The Druids and Druidism

The term druid is used by Greek and Roman authors, medieval Irish writers, and modern scholars alike to designate a priest of the ancient Celts. A druid was a member of the high-ranking class in ancient Celtic cultures. It is thought that they were religious leaders as well as legal authorities, adjudicators, lorekeepers, medical professionals and political advisors.

Unfortunately they left no written accounts about themselves and the only evidence is a few descriptions left by Greek and Roman authors, and stories created by later medieval Irish writers. Some archaeological evidence has been uncovered pertaining to the religious practices of the Iron Age people, although not necessarily the druids.

The word Druid is thought to mean something like “those knowledgeable about the (sacred) oak,” being derived from two Celtic words meaning “oak” and “knowledge.”

What is the Etymology of Druid?

Early etymologies sometimes translate *dru-wid/druid as “oak seeing.” This is a reasonable error; I. E *dru also gives us the word oak because oak is a strong wood, known even now for its durability. Modern English “tree,” “trencher” and “trough” are all also derived from I. E. *deru because they are made out of wood, a strong substance. *Weid– “to see” also gives us modern English “video” and “wise.”

In Indo-European term *dru-wid or strong seeing, is formed from the Proto I. E. root *deru “strong” and *ˆwid- “to see.” Druid then literally means “strong see-er.”

Earliest known records of the Druids

The earliest known records of the Druids come from the 3rd century BCE and the philosophical writer Diogenes Laertios. He refers to earlier writers, Aristotle (384–322 BC) and Sotion of Alexandria (c. 200 – 170 BC), who are discussing barbarian beliefs, he mentions Persian magi, Babylonian or Assyrian Chaldeans, Indian gymnosophists, and Celtic druids.

First Hand observations of the Druids

Knowledge on the Druids available to the Classical world was derived from first-hand observations made by Greek travellers like Pytheas (c. 325 BC) and Posidonius (c. 125 BC), and by Roman generals like Caesar (c. 50 BC).

Pytheas of Massalia (c. 350 BC, fl. c. 320–306 BC)

Pytheas was a Greek geographer, explorer and astronomer from the Greek colony of Massalia (modern-day Marseille, France). He made a voyage of exploration to north-western Europe in about 325 BC, but his account of it, known widely in Antiquity, has not survived and is now known only through the writings of others.

Posidonius of Apamea (c. 135 – c. 51 BC)

A detailed description of druids is given by the Stoic philosopher Posidonius of Apamea. In Gaul, he studied the Celts and noted how they honoured the Druids, and described them as philosophers. Posidonius wrote a treatise on the lands of the Celts which has since been lost however its contents and his description of druids can be reconstructed by looking at the work of Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Timagenes who refer to his work.

Secondary Sources of the Druids

Timaeus of Tauromenium (c. 355/350 BC – c. 260 BC)

Timaeus of Tauromenium was an ancient Greek historian. While in Athens, he completed his great historical work, the Histories, which comprised thirty-eight books. Very few parts of the elaborate work exist today, however it would have been well known to later writers like Cicero and Pliny. Indeed, Pliny actually acknowledges his debt to Timaeus as a source of information about Britain and the North Sea – information that must ultimately have derived from Pytheas. It is also highly likely that another Sicilian writer, Diodorus, also used Timaeus’ History for information about the north-western barbarians, though he does not acknowledge his source.

Diodorus Siculus (c. 90 b.c. – 20 b.c.)

Diodorus Siculus was an ancient Greek historian who wrote 40 book Bibliotheca Historica, of which 15 books still survive. Diodorus’ text on the druids was probably derived from the work of Posidonius and Timaeus.

The Pythagorean doctrine prevails among them (the Gauls), teaching that the souls of men are immortal and live again for a fixed number of years inhabited in another body.

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica Book V, 28, 6

Among  them are also to be found lyric poets whom they call Bards. These men sing to the accompaniment of instruments which are like lyres, and their songs may be either of praise or of obloquy.  Philosophers, as we may call them, and men learned in religious affairs are unusually honoured among them and are called by them Druids. The Gauls likewise make use of diviners, accounting them worthy of high approbation, and these men foretell the future by means of the flight or cries of birds and of the slaughter of sacred animals, and they have all the multitude subservient to them.

They also observe a custom which is especially astonishing and incredible, in case they are taking thought with respect to matters of great concern; for in such cases they devote to death a human being and plunge a dagger into him in the region above the diaphragm,​ and when the stricken victim has fallen they read the future from the manner of his fall and from the twitching of his limbs, as well as from the gushing of the blood, having learned to place confidence in an ancient and long-continued practice of observing such matters.  And it is a custom of theirs that no one should perform a sacrifice without a “philosopher”; for thank-offerings should be rendered to the gods, they say, by the hands of men who are experienced in the nature of the divine, and who speak, as it were, the language of the gods, and it is also through the mediation of such men, they think, that blessings likewise should be sought. 

Nor is it only in the exigencies of peace, but in their wars as well, that they obey, before all others, these men and their chanting poets, and such obedience is observed not only by their friends but also by their enemies; many times, for instance, when two armies approach each other in battle with swords drawn and spears thrust forward, these men step forth between them and cause them to cease, as though having cast a spell over certain kinds of wild beasts. In this way, even among the wildest barbarians, does passion give place before wisdom, and Ares stands in awe of the Muses.

Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica Book V. 31, 2-5

Strabo (64 or 63 BC – c. 24 AD)

Strabo was a Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian who is best known for his work Geographica (“Geography”), which presented a descriptive history of people and places from different regions of the world known during his lifetime. Strabo’s text on the druids was probably derived from the work of Posidonius.

Among all the Gallic peoples, generally speaking, there are three sets of men who are held in exceptional honour; the Bards, the Vates and the Druids.​ The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates, diviners and natural philosophers; while the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy.

The Druids are considered the most just of men, and on this account they are entrusted with the decision, not only of the private disputes, but of the public disputes as well; so that, in former times, they even arbitrated cases of war and made the opponents stop when they were about to line up for battle, and the murder cases, in particular, had been turned over to them for decision. Further, when there is a big yield from these cases,​ there is forthcoming a big yield from the land too, as they think. However, not only the Druids, but others as well,​ say that men’s souls, and also the universe, are indestructible,​ although both fire and water will at some time or other prevail over them. …

…the sacrifices and divinations that are opposed to our usages. They used to strike a human being, whom they had devoted to death,​ in the back with a sabre, and then divine from his death-struggle. But they would not sacrifice without the Druids.​ We are told of still other  kinds of human sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples, or, having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.

Strabo, Geographica Book IV Chapter 4

Timagenes of Alexandria (c.55 BC)

Timagenes was a Greek writer, historian, he came from Alexandria, was captured by Romans in 55 BC and taken to Rome. During his life Timagenes wrote a History of the Gauls. These works did not survive but is quoted in the works of Ammianus Marcellinus in (born c. 330, died c. 391 – 400).

Throughout these regions men gradually became civilized and the study of excellent teachings flourished, which were initiated by the Bards, the Seers (euhagis) and the Druids. Now, the Bards sang to the sweet sounds of the lyre about the courageous actions of famous men composed in heroic verse, but the Seers investigated sublime things and attempted to explain the secret laws of nature. Being intellectually above the others and bound together in associations (sodalicii) as determined by the authority of Pythagoras, the Druids were elevated by their investigation of obscure and profound subjects. Despising everything human, they asserted that the soul was immortal.

Timagenes of Alexandria, History of the Gauls – As quoted by Ammianus Marcellinus

Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23/24 – 79)

Gaius Plinius Secundus called Pliny the Elder, was a Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher, and naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire. He wrote the encyclopedic Naturalis Historia (Natural History), which became an editorial model for encyclopedias. Pliny the Elder’s description of a druidic sacrifice may also be considered to be based on Posidonius.

He believed he word “Druidae” is of Celtic origin and a cognate with the Greek work “drus,” meaning “an oak.” “Dru-wid” combines the word roots “oak” and “knowledge” (“wid” means “to know” or “to see” – as in the Sanskrit “vid”). The oak (together with the rowan and hazel) was an important sacred tree to the Druids. In the Celtic social system, Druid was a title given to learned men and women possessing “oak knowledge” (or “oak wisdom”).

Upon this occasion we must not omit to mention the admiration that is lavished upon this plant by the Gauls. The Druids–for that is the name they give to their magicians — held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, supposing always that tree to be the robur [a hard-timbered oak]. Of itself the robur is selected by them to form whole groves, and they perform none of their religious rites without employing branches of it; so much so, that it is very probable that the priests themselves may have received their name from the Greek name for that tree. In fact, it is the notion with them that everything that grows on it has been sent immediately from heaven, and that the mistletoe upon it is a proof that the tree has been selected by God himself as an object of his especial favour.

