Divination of Irish Druids

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER V....continued

Divination.—An important function of the druid was divination—forecasting future events—which was practised by the pagan Irish—like the Greeks and Romans—in connexion with almost all important affairs, such as military expeditions. Laegaire's druids foretold the coming of St. Patrick. The druids forecasted, partly by observation of natural objects or occurrences, and partly by certain artificial rites: and in the exercise of this function the druid was a fáith [faw] or prophet.

They drew auguries from observation of the clouds, and of the heavenly bodies; and for purposes of divination they often used a rod of yew with Ogham words cut on it. They professed to be able to find out the lucky or unlucky days, and the period of suitable weather for beginning any business or enterprise, and to discern the future in general, from the voices of birds, from sneezing, and from the interpretation of dreams.

Divination by the voices of birds was very generally practised, especially from the croaking of the raven and the chirping of the wren: and the very syllables they utter, and their interpretation, are given in the old books. The wren in particular was considered so great a prophet that, in an old Life of St. Moling, one of its Irish names, drean, is fancifully derived from drui-én, meaning the 'druid of birds.' When St. Kellach, Bishop of Killala, was about to be murdered, the raven croaked, and the grey-coated scallcrow called, the wise little wren twittered ominously, and the kite of Cloon-O sat on his yew-tree waiting patiently to carry off his talons-full of the victim's flesh. But when, after the deed had been perpetrated, the birds of prey came scrambling for their shares, everyone that ate the least morsel of the saint's flesh dropped down dead. The Welsh birds of prey knew better when they saw the bodies of the slaughtered druids:—

“Far, far aloof th' affrighted ravens sail;

The famished eagle screams, and passes by.”

The Bard: by GRAY.

Just before the attack by Ingcel and his band of pirates on Da Derga's Hostel, the howl of Ossar, King Conari's messan or lapdog, portended the coming of battle and slaughter. The clapping of hands was used in some way as an omen; and also an examination of the shape of a crooked, knotted tree-root. Sometimes animals were sacrificed as part of the ceremony. In the performance of these and of all other important functions, the druids wore long white robes; like the Gaulish druid, who, as Pliny states, wore a white robe when cutting the mistletoe from the oak with a knife of gold.

Trees reverenced.—We know that the Gaulish druids regarded the oak, especially when mistletoe grew on it, with much religious veneration; but I cannot find that the Irish druids had any special veneration for the oak: although, like other trees, it occasionally figures in curious pagan rites. The mistletoe is not a native Irish plant: it was introduced some time in the last century. The statement we so often see put forward that the Irish druids held their religious meetings, and performed their solemn rites, under the sacred shade of the oak, is pure invention. But they attributed certain druidical or fairy virtues to the yew, the hazel, and the quicken or rowan-tree—especially the last—and employed them in many of their superstitious ceremonials. We have already seen that yew-rods were used in divination. On some occasions, witches or druids, or malignant phantoms, cooked flesh—sometimes the flesh of dogs or horses—on quicken-tree spits, as part of a diabolical rite for the destruction of some person obnoxious to them.

Druids as Teachers and Counsellors.—A most important function of the druids was that of teaching: they were employed to educate the children of kings and chiefs—they were indeed the only educators; which greatly added to their influence. The chief druid of a king held a very influential position: he was the king's confidential adviser on important affairs. When King Concobar mac Nessa contemplated avenging the foray of Queen Maive, he sought and followed the advice of his "right illustrious" druid Cathbad as to the time and manner of the projected expedition. And on St. Patrick's visit to Tara, King Laegaire's proceedings were regulated by the advice of his two chief druids Lucetmail and Lochru.

Druidesses.—The ancient Irish had druidesses also, like their relatives the Gauls. A druidess was called a ban-drui [ban-dree], i.e. a 'woman druid': and many individual druidesses figure in the ancient writings. Amongst the dangers that St. Patrick (in his Hymn) asks God to protect him from are "the spells of women, and smiths, and druids," where the "women" are evidently druidesses. In one of St. Patrick's canons, kings are warned to give no countenance to magi (i.e. 'druids'), or pythonesses, or augurers, in which it is obvious from the context that the pythonesses were druidesses. The Greek word 'pythoness,' which corresponds to the Irish ban-drui. was the name of the priestesses of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi.

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