The druid (plural: druids) is the dignitary belonging to a priestly ruling class, which was responsible, among the Celts of Gaul and the British Isles, for the performance of cult rites including human sacrifice, in the interpretation of omens, the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge, the presidency of religious assemblies, arbitration in controversies between tribes and the administration of civil and criminal justice (in particular in cases of murder).
The term “druid” probably derives from the word dru, that is “oak”.
The most common opinion is that the word derives from the union of two Celtic words: “duir”, which means oak, and “vir”, a word that means “wisdom”. Pliny gives us a first etymology of the word by linking it to the Greek root of the word oak, in the book that bears the title Natural History (Naturalis Historia XVI, 249-251). “Well, oak in Gallic is called dervo, daur in Gaelic, derw in Welsh.”
The word can only go back to an ancient Celtic druwides that can be decomposed into dru, an augmenting prefix of superlative value (which is also found in the French dru “thick”, “thick”, “strong”). This is not entirely unjustified, considering that the Celts of today’s France had intense cultural and commercial relations with the Greeks of the nearby Greek city of Massalia (today’s Marseille), and used the Greek alphabet to write (an aspect testified by Caesar in chapter 14 of the VI book of De bello Gallico). This led to suppose that druid- derived from the Greek drus, oak, and the Indo-European (and Greek) suffix -wid “to know”, “science”, so the overall meaning would be “those who know by means of the oak”, ” oak scholars “, (from a religious-symbolic point of view). The druids are described for the first time with precision in Cesare’s De bello gallico, to which most of the information in our possession is due.
Here is a piece of De bello gallico:
Original Latin version
“Druides a bello abesse consuerunt neque tributa una cum reliquis pendunt; militiae vacationem omniumque rerum habent immunitatem. Tantis excitati praemiis et sua sponte multi in disciplinam conveniunt et a parentibus propinquisque mittuntur. Magnum ibi numerum versuum ediscere dicuntur. Itaque annos nonnulli vicenos in disciplina permanent. Neque fas esse existimant ea litteris mandare, cum in reliquis fere rebus, publicis privatisque rationibus Graecis litteris utantur. Id mihi duabus de causis instituisse videntur, quod neque in vulgum disciplinam efferri velint neque eos, qui discunt, litteris confisos minus memoriae studere: quod fere plerisque accidit, ut praesidio litterarum diligentiam in perdiscendo ac memoriam remittant. In primis hoc volunt persuadere, non interire animas, sed ab aliis post mortem transire ad alios, atque hoc maxime ad virtutem excitari putant metu mortis neglecto. Multa praeterea de sideribus atque eorum motu, de mundi ac terrarum magnitudine, de rerum natura, de deorum immortalium vi ac potestate disputant et iuventuti tradunt.”
“Druids have a habit of staying away from war and do not pay taxes together with others, they are exempted from military service and any other service. Induced by such great privileges, both many spontaneously go to (their) school, both are sent by parents and relatives. It is said that there they memorize a large number of verses. Therefore some remain in the apprenticeship for twenty years. Nor do they estimate that it is legitimate to entrust that doctrine to writing, while in other things, in public accounts. and private, they use the Greek alphabet. It seems to me that they established this for two reasons: because they do not want that doctrine to be brought among the people nor those who learn it, trusting in writing, exercise less memory: because it happens almost to most, who with the help of writing neglect the will to learn and the memory. First they want to convince them of it, namely that the souls do not die but after death they pass from one to the other, and they think that this incites a great deal to value, eliminated any fear of death. They discuss many things, and pass on to the youth many news about the stars and their motion, about the greatness of the universe and the earth, about nature, about the power of the immortal gods and their powers.”
The druid was instructed during a long period of initiation, at the end of which he was consecrated; after the consecration he participated in the life of the community by sharing its occupations.
