15. Ritual Leaders and Lore-keepers

Francine Nicholson


Consider, as described by Pliny, a group of men and women in white robes who, armed with elaborately carved bronze swords and golden sickles, enter the forest at night and head for an oak tree entangled by mistletoe. Chanting incomprehensible verses, they cut the mistletoe from the oak tree and lay it on a white cloth. Or, bearing torches, they enter a circle of roughly carved standing stones, leading a man bound and gagged. At the moment the first ray of the midsummer sun strikes the stones, they cut off the head of the bound man, catch the blood in a silver basin, and pour it over the stones.

Such images of druids have become fixed in the popular consciousness, but in reality, they contain just some fact and much misconception. It is true that, in some respects, we have more questions than answers about what the druids did and believed. Perhaps that is why over the generations, proponents of diverse views---Stoic philosophers, the original Freemasons or Unitarians, descendants of Egyptian priests, and models for the New Age---have found it so easy to depict the druids as exemplars of their own beliefs. Stuart Piggott called them "druids-as-wished-for." Scholars groan over such images because they bear so little resemblance to what is known about the druids. On the other hand, they will readily admit that there are large gaps in the record of evidence, gaps that leave room for discussion about what role the druids played in early Gaulish, British, and Irish societies.

Although the ideas presented in this chapter are consensus interpretations of the evidence, few are uncontested by someone. You may find that your mental image of druids still remains a bit fuzzy after reading them, but you can be reasonably certain that your image is accurate.

Sources of Information

(i) Classical writers

About thirty brief references to druids in Gaul and Britain (not Ireland) appear in the works of Greek and Latin writers from the classical era. These sources are important because we have so little evidence, but their value is limited because the quality and accuracy of the information varies. The passages were written after the Roman conquest so, for most of these writers, the druids were a group that had already been suppressed and outlawed. Therefore, by and large, the writers were repeating the impressions of others rather than offering their own observations. Even within a single work, an author may draw from both personal experience and other writers without distinguishing between them.


Also, the authors' reasons for writing varied. Some were antiquarians and encyclopedists writing about all sorts of topics. Others were travellers who, in a sense, made a living from writing about their experiences and the stories they heard. Some were military leaders who had political purposes to promote or actions to justify. Strabo, for example, asserted that the Celtic religious leaders were similar to certain Greek philosophers. Julius Caesar, whose principal concern was to incorporate the Gaulish people into the Roman Empire, emphasized the druids' influential role in governing Gaulish society and presented their beliefs in terms of Roman religion. Some classical authors considered the Celtic-speaking peoples to be barbaric threats to order. Others regarded them with ambivalence, depicting them as interesting curiosities but not first-class human beings. In other words, the classical writers demonstrated some of the same biases and prejudices that colonizing peoples have shown towards the conquered throughout human history. The reliability of an individual author as a source can best be determined by looking at all his writings, not just those about the Celts and druids. For example, Julius Caesar may be generally reliable. He certainly wanted to make the Gauls subject to the Romans, which meant Romanizing them to at least some degree. He certainly interpreted their beliefs through his own perspective, but he could not afford to write outright lies because his political enemies would have made hay of him. Also, many of his statements can be verified by evidence from other sources. Pliny, on the other hand, though his description of druids picking mistletoe is often quoted as reliable, is probably less trustworthy. He often wrote obviously legendary anecdotes such as those about dog-headed people who communicated by barking. The golden sickles he mentions would not cut vines very effectively, and he made other statements about druids that are known to be dubious. For example, he wrote: "We cannot too highly appreciate our debt to the Romans for having put an end to this monstrous cult, whereby to murder a man was an act of the greatest devoutness, and to eat his flesh most beneficial." If the druids had been cannibals, this would have been mentioned by Julius Caesar, Suetonius, and Tacitus. Since it was not, Pliny's claim about druidic cannibalism may be as legendary as his tales of dog-headed people. And since no one other than Pliny connects the druids with mistletoe, that story may be equally legendary. Thus, although Classical commentators were contemporaneous with the Celts about whom they wrote, we should not accept their observations without question but should assess them in light of evidence from other sources.

(ii) Archaeological discoveries

Archaeology provides the only solid evidence of material that actually might have been used by druids or the people they led in ritual. From study of the human remains found in graves, archaeologists can tell us something about the people themselves, such as average stature and life-span, infant mortality rate, and often even the illnesses that plagued them. They can also draw some conclusions about where the Celts conducted ceremonies, the objects they offered, and sometimes even the time of year when they were active on a ritual site. However, no druids have survived to tell us which objects were used by druids as opposed to other ritual leaders or participants, how they used the objects, and what they believed was the purpose. So many questions remain unanswered: what did they wear, when did they worship, why did they worship, who did they worship, what did they say and do during their ceremonies?

(iii) Comparison of culture and language with other Indo-European cultures

Some clues come from looking at how words evolved in the Celtic languages and, especially, at the Indo-European roots from which they evolved. In some ways, linguistic material is the most speculative evidence we have to work with since it often relies on hypothetical reconstructions of past behavior for which there is little if any independent evidence. We can also look at other Indo-European cultures to see what similar structures and institutions they have. However, this, too, can lead to inaccurate assumptions. Even when cultures started from the same people, they often evolve in distinctly different ways, developing different social organization, religious beliefs and practices, and cultural norms. In other words, the fact that an action or belief can be proven to be true of Hindu brahmins does not mean it was equally true of Celtic druids.

(iv) Medieval Irish sources

There is no certain date for the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. Palladius was sent as bishop to the Christians who were already in Ireland in 431 CE, and there are hints that he was preceded by at least four others. The story of St. Patrick converting all of Ireland in the early fifth century is now generally discounted. Although it probably did begin early in the fifth century, the conversion seems to have been gradual. As it progressed, existing customs were evaluated for compatibility with Christianity and either discarded or adapted in a process that lasted many years until, by the beginning of the seventh century, Irish society had become predominantly Christian. Our earliest written accounts date from that period, when Irish monastic scribes began to record lives of patron saints, laws and some traditional lore, and made notes of events inside and outside their monasteries.

As time passed, the scribes recorded additional material, including remnants of pre-Christian myths and what might be called "secular" tales about heroes of the past. Some of these materials mention druids but the descriptions often have a negative perspective. Even the earliest legal material depicts druids as a group whose prestige in the society has become questionable. While druids are still classified as nobles, they are not entitled to the same rights and privileges as others of their rank. In some stories, they are depicted as agents of demonic forces, or they are shown as greedy and untrustworthy. For example, the story of Conall Cernach's birth emphasizes that the druid will not give Conall's mother a spell until she gives him a good fee. Frequently they are depicted as allies of Simon Magus, who appears as a greedy and sometimes evil sorcerer in the New Testament and early Christian apocrypha. Even when the images of druids are fairly even-handed, we can assume that the scribes and storytellers knew little about what the druids did or believed so their descriptions are unlikely to be completely accurate. It is also apparent that some social roles were modified to fit Christian society. Christian clerics took over the ritual roles of druids, while the breithem (judicial expert), fili (praise-poet, prophet, and keeper of royal and kin-group lore), and bard (storyteller) took over the lore-keeper functions. Since saints were sometimes pictured in encounters with druids or other pagans, stories about Irish saints are a potential source of information about the druids, although the biases of the writers must be considered in evaluating the evidence. For example, many Lives include stories of saints such as Patrick competing with druids to achieve some magical feat. In these stories, the saints speak and act in ways very similar to the druids with whom they are competing. What makes Patrick the victor is not different methods but the superior response he invokes from his god using the same methods employed by the druids to invoke theirs.


This summary of sources of available information about the druids shows that reliable information is, in fact, very scarce. Despite this, many books and articles have been written on the topic, not a few of which claim to be "authoritive." Some that purport to contain material written by druids long ago are patently bogus because we know the druids did not write down their beliefs or rituals. Such books actually present the ideas of recent writers (eighteenth century and later) about what they think druids did or what it should mean to be a druid today.

