In Brief

The "druids," powerfully influential priests in pre-Christian Ireland, are mentioned fairly often in Ulysses. They resonate in popular imagination millennia after their decline, but since they left no written records little can be said with certainty about them. 

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In Irish literature from early Christian times, like the Táin Bó Cúailnge,  the druids (draoithe) are sorcerers who cast spells and curses, foresee the future through augury, and conduct magical healing rituals. But these accounts written by Christian monks reflect the constriction of the druids' role, and the lessening of their social status, that resulted from the coming of Christianity in the 5th century, an epochal change referenced in Ithaca when Stephen and Bloom discuss Saint Patrick's "conversion of the Irish nation to christianity from druidism." (The conversion almost certainly occurred over the course of many centuries, not all at once in the 5th century as popular mythology has it.)

In pre-Christian Celtic societies the druids occupied a more important place. Highly honored and highly learned, they apparently acted as priests, lawyers, judges, doctors, historians, philosophers, keepers of poetic tradition, and advisors to kings. According to Pliny and other ancient Greek and Roman historians, they performed their rituals in sacred oak groves, and details from Irish, British, and Scottish oral traditions support this view. Several ancient writers reported that the druids practiced human sacrifice, a view which may inform Bloom's thoughts in Lestrygonians of "druids' altars" in connection with various kinds of blood sacrifice (Christian ones not excluded). Gifford notes that "Early Christian polemicists had accused the druids of human sacrifice in order to discredit them, but Irish historians of the early twentieth century argued that such sacrifices, if they had ever been the practice among Irish druids, had been sublimated to animal sacrifice well before the beginning of the Christian era in Ireland" (157).

Buck Mulligan introduces druidism into the novel in Telemachus with his flip remark that "We'll have a glorious drunk to astonish the druidy druids"—a comment that seems to have nothing to do with any known druidical practice. In Oxen of the Sun Mulligan renews his mockery of the Yeats sisters' Dundrum press by calling it the "Druiddrum press," lumping druids together with Formorian fishgods and weird sisters.

This broad mockery of ancient figures may also be at work in Circe when Mananaun MacLir, an Irish and Manx sea god who in this instance looks a lot like George Russell (AE), appears and "A cold seawind blows from his druid mouth." Here, though, there is some textual basis for the connection since Russell's play Deirdre features the druid priest Cathvah, a part that Russell himself performed on stage. In the play, Cathvah calls on Mananaun to destroy the Red Branch knights with his waves.

The novel occasionally displays interest in whatever spiritual practices may have been in vogue before Saint Patrick. In another part of Oxen, Mulligan notices Bloom staring at a bottle of Bass Ale, lost in thought: "Malachi saw it and withheld his act, pointing to the stranger and to the scarlet label. Warily, Malachi whispered, preserve a druid silence. His soul is far away. It is as painful perhaps to be awakened from a vision as to be born. Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods." Several ancient writers, including Julius Caesar and the Greek historians Alexander of Miletus and Diodorus of Sicily, noted that the druids believed strongly in reincarnation or metempsychosis, in forms perhaps influenced by Pythagorean teachings. This belief in the soul's immortality, its cosmic wandering, and its many births seems to have something to do with Mulligan's sentences.

Scylla and Charybdis concludes with Stephen thinking, "Cease to strive. Peace of the druid priests of Cymbeline, hierophantic: from wide earth an altar." He recalls lines from the final speech of Shakespeare's play:   
                                                         Laud we the gods,
        And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils
        From our blest altars.

The speaker here is the ancient British king Cymbeline, a Celt, and he is referring to some kind of blood sacrifice (probably of animals) that will take place in a pagan "temple" (5.4.398). But the play never mentions "druid priests." Commentators usually connect Stephen's "peace" with the message of peace between Britons and Romans (as well as other characters in the romance) discerned by the soothsayer Philharmonus, who works for the Roman general Caius Lucius. The final scene does envision universal peace and connect it with pagan gods—"The fingers of the pow'rs above," in the soothsayer's words (466), or "The benediction of these covering heavens" as Belisarius puts it (350)—but the connection specifically with druidism is Stephen's inference.

His "Cease to strive. Peace of the druid priests" is puzzling. Is he meditating appreciatively on the feeling of "hierophantic" blessing conveyed in Shakespeare's scene, or fatalistically on the example of a Celt submitting to imperial authority? (Although Shakespeare's Britons have prevailed in battle, Cymbeline promises to resume paying tribute to Caesar.) Taking the latter view, David Weir argues in Ulysses Explained (Palgrave, 2015) that Stephen's "Cease to strive" expresses dejection, "since he has just been rejected by the high priests of Irish culture, among whom AE is chief."

John Hunt 2018

Two Druids, a 19th century engraving based on an illustration in Bernard de Montfaucon's Antiquitas explanatione et schematibus illustrata (1719 ), itself reproducing a bas-relief found at Autun, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

A fanciful impression of An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit, illustration in The Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles, by S. R. Meyrick and C. H. Smith (1815). Source: Wikimedia Commons.