Druids: The Celtic Priesthood

From Prisoners of Eternity.

Druids were the spiritual leaders, the priesthood, of the Celtic tribes of Britain and perhaps other parts of northern Europe. They left no written record of their activities and most of our evidence as to their being comes from hostile accounts left to us by Greek and Roman historians.

The Druids worshipped nature and paid no account to the stories of mythical heroes. God lay in the flora and fauna, in the water of fast-flowing streams, and the blessed mercy of the sacred Oak. They prayed to the God’s of the Sun and the Moon, and worshipped the time of the tide and the changing of the seasons

The first written account of Druidical activity comes from Julius Caesar’s Commentari de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic Wars) Caesar had invaded Britain in both 55 and 54 BC. On neither occasion did he conquer but he did encounter the Druids for possibly the first time. He describes the Druids as being immensely important to pagan Celtic society. They were held in such high esteem that their decisions would be final even in regard to matters concerning their supposed lords and masters. It was said that if they intervened in a battle, even as it was being fought, the hostilities would cease. Caesar went onto describe them in some detail:  ” The Druids hold aloof from war, and do not pay taxes with the rest, they are excused from military service and exempt from all other liabilities. Young men in great numbers flocked to their ranks. In the schools of the Druids they learn a great number of verses, and therefore some remain twenty years in training. They do not commit these utterances to writing. I believe they have adopted this practice for two reasons, they do not wish the rule to become common practice, and reject the written word in favour of the cultivation of the mind. The cardinal doctrine they seek to teach is that souls do not die. They believe in the indestructibility of the human soul, which according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another. By such doctrine alone this robs death of all its terrors. Fear of death is thereby cast aside, they hold this to be the greatest incentive to valour. They also have many discussions touching upon the stars and their movements, the size of the universe, and of the earth, and of the order of nature.”

The Romans accused the Druids of indulging in human sacrifice. Caesar stated that the victims in the most part would be convicted criminals. If so, the death penalty was hardly uncommon in the ancient world, but in the case of the Druids it was enacted as part of a religious ceremony. Often the victims would be imprisoned within a large wooden effigy known to us now as a Wicker Man, and burned alive. Another form of sacrifice was known as “the threefold death.” The victim would endure near fatal strangulation and drowning before being stabbed to death. These human sacrifices would be committed in honour of the Gods Esus (Lord) Taranis (Thunderer) and Teutates (Protector).

According to the historian Pliny, ” these men predict the future by observing the flights and calls of the birds and by the sacrifice of holy animals: all orders of society are in their power and in very important matters they prepare a human victim, plunging a dagger into his chest, by observing the way his limbs convulse as he falls and the gushing of his blood, they are able to read the future.”

Another Druidical ceremony much commented upon was the Ritual of the Oak and the Mistletoe. Pliny wrote that, ” mistletoe is rare and much sought after, and when it is found it is gathered with the greatest solemnity.” It would be cut from the trees with considerable tenderness and to much ritual chanting, for it was believed to be an antidote to poison and an aid to fertility.

Stonehenge in Wiltshire (c 3100 BC) is believed to be a major site of Druidical religious ceremony, though no one knows for what exactly, theories abound as to its actual purpose. The large perpendicular stone columns some have suggested were designed for Lunar worship, and given Caesar’s statement that the Druids were interested in and taught astronomy, this is a distinct possibility. Others suggest that it was a site of mass human sacrifice, though no human remains have ever been found at the site.

For the Druids the forest was sacrosanct. They dwelt in and worshipped from the Sacred Groves. Lucan Pharsalis wrote that, ” the inner-most groves of far-off forests are your abodes.” And where there was not a grove the Druids would build their own, usually atop a prominent hill, surrounding it with banks and ditches. Out of the mists and the darkness of these groves the influence of the Druids spread far and wide. It was not permitted to pursue an animal and kill it in the forest for the God’s dwelt there, and few entered who were not part of the order.

The Romans believed the Druids to be augurs, sorcerers and magicians. From their ranks came the Bards, the singers, poets, and keepers of oral history, and the O’vateis, the diviners of the natural world. The Druids would preside over the frequently held ritual banquets that were so popular in Celtic society. Ceremonies that would always begin or culminate in the sacrifice of a bull. They also served as Judges, their verdicts, according to Caesar, being preserved in written documents. They would also be present on the field of battle whipping the warriors into a state of frenzy. There is no doubt that the Romans feared the influence of the Druids.

Britain was finally occupied, if not entirely subdued, following the Emperor Claudius’s invasion of AD 43, and this was only achieved after sustained and heroic resistance from Togodumnus and Caractacus, two princes of the Catuvellauni tribe. Indeed, Caractacus was to resist for 7 years before being defeated at the Battle of Caer Caradoc in October, AD 50.

Under the Emperor’s Tiberius and Caligula the activity of Druids within the borders of the Roman Empire was prohibited. In the reign of Claudius it carried a sentence of death. For too long the Druids had been the focal point of resistance to Roman rule in both Britain and areas of Gaul.

In AD 61, during the reign of the Emperor Nero, the Roman Governor of Britain Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, decided to destroy the Druids once and for all. He pursued them to their stronghold on the Isle of Mona (Ynys Mon) in Anglesey, Wales. The historian Tacitus described the assault and how the Roman troops froze in horror upon being greeted by white-robed Druids, their arms uplifted to the skies:  ” On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they branded their torches while a circle of Druids called forth terrible imprecations upon the heads of the invaders. The troops were struck with such awe at the extraordinary spectacle that their limbs were paralysed with fear, so much so that they exposed their bodies to wounds without any attempt at movement. Then reassured by their General, and inciting each other never to flinch from women and fanatics, they charged behind the Standards and cut down all who met them, and enveloped them in their own flames.”

A great massacre occurred on the Isle of Mona. The Sacred Groves were cut down, burned, and destroyed. No one captured was spared. Whilst Paulinus was securing his victory over the largely unarmed and defenceless Druids word reached him of rebellion elsewhere. His determination to destroy Druidism in Britain was to be costly indeed. In his absence the Iceni tribe, under their Warrior Queen Boadicea (Boudicca) and their allies had launched a furious assault on Roman Britain, Colchester, St Albans, and London were burned to the ground. Tens of thousands of Roman citizens killed, and the famed Ninth Legion destroyed. In annihilating the Druids, Paulinus had almost lost the country. Though Boadicea would eventually be defeated, her defiance was perhaps the Druids revenge. The Romans would learn the lesson and assimilation rather than confrontation would become policy. The influence of the Druid’s in ensuring that the Island of Britannia was never fully conquered should not be underestimated, as neither should their values and core beliefs that continue to permeate the psychology and culture of a nation since much changed. Often in unusual ways.