Secret Stories of the Ancient Poets

A woman’s face, dubbed Hilda, was reconstructed from an ancient skull housed in The University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum. Hilda lived between 55 BC and 400 AD and was of Celtic origin. She was probably more than 60 years old when she died, nearly double the life expectancy of the time, as a female’s life expectancy in her era was roughly 31 years. Having a long life during the Iron Age indicates a privileged background. Hilda’s was one of the six ‘Druids of the Hebrides’ skulls presented to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1833. Therefore, Hilda was most likely a female druid.

Poets and prophets, astrologers and astronomers, seers, magicians, and diviners were usually comprised of druids. It was the druid who remembered the tribal histories and genealogies. Druids were also the ones who memorized the laws. They served as diplomats, lawyers, judges, herbalists, healers, and battle magicians. Among them were also satirists, sacred singers, storytellers, nobility children’s teachers, ritualists, astronomers, philosophers, natural scientists, and mathematicians. Being a druid meant serving a whole tribe. No king or queen could function without the assistance of a druid, because the druid knew the laws and precedents upon which the ruler could not pass judgement.

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Druid statue in the park By PicturePrince – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Female druids, or druidesses, are referred to by a variety of terms. Bandrui (woman-druid) is mentioned in Medieval Irish folklore. Conchobor Mac Nessa, the king of Ulster in Irish mythology’s Ulster Cycle, was most likely named after his mother, Nessa, rather than his father. Nessa was a druidess. Scathach, a legendary Scottish warrior woman and martial arts instructor who trained the legendary Ulster hero Cú Chulainn in the arts of combat, is explicitly referred to as a flaith (prophetess) as well as a druid. There are also the banflaith (sometimes banfili), or women poets, most notably Fedelm, a female prophet and banflaith in the Ulster Cycle. She appears in the great epic Táin Bó Cuailnge (colloquially known as The Cattle Raid of Cooley or the Táin).

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Cuchulain (shield) fighting his friend Ferdia. The is part of a mural in the Setanta Centre on Kildare St. 

By the first century AD, the Romans were actively and deliberately annihilating the druids, who were the intellectual elite, nobility advisors, and the glue that held the kingdoms of Briton together. According to Roman propaganda campaigns, the druids were the perpetrators of savage superstition and horrific human sacrifice. Druidesses in particular were described as independent seers rather than powerful royal advisors and clergy. A policy of deliberate extermination of the druids was implemented, culminating in the terrifying slaughter of the druids at Angelsey in 60 AD.

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“A Druidess”, a 19th century painting by Alexandre Cabanel

Despite their best efforts, the Romans never conquered Ireland and pagan gods were officially worshiped there until the death of Diarmait mac Cerbaill in 565 AD.  Diarmait mac Cerbaill was the last High King of Ireland to observe the pagan inauguration and ban-feis rituals (divine marriage to the goddess of the land). However, Roman ideals of matronly behavior and womanhood prevailed as Christianity gained power in all areas. Although the Celtic Church continued to exalt powerful priestesses such as Brighid of Kildare and Beaferlic of Northumbria in the few centuries that it was allowed to flourish, as the Roman Christian church grew in power, the power of the ancient Irish women decreased. Druidesses were particularly labeled as evil witches and sorcerers to tarnish their reputations and make people fear them. Women’s religious orders were systematically disbanded upon the death of their founders and thus prevented continuity of female centered orders. 

In the Táin Bó Cuailnge, Fedelm is referred to as a druidess, seer, or fairy in various translations and versions of the story, along with female druids Accuis, Col, and Eraise. The female druids Eirge, Eang, and Banbhuana are mentioned in Forbhais Droma Dámhgháire (The Siege of Knocklong) and the death of the ‘woman poet of Ireland’, Uallach daughter of Muinechán, is mentioned in the Annals of Innisfallen for the year 934. The Brehon Laws, historically referred to as Féineachas or Dlí na Féine, describe harsh penalties for illegal female satirists who were compared to female werewolves. This is an interesting comparison as Historia Arcana (Secret History) by Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500 – c. 554) introduced the Roman Empress Euphemia as Lupicina – a slave and a barbarian concubine of her owner. The name ‘Lupicina’ is connected to the Latin word lupae (she-wolves). This same word was also the epithet for the lowest class of Roman prostitutes.

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“The Druidess” by Odilon Redon, 1893

At various points, the Morrigan and the goddess Macha are referred to as druidesses, and the Tuatha De Danann, the supernatural race in Irish mythology, appeared to have both male and female druids. Each Samhain eve, Fingin Mac Luchta was visited by a druidess who foretold events in the coming year, according to a 15th-century Irish manuscript. In the story of Fingin, the druidess was said to have come from the Otherworld. It is possible that this reflects the gradual Christianization of older stories into more fantastical forms where the druids were always seen as being somewhat supernatural. The female druid Gaine is described as “learned and a seer and a chief druid” in the Metrical Dindshenchas. Female druids were frequently described as both seers and druids, implying that druidesses were frequently both or were particularly associated with prophecy.