Facts: What We Know about the Druids

(i) Among Greeks and Romans, druids were known as druidae or druides.

Among the medieval Irish, they were called druí (singular) or druíd (plural).

Druid is an English word based on earlier Celtic terms. Druides is Latin, possibly derived from Greek druidae, but ultimately derived from Celtic words.

(ii) The meaning of druí is probably "very wise."

Popular books often say that the original Celtic words for druid came from Indo-European *dru meaning "oak" and *weid- meaning "to see," and claim that druid meant oak seers or something like that. However, the general consensus among scholars is closer to what Calvert Watkins wrote: the proto-Celtic form *dru-wid, meaning "strong seeing," comes from the IE *deru "strong" and *weid- "to see," a word connected with knowing. So, a druid would be someone who was very wise.

(iii) Druids and other lore-keepers were a separate class within Celtic society.

The term applied to a distinct social class in classical descriptions and medieval Irish texts. Julius Caesar spoke of three classes-equites (horse warriors), druides, and the laboring classes-but we know little about the exact grades and ranks of the Gauls in their own language. It is reasonably certain, for example, that there were at least three groups within the druides. However, Caesar treats them as a single class who were not required to perform military service, although he probably overlooked the role of the druids in performing battle magic. In Ireland, the druids were a separate group among the noble classes. Although ritual leaders and lore-keepers lived on offerings from the people they served, often their ritual sites existed on borderlands or land that did not belong to their kin or kin-groups. While these locations were probably chosen at least in part for their magical potency as liminal areas, their apartness also emphasized the separation of the religious leaders from the rest of society. They were believed to know the ways and language of the deities, and could travel to the Otherworld, consult the powers, invoke inspiration, foresee the future, avert disaster and invoke destruction on their enemies. For all these reasons, the lore-keepers were subject only to the king and to each other.

(iv) Druids passed on their lore as oral, not written, learning.

Among many tribal peoples, traditional lore is passed on orally from teacher to student. In the pre-Christian period, the Celtic-speaking peoples were no different in this respect; indeed, all Indo-European peoples were originally non-literate. By the time of the Roman conquest, the Romans were fast becoming people of written words and their writers often derided those who were not literate. At that time, the Celtic-speaking peoples began using letters to keep business records, but the druids continued to pass on their lore orally. Julius Caesar saw political motivation in this and wrote:

They have established this practice for two reasons: because they do not wish their way of life to be broadcast to the general public, and because they do not wish those who they teach to learn by trusting more in letters than in their memory.

Caesar, although an astute observer, appears to have missed the important point that traditional peoples often feel that an essential part of learning is the relationship between teacher and student. This is especially important in the training of religious practitioners, for the students were not simply acquiring facts to be fed back in an exam. They were learning a way of life, a role in which they would mediate between their people and the gods. The teachers were not simply communicating information; they were acting as mentors, spiritual guides, and conduits of their own acquired power and infused knowledge.

(v) Celtic lore-keepers, including druids, spent many years in training.

Caesar wrote that Gaulish druids of his time "are said to learn by heart a great number of verses; and so many remain in training for twenty years." Pomponius Mela wrote that the druids "teach many things to the noblest of the race in sequestered and remote places during twenty years, whether in a cave or in secluded groves." Similarly, in medieval Ireland, the ranks of poets were marked, at least in part, by how much lore had been learned. The highest grade of fili was required to know 350 tales whereas the lowest needed to know only 30. Filid also acquired varying levels of expertise in subjects such as history, placelore, genealogy, law, and other traditional material. All of this was over and above knowledge of and skill at using the complicated metrics that were an inherent part of early Irish poetry. Some texts, even when considered simply as poetic manuals, are not easy to understand. Medieval Irish poets used highly technical terms to describe their art, terms that were taught only to other poets, but the druids would have been adept in these areas. Such knowledge and skill would have required long years of training.

(vi) Druids led community rituals and functioned as the principal teachers of religion.

