The Druids

By J. A. MacCulloch

Druids Pliny thought that the name “Druid” was a Greek appellation derived from the Druidic cult of the oak ([Greek: drus]).[1002] The word, however, is purely Celtic, and its meaning probably implies that, like the sorcerer and medicine-man everywhere, the Druid was regarded as “the knowing one.” It is composed of two parts--dru-, regarded by M.  D’Arbois as an intensive, and vids, from vid, “to know,” or “see.”[1003] Hence the Druid was “the very knowing or wise one.” It is possible, however, that dru- is connected with the root which gives the word “oak” in Celtic speech—Gaulish deruo, Irish dair, Welsh derw--and that the oak, occupying a place in the cult, was thus brought into relation with the name of the priesthood. The Gaulish form of the name was probably druis, the Old Irish was drai. The modern forms in Irish and Scots Gaelic, drui and draoi mean “sorcerer.”

M. D’Arbois and others, accepting Caesar’s dictum that “the system (of Druidism) is thought to have been devised in Britain, and brought thence into Gaul,” maintain that the Druids were priests of the Goidels in Britain, who imposed themselves upon the Gaulish conquerors of the Goidels, and that Druidism then passed over into Gaul about 200 B.C.[1004] But it is hardly likely that, even if the Druids were accepted as priests by conquering Gauls in Britain, they should have affected the Gauls of Gaul who were outside the reflex influence of the conquered Goidels, and should have there obtained that power which they possessed. Goidels and Gauls were allied by race and language and religion, and it would be strange if they did not both possess a similar priesthood. Moreover, the Goidels had been a continental people, and Druidism was presumably flourishing among them then. Why did it not influence kindred Celtic tribes without Druids, ex hypothesi, at that time? Further, if we accept Professor Meyer’s theory that no Goidel set foot in Britain until the second century A.D., the Gauls could not have received the Druidic priesthood from the Goidels.

Caesar merely says, “it is thought (existimatur) that Druidism came to Gaul from Britain.”[1005] It was a pious opinion, perhaps his own, or one based on the fact that those who wished to perfect themselves in Druidic art went to Britain. This may have been because Britain had been less open to foreign influences than Gaul, and its Druids, unaffected by these, were thought to be more powerful than those of Gaul. Pliny, on the other hand, seems to think that Druidism passed over into Britain from Gaul.[1006]

Other writers—Sir John Rhys, Sir G.L. Gomme, and M. Reinach—support on different grounds the theory that the Druids were a pre-Celtic priesthood, accepted by the Celtic conquerors. Sir John Rhys thinks that the Druidism of the aborigines of Gaul and Britain made terms with the Celtic conquerors. It was accepted by the Goidels, but not by the Brythons. Hence in Britain there were Brythons without Druids, aborigines under the sway of Druidism, and Goidels who combined Aryan polytheism with Druidism. Druidism was also the religion of the aborigines from the Baltic to Gibraltar, and was accepted by the Gauls.[1007] But if so, it is difficult to see why the Brythons, akin to them, did not accept it. Our knowledge of Brythonic religion is too scanty for us to prove that the Druids had or had not sway over them, but the presumption is that they had. Nor is there any historical evidence to show that the Druids were originally a non-Celtic priesthood. Everywhere they appear as the supreme and dominant priesthood of the Celts, and the priests of a conquered people could hardly have obtained such power over the conquerors. The relation of the Celts to the Druids is quite different from that of conquerors, who occasionally resort to the medicine-men of the conquered folk because they have stronger magic or greater influence with the autochthonous gods. The Celts did not resort to the Druids occasionally; ex hypothesi they accepted them completely, were dominated by them in every department of life, while their own priests, if they had any, accepted this order of things without a murmur. All this is incredible.  The picture drawn by Caesar, Strabo, and others of the Druids and their position among the Celts as judges, choosers of tribal chiefs and kings, teachers, as well as ministers of religion, suggests rather that they were a native Celtic priesthood, long established among the people.

Sir G.L. Gomme supports the theory that the Druids were a pre-Celtic priesthood, because, in his opinion, much of their belief in magic as well as their use of human sacrifice and the redemption of one life by another, is opposed to “Aryan sentiment.” Equally opposed to this are their functions of settling controversies, judging, settling the succession to property, and arranging boundaries. These views are supported by a comparison of the position of the Druids relatively to the Celts with that of non-Aryan persons in India who render occasional priestly services to Hindu village communities.[1008] Whether this comparison of occasional Hindu custom with Celtic usage two thousand years ago is just, may be questioned. As already seen, it was no mere occasional service which the Druids rendered to the Celts, and it is this which makes it difficult to credit this theory. Had the Celtic house-father been priest and judge in his own clan, would he so readily have surrendered his rights to a foreign and conquered priesthood? On the other hand, kings and chiefs among the Celts probably retained some priestly functions, derived from the time when the offices of the priest-king had not been differentiated. Caesar’s evidence certainly does not support the idea that “it is only among the rudest of the so-called Celtic tribes that we find this superimposing of an apparently official priesthood.” According to him, the power of the Druids was universal in Gaul, and had their position really corresponded to that of the pariah priests of India, occasional priests of Hindu villages, the determined hostility of the Roman power to them because they wielded such an enormous influence over Celtic thought and life, is inexplainable. If, further, Aryan sentiment was so opposed to Druidic customs, why did Aryan Celts so readily accept the Druids? In this case the receiver is as bad as the thief. Sir G.L. Gomme clings to the belief that the Aryans were people of a comparatively high civilisation, who had discarded, if they ever possessed, a savage “past.” But old beliefs and customs still survive through growing civilisation, and if the views of Professor Sergi and others are correct, the Aryans were even less civilised than the peoples whom they conquered.[1009] Shape-shifting, magic, human sacrifice, priestly domination, were as much Aryan as non-Aryan, and if the Celts had a comparatively pure religion, why did they so soon allow it to be defiled by the puerile superstitions of the Druids?

