Irish Druids

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Ornament on top of Devenish Round Tower



SECTION 1. Druids: their Functions and Powers.

Letter D ruidism.—No trustworthy information regarding the religion of the pagan Irish comes to us from outside: whatever knowledge of it we possess is derived exclusively from the native literature. There were many gods, but no supreme god, like Zeus or Jupiter among the Greeks and Romans. There was little of prayer, and no settled general form of worship. There were no temples: but there were altars of some kind erected to idols or to the gods of the elements (the sun, fire, water, &c.), which must have been in the open air. The religion of the pagan Irish is commonly designated as Druidism: and in the oldest Irish traditions the druids figure conspicuously. All the early colonists had their druids, who are mentioned as holding high rank among kings and chiefs. There were druids also in Gaul and Britain; but the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland were separated and isolated for many centuries from the Celtic races of Gaul; and thus their religious system, like their language, naturally diverged, so that the druidism of Ireland, as pictured forth in the native records, differed in many respects from that of Gaul.

In pagan times the druids were the exclusive possessors of whatever learning was then known. They combined in themselves all the learned professions: they were not only druids, but judges, prophets, historians, poets, and even physicians. There were druids in every part of Ireland, but, as we might expect, Tara, the residence of the over-kings of Ireland, was, as we are told in the Life of St. Patrick, "the chief seat of the idolatry and druidism of Erin." The druids had the reputation of being great magicians; and in this character they figure more frequently and conspicuously than in any other. In some of the old historical romances we find the issues of battles sometimes determined not so much by the valour of the combatants as by the magical powers of the druids attached to the armies.

Perhaps the most dreaded of all the necromantic powers attributed to them was that of producing madness. In the pagan ages, and down far into Christian times, madness was believed to be often brought on by malignant magical agency, usually the work of some druid. For this purpose the druid prepared a "madman's wisp," that is, a little wisp of straw or grass, into which he pronounced some horrible incantations, and, watching his opportunity, flung it into the face of his victim, who at once became insane or idiotic.

Madness was often produced by the rage of battle. For, during a bloody battle, it sometimes happened that an excitable combatant ran mad with fury and horror: and occurrences of this kind are recorded in the romantic accounts of nearly all the great battles fought in Ireland. There was a most curious belief —a belief that still lingers in some parts of the country—that during the paroxysm a madman's body became as light as air, so that as he ran distractedly, he scarcely touched the ground, or he rose into the air, still speeding on with a sort of fluttering motion. There is a valley in Kerry called Glannagalt, 'the glen of the galts or lunatics': and it is believed that all lunatics, if left to themselves, would find their way to it, no matter from what part of Ireland. When they have lived in its solitude for a time, drinking of the water of Tobernagalt ('the lunatics' well'), and eating of the cresses that grow along the little stream, the poor wanderers get restored to sanity. At the entrance to Lough Foyle, on the strand near Inishowen Head in Donegal, there is a well called Stroove Bran, which was thought to possess the same virtue as Tobernagalt, and to which all the deranged people in the surrounding district were wont to resort.

It was believed that the druids could pronounce a malign incantation, not only on an individual, but on a whole army, so as to produce a withering or enervating effect on the men; and they were sometimes employed to maledict a hostile army, as Balaam was employed by Balak. They could give a drink of forgetfulness, so as to efface the memory of any particular transaction. They were the intermediaries with the fairies, and with the invisible world in general, which—as they asserted—they could influence for good or evil; and they could protect people from the malice of evil-disposed spirits of every kind; which explains much of their influence with the people. They could—as the legends tell—bring on snowstorms, or showers of fire and blood, and cover the land with blinding clouds and mists.

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