AskDefine | Define druid

Dictionary Definition

druid n : a pre-Christian priest among the Celts of ancient Gaul and Britain and Ireland

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. One of an order of priests which in ancient times existed among certain branches of the Celtic race, especially among the Gauls and Britons.


an order of priests



  • lang=ga|[d̪ˠɾˠɪdʲ]

Etymology 1

From truit < < ; cf. Latin turdus, German Drossel, and thrush.


  1. starling

Etymology 2

From druitid, possibly related to Welsh drws.


  1. to close

Extensive Definition

A druid was a member of the priestly and learned class in the ancient Celtic societies of Western Europe, Britain and Ireland. They were suppressed by the Roman government and, later, the arrival of Christianity. Druids combined the duties of priest, arbitrator, healer, scholar, and magistrate. Despite neo-druidic believers, it is unknown whether or not women were historically allowed to serve as druids. Evidence both for and to the contrary is cited by writers of the neo-druid revival.


The earliest records of the name druidae (Δρυΐδαι) is found in the works of Greek writers such as Sotion of Alexandria, who was cited by Diogenes Laertius in the third century CE.
The Celtic communities Druids served were polytheistic. They also show signs of animism, in their reverence for various aspects of the natural world, such as the land, sea and sky, and their veneration of other aspects of nature, such as sacred trees and groves (the oak and hazel were particularly revered), tops of hills, streams, lakes and plants such as the mistletoe. Fire was regarded as a symbol of several divinities and was associated with cleansing. Purported ritual killing and human sacrifice were aspects of druidic culture that shocked classical writers.
The druids looked for omens in the shapes of the clouds, and sought "signs and seasons" in the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. Their calendar year was governed by the lunar, solar, vegetative and herding cycles.
The four main Gaelic holidays observed by Gaelic druids and their people included
  • Imbolg (February 1), which marked the earliest signs of the coming spring
  • Beltain (May 1), a time of community gatherings and moving of the herds to summer pastures
  • Lughnasadh to celebrate the ripening of first fruits and the many-skilled deity Lugh
  • Samhain to recognize the end of harvest, the time of sacrifice, and the lowering of the barrier between the world of the living and that of the dead
The timing for these four festivals was determined by seasonal changes in the natural world, or possibly by combined lunar and solar calendar. In modern times, remnants of these festivals are still observed by the descendants of the ancient Celts, though often in a Christianised or secular manner.
Modern attempts at reconstructing, reinventing or reimagining the practices of the druids are called Neo-druidism.


The etymology given by the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.), based on Pokorny's Indo-germanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, is as follows: "druid" comes to English from Latin druides (), which is the same as the term used by Ancient Greek writers, the first to discuss the Celts: Δρυίδης (Druides). This is associated via folk etymology with "drus" (δρύς, pronounced [drys], meaning "oak tree") and -ides (-ιδης meaning "the son of" (as per Aristides)). The Latin and Greek terms trace via Proto-Celtic *druwid (also reconstructed as *druwis and *druwids) to the Proto-Indo-European roots *deru- and *weid-.
  • deru- is reconstructed as meaning "to be firm, solid, steadfast". Thus, the word acquired specialised senses meaning "tree", "wood", and things made from, or analogised to, trees and wood. Modern words in English that trace to *deru include: tree, truce, true/truth, troth/betroth, trust, tryst, tray, trough, trim, tar, durum, duress, endure, drupe, dryad, dendrite, philodendron, and deodar.
  • weid- is reconstructed as meaning "to see" and, by extension and figurative use, also refers to seers, wisdom, and knowledge - especially secret knowledge or wisdom that requires a kind of deeper sight (or "second sight") to ascertain. Modern English words that trace to *weid include: twit, guide, guise, wise/wisdom, wit, witenagemot (the "wit" portion), kaleidoscope (the "eid" portion), view, visa, visage, vision, review, revise, improvise, supervise, history/story, and veda.
Greek and Latin druides bear comparison with Old Irish druídecht (/), which yields Modern Irish draoiocht (/), "magic." The Welsh dryw (/drɨu/), "seer", may be cognate.
The Modern Irish for druid is drúa (/'druːə/), from Old Irish druí (/druiː/); which also produced Irish draoi (/'driː/), "magician" and Modern Gaelic druidh (/drij/), meaning "enchanter" and draoidh (/drɯːj/), "magician."


