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Keltria Journal - Issue 34

Beltaine 1997





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Druidism: A Glance at the Past Reveals a Vision for the Future

By C. L. McGinley

Photo of C. L. McGinleyIn ancient times in the world of the Celts, the Druids were the repositories of the current wisdom, holding in their memories all the useful information that a society might need to function: the laws, the religion, the history, the knowledge of a people. They did not write things down, as we do, but preferred to keep the knowledge “safe” in their heads...they were walking dictionaries, walking textbooks; walking, breathing knowledge, accessible to all, and the key to unlocking this wisdom was merely a well-timed and correctly asked question. Some of these Druids took up to 20 years to complete their training, it is said, and understandably, for to absorb and retain lifetimes of wisdom in memory is no small task!

Today, some would say that there is no need for human repositories of wisdom. After all, isn’t that the function of books and computers: to store our collective knowledge and make it easily accessible to all? We can all (supposedly) read a book, and we are told that most of us can deal with a computer. It would seem, in light of modern technology, that the sole function of the modern Druid is spiritual; to serve as priest/esses and advisors on Celtic-based spirituality.

However, the concept of the modern Druid as solely one who practices and teaches Celtic spirituality seems rather limiting when we consider the scope of the duties of the ancient Druids, who were obviously much more than priest/esses. And while this spirituality is, of course, very important, it cannot be the only modern “requirement” for being a Druid. Other names could apply just as well to spiritual people with Celtic leanings...would it not be more fitting to call ourselves Irish or Welsh pagans, or Celtic witches, or Celtic shamans? Why have we chosen to resurrect this title of “Druid?” And where does this concept of “Druid” fit into today’s society?

If we examine the ancient society of the Celts in comparison to our own current society, we may find that there is a role for the modern Druid in our society, outside of and yet incorporating our spirituality, that is not much different from the function of the ancients. In this age of specialization and widening schisms between the classes, the well-educated and the barely-educated, the literate and the illiterate, it is a niche that many of us already occupy, a function that makes us uniquely worthy of this title, for the modern Druid still functions as a repository for wisdom and knowledge; however, the pivotal role of the Druid, ancient and modern, is not a role of specialization, as is the case with other groups within our society, but is rather defined by diversity -- the diversity of our knowledge and the understanding of its practical application.

We must first clarify the role of the ancient Druid in order to decipher the role of the modern Druid, and to do this we must take a short journey to the past. The most important references to uncovering the Druidism of the past are perhaps the ancient Irish mythologies and literature.

In examining the Irish literature, we will find that this ancient society was stratified and specialized; nothing makes this more clear than a study of Brehon Law, where the structure of ancient Irish society is revealed. Though mobility between classes in the Irish system was possible (unlike the closed caste system of India), it was still an extremely stratified system. Each person served a specific function in society, and was not expected to be more or less than his/her station in life. The warrior was an expert in fighting. The king was an expert in ruling and leading people. The smith was an expert in forging weapons. The farmer was an expert in growing food. All were indeed specialists, and their worth to society was determined on the importance of their specialty to this society. And yet one specialty did not make the Irish citizen a Druid. The warrior’s specialty made him a warrior, and the king’s specialty of leadership made him a leader. Therefore, if one day the king needed information about farming, or the smith needed information about the best astrological time to craft a certain weapon (remembering that these things were not written down, and few people were literate), they sought out a Druid as a source of information, for the ancient Druids held knowledge of all these things. The Druids were, in fact, the only members of the pre-Christian Irish society who were expected to have a working knowledge of so many subjects; as walking repositories of wisdom, society even provided for them so that they might not be bothered with the trivialities of everyday existence. And while ancient Druids certainly had their specializations, such as the distinct roles of historian, priest, natural scientist, brehon, royal advisor, poet, magician, and the like, the phenomenon can be compared in modern times to a person with a bachelor’s degree who goes on to a doctorate specialization because of personal interests, not because of any mandate. So it seems that what distinguished the Druid from the other classes of society was actually his or her lack of specialization, or perhaps more appropriately, specialization in a wealth of areas.

