Historical evidence for the Druids
Druidism originated in Britain, sadly no written evidence remains in Britain regarding the Druids, being a predominantly oral people they did not write down rules or how-to's about the Druid culture or religion, it was passed by word of mouth down through the generations.
During the 1st Century AD we see the first instance of religious persecution against the Druids in Britain by the occupying forces of the Roman empire.
The Druids lived and ruled in Britain, Ireland and Gaul and flourished from the 4th Century BC to around the 2nd century AD when the Romans tried to eradicate them from the shores of Britain. The Druids passed on knowledge about their religion and culture orally, they didn’t leave artefacts and texts which is why a lot of modern traditions and practices attributed to Druids have no foundation in the original truth which had meaning and purpose and not just fanciful tradition.
When looking at Druid history we have to be careful to filter out the 16th and 17th Century revival into the romanticised view of Druidism, when people saw a mythical group of people and wanted to capture that in fanciful acts and personal escapism. Much like today, people are looking for something to escape to, a different life or world where everything seems to just work in a simplistic way, the troubles of modern society disappear if only for a while. So whenever you look into history you have to always look for the original texts and who wrote them and not rely on interpretations or rewritings of texts by people who had an axe to grind. Druidism wasn’t meaningless, it wasn’t a group of people who performed pointless ceremonies; it was a well instituted governing body of judges, healers, philosophers and motivators of a religious order.
While Druids themselves didn’t write anything down there are a few classical writers from the 1st Century BC to the 7th Century AD that did write about a group of people called the Druids. The first set of credible information comes from around 300BC from the journeys of a man called Pytheas.
Pytheas of Massalia was a Greek and it is said he was looking for the source of tin which was important for the Greek economy. He made a voyage of exploration to northwestern Europe in about 325 BC, but his account of it in a book called ‘On the Ocean’, known widely in Antiquity, has not survived and is now known only through the writings of others, like Timaeus, a Sicilian historian and Eratosthenes the chief librarian of Alexandria. On this voyage, he circumnavigated and visited a considerable part of modern-day Great Britain and Ireland.
From his writings we find the Druids were seen as natural philosophers, the writings focused on the intellectual properties of the Druids not the traditions or practices. The Greeks were very impressed and likened them to Pythagoras in nature because the Druids believed in the immortal soul and the transmigration of the soul.
Following this we need to look to Caesar, a Roman general who was in Gaul for 8 or 9 years and in the 6th book he wrote in some detail about the Druids as the Roman armies moved through Gaul into Britain. His writing digressed from the war memories to writing about the traditions and practices of the Druidic Gauls. There were only ‘two peoples of any account’ he wrote, only two groups that were of significant interest and they were the knights and the Druids. The Druids were reported to be in charge of all religious practices, they were judges, teachers, natural scientists and very influential in all political and religious matters.
Except from Caesar's writings - click HERE
Caesar was very impressed and interested with the Druids while he was in Gaul and understood the practice of oral traditions, giving two reasons for its use, the first being secrecy, to keep the knowledge to the few, and the second was to train memory. Caesar’s accounts can be given credence due to the number of people around him at the time who were writers of the day and linked to Rome. To make up stories would have put him in an unstable position with Rome, having no mandate from Rome to be in Gaul people could have used any falsehoods against him. Looking at the detail in which he wrote about the Druids they certainly caught his attention and interest.
It wasn’t until the Romans reached Britain that Caesar’s and the Romans view of the Druids changed and they were seen as being very nationalistic and pretty much in the way of the Roman conquest of Britain. The Druids didn’t want to become part of Rome. They had their kingdom and peoples and religion and were intelligent enough to see that Rome wanted to rule over them. Being in communication with Gaul they would have known in Britain what was coming. It is also said that the Druids in Gaul knew Latin and so could converse with the Romans.
Ultimately the Romans decided to get rid of the Druids and a great army of around 20,000 Roman soldiers drove the Druids to the Island of Anglesey which was seen as a Holy place. Tacitus, a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire wrote in detail about this battle and the near complete destruction of the Druids and how it was interrupted by word that in southern Britain Boudicca was raising Roman towns to the ground, aided by the fact that most of the Roman army was north attacking the Druids. It is held that this was no coincidence and Boudicca was actually a Druid herself.
Druidism as a religion and way of life was under threat from this date, around 60 AD onwards. The Romans made it illegal to be a Roman Citizen and a Druid, however many writers after this date still remembered Druids and wrote about Druid practices as if they were still taking place and also talked about them being monastic in nature, right up to the 4th Century AD.
The Druids continued in Ireland and small pockets of Wales, the Romans failing to completely wipe them out. In England too the Druids retreated to the woods but never disappeared completely, continuing to pass down the traditions and knowledge through word of mouth to the initiated and believers.
The Mysteries - Druidism, beyond the Hype
Druids believe that man can't live intelligently if he doesn’t have a fundamental knowledge of nature and her laws; the land that he inhabits has a purpose. Before man can obey, he must understand, and Druidic life is devoted to instructing man concerning the operation of divine law in the terrestrial sphere.
Few of the early beliefs actually worshiped anthropomorphic deities, although their symbolism might lead you to believe they did. Druids came from a more moralistic than religionistic; philosophic rather than theologic background, they taught man to use his faculties more intelligently, to be patient in the face of adversity, to be courageous when confronted with danger, to be true in the midst of temptation, and most of all to view a worthy life as the most acceptable sacrifice to the creator being, and his body as an alter to the deity.
Druids knew the weaknesses of man, that man looked for symbolism above meaning, mystery above truth and were happy to live in ignorance if that was easier. Part of the purpose of Druidry was to bring order, judiciary, medicine and peace in life and of mind through a spiritual awareness. Druids chose an oral tradition, the purest form of teaching as it didn’t lead to misinterpretation. Symbols and images couldn’t be revered above the truth that they represented. In spoken word, truth has life, in images truth is subject to change and corruption and over time reinvention.
Much of modern Druidry resembles the hippie movement and hasn’t much to do with the original priesthood of judges, healers, philosophers and motivators. It now bases it’s lifestyle in tradition and ceremonies of the 16th Century revived interest in the British mysteries and its prolific array of symbols and writings betrays its heritage in anything real, coming as it did from an oral culture. It also bases its spiritual centres on a man made stone circles rather than nature's natural provision of tree encircled groves and glades.