1. Druids: their Functions and Powers
No trustworthy information regarding the religion of the pagan Irish comes to us from outside : whatever knowledge of it we possess is derived exclusively from the native literature. There were many gods, but no supreme god, like Zeus or Jupiter among the Greeks and Romans. There was little of prayer, and no settled general form of worship. There were no temples: but there were altars of some kind erected to idols or to the gods of the elements (the sun, fire, water, &c.), which must have been in the open air. The religion of the pagan Irish is commonly designated as Druidism: and in the oldest Irish traditions the druids figure conspicuously.
All the early colonists had their druids, who are mentioned as holding high rank among kings and chiefs. There were druids also in Gaul and Britain; but the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland were separated and isolated for many centuries from the Celtic races of Gaul; and thus their religious system, like their language, naturally diverged, so that the druidism of Ireland, as pictured forth in the native record differed in many respects from that of Gaul.
In pagan times the druids were the exclusive possessors of whatever learning was then known. They combined in themselves all the learned professions: they were not only druids, but judges prophets, historians, poets, and even physicians, There were druids in every part of Ireland, but, as we might expect, Tara, the residence of the over-kings of Ireland, was, as we are told in the Life of St. Patrick, “the chief seat of the idolatry and druidism of Erin.” The druids had the reputation of being great magicians; and in this character they figure more frequently and conspicuously than in any other. In some of the old historical romances we find the issues of battles sometimes determined not so much by the valour of the combatants as by the magical powers of the druids attached to the armies.
Perhaps the most dreaded of all the necromantic powers attributed to them was that of producing madness. In the pagan ages, and down far into Christian times, madness was believed to be often brought on by malignant magical agency, usually the work of some druid. For this purpose the druid prepared a “madman’s wisp,” that is, a little wisp of straw or grass, into which he pronounced some horrible incantations, and, watching his opportunity, flung it into the face of his victim, who at once became insane or idiotic.
Madness was often produced by the rage of battle. For, during a bloody battle, it sometimes happened that an excitable combatant ran mad with fury and horror: and occurrences of this kind are recorded in the romantic accounts of nearly all the great battles fought in Ireland. There was a most curious belief – a belief that still lingers in some parts of the country – that during the paroxysm a madman’s body became as light as air, so that as he ran distractedly, he scarcely touched the ground, or he rose into the air, still speeding on with a sort of fluttering motion.
There is a valley in Kerry called Glannagalt, ‘the glen of the galts or lunatics’: and it is believed that all lunatics, if left to themselves, would find their way to it, no matter from what part of Ireland. When they have lived in its solitude for a time, drinking of the water of Tobernagalt (‘the lunatics’ well’), and eating of the cresses that grow along the little stream, the poor wanderers get restored to sanity. At the entrance to Lough Foyle, on the strand near Inishowen Head in Donegal, there is a well called Stroove Bran, which was thought to possess the same virtue as Tobernagalt, and to which all the deranged people in the surrounding district were wont to resort.
It was believed that the druids could pronounce a malign incantation, not only on an individual, but on a whole army, so as to produce a withering or enervating effect on the men; and they were sometimes employed to maledict a hostile army, as Balaam was employed by Balak. They could give a drink of forgetfulness, so as to efface the memory of any particular transaction. They were the intermediaries with the fairies, and with the invisible world in general, which – as they asserted – they could influence for good or evil; and they could protect people from the malice of evil-disposed spirits of every kind ; which explains much of their influence with the people They could-as the legends tell -bring on snowstorms, or showers of fire and blood, and cover the land with blinding clouds and mists.
An important function of the druid was divination-forecasting future events-which was practised by the pagan Irish – like the Greeks and Romans – in connexion with almost all important affairs, such as military expeditions. Laegaire’s druids foretold the coming of St. Patrick. The druids forecasted, partly by observation of natural objects or occurrences, and partly by certain artificial rites: and in the exercise of this function the druid was a fáith [faw] or prophet.
They drew auguries from observation of the clouds, and of the heavenly bodies; and for purposes of divination they often used a rod of yew with Ogham words cut on it. They professed to be able to find out the lucky or unlucky days, and the period of suitable weather for beginning any business or enterprise, and to discern the future in general, from the voices of birds, from sneezing, and from the interpretation of dreams.
Divination by the voices of birds was very generally practised, especially from the croaking of the raven and the chirping of the wren: and the very syllables they utter, and their interpretation, are given in the old books. The wren in particular was considered so great a prophet that, in an old Life of St. Moling, one of its Irish names, drean, is fancifully derived from drui-e’n, meaning the ‘druid of birds.’ When St. Kellach, Bishop of Killala, was about to be murdered, the raven croaked, and the grey-coated scallcrow called, the wise little wren twittered ominously, and the kite of Cloon-O sat on his yew-tree waiting patiently to carry off his talons-full of the victim’s flesh. But when, after the deed had been perpetrated, the birds of prey came scrambling for their shares, everyone that ate the least morsel of the saint’s flesh dropped down dead. The Welsh birds of prey knew better when they saw the bodies of the slaughtered druids
- Far, far aloof th’ aiffrighted ravens sail;
- The famished eagle screams, and passes by.
- The Bard: by GRAY.
Just before the attack by Ingeel and his band of pirates on Da Derga’s Hostel, the howl of Ossar, King Conari’s messan or lapdog, portended the coming of battle and slaughter. The clapping of hands was used in some way as an omen; and also an examination of the shape of a crooked, knotted tree-root. Sometimes animals were sacrificed as part of the ceremony. In the performance of these and of all other important functions, the druids wore long white robes; like the Gaulish druid, who, as Pliny states, wore a white robe when cutting the mistletoe from the oak with a knife of gold.
