When you hear the word “druid,” a lot of images probably come to mind — old men with staffs and robes, Stonehenge, and the like.
In reality, the ancient druids are a bit of a mystery. They came from a culture with a strong oral tradition, so not many of their original works have lived on.
What we do know comes largely from archaeological evidence and secondhand written accounts. So, who were the ancient druids really?
Who Were the Ancient Druids?
The ancient druids weren’t like the neodruids of today. While a modern neodruid is someone who practices Druidry (or Druidism), an ancient druid was more like a combination of a poet, lawyer, doctor, diviner, priest, military strategist, and political advisor.
If that sounds like it’d require a lot of education, that’s because it did — druids spent years upon years in deep study. Druids were part of an intellectual, religious, and political elite.
The word “druid” has two possible origins. One is from the Latin “druidae,” from the Gaulish word “druides.” The other is a compound of the words “dru” and “wid,” from proto-Celtic, meaning “tree knowing.”
Interestingly, the culture of the ancient druids didn’t have a strong written tradition. While they had a writing system for ordinary purposes, they otherwise relied on a bardic tradition — things were passed on orally, through songs, poems, and stories.
That meant that much of a druid’s education consisted of memorizing long poems that recounted the information the druid needed to know.
In their culture, druids read omens, advised royalty and nobility, and headed religious ceremonies (including human sacrifice).
There are also stories of them using magic, especially weather magic, to hide from invaders or turn the tides of battle.
Where Did the Ancient Druids Come From?
Druids came from Celtic cultures who lived in an area of Europe formerly known as Gaul. Gaul once encompassed Germany, the Netherlands, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, some of northern Italy, and part of Switzerland.
They were also found in the British Isles. This placed them in contact with the Romans, which are the source of most of our information about the druids.
For this reason, it’s important to take information about the ancient Druidry with a grain of salt — much of the Romans’ information may have been unintentionally erroneous, or outright propaganda.
We don’t know much about individual druids, save for what accounts survive in the form of stories and legends. It’s difficult to find archaeological evidence of individuals, though some researchers have been able to link archaeological findings with accounts of druid practices from Roman sources.
The earliest purported archaeological evidence of Druidry comes from 25,000 years ago, in the form of cave paintings, but the known history of the druids didn’t begin until about 2,300 years ago.
Since Druidism may have prehistoric roots, and no druid writings survive, it’s next to impossible to pin an exact date on the origin of the druids.
Purported Beliefs & Practices of the Ancient Druids
The ancient druids had a unique cultural role, which Greco-Roman writer observers often commented on. From their writings, it’s possible to hypothesize a number of the beliefs and practices of ancient Druidism.
- Gender equality. Celtic societies were remarkably egalitarian in many respects. They drew no distinction between male and female rulers, and women took just as much of a role in strategy, ruling, and war as men did. There are many accounts of female druids.
- Spoken lore. As was mentioned above, Celtic culture had a very strong oral tradition. Druid training involved a lot of memorization of long poems, songs, and legends, as opposed to written works.
- Sacrifice. It’s highly likely that the druids performed human sacrifice. While it’s possible that accounts describing this were Roman propaganda, there’s some archaeological evidence that indicates that it may be accurate.
- Reincarnation. The druids believed that the vital essence of humans was immortal and indestructible, and would reincarnate.
- Sacred sites. A number of sites, especially groves, wells, and springs, were regarded as sacred. Interestingly, Stonehenge most likely wasn’t one of them — evidence indicates that Stonehenge was constructed by an earlier, pre-druid culture.
- Divination. Druids relied on animals and plants for omens, especially the flight patterns and calls of birds.
- Magic. Druids used magic. Their magic was markedly different from the folk magic practiced by wisepeople or modern witches. In most retellings, it largely involved calling up weather phenomena, enchanting stones or trees, or otherwise engaging the natural world to mount a defense against an invading army.
Myths & Legends of the Ancient Druids
While we don’t have archaeological evidence of individual druids, they live on in legends and stories.
Cathbad, the druid of King Conchobar, is mentioned in the Irish tale Deirdre of the Sorrows. In it, he prophesies that Deirdre will be a great beauty, cause much blood shed, and make the land’s three greatest heroes go into exile. King Conchobar ignores the prophecy, which comes true.
Ganna, a druid mentioned by Cassius Dio, traveled to Rome and was received by Vespasian’s son.
Fedelma was a druid in the court of Queen Medb of Connacht.
Amergin Glúingel, was a druid, bard, and judge for the Milesians. During the Milesian conquest, he set the rules of engagement, and called upon the spirit of Ireland to aid his people in battle.
Some scholars argue that Queen Boudicca, ruler of the Iceni, may have been a druid as her mother was.
Where did the Ancient Druids go?
While their origins are shrouded in mystery and propaganda, their disappearance is less so: They were conquered.
As the Romans swept across Europe, they conquered and annexed many parts of Gaul as part of Rome. Gaul’s new Roman leaders had no use for the Celtic elites, and enacted measures to get rid of the druids and suppress their teachings.
If the writings about druidic human sacrifice were propaganda, it was startlingly effective. Roman society was notable for being fairly tolerant of other religions at the time, but as Roman leaders passed laws outlawing the druids, they were cheered on by those who felt that these measures would end human sacrifice.
Tiberius Caesar Augustus passed laws banning the druids and other native diviners and folk healers. Caesar Augustus claimed that it wasn’t possible to be a Roman citizen and a druid simultaneously. Claudius later banned Druidism outright.
In the British Isles, the druid social and political caste lasted until Christianization. After that point, isolated druid orders managed to hang on until the medieval era.
The druids were a mysterious, powerful caste in Celtic society, and it’s a pity that more isn’t known about them. What we do know comes to us from sources that were hardly impartial, including their Roman enemies.
Modern Druidry attempts to base itself off the practices of the ancient druids, assembled from archaeological findings, research, and careful interpretation of writings from that period in history.