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Who Were The Druids? What We Know About These Ancient Teachers, Priests & Judges

The Druids. The name conjures up many images; white-robed believers at the summer solstice at Stonehenge, mistletoe, a cartoon character. All are images inspired by the ancient Druids, but who were they?

A delve into the fascinating history surrounding the ancient Druids
A delve into the fascinating history surrounding the ancient Druids

To try and solve this mystery we must look at the evidence, archaeological and historical, which is 2000 years old and dates back to the Iron Age. We shall see that the modern images of Druids are only a few hundred years old and, although they may now seem comic, they symbolize some of the first serious western attempts to understand antiquity of humanity.

In the Renaissance, the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans become increasingly well known. Men such as Julius Caesar and Pliny described the Druids, stating that they were found in Britain and Gaul (broadly speaking modern France) and that, amongst other things, they were priests. Julius Caesar mentions human sacrifice, while Pliny describes them as worshipping in woodland groves and collecting mistletoe.

Making The Past

During the Renaissance, it was increasingly realized that some features in the landscape, for example, what we now recognize as prehistoric burial mounds, had been made by ancient peoples. With the "discovery" of so-called "primitive" peoples or "savages" in the Americas, gave the Renaissance thinkers intellectual and concrete materials to create an image of antiquity.

Modern scholarship distinguishes carefully between different sorts of evidence, but in the Renaissance, the idea of the past was something novel, and people envisaged the past as an unchanging time either before or after the biblical Deluge. In this timeless past, the different sorts of evidence could happily co-exist. The challenge for the later, Enlightenment, thinkers was to relate this past to the modern world. Mostly this was done by creating myths that related people, usually nations, to Noah and the Garden of Eden.

With this knowledge at his disposal John Aubrey (1626-97) wrote:

"Let us imagine what kind of a countrie this was in the time of the ancient Britons... a shady dismal wood: and the inhabitants almost as savage as the beasts whose skins were the only raiment. The language British ... Their religion is at large described by Caesar. Their priests were Druids. Some of their temples I pretend to have restor'd as Avebury, Stonehenge &c... They were two or three degrees, I suppose, less savage than the Americans."

This was a serious attempt to build a past with the intellectual and physical materials available. Yet in Britain, at least, this was to change. After the making of this past in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the next 200 years saw little advance in the materials available to understand it. It was, however, increasingly accepted that the ancient Britons spoke a Celtic language, allowing them to be linked with the ancient Gauls, fellow Celtic speakers.

Ironically much of this stagnation stemmed from the use made by William Stukeley (1687-1765) of Aubrey's unpublished work. Stukeley elaborated upon the idea of Druids and stone circles., and, setting his work in the context of current theological debate, saw them as purveyors of natural religion, a form of pre-Christian Christianity.

A reconstruction of the boar shaped battle standard found on the beach at Soulac-sur-Mer
A reconstruction of the boar shaped battle standard found on the beach at Soulac-sur-Mer

Stukeley's work set the scene for the extravagances of romanticism. Druids, now portrayed as philosophers and priests instead of "savages", symbolized mysticism and were often viewed with nationalistic pride. An increased awareness of the heroic world of the early Irish tales in which Druids are mentioned provided the finishing touches. Aubrey had attempted to understand the past as it might have been. Stukeley and others conjured up the origins of many of the modern images of Druids: of Druids as imagined.

The Classical Writers

Ultimately all these British attempts to illustrate the Druids drew on the writings and philosophies of the Greeks and Romans. Those works do not survive in their original form, but as copies of copies. Julius Caesar's Battle for Gaul, which gives the fullest account of the Druids, was written in the first century BC, but the oldest surviving version is almost a thousand years later.

These ancient sources are not insiders' views of the Druids or of Celtic societies, but those of foreigners. The act of defining the difference between peoples helps to reinforce what is unique to the people making the definitions, so the Roman writers tell us as much about how they understood their own Roman world as they do about other peoples. As the classical world did not have a priesthood comparable to the Druids, they were often mentioned by classical writers because they were different.

Most ancient writers described the Celtic society of the time of the dramatic expansion of the Roman Empire by the conquest of western Europe from the second century BC onwards. Before conquest there was often extensive contact, diplomatic and commercial, between the classical and "barbarian" (simply meaning non-Greek speaking) worlds; such contact could already have caused changes in the barbarian societies described by the writers.

The Roman authors also wrote within particular literary genres. Thus Julius Caesar's descriptions of the customs of the Britons and Gauls are in a format well-known from other ethnographic descriptions and are found halfway through The Battle for Gaul indicating the importance he attached to them. Even so, we are not told the conventions used in translating Celtic ideas and words into Latin.

The earliest references to Druids are from the early second century BC. A smaller number come from the first century AD and mention the suppression of the Druids by Roman emperors, with a few rhetorical references in the fourth century to magicians. Most references are to Gaul, and because many classical writers copied earlier works it has often been assumed that differences between authors were due to mistakes in copying. However, it is more likely that the differences are due to changes in the Celtic society and the roles of Druids over 300 years, and to local or regional differences: the first century AD writers described a situation where Gaul had been under Roman authority for a century. Allowing for this, the classical authors give a generally consistent account of a group of religious specialists, who were effectively a priesthood.

Julius Caesar described the "only two classes of men of any account or importance" in Gaulish society as the equites (nobles) and the Druidae, or Druids. Below them in social status were the unfree plebs who generally did not own land. Caesar outlines three main roles for the Druids: they were in charge of religion, judges and arbitrators in disputes and teachers and keepers of knowledge.

Earlier writers also referred to Bards (described as poets) and Vates (responsible for sacrifices and divination). As described by Caesar the Druids also oversaw sacrifice and divination, so it may be that when he wrote they had assumed sole responsibility for this. Sacrifice and divination, the prediction of the future from the death-throes or entrails of the sacrificed, whether animal or human, was clearly an important role for the Druids.

Caesar translated the names of some of the Gods of the Gauls in Latin - Mercury (the god worshipped most), Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva are named - but this tells us little of how the Gauls thought of them. He did however describe some beliefs:

The Druids attach particular importance to the belief that the soul does not perish but passes after death from one body to another... They hold long discussions about the heavenly bodies and their movements, about the size of the universe and the earth, about the nature of the physical world, and about the power and properties of the immortal gods.

The Gauls claim that they are all descended from Father Dis; they say this is the tradition handed down to them by the Druids. For this reason, they reckon periods of time, not in days but in nights... they go on the principle that night comes first and is followed by day.

Julius Caesar also stated that the Druids were widely respected and powerful, and exempted from military service and taxation. Although they were literate, they did not write their teachings down, and he supposed that this was because they did not want their doctrines to be accessible to the ordinary people. Restricting access to their knowledge, which was vital at sacrifices and religious ceremonies, as well as to their roles as arbitrators and administrators of justice, would maintain their important position.

The descriptions of the Druids sacrificing animals in groves and acting as healers appear later, after the attempts to suppress the Druids, in the works of such first-century AD writers as Pliny and Mela. These suppressions may have been as much an attempt to curb the power of the Druids as keepers of knowledge and prophesy, and as arbitrators of justice, as acts of religious intolerance.

Gaul had been under Roman rule for a century by the time that Pliny speculated that the name Druid came from the Greek for oak-tree, drus, and wrote:

"Druids - Gallic magicians - hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the oak tree. They choose oak groves for the sake of the tree, and never perform rites except in the presence of a branch of it. Mistletoe is gathered preferably on the sixth day of the moon. Having feasted beneath the trees they bring forward two white bulls. A sacerdos in a white robe cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and it is caught in a white cloak. The bulls are then killed. Mistletoe is known as all "healing". It is believed to impart fecundity to barren animals, and it is used as an antidote to all poisons." (Natural History, xvi, 249)

Archaeological Evidence

The romantic association of Druids and stone circles and Pliny's account of the sacred grove has suggested to many that the Celtic religion was practised in the open air, in natural places. Until very recently it was thought that this would have left few, if any, traces. The building of the rare temple sites like Roquepertuse in southern France, with religious statues and human skulls set in niches, could be accounted for by the long Greek and Roman contacts with the Mediterranean coast of Gaul. Indeed, some of the sites were dated to after the Roman conquest of the region late in the second century BC, the same time as some of the references to the Druids.

A little archaeological evidence supports the accounts of the classical writers. The third century AD Coligny calendar, probably from a temple, was written in Gaulish which was by then an ancient language, and not Latin. It shows that time was counted in months which were either lucky or unlucky. Each month was divided in two by the word ATENOVX, when the waxing moon wanes. A few objects might be associated with the Druids. Some rare short swords, so small that they are really symbolic swords, were inlaid with golden symbols which seem to represent the phases of the moon. The swords may have been used in sacrifice and divination. Pairs of "spoons" may also have been used in such rituals, but apart from this scant evidence can anything more be said?

Coligny calendar
Coligny calendar: By placing pegs in the small holes next to each day it is eventually possible to reconcile the lunar and solar years.

Archaeological evidence allows us to assess the Druids or religious specialists, and Iron Age religion more generally, in different ways. Unlike the historical texts, the evidence continues to increase.

As many Greek and Roman writers referred to central and western Europe as being inhabited by Celts or Gauls (sometimes using the words synonymously), it seems that the Greeks and Roman recognized a broad group of peoples comparable to the German peoples or the Iberians. It is likely that many of these peoples spoke Celtic languages, but it cannot be assumed that the distribution of those modern languages called Celtic, many not recorded until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is the same as their ancient distribution, or that this did not change in the intervening 2,000 years.

Nonetheless, archaeologists were quick to link the archaeological evidence with that of the classical writers who also mentioned Celtic migrations and the linguistic evidence, using it as an index of Celtic ethnicity to illustrate them. At a broad level, this may be correct but it has frequently limited archaeological interpretation to description, obscuring the many differences within the Celtic world.

For example, some religious practices were followed over large areas. The offering of hoards of gold torques and coins to the gods is found from Britain to the Czech Republic, but the types of torques, coins and the sort of place where the offering was made is nearly always different. A sword sheath decorated with "Celtic" "art", an art imbued with religious symbolism, might be found over much of continental Europe but the details of a find from Yorkshire declare it to be British. The man with whom it was buried, and his partner, will have lived in round houses. In continental Europe, houses were rectangular but on some settlements in Britain temples or shrines are distinguished by being square. In the second and first centuries BC cremation burial was practised over much of Europe, but the exact rites differed from region to region. In other regions inhumation burial, or ways of disposing of the dead which did not require burial, were still practised.

Late Iron Age Rituals

This diversity is also seen in the evidence for Celtic religious practices in the second and first centuries BC. This is late in the period commonly called the La Téne Iron Age after the finds made at the site of La Téne in Switzerland. Most of this evidence comes from votive deposits, sacrifices made to the gods to obtain their support or to thank them for it. Only rarely is it possible to determine what sort of gods, such as of fertility or welfare, to whom the offerings were made. The gods may have had many faces or attributes.

At the site of La Téne itself a number of bridges or jetties projected into a tributary of Lake Neuchatel. From the third to the first centuries BC weapons, particularly swords and spears, often deliberately hacked and broken, were thrown into the water. Finds of human remains suggest that people were also sacrificed. Many of the finds from this site are weapons and the placing of weaponry, much of which bears the finest "Celtic art" known, in rivers or bogs is well known. The boar in particular seems to have been associated with warfare and display. The towering boar-headed war trumpet or carnyx from Deskford was probably made early in the Roman period, but it is a well-known Late Iron Age type and it was deliberately buried in a bog. The boar from Soulac-sur-Mer was found on a beach. Originally decorating a battle standard, the boar had been ritually destroyed, the pieces rolled up and then buried.

Deskford carnyx
A modern reconstruction of the Deskford carnyx or war trumpet

These offerings to water may have been to goddesses, but whoever gave them, there is no immediately obvious female partner to these masculine offerings. While it is possible to infer some rituals at sites such as La Téne, evidence for the beliefs which demanded them is elusive. A tantalizing image of what may have existed is given by the myth depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron. In the late second century BC, this silver cauldron was dismantled and buried in a bog in Jutland, an area generally inhabited by Germanic peoples. As the cauldron was made in south-eastern Europe there is little doubt that both the makers and users of the cauldron knew some Celtic beliefs, but the mythology it depicts, replete with elephants, may well not be Celtic.

Despite the legacy of romanticism, rivers, bogs, and other "natural" places were not the only places venerated as cult sites. In the great oppidum (a settlement like a town) of Manching, several shrines or temples are known, either small square or round buildings. However, a miniature tree, of wood and bronze-clad in gold leaf and surely a cult idol, was buried in a pit in the settlement, not in the shrines. The small statue with torque and lyre found at Saint-Symphorien-en-Paule, representing a bard or more likely, a god was also found in a settlement. It is a rare example of Late Iron Age sculpture but it also suggests that in daily life there was not a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, and it may be here, in the home, that the seemingly absent female counterpart to the masculine offerings in "natural" places might be found.

Although a number of statues of gods have been found in Gaul, such as the one from Euffigneix, most are likely to date to the Roman period when sacred images were required in religious ceremonies. In many cases the style of representation, even the very idea of a physical image or idol was new. As such they are a Roman rather than Celtic way of seeing and talking about religion.

We have seen that Iron Age temples were once assumed to be rare throughout the Celtic world, yet an increasing number of Late Iron Age examples are now known. Numerous four-sided compounds, or Viereckschanzen, have been found in southern Germany and the Czech Republic. Some are likely to be farms, but others have shrines or temples in one corner and deep wells which might have served as ritual shafts. The famous stone head of a god, again wearing a torque, was buried, perhaps after being deliberately broken, just outside the Viereckschanze at Msecké Zehrovice.

The most important new evidence for Late Iron Age religion has come from northern France, where Roman temples were often built on the sites of Iron Age shrines. At these shrines, the definition of a sacred space by a ditch may have been more important than a house or temple for the god. Underneath the Roman temple Ribemont-sur-Ancre, Iron Age ditches enclosed a square compound, in at least two corners of which long bones, mainly of people, intermingled with weapons, were carefully stacked around a post. Nearby were the remains of headless human torsos, which may have been displayed around the edge of the compound.

At Gournay-sur-Aronde, the first Iron Age structures were aligned on the cardinal points of the (modern) compass and later on a temple was built on this alignment. The brilliant excavation and analyses of this site have shown how animal sacrifices were placed in a pit in the centre of the enclosure before their remains were carefully laid in specific places of the boundary ditch. The human remains also appear to have been dismembered, in much the same way as the numerous finds of weapons. The reconstruction of the Iron Age temple suggested by the excavators is very similar to the types found later on in Roman Gaul. The sorts and methods of sacrifices and the precise, symbolic, use of space at Gournay-sur-Aronde reveal the site as a microcosm. It lays bare, and is a symbol for, the ways in which the ancient Gauls tried to understand their world.

The existence of cult sites such as La Téne and temples such as Gournay-sur-Aronde with their evidence for repeated rituals involving the sacrifice of people, animals and worldly goods, suggests that these sites served communities and that religious specialists may have been in charge of them.

In this respect, the archaeological evidence and the testimonies of the classical writers complement each other. As well as feeding the gods, one of the most important roles of blood sacrifice is divination; determining when is a good or bad time to do things. This also requires the making and marking of time and a traditional knowledge through which to interpret the omens.

Such then is the image which emerges of the ancient Druids. Romanticism, whether ancient, modern or New Age, has treated the Druids in the same ways as mysterious, mystic, noble, and otherworldly. Always as different, as "other". Yet they were also trying to understand their own world, their gods and their own futures. That world was very different, and it was not romantic. Now you have read about the Druids, make sure you check out Chaco Canyon: The Pueblo Communities, Spirit Tunnels & The History Of The Anasazi People.