From what little we know of late druidic practices, it appears deeply traditional and conservative, in the sense that druids were conserving repositories of culture and lore for their communities. It is impossible now to judge whether this continuity had deep historical roots and originated in the social transformations of the late La Tène culture, or whether there had been a discontinuity and then a religious innovation.
Greek and Roman writers on the Celts commonly made at least passing reference to druids, though before Caesar's report merely as "barbarian philosophers"; They were not concerned with ethnology or comparative religion and consequently our historical knowledge of druids is very limited. Druidic lore consisted of a large number of verses learned by heart, and Caesar remarked that twenty years were required to complete the course of study. There was a very advanced druidic teaching centre on Anglesey (Ynys Môn), an island off the northwest coast of Wales. Druids are said to have journeyed there from all over Europe to learn their secrets, but what was taught there, or at other centres, is conjecture. Of the druids' oral literature (sacred songs, formulas for prayers and incantations, rules of divination and magic) not one certifiably ancient verse is known to have survived, even in translation, nor is there a legend that can be called "purely" druidic, without a Roman and/or Christian overlay or interpretation. Surviving folklore in the modern Celtic nations and the Celtic diaspora embodies similar themes and practices; however there is no way to trace the origins of these practices or customs conclusively to the druids.

Roman sources

The nineteenth-century idea, gained from uncritical reading of the Gallic Wars, that under cultural-military pressure from Rome, the druids formed the core of first-century BCE resistance among the Gauls was examined and dismissed before World War II, though it remains current in folk history.


Cæsar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico, book VI, gives the first surviving and the fullest account of the druids, whom, in an apparent contradiction of the social importance he alleges for them, he has scarcely any occasion to mention elsewhere, though Caesar is generally at pains to explain political situations that affected the progress of his narrative. In his single excursus on druids, based in part on Eratosthenes and other Greeks, Caesar notes that all men of any rank and dignity in Gaul were included either among the druids or among the nobles (equites), indicating that they formed two classes. The druids constituted the learned priestly class (disciplina), and as guardians of the unwritten ancient customary law they had the power of executing judgments, among which exclusion from society was the most dreaded. Druids were not a hereditary caste, though they enjoyed exemption from military service as well as from payment of taxes. The course of training to which a novice had to submit was protracted.
All instruction was communicated orally, but for ordinary purposes, Caesar reports, the Gauls had a written language in which they used Greek characters. In this he probably draws on earlier writers; by the time of Caesar, Gaulish inscriptions had moved from the Greek script to the Latin script. As a result of this prohibition — and of the decline of Gaulish in favour of Latin — no druidic documents, if there ever were any, have survived.
"The principal point of their doctrine", says Caesar, "is that the soul does not die and that after death it passes from one body into another" (see metempsychosis). Alexander Cornelius Polyhistor (Greek, born circa 105 BCE) had already written of the Druids as philosophers and called this doctrine "Pythagorean":
"The Pythagorean doctrine prevails among the Gauls' teaching that the souls of men are immortal, and that after a fixed number of years they will enter into another body."
Caesar wrote:
"With regard to their actual course of studies, the main object of all education is, in their opinion, to imbue their scholars with a firm belief in the indestructability of the human soul, which, according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed. Subsidiary to the teachings of this main principle, they hold various lectures and discussions on astronomy, on the extent and geographical distribution of the globe, on the different branches of natural philosophy, and on many problems connected with religion".Julius Cesar, "De Bello Gallico", VI, 13
This led Diodorus Siculus and others to the unlikely conclusion that the druids may have been influenced by the teachings of Pythagoras, One modern scholar has speculated that Buddhist missionaries had been sent by the Indian king Ashoka. A more likely explanation is that Druids, Plato, Pythagoras and Buddha were drawing on a common Indo-European belief.
Caesar noted the druidic doctrine of the original ancestor of the tribe, whom he referred to as Dispater, or Father Hades. Linguistically Dis Pater is related to Jupiter (Jovis Pater), from Proto-Indo-European word Dyeus, but Caesar is apparently indicating the God of the Underworld - the "Fairy King".
Caesar also reported that druids could punish members of Celtic society by a form of "excommunication", preventing them from attending religious festivals. As these religious festivals were common and well-attended, this was an effective means of excluding punished persons from society.
Many historians argue that Caesar's description of the role of druids in Gaulish society may report an idealised tradition, based on the society of the second century BCE, before the pan-Gallic confederation led by the Arverni was smashed in 121 BCE, followed by the invasions of Teutones and Cimbri, rather than on the demoralised and disunited Gaul of his own time, Norman J. DeWitt surmised. John Creighton has speculated that in Britain the druidic social influence was already in decline by the mid-first century BCE, in conflict with emergent new power structures embodied in paramount chieftains, while others find the decline in the context of Roman conquest itself.
Other historians argue that despite Caesar's execution of Dumnorix, his problem dealt with anti-Romans and not just druids. Historically speaking, the brother of Dumnorix, Diviciacus, was a good friend to Cicero and Rome. Diviciacus was the only specifically identified individual druid in any classical literary source.