The mistletoe, however, is but rarely found upon the robur; and when found, is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their ages, which, with them, are but thirty years. This day they select because the moon, though not yet in the middle of her course, has already considerable power and influence; and they call her by a name which signifies, in their language, the all-healing. Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak. They then immolate the victims, offering up their prayers that God will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has so granted it. It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons. Such are the religious feelings which we find entertained towards trifling objects among nearly all nations.

Pliny the Elder, Book 16, Chapter 95: Historical Facts Connected with the Mistletoe.

The Gallic provinces, too, were pervaded by the magic art, and that even down to a period within memory; for it was the Emperor Tiberius that put down their Druids, and all that tribe of wizards and physicians. But why make further mention of these prohibitions, with reference to an art which has now crossed the very Ocean even, and has penetrated to the void recesses of Nature? At the present day, struck with fascination, Britannia still cultivates this art, and that, with ceremonials so august, that she might almost seem to have been the first to communicate them to the people of Persia. 

Pliny the Elder, Book 30 Chapter 4: The Druids of the Gallic Provinces.

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39 AD – 65 AD),

Lucanus or Lucan, was a Roman poet, born in Córdoba, in Hispania Baetica. He is regarded as one of the outstanding figures of the Imperial Latin period, known in particular for his epic Pharsalia.

And Druids, you laid down your weapons and returned to your barbaric rites and weird manner of ceremonial. To you alone is granted total knowledge of the gods and heaven’s powers — or total ignorance. Inhabiting deep groves in remote woods, you teach that ghosts do not head for Erebus’ silent home or for the colorless realm of Dis below, but that the self-same spirit rules the limbs in another sphere.

Lucan, Pharsalia, I, 450-458

Pomponius Mela (c. AD 43)

Pomponius Mela, who wrote around AD 43, was the earliest Roman geographer. He was the author of the only ancient treatise on geography in classical Latin, De situ orbis (“A Description of the World”), also known as De chorographia (“Concerning Chorography”). The work was largely a borrowing from Greek sources.

..And yet, they have both their own eloquence and their own teachers of wisdom, the Druids.

These men claim to know the size and shape of the earth and of the universe, the movements of the sky and of the stars, and what the gods intend. In secret, and for a long time (twenty years), they teach many things to the noblest males among their people, and they do it in a cave or in a hidden mountain defile. One of the precepts they teach — obviously to make them better for war — has leaked into common knowledge, namely, that their souls are eternal and that there is a second life for the dead. Therefore they cremate and bury with the dead things that are suitable for the living. Long ago, traders’ accounts and debt collection were deferred until they died, and some individuals happily threw themselves onto the pyres of their loved ones as if they were going to live with them!

Pomponius Mela, De chorographia  3.19

In the Britannic Sea, opposite the coast of the Ossismi, the isle of Sena belongs to a Gallic divinity and is famous for its Oracle, whose priestesses, sanctified by their perpetual virginity, are reportedly nine in number. They call the priestesses Gallizenae and think that because they have been endowed with unique powers, they stir up the seas and the winds by their magic charms, that they turn into whatever animals they want, that they cure what is incurable among other peoples, that they know and predict the future, but that it is not revealed except to sea-voyagers and then only to those traveling to consult them.

Pomponius Mela, De chorographia 3.48

Gaius Julius Caesar (12 July 100 BC – 15 March 44 BC)

Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general and statesman. Julius Caesar encountered the Druids during his conquest of Gaul from 58 to 49 BC. They were priests recruited mainly from the nobility and they were the only men powerful enough to organise opposition to Roman rule throughout the Celtic tribes.

Throughout Gaul there are two classes of persons of definite account and dignity. As for the common folk, they are treated almost as slaves, venturing naught of themselves, never taken into counsel. The more part of them, oppressed as they are either by debt, or by the heavy weight of tribute, or by the wrongdoing of the more powerful men, commit themselves in slavery to the nobles, who have, in fact, the same rights over them as masters over slaves. Of the two classes above mentioned one consists of Druids, the other of knights. The former are concerned with divine worship, the due performance of  p337 sacrifices, public and private, and the interpretation of ritual questions: a great number of young men gather about them for the sake of instruction and hold them in great honour. In fact, it is they who decide in almost all disputes, public and private; and if any crime has been committed, or murder done, or there is any disposes about succession or boundaries, they also decide it, determining rewards and penalties: if any person or people does not abide by their decision, they ban such from sacrifice, which is their heaviest penalty. Those that are so banned are reckoned as impious and criminal; all men move out of their path and shun their approach and conversation, for fear they may get some harm from their contact, and no justice is done if they seek it, no distinction falls to their share. Of all these Druids one is chief, who has the highest authority among them. At his death, either any other that is preminent in position succeeds, or, if there be several of equal standing, they strive for the primacy by the vote of the Druids, or sometimes even with armed force. These Druids, at a certain time of the year, meet within the borders of the Carnutes, whose territory is reckoned as the centre of all Gaul, and sit in conclave in a consecrated spot. Thither assemble from every side all that have disputes, and they obey the decisions and judgments of the Druids. It is believed that their rule of life was discovered in Britain and transferred thence to Gaul; and to‑day those who would study the subject more accurately journey, as a rule, to Britain to learn it.

