To determine the origin of a people, an objective study of their indigenous cosmogony is necessary. In the case of the O’Sullivan clan, this is a complex task, confounded by the fact that the original, native, pagan religion of the Gaelic Celt was co-opted and mutated by the Christian movement in the fifth century AD.
Though most members of the O’Sullivan clan are Christian, and the vast majority Roman Catholic, the clan’s original cosmological beliefs will not be found in the Book of Genesis. The Judeo-Christian creation myth was foisted upon the tribe sometime in the first millennium. The true origin myth of the tribe, therefore, must be distilled from whatever remnant exists of the original pre-Christian belief system. Since the spiritual leaders of the Celtic aristocracy were the druids, then druidic beliefs must be studied to uncover the family’s true origin.
The Elusive Gaelic Druids
The druids were of noble birth, disciplined, well respected, and highly educated. Most of the druidic tradition has been lost, partly because of the ancient order’s strict code forbidding the written documentation of their esoteric knowledge and partly because of the Christian scorched-earth policy toward eliminating their priesthood.
To the ship of credibility, the subject of druids presents perilous seas. There is precious little hard data with which a serious scholar can navigate, and the entire study is riddled with the shoals of uncertainty and the reefs of conjecture. Added to this bleak picture are the romantic sirens, luring the historical writer into the rocks of fantasy, against which many academic reputations have been dashed.
On the subject of druidism people seem struck by, what Leacock poetically referred to as, the “moonbeams of the larger lunacy.” Cautious researchers, with hard earned reputations to protect, avoid the subject completely. Others visit it briefly, but make no potentially dangerous conclusions. Most safely claim that there are no conclusions to make, and they adopt a peculiar form of historical nihilism. Anglo-Saxon writers offer a tirade of conclusions, all of which predictably cast the Celtic druids in the worst possible light.
Be that as it may, in order to present a complete history of the O’Sullivan clan, these treacherous waters must be entered and thoroughly explored. There is data, albeit scant, with which the character, role, and beliefs of the druids can be deduced. There are multiple references to them in the classical texts, there are sundry anecdotes involving druids to be found in the indigenous Celtic annals, and there is a growing body of indirect archaeological evidence concerning the ceremonies and rituals over which they presided. Although the druids undoubtedly existed, there is no direct archaeological evidence for them to date.
The Classical Texts
There are about thirty references to the druidic priesthood in the known Greek and Roman literature, from the beginning of the second century BC to the fourth century AD. Julius Caesar, in the Gallic Wars, confirms the existence of the druids as educators of the Celtic aristocracy and “philosophers who are interested in the structure of the natural universe”. In Caesar’s own words, they held “long discussions about the heavenly bodies and their movements, about the size of the universe and the earth, and about the nature of the physical world”.
Caesar credited the druids with committing to memory all of the collective knowledge and learning of their society, and establishing schools to share this information with subsequent generations. The education of a druid took twenty years to complete, according to Caesar. He also commented on the order’s strict reliance on oral tradition:
“They do not think it right to commit their teaching to writing... I suppose this practice began originally for two reasons: they did not want their doctrines to be accessible to the ordinary people, and they did not want their pupils to rely on the written word and so neglect to train their memories”.
The accounts of Caesar reveal that the druids were recruited from the noble class and were respected authorities in the government of the Celts. It was also noted that a druid could even become king, as was the case with Dumnorix.
Caesar also reported that, although the common Celts seemed to worship several gods resembling Mercury, Mars, Apollo, Jupiter, and Minerva; the elite druids taught that man was actually descended from one god, who Caesar called “Dis Pater”. Diodorus Siculus, writing c. 60 BC to 30 BC, described an incident in which Brennus, a Celtic king, laughed at the Greeks of Delphi for depicting their gods in statues of human form, demonstrating the Celtic aristocracy’s aversion to polytheism.
Greek observers regarded the druids as “students of a universal cosmic mechanism”. Diogenes, who quoted from lost works of the second century BC which represented the earliest known references to the druids, wrote:
“Some say that philosophy began among the barbarians; that the Persians had magi; the Babylonians or Assyrians had chaldeans; the Indians, gymnosophistai; and amongst Celts and Galatai, those who were called druidai and semnotheoi, as Aristotle says in his Magikos and Sotion in the third book of his Succession of Philosophers.”
Diodorus refers to the Druids as “philosophoi” and “theologoi”. He carefully distinguishes them from two other intellectual classes, the “bardoi”, the lyric poets, and “manteis”, the seers. He further claims that the druids are obeyed in all tribal matters, both during times of peace and war. Cyril and Clement, both of Alexandria, make similar reports, identifying the druids as “philosophati”. In fact, Clement, in the late first century AD, also claims that Pythagorean philosophy was acquired from the Celts.
Strabo, c. 63 BC to 21 AD, recognized that the druids studied “physiologia”, or physics. He also attributed to them the study of ethical philosophy and jurisprudence, referring to them as “the most righteous of men (dikaiotatoi).” Most importantly, he noted that the druids believed in the immortality of the soul and the universe. Mela reported that the druids claimed to know the “will of god” (quid dii velini).
As to the origin of the word “druid”, Pliny maintained that it came from the root Greek word, ‘drys’, which means oak. It is interesting to note that Maximus Tyrius asserted that the oak tree was the Celtic symbol for Zeus, and the Roman symbol of Jupiter, the two classical counterparts to the druidic father-god, Dis Pater.
While most of the classical literature recorded the observations made of continental druids, Tacitus confirmed their presence in Ireland and Britain, when he described a group of them casting curses and incantations upon an invading Roman legion on the Isle of Man in the first century AD.
In summary, the Greek and Roman commentators universally, and independently viewed the druids as philosophers and theologians; who studied physiologia and ethike philosophia, natural and moral philosophy; investigated questions occultarum rerum alterumque, problems of things secret and sublime; and were magistri sapientiae, professors of wisdom. They had an advanced knowledge of astronomy and, according to Hippolytus, could “foretell certain events by Pythagorean reckoning and calculations.” Caesar described the druids’ sophisticated calendrical skill, an observation that has been confirmed by the archaeological discovery of the Coligny Calendar near Bourg-en-Bress (Ain).
The Christian Irish Annals
Unfortunately, the only indigenous Celtic references to the druids are found in accounts that were recorded centuries after Christianity had effectively eradicated the Order. Furthermore, these accounts were written, in the most part, by zealous Christian monks, who infused the tales with their own prejudices and beliefs. An exhaustive review of druidic references in the native Irish annals is offered by Joyce. It readily reveals the anti-druidic sentiment of the contemporary chroniclers and the tendency to confuse fantasy with reality among the early Christian annalists. Despite this, several key observations agree with the Classical historians’ view of the druids:
“In pagan times the druids were the exclusive possessors of whatever learning was then known. They combined in themselves all the learned professions: they were not only druids, but judges, prophets, historians, poets, and even physicians. But as time went on there was a gradual tendency towards specialization, as we see in some of the learned professions of our own day. Until Patrick came, says the Brehon Law , only three classes of persons were permitted to speak in public in Erin, a chronicler to relate events and tell stories, a poet to eulogize and satirize, and a brehon or judge to pass sentence from the precedents and commentaries. Here there is a clear intimation that there were three separate persons concerned. Nevertheless, down to the latest period of the prevalence of the Irish customs, two or more professions were often centered in one man, especially those of Poetry, History, and Literature in general.
There were druids in every part of Ireland, but, as we might expect, Tara, the residence of the over-kings of Ireland, was as the Tripartite Life expresses it “the chief [seat] of the idolatry and druidism of Erin. The druids had the reputation of being great magicians: and in this character they figure more frequently and conspicuously than in any other, both in ecclesiastical and lay literature. This is so true that the most general Irish word for sorcery, magic, or necromancy, is druidecht, which simply means ‘druidism’, a word still in use. In some of the old historical romances we find the issues of battles sometimes determined, not so much by the valor of the combatants, as by the magical powers of the druids attached to the armies. They could, as the legends tell, raise druidical clouds and mists, and bring down showers of fire and blood; they could drive a man insane or into idiocy by flinging a magic wisp of straw in his face. In the hymn that St. Patrick chanted on his way to Tara on Easter Sunday morning, he asks God to protect him against the spells of women, of smiths, and of druids. Broichan the druid threatens St. Columba “Thou wilt not be able to voyage on Loch Ness, for I will make the wind contrary to thee, and I will bring a great darkness over thee.” And he did so, as Adamnan’s narrative tells us: but Columba removed the storm and darkness by prayer, and made his voyage.
Perhaps the most dreaded of all the necromantic powers attributed to the druids was that of producing madness. In the pagan ages, and down far into Christian times, madness (Irish dasacht) was believed to be often brought on by malignant magical agency, usually the work of some druid. For this purpose the druid prepared a ‘madman’s wisp’ or ‘fluttering wisp’ (dlui fulla: dlui or dluigh, ‘a wisp’), that is, a little wisp of straw or grass, into which he pronounced some horrible incantations, and, watching his opportunity, flung it into the face of his victim, who at once became insane or idiotic. So generally was insanity attributed to this, that in the Glosses to the Senchus Mor, a madman (Irish dasachtach or fulla) is, repeatedly described as one “upon whom the dlui fulla or magic wisp has been thrown.”
