Druids | Encyclopedia.com (2023)

DRUIDS . 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. The word is thought to mean something like "those knowledgeable about the (sacred) oak," being derived from two Celtic words meaning "oak" and "knowledge." (This etymology seems more plausible than the identification of the first element *dru-with an intensive prefix, which is not well attested in the Celtic languages; cf. also the Galatian term drunemeton, which presumably means "oak grove".) As there is no unequivocal archaeological evidence concerning the druids, our knowledge of them rests exclusively on a rather small number of written sources, which are fragmentary and difficult to interpret. This poses the fundamental question of to what extent the classical and early medieval statements about druids may be taken as an adequate reflection of historical reality.

The Druids of the Greek and Roman Authors

The oldest classical reference to druids may be contained in a passage written in the third century ce by the philosophical writer Diogenes Laertios. Discussing the supposition of some earlier writers that philosophy had its origins among the barbarians, he mentions Persian magi, Babylonian or Assyrian Chaldeans, Indian gymnosophists, and Celtic druids, referring to the philosophers Aristotle and Sotion of Alexandria as his sources. If Diogenes' identification of these sources is correct, the druids may have attracted the attention of classical authors as early as the fourth century bce. However, the earliest detailed description of druids apart from this brief and somewhat doubtful reference is given in the first century bce by the Stoic philosopher Posidonius of Apamea. His description of druids can be reconstructed in outline by comparing the statements to be found in Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Timagenes (as cited by Ammianus Marcellinus), which are demonstrably dependent on Posidonius. In addition to these authors, there is information about druids in Julius Caesar, Pliny the Elder, and other authors writing in the imperial period.

Diodorus mentions the druids in the context of his description of Celtic society. He groups them together with poets and soothsayers, saying that they were highly respected theologians and philosophers that were held responsible for all matters of sacrificial offerings. An allusion to his view of their teaching may be seen in his explanation of Celtic bravery, which he attributes to a belief in the transmigration of souls. Strabo gives a very similar account, stating that the druids were natural and moral philosophers. According to him, the druids were considered to be most just and therefore entrusted with settling both private and public disputes. The druids' preoccupation with natural philosophy is also mentioned by Cicero, who differs from the other sources by ascribing to them the pursuit of divination by means of the interpretation of signs. (Cicero, incidentally, also tells us that the Gaulish noble Diviciacus frequently referred to by Julius Caesar was a druid.) To this description Ammianus Marcellinus (referring to Timagenes) adds that the druids were organized in brotherhoods, in accordance with the teaching of Pythagoras.

(Video) The Druids

A more elaborate description of the druids is given by Julius Caesar, whose account concurs to a large extent with the above-mentioned writers but offers much additional information not to be found elsewhere. Caesar describes the druids as the most important social group (making no mention of either poets or soothsayers). According to him, they did not pay any taxes, had immunity from military service, and were exempt from all lawsuits; organized on a national basis, they were presided over by a single druid with the highest authority. They were reported to commit to memory a great number of verses, some of them remaining in training for some twenty years. Yet another piece of information is provided by Pliny the Elder, according to whom the designation "druid" was derived from the Greek name of the oak, because the druids chose oak groves for their sacrificial rites and held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the oak on which it grew. Describing a druidic sacrifice, Pliny mentions a druid in white clothing climbing the tree and cutting the mistletoe with a golden sickle.

As Suetonius in his biography of the emperor Claudius reports, Roman citizens were forbidden to participate in the religion of the druids even in the time of Augustus, long before the entire priesthood was totally banned in the middle of the first century ce. However, druids continue to be mentioned sporadically, and there are even some references to female druids (who are not known from pre-Roman times) as kinds of female soothsayers in the late imperial period.

In evaluating this body of evidence, it should be noted that all Greek and Latin statements about druids refer to Gaul in the immediately pre-Roman and Roman period, and that there is virtually no information about druids in earlier times or in other Celtic-speaking regions, such as the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, the Balkans, and Asia Minor. Furthermore, most if not all information about pre-Roman druids is demonstrably contained in or derived from Caesar and Posidonius, whereas sources from the late imperial period referring to contemporary druids may use this term in a rather loose sense meaning no more than "Gaulish soothsayer." On stylistic grounds, Pliny the Elder's description of a druidic sacrifice may also be considered to be based on Posidonius, whose highly influential Celtic ethnography is known only in outline. Thus, any evaluation of the evidence rests on an estimate of the trustworthiness of two authors, Posidonius and Julius Caesar. As regards Posidonius, it should be noted that his comparison of druids and Greek philosophers may mirror both his own philosophical turn of mind and the influence of Greek culture on the Celts of southern Gaul, where he collected most of his information. As for Julius Caesar, it seems possible that he deliberately depicted the druids as a worthy counterpart to the Roman pontifices presided over by the pontifex maximus, just as he depicted the Gaulish gods along the lines of the Roman pantheon, in order to emphasize the Gauls' adaptability to Roman civilization and to stress their cultural superiority over the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine. It is probable that the elaborate and large-scale sacrificial rites at major Gaulish sanctuaries, such as those of Gournay-sur-Aronde or Ribemont-sur-Ancre, presuppose the existence of a specialized cult personnel, and it stands to reason that the performance of divinatory practices (which may leave no archaeological traces) would also have been one of their functions. However, both Posidonius's view of the philosophical quality of the druids' teaching and Julius Caesar's account of the hierarchical and national structure of their organization are somewhat open to doubt.