M. Reinach, as we have seen, thinks that the Celts had no images, because these were prohibited by their priests. This prohibition was pre-Celtic in Gaul, since there are no Neolithic images, though there are great megalithic structures, suggesting the existence of a great religious aristocracy. This aristocracy imposed itself on the Celts.[1010] We have seen that there is no reason for believing that the Celts had no images, hence this argument is valueless. M. Reinach then argues that the Celts accepted Druidism en bloc, as the Romans accepted Oriental cults and the Greeks the native Pelasgic cults. But neither Romans nor Greeks abandoned their own faith. Were the Celts a people without priests and without religion? We know that they must have accepted many local cults, but that they adopted the whole aboriginal faith and its priests en bloc is not credible. M. Reinach also holds that when the Celts appear in history Druidism was in its decline; the Celt, or at least the military caste among the Celts, was reasserting itself. But the Druids do not appear as a declining body in the pages of Caesar, and their power was still supreme, to judge by the hostility of the Roman Government to them. If the military caste rebelled against them, this does not prove that they were a foreign body. Such a strife is seen wherever priest and soldier form separate castes, each desiring to rule, as in Egypt.

Other writers argue that we do not find Druids existing in the Danube region, in Cisalpine territory, nor in Transalpine Gaul, “outside the limits of the region occupied by the Celtae.”[1011] This could only have weight if any of the classical writers had composed a formal treatise on the Druids, showing exactly the regions where they existed. They merely describe Druidism as a general Celtic institution, or as they knew it in Gaul or Britain, and few of them have any personal knowledge of it.  There is no reason to believe that Druids did not exist wherever there were Celts. The Druids and Semnotheoi of the Celts and Galatae referred to c. 200 B.C. were apparently priests of other Celts than those of Gaul, and Celtic groups of Cisalpine Gaul had priests, though these are not formally styled Druids.[1012] The argument ex silentio is here of little value, since the references to the Druids are so brief, and it tells equally against their non-Celtic origin, since we do not hear of Druids in Aquitania, a non-Celtic region.[1013]

The theory of the non-Celtic origin of the Druids assumes that the Celts had no priests, or that these were effaced by the Druids. The Celts had priests called gutuatri attached to certain temples, their name perhaps meaning “the speakers,” those who spoke to the gods.[1014] The functions of the Druids were much more general, according to this theory, hence M. D’Arbois supposes that, before their intrusion, the Celts had no other priests than the gutuatri.[1015] But the probability is that they were a Druidic class, ministers of local sanctuaries, and related to the Druids as the Levites were to the priests of Israel, since the Druids were a composite priesthood with a variety of functions. If the priests and servants of Belenos, described by Ausonius and called by him oedituus Beleni, were gutuatri, then the latter must have been connected with the Druids, since he says they were of Druidic stock.[1016] Lucan’s “priest of the grove” may have been a gutuatros, and the priests (sacerdotes) and other ministers (antistites) of the Boii may have been Druids properly so called and gutuatri.[1017] Another class of temple servants may have existed.  Names beginning with the name of a god and ending in gnatos, “accustomed to,” “beloved of,” occur in inscriptions, and may denote persons consecrated from their youth to the service of a grove or temple. On the other hand, the names may mean no more than that those bearing them were devoted to the cult of one particular god.

Our supposition that the gutuatri were a class of Druids is supported by classical evidence, which tends to show that the Druids were a great inclusive priesthood with different classes possessing different functions—priestly, prophetic, magical, medical, legal, and poetical.  Caesar attributes these to the Druids as a whole, but in other writers they are in part at least in the hands of different classes. Diodorus refers to the Celtic philosophers and theologians (Druids), diviners, and bards, as do also Strabo and Timagenes, Strabo giving the Greek form of the native name for the diviners, [Greek: ouateis], the Celtic form being probably vatis (Irish, faith).[1018] These may have been also poets, since vatis means both singer and poet; but in all three writers the bards are a fairly distinct class, who sing the deeds of famous men (so Timagenes). Druid and diviner were also closely connected, since the Druids studied nature and moral philosophy, and the diviners were also students of nature, according to Strabo and Timagenes. No sacrifice was complete without a Druid, say Diodorus and Strabo, but both speak of the diviners as concerned with sacrifice.  Druids also prophesied as well as diviners, according to Cicero and Tacitus.[1019] Finally, Lucan mentions only Druids and bards.[1020] Diviners were thus probably a Druidic sub-class, standing midway between the Druids proper and the bards, and partaking of some of the functions of both. Pliny speaks of “Druids and this race of prophets and doctors,”[1021] and this suggests that some were priests, some diviners, while some practised an empiric medical science.

