“The druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak….Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree… 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.” Pliny the Elder, 1st century
“The Druids are in charge of all religious matters, superintending public and private sacrifices, and explaining superstitions. A large crowd of young men, who flock to them for schooling, hold the Druids in great respect. For they have opinions to give on almost all disputes involving tribes or individuals, and if any crime is committed, any murder done, or if there is contention about a will or the boundaries of some property, they are the people who investigate the matter and establish rewards and punishments. There is one arch-druid of supreme power. On his death, he is succeeded either by someone outstanding among his fellows, or, if there are several of equal calibre, the
decision is reached by a vote of all the Druids. At a fixed time of year they assemble
at a holy place…Anyone with a grievance attends and obeys the decisions and judgments which the Druids give. The general view is that this religion originated in Britain and was imported into Gaul, which means that any keen student of Druidism now goes to Britain for information.” Julius Caesar, 54 BC
So, who were the ancient Druids and what do we know about them?
Firstly, Druids are magicians. Greek philosopher Diogenes Laërtius compares the
Druids to the Persian Magi, which is an equivalent Greek word to the Latin word
Caesar used to describe Druids as magicians. The Magi are Astronomers/ Astrologers belonging to the Zoroastrian religion.
Whilst it is part of the role of Vate was to perform rituals, it is the Druid role to conduct and oversee rituals. They explained the purpose of rituals, so those taking part understood the importance. There were both public and private rituals. These were special occasions and following sacrifice; they held a banqueting. We learn that
they closely followed the lunar cycles (cutting mistletoe on the sixth day of the moon)
and were expert timekeepers. The discovery of the lunisolar calendar in Coligny, France tells us a lot about the Druid calendar and times of rituals.
They looked at the moon as a healer and even had a branch of Astrologer concentrating purely on the moon. The mistletoe was collected from a hard-timbered oak, and the word Druid means “oak knower”. Since oak trees are connected with longevity and wisdom, this gives the impression of a Druid being a wise, old sage. This is borne out in Julius Caesar’s account of schooling young men. Although it appears from Caesar’s quotes that Druids was largely a male role, in Ireland at least, there were female Druids called bandruí (“woman-druid”), found in tales such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Caesar only had limited exposure to Britain, so only had limited information about the role of male and female Druids.
The Druids were in charge of religious matters, they were the High Priests of the Celts. People brought matters to their attention and they gave judgments after fully investigating a matter. In fact, in Ireland, the law of the Druids was written into what
is known as Brehon law. There was a democracy among Druids and an arch Druid was voted in from their number.
They were philosophers and wanted the best for their tribes and people. They were
envoys of peace. The role of Druid is a very important role, but comes with great
responsibility. Like the politicians of today, people looked at the words of the Druids and the role of Druid is that of a diplomat.
The practice of the Druids was first noted in two Greek works over two thousand years ago in around 200 BCE, although both works were since lost. In 50 BCE Julius Caesar wrote that Druids originated in Britain. Some claim that Druids could be found across much of Europe, from Ireland in the west to Turkey in the
east, however, modern scholars have concluded this is unlikely.
Druids were probably native just to the British Isles, Ireland and western Gaul
(now France). Although written accounts seem to have begun 2,200 years ago,
Druidry was probably in existence for a good deal of time before then, and Druids
evolved from earlier pre-Celtic cult practices.
On the Gower Peninsula, near Swansea, the Paviland caves have revealed one of the earliest magick religious sites in the world, where around
26,000 years ago a group of humans carefully interred a skeleton, wrapping the body in red cloth or rubbing it with red ochre and laying with it
mammoth-ivory rods, which may be the earliest magic wands ever found.
17,000 years ago the Lascaux caves in France were decorated with paintings of animals which survive to this day. The caves were almost certainly used in ritualistic ways and many believed that they were representations of the constellations of the night sky, including an ancient Druid zodiac.
Thousands of years later a classical writer claimed that Druids met in caves, and today the symbolism of caves and of animals is still used by many modern Druids.
During this period of history, prior to the evolution of Druids, tribes were migrating across Western Europe. Some may have come from the areas now known as the black sea area of Russia, Turkey, or even from the Vinča civilisation. These brought their own religious customs and knowledge, which was animistic and shamanistic.
Around 6,500 years ago people were starting to build stone monuments in western Europe – particularly in Ireland, the British Isles, and in Brittany. The Druids have always been associated with stone circles such as Stonehenge. Academics,
however, until recently dismissed this idea. Historians used to say that the Druids couldn’t have used Stonehenge and all the other stone circles in Britain, because the Druids were the priests of the Celts, and the Celts only arrived in Britain around 500 BCE.
In the sixties many historians changed their minds. They realised that the origin of Celtic tribes was far more complex than originally presumed, and suggested instead that early Celts were probably in Britain as early as 2000 BCE, when the great stone monuments were still being built and that they became involved in their use or construction, integrating it into their practises.
We can, therefore, connect the Druids as the priests and priestesses of the stone circles, which is strengthened by the importance of ritual astronomy in the construction of these monuments, aligning stones with the Sun and moon at solstices and equinoxes.
We also know that Druids also held rituals in sacred groves that were clearings surrounded by sacred trees, including the Oak.
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