Druidism Guide Page One: Background by Brendan Myers]]>

Druidism Guide Page One: Background
by Brendan Cathbad Myers



The memory of the Druids emerges from the mists of time and history to be with us again.

This is the seventh edition of a project that has been ongoing on the internet for several years. Celtic culture, its music and art, has been “re-discovered” by the media and the folk of europe and north america once again. The popularity of all things celtic can be seen by the success of dance shows like “Riverdance”, films like “Braveheart”, and in the multitude of celtic music festivals that have sprouted all over this continent (many of which are regularly attended by this author). Perhaps a re-emergence of Celtic values and spirituality is happening as well.

This essay is for those who are newly exploring the spirituality of the Druid, Bard, Fianna, or Celtic Pagan. It is for those who have Celtic ancestors, or who wish they did. It is for those who like learning about the ancient Celts, their beliefs and practices, and have a desire to emulate them in a manner valid for themselves and for this century.

As in past editions, emphasis is placed upon that which is historically proven, or historically plausible by induction from known facts. It attempts to consider the history and the spirit together. The period in history in which it focuses is the Celtic Iron Age, from aproximatly 500 BC up to the common era.


There are a number of good reasons some modern people consider Druidry a valid spiritual path and cultural way of life for today. Some see it as a way to reconnect, or “ground” themselves in history, or to improve their understanding of their origins and ancestors (if they are of Celtic descent). Some are attracted by the relationship with the natural world that a Druid cultivates, or by the artistic, creative methods used to build that relationship.

It is thought by many that the loss of the old ways of living, close to the living Earth and close to our tribes, is responsible for the social and environmental problems we face today, so a return to the old ways will be a healing force in the world in this life and time. Druidism today is not an abandonment of technology, nor is it a rejection of society. It is not a retreat from the world into an illusory garden of delight where problems need not be faced. Rather, it is an affirmation of our needs in this life, and an energetic attempt to take power over them.

There are those who choose Druidism over more conventional Western religions that are more accepted and widespread, such as Christianity. An exploration of Druidism is for many people a revival of one of Western Europe’s indigenous spiritualities. Many seek Asatru to revive Northern Europe’s spirituality for much of the same reason. To those who feel alienated or harmed by Christianity, and such people are many, and who still believe religion has a place in their lives, Celtic spirituality is a viable, and healthy alternative.

Finally, there are those who choose Druidism over other forms of neo-paganism, or over other religions imported from other parts of the world, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Perhaps a reason for this is because Druidism is indigenous to Europe. It was created and developed by Europeans in the Celtic territories, and while there were influences from the spiritual ideas of cultures in Europe and the Near East, the Druidic spirituality is unique and native to Europe. There are also special variations of Druidic thought and practice that are unique to each of the Celtic nations. Some of these continue to exist as folk traditions in various parts of western Europe, and so the revival of Druidry has a familiarity about it for European and European-descended people which other spiritual traditions may not have.

Druidry today is also the subject of academic study. It is often of interest to archaeologists, historians, and mythology-scholars who don’t consider themselves Druids, or even remotely pagan. Thus, there is a wealth of serious academic material available concerning the Druids, and many discover Druidism through it.

While there is no doubt that the standards of living and the lifestyles we lead have changed incredibly since the age of the Celts, and even within each of our lifetimes, the human needs for understanding, communication, companionship, and even empowerment have not changed. To questions about human life, the age of the answer has no bearing upon its truth. The solution is not more right or more wrong for being old or new. Thus we continue to be illuminated by history, and we continue to create history.



In the pre-Christian era of Celtic culture, the Druids were members of a professional class in which their society¹s religious and spiritual life was embodied. In their time, Druids filled the roles of judge, doctor, advisor, magician, mystic, and religious scholar, among other roles. They were the philosophers, scientists, theologians, and intellectuals of their culture, and the holders of the sum of knowledge for their age.

