a solitary standing stone

Druids of Ancient Ireland: The Society and its Beliefs

Shrouded in mystery, and perhaps rightly so, the druids of ancient Ireland are an enigmatic society. Chief among their duties was overseeing the relationship between man and gods, political reasoning, and the healing of both mind and body.

But given that many accounts of Celtic druids originate from later sources, how much of those texts and explanations we can consider accurate is open for debate. What we know about ancient Celtic religion is meagre. Were human sacrifices really a thing? Could the druids perform miracles of magic? Let’s delve a little deeper into what we know about their society, their practices and beliefs.

The druids and Celtic society

The Celtic society, which became known as Celts in the modern era – and at no point during their own history is there any evidence to suggest they used the term themselves – was based upon a division between its upper class and its lower class. The druids took up positions of authority within the political order and controlled its religious practices.

Over the course of their existence, the druids would create and maintain the two major religious practices of Irish culture: the arts of magic and healing, and the worship of nature – the latter being a way of maintaining balance between man and nature and, some may argue, the attainment of peace.

They developed their own set of rules, the Brehon Law, which was to be adhered to by all. It outlined not just the rules of man, but the penalties for transgression and the minutiae of daily life.

The druids and religious practices

druidic meeting place
Megalithic monuments are often considered meeting places
for druids and their practices of worship.

Much of what we know about the druids comes from later writers. While the concept of druids as supernatural warriors is not unusual in the ancient world, the traditions of prehistoric cults probably did not lend themselves to organised religious ritual as we know it today.

Modern Christian writers have extrapolated on early religious practices and rites, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, leading to some curious interpretations of old texts. The druids were not the deities of Celtic mythology, nor do they exist in modern-day in the same way that druids did in prehistory.

They were a group of individuals that sought to gain favour with and influence from the gods and goddesses of ancient Ireland. They lit balefires (bonfires) and likely met at what we can loosely consider to be temples – henges and the like – where they sang and told tales in the form of poetry.

And although the idea of human sacrifice is a relatively modern construct, there is no saying whether this was ever a recognised practice of Celtic druids. According to Caesar, druids were ‘concerned with the worship of of the gods, look[ing] after public and private sacrifice, and expound[ing] religious matters.’ Although the inference is there that this included human sacrifice, there is only some evidence to suggest this.

The druids and ancient Ireland

The druids have always been veiled in mysticism. As such, very little reliable information about them exists. All we know comes from sources such as the myths and stories of ancient Irish folklore, historic texts, and Ogham inscriptions. We also have the written word of Plutarch (a Greek philosopher) and various medieval histories such as the Historia Brittonum (an alleged written history of early Brittonic people).

Unreliably so, there are also the accounts of monks, priests and clergymen from long after the druidic culture and practices had been forcibly removed from Irish society, none of which give us a definitive picture of the druids. This is unsurprising considering that the early Irish Church had outlawed them after the 5th century AD.

Druids and death

Life expectancy in Irish prehistory was, not surprisingly, shorter than it is today. An average adult, based on the discovered remains from twenty-nine burials at Knowth Passage, Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange), was estimated to have been between 20 and 30 years old at the time of death.

What is interesting is that the remains of children are quite often discovered buried with those of adults. We cannot begin to know the reason for this double burial ritual, but it calls to mind the rituals of the druids, and we cannot exclude the idea of sacrificial rites.

One discovery at the burial site at the Curragh in Co. Kildare was that of a female skeleton in such an unnatural position, with her skull raised at a strained angle, where archaeologists have drawn the most obvious conclusion that she had been buried alive. Were the druids responsible? Or, perhaps more likely, was it performed by a rival wife or clan? We will never know.

Druids and magic

druids and magic
Long considered mystical beings, druids are
depicted as practitioners of magic.

From medieval European writers to English philosophers, the myth of druids were said to involve performing the rituals of magic. More specifically, they were said to use divine magic to control the weather, or to create significant spiritual connections between a person and an animal.

This kind of magic might be considered benign by our standards today, but at the time, it was certainly viewed as dangerous and corrupting in the wrong hands. Magic was in many ways a stand-in for the idea of the divinity of nature, a notion which would become a significant part of medieval European culture in the centuries following the Roman conquest.

In the oral histories of Ireland, the practice of magic is a common occurrence, from the Morrígan’s shapeshifting transformations to Balor’s ‘evil eye’ which, when directed upon you, would cause your death.

The druids earned their reputation as practitioners of magic through their ability to use nature to heal sickness or disease. Theirs was a divine right. True wisdom is magic to the amateur mind.

The druids and medicine

While we can’t know for sure, it is widely accepted that many druids served as healers or doctors to the masses. These healers sometimes sacrificed animals in order to commune with the gods and spirits of the forest.

Druids were also believed to perform a wide variety of healing rituals, to cast spells to appease the spirits of the woods, and to help the sick and dying find peace and deliverance from disease and misfortune. A druid, upon your deathbed, could whisper to you the directions to Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth, so that your spirit would not get lost.

One of the most notable of these sacred healing rituals was that of the druidic confession. This process involved the druid wielding a sickle or broomstick, shaking the very earth, and then ‘making offerings to the forces of nature’. The nature they invoked was usually a female goddess or entity.

Druids were familiar with the uses of nature – of plants and animals – to cure this malady or that decay. These were the forebears of modern-day herbal remedies, some of which are now supported by science.

Druids and the gods

standing stones
Standing stones and henges date back thousands of years
but are most often associated with druids.

The ancient gods were viewed by the people of Celtic Ireland as supernatural beings, guardians of the natural world, and sometimes just as shadowy figures in otherworldly planes. They were not considered to be part of the living world.

Ireland’s gods and goddesses are numerous, though perhaps not as abundant as many would believe. It has long been considered that a god mentioned by name in one region’s oral traditions is just as likely to be another god of a similar nature (sun god, for example) as is mentioned in those tales from another province.

The gods were believed to have knowledge of the future and knew about the past, and there is even the written suggestion that they gave the druids revelations or premonitions about the coming future. Of course, many tales of clairvoyance and prediction are romanticised and glamorised.

In legend, the gods and goddesses of Ireland were made up of the Tuatha dé Danann, most notably the Dagda, Nuada, Lugh, the Morrígan, Dian Cécht and so on. In my Ailigh Wars Saga series, I offer the tradition that each druid has his or her own personal deity to which they commune and maintain a special relationship with. I allow myself this artistic licence, given that so little is known about the druid’s practices concerning pagan religions.

Druids in Written Text

Druids are mentioned often in Ireland’s pseudo-historic texts. The Annals of the Four Masters, a chronicle of medieval Irish history, which was written by four friars, documents some historic context mixed with prejudicial insight into the Irish-Gaelic noble classes.

Part of the Annals of the Four Masters is based on the Lebor Gabála (The Book of Invasions), which narrates the history of Ireland from creation to the Middle Ages. The Lebor Gabála states that Ireland was invaded six times by new settlers, including the people of Cessair, Partholón, Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha dé Danann and, finally, by the Milesians or modern humans.

For centuries, the Lebor Gabála was considered a truthful and trustworthy account of Ireland’s history, but is generally accepted now as little more than pseudohistory or an expansive tale such as druidic bards would recite around the central fire.

Peter J Merrigan
Peter J Merrigan was first published at the age of 17 in the Simon & Schuster anthology, Children of the Troubles. He has studied extensively and maintains a passion for pre-Christian Ireland. He is the author of the Ailigh Wars Saga novels, set in Iron Age Ireland.
peter@peterjmerrigan.com