Druids and Their Place in Celtic Society
Christopher Gwinn - Used with Permission of Author
Part Two : The Role of The Druids
We can now see the Druids and their brother-classes as holding many offices amongst the Celts.
- Political leaders
- Priests/Conductors of rituals
- We may even suspect that the Druids performed drama, in which case we could, like the Greeks, add Actors to the list as religious functionaries.
Most of these Druidic professions (if not all) were open to women, as is amply attested in Classical and Celtic writings. The Celts afforded women a higher status than most other nations - and even allowed them to partake in political decisions or rule in absence of a male - but we must not forget that women were still primarily perceived as being of lesser status than men and a husband had power of death over his wife and children. Divorce was legal, however, and a woman was allowed to hold her own property separate from that of her husband, which she kept in cases of separation. There seems to have been Druidic rites that were specifically tailored for women - and there is even mention of a Women-only priesthood "amongst the Samnitae" which barred the participation of men in its rites.
All of these functions are still to be found in our own modern societies - and many of the people who fulfill them are still held in high regard today( especially if you consider that our actors and rock stars are simply suped-up versions of the poetic Uates and musician Bards). This should help to remove some of the air of fantasy which surrounds the Druids in the popular imagination. Instead of a "mysterious race of people" we see a complex class of highly trained (up to twenty years!), professional people who act as the moral and religious leaders in a structured and organized society. Surely there was always a mystique about them - for they knew things that the common man didn't and they purposely kept their rites a secret so as to exert the most power over the minds of the common man (cf. our own legal profession today and the fear that they instill with their cryptic Latin codes and rigid ritualized conduct).
Surely they also performed magic (but note that yesterday's magic is today's science. Sending a man to the moon is pretty sorcerous, if you think about it. Certainly the ancients would have thought so). It is mostly due to Roman (and later Christian) politics and prejudice, however, that we have to thank for our mis-impression of the Druids as belonging more to the realm of fairies and dragons than to the daily workings of normal society.
With the banning of the Druids, we see these people gradually being marginalized to the fringes of society, their functions being taken up by people with allegance to the conquerors of the Celts. This is what has also led to the mass destruction of the vast amount of native lore which the Druids certainly possessed. With no real political power, the Druids clung more to their magical traditions - but magic was under assault by the time of the Roman conquest, making life difficult for those who practiced it.
Eventually, traditions were lost in the break up of the normal transmission process; so bad was the situation in Gaul that we have no native epics surviving whatsoever and virtually no mythical anecdotes. The situation is better in Britain, and even more so in Ireland, where early medieval Christian writers - some from former Druidic families - set to writing quite a lot of the remains of native myth and a few traces of native rites (in a garbled, half-understood and Christian manner, of course). We are, frankly, lucky to have even the slight morsels that we do today. If it were not for the tenaciousness and pride of the Celts in their own ethnic identity, we surely would have inherited nothing from these ancient leaders of men.
copyright 1999 by Christopher Gwinn