Druids and Their Place in Celtic Society
Christopher Gwinn - Used with Permission of Author
Part One : Classical Citations
[All quotes are taken from the translations presented in The Celtic Heroic Age, 1994, John T. Koch and John Carey. All notes are by Christopher Gwinn]Cicero [106-43 B.C.], De Divinatione, I.41.90.
"Nor is the practice of divination neglected even among the barbarian tribes, since indeed there are Druids in Gaul. Among these was Diuitiacus the Aeduan, your guest and eulogist, whom I knew personally. He claimed a knowledge of the natural world which the Greeks call physiologia, making predictions of the future, sometimes by augury, sometimes by conjecture."Notes: Diuitiacus is associated with functions that in other passages seem to be ascribed mainly to the Uates (ie - divination). It is interesting to note that the Romans themselves had a class of men called Uates - it is unsure whether their name and function were borrowed from Celtic society (the Latin people had long been in contact with Celts in Northern Italy) or that both Roman and Celtic Uates stem froma common Indo European source. Diodorus Siculus [c. 60-c. 30 B.C.], 5.28.
"[The Celts] do not fear death, but subscribe to the doctrine of Pythagoras that the human spirit is immortal and will enter a new body after a fixed number of years. For this reason some will cast letters to their relatives on funeral pyres, believing that the dead will be able to read them."
"[the Gauls] have lyrical poets called Bards who, accompanied by instruments resembling lyres, sing both praise and satire. They have highly-honored philosophers and theologians [those who speak about the gods] called Druids. They also make use of seers, who are greatly respected. These seers, having great authority, use auguries and sacrifices to foresee the future. When seeking knowledge of great importance, they use a strange and unbelievable method: they choose a person for death and stab him or her in the chest above the diaphragm. By the convulsion of the victim's limbs and spurting of blood, they foretell the future, trusting in this ancient method. They do not sacrifice or ask favours from the gods without a Druid present, as they believe sacrifice should be made only by those supposedly skilled in divine communication. Not only during peacetime but also in war, the Gauls obey with great care these Druids and singing poets, both friend and enemy alike. Often when two armies have come together with swords drawn these men have stepped between the battle-lines and stopped the conflict, as if they held wild animals spell-bound. Thus even among the most brutal barbarians angry passion yields to wisdom and Ares stands in awe of the Muses."
" It is fitting to their savage nature that they practice a particular impiety in their sacrifices: they keep criminals in custody for five years and then impale them in honour of their gods. They also construct enormous pyres and burn prisoners on them along with many first-fruits. They use war prisoners as sacrificial victims to honour their gods. Some even sacrifice the animals captured in war in addition to the human beings, or burn them in a pyre or kill them through some other means of torture."Notes: The "seers" mentioned above are the Uates - who are sometimes styled as a subset of the Druids. The Uates seem to hold more ritual-priestly functions in this account, with the Druids themselves having a more "village elder" aspect to them - perhaps much like a modern Muslim Cleric/Theocrat in Iran. Strabo [64/63 B.C.-c. 21 A.D.], Geography.
"As a rule, among the Gallic peoples three sets of men are honoured above all others: the Bards, the Uates, and the Druids. The Bards are singers and poets, the Uates overseers of sacred rites and philosophers of nature, and the Druids, besides being natural philosophers, practice moral philosophy as well. They are considered to be the most just and therefore are entrusted with settling both private and public disputes, so that in earlier times they even arbitrated wars and could keep those intending to draw themselves up for battle from so doing; and it was to these men most of all that cases involving murder had been entrusted for adjudication. And whenever there is a big yield from these cases, they believe that there will come a yield from the land too. Both these men and others aver that men's souls and the universe are imperishable, although both fire and water will at some times prevail over them."Notes: Once again, we see the Druids as "spiritual leaders" with the Uates functioning as the actual ritual-priest.
The last sentence reminds one of the Hindu cycle of Pralaya, symbolically in which the earth is constantly being desiccated and then burned by purifying fire whereupon the ash is overrun and soaked up by healing water which engenders a new cycle of existence. Such themes are at the heart of stories such as the birth and early deeds of the god Rudra as well as the eschatological battle sequence recounted in the great Hindu epic, the MahabharataJulius Caesar [c. 50-44 B.C.], De Bello Gallico 6.13-18.
"In all of Gaul there are two classes of men who are of some rank and honour... first the Druids and, second, the warriors with horses [Equites]. The Druids intervene in divine matters; they look after public and private sacrifices; they interpret religious matters: to them a great number of young men rush together for the sake of instruction, for the Druids are great in honour before them. For as a rule they settle all public and private disputes and, if some crime has been committed, or if a slaying done or if it concerns inheritance or a border dispute, the same Druids decide: they settle the compensation and punishment; if a private person or the public does not yield to their decision they are prohibited from sacrifices. This is among the most serious punishments. Of those who are prohibited in this fashion, they are held as godless and wicked and they are cut off from all. They are avoided in conversation and meeting, and from fear of moral infection they are not received, and penance does not restore their rights nor is any honour imparted. Moreover, of all the Druids one precedes who has the highest authority among them. When this one dies either the one who excels in dignity from the rest succeeds or if there are many who are suitable, by the vote of the Druids they contend for leadership, sometimes even contending with arms. At a certain time time of the year they sit down in a consecrated place in the territory of the Carnutes [modern Chartres] which region is believed to be the center of all Gaul. To this place all come from everywhere who have disputes and the Druids bring forth their resolutions and decisions. It is believed the training for Druids was discovered in Britain and from there it was transferred into Gaul. And now those who wish to learn the matter carefully depart for Britain for the sake of learning."
