The Druids of Brittany

The druids of antiquity remain an enigma and a constant source of, sometimes, fanciful speculation. Their roles in Celtic society were as broad as they were integral to daily life; story-teller, sage, teacher, priest, judge, sorcerer and keeper of the tribe’s laws and traditions. Yet, very little is known for certain about them; they did not share their knowledge with the uninitiated and kept no records of their own but their influence lingered longest in the remotest realms of the Celts, such as in Brittany.

The little that we know about the mysterious druids comes from comments made about them in the writings of the Greek historians Strabo and Diodorus of Sicily who drew upon earlier works by Timagenes of Alexandria and Alexander of Miletus. Unfortunately, these earliest sources are now lost but the writings of their Roman contemporary, Julius Caesar, remain in print to this day. His account of the Gallic Wars of the 1st century BC recorded several observations on the customs and religious practices of the Celtic tribes of Gaul and Britain; to which we can add a few additional details recounted in works by the Roman authors Pliny and Tacitus about a century later.

From these fragments, we note that the Celts of antiquity possessed a distinct aristocracy of bards, priests and judges who exercised considerable power among the populace. Accounts differ as to the rigidity of the boundaries that separated these three groups; Caesar noted only two privileged classes in Celtic society, warriors and druids. Later authors suggested a discrete druidical hierarchy of poets and story-tellers, soothsayers and diviners, and at the apex of this elite class; the philosophers cum sorcerers known as druids, who themselves constituted an organized group under an Arch-druid who would rule until his death, when a successor would be chosen by vote or through force of arms.

Whether functions were so clearly divided or not, the druids represented a powerful grouping of respected religious leaders. Their activities and responsibilities appear to have encompassed all aspects of daily life; from politics and justice, both as counsellors and judges, to administering the sacred side of Celtic life supervising divine worship and sacrificial ritual. Druids were custodians of the tribe’s history, the crucial genealogies of its leaders and curators of its oral traditions and culture. They were also involved in foretelling the future through the interpretation of sacrifices and augurs from the natural world such as the flight and calls of birds.

A Druid
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The Druids were an essential bridge between the people and their gods and were believed to stand between the mortal world and the Otherworld. This link to the divine, coupled with their profound knowledge of magic and healing, likely saw them feared as much as venerated by their communities. While there is evidence to suggest that some Celts were literate, the druids’ knowledge was not committed to parchment but only ever transmitted orally. Caesar tells us that the island of Britain was the home of druidism and that, aspiring druids, usually men of rank and nobility, travelled there for as many as 20 years of instruction in poetry, history, law, healing, religious rites, magic, divination and philosophy. According to one 1st century Roman author, such instruction was secret and carried out in sacred caves and forests and required the precise learning of at least 700 poetical sagas alone.

The writings of Caesar also tell us that the druids took a keen interest in astronomy, geography, theology and natural philosophy but, beyond this, very little is known of the secrets into which new druids were initiated. However, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, as many authors attribute all manner of beliefs to the druids, confidently replacing speculation with certitude. Unfortunately, the neo-druidic movement of the 19th century and its later manifestations has helped confuse the waters regarding the popular perception of the roles and beliefs of the Celtic druids of antiquity.

The 1st century writers contemporaneous with the druids noted that they believed in the indestructibility and inevitable transmigration of the soul; a powerful belief that made the Celts fearless warriors in battle.  The druids were also said to believe in a tribal spirit who was the first of men; ancestor of all the tribe and its guardian spirit. It was said that all orders of society accepted their authority and that they were held in such regard that their intervention could stop battles between warring factions. Furthermore, druids held the power to banish anyone from any religious celebration thus making them total social outcasts from the life of the tribe.

Druidic teaching
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Any private sacrifice to the gods required the attendance of a druid as they were the only recognised intermediaries between the domains of the mortal and the divine. Some writers claimed that they sacrificed both animals and humans to the gods and foretold the future by observing the death convulsions and blood flow of the victims. Caesar’s account notes that human sacrifices usually involved criminals such as thieves and that victims were often burnt alive within a large effigy made of wooden branches and wickerwork, now popularly known as a Wicker Man. There is much debate as to the veracity of the claims that the ancient Celts practised human sacrifice to their gods; some historians regard such claims as Roman propaganda projecting what they viewed as barbarian traits onto foreign peoples.

The popular image of venerable white-robed, bearded old men gathering mistletoe is primarily one that we owe to Pliny and the romantic engravings of the 18th century. Pliny tells us that the druids held nothing more sacred than mistletoe and that they never performed their religious rites without employing branches of it. The plant was also believed to make barren animals fertile and be an effective antidote for all poisons. Gathering the mistletoe was done with much ritual, it being said that it was cut down with a golden sickle by a druid clad in white and immediately followed by the sacrifice of two white bulls. This ceremony took place on the fifth day of the moon, the day which, in the Celtic calendar, marked the beginning of the months and years. On this day, the moon was considered particularly auspicious, being hailed as all-healing.

Caesar also noted that senior druids congregated to meet annually at a sacred place in the region occupied by the Carnute tribe between the rivers Seine and Loire. This idea of a brotherhood that transcended tribal differences – druids could cross tribal boundaries and conflict zones without fear of hindrance or harassment – directed by an Arch-druid who effectively wielded pan-national control was likely a key consideration behind the Roman effort to suppress druidism. Some authors have even gone so far as to suggest that cutting the head off the druidic movement was one of the key drivers behind the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD.

The Wicker Man
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The Romans clearly viewed the druids as a real threat to their control over the newly subjugated Celtic tribes as Druidism was one of the very few religious movements banned by them, being heavily proscribed under several emperors. This is significant because the Romans were generally tolerant of indigenous beliefs and their practitioners or else adopted a policy of Romanising local deities, supplanting them with gods from their own pantheon; an approach subsequently adopted by the Christian Church (another religion once banned by the Romans) a few centuries later.

Roman suppression was so successful that by the seventh decade of the 1st century, Pliny was able to note that: “The Gallic provinces were pervaded by the magic art, and that even down to a period within memory; for it was the Emperor Tiberius that put down their druids and all that tribe of wizards and physicians. At the present day, struck with fascination, Britannia still cultivates this art.” Writing a little later, Tacitus provides us with one of the last contemporary accounts that we have of the druids when he describes the Roman invasion of the British island of Anglesey, ‘a refuge for fugitives’, in 60AD.

“On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with dishevelled hair, waving firebrands. All around, the druids, lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if paralysed, they stood motionless. Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed.”

Druids and Romans
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We do not know how important Anglesey was for the Celts and their druids but some have suggested that the island was at the very centre of druidism or that it was the location where the druids had withdrawn in order to escape the relentless march of the Roman invaders. Whatever the truth, the defeat at Anglesey represented a crushing blow to the power of the druids who quickly disappear from the historical record thereafter.

Given what we know of druidic organisation, it is unlikely that all the druids were slaughtered in Anglesey in 60AD; surely some, possibly most, would have been at home with their tribes spread across the Celtic world, albeit one that was shrinking under the weight of Roman occupation. Perhaps druidism continued in the remoter Celtic fringes of Roman rule for some time, slowly dying away as the culture that had sustained it changed forever? With no real military or political power, the Celtic tribes steadily lost land and leadership to their Roman overlords; tribal kings and chieftains were either removed or replaced with a candidate acceptable to the Romans and thus, over time, the old aristocracy, of which the druids were an integral part, lost its command and relevance. However, it is not inconceivable that the druids retained their importance by focusing on particular skills that were valued in their communities, such as story-telling or healing and that their re-badged existence remained hidden behind designations such as poet, physician or magician.

Another body of evidence concerning the druids can be found in the mythology of Wales, Ireland and Brittany and in the hagiographies of some early Celtic saints but even here allusions are scant with just a few Irish myths containing references to druids and even less in the myths of Wales and Brittany. These ‘early’ accounts were set down during the Medieval period but likely derive from much earlier oral traditions and it is, of course, possible, that many other tales were lost to history before anyone thought to transcribe them for posterity. However, we should remember that these Medieval sources were set down by Christian monks and thus predominantly portray druids as seers and wizards, never as priests.

Druids and Mistletoe
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One of the unique legends associated with the druids of Brittany comes from the writings of Strabo referencing the work of Poseidonius of Rhodes, a man who had actually spent some time amongst the Celts in the early part of the 1st century BC. Strabo tells of a community of women who were devotees of a secret cult of Dionysus. These women lived on a small island not far from the mouth of the river Loire and upon which no man was permitted to set foot upon. Once a year, it was the custom of these women to un-roof their temple and re-roof it again on the same day before sunset. Each woman brought her load to help add to the new roof but if any of them allowed their burden to fall to the ground during the ceremony she was instantly torn to pieces by her companions who bore her remains around the site in great frenzy. Strabo notes wryly that someone always jostled the woman who was to suffer this fate.

Strabo writes that the women were ‘possessed by Dionysus’ which probably means that they worshipped an unidentified Celtic deity with many of the same attributes as the Roman deity Bacchus; god of wine and fertility. Although he does not equate them with the druids, it is most likely that they were; they were said to be the guardians of the oracle of a Celtic god and only druids could perform such a role. It is worth noting that roofed temples were almost unheard of amongst the Celts before Roman influence dominated and some have suggested that the temple of these women might have been within a dolmen or circle of standing stones.

Sacred Grove of the Druids
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The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, writing around 43AD, talks of another island off the west coast of Brittany; the Île de Sein. This island was described as the dwelling place of a group of nine female virgins known as the Gallicenae. These virgins were said to be Celtic priestesses who worshipped a god of prophecy whose shrine they guarded on this windswept island buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean. Many magical powers were attributed to these women; their voices charmed nature so that they could dominate the elements, conjuring great storms; exciting or calming the winds and waves according to their whims. They were said to be able to shape-shift into animals and to possess the ability to cure even the most impossible of diseases. The Gallicenae were also held to be most powerful seers but would only share the secrets of the future with those pilgrims who made the dangerous journey to consult them personally.

These ladies of the island do not appear in any other ancient accounts nor were they recounted by Pliny who based much of his work on that of Mela. We should therefore be a little cautious before assuming that these priestesses were obviously druids. They might have been but they could just as easily have been a fanciful geographical transposition of a cult of Apollo, the Greco-Roman god of prophecy and healing; an oracular god closely associated with the nine muses who also spoke only through chaste women. It is interesting to note that these priestesses possessed the very same attributes that were later given to Brittany’s fairies, who were often described as the damned spirits of Celtic princesses who had been cursed for refusing to accept Christianity.

The Gallicenae appear in several Breton tales and in some versions of the legend of Ker-Is; a sunken lost city which is traditionally purported to lie between the Breton mainland and the Île de Sein. In these tales, the pagan Princess Dahud visits the nine priestesses on the Île de Sein to ask them to raise the towers of her city and to build a massive dyke in order to better protect the city from the ocean. Some stories say that the Gallicenae sent the korrigans to construct the city’s formidable protective walls, while others add that the korrigans were also despatched to tempt the city’s Christians away from their faith.

Druid Priestesses
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Another interesting association between the Gallicenae and the magical korrigans is found in Ar Rannou, an old Breton folk song portraying a dialogue between a druid and an inquisitive child. One of the druid’s mysterious answers tells that: “There are nine korrigans, who dance, with flowers in their hair, and robes of white wool, around the fountain, by the light of the full moon”. The reference to dancing in the moonlight may be more than just poetic imagery as some have suggested that this verse actually references dancing in honour of the moon. The archaic Celts venerated the moon and this tradition was still extant in the 17th century when the Jesuit missions noted, with alarm, that it was customary for the people of the Île de Sein to kneel before the new moon and to recite the Lord’s prayer in its honour and on the first day of the year, to make an offering of bread at the fountains in honour of the moon.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to date this seeming conflation of two traditions concerning magical beings as the song we know today was first collected from the oral tradition and set down as recently as 1844. However, it has been argued that the song is of great antiquity, possibly containing fragments from as early as the 5th century although others suggest the 15th century. Those who argue for the earlier date see strong traces of druidic teaching in these verses. Caesar tells us that the druids were public instructors and taught the doctrines of natural and moral philosophy to the young and the song contains many of the general characteristics one might expect of druidic doctrines on divinity, metaphysics, history, geography and cosmogony; delivered in the enigmatic and obscure phrasing ascribed to them by the Greek writer Diogenes Laërtius.

Female Druid
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Some tantalising glimpses of the beliefs of the ancient Celts and their druids survived, albeit much debased, into the modern era, surviving in superstitious practices such as the observances connected with Midsummer and Halloween; harvest rituals including corn dollies; and the tradition of auspicious or unlucky birds and animals. Even today, some folk still ‘touch wood’ without realising its likely association with the ancient Celtic practice of making solemn vows in front of trees while stretching out a hand upon the tree trunk.

Given their deep attachment to hidden knowledge and secret teachings as well as their aversion to the written word, it is perhaps fitting that the druids retain their aura of mystery, even to this day.

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

139 thoughts on “The Druids of Brittany

  1. Thanks for this fascinating post to you, and to Pliny, and to that village des irréductibles gaulois de “Panoramix, nôtre Druid !” 🙂 Resisting, tyranny on the other side of the pond, “encore et toujours !!”

    Liked by 11 people

  2. I don’t think all the druids were slaughtered but went into hiding. Since they did not document their practice, we will never fully know what happened. This is what makes them so mysterious and fascinating.

    Liked by 10 people

      1. Hehe yes!! It would be fascinating to know the truth though, wouldn’t it? Imagine 20 years of learning! I also wonder whether they really wore white or that was simply what the Greeks n Romans assumed that ‘learned’ folks wore based on their own Mediterranean togas etc

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I would guess it is an assumption that they wear white. Maybe the upper class would have, but let’s be honest white is the hardest shade to keep clean. And if you are tromping around the bush, you live near, or in a wooded area, white is the last thing you will want to wear.

        Liked by 4 people

  3. Another wonderful enchanting story. Grown up fairy tales except that the research and work behind it makes it doubly compelling reading. You should publish a book of your blog – or several – I would love to read it in that form as well and buy it for my husband who won’t read this sort of thing online but would find it equally fascinating because we share the same taste.

    Liked by 7 people

  4. I am really very pleased that you enjoyed it and appreciate, as always, your encouraging words immensely, thank you!!
    Hmm, I think I will leave the realm of real, published work to you!!! Not too long to wait now! Stay Well 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I like to think the druids were experts at adapting to changing times. They might be pioneers in branding if they shed that identity and built a mythology around it. And who doesn’t like a secret society? Rappers and pop stars flash secret hand signals to pretend they are members of one that doesn’t exist. Recently, I saw a video of one ‘confessing’ he was recruited by the Dark Lord himself. 😂😂 🍎🌺

    Liked by 8 people

  6. I was just thinking about Pliny again when I was writing about Herculaneum. Our tour guide talked about how he died trying to rescue people. He was quite a figure in Roman times.

    Great writing – I love reading these posts

    Liked by 8 people

  7. I might have mentioned this book before, but if not? I found it fascinating and provocative, “The Discovery of Middle Earth” by Graham Robb. Since I read it some time ago — at a time when my life was going through an intense and rapid transition — I don’t remember as much of it as I wish, so I should probably read it again. You might like it.

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Thank you for this. I have read that book but it was published under a different name on this side of the Atlantic. He certainly had some interesting theories but I did enjoy his historical analysis 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, it was called Ancient Paths here. Wonder why they changed it? Middle Earth conjures images of Tolkien but I’m sure hes just as popular here as there? That said, I still do not see why they gave the first Harry Potter book differing titles wither. I smell the dead hand of a focus group and a well-paid marketing consultant haha

        Liked by 2 people

  8. I truly do enjoy your articles and this one was another fantastic read! I would hate to have been the woman on the island with the falling part of the roof! Being torn to pieces wouldn’t exactly be my dream way of dying! Yikes! 😳

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Thank you so much for such positive feedback! I really appreciate it and you for reading it!
      Yes! If true, it must have been quite a feeling thinking “is this my year?” or maybe it was an arranged sacrifice to rededicate the temple annually and got misreported?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You’re very welcome! And that’s definitely a different way to look at it, and quite a possible theory, too! “Is this my year?” << Now that’s exactly how I would be thinking! Lol! 😂

        Liked by 4 people

    1. It is a fascinating subject to explore and I wish you well with it.
      Sorry that the translator is playing up – is it the WP translator or the web page translator? The post is under 2,900 words so I can’t understand why it’s not translating 😦 Thanks for letting me now. Stay Well!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I began reading this until it got too dark for me.
    Druids have always interested me since I read a novel about one who came forward in time. I never knew there was an arch druid. Interesting to know that. I wonder what caused magic to become extinct….

    Liked by 9 people

    1. Hmm … interesting question. Maybe it didn’t become extinct, perhaps we just invented new names for things and started to pigeon hole them too neatly. Does that sound too daft?
      I know what makes a red sky but I still think its magical. Pahh, Aristotle and Plato took all the magic out of science and nature 😉

      Like

  10. I have divided your article into many thousands of characters. Your blog is a history book, fascinating, for me challenging with the language. Then seeing the beautiful photos help me to remember. I have to read I was in Rome for more than 20 years!

    Liked by 8 people

  11. As usual, I’m drawn to the macabre——the potential use of the Wicker Man sounds truly horrifying. The line that they were “feared as much as venerated” also struck a chord—so true for many religious/spiritual individuals and groups past and present. Fascinating read and captivating images.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. I am pleased that you liked it, thank you so much!
      Yes, I imagine a Wicker Man would have been an extraordinary sight and one that would fill spectators with awe. The accounts say that cattle and sheep were also regularly put into them too. Again, you are so right, instilling fear is a most potent weapon, even today 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  12. We used to live close to Anglesey and I thought about the Druids ‘last stand’ when we visited. I guess we should be grateful to the Romans for their written insight into the Druids who otherwise might have been a myth? Wonderful writing as always and so well researched – Brava!

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Wow, small world! Yes, that ‘last stand’ is quite dramatic isn’t it? Alas, you are right, even if it is laden with propaganda, its the only contemporary info we have.
      I am pleased that you liked it and really appreciate you saying so, thank you!

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Great research as usual. Now Panoramix not withstanding, it always seemed to me that the Celts’s social organization resembled India’s castes: high priests (Brahmins?), warriors, farmers and “slaves” or lower caste. Probably a transformation of “Indo-European” cultures spreading across Europe and India.
    Tout va bien chez toi?

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Many thanks!! Yes, some historians agree with you and others say that we are viewing the Celtic societal structures through the Roman lens of patricians, plebeians and slaves. I guess we will now never know for certain 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have no proof of course. Just observation of related cultures… e.g. Mexicans have a very strong cultural event for the Day of the Dead. There are similarities to the Chinese celebrations of the Dead. Indigenous people of America came from Asia around 12,000 BC… They probably carried their myths in their meagre luggage. pour apporter de l’eau à mon moulin, Lévi-Strauss a étudié les mythes Amérindiens de la Colombie Britannique à la Terre de feu. “Structurellement” ce sont le mêmes mythes…
        Night, night…

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Oh, I agree, it is an interesting hypothesis and one with much merit! Levi-Strauss is well known to me as I read his work extensively when the world was young 🙂 In any event, conclusive proof – one way or another – would rob us of the joys of speculation and debate! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      3. When the world was young. Very true. And Lévi-Strauss was a fine scholar. I read Tristes tropiques when I was in Grad school. Still love the “envoi”: “Je hais les voyages et les explorateurs…”
        (Probably why I’ve spent my life on the road.)
        Bonne soirée, ou ce qu’il en reste.
        (Agreed about the joy of speculation. Intellectual. Not financial) Cheers.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. A lot of folk back in such times got their information from hearsay and legend. A lot of Herodotus ‘histories’ are more fables than anything else. So you never truly know where the inspiration can come from.

        Just goes to show the power of words and the need that humans have to generalise/be able to picture a thing an recognise it as a whole to say that the image has lasted for so long.

        I’m an ancient history lover, well history before the world wars in general. So your posts are a bad influence on me when I have things to be doing. Could sink some serious time into them haha.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. I agree, fake news is nothing new although I suspect the ancient geographers/historians wrote with the best of intentions. That said, primary sources were limited so did folk like Pliny meet those with new first-hand experience or embellish the older accounts? You are right too regarding the power of words and imagery. It’s quite striking really after all these years. It also makes me wonder at what gems might have been found in the works have been lost to us over the millennia!
        Stay well! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      3. I fully agree. Ancient historians would have wrote with nothing but the best intent and I am a firm believer that they truly believed what they were writing. They believed they lived in a time of watchful gods and terrible beasts, so hearing stories of men undertaking quests for the gods, or hearing of a drought ending due to the sacrifice of a prized bull would have been normal and believable.

        So many existed in a time where the written word was the far less popular cousin of the spoken word. So it’s inevitable that things would change with every retelling.

        It almost makes our era of meticulous record keeping seem dull by comparison. I suppose that’s why ‘fake news’ is needed, to keep us on our toes 😂

        Liked by 4 people

      4. Yes, I find the mutation (or maybe that should be ‘development’) of stories through the years fascinating and I can only imagine how many variants there were of the same tale in the days when stories were told rather than written and read.

        Liked by 2 people

  14. Always so fascinating. Thank you!

    Note to self: Do NOT visit the women who live at the mouth of the river Loire… lol !! Eeeeek !!

    Liked by 5 people

  15. I like your effort for your posts. but there is too much text for me. I have poor eyesight despite reading glasses. i need a magnifying glass for this text. sorry, but an interesting blog.

    Liked by 4 people

  16. I have actually lived in Brittany for my studies for three years and I left this year (Brest). The druids were one of the reasons I wanted to explore but I never got the time to do that, so thank you for this great post! 🥰

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you very much! I am pleased you found it interesting!
      How wonderful! Hopefully, you will return and spend a little time wandering as I know it’ i not so easy to do while at university. Hope that you enjoyed your studies 😉

      Like

      1. Quite possibly. The mistletoe connection is only mentioned by Pliny who never actually met a druid and this was a writer who also talked of dog headed people who barked, so, not someone immune from flights of fancy 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Your blog is always so detailed and I can picture exactly what you are writing. Not that I want to because I’m a big chicken and scare easily. I’m always fascinated… (don’t know if that’s the right word) how people that can heal are always misunderstood and how do you choose which thief to sacrifice. Also why does a sacrificial ceremony have to be done. I’ve read so many things about that andI just don’t get it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much! I really appreciate that!!
      Agreed, it is almost impossible for us today to put ourselves into the minds of the people back then. We just have too much baggage. We can’t comprehend the idea that ‘the gods’ must be angry because why else has the crop failed? We need to find favour again and we can only do that by sacrificing something more valuable to us than a cow. That will prove to the gods that we are sincere! Well, I imagine it must have been something like that. Today, the farmers would just get some pest killer or fertiliser and give it no more thought 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Enjoyed your article! Norma was the first “Druid priestess” I heard about, so you can imagine how poor is my knowledge about the matter 😉 Thank you for your profound research and captivating storytelling.

    Liked by 1 person

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