“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” -Scottish proverb
A large question in the Celtic world not only with scholars, but those seeking Druidry as a spiritual path is in regards to where the information about the Celts and Druids derives from. How many times do we read, “We don’t know anything about the Druids” when that is clearly not true. Before officially identifying with Druidry, I felt an innate pull to research as much information about the Celts as I could. I still highly recommend doing this and I will save you the suspense now and say you’ll never stop learning. I found immense inspiration in the few but meaningful bread crumbs left for us. Acquiring a factual interpretation of the Celts and their history is cumbersome but nevertheless, we have quite a few first hand accounts, archaeology, folktales, legends and mythology as well as traditions passed down from generation to generation for millennia. When these sources corroborate one another, we start to see a clear and more genuine picture of who the Celts and Druids were. It’s important to note, the Celts were somewhat isolated geographically due to a lack of a central power structure and even if there was a unifying government, they still likely would have had many variations in their lives and religious practice. Does this not still hold true today, let alone without technology to easily share our thoughts? One account of one clan or tribe simply may not have been true at all for another despite having a similar cultural framework. We also have to take into account the possibility of personal bias of historians and writers. There are quite a few ideas that are still being debated today as new information, evidence and archaeology is discovered and revealing itself, such as more precisely where the Celtic culture originated from.
Archaeology provides us with an incredible wealth of information and the strongest evidence of certain aspects of the Celtic lifestyle. We can tell what type of houses and villages they lived in, their means of protection, military expertise and level of craftsmanship. We can track where they traveled by way of the pattern of artifacts as they appeared at certain time periods within the earth. Finding weapons, jewelry, everyday household items, wine containers, chalices as well as the bodies of animals and people alike are all incredibly valuable discoveries. From the bodies archaeologists can sometimes tell what that person looked like, how tall they were, what they ate and how they died among other things. Many important beliefs have been corroborated by archaeology such as the belief in an afterlife and that women shared closer to equal status as men. Bodies of high status individuals, men and women alike have been found in elaborate grave sites containing everyday items, money, jewelry, food etc. to take with them to the afterlife, much in the same way as the Egyptians did.
The classical sources are those of the ancient Roman and Greek historians and philosophers. There are approximately thirty references give or take to Druids specifically. Famously, these first hand accounts are well known to be politically motivated. These educated writers easily recognized the lack of literacy among the local tribes and likely used this to their advantage. Rome and Greece had a habit of painting a common picture of the indigenous “barbarian” in order to make their own society seem better and more cultured and specifically in Rome’s case, to justify bringing war against an indigenous culture. Each tribal state captured lended to more slaves and more natural resources for Rome. Also, many soldiers may not have been roused to battle without good cause and reason to believe the natives would truly benefit from being under Roman rule. It’s important to also understand the context in which different quotes are made. Was that person just regurgitating an earlier writer? Did that writer meet any Celts first hand? Strabo, one of the most extensive resources, openly admits when discussing the habits of the Irish Celts, “but this we relate without very competent authority”. We see this habit echoed throughout history even up to recent times in both religious and cultural terms when one culture discusses another culture they do not understand.
Irish and Welsh Literature
It’s thought that the early Celts were mostly illiterate (as was most of the world) but did have a strong oral tradition and thus did not routinely record their important ideas, stories or daily cultural coming and goings. If they did, they were most likely destroyed during the Roman and then subsequent Christian occupancy over a period of many hundred years, approx. 10 CE through 700 CE. Ironically, it was the Roman and Christian influence that brought literacy to the Celtic cultural framework. The Brehon Laws and the Law of Couples, Irelands first known written laws, were recorded in the 7th century. The Annals of Ulster, entries which recorded the lives of kings as well as important battles, span from 431 CE through 1540 CE. The four main manuscript sources for Irish mythology were thought to be written from 1100 CE through 1200 CE. These were the Mythological Cycle, The Ulster Cycle, The Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. The Welsh Laws of Hywel Dda and the Scottish Laws of the Britons and Scots were established in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Welsh Mabinogion, the earliest prose stories and mythology of the literature in Britain were recorded in the 12th through 14th centuries. Famous stories like that of King Arthur and the round table were included in The Matter of Britain during this timeframe as well. There are also historical Welsh sources discussing struggles and battles between the Anglo Saxons, Danes, Britons and Welsh themselves. The recorded poetry of countless and nameless bards and other known famous ones like Taliesin and Aneirin are priceless and cherished relics. These sources are all critical to providing a window into the past, the mythological and religious underpinnings of their older pagan culture as well as their law system and harkening of the Druids themselves. We assume that because of the solitude of many of these societies, they evolved rather slowly and anything written down during this time had probably been around much longer. Celtic culture and Druidry seems to focus on Ireland more than other lands that were once Celtic simply because in its solitude they were able to retain and record the most of what is interpreted as Celtic.