If we consider the tale of the coming of Lugh to the Tuatha de Danaan, in which Lugh presents himself to the doorkeeper at Nuada’s royal palace of Tara, this idea comes clear. The doorkeeper asks why he should allow Lugh entry, what skill Lugh possesses that would justify his entry. Lugh replies that he is a carpenter. “We are in no need of a carpenter,” said the doorkeeper; “we have an excellent one in Luchta son of Luchad.” “I am a smith, too,” said Lugh. “We have a master smith,” said the doorkeeper, “already.” “Then I am a warrior,” said Lugh, but the doorkeeper replied, “We do not need one, while we have Ogma.” Lugh goes on to name several other skills he possesses: he is a poet, a harper, a man of science and so forth, always told by the doorkeeper that there is a man of supreme skill in each area already installed at Tara. Finally Lugh said: “Then ask the King if he has in his service any one man who is accomplished in every one of these arts, and if he have, then I shall stay here no longer, nor seek to enter his palace.” And so by claiming skill in all areas, Lugh is finally admitted to the palace. There were, as the gatekeeper expresses, many people skilled in those individual traits within the hall, but none who were skilled in all of them, so in this Lugh is unique.

Similarly, in the lay of Amergin the Milesian, chanted when he set foot on Irish soil, we can find reference to the varied things that Amergin had knowledge of, and though interpreted most often from a spiritual point of view, we can also look at this interesting poem as a song praising the diversity of knowledge and connection with the natural world that made Amergin, the man, what he was:

  • I am the Wind that blows over the sea,
  • I am the Wave of the Ocean;
  • I am the Murmur of the billows;
  • I am the Ox of the Seven Combats;
  • I am the Vulture upon the rock;
  • I am a Ray of the Sun;
  • I am the fairest of Plants;
  • I am a Wild Boar in valour;
  • I am a Salmon in the Water;
  • I am a Lake in the plain;
  • I am the Craft of the artificer;
  • I am the Word of Science;
  • I am the Spear-point that gives battle;
  • I am the god that creates in the head of man the fire of thought.
  • Who is it that enlightens the assembly upon the mountain, if not I?
  • Who telleth the ages of the moon, if not I?
  • Who showeth the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?

(translation from Rolleston)

In “being” all these things, he shows intimate knowledge of all these things, and as a result a deep understanding of all these things. He understands the wind, the tides, animals, plants, craftsmanship and science, weaponry and war, poetry (“fire of thought”); he is a teacher (“enlightens the assembly upon the mountain”), and a historian (“who telleth the ages of the moon, if not I?”), and he also shows an understanding of the movement of the heavenly bodies. In his diversity, his varied understanding of all these things, he is a Druid. Amergin the Druid is, with this lay, introducing himself to Ireland as a man who is of great value to his society, wise in the natural sciences and gifted in the arts, and therefore, by his very diversity, is a man worthy of the island’s favor.

Another example of this diversity is found in the text known as Immacallum in da Thuarad. Nede, under the tutelage of the Druid Eochu, has a vision. He relates the vision to his mentor, and Eochu decides from his tale that Nede has completed his training:

“So Nede went home, and with him went his three brothers, Lugaid, Cairbre, and Cruttine. As they went, a bolg belce [puff ball] chanced to cross their path. Said one of them, “Why is it called a bolg belce?” Since they did not know, they went back to Eochu and remained another month with him. Again they set forth, and on the way chanced to encounter a simind [rush]. Since they did not know why it was so named, they went back to their tutor. At the end of another month they set out again. A gass sanais [sprig of the herb sanicle] chanced to be in their path. Since they knew not why it was named gass sanais they returned to Eochu and remained a further month with him.

Now when their questions had been answered, they proceeded to Cantire...”

This passage clearly demonstrates that the brothers found things in the natural world that they did not know the why of, and even though Eochu had told them they were ready, their own feeling of ignorance concerning even these seemingly insignificant items made them feel that their education was not complete enough to venture forth and take up their Druidic occupations. In addition, there is mention in the tale of the Second Battle of Mag Tured (in which Bres the Fomorian is deposed), of the Dagda, the good god, who is considered the “god of druidism,” claiming to have himself the powers of all of the Tuatha de Danaan. The Tuatha are all individually declaring beforehand what they will do in the Battle against the tyranny of Bres, when “It became the turn of the Dagda to declare his powers: ‘The power which ye boast,’ said he, ‘I shall wield it all myself.’ Upon which everyone said, ‘Thou art indeed the Excellent God,’ whence his name, the Dagda.”

From these bits of the tales we can glean a relatively clear concept of the ancient Druid. S/he was a person with an above-average knowledge of a wide variety of subjects; or “master of all arts.” His/her diversity of knowledge made him/her stand apart from the rest, and with this diversity s/he earned the title of Druid.

