Did modern Druids become Pagans, or did modern Pagans become Druids? A little of both, possibly. The last part of the twentieth century has seen Paganism expand beyond Wicca to include a number of nature-based beliefs and practices as well as the reimagining of the religions of our ancestors. Some Pagans work within both traditions, that being Paganism and Druidry and merge their belief systems and create their own group. For others, Druidry that was a perfect fit. As Europe began to emerge from the Middle Ages, people looked back to antiquity to answer the universal questions of “who are we?” and “where did we come from?” For many people, this meant looking back to the Greeks and Romans. But in Britain this also meant looking back to the Druids.
While there were ample written accounts of the Greek and Roman lifestyle, there was virtually nothing written from pre-Roman Britain. As Hutton (2009) points out, this made the Druids a blank slate that could be imagined many ways, from bloodthirsty savages to peaceful nature worshippers to wise sages. Today, when most of us think of the Druids, we think of Stonehenge and the celebrations that take place during various times of the year. In Druidry, there are no sacred scriptures, nor one single God or pantheon, but is a polytheistic faith, within which any deity or any concept of deity, together with their priests, devotees and philosophers can be honoured (Restall Orr, 1998).
Although very little is known about the original Celtic Druids, we do know it was an oral tradition celebrated mainly in nature. The Druids themselves seem to have combined the roles of spiritual leader, seer, healer, philosopher and lawgiver.
Hutton (2009) has stated that the origins of the word “Druid” was used by the Celtic-speaking inhabitants of northwestern Europe to describe the spiritual leaders and anybody who had or understood supernatural powers; while according to MacCulloch (1911), its meaning probably implies that the Druid was regarded as “the knowing one.” The origins of the word itself, however, are still debated and so are the details of who they are and where they came from.
The practices of Druidry were first noted in two Greek works in around 200 BCE but have since been lost. Because not much has been known about them, we must rely on later writings of two different groups of sources, along with Celtic mythology, and folklore, as well as archaeological and comparative anthropological evidence. Roman and Greek historians have acknowledged that they were masters of philosophy and of religious matters. They were also renowned for their astronomical knowledge and for their healing abilities. They wrote that Druids performed animal sacrifices and even more grisly ritual, human sacrifices and believed in reincarnation.
Hutton (2009) has found that depending on origins of the writer, they would write about the Druids in three very different ways. The Greeks tended to write about them as great philosophers and scientists worthy of admiration. Whereas, Romans portrayed them as bloodthirsty barbarian priests, who lacked culture, and were cruel and ignorant. They were no doubt heavily biased due to the facts that the Gallic Celts invaded Rome in 390 BCE. Yet others, such as Caesar, suggested that they were both. It’s impossible to know who is closest to the truth, but it appears that the further away from the Druids an ancient author lived, the nicer he tended to think they were. Those who lived closer to Druids may have had a more realistic view of their brutality, because they’ve either lived through it or have seen it (Hutton, 2009).
The only one of these writers who could have encountered the Druids personally was Julius Caesar, who conquered Gaul (present day France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Belgium, and the Rhineland in Germany, as well as Northern Italy) for the Roman Empire in around 54 BC and was one of the few who actually knew a Druid, that being the tribal chief Divitiacus. According to Caesar, there were two groups of men in Gaul that were held in high esteem, the Druids and the noblemen. He say’s of the Druids “the former are engaged in things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, and interpret all matters of religion. To these a large number of the young men resort for the purpose of instruction, and they [the Druids] are in great honour among them” (Caesar The Gallic War VI.13-14). He also wrote that Druidism originated in Britain, and although some claim that Druids could be found across much of Europe, from Ireland in the west to Anatolia (now Turkey) in the east, scholars now believe this is unlikely. Instead Druids were probably native just to the British Isles, Ireland and Gaul. With Caesar’s accounts, we learn much information about the Druids in addition to a wealth of knowledge about Celtic customs and traditions, and the social structures within Celtic society. Much of his narrative concerns the people of Gaul, who were culturally identical to the inhabitants of Britain, so nearly all that he wrote of Gallic druidism may be equally applied to druidism in Britain (Hutton, 2009).
The second group of sources consists of portions of medieval Irish literature. Irish texts were written, and perhaps composed, hundreds of years after the conversion of the Irish to Christianity when Druids had by definition ceased to exist. As the Irish had no form of writing before Christianization they would have been dependent on oral tradition for information on their pagan past yet we have no idea of how accurate that was (Hutton, 2009). When the Celtics colonized Ireland in around 500 BC, they brought with them their religion of Druidism and their community structure, which was grounded in a strong tradition of storytelling, magic, naturalism, and poetry. Even after literacy was available to them, The Celts did not write down their druidic practices. This has made their religious beliefs hard to determine. The Irish manuscripts, written by Christian monks from that time and onwards, had numerous references to Druids in them (Carr-Gromm, 2006). As might be expected from devout Christian scribes, the beliefs and magic of the Druids were seen as inferior to the new Christian faith. But because of those Christian clerics, we have records of the ancient laws of Ireland, which they transcribed from oral communication, which were probably developed by the Druids since they fulfilled the role of judges. Furthermore, we now have accounts of the mythology and stories of Ireland and Wales, which modern Druids believe contain much of Druid wisdom and teachings (Johnson-Sheehan & Lynch, 2007).