" The Druids retire from war nor are they accustomed to any taxes. They have immunity from military service and are exempt from all lawsuits. So greatly are the young men excited by these rewards that many assemble willingly in training and many others are sent by parents and relatives. They are said to commit to memory a great number of verses. And they remain some 20 years in training. Nor do they judge it to be allowed to entrust these things to writing although in nearly the rest of their affairs, and public and private transactions, Greek letters are used. It seems to me there are two reasons this has been established: neither do they wish the common people to pride themselves in the training nor those who learn to rely less on memory, since it happens to a large extent that individuals give up diligence in memory and thorough learning through the help of writing. "
"The foremost tenet of which they wish to convince is that the soul does not die but crosses over after death from one place to another and this they believe is the greatest incentive to bravery by disregarding the fear of death. Further, they debate concerning the heavens and their movement, concerning the size if the universe and the earth, the workings of nature, the strength and power of the immortal gods, and these things they hand down to the young men."
"All the people of Gaul are completely devoted to religion, and for this reason those who are greatly affected by diseases and in the dangers of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow to do so using the Druids as administrators of these sacrifices, since it is judged that unless for a man's life a man's life is given back, the will of the immortal gods cannot be placated. In public affairs they have instituted the same kind of sacrifice. Others have effigies of great size interwoven with twigs, the limbs of which are filled up with living people which are set on fire from below, and the people are are deprived of life surrounded by flames. It is judged that the punishment of those who participated in theft or brigandage or other crimes are most pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supplies of this kind fail, they even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent."
"The Gauls believe that they are all sprung from the same father, Dis, and they say this has been transmitted from the Druids. For this reason they define the space of time not by the number of days, but of nights. They observe birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in this way so that day follows night."Notes: In Caesar's account we see the Dumezilian Tri-functional system (With the Hindu caste system as a paradigm) alive in ancient Gaul - with the Druids matching the Hindu Brahmins, The Gaulish Equites matching the Kshatriyas, and the Plebes (whom Caesar says a little more than slaves in Gaul and are of no account) matching the Vaisyas. Here we also see the conflation of the functions of the Druids and the Uates - a likely indicator that the Uates were considered a subset of the Druids. The Druids are noted for being lawyers and judges as well as teachers and philosophers.
Caesar is interesting in that beyond being a successful general, he was a trained priest (Pontifex) in the Roman religion and thus had an accute eye for religious tradition amongst foreign peoples. This dispels the myth that Caesar only had a mind for military matters and cared or understood little of religious matters. In fact, Caesar was actually friendly with some pro-Roman Druids and likely had an opportunity to discuss their traditions with them.
Despite the fact that some of his information about the Druids may have come from earlier Greek sources, we need not discount all of his information as anti-Celtic propaganda. Enough people in the Roman Senate, including some of Caesar's enemies, were already quite familiar with Gaul anyway - had Caesar been stocking this report with too many lies, his opponents would have used it to discredit him. I believe that overall, we can accept most of Caesar's account as an accurate idea of what the Celtic priesthood looked like from utsider's eyes.Pliny [23/24-79 A.D.], Natural History, 30.13.
"The [Roman provinces of] Gaul also possessed [magic] down to the time of our memory. Thus it was during the reign of the emperor Tiberius that a decree was issued by the Senate against [the Gaul's] entire class of Druids, Uates, and physicians. Why do I comment on this craft that has spread beyond the ocean to the far reaches of the earth? Nowadays, Britain continues to be held spellbound by magic and conducts so much ritual that it would seem that it was Britain that had given magic to the Persians. Peoples of the whole world are alike in this way, though they are wholly ignorant of one another. Thus the debt to the Romans cannot be overestimated, for abolishing this abomination, in which slaying a man was deemed a most religious act and eating his flesh was truly thought most beneficial."
Notes: We see here more of the magical - or sorcerous - aspect of the Druids - or rather, in all probability, the Uates (whose very name is intimately bound with magical rites) which follows the Druids into the Christian period and lingers on in the imagination of the average person to this day. We also see the Druids connected with physicians - note that amongst many tribal people, physicians have a religious nature to them - thus our phrase "witch doctor" for traditional healers.
The Druids as a class were more likely banned because of the power they held over local politics. It was quite often the Druids who stoked the flames of revolution in post-conquest Gaul and Britain - thus the true need for Rome's suppression of them.Pomponius Mela [c. 37-c. 50 A.D.], De Situ Orbis.
