Oak Wise Ones
Before attempting an interpretation of the Gundstrup cauldron's narrative, it would be helpful to offer an introduction to the background of the Celtic priesthood, which would have used the vessel during the operation of their religious offices - namely the Druids. As previously mentioned, the Druids were intrinsically linked with the rites of sacral kingship, the one singular pan-Celtic concept of which we are informed in the insular sources. The contemporary accounts of the Graeco-Roman authors give us a clinical description of the three grades of Gallic priest and the religious functions attributed to each, exactly corresponding to the classification recorded within Irish and Welsh tradition. Thereafter we must be aware of common misconceptions that arise in the classical sources, born from unfamiliarity with Druidic religious practices emphasizing the barbaric nature of Celtic worship. This reflects misinformation as a tool of propaganda. Despite the more obvious irregularities contained in the classical texts, they do however offer us an irreplaceable corpus of knowledge.
The first and most famous category of Celtic priest was the Druid, the 'vid' element being etymologically descended from the Indo-European stem 'wid', denoting wisdom and knowledge. The meaning of the prefix 'dru' is still open to question, however, the original early Celtic form of Druid was 'derwfjes', which became the Gaulish 'Druides' or'druvid'. One idea suggests that it comes from the adjective 'derwos' or 'truth'. Another theory indicates that it is based on the old Celtic form of' dru', the name of the oak tree, which is also related to the Greek 'drus'. It is interesting that Pliny remarks on the fact that the name Druid is possibly derived from the Greek name of the oak and makes the point that the tree, and branches of it, was an essential requirement for the performance of their rituals. Our best source of information comes from Caesar's account of the conquest of Gaul (De Bello Gallico). This was based on the intelligence he had acquired over the nine years he campaigned in the country; information gathered from among the Gaulish chieftains who accompanied him in his retinue of political hostages:
Throughout Gaul there are two classes of person of definite account and dianity. As for the common folk, they are treated almost as slaves, venturing naught of themselves, never taken into counsel. The most part of them, oppressed as they are either by debt or by the heavy weight of tribute or by the wrongdoing of the more powerful men, commit themselves in slavery to the nobles, who have, in fact, the same rights over them as masters over slaves. Of the two classes above-mentioned, one consists of druids, the other of knights.
former are concerned with divine worship, the due performance
of sacrifices, public and private and the interpretation of
ritual questions; a great number of young men Bather about
them for the sake of instruction and hold them in great honour.
ln fact, it is they who decide in almost all disputes, public
and private; and if any crime has been committed or murder
done or there is any dispute about succession or boundaries,
they also decide it, determining rewards and penalties; if
any person or people does not abide by their decision, they
ban such from sacrifice, which is their heaviest penalty.
Those that are so banned are reckoned as impious and criminal;
all men move out of their path and shun their approach and
conversation, for fear they may get some harm from their contact
and no justice is done if they seek it, no distinction falls
to their share. Of all these druids one is chief who has the
highest authority among them. At his death, either any other
that is pre-eminent in position succeeds or if there be several
of equal standing, they strive for the primacy by the vote
of the druids or sometimes even with armed force. These druids,
at a certain time of the year, meet within the borders of
the Carnutes, whose territory is reckoned as the centre of
all Gaul and sit in conclave in a sacred spot. Thither assemble
from every side all that have disputes and they obey the decisions
and judgments of the druids. It is believed that their
rule of life was discovered in Britain and transferred thence
to Gaul; and today those who would study the subject more
accurately journey, as a rule, to Britain to learn it.
In the above account, Caesar makes several observations about the Druids. First, they were a highly organized sacerdotal order whose status was equal to the social position of knights. This religious organization had a hierarchy based on the grading of priests from the lowly novice to the highest rank of arch Druid. Second, the Druids played an important judicial role in Gaulish society, both in religious and secular affairs, and non-compliance to their judgment led to a form of excommunication. judgments were also directed to cases concerning political issues such as territorial disputes and problems concerning succession.
