Every now and then I run across someone who tells me that I can't be a Druid because only men were Druids historically, or that there was gender seperation historically whether it was simply the different genders living seperately or full on segregation of practices. I can blame this on popular fiction novels or on bad mass market books on Druidism, but it still leaves the problem of people seriously believing that women can't be Druids and that bothers me. Not just because I am one, but also because it discourages women just beginning to explore Druidism as a path and steers them away to other things when Druidism may be where they belong.
Of course there are clearly modern female Druids, some of whom are very well known, and the vast majority of modern Druidic groups are welcoming to Druids of both genders. In this way at least the discussion of female Druids in antiquity is a bit redundant, since whether they existed then or not they most definitely do now. However I think it's important for people to understand the historic material we have and what it does indicate, so that we can have a clearer understanding our collective past and what it is we are building modern practice from. Although it is broadly true that we will never be able to prove anything about the ancient Druids with absolute certainty, I feel that we can draw logical conclusions from the evidence we have.
There is historical evidence of the existence of female Druids, called bandraoi today and bandruí in Old Irish. Just the fact that there is a word for female Druid in Old Irish, in and of itself, should be strong evidence that the concept of female Druids existed and that their existence was accepted historically; otherwise it seems unlikely, to me, that the oldest sources would have a word to describe them. Beyond that, however, there is also evidence from both Greek and Roman sources as well as mythology to support the existence of female Druids among the ancient Celts. Obviously this evidence is less substantial than that which discusses Druids in general or male Druids in particular, possibly because of the bias of both classic writers and Christian monks against women in positions of power. For example:
"The Druidess exclaimed to him as he went, 'Go ahead, but don't hope for
victory or put any trust in your soldiers.' Lamoridius on the emperor Alexander
Severus receiving a prophecy when passing by a Druidess (Freeman, 2002).
Another account by
Vopiscus relates a similar tale of Diocletian being told he would one day be
emperor by a Druidess offering a spontaneous prophecy, and later the same writer
says "On certain occassions Aurelian would consult Gaulish Druidesses to
discover whether or not his descendants would continue to rule." (Freeman, 2002).
Additionally Tacitus's description of the destruction of Anglesey includes the mention of black-clad women, which he described as "Furies" moving among the Celtic warriors carrying either wands or torches, apparently casting spells or curses at the Roman soldiers; I feel that it is reasonable to believe that these women were Druids. It is true that Celtic women were known to fight alongside their men, but in this context I believe it is more likely that the women were on the island as Druids themselves, rather than wives of men fighting the Romans. The reader is, of course, welcome to draw their own conclusions.
In various translations and versions of the Tain Bo Cuilgne Fedelm is called a Druidess, Seer, or Fairy. The Cath Maige Tuired mentions two Druidesses of the Tuatha De Danann who promised to enchant the trees and rocks against the enemy. In the story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill it is said that he was fostered by two women, one of whom is described as a Druidess. A 15th century Irish manuscript relates how Fingin Mac Luchta was visited by a Druidess each Samhain eve who would foretell events in the year to come. (http://archive.org/stream/irishmanuscript01acadgoog/irishmanuscript01acadgoog_djvu.txt). In all of these cases the word used to describe the woman varied between Druidess, seer, and fairy and most were strongly connected to the Otherworld, for example in the story of Fingin the Druidess was said to come from a fairy hill. It is possible that this reflects the slow Christianization of older stories into more fantastical forms, or the liminal place that Druids occupied where they were always seen as being more than one thing, as it were. The Metrical Dindshenchas describes a woman named Gaine as "learned and a seer and a chief Druid" (Gwynn, 1906). Female Druids were often described as both seers and Druids, indicating that perhaps Druidesses were often both or were particularly associated with prophecy.
There is only one reference I am aware of that describes an island where only female "priestesses" lived where men were intentionally excluded, and I do not believe that this is enough to justify the belief that the genders were segregated. The shrine of Brighid at Kildare was tended by women after conversion but it is difficult to say whether this was true during the pagan period as well, or is only a reflection of the later Christian division of genders. In contrast there are several cases in Irish mythology were female Druids are described training or teaching men, which supports the more likely scenario of a mixed group.
Beyond that, it appears to have been accepted in general in Celtic cultures that there were Druidesses historically. As McNeill says, "Among the Celts, women seem all along to have exercised certain priestly functions." (McNeill, ) This is logical, as Celtic women had more rights than their Roman and Greek counterparts being able to rule - we see this with both Cartimandua and Boudicca for example - and fight alongside the men, a practice with appalled the classical commentators.
Taking all of this together I feel that the existence of female Druids historically is a sound conclusion. Although we may never know exactly what place the female Druids had within the larger Druidic community and Celtic culture they seem to have been especially associated with Seership, and could have achieved high rank, if Gaine a "chief Druid" is any example. For modern female Druids we can be confident that our own practice is as firmly rooted in historic Druidism as the practices of our modern male counterparts, for what that is worth, and that we have as much right to a place on the spiritual path of the Druid as anyone else.
McNeill, F., (1956) the Silver Bough, volume 1
Freeman, P, (2002) War, Women, and Druids
Gwynn, E., (1906). Metrical Dindshenchas