The legend of Comgan illustrates this full necromantic power. Maelochtair, king of the Decies in Munster, early in the seventh century, had a son named Conigan, remarkable for his manly beauty and accomplishments, who was half-brother by the same mother to St. Cummain Fota. One day, at a great fair held in Tipperary, Comgan carried off all the prizes in the athletic sports: and the spectators were delighted with him, especially the king’s druid. But a certain woman, who had before that vainly sought Comgan’s love, now revenged herself on him by whispering a false accusation into the druid’s ear: whereupon his admiration for the youth was instantly changed to furious jealousy; and when Comgan and his friends retired to a neighboring river to wash themselves and their horses after the sports, he followed them, and watching his opportunity, flung a magic wisp over him, at the same time pronouncing some fiendish words. When the young man came forth from the water, his whole body burst out into boils and ulcers, so that his attendants had to bring him to his father’s house, all diseased and helpless as he was. There he wasted away in body, his mind decayed, his hair fell off: and ever afterwards he wandered about the palace, a bald, driveling idiot. But he had lucid intervals, and then he became an inspired poet, and uttered prophecies; so that he is known in the legendary literature as Mac-da-cerda, the ‘youth of the two arts’, that is to say, poetry and foolishness.
The invention of the madman’s wisp is assigned, by a legend in the Coir Anmann, to a celebrated Leinster druid named Fullon, who lived centuries before the Christian era:
Fullon was the first druid who cast a spell (bricht) on a wisp, so as to send by means of it a human being a-flying (for foluamhain). Hence, dlui fulla, or ‘madman’s wisp,’ is a saying among the Scots from that day to this.
There is a valley in Kerry called Glannagalt, ‘the glen of the lunatics’ (Irish, gleann-na-ngealt): and it is believed that all lunatics, if left to themselves, would find their way to it, no matter from what part of Ireland. When they have lived in its solitude for a time, drinking of the water of Tobernagalt (‘the lunatics’ well’), and eating of the cresses that grow along the little stream, the poor wanderers get restored to sanity. It appears by the story of the Battle of Ventry that this glen was first discovered by a youth named Goll, who fled frenzied from that battle, as Sweeny from Moyrath, and plunged into the seclusion of Glannagalt. There is a well in Donegal which was believed to possess the same virtue as Tobernagalt, and to which all the deranged people in the surrounding district were wont to resort. It is situated on the strand, near high-water mark, a third of a mile south of Inishowen Head, near the entrance to Lough Foyle. It still retains its old name Srubh Brain, ‘Bran’s sruv or stream,’ which is represented in the name of the adjacent hamlet of Stroove.
In the Lives of the Saints, the druids and their magical arts figure conspicuously; as, for instance, in the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, and in the earlier memoir of the saint, by Muirchu, as well as in Adamnan’s Life of Saint Columba: and not less so in the historical tales. Before the Battle of Cul-Dremne, fought in 561 between the Northern and the Southern Hy Neill, Dermot, king of Ireland, who headed the southern Hy Neill, a Christian king, called in the aid of the druid Fraechan [Freehan], who, just as the armies were about to engage, made an airbe druad [arva drooa] round the southern army to protect it. It is not easy to say what this airbe druad was. Stokes translates it ‘druid’s fence’; and, no doubt, it was a magic fence of some kind: for this is the usual sense of airbe in old Irish writings. One man of the northern army, named Mag Laim, sprang across the airbe, by which he broke the charm, but sacrificed his own life, for he was at once slain: after which the battle was fought, and Dermot was defeated with a loss of 3000, while Mag Laim alone fell on the other side. All this is related by Tigernach and the other Annalists. In the Agallamh na Senorach, a chief’s dun is mentioned as sometimes surrounded by a snaidm druad [snime drooa], a ‘druid’s knot’: is this the same as the airbe druad, or have the two any connection?
The druid could pronounce a malign incantation, no, doubt, a sort of glam dichenn (a curse), not only on an individual, but on a whole army, so as to produce a withering or enervating effect on the men. Before the Battle of Mucrime (250 AD), Oilill Olum’s  son Eoghan , one of the contending princes, came to Dil, the blind old druid of Ossory, to ask him to maledict the hostile army, as Balak employed Balaam; but on their way towards the place, Dil came somehow to know by Eoghan’s voice that he was doomed to defeat and death, and refused to proceed farther.
The druids could give a drink of forgetfulness (deog dermaid), so as to efface the memory of any particular transaction. Cuculain had fallen in love with the fairy lady Fand, so that his wife Emer was jealous: but Concobar’s druids gave each of them, Cuculainn and Emer, a drink of forgetfulness, so that he quite forgot Fand and she her jealousy; and they were reconciled. The druids were the intermediaries with the fairies, and with the invisible world in general, which they could influence for good or evil; and they could protect people from the malice of evil-disposed spirits of every kind; which explains much of their influence with the people.
An important function of a druid was divination, forecasting future events, which was practiced by the pagan Irish in connection with almost all important affairs, such as military expeditions. Laegaire’s druids foretold the coming of St. Patrick; and the druid Dubdiad foretells the defeat and death of Congal in the Battle of Moyrath. Queen Maive, before setting out on the Tain expedition, confers with her druid to get from him knowledge and prophecy: so he prophesies: “Whosoever they be that will not return, thou thyself shalt certainly return.” The druids forecasted, partly by observation of natural objects or occurrences, and partly by certain artificial rites: and in the exercise of this function the druid was a faith [faw] or prophet.
They drew auguries from observation of the clouds. On the eve of a certain Saimhain (first of November), Dathi, king of Ireland (405 to 428 AD), who happened at the time to be at Cnoc-nan-druad (‘the druids’ hill’: now Mullaroe, and often incorrectly called Red Hill), in the parish of Skreen, Sligo, west of Ballysadare Bay, where there was then a royal residence, ordered his druid to forecast for him the events of his reign from that till next Samhain. The druid went to the summit of the hill, where he remained all night, and, returning at sunrise, addressed the king somewhat as the witches addressed Macbeth: “Art thou asleep, 0h King of Erin and Alban (Scotland)?” “Why the addition to my title?” asked the king, “I am not king of Alban.” And the druid answered that he had consulted “the clouds of the men of Erin,” by which he found out that the king would make a conquering expedition to Alban, Britain, and Gaul: which accordingly he did soon afterwards.
This account of cloud divination is corroborated by the existence in Irish of the word neladoir [nailadore] for an astrologer or diviner: and neladoracht glosses “pyromantia” (‘divination by fire’), in an old Irish treatise on Latin declension. But the primary meaning of neladoir is ‘cloud-diviner’ ; and of neladoracht, ‘divination by clouds’; for nel, neul, nell, means ‘a cloud,’ even to this day, and not star or fire.
Astrology, in the proper sense of the word divination from the stars, appears, nevertheless, to have been practiced by the Irish. Forecasting the proper time for beginning to build a house is alluded to in a short Irish poem contained in an eighth century manuscript, now in a monastery in Carinthia, having been brought thither by some early Irish missionary:
“There is no house more auspicious, with its stars last night, with its sun, with its moon.”
This reference to astrology is in a purely Christian connection, as it appears from the poem that the house in question was built by the great Christian architect the Gobban Saer. In the legends of the saints we find divination by the heavenly bodies. When St. Columkille was a child, his foster-father went to a certain prophet (faith) to ask him when the child was to begin to learn his letters; and the prophet, having first scanned the heavens, decided that the lessons were to begin at once.
For purposes of divination they often used a rod of yew with ogham words cut on it. When Etain, King Ochy Airem’s queen, was carried off by the fairy King Midir, the druid Dallan was commissioned by King Ochy to find out where she was. After much searching he at last “made four rods of yew, and writes an ogham on them; “and by his keys of knowledge and by his ogham, it [the “fairy palace where the queen was] is revealed to him.” Dr. Stokes points out that similarly at Praeneste the oracles were derived from lots consisting of oak with ancient characters engraved on them.
In several of the tales we find mention of a druidic ‘wheel divination,’ i.e. made by means of a wheel. The celebrated druid Mogh Ruith [Mow-rih] of Dairbre, now Valentia Island, in Kerry, was so called on account of his skill in this sort of divination; for, in the Coir Anmann, we read of him:
Mogh Ruith signifies Magus rotarum, the wizard [or rather the devotee] of the wheels, for it is by wheels he used to make his taisceladhg druidhechta or ‘magical observation’.
In another place we read that his daughter, who went with him to the East to learn magic, made a roth ramhach or ‘rowing wheel,’ probably for the purpose of divination. But the roth ramhach figured in other functions, as may be seen in O’Curry’s Ms. Materials. I have not the least notion of how the druidical divination-wheel was made or how it was used: but it may be of interest to observe here that, as Rhys remarks, the old Gaulish sun-god is represented with a wheel in his hand.
