Druidism Guide Page Four: Spirit
by Brendan Cathbad Myers


A complete and full answer to this question is beyond the scope of this book, for it is not a thing easily summarised in a few lines. Your humble author has been attempting to decipher this problem for over twelve years. Perhaps an outline of some of the important points will suffice.

An Irish triad reads: “Three candles that illuminate every darkness: Knowledge, Nature, Truth”. This is one of hundreds of Triads that impart wisdom for many aspects of life, both spiritual and mundane, but this one is the author’s first best choice for a simple description of the highest good in Druidism.

The most prominent teaching attributed to the Druids by Roman writers was the belief that the human soul is immortal. Some writers attribute to Druids the Pythagorean belief in reincarnation. Others claim that the Druids taught that the soul is reborn in an otherworldly afterlife that is much the same as this one. The belief in immortality was so strong that people could put off repayment of debts to the afterlife. However there is no indication that the Druids believed in Karma, as the Hindu people did.

The Druids taught that there exists a spiritual Otherworld, that is sometimes accessible to us, and particularly close at certain times of the year, like at Samhain. There is a great sense of connection and continuity between life and death, such that the ancient Celts did not fear death, but instead viewed it as a transition phase in the course of a long, even eternal, life. There is also no division between an Underworld and an Upperworld (although, in Welsh Druidism, perhaps a case can be made for Annwn as an Underworld and Caer Arianrhod as an upperworld). Thus, the entities which live in the Otherworld have no moral bias; they are neither good nor evil, like ourselves, but what is spiritual about them is that they exist.

The Druidic beliefs regarding deities is also a complicated problem. The feature that all Gods share, which makes them distinct from mortals, is that they are descended from a particular divine ancestor. In the case of the Irish, that ancestor deity is the Goddess Danu, and so the pantheon of Irish Gods are called Tuatha de Dannann, meaning “Tribe of Danu”. The Celtic Gods are inseparable from the environment in which they live, so much that it is difficult to categorise them neatly into areas of particular concern (that is to say, it is difficult to say what each deity is “god of”). As the Druids looked upon nature and saw it populated with spirits, goddesses, and gods, it is safe to speculate that they regarded nature as sacred and divine.

Fire-worship is central to Celtic religion as well, as it certainly played a role in the four annual Fire Festivals. The centrality of fire is another point at which Celtic and Hindu religions correlate. Fire is a spiritual force unto itself, and it is not bound into a cosmology of four equally necessary elements, as the Greeks are known to have done. Fire possesses the magical properties of both destructiveness and cleansing, bringing heat and energy and with it civilisation. Poetic inspiration is said to be a fire in the head, which is why Brighid is a deity of poets and of fire. The ritual “need fire” ignited on holy days demonstrates the high spiritual regard the Celts had for fire, which was their main source of energy in a time without electricity, and without matches!

Druidic mythology points to knowledge as the key to self awareness, symbolised by certain mythological holy-places of great importance that are associated with wisdom, such as the Well of Wisdom (auspiciously located at the centre of the world), the Spiral of Annwyn, and the Cauldron of Cerridwen. Mythic places are inaccessible but also not inaccessible, for it requires a leap of faith to find them; the Well of Wisdom is at the bottom of the ocean, but to Sea Gods like Manannan, who are capable of that magical leap, the ocean is as the sky. That leap of faith is often found in the moment of poetic inspiration.

As Druids were also required to be the professionals of their society, the skills they had were meant for the benefit of the tribe each Druid worked for. A Druid was expected to use her divination skills and her sight of otherworldly things for many essential and pragmatic purposes, such as: advising the tribe chiefs as they make policy, settling disputes and legal claims, and announcing the beginning of agricultural seasons such as planting, harvesting, and hunting. Druids were involved in stage-of-life rituals such as childbirth, maturity, marriage, and death. In times of war a Druids skills were needed to learn about the enemy’s movements and plans, and also to call elemental powers to the aid of the tribe; alternately, the Druids could put an end to an unjust war (a power for which there is a great deal of evidence). A Druid’s skills belonged to her tribe and not to herself alone. In this way the Druid was an inseparable part of a Celtic tribe’s life and necessary for the tribe’s continued survival and welfare. In these days of mechanised farming, atomic-clock timekeeping, and satellite weather forecasting, it is difficult to grasp how the mysterious religion of the Druids, and of other ancient priesthoods, was not merely abstract, intellectual, and theoretical.

