Uncategorized Patrick Mead on 10 May 2013
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they think of Druids (if they think of them at all) is to picture them as bearded men wearing white robes and holding a staff of office as they hold court in a circle of standing stones. The facts are much more interesting than that. Druids were not just priests – and most of them weren’t priests at all. How did this all get so confused to the point where, in popular literature, Druids are portrayed almost universally as priests of a pagan, pre-Christian people?
The first was Caesar’s book. His “Gallic Wars” was the first many had ever heard of Druid. That was a pity because that book was written to 1) bolster Caesar’s reputation, 2) portray Celts and their civilization as a broken, degraded one that needed Rome’s “help” and, 3) give him reason to ask for more funds and soldiers to subdue the Celts. In other words, he was not a reliable source. It would be somewhat like getting your first glimpse of America from an Al Qaeda video; the bias would be massive but undetectable since you had no other sources.
The second reason we view Druids as white clad priests is the Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church (and to a much lesser extent, their Eastern Orthodox counterparts) had, from its conception, a strategy of absorbing pagan places, saints, and ideas and “Christianizing” them. Whether that was wise or not is arguable but it was certainly effective in many instances. For example, they absorbed the ancient midwinter celebrations found worldwide and turned them into Christmas. Jesus was not born in December but since that was when the world was celebrating the winter solstice and the return of light to the world, it made sense to speak of the True Light that came to the world…and say we had been celebrating Him all the time, just in ignorance. They used this tactic for saints as well. Many of us can remember how Vatican II “unsainted” a host of saints. They declared them unhistorical myths and removed them from the Catholic pantheon to whom prayers could be sent. The saints who remain on the list might have been historical, but many weren’t Christian. For example, a healer or administrator in the past might have become a legend with many stories made up about them long after they died (if they weren’t entirely mythical to begin with). When the Catholic priests came, they found the people venerating their hero. The priests would say that their hero was really a Christian – well before Christ came to this world – and that he would want them to follow the Lord now. They would often change the name of the hero/legend – giving them a Christian name – and then declare that hero a saint to whom the people could pray. That way, they didn’t have to let go of the old to embrace the new, they just redeemed it. Examples of this run into the dozens but one of the most famous is that of Brigid (sometimes “Brigit” or a variety of Irish Gaelic spellings). She was probably a historic Celtic leader but by the time we meet her in the literature, she is a goddess. The Catholic Church took that story and turned her into St. Brigid, one of the most popular saints in the pantheon.
The Catholic priests did not view this as lying or playing fast and loose with the truth because the vogue of that period of history was to read everything metaphorically and symbolically, even scripture. The early church fathers, such as Origen, read scripture so symbolically that it really lost all solid meaning but that was the way things were done for centuries. Anything, any leaf, stone, cloud, story, or whisper on the wind could become anything – it just needed to be interpreted.
Here’s another example of how the Catholics absorbed Celtic ways and, by so doing, changed them: Druids had distinctive haircuts as did other classes among the Celts. It was a way to establish who you were talking to in the same way badges of rank in the military do today. At least two different classes – the Druids and the military/mercenary class – had tonsures. A tonsure is a shaved portion of the head. You might have seen paintings of monks with the crowns of their heads shaved bare. Tonsures are an ancient idea – a way of showing rank but also a way to indicate that you are special to the gods (this is a long story which I’m skipping for brevity). Druids shaved the front part of their heads in this way – imagine a line from the middle of the top of one ear to the other. Shave everything in front of that line and you have a Druidic tonsure (also known as a Celtic tonsure). Early Christian missionaries were highly regarded in society and they adopted the Druidic tonsure. This was acceptable because they represented intelligentsia, an upper class with special wisdom. When later missionaries from Rome came, they were appalled to see the Celtic Christian priests copy the tonsure style of the Druids. You see, they had their own tonsure style by this point. They demanded that the leaders of the church shave their heads only in the style of Rome. This wasn’t sorted out until hundreds of years later when the Celtic Christians and the Roman Christians and their leaders held a huge confab at Whitby in 664AD to determine questions such as these and the dating of Easter. Rome won the contest and Celtic Christianity, which had flowered for hundreds of years and won Ireland, Scotland, much of Wales, and England would rapidly fade away and be replaced by the Roman system. What Caesar failed to do with Roman armies, Roman priests accomplished through their money, power, and influence. (for a list of differences between the Celtic Christian Church and Rome, go here: http://www.cushnieent.force9.co.uk/CelticEra/Nature/nature_differences.htm)
Now something had to be done with the Druids and their place in society so Rome did what it always did – it appropriated them and changed the story. Druids were said to be ancient priests who welcomed the Christ child by seeing his birth in the stars and in the clouds. Their history was changed by official Roman fiat. Now, Druids were just like Roman priests. They were all male, all celibate, took vows of poverty, and were not involved in anything but priestly matters.
