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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s