LYRIC O’ THE DAY:
Hurry, hurry, hurry, before I go insane.
I can’t control my fingers, I can’t control my brain.
Oh no, oh, oh, no, oh.
--I Wanna Be Sedated, The Ramones
I know it's not Sunday, but I've been in a time warp lately so posting a mythbuster completely slipped my mind. So without further ado, let's welcome those guys who put cloaks back on the fashion radar.
The Druids are possibly one of the most mysterious cultures discussed in literature and folklore--a feat they have achieved without having kept a single written record of their society.
They were thought to be descended from the ancient Celts, who had a written language but rarely used it. The story of the Druids has been entirely spread through word of mouth and from the pens of the Greek and Roman authors who encountered them during the spread of the Roman Empire. Given the two groups were often at war, the accounts may be a bit biased. By the 5th century, the Druids had been forced to assimilate, although some may have gone underground, cloaking themselves forever in mystery.
Irish myths have served to propagate the secretive, cloak and dagger aesthetic, linking the Druids with magic and the supernatural. They believed the Druids were sorcerers committed to protecting the progeny of the goddess Dana--the Tuatha de Danann. The Tuatha de Danann are also linked to Fae mythology. The Druids may have been flesh and blood, but they had friends in high places.
The first written description of the Druids is in Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, published around 40 B.C. He noted that Druids were one of two respected classes in Celtic society, functioning as judges, philosophers, and teachers. He claimed they performed rituals, including human sacrifice, and believed in reincarnation. Caesar’s version has been criticized for inaccuracies. Some historians believe his image of the Druids may reflect his own desires to justify his conquest wars by creating a barbaric people deserving conquest, but capable of being reformed and assimilated into society for better purpose. Often in Roman literature, the Druids are referred to as the “barbaric philosophers.”
|Romans vs. Druids, from rodneyanonymous.com|
There were three main Druidic groups, although all Druids were trained in each of the skills of these subsets. The druidae/druidh were essentially priests and judges, knowledgeable in ritual and alchemy. The ovates/filidhs were seers and soothsayers, skilled in divination. The bards/bardi were poets, teachers and singers.
The life of a Druid, although they were reputed to be revered as holy men and exempt from taxes and military service, was not an easy one. The schooling often took up to twenty years, as it was all passed down word to mouth and then bound to memory. There was an individual hierarchy within the Druids as well. Although Druids are commonly equated with being priests of the Celts, some historians believe that they operated not as a mediator between man and the Gods, but as shamans guiding and directing ritual. Since the Druids were a polytheistic society and there were upwards of 300 Celtic Gods, no doubt their calendars were busy.
In Druidic beliefs, science and religion were both sacred, seen as a gift from the Gods. The effort to learn about the universe is, in essence, worship. Science was seen as intellectual and rational, but also intuitive and magical. Man could commune with the Gods via logic or fantasy.
One of the most important parts of Druidism is the belief that that soul does not die, but is passed into another form--i.e. reincarnation. According to some religious scholars, there are different levels of being for the Druids. As a person acquires knowledge in each, they move on to a higher realm. After a human death, Druids went to an afterlife in the Otherworld. There they continued to move to higher planes of being until they reached “The Source”. Once attaining this level--and connecting with the highest realm--their soul was reborn into a new person. So strong was the belief in reincarnation that those who followed the Druidic way would go into battle fearless, knowing that their soul would remain unscathed.
Ritual was very important to the Druidic society, although very few written Druidic rituals exist. Roman author Pliny the Elder gives a description of a ritual of oak and mistletoe, both sacred to the Druids. The name Druid is thought to be derived from the ancient Gaulish word for “oak knower”. According to Pliny, two Druids clad in white climb an oak tree to cut down the mistletoe growing in it with a golden scythe. Then, two white bulls are sacrificed on the spot. The mistletoe is subsequently used as a cure for all that ails you, including infertility, hypertension, and some malignant tumors.
I’m surprised Pfizer hasn’t figured out a way to bottle that.
It is assumed most Druids were male, however, this may be because any references to women using religious power were deleted by Christian monks that transcribed the ancient stories.
Animal sacrifice is seen pretty regularly in tales about the Druids. Some writers go even further and portray the Druids as active practioners of human sacrifice, although this has never been definitely proven. Some proto-Celtic tribes were known to burn criminals inside a wooden effigy called a wicker man, or sacrificed them to the gods Teutates, Esus, and Taranis by drowning, hanging, and burning in the aptly named “three fold death.”
|A wicker man.|
Mass graves in these areas have been used to support the idea of human sacrifice. However, other archaeologists argue they represent fallen warriors buried in sanctuary.
The Romans and Greeks likely painted the Iron Age Celts with the barbarian brush in order to frighten their people into believing the group was culturally inferior. Apparently the art of propaganda goes back to ancient times.
There was a resurgence in Druidism in the 18th Century, culminating with the founding of an English fraternal organization called the Ancient Order of Druids in 1781. Historian William Stukeley investigated the ancient megalithic monuments (i.e. Stonehenge) during this time and believed that they were associated with the Druid culture. The likelihood of the druids erecting these stones has been debated, since the Celtic tribes that spawned the Druids did not arrive in the area until well after they were said to be created. Ancient Druids were thought to have gathered in caves or densely wooded areas. Still, many philosophers of the day began describing themselves as Druids--using the term as a synonym for free-thinkers. William Blake was supposedly one of the Archdruids of the Order in the early 1800s.
|Can you identify the world leader in this 1908 Ancient Order of Druids installation photo?|
The advent of Romanticism brought Druids into popular culture in novels and opera. Chateaubriand’s Les Martyrs in 1809 told the story of the doomed love of a Druid priestess and a Roman soldier. Welsh writer Edward Williams, aka Iolo Morganwg, claimed to have collected the knowledge of the ancient druids into a series of manuscripts. Many scholars now believe these works may be largely fabrication, as Williams was one of the premiere literary forgers of his time. The ancient Druid lore Williams claimed to know may actually be his own interpretation of the mystical rites of pagan religions.
|Neo-druidic symbol, the celtic tree.|
Currently, the largest Druid group in the world is The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. It was formed in 1964 as a split from the Ancient Druid Order. They use a wide range of sources for their teachings--these “neo-druids” can be pagan, occultist, spiritualistic, or even Christian. Since the 1980s, the Celtic Reconstructionists have attempted to recreate a ritual more consistent with the Iron Age Druids.
|Modern druids celebrate at Stonehenge.|
We may never know the true teachings of the ancient Druids. The British museum says this about neo-Druidism:
Modern Druids have no direct connection to the Druids of the Iron Age. Many of our popular ideas about the Druids are based on the misunderstandings and misconceptions of scholars 200 years ago.
That element of the unknown only adds to the mystery of the Druids. In trying to connect with these ethereal shaman and the ancient Gods they worshipped, people have created their own teachings and folklore. And perhaps that supports the true Druidic ethos.
Have a great day! And hug a tree if you get a chance.