Twilight in the far west - Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe

Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe (2010)

Chapter 6. Twilight in the far west

Julius Caesar mounted two expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC but tells us little of the people he encountered except to stress their general similarity to the Gauls. He did, however, offer the tantalizing observation that it was believed that the doctrine of the Druids was developed in Britain and that ‘even today those who want to study the doctrine in greater detail usually go to Britain to learn there’. His two brief campaigns brought the south-east of Britain close to the Roman world. Trade flourished and people moved with comparative ease between Britain and the Continent for the next 90 years or so until, in AD 43, the Emperor Claudius decided to annex the island and make it a province of Rome. As we have seen, in the course of the conquest the Roman army had at least one engagement that involved Druids when they attacked the island of Anglesey off the north-west coast of Wales in AD 59/60.

Although the armies, under the governor Agricola, penetrated deep into the Highlands of Scotland, and even visited Orkney when circumnavigating the extremities of the island, by the end of the 1st century AD the frontier had been established on a line between the River Tyne and the Solway estuary - a line later taken by Hadrian’s Wall. During the 2nd century, a new frontier, the Antonine Wall, was created to the north between the Forth and the Clyde, but occupation was brief and the more southern frontier became the established limit of empire. Though the Highlands of Scotland, the Northern and Western Isles, and Ireland lay outside the Roman domain, these regions were within comparatively easy reach of traders.

Throughout prehistory, Ireland played an integral part in the maritime exchange networks which bound the Atlantic-facing lands of Europe together, but after the middle of the 1st millennium BC trade slackened and Ireland began to be increasingly isolated. It was not until the 1st century BC that contacts across the Irish Sea, between Britain and Ireland, picked up again.

Caesar says nothing of Ireland, and Strabo, writing in the early decades of the 1st century AD, had little to report other than the rumour that its inhabitants were more savage than the Britons and indulged in incest and cannibalism. Where Strabo picked up this hearsay is unclear, unless it was something gleaned from Pytheas, who had journeyed the length of the Irish Sea, probably stopping at the Isle of Man on his circumnavigation of Britain in the 4th century BC. Forty years after the invasion of Britain, Tacitus had access to far more information. He tells us that through the activities of merchants the harbours of Ireland were reasonably well known and the land and people of Ireland were not unlike Britain and the British. Information continued to accumulate and by the end of the 2nd century AD, the astronomer Ptolemy was able to give latitude and longitude coordinates of 55 locations, many of them coastal features but also of tribes and major settlements. The distribution of Roman artefacts shows that the parts of Ireland most heavily affected by trade were the east and north coasts facing Britain. One of the principal ports-of-trade was established on the coastal promontory of Drumanagh, a few kilometres north of the mouth of the Liffey.

By the 4th century, the dynamics of contact had changed. Some Irishmen were now employed as mercenaries in the Roman army, while others indulged in piracy and raiding against western parts of Britain. The story told in the Confessio of St Patrick throws some light on the situation in the early 5th century. As a boy, Patrick was brought up in Britain but was captured by an Irish raiding party and taken off to Ireland to serve as a slave looking after flocks and herds. He eventually escaped on a ship which was transporting Irish hunting dogs, probably to Gaul, and eventually made his way back to Britain. These were troubled times when the old Roman order was breaking down and there was mobility at all levels, including the settlement of Irish communities in Wales, Scotland, and possibly in Cornwall.

In 431, so a later chronicler records, the pope sent a Gaulish churchman, Palladius, to minister to the Irish. There is some place-name evidence to suggest that he was active for a while in south-west Wales before taking ship to Ireland to begin his mission in Co. Wicklow, but little seems to have followed from it. The next year Patrick sailed back to Ireland from Britain and, basing himself on Armagh in the north, set out on a far more successful mission. He travelled extensively, baptizing people and ordaining clergy and establishing a system of parochia - rural territories focused around a church.

At the same time, in the middle of the 5th century, another Christian movement - monasticism - was beginning to gain hold in Ireland, spreading from the Mediterranean region along the Atlantic seaways. It proved to be extremely popular, and by the 6th century was beginning to replace the system of parochia set up by Patrick. Gradually, the power of bishops waned, and by the end of the century a system of independent monastic communities, living by the rule of their founders, had spread throughout Ireland and to many parts of western and northern Britain. The new monasteries were centres of scholarship and of teaching and, with proselytizing zeal, they set about replacing the pagan beliefs and culture of the countryside with their own distinctive form of Christianity.

It was in the monasteries that the rich oral culture of pagan Ireland was transcribed, edited, and copied. One scribe, in a marginal note, was honest enough to admit that he did not really understand what he was copying, but the original transcribers had their own agendas. They were careful how they presented the beliefs and values of the pagan culture they were trying to educate. Schooled in the Classics and with an intimate knowledge of the Bible, it was only natural that they sought to make connections by identifying universal truths in the ancient sagas they were committing to script. That said, the vernacular literature, as it survives for us to read today, still contains much that echoes pre-Christian beliefs and behaviour.

If the sagas and hero tales reflect, albeit in emasculated form, a glimpse of pre-Christian times, the Law Tracts, originating in the 7th and 8th centuries, and the Lives of the saints and the hymns, composed and written down in succeeding centuries, inform us more directly of the social structures and values of early Christian Ireland. By comparing the two sources, it is possible to chart the rapid decline in the power and prestige of the Druids as Christianity makes its inexorable inroads.

What, then, can we learn of pagan beliefs in pre-Christian Ireland? To begin with, the gods were many and everywhere, much as they were in pre-Roman Gaul. In former times, it was believed, they were controlled by the Tribes of the Goddess Dana, but later they comprised a loose web of supernatural beings usually inhabiting the underground regions but entering the realms of the humans from time to time. They had many attributes and were visualized in many forms, but these different manifestations could be reduced to two powers, one male, the other female, whose balanced opposition created a state of unstable equilibrium.

The female power was a goddess of the earth and of water - springs and rivers and lakes. She was a mother goddess controlling fertility and productivity, providing nourishment for the people and presiding over the seasons and the seasonal feasts: her very abundance was sometimes expressed by her triple form. But she also had within her the power of destruction and the fury of slaughter - the opposites of nurture and fertility - and could bring devastation and death. In this dangerously unstable form she appears in the tales as the ferocious Morrígan, who needed careful handling and much propitiation.

The male god was the Dagda - the good god, in the sense of being good at everything. He was the father of the tribe and could appear in the guise of a craftsman, a warrior, or a being with magical powers. His feasting was voracious, as was his sexual appetite, reflecting both his virility and his command of plenty. The Dagda engaged in intercourse with the Morrígan once a year on the feast of Samain, thus commanding her protection for his people for the year to come.

There is something satisfyingly simple in the neat binary opposition of the Dagda and the Morrígan, even though they do appear in a confusion of different guises. There is, however, another male deity - Lug - who at first sight seems to stand aside as something different. He is the antithesis of the Dagda - young, beautiful, and pure, contrasting with the aged, ugly, grossness of the Dagda. His weapons are throwing weapons - the sling and the spear - very different to the Dagda’s heavy club, and whereas the Dagda commands all knowledge, Lug is the many-skilled. One way to structure this would be to see the Lug/Dagda dichotomy as the two opposing sides of a single male deity, much as the Morrígan encompasses the oppositions of wellbeing and destruction contained within the female form. In the overarching scheme, then, the productive and destructive forces of nature confront the traditional and progressive forces in humanity.

Another aspect of religious life that is readily apparent in the vernacular literature is the passage of time. The year is divided into two halves: the light half, which begins with the festival of Beltane (1 May) and ends with the ceremony of Samain (1 November); and the dark half, which runs from Samain to Beltane. The two halves are themselves divided into two by the ceremonies of Imbolc (1 February) and Lugnasad (1 August). As we have seen, there are reflections of this division in the Coligny calendar, suggesting that the scheme was widely adopted throughout the Celtic world.

The seasonal divide was highly relevant to an agricultural community totally dependent on efficient grain production and the wellbeing of its flocks and herds. The first quarter of the year from Samain to Imbolc was a quiet time when the natural world was dormant, but Imbolc (1 February) saw the beginnings of new life with the start of the lambing season and the lactation of ewes. With the beginning of summer at Beltane (1 May), the livestock had to be moved out on to the upland pasture and as a prelude cattle were driven between two fires to purify them from the diseases incubated during their winter confinement. Lugnasad (1 August) was the central point of the harvest celebrations when the grain was brought in for safe storage. It was also a time for large social gatherings where the business of the tribe could be transacted, legal agreements entered into, and marriages arranged. Now the propitiatory offerings to the gods had to be made in thanks for the success of the harvest and in preparation for the long liminal period of winter. As we have seen, Lugnasad was chosen by the Roman authorities in Gaul as the appropriate time for the meeting of the concilium Galliarum. Finally the year ended with Samain (1 November). This was the time when the livestock were brought in from the open pastures and the beasts not chosen for overwintering were killed and their meat preserved: it was a time of feasting before the privations of winter took hold.

