Commentaries on many aspects of both Ancient and Contemporary Druidry with a brief glossary
‘Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound. Thus even among the most savage barbarians anger yields to wisdom, and Mars is shamed before the Muses.’
Diodorus Siculus Histories c.8 BCE
In ancient times a Druid was a philosopher, teacher, counsellor and magician, the word probably meaning ‘A Forest Sage’ or ‘Strong Seer’. In modern times, a Druid is someone who follows Druidry as their chosen spiritual path, or who has entered the Druid level of training in a Druid Order.
The reason we tend to visualise the Druid as an old man in our imagination is partly due, perhaps, to a realisation that by the time one has undertaken the training of Bard and Ovate one is bound to be ancient! We cannot be sure of the exact time it took, but Caesar mentions that some spent as long as twenty years in their education at Druid colleges. But this is really little different to the time young people now take to complete their education, and Caesar’s account is reminiscent of the situation of monastic schools in Europe and as far afield as Tibet, where young people would go or be sent for a complete education: free from the burden of taxation or military service and “instigated by such advantages, many resort to their school even of their own accord, whilst others are sent by their parents and relations.” Commentators point out that ‘twenty years’ could have been a figure of speech to denote a long duration of time, or that it might have actually been 19 years, since the Druids almost certainly used the Metonic Cycle, a method of reckoning based on the nineteen-year eclipse cycle.
If the Bard was the poet and musician, the preserver of lore, the inspirer and entertainer, and the Ovate was the doctor, detective, diviner and seer, what was the Druid? Their functions, simply stated, were to act as advisor to rulers, as judge, as teacher, and as an authority in matters of worship and ceremony. The picture this paints is of mature wisdom, of official position and privilege, and of roles which involved decision-making, direction and the imparting of knowledge and wise counsel.
We tend to think of the Druid as a sort of priest - but this is not borne out by the evidence. The classical texts refer to them more as philosophers than priests. At first this appears confusing since we know they presided at ceremonies, but if we understand that Druidry was a natural, earth religion as opposed to a revealed religion, such as Christianity or Islam, we can see that the Druids probably acted not as mediators of Divinity, but as directors of ritual, guiding and containing the rites.
In addition to this, we know that they fulfilled a number of other functions, which we shall now examine. Separating these out is for the sake of convenience only, for in reality the roles often merged and combined, as we realise when Caesar tells us “They have many discussions as touching the stars and their movement, the size of the universe and of the earth, the order of nature, the strength and the powers of the immortal gods, and hand down their lore to the young men.” Here we see the Druids as scientists - as astronomers and mathematicians, as philosophers discussing the powers of the gods, and as teachers passing on their wisdom.
‘The Druids are considered the most just of men, and on this account they are entrusted with the decision, not only of the private disputes, but of the public disputes as well; so that, in former times, they even arbitrated cases of war and made the opponents stop when they were about to line up for battle, and the murder cases in particular were turned over to them for decision.’
‘It is they who decide in almost all disputes, public and private; and if any crime has been committed, or murder done, or there is any dispute about succession or boundaries, they also decide it, determining rewards and penalties: if any person or people does not abide by their decision, they ban such from sacrifice, which is their heaviest penalty.’
Caesar De Bello Gallico
It is natural that those people perceived as the wise elders of the community should be turned to for judgement and arbitration in times of dispute or when a crime has been committed, and some of the most interesting information about the ancient Druids can be found in the old Irish laws, known as the Brehon laws. Irish texts tell us that in 714 BCE the High King Ollamh Fódhla formalised the legal system by founding the Festival of Tara, at which every three years the laws already in existence were discussed and revised: and we know some of the names of the more prominent Druid judges of old, including a female judge named Brigh, a male judge named Finnchaemh, and Cennfaela, the Druid of King Cormac, who in the third century CE was said to be the most learned judge in Ireland. Peter Beresford Ellis, in his book The Druids, says:
“the Irish system is the oldest surviving complete codified legal
system in Europe with its roots in ancient Indo-European custom and not in
Roman law, and is therefore the oldest surviving Celtic system of
jurisprudence, and one in which the Druids are still mentioned.” Fortunately
for us these laws have been recorded - set down in writing as early as the
fifth century, according to some sources. Even as late as the seventeenth
century some aspects of the Brehon code survived in
Reading the Brehon laws today offers us
an opportunity to enter into the minds of the early Druids – and to many
peoples’ surprise, rather than discovering the beliefs of a primitive and savage
people, we find a highly considered system that is mostly based upon
‘Restorative Justice’ – a concept that is found, for example, on the other side
of the world amongst the Maoris of New Zealand .
Restorative justice is concerned with compensation rather than revenge - the
offender rather than simply being incarcerated is made to make good the damage
or loss they have caused the victim. This picture was marred somewhat in
As we would expect from Druid lawmakers, severe penalties resulted
from the unlawful cutting down of trees, with important trees such as oak and
yew being designated ‘Chieftain trees’ and carrying
greater demands for compensation than ‘Peasant trees’. And when it came to
marriage and divorce the Brehon laws were more humane
than the later Christian laws. In the times of the ancient Druids, a woman
could divorce a man for a number of reasons: if he was so obese he was unable
to make love, for example, or if he preferred to sleep with men, if he beat her
leaving visible marks, or if he spread malicious stories about her . Under the Christian post-Druidic law in
The Brehon laws offer us the most complete view of the kind of society that the ancient Druids helped to guide and lead. We have information from Wales too, but the old Welsh laws known as the ‘Laws of Hywel Da’ were recorded much later than the Brehon laws and offer us less insight into the world of the Ancients.
‘A great number of young men gather about them for the sake of instruction and hold them in great honour....... Report says that in the schools of the Druids they learn by heart a great number of verses, and … they do not think it proper to commit these utterances to writing, although in almost all other matters, and in their public and private accounts, they make use of Greek letters.’
Caesar De Bello Gallico
It is clear from both the classical and the Irish sources that one of the main functions of the Druid was as a teacher. This involved teaching at both an esoteric and an exoteric level. Caitlin Matthews offers the image of the Jewish rabbi to help us picture how a Druid might have lived and worked. She or he was: ‘a man or woman of wisdom whose advice was sought on all matters of daily life, one who perhaps also fulfilled a craft, one who was married and had a family, one who brought the people together for common celebrations and whose word was law. Like the Hasidic rabbis who practised qabbala and were known as seers and wonder-workers, so too, the druid was a person of unusual skills. .... From the various Celtic accounts, we find that a druid usually had one or more students attached to his retinue or household. Again, to return to our Jewish parallel, a rabbi would often run a Talmudic school for anything from a handful to a number of students. Similarly, druidic students learned from their masters and mistresses.’
While some Druids may have simply had one or two students living
with him, helping, presumably, with the household routine in return for training,
others gathered around them sufficient numbers of disciples to form a veritable
What would they have learned? Just as the monastic orders later became the centres of learning, the Druid colleges, large and small, were in charge of the whole spectrum of education from the teaching of general education to that of philosophy, from the teaching of law to the teaching of magic, from the teaching of healing skills to the teaching of the correct order of ceremonial.
We also know that Druids acted as tutors to the children of kings,
queens and nobles, and that students would be sent from one Druid teacher to another
to learn different skills. Caesar tells us that Druidry
It is intriguing to think that the earliest recorded systems of
education and law in Britain and Ireland are Druidic. When this is properly recognised, perhaps we will see the statue of a Druid
outside the law courts in
There is evidence that some kings were also Druids. The Druid Ailill Aulomon was King of Munster
in the first century CE and it is recorded that three Druid-kings ruled in “the
Isle of Thule” .
To return to
We know that the Druids concerned themselves
with what we term today the sciences. To what degree their mathematics was numerology, their chemistry alchemy, their astronomy astrology, we will never know. But we do know that the building of the stone circles required sophisticated measuring, calculating and engineering skills, and that this same building depended upon a knowledge of the movement of the heavens to such a degree that the very earliest
of proto-Druids were clearly skilled astronomers.
