Part I - Power of Women In Celtic Society: Female Druids
An Intellectual Elite
In ancient Celtic society the Druids and Druidesses composed an intellectual elite, whose knowledge and training placed them as priests of the Celtic religion. Their training normally lasted over twenty years and consisted of the memorization of literature, poetry, history, and Celtic law as well as astronomy. The Druids mediated for their people, preformed sacrifices, interpreted omens, and presided over religious ceremonies. They believed that the soul did not die with the body, but passed on to another. The mistletoe and the oak tree are great symbols for them. In fact, the word Druid was derived from the word for oak, which in Gaelic is darach
and in Greek drus
(Spence, p.14). According to Pliny's accounts, "The Druids held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, always supposing that tree to be the oak. They chose groves formed of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it," (Spence, p.79).
Accounts of the Druidesses
The first observations of the Celts by ancient sources do not speak of the presence of women as priestesses or seeresses (Jones, p.84). "The Druids and their associated male colleagues, the Vates and the Bards, seem to have monopolized the field" (Jones, p.84). These Roman observers, products of a male-dominated culture which may have marred their observations, may not have taken note of the Celtic females in roles of power. The Roman men thought of women as possessions so as a result the thought of women in public positions, such as ruler or chieftain, was preposterous to them. Finally in the first century CE, Tacitus reported, "that the Celts made no distinction between male and female rulers" (Jones, p.85).
Since Druids committed very little to written forms until after the introduction of Christianity, there are few, if any, first-hand accounts by Celts themselves. Only the myths that have been transmitted through the accounts of the Romans and Christian monks have survived. Legend has mystified many of the female rulers of ancient Celtic society, giving them mystical powers, and making their lives seem too extraordinary to seem true. As a result,it is very difficult for people today to know if these women truly did have such powers or if they were indeed Druidesses. Women such as Boudica, Onomaris, and other nameless rulers/Druidesses whose burial tombs were found at Vix and Reinham show that Celtic women, in some instances, may have wielded power as much as men, but the evidence remains difficult to decipher.
The Story of Finn
Druidesses are most often mentioned through fictional references such as the myth of Finn. He was raised by a Druidess or "wise woman" (term that refers to a "females seer") along with another woman by the request of his mother and their "bondwoman," Muirna. "The Druidess and the wise woman taught Finn war craft, hunting, and fishing (the survival arts), and also acted as guards and advisors, warning him of danger" (Green, p.101). According to Green the position of these women is curious since most Irish Druids lived mainly to serve religious duties and held great authority among their people, while these women were obviously in a subservient position. This may be so because of the almost divine rank of Finn’s family (Green, p.102).
In other instances, however, the only reference to women with great power is through the term sorcereress. Fedelma, a "woman from the Fairy, or the Otherworld" (Green, p.102) was a part of the mystical Queen Medb of Connacht’s court. "Fedelma first appeared to Medb as a beautiful young girl, armed and riding in a chariot" (Green, p.102) wearing a red embroidered tunic, sandals with gold clasps, and a "speckled cloak." She informed the Queen that she had studied poetry and prophecy in Alba, "a supernatural land belonging to Scáthach" and then warned her of the advances of Cú Chulainn. Medb then asked the girl if she had the power of "sight." Fedelma affirmed this and told Medb the chilling prophecy of her troops: "I see crimson, I see it red." Her prophecy came true, Medb lost the battle, and Cú Chulainn perished.
Other tales of the Druidesses that have survived often include the subject of sacrifice. "They were grey with age, and wore white tunics and over these, cloaks of finest linens and girdles of bronze. Their feet were bare. These women would enter the [army] camp, sword in hand and go up to the prisoners, crown them, and then lead them up to a bronze vessel. . . One woman would mount a step and, leaning over the cauldron, cut the throat of a prisoner [of war], who was held over the vessel’s rim. Others cut open the body and, after inspecting the entrails, would foretell victory for their countrymen" (Green, p.97).