The moral and ethical position of Druidism is also difficult to describe. There is some textual reference to old Celtic morality in the myths, such as the instructions of great heroes and kings to their students; Cu Chullain, Fionn Mac Cumhall, Cormac Mac Art, and others gave “advice speeches” to their juniors that survive to this day. They are characterised by a great interest in justice, honour, and fair play, and emphasise that each person is responsible for her own conduct, not determinist forces like fate or the will of gods. The Fianna hero Oisin gives us this famous statement of Celtic ethics which I shall name Oisin’s Answer, because it is how he answered St. Patrick’s question of what kept the Fianna together: “It is what sustained us though our days, the truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our arms, and fulfilment in our tongues.”


This is an extremely hot topic of debate, mostly because Celtic matters and Shamanistic matters are very popular right now, and a synthesis of the two has been sought by many fiction authors and some scholars. Druidism does bear very similar features to shamanism, particularly in some of the magical feats that Druids were said to have performed. It is this author’s opinion that a more meaningful question is whether Druids were similar to shamans (and the answer to that is probably yes) because the Druids did evolve from an Indo-European culture that had shamanism. But they were also something more. To answer the question, I shall defer to two people who know more about it than I do, whom I believe represent the two sides of the problem.

From: Erynn Laurie 
quoted with permission. Her position: No, Druids were not shamen.

The Celts had some very specific words for their religious functionariesand their visionaries. “Shaman” was not one of those words. Is there something wrong with the terms that our ancestors used, so that we must go off and find new words with which to label our seers and priests and poets? Druids are firmly a part of the noble social order and ruling class, rather than being at the fringes of society. Poets more often lived at the fringes, as shamans do. Druids could and did bar people from participation in community sacrifices and rites. I don’t believe that this was a part of shamanic practice.

Formal training for many years in schools of druids or poets does not seem to be a part of the shamanic framework, although I could be wrong about this. Shamanism usually is taught either under a single master with one or a very few students, or by the spirits themselves. Druids and poets are described as gathering in considerable numbers in “colleges” for the purpose of instruction in many subjects, particularly in the cities of Gaul.

Druids and fili were considered very well-trained formal speakers by the Romans, who sometimes sent their young sons to be trained in oratory by Gaulish druids. The Greeks and Romans thought of the druids as being Pythagorean natural philosophers, with a firm and delicate grasp of mathematics. I do not believe that the Altaic shamans are known for their command of mathematics, nor do I believe that they have an understanding of the metonic cycle of the sun and moon. The Gaulish druids had a very complex calendar which is preserved in the Coligny fragments. I have never seen any reference to shamans having calendars of this complexity. I could simply be missing something here.

Many Celtic “otherworld journey” tales are about people who have gone there unwillingly and without any control over the experience. The shaman is a master of control, and always decides when and where sh/e will or will not go into the otherworlds. Shamans can’t be stolen away against their own will.

Celtic societies were literate societies. Although the druids were said not to write down important things, they were able and willing to keep other records in writing, using Greek for many purposes. Patrick was said to have burned “hundreds of druidic books” during his conversion of Ireland. Druids and poets are described as writing down tales and poems on staves. None of the shamanic societies that I know of were literate. Many still do not have written languages. This is not to say that all pre-literate societies are therefore shamanic societies.

