The Sacred Isle, Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland
by Dáthí Ó hÓgáin
The Sacred Isle, Belief and Religion in Pre-Christian Ireland by Dáthí Ó hÓgáin, noted scholar and authority on Celtic and Irish folklore, is a work that successfully attempts to reconstruct the beliefs and practices of the pre-Christian people of Ireland. It was developed out of the materials originally used in a series of lectures that professor Ó hÓgáin taught at University College Dublin on the ways that folklore and folk tradition can provide insights and understanding to the field of archaeology.
The usual sources for investigating the pre-Christian Irish and Celtic past are found in:
1. What remains in monuments and the landscape of Ireland or the artifacts and sites uncovered by archaeologists.
2. The literary sources that were preserved from the past by Irish Christian scribes and copyists, as well as the writings of the Classical Greek and Roman historians.
To these two sources, Ó hÓgáin adds a needed third leg of evidence.
Most interpretations about the ways of the Irish pre-Christian past often fall short of complete understanding due to gaps in the knowledge left to us in the usual sources. The large body of surviving folklore from Ireland and Celtic lands is used by the author as a necessary resource to synchronize concepts, stimulate new ideas and provide innovations known from other histories and studies. His wide ranging and integrated knowledge of Irish folklore is used by professor Ó hÓgáin as a means to connect the fundamental needs of human emotions to what has remained in the archaeological and written records.
The culture of any people springs from their emotional outlook on life, death, homes, goods and burial practices. This meshing of the human psyche through folklore to the remnants left behind of an ancient civilization provides an essential link for the analysis of artifacts. Understanding the emotional outlook of a people allows links to be formed between intentions and uses. The author is very qualified to accomplish this task as folklore is his area of expertise. Additionally, he has successfully used as resources, not only the libraries of the universities of Ireland, but also such experts in the fields of Celtic Studies and Irish/Celtic archaeology as Proinsias MacCana, George Eogan, Barry Rafferty, Séamus Ó Catháin, and Coimhin Ó Danachair (among others).
Folklore is a resource that allows one to understand the psyche of a people according to Ó hÓgáin. The author further maintains that a detailed study of it to a level of expertise is necessary to allow one the ability to see the world through the eyes of other people:
“Once this level of understanding is achieved, in other words when the mechanics of tradition can be grasped and the resultant insights applied, folkloristics can be of great assistance in determining how the human person experiences the surrounding world.”
It is his belief (and I think the spirit of the Filidh support him in this) that such a study and understanding of the very human ways that folklore mirrors the beliefs and practices of cultures will allow a scholar and student of the archaeological and literary records to fill in the gaps that exist in knowledge of the past. He also maintains that such a study and analysis will allow one to remove the bias and obscuration that was introduced into written sources by the Christian scribes who preserved it. In this work, he has given us both the means and the way to preserve the Coimgne (the body of knowledge that was preserved in the oral histories of the Irish Druids) and to synchronize the ancient histories. In writing this book, professor Ó hÓgáin has fulfilled one of the requirements of the Filidh by providing a preserving shrine for the Irish traditions. Anyone seeking to practice these traditions should study this book as a gateway to attaining a better understanding of the other sources about it that survive to us.
“The Pre-Celtic Cultures”
The first chapter of the book is titled “The Pre-Celtic Cultures.” Within its thirty eight pages Ó hÓgáin lays the foundations for understanding the landscapes, social structures, outlooks and belief systems of the primordial people of Ireland. The concepts and theories of this introduction to Ireland’s pre-history are based primarily on archaeological and anthropological analyses of the archaeological record. There’s a wealth of information here to be found in the stones that were dropped from the Cailleach’s apron, as well as the artifacts that survived from our very distant ancestors. The study of this information is worthy of a book in itself and provides material for many additional discussions of how Ireland and her people were shaped in the Stone Age. I know that the bones of the land influence each of us in our daily lives in ways so deep we must sometimes pause to reflect on their effects. Our own bones have a primal memory that answers the call of the land. We become a part of the pulse of life and are reunited with Nature as children to their mother. Otherwise, we hurry to and fro with expectations of immediate rewards when the true riches of the land are to be found within its lasting gift of life and support for each of us. Hopefully, answering the land’s call through study of her past will assist both friend and foe alike in better respecting Nature, the environment and the potential for life that is the greatest gift of all.
