The druids of antiquity remain an enigma and a constant source of, sometimes, fanciful speculation. Their roles in Celtic society were as broad as they were integral to daily life; story-teller, sage, teacher, priest, judge, sorcerer and keeper of the tribe’s traditions. Yet, very little is known for certain about them; they did not share their knowledge with the uninitiated and kept no records of their own but their influence lingered longest in the remotest realms of the Celts, such as in Brittany.
The little that we know about the mysterious druids comes from comments made about them in the writings of the Greek historians Strabo and Diodorus of Sicily who drew upon earlier works by Timagenes of Alexandria and Alexander of Miletus. Unfortunately, these earliest sources are now lost but the writings of their Roman contemporary, Julius Caesar, remain in print to this day. His account of the Gallic Wars of the 1st century BC recorded several observations on the customs and religious practices of the Celtic tribes of Gaul and Britain; to which we can add a few additional details recounted in works by the Roman authors Pliny and Tacitus about a century later.
From these fragments, we note that the Celts of antiquity possessed a distinct aristocracy of bards, priests and judges who exercised considerable power among the populace. Accounts differ as to the rigidity of the boundaries that separated these three groups; Caesar noted only two privileged classes in Celtic society – warriors and druids. Later authors suggested a discrete druidical hierarchy of poets and story-tellers, soothsayers and diviners, and at the apex of this elite class; the philosophers cum sorcerers known as druids, who themselves constituted an organized group under an Arch-druid who would rule until his death, when a successor would be chosen by vote or through force of arms.
Whether functions were so clearly divided or not, the druids represented a powerful grouping of respected religious leaders. Their activities and responsibilities appear to have encompassed all aspects of daily life; from politics and justice, both as counsellors and judges, to administering the sacred side of Celtic life supervising divine worship and sacrificial ritual. Druids were custodians of the tribe’s history, the crucial genealogies of its leaders and curators of its oral traditions and culture. They were also involved in foretelling the future through the interpretation of sacrifices and augurs from the natural world such as the flight and calls of birds.
The Druids were an essential bridge between the people and their gods and were believed to stand between the mortal world and the Otherworld. This link to the divine, coupled with their profound knowledge of magic and healing, likely saw them feared as much as venerated by their communities. While there is evidence to suggest that some Celts were literate, the druids’ knowledge was not committed to paper but only ever transmitted orally. Caesar tells us that the island of Britain was the home of druidism and that, aspiring druids, usually men of rank and nobility, travelled there for as many as 20 years of instruction in poetry, history, law, healing, religious rites, magic, divination and philosophy. According to one 1st century Roman author, such instruction was secret and carried out in sacred caves and forests and required the precise learning of at least 700 poetical sagas alone.
The writings of Caesar also tell us that the druids took a keen interest in astronomy, geography, theology and natural philosophy but, beyond this, very little is known of the secrets into which new druids were initiated. However, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, as many authors attribute all manner of beliefs to the druids, confidently replacing speculation with certitude. Unfortunately, the neo-druidic movement of the 19th century and its later manifestations has helped confuse the waters regarding the popular perception of the roles and beliefs of the Celtic druids of antiquity.
The 1st century writers contemporaneous with the druids noted that they believed in the indestructibility and inevitable transmigration of the soul; a powerful belief that made the Celts fearless warriors in battle. The druids were also said to believe in a tribal spirit who was the first of men; ancestor of all the tribe and its guardian spirit. It was said that all orders of society accepted their authority and that they were held in such regard that their intervention could stop battles between warring factions. Furthermore, druids held the power to banish anyone from any religious celebration thus making them total outcasts from the life of the tribe.
Any private sacrifice to the gods required the attendance of a druid as they were the only recognised intermediaries between the domains of the mortal and the divine. Some writers claimed that they sacrificed both animals and humans to the gods and foretold the future by observing the death convulsions and blood flow of the victims. Caesar’s account notes that human sacrifices usually involved criminals and that victims were often burnt alive within a large effigy made of wooden branches and wickerwork, now popularly known as a Wicker Man. There is much debate as to the veracity of the claims that the ancient Celts practised human sacrifice to their gods; some historians regard such claims as Roman propaganda projecting what they viewed as barbarian traits onto foreign peoples.
