The ancient Celtic year was divided into four main parts, according to the seasons, each of which was preceded by a great religious festival and accompanied by feasting, sports, games and religious observances.
In the Celtic world, Bealtaine (end of April or May 1)* marked the start of the summer quarter and the return of the sun’s warmth and the consequent fertility of crops and animals and was observed by lighting bonfires, the smoke of these holy fires associated with the Celtic sun god Belenos. Druids officiated at these ceremonies, muttering incantations and throwing handfuls of bones of both animals and warriors into the flames that flared orange against the darkening sky to the west, while the people and their cattle walked around and between two great fires, and young boys dared each other to leap over the flames and embers from the burnt offerings which the druids believed had purifying powers used to kill pests on cattle before they were driven out to open grazing
May Day customs – dancing at crossroads – still remain popular in many parts of the Celtic world with all hearth fires and lamps extinguished as night fell and the only light coming from the two sacrificial fires lit by the druids. All domestic new fires had to be kindled from these new sacred fires.
Yellow flowers of gorse, hazel and marsh marigold were used to decorate the entrances to the dwellings so that their sweet scent permeated the warm night air of early summer. Bealtaine dew was also thought to enhance beauty and maintain youthfulness if one rolled naked and washed in the dew or it could be collected in a jar and left in the sunlight, for the ‘filtered essence’ was thought to maintain youthfulness and increase sexual attractiveness!
Bealtaine, like its counterpart festival, Samhain, was a time most auspicious for the Sídhe, or the fairy folk, who were particularly active at the start of Bealtaine, emerging from their ancient passage mounds, leaving their gold and treasure momentarily unguarded for the greedy and the unwary.
Bealtaine may also refer to the Bilé, the Celtic god of life and death and may have associations with Baal, the Eastern deity.
Christianity’s first major confrontation with Celtic and pagan Ireland also took place during the festival of Bealtaine when St. Patrick, later to become the patron saint of the island, lit the paschal fire at Slane before the druids of king Laoghaire first lit the sacred fire of Bealtaine on the holy mound of Tara in 433 A.D.
In Australia, of course, the seasons are revesed and Bealtaine would be held at the end of October or the very beginning of November
According to Julius Caesar and other writers and chroniclers from the first century BCE, such as Strabo, a Greek geographer, and Diodorus Siculus, an historian from Sicily, the ancient Celtic druids were more than just a semi-mystical priesthood.
Caesar certainly saw them not only as an organised inter-tribal brotherhood who acted as living repositories of their tribal histories and legends, negotiating, legislating, judging and officiating over all individual and community oaths and sacrifices but also as a rival authority to the extension of Roman power among the so-called barbarian tribes of the north.
Others regarded druids as poets and bards, seers, teachers, historians, astronomers, medical practioners and – later through the distorted lens of early Christians – as devious wizards and magicians who kept their people in thrall with simple sleight-of-hand tricks.
Probably all of the above is true, in some sense, in that they were, without doubt, the learned men of their people who had the recognised and unquestioned power to ‘excommunicate” individuals from community events. All commentators agree that they had a vast store of knowledge which they acquired orally and passed on to their followers over a 20 year training period.
No doubt they were poets and bards as the easiest way to memorise huge tracts of knowledge relating to tribal law and ownership was to make use of standard poetic functions such as alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia, simile and metaphor as a way of preserving and keeping alive tribal history and legends.
However, as no written records*1 exist of what the druids knew or learned, it is mere conjecture to say what they actually did.
Nevertheless, it is feasible to consider how the classical ancients described them and to put that knowledge into a suitable context.
It is likely that the druids became the sole provider of laws and customs among the widely varied nomadic and pastoralist Celtic people inhabiting Europe from the Early Iron Age, c.800 BCE. Being outdoors as a way of life, the druids would have become very receptive to the divine powers inherent in nature and would willingly have entered into a communion with them, having gradually assimilated facets from other existing codes of law and belief into their own oral bodies of knowledge. As nomadic people settled and adopted agriculture, more elaborate rituals and sacrifices were needed and the druids eventually became the predominant social and political bond uniting all Celtic people that Caesar feared so much and vowed to destroy.
What is known is that druids could be both male and female, with the men shaving their head across the forehead, leaving the hair long at the back, and that they were exempt from taxes and military service. Extraordinary attention was paid to the human head, which was seen as the location of the human spirit or soul. Heads, taken as a trophy in battle, implying control of an enemy’s spirit, were later preserved in cedar oil. Shrines often contained these mummified skulls or artistic representations of them.
