All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


DRUIDS . The term druid is used by Greek and Roman authors, medieval Irish writers, and modern scholars alike to designate a priest of the ancient Celts. The word is thought to mean something like "those knowledgeable about the (sacred) oak," being derived from two Celtic words meaning "oak" and "knowledge." (This etymology seems more plausible than the identification of the first element *dru-with an intensive prefix, which is not well attested in the Celtic languages; cf. also the Galatian term drunemeton, which presumably means "oak grove".) As there is no unequivocal archaeological evidence concerning the druids, our knowledge of them rests exclusively on a rather small number of written sources, which are fragmentary and difficult to interpret. This poses the fundamental question of to what extent the classical and early medieval statements about druids may be taken as an adequate reflection of historical reality.

The Druids of the Greek and Roman Authors

The oldest classical reference to druids may be contained in a passage written in the third century ce by the philosophical writer Diogenes Laertios. Discussing the supposition of some earlier writers that philosophy had its origins among the barbarians, he mentions Persian magi, Babylonian or Assyrian Chaldeans, Indian gymnosophists, and Celtic druids, referring to the philosophers Aristotle and Sotion of Alexandria as his sources. If Diogenes' identification of these sources is correct, the druids may have attracted the attention of classical authors as early as the fourth century bce. However, the earliest detailed description of druids apart from this brief and somewhat doubtful reference is given in the first century bce by the Stoic philosopher Posidonius of Apamea. His description of druids can be reconstructed in outline by comparing the statements to be found in Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Timagenes (as cited by Ammianus Marcellinus), which are demonstrably dependent on Posidonius. In addition to these authors, there is information about druids in Julius Caesar, Pliny the Elder, and other authors writing in the imperial period.

Diodorus mentions the druids in the context of his description of Celtic society. He groups them together with poets and soothsayers, saying that they were highly respected theologians and philosophers that were held responsible for all matters of sacrificial offerings. An allusion to his view of their teaching may be seen in his explanation of Celtic bravery, which he attributes to a belief in the transmigration of souls. Strabo gives a very similar account, stating that the druids were natural and moral philosophers. According to him, the druids were considered to be most just and therefore entrusted with settling both private and public disputes. The druids' preoccupation with natural philosophy is also mentioned by Cicero, who differs from the other sources by ascribing to them the pursuit of divination by means of the interpretation of signs. (Cicero, incidentally, also tells us that the Gaulish noble Diviciacus frequently referred to by Julius Caesar was a druid.) To this description Ammianus Marcellinus (referring to Timagenes) adds that the druids were organized in brotherhoods, in accordance with the teaching of Pythagoras.

A more elaborate description of the druids is given by Julius Caesar, whose account concurs to a large extent with the above-mentioned writers but offers much additional information not to be found elsewhere. Caesar describes the druids as the most important social group (making no mention of either poets or soothsayers). According to him, they did not pay any taxes, had immunity from military service, and were exempt from all lawsuits; organized on a national basis, they were presided over by a single druid with the highest authority. They were reported to commit to memory a great number of verses, some of them remaining in training for some twenty years. Yet another piece of information is provided by Pliny the Elder, according to whom the designation "druid" was derived from the Greek name of the oak, because the druids chose oak groves for their sacrificial rites and held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the oak on which it grew. Describing a druidic sacrifice, Pliny mentions a druid in white clothing climbing the tree and cutting the mistletoe with a golden sickle.

As Suetonius in his biography of the emperor Claudius reports, Roman citizens were forbidden to participate in the religion of the druids even in the time of Augustus, long before the entire priesthood was totally banned in the middle of the first century ce. However, druids continue to be mentioned sporadically, and there are even some references to female druids (who are not known from pre-Roman times) as kinds of female soothsayers in the late imperial period.

In evaluating this body of evidence, it should be noted that all Greek and Latin statements about druids refer to Gaul in the immediately pre-Roman and Roman period, and that there is virtually no information about druids in earlier times or in other Celtic-speaking regions, such as the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, the Balkans, and Asia Minor. Furthermore, most if not all information about pre-Roman druids is demonstrably contained in or derived from Caesar and Posidonius, whereas sources from the late imperial period referring to contemporary druids may use this term in a rather loose sense meaning no more than "Gaulish soothsayer." On stylistic grounds, Pliny the Elder's description of a druidic sacrifice may also be considered to be based on Posidonius, whose highly influential Celtic ethnography is known only in outline. Thus, any evaluation of the evidence rests on an estimate of the trustworthiness of two authors, Posidonius and Julius Caesar. As regards Posidonius, it should be noted that his comparison of druids and Greek philosophers may mirror both his own philosophical turn of mind and the influence of Greek culture on the Celts of southern Gaul, where he collected most of his information. As for Julius Caesar, it seems possible that he deliberately depicted the druids as a worthy counterpart to the Roman pontifices presided over by the pontifex maximus, just as he depicted the Gaulish gods along the lines of the Roman pantheon, in order to emphasize the Gauls' adaptability to Roman civilization and to stress their cultural superiority over the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine. It is probable that the elaborate and large-scale sacrificial rites at major Gaulish sanctuaries, such as those of Gournay-sur-Aronde or Ribemont-sur-Ancre, presuppose the existence of a specialized cult personnel, and it stands to reason that the performance of divinatory practices (which may leave no archaeological traces) would also have been one of their functions. However, both Posidonius's view of the philosophical quality of the druids' teaching and Julius Caesar's account of the hierarchical and national structure of their organization are somewhat open to doubt.

The Druids of Medieval Irish Literature

In looking for druids in medieval Insular Celtic literature, it will be noted that Welsh sources are completely silent on this point and that the oldest Irish references to druids tend to assimilate the druids to pagan priests as known or, rather, imagined from biblical and apocryphal writings. (The Welsh term derwydd [prophet], though superficially similar to Old Irish druí, is to be analyzed as *do-are-wid-, so that its usage does not tell us anything about druids in the technical sense of the term.) Thus the hagiographer Muirchú in his Life of Patrick modeled the saint's confrontation with King Loegaire's druids on the Old Testament account of Moses's confronting the magicians of Pharaoh. Conversely, an Old Irish gloss on the New Testament calls the pharaoh's magicians "two Egyptian druids." Among the most prominent features of the druids in Irish literature is their association with magic. However, this should not be taken to reflect any genuine tradition, being most likely based on the medieval Christian association of pagan religion with the workings of demons. In fact, it may be questioned whether there are any clear recollections of pagan priests to be found in medieval Irish writings, as in many cases the druid appears to be depicted as a negative counterpart of the Christian priest. A typical example of this tendency would seem to be Muirchú's description of a contest between Saint Patrick and a pagan druid, in the course of which both of them throw their books into a river. Clearly, sacred writings were for the early medieval author of this story of such paramount importance that he could not envisage a pagan priest doing without them. Similarly, some other medieval Irish narratives credit the druids with performing ceremonies of name-giving that seem to be modeled on the Christian baptism, presumably because medieval clerics found it hard to believe that there should have been no pagan equivalent of this fundamental Christian rite. In fact, the survival of the Continental Celtic word for "druid" in Old Irish cannot be taken to warrant a continuity of either social organization or religious teaching.

The Druids of Modern Scholarship

Much modern writing about the druids has been bedeviled by the fact that, from the seventeenth and eighteenth century onward, the fragmentary and often contradictory classical and medieval statements were invoked to buttress more or less ill-founded assumptions about Celtic culture and religion in general. A general tendency has been to interpret the pagan Celtic past in the light of the present and to "explain" the present with reference to alleged pagan antecedents. Ideas of continuity have been especially prominent in Great Britain and Ireland due to linguistic continuity, but also in France where the idea of "our ancestors, the Gauls" was used to establish and propagate a cultural identity different from and superior to that of the Germans. Major factors in the creation of these ideologies were an uncritical reliance on the credibility of the written sources and the absence of a firm chronology, so that Stone and Bronze Age artifacts and monuments came to be associated with the druids. Influential figures in this development were the British antiquaries John Aubrey (16261697), Henry Rowlands (16551723), and William Stukeley (16871765), who popularized the idea that Stonehenge and contemporary monuments were to be interpreted as temples of the druids. Mention should also be made of the Welsh antiquary Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams, 17471826), who from patriotic motives tried to demonstrate a continuity of tradition stretching from the pre-Christian druids to the modern Welsh poets. When, in the course of the nineteenth century, Indo-European linguistics and Celtic studies came to be established as academic disciplines, great store was set by correspondences between the writings of classical and medieval authors, and by real or alleged Indo-European parallels. Especially influential have been the ideas of Georges Dumézil (18981986) and his followers, who derived the druids from a prehistoric Indo-European priesthood that they believed was also at the base of the ancient Indian Brahmans. More recently, however, an increased awareness of methodological problems involved in this approach and substantial advances in Indo-European linguistics, Celtic studies, classical philology, and prehistoric archaeology have helped to show the fragility of many facile interpretations of that written evidence which, without exaggeration, may be said to have generated an amount of discussion inversely proportionate to the verifiable facts.

See Also

Celtic Religion, overview article.


Jones, Leslie Ellen. Druid, Shaman, Priest: Metaphors of Celtic Paganism. Enfield Lock, UK, 1998. An account of the druids and modern druidic ideologies.

Kendrick, Thomas Downing. The Druids. London, 1927. A classic study which, though dated from an archaeological point of view, gives a convenient survey of the Greek and Roman evidence in the original languages and in English translations.

Maier, Bernhard. The Celts: A History from Earliest Times to the Present. Translated by Kevin Windle. Edinburgh, 2003. A discussion of the druids and their significance for Celtic religion and modern Celtic ideologies within a broader historical context.

Owen, A. L. The Famous Druids: A Survey of Three Centuries of English Literature on the Druids. Oxford, 1962. A study of the references to druids in English works of literature dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Piggott, Stuart. The Druids. London, 1968. A general account, embracing archaeology, written evidence, and the history of scholarship.

Bernhard Maier (2005)

views updated


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.


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.

views updated


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.

views updated

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

views updated

Druids ★★½ Vercingetorix 2001 (R)

Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix (Lambert) must rally his people when they are threatened by Roman army commander Julius Caesar (Brandauer) in 60 B.C. The action is well-done even if the story drags occassionally. 115m/C VHS, DVD . Christopher Lambert, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Max von Sydow, Ines Sastre, Stefan Ivanov, Barnard Pierre Donnadieu; D: Jacques Dorfmann; W: Jacques Dorfmann, Rospo Pallenberg, Norman Spinrad; M: Pierre Charvet. VIDEO

views updated

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.