Druidic Survivals in Celtic Hagiography part 3 – Magi and Magic-Users in the Celtic Vitae

As we turn to search for druidic survivals in Celtic hagiography, it soon becomes apparent that this process has continued to such an extent that there is no longer any trace left of the classical ‘druid.’ In fact, we are hard pressed to find any recognisable allusions to the druids at all. The term often rendered as ‘druid’ in English translations of the Celtic vitae is magos or magus. This happens continuously in texts such as Bieler’s translation of Muirchu’s Life of St. Patrick.[1] For example, the passage:

“Hic autem scivos et magos et aurispices et incantatores et omnis malae artis inventores habverat…”[2]

Bieler translates as:

“He had around him sages and druids, fortune-tellers and sorcerers, and the inventors of every evil craft…”

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There is nothing in the original text to suggest that the author intended the word magos to be understood as druid, at least not in the classical sense. A more logical suggestion is that Muirchu had in mind the magi who came from the east to worship Christ at his birth, or the Egyptian magi who attempted to recreate the miracles of Aaron and Moses, when he uses the word in his text. Both of these uses of are found in Jerome’s vulgate and carry a general idea of ‘wise men’ or ‘magicians’. This understanding of the term is much truer to the context of Muirchu’s text and the only explanation for Bieler’s translation is that his understanding of ‘druidism’ was not based on any historical precedent, but on a romanticised, contemporary and popular perception. Richard Sharpe notices a similar mal-practise in many traditions concerning St. Columba of Iona and druids. The popular notion of druids being on the island of Iona before Columba established his monastery there is based on nothing more than the mistranslation of the Irish word drui in a middle Irish homily. This word, according to Sharpe, is an abbrviation for druineach, meaning ‘craftsmen’, and not an allusion to druids.[3] For his part, Sharpe never once allows a druid into his translation of Adomnan’s vita of St. Columba, instead, quite correctly, describing Columba’s various confrontations with wizards, magicians and sorcerers.

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Indeed, there are many different terms used to describe, for want of a better term, ‘magic-users’ in Celtic hagiography, most of which have been associated with the druids or druidism. Unfortunately however, the only actual links that can be found between these characters and the historical druids are in the later, degenerated druidic stereotype, that of the mysterious, sinister, grove-dwelling hermit. A varied selection of such characters can be found in the seventh century life of St. Samson of Dol, one of the most interesting being a wild, trident-wielding sorceress. Samson happens upon the crazed hag while travelling through a forest with some of his saintly brethren. One of his companions, unable to contain his terror at their predicament, flees manically into the trees, only to be pursued and killed by the witch. When Samson catches up with them, finding his monk dead on the floor, he demands to know who and what she is. The hag replies by saying, “theomacha sum”.[4] Theomacha is a Latinised form of the Greek word θεομαχος, meaning ‘one who fights against God’. Although nothing in the name implies a user of magic as such, the fact that Samson demands that she revive the dead monk suggests she was thought to possess some otherworldly power. As well as this, she also describes herself as “morally perverse” and explains that she is the last one of her kind left in that wood. Such a description does agree with the later druidic image; the name theomacha as well as the claim to be the last of her kind could suggest that she was a throwback to earlier, pagan times. What is more, there is evidence that points to the existence of female druids, such as Lampridius’s account of how Alexander Severus met a ‘woman of the druids’, who shouted at him, “Hurry forward, but do not hope for victory, nor put your trust in soldiers.”[5] However, the fact remains that allusion and suggestion are far from unequivocal truths and, unfortunately, these are all we have that link this character to the druids. Even if the passage is referring to a druid, then we must also accept that it is an image of druidism very far away from the important class of philosopher-priests described in the classical sources.

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In conclusion, we have seen that the ‘druid’ is a shadowy figure in history, and one that is very difficult to tie down. However, working mainly from classical Latin and Greek texts, it has been possible to suggest that the druid was a central figure in Celtic society, fulfilling such diverse roles as judge, learned teacher and having some form of ritual responsibility. Over time and especially after the Roman repression, Druidism was forced further and further into the social periphery. With the rise of Christianity, this was undoubtedly carried further and the hagiographical record contains no firm evidence of classical druidism, instead making vague and general reference to magic users who may or may not have had something to do with the remnants of druidic survivals. For all intents and purposes, it does appear that the ‘true’ druid became extinct long before insular monasteries began compiling the acts of their patron saints.

[1] Bieler, Ludwig, The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh (Dublin 1979)

[2] Muirchu, Life of Saint Patrick, 1.10.2

[3] Sharpe, Richard, Adomnan’s Life of Saint Columba (Harmondsworth 1995), p. 20

[4] Life of Saint Samson, ch. 27

[5] Lampridius, Alexander Severus 59.5

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