DruidessThe Power of Women in Celtic Society: Female Druids
from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
In ancient Celtic society the Druids and Druidesses composed an intellectual elite, whose knowledge and training placed them as priests of the Celtic religion. Their training normally lasted over twenty years and consisted of the memorization of literature, poetry, history, and Celtic law as well as astronomy. The Druids mediated for their people, preformed sacrifices, interpreted omens, and presided over religious ceremonies. They believed that the soul did not die with the body, but passed on to another. The mistletoe and the oak tree are great symbols for them. In fact, the word Druid was derived from the word for oak, which in Gaelic is darach and in Greek drus (Spence, p.14). According to Pliny’s accounts “The Druids held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, always supposing that tree to be the oak. They chose groves formed of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it,” (Spence, p.79).
The first observations of the Celts by ancient sources do not speak of the presence of women as priestesses or seeresses (Jones, p.84). “The Druids and their associated male colleges, the Vates and the Bards, seem to have monopolized the field” (Jones, p.84). These Roman observers, products of a male dominated culture which may have marred their observations, may not have taken note of the Celtic females in roles of power. The Roman men thought of women as possessions so as a result the thought of women in public positions, such as ruler or chieftain, was preposterous to them. Finally in the first century CE, Tacitus reported “that the Celts made no distinction between male and female rulers” (Jones, p.85).
Since Druids committed very little to written forms until after the introduction of Christianity, there are few, if any, first-hand accounts by Celts themselves. Only the myths that have been transmitted through the accounts of the Romans and Christian monks have survived. Legend has mystified many of the female rulers of ancient Celtic society; giving them mystical powers and making their lives seem too extraordinary to seem true. As a result it is very difficult for people today to know if these women truly did have such powers or if they were indeed Druidesses. Women such as Boudica, Onomaris, and other nameless rulers/Druidesses whose burial tombs were found at Vix and Reinham show that Celtic women, in some instances, may have wielded power as much as men, but the evidence remains difficult to decipher.
Druidesses are most often mentioned through fictional references such as the myth of Finn. He was raised by a Druidess or “wise woman” (term that refers to a “females seer) along with another woman by the request of his mother and their “bondwoman”, Muirna. “The Druidess and the wise woman taught Finn war craft, hunting, and fishing (the survival arts), and also acted as guards and advisors, warning him of danger” (Green, p.101). According to Green the position of these women is curious since most Irish Druids lived mainly to serve religious duties and held great authority among their people while these women were obviously in a subservient position. This may be so because of the almost divine rank of Finn’s family (Green, p.102).
In other instances, however, the only reference to women with great power is through the term sorcereress. Fedelma, a “woman from the Fairy, or the Otherworld” (Green, p.102) was a part of the mystical Queen Medb of Connacht’s court. “Fedelma first appeared to Medb as a beautiful young girl, armed and riding in a chariot” (Green, p.102) wearing a red embroidered tunic, sandals with gold clasps and a “speckled cloak.” She informed the Queen that she had studied poetry and prophecy in Alba, “a supernatural land belonging to Scáthach” and then warned her of the advances of Cú Chulainn. Medb then asked the girl if she had the power of ‘sight,’ Fedelma affirmed this and told Medb the chilling prophecy of her troops “I see crimson, I see it red.” Her prophecy came true, Medb lost the battle and Cú Chulainn perished.
Other tales of the Druidesses that have survived often include the subject of sacrifice. “They were grey with age, and wore white tunics and over these, cloaks of finest linens and girdles of bronze. Their feet were bare. These women would enter the [army] camp, sword in hand and go up to the prisoners, crown them, and then lead them up to a bronze vessel… One woman would mount a step and, leaning over the cauldron, cut the throat of a prisoner [of war], who was held over the vessel’s rim. Others cut open the body and, after inspecting the entrails, would foretell victory for their countrymen” (Green, p.97).
Druids had many responsiblities, but their main duty, especially with the centralization of Celtic society, became to advise Kings and Queens. Dreams and prophecies were questioned by royalty for their significance and they interpreted events in various kingdoms. As a result, the power of the Druids and Druidesses was very great for not only were they the sole priests of Celtic religion, but they also held great sway in political matters.
Text source: http://www.unc.edu/celtic/catalogue/femdruids/
Art by Jason Heeley
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