For many centuries it has been believed that all we know of the celtic druids is what we have have been told in the scant references made to them by the writers of the classical period such as Cæsar, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, Pliny, Cicero Pomponius Mela, and Tacitus etc ... Yet in reality nothing could be further from the truth. There is much information about the druids, and druidical practices, that can be gleaned from the study of the folklore and oral traditions of the peoples of the various countries in which the druids once existed.
Nevertheless, classical writers told of an order of druidical priests who taught 'natural philosophy' and 'astronomy', and told that these matters were to be memorised in courses of instruction lasting up to 20 years. We are also told that in druidical times it was forbidden to commit to writing any and all reference to these matters, and so we are left with 'the classics' as a starting point when looking at these ancient and mysterious peoples. Some modern commentators have referred to the druids as 'priests of nature' who revered rocks, trees and water, and in this description they would appear to have held similar beliefs to those of the Japanese Shinto religion - another very ancient belief system.
The main problem for modern researchers looking at the druids is that the original references are made mostly in Latin or Ancient Greek, and during the process of translation from these ancient languages much of the original meaning and intention of the writers who observed the druids at first-hand will inevitably be lost. This page, and some of those linked from it, focus on those classical references to the celtic druids. But before these are given, the following example is used to illustrate the difficulties in translation, and also the tendency of translators of different eras to interpret the druidical practices referred to in 'the classics' with the terminologies and presumptions of their own times of writing.
For example, in book six of "The Gallic Wars" by Caius Julius Cæsar, a sentance in the original Latin reads:
"Multa praeterea de sideribus atque eorum motu, de mundi ac terrarum magnitudine, de rerum natura, de deorum immortalium vi ac potestate disputant et iuventuti tradunt."
This could be translated as:
"They likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our Earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and majesty of the immortal gods."
But it may also be translated as:
"Moreover, they examine much from the heavenly bodies and their influences, from the magnitude of the universe and the Earth, from Nature, from the violence and power of everlasting gods, and entrust this to the youth."
As can easily be seen from the example above, Latin words such as 'sideribus' can have several meanings, and in fact different Latin dictionairies will give one, or a number, of meanings for 'sideribus' such as 'stars', 'constellations', 'planets', or simply any 'objects in the heavens'. While the Latin word 'motu' can be interpreted as either 'motion' or 'influence', and both would be correct in the right context.
Interestingly, for any serious discussion about the druids, the root of the word 'sideribus' is 'sider', and it is tempting to speculate whether or not romans such as Julius Cæsar might have understood a little of the original ancient Welsh language of the druids of Britannia (Britain). The ancient language of most peoples of the islands, and also of Brittany in northwest France, was Brythonic, a language which despite the inevitable changes over the last two millennia still has many similarities today with the traditional spoken languages of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The Welsh word 'sidydd' has traditionally been used to describe the 'zodiac' or 'ecliptic', with 'Caer Sidi' referring to the illusion of a 'revolving castle' of stars, or constellations, that form the background to the apparent annual path of the sun around the heavens. Perhaps the two words share a common archaic root dating right back into prehistoric times?
Bearing that in mind, the works of Caius Julius Cæsar is as good a place as any to start. After all he did attempt to conquer the Islands of Prydein at a time when the druidic system was fully in control of the islands. We have selected the references quoted in three books about the druids to illustrate the often subtle differences in translation which can change the whole way that the celtic druids are viewed. These books are:
"Barddas - the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain"
"The Druids - a Study in Celtic Prehistory"
The quotations on this page are those used by the Rev. J. Williams Ab Ithel, M.A., from his works "Barddas - the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain" published by the Welsh MSS Society in 1862:
Caius Julius Cæsar, B.C. 99-44 : "De Bello Gallico", Liber vi., cc. 13-18:
"They preside over sacred things, have the charge of public and private sacrifices, and explain their religion. To them a great number of youths have recourse for the sake of acquiring instruction, and they are in great honour among them. For they generally settle all their 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; and 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 : nor is legal right rendered to them when they sue it, nor any honour conferred upon them. But one presides over all these Druids, who posses the supreme authority among them. At his death, if any one of the others excels in dignity, the same succeeds him : but if several have equal pretensions, the president is elected by the votes of the Druids, sometimes they even contend about the supreme dignity by force of arms. At a certain time of the year, they assemble in session on a consecrated spot in the confines of the Carnutes, which is considered the central region of the whole of Gaul. Thither all, who have any disputes, come together from any side, and acquiesce in their judgements and decisions. The institution is thought to have originated in Britain, and to have been thence introduced into Gaul; and even now those who wish to become more accurately acquainted with it, generally repair thither, for he sake of learning it."
