Who exactly were the Druids and what did they practice? The short answer is that no one really knows for sure, and most of the sources left by supposed eyewitness accounts of their practices may never be provable, mainly because the Celts themselves left no writing behind. This sense of mystery and lack of knowledge about the Druids and their practices has caused many individuals through the centuries to present them in many different lights, some more factually based and believable than others.
Primary sources tell that the Druids were Celts of an educated priesthood-like class in Ireland, Britain, and Gaul. Interestingly enough our main source of information about the Druids and some of their possible practices and societal roles in Celtic culture come from Julius Caesar in his writings in Commentarii de Bello Gallico, book VI. In his brief account of the Druids while campaigning in Gaul, Caesar describes them as the interpreters of all religious and astronomical/cosmological questions. Caesar’s commentaries also claim that many young men went into training to become Druids, learning all Druidic knowledge by heart. He also mentions that it is the Druids who decide all public and private controversies in their given societies, including all crimes committed by the people. One piece of information given to us by Caesar that has come under much scrutiny in modern scholarship is his claim that the Druids practiced human sacrifice in order to appease the gods on behalf of warriors preparing for battle or those afflicted with illness within their society. Usually those offered as sacrifice were criminals, but Caesar claims that sometimes innocents are sacrificed as well to the gods on behalf of certain individuals. Caesar describes how the people would construct large images with limbs woven together with willows to form what is known as a wicker-man and then fill them with those who were to be sacrificed. The wicker-man was then set on fire and those inside inevitably perished from the flames.
18th Century Wicker-Man depiction
(“WickerManIllustration” by Unknown Original. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The possible problem with relying on Julius Caesar’s account of the Druids is the fact that Commentarii de Bello Gallico was written as self-propaganda in order to build-up Caesar’s image in Rome as a great leader for his own political purposes, making some of his claims about the Druids, such as the sacrificing of human beings in wicker-men, somewhat dubious. Some modern scholars, such as Ronald Hutton, have pointed out that Caesar probably manipulated the facts on the Druids, presenting them as both learned and barbaric in order to show the Roman senate that the people in Gaul would be worth ruling due to their knowledge and that Roman values could temper their barbaric tendencies, such as their supposed practice of human sacrifice.
Other ancient writers commented briefly on the Druids, but never gave many details about them. Cicero wrote that he knew of a supposed Druid in Gaul named Divitiacus that could make predictions through augury and conjecture. Pliny the Elder writes on the ritual of the mistletoe, the description of his ceremony matching up with archaeological finds on the Celts: “A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.”
Many myths and false claims about the Druids and their religious practices have persisted for centuries. For example, many people associate Stonehenge with the Druids when in fact there is no known link between the Druids of the Iron Age and the people who built Stonehenge sometime between 3000 and 2000 BCE. That religion would most likely have died out well before the Iron Age began. During the 19th century CE, the Druids and Celts began to be romanticized in popular culture, leading to many false ideas about the Iron Age Druids and their religious practices. Much of these ideas have been disproven by modern studies and discoveries on the matter. A major contributor to this 19th century fascination and view of the Druids was the works of Welshman Edward Williams, also known as lolo Morganwg. Williams claimed to have collected ancient knowledge about on the subject that he had gathered together. Many of these writings were later found to have been complete fabrications on Williams’ part; nevertheless pieces of his writings still appear in Neo-Druid works to this day as if they are authentic.
(“Stonehenge Closeup”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Today there are many different sects of pagan religions inspired by the Iron Age Celts and Druids, none of which have any provable historical semblance to the actual religious practices of the Celtic people. Modern day Druids or so called Neo-Druids focus much of their practices or teachings on the importance of nature. It is from nature that Neo-Druids draw their main focal point of spirituality.
(“Druids, in the early morning glow of the sun” by Andrew Dunn – http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
When it comes to modern day interpretations as to whom the Druids were, one view, as purported by archaeologist Anne Ross, is that the Druids were essentially shaman-like tribal priests, not having much in common at all with classical philosophers. Of all the different speculation and theories through the centuries as to whom the Druids were and what their role was in Celtic society, perhaps this is all we can know for sure: that the Druids were a priest class that oversaw the religious practices of the tribal group in which they were over. Most everything else is purely speculation.
Caesar, Julius. The Internet Classics Archive. The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar. Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, 1869. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “On Divination Book I, P.223.” LacusCurtius • Cicero. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
“Druid Beliefs.” Order of Bards and Druids. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
“Druid | Celtic Culture.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
“Druid.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
“Druids.” British Museum. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. <http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/d/the_druids.aspx>.
“Earth Mysteries: Who Were the Druids, Anyway?” Earth Mysteries: Who Were the Druids, Anyway? Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
“Full Text of “Pliny’s Natural History. In Thirty-seven Books”” Full Text of “Pliny’s Natural History. In Thirty-seven Books” Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
The Golden Bough. Frazer, Sir James George. 1922.
“The Venerable Bede, Druidic Tonsure and Archaeology.” ” by Venclova, Natalie. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.