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Celtic Druidism:

Beliefs, practices & celebrations

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Beliefs and Practices:

Beliefs and practices of the ancient Celts are being pieced together by modern Druids. Because so much information has been lost, this is not an easy task. Some findings are:

bulletSpecialties: Within ancient Druidism, there were three specialties. "A general categorisation of the three different grades accords the arts to the bards, the skills of prophecy and divination to the Ovates and philosophical, teaching, counseling and judicial tasks to the Druid." 1
bullet 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, etc.
bulletThe 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.
bulletThe Druids and Druidesses 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. In their role as priests, "they acted not as mediators between God and man, but as directors of ritual, as shamans guiding and containing the rites." Most leaders mentioned in the surviving records were male. It is not known whether female Druids were considered equal to their male counterparts, or whether they were restricted to special responsibilities. References to women exercising religious power might have been deleted from the record by Christian monks during the Celtic Christian era.
bulletGoddesses and Gods: The Celts did not form a single religious or political unity. They were organized into tribes spread across what is now several countries. As a result, of the 374 Celtic deities which have been found, over 300 occur only once in the archaeological record; they are believed to be local deities. There is some evidence that their main pantheon of Gods and Goddesses might have totaled about 3 dozen - perhaps precisely 33 (a frequently occurring magical number in Celtic literature). Some of the more famous are: Arawn, Brigid, Cernunnos, Cerridwen, Danu, Herne, Lugh, Morgan, Rhiannon and Taranis. Many Celtic deities were worshipped in triune (triple aspect) form. Triple Goddesses were often sisters.
bulletAfterlife: They believed that the dead were transported to the Otherworld by the God Bile (AKA Bel, Belenus). Life continued in this location much as it had before death. The ancient Druids believed that the soul was immortal. After the person died in the Otherworld, their soul reincarnates and lives again in another living entity -- either in a plant or the body of a human or other animal. After a person has learned enough at this level, they move on after death to a higher realm, which has its own Otherworld. This continues until the individual reaches the highest realm, the "Source." A Druidic visitor to this web site wrote: "All things are created from the Source, including the Gods. We are just sparks from its flame."  At every birth, the Celts mourned the death of a person in the Otherworld which made the new birth possible.
bulletCreation Myth: No Druidic creation story appears to have survived, although there are numerous accounts of the supernatural creation of islands, mountains, etc.
bulletBaptism: There is some evidence that the Celts had a baptism initiation ceremony similar to those found in Buddhist, Christian, Essene, Hindu, Islamic, and Jainist sacred texts. Other researchers dismiss baptism as a forgery by Christian scribes as they transferred Celtic material to written form.
bulletMoral code: Druids do not follow the Wiccan Rede which states (in modern English) one is free to do anything, as long as it harms nobody. The closest analogy are the Celtic Virtues of honor, loyalty, hospitality, honesty, justice and courage. "Daven" briefly describes the Virtues as follows:
"Briefly stated the virtue of Honor requires one to adhere to their oaths and do the right thing, even if it will ultimately hurt others or oneself in the process. A Druid is obligated to remain true to friends, family and leaders thus exhibiting the virtue of Loyalty. Hospitality demands that a Druid be a good host when guests are under one's roof. Honesty insists that one tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth to yourself, your gods and your people. Justice desires the Druid understands everyone has an inherent worth and that an assault to that worth demands recompense in one form or another. Courage for the Druid does not always wear a public face; it is standing-strong-in-the-face-of-adversity, alone or with companions. Sometimes Courage is getting up and going about a daily routine when pain has worn one down without complaint or demur." 2
bulletDivination: Druids used many techniques to foretell the future: meditation, study of the flight of birds, interpreting dreams, and interpreting the pattern of sticks thrown to the ground.
bulletAncient symbols:
bullet The Celtic Tree of Life, as interpreted here by Welsh artist Jen Delyth, shows a concept if the cosmos in which the universe is in the form of a tree whose roots and branches join.
bullet The flag of the Isle of Man, as interpreted here by Stuart Notholt, contains a triskele. It is an ancient Druidic symbol consisting of three curved branches, bent legs or arms radiating from the center of the symbol. 3
bulletThe Sun wheel or Wheel of Taranis honors the Celtic sun god. It is in the form of a wheel with six spokes.
bulletModern symbols: These include:
bullet Wreath and staves consisting of a wreath with two vertical staves.
bulletAwen symbol: This is a symbol drawn in the form of three pillars, in which the outer two are sloped towards the center pillar, as in the center of the above symbol. Sometimes, one or three dots are added above the pillars. The symbol has been in use since the 17th century; it recalls the Druidic fascination with the number three. "Awen" means inspiration in Middle Welsh. The left ray represents female energy; the right: male energy; the middle: the harmonious balance of male and female

Seasonal Days of Celebration:

Druids, past and present, celebrate a series of fire-festivals, on the first of each of four months. Each would start at sunset and last for three days. Great bonfires would be built on the hilltops. Cattle would be driven between two bonfires to assure their fertility; couples would jump over a bonfire or run between two bonfires as well. The festivals are:

bulletSamhain (or Samhuinn) Literally the "end of warm season". November 1 marked the combined Feast of the Dead and New Year's Day for the Celtic calendar. It is a time when the veil between our reality and that of the Otherworld is most easily penetrated. This fire festival was later adopted by the Christians as All Soul's Eve, and later became the secular holiday Halloween.
bulletImbolc (or Brighid) Literally "in the belly". February 1 marked The Return of Light. This is the date when the first stirrings of life were noticeable and when the land might first be plowable. This has been secularized as Groundhog Day.
bulletBeltaine (or Bealteinne). May 1 was the celebration of The Fires of Bel. This was the peak of blossom season, when domesticated animals bear their young. This is still celebrated today as May Day. Youths dance around the May pole in what is obviously a reconstruction of an earlier fertility ritual.
bulletLughnasad (or Lughnasadh, Lammas). August 1 was The Feast of Lugh, named after the God of Light. A time for celebration and the harvest.

There were occasional references in ancient literature to:

bulletthe winter solstice, typically December 21, when the nighttime is longest
bulletthe summer solstice, typically June 21, when the nighttime is shortest

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Bards, Ovates and Druids," at: http://druidry.org/obod/text/OBOD.html 
  2. Daven, "Druidism and Wicca; a comparison," 2003-JUL-31, at: http://davensjournal.com/
  3. From the "FOTW Flags Of The World" website at http://flagspot.net/flags/

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Copyright © 1997 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-MAR-30
Author: B.A. Robinson
Hyperlinks last checked: 2007-MAR-30

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