Why do We Know so Little about the Druids?

November 18, 2019

The powerful Celtic social class posed a threat to the Roman Empire before being subsumed by Christianity, but their origins remain shrouded in the past.

Were Druids peaceful priests or dangerous prophets? Did they worship nature or foment rebellion? Not much is known about the ancient social class of people known as Druids, but that has never kept people from speculating on their real nature.

The earliest detailed accounts of the Druids date back to the first century B.C., but it’s likely that they had established their special role within the ancient communities of what is now Britain, Ireland, and France long before then. The word comes from a Latin transcription of the Celtic word for a social class of people among the ancient Celts who concerned themselves with prophecy and ritual.

Since Ancient Celts didn’t use the written word, all of our accounts about the Druids come from outsiders, particularly the Romans. Druids “are engaged in things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, and interpret all matters of religion,” wrote Julius Caesar in the 50s B.C., after Rome invaded Gaul (modern France). The emperor noted their interest in astronomy, education, and valor, and their habit of sacrificing fellow Gauls to gain their gods’ favor by using wicker men stuffed with live men and set on fire.

Other Roman writers also fixated on the Druids’ love of blood and gore. Pliny the Elder wrote of the Druids’ appreciation for both mistletoe and human sacrifice. “To murder a man was to do the act of highest devoutness,” he wrote, “and to eat his flesh was to secure the highest blessings of health.” Tacitus even described a battle in Wales in which Druids “[covered] their altars with the blood of captives and [consulted] their deities through human entrails.”

The pagan practitioners presented an existential threat to the Romans, who feared Druid power over the Celtic communities that Rome had conquered. Classicist Jane Webster suggests the Druids’ apocalyptic visions and rites were seen as acts of resistance to Roman conquerors, who suppressed Druids and their rituals beginning with the reign of Augustus in 27 B.C.

Christianity began to make inroads into France and the British Isles in the first century A.D., and as the centuries progressed it papered over many Celtic traditions. But Druids continued to pop up in medieval literature, suggesting that the pagan priests later became healers and magicians. Yet, since we have no written accounts from the pre-Christian Celts, it’s virtually impossible to verify any historical claims about the Druids. Nonetheless, Druids have gone through several revivals over the millennia, including a Romantic-era resurgence and a 21st-century incarnation as Modern Druidism.

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