Druidism is probably one of the most misunderstood subjects in Celtic history, with the popular image of men in white cloaks cutting mistletoe with a golden scythe in an oak grove. The Druids were in fact members of the learned class among the ancient Celts. They served many functions, among them priests, teachers, judges, seers, doctors and philosophers, and were highly respected by many in the ancient world. The origins and meaning of the word “Druid” has been much debated by scholars. In Old Irish, the singular form of the word is “drui”; the plural form is “druid”. The celebrated language scholar Rudolf Thurneysen derived the word “druid” from the Old Irish “dru” prefix, meaning “thorough” and “vid”, meaning “know”, so that a Druid was understood to be a person of great knowledge or wisdom. Early classical writers such as Pliny related it to the Greek word for oak, “drus”. Combining these, the word “Druid” has generally come to mean a “wise man or a priest, of the oak”. The female equivalent is “Druidess”.
The early Irish writers generally wrote of their druids in much the same way as did those on the Continent, using the word “drui”. Latin writers usually translated the word “Druid” as “magus”, meaning a seer. Further, the early Celtic and Greek languages are branches on the large tree of the Indo-European family of languages, which may explain why there is such a similarity between many Old Irish and Sanskrit words, a subject addressed later in this article.
But any serious study of the Druids should start with examining the earliest sources. The classical writers, such as Caesar (Gallic Wars), Strabo (Geography) and Pliny (Natural History) provide us with information about the customs of the Druids, much of their material attributed to a lost shared source, the writings of the Stoic philosopher Posidonius. The classical writers wrote about the Celts during the 1st century BC and the first few centuries AD. Caesar was hardly unbiased, of course, as he was sent to Gaul to conquer their people and their renowned priesthood – the Druids. His account of the Druids from Book VI of his “Gallic Wars” is the most descriptive that we have:
…The Druids are concerned with the worship of the gods, look after public and private sacrifice, and expound religious matters. A large number of young men flock to them for training and hold them in high honour. For they have the right to decide nearly all public and private disputes and they also pass judgement and decide rewards and penalties in criminal and murder cases and in disputes concerning legacies and boundaries… It is thought that this [Druidic] system of training was invented in Britain and taken over from there to Gaul, and at the present time, diligent students of the matter mostly travel there to study it…
Caesar then continues:
… The Druids are wont to be absent from war, nor do they pay taxes like the others… It is said that they commit to memory immense amounts of poetry. And so some of them continue their studies for twenty years. They consider it improper to entrust their studies to writing…They are chiefly anxious to have men believe the following: that souls do not suffer death, but after death pass from one body to another; and they regard this as the strongest incentive to valour, since the fear of death is disregarded. They have also much knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the earth, of natural philosophy, and of the powers and spheres of action of the immortal gods…
Caesar and his contemporaries portray the Druids as enjoying high status within Gallic society, of a rank akin to the knights, who were the highest nobility below the tribal chief magistrate or king. In the Celtic world, the priesthood was a separate, highly respected and important grade of society; some early writers compared them to the famed Indian Brahmins, the Persian magi, or the Egyptian priests. They were generally seen by the Romans as priests, seers, healers, prophets, magicians, and, in one account, Strabo comments that in former times, Druids could even intervene and stop armies from fighting.
But, unfortunately, most of the information that we have about the Druids is from their enemies – the Romans. Later descriptions depict the Druids as hiding in forest groves conducting strange rites of sacrifice. But what is indisputable is that the Druids were especially gifted at poetry, rhetoric, philosophy, and all verbal skills. Most early sources agree that the Druidic elite was divided into three parts: the Bards (lyric poets, musicians), Vates (diviners and seers) and the Druids (priests, philosophers, theologians).
One obvious question is: but what happened to the Druids, and Druidism, after the arrival of the Romans? We learn from the texts of Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny that the early Roman emperors of the 1st century AD saw their powerful priesthood as a threat and tried to suppress it. Augustus banned Roman citizens from joining the Druids; his successor Tiberius had a much harsher policy, issuing an edict to get rid of the Druids “and that class of seers and doctors” altogether. Under Claudius, it appears that the Druids didn’t fare well at all, with Suetonius claiming that he abolished Druidism completely. Many of the battles between the Druids and the Romans were very bloody. In the documents known as the “Augustan Histories”, there are references to Druidic prophetesses who acted as fortune-tellers for emperors such as Severus and Diocletian in the 3rd century, but, for the most part, Druidism had largely died out by then.
The Irish manuscripts, written by Christian monks from the 5th century onwards, have numerous references to Druids in them. They are portrayed mainly as prophets or seers and, especially in the saints’ lives of Patrick and Brigid, they are shown to be hostile to the new faith. Cathbadh, the Druid attached to the household of Conchobor, King of Ulster, is sometimes portrayed as being more powerful than the king himself. There is still scholarly debate about how, and to what extent, the early Druids may have been assimilated into the new Christian monasteries. As might be expected from devout Christian scribes, the beliefs and magic of the Druids are clearly seen as inferior to the new faith – Christianity. However, Christian saints are sometimes portrayed as using basically the same magical techniques as their Druid counterparts, but in the name of Christ!
So what did the Druids believe? What was their overall cosmology? A number of early writers acknowledge that they were masters of philosophy, of problems secret and sublime, and of religious matters. They were also renowned for their astronomical knowledge and for their healing abilities. The Christian author Hippolytus says that the Druids were capable of foretelling certain events by means of Pythagorean reckoning and calculation. It was known in the ancient world that the Druids, the “magi of the North”, believed in the immortality of the soul, and in reincarnation. At funerals, the Druids were known to sometimes throw some letters on the pyre written to the dead by their kinsmen, as they were certain that the dead would be able to know of their content. (Given the supposed illiteracy of the pre-Roman Celts, this is a curious remark!) It was also known that the Druids were so certain of the reality of reincarnation, that if one loaned money to another, it was understood that the debt could be repaid in the next life.
The Druids also highly revered the number three, and it is believed that they may have taught much of their philosophy in poetic, triadic form. There has been a lot of speculation about the secret wisdom that the Druids possessed, that so impressed the learned men and priests of the ancient world, but their policy was to never write any of it down, preferring instead an emphasis on the art of memory and oral teachings to specially prepared candidates. It is believed that sun worship may have played an important part of their beliefs, and that Druidism was monotheistic, as they ultimately believed in one divine spirit, while deeply venerating the sun, moon, stars, and nature spirits.
Interestingly, a good number of early Celtic beliefs seem to have similarities with early Indian Vedic culture and beliefs. This is most likely because of their common Indo-European heritage, as academics like Dumezil have shown regarding languages. Briefly, Celtic deities included Gods who often had multiple functions, who actualised nature forces, promulgated ethics, justice, knowledge, arts, crafts, medicine, speech, harvests, gave courage for war and battled forces of darkness, and there are Goddesses of land, rivers and springs. The early Irish god Lugh may have been an early solar deity, as he is portrayed as a bright, shining god who is later thought to have been a possible prototype for St. Michael. The name Lugh means “shining one” and his festival is on Lughnasadh, the eve of 1st August. Other gods in the early Celtic pantheon were also believed to have bright, shining qualities. The early Vedic pantheon included deities of fire, solar, atmospheric and nature forces, ritual stimulants, speech, crafts, arts, harvest, medicine, ethical order, war, and battlers of malevolent beings. There are goddesses of land, rivers, and so on and, like the Celtic deities, gods are often shown as having overlapping functions. The word deva means “shining one”, or a god that is very bright, a spiritual being.
In Irish mythology, the number seventeen comes up in many contexts – 17 days, 17 years, etc. Why, in an early Irish tale, does the Druid advise Maelduin to take only seventeen men with him on his famous voyage? In the early Book of Invasions, Mil arrived in Ireland in the seventeenth of the moon; the age of consent in early Ireland was seventeen, when boys became men. But why seventeen? The Vedas say that the heavens were divided into seventeen regions, ‘Prajapati is the year, so Prajapati is seventeen.’
The Celtic god of thunder was Taranis who carried thunderbolts and was also a god of war. Before the Romans came, Taranis may well have existed as an elemental supernatural force, like the sun; later, he is known to have been a powerful thunder god and also is believed to have been a more universal sky-god, with control over the weather. A Vedic god of rain and thunder was Indra, who carried thunderbolts. Some of the Celtic fire rituals were conducted in pits with offerings of herbs, mead and cakes, by chanting Druids, the priests. A central Vedic ritual was the fire sacrifice, performed in pits with offerings of ghee, spices, and rice – offered by the mantric-chanting Brahmin priests.
It appears that both the early Irish Celts and the Vedic Hindus believed that the gods are particularly fond of music; poet-singers sing and praise the gods with the intention that the gods may be pleased and may grant gifts. Both cultures value music, sound and vibration highly – in early Ireland, particularly vocal music, poetic incantations and harp music; Vedic music is mainly vocal, consisting of singing samans, recitations, etc. While an acknowledgement of the spiritual power of music is almost universal in ancient traditions, musicologists have examined some of these issues, and suggest close correspondences between these particular cultures. The Irish music critic, Fanny Feehan, in a paper entitled “Suggested Links Between Eastern and Celtic Music” (1981) states:
…In the area of vocal ornamentation East and West come close. I once played a Claddagh recording of Maire Aine (Ni Dhonnacha) singing `Barr an tSleibhe’ for an Indian Professor of Music who refused to believe, until I showed her the sleeve of the record, that it was an Irish song. She claimed, and demonstrated by singing to me, that the song bore a strange resemblence to an Indian (North) raga about a young girl being lured toward a mountain. The Professor was interested in the mode, the pitching of the voice, and certain notes which were characteristic of both the raga and `Barr na tSleibhe’…
One of the most ancient forms of Celtic music, which still survives in a few areas in western Ireland, is the marbhnai, or “death song”, also called keening. (caoine). These songs are sung by women, and have been compared with the raga style of India, which it is similarly improvised around three or four notes. Historian Bryan McMahon plays an interesting game with every Indian guest who visits a certain hotel in County Kerry, Ireland. He hums certain Irish folk music and then asks them to complete it however they like. He says that, almost every time, they will sing it like they already know the song. McMahon believes that, for him, it is an indication that Indians and Irishmen have a common past of some kind. What can be said for sure, is that both cultures greatly valued and enjoyed music on many different levels.
But the two cultures also share the broader concept of a special magico-religious power of music, and an awareness of the breath and of poetic verse. Druids memorised extremely long poetic sagas that often ended with a three-part cadence at the end; the bards of the Vedic literature are portrayed as memorising lengthy poetic sagas that convey spiritual knowledge and dharmic duty, and the poetic metre often ends with a three-part cadence at the end. Thus, one can see why many scholars believe that the Hindu Brahmin in the east and the Celtic Druid in the west were lateral survivals of an ancient Indo-European priesthood.
More research should be – and is being – done in this complex area of study by humanities scholars today. Along with literary and linguistic sources, new and often controversial archaeological finds in many parts of the world are seriously challenging orthodox ideas about early peoples, their artefacts and their migrations. A key and controversial leader in this field is Michael Cremo, whose book “Forbidden Archaeology” has shocked the established views about early man (see footnote ).
The historical Druids – and Druidism – remain largely a mystery to many today, mainly due to the relative lack of much solid information that has survived the ravages of time, and the unfortunate necessity of historians having to rely on hostile Roman sources, for example. But we do know that the Druids were inspiring to their people, renowned to their enemies, respected by fellow priests – near and far – in their time, and still inspire many today, as new, modern versions of Druidry are growing in our 21st century today. May one of the Druids’ ancient mottoes — ‘The Truth against the World’ — inspire us to create a better world today.
Official website of author Karen Ralls
- Ralls, K., & Robertson, I., The Quest for the Celtic Key, Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2002;
- Carr-Gomm, Philip, The Druid Way: A Shamanic Journey Through An Ancient Landscape, Thoth Books (UK), 2006;
- Carr-Gomm, Philip, Druid Mysteries: Ancient Wisdom for the 21st Century, Rider, 2002;
- Carr-Gomm, Philip, What Do Druids Believe?, Granta, 2006;
- Hutton, Ronald, The Druids, Hambledon Continuum, 2007;
- Restall Orr, Emma, Living Druidry, Piatkus, 2004;
To get started…
general, antiquarian and academic sources:
- Cunliffe, B., The Ancient Celts, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1997
- Matthews, J., The Druid Source Book, [Ed.], Blandford: London, 1996
- Ross, A., Druids, Tempus: Stroud, 1999