What Is a Druid?
Diodorus Siculus Histories c.8 BCE
In ancient times a Druid was a philosopher, teacher, counsellor and magician, the word probably meaning ‘A Forest Sage’ or ‘Strong Seer’. In modern times, a Druid is someone who follows Druidry as their chosen spiritual path, or who has entered the Druid level of training in a Druid Order.
The reason we tend to visualise the Druid as an old man in our imagination is partly due, perhaps, to a realisation that by the time one has undertaken the training of Bard and Ovate one is bound to be ancient! We cannot be sure of the exact time it took, but Caesar mentions that some spent as long as twenty years in their education at Druid colleges. But this is really little different to the time young people now take to complete their education, and Caesar’s account is reminiscent of the situation of monastic schools in Europe and as far afield as Tibet, where young people would go or be sent for a complete education: free from the burden of taxation or military service and “instigated by such advantages, many resort to their school even of their own accord, whilst others are sent by their parents and relations.” Commentators point out that ‘twenty years’ could have been a figure of speech to denote a long duration of time, or that it might have actually been 19 years, since the Druids almost certainly used the Metonic Cycle, a method of reckoning based on the nineteen-year eclipse cycle.
If the Bard was the poet and musician, the preserver of lore, the inspirer and entertainer, and the Ovate was the doctor, detective, diviner and seer, what was the Druid? Their functions, simply stated, were to act as advisor to rulers, as judge, as teacher, and as an authority in matters of worship and ceremony. The picture this paints is of mature wisdom, of official position and privilege, and of roles which involved decision-making, direction and the imparting of knowledge and wise counsel.
We tend to think of the Druid as a sort of priest - but this is not borne out by the evidence. The classical texts refer to them more as philosophers than priests. At first this appears confusing since we know they presided at ceremonies, but if we understand that Druidry was a natural, earth religion as opposed to a revealed religion, such as Christianity or Islam, we can see that the Druids probably acted not as mediators of Divinity, but as directors of ritual, guiding and containing the rites.
In addition to this, we know that they fulfilled a number of other functions, which we shall now examine. Separating these out is for the sake of convenience only, for in reality the roles often merged and combined, as we realise when Caesar tells us "They have many discussions as touching the stars and their movement, the size of the universe and of the earth, the order of nature, the strength and the powers of the immortal gods, and hand down their lore to the young men." Here we see the Druids as scientists - as astronomers and mathematicians, as philosophers discussing the powers of the gods, and as teachers passing on their wisdom.
Druids as Judges
The Druids are considered the most just of men, and on this account they are entrusted with the decision, not only of the private disputes, but of the public disputes as well; so that, in former times, they even arbitrated cases of war and made the opponents stop when they were about to line up for battle, and the murder cases in particular were turned over to them for decision.
Caesar De Bello Gallico
It is natural that those people perceived as the wise elders of the community should be turned to for judgement and arbitration in times of dispute or when a crime has been committed, and some of the most interesting information about the ancient Druids can be found in the old Irish laws, known as the Brehon laws. Irish texts tell us that in 714 BCE the High King Ollamh Fódhla formalised the legal system by founding the Festival of Tara, at which every three years the laws already in existence were discussed and revised: and we know some of the names of the more prominent Druid judges of old, including a female judge named Brigh, a male judge named Finnchaemh, and Cennfaela, the Druid of King Cormac, who in the third century CE was said to be the most learned judge in Ireland. Peter Berresford Ellis, in his book The Druids, says: “the Irish system is the oldest surviving complete codified legal system in Europe with its roots in ancient Indo-European custom and not in Roman law, and is therefore the oldest surviving Celtic system of jurisprudence, and one in which the Druids are still mentioned.” Fortunately for us these laws have been recorded - set down in writing as early as the fifth century, according to some sources. Even as late as the seventeenth century some aspects of the Brehon code survived in Ireland, despite attempts by the English to suppress it. Charles Graves, the grandfather of Robert Graves whose book on Ogham The White Goddesswas seminal in the revival of interest in Goddess worship and Paganism, was an expert on Ogham and on Brehon law. He initiated a Royal Commission to transcribe and translate this treasure-trove of information, which was published in six volumes between 1865 and 1901.
