are the primary sources of information about Druidic traditions and practices. In his latin writings, Caesar talks of the Druids as tyrannical voices of the law and how they would make human sacrifices, in public and private, if anyone disobeyed their order.
Although these remarks may be factual in some respects, it's essential to consider that people viewed death much differently back then.
Secondly, we must remember that the Druids helped the Celts resist Roman rule. So, portraying them as pagans and evil foe, was likely an attempt to diminish their power and influence.
The portrayal of Druids as blood thirsty killers may be an exaggeration and should be treated with caution. Tacitus, a Roman historian, described Druidic blood sacrifices at a battle in Wales. However, keep in mind that the Romans feared the power of the Druids over the Celtic communities, the Romans had conquered and hoped to rule.
Stories of the Druids were influenced by the Romans and later Christians who wished to lead the people away from ancient practices.
Brehon law was the ancient law of Celtic Ireland. It was administered by Brehons, who had close ties to their predecessors, Celtic druids. They fulfilled a role of arbitrator in disputes. Both men and women could be Brehons.
Brehon law is said to be the second oldest legal system in the world, second to Sanscrit. It was incredibly progressive, recognizing divorce and equal rights between men and women. The laws were centered on a deep concern for nature and the environment.
Punishments focused on reparations rather than inflicting cruelty.
Neither a police force or court system existed, demonstrating that the people had a deep respect for this legal system, and the Brehons, or Druids who interpreted the laws.
Druids In the Christian Era
In Ireland the Druids sway over the people diminished after the conversion of Ireland to Christianity.
These ancient spiritual people of the Celts lost their priestly functions after the coming of Saint Patrick, as they were replaced by Catholic priests under the direction of Rome.
However some of their practices and roles survived as they lived in Christian Ireland as poets, historians, and judges.
Are There Any Modern Druids?
Although Druidism appeared to end in the 2nd century, modern practices still take place that are much tamer than those of ancient times.
Of course, human and animal sacrifices are forbidden in modern Druidry. But Druidic spiritual traditions, rituals, and ceremonies still exist today, with an additional focus on educating others about this mystical Celtic religion and way of life.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade