The Druids, a mystical order of people, have spurred legends and stories of magic, human sacrifice, and ancient rites. Couple that with the believed magic of the standing stones that pre-date written history and it seems like a match made in heaven!
The earliest references to Druids are in the writings of Julius Caesar. He cited Greek and Roman texts from 200 BCE. These lost writings depicted the Druids as wise Celtic elders. The responsibility of these elders was to memorize the history and knowledge of their tribe and pass the information on to the next generation to ensure the future of their society.
Druids were an elite group. Their training, done in secret caves and forests, prepared them for the role of leader and lifelong position of judge and made them revered by their people. Their leadership, herbalist expertise, and later development of the Ogham alphabet, associated with the Celtic lunar tree calendar, may have led to the idea that Druids were strongly linked to nature. There is no doubt that the Druid’s vast knowledge gave them unequaled power over their people.
They met annually at a sacred place in a region owned by the Carnute tribe in the heart of Gaul. Gaul was a large area in Western Europe that is now France, Luxembourg, Belgium, as well as parts of Switzerland, Northern Italy, the Netherlands and Germany. Without any written history, it is difficult to know the ritual, political and clerical practices. However, if we look at documented Celtic history we could make some assumptions.
The ancient Druids were priests, teachers, physicians (herbalists), legislators, astronomers, chemists, musicians, poets, theologians, philosophers, diviner, and judges of their time. Their insight was highly respected and their religious, judicial, and scholastic authority was absolute. Viewed as the conduit between the people and the gods, they handed down their knowledge orally from generation to generation.
Druid philosophies focused on the supreme power of the universe and the belief that the soul was indestructible/ immortal and after death passed on to another. The expansive and diverse geography and number of tribes and cultures making up the Celts explains why there are a variety of gods. This is one of the strongest factors in supporting the theory that Druids did not teach religion but rather taught their philosophy which gave order to the many different structures, instilled morals, virtues and ethics. Kings and aristocrats admired the Druid as leaders and teachers. They sought out Druids to teach their children.
Because the common people held the Druids in such high regard, the Romans feared them. It was the Druids that help lead the people and led them to successfully hold off Caesar’s first invasion of Briton in 55 BCE. After Caesar won the second invasion in 54 BCE he ordered the extinction of the Druids. Caesar claimed the Druids sacrificed criminals by burning them in a wicker effigy, the wicker man. But other authorities claim Caesar’s information was all propaganda to demonize the Druid and justify his move to eradicate them. While almost successful a few Druids survived by hiding or converting to Christianity.
As with any invading and winning army, the Christian church absorbed the Celtic religion. Many of the pagan gods and goddess had new life as Christian saints with many sites that held spiritual significance becoming locations of cathedrals. By the 7th century CE, Druidism was all but destroyed or had gone into hiding.
In medieval tales from Ireland, the Druids were portrayed as sorcerers with super natural powers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, fraternal groups and neo-pagan organizations revitalized the ideas held by the Druids resulting in a resurgence in Druidic beliefs. Today, modern Druidism is one of the pagan religions which include Wicca, Asatru, Shamanism.
I was drawn to the romance and magic of the Druids and based my series, The Druid Knights, on them.
If you are wondering about the picture at the top of this month’s blog, I couldn’t find a compelling picture of a Druid but I found Gerard Butler from the movie 300 *sigh* If you find a picture of a Druid, please send it along.