Samain was also the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It was a liminal time and as such was dangerous. It was now that the union between the Dagda and the Morrígan took place - an act symbolizing the taming of the wilder powers of nature. But in the brief gap between year end and year beginning - the night of 31 October and 1 November - chaos could reign as the spirits and deities of the nether-world below swarmed into the world of humans.

In an attempt to contain these beliefs and superstitions, the Christians took over the ceremonies of 1 November and made it All Saints Day in the Christian calendar, but the night before - Halloween - still retains a strong flavour of the pagan past, even today, in its contemporary guises, traditional and invented. The festival of Imbolc was also subsumed into the Christian calendar as the Saint’s Day of St Brigit, herself a reflection of a pagan Irish goddess, while Beltane is still celebrated widely throughout Europe in the many different manifestations of May Day.

In pre-Christian and early Christian times, Ireland was divided into perhaps as many as 150 tribes (túatha), each ruled by a king. Some of the kings would have been more powerful than others and able to command the allegiances of lesser kings. The king was all powerful within his túath. He would, by right, expect the loyalty of all his free men and could summon them to form a military force in the event of a threat or when a raid was being planned. He would also preside at the óenach - a regular assembly at which the business of the túath was considered and decided upon.

Irish society was highly hierarchical, the many ranks being carefully circumscribed and their powers and privileges defined in the Law Tracts. Broadly speaking, there were two principal divisions, the free (sóer) and the unfree (dóer), and among the free there was a specially privileged class, the nemed, which included the king, the lord, the cleric, and the poet. Since nemed is cognate with nemeton, which means ‘sacred place’, it suggests that the privileged class were at one time embraced within the religious system. One early medieval Law Tract states that the túath, to be worthy of the title, had to have a king, an ecclesiastical scholar, a churchman, and a poet. This was long after Ireland had been Christianized, but the structure clearly reflects that of pagan times when the king was regarded as semi-divine and was supported by a religious philosopher (drui), a seer (fili), and a poet (bard) - a system closely reflecting the Druids, Vates, and Bards of the pre-Roman Gauls.

The druid, filid, and baird performed the functions expected of the privileged class. Already, in 2nd-century BC Gaul, it was possible to detect the blurring of functions between the Vates and the Druids, and this conflation is evident in pre-Christian Ireland. The Druids were still the most powerful of the wise men: they were the mediators between the deities and humans, the arbitrators in disputes, and, since they could foretell the future, their skills were in demand by kings preparing to embark on new pursuits. Perhaps more important, the Druids were involved in setting the prohibitions (geasa) which controlled the freedoms of the king. A geis was an imperative of magical character which circumscribed behaviour, for example the prohibition on eating horse flesh before mounting a chariot or of straightening your spear point with your teeth. The more sacred power a king had, the greater were his geasa: breaking a single one could render even a great king powerless. There is one instance of a king whose geis forbade him to speak in company before his Druid had spoken. The story goes that the assembly remained in silence until the Druid asked the king what was the matter.

The filidh shared with the Druids the power of prophecy and divination, and as such they were in the confidence of the king, but they seem now to have acquired additional powers. They had become teachers (it could take up to 12 years’ instruction to become proficient in the discipline) and they had also taken over some responsibility for poetry and satire from the bards. The bards remained but their tasks were restricted to composing eulogies and keeping alive the oral traditions of society through public storytelling. This shift in power was exacerbated as Christianity took hold. The Druids were soon suppressed and, by the 7th century, had ceased to be a distinct order, while the filidhhad grown in strength and influence and were allowed to continue many of their old practices alongside, and in harmony with, the Church. They were still a distinct and powerful order up to the 17th century, when the bureaucracy of the English government finally saw to their demise.