Turning, with this idea in mind, to the examination of our own society, it is not very difficult to see how the role of the ancients can be applied to modern Druidism. Consider what is currently happening to our society --- we are becoming more and more stratified; the schism between the rich and poor, the educated and non-educated, the city-raised and the country-dwellers becomes more pronounced with each passing year. We are once again moving toward something of a caste system. The people have begun to revert to tribalism; urban areas are virtual war zones, with gangs running rampant in the streets. The public education system is leaving 13% of our high school graduates functionally illiterate (unable to read at the fourth-grade level), and the figures are believed to be closer to 40% among minority youth. 27 million adult Americans cannot read the simplest texts and street signs. 45 million adult Americans cannot read simple texts such as a newspaper or digest magazine -- about an eighth-grade level. How many of these can glean information from a technical book...and how many less from a computer? Less than 49% of college students can read a map. Less than 2% of the population of the USA are currently farmers...people who know the land intimately, its needs and its care on a practical basis, and that number is dwindling rapidly. Therefore it is ironic, but not really surprising, that a certain book concerned with the personalities of cows has become a best-seller. There are adults born and raised in cities who have never seen a farm animal, let alone have the ability to recognize that animals have personalities. There are entire cities of people who have had to call in a specialist in order to find out why their trees keep dying! The general population, mostly concentrated now in urban areas, has moved so far from the land that they have lost any basic understanding of the natural world -- and it seems that this trend will only continue. Will these people someday have to call in a specialist in order to plant a garden?

On the other end of the spectrum, the educated are becoming more specialized. As the amount of knowledge we possess as a society becomes too much for one person to hold, the knowledge is fragmented among a select few. This fragmentation was evident in ancient Celtic society, and it is becoming so in today’s world. There are specialists now in every area one can imagine. And while these specialists are well-versed in their particular area of expertise, many of them are not educated in areas outside of their specialty.

It is conceivable that, in another hundred years, the majority of the population will have lost the general knowledge so important to us all, things our ancestors of a hundred years ago would have known off the tops of their heads. And at the same time, it is possible that the educated elite will be so specialized that they will only be able to converse with others within their specialty. It is quite possible that very few people will realize the subtle nuances of the character of the Earth and the delicate balance which must be maintained. At the same time, in our increasingly illiterate society, it is possible that, in time, only a literate elite will know how to access information on the Internet (in spite of the hype about the “information superhighway” available to all), or know enough about research to be able to find anything they might need on any given subject in a library. With the breakdown of a larger society into tribal groups, there will be a need for people within these tribal groups that have this knowledge, and, perhaps more importantly, people who can communicate this knowledge to the general population in words that are not technical, as a holistic, integrated knowledge.

In light of the aforementioned trends in our society, it is conceivable that, in the near future, the Druid will once again be one of very few sources for integrated knowledge -- the synthesis of technical, natural, magickal, and spiritual knowledge that can only benefit a fragmenting, specialized society. However, it would seem quite impossible by today’s standards for the individual Druid to hold knowledge of all things within memory, especially when we consider how much our collective knowledge has grown. We cannot be the walking textbooks that the ancients may have been; there is just too much to know -- but, there is nothing to keep us from maintaining a working knowledge of many areas of expertise, and knowing where and how to find the sources for more in-depth information is not a ridiculous expectation for the modern Druid. It seems more than likely that the Druids of ancient times were hardly “all-knowing” as individuals, but were instead privy to a network of wisdom; wisdom held collectively by members of their class, and readily available to all within that class. The modern Druid should be a wealth of the knowledge required for practical application, skilled in many areas of the natural sciences and technology, with a deep understanding of its relation to various spiritualities (not just our own). In addition, the modern Druid should also be a member of a “knowledge network,” not expecting to hold all knowledge within him/herself, which would be impossible, but holding enough of it to know where and how to find more detail if necessary.

The very diversity of our knowledge will fill a gaping hole in the fabric of our rapidly stratifying society. The modern Druid can be the holistic source for practical knowledge that requires a deep, functional understanding of our world. The Druid will not only retain this knowledge, but will also understand its application to everyday living, for what good is knowledge without application? There will again come a time when the people will seek out the Druid for answers -- and, as Druids, we must be diverse enough in our education to be worthy of the title.


A Guide to Early Irish Law, Kelly, F., Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Mount Salus Press Ltd., Dublin; 1991.

Celtic Heritage, Rees, Alwin and Brinley. Thames and Hudson, London; 1989.

Celtic Myths and Legends, Rolleston, T.W. Dover Publications, New York; 1990.

Citizens Commission on Human Rights Web Page, c. 1996.

The Druids, Ellis, Peter Berrisford. Constable and Company Ltd., London; 1994.

The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, Matthews, Caitlin and John. Element Books Limited, Shaftesbury, Dorset; 1994.

"Illiteracy is a National Crisis", Ransom, William J. The Daily Reporter, Columbus, Ohio; Sept. 27, 1995.

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