The practice of Druidry was replaced with Christianity by the seventh century, and even though little is known about these ancient sages, groups in Britain who were inspired by the idea of the Druids began to form in the early eighteenth century. In parts of Wales and Ireland, and possibly in the Scottish Highlands, fragments of the Druidic beliefs and practices as well as the peasant folk customs, especially the seasonal celebrations inspired the return of Druidry. Scholars in Britain, France and Germany became engrossed in the subject, and continue to this day by a rapidly growing number of people around the world who are inspired by the tradition, rituals and teachings that have evolved over the last two and a half centuries. They draw upon mythology and folklore and origins, which lie in the pre-Christian era.
The archaeological findings from the past have not been substantial. It’s been discovered that about 6,500 years ago people were starting to build stone monuments in Western Europe, particularly in Ireland, the British Isles, and in Brittany. Many people believe that the Druids constructed Stonehenge, the complex of standing stones in South Central England. The construction of Stonehenge began around 3500 BC and to this day, many aspects of Stonehenge remain subject to debate (Hutton, 2009). Experts have yet been able to ascertain who built Stonehenge, however, radiocarbon dating in the mid-twentieth century has indicated that Stonehenge stood more than 1000 years before the Celts inhabited the region; therefore the ancient Druids had no hand in it (History.com).
The Ancient Order of Druids was founded in London in 1781 to preserve and practise and main principles attributed to the early Druids, particularly those of justice, generosity and friendship. In 1912 a group of radical socialists formed the Druidic Order of the Universal Bond to campaign for peace and fellowship between the world’s different religious faiths as well as social justice. These were the individuals who held public ceremonies at Stonehenge at the summer solstice until 1985 and still do so during the seasonal changes (Hutton, 2009).
Today, Druidry is more of a spiritual path, a religion to some and simply a way of life to others. Druids share a belief in the fundamentally spiritual nature of life. Some will favour a particular way of understanding the source of this spiritual nature, and may chose to be animists, pantheists, polytheists, monotheists or duotheists. Others will avoid choosing any one conception of Deity, believing that by its very nature this is unknowable by the mind (Carr-Gromm, 2006). A Druid now is just as likely to be a woman as a man, and may come from any social, religious or educational background, may have any economic status, be of any sexuality and any race or nationality.
According to Carr-Gromm (2006) his view is that the practice of Druidry is rooted in a love of the Earth and all the seasons. Communing with nature means learning to grow, to trust and to hear the response of the earth. Star and stone lore, plant, animal and tree lore all form part of the curriculum of the Druid in training, and part of the heritage that Druidry brings to the world. Druids believe in the power of Awen, which is the internalization of love, joy and inspiration, and combined with scholarship and science, Druid teachings and practice grows and develops as humanity evolves and changes.
However, there are many other approaches to Druidry, which differ in many ways. If you are interested in learning more about other contemporary approaches of Druidry, I recommend that you have a look at the following groups: The Ancient and Archaeological Order of Druids (AODA), Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship (ADF), Keltrian Druidism, Celtic Reconstructionism, and many more.
Carr-Gomm, Philip. 2006. What Do Druids Believe? Granta, UK
“Druid.” Encyclopædia Britannica (September 2014): Research Starters, EBSCOhost (accessed April 10, 2015).
Gaius Julius Caesar, translated from Latin by H.J. Edwards. 1917. The Gallic War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Greenwood, Susan. 2011. The illustrated history of magic and witchcraft. A study of pagan belief and practice around the world, from the first shamans to modern witches and wizards, in 530 images. Leicestershire: Lorenzo Books
Hutton, Ronald. “Under the Spell of the Druids.” History Today 59, no. 5 (May 2009): 14-20.
Johnson-Sheehan, Richard, and Paul Lynch. “Rhetoric of Myth, Magic, and Conversion: A Prolegomena to Ancient Irish Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review 26, no. 3 (2007): 233-52.
MacCullogh, John. 1911. The Religion of the Ancient Celts. Edinburgh: T & T Clark
Restall Orr, Emma. 1998. Principles of Druidry. Thorsons: HarperCollins
Sabrina. 2001. Exploring Wicca : The Beliefs, Rites, and Rituals of the Wiccan Religion. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books