The story of the Druids in Ireland is, therefore, one of decline. In the pre-Christian sagas we can see some of them still in action. One of the best known is Cathbad, who appears in the Ulster Cycle tale, the Taín Bó Cuailnge. Cathbad had spent his early life as the leader of an exterritorial war band (fiana) but had lately become the Druid of King Conchobar, who was quite possibly his foster son. Cathbad is seen offering prophecies - that he who took up arms on a particular day would achieve fame and greatness but his life would be short (it was the hero Cú Chulainn who met the challenge), and that a pregnant woman would give birth to a daughter called Deirdre who would bring Ulster to ruins (she did). Here is Cathbad the Druid as a seer able to divine the future. He is also portrayed as a teacher of the young who always had a hundred pupils about him learning the druidic discipline. Elsewhere, we see him in action trying, in vain, to protect Cú Chulainn from the magic of the warrior Queen Medb.

In other stories, Druids appear as the interpreters of dreams and as the mediators between the gods and the king. They are magicians able to conjure up storms to drive off invaders or, like the Black Druid, able to turn a young woman into a deer because she had refused his attentions. We learn little of the organization of the Druids from the Irish sources. Often they appear as lone individuals, but sometimes in groups, and it would seem that all Druids, and later the filidh, were overseen by one of their number elected for the purpose. In some traditions they were associated with Uisnech, the ‘navel’ of Ireland, where their assemblies were held. This has distinct similarities to the annual assemblies of the Gaulish Druids held in the centre of Gaul, in the territory of the Carnutes.

These anecdotal scraps, gleaned from the Irish vernacular literature, offer a glimpse of the Irish Druid, in the centuries before Christianity, as a man of power, established in the courts of kings, able to serve as an intermediary between the gods and men. But there is also a sense that they had now begun to take on the role of magicians and sorcerers. How much this reflects their changing role in society it is difficult to say, but it is as well to remember that we are seeing them through the eyes of the Christian scribes who transcribed and edited the stories and to whom the old order was anathema. Perhaps the Druid is now beginning to be written out of the story.

Conflict between druidism and Christianity was inevitable, but at first there are hints of some kind of stand-off. In the 7th-century text Vita Brigitae, describing the life of St Brigit a century or so before, Brigit’s foster father is a Druid, entirely benign in all his actions though overawed by the power of the Church. Another document, of the 6th century, the First Synod of St Patrick, describes how oaths were sworn in the presence of a Druid, and in texts of about the same date we learn of the Druids’ continued power in warfare. They are able to erect barriers (whether real or virtual is unclear) beyond which anyone who ventured would be killed, and a Druid still had the power to make the weaker side win. In these early encounters the Christians were treading carefully.

Yet the conflict between the two ideologies was real, and it was in the interests of Christians, who after all controlled the written word, to record it in such a way that Christianity was seen to have the more powerful magic. Thus when Patrick appeared in the court of King Leogarie to convert the king, the king’s Druids put up a strong resistance. Patrick’s response was to pray to his god for the death of one of the Druids, which subsequently happened. The contest continued at the great feast at Tara. Having successfully avoided poisoning, Patrick agreed to the king’s suggestion of ordeal by fire involving the Druid Lucat and one of Patrick’s followers, Benignus. Needless to say, the Christians won. What truth, if any, there is in these tales it is impossible to say. It is true that reductors were influenced by Old Testament stories but what is significant is that they choose to present the coming of Christianity in terms of a traditional conflict by magic and sorcery - the Christians are playing by pagan rules and winning. The symbolic culmination comes when Patrick lights a great fire on the Hill of Slane - a pagan sacred site - before a fire could be lit on the Hill of Tara. This was in direct defiance of pagan tradition and signifies the final ascendancy of the new religion.

By the time that the Law Tracts were being composed in the 7th and 8th centuries, it is clear that those Druids who had survived had been reduced to the level of the sorcerer and the quack. In one text, the status of the Druid, assessed in terms of entitlement to sick maintenance, is argued to be that of a bóaire (a freeman farmer), equivalent to a satirist and brigand. He is no longer among the nemed - the privileged class. Druids are now seen to be the makers of love-potions and the casters of spells but little else.

The nemed class, as we have seen, included the king, the lord, the cleric, and the poet. There was also a lower rank - dóernemed (base-nemed) - to which belonged physicians, judges, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, harpists, and carpenters. The Christian cleric now assumed the tasks once performed by the Druid. The Law texts make clear that the high-ranking clerics were equal to, or in some cases superior to, kings, and this is reflected in their honour prices. They were the philosophers and men of wisdom providing guidance and advice to the kings; they were the intermediaries between the new Christian god and the people; and it was they who taught the young.


