The Druids and Pre-Christian Religion
As with the introductory material last week, there is just too much to cope with in one session, so I propose to narrow it down a great deal, of necessity omitting much. If I can encourage you to read and think more, I will achieve my goal. If you feel I've left out important things then, to use a colloquialism, tough luck. This is not a scientific treatise, but a bit of my own understandings and reading. As anthropologist Levi-Strauss once said, "The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions." Well, I try to do the same, though not necessarily with a scientific mind on this subject! The writer P.B Ellis stated simply that one person's Druid is another person's fantasy.
Let's say at the beginning that most of the writings from the Classical period are full of anti-Celtic propaganda by Roman authors. Later, when the Chistian faith arrived, the Druidic religions naturally got a bad press. Later writers, who thought they were being independent, romanticised the Druids out of all accurate historical representation. Let's look at just a few of the pictures people have when they think of Druids --
- The Romans saw Druids as bizarre, barbaric priests who indulged in the most horrendous human sacrifices, searching for auguries in the entrails of their victims.
- Other people saw the Druids as patriarchal religious mystics, usually clothed in long white robes and beards, worshipping nature, particularly trees, gathering in stone circles at the time of the solstice.
- Others think of the Druids as powerful soothsayers and magicians.
- Or merely bards and prophets.
- Or the comic-book characters in the Asterix strips.
- Yet others see the Druids as a powerful element in Celtic society before Christianity arrived to reduce them to mere sham wizards and poets.
- Some will see the Druids as the incarnation of the Romantic fiction of the 18th and 19thC, leading to harmless present-day cultural stuff, like the poetry-reading Club the Welsh-speaking new Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams belongs to.
- The Ancient Order of Druids, a sort of Lodge and benevolent organisation, who claimed Winston Churchill as a member, was nothing like ancient Druidism and was only begun in 1781 anyway.
- Others think they are being Druids when they are merely, as other people say, New Age types who have hijacked the term, a bit like Stonehenge Greenies, to mangle meanings a bit, wearing robes of their own invention and trying to make the calendar revolve round the solstices. That these people always appear to be very earnest doesn't alter the fact that they, too, have invented their own Druidism, and it's not ancient.
It's not really surprising that it is difficult to know a huge amount about the teaching of the Druids, as it was not ignorance of writing that kept them to an oral tradition. Rather, it was because they placed a religious prohibition on committing their knowledge to writing to stop their knowledge falling into the wrong hands. It took 12 to 20 years to learn properly how to be a Druid, with a great deal of learning by heart. After the Christian missionaries replaced the old Celtic religion and the ban on writing things down was lifted, Irish quickly became Europe's third written language, with an outpouring of a wealth of literature.
One thing is absolutely now, however, is that the Romans did not, as many people have been led to believe, attempt to abolish the Druids because of nasty practices on the part of those Druids. It's rather that the Romans realised any conquering country has to remove the intellectuals before you can suppress a culture. Mao tse Tung and many other people have tried to do the same. The Romans wanted nothing that would in any way challenge their culture, politics, imperialism or anything else. Just as one example, the Romans saw land as being owned by individuals, whereas the Druids and the Celts generally saw property ownership as being a collective thing. The Roman Senate actually tried by decree to abolish Druidism as early as AD 54.
When the Christian faith came, it is surprising to find how easily many Druids became Christians, and some senior Druids actually became bishops. They did have some ideas in common.
It should be noted now, even if it seems a bit out of place, that there is not a single Christian martyrdom recorded in Ireland, and even the very very few recorded elsewhere in the Celtic world were occasioned by Roman antagonism, not by Druidic antagonism, to things Christian. So, it's fair to say that Christianity did not abolish everything of the Druids, but rather transformed it. So things like holy wells and holy mountains were "Christianised", not destroyed. Caesar's angry denunciations of the Druids were often the reverse of what was actually true. As an example, we can note that Caesar claimed the ordinary people were treated as slaves, when there is clear proof that the reverse was true: the ordinary people and their leaders were treated alike. There is clear evidence, too, that druids could be either male or female -- they did not develop the subjection of women that the church did after the time of Christ.
The Druids can certainly not be dismissed as merely a superstitious bunch. The great historian Nora Chadwick has stated that the Druids were the most enlightened and civilising spiritual influence in prehistoric Europe. That is high praise, next only to the Greeks and the Romans. At the same time, no one really knows for certain the very meaning of the word Druid. A good guess is that it means someone whose knowledge is great and thorough. Though the terms Druids came to be well known a couple of centuries before Christ, and we often in our day think of Druids being the priests of a religion called Druidism, there is the simple fact that no writer of Classical times Greek and Roman ever referred to the Druids as priests and never depicted Druidism as a religion.
We can even go further and note the Celts had a name for those who were really priests in function, and that word is gutuatri, meaning "speakers to the gods."
It should be noted that, as we have seen, the Druids' lore only began to be written down when the Celts became Christians. For this reason, we can refer much more easily to Druidic ideas after they had been Christianised. The early Celtic missionaries and monks did their very best to either Christianise or to destroy things in the culture around them that were incompatible with faith in Christ. And that's not only inevitable, but there is no need to impute bad motives to them. It is inevitable that in a confrontation about basic beliefs, one side is bound to suffer a loss and the other be something of a winner. And so we read about Patrick's confrontation, though from a writer three centuries later -- "It came to pass in that year, that on the same night as the holy Patrick was celebrating Easter, there was an idolatrous ceremony which the gentiles [i.e. pagan Irish] were accustomed to celebrate with manifold incantations and magical contrivances and with other idolatrous superstitions....."
Christian writers began to portray Druids as those people who could cause snow to fall at will, create illusions, interpret dreams, cure illness, curse people and give shrewd military advice. We don't know if it has any basis in fact, but a 9thC writer says nine Druids attempted to assassinate Patrick. Against that, we are told by someone else that a couple of Druids gave Patrick their home which he converted into a religious foundation called Elphin (Ailfinn = white stone). Patrick seems to have Druid understandings in his background also. Some manuscripts state he had initial education with Druids. No one can state for sure, but it is clear all the same that Druidism took a long time to die out, and some people say remnants of it still exist, even if driven underground. The High King of Ireland was Diarmuid Mac Cearbaill from 545-568, quite contemporary with Columba. He is said to have had both Druid and Christian advisers at his court. There is much myth in the ancient stories, though. One legend tells how one Druid of this period said, in response to Christian monks' claim that a murderer was hidden by men of the Irish high king at Tara, the king's seat of power, "Desolate be Tara for ever" but the archaeological evidence in fact shows that Tara flourished for many centuries after this period. Druids as symbols of knowledge or wise people continued, as we have just seen, for centuries. In the late 8thC, the monk Blathmac wrote of Christ, "Better He than prophet, more knowledgeable than any Druid, a kin who was [both] bishop and full sage."
Some things remain in cultures whatever happens to the rest. The tonsure is interesting, for example. It seems certain that the Druidic tonsure was to shave the head from ear to ear over the top of the head, leaving all behind that line to grow long. Christian monks adopted this, quite different from the Roman custom of shaving a male pattern bald bit at the back. The argument over this waxed fast and furious at the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, when Rome succeeded in forcing something of a defeat on the Celtic Christians. This tonsure was condemned a little earlier by a Roman church council in Toledo in 633, but it was still in use in France almost 200 years later. Some records indicate the Celtic tonsure was still in use by some Scottish monks as late as the 14thC, some 700 years after Whitby. However ridiculous the shape of tonsure, or haircut, might seem to us, a particular haircut is still often seen as an indication of membership of a particular group. So we have the pudding-bowl haircut of English schools, the crewcut of the American military, and so on. When I see photos of myself in the 1970s, they show I too have followed haircut fashion.
Druids were not ascetic celibate priests wearing long white beard and long white robes, as some people imagine them, but it seems rather they were a hereditary learned caste. They married and had children like everyone else. There was no distinction between men and women in this respect -- both could be Druids. We have been mentioning Irish thoughts and ideas here on who the Druids were as the Irish sources are very greatly more extensive than all other Druid records put together. It seems that once a convert from Druidism to Christianity on the Isle of Man caught a human sacrifice about to take place in a stone circle. Mac Cuill, or Maughold, threw holy water on the stone heated by fires where the sacrifice was to take place and the stone split apart. This is, of course, scientifically quite possible, but seeing a monk related the story, we have no idea whether it is literally true. It may be, but perhaps not. The Druids are said to have fled and the sacrifice lived to another day.
Columba himself was strongly opposed to Druidism. One of the poems attributed to him says, and it indicates a few things the Druids practised or believed in:
Nor with the bird on top of the twig,
Nor with the trunk of a knotty tree.
Not with an act of humming.
I adore not the voice of birds,
Nor the sneeze, nor a destiny on the earthly world,
Nor a son, nor chance, nor woman;
My Druid is Christ, the Son of God.
There were healing wells the Druids believed in, in both Ireland and Scotland. Columba solved this problem easily, not by violence to the well or the people, but by blessing the fountain in the name of God. It was thus harnessed for Christianity.
We'll see more of this sort of thing later on.
Druidism certainly believed in the equalitry of women with men. They were entirely permitted to be Druids themselves, there were a number of notable warrior-queens who led men into battle. Too, women were often ambassadors to other countries and one significant writer notes that women were more diplomatic in political assemblies, so were quite popular there as members. Women could also hold other positions like that of judges and lawyers, to the amazement of writers from Roman and Greek culture. Women also had the right of succession to property and title, and to divorce their husbands if they felt like it. If a man became a convicted criminal, his wife did not suffer in status or reputation because of it.
However, against all that, the Druidic society had begun to become patriarchal by the time Christianity arrived. The amazing thing was that this culture of absolute equality had lasted for many hundreds of years.
There are all sorts of traditions and tales about Brigit, and it seems that the modern idea of a Saint Brigit is the in fact the conflation of at least three different women. One story says she was born cAD455 and was a Druid before becoming a Christian. Her father was a Druid also. She was actually ordained by Mael, bishop of the important diocese of Ardagh. Druid and Christian strands to the legends about her are hopelessly intertwined. The memories of Druids, and their gradual relegation to being witches and wizards, is recalled by Shakespeare in the three witches in MacBeth, though the playwright has his facts wrong about MacBeth himself.
The Roman church was incensed by the equality of men and women in the Celtic regions. It was singularly furious that women could become Christian priests and celebrate the Mass, the Holy Communion. Rome described this as an abominable heresy. But there is no evidence from the words of Jesus that women were to be treated as lesser than men in any respect at all and in Acts we read of Junia being an apostle, conveniently ignored by those who regard only men as able to be ordained.
We must affirm very strongly that, in spite of the fanciful claims of writers over several centuries, we have no clear knowledge of the Druidic system of worship or ritual. We can deduce some things, though. One of these is that the Celts, unlike many other peoples, did not regard their gods as their creators, but rather as their ancestors, a fact with all kinds of consequences. As in many societies, creation myths amongst the Celts seemed to be based on goddess worship. Danu, the mother goddess, and her children were the Tuatha de Danaan. Quite significantly, her name is remembered in the Danube River, and as the Don Rivers in Durham Yorkshire and Scotland and even in France. The flowing of waters seems to have symbolised in many areas the flowing of life and wisdom from the gods and goddesses. Perhaps there can be a comparison with the sacred Ganges for the Hindus and the holy River Jordan for the Jews. Little bits of these ancient Celtic gods and goddesses still exist today, Billingsgate, for example, means the gate of Belenus or Bile. He was venerated in Gaul for centuries after the Roman Conquest and in many parts of Europe.
Another belief of Druidism was that the soul reposed in the head, not the heart as many western Christians have theorised and which is still a popular place for the deepest feelings of the self.
We don't have time to dwell on the many Celtic gods and goddesses, but should note that many Celtic gods were worshippde in triune or triple form. Even as far away as Hindu India we have the trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva, representing creator, preserver and destroyer. The number of three is pretty much sacred to many people -- even Pythagoras saw three as the perfect number of the philosophers and the ancient Greeks saw the world as ruled by three gods -- Zeus (heaven), Poseidon (sea), and Pluto/Hades (underworld). The Christian concept of God as Trinity can also be noted. Even in popular language we talk about good or bad things coming in threes. There are 3 Fates, 3 Furies, there are three times three Muses, there were three times three Sibylline books, and so on. Earth-sea-air. Animal-vegetable-mineral. Red-yellow-blue primary colours. It is not perhaps surprising that the Christian understanding of the Trinity was developed and propounded by Hilary, a Celtic native of Gaul. His major work was De Trinitate.
We could talk for some time about how the Celtic pre-Christian gods and goddesses have been demoted. Christians drove them out of the towns to become hill-dwellers. Then they were driven to be seen as dwelling underground, eventually becoming our modern idea of the little people or just plain fairies, complete with magic wands.
Now we move on a bit to have a look at Celtic rituals. We have not much of an idea of how accurate he was, but Pliny the Younger wrote that the Druids indulged in climbing oak trees when the moon was auspicious, ritually cutting mistletoe, and sacrificing white bulls. Like other things from classical writers about things beyond their own culture, there may be a distorted scrap of something garbled up here that could be based on something true: after all, we know oaks were sacred trees to the Druids and that Druid possibly originally meant "tree-knowledge". Pliny's info may be a mistake for things we know were practised in Egypt!
The Druids did have a kind of baptism (the Greek word baptizein means "dip") but initiation ceremonies in many parts of the world have involved a purifying bath in clean water. The Irish term for Druid baptism was "baisteadh geinntlidhe" meaning "the rain wedge of protection". Ritual purification has been common among Indo-European world, as far east as the Ganges in India where it is still practised. The veneration of water, especially rivers, was certainly a major factor in Celtic pre-Christian religion -- remember the Danube was seen as the great mother goddess. Gregory the Great told his missioners to Britain that they were not to destroy Celtic customs but to Christianise them. It's easy to see how the Celt custom could be transformed into Christian baptism. Even now, the number of "holy wells" is far greater in Celtic areas than anywhere else. I've visited one, in Patricio, in the Welsh Black Mountains border country, clearly still in use.
Some Celtic customs were known abroad, of course. The Roman emperor Aurelius Antonius (AD 211-217) had a nickname "Caracalla", a word derived from the long hooded Celtic cloak he introduced as a fashion in Rome. The Three Tenors sang a concert at Caracalla, just outside Rome, a few years ago, so the word lives on. Indeed, the River Thames gets its name ultimately from the Celtic meaning the dark or sluggish river. It's been suggested, on reasonable grounds, that the Thames may have been like the Ganges in its use. Whatever the ritual uses, there is no question about the offering of gifts to the gods at wells or river-sources.
As a contrast, it seems running barefoot through fire was a Celtic ritual, though we know they had a certain kind of ointment liberally applied to their feet to prevent burning. Again, this thing is practised in many parts of the world. Stories of the Celts having rituals cattle and pigs and their blood have no evidence whatever, and are certainly complete fiction by writers who had never been to Celtic lands.
The customs of the Celts regarding burial are certainly not way out: the body was washed and wrapped in a shroud or winding-sheet. There was a wake for one or more nights. The body was then placed on a bier and this bier later destroyed. Christianity added the custom of caoine or keening, the wailing of lamentations. A ritual may have been chanted. A chief might be cremated rather than buried. Cremation disappeared when Christianity arrived.
The idea of mistletoe amongst the Irish is certainly not ancient, though most of us "know" of its truth. The plant is not indigenous in Ireland and was not know there till the 18thC, believe it or not, though the Irish Gaelic term for it is "Druid's weed". The Nordic pagans, however, did use mistletoe.
The authority of the Druids seems to have been based more on placing prohibitions than on direct power, something a bit like the Maori rahui. In other words, divine retaliation could be expected if you contravened a prohibition. So, oaths were sworn to sanctify treaties and those who broke these were dealt out "divine curses". These were dealt to individual persons, not groups or tribes. A person cursed would be shunned by his society, a terrible thing in a tribal society where community is paramount and not individualism. The idea of fasting against a person or situation was carried through into Christian times and even now some Christian people all over the world use fasting as an aid to prayer. The latest version of this is probably the hunger strike. It was an Irishman who inspired Mahatma Gandhi to take this custom to India and thus revive something long lost there.
Propitiating the gods by rituals involving the course of the sun's direction were also common, to do with the cycles of prosperity and dearth, summer and winter. Going sun-wise, deiseal, is still common in the Celtic north and west, in processions, fire-carrying, and so on. It was believed to go the other way, widdershins, would bring harm. Here in the southern hemisphere, of course, we have to go E-N-W to follow the sun, not E-S-W.
Drinking the blood of a freshly-slain bull was certainly an ancient Celtic, as it has been in many other societies as well. It probably symbolises the taking into oneself the strength and power and courage of the slain animal, and cannibalism of slain enemies in warfare probably has the same connotations, a custom right here in NZ among many other societies.
There is little or no reliable evidence for human sacrifice among the Celts, as writers like Strabo and Caesar are not to be trusted. We all know that barbarism occurs among invading armies -- witness Iraq in the last fortnight -- and such stories make good propaganda back home. Too, it's quite possible that if Druids had to be present at a sacrifice, they were there more as court officials to check procedure, identity of the one to be killed, etc., rather than as the sacrificers themselves. We just don't know the veracity of any of the stories of human sacrifice. In ancient Greece and Israel we all know of the idea of the scapegoat: unload your sins onto an animal and kill the animal, thus ridding yourself of your sins. It must be noted, therefore, that there is not the slightest evidence in any old Celtic documents that human sacrifice was ever carried out, so the writers of ancient Rome and other places seem to have been deliberately quoting each other, foisting Greek customs on the Celts.
In contrast, we do have very old accounts of Celtic law showing that capital punishment for murder was against the Celts' ideas of justice and court punishment.
In most societies, secular educational systems have been overtaken by Christian organisations. Indeed, it was only in the 19thC that you could become an academic staff member in Oxford and Cambridge without being a baptised Anglican, and most often a clergyman as well. However, the Druids had their schools for teaching philosophy, history and poetry, i,e, the Druidic and bardic traditions. In Ireland the non-church schools survived right through till the 16thC AD, having lasted for over a thousand years, probably nearer 1500 years. As we saw at the beginning, it could take up to 20 years to train a Druid, a tremendous amount of oral tradition and literature having to be learned off by heart. Too, the Druids had to learn the legal system, incantations of all kinds, methods of divinisation catch criminals, the satirisation of people who refused to pay poets for their work, and so on. We know for certain native colleges specialising in law and medicine were still operating as late as 1571. Irish Gaelic was used for teaching, not Latin. Only in the late 1600s did a concerted effort close most of these schools in Ireland. Mind you, the closure of monastic schools took place at the same time.
Things continued secretly, however, and wandering scholars had what were called hedge schools, from where the schools were held. Only in the 19thC did these finally die out when Ireland was again allowed to establish public schools. There had been no competition between the bardic and the monastic schools -- in fact they sometimes shared common subjects. Twelve years of hard study could be expected, about the amount we hope for our children today, So, well before the missionaries arrived, there was a well-established educational system.
Although the Druids did not write things down, as we said earlier, there is clear evidence that they knew Greek, Latin and Etruscan and were certainly literate. There was no proscription against writing things down that were not Druidic knowledge. Archaeological finds clearly demonstrate literacy in pre-Christian days. Even Caesar noted this, in the century before Christ. In fact there was a whole literary school by this time, with the texts being in Latin though written by Celts, all the way from Provence and Iberia to Britain and Ireland. It seems highly likely that the prohibition against writing down Druidic works was not important in Ireland. We certainly know of books in Ireland by the 3rd century AD. Book burning by Patrick and other missionaries have not aided our present generation, however! A lot of the writing was in Ogham on hazel rods, so was easy to destroy, but we still have a lot incised on stone, and also the oral tradition maintained and written down in later centuries. The oral tradition was carefully preserved.
Druids were not Celtic priests, but rather philosophers. Early writers like Dio Chrysostom even describes the clear distinction between the two.
The idea of the Word and Truth as being of the highest importance is common to many, if not most, Indo-Eurpean cultures. It's not surprising, then, to read St John beginning his Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word", meaning far far more than just "a word". We may note in passing that the 1883 Pinocchio story shows continuing belief in retribution for not telling the truth. It was also a common concept that the naming of things brought them into being. This may be a background belief even behind the Genesis tale of Adam and Eve naming things. Even in modern Irish, the word for soul and name was the same, ainm. The immortality of the soul was also a Celtic one, though we do not know for certain whether this doctrine developed independently of the same Greek idea. Certain it is that in the 6thC BC the Greek Pythagoras wrote about reincarnation, so we're going a long way back. Pythagoras even described the person he said he had been in a former life -- a Trojan Euphorbus, slain at Troy! It's most interesting, though, that the ancient writer Clement of Alexandria believed the Greeks adopted the Celtic idea of the immortality of the soul, not the other way round, written down by someone as early as the 2ndC BC. When Virgil wrote his Aeneid, some time in the 1st century BC, we need to remember that he was of Celtic stock, born in Cisalpine Gaul near Mantua. He believed, as the Celts generally did, that the life after death was pretty similar to what we have here now. The whole idea of the immortality of the soul, though, may be one of parallel development rather than borrowing from either side.
One interesting point is that the Druids were renowned for their sincerity, integrity and simplicity of life. They were not rich people and didn't try to be. They did not resort to lies and half-truths to establish themselves in business or anything else. To the Druids, as indeed with other peoples, word play, puns and paradox were enjoyed. Here's an example --
What is blacker than the raven? -- death
What is whiter than snow? -- truth
What is swifter than the wind? -- thought
What is sharper than the sword? -- understanding
What is lighter than a spark? -- the mind of a woman between two men.
Confession of sin was not obligatory to the Celts, and even in Christian times the idea of the anamchara, the soul-friend or spiritual guide, was very important. It is interesting that this concept has been picked up by the churches and the community generally in the last 25 years or so. (Cf the old RC rite of Confession now being replaced by Reconciliation). In Celtic times, the Druids practised the role of anamchara. It would seem that Christian saints later sometimes became the successors of this tradition, and people still speak almost as if their patron saints are personal friends and guides. That John Scotus, the Irishman I mentioned a few moments ago, is still admired is evident from the comment of Bertrand Russell in his "A History of Western Philosophy" (1946), "his independence of mind is astonishing in the 9thC". so there were very real scholars, not just minor local experts. On the other hand, Russell made the silly statement that St Patrick was an Englishman, when in fact he was a British Celt.
Druids were also judges. The law had been handed on orally for many centuries until the High King of Ulster appointed a commission in the 5thC AD to study, revise and commit the laws of Ireland to writing. Among the nine members of the Commission were three Christian leaders, one of them being Patrick. The growing role of the Church in society really did require a fresh examination of law, but it was the Drudis who commissioned this study, not the Church. The integrity of the Druids as judges was noted by many writers, including Julius Caesar. They even were judges and mediators in warfare, with their decisions being accepted as binding. The role of Druids, both and female, as ambassadors and international arbiters was also well-known and admired. The Celts held and practised the idea of the oneness of the world's peoples, and this was shown in their practices. It was also based on kinship, clan, understandings of human society. Even kings could not put their word above that of the Druids. All of this is well-substantiated and not mere theory.
The Druids, too, provided lawyers in the sense of modern barristers, arguing for individual clients. Women as well as men, did this job, and it was highly-respected. The use of precedent in legal arguing was very well-established. Banishment, ostracisation, was the worst punishment they inflicted. It is no surprise that the word boycott comes from an Irish case as late as 1880. One of the most amazing things of the old Irish legal system was that it was based on reparation or compensation to the wronged family, not on vengeance against the individual criminal. We are battling with these different concepts still, trying to go from concentration on the criminal to care for the victim and the family.
