Dispelling Some Myths: Druids
Updated: Jan 5
A while ago we were approached for help in promoting "Britannia", a British historical drama scheduled to air on Sky Atlantic on January 18th, 2018. Set in AD 43, the series follows "ancient Rome's conquest of the Celts in the British Isles - a mysterious land ruled by wild warrior women and powerful druids who can channel the powerful forces of the underworld." We were to be part of a short promotional film involving "a light-hearted meeting between modern day druids and a Roman re-enactor to resolve this "two thousand year feud". Sadly it did not come to fruition, but it got us thinking. Apart from the erroneous reference in the synopsis to "Celts" in Britain - the Britons were not "Celts" - and "wild warrior women" (two possible subjects for later), who were these druids of which they speak?
Druids were priests who carried out religious rituals in Iron Age Britain and France. So say the Romans who, having first visited and later conquered France and Britain, met "druids" and wrote about their beliefs and sacred rites. Although these writings may not always have been completely accurate, or indeed truthful, it does seem clear that the druids were an important group of people in many Iron Age societies.
Much is written by modern commentators emphasising druids as being some sort of superior class of priests, political advisers, teachers, healers and arbitrators among the Iron Age tribes. Yet little is really known about druidic influence, beliefs or rituals, including the importance of the iconic mistletoe. Archaeologists rarely find definitive evidence for priests in the Iron Age, but they often reveal evidence of religious rites and sacrifices. It is assumed many of these activities were carried out by the druids, but conclusive proof is scant.
There are no surviving images of druids, so can we say with any certainty what they looked like? Did they wear special clothes or did they simply adopt contemporary Iron Age fashion? Some archaeologists have argued that special head-dresses or crowns, such as that worn by the Deal Warrior, may have been worn by some priests or druids. Yet even this is supposition.
It is abundantly clear, however, that the modern druidic revival, which started in the 19th century, has no direct connection to the priestly class of the Iron Age. Many of the persistent popular ideas are based on misunderstandings and misconceptions of the scholars and amateurs enthusiasts of some 200 years ago. There is, for example, no link between the Iron Age druids and the people who built and worshipped at Stonehenge. This ancient Neolithic monument formed part of religious beliefs and practices that had ended long before the Iron Age - but try convincing self-styled modern "druids".
While the older myths have been superseded by later study and discoveries, the druids, as we understand them today, exist largely in the words of ancient Roman authors, especially Book VI of Caesar's "Commentaries on the Gallic War" (Commentarii de Bello Gallico). It is from such Romans that we "know" the druids used both animal and human sacrifice, and that many of their observances centred on Oak groves and water. Likewise, it is Roman historians who inform us that the Isle of Anglesey was a centre of druidic practice.
Complimentary or corroborating sources are suspiciously silent, however. Thus, in a rather ironic echo of their oral tradition, much of what is accepted as the truth about druids is little better than hearsay. The conclusive evidence stubbornly remains thin, but who knows what the science of archaeology may yet reveal.