Druids: The Ancient Celtic Class That Did It All

The druids were an ancient class of people within Celtic cultures. They were counted as scholars, priests, and judges. To the societies they served, their insight was deemed invaluable.

Leading up to the Gallic Wars (58-50 BCE), the druids were fiercely outspoken against Roman rule and became a thorn in the Empire’s side. Although they left behind no written record, here is everything we know about the ancient druids.

Who Were the Druids?

An 18th-century engraving showing two druids by Bernard de Montfaucon

In history, the druids were a social class within ancient Celtic societies. Made up of the tribes’ leading men and women, the druids were ancient priests, politicians, lawmen, judges, historians, and teachers. Phew. Yeah, these folks had their work cut out for them.

To Roman writers, the druids were nothing but “savages” of the north who they had extensive trade relations with. As Rome began to eye Gaul and other predominantly Celtic lands, the Gauls began to fear for their religion. Druids were quick to inspire resistance as they were seen as Celtic societal pillars. Unfortunately, the fears the Gauls felt were all too sound.

During the war, sacred groves were desecrated and the druids were slaughtered. When the Gallic Wars were won, druidic practices became outlawed. By the time of Christianity, the druids were no longer religious figures, but rather historians and poets. After all was said and done, the druids never had the same amount of influence as they once had.

What Does “Druid” Mean in Gaelic?

The word “druid” may roll off the tongue, but no one quite knows the etymology behind it. Most scholars agree that it may have something to do with the Irish-Gaelic “doire,” which means “oak tree.” The oak has great significance in many ancient cultures. Usually, they represent abundance and wisdom.

Druids and the Oak

To Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the druids – whom he called “magicians” – held no tree in as high regard as they did oaks. They treasured mistletoe, which could make barren creatures fertile and cure all poisons (according to Pliny). Yeah…okay. The mistletoe may have some medicinal properties, but it certainly isn’t a cure-all.

Also, the druids’ relationship with oaks and the mistletoe that thrives off of them may be a bit exaggerated. They revered the natural world, and the oak may have been particularly sacred. However, we lack any substantial evidence that what Pliny the Elder said is true: he lived past the time that Druidry would have been widely practiced. Despite this, “druid” does appear to originate from the Celtic word for “oak,” so…maybe there is something there.

druids under the oak tree
Druids under the oak tree by Joseph Martin Kronheim

What Did Druids Look Like?

If you search for images of druids you’ll be getting tons of images of bearded men in flowing white robes hanging in the woods with other bearded men in white robes. Oh, and laurels of mistletoe would have graced the head of everybody present. Not all druids looked like this or dressed that way.

The descriptions of how druids looked are primarily from Greco-Roman sources, though we have some sprinklings in Celtic myths as well. It’s thought that druids would wear white tunics, which were likely knee-length and not cascading robes. Otherwise, many druids had the nickname mael, which meant “bald.” That means that druids probably kept their hair in a tonsure that made their foreheads seem large, like a faux receding hairline.

Some druids would have also donned headdresses made of bird feathers, though not on a day-to-day basis. Bronze sickles were used to collect medicinal herbs, however, they did not regularly wield sickles. They weren’t an indication of office, as far as historians are aware.

Men would likely have worn some impressive beards, as was the style for the men of Gaul since there was no account of them having gone baby-faced or bearded. They also probably had some long sideburns.

Just check out the mustache on the statue of the Gallic hero, Vercingretorix

What Do Druids Wear?

What a druid priest would wear depends on what role they had. At any given time, a druid would have a polished and gilded wooden staff on hand that signified the office they held.

Their tunic and cloak were primarily white, as Pliny the Elder had described their all-white vestments as they gathered mistletoe. If not made of fabric, their cloaks would have been made of a light bull hide, either white or gray in color. The poets (filídh) that emerged from the priestly caste after Roman occupation were noted as wearing feathered cloaks. The feathered fashion could have survived from the earlier druids, though this remains to be speculation.

