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The druids of Britain : Ancient Celtic priests

8 months ago

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By Nethmie Dehigama   When we think about druids today, we immediately think of something related to mysticism and magic. Even in modern literature, television, or video games, this is generally the picture that is painted. However, the druids of Britain were so much more than just mythical characters.  Who were the druids? Druids were not a separate ethnic group nor a singular people. Instead, the druids were the priestly class of the Celtics who inhabited Britain before and during the Roman invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar and Claudius. They were religious leaders, legal authorities, adjudicators, lore keepers, medical professionals, and political advisors. They were on the top rung of the three-tiered Celtic society consisting of serfs, warriors, and learned men. They would manage religious sacrifices – which included human sacrifice – interpret natural events, were known to be soothsayers, and would make medicinal potions such as those from the sacred plant called mistletoe. The term “druid” is likely derived from druides/druidae in Latin, druad in Old Irish, and dryw in Welsh, which could mean “knowledge” or “oak tree”. The oak tree was an important symbol of knowledge to the druids. The origins of the druid class remain a mystery to this day mostly because the druids never kept written accounts of their knowledge as this was banned by their doctrine, but historians have come to a consensus that they seem to have appeared in Britain between 1600 and 1400 BC. (There is evidence that they were in Ireland around 1472 BC, too). Pretty much everything that we know about druids today is from second-hand sources.  Julius Caesar’s observations Julius Caesar noted: “The druids officiate at the worship of the gods, regulate at public and private sacrifice, and rule on all religious questions. Large numbers of young men flock to them for instruction, and they are held in great honour by the people” (Gallic Wars, VI:13). He documented that the druids did not have to pay taxes and were not obliged to perform military service. They would also preside over judicial matters like land disputes and boundary conflicts. They oversaw the taking of oaths by warriors which demonstrated their loyalty to their leader. Druids also dressed differently from normal people – which probably helped easily set them apart from the rest. The ordinary druids would wear long white robes with unusual headgear that had bronze pieces. The eldest or wisest druid – the Arch-druid – would wear gold robes. The Sacrificers would fight and wear red. The Blue Bards were artistic, and the new recruits to Druidism completed lesser tasks and were held in lesser esteem, wearing brown or black. We do not exactly know of the hierarchical structure that existed amongst druids, but Julius Caesar also mentions the induction of a chief druid in Gaul, France, who once elected would hold the position for life. Novices would spend 20 years learning about the secret knowledge of the druids entirely orally.  Rituals and religious practice Druids had the power to impose taboos and prohibitions. If anyone dared disobey, it was believed that they were most likely punished by death. Offerings were made at natural sites such as rivers, lakes, and hills because these locations were thought to be meeting places between the physical and supernatural planes. They also loved holding rituals underneath or near oak trees. They offered prayers, food, and precious items to please their gods. As mentioned earlier, they were also known to sacrifice humans. Usually, these sacrifices would be captured prisoners from battle or criminals. Human or animal sacrifice was also used for purposes of divination i.e., they would observe how the human or animal died, and what patterns of blood were created, and try to tell the future using these “signs”. They would also use a large statue made of wicker (wooden material) known as the “Wicker Man” and sacrifice humans and animals within it by burning. Decline With the rise of the Roman empire and the spread of Christianity, Druidism began to decline, especially because Romans abhorred the concept of human sacrifice. Emperor Claudius declared Druidism illegal in AD 54, and in AD 61, the Romans planned a massacre of the defiant druids at Anglesey, the centre of their culture, and their last stronghold in consolidated Britain. After this, Druidism never flourished in the same way again. Of course, between the 16th and 18th centuries, there was a re-interest in Druidism by scholars during a period of Romantic Revival. Unfortunately, there were some misconceptions that took root during this time – such as that the druids were the ones who created Stonehenge (which is not true, although they may very well have known how to utilise it). Modern day Druidry There is a modern spiritual-religious movement called Neo-Druidry that promotes the cultivation of honourable relationships between nature and people, as well as with nature deities, and spirits of nature and places. Modern druid-related practices are much tamer, reincarnation is debated, and human and animal sacrifices are forbidden. It’s present in 34 countries across continents. To this day, on 21 June, modern druids gather at Stonehenge during the summer solstice. However, the property managers are usually not so welcoming of these annual visitors.  PHOTOS © BEN BIRCHALL, BRITANNICA, WIKIWAND, WIKIMEDIA  

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