The involvement of Druids in affairs relating to succession is perhaps indicative of their ceremonial role in selecting heirs during the rites of sacral kingship. The fact that Caesar does not mention any more details to corroborate any of the rituals known from the insular sources merely suggests that he was unaware of them, having only a vague knowledge of the connection between the judicial authority of the Druids and the selection of a king. It is also interesting that Caesar refers to the annual meeting of the Druids at a sacred spot in the territory of the Carnutes, considered to be the geographical centre of Gaul: a Gaulish equivalent to Uisneach in Ireland where the Druids (and later the filidh) held annual assemblies.
Unfortunately, Caesar omits the distinction made between the Druids and the other types of Celtic priest recorded by later writers, namely the Vates and the bards, to complete the triadic nature of the hierarchy. The Vates appear to have shared some of the sacrificial duties of the Druids but were particularly skilled in the interpretation of portents through various mediums of divination.
The word 'vate' stems from the Gaulish vatis, etymologically descended from the Indo- European bha, 'to speak'. Thus a Vate was literally 'the speaker' in allusion to his ability to speak the will of the gods. In Ireland his equivalent was 'the faith', also known by the generic name filidh.
The writer Diodorus Siculus gives us the following account, distinguishing the role of the Vate from the Druid:
have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour
and are called druids; they have soothsayers too of great
renown who tell the future by watching the .flight of birds
and by the observation of the entrails of victims; and everyone
waits upon their word. When they attempt divination upon important
matte, they practice a strange and incredible custom, for
they kill a man by a knife stab in the region above the midriff;
and after his fall they foretell the future by the convulsions
of his limbs and the pouring of his blood, a form of divination
in which they have full confidence, as it is of old tradition.
It is a custom that no one performs a sacrifice without the
assistance of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to
the Gods ought only be made through the mediation of these
men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak,
familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the
blessings of the Bods should properly be souaht.
Strabo calls the Vates 'diviners and natural philosophers' while describing the Druids as both natural and moral philosophers. This implies that only the Druids were qualified to make judgments concerning what was considered virtuous.
The 4th-century Greek historian Ammianus Marcellinus refers to the Vates with the singular tide of 'euhages', who 'strove to explain the higher mysteries of nature'.
The tide 'euphage' means literally 'those who cut well' in reference to their skill at divining through sacrifice. Strabo then goes on to describe the procedure of the sacrifice in similar terms to the above account of Siculus:
used to strike a human being, whom they had devoted to death,
in the back with a sword, and then divine from his death struggle.
The third category of religious official was the bard, a tide etymologically linked with the Indo- Aryan 'brhati' or 'sacred verse'. So the Gaulish form of bardos probably means 'the one of the verses', alluding to his primary function of reciting the verses he had committed to memory. Diodorus Siculus supplies the following comments regarding bards:
there are among them composers of verses whom they call bards;
they sing to instruments similar to a lyre, applaud some,
while they vituperate others and the
This account conforms to the description of bards given in the Irish sources, where we hear of them possessing the power to praise, by which they increased the reputation of their patrons, or conversely the power to satirize, whereby the niggardliness of a thrifty lord would be exposed. As the bards appeared to have been itinerant, traveling from one noble household to another, their upkeep would have been dependent on the congeniality of their host. The system of praise and satire would then assure the bard of a good reception wherever he sought shelter. The bard would also have been an important source of news between the separate communities, bringing a form of social cohesion between them: j
was the custom of the bards to celebrate the brave deeds of
their famous men in epic verse accompanied by the sweet strain
of the lyre.
In Ireland the power and authority of both the Druid and the bard was absorbed by the filidh, the only ones of the three grades to survive the religious changes wrought by the arrival of Christianity and the transition from a pagan heritage. The filidh continued as an order until the British encroachment into Ireland during the 17th century AD.
Fortunately details of the training of the filidh have survived the systematic persecution of the order, allowing us a glimpse at a curriculum of instruction that would have remained relatively unchanged since the time of Caesar.
