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The Druids

Of all aspects of the social and religious life of the Celts, one that has found itself shrouded in mystery and speculation is that of the Druids. The priestly class of the Celts, and their role in every day life, has become a matter of contention among scholars.

The druids carried out the religious functions of tribal life. They conducted the sacrifices, led the rites to the gods and goddesses, and upheld the teachings of the Celtic religions. But the druids were also philosophers, medical doctors, natural scientists, and judges.

Druids conducted schools, from which many people from outside the Celtic world studied, including many Greeks and Romans. Not only were the schools set up for the study of religion, but for the development of scientific study, law, and philosophic study. The course of study for druidic students was close to twenty years. Students came from all sections of Celtic society.

The basis of the word druid is one of controversy. Most likely, it came from the Celtic word for oak, dru, and was combined with the word wid, or knowledge, rendering a word literally meaning oak knowledge. The actual meaning was that it was someone whose knowledge was great. The oak was a tree that was very important in Celtic life, even to Christian times. The name Kildare, which was the site of both a druidic school and a Christian church, means the Church of the oak in Irish.

Druids, according to Julius Caesar, were trained in "international" law. The judgment of a Druid could stop a potential war between tribes, because the judgment and moral authority of the druid was greater than the tribal chieftain. The druids had the authority to render legal decisions, which were binding on all parties. They decided boundary disputes, inheritance questions, sentences for murder. If their decisions were not followed by one party or the other, then that person was excluded from the activities of the tribe and society. According to Caesar, "All people leave their company, avoid their presence and speech, lest they should be involved in some of the ill consequences of the situation. They can get no redress for injury, and hold no post of honor." Such acts of exclusion and shunning in a society noted for its interdependence on people could be close to a death sentence on such a person.

Druidic teachings held that the soul was immortal. There was no real difference between the world of the present and the afterlife. Druidic teachings had an influence on many of the Greek philosophers. However, one Greek writer claimed that the slave of Pythagoras, who also taught the immortality of the soul, went to the Celtic lands, and gave his teacher's philosophy to the druids.

The druids were physicians. They treated with both herbs and potions, and performed surgery. There are reports of Caesarian births among Celtic doctors, as well as the repairing of wounds by sewing them. Brain surgery has been reported; in fact, in a Brighton museum, there is a human skull that had two holes drilled into the top of the skull, and that it had healed. Each tribe had to maintain a hospital, which was staffed by the druids and their students.

The druids were also seers and practiced magic. The use of releasing hares and birds to predict the future was well known. The sacrifice of animals also provided the druids with visions of the future.

One of the aspects of the druids that was remarkable was that they were able to travel freely throughout all of Celtica. Although Caesar said that druidism came from the British Isles, there is evidence of druidic schools and sites even in Galatia, in Asia Minor. In fact, the international aspects of the druids led to all sorts of political scheming. The Greek city of Massila, (Marseilles), during the Roman campaigns of 197-6 BC, asked that the Celts in Gaul intercede with the Galatians to not provide mercenary troops for their opponents.

It was this widespread influence of the Druids that caused the Romans to try to eradicate them, either through legally banning their activities, or by physically murdering them. Augustus banned them in an attempt to keep them from fomenting revolt among the Celts of Gaul. The Roman Legion commander of Britain attacked the druidic center of Mona, at Anglesey, killing many of the druids in an unprovoked incident. Continental druids were also executed after their activities were banned by the Romans. This caused them to set up their practices in a less obvious manner. (Consider the plight of the Catholic priests in Ireland sixteen hundred years later.)

Druidic life would continue until the Christian church took over the religious life of the Celts. However, even then, the druids had a great influence on the Celtic Church. In some ways it was a continuation of the druidic style.

Burial Rites| Who Were the Celts?| La Tene|Halstaat
Burial Rites| TORCS| Hillforts and Oppida
Boudicca and the Romans| Druids||Social Classes
Terrifying Helmets|Arms And Weaponry|Gods and Goddesses
Were the Celts Illiterate?|European Celtic Place Names