The Female Druid
The existence of female Druids is confirmed by the written sources from the Greeks and Romans who were fascinated by the role of women in Celtic society. In Greece and Rome, women had no political rights and their civil rights were very limited. They could not own property or inherit land and their husbands were their guardians. If a father died without a male heir, the daughters would pass along with other property to the next male kin who would take the oldest as his wife. In Greece, women were kept in seclusion and had separate quarters in the house and their life was extremely restricted. In Rome, women were allowed to go shopping and visit other public places but were still considered "chattel."
In Celtic society, women could be found in authority, whether ruling a tribe or leading them into war. Boudicca, the rule of Iceni was accepted as the leader of the southern Bristish tribes in 61 A.D. Celtic women as warriors are common and there is strong evidence that female leaders were also spiritual leaders. Camma, a priestess of the goddess Brigit, was clearly a Druidess. Celtic women were often appointed ambassadors and were involved in securing the treaty between Hannibal and the Volcae.
The position of women as set down in the Brehon Law system of Ireland was very advanced by contemporary standards. Women could be found in many professions including law. Women had the right to succession, could inherit property and if a marriage was dissolved, she was allowed to keep all property given to her from her estranged husband. If a husband committed a criminal act, the wife was not held accountable and was also only responsible for her own debts.
It was the introduction of Christianity that changed the status of women in Celtic society. Celtic men saw in the Christian dogma a patriarchal society where women were once more restricted and as the "mother Goddess" religion gave way to the one God religion of the Christians, many of the Celtic women's rights were confiscated.
It is obvious from written histories and archaeological evidence that, at the height of their power, Celtic women did serve as Druids, leading their tribe and clansmen through the passages of the feasts and holy days of the year. In Christian writings, many stories mention "fairy women" or "witches" who were no doubt female Druids. The concept of the Druidess relegated to sorceress perhaps gave rise to the literary world's three most famous witches from Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606). Macbeth was a High King of Scotland, having come to power under legitimate Celtic law, and ruled over a peaceful and prosperous kingdom. English rulers, envious of his status, conspired to overthrow Macbeth. Historical accounts are always written by the victors so we have been spoonfed Shakespeare's distorted "British" version of Macbeth's life.
In Welsh mythology, we have the tale of Ceridwen, the wife of Tegid Foel of Penylln. She is usually depicted as the Christian concept of the Druid: a sorceress who gave birth to two very ugly sons. One of them, Morfan, is said to have battled Arthur in the battle of Camluan; no one would fight him, though, due to his overpowering ugliness which was attributed to the devil. Afagddu, Ceridwen's other son, was known as the ugliest man in the world. To counteract this, his mother boiled a potion of inspiration and science so that all would have awe and respect for her son's vast knowledge.
Ceridwen's cauldron was the prototype for the "Holy Grail" which Christian monks developed from Celtic myths. It is said that the reincarnation of Gwion Bach, whom Ceridwen chased and swallowed after he tasted of the Cauldron of Knowledge, was born to her and cast from her into the sea. He was rescued and became Taliesin, the true incarnation of Druidism, who is best known as Merlin. One of his pupil was Morgaine, Arthur's sister and lover, who may have been the frst Druidess.
The Power of Women in Celtic Society: Female Druids
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 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.
Margaret R. Minor University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill USA firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a misconception among many modern folk that the Druid caste was made up of only men. This is probably the fault of the Druid reformation of the 17th and 18th centuries. As we discussed earlier, the founders of this movement had a romantic viewconcerning the Druids, often claiming the Druids were "prechristian Christians." The Druid Orders founded during these years were for men and men only. Thus the misconception that only men could be Druids.
One need only read the first line of the Cath Mag Turied (the Battle of Moytura) to understand that women could indeed be Druids.
"The Tuatha De Danann were in the northern islands of the world, studying lore and magic and druidism and wizardry and cunning until they surpassed the sages of the arts of heathendom."
