The Ancient Druids

The Ancient Druids

In about 750 CE the word druid appears in a poem by Blathmac, who wrote about Jesus saying that he was “…better than a prophet, more knowledgeable than every druid, a king who was a bishop and a complete sage.” The druids then also appear in some of the medieval tales from Christianized Ireland like the Táin Bó Cúailnge, where they are largely portrayed as sorcerers who opposed the coming of Christianity. In the wake of the Celtic revival during the 18th and 19th centuries, fraternal and Neopagan groups were founded based upon the ideas about the ancient druids, a movement which is known as Neo-Druidism.

According to historian Ronald Hutton, “we can know virtually nothing of certainty about the ancient Druids, so that—although they certainly existed—they function more or less as legendary figures.” However, the sources provided about them by ancient and medieval writers, coupled with archaeological evidence, can give us an idea of what they might have performed as a part of their religious duties.

Druid History

One of the few things that both the Greco-Roman and the vernacular Irish sources agree on about the druids was that they played an important part in pagan Celtic society. In his description, Julius Caesar claimed that they were one of the two most important social groups in the region (alongside the equities, or nobles), and were responsible for organizing worship and sacrifices, divination, and judicial procedure in Gaulish, British and Irish society. He also claimed that they were exempt from military service and from the payment of taxes, and that they had the power to excommunicate people from religious festivals, making them social outcasts. Two other classical writers, Diodorus Siculus and Strabo also wrote about the role of druids in Gallic society, claiming that the druids were held in such respect that if they intervened between two armies they could stop the battle.

Pomponius Mela is the first author who says that the druids’ instruction was secret, and was carried on in caves and forests. Druidic lore consisted of a large number of verses learned by heart, and Caesar remarked that it could take up to twenty years to complete the course of study. There is no historic evidence during the period when Druidism was flourishing to suggest that Druids were other than male. What was taught to Druid novices anywhere is conjecture: of the druids’ oral literature, not one certifiably ancient verse is known to have survived, even in translation. All instruction was communicated orally, but for ordinary purposes, Caesar reports, the Gauls had a written language in which they used Greek characters. In this he probably draws on earlier writers; by the time of Caesar, Gaulish inscriptions had moved from the Greek script to the Latin script.

The Druid’s Religious Practices & Philosophy

Greek and Roman writers frequently made reference to the druids as practitioners of human sacrifice, a trait they themselves reviled, believing it to be barbaric. Such reports of druidic human sacrifice are found in the works of Lucan, Julius Caesar, Suetonius and Cicero.Caesar claimed that the sacrifice was primarily of criminals, but at times innocents would also be used, and that they would be burned alive in a large wooden effigy, now often known as a wicker man. A differing account came from the 10th-century Commenta Bernensia, which claimed that sacrifices to the deities Teutates, Esus and Taranis were by drowning,mhanging and burning, respectively.

Diodorus Siculus asserts that a sacrifice acceptable to the Celtic gods had to be attended by a druid, for they were the intermediaries between the people and the divinities. He remarked upon the importance of prophets in druidic ritual:

“These men predict the future by observing the flight and calls of birds and by the sacrifice of holy animals: all orders of society are in their power… and in very important matters they prepare a human victim, plunging a dagger into his chest; by observing the way his limbs convulse as he falls and the gushing of his blood, they are able to read the future.”

There is archaeological evidence from western Europe that has been widely used to back up the idea that human sacrifice was performed by the Iron Age Celts. Mass graves found in a ritual context dating from this period have been unearthed in Gaul, at both Gournay-sur-Aronde and Ribemont-sur-Ancre in what was the region of the Belgae chiefdom. The excavator of these sites, Jean-Louis Brunaux, interpreted them as areas of human sacrifice in devotion to a war god, although this view was criticised by another archaeologist, Martin Brown, who believed that the corpses might be those of honoured warriors buried in the sanctuary rather than sacrifices.Some historians have questioned whether the Greco-Roman writers were accurate in their claims. J. Rives remarked that it was “ambiguous” whether the druids ever performed such sacrifices, for the Romans and Greeks were known to project what they saw as barbarian traits onto foreign peoples including not only druids but Jews and Christians as well, thereby confirming their own “cultural superiority” in their own minds. Taking a similar opinion, Ronald Hutton summarised the evidence by stating that “the Greek and Roman sources for Druidry are not, as we have received them, of sufficiently good quality to make a clear and final decision on whether human sacrifice was indeed a part of their belief system.” Peter Berresford Ellis, a Celtic nationalist who authored The Druids (1994), believed them to be the equivalents of the Indian Brahmin caste, and considered accusations of human sacrifice to remain unproven,whilst an expert in medieval Welsh and Irish literature, Nora Chadwick, who believed them to be great philosophers, fervently purported the idea that they had not been involved in human sacrifice, and that such accusations were imperialist Roman propaganda.

Druids And The Irish Culture

During the Middle Ages, after Ireland and Wales were Christianized, druids appeared in a number of written sources, mainly tales and stories such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, but also in the hagiographies of various saints. These were all written by Christian monks, who, according to Ronald Hutton, “may not merely have been hostile to the earlier paganism but actually ignorant of it” and so would not have been particularly reliable, but at the same time may provide clues as to the practices of druids in Ireland, and to a lesser extent, Wales.

The Irish passages referring to druids in such vernacular sources were “more numerous than those on the classical texts” of the Greeks and Romans, and paint a somewhat different picture of them. The druids in Irish literature—for whom words such as drui, draoi, drua and drai are used—are sorcerers with supernatural powers, who are respected in society, particularly for their ability to perform divination. They can cast spells and turn people into animals or stones, or curse peoples’ crops to be blighted. At the same time, the term druid is sometimes used to refer to any figure who uses magic, for instance in the Fenian Cycle, both giants and warriors are referred to as druids when they cast a spell, even though they are not usually referred to as such; as Ronald Hutton noted, in medieval Irish literature, “the category of Druid [is] very porous.”

When druids are portrayed in early Irish sagas and saints’ lives set in the pre-Christian past of the island, they are usually accorded high social status. The evidence of the law-texts, which were first written down in the 7th and 8th centuries, suggests that with the coming of Christianity the role of the druid in Irish society was rapidly reduced to that of a sorcerer who could be consulted to cast spells or practice healing magic and that his standing declined accordingly. According to the early legal tract Bretha Crólige, the sick-maintenance due to a druid, satirist and brigand (díberg) is no more than that due to a bóaire (an ordinary freeman). Another law-text, Uraicecht Becc (‘Small primer’), gives the druid a place among the dóer-nemed or professional classes which depend for their status on a patron, along with wrights, blacksmiths and entertainers, as opposed to the fili, who alone enjoyed free nemed-status.

Whilst druids featured prominently in many medieval Irish sources, they were far rarer in their Welsh counterparts. Unlike the Irish texts, the Welsh term commonly seen as referring to the druids, dryw, was used to refer purely to prophets and not to sorcerers or pagan priests. Historian Ronald Hutton noted that there were two explanations for the use of the term in Wales: the first was that it was a survival from the pre-Christian era, when dryw had been ancient priests, whilst the second was that the Welsh had borrowed the term from the Irish, as had the English (who used the terms dry and drycraeft to refer to magicians and magic respectively, most probably influenced by the Irish terms.)

As the historian Jane Webster stated, “individual druids… are unlikely to be identified archaeologically”, a view which was echoed by Ronald Hutton, who declared that “not one single artifact or image has been unearthed that can undoubtedly be connected with the ancient Druids.” A.P. Fitzpatrick, in examining what he believed to be astral symbolism on Late Iron Age swords has expressed difficulties in relating any material culture, even the Coligny calendar, with druidic culture. Nonetheless, some archaeologists have attempted to link certain discoveries with written accounts of the druids, for instance the archaeologist Anne Ross linked what she believed to be evidence of human sacrifice in Celtic pagan society—such as the Lindow Man bog body—to the Greco-Roman accounts of human sacrifice being officiated over by the druids.

An excavated burial in Deal, Kent discovered the “Deal warrior” a man buried around 200-150 BCE with a sword and shield, and wearing a unique crown, too thin to be a helmet. The crown is bronze with a broad band around the head and a thin strip crossing the top of the head. It was worn without any padding beneath, as traces of hair were left on the metal. The form of the crown is similar to that seen in images of Romano-British priests several centuries later, leading to speculation among archaeologists that the man might have been a druid.

The Demise And Revival Of The Druids

During the Gallic Wars of 58 to 51 BCE, the Roman army, led by Julius Caesar, conquered the many tribal chiefdoms of Gaul, and annexed it as a part of the Roman Empire. According to accounts produced in the following centuries, the new rulers of Roman Gaul subsequently introduced measures to wipe out the druids from that country. According to Pliny the Elder, writing in the 70s CE, it was the emperor Tiberius (who ruled from 14 to 37 CE), who introduced laws banning not only druidism, but also other native soothsayers and healers, a move which Pliny applauded, believing that it would end human sacrifice in Gaul A somewhat different account of Roman legal attacks on druidism was made by Suetonius, writing in the 2nd century CE, when he claimed that Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (who had ruled from 27 BCE till 14 CE), had decreed that no-one could be both a druid and a Roman citizen, and that this was followed by a law passed by the later Emperor Claudius (who had ruled from 41 to 54 CE) which “thoroughly suppressed” the druids by banning their religious practices.

The best evidence of a druidic tradition in the British Isles is the independent cognate of the Celtic *druwid- in Insular Celtic: The Old Irish druídecht survives in the meaning of “magic”, and the Welsh dryw in the meaning of “seer”.

While the druids as a priestly caste were extinct with the Christianization of Wales, complete by the 7th century at the latest, the offices of bard and of “seer” (Welsh: dryw) persisted in medieval Wales into the 13th century.

Phillip Freeman, a classics professor, discusses a later reference to Dryades, which he translates as Druidesses, writing that “The fourth century A.D. collection of imperial biographies known as the Historia Augusta contains three short passages involving Gaulish women called “Dryades” (“Druidesses”).” He points out that “In all of these, the women may not be direct heirs of the Druids who were supposedly extinguished by the Romans — but in any case they do show that the druidic function of prophesy continued among the natives in Roman Gaul.” However, the Historia Augusta is frequently interpreted by scholars as a largely satirical work, and such details might have been introduced in a humorous fashion. Additionally, Druidesses are mentioned in later Irish mythology, including the legend of Fionn mac Cumhaill, who, according to the 12th century The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, is raised by the druidess Bodhmall and a wise-woman.

The story of Vortigern, as reported by Nennius, provides one of the very few glimpses of possible druidic survival in Britain after the Roman conquest: unfortunately, Nennius is noted for mixing fact and legend in such a way that it is now impossible to know the truth behind his text. He wrote that after being excommunicated by Germanus, the British leader Vortigern invited twelve druids to assist him.

In the lives of saints and martyrs, the druids are represented as magicians and diviners. In Adamnan’s vita of Columba, two of them act as tutors to the daughters of Lóegaire mac Néill, the High King of Ireland, at the coming of Saint Patrick. They are represented as endeavouring to prevent the progress of Patrick and Saint Columba by raising clouds and mist. Before the battle of Culdremne (561) a druid made an airbe drtiad (fence of protection?) round one of the armies, but what is precisely meant by the phrase is unclear. The Irish druids seem to have had a peculiar tonsure. The word druí is always used to render the Latin magus, and in one passage St Columba speaks of Christ as his druid. Similarly, a life of St Bueno’s states that when he died he had a vision of ‘all the saints and druids’.

Sulpicius Severus’ Vita of Martin of Tours relates how Martin encountered a peasant funeral, carrying the body in a winding sheet, which Martin mistook for some druidic rites of sacrifice, “because it was the custom of the Gallic rustics in their wretched folly to carry about through the fields the images of demons veiled with a white covering.” So Martin halted the procession by raising his pectoral cross: “Upon this, the miserable creatures might have been seen at first to become stiff like rocks. Next, as they endeavored, with every possible effort, to move forward, but were not able to take a step farther, they began to whirl themselves about in the most ridiculous fashion, until, not able any longer to sustain the weight, they set down the dead body.” Then discovering his error, Martin raised his hand again to let them proceed: “Thus,” the hagiographer points out, “he both compelled them to stand when he pleased, and permitted them to depart when he thought good.”

From the 18th century, England and Wales experienced a revival of interest in the druids. John Aubrey (1626–1697) had been the first modern writer to connect Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments with the druids; since Aubrey’s views were confined to his notebooks, the first wide audience for this idea were readers of William Stukeley (1687–1765). It is incorrectly believed that John Toland (1670–1722) founded the Ancient Druid Order however the research of historian Ronald Hutton has revealed that the ADO was founded by George Watson MacGregor Reid in 1909. The order never used (and still does not use) the title “Archdruid” for any member, but falsely credited William Blake as having been its “Chosen Chief” from 1799 to 1827, without corroboration in Blake’s numerous writings or among modern Blake scholars. Blake’s bardic mysticism derives instead from the pseudo-Ossianic epics of Macpherson; his friend Frederick Tatham’s depiction of Blake’s imagination, “clothing itself in the dark stole of mural sanctity”— in the precincts of Westminster Abbey— “it dwelt amid the Druid terrors”, is generic rather than specifically neo-Druidic. John Toland was fascinated by Aubrey’s Stonehenge theories, and wrote his own book about the monument without crediting Aubrey. The roles of bards in 10th century Wales had been established by Hywel Dda and it was during the 18th century that the idea arose that Druids had been their predecessors.

The 19th-century idea, gained from uncritical reading of the Gallic Wars, that under cultural-military pressure from Rome the druids formed the core of 1st-century BCE resistance among the Gauls, was examined and dismissed before World War II, though it remains current in folk history.

Druids began to figure widely in popular culture with the first advent of Romanticism. Chateaubriand’s novel Les Martyrs (1809) narrated the doomed love of a druid priestess and a Roman soldier; though Chateaubriand’s theme was the triumph of Christianity over Pagan druids, the setting was to continue to bear fruit. Opera provides a barometer of well-informed popular European culture in the early 19th century: in 1817 Giovanni Pacini brought druids to the stage in Trieste with an opera to a libretto by Felice Romani about a druid priestess, La Sacerdotessa d’Irminsul (“The Priestess of Irminsul”). The most famous druidic opera, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma was a fiasco at La Scala, when it premiered the day after Christmas, 1831; but in 1833 it was a hit in London. For its libretto, Felice Romani reused some of the pseudo-druidical background of La Sacerdotessa to provide colour to a standard theatrical conflict of love and duty. The story was similar to that of Medea, as it had recently been recast for a popular Parisian play by Alexandre Soumet: the diva of Norma’s hit aria, “Casta Diva”, is the moon goddess, being worshipped in the “grove of the Irmin statue”.

A central figure in 19th century Romanticist Neo-Druidism is the Welshman Edward Williams, better known as Iolo Morganwg. His writings, published posthumously as The Iolo Manuscripts (1849) and Barddas (1862), are not considered credible by contemporary scholars. Williams claimed to have collected ancient knowledge in a “Gorsedd of Bards of the Isles of Britain” he had organized. Many scholars deem part or all of Williams’s work to be fabrication, and purportedly many of the documents are of his own fabrication, but a large portion of the work has indeed been collected from meso-pagan sources dating from as far back as 600 CE.Regardless, it has become impossible to separate the original source material from the fabricated work, and while bits and pieces of the Barddas still turn up in some “Neo-druidic” works, the documents are considered irrelevant by most serious scholars.

T.D. Kendrick’s dispelled (1927) the pseudo-historical aura that had accrued to druids, asserting that “a prodigious amount of rubbish has been written about druidism”; Neo-druidism has nevertheless continued to shape public perceptions of the historical druids. The British Museum is blunt:

Modern Druids have no direct connection to the Druids of the Iron Age. Many of our popular ideas about the Druids are based on the misunderstandings and misconceptions of scholars 200 years ago. These ideas have been superseded by later study and discoveries.

Some strands of contemporary Neodruidism are a continuation of the 18th-century revival and thus are built largely around writings produced in the 18th century and after by second-hand sources and theorists. Some are monotheistic. Others, such as the largest Druid group in the world, The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids draw on a wide range of sources for their teachings. Members of such Neo-druid groups may be Neopagan, occultist, Reconstructionist, Christian or non-specifically spiritual.

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