The Druids: Who Were They?
The Druids are a group steeped in mystery and disinformation. When one thinks of a Druid today, several kinds of images pop to mind. First there is the Merlin approach, a winsome little old one, full of wit and wisdom behind the twinkling blue eyes and the foot-long white beard. Then for the blood and guts crowd there is the wrathful warrior priest up to his elbows in the blood of human sacrifice. But in general, neither characterization is correct. The Druids did not practice mass human sacrifice, although there has been a concerted effort on the part of their enemies from Caesar on down to convince us that they did. The lesson to be learned here, of course, is to make sure your enemies don’t do your public relations.
Caesar, of course, was the one leading the Roman Legions on to their destruction of the world of the Kelts or the Gauls as they were variously known. He said of the Druids, "They have provided figures made of willow, that they fill with living men; they set them upon fire and the men within die, enveloped in flames." Today we know these large figures as "Wicker Men," large wooden constructions 50 feet tall packed with sacrificial victims. You can’t really trust his statements Caesar in this case as his agenda was to destroy the Kelts and turn public opinion against the "enemies" of Rome. And a question I would have is how would such a flimsy structure hold all those bodies?
In a BBC video on the subject of the Kelts in Great Britain, one scholar of the subject said that so far there had been one basket discovered in the various archeological digs that indicated that people, and people with the same malformed jaw, had been burned. However, one basket in one continent over 1,000-year span of history does not make a cultural habit.
To be fair the classical civilization of Greece and Rome were by no means universally condemning of the Kelts and their sacerdotal class, the Druids.
The Romans referred to the Celts as barbarians, but then that meant merely that they talked in a different language. In fact, both the classical civilizations and the Kelts were descendants of the same Indo-European culture group. Other Greek and Roman writers praised the Druids for their learning, recognized their role as judges and priests in their own society and were well aware of their ability.
Said Diodorus Siculus (Also known as Diodorus of Sicily) the Greek historian who wrote works of history between 60 and 30 B.C.:
They say little in their conversations, expressing themselves in enigmas, and affecting a language that relies mainly on conjecture. They employ hyperbole a great deal, either to praise themselves or to humble others. In their speech they are threatening, haughty and given to tragedy. They are intelligent however and capable of improving themselves.
Faint praise but better than many accounts. Some classical authors even imputed the founding of the Druids to Pythagoras.
It is somewhat current to refer to the Druids not as priests but as philosophers. However, they were both and so much more; the distinction is modern and reflects the modern intellectual’s discomfort with religion. As a matter of fact, they filled a number of roles in a society that was far more complex and developed than is assumed by the Court Historians.
Author Jean Markale, author of The Druids: Celtic Priest of Nature and a lifelong student of the Kelts and Druids, tells us that, "There never did exist the smallest nuance of difference between the sacred and the profane in Keltic society. The question never arose."
The general term drui describes the upper ranks of Keltic society. The other ruling class was the equites, or the military. Of the sacerdotal class there were various specializations. Many of these have persisted through time and expressions of which can be found in our own society.
There was the senca, who was the historian of the tribe charged with maintaining the historic tales and philosophical tradition. You might find their descendant in today’s academic. Then there was the brithem, who had the duties of judge, legislator and ambassador. The scelaige specialized in mythological tales while the cainte was the master of magical chants who was in charge of pronouncing the community’s invocations, benedictions and execrations and curses. You could find similar functions in the media world of orators, singers, comics and storytellers in general. The liaig was the specialist who made use of plants, surgery and magic in the cure of the afflicted. Today we have doctors who use surgery and drugs derived still from the plant world. And it was the cruitire who, as player of the harp, caused tears, laughter, sleep or death. Music is used to emotionally influence, even control people in the modern world. Music is a very old form of magic. Magic as the Druids may have understood it was the ability to change things, material things as in alchemy or medicine, but also emotional states as in music, or even intellectual understandings.
Druids in the popular imagination are found in the deep forest working their magic in secret. Given that the first descriptions we have of them are from the classical world of Greece and Rome, whose intellectual class spent its time in cities, the mystique becomes somewhat more understandable. In the Keltic languages, the word for tree is very similar to the word for science. You can also find the biblical idea of the Tree of the Knowledge and of Good and Evil. Then you have the god of learning, Odin, in an old Scandinavian tale hanging upside down from a tree. That same god used the runes of knowledge to free himself. That image comes down to us in the Tarot card of The Hanged Man. The German word wut for root is very similar to the English word, wood. The Druidic men of knowledge sought root knowledge in the hidden world of the forest.