“The Irish lawbooks are one of the glories of the culture, as significant in their own way as the much admired illuminated Gospel books for which the Irish are so much better known. What is perhaps most remarkable about this material is its originality. Ireland was never occupied by Rome, and its law did not therefore derive from Roman tradition. Nor was it royal: lawbooks were written by and for a self-consciously professional class of jurists, a group of specialists whose origins seem to have lain in the distant Celtic past. In no other contemporary European culture did such specialists exist.” -Robin Chapman Stacey (American medievalist and Celticist)
Antiquity Revival Literature
From approx. 1600 CE through 1900 CE, there was a renewed sense of national pride among the British Isles. Many writers that were culturally vested traveled the remaining towns that were considered “Celtic” and recorded the local language, customs, archaeological features as well as various bits of folklore. Connections were made by various historians and writers between the Gauls and Iberians in mainland Europe to the remaining Celtic nations in the British Isles. This is a movement that continues to this day and at the forefront of that is the preservation of the Celtic languages. There are countless ways Celtic culture has inspired the world in art, music, customs and literature. Much of the modern fantasy genre today, be it fantasy movie or historical fiction, unbeknownst to many, ties back to Celtic culture. Unicorns, mermaids, fairies, elves… these, among many other fantasy characters, all evolved out of the romanticist period where the Celtic and Germanic folktales were romanticized, re-invigorated and re-told, being brought into modern culture. Unfortunately there have been a few works of literature coming out of this time that claim to be genuine or partially genuine, all the while being completely fabricated. The most famous examples are the work of Iolo Morganwg and Robert Graves.
Folktales and Traditions
I’ve found that folktales and traditions are often overlooked but very important. When you are able to trace similar stories and ways of doing things, identifying references in literature going back to Midievel times and beyond, it’s yet another reaffirming source. Again, considering the isolated geography of many of these locations such as the Scottish hebrides, it’s assumed that culture likely changed slowly, if at all. Stories and customs recorded as recently as the 18th century still have merit.
Studying linguistics helps scholars disseminate to what extent nations were connected in the past. Naturally, groups that are connected linguistically are most likely going to be connected culturally as well because of the ease at which ideas pass from one tribe to another. Place names and the names of particular gods and goddesses are frequently found carved into stone, surviving into the present day and give a glimpse into the borders of particular nations as well as their names and who they worshipped. The Celtic language family is a branch of European languages and is divided into two types, Insular (British Isles) and Continental (Western Europe). Some prefer to call them P-Celtic and Q-Celtic branches. Languages are dynamic and change readily depending on where a group of people are located. In regards to literacy, this large step in language development occurred in very localized circumstances and depended on outside influences, the two main ones being Romanization and Christianization.
Although, it cannot be overstated that Celticism is cultural and not ethnic, geneticists are still able to use genetics to track the movement of a certain group of people by comparing shared DNA. Where DNA has been compared, we are able to corroborate idealisms about where the culture was most shared and retained. We can see that the outer edges of all of the Celtic nations retained the most similar ancient DNA, naturally because they were the least tribes to intermingle with others in their geographical solitude. With that said, these differences are incredibly small. The entirety of the British isles and neighboring European countries share mostly the same DNA when comparing modern day humans to ancient British Isles inhabitants. Most all British Isles inhabitants, including those that emigrated away share at least some of the original inhabitants DNA suggesting these were mostly peaceful and slow transitions. The Celts were just simply ancient Europeans as were the Spanish as were the Norse as were the Anglo-Saxons and so on. If we keep going back, we have fewer and fewer ancestors.
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.