The Oak and the Golden Sickle: The Druids of Celtic Britain


Entrance stone at Newgrange (Brugh na Bí³inne)-bequeathed, according to tradition, by the Daghdha to Aenghus. (Díºchas, The Heritage Service)

Iron clattering punctuates the otherwise silent night, the sounds of agitation echoes off the house's wooden and daub walls. The room, lit by a roasting hearth, was host to the leading echelons of the tribal elite. Clad in chainmail and the ornate helmets the Celts are known for, the men bicker and argue over the next course of action. As part of the minor nobility, your attendance was expected but not regarded with any particular importance, and your ability to steer the conversation meaningfully was likewise limited. Rather than letting this grate you, you feel relieved by the lack of responsibility and stand by the edges of the commotion. Even paying halfhearted attention, you pick up on some details of the note. Most of it was centered around the usual culprits for Celt's revenge, a stolen goat here and a kidnapped sow there. Concerningly, you hear mention of the Italian presence across the shore and rumors of ships being sighted beyond the mist-covered banks of the channel. You could not hear much, but it was the palatable dread of hushed tones and the concern-wracked faces of your otherwise brash kin that unsettled you the most.


Well into the night, the copious amount of mead had begun to make its presence known. The warrior caste was always known for its bravery but, unfortunately, not for its levelheadedness. As the night progressed, calls for action became accusations of cowardice, whereas suggestions of caution became condescending triads and implications of overcompensation. Seconds away from knives being drawn, a cold draft announces a new presence amongst the throng. In contrast to the mass of leather and iron that fills the rest of the room, this figure is gaunt and wizened. Clad only in bone white robes and the glimmering of an assortment of decorative metalwork, he did not invoke the physical ferocity aura that the armed nobility did. Looking towards your kin informed you otherwise, knives sheathed, and backs straightened, eyes very clearly fixed on the wisp-like figure. Youthful as you are, you still understand the aura of authority radiated by the visitor. He is a druid, wise beyond belief and master of rituals, and his words carried more weight than almost anyone else in the room.


What is known about the Druids?


The reconstruction above alludes to some of the details associated with the ancient druid caste of the Celtic people. Referred to in Classical texts to have donned white robes and ceremonial equipment, these practitioners are believed to have comprised the intelligentsia of ancient Celtic society. Some theories even allude to the possibility that they were the Celtic iteration of the Indo-European priestly class in the same way that the Brahmins of India are.


One of the most prevailing aspects of the analytic study of Druidism is the pervasive sense of mystery surrounding them. While being literate, the ancient Druids never wrote any texts that could serve as primary sources. Therefore, most of what we know about them comes from secondary sources, mainly the Romans who fought and eventually conquered the Celts; and the Greeks who had enduring trade relations northwards into Celtic France. Hence, relying on the perception of sources outside the Celts themselves, we need to know that it may have been propaganda or otherwise biased views. The Romans had a vested interest in delegitimizing the Celtic aristocracy and making them appear barbaric. In contrast, the Greeks mythologized the Druid caste similarly to Western Orientalism, where the lacuna of lived experience was filled with a fantasized and over-exoticized rendition of robed philosopher-mystics of the far North that read the stars and heal any wound with an extract from their sacred mistletoe.


So, what do we know (or at least think we do) about the Druids? In essence, most Greek and Roman sources were in agreement when they referred to the Druids as a mighty pillar in Celtic society. This power came with a very broad mandate of social responsibility, with Druids acting as judges, poets, priests, diplomats, and even the Classical equivalent to scientists.


Julius Caesar's memoirs of the Gallic Wars, an important but potentially biased source, described the Druids as responsible for the judiciary and ritual practices of the Celtic people while being exempt from military service and tribute. They also had the power to excommunicate tribespeople from religious festivals, a move that would more or less ostracize them from broader society. As mentioned before, druids were literate but did not write down their lore. Hence, initiates were required to memorize vast volumes of knowledge that would vary from legal protocol, ancient sagas, poems, incantations, rituals, astrology, and herbalism. Caesar himself remarked in his memoirs that it could take up to 20 years for an initiate to, for lack of a better term, graduate into being a druid and also referred to the aforementioned subjects with his memoirs stating that:

They hold various lectures and discussions on the stars and their movement, on the extent and geographical distribution of the earth, on the different branches of natural philosophy, and on many problems connected with religion. (De Bello Gallico, VI, 14)

In terms of metaphysics, the druids are believed to have subscribed to the Celtic belief in reincarnation. Greek sources such as Alexander of Miletus tended to compare the Celtic faith to Pythagoreanism. Caesar himself also alluded to this with his memoirs with a passage referring to the fact that:

With regard to their actual course of studies, the main object of all education is, in their opinion, to imbue their scholars with a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed. (De Bello Gallico, VI, 14)

The proliferation of this belief could clearly be seen reflected in the fighting style of their warriors. With Celts being renowned for fighting with such fanatism and almost suicidal courage, some even eschewing armor for sacred tattoos, they managed to earn the begrudging respect of the martial and disciplined Roman legions.


Blood and Oak: the rituals of Druids


One of the most stereotyped aspects of Druidic rituals was the belief that they sacrificed both animals and humans. This is attested consistently in both Greek and Roman records. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote:

These men predict the future by observing the flight and calls of birds and by the sacrifice of holy animals: all orders of society are in their power ... and in very important matters they prepare a human victim, plunging a dagger into his chest; by observing the way his limbs convulse as he falls and the gushing of his blood, they are able to read the future.

While it would be easy to write this off as cultural propaganda, there is a significant body of archeological evidence that the Iron Age Celts did practice some level of human sacrifice, with mass graves unearthed in Northern France seeming to attest to this. The claim is still under heavy contention in academia.


Another well-known rite associated with the druids is referred to as the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe. Mistletoe was seen as a sacred plant with extremely powerful medicinal properties even though it could be lethal if misused. Hence, according to Roman author Pliny the Elder:

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 a hard-timbered oak.... Mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon.... Hailing the moon in a native word that means 'healing all things,' they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. 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. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to a god to render his gift propitious to those on whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren and that it is an antidote to all poison. (Natural History XVI, 95)

Henri Paul Motte, Druids Cutting the Mistletoe on the Sixth Day of the Moon Date: circa 1890-1900

This single sourcing from Pliny has come to contribute much to what constitutes the stereotypical image of the druid in popular culture, mainly as wise older men armed with golden sickles who acted as intermediaries between the Celtic people and the Gods.


While the ancient druids were suppressed during the Roman conquest and eradicated more or less entirely due to the onset of Christianity. The memory of this caste of philosopher-priests has become a recognizable part of British identity and folklore. This is probably because the Celtic people endured more isolation on the British Isles, especially Ireland, than their tribal brethren in France. This has led to an interesting phenomenon wherein Druidic culture has tended to be revived even today.





Neo-Druidism and modern practice:


Modern druidic practice is deeply interesting from an anthropological point of view. Its foundation was laid by an 18th Century Romanticist movement that glorified the rustic and naturalistic Iron Age Celts. Further spurred on by the recent decline in traditional religion and the Climate Crisis, highlighting a need to reform our modern approach to the natural world. Neo-druidism (also known as Druidry) has come to form a growing movement in England. This being said, to refer to it as a single phenomenon does not illustrate the broad diversity of beliefs and approaches that can be labeled as Druidry. Some groups emphasize historical authenticity over eclecticism. Some draw significant influence from Freemasonry. Others believe that an individual approach towards the natural world is ideal, with dogma only forming an artificial layer between the self and nature. Given the recent birth of this quite literally grassroots movement, only time will tell what will become of the modern-day worshippers of Oak and Mistletoe.



King Arthur Pendragon, chieftain of the Council of British Druid Orders, at Stonehenge on the summer solstice. The former soldier and gardener fought for the right of people's access to Stonehenge on the solstice. Source: CountryFile


References:

  • Aldhouse-Green, Miranda (1997). Exploring the World of the Druids. London: Thames and Hudson.

  • Chadwick, Nora (1966). The Druids. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

  • Cunliffe, Barry (2005). Iron Age Communities in Britain: An account of England, Scotland, and Wales from the seventh century BC until the Roman Conquest (Fourth Edition). London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-56292-8.

  • Hutton, Ronald (1991). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-18946-7.

  • Hutton, Ronald (2007). The Druids. London: Hambledon Continuum.

  • Hutton, Ronald (2009). Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-14485-7.

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