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Today we’re going to talk about Druids, who they were, and where our information comes from.
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Ok, lets talk about Druids. And no, I’m not talking about the people who gather at Stonehenge every solstice in robes blowing a rams horn. While that all looks very fun, those people aren’t following the ancient druidic religion. First, because Stonehenge was built before the rise of celtic culture and before the emergence of druidism. And second, because druidism is dead. Modern druidism is no more ancient than modern wiccanism.
And while I’m irritating people, I might as well go the full nine.
St. Patrick wasn’t Irish. Yup, it’s true. He wasn’t Irish. Oh and I’m not done yet! There’s a good chance that the short kilt, also known as the Walking Kilt, was invented in the 1700’s by an English industrialist named Thomas Rawlinson who tried to make the plaid kilt more practical. Of course, some dispute this. Which should surprise no one, since Kilts are so fashionably scottish. But Hugh Trevor-Roper amusingly commented that the kilts and tartans are as authentic as disneyland. And that has a great deal of merit. While there might be some argument over whether Rawlinson invented the short Kilt or merely recognized its utility and mandated its widespread use in his workplaces,the modern short kilt was likely an 18th century invention, and certainly no older than the 17th century. And while tartans have existed in europe and asia for over 3000 years, many of the Clan tartans that we know today were likely invented in the lowlands for profit.
Oh, and what about Bagpipes? We all love bagpipes, and they’re as scottish as… uh… a very scottish thing. Right? Well, bagpipes were invented in the middle east. And chances are that if it wasn’t for the British Army and the enthusiasm of Queen Victoria, they probably wouldn’t be nearly as popular as they are. But look. I’m not saying that bagpipes, tartans, and short kilts are bad. If you want to wear a short kilt, more power to you. I’m just saying that it’s only marginally older than the utili-kilt. ;)
Ok, now that I’ve alienated everyone. Back to the Druids.
Lets start with the name. Druid. There are many discussions on what the name meant, how it might have been originally pronounced, how it was morphed over the years through translations, and whether it was a celtic word or a word applied to the celts by historians from the Mediterranean. Like much with this period, everyone has a theory it seems. That’s largely because most of what we know is derived from Posedonios, a 2nd century BC Greek writer. And unfortunately, we don’t have all of his writings. Some were lost. But we’ve been able to piece together some of what’s missing through references made in the work of others. Much of that, by the way, is thanks to the Alexandrian school which, rather than relying on first hand experience like many of their contemporaries, gathered and cited sources in an attempt to synthesize history. Many of the lost texts of history are known thanks to the Alexandrian school.
Anyway, so thanks to, primarily, secondary sources, we’re able to get a picture of what the druids were like, but that picture is cloudy and heavily subject to interpretation. Anyway, back to the word druid and what it might have meant.
A rather plausible etymological explanation for the word is that it is a combination of the root “Drus” which meant Oak and “Wyd” which translated to knowledge. Oak knowledge? That might seem strange until you look at how important trees were.
There are plenty of references to the sacred oak groves of the druids and whatnot, and a little while later in this episode I’ll tell you about an account of a druidic religious site. But before we get there… Oak! So if you only know one thing about druids, you probably know about their love of trees. Trees were really important, and actually they continued to be important to the celts.
Take Ogham for example. Ogham is the native written language of celtic Ireland. Ogham, or Tree-Ogham, took it’s name from the god Ogmios, and was carved on the trunk and branches of trees, often following the natural path of the branches. Yep, instead of being read left to right on a flat geometric slab or page, it would follow the flow of the tree. But what makes Ogham important for this story is how it was taught. When you learned english you probably went through the same steps I did. A is for Apple, and so on. Well, if you were learning Ogham, you’d do something very similar, but you wouldn’t use Apples, Bears, Cats, etc. You’d use trees. Ogham has 18 letters and each corresponds to a tree. A is for (ailm) Elm. B is for (beith) Birch. C is for (coll) Hazel. D is for (darroch) Oak. So even in matters of linguistic education, trees were to central celtic life.
In fact, they were simply central to the hierarchy of life, with the mighty oak reigning above all others. So those with Oak Knowledge, the druids, would be held in high esteem. It seems they also had other names, though. There are references in history to the Celts of Gaul and the Galatians has having both Druids and Semnotheoi, but it was probably a synonym for druid. Incidentally, Semnotheoi, is a greek word that translates to Revered Gods.
And while we’re on the subject of names. What would you call a female druid? Well according to several Greek sources, it seems that you would call them dryades. I think that you’ll find that all sorts of bits of druidism survives in myths, legends, and the like.
So what were these druids like? Well, according to Caesar they were highly organized, much like their trees. There was one head druid, who would rise through meritocracy and general election, or through battle. But regardless of what rank you were, if you were a druid you were a cut above the rest. For example, would never pay taxes and would never have to serve in the military. You were essentially aristocratic.
But maybe you earned that right. After all, druids trained for as much as 20 years. And the lessons would have involved history, religion, songs, and all matter of other things. They were basically the repositories of all Celtic knowledge. And the way they would have taught this information would have also had religious import. According to Diogenes Laertius, the druids taught in triads. Things coming in threes seems as important to the Druids and the trees. The lessons we have records of have three parts… for example “Honor the gods, do no evil, practice bravery.” There were even three separate intellectual castes: Druids, Bards, and Vates. Even the sacrifices we’ve found were killed three ways.
20 years of learning triads. Speaking as someone who has gone through 19 years of school, I can tell you that’s a tremendous amount of training! And considering they had shorter life spans than we enjoy, it was even more significant.
So that’s a hell of a lot of training! What was it for? What exactly did they provide to society to merit all that preparation? Well, the druids were incredibly powerful figures in society. They were a largely independent group unaffiliated with a particular tribe. They could move from place to place freely. And all of this made them very useful for arbitrating conflicts, settling cases, and ending wars. Even Caesar found them to be useful, though dangerous, as objective judges. In their early days, it’s said that they could even walk into the middle of a battle and stop it. Like right there, in the middle. “HEY! STOP IT!” and the warriors would stop.
In addition to being mediators on steroids, they were also the keepers of Celtic histories and tales, which also gave them a tremendous amount of weight in society. After all, they were the only ones who knew the old tales. In legal terms, they were the only people who knew precedents. And luckily, for them, none of the information they held was allowed to be written down. Which meant that their power was theirs alone. They were supreme amongst the intelligencia. But they weren’t alone.
There were bards, who were singers and poets. And there were also Vates (who were later called Fili in Ireland) who were in charge of interpreting sacrifices and natural philosophy. Natural philosophy, by the way, is basically divination. But the druids were the main movers and shakers. And as I mentioned before, there was a hierarchy… and they could travel through celtic lands to the various tribes without issue…. aaaaand they could demand obedience from the celts, even from armies in the field. Imagine the power they would have if they coordinated and worked together.
Well, every year, the druids held a large gathering at Carnute, which was the center of Gaul (roughly in the Orleans area) and organized.
Wait… Gaul? So does that mean that Gaul was the center of Druidic life? Probably not. It was probably a major bastion of Celtic life, but according the Caesar, Druidism was founded in Britannia. Apparently, the most devout of the celts travelled to Britannia, so perhaps there were even druidic colleges there. It would make sense, since we know that Ynys Mon (Anglesey) was a major Druidic site.
Anyway, back to the important stuff. Oaks.
So Oak and mistletoe were first mentioned by Pliny, who lived among the Celts of the Po valley. He said that anything growing on the Oaks of the grove was divinely sent. He also gave us this tale… which is probably a load of bullshit. Mistletoe was gathered on the 6th day of the moon and while it was gathered the druids would dress in white and cut it with a gold hook, then carry the mistletoe on a white cloth, and sacrifice two white bulls during the ceremony. Any barren woman who drank a concoction made with the sacred mistletoe would be cured. It sounds like something right out of a King Arthur legend. But again, this was probably a load of sacrificial white bullshit.
