Druids were people in ancient Britain and France who served a wide variety of roles — “philosophers, teachers, judges, the repository of communal wisdoms about the natural world and the traditions of the people, and the mediators between humans and the gods,” writes Barry Cunliffe in his book “Druids: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2010). He notes that, curiously, the ancient texts don’t call them “priests” directly.
Almost everything we know about druids is second-hand knowledge. Surviving texts that mention them were written by non-druids, something that poses a problem to modern-day historians trying to understand who they were and how their role changed over time. Indeed, Julius Caesar, who conquered Gaul, is among the principal sources of information about druids. He wrote that druids preferred oral teaching to writing.
Regardless of who exactly the druids were, it is clear that they were often revered. Druids could be found in Britain and Gaul (modern-day France), as well as other parts of Europe and perhaps even in the Middle East. The writer Dio Chrysostom, who lived about 1,900 years ago, compared druids to the Magi and the Brahmans of India. The “Celts appointed those whom they call druids, these also being devoted to the prophetic art and to wisdom in general,” he wrote (translation courtesy University of Chicago website).
When did druidism begin?
When druidism began is unknown. Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of European archaeology at the University of Oxford, notes that the earliest written reference to them dates back about 2,400 years ago. While druidism surely goes back much earlier than this, how far back is unknown.
Ancient druidism continued up until around 1,200 years ago, gradually being supplanted by Christianity. There is a revival movement of modern-day druids; however, Cunliffe, among other scholars, is careful to point out that there is a gap of almost a millennium between the demise of the ancient druids and the appearance of this revival group.
People today often associate Stonehenge with druidism. However, Stonehenge was constructed mainly between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago whereas the earliest written reference to the druids dates back to about 2,400 years ago. So, again, there is a gap in time and the question of whether druidism existed when Stonehenge was built, and if so in what form, is an open one.
Mistletoe and the moon
Ancient sources provide some tantalizing hints to the things that the druids held in great importance.
In one passage, Pliny the Elder (who lived almost 2,000 years ago) talks about the importance of mistletoe and of the fifth day of the moon.
He said that mistletoe “is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their ages …” (translation by John Bostock).
He also talks about the importance of animal sacrifice and fertility to the druids. They “bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak. They then immolate the victims" while offering prayers, wrote Pliny the Elder. “It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart [fertility] to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”
How widespread was druidism?
How widespread druidism was in the ancient world is also a mystery. It certainly flourished in the British Isles and Gaul. Julius Caesar claimed that druidism originally came from Britain, and those who wished to study it in depth traveled there.
“This institution is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed [to Britain] for the purpose of studying it.” (Translation courtesy Perseus Digital Library)
Whether druidism truly originated in Britain is unknown. Additionally, it is possible that druids were found much farther afield. Druidism is often associated with a people known as the Celts, and their settlements have been found as far east as modern-day Turkey. Additionally, Celtic mercenaries served as far away as Egypt (during the reign of Cleopatra VII) and even Judaea.
Did the druids practice human sacrifice?
Today, it is often said that the druids practiced human sacrifice. This may not be accurate. Ancient sources indicate that druids served alongside several other classes that also performed spiritual functions. The identity and role of these other classes changed, depending on the culture and the time.
A man named Diodorus Siculus, who lived more than 2,000 years ago, said that while the druids were always present during a human sacrifice, it was another group known as the “vates” that carried out the sacrifice itself.
How widespread human sacrifice was among the cultures that the druids served is another mystery. It’s important to note that much of the writing that survives comes from Roman writers who could be hostile toward the druids and the cultures they served.
For instance, in A.D. 60 the druids joined a rebellion against the Romans on the island of Mona (modern-day Anglesey) in Wales. Cornelius Tacitus reported that after the Romans crushed the rebels they found widespread evidence of human sacrifice, a claim that may have been exaggerated to cast the druids in a negative light.
“A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails,” wrote Tacitus (translation courtesy Perseus Digital Library).
The end of druidism
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, druidism gradually faded away. Cunliffe notes that druids were still present in Ireland in the eighth century A.D. but in a much reduced form.
“Druids are now seen to be the makers of love-potions and casters of spells but little else,” Cunliffe writes. “The mood is captured by one 8th-century hymn that asks for God’s protection from the spells of women, blacksmiths and druids!”
Druidism would fade away during the Middle Ages, but would be revived in modern times, albeit about a millennium after the ancient form became extinct.