The name “Druid” is unique to the Celtic people; other cultures had other names for their clergy, and expected different duties from them. Druids were not an ethnic or cultural group in themselves, but part of a larger society in which they participated. In the pre-christian era of Celtic culture, the Druids were members of a professional class in their culture, the Celtic Nations of Western Europe and the British Isles. (see Nations)

The Roman historians wrote the only first-hand accounts of ancient Druidry that we have. Even though they are usually understood as “hostile witnesses”, they were often impressed by the Druids’ philosophical wisdom, and their grasp of mathematical, scientific, and astronomical knowledge. The Roman author Diogenes placed the Druids together with the ancient world’s wisest philosophers, alongside the Magi of Persia, the Chaldeans (the priesthood of the Babylonians) and the Gymnosophists (a Hindu sect which preceded the Yogis). The Roman author Strabo recorded how the intellectual caste of the Celts was subdivided into three distinct sub-casts, each with their own particular specialisation:

Among all the tribes, generally speaking, there are three classes of men held in special honour; the bárdoi, the ováteis, and the druídai. The bárdoi are singers and poets; the ováteis are interpreters of sacrifice and natural philosophers,; while the druídai, in addition to the science of nature, study also moral philosophy.

In this note about the Druids as philosophers of nature and of ethics, we have almost universal agreement among ancient commentators. We also know a few of the Druidic doctrines from Roman writers. Their teachings on ethics comes to us only in small fragments and proverbs, which Diogenes Laertius referred to as “riddles and dark sayings”. One of them which he recorded, and which has been taken to heart by many modern Druids, is the teaching that “the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done, and honourable behaviour maintained.” There are more references among classical authors concerning the Druidic doctrine of the immortality of the soul. For example, Pomponius Mela recorded,

One of their dogmas has come to common knowledge, namely, that souls are eternal and that there is another life in the infernal regions, and this has been permitted manifestly because it makes the multitude readier for war. And it is for this reason too that they burn or bury, with their dead, things appropriate to them in life; and that in times past they even used to defer the completion of business and the payment of debts until their arrival in another world.

Julius Caesar confirmed that the Druids had a belief in the immortality of the soul and that the belief inspired courage and even recklessness on the battlefield. He also added,

They also have much knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the earth, of natural philosophy, and of the powers and spheres of action of the immortal gods, which they discuss and hand down to their young students.

This latter fragment indicates the possibility that the Druids taught a mystery tradition. Information about the size of the world, of physics (“natural philosophy”), and the gods, was in the ancient world considered philosophical and cosmological knowledge, rather than scientific knowledge, although it included information about the world and the workings of nature obtained through scientific observation and experiment. This came together with ideas about the greater structures and powers of the sacred world (“the immortal gods”, the “size of the world”, etc.) which is the sort of thing that can be obtained through mystical practices like meditation‹about which it is possible to be Œscientific¹, or if not scientific then intellectually rigourous, as one may rationally and systematically study one¹s own spiritual experiences. That this knowledge was Œhanded down¹ from teacher to student also suggests the presence of a mystery tradition, for that is the usual means of transmitting information in mystery traditions around the world.

The eminent scholar Fergus Kelly wrote that a Druid was “priest, prophet, astrologer and teacher of the sons of nobles”. Jean Markale, another respected scholar, noted that the Druids were divided into these specialisations:

  • Sencha; historian, analyst
  • Brithem; judge, arbitrator, ambassador
  • Scelaige; keeper of myths and epics
  • Cainte; master of magical chants, blessings, curses, invocations, execrations, banishments
  • Liaig; doctor who uses plants, magic and surgery
  • Cruitre; harpist who uses music as magic, master of the “Three Noble Strains” of music: music that invokes laughter, tears, and sleep.
  • Deoghbaire; cup bearer who knows the properties of intoxicating and hallucinogenic substances
  • Faith; diviner
  • Bard; popular poet and singer
  • Fili; sacred poet and diviner

    To become a Druid, students assembled in large groups for instruction and training as reported by Irish sources. An Irish epic called the Táin Bo Cuailnge describes the druid Cathbad teaching as many as one hundred students in something like a college. Apprentice druids on the continent of Europe would study for a period of as much as twenty years. The mythologies describe Druids who were capable of many magical powers such as divination and prophesy, control of the weather, healing, levitation, and shape-changing themselves or others into the forms of animals or people. But a Druid was not, strictly speaking, exclusively a mystic or a magician. He or she was mainly an important public functionary. Her divination skills and magical sight were required for many essential social and political purposes, such as advising the tribal leaders as they make policy, settling disputes and legal claims, and announcing the beginning of agricultural seasons such as planting, harvesting, and hunting. Druids were responsible for providing a system of justice, and apparently they possessed many of the same powers of investigation, mediation, conflict-resolution and even sentencing that today¹s judiciary have. It also appears that they were able to magically oppose criminal activity by, for example, performing magical spells intended to return stolen livestock, or to reveal the thief¹s identity in a dream. In times of war a Druid’s magical skills were needed to learn about the enemy’s movements and plans, to magically empower the warriors, and also to call environmental powers to the aid of the tribe. The Druids could put an end to an unjust war by walking into the centre of the battlefield and telling everyone to go home. On the other hand, another Irish text states that “Šdefeat against odds, and setting territories at war, confer status on a Druid”. The general point here is that a Druid¹s status and powers are inextricably connected to a human community. Indeed the Druid¹s social standing was so important that at any assembly, the chiefs and kings could not speak until the Druids had spoken first. A good word for them would seem to be “priests”, yet I am reluctant to use it for two reasons: The Romans never used it, and because Druids didn’t minister to congregations as priests do. Rather, they had a clientele, like a lawyer, a consultant, a mystic, or a shaman would have. Caesar and his historians never referred to them as priests, but perhaps they could not recognise them as priests since the Roman priesthood, officiating over an essentially political religion, were primarily teachers and judges, with less emphasis on being seers or diviners, whereas the Druids appeared to have both legal and magical powers and responsibilities.

    A Druid’s connection to nature is the source of all her powers, both in society and in magic. By understanding that connection, a Druid’s being is joined with nature, and so she becomes aware of all that is known to nature, which is all things. A Druid then is a kind of nature mystic. To experience Druidism, turn off the computer and go into the woods, and listen. The voices of the old Gods are not silent. Their language is the blowing wind and the waves of the great pouring sea.


    The traditional Celtic nations, where Celtic civilisation achieved its height, and where an indigenous Celtic language was spoken, are Alba (Scotland), Breizh (Brittany) Gaul, (what is now France and some parts of Germany), Cymru (Wales), Eire (Ireland), Galatia (now Turkey), Kernow (Cornwall), Mannin (Isle of Man), and Britain. Parts of what is now northern Spain also hosted Celtic tribes, and some mythologies assert that Celts from that area colonised Britain and Ireland. The Celtic culture was a tribal society, meaning the basic social and political unit was the extended family, and not the individual. They had Iron-age technology at the height of their achievement, and lived in settled farmstead communities. The Celtic people migrated from the ancient Indo-European homelands in eastern Europe, to span most of western Europe. It is possible to trace the migration routes by examining the artefacts they left behind. Two classes of Celtic artefacts, La Tene and Halstadd, are named for towns in which artefacts from each period were discovered: Halstadd is in the Salzkammergut in Austria, and La Tene is in Switzerland. The Celts of Galatia, in what is now Turkey, was visited by Paul of Tarsus around 40AD; his letter to them has a permanent place in the Christian Bible.

    The Celts of Scotland were a combination of Irish colonists, called Scots, and also an indigenous and possibly pre-Celtic people known as Picts, who had a matrilineal (through the mothers) kingship lineage, and who dominated Scotland until united with the Scots of Dalriada by Kenneth Mac Alpine in AD 843. Unfortunately, very little about the Picts is known. Even their name is the word the Romans used for them and not the name they used for themselves. “Picti”, meaning “painted people”, was their slang name from the Romans, because Pictish warriors used to paint themselves blue with an extract from the woad plant when in battle. Some Pictish artefacts, mainly carved stones, do remain, although their symbols are not yet fully understood.

