Staff or Wand
One important part of the altar is the Druid wand or staff. Typically, this is something that at one point or another “speaks to us” and quite simply, we like it above all others we’ve seen before. For me, I found mine taking a walk in the woods and immediately noticed this superb twisted root looking staff. Then begins the slow process of decorating it, etching it, adding crystals or really whatever we want. We can just as easily find one we love in a store. There is not much evidence for Druids actually using staffs but this is assumed given that almost all ancient authoritative or priestly figures had some sort of staff or wand going back as far as Egyptian culture. The staff as an authoritative symbol may also have agricultural roots in the idea of the shepherds hook and essentially, the leader taking care of their herd of “sheep” or flock. This tradition was also passed down by way of the Christian clergy and in tales like the story of Moses parting the sea with his magical powers and signature staff.
There are definitive references in mythology and revival literature to the use of magical wands. These types of wands were used in the coronations of Chieftains in Scotland and Kings in Ireland all the way up through the 18th century. There is a peculiar dance harkening to the magical belief in the Druid wand that was recorded by Alexander Carmichael in the Carmina Gadelica and was still being practiced in the late 18th century Scotland.
“One dance is called, ‘Cailleach an Dudain’. This is a curious character-dance. The writer got it performed for him several times. It is danced by a man and a woman. The man has a rod in his right hand, variously called ‘slachdan druidheachd’, druidic wand or magic wand. The man and the woman gesticulate and attitudinize before one another, dancing round and round, in and out, crossing and recrossing, changing and exchanging places. The man flourishes the wand over his own head and over the head of the woman, whom he touches with the wand, and who falls down, as if dead, at his feet. He bemoans his dead ‘carlin’ dancing and gesticulating round her body. He then lifts up her left hand, and looking into the palm, breathes upon it, and touches it with the wand. Immediately the limp hand becomes alive and moves from side to side and up and down. The man rejoices and dances round the figure on the floor. And having done the same to the right hand and to the let and right foot in succession, they also become alive and move. But although the limbs are living, the body is still inert. The man kneels over the woman and breathes into her mouth and touches her heart with the wand. Then the woman comes to life and springs up, confronting the man. Then, the two dance vigorously and joyously as in the first dance. It is played by a piper or a fiddler, or sung as a ‘port-a-bial’ mouth tune, by a looker-on, or by the performers themselves. The air is quaint and irregular, and the words are curious and archaic.”
“The Druidic wand plays an important part, a blow from it causing transformations and spells. Druidic rites and fires was not the oak at all, as in Gaul: sacred wood among the Irish Druids would appear to have been the yew, hawthorn and more especially, the rowan tree.” -Alexander MacKenzie (Scottish, 1794 -1820)
There are numerous accounts of magical branches in Irish mythology. Typically they are silver with bells and given to someone on the start of a journey to the Otherworld. The famous Irish king, King Cormac received a magical branch in exchange for three promises from a mysterious fairy man. The branch played the most beautiful music and put people into a forgetful and peaceful sleep when it was shaken. The fairy ultimately tricked him and over three years, took his daughter Alba, son Cairbre and wife Eithne as his promises owed. When he took his wife, Cormac had enough and followed him to the Otherworld where he met Manannan mac Lir. He discovered it was all a test to see if he was worthy of Lir’s wisdom. Lir bestowed his wisdom, returned his family and sent them home to Tara with a magical cup and the branch. Cormac reigned over Tara for many years, the land was plentiful and he became one of the most famous kings of all time. In the Irish poem and tale of the Voyage of Bran, a branch is depicted as necessary to enter the Otherworld. “To enter the Otherworld before the appointed hour marked by death, a passport was often necessary, and this was usually a silver branch of the sacred apple-tree bearing blossoms.” In other tales, characters who endeavored to become Druids went on a journey and began that journey by being initiated by a ritual involving a silver branch.
For more information check out The Silver Bough by F. Marian McNeil!
Writer and Herbalist
A founding member of Discover Druidry, Isla is a writer, photographer and avid gardener. She wrote the Celtic Druidry Handbook: An Evidence Based Guide.