A druid was a member of the learned class among the ancient Celts. They acted as priests, teachers, and judges.
Their name may have come from a Celtic word meaning “knower of the oak tree.” Very little is known for certain about the Druids, who kept no records of their own.
Not a great deal of ancient written material is available concerning druids, and what there is comes either from Greek and Roman authors or medieval literary sources such as Irish mythological poems.
The earliest known references to the druids date to the 4th century BC.
The oldest detailed description comes from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (50s BC). According to Caesar, there were two groups of men in Gaul that were held in honour, the Druids and the noblemen (equites). Caesar related that the Druids took charge of public and private sacrifices, and many young men went to them for instruction. They judged all public and private quarrels and decreed penalties. If anyone disobeyed their decree, he was barred from sacrifice, which was considered the gravest of punishments. One Druid was made the chief – upon his death, another was appointed. If, however, several were equal in merit, the Druids voted, although they sometimes resorted to armed violence. Once a year the Druids assembled at a sacred place in the territory of the Carnutes, which was believed to be the centre of all Gaul, and all legal disputes were there submitted to the judgment of the Druids.
Other Roman writers also write about druids – Pliny the Elder wrote of the Druids’ appreciation for both mistletoe and human sacrifice. “To murder a man was to do the act of highest devoutness,” he wrote, “and to eat his flesh was to secure the highest blessings of health.” Tacitus even described a battle in Wales in which Druids “[covered] their altars with the blood of captives and their deities through human entrails.”
Druids were concerned with the natural world and its powers, and considered trees sacred, particularly the oak.
Druidism can be described as a shamanic religion, as it relied on a combination of contact with the spirit world and holistic medicines to treat (and sometimes cause) illnesses. They were said to have induced
insanity in people and been accurate fortune tellers. Some of their knowledge of the earth and space may have come from megalithic times.
Druidism is thought to have been a part of Celtic and Gaulish culture in Europe, with the first classical reference to them in the 2nd century BC.
Druid’s practices were similar to those of priests today, connecting the people with the gods, but their role was also varied and wide-ranging, acting as teachers, scientists, judges and philosophers. They were incredibly powerful and respected, able to banish people from society for breaking the sacred laws, and even able to come between two opposing armies and prevent warfare! They did not have to pay taxes or serve in battle. Druid women were also considered equal to men in many respects, unusual for an ancient community. They could take part in wars and even divorce their husbands!
Their places of worship (‘Temples of the Druids’) were quiet, secluded areas, like clearings in woods and forests, and stone circles. Probably the most famous stone circle in Britain is Stonehenge, an ancient megalithic monument dating back to about 2400 B.C. Most people’s first thoughts about the Druids might be of them congregating around Stonehenge and casting magical incantations. There is indeed thought that this was a place of worship for them, as it still is today for pagans and other neo-druids. There is disagreement though, about whether the Druids built Stonehenge or not. It is not clear exactly when the Druids came to Britain, but it is likely that they actually arrived after Stonehenge was built.
Christianity began to make inroads into France and the British Isles in the 1st century AD, and as the centuries progressed it papered over many Celtic traditions. But Druids continued to pop up in medieval literature, suggesting that the pagan priests later became healers and magicians.
In about 750 AD, the word druid appears in a poem by Blathmac, who wrote about Jesus, saying that he was “better than a prophet, more knowledgeable than every druid, a king who was a bishop and a complete sage.”
They would celebrate New Year on Samhain, the day that we refer to as Halloween (31st October). This was when the last harvest would take place and it was a day full of mysticism and spirituality because the living and the deceased were the closest to being revealed to each other than on any other day.
Yule was the winter solstice, a time when Druids would sit on mounds of earth, for example at New Grange in Ireland, throughout the night, waiting for sunrise, when they would be reborn!
Druids play a prominent role in Irish folklore, generally serving lords and kings as high ranking priest-counselors with the gift of prophecy and other assorted mystical abilities – the best example of these possibly being Cathbad. The chief druid in the court of King Conchobar mac Nessa of Ulster, Cathbad features in several tales, most of which detail his ability to foretell the future. In the tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows – the foremost tragic heroine of the Ulster Cycle – the druid prophesied before the court of
Conchobar that Deirdre would grow up to be very beautiful, and that kings and lords would go to war over her, much blood would be shed because of her, and Ulster’s three greatest warriors would be forced into exile for her sake. This prophecy, ignored by the king, came true.
Irish mythology has a number of female druids, often sharing similar prominent cultural and religious roles with their male counterparts.