Finn Mac Cumail, besides his other accomplishments, had the gift of divination, for which he used a rite peculiar to himself. A basin of clear water was brought to him, in which, having washed his hands, and having complied with some other formalities, he put his thumb in his mouth under his “tooth of knowledge,” on which the future event he looked for was revealed to him. This is repeatedly mentioned in the Tales of the Fena; and the legend is prevalent everywhere in Ireland at the present day. In the story of “The Praise of Cormac and the Death of Finn”, this rite is said to be a sort of Teinm Laegda or part of it.
In the Irish Nennius we are told that certain druids taught druidism, idolatry, sorcery, [the composition of] bright poems, divination from sneezing, from the voices of birds, and from other omens; and how to find out by these means suitable weather and lucky days for any enterprise. Before the Battle of Moyrath the druid interprets King Domnall’s dream, and advises precautionary measures. Divination by the voices of birds was very generally practiced, especially from the croaking of the raven and the chirping of the wren: and the very syllables they utter and their interpretation are given in the old books. The wren in particular was considered so great a prophet, that in an old Life of St. Moling one of its Irish names, drean, is fancifully derived from drui-en, meaning the ‘druid of birds.’ When St. Kellach, Bishop of Killala, was about to be murdered, the raven croaked, and the grey-coated scallcrow called, the wise little wren twittered ominously, and the kite of Cloon-o sat on his yew-tree waiting patiently to carry off his talons, full of the victim’s flesh. But when, after the deed had been perpetrated, the birds of prey came scrambling for their shares, every one that ate the least morsel of the saint’s flesh dropped down dead. The Welsh birds of prey knew better when they saw the bodies of the slaughtered druids:
“Far, far aloof the affrighted ravens sail,
The famished eagle screams and passes by.”
The Bard, by Gray.
Just before the attack by Ingcel and his band of pirates on Da Derga’s Hostel, the howl of Ossar, King Conari’s messan or lapdog, portended the coming of battle and slaughter. The clapping of hands was used in some way as an omen; and also an examination of the shape of a crooked knotted tree-root.
Sometimes animals were sacrificed as part of the ceremony of divination. When King Conari and his retinue were in Da Derga’s Hostel, several unusual and ominous circumstances occurred which foreboded disaster to the hostel: whereupon the king’s chief juggler (who had just failed, for the first time in his life, to perform his juggling feat, one of the omens) said to the druid Fer-Caille, “Sacrifice thy pig now, and find out who is about to attack the hostel.” Fer-Caille did so, and foretold the impending destruction of the hostel by pirates.
There were certain cross days in every month of the year which were unlucky for under taking any enterprise, of which a list is given by O’Curry from an Irish medical Ms. But on individual occasions the druids determined the days to be avoided, often by calculations of the moon’s age. A druid predicted that his daughter’s baby, if born on a certain day would turn out just an ordinary person, but if born on the next day, he was to be a king and the ancestor of kings. (This Druid was named Dil, his daughter was named Moncha, and the father of the child was Eoghan .) Accordingly, the poor mother so managed that the birth was delayed till next day, but sacrificed her own life by doing so; and her baby was subsequently Fiachaidh Muilleathan , an illustrious king of Munster (and ancestor of the O’Sullivan clan). Many examples might be cited where disaster attended an undertaking on account of beginning it on an unlucky day. It is hardly necessary to remark that the superstition of lucky and unlucky days was common amongst most ancient nations, and that it still lives vigorously among ourselves in all grades of society.
The druids had a tonsure. The two druids Mael and Caplait, brothers, the tutors of King Laegaire’s daughters Ethnea and Fedelma, had their hair cut in a magical figure, “Norma Magica”, called in Irish Airbacc Giunnae; about the meaning of which there has been some doubt. Dr. Todd asserts that it means ‘the bond of Gehenna or hell’; but the Rev. Dr. Hogan questions this, and thinks it may mean simply , ‘cut of the hair’, making airbacc equal caesura, from bacc, ‘tonsio’ or ‘ligo,’ with the preposition air. That he is right in making giunnae, ‘of the hair’, is plain from a passage in the Coir Anmann which explains giunnach as meaning folt, i.e. ‘hair’. But it seems to me that airbacc is merely airbe (as in Airbe-druad) with the common termination -ach; as we write smolach (thrush) for smol, and as giunnach from giunnae, above. For airbacc is the way of writing airbeach or airbach used by Latin writers, as they wrote Fiacc for Fiach. If this is so, airbacc giunnae means merely the ‘fence-cut of the hair’, implying that in this tonsure the hair was cut in such a way as to leave a sort of eave or fence along some part of the head.
St. Patrick considered the Norma Magica a diabolical mark; for when these two druids were converted, he had their hair cut so as to obliterate it. The very name of one of these brothers, Mael, signifying bald, conveys the sense of tonsured: for we see from the narrative that he was not naturally bald. Moreover one of Laegaire’s druids at Tara was called Lucet Mael, which name is made by the old Latin writers Lucet calvus, i.e. the bald or tonsured.
In connection with this it will be interesting to mention that in Muirchu’s Memoir of St. Patrick we read of a certain Ulster chief named Maccuill, very tyrannical and wicked, a notorious robber and murderer. This man openly proclaimed his own character by adopting, as an indication of his villainous career, certain marks, usually exhibited by persons of his sort, which are elsewhere explained as signa diabolica super capita, ‘diabolical marks on the head’: no doubt, some special cut of the hair. The adoption of this mark was an indication that the persons devoted themselves to the service of the devil, and became diberga, i.e. people who practiced violence, robbery, and murder, as a sort of profession.
The druids had a “heathen baptism” (baisteadh geinntlidhe). The three sons of Conall Derg O’Corra were baptized according to this rite, with the direct intention of devoting them to the service of the devil, though they afterwards became three very holy men. So, also, the celebrated Red Branch hero Conall Kernach. When he was born, “druids came to baptize the child into heathenism”: and they sang the heathen baptism (baithis geintlidhe) over the little child; and they said : ‘Never will be born a boy who will be more impious than this boy towards the Connacians.’
When Oilill Olum , king of Munster in the beginning of the third century, was a child, “he was baptized [pagan fashion] in druidic streams”. In the Gaelic version of the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, where the Scripture account of Isaac and Ishmael is given, the term ‘heathen baptism’ (baistedhe Genntlidhi) is applied to circumcision; but this is an exceptional application: and the Irish ceremony was altogether different. The ancient Welsh people had also a heathen baptism: the Welsh hero Gwri of the Golden Hair, when an infant, was “baptized with the baptism that was usual at that time.” Possibly the heathen baptism of the Irish and Welsh was adopted by the druids of both nations in imitation of the Christian rite, by way of opposition to the new doctrines, devoting the child to the service of their own gods, which in the eyes of the Christian redactors of the tales, was equivalent to devoting him to the devil.
The druids wore a white robe. We read in Tirechan’s Notes that Amalgaid’s druid, Rechrad, and his eight companions, on the occasion when they attempted to kill St. Patrick, were clad in white tunics: like the Gaulish druid, who, as Pliny states, wore a white robe when cutting the mistletoe from the oak with a knife of gold.
We know that the Gaulish druids regarded the oak, especially when mistletoe grew on it, with much religious veneration; but I cannot find that the Irish druids had any special veneration for the oak: although like other trees, it occasionally figures in curious pagan rites. The mistletoe is not a native Irish plant: it was introduced some time in the last century. The statement we so often see put forward that the Irish druids held their religious meetings, and performed their solemn rites, under the sacred shade of the oak, is pure invention. [This is wrong. The open air ritual in an oak grove was ubiquitous among the continental druids and was therefore assumed to be a common practice among the insular druids as well. It was not a mere “invention”, but rather an educated assumption.] But they attributed certain druidical or fairy virtues to the yew, the hazel, and the quicken or rowan tree, especially the last, and employed them in many of their superstitious ceremonials. We have already seen that yew-rods were used in divination.
In the historic Tale of the Forbais Droma Damhghaire, or Siege of Knocklong, in the County Limerick, we read that when the northern and southern armies confronted each other, the druids on both sides made immense fires of quicken boughs. These were all cut by the soldiers with mysterious formalities, and the fires were lighted with great incantations. Each fire was intended to exercise a sinister influence on the opposing army; and from the movements of the smoke and flames the druids drew forecasts of the issue of the war. On some occasions, as we read, witches or druids, or malignant phantoms, cooked flesh, sometimes the flesh of dogs or horses, on quicken-tree spits, as part of a diabolical rite for the destruction of some person obnoxious to them. Many of these superstitions have survived to our own day. The quicken is a terror to fairies, and counteracts their evil devices. Bring a quicken-tree (blackthorn) walking-stick out at night, and the fairies will take care to give you a wide berth. When a housewife is churning, if she puts a ring made of a twig from this tree on the handle of the churndash, no evil-minded neighbor can rob her of her butter through any pishoges or other malign fairy influence.
