Priests - Magicians - of the Celtic
the book "The Almanac of the Uncanny"
Although since Christian times Druids have been identified as wizards
and soothsayers, in pre-Christian Celtic society they formed an
intellectual class comprising philosophers, judges, educators,
historians, doctors, seers, astronomers, and astrologers. The earliest
surviving Classical references to Druids date to the 2nd century B.C.
The word "Druidae" is of Celtic origin. The Roman writer
Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus, 23/24-79 A.D.) believed it to
be a cognate with the Greek work "drus," meaning "an
oak." "Dru-wid" combines the word roots "oak"
and "knowledge" ("wid" means "to know" or
"to see" - as in the Sanskrit "vid"). The oak
(together with the rowan and hazel) was an important sacred tree to the
Druids. In the Celtic social system, Druid was a title given to learned
men and women possessing "oak knowledge" (or "oak
The Druids emerged from the ancient Celtic tribes, at a time when the
people had to live close to nature to survive. By the light of the
storyteller's fire, and with the play of the harp, the Druids dreamed
magic for their people. In the deep woods they would gather, bringing
together their mysticism and philosophy, their insight and learning.
Their spirit emerged from the tides of the sea, the light of the sun,
the wind in the Oak, the cry of the deer. In this way, they created an
institution that inspired, frightened, and uplifted their world.
Druids filled the roles of judge, doctor, diviner, mage, mystic, and
clerical scholar - they were the religious intelligentsia of their
To become a Druid, students assembled in large groups for instruction
and training, for a period of up to twenty years.
The mythologies describe Druids who were capable of many magical
powers such as divination & prophesy, control of the weather,
healing, levitation, and shape changing themselves into the forms of
Their education was so rigorous that at the end of it they were
virtually walking encyclopedias. A good word for them would seem to be
"priests", yet I am reluctant to use it for two reasons: The
Romans never used it, and because Druids didn't minister to
congregations as priests do.
Caesar and his historians never referred to them as priests, but
perhaps they could not recognize them as priests since the Roman
priesthood, officiating over an essentially political religion, were
primarily teachers and judges, with less emphasis on being seers or
diviners, whereas the Druids appeared to have both legal and magical
powers and responsibilities.
Some scholars have argued that Druids originally belonged to a
pre-Celtic ('non-Aryan') population in Britain and Ireland (from where
they spread to Gaul), noting that there is no trace of Druidism among
Celts elsewhere - in Cisalpine Italy, Spain, or Galatia (modern Turkey).
Others, however, believe that Druids were an indigenous Celtic
intelligentsia to be found among all Celtic peoples, but were known by
The main sources we have on what Druids did are the teachings and
writings of Roman historians, such data as archeological remains can
provide, and mythological literature recorded by monks in the eighth
through twelfth century. Also, analogies can be drawn between the Celts
and such Indo-European cultures that existed around the same time and
had the same level of cultural achievement, such as the Hindu people.
Archaeology is an excellent resource for the study of celtic history.
Scientists have uncovered the remains of votive offerings to the Gods in
lake bottoms, bogs, and "votive pits" (a narrow hole dug deep
in the ground in which votive offerings are buried), which tell us about
Celtic religion. There are also the remains of celtic fortresses,
habitations, temples, jewelry and tools. These remains speak to us not
of events and people in Celtic history, but what life was like, what
their technological capability was, what food they ate, what crafts and
trades they practiced, what products they made and traded (which in turn
tells us about their economy), and where they traveled and how they got
there. These facts about Celtic social life are an important element for
understanding Druidism, because it is necessary to understand the whole
culture in which Druidism was situated.
The Roman historians are another important source, though they wrote
on the Celts from their own points of view; Julius Caesar, for example,
was in the process of conquering Gaul (what is now France; a variant of
Gaelic is still spoken in Brittany) and therefore would have written a
highly prejudiced account. Posidonius was trying to fit the Druids into
his own Stoic philosophy. There is also an attempt to cast the old Celts
in the role of the innocent and wise noble savage, uncorrupted by civilization
and close to nature, as in the case of the writer Tacitus. Romans are
usually under stood as "hostile witnesses", but they are the
only eyewitnesses that we have.
One of the problems with studying Druidism academically is that the
Druids were the subject of a number of persecutions and conquests, not
only by the Romans, but also by Norsemen, Normans, Saxons, and
Christians. Much Druidic wisdom was censored, evolved into something unrecognizable,
or just plain lost; although it is true that the Romans never invaded
Ireland, so that country became a haven for Druidic learning for a
Besides observing that the name 'Druid' is derived from
"oak", it was Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia
(XVI, 95), who associates the Druids with mistletoe and oak groves:
"The Druids...hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the
tree on which it grows provided it is an oak. They choose the oak to
form groves, and they do not perform any religious rites without its
foliage..." Pliny also describes how the Druids used a "gold
pruning hook" or "sickle" to gather the mistletoe.
"Anything growing on those trees [oaks] they regard as sent from
heaven and a sign that this tree has been chosen by the gods themselves.
Mistletoe is, however, very rarely found, and when found, it is gathered
with great ceremony and especially on the sixth day of the moon... They
prepare a ritual sacrifice and feast under the tree, and lead up two
white bulls whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A
priest attired in a white vestment ascends the tree and with a golden
pruning hook cuts the mistletoe which is caught in a white cloth. Then
next they sacrifice the victims praying that the gods will make their
gifts propitious to those to whom they have given it. They believe that
if given in drink the mistletoe will give fecundity to any barren
animal, and that it is predominant against all poisons."
Many Druids were women; the Celtic woman enjoyed more freedom and
rights than women in any other contemporary culture, including the
rights to enter battle, and divorce her husband. Though through history
we have lost much information about them, though this will be discussed
The Celtic nations were Alba (Scotland), Breizh (Brittany), Cymru
(Wales), Eire (Ireland), Kernow (Cornwall), and Mannin (Man).
Although identified at times as wizards and soothsayers, many were
philosophers, judges, educators, historians, doctors, seers, astronomers,
mystery surrounds the Druids, the priestly caste of Celts in Gaul
(modern day France) and Britain, who served as judges, teachers, healers
and soothsayers. Greeks and Romans writing between the second century BC
and the fourth century AD reported the little we know about them.
Roman writer Pliny recorded the Druid ritual of harvesting mistletoe
from the oak, their sacred tree. On the sixth day of the new moon, a
white robed priest would climb an oak and cut mistletoe from it wit h a
gold sickle. Caught before it touched the ground, the mistletoe was used
in a fertility ritual. Echoes of this rite survive in English speaking
countries in the Christmas custom of kissing under hanging sprigs of
was a form of nature worship, and only initiates who studied their craft
for as long as 20 years knew its deepest secrets. Rites were held in
sacred groves and forests, where Druids were thought to practice magic
powers - changing the weather, appearing in animal form, fore telling
the future and becoming invisible. By using a 'serpents egg' or crystal
ball, they were said to disperse death hexes. The wizard Merlin of
Arthurian legend may have been a Druid.
Caesar reported that anyone suffering from a serious disease, or about
to face the perils of battle, would offer, or vow to offer a human
sacrifice, which would be carried out by the Druids. One method was for
victims to be burned alive in huge wicker baskets. Usually criminals
were chosen for sacrifice . But the Romans had long ago banned the
practice of human sacrifice in their homeland, and considered it
barbarous when they discovered it among the Druids. When Roman troops
invaded the Druid's religious center on the Celtic island fortress of
Mona (today's Anglesey), off the coast of Wales, in AD 60 they
slaughtered all the Druid priests they could find and also destroyed
their sacred oak groves.
Druids New Year Feast of Samhain, when supernatural spirits were said to
roam the earth, it thought to be the origin of today's Halloween. And
the superstition of saying, "touch wood" for good luck may be
a relic from the Druids reverence for sacred trees. Modern Druid groups,
although not related to the ancient, still celebrated seasonal Pagan
festivals all over the world.