How the Druids became Witches


Today, these mysterious magicians of the Celtic lands are generally understood in two ways; either as a class of priests or seers who basically governed their society through advising their chieftains, and only existed during the Iron Age, or alternatively, as a longer tradition stretching from the earliest times into the present day. The main problem with the former is that it relies on a restricted interpretation of the word ‘druid’ in an Iron Age context and ignores the use of derived terms during the Middle Ages with slightly different meanings. The word “dryw” meant ‘”seer” in Welsh, while the Gaelic word “drui” meant “wizard” or “magician”. Though some claim that the meanings of these words are not interchangeable whatsoever, this merely reflects the loss of religious duties of the druids after the invasion of Christianity. Instead of being the spiritual leaders of society, their role changed to that fortune-tellers and folk healers, many of whom would be burned as witches from the 15th to18th Centuries. Despite Christian propaganda claiming otherwise, the druids were said to have had magnificent powers; not only in prophecy, but also in controlling the weather and practising astral projection, such as spirit flight and shapeshifting.

The word ‘druid’ literally meant “oak wise” in Ancient Europe, but this name does not simply mean that they knew a lot about trees and other things in Nature (of which they knew a great deal), but also that they were generally considered powerful because of their knowledge and were ‘strong in wisdom’. They were described by the Romans as not only responsible for spiritual matters, but also as lawyers, philosophers, astrologers, doctors, scientists and politicians. They were also portrayed as a distinct social group along with “bards” (musicians and storytellers) and “owates” (seers) By the 1st Century BC, many Gaulish tribes had transferred political sovereignty from their chieftains to a ‘senate’ of druids, which functioned similarly to a republic and was led by a ‘wergobret’ (magistrate). The leader of the Aedui tribe who was allied to Caesar was knows as “Diviciacus”, and was described by Caesar as a ‘senator’ of the Aedui. This reflects how similar Gaulish society had become to that of the Romans, but the main difference between their societies was that the Romans had a city-state civilization, while the Gauls retained the tribe as the largest political unit. They were both run by the elites of their societies who formed a level of government above the common folk. The druids were also said to have performed human sacrifices, which the Romans saw as barbaric (as they only sacrificed animals). However, it is possible that these ‘sacrifices’ were actually executions of criminals and that the Druidic legal system was a thorough mixture of of religion and law, and so execution may have had a ritual aspect that was not shared by the Romans.

In Britain, the Romans became intent on destroying the druids as part of their invasion in the 1st Century AD, so they slaughtered them at their base on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. It appears that the druids were too effective in stirring up resistance against the Romans all over Britain that they were exterminated or forced to swear allegiance to Rome and conform to the Romano-British hybrid religion. However, the druids evidently survived in Scotland, as they feature in Adomnan’s “Life of Saint Columba”, as antagonists. Though they are never mentioned again by the Romans, this is probably because the druids had previously had a centralized religious institution that had become localized after the eradication at Anglesey, and the remaining tribal druids would have no longer posed a united political threat to the Romans. The druids continued to act as the legal and spiritual leaders of their societies, but they became subjected to Christianity around the 5th Century AD. The first attemps to Christianize the Picts were carried out by the Britons in Scotland, who were likely to have practised Romano-British religion and would have been quick to adopt Christianity from the Romans. Missionaries like Saint Ninian (‘Winnian’ in Brittonic and ‘Finnian’ in Gaelic) converted the Southern Picts of Fife, Stirlingshire, Perthshire, Angus and Galloway in the early 5th Century. However, Saint Patrick’s “Letter to Coroticus” (probably a king of Strathclyde) calls the Picts “apostates”, suggesting that they had probably abandoned the Roman variant of Christianity by the late 5th Century.

Irish missionaries were more successful, as they preached a more syncretic form of Christianity, which was propagated by the Saint Columba in the late 6th Century. While Columba managed to gain converts among the Picts, he did not succeed in converting the Pictish king, “Bridei” (“bree-day”), but his work was continued by his monks at Iona and other parts of Scotland. Druids were also present in Ireland before Christianity, and they are described in more detail than those in Scotland. They are the ‘snakes’ that Patrick supposedly “drove out of Ireland”, as he made every attempt to undermine the wisdom of the druids by smashing statues of their gods and burning their books. Despite claims to the contrary, the druids did have an alphabet other than ‘ogham’ (a writing system used for carving inscriptions on stone and on wands for divination) known in Wales as ‘Coelbren’ and can be found on inscriptions across Europe. Modern academia asserts that Coelbren was invented by Edward Williams in the 18th Century, despite the fact that the reason we have no textual evidence of the alphabet is because the Christians burned the evidence. This is where the assumption that the druids were illiterate until they adapted ogham from the Latin alphabet comes from (which is also false). At the same time, the druids were still primarily concerned with oral tradition, as esoteric knowledge could not be written down (their writing was more likely to have been used to aid memory rather than record it) and druids were trained to memorize poetry, mythology, spells, songs, religious rituals with which they tried to understand Nature.

