by Ellen Evert Hopman
Most modern Pagans are Wiccans or Witches, according to the few surveys that have been done; we Druids are still a tiny minority. Women of Celtic heritage have told me that they did not pursue the Druid path because “the Druids were all men”. But as more and more women study Celtic history, get degrees, do research, write books and teach in the colleges, the word is finally getting out that this is not so. But for millennia it has been a well kept secret.
Some of the blame for this misconception can be placed on the Roman historians who reported on Celtic culture, even as they decimated the Druids who were the intelligentsia. The Romans tended to ignore, downplay or overlook the true status of the women of the tribes.
The next groups to document Celtic society were male Christian monks who also tended to ignore and downplay the status of Celtic women while capturing the tales and oral histories in their scriptoria. Finally as modern archaeology and scholarship focused on Celtic artifacts and history, scholars until very recently were almost all men, who downplayed or ignored the role of powerful women in ancient Celtic times. But the evidence was always there for those who cared to find it.
The word “Druid” derives from the Indo-European “deru” which carries meanings such as truth, true, hard, enduring, resistant and tree. “Deru” evolved into the Greek word “drus” (oak) and referred over time to all trees as well as the words “truth” and “true”. “Id” comes from “wid”, “to know”, related to both “wisdom” and “vision”. A “Dru-id” is a truth-knower and a true-knower, one with solid and enduring wisdom, a tree-knower, and an expert.
The Proto-Indo-European word “dru” meant oak, and is related to “Druid”, so “Druid” also means “oak-knower”. Oaks are the most balanced of trees; their roots grow as deep as the tree is high. They give the hottest fire (excepting the ash tree) and provide medicine via their leaves and bark as well as food (acorns) for humans, pigs, and deer. They attract the attention of the Gods (via lightening) and survive to live up to a thousand years.
To be a Druid was and is to perform a tribal function. No king or queen could function without a Druid at their side, the ruler and Druid were described as “two kidneys” of a kingdom. It was the Druid who knew the laws and precedents without which a ruler could not pass judgment.
The Druids were poets and prophets, astrologers and astronomers, seers, magicians and diviners. They memorized the laws and kept the tribal histories and genealogies in their heads. They were ambassadors, lawyers, judges, herbalists, healers and practitioners of battle magic. They were sacrificers, satirists, sacred singers, story tellers, teachers of the children of the nobility, ritualists, astronomers and philosophers, skilled in natural science and mathematics. They specialized in one or several of these callings and spent twenty years or more in training. We know that Druids from all areas went to Britain, specifically to present day Wales, for regular gatherings and so their practices and beliefs must have been somewhat uniform.
What we know of the Druids comes to us from the written accounts of eye witnesses, from literary tradition and archaeology. Greek and Roman historians documented the Druids that they met; Julius Caesar, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Ammianus Marcellinus, Pliny, Diogenes Laertius, Suetonius, Pomponius Mela, Lucan, Tacitus, Dion Chrysostum, Lampridius, Vopiscus, Decimus Magnus, Ausonius and Hippolytus and others wrote their versions of Druid history.
Pliny gives us the only description of a Druid ritual that we have (the Druids preferred to keep their teachings in oral form, feeling they were too sacred to write down). He describes a white clad Druid climbing an oak tree on the “sixth day of the moon” to harvest mistletoe with a “golden sickle”. Of course gold is too soft to cut herbs with so any sickle would probably have been made of bronze, and we can only guess that the “sixth day of the moon” means six days after the first appearance of the new moon.
Tacitus gives us the vivid account of the slaughter of the Druids by Roman soldiers on the island of Mona (Angelsey) in Wales. He says there were cursing black clad women there defending the island. Since the island was the most sacred stronghold of the British Druids one can assume that these women were Ban-druid (female Druids) though since he does not say this outright we can never be sure.
Strabo describes a group of religious women living on an island at the mouth of Loir River but he does not call them Druids. In the Historia Augusta (a late Roman collection of biographies, in Latin, of the Roman Emperors from 117 to 284 CE) we learn that Diocletian and Aurelian consulted with female Druids as did Alexander Severus.
In Irish traditional accounts there are references to “bandruid” (female Druids) and “banfilid” (female poets). Fedelm is a female seer and Accuis, Col and Eraise are female Druids mentioned the Tain (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). Eirge, Eang, and Banbhuana are Druidesses mentioned in the Siege of Knocklong, and Dub and Gaine are mentioned in the Dinsenchas.
Fedelma was a woman in queen Medb of Connacht’s court who was a “banfili” (female poet) trained in Alba (Britain). The death of female poet Uallach daughter of Muinechán, who was the “woman poet of Ireland”, is mentioned in the Annals of Innisfallen for the year 934 and the Brehon Laws describe heavy penalties for illegal female satirists (whom they compare to female werewolves!). It is clear from these accounts that at least some women had attained the rank of Druid.
