“There are some who say that the study of philosophy had its beginning among the barbarians. They urge that the Persians have had their Magi, the Babylonians or Assyrians their Chaldaeans, and the Indians their Gymnosophists; and among the Celts and Gauls there are the people called Druids or Holy Ones… As to the Gymnosophists and Druids we are told that they uttered their philosophy in riddles, bidding men to reverence the gods, to abstain from wrongdoing, and to practise courage.”Diogenes Laertius, Greek philosopher, 3rd century BCE
Navigating the Sources
Naturally, of large concern in the Celtic academic and studies world not only with scholars, but those seeking a spiritual path based in the past is in regards to where the information is deriving from. We constantly read that we don’t know much, if anything about the Druids or a more Native belief system when that is clearly not true. Acquiring a more factual interpretation of the academically termed ‘Celtic’ or Indo-European cultural groups and their history is cumbersome due to a strong oral tradition and much of the information being either not written down or purposefully destroyed. Nevertheless, we have quite a few first hand accounts, archaeology, folktales, mythology as well as traditions passed down from generation to generation for millennia. When these sources corroborate one another, we start to see a clear and more genuine picture of not only who the Druids were but what their spiritual framework may have been or indeed, likely was.
It’s important to note, that aside from trade, people were somewhat geographically isolated and even when there was a unifying government, such as in Ireland having one High King, they still likely would have had variations in their lives and folk practices. One account of one group of people simply may not have been true at all for another. We also have to take into account the possibility of personal bias and interpretation or outright fabrication of historians and writers. There are many ideas that are still being debated today as new information, evidence and archaeology is discovered and revealing itself. However, what we have found we’re able to lean into somewhat accurately, are patterns across the landscape, particularly, in social and law structure, language, art, folk and spiritual customs and the Druids themselves. Through each of the following sections, we do our best to summarize each source and highlight the best ways to navigate, consider perspective and to use discernment with each unique well of knowledge.
Archaeology provides us with an incredible wealth of information and the strongest evidence of certain aspects of Pre-Celtic life all the way up to more identifiable nations and ways of living of which we will focus on. We can tell what type of homes and villages they lived in, agricultural practices, animal husbandry, means of protection, military expertise, place names with possible ritual significance and their level of craftsmanship in general. We can track where people traveled physically or where the culture traveled while people remained in place by way of the pattern of artifacts as they appeared at certain time periods within the earth. There is evidence for both in the ancient Pre-Celtic and Celtic world, people moving and taking traditions with them as well as people staying in place and adopting the art, language or customs clearly brought from great distances.1 Finding weapons, jewelry, everyday household items, wine containers, chalices as well as the bodies of people and animals alike are all incredibly valuable discoveries.
From bog bodies and bones, archaeologists can determine what these people looked like, what they ate and how they died among many other things. Many important beliefs have been corroborated by archaeology such as the belief in an afterlife and that women sometimes shared closer to equal status as men. Bodies of high status individuals, men and women alike have been found in elaborate grave sites containing everyday items, money, jewelry etc. to possibly take with them to the Otherworld. Another corroborated idealism regards the sheer number of Gods and Goddesses that were revered, clearly highlighted in place names, statues as well as buried goods and offerings left in sacred spaces. In particular, hoards of gold, swords, carved wooden figures and other personal items have been found in wells, rivers and lakes it’s thought left as an offering to receive healing in return. Many objects are carved body parts such as an arm, foot or eyes. Bodily remains as well as ashes and quartz have been found in cairns and mounds lending to their connection with death or rebirth into the afterlife. Slingshot pebbles remained around many ring forts highlighting their protective and defensive nature. Ancient trade routes and roads in ancient Gaul, Britain and Ireland have all allowed us great windows to peer into the past more accurately and not just assume they were trading but to know they were and better understand the cultural underpinnings that must have allowed these relationships to flourish.2,3 Furthermore, these trade connections are affirmed throughout much old literature and classical quotes. Again, we can safely place more value on ideas when sources corroborate.
- Mythical Ireland
- Butser Ancient Farmstead
- National Museum – Ireland
- Celtic Prehistoric Museum – Ireland
- The Megalithic Portal
- Stone Pages
- The Northern Antiquarian
- The Last of the Druids
- The Symbol Stones of Scotland by Anthony Jackson
The classical sources are those of the ancient Roman and Greek historians and philosophers. There are approximately thirty references give or take to the Druids specifically. Famously, these first hand accounts are well known to be politically motivated. Rome and Greece had a habit of painting a common picture of ‘barbarians’ in order to make their own societal structure seem more cultured and specifically in Rome’s case, to justify bringing war against an innocent people. Meanwhile, you’ll find as in the quote listed at the top of this section, the practice or ideology they’re referring is often not barbaric or uniquely terrible at all. To that end, these educated writers may have used smear campaign tactics through the publicity of the written word. Additionally, soldiers may have been more easily roused to fight against a people they believed may have truly benefited to come under the Roman yoke. To feed the voracity of the Roman empire, each conquered nation was a straightforward means of gaining more slaves and more natural resources, namely gold or other raw materials such as timber.4
From this respect, it’s important to consider the context in which different quotes were made. Additionally, many writers were quoting someone else and may have likely never even met any of the people they referred to first hand. The Greek historian and philosopher Strabo, one of the most extensive resources of first hand quotes on Gaulish nations, openly admits in a reference to Ireland, ‘Ierne’ when he said, “… but I am saying this only with the understanding that I have no trustworthy witnesses for it”.5 We find many events and speeches such as that of Iceni queen Boudicca prophesying6 before battle and the rousing speech of Caledonian Chieftain Calgacus7, recited in great passion and fervor where the reader is left wondering if this Roman citizen would have even been given an opportunity to watch or listen during these intimate situations. Setting aside possible language barriers, using our logic, we can easily find it at least somewhat unlikely.
Additionally, it was quite normal for writers to embellish even within their own cultures such as Thucydides, a 4th century BCE Athenian who said, of recounting the Peloponnesian War, “I have put into the mouths of each speaker sentiments proper to the occasion, expressed as I thought him likely to express them.” Gaius Julius Caesar, the writer of the Gallic Wars, 58 – 50 BCE, whose word has been relied on most heavily, while not known to write complete falsehoods, was said by famous Roman expert and historian Michael Grant to have been “a master of rearrangement, emphasis, omission, skillfully directed to his own political aim.” In fact, the Gallic Wars itself was said to be written by Caesar in defense of himself against his many critics in his own country of his wanton and selfish exploits. He was said to frequently include a strategic falsehood or omission embedded among many truths to make his words more believable. We see this habit echoed throughout history even up to recent times in both religious and cultural terms when one cultural group discusses another they do not understand or worse, to justify terrible decisions made out of selfishness and greed. With all that said, again, we can observe patterns and align the speeches, quotes, events and battles as they occurred to form a statistical likelihood albeit still to be taken lightly.8 When the passion in their perceived word matched the passion in their willingness to stand up to the Roman occupation in the very concrete archaeological record, a sense of possibility is revealed.
“But he (Herakles) also mingled among the citizens of the city (Alesia, modern day near Mont-Auxois, France), many natives, and since these surpassed the others in multitude, it came to pass that the inhabitants as a whole were barbarized. The Celts up to the present time hold this city in honour, looking upon it as the heart and mother-city of all Celtica. And for the entire period from the days of Heracles this city remained free and was never sacked until our own time; but at last Gaius Caesar, who had been pronounced a god because of the magnitude of his deeds, took it by storm and made it and the other Celts subjects of the Romans.” (Again, we see a reference here to a city being ‘free’ but yet considered barbarians, a falacy.)Diodorus Siculus, Greek historian, 90 – 20 BCE
Anything by Barry Cunliffe, Anne Ross, John Koch, Sharon Paice MacLeod, Miranda Green, Proinsias MacCana, Stuart Piggott or Ronald Hutton.
- Celts and the Classical World by David Rankin
- Caesar’s Invasion of Britain by Peter Berresford Ellis
- The Celtic Empire by Peter Berresford Ellis
- The Celtic Gauls: Gods, Rites and Sanctuaries byJean-Louis Brunaux
- Lady With A Mead Cup by Michael Enright
- The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar
- Celtiberian : language, writing, epigraphy by Francisco Beltrán Lloris
- Galic Antiquities: A collection of ancient poems by John Smith
- A Modern Gaulish Anthology by Sloi hAtheviu
- Gaulish Inscriptions by Wolfgang Meid
- Legends and Popular Tales of the Basque People by Mariana Monteiro
Irish, Scottish and Welsh Literature
It’s thought these various cultures had a very strong oral tradition and thus did not routinely write down their stories, traditions or events. In fact, it was said by Caesar of the Gaulish Druids that to record such things was unlawful because it impaired their memory but that the Druids made use of Greek letters in their public and private transactions.9 People themselves, the Druids, were in essence, books, and considered a safer means to house knowledge. They were very well protected members of society for this reason and at least in Ireland, could generally travel most places without threat likely due to both a cultural norm in being highly valued members of society but also their expensive honor price. In Ireland, the use of Ogham was in regular practice although the exact date of its creation is unclear but it was at least in use by the 4th century. Many scholars theorize it must have been around much longer and we would generally agree with Carney and MacNeill’s theory that it was created by the Irish in response to political, cultural and religious reasoning so that outsiders could not understand what it meant, particularly because Ogham often marked sacred burial spaces. Many objects that were written with Ogham may not have survived the archaeological record because they were made on wood or impermanent materials.
The Brehon Laws, or the Dlí na Féine, ‘Law of Freemen’ were Ireland’s first known written laws. They were recorded in the 7th century and thought to be highly influenced by the ‘last’ Druids. In the Prologue to the Senchas Már, it is said that three bishops including St. Patrick, three kings (the High King and two subject kings), as well as three Druids (Dubthach maccu Lugair, Fergus the poet, Ros mac Trechim) laid out the foundation of these laws. Here again, we see the power of the number 9 in there being 9 men total, which was representative of knowledge. Of course, The Brehon Laws were in effect over Ireland well into the 17th century. There are in actuality countless scripts and stories that contain priceless information and windows into that time period where Native belief is still heavily intermingled. The Irish Annals of Ulster, entries which recorded the lives of kings as well as important battles, span from 431 through 1540 CE. The four main manuscript sources for Irish mythology were thought to be written from the 10th through 13th centuries. These were the Mythological Cycle, The Ulster Cycle, The Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle.
The Welsh Laws of Hywel Dda and the Scottish Laws of the Britons and Scots were established in the 12th through 13th centuries. The Welsh Mabinogion, the earliest prose stories and mythology of the literature in Britain were recorded in the 12th through 14th centuries. Famous stories like that of King Arthur and the round table were included in The Matter of Britain during this timeframe as well. There are also historical Welsh sources discussing struggles and battles between the Anglo Saxons, Danes, Britons, Scottish, Irish and the Welsh themselves. The entire isles were all at war with themselves at one time or another. The recorded poetry of countless, nameless Irish, Scottish and Welsh bards and other known famous ones such as Taliesin and Aneirin are priceless and cherished relics. These sources are all critical to providing a window into the past, the mythological and religious underpinnings of the older Native cultures of the area as well as their law system and harkening of the Druids themselves.
Many scholars make the educated assumption that because of the solitude of many of these societies, their cultural traditions and oral folk and mythical tales written down during this time were probably around much longer although that is of course, still speculation. The essence of what Native belief could have been has Ireland as a focal point more than other lands because in its solitude, scholars believe they were able to retain and record the most of what is interpreted as Native or possibly Pre-Celtic belief. This is very much where the idea of a unique ‘Celtic Christianity’ has stemmed from which we will delve more into later. Many Irish locals will tell you, you merely need to scratch the surface of the land in Ireland to find an old stone, old reference or old tradition that harkens to pre-Christianization or is unique to the island. Early Christian monastic influence lended to an increase in stories and information being written down mostly regarding the upper echelon of society and monks making use of writing for their benefit. It’s quite natural as humans that we often take what could benefit us and adapt it to our old ways of thinking.
We see this echoed in the Americas where Native Americans adopted the use of the horse after Spanish colonists introduced it. Just because a Native culture accepts or adopts one thing or even many things, does not mean from a historical lens they suddenly adopted an entire new way of being as well or accepted everything that came with a new ideological and cultural presence. This is classically highlighted in the great Irish tale of Suibhne mac Colmáin, king of the Dál nAraidi, who was driven insane by the curse of Saint Rónán Finn. Suibhne was originally angered and instigated the Saint in the first place because he had unlawfully placed a church on his land. Of course, it becomes more complicated as Native people willingly adopt spiritual beliefs of another culture but this is not always done in a morally clean way of cultural exchange and appreciation but rather, often using manipulation and fear. The transition from a Native belief system in Ireland through to a more complete Christianization was incredibly slow and gradual.
There is a sense when reading Irish mythology that like many Native traditions and sacred places, these things were simply supplanted over. The characters and stories likely retained some of their original representation albeit adjusted and embellished. One of the Irish scribes himself, although anonymous, related at the end of recording the Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster that “I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various incidents related in it. For some things in it are the deceptions of demons, other poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable; while still others are intended for the delectation of foolish men.”10 From this, we garner his reluctance at recording such things but nonetheless, he recorded it and likely from traditional and pre-Christian knowledge. It’s also important to note that often the wealthy Gaelic families that hired monks to write for them may not have been as Christian as the monks themselves which highlights an additional possibility as to why statements such as this were made.
There is an added layer to this whereby colonization is concerned. Emmet Larkin in his book The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism (1984) discusses effects that the manufactured famine had on folk belief and speculates that Catholicism came to power only “…by the increasing loss of the Irish language, culture and way of life during the preceding century (during the famine)” and he estimated that “The figures on church attendance in pre-famine Ireland indicated that only thirty-three (to forty) percent of the Catholic population went to mass. This is all the more remarkable in that in something less than fifty years church attendance would increase to over ninety per cent and so it has continued down through the present day.”11 In essence, it took a major societal catastrophe and a possible sense of a loss in faith in older beliefs, thinking these beliefs ‘failed’ them in some capacity, particularly and most importantly, in regards to agriculture for Irish citizens to put a fuller stock in the newer cultural religion of Catholicism. Additionally, it goes without saying that simply losing such a large number of people at once and so quickly was a huge blow to the culture. Many of the people that were forced off their land or forced on ships to leave the country would have been poor, more easily pushed around, unable to afford to stay by other means and naturally would have held or supported a lot of folk belief as well.
“Throughout the decades before the Famine the religious practice of the great majority of Irish Catholics remained severely limited, in frequency of attendance, in the range of devotional observances, and in the degree of ceremony and external display with which public worship was conducted. By the end of this period, it is true, one can detect the beginnings of a movement for the imposition of new habits and standards, but this affected on a small minority.”Dr. Sean Connolly, Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland
Not coincidentally, it was the clergy as well as the wealthy that suffered less effects during the famine which only compounded an understandable sense of a greater security in Catholicism. However, despite this, the clergy are still on record condemning certain ‘pagan’ practices all the way through the early 1900’s. Ireland didn’t have a witch hunt the way that neighboring countries or mainland Europe had. There was no torturous inquisition. Instead, figures such as Biddy Early appear through the hedges quite recently that would have been seen as a Bean Feasa, a traditional ‘wise woman’ and Fear Feasas, wise men. Many countless people have held onto their Native beliefs right into the present. The church’s influence nonetheless grew in power and they successfully infiltrated schooling as well as government as the Christian aristocracy did in the Americas as well where they similarly attempted to strip Indigenous people of their old beliefs through residential schools in both North and South America.
This is of course not to paint Christians with one brush, or put down anyone’s beliefs in any way, but simply to highlight the general goals of the evangelical power structure within the Christian paradigm of the time. These were often issues that went above and beyond what many followers would have went on to do or believed themselves or possibly even had knowledge of occurring, especially before modern technology. When we really dig deeper into Irish literature as well as folk belief and practices, the pre-Christian elements become more clear. If it’s not a practice that is specifically related to the Catholic church in being something that is related to Christianity and also done elsewhere in Rome in particular, then it is very likely related to Native folk belief. Some quick examples are mummers, hunting the wren, the well and water worship, Sheela-Na-Gigs, among many countless other traditions. Of course, we will dive into this much deeper in later sections. This has all been highlighted because many people today, scholars and laymen alike tend to discount much of Irish source material as being solely Christian when clearly, this isn’t the case.
- The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance by Dáithí O hOgain
- The Sacred Isle by Dáithí O hOgain (Anything by Dáithí )
- Medieval Irish Lyrics with The Irish Bardic Poet by James Carney
- The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher (Anything by Kevin)
- Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery
- The Tain by Thomas Kinsella
- A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly
- Cattle Lords and Clansmen by Nerys Patterson
- A Guide to Ogam by Damian McManus
- Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmichael
- The Gaelic Otherworld by John Gregorson Campbell
- The Folklore of the Scottish Highlands by Anne Ross
- The Silver Bough by F. Marian MacNeil
- Manx Folklore by John Rhys Folklore of Wales by Anne Ross
- Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain by Rachel Bromwich
- The Mabinogi and Other Welsh Medieval Tales by Patrick K. Ford
- Ystoria Taliesin by Patrick K. Ford
- The Mabinogion by Sioned Davies
- Welsh Bards by Edward Jones
- Welsh Folk Customs by Trefor Owen
- Cornish Folklore by Robert Hunt
- Cornish Feasts and Folklore by Margaret Courtney
Celtic Revival Literature
From approx. 1800 through the 1920’s, and in reality, right through to the present, there was a renewed sense of national pride in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and other places that wanted to take a more united stand against continued British imperialism and aristocracy. Many writers that were culturally vested traveled the remaining townships that were considered isolated or liminal and recorded the local language, customs, archaeological features as well as various bits of folklore. If the goal wasn’t historical information, it was to provide new and imaginative retellings of the famous old myths and legends. This reformative time was known as the Celtic Revival, Celtic Twilight or Irish Literary Revival. We owe a great deal to the likes of people such as A.E. Russell, Maude Gonne, Edward Martyn, Ella Young, Standish James O’Grady, Lady Gregory, Alice Milligan, William Yeats, Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Mackenzie, Alexander Carmichael as well as Lady Wilde and her son, Oscar Wilde.
The list could go on and while many of these names have become contentious characters for their romanticized notions, they each had some unique, strong and resonant calling to protect and promote the Native culture and folk belief. This is a movement that continues to this day and at the forefront of that is the preservation of the Celtic languages and various dialects as well as folk practices. There are countless ways this culture has inspired the world in art, music, customs and literature. Much of any modern fantasy novel, movie or historical fiction unbeknownst to many, ties back to various Celtic nation cultural beliefs and patterns that were carried with our ancestors through to the present and creatively transmuted as emigrants traveled around the world. This was a time when old folk legends and fireside chats were re-invigorated and re-told, reaching a more widespread audience along with an increase in the technology and capabilities to do so.
Unfortunately there have been a few works of literature coming out of this time that claim to be authentically ‘Druidic’, all the while being partially or completely fabricated. The most famous examples are the work of Iolo Morganwg and Robert Graves. Graves’s father was Irish and Iolo was Welsh so we wouldn’t necessarily consider this cultural misrepresentation but rather they were products of their time in the way Native folk traditions were being commonly embellished and re-worked. Their works still manage to inspire the imagination by entertaining the possibilities they present. It’s just important to keep in mind that they were embellishing and to not place stock in say for example Grave’s Irish tree astrology as there is no evidence at all that it was authentically Druidic. All of the work throughout this time period is incredibly valuable but also subject to at best, personal bias and at worst, complete fabrication. It’s important to again keep this in mind and accept things for what they are instead of what we’d wish them to be. However, when revival folk records match with something of an older historical record such as the practice of saining by fairy doctors in Lady Gregory’s travels matching with a quote of a Druid practicing the same thing in the Dindshenchas written hundreds of years earlier, we find immense value in and gratitude for this still somewhat recent recorded knowledge.
“Blow high, blow low,Ella Young, Irish writer and activist, 1867 – 1956
O wind from the West:
You come from the country
I love the best.
O say have the lilies
Yet lifted their heads
Above the lake-water
That ripples and spreads?
Do the little sedges
Still shake with delight,
And whisper together
All through the night?
Have the mountains the purple
I used to love,
And peace above them,
Around and above?
O wind from the West,
Blow high, blow low,
You come from the country
I loved long ago.”
Anything by the above listed writers… A.E. Russell, Maude Gonne, Edward Martyn, Ella Young, Standish James O’Grady, Lady Gregory, Alice Milligan, William Yeats, Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Mackenzie, Alexander Carmichael as well as Lady Wilde and her son, Oscar Wilde.
Folktales and Traditions
As already mentioned, folktales and traditions that are passed down are often overlooked but very important pieces of the Druid puzzle. When you are able to trace similar stories and ritualistic as well as symbolic ways of living, it’s yet another reaffirming source. Many people discount more recent traditions and practices due to their perceived modernity and this is not unfounded. However, considering the isolated geography of many of these locations such as the Gaeltachts of Ireland and the Scottish Hebrides, it’s assumed that culture and traditions likely changed slowly. It’s not uncommon for families to have stories or traditions passed down through the generations for as long as can be remembered. Folklore and customs recorded as recently as the 20th century still have incredible merit, especially when they can be corroborated with earlier sources or idealisms. Sources such as the Irish Folk Duchas’s School Collection have incredible value and hold a wealth of knowledge. It’s equally important as a scholar but also someone interested in these spiritual ways of being to connect with the people of the land and to the land itself from Ireland to Britain to France.
Anything by Eddie Lenihan, Anthony Murphy, Kevin Danaher (again), John Moriarty, Lora O’Brien, Niall Mac Coitir or Morgan Daimler.
Studying linguistics helps scholars disseminate to what extent nations were connected in the past. Naturally, nations that are connected linguistically as well as living in close proximity are most likely going to be connected culturally as well because of the ease at which ideas pass from one nation to another. Additionally, language is important because we have surviving place names and the names of particular cross cultural and possibly cognate Gods and Goddesses that are frequently found carved into stone, or statues surviving into the present day and giving us a glimpse into the borders of particular nations as well as their shared beliefs. The Celtic language family is a branch of Indo-European languages and is divided into two types, Insular (isles) and Continental (Western Europe). Some prefer to call them P-Celtic and Q-Celtic branches.
While the continental Celtic language(s) died out with the Gauls, the insular language survived and we have distinct dialects today. In Ireland, standard Irish Gaeilge is also called An Caighdeán Oifigiúil, ‘The Official Standard’ but it’s mostly useful for generalized references and school work and is not a full language in and of itself. However, there are three dialects that stem from Old Irish which are considered full languages that people choose to pick from including Munster (Cork, Kerry, Clare), Connacht (Galway, Mayo, Sligo) and Ulster (Donegal, Monaghan, Cavan, Derry, Antrim, Armagh, Fermanagh, Tryone).
In Scotland, Scots Gaelic is the native spoken language and Manx was spoken on the Isle of Mann, both of which developed out of Old Irish. In fact, many people that are fluent in the Northern Ulster Gaeilge dialect can in fact still easily understand Scots Gaelic and vice versa. The Manx language has mostly died out, with the last fluent Manx speaker being Ned Maddrell who died in 1974. The Welsh language in Britain developed from the language of the Native Britons called Brittonic. Various Brittonic languages have also died out such as Cumbrian. All of these languages developed over long periods of time, changing gradually over hundreds of years.
Languages are dynamic and change readily depending on any particular group’s isolation. There’s a further discussion regarding language to be had about the way in which language shapes our personal and societal psychology. The Celtic language group is also very unique in that it doesn’t stem far off of the Indo-European language tree and is one of the oldest languages in the world. There are often numerous ways of describing the same thing or phenomenon, especially where nature is concerned lending to an intimate connection and deep love for the natural world. There is also a way that emotions are described where you are experiencing something rather than becoming the emotion which lends to a healthier or more accurate description of our experiences. In other words, you would say “I’m experiencing depression.” or “Depression in on me.” rather than the self affirming “I am depressed.” Again, we are even reminded through language that a lot of what may have been considered Native agrarian, Pre-Celtic and Celtic culture was possibly most preserved in the fringes, liminal and outer edges, in Ireland and Scotland.
“Everything that we inherit, the rain, the skies, the speech, and anybody who works in the English language in Ireland knows that there’s the dead ghost of Gaelic in the language we use and listen to and that those things will reflect our Irish identity.”John McGahern, Irish writer, 1934 – 2006
Anything by Manchán Magan.
It cannot be overstated that when any of these cultural practices are referred to, it is strictly a cultural reference and not genetic, but anthropologists do still use genetics to track the movement of ancient people by comparing shared DNA. They use this to corroborate idealisms about where and when people moved although this has become nearly irrelevant in modern times with the greater ease at which we move around the world. As already mentioned, there is plenty of evidence to suggest culture was passed down readily amongst those of shared DNA but equal evidence to suggest that ideas often moved very easily through trade while people stayed in the same place. So while not meaningless, genetic studies are incredibly limited. For our purposes, the important thing it does is show us a tangible connection into the past with the Neolithic monument builders. The modern population of the entire isles and much of Western Europe share ancestry with their Neolithic builders. This tells us that while the Druids may not have built the monuments, their ancestors did and the only question then becomes at what generation were the monument’s meaning completely lost to us? This tells us that there was never a ‘Gaelic’ invasion of the isles as was propagated for many years as well as the stereotype of them being ‘barbarian marauders’ pandered by classical writers and medieval historians.
Rather, the same people were always there by the Bronze Age and the culture changed to be more identifiably and archaeologically ‘Celtic’ over time by way of the trading of ideas and customs. Many of these cultural underpinnings may have been brought by the original agriculturists, from the Yamnaya people out of Eurasia who also brought the Indo-European language or they simply uniquely and organically arose out of the land and most likely a combination of both. Many scholars agree that much of Neolithic culture originated out of modern day Brittany France where the oldest Neolithic monuments were built and customs, art and language were spread rapidly northwest along the Atlantic seaboard, were transmuted and individualized, within just a few hundred years. We can see a subtle pattern at minimum of language and art from the Pre-Celtic Bell Beaker culture, to the Neolithic builders, through to the Hallstatt and La Tene mass graves and finally to the old Gaelic societies of Ireland and Scotland.12 We have no proof as to when the system of the Druids began but linking back to similar cultural roles across Europe and Asia, there’s good reason to believe they’re incredibly old figures, with debated loose comparisons, albeit based in evidence, to the Shamans of Siberia and the Brahmins of India. That is not to say that Druids should also be called Shamans or Brahmins by any means whatsoever because they’re clearly very unique cultural figures.
- The Origins of the Irish By J.P. Mallory, plus the scientific study behind his work.
- Exploring Celtic Origins by Barry Cunliffe and John Koch
Modern Reflections or Schools
Lastly and very relevant to modern practitioners are ways in which we can bring this framework into a living and breathing way of being. There are countless interpretations of this and particularly where it concerns interacting with the natural world as well as how to engage with society from this viewpoint, becoming a teacher, a modern bard, a seer or fortune teller, a steward of the land or a social justice advocate. Often for many, all of the above. Naturally, our journal itself and really most that is out there is still a modern or biased reflection on some level. We simply can’t travel back in time to know undoubtedly what was done and how or why when the Druids were in their full power within their individual societies. We learn what we can, using the best evidence we have and go from there, the best that we can.
Once we have formed a strong internal framework that feels true, it is often helpful to read and consider the experiences of others on a similar path. This itself is in the spirit of the Druids as they were learned people who would have been analyzing and comparing different knowledge to their own, old knowledge with new, ultimately for the betterment of themselves, their people and a love of learning in itself. We naturally become in community with what and who calls us and we simply cannot be isolated mentally, spiritually, emotionally… and expect to continue to grow. This is particularly important where it concerns experiences of a spiritual, ambiguous or organically nuanced nature, especially regarding journeying, meditating, or mental health issues. If nothing else, reading other experiences affirms what we already know and allows us to grow more in humbled confidence. Only by consulting elders or those that have experienced these things before can we better analyze or understand our own experiences. This passing of personalized knowledge is of course also in the spirit of the Druids and a crux to any modern spiritual path. Community is so important and at the heart of the Druid role both in the past and the present. We are lucky to have both, wondrous local as well as worldwide communities that allow us to feel safe, held, valued and heard.
- Kilkenny Druid Grove
- Celtic School of Embodiment
- Coire Sois: School of Irish Spirituality
- Bard Mythologies and Bardic School
- Irish Pagan School
- Brehon Law Academy
- The British Druid Order
Anything by authors already mentioned as well as Emma Restall Orr, Phillip Carr-Gomm, Penny Billington, Sharon Blackie, Joanna Van Der Hoeven or Nimue Brown.
In summary, look to source material first. Trace information and patterns from the past to the present. Consider the citations and evidence of the material you’re reading from the past to present. The learning never ends and it is a wondrous gift and ability we have that is meant to be explored and shared.
- Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). “Copper Age Iberians ‘exported’ their culture — but not their genes — all over Europe: The largest ever genomic study shows that the first Beaker expansion was one of cultural diffusion.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 February 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180221131858.htm>.
- University of Southampton. “Archaeologists discover evidence of prehistoric gold trade route.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 June 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150605081611.htm>.
- Comber, Michelle. “Trade and Communication Networks in Early Historic Ireland.” The Journal of Irish Archaeology, vol. 10, Wordwell Ltd., 2001, pp. 73–92, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30001671.
- PLOS. “Long-distance timber trade underpinned the Roman Empire’s construction.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 December 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/12/191204144859.htm>.
- Strabo, Geography Volume 2, 7 – 23 CE, 259 – 260.
- Dio, Cassius. Roman History Book LXII. Pg. 93.
- Tacitus, Agricola, 98 CE. Pg. 29 – 32.
- Adler, Eric. “Boudica’s Speeches in Tacitus and Dio.” The Classical World, vol. 101, no. 2, [Johns Hopkins University Press, Classical Association of the Atlantic States], 2008. Pg. 173–95, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25471937.
- Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, 58 – 52 BCE. Book 6 Ch. 14.
- Author unknown, translated by Cecil O’Rahilly, Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster, 1100. Pg. 272.
- Larkin, Emmet. The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1976. pg. 68.
- Neolithic and Bronze Age ancient Irish genomes, Lara M. Cassidy, Rui Martiniano, Eileen M. Murphy, Matthew D. Teasdale, James Mallory, Barrie Hartwell, Daniel G. Bradley, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jan 2016, 113 (2) 368-373; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1518445113, <https://www.pnas.org/content/113/2/368>