Why do we know so little about the Druids?

The powerful Celtic social class posed a threat to the Roman Empire before being subsumed by Christianity – but their origins remain shrouded in the past.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 18 Nov 2019, 12:23 GMT
Photograph by Chris Young, Pa., Ap

Were Druids peaceful priests or dangerous prophets? Did they worship nature or foment rebellion? Not much is known about the ancient social class of people known as Druids, but that has never kept people from speculating on their real nature.

The earliest detailed accounts of the Druids date back to the first century B.C., but it’s likely that they had established their special role within the ancient communities of what is now Britain, Ireland, and France long before then. The word comes from a Latin transcription of the Celtic word for a social class of people among the ancient Celts who concerned themselves with prophecy and ritual.

Since Ancient Celts didn’t use the written word, all of our accounts about the Druids come from outsiders, particularly the Romans. Druids “are engaged in things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, and interpret all matters of religion,” wrote Julius Caesar in the 50s B.C., after Rome invaded Gaul (modern France). The emperor noted their interest in astronomy, education, and valour – and their habit of sacrificing fellow Gauls to gain their gods’ favour by using wicker men stuffed with live men and set on fire.

A 17th-century depiction of the Wicker Man, a Celtic practice alleged by Julius Caesar where victims are stuffed into a wicker effigy of a man and set alight.
Photograph by Fine Art Images, Heritage Images, Getty

Other Roman writers also fixated on the Druids’ love of blood and gore. Pliny the Elder wrote of the Druids’ appreciation for both mistletoe and human sacrifice. “To murder a man was to do the act of highest devoutness,” he wrote, “and to eat his flesh was to secure the highest blessings of health.” Tacitus even described a battle in Wales in which Druids “[covered] their altars with the blood of captives and [consulted] their deities through human entrails.”

The pagan practitioners presented an existential threat to the Romans, who feared Druid power over the Celtic communities that Rome had conquered. Classicist Jane Webster suggests the Druids’ apocalyptic visions and rites were seen as acts of resistance to Roman conquerors, who suppressed Druids and their rituals beginning with the reign of Augustus in 27 B.C.

Christianity began to make inroads into France and the British Isles in the first century A.D., and as the centuries progressed it papered over many Celtic traditions. But Druids continued to pop up in medieval literature, suggesting that the pagan priests later became healers and magicians. Yet, since we have no written accounts from the pre-Christian Celts, it’s virtually impossible to verify any historical claims about the Druids. Nonetheless, Druids have gone through several revivals over the millennia, including a Romantic-era resurgence and a 21st-century incarnation as Modern Druidism.

Though historians had come to dismiss Roman claims of the Druids’ supposedly brutal religious tradition as overblown, the controversy about their potentially gruesome rituals was raised again—literally—in 1984. That year, a peat cutter found human remains in Cheshire, England. This was no ordinary find: Lindow Man, as he became known, had been preserved in the bog for nearly 2,000 years, and had apparently become a bog body after suffering head blows and being stabbed and strangled before being left for dead in the bog. His stomach contained mistletoe pollen, which led to the contentious speculation that he was ritually sacrificed, perhaps by Druids, or that he was himself a Druid prince. (Watch archaeologists piece together the story of Lindow Man.)

It’s tempting to speculate about the true nature of the Druids, but since most of what is known about this ancient social class comes from secondary sources, it is impossible to verify most claims. Even the term seems to have been a blanket designation for scholars, philosophers, teachers, and holy men concerned with nature, justice and magic. And archaeology doesn’t have great answers, either. “Among archaeologists there is currently no consensus over how material evidence relates to the Druids even within the same country,” writes History Today’s Ronald Hutton. “Not a single artifact has been turned up anywhere which experts universally and unequivocally agree to be Druidic.” Then and now, the idea of Druids evokes both magic and mystery.

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