The connection of the Druids to the British Isles and Ireland is neither simply sentimental nor a reflection of the fact that those islands were the last stand of the Kelts in the face of the Roman assault. Curiously Irish tradition has the Druids coming down from "the isles of the North of the world." The Irish texts also indicate the importance of Britain in the initiation of young people. Albion is the name for the island in ancient Greek and Alba in one of the Keltic languages is the name of Scotland. The word Albion derives from Proto-Indo European and means white. It was to Britain that the Irish hero, Cuchalain, went to complete his education. And the name Bangor, as in Wales or Maine, signifies college or assembly. The myths of the Greeks, sometimes critics if the Kelts, described the land of the Hyperborean, located in the farthest reaches of the north, but still a veritable land of milk and honey in a garden of eternal spring.
The traditions at Delphi made mention of the Hyperborean Apollo, who came down from the north and defeated Python, the serpent. The historical explanation of the story concerns the arrival of the Dorians, who came from the cradle of the Indo-Europeans to the north and to the east in central Asia and defeated the Achaeans of the Minoan Bronze Age Civilization, a herding and agrarian people. The cultural importance of this event was that the tellurian cult of earth worship represented by the serpent was replaced by what is termed a solar cult, which came from the north, a more likely location of Sun worship. Interestingly enough, this story is reflected in the opening pages of the Bible where the serpent, not quite out of the picture, plays the role of seducer. St. George is the patron saint of England, Russia, Greece, Catalonia and Palestine, and he slew the dragon or the serpent. As a matter of fact, slaying dragons was quite the theme of many medieval tales. And there has always been a historic relationship between the Delphic cult of Apollo and Great Britain, where a Greek found an Apollonian cult similar to the Greek cult, and the perfectly round temple built to him.
A fascinating exception to this is the red dragon on the Welsh flag. As the myth goes, Merlin was a being born of a woman and a demon with no human father and as such was to be sacrificed. But he talks the king out of it by explaining that the building of the castle was being disturbed by the battle of two dragons in a pool underneath, a white dragon and a red one. The white dragon stands for the Saxons and the red for the Britons. Eventually the red dragon would prevail in Merlin’s prophecy and Wales would be free of Anglo-Saxon rule.
In today’s world, there is a movement condemning the "Solar Cult" which, some say, still rules the world from behind the scenes. Earth worship, moon worship, and goddess cults are necessary to correct the imbalance. In a fanciful movie version of The Mists of Avalon with Angelica Houston, she plays the role of the high priestess of the earth goddess. However, the Druids did not worship an earth goddess or god. And I am not convinced they worshiped the Sun. They did, however, have a sophisticated knowledge of the movement of the Sun, the stars, the planets and the Moon. And in this they have been linked to the Magi of the Chaldeans, the priestly class of the neo-Babylonian empire, versed in astronomy and creators of astrology. The Babylonian empire collapsed in the 5th century B.C. at about the time, it is said, the Kelts and their Druids appeared on the scene in Europe, an interesting coincidence. Again, some put the date much further back in time.
Jean Markale thinks that they kept a lunar calendar rather than a solar one but they celebrated Apollo’s descent to Stonehenge every 19 years, when the lunar calendar coincides with the solar calendar. He also asserts that the Druids did not build Stonehenge, which he says, was built by an earlier group of people. The Druids did, however, make much use of the many stone circles found throughout the British Isles and Western Europe, built by an earlier culture, and may have adopted them for their own ceremonies. They, of course, recognized the significance of these calendric sites not only for timekeeping but also for grand religious spectacle.
The Druids and their people, the Kelts, are thought to have originated in what is today Austria near the Hallstat archeological site sometime around the 12th century B.C. A later development of the same culture is termed La Tene for an archeological site in Switzerland that is dated from the 6th or 5th century B.C. The Kelts could be found almost anywhere from Russia to Spain in those centuries.
British archeological studies, however, seem to support the idea that an early, related Keltic cultural group may have moved to the British Isles millennia before, possibly as far back as 4,000 BC. According to British scholars, the circles of round stones found in the Orkney Islands date back some 6,000 years and the building techniques resemble those of later Keltic cultures.
In the Irish tradition, the Tuatha de Danaan were the last of two invasions of post-diluvium immigrations to the island. The first were the Fir Bolg, the warriors and the second were the Tuatha de Danaan, or the Druids. They both had to contend with the Fomor, the mythic giant race, who had to be defeated in order to make room for the newcomers.
In their concept of kingship, the Druids mirror their antecedents, the Indo-Europeans, i.e., the Druid advises and the king rules. The king generally followed the Druids’ advice as the Druid was a member of the religious class, while the king was in the second class, that of the warrior. We see the partnership of the Druid and the king in several of the gods of the Tuatha de Danaan of Ireland, Ogma and Nuada are paired this way. Odin and Tyr in the Germanic tradition are of the same balance. Then in the Vedic tradition there is Mitra, a jurist god, and Varuna, the magician god. And in the last appearance of the daring duo we have King Arthur and Merlin, the magician advisor.
