Celtic Druid History: Legacy and Influence


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“One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” – Joseph Campbell.

Celtic Druid History: Legacy and Influence

Previous posts in APOLLO’S  RAVEN discussed Boudica’s revolt in 60-61 AD. She was probably the most famous Celtic warrior queen who led men and women warriors in their last major revolt against the Romans in Britain. Not only was she a charismatic leader, but she was also a druidess who summoned the Goddess of  War, Andraste, to give her victory. Her spiritual connection and the uniting forces of the Druids were important factors which inspired  warriors who had a penchant for individual glory to unite in this rebellion.

This article will explore the Druid’s influential role in the Celtic culture and their legacy of being magicians, judges, doctors, and diviners who created fear in Ancient Rome.

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

 

Introduction

Unfortunately, most historical accounts of Druids are biased through the foreign eyes of Greek and Roman historians. Irish and Welsh monks who wrote down Celtic mythology, which were based on oral traditions, probably altered some of the stories to be more in line with their Christian beliefs.

Although Rome had precedence for tolerating  religions in their conquered regions, Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD) wrote that under Tiberius the Druids were suppressed—along with diviners and physicians—by a decree of the Senate. Claudius forbade their rites completely in AD 54. Druids were alleged to have performed human sacrifice, a practice abhorrent to the Romans. Pliny the Elder wrote: “It is beyond calculation how great is the debt owed to the Romans, who swept away the monstrous rites, in which to kill a man was the highest religious duty and for him to be eaten a passport to health.”

The more likely reason for the Roman decrees was the Druids’ influence on various tribes to organize revolt and to foster cultural beliefs that were contradictory to the monolithic structure of the patriarchal empire. The Romans looked upon women as bearers of children and objects of pleasure, while the Druid included women in their political and religious life. The Druids were the intelligentsia of the Celtic tribes who could have more power than kings in making decisions.

Despite Roman efforts to suppress the Druids’ practices, Celtic spiritual beliefs thrived in the form of mythical tales of chivalry, magic, and pantheon of gods and goddesses that showed their connection to nature and their profound philosophy that souls resurrect into other living beings. Their artwork and metal works reflect their philosophy that the physical and spiritual worlds interconnect, as shown in the imagery of a plant’s tendril gently stranding on itself, then spinning out into a pattern of whorls and fanciful animal shapes.

Two-headed Celtic Gold Clasp

Two-headed Celtic Gold Clasp

Through Greek Eyes

Strabo, a Greek geographer (64 BC – 44AD), classified three classes of men and women who held special honor in the Celtic culture: the Bards, the Vates, and the Druids. The Bards were singers and poets while the Vates interpreted sacrificial omens. The Druids studied the science of nature and moral philosophy. Strabo believed the Greek word Druidae was a cognate of the Greek drus, ‘an oak’.  Some etymologists believed the word derived from the word roots drui-wid—’oak knowledge” — the wid meaning ‘to know’ or ‘to see’.

Cork Oak Tree Arundel

Cork Oak Tree

Druids were believed to be the most just of men and were therefore entrusted with making decisions affecting either individuals or the public, often arbitrating between opponents in war. Druids pronounced that men’s souls and the universe are indestructible, although at times fire or water temporarily prevailed.

Diodorus Siculus (60 BC – 21 BC), a Greek historian, also used the same classification as Strabo’s, pointing out the Druids were held in highest esteem. The Ovates foretold the future by the flight or cries of birds and slaughter of sacred animals.

Soaring Raven

Eagle’s Flight

Through Roman Eyes

Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC), who had personal dealings with Celts in his conquest of Gaul, said there was three classes: the intellectuals (Druids), the military caste (Equites), and the common people (Plebs). Druids officiated at the worship of the gods, regulated public and private sacrifices, and gave  rulings on all religious questions. Young people sought their instruction, as they were held in great honor by all of the people.

Julius Caesar Statue

Statue of Julius Caesar

The Druids were ruled under one head, whom they held in highest respect. On his death, another outstanding individual replaced him if there was consensus. If not, an election would be held to select the head or the final choice would be left to the winner of a final fight. Druids served as judges in most disputes, whether  between tribes or between individuals, and adjudicated any compensation to be paid in final judgments. Their decisions were final in all public and private matters. Anyone failing to accept their decision was banned from taking part in any sacrifice—the heaviest punishment that could be inflicted.

Celtic Round House

Celtic Round House for Assembly

Caesar asserted Druid doctrine was exported from Britain into Gaul. The Druids believed their religion forbade them to commit their teachings to writing as these could not be made public. Students had to memorize volumes of verse—many of them spending twenty years at their studies. It should be noted the Celts maintained written public and private accounts by using the Greek and Latin alphabets.

The most profound philosophy that Caesar highlighted was the belief that the soul does not perish, but after death passes from one body to another. According to him, the bravery of the Celts sprang from their lack of fear of death, the result of their belief that the soul does not die but is reincarnated after death.

Celtic Wooden Shield

Ancient Celtic Shield

Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD), who came from a family of Roman colonists in Gaul, described the Druids as natural scientists, doctors of medicine, and magicians. Perhaps it was Pliny’s fascination with magic that he recounted the anguinam, the ‘Druid’s eggs’ or ‘serpent’s eggs’. He said he possessed one of these eggs that looked like a crystal about the size of a moderately sized apple. The eggs were reportedly made by hissing snakes put together, the foam from their mouths producing a viscous slime which became a ball when tossed in the air and caught by a Druid who then used it to counteract incantations. The egg is a powerful image used in Celtic and other mythology.