"The vestiges of savage customs still remain in the drawing of a victim's blood while he is being led to the altar, though outright slaughter has been abolished. Still, they have their own eloquence and wise men called Druids. They [the Druids] claim to know the size of the Earth and cosmos, the movements of the heavens and stars, and the will of the gods. They teach, in caves or hidden groves, many things to the nobles in a course of instruction lasting up to twenty years. One of their doctrines has become commonly known to the populace so that warriors might fight more bravely, that the spirit is eternal and another life awaits the spirits of the dead. Thus they burn or bury articles useful in life with the dead. For this reason also, in past times, they would defer business and payment of debts to the next life. There were some who would even throw themselves willingly onto the funeral pyres of their relatives so that they might live with them still."Notes: Once again, the Druids are portrayed primarily as the teachers - and thus true moral leaders - of the nobility (Caesar's Equites) who were in charge of actually managing and defending the lives of the common man. Lucan [39-65 A.D.], Pharsalia.
"To your barbarous rites and sinister ceremonies,
O Druids, you have returned since weapons now lie still.
To you alone it is given to know the gods
and spirits of the sky, or perhaps not to know at all.
You dwell in the distant, dark, and hidden groves.
You say that shades of the dead do not seek
the silent land of Erebus or the pallid kingdom of Dis,
but that the same spirit controls the limbs in another realm.
Death, if what you say is true, is but a mid point of a long life."
It seems that the notion of another life after death seemed the defining aspect of Druidic teaching to most classical authors because of its foreigness to their own system of beliefs. Roman and Greek religion seemed to favora more murky otherworld where souls went to rest rather than the Celt-Germanic heaven of feasting and fighting in another realm.Suetonius [c. 69-c.140 A.D.], Claudius 25.
"Claudius destroyed the horrible and savage religion of the Druids among the Gauls, which had been forbidden to citizens under Augustus."Notes: certainly a dark time for the Druids - but they definitely were not completely destroyed. Their political clout may have been removed, but Druids are still mentioned - mainly in the context of being magicians or seers - for a few centuries more in Gaul and even longer in Britain and Ireland. In a similar manner, the pagan Irish class of Filid "seers/poets" (who occupy much the same position as the Uates in Gaul) survived the Christianization of the island and managed to stick around (under a Christian veil, of course) all the way into the English conquest of Ireland. Dion Chrysostom [2nd Century A.D.], Orations 49.
"The Persians have men known as Magi..., the Egyptians their holy men..., the Indians have their Brahmins. For their part, the Celts have men called Druids, who deal with prophecy and every division of wisdom. Even kings would not be so bold as to make a decision or take action without [the Druids'] counsel. Thus in reality it was [the Druids] who governed. The kings, who sat on golden thrones and lived luxuriously in their great residences, became mere agents of the decisions of the Druids."Notes: Druids as rulers of kings - thus we have a theocracy in Celtic countries, on par with the notion popular amongst the classical authors that the Celts were extremely religious and superstitious people. Diogenes Laeritus [3rd Century A.D.], Vitae.
"Some say that the study of philosophy first developed among the barbarians,. For the Persians had their Magi, the Babylonians or Assyrians their Chaldeans, the Indians their Gymnosophists, while the Celts and Galatae had those called Druids and Semnotheoi, according to Aristotle in the Magicus and Sotion in the 23rd book of his Successions."
"Those who believe philosophy arose among the barbarians explain the teachings of each group. They say the Gymnosophists [of India] and Druids instruct by means of riddles, urging worship of the gods, abstinence from evil, and the practice of manly virtue."Notes: The last sentence gives us another Dumezilian tri-functional aspect of Druidism - confirmation of their inherent Indo European nature.
1st function - Worship of the gods [Priestly domain].
2nd function - abstinence of evil [warrior's domain - in other words, do no harm].
3rd function - manly virtue [laborer's function - ie, be hospitable, generous and virile].
"The Druids recount that part of the population of Gaul was indigenous, but that some of the people immigrated there from outlying islands and the lands beyond the Rhine, driven out by frequent wars and violent floods from the sea."
"Throughout these regions, as people gradually became more civilized, study of praiseworthy doctrines grew, introduced by the Bards, Euhages [read "Uates"], and Druids. The Bards sang the praiseworthy deeds of famous men to the melodious strains of the lyre. The [Uates] endeavoured to explain the sublime mysteries of nature. Between them were the Druids, an intimate fellowship of a greater ability who followed the doctrine of Pythagoras. They rose above the rest by seeking the unseen, making little of human mortality as they believed in the immortality of the soul."Notes: here we see the Uates as more philosophical and the Druids as more occult. Ausonius [c. 395 A.D.], Commem. Professorum, 4.7-10.
"You are sprung from the Druids of Bayeux,
if the report does not lie.
To you is a sacred lineage,
from the temple of Belenus."
"Nor will I forget
The old man named Phoebicus,
who though servant of Belenus
received no profit thereby sprung,
it is said, from the Druids of Armorica [Brittany],
he received a chair at Bordeaux
through the help of his son."
copyright 1999 by Christopher Gwinn