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The Foremothers Speak
by Sage Starwalker
Imbolc 2002, Vol 1-2
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Odilon's "Druidess"Druidess

This issue's cover art is Druidess, an 1893 work by the French Symbolist, Odilon Redon (1840 - 1916). When I first saw this piece, I thought "why does she have a beard?" The more I thought about it, I decided that what I saw in her chin was not a beard, but heavily grained wood -- like tree bark, probably oak. (Click on the image at right for a larger picture, so you can see what I mean.) It makes sense that Redon's Druidess would be transforming to or from oak, because of the sacred tree alphabet and the magic and sacred groves associated with the Druids. Indeed, the oak is the most powerful/holy of the trees, according to Druid cosmology.

But what about Druidesses? We rarely hear of them. At ReligiousTolerance.org, we learn:

The Druids and Druidesses formed the professional class in Celtic society. They performed the functions of modern day priests, teachers, ambassadors, astronomers, genealogists, philosophers, musicians, theologians, scientists, poets and judges. They underwent lengthy training: some sources say 20 years. Druids led all public rituals, which were normally held within fenced groves of sacred trees. In their role as priests, "they acted not as mediators between God and man, but as directors of ritual, as shamans guiding and containing the rites." Most leaders mentioned in the surviving records were male. It is not known whether female Druids were considered equal to their male counterparts, or whether they were restricted to special responsibilities. References to women exercising religious power might have been deleted from the record by Christian monks during the Celtic Christian era. (Celtic Druidism)

Barbara Walker, our featured foremother, speaks about these religious women in her "Druids" entry, in The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets:

Druids (var. dryads, druides, druidai, drysidae, Gaulish druvis, Old Irish drui).(1)

Europe's sacred-oak cultists were known by many names. Greek myth said the dryads were oak nymphs, each an oracular priestess with her own personal tree spirit, like the biblical Deborah who lived under a tree that bore her own name (Judges 4:5). Dryads are called priestesses of Artemis, whose souls dwelt in their trees. They could also assume the shapes of serpents, and were then called Hamadryads, or Amadryads.(2) In their druidic groves throughout northern Europe, Strabo said, they practice rites "similar to the orgies of Samothrace."(3)

Dryadism and Druidism were two phases of the same religion, evidently restricted to a female priesthood in the earlier, matriarchal stage, later open to male priests as well. Gaulish and British priests of the oak groves formed a class of bardic wizards, keeping a sacred tradition by memorizing orally transmitted material, the nucleus of medieval sagas, epics, and ballads.

There is no break between the ancient semi-magical formulae chanted by the Druids and the later incantation of wizard and the "wise-woman." They both arose in the Veda-like sacred hymns which formed the depository of the learning professed by the body of the druidical teachers and diviners and taught orally in the druidic schools. Most of them were never written down, and the fragments that we possess in writing are probably on the remains of a considerable body of oral literature."(4)

Druids were attacked by the Christian church for their paganism, but especially for their propensity to include sacred women in their ranks. Scot said even in his day there were feminine spirits associated with trees, called Dryads in Greece and Druids in Scotland. They were shape-shifters, and could appear as either birds or women. "They know our thoughts, and can prophesy of things to come."(5)

Despite nominal conversion to Christianity, the Irish clung to druidism for many centuries. Their revered pagan king Diarmuid was called "half a druid and half a Christian." To make St. Patrick's legend more palatable to the Irish, monks claimed he had been educated by a druid.(6) Irish churches were known by the old druidic name of dairthech, "oak-house," formerly applied to the sacred grove.(7)

The "colleges" of druidesses, or dryads, passed by almost imperceptible degrees into a new designation of Christian nuns. One of the three classes of druidesses consisted of secluded sisterhoods, like the priestesses of Brigit, living in convent-like sanctuaries and tending sacred fires that were kept perpetually burning. [Editor's note: Brigit's holy site and church/monastery was and is at Kildare, which in Irish means "the church of the oak tree." Barbara Walker is not the only scholar to associate Brigid and her priestesses with Druidry.] Another, less secluded class of druidesses, consisted of married women who lived at the temple and went home occasionally to visit their husbands. A third class was composed of temple servants who lived with their families.(8) With the coming of Christianity, the high holy sisterhoods were assimilated as nuns. The others were usually described as witches.

The druidic religion lasted a surprisingly long time over a surprisingly wide geographical area. Christians continued to worship oak deities in their sacred groves through the 8th century AD in Hesse. According to Gildas, Christian monks copied their tonsure from the druids. Traces of druidism were found as late as 1874 in Russia. (9) Even clearer traces were found in the 20th century in the Holy Land, where the Goddess of the sacred groves was worshipped as Asherah since pre-biblical times, and was known in Canaan as progenitress of the gods.(10) Her priestesses the oak-nymphs continued to be venerated under the title of Benat Ya'kob (Daughters of Jacob), said to dwell in their trees near old shrines that were rededicated to mythical Moslem saints. The tree were taboo. Their wood was never taken for fuel, except for votive purposes. (11)

To some extent the mystical reverence for oak trees persists to this day. Many British and American towns have their venerable "Charter Oak" or some superannuated tree where seasonal ceremonies take place. Acorns and oak leaves are still considered appropriate for wreaths and harvest decorations, even if they no longer crown the Goddess's sacred kings.

References

  1. Piggott, Stuart. The Druids. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968.
  2. Lawson, John Cuthbert. Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion. New York: University Books Inc., 1964.
  3. Haining, Peter. Witchcraft and Black Magic. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1972.
  4. Spence, Lewis. The History and Origins of Druidism. New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1971.
  5. Scot, Reginald. Discoverie of Witchcraft. Yorkshire, England: Rowmand & Littlefield, 1973.
  6. Spence, ibid.
  7. de Paor, Maire and Liam. Early Christian Ireland. London: Thames & Hudson, 1958.
  8. Boulding, Elise. The Underside of History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1976.
  9. Spence, ibid.
  10. Pritchard, James B. The Ancient Near East (2 vols.). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1958.
  11. Frazer, Sir James G. Folk-lore in the Old Testament. New York: Macmillan, 1927.