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Druidism

Druidism

Druidism was the ancient magical religious faith found to be operating in Gaul and later England and Ireland as the Romans pushed northward that has been revived as a twentieth-century Neo-Pagan religion. The name derives from an old Welsh term for oak, implying that they are the people who know the wisdom of the trees. Julius Caesar encountered the Druids in Gaul in the first century B.C.E. where, among other duties, they oversaw the human sacrifices that were then part of the Celtic religion. From that time forward, a number of Romans chronicled their life, especially after the conquest of Britain in the next century. Gradually, Christianity was introduced into England and then in the fifth century into Ireland. Over the next few centuries, it replaced the Druid religion.

The ancient Druid tradition, largely passed through the oral tradition, was rendered into written form in the Middle Ages in two primary texts, the Mabinogion and the Book of Taliesin. Various elements of Druidism passed into folklore and survived in local customs and folk songs. Numerous archeological remains have been discovered and through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, efforts to reconstruct the history and belief of the Druids have proceeded. It is now generally believed that the Druids were firmly in place by the sixth century B.C.E., and evidence has emerged that suggests that Druidism may be traced to the time of the monolithic culture that built Stonehenge and related structures across the British Isles. Druidism may have survived in remote corners of rural Britain, and some have suggested that it could be found on the island of St. Kilda as late as the eighteenth century.

The fragments of literature on ancient Druidism leave considerable room for interpretation of Druid belief and practice (thus providing the base for the broad spectrum of belief and behavior among contemporary Druids). It is known that the community was organized around the three groups of functionaries. The bards were the keepers of the wisdom tradition. They memorized the key material of the tradition, much of which was put into poetic form and made it available to the people. The Ovates were the mediums/shamans of the community. Among their duties was the establishment of contact with ancestors in the spirit realm. They also engaged in divination of various kinds, including the reading of entrails, in attempts to predict the future. The Druid priests were the most powerful leaders in the community. They presided over worship and group ceremonies, and often served as advisors to the secular rulers.

The Druid religion was nature-based and its worship cycle was marked by the movements of the Sun and Moon. The year was marked by the changing positions of the rising sun, the solstices and equinoxes, and the four additional festivals halfway between these four that marked important points in the agricultural seasons. These were known by different names in different locations and at different times. Among the major contemporary British Druids, these are known as:

Samhuinn (October 31-November 2)
Winter Solstice (December 21 or 22)
Imbolc (February 1)
Spring Equinox (March 21)
Beltane (May 1)
Summer Solstice (June 21 or 22)
Lughnasadh (August 1)
Fall Equinox (September 22)

Today, the most notable date in the calendar is the summer solstice, when British Druids gather at Stonehenge for a sunrise service.

The Druids were especially associated with oaks and the mistletoe that grows as a parasite on it. According to Pliny, they gathered the mistletoe in a ritualized manner, used it in their rites, and drank its juice for its medicinal value.

Among the most controversial practices associated with Druids was human sacrifice. In their priestly service among the Celtics in Gaul, it was noted by Julius Caesar and Strabo that they oversaw the sacrifice of humans. Caesar mentioned the immense images which they filled with living victims and burned to death, a practice that was vividly pictured in the 1975 movie The Wicker Man.

Modern Druidism

Modern interest in Druidism can be traced to an amateur antiquarian, John Aubrey (1676-1697), who delved into the classical Druid texts and suggested that the Druids had worshiped at the old stone monuments in Wiltshire. His work began the association of Druidism and Stonehenge. A modern Druidism emerged into public notice in the next century when, in 1717, Deist writer John Toland (1670-1722) was elected the chief of the first modern Druid order, An Tigh Geatha Gairdeachas. Reportedly Druids from previously existing groups from across England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany attended the inaugural meeting in London. Toland spent the last years of his life working on a history of the Druids, excerpts of which were posthumously published.

Building on Aubrey's work, the physician William Stukeley (1687-1765) did extensive observations in Wiltshire and brought the monumental structures to public attention. He published a book on Stonehenge in 1740 and on Avebury three years later. He described Druidism as the aboriginal patriarchal religion and reputedly succeeded Toland as the second chief of the modern Druid order. Stukeley was himself reputedly succeeded by the likes of poet William Blake and writer Geoffrey Higgins.

Interest in Druidism as the traditional pre-Christian religion of the British Isles led to the formation of several Druid organizations through the eighteenth century. The most important was the Ancient Order of Druids founded in London in 1781 by Henry Hurle. It is the largest Druid body in England with some 3000 members. Of interest, the order is primarily a male group, with women not permitted entrance to the majority of their lodges. There are some all-female lodges. Also founded at the end of the eighteenth century was a uniquely Welsh Druid tradition centered in the channeled material of Edward Williams, better known by his Druid name Iolo Morganwg. A controversial figure, Williams offered his channeled material as genuine remnants of ancient Druid wisdom, and they were so accepted by some who did not understand their origin. When their origin was discovered, many dismissed Morganwg as a fraud; however, his group, the Bardi/Druidic Eistedfoddau, still exists.

In the nineteenth century, the Druid movement spread across Europe and through the British Empire, though the groups that formed remained small and ephemeral. It was only in the context of the emergence of a larger Neo-Pagan movement, spearheaded by the new Witchcraft created by the British witch Gerald B. Gardner, that Druidism has found a friend-ly environment in which to grow and proliferate. Among the important groups to emerge in England in the post-Gardnerian context are the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids founded in 1864 by Ross Nichols and the Golden Section Order founded in 1975 by Colin Murray. Recently, a Council of British Druid Orders has emerged to provide fellowship among the many independent Druid groups.

In America, a new and separate Druid tradition was initiated in 1963 by students at Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota, as part of a protest of compulsory chapel at the church-related school. In order to gain permission not to attend chapel, the students fashioned a separate religion based upon their reading of books on ancient religion. Once the rules on compulsory chapel were dropped, the Druids discovered that they liked what they had created. Thus was born the Reformed Druids of North America that spread through the Neo-Pagan sub-culture. In Berkeley, California, the movement found a new leader in the person of Isaac Bonewits, who emerged as the most visible spokesperson of Druidism in North America. In 1983 he left the loosely organized Reformed Druid coalition to found Ar nDraiocht Fein, currently the largest Druid group in North America. It has in turn given birth to additional groups such as the Henge of Keltria.

Sources:

Carr-Gomm, Philip. The Elements of the Druid Tradition. Shaftesbury, Dorset, UK: Element, 1991.

Matthews, John, ed. The Druid Source Book. London: Brand-ford, 1998.

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druids

druids (drōō´Ĭdz), priests of ancient Celtic Britain, Ireland, and Gaul and probably of all ancient Celtic peoples, known to have existed at least since the 3d cent. BC. Information about them is derived almost exclusively from the testimony of Roman authors, notably Julius Caesar, and from Old Irish sagas, supplemented to some extent by archaeological evidence. The druids constituted a priestly upper class in command of a highly ritualistic religion, which apparently centered on the worship of a pantheon of nature deities. Druids were also responsible for the education of the young and generally for the intellectual life of the community; although apparently literate, they taught by oral transmission, and their courses are said to have lasted as long as 20 years. The druids believed in immortality of the soul in a nonjudgmental world of the dead. Their religious ceremonies seem to have been performed chiefly in tree groves (the oak and the mistletoe that grows on the oak were held sacred) and at river sources and lakes. The druids performed animal and human sacrifices and practiced divination and other forms of magic. Tacitus mentions a Celtic tribe, the Bructeri, that was led by a prophetess, and Irish legend confirms that there were women druids, although their precise role is not known. According to Caesar, the druids in Gaul were organized into a federation or brotherhood that extended across tribal divisions and was headed by an archdruid; they met once a year, probably on the site of Chartres, to arbitrate private and intertribal disputes. They thus wielded great political power and were an important cohesive force among the Celtic tribes. The druids in Gaul were the core of the rebellions against Rome. Their power, although broken by the Romans, finally yielded only to Christianity. In the late 18th and 19th cent., interest in the druids was spurred by archaeological discoveries and by the romantic movement. The megalithic monuments of France and Great Britain, notably those at Carnac and Stonehenge, were once ascribed to them, but these are now known to predate Celtic culture.

See S. Piggott, The Druids (1968, repr. 1985); A. Ross, Druids, Gods, and Heroes (1986); W. Rutherford, The Druids: Magicians of the West (1986).

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druids

druids. A priestly caste in British tribal society. The druids acquired a reputation from several Roman writers for inhuman practices perpetrated in the name of their religion. The Greek geographer Strabo accused them of mass human sacrifice, and Diodorus Sicula and Tacitus both claimed that the druids used human entrails cut from sacrificial victims to consult the gods and predict the future. Although they are not specifically identified as the instigators of the slaughter which accompanied the capture of Camulodunum (Colchester) by Boudicca's rebels, there can be little doubt that both Tacitus and Dio Cassius held them responsible for the atrocities they reported. These included hanging, burning, crucifixion, and impaling alive. Tacitus and Dio Cassius both emphasize the particular importance of sacred groves as places of worship for the druids. Dio mentions such a grove in the vicinity of Colchester, dedicated to Andate, the goddess of Victory, whilst Tacitus refers to many of them on the Isle of Mona (Anglesey), suggesting that both the druids and their groves were spread the breadth of Britain. Pliny confirms the important role of sacred groves in druidic religion, particularly those of oak trees. He was also responsible for linking the druids to mistletoe, white robes, golden sickles, and herbal medicines, all of which are part of the popular perception of druidism today. What is not clear from the ancient authors is the extent to which druids wielded political influence in Britain at the time of the invasion.

Keith Branigan

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"druids." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Druids

Druids

Druids were priests of an ancient Celtic * religious order. Powerful figures in the Celtic world, they served not only as religious leaders but also as teachers, judges, advisers, soothsayers, healers, and poets. The Druids held both religious and political power, leading to some blurring of the line between the spiritual and historical worlds.


Caesar's Account. The earliest records of the Druids date back to the 200s b.c. Various ancient Greek and Roman writers described the beliefs and practices of the Celtic priests, and Welsh and Gaelic poetry also provided some details. However, more complete information about the Druids comes from the writings of Julius Caesar (ca. 100-44 b.c.), the Roman general and statesman.

In his book The Gallic Wars, Caesar explained that there were two leading classes in Celtic society: the knights or warriors and the Druids. According to Caesar, the Druids did not have to perform manual labor, serve in the military, or pay taxes. Instead, the members of this learned class devoted their lives to leading religious worship and taking charge of human sacrifices.

Caesar reported that the Druids were highly respected and called on for advice and instruction. They also served as judges for most public and private disputes, from major and minor crimes to arguments about money and property. Every year, the Druids gathered at a sacred place in the territory of the Carnutes, regarded as the center of Gaul. There they settled legal matters and made decisions about awards and punishments. Disobeying the Druids' rulings led to excommunicationexpulsion from the orderwhich was the most severe punishment.

By Caesar's account, training to become a Druid was a long and challenging process, taking up to 20 years. Those who wanted to join the order had to learn the religious laws and traditions and the philosophical principles of the Druids, memorize great numbers of ancient verses, and study the natural world and astronomy

soothsayer one who foretells events

The Druids' Teachings. The Druids believed in a supreme god, whom they called Be' al, meaning "the source of all beings." The symbol of this supreme being was fire. But the Druids also worshiped many lesser gods.


The Druids taught that the human soul was immortal and that, upon death, it passed into the body of a newborn child. According to Caesar, such teaching was intended to make warriors less afraid of dying and thus increase their courage when they went into battle.


Rituals and Practices. The early Druids regarded the oak tree as sacred and carried out their religious rituals in oak forests. In fact, the name Druid means "knowing the oak tree" in Celtic. The mistletoe, a plant that often grows on oak trees, also had an important role in the religion. According to the ancient Roman writer Pliny, Druids worshiped the mistletoe because they believed it had dropped from heaven and offered a sign that the oak tree upon which it grew had been selected by their god. Furthermore, the Druids associated the mistletoe with healing powers.

Details of Druid ceremonies are few. However, Pliny did describe a fertility ritual in which a Druid clad in a white robe climbed an oak tree and used a golden sickle to slice off a mistletoe branch. The mistletoe fell onto a white cloak that had been placed below. Then the Druids sacrificed two white bulls, and a feast followed.

The symbolism of this ceremony is not entirely understood, although the Druids seemed to associate white with purity.

Reported in much greater detail was the practice of human sacrifice. The Druids believed that human sacrifices were necessary to win their god's favor. If illness, war, or some other crisis threatened, a number of people would be assembled, placed in wicker containers, and burned alive. Usually these individuals were criminals.


Druids in Myth and Legend. The Druids' powerful central role in religion and society helped earn them a place in mythology. It was believed that the Druids had strange and magical powers and could foretell the future. Some reports described how the Druids would stab some of their sacrificial victims and look for omens by observing the flow of blood or examining the victims' insides. It was also said that the Druids used human sacrifice and magic rituals as a means of controlling supernatural forces and ensuring prosperity and success.

immortal able to live forever

ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern

omen sign of future events


supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world; magical or miraculous

prophet one who claims to have received divine messages or insights

In early Celtic literature, Druids were frequently represented as prophets and magicians as well as influential royal advisers. Some accounts told how Druids could read minds and predict future events, while a few went even farther, characterizing Druids as "shape-shifters" who could take the form of birds or women. Some stories described the Druids as using their magic for evil, for example, turning people into animals.

Druids made frequent appearances in early Irish mythology, notably in the four groups of traditional tales. A Druid who lived in the household of King Conchobhar of Ulster sometimes had more power than the king himself because of his ability to predict the future. The Irish hero Finn was raised by a Druid. Throughout the myths, Druids used their powers of prophecy and magic both for good and for evil.

prophecy foretelling of what is to come; also something that is predicted

The image of the Druids changed over the centuries. By the 1700s, Druids as presented in literature had lost much of their connection with the ancient religious order. Some English writers even claimed that the Druids were descendants of the biblical Noah. Others said that the Druids were one of the ten lost tribes of Israel.

See also Celtic Mythology; Finn.

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

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druids

druids Pre-Christian Celtic religious leaders in ancient Britain, Ireland, and Gaul. Little is known of them, but they appear to have been judges and teachers as well as priests. In Britain and Gaul, the Romans suppressed druidism, but it survived in Ireland until the 5th century.

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