This is an essay I wrote while I was still back at Uni and it explores classical written evidence for the existence of Druid. It's a bit dry being an academic paper but for those interested in researching further, it can be a good starting point.
THE DRUIDS AND THE CLASSICAL AUTHORS
In this essay I would like to illustrate how the druids, their customs and their “doctrines” are portrayed by the classical authors. To do so, I will consider the evidence we have in a thematic order rather than a chronological one, analysing for example, the origin of the word “druid”, their position within the society, their “doctrines”, cults and ceremonies and finally their “arts and sciences”.
Pliny believes the word “druid” to be descended from the Greek word δρũς, oak, because the druids see the oak as a sacred tree: “they choose groves formed of oaks for the sake of the tree alone, and they never perform any of their rites except in the presence of a branch of it; so it seems probable that the priests themselves may derive their name from the greek word for that tree.” Druidry, according to Caesar, originated in Britain and “transferred thence to Gaul; and ...those who want to study the subject more accurately journey to Britain to learn it.”
Caesar is the one who gives us the most information about the role of the druids within the celtic society. According to him, the Gaulish society is divided in three classes, the druids, the knights and the common folk. The druids are concerned with “divine worship, the due performance of sacrifices, public and private,and the interpretation of ritual questions”. The druids are judges in arguments of any kind, public, private and regarding different issues, like murders and disputes about succession. They set any possible reward and penalty and can ban from the society anyone who is considered a criminal. One druid among the group is the chief and has the highest authority among the others. The druids enjoy privileges, like being exempted from military service, war and the payment of taxes.
A passage in Strabo and in Pomponius Mela seem to suggest that in Gaul there was present a group of Priestesses. Stabo, citing Posidonius, affirms that on an isle at the mouth of the river Ligeris (Loire), lived some women from the Namnites tribe endowed with Dionisiac “furor” (Ναμνιτων γυναĩκας Δυονύσω κατεχομένας). Τhey lived on on their own, without seeing any men except for once a year, when they were back on the continent for one day. Pomponius Mela refers to nine priestessess that lived on the isle of Sena (Sein). They are called Gallicenas and are said to be soothsayers. There seems to be an allusion to female priesthood in the description by Tacitus of the conquest of Anglesey by the Roman soldiers : “ On the shore stood the opposite army [...] while between the ranks dashed women in black attires like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. The druids all around waving, lifting up their hand to heaven and pouring imprecations...” Finally both Lampridius and Vipiscus talk explicitly of Druidesses.
The druids had different functions within the society. As we have already seen, Caesar reported that they were judges. Certainly their role as religious priests impressed the classical authors, that have given different accounts of their practices and of their “doctrines”.
Diogenes Laertius claims that “the druids make their pronouncements by means of riddles and dark sayings, teaching that the gods must be worshipped, and no evil done and manly behaviour maintained.”
Diodorus, Mela, Lucan and Tacitus claim that the Gauls are polytheist; according to Caesar the gods worshipped by the Gauls were Mars,Apollos, Jupiter and Minerva, but above all “the Gauls affirm that they are all descended from Dispater and say that this is the tradition of the druids”.
Caesar states that the cardinal doctrine taught by the druids is that the soul does not die but passes from one to another. Connected to this is the evidence given by Diodorus Siculus who says: “the Pythagorean doctrine prevails among the Gauls, teaching that the souls of the men are immortal and live agin for a fixed number of years inhabited in another body.” Also Ammianus Marcellinus says that the druids are “members of the intimate fellowship of the Pythagorean faith” and they profess the immortality of the soul. So says Valerius Maximus and also Lucan expresses this same concept in poetry, stating that the souls do not go either towards “the silent lands of the Erebus, nor the kingdom of Dite”, but remain among the living.
Caesar gives one of the most detailed accounts of human sacrifices operated by the druids. “ [those who sacrifice someone or even themselves] use, to carry out these sacrifices, druids.” They believe that by sacrificing the life of just one man they can placate the gods. Then follows the description of the so called “wicker man”, inside which innocent and guilty victims are burned. Diodorus has described how the druids killed the chosen victim with a knife stabbed into the chest and how they could predict the future observing the convulsions of the dying victim and the flow of the blood. Noble men were sacrificed for the well being of the people in case no guilty prisoners were available. This is confirmed by Strabo, who might be using Posidonius as source for his information. Other writers, like Mela, Pliny, Lucan and Dionigi from Alicarnassus give similar information.
Connected to sacrifices is the custom of soothsaying. Strabo calls the soothsayers that carry out the sacrifices “Ουάτεις”, while Ammianus Marcellinus calles them Euhages; they are generally called “vates”. Although Caesar does not mention this category of people, it seems clear from the writings of other authors that they were part of the “druidic caste”. Soothsayers are mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, who says: “ they tell the future by watching the flight of birds, and by observation of the entrails of victims” and he goes on claiming that no sacrifice can be performed without the presence of a “philosopher”.