Druidic Ceremony for the Autumn Equinox on top of Primrose Hill in London, England. By Simon King – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Bodhmall, a character in the Fenian Cycle, is one of the childhood caregivers of Fionn mac Cumhaill. Bodhmall is more than Fionn’s aunt, she is also a druidess. Both her and Liath Luachra were renowned warriors. Tlachtga, the daughter of the druid Mug Ruith, is strongly associated with the Hill of Ward, which hosted important festivals in her honor during the Middle Ages. Be Chuille, daughter of the woodland goddess Flidais and sometimes referred to as a sorceress rather than a bandrui, appears in a Metrical Dindshenchas story where she joins three other Tuatha Dé to defeat Carman, an Athenian warrior and sorceress who tried to invade Ireland. Other bandrúi include Relbeo, a Nemedian druidess who appears in The Book of Invasions, where she is described as the daughter of the King of Greece and mother of Fergus Lethderg and Alma One-Tooth. Dornoll, a bandrúi in Scotland, trained heroes such as Laegaire and Conall in warfare.

If traditional accounts were insufficient, archaeology also provides additional evidence for female druids. In Metz, France, an inscription was discovered that was erected by a druid priestess to honor Sylvanus (Roman tutelary deity of woods and uncultivated lands) and the local nymphs. Two well-known burials, the Vix burial and the Reinham burial, both refer to powerful women of the time. The Princess of Vix, who was likely also a priestess, lived in Burgundy, France, between the late sixth and fifth centuries BC. She was a wealthy and powerful woman whose rich grave goods came from as far away as the Mediterranean Sea. Her wood panelled grave contained a massive bronze krater, elaborate jewelry and a golden torque symbolizing her noble status. She wore fibulae with Italian coral insets.

Woman in White Dress Holding Orange Light

Many other female burials have also been discovered between the Rhine and Moselle rivers, where the women are laid out on wagons adorned with rich jewelry and grave goods more impressive than those of some of the richer warrior chieftains of the time. The Reinham burial, from the fourth century BC near the Biles River in Germany, was an oak-lined chamber filled with valuable objects and jewelry. The body was placed on a chariot, with food and drink provided for her journey to the Otherworld. She was also buried with a torque on her chest, representing her noble status.

Greek and Roman historians were evidently fascinated enough with the druids to write about them. Pliny offers the only available ancient description of a druid ritual, as the druids preferred to keep their teachings in oral tradition, being of the opinion that they were too sacred to write down. On the “sixth day of the moon,” he describes a druid in white robes climbing an oak tree with a ‘golden sickle’ to harvest mistletoe. Tacitus provides the vivid account of the slaughter of the druids by Roman soldiers at Anglesey. He tells of cursing women in black which he described as ‘furies’ fighting among the Celtic warriors carrying wands or torches, apparently casting spells or curses on the Roman soldiers. These women were defending their island. Tacitus further observes that the female Celts were very powerful and that there was no distinction between the male and female rulers. Since Anglesey was the most sacred stronghold of the British druids at the time, one can assume that these women were druidesses.

Strabo mentions a group of religious women who lived on an island near the mouth of the Loir River, but he does not refer to them as druids. In the Historia Augusta, one learns that Diocletian and Aurelian consulted with female druids as did Alexander Severus. Gaius Julius Caesar wrote that the druids were scientists, theologians, and philosophers, and acquired knowledge that was extraordinary. As he seems to have understood the breadth of learning acquired by the druids, he would have been well aware of the female druids.

Plutarch relates that female Celts were nothing like Roman or Greek women as they were active in negotiating treaties and wars. They also participated in assemblies and mediated quarrels. According to geographer Pomponius Mela, virgin priestesses who could predict the future lived on the island of Sena in Brittany. They were called Gallizenae and they acted as both councillors and practitioners of the healing arts. Their existence was first mentioned by the Greek geographer Artemidorus Ephesius who notes that their island was forbidden to men.

The story of Alexander Severus, who set out on a military expedition around the year 235 AD to aid the Gauls against Germanic invaders, contains the first literal mention of a druidess. When he went to war, a druid prophetess cried out in the Gallic language, “Go, but do not hope for victory, and put no trust in your soldiers”. A fourth-century Roman historian Flavius Vopiscus mentions a druidess as well in an anecdote on the life of young Diocletian, before his rise to power. He wrote, “When Diocletian, while still serving in a minor post, was stopping at a certain tavern in the land of the Tungri in Gaul, and was making up his daily reckoning with a woman, who was a druidess (druiade), she said to him, ‘Diocletian, you are far too greedy and far too stingy,’ to which Diocletian replied, it is said, not in earnest, but only in jest, ‘I shall be generous enough when I become emperor.’” (Historia Augusta, 30)

To get a sense of what it was like to be a female druid in the ancient world, one needs to consider the status of women in Celtic society before and after the Roman and Christian incursions. In this case, the marriage laws are an intriguing place to start. The Brehon Laws were the statutes that governed everyday life in early Medieval Ireland. It is an early Irish law that was frequently infused with Christian influence and judicial innovation. These laws demonstrate that Ireland in the early Medieval period was a hierarchical society that took great care to define social status, as well as the rights and duties that came with it, based on property and the relationships between lords and their serfs.

