Who were the Druids

by frankbeswick

The British Isles were once home to a mysterious caste of learned men and women who possessed a deep fund of lore, and their successors are still with us.

Mid-summer's day at Stonehenge attracts a motley throng of pagans, new-agers and others, and among them there are some people clad in generally white robes. These people are modern day druids, adherents not generally of a specific religion, but followers of a nature-loving movement which claims to be the successor of ancient Druidry. They are generally well-behaved, socially and ecologically conscious people who worship God[dess] as he she is revealed in the beauty and power of nature. What are we to make of their claims?

Picture of mistletoe courtesy of Crystalizabeth, of Pixabay

Ancient Druidry

The Druids'  name is etymologically unclear. Some scholars think that it derives from an ancient Celtic word for oak, and this makes sense, as the druids were the priests of oaken groves who harvested the sacred mistletoe, but others derive it from an ancient Indo-European word for wisdom. The issue is unresolved. But the ancient Greeks and Romans knew of them, and observed that the order of Druids originated in Britain and spread to Ireland and Gaul. But we must remember that the  when the ancients spoke of Prydain [Britain]  they spoke of the whole archipelago of the British Isles, including Albion, Erin, and their associated islands. It was part of druidic lore that to fully study druidry an aspirant must therefore go to Britain, going back to the source, as it were. The Greeks , speculated that the Druids were influenced by the philosophy of Pythagorus, on account of their sharing Pythagorus' belief in reincarnation, but this belief has ancient roots that long antedate Pythagoreanism, so this view is unproven.

Our knowledge of the Druids is limited by the fact that they thought it impious to commit their lore to writing, so all their learning was preserved and transmitted orally, and as druidic studies took twenty years, there was much lore to learn. There were grades of Druidry, and for this knowledge we are indebted to the Irish, who preserved it. The basic grade was bard, and these  druids were to commit to heart the vast corpus of songs. We know  of the bard Taliesin, who knew the songs of Welsh druidry. Druid robes were colour-coded, with bards wearing blue, and above them the ovates, healers, who wore green. Senior druids wore white. So druids sang, healed and if senior acted as counsellors to monarchs and judged court cases. It is likely that they presided over religious rituals. Roman propaganda put about the legend that the druids used human sacrifice, but although human sacrifice was known in the bronze age Britain Isles it seems to be older than druidry, which probably is a later, Iron Age development. The question of how far druids were involved in human sacrifice is still open.

Julius Caesar met druids in Gaul, but later the druids were to get involved in a fatal clash with Rome. They seem to have objected to the Roman take over of their territories, and they therefore may have had a significant role in the revolt of Queen Boudicca, who objected to Roman behaviour, enslaving British children, stealing her tribe's possessions and raping her daughters. The Druids of the sacred isle of Mona, now also known as Anglesey, took Boudicca's side in the revolt, and the Roman general, the murderous Seutonius Paulinus, sent the ninth legion to overwhelm Anglesey. The "civilised" Romans slaughtered the Druids man, woman and child. At this point druidry falls out of British history. The Roman period simply ignores it, and the incoming Saxons had no druids. But was it really gone? In Scotland and Ireland druids still survived, and it seems possible that druidry was nourished in Wales and Scotland by its presence in ErIn.


A Long, Quiet Period

The massacre of the druids of  Anglesey by the ill-fated ninth legion, which disappears  from history half a century or so later, hurt druidry, but did not destroy it. Druidry continued in Ireland, which became the centŕe of druidry, and as the Romans slowly retreated in Northern England it probably had something of a comeback in there and in Cornwall. If there is any accuracy in the accounts of the monk Gildas, Maelgwn of Gwynned, who ruled North Wales, lapsed from the Christian faith for paganism.so as a pagan ruler he would have had druids to advise him.Merlin (Merddin)  comes from the same historical period, He may be a folk memory of a great druid. Druids are recorded in the late sixth century, as there are reports of their encounters with St Columba.Taliesin, the Welsh bard, seems to have occupied a druidic role, but scholars believe hat he was a Christian, and he also made a cryptic comment that Christianity had always been present in the British Isles, seemingly giving some creedencethat druidic thought had some elements in it that were coompatible with Christianity.  . Then nothing! Druids almost disappear from history. Written documents are few and not very informative.

One strange group with claims to druidic influences was found in Oxford. We know that in 1166 the bishop of Oxford persecuted them by destroying their records. They were a group of alchemists who claimed to be successors of a mysterious band of druid alchemists,and smiths, the Pheryllt (pronounced Vairult) who stemmed from North Wales, near Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon.) The group survived and morphed into the predecessors of modern druidism. But they were not pagan, for they sympathized, some believe,  with the old Celtic Christianity squeezed out by Roman Catholicism.

As times grew more tolerant certain groups claiming the name druid arose, but they were not religious by character and were composed of Free Church Protestants, probably with affiliations with free masonry. They were secular in orientation and occupied mainly a social function. But druidry was morphing into a movement that was drawing its influences from a variety of sources and these included the paganism that was springing up in Britain .However, the founders of druidism were ardent monotheists and often Christians, who believed and probably convinced themselves, that the ancient druids were monotheists. They envisaged a druidism that was a monotheist movement open to people of all religions. Hence there are Christian druids, who regard druidism as a philosophy rather than a religion.

