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Druids - truth about #3

More than you suspect

                    From the Introduction
                 of the book by Peter Ellis
                     "The Druids"(1994)


Finally, a book that separates fact from mythology, telling us
what we can and cannot know about the ancient Druids. This
remarkable book by a leading historian of the Celts offers much
for the academician as well as the general reader. Fascinating
author of Ireland to North America

The Druids penetrates the veil of fiction and folklore by
painting a compelling picture of a central aspect of Celtic
society that has been shrouded in mystery for centuries. The
author's insights are extremely fresh, based on impeccable
scholarship, and presented in an engaging style certain to
interest readers from all backgrounds. Once again Peter
Berresford Ellis has made an invaluable contribution to Celtic
-PETER CHERICI author of Celtic Sexuality: Power, Paradigms, and

A thoughtful, comprehensive, and highly informative study that
corrects many of the ill-founded theories propagated concerning
the Druids. It is one of the best books available on the topic.
Ellis approaches his subject with realism, respect, and
impeccable scholarship, providing a balanced view not only of the
Druids but of Celtic society and achievements in general. His
book will be equally valuable to the scholar and the interested
author of Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail

"THE DRUIDS" by Peter Ellis


IF this were an academic dissertation, I would probably choose
the subtitle 'An introductory argument'.... In no field is it
more necessary to ask the right questions than when attempting to
discover the Druids. The simple truth is that one person's Druid
is another person's fantasy. The Druids have been conjured in a
wide variety of perceptions, as to who they were, what they
believed and what they taught, since the sixteenth century. The
basic problem is that no Druid, nor sympathetic contemporary
observer, ever committed to writing the necessary unequivocal
information for our latter-day understanding. We have to search
diligently among many sources to come up with our answers and, as
Levi-Strauss implies, the result of the search depends on what
questions we ask.
In spite of several references to Druids in Greek and Latin
writings and in spite of the traditions recorded in the native
Celtic literatures, we are still far from being absolutely
It is true that we possess a few respectful Greek sources; but
the bulk of the 'Classical' observations consist of the
anti-Celtic propaganda of the Roman Empire. There has been a
tendency for scholars to accept these sources as giving us facts
written in stone which are not to be questioned. By the time the
Celts themselves came to commit their knowledge to writing, they
had become Christianized and, not surprisingly, the Druids
continued to get 'a bad Press'. Their portrayal remains an
extremely biased one. And when some of the 'gentlemen
antiquarians' of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries felt
that they could see the Druids in a more sympathetic light, they
romanticized them out of all recognition to what their role in
Celtic society originally was.

Most people these days would be able to make some response if
asked to define a Druid. In fact, the Druids have achieved
something of a unique place in the folklore of Western Europe and
its New World offshoots. They captured the imagination of the
ancient world as no other group of people ever did and they still
have a tremendous impact on the esoteric life of the modern
world. The Celtic scholar, Nora Chadwick, has commented: 'The
fascination of the subject is everlasting.' Apart from a vague
acknowledgement that the Druids were the intellectual class of
the ancient Celts, they are usually perceived as variations of
religious mystics and priests.

Many will remember being taught at school that the Romans saw the
Druids as bizarre, barbaric priests who indulged in the most
horrendous human sacrifices, searching for auguries in the
entrails of their victims. According to others, they were simply
ancient patriarchal religious mystics, generally portrayed in
white robes and beards, who worshipped nature, particularly
trees, and who gathered in stone circles to perform their
religious rites at the time of the solstice. To some they were
powerful magicians and soothsayers. To others merely bards and
prophets. How many would immediately conjure Merlin of Arthurian
Saga fame as the archetypal Druid? No doubt a good many modern
children would see the Druid through the eyes of Goscinny and
Underzo, in Asterix le Gaulois, where the character of the Druid
is known in the English translations as 'Getafix', originally
Panoramix, supplying magic potions from his mystical cauldron.
Those readers who have encountered Celtic mythology, and the
early sagas of Ireland and Wales, will know that the Druids are
depicted as an all-powerful and essential element in society. By
Christian times they had, more or less, been reduced to the
status of wizards and soothsayers.

