Ancient Wisdom of Wales Series

Celts and Druids, Who Were They?

By E. A. Holmes
All that is really known of the ancient state of Britain is contained in a few pages. We can know no more than what old writers have told us. -- Dr. Samuel Johnson, quoted in Prehistoric and Early Wales, p. 13
To write of Welsh historiography in the present century is virtually to cover the whole subject, for it is only here that the serious writing of Welsh history begins. -- Professor A. H. Dodd, quoted by R. Ian Jack, Medieval Wales, p. 163.

This is not a very promising start to our investigations into Welsh history, yet in spite of the lamentations of historians, and the protestations of archaeologists that they may be able to discover Diogenes' tub but are unable to produce Diogenes himself, the number of books published would fill two or three bookcases. The lore and the lure of what Elias Ashmole called "the mysterious Druidae" catch one by the tail!
It is one of the fascinations of the subject, of course, that the last word on it is far from having been said. Who were the Celts, and where did they come from? Did they originate Druidism? In the last century most scholars accepted Professor Sir John Rhys's version that the Celts had come over to Britain in two waves, first the Goidels, who were the ancestors of the Irish, then the Brythons, ancestors of the Welsh (John Rhys and David Brynmor-Jones, The Welsh People, pp. 10-11).
Other scholars have suggested that from around 500 BC onward there was a series of invasions from the Continent, culminating in those of Julius Caesar. Prior to all these, however, there are traces of much older peoples living in what is now Wales. According to C. B. M. McBurney, human beings were in the area of what is now Cardiff two hundred thousand years ago, perhaps even earlier, and in North Wales one hundred thousand years ago (cf. Foster and Daniel, Prehistoric and Early Wales, pp. 18, 23).
It is perhaps significant that this "Mousterian Man" of Plas Cefn Caves in North Wales also had Mousterian contemporaries in southwestern France and the Pyrenees, for it is said that up to about ten thousand years ago what is now Britain was part of the Continent, and connected with it by an isthmus 150 to 200 miles wide. One can still visit these caves at Plas Cefn. Whoever lived in them, they were not giants -- one has to be careful not to bang one's head! There is quite a labyrinth of staircases cut in the rock, and it would seem that Mousterian Man was not "primitive."
One of the most colorful theories of the origins of the Celts traces their ancestry to Noah and his Ark. In 1857 the Reverend R. W. Morgan had no doubt at all that the Cymry (pronounced "Kumrie") were descendants of Chomr, or Gomer, eldest son of Japhet, who was the eldest son of Noah. In his The British Kymry or Britons of Cambria one learns how the Kymry determined, under the guidance of Hu Gadarn, to seek again the White Island of the West where their father, Dwy Van, had built the ship of Nevydd Nav Neivion. Not only were they successful in their resolve, but in the process of carrying it out they colonized Umbria in Northern Italy, Liguria in Italy and Gaul, and Armorica, now known as Brittany, and gave Welsh names to all the places through which they passed.
Thus we have the Alps (meaning in Welsh "Rocky Mounts"), the Rhone (meaning "River of Eddies"), Arar ("Slow River"), and Gascony ("Gwasgwyn"-- the Vine Land). The name "Armorica" is "ar y mor ucha," which translates as "on the Upper Sea." It is so much like another name, "America," also on the Upper Sea, that one wonders why the Rev. Morgan didn't claim that another of his Kymric tribes sailed on across the Atlantic!
Not content with peopling the Western world with his Kymry, our author claimed they also colonized India and the Middle East. The Greeks were either cousins or descendants of the Kymry, and Jove, Venus, Hercules, Jason, and Helen of Troy were all Welsh! We are also told it was a descendant of the defeated Trojans, Brutus, who came to Britain and founded Caer Troian, afterwards called Caer Llud -- now London.
The Rev. Morgan's book does, at least, point up the Indo-European origin of most European languages. There is a lot of Sanskrit in the Welsh vocabulary, as George Borrow noted. This is probably why Morgan thought Welsh to be the mother tongue of the West, and found Kymric meaning in the roots of Latin itself which, he said, was derived from Kymric! George Borrow also had a theory that the "Cymro" had his original home in southern Hindustan, the extreme south point of which, Cape Comorin, was named after him. This is interesting because there is an ancient tradition, deriving from the Indian epic, The Ramayana, that a colony of "Eastern Aethiopeans" emigrated from Lanka (Ceylon), and settled in northern Africa. They were "mighty builders." Their leader, Ravana, was called "king of the giants," and it is surmised that they founded ancient Egypt, and may even have built the oldest of the pyramids and other temples (see H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled 2:435-6; also The Secret Doctrine 2:417).
Is it just coincidence that a line of such mighty buildings can be traced along the Barbary coast, across the Straits of Gibraltar, through the Basque country into southern France at Carnac, and Britain at Stonehenge?
One argument in favor of the theory of Indian-Egyptian origins is the philological one. The most elementary acquaintance with the Welsh language reveals that its syntax, the arrangement of words in a sentence, is something quite different from English usage and is, in fact, non-Aryan. Take the simple sentence: "The cat sits on the mat." In Welsh it would be: "Mae cath yneistedd ar y mat." This, translated word for word, runs: "Is cat sitting on the mat." "I am" becomes "Rydwi" -- "Am I," in Welsh.
In these examples, which are typically Welsh, the verb comes first. The strange thing is it also comes first in the Egyptian language. An impressive list of such similarities between Egyptian and Welsh has been culled by Professor J. Morris Jones of University College, Bangor, whose researches revealed similar links with the languages and customs of the Berbers of North Africa, and possibly with the Basques of Spain. According to him, however, the syntax of the original Celtic language was not akin to that of the Egyptians nor of the Berbers, but had changed. How had this come about?
"When one language is supplanted by another," says Dr. Morris Jones "the speakers find it comparatively easy to adopt the new vocabulary, but not so easy to abandon the old modes of expression; . . ." He goes on to say that when the Celts came to Britain and intermarried with women of the older race, their children learned to speak at their mothers' knees in a way different from their fathers (Rhys and Brymnor-Jones, The Welsh People, Appendix B, pp. 617-41).
So the Welsh are a hybrid race of Aryan and non-Aryan descent, and this is shown in the complexity of types of ancient barrows and burial mounds. The Welsh gods and heroes of old also had customs differing from those of the Aryan Celts, such as in their matrilinear line of succession. They belonged to an older age, and we saw in the previous article on "Giants and Floods" that it was probably Atlantean. Plato's account of Atlantis and its civilization has become generally recognized as having basis in fact. One should explain that in the theosophical classification of the succession of races, the fourth great race is generally called the Atlantean, while our present or fifth race has become known as the Aryan race, because the Aryas are believed to have been the initial subrace of that great stock or root-race.
Atlantis, according to tradition, straddled the Atlantic and extended at one time through Africa to the Middle and even to the Far East. It is said that the Atlanteans built civilizations which reached pinnacles of intellectual achievement but, as a race, they failed to develop corresponding spirituality, and so perished in internecine strife. Nevertheless that people had its saviors and teachers, and there are records in India and Egypt of Atlantean rishis who were advanced members of the human race, some of whom may well have followed, or even led like Hu Gadarn, the long trek westward to the Hyperborean lands. Tradition connects Stonehenge with initiated Egyptian priests who traveled overland to Albion when it was still a peninsula connected with the mainland. The colossal zodiacs at Avebury and Glastonbury would also have been built at the instigation of these adept astronomers. Were these priests the original Druids, the primary Bards, whose lore was passed down to the wisest of the Celts at their "Chairs" or secret schools? H. P. Blavatsky was of this opinion: "Their priests were the descendants of the last Atlanteans, and what is known of them is sufficient to allow the inference that they were eastern priests akin to the Chaldeans and Indians, . . ." (The Secret Doctrine 2:756).
What was this secret wisdom of the Druids? We should have to be initiates ourselves to have access to and to understand all of it, but there seems to be sufficient evidence available to suggest it really existed. That it is not romantic fiction is attested to by both Greek and Roman authors. Listen to what some of them have said (these quotations can be found in Stuart Piggott's The Druids and A. L. Owen's The Famous Druids).
Diodorus Siculus reported that the Druids were "philosophers and theologians," "skilled in the divine nature," and able to communicate with the gods. Julius Caesar wrote that they had philosophical and religious beliefs pertaining to the "powers and spheres of action of the immortal gods"; that they had "much knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the earth, of natural philosophy." Strabo and Cicero said the Druids had the knowledge of nature which the Greeks called physiologia.
Other ancient writers linked the Druids with the Pythagoreans. Diodorus, Ammianus and Valerius Maximus associated the Druidic belief in immortality with the theory of metempsychosis, making Druids "members of the intimate fellowship of the Pythagorean faith." Some went further and derived the Pythagorean school of philosophy from the Druids. Iamblichus, for example, maintained that Pythagoras was acquainted with the Celtic mysteries, a statement confirmed by Clement of Alexandria, who in about AD 200 wrote that philosophy had been studied by the Druids before the Greeks:

Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light among the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians, and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians, and the Druids among the Gauls. . . and the philosophers among the Celts -- I, 15, Works, tr. W. Wilson, p. 398; quoted in Famous Druids, p. 90

The learning of the Druids has been respected by many thinkers throughout history. In the third century Hippolytus of Alexandria wrote that the Druids "used Pythagorean methods of reckoning in their prophecies," and implied their equality with Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Later John Milton spoke of them in these terms:

Therefore the studies of learning in her deepest Sciences have bin so ancient, and so eminent among us, that Writers of good antiquity, and ablest judgement have bin perswaded that ev'n the school of Pythagoras' and the Persian wisdom took beginning from the old Philosophy of this Iland. -- Areopagitica, quoted in Famous Druids, p. 56

And so the tally goes on. It is only fair to say that other writers, and some already quoted, have had less complimentary things to say about the Druids. Caesar and others point up their alleged human sacrifices, and we shall have to look into this in a further article. Also, Stuart Piggott, professor of prehistoric archaeology in the University of Edinburgh, disparages the Druids as "noble savages." He draws parallels between them and the North American Indians which seem crushing, but which, in view of recent studies of the Indians, may contain hidden compliments. According to his erudite book on the Druids, those scholars who have sought to find philological, kabbalistic, and patriarchal meaning in the Bardic triads have had "baleful influence" on Celtic Studies. Scholars mentioned include Rowland Jones, Edward Davies, Joanna Southcott, lexicographer William Owen Pughe, and engraver William Sharp, all of whom were friends or acquaintances of William Blake. Blake himself, who asserted that in its purest form "Druidism flourished before Adam," does not escape the critical pragmatism of this modern Dr. Carpenter.
Yet in spite of these negative reports, the existence of a Druidic system of knowledge comparable to that of the Classical world is well attested. The similarities between the ancient Celtic ideas and those of the Pythagoreans may indicate that the Druids, rather than originating their beliefs, were descended from bearers of the ancient wisdom from the Near or Far East. Such a conclusion points toward a possible common cultural origin for these peoples.

  • (Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, August/September, 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical University Press)

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