Druids led sacrificial and other public rituals on behalf of the community. About the Gaulish druids, Didorus Siculus reported:

They have philosophers and theologians who are held in much honour and are called Druids.... It is a custom of the Gauls that no one performs a sacrifice without the assistance of a philosopher, for they say that offerings to the gods ought only to made through the mediation of these men, who are learned in the divine nature and, so to speak, familiar with it, and it is through their agency that the blessings of the gods should properly be sought.

Caesar wrote, "They preside over sacred things, have the charge of public and private sacrifices, and explain their religion" and that they druids "debate concerning the heavens and their movement, concerning the size of the universe and the earth, [and] the workings of nature . . ." Ritual leaders must know how and when to perform ceremonies appropriate for each occasion. Therefore, the druids probably studied the movements of planets and stars to help them calculate when feasts should be celebrated and which days were lucky or unlucky for certain actions. This, too, is in line with what Amergen the poet recites in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, and what medieval Irish hagiographers wrote about druids and their interest in and relation to the non-human elements of the world. As Ammianus Marcellinus records, they also conducted "searchings into secret and sublime things, and with grand contempt for mortal lot they professed the immortality of the soul." That they were the principal teachers and keepers of religious lore is attested by Caesar who wrote that they studied "the strength and power of the immortal gods, and these things they hand down."

(vii) Druids maintained law lore, acted as arbiters, and advised leaders.

According to classical authors, druids were the principal keepers of lore about law and precedent. Although not clear from Diodorus Siculus' usage of Latin, the following reference to "these men" may concern druids: "Often when the combatants are ranged face to face, and swords are drawn and spears bristling, these men come between the armies and stay the battle . . ." Caesar also wrote that the druids:

. . . generally settle all their [Gauls] disputes, both public and private; and if there is any transgression perpetrated, any murder committed, or any dispute about inheritance or boundaries, they decide in respect of them; they appoint rewards and penalties.

As leaders of ritual and judges, druids had the authority to bar people from participating in community events and they could with-hold other privileges. According to Caesar, the druids used this authority to enforce their judgments:

If any private or public person abides not by their decree, they restrain him from the sacrifices. This with them is the most severe punishment. Whoever are so interdicted, are ranked in the number of the impious and wicked; all forsake them, and shun their company and conversation, lest they should suffer disadvantage from contagion with them.

If Caesar described the situation accurately, community rituals must have functioned to bond the community and establish the ranks and roles of its members. Of course, Caesar was probably intent on pointing out how much power the druids exercised in the community. He adds, "Nor is legal right rendered to [the excommunicated] when they sue it, nor any honour conferred upon them." Dio Chrysostom, writing about a century later, clearly exaggerated the druids' role:

The Celts appointed druids, who likewise were versed in the art of seers and other forms of wisdom without whom the kings were not permitted adopt or plan any course, so that in fact it was these who ruled and the kings became their subordinates and instruments of their judgement, while themselves seated on golden thrones, and dwelling in great houses and being sumptuously feasted.

viii) Not all Celtic religious personnel were called druids.

Not all classical writers use the same terms, but they generally refer to three functional categories of religious personnel: those who led ritual and settled legal matters, those who acted as seers, and those who told stories and kept historical lore. The names used by some of the classical writers-druidae or druides, vates, and bardi or bardoi-seem to be cognate with the Irish terms druíd (priests and judges), fátha (seers), and baird (story-tellers and historical lore-keepers). In medieval Irish society of the Christian period, however, the three categories of druí, fáth, and bard were replaced by other categories, some secular and others related to the churches. The Christian priest-the Latin specialist or sacerdos (sacart or cruimther in Old Irish)-took over the role of leader of ritual and sacrifice. The breithem became the judicial specialist. The fili took over the roles of praise-poet, king's companion, and seer. Scribes took over the roles of annalists and genealogists, developing the role of historian according to the newer medieval notions of the role. However, it should be kept in mind that in every culture, within every priesthood, whether a highly structured group like the Roman Catholic clergy or more flexible groups such as North American Indian healers, there is a great deal of variation. Inevitably, some individuals become more "expert" at a topic, and their expertise is recognized and called upon by their fellow practitioners and the general populace.

ix) Vates (Irish fátha or fáith) were seers.