In shamanism, there is a common theme of ascending to the upper worlds or sky realms, while I know of no extant Celtic tales about anyone ascending into the upper worlds to confront Gods or spirits. Yes, Gods arrive from there, but what humans go there? “Spirit flight” through the middle realms to spy on one’s enemies or flit through the tops of trees in the forest isn’t quite the same thing. I know of only one tale that could be taken as a tale of a shamanic crisis and illness (the Sickbed of Cu/ Chulainn), but Cu/ sends his charioteer into the Si/dhe realm to check it out for him before he goes there himself. The shaman in crisis cures himself. Cu/ was cured by the same fairy women who beat him in the first place.

While we have a number of shamanic elements appearing in Celtic mythology, we don’t usually have more than two or three themes appearing in the same tale. It’s my understanding that a majority of the themes need to appear in the same person for them to be seen as a shaman. This may be my own prejudice in the matter. And again, it is entirely possible to have a spirit animal guardian, to have visions, and to make voyages into otherworlds without being a shaman. It happens in many tribal societies all the time. Sleeping in a cave, eating berries and salmon and wearing fur doesn’t make a person a bear either.

From Searles O’Dubhain, quoted with permission. His position: Yes, Druids were shamen.

The Druidh were masters of fire. It was they that created the ritual fires. It was they that attended the sacred flames of the Gods. They even had their own special “Druid fires” with which they fought battles. Many Druids could “magically fly”. The Dr uids Ciothruadh and Mogh Ruith flew into the clouds to fight a Shamanic battle. To perform this “Magical flight” they donned feathered bird head pieces and bull hides and ascended the heat, flames and smoke of their own Magical Druid fires. Mogh Ruith was physically blind, yet he ascended into the clouds to “see” the enemy. This “seeing” implies using the “third eye” and leaving the body. The ceremony of the Tarb Feis is very similar to a shamanic journey. The Druid would lie beneath the hide of a sa crificial bull and “dream” a prophetic dream. Four other Druids would station themselves at the four “quarters” and engage in Magical chanting.

Druids frequently lay or slept upon graves to communicate with and/or to invoke the spirits of the dead. “How the Tain was Recovered” is only one example of this technique.

Druids did not “channel” their gods or speak with the voices of Entities as modern-day “channelers” and Wiccans do. [as in the Wiccan rite of “Drawing down the Moon” –Cath] Druids went to their gods during “amruns”, periods of Magical chanting where th ey conversed with and learned from the gods. These amruns were periods of *ecstasy*! Druids also were able to walk the dreamways and even into the Otherworld itself. They were masters of Nature as well. Who would dispute that Druids were able to talk to nature spirits, trees and springs? What Druid could not feel the pulse of the Land and the heartbeat of Nature? What Druid could not read the writings of destiny in the clouds of the sky? Druids were the Masters of Magick. They were the wielders of Mys tical Power. They lived with a foot in both this world and the Otherworld. They were the poets, healers, advocates and magi of the Celts.

Druids were also the ultimate judges for the Celtic peoples, primarily because they could see reality clearly (all of it). A Druid was expected to see the past, the present and the future for any given person, object or situation. This is why they were the chosen advisors of kings. This is why they sat at the king’s right hand. This is why they were entrusted with the Magical well-being of the tribe. This is why they taught the traditions and the techniques of the people within their nemetons.

The crux of the argument seems to rest on whether Druidism is essentially a votive or an ecstatic religion. A votive religion is one that attempts to communicate with and influence divine powers by way of offerings, prayers, sacrifices, ritual taboos, an d other physical means. An ecstatic religion attempts communication and influence of divine powers through trances, spirit posessions, visions, and direct non-intellectual encounter with the spirit. For example, The fundamentalist christian experience o f “being saved” or “born again” is ecstatic, whereas the ritual breaking of bread and its distribution, as practiced by protestant and catholic christians, is votive. With regard to Druidism, there are elements of both. The modern practice of Druidism ra nges across the spectrum. The magical sight that Druids were expected to posess is probably ecstatic, whereas their legal and intellectual responsibilities are clearly votive, insofar as they are religious at all.