On the whole this agrees with what is met with in Ireland, where the Druids, though appearing in the texts mainly as magicians, were also priests and teachers. Side by side with them were the Filid, “learned poets,”[1022] composing according to strict rules of art, and higher than the third class, the Bards. The Filid, who may also have been known as Fathi, “prophets,”[1023] were also diviners according to strict rules of augury, while some of these auguries implied a sacrifice. The Druids were also diviners and prophets. When the Druids were overthrown at the coming of Christianity, the Filid remained as a learned class, probably because they had abandoned all pagan practices, while the Bards were reduced to a comparatively low status. M. D’Arbois supposes that there was rivalry between the Druids and the Filid, who made common cause with the Christian missionaries, but this is not supported by evidence. The three classes in Gaul—Druids, Vates, and Bards—thus correspond to the three classes in Ireland—Druids, Fathi or Filid, and Bards.[1024]

We may thus conclude that the Druids were a purely Celtic priesthood, belonging both to the Goidelic and Gaulish branches of the Celts. The idea that they were not Celtic is sometimes connected with the supposition that Druidism was something superadded to Celtic religion from without, or that Celtic polytheism was not part of the creed of the Druids, but sanctioned by them, while they had a definite theological system with only a few gods.[1025] These are the ideas of writers who see in the Druids an occult and esoteric priesthood. The Druids had grown up pari passu with the growth of the native religion and magic.  Where they had become more civilised, as in the south of Gaul, they may have given up many magical practices, but as a class they were addicted to magic, and must have taken part in local cults as well as in those of the greater gods. That they were a philosophic priesthood advocating a pure religion among polytheists is a baseless theory. Druidism was not a formal system outside Celtic religion. It covered the whole ground of Celtic religion; in other words, it was that religion itself.

The Druids are first referred to by pseudo-Aristotle and Sotion in the second century B.C., the reference being preserved by Diogenes Laertius:

“There are among the Celtae and Galatae those called Druids and Semnotheoi.”[1026] The two words may be synonymous, or they may describe two classes of priests, or, again, the Druids may have been Celtic, and the Semnotheoi Galatic (? Galatian) priests. Caesar’s account comes next in time. Later writers gives the Druids a lofty place and speak vaguely of the Druidic philosophy and science. Caesar also refers to their science, but both he and Strabo speak of their human sacrifices.  Suetonius describes their religion as cruel and savage, and Mela, who speaks of their learning, regards their human sacrifices as savagery.[1027] Pliny says nothing of the Druids as philosophers, but hints at their priestly functions, and connects them with magico-medical rites.[1028] These divergent opinions are difficult to account for. But as the Romans gained closer acquaintance with the Druids, they found less philosophy and more superstition among them. For their cruel rites and hostility to Rome, they sought to suppress them, but this they never would have done had the Druids been esoteric philosophers. It has been thought that Pliny’s phrase, “Druids and that race of prophets and doctors,” signifies that, through Roman persecution, the Druids were reduced to a kind of medicine-men.[1029] But the phrase rather describes the varied functions of the Druids, as has been seen, nor does it refer to the state to which the repressive edict reduced them, but to that in which it found them. Pliny’s information was also limited.

The vague idea that the Druids were philosophers was repeated parrot-like by writer after writer, who regarded barbaric races as Rousseau and his school looked upon the “noble savage.” Roman writers, sceptical of a future life, were fascinated by the idea of a barbaric priesthood teaching the doctrine of immortality in the wilds of Gaul.  For this teaching the poet Lucan sang their praises. The Druids probably first impressed Greek and Latin observers by their magic, their organisation, and the fact that, like many barbaric priesthoods, but unlike those of Greece and Rome, they taught certain doctrines. Their knowledge was divinely conveyed to them; “they speak the language of the gods;”[1030] hence it was easy to read anything into this teaching. Thus the Druidic legend rapidly grew. On the other hand, modern writers have perhaps exaggerated the force of the classical evidence. When we read of Druidic associations we need not regard these as higher than the organised priesthoods of barbarians. Their doctrine of metempsychosis, if it was really taught, involved no ethical content as in Pythagoreanism. Their astronomy was probably astrological[1031]; their knowledge of nature a series of cosmogonic myths and speculations. If a true Druidic philosophy and science had existed, it is strange that it is always mentioned vaguely and that it exerted no influence upon the thought of the time.

Classical sentiment also found a connection between the Druidic and Pythagorean systems, the Druids being regarded as conforming to the doctrines and rules of the Greek philosopher.[1032] It is not improbable that some Pythagorean doctrines may have reached Gaul, but when we examine the point at which the two systems were supposed to meet, namely, the doctrine of metempsychosis and immortality, upon which the whole idea of this relationship was founded, there is no real resemblance. There are Celtic myths regarding the rebirth of gods and heroes, but the eschatological teaching was apparently this, that the soul was clothed with a body in the other-world. There was no doctrine of a series of rebirths on this earth as a punishment for sin. The Druidic teaching of a bodily immortality was mistakenly assumed to be the same as the Pythagorean doctrine of the soul reincarnated in body after body. Other points of resemblance were then discovered. The organisation of the Druids was assumed by Ammianus to be a kind of corporate life--sodaliciis adstricti consortiis--while the Druidic mind was always searching into lofty things,[1033] but those who wrote most fully of the Druids knew nothing of this.

The Druids, like the priests of all religions, doubtless sought after such knowledge as was open to them, but this does not imply that they possessed a recondite philosophy or a secret theology. They were governed by the ideas current among all barbaric communities, and they were at once priests, magicians, doctors, and teachers. They would not allow their sacred hymns to be written down, but taught them in secret,[1034] as is usual wherever the success of hymn or prayer depends upon the right use of the words and the secrecy observed in imparting them to others. Their ritual, as far as is known to us, differs but little from that of other barbarian folk, and it included human sacrifice and divination with the victim’s body. They excluded the guilty from a share in the cult—the usual punishment meted out to the tabu-breaker in all primitive societies.

