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Henge Happenings
Issue 75
Lughnasadh 2007

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Druids Across Europe, the Isles and the Beginning Times

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The Druid's Path

Druids Across Europe, the Isles and the Beginning Times

Photo of Searles O'DubhainPart 1 of 3 Parts

The name for Druids or their cognates first appears in the classical histories of the Greeks and Romans dating back about 2400 years ago. The earliest possible written record of Druids among the Celts is found in the comments of the late fourth-century BCE Greek playwright Sopater who was said by Athenaeus to have made a punning reference to the Druids when he had one of his characters say:

"Among them is the custom, whenever they are victorious in battle, to sacrifice their prisoners to the gods. So I, like the Celts, have vowed to the divine powers to burn those three false dialecticians as an offering."

Certainly, if a Greek playwright can make an oblique reference to the Druids in a play to his audience, there must have been quite a familiarity with them by reputation and innuendo if nothing else.

The first contact of the Greeks with the Gauls is at Massalia (near modern day Marseille) in the sixth century BCE. The attacks of the Celts on Rome occurred in the fourth century BCE. The attack on Delphi occurred in around 279 BCE. These and other stories by the Greeks and Romans regarding those times seem to reference Druids for me. I especially like the story of the Celtic warriors who were on the Capitol Hill of Rome in the process of vanquishing the Romans who came upon some splendidly dressed older men who were sitting in council. The Celtic warriors stopped in their tracks, awed by the assembly and stayed their hands from slaying. When one of the men spoke to them in Latin and struck at them with a staff, the warriors responded by killing them all. To me this passage echoes the Celtic respect for the safety of a Druid's personage. They were safe from any battle and the warriors in this tale most probably thought they'd accidentally entered into an assembly of Druids. To harm any Druid would have been a violation of personal honor and a breaking of the strongest taboo for a Celtic warrior. When they discovered that these fellows were not Druids by their speech and actions, they happily dispatched them. This was reported by the Roman historian Livy in the late first century BCE but it was dated to 390 BCE in his history by drawing on earlier sources.

The first specific (by name) mention of Druids among the Celts by classical historians is contained in the work of Aristotle (circa 4th century BCE) and Sotion of Alexandria in the early 2nd century BCE as mentioned by Diogenes Laertius in a written work of the 3rd century CE. There are also mentions in the 1st century BCE writer Posidonius of first hand observations of Druids. I mention that these references as say that the Celts conducted no sacrifices without a Druid being present (see above mention of sacrifices by Sopater). This is confirmed in the writings of Herodotus, Diodorus, Posidonius, Caesar, and Strabo. The reference in Aristotle above may have been altered in the 2nd century BCE by a Greek scribe. A link between Pythagoras (very early 5th century BCE) and the Druids is sometimes said to exist through the connection (in a work by Strabo, 1st century BCE Greek historian and philosopher) of Abaris the Hyperborean's study with Pythagoras in Athens in the early 4th century BCE. Hecatus of Miletus (circa 500 BCE) is the source that supposedly connects the Hyperboreans with the British Isles and hence suggests that the plaid wearing (and magical acting) Abaris was a Druid.

I don't think that saying there were Druids among the Celts 2400 years ago is any great stretch as there were certainly reports of them being present 200 years ago and there are very strong suggestions that Druids existed among the Celts from their very earliest beginnings. That would push the presence of Druids among Celts back to about 3200 years ago or earlier. It's difficult to localize origins like this in an oral culture using only the rare references that were made in the literate cultures of the time. However, that's what the earliest recorded or attested classical histories have to say about the Druids. The insular traditions of course place the presence of Druids at a much earlier date in Ireland. That date is as early as 3800 years BP. This comes from an oral tradition and awaits archaeological findings to verify such an early date. All one can say is that Druids are reported throughout the insular literature and tales from the earliest of times.

In Irish traditions, Druids are said to have existed among their deities in the beginnings of the world. Some medieval Poets attempted to place this in the time period of about the early 2nd millennium BCE. That placement would be a mytho-traditional placement and have little in the archaeological record to certify it though (as can be seen) my discussion on Stonehenge and Newgrange ranges far beyond that point.