Here is a brief, and by no means complete, list of animals that have frequent mention in the mythologies, and some of the situations in which they appear.

  •  HorsesSeveral deities have attributes or connections with horses, including the irish Macha (after whom the fortress Emain Macha is named) the welsh Rhiannon, and the gaulish Epona. In fact, the horse goddesses Macha and Rhiannon were married to mortal kings, so perhaps they were Goddess to whom the Sacred King (see Classes) were married. Horses are an earth animal, and a symbol of soverenty.
  • Salmon appear fairly frequently in Fianna myth, and usually represent Wisdom. Fionn MacCumhall gained supernatural wisdom when he accidently burned his thumb on a magical salmon cooking on a spit, for example.
  • Crows were sacred to the Goddess Morrigan, and typically appeared in the myths to forshadow battle or death. They are not necessarily birds of bad omen, however; they can indicate simply that otherworldly beings are present at the time of death, for better or worse. A crow landed on Cu Chullain’s shoulder as he was dy ing, for example.
  • Deer were a hunting animal, and probably represented the honour that the hunters and warriors were obliged to maintain. Appearances of deer sometimes indicate the presence of an enterance into the Otherworld.
  • Boars were also a hunting animal, but a far more dangerous prey than deer. Boars probably stood for war and death, but also heroic skill because of the effort needed to kill one. The ritual of the Champion’s Portion required a Boar for a feast.
  • Serpents As we have seen before, the Gaulish Druids used a special “druid egg” supposedly made from the spittle of serpents. When Saint Padraig banished the serpents from Ireland, perhaps this is a metaphor for the banishing of the Druids. T he Serpent in myths appear to represent the earth powers.
  • Cattle were the primary economic unit of the Iron-Age celtic people. The larger your herd, the more influential and powerful you could be among the nobility. Cattle therefore represent temporal or political power. cattle also represent bounty and fertility; indeed the river Boine is said to spring from the udder of a mythic cow owned by the river goddess Boann.

    Druid magic is the result of a strong and healthy awareness of nature, and the spirits and gods who live in nature. A Druid must understand the language that Nature uses to speak its wisdom. All else follows from that. Druid magic has a votive quality; magic is performed by appealing to the gods to perform a service in return for an offering. Mythic Druids often used trance-ecstacy to achieve their purpose as well. But in the myths very little attention is paid to summoning or controlling spirits and gods, instead, the Druids sought communication and communion. Aisling A dream or a vision (from the sky, perhaps). Possibly, Aisling referrs to altered states of consciousness. Immram A journey to the realms where the Gods live, possibly by shaman flight. Literally, Immram means “sea journey”, for it is in the western ocean that the islands of otherworldly paradices were located. Imbas Inspiration, poetic frenzy, the “fire in the head” that Amergin speaks of. Possibly, Imbas referrs to altered states of consciousness. Echtra “Adventure”, expeditions and journeys on holy ground. This way of magic often happens “accidentally” to heroes, warriors, and hunters. Dra/iocht The word for magic. Literally translated, it means “what Druids do”. Fi/rinne “Truth”, or “Justice”. The binding force of nature, the way of nature. Note the signifigance of Truth and Justice being in the same word.


    Unfortunetly the majority of Druidic temples, sanctuaries, and holy sites are in ruins today, either through age & disuse or else from wilfull destruction by enemies. Still others have been “converted” from its ancient function to serve christianity, as in the case of Ireland’s numerous holy wells that are now sacred to Saints Bridget, and Saint Ann (who was once the goddess Danu). Another class of sacred places are those constructed by the pre-celtic neolithic people, which because of their monumental size remain numerous and reasonably intact to this day. There are hundreds of stone circles dotting Scotland, Britain and Ireland. The Hebrides of Scotland are famous for them.

