The Initiatory Rites of Druidism

Masonic Articles and Essays

The Initiatory Rites of Druidism

By Bro... Dudley Wright 

Date Published: 7/22/2020                        

This article discusses initiatory rites of the Druids, which bear similarities with the Masonic rites. 

THE mode of life adopted by the Druidical priests made easy the transition from Pagan to Christian monasticism. To all intents and purposes the Druids formed a Church and their ecclesiastical system seems to have been as complete as any other systems of which records have been preserved, whether Christian or non-Christian. The rank of the Arch, of Chief, Druid was that of pontifex maximus, and, apparently, he held his position until death or resignation, when his successor was elected in a manner similar to that in which a pope at the present day is elected, although some writers assert that the Arch Druid was elected annually. Caesar states that:

When the presulary dignity becomes vacant by the head Druid's death, the next in dignity and reputation succeeds; but, when there are equals in competition, election carries it.

Many Druids appear to have retired from the world and lived a hermit existence, in order that they might acquire a greater reputation for sanctity. Martin in his Description of the Western Isles has pointed out that in his time, in the most unfrequented places of the Western Isles of Scotland, there were still remaining the foundations of small circular houses, intended evidently for the abode of one person only, to which were given the name of "Druid's Houses" by the people of the country. Many of the Druids also appear to have lived a communal life, uniting together in fraternities and dwelling near the temples which they served, each temple requiring the services of a considerable number of priests.

Ammianus of Marseilles describes them in the following words:

"The Druids, men of polished parts, as the authority of Pythagoras has decreed, affecting formed societies and sodalities, gave themselves wholly to the contemplation of divine and hidden things, despising all worldly enjoyments and confidently affirmed the souls of men to be immortal."

Not a few, however, lived in a more public and secular manner, attaching themselves to kindly courts and the residences of the noble and wealthy. The Druids had thus a close affinity both with the monastic order and religious congregations of the Church of Rome, known as the regular clergy, and those living unrestricted by special vows, and known as the secular clergy.

The period of noviciate and the character of the training of an aspirant to the Druidical priesthood was as lengthy and as rigorous as that of an aspirant to membership of the Society of Jesus. It lasted for twenty years, and, although the candidates were, in general, enrolled from the families of nobles, many youths of other ranks in life also entered voluntarily upon the noviciate, and, very frequently, boys were dedicated to the priestly life by their parents from an early age.

The ceremony of initiation, so far as can be gathered from the scanty authentic records available, was arduous and solemn. The aspirant first took an oath not to reveal the mysteries into which he was about to be initiated. He was then divested of his ordinary clothing and vested with a tri-coloured robe of white blue, and green, as emblematic of light, truth and hope. Over this was placed a white tunic. Both were made with full length openings in the front, and, before the ceremony of initiation began, the candidate had to throw open both tunic and robe, in order that the officiating priest might be assured that he was a male.
The tonsure was one of the ceremonies connected with initiation. As practiced in the Roman Church, the tonsure, the first of the four minor Orders conferred upon aspirants to the priesthood, is undoubtedly a Druidical survival.

There is evidence of its practice in Ireland in A. D. 630, but it does not appear to have become a custom in England until the latter part of the eighth century. The tonsure was referred to by St. Patrick as "the diabolical mark" and in Ireland it was known as "the tonsure of Simon the Druid." It differed greatly from the modern form. All the hair in front of a line drawn over the crown from ear to ear was shaved or clipped. All Druids wore short hair, the laymen long; the Druids wore long beards, the laymen shaved the whole of the face, with the exception of the upper lip. The tonsure was also known in Wales as an initiatory rite. In the Welsh romances known as the Mabinogion, we find, among the Brythons, a youth who wished to become one of Arthur's knights whose allegiance was signified by the king, with his own hand, cutting off his hair.

The initiation took place in a cave because of the legend which existed that Enoch had deposited certain invaluable secrets in a consecrated cavern deep in the bowels of the earth. There is still to be seen in Denbighshire one of the caves in which Druidical initiations at one time took place. After taking the oath, the candidate had to pass through the Tolmen, or perforated stone, an act held to be the means of purging from sin and conveying purity. All rocks containing an aperture, whether natural or artificial, were held to be the means of conveying purification to the person passing through the hole. At Bayon Manor, near Market Rasen, in Lincolnshire, there is a petra ambrosiae, consisting of a gigantic upright stone resting upon another stone and hollowed out so as to form an aperture sufficiently large for a man to pass through.

This stone is believed to have been used by the Druids in the performance of their sacred rites. Some writers have imagined that the prophet Isaiah was referring to a practice similar to this when he wrote (I, 19):

And they shall go into the holes of the rocks and into the caves of the earth for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of His Majesty, when He ariseth to shake terribly the earth.

All such orifices as these were consecrated with holy oil and dedicated to religious uses, when the distinguished name of lapis ambrosius was given to each.The candidate was then placed in a chest or coffin, in which he remained enclosed (apertures being made for air circulation) for three days to represent death. From this chest he was liberated on the third day to represent his restoration to life.

The sanctuary was then prepared for the further ceremonies of the initiation, and the candidate, blindfolded, was introduced to the assembled company during the chanting of a hymn to the sun and placed in the charge of a professed Druid, another, at the same time, kindling the sacred fire. Still blindfolded the candidate was taken on a circumambulation nine times round the sanctuary in circles from east to west, starting at the south. The procession was made to the accompaniment of a tumultuous clang of musical instruments and of shouting and screaming and was followed by the administration of a second oath, the violation of which rendered the individual liable to the penalty of death.

Then followed a number of other ceremonies, which typified the confinement of Noah in the Ark, the death of that patriarch, and other incidents, the candidate eventually passing through a narrow avenue, guarded by angry beasts, after which he was seized and borne to the water, symbolical of the waters on which the Ark of Noah floated. In this water he was completely immersed, and, on emerging from the water on to the bank on the side opposite to that from which he had entered, he found himself in a blaze of light. He was then presented to the Arch Druid, who, seated on his throne or chair of office, explained to him the symbolical meaning of the various ceremonies through which he had passed.

This ceremony of initiation was similar to that of the Egyptian rites of Osiris, which was regarded as a descent into hell, a passage through the infernal lake, followed by a landing on the Egyptian Isle of the Blessed. By its means men were held to become more holy, just, and pure, and to be delivered from all hazards, which would otherwise be impending. The cave in which the aspirant was placed for meditation before he was permitted to participate in the sacred mysteries was guarded by a representative of the terrible divinity, Busnawr, who was armed with a naked sword, and whose vindictive wrath, when aroused, was said to be such as to make earth, hell, and even heaven itself, tremble.

Dionysius tells us that when the Druidesses celebrated the mysteries of the great god, Hu the Mighty, they passed over an arm of the sea in the dead of the night to ascertain smaller contiguous islets. The ship, or vessel, in which they made the passage represented the Ark of the Deluge; the arm of the sea, that of the waters of the flood; and the fabled Elysian island, where the voyage terminated, shadowed out the Lunar White Island of the ocean-girt summit of the Paradisiacal Ararat.

After the initiation was completed the candidate retired into the forest where the period of his noviciate was spent, his time being devoted to study and gymnastic exercises. There were various steps, or degrees, and it was necessary for the Druid to pass through the degrees of Vate and Bard before becoming a full-fledged Druid. Prior to the conferring of each degree the candidate was confined within cromlechs without food for thirty-six hours. The caves in which all the ceremonies were performed were like the Druidical temples above-ground, circular in form.

The three degrees of Vate, Bard, and Druid were regarded as equal in importance, though not in privilege, and they were distinct in purpose. There is little doubt that knowledge was confined mainly, if not altogether, to the professed Druids. Caesar says that they disputed largely upon subjects of natural philosophy and instructed the youth of the land in the rudiments of learning. By some writers the Druids are credited with a knowledge of the telescope, though this opinion is based mainly upon the statement of Diodorus Siculus, who says that on an island west of Celtae, the Druids brought the sun and moon near to them. Hecataeus, however, informs us that they taught the existence of lunar mountains.

The fact that the milky way consisted of small stars was known to the ancients is often adduced in support of the claim to antiquity of the telescope. Idris, the giant, a pre-Christian astronomer, is said to have pursued his study of the science from the apex of one of the loftiest mountains in North Wales, which, in consequence, received the name which it now bears--Cader Idris, or the Chair of Idris. Diodorus Siculus is also responsible for the statement that the Saronides (Druids) were the Gaulish philosophers and divines and were held in great veneration and that it was not lawful to perform any sacrifices except in the presence of one of these philosophers.