Strictly speaking divination refers to attempts and procedures performed in an effort to obtain knowledge not obtainable through usual means. Thus, divination may concern the future, or it may concern other issues such as the location of a lost person or item. Like seers in other traditional cultures, vates apparently took omens about what was the likely outcome of action being considered, learned the fate of missing persons or ships, and attempted to diagnose illness and what steps should be taken to achieve healing. It was written of the Gauls that "they have sooth-sayers too of great renown who tell the future by watching the flights of birds and by the observation of the entrails of victims; and everyone waits upon their word." Cicero said that he had met a Gaulish druid and that this man "used to make predictions, sometimes by means of augury and sometimes by means of conjecture." Other methods employed by the seers may horrify us now, though they are not unique to the Gauls, even if the report is accurate and not hyperbole: "they kill a man by a knife-stab in the region above the midriff, and after his fall they foretell the future by the convulsions of his limbs and the pouring of his blood, a form of divination in which they have full confidence, as it is of old tradition."


x) Bardi or bardoi (Irish baird) were storytellers, praise-poets, and genealogists.

Of Gaulish bards it was said, "these, singing to instruments similar to a lyre, applaud some, while they vituperate others." Another writer noted, "It was the custom of the bards to celebrate the brave deeds of their famous men in epic verse accompanied by the sweet strain of the lyre."

xi) In medieval Irish tales, the term druí sometimes means any type of

pre-Christian religious leader.

Medieval Irish tales seem to treat druí as a general term that covers all pre-Christian religious leaders. There are far fewer references to fátha. The seer function of the fáth seems to have been taken over by the fili.

xii) In medieval Irish materials, the terms druí and magus are used interchangeably.

The earliest writings from Ireland are in Latin or a mix of Old Irish and Latin. In telling their stories in Latin, the early Irish monks developed a vocabulary of words used to translate native Irish terms. They used the Latin word magus when they wrote about druíd. This is known to a certainty because texts where magus appears were glossed with the comment druí and in Old Irish texts druí was glossed with magus. This is important because the image of druíd in medieval Irish hagiography owes much to the Christian apocryphal image of Simon Magus as a magician who refused to accept the Christian god and who took money for rendering magical services.

xii) In medieval Irish materials, druids are depicted as having the knowledge and power to control the elements and forces of nature.

In early Irish materials druids are depicted as chanting incantations or curses to ritually invoke the power of parts of the cosmos: sun, moon, lightning, wind.

xiv) In the medieval Irish materials, druids are closely associated with birds.

Diodorus Siculus said druids took omens by watching the flight of birds. In Irish texts, druids were said to wear feathered cloaks and headdresses to perform ritual.

xv) Druids were associated with trees.

Classical writers associated the druids with sacred groves. Tacitus, in describing the destruction of a druid sanctuary, referred to cutting down "the groves which were dedicated to their savage rituals." According to Piggott, the earliest Celtic sanctuaries consisted of arrangements of statues and pillars in forests or other sites, rather than enclosed buildings. Later, the Celts had buildings with roofs but open at the sides, good for sheltering crowds but still remaining open to the natural surroundings. Pliny associated druids with the oak in particular, but in Ireland, the yew, rowan, and hawthorn were considered at least as powerful and valuable. In Ireland, laws imposed stiff fines if trees were cut down; the severity of the fine depended on the type of tree. In one version of ogham, each character was associated with a type of tree.

xvi) The druids taught that there was an after-life.

The evidence from both classical writers and Irish texts testifies to druidic belief that the present life was followed by another existence in an Otherworld. Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that, "The druids . . . declared souls to be immortal." Pomponius Mela claimed that, "One of their dogmas has become widely known so they may the more readily go to wars: namely that souls are everlasting, and that among the shades is another life."