The work of John Michell, Sir Norman Lockyer, and Professors Hawkins and Thom amongst others shows us that these men were scientists indeed - creating giant astronomical computers in stone.
Some writers have even suggested that the Druids might have invented the telescope, basing this idea on the statement of Diodorus Siculus, who said that in an island west of Celtae the Druids brought the sun and moon near to them, and on the statement of Hecataeus who tells us that the Druids taught of the existence of lunar mountains.
Others have suggested that they discovered gunpowder, but like the Chinese, used it for special effects rather than warfare. John Smith in his Gallic Antiquities of 1780 wrote:
“Among the arcana of nature which our Druids were acquainted with, there are many presumptive, if not positive, proofs for placing the art of gunpowder, or artificial thunder and lightning; though like all other mysteries, they kept the invention of it a secret.” We have no hard historical evidence for this suggestion, but it is delightful to think that the Druid would amaze and entertain his entourage with fireworks, as does the Druidic figure of Gandalf in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
While they may or may not have experimented with fireworks, they certainly worked with fire and with metals. And this work was undoubtedly alchemical. Since fire, like water, was and is considered sacred by all those with a spiritual understanding of the natural world, we can be sure that the Druids were masters and mistresses of fire. Their esoteric work with fire is a matter of inner knowledge - for it deals with their ability to relate to and work with the sacred fire within the body as well as within the grove. The fact that the Goddess Brighid is goddess of healing and poetry and both fire and water, provides us with the key to understanding the connection between the inspiration sought by the Bards, the healing developed by the Ovates and the alchemical work of inner healing and inspiration performed by the Druids. Contemplating this one idea reveals the depth of the Druid Mysteries, the nature of its teaching and its relevance for us today.
Metalworking in early societies was also considered a sacred art -
for upon it depended the tribe’s ability to defend
itself and to gain food from the earth or from animals. The Welsh tradition
states that a branch of Druids, known as the Pheryllt,
worked as metallurgists and alchemists in the magical city of
The Druid as metalworker would have forged the swords for the warriors and nobles, which would have been imbued during their casting and annealing with magical spells designed to protect the bearer and ensure them victory.
The sword figures largely in the Druid mythos:
It emerges out of the two fixed elements of water and earth in the
Arthurian legend: being pulled out of stone by Arthur, and being raised mysteriously
out of the
We can surmise too that the Druids as metalworkers would have cast the sacred cauldrons. Just as the sword represents the ‘male’ directive qualities of mind and spirit, so does the cauldron represent the ‘female’ inclusive qualities of heart and soul. And just as the sword figures largely in Druid ceremonial and mythology, so too does the cauldron - representing, at its roots, the origin of the grail symbol.
Druids and the Druid philosophy have long been associated with the idea of Peace. Classical writers, such as Julius Caesar and Diodorus Siculus, spoke of the way in ancient times Druids were exempt from military service, and did not bear arms, and how they often pacified warring tribes, passing between the massed ranks of opposing forces urging peace:
‘For they generally settle all their disputes, both public and private… The Druids usually abstain from war, nor do they pay taxes together with the others; they have exemption from warfare.’(Caesar)
Today, every Druid ceremony begins with a call to Peace towards each of the Four Directions. The Druid performing this function faces North, South, West then East calling out “May there be Peace in The N/S/W/E” As they do this they feel peace emanating from the Druid circle out into each direction of the world. Finally all participants say “May there be Peace throughout the whole world.”
Druids in ancient times worked in Sacred Groves, and today they
still do - whether these are physical ones, or whether these have been created
in the Inner World through meditation. These
groves are seen as places of peace and tranquility that radiate these qualities
out to the world. Druids often sign their letters or messages
‘Yours in the Peace of the Grove’, and the Order has begun a programme of
planting Peace Groves throughout the world, with the first ones planted in
In the Order we often say this Peace Prayer in our ceremonies:
Deep within the still centre of my being May I find peace. Silently within the quiet of the Grove May I share peace. Gently (or powerfully) within the greater circle of humankind May I radiate peace.
