There are some problems in understanding today who the Druids really were and what their role in ancient—that is, pre-Christian—Ireland really was. First of all, the Druids lived and flourished in Ireland in a period in which information was transmitted through the oral tradition and therefore they left us no written records. The written records regarding the Druids tend to come from two sources: (1) from the early Christian writers who usually had less than a favorable view of the Druids and their religion, and (2) from modern writers whose romantic view of them is based on pure fantasy.
In the centuries prior to the arrival of Christianity, Ireland was divided into five kingdoms, known as the five fifths of Ireland: Ulster, Meath, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht. As with much of Irish history, this was a time of changing alliances, conflicts, and competing claims for kingship. Irish society was organized in a hierarchy with the kings on top and the slaves on the bottom. The primary loyalty was to the clan and alliances between clans were temporary at best.
Toward the top of the Irish hierarchy were the Druids: some writers rank them just under the kings, while others place them just under the poets (the bards) who are just under the kings. Some scholars describe the Druids as a caste or class: some Druids functioned as priests, others were bards, some were judges, some were diviners. All of these positions required rigorous training.
The bards composed praise poetry and had the much-feared power of satire: it is said this satire could cause physical blemish, bad luck, and even death to the person against whom it was sung. It took at least seven years of formal training to become a bard. With an additional five years of training, a bard could become a vate: master of poetry. The vate also had the power of prophecy.
It took twenty years of training to become a Druid, a priest who not only understood the will of the gods but could communicate directly with the gods. The specialized knowledge of the Druids is believed to have included astronomy and astrology, medicine, history, and law. Druids were in charge of religion and religious rituals.
The education of the Druids was oral: Irish Druids would “sing over” their students and the students would then repeat the lesson in chorus. While the Druids were aware of writing, and used it in regard to history, laws, and other things (keep in mind that St. Patrick destroyed many of the Druidic books in his attempt to stamp out Irish paganism), sacred things were never to be written down. Words that spoke of spiritual matters were sacred, their use was regulated, and they were not to be written down.
There is little doubt that the Druids were powerful as they were important advisors to the kings. The kings consulted the Druids with regard to when to sow the crops, whether getting married was the right thing to do, and when to start a battle. The Druids were credited with the ability to control nature—to bring about great storms as well as the gentle rains and fogs which would conceal armies—as well as the power of shape-shifting, which included both their ability to become birds and animals as well as the power to turn other humans into birds and animals. Oral traditions state that the Druids could produce a dicheltair or fe-fiada, a cloak of invisibility to protect them from their enemies.
Because Druidism was an oral tradition and its teachings were actively suppressed by the Christians, we know little today of the actual theology. What we have are some bits and pieces which have survived through oral traditions which were later written down, and through archaeology.
Unlike the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Babylonians, the Druids did not require temples for their ceremonies. Ceremonies were often conducted in groves of trees, often oak trees. They also appear to have had a deep reverence for hawthorn and yew trees. They did, however, bury their dead and this has provided archaeologists some insights into their culture and religion.
The dead were buried with their personal belongings, weapons, tools, food and drink. The surviving oral traditions suggest to us that the Celts viewed death as simply a changing of place. After death, life would go on in another place which modern writers call the Otherworld. Upon death in this world, the soul would be born in the Otherworld and would need personal belongings to get a good start. After living in the Otherworld, death would again bring about a change of place: the soul would then be reborn in this world and the cycle would start over again.
The doors between this world and the Otherworld are opened one night each year. At this time, the residents of the Otherworld can return to seek vengeance on those in this world who had wronged them. In the modern calendar, this night falls on October 31 and is celebrated in the feast of Samhain. At this time the Druids would control the hostility of those of the Otherworld by offering sacrifices, casting spells, and ritual chanting.
The archaeological evidence shows that animal sacrifice was a part of the large communal gatherings. Pigs appear to have been the primary animal used for sacrifice and ritual consumption. There is also evidence that dogs were sacrificed. On some occasions there would be human sacrifice.
Building on an animistic heritage, the Druids associated spiritual power—Brí—with certain places, such as hills, springs, wells, and bogs. In order to tap into and harness this spiritual power, they would make sacrificial offerings at these locations. These offerings would include strips of cloth, coins, and everyday items. With the coming of Christianity, many of these sacred places served as the locations for the Christian churches and monasteries. Examples of this would include the Hill of Cashel and the Hill of Tara. At these sites today, many people continue to make offerings of coins, cloth, and other items.
Fire was also an important element in many Druid rituals. At sites such as Dún Aonghasa and the Hill of Tara large bonfires were built as a part of seasonal ceremonies. During the Beltain celebration the cattle would be driven between two sacred fires as a way of blessing and protecting the herd.
One of the important functions of the Druids was divination: predicting future events. They did this in a number of ways. First, as animists, they carefully observed the world around them: they watched the patterns of the birds as they flew overhead; they felt and smelled the wind as it blew around them; they watched the patterns in the clouds and the colors in the setting sun and in the rising sun. Like American Indian medicine people, they read the world around them, looked for the patterns, and then interpreted future possibilities.
The Druids also watched the skies: the patterns of the stars as they changed through the seasons; the phases of the moon; the changing positions of the rising sun. They noticed that the motions of the moon affected the mental attitudes of men and women. At many locations, including the stone circles circles at Kenmare and Grange, they marked solstices and equinoxes.
The stone circle at Kenmare is shown above. For many centuries this feature was known as the Druids Circle, but its actual origin predates the Iron Age and the presumed arrival of the Druids.
Shown above is a model of the stone circle at Kenmare.
The stone circle at Grange is shown above. As with Kenmare, this feature is often associated with the Druids, but its origin predates Celtic Ireland.
Like diviners in many other cultures, the Druid diviners could see the future by reading the entrails of sacrificed animals. They could also see the future in the appearance of the roots of trees.
In some instances, the Druid diviners would use hazel wands inscribed with Ogham writing which would be cast upon the ground. The way the wands fell provided insights into the future.