It is our pleasure to welcome Teresa Cross, author of Secrets of the Druids: From Indo-European Origins to Modern, as our featured author for May. Teresa has spent decades studying the history and development of the Celtic spiritual tradition and looking into the origins of the Druids. Through her investigation, she offers a reconstruction of the Druidic faith that reveals the misinformation surrounding it and draws parallels with other Indo-European traditions, such as the Celtic and Vedic Hindu beliefs and practices. Here Teresa provides an adapted excerpt from her book examining the historical fascination with Druidism that has in many ways distorted its ancient cultural traditions.
Interact with Teresa on our Forum here
Introduction: Learning about the Historical Druids
Around 5,000 years ago, located in between the Danube and the Ural mountain range, there lived a people whom we call the Proto-Indo-Europeans so named for their language.
The Celtic peoples were a part of this large family and they were and are heirs to the language and cultural traditions of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
Celtic languages have been classified according to their use of the sounds of Q (kw-) or P: Gaulish, Welsh, Cornish and Breton are P-Celtic whilst Irish (Irish Gaelic), Gaelic (Scottish Gaelic) and Manx are Q-Celtic
Over the centuries, language changes gradually and such developments can modify sounds and grammar.
The Proto-Indo-European names for their numbers:
oinos, dwo, treyes, kwetwores, penkwe, sweks, septm, okto, newm, dekm
eka, dva, trayas, catvaras, panca, sas, sapta, asta, nava, dasa
ains, twai, thries, fidwor, fimf, saihs, sibun, akto, niun, taihun
oinos, doui, tries, petuor, pempe, swexs, sextan, oxtou, nauin, decam
Gaelic (Scottish Gaelic):
aon, da, tri, ceithir, coig, sia, seacht, ocht, naoi, deich
unus, duo, tres, quattuor, quinque, sex, septem, octo, nouem, decem
Ancient Celtic languages such as Gaulish were highly inflected, having noun declensions with case endings numbers and genders, verbs had conjugations etc. The syntax (word order) of Celtic languages is VSO (verb, subject, object).
Celtic society was stratified into three main classes based on their functions.
- Druids, 2. Warriors, and 3. Producers (Farmers and Herders)
Examination of the native literature of medieval Ireland demonstrates a mass of evidence of the Indo-European ideology and over the decades there have been many studies of comparative materials written in academic institutions. I made use of these sources in The Secrets of the Druids. I spent many long hours reading works of Comparative Mythology. In fact, my Indo-Europe scholarship led me to study a lot of Vedic materials. Indeed, the religions and philosophies of India present us with a living and highly developed religious culture of Indo-European origin. Christianity and Islam never eradicated it.
Today, India still has a caste system that was developed several millennia ago.
- Brahmans 2. Kshatriyas 3. Vaishyas
Both Brahmans and Druids were a priestly class who had teaching and religious functions.
There are many parallels between the two and they performed many of the same works. There are many comparative studies on the two. In my book, I even drew up a table of correspondences between the two in one of my appendices.
There are many classical commentaries on the Druids. Even the ancients compared the Gaulish Druids with the Brahmans of India and Magi of Persia!
It took a number of decades of study for me to look for the origins of the Druids. I used comparative linguistics and comparative mythology to formulate my studies of the Celtic and Indo-European connections. The materials before me were a large accumulation of mediaeval Irish materials, both Irish and Scottish Gaelic folklore, classical commentaries (of which I cautiously cherry-picked), and I had a lot of materials from the religious cultures of others in the vast family of those descended from the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
The result of my Celtic research was The Sacred Cauldron: Secrets of the Druids published in 1991. The secrets that I gave away were the Indo-European origins of the teachings, ideology and practices of the Celtic peoples and their Druid class. My pseudonym was “Tadhg MacCrossan” to protect my identity for safety. It sold out two printings with Llewellyn. This second edition came out in December 2020. The first edition had its detractors. I had a few detractors who attacked me personally in ad hominem arguments and “straw man” fallacies which were libelous falsehoods about my political views and social values. There is still a lot of misinformation about ancient Celtic religion and the Druids to this day, many of which are absurdities and fantasies paraded as fact.
Secrets of the Druids: From Indo-European Origins to Modern Practices
Chapter 2: Survivals and Revivals
The pre-Christian religion of the Celtic folk never completely died out despite the centuries of Christianization in the Middle Ages. The yoke of the church came to Ireland in the fifth century CE, but not everyone instantly converted, and even those who did convert did not give up all their beliefs in the old Celtic deities, the otherworld, and other native concepts just because they accepted a new god and a new hero.