A most important, function of the druids was that of teaching: they were employed to educate the children of kings and chiefs; they were indeed the only educators, which greatly added to their influence. King Laegaire’s two daughters were sent to live at Cruachan in Connaught in the house of the druids who had charge of their education: and even Columba, when a child, began his education under a druid.
The chief druid of a king held a very influential position: he was the king’s confidential adviser on important affairs. When King Concobar Mac Nessa contemplated avenging the foray of Queen Maive, he sought and followed the advice of his “right illustrious” druid Cathbad as to the time and manner of the projected expedition. And on St. Patrick’s visit to Tara, King Laegaire’s proceedings were entirely regulated by the advice of his two chief druids Lucetmail and Lochru. The great respect in which druids were held is illustrated by a passage in the Mesca Ulad in the Book of the Dun Cow, which tells us that at an assembly it was geis (i.e. it was forbidden) to the Ultonians to speak till their King Concobar had spoken first, and it was in like manner one of Concobar’s geasa to speak before his druids. Accordingly, on a certain occasion at a feast, Concobar stood up from where he sat on his ‘hero-seat’ or throne, and there was instant silence, so that a needle falling from roof to floor would be heard: yet he too remained silent till his druid Cathbad asked: “ What is this, oh illustrious king ?” after which the king, taking this question as an invitation to speak, said what he had to say to the assembly.
“One foot, one hand, one eye.”
Spells of several kinds are often mentioned in our ancient writings, as practiced by various people, not specially or solely by druids. But all such rites and incantations, by whomsoever performed magical practices of every kind, are known by the general name of druidecht, i.e. ‘druidism,’ indicating that all proceeded from the druids. Some of the most important of them will be described here.
A common name for a sorcerer of any kind, whether druid or not, was corrguinech, and the art he practiced, the art of sorcery, was corrguinecht. The explanation of, these corrguinechs as ‘folks of might,’ given in the story of the Battle of Moytura, shows the popular estimation in which they were held. Usually while practicing his spell, the corrguinech was “on one foot one hand, and one eye,” which, I suppose, means standing on one foot, with one arm outstretched, and with one eye shut. While in this posture, he uttered a kind of incantation or curse, called glam dichenn, commonly extempore, which was intended to inflict injury on the maledicted person or persons. It was chanted in a loud voice, as the word glam indicates, meaning, according to Cormac’s Glossary, ‘clamor’ or ‘outcry.’ O’Davoren, in his Glossary, defines corrguinecht as “to be on one foot, on one hand, and on one eye, making the glam dichenn.” The term ‘glam dichenn’ was often applied to the aer or satire of a poet.
There are many notices of the exercise, by druids or others, of this necromantic function. Just before the second Battle of Moytura, Lug of the long arms, the Ildana or ‘master of many arts,’ as he was called, the commander of the Dedannans, having made an encouraging speech to his men, went round the army, using one foot and one eye, chanting, at the same time, some sort of incantation (Rocan Lug an cetul so sios for leth cois ocus leth suil timchell fer n-Erenn : “Lug sang this chant [given] below on one foot and one eye [while going] round the men of Erin”). Observe, the one hand is not mentioned here. The “ Bruden Da Derga,” in the Book of the Dun Cow, relates how, just before the tragedy in which King Conari was slain, a horrible spectral-looking woman came to the king and his retinue, and, standing at the door of the house, she croaked out some sort of incantation “ on one foot, one hand, and one breath.” When the Fomorian chief Cicul and his mother arrived in Ireland with three hundred men to contend with the Parthalonians, they came “on one of the legs, on one of the hands, and one of the eyes” (for oencosaib ocus for oenlamaib ocus oensuilib), in pursuance, of some malign magical intentions.
This posture was often adopted in other ceremonies, besides the glam dichenn. Cuculainn, on one occasion, wishing to send a mystic message to Maive’s opposing army, cut an oak sapling while using one foot, one hand, and one eye; and bending the sapling into a ring, he cut an ogham on it, and left it tightly fitted on the top of a pillar stone. It was a necessary part of this rite that the sapling should be severed and its top sheared off with a single sweep of the sword. One of Maive’s people found it and read the ogham, which placed an injunction on them not to move the army from camp, till one of them, going through the same process, placed a twig-ring with a reply in ogham on the same pillar-stone.
Some obscure allusions in old writings show that sorcerers threw themselves into other strange attitudes in the practice of their diabolical art. When the druids came against St. Caillin, they advanced on all fours, and cuirid a tona suas, “they turn up their backsides” (ponent podices corum sursum); and their jaws “move angrily, and they unjustly revile the clerics” (probably with a glam dichenn): and the legend goes on to say that for this profanity the saint turned them into standing stones. Perhaps a circumstance related in the “Wars of the Gaels with the Galls” has some connection with this rite. When King Mahon, after the Battle of Sulcoit (968 AD), took the Danes of Limerick captive, the victorious Irish celebrated some sort of races or games by placing “a great line of the women of the foreigners on the little hills of Singland in a circle, and they were stooped with their hands on the ground; and the gillies of the army, standing behind them, marshaled them, for the good of the souls of the foreigners who were killed in the battle.” But the whole entry, which seems an odd mixture of paganism and Christianity, is quite obscure, so that Todd professes himself unable to explain it.
In Cormac’s Glossary and other authorities, the three rites [Imbas Forosnai, Teinm Laegda, and Dichetal do chennaib] are mentioned as rendering a poet (fili) prophetical. Imbas Forosnai, ‘illumination between the hands,’ or ‘palm-knowledge of enlightening,’ was so called, says the Glossary, because “it discovers everything which the poet wishes and which he desires to manifest.” The Glossary goes on to describe the manner of performing the rite: “The poet chewed a piece of the flesh of a red pig, or of a dog, or of a cat, and then placing it on a flagstone, pronounced an incantation over it, and offered it to idol-gods: then he calls “his idol-gods to him, but finds them not on the morrow [i.e. he takes them to himself, and they disappear during his sleep]; and he pronounces incantations on his two Palms, and calls again unto him his idol-gods, that his sleep may not be disturbed; and he lays his two palms on his two cheeks and [in this position] falls asleep: and he is watched in order that no one may disturb him.” During his sleep the future events were revealed to him; and he wakened up with a full knowledge of them. According to the Glossary, the rite was called imbas, from bas, ‘the palm of the hand.’ The Teinm Laegda was used for a like purpose; “but the two rites were performed after a different manner: i.e. a different kind of offering was made at each”. De Jubainville shows that a similar, though somewhat less complicated, rite was practiced by the Greeks and Romans, and by some eastern people.
Cormac’s Glossary, and other old authorities, state that St. Patrick abolished the Imbas Forosnai and the Teinm Laegda, because they required offerings to be made to idols or demons; but he permitted the Dichetal do chennaib, “because it is not necessary in it to make offerings to demons.” This Dichetal do chennaib was simply the utterance of an extempore prophecy or poem without any previous rite. It seems to have been accomplished with the aid of a harmless mnemonic contrivance of some kind, in which the fingers played a principal part, and by which the poet was enabled to pour forth his verses extemporaneously. That this was the case appears both from its name and from the descriptions given in the old authorities. Dichetal do chennaib signifies ‘recital from the ends,’ i.e. the ends of the fingers, as is evident from Cormac’s Glossary: “There is a revelation at once from the ends of the bones” -do chennaib cnaime. So also, in the Small Primer, it is said that the poet repeats his verses “without having meditated, or even thought of them before”. Again, in the Senchus Mor, we read that the poet “composes from the enlightening [finger] ends” (forcan di cendaib forosna): on which the Commentator says: At this day [i.e. in the time of the “ Commentator] it is by the ends of his [finger] bones he effects it; . . . and the way in which it is done is this: When the poet sees the person or thing before him, he makes a verse at once with the ends of his fingers, or in his mind without studying, and he composes and repeats at the same time. All this agrees with the statement in Cormac’s Glossary: “Dichetal do chennaib was left [by Patrick], for it is science [i.e. mere intellectual effort, not necromancy] that effects it.”
Notwithstanding St. Patrick’s prohibition, the whole three rites continued to be practiced down to a comparatively late period, as the forms of many other pagan rites lived on in spite of the efforts of the Christian clergy. The Book of Ollaves lays down as one of the requirements of an Anruth poet in his eighth year that he must master the Imbas Forosnai, the Teinm Laegda, and the Dichetal do chennaib. In confirmation of this, we find it stated in a late historical record that a council was called by Donall O’Neill, king of Ulster, in the eleventh century, to make reparation for an injury inflicted on the poet Erard Mac Cosse by some Ulster chiefs: and another great scholar, Flann of Monasterboice, as the mouthpiece of the council, assessed certain damages to be paid to Mac Cosse, and, in future, to all other poets for similar injury, provided they were able to compose the Imbas Forosnai, the Teinm Laegda, and the Dichetal do chennaib. Here, however, these functions seem to have been mere literary performances, without any invocation to idols or demons, or any touch of necromancy; so that, like many other heathen practices continued into Christian times, they lost their pagan taint, and became harmless.