To shore up the evidence it will be helpful to look at the status of women in Celtic society before the Roman and Christian incursions and after. The marriage laws are an interesting place to start. The ancient Brehon Laws recognized nine types of marriage. In the first degree (the most desirable) both partners came to the union with equal wealth and status. In the second degree the husband came to the union with more wealth so he was in charge. In the third degree the wife came with more wealth so she was in charge. In all cases divorce was available to wives and in the first two degrees of marriage the husband had to pay a bride price to her father the first year and every year after that a large portion of the “coibche” went to the bride herself so that she could remain independent if the marriage failed. In the event of a divorce each spouse could claim any property they had brought to the union and the wife kept all the coibche she had accumulated. (Christian women would not see this kind of fair treatment again until very recent times).
Plutarch in “On the Virtues of Women” states that Celtic women participated in assemblies, mediated quarrels and negotiated treaties, for example one between Hannibal and the Volcae (this kind of ambassadorial work is a specifically Druidic function). Strabo says that Armorican priestesses (in modern day Brittany) were independent of their husbands.
We know that Celtic women wore trousers (the Celts invented trousers and there is a statue of a woman so dressed in the British museum). Gallic females went to war with their husbands and Irish Celtic women fought alongside their men. In some Roman reports they said the women were even fiercer than the men! (It took a series of laws issued over several centuries after the Christian missionaries arrived to wean Irish women away from weapons, indicating problems with compliance).
In the first century CE Tacitus wrote that “the Celts make no distinction between male and female rulers” and powerful Celtic women appear in the tales. By tradition Macha Mongruad founded Emain Macha (Navan Fort) in Ulster. The two most famous warriors in Irish history; Finn MacCumhail and Cú Chulainn, were both trained by women. Finn was raised by two females; a Druidess and a warrior woman who taught him the crafts of war and of hunting while Cú Chulainn learned the arts of war from Scáthach who had her own Martial Arts school.
Boudica was a Celtic queen who led the last British uprising against the Romans in 60 AD. She was a priestess of Andraste, Goddess of Victory. Saint Brighid of Kildare (Kil-Dara, Church of the Oak) had a different kind of power. She was the daughter of the Druid Dubhtach and according to the Rennes Dindsenchas was a “bandrui” (female Druid) before she converted to Christianity. She had both men and women in her religious community and she and her nuns kept a Fire Altar which was tended continuously until 1220 when an archbishop ordered it quenched. This Fire Altar mirrored the perpetual fire of the Ard-Drui (Arch-Druid) that had burned at Uisneach for centuries (thankfully the fire has been re-lit in modern times and is now being tended once again by nuns and lay folk in Kildare and all over the world).
Archaeology gives us more evidence for female Druids. An inscription was found in Metz, France, that was set up by a Druid priestess to honor the God Sylvanus and the local Nymphs of the area. It was found on the Rue de Récollets; “Silvano sacr(um) et Nymphis loci Arete Druis antistita somnio monita d(edit)” (Année Epigraphique 1983, 0711)
Two famous burials, the Vix burial and the Reinham burial point to very powerful women of their time. The Princess of Vix (who may have been a priestess) dates from the late sixth to fifth centuries BCE in present day Burgundy, France. She was a woman of wealth and authority whose rich grave goods came from as far away as the Mediterranean Sea. Her wood paneled chambered grave held a huge bronze “krater” (a large ornamental urn used to mix wine and water for banquets), elaborate jewelry of bronze, amber, diorite, and serpentine, and a golden torque (a neck ring), symbol of noble status. She had fibulae (brooches) inset with Italian coral.
Many other female burials have been discovered between the Rhine and the Moselle rivers, where the women are laid out on wagons with rich jewelry and more impressive grave goods than some of the warrior chieftains of the time. The Reinham burial dates to the fourth century BCE by the river Biles in Germany and was an oak lined chamber filled with precious objects and jewelry. The body was laid out on a chariot with food and drink provided for her Otherworld sojourn. She was also buried with a torque on her chest, symbolic of her noble status.
So what happened? Why did an indigenous culture that featured educated and powerful women devolve into a culture where women were demoted to the status of chattel?
By the first century CE in Britain the Romans were actively and deliberately suppressing the Druids who were the intellectual elite, the advisors to the nobility and the glue that held the kingdoms together. Roman propaganda campaigns claimed that the Druids were the perpetrators of “savage superstition” and of horrific human sacrifice (at the same time that the Roman Circuses were going on). Druidesses were described as seers who were working on their own, rather than as powerful royal advisors and clergy. A policy of deliberate extermination was carried out, brought to conclusion by the terrifying slaughter of the Druids at Angelsey.
