We have no written sources that we can be “positive beyond any reasonable doubt” were composed by ancient Druids themselves. (See the subheading “Authenticity and Validity.”) However, we have accounts in Old Irish, like the Auraicept na nEces, dating from possibly the 7th century, which is one principal source for the study of the Ogham divinatory alphabet (as well as the Younger Futhark, called ogam lochlannach, “the ogam of the Norsemen”). We have Immacallam in da Thurad (Colloquy of the Two Sages) from the 12th century Book of Leinster, featuring two Bards contending at length for a Druidic position.
We also have the enormous, six-volume Carmina Gadelica, “a compendium of prayers, hymns, charms, incantations, blessings, literary-folkloric poems and songs, proverbs, lexical items, historical anecdotes, natural history observations, and miscellaneous lore gathered in the Gaelic-speaking regions of Scotland between 1860 and 1909” by Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912), containing material preserved orally, with some likely dating back to pre-Christian times. Together these help us form a quite detailed picture of the length of training (over a decade) and its content (some 350 poems, grammar, tribal history, techniques for poetic composition, etc.) for Bards and, in less explicit detail, given its more initiatory character, for Ovates and Druids.
We also possess myths, poems and legends in texts such as the Welsh Mabinogi which are full of valuable teachings which many modern Druids look to, and which ancient Druids may well have created or retold; see here and here for just two examples discussed on this blog. The medieval Welsh Triads — Trioedd Ynys Prydein (“Triads of the Isle of Britain”) — contain ancient material and many elements of Welsh Druidic lore and Arthurian legend.
And we have the Llyfr Taliesin, the “Book of Taliesin” which also includes Armes Prydein (“The Great Prophecy of Britain”) and Preiddeu Annwfn, The Spoils of Annwn, probably not written by Taliesin, but important poems nonetheless for their early Arthurian lore; Llyfr Aneirin, the “Book of Aneirin”; Llfyr Du Caerfyrddin, the “Black Book of Carmarthen”; and Llyfr Coch Hergest, the Red Book of Hergest. A later source, dating from the 1200-1300s, is the Hendregadredd Manuscript.
One of the most widely-known sets of Welsh stories concerns the above-mentioned bard Taliesin, who flourished some 1400 years ago. Many modern Druid orders make use of his stories as part of their training programs, because of the initiatory insights and magical knowledge they offer.
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If, however, these sources of mixed provenance and not-always-certain authorship and date fail to satisfy a materialist historian’s insistence on citing only those sources that can be historically documented with relative certainty as contemporary with ancient (= pre-Christian) Druids, we DO have some scattered references among classical authors.
But when we refer to Roman and Greek writers for factual information and insights on ancient Druid practice, in turn, we encounter secondhand accounts of varying degrees of reliability.
(It’s also important to remember that just because ancient Druids did or didn’t do or believe something, that is no reason by itself for modern Druids to do the same. The question to ask of any practice or belief is “What purpose does it serve?” A practice can be authentic and useless, or just created yesterday and capable of fostering genuine spiritual growth and insight.)
The total extant ancient Roman and Greek material concerning the Druids would fill no more than a short booklet. Almost all the classical citations have been conveniently assembled here, with both original text and translation, allowing anyone the opportunity to double-check both translation and original, and compare it with other editions.
These ancient writers merely tell us what outsiders like themselves heard, knew and believed — or wanted their readers to believe — about the Druids. The following is a synopsis of their works, with liberal use of source quotations. For full sources and original languages, as mentioned above, go here.
/|\ Both Men and Women
Both women and men could be druids (Metz Inscription; Historia Augusta). It is difficult to know if all positions were open equally to both sexes. It is important to remember that, if this equality is accurate, use by ancient authors of the words “men” and “he” should be silently expanded to include “women” and “she.” Modern Druid orders are again open to both sexes and have memberships of men and women in roughly equal numbers, though during the Druid Revival and into the 20th century this was not always the case.
