Master of Druidism
Universal Life Church Seminary
Lesson 2 - The Society
Introduction to the Druidic Society
So you have come back to learn more about the Society, have you?
Did you enjoy traveling back in time to learn the history? We will still be traveling here and there in the many lessons on the Druids, so don’t hang up your cloak just yet. Now we shall travel through the many tunnels and branches of the Druid Society.
The majority of Druid organizations use three traditional areas of Druidic practice, Bard, Ovate (Ofydd), and Druid (Derwydd). Some groups consider these to be separate areas of "profession," while others consider them to be "steps." In the Story of Taliesin, the Bard receives three gifts from the Cauldron of Inspiration brewed by the goddess Ceridwen: poetry, prophecy and shape-shifting. These three gifts respectively are known as being Bard, Ovate and Druid. There is no initiation into each of these but is seen as a view to oneself as to where they lie.
BARD - Many people wonder what "Bardic" means, so it seems appropriate that I include an explanation. The term "bard" comes from the ancient Celtic term for poet. In ancient and medieval Ireland, Scotland, and Wales the bards where responsible for singing the history of the people. Bards were musicians and poets, but also historians of a sort, pledged to the preservation of their culture.
They sang the laws and the heroic tales of the people and they praised worthy kings and lords by recounting their genealogies, often traced back to heroes and gods. When leaders were evil or selfish, the satires of the bards brought down ridicule and a loss of face that even the most powerful feared. The Bards were inspired poets, musicians, storytellers, seers, diviners, dream-weavers and word magicians who sang the world alive. The Bards were "the keepers of tradition, of the memory of the tribe - they were the custodians of the sacredness of the Word."
In Ireland, they trained for 12 years learning grammar, hundreds of stories, poems, philosophy, the Ogham tree-alphabet. The Gorseddau is a ceremonial gathering of Bards at sacred sites in Britain and overseas. The Gorseddau offers Bardic initiation, rites of passage and the celebration of the cycle of seasonal festivals, encouraging the forming of spiritual and aesthetic links with the sacred land.
Today, in a Western culture that respects and reveres engineers more highly than poets or scholars, we can easily underestimate the importance of bards in Celtic societies. It is thought that the bards were one of three grades within the community of the Druids, those holy men of the oak groves who were for the ancient Celts healers, judges, and priests.
The Druids were the leaders of society, admired for their long education, and the bards were the first, most fundamental grade in the Druid orders. Educated for as much as twenty years, the bards memorized vast numbers of poems and learned to compose and extemporize in hundreds of verse forms and rhyme schemes that were traditional in the Irish and Welsh tongues.
They learned of the interconnection among all things and the importance of the cycles of the seasons and of birth and rebirth. Cycles of human life, of the seasons, and song cycles proclaimed the wonder, glory, and beauty of the Creation.
OVATE - The Ovate or Ofydd conducts prophecy and divination, the healing arts and awareness of the Otherworld. Learning the power of seeing and envisioning, the Ovate seeks understanding through study of herbs, plants and the physical healing energies of the earth. The Ovates worked with the processes of death and regeneration. They were the native healers of the Celts. They specialized in divination, conversing with the ancestors, and prophesizing the future.
DRUID - The Druid, or Derwydd, conducts rituals and is a teacher. The Druid uses all abilities to inspire the diversity of nature and relationships, creating bridges between cultures, traditions and peoples, between spirit and form, deity and seeker, knowing and not-knowing. The Druid is the peace maker and initiator. The Druids formed the professional class in Celtic society.
They performed the functions of modern day priests, teachers, ambassadors, astronomers, genealogists, philosophers, musicians, theologians, scientists, poets and judges. They underwent lengthy training: some sources say 20 years. Druids led all public rituals, which were normally held within fenced groves of sacred trees.
The eminent scholar Fergus Kelly wrote that a Druid was "priest, prophet, astrologer and teacher of the sons of nobles". Jean Markale, another respected scholar, noted that the Druids were divided into these specializations:
· Sencha; historian, analyst
· Brithem; judge, arbitrator, ambassador
· Scelaige; keeper of myths and epics
· Cainte; master of magical chants, blessings, curses, invocations, execrations, banishments
· Liaig; doctor who uses plants, magic and surgery
· Cruitre; harpist who uses music as magic, master of the "Three Noble Strains" of music: music that invokes laughter, tears, and sleep.
· Deoghbaire; cup bearer who knows the properties of intoxicating and hallucinogenic substances
· Faith; diviner
· Bard; popular poet and singer
· Fili; sacred poet and diviner
The higher grades in the Druid order -- the Ovates and the Druids, as they were named -- carried the student on into the lore of law and proper behavior, and right reverence towards all things. These scholars studied methods of prophesy and sacrifice, which they performed in their sacred groves of oak and ash.
