Saint Patrick and the Early Christian Encounter with Druids

The religious leaders of the Celts did not escape the notice of early Christians.  Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215 AD) identified the Druids of Gaul and the philosophers of the Celts in terms of that special group of religious leaders who were bringing light to their nations.59  The disciple of Irenaeus, Hippolytus (ca. 170-236), noted that the Celts viewed the Druids as prophets and seers.60  Considering that the Galatians of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, were of a Celtic tribe, the Apostle Paul would have been one of the first Christians to encounter the Celts.  In fact, Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches (ca. 47 AD) indicated a continued belief that is congruent with ancient Druidry.  Whether the Galatians had contact with their Celtic brethren in Gaul or beyond is probable.  The theologian Johannes Knudsen suggested that Irenaeus (ca. 130-200), born on the coast of Asia Minor in Galatia, was a Celt.  Knudsen related that the spread of Christianity in Gaul was due in part by the use of the Gallic language.  He stated, 

Irenaeus must have known his people [Galatian Celts], and I am sure that he traveled among them.  He says that the Christian faith is spread all over the earth, including Celts and Germans; and he says that the gospel is the same everywhere, even among people that have no written language but have to preach the gospel by word of mouth.61

This assertion makes sense in light of the oral nature of Celtic belief.  No matter whether Irenaeus was Celt or not, we know that he moved to Gaul and used the Gallic language.  Referring to his Greek mother language, he writes, “You must pardon the lack of elegance from those of us who live among the Celts [Gauls], for we are accustomed to translate our words constantly into a barbarous language.”62   

The spread of Christianity to the British islands of the Druids by 200 AD was noted by several early Christian writers.  The Alexandrian theologian Origen (185-254) suggested that Christianity was among the Britons as it was among the Africans and other nations.  Tertullian (160-220), the father of Latin theology, wrote that the good news of Jesus Christ was preached in the parts of the British islands that Rome had not touched.  By 314 AD Christianity appears to have been firmly established in Britain as evidenced by the presence of three British bishops at the Council of Arles.  In 325 the early defender of orthodoxy Athanasius stated that the British church accepted the decrees of the Council of Nicea.  

Christians were apparently still in the minority by the latter half of the fourth century due to the decline of Roman influence and the survival of Celtic Druidry.63  But, by the middle 400s, St. Patrick, a British missionary to Ireland, speaks of the sons and daughters of Irish leaders becoming monks and virgins of Christ during his ministry.64  In time, Druidry became absorbed by the rise of Christianity and the break-up of the ancient Roman world. Ellis contended that the Druids transitioned to Christianity and ultimately faded into the literati of Ireland and Britain.65  

One reason for such absorption was due to similarities between Christianity and Druidry.  As noted, Clement of Alexandria believed that the Druids had some religious tenets similar to Christianity as he related that they brought the light of the gospel to their people.  Clement and other early Christian philosophers believed that God did not leave himself without a witness in other people groups.  Just as the Jews had the Hebrew Scriptures, so other people had access to revelation that would point them ultimately to God.  In fact, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were considered proto-disciples of Jesus Christ based upon their growing understanding of the divine.66  

Origen, another Alexandrian theologian, noted that the Greek philosopher Celsus considered the Druids as having similar traditions with the priests of the Jews.67  It is unclear what those traditions might have been.  It could certainly include the worship of a single god as observed by Pytheas in 325 BC at Stonehenge.68  In fact, Origen, perhaps confusing monolatrism for monotheism, would write in his commentary on the Psalms that the Druids worshiped one god.  Sacrifices for appeasing the gods as noted by Posidonius could also be a possible similarity with the Jews.  It might also include the belief in the afterlife and the netherworld as inferred by Caesar.  As Christianity emerged out of Judaism and brought with it similar traditions as the worship of one god, need for sacrifice to appease god with no less than a human sacrifice, as well as the belief in the afterlife, one might imagine how the Druids could relate with a religion so similar to their own.

At some stage, and when exactly that might have been is unclear but it was around the middle of the fifth century AD, the practice of the religion of the Druids ceased, at least overtly.  Hutton concluded,

The official conversion of the British Isles to Christianity left no surviving pre-Christian religions, either in remote areas or as “underground” movements.  In that sense the victory of the new faith was born relatively swift and absolute.  But, as has always been recognized, paganism did bequeath an enormous legacy of superstitions, literary and artistic images and folk rituals to the culture of later ages.69  

Some have suggested that Druidry was absorbed into what emerged as Celtic Christianity.  Joseph Cahill described the differences in the three Christianities of the fifth century AD,

