Our Druid Cousins
By Peter Berresford Ellis
Hinduism Today 2/2000
Meet the brahmins of ancient Europe, the high caste
of Celtic society.
The Celtic people spread from their homeland in what is
now Germany across Europe in the first millennium bce. Iron tools and weapons
rendered them superior to their neighbors. They were also skilled farmers, road
builders, traders and inventors of a fast two-wheeled chariot. They declined in
the face of Roman, Germanic and Slavic ascendency by the second centuries bce.
Here Peter Berresford Ellis, one of Europe's foremost experts of the Celts,
explains how modern research has revealed the amazing similarities between
ancient Celt and Vedic culture. The Celt's priestly caste, the Druids, has
become a part of modern folklore. Their identity is claimed by New Age
enthusiasts likely to appear at annual solstice gatherings around the ancient
megaliths of northwest Europe. While sincerely motivated by a desire to
resurrect Europe's ancient spiritual ways, Ellis says these modern Druids draw
more upon fanciful reconstructions of the 18th century than actual scholarship.
The Druids of the ancient Celtic world have a startling
kinship with the brahmins of the Hindu religion and were, indeed, a parallel
development from their common Indo-European cultural root which began to branch
out probably five thousand years ago. It has been only in recent decades that
Celtic scholars have begun to reveal the full extent of the parallels and
cognates between ancient Celtic society and Vedic culture.
The Celts were the first civilization north of the
European Alps to emerge into recorded history. At the time of their greatest
expansion, in the 3rd century bce, the Celts stretched from Ireland in the west,
through to the central plain of Turkey in the east; north from Belgium, down to
Cadiz in southern Spain and across the Alps into the Po Valley of Italy. They
even impinged on areas of Poland and the Ukraine and, if the amazing recent
discoveries of mummies in China's province of Xinjiang are linked with the
Tocharian texts, they even moved as far east as the area north of Tibet.
The once great Celtic civilization is today represented
only by the modern Irish, Manx and Scots, and the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons.
Today on the northwest fringes of Europe cling the survivors of centuries of
attempted conquest and "ethnic cleansing" by Rome and its imperial
descendants. But of the sixteen million people who make up those populations,
only 2.5 million now speak a Celtic language as their mother tongue.
The Druids were not simply a priesthood. They were the
intellectual caste of ancient Celtic society, incorporating all the professions:
judges, lawyers, medical doctors, ambassadors, historians and so forth, just as
does the brahmin caste. In fact, other names designate the specific role of the
"priests." Only Roman and later Christian propaganda turned them into
"shamans," "wizards" and "magicians." The scholars
of the Greek Alexandrian school clearly described them as a parallel caste to
the brahmins of Vedic society.
The very name Druid is composed of two Celtic word
roots which have parallels in Sanskrit. Indeed, the root vid for knowledge,
which also emerges in the Sanskrit word Veda, demonstrates the similarity. The
Celtic root dru which means "immersion" also appears in Sanskrit. So a
Druid was one "immersed in knowledge."
Because Ireland was one of the few areas of the Celtic
world that was not conquered by Rome and therefore not influenced by Latin
culture until the time of its Christianization in the 5th century ce, its
ancient Irish culture has retained the most clear and startling parallels to
Professor Calvert Watkins of Harvard, one of the
leading linguistic experts in his field, has pointed out that of all the Celtic
linguistic remains, Old Irish represents an extraordinarily archaic and
conservative tradition within the Indo-European family. Its nominal and verbal
systems are a far truer reflection of the hypothesized parent tongue, from which
all Indo-European languages developed, than are Classical Greek or Latin. The
structure of Old Irish, says Professor Watkins, can be compared only with that
of Vedic Sanskrit or Hittite of the Old Kingdom.
The vocabulary is amazingly similar. The following are
just a few examples:
Old Irish - arya (freeman),Sanskrit - aire (noble)
Old Irish - naib (good), Sanskrit - noeib (holy)
Old Irish - badhira (deaf), Sanskrit - bodhar (deaf)
Old Irish - names (respect), Sanskrit - nemed (respect)
Old Irish - righ (king), Sanskrit - raja (king)
This applies not only in the field of linguistics but
in law and social custom, in mythology, in folk custom and in traditional
musical form. The ancient Irish law system, the Laws of the Fénechus, is
closely parallel to the Laws of Manu. Many surviving Irish myths, and some Welsh
ones, show remarkable resemblances to the themes, stories and even names in the
sagas of the Indian Vedas.
Comparisons are almost endless. Among the ancient
Celts, Danu was regarded as the "Mother Goddess." The Irish Gods and
Goddesses were the Tuatha De Danaan ("Children of Danu"). Danu was the
"divine waters" falling from heaven and nurturing Bíle, the sacred
oak from whose acorns their children sprang. Moreover, the waters of Danu went
on to create the great Celtic sacred river--Danuvius, today called the Danube.
Many European rivers bear the name of Danu--the Rhône (ro-Dhanu, "Great
Danu") and several rivers called Don. Rivers were sacred in the Celtic
world, and places where votive offerings were deposited and burials often
conducted. The Thames, which flows through London, still bears its Celtic name,
from Tamesis, the dark river, which is the same name as Tamesa, a tributary of
Not only is the story of Danu and the Danube a parallel
to that of Ganga and the Ganges but a Hindu Danu appears in the Vedic story
"The Churning of the Oceans," a story with parallels in Irish and
Welsh mytholgy. Danu in Sanskrit also means "divine waters" and
In ancient Ireland, as in ancient Hindu society, there
was a class of poets who acted as charioteers to the warriors They were also
their intimates and friends. In Irish sagas these charioteers extolled the
prowess of the warriors. The Sanskrit Satapatha Brahmana says that on the
evening of the first day of the horse sacrifice (and horse sacrifice was known
in ancient Irish kingship rituals, recorded as late as the 12th century) the
poets had to chant a praise poem in honor of the king or his warriors, usually
extolling their genealogy and deeds.
Such praise poems are found in the Rig Veda and are
called narasamsi. The earliest surviving poems in old Irish are also praise
poems, called fursundud, which trace back the genealogy of the kings of Ireland
to Golamh or Mile Easpain, whose sons landed in Ireland at the end of the second
millennium bce. When Amairgen, Golamh's son, who later traditions hail as the
"first Druid," set foot in Ireland, he cried out an extraordinary
incantation that could have come from the Bhagavad Gita, subsuming all things
into his being [see sidebar right].
Celtic cosmology is a parallel to Vedic cosmology.
Ancient Celtic astrologers used a similar system based on twenty-seven lunar
mansions, called nakshatras in Vedic Sanskrit. Like the Hindu Soma, King Ailill
of Connacht, Ireland, had a circular palace constructed with twenty-seven
windows through which he could gaze on his twenty-seven "star wives."
There survives the famous first century bce Celtic
calendar (the Coligny Calendar) which, as soon as it was first discovered in
1897, was seen to have parallels to Vedic calendrical computations. In the most
recent study of it, Dr. Garret Olmsted, an astronomer as well as Celtic scholar,
points out the startling fact that while the surviving calendar was manufactured
in the first century bce, astronomical calculus shows that it must have been
computed in 1100 bce.
One fascinating parallel is that the ancient Irish and
Hindus used the name Budh for the planet Mercury. The stem budh appears in all
the Celtic languages, as it does in Sanskrit, as meaning "all
victorious," "gift of teaching," "accomplished,"
"enlightened," "exalted" and so on. The names of the famous
Celtic queen Boudicca, of ancient Britain (1st century ce), and of Jim Bowie
(1796-1836), of the Texas Alamo fame, contain the same root. Buddha is the past
participle of the same Sanskrit word--"one who is enlightened."
For Celtic scholars, the world of the Druids of reality
is far more revealing and exciting, and showing of the amazingly close common
bond with its sister Vedic culture, than the inventions of those who have now
taken on the mantle of modern "Druids," even when done so with great
If we are all truly wedded to living in harmony with
one another, with nature, and seeking to protect endangered species of animal
and plant life, let us remember that language and culture can also be in
ecological danger. The Celtic languages and cultures today stand on the verge of
extinction. That is no natural phenomenon but the result of centuries of
politically directed ethnocide. What price a "spiritual awareness"
with the ancient Celts when their culture is in the process of being destroyed
or reinvented? Far better we seek to understand and preserve intact the Celt's
ancient wisdom. In this, Hindus may prove good allies.
The Song of Amairgen the Druid
I am the wind that blows across the sea; I am the wave
of the ocean;
I am the murmur of the billows; I am the bull of the seven combats;
I am the vulture on the rock; I am a ray of the sun; I am the fairest of
I am a wild boar in valor; I am a salmon in the pool; I am a lake on the plain;
I am the skill of the craftsman; I am a word of science;
I am the spearpoint that gives battle;
I am the God who creates in the head of man the fire of thought.
Who is it that enlightens the assembly upon the mountain, if not I?
Who tells the ages of the moon, if not I?
Who shows the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?
Who is the God that fashions enchantments--
The enchantment of battle and the wind of change?
Amairgen was the first Druid to arrive in Ireland.
Ellis states, "In this song Amairgen subsumes everything into his own being
with a philosophic outlook that parallels the declaration of Krishna in the
Hindu Bhagavad-Gita." It also is quite similar in style and content to the
more ancient Sri Rudra chant of the Yajur Veda.
Peter Berresford Ellis is one of the foremost living
authorities on the Celts and author of many books on the subject, including
"Celt and Roman," "Celt and Greek," "Dictionary of
Celtic Mythology" and "Celtic Women."PETER BERRESFORD ELLIS, 30
GRESLEY ROAD, LONDON, N19 3JZ, ENGLAND