Ancient Celtic Religion: What do we really know? Part IV

by: Jhenah Telyndru

This is part 4 of a 4 part series. The other sections included background and discussion on Celtic divinities, shrines and sacred places, the Celtic concept of the afterlife, the cult of the head, and the sacred year.

The Druids

The Druids were an elite class among the Celts, enjoying many privileges – such as exemption from taxes and from serving during war – and were accorded a great amount of respect and social power. They were priests and augurs, teachers and judges, transmitters of history, and holders of sacred memory. According to Caesar, it took 20 years to become a Druid of the highest order; all teachings were transmitted orally and committed to memory. Caesar wrote that Druidism originated in Britain and that those who sought the finest training in the discipline would travel there to study. The Druids held annual gatherings in Gaul at the sacred grove in the territory of the Carnutes tribe, the site upon which the famed Chartres Cathedral was built. Druids would gather here from all over the Celtic world, and from this center would mediate conflicts and set annual policies. [1]

Piggott notes that the most accepted etymology of the word  “druid” is that it comes from the Greek word “drus” meaning “oak”, as well as the Indo-European root word “*wid-“ meaning “to know.” [2] This seems fitting as the Druids were noted for their wisdom, and served as judges and arbitrators; they even had the ability to end conflicts by walking out onto the battlefield between warring factions:

Many times, for instance, when two armies approach each other in battle with swords drawn and spears thrust forward, these men step forth between them and cause them to cease, as though having cast a spell over certain kinds of wild beasts. In this way, even among the wildest barbarians, does passion give place before wisdom, and Ares stands in awe of the Muses.[3]

In many ways, the Druids were the primary unifying factor in the otherwise fiercely regional Celtic tribal landscape. They yielded vast power over the agricultural Celts, overseeing the festivals and appropriating the gods with ritual and sacrifices. Learned in astronomy, it is believed that the Coligny calendar is a reflection of Druidic knowledge, and that this lunar calendar – with its marked auspicious and inauspicious times – was a tool used to set the festival dates and influence the outcome of the harvest. Cunliffe describes Druidism as developing out of the changes to agriculture and the shift from the guiding Neolithic axis of solstices and summer/winter encampments, to seasonal lunar-based agricultural practice that came with permanent year-round settlements during the Iron Age. The Druids, therefore, may have integrated pre-Celtic native beliefs and traditions with the newer practices defined by people’s needs as settled agriculturalists, giving them a great deal of power of the socio-economic lives of the Celts.[4]

There was one Druid who held leadership over the entire order, and succession was determined by merit, not inheritance, showing that they valued achievement over bloodline – and that sometimes succession had to be determined by force of arms.[5] Both Classical and Irish vernacular sources tell us that women were Druids[6] and many Irish myths depict Druids that were married and who had children.[7]

Classical sources describe a tripartite division of this priestly caste.

… there are three sets of men who are held in exceptional honour; the Bards, the Vates and the Druids. The Bards are singers and poets; the Vates, diviners and natural philosophers; while the Druids, in addition to natural philosophy, study also moral philosophy.[8]

Combined with other accounts, we have a picture of the Druids as philosophers and judges, who oversaw ritual and arbitrated disputes. The Vates performed auguries both through interpreting natural occurrences, like the movements of birds, and by examining the entrails and death-throws of sacrifices, both animal and human. The Bards were the storytellers, historians, and satirists; they needed to memorize vast amounts of poetry and, accompanied by their harps, sang songs that served to praise great deeds or else memorialize the dead.[9] Significantly, these three divisions correspond to the Irish designations of Druid, filidh, and bard, indicating some continuity between the Roman accounts and the later Irish vernacular sources. Over time, the divisions of duties appear to become less discrete, and it may be that later Classical accounts of Druids referred to any Celtic priest or augur, and not one who held the specific role itself. Similarly, in Ireland, the Filidh replaced the bard and Druid in function, and were active in society until the 17th century.[10]