Other writers in Antiquity

Writers such as Diodorus and Strabo, with less firsthand experience than Caesar, were of the opinion that the Celtic priestly order or class included "druids, bards and vates (soothsayer)".
Caesar also claimed that a general assembly of the order was held once every year within the territories of the Carnutes in Gaul.

Pomponius Mela

Pomponius Mela is the first author who says that the druids' instruction was secret, and was carried on in caves and forests. Certain groves within forests were sacred, and the Romans and Christians alike cut them down and burned the wood. Human sacrifice has sometimes been attributed to druidism. While this may be Roman propaganda, human sacrifice was an old European inheritance and the Gauls may have offered human sacrifices, whether of criminals or, to judge from Roman reports, of war captives.


Cicero remarks on the existence among the Gauls of augurs or soothsayers, known by the name of druids; he had made the acquaintance of one Diviciacus, an Aeduan also known to Caesar.


Diodorus Siculus asserts, on unnamed sources, that a sacrifice acceptable to the Celtic gods had to be attended by a druid, for they were the intermediaries. He also claims that before a battle they often threw themselves between two armies to bring about peace.
Diodorus remarks upon the importance of prophets in druidic ritual: "These men predict the future by observing the flight and calls of birds and by the sacrifice of holy animals: all orders of society are in their power… and in very important matters they prepare a human victim, plunging a dagger into his chest; by observing the way his limbs convulse as he falls and the gushing of his blood, they are able to read the future." These Greco-Roman comments are supported to some extent by archaeological excavations. At Ribemont in Picardy, France, there were revealed pits filled with human bones, with thigh bones deliberately fixed into rectangular patterns. This shrine is believed to have been razed to the ground by Julius Caesar while he was subduing Gaul. At a bog in Lindow, Cheshire, England was discovered a body which may also have been the victim of a druidic ritual, but it is just as likely that he was an executed criminal. The body is now on display at the British Museum, London.

Imperial decrees

Druids were seen as essentially non-Roman: a prescript of Augustus forbade Roman citizens to practice "druidical" rites. Under Tiberius, Pliny reported, the druids were suppressed—along with diviners and physicians— by a decree of the Senate, but this had to be renewed by Claudius in 54 AD.


In Strabo, we find the druids still acting as arbiters in public and private matters, but they no longer dealt with cases of murder. Despite being arbiters in public manner, Strabo suggest that druids were "the most just of men."


Tacitus, in describing the attack made on the island of Mona (Anglesey, Ynys Môn in Welsh) by the Romans under Suetonius Paulinus, represents the legionaries as being awestruck on landing by the appearance of a band of druids, who, with hands uplifted to the sky, poured forth terrible imprecations on the heads of the invaders. The courage of the Romans, however, soon overcame such fears, according to the Roman historian; the Britons were put to flight, and the sacred groves of Mona were cut down.
Tacitus is also the only primary source that gives accounts of Druidism in Britain, but maintains a hostile point of view. Druids in the eyes of Tacitus were seen as ignorant savages who "deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails."

Late Roman

After the first century CE the continental druids disappeared entirely and were referred to only on very rare occasions. Ausonius, for one instance, apostrophizes the rhetorician Attius Patera as sprung from a "race of druids".

Archaeological evidence

Druidic associations with the ritual deaths of some of the bog bodies recovered in the British Isles and northern Europe from the Netherlands to Denmark, presented by Anne Ross is resisted by some historians, such as Jane Webster, who asserted in 1999, "individual druids (let alone druid princes) are unlikely to be identified archaeologically" A.P. Fitzpatrick, in examining astral symbolism on Late Iron Age swords has expressed difficulties in relating any material culture, even the Coligny calendar with druidic culture. Slain bodies as far east as Celtic Galatia and elswhere in Northern and Western Europe are widely cited as evidence of human sacrifice.

Medieval sources

The story of Vortigern, as reported by Nennius, provides one of the very few glimpses of druidic survival in Britain after the Roman conquest: unfortunately, Nennius is noted for mixing fact and legend in such a way that it is now impossible to know the truth behind his text. For what it is worth, he asserts that, after being excommunicated by Germanus, the British leader Vortigern invited twelve druids to assist him.
In Irish literature, the druids are frequently (and reliably) mentioned, and their functions in the island seem to correspond fairly well to those they performed in Gaul (the Modern Irish word for "magic", draíocht, derives from Old Irish druídecht).
The most important Irish documents are contained in manuscripts of the 12th century, but many of the texts themselves go back as far as the 8th century. In these stories, druids usually act as advisers to kings. Once again legendary elements crept in: they were said to have the ability to foretell the future (Bec mac Dé, for example, predicted the death of Diarmait mac Cerbaill more accurately than three Christian saints) and there is little reference to their religious function. They do not appear to form any corporation, nor do they seem to be exempt from military service.
In the Ulster Cycle, Cathbad, chief druid at the court of Conchobar, king of Ulster, is accompanied by a number of youths (100 according to the oldest version) who are desirous of learning his art. Cathbad is present at the birth of the famous tragic heroine Deirdre, and prophesies what sort of a woman she will be, and the strife that will accompany her, although Conchobar ignores him. The following description of the band of Cathbad's druids occurs in the epic tale, the Táin Bó Cúailnge: The attendant raises his eyes towards the heavens and observes the clouds and answers the band around him. They all raise their eyes towards the heavens, observe the clouds, and hurl spells against the elements, so that they arouse strife amongst them and clouds of fire are driven towards the camp of the men of Ireland. We are further told that at the court of Conchobar no one had the right to speak before the druids had spoken.
Also in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, before setting out on her great expedition against Ulster, Medb, queen of Connacht, consults her druids regarding the outcome of the war. They hold up the march by two weeks, waiting for an auspicious omen. Druids were also said to have magical skills: when the hero Cúchulainn returned from the Other World, after having been enticed there by a fairy woman or goddess, named Fand, whom he is now unable to forget, he is given a potion by some druids, which banishes all memory of his recent adventures and which also rids his wife Emer of the pangs of jealousy.
More remarkable still is the story of Étaín. This lady, later the wife of Eochaid Airem, High King of Ireland, was in a former existence the beloved of the god Midir, who again seeks her love and carries her off. The king has recourse to his druid, Dalgn, who requires a whole year to discover the haunt of the couple. This he accomplished by means of four wands of yew inscribed with ogham characters.
In other texts the druids are able to produce insanity. Mug Ruith, a legendary druid of Munster, wore a hornless bull's hide and an elaborate feathered headdress and had the ability to fly and conjure storms.

In Christian literature

In the lives of saints and martyrs, the druids are represented as magicians and diviners. In Adamnan's vita of Columba, two of them act as tutors to the daughters of Lóegaire mac Néill, the High King of Ireland, at the coming of Saint Patrick. They are represented as endeavouring to prevent the progress of Patrick and Saint Columba by raising clouds and mist. Before the battle of Culdremne (561) a druid made an airbe drtiad (fence of protection?) round one of the armies, but what is precisely meant by the phrase is unclear. The Irish druids seem to have had a peculiar tonsure. The word druí is always used to render the Latin magus, and in one passage St Columba speaks of Christ as his druid. Similarly, a life of St Beuno states that when he died he had a vision of 'all the saints and druids'.
Once the public ordination of Christian bishops in strongly pagan territories was possible, it was essential for a fourth-century bishop to demonstrate powers comparable to a druid's. Sulpicius Severus' Vita of Martin of Tours relates how Martin encountered a peasant funeral, carrying the body in a winding sheet, which Martin mistook for some druidic rites of sacrifice, "because it was the custom of the Gallic rustics in their wretched folly to carry about through the fields the images of demons veiled with a white covering." So Martin halted the procession by raising his pectoral cross: "Upon this, the miserable creatures might have been seen at first to become stiff like rocks. Next, as they endeavored, with every possible effort, to move forward, but were not able to take a step farther, they began to whirl themselves about in the most ridiculous fashion, until, not able any longer to sustain the weight, they set down the dead body." Then discovering his error, Martin raised his hand again to let them proceed: "Thus," the hagiographer points out," he both compelled them to stand when he pleased, and permitted them to depart when he thought good."
This account partly depends on information from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911 and the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908.

Late druidic survivals

There is some evidence that the druids of Ireland survived into the mid- to late-seventh century. In the De Mirabilibus Sacrae Scripturae of Augustinus Hibernicus (f. 655), there is mention of local magi who teach a doctrine of reincarnation in the form of birds. The word magus was often used in Hiberno-Latin works as a translation of druid.

Druidic Revival

From the 18th century, England and Wales experienced a revival of interest in the druids. John Aubrey (1626–1697) had been the first modern writer to connect Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments with the druids; since Aubrey's views were confined to his notebooks, the first wide audience for the misconception were readers of William Stukeley (1687–1765) and John Toland (1670-1722), who shaped ideas about the druids current during much of the 19th century. The poet William Blake was involved in the revival and may have been an Archdruid of the Ancient Druid Order, which existed from 1717 until it split into two groups in 1964. The order never used the title "Archdruid" for any member, but credited Blake as having been its Chosen Chief from 1799 to 1827.
Some modern druidic enthusiasts claim Aubrey was an archdruid in possession of an uninterrupted tradition of druidic knowledge, even though Aubrey, an uninhibited collector of lore and gossip, never entered a corroborating word in his voluminous surviving notebooks. John Toland was fascinated by Aubrey's Stonehenge theories, and wrote his own book about the monument without crediting Aubrey. Toland founded the Ancient Druid Order in London in 1717.
Druids began to figure widely in popular culture with the first advent of Romanticism. Chateaubriand's novel Les Martyrs (1809) narrated the doomed love of a druid priestess and a Roman soldier; though Chateaubriand's theme was the triumph of Christianity over Pagan druids, the setting was to continue to bear fruit. Opera provides a barometer of well-informed popular European culture in the early 19th century: in 1817 Giovanni Pacini brought druids to the stage in Trieste with an opera to a libretto by Felice Romani about a druid priestess, La Sacerdotessa d'Irminsul ("The Priestess of Irminsul"). The most famous druidic opera, Vincenzo Bellini's Norma was a fiasco at La Scala, when it premiered the day after Christmas, 1831; but in 1833 it was a hit in London. For its libretto, Felice Romani reused some of the pseudo-druidical background of La Sacerdotessa to provide colour to a standard theatrical conflict of love and duty. The story was similar to that of Medea, as it had recently been recast for a popular Parisian play by Alexandre Soumet: the diva of Normas hit aria, "Casta Diva", is the moon goddess, being worshipped in the "grove of the Irmin statue".
In the 19th century, some dubious figures arose with outlandish claims and forged documents they claimed were historical. A central figure in this druidic reinvention, inspired by Henry Hurle, is Edward Williams, better known as Iolo Morganwg. His writings, published posthumously as The Iolo Manuscripts (1849) and Barddas (1862), are not considered credible by contemporary scholars. Williams claimed to have collected ancient knowledge in a "Gorsedd of Bards of the Isles of Britain" he had organized. Many scholars deem part or all of Williams's work to be fabrication, and purportedly many of the documents are of his own fabrication, but a large portion of the work has indeed been collected from meso-pagan sources dating from as far back as 600 A.D. Regardless, it has become impossible to separate the original source material from the fabricated work, and while bits and pieces of the Barddas still turn up in some "Neo-druidic" works, the documents are considered irrelevant by most serious scholars.
A result of the reinvention, which took place just as modern archaeological and historical methods were being developed, is that, in spite of T.D. Kendrick's dispelling of the pseudo-historical aura that had accrued to druids, and his introductory assertion in 1927 that "a prodigious amount of rubbish has been written about druidism"; it has continued to shape public perceptions of the historical druids and continues to shape some modern forms of Neo-druidism. The British Museum website is suitably blunt: Modern Druids have no direct connection to the Druids of the Iron Age. Many of our popular ideas about the Druids are based on the misunderstandings and misconceptions of scholars 200 years ago. These ideas have been superseded by later study and discoveries.


Some strands of modern "Druidism" (also known among some groups as "Modern Druidry"), such as the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), are a continuation of the 18th-century revival and thus are built largely around writings produced in the 18th century and after. Some are monotheistic. Members of other Neo-druid groups may be Neopagan, occultist, Reconstructionist or non-specifically spiritual.

Questions of magic

The etymology of druid suggests, especially in early Irish historical sources, a context of magicians or enchanters. Tacitus views the ways of the druid and their lifestyle to have an aspect of magic: Tacitus' Annals shows druids as "pouring forth dreadful imprecations." Much of the evidence that links druids to magic comes from ancient Celtic songs that were sung in order to invoke certain deities in Celtic Polytheism. Such songs as sung by Aengus show of certain hyponotic states that druids appear to be in, more than likely due to plant or drug induced trances, similar to the oracles of Delphi in Ancient Greece.
Modern day Medieval and Roman historians suggest that the issue of "magic" breaks down to natural forces such as alchemy and astrology. It would appear that historical sources assert that there was magic occurring, while Roman and medieval historians feel that this issue of "magic" is religious or pagan practices. However, the druids left no written accounts of their own practices, so much of this hypothesis is complete speculation, as is most of the above article.


Further reading

  • Aldhouse-Green, Miranda J., Exploring the World of the Druids (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997)
  • Ellis, Peter, B., "The Druids" (William B. Eerdmans, 1994)
  • Fitzpatrick, A. P,. Who were the Druids? (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997)
  • Hutton, Ronald, The Druids (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007)
  • Piggott, Stuart, The Druids (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975)

External links

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Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Cassandra, Druidess, Parsi, Sabaist, Zoroastrian, animal worshiper, anthropolater, arborolater, archaeolater, astrologer, augur, calamity howler, chthonian, crystal gazer, daduchus, demon worshiper, demonolater, dendrolater, devil worshiper, divinator, diviner, divineress, epopt, fetishist, fire worshiper, flamen, forecaster, foreknower, foreseer, foreshower, foreteller, fortuneteller, geomancer, haruspex, hierodule, hierophant, hieros, idol worshiper, idolater, idolatress, idolatrizer, idolist, idolizer, mystes, nature worshiper, ophiolater, palmist, phallic worshiper, predictor, prefigurer, presager, prognosticator, prophesier, prophet, prophet of doom, prophetess, psychic, pyrolater, pythoness, religious prophets, seer, seeress, snake worshiper, soothsayer, star worshiper, sun worshiper, theriolater, therolater, tree worshiper, vates, weather prophet, zoolater
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