The Druids were members of an elite social and religious order from western Europe, notably Gaul (France) and Britain, whose origins still remain obscure.
Historians have learned about the Druids and their practices through references to them from writers dating to as far back as the fourth century BCE. Other important sources include Julius Caesar’s (100-44 BCE) Gallic Wars from the first century BCE, and Irish sagas written down in the seventh and eighth-centuries CE.
Caesar is often treated as the primary source for information on the Druids, and according to whom they were an old but developed institution (1). The Druids had many roles including philosophers, religious leaders, mystics, sorcerers, and were practitioners of astrology and magic. The sources agree that they were a kind of religious caste who, writes Caesar, “hold long discussions about the heavenly bodies and their movements, about the size of the universe and the earth…” (2). Dio Chrysostom (40 – c. 120 CE) writes that “the Celts appointed those whom they call druids, these also being devoted to the prophetic art and to wisdom in general” (3). Unfortunately, the Druids did not leave historians with any writings of their own given that most important features of druidical culture, such as their lore, history, and literature, were transmitted orally and recorded by memory alone (4). The information from these other sources does, however, challenge some of the fantasy depictions of the Druids as,
“romantic visions of white-robed figures performing gloomy and mysterious rites in oak-groves, surrounded by further vague intimations of the cult… However, this atmosphere of mystery and fantasy, which was created by pseudo-historical and romantic movements beginning in the seventeenth century, has been effectively analyzed and dispelled…” (5).
The Druids were the dominant element in Gallic society who, with the backing of the religious sanctions of their decrees, controlled the civil administration of the Gallic states. Perhaps their most important function was their role as interceders between human beings and the gods. As intermediaries they could, unlike ordinary humans, talk to the gods. This special role afforded them a great deal of power for if any individual offended them or did something wrong that person could be refused contact with the gods. The Druids shared belief in and worship of a number of deities with the Greeks and Romans, and also held to a notion of the transmigration of the soul upon death reminiscent of pre-Socratic Pythagoreanism (6).
The Druids were also said to have involved themselves in rituals of human and animal sacrifice. However, their involvement in human sacrifice, which would suggest they used human entrails for divination purposes, is uncertain. Many historians remain skeptical given that such depictions largely stem from Roman sources, such as provided by Cornelius Tacitus (56-120 CE), that might have had motives for presenting the Druids in a negative light.
Several factors led to the decline of Druidism, largely owing to the disruption of Gallic unity due to the invasions of the Teutons and Cimbri, the fall of the Arvernian confederacy, and the advance of Graeco-Roman culture, accompanied by increases in literacy.
1. DeWitt, Norman. 1938. “The Druids and Romanization.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 69: 319-332.
2. Caesar, Julius. Gallic Wars, VI, 14.
3. Chrysostom, Dio. 2017. Delphi Complete Works of Dio Chrysostom – ‘The Discourses’ (Illustrated). Delphi Classics.
4. Curran, John. 1998. “The History Never Written: Bards, Druids, and the Problem of Antiquarianism in Poly Olbion.” Renaissance Quarterly 51(2): 498-525. p. 501.
5. DeWitt, Norman. 1938. Ibid. p. 322
6. DeWitt, Norman. 1938. Ibid. p. 321