The Fascinating Druids

I have always been fascinated by Stonehenge, since the very first time I heard about it. I asked the questions that many people asked: what was it? Who built it? Why did they build it? Why there?

Sadly, many of the “facts” I learned about Stonehenge were incredibly inaccurate. A history class in junior high actually said that Stonehenge was built and used by Druids. I had always had a fascination with druids, too, and I didn’t know until today that my history teacher (and the book he got it from) was wrong. I hate that I have been misinformed for all these years, but there is a sort of thrill that comes from learning the truth about what actually happened in history, and getting the real information.

A lot of things I thought I knew about druids were wrong, too. I thought they were only the religious leaders who lived a secluded life–not unlike monks in a monastery–and only came out to celebrate the major holidays with the locals: the winter solstice, the summer solstice, and Samhain (Halloween to us). I should have done more research on my own back then, but I don’t know what I would have found if I did. Thankfully, Google makes finding good academic sources fairly easy these days, and I found out that druids weren’t just religious leaders; they were the elites: yes, they were priests, but they were also the doctors, and poets of the Iron Age. Not much else is known about them, and there hasn’t been any artifact or piece of material culture that has been found that can be definitively be said to be of druidic origin.

We find the first written description of them is actually from Julius Caesar circa 50 BCE  in his writing Commentarii de Bello Gallico. He wrote that they had great power, being able to banish people from religious ceremonies, being exempt from paying taxes or entering military service, and he even claimed they were so revered among the people that they could walk between warring armies without insult or injury, and that the battle itself would stop around them.

Another author, Pomponius Mela, wrote something that I had heard before, that druids’ training was secret, and done deep in the forests and caves. It was all orally handed down, and it took a very long time to memorize. No oral history has been known to have survived, not in passing down or through transcription. I had heard that druids were both male and female, but Ronald Hutton, who wrote a book called The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, said that there has been no evidence anywhere to suggest that druids were anything but male. A professor named Phillip Freeman thinks that this is because the female class of druids were called Dryades (which translates to ‘Druidess’). He researched histories and biographies of the times and concluded that these women often undertook the same functions as druids, including religious ceremonies and prophecy.

The priestly order of druids were eradicated from the British Isles by Christians, but they stayed around as bards up through the thirteenth century.

It’s amazing how little we know about this group of people, and how much speculation they have caused. Whether or not they have any actual connection to Stonehenge (and I believe that there is a slight possibility that they were among those who gathered and used it, and that druids were even buried there), druids were fascinating.

One thought on “The Fascinating Druids

  1. First off, your post is really well written. Also, your topic is really interesting! I have to say, when Dr. Watrall mentioned druids today in class, I was pretty excited. My only exposure to anything druid-related has been through pop culture references, such as the “Diablo” game franchise and the “Game of Thrones” book series. In both, they were portrayed as master animal handlers, and some druids even had the power to control the minds and actions of their pets. While this would be amazing, I didn’t expect anything of the like to come up in the class discussion today. What was noteworthy, however, was the status that druids held in society. It is exactly the opposite of how druids were portrayed in any media source I had come upon. Perhaps in reality, druids did have more of a personal connection with nature than most other people… but that still doesn’t explain the animal shape-shifting. It would be interesting to learn exactly how this public image of druids has transformed over time, and what factors sped in this transition from elites to hermits. Maybe this reclusive image came from a persecuting group hoping to tarnish the name of the druids, and that the characteristics they assigned to them were deemed unfavorable in their day. In any case, someone felt that druids were a threat to their success, and decided to eradicate them for their own well being.

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