Celtic Mystique: Ancient Druid Philosophy

Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region—Joseph Campbell

Ancient Druid Philosophy

The word ‘priest’ was never applied to Druids by any Classical writer. Instead, Greeks and Romans used the term ‘philosopher’ to describe them. According to Diogenes Laertius, a 3rd Century Greek writer, the Druids’ chief maxim was people should “worship the gods, do not evil, and exercise courage.” Druids were taught to live in harmony with nature, accepting that pain and death are not evils but part of the divine plan and that the only evil is moral weakness. Another interesting doctrine the Druids evolved was the belief in the immortality of the soul which is further discussed below.

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Dagda Gundestrup Cauldron

Immortality of Soul

Diodorus Siculus, a 1st Century Greek historian, wrote: “The Druids studied the nature of moral philosophy, asserting the human soul is indestructible, and also the universe, but that some time or other, fire and water will prevail.” Julius Caesar remarked that the belief in the immortal soul accounted for the Celts’ bravery in battle.

Dying Gladiator

Statue Dying Celt

The Druids taught souls move between this world and the world of the dead—the Otherworld. Death in the physical world results in a soul moving to the Otherworld, whereas death in the Otherworld brings a soul back to this world. Flavius Philostratus (170-249 AD) observed that Celts celebrated birth with mourning for a death in the Otherworld while they regarded death with joy for the birth in the Otherworld. Pre-Christian graves throughout the Celtic world are filled with personal belongings, weapons, food and drinks and other items to give the departed a good start in the Otherworld. At Hochdorf in southern Germany is the grave site of a Chieftain who was buried in extravagant clothes, including shoes decorated with gold. Also found at this site were a cauldron that could hold 400 liters of wine, weapons, cooking and eating utensils, and a four-wheeled wagon.

Celtic Shield British Museum

Celtic Shield La Tène Style

The Celtic philosophy is similar to that of the 6th Century BC Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, who believed in the soul’s reincarnation or transmigration. The soul, by its actions, determines how it will be reincarnated—in human, animal, or even plant form. A similar philosophy was widely accepted in India where it was believed that due to its karma a soul transmigrates from one life to another in a never-ending cycle which could be broken in Nirvana—a state of supreme bliss which, once achieved, liberates the soul from the repeating circle of death and rebirth. Interestingly, there has been a lot of debate whether Pythagoras adopted his philosophy from the Celts or did he influence them? Most likely, the concept of immortal souls evolved in parallel. Not only did the Celts believe the soul is reborn into human bodies from one world to the other, but their literature reveals that souls could migrate through various births from one form to another. In Irish texts, Fintan survives the Deluge by changing into a salmon while in the Welsh texts Gwion Bach reincarnates as a hare, fish, bird, and a grain which is then swallowed by a chicken before he is eventually reborn as Taliesin.

Celtic Cauldon Gundstrup

Gundestrup Cauldron

Death and rebirth is a consistent theme throughout Celtic mythological sagas and tales. The warrior’s resurrection can be found in the story of the battle between the Tuatha Dé Danaan and the Fomorii in which bodies cast into magic cauldrons return to life. There is a scene of a god accompanying a group of warriors as he drips one of them in a drinking vessel on the Gundestrup Cauldron. The rest are symbolically carrying a tree – perhaps the crann na beatha or tree of life.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

The War God Teutates on Gundestrup Cauldron

Cult of Severed Head

The Druids believed that the dwelling place of the immortal soul was the head. There is a prevalence of images of the human head at cult sites in virtually all regions believed to have been inhabited by the Celts. The human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celts the soul, the center of emotions as well as of life itself, and a symbol of divinity and the powers of the world of the spirits. To possess the enemy’s head was to possess his soul. As with so many aspects of the warrior’s life, the taking of an opponent’s head in battle, preferably in single combat, had a mystical significance. But it was this gruesome practice that was regarded as most barbaric by the Greeks and Romans who were apparently appalled at the desecration of the bodies. Diodorus Siculus wrote: “When their enemies fall, they cut off their heads and fasten them to the bridles of their horses; and handing over to their retainers the arms of their opponents all covered with blood, they carry them off as booty, singing a song of victory. These first fruits of victory they nail to the sides of their houses just as men do in certain kinds of hunting with the heads of wild beasts they have killed. They embalm the heads of their most distinguished foes in cedar oil and carefully preserve them. They show them to visitors, proudly stating that they had refused a large sum of money for them.”

Replica Celtic Helmet

Celtic Helmet Replica

It can be concluded from this account that, apart from the tangible proof of the warrior’s courage and prowess, the fallen enemy’s head was an important prestige object. The care in its preservation, the pride in its exhibition and the fact that it was considered of great value not only to the warrior who had taken it but also to others, reveals a deeply felt bond between the victor and the vanquished. The importance and extent of the cult of the severed head among the Celts is demonstrated by their display in shrines, either mounted in stonework as at La Roquepertuse in southern Gaul, or on wooden poles as at the Bredon Hill Fort in western Britain. It is interesting to note that in both instances the heads were set up at the entrances. Perhaps the souls of these unfortunate warriors were now being used for symbolic protection of their enemies’ strongholds. In Welsh and Irish myth, the severed head is imbued with supernatural power. When Bendigeitfran, one of the principal heroes in the cycle of Welsh legends called the Mabinogion is mortally wounded in battle, he commands his own men to cut off his head and bury it in London facing the east to guard Britain against foreign invasion.

Celtic Sword

Celtic Sword and Scabbard

To be continued The next posts will continue with the roles of the Druids and their dark ceremonies and rituals. References: Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; 1995; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. Stephen Allen, Celtic Warrior 300 BC – AD 100; 2001; Osprey Publishing Ltd, New York. 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 Hero With a Thousand Faces—Bollingen Series XVII Third Edition; 2008; Joseph Campbell Foundation; New World Library, Novato.