It seems relatively clear that we have three major forms of Christianity, each one of which may contain a wide series of different arrangements and, more significantly, varied structures of epigenetically differentiated consciousness: the Latin, with its known accomplishments, its generally patriarchal and structured hierarchy, its defined dogmas, particularly that of original sin; the Greek, with its more collegial structure, its emphasis on the Deus pro nobis [God is for us], its heavenly-earthly typological imagery reconciling the political and spiritual spheres, its patriarchates, and its long liturgical history; the Celtic, with its independent, non hierarchical, mystical thrust in which what we call the supernatural is somehow present in the natural and in which perhaps the highest good is individual moral freedom.70

If there were an individual from Britain who is associated with Celtic Christianity, it would have to be the fifth century lawyer/theologian Pelagius.  Pelagius was a Celt from what is modern-day Wales near the location of the Iceni tribe.  He was trained in law, but most likely gave it up so as to focus on theology.71  His knowledge of medicine suggested that his father was a doctor and might indicate that he was a Druid as well.72  In fact, some have seen the connection between Pelagius and Druidry.  Peter Berresford Ellis suggested that the Druids who were contemporaries with Pelagius point to a “set of philosophies, especially social philosophy, which, I believe, gives credence to the view that Pelagius was espousing a pre-Christian Celtic philosophy” in his Christianity.73  The Catholic theologian Timothy Joyce noted that, “In Christian times, we see how easily the Celts saw the monk as the continuation of the druidic figure.  The image was explicitly used by St. Columcille when he proudly professed that Christ was his Druid!”74  

Interestingly enough, contemporary Druids have noted the similarities between Pelagius and Druids as well.  Philip Carr-Gomm, chosen chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids (OBOD), wrote, “Some say he was a Druid.  We cannot be sure whether he was or not, but he was certainly deeply influenced by their heritage. He taught the doctrine of original blessing, insisting that a baby is born blessed and innocent rather than sinful.”75  Carr-Gomm’s mentor and founder of OBOD, Ross Nichols, who read history at Oxford, believed that Pelagius taught a more “humanist version of Christianity” and his system was linked to the Arthurian legends of morality and of good’s triumph over evil.76  

Christianity was of course Trinitarian which may give reason why the Druids would be interested in a Christian Trinitarian god (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) due to their fascination with triads.  For example, the triple goddesses associated with the Celtic people would indicate the existence of a Trinitarian-like deity.  These three goddesses represented what might be thought of as Mothers Earth who provided sustenance for the people.77  Another example of a Trinitarian-like deity is noted by Lucan.  There was an apparent three-fold godhead with Taranis as the sky god, Teutates as the tribal god, and Hesus as god all-competent.78  The archaeologist Dennis Price has argued that Hesus is a misspelling of Jesus and represents his early association with the British Isles,79 although this seems unlikely.  

A contemporary with Pelagius and a theological compatriot, Patrick the missionary to Ireland, wrote, “This is who we confess and adore, One God in Trinity of sacred name.”80  The concept of the Trinity would have made sense to the Celts as it provided an example of what it meant to live in association with the gods.  “Patrick’s Breastplate,” most likely not written by the Irish saint, poetically emphasizes the Celtic understanding of this association:

I rise today:
In power’s strength, invoking the Trinity,
Believing in threeness,
Confessing the oneness,
Of Creation’s Creator.81

To the pagan Celts, the relationship of the gods with the people was not separated by a supernatural/natural dichotomy as present in Augustine of Hippo and the 13th century scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas as well as many modern Christian writers.  To the Celts, the communities of the heavenly and earthly realms were an ever-present reality.  Scottish theologian Ian Bradley stated, “The Celts saw the Trinity as a family . . . for them it showed the love that lay at the very heart of the Godhead and the sanctity of family and community ties.”82  Again, “Patrick’s Breastplate” gives a glimpse of this continuity:

I rise today:
In the power of the love of Cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In hope of rising to receive the reward,
In the prayers of the Patriarchs,
In the predictions of the prophets,
In the preaching of the Apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of the righteous.83

Theologian M. Forthomme Nicholson summed up why Christianity had such an impact in the Druid society of the Celts by stating, “It was easy for them [Celts] to relate to a good God that created everyone in his image and to those whose Divinity all returned if they followed Christ’s precept: ‘be perfect.’”84  Jean Markale noted that Druids focused on individual responsibility without any notion of dualism in regards to matter and mind.85  This was not Latin Christianity.  In fact, it was a Christianity that Rome would fight against as heretical.  This Christianity was indigenous to the British Isles; one that related the Druid past with the Christian present.

Excerpt from Contemporary Druidry: A Historical and Ethnographic Study.

Contemporary Druidry: A Historical and Ethnographic Study