"The Druids usually abstain from war, nor do they pay taxes together with the others; they have exemption from warfare, and the free use of all things. Instigated by such advantages, many resort to their school even of their own accord, whilst others are sent by their parents and relations. They are said to thoroughly a great number of verses. On that account, some continue at their education for twenty years. Nor do they deem it lawful to commit those things to writing; though, generally, in other cases, and in their public and private accounts, they use Greek letters. They appear to me to have established this custom for two reasons; because they would not have their tenets published, and because they would not have those, who learn them, by trusting to letters, neglect the exercise of memory; since it generally happens, that, owing to the safeguard of letters, they relax their diligence in learning, as well as their memory. In particular they wish to inculcate this idea, that souls do not die, but pass after death from one body to another; and they think that by this means men are very much instigated to the exercise of bravery, the fear of death being despised. They also dispute largely concerning the stars and their motion, the magnitude of the world and the earth, the nature of things, the force and power of the immortal gods, and instruct the youth in their principles."
"The whole nation of Gauls is very much given to religious observances, and on that account, those affected with grievous diseases, and those who are engaged in battles and perils, either immolate men as sacrifices, or vow that they will immolate themselves, and they employ Druids as ministers of those sacrifices; because they think that the life of a man is not given for the life of man, the immortal gods cannot be appeased; they have also instituted public sacrifices of the same kind. Some have images of immense size, the limbs of which, interwoven with twigs, they fill with living men, and the same being set on fire, the men, surrounded by the flames, are put to death. They think the punishment of those who are caught in theft or pillage , or in any other wicked act, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when there is a deficiency of such evil doers, they have recourse even to the punishment of the innocent."
"They chiefly worship the god Mercury; of him they have many images, him they consider as the inventor of all arts, as the guide of ways and journeys, and possessing power for obtaining money and merchandise. After him, they worship Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. Concerning them they have almost the same opinions as other nations, namely : that Apollo wards of diseases; that Minerva instructs them in the principles of works and arts; that Jupiter holds the empire of heaven; and that Mars rules wars. To him, when they have determined to engage in battle, they generally vow those things which they shall have captured in war. When they are victorious, they sacrifice the captured animals; and pile up the other things in one place."
"The Gauls declare that they have all sprung from their father Pluto, and this they say was delivered to them by the Druids."
Strabo, B.C. 54 : "Geographia", Liber iv:
"And among the whole of them [the Gauls] three classes more especially are held in distinguished veneration, the Bards, the Ovates, and the Druids. The Bards are chaunters and poets. The Ovates are sacrificers and physiologists. The Druids, in addition to physiology, practise ethic philosophy. They are deemed to be most upright, and, in consequence, to them are committed public and private controversies, insomuch that on some occasions they decide on battles, and stop the combatants on the eve of engaging. Matters pertaining to murder are more especially entrusted to their decision, and when profit accrues from these, they think fertility will attend their country. These and others say their souls are immortal, and that the world is so too; yet ultimately fire and water will prevail. To their simplicity and ferocity are superadded much stupidity, vain boasting, and love of ornament. They wear gold, having collars thereof on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists; and dignified persons are clad in dyed garments embroidered in gold ... "
"Having stricken the man destined for sacrifice on the back with a sword, they augur from the palpitation. They never sacrifice without the Druids. Other kinds of human immolation are spoken of : some victims they slay with arrows, or crucify their offerings; and having prepared a colossus of hay, and thrown wood upon it, they burn together oxen, all sorts of wild beasts, and men."
Diodorus Siculus, B.C. 44 : "Historia", Liber v., c. 31:
"And there are among them [the Gauls] composers of verses, whom they call Bards; these, singing to instruments similar to a lyre, applaud some, while they vituperate others. There are also certain philosophers and priests surpassingly esteemed, whom they call Druids. They have also soothsayers, who are held in high estimation; and these, by auguries and the sacrifice of victims, foretel future events, and hold the commonality in complete subjection : and more especially, when they deliberate on matters of moment, they practise a strange and incredible right; for having devoted a man for sacrifice, they strike him with a sword above the diaphragm : the victim having fallen, they augur from his mode of falling, the contortion of his limbs, and the flowing of the blood, what may come to pass, giving credence concerning such things to an ancient and longstanding observance.
