Celtic Medicine in Early, Medieval Ireland, Part III

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher completes his look at Celtic medicine in early, medieval Ireland. (Click here for Part I or Part II.)

The Druids Practiced What? Brain Surgery?


A Trephined Skull–And the Patient Survived!

That’s right. They practiced trephination, using circular saws to drill holes in the skull to let out evil spirits and relieve pressure.

In 1935, fishermen off the coast of Sussex pulled up in their nets a skull that was trephined twice at different times. The bones around both circular cuts had healed. But scientists were able to determine that after the second cut, some weeks later the patient died of sepsis. Whoops! Guess that one didn’t work so good.

One account after the battle of Magh Rath in AD 637 tells of Cennfaelad, an Irish chieftain who sustained blows to the head from a sword. Physicians removed part of his skull and a piece of his brain. If the accounts are to be believed, after recovery, his wits improved and he wrote the Uraicept na n-Éces (Primer of Poets), a document for which we still have copies.

The early Celtic physicians had many surprising surgical tools. They used a stethoscope, a horn they called a gipne. They also used a surgical probe, calling it a fraig. In a 2nd Century grave from the period, they also found a bronze retractor.

Not only could they perform surgery, the druids could also set broken bones.

Hot Air Baths?

The tigh ‘n alluis, or “sweating house” sounds similar to a sauna and was used to “cure” rheumatism. Such a structure survives on Inishmurray in Donegal Bay. This was a stone hut about six feet long, inside which was built a fire of turf. The fire heated the stone structure like an oven and then was removed. Then they bundled the patient in a blanket, sat him on a bench, and closed the door. The patient was encouraged to meditate to achieve a condition of peace and to stay inside until he was sweating profusely. Then he jumped into cold water and was rubbed dry.

Don’t Disrespect the Fairy Folk


“Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen” by Johann H. Füssli

The ancient Irish believed that fairies inhabited the world around them. And if you did something to upset them, illness might result—either to you or your animals. What might anger them? Perhaps you chopped down trees along their track way. Or plowed up their favorite field of wildflowers. In that case, you’d have to pay some kind of penalty to appease the fairy folk, and you might not be the one to choose it. If your cattle started dying, perhaps it was the fairy folk extracting the price of your trespass?

A Spiritually Dark World

From everything we’ve seen, the ancient Celts lived in a world of spiritual darkness. The druids knew about herbal and healing plants, could set bones, and do a few things that might aid one to health, sure, but on the whole, much of their medicine drew power from the spirit world. In fact, the ancient Celts lived in fear of violating numerous taboos that would anger the spirits and fairies inhabiting the world around them. For angering the spirits was considered a main cause of illness.

Into this spiritually dark world came Patrick the evangelist from Britain, bringing hope, peace of mind, and joy with the news of Christ. After St. Patrick, the Irish could look on their world in an entirely different light, without fear. Yet some of their natural remedies and medical practices predated modern medicine.

(Sources for this post: The Celts by Peter Beresford Ellis; and Land, Sea and Sky, Chapter 17, by Hilaire Wood, edited by Shae Clancy and Francine Nicholson.)

Next time, we’ll look at druidic justice in early medieval times.