The Romans never conquered Ireland and the worship of the Pagan Gods continued there officially until the death of king Diarmat in 565 CE. (Unofficially it goes on to this day). But as Christianity gained power in all areas Roman ideals of matronly behavior and womanhood took over, though in the few centuries that it was allowed to flourish the Celtic Church continued to exalt powerful priestesses such as Brighid of Kildare and Beaferlic of Northumbria. As the Roman Christian church gained ascendancy female Druids were labeled “evil Witches” and “sorcerers” as a way to smear their reputations and make people fear them. Religious orders founded by women were systematically dissolved upon their founder’s death, preventing continuity of female centered orders.
The Druids were demoted in the laws to figures of ridicule – mere magicians, stripped of their sacral function and status. Women in Celtic areas were forbidden to bear arms and their status dropped in most areas of life and society.
The current Druid revival of modern times began in the early eighteenth century, first in France and then in 1717 in England, the same year that the English Masons were established. The earliest English Druids of the current revival were all Masons and all men; the poet William Blake a prominent example. Gradually over the last few centuries, as more was understood about the actual Druids of history, the Druid Orders became more egalitarian in their membership until today most Orders are roughly half male and half female. Women in most Orders (the only exceptions being the old English based Orders with roots firmly in the eighteenth century) have the same opportunities to be leaders and clergy as men.
Female Druids of today most often look back to our status in ancient times. We view ourselves as the inheritors of a rich ancestral lineage, going back to the Iron Age. That does not mean we have an unbroken tradition, we are actively engaged in reconstructing the ancient indigenous European tribal religion (leaving out the nasty bits such as slavery, animal sacrifice, and head hunting of course!).
I took an informal poll of the women on the Whiteoak mailing list to see why they became Druids and what if any problems they have faced on this path. One said that she was thrilled to find a religious tradition that worships outside in daylight, as opposed to Wiccans who often circle at night and indoors.
All the women who responded said they were voracious readers who upon learning how much of Celtic history and tradition was still out there became absorbed in the topic. The women all reported being scholars of one degree or another; in common with the ancient Druids modern ones tend to be intellectuals (one of the worst insults you can hurl at a Druid is to call them a “fluffy bunny” meaning a dim wit!).
Several of them complained that in modern times Druids are very hard to find. Unless one lives in a large metropolitan area this is almost always the case. To put together a gathering of modern Druids you will have to send notice out to several states.
Some female Druids report that they are Pagans who were not attracted to Wicca, which was after all, invented in the 1930’s by Gerald Gardner (see Ronald Hutton’s excellent book “The Triumph of the Moon”). They wanted something that was more tied in to actual Celtic tradition.
Others had problems with Wiccan theology. Wicca is duo-theistic (it assumes that “all the Goddesses are one Goddess and all the Gods and one God so it hardly matter who you call on in a ritual). The Celts, and every other indigenous Pagan tradition that I am aware of, were and are polytheistic. They see their deities as separate personalities with different and distinct functions though some, for example the Hindu-Vedic religions, posit an ultimate Source for all the Gods and Goddesses and all creation, called the Atma in Vedic scripture. (Many Druids study Vedic texts because the Vedic peoples were the ancestors of the proto-Celts and Vedic ritual and Celtic ritual must have had many similarities. We know that they had many basic principles in common; triple deities, making offerings to sacred fire and sacred water, the primacy of cows, etc.).
Another problem with modern Wicca for some is the so-called “Wiccan rede” (“An it harm none do what you will”). This tenet has been used as an excuse to behave in self-centered ways that no tribal society would tolerate. Druids study the Brehon Laws and we know that the ancients expected strict codes of behavior from all levels of society.
Wicca was revolutionary at its founding because it emphasized the role of the priestess in a way that had not been seen since ancient times. As a result many Wiccan and Witchcraft groups are led by women and composed of mostly women (or all women). Those who became female Druids found this to be unbalanced and not much different from male dominated patriarchal Christianity, Judaism or Islam. They sought a Pagan path with a healthier balance of males and females. Some report that they still have problems with sexism, even after they had attained the title of Arch-Druidess of their Grove (a Grove is the Druid equivalent of a Coven) there were male Druids who would challenge their decisions in a way that they would never challenge a male Arch-Druid. They would continue to nag the Arch-Druidess, figuring that if they did so long enough she would give in to their opinions.
None of these women came to Druidism out of rebellion against another religion. They came to it from a love for nature and the old European tribal ways. I can identify with these reasoning’s, they are all familiar to me and true.
Thanks to Stacey Weinberger (of RDNA), Sín Sionnach (a solitary Druid), and Athelia Nihtscada (of RDNA), for their input.
For an overview of ancient reports see “The Druid Sourcebook” by John Matthews, Blanford, London, 1996
For Brehon Laws and the laws of marriage see Fergus Kelly’s “Guide to Early Irish Law”, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1991