The Druids were often considered the Priests and Magicians
of the Celtic people. The Celtic nations were Alba (Scotland),
Breizh (Brittany), Cymru (Wales), Eire (Ireland), Kernow (Cornwall),
and Mannin (Man). Though Druids have been identified as wizards
and soothsayers, in pre-Christian Celtic society, they formed
an intellectual class comprising philosophers, judges, educators,
historians, doctors, seers, astronomers, and astrologers.
The earliest surviving Classical references to Druids date
to the 2nd century B.C.
The word "Druidae" is of Celtic origin. The Roman writer Pliny
theElder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, 23/24-79 A.D.) believed
it to be acognate with the Greek work "drus," meaning "an
oak." "Dru-wid"combines the word roots "oak" and "knowledge"
("wid" means"to know" or "to see" - as in the Sanskrit "vid").
The oak(together with the rowan and hazel) was an important
sacred tree to the Druids. In the Celtic social system, Druid
was a title given to learned men and women possessing "oak
knowledge" (or "oak wisdom").
The Druids emerged from the ancient Celtic tribes, at a time
when the people had to live close to nature to survive. By
the light of the storyteller's fire, and with the play of
the harp, the Druids dreamed magic for their people. In the
deep woods they would gather, bringing together their mysticism
and philosophy, their insight and learning. Their spirit emerged
from the the tides of the sea, the light of the sun, the wind
in the Oak, the cry of the deer. In this way, they created
an institution that inspired, frightened, and uplifted their
Druids filled the roles of judge, doctor, diviner, mage, mystic,
and clerical scholar - they were the religious intelligensia
of their culture.
To become a Druid, students assembled in large groups for
instruction and training, for a period of up to twenty years.
The mythologies describe Druids who were capable of many magical
powers such as divination & prophesy, control of the weather,
healing, levitation, and shapechanging themselves into the
forms of animals.
Their education was so rigourous that at the end of it they
were virtually walking encycopaedias. A good word for them
would seem to be "priests", yet I am reluctant to use it for
two reasons: The Romans never used it, and because Druids
didn't minister to congregations as priests do.
Rather, they had a clientele, like a lawyer, a consultant,
a mystic, or a shaman would have.
Caesar and his historians never referred to them as priests,
but perhaps they could not recognise them as priests since
the Roman priesthood, officiating over an essentially political
religion, were primarily teachers and judges, with less emphasis
on being seers or diviners, whereas the Druids appeared to
have both legal and magical powers and responsabilities.
Some scholars have argued that Druids originally belonged
to a pre-Celtic ('non-Aryan') population in Britain and Ireland
(from where they spread to Gaul), noting that there is no
trace of Druidism among Celts elsewhere - in Cisalpine Italy,
Spain, or Galatia (modern Turkey). Others, however, believe
that Druids were an indigenous Celtic intelligentsia to be
found among all Celtic peoples, but were known by other names.
With the revival of interest in the Druids in later times,
the question of what they looked like has been largely a matter
of imagination. Early representations tended to show them
dressed in vaguely classical garb. Aylett Sammes, in his Britannia
Antiqua Illustrata (1676), shows a Druid barefoot dressed
in a knee-length tunic and a hooded cloak. He holds a staff
in one hand and in the other a book and a sprig of mistletoe.
A bag or scrip hangs from his belt.
The main sources we have on what Druids did are the teachings
and writings of Roman historians, such data as archeological
remains can provide, and mythological literature recorded
by monks in the eighth through twelfth century. Also, analogies
can be drawn between the Celts and such Indo-European cultures
that existed around the same time and had the same level of
cultural achievement, such as the Hindu people.
Archaeology is an excellent resource for the study of celtic
history. Scientists have uncovered the remains of votive offerings
to the Gods in lake bottoms, bogs, and "votive pits" (a narrow
hole dug deep in the ground in which votive offerings are
buried), which tell us about Celtic religion. There are also
the remains of celtic fortresses, habitations, temples, jewelry
and tools. These remains speak to us not of events and people
in Celtic history, but what life was like, what their technological
capeability was, what food they ate, what crafts and trades
they practiced, what products they made and traded (which
in turn tells us about their economy), and where they travelled
and how they got there. These facts about Celtic social life
are an important element for understanding Druidism, because
it is necessary to understand the whole culture in which Druidism
The Roman historians are another important source, though
they wrote on the Celts from their own points of view; Julius
Caesar, for example, was in the process of conquering Gaul
(what is now France; a variant of Gaelic is still spoken in
Brittany) and therefore would have written a highly prejudiced
account. Posidonius was trying to fit the Druids into his
own Stoic philosphy. There is also an attempt to cast the
old Celts in the role of the innocent and wise noble savage,
uncorrupted by civilisation and close to nature, as in the
case of the writer Tacitus. Romans are usually under stood
as "hostile witnesses", but they are the only eyewitnesses
that we have.
Nevertheless they were often impressed by the Druids' grasp
of mathematical and astronomical skill. One Roman author,
Diogenes, placed the Druids on a list of the ancient world's
wisest philosophers; a list which included the Magi of Persia,
the Chaldeans (the priesthood of the Babylonians) and the
Gymnosophists (an Hindu sect which preceded the Yogis), all
of whom were selected for their skill in mathematics, physics,
logic, and philosophy.
One of the problems with studying Druidism academically is
that the Druids were the subject of a number of persecutions
and conquests, not only by the Romans, but also by Norsemen,
Normans, Saxons, and Christians. Much Druidic wisdom was censored,
evolved into something unrecognisable, or just plain lost;
although it is true that the Romans never invaded Ireland,
so that country became a haven for Druidic learning for a
A modern person seeking the Druid's path must attempt to reconstruct
the wisdom based on some or all of the sources discussed above.
Yet in doing so, one discovers that despite the enormous amount
of cultural data presumed lost, the truly Celtic disposition
of the sources remains strong and clear. Much Druidic magic
also can be found in the writings of contemporary Irish and
Scottish artists. The Irish Literary Revival, with such authors
as William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and James Joyce,
is one of this author's favourite expressions of Celtic spirit.
Besides observing that the name 'Druid' is derived from "oak",
it was Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia (XVI, 95),
who associates the Druids with mistletoe and oak groves: The
Druids...hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the
tree on which it grows provided it is an oak. They choose
the oak to form groves, and they do not perform any religious
rites without its foliage..." Pliny also describes how the
Druids used a "gold pruning hook" or "sickle" to gather the
Anything growing on those trees [oaks] they regard as sent
from heaven and a sign that this tree has been chosen by the
gods themselves. Mistletoe is, however, very rarely found,
and when found, it is gathered with great ceremony and especially
on the sixth day of the moon... They prepare a ritual sacrifice
and feast under the tree, and lead up two white bulls whose
horns are bound for the first time on this occasion.
A priest attired in a white vestment ascends the tree and
with a golden pruning hook cuts the mistletoe which is caught
in a white cloth. Then next they sacrifice the victims praying
that the gods will make their gifts propitious to those to
whom they have given it. They believe that if given in drink
the mistletoe will give fecundity to any barren animal, and
that it is predominant against all poisons."
Many Druids were women; the Celtic woman enjoyed more freedom
and rights than women in any other contemporary culture, including
the rights to enter battle, and divorce her husband. Though
through history we have lost much information about them,
though this will be discussed later.
It was John Aubrey, writing in the 17th century, who first
thought it a probability that stone circles, such as Stonehenge,
were Temples of the Druids and called his text on stone circles
the Templa Druidum.
This idea was picked up by William Stukeley, in the early
18th century, who subtitled his first book, Stonehenge, published
in 1740, a Temple Restored to the British Druids, and his
second, on Avebury, published in 1743, "a Temple of the British
Druids." Although later, in the 19th century, Sir John Lubbock
(1834-1913) dated Stonehenge to a period much earlier than
the time of the Druids (that is, to about 2000 B.C., whereas
the Druids don't appear in the historical record until 1800
years later), nonetheless the view was maintained by a minority
that Druids were pre-Celtic inhabitants of Britain and that
the religious beliefs and practices for which Stonehenge was
first built are ancestral to those of the later Celtic Druids.
"Druidry or Druidism was the religion of the ancient druids,
the priestly class in ancient Celtic and Gaulish societies
through much of Western Europe north of the Alps and in the
British Isles. Druidic practices were part of the culture
of all the tribal peoples called Keltoi and Galatai by Greeks
and Celtae and Galli by Romans, cultures we identify by the
modern words "Celtic" and "Gaelic".
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