9. The ritual complex at Tara, Co. Meath, Ireland. The site begins with a neolithic burial chamber and continues as a place of great religious importance into the early historic period

Next to the clerics were the poets (filidh), men who could affect the status of others through the power of their words. The similarity between the Gaulish Bards and Vates and the Irish filidh is striking and implies a strong thread of continuity in both social structure and practice. In Gaulish society, the Bards were singers and poets and could use their powers to demean a man through satire or boost his prowess through eulogy, while the Vates had powers of divination. The Irish filidh seem to have embraced the powers of both classes. They were certainly known for the power of their satire. Their words could raise blisters on the face of an opponent and even had the power to kill.

In the early 15th century, the death of the Lord Lieutenant was ascribed to a poet’s spell, and as late as the 16th century it was believed that poets could ‘rhyme to death’ animals and men. The poet would also compose praise-poems and eulogies for his patrons and would expect to be rewarded accordingly. For a high-quality composition he might receive a chariot, and some poets could become as rich as even the king or the Church. This is reflected in the story told by Posidonius of the Gaulish King Louernius who, in the late 2nd century BC, organized a massive feast to boost his status. The Bard arrived too late for the festivities but being quick-witted

… composed a song magnifying [the king’s] greatness and lamenting his own late arrival. Louernius was very pleased and asked for a bag of gold and threw it to the poet who ran beside his chariot. The poet picked it up and sang another song saying that the very tracks made by his chariot in the earth gave gold and largesse to mankind.

(Athenaeus IV, 37)

In addition to these traditional skills, the Irish filidh had now acquired the powers of prophecy. He was also a storyteller and a person who retained in his memory the history, genealogy, and lore of his people. A poet of the top grade was expected to know 350 stories. This knowledge poets learned in schools run by qualified fili which they attended for between 7 and 12 years. They were also involved in both the theory and practice of the law. One story tells of a fili who had been converted to Christianity, discussing the Laws with St Patrick. That which was not in conflict with Christianity was retained to form the basis of the legal systems ‘of the judges of the Church and the poets’. Another text mentions the poet’s entitlement to fees for his knowledge of different forms of judgment.

It is clear that the filidh had now taken on a range of tasks that had previously been in the purview of the Druids, and the class had become correspondingly more complex with many different grades matching ability, length of training, and range of activity. There were two broad categories - the fili, who were of the higher rank, and the bards, who were less accomplished. The fili were divided into 7 grades, while there were 16 grades of bard. This broad twofold divide between fili and bards may be a reflection of the divide apparent in Gaul between the Vates and the Bards, but in the more evolved Irish system the powers of the two had been brought together, augmented by some of the functions of the Druids as druidism was suppressed to the extent of extinction, and redistributed in a more rigorous class system.

In Ireland, the filidh continued to perform the tasks of poets, advisers, lawyers, teachers, and seers to as late as the 17th century, when their functions lapsed under English rule and the order wasted away. But still there remained the fear of poet as satirist. One 20th-century poet, Tomás O Criomhthainn, describes how he was prepared to spend a day listening to an island poet (fili) lest he suffered being satirized!

The imposition of Christianity on Irish society and the suppression of native paganism took centuries to become effective. This is no better illustrated than in the story told by Giraldus Cambrensis in his Description of Ireland, written about 1185, about the inauguration of the king of an Ulster clan:

The whole people of that country being gathered in one place, a white mare is led into the midst of them, and he who is to be inaugurated, not as a prince but as a brute, not as a king but as an outlaw, comes before the people on all fours, confessing himself a beast with no less impudence than imprudence. The mare being immediately killed, and cut in pieces and boiled, a bath is prepared for him from the broth. Sitting in this he eats the flesh which is brought to him, the people standing round and partaking also. He is also required to drink the broth in which he is bathed, not drawing it in any vessel, nor even in his hand, but lapping it with his mouth. These unrighteous rites being duly accomplished, his royal authority and dominion are ratified.

(Topographia Hibernica, iii, 25)

To Giraldus, it ‘was barbarous and abominable’, but what he was reporting was an ancient rite of kingship requiring the king-to-be to have intercourse (simulated or real) with the mother goddess in the form of a mare. By this union and the consumption of her flesh, the king was uniting his tribe with the powers of nature, thus ensuring their wellbeing. That the ceremony was still being performed in the 12th century is a remarkable example of pagan survival.