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Fiery ShapesCelestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales 700–1700$
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Mark Williams

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199571840

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199571840.001.0001

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Druids, cloud‐divination, and the portents of Antichrist

Druids, cloud‐divination, and the portents of Antichrist

(p.34) 2 Druids, cloud‐divination, and the portents of Antichrist
Fiery Shapes

Mark Williams (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

This chapter analyses the literary topos of cloud-divination by druids, which emerged only in the 12th century. Druids are figures of enduring importance in Irish medieval literature, and druidic nephelomancy has been one of the mainstays of the argument for a native ‘Celtic’ form of celestial divination. It is argued that this is in fact unlikely, and that this motif derives from the semantic range of ‘magus’ in Hiberno-Latin — both ‘one of the three Magi’ and ‘druid’. The legend of the Magi had reached its fully-developed form by the 11th century, and the biblical Magi had been explicitly described as astrologers and diviners from the heavens in Irish exegesis since the 8th century. Their new importance as figures of pious legend allowed some of their skills to pass to the literary druid, via a persistent two-way semantic slippage. This is followed by an analysis of the magical skills of the Irish literary druid, some of which, it is shown, derived from the circulating medieval legend of the ‘miracles’ of Antichrist.

Keywords:   druids, Magi, nephelomancy, Antichrist, astrology

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