The idea that the Druids taught a secret doctrine—monotheism, pantheism, or the like—is unsupported by evidence. Doubtless they communicated secrets to the initiated, as is done in barbaric mysteries everywhere, but these secrets consist of magic and mythic formulae, the exhibition of Sacra, and some teaching about the gods or about moral duties. These are kept secret, not because they are abstract doctrines, but because they would lose their value and because the gods would be angry if they were made too common. If the Druids taught religious and moral matters secretly, these were probably no more than an extension of the threefold maxim inculcated by them according to Diogenes Laertius:

“To worship the gods, to do no evil, and to exercise courage.”[1035] To this would be added cosmogonic myths and speculations, and magic and religious formulae. This will become more evident as we examine the position and power of the Druids.

In Gaul, and to some extent in Ireland, the Druids formed a priestly corporation—a fact which helped classical observers to suppose that they lived together like the Pythagorean communities. While the words of Ammianus--sodaliciis adstricti consortiis--may imply no more than some kind of priestly organisation, M. Bertrand founds on them a theory that the Druids were a kind of monks living a community life, and that Irish monasticism was a transformation of this system.[1036] This is purely imaginative. Irish Druids had wives and children, and the Druid Diviciacus was a family man, while Caesar says not a word of community life among the Druids. The hostility of Christianity to the Druids would have prevented any copying of their system, and Irish monasticism was modelled on that of the Continent. Druidic organisation probably denoted no more than that the Druids were bound by certain ties, that they were graded in different ranks or according to their functions, and that they practised a series of common cults. In Gaul one chief Druid had authority over the others, the position being an elective one.[1037] The insular Druids may have been similarly organised, since we hear of a chief Druid, primus magus, while the Filid had an Ard-file, or chief, elected to his office.[1038] The priesthood was not a caste, but was open to those who showed aptitude for it. There was a long novitiate, extending even to twenty years, just as, in Ireland, the novitiate of the File lasted from seven to twelve years.[1039]

The Druids of Gaul assembled annually in a central spot, and there settled disputes, because they were regarded as the most just of men.[1040] Individual Druids also decided disputes or sat as judges in cases of murder. How far it was obligatory to bring causes before them is unknown, but those who did not submit to a decision were interdicted from the sacrifices, and all shunned them. In other words, they were tabued. A magico-religious sanction thus enforced the judgments of the Druids. In Galatia the twelve tetrarchs had a council of three hundred men, and met in a place called Drunemeton to try cases of murder.[1041] Whether it is philologically permissible to connect Dru- with the corresponding syllable in “Druid” or not, the likeness to the Gaulish assembly at a “consecrated place,” perhaps a grove (nemeton), is obvious. We do not know that Irish Druids were judges, but the Filid exercised judgments, and this may be a relic of their connection with the Druids.[1042]

Diodorus describes the Druids exhorting combatants to peace, and taming them like wild beasts by enchantment.[1043] This suggests interference to prevent the devastating power of the blood-feud or of tribal wars.  They also appear to have exercised authority in the election of rulers.  Convictolitanis was elected to the magistracy by the priests in Gaul, “according to the custom of the State.”[1044] In Ireland, after partaking of the flesh of a white bull, probably a sacrificial animal, a man lay down to sleep, while four Druids chanted over him “to render his witness truthful.” He then saw in a vision the person who should be elected king, and what he was doing at the moment.[1045] Possibly the Druids used hypnotic suggestion; the medium was apparently clairvoyant.

Dio Chrysostom alleges that kings were ministers of the Druids, and could do nothing without them.[1046] This agrees on the whole with the witness of Irish texts. Druids always accompany the king, and have great influence over him. According to a passage in the Tain, “the men of Ulster must not speak before the king, the king must not speak before his Druid,” and even Conchobar was silent until the Druid Cathbad had spoken.[1047] This power, resembling that of many other priesthoods, must have helped to balance that of the warrior class, and it is the more credible when we recall the fact that the Druids claimed to have made the universe.[1048] The priest-kingship may have been an old Celtic institution, and this would explain why, once the offices were separated, priests had or claimed so much political power.

That political power must have been enhanced by their position as teachers, and it is safe to say that submission to their powers was inculcated by them. Both in Gaul and in Ireland they taught others than those who intended to become Druids.[1049] As has been seen, their teachings were not written down, but transmitted orally. They taught immortality, believing that thus men would be roused to valour, buttressing patriotism with dogma. They also imparted “many things regarding the stars and their motions, the extent of the universe and the earth, the nature of things, and the power and might of the immortal gods.” Strabo also speaks of their teaching in moral science.[1050] As has been seen, it is easy to exaggerate all this. Their astronomy was probably of a humble kind and mingled with astrology; their natural philosophy a mass of cosmogonic myths and speculations; their theology was rather mythology; their moral philosophy a series of maxims such as are found in all barbaric communities. Their medical lore, to judge from what Pliny says, was largely magical. Some Druids, e.g. in the south of Gaul, may have had access to classical learning, and Caesar speaks of the use of Greek characters among them. This could hardly have been general, and in any case must have superseded the use of a native script, to which the use of ogams in Ireland, and perhaps also in Gaul, was supplementary. The Irish Druids may have had written books, for King Loegaire desired that S. Patrick’s books and those of the Druids should be submitted to the ordeal by water as a test of their owners’ claims.[1051]

In religious affairs the Druids were supreme, since they alone “knew the gods and divinities of heaven.”[1052] They superintended and arranged all rites and attended to “public and private sacrifices,” and “no sacrifice was complete without the intervention of a Druid.”[1053] The dark and cruel rites of the Druids struck the Romans with horror, and they form a curious contrast to their alleged “philosophy.” They used divination and had regular formulae of incantation as well as ritual acts by which they looked into the future.[1054] Before all matters of importance, especially before warlike expeditions, their advice was sought because they could scan the future.

