The ethnic origins of the Celts are somewhat complex, and
often obscured by Celtic-influenced languages. Ancient writers
referred to the Celts as tall, fair-haired people with blue or grey
eyes, but they are more often considered to be the shorter,
dark-complexioned Celtic-speaking peoples of France, Great
Britain, and Ireland. In general, the Celts are believed to be a
warrior race of the early Iron Age, originating north of the
Alps, and spreading through central Europe during the La
Tène period (500 B.C.E.–1 C.E.).
The Celts who settled in the British Isles comprised two
strains—the Brythons and the Goidels. The former became established
in England and Wales, but the Goidels migrated from
France to Ireland about the forth century B.C.E. At a later date
Goidel contingents from Ireland formed settlements in England,
Wales, and Scotland, eventually merging with the Brythons.
The Gaelic-speaking Celts dominated in Ireland, Scotland,
and the Isle of Man, whereas the Brythonic speakers were
more common in Wales.
According to Lewis Spence, magic among the Celtic peoples
in ancient times was closely identified with Druidism. Celtic
origin and its relation to Druidism, however, is a question
upon which much discussion has been lavished. Some authorities,
including Sir John Rhys, believe it to have been of nonCeltic
and even non-Aryan origin; that is, the earliest nonAryan
or so-called Iberian or Megalithic people of Britain introduced
the immigrant Celts to the Druidic religion.
The Druids were magi as well as hierophants, in the same
sense that the American Indian medicine man was both magus
and priest. That is, they were medicine men on a higher scale,
possessing a larger share of transcendental knowledge than the
shamans of more barbarous races. They may be linked to the
shaman and the magus of medieval times. Many of their practices
were purely shamanistic, while others were more closely
connected with medieval magical rites. The magic of Druidism
had many points of comparison with other magic systems and
seems to have approximated more closely to the type of black
magic that desires power for the sake of power alone rather
than any of the more transcendental type. It included the
power to render oneself invisible, to change the bodily shape,
to produce an enchanted sleep, to induce lunacy, and to cast
spells and charms that caused death. Power over the elements
was also claimed, as in the case of Broichan, a Caledonian
Druid who opposed Saint Columba, as related in St. Adamnan’s
Life of St. Columba
‘‘Broichan, speaking one day to the holy man, says ‘Tell me,
Columba, at what time dost thou propose to sail forth’ ‘On the
third day,’ says the Saint, ‘God willing and life remaining, we
propose to begin our voyage.’ ‘Thou wilt not be able to do so,’
says Broichan in reply, ‘for I can make the wind contrary for
thee, and bring dark clouds upon thee.’ The Saint says ‘The
omnipotence of God rules over all things, in Whose Name all
our movements, He Himself governing them, are directed.’
What more need be said On the same day as he had purposed
in his heart the Saint came to the long lake of the river Ness,
a great crowd following. But the Druids then began to rejoice
when they saw a great darkness coming over, and a contrary
wind with a tempest. Nor should it be wondered at that these
things can be done by the art of demons, God permitting it, so
that even winds and waters are roused to fury.
‘‘For it was thus that legions of devils once met the holy Bishop
Germanus in mid-ocean, what time he was sailing from the
Gallican Gulf (the British Channel) to Britain in the cause of
man’s salvation, and stirred up dangerous storms and spread
darkness over the sky and obscured daylight. All which storms,
however, were stilled at the prayer of St. Germanus, and, quicker
than said, ceased, and the darkness was swept away.
‘‘Our Columba, therefore, seeing the furious elements
stirred up against him, calls upon Christ the Lord, and entering
the boat while the sailors are hesitating, he with all the
more confidence, orders the sail to be rigged against the wind.
Which being done, the whole crowd looking on meanwhile, the
boat is borne along against the contrary winds with amazing velocity.
And after no great interval, the adverse winds veer round
to the advantage of the voyage amid the astonishment of all.
And thus, throughout that whole day, the blessed man’s boat
was driven along by gentle favouring breezes, and reached the
desired haven. Let the reader, therefore, consider how great
and saintly was that vulnerable man through whom Almighty
God manifested His glorious Name by such miraculous powers
as have just been described in the presence of a heathen people.’’
The art of rainmaking, bringing down fire from the sky, and
causing mists, snowstorms, and floods was also claimed by the
Druids. Many of the spells probably in use among the Druids
survived until a comparatively late period—the names of saints
being substituted for those of Celtic deities. In pronouncing incantations,
the usual method employed was to stand upon one
leg and point with the forefinger to the person or object on
which the spell was to be laid, at the same time closing an eye,
as if to concentrate the force of the entire personality upon that
which was to be placed under the spell.
A manuscript preserved in the Monastery of St. Gall, dating
from the eighth or ninth century, contains magic formulas for
preserving butter and healing certain diseases in the name of
the Irish god Diancecht. These bear a close resemblance to
Babylonian and Etruscan spells, and this goes to strengthen the
hypothesis often put forward that Druidism had an eastern origin.
All magic rites were accompanied by spells. Druids often
accompanied an army to assist by their magic in confounding
the enemy.
The concept of a Druidic priesthood descended down to the
beginning of the twentieth century in a more or less debased
condition in British Celtic areas; thus the existence of guardians
and keepers of wells, said to possess magic properties, and
the fact that certain familiar magic spells and formulas are
handed down from one generation to another are proof of the
survival of Druidic tradition. Females are generally the conservators
of these mysteries, and that there were Druid priestesses
is fairly certain.
There are also indications that to some extent witchcraft in
Scotland was a survival of Celtic religiomagical practice. Amulets
were worn extensively by the Celts, the principal forms in
use being phallic (to fend against the evil eye), coral, the serpent’s
‘‘egg.’’ The person who passed a number of serpents together
forming such an ‘‘egg’’ from their collected spume had
to catch it in his cloak before it fell to earth and then flee to
avoid the reptiles’ vengeance. Totemic amulets were also common.
De Jubainville, H. d’Arbois. Les Droides et les dieux celtiques à
forme d’animaux. Paris, 1906.
Gomme, G. L. Ethnology in Folklore. New York D. Appleton,
Green, Miranda J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. London
Thames and Hudson, 1992.
Laing, Lloyd Robert. Celtic Britain and Ireland, A.D. 200–800
The Myth of the Dark Ages. Dublin, Ireland Irish Academic Press,
Powell, T. G. E. The Celts. New York F. A. Praeger, 1958.
Celonitis Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
Rhys, John. Celtic Britain. London, 1882.
Ross, Anne. Pagan Celtic Britain. London Routledge and
Kegan Paul, 1967.
Spence, Lewis. Magical Arts in Celtic Britain. London Rider,
Squire, Charles. Mythology of the Ancient Britons. London,