/|\ Entrusted with Judgment in Disputes
Strabo notes that the Druids “are considered the most just of men, and on this account they are entrusted with the decision, not only of the private disputes, but of the public disputes as well.” Caesar makes similar assertions. Druids “decide in almost all disputes, public and private; and if any crime has been committed, or murder done, or there is any dispute about succession or boundaries, they also decide it, determining rewards and penalties …”
/|\ Exclusion from Sacrifice a Severe Penalty
Strabo continues, “if any person or people does not abide by their decision, they ban such from sacrifice, which is their heaviest penalty.”
/|\ Exemption from War
Because of these roles, Druids “usually hold aloof from war, and do not pay war-taxes with the rest; they are excused from military services and exempt from all liabilities,” according to Caesar, though Tacitus notes, “Druids accompanied armies and cursed the enemy soldiers.”
/|\ Peacemakers … Sometimes
Strabo adds, “… in former times, they even arbitrated cases of war and made the opponents stop when they were about to line up for battle.” Diodorus Siculus concurs: in both peace and “in war also, these seers [the Druids] have authority, and the incantations of the bards have effect on friends and foes alike. Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound.”
/|\ Equals of Kings
Such was their authority, Dion Chrysostom claims, “without their advice even kings dared not resolve upon nor execute any plan, so that in truth it was they who ruled, while the kings, who sat on golden thrones and fared sumptuously in their palaces, became mere ministers of the Druids.”
At least four different authors assert that Druids taught the immortality of the soul as a “primary” or “cardinal” teaching (Caesar; Ammianus Marcellinus; Diodorus Siculus; Pomponius Mela). This perspective had several practical consequences: “as the fear of death is thereby cast aside, they hold [it] to be the greatest incentive to valor” (Caesar). “Therefore,” says the poet Lucan, “death, if what you sing is true, is but the mid-point of long life,” for “the same spirit has a body again elsewhere.”
Strabo adds that “not only the Druids, but others as well, say that men’s souls, and also the universe, are indestructible, although both fire and water will at some time or other prevail over them.” Pomponius Mela notes that such beliefs “make the multitude readier for war” and that the Celts “burn or bury with their dead, things appropriate to them in life, and that in times past they even used to defer the completion of business and the payment of debts until their arrival in another world. Indeed, there were some of them who flung themselves willingly on the funeral piles of their relatives to share the new life with them.” Certainly not all contemporary Druids believe in personal immortality.
/|\ Ethics, Lore and Natural Philosophy
“[B]y means of riddles and dark sayings,” Druids also taught “that the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done, and manly behavior maintained” (Diodorus Laertius). Druids knew Pythagorean ideas about number and mathematics as keys to the sacred, and these influenced their philosophies and training; they were “members of the intimate fellowship of the Pythagorean faith,” according to Ammianus Marcellinus.
They also “have many discussions as touching the stars and their movement, the size of the universe and of the earth, the order of nature, the strength and the powers of the immortal gods, and hand down their lore to the young men” who “gather about them for the sake of instruction and hold them in great honor” (Caesar). Pomponius Mela concurs, observing that they “profess to know the size and shape of the world, the movements of the heavens and of the stars, and the will of the gods.”
/|\ Greek Influence
The identification of Greek wisdom as a source for Druid teaching appears in other writers, too, as with the naming of “the servant of Pythagoras, Zamolxis, who also is said to have taught the Celtic Druids to cultivate the philosophy of Pythagoras” (Hippolytus of Rome? — authorship uncertain). The same author says that “the Celts believe in their Druids as seers and prophets because they can foretell certain events by the Pythagorean reckoning and calculations. We will not pass over the origins of their learning in silence, since some have presumed to make distinct schools of the philosophies of these peoples.” And a Druid with the Greek female name of Arete made “sacrifice to Silvanus and the local nymphs” (Metz Inscription).
/|\ Training and Literacy
The training of a Druid was elaborate, involving among other things substantial memorization. Caesar notes that “in the schools of the Druids they learn by heart a great number of verses, and therefore some persons remain twenty years under training.” Pomponius Mela notes similarly, “They teach many things to the noblest of the nation in a course of instruction lasting as long as twenty years, meeting in secret either in a cave or in secluded dales.”