We know that the Gaulish druids regarded the oak, especially when mistletoe grew on it, with much religious veneration ; but I cannot find that the Irish druids had any special veneration for the oak : although, like other trees, it occasionally figures in curious pagan rites. The mistletoe is not a native Irish plant: it was introduced some time in the last century. The statement we so often see put forward that the Irish druids held their religious meetings, and performed their solemn rites, under the sacred shade of the oak, is pure invention. But they attributed certain druidical or fairy virtues to the yew, the hazel, and the quicken or rowan-tree – especially the last – and employed them in many of their superstitious ceremonials. We have already seen that yew-rods were used in divination. On some occasions, witches or druids, or malignant phantoms, cooked flesh – sometimes the flesh of dogs or horses – on quicken-tree spits, as part of a diabolical rite for the destruction of some person obnoxious to them.
Druids as Teachers and Counsellors
A most important function of the druids was that of teaching: they were employed to educate the children of kings and chiefs – they were indeed the only educators; which greatly added to their influence. The chief druid of a king held a very influential position: he was the king’s confidential adviser on important affairs. When King Concobar mac Nessa contemplated avenging the foray of Queen Maive, he sought and followed the advice of his “right illustrious” druid Cathbad as to the time and manner of the projected expedition. And on St. Patrick’s visit to Tara, King Laegaire’s proceedings were regulated by the advice of his two chief druids Lucetmail and Lochru.
The ancient Irish had druidesses also, like their relatives the Gauls. A druidess was called a ban-drui [ban-dree], i.e. a ‘woman druid’: and many individual druidesses figure in the ancient writings. Amongst the dangers that St. Patrick (in his Hymn) asks God to protect him from are “the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,” where the “women ” are evidently druidesses. In one of St. Patrick’s canons, kings are warned to give no countenance to magi (i.e. ‘druids’), or pythonesses, or augurers, in which it is obvious from the context that pythonesses were druidesses. The Greek word pythoness, which corresponds to the Irish ban-drui, was the name of the priestesses of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi.
2. Points of Agreement and Difference between Irish and Gaulish Druids.
Chief Points of Agreement
- They had the same Celtic name in both countries: ‘Druid.’
- They were all wizards-magicians and diviners.
- They were the only learned men of the time: they were judges, poets, professors of learning in general.
- They were teachers, especially of the children of kings and chiefs.
- Their disciples underwent a long course of training, during which they got by heart great numbers of verses.
- They were the king’s chief advisers: they were very influential, and held in great respect, often taking precedence even of the kings
- Among both the Irish and Gauls there were druidesses.
- They had a number of gods; and many of the Irish gods were identical, both in names and chief functions, with those of Gaul.
Chief Points of Difference
- The Gaulish druids were under one head druid, with supreme authority: and they held periodical councils or synods. There was no such institution in Ireland: though there were eminent druids in various districts, with the influence usually accorded to eminence.
- The Gaulish druids held the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, as applying to all mankind: the soul of every human being passing, after death, into other bodies, i.e. of men, not of the lower animals. There is no evidence that the Irish druids held the souls of all men to be immortal. But in case of a few individuals – palpably exceptional – it is related that they lived on after death, some reappearing as other men, some as animals of various kinds, and a few lived on in Fairyland, without the intervention of death.
- Human sacrifice was part of the rite of the Gaulish druids, sometimes an individual being sacrificed and slain: sometimes great numbers together. There is no record of any human sacrifice in connexion with the Irish druids: and there are good grounds for believing that direct human sacrifice was not practised at all in Ireland.
- The Gaulish druids prohibited their disciples from committing to writing any part of their lore, regarding this as an unhallowed practice. There is no mention of any such prohibition among Irish druids.
- The Gaulish druids revered the oak, and the mistletoe when growing on it: the Irish druids revered the yew, the hazel, and the quicken-tree or rowan-tree.
3. Sorcerers and Sorcery.
“One foot, one hand, one eye.”
Spells of several kinds are often mentioned in our ancient writings, as practised by various people, not specially or solely by druids. But all such rites and incantations, by whomsoever performed – magical practices of every kind – had their origin in druidism. Usually while practising his spell, the sorcerer was “on one foot, one hand, and one eye,” which, I suppose, means, standing on one foot, with one arm out-stretched, and with one eye shut. While in this posture, he uttered, in a loud voice, a kind of incantation or curse, called glám dichenn, commonly extempore, which was intended to inflict injury on the maledicted person or persons. There are many notices of the exercise, by druids or others, of this necromantic function; and a similar posture was often adopted in other ceremonies besides the glám dichenn.
The druids and other ‘men of might’ could make a magic mantle that rendered its wearer invisible: called a celtar [keltar].
In an Irish version of the Aeneid, the writer, following his own native Irish legend, tells us that when Venus was guiding Aeneas and his companions to Dido’s city, she put a “celtar” round them, so that they went unseen by the hosts till they arrived within the city: just as Athene threw a mist of invisibility round Ulysses as he entered the city of the Phaeacians.
Druids and others could raise or produce a Fe-flada, which rendered people invisible. The accounts that have reached us of this Fe-fiada are very confused and obscure. Sometimes it appears to be a poetical incantation, which rendered the person that repeated it invisible. Often it is a mantle occasionally a ‘magic fog,’ or a spell that hid natural objects – such an object as a well – and that might be removed by Christian influences.
Every shee or fairy palace had a Fe-fiada round it, which shut it out from mortal vision. At the Battle of Clontarf (1014), the banshee Eevin gave the Dalcassian hero Dunlang O’Hartigan a fe-fiada or mantle, which, so long as he wore it, made him invisible, and protected him from harm during the battle; but when he threw it off, he was slain.