To be Continued

The next posts will further explore Celtic mythology and religious believes.

References:

Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; Published in USA by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI; 1995.

Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2005.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; Printed in USA by First Anchor Books Edition, NY; 1991.

Celtic Heroines: Golden Age of Warriors and Queens

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly know. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path…And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all of the world.”—Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Introduction

The epic historical fantasy, APOLLO’S RAVEN, is the first novel in the Spirit Warrior Chronicles set in 1st Century Britain and Rome. The primary character is Catrin, a Canatiaci warrior princess in southeast Britain. Not only is she trained as a warrior, but she uses raven mystical powers to help her parents defend their kingdom against a rival tribal king and her half-brother. She meets the great-grandson of Marc Antony, Marcellus, when he accompanies his father, a Roman senator, to arbitrate a settlement between the rival tribal kingdoms. Catrin and Marcellus bridge their cultural differences and form an unlikely friendship that develops into a deeper relationship which could threaten the political powers in Britain and Rome.

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Catrin, Celtic Spirit Warrior

This unpublished novel is inspired by historical accounts and mythology of Celtic heroines who had significant roles as warriors, rulers, and spiritual advisers in the Celtic society. Celtic women were distinctly different from their Greek and Roman counterparts, as they had more liberty, legal rights, and status. This may be due, in part, because females often fended for themselves at home while their menfolk plundered, invaded, or served as mercenaries in foreign lands. Ancient classical historians also provided accounts that women incited, participated, and led battles.

Celtic Heroine Warriors 

Classical writers described Celtic females as not only strong and courageous warriors, but they were beautiful with comely bodies. Classical writer Diodorus wrote Celtic women were “nearly as tall as the men, whom they rivaled in courage.”

Roman historian Marcus Borealis further elaborated: “The women of the Celtic tribes are bigger and stronger than our Roman women. This is most likely due to their natures as well as their peculiar fondness for all things martial and robust. The flaxen haired maidens of the north are trained in sports and war while our gentle ladies are content to do their womanly duties and thus are less powerful than most young girls from Gaul and the hinterlands.”

Celtic Woman Warrior Prepares for Battle

Celtic Woman Warrior Prepares for Battle

Ammianus Marcellinus wrote a lively description of Celtic woman in battle as follows: “…a whole band of foreigners will be unable to cope with one [Celt] in a fight if he calls on his wife, stronger than he by far and with flashing eyes; least of all when she swells her neck and gnashes her teeth, and poising her huge white arms, begins to rain blows mingled with kicks like shots discharged by the twisted cords of a catapult.”

Celtic Spiritual Warrior

Celtic woman warrior in sword fight

Though men usually held the highest political authority, it was not uncommon for women to rule as queens and military commanders. The 1st-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote the Britons “are used to women commanders in war,” and offered detailed reports on the exploits of two warrior queens—Cartimandua and Boudicca.

Celtic Heroine Queens

The Sleek Pony

Cartimandua, known as the sleek pony, was queen of the Brigantes, a vast tribal confederation in north-central Britain. Although Cartimandua ruled with her husband, Venutius, she held the real power to the kingdom. When the Romans invaded in 43 AD, both Cartimandua and Venutius realized the political advantages of siding with the aggressors and thus their kingdom because a thriving Roman client state around 50 AD.

However, Cartimandua lost popularity among her subjects when she betrayed the famous rebel leader Caratacus, turning him over to the Romans after he had sought asylum in her court. Her power eroded when she divorced Venutius and then married his armor bearer who she made the new king. Her actions prompted a civil war with her former husband, the Romans entering the fray and helping her to defeat Venutius in 71 AD. Though she may not have been viewed favorably in history, she still nonetheless was a powerful leader.

Celtic Woman Warrior with Sword

Celtic Woman Warrior with Sword

Boudica

Boudica was a charismatic warrior queen who united several British tribes to drive the Romans out of Britain in 61 AD. A bronze statue of Boudica driving her chariot is prominently displayed on the bank of the Thames (London) in honor of her valiant attempt to overcome her oppressors. Roman historian Dio Cassius described her as “very tall in stature, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, harsh in voice…and with a great mass of bright red hair falling to her hips.”

Boudica Statue

Statue of Boudica

Like the Brigantes, the Iceni had formed an alliance with the Romans that at first gave them prosperity and independence. That changed when her husband, King Prasutagus, died in 60 AD and she became the leader of the Iceni. He willed half of his personal estate to Rome in the hope the gesture would demonstrate his fealty and appease the Roman Nero. The other half was bequeathed to Boudica.

But Nero would not settle for half the fortune—particularly to a mere woman. He ordered his subordinates to seize Boudica’s estate and annex the Iceni territory. When Boudica protested, the Roman soldiers flogged the queen and raped her two teenage daughters.

But the Romans would soon face her fury. The details of this rebellion will be provided in the next post.

References

Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D., Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History Hidden Heroines; 2002; Warner Books, Inc., New York.

Cassius Dio: The Neronian Revolt of the Iceni under Suetonius Paullinus; Book LXII, Chapters 1-12 (AD 61)

Ammianus Marcellinus: The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus, published in Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1935; Book XV, 12 The Manners and Customs of the Gauls.