With the rise of the hill forts and their ascendant chieftains, druids gravitated to the throne where they acted as trusted advisors. Regarding their role as seers and astronomers, they believed in a future or imagined worlds such as Tír na nÓg, Uí Breasail and Magh Mell.
Such powers they may have exercised would have depended upon their knowledge of the seasons and seasonal change, and their priveledged status, as intermediaries in the communion between men and gods, giving them the authority to initiate the planting and harvesting of crops and rites of thanks for success.
Seasonal change may have involved a close study of nature with such signs as frogs spawning deeper than usual or the trees showing the backside of their leaves and so on, being an imminent sign of changing weather patterns.
Similarly, like shamans world-wide, they perhaps used local plants to alter their worldly perception and also that of their people through the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants such as foxglove or belladonna or perhaps, on a more one-to-one situation, hypnotism.
Oak groves were sacred to the druids as were certain rivers, and natural features of their landscape such as hilltops and valleys. Certainly, sacrifice of plants and animals took place while classical writers shuddered in scandalised horror at the idea of human sacrifice, ignoring their own brutal histories of slavery, torture and sacrifice in the public arenas.
Caesar seemed to feel Druidism originated in Britain, most especially in the modern day region of Anglesley Island off Wales, known then to the Romans as the Isle of Mona and that druidism spread to most of Europe but not as far south as Spain or Italy but it is more likely the other way round. As Caesar advanced into Gaul, gradually pushing back the barbarian tribes, the old knowledge retreated along with the population until further encroachment from Germanic tribes in the north meant that remaining Celts retreated to the islands of the Atlantic or clung to the northernmost fringes of Europe. Pushed again and finally hemmed in by the legions in Britain, the druids reputedly met their end facing off against advancing Roman legions who stormed the Isle of Anglesey in 60 CE, wiping out the last stronghold of Celtic druidism. That he knew of, anyway!
Inevitably druids continued, unhindered in their ways, in the far flung western isle of Ireland, relatively untouched by Roman rule, for a further 500 years until the arrival of Christianity on the shores, (not taking into account of the hundreds of Christian enslaved from raids on both the European mainland but also from the west coast of Britain, a trade that was to continue for many more centuries).
The Hindu Link
Recent Celtic scholarship*2 has shown that the origins of druidism share a common Indo-European heritage with the Brahmins of Vedic India. Strong parallels exist between ancient Celtic and Hindu society, with their common Indo-European roots in law and customs going back to the Early Bronze Age or even the Neolithic period.
As far back as 1786, Sir William Jones discovered close links between ancient Sanskrit – the language of the Vedas – and Greek, Latin, Celtic and Germanic languages. Linguistically, Italic and Celtic (the fore-fathers of Latin and Old Irish) and Indo-Iranian (Persian, or Avestan, and Sanskrit) were part of the much greater family of Indo-European languages sharing many common features and lexical cognates.
By the third millennium BCE, The Indo-Aryan cattle-rearing nomads roaming the Eurasian steppes west of the Urals dispersed west to Europe and, circa 1500 BCE, arrived in the north west plains of India from the mountain passes of Afghanistan where their beliefs merged with pre-existing ones to form the basis of Hinduism. Similar to the Celts of Western Europe, their culture was characterised by domesticated cattle and horses, chariots, spoked wheels and elaborate metalworkings.
Certainly, early Celtic society was based on a shared or common language – (Proto-Celtic), an authoritative priesthood (Druids), a strict social hierarchy (Chieftains / Kings – Nobles / Warriors – Priests / Druids – Farmers / Craft-workers – Slaves) with acknowledged descent from a single, known ancestor and where cattle represented both wealth and prestige. The Indus valley civilization at a comparable time was remarkably similar as society was based on the pillars of language (Sanskrit), an authoritative priesthood (the Brahmins) and a social hierarchy of chieftains supported by the Brahmin priestly caste overseeing a warrior nobility with ordinary people below them and subjugated people or slaves at the bottom).
The Celtic grouping of families into four generations – the Irish “derbfine” is similar to the Indian notion of “sapinda.” Ancient Irish marriage laws paralleled ancient Indian ones, so too did the laws of inheritance through the female line. The use of fasting – a hunger strike – to “dishonour” a transgressor is common to this day in both societies – think Gandhi, Bobby Sands and the many others who have pledged their life for a principle! The ancient oral Irish legal foundation, the laws of Fénechus, transcribed from the 7th century CE by Christian scribes and constantly annotated and added to, and later known as the Brehon Laws, share many similarities with the Vedic culture and laws of the North West Indus valley in modern day India.