There were nine types of marriage recognized by the ancient Brehon Laws. Both partners came to the union with equal wealth and status in the first and most desirable degree. In the second degree, the husband brought more wealth to the union, so he was in charge. In the third degree, it was the wife who arrived with more wealth and so she was in charge. Divorce was available to wives in all cases, and in the first two degrees of marriage, the husband had to pay a bride price to her father the first year, and a large portion of the coibche went to the bride herself every year after that so that she could remain independent if the marriage failed. In the event of a divorce, each spouse could claim any property they had brought into the marriage.

Plutarch writes in On the Virtues of Women that Celtic women participated in assemblies, mediated quarrels, and negotiated treaties, such as one between Hannibal and the Volcae (this kind of ambassadorial work is a specifically druidic function). Strabo claims that Armorican priestesses in modern-day Brittany were self-sufficient. It is also knows that Celtic women wore trousers and Gallic women fought alongside their men. According to some Roman accounts, the women were even fiercer than the men. Irish women were weaned away from weapons through a series of laws enacted over several centuries after Christian missionaries arrived, indicating compliance issues.
Apart from fighting alongside their men, there are many examples of ancient Celtic women who taught heroes and even establishing and owning their own battle schools. Legends hold that Macha Mongruad founded Emain Macha (Navan Fort) in Ulster. The two most famous warriors in Irish history, Finn MacCumhail and Cu Chulainn were both raised and trained by women. Finn was raised by two females, a druidess and a warrior woman, who taught him the arts of war and hunting, while Cu Chulainn learned the arts of war from Scáthach, who ran her own Martial Arts school.

1855 Bronze statue of Boadicea (Boudica) and her daughters at Captains Walk, Brecon. By 14GTR – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Boudica, a Celtic queen, led the last British revolt against the Romans in 60 AD. She was a priestess of Andraste, the Victory Goddess. Saint Brighid of Kildare (Kil-Dara, Church of the Oak) possessed a unique power. She was the daughter of the druid Dubhtach and was a bandrui before converting to Christianity, according to the Rennes Dindsenchas. She enlisted both men and women in her religious community, and she and her nuns maintained a Fire Altar, which was constantly tended until 1220, when an archbishop ordered it to be extinguished. This Fire Altar mirrored the centuries-old Ard-Drui (Arch-Druid) fire that had burned at Uisneach.

The illustration in Aylett Sames’ Britania Antiqua Illustrata (1676) is one of the most important representations of a druid and has become a prototype for all subsequent images. It depicts an elderly man with a knee-length beard dressed in a hooded traveler’s robe that resembles a shortened monk’s frock. He holds a wooden hiking staff in one hand and a tome in the other which will transform into a more druidic mistletoe in later versions of the illustration. It appears that the depiction of a druid in Britania Antiqua Illustrata is based primarily on images of traveling monks, Christian saints, or hermits. But, it is consistent with the aspect of druidic myth in which druids become Christians or are said to have believed in some form of proto-monotheistic religion, preparing the pagan inhabitants of the Isles for the arrival of Christ. Druids have also been depicted as wearing garb resembling Roman togas (sometimes worn over a loose, ankle-length robe), always white – this corresponds to Pliny the Elder’s account of sacerdos candida veste, ‘a white-clad priest’, cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle.

Detail of Thomas Thornycroft’s Boadicea and Her Daughters, By Aldaron — Aldaron, a.k.a. Aldaron –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The cover of Elias Shedius’ De Dis Germanis contains an intriguing image of a druid: the classic bearded man wears a white robe tied with a length of rope, a shirt reminiscent of a chasuble, and a laurel wreath on his head. The scene is rather bleak, with the old man holding a bent knife and two decapitated bodies at his feet. Another person appears in the illustration – possibly a druidess assisting in the bloody ceremony, dressed in a white gown covered with a length of cloth similar to a toga (her left shoulder is bare), playing a drum with two shinbones and a human skull tethered to her belt. They are pictured standing in a sacred grove with an oak tree at the center, surrounded by more decapitated bodies. This image represents the cruel druid myth which arose from early Roman Empire accounts.

Classic Illustrations from Norse Mythology
The cover of Elias Shedius’ De Dis Germanis

Druidesses are frequently depicted in Roman garb in iconography, as seen in the romantic and symbolic visions of French painters such as Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1899) and Armand Laroche (1826-1903). On Henri Paul Motte’s (1846-1922) Druids Cutting Down the Mistletoe on the Sixth Day of the Moon, white-clad women also assist druids during a solemn ceremony. The authors of these woodcuts and paintings may have been inspired by depictions of Roman priestesses and goddesses. With its lunar symbolism, Lionel Royer’s painting The Druidess, depicting a young woman in a mistletoe crown, with a torc and a golden sickle, her hand raised in a blessing gesture, places the druidess very close to the goddess Diana or Artemis. 

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