On the flip side of history, and likely just as exaggerated, is what Caesar wrote of the Celtic holy sites. He wrote of how they found a celtic shrine in 49 BC while cutting timber for siege machines in Marseilles. Imagine a druidic shrine right now, if you will. Does it look like a sylvan dell… an open field surrounded by ancient trees, maybe with a spring and some wildlife drinking from it. The grass dappled by light filtered through Oak. It sounds like a great place for a picnic… but that’s not what Caesar reported seeing. Here’s what he says he saw. It was dark and gloomy, thanks to the branches of the trees being interlaced to block out the sun, water flowed from an unseen spring, and in the middle there were a number of altars with human body parts and entrails heaped upon them. Upon every tree there seemed to be traces of blood and upon ever stump there were images, probably faces, carved into them. There was no trace of wild life. And some of the axemen claimed that the trees moved without reason. Now this was a story that was, in all likelihood, political and could be a bunch of white sacrificial bullshit. On the other hand, maybe those axemen accidentally found out what happened to those who angered the Celts. After all, if the tales of Boudicca are to be believed, the Celts weren’t above ritualistic killing.
But was it human sacrifice? It’s hard to say. We’re pretty sure that the druids did /some/ human sacrifice, since we have Lindow Man, for example. And it seems that he was probably a willing participant AND was of an upper class. Maybe only druids allowed themselves to be sacrificed. Who knows. Pliny claims that it was bulls that were sacrificed. And actually the symbol of the bull remained potent in celtic life until around the 17th century, so maybe it was bulls and not people. Or maybe it was people and then bulls as they became less extreme. Who knows.
I’m inclined to think that the druids were probably not as terrifying as the Romans would have us believe, but rather their habits were exaggerated to give a reason for wiping them out. And that was all for political purposes, since they kept stirring up trouble in Gaul, and the Romans still remembered when the angry Celts sacked their eternal city.
And we should also remember that Tacitus wrote of how the druids stirred up discontent and rebellion in 69 AD by singing songs of the destruction of Rome by the Celts in 390 BC, and by uttering prophecies that the celts would become masters of the world. The Druids weren’t simply religious leaders, they were also centers of rebellion against Rome.
And the Druids really were a force to be reckoned with. Dion Chrysostom, from the 1st century AD, was with the Alexandrian School and actually met the Druids (which was unusual for them). And unlike many writers with the Alexandrian School who relied upon sources such as Caesar… who were certainly biased… Dion spoke quite favorably of the Celts after having direct contact with the tribes.
Now one thing he mentions in his account sticks out to me. He said that Celtic Kings couldn’t plan or do much of anything without the advice and consent of the druids. Really, it was the druids who ruled.
So perhaps Caesar exaggerated his accounts for political purposes. And later, when Druidism was prohibited by Claudius in 54 AD, it was once again for political purposes. And these terrifying images the Romans report of blood soaked rituals were blown out of proportion. It’s possible. But it’s hard to discount the fact that we /do/ have evidence of human sacrifice in druidic areas.
If you ask me, it’s probably a bit of column A and a bit of column B. I really doubt the Druids were the idyllic fairytale beings we have grown up hearing about, but I also doubt things were as bad as the Romans lead us to believe. The Romans probably took advantage of a some unsavory aspects of Druidic life, blew them out of proportion, and then used it as justification for wiping out the rebellious celtic intellectuals, erasing their heritage, and speeding up the Romanization of the celtic territories.
The point is that religious life in Celtic Britain wasn’t solemn. It wasn’t pius. It was gory, and scary, and magical, and boisterous, and full of wonder. And it’s still there if you know where to look. Beltane (May Day) and Samhuin (Halloween) are still celebrated everywhere. That mistletoe you kiss under at Christmas is Celtic. Those wishing wells your kids toss coins into are celtic. You often get superstitious people telling you that bad news comes in threes (triads). The druids aren’t gone. Not entirely, they were just absorbed.
And one way it was absorbed, was through celtic christianity. Actually, many early celtic saints might have been druids. And even Pelaiganism, the theological theory that ran counter to St. Augustine’s world view, seems to have a lot in common with druidic natural philosophy… whether that is a coincidence or whether it intentionally incorporated druidism isn’t known. But what is known is that Pelagianism caught on quite well in the Celtic territories such as Britannia. It seems that druidism held on however it could.
And eventually, spurred on by a desire to reconnect to our ancient roots, people in the 17th century began to reinvent druidism but unfortunately it isn’t the same religion. The Romans were efficient and the ancient intellectuals behind the throne, as well as their religion, were destroyed. [/s2If]
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