What is less certain is whether the druids believed in reincarnation or transmigration of the soul. Diodorus Siculus wrote, "The Pythagorean doctrine prevails among them [the Gauls], teaching that the souls of men are immortal and live again for a fixed number of years inhabited in another body." Writing in the first century, Lucan addressed the druids rhetorically with:

It is you who say that the shades of the dead seek not the silent land of Erebus and the pale halls of Pluto; rather, you tell us that the same spirit has a body again elsewhere, and that death, if what you sing is true, is but the midpoint of long life.

Medieval Irish texts contain traces of belief in persons being reborn in different forms. Sometimes, it seems that a single being simply takes on one form after another, as in the case of Tuan mac Cairell. In other situations, a character might be an earlier figure reborn, such as when Mongan is said to be Fionn reborn. Interestingly, these figures always seem to recall their previous forms and lives.


xvii) The druids venerated deities that were highly local in focus.

Archaeologists have discovered several hundred different names or titles that seem to refer to deities. Only a handful appear more than once. Each tribe or kin-group apparently had its own set of deities, though each set probably performed similar functions of providing protection or bringing prosperity at specific seasons. There wasn't a pan-Celtic pantheon.

xviii) The pre-Christian Irish believed in a tripartite cosmology consisting of talam (land), muir (sea), and nem (sky) in this world plus an Otherworld that was an idealized version of this one.

Medieval Irish sources repeatedly refer to this notion, which gradually gave way to a Christian worldview of this world, the classical four elements, and heaven, the abode of the Trinity and the angels.

xix) The druids did sacrifice animals and sometimes humans.

There seems to be little question that Celtic-speaking people "sacrificed" animals and humans. Classical writers all mention it, and so do Irish texts. Archaeological evidence also supports the presence of human and animal bones in places and arrangements consistent with sacrificial rituals. Most other ancient cultures performed such offerings; it would be more surprising if the Celtic-speaking peoples did not. The animals may have been partly a sort of offering of first fruits. In other cases, they may have been intended as a means of renewing the supply of raw material needed to renew the cosmos and provide new sources of food and life. Tacitus wrote, "they considered it lawful to offer the blood of captives on their altars, and to consult the gods by means of the nerves of men." Julius Caesar went into some detail, though it is unclear whether he actually witnessed sacrifices:

. . . those are afflicted with serious illnesses and those who are engaged in battles or dangerous activities, either sacrifice men as victims or vow that they will sacrifice themselves; and they employ the Druids as assistants in these sacrifices, because, if the life of a man is not given in exchange for the life of a man, they consider that the divine power of the immortal gods can not be appeased; and they hold sacrifices of this kind in public as an established practice.

This description may refer to the practice of sacrificing prisoners of war after a victory. Caesar also confirmed the notion that those sacrificed often were criminals, as in other cultures:

The execution of those who have been caught in theft or burglary or some other crime is considered to be more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of victims of this type runs short, execution falls even upon the innocent.

Such offerings were meant to repair offense against a deity.

xx) The druids made ritual use of fire.

Julius Caesar said that the druids used fire to offer sacrifice. Certainly, Irish texts also associated fire with druidic ceremonies. Midhe lit a fire at Uisneach to inaugurate the arrival of the Nemedians in Ireland. Fire plays a central role in the druids' encounters with Patrick in lives of that saint: the druids light ceremonial fires on heights to mark feasts and they summon fire out of the sky in tests of magical power.

xxi) In Ireland, the druids practiced battle magic.