Name-giving and a species of baptism were performed by the Druids or on their initiative. Many examples of this occur in Irish texts, thus of Conall Cernach it is said, “Druids came to baptize the child into heathenism, and they sang the heathen baptism (baithis geintlidhe) over the little child”, and of Ailill that he was “baptized in Druidic streams”.[1055] In Welsh story we read that Gwri was “baptized with the baptism which was usual at that time”.[1056] Similar illustrations are common at name-giving among many races,[1057] and it is probable that the custom in the Hebrides of the midwife dropping three drops of water on the child in Nomine and giving it a temporary name, is a survival of this practice. The regular baptism takes place later, but this preliminary rite keeps off fairies and ensures burial in consecrated ground, just as the pagan rite was protective and admitted to the tribal privileges.[1058]

In the burial rites, which in Ireland consisted of a lament, sacrifices, and raising a stone inscribed with ogams over the grave, Druids took part. The Druid Dergdamsa pronounced a discourse over the Ossianic hero Mag-neid, buried him with his arms, and chanted a rune. The ogam inscription would also be of Druidic composition, and as no sacrifice was complete without the intervention of Druids, they must also have assisted at the lavish sacrifices which occurred at Celtic funerals.

Pliny’s words, “the Druids and that race of prophets and doctors”, suggest that the medical art may have been in the hands of a special class of Druids though all may have had a smattering of it. It was mainly concerned with the use of herbs, and was mixed up with magical rites, which may have been regarded as of more importance than the actual medicines used.[1059] In Ireland Druids also practised the healing art. Thus when Cuchulainn was ill, Emer said, “If it had been Fergus, Cuchulainn would have taken no rest till he had found a Druid able to discover the cause of that illness.”[1060] But other persons, not referred to as Druids, are mentioned as healers, one of them a woman, perhaps a reminiscence of the time when the art was practised by women.[1061] These healers may, however, have been attached to the Druidic corporation in much the same way as were the bards.

Still more important were the magical powers of the Druids—giving or withholding sunshine or rain, causing storms, making women and cattle fruitful, using spells, rhyming to death, exercising shape-shifting and invisibility, and producing a magic sleep, possibly hypnotic. They were also in request as poisoners.[1062] Since the Gauls went to Britain to perfect themselves in Druidic science, it is possible that the insular Druids were more devoted to magic than those of Gaul, but since the latter are said to have “tamed the people as wild beasts are tamed”, it is obvious that this refers to their powers as magicians rather than to any recondite philosophy possessed by them. Yet they were clear-sighted enough to use every means by which they might gain political power, and some of them may have been open to the influence of classical learning even before the Roman invasion. In the next chapter the magic of the Druids will be described in detail.

The Druids, both in Gaul (at the mistletoe rite) and in Ireland, were dressed in white, but Strabo speaks of their scarlet and gold embroidered robes, their golden necklets and bracelets.[1063] Again, the chief Druid of the king of Erin wore a coloured cloak and had earrings of gold, and in another instance a Druid wears a bull’s hide and a white-speckled bird headpiece with fluttering wings.[1064] There was also some special tonsure used by the Druids,[1065] which may have denoted servitude to the gods, as it was customary for a warrior to vow his hair to a divinity if victory was granted him. Similarly the Druid’s hair would be presented to the gods, and the tonsure would mark their minister.

Some writers have tried to draw a distinction between the Druids of Gaul and of Ireland, especially in the matter of their priestly functions.[1066] But, while a few passages in Irish texts do suggest that the Irish Druids were priests taking part in sacrifices, etc., nearly all passages relating to cult or ritual seem to have been deliberately suppressed. Hence the Druids appear rather as magicians—a natural result, since, once the people became Christian, the priestly character of the Druids would tend to be lost sight of. Like the Druids of Gaul, they were teachers and took part in political affairs, and this shows that they were more than mere magicians. In Irish texts the word “Druid” is somewhat loosely used and is applied to kings and poets, perhaps because they had been pupils of the Druids. But it is impossible to doubt that the Druids in Ireland fulfilled functions of a public priesthood. They appear in connection with all the colonies which came to Erin, the annalists regarding the priests or medicine-men of different races as Druids, through lack of historic perspective. But one fact shows that they were priests of the Celtic religion in Ireland. The euhemerised Tuatha De Danann are masters of Druidic lore. Thus both the gods and the priests who served them were confused by later writers. The opposition of Christian missionaries to the Druids shows that they were priests; if they were not, it remains to be discovered what body of men did exercise priestly functions in pagan Ireland. In Ireland their judicial functions may have been less important than in Gaul, and they may not have been so strictly organised; but here we are in the region of conjecture. They were exempt from military service in Gaul, and many joined their ranks on this account, but in Ireland they were “bonny fechters,” just as in Gaul they occasionally fought like mediaeval bishops.[1067] In both countries they were present on the field of battle to perform the necessary religious or magical rites.