Mr. P. W. Joyce, in his Social History of Ancient Ireland, says that in Pagan times the Druids were the exclusive possessors of whatever learning was then known and combined in themselves all the learned professions, being not only Druids or priests, but judges, prophets, historians, poets and even physicians. He might have added:

...and instructors of youth," since education was entirely in their hands. Even St. Columba began his education under a Druid and so great was the veneration paid to the Druids for the knowledge they possessed that it became a kind of adage with respect to anything that was deemed mysterious or beyond ordinary ken: 'No one knows but God and the holy Druids.'

The Druids were the intermediaries between the people and the spiritual world, and the people believed that their priests could protect them from the malice of evilly-disposed spirits of every kind. The authority possessed by the Druids is easily understood when it is remembered that they were possessed of more knowledge and learning than any other class of men in the country. "They were," says Rowlands in Mona Antiqua Restorata, "men of thought and speculation, whose chief province was to enlarge the bounds of knowledge, as their fellows were to do those of empire into what country or climate soever they came."

Kings had each ever about them a Druid for prayer and sacrifice, who was also a judge for determining controversies, although each king had a civil judge besides. At the Court of Conchobar, King of Ulster, no one had the right to speak before the Druid had spoken. Cathbu or Cathbad, a Druid once attached to that Court, was accompanied by a hundred youths, students of his art. After the introduction and adoption of Christianity the Druid was succeeded by a bishop or priest, just as the Druidesses at Kildare were succeeded by the Briggitine Nuns. Martin, who wrote his Description of the Western Islands of Scotland in 1703, tells us that:

Every great family of the Western Islands had a chief Druid who foretold future events and decided all causes, civil and ecclesiastical. It is reported of them that they wrought in the night time and rested all day. Before the Britons engaged in battle the Chief Druid harangued the army to excite their courage. He was placed on an eminence whence he addressed himself to all standing about him, putting them in mind of all great things that were performed by the valour of their ancestors, raised their hopes with the noble rewards of honour and victory and dispelled their fears by all the topics that natural courage could suggest. After this harangue the army gave a general shout and then charged the enemy stoutly.

The position of Arch Druid was at one time held by Divitiacus, the Eduan, the intimate acquaintance and friend of Caesar, who is believed to have inspired the account of Druidism given by Caesar in De Bello Gallico. The British Arch Druid is said to have had his residence in the Isle of Anglesey, in or near to Llaniden. There the name of Tre'r Dryw, or Druidstown, is still preserved and there are still there also some of the massive stone structures which are invariably associated with Druidism. The Courts of the Arch Druids were held at Drewson, or Druidstown. The principal seat of the French Druids was at Chartres, the residence of the Gallic Arch Druid, at which place also the annual convention of Gaulish and British Druids was held. There was also a large Druidical settlement at Marseilles. It was here that Caesar, in order to put an end to Druidism in Gaul, ordered the trees to be felled. . There is no record of a head priest or Arch Druid amongst the Irish Druids.

Dr. John Jamieson, in his Historical Account of the Ancient Culdees of Iona, which was published in 1870, says that twenty years previously there was living in the parish of Moulim, an old man, who although very regular in his devotions, never addressed the Supreme Being by any other title than that of Arch Druid. He quotes this as an illustration of the firm hold which ancient superstition takes of the mind.

Druids had the privilege of wearing six colours in their robes and their tunics reached to their heels, while the tunics of others reached only to the knees. Kings and queens reserved to themselves the right of wearing robes of seven colours; lords and ladies, five; governors of fortresses, four; young gentlemen of quality, three; soldiers, two; and the common people, one. When the Druids were officiating in their priestly capacity, they wore each a white robe, emblematic of truth and holiness as well as of the sun. When officiating as a judge, the Druid wore two white robes, fastened with a girdle, surmounted by his Druid's egg encased in gold, and wore round his neck the breastplate of judgment, which was supposed to press upon his breast should he give utterance to a false or corrupt judgment. A golden tiara was upon his head and two official rings on his right hand fingers. On ordinary occasions the cap worn by the Druid had on the front a golden representation of the sun under a half moon of silver, supported by two Druids, one at each cusp, in an inclined posture.

The mode of excommunication was to expose the erring member to a naked weapon. The Bards had a special ceremony for the degradation of their convicted brethren. It took place at a Gorsedd when the assembled Bards placed their caps on their heads. One deputed for the office unsheathed his sword, uplifted it and named the delinquent aloud three times, adding, on the last occasion the words: "The sword is naked against him."

After these words were pronounced the offender was expelled, never to be re-admitted, and he became known as "a man deprived of privilege and exposed to warfare."

* Initiatlly published in The Builders Magazine, February 1917 - Volume III - Number 2

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