Druids were religious leaders in what is now Britain and France. They were “philosophers, teachers, judges, the repository of common wisdom about the natural world and the traditions of men, and the mediators between men and the gods,” Barry Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of European archeology at the University of Oxford, wrote in his book”Druids: A Very Brief Introduction (opens in new tab)(Oxford University Press, 2010).
Almost everything we know about druids is second-hand knowledge; all surviving texts mentioning druids were written by non-druids, often Romans. That poses a problem for contemporary historians trying to understand who the Druids were and how their role changed over time.
Historians are not exactly sure when Druidism began. Cunliffe noted that the earliest written reference to the Druids is about 2400 years old, although Druidism probably dates back earlier.
Julius Caesar’s Descriptions of the Druids
Julius Caesarwho conquered Gaul in 58 BC to 50 BC and invaded Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC is one of the main sources of information about Druids.
In a series of books collectively known as “The Gallic Wars,” Caesar wrote that the Druids “dealt with sacred things, making public and private sacrifices, and interpreting all matters of religion.” (Translation by WA McDevitte and WS Bohn.) In addition to performing religious duties, the Druids were often asked to settle disputes.
“If there is a crime, if there is a murder, if there is a dispute over an inheritance, if there is a dispute over borders, [the druids] decide “how to arrange it,” wrote Caesar. “They determine rewards and punishments.”
Groups of druids each had a leader, Caesar noted, and disputes arose over who should be the leader, sometimes even leading to violence.
Caesar claimed that the Druids forbade their members to write down their religious beliefs or teachings. He wrote that the Druids did not want their “doctrines to be spread among the masses of the people” and wanted their members to memorize their beliefs and teachings instead of being able to look them up.
Caesar may have befriended a druid. During his stay as military commander in Gaul he met Diviciacus, ruler of the Aedui – a powerful Burgundian tribe – and he and Caesar became close friends and allies, the Roman general comment that he trusted the Aeduan chief more than any other Gaul,” Miranda Aldhouse-Green, professor emeritus of history, archeology and religion at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, wrote in her book “A New Look at the Ancient Druids: An Archaeological Perspective (opens in new tab)(University of Wales Press, 2021). While Caesar did not specifically state that Diviciacus was a druid, Roman statesman Cicero (who lived at the same time as Caesar) did, Aldhouse-Green wrote.
Druids were active in Britain, Ireland, Gaul (modern-day France), and possibly other regions. The Greek writer Dio Chrysostom, who lived in the first century AD, compared Druids to the Magi and Brahmins of India. The “Celts appointed those they call Druids, who were also devoted to the prophetic art and to wisdom in general,” he wrote. (Translation by H. Lamar Crosby.) Caesar mentioned that Britain was a center of Druidism and said that people in Gaul who wanted to become Druids would sometimes travel there.
Druids and Stonehenge
People today often associate Stonehenge with Druidism. However, Stonehenge was primarily built between about 5,000 and 4,000 years ago — about 2,000 years before the earliest known Druid records. So the question remains whether Druidism existed when Stonehenge was built — and if so, in what form. Scholars who reached out to Live Science tended to doubt whether there were druids back then.
“Druids don’t appear until the last half of the 1st millennium BC, long after Stonehenge was built,” Caroline Malone, professor emeritus at Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Natural and Built Environment, told Live Science in an email.
There is no connection in ancient writings between druids and stone circles. “Classical authors referred to ancient druids who only worshiped in wooded groves – no mention of any connection between druids and stone [monuments] let alone Stonehenge,” wrote Mike Parker Pearson, a professor of British Later Prehistory at University College London, in an article published in 2013 in the journal Archeology International.
Mistletoe and the moon
Ancient sources give some tantalizing hints about what druids valued.
The Roman writer Pliny the Elder (who lived in the first century AD) discussed the importance of both mistletoe and the fifth day of the Moon to druids. He wrote that mistletoe “is gathered in rituals of religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as well as of their ages.” (Translation by John Bostock.)
Pliny the Elder also wrote about the importance of animal sacrifice and fertility to the Druids. The Druids “bring there two white bulls, whose horns are then tied for the first time. Dressed in white robes, the priest climbs the tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak. Then they sacrifice the victims,” he wrote prayerfully. ‘It is with them that the mistletoe, taken in the drink, will give’ [fertility] for all barren animals, and that it is an antidote to all poisons.”
How widespread was Druidism?
Scholars aren’t sure how widespread Druidism was in the ancient world. It certainly thrived in the British Isles and Gaul. Caesar claimed that Druidism originally came from Great Britain and that those who wanted to study it in depth traveled there.
“This institution is said to have been conceived in Britain and transferred from there to Gaul; and now those who wish to obtain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally [to Britain] to study it,” wrote Caesar.
However, whether Druidism really originated in Britain is unknown, and druids may have been found much further afield. Druidism is often associated with a people known as the Celts, and Celtic settlements have been found as far east as present-day Turkey. In addition, Celtic mercenaries served as far away as Egypt (during the reign of Cleopatra VII) and Judea.
It is not clear whether women can be druids.
Did the Druids make human sacrifices?
The Druids may have been involved in human sacrifice. The first-century Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that while the Druids were always present during human sacrifice, it was another group known as the “vates” that performed the sacrifices.
How widespread human sacrifice was among the cultures the Druids served is another mystery. Much of the writing that survives comes from Roman writers, who may have been hostile to Druids and the cultures they were part of.
For example, in the year 60, Druids joined a revolt against the Romans on the island of Mona (present-day Anglesey) in Wales. Roman historian and politician Cornelius Tacitus reported that after the Romans crushed the rebels, they found widespread evidence of human sacrifice — a claim that may have been exaggerated to portray the druids in a negative light.
“Then a force was set up over the vanquished and their forests, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. Indeed, they considered it a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and consult their gods through human entrails,” wrote Tacitus. . (Translation by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.)
Archaeological evidence for druid human sacrifice is controversial. “Lindow man” are the remains of a young man found in a bog in northwestern England who suffered a series of attacks in the mid-first century AD and was stripped naked save for a fox fur bracelet, Aldhouse-Green wrote in her book . While there has been speculation that these may be the remains of a druid-related human sacrifice, this is not certain.
The End of Druidism
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, Druidism gradually faded. Cunliffe noted that druids were still present in Ireland in the eighth century AD, but in a much reduced form.
“Druids are now seen as the makers of love potions and spells, but little else,” Cunliffe wrote. “The mood is set by an 8th-century hymn asking for God’s protection from the spells of women, smiths, and druids!”
Druidism probably lasted until around the ninth century. Although Druidism faded in the Middle Ages, it has been revived in modern times. However, Cunliffe and other scholars have pointed out that there is a gap of nearly a millennium between the demise of the ancient Druids and the appearance of this revival group.
Read more about druids in Wales from Amgueddfa Cymru (opens in new tab), a group representing seven museums in Wales. Read an article by Cronkite News (opens in new tab) discussing modern druids. Read Caesar’s »The Gallic Wars (opens in new tab),” an important ancient resource on the Druids, via the MIT website.
Originally published on Live Science on May 20, 2014, and updated on September 23, 2022.