druids

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druids

(dro͞o`ĭdz), priests of ancient Celtic Britain, Ireland, and Gaul and probably of all ancient Celtic peoples, known to have existed at least since the 3d cent. BC. Information about them is derived almost exclusively from the testimony of Roman authors, notably Julius Caesar, and from Old Irish sagas, supplemented to some extent by archaeological evidence. The druids constituted a priestly upper class in command of a highly ritualistic religion, which apparently centered on the worship of a pantheon of nature deities. Druids were also responsible for the education of the young and generally for the intellectual life of the community; although apparently literate, they taught by oral transmission, and their courses are said to have lasted as long as 20 years. The druids believed in immortality of the soul in a nonjudgmental world of the dead. Their religious ceremonies seem to have been performed chiefly in tree groves (the oak and the mistletoe that grows on the oak were held sacred) and at river sources and lakes. The druids performed animal and human sacrifices and practiced divination and other forms of magic. Tacitus mentions a Celtic tribe, the Bructeri, that was led by a prophetess, and Irish legend confirms that there were women druids, although their precise role is not known. According to Caesar, the druids in Gaul were organized into a federation or brotherhood that extended across tribal divisions and was headed by an archdruid; they met once a year, probably on the site of Chartres, to arbitrate private and intertribal disputes. They thus wielded great political power and were an important cohesive force among the Celtic tribes. The druids in Gaul were the core of the rebellions against Rome. Their power, although broken by the Romans, finally yielded only to Christianity. In the late 18th and 19th cent., interest in the druids was spurred by archaeological discoveries and by the romantic movement. The megalithic monuments of France and Great Britain, notably those at Carnac and Stonehenge, were once ascribed to them, but these are now known to predate Celtic culture.

Bibliography

See S. Piggott, The Druids (1968, repr. 1985); A. Ross, Druids, Gods, and Heroes (1986); W. Rutherford, The Druids: Magicians of the West (1986).

Enlarge picture
Druids, under their sacred oak tree, are threatened by Christianity. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

Druids

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Priest class of the Celts—the physicians, historians, priests, and scholars— ranking next to the king. Little is actually known about them except that, according to Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, they spent twenty years in training, and all their knowledge was passed on orally. Caesar placed them in southern and central Gaul from about 500 BCE, as did the Stoic philosopher Poseidonius (135-50 BCE) of Syria, the main authority on the Celts. The Roman historian Ammianus (330-395 BCE) said that Druids were "uplifted by searchings into things most secret and sublime." They were later banned by Tiberius and Claudius, mainly because of their human sacrifices. Pliny, in his Natural History, refers to their magical cures.

Lewis Spence suggests a non-Celtic and even non-Aryan origin for the Druids, writing that it is possible the "so-called Iberian or Megalithic people of Britain introduced the immigrant Celts to the Druidic religion." Certainly Britain became the center of that religion, the Isle of Anglesey being the chief seat. Classical writers refer to Druidesses, so women also figured among them. The name Druid itself is of unknown origin. Some suggest that it comes from the Gaelic Druidh, meaning "wise man" or "magician," while others suggest the Old English drud, a "learned person." Pliny the Elder believed it referred to the Greek drus, meaning "oak."

In R. A. S. Macalister's The Archaeology of Ireland (Dublin, 1928), the author suggests that the Irish Druids at least were learning sacred hymns dating from before the introduction of writing and, "like the Vedas in ancient India, preserved by oral tradition, because they would have been profaned were they to be committed to this novel art." At that time, both Greek and the ancient Irish Ogham alphabet existed and were known to the Druids, so it was by choice that the learnings were not written down.

Druidic temples were out of doors, frequently in a grove of oak trees. They were usually circular or oval in form, sometimes enclosed by a palisade or bank and a ditch. In the center was a large stone representing deity. There was a degree system for the priests and priestesses, with two of the grades being Bards (bardoi) and Ovates (vates or manteis). W. B. Crow believes that Druidism was a tree cult, since Europe was, at that time, mainly covered with extensive forests, the predominant tree being the oak. We certainly know that an object of their veneration was mistletoe, a semiparasitic plant growing on trees and particularly prevalent on the oak tree. (The Teutons also held mistletoe sacred.) The Druids would cut the mistletoe from the tree with a golden sickle, then allowing it to fall into a cloth, since it was not allowed to touch the ground. The only detailed account we have of this ceremony comes from Pliny, who stated that the mistletoe was cut on the sixth day of the moon. He also said that two white bulls were sacrificed after the cutting, and a feast was held.

Druids worshiped at the same festival dates that are recognized by Witches, the major ones being Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh. The minor ones were called by the Druids Alban Eilir (spring equinox), Alban Hefin (summer solstice), Alban Elfed (autumn equinox), and Alban Arthan (winter solstice).

Several modern-day groups and societies dub themselves Druids. One is a society called the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, founded in 1717 and reorganized in 1964. It held its first summer solstice ceremony at Hunsbury Hill, Northamptonshire, in 1964. Another is the Secular Order of Druids, headquartered in Frome, Somersetshire. The British Druid Order started in 1979. The Ancient Order of Druids claims to be "the parent body of all Druidical Societies," according to its literature, "established nearly two hundred years ago."

There are also modern Pagan groups who follow the Druidic path. One of the major American leaders of Druidism as a part of neo-paganism is Isaac Bonewits (b. 1949), who founded the Schismatic Druids of North America and Ar nDraiocht Fein, a Druid fellowship. He started the periodical Druid Chronicler, later renamed Pentalpha Journal, and wrote The Druid Chronicles (Evolved).

Druids

magical priests of Celtic religion; oak cult. [Celtic Rel.: Leach, 325; Jobes, 471]

Druids

conducted their rites in oak groves and venerated the oak and the mistletoe. [Celtic Relig.: Benét, 289]
See: Trees
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