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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 139

Outside the Roman pale the Druids were still rampant and practised their rites as before, according to Pliny.1081 Much later, in the sixth century, they opposed Christian missionaries in Scotland, just as in Ireland they opposed S. Patrick and his monks, who combated "the hard-hearted Druids." Finally, Christianity was victorious and the {316} powers of the Druids passed in large measure to the Christian clergy or remained to some extent with the Filid. In popular belief the clerics had prevailed less by the persuasive power of the gospel, than by successfully rivalling the magic of the Druids.

Classical writers speak of Dryades or "Druidesses" in the third century. One of them predicted his approaching death to Alexander Severus, another promised the empire to Diocletian, others were consulted by Aurelian. Thus they were divineresses, rather than priestesses, and their name may be the result of misconception, unless they assumed it when Druids no longer existed as a class. In Ireland there were divineresses—ban-filid or ban-fáthi, probably a distinct class with prophetic powers. Kings are warned against "pythonesses" as well as Druids, and Dr. Joyce thinks these were Druidesses. S. Patrick also armed himself against "the spells of women" and of Druids.1085 Women in Ireland had a knowledge of futurity, according to Solinus, and the women who took part with the Druids like furies at Mona, may have been divineresses. In Ireland it is possible that such women were called "Druidesses," since the word ban-drui is met with, the women so called being also styled ban-fili, while the fact that they belonged to the class of the Filid brings them into connection with the Druids. But ban-drui may have been applied to women with priestly functions, such as certainly existed in Ireland—e.g. the virgin guardians of {317} sacred fires, to whose functions Christian nuns succeeded. We know also that the British queen Boudicca exercised priestly functions, and such priestesses, apart from the Dryades, existed among the continental Celts. Inscriptions at Arles speak of an antistita deae, and at Le Prugnon of a flaminica sacerdos of the goddess Thucolis. These were servants of a goddess like the priestess of the Celtic Artemis in Galatia, in whose family the priesthood was hereditary. The virgins called Gallizenæ, who practised divination and magic in the isle of Sena, were priestesses of a Gaulish god, and some of the women who were "possessed by Dionysus" and practised an orgiastic cult on an island in the Loire, were probably of the same kind.1091 They were priestesses of some magico-religious cult practised by women, like the guardians of the sacred fire in Ireland, which was tabu to men. M. Reinach regards the accounts of these island priestesses as fictions based on the story of Circe's isle, but even if they are garbled, they seem to be based on actual observation and are paralleled from other regions.1092

The existence of such priestesses and divineresses over the Celtic area is to be explained by our hypothesis that many Celtic divinities were at first female and served by women, who were possessed of the tribal lore. Later, men assumed their functions, and hence arose the great priesthoods, but conservatism sporadically retained such female cults and priestesses, some goddesses being still served by women—the Galatian Artemis, or the goddesses of Gaul, with their female {318} servants. Time also brought its revenges, for when paganism passed away, much of its folk-ritual and magic remained, practised by wise women or witches, who for generations had as much power over ignorant minds as the Christian priesthood. The fact that Cæsar and Tacitus speak of Germanic but not of Celtic priestesses, can hardly, in face of these scattered notices, be taken as a proof that women had no priestly rôle in Celtic religion. If they had not, that religion would be unique in the world's history.

Footnote 1002:

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