Most of the knowledge about the Druids comes from the non-Celtic (Greek, Roman, Irish) writers of their time. Julius Caesar, during his campaigns against the Celts, made numerous observations about the Celts including the Druids. In one he stated that the Druids “know much about the stars and celestial motions, and about the size of the earth and universe, and about the essential nature of things, and about the powers and authority of’ the immortal gods; and these things they teach to their pupils.” He also stated that Drudism originated in Britain.
The earliest known reference to the druids dates to the 2nd century BC. The Romans who wrote about the Druids regarded them as barbarians. (This from a culture that gloried in the fighting and deaths of gladiators in the arenas.) Since they engaged in ritual human sacrifice, the Roman government sought to destroy them as they conquered the Gauls. Druidism was suppressed by the Roman government during the 1st century AD under the emperors Tiberius and Claudius. (Personal note: Destroying a culture’s institutions, such as its religion, is a tool for subjugation.) With the exception of Britain, Druidism disappeared from the written record by the 2nd century AD.
The Druids were one of the few unifying bonds between the Celtic tribes. They preserved the culture, knowledge, religion, history, laws, and science. The Druids were reported to have studied for twenty years of oral instruction and memorizing. They and the nobles were the two high status classes. The Druids were the judges, teachers and priests of the Celts. They had authority over the tribal chiefs and settled disputes through arbitration. They were responsible for the education of the minstrels and bards.
One of their primary beliefs was the belief in the soul’s immortality, including reincarnation. The Romans claimed the Druids participated in human sacrifice which was part of the ritual of divining and forseeing the future, another of their beliefs. Pliny the Elder described the ritual of oak (which was sacred to the Druids) and mistletoe in which on the sixth day of the moon white-clad druids climbed oak trees (specifically, Valonia oak), cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle, then sacrificed two white bulls. The mistletoe was used to treat infertility.
The Druids survived for several centuries in Britain after they had been driven from the mainland of Europe. They live on in the Irish stories, some may have become Celtic priests (They shaved the fronts of their heads in a similar fashion.), others may have functioned as prophets and seers in isolated areas. Some of their rituals may have survived in the folk ways and customs of Britain.
Tomorrow, Masters of Art Rita Bay