In this series we will explore the various aspects of Druidry as it relates to Celtic life, society, and religion. We will investigate their origins, duties, and history; as well as their contributions to science, religion, and philosophy. “An ni nach cluinn cluas cha ghluais cridhe!” — What the ear does not hear will not move the heart!
Who were the Druids?
While religion was a major element in the social and political structure of the Celts it constituted only one aspect of the pan-Celtic association known as the priesthood of the Druids. This society succeeded in uniting many scattered Celtic tribes into a cohesive people through similarity of beliefs and laws. The Druids formed a large clergy which had many diverse and specialized functions. They are known to us by long passages in the works of the Greek and Latin historians and polygraphers: Caesar, Diodoros, Strabo, and Ammianaus Marcellinus, who enumerated their functions and powers. These writers, however, owe most of their information to Poseidonios and Timagenes. ( Being unfamiliar with Latin and Greek myself, I must rely on the translations of true scholars such as Joyce, Dobie, Rhys, and others.)
A great number of Irish epic texts speak of the Druids. There are also many legal texts regarding the functions and powers of the Fili (poets and men of letters), who formed a corporation parallel and to some extent rivaling that of the Druids. The two bodies, however, lived side by side, were complementary to each other and, in earlier times, were associated in their organizations and privileges. Even so, Christianity spared the Fili but wrought total havoc with the Druids.
Where are the Druids from?
There is historical evidence of Druids in Ireland, Britain, and Gaul. Although we have no direct confirmation of Druids in the Celtic settlements of Spain, Italy, Galatia, and the Danube valley, there seems no reason for denying that they existed among those branches of the race. The travels and meetings of the Druids cemented the union of the Celtic peoples and encouraged a sense of kinship which might have given birth to unity. Some students believe that Druidism had its origin west of the Celtic counties. These scholars have said that Druidism is not Celtic at all but originated with those peoples whom the Celts found established in the west of Europe, the builders of the megalithic monuments. Caesar tells us that Druidism first started in Britain, and that the Druids of Gaul used to go to Britain to visit famous schools and sanctuaries. British Druidism had an equally high reputation in Ireland, and the Irish Druids went to Britain to complete their education. The Gauls of Italy had among them persons described as “Vates” (a word borrowed from the Celtic), who were similar to the Druids and organized like them. A comparative study of the druidic institution shows that it was indeed pan-Celtic and an essential part of the organization of Celtic society.
History shows clearly enough that Druidism emerged as an element of resistance to the Romans in Gaul and Britain and to Christianity in Ireland. It was assailed as an enemy with attacks taking the form of persecution in Gaul ( as evidenced by the campaigns of the Roman generals against sanctuaries in Britain ) and by a kind of degradation in Ireland. It becomes apparent, then, that Druidism was an element of resistance because it was an element of cohesion. This fact lends further credence to the notion that druidism transcended both geographic boundaries and clan or tribal delineation.
The literature and law of Ireland was not written down until after the advent of Christianity. This work was performed by the Fili who, therefore, appear in a more favorable light than the Druids. However, if we boldly fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the Druids using what is known of the Fili, we get a picture of the Druids of Ireland which corresponds at every point to that of the Druids of Gaul. From this we obtain a check on the accuracy of both portraits and a strong presumption that we are dealing with a common institution dating from the
most distant past of the two peoples.
Note: The Welsh Druids are an archaeological revival; as are the affectations of the more recent neo-pagan Druids.