We could go on for hours about the Druids, but had better not do so. They were certainly also, as the intellectual caste in society, also the source for all the wit, wisdom, poetry, literary endeavour, history, genealogy and customs of the Celtic people. The bards, the poets, were an integral part of the system. The amount of learning the Druids had to go through was immense: at one stage the druid had to know by heart 350 historical and romance sagas and to be able to repeat at a moment's notice when asked. Genealogy was put in a similar way. Debretts recognises the current MacCarthy Mor has the oldest verifiable recognised pedigree in Europe, going 51 generations back to King Eoghan Mor who died in 192 AD. It was the 16th and 17thC English who destroyed this and so much else in the great Celtic tradition of more than 1500 years. We think of Cromwell as being a terrible vandal of buildings and constructed things, but we often don't know about his immense destruction of culture, custom, literature and history as well. What remains is astonishing in its accuracy in recording details of astronomical events, as confirmed by modern science. So we are on pretty safe ground in assuming a fair degree of accuracy in non-scientific things as well. All of this, as has been said already, was almost exclusively Irish. There is a very little of the Welsh Druidic tradition which survives, and even less that of other Celtic traditions.
Although the Classical tradition distinguishes between bards and druids, the Celts themselves did not do so. What is certainly true is that the Celts had a remarkable love of poetry and music, really with us to this day. Small poems were sometimes rather like epigrams. Here are a few --
Is little profit, endless pain;
The Master that you seek in Rome,
You find at home, or seek in pain.
Takes too much time, and too much care,
When at the very end of all,
Death catches each one unaware.
He returns to his home.
When you're tired of searching there
You'll find the answer here.
Because another likes me.
Winds may shake a twig
Only an axe disturbs the tree root.
Dancing, music and poetry contests were common in Celtic lands, and survive in things like Highland Games, the Eistedfod in Wales, and so on, even if some of these needed re-inventing, the tradition having been destroyed at some stage.
The Druids were renowned across Europe as doctors and healers also, both men and women. It's hard to believe, but they performed successful Caesarian sections, amputations and even brain surgery, though of course without anaesthetics and antiseptics. They identified exactly 365 herbs and their healing qualities. The first Roman hospital was established in the 4thC AD, but the Irish Celts had them as early as the same number of centuries BC. Too, we know medical teams followed armies to look after the wounded. Free medical care and food for the needy was a requirement in ancient Irish law, centuries before anywhere else. Even the dependants of the sick person were catered for, under law.
It's time we brought this session to an end, but it must be noted that the Druids were also very highly involved in astrology and divination, using things like the flight of birds, the examination of sacrificial animals, the appearance of things as diverse as clouds and tree roots, and omen sticks, for their work. The Druids along with most ancient peoples, examined the heavens and produced their own form of astrology-cum-astronomy. Even now right here in NZ, more people follow astrology than astronomy, and they were mixed up right through till the 18thC. The accurate dating of the seasons was, of course, a major concern of many people, including the druids.
Druids were also wizards, casting spells, incantations, charms, curses, and the like. See Carmina Gadelica for an indication that this tradition still had not died out in late 19thC Scotland. Control of the things like the weather was another effort of the Druids in this area. There is also the tradition of form-changing, i.e. changing a human being into an animal, or vice versa, or from one animal into another kind, still kept alive in many fairy tales to our own day. Think, for example, of the water horse and the seal folk traditions of the northern and western parts of Britain. Mind you, this sort of tradition is found in most cultures, even as bone-pointing amongst the Australian aboriginals. If you believed the curse of a Druid, you may well have got sick or died by sheer suggestion. However strongly Christian missionaries and clergy have tried to get rid of all the ancient Celtic ideas they did not consider right and proper, the folk belief in these things has carried on till very recently, and seems to be still existing in some forms in some places. Even after the Reformation in Scotland, it was believed by some writers that ministers could prophesy, heal, levitate, curse the ungodly and perform acts of magic. MacCulloch dryly notes that, "The substratum of primitive belief survives all changes of creed, and the folk impartially attribute magical powers to pagan Druid, Celtic saints, old crones and witches, and Presbyterian ministers."
In conclusion, it can be noted that Druidism gradually died out under the influence of Christianity, surviving only in literature. Modern attempts to revive Druidism under one form or another are not part of our brief here, be those attempted revivals to do with Glastonbury, Stonehenge, Welsh poetry or hippie whatevers. Some are simple cultural fun, like the poetry-reading group that Welsh-speaking Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury is a member of.