Pliny has handed down to us a peculiar account of a Gaulish cult regarding the so called “anguinum”. He says that during the summer in some caves in the Gaulish territory a huge number of snakes entwine themselves into a ball and create by secretion from their bodies and by their spittle an egg; this egg is called anguinum. The druids claim that once the egg has been formed it is kept floating in the air with hissing from the snakes, that is then the right moment to catch it in a cloak before it falls on the ground. Someone is charged to do this, and once done he must take flight on horse back as the serpents will pursue until some stream cuts them off. If the egg is “good” it should float on the surface of the water. The druids also say that the egg should be collected during a particular day of the moon. The egg is round and as big as a little apple, with a cartilaginous shell, pocked like the arms of a polypus. “The druids hold it in high esteem and it is said to ensure success in law-suits and a favourable reception with princes”. Nowhere else has a similar account been found.
The same author gives us some accounts of ceremonies involving the gathering of different plants which help us to have also a look at the “medical practices” of the druids.
One of the most famous accounts, written by Pliny, is the one regarding the mistletoe. An account which once again has not been written about by any other classical author. The druids consider the oak a holy tree and they think that everything that grows on it has been sent from heaven and a proof of the sacredness of the tree. They also consider holy the mistletoe, the Gaulish name for which means “ all-healing” and when is found growing upon the oak “ is gathered with due religious ceremony, if possible on the sixth day of the moon [...] for [it] has already considerable influence. [...] having made preparation for sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, [the druids] bring there two white bulls, whose horns are bound then for the first time. Clad in white robe the priest ascends the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle and it is received by others in a white cloak. Then they kill the victims praying that god will render this gift...” The mistletoe is considered to cure every kind of illness and taken as a drink it imparts fecundity to barren animals. It is also an antidote for all poisons.
Other herbs and plants are used in “medicine”: the plant called selago is gathered without using iron and by passing the right hand through the left sleeve of the tunic the clothing must be white, the feet washed and bare and an offering of wine and bread must be made before the gathering. The druids claim that the plant is a charm against every kind of evil and that its smoke is good for any eye disease. “The druids also use a certain marsh-plant, that they call samolus”, continues Pliny, “ this must be gathered with the left hand when fasting and it is a charm against the disease of cattle”.
The druids, according to the classical authors, were also experts in astronomy. Caesar writes that the druids have many discussions “regarding the stars and their movement, the size of the universe and of the earth [...] and calculate the time not counting the days but the nights and calculate the beginning of the months and of the years as if the day is subsequent to the night.” Also Mela writes that the druids profess to know the size and the shape of the earth, the movements of the heavens and of the stars . We have already seen in the account given by Pliny that the druids calculated the different phases of the moon in order to carry out their ceremonies and in another passage he says that they calculate months, years and "saecula" of thirty years again on the phases of the moon.
Art was given importance too among the druids. Although Caesar does not mention it, many other authors talk about poetry and bards. Diodorus Siculus describes the bards as dedicated to poetry: “among [the Gauls] there are also poets, called Bards” and they use an instrument similar to the lyre to compose their praise poems and their satires. Strabo calls them “singers and poets”. Ammianus Marcellinus, reports that the Bards celebrate the deeds of their famous men in epic verses accompanied by the sound of their lyres. A similar description is given by Lucan who talks of “ fortes animas belloque” (strong souls and wars) and “plurima carmina” (many songs/poems).
The effects of music on the listeners are described by Diodorus: “It is not only in times of peace but in war also, [...] that the incantations of the Bards have effect of friends and foes alike. Often when the combatants [are ready to fight] these men come between the armies and stay the battle, just as wild beasts are sometimes held spellbound” .
In conclusion, the role of druids in celtic society captured the attention of the classical authors. We have seen how according to Pliny the word druid is connected to the Greek word for oak, it being the “sacred tree” in druidic tradition. Druids constitute one of the highest classes in celtic society,and some authors give evidence for the presence of female priesthood. Among the druids were also soothsayers that performed sacrifices and foretold the future, while the bards were dedicated to music and singing. The classics also wrote about cults and customs of the druids: they believe to be descended from “Dispater” and apparently teach the immortality of the soul. For this reason the druids have been connected with Pythagoras. Pliny reports the druidic beliefs that surrounded different kinds of plants and the methods to collect them and the strange cult of the anguinum. We are shown how the druids were an important part of the community where they performed the tasks of judges,religious priests, physicians and astronomers.
Caesar, De bello Gallico
T.D. Kendrick, The druids, Senate, 1994
Miranda J. Green, Exploring the world of the druids, Thames and Hudson, 1997
Stuart Piggott, The druids, Penguin Books, 1974