Others will associate the Druids as something to do with the
recreation of the Welsh, Breton and Cornish Gorseddau and the
romantic movement of the late eighteenth century. The robed
figure of the ArchDruid of Wales is now an easily recognizable
one, thanks to the press and media coverage of the Gorsedd
ceremonies - particularly the Welsh Gorsedd - as part of the
National Eisteddfod.
However, in England, people popularly associate Druids with
earnest looking, white-robed men and women who continue to hold
mystic ceremonies at the time of the summer solstice in stone
circles such as Stonehenge and even at such sites as Parliament
Hill or Tower Hill in London. Indeed, there still exist
descendant groups of the Ancient Order of Druids formed by
enthusiasts in London in 1781. Sir Winston Churchill was
initiated into the Albion Lodge of the Order in 1908. These
gatherings, of course, have nothing to do with Celtic culture,
ancient or modern, and the 'mystic' incantations of these
particular Druids, to the sun and pagan deities, are chanted in

Indeed, Druids have also been hijacked by the 'New Age' movement
and conjured to their philosophies. An offering which has been
reprinted several times now, The Mind of the Druid, by Dr E.
Graham Howe, has a foreword by David Loxley, claiming to be
'Chief Druid of the Druid Order'. Again, this work has absolutely
nothing to do with ancient Celtic philosophy, but, sadly, Druids
are commercially acceptable in the new wave of esoterica and
alternative religious thought. Any half-baked philosophy can have
the word 'Druid' or even 'Celtic' attached to it and be assured
of an enthusiastic, if somewhat gullible, following.   

The first problem, then, is - who is right in their perception of
the  Druids? The simple answer is rather like the logic found in
Alice in Wonderland. Everyone is wrong but everyone has glimpsed
a tiny part of the reality, so everyone is right and we all get a
prize! Readers will recall the story of the blind men being asked
to define an elephant by touch. One, feeling a leg, claimed
that the elephant was like a tree, another, feeling its trunk,
claimed it was like a snake, yet a third, feeling an ear, thought
the elephant was a large winged creature and so on and so forth.
This is precisely what has been happening over the last three
hundred years in the case of the Druids. Definitions are derived
from small items of knowledge and no one seems to have perceived
a totality of information to give an accurate picture of who they
were and why they have survived into our modern folklore.
(I think Isabel Hill Elder did do that in her work, "Celt, Druid
and Culdee - Keith Hunt).

This work, which is an attempt to present the Druids to a general
readership, sets out to demonstrate the role of the Druids in
ancient Celtic society; what we know of their teachings, and how
they imparted their knowledge without the aid of writing. This
oral tradition existed not because they had no knowledge of the
art of writing but because they placed a religious prohibition on
committing their knowledge to that form, in order that such
knowledge should not fall into the wrong hands. It thus took
between twelve and twenty years of study to reach the highest
level of learning among them. This prohibition on committing
their knowledge and philosophy to writing has been a great
stumbling block for modern scholars attempting to understand
exactly what they believed and taught; that, combined with the
periodic destruction of native Celtic books and manuscripts by
conquering forces. Indeed, it is argued that when the Celtic
civilization first became known to the Greeks, the Greeks called
them the Keltoi, which was a Celtic word used to describe meaning
'the hidden people'. Celt is seen by some linguists as being.
cognate with the Old Irish ceilid, used in Modern Irish as ceilt
- to hide or conceal. It is also argued that the word kilt,
entering English in about 1730 from Scottish Gaelic, meaning the
distinctive short skirt of male Celtic dress, comes from this
same root word. However, it should be pointed out that others
have contended that the word kilt derived from the Scandinavian
languages, kilte meaning 'to tuck up'. This latter derivation
seems a little too plausible.

The Druids were no simple barbaric priests or priestesses.

Indeed, nothing in the accounts really suggests a priesthood nor
does any Classical writer call them priests or sacerdotes. This
is not to say that some Druids were not called upon to oversee
religious functions. 

I would suggest, as many other scholars in this area have now
done, that the Druids were the parallel caste to the social group
which developed in another Indo-European society - the Brahmins
of the Hindu culture. They formed the intellectuals, or learned
class, of Hindu society and were deemed the highest caste. While
they had a priestly function, they were not solely priests. 

So, too, with the Druids; they were a caste incorporating all the
learned professions. The caste not only consisted of those who
had a religious function but also comprised philosophers, judges,
teachers, historians, poets, musicians, physicians, astronomers,
prophets and political advisers or counsellors. Druids could
sometimes be kings or chieftains, such as Divitiacus of the
Aedui, but not all kings were necessarily Druids.

Our earliest and most extensive sources, as I have pointed out,
are from Greek and Roman writers. In other words, from writers
alien and often extremely hostile to Celtic culture.

Significantly, the Greek sources are generally more respectful to
the Druids, particularly the Alexandrian School of writers, while
the Latin sources are universally hostile. Yet, as I have said,
these sources have, in the main, been accepted without question
even by scholars who are usually more critical of source
material. Imagine, the culture and history of the American
Indians from the perceptions of nineteenth century white American
settlers being accepted without question. What a curious,
prejudiced view we would have of the Native Americans.
Imagine, too, the commander of a foreign army which has been sent
to conquer and destroy a people then writing a book about the
culture and customs of those people and it being regarded by
subsequent generations as written totally without prejudice. Yet
we are asked to accept Julius Caesar's accounts of the Celts and
Druids as totally accurate. Had General, Lord Chelmsford, written
an account of the culture and philosophies of the Zulu nation,
following his conquest of Zululand in 1879, we might have had
some reservations in accepting everything he wrote as being
without prejudice. Yet many would have us believe that the
passage of time makes for unquestioning accuracy. We can accept
that Chelmsford would very likely have been prejudiced, but that
Julius Caesar's comments on the Celtic civilization and the
Druids are beyond reproach. This is not to say that Caesar was
totally inaccurate to the point where he should be dismissed.
Indeed, from native Celtic sources, we can confirm several of his

We should question everything, especially if it comes from
sources hostile to Celtic civilization. 

The cultural prejudice of both the Greek and Roman sources must
be taken into account when they speak of matters pertaining to a
culture they generally deemed as barbaric or inferior.   

When Christianity replaced the pre-Christian Celtic religion and
the Druidic proscription on writing down the native history and
philosophy was ended, the Celts poured out a wealth of

Indeed, Irish became Europe's third written language. From early
Irish and Welsh sources there are many references to the Druids
and, in a few places, they do confirm some of the information
found in Greek and Roman sources.

What emerges from a close study of the sources is that the
commonly held belief, that the Romans attempted a widespread
repression of the Druids because they were horrified by Druidic
priestly practices, is no more than a conjecture which has become
an accepted historical myth. There is, indeed, evidence that the
Romans attempted to abolish the Druidic caste although Nora
Chadwick argues that the attempt was not as widespread as later
historians would have us believe. Certainly such an attempt was
not the result of Roman sensitivities about the religious rites
practised by the Celts. As an intellectual class, the repository
of Gaulish and British cultural and national resistance to Roman
conquest, it would be inevitable that Rome would attempt to
suppress them. It is a traditional imperialist maxim that to
conquer a nation you must first subvert or remove the class which
is most dangerous to your objectives, that is - the

Professor Jean Markle, in his "La Femme Celte" (1972) makes the
following argument as to why the Romans attempted to suppress the

     When Rome spread its empire over the whole Mediterranean 
     and into part of Western Europe, care was taken to eliminate
     anything that might harm its socio-political organization.
     This is very evident in Celtic countries: the Romans pursued
     the Druids until they disappeared into Gaul and later into
     Britain. The Druids represented an absolute threat to the
     Roman State, because their science and philosophy
     dangerously contradicted Roman orthodoxy. The Romans were
     materialistic, the Druids spiritual. For the Romans the
     State was a monolithic structure spread over territories
     deliberately organised into a hierarchy. With the Druids it
     was a freely consented moral order with an entirely mythical
     central idea. The Romans based their law on private
     ownership of land, with property rights entirely vested in
     the head of the family, whereas the Druids always considered
     ownership collective. The Romans looked upon women as
     bearers of children and objects of pleasure, while the
     Druids included women in their political and religious life.
     We can thus understand how seriously the subversive thought
     of the Celts threatened the Roman order, even though it was
     never openly expressed. The talent of the Romans in ridding
     themselves of the Gallic and British elites is always
     considered astonishing, but this leaves out of account the
     fact that it was a matter of life or death to Roman society.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24-79) seems to be the first to raise
questions bout the reasons for the decline of the Druids and
certainly has no hesitation in attributing it to Roman
repression. Yet one cannot really take seriously the claim that
this was done because of Roman outrage against a religion they
associated with human sacrifice when Rome itself was so used to
mass sacrifices. Eminent men from the nations that Rome had
conquered were dragged though the streets, chained to the
chariots of her victorious generals, and ritually strangled in
the Tullianum at the foot of the Capitol to propitiate Mars, the
Roman god of war. Vercingetorix, the famous leader of Celtic
resistance to Caesar in Gaul, met his end here. It can hardly be
believed that the Romans, especially during the reigns of such   
emperors as Caligula and Nero, could be shocked by human

It is only the Romans course, who would have us believe in their
sensitivity to human sacrifice. The curious fact is that no
Insular Celtic literature, nor traditions, provides evidence for
the practice of human sacrifice as a religious rite.

When Augustus excluded the Druids from Roman citizenship by
forbidding Roman citizens to practise Druidical rites, when
Tiberius banned the Druids by a decree of the Roman Senate and
when Claudius attempted to 'wholly abolish' them in AD 54, it was
not, I believe, in disapproval of 'inhuman rites' practised by
the Druids, but to wipe out an intellectual class who could, and
did, organize national revolt against Rome.

Further, my argument is that the Druids were not entirely
suppressed in the Celtic lands under Roman rule as is commonly
thought. Nor would I accept Nora Chadwick's contention that they
perished by slow strangulation from the superimposition 'of a
higher culture on a lower'. Mrs Chadwick, for example, claims
that when the inhabitants of the chief town of the Aedui in Gaul,
that is Bibracte (Mont-Beuvray), were transferred to the new
Roman town of Augustodunum (Autun), and their oral Druidical
school was replaced by a Romanized university, the Druids were
driven into the backwoods where they eventually perished. On the
contrary, I believe that the Druids remained and adapted to the
new culture.

The great Gaulish intellectual Decimus Magnus Ausonius (C.AD
310-c.393) provides us with some fascinating evidence in this
respect. He was the son of a physician of Burdigala (Bordeaux)
where he taught for thirty years before being appointed as tutor
to Gratian, son of the Emperor Valentinian 1. When Gratian
succeeded as emperor, Ausonius became prefect of Gaul and finally
consul in AD 79. He was nominally Christian, but without any
deeply committed feeling. He wrote one discourse on the
properties of the number three, so closely associated with
Druidic teachings. Ausonius came from an educated Celtic family
which would have been of the Druidic caste before Roman
Ausonius himself admits that his contemporary Delphidius, famous
for his eloquence, and a likely teacher of his, also descended
from a Druidic family. Delphidius' father was Attius Patera, a
famous rhetorician, whose own father, Phoebicius, had been an
aedituus or 'temple guardian' of the Celtic god Belenus at
Bordeaux until he had been persuaded to become a teacher in the
local Latin university.
Ausonius' own maternal grandfather was banished by Victricius,
the Roman bishop of Rouen (C.AD 330-c.407), with the two local
chieftains, to Tabellae (Dax) on the Adour for taking part in an
insurrection of the Aedui. In Parentalia, Ausonius also tells us
that his maternal grandfather practised astrology in secret and
implies that he was from a Druidic family. Victricius was an
ex-Roman soldier who converted to Christianity while he was still
serving and stationed in Gaul. He was an implacable opponent of
'Pelagianism', which Rome claimed to be an attempt to revive the
concepts of Druidism. And, most interesting of all, Ausonius had
an aunt called Dryadia which means 'Druidess'.

With the arrival of Christianity, the Druids began to merge
totally with the new culture, some even becoming priests of the
new religion and continuing as an intellectual class in much the
same way as their forefathers had done for over a thousand years
previously. We find an interesting reference in a 'Life of
Colmcille' that, when the Irish missionary arrived on the island
of Iona, he encountered two Druids who were bishops and who
claimed that they had already planted the Christian faith there.
Colmcille did not believe that they had been properly ordained
and ordered them to depart, which they did. Many early Celtic
Christian saints were referred to as 'Druids'. According to the
earliest known surviving biography of a British Celtic saint,
written about the end of the sixth century AD, 'A Life of
Samson,' Samson's teacher, the famous Illtyd (C.AD 425-505) was
'by descent a most wise Druid'. In the life of the seventh
century AD British Celtic saint Beuno (which survives in a
manuscript written in 1346) we are told that his last words, as
he lay dying, were that he saw the Holy Trinity and the saints
and Druids. Beuno was the father of St. Gwenfrewi, more popularly
known as Winifred of Gwytherin in Denbigh.

The late fourth, early fifth century AD, Celtic Christian
theologian Pelagius, of whom Victricius so strongly disapproved,
was eventually declared a heretic after his conflict with
Augustine of Hippo. Pelius, was accused of attempting to revive
Druidic philosophy on Nature and Free Will. Pelagius' argument
was that human beings had free will, while Augustine believed    
in predestination. We Bear how the Bishops of Rome despaired of
the hold Pelagain philosophy had in the Celtic Church during
subsequent centuries. This is not so surprising if such a
philosophy was simply a centuries old cultural attitude passed
down by generations of Druids. The ninth century AD Welsh
historian, Nennius, says that when the Celtic king Vortigern was
excommunicated by Germanus of Auxerre (C.AD 378-448) for adhering
to the teachings of Pelagius, he invited twelve Druids to assist
him in his councils. We shall consider the matter of Pelagianism
in the discussion on the Druids as philosophers.

The father of St.Brigid of Kildare was a Druid named Dubhthach 
who is often wrongly associated with Dubhthach Maccu Lugir, who
taught Patrick about the Irish law system. Significantly, there
were no recorded Christian martyrdoms in Ireland and indeed
scarcely any among other Celtic peoples. Those few martyr which  
occurred in Britain, for example that of Alban in C.AD 287, were
the result of antagonism among the Roman occupiers and not the
native Celts. 



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