Here are the major topics and points made by professor Ó hÓgáin about Irish pre-Celtic culture in this chapter:
1. People of the Dawn
2. Giants of Stone
3. Passage Grave Art
4. Communal Welfare
5. The Circle of Life
6. Customs and Time
7. Archaic Storytelling
8. The Coming of Metal
9. The Problem of Death
10. Skill and Sacrifice
11. Treasure in the Soil
12. The Crucial Time
Each of the above topics raises original questions that our ancestors faced from the earliest of times. It was the discovery of the answers to these questions that faced those who were the precursors of the Druids in Ireland. The People of the Dawn are the original inhabitants who either walked into Ireland or came there in dugouts over the shallow sea that existed between it and what is now Scotland at the end of the last Ice Age almost ten thousand years ago. For two to three thousand years these people lived by hunting and fishing along the coasts and rivers of Ireland as they gradually spread south and west towards the larger ocean. As they prospered, families grew into communities of larger families. The presence of red ochre found on tools and grave implements suggests that a magico-religious tradition was also developing among them at this time.
Their social structures grew until farming was introduced from the outside allowing people enough prosperity and free time to become organized enough to take on larger projects together. Tombs and cairns were the first structures erected after houses with their construction gradually becoming larger and more complex. From this prosperity and social expansion came the great stone monuments that even today influence the Irish people and their landscape.
It is along the Boyne River that the very first as well as the most complex cairn structures were built. Due to their similarity to the cairns of Brittany it is generally assumed that the people who built the brughs along the Boyne river came from there or were greatly influenced by these people over five thousand years ago. From the Boyne Valley, this culture spread outward all over Ireland.
There are many theories about the use of these monuments but the most commonly accepted are that they were involved with passages to the land of the dead, were regulators of the time and the seasons as rituals centers of Sun, Moon and stars, or that they were focal points of political and religious power. It is a likely occurrence that these structures produced their own mythology and folklore in the psyche of the people who occupied the landscape. The influence of these Megalithic and Bronze Age structures was not a short term phenomena as it has persisted for five thousand years from their very beginnings. They are imbedded in the folk memory of Ireland in much the same way that they are a part of the landscape itself.
After the introduction of bronze working and wedge tombs, came the times of the stone circles. The tombs were usually oriented towards the west and southwest, while many of the stone circles were oriented with openings on an east west axis. Some suggest that this orientation of obvious ritual structures, when coupled with burial practices that placed the deceased's head to the east with feet towards the west, is the mark of a culture that performed some form of Sun worship. Others suggest that such a form of worship did not dominate this society and that the centers of ritual activity mainly served the needs of the dead and the honoring of ancestors. The remains found in some cists and beakers suggest human sacrifice for ritual purposes with many structures having central burials. Other stone or wood circles consisted of double ringed structures with smaller circles off center within them suggesting ancillary ritual actions such as excarnation or mortuary practices. The people of these stone structures had a cult of the dead that honored them through positioning of the bones of the ancestors. The most favored and longest lasting of these burials and locations of bones was in the preservation of skulls alone. There was definitely a cult of the head even at this early time in Ireland.
Grave goods were found interred with these bones and heads indicating a belief in an afterlife with a resulting need for sustenance and protection. It is conjectured by the author that the Otherworldly needs of the dead may have reflected the needs and the fears of the living. Cremations that began occurring around this time are thought to reflect the physical need of getting rid of bodily remains for health reasons that are coupled with perhaps an awareness that there is a power that could be harmful in maintaining a spiritual connection to massive numbers of empowered bones. There may have been other rituals and symbolic actions to placate or ease the lives of the dead in the Otherworld. It is thought that a general belief existed throughout Europe at this time that new life came forth into this world as a benefit from having a good relationship with the dead. This infusion of life from death may well have been seen in terms of the actions that produce life for people, the sexual relations and relationships between men and women
A desire to insure good standing with the dead and the spirits regulating their world was probably one of humankind’s earliest ritual endeavors. Offerings to garner influence were made to the powers that regulated this world and the Otherworld. Around the middle of the second millennia BCE grave goods and ornamentation became more stylized and detailed. This is the time when the so-called golden Sun discs and lozenges, as well as lunulas begin to be found. These suggest magico-religious functions among the elite of this society with the social situation at the same time becoming more and more complex, though there is unstable and scanty evidence. During the last 1000 years BCE more and more defensive structures such as crannog built lake houses and fortified hill forts occurred. At the time associated with the introduction of Celtic culture this defensive construction appears to have peaked around 200 BCE when La Tene art styles also first appear in the archaeological record.
“Basic Tenets of the Iron Age”
Chapter 2 covers the “Basic Tenets of the Iron Age” in thirty pages. These tenets are identified and detailed as:
1. Celtic Culture and Languages
2. The Practice of Making Votive Deposits
3. Making Sacrifices and Forms of Burial
4. The Cult of Heads
5. The God of the Dead and Ancestors
6. The Deity as Provider
7. The Mother Goddess
In these seven tenets Ó hÓgáin successfully demonstrates how Celtic culture overlaid its preceding cultures while also being greatly influenced by it. He places the introduction of Celtic culture in Ireland as occurring sometime in the 6th century BCE and being concurrent with marked changes in metallurgy and smithcraft. He also suggests that this introduction of Celtic culture may have occurred not so much through massive invasion but as a slow and steady embracing of the culture along with perhaps some ruling elites. Britain and Iberia are mentioned as two places where the culture could have originated. The first theory is based on similar archaeological finds coupled with similar tribal names while the second focuses on the sharing of Q-Celtic between the Gaels and the Celtiberians. Ó hÓgáin places the introduction of La Tene Celtic art styles in Ireland around the 2nd century BCE. This influence in Celtic art and style could have come directly from Gaul or might have been mediated through Britain. Among the major deities discussed here are Danu as the Mother Goddess and the Dagda as the Father God, and perhaps him also being consydered to be the god of the dead, Donn. Additionally the role of the battle/death goddess, the Morrigan, is detailed (here called as Mór-Ríoghan; “Great Queen”). The Morrigan is also said to be a goddess of fertility and prosperity as well as cooking. In this IMO she could be similar to Bóann. He also remarks that the names of Danu and the Morrigán seem to have parallels in Greek women’s names occurring in threes (the Danae, founders of Rhodes, and the three Moerae or Fates). The connection of Danu to river names in Europe (like the Danube) and to deities from Indo-European traditions is also provided.
“The Druids and their Practices”
The twenty nine pages of the book’s third chapter describe “The Druids and their Practices.” This chapter and the next chapter about the teachings of the Druids are IMO major benefits to anyone on the Druid way and reason enough to purchase this book for educational value and future reference. The major headings concerning Druidic practices are:
1. The Continental Background
2. Practitioners of the Sacred
3. The Occult Knowledge
4. The Social Role
5. Charms and Magical Power
6. Help and Harm
7. Mystical Healing
8. The Preparation of a Druid
9. Deliberate Mystification
10. Wisdom from the East
11. Women, Wisdom and War
If anyone questions you about the practices of the Druids, look here in this book first or better yet, tell them to read about them here and cite chapter, heading and page numbers for them. For present day Druids, these questions arise over and over again in discussions, arguments, questionings and challenges. The opening characterization of Druids in this chapter is that they are the institutionalized remnant of early shamanic practitioners among the Celts. This shamanic characterization of Druids as intermediaries between the tribe and the unseen powers of land, sea and sky, is a desciption attributable to most Indo-European spiritual practices at one time or another. Ó hÓgáin suggests that special human beings of this type are generally selected to fulfill the role of intermediary by most societies.
The early Celtic cultures may not have had shamans and Druids by those names but most probably did have religious and spiritual specialists. The earliest reference to Druids among the Celts is by Diogenes Laerties who draws on a 2nd century BCE source saying that the Celts and Galatae had seers called “druidaei and semnotheoi” among them. This is explained to show that the term could have been in use among the Celts of Eastern Europe and Asia Minor since the list that was provided contained only priestly groups from the areas of Persia, Babylon, Chaldea, Assyria and India,
The information on the Druids functioning as priests in sacred matters is taken mainly from the writing of Posidonius or from those of Julius Caesar. The derivation of the name Druid is said to mean “Strong Knowledge” or “Great Wisdom.” All authors agreed that the Druids were philosophers and wise ones among the Celts. Ó hÓgáin suggests that the Greeks and Romans confused the roles of Druids with their own philosophers because among the Celts there was no distinction between the secular and the sacred. The entire world way a sacred enclosure to them. Their “wise men” were also their spiritual leaders. This is shored up by the classical descriptions of the ritual role of the Druids in the sacrifices and prophecies within Celtic society.
The great knowledge of the Druids included occult knowledge as a part of it. Knowledge that illuminates was known as imbas among the Irish Druids while prophecy could be understood from watching natural patterns such as the flight and singing of birds or listening to the speech of the waves (as Nede mac Adne did in IDT). In my own experiences of this phenomena it has seemed that the forest at night is providing music while the sunlight reflected from the waves is speaking a language all its own. Even the wind among the trees seems to have a code embedded within it that synchs to a part of the mind that is older and perhaps much wiser.
The roles of the Druids in Celtic society were not limited to the priestly functions. They also served as judges, advisors, teachers and poets. In the role of poet, a magical function was to be found that could regulate behavioral and aid in enforcing laws. The Filidh were said to be able to chant charms to protect one’s belongings as well as to recover cattle. One such chant was sung three times upon the hands of the Poet and then he or she would move across the tracks of the stolen cattle. That night a dream of revelation would show the File who had stolen the cattle.
Other charms and magical practices are detailed to the extent that they are known and presented in the Irish literature. Among these are the Druidic practices of imbas forosnai, teinm laída and dichetal do chennaibh, as well as other magical uses of the hands, salves and potions. Not all charms or spells were intended to be helpful. Some were intended to cause harm to wrong doers. Among these, the best known are briamon smethraige and the glam díchend, which are described in the texts. The power of speech was not limited to satire by the Druids and the Filidh. They also claimed to be able to influence the outcomes of events (in the Seanchus Mór the Druids are even said to have claimed that they created the world; what this means is open to debate). An instance is cited where the Druid Seancha ma Ailealla could discover whether a person was guilty or innocent of a crime. How this was done is that a piece of wood would be taken from a fire by Seancha and placed on the hand of the accused. If they were guilty, it would stick to their palms and if innocent, it would fall off.
Healing was a helpful practice of the Druids and some of their herbal lore was cited in Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. This is where the idea of Druids with golden sickles and harvesting mistletoe into while cloths is first stated in the Classical texts. It’s also the source for the idea that the Druids had magical objects known as Serpent's Eggs. Pliny calls these by the name of “anguinum.” Of course, a major medical practice of the Druids was psychiatry whereby they cured or induced madness in their subjects, calmed troubled minds and prevented people from being “taken” (or being away with the fairies, so to speak). They used powders, wisps of straw and flowers, as well as draughts and potions to change the psychosomatic states of mind and being in their subjects. In this, they are not much different from the actions and treatments of modern day psychiatrists.
Education of Druids also included astrology and astronomical knowledge and musings as well as memory work that could cross connect knowledge upon many seemingly disconnected events and topics. In this study, the wisdom was often encrypted in a “dark speech” that would be confusing and mysterious to the laymen and unlearned. The Irish words “duibhe” (blackness, as in being obscured), “dorchatu” (darkness or mysterious) and “dlúithe” (compactness) all describe this dark speech as being something that was encoded and protected from the mundane.
“Cá Filidecht?” (Where is poetry?)
“Ní hansa. I ndorchaidheta.” (Not hard. It is in darkness.)
This saying mirrors the practices of the Filidh in producing poetry and prophecy from meditations and dreaming within a dark room. This is sometimes called the Bed of the Poets. Another name for such speech was Bérla na Filidh (Ó hÓgáin spells this incorrectly as bélra na filed on page 90). Ó hÓgáin suggests that this dark speech was a ‘divine language’ and that it was probably this speech used by the Druids in the instances noted by Diodorus Siculus when he wrote about them mediating between human society and the Otherworld. Other uses of encryption was Ogham which could enhance a spell, mark out a boundary, make an accusation or perform a divination. Their cryptic speech consisted of kennings and tales with many levels of meaning.
Much of Druidic training and activity was shrouded purposefully in mystery and darkness, and carried on deep within woods, caves, enclosures and away from ordinary society. The Druids deliberately mystified their practices to enhance their stature as well as to perhaps increase the impact that their actions could have upon the Celtic psyche. Colors were assigned special properties in these ritual actions and special animals and plants were used to set the rites apart form the usual.
The Druidic students of Ireland often went to schools conducted by Druids in the east. That is to say, they went to Druidic schools in Alba, Mona, Wales, Britain and Gaul. There were also schools conducted by Druids at Tara, Tlaghtga and Emain Macha. Caesar says that Britain is the main place for the schools of Druids while Nede mac Adne and Cú Chulainn studied in Alba (Britain, or Scotland).
Female Druids are said to have been reported in the literature among the Druids at Anglesey (by Tacitus), in Ireland in the prophecies of Feidhilm, and on the Continent in a tale of the prophetess Veleda. Ó hÓgáin says that women are mentioned as Druids in early Irish texts with a regularity that suggests it was not unusual in that society for women to be Druids. He also suggests that perhaps they had a separate institutional structure but offers only one citation for this position. That is a reference to the sacred flame and sanctuary of Brighid at Kildare in Ireland where only women were allowed in the sacred precinct to tend the flames and to perform the rituals (this reference is in the next chapter so I will not review it here).
“The Teachings of the Druids”
“The Teachings of the Druids” are detailed in twenty pages within Chapter 4 of this book. I would have loved to see this section expanded to twenty thousand pages. Druids studied and were taught for twenty years. My expectation is that several themes and points of focus were offered each year by the teachers with many stories and traditional tales illustrating their meanings and lesson being tied directly to the lesson or linked to it in a web of meanings that gave the object of the lesson breadth and depth within any given circumstance. This means that a trained Druidic mind could in the time of a single thought access entire worlds of information about a topic. These minds were faster than a computer and better than the internet at accessing and mapping information to determine wisdom of action. It is my personal wisdom that the Ogham were used as keys to this wisdom. That is a concept that was first stated by Cennfaeladh the Learned in the Book of the woods. It was applied by Dalan the Wise in his quest for Étain’s whereabouts when she was abducted by Midir from the home of Eochaidh in Tara.
Professor Ó hÓgáin begins this chapter by saying that there was confusion in the beliefs of the Celts about the realm of the dead and the Otherworld. I think he means confusion in the writings about the Celts about these topics because I do not for one minute believe that the Druids were confused about these matters. How could they be confused? They were the specialists that dealt directly with the dead and the Otherworld. For them to be confused would have been devastating to their people, Celtic culture an the social structure in general
The topics discussed in this chapter deal with the issues of life, death and the otherworld as well as the forces and powers that are considered to regulate them within Celtic culture. These matters are the primary concerns of the Druids and their teachings:
1. The Continuance of Life
2. The Nature of the Otherworld
3. The Otherworld Community
4. The Skills of Mediation
5. The Personification of Wisdom
The Irish beliefs in the Otherworld appear to have considered that the Sídhe-beings ruled it with a social structure much like their own and that the honored dead existed among them. It is also conjectured that the ancient Irish Celts considered the rulers of this Otherworld to also have the power to preside over the lives of those still among the living. In a sense, the identification of Donn (of the House of Donn, home of the Dead) with the Dagda who was the Father of the Gods and a supreme king god of sorts meant that the dead return to the home of the gods to be ruled over and live an Otherworldly life. This life in another world is similar to what the Druids were said to have taught by Pomponious Mela when he said that they believed in another life in the underworld and that the Celts burned or offered to the dead goods and messages for the journey over as well as for contacting their departed ones. This belief in another life was so strong that debts were set up to be paid in it and that people willingly threw themselves on funeral piers to share the new life with their loved ones. This is said to be a teaching of the Druids and is certainly a clear statement by tem about the afterlife and the relationship of the dead to the living. Another way of getting to this Otherworld was over water to one of its islands.
The Celtic Otherworld was said to be a happy place, a bright and beautiful place (indeed it is worthy of being a place of perpetual summer, a Summerlands). It was definitely a place of wonders and marvels with various names echoing those characteristics like Magh Meall (“the enticing plain”), Eamhain Abhlach (‘the sacred place of apples” ; Avalon?) and Tír na nÓg (“the land of youth”). It was considered to exist side by side with this world and to be attained either through death or magical means. A name for the Sídh-mounds has the original meaning of “abode” demonstrating that they were considered to be Otherworldly abodes and places were feasting occurred. A more involved understanding of the role of the Sídh-mounds is that they were considered to be temporary homes of the recent dead and places where portals existed into the Otherworld proper. This gave them great importance for connecting to spirit. Indeed one of the duties of the Druids and the Filidh was to maintain a history of these mounds and which spirits governed them. It’s assumed that this also included how to deal with these beings and what their preferences and prerogatives might be.
The nature of this Otherworld is that it is preeminent over this one and that it is governed by the chief of the deities, the Dagda who is the master of the seasons and both night and day, even all of time. He is the spiritual bridge between night and day and his main dwelling is the chief of the brughs at the Brug na Bóinne itself. The Dagda is the “Red One of All Knowledge” and as such he is of particular interest and importance to the Druid class (who specialize in being wisdom keepers and great in knowledge). As such he could be the god of the Druids though Ó hÓgáin does not explicitly do that in this chapter. The Dagda and his son Aonghus are said to seem to echo the old god new god pattern found din other Celtic and Indo-European cultures. The relationship between these two deities is one of eternal renewal and the providing for milk and corn as sources of sustenance to the people.
The home of these deities is said to be the house of Bóann whose name is suggested to be very ancient as it appears on the earliest maps of Ireland. She is also said by Ó hÓgáin to be cognate with Danu as a land and river goddess. It is suggested that Bóann is actually another name for Danu. This correlates well with another tale where Eochaidh and Danu are said to be married and the parents of the Three Gods of Danu. The Dagda is said to represent the Sun while Danu is the river so it should be no surprise that the hazelnuts falling into the Boyne were considered by the Druids to be “Sun bubbles” and to contain or bestow the gift of illuminating knowledge (“imbas”) upon those who ate them or drank its waters (especially in June).
The Druids claimed to be able to influence and interact with this world through its various boundaries, deities and special knowledge. One of the Druids’ tasks in Irish society was to preserve just this sort of knowledge and to supply this ability to mediate with the Otherworld. Ó hÓgáin mentions the claim by the Druids of Gaul to have been descendents of the God of the Underworld by recalling his identification of the Dagda with Donn and the Dis Pater ancestor deity of the Gauls. Here Ó hÓgáin strongly implies that the Dagda is the god of the Druids. He states that their overall claim on the Mother goddess must be of equal or greater authority. As a support to this concept he also mentions that the other great Goddess of the Irish, Brighid, is known to be the “goddess who the seer-poets adored.” These seer-poets are the Druids and Filidh of Ireland.
Of particular interest to me in this discussion of the chief deities of the Irish Druids are mentions in the text of this chapter about other goddesses with similar names and roles to Bóann (or Bó-vinda in its older forms). One such goddess is possibly symbolized by a divine cow named Damona in Gaul who accompanied the deity Borvo, a deity of “bubbling springs and thermal waters.” Here is found another relationship between water, fire and energy that is similar to the sun bubbles or imbas from the Boyne. Other magical or sacred cows in Irish tradition are mentioned like Goibniu’s cow, the Glas Goibhneann (who figures in the story of Lugh’s conception). Another figure of great importance for me is the Munster hero Corc Duibhne whose name is said by the author to reflect the goddess Divina. Corc Duibhne was reared on an island by a Druid and a Sídh woman called Boí. This woman was also known as the Cailleach Bhéarra, another form of the most ancient land goddess of Ireland. This name is a variant of bó or “cow” (and her special cow was also a “white cow” with red ears, a sure mark of it being Otherworldly). The reason why all of this is of great interest to me is that the names involved seem to reflect my family name of O’Dubháin and their home in the Brugh na Bóinne area at Cnogba or Knowth. It was here that one incarnation of the Cailleach as Lugh’s wife was said to be buried in the dindshenchas about the mound of Cnogba. Duibhne seems to be another name for one of our ancestors who also was called Dubh or Damán.
The special skills of the Druids to mediate between this world and the next are given as:
1. They were the only ones who wrote in Celtic society.
2. Writing was used for passing messages to the dead on papers thrown into funeral fires.
3. The Druids had a sacred and encrypted language for writing known as Ogham.
4. The script of Ogham is named for the deity Ogma, a Sun-poet and skilled in knowledge and poetry, the god of eloquence.
5. Diodorus says that the Druids also taught reincarnation.
6. Druids can call up the ceo druidechta (“the fog of Druidry”) which can open portals between this world and the Otherworld.
7. An early Irish legal text says that the Druids can perform the féth fiadha (the art of illusion) and divination (which is an acquiring of divine knowledge through occult means). This is also a form of shape shifting.
8. All these taken together implies that the Druids had acquired their skills in magic through Otherworldly means (the same Otherworld ruled by their god, the Dagda).
Fionn the Druid-like leader of the Fianna and the offspring of a Druid lineage is likened to the symbol of wisdom in Irish which is described a brightness or bright knowledge. This is the same knowledge that come from Sun-bubbles, the waters of the Borne, the Hazelnuts of Wisdom and the Great Salmon of the Boyne, all symbols of occult wisdom. Ó hÓgáin makes much of the etymology of Fionn’s name from Celtic ‘Vindos’, survivals in Irish of the root for this name as fet and fiss (both associated with knowledge), Welsh gwn, vind and even *sweid. Fionn’s associations with sacred knowledge do not stop there as he is also cited as a model for divinity in the form of a child (as evidenced by his precociousness as a child and his evidence of wisdom and skill even then). Ó hÓgáin goes on to extrapolate from Fionn’s birth and association with Druidic wisdom to say:
“In brief, we can speculate that the basic idea of the child-seer Find was that he was born of the goddess Bóinn and that he emerged from her, out of the river, bringing with him imbas, that all-embracing wisdom… living fire within water. Much more is said about this relationship to Bóann and through her to the Dagda to the point that Fionn of the bright wisdom is said to be a son of the Dagda and to represent a duality with him through the “bright” and “dark:” aspect associated with variations of their names. We have Fionn or “Brightness and Donn or :Darkness” representing the two states of being in time, space, days and lives. Ó hÓgáin maintains that it was the Druids who claimed “… that their profession was a balance between the world of the dead and that of the living… the wisdom which was safeguarded by their profession held the key to bring light out of darkness in the afterlife.”
I have long maintained that it is the imbas experience that marked and made a Druid. Without the journey into death’s darkness there can be no illuminating wisdom of imbas nor can there be anyone who is a Druid. Learning the three skills of imbas through the experience is the magic that is at the heart of Draíocht. Ó hÓgáin confirms that to be almost a certainty in the last few pages of this chapter on the teachings of the Druids.
“The Society of the Gods”
“The Society of the Gods” is discussed in the twenty five pages of Chapter 5. The site of Tara was seen as a sacred center of Ireland and considered to be both a traditional site for the kingship of Ireland to be acknowledged and the seat of the Otherworldly kings of the gods themselves according to Ó hÓgáin. A 10th century Irish narrative about Midir, Étain, Aonghus and the Dagda is discussed in support of the idea that the natural world and the divine world chose Tara as their center. Here Ó hÓgáin plays the role of the Druid for us in interpreting the meanings of the characters in the tale who are both gods and humans, as well as showing how creation of features in the landscape results from prizes and forfeits made by the two brother deities of Midir and Eochaidh as stakes for an ongoing game of fidchell. The role of Meadbh as the Goddess of Sovereignty regarding the ban-fheis (literally translated as ‘sleeping with a woman’ but in actuality the inauguration ritual of a king) is also mentioned. Features in the Irish landscape such as the roadway across the Corlea Bog are also discussed as one of the tasks Midir had to perform when he lost a match.
The 5th chapter goes on to describe other features of these social structures and its members. Deities like Danu, the Dagda, the Morrigan, and Donn were discussed in previous chapters. Some additional insight into the convoluted familial relationships of the gods is also discussed where Danu and the Dagda are said both to be children of the same father deity called Delbáeth (“fire-shaped”). In another story the Dagda and Delbáeth are equated together through the names of Tuirill (“pillar”) and Eochaidh (“sky horse”). Both these names are names used or given to the Dagda in Irish traditions and folklore. Perhaps the Dagda was the person who was the son without a father? Ó hÓgáin states that the coupling between the Dagda and Danu equates to the bringing together of sun and soil. To me this is the same as saying that their union is the ritual bonfire of the fire festivals. Fire is father to fire and comes out of both sky (as lightning and Sun) and earth (as volcanic eruptions and the fire that comes from woods through friction).
Comparatively new deities to Ireland are also discussed beginning with Nuada (and a possibly hero-offspring of his known in folklore and writing as Fionn) mentioned as possibly being evidence of ‘new deities’ introduced from Britain (Nodens from Bath). Even here Nuada is equated to the Dagda based on his marriage to Bóann and being at one time the owner of the Sun Brugh, (as well as the Well of Segais). Nodens and Nuada are related together through the symbol of the salmon as well, being famous catchers of them. Aonghus who supplants Nuada at the Brugh of his mother Bóann, is suggested to be equivalent to the “Young Son” of a pan-Celtic belief in the young god supplanting the old god. The relationship of Lugh to Balor is equated to the role of young gods defeating the older gods. This role is also equated to heroes and deities from Eastern Europe and Persia like Perseus, Sargon, the Cyclops, etc. Ó hÓgáin suggests that the battle of Perseus against the Gorgon may have been translated first (circa 6th century BCE) by the Greeks at Massalia (present-day Marseille) to the Celtic Gauls in the form of a battle between Lugos and Bolerus in a Gaulish context and then adapted (circa 1st or 2nd century CE) into the myths surrounding Lugh and Balor of Irish traditions. The “primordial battle” of Indo-European myth is identified with the great battle between two sets of Irish deities (the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomhoire). Other deities identified in the societies and families of the gods are Dian Cécht (god of medicine), Goibhniu (the Divine Smith), Flidais (goddess of wild animals), the Cailleach Bhéara (the hag of Beare), and Manannán mc Lir (the son of the sea). There is, in general, a discussion of the meanings and etymologies of their various names.
“The Rites of Sovereignty”
How kings and the people were empowered is the subject of Chapter 6 “The Rites of Sovereignty.” Here we find that an Irish king was seen to be the embodiment of truth and the sacredness. A king is said to have the three best things which are “truth, mercy, and silence.” The idea that a king should be mainly silent is said to be due to the enormous creative power of his words; they were both formal pronouncements with the power of law and also could effect creative change in the surrounding world through the powers of fortune (firinne flatha; the truth of a king) and a unity with the bounty of the land and the environment. The Druids channeled this power of kings and the land through their understandings and interpretations of its meanings, This association of the kingship with Druids was unified through their involvement in all aspects of pre-Christian Irish society from the inauguration rituals of a king, to determine geasa, to instructing the youth and maintaining the traditional body of wisdom, law and custom.
“The Triumph of Christianity”
The concluding chapter of this book is titled “The Triumph of Christianity.” I was prepared to be offended by this chapter as its title seemed to say that the Druids had failed in their workings. After reading the chapter and considering its points, I concluded that Christianity’s Triumph n no way says that the Druids failed, In fact, it seemed to me to suggest just the opposite. If a new religion prospered and helped the people then the work of the Druids was also served. In my belief system, a win-win situation is fated where Druids are involved, After all, how could it be otherwise with beings and people who could predict the future, create the universe and deal directly with the Otherworld.
In this conclusion to his work, professor Ó hÓgáin shows us how Christianity came to be the dominant religion in Ireland, yet he also shows us how the pre-existing Pagan religions survived within it and within folk culture. He shows how saints like St. Columba were described as having Druid-like powers and qualities. He also discusses how pre-Christian deities like the goddess Brighid were adopted as saints by the Irish Celtic Church. For my part, the process whereby Paganism was inherited by the forms of Irish Christianity is a two way street. It’s my belief that the early Irish Christians also attempted to gain prestige for their causes by using Pagan traditions to enhance the prestige of their own positions and leaders. Other Celtic scholars think that an actual St. Brighid was the actual source for the elevation of an earlier traditional figure of Brig or Brighid to the goddess level in an effort to show dominance for their Christian figure. I don’t accept this approach because of the complications involved in back writing such a history and the obvious violations this entails to Occam’s razor. The Druid or god Mug Roith is presented in the same dichotomy of roles.
The key points of the final chapter can be summarized in these quotations:
“All improvisations, whether positive or negative, in the portrayal of druidic traditions were intended solely for the promotion of Christianity.”
“The many instance of clairvoyance, prophecy, and miracles attributed to him (Columba) show that whatever supernatural functions were required from druids could now be exercised in a fully Christian context by the leading holy men.”