The popular image of venerable white-robed, bearded old men gathering mistletoe is primarily one that we owe to Pliny and the romantic engravings of the 18th century. Pliny tells us that the druids held nothing more sacred than mistletoe and that they never performed their religious rites without employing branches of it. The plant was also believed to make barren animals fertile and be an effective antidote for all poisons. Gathering the mistletoe was done with much ritual, it being said that it was cut with a golden sickle by a druid clad in white and immediately followed by the sacrifice of two white bulls. This ceremony took place on the sixth day of the moon, the day which, in the Celtic calendar, marked the beginning of the months and years. On this day, the moon was considered particularly auspicious, being hailed as all-healing.
Caesar also noted that senior druids congregated to meet annually at a sacred place in the region occupied by the Carnute tribe between the rivers Seine and Loire. This idea of a brotherhood that transcended tribal differences – druids could cross tribal boundaries and conflict zones without fear of hindrance or harassment – directed by an Arch-druid who effectively wielded pan-national control was likely a key consideration behind the Roman effort to suppress druidism. Some authors have even gone so far as to suggest that cutting the head off the druidic movement was one of the key drivers behind the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD.
The Romans clearly viewed the druids as a real threat to their control over the newly subjugated Celtic tribes as Druidism was one of the very few religious movements banned by them, being heavily proscribed under several emperors. This is significant because the Romans were generally tolerant of indigenous beliefs and their practitioners or else adopted a policy of Romanising local deities, supplanting them with gods from their own pantheon; an approach subsequently adopted by the Christian Church (another religion once banned by the Romans) a few centuries later.
Roman suppression was so successful that by the seventh decade of the 1st century, Pliny was able to note that: “The Gallic provinces were pervaded by the magic art, and that even down to a period within memory; for it was the Emperor Tiberius that put down their druids and all that tribe of wizards and physicians. At the present day, struck with fascination, Britannia still cultivates this art.” Writing a little later, Tacitus provides us with one of the last contemporary accounts that we have of the druids when he describes the Roman invasion of the British island of Anglesey, ‘a refuge for fugitives’, in 60AD.
“On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with dishevelled hair, waving firebrands. All around, the druids, lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if paralysed, they stood motionless. Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed.”
We do not know how important Anglesey was for the Celts and their druids but some have suggested that the island was at the very centre of druidism or that it was the location where the druids had withdrawn in order to escape the relentless march of the Roman invaders. Whatever the truth, the defeat at Anglesey represented a crushing blow to the power of the druids who quickly disappear from the historical record thereafter.
Given what we know of druidic organisation, it is unlikely that all the druids were slaughtered in Anglesey in 60AD; surely some, possibly most, would have been at home with their tribes spread across the Celtic world, albeit one that was shrinking under the weight of Roman occupation. Perhaps druidism continued in the remoter Celtic fringes of Roman rule for some time, slowly dying away as the culture that had sustained it changed forever? With no real military or political power, the Celtic tribes steadily lost land and leadership to their Roman overlords; tribal kings and chieftains were either removed or replaced with a candidate acceptable to the Romans and thus, over time, the old aristocracy, of which the druids were an integral part, lost its command and relevance. However, it is not inconceivable that the druids retained their importance by focusing on particular skills that were valued in their communities, such as story-telling or healing and that their re-badged existence remained hidden behind designations such as poet, physician or magician.
Another body of evidence concerning the druids can be found in the mythology of Wales, Ireland and Brittany and in the hagiographies of some early Celtic saints but even here allusions are scant with just a few Irish myths containing references to druids and even less in the myths of Wales and Brittany. These ‘early’ accounts were set down during the Medieval period but likely derive from much earlier oral traditions and it is, of course, possible, that many other tales were lost to history before anyone thought to transcribe them for posterity. However, we should remember that these Medieval sources were set down by Christian monks and thus predominantly portray druids as seers and wizards, never as priests.
One of the unique legends associated with the druids of Brittany comes from the writings of Strabo referencing the work of Poseidonius of Rhodes, a man who had actually spent some time amongst the Celts in the early part of the 1st century BC. Strabo tells of a community of women who were devotees of a secret cult of Dionysus. These women lived on a small island not far from the mouth of the river Loire and upon which no man was permitted to set foot. Once a year, it was the custom of these women to un-roof their temple and re-roof it again on the same day before sunset. Each woman brought her load to help add to the new roof but if any of them allowed their burden to fall to the ground during the ceremony she was instantly torn to pieces by her companions who bore her remains around the site in great frenzy. Strabo notes wryly that someone always jostled the woman who was to suffer this fate.