Reading the Brehon laws today offers us an opportunity to enter into the minds of the early Druids – and to many peoples’ surprise, rather than discovering the beliefs of a primitive and savage people, we find a highly considered system that is mostly based upon ‘Restorative Justice’ – a concept that is found, for example, on the other side of the world amongst the Maoris of New Zealand . Restorative justice is concerned with compensation rather than revenge - the offender rather than simply being incarcerated is made to make good the damage or loss they have caused the victim. This picture was marred somewhat in Ireland by licence being given for vengeance killings, but these were allowed only in response to the murder of family members, and limits were exerted on retaliation. Undoubtedly we are seeing here an attempt to control situations that could so easily escalate.
As we would expect from Druid lawmakers, severe penalties resulted from the unlawful cutting down of trees, with important trees such as oak and yew being designated ‘Chieftain trees’ and carrying greater demands for compensation than ‘Peasant trees’. And when it came to marriage and divorce the Brehon laws were more humane than the later Christian laws. In the times of the ancient Druids, a woman could divorce a man for a number of reasons: if he was so obese he was unable to make love, for example, or if he preferred to sleep with men, if he beat her leaving visible marks, or if he spread malicious stories about her . Under the Christian post-Druidic law in Ireland, divorce was illegal until 1995 – even if a husband or wife was physically abusive.
The Brehon laws offer us the most complete view of the kind of society that the ancient Druids helped to guide and lead. We have information from Wales too, but the old Welsh laws known as the ‘Laws of Hywel Da’ were recorded much later than the Brehon laws and offer us less insight into the world of the Ancients.
Druids as Teachers
Caesar, De Bello Gallico
It is clear from both the classical and the Irish sources that one of the main functions of the Druid was as a teacher. This involved teaching at both an esoteric and an exoteric level. Caitlin Matthews offers the image of the Jewish rabbi to help us picture how a Druid might have lived and worked. She or he was: 'a man or woman of wisdom whose advice was sought on all matters of daily life, one who perhaps also fulfilled a craft, one who was married and had a family, one who brought the people together for common celebrations and whose word was law. Like the Hasidic rabbis who practised qabbala and were known as seers and wonder-workers, so too, the druid was a person of unusual skills. .... From the various Celtic accounts, we find that a druid usually had one or more students attached to his retinue or household. Again, to return to our Jewish parallel, a rabbi would often run a Talmudic school for anything from a handful to a number of students. Similarly, druidic students learned from their masters and mistresses.'
While some Druids may have simply had one or two students living with him, helping, presumably, with the household routine in return for training, others gathered around them sufficient numbers of disciples to form a veritable college of Druidry. In Ulster, for example, it is recorded that Cathbad, one of King Conchobar's Druids, was surrounded by a hundred students.
What would they have learned? Just as the monastic orders later became the centres of learning, the Druid colleges, large and small, were in charge of the whole spectrum of education from the teaching of general education to that of philosophy, from the teaching of law to the teaching of magic, from the teaching of healing skills to the teaching of the correct order of ceremonial.
We also know that Druids acted as tutors to the children of kings, queens and nobles, and that students would be sent from one Druid teacher to another to learn different skills. Caesar tells us that Druidry originated in Britain, and that students were sent from Gaul to Britain for training. They were sent to the fountainhead of Druid culture - to imbibe at its source: "It is believed that their rule of life was discovered in Britain and transferred thence to Gaul; and today those who would study the subject more accurately journey, as a rule, to Britain to learn it."
It is intriguing to think that the earliest recorded systems of education and law in Britain and Ireland are Druidic. When this is properly recognised, perhaps we will see the statue of a Druid outside the law courts in Dublin and London, and murals in schools or Departments of Education depicting Druids teaching within groves of trees.
Druids as Kings and Advisors to Kings & Queens
There is evidence that some kings were also Druids. The Druid Ailill Aulomon was King of Munster in the first century CE and it is recorded that three Druid-kings ruled in "the Isle of Thule" . Thule was the name given to Iceland, and here lies the fascinating possibility that Iceland was a kingdom once ruled by Druids - long before its Viking conquest. The official history of Iceland states that the first Norse colonisers, arriving in 874 CE found and drove away a few isolated Irish hermits, who had journeyed there via the Faroe Islands. But recent work on Icelandic blood-group types shows them to have a greater similarity to those of Ireland than of Scandinavia. This leads one to agree with those historians who claim that Iceland had in fact been colonised by the Celts long before the Vikings arrived. This claim gains further support when we learn that the only extant manuscript source of information that we have about the Nordic pagan cosmology, the Edda, was written in Iceland and not in Scandinavia. The manuscript looks remarkably like the early Irish manuscripts of the same period, and it is tempting to see the Vikings of Iceland being persuaded to record their cosmology by Irish Druids, or their descendants.
To return to Britain and Ireland, when Druids were not kings, they were advisors to kings, queens and chieftains, and were accorded such status that they were often the first to speak at official functions. At the court of Conchobar, King of Ulster, for example, no one had the right to speak before the Druid had spoken.
Druids as Scientists and Inventors
We know that the Druids concerned themselves with what we term today the sciences. To what degree their mathematics was numerology, their chemistry alchemy, their astronomy astrology, we will never know. But we do know that the building of the stone circles required sophisticated measuring, calculating and engineering skills, and that this same building depended upon a knowledge of the movement of the heavens to such a degree that the very earliest of proto-Druids were clearly skilled astronomers.
The work of John Michell, Sir Norman Lockyer, and Professors Hawkins and Thom amongst others shows us that these men were scientists indeed - creating giant astronomical computers in stone.
Some writers have even suggested that the Druids might have invented the telescope, basing this idea on the statement of Diodorus Siculus, who said that in an island west of Celtae the Druids brought the sun and moon near to them, and on the statement of Hecataeus who tells us that the Druids taught of the existence of lunar mountains.
Others have suggested that they discovered gunpowder, but like the Chinese, used it for special effects rather than warfare. John Smith in his Gallic Antiquities of 1780 wrote:
"Among the arcana of nature which our Druids were acquainted with, there are many presumptive, if not positive, proofs for placing the art of gunpowder, or artificial thunder and lightning; though like all other mysteries, they kept the invention of it a secret."
We have no hard historical evidence for this suggestion, but it is delightful to think that the Druid would amaze and entertain his entourage with fireworks, as does the Druidic figure of Gandalf in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
Druids as Alchemists and Metal-workers
While they may or may not have experimented with fireworks, they certainly worked with fire and with metals. And this work was undoubtedly alchemical. Since fire, like water, was and is considered sacred by all those with a spiritual understanding of the natural world, we can be sure that the Druids were masters and mistresses of fire. Their esoteric work with fire is a matter of inner knowledge - for it deals with their ability to relate to and work with the sacred fire within the body as well as within the grove. The fact that the Goddess Brighid is goddess of healing and poetry and both fire and water, provides us with the key to understanding the connection between the inspiration sought by the Bards, the healing developed by the Ovates and the alchemical work of inner healing and inspiration performed by the Druids. Contemplating this one idea reveals the depth of the Druid Mysteries, the nature of its teaching and its relevance for us today.
Metalworking in early societies was also considered a sacred art - for upon it depended the tribe's ability to defend itself and to gain food from the earth or from animals. The Welsh tradition states that a branch of Druids, known as the Pheryllt, worked as metallurgists and alchemists in the magical city of Emrys in Snowdonia. This 'ambrosial city' was also known as Dinas Affaraon, the 'city of the higher powers'.
