Long-associated with the realms of myth and magic, the druids are considered by many to be one of the world’s great mysteries. But the little that we do know about these ancient people paints a very different picture to the one that pop culture would have us believe. Were they really the cloaked-and-hooded custodians of Stonehenge — or were they something else altogether?
Birth and rebirth
According to some, the druidic tradition began during the Paleolithic era, when early adherents used caves as the setting for rituals of rebirth. And these strange practices have been linked to monuments around the world, from the Neolithic tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, to ancient paintings daubed on the walls of caverns across Spain and France.
In reality, though, the earliest written accounts of the druids came many thousands of years later, in the fourth century B.C. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they weren’t practicing long before any of their beliefs were committed to paper. But unfortunately, it does make the early history of this group remarkably difficult to pin down.
Linguistically, at least, the roots of the druids are easier to trace. Believed to be derived from both the Gaulish word druides and the Latin druidae, the term is often translated as oak-knower in the early Celtic language. Today, the modern Gaelic druadh is used to denote a sorcerer or magician.
But who exactly were the druids? According to legend, they were the learned members of ancient Celtic society, part of the people who emerged in Europe and migrated west towards Britain and Ireland. There, they used their knowledge of astronomy to raise cosmically aligned monuments such as Newgrange and Stonehenge.
The earliest actual accounts, though, emerged much later, in the writings of ancient Greek scholars. And it took another 250 years before detailed descriptions of the druids began to take shape. Around 50 B.C., Julius Caesar, future leader of the Roman empire, penned a first-hand account of his experiences during the Gallic Wars.
With the intention of conquering Gaul, a region which incorporated parts of modern-day Italy, Germany, Belgium, and France, Caesar had marched westwards from Rome. But he was met with strong resistance from the native Celts. And among them, he encountered a class of people referred to as the druids.
Commentarii de Bello Gallico
According to a modern translation of Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the druids were the members of Celtic society who “engaged in things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, and interpret all matters of religion.” But their influence, he wrote, was not just limited to the spiritual sphere.
“If any crime has been perpetrated, if murder has been committed, if there be any dispute about an inheritance, if any about boundaries, these same persons decide how to settle it,” Caesar continued. “They decree rewards and punishments.” The Celtic people of Gaul, then, had their own legal system, with the druids fulfilling the role of judge.
According to Caesar, the druids operated a hierarchical system, with a leader appointed through either violence or democratic vote. And once a year, he wrote, they would meet in a region of Gaul close to the Seine River in what is now France. Britain, though, was the real seat of their power, and they would often travel there to study.
Learned by heart
Learning to be a druid, though, was not as simple as a mere conversion. In Caesar’s writings, he observed that the doctrine was never written down — which may explain the lack of documentation today. Instead, young initiates were expected to learn the beliefs and practices of their religion by rote.
Astronomy and cosmology
But what exactly were the tenets of this faith? According to Caesar, the druids believed in reincarnation, or that “souls do not perish, but after death pass from one to another.” And just as the legends tell us, they were interested in astronomy and cosmology, speculating on how the natural world related to the realms of the gods.
Crucially, Caesar also wrote of human sacrifice — a rather grim aspect of the druidic tradition that has been used as propaganda against them over the years. In his writings, the future emperor cited such rituals, claiming that they involved the burning of a criminal inside a wicker man. But was there any truth to these macabre accounts?
Here, the waters get muddied, as we only have the word of Caesar — a man who was actively trying to conquer the Celts — to go on. And he wasn’t exactly an unbiased observer. In fact, some historians have suggested that his descriptions of human sacrifice might have been part of an intentional campaign against the druids.
By painting the druids as barbaric, you see, Caesar would have been able to justify his conquest in the eyes of the Roman people. And he might not have been the only one to fall out with the Celts — and respond with gruesome tales of human sacrifice. Take, for example, the Roman scribe Cornelius Tacitus, who wrote an account of a rebellion in Britain in 60 A.D.
According to Tacitus, the Romans easily defeated the rogue druids who had risen against the empire. But in the process, they discovered relics that suggested grim sacrificial rites were taking place. One modern translation by William Jackson Brodribb and Alfred John Church recounts the scene in all its gory detail.
“A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed,” Tacitus wrote. “They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.” But might the Romans have simply been seeking to portray the druids in an unflattering light?
After all, there is no solid evidence to support the theory that the druids engaged in human sacrifice. And even though some archaeological discoveries, such as the 2,000-year-old Lindow Man, may show some signs of ritual abuse, historians are far from certain about the role of such practices in Celtic Britain.
Towards the beginning of the fourth century A.D., Emperor Constantine began to promote the Christian religion across the empire. And in Britain, people started to discard the nature-based beliefs of the native pagans and druids in favor of this new cult. But the old faiths were not eliminated altogether.
The Anglo-Saxon invasion
Although figures such as Saint Patrick sought to banish the druids from Britain, the old religions clung on. And when the Romans retreated in the fifth century A.D., the country was plunged into chaos. As waves of Anglo-Saxon invaders crossed the English Channel, the natives abandoned Christianity and reverted to their pagan ways.
Christianity in Britain
Eventually, though, missionaries brought Christianity back to Britain, and the beliefs of the druids and pagans began to fade. But rather than erase history completely, some monks actually sought to study these disappearing traditions. And in hagiographies and other documents, many of their laws and beliefs were recorded.
Sorcerers and wise men
According to archaeology professor Barry Cunliffe’s 2010 book Druids: A Very Short Introduction, druids could still be found in Ireland in the eighth century. But they no longer occupied a position of spiritual and legislative authority in Celtic society. Instead, they had been relegated to the role of sorcerer or wise man.
“Druids are now seen as the makers of love-potions and casters of spells but little else,” Cunliffe explained. “The mood is captured by one 8th-century hymn that asks for God’s protection from the spells of women, blacksmiths, and druids.” Similarly, up until the 13th century, the Welsh dryw were seen as prophets and bards.
The disappearance of the druids
By the ninth century, though, the druids had disappeared across much of Britain. And for almost 1,000 years, they remained largely forgotten. Because they left little in the way of archaeological artifacts — and scant written documentation — they soon became little more than legends, their true beliefs and practices lost to time.
Then, in the 18th century, druidism experienced something of a revival. Thanks to the research of antiquarian William Stukeley, who believed that the ancient Britons followed a monotheistic religion, the general public began to learn about this long-dead order. And before long, all manner of romantic notions had sprung up surrounding these ancient Celts.
Birth of a legend
By the 19th century, the druids had developed a formidable reputation as fierce warrior-priests who had defended their homeland from Roman occupation. And even though this idea has since been dismissed by scholars, it remains an integral part of Britain’s folk history. Meanwhile, authors and playwrights of the time began incorporating the legends into their work.
The druid revival
But this revival wasn’t limited to the passive interest of writers and scholars. In the 18th century, the Romanticism movement caught hold across Britain, championing the values and customs of bygone eras — including those of the ancient Celts. And as a result, a new cult of Neo-Druidism began to spread.
Rituals and beliefs
Due to the lack of historical records, of course, these new Druids had little knowledge of the practices and traditions of their forbears, who had disappeared a millennium ago. But that didn’t stop them from forming their own rituals and beliefs, inspired by the writings of self-proclaimed experts such as Stukeley.
The Ancient Order of Druids
In 1781 the Ancient Order of Druids was founded — an organization that remains active to this day. Inspired by elements of Freemasonry and the Celtic imagery espoused by the Romantic movement, it is recognized as the oldest society of its kind. But according to its members it is not a religious movement, focused instead on values such as philanthropy and friendship.
Later that century, the Welsh poet Iolo Morganwg declared himself the descendant of Iron-Age druids and began practicing rituals in public. And others soon followed in his footsteps, linking the movement with the rise of nationalism in Wales. Within 100 years, the seeds of this new religion had crossed the Atlantic and were taking root in North America as well.
Back in the 1720s Stukeley had been one of the first to link the druids with ancient stone circles such as Avebury and Stonehenge in southern England. And this idea was adopted by modern adherents to the religion, who began flocking to the monuments in their droves from the early 20th century onwards.
According to Neo-Druidic belief, Stonehenge was originally built as a place of worship, its stones aligned with sunrise at the summer solstice. In the past, it’s claimed, important rituals took place on this site — and those who follow the modern religion still assert a sense of spiritual ownership over the monument.
A counterculture icon
In 1905 the first mass initiation was held at Stonehenge. And from that point onwards, the monument found itself at the heart of the counterculture movement, attracting not just modern Druids but New-Age travelers, hippies, and pagans of every tradition. Its alleged significance to the ancient Celts, though, remained at the heart of its appeal.
Battle of the Beanfield
By the 1980s visitor numbers had soared, with tens of thousands of people flocking to celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge. And in response, the authorities attempted to restrict access to the site. Of course, the Neo-Druids and their associates were less than happy to be cut off from their place of worship, and violent confrontations ensued.
Eventually, several prominent Neo-Druids succeeded in securing access to Stonehenge on the grounds of religious freedom. And today, the monument is open to the public four days a year, including the summer and winter solstices and the spring and autumn equinoxes. At all other times, the stones can only be viewed from some distance away.
To many of those worshiping at Stonehenge today, they are continuing an ancient faith that has been practiced in the region for millennia. But most experts believe that their enthusiasm is somewhat misplaced. In fact, around the same time that the Neo-Druids first began making pilgrimages to the ancient monument, archaeologists were unearthing evidence that cast doubt on the supposed connection.
“It was a great, and potentially uncomfortable, irony that modern Druids had arrived at Stonehenge just as archaeologists were evicting ancient druids from it,” historian Ronald Hutton wrote in his 2009 book Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. In other words, archaeologists were quickly learning that the monument had no connection with the early religion at all.
Today, experts believe that Stonehenge dates from the Neolithic era — several millennia before the first written records of the druids emerged. And even if the religion did predate the earliest documentary evidence, it seems highly unlikely that it could have been around for such a long time. At least, not without leaving further archaeological artifacts or cultural legacies behind.
The druids, then, were almost certainly not responsible for building Stonehenge — despite the beliefs of those who claim to follow the religion today. In fact, we know little about the customs and practices of the ancient Celtic faith. And most rituals claiming to be druidic in origin are little more than modern inventions.
Lost to time
But if the druids were not the mysterious architects of Stonehenge, as many believe today, then who were they? Were they really a fearsome ancient people who practiced human sacrifice, or adherents of a more peaceful, nature-based faith? Although archaeologists and historians continue to study the scattered relics of this mysterious religion, the whole truth may well be lost to time.