18th-century engraving reproducing a bas-relie...
18th-century engraving reproducing a bas-relief found at Autun, France, depicting “two druids” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Druids were Celtic pagan priests. Although much pseudo-history and quasi sacred lore can be found, in actual fact we don’t know too much about them because they were sworn to secrecy and not permitted to express their beliefs in writing. We do, however, have written accounts from indirect sources.

When in Gaul, the Roman leader Julius Caesar noted that the Druids worshipped gods, passed on their traditions to the young, practiced human sacrifice in oak groves and forbade certain people from attending sacrificial ceremonies. Because attendance at sacrificial ceremonies cemented one’s in-group status, those forbidden to attend were marginalized.

Caesar also says the Druids met annually at a location taken to be the center of Gaul. Like contemporary priests, they didn’t fight in wars nor pay taxes. The Roman writer Pliny (the Elder, 23-79 CE) wrote that, in addition to their priestly role, the Druids were seers, diviners and healers.

The ancient Roman senator and historian Tacitus (56–117 CE) mentions Druidic presence in Britain. The Druids served as officials at their allegedly bloody and frightening human sacrifices, the victims usually being criminals. Sometimes, however, innocent people were sacrificed in times of national calamity.

English: An 18th century engraving of a Celtic...
English: An 18th century engraving of a Celtic wicker man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caesar says that giant casings of intertwined branches held victims as they were burnt alive by the Druids. Humans and animals, alike, were used as burnt offerings for the gods. However, it’s been suggested that the Romans cited the Druidic practice of human sacrifice to undermine the Druid’s political power. The Romans, themselves, executed human beings for the apparent good of the State (in the form of scourging to the death or crucifixion) but human sacrifice to the gods was no longer practiced in the classical world.

Despite New Age philosophies based on the alleged teachings of the Druids, there is scant hard evidence that they possessed any detailed body of esoteric knowledge or, as S. G. F. Brandon puts it, “any subtle and sophisticated philosophy.” Brandon, in fact, suggests that the Druids were not unlike any other “barbarian priesthood.”¹  And there’s no visible evidence to link the Druids with Stonehenge, as suggested by the English writer John Aubrey in 1649 and by numerous TV specials and contemporary enthusiasts.

Through the fantasy literature of writers like J. J. R. Tolkien and Terry Brooks, the idea of the Druid-Sorcerer is firmly established as a kind of archetypal image depicting the powerful, brooding, wise and yet somewhat ambivalent magician. Not surprisingly,  Druids feature prominently in off- and online gaming.

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¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., “Celtic (Pagan) Religion” in A Dictionary of Comparative Religion: New York: Scribner, 1970, p. 180-184. By way of contrast, Neo-Druidism is a movement that, among other things, venerates nature.


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