But the influence of Iolo Morganog is significant.. A native of Glamorgan in Wales he claimed that the true tradition of druidism had been preserved in Glamorgan and transmitted to him by an old man whose family had maintained traditional druidic lore. Most scholars consider his account fictitious, but we cannot be certain that no genuine traditions were not transmitted, for in parallel to this there is evidence that certain families in highland Scotland were hereditary sacred funeral practitioners known as Dewars up to the nineteenth century. There were instances in Wales where sacred wells had their own guardians until the Victorian period. Traditions die hard.  It was Iolo who gave us the design for the white robes modern druids wear.in truth there are no images of druid garb contemporary with the druids.How much of druidry  Iolo made up we cannot say. 

Modern druids often congregate at Stonehenge for midsummer celebrations, but modern scholars think that the druids did not worship at Stonehenge, for they were priests of the oakwoods and so tree rather than stone was sacred to them.  

Druid Thought.

Paid link

Druidism has no creed, so there is no druid orthodoxy. The druids have the doctrine of archdruidical fallibility, a term deliberately intended to counter the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, and so druids come in a variety of beliefs. Many are pagan and polytheistic, a minority  are atheists or agnostics, some are Christian or another kind of monotheist. Some worship the goddess. However, the characteristics which unite druids into a coherent unit are their orthopraxy, an agreement on druidical practice. Of critical importance to this orthopraxy  is the sense that the divine is manifest in nature. For the druids the world is a sacred place through which the divine presence shines, and so humans can contact and harmonize with the divine through going outdoors, finding a quiet spot, whether wild or  garden and meditating there. Vocal prayer addressed to the deity is also used at times. Druids often pray alone, and many druids have a solitary practice, but at other times there are druidic ceremonies, and druids tend to follow the eightfold divisions of the ritual year in modern paganism. Often festivals are open to a variety of pagan groups.

Druids generally are reverential to nature and work to avoid ecological troubles, so one of their  strong points is that they are committed environmentalists, and druidic action often involves rectifying damaged parts of the environment and living harmoniously with it. They have a strong cultural bond with the oak tree and the mistletoe that grows upon it, and where possible they prefer  to hold meetings in a grove, in fact the term for a druid meeting place is a grove.

Yet they demonstrate a great reverence for liminal places, such as the edge of a forest, mountain tops, wells, caves and shorelines, for at these edges the sacred is believed to be especially manifested. This emphasis on liminal places was shared by the Celtic Christian church, which also shared the druidical  reverence for the light of the sun, which both druids and Celtic Christians manifested the divine presence in the world. 

How should Christians regard druidism? Firstly, we should always recognize the good where it is found, and in general I have not heard of bad behaviour coming from druids. They seem a harmless and well-behaved group of people. But Druidism regarded as a religion is inconsistent with Christian faith, it is another religion and probably another god/ess. But if we regard Druidism as a philosophy, Christians can take good ideas from it. For Christians have always drawn on philosophy to support their theological thinking.  Over the last two millennia Christians have drawn on the philosophical thought of the pagan philosophers Plato, Aristotle and to a lesser extent the Stoics to serve as theological tools. If we can identify elements in Celtic thinking that are compatible with the Christian revelation then we can draw on them without doubt. I suggest that the medium through which Celtic thinking can be drawn into the Christian world view is the work of the Celtic Church, itself influenced by druidical thinking. The Celtic cross contains ancient druidic elements, particularly the circle, which represents God's glorious presence in nature through the light of the sun.      

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Updated: 05/02/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 06/23/2023


frankbeswick on 06/23/2023

There is,but it is not easy to find,

Veronica on 06/22/2023

You have great respect and tolerance of other religions.

Veronica on 06/22/2023

What a lovely article BIG BRO..

Is there a page or topic search on Wizzley ? i had to find this through Google

frankbeswick on 05/31/2023

I got this information from Nigel Pennick's book on Celtic landscapes.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/31/2023

The third sentence in the fourth paragraph to your third subheading, A long, quiet period, notes that "Most scholars consider his [Iolo Morganog's] account fictitious, but we cannot be certain that no genuine traditions were not transmitted, for in parallel to this there is evidence that certain families in highland Scotland were hereditary sacred funeral practitioners known as Dewars up to the nineteenth century."

Internet sources observe Dewar only as Scotch whisky!

What were "hereditary sacred funeral practitioners" and who were the Dewars and would that funerary connection be perpetrated by Dewar descendants as funeral-home employees and owner-operators?

frankbeswick on 05/20/2023

There were only two oak species native to Britain, where druidry arose.I don't think the druids knew of other species. In Britain the sessile oak grows in Northern and western areas, so it is likely that some druids used only the oak that grew in their own area.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/19/2023

The first paragraph under your first subheading, Ancient Druidry, comments that "druids were the priests of oaken groves."

Is there any one oak species associated with ancient druids? Would the druids look for lands that already had those species or would they be willing to plant those species where they already were not growing?

frankbeswick on 05/06/2023

There is non evidence for this idea, but I suspect that many ancient Britons used wool or natural plant fibres,such as nettle,or if they were well off,linen.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/06/2023

It's interesting to consider what a people so appreciative of woody plants and their products would wear.

Online sources mention that 1-plus million garments sold as paper, throwaway clothing between 1966 and 1968.

Would it be possible that the ancient Druids were the foreshadowers of paper and recyclable clothing?

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