The Druids: What Do We Really Know?

published on July 20, 2020

St Patrick is credited for converting Ireland to Christianity what is less talked about is what were people converting from what were the pre-christian religious beliefs and practices of the British Isles well the answer is easy right

Celtic polytheism but it's not so easy to summarize Celtic polytheism as it encompasses a bunch of different gods and goddesses it encompasses a range of practices that differ whether we're talking about Ireland Britain or

Northern Europe so I'm gonna focus on one group that gets a lot of attention the Druids an ancient Roman texts they are Celtic religious leaders and philosophers in Irish medieval sagas druids are sorcerers and mystics that

St Patrick constantly battles against in spectacular public miracle duels they loom large in modern media – especially the fantasy genre bearded white robed priests practicing mystical arts and sacred groves or places like Stonehenge

These are romantic stereotypes dating back to 18th century English writers and are the same stereotypes that have inspired druid revival groups sometimes called neo Druidism but setting aside these stereotypes what do we actually

Know about the Druids for you druid fans you won't be happy to hear that we know very little we're relying almost entirely on biased secondhand sources from Greek and Roman authors and some ambiguous archaeological evidence let's

Start with the textual evidence here are a few major greco-roman sources in roughly chronological order of these sources only Julius Caesar could be considered a possible eyewitness he writes basically a mini ethnography of

The Druids in his book the Gallic war which is his record of his campaigns throughout Western Europe and Britain there's a good chance he encountered actual druids and he even mentions befriending one all of these other

Authors are secondhand sources so let's start with Julius Caesar he says the Druids are in charge of religion they have control over public and private sacrifices and give rulings on all religious questions large numbers

Of young men go to them for instruction and they are greatly honored by the people so he's describing them as a sort of priesthood or a class of ritual specialists originating from Britain but they also play a political

Of some sort serving as judges and civil disputes do Chrysostom supports this saying that they were seers who had significant control over local Kings the Celts appointed druids who likewise were versed in the art of seers and other

Forms of wisdom without whom Kings were not permitted to adopt or plan any course so that it was those who ruled and the Kings became their subordinates and instruments of their judgment so the Druids at least in the Roman

Period were not to be trifled with a group with significant power Julius Caesar says that they believed in a form of reincarnation that the soul passes into another body at death and he says that they worship some sort of parallel

To the god mercury as their main God among other gods Caesar is possibly Roman izing the Celtic God Lucas here they're also experts in astrology and astronomy Caesar says they hold long discussions about the heavenly bodies

And their movements about the size of the universe and the earth and apparently they engage in both animal and human sacrifice the Roman geographer plenty of the elder writing a century after Caesar refers to them as magicians

And describes an elaborate ritual of a white robe druid sacrificing white bulls and sacred oak Grove's this is the image that neo druid groups imitate today other Roman authors fixate on supposed human sacrifices performed by Druids

Tacitus writes it was their religion to drench their altars in blood of prisoners and consult their gods by means of human entrails now divining Oracle's from looking at the entrails of animals was practiced throughout the

Mediterranean world the Romans themselves had a specialized class of priests called the harus pecks that would do this whether or not the Druids were actually using sacrificed human entrails for divination is uncertain but

I'm personally skeptical particularly because of the unlikely reports we have of their favourite method of human sacrifice burning them alive in wicker effigies made famous by the movie The Wicker Man the Roman geographer strabo

Writes that the Druids would build a huge Colossus of straw and wood and throw a bunch of animals and humans into it to make a burnt offering Julius Caesar records a similar practice though neither stray beau or Caesar were

Eyewitnesses to this practice so let's summarize from Julius Caesar Strabo plenty the elder and Tacitus we get a picture of the Druids as an elite Celtic religious order some of whom must have been specialized in astrology and

Magic and plenty of rumors of brutal human sacrifice the historian Barry Cunliffe points out that Caesar never uses the term priests to describe them so it's probably best to think of them as a cast of intellectuals or a tribal

Elite like I said above I'm a little more skeptical of the human sacrifice claim accusations of human sacrifice appear again and again throughout history as something you invent about people that you don't like we'll discuss

The archaeological evidence for this later but we should be skeptical of these authors in general these Roman sources were written by elite foreigners with an elite audience back home in Rome they had a vested interest in portraying