The functions of the Druid we know then to be multiple and not only priestly, of judge and adviser of the king, or of the chief clan and ambassador, but also if necessary warrior. However, he was basically a scholar-philosopher also versed in medicine, in his capacity as a scholar even of “medicine man” in the shamanic sense, great connoisseur of the healing powers of herbs and plants, skilled surgeon and curator of soul diseases. He was also a musician and we know that many prayer rituals or spells took place with the help of singing and dancing.
Obviously being the Druids the holders of knowledge, they were also teachers and educators and their students were not necessarily “aspiring” Druids but more generally those who aspired to knowledge.
Celtic priests knew the mysterious language of leaves, rocks, waters. Magicians and soothsayers learned their science in the heart of the forest, in the outdoor shrines called nemeton.
Augustus and his successors tried to fight them; but in Gaul and especially in Britain and Ireland they survived for centuries. In Ireland there were also druids.
Both were dedicated to prophesying the future based on the results of ritual sacrifices of humans and animals. Cesare himself refers to the so-called “Wicker Man”, or an enormous structure with a human shape, made precisely for the purpose of wicker, which was filled with people and then set it on fire. The calendar and the calculation of the time in general was also under the control of the Druids and was one of their main tasks.
What happened to the druids? Many of the reports end with the fateful massacre perpetrated by the Romans on the island of Anglesey, off the south-west coast of Wales. In 61 AD the Romans were completing the conquest of Wales, when they went to the strait of Menai meeting the resistance of a terrible enemy. The scene was recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus: “An enormous mass of warriors in arms was attested on the beach [of Anglesey]. Among them, carrying flaming torches, ran mourning women with disheveled hair like the Furies and all around stood the druids, who with their hands raised towards the sky launched terrible curses.”
The Roman general Pauline convinced his troops to advance without fear and the soldiers crossed the strait to Anglesey making a horrible massacre of the British. Druidism was banished by the Roman emperors, who apparently had something to disagree with regarding the practice of human sacrifices and the instrumental use of religion in “anti-Roman” function by noble Druids. Yet all this did not lead to the disappearance of this people. Even in Gaul references to the druid priestesses remain late, although the druids had ceased to exist as an organized priestly caste.
With the end of the threat of the Druids following the expansion of Christianity, these were first presented as malevolent figures and then ridiculed; presumably when they no longer represented an obstacle to the spread of the Church. In the eighteenth century the rebirth of Druidism, promoted by antiquarians such as William Stukeley (English antiquarian, physicist and Anglican priest. It was a significant influence on the subsequent development of archeology, paved the way for the academic investigation of prehistoric monuments such as that of Stonehenge) and by the Welsh nationalists eager to restore national pride, it happened only after a long period of time. The London Morning Chronicle recorded a folkloristic assembly of self-styled “Welsh bards” held on September 23 (autumn equinox) 1793 on Primrose Hill: “The usual ceremonies were celebrated; a circle of stones was prepared, at the center of which was placed the Maen Gorsedd (the stone-throne), or altar, on which a bared sword had been placed; all the bards did their utmost to put it in its sheath.”
The precise beginning of Druidism, the secret religion of the Celtic peoples, officiated precisely by the Druids, is unknown, but it is decidedly ancient. Some finds directly related to Druidism and Celtic culture are in fact dated as dating back more or less to 2400 years ago. Certainly there is that, despite the Roman conquests, ancient Druidism went on more or less until 1200 years ago, only to be gradually replaced by Christianity.
Nature was fundamental in the cultural and religious tradition of the Celtic populations. The Ogamic alphabet or Ogham craobh is the only original Celtic alphabet of which traces remain (about five hundred epigraphic inscriptions found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, dated between the fourth and seventh centuries). It was originally made up of 20 letters (five more were subsequently introduced to indicate particular diphthongs or vowel combinations), and each letter referred to a plant. What do you mean? Simple: each letter was named after a tree or shrub of which it was the initial.
Since Caesar recorded that the Druids refrained from the war and did not pay taxes, attracted by those privileges, many voluntarily joined the order or were sent by their families.