The Irish druids are described as wearing feathered clothing (in contrast to the Gaulish druids, whom the Romans said wore white robes), giving them the appearance similar to shamans in other parts of the world. The link between Druidism and Shamanism is one which has a lot of evidence to support it. The practices of soul flight and shapeshifting as well as detailed knowledge about plants and animals appear to be common to many such traditions, so it stands to reason that Druidism has been passed down to us by our earliest ancestors and inhabitants of these lands. In traditional societies, the shamans are the spiritual healers of their people, and will use their powers to fight sickness and protect their tribe. They also serve as advisors to their chieftains, though they live somewhat apart from the rest of society, despite being essential members. Another important similarity appears to be the lack of gender exclusivity among druids and shamans. The folk on Anglesey chanting curses at the Romans were women, and there is no evidence that the druids had a patriarchal institution like the chieftains, even if women were in the minority or were possibly part of separate orders from the male druids (it is said that Saint Bridget was a druidess who converted to Christianity).

The status of the druids diminished with the coming of Christianity and so they became a misunderstood and sometimes feared folk during the Middle Ages. To many, they became associated with legends of werewolves and curses than for their previously important contributions to society. In Ireland, the druids were said to have been able to cause madness, by blowing a powder (most likely a drug made from plants containing scopolamine) into somebody’s face, a practice still utilized by criminals in some of the poorest countries. The word ‘sorcerer’ comes from the Latin ‘sortiarius’ which also means a seer, and in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the use of magic was known as ‘wiccecraeft’ or ‘witchcraft’. The male ‘wicca’ and female ‘wicce’ may have been the Anglo-Saxon equivalents of the druids and became the witches and wizards of Medieval lore; however, the common folk sought to distinguish between ‘witches’ and what they called ‘cunning folk’. The difference between them was that the former practised ‘black magic’ while the latter engaged in ‘white magic’. Black magic became known by the term ‘maleficium’ (sorcery) and consisted of hexing, poisoning, becoming invisible and changing folk into animals, while white magic was focused on healing, prayer and removing hexes. ‘Cunning folk’ were tolerated because they frequently invoked Christ and Semitic gods such as El and Adonai, while ‘black magic’ usually consisted of interacting with Nature spirits (wights, elves and dwarves).This was all seen as pagan superstition by the Catholic Church and was either ignored or ridiculed.

This was to change near the end of the Middle Ages, as the Church became concerned with the potential proliferation of occult literature with the invention of the printing press in the 15th Century. They reacted in a typically hysterical fashion and began to encourage secular authorities to hunt down and persecute ‘witches’. Whereas before, their policy had been to deny the veracity of supernatural powers attributed to or even the existence of witches, now witches became servants of darkness who worshipped the Devil and used magic to harm and to kill. The previous bigotry towards ‘heretics’, who held differing interpretations of the Bible, was now unleashed on all who practised folk magic (and many who did not). In Scotland, they did not burn them alive when found guilty of witchcraft (as was done on the continent), but rather strangled them first before burning their corpses (though there are reports of ‘witches’ being thrown off cliffs). Despite the holocaust that ensued throughout Europe into the beginning of the 18th Century (and later in some parts), some cunning folk survived and continued to be consulted by the common folk but were simply ignored for the most part by the medical establishment. The ‘Enlightenment’ had secularized science and medicine, and so druids and witches and all things ‘superstitious’ became memories of the past.

Druidism resurfaced in the 18th Century as a Welsh cultural movement, influenced by the work of Edward Williams and espousing a peculiar form of monotheism. The early Neo-Druid movement had a fraternal organization similar to freemasonry, though more recently, others have tried to discover more authentic Druidic practices. Druidism is a spiritual philosophy native to Europe and in places where Europeans form a majority, and is a tradition that can be incorporated into Wotanism. In contrast, ‘witchcraft’ is more of a method of experimenting with natural forces, which can be used for any purpose and is a cultural practice rather than a religion. ‘Wicca’ is a dualistic Neopagan religion that is based on a hotchpotch of European folk traditions and ceremonial magic, and is a universalist religion like Christianity. There are many New Age belief systems designed to trick you into thinking that you are reconnecting with your roots or the land, but still holding you in a modernist mindset. Our traditions are neither ancient nor modern, they are both since time is eternal, which is the cyclical view of the universe that was held by the druids.

Wulf Willelmson

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