The Tuatha De Danann are the Gods and Goddesses of our tradition, and therefore women could be Druids.
Irish myth as well as the Greek and Roman historians mention female Druids, the Bandroai (Bandruidh). What we are able to gather from the sources available to us is that the Bandroai were Seers and Prophets. There is little mention of other roles the Bandroai might have filled within the Druid caste. Below is a small sampling of stories or histories that mention female Druids.
In the story of Fingin Mac Luchta of Munster, Fingin visits a Druidess every Samhain who would fortell the events of the coming year.
The Second Battle of Moytura mentions two Druidesses who promise to enchant the rocks and trees "so they become a host and rout" their enemies.
Prior to the famous Cattle Raid of Cooley, Mebd the Queen of Connacht, consults a Druidess named Fidelma who predicts the outcome of the coming battle with the Ulstermen. "How seest thou our host?" asked Medb. "I see the host all becrimsoned..." replied Fidelma.
Several of the Roman and Greek historians mention Druidesses in their works.
Dio Cassius mentions a Druidess named Ganna who went on an embassy to Rome and was received by Domitian, youngerson of the Emperor Vespasian.
Pomponius Mela in De Chorographica speaks concerning nine virgin "priestesses" who lived on the island of Sena, in Brittany, who "knew the future."
The Historia Agusta which was written in about 400 A.D. by Aelius Lampridius mentions a Druidess foretelling the defeat of Alexander Severus. "Go forth but hope not for victory, nor put your trust in your warriors."
Then of course, there are the keepers of the eternal flame at Kildare, which was for a long time a pagan temple dedicated to the Goddess Brighid. The flame was tended by Druidesses and later by Christian nuns, in honor of Saint Bride.
Because of what we know concerning the treatment and rights of Celtic women; which were many times better than the rest of Europe at that time, we can make an educated guess that a persons gender mattered little when one wished to study the Druid ways. All that would be needed is a strong memory and intellect and the desire to learn. The Irish myths may have mentioned the Bandroai more than we now aware. This would have been because the scholars and scribes who wrote down all the wonderful tales of Ireland were Christian monks and probably already infected with the Roman Church's stagnant view of women.
Women played an important role in Celtic society and were considered equal in status with men until the coming of Christianity. Modern Druidism does not exclude women or anyone else for that matter. In fact, there are many women who walk the Druid path today, without whom Druidism would not be the same. Some of these women are:
Until 1996, Ellen Evert Hopman was the Vice President of the Henge of Keltria, and she is the author of many books about Druidism, including A Druids herbal for the sacred Earth year, and Tree medicine, Tree Magick. She is now Co-chief of the Order of the Whiteoak (Ord na Darach Gile) at www.whiteoakdruids.org and has two additional books: Priestess of the Forest: a Druid Journey and A Druid's Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine.
Emma Restall Orr is the co-founder of the British Druid Order and an author of several books about British Druidry and its traditions.
Mara Freeman is a Druid and a great Seanchai (storyteller). She has produced many recordings of her storytelling as well as toured the U.S. and Europe.
Erynn Rowan Laurie has written several books and leads many internet discussions concerning the ancient Celts and Druids. She is also the list owner for Nemeton-L, a internet discussion list.
So you see, many women hold important positions in the Druid Orders and are scholars of great renown, a very valueable resource for our growing and rediscovering of Druidism. Little has changed since the days of Cuchulain and the days of Mag Turied as far as we modern Druids see it. The female and the male are equal in nature and so they are equal when walking the Druid path. Druidism is a philosophy and a magickal system, and is open to all regardless of gender, to exclude a person because of their gender would be ridiculous.
The Women of Druidry © Kenneth R. White
Note: The paragraph on Ellen Evert Hopman has been modified as per her own request. For more information, as well as an additional article on female Druids, go to: http://www.celticheritage.co.uk/EllenEvertHopman/