Animals and trees were, for the Druids, sacred and holy beings to be respected for their age and wisdom and their deep knowledge of earth, water, and stone. Spirits lived in the trees as they lived in men and women, and indeed in all things. Sun, moon, stars, and the very cycles of time were linked in a spiritual, astral dimension of coordinated interdependence.
Modern scholars of the Druids long believed that the tradition died out, even though there are surviving references to bards as late as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But whatever the truth may be about the institutional dimension of druidry, and the bardic tradition, it is certain that in the late eighteenth century the rediscovery of these old, pre-Christian teachings captivated the imaginations of many.
Poets of the Romantic Movement in particular fancied themselves to be the inheritors of the old mantle of the ancient bards, a calling to poetry that bordered on the holy. They were to be prophets, calling out to their nations to return to the old ways of unity with nature. It is not surprising that the resurgence of druidry should occur at the same time as the emergence of the Industrial Revolution that so altered the landscape of Britain.
During the Druid Renaissance of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, new orders of that philosophy were founded in an attempt to recapture the ancient British and Gaelic spiritual heritage that had been so thoroughly wiped out first by the Romans and later by the Christians. It was during this revival that associations were made between the Druids and the many stone circles and standing stones scattered throughout Britain and Europe.
The Celts and their prehistoric ancestors produced these monuments, and although the oldest historical references we have to Druids come from the Roman writers of the first century BC, nevertheless, the claim was made that Druidry represented a profoundly ancient philosophy of the same stature as Taoism in China, and perhaps even older.
Poets such as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Burns, and James MacPherson (the ostensible rediscoverer of "Ossian") saw themselves as part of the tradition of the poet as visionary and prophet, seeing more deeply into the truth of things than other men. Blake, in particular, sought a poetic style that combined the prophets of the Biblical Judaic tradition with the Druids of Albion.
During the Romantic period, Stonehenge became a symbol of the Druid religion and groups in England and the rest of Britain sought to restore such sacred sites to their supposed original uses as places of ceremony. Later in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries theories were advanced that Stonehenge and many other stone alignments and circles were in fact complex solar and lunar observatories.
Their purpose, it was suggested, was to predict and mark the precise moments of sun and moonrise on the principal quadrants of the calendar: the equinoxes and solstices. Such interpretations of the stone rings are nowadays almost taken for granted, so powerful is that interpretation, and as a result the Druids have joined many other ancient cultures, such as the Mayans and the Babylonians, in their possession of highly advanced astronomical knowledge. Equally impressive are the mathematical and engineering knowledge required to construct megalithic structures such as Stonehenge.
To become a Druid, students assembled in large groups for instruction and training as reported by Irish sources. An Irish epic called the Táin Bo Cuailnge describes the druid Cathbad teaching as many as one hundred students in something like a college. Apprentice druids on the continent of Europe would study for a period of as much as twenty years.
The mythologies describe Druids who were capable of many magical powers such as divination and prophesy, control of the weather, healing, levitation, and shape-changing themselves or others into the forms of animals or people. But a Druid was not, strictly speaking, exclusively a mystic or a magician. He or she was mainly an important public functionary.
Her divination skills and magical sight were required for many essential social and political purposes, such as advising the tribal leaders as they make policy, settling disputes and legal claims, and announcing the beginning of agricultural seasons such as planting, harvesting, and hunting.
Druids were responsible for providing a system of justice, and apparently they possessed many of the same powers of investigation, mediation, and conflict-resolution and even sentencing that today¹s judiciary have. It also appears that they were able to magically oppose criminal activity by, for example, performing magical spells intended to return stolen livestock, or to reveal the thief’s identity in a dream. In times of war a Druid's magical skills were needed to learn about the enemy's movements and plans, to magically empower the warriors, and also to call environmental powers to the aid of the tribe.
The Druids could put an end to an unjust war by walking into the centre of the battlefield and telling everyone to go home. On the other hand, another Irish text states that "Defeat against odds, and setting territories at war, confer status on a Druid". The general point here is that a Druid’s status and powers are inextricably connected to a human community.
Indeed the Druid’s social standing was so important that at any assembly, the chiefs and kings could not speak until the Druids had spoken first. A good word for them would seem to be "priests", yet I am reluctant to use it for two reasons: The Romans never used it, and because Druids didn't minister to congregations as priests do.
Rather, they had a clientele, like a lawyer, a consultant, a mystic, or a shaman would have. Caesar and his historians never referred to them as priests, but perhaps they could not recognize them as priests since the Roman priesthood, officiating over an essentially political religion, were primarily teachers and judges, with less emphasis on being seers or diviners, whereas the Druids appeared to have both legal and magical powers and responsibilities.
Other classes in the old Celtic social order included the warrior-aristocracy, out-caste Fianna warriors; Bards, brehons (lawyers), historians and other more specialized professionals; land-holders (landlords); freeborn laborers; and non-freeborn laborers.
