The Original Druids

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

After about 500 BCE, in the northern and western part of the patchwork quilt of Celtic Europe, wise men and women emerged as the Druids. They came from out of the old, indigenous, shamanic worldview. The Druids organized knowledge, passed it on through oral tradition, and served the political, social and spiritual needs of the people. The primary purpose of this emerging class of scholars and bards was to nourish the soul of the tribe and people. They did this by venerating the ancestors and spirits of place, and by supplying words to an increasingly sophisticated society so it could describe and think about itself. The Druids told and remembered the stories, songs and myths. They knew the ancestries, the prophecies, the pledges, treaties, alliances, and the legal codes.

Increasingly they had to organize, to systematize and pass on this growing body of knowledge. They became arbitrators, lawyers and judges. They were advisors to the kings, negotiating alliances, making prophecies, describing the law. They became teachers, and took into their schools children who showed skill in any of the branches of learning. And as the poets and bards, they praised and celebrated the achievements of their nobles, their champions and their tribe.

The organization of the Druids had a price. It meant that they no longer participated in the grass-roots level of society where traditional shamanism continued to thrive. There was a distinction, but not a split between Druidry and shamanism. At best they complemented and recognized the strengths and weaknesses of each other. A further distinction was that the Druids, serving the elite, became increasingly male-dominated, while women continued to serve the needs of the far-greater body of the common population.

The name, Druid, may have applied to any woman or man wise in the native tradition of their ancestors. The herbalist, the midwife, the seer, the storyteller, may all have been called druids, generically meaning "truthful," "firm" as a tree is firm, or "wise ones." The training of most Druids began on the grass-roots level, and many would have remained there, serving the land, the tribe and people. Only a few went on into the service of the king or clan chief, and there they established schools and selected the pupils who would be their successors.

By the time the Romans conquered Gaul and Britain, circa 0 B.C.E., a distinction had arisen between Druids who advised the nobility, and local practitioners, mostly women, who birthed babies and cast spells. The latter who provided cradle-to-grave magical care were to become known as witches and sorcerers. The Romans set about systematically exterminating all organized Druidic practice, while it is likely that the "hedge-row" witches with their ancient shamanistic roots survived.

Early Irish literature uses "witch" and "Druid" in a similar way. Both are men and women, with more Druids being men, especially in the royal courts. The stories list shape-changing, illusion-making and weather-craft as the particular skills of the witches. Both witches and Druids were oriented to nature and had reverence for the ancestors. This was all part of the flavour of pagan spirituality at the time. The negative connotation of "witch" derives from later Christian transcribers of the early Irish texts and subsequently, the Inquisition.

In summary, the Druids codified and developed the knowledge of the Celtic branch of the Native European Tradition. They organized traditional knowledge, taught it in schools, and served the needs of a complex, growing society. Druids were exterminated to the extent that no-one can claim to have received anything in a direct line from Celtic times to this time. Although the context in which Druidry operated is now entirely lost, the early literature of Ireland and Wales contains records of their work. Such material has to be treated cautiously as it contains many overlays, interpretations and omissions. On the other hand, some witches and folk tradition survived. Despite persecution they have handed down some of the ancient ways to the present day. Folk tradition, however, was not organized to the philosophical level of Druidry and fulfilled a different social need.