According to The Book of Invasions, (see earlier post on Epochs and the Books of Invasions) a collection of poems and prose narratives that presents itself as a chronological “history” of Ireland and the Irish, the earliest of which was compiled by anonymous scribes during the 11th century, Amergin was a Milesian seer or druid who fought against the Tuatha De Danann and is chiefly remembered even today for his song where he subsumes the world into his own being with a philosophic outlook that parallels the declaration of the Lord Shri Krishna in the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita. *3
The Song of Amergin
I am the wind that blows across the sea;
I am the wave of the ocean;
I am the murmur of the billows;
I am the ox of the seven combats;
I am the vulture on the rock;
I am a beam of the sun;
I am the fairest of flowers;
I am a wild boar in valour;
I am a salmon in the pool;
I am a lake on the plain;
I am the skill of the craftsman;
I am a word of science;
I am the spear point that gives battle;
I am the God who creates in the head of man the fire of thought.
Who is it that enlightens the assembly upon the mountain, if not I?
Who tells the ages of the moon, if not I?
Who shows the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?
Who is the God that fashions enchantments – The enchantment of battle and the wind of change?
Compare with Chapter 10, The Divine Manifestations, of the holy book of the Bhagavad Geeta *3
I am the electric Force in the powers of nature
I am the mind
and I am the intelligence in all that lives,
I am the Whirlwind among the winds
of the waters, I am the Ocean
I am the Thunderbolt of weapons
of cows I am the Cow of Plenty
I am the Eagle among birds
I am the passion in those who procreate
I am the eternal present,
I am the lion among beasts
I am the beginning, the middle and the end in creation
I am time inexhaustible
I am all devouring death
I am the origin of all that shall happen
Whatever is glorious, excellent, beautiful and mighty,
be assured that it comes from but a fragment of my splendour.
Whatever the case, it is beguiling to think of a single strand of humanity sowing the seeds of civilization from Bengal to Donegal as attested by this dedication from the 1935 edition of The Geeta to W.B. Yeats!
*1 The Coligny Calendar, dating from the first century CE has sixteen columns of months covering a period of five years and has been compared with Vedic cosmology. Major festival, according to Diodorus Siculus were held every five years and festival days were marked on the calendar.
Binchy, D. A. 1972. “Celtic Suretyship, a fossilized Indo-European Institution?” The Irish Jurist 7, 360–72.
Charles-Edwards, Th. 1980. “Nau Kynwedi Teithiauc.” In D. Jenkins and M.E. Owen (eds.), The Welsh Law of Women. Studies presented to Professor Daniel A. Binchy on his eightieth birthday, 3 June 1980. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 23–39.
*3 The Geeta – the Gospel of the lord Shri Krishna
Put into English by Shri Purohit Swami 1935 Faber & Faber Ltd.
In a society which valued oral traditions over the written word, story-tellers or a seanachi and bards played a vital role in linking disparate groups and providing a common identity through shared stories and histories. A bard learned all the different types of poetry and memorized hundreds of songs, poems and legends. They also learned how to play instruments and to read and write although music and poetry was never written down. A bard was the first step taken towards becoming a druid which could take up to twenty years learning by heart the verses and stories. Such sacred knowledge was considered too important to be written down, hence the current lack of information as to the exact role that druids played.
Druid meant “Knowledge of the Oak” which, along with Mistletoe, was considered sacred. Special groves of oak trees provided sanctified, sacrificial area for rites central to the Celtic way of life. What those rites were is impossible to know, given that nothing was ever written down. I imagine druids performed sacrifices and rituals which might actually match the self same rituals we often undergo in our lifetimes – births, deaths, anniversaries, celebration of the seasons and so on. Whether they had a more sinister side as in human sacrifice, I suppose it is possible but certainly not the norm.
Mistletoe was believed to have magical powers and, when growing on an oak tree, must only be cut with a golden sickle.
Druids believed some days were luckier than others and would confer powerful totems of strength, fertility and power, as represented by wild boars, elks and wolves, on warriors.
What medical knowledge current within the Roman Empire would also have been known in Iron Age Ireland. Medical practices such as using maggots to eat wounded and diseased flesh would have been commonplace while boiling willow branches to make a bitter tisane containing some of the pain killing properties of modern day aspirin would be well known. Spider webs and certain types of mosses were packed into and over wounds and apparently acted in some sort of anti-biotic way while valuable and imported Cedar oil was used by the druids to preserve human heads.