You may have seen them at conventions, perhaps even wearing long white robes. You might have stumbled upon one or two of their websites. There could even be a few in your place of business, working incognito in the next cubicle. They are modern-day Druids, followers of the religion of the ancient Celts.
So who are these Druid dudes, anyway? Many people think they died out in old days, but they are very much a part of today’s society. Keeping in mind that today’s Druids are quite different from yesterday’s, we shall explore this question.
The original Druids were identified in the writings of Julius Caesar as one of two social levels of the ancient Celts, the people who were the ancestors of all modern Europeans. This particular level of their society concerned itself with religion and laws, and is sometimes referred to as a “priesthood.” (The other level was identified in Caesar’s writings as “knights.” The common peasants in those days were barely noticed.) From the lumping together of these two disciplines, religion and law, one can start to get a feeling for just how important religion must have been to these ancient people.
Now, some people consider ancient writings on the Druids to be highly suspect because they were written by the conquerors of the Celts. However, as one respected authority on the Celts points out, Diviciacus, who was a learned king of the ancient Celts, was also a close personal friend of Julius Caesar.
Therefore, when Caesar wrote about the structure of Celtic society, he was almost certainly getting his information right from the horse’s mouth. The history of the ancient Celts dates back to the migration of the Indo-European-speaking people approximately 4,000 years ago. At that time, nomadic tribes who occupied the area around the Caspian Sea in southern Russia began to migrate southeast into the Indus Valley (now India) and west into Asia Minor (now Turkey), the Balkans, and across eastern Europe. Around the tenth century B.C, a people recognizable as Celts began to emerge from Bohemia, in western Czechoslovakia.
In the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C., these people started to migrate down into Italy and Spain, further westward into France and Belgium, and eventually into the British Isles. It was in the fifth century B.C. that these people were first referred to as “Celts” (actually “Keltoi” in Greek) by the Greek historian Herodotus. Legend has it that Hu Gadarn, or “Hu the Mighty,” whose name survives today as one of the ancient Celtic hero-gods, led a party of settlers from Asia Minor to the British Isles and established a religious practice among the Celts that we now refer to as Druidism.
Several meanings are attributed to the word “druid,” including “a servant of truth,” “all knowing, or wise man,” “an oak” from the Gaelic “duir”), or “equal in honor.” Robert Graves considers the word to be derived from the Welsh “derwydd,” “oak-seer,” due to the association of oak groves with Druids.
By the fourth century B.C., the Romans viewed the Druids as an established institution. Posidonius, the philosopher-historian, traveled throughout Gaul during the time of the druids and weote about them in his “Histories” at the end of the second century B.C. Unfortunately, these writings were lost, but portions were later referred to by the historian Strabo (63B.C.-A.D.21). By the year 37, Gaul and much of Britain were under Roman control, and the Romans strictly prohibited Druidic practices due to the possibility of insurrection.
Thus began the decline of Druidry; although some people maintain that the ancient Druidic beliefs and practices have survived to this day in various forms.
Despite many scholarly and classical writings on the ancient Celts, very little is known about them and the activities of the Druids. The best accounts of the Druids, which were written by their actual contemporaries, are Caesar’s “Conquest of Gaul” and Pliny the Elder’s”Natural History.”
Archaeological evidence and early writings don’t reveal much beyond their existence–and some people dispute even that!
Misconceptions About The Druids
There are a few popular misconceptions about the ancient Druids, one being that they never wrote anything down. Although they had a long history of oral tradition, they did indeed use language (Greek and some Latin)). However, this was used only for everyday mundane items such as receipts and letters. The Druids considered it improper to use writing in their important studies and relied on the memorization of a great deal of verse.
Another controversial legend about the ancient Druids is that of human sacrifice. While this has never been confirmed–or denied–by archaelogical evidence, it would not be unusual for conquerors (the Romans) to portray a conquered culture (the Celts) a a bloodthirsty gang of savage barbarians. Indeed, some of the classical Roman writers described a few of the procedures the Celts supposedly used for these sacrifices: burning, stabbing, and impaling. It’s also possible the association of Druids with human sacrifice may have arisen because the Celts worshipped the human head as the seat of all wisdom and felt qute comfortable with several of their enemies’ severed heads mounted on pikes around their villages. A sight like this would understandably unnerve any foreigner. In any case, it’s entirely likely the ancient Celts actuallly did practice human sacrifice–quite a few cultures indulged in it at that time. The point is moot, though, because there are many things ancient Pagans did that we don’t do today.
In the latter part of the eighteenth century, Druidic cults and societies appeared all over Western Europe. One of the first was the ancient Order of Druids, which was founded by an Englishman, Henry Hurle. Later this group became more of a benefit society, similar to the Elks Club. Some members who were more interested in the esoteric side of Druidism split of to form other Orders.
Present Day Druids
Now you know more about the ancient Druids than you may have cared to. So let’s fast forward to a Minnesota college campus in 1963 when Carleton College has just instituted a rule that all students attend a certain number of religious services as a requirement of enrollment. Some students, aghast at what they perceived as an encroachment on their religious freedom, decided to organize a group called the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA). Because the college’s rule permitted the requirement to be fulfilled in a religion of one’s own choosing, the students chose Druidry. They reasoned that if religious credit were granted to them (even though the group was bogus at the time, having been created only as a protest), then the college’s religious requirement could be exposed as totally ineffective. On the other hand, if credit were denied to them, the college could be charged with bigotry.
This sounded cleverly effective, and it was. Carleton College repealed the religious requirement the following year. However, although elated with its victory, the RDNA did not fold its robes and go away. The students realized that Druidry had developed a meaning in their lives, and after graduation, they went on to continue the RDNA and even start other Druidic groups.
Today, there are three major national Druidic organizations: The RDNA, now called the NRDNA, or”New” Reformed Druids of North America; the ADF, or ArnDraiocht Fein (sometimes called the “American Druid Foundation” by the Gaelic-impaired); and the Henge of Keltria. Many smaller groups also exist.
Although Druids tend to be among the most organized of Pagans, there is no real conformity to standards outside of a few basics. Such strictness would be un-Druidlike.
One good example is that some leaders of national Druidicorganizations are called ArchDruids, but others are called Presidents. At certain times, the same person might even use both titles at once!
Whatever the differences, one standard seems to have been agreed on. The Smaller groups of Druids that comprise the national organizations are called “groves.” Grove leaders might have titles such as “senior Druid”, or they may have no title at all. Each organization handles the details differently.
Druids in America
Probably the most-asked question these days by non-Druids is “What do Druids do?” Although this question is also asked about every other Pagan sect, I always find it to be absolutely hilarious. Can you imagine asking, “What do Christians do?” and getting an intelligible answer? Now that we’ve put it into perspective, here is no more than an attempt to answer that question.
Druids do ritual. Most groves make up their own litany and may share it with the other groves. These days, however, the Druids write it down! The national organization might give suggestions or have written material to help out with this task, but the officers of these groups are more concerned with promoting community, setting standards for advancement, and representing the organization to the outside world than with dealing with these details.
As in most Pagan groups, rites and rituals are preferably held outdoors, typically in a grove of trees (oaks, if we can find them) or around a stone circle. Druids celebrate the four major Sabbats: Samhain–Harvest, Imbolc–the feast of lights, Beltane–the fertility festival, and Lughnassadh–the feast of bread or first fruits. There are also four lesser Sabbats related to the changing of the seasons: the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, and the Summer and Winter Soltices.
Some groves hold sermons during a ritual, much like an ordinary mainstream church would. Other groves use color magic. Some groves have a Norse focus, others are Celtic. Generally, Druidic rituals are fun times, with feasting, dancing, and singing, where feelings of love for the gods and goddesses are expressed and an appreciation for nature’s abundance is celebrated.
Conceivably the second most-asked question about Druids is characterized by a friend of mine who said, “So what is it with you guys and Stonehenge, anyway?”
While Stonehenge is a magnet for modern-day Druids (along with other Pagans), there is little, if any, evidence that the ancient Druids used it for anything, or what they may have used it for. It is now commonly agreed that Stonehenge was built in four stages. The first period was about 3100-2300 B.C., also known as the Neolithic Age. At this time, Stonehenge consisted of nothing more than a circular ditch with an internal bank and a northeast entrance. Along the inside of the ditch were a ring of fifty-six pits, now known as the Aubrey holes (after John Aubrey, who discovered them in the seventeenth century).
These pits were later used to bury cremated remains. On the outside of the entrance was the monolith we now call the Heelstone, along with a timber gate.
The second period, ranging from approximately 2100-2000 B.C., was the work of the people now known as the Beaker Culture. These ambitious folks built an approach road(now called the Avenue), brought bluestone from the Preseli Mountains in southwestern Wales, and set up the double concentric circle of huge stones known as the Menhirs. Both this circle and the Avenue were oriented toward the Summer Solstice, although the double circle was never completed and was later dismantled.
During the third period, around 2000-1550 B.C., the existing circle of sarcen stones was erected, as well as the horseshoe shaped structure in its center, and Stonehenge assumed its present configuration. The sarcen stones were imported from a quarry in what is now Marlboro Downs, twenty miles away. In the fourth period, about 1100 B.C., the Avenue was extended to the River Avon, a little over a mile away. That’s the story of Stonehenge. No mention of Druids is made in the archaelogical writings.
Other Aspects of Druidry
Sometimes I’m asked whether Druids hex or put curses on people. Certainly the ancient Druids had no compunction about doing such things–in fact, it was part of their job to do this to the enemy during battles. Modern-day Druids, however, tend to avoid such activities because of their belief that whatever you work upon the universe will eventually return to you–“what goes around comes around.”
On the other hand, probably one of the best-known aspects of the ancient Druids is their association with mistletoe. Why did they prize the mistletoe so highly as to call it “all-heal?” Well, first of all, they didn’t prize mistletoe highly–only mistletoe that grew on oak trees. Why? Because although mistletoe grows on deciduous trees,it prefers trees with soft bark such as the apple and ash. Rarely does the mistletoe grow on an oak tree.
However, it wasn’t just this scarcity that made mistletoe a prized plant. It was what the scarcity represented.
In “The Golden Bough (titled after an ancient Greek name for the mistletoe), Sir James Frazier postulates an interesting theory based on a popular name for mistletoe in Germany during this time: “thunder-besom.” The mistletoe was so designated in the folklore of that area because it was thought to be a product of a tree’s being struck by lightning. “If there is any truth in this conjecture,” Frazer goes on to say, “the real reason why the Druids worshipped a mistletoe-bearing tree above all other trees of the forest was a belief that every such oak had not only been struck by lightning but bore among its branches a visible emanation of the celestial fire; so that in cutting the mistletoe with mystic rites they were securing for themselves all the magical properties of a thunderbolt.” If we consider how magic is supposed to work, this sounds like a fairly reasonable speculation.
Where Can We Find Druids Today?
Druids generally do not wander around town in flowing robes any more, carrying a long staff and bearing a raven on each shoulder (if indeed they ever did).
Due to the scholarly nature of Druidry, and what Margot Adler calls “its thirst for structure and study,” the Druids of today do tend to be less ” in the broom closer” than many other types of Pagans.
Every year the ADF holds a national gathering called Wellspring, usually at a location in Ohio, with guest speakers, workshops, and group rituals. Many groves gather together for festivals and other occasions on a regular basis.
There are even cybergroves who get together daily.