Celtic Druid History: Magic

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Memories of animal envoys still must sleep, somehow, within us; for they wake a little and stir when we venture into the wilderness. They wake in terror to thunder. And again they wake, with a sense of recognition, when we enter any one of those great painted caves. Whatever the inward darkness may have been to which the shamans of those caves descended in their trances, the same must lie within ourselves, nightly visited in sleep.

– Joseph Campbell, The Way of the Animal Powers

Introduction

The word ‘Celtic’ conjures images of magic, rituals, and spells based on the rich mythology of a people who at one time spread from the British Isles across continental Europe to Russia and Turkey. The history of the Celts has been derived, in part, from their symbolic lore. An example is the ‘Arthurian’ myth which provides insight into how the Celtic mind works. For Arthur is the myth of a king with a predestined envoy, the myth of the sleeping man who will wake to save the world, and the myth of a cuckold king who must share his sovereignty with his people in the shape of the queen’s lover.

To explore the Celtic religion from its past requires a wand to piece it together. The original Celtic rites that were maintained through oral traditions have been lost. Historical accounts and archaeological evidence present both horrific and awe-inspiring images of Celtic religion.

On one hand, the Celts demonstrated a spiritual kinship to nature and love for the Mother Goddess which is based on the Celtic penchant for sacred groves.

Cork Oak Tree at Arundel Castle and Gardens

Cork Oak Tree; ‘Druid’ derived from ‘dru-wid’ — “Oak Knowledge.”

 

Whereas, there is evidence that Celts sacrificed humans in their ceremonies.

Teutates Celtic God of War on Gundstrup Cauldron

Human Sacrifice to Teutates, God of War Gundestrup Cauldron

Although Irish Christian monks wrote down the original Celtic legends based on oral traditions, their manuscripts were heavily redacted and rewritten in accordance with their beliefs. The monastic scribes rejected the notion that any pagan god in the legends was worthy of worship and, thus, they were turned into heroes with magical powers which echo their one-time divinity.

Thus, the Irish sources, while offering a wealth of mythology, provide no direct evidence for the Celtic religion. In one version of The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the scribe distanced himself from the account by saying “I, who have written out of this history, or more properly fiction, for some things are diabolical impositions, some are poetical inventions, some have a semblance of truth, and some are meant to be the entertainment of fools.”

Magical powers attributed to Druids in Celtic literature and historical accounts include: control the elements, prophesy, heal, cause invisibility, shape shift, levitate, curse the ungodly, and perform other forms of magic.

Celtic Druid History: Magic

In Celtic literature and tradition, Druids have been popularly referred as magicians—wizards possessing supernatural powers. By the time of the advent of Christianity in both Ireland and Britain, Druids were identified by the word magi, a name used for the priests of Ancient Persia who reputedly had power over supernatural entities.

The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD), referred to Druids as the magi and said, “Even today Britain is still spell bound by magic, and performs its rites with so much ritual that she might almost seem to be source of Persian customs.”

In Irish and Welsh literature, there is common reference to the Druid as a wielder of magical powers. Druids could influence the course of events or control nature. Early Celtic Christian writers who believed in Druidic magic gave these supernatural powers to saints in their church.

Below is a summary of these  magical powers.

Control Forces of Nature

Druids could summon magical fog and storms to destroy or disperse their enemies. Broichán, the chief Druid of the Pictish King Bruide, raised a terrific storm to stop Colmcille from crossing Loch Ness. The great magician Mathgen summoned the mountains to crush the enemy by proclaiming: “Through my power I can throw down all the mountains of Ireland on the Fomor, until their tops will be rolling on the ground. And the twelve chief mountains of Ireland will bring you their help and will fight for you.”

Dagda Gundestrup cauldron

Depiction of Celtic Warrior & Irish God Dagda, Protector of Tribe (Gundestrup Cauldron)

Muirchú says the Druids of Laoghaire sent heavy snowfalls and darkness to impede St. Patrick’s approach to Tara. In the Life of St Moling, Mothairén conjured up a fog to protect the Christian missionaries from their enemies. These are examples of Christian saints taking over the power of the Druids.

Cloak of Invisibility

The Druids could also produce a cloak of invisibility to protect them from their enemies. In an Irish version of the Aeneid, Venus puts such a cloak around the hero Ulysses to protect him entering the city of the Phaeacians.

The concept of this mantle of protection continued into Christianity. When the mother of St. Finnchua was being pursued by a pagan king, she invoked the mantle of protection, a cloak or a fog of darkness, so that she might escape.

Druidic Wand

Some texts refer to the Druidic wand that consists of a branch on which little tinkling bells hung. When Sencha, the chief bard of Ulster, waved his hand, the roar of battle hushed.

Celtic Woman Warrior Summons Raven Spirit

Celtic Druidess Warrior Summoning Raven Spirit

Shape Shifting

Shape shifting was another gift ascribed to Druids. When Fer Fidail, a Druid, carried off a maiden, he did so by assuming the form of a woman. Humans could also be turned into animals. Fer Doirche changed the beautiful Sibh into a deer when she rejected his love. The female Druid, Dalb, changed three men and their wives into swine and Aiofe, wife of Lir, changed her step-children into swans.

Raven Protecting Tower of London

Raven Watching Over Tower of London

Druidic Sleep

Bobd, suspecting his daughter of lying, casts her into a Druidic sleep, similar to hypnosis, so she would reveal the truth. A drink of oblivion is another tool of the Druids that makes people forget even their closest friends and loves.

To be Continued

In the next posts, Druidic dark rituals, philosophy, and pantheon of will be explored.

References:

Peter Berresford Ellis, The Druids; 1995; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.
John Davies, The Celts: Prehistory to Present Day;  2005; United States: Sterling Publishing Co., New York.
Julius Caesar, translated by F. P. Long, 2005. The Conquest of Gaul; United States: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers; Printed in USA by First Anchor Books Edition, NY; 1991.

24 Responses to "Celtic Druid History: Magic"
  1. Retro Brit says:

    Great blog with some good points concerning how Christians later reshaped some of the old Celtic tales to comply with the new religion. Makes one wonder about the Arthurian tales. Especially with wizards, swords in lakes, and so forth.

    Some of the depictions of Irish Celtic Gods and sacrifices in the photos look great. I never knew that such works were about.

    • Hi Colin,

      Thank you for your comments, particularly about how Christian monks late reshaped the Celtic tales. Researching the Ancient Celts has opened my mind to similarities in mythology and tales among the ancient civilizations. I also find it fascinating how the monks changed the stories to adhere to their religions beliefs. Nonetheless, these were wonderful stories that probably still contained the essence of the original story.

      As always, I appreciate your comments.

      Best,
      Linnea

  2. James Ward says:

    Wonderful post, Linnea! It’s clear you are a serious and thoughtful researcher – nice to see in this age of waning seriousness about historical research.
    You draw a clear line from the Greek Gods to Druidism. From that, I can see the similarities (i.e., shape shifting, cloaking, influence over the weather) to Native American shamanism, still carried out among remnants of the American indigenous tribes. I wonder if those threads run to the Australian Aboriginal and Polynesian rituals (Shape shifting, foreknowledge of natural events, dreamworlds.)
    A universal, traceable set of common links between the various manifestations of paganism, worldwide?

    • HI James,

      Thank you for your thought-provoking comments regarding the similarities of mythology and religion among the various civilizations worldwide. As you said, there must be universal truths, common links, among these various cultures as they try to interpret the meaning to their existence. Some of these similarities might be due to interactions that various cultures have with each other, but there are too many common threads worldwide, as you indicate, which seem to more than coincidence.

      Again, I appreciate your insightful comments.

      Regards,
      Linnea

  3. Aquileana says:

    Hello dear Linnea.
    Such an interesting, informative and well penned post/
    I enjoyed the introduction, highlighting the importance of oral traditions and the ‘Arthurian’ myth which, quoting you “provides insight into how the Celtic mind works”.
    The core of you article, referring to the major paper of Druids in both Celtic literature and tradition caught my attention.
    I learnt through your explanations as regard to those celtic magicians and/or wizards possessing supernatural powers.
    I found amazing that, judging to literary sources, they were able to produce a cloak of invisibility to protect them from their enemies.
    The example you mentioned as regard of an Irish version of the Aeneid (in which Venus puts such a cloak around Ulysses to protect him while entering the city of the Phaeacians) is marvelous and totally new to me.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Best wishes, Aquileana 🙂

    • Hi Aquileana,

      Thank you so much for your comments. Like you, I am fascinated by mythology and some of the similarities of tales among the various ancient civilizations. I was particularly fascinated that there was an Irish tale based on the Greek tale about Ulysses and how he used the cloak of invisibility. I appreciate your following and sharing your love of mythology with me. I also find your articles on Greek mythology and philosophy to be very fascinating on your blog: aquileana.wordpress.com

      Again, I appreciate your feedback.

      Best regards,
      Linnea

  4. Luciana says:

    Why I am not surprised the Christians changed cultural lore to suit their beliefs and denounce “paganism”. It is tragic that all that wealth of information is lost, forever buried in time and with the people. Such ignorance and bloody-mindedness is what destroyed these wonderful ancient cultures and mythologies.

    It’s interesting to note the similarity between the Celts and Minoans belief in the Mother Goddess. There is also evidence of the Minoans sacrificing humans as well. Goes to show how closely aligned these ancient worlds were.

    A wonderful and well written post Linnea. Thank you for sharing.

    cheers
    Luciana 😀

    • Hi Luciana,

      Thank you for your thought-provoking comments. I agree that there are a lot of similarities in mythology and gods/goddess of ancient civilizations. It is my understanding women in the Minoan society had great influence similar to the Celt’s. I was not aware that they also performed human sacrifice, but the ritual was probably common at that time. It is a wonder that similar myths and religious philosophies developed world-wide which cannot be entirely explained by inter-trading and interactions.

      Sharing your insight into the Minoan beliefs is very much appreciated. I always look forward to reading your articles on your blog on ancient civilizations: http://luccav.com/.