(Video) The Druids - History, Philosophy, Religion (Full Documentary)

The Druids of Medieval Irish Literature

In looking for druids in medieval Insular Celtic literature, it will be noted that Welsh sources are completely silent on this point and that the oldest Irish references to druids tend to assimilate the druids to pagan priests as known or, rather, imagined from biblical and apocryphal writings. (The Welsh term derwydd [prophet], though superficially similar to Old Irish druí, is to be analyzed as *do-are-wid-, so that its usage does not tell us anything about druids in the technical sense of the term.) Thus the hagiographer Muirchú in his Life of Patrick modeled the saint's confrontation with King Loegaire's druids on the Old Testament account of Moses's confronting the magicians of Pharaoh. Conversely, an Old Irish gloss on the New Testament calls the pharaoh's magicians "two Egyptian druids." Among the most prominent features of the druids in Irish literature is their association with magic. However, this should not be taken to reflect any genuine tradition, being most likely based on the medieval Christian association of pagan religion with the workings of demons. In fact, it may be questioned whether there are any clear recollections of pagan priests to be found in medieval Irish writings, as in many cases the druid appears to be depicted as a negative counterpart of the Christian priest. A typical example of this tendency would seem to be Muirchú's description of a contest between Saint Patrick and a pagan druid, in the course of which both of them throw their books into a river. Clearly, sacred writings were for the early medieval author of this story of such paramount importance that he could not envisage a pagan priest doing without them. Similarly, some other medieval Irish narratives credit the druids with performing ceremonies of name-giving that seem to be modeled on the Christian baptism, presumably because medieval clerics found it hard to believe that there should have been no pagan equivalent of this fundamental Christian rite. In fact, the survival of the Continental Celtic word for "druid" in Old Irish cannot be taken to warrant a continuity of either social organization or religious teaching.

The Druids of Modern Scholarship

Much modern writing about the druids has been bedeviled by the fact that, from the seventeenth and eighteenth century onward, the fragmentary and often contradictory classical and medieval statements were invoked to buttress more or less ill-founded assumptions about Celtic culture and religion in general. A general tendency has been to interpret the pagan Celtic past in the light of the present and to "explain" the present with reference to alleged pagan antecedents. Ideas of continuity have been especially prominent in Great Britain and Ireland due to linguistic continuity, but also in France where the idea of "our ancestors, the Gauls" was used to establish and propagate a cultural identity different from and superior to that of the Germans. Major factors in the creation of these ideologies were an uncritical reliance on the credibility of the written sources and the absence of a firm chronology, so that Stone and Bronze Age artifacts and monuments came to be associated with the druids. Influential figures in this development were the British antiquaries John Aubrey (16261697), Henry Rowlands (16551723), and William Stukeley (16871765), who popularized the idea that Stonehenge and contemporary monuments were to be interpreted as temples of the druids. Mention should also be made of the Welsh antiquary Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams, 17471826), who from patriotic motives tried to demonstrate a continuity of tradition stretching from the pre-Christian druids to the modern Welsh poets. When, in the course of the nineteenth century, Indo-European linguistics and Celtic studies came to be established as academic disciplines, great store was set by correspondences between the writings of classical and medieval authors, and by real or alleged Indo-European parallels. Especially influential have been the ideas of Georges Dumézil (18981986) and his followers, who derived the druids from a prehistoric Indo-European priesthood that they believed was also at the base of the ancient Indian Brahmans. More recently, however, an increased awareness of methodological problems involved in this approach and substantial advances in Indo-European linguistics, Celtic studies, classical philology, and prehistoric archaeology have helped to show the fragility of many facile interpretations of that written evidence which, without exaggeration, may be said to have generated an amount of discussion inversely proportionate to the verifiable facts.

See Also

Celtic Religion, overview article.

(Video) Druids - Soothing Ambient Music For Sleep and Stress Relief - Ambient Rain and Thunder


Jones, Leslie Ellen. Druid, Shaman, Priest: Metaphors of Celtic Paganism. Enfield Lock, UK, 1998. An account of the druids and modern druidic ideologies.

Kendrick, Thomas Downing. The Druids. London, 1927. A classic study which, though dated from an archaeological point of view, gives a convenient survey of the Greek and Roman evidence in the original languages and in English translations.

Maier, Bernhard. The Celts: A History from Earliest Times to the Present. Translated by Kevin Windle. Edinburgh, 2003. A discussion of the druids and their significance for Celtic religion and modern Celtic ideologies within a broader historical context.

(Video) Bizarre Facts About The Druids

Owen, A. L. The Famous Druids: A Survey of Three Centuries of English Literature on the Druids. Oxford, 1962. A study of the references to druids in English works of literature dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

Piggott, Stuart. The Druids. London, 1968. A general account, embracing archaeology, written evidence, and the history of scholarship.

Bernhard Maier (2005)

(Video) The Mystery of the Druids: A Bizarre Adventure Game


1. Ireland and the Druids
(The Histocrat)
2. The Buried Mysteries Of Wale's Ancient Druids | Time Team | Odyssey
(Odyssey - Ancient History Documentaries)
3. Top 10 Unusual Things That The Druids Did
(Meditations for the anxious mind)
5. The Problem with Druids in D&D
(Pointy Hat)
6. The Druids
(The History Chronicles)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Prof. An Powlowski

Last Updated: 20/08/2023

Views: 5791

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (64 voted)

Reviews: 87% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Prof. An Powlowski

Birthday: 1992-09-29

Address: Apt. 994 8891 Orval Hill, Brittnyburgh, AZ 41023-0398

Phone: +26417467956738

Job: District Marketing Strategist

Hobby: Embroidery, Bodybuilding, Motor sports, Amateur radio, Wood carving, Whittling, Air sports

Introduction: My name is Prof. An Powlowski, I am a charming, helpful, attractive, good, graceful, thoughtful, vast person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.