The non Romans as horrific barbarians deserving to be conquered we shouldn't necessarily throw all of these sources out but we need to be skeptical of them quoting Barry Cunliffe again all of these sources view Druidism through a

Filter of Roman disapproval so having said that what can archaeological evidence do to help shed light on the Druids unfortunately almost nothing I'm sorry to be sharing the bad news we don't have any direct archaeological

Evidence of an official priestly caste called druids so we need to lower the bar somewhat although we don't have direct evidence of druids we have plenty of archaeological evidence of pre-christian religious leadership and

Ritual specialists like astrologers the jump from pre-christian religious leaders to drew as though is pure speculation a century ago archaeologists discovered a bronze Celtic lunar calendar in

Eastern France dating to the 2nd or 1st century BC not long before julius caesar's campaigns to the region where he describes druids being active it apparently was buried in a Gallic temple it labels certain months as good in

Other months as bad and even labeled certain days as inharmonious this must have been some sort of astrological tool and parallels what Caesar says about the Celts calculating time by counting the night's rather than the days and

Calculating the year around the moon phases it also parallels what Caesar says about druids being experts in astronomy and astrology now we can only speculate that druids made this calendar but it does provide material evidence of

Astrological and religious specialists living around the same time period in same region as the Druids described by Caesar archeologists have also discovered curious bronze spoons and burials throughout Ireland and Britain

Which may have been astrological tools they almost always are discovered in pairs one spoon having a cross and size in the bowl and the other having a tiny hole drilled into it here are two examples from the British Museum both

Are found in Britain we honestly have no idea what these were used for but the most common theory is that they were tools for divination a fortune teller or Oracle would pour some sort of liquid into the spoon maybe oil water or blood

And have the liquid drip onto the other spoon reading an omen from where the drops fall on the quadrants in size on the second spoon some scholars think it might have been some sort of powder or sand instead of liquid the examples

Discovered thus far date from the 5th century BC to the 1st century BC so again the period when druids were reportedly active but what about the evidence for human sacrifice well that's a little more unclear archaeologists

Have found Celtic shrines in France that apparently displayed decapitated heads pillars with niches where skulls were placed in Britain there's evidence that the Celts would display heads on gates to possibly sacrificed war prisoners

Bury Cunliffe the famous celtic historian who have now cited a bunch thinks it's at least likely that the Celts practiced human sacrifice I will editorialize here and say that I find the evidence unconvincing but I'm

Not the Celtic historian here although people including modern-day druid revival groups often link Stonehenge and the Druids there is no real evidence for this association it dates back to the 17th century English scholars and

Hobbyists who theorized it was a temple of the druids sacred structures that date closer to the Druids described by julius caesar were much different usually built of timber square shaped or circular shaped for example

Archaeologists have excavated a Celtic temple on Hayling Island which has some sort of circular building where visitors would have deposited votive offerings including both animal bones and coins

Archaeologists suggest that all of this points to the presence of temple functionaries who must have been managing the sacred site theorizing that it was a shrine to the Celtic version of Mars all of this evidence can only point

To a generalized Celtic religious specialist though there must have been some sort of priest like functionaries who managed the shrines astrologers with the necessary skill to make a calendar like the Coligny calendar but any

Connection between the Druids and these artifacts in the words of the archaeologist Andrew Fitzpatrick is pure speculation we really are relying on textual sources when it comes to the Druids by the time

Of st Patrick the Druids had already been enduring centuries of cultural change and outright suppression by the Romans the Roman writer suite toniest says that Claudius very thoroughly suppressed the barbarous and inhuman

Religion of the Druids in Gaul which in the time of Augustus had merely been forbidden to Roman citizens and the medieval sagas the Druids had become legendary stereotypical sorcerers with little basis in historical fact the

Institution either no longer existed or was so minor that they didn't have much standing in society anymore the nature of our sources shapes how we view the Druids today are they romanticized wise philosophers and

Keepers of sacred mystical knowledge or are they bloodthirsty priests sacrificing humans in wicker effigies your opinion might be swayed depending on which Roman source you want to believe and as frustrating as that is

They are a perfect example of the sometimes imperfect field of ancient history trying to piece together an entire religious order from scraps of biased sources so hats off to our ancient historians out there for making

This possible as always thanks for watching and subscribing and I'll see you next time you

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