Female druids, called bandruí, would have worn similar attire to their male counterparts, save for a pleated skirt in place of trousers. For ceremonies, they would have been veiled, something that may have also been the case for the men. Interestingly, when fighting against the Romans, it was noted that the bandruí would wear all black, likely to evoke the Badb Catha or Macha.

An illustration of ‘An Arch Druid in His Judicial Habit’ by S.R. Meyrick and C.H. Smith.

What Race were Druids?

The druids were a significant part of ancient Celtic religion, as well as Celtic and Gallic cultures. Druids were not their own race. A “druid” was a title that would have been given to those belonging to a high-ranking social class.

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: 16 Oldest Known Cultures From Around The World

Were Druids Irish or Scottish?

The druids were neither Irish nor Scottish. Rather, they were Britons (a.k.a. Brythons), Gauls, Gaels, and Galatians. These were all Celtic-speaking peoples and thus considered Celts. Druids were a part of Celtic societies and can’t be summed up as being either Irish or Scottish.

Where Did the Druids Live?

The druids were all over the place, and not necessarily because they were so busy. They were, but that’s beside the point. The druids were active throughout various Celtic territories and ancient Gaul, including modern Britain, Ireland, Wales, Belgium, and parts of Germany. They would have belonged to specific tribes from which they likely hailed ancestry.

We’re not really sure if druids would have had a separate living space away from the rest of their respective tribes, such as a Christian convent. Given their active role in society, they likely lived amongst the general populace in round, conical homes. A New Edition of Toland’s History of the Druids notes that the homes, often suited for a single resident, were called “Tighthe nan Druidhneach,” or “Druid Houses.” 

Unlike the dated belief that the druids lived in caves or were just wild men in the woods, the druids did live in homes. They met in sacred groves, however, and were thought to have built stone circles as their very own “Temples of the Druids.”

Where Did Druids Come From?

Druids come from the British Isles and areas of Western Europe. Druidry was thought to have gotten its start in modern Wales, sometime before the 4th century BCE. Some Classical writers go as far as saying that Druidry dates back to the 6th century BCE. However, thanks to the lack of knowledge about druids, we can’t say for certain.

Druids: The Ancient Celtic Class That Did It All 2
A druid by Thomas Pennant

What Do the Druids Believe?

Druid beliefs are difficult to pin down since there are few records of their personal beliefs, philosophies, and practices. What is known about them comes from second (or even third) hand accounts from the Romans and the Greeks. It also doesn’t help that the Roman Empire kind of hated the druids, as they were acting in opposition to the Roman conquest of Celtic lands. So, most accounts of the druids are somewhat biased.

You see, the druids outlawed written accounts of their practices. They strictly adhered to oral traditions, though they did have extensive knowledge of the written language and were all literate. They simply didn’t want their sacred beliefs to fall into the wrong hands, which means that we have no reliable account detailing druidic practice.

There are accounts that cite that druids believed the soul was immortal, residing in the head until it was reincarnated. Theories state this would create a tendency for druids to decapitate those who have passed and keep their heads. Now, with the loss of the druidic oral tradition, we will never quite know the exact beliefs druids held about the soul. On that note, this sounds somewhat like what befell the Norse god, Mimir, whose head was kept by Odin for the wisdom it retained.

Romans murdering the druids by Thomas Pennant

Druidry and the Druid Religion

The druid religion, called Druidry (or Druidism), is believed to have been a shamanic religion. Druids would have been responsible for harvesting medicinal herbs used to treat various ailments. Likewise, it was thought they acted as mediators between the natural world and humanity.

The druids apparently worshiped many of the gods found within Celtic mythology, both major and minor, as well as ancestors. They would have certainly venerated the Celtic goddess Danu and the Tuatha Dé Danann. In fact, legends say it was four celebrated druids who crafted the Tuatha Dé Danann’s four great treasures: the Cauldron of the Dagda, the Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny), the Spear of Lugh, and the Sword of Nuada.

