Druids, in modernity are mostly fairy tale people, mystics and shamans , wizards and mages, controllers of mystic arts and always depicted as one with nature or a wild person. This, of course is not entirely true but at the same time it is not entirely false. Druids were wise men and cunning women of the past, they were religious figures but were also councillors to the kings. Druids are not wizards by any measure but they were an enlightened people and rigorously religious, so much so, they did not commit their teachings to scripture.
The word ‘druid’ originates from Greek words ‘Dru’ meaning ‘Oak’ and ‘Vid’ (uid) meaning ‘Wisdom’. Evidence of the druids is limited and ambiguous with any real attempts to identify them having to be done with caution. Many of the references to the druids are from philosophers such as Strabo, Caeser and Pliny the Elder, all who looked down on the religious practices of the Celtic people as barbaric. Though their practices were looked down upon, many of the druids were thought of as wise men by their more ‘civilised’ counter-parts, even with some calling them ‘noble’ savages. The fact that the druids were seen as ‘savages’ (even noble) didn’t necessarily show any real attempt by the Romans to condemn and annihilate the druids, they were originally just frowned upon with no real force in ending them. The Roman Emperor Augustus just wanted the class to diminish into nothingness, without active eradication, Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, on the other hand, actively wanted to end the druids existence. The fact that both of these Roman Emperors wanted to end the druids, even after the Roman conquest of the Celts, shows just how influential and dangerous they could be to the Empire and that they were still an issue.
During the year of the Four Emperors an after effect of Nero’s death, the threat which the druids had posed was shown in completion, many of the writers of the druids had written that the druids that remained after the conquest of the Celts had become active agitators and had incited the Gaulish tribes to engage in uprisings and caused unrest within the Roman Empire. The druid drive to rise up against the Roman Empire during the year of the Four Emperors had only increased Roman animosity towards the druids, which in turn forced a much more hard-lined attempt to eradicate them altogether. The Roman eradication of the druids had been implemented and many were actively rooted out and killed, though many druids were killed some of the druids were spared such a fate, as they were in essence learned men and at least, some were useful to the Romans, thus they avoided the pointed end of a spear. Some druids were used as seers or fortune tellers, some were lawyers or judges and some were even professors in universities across Gaul and the other places within the Roman Empire.
With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire all literacy references to the druids in Gaul and Britain ended as well. Though the literary reference of the druids in Britain and Gaul had come to an end, Ireland had preserved them in their mythic texts of the Ulster Cycle and the mythological cycle had contained many references to the druids also. Some of the old texts, that were written during the transition of the Pagan beliefs to the Christian ones, were written by the learned classes, these classes were separated into three different types of people. These 3 types of people were the druids, bards and Filidh (Seer-poets), some sources say that the druids and bards were subsumed within the Filidh, sometime before 1500 A.D. before ‘Free’ Ireland was made subject to the crown of England. Many of the druids, bards and, Filidh were political advisers, teachers and seers before the English, and some still were, under the crown of England. Though the existence of the druids continued to remain for some time after the Roman collapse, the title had changed and become something else as the world became much more Christian and modern.
When one thinks ‘druid’ it is usually thought of with some relevance to magic and sacrifice, places like that of Stonehenge and other rock circles are largely linked to ideas of human sacrifice and ritual, though ritual is unquestionable in the practice of the druids, very little refers to that of ‘human’ sacrifice. Pliny the Elder who wrote in the 1st century A.D. had written much on the druids and their ceremonies, as he was a fervent study of natural history. Though Pliny had written much on the druids and their rituals, it is inadvisable to take his works as fact, this is largely due to the fact that Pliny had quite fanciful and romanticised ideas on the grandeur of a druid ritual. Pliny’s writings as romantic and fanciful as they were also give us strong evidence of the druids that can be used, examples of his writings show an deepened focus on great Oak trees and mistletoe, it is well sourced that great Oaks were seen as sacred and deeply connected to the Celtic belief system Mistletoe was used in rituals for both healing and fertility, both, again are very important within the Celtic belief system, even today mistletoe is used to help with ailments such as insomnia and acts as an aid in battling high-blood pressure.
Also important to the Celtic belief system was the sky and the water, many archaeological findings were discovered in large bodies of water and rivers, these findings are thought to be sacrifices to the gods, water in particular is believed to be a connection to the other-world. Unlike their Greek and Roman counter-parts the Celtic peoples shared a closeness to nature and like many other polytheistic systems, the Celts to had many gods and deities. The belief system of the Celtic people and the druids is a complex one but this only furthers our interest and fascination with them and it is also a major reason why even today their prominence in the media world and the practical one is so firm.
The fact that druids are so prominent in the past and the present, even though so little is truly known about them, makes them a fascinating subject, we cannot disprove their importance to the Celtic society but at the same time we cannot truly prove their existence, at least not in solid founding. Though the druids have come to be founded again in modernity it is very much a Neo-druidism, very different from the original state of druid practice (at least by what we think it to be), but there is one truth that is unquestionable and that truth is the fact that the ‘druid’ has a profound permanence in past society and modern imagination, and to extent, in practice.