The Druids are mentioned in many narratives and tales, most of them tinged with mystery, magic and the supernatural.
The druids were the priestly and learned class of the Celtic people, who lived in western and central Europe. The religion of the Celts is often simply known as Druidism and most historians believe that Druidism emerged around 400 BC, but the truth is that the shamanistic principles that made up the druidic way of life is most likely much more ancient than that.
In the societal structure the Druids performed similar roles to priests in the past and today. They helped humans to communicate and interact with the gods and because of this they had great prestige and status in Celtic society and were considered to be, along with the noble class, part of the elite. Moreover they were also often seen as the keepers of ancient wisdom and esoteric knowledge that had been handed down for generations. In a nutshell the Druids were the prophets, wizards, healers, philosophers, bards and legal experts of the Celtic peoples.
Having that special position in Celtic society, the Druids were granted certain exemptions and rights within their society. While the Celts were a literate people, the Druids did not write down their beliefs and knowledge. All their lore and knowledge was passed down orally and they were renowned for their powers of recollection. Much of their ancient knowledge came from the Stone Age and was passed down in the form of verses, that were memorized by the Druids. They were also bards or poets. According to some Roman sources, Britain was the center of Druidism. It is also claimed that there were High Druids who commanded the order of druids. They were elected or else they won their position through battle. It is believed that many of them were women.
Druidism as religion
Druidism can be likened to a shamanistic religion and the religion was centred around communicating and influencing the world of the spirits. The Druids did this by performing rites and ceremonies in nature. It appears that they held that the natural world was the gateway to the spiritual world. Moreover, they also believed that many natural things such as the trees, springs, and groves had special powers. The Druids believed that by using these that they could obtain magical powers. Greek writers have left us descriptions of them performing elaborate ceremonies such as cutting mistletoe off sacred oak trees on moonlight nights. For example they would use the mistletoe to make a potion that was believed to cure infertility.
While the Greeks and the Romans considered the Celts to be little more than barbarians they had great respect for their religious figures the Druids. Because they were not only religious leaders and wise men but also philosophers. The Druidic religion taught the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul, and that the soul was immortal and that it continued to exist after a person died. For a period of time the soul went to the Otherworld. Here people were ageless and there was no time. Eventually the soul was reincarnated in another physical body. According to the beliefs of the times the Druids had the esoteric knowledge that could ensure that a person was reincarnated or went to the Otherworld. How they achieved this is unknown because their spiritual knowledge which was not written down, has been lost.
This belief in reincarnation was based on the idea that life and nature was a series of unending cycles. For this reason, they celebrated the solstices and the equinoxes.
The sacred number 3
The number 3 was sacred to the Druids as they believed that the universe was divided into three. They also honoured Trinities of Celtic gods as a result. They adopted the symbol of three connected spirals to demonstrate the three-fold nature of the world.
Druids and human sacrifices
Julius Caesar and other Roman writers claimed that the druids’ practiced human sacrifices. Caesar describes white robed Celtic priests as having men placed in giant figures made of wicker. (1) These were then set on fire and those trapped inside them were burned to death. This was done to appease the gods or win their favour. However, there are many who claim that the Druids never engaged in human sacrifices and that the Romans only spread these tales to discredit the Celtic learned men and women.
The Druids as magicians
The Druids were considered to be powerful magicians. It was believed that they could put spells on individuals and even entire armies. Moreover people also believed that they had the ability to change people into beasts. The spells of the Druids could literally halt two armies from fighting in a battle. In Early Irish Christian sources, the Druids are shown as having the power to change the weather and could hide in enchanted mists. Celtic society believed that enchanted words had a special power. Druids, who were often also bards used poems to curse individuals.
The prophecies of the Druids
The Celts valued the Druids ability to prophesy the future, they were a special group within the order and were known as Ovates. In an Irish source, there is a description of a Druid who was an oracle. When asked about the future he would wrap himself in the bloody hide of a newly slaughtered bull. He then retreated into the wilderness and would later return to give his prophecy.
The Druids secret knowledge
Because the Celts celebrated the forces of nature, the Druids knew a lot about the medicinal properties of plants. In Irish legends, badly wounded warriors were placed in herbal baths by Druids. They were immediately healed and could return to the battle. These wise men also knew how to concoct powerful potions and had a great deal of astronomical knowledge.
The end of the Druids
The Romans after they conquered Gaul (France) outlawed the Druids and they did the same after they had conquered England. The Druids were persecuted by the Romans’ but they continued to practice their beliefs. However, it was the arrival of Christianity which really led to the end of Druidism. In Ireland Christian saints such as St Patrick are believed to have fought with the Druids, according to the early Christian sources. The Saint was allegedly able to defeat the magic of the druids and this was a factor in the Christianization of Ireland. As countries such as England, Wales and Ireland became more Christian, the druids are believed to have all but have disappeared.
However, many believe that the bards in Ireland, Wales and elsewhere continued the tradition and even the beliefs of the Druids, into relatively modern times.
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