We also hold peace meditations on the day of each full moon, and a section of the Order’s website is now devoted to the subject, since war and conflict seem to have escalated so much at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
‘Some say that the study of philosophy was of barbarian origin. For the Persians had their Magi, the Babylonians or the Assyrians the Chaldeans, the Indians their Gymnosophists, while the Kelts and the Galatae had seers called Druids….’
Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers
In examining the roles of the Druid as teacher and judge, king and advisor to kings and queens, scientist and alchemist, we must remember that behind each of these functions the Druid was at heart a philosopher. His or her concern was with the meaning and purpose of life on earth, and it was for this reason that Strabo wrote “...the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy”.
We know a little of early Druid philosophy. A study of the old
Irish and Welsh laws, developed by the Druids, can provide us with a glimpse into
the ethical foundations of early Druid philosophy. In addition we can turn to
the triads of
In the early years of the twentieth century it adopted many of the
ideas of the Western Mystery Tradition, which originated in Classical Greece,
Into the historic picture we are building, we must add the most recent influences on the development of modern Druid philosophy. In the 1940’s and 50’s Ross Nichols became interested in the depth psychologies of Freud and Jung, and partly inspired by their insights, he saw in Druidry a way of helping modern humanity reconnect with Nature and the Gods. The problem of modern civilisation, as he saw it, was that humanity had become alienated from the land and the seasonal and agricultural cycles. In addition, an understanding of the value of mythology had been lost. As a result we had become alienated from the deepest and the highest sources of inspiration. This psychological perspective took into account our deepest needs, and in recent years Druidry, certainly as expressed within the teachings of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids, has been clearly informed by it.
In addition, in the last decade or so, Druidry has been influenced by the ideas and philosophies of the holistic and environmental movements, so that alongside its preoccupations with the search for wisdom and union with Deity (who is seen as one with Nature) Druidry today is passionately concerned with protecting the natural world, and developing attitudes and lifestyles which promote living in harmony with Nature.
In contemporary Druidry, the tree which represents the Druid Grade is the Oak - the regal tree of wisdom and tradition - the primordial tree that has always been associated with both Druids and the Nemeton - the oak groves where they gathered and taught. The East is the place of the Druid, for it is from the
East that the sun rises and from which comes the illumination that all Druids seek. The times associated with the Druid Grade are and Summer - times of greatest brightness and growth.
The Bard in their training has opened to the artist, the creative Self, that lives within them, the Ovate in their training has opened to the shaman who lives within - the one who can travel in the inner realms to explore the fluid nature of time, and the inner power of trees, herbs and animals. The Druid, in their training, opens to their inner Wise Person, the inner Sage who is Philosopher and Counsellor, who judges and discriminates and who teaches perhaps too.
At present, the only Druid group that gives training at all three levels is the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids. It is helpful, when we consider these three stages or groupings, if we do not consider them as a hierarchy, a ladder we must climb in order to reach enlightenment or full empowerment, but rather as levels of deepening. There is a path, or journey, that can be taken from one grade to the next, but having reached the Druid Grade the journey can begin again - making it one that follows a spiral or circular path rather than a linear one. At the Druid level the injunction is given: Generate and Regenerate! To do this we must die, we must change. The Ovate experience is passed through - under the sign of the Yew we follow the injunction ‘Die and be reborn!’ Finally we reach the stage of the Bard and we are able to be creative, to be fully born in the world, to express our inherent divinity in word, song, art and music.
The three realms of Art, Nature and Philosophy are encompassed within the three divisions of the Druid Tradition. We are finally able to unite our artistic concerns with our environmental and spiritual concerns. The Bard, Ovate and Druid are one person standing on the earth - poet and shaman, healer and philosopher - spiritual and earthy.
We ourselves may well not yet be this ‘Whole Person’, able to encompass all these abilities and interests, but the Druid as a model is always there to encourage and guide us, to shine a light for us on a path that is not uniform and not pre-determined, but unique to us and built with our own experience and our own creative genius.