"They have a custom of performing no sacrifice unattended by a philosopher. For they say that thanksgiving should be offered to the gods by men acquainted with the divine nature and using the same language, and by these they deem it necessary to ask for good things; and not only in the concerns of peace, but even enemies also, chiefly defer to them and the composers of verses. Frequently, during hostilities, when armies are approaching each other with swords drawn and lances extended, these men rushing between them to put an end to their contention, taming them as they would tame wild beasts."
Cicero, (slain) B.C. 43 : "De Divinatione", Liber i
"This method of divination has not been neglected even amongst barbarous nations. For there are Druids in Gaul, with whom I was acquainted, namely, Divitiacus Æduus, who enjoyed the hospitality of your house, and spoke of you with admiration. This man not only professed an intimate knowledge of the system of nature, which the Greeks called physiology, but also foretold future events, partly by augury, and partly by conjecture."
Pliny the Elder, (born) A.D. 23 : "Naturalis Historia", Liber xvi. sect. 95
"The Druids (so they call their wise men) hold nothing in greater reverence than the mistletoe, and the tree on which it grows, so that it be an oak. They choose forests of oaks, for the sake of the tree itself, and perform no sacred rites without oak leaves; so that one may fancy that they had even been called for this reason, turning the word into Greek, Druids. But whatever grows upon these trees, they hold to have been sent from heaven, and to be sign that the Deity Himself has chosen the tree for his own. The thing, however, is very rarely found, and when found is gathered with much ceremony; and above all, on the sixth day of the moon, by which these men reckon the beginning of their months and years, and of their cycle of thirty years, because the moon has then sufficient power, yet has not yet reached half its size.
"Addressing it in their own language by the epithet of all healing, after duly preparing sacrifices and banquets under the tree, they bring to the spot two white bulls, the horns of which are then for the first time garlanded. The priest clothed in a white dress ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a gold knife; it is caught in a white cloak. Thereupon they slay the victims, with a prayer that the Deity may prosper His own gift to them, to whom He has given it. They fancy that, by drinking it, fertility is given to any barren animal, and that it is a remedy against all poisons."
Pliny the Elder, (born) A.D. 23 : "Naturalis Historia", Liber xxiv, ss. 62-63
"Like to this Sabine herb is that called selago. It is gathered, without using a knife, with the right hand wrapped in a tunic, the left being uncovered, as though the man was stealing it; the gatherer being clothed in a white dress, and with bare feet washed clean, after performing sacrifice before gathering it, with bread and wine. It is to be carried in a new napkin. According to the tradition of the Gaulish Druids, it is to be kept as a remedy against all evil, and the smoke of it is good for all diseases of the eyes. The same Druids have given the name samolus to a plant that grows in wet places; and this they say must be gathered with the left hand by one who is fasting, as a remedy for diseases of swine and cattle, and that he, who gathers it, must keep his head turned away, and must lay it down anywhere except in a channel through which water runs, and there must bruize it for them who are to drink it."
Pliny the Elder, (born) A.D. 23 : "Naturalis Historia", Liber xxix sect. 12
"There is another kind of egg in high repute in Gaul, although the Greeks make no account of it. A great number of snakes in summer time are artificially twisted and rolled together in to a mass by the saliva of their jaws and the foam of their bodies. It is called snake's egg. The Druids tell you that it is thrown in to the air with hisses, and must be caught in a cloak that it may not touch the ground; that he that catches it must fly on horse-back, for that the snakes pursue him until hindered by the intervention of some river; that the test of it is, if it flows against the stream, even when tied with gold. And, according to the common craft of wizards, shrewd to conceal their cheating, they pronounce that it must be taken up at a particular time of the moon; as though it rested with the man's choice, whether that proceeding on the part of the snake should take place or not."
Pomponius Mela, A.D. 45 : "De Situ Orbis", Liber iii. c. 2
"They [the Gauls] have an eloquence of their own, and their Druids as masters of wisdom. These profess to know the magnitude and form of the earth and the world, the motions of the heaven and the stars, and the will of the gods. They teach the most noble of the nation many things privately, and for a long time, even for twenty years, in a cave or inaccessible woods. One of their precepts has become public, namely, that they should act bravely in war, that souls are immortal, and that there is another life after death. Therefore along with the dead, they burn things which belonged to them while living. Their debtor and creditor accounts were transferred below. Some even went so far as to ascend the funeral pyres of their own accord, as though about to live with them."
Suetonius Tranquillus : "De Claudio Cæsare", Liber v. , c. 25
"[Suetonius flourished in the beginning of the second century. He describes] 'the Druidic religion among the Gauls as one of terrible cruelty'."