  • Stonehenge It is unlikely that Stonehenge is a Druid temple. The question of who build Stonehenge remains one of academic debate, yet the theory that most historians find acceptable is that since carbon-14 dating places the construction of Stonehenge before the rise of Druidism, they did not build it. However that does not rule out the probability that they knew how to use it. The solar and stellar alignments Stonehenge embodies would not have been lost on an intelligensia so well versed in astronomy. The connection of Stonehenge to Druidism came during the eighteenth-century romantic revivals of Druidism. Today, through the co-operation of several British Druidic groups, it is open to the general public on summer solstice morning, and an impromptu festival takes place there at that time every year.
  • Glastonbury Some folkloric traditions and mythographic examinations suggest that Glastonbury Tor is the mythic Isle of Avalon. If, for example, the nearby river were to flood, the Tor would be an island. It is the reputed burial place of King Arthur. A certain thorn tree is said to be the descendant of the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, an associate of Christ, which was changed into a thorn tree when he set it there (the Thorn is sacred to faeries!), when he brought the Holy Grail to Britain. Avalon means “Isle of Apples”, and there are many tales of magical apples in the myths. Some archaeologists believe that, if one accounts for centuries of erosion, the sides of the Tor are terraced into the shape of a Cretan Maze pattern. Your author wishes to refrain from making judgement, but whether or not the region is Druidic, anyone who has meditated by the nearby Chalice Well knows it is a holy place.
  • Callanish On the Island of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, there is a circle of very large stones, not topped with capstones as is Stonehenge, but impressive in its own right. The stones form an irregular Celtic Cross, with a large ring of 13 stones surr ounding a large central stone, and four lines of stones extending in a cross shape from the center; the east and west lines have four stones each, the north line forms an avenue of two paralell lines of eight and ten stones, the south line is formed by six smaller stones. The main axis is aligned to the midsummer solstice; other astronomical alignments include the annual rising places of bright stars Altair and Capella. An interpretation of its ritual use from the number and position of the stones is tempting, but it is a purely speculative exercise, since we cannot know if its neolithic architects used a sacred numerology.
  • Newgrange, and the Boyne Valley Complex Newgrange has many names: Cashel Aengus, Brugh Na Boinne, or the Wonder Hill. It is what archaeologists call a “passage grave” or “passage mound”. New Grange is the world’s largest passage mound of its kind, and also among the oldest; dated at 3,500 BC, it is reckoned older than the Great Pyramid of Gizeh, in Egypt, and constructed to engineering standards equally as precise and impressive. It is a large circular man-made mound of earth surrounded by a ring of kerbstones. A single (known) passage open s from its south-east face that leads into the mound to a central chamber. The passage is angled so carefully that direct sunlight can enter as far as the central chamber, some 80 feet inside the monument, only at sunrise on midwinter morning. Within a few miles from Newgrange are several other passage mounds, including Knowth, which has two passages aligned to sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. Other famous passage mounds include the Loughcrew Complex, elsewhere in Ireland, and Maes Howe in Scotland which also admits sunlight only on Midwinter morning. Their use is no doubt ritual in nature, serving perhaps as a center for initiations, a tomb, a calendar and timekeeper. Newgrange features in Irish mythology as the home of several gods, including Dag da and his son Aengus, and Boann, the goddess of the nearby river Boyne.
  • The Hill of Tara The Hill of Temhair (Tara), in the county Meath, was the seat of Irish kings. There is a stone that stands on it which is thought to be the same one called Lia Fail, Stone of Destiny, upon which the Ard Ri (High King) was inagurated. The stone would “cry out” if a worthy king stood upon it. Also on the Hill of Tara is a small passage mound, which admits sunlight into the center chamber only on sunrise of Samhain and Imbolc. It is the place where the mythological wise king Cormac kept his court. In the county of Armaugh, the hill of Emain Macha stands, which is where Conchobar Mac Nessa reigned as king of Ulster.
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