Judgments, decisions and contracts were under the auspices of the gods, and it was the Druids who served as the intermediaries between gods and man.
According to Caesar, the Druids felt that "the religion did not permit them to commit the material of their teachings to writing" and it is generally thought that was because they were an illiterate society. But Caesar adds "in almost all other matters, and to their public and private accounts, they make use of Greek letters." And in Ireland the Druids made use of the Ogham script on wood and on stone. These were again not a simple-minded people, but it is clear that they felt the need for secrecy. But they did understand the power of the word.
The gutuater was a specialized priest who enchanted by voice. The very name means "father of the voice." The written word is set in stone, as it were, and cannot be changed. In addition, it does not carry the power of the voice, the spell-binding quality of chant. Writing is inert while the voice is vibrational. It moves and can move one. And in it you find its later expression in song, poetry, theater, the Catholic mass, the give and take of the Orthodox priest and the laity. You find it in the great orators of history and in the advertiser’s pitch.
But what did the Druid communicate? What did they believe? There are thousands of pages on their gods and goddesses, the mythical heroes, their fantastical tales and the similarities of these to the ancient city states of the Middle East, to those of the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, to the Irish of the Tuatha de Danaan, to the Scythians.
Contrary to the idea that the concept of monotheism was a later development after ages of polytheism, Markale offers another idea. It would seem that the pantheon of Keltic gods is literally endless but the same would seem to be the case if one entered a Catholic church with all the icons of Mary and the saints. Catholics understand these are not gods and in like manner the many tall tales of the Keltic mythology may just have been dramatizations of the forces of life or projections of their psyches. Their heroes may have been a living example of their ideals. The same heroism is also reflected in Christianity where the many saints proved themselves ready and able to do the impossible.
In the ancient Irish tradition the "Father of All" is the Dagda. Later in history the Gauls considered themselves to be the direct descendants of the same god by another name, Dispater.
In any case, the Druids did not teach a religion of passive acceptance. The Druidic idea was not renunciation of the world and contemplation of the void as is being popularized today in the New Age. The Keltic world was all too full and dynamic. They saw life as a process of constant becoming. Their belief in free will underscores their basic conception that life was what you made it. They did not worship the earth, but rather felt that man could have an impact on nature by understanding it and revealing its secrets for his own welfare.
But this is not the same as a belief in the treadmill of endless reincarnation from one life to another as you work your way up to Nirvana as taught by Eastern religions. What was the "Other World" as taught by the Druids? Simply it was the world unseen; it was the world imagined but not yet existing. It was the belief in possibility, the endless becoming that is life. There was no going back but only a leap into the future. To quote Markale:
The Tuatha de Danaan ( the Druids of ancient Ireland) were not only experts in religion, wisdom and magic, but in science as well. To say science is a craft-even more true for a people who had always refused to conceive of a dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, and who had done their all to glorify manual labor ( one of the reasons incidentally, for their painless conversion to Christianity). The gods of the Tuatha de Danaan appeared not only as brilliant warriors but also as specialists of all the arts, medicine, carpentry, metallurgy and so on.
And this dispels another myth that the Druids were all slaughtered off by the Christian priests. Rather they became Christian priests and bishops very readily because of the similarity of beliefs.
The Druids were of the mind that an opening to this world, a center of some kind, be it geographic, or a moment in time, or a person, an exceptional person, existed and that these openings provided a sanctuary where the world of the human could open to the world of the gods. The omphallos or sanctuary could be in a forest, on top of a hill such as Tara in Ireland or Delphi in Greece, or on the night between the light season and the dark, Samhain, when one was able to cross. But it is we who establish such centers by what we feel most profoundly.
If you think in terms of the cultural influences of the Druids that show up in myth, stories, symbols and icons, as well as the philosophical understanding and concepts there are many.
The idea of sanctuary has become a deeply ingrained part of Christianity. The hero who saves the day got his start way back when. There are the fairies of Irish storytelling that supposedly are the spirit of the Tuatha de Danaan. And then there are the animal stories that still grab us. Expressions like a sharp-edged tongue relate to the linkage of the sword with the intellect. Our word gargantuan for huge or tremendous comes from the ancient god or Druid or mythological character, Gargantua, a creature of immense sensual appetites.
And then there is the mystical isle of Avalon and the enchanted kingdom of Camelot, the stuff of legend. And speaking of Avalon women did hold sacerdotal positions in this society as evidenced by Morgan of the Arthurian Legends, and Sybil of Cumae and Pythia of Delphi.
Our understanding of the Druids is made hazy by the mists of time through which we must peer at them. They were not destroyed although their particular world faded with time and change, their power is still profound. They are still with us in so many ways because they are still in us and in our civilization.
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