di Andrea Romanazzi
Modern Druidism was born in 1700 with the contribution of William Blake and of Masonic and Rotarian culture, as well as with a renewed interest in the history of ancient origins and English antiquarian art. Were an english antiquarian, John Aubrey, and later a Lincolnshire doctor, William Stukeley, to define the archetype of the Druid, a man, often depleted as an old sage, with a cape cap, a stick, a short tunic and a long white beard.
There is no doubt that at the birth, neo-Druidism gained a strong male derivation because of its close connection with Masonic and Rotarian lodges, almost exclusively open to men only. Indeed, as early as the late 1800s, the romantic vision of such figures introduces, at least in the art, the female figure as an integral part of the neo-druidic movement. It is shown by numerous figures such as “The Druidess” by French artist Alexandre Cabanel, or even the most famous “Druidesse” by La Roche. These painting showing a druidess holding both the sickle and a mistletoe twig while he is in standing next to a megalithic structure.
From a strictly associative point of view, it is only after a century which began to open the doors of the movement to women, also because to the development of a stronger environmental and spiritual culture as well as the birth of the hippie movements that spread throughout the world and which pushed more and more towards gender equality.
If this is, briefly, the path of the female figure in neo-druidism, we ask ourselves: There were druidess in the druidic caste in the past? The historical question of women’s role as druids has always been controversial, although there are many evidence in this regard.
If we look at documents from Greek and Roman historians, we read that Tacitus, for example, talks about the presence of Druidess during the conquest of the Anglesey Islands in the 60 a.C.. Tacitus adds, in his De Origine et situ Germanorum, about of Veleda, a vila, an expert in divination and oracles, belonging to the Celtic tribe of the Bructeri. Veleda inspired the Batavian revolt, guided against the Roman empire by the prince celta Giulio Civile. The Roman historian states that Velleda. In her, the Bructers saw something sacred that made her the custodian of the mediating wisdom, adding that she was “considered by many as a goddess.”
“… exercised a great authority, according to an ancient Germanic testimony, for which many women attribute the gift of divine prophecy and qualities …”.
Strabo describes a group of women-priestesses who lived on an island near the Loire. These women, called Samnitae, did not allow men to set foot on their island but from time to time they went to the land to freely sex with them.
For many historians, the term “Samnitae” would actually be a corruption of “Namnitae”, or Namneti’s women, a tribe of Gaul living in today’s Nantes area.
Another Roman historian, Vobiscus, describes in his Historia Augusta as Diocletian, Alexander Severus, and Aurelian, who had had relations with Druidess. Pomponio Mela in his De Situ Orbis, speaks of a mysterious island of Sena, in the British sea, where were present priestesses dedicated to a mysterious oracle cult of a Gallic god. These druidess, always in the number of nine virgins, called Gallisenae, would be known for their ability to calm, with their songs, stormy seas and winds, as well as anticipating the future.
“Sena, in Britannico mari, ocismieis adversa litoribus, Gallici numinis oraculo insignis est. Cuius antistites, perpetua virginitate sanctae, numero novem esse traduntur: Gallicenas vocant, maria ac ventos concitare carminibus, seque in quae velin animalia vertere, sanare quae apud alios insanabilia sunt, scire ventura et praedicare, sed nonnis deditas navigantis, et in id tantum, ut se consulerent profectis”.
Therefore female figure was strongly present in the historical druidism, although it had a different task than that of male counterparts, or more tending to oracular and prophetic reading, somewhat like the Sibylites of the Mediterranean world.
There are many references to the Druidess figures in Irish Literature. In Cath Maige Tuired, an Irish saga describing the battles fought by the divine people of the Túatha Dan Dan for control of Ireland, are described two druidess trying to enchant the rocks and trees during the battle to defeat their enemies. Many important characters are Druidess. Conchobor’s mother, King of Ulster, was a druidess, like another Ulyster Cycle heroine, Scathach, explicitly called “flaith” or “prophetess”. She was first teacher Cú Chulainn. The latter will not be the only hero raised by a druidess, Finn, future head of the Fianna, was reared, according to the chronicles, by the druidess Bodhmall and Liath Luachra
“… taught him all the secrets of the Druid arts: the virtu ‘of herbs, the habits of the animals of the forest and their voice, the names and the stars of the stars in the sky …”.
Finally, in the famous saga of Tain Bo Cuailnge, Queen Medb of the Connacht, before declaring war, consults a Druidess, called Fidelma, who has the gift of Pre-emptiness.
“She had yellow hair, wearing a varied mantle held by a gold clasp, a red cap embroidered tunic, and gold-buckled sandals. Her forehead was wide, his jaw narrow, her eyebrows black as the pitch, with delicate dark lashes shadowing half of his face to his cheeks. Her lips seemed to love red scarlet. Between the lips the teeth were like a cloister of jewels. The hair was divided into three braids: two tied above the head, the third that fell on her back, to the toes of her ankles “
There are also archaeological finds that support the thesis of the existence of druidess. An example is the tomb of Vix, a tomb dating back to the end of the 6th century BC, discovered near the homonymous town in Burgundy. Here is buried a woman in whose funeral kit there is a torque, a typical Celtic jewel. For the Celts the torque was much more than a jewel: it was a mystical object, an integral part of the identity of the people, and it was a sort of sign typical of the power-holding one. The torque therefore indicated the high rank of the wearer and for this reason was often used in depictions of divinities or ceremonial sepulchres of socially important individuals. That’s why Vix’s woman was to be a princess or more likely a priestess and a druidess. Continuing in the finds, in Chamalières, a French town located in Puy-de-Dôme’s department, was found a bas-relief dedicated to the cult of the three Celtic mothers, or matrons. On this bas-relief is represented by a woman in the act of to offer a plate of fruits and a garland of flowers to the deity: certainly a priestess.
Finally a Italian curiosity. In the town of Malciaussia, in 1969, Mario Catalano discovered an unusual bas-relief known as “Druida di Malciaussìa”. The depiction represents a feminine figure with long robe and a stole falling on the chest, among which the celtic druas is present. A testimony, certainly of a late age, but which suggests the presence, even in our lands, of a female priestly role.
Concluding this work, in the historical druidism, the feminine element was of great importance. Women, like men, have high priestly rank though with a slight difference. They were often prophetic, with oracle techniques, the domain of natural elements, in short, roles a bit more connected to the magical world than those of the corresponding men who, among other things, often have institutional roles related to the administration of justice and religious education.