Most of what we know about the Iron Age druids comes from Roman sources, describing a learned class of priests, teachers and judges, who performed Druidic rites in forest clearings and offered human sacrifices to the gods.
The most detailed description dates from around 50 BC in the Commentarii de Bello Gallico, a first-hand account of the Gallic Wars, written as a third-person narrative by Julius Caesar. Most of the text is based on the hearsay of others and is regarded as anachronistic, drawing on earlier accounts by writers such as Posidonius.
Caesar’s depiction of the Druids is documented in book six, chapters 13, 14 and 16–18, where he discusses how the Druids are “engaged in all things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, and interpret all matters of religion.” They are the arbiters of disputes and are the judiciary over crimes.
Anyone who disobeyed their decree would be barred from sacrifice (considered the gravest of punishments) and shunned, with all persons forbidden to speak or engage with them in society, lest they themselves “receive some evil from their contact”.
According to Caesar, the Druids are ruled over by an elite figure who “possesses supreme authority among them”. Unless a worthy candidate can be found upon this person’s death, those with a “pre-eminent in dignity” can put their candidacy forward for election, although this sometimes resorted to armed violence between candidates to solidify their position.
They studied ancient verse, natural philosophy, astronomy, and the lore of the gods, some spending as much as 20 years in training. This was through oral tradition and verses, with writing considered unlawful to prevent their doctrines being divulged among the people.
In Chapter 16, Caesar comments: “The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices”.
Caesar claims that this was done by constructing large wicker figures made of osiers (willow stems). Those chosen for sacrifice would be placed inside the effigy and set on fire, burning the people alive as an offering.
Another account by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus also refers to Druidic sacrifices in his Bibliotheca historicae in 36 BC: “These men predict the future by observing the flight and calls of 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.”
Caesar suggests that the Druidic institution was devised in Britain, most probably based on his two expeditionary campaigns to Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC. By the reign of Emperor Tiberius (AD 14-37), the Druids were suppressed in Gaul, but continued to thrive in Britain and Ireland until the arrival of the main invasion force to Britannia in AD 43.
The Druids were pushed to the fringes, operating a resistance from a stronghold on the island of Mona (Anglesey) in Wales. To crush the remaining threat, Suetonius Paulinus, governor of Britannia, led an assault on the island in AD 60/61 (although it has been suggested that the Druid’s were used as an excuse to invade Wales for the rich material wealth).
The Roman historian Tacitus writes of the events: “On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds.
Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.”
In Ireland, much of what we know about the Druids comes from medieval tales and stories such as Táin Bó Cúailnge, and in the hagiographies of various saints. With the coming of Christianity, it has been suggested that the role of Druids in Irish society was rapidly reduced to that of a sorcerer, poets, historians, and judges, until eventually disappearing into myth and legend.
From the 18th century, England and Wales saw a reinvention of the Druids, with John Aubrey suggesting that the Druids were connected to Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments.
This belief was reinforced by William Stukeley, who claimed that Britain’s ancient Druids had followed a monotheistic religion inherited from the Biblical Patriarchs; he called this Druidic religion “Patriarchal Christianity”.
He further argued that the Druids had erected the stone circles as part of serpentine monuments symbolising the Trinity, although this and any connection to Britain’s ancient monuments is strongly opposed by modern archaeology.
During the 19th century, there was a Neo-druid revival, with central figures such as Edward Williams, better known as Iolo Morganwg publishing posthumously his Iolo Manuscripts and Barddas, claiming a fabricated ancient knowledge in a “Gorsedd of Bards of the Isles of Britain”
The revival even appeared on stage in Giovanni Pacini’s 1817 opera to a libretto by Felice Romani about a druid priestess, La Sacerdotessa d’Irminsul (“The Priestess of Irminsul”).
Druidic beliefs vary widely today and there is no set dogma or belief system followed by all adherents. Some strands of contemporary Neo-Druidism are a continuation of the 18th century revival and are largely built on the 18th century sources, overlooking the historical realities of Iron Age religion in favour of a romanticised semi-modern construct.
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