    In modern times, strong Celtic cultural centres can be found in countries like Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Canada, some parts of New England, USA, and Australia, where the Irish and Scottish diaspora settled.

    One Gaulish Celtic tribe worth an honourable mention is the Helvetians, who fought against Julius Caesar’s armies in 58BC. Their territory is in what is now Switzerland, and they live on in that modern nation. The official name of Switzerland is still ‘Confoederatio Helvetica’ (latin for ‘the Helvetian Confederation’).


    Other classes in the old Celtic social order included the warrior-aristocracy (see Warriors); out-caste Fianna warriors; Bards, brehons (lawyers), historians and other more specialised professionals; land-holders (landlords); freeborn labourers; and non-freeborn labourers. Celtic law included ways for anyone, including non-freeborn labourers, to move up or down the social heirarchy; what rights and responsibilities were due to each of them, and what kind of punishment could be given to criminals according to their status (for more was expected from those who had more). An old Celtic proverb goes: “A man is better than his birth”.

    Bards and Fili were the primary keepers of the histories, genealogies, laws, poetry, music and stories of the Celtic people. Their training was similar to the Druid’s training, and their rank in society was second only to the King. A bard was expected to be able to perform what were called the “three noble strains”, which were music to inspire laughter, tears, or sleep. They were guaranteed to receive special hospitality wherever they went, and be free from insult, among other rights; a breach of this would allow the bard to compose a satire-poem that would tarnish the offender’s reputation for generations to come.

    The Celtic noble class held the political and economic power of the tribe. Kingship was passed from a king to his son, or (as in the case of the Picts) from a king to the son of the previous queen. Many Celtic tribes actually elected their king for a lifelong term, from among eligible men whose ancestors were kings. Of interest to those who study Druidism is the concept of the sacred king, in which the king was ritually married to the Goddess of the land. Sometimes a Druidess (or, as in one recorded case from Donegal, Ireland, a horse) would temporarily represent the Goddess to whom the king was married. He had to rule justly and honourably in order to satisfy his immortal spouse, for if he did not the land would become barren and infertile, and the tribe’s prosperity would decline, an event which occurs reasonably frequently in mythology. The king had to be in full health and without physical blemish as well to please her, and this is why the god Nuada had to abdicate the throne when he lost his hand in battle. This ritual is evidence for a Druidic doctrine of the unity of humans and nature. A sacred king would also be bound by a geas (see Geas), as an additional condition for his prosperous rule.


    In general, it is believed by historians that the Celtic people migrated from a common Indo-European homeland somewhere in eastern Europe and migrated westward. The increasing sophistication, social-stratification, state-building, and so forth, of central Europe gave rise to the periods that that scholars call proto-Celtic and Celtic, or Hallstat 800-500 BCE and La Tene 500-100 BCE. The spread of Celtic culture to the British Isles and to the Atlantic seaboard of Europe took place roughly around 900 BCE. It is safe to assume that there were religious specialists of some kind there at the time, though the notion of “Druids” as a comprehensive religious and intellectual caste doesn’t emerge until about 500 BCE or shortly after.

    To correlate that date with other world events, 500 BCE is about the same time that the Buddha is alive in India, Aeschylus and Thespis are writing plays in Greece, Confucious is working for Emperor King-Wang 3rd of China, The Republic of Sicily establishes its first allegiance with Rome, Jeshua is high priest of Palestine, Darius 1st heads the Persian Empire, annually elected archons rule Athens, and Pythagoras is visiting Egypt.