Unlike Caesar's depiction of the druids as arbiters in times of war, the Irish law texts focus on their ability to win battles. Bretha Nemed toísech, a law text, states that a druí could win a battle for the weaker side. Part of Cath Maige Tuiread is devoted to deciding what sorts of magic would be used in battle against the Fomoire. The super-warrior Lugh is shown using the methods of corrguinecht (crane- or heron-killing) in battle, circling the battlefield while chanting in a specific stance in imitation of a heron or crane---standing on one foot, one eye closed and with one arm stretched above the head. In the same battle, a druid promised to send showers of fire down on the Fomoire, to deprive them of two-thirds of their strength and valor, and to bind the urine in their bodies and the bodies of their horses. In a much later text, Forbais Dromma Damgaire, the druid Mog Ruith is recruited to use his skills on behalf of a king against the druids recruited by the opposing king. A druidic wind temporarily kept the Milesians from landing in Ireland. Even in specifically Christian texts like saints' stories, druids were credited with being able to perform magic in battle. The Annals of Ulster for 560 (recte 561 in margin) refer to the use of the erbe ndruad (druid's fence) during the battle of Cúil Dremne. Any warrior attempting to jump over this erbe was killed. The annals don't say whether the fence was simply a magical barrier-a force field, if you will-or a physical obstacle covered with poisoned spikes. For example, adding a contact poison to the surface of a wattling barrier plus chanting charms over it could be seen as making it magical. However, druids were not the only members of early Irish society credited with the ability to wield magical techniques. Smiths and physicians were credited with specific skills and powers. Fili could chant spells powerful enough to raise facial deformity or even death. Ordinary people could chant blessings of protection or verses that cursed.

xxii) Women could be druids.

Significant evidence suggests that women in Gaul functioned as religious leaders of some sort. The questions is whether they were called druids. Tacitus described women being among the druids in Britain who resisted the destruction of their sanctuary, but he does not call them druids. Occasionally, women in early Irish texts are called bandruíd, literally "women-druids," just as there were banfilid (women-poets). In the early Christian period, Gaulish fortune-tellers were sometimes called druidesses, though it is uncertain whether this appellation should be taken literally. It may have become a common, somewhat meaningless phrase used for any woman in Gaul who claimed the ability to foretell the future.

Unknowns: What We Do Not Know about the Druids

The following list, while not comprehensive, should help to dispel many of the modern, erroneous, misconceptions of the ancient druids:


i) We don't know what druids wore.

We know very little about what druids wore. Pliny's Natural History says they wore white (probably meaning undyed) robes for cutting mistletoe. In describing the Roman destruction of the druids at Mona, Tacitus says that the women among the druids wore dark robes "like the Furies," but he also implies that they were not druids (though one wonders how he knew). Irish tales refer to druids wearing head-dresses and cloaks made of feathers.

ii) We don't know whether men and women worshipped together.

Tacitus' accounts of the Roman destruction of Mona mention women shouting curses among the druids. We don't know for sure who the women were, though Irish sources indicate that both men and women were druids.

iii) We don't know what druids believed or taught.

Aside from the specifics discussed in this article, we know little else about what the druids actually taught.

iv) We don't know what druids said or did during their worship.

The druids didn't leave behind any prayers or spells. The poems attributed to figures in early Irish tales may give us some idea of how they phrased their chants. Inscriptions left at Gaulish and British healing shrines tell us what petitioners sought and expected to receive. Descriptions of techniques like corrguinecht give us some ideas. We don't know what their prayers or chants were or when they used them. Pliny tells us that the druids in Gaul ritually cut mistletoe for use in ritual and medicine, but this wouldn't have been done in Ireland because mistletoe isn't native to Ireland. Circles of standing stones predated the druids, and scholars aren't sure that the Celts used them for ritual events; Celts everywhere seem to have had their own sites for rituals.

v) We don't know what terms druids used for what they did.

Traces, such as the term corrguinecht, suggest that druids had terms for what they did, but most have been lost.

vi) We don't know what their cosmology was like.

It is reasonably certain that the druids observed the night sky and plotted the course of what they saw, and we can assume that they had ideas about how the universe functioned. But, as described earlier, only hints of what they believed about the world have survived.

vii) We don't know how they performed divination.

Aside from the general references to watching the flight of birds, stabbing people, and sleeping on bull hides, there are some contradictory medieval Irish descriptions of techniques used by poets. These may have come from techniques used by earlier seers or druids. However, we do not have sufficient details to reconstruct the methods.

viii) We don't know what their astrological systems were like.

We have objects like the Coligny calendar indicating that someone among the Gauls knew how to calculate calendars. But we don't know how they created the calendar, nor do we understand the significance of many of the words and markings.