Who were the Druids?
Very little is known about the ancient druids. They left no written accounts of themselves, and the only evidence is a few descriptions left by Greek, Roman, and various scattered authors and artists, as well as stories created later by medieval Irish writers.
The word “Druid” derives from the Latin “druidae” and from from Gaulish “druides”. It is also thought to stem from a Celtic compound of “dru-wid” – “dru” (tree) and “wid” (to know). The Old Irish form was “drui”, and in Modern Irish and Gaelic the word is “draoi” or “druadh” (magician or sorcerer).
Even today, the word conjures ideas of magic, wizardry and spirituality, but in ancient times the definition of Druid included even more. During the Iron Age, the Druids made up the higher-educated tier of Celtic society, including poets, doctors and spiritual leaders. The legacy of the spiritual leaders is the most enduring and mysterious of the group.
The earliest evidence of the Druid spiritual tradition is from 25,000 years ago and is found in caves in Europe which feature paintings of wild animals on their walls. This theme of death and rebirth remains a continuing thread in the spiritual practice of Druidry throughout the centuries. Candidates for druid initiation would crawl into caves, such as the Pinhole caves in Derbyshire, the Chauvet or Lascaux caves in France, or Altamira in Spain, and after being initiated in the belly of Mother Earth, they were reborn into the light of day. Twenty thousand years later, around 3000 BCE, we see the same practice of seeking rebirth within the Earth: great mounds were built, in which initiates would sit in darkness awaiting the time of their rebirth. The best example of this is found at New Grange in Ireland, where a shaft is oriented to the Winter Solstice sunrise, so that the dawn rays can bathe the initiate in sunlight after his or her vigil through the night.
Druidry.org discusses four major periods of history that relate to Celtic and Druid spirituality:
The first period, the prehistoric period, had tribes from Europe moving west towards Britain and Ireland as the Ice Age retreated. These people were found to have considerable knowledge of astronomy, mathematics and great engineering skills. The megalith building culture developed at this time, and that period saw the rise of great mounds like Newgrange and the famous circles of stone like Stonehenge. They apparently also used Pythagorean mathematics to build their monuments, two thousand years before Pythagoras was born.
Secondly, the period of documented history emerged, so when classical writers left behind written works about the Celts and Druids such as from Julius Caesar. The first known text that describes the druids is Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, book VI, written in the 50s-40s BCE. A military general who was intent on conquering Gaul and Britain, Caesar described the druids as being concerned with “divine worship, the due performance of sacrifices, private or public, and the interpretation of ritual questions.”
The third period lasted for a thousand years, which began with the coming of Christianity. During this time, Celtic and Druid spirituality was preserved by the Christian clerics who recorded many of the old stories and myths conveyed by the Druids, who mostly converted to Christianity. St Patrick also recorded all of the old Druid laws of Ireland, thereby preserving information on the ethics and social structure of the pre-Christian Celtic culture.
But during the Gallic Wars of 58 to 51 BCE, the Roman army, led by Julius Caesar, conquered the many tribal chiefdoms of Gaul, and annexed it as a part of the Roman Empire. According to some accounts produced in the subsequent centuries, the new rulers of Roman Gaul had introduced measures to wipe out the druids from the country.
According to Pliny the Elder’s writing in the 70s CE, it was the emperor Tiberius (who ruled from 14 to 37 CE), who introduced laws banning not only druidism, but also other native healers, a move which Pliny also believed would end human sacrifice in Gaul.
Then, there is another somewhat different account of Roman legal attacks on druidism which was made by Suetonius, who wrote in the 2nd century CE and claimed that Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (who ruled from 27 BCE until 14 CE), had stated that no-one could be both a druid and a Roman citizen, followed by a law passed passed by later Emperor Claudius (ruled from 41 to 54 CE) which suppressed the druids by actually banning their religious practices.
The last and fourth period began in the sixteenth century with the “rediscovery” of the Druids and their Celtic heritage by European scholars.
Along with the translation and printing of classical Druid texts, these scholars discovered their ancestors were far from “the savages” the Church made them out to seem like.
During this time of Druid revival, many groups and societies were established to study Druidry and explore Celticism, including cultural festivals celebrating their languages and ancient traditions all throughout Europe. This period of revival has grown into a renaissance which continues to modern day.
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