The ancient Irish practiced a rite called the “Bull feast” to discover who their future king was to be, not much unlike the Imbas Forosnai. This is described more than once in the Book of the Dun Cow: “A white bull was killed, and one man ate enough of its flesh, and drank of the broth: and he slept under that meal ; and a spell of truth was chanted over him [as he slept in his bed] by four druids: and he saw in a dream the shape and description of the man who should be made king, and the sort of work he was [at the moment] engaged in.” Another version says “the sleeper would perish if he uttered a falsehood.” Dr. Stokes points out that, in Achaia, the priestess of the earth drank the fresh blood of a bull before descending into the cave to prophesy.
The druids and other “men of might” could make a magic mantle that rendered its wearer invisible: called a celtar [keltar] or dicheltair, (something that covers or conceals, from cel or ceil, ‘conceal’), and often celtar comga, ‘mantle of concealment.’ Cuculainn once, going into battle, put on his celtar comga, which was part of the raiment of Tir Tairngire or Fairyland, and which had been given him by his tutor of druidism (aiti druidechta). An Irish version of the Aeneid tells us that when Venus was guiding Aeneas and his companions to, Dido’s city, she put a dichealtair round them, so that they went unseen by the hosts till they arrived within the city: just as Athene threw a mist of invisibility round Ulysses as he entered the city of the Phaeacians.
Druids and others could raise or produce a Fe-fiada or Feth-fiada, which rendered people invisible. The accounts that have reached us of this Fe-fiada, are very confused and obscure. Sometimes it appears to be a poetical incantation, or even a Christian hymn, which rendered the person that repeated it invisible. Often it is a mantle: occasionally a sort of fog or spell that hid natural objects, such an object as a well, and that might be removed by Christian influences. Every shee or fairy palace had a Fe-fiada round it, which shut it out from, mortal vision. The Fe-fiada and the dicheltair held their ground far into Christian times, and even found their way into the legends of the saints. St. Patrick’s well-known hymn was a Fe-fiada, and it is openly called so in old authorities: for it made Patrick and his company, as they went towards Tara, appear as a herd of deer to those who lay in wait to slay them.
At the Battle of Clontarf (1014), the banshee Eevin, according to a modern manuscript account, gave the Dalcassian hero Dunlang O’Hartigan a mantle, called a feadh Fia, which, so long as he wore it, made him invisible, and protected him from harm during the battle; but when he threw it off, he was slain. When, the king of Fermoy pursued St. Finnchua’s mother to kill her, as we read in the Life of this saint, a “cloak of darkness” (celtchair dhichlethi) was put round her by miraculous Christian intervention, so that she escaped. It would appear from many passages that anything producing invisibility, whether mantle, fog, incantation, or hymn, was called by the general name Fe-fiada.
When the Fe-fiada was a fog, it was more commonly called ceo druidechta [dreeghta: ceo, pron. ‘kyo’], the ‘druidical or magic fog’; which very often figures in Irish romances and songs, both ancient and modern. In the Fled Bricrenn we read that a ceo druidechta once overtook Laegaire the Victorious, and on the same occasion another came upon Conall Cernach, “so that he was unable to see heaven or earth”. When the Dedannans invaded Ireland, they marched inland till they reached Slieve an Ierin, covering themselves with a magic fog, so that the Firbolgs never perceived them till they had taken up a strong position. This concealing fog is also found in Christian legends. In the story of the Boroma, in the Book of Leinster, it is related that on one occasion, when St. Molling and his companions were pursued by a hostile party, his friend Mothairen, who was far away from him at the time, having, in some preternatural way, been made aware of his danger, prayed that a fog (ceo simply: not called a ceo druidechta) might be sent round them: and straightway the fog came and enveloped them, though they themselves did not perceive it, so that they were quite hidden from the view of their enemies, and succeeded in escaping.
Spells and charms of various other kinds were practiced. A general name for a charm was sen [shain]: senaire [three syllables], a ‘charmer.’ Among the offences mentioned in the Senchus Mor for which a penalty was due is “carrying love-charms”: which are there called auptha: other forms of the word are uptha, eptha, and iptha. In the Gloss on this passage are given two other names for a charm, felmas and pisoc. This last is still in use, even among English-speaking people, in the modern form piseog (pron. pishoge), and familiarly applied to witchcraft or spells. Fidlann, which occurs in the “Second Vision of Adamnan,” denoted some kind of necromantic divination, which was, perhaps, done by lot-casting, as the first syllable, fid, means ‘wood,’ or ‘anything made of wood’: or, as Stokes suggests,’ by cutting ogham on a yew-rod. In Cuimmins’s poem on the Irish saints eile [aila] is given to denote a spell-chant or charm. The Dedannan god Lug, already mentioned as singing an incantation before the Battle of Moytura, is brought forward in the Tain as in conversation with Cuculainn, and utters another incantation, which is called, on the margin of the page of the Book of the Dun Cow, eli Loga, ‘Lug’s eli or chant.”
Despite his obvious prejudice against druids and pre-Christian society in general, Joyce confirms that the druids enjoyed immense power and authority in Ireland. He also inadvertently exposes the overwhelming influence that druidism had on the evolving Celtic Christian faith.
The Archaeological Evidence
Though there are some scholars who propose that it is not possible to learn anything about the Druids from archeology, most mainstream historians recognize that conclusions about the religious beliefs and practices of a people extrapolated from digs can be valid. Ireland has yet to be explored sufficiently, in the archaeological sense. The realm of the Tuatha de Danaan, that half of Ireland that is underground, remains, for the most part, undisturbed. Perhaps future excavations will add much to our knowledge of the insular Gaelic Celts. In the meantime, the archeological findings in other parts of Europe can be used to deduce the nature of the Gaelic Celtic society.
Continental archaeological sites have defined two periods of Celtic development, the Hallstatt Iron Age and the La Tene Culture:
“The origins of the Celts can be traced back long before the migrations to Italy. From the melting pot of the central European Bronze Age, a people emerged in the later eighth century BC whose distinctive material culture has been termed the Hallstatt culture, after an important cemetery discovered near the salt-mining town of Hallstatt in upper Austria. Salt was certainly an important element in the economy of these people, but more important was their development for the first time of an effective iron working industry in Europe north of the Alps. It was the Hallstatt culture which played a significant role in the widespread dissemination of iron technology across Europe. Greek writers in the sixth century BC refer to the existence of Keltoi in central Europe, It may well be that there is overlap between the Keltoi and the archaeologically known Hallstatt culture.
The development of Hallstatt civilization across Europe can be clearly traced as, with time, its ruling dynasties became increasingly wealthy and powerful. From the sixth century BC onwards, and particularly in the early fifth, trading contacts with Greek colonies on the Mediterranean coast and with Greeks and Etruscans on the Adriatic greatly increased the prosperity of the Hallstatt rulers. These chieftains had a particular taste for wine, and they naturally began to accumulate the appropriate utensils for its proper consumption. Their ostentatious burials, such as at Vix in eastern France and Hochdorf in southwest Germany, were filled with the exotic produce of the Mediterranean: great bronze cauldrons and mixing bowls, painted drinking goblets, flagons and strainers. Sometimes delicate Chinese silk found its way into these royal tombs and at Hochdorf the dead chieftain reclined on a wheeled settee of bronze, as he had doubtless done in life, aping the customs of refined Mediterranean society. In such burials a four-wheeled cart generally accompanied the deceased noble to the grave.
Around the middle of the fifth century BC Hallstatt society appears to have suffered a crisis, and rapid decline set in. There followed a phase of major population movements across Europe. Entire tribes appear to have crisscrossed the Continent seeking land and plunder. It was such migrations which brought the Celts to Italy, Greece, Asia Minor and deep into eastern Europe as far as the Carpathian Mountains. And it was such movements which brought Rome to its knees, led to the sack of Delphi, and generally shook the Classical world to its very foundations.
The people of this second phase of Celtic expansion are known by various names. Classical commentators generally refer to them as Galli (Gauls) or Galatae (Galatians), but Caesar interestingly suggests that they described themselves as Celts [“In their own language they are called Celts, in our tongue Gauls.” Gaius Julius Caesar (100 - 44 BC)] Archaeologists, studying the physical remains, refer to their material culture as the La Tene culture. The name derives from a major, presumably votive, deposit of more than 2000 artifacts, which was discovered in 1846 on the western edge of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland. Weapons figured prominently in this find, and especially striking were the numerous highly ornate iron scabbards in which many of the swords were carried. The fine curvilinear art featured on the scabbards is one of the most distinctive and widely dispersed aspects of this La Tene culture.
With the appearance of these people we move from the shadows of prehistory towards the light of the written record. For while they themselves left no written accounts, the writings of Mediterranean authors give us an often vivid picture of the Celts, which amplifies considerably the evidence of archaeology. Thus they appear to be fearsome yet naive, courageous yet foolhardy, vain, deeply religious and with a well-defined social hierarchy.