    There is good evidence that through their trade routes, and the adoption of customs indigenous to the areas they colonised, that Celtic culture experienced much change and innovation over time. The British Isles may have been visited by humans as early as the retreat of the Ice Age, and has been home to an indeginous neo-lithic (new stone age) culture that contributed much to the development of the Celtic culture at its height of achievement. (Historian Colin Renfrew has, for example, argued that the Celts emerged from an indigenous pre-celtic Neolithic culture.)

    Here is a brief, and certainly not complete, timeline of the history of the Celtic people, focusing on the time period which is relevant to this project, and the islands of Britain and Ireland.

    Timeline of Celtic History Era People Events And Notes Up to 4000 BCE Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) Hunters and gatherers 4000-1800 BCE Neolithic (New Stone Age) Construction of Maes Howe, Callanish, and other megalithic monuments. First farmers 3500 BCE Construction of Newgrange, largest megalithic monument in Europe 1800-1600 BCE Bronze Age 1000 BCE-Christian Era Iron Age 900-500 BCE >Hallstatt Rise of the Celts. First emergence of Celtic languages Circa 600 BCE Greeks establish trading colony at Messalia (Marseilles) to trade with Gaul 500-15 BCE La Tene Heroic Age Celts. Most mythologies take place now. Circa 450 BCE Celtic people reach Spain Circa 400 BCE Celts cross the Alps into Italy. Within ten years, they sack Rome itself. 279 BCE Celts invade Greece, through Macedonia, and plunder the Temple of Delphi 270 BCE Celts establish Galatia in Asia Minor 154 & 125 BCE Celts sack Massalia, Roman armies raise the seige both times 82 BCE Romans defeat Celts in Italy 55 & 54 BCE Julius Caesar attempts to invade invade Britain twice 52 BCE Julius Caesar defeats Gaulish chieftan Vercingetorix at Avaricum, and imprisons him. AD 43-409 Romano-British Rome dominates Britain and parts of Wales AD 61 Druid strongold at Anglesey destroyed by Romans; Boudiccia begins her rebellion AD 120 Construction of Hadrian’s Wall begins Mid 3rd century Saxons begin raiding east coast of Britain Mid 4th century Cormac Mac Art rules Ireland at Tara AD 409-600 “Dark Age” Britain Final Roman withdrawal from Britain AD 425 Vortigern takes power in Britain and holds off Saxon advances AD 432 Padraig begins his mission to Ireland Circa AD 450 Anglo-Saxon invasion; British refugees settle in Armorica and Brittany, France AD 454 Artorius Roithamus (Arthur) succeeds Vortigern Circa AD 500 Arthur defeats Saxons at Mount Baden Circa AD 500 Formation of Dalriada in southwest Scotland Circa AD. 537 Arthur is killed at the Battle of Camlann. AD 563 Saint Columba arrives at Isle of Iona. AD 663 The Middle Ages Synod of Whitby: The Celtic Church joins the church of mainland europe Circa AD 790 Colonisation and raiding of British Isles by Vikings begin AD 843 Kenneth Mac Alpine unites the Scots of Dalriada and the Picts AD 1014 Battle of Clontarf: Vikings expelled from Ireland by Brian Boru. They withdraw from Celtic nations everywhere soon thereafter


    The main sources of information about ancient Druids are the reports of Roman historians, such data as archaeological remains can provide, and mythological literature recorded by monks in the eighth through twelfth century. Also, although this is a weaker source, analogies can be drawn between the Celts and similar Indo-European cultures, such as the Hindu people. For example, an early poem called the Cauldron of Poetry presents what has been interpreted as a chakra system, analogous to the chakras of Yoga, with three energy centres in the human body instead of seven. Had the ancient Celtic religion survived history, I suspect that it would resemble modern Hinduism, with its many diverse forms of expression.