The common folk of the Celtic countries continued to make their offerings to the old deities in the form of sacrifices to the aes síde, “people of peace.”
The old mythological tales about the gods from the elder faith continued to be retold by the class of professional storytellers and their songs sung by the bards. The sagas of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his fían (war band) of heroes preserved a great deal of the mysticism from Celtic religion in both the earliest written sources and in the oral traditions, which are still remembered by Ireland’s storytellers. The sagas of Cúchulainn, the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), and related tales were preserved in old manuscripts in very early forms of the Irish language—forms of the language that sometimes predate the arrival of Christianity there. Most of these texts were copied down by medieval Irish monks who probably preserved them for their literary merit and out of patriotism for their tribe and people. Textual evidence from the language and style points to these tales as having been written down by those who had memorized them from the oral tradition, for often they sound like transcriptions.
Much of the information found in the early Irish writings have been gratuitously called into question simply because they were written down by Christian clerics. This is an ad hominem fallacy. We must bear in mind that in those days the church was more liberal in the treatment of native beliefs in Ireland, and this is why the older religious material survived to the extent that it did.
In Gaul and Britain it was a different story. The Roman rulers sought to displace the native culture and sociopolitical system with their own Latin (Roman) ways. The Romans succeeded in supplanting the Gaulish language with Latin, but this process took nearly five hundred years until the last speakers of Gaulish died out.
But even at that, the French language, a direct descendant of the Latin spoken in Gaul, is full of words that were borrowed from the original Gaulish. Latin never caught on in Britain, for the British natives preferred their own language to that of the Roman soldiers and governors. When the Romans finally pulled out of Britain after four hundred years of occupation, Latin disappeared, leaving only the Christian clergy speaking it. Also, many Latin loanwords were incorporated into the native Brittonic language. Britons continued to speak Brittonic as it rapidly developed into Old Welsh and Old Cornish. During this same period of time, and at the time of Arthur and the Saxon invasions that followed, many Cornishmen went with their families to Armorica in Gaul and set up the colony of Brittany.
A northern dialect of Brittonic was spoken in southern Scotland and Cumberland, which linguists have labeled Cumbric. The majority of speakers of this dialect emigrated to North Wales after the battle of the Gododdin (Votadini). Cornish eventually met its seeming demise in the 1790s when the last native speakers died, but scholars and bards would keep it alive for a later revival.
Ireland was never under the yoke of Rome; and while the druids of Gaul were abolished officially in 54 CE by the emperor Claudius and Suetonius Paulinus who attacked British druids in 61 CE, they would remain in Ireland for at least another four centuries. Druids remained as a secular institution even after tuath (OIr. túath < PCelt. *touta) fell to the foreign cult of Christianity. Druidic teaching took on a new guise as the lore of the filid, the brehons, the ollams and the storytellers or historians called seanchaithe, “shanachies.” This was the time that druidry (druidecht) became a blend under the influence of the church. Many Irish clerics were also graduates of the old druidic or “bardic” schools in which fifteen years of instruction in oral traditions were transmitted, and many of these men committed these esoteric teachings to writing.
The mythological tales of the old druids of the elder faith, which had been transcribed, were often copied down by clerics who were sometimes embarrassed about the stories these contained regarding the old gods. They would often write prefaces explaining these deities as demons who had fooled the older folk, or as angels who were not good enough for heaven but were too good for hell. Other writers would write down the tales describing the old gods as if they were mortal rather than divine.
This process of rewriting the myths to read as if they were historical events, and of changing gods into mortals from the past, is known as euhemerism—and this was a popular practice for storytellers and recorders of myths. The Celtic gods were not the only group of ancient gods to be euhemerized. Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Prose Edda of Icelandic mythology, told a story of how Odin had been a ruler in “Asia” as the land of the Æsir. This process of interpreting gods as deified mortals is named after the Greek philosopher Euhemerus (330–260 BCE), who wrote in his Sacred History that gods were nothing more than men and women of great eminence who were deified for their achievements.
Many medieval Irish historians grafted the older pagan myths such as the flood story onto the biblical flood myth and rewrote the native tradition to fit in with the new Christian mythology. The elder gods who had been turned into saints and fairies and the remaining mythic figures were transformed into prehistoric settlers of Ireland by these redactors. Yet, despite all these distortions, the native tradition still shines through. The structures and themes are intact, just waiting for the discerning eye to read between the lines. The Tuatha Dé Danann are the Irish version of the Norse Æsir and Vanir and/or the Greek Olympians, while the Fomorians are the Irish version of the Frost Giants or Titans. These redactions are not at all the terrible obstacles that some have tried to make them out to be.
