Celtic Medicine in Early, Medieval Ireland

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at Celtic medicine in early, medieval Ireland.

No question, life was harder in the early medieval era, without any of the modern conveniences we take for granted. When you got sick or injured there were no antibiotics, aspirin, or calls to 911. So then, to whom did you turn? The druids, of course.


A druid at his work

Druids Were the Healers

Druids were not only the people’s healers, they were its shamans, and part of the intellectual class of Celtic society. They officiated over the worship of the gods and the spirits, including sacrifices, also administering justice and judgments. Everything a druid learned was memorized, passed by word of mouth from one druid to another through the ages. Some druids spent twenty years learning their professions. Today, we’ll look at their roles in healing, some good, some bad.

The Druids’ Healing Plants

The ancient Celts were close to the land. So they knew about the healing plants of their world. What might have been in the druid’s arsenal of healing herbs? Here’s a partial list:

  • Bilberries (or huckleberries), for general health.
  • Burdock, as a detoxifier.
  • Nettle, to stop bleeding.
  • Mistletoe, for sexual vigor, also used in druid ceremonies in large amounts for its hallucinogenic effects. Mistletoe was one of the druids most powerful drugs.
  • Dandelion, to treat fever.
  • Willow, for rheumatism in the dampness of the bog-infested lands.
  • Comfrey, as a poultice for sprains, bruises, and swellings.
Prety flower? Nay, 'tis hemlock!

Pretty flower? Nay, ’tis hemlock!

The Druids Also Knew About Poisons

The druids knew about healing plants. But they also knew about poisons, such as hemlock, which grew in Ireland’s fields and even in the rivers. Patrick’s own Confessions tells us the druids once tried to poison him. A scene in my upcoming novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, dramatizes this. Often, the druids would turn their knowledge of the natural world to evil.

But the Spirits Were Often to Blame

Their world was animistic. If you or the clan were afflicted, the druids might assume somebody had angered the gods of the Otherworld. In their spiritual darkness, the druids worshiped the spirits of trees, streams, trees, and bogs. They also worshiped Danu, the goddess of the earth; Lugh, god of many things; Cernunnos, the antler-headed god of the forest; and Manannán mac Lir, angry god of the sea and the Otherworld. They also worshiped the mythical ancestral races who they believed had gone down into the earth—the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann.

If you displeased one of these spirits, or even if you didn’t, you often went into the forest to hide sacrifices of bread, cheese, or mead in small clay cups. The druids’ gods were fearsome beings whose images would give anyone nightmares. They were angry, capricious, and spiteful. Like most animistic peoples, the early Celts lived in fear of violating numerous taboos and doing things to anger the spirits inhabiting the world around them. This made the island ripe for the news of Christianity that St. Patrick brought them in A.D. 432—a bright message of hope, salvation, and love.

(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 continue our look at Celtic medicine in ancient Ireland, with Part II.