Druids and Celtic magic


Druid is a Latinized word from the Celtic word to define the priestly and legal class of his people. Multiple etymologies have been considered, which have tried to be related to the positions they held, for example the Gaelic drui- or cymraeg (old Welsh) drw-, which indicate magic or clairvoyance, or a possible Indo-European root reconstructed from the Greek δρύς, oak, sacred tree among the Celts, and *weid- (see, know) being, in this way, those who know oaks. According to others, the most likely is the Gaulish dru-, which meant great, and wid- knowledge, thus summarizing his labors.

Although when thinking about the Celts one thinks of the Gallo-British world, the truth is that the first vestiges of Celtic culture, coming from the Iron Age (8th century BC), were found in Hallstatt, Austria. The Celts spread throughout the European continent, covering the map from Ireland to part of modern-day Turkey (the Galatians). It is risky to ensure that all tribes, which were never united as a single people or nation, shared the same policies, customs and beliefs. The same happens, therefore, with the functions of the druids. In fact, historically the origin as such of the figure of the druids seems quite late, with no records until the 3rd century BC, which in turn offers a long path in which they could be influenced by beliefs and philosophies from all territories. . Furthermore, their type of priesthood has often been compared to the Brahmanical priesthood of Vedic India, considering the druids to be a model of the Indo-European teacher-politician-judge-priest. Those who accept this are also based on the importance given to invocation, postural language or rituals common with Asia, such as equine sacrifice. Despite this, we can say that it is from the Gallo-British world that we have been able to obtain the most information.

The first textual information we have about the druids comes from Greco-Roman sources such as Diogenes Laertius or Julius Caesar. It cannot be said that they are presented precisely as barbarians (which was done with the Celtic peoples in general), since the exposition of their beliefs, such as reincarnation, was very reminiscent of the Pythagoreans and Eastern philosophies. Above all, they are presented as figures of great relevance in the Celtic world, with varied functions within their people. Celtic society was divided into five large pyramidal classes: at the base were the slaves, without any type of rights; later, free men, who included field workers and artisans. In the highest classes were the druids, who fulfilled religious, but also legal, political, and educational functions; the warriors, the most admired and necessary in a world that liked fury and warmongering; Finally, the aristocracy, which closed its circles, being the only ones who could aspire to the leadership of the tribes. However, it seems that for some time, it was the druids who invested the leaders with this power, with the gods being in their favor. Likewise, they fulfilled the role of teachers and judges, imposing the corresponding punishments: the worst punishment for a Celt was expulsion from their community and not being able to participate in their religious rites.

It should be said that, although Celtic society was patriarchal, women enjoyed a freedom that was difficult to find in the rest of the neighboring cultures of the time: they could carry out their own profession, preserve their assets and inheritances, maintain their integrity and status when marrying. and by getting divorced, and participating in the use of weapons. This freedom extended to the religious sphere, with the figure of the druidess or dryad existing, in Ireland bandruidh, and in Gaul, if we pay attention to Lampidius and Vopiscus in their narrations of the Historia Augusta, dryadas.

The druids had different levels within their communities, which some have compared to convents and monasteries, but which could rather be equated to schools. They were the repositories of the scientific knowledge of the time, regarding calendars, astronomy and astrology, medicine, laws, ethics, history, oral literature, religion and magic. There were various schools of astronomy, meditation and druidic arts, especially in the British Isles, where Roman influence was less and Christianity took a little longer to take root, places such as Myfyrion, Caer-Edris (City of Astronomers), Cerrig-Brudyn (Astronomers' Circle), or the Assembly of Uinech, in County Wesmeath, as well as the northern islands where several mythical clans such as the Fir Bolg took refuge, and the Isle of Anglesey, formerly the Isle of Mona. The manuscript known as the Annals of the Four Masters speaks of Mur Ollavan, the City of the Learned, in Ireland, in the 10th century. Likewise, they met in the so-called nemeton or sanctuaries, sacred places, generally of a chthonic nature, forests or fountains, where they could spend up to twenty years learning.

Strabo divides the druids into three categories: bards or poets, eubages or diviners, and saronidae or judges. However, there must have been many more categories and names, such as vacerri, semnothii, or filid, as sighted poets are still called in Irish Gaelic today. It is interesting to see that there were and still are today multiple relationships and differentiations between the terms related to the druids and other terms, either due to their social nature or their actions. Summarizing part of what is exposed in the article on Celtic magical lexicon, the druid or draoí, and its feminine version ban-draoí, are distinguished from the astrologer (asarlaócht, asarlaí), and from the Gaulish sorcerer and sorceress (swynwr and hudoles) or fortune teller and fortune teller (dewin and dewines), as well as the Irish sorceress, cailleach feasa, and the witch, seanchailleach. In the same way, when it comes to a character outside Celtic spirituality, we find Olam, the poet, and Brehon, the judge, both with an intellectual, university character.

Something important that must be indicated is the appearance that has been transmitted to us about them, popularized by the audiovisual media and on the European continent, undoubtedly by the druid Panorámix of the comic Asterix the Gaul, created by Uderzo and Goscinny, and of the model in the which Jean Markale (1928-2008) insisted on, a scholar of the Arthurian cycle who intertwined many issues of the Druids with the medieval imagination and modern occultism.

Little is known about the clothing of the druids. We have the testimony of Pliny in his Natural History (XVI,249), which describes them dressed in white when they go to collect the mistletoe and selago. Reference is often made to the different colors of the druids' robes according to their status, however, there is a serious confusion here, and that is that these grades and colors depend directly on druidism or neo-druidism, a movement promoted by Romanticism in the which attempted to recover druidic philosophy and traditions: however, it did not seek historical reconstruction, but rather naturalistic and esoteric adaptation, later becoming esoteric orders with their different degrees and distinctively colored tunics, as well as neo-pagan religion. Multiple scholars consider that this white clothing indicated by Roman authors may have been exclusively ritual clothing, and that the druids did not stray far from the Celtic clothing pattern: embroidered tunics and heavy capes. Returning to clothing, archaeologically figures have been found in ceramics and sculptures considered representations of individuals of the priestly caste wearing a kind of miter or helmet, such as the one found in the tomb of the Warrior of Deal, becoming another element that has wanted to be seen as exclusive ritual use.

The magical vision of the druids has also been influenced by this type of research related to esotericism, occultism and modern druidic orders. However, its magical and esoteric character should not be denied, as other facets claim. The borders between religion and magic in ancient times were not as defined as it was intended to be established since the Middle Ages, and the Celtic world was no exception. Although the druids fulfilled tasks as priests, carrying out annual rites, blessings to monarchs, sacrifices, etc., and a philosophy recognizable as Pythagorean, with the belief in reincarnation and animism, they also brought together a series of acts and characteristics that can be defined as properly magical. Magic was not something exclusive to the druids, or at least it cannot be considered that way, since in all folklore there are traditions that can be considered magical. However, in this article we will focus precisely on the druids for their ritual concretion, their knowledge in the preparation of potions or amulets, as well as their generalized social assistance, especially in battle. However, we must keep in mind that their entire tradition, with the exception of Oghamic writing, was oral, so the testimonies we have are from mythical narratives or external visions (Roman, Christian).

It is clear that the druids were doctors and herbalists of their community, the Fathliaig, the divine medicine; but the complex and superstitious ritual of collecting, for example, the aforementioned plants, suggests their magical nuance. Perhaps the best known and most popular of these traditions recognizable as magical is the gathering of mistletoe, which had to be carried out on the sixth day of the Moon. According to Pliny, the Celtic word for mistletoe meant "the one that heals everything", for which purposes it was collected, since it was considered an anti-poison, as well as a consumable ingredient to obtain fecundity and fertility of fields and animals; Mistletoe, in fact, can be used as a sedative, diuretic and psychoactive in general. An entire ceremony took place for this, using a golden sickle to cut it, as well as preparing a banquet around the place where it was found, with two white bulls. Something similar happened with the selago, for which offerings of wine and bread were made and people went barefoot, and which was collected by putting the right hand through the left sleeve or opening of the tunic, and was used to create protective amulets, and incenses that cured specific diseases, such as eye diseases.

In the creation and use of amulets we have other examples, such as the so-called Snake Egg or Anguinum, which, according to Pliny, the druids strove to locate at a specific time when snakes gathered and intertwined, throwing a slimy egg into the air. air or water, where it floated, and that, once obtained, whoever carried it would enjoy unprecedented eloquence and oratory, always obtaining the pleasure of the nobles. Pliny, very skeptical of all this, not only doubts that the snakes and the lunar moment of this supposed encounter have any relationship, but also denies its effectiveness because he knows of a man executed by the emperor Claudius despite carrying said egg with him. This egg has been identified with some kind of sea urchin or with what are currently called witch stones or viper stones, which are nothing more than glassy adding stones, that is, stones that, due to their composition, water makes holes in, lightening them. and giving curvature, and whose holes can be considered those left by the fangs of a snake.

Regarding druidic divination we have the observation of the flight of birds and the entrails of sacrificed animals, something very similar to what was done by religious specialists from other cultures such as the Roman, which Cicero himself already highlighted in his work On the Divination (I, XLI, 90) when speaking of the druid Diviciaco, an Aeduian druid who acted as a diplomat on behalf of Caesar in his conquest of Gaul. Likewise, Teim laegda or the act of sucking the thumb and touching the object about which one wishes to know something. Of the prinni loudin or throwing of stones or sticks, a type of geomancy, it is unknown if it was a popular activity or exclusively of the druids as teachers.

On the other hand, we have that the songs of the bards and filid were inspired songs, that is, their songs were not always narratives, but also prophecies that they could not help but communicate, once they were "possessed" by the prophetic gift. Although distinctions have been made before between them and the druids, it is possible to think that the songs and prophecies that the druids expounded after ingesting certain concoctions or staying in certain sacred places were considered of the same type. There is the Imbas forosnái, the "illumination through the palms of the hands", which is a kind of clairvoyance that only the druids and druidesses could obtain, by chewing a piece of meat, and the support of the palms of the hands, loaded with spells, on the cheeks, which caused a dream of several days after which answers were obtained. But this imbas forosnái is also seen as an innate ability, at least in certain characters such as the druidess Fedelma, whom Queen Medb coincidentally meets when she was preparing to invade Ulster, and who receives from her a repetitive oracle: <<I see it everything red, I see everything crimson>>. The queen does not pay attention, considering that the blood is the same from one army to another. Then the druidess lengthens her prophecy by mentioning the invincible warrior Cú Chulainn who will destroy her army.

The presence of the druids in military matters was not only as an advisor, but also as a warrior, and their presence was encouraging. There was a ritual in which the druid surrounded the ranks of his people, airbe druad, instilling courage and protection in his people. The role of the druid as a warrior can be seen, for example, in the Ulster Cycle, where the druid Cathbad, in addition to teaching young people, predicts everyday things for them and instructs them in weapons, Cú Chulainn being the most prominent. of them, a sort of Celtic Achilles who prefers to die young and unforgettable, rather than becoming old with a life that no one remembers.

The Irish legal texts mentioned that the druids made concoctions and potions, and this is also found in the Irish sagas, such as in Serglige Con Culainn, where the druids give Cú Chulainn a potion so that he forgets his lover Fand, who caused the weakness. and illness of the hero.

But without a doubt the image of the druid as a magician, very much in the Arthurian way with Merlin or Morgana, is the one exposed in the mythical narratives. In the book of invasions or Lebor Gabála Érenn it is narrated that the arrival of the semi-divine Tuatha Dé Dannan to Ireland is preceded by a very dense fog that their druids and druidesses unleash to avoid being discovered, and also later use it to hide the entire Island of Ireland, trying to prevent the Galician Milesians from reaching land, also sending a terrible storm. Luckily for the Milesians, the druid Amergin, son of Mil Espáine (king Mil of Hispania, and ancestor of the Irish), was with them, who performs an invocation and gets them to reach the coast, where as soon as they arrive he recites another invocation to stop the attacks. Shortly after, the same druid is in charge of casting a spell on the island's rivers so that they fill with fish so that everyone can feed.

In the same book, the blind druid Mug Ruith, who wears a bull skin and a bird mask, has various powers that allow him to fly with a rowing machine, control fierce storms, as well as an impressive magical military display. In the tale Druim Damhgaire, Mug Ruith confronts the druids of King Cormac mac Airt. These had warned the king of bad omens about a military affront against King Fiacha Muilleachar of Munster, who had denied him economic aid, but they still helped him put pressure on him by drying up all his rivers and springs. Mug Ruith, who was considered an arch-druid and who was said to have learned in the East, managed to reverse the drought and famine. King Cormac consulted his druids, and they resolved that it was necessary to make a druidic fire whose smoke would indicate the direction in which to attack or retreat. Mug Ruith, for his part, orders a parallel bonfire to be prepared, but with a plant that had grown on the mountainside protected from all winds. With the help of his disciple, he prepares a triangular bonfire and asks that it be fed with splinters from the soldiers' spears, which he puts together with butter, making a ball that he can light and that, with an incantation, he enlarges and throws at the enemies, exploiting them.

Other narratives present druids only as teachers, educators, counselors or warriors, without emphasizing their magical powers, but only their wisdom. In contrast, we find that in hagiographic texts, saints are described with powers superior to those of the druids, in an attitude that is protected by the Christian God, but that read without context, is incredibly fanciful and worthy of any other magical story. The most interesting thing is to see that, despite belonging to the 5th - 6th centuries, the existence of a resistant and active paganism is evident. These texts belong to Irish cycles, and it is curious that the druids are commonly called philids, seer poets, absent of all other connotations. However, its moladh agus aolz, its recitation, was feared, as it was believed that it could bring good or bad luck.

An example of these hagiographic and anecdotal texts would be the life of Saint Mochuda, who is tempted by a druid to make an apple tree of flowers and fruits, which the saint achieves by blessing the chosen branch. The druid tastes an apple and tells him that it is absolutely tasteless, so his divine power is worthless, to which the saint responds with a new blessing that nourishes the apples, making them very sweet, and leaving the druid blind for a year, after which the druid returned to the church of the saint, did penance and regained his sight. Another legend about the Picts tells that their druid king, Bruda, had a religious argument with Saint Columba, refusing to accept the Christian faith, after which he fell ill. His companions went to Saint Columba and he, throwing a white quartz into a glass of water, the stone floated, and after drinking it, Bruda was healed. These are just some of the many examples and legends, written or popular, that exist around the meetings of druids and saints, where the saints actually fulfill the role of magicians more than the druids themselves.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.comm


-Alberro, M. Druidas. Los prodigiosos sacerdotes de la religión céltica. Dilema Editorial. Madrid 2019.

-Guyonvarc'h, C.J. Le Roux, F. LeS Druides et le druidisme, Ouest-France, Rennes, 1995

-Martínez Rodríguez, T. Historia secreta de la Edad Media. Ediciones Nowtilus, Madrid, 2019.

-Olsen, T. Christianity and the celts. Lion Publishing, Oxford, 2003

Related posts:

>Celtic Magic (I): lexicus, Magic and operators.

>Celtic Magic (II): natural Magic and divination.

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