‘Physically’, we are told by Diodorus, ‘the Gauls are terrifying in appearance, with deep-sounding and very harsh voices. The nobles shave their cheeks but let the moustache grow freely so that it covers the mouth. And so when they are eating, the moustache becomes entangled in the food, and when they are drinking the drink passes, as it were, through a sort of strainer.’ Another account states that ‘nearly all the Gauls are of lofty stature, fair, and of ruddy complexion, terrible from the sternness of their eyes, very quarrelsome, and of great pride and insolence.’
Certainly their belligerent character is repeatedly emphasized by the Classical authors. Cato the Elder, for example, wrote that in Gaul there were only two main passions: ‘war and loquacity’.”
From Pagan Celtic Ireland: The Enigma of the Irish Iron Age, Barry Raftery, p 9-10, Thames and Hudson: ISBN 0-500-27983-7
Archaeological evidence for both of these phases of Celtic development has been found in Ireland. However, it is very difficult (and to some scholars impossible) to credibly deduce any information about the Druids from archaeological remains. As Piggott explains:
“‘The raw material of prehistory is not men, but things,’ as Atkinson has put it. Archaeological evidence in itself consists of the accidentally durable, and so surviving, remnants of human culture, and when observed and recognized for what it is by an archaeologist, is archaeological fact. From such facts, direct inferences may be made, which will be legitimate if, as Margaret Smith put it ‘all the evidence can be empirically verified, and nothing has been added to it’: the inference is ‘virtually only a paraphrase of empirical observations’. This is when archaeological evidence alone is being used, when we have what Hawkes has called a text-free as opposed to a text-aided situation: in the investigation of the Druids of course the circumstances are text-aided, but in handling archaeological evidence alone we must not use it in a logically improper manner. As we shall see, to make any correlations at all between Druids, and the archaeological material that might be attributed to them, involves assumptions and not inferences.
Using text-free archaeological evidence in an attempt to see it in meaningful terms of human activities, we must recognize straight away that the valid information it can give is strictly limited. Hawkes constructed a four-fold scale of ascending difficulty and descending validity in archaeological interpretation, beginning with technology, on which the soundest inferences can be based, and going on to subsistence economics, more complex but still with a large measure of reliability. But the next stage, inferences on social structure, becomes far more tricky: he instanced the problem of interpreting a large isolated building in a prehistoric settlement-plan as a chief’s hut, when it could as well be considered a temple, a communal meeting-hut, a barn, or none of these things.”
“Archaeology is incapable of dealing with myth,” wrote Fox, concerned with this very problem, “but ritual it can recover and analyze and appreciate. Much archaeological evidence for ritual, in Fox’s sense, is that associated with burials, but a boundary between burial-place and sanctuary has never been set by any religion. All architecture, in the widest sense of all buildings however impermanent or primitive, is a durable three-dimensional setting for some form of human activity, static or in motion, and among human activities, as we have seen, we must include those which require sites designed as the structural setting for certain ritual performances which themselves controlled the formal planning and spatial relationships of the component elements in the composition. In a word, sanctuaries, shrines, temples and sacred enclosures should be perceptible in archaeological evidence, sometimes identifiable as such by reasonably direct inference, sometimes to be interpreted by a frank recourse to assumptions and analogues, but one hopes with an honest admission rather than an attempt to take refuge in ‘logical alchemy’.”
“We have then some text-free archaeological evidence for religious sites, and our inference that the evidence is Celtic is strengthened by the documentary evidence that fortunately renders this culture and period in part text-aided archaeology. We can in fact say something about how and when certain ceremonial sites were used.”
“But Atkinson reminds us, surely rightly, that as archaeologists trying to inform the layman we have no right ‘to take refuge in a smug nescience, by an appeal to the strict canons of archaeological evidence, when faced with perfectly legitimate questions of this kind’, provided always we make it abundantly clear when we do attempt such an answer we are ‘indulging in speculation upon subjects about which there is no possibility of greater certainty’.”
The Druids, Stuart Piggott, pgs 2 – 15, Thames and Hudson, ISBN: 0-500-27363-4
In 1897, fragments of a large, bronze Celtic calendar, dating from the first century BC, were discovered in a vineyard near the French town of Coligny, north of Lyons. When reconstructed, it revealed that the Celtic calendar divided the year into lunar months and counted time by the passage of nights, rather than days. The first half of the month, during which the moon was waxing, was considered bright and lucky. The second half of the month, during which the moon waned, was considered dark and unlucky.
Months with thirty days were considered to be auspicious, while those with only twenty-nine days were not. The year itself was also divided into a bright and dark half. The first half of the year, from the festival of Samhain on November 1st, to the celebration of Beltine on May 1st, was considered dark. The second half was perceived to be bright. This calendar was adapted to a solar calendar by the insertion of an additional month of thirty days every three years. We know, from the writings of Caesar and other classical historians, that it was the function of the druids to maintain this calendar. This is an example of text-aided archaeology and a resounding confirmation of the validity of the observations made of the druids by the classical writers.
The Druid Cosmogony
Cosmogony: The astrophysical study of the origin and evolution of the universe.
(Adapted from Oxford English Dictionary and Heritage Dictionary)
It is customary to introduce epic histories of a people with the phrase, “In the beginning...” However, to the ancestors of the O’Sullivan clan, a noble family of the ancient Gaelic Celts, there was no “beginning”. The ordained priests of the Celtic aristocracy, the druids, believed and taught that all matter and energy was eternal. ‘Everything’ always was and always would be according to the druids. The native Gaelic belief system perceived that GoLear (‘All’ or ‘God’; referred to as ‘Dis pater’ by Caesar) had always been. There was recognized to be a universal substance that permeated every nook and cranny of the infinite universe. The druids understood that this universal, original substance, GoLear, is everything for all time. All dimensions, no matter how many there were, were recognized to be GoLear. For this reason there was no Celtic creation myth.
The absence of a Celtic cosmogony has been touted by modern Christian theologians as proof that the Old Religion of the druids was not a “true religion”, but rather a primitive and brutish collection of fears and superstitions. The druids have been portrayed by their Christian protagonists, as being mere jugglers and charlatans. Not only does this fly in the face of the evidence provided by the classical texts, the Irish annals and the archeological digs, but it also belies the advanced understanding of the universe, and its inherent eternity, that precludes the primitive concept of a beginning or an end. The absence of a creation myth is actually evidence of the theological superiority of the pre-Christian Celts. Contrary to the critical accounts of “the saints”, the Druids were both scholars and philosophers with an advanced understanding of physics and astronomy.
The apocalyptic Christian concept of the “end of the physical world” was also very alien to the Celts. While the Christian cosmology is explained by the daily whims of the ever meddling god, Yahweh, the Gaels recognized and respected the natural and unbreakable laws of GoLear. Since they believed that ‘everything’ was ‘everywhere’ for all time, they had no concept of ‘nothingness’. In fact, there was no such thing as ‘nothing’ to the Celts. To the ancestors of the O’Sullivan clan, there was no beginning and no end.
Between the second and twelfth centuries AD, the religious beliefs of the insular Celts of Ireland gradually evolved from Druidism to Celtic-Christianity. With the arrival of the Cambro-Normans in 1169 AD, Celtic-Christianity was rapidly forged into Romano-Christianity in the furnace of a fierce cultural war. The Irish, both Celtic and Norman, tenaciously remained Romano-Christian (Catholic) well into the twentieth century, for the most part successfully repelling the invasion of the Anglo-Christianity of Henry VIII. In the second half of the twentieth century, Romano-Christianity underwent an abrupt, world-wide, conversion to Judeo-Christianity. This cataclysmic process was driven by the spirit of ecumenism.
The unfortunate result of this tumultuous 2,000 years of religious mutation is that the native Celtic understanding of an infinite and eternal universe was displaced by the foreign concept of a seven day creation process orchestrated by the Jewish tribal god, Yahweh. In essence, the druids were cuckolded by their Christian counterparts.
The Druid Cosmology
Cosmology: The astrophysical study of the structure and constituent dynamics of the universe.
(Adapted from Oxford English Dictionary and Heritage Dictionary)
Out of the Mist:
From those points on which the Classical historians and the native Christian Irish annalists agree, several characteristics of the theology of the druids can be deduced:
1. The druids believed in one god.
2. The druids recognized that the spirit of this one god permeated all things, living and non-living.
3. This ubiquitous spirit was immortal as was all matter in the universe.
4. All matter of the universe was of the same substance.
5. The druids believed that, with diligent study and a subsequent understanding of this universal matter and spirit, a person could control any and all events and outcomes, including the movement of the heavenly bodies.
The druids maintained that for all time there had been one substance from which everything in the universe was made. This substance was “GoLear”. All elements were perceived to be variations in the form of GoLear. The earth, the sun, the stars, space, people, animals, vegetables, and rocks were all formed from GoLear. The universe, never ending and without spatial or chronological boundary, was made of this one substance. Everything in the universe was GoLear.
GoLear was infinite in quantity, quality, and longevity.
