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The Druids

In order to learn about the Druids, it is first necessary to understand what they were not.

There was a great revival of interest in the Druids in Victorian times and this interest carried on to the present day. Vast amounts were written and at the same time, countless paintings depicted the druids and their activities, White-robed maidens in misty landscapes, battle clad heroes against waterfalls and four legged winged beasts abounded. While Britain has always had a damp climate so it is reasonable to infer that the druids encountered the occasional waterfall or patch of mist just as we do, almost all the rest of the imagery was no more than romantic fiction a counterpoint to and escape from the stark reality of the industrial age.

A handy rule of thumb when viewing a painting of druidic times seems to be: “If it looks pre-Raphaelite, it ain’t the druids”.

As this article will show, real knowledge about the Druids is, however increasing as archaeological techniques improve. It is now considered most likely that the Druids arrived on Sargon’s ships from Babylonia c. 2000 B.C. While this is not entirely proven, we know precisely when, where, by whom and how the Druids finally met their demise: 43 A.D., on the Isle of Anglesey – then known as Mona – in a final onslaught by the Roman legions under Tacitus. Simple arithmetic therefore establishes that the Druids held sway for between seventeen and eighteen hundred years. Putting this in perspective, it is roughly as long as the time from their extermination by the Romans to the present day.

The second, successful, invasion of Britain by the Romans was not merely motivated by Roman expansionism. Since the failure of the first invasion Gaul had been completely pacified and the Druids eradicated from mainland Europe. For a hundred years the British Druids were a thorn in the flesh of Roman imperialism; they agitated for opposition to Rome and it seems that resistance fighters crossed the channel to help the resistance. When the Romans arrived they pushed through England until only Anglesey was left as the final stronghold of the Druids.

At this point, one might expect the Druids to flee Anglesey over to Ireland. In fact the reverse happened. The few scattered, remaining adherents congregated on Anglesey for a last stand. The Romans destroyed them completely and the Druids were no more.

It is also known that far from the romantic images conjured up in Victorian times, the Druids engaged in human sacrifice and apparently used the entrails of their victims for divination. There is also evidence of human sacrifice.

Although the Druids are often associated with artefacts like Stonehenge, there is in reality little proven connection. There is about a thousand year difference between the creation of Stonehenge and the time when the Druids were at their peak. To directly associate the two is, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, “like confusing the Battle of Britain with the Battle of Hastings” . The Druids’ religion was firmly based in the natural world, they had no need of temples. They carried out their rites in groves, especially oak groves. It has been suggested that the word 'Druid' may derive from the root of the Celtic word for oak: 'dru'. Other sacred sites were mountains, lakes, rivers and springs.

In fact, it was the priests who worked in oak groves as the oak represented the male principle. Priestesses tended to work in groves of trees representing the female principle, mainly rowan or willow groves. The Hazel was the tree of the Bard and also used to fashion wands for drawing power and inspiration from the Otherworld. For more information on Druidic lore relating to trees, click one of these links to other pages on our site:


Don't, however, assume that just because a particular tree is a familiar part of the British landscape today, that it was known to the Druids. The horse chestnut is a good example. At the onset of the last ice age, the chestnut was forced south and east by the advancing ice sheets. After the ice sheets retreated, the trees found themselves stuck in a remote valley in Eastern Europe. While many tree seeds are carried on the wind or by birds and thereby were able to move back into western Europe, the large conkers could not re-distribute themselves. It took them another ten thousand years to cross the mountain ridge and the tree was not re-introduced into Britain until 1633. The tree was, therefore, quite unknown to the Druids.

There is little certainty about the date of the Celts’ arrival. One can speak of Celtic culture and languages, but there is no single Celtic race; Celtic speakers vary in appearance from short and swarthy to tall and fair. Evidence of Celtic culture appears in Britain from the second millennium B.C., and it is now suggested that the Celtic priesthood could after all have been responsible for the Stonehenge temple, built in about 2000 B.C. As mentioned above, there is if anything more certainty about the date of the Druids arrival. While the Celts were fragmented and frequently at war with each other, it seems that the Druids could move between tribes with no difficulty.

The druids did not write their knowledge or customs down. In fact, they regarded it as sacrilegious to do so. Knowledge was passed on orally by bards. They were also priests and teachers. Often acolytes would spend twenty years learning the knowledge by rote. In fact, much of what we do know about the Druids comes from classical writers from other cultures who observed them, such as Julius Caesar:

“They know much about the stars and celestial motions, and about the size of the earth and universe,
and about the essential nature of things, and about the powers and authority of' the immortal gods;
and these things they teach to their pupils."

Caesar also commented that the Druids appeared to have originated in Britain and have all the appearance of a native British culture but for reasons given above this is now disputed.

The nature of the various invasions of Britain by the Celts and others and their supposed dates are all now disputed. Archaeological science earlier in this century was much concerned with racial types, and it was fashionable to argue that successive invaders prevailed because they were of superior fighting ability to the indigenous population. At the root of these theories was Darwin's theory of evolution and belief in progress – along, possibly, with the subconscious jingoism inherited from the Victorian empire. Scholars are now more inclined to regard social changes as being produced by migrations of people and the influence of other cultures through trade and other contact, at least as much as by warfare.

In ancient times, as today, new ideas spread quickly enough around the world without violence. There is little certainty about the date of the Celts’ arrival. One can speak of Celtic culture and languages, but there is no single Celtic race; Celtic speakers vary in appearance from short and swarthy to tall and fair. Evidence of Celtic culture appears in Britain from the second millennium B.C., and it is now suggested that the Celtic priesthood could have been responsible for the Stonehenge temple, built in about 2000 B.C.

Because the druids did not write their knowledge or customs down, the first written sources we have are from Greek and Roman commentators, contemporaries of the later Celts. However, it needs to be born in mind that these Celts would have regarded their ancestors lost in the mists of time, the heroes of myth and legend, with much the same sense of awe and mysticism that the Druids are often regarded today. Again, their information only came from the oral tradition, which changes over time as it is passed down.

Pliny was largely responsible for linking the Druids to, among other things, mistletoe, white robes, golden sickles and herbal remedies, artefacts commonly associated with the druids in the present day. The Greek geographer Strabo linked them to mass human sacrifice; something supported by recent archaeological discoveries. This reputation was built on by Tacitus and Dio Cassius who included among the Druids’ less attractive habits, burning, crucifixion, impaling alive and hanging.

Tacitus also claims, along with Dio Cassius, that they used entrails from their victims as a divination tool. While much of this may be propaganda (or not), it is clear that groves, especially groves of oaks, were of great importance. Dio mentions a grove close to Colchester associated with Andate, the goddess of victory, while Tacitus mentions many such groves on the Isle of Anglesey. This at least is confirmation that Druidic orders existed across the country and that the Druids were not merely a local phenomenon.

There is, however, apparently no real indication from the classical authors of how much political influence the Druids really had at that time. The other principal source for historians is the archaeological evidence, the artefacts, from jewellery to tumuli, left behind. However, much of the value of such an artefact to a historian usually lies in what can be inferred about it in conjunction with some manuscript or other written account. Such accounts are, as has previously been said, missing from the Druidic record.

A third source, which has now come into prominence because of extensive aerial photography and the developments in satellite photography, is what could loosely be called “the lie of the land”. Alfred Watkins first identified what have come to be known as “Ley Lines”. His book: “The Old Straight Track” is listed below in acknowledgements and further reading. These are apparently very ancient alignments of tumuli, tracks, churches presumably built on earlier religious sites and so on as well as place names. The lines are not restricted to England or the British Isles; for instance, there are many place names in England beginning or ending with “Ley” such as Leyton or Bromley, bur correspondingly in France there are a lot of places incorporating “alais” in the name, the most obvious being Calais.

It has been known for some time that alignments in the stones of Stonehenge match alignment in stone circles across Europe (although as mentioned above we should be cautious about associating Stonehenge too closely with the druids because of the date differential between them; I am giving this only as an example).

However, recent aerial reconnaissance has identified significant alignments relating to Glastonbury Abbey. In the Book “The Grove of he Druids” by Philip Carr-Gomm, which is an account of the Druidic teachings of Ross Nichols, the Great Zodiac of Glastonbury is referred to. Quoting verbatim:

“Perhaps the most intriguing addition to the mythical lore of England in the present century (the 20th.)
is the apparent revelation, by aerial survey and by patient identification of local names with Celtic
Arthurian myth, of a ten-mile wide Zodiac in North Somerset, outline by ‘rhines’ or dykes, ancient paths
and earthworks, and taking advantage of all natural features such as rivers. The startling implications
of such a complex topographical structure at the very early date claimed, 2700 B.C., have led to considerable
scepticism; indeed informed archaeological opinion has hardly yet pronounced upon the matter.”

The Glastonbury zodiac and other evidence suggests that either the Druids themselves or at least their cultural legacy may have originated in Babylonia and was brought here on Sargon’s ships.

Current opinion is that the Zodiac itself originated in Babylonia and is associated with events surrounding the Epic of Gilgamesh. This dates the original zodiac to at least the third millennium B.C. According to archaeologists the zodiac was subsumed into Egyptian culture around 2000 to 1600 B.C. This means that it is not implausible to date the zodiac to at least 2000 B.C.

There is some archaeological evidence for the incursion of people with Sumerian affinities around 2000 B.C. Sargon of Akkad’s ships are said to have reached the Tin Mines “beyond the Western Sea”. It is perhaps significant that the Bull, the Lion, Man (Sagittarius) and the Bird (Phoenix), the four quarterings of the year, are included on Sargon’s standard. The alignments in the Glastonbury zodiac, especially the equinoctial line (line of the equinox, or equal day and night), would in fact have been accurately in alignment at 2700 B.C.


It is further suggested – although you may consider that this is stretching things a little too far – that “Sumer - land” may have corrupted over time to “Summerland” and eventually “Somerset”.

So what detail about the Druids can we find out? We know a lot about the Celts themselves. We also know that the Druids were the elite in Celtic society. As well as being he religious leadership they were responsible for the law and judgements, education, and they were politically influential to the point of being responsible for the selection of a new king.

There are three basic grades of Druids:

  1. The Bardic grade, concerned mainly with artistic, academic, musical and poetical skills.
  2. The Ovate grade, concerned with Intuitive and magical skills including astrology, healing and divination.
  3. The Druid grade, dealing with Public ritual and Judgments, ceremonies, inspiration and culture.
They were exempt from taxation and from entering into battle, although they had responsibilities in connection with warfare.

The Celts themselves were not a single race but several, united by common language, religion, culture and way of life. They expanded from their original base is Southern Germany so that by 500 BC, when they first appeared in Greek writing, they covered an area from France to the eastern reaches of the Danube and from the area of the Netherlands to Spain and by 400 BC the Celts had made incursions into Italy and were threatening Rome.

However, the Celtic influence was felt across Europe long before that and there are recognisably Celtic features in British culture back to the Bronze age.

By the third century BC the Celts were dominant across Europe but unlike the Greeks and Romans, while they shared a common culture they did not have the cohesion or centralised organisation necessary to establish a lasting empire. There was much infighting between the tribes which weakened their ability to face a common enemy. Also, like the Romans who followed them, their lines of communication became over-extended and gradually broke down.

Gradually they lost their territories until they only held Gaul and Britain. However, in the first century BC Julius Caesar over ran Gaul and a century later, in AD43, Claudius conquered Britain and renamed it Britannia (although the modern usage of the word “Britannia” is attributed to Queen Elizabeth the first’s soothsayer and alchemist John Dee) (Click here to follow a link to John Dee).

By the time the roman civilisation collapsed in the fifth century AD the Celtic civilisation and language had been wiped out in Gaul and in Britain, they had been forced out to Wales, the Southwest of Britain and Scotland. Only in Ireland did they find a safe haven. The Anglo Saxons continued the attrition of Celtic homelands so that eventually the tribes decamped from southwest England to Brittany, where modern form of the Celtic language is still spoken.

In Ireland, the Celtic language called Godelic survives in modern Gaelic. Interestingly, the spell checker on my word processor doesn’t recognise the word Godelic and wants me to correct it to Gaelic.

Acknowledgements and further reading:
Celtic MythologyCharles SquireGeddes & Grosset
Fairy and Folk Tales of IrelandW. B. Yeats (Ed.)Colin Smythe Ltd.
Glastonbury AbbeyJames P. CarleyGothic Image Publications
In the Grove of the DruidsPhilip Carr-GommWatkins
Magicians, Wizards and Sorcerers Daniel CohenJ. M. Dent & Sons
Oxford Companion to English History John CannonLOxford University Press
Oxford Companion to English LiteratureSir Paul HarveyOxford University Press
The Lore of the Land Westwood & SimpsonPenguin
The Old Straight TrackAlfred Watkins

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© Ken James 2008