Julius CaesarThe Conquest of Gaul Book 6, Chapter 13

The Druids usually hold aloof from war, and do not pay war‑taxes with the rest; they are excused from military service and exempt from all liabilities. Tempted by these great rewards, many young men  p339 assemble of their own motion to receive their training; many are sent by parents and relatives. Report says that in the schools of the Druids they learn by heart a great number of verses, and therefore some persons remain twenty years under training. And they do not think it proper to commit these utterances to writing, although in almost all other matters, and in their public and private accounts, they make use of Greek letters. I believe that they have adopted the practice for two reasons — that they do not wish the rule to become common property, nor those who learn the rule to rely on writing and so neglect the cultivation of the memory; and, in fact, it does usually happen that the assistance of writing tends to relax the diligence of the student and the action of the memory. The cardinal doctrine which they seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one to another; and this belief, as the fear of death is thereby cast aside, they hold to be the greatest incentive to valour. Besides this, they have many discussions as touching the stars and their movement, the size of the universe and of the earth, the order of nature, the strength and the powers of the immortal gods, and hand down their lore to the young men.

Julius CaesarThe Conquest of Gaul Book 6, Chapter 14

The Druids are exempt from military service and do not pay taxes like other citizens. These important privileges are naturally attractive: many present themselves of their own accord to become students of Druidism, and others are sent by their parents or relatives. It is said that these pupils have to memorise a great number of verses   so many, that some of them spend twenty years at their studies.

Julius CaesarThe Conquest of GaulThe Conquest of Gaul Book 6, Chapter 16

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)

Cicero was a Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher, and academic skeptic. Both he and Caesar claim to have counted one as a personal friend, a Diviciacus. In 60BC this Diviciacus, from the Gallic tribe known as Aedui, is said to have traveled to Rome to seek aid after the disastrous defeat of his tribe by the neighbouring Sequani. We can imagine him traversing the Alps on his way to Italy and finally Rome, where he addressed the senate and visited Cicero, with whom he discussed various subjects. Cicero specifically refers to his Gallic guest as a ‘Druid’ and records his great knowledge of divination and natural philosophy.

Cicero wrote about druids in 44 BC, in his book De Divinatione, a philosophical dialogue about ancient Roman divination.

Nor is the practice of divination disregarded even among uncivilized tribes, if indeed there are Druids in Gaul – and there are, for I knew one of them myself, Divitiacus, the Aeduan, your guest and eulogist.
He claimed to have that knowledge of nature which the Greeks call physiologia, and he used to make predictions, sometimes by means of augury and sometimes by means of conjecture

Cicero, De Divinatione, I, xli, 90

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 56 – c. 120)

Tacitus was a Roman historian and politician. Tacitus is widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians by modern scholars. Tacitus’ Annals, written in the first century CE, is the only source for Roman Britain’s Druids as other Roman accounts mainly discussed Druids’ presence in Gaul and its surroundings. Tacitus’ account took place during the Roman invasion of Anglesey in Wales when Britain was under the control of the Roman Suetonius Paulinus. Paulinus prepared to attack the populated island of Mona (Anglesey). Tacitus writes that once the Roman infantry disembarked on the island, they were met by the opposing army, which included women dressed in black, and Druids. 

Recent archaeological discoveries have confirmed Anglesey’s status as the ‘island of Druids.’ 

So Suetonius planned to attack the island of Mona, which although thickly populated had also given sanctuary to many refugees.

Flat-bottomed boats were built to contend with the shifting shallows, and these took the infantry across. Then came the cavalry; some utilised fords, but in deeper water the men swam beside their horses. The enemy lined the shore in a dense armed mass. Among them were black-robed women with dishevelled hair like furies, brandishing torches. Close by stood Druids, raising their hands to heaven and screaming dreadful curses.

This weird spectacle awed the Roman soldiers into a sort of paralysis. They stood still and presented themselves as a target. But then they urged each other (and were urged by the general) not to fear a horde of fanatical women. Onward pressed their standards and they bore down on their opponents, enveloping them in the flames of their own torches.

