Druids in Celtic Mythology

From Druid Magic, by Maya Magee Sutton and Nicholas R. Mann, Llewllyn 2000.

Early Celtic myths and legends are full of things called Druid spears, Druid cloaks, Druid wands, rods, spells, songs, harps and other instruments that seem to be in the preserve of almost everyone. Just about anyone could apply "Druid herbs," and some who are obviously not Druids have access to "Druid wands." At times the sources use "Druid" as a catch-all description for anything mysterious, especially if it comes from the fairy world. In ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’, for example, both Aoife and Bodb Dearg of the fairy race use "Druid rods" to effect transformations. In ‘Dairmuid and Grania,’ Angus Óg of the Sidhe of Brú na Boinne uses a "Druid cloak" to conceal and help Grania fly away from several entrapments. This frequent use of the word "Druid" probably entered the texts during the Christian era. Apart from this usage, there is another class of Druid descriptions that refer to specific Druids, often named, who feature in the stories. These descriptions are of special interest as they are likely to have originated in the pre-Christian era

Druids as Teachers and Diviners 

Cathbad ‘the Wise’ foretells the fate of Cuchulainn and gives him his name in the ‘Boyhood Deeds of Cuchulainn.’ He combines this role with that of a teacher. It is likely Cathbad was divining from the stars.One day, Cathbad the Druid was in his house…teaching Druid lore to many studious men, and a pupil asked him what the day would be lucky for. ”The man who takes up arms today or mounts his first chariot today will have his name enduring for ever in Ireland with his mighty deeds,“ Cathbad said. ”But his life will be short.“

The ‘Fate of the Sons of Usnach’ makes the role of the Druid as teacher especially clear. The woman-Druid, Levorcham, is not only an herbalist, astronomer and natural scientist, diviner and dream interpreter, but also a poet.

Deirdre was raised in a remote place so that none should see her until she was ready to be the wife of the king of Ulster. Only her foster parents were allowed to be with her, and the old woman Levorcham, a satirist, to whom nothing could be refused. Deirdre grew up straight and clean like the rush on the moor, her movements were like the swan on the wave or the deer on the hill. She was the woman of the greatest beauty and the gentlest and kindest nature in all the provinces of Ireland. Levorcham taught her every skill and knowledge that she had herself. There was not an herb on the ground or a star in the heaven or a bird in the wood that Deirdre did not know the name of, and besides these skills Levorcham taught her the Druid crafts of poetry, dreaming and seeing.

Druids as Healers 

There are many references in the texts that describe Druids as herbalists and healers. The following extract is typical. The great epic known as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, 'The Cattle Raid of Cooley,' has as its centerpiece the combat between Cuchulainn and Ferdiad. After a day of fighting the heroes break off for the night:

Cuchulainn and Ferdiad threw their spears into the arms of their charioteers, and came up to each other and put their arms around the other and exchanged three kisses. 

Their horses passed that night in the same enclosure, and the charioteers shared the same fire and they made up beds of rushes for the wounded men.Druids came and put healing herbs in Cuchulainn’s wounds, but they could do little but chant spells and lay magic amulets on them to staunch the spurts of blood for the deepness of the wounds.

Druids as Counselors 

The Druids had immense authority in the great houses, and their word was law. Sencha ‘the Great,’ could "pacify the men of the world with his three fair words." This account of Sencha at work is from ‘Bricriu’s Feast.’

Then chairs flew and tables overturned. One side of the hall filled with the fire of clashing swords, while the other side was like a flock of white birds from the glaze flying from the surface of the shields. There was a great alarm and fear for their lives on the people of the gathering. King Conchobor and Fergus were angry to see two men fight together against Cuchulainn. But no one moved or dared to part them, until the Druid Sencha rose.

"Part these men," said Sencha.

Conchobor and Fergus stepped between the fighting men and made them drop their hands to their sides. "Will you do as I advise?" said Sencha.

"We will," said the three men.

”Then divide the Champion’s Portion between the whole of the gathering tonight," said Sencha

Druids as Mediators 

There are several episodes where Druids mediate between opposing forces. Although the Druid fails in this extract from the ‘Death of Cuchulainn,’ it is nonetheless informative for his method.

”Cuchulainn is upon us,“ said Erc. ”Let us form a fence of our shields, and let three pairs of men appear to struggle here and there among us. They must call on Cuchulainn to help them resolve their dispute, and have a Druid beside them to ask him for his spears. We must get his spears, for it is in the prophecy of the daughters of Catalin that a king will be killed by those spears in this battle, and it will be hard for him to refuse the request of a Druid.“

——… Cuchulainn came to one of the pairs of men that were put to quarrel with each other, with a Druid beside them. ”Help us put an end to this quarrel,“ cried the Druid. ”Give me your spear.“

—–"You are not so much in need of it now as I am,“ said Cuchulainn.

—–"A bad name upon you if you refuse me,“ said the Druid.

—–"I have never had a bad name put on me yet on account of a refusal,“ said Cuchulainn. He threw the spear, handle foremost, at the Druid and killed him.

Druids as Magicians

Magic is a common task of the Druids in the myths. It often involved shape-shifting or the creating of illusions. When Cuchulainn becomes distraught at discovering he has killed his son, the Druid Cathbad casts a spell of glamoury upon him that makes it seem an army is coming against him from the waves. Cuchulainn fights against the waves until his fury and hurt are spent. On another occasion the Táin Bó Cúailnge describes Cuchulainn as follows:

Then the hero Cuchulainn took his battle-array of contest and strife. On his head he put his crested battle-helmet, from whose recesses his scream echoed so that his enemies thought the fiends of the air called out from it. And about him he cast the cloak of concealment, made of cloth from Tir Tairngire, the Land of Promise, that was given to him by his foster father, an expert in the magic of Druidry.

Finally, in the mythic narratives of the ‘Book of Invasions,’ it falls to the magical abilities of Birog of the Mountain, to bring Cian to Eithlinn. The result of their union is the pan-Celtic deity, Lugh.

Cian went to the woman-Druid, Birog of the Mountain for help. Birog gave Cian the appearance of a queen of the Tuatha Dé Danann, dressed him in woman’s clothes and took him on the winds to the tower where Eithlinn lived. She called out to the women in the tower and asked them to shelter a high queen from some hardship. Because the women did not like to refuse a woman of the Tuatha Dé Danann they let them in. When they were inside the tower Birog cast a spell on the women to send them to sleep. Cian went to Eithlinn, and the moment she saw him she recognized his face from her dreams and gave him her love.

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