The Druid as metalworker would have forged the swords for the warriors and nobles, which would have been imbued during their casting and annealing with magical spells designed to protect the bearer and ensure them victory.
The sword figures largely in the Druid mythos: It emerges out of the two fixed elements of water and earth in the Arthurian legend: being pulled out of stone by Arthur, and being raised mysteriously out of the Lake when needed. It is born in fire with the skill of the Druid-Alchemist, and it is raised in the air during the Order's Beltane ceremony, as the Sword-bearer cries: "Behold this sword Excalibur, which rose from the lake of still meditation and was returned to it again. The sword of spirit, of light and truth, is always sharp and always with us, if our lake be stilled." At a spiritual-psychological level, the sword represents the Will. When the Will is not aligned to our higher values and purpose it runs amok - and the sword becomes the weapon which maims and destroys. When it is aligned with higher purpose it becomes the sword of spirit - a representation of our ability to be spiritual warriors in a world filled with difficulties which require the warrior spirit to overcome them. In the Druid circle the sword is placed in the South, just as the wand is placed in the East, the cup of water in the West, and the stone in the North.
We can surmise too that the Druids as metalworkers would have cast the sacred cauldrons. Just as the sword represents the 'male' directive qualities of mind and spirit, so does the cauldron represent the 'female' inclusive qualities of heart and soul. And just as the sword figures largely in Druid ceremonial and mythology, so too does the cauldron - representing, at its roots, the origin of the grail symbol.
Druids as Peace Makers
Druids and the Druid philosophy have long been associated with the idea of Peace. Classical writers, such as Julius Caesar and Diodorus Siculus, spoke of the way in ancient times Druids were exempt from military service, and did not bear arms, and how they often pacified warring tribes, passing between the massed ranks of opposing forces urging peace:
‘For they generally settle all their disputes, both public and private… The Druids usually abstain from war, nor do they pay taxes together with the others; they have exemption from warfare.’(Caesar)
Today, every Druid ceremony begins with a call to Peace towards each of the Four Directions. The Druid performing this function faces North, South, West then East calling out “May there be Peace in The N/S/W/E” As they do this they feel peace emanating from the Druid circle out into each direction of the world. Finally all participants say “May there be Peace throughout the whole world.”
Druids in ancient times worked in Sacred Groves, and today they still do - whether these are physical ones, or whether these have been created in the Inner World through meditation. These groves are seen as places of peace and tranquility that radiate these qualities out to the world. Druids often sign their letters or messages ‘Yours in the Peace of the Grove’, and the Order has begun a programme of planting Peace Groves throughout the world, with the first ones planted in Jerusalem and Northern Ireland.
In the Order we often say this Peace Prayer in our ceremonies:
Deep within the still centre of my being
May I find peace.
Silently within the quiet of the Grove
May I share peace.
Gently (or powerfully) within the greater circle of humankind
May I radiate peace.
We also hold peace meditations on the day of each full moon, and a section of the Order’s website is now devoted to the subject, since war and conflict seem to have escalated so much at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Druids as Philosophers
Some say that the study of philosophy was of barbarian origin. For the Persians had their Magi, the Babylonians or the Assyrians the Chaldeans, the Indians their Gymnosophists, while the Kelts and the Galatae had seers called Druids….
Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers c.250 CE
We know a little of early Druid philosophy. A study of the old Irish and Welsh laws, developed by the Druids, can provide us with a glimpse into the ethical foundations of early Druid philosophy. In addition we can turn to the triads of Ireland and Wales, which – although often of disputed origin, and clearly influenced by Christianity – provide further material. The Classical writers say that Druid philosophy was influenced by Pythagoreanism, and if this is so, we can start to build a fairly comprehensive picture of the philosophy of these forest sages. But the picture does not stop there, because as we have seen in the earlier chapters, Druidry has grown and evolved constantly over the centuries – on its way absorbing or drawing on many influences. In the early days these came from Greece and Rome, and perhaps Egypt and India too. Later, during the Revival Period, the ideas of the Romantics found their way into modern Druidry.
In the early years of the twentieth century it adopted many of the ideas of the Western Mystery Tradition, which originated in Classical Greece, Babylonia and Ancient Egypt. And in addition, until the 1970s, Druidry was influenced by Universalism, which attempted to trace the universal themes in all religions. Theosophy was likewise driven by Universalist aspirations, and many Theosophists became interested in, and undoubtedly influenced, Druidism.
Into the historic picture we are building, we must add the most recent influences on the development of modern Druid philosophy. In the 1940’s and 50’s Ross Nichols became interested in the depth psychologies of Freud and Jung, and partly inspired by their insights, he saw in Druidry a way of helping modern humanity reconnect with Nature and the Gods. The problem of modern civilisation, as he saw it, was that humanity had become alienated from the land and the seasonal and agricultural cycles. In addition, an understanding of the value of mythology had been lost. As a result we had become alienated from the deepest and the highest sources of inspiration. This psychological perspective took into account our deepest needs, and in recent years Druidry, certainly as expressed within the teachings of the Order of Bards Ovates & Druids, has been clearly informed by it.
In addition, in the last decade or so, Druidry has been influenced by the ideas and philosophies of the holistic and environmental movements, so that alongside its preoccupations with the search for wisdom and union with Deity (who is seen as one with Nature) Druidry today is passionately concerned with protecting the natural world, and developing attitudes and lifestyles which promote living in harmony with Nature.
In contemporary Druidry, the tree which represents the Druid Grade is the Oak - the regal tree of wisdom and tradition - the primordial tree that has always been associated with both Druids and Nemeta (sing.Nemeton) - the oak groves where they gathered and taught. The East is the place of the Druid, for it is from the East that the sun rises and from which comes the illumination that all Druids seek. The times associated with the Druid Grade are noon and Summer - times of greatest brightness and growth.
The Druid as our Inner Sage
The Bard in their training has opened to the artist, the creative Self, that lives within them, the Ovate in their training has opened to the shaman who lives within - the one who can travel in the inner realms to explore the fluid nature of time, and the inner power of trees, herbs and animals. The Druid, in their training, opens to their inner Wise Person, the inner Sage who is Philosopher and Counsellor, who judges and discriminates and who teaches perhaps too.
It is helpful, when we consider these three stages or groupings, if we do not consider them as a hierarchy, a ladder we must climb in order to reach enlightenment or full empowerment, but rather as levels of deepening. There is a path, or journey, that can be taken from one grade to the next, but having reached the Druid Grade the journey can begin again - making it one that follows a spiral or circular path rather than a linear one. At the Druid level the injunction is given: Generate and Regenerate! To do this we must die, we must change. The Ovate experience is passed through - under the sign of the Yew we follow the injunction 'Die and be reborn!' Finally we reach the stage of the Bard and we are able to be creative, to be fully born in the world, to express our inherent divinity in word, song, art and music.
The three realms of Art, Nature and Philosophy are encompassed within the three divisions of the Druid Tradition. We are finally able to unite our artistic concerns with our environmental and spiritual concerns. The Bard, Ovate and Druid are one person standing on the earth - poet and shaman, healer and philosopher - spiritual and earthy.
We ourselves may well not yet be this 'Whole Person', able to encompass all these abilities and interests, but the Druid as a model is always there to encourage and guide us, to shine a light for us on a path that is not uniform and not pre-determined, but unique to us and built with our own experience and our own creative genius.
According to your belief and experience you will understand the image of the Druid as Inner Sage as a metaphor, as a cultural creation, as an archetype in our collective consciousness, or as an actual being or one of a host of beings who exist on the inner planes, and who are simply waiting for us to turn to them for guidance.
Adapted from Druid Mysteries by Philip Carr-Gomm
Explore the significance of the Druid seasonal celebrations
Explore the practice of meditation in Druidry and listen to sample meditations
Explore the significance of sacred animals in the Druid tradition