1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Druidism
DRUIDISM, the name usually given to the religious system of the ancient inhabitants of Gaul and the British Islands. The word Druid (Lat. druida) probably represents a Gaulish druid-s, Irish drúi, gen. sing. drúad. On the analogy of Irish súi<su-vid-s the word has been analysed into dru-vid-, “very knowing, wise.” The ancient Welsh form of the word does not exist. Welsh derwydd and dryw are probably to be regarded as of recent coinage, as also the Breton forms drouiz, druz. The important part played by the oak in the religious cults of other countries suggests a connexion with Greek δρῦς, oak, but this etymology is rather in disfavour at the present time.
We find in Caesar the first and at the same time the most circumstantial account of the Druids to be met with in the classical writers. He tells us that all men of any rank and dignity in Gaul were included among the Druids or the nobles. In other words, the Druids constituted the learned and the priestly class, and they were in addition the chief expounders and guardians of the law. We are, however, informed by Diodorus and Strabo that this class was composed of Druids, bards and soothsayers. Hence Caesar seems to assign more extensive functions to the Druids than they actually possessed. The substance of Caesar’s account is as follows. On those who refused to submit to their decisions they had the power of inflicting severe penalties, of which excommunication from society was the most dreaded. As they were not a hereditary caste and enjoyed exemption from service in the field as well as from payment of taxes, admission to the order was eagerly sought after by the youth of Gaul. The course of training to which a novice had to submit was protracted, extending sometimes over twenty years. All instruction was communicated orally, but for ordinary purposes they had a written language in which they used the Greek characters. The president of the order, whose office was elective and who enjoyed the dignity for life, had supreme authority among them. They taught that the soul was immortal. Astrology, geography, physical science and natural theology were their favourite studies.
Britain was the headquarters of Druidism, but once every year a general assembly of the order was held within the territories of the Carnutes in Gaul. The Gauls were accustomed to offer human sacrifices, usually criminals. Cicero remarks on the existence among the Gauls of augurs or soothsayers, known by the name of Druids, with one of whom, Divitiacus, an Aeduan, he was acquainted. Diodorus informs us that a sacrifice acceptable to the gods must be attended by a Druid, for they are the intermediaries. Before a battle they often throw themselves between two armies to bring about peace. They are said to have had a firm belief in the immortality of the soul and in metempsychosis, a fact which led several ancient writers to conclude that they had been influenced by the teaching of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras.
A rescript of Augustus forbade Roman citizens to practise druidical rites. In Strabo we find the Druids still acting as arbiters in public and private matters, but they no longer deal with cases of murder. Under Tiberius the Druids were suppressed by a decree of the senate, but this had to be renewed by Claudius in A.D. 54. In Mela we find the Druids teaching in the depths of a forest or in caverns. In Pliny their activity is limited to the practice of medicine and sorcery. According to this writer the Druids held the mistletoe in the highest veneration. Groves of oak were their chosen retreat. