The Druids

Oak Tree

The Druids were a religious and social order that flourished from the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD. Their religious traditions can, however, be traced back to at least 3000 BC. They mainly occupied the Island of Britain, Ireland, and parts of northern Gaul (modern day France).

There is much debate on where the Druid people came from. Our classical texts determine that they originated as a mixture of indigenous neolithic tribes of Britain and the Celts who came from the East in a wave of Indo-European migration around 2000 BC.

Druid Map Approximate extent of Druid priesthood, circa 100 BC.

Druid tradition was mainly handed down to successive generations by oral tradition. Refraining from writing trains the memory, and keeps knowledge to the few. Druid priests did not want to leave behind any historical artifacts or sacred texts. They saw themselves as keepers of ancient and ancestral traditions and culture.

They were highly nationalistic, and resisted any foreign occupation. This made them incredibly organized, with annual meetings and elected leaders. Druid priests acted as judges, teachers, and overall leaders for society. They negotiated strife between communities, and taught that your soul will come back after death into another human body.

The Druid religion is much more focused on conservation ethics. Their rituals were held in forest clearings, meaning there are no buildings left behind that indicate a specific place of worship. They aimed to read nature, and wanted to communicate effectively with their local communities. They were a high ranking non-combatant class of priests, respected holy men within a barbarian society.

Ancient Traditions

The depth of knowledge, folklore, and tradition possessed by the Druids in European pre-history makes it likely that their religion drew upon a long history of cultural traditions, not all of them necessarily Celtic or Indo-European. There was probably an ancient tradition before them that gave heavy influence.

Forests in Western Europe had become closed by 6,000 BC. European cultures from the Late Glacial period up to 5,000 BC were based on subsistence hunting and gathering. People then began migrating into Europe from the near East, bringing farming with them. Megalithic stone architecture develops at this time. We are mostly ignorant of what must be a variety of religious beliefs in the Neolithic communities of Europe from 5,000 to 2,000 BC. Their potential contribution to Druid religion is unknown.

Stones of Stenness Stones of Stenness
Photo Credit: Orkneyology

Tall stone circles such as the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar in northern Scotland were constructed around 3000 BC, showing that local communities had developed a strong interest in astronomy. Spectacular burial tombs were built at Maes Howe that were aligned with the setting Sun on the Winter Solstice.

Not much is definitivly known about the Druids, as published sources on their practices are scattered and obscure. Caesar wrote a few lines about them when he invaded the island of Britain in 55 BC. One other source is a book titled On the Ocean by a Greek man named Pytheas, who lived in modern day Marseilles, France around 330 BC. This book was kept at the library of Alexandria for hundreds of years until it was destroyed. During that time many other Greeks referenced the book and we therefore have many quotes from it.

On The Ocean

Pytheas Travels The Voyage of Pytheas in 330 BC.

On the Ocean is the first written source on the existence and traditions of Druid priests. Pytheas set out to discover the source for the supply of tin, which was very important to the Greek economy. The rumor at the time was that it was sourced from the island of Britain. In 330 BC he traveled from his home in Marseilles to Britain. Traveling up the west coast, he met many locals and learned what he could of their lifestyle and traditions. Reaching the northern tip of Scotland, he writes that he sailed to Iceland before returning to Britain. Documenting his travels, he particularly discusses the subject of astronomy with Druid priests.

Pytheas describes the Druids as natural philosophers, and has much admiration for them. Diodorus quotes Pytheas:

"Britain, we are told, is inhabited by tribes who are indigenous and preserve in their way of life the ancient customs. For example they use chariots for their wars ... and their houses are simple. " "Their behavior is simple, very different from the shrewdness and vice that characterize the men of today. Their lifestyle is modest since they are beyond the reach of luxury which comes from wealth. The island is thickly populated, and its climate is extremely cold ... It is held by many kinds and aristocrats who generally live at peace with each other."

Caesar in Gaul

Julius Caesar first intervened in Gaul in 58 BC, and invaded the island of Britain in 55 BC. It is here that he first encounters Druid priests, and he writes that they are well worth his time in understanding them. Caesar states:

"The Druids have one at their head who holds chief authority among them. When he dies, either the highest in honour among the others succeeds, or if some are on an equal footing they content for leadership by a vote of the Druids, but sometimes even in arms."

Caesar speaks with the druids Caesar Speaks with the Druids by Francois Hippolyte Debon

This suggests that the Druid leadership has nation-wide influence. They consistently hold annual meetings. Caesar states that training for a Druid priest takes 20 years and is done in secret in 'remote woods'. Their traditions are orally communicated. "It is said that they commit to memory large amounts of poetry" (magnum numerum versuum). This is very different from classical teaching in Rome and Greece, where teaching is done in urban universities.

Greek Sources

Pliny the Elder gives the only detailed account of a Druid ceremony. Mistletoe was observed growing on an oak tree, a rare occurrence. Preparations were made on the sixth day of the moon for a feast and the sacrifice of two white bulls. A Druid in a white robe climbed the oak tree and cut a branch of mistletoe with a golden sickle, which was caught in a white cloth as it fell.

Diodorus states that the Celts and Druid priests both believe in personal immortality. He states that "the souls of men are immortal, and that after a definite number of years they live a second life when the soul passes to another body." Strabo states that "men's souls are universal and indestructible."

Astronomy and Calendars

Coligny Calendar Coligny Calendar

The positions of the moon and sun were of great importance to the Druids. Caesar writes that they have "much knowledge of the stars and their motion, of the size of the world and of the Earth, of natural philosophy." Pliny describes the form of time measuring used by the Druids, "For it is by the moon that they measure their months and years and also their 'ages' of 30 years."

This is all corroborated by The Coligny Calendar, which was discovered in 1897 near Coligny, France. The bronze calendar was created in the 2nd century AD, and displays a calendar that follows both the moon phases and the solar year. It was found broken into 73 pieces, and was likely destroyed intentionally since the Romans had banned Druidic practices. It is speculated that the Druids created the calendar to preserve their tradition of timekeeping when the Romans were implementing the Julian calendar throughout their empire.

The lunar year was made up of 354 or 355 days. It is disputed weather the calendar year began in summer our autumn. The calendar attempts to synchronize the solar year and lunar month. It is divided into half-months, is measured by nights instead of days, and marks lucky and unlucky days. It overall demonstrates that northern Europe had a strong grasp on astronomy long before the expansion of the Roman Empire.

The End of the Druids in Gaul and Britain

By the first century AD, the Druids were made the target of severe repression. Augustus took action to prohibit Religio Duidarum for any Roman citizen. Pliny states that under Tiberius a decree of the senate was issued against the Gaulish Druids "and all that kind of diviners and healers" (et hoc genus vatum medicorumque). In 54 AD Claudius "completely abolished the barbarous and inhuman religion of the Druids in Gaul." Tacitus writes of the British Druids in 61 AD, implying that the religion is being deliberately stamped out.

The Druid practice of human sacrifice may have been the primary reason for the religion being targeted. The Roman Senate banned the practice in 97 BC.

The Island of Anglesey

In 60 AD, a Roman governor is brought in by Nero to conquer the Druids. They are pushed towards the west coast of Britain, and flee to the island of Anglesey, a holy island for the Druids. They retreat away from the Romans to a holy grove in the forest. Druid weaponry is their words. The sight of the Druids by the Romans was quite frightening. In the end, most were slaughtered by the Romans.

The Druids are finally defeated on the Isle of Anglesey in 61 AD. But they did not disappear entirely. Many escaped to Ireland. Their traditions gradually faded away as the people converted to Christianity.

For inquire, please, of bygone ages, and consider what the fathers have searched out. For we are but of yesterday and know nothing, for our days on earth are a shadow.
Job 8:8-10

Originally published
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

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  Natural History: A Selection by
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The Druids

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