The training of the filidh could take up to 12 years to complete, a period similar to the 20 years Caesar described for the tutorage of novice Druids. The student of the filidh school had to pass through three houses and seven grades of initiation before graduation. The first six years were spent in the 'house of mindfulness', where the adept had the right to carry the bronze branch, a sceptre of office that had bells hanging from it to announce the arrival of the filidb. In his first year the student was known as an ollair or 'beginner', learning the rudiments of grammar and 20 stories. In the second year he became a tamhan or 'attendant' when he was introduced to the ogham alphabet and learned a further 10 stories. From the third to the fifth year he rose to the grade of a drisac or 'apprentice', learning the principles of satire, the law of privilege, 100 ogham combinations and 10 more stories every year. In his sixth year the student became a cli or 'pillar', learning another 20 stories, 48 poems and an introduction to the secret language of poets.
The next three years were spent in 'the house of learning', where between the seventh and ninth years the student became an anruth or 'noble stream'. In this course of instruction the student earned the right of carrying the silver branch, learning a further 95 poems and becoming familiar with the Dinnsenchas (the collection of the place names of Ireland and the folklore behind them). He was then taught the three forms of poetic inspiration:
Teinm Laeghda Laeghda - 'The Fire of Recitation
By analysing the phraseology of a poem, the poet would recognize and solve a hidden riddle through intuition and an understanding of Ogham metaphors i.e. the secret language of poets.
Imbas Forosna - Inspiration of the Elements
This form of divination consisted of the consumption of the flesh of a totemic animal, the recitation of invocations to the gods followed by a visionary sleep. This was the method employed in the ritual of the Tarbhfess and is remarkably similar to the Greek system of incubation that appears to have been practiced in the spring sanctuaries of Gaul. Cormac's Glossary mentions how practitioners of this form of divination would lie on their backs in a darkened cubicle and cover the eyes with the palms of the hands.
Dichetal Do Chennaib - Knowledge of Speaking
A technique of inspiration based on a system of evocation, whereby the diviner could make a prognosis by reciting prayers addressed directly to the gods.
The final three years were spent in 'the house of the critic'. Here the adept student was qualified to carry the golden branch as he progressed through the final three grades of eces or 'reciter', flli or 'philosopher', and ollarnh, 'the beholding hand'.
The student learned a further 120 orations, 100 more poems and another 175 stories.
Caesar's description of Druidic training is markedly similar to that of the Irish filidh some 1,500 years earlier:
druids hold aloof from war, and do not pay taxes with the
rest; they are excused from military service and exempt from
all liabilities. Tempted by these great rewards, many young
men assemble of their own motion to receive their training;
many are sent by parents and relatives. Reports say that in
the schools of the druid's they learn by heart a great number
of verses, and therefore some persons remain twenty years
under training. . And they do not think it proper to commit
these utterances to writing, although in almost all other
matters, and in their public and private accounts, they make
use of Greek letters. I believe that they have adopted the
practice for two reasons: that they do not wish 'the rule'
to become common property, nor those who learn 'the rule'
to rely on writing and so neglect the cultivation of the memory,
and, in fact, it does usually happen that the assistance of
writing tends to relax the diligence of the student and the
action of the memory.
It is of little surprise that the Druids made use of Greek letters, as cultural links with the Greek trading settlements of southern Gaul existed from around the middle of the 4th century BC, a contact that stimulated a kind of interpretation Graeco in the religious expressionism of the Druids. This theme particularly influenced the cult of the Celtic Apollo, with the adoption of incubatory rites at the numerous spring sanctuaries in Gaul, some probably dating nearly 200 years before the cultural penetration of Rome had even crossed the Alps.
The Irish Ogham script was a mystical alphabet based on tree names that developed from an earlier form of notation - that is, a preliterate quantitative system of counts. The construction of the alphabet is clearly not Celtic in origin as several letters employed in the script are not phonetically used in the Celtic tongue. This suggests that the alphabet relied on a non-Celtic prototype, later developed and used to adapt the existing notational system into a script. It is revealing that Caesar refers to the use of Greek letters by the Druids when recording their accounts, indicating that both the use of the Greek alphabet and the notational system of the Ogham were born out of the need to quantify through trade between the two cultures. This would suggest that the origins of Ogham developed from the Greek alphabet, and more particularly Chalcidic Greek, from the trading centres in southern Gaul circa 2nd century DC.
an apparent anomaly, since the earliest ogham inscriptions date
from the 4th century AD in insular contexts only. However, this
evidence is based on surviving inscriptions in stone. The use
of ogham may have originally been restricted to the medium of
wood, perhaps due to religious constraint. Indeed, in both Gaelic
and Brythonic the word for tree and wood, fid and gwydd, also
mean 'letter' and 'alphabet'. This is also reflected in the
use of tree names to designate the different characters of the
script. If the Ogham system was based on a Greek prototype,
we would expect to find some evidence of phonetic similarity
between the two, the one being dependent on the other. Almost
by way of confirmation, we find that six of the 20 letter names
of the Ogham script are phonetically identical to their counterparts
in the Greek alphabet:
The Ogham alphabet was employed in Ireland as a mystical cipher used and understood by the Druids alone, an exclusiveness that is described in the Book of Ballymote:
Now Ogham, a man well skilled in speech and poetry, invented the Ogham . The cause of its invention was that he wanted to prove his ingenuity, and that he thought this language should belong to the learned themselves, to the exclusion of farmers and herdsmen.
The Irish sources recount how the Ogham was employed as a method of divination. In the tale The Wooing of Etain we are told of how staves of yew were inscribed in Ogham to reveal the eochra ecsi or the 'keys of divination'. In the Seanchus Mor we further hear of how the casting of lots was employed to decide the outcome of murder trials. This system was known as crannchur or 'the casting of the woods', and involved three possible outcomes: innocence, guilt or the trinity. The trinity was an indecisive outcome requiring the woods to be thrown again until one of the other two results carne up.
On the 1st-century Gaulish Coligny calendar a similar system is implied in the terms prinni laget ('the laying of the woods') and prinni louden ('the throwing of the woods'), an act that was restricted to the period between the new and first quarter phases of the moon. In the classical record, it is possible the 3rd-century AD writer Hippolytus was referring to the use of Ogham when he described how the Druids used a numerical system of ciphers to predict the future, similar to that employed in the Pythagorean academies. This may allude to the author's vague awareness of the notched numbered characters of the Ogham script.
Other forms of divination were shared between the various cultures derived from a common Indo-European origin. We have seen how Siculus described the divinatory practices of the Gaulish soothsayers, which consisted of prediction by use of the flight of birds and the observation of entrails. Both methods were commonly employed in the empire within the cult of the emperor himself, namely in the colleges of the auspices and the haruspices.
In Ireland we learn how birds represented the presence of certain deities - for example, the raven was associated with the Morriganan the crow with Badbh. Also the direction from which they flew and the noises they uttered allowed the Druid to make a prognosis on what type of person was approaching and from which direction. The ritual practice of bird divination is recorded on the Coligny calendar with the term peti ux, 'from wings above', during the third quarter of the moon in the months of Dumanos ('silence') and Simivisonna ('likened with bird song').
The Coligny calendar was an itinerary designating the auspicious nature of days based on the phases of the moon, with reference to what particular form of divination could be employed by a Druid on a specific day. The Irish sources reveal many instances of when a Druid was able to discern the most favourable time for a certain event to take place. For example, the Druid Cathbadh was able to forecast the best days for the conception of the future king Connor and the birth of Deidre, and when Cu Chulainn should take up arms. Two of the three forms of poetic inspiration are also recorded on the calendar with the expressions ivos ('an evocation') for Dichetal do Chennaib and amb(os) ('inspiration') for lmbas Forosna.
The Irish sources also disclose other forms of divination practiced by the Druids, like neldoracht ('direction from clouds') and cetnad ('repeating verses'), but sadly there are no details as to how they were performed.