Strabo writes that the women were ‘possessed by Dionysus’ which probably means that they worshipped an unidentified Celtic deity with many of the same attributes as the Roman deity Bacchus; god of wine and fertility. Although he does not equate them with the druids, it is most likely that they were; they were said to be guardians of the oracle of a Celtic god and only druids could perform such a role. It is worth noting that roofed temples were rare amongst the Celts before Roman influence dominated and some have suggested that the temple of these women might have been within a dolmen or circle of standing stones.
The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, writing around 43AD, talks of another island off the west coast of Brittany; the Île de Sein. This island was described as the dwelling place of a group of nine female virgins known as the Gallicenae. These virgins were said to be Celtic priestesses who worshipped a god of prophecy whose shrine they guarded on this windswept island buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean. Many magical powers were attributed to these women; their voices charmed nature so that they could dominate the elements, conjuring great storms; exciting or calming the winds according to their whims. They were said to be able to shape-shift into animals and to possess the ability to cure even the most impossible of diseases. The Gallicenae were also held to be most powerful seers but would only share the secrets of the future with those pilgrims who made the dangerous journey to consult them personally.
These ladies of the island do not appear in any other ancient accounts nor were they recounted by Pliny who based much of his work on that of Mela. We should therefore be a little cautious before assuming that these priestesses were obviously druids. They might have been but they could just as easily have been a fanciful geographical transposition of a cult of Apollo, the Greco-Roman god of prophecy and healing; an oracular god closely associated with the nine muses who also spoke only through chaste women. It is interesting to note that these priestesses possessed the very same attributes that were later given to Brittany’s fairies, who were often described as the damned spirits of Celtic princesses who had been cursed for refusing to accept Christianity.
The Gallicenae appear in several Breton tales and in some versions of the legend of Ker-Is; a sunken city which is traditionally purported to lie between the Breton mainland and the Île de Sein. In these tales, the pagan Princess Dahud visits the nine priestesses on the Île de Sein to ask them to raise the towers of her city and to build a massive dyke in order to better protect the city from the ocean. Some stories say that the Gallicenae sent the korrigans to construct the city’s formidable protective walls, while others add that the korrigans were also despatched to tempt the city’s Christians away from their faith.
Another interesting association between the Gallicenae and the magical korrigans is found in Ar Rannou, an old Breton folk song portraying a dialogue between a druid and an inquisitive child. One of the druid’s mysterious answers tells that: “There are nine korrigans, who dance, with flowers in their hair, and robes of white wool, around the fountain, by the light of the full moon”. The reference to dancing in the moonlight may be more than just poetic imagery as some have suggested that this verse actually references dancing in honour of the moon. The archaic Celts venerated the moon and this tradition was still extant in the 17th century when the Jesuit missions noted, with alarm, that it was customary for the people of the Île de Sein to kneel before the new moon and to recite prayers in its honour and on the first day of the year, to make an offering of bread at the fountains, in tribute to the moon.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to date this seeming conflation of two traditions concerning magical beings as the song we know today was first collected from the oral tradition and set down as recently as 1844. However, it has been argued that the song is of great antiquity, possibly containing fragments from as early as the 5th century although others suggest the 15th century. Those who argue for the earlier date see strong traces of druidic teaching in these verses. Caesar tells us that the druids were public instructors and taught the doctrines of natural and moral philosophy to the young and the song contains many of the general characteristics one might expect of druidic doctrines on divinity, metaphysics, history, geography and cosmogony; delivered in the enigmatic and obscure phrasing ascribed to them by the Greek writer Diogenes Laërtius.
Some tantalising glimpses of the beliefs of the ancient Celts and their druids survived, albeit much debased, into the modern era, surviving in superstitious practices such as the observances connected with Midsummer and Halloween; harvest rituals including corn dollies; and the tradition of auspicious or unlucky birds and animals. Even today, some folk still ‘touch wood’ without realising its likely association with the ancient Celtic practice of making solemn vows in front of trees while stretching out a hand upon the tree trunk.
Given their deep attachment to hidden knowledge and secret teachings as well as their aversion to the written word, it is perhaps fitting that the druids retain their aura of mystery, even to this day.