Who Were the Ancient Druids? A Quick Lesson

A British Druid, from William Stukeley’s “Stonehenge”, 1740

Origins

The earliest written references of Druids are found from the 3rd century BCE, however it is agreed among experts that Druidism goes back much further, with the exact date of its origins unknown. Druids were located in ancient Britain and France and their reach extended into all Celtic-ruled territories. The name “Druid” is thought to come from the Irish-Gaelic word Doire which means “Oak Tree” or “Wisdom”.

In History

Unfortunately for us, it is difficult to truly know everything about the mysterious ways of the ancient Druids. Since oral history took precedence in Celtic culture, many facts and knowledge on Druidism have been lost. What has been written down is from non-Druid, second-hand sources which are often biased. Julius Caesar is the primary source of information on Druids, and he had plenty reason to take liberties on his accounts. He and the Roman empire were invading Celtic territories at the time, and were vilifying the Celts to dehumanize them. However, all of his records cannot be completely discounted, as some of his claims can be confirmed by early medieval Irish sagas.

What is Caesar Saying???

According to Julius Caesar, Druids were a priestly caste. They held high authority and advised kings. They were in charge of legal matters in tribes, mediated wars, and dictated public and private sacrifices. Yes, you read that correctly, sacrifices. Although Caesar mentioned they abstained from fighting wars, he made it quite clear they took part in many human sacrifices. I will mention now that there is no hard evidence that the Druids took part in human sacrifices, only the written word of the Romans. It is entirely possible that human sacrifice was practiced by the ancient Druids, but probably not to the extent the ancient Romans would have everyone believe. It was once said that the Druids would construct a giant wicker man filled with human scarifies, and burn the effigy, with the humans alive inside…

Wicker Man illustration from A tour in Wales by Thomas Pennant

The Many Roles of the Ancient Druid

Druids studied and practiced a variety of different skills and sciences, which aided in their high position and authority in Celtic society. They concerned themselves with the natural world, taking great consideration of the natural cycles and events around them. Druids celebrated 8 main holy days which were designated based on seasonal, lunar, and solar cycles. They saw the earth as a living entity which responded to the actions of humans and needed respect. Trees were held as sacred, especially oak, and their places of worship were typically clearings in forests.

Druids would spend as much as 20 years training! Areas of training included but are not limited to:

  • history
  • natural philosophy
  • astronomy
  • astrology
  • theology
  • lore, poetry & music
  • law
  • divination & prophecy
  • illness & medicine
  • natural sciences

The Druids would share their knowledge with their tribes. Acting as priests, shamans, judges, bards, historians, and even teachers to the younger tribe members. This knowledge was passed down orally, keeping the knowledge sacred and important.

It is also important to note that while Celtic tribes relied on Druids in many matters, they were still not at the top of the Celtic “social ladder” if you will. The aristocracy and the warrior class were the main focus of the tribes admiration (much like today’s society). This is where people looked for trends, fashions, and the like.

The Fall of Druidry

As I’ve mentioned several times, the ancient Celtic peoples dealt with invasion and suppression from the Romans. In the 1st century AD, the Roman emperor Tiberius banned Druidism (due to the human sacrifices which may or may not have even occurred). Christianity at this time was also getting traction within Celtic communities and many were converting. By the 2nd century AD, Druidism had mostly disappeared. The combination of the Roman invasion and conversion to Christianity led to it and the Celtic religion’s demise. Not everything was lost however. The vein of Christianity in these Celtic areas were heavily influenced by the Celtic religion and Druidry. Even today in the modern world, traces and influence of ancient Druid culture remain in Christianity and New Age religions such as Wicca.

Final Thoughts

From what we can know about the ancient Druids, and the culture and practices they participated in, we can try our best to revive the lost religions of the Ancient Celts. We will undoubtedly have to fill in the blanks with our own interpretations, and alter certain things to accommodate our modern lives. However, for me in my path, it is important to remain as true as possible to what we do know. I must honour my Celtic ancestors and bring back what was taken from them.

Some people will say that Celtic Reconstructionism must be free from eclecticism, but with such a patchwork of history, it is near impossible to not fill the gaps with similar practices and ideas from other religions, and personal preference. Some of you may disagree with me, and that is fair! In the end, this is my personal path. While I wish to stay as true as possible to ancient Celtic tradition, my practice will ultimately be my own personal concoction.

Have a blessed day everyone!

-Taraleigh


Sources

Celtic Reconstructionism: What is it?

What is Celtic Reconstructionism? Celtic Reconstructionism can refer to a pagan or christian way of spiritualism. My personal path is Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism, and thus will be the main focus of this blog. Simply, it is a movement which aims to preserve ancient Celtic traditions and practices in the modern world through a historic lens. When talking about the ancient Celts, however, things are never quite that simple. I will try my best to give a brief overview, granted I am still learning more and more everyday!

To understand Celtic Reconstructionism, we must first know who the Celts were. The Celts are believed to have originated in central Europe and are known to have spread across Western Europe. Evidence of the Celtic culture evolving dates back to as early as 1200 B.C., with the earliest writings being documented to the 7th or 8th century B.C. The Celts were comprised of several groups with shared languages, beliefs, cultures, and traditions. The impact of these peoples and their cultures is still seen predominantly through Ireland and Great Britain.

The Celtic language is part of the Indo-European language family, and is separated into two groups: Insular Celtic and Continental Celtic. Use of Continental Celtic declined after the Roman Invasions in Celtic regions and are no longer in use today. Insular Celtic is divided further into two groups: Brittonic and Goidelic. Brittonic consists of Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. Goidelic consists of Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Manx. There are many revival efforts to keep the use of the Goidelic language branch alive. Being apart of the revival of one or more of these languages is often seen as a key component of Celtic Reconstructionism, as it brings oneself closer to the ancient Celts and ensures the survival and continuation of the culture.

The heart of Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism is of course the beliefs and traditions of the Ancient Celts. This is where things get a bit tricky. Due to the effects of having a largely spoken history, a (biased) written history created largely by the Romans, as well as the eventual decline (read: eradication) of the culture we are left with a history that is sparse and up to many interpretations. As Celtic Reconstructionists, we try our best to study the history, archaeology, and surviving traditions of ancient Celtic culture to piece together our best understanding of their beliefs. It is such a fascinating topic and I really could write on and on forever, but will force myself to stop for today. We will have many days to discuss and learn from now on. What we know about the Celts, their traditions, culture, beliefs, and language will all be explored in this blog.

I am very excited to share my path with you. I Welcome You Under the Holly Tree.

Further Reading: