It’s almost Halloween so let’s talk about magic in history! I’ve always wanted to learn more about the Celts and especially the druids. Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about the druids except through outside Roman sources, which are naturally biased. There were no written records coming directly from the druids or the Celtic civilizations. There are a lot of misconceptions about the druids due to Roman influence, but also many things that I personally did not know before.
The druids were considered extremely powerful in Celtic society and were basically untouchable. They were society’s religious leaders, people of wisdom and essentially their own separate entity which could overrule most others in society. Being the highest members in society it was stated that they were exempt from taxes, from military service, and almost above the law. They were able to, in a way, to excommunicate people from their religion since they were the vessel that one had to connect with the Gods through. This excommunicated person would be seen as unclean and were shunned, showing that the druids had a way to control how society runs.
The Druids were able to preside over justice (in which their views were final) and could end any military conflict. Oftentimes even Kings had to take the advice of a druid before making decision, and, it was said that a druid could just waltz into the middle of the battle and all fighting would stop. How can one group of people have so much power? And why did the Celts respect that?
The druids were nomads and no authorities or any law could hold them down to one spot; but they could always demand obedience of anyone during their travels. Their most important function is that they were the keepers of all knowledge and history of the Celtic world. This was kept through oral teaching and memorization (after all it took about 20 years to actually become a druid). This kept their status in society because if this information was not written down no one else could have access to this knowledge. The druids were the wise and secretive keepers, but without them many of these traditions would have been lost. The Romans (including Julius Caesar, who was fascinated by the druids) felt the threat that these all powerful druids played in starting rebellion so they began to create laws banning this religion and preventing those who followed them Roman citizenship. This was the beginning of the decline and end of druid practices (41-64 CE).
The druids were also considered magical beings. When one thinks of the druids you probably think of how they committed human sacrifice. Though human sacrifice was probably not as common as you would imagine, the druids did perform some during rituals. The question is: were these forced victims (such a criminals) or voluntary? What did they perform these rituals for; to tell the future possibly? It is hard to tell and we likely won’t ever know. Even though some of these rituals happened it was probably not as much as history has made us think. The Romans used this to make the people they were trying to suppress look like savages and it was right to dominate them. Caesar writes of a “wicker man” where criminals and war prisoners were put in in order to be burned alive. He felt that the druids went so “low as to inflict punishment on the innocent” (interesting coming from a Roman…).
It is mostly believed there were more sacrifices using animals. One story by Pliny the Elder tells of a ritual using oak and mistletoe where two bulls were sacrificed using a golden hook. This mixture of mistletoe and bulls blood would either bring fertility to any woman who drinks it or be an antidote to all poisons (I have heard both ways). This brings me to another point; trees and nature was extremely important symbolism to the druids and the Celts. Forests and woodlands were associated as being magical and sacred places. Many rituals would take place there and use of plants, like the mistletoe, would take place as well. Oak represented the highest form of knowledge and that was what the Druids were.
Druids were not the only magical beings in Celtic times. There were also the bards who were beloved as they told stories of magical gods and incredible creatures. In Ireland there were file. These were also poets, but they were considered to have the power to see into the future.
Eventually, after the Romans outlawed druidism many of the traditions and customs flowed into Celtic Christianity. Some traditions still show up today. Remember the ritual with the mistletoe earlier? We still hold a significance for mistletoe during the holiday season today! Wells and holes deep into the earth were seen as magical realms and to this day we continue to throw coins into wells with our wishes hoping for some magic to grant them. Lastly, the druids always taught everything in threes and the number three was very sacred to their culture which may have contributed to the common phrase “bad news comes in threes.” I love seeing how culture has been influenced by so many different origins in history.
Food for Thought:
How is holding back knowledge and keeping it in one group of people a way to enforce one’s power?
How have the Romans clouded our vision of ancient Celts?
What other traditions from ancient times have survived to this day?
The British History Podcast Episode 52 “DRUIDS!”
Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain by Ronald Hutton
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkvoKrCBJao Druids: A Very Short Introduction from Oxford University Press
The Occult, Witchcraft, and Magic: an illustrated history by Christopher Dell