    Archaeology is an excellent resource for the study of Celtic history. Scientists have uncovered the remains of votive offerings to the Gods in lake bottoms, bogs, and “votive pits” (a narrow hole dug deep in the ground in which offerings are buried), which tell us about Celtic religion. There are also the remains of Celtic fortresses, habitations, temples, jewellery and tools. These remains speak to us not of events and people in Celtic history, but what life was like, what their technological capability was, what food they ate, what crafts and trades they practised, what products they made and traded (which in turn tells us about their economy), and where they travelled and how they got there. These facts about Celtic social life are an important element for understanding Druidism, because it is necessary to understand the whole culture in which Druidism was situated.

    The Roman historians are another important source, though they wrote on the Celts from their own points of view. Julius Caesar, for example, was in the process of conquering Gaul, and therefore would have written a highly prejudiced account. Posidonius was trying to fit the Druids into his own Stoic philosophy. There is also an attempt to cast the old Celts in the role of the innocent and wise noble savage, uncorrupted by civilisation and close to nature, as in the case of the writer Tacitus.

    But in this author’s point of view, the best sources are the mythologies. There we can read of what the Druids did, how they behaved, and what some of them said and taught. Although the medieval manuscripts that preserved them were written and edited by Christian monks, much Druidic wisdom yet remains there. In Ireland the four chief myth cycles are the Ulster Cycle, the Fionn Cycle, the Invasion Races, and the Cycle of Kings. In Wales, the primary myths are contained in a book called The Mabinogion.

    In this century, a number of folklore collections were made of remaining oral-tradition stories and prayers. The famous Carmina Gadelica, a collection of folk prayers from the Hebrides of Scotland, is an example of the use of folk tradition as a source for the study of Celtic mysticism. Two novels, Gods and Fighting Men and Cuchullain of Muirthemney, produced close to the turn of the century, written by Lady Augusta Gregory, are excellent source texts for the study of Celtic spirituality, as they integrate the medieval texts with the oral folklore available at the time.

    One of the problems with studying Druidism academically is that the Druids were the subject of a number of persecutions and conquests, not only by the Romans, but also by Norsemen, Normans, Saxons, and Christians. Much Druidic wisdom was censored, evolved into something unrecognisable, or just plain lost. It is true, however, that the Romans never invaded Ireland, so that country became a haven for Druidic learning for a while. A modern person seeking the Druid’s path must attempt to reconstruct the wisdom based on some or all of the sources discussed above. Yet in doing so, one discovers that despite the enormous amount of cultural data presumed lost, the truly Celtic disposition of the sources remains strong and clear. Much Druidic magic also can be found in the writings of contemporary Irish and Scottish artists. The Irish Literary Revival, with such authors as William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and George “A.E” Russell, is one of this author’s favourite literary expressions of Celtic spirit.

    Here is what some of the Roman historians had to say about the Druids…

  • Diodorus: [The Druids are] philosophers and theologians… skilled in the divine nature.
  •  Lucan [addressing the Druids]: To you alone is given knowledge of the Gods and heavanly powers – either this, or you only have not this knowledge….. But you assure us, no ghosts seek the silent kingdom of Erebus, nor the pallid depths of Dis’ realm, but with a new body the spirit reigns in another world — if we understand your hymns [i.e. poems] death’s halfway through a long life.
  •  Ammianus: [Druids investigate] problems of things secret and sublime.
  •  Cicero [speaking about Diviciacus]: [he] claimed to have that knowledge of nature that the Greeks call “physiologia” [natural science].
  • Julius Caesar: [they have] much knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the earth, of natural philosophy [physics].
  •  Hippolytus: They can fortell certain events by the Pythagorean reckoning and calculations.
  •  Diogenes Laertius [attributes to Druids]: …riddles and dark sayings; teachings that the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done, and manly behavoir maintained.
  • Strabo notes not only their practical knowledge of natural phenominon, but also their pursuit of “moral philosophy”. He also writes that the Druids teach that “men’s souls and the universe are indestructible, though at time fire and water may prevail.”
  • Mela: Souls are eternal and there is another life in the infernal regions.

    (These can be found in The Druids by Stuart Piggot, pg.113)

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