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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 136

Some writers have tried to draw a distinction between the Druids of Gaul and of Ireland, especially in the matter of their priestly functions. But, while a few passages in Irish texts do suggest that the Irish Druids were priests taking part in sacrifices, etc., nearly all passages relating to cult or ritual seem to have been deliberately suppressed. Hence the Druids appear rather as magicians—a natural result, since, once the people became Christian, the priestly character of the Druids would tend to be lost sight of. Like the Druids of Gaul, they were teachers and took part in political affairs, and this shows that they were more than mere magicians. In Irish texts the word "Druid" is somewhat loosely used and is applied to kings and poets, perhaps because they had been pupils of the Druids. But it is impossible to doubt that the Druids in Ireland fulfilled functions of a public priesthood. They appear in connection with all the colonies which came to Erin, the annalists regarding the priests or medicine-men of different races as Druids, through lack of historic perspective. But one fact shows that they were priests of the Celtic religion in Ireland. The euhemerised Tuatha Dé Danann are masters of Druidic {312} lore. Thus both the gods and the priests who served them were confused by later writers. The opposition of Christian missionaries to the Druids shows that they were priests; if they were not, it remains to be discovered what body of men did exercise priestly functions in pagan Ireland. In Ireland their judicial functions may have been less important than in Gaul, and they may not have been so strictly organised; but here we are in the region of conjecture. They were exempt from military service in Gaul, and many joined their ranks on this account, but in Ireland they were "bonny fechters," just as in Gaul they occasionally fought like mediæval bishops. In both countries they were present on the field of battle to perform the necessary religious or magical rites.

Since the Druids were an organised priesthood, with powers of teaching and of magic implicitly believed in by the folk, possessing the key of the other-world, and dominating the whole field of religion, it is easy to see how much veneration must have been paid them. Connoting this with the influence of the Roman Church in Celtic regions and the power of the Protestant minister in the Highlands and in Wales, some have thought that there is an innate tendency in the Celt to be priest-ridden. If this be true, we can only say, "the people wish to have it so, and the priests—pagan, papist, or protestant—bear rule through their means!"

Thus a close examination of the position and functions of the Druids explains away two popular misconceptions. They were not possessed of any recondite and esoteric wisdom. And the culling of mistletoe instead of being the most important, was but a subordinate part of their functions.


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