Since the Druids were an organised priesthood, with powers of teaching and of magic implicitly believed in by the folk, possessing the key of the other-world, and dominating the whole field of religion, it is easy to see how much veneration must have been paid them. Connoting this with the influence of the Roman Church in Celtic regions and the power of the Protestant minister in the Highlands and in Wales, some have thought that there is an innate tendency in the Celt to be priest-ridden. If this be true, we can only say, “the people wish to have it so, and the priests—pagan, papist, or protestant—bear rule through their means!”

Thus a close examination of the position and functions of the Druids explains away two popular misconceptions. They were not possessed of any recondite and esoteric wisdom. And the culling of mistletoe instead of being the most important, was but a subordinate part of their functions.

In Gaul the Roman power broke the sway of the Druids, aided perhaps by the spread of Christianity, but it was Christianity alone which routed them in Ireland and in Britain outside the Roman pale. The Druidic organisation, their power in politics and in the administration of justice, their patriotism, and also their use of human sacrifice and magic, were all obnoxious to the Roman Government, which opposed them mainly on political grounds. Magic and human sacrifice were suppressed because they were contrary to Roman manners. The first attack was in the reign of Augustus, who prohibited Roman citizens from taking part in the religion of the Druids.[1068] Tiberius next interdicted the Druids, but this was probably aimed at their human sacrifices, for the Druids were not suppressed, since they existed still in the reign of Claudius, who is said to have abolished Druidarum religionem dirae immanitatis.[1069] The earlier legislation was ineffective; that of Claudius was more thorough, but it, too, was probably aimed mainly at human sacrifice and magic, since Aurelius Victor limits it to the “notorious superstitions” of the Druids.[1070] It did not abolish the native religion, as is proved by the numerous inscriptions to Celtic gods, and by the fact that, as Mela informs us, human victims were still offered symbolically,[1071] while the Druids were still active some years later. A parallel is found in the British abolition of S[=a]ti in India, while permitting the native religion to flourish.

Probably more effective was the policy begun by Augustus. Magistrates were inaugurated and acted as judges, thus ousting the Druids, and native deities and native ritual were assimilated to those of Rome.  Celtic religion was Romanised, and if the Druids retained priestly functions, it could only be by their becoming Romanised also. Perhaps the new State religion in Gaul simply ignored them. The annual assembly of deputies at Lugudunum round the altar of Rome and Augustus had a religious character, and was intended to rival and to supersede the annual gathering of the Druids.[1072] The deputies elected a flamen of the province who had surveillance of the cult, and there were also flamens for each city. Thus the power of the Druids in politics, law, and religion was quietly undermined, while Rome also struck a blow at their position as teachers by establishing schools throughout Gaul.[1073]

M. D’Arbois maintains that, as a result of persecution, the Druids retired to the depths of the forests, and continued to teach there in secret those who despised the new learning of Rome, basing his opinion on passages of Lucan and Mela, both writing a little after the promulgation of the laws.[1074]. But neither Lucan nor Mela refer to an existing state of things, and do not intend their readers to suppose that the Druids fled to woods and caverns. Lucan speaks of them dwelling in woods, i.e. their sacred groves, and resuming their rites after Caesar’s conquest not after the later edicts, and he does not speak of the Druids teaching there.[1075] Mela seems to be echoing Caesar’s account of the twenty years’ novitiate, but adds to it that the teaching was given in secret, confusing it, however, with that given to others than candidates for the priesthood. Thus he says: “Docent multa nobilissimos gentis clam et diu vicenis annis aut in specu aut in abditis saltibus,”[1076] but there is not the slightest evidence that this secrecy was the result of the edicts. Moreover, the attenuated sacrificial rites which he describes were evidently practised quite openly. Probably some Druids continued their teaching in their secret and sacred haunts, but it is unlikely that noble Gauls would resort to them when Greco-Roman culture was now open to them in the schools, where they are found receiving instruction in 21 A.D.[1077] Most of the Druids probably succumbed to the new order of things. Some continued the old rites in a modified manner as long as they could obtain worshippers.  Others, more fanatical, would suffer from the law when they could not evade its grasp. Some of these revolted against Rome after Nero’s death, and it was perhaps to this class that those Druids belonged who prophesied the world-empire of the Celts in 70 A.D.[1078] The fact that Druids existed at this date shows that the proscription had not been complete. But the complete Romanising of Gaul took away their occupation, though even in the fourth century men still boasted of their Druidic descent.[1079]

The insular Druids opposed the legions in Southern Britain, and in Mona in 62 A.D. they made a last stand with the warriors against the Romans, gesticulating and praying to the gods. But with the establishment of Roman power in Britain their fate must have resembled that of the Druids of Gaul. A recrudescence of Druidism is found, however, in the presence of magi (Druids) with Vortigern after the Roman withdrawal.[1080] Outside the Roman pale the Druids were still rampant and practised their rites as before, according to Pliny.[1081] Much later, in the sixth century, they opposed Christian missionaries in Scotland, just as in Ireland they opposed S. Patrick and his monks, who combated “the hard-hearted Druids.” Finally, Christianity was victorious and the powers of the Druids passed in large measure to the Christian clergy or remained to some extent with the Filid.[1082] In popular belief the clerics had prevailed less by the persuasive power of the gospel, than by successfully rivalling the magic of the Druids.