(As several modern scholars have pointed out, with the growth of literacy and mandatory schooling, modern people may also spend up to two decades or longer acquiring advanced degrees. And bards and poets in other oral cultures often devoted a long apprenticeship to mastering their craft.)
Caesar also says that “they do not think it proper to commit these utterances to writing, although in almost all other matters, and in their public and private accounts, they make use of Greek letters,” noting both a desire for secrecy and a belief that writing causes memory to atrophy.
/|\ Three Ranks among Druids
According to Strabo, there were three ranks or orders of Druids who were “held in exceptional honor; the Bards, the Vates [or Ovates — ADW], and the Druids. The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates, diviners and natural philosophers; while the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy.” A chief druid held authority, in some circumstances selected by a vote of other druids. Many modern Druid orders mirror this tripartite division in their levels of training.
/|\ Outdoor Groves
Druids met outdoors by preference. The poet Lucan exclaims, “The innermost groves of far-off forests are your abodes.” Among these sacred groves, the central and most revered one was located in the land of the Carnutes, a Celtic tribe among many which Caesar eventually conquered, as he describes in his wartime memoir De Bello Gallico.
Druids chose groves of oak “for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it; so that it seems probable that the Druids themselves may derive their name from the Greek word for that tree. In fact, they think that everything that grows on it has been sent from heaven and is a proof that the tree was chosen by the god himself” (Pliny the Elder). The god was probably Jupiter/Zeus, who was associated with oaks. And scholars have proposed the possible etymology for the name Druid as dru– “tree” (related to English true, trust, truth, betroth, tree; Greek dryad, etc.) + wid– “knower” (related to English wit, wise, wisdom; Latin vid- “see,” Sanskrit vidya “knowledge, science,” etc.).
Druids were “concerned with divine worship, the due performance of sacrifices, public and private, and the interpretation of ritual questions” (Caesar). In some cases, such offerings apparently included “human sacrifices … they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples, or having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt offering of the whole thing” (Strabo). Caesar also describes such “figures of immense size, whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame.”
Some who died in this way were criminals; their execution “is more pleasing to the immortal gods,” Caesar continues, stating, however, that “when the supply of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent.” Scholars disagree whether these actions were frequent, and whether such statements were Roman propaganda against the Druids. But certainly Druid practices were eventually banned and Druids themselves hunted and executed by Roman and Christian authorities in Western Europe.
Propaganda would certainly serve in this purpose: “We cannot too highly appreciate our debt to the Romans,” Pliny the Elder notes, “for having put an end to this monstrous cult, whereby to murder a man was an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh most beneficial.” He notes elsewhere, “[Magic] flourished in the Gallic provinces too, even down to a period within our memory; for it was in the time of the Emperor Tiberius that a decree was issued against their Druids and the whole class of diviners and physicians.”
Some passages suggest a Druidic vision of underlying harmony and correspondence between actions and events which moderns tend to dismiss: “And the murder cases in particular, had been turned over to them for decision. Further, when there is a big yield from these cases, there is forthcoming a big yield from the land too, as they think” (Strabo).
/|\ Reliance on Dreams and Divination
Druids also relied on dreams for wisdom, insight and guidance for sacrifice (Metz Inscription), and practiced “divination and all branches of wisdom” (Dion Chrysostom). We even have a few historical individuals identified as Druids in such a context: “Nor is the practice of divination disregarded even among foreign nations, if indeed there are Druids in Gaul – and there are, for I knew one of them myself, Divitiacus the Aeduan, your guest and eulogist. He claimed to have a knowledge of nature which the Greeks call ‘physiologia,’ and he used to make predictions, sometimes by means of augury and sometime by means of conjecture” (Cicero).
/|\ Specific Rituals and the Mistletoe
Druids revered the mistletoe which, as Pliny the Elder describes, “when found, is gathered with due religious ceremony, if possible on the sixth day of the moon (for it is by the moon that they measure their months and years, and also their ages of thirty years). They choose this day because the moon, though not yet in the middle of her course, has already considerable influence. They call the mistletoe by a name meaning in their language, the all-healing.”
