1902 Encyclopedia > Druidism


DRUIDISM, the name usually given to the religious system of the ancient Gauls and Britons. The word Druid, one form or other of which is used in early Celtic records to designate a class of priests corresponding to the Magi or wise men of the ancient Persians, is of uncertain etymology. The derivation from the Greek _____, an oak, though as old as the days of the elder Pliny, is probably fanciful.

We find in Caesar the first and at the same time the most circumstantial account of the Druids to be met with in the classical writers. In the digression on the manners and customs of Gaul and Germany which occupies a portion of the sixth book of his Gallic war, he tells us that all men of any rank and dignity in Gaul were included among either the Druids or the nobles. The former were the religious guides of the people as well as the chief expounders and guardians of the law. On those who refused to submit to their decisions they had the power of inflicting severe penalties, of which excommunication from society was the most dreaded. As they were not a hereditary caste, and enjoyed exemption from service in the field as well as from payment of taxes, admission to the order was eagerly sought after by the youth of Gaul. The course of training to which a novice had to submit was protracted, extending sometimes over twenty years. All instruction was communicated orally, but for certain purposes they had a written language in which they used the Greek characters. The president of the order, whose office was elective and who enjoyed the dignity for life, had supreme authority among them. They taught that the soul was immortal. Astrology, geography, physical science, and natural theology were their favourite studies. Britain was the head-quarters of Druidism, but once every year a general assembly of the order was held within the territories of the Carnutes in Gaul, probably in the neighbourhood of the modern Dreux. The Gauls in extreme cases offered human sacrifices, usually criminals. Their chief deity was identified by Caesar with the Mercury of the Romans. Writing a few years later, Cicero, in his treatise on divination, introduces his brother Quintus as remarking on the existence among the Gauls of augurs or soothsayers, known by the name of Druids. With one of these, Divitiacus, an Aeduan, Quintus says he was well acquainted. Cicero’s contemporary, Diodorus Siculus, informs us that there were among the ancient Gauls bards, certain philosophers and theologians named Druids, and soothsayers. He also hints at some connection between their philosophy and that of Pythagoras. The geographers, Strabo and Pomponius Mela, add little to our knowledge of the Druids. Lucan, in his Pharsalia, mentions, among the Gallic and other tribes that relapsed into their former ways upon Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, "the worshippers with bloody rites of Teutates, Hesus, and Taranis," and refers immediately afterwards to the bards and Druids. Something more noteworthy is told by the elder Pliny. According to him the Gallic Druids held the mistletoe in the highest veneration. Groves of oak were their chosen retreats. Whatever grew on that tree was thought to be a gift from heaven, more especially the mistletoe. When thus found the latter was cut with a golden knife by a priest clad in a white robe, two white bulls being sacrificed on the spot. The name given it by the Druids signified in their language All-Heal; and its virtues were believed to be very great. Two other herbs, called selago and samolus, were likewise greatly valued by them for their medicinal efficacy. But the most remarkable of all the Druidical charms was the anguineum, or snake’s egg. It was said to be produced from the saliva and frothy sweat of a number of serpents writhing in an entangled mass, and to be tossed up into the air as soon as formed. The fortunate Druid who managed, as it fell, to catch it in his sagum, or cloak, rode off at full speed on a horse that had been in waiting for him, pursued by the serpents till they were stopped by the intervention of a running stream. A genuine specimen of this egg when thrown into the water would float against the current, even if encased in gold. Pliny declares that he had seen one. "It is," he says, "about the size of a moderately large round apple, and has a cartilaginous rind studded with cavities like those on the arms of a polypus." Tacitus, in describing the attack made on the island of Mona (Anglesea) by the Romans under Suetonius Paulinus, represents the legionaries as being awe-struck on landing by the appearance of a band of Druids who, with hands uplifted towards heaven, poured forth terrible imprecations on the heads of the invaders. The courage of the Romans, however, soon overcame such fears; the Britons were put to flight; and the groves of Mona, the scene of many a sacrifice and bloody rite, were cut down. The annalists Lampridius and Vopiscus, two of the Scriptores Historioe Augustae, introduce us, if the "Dryas" of these writers be connected, as is probable, with the "Druides" of Caesar and others, to a new branch of the order—Druidesses, who, however, are simply prophetic women. For example, Vopiscus tells us, on the authority of his grandfather, who had the story from the future emperor himself, that it had been foretold to Diocletian by one of these women that he would wear the purple after he had slain a wild boar. Many years afterwards, when Diocletian found himself, on the death of Numerian, unexpectedly declared emperor by the troops, he at once cut down with his sword Arrius Aper, regarding whom dark suspicions were afloat, exclaiming, "At length I have slain the fated wild boar," and thus fulfilled the prophecy delivered to him in Gaul by the weird woman. Ausonius of Bordeaux, tutor of Gratian, son of the Emperor Valentinian, in his Professores, or notices of the professors of his native city, apostrophizes the rhetorician Attius Patera as sprung from a race of Druids and from the priesthood of Belenus, and as deriving his name of Patera from being connected through the latter with the mysteries of Apollo. He also addresses another as keeper of the temple of Belenus, and as the offspring of the Druids. Lastly, Ammianus Marcellinus, after noticing the foundation of Marseilles by a colony of Phocaeans, goes on to state that when the people in those parts had been gradually civilized, learned studies, which had been begun by the bards, the Euhages (probably a corruption of the _____, i.e., Vates, of Strabo), and the Druids, throve vigorously. Of these, he says the Druids were intellectually superior to the others, and were formed into unions in accordance with the precepts of Pythagoras.