Outside of communing with nature, worshiping the Celtic pantheon, and fulfilling the many other roles they had, the druids were also said to tell fortunes. An important stepping stone in Druidry was the practice of divination and augury. Additionally, Christian monks believed the druids were able to wield the power of nature to their benefit (i.e. creating dense fog and summoning storms).

Did Druids Perform Human Sacrifices?

One interesting – and, granted, macabre – practice that the Romans noted the druids having practiced is human sacrifices. They had described a huge “wicker man” that would hold human and animal sacrifices, which would then be burned. Now, this is a stretch. While we don’t exactly know the druidic beliefs on life and death, the sensational depictions of their apparent human sacrifices could be chalked up to archaic propaganda.

In ancient times, human sacrifices weren’t unusual; though, the tales that the soldiers of the Roman army returned home with regarding the druids didn’t cast them in the most flattering light. From Julius Caesar to Pliny the Elder, Romans did the utmost to describe the druids as both cannibals and ritual murderers. By barbarizing Gallic society, they gained rampant support for their series of invasions.

In all, there is a chance that the druids did in fact partake in human sacrifice under certain circumstances. Some suggest that sacrifices would take place to save someone going off to war or someone suffering from a deadly illness. There have even been theories that the most famous bog body, Lindow Man, was brutally killed in the British Isles as a druidic human sacrifice. If it were the case, he would have been sacrificed around Beltane, likely on the heels of the Roman invasion; he had consumed mistletoe at some point, something Caesar’s druids used often.

The Wicker Man of the Druids by Thomas Pennant

What Roles Did the Druids Fill in Celtic Society?

If we listen to Julius Caesar, the druids were the go-to for anything and everything regarding religion. As a religious, learned class, the druids were also not required to pay taxes – something that Caesar notes the appeal of. That being said, the druids were much more than a religious caste. They were prominent figures that did just about everything.

Below is a quick list of the roles that druids filled in Celtic society:

  • Priests (surprise)
  • Socialites
  • Judges
  • Historians
  • Teachers
  • Scribes
  • Poets

Druids would have been extremely well-versed in Celtic mythology. They would have known the Celtic gods and goddesses like the back of their hands. Effectively, they were their people’s lore keepers, having mastered their histories, both real and legendary.

It should also be noted that the druids, while they had many roles, also commanded immense respect. Their opinions were valued. While they weren’t necessarily the chiefs of their tribes, they had enough sway that they could have someone banished with a single word. It is for that reason that the Romans were at such a standstill when it came to dealing with the druids.

Welsh Druid playing the harp by Thomas Pennant

Do Druids Still Exist?

Like many pagan practices, Druidry still exists. One can say there was a “druid revival” that began around the 18th century, emerging from the Romanticism Movement. Romantics of the era celebrated nature and spirituality, building blocks that eventually reignited interest in ancient Druidry.

Not quite like Celtic druids, modern druidism places an emphasis on nature-centered spirituality. Moreover, modern druidism does not have a set of structured beliefs. Some practitioners are animists; some are monotheistic; some are polytheistic; so on and so forth.

Moreover, modern Druidry has its own unique druid systems within their respective orders. Unlike the ancient Gallic druid, the druids of today have their own personal interpretations of the divine. As stated before, there are monotheistic druids – whether they believe in an all-encompassing god or goddess – and polytheistic druids.

Without being able to train as an Iron Age druid would (which could have taken anywhere from 12-20 years) and learn directly from the source, modern druids have been left to find their own path. They may perform private sacrifices and stage public rituals, such as the Summer and Winter Solstice celebrations held at Stonehenge. Most druids have an in-home altar or shrine. Many have further conducted worship in natural spaces, such as a forest, near a river, or in stone circles.

Nature, and its veneration, is one mainstay of Druidry that has survived the centuries. Just as the ancient druids considered this sacred, the modern druid finds the same things sacred.

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