Advisors to Kings
Druids had many responsibilities, but their main duty, especially with the centralization of Celtic society, became to advise Kings and Queens. Dreams and prophecies were questioned by royalty for their significance and they interpreted events in various kingdoms. As a result, the power of the Druids and Druidesses was very great, for not only were they the sole priests of Celtic religion, but they also held great sway in political matters.
Part II - Fall of The Druidess
Tiberius and Claudius
During the first half of the first century CE, the Roman emperors Tiberius and Claudius attempted to restrain the Druids. Although Druidic worship was generally unaffected during this period, Druids are mentioned less and less in textual sources. Occasionally Druids and Druidesses are mentioned as "freelance seers," and an innkeeper Druidess is said to have prophesied the empowerment of Diocletian at this time. As assimilation became a priority of the Roman soldiers during their occupation of Southern Britain, the Druids were increasingly attacked since they were often the source of rebellion. In order to assimilate the Britons to a more Roman way of life, the Romans struck at the center of Celtic intellectualism. "Both Claudius and Tiberius attempted to stamp out the ‘religion of the Druids,’ and the altars for the 'savage superstition’ of human sacrifice were destroyed, but we do not hear details of general persecution" (Jones, p.85). The accusations of "savage superstition" was a common charge against any enemy of the Roman way of life.
The Seanchus Mor Agreement: Christians and Pagans in Peace
In Ireland, worship of the Irish gods remained strong. The Druids tolerated Christians and in 438 CE, the High King Laighaire, held a conference at Tara to discuss religion. Three Behona, Pagan "law-speakers" as well as kings, along with three Christian missionaries drew up the Seanchus Mór, which mixed Christian and Pagan law. This code of law lasted till the seventeenth century until English law took over (Jones, p.99). However, the last Pagan king, Diarmat, died in 565 CE and official Celtic worship is mentioned no more (Jones, p.101).
Increased Roman/Christian Influence on Celtic/Pagan Society
The Roman’s view of "women as the bearers of children and objects of pleasure" changed Celtic society from a
"mother goddess" society into a patriarchal society during initial encounters with Roman society (Ellis, The Druids, p.95). The Roman culture slowly impressed itself onto Celtic society. Roman officials often refused to deal with women rulers and in the case of Boudica, they invaded her kingdom on this account. Women rulers as well as Druidesses were seen as a target for extermination. It is possible that this is because, in many cases, they were one and the same.
Female Bishops: Bridget and Beoferlic
The introduction of the Christian religion was the final blow that ended the equalitarianism of Celtic society. "When the Celts began to accept Christianity, Celtic women, as they had been in Pagan times were equal with men in preaching religion" (Ellis, Celtic Women, p.142). It is possible that although many Druids and Druidesses were opposed to conversion to Christianity, some might have joined the Church. As a result women had little problems obtaining high level positions since the old religion had clearly accepted women as equals
. In fact evidence shows that in the 5th century, the Irish Catholic Church ordained two women Bishops, Bridget of Kildare and Beoferlic of the Celtic Church in Northumbria, and that they preformed mass and gave the sacrament.
The three Roman bishops at Tours objected profusely to them and wrote to two Breton priests between 515 to 520 CE objecting to their participation in the giving of the sacrament (Ellis, Celtic Women, p.142). When communication with Rome increased and mainland European missionaries began to come to the British Isles, the Church began to reject women from entering its ranks
. Women were finally pushed out of the priestly order during the Middle Ages and diminished to the roles of nun and abbess. "Female Druids [became] reduced in the [ancient] stories to witch-like figures" (Ellis, Celtic Women, p.221). As a result, by the High Middle Ages women could neither rule a kingdom or serve in a position of authority in the Church. Women's high status had been effectively wiped out by the two "invasions," and women became like ancient Roman women, possessions of men.
Part III - Legacy of The Druidess: Witches
The Rise of Witch Lore
After the downfall of traditional Druidism, the myth of the witch became even more popular. The myth of witch cults had existed during the time of Celtic Paganism, but its source lied more with the Pagan rituals and traditions of sorcery. After Christianity became the main religion on the British Isles, witches became synonymous with the work of the devil. Ellis, a Celtic Scholar believes that "female druids have become reduced in [old Celtic] stories to witch-like figures" (Ellis, Celtic Women, p.221) since the onset of Christianity.
Decapitation and Jaw Removal at Burial
Archeological evidence that "female magicians or witches" existed on the outskirts of Pagan Celtic religion are strong. The Larzac stone which dates to about 100 AD shows the existence of rival bands of witches, while graves excavated in a Romano-British cemetery show that the treatment of these women was very different from that of female Druids. Lankhills and Winchester cemeteries contain burials of old women dating to about the 4th c. AD (Green, p.98). Before being placed in their graves, these women’s heads were decapitated and their heads were placed by their legs (Green, p.98). One could speculate many things about this occurrence. The Celtic people may have wished to separate their spirits from their bodies or to celebrate the significance of the severed head which in battle meant victory, but in this case could have shown victory over their evil magic. However, this ritual also might have been preformed in order to ease their way to the underworld.
In some cases these "witches" not only had their heads decapitated, but their lower jaws were removed completely. Green speculates that the jaws might have been removed in order to keep them from casting spells on the living after death (Green, p.99). Some graves also contained a spinal whorl, a woven string of threads and a symbol of fate and destiny in both Classical and Celtic religions. They refer to the Gaulish and Roman Mother-Goddess who could predict life and death and end it simply by snapping a tread (Green, p.99). These symbols might have signified that these women held such a power in the eyes of their contemporary people, evidenced by stories such as the Celtic saga of Conaran, which tells of three sorceress daughters who ensnared people by spinning a magical web, showing that "spinning" held special significance at the time.
Christian Revisionist Writings About Druidesses
With the spread of Christianity, Christians dubbed female Druids as "witches" in order to make their power seem evil, comparing the practices of witches of ancient times to those of the native Celtic people. The Christians feared the Druids and Druidesses, not only because they were a source of great religious power and the center of knowledge for their people, but also many of them preached strongly against
conversion to Christianity (Ellis, The Druids, p.72). Consequently, the Christians began to write down information which put Druids and Druidesses in a bad light and helped perpetuate their ultimate downfall.
In Medieval times Christians altered stories, and likened Druidess heroines to evil witches. In this manner, the Christians effectively began to sway the opinion of the clergy and the people that knowledgeable women and the Druid order itself were wicked. Such stories include that of Dahud-Ahes, daughter of the sixth-century king, Kernev, whom Ellis says was "undoubtedly a Druidess adhering to the old religion, [and] who [was] then transformed into a sorceress by Christian scribes" (Ellis, The Druids, p.104). She was strongly opposed to Christianity, and therefore her city of Ker-Ys was destroyed by a flood, and she was turned into a mermaid as "she sinks beneath the waves, proving that [St. Guénolé's] magic is just as good as any Druid['s]" (Ellis, The Druids, p.104). Professor Markle states:
Apart from representing paganism in opposition to Christianity, however, she [Dahud-Ahes] also symbolizes the rebellion against masculine authority...The full significance of this act becomes clear when one considers her dissolute life, as contrary to the teachings of the Christian Church, here represented by St. Gwénnolé, himself the very symbol of masculine authority (Ellis, The Druids, p.104).
However, it is interesting to note that in Ker-Ys today, the myth places Duhad-Ahes as a "good witch" (Ellis, The Druids, p.104).
The manipulation of literature, which made powerful women into evil creatures only
, furthered the fall of Druidism and the place of women in Celtic society.
Bellingham, David. Celtic Mythology. London: Quintet, 1990.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature. London: St. Edmundsbury, 1995.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. London: St. Edmundsbury, 1994.
Green, Miranda J. The World of Druids. Slovenia: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Moscati, Sabatino, ed. The Celts. Milan: Bompiani, 1991.
Jones, Prudence and Nigel Pennick. A History of Pagan Europe. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Piggott, Stuart. The Druids. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.
Spence, Lewis. The History and Origins of Druidism. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1976.
Toynbeee, J.M.C. Art in Roman Britain. London: Phaidon, 1963.
Adapted from: The Power of Women in Celtic Society: Female Druids
The Modern Day Druidess
Priestess of the Forest: A Druid Journey