According to your belief and experience you will understand the image of the Druid as Inner Sage as a metaphor, as a cultural creation, as an archetype in our collective consciousness, or as an actual being or one of a host of beings who exist on the inner planes, and who are simply waiting for us to turn to them for guidance.
Adbertos (Gaulish) - An offering or ritual in which something is given to the Deuoi.
Andumnos (Gaulish) - The Underworld / Otherworld / Netherworld which corresponds to the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartaros, and to the Teutonic Valhall and Hel. There are many isles of the Celtic Otherworld. Andumnos was later called Annwn in Welsh, and Andomhain in Early Irish (Gaelic). Ategenos (ah-the-gen-awss) - Rebirth; an incarnation or manifestation of a trait, talent, concept, spirit or divinity into human form. It is usually genetically passed down. Bardos, plural bardoi (Gaulish, Brittonic, Goidelic) - The old Celtic term for a singer or minstrel who sang praises of great heroes and chieftains, or satires (curses and insults). Brehon (from Irish breithamhain) - A medieval Irish judge or jurist; a specialist of the old Druidic class that survived Christianization.
(pronounced Kelt) - The ethnic group ancestral to the Irish, Scottish, Welsh,
Contacting the Gods – Remote places, weird shaped rocks, springs, trees and bogs were all places where gods could be contacted.
- The great epic hero of old
Deities – The Druids were henotheistic, i.e. they worshipped a number of tribal gods and other deities related to specific localities.
Druid - The Druids were Celtic priests and were written about by a number of Graeco-Roman authors whose accounts may well be biased. Caesar says that the Druids officiated in the worship of the gods, regulated sacrifices and ruled on religious questions
Druidiactos (also Druidiaxtos)The Celtic religious movement returning to the traditional pre-Christian values, customs and faith of the Celtic people.
Filí (fee-lyeh) - A poet-magician or seer who performed Celtic magic and mystical rites. The fili was a solitary practitioner, something like a shaman in other cultures. Finn Mac Cumhail (fin mok kool) - The great hero and incarnation of Uindos (or Cernunnos, in Greek), son of Noudons in a group of great epic tales and romances called the Fenian cycle. Geis or Geas (gayss), plural geassa (gassa) - A controlling spell or enchantment in which a certain action or behavior will cause another certain action or effect. Usually it takes the form of a taboo or a destiny, as when CuChullain overheard Cathbad say that any boy who accepts weapons on that day would be destined to be a great hero, and he asked his king for arms. Lebor (l’yower) - Old Irish word for book. Noudons (now-dawns) - The Celtic god who represented the old retired king, a wizard and mystical grandfatherly figure. He was the blemished king, a wild-old-man god and a law-giver. He was called Nuada Airgetlamh (noo-uh Arriget-louw) in Old Irish, Hudd (Neethe) or Llud Laww Ereint (hleethe hlouw air-eint) in Welsh. Ogam (oh-um) - The notches and lines carved on sticks and stones by the Irish filidh and other learned folk. P-Celtic - The Gaulish-Brittonic language from which Cornish, Breton and Welsh descend.
Oral Tradition – The Druids left no written record and relied on an oral tradition to perpetuate their religion. Epics such as the Mabinogion were written by later Christian scribes.
Places of Worship – The Druids did not appear to have built temples but rather worshipped in enclosed sacred areas
Q-Celtic - The Goidelic or ancient Gaelic language from which Old Irish evolved and developed into Middle Irish, and then ModernIrish, Gaelic (Scots Gaelic) and Manx Gaelic. Irish calls “four” and “five” ceathair and cuig (ka-her and koo-eeg), Scots Gaelic calls them ceithair and coig (keh-her and koyk). Sidhe (shee) - “Peace” in Old Irish. Aes Sidhe, “or people of peace,” is the name for the spirits and ghosts of the Otherworld. Touta (toh-oo-tah) - A tribe or kindred of people who come together regularly. They form a local community. A congregation of people who meet regularly on a monthly basis, or at least four times a year to celebrate Celtic festivals. UerDruis (also Verdruis) - The leader of the Celtic religious movement.