The facts were quite different. Druids were usually married with children. In fact, being a Druid often ran in a family with the children taking up the knowledge of their parents and passing it on to their children in turn. And women were Druids, too. (more on that in the next installment) It seems the only people barred from every becoming Druids were soldiers and foreigners. A variety of Druids were everywhere the Celts were…but not just in Celtic territories.
When Columba (known to Scots as Colmcille) “brought Christianity to Scotland” Christianity had already been established in the south of Scotland for at least a hundred years (see Candida Casa). What Columba did was bring Christianity into the wild, unknown lands of the Picts. Columba, an Irishman, became a priest after a young life full of wild oats, war, and, eventually, a murder. In the 5th century, he sailed with a group of followers to the Island of Saints (I-Shona), or Iona. Using that windswept island as a base, he pressed into the west of Scotland where other Irish had created a colony called Airer Ghaidheal (Argyll) or Dal Riada (the followers of Riada, an Irish chieftain). From there, he moved northwest along the Great Glen and came into contact with the painted people – the Picts. The Picts are not considered Celts but certainly allied with them from time to time. They did not share a common heritage or language but Columba found Druids among them, proving that Druids were not just a Celtic phenomenon. These Druids served in the same way that Druids served back in Ireland – as doctors, lawyers, teachers, administrators, and leaders.
This is not the first mention of Druids in the Pictish lands of Scotland. Long before Columba, Cormac Mac Art sent for help to Alba (the ancient name of Scotland but, at that time, a kingdom along the north of the Clyde river near modern day Glasgow), asking the Druids to help him fight the king of Munster.
Columba found the Picts led by a king who was also a Druid, Bruide Mac Maelchon. Although he never converted to Christianity, Maelchon was welcoming to Columba and gave orders for safe passage to be given to all Christian missionaries and monks. It needs to be noted here that this was a very, very forward looking and advanced concept. Even in our present day, most countries do not have open door policies to any religious teachers who want to enter, but the Druids did. They were not priests and, therefore, did not consider it their duty to protect one religion against all others. Their welcome of the Christians is, in fact, one of the few times in history such a welcome was given.
This is not to say that the Druids did not contest some of the teachings of the Christians; they did. Maelchon’s teacher was a great Druid named Broichain and Columba (or his followers) wrote of the saint’s great battles against him. They were said to have engaged in contests of miracles to see whose word was true but these tales are almost certainly apocryphal. In one, Columba raises a young man from the dead. It was said the young man died because his family converted to Christianity and the gods were angry with him. To prove the Christian God as superior, Columba raised him from the dead. More likely, the Druids and Christians argued over everything from the structure of society to medicine. Sometimes, the Christians’ ways of doing things proved better, perhaps even “raising” a young man from his sick bed when all thought he was lost. The story got better in the telling through the years and became a great series of contests between Druids and Christians. One reason to think that these stories were exaggerated over time and that they were not great enemies is Columba’s own story of the time Briochan became ill and asked Columba to heal him. If they were fighting for the religious soul of the nation, it would be unlikely that the Druid would allow the Christian anywhere near him. Instead, they were intellectual combatants but friendly enough to reach out to each other and negotiate with each other. In his own writings, Columba said he healed the Druid willingly, but required in return that the Picts release an Irish prisoner they had held for some time. Why would the chief, most powerful Druid in the area go to Columba for healing if they were locked in mortal combat?
Columba did write a song or two that seems to make fun of the Druids but we need to remember that Columba was a difficult man when it came to everybody else, too. He famously said “My Druid is Christ, the son of God” but that shouldn’t be read as a rejection of all Druids but, rather, a way to show the superiority of Christ. To reinforce that superiority, Columba claimed many of the Picts’ sacred wells and sites for Christianity, appropriating them as we mentioned above. His tactics worked and the Picts were generally Christian within eighty years.
As Christians progressed through Celtic lands, some accepted the Druids, some Druids became Christians (while remaining Druids), and others found themselves locked in arguments. We find Druids still mentioned in literature in Ireland as late as the 1100s, in Scotland until the 800s, and in Cornwall and Brittany until the late 600s. Wales is a special case. Welsh literature doesn’t mention Druids at all, though it is assumed they were there, until the 11th and 12th century at which time they are said to be poets and prophets, more like a fraternity of folklorists than civic leaders. The Isle of Man is sometimes called the center of the Druids but the literature doesn’t support that. It seems they had some Druids but they faded away by the late 800s.
But while Christians and Druids could get along well with each other, Rome didn’t like some of the influences Christians were falling under. One of the most offensive things about the Druids was their teaching that women were equal to men. More on that next time.