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We know very little of the real Druids, if they actually existed as such, in part we have general references to wise people, south Sayers, and advisers to Kings, in part judges and administrators with minimal reference to religions or belief systems. Much of the reincarnation of the Druids is far later, and in some parts perhaps built on earlier myths and legends. There is no evidence they existed, no remains, no directly written records from the period.

In many ways the term Druid is similar to the 'brand name' Al-Quida used today, to represent any and all groups who resist a new form of dictatorship being foisted on them, and the eradication of their rule, structure, and replacements of their beliefs, and laws. In the same way as Al-Quida does not exist as such, and cannot ever be defeated, Druids were the dissidents of the period and all attempts to eradicate them was made. Those known collectively as Druids included fortune tellers, south Sayers, healers, advisers to Kings, negotiators, and judges. Some may also have held ceremonial roles, and these may or may not have been connected with others who were involved in the study of stars, planets, seasons and the like.

They were said to exist throughout Europe but the Romans by the 1st century had cleared them from mainland Europe leaving them initially on the British mainland and then pushed back onto Anglesey and possibly across the sea to Ireland. The myths and legends of both Wales and Ireland include Druids, although in their languages it translates in a more restricted form.

The idea of  an arch-druid and involvement with stone circles did not arise until the mid 1800's. There is no connection with the later modern groups of Neo-Druids with the Druids of old. The first of these was the ancient Druid order formed in 1717. The current reincarnation of this, dates from a group who practiced homeopathy from just after 1900 to the mid 1900's and currently meditation is a key activity. There is no moral code. Druidic discussions typically cover personal experience as well as philosophical, biological, mythological, political, poetic, astrological, religious, and similar subjects. Direct experience is more important than learning acquired through books. Individuality is the key to this, there is no central path and with no moral code each member is completely free to interpret anything any way. They, with others, put on a number of ceremonies including some featured at the solstices at Stonehenge in Wiltshire. These are based on romantic mythology, and similar to a play as you would see in a theatre or a re-enactments based on largely no historic data.

The historic background

The first mention of Druids is later reported text said to exist pre Roman. The earliest recorded mention of the Druids comes from around 200 BC, when two Greek texts, one of which was a history of philosophy written by Sotion of Alexandria, and the other which was a study of magic that was widely but incorrectly attributed to Aristotle, mentioned the existence of Druidas, or wise men belonging to the Keltois (Celts) and Galatias (either the Galatians or the Gauls). Whilst both of these texts are now lost, they were quoted in the 2nd century text Vitae by Diogenes Laertius. There were also references in Greek and Roman texts during the ensuing century to "barbarian philosophers", a possible reference to the Gaulish Druids.

The first known text that actually describes the Druids was Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico, book VI, which had been published in the 50s or 40s BC. A military general who was intent on conquering Gaul and Britain, Caesar described the Druids as being concerned with "divine worship, the due performance of sacrifices, private or public, and the interpretation of ritual questions." He claimed that they played an important part in Gaulish society, being one of the two respected classes along with the equites (a term meaning 'horsemen' which has been usually interpreted as referring to warriors) and that they performed the function of judges. He claimed that they recognised the authority of a single leader, who would rule until their death, when a successor would be chosen by vote or through conflict. He also remarked that they met annually at a sacred place in the region owned by the Carnute tribe in Gaul, whilst they viewed Britain as the centre of Druidic study, and that they were not found amongst the German tribes to the east of the Rhine. According to Caesar, many young men were trained to be Druids, during which they had to learn all the associated lore off by heart. He also claimed that their main teaching was "that souls do not perish, but after death pass from one to another" but that they were also concerned with "the stars and their movements, the size of the cosmos and the earth, the world of nature, the powers of deities", indicating that they were involved with such common aspects of religion as theology and cosmology, but also astronomy. Caesar also held that they were "administrators" during rituals of human sacrifice, for which criminals were usually used, and that the method was through burning in a wicker man.

Whilst he would have had first hand experience with Gaulish people, and therefore likely with Druids, Caesar's account has been widely criticised by modern historians as being inaccurate. One issue that had been raised by such historians as Fustel de Coulanges and Ronald Hutton was that whilst Caesar described the Druids as a significant power within Gaulish society, he did not mention them even once in his accounts of his Gaulish conquests, and nor did Aulus Hirtius, who continued Caesar's account of the Gallic Wars following the latter's death. Hutton believes that Caesar had manipulated the idea of the Druid so that they would appear both civilised (being learned and pious) and barbaric (performing human sacrifice) to Roman readers, thereby representing both "a society worth including in the Roman Empire" and one that required civilising with Roman rule and values, thus justifying his wars of conquest.

Sean Dunham, in a view supported by Bernhard Maier suggested that Caesar had simply taken the Roman religious functions of senators and applied them to the Druids, whilst Daphne Nash believed it "not unlikely" that he "greatly exaggerates" both the centralised system of Druidic leadership and its connection to Britain.

