When it comes to understanding the types of medicine and healing that the ancient Celts used, we find that there is a beautiful tapestry of truth and folklore combine. We read the fascinating story of the first known Celtic healer known as Farquhar Leech. The story goes that when Farquhar was just a lad, he was accosted by a visiting physician. The physician noted that Farquhar had a branch from the Hazel tree in his hand. (It is important to note that the Celts believed that hazelnuts gave one wisdom and inspiration.) The physician asked Farquhar if he knew from which tree he got that branch and Farquhar confirmed that he did. The physician then said to Farquhar, “Well, I will give ye gold more than ye can lift, if ye will go back there and bring me a wand of that hazel tree; and take this bottle and bring me something more, and I will give you as much gold again. Watch at the hole at the foot; let the six serpents go that come out first, and put the seventh one into the bottle, and tell no man, but come back straight with it here.” So Farquhar went to the Hazel tree and did as instructed. The first six serpents to come out of the hole were common and brown but the seventh was white as alabaster. He put the white serpent into the bottle and brought it back to the physician. The physician, as promised, gave him gold. The physician then made a fire from the hazel branches and placed the snake into a pot to boil instructing Farquhar to watch it and not let anyone touch it or allow for the steam to escape. After the physician left, the pot began to boil over. Farquhar tried his best to ensure the lid was firmly sealed on the pot but he got his finger wet in the process. When he licked his finger, he was endowed with wisdom and knew all. When the physician returned, he lifted the lid off the pot and dipped his own finger into the steam but unfortunately for him, the virtue of wisdom had already left. The story goes on to say that Farquhar set himself up as a doctor and that he was able to know and cure everything and continues with tales about his adventures as a doctor.
The story illustrates the Celtic practice of the use of animals in medicine as they believed everything had a spirit and can be used for healing. They also knew a lot about the medicinal properties of plants but it is believed that they mixed knowledge with superstition by way of using plants and coupling it with charms and spells. The Druids were primarily responsible for concocting and administering medicine. They were holistic and spiritual and had a strong affinity to nature. Common plants used for medicinal purposes included nettle, dandelion, burdock, bilberry, willow, thyme, guelder rose, valerian, St. John’s wort and comphrey. There isn’t much historical evidence about Celtic health. We know their diet was a simple one consisting of fish, oats and fruit which would suggest they were relatively healthy. When Christianity arrived, there was an interesting merging of ancient druid medicine beliefs and the medicine practised by the Celtic Christians. They still loved nature and were fierce believers in their responsibility as caretakers of the natural world. Gone of course were the charms and spells used, but the early Celts had a lot to offer with their vast knowledge of healing plants while the Celtic Christians held a strong belief in prayer and super-natural healing. Through the Venerable Bede (English monk, author and historian), we know of miraculous stories of healing that took place during these times. Bede took care to authenticate the miracles and giving names of witnesses and those who related the stories so that further investigation in the future can be done. Through Bede he learn of many of the miracles performed by St. John of Beverley who was the Bishop of Hexham and later of York. His most famous miracle was curing a young man who was born dumb and also had a horrendous skin disease which was so bad on his scalp he lost most of his hair. He made the sign of the cross on the boy’s tongue and then asked him to say different words which the boy was able to do. The boy was then able to speak in full sentences and wouldn’t stop speaking that whole first day and night due to excitement! Through intercessory prayer and blessings, the boy’s skin disease was also cured. The Celtic Christians believed and had a high expectation that they should always be in readiness for God to work powerfully through them.