Memories of animal envoys still must sleep, somehow, within us; for they wake a little and stir when we venture into the wilderness. They wake in terror to thunder. And again they wake, with a sense of recognition, when we enter any one of those great painted caves. Whatever the inward darkness may have been to which the shamans of those caves descended in their trances, the same must lie within ourselves, nightly visited in sleep.
– Joseph Campbell, The Way of the Animal Powers
The word ‘Celtic’ conjures images of magic, rituals, and spells based on the rich mythology of a people who at one time spread from the British Isles across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey. The history of the Celts has been derived, in part, from their symbolic lore. An example is the ‘Arthurian’ myth which provides insight into how the Celtic mind works. For Arthur is the myth of a king with a predestined envoy, the myth of the sleeping man who will wake to save the world, and the myth of a cuckold king who must share his sovereignty with his people in the shape of the queen’s lover.
To explore the Celtic religion from its past requires a wand to piece it together. The original Celtic rites that were maintained through oral traditions have been lost. Historical accounts and archaeological evidence present both horrific and awe-inspiring images of Celtic religion.
On one hand, the Celts demonstrated a spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess which is based on the Celtic penchant for sacred groves.
Whereas, there is evidence that Celts sacrificed humans in their ceremonies.
Although Irish Christian monks wrote down the original Celtic legends based on oral traditions, their manuscripts were heavily redacted and rewritten in accordance with their beliefs. The monastic scribes rejected the notion that any pagan god in the legends was worthy of worship and, thus, they were turned into heroes with magical powers which echo their one-time divinity.
Thus, the Irish sources, while offering a wealth of mythology, provide no direct evidence for the Celtic religion. In one version of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the scribe distanced himself from the account by saying “I, who have written out of this history, or more properly fiction, for some things are diabolical impositions, some are poetical inventions, some have a semblance of truth, and some are meant to be the entertainment of fools.”
Magical powers attributed to Druids in Celtic literature and historical accounts include: control the elements, prophesy, heal, cause invisibility, shape shift, levitate, curse the ungodly, and perform other forms of magic.
Celtic Druid History: Magic
In Celtic literature and tradition, Druids have been popularly referred as magicians—wizards possessing supernatural powers. By the time of the advent of Christianity in both Ireland and Britain, Druids were identified by the word magi, a name used for the priests of Ancient Persia who reputedly had power over supernatural entities.
The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD), referred to Druids as the magi and said, “Even today Britain is still spell bound by magic, and performs its rites with so much ritual that she might almost seem to be source of Persian customs.”
In Irish and Welsh literature, there is common reference to the Druid as a wielder of magical powers. Druids could influence the course of events or control nature. Early Celtic Christian writers who believed in Druidic magic gave these supernatural powers to saints in their church.
Below is a summary of these magical powers.
Control Forces of Nature
Druids could summon magical fog and storms to destroy or disperse their enemies. Broichán, the chief Druid of the Pictish King Bruide, raised a terrific storm to stop Colmcille from crossing Loch Ness. The great magician Mathgen summoned the mountains to crush the enemy by proclaiming: “Through my power I can throw down all the mountains of Ireland on the Fomor, until their tops will be rolling on the ground. And the twelve chief mountains of Ireland will bring you their help and will fight for you.”
Muirchú says the Druids of Laoghaire sent heavy snowfalls and darkness to impede St. Patrick’s approach to Tara. In the Life of St Moling, Mothairén conjured up a fog to protect the Christian missionaries from their enemies. These are examples of Christian saints taking over the power of the Druids.
Cloak of Invisibility
The Druids could also produce a cloak of invisibility to protect them from their enemies. In an Irish version of the Aeneid, Venus puts such a cloak around the hero Ulysses to protect him entering the city of the Phaeacians.
The concept of this mantle of protection continued into Christianity. When the mother of St. Finnchua was being pursued by a pagan king, she invoked the mantle of protection, a cloak or a fog of darkness, so that she might escape.
Some texts refer to the Druidic wand that consists of a branch on which little tinkling bells hung. When Sencha, the chief bard of Ulster, waved his hand, the roar of battle hushed.
Shape shifting was another gift ascribed to Druids. When Fer Fidail, a Druid, carried off a maiden, he did so by assuming the form of a woman. Humans could also be turned into animals. Fer Doirche changed the beautiful Sibh into a deer when she rejected his love. The female Druid, Dalb, changed three men and their wives into swine and Aiofe, wife of Lir, changed her step-children into swans.
Bobd, suspecting his daughter of lying, casts her into a Druidic sleep, similar to hypnosis, so she would reveal the truth. A drink of oblivion is another tool of the Druids that makes people forget even their closest friends and loves.
To be Continued
In the next posts, Druidic dark rituals, philosophy, and pantheon of will be explored.
Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; 1995; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.
John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day; 2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; Printed in USA by First Anchor Books Edition, NY; 1991.