Sacrifices could only be performed by the Druids, and being barred from these sacrifices for criminal offenses was a very harsh punishment, as we have seen. The specter of human sacrifice looms large in any discussion of Druids, and while we can dismiss some of the Classical accounts as being result of anti-Druid propaganda, the archaeological record does appear to support some truth in some of these reports, although we cannot be sure how often human sacrifices were performed, and whether the victims went willingly.[11] Foundational deposits are a common element of Celtic architecture, but it is unknown of these bodies were deposited beneath protective walls and ditches after a natural death, as with the heads of the beloved dead brought back into the settlement, to guard over their families or if people were killed for the express purpose of supplicating the gods for their additional protection. Caesar’s vivid account of the infamous Wickermen was oft-repeated in the Classical world, but its ultimate veracity is unknown, nor do we know, if true, whether this was a practice of the insular Celts:

Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offense, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.[12]

The most famous and enduring vision of Druids comes to us from Pliny, reflecting the Greek aesthetic of seeing in the Druid their idealization of the “noble savage”

The Druids – that is what they call their magicians – hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is Valonia Oak…. Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon…. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and, with a golden sickle, cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak … They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poisons.[13]

Although Caesar was mostly clinical in his description of the Druids, his account still contains some observational bias, especially where he lingers on the barbarities of human sacrifice, and ascribes the desire to maintain power over the common people, whom Caesar describes as living as slaves, as the Druidic intention for forbidding their teachings to be set to writing.[14]  This Roman demonization of Druids reaches its apex with Lucan, who describes their holy groves as a place of “sacred rites of the Gods barbarous in their ceremonial, and elevations crowned with ruthless altars, and every tree was stained with human gore.” [15]

The Druids performed many of the tasks, which a centralized government would perform. They served as the administrative arm of the only true unifying structure of Celtic Britain, and this reality gave them a great deal of power. They comprised a learned elite upon which the mass populace was dependant for matters both spiritual and mundane; yet no matter how profane, an element of the religious was always present. The Druids, by existing outside of societal restrictions, could become involved with the maintenance of them[16]. Representative of this is the Druidic regulation of the great festivals and their accompanying communal exchange. The strength of the unifying bond of the Druids cannot be more profoundly illustrated then by looking at what was necessary to dissolve it.

During the Roman invasion of Britain in 61 B.C.E., the Roman Commander Paulinus and his troops hunted and slaughtered the Druids, tracking them down to their center on Anglesey to destroy them. [17]It may seem contradictory that the Romans would embrace Celtic gods and integrate their worship alongside their own divinities while simultaneously hunting down and eradicating the Druids. However, this makes perfect political sense. In general, the Romans were incredibly tolerant of the religions of the peoples they had conquered and the lands they had annexed, indeed, as we have seen, they often embraced aspects of local worship and adopted foreign gods as their own. It was only when native religions are used as a means to speak out against Roman rule that they were suppressed by the Romans. The Druids actively encouraged resistance to Rome, and as the only true unifying force of the scattered, and often warring Celtic tribes, they posed a great threat to Roman. The degree of their threat, and the fervor with which the Romans pursued them, is further indication of the socio-political power wielded by the Druids in Britain and Gaul.

As Ireland was never conquered by the Romans, we have an example of what may have happened had Druidism been allowed to follow its full course elsewhere in the Celtic world; they remained an important part of the culture until the coming of Christianity when they either were able to sublimate into the new order or be replaced by it entirely.[18]


In conclusion, while we cannot paint a clear picture of the religious beliefs of the ancient Celts, or know the details of the teachings of the Druids, we can cobble together what information we do have to speak in broad generalities. To do so, we must recognize the limitations of our sources – realizing that the archaeological record cannot address intention when it comes to prehistoric peoples, nor can we trust contemporary writings to be fully accurate and without bias or embellishment. Neither can we with certainty apply what is known from one Celtic region to the next, understanding that while there is a loose confederation of what constitutes Celtic culture, it is a mistake to paint these disparate people who existed through a wide distribution both of time and space as a monolithic entity with the same beliefs and practices; indeed, even their languages had evolved separately into distinct branches and dialects.