There was a never ending supply of GoLear. The entire universe was made from GoLear. In fact, GoLear was everywhere. There was nowhere where GoLear was not. What looked like empty space was actually permeated with this original substance, but at concentrations below the threshold of the senses. GoLear was omnipresent.
GoLear could take any form imaginable and did so. There was no limit to what GoLear could become. GoLear had infinite potential to be anything to anyone. GoLear was omnipotent.
GoLear had always been and would always be. There was never a time when GoLear was not. GoLear was eternal.
The name ‘GoLear’ referred both to the smallest particle of this original substance as well as to the infinite universe. All of God (GoLear) could be found simultaneously in an atom and a galaxy.
If the known universe, for all time, were to be compressed into the size of an atom, then it all would be just a tiny particle in another universe of grander scale. If this grander universe was, in turn, compressed, for all time, into the size of an atom, then it too would be just a tiny particle in another universe of even greater scale. This process could go on for eternity and never would the limits of the universe be reached.
Conversely, if a single atom would be expanded to the size of the known universe, there would be found tiny particles from which this atom was formed. If one of these tiny particles were then expanded to the size of the known universe, an endless supply of even smaller particles would be found from which this particle was formed. Again, this process could be repeated ad infinitum without ever reaching a point where there was nothing. There were an infinite number of universes to be found even in the smallest sub-atomic particle on earth.
GoLear, the original substance, was imbued with three properties:
1. An meabhair (mind)
2. An abhar (body)
3. An fuinneamh (spirit)
Every particle of GoLear, no matter how minute, had these three properties. The universe, as a whole, had these three properties. The pagan ancestors of the O’Sullivan clan represented this holy trinity of GoLear in the form of a tri-cephalic god. The three heads of this god, GoLear, symbolized the tripartite nature of the universe:
1. the neuter (mind).
2. the male (body)
3. the female (spirit)
The druids deduced that even the tiniest, most basic building block of the universe must reflect this trinity. They described a rudimentary but highly accurate form of atomic theory, with the atom reflecting GoLear and bearing the three universal elements, the male (the proton), the female (the electron), and the neuter (the neutron). As Dr. Owen Morgan stated in the Light of Britannia, “It is evident that the Druid believed in the eternity of matter in an atomic condition, and also in the eternity of water; and that the passive, that is, the feminine principle of the Divine nature, pervaded both from eternity.”
From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, James Bonwick, pg 7, Dorset Press, ISBN: 0-88029-070-6
The druids proposed that all matter had energy, all energy had matter, and both energy and matter had thought. GoLear, the original substance, was a thinking substance. The entire code of natural law could be found in every tiny particle of GoLear. The complete divine plan that caused the planets to orbit the sun, the universe to expand and contract, and an acorn to develop into an oak tree, was imbued in all matter.
Just as a complete frog can be cloned from one cell of its intestine, so could every natural law of the universe be found expressed in one grain of sand. The infinitely intelligent being could deduce the existence of every form of nature in the universe by observing any one blade of grass.
The concept of ‘nothingness’ was an illusion, for there was nowhere in the universe where there was no GoLear whatsoever. The old physics maxim, “nature abhors a vacuum” reflects the absolute pervasiveness of this universal substance. What appeared to the observer as “nothing”, was really “something” in a concentration that was below the recognition threshold of the human senses. An illustration of this principle was encountered everyday with air. To the uneducated, where there was only air there appeared to be ‘nothing’.
The illusion of “nothingness” was created as a necessary side effect of how the human brain registers data. Much like the computers that the human race has developed, the human brain is a binary system. It interprets sensory information in a series of present/not present pairs. As with computers, the world as a human sees it can ultimately be reduced to a series of numbers such as these: 10 00 00 11 01 01 11 01 11 10 00 00 10 11 11 01 10.
This binary thought pattern is also evidenced in language. If an object is perceived it is recognized as something. For example, if a bear rambles into view it would be said:
“I see a bear.”
If the bear returns to the woods and is out of sight it is said:
“Now I see nothing.”
An unfortunate by-product of this binary human thought system was the creation myth. Judeo-Christians envisioned a vast sea of primordial “nothingness” inhabited only by a bored and omnipotent spirit-god. After billions upon billions of years of vapid existence, their god eventually concluded that he needed company and so went about creating “something” and ultimately “someone”. To the enlightened ancients, the concept of something being created from nothing was absolutely ludicrous. To the druids, the process of “creation” occurred when the divine mind developed a thought. When this thought was expressed as a word, the universal substance, driven by the energy of its inherent spirit, assumed the form imagined by the divine mind. Creation involved something old being transformed into something new.
Today the fundamental Christian doctrine of creationism seems to be supported by scientific observations that suggest that the universe originated with a “big bang”. What the scientists are actually seeing is one phase in the constant process of the universal substance, GoLear, expanding and contracting. Massive concentrations of matter and energy become unstable and explode, according to ‘natural law’. This explosion sends pieces of matter spewing across space. Our life form has developed on one such piece of matter and to us the history of our universe appears to have started with a “big bang”.
The universal mind, perceived by us to be the ‘natural law’, then promotes a contraction of the energy and matter and eventually the process is reversed. Energy and matter implodes and a black hole is formed. GoLear is thus re-concentrated. This divinely choreographed dance is constantly occurring everywhere, for all time, and all dimensions.
The universe is alive and in a constant state of flux, according to druid beliefs. The neutral facet of GoLear, the mind, acts as the organizational force in the universe that is perpetually directing matter and energy. All physical laws are a manifestation of the mind’s control over the energy (spirit) and matter (body) of GoLear.
To understand the druidic cosmology, it must be realized that there are an infinite number of explosions and implosions occurring in the universe for all time. It is an illusion that our universe is comprised solely of the mind, matter, and energy that was spewed by our ‘local’ cosmic explosion and is ever expanding into an abyss of “nothingness”. The fabric of the universe is never broken. All matter is contiguous. After an explosion, the universal substance is sprayed into a diluted solution of original substance. Eventually its force of expulsion diminishes. The subsequent explosion of a neighboring concentration of matter, directed by its inherent thought, pushes it back.
To the druids all matter, living and non-living, possessed the mind, energy, and matter of GoLear. Human individuality was an illusion that caused many theological misconceptions. Since human senses could not possibly see, hear, taste, touch, or smell the infinite universe, observers were forced to extrapolate from their very limited glimpses to envision their God. There existed two absolute truths, however, that allowed the ancients to know their God with certainty.
The first was that God was omnipresent, permeating the infinitesimal particles of the universe as well as the largest galaxies. (Theologically this concept has been anthropomorphized as “man is created in the image and likeness of god” and “as above, so below”.) Therefore every square inch of the universe was a microcosm of the entire universe. The ultimately deductive mind could eventually envision the entire universe by studying the tip of a fern leaf or a pebble of sand from any beach. Just as all of the genetic instructional materials for the entire organism can be found in any one cell, so could all of the mind, mass, and energy of GoLear be found in any point in the universe. It is not a mere coincidence that the modern model of an atom resembles a sun being orbited by planets.
The second absolute truth was that the mind, matter, and energy of the universe were indestructible. The matter that made up each person had been used over and over again for all time. A molecule of water in the bloodstream of a child in Thailand may have been the same molecule floating in a bead of sweat on George Washington’s brow as he crossed the Delaware. A protein molecule in the sinew of a Texan jackrabbit may have also been found in the tail of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. For that matter, an atom of carbon in a hamburger may have arrived on earth from a meteorite, originating millions of light years away.
The mind of the universe was manifested in the natural laws that directed all universal phenomena. The thought that orchestrated all activity would never be lost or forgotten. The plan that directed the planets to orbit the sun, prompted a caterpillar to become a butterfly, or drove a young woman into the arms of her lover, was eternal and unbreakable.
When a mind applied thought to the matter and energy of the original substance, the substance responded. The thought drove the substance to “create” that which was imagined. The notion of a man to build a castle in Kenmare was part of the same master plan that caused it to rain in Brazil.
The energy from the most recent “big bang” explosion was the same energy released from the sun, which was the same energy that drove photosynthesis producing a stalk of asparagus, which was the same energy that a human who had consumed the asparagus used to climb a set of stairs. Energy flowed but never diminished. If one store of energy was depleting another store was receiving. The immortal and ubiquitous spirit of GoLear was the animating energy of the universe. The spirit of GoLear was everywhere and was in everything. The unenlightened perceived the spirit within them to be exclusively their own, independent from the universal spirit of GoLear. Their naïve view of the world around them, as interpreted and limited by their senses and the binary thought process, created the perception that “their spirits” were contained in their bodies. In druid thought, the spirit of GoLear was passing through all of them like electrical energy flowing through a string of Christmas light bulbs.
Although this spirit was briefly “their own” during their lifetime, upon their death it continued flowing unencumbered just as free as the matter that they temporarily possessed. The Christian concept that the human spirit will be reunited with the matter that composed the body during the rapture made absolutely no sense to the druids, and from their point of view revealed the inherent naiveté of the Middle Eastern religions.
A useful albeit imperfect analogy of the spirit animating the body could be found by the shore. If an observer stood on a beach and looked out to the sea it appeared that there was a never-ending succession of individual waves approaching him. Each wave seemed to advance toward the shore, break on the sand, and crash into oblivion. There was a distinct illusion that something had ceased to be.
In reality a wave was not a wall of water moving toward land. A wave was a form of energy that actually moved the molecules of water up and down. A wave was born when the energy in the air caused a wind. When the wind kissed the surface of the water its energy was transferred from the gas particles into the liquid. The matter now infused with energy moved about, expanding its cumulative volume and creating a “swell”. The energy in the swell passed through the water mass forming a wave. The wave continued as the swell effect was passed from one set of water molecules to the next.
Once the end of the body of water was reached at the shore, the last set of water molecules surrendered the traveling energy to the contiguous air and a gust of wind was formed. On still days the observer could actually feel the individual little puffs of wind coming from each successive wave breaking on the beach.
The spirit of GoLear acted much like the wind in the above analogy. When the spirit, the animating energy, kissed the matter of the earth, it caused a swell. The lifeless molecules of soil were picked up, animated, and molded into a man, in the form and image dictated by the divine master plan. During its lifetime, the man, driven by this spirit and directed by the divine mind, picked up new molecules of soil and shed the old. The original pile of dirt that made up the newborn baby was not the same pile of dirt that was dumped into a casket and buried eighty years later, when this particular wave of a life crashed on the shore. Upon death, the spirit was released to enter and animate a new medium, just as a new wind was formed with the breaking of a wave. This knowledge of the indestructibility and transmutability of the soul was a cornerstone belief of the druids and the Celts.
It is interesting to ponder that every cell in the human body dies and is replaced about every three years. The five year-old child has an entirely different body than the same individual on his tenth birthday. It would seem obvious just by looking at photos of a person throughout his life that the body is not the same from year to year, and yet we think of our body as our own personal conglomeration of matter. The reason for this illusion of human individuality is that the cells of our nervous system actually stay the same throughout our entire lifetime. Therefore, although 99% of the cells of an old man have totally been replaced more than 20 times, he still shares memories with the five year old child that he once was.
Understanding that every cell in a person’s body is that person, we begin to realize that the old man we know of as “Connor” is really the cumulative effect of billions and billions of nameless cells that have come and gone over the past seventy years. Each of these cells was born, lived and died with the sole purpose of contributing to the life of Connor. Each of these cells had neighboring cells with which it interacted with during its life. Each of these cells contained within its bounds, all of the genetic material necessary to clone a new Connor. All of Connor is within each of his cells. Each and every cell in his body IS Connor!
To each individual cell the life-span of Connor appears to be about three years. But in reality Connor, as a whole person, lives for about seventy years. Perhaps each cell has the awareness that its meager three year life-span is actually part of something and someone much larger.
More importantly, we can now see that Connor is just an individual cell in a body much larger than his own, namely his species. Although Connor’s meager life-span is only seventy years, he is part of a larger living being whose life-span is tens of thousands of years. We recognize this larger living being as the ‘human race’.
If you were a large being which lived for one hundred thousand years, Connor would just be a nameless cell in a creature that you might know of as “Human”. You could not discern the individual “spirit”, known as “Connor” from his fellow neighboring cells. Just as Connor’s spirit permeates every cell in his body, so does the spirit of the human race permeate the body of Connor. Connor does not have his “own spirit”. Connor shares the spirit of the human race. In turn the spirit of the human race is not owned by that species either. Rather the spirit of the human race is actually the spirit shared by all other living creatures. Indeed, the spirit of all living creatures is the same spirit that permeates every non-living creature (i.e. water, rocks, air, etc.) as well, namely GoLear.
The ancients were aware that the real organism was not the honeybee, but rather the hive. A hive was born with the arrival of a queen. From the queen the hive developed. A hive was perennial. The life-span of the hive could be several years, while the life-span of each individual worker bee “cell” may only have been six weeks. The hive had its own personality, its own efficiency in producing honey, and its own life-span. The bees themselves remained nameless cells infused and driven by the spirit of the hive. If the hive was threatened, each individual bee readily sacrificed its own life to perpetuate that of the hive.
The druids also saw this concept by watching a flock of birds swirling above a field like a giant air-born serpent. The flock seemed to have its own identity and spirit. The individual birds became just nameless cells in the nimble body of the flock. The same effect could be seen in a school of fish or a herd of bison. Another great example could be found in a colony of ants. The mind, body, and spirit of GoLear were in everything. To see GoLear, and commune with the Great Spirit, the druids entered the forest. They had no need for churches. They worshiped GoLear in a grove of oak trees, the beauty and wonder of which could never be equaled by manmade cathedrals.
The ancient religion was monotheistic though many minor gods were recognized. To understand this apparent theological mystery the analogy of the old man Connor is revisited. To the individual cell in Connor’s body, Connor is its god. It lives for Connor. It would die for Connor. It is made in the image and likeness of Connor. Connor’s spirit permeates it. Its only purpose in life is to allow Connor to be. Without Connor it would not exist and conversely without each individual nameless cell, Connor would not exist. When danger is imminent, it is easy to imagine that the cells of his body “pray” to Connor to deliver them from this evil.
To Connor, in turn, god is the cumulative mind, body, and spirit of his entire tribe, the O’Sullivan clan, from its prehistoric beginning to its uncertain future. The Jewish tradition portrays its god, “YHWH” (Yahweh), as an older robust father-figure with a long white beard and wearing rabbinical robes. The Judeo-Christians have adopted “YHWH” but have also added a handsome, blue-eyed, Scythian named Jesus, to their pantheon. The Africans envision their god to have the racial appearances and characteristics familiar to them. These minor tribal gods are all valid, but each is just a small part of the “larger” god of the entire race, which is just a small part of the “even larger” god of all living things, which is just a small part of GoLear.
To particles of the original substance, god would be the element of which they are a part:
The Elemental God
To the elements, god would be the molecule of which they are a part:
The Molecular God
To the molecules, god would be the organelle of which they are a part:
The Organellar God
To the organelles, god would be the cell of which they are a part:
The Cellular God
To the cells, god would be the organism to which they are a part:
The Organism God
To the organisms, god would be the immediate tribe of organisms:
The Tribal God
To the tribes, god would be the species:
The Species God
To the species, god would be all living creatures:
The Living God
To all living creatures, god is the mind, body, and spirit of the infinite universe:
All of these “minor gods” were part of GoLear. Since GoLear was in every particle of the original substance as well as the infinite universe, each of these minor gods was GoLear. Dagda of the non-Gaelic Irish, Yahweh of the Jews, Zeus of the Greeks, Odin of the Norse, were all valid tribal gods. They all personified their respective peoples and they were all part of GoLear.
Since everything was made of the original substance, and all original substance had a mind, body, and spirit, then all matter, living and non-living, was a spiritual, thinking substance. The atom in a molecule of water was a spiritual, thinking, substance. The water that flowed in a river was a spiritual, thinking substance. The ocean was a spiritual, thinking substance. A mountain was a spiritual, thinking substance. The earth was a spiritual, thinking substance. The sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars, were all spiritual, thinking substances. Since each was part of GoLear, they were all GoLear. Each was a minor god unto itself.
The druids honored and respected all of the minor gods of nature. They would communicate with the mind, body, and spirit of the wind, the trees, and the rivers. This did not distract them from worshiping the one God of all, GoLear. The druids were absolutely monotheistic, but not blind to the presence of GoLear in all matter, living, and non-living. A very similar belief system was practiced by the indigenous tribes of North America as recently as the nineteenth century. These people were also portrayed as ignorant savages who desperately needed to be “saved” by western missionaries. The ones that weren’t shot or starved to death were spiritually bludgeoned to near extinction with the bible.
The most significant difference between the druidic concept of god and that of the Judeo-Christians is that the druids believed that they were god, or at least microcosms of god. God was in them and therefore they shared all of the powers of god. They were creators in their own right and therefore ‘masters of the universe’. They assumed sole responsibility for their environment. If it rained on their crops they took credit for it. If it didn’t rain they took the blame. They consciously willed the tribe to grow and prosper.
The followers of Yahweh, on the other hand, perceived a distinct separation between themselves and their god. Yahweh was an autonomous being from them. They considered themselves utterly powerless and at the mercy of their “angry and jealous god”. In order to wrestle at least a small amount of control over their destiny, these people entered contracts with their god. They were incessantly dealing with Yahweh for favor, agreeing to follow certain social laws in return for being spared from floods, droughts, or other god-sent natural disasters. The strangest contract required the followers of Yahweh to be circumcised, surgically mutilating the male genitalia to curry favor with their god.
The self-reliant belief system of the druids, and their attempt to control the world and its events through chants, spells, and incantations, was called magic, since the druids were known as Magi, being descendants of Magog. The druids taught that the Gaels originated from GoLear. As GoLear, they always were and always would be.