Suetonius garrisoned the conquered island. The groves devoted to Mona’s barbarous superstitions he demolished. For it was their religion to drench their altars in the blood of prisoners and consult their gods by means of human entrails.

TacitusThe Annals of Imperial Rome

Diogenes Laërtius (3rd century AD)

Laertius was a biographer of the Greek philosophers who lived during the 3rd century CE; Vitae is his work on the Lives of the Philosophers, and he makes mention of two lost works that make mention of the Druids – an apocryphal book by Aristotle and a book by Sotion of Alexandria, who wrote during the 2nd century BCE.

Some say that the study of philosophy was of barbarian origin. For the Persians had their Magi, the Babylonians or the Assyrians the Chaldeans, the Indians their Gymnosophists, while the Kelts and the Galatae had seers called Druids and Semnotheoi, or so Aristotle says in the “Magic,” and Sotion in the twenty-third book of his “Succession of Philosophers.”

Diogenes LaertiusVitae, Intro. I

Those who think that philosophy is an invention of the barbarians explain the systems prevailing among each people. They say that the Gymnosophists and Druids make their pronouncements by means of riddles and dark sayings, teaching that the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done, and manly behavior maintained

Diogenes LaertiusVitae, Intro. 5

Welsh and Irish Literature

Only after the British Isles had been Christianized in the Middle Ages did any writings on the Druids appear in Britain. By this time, however, the ancient Druids, as described by the Roman authors, had largely disappeared. The Irish and Welsh accounts were also not recorded by members of the Druidic order, but by Christian monks. Consequently, by the time these accounts were written down in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Druids had moved into the realm of legend.

There are a number of other words associated with the functions performed by members of the druid class and with the social roles of the druid class in the various languages associated with the Celts. Irish fili, plural filid is usually translated as “poet,” which is not unreasonable, though the fili also had other functions. Filid comes from the same Celtic root as the Welsh word gweled “see,” and it seems that one of the functions of the filid was that they were seers (Williams and Ford 1992, 21). Fáith Irish for prophet (plural fátha) is often used interchangeably with filid. 

Uraichech Becc

Uraicecht Becc is an Old Irish legal tract on status. It describes fáithsine or “prophecy” as the function of the fili. The general interpretation made by most Celticists is that the fili and the fáith were originally a single class, and one that was closely related to the druid class (Williams and Ford 1992, 22). The Irish fili and the fáith would an Irish equivalent of the class called ovate by Greek authors, and vates by the Romans (most notably, Strabo); the words are etymologically related.

Vates is cognate with Welsh gwawd, a word that used to mean “song” but gradually evolved to mean “satire.” It seems reasonable then to conclude that the vates would be present as “seers” at a sacrifice at which the druids would officiate as priests; this would explain some of the contradictory confusion between the druides and vates in Classical authors (Williams and Ford 1992, 22).

According to Uraichech Becc the fili was of a higher social status than the druid. The filid are classed with the lords, while the druids are classed with craftsmen like smiths and other artisans. This may well reflect a later state of affairs; I think it does, after the decline of the druid class with the introduction of Christianity. It appears that the filid began to take over some of the druid functions and social prestige as the druids declined in power. I would even argue that the Irish jurist, the brithem (the brehon) was also part of the fili class.

The lowest of the three groups in social status are the baird, a lower order of poets, called by the Greeks (via reference to the Gaulish varieties) bardoi and by the Romans bardi. The bards too may have suffered from the increasing stature of the filid(Williams and Ford 1992, 23). The bards have a lower honor price in the law tracts (half that of the filid).

Táin Bó Cúailnge

The Táin, is an epic from Irish mythology. It is often called “The Irish Iliad” and tells of a war against Ulster by Queen Medb of Connacht and her husband King Ailill, who intend to steal the stud bull Donn Cuailnge. Due to a curse upon the king and warriors of Ulster, the invaders are opposed only by the young demigod, Cú Chulainn. The Táin is traditionally set in the 1st century in a pagan heroic age, and is the central text of a group of tales known as the Ulster Cycle. In the story we see the Morrígan functioning as a fátha in the medieval Irish epic The Táin. She predicts the future, and delivers her prediction in the form of poetry.

Hywel Dda

In Wales, the roles and privileges of bards and druids related to laws set down by Hywel Dda in the 10th century AD. The Welsh accounts of Druids or dryw did not connect them with sorcerers and wizards but with prophets and ancient priests. During the 18th century, druids came to be seen as the ancestors of the bards, the praise poets, musicians and genealogists, who flourished in Welsh medieval society.