The revival of Celtic religion has had a very long and difficult road because of the problems that the accidents of history have laid upon us. After the time of the Tudor, Elizabethan, and Cromwellian devastations of Ireland’s native learned class, there were a few English antiquarians who began speculating on the old stone monuments, which had stood since prehistoric times. The rediscovery of the old classical works also had led to the rediscovery of the ancient Celtic peoples. The first conclusion drawn was that the Celtic Britons had been responsible for the building of the megalithic monuments; this conclusion would be considered true until the twentieth century. From an early point onward, the era of fantasy and erroneous speculation about the ancient Celts and their long-dead druidic priesthood began to increase. Scholarship on the ancient religion was often simply wild guesswork and if writers didn’t know something, it seemed alright simply to make things up—the more eccentric the better.
In 1536 druids appeared in Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (A History of the Scots) as practitioners of rites similar to those found in “Egyptian books.” According to people such as John Caius, druids founded Cambridge University. English antiquarians fell into a druidomania. They compared the druids to Pythagoras (obviously taking the hint from the Alexandrian sources), cabalists, early Christians, and the Chaldean Magi. In the 1700s English mystical cabalists began springing up in England, claiming to be inheritors of a secret tradition. How ironic it is that the people who destroyed the last vestiges of the old druidic traditions would pretend to be inheritors of that very tradition only a century later!
In the nineteenth century, druids became confounded in the minds of many Englishmen and Welshmen with everything from Egyptians and the lost tribes of Israel to Freemasonry and the so-called natural Helio-Arkite religion of Noah.
In the late eighteenth century, a Unitarian named Edward Williams invented his own brand of druidism out of the popular ideas of Deism and other Age of Enlightenment ideas. Williams dubbed himself Iolo Morganwg. In 1792 he set up some rocks on Primrose Hill in London and founded the first Gorsedd (gathering of bards). His innovative ceremonies evolved into the Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain. He forged a number of documents to “prove” the authenticity of his tradition and his theories concerning the history and origins of Welsh poetic practices of south Wales. His forgeries were well received in his own time and published as the Iolo MS and as a posthumous edition edited by John Williams ab Ithel (an Anglican rector) titled the Barddas. When Morganwg’s manuscripts were acquired by the National Library of Wales in 1916, the Welsh scholar Griffith John Williams succeeded in exposing Morganwg as a fraud and forger. The hoax had fooled people so well that G. J. Williams still looked upon Morganwg as a romantic visionary as well as a forger.
But despite the exposure of Morganwg’s hoax, the Morganwgian brand of druidism did not stop. Owen Morgan, who called himself Morien O. Morgan, began preaching his peculiar version of the same sort of material. He combined the questionable theories of the older Helio-Arkite faith with an ovo-solar cosmology (the idea that the solar god hatched from an egg) and mystical interpretations of the Bible. He invented a solar divinity, whom he called Ked, and believed in a Chaldean origin of druidism. His strange books included A Guide to the Gorsedd, Mabin of the Mabinogion, and Kimmerian Discoveries.
As the Morganwg Barddas nonsense began, another school of misinformation arose from the works of Edward Davies (1756–1831). Like John Williams ab Ithel, Davies was an Anglican rector who began speculating on the druids as inheritors of the traditions of the lost tribes of Israel and the Helio-Arkite worship of Noah and his children. This would later grow into a sect called the British-Israelites who believe that the Celts and Saxons were descendants of the Israelites of the Old Testament. Other problematic druidic theories produced books such as Godfrey Higgins’s The Celtic Druids and the largely unreadable (as well as laughter-provoking) Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions by James Bonwick.
Many of the clichés, stereotypes, and fallacies concerning the Celtic religion and the druids are the result of books such as the ones we have just discussed. This is only a small part of the avalanche of nonsense written about the Celtic religion since the early 1700s. But while the English and Welsh began to make up ideas concerning the older Celtic religion, the Scottish and Irish of the nineteenth century took a different path.
Sir Walter Scott took an interest in genuine Scottish legends and even corresponded with the German scholar Jacob Grimm. Two volumes of Scottish folk beliefs were compiled by Anne McVicar Grant (1755–1838). After her collections were published, there came the works of John Campbell of Islay in 1860, and Alexander Carmichael began compiling for many decades his large collection published as the Carmina Gadelica (1900). These Scottish works have proved themselves to be much more valuable than any of the antiquarian scribblings from the English and Welsh fantasists that we have discussed. After the new trend of collecting folklore grew and the science of comparative linguistics and folklore came to Britain from Germany, the stage was set for the entrance of the first professor of Celtic at Oxford, the renowned Sir John Rhys (1840–1915). He collected Welsh and Manx folklore in his Celtic Folklore (1901). Thirty-four years earlier, the first translation of a bulk of medieval Welsh folktales called the Mabinogion was published by Lady Charlotte Guest. Up until this time the mythological literature of Wales had not been accessible to those who could not read Welsh.
During the 1920s in England, a blend of Victorian Age anthropological ideas, some stemming from Sir James Frazer’s now outdated The Golden Bough, Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920), and the earlier obsolete matriarchal theories of Johann Jakob Bachhofen’s Das Mutterrecht (Mother Right), were to inspire people such as Egyptologist Margaret Murray to concoct a pan-European witch-cult theory based on a single horned god and a single earth-mother goddess of fertility.
Murray’s books The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1931) became the bases for many theories confusing different ethnic cultures of western Europe. She believed that the accounts concerning a witch cult (now largely believed to be a falsehood fabricated by the church and fueled by the hysteria of the Reformation period) reflected a real underground cult of pagans who had not been converted to Christianity. Despite the typical atrocity stories created by the witchfinders of those days, there were many who did not question Murray’s insistence upon a unified old religion, which seemed to be a blend of Italic, Greek, Celtic, and Germanic elements interpreted as a fertility cult from the Victorian anthropological point of view.
After the last of Britain’s witchcraft laws was repealed in 1951, an Englishman named Gerald Gardner announced to the public that he himself was one of those witches described in Murray’s books. In the 1950s he published a few books claiming to reveal the secrets of this old religion. Gardner’s followers and friends in the occult world of England aided him in starting a religion that came to be called “Wicca.” This seemed to be a blend of the ceremonial magic of the medieval cabalistic grimoires, or spellbooks (a liturgy similar to that of the hermetic and cabalistic orders such as the Golden Dawn); the theories of Margaret Murray; and earlier fringe anthropologists found in secret societies and fraternal orders. After these books were out for a while, witch covens began to spring up all over England and America.
In the nineteenth century, one of the more pathetic stories of self-styled fantasy druidism is told of William Price of Llantrisant, Wales, who appears in photographs wearing a fox-skin cap and red long underwear embroidered with Greek letters. In 1884, Price was tried and acquitted of cremation, which set the first precedent for the legal use of cremation in English law. When he died in 1893, his own corpse was cremated. In Wales and Cornwall, organizations such as the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain kept up the ceremonies of Iolo Morganwg’s invention. Many of those who participate in these “bardic” ceremonies are Protestant Christian clergymen. The Druid orders such as the A.D.U.B. (An Druidh Uileach Braithreachas) and the O.B.O.D. (Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids) split from each other in 1964 when Thomas Maughan and Ross Nichols had a disagreement over the publication of their secret lore. These are the white-wimpled “druids” who were—up until 1985—seen lurking around Stonehenge and Primrose Hill in England. Much of the lore of these organizations is a blend of cabalism and Freemasonry dressed up in Morganwgian garb.
Similar groups sprang up in North America. But in 1963 a group of college students at Carleton College in Minnesota started a church called the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA). This was apparently originally done as a revolt against a requirement of Sunday church attendance. In the 1970s this organization evolved into a half-serious attempt at a pagan religion. The RDNA was transformed into a quasi-Wiccan organization that had branches, or “groves,” of Zen Druids, Norse Druids, Hasidic Druids, Schismatic Druids, and even Taoist Druids. This organization called all of its members by the title of the old Celtic priesthood and includes a doctrine proclaiming “nature is good!” and a belief in the earth-mother and sky-father duality. Other organizations that claim to be Celtic include myriad Wiccan covens, or “groves.”
In recent years, the Druidiacta organization was formed as an authentic approach to Celtic religion. It was in part inspired by the groundbreaking work done in the Ásatrú (Germanic neopagan) movement. Druidiacta is the first attempt to have a purely Celtic organization not contaminated by the older fallacies and misinformation that prevailed in the earlier organizations. This book represents the basic principles of this tradition as it was unfolded for its founders. What follows in the next chapters is the culmination of many years of research in Celtic traditions using several different disciplines and experimentation with these old Celtic traditions.
Secrets of the Druids by Teresa Cross, © 2020 Inner Traditions. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com
I recommend books by Ronald Hutton, who has authored many works that chronicle the history of witchcraft, neo-Druidism, and various related topics. On the subject of Margaret Murray, see A Razor for a Goat by E. B. Rose.