The early Christian fathers seldom mention the Druids. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and others speak of them as philosophers or priests among the Gauls, but in a manner that shows they knew almost nothing about them. In early Irish poems and tales, however, a class of persons called by this name is frequently referred to, who also appear as Magi in certain well-known lives of Irish saints written in Latin. These Irish Druids were a kind of sorcerers. They were said to be in league with the demons of paganism, and to be able by this agency to do good to their friends and mischief to their enemies. The followers of the first missionaries of Christianity in Ireland and Scotland seem to have thought it necessary, in order to prove the superiority of the new faith, to spread the belief that its apostles also were gifted with supernatural powers, which they could use more especially for the purpose of counteracting the malice of these Druids. Thus Adamnan, in his life of Columba, represents that saint as miraculously baffling the machinations of Broichan, the Druid of the Pictish king Brude, when they met at the court of the latter near the mouth of the Ness.

To John Toland probably belongs the credit of being the first to plan, for he did little more, a connected history of the Druids, in which the scanty notices of ancient writers were to be expanded and largely supplemented by details drawn from other sources. This he did in three letters addressed to Viscount Molesworth, and first published from the author’s papers in 1726, some years after his death. A little later, Pelloutier, in his Histoire des Celtes, carried out a portion of Toland’s design by giving a lengthened account of the origin, position, and influence of Druidism among the early Celtic tribes. On the foundations thus laid others were not slow to build. It is from Caesar and Pliny, of course, that the materials have been chiefly derived. But fragments of very doubtful value were eagerly appropriated from every quarter; and in this way an imposing structure was reared, the solidity of which till very recently few ever thought of doubting. If we may trust these writers, the ancient priesthood of Britain and Gaul, in pomp of ritual no less than in learning and influence, rivalled the hierarchies of later days. Clad in white and wearing ornaments of gold, they celebrated their mystic rites in the depths of the forest. The Hesus mentioned by Lucan was said, on the authority of a remark by Lactantius, to be their chief deity. But they had other gods, especially Apollo, whom they worshipped under the name of Belenus, supposed to be the Phoenician Baal. They believed in metempsychosis, or the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. That their philosophy was identical with that of Pythagoras was held as certain, though whether Pythagoras was the instructor of the Druids or the Druids of Pythagoras, or whether indeed both did not derive their tenets from a common source, were moot questions. Pythagoras’s friend Abaris, the mysterious Hyperborean philosopher who rode on an arrow, the gift of Apollo, must have been a British Druid. Botany, astronomy, medicine, and letters were all subjects studied by the Druids; though, in spite of their boasted civilization, many of their rites were barbarous in the extreme. In mechanics they had attained to no mean skill, since the ponderous megalithic remains of Britain and France could have been set up only by them. Stone circles like Stennis and Callernish were ancient temples, once surrounding groves sacred to Druidism. According to Stukeley, Stonehenge was the cathedral of the archdruid of all Britain, and Avebury with its avenues had been originally constructed in the form of a circle with a serpent attached to it,—the circle being regarded as the symbol of the Supreme Being, and the serpent of the divine Son. Dolmens or cromlechs were transformed into altars, and even the menhir or stone pillar, and the rocking-stone, were pressed into the service of the druidical priesthood. In the neighbourhood of the circles, as well as on the tops of mountains, may be seen cairns surmounted each by a flat stone, on which Druid fires were lighted. Over their countrymen the authority of the Druids was almost unbounded, continuing to assert itself long after the order had passed away. With Druidism every unexplained custom and almost every relic of Celtic antiquity were held to be connected, and the superstitions that still linger in the ancient homes of the Celtic race were set down as derived from the same source. Its decadence is attributed by these writers to the hostility of the Romans. Ardent lovers of their country as well as of liberty, the Druids, it is asserted, were the uncompromising foes of Roman rule in the west. Hence sprang the orders issued for their suppression by Claudius, to which reference is made both by Pliny and Suetonius. In the end, Rome proved too strong for Druidism, and the political power of its priesthood was soon broken, especially in Gaul and South Britain. Some, among whom Herbert is prominent, maintain that, after the destruction of pagan Druidism as a system, the order was revived as a corrupt form of Christianity, in which the truths of the latter were largely mixed up with the rites of Mithras, the sun god of the Persians. This hypothesis, to which its supporters have given the name of neo-Druidism, has already been noticed in the article CELTIC LITERATURE (vol. v. p. 318).