Pliny continues in considerable detail: “Having made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, whose horns are bound then for the first time. Clad in white garb, a priest ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and it is received by the others in white cloak. Then they kill the victims, praying that the god will render this gift of his propitious to those to whom he has granted it. They believe that the mistletoe, taken in drink, imparts fecundity to barren animals, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”
Finally, though, we can hear him sniff with disdain: “Such are the religious feelings that are entertained towards trifling things by many peoples.” But he goes on, nonetheless, to relate other ritual uses of plants: “the plant called selago … is gathered without using iron and by passing the right and through the left sleeve of the tunic as though in the act of committing a theft. The clothing must be white, the feet washed and bare, and an offering of wine and bread made before the gathering.” And “a certain marsh-plant that they call samolus …must be gathered with the left hand, when fasting, and is a charm against the diseases of cattle. But the gatherer must not look behind him, nor lay the plant anywhere except in the drinking-troughs.”
/|\ Practice of Magic and Prophecy
Druids also practiced magic (Hippolytus of Rome? — authorship uncertain; Pliny the Elder), though what “magic” entailed is very hard to know, since the word can indicate almost anything someone else does, while the writer’s culture may practice something quite similar at heart, but see it as orthodoxy or holiness or the highest good. Nonetheless, not only Gaul but also “Britannia is still fascinated by magic, and performs its rites with so much ceremony that it almost seems as though it was she who had imparted the cult to the Persians,” says Pliny. “To such a degree do peoples throughout the world, although unlike and quite unknown to one another, agree upon this one point.”
Druids “divined from the death struggles of a human sacrifice” (Strabo) and “deemed it, indeed, a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their duties through human entrails” (Tacitus). Part of a ritual practice may be evident here: “they still draw blood from the victims led to the altar” (Pomponis Mela).
Druids made prophecies, including some concerning the the Roman imperial line of Claudius and the Emperor Constantius (Historia Augusta, Aurelianus), and “ declared, with the prophetic utterances of an idle superstition, that this fatal conflagration [of the Capital] was a sign of the anger of heaven, and portended universal empire for the Transalpine nations” (Tacitus).
Pliny recounts details of how to gather a kind of sacred egg “of much renown in the Gallic provinces, but ignored by the Greeks. In the summer, numberless snakes entwine themselves into a ball, held together by a secretion from their bodies and by their spittle. This is called anguinum. The Druids say that hissing serpents throw this up into the air, and that it must be caught in a cloak, and not allowed to touch the ground; and that one must instantly take to flight on horseback, as the serpents will pursue until some stream cuts them off. It may be tested, they say, seeing if it floats against the current of a river, even though it be set in gold.”
Again we see Pliny’s (and presumably general Roman) bias in his subsequent comments: “But as it is the way of magicians to cast a cunning veil about their frauds, they pretend that those eggs can only be taken on a certain day of the moon, as though it rested with mankind to make the moon and the serpents accord as to the moment of the operation. I myself, however, have seen one of those eggs; it was round, and about as large as a smallish apple; the shell was cartilaginous, and pocked like the arms of a polypus. The Druids esteem it highly. It is said to ensure success in law-suits and a favorable reception with princes; but this is false, because a man of Voncontii, who was also a Roman knight, kept one of these eggs in his bosom during a trial, and was put to death by the Emperor Claudius, as far as I can see, for that reason alone.”
Yet certainly not all Romans initially despised Druid knowledge: “[O]n a certain occasion Aurelian consulted the Gaulish Druidesses to find out whether his descendants would remain in possession of the imperial crown. These women told him that no name would become more illustrious in the state annals than that of the line of Claudius. It is true, of course, that the present Emperor Constantius is of the same stock, and I think that his descendants will assuredly attain to the glory foretold by the Druidesses” (Historia Augusta, Aurelianus).
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Updated 28 November 2015