Jean Louis Bruneaux wrote a decent treatise on Druids and Druidism in his work, _The Celtic Gauls_. There is also a book by Francoise Le Roux and Christian-J, Guyonvarc'h, in French, entitled _Les Druides_ that should answer many questions about Druids and Druidism on the continent.

As a case in point, the ritual center at Gournay certainly demonstrates that this was the case with nine votive pits. A trench or ditch around the ritual area also was filled with the bones and remains of the sacrifices. Sites in the British Isles have been excavated showing this practice of using pits and trenches was widespread for Druids in Celtic culture.

One such site is on Hayling Island in Hampshire. Its organization and components give us a pretty good idea of Celtic sanctuary and sacred space in Britain of the Iron Age:

(The site URL is: http://www.barnarch.u-net.com/Hayling.htm)

"The architecture of the temple is clearly designed to enhance the differentiation of the sacred site from the surrounding area (Webster 1995), and as such the outer enclosure formed the most significant element of the complex and may have formed the nemeton in Celtic parlance (Piggott 1978). The inner enclosure appears to have served primarily as an additional form of differentiation within the enclosure, cutting off what was probably the main ritual area from the rest of the temple. The pit seems to have been the focus. Deposition, on the other hand, was carried out in specific zones of the site, notably on the south side, i.e. the left-hand side for worshippers approaching the temple and its focus from the entrance on the east side. This zonation may perhaps be linked with allusions by Poseidonius (quoted in Athenaeus IV,152D) to Celts paying respect to the gods by turning to the right (Webster 1995:460), apparently indicating a spatially significant element to ritual practice, that perhaps also had its counterparts in everyday life (Fitzpatrick 1994). If Poseidonius is taken literally, it could be that sacrificial actions took place on the right-hand (northerly) side of the enclosure, whilst the deposition of the votive remains took place on the left-hand side. Clearly the act of deposition was important during the making of votive offerings, and for Hayling Island (but not all Iron Age temples, e.g. Gournay) the locus of these actions was mainly in a particular south-easterly zone within the enclosure."

The south-easterly zone is particularly significant as this is where the House of Donn is to be found in relation to the land of Ireland. Perhaps this is a case of a country, sanctuaries and homes all taking their structure from the sacred cosmology? If that's true for Iron Age Celts, it would place them squarely in agreement with temple and sacred space/sanctuary organization for other Indo-European people.

Regarding offerings and sacrifices made at these sacred sites and enclosures, it is said hat pigs, cows, bulls, dogs, people and boars were offered as sacrifices in Druid ritual at sites on the Continent, in Britain and Ireland.

Some of these deities were chthonic. There is Donn, the Lord of the Dead in Irish traditions and his cognate Gwynn ap Nudd in Welsh mythology. Metrical Dindshenchas has a tale about Crom who was said to be a god that demanded human sacrifice and was symbolized in a stone circle which was decorated with gold and silver adornments for the stones. St. Patrick is said to have taken a sledgehammer to these stones in one of the legends associated with him.

The tales of Irish history, myth and traditions are filled with mention of Druids. This is true for the earliest of their histories as it is down to the time that Christianity became the established religion of the Irish. It is certainly true that much of the Irish oral history was synchronized by the scribes and monks to give them a connection to ancient Jewish history and hence a large role in the Judeo-Christian tradition into which they were injecting themselves. Part of this alteration of the histories attempted to show how Noah was related to some of the first people who were said to have come to Ireland. Another alteration of the traditions occurred to show how the Irish aided the Hebrews at the time of Moses. A story was told to show how an Irish linguist was present at the event on the Plain of Shinar of the Tower of Babel. The role of the pre-Christian Irish deities was reduced to being ancestors and heroes instead of gods. Some of these gods were reduced to the status of saints or angels, while a very few of them were characterized as being eternal-non-dying beings who were usually apart from normal reality. These factors are important to keep in mind when reading the written Irish histories. Another thing to understand is that the traditions and histories were not completely obliterated or lost. Much survived from the earliest of times. Part of that survival was due to the role of the Filidh before during and after the time of the Christian synchronization of Irish history. The Filidh were an independent historical and educational system from that of the Church. They are recognized as being the inheritors in that role of the roles of the Druids for Irish Celtic culture. Much in the Irish Annals and surviving histories accurately reflects what happened in the eyes of the people who first recorded the events and as maintained, interpreted and altered by those who followed them. Much the same thing happened in the recording of Jewish history.

