The Druids, WiltshireThough the Druids undoubtedly existed, their place in our history is now more legendary than factual, as so few records or artefacts exist to throw light on who they were and what they did. The Romans , who regarded them as enemies of the Roman state and who were horrified by the human sacrifices supposedly made by the Druids, attempted to wipe them out. The Christians too attacked them for their obviously non-Christian beliefs – one of the few things we can be truly sure about the Druids is that they held certain oak and hazel groves sacred, as both Romans and Christians were at pains to chop them down and burn the wood.
From the Roman and Greek sources, however, we can be fairly sure of a few basic facts about the Druids and their place in Celtic life (across Gaul and beyond as well as in Britain).
First and foremost they were a class, although not a hereditary class but one open to those of ability willing to undergo a long training period – perhaps as long as 20 years. They formed a learned class within the Celtic people, a mixture of judge, scholar, counsellor, doctor, diplomat and priest in one. Part of their demise has been put down by some writers as due to the antipathy of tribal chiefs and regional kings whose power would be lessened by the influence of Druids, said to have the right to speak before them in tribal gatherings, and able to intervene in and stop conflicts of which they did not approve.
It seems that as well as oak and hazel, mistletoe played a part in their worship practises, as did reverence for sacred sites such as hills and rivers, and fire. Theirs was a polytheistic religion. From the Romans we can be fairly sure they used sacrifice in their worship, and possibly in divination, these sacrifices being both animal and human – tales of blood gushing from hearts stabbed with sacred daggers if not strictly true still make interesting reading.
The training of a Druid was lengthy, and in all likelihood carried out away from prying eyes, or more significantly eavesdropping ears – much of it was concerned with learning sacred verses by heart.
Although some aspects of Druidism may have survived into medieval times and even beyond – the bardic culture of Wales is surely linked in some ways – as a power they were to a great extent finished by the Roman attack on Anglesey in AD61 (an attack that Boudicca took advantage of, rebelling in the East while the Romans were engaged in Wales).
Modern Druidism is a mixture of surmise, romantic imagination, and the gathered misconceptions of writers from recent centuries, a creative version of something about which few facts remain, or more kindly a sincere religious faith to which the perhaps ill-fitting label Druidism has been attached. This ‘creativity’ is perhaps seen most clearly in the use of Stonehenge , which long predates Druidism, as a sacred site for some Neo-Druids.
More British Folk Customs?