Prize Lecture on Druidism (1829)

By J. Whitehead, N. A. of Lodge No. 135, Glodwick near Oldham.

Read before a Delegate Meeting, held at Middleton Sept. 20th. 1829 

It must be obvious to every enquiring and intelligent mind, that the description of a people such as the Druids were on the invasion of the Romans must be an arduous task; it being involved in fable and obscurity, as they never committed any thing to writing. I shall in the following lecture confine myself to facts as they are related by the best historians, and divide the subject into the following heads or divisions.


FIRSTLY . . . . On the Etymology of the word Druid.

SECONDLY . . . . Their origin and settlement in Britain.

THIRDLY . . . . Their learning and religion.

FOURTHLY . . . . Their authority, influence and decline.

LASTLY. . . . On the Druids of the present day.

Some authors derive the word Druid from the Hebrew derussim or drussim, which they translate contemplators.  Pliny, Salmasius, Vigenere and others derive the name from egus, oak: on account of their inhabiting, or at least frequenting, and teaching in forests, under the oak.  Picard in his Celtopedia, believes the name to have arisen from druis or dryius their leader, the forth or fifth king of the Gauls, and father of Saron ; Menage derives the word from the old British drus, a magician. Becanus takes druis to be an old Celtic or German word formed from trowis or truis, a doctor of the truth; in which etymology Vossius acquiesces.  Macpherson derives the word from the Teutonic word drnthin, a servant of the truth, Borel deduces it from the Saxon dry magician; or rather from the old British word dru or deru, which signifies an oak, and is the most probable supposition.  This last derivation is supported by a passage in Diodorus Siculus, who says they were called Saronidae from Egos, the Greek name of oak, this last is also countenanced by the Druids of the present day.

SECONDLY - According to some authors the Druids were a tribe of the ancient Celts or Celtae, who Herodotus says migrated from the Danube, towards the more westerly parts of Europe, and settled in Gaul and Britain at a very early period; they trace their origin as well at that of the Celts, to the Gomerians or the descendants of Gomer, the eldest son of Japhet; but little is known of them before the time of Caesar; it is supposed that their principles and ceremonies originated in Britain, from whence they were transferred to Gaul; as such of the Gauls as were desirous of being instructed in the principles of their religion, usually took a journey into Britain for that purpose, the British Druids were at this time famous both at home and abroad, as is acknowledge by all historians; they were esteemed both as teachers of religion and philosophy, but it has been disputed whether they were the original inventors of the systems and opinions which they taught; some have imagined that the colony of Phocacans, which left Greece and built Marseilles in Gaul(B.C.539) imported the first principles of learning and philosophy.  From Strabo and Marcellinus we learn, that this famous colony contributed not a little to the improvement of that part of Gaul where it settled; but still there is good reason to believe that the substance of their doctrines was their own, some say that they derived their doctrines for Pythagoras, who published his doctrines in Italy.  Borlace suggests that Pythagoras perhaps learned and adopted some of their opinions, whilst he imparted to them some of his discoveries, for it is certain that they bear a great resemblance to each other.

How widely the Druids were dispersed through Britain and the adjacent isles does not appear, but it is well known that their chief settlement was in the Isle of Anglesea, the ancient Mona, which they probably selected because it abounded with spacious groves of their favourite tree the oak; living a kind of monastic life, and united together in fraternities as Marcellinus expresses it.

The service of each temple required a considerable number of them, and all these lived together near the temple where they served; the Arch-druid of Britain is supposed to have resided in the said island, of Anglesea where he lived in great splendour.

In Rowland’s Mona Antiquities it is asserted that the vestiges of the Arch-druid’s palaces, and of the houses of the attendant druids are still visible: several of the Druids lived in the courts of Princes, and families of great men, to perform the various duties of their functions, for no act of religion could be performed without them, either in temples or in private houses; some retired from the world and lived as hermits to acquire a greater reputation for sanctity; in Scotland there are still remaining the foundations of small circular houses, capable of containing only one person, which Martin in his description of the Western Isles says are called by the people of the country Druid’s houses.

In the Perth Courier about two months since, there was a particular description of some druidical remains newly discovered in Glenalmond and Glenshee, (two of the wildest passes in the Grampians) and two cairns says the same paper were lately opened on the farm of Corylea, on the estate of Captain Robertson of Tullybelton; in the first were three large upright stones, four feet high  neatly joined together , in the centre was a circle formed of upright stones, three feet width inches high :- in the other stood a large stone, seven feet in length four in breadth, and three feet thick, on which was cut a representation of the Sun, Moon and Stars; the writer of the account went several times to the place, and noted his observations with great care; if his description of the engraving on one of the stones be correct, the discovery may be considered as one of the most interesting that has yet been made in druidical antiquities.

I now come to treat of the learning, religion &c. of the Druids, but will first speak on their classes and graduations:- some have divided them into five classes or branches, vix: the Vacerri, Bardi, Eubages, Semnothii  and Saronidae, but Strabo only distinguishes three kinds Druids, Bards and Eubathes or Faids.

The DRUIDS were by far the most numerous class, they performed all the offices of religion.  The  BARDS were a class into which all the disciples were initiated, in the first instance; it was a kind of privileged national college of the britons.  The FAIDS were such of the bards as devoted themselves to particular arts or sciences, Mavor in his Universal History Vol. 19, page 11, says “each of the three orders wore an appropriate dress that or the Druids white, as an emblem of purity: that of the Bard was in general of sky blue colour, emblematic of the light of truth, and tranquillity: the faids green denoting that the knowledge of terrestrial things was the object of their pursuit.”

Diogenes Laertius assures us that the Druids were the same among the ancient Britons, as the Sophi among the Greeks, the Magi of the Persians, the Gymnosophists and Brachmins of the Indians, and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians.

As the Druids studiously concealed their opinions and principals form the world, neither the Greeks, nor the Romans could obtain a knowledge of their systems either of religion or philosophy: on this account we find few remains of them in the works of the ancients, therefore when the living repositories of these doctrines were destroyed, they were irrecoverably lost.

Cicero informs us that he was personally acquainted with a Gallic Druid of the name of Diviaticus, who professed to have a thorough knowledge of the laws of nature.

According to some authors, they had disquisitions and disputations in their schools concerning the form and magnitude of the universe, and hidden things of nature; they agreed with many philosophers of other nations as to the origin of the universe, on two principals: - the one intelligent and omnipotent, which was God:- the other inactive and inanimate, which was matter.

Most authors conclude that they believed the earth to be made of a spherical form, as a circle was the favourite figure of the Druids, their houses and temples being built of that form.  Astronomy was one of their chief studies, and Caesar says they had many diquistions concerning the heavenly bodies and their motions; and Meal says they were pretenders to the knowledge of Astrology.

The Sun and Moon were the great objects of their adoration, and consequently attracted their frequent attention, some suppose that they had instruments to answer the purpose of telescopes; but this may probably be only conjecture: they might perhaps have predicted eclipses in a vague and uncertain manner, as modern astronomers predict the return of comets.

According to some authors they understood Arithmetic and Geometry; all their precepts were communicated to their pupils in verse as being more easily committed to memory and retained, Caesar says that they understood writing, and in all their public and private transactions made use of the Greek letters, this is very probable, else why the strictness of their law that no one should commit their principles to writing? Medicine was a particular object of attention among the Druids, they being the physicians, as well as priests, both of Gaul and Britain*, they were said to be well skilled in Anatomy, but in this went so far beyond reason and humanity as to dissect living subjects; one of their doctors called Herophilus is said to have read lectures on the bodies of more than 700 living men, to show the wonders of the humane frame, (Borlace) Pliny says that the mistletoe of the oak was a universal panacea for all diseases, the manner of cutting which he describes as follows; when any of it is discovered, they go with great pomp and ceremony on a certain day to gather it, when the have got every thing ready under the Oak, both for the sacrifice and the banquet which they make on this great festival; they begin by tying two white bulls to it by the horns, then one of Druids clothed in white mounts the tree, and with a knife of gold cuts the mistletoe, which is received in a white sagum; this done they proceed to their sacrifices and feastings.  The hedge hyssop or selago resembling savin was a certain remedy for all disorders in the eyes, but its efficacy much depended on their superstitious method of gathering it, samona or marshwort was always esteemed for its sanative qualities, Pliny says they were well skilled in pharmacy without which indeed they could not have carried on their practice of physic; Mela says they were very studious of the noble art of Rhetoric, and were great masters and teachers of eloquence, this they had many opportunities exercising, whilst teaching their pupils in their schools, in public discussions on religion and morality, in pleading causes in the courts of justice, in the councils of the nation at the head of armies going to engage in battle, and in the endeavours to restore peace; indeed their authority and eloquence was such, that when hostile armies were just commencing an engagement with swords drawn and spears extended; they have stepped between them and prevented the shedding of blood, and prevailed upon them to sheath their swords (Diodorus Sic)  The academies of the Druids as well as their temples, were situated in the deepest recesses of woods and forests, because such situations were best adapted to study and contemplation, and most suited to that profound secrecy with which they teach their pupils, and to keep their doctrines from the knowledge of others, where they had a temple that required any number of Druids to officiate; the generally had a school, in which the most learned was appointed to teach.  The principal academy was in the isle of Anglesea, near the Arch Druid’s palace, who had the direction in matters of learning as well as religion.  The Druidical course of learning, comprehending the whole circle of sciences then taught is said to have consisted of about 20 000 verses, and to have taken the pupil in many cases 20 years to commit them to memory.  When they were admitted into these academies, they were bound by a solemn oath that they would never revel the mysteries which they should there learn; indeed they were forbidden to converse with any other person until they were regularly dismissed.

The doctrines of the Druids were much the same with those of other priests of antiquity , and are supposed to have flowed by different streams of tradition, from the instructions which the sons of Noah gave to their descendants.  They taught the doctrine of one God the creator and governor of the universe, and Caesar informs us that they taught many things about his nature and perfections, they believed in the immortality of the soul, and its transmigrations into other bodies; they delivered their public lectures in verse, from small eminences (many of which still remain), they warmly exorted their auditors to abstain from doing injury to one another, and to fight valiantly in defence of their country.

The sun moon and stars which at first were regarded with veneration, as the most lively emblems, and glorious works of the Deity were gradually adored as gods, and had temples dedicated to them; their worship was expressed in four different ways, and consisted of songs of praise and thanksgivings, prayers and supplications, offerings and sacrifices; with respect to the later I studiously forbear to mention what nearly all historians say of them, wishing to cast an impenetrable veil over this part of their history, and if it were possible blot it from every record in existence, as derogatory to the name of Briton.

Pliny speaking of one of their religious ceremonies says, “that this was always observed on the sixth day of the moon, a day so much esteemed among them that they have made their months, years and even ages consisting of but 30 years, to take their beginning from it ; the reason of their choosing that day is because the moon is by that time grown strong enough, though not arrived at half its fullness.” Midsummer day and the first of November were annual festivals, the one to implore a blessing upon their fields, and the other to return thanks for the favourable seasons and fruits of the earth ; they generally performed their rites in the thickest forest under their favourite tree the oak, for which they had a superstitious veneration ; “the Druids says Pliny have so high a veneration for the oak, that they do not perform the least religious ceremony without being adorned with garlands of its leaves ; they believe that every thing that grows upon that tree comes from heaven ; and that God hath chosen it above all others.” They were considered even as representatives of their gods, and emblems of unshaken firmness and stability ; as Lucan describes them in his Druidical Grove,

“Strong knotted trunks of oaks stood near,
And artless emblems of their gods appear”

FOURTHLY – The Druids were the most distinguished order among the Gauls and Britons, they were generally chosen from the best families, and on that account joined with their functions they were looked upon with the highest veneration among the people, they possessed the whole authority of making, explaining, and executing the laws ; they were not considered as the decrees of their princes, but as the commands of their Gods ; and the violations of them were not considered as crimes against the prince, or state ; but as sins against Heaven, for which the Druids alone had a right to take vengeance “All controversies,” says Caesar, “both public and private, are determined by the Druids,” as says also Strabo, and De Bell.  Their sentence of excommunication was so awful, that the persons against whom it was fulminated, were held in universal detestation as impious and abominable.

Rowland in his Mona Antiquities, describes the vestiges of the grand assize which was held in the Isle of Anglesea, it was at the end of the township of Fe’r Dryw, a large theatre of earth or stones, raised up a great height, resembling a horse shoe, opening directly to the west; this was the supreme or royal tribunal. The Druids were exempt from taxes and military services, yet they constantly attended the armies, and to them it belonged, independently of the kings, to punish or imprison any of the soldiers; nor could the prices give battle until the priests had declared the time favourable.  They derived considerable profits from the administration of justices, the practice of physic, and teaching the sciences, and it is said that the islands of Anglesea, Man and Harris were their exclusive property.  We are informed, that annual dues were collected from each family; they were commanded, under the dreadful penalty of excommunication, to extinguish their fires on the last evening of October, and to attend at the temple with their annual tribute; and on the first of November to receive some of the sacred fire to re-kindle theirs.  By this device they were obliged to pay or be deprived of fire during the winter, as no one durst supply them with any, or even converse with them.

The Romans, on their invasion of Britain, found that they could not establish themselves without destroying the authority of the Druids ; with this view they obliged their subjects to build temples, to erect statues, and to offer sacrifices after the Roman manner ; and deprived the Druids of all authority in civil matters, and shewed them no mercy when found transgressing the laws, or concerned in revolt. By these means the authority of the Druids was brought very low.  The British princes did not tamely submit themselves to the Roman yolk, but joined to resist the common danger, under the command of Caswallon, the chief of the counties of Essex and Middlesex.  After several severe conflicts the Britons were compelled to submit to the fortune of Caesar.  About the year A. D. 43, the Britons again flew to arms, under their celebrated leader Caractacus, who maintained an obstinate resistance until he was taken prisoner on the banks of the Severs, by Ostorius.  The island of Anglesea was still a retreat for the Britons, there being a great number of Druids on that island ; but in the year 59, in the reign of Nero, Paulinus Suetonius, then governor of Britain penetrated into the island, and in a bloody and decisive battle, in which 80,000 Britons are supposed to have fallen, ended the struggle for ever.  This is the last story we read of the Druids of antiquity; but the title Bard has descended down nearly to our present time, amongst the clans of Scotland, and other nations.

I have dwelt so long on the foregoing parts of my subject, that I must endeavour to be as brief as possible in this last part of it which is on the Druids of the present time.  In the whole catalogue of virtues, there is perhaps none that so enobles the mind, and gives such pleasure to the heart as Charity.  The breast devoid of this is a stranger to all the finest feelings of the heart, what can give more exquisite delight, than to assist a suffering fellow creature through the innumerable difficulties of life to which morality is subject, any project or design that has this for its object must be good and deserve the praises and approbation of the wise and virtuous, to this end, were the present lodges of Druids established. Druidism was revived about the year 1782 by a number of intelligent men, who formed themselves into a society for the philanthropic purpose of assisting in various ways each other, their principles were formed on the strictest morality ; rejecting the superstition and absurdities of the ancients they agreed to imitate their virtues : to live together as did the Druids of antiquity in the strictest friendship and brotherly love ; to comfort and assist each other in the time of sickness and distress, not to wrong nor see each other wronged, and like them also to keep the knowledge of their mysteries with the same strict propriety for the rest of the world, the number of Lodges at present is upwards of 140 situated in various parts of the Kingdom ; governed by a Grand Lodge, which sanctions the others with its dispensations ; thus unitedly acting together, in a systematic and constitutional community, its purport is to promote the happiness and social enjoyment of its members, to advance as much as possible the virtues of public and private life ; to improve and make each other more useful members of society in general, and to afford amusement such as the present for the hours of relaxation.  The learning wisdom and remains of the Druids deserve our particular attention, veneration and respect, and the attempt to bring to light as many of the records of our country in which they were the most prominent characters, is certainly praise worthy ; this is one purpose for which the present society of Druids was formed.

At the meetings of the various Lodges which regularly take place, Religion and Politics (those themes for never ending disagreement) are strictly forbidden to be introduced by any member; a small monthly contribution is paid to assist any member in times of sickness or distress; and each strives to make the few hours which they spend together, to pass in rational and intellectual amusements, this has a tendency to awaken all the finest feelings of friendship and philanthropy of which the heart is susceptible, and to fit man to associate with his fellow man.

Often I have witnesses at meetings which I have attended, that the poorest and lowest individual has given his last mite to some benevolent fund to relieve a distressed brother, his own circumstances at the time perhaps calling for the same relief : this is what may in truth be called true philanthropy and brotherly love, this is the long sought treasure friendship.

Concerning the Laws of the present Druids, nothing need be written as they are well known to all the members, to whom this is addressed.  I shall therefore conclude with my warmest wishes to every member of this order, and may no diversions or dissentions creep in among us, but may we all meet in unity, friendship and love, and when our meetings in this life are no more may we all meet together in the presence of the great Arch Druid of the universe, and each receive the acceptable welcome of “well done thou good and faithful servant enter thou into the joys of thy lord.”

* It appears that Druids were no contemptible botanists, we are told that they collected plants and used them as medicines for all disorders