History is an important tool in archaeology. It helps one to understand the provenance and influences that appear to be recorded in the archaeological record. Even myths can lead one to important discoveries.

The Irish traditions, myths and histories tell us that there were Druids among the first people to appear in Ireland. They also tell us that even the deities of the ancient Irish had Druids. Beyond that, they also report that the latest wave of culture to sweep across Ireland before the coming of Christianity, the Milesians also had Druids among them. To me, this says explicitly that the Irish believed that Druids and their ways were a part of the history of their people from its beginnings. This idea was not altered or synchronized with Christianity when the great synchronism of Irish history occurred at the hands of the early church. If that was true of Irish culture before Celtic culture or Christian culture influenced it, then what of British or Gaulish cultures where Druids were reported to have originated and encountered by the Roman armies and their historians? I'd think that Druids would have been said to be a part of their culture/people from the beginnings of remembered history. We know that the classical historians mention Druids in the 2nd century BCE. we hear about magical and religious practices among the Celts as far back as 2400 years BP. The idea of a cohesive Celtic culture is advanced by some modern academics to have started some 3000+ years BP (if not 4000+BP). Were Druids present in these cultures from the earliest of times? It's certainly my position that Druids were there. I say this because Druids were the cohesive, educational, maintaining, socio-religious, legalistic, artistic and linguistic function of Celtic society. I didn't invent this idea. It's reported by Celtic historians and traditions from the earliest of times.

In the case of Ireland, it’s known as the Irish Celtic Druid Tradition and it spans a time from the present day back about 3800 years. For the first 2000 years, the traditions were maintained by the Druids using oral mnemonic techniques. After the development of Old Irish, this tradition was recorded by scribes in books, many of which survive today. That’s what history and the tradition itself tells us about itself. Starting in the 5th century and continuing through the 14th century CE, Irish monks, Poets and scribes recorded the traditions in writing.

The relationship of one Celtic Druidic tradition to another is of course not exact. However, there are a considerable number of similarities between all of them based on what is known. The Irish and British traditions have more written histories and a better preservation of their traditions, especially the mythology and cultural practices. The practices of the Druids of Gaul that have survived were mainly preserved by the classical Greek and Roman historians. Some tales do survive and of course there are the written records, mainly invocations, curses and the odd manuscript, and additionally the Coligny Calendar. Here again, the Gaulish practices that we know from this sparse record for Druids is very similar to what we know about Irish and British Druids. Matches have also been accomplished for the major deity types in Gaul, Britain and Ireland.

When Christianity was introduced among the Irish Celts, many Druids and Filidh (Vision Poets) became monks and priests and many did not. The legal arm of the Druids (known as Brehons in Ireland) continued in practice for another 1200 years. The Poets or Filidh also continued as an independent power group among the Irish during that time. They are considered to have inherited and fulfilled many of the roles that the Druids held before Christianity. Even after Christianity, one of the most noted Irish saints (St, Columba, known in Irish as Columcille) said that Christ was his Druid.

On the continent of Europe, there are ritual enclosures, votive pits and road ways, as well as ceremonial weaponry and ritual tools. However, it is difficult to find items that correlate between the cultures. In fact, it is difficult just to find any items of themselves, let alone those that might be common between cultures. I think that as more and more ritual centers are discovered and investigated, through archaeology, a better picture will emerge for all of the Druid traditions.

Druidism was a philosophy and a spirituality that addressed the Celtic concern with the imminence of the Otherworld and the effect of its denizens on worldly matters. The primary areas of concern were in terms of productivity and prosperity as well as success in battle and raiding. There were major festivals and feast throughout the Celtic world that the Druids were said to officiate. Some of the practices of the Druids, the vision poets and the seers included psycho-human conscious alteration in a manner similar to shamanism. The Druids themselves were scholar-philosopher-priests. They served their people and the kings as advisors, priests and magical workers, in addition to being the closest thing to scientists of the day.

The term Celtic, is referencing cultures that had a Celtic language, produced Celtic art and music and who were governed by Celtic law codes and a kind of traditional “common knowledge.” This knowledge among the Irish was known as coimgne. I mainly study Irish Druidism (which is known as Draíocht), but I also attempt to keep up to date on Welsh materials and any discoveries about Druids or Celtic religious practices that are uncovered on the Continent.

Celtic religion changed after being influenced by Christianity in many of the same ways that Jewish religion changed after Christianity also influenced it. The new religions are not the same as the old religions. The customs are different. The priesthood is different. The languages are different. Even the art is different. When the Jewish religion had prophets it was different from a Jewish religion without prophets. When Celtic religion had Druids, it was different from when it didn't have Druids. We know about Jewish religions because the oral traditions were set down when writing was introduced and the prophets and patriarchs stories were recorded. We know about Celtic religions and Druids because their oral traditions were recorded and set down when writing was introduced to Celtic culture. In the writings that recorded Celtic culture we learn that Druids were a part of that culture for some 2000 years before the histories, laws, tales, myths and traditions were written by the scribes and monks. In Jewish culture we learn about the histories of the Jews, their laws, tales, myths and traditions by much the same methods of recoding an oral history in writing.

The recording of history has a lot of influences on it. That was true in the past as it is today. Religion, politics, personal and national bias, wars and natural disasters all serve to change the ways and accuracies of recorded histories. None the less, we do have them and they can be evaluated in spite of their being influenced, changed or colored. The same sorts of influences affect how archaeologists interpret the archaeological record in part but not as greatly because the artifacts often survive through many periods of interpretation. I'm hoping that as more artifacts from ancient Celtic religions survive, we'll have a better and less biased understanding of the Druids.

The tales of Irish history, myth and traditions are filled with mention of Druids. This is true for the earliest of their histories as it is down to the time that Christianity became the established religion of the Irish. It is certainly true that much of the Irish oral history was synchronized by the scribes and monks to give them a connection to ancient Jewish history and hence a large role in the Judeo-Christian tradition into which they were injecting themselves. Part of this alteration of the histories attempted to show how Noah was related to some of the first people who were said to have come to Ireland. Another alteration of the traditions occurred to show how the Irish aided the Hebrews at the time of Moses. A story was told to show how an Irish linguist was present at the event on the Plain of Shinar of the Tower of Babel.

The role of the pre-Christian Irish deities was reduced to being ancestors and heroes instead of gods. Some of these gods were reduced to the status of saints or angels, while a very few of them were characterized as being eternal-non-dying beings who were usually apart from normal reality. These factors are important to keep in mind when reading the written Irish histories. Another thing to understand is that the traditions and histories were not completely obliterated or lost. Much survived from the earliest of times. Part of that survival was due to the role of the Filidh before during and after the time of the Christian synchronization of Irish history. The Filidh were an independent historical and educational system from that of the Church. They are recognized as being the inheritors in that role of the roles of the Druids for Irish Celtic culture. Much in the Irish Annals and surviving histories accurately reflects what happened in the eyes of the people who first recorded the events and as maintained, interpreted and altered by those who followed them. Much the same thing happened in the recording of Jewish history.

History is an important tool in archaeology. It helps one to understand the provenance and influences that appear to be recorded in the archaeological record. Even myths can lead one to important discoveries. The Irish traditions, myths and histories tell us that there were Druids among the first people to appear in Ireland. They also tell us that even the deities of the ancient Irish had Druids. Beyond that, they also report that the latest wave of culture to sweep across Ireland before the coming of Christianity, the Milesians also had Druids among them. To me, this says explicitly that the Irish believed that Druids and their ways were a part of the history of their people from its beginnings. This idea was not altered or synchronized with Christianity when the great synchronism of Irish history occurred at the hands of the Christians. that was true of Irish culture before Celtic culture or Christian culture influenced it, then what of British or Gaulish cultures where Druids were reported to have originated and encountered by the Roman armies and their historians.

Continued Next Issue


 

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