Classical writers speak of Dryades or “Druidesses” in the third century. One of them predicted his approaching death to Alexander Severus, another promised the empire to Diocletian, others were consulted by Aurelian.[1083] Thus they were divineresses, rather than priestesses, and their name may be the result of misconception, unless they assumed it when Druids no longer existed as a class. In Ireland there were divineresses--ban-filid or ban-fathi, probably a distinct class with prophetic powers. Kings are warned against “pythonesses” as well as Druids, and Dr. Joyce thinks these were Druidesses.[1084] S.  Patrick also armed himself against “the spells of women” and of Druids.[1085] Women in Ireland had a knowledge of futurity, according to Solinus, and the women who took part with the Druids like furies at Mona, may have been divineresses.[1086] In Ireland it is possible that such women were called “Druidesses,” since the word ban-drui is met with, the women so called being also styled ban-fili, while the fact that they belonged to the class of the Filid brings them into connection with the Druids.[1087] But ban-drui may have been applied to women with priestly functions, such as certainly existed in Ireland—e.g. the virgin guardians of sacred fires, to whose functions Christian nuns succeeded.[1088] We know also that the British queen Boudicca exercised priestly functions, and such priestesses, apart from the Dryades, existed among the continental Celts. Inscriptions at Arles speak of an antistita deae, and at Le Prugnon of a flaminica sacerdos of the goddess Thucolis.[1089] These were servants of a goddess like the priestess of the Celtic Artemis in Galatia, in whose family the priesthood was hereditary.[1090] The virgins called Gallizenae, who practised divination and magic in the isle of Sena, were priestesses of a Gaulish god, and some of the women who were “possessed by Dionysus” and practised an orgiastic cult on an island in the Loire, were probably of the same kind.[1091] They were priestesses of some magico-religious cult practised by women, like the guardians of the sacred fire in Ireland, which was tabu to men. M. Reinach regards the accounts of these island priestesses as fictions based on the story of Circe’s isle, but even if they are garbled, they seem to be based on actual observation and are paralleled from other regions.[1092]

The existence of such priestesses and divineresses over the Celtic area is to be explained by our hypothesis that many Celtic divinities were at first female and served by women, who were possessed of the tribal lore.  Later, men assumed their functions, and hence arose the great priesthoods, but conservatism sporadically retained such female cults and priestesses, some goddesses being still served by women—the Galatian Artemis, or the goddesses of Gaul, with their female servants.  Time also brought its revenges, for when paganism passed away, much of its folk-ritual and magic remained, practised by wise women or witches, who for generations had as much power over ignorant minds as the Christian priesthood. The fact that Caesar and Tacitus speak of Germanic but not of Celtic priestesses, can hardly, in face of these scattered notices, be taken as a proof that women had no priestly role in Celtic religion. If they had not, that religion would be unique in the world’s history.


[1002] Pliny, HN xvi. 249.

[1003] D’Arbois, Les Druides, 85, following Thurneysen.

[1004] D’Arbois, op. cit. 12 f.; Deloche, Revue des Deux Mondes, xxxiv. 466; Desjardins, Geog. de la Gaule Romaine, ii. 518.

[1005] Caesar, vi. 13.

[1006] Pliny, HN xxx. 1.

[1007] Rhys, CB{4} 69 f.

[1008] Gomme, Ethnol. in Folk-lore, 58, Village Community, 104.

[1009] Sergi, The Mediterranean Race, 295.

[1010] Reinach, “L’Art plastique en Gaule et le Druidisme,” RC xiii. 189.

[1011] Holmes, Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul, 15; Dottin, 270.

[1012] Diog. Laert. i. 1; Livy xxiii. 24.

[1013] Desjardins, op. cit. ii. 519; but cf. Holmes, 535.

[1014] Gutuatros is perhaps from gutu-, “voice” (Holder, i. 2046; but see Loth, RC xxviii. 120). The existence of the gutuatri is known from a few inscriptions (see Holder), and from Hirtius, de Bell.  Gall. viii. 38, who mentions a gutuatros put to death by Caesar.

[1015] D’Arbois, Les Druides, 2 f., Les Celtes, 32.

[1016] Ausonius, Professor. v. 7, xi. 24.

[1017] Lucan, iii. 424; Livy, xxiii. 24.

[1018] Diod. Sic. v. 31; Strabo, iv. 4. 4; Timagenes apud Amm. Marc.  xv. 9.

[1019] Cicero, de Div. i. 41. 90; Tac. Hist. iv. 54.

[1020] Phars. i. 449 f.

[1021] HN xxx. i.

[1022] Filid, sing. File, is from velo, “I see” (Stokes, US 277).

[1023] Fathi is cognate with Vates.

[1024] In Wales there had been Druids as there were Bards, but all trace of the second class is lost. Long after the Druids had passed away, the fiction of the derwydd-vardd or Druid-bard was created, and the later bards were held to be depositories of a supposititious Druidic theosophy, while they practised the old rites in secret. The late word derwydd was probably invented from derw, “oak,” by some one who knew Pliny’s derivation. See D’Arbois, Les Druides, 81.

[1025] For these views see Dottin, 295; Holmes, 17; Bertrand, 192-193, 268-269.

[1026] Diog. Laert. i. proem. 1. For other references see Caesar, vi. 13, 14; Strabo, iv. 4. 4; Amm. Marc. xv. 9; Diod. Sic, v. 28; Lucan, i. 460; Mela, iii. 2.

[1027] Suet. Claud. 25; Mela, iii. 2.