These views were for a long time generally received in this country as well as on the Continent. In France, Druidism has proved an attractive subject to some writers of a high order of ability, who have discussed it, if not from a more critical, at least from a more philosophical, stand-point. Amédée Thierry, in his Histoire des Gaulois, while adopting in the main the opinions of Toland, Pelloutier, and their followers, finds in the accounts that have come down to us traces of two distinct systems of religion in ancient Gaul. One of these was a worship of natural phenomena and objects, akin to the polytheism of the Greeks; the other a kind of metaphysical pantheism, strikingly resembling the religions of some Eastern nations. The latter, according to him, was the foundation of Druidism, and had been brought into the country when the Cymric branch of the Gauls entered it under a leader named Hu, or Hesus, deified after his death. The more ancient inhabitants, also a Gallic race, were the polytheists, whose religious belief, however, the Cymri did not altogether destroy but rather amalgamated with their own. Thierry further thinks that Druidism was on the decline in Gaul before the days of Caesar. After a time the Gallic nobles on the one hand, and the people on the other, became alike jealous of a priestly authority that controlled both and had succeeded in greatly reducing their political influence. For a while the Druids retained their power as a religious and learned order, and preserved many of their privileges; but even at the date of Caesar’s invasion these had so diminished that Britain, and not Gaul, was recognized as their chief seat. But the most distinguished among the expounders of Druidism is undoubtedly Jean Reynaud, one of the chiefs of a small school of thinkers whose metaphysical speculations have exercised in France a real, if an indirect and quiet, influence. Reynaud, who was of a mystical cast of mind, began in 1836, along with Pierre Leroux, the publication of L’Encyclopédie Nouvelle, which, however, was never finished. For this the former wrote the article "Druidisme," which he afterwards enlarged and gave to the world separately under the title of L’Esprit de la Gaule, dedicated to his friend, the historian Henri Martin. It is an elaborate and in some respects able essay. Reynaud maintains that the ancient Druids were the first to teach clearly the doctrine of the soul’s immortality, and that they had originally as high conceptions of the true nature of God as the Jews themselves. If they afterwards encouraged the worship of subordinate deities, it was for the purpose of reconciling to Druidism that class of uneducated minds for which the cultus of demi-gods and angels has more attraction than the worship of the Unseen One. Hesus, radically the same word as the _____ of the Greeks, was the type of an absolute supreme Being whose symbol on earth was the oak, and was quite distinct from Hu, the leader of the Cymric Gauls. The mistletoe, when found growing on the latter, represented man, a creature entirely dependent on God for support, and yet with an individual existence of his own. Human sacrifices were a natural consequence of the idea, dominant now as in the days of the Druids, that the higher the victim the more complete the atonement offered to the Deity for the sins of man. Druidism declined and at last disappeared, because, according to Reynaud, one element was wanting in its system both of morals and of religion, necessary to the true development of man or society—charity or love. The Druids aimed indeed at the improvement of both, but failed to prescribe the true means of promoting it. Christianity supplied what was needed, and Druidism disappeared—not, however, till it had accomplished what was its special mission, the preservation in Western Europe of the idea of the unity of God. How far all this is mere theory founded on insufficient data, or an attempt, more or less successful, to prove the existence among the Gallic tribes of certain ideas regarding the true nature of God and his relation to man, which afterwards degenerated into the grossest superstition, it would be out of place to discuss here. Reynaud’s views have been to a great extent accepted by Henri Martin, one of the foremost of French historical writers; and both countenance the neo-Druidical fancies of Davies and Herbert. In Germany the latest authority on Druidism seems to be Barth—Ueber die Druiden der Kelten—who follows closely the views long popular in this country. To judge from the article "Druiden" in the last edition (1875) of Meyer’s Conversations-Lexikon, nothing fresher has yet found currency there.

Literature.—Toland’s Specimen of the Critical History of the Celtic Religion and Learning, containing an Account of the Druids, in A Collection of several Pieces of Mr John Toland, now first published from his original Manuscripts, 2 vols. 8vo, London 1726; Pelloutier (Simon), Histoire des Celles, 2 vols. 12mo, Paris, 1740-1750 ; nouvelle édition par M. de Chiniac, 2 vols. 4to, or 8 vols. 8vo, Paris, 1770-1771; Stukeley’s Stonehenge, A Temple restored to the British Druids, fol. London, 1740; Stukeley’s Abury, A Temple of the British Druids, fol. London, 1743; Frick (Johann Georg.), Commentatio de Druidis occidentalium populorum philosophis, new edition, 4to, Ulmae, 1744; Borlase’s Antiquities, Historical and Monumental, of the County of Cornwall, second edition, fol. London, 1769; Davies (Edward), Mythology and Rites of the British Druids, 8vo, London, 1809 ; Thierry’s Histoire des Gaulois, Paris, 1828; Earth, Ueber die Druiden der Kelten, Erlangen, 1828; Higgins’s Celtic Druids, London, 1829; (Herbert’s) Essay on the Neo-Druidic Heresy in Britannia, pt. i. London, 1838; Dr J. H. Burton, in Edinburgh Review, July 1863; Reynaud, L’Esprit de la Gaule, Paris, 1866; Henri Martin, Histoire de France, vol. i, Paris (no date); Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland, vol. ii., printed for the Spalding Club, 1867. (J. M’D.)

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