Ammianus Marcellinus, A.D. 380 : Liber xv. c. 9
" ... the Bards record the exploits of heroes, in poems, which they sing to the soft sound of the lyre ... "
Cornelius Tacitus : Liber xiv. c. 30
"There stood apart on the strand and army, thick with men and arms, and women ran to and fro after the manner of the Furies, clad in funereal dresses, with dishevelled hair, and carrying torches before them. The Druids, also, pouring out terrible prayers around them, with hands raised towards heaven, struck the soldiers with awe by the novelty of the sight; so that, as of their members clung to the spot, they offered their unmoved bodies to the wounds. Afterwards, by exhortations of their leaders, and by their own mutual encouragements, not to be afraid of a womanish and fanatical troop, they lead on the standards, overthrow their opponents, and involve them in their own fires."
"A guard was afterward placed over the conquered, and their groves were cut down, which had been consecrated to their cruel superstitions; for 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."
The references above were quoted by the Rev. J. Williams Ab Ithel, M.A., in his works "Barddas - the Bardo-Druidic System of the Isle of Britain" published by the Welsh MSS Society in 1862. The book caused a lot of controversy when it was originally published, and this continues today, mainly because it took seriously the writings of Edward Williams, who was known in druidic circles in Morganwg (Glamorgan), South Wales, as Iolo Morganwg. Iolo was the Archdruid of Cadair Morganwg - the Chair of Glamorgan.
As any quick glance at classical references will show, the teachings of the druids in their open-air 'hedge schools' were never allowed to be written down. Instead, young students from all over the classical world were sent to them for periods of instruction lasting up to 20 years, during which time they were required to learn, and commit to memory, many thousands of verses which contained the secrets of the druidic teachings about 'natural philosophy' and the ancient native traditions of 'astronomy'. Could this have been so in pre-classical times also?
At some stage after the bombardment of cometary debris in the mid-sixth century, which brought about the European Dark Age, some of this material was written down, and texts from that period remained in the possession of wealthy Welsh families. These 'landed gentry' had passed down from generation to generation many MSS of uncertain date, and even more uncertain origin. Iolo was accused of forging much of this material by various people whose connections with the church hierarchy of the time betrayed their obvious 'hidden agenda', which seems to have been to destroy the last vestiges of druidic oral tradition that had remained intact in the valley communities of South Wales as 'local oral traditions' up until the rapis period of industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Within the many 'riddle-poems' that comprised these teachings the druids encoded their 'ancient secret knowledge', and Iolo Morganwg, who was succeeded as 'Archdruid' after his death by his student, Myryr Morganwg, began the process of writing down much of this ancient knowledge in order to preserve it. When Myfyr Morganwg died, the mantle of 'Archdruid' was passed to Owen 'Morien' Morgan. It was Morien who, observing the increasing anglicisation of South Wales that accompanied industrialisation in the steel and coal industries, began to study the local 'oral traditions' and to compare them with the 'cosmologies' and 'astro-mythologies' of other great cultures of antiquity.
'Morien' suffered the same fate as Iolo. His writings were denigrated by the Welsh establishment of the day, and while copies survive in libraries and in private collections, the only two to remain available in print today are "The Mabin of the Mabinogion", and "The Light of Britannia".
They have been denigrated by scholars who, for reasons undeclared, have spent much time trying to deny the very existence of the Cadair Morganwg (Chair of Glamorgan). All of Morien's books are generally referred to by many of them as being 'completely unreadable'. To those unfamiliar with ancient mythologies "The Mabin of the Mabinogion" is indeed hard going, but it remains a veritable gold-mine of snippets of druidic lore for students of comparative mythology, and those who are prepared to study the vestiges of 'druidic oral tradition' as it survived in the valleys of South Wales. After all, these oral druidic traditions were composed in such a manner that they were only accessilble to those who had been 'initiated' into the druidic teachings, and who were therefore familiar with druidic philosophy as manifest in the ancient 'riddle-poems'.
Over the past 30 years or so, some have realised that to understand these verses is " ... to know the names of the stars from the North to the South ... ", and this was something that, if the classical references above are accurate, ancient druidic initiates spent up to 20 years studying.
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"Morien was facinated by the local folklore of his native Morganwg, and seeing that the English language would soon follow the rapid industrialisation of the South Wales valleys, he set out to gather and study them.
In due course, and after comparing the local Welsh traditions to similar traditions of what he termed the 'annual solar drama' from around the classical world, he wrote that, of all those traditions, the Welsh druidic system had remained in purer form than any other he had encountered."
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