[1028] Pliny, xxx. 1.

[1029] D’Arbois, Les Druides, 77.

[1030] Diod. Sic. v. 31. 4.

[1031] See Cicero, de Div. i. 41.

[1032] Diod. Sic. v. 28; Amm. Marc. xv. 9; Hippolytus, Refut. Haer. i. 22.

[1033] Amm. Marc. xv. 9.

[1034] Caesar, vi. 14.

[1035] Diog. Laert. 6. Celtic enthusiasts see in this triple maxim something akin to the Welsh triads, which they claim to be Druidic!

[1036] Bertrand, 280.

[1037] Caesar, vi. 13.

[1038] Trip. Life, ii. 325, i. 52, ii. 402; IT i. 373; RC xxvi. 33. The title rig-file, “king poet,” sometimes occurs.

[1039] Caesar, vi. 14.

[1040] Caesar, vi. 13; Strabo, iv. 4. 4.

[1041] Strabo, xii. 5. 2.

[1042] Their judicial powers were taken from them because their speech had become obscure. Perhaps they gave their judgments in archaic language.

[1043] Diod. Sic. v. 31. 5.

[1044] Caesar, vii. 33.

[1045] IT i. 213; D’Arbois, v. 186.

[1046] Dio, Orat. xlix.

[1047] LL 93.

[1048] Ancient Laws of Ireland, i. 22.

[1049] Caesar, vi. 13, 14; Windisch, Tain, line 1070 f.; IT i. 325; Arch. Rev. i. 74; Trip. Life, 99; cf. O’Curry, MC ii. 201.

[1050] Caesar, vi. 14; Strabo, iv. 4. 4.

[1051] Trip. Life, 284.

[1052] Lucan, i. 451.

[1053] Diod. v. 31. 4; cf. Caesar, vi. 13, 16; Strabo, iv. 4. 5.

[1054] See p. 248, supra.

[1055] RC xiv. 29; Miss Hull, 4, 23, 141; IT iii. 392, 423; Stokes, Felire, Intro. 23.

[1056] Loth, i. 56.

[1057] See my art. “Baptism (Ethnic)” in Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ii. 367 f.

[1058] Carmichael, Carm. Gadel. i. 115.

[1059] See p. 206, supra.

[1060] IT i. 215.

[1061] O’Curry, MS. Mat. 221, 641.

[1062] RC xvi. 34.

[1063] Pliny, HN xvi. 45; Trip. Life, ii. 325; Strabo, iv. 275.

[1064] RC xxii. 285; O’Curry, MC ii. 215.

[1065] Reeves’ ed. of Adamnan’s Life of S. Col. 237; Todd, S.  Patrick, 455; Joyce, SH i. 234. For the relation of the Druidic tonsure to the peculiar tonsure of the Celtic Church, see Rhys, HL 213, CB{4} 72; Gougaud, Les Chretientes Celtiques, 198.

[1066] See Hyde, Lit. Hist. of Ireland, 88; Joyce, SH i. 239.

[1067] Caesar, vi. 14, ii. 10.

[1068] Suetonius, Claud. 25.

[1069] Pliny HN xxx. 1; Suet. Claud. 25.

[1070] de Caesaribus, 4, “famosae superstitiones”; cf. p. 328, infra.

[1071] Mela, iii. 2.

[1072] Mommsen, Rom. Gesch. v. 94.

[1073] Bloch (Lavisse), Hist. de France, i. 2, 176 f., 391 f.; Duruy, “Comment perit l’institution Druidique,” Rev. Arch. xv. 347; de Coulanges, “Comment le Druidisme a disparu,” RC iv. 44.

[1074] Les Druides, 73.

[1075] Phars. i. 453, “Ye Druids, after arms were laid aside, sought once again your barbarous ceremonials.... In remote forests do ye inhabit the deep glades.”

[1076] Mela, iii. 2.

[1077] Tacit. iii. 43.

[1078] Ibid. iv. 54.

[1079] Ausonius, Prof. v. 12, xi. 17.

[1080] Nennius, 40. In the Irish version they are called “Druids.” See p. 238, supra.

[1081] Pliny, xxx. 1.

[1082] Adamnan, Vita S. Col., i. 37. ii. 35, etc.; Reeves’ Adamnan, 247 f.; Stokes, Three Homilies, 24 f.; Antient Laws of Ireland, i.  15; RC xvii. 142 f.; IT i. 23.

[1083] Lampridius, Alex. Sev. 60; Vopiscus, Numerienus, 14, Aurelianus, 44.

[1084] Windisch, Tain, 31, 221; cf. Meyer, Contributions to Irish Lexicog. 176 Joyce, SH i. 238.

[1085] IT i. 56.

[1086] Solinus, 35; Tac. Ann. xiv. 30.

[1087] RC xv. 326, xvi. 34, 277; Windisch, Tain, 331. In LL 75b we hear of “three Druids and three Druidesses.”

[1088] See p. 69, supra; Keating, 331.

[1089] Jullian, 100; Holder, s.v. “Thucolis.”

[1090] Plutarch, Vir. mul. 20.

[1091] Mela, iii. 6; Strabo, iv. 4. 6.

[1092] Reinach, RC xviii. 1 f. The fact that the rites were called Dionysiac is no reason for denying the fact that some orgiastic rites were practised. Classical writers usually reported all barbaric rites in terms of their own religion. M. D’Arbois (vi. 325) points out that Circe was not a virgin, and had not eight companions.




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The Druids