      Best wishes
      Linnea

  5. Hello Linnea,
    It’s interesting to learn about Druids here, particularly the magical powers that they have been said to yield. Shape shifting has become a popular theme for authors in present times and so I enjoyed learning more about the origins of the concept. Sending you a smile for your day, and I am thanking you for the informative post too!

    • Hi Christy,

      Thank you for your comment regarding the Druids. It is fascinating that a lot of the fantastical elements used by modern authors are derived from mythology. Celtic mythology has some great tales about shape shifting. Other cultures have also adopted this mystical ability into their myths. What is interesting from a scientific standpoint, everything is composed of energy, a universal entity that can take different forms. So this idea may not be so far-fetched. Thank you for bringing a smile to my face. You’ve made my day.

      Regards,
      Linnea

  6. rita roberts says:

    Hi Linnea, Thank you for such a fascinating post. Since living in Wales for around 10 years I was always fascinated by the Celts but never fully studied their myths. Your well documented post has really enlightened me. It is also interesting to note the similarity between the Celts and Minoans as Luciana pointed out, with regard to their belief in the Mother Goddess. I have not come across human sacrifice as yet during my studies of the Linear B Scripts. I must look it up Thank you.

    • Hi Rita,

      Thank you for your comments. The more I learn about mythology, the more amazed I am at the similarities between the various religions. I am also very interested in the ancient Minoan civilization and the archaeological study of the Linear B scripts. I have found this to be particularly fascinating on your blog ritaroberts.wordpress.com.

      I appreciate your follow and support.

      Regards,
      Linnea

  7. James Black says:

    It is plain to see how Christians and others have used the pool of Druid powers for their own myths. It is also obvious that fantasy fiction, films and today’s digital games owe a debt of gratitude to the wealth of fantastic ideas in the literature.

    • Dear James,

      Thank you for your comments. I agree that the Celtic myths have contributed to many of the myths that Irish monks attributed to their Christian saints. And today’s fictions, films, and digital games have based a lot of their magic on Celtic mythology. This demonstrates the need humans have for story-telling through both oral and written traditional.

      Again, thank you for commenting and visiting my website.

      Cheers,
      Linnea

  8. Tom Calen says:

    Thank you for such a fascinating post.

  9. Lookman says:

    Thank you. I have been working on this subject for years to revive the story of Lugh, the fairy king from obscurity. He is hidden in the King Arthur story by Mallory and one can simply answer the Druids and their predecessors were not pagan, but pantheists. They were both part of nature and effected by it. This is a predecessor religion as we see it from second millennium BC. Julius Caesar said they believed in science and had no gods. That seems correct, as the fairy world was a world of forces. They had not compartmentalized elements in nature.

    Who was responsible for this? The name Idris comes to mind an astronomer passingly mentioned in the Qur’an as a prophet wit no detail. Why was he important? The Hyperboreans had been the first missionary religion at a time when religion was related to linguistic groups and tribes than trans-tribal. Their principal objective was to find the rising and setting point of the sun. Archaeology shows they spanned Eurasia to at least the Gobi Desert among European nomadic tribes. They were a major threat China until the building of the wall. They declined consequently to the volcanic winter of 543-4 AD in central Asia. The Mongols replaced them. To the south tribes invaded India, Zoroaster the first historical prophet 1200BC mentions them. They were prevalent in the Middle East especially the Hittites, Hurrians, and Mitanni. They were the Dorians who invaded northern Greece and established Athens.

    Devotees were called Celts, meaning heroes. Controversially, there is evidence that they believed they were demigods because they may have believed they were descended from the Fairy King. Certainly, the Franks believed their fair physical appearance made them superior. So one can connect a host of linguistic terms in European language as characteristics of brightness they shared with the Sun. If such a belief that they were only half-human is true then death was no obstacle but a passing to the fairy world or Valhalla. The term Celt has come from Hero. This may feel uneasy to us today, but nearly every ancient culture or group believed they were the real people and outsiders were sub-human. Certainly, such a selling point might make a religion more attractive to some. It also makes better sense than the great conquering wave theory.

    • Thank you for your though-provoking commentary on the enigmatic Celts as background to the story of Lugh, the fairy king, that you are trying to revive. In researching the Celts, I found it fascinating the similarity of religious and philosophical beliefs of the ancient civilizations. For example, there was a common belief in the soul and reincarnation with the Celts, Greeks (Pythagorus), and Hindus. This would make sense, as you indicate, that the Hyperboreans were the first missionary religion that spread these beliefs across a vast region. It is also consistent with the belief of the pantheists which you eloquently describe.

      Again, thank you for sharing your insight and providing another perspective of the historical context of these beliefs. Your project on Lugh sounds fascinating and I will be following it at your website http://lookman.biz/Mihte_Lugh_the_Shining_One.html. In the future I would like to further explore about a possible guest post from you.

      Best regards,
      Linnea

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    • Hi Kiersten,

      You will receive notifications by e-mails when there is a new post to Apollo’s Raven. To the right on the home screen, there is a category called Subscribe to Apollo’s Raven. Follow the instructions and you should receive notifications then.

      Thank you for your interest.

      Regards,
      Linnea

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