Celtic law included ways for anyone, including non-freeborn laborers, to move up or down the social hierarchy; what rights and responsibilities were due to each of them, and what kind of punishment could be given to criminals according to their status (far more was expected from those who had more). An old Celtic proverb goes: "A man is better than his birth".
Bards and Fili were the primary keepers of the histories, genealogies, laws, poetry, music and stories of the Celtic people. Their training was similar to the Druid's training, and their rank in society was second only to the King. A bard was expected to be able to perform what were called the "three noble strains", which were music to inspire laughter, tears, or sleep.
They were guaranteed to receive special hospitality wherever they went, and be free from insult, among other rights; a breach of this would allow the bard to compose a satire-poem that would tarnish the offender's reputation for generations to come.
The Celtic noble class held the political and economic power of the tribe. Kingship was passed from a king to his son or (as in the case of the Picts) from a king to the son of the previous queen. Many Celtic tribes actually elected their king for a lifelong term, from among eligible men whose ancestors were kings. Of interest to those who study Druidism is the concept of the sacred king, in which the king was ritually married to the Goddess of the land.
Sometimes a Druidess (or, as in one recorded case from Donegal, Ireland, a horse) would temporarily represent the Goddess to whom the king was married. He had to rule justly and honorably in order to satisfy his immortal spouse, for if he did not the land would become barren and infertile, and the tribe's prosperity would decline, an event which occurs reasonably frequently in mythology.
The king had to be in full health and without physical blemish as well to please her, and this is why the god Nuada had to abdicate the throne when he lost his hand in battle. This ritual is evidence for a Druidic doctrine of the unity of humans and nature. A sacred king would also be bound by a Geas as an additional condition for his prosperous rule.
The mythologies record that many Druids were women; in fact Celtic women enjoyed more freedom and rights than women in any other culture of that time, including the rights to enter battle, own and inherit property, trace her kinship matrilineally (through her mother's family line), and choose and divorce her husband.
The Irish hero Cu Chullain was trained by a land-owning warrior queen named Scathach, for whom the Scottish island of Skye is named. In the Welsh myths, there are the powerful sorceresses and goddesses like Cerridwen, and Arianrhod who ruled Caer Arianrhod.
In Briton, Boudicca was a female chieftain of the Iceni tribe, powerful enough to lead a revolt of united Celtic tribes against the Romans in 61 BCE. Her patron was the goddess Andrasta, a goddess of battle whose totems included the raven and the hare. Mogh Roith, who was one of the greatest Irish Druids, was taught by a female Druid named Banbhuana, the daughter of Deargdhualach. Similarly, Irish women have a heroine in Queen Maeve of Cruachan, who led an army against the province of Ulster, all to establish her equality in her marriage.
Queen Maeve employed the services of a Druidess named Fedelm, who had a gift for prophesy and who was asked by Maeve to predict the outcome of the war she was launching against Ulster. Fedelm predicted (correctly, as it turned out) that Maeve would be defeated. Because she did not like this prediction, Maeve ordered Fedelm¹s immediate execution.
Women were also permitted to become Fianna, outlaw-warriors. Fionn MacCumhall, from the Irish Fenian myths, was trained in poetry and magic by a Druidess. A woman named Asa (Irish for "Gentle") became Fianna and took the name Ni-Asa ("Not Gentle"), which eventually became "Nessa", at the time she became mother to King Conchobar. Her influence was such that her son kept her name instead of his father's name, thus: "Conchobar Mac Nessa", or "Connor, son of Nessa".
Celtic law identified up to nine different types of marriages, some differentiated on the basis of how much property was brought into the marriage by each partner, and some differentiated by the circumstances of the conception of children. The latter type is apparently designed to protect the rights of the children. Here is a list of nine marriage types from Irish law:
• "union of joint property" in which the man and woman contribute the same amount of property.
• "union of woman on man's property", in which the woman brings little or nothing into the marriage.
• "union of man on woman's property", in which the man brings little or nothing into the marriage.
• A less formal partnership in which the man visits the woman who still lives with her own kin.
• a union in which the wife's kin does not consent to the marriage.
• an abduction, in which the wife willingly elopes but her kin do not permit her to go.
• a partnership of secrecy,
• a one night's stand or "soldier's marriage"; apparently this is to protect the rights of children who might issue from a rape, and finally
• the marriage of two insane persons.
As you can see by this, there are several classes and societies in Druidism. They have laws, they have their own town structures, and they all work together to achieve balance. The end result for us today is the perception that northern Europe and the Celts did possess a highly refined culture, both in terms of science and scholarship, and in terms of the arts.
The Celts and Germanic tribes reviled by our Classical Roman authors as "barbarians" were, it seems something much more complex. It is intriguing that this realization comes during the same historical period when anthropologists have discovered that so-called "primitive" societies throughout the world are in fact highly complex and possess arts, mythologies, and knowledge of healing that rival those of the "developed" West.
If you have any questions, please post them on the forum or email me at Erica@ulcseminary.org. I would like to see some participation in this topic. Talk to you next week!