Last month’s offering was about the ancient Avebury stones in Southern England. The stone circles and megaliths that pre-date written history leave much to the imagination. It’s no wonder they are the setting for mystical and magical stories. The Druids, a mystical order of people, have spurred legends and stories of magic, human sacrifice, and ancient rites. 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 now lost early 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.
The Druids, with their revered knowledge, played an important role in society and were a respected warrior class. They were a single authority responsible to act as judge, a lifelong position passed down in secret, to the next generation. This elite training, held in caves and forests, along with their herbalist expertise and the later development of the Ogham alphabet, associated with the Celtic lunar tree calendar, may have led to the summation that Druids were strongly linked to nature. Their 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 about the druids.
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 beliefs focused on the supreme power of the universe and the belief that the soul was indestructible/ immortal and after death passed on to another. Because of the diverse geography and number of tribes and cultures that made up the Celts, there were 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. So strong was the teaching that aristocrats, even kings, sought out Druids to teach their children. Because druidic instructions were memorized verses, none of the verses have survived.
Claims that Druids participated in human sacrifice are uncertain. Caesar claimed they sacrificed criminals by burning them in a wicker effigy, the wicker man. But other authorities claim Caesar’s information is all propaganda to demonize the Druid and justify his move to eradicate them.
Because the common people held them in such high regard, the Romans feared them. It was this reverence that prevented the success of Caesar’s invasion of Briton in 55 BCE. As a result, Caesar ordered their extinction. 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 and there was a resurgence in Druidic beliefs. Today, modern Druidism is one of the pagan religions which include Wicca, Asatru, Shamanism.
If you are wondering about the picture at the top of this month’s blog, I couldn’t find a Druid but I found Gerard Butler from the movie 300 *sigh* If you find a picture of a Druid, please send it along.