All of this said, it is clear that religion played an important role in Celtic life; everything from agriculture to warfare had a religious component. Religion had an impact on their socio-economic lives, and Celtic regionalism was overcome only through the institution of Druidism, which performed many of the activities usually reserved for a centralized government. In general, the Celts seemed to have had a fairly positive outlook both on life and the afterlife, believing they could influence and appease the gods and local spirits through votive offerings and sacrifices. They honored their dead, engaged in ritual burial behaviors, and sent their elite to the next world fully equipped to resume their activities and lifestyle. Indeed, their embrace of the Druidic teaching of the transmigration of the soul certainly seemed to embolden the Celts, who were accounted to be fierce warriors, undaunted by the thought of death. Their connection to nature is unsurprising for an agricultural people, and their preference for natural places of worship and veneration, in addition to a vast corpus of local divinities tied into the power of place paints a picture of a polytheistic and perhaps pantheistic people for whom the world of gods and spirits was always close at hand.


Primary Sources

The Mabinogion, translated by Sioned Davies, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn. Available at http://classics.mit.edu/Caesar/gallic.6.6.html <Accessed 3 January 2011>

Lucan, The Pharsalia, Translated by H.T. Riley (London:  Henry G. Bohn, Available at http://www.archive.org/stream/pharsaliaoflucan00lucaiala/pharsaliaoflucan00lucaiala_djvu.txt <Accessed 10 January 2011>

Siculus, Diodorus, The Library of History, Loeb Classical Library, Translated by C.H. Oldfather (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1967). Available at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/ home.html <Accessed 3 January 2011>

Strabo, Geography, Loeb Classical Library, Translated by H. L. Jones (Boston:Harvard University Press, 1923) Available at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Strabo/4D*.html <Accessed 5 January 2011>

Secondary Sources

Cunliffe, Barry, Druids: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Cunliffe, Barry, Iron Age Communities in Britain (Great Britain: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1975)

Ellis, Peter Berresford, The Druids (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995)

Green, Miranda, Celtic Myths (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993)

Green, Miranda, Celtic Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000)

Green, Miranda, The Gods of the Celts (Phoenix Mill, Sutton Publishing Ltd., 2004)

Green, Miranda, The World of the Druids (London, Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1997)

Hemming, Jessica, “Reflections on Rhiannon and the Horse Episodes in Pwyll”, Western Folklore, 7(1): (1998), 19 – 40.

Mac Cana, Proinsias, Celtic Mythology (London: Hamilin Publishing Group, 1970)

Piggott, Stuart, The Druids (New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 2003)

Ross, Anne, Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts (London: Batsford, Ltd,. 1970)

Ross, Anne,  Pagan Celtic Britain (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1996)

[1]               J. Caesar, The Gallic War, VI, XIV

[2]               S. Piggott, The Druids, p., 100

[3]               D. Siculus-Histories, IV, XXI

[4]               B. Cunliffe, Druids, p. 134

[5]               J. Caesar., The Gallic War, VI, XIII

[6]               M. Green, The World of the Druids, p. 101

[7]               Ibid., p. 128

[8]               Strabo, Geography, IV, IV

[9]               Diodorus Siculus, History, VI, XXXI

[10]             M. Green, The World of  the Druids, p. 124

[11]             Ibid., p. 76

[12]             J. Caesar, The Gallic War, VI, XVII

[13]             P. Berresford-Ellis, The Druids (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), p., 61

[14]             J. Caesar, The Gallic War, VI, XXIII – XIV

[15]             Lucan Pharsalia , III.399

[16]             S. Piggott, The Druids, p. 45

[17]             M. Green, The World of the Druids, p. 53

[18]             B. Cunliffe, Druids, p. 135

Similar Posts