Who Were the Druids?
The exact origin of the druid class is unknown although it is sometimes supposed that, at least in some form, they pre-existed the Celts in Europe. The Irish historical record isn't very clear on the matter. Every tribe of people that figures in it are said to have had their own druids, from the Fir Bolgs to the Gallic Milesians; even the mythical northern homeland of the Tuatha Dé Danann was reputedly ruled by powerful druids. In reality, the druids are probably in some way descended from the Neolithic tribal shaman-priests recorded in ancient cave drawings.
Adding to the aura of mystery around the ancient druids was the Celts' seeming abhorrence of the written word. The Celts were neither ignorant or unlearned, prizing wisdom and learning above all things. While writing was eventually used for lesser purposes such as marking roads or keeping monetary records or contracts, Celtic history, law, and religion were instead preserved through an elaborate system of memorization and oral transmission. The priestly classes charged with the keeping of this great body of knowledge and lore were the druids, who commanded tremendous respect among the Celts and constituted a societal class equal in stature to the nobility. The druid ability to mediate between worlds afforded them a great deal of secular power as well; having the ear of the gods gave them influence over nearly every aspect of Celtic society.
Druids Through Foreign Eyes
Most of what is known about the Gallic druids is drawn from the writings of Roman and Greek observers; most notably from the pen of Julius Caesar, who gave a detailed (if flawed) account of Celtic culture in his history of the Roman incursion on Celtic territory. Other important biographies of the druids come from the Roman author Pliny and Greek historians Diodorus Siculus and Strabo. While the Roman account tends to be hostile, the Greek writers tended to be more sympathetic to the druids, praising them for their wisdom and intellect. Diodorus praised their preference for austere living conditions, and Strabo referred to druids as “the most just of men.”
While all of these are valuable sources, Caesar created the best record of the druids, outlining their rank in society, their inner hierarchies, their methods of training, and the manner of their rituals and sacrifice. Although Caesar regarded the Celts as barbarians, he too affords the druids some admiration for their intellectual pursuits, even if he recounts with horror their sacrificial practices. It is of course important to remember that Caesar is writing about a culture he has been at war with, and that he never personally witnessed any of the events he describes.
Becoming a Druid
The ranks of druidry were not closed. Any who managed to complete the rigorous training required could become a druid and thus a privileged member of society, exempt from paying taxes or going to war.
The druids also undertook the role of educators, and druid schools enjoyed a fine reputation. Classical writers often praised druid schools, where sons of the noble classes were taught alongside aspiring druids.
Caesar notes that the druids were heavily organized, with a chief “arch-druid” above all the others. When the leader died, a successor was elected by committee. Each tribe had its own complement of druids, with some acting as advisers to the king while others might have held roles as physicians or musicians. Likewise, each sacred shrine or grove had its priests and attendants. Again according to Caesar, the druids held annual meetings in the “land of the Carnutes,” a tribe that lived near what is now Chartres, France.
Druid theology centered on the doctrine of metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls. Unlike many other groups who believed in reincarnation doctrines, the druids did not appear to believe there was any hierarchy of souls. Rather, one could move from man to animal and vice versa, in an endless cycle of rebirth. One could be a king, a peasant, a warrior, or even, it appears, an animal or bird.
The Roman poet Lucan, in a diatribe against the druids, remarked sourly:
It is you [druids] 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 a long life.
Caesar surmises, with some disgust, that the druid doctrine of reincarnation was largely responsible for the fearlessness of the Celtic warriors. The Celts' general attitude of “eat, drink, and be merry” may also be attributed to this easygoing attitude toward death.