Other historians have however accepted the possibility of Caesar's account being more accurate. Norman J. DeWitt surmised that Caesar's description of the role of Druids in Gaulish society may report an idealised tradition, based on the society of the 2nd Century BC, before the pan-Gallic confederation led by the Arverni was smashed in 121 BC, followed by the invasions of Teutones and Cimbri, rather than on the demoralised and disunited Gaul of his own time.

John Creighton has speculated that in Britain, the Druidic social influence was already in decline by the mid first century BC, in conflict with emergent new power structures embodied in paramount chieftains. Others find the decline in the context of Roman conquest itself. Other historians argue that despite Caesar's execution of Dumnorix, his problem dealt with anti-Romans and not just Druids. Historically speaking, the brother of Dumnorix, Diviciacus, was a good friend to Cicero and Rome. Diviciacus was the only specifically identified individual Druid in any classical literary source. Cicero remarks on the existence among the Gauls of augurs or soothsayers, known by the name of dDruids, he had made the acquaintance of one Diviciacus, an Aeduan also known to Caesar.

Pomponius Mela, who wrote the Roman geaographer and died around 43 AD, is the first author who says that the Druids' instruction was secret, and was carried on in caves and forests. Druidic lore consisted of a large number of verses learned by heart, and Caesar remarked that it could take up to twenty years to complete the course of study. There is no historic evidence during the period when Druidism was flourishing to suggest that Druids were other than male. What was taught to Druid novices anywhere is conjecture, of the druids' oral literature, not one certifiably ancient verse is known to have survived, even in translation. All instruction was communicated orally, but for ordinary purposes, Caesar reports, the Gauls had a written language in which they used Greek characters. In this he probably draws on earlier writers, by the time of Caesar, Gaulish inscriptions had moved from the Greek script to the Latin script. As a result of this prohibition, and of the decline of Gaulish in favour of Latin, no Druidic documents, if there ever were any, have survived.

During the Gallic Wars of 58 to 51 BC, the Roman Army, led by Julius Caesar, conquered the many tribal chiefdoms of Gaul, and annexed it as a part of the Roman Empire. According to accounts produced in the following centuries, the new rulers of Roman Gaul subsequently introduced measures to wipe out the Druids from that country. According to Pliny the Elder, writing in the 70s AD, it was the emperor Tiberius (who ruled from 14 to 37 AD), who introduced laws banning not only Druidism, but also other native soothsayers and healers, a move which Pliny applauded, believing that it would end human sacrifice in Gaul. A somewhat different account of Roman legal attacks on Druidism was made by Suetonius, writing in the 2nd century, when he claimed that Rome's first emperor, Augustus (who had ruled from 27 BC till 14 AD), had decreed that noone could be both a Druid and a Roman citizen, and that this was followed by a law passed by the later Emperor Claudius (who had ruled from 41 to 54 AD) which "thoroughly suppressed" the Druids by banning their religious practices.

Tacitus, in describing the attack made on the island of Mona (Anglesey, Ynys Môn in Welsh) by the Romans under Suetonius Paulinus, represents the legionaries as being awestruck on landing by the appearance of a band of Druids, who, with hands uplifted to the sky, poured forth terrible imprecations on the heads of the invaders. He states that these "terrified our soldiers who had never seen such a thing before..." The courage of the Romans, however, soon overcame such fears, according to the Roman historian, the Britons were put to flight, and the sacred groves of Mona were cut down. Tacitus is also the only primary source that gives accounts of Druidism in Britain, but maintains a hostile point of view. Druids in the eyes of Tacitus were seen as ignorant savages who "deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails." Professor Ronald Hutton points out that there "is no evidence that Tacitus ever used eye-witness reports" and casts doubt upon the reliability of Tacitus's report.

After the first century, the continental Druids disappeared entirely and were referred to only on very rare occasions. Ausonius, for one instance, apostrophizes the rhetorician Attius Patera as sprung from a "race of Druids".

Phillip Freeman, a classics professor, discusses a later reference to Dryades, which he translates as Druidesses, writing that "The fourth century AD collection of imperial biographies known as the Historia Augusta contains three short passages involving Gaulish women called "Dryades" ("Druidesses")." He points out that "In all of these, the women may not be direct heirs of the Druids who were supposedly extinguished by the Romans — but in any case they do show that the Druidic function of prophesy continued among the natives in Roman Gaul." However, the Historia Augusta is frequently interpreted by scholars as a largely satirical work, and such details might have been introduced in a humorous fashion. Additionally, Druidesses are mentioned in later Irish mythology, including the legend of Fionn mac Cumhaill, who, according to the 12th century, The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, is raised by the Druidess Bodhmall and a wise-woman.

Druids of Wales and Ireland

When Druids are portrayed in early Irish sagas and saints' lives set in the pre-Christian past of the island, they are usually accorded high social status. The evidence of the law texts, which were first written down in the 7th and 8th centuries, suggests that with the coming of Christianity the role of the Druid (Old Irish druí) in Irish society was rapidly reduced to that of a sorcerer who could be consulted to cast spells or practise healing magic and that his standing declined accordingly. According to the early legal tract Bretha Crólige, the sick-maintenance due to a Druid, satirist and brigand (díberg) is no more than that due to a bóaire (an ordinary freeman). Another law text, Uraicecht Becc (‘Small primer’), gives the Druid a place among the dóer-nemed or professional classes which depend for their status on a patron, along with wrights, blacksmiths and entertainers, as opposed to the fili, who alone enjoyed free named-status.

The most important documents of Old Irish literature are contained in manuscripts of the 12th century or later, but many of the texts themselves date back to as early as the 8th century. In these stories, Druids usually act as advisors to kings. They were said to have the ability to foretell the future (Bec mac Dé, for example, predicted the death of Diarmait mac Cerbaill more accurately than three Christian saints) and there is little reference to their religious function. They do not appear to form any corporation, nor do they seem to be exempt from military service.

In the Ulster Cycle, Cathbad, Chief Druid at the court of Conchobar, King of Ulster, is accompanied by a number of youths (100 according to the oldest version) who are desirous of learning his art. Cathbad is present at the birth of the famous tragic heroine Deirdre, and prophesies what sort of a woman she will be, and the strife that will accompany her, although Conchobar ignores him. The following description of the band of Cathbad's Druids occurs in the epic tale, the Táin Bó Cúailnge: The attendant raises his eyes towards the heavens and observes the clouds and answers the band around him. They all raise their eyes towards the heavens, observe the clouds, and hurl spells against the elements, so that they arouse strife amongst them and clouds of fire are driven towards the camp of the men of Ireland. We are further told that at the court of Conchobar no one had the right to speak before the Druids had spoken.

Also in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, before setting out on her great expedition against Ulster, Medb, Queen of Connacht, consults her Druids regarding the outcome of the war. They hold up the march by two weeks, waiting for an auspicious omen. Druids were also said to have magical skills, when the hero Cúchulainn returned from the Other World, after having been enticed there by a fairy woman or goddess, named Fand, whom he is now unable to forget, he is given a potion by some Druids, which banishes all memory of his recent adventures and which also rids his wife Emer of the pangs of jealousy.

Then there is the story of Étaín. This lady, later the wife of Eochaid Airem, High King of Ireland, was in a former existence the beloved of the god Midir, who again seeks her love and carries her off. The King has recourse to his Druid, Dalgn, who requires a whole year to discover the haunt of the couple. This he accomplished by means of four wands of yew inscribed with ogham characters.

In other texts the Druids are able to produce insanity. Mug Ruith, a legendary druid of Munster, wore a hornless bull's hide and an elaborate feathered headdress and had the ability to fly and conjure storms.

The story of Vortigern, as reported by Nennius, provides one of the very few glimpses of possible Druidic survival in Britain after the Roman conquest, unfortunately, Nennius is noted for mixing fact and legend in such a way that it is now impossible to know the truth behind his text. He wrote that after being excommunicated by Germanus, the British leader Vortigern invited twelve Druids to assist him.

In the lives of saints and martyrs, the Druids are represented as magicians and diviners. In Adamnan's vita of Columba, two of them act as tutors to the daughters of Lóegaire mac Néill, the High King of Ireland, at the coming of Saint Patrick. They are represented as endeavouring to prevent the progress of Patrick and Saint Columba by raising clouds and mist. Before the battle of Culdremne in 561AD, a Druid made an airbe drtiad (fence of protection) round one of the armies, but what is precisely meant by the phrase is unclear. The Irish Druids seem to have had a peculiar tonsure. The word druí is always used to render the Latin magus, and in one passage St Columba speaks of Christ as his druid. Similarly, a life of St Beuno states that when he died he had a vision of 'all the saints and druids'. This may however be just part of the normal practise of Christianity over-wrapping and including other religions.

As the Romans planned to invade Ireland but never did, if anything remains of any Druidic, its more likely to be found in Ireland than the rest of the British Isles. However it may be that the justification put forward to conquer Anglesey was only ever political spin, giving them justification in turn to go on and conquer Ireland. Looking for Druid bases may be a little like looking for the caves in Afghanistan where the Al-Quida are said to be based, mythical places that can never be found.

Druid Sites

There are no known Druid Sites, or mention is made of specific Druid sites, and the only specific place mentioned on the island of Anglesey.  There is reference to cutting down their sacred groves, suggesting they had connection with trees and no mention of stone circles or other structures.

Generally Christianity over-wrapped other religions, including for example holy wells, healing springs  or stone circles under their new churches. I can find no mention of them being placed in specific woods or replacing specific trees. There are odd mentions of holly, but its not detailed enough to know what significance this had. Planting staffs that became trees and the like is a common part of Christian mythology, and it may be that some of these could be explored further, to see if there is any pattern or relevance


By: Keith Park Section: Heritage Section Key:
Page Ref: Druids Topic: Heritage  Last Updated: 07/2010

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