Saturday, June 22, 2013

Druids, Druidecht, Filidh and Early Christianity in Ireland

Some have questioned the importance of Druids in early Irish society while others even question if there were Druids in that culture existing along with the more generally accepted Filidh as a class.. A look at some of the early tales and traditions from literate Ireland should suffice to provide clear evidence to those of open minds. Skeptics will not be convinced no matter what evidence is provided so this article will not belabor the point, nor will it attempt to be exhaustive with its references. References will be provided however There are many, many sources mentioning Druids and Druidecht in the earliest of times in Ireland. Druidect was such a strong part of society that even the gods studied among Druids to become Druids themselves.

In the closest thing there is to an Irish creation story, Cath Maige Tuired, the Tuatha Dé Danan are said to have spent time in the “north of the world” in the cities of Findias, Gorias, Murias and Falias, studying the mystical arts and Druidecht. From this beginning, one can infer that Druidecht was the main religion of the pre-Christian and early Irish people. Their gods were students of Druids. The gods are Druids. In the recorded, written texts that survive from the 7th and 8th centuries, Druids are alternately praised for their wisdom and skill or denigrated for being purveyors of idolatry and demonism. It is the Druids who are said to be in charge of Pagan religion in Ireland by the Christian priests, monks and scribes who strove to replace them. If there was no truth in this high status for Druids in early Ireland, then why did the early Christian priesthood at times attack them?

Not all early Christian priests attacked the concepts of Druidecht or Druids. Many were themselves formerly Druids or the students of Druids. Others were of the Filidh or Brehons. When Christianity was embraced as the main religion of the Irish, one of its most revered saints, Columcille, characterized Christ as being “My Druid, the Son of God.” This seems to be a carry-over from the pre-Christian idea that the gods were Druids and the students of original Druids. The most revered saint of Ireland, Padraig, was himself a former slave to a Druid. He learned the ways so well that he was able to move through Irish society in the proper manner with suitable sureties and support. Without this skill, acquired in his earlier captivity, Padraig’s mission would most likely have been doomed to a similar failure to that of his predecessors. Rounded out the top three saints of Ireland is Brighid, who was either the slave of a Druid, the daughter of a Druid or the daughter of the God of Druids, An Dagda, depending on the tradition that one embraces.

Early Christianity could not completely change the beliefs, practices and traditions of the Irish, so many of these were adapted or incorporated directly into the new Christian ways. Deities were renamed as saints or became kings, ancestors and heroes in the tales. The Pagan Irish gods were demoted and synchronized in the tales to become invading people and tribes. The Tuatha Dé Danann became  a tribe that worshipped certain generic deities called the Three Gods of Danann and fought against the earlier, primal deities, the Fomorii, who were themselves demoted in the newly rewritten literature to be an older people of Ireland,

The Leabor Gabála Érinn was written to form a bridge between the earlier gods and spirits of Ireland (now merely people and tribes) and the people of the Christian Bible, even to the detail of constructing an artificial genealogy all the way back to Noah and Adam, the first man.  Later deities were converted into the “Sons of Mil” and the Irish who claimed them as primal ancestors were now related to a people who were said to have stood aside at the Exodus of the Hebrews out of Egypt, under Moses, across the Reed Sea. For this, the Milesians were said to have been caste out of Egypt by Pharaoh and to have begun an overland journey to Spain from which they would eventually voyage to Ireland.

Meanwhile, in the Ireland of this fictitous history, the gods (now merely humans) were battling among themselves (the Fomorii and the Firbolg, until the Tuatha Dé gained the upper hand). The synchronization of Biblical history, Greek history and Irish history was made complete by the introduction of ancestors from the Greeks under Nemed and Partholan, as well as from the Hebrews under the daughter of Noah, Cesair, who each made separate short term voyages and attempted settlements. Unsurprisingly, few of these connecting people and tribes survived to clutter up or complicate Irish history and ancestry. Yet, even here, there are shown to be Druids among these people. The Three Druids of Partholan are Fios, Eolas and Fochmart (themselves named for Knowledge, Experience and Inquiry). Caicher is named as a Druid and a chieftain of the Milesians.  Here are the highest skills of the Sons of Mil (as stated in the Book of Fermoy version of the Leabor Gabála):

“Mil son of Bile tarried eight years in Egypt, and twelve men of his followers learnt the principal arts:  Segda, Sobairce, and Suirge learnt craftmanship, Mantan, Caicher and Fulman learnt druidry;  another three, Gosten, Amorgen, and Donn, were arbitratiors and judges.  The other three, Mil, Oici and Uici, were warriors.  They nurtured their multiplicity of actions and of accomplishments  in Egypt. “

Every people or ancestral tribe of the Irish had their own Druids whether they were deities, demons, heroes or even Christians. The laws even specified them to be a part of every king’s retinue such as this privilege for the kings of Caishel found in Crith Gablach:

“The king of Fir Maige receives twenty cumals and the Fir Maige supplv a druid to Caisel, and their best man is in the confidence of the king of Caisel.”

Some kings were Druids as the Testament of Cathair to his ten sons demonstrates in his own words (found in some versions of Lebor na Cert):

“I am Cathaír the triumphant.

I am thy druid and thy father.

It is plain from my pronouncements —

it is not in drunkeness that I boast of thee —

that thou shalt be a noble rock.'

He gave then his chess and his skill at chess to Ailill Céthech.”

The idea that Druids held a high status persisted in Ireland even after the efforts of some early Christian clerics to denigrate them and their followers. The term seems to have evolved back toward a mark of respect by the 11th century CE when wise people or poets are once again considered to be a kind of Druid. Here is an instance of a person being called bot a Fie and a Druid from the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1097:

“The Druid Ua Carthaigh, chief poet of Connaught, was killed by the Connaughtmen themselves.”

The equating of Poets and Druids above is an example of how the terms evolved in their usage to mean the same type of person when perhaps they were originally separate functions. This evolution of Druid to mean Poets or Filidh is evidenced by one of the terms used to define “Druid” in the Dictionary of the Irish Language:

““(c) In mod. lit. esp. poetry usually poet, learned man: primh-drūith ┐ primh-ollamh Connacht, FM 1067 . Néidhe draoi, KEAT. POEMS 116 . grianán dáimhe is draoithe, 1483 ; cf. 757 . ÉRIU IV 56.62 , CONTENT. XXV 6 , E. O'RAHILLY XX 5 , HACKETT XIX 26 “

Druids also crop up in the list of the Filidh compiled by Kuno Meyer in his _Irish Metrics_. Some of these dual professionals are said to be both a File and a Druid:

Unknown Date    -    Bec mac Dé (druad) 1551(Tig.)

Unknown Date    -    Brigit ban'fili 7bandrui ingen Echdach Ollathir (O'Mulc. 159LL. p.187° ; Corm. s.v. Brigit)

Unknown Date    -    Labhán draoi, file Albanach (Keat. Hist, iii, p.58)

1st Century    -    Cathbad drúi

1067    -    Murchadh ua Carthaig prímdrúith 7 prímollam Connacht

In his _Dictionary of Celtic Mythology_ entry for Druids, James MacKillop gives a list of thirty people who were said to be Druids in the old texts and say s that the actual list would be too extensive for his dictionary. The two most prominently mentioned are Cathbadh and Mug Ruith. MacKillop also lists Morann as a Druid though his Audacht Morann seems to be more the work of a File or a Brehon. In a similar fashion Ferchertne and Nede mac Adne are said by Christian Guyonovich’ to be Druids acting as Filidh in their famous colloquay, Immacallam in Dá Thuradh

There are many other references to Draoithe being Filidh

I offer up a sampling from an afternoon’s browsing for references where Druids and Poets are called both in the traditional literature preserved in Ireland. It is clear that the idea that the two are almost identical has been one that is firmly held in Ireland for thousands of years. It’s not much of a stretch from there to conclude that when the fortunes of the Druid class diminished that the Filidh took up many of the non-priestly duties of the Druids. In this task, I believe history reports that they were much more successful than the Christian priest were in taking on the wisdom, skilled knowledge and crerative abilities of the Druids for the people.
From Keating’s History of Ireland, p. 59:

“It was while Diarmaid, son of Cearbhall, was king of Ireland that a poet of Alba, called Labhan Draoi, came to Ireland; and having heard tidings of the generosity of Eochaid Aontsula, ancestor of siol Suilleabhain, he came to visit him and ask him for a gift, and he would not accept any gift from him but one of his eyes; and Eochaidh gave him one of his eyes lest the druid might satirise him.”

On pp. 91-93

“Six fifties of our company
Of the great army of Spain,
That number of our host fell,
With the loss of the two worthy druids:

Uar and Eithiar of the steeds,
Beloved were the two genuine poets;
A stone in bareness above their graves,
In their Fenian tombs we leave them.”

On pp. 343-345

“It was ordained in Cormac's time that every high king of Ireland should keep ten officers in constant attendance on him, who did not separate from him as a rule, namely, a prince, a brehon, a druid, a physician, a bard, a seancha, a musician, and three stewards: the prince to be a bodyattendant on the king; the brehon to explain the customs and laws of the country in the king's presence; a druid to offer sacrifices, and to forebode good or evil to the country by means of his skill and magic; a physician to heal the king and his queen and the rest of the household; a filé to compose satire or panegyric for each one according to his good or evil deeds; a seancha to preserve the genealogies, the history, and transactions of the nobles from age to age; a musician to play music, and to chant poems and songs in the presence of the king; and three stewards with their company of attendants and cupbearers to wait on the king, and attend to his wants. This custom was kept from the time of Cormac to the death of Brian son of Cinneide without change, except that, since the kings of Ireland received the Faith of Christ, an ecclesiastical chaplain took the place of the druid, to declare and explain the precepts and the laws of God to the king, and to his household. Thus does the seancha set forth the matter just stated:

There are ten round the king,
Without rivalry, without anxiety—
I can name them all,
Both prince and official.

There are appointed to attend on gracious kings,
A brehon, a filé, and a prince;
The king who has not the three named,
His honour-price is not sanctioned by Fenian law.

A chaplain to expound the gospels,
A seancha who sets right every mishap,
A musician skilled in harp-strings also:
For these fine and honour-price are appointed.

The fourth person is a physician,
To look to each one's disease;
Three stewards to serve famous companies,
I shall record for the hosts of Erin.

The king who shall not have all these
Has no right to be in the Reim Rioghruidhe;
In the house of Tara shall not pass his time
A king not having the ten.”

The Death-Tales of the Ulster Heroes (Author: unknown):

Tale 4, Version C, p. 15

“[1] The men of Ulster were holding a great gathering in the plain of Murthemne. Then towards the gathering came Bochrach, a poet and druid of the men of Leinster, having come out of Leinster after learning poetry. Of him Conchobar asked tidings of Alba and Leth Moga.” 

The Metrical Dindshenchas (Author: [unknown])

poem 15



5 … the swift druid, the skilled poet,
to blemish the famous king of Berre,
Meilge, son of kindly Cobthach.

The Metrical Dindshenchas (Author: [unknown])

poem 6, p63


 “Thither to seek her goes
the seer who was famous in his day,
(in sooth he was noted for no lowly fortune);
Dallán was the poet's name.

Ceilbe comes to greet and welcome
Dallán son of Machadán:
she comes having a branch laden with berries
concealed under her cloak.

When they met in her fair domain
she said to the grandson of Echtigern,
"Let it be declared by you, without offence thereat,
what is under my bosom, if thou canst."

Without need and without compulsion
she spoke only to test the son of Machadan;
the druid declares to the great indolent lady
what was under her bosom straightway.

"Thou hast, O fair-haired maiden,"
said the druid not carelessly,
("a hard feat to lean upon spikes,)
a branch of blackthorn covered with dark sloes."

"Thou shalt rue it, keen maiden,"
said the ill-boding poet:
"I in my turn will mar the colour of thy face;
this shall be thy reward for vexing me."

Then said comely Ceilbe,
"I am under thy protection, O poet!
Blemish me not for my sport
because I did not show the fruit.

 "Thou shalt have of me, to check thy black displeasure,
as sufficient satisfaction for my offence,
in compensation for my demand of you,
the sod-built liss where you got your asking."

"All my domain without detriment
 shall be thine, son of Machadán,
without my heir being mentioned in my place;
only Ceilbe shall be its name, after me."

Though she gave her domain to the seer,
the daughter of white-skinned Cearball gained
115] the unfading name of that keep:
was it not an obligation to bestow it on her? “

Ailill Aulom, Mac Con, and Find ua Báiscne (Author: [unknown])

“Ailill Moshaulum son of Mug Nuadat was king over one half of Ireland and was a druid.” 

The genealogy of Corca Laidhe (Author: Unknown)


Appendix A


After this the youth asked her,
'O fair damsel, whence camest thou?
Tell and inform us here,
Speak to me; do not conceal it from me.'

'I say unto thee, O mild youth,
With me the arch-kings cohabit,
I am the majestic, slender damsel,
The sovereignty of Alba and Eire.

To thee I have revealed myself to-night;
That is all; but thou shalt not cohabit with me,
Thou shalt have a son, honored in him,
He is the man with whom I shall cohabit.

The name of thy son, the mode is good,
Shall be Lughaidh Mor; he shall be a royal son,
For we have been longing more for him,
He shall be a druid, a prophet, a poet.'

Skills Comparison

I've included a short summary of similar skills that were exercised by the Druids and the Filidh. In the interest of brevity, I have not included citations and references to these in the tales and literature. Anyone that requires further expansion on these can easily find them in the online reference and archive sites for Irish literature from the earlier times. The Metrical Dindshenchas contains a wealth of such references as does Geoffrey Keating's _History of Ireland_ (as can be seen in my references above). These are available online at UCC CELT (as well as its great search engine).

Pre-Christian Druids                         Post-Christian Poets

Prophecy                                                     Prophecy

Divination                                                    Divination

Dream Interpretation                             Dream Interpretation

Poetry                                                           Poetry

Chanting                                                       Chanting

Rituals                                                           Rituals
(Sacrifices and Gatherings)                  (Marriages and Gatherings)

Judging                                                          Judging

Magic                                                             Magic

(Geasa, Charms, Curses)                        (Praise, Satires, Curses)

 Histories                                                      Histories

Tales                                                               Tales

Ogham                                                           Ogham

King’s Retinue                                            King’s Retinue


I recommend that anyone seeking further background or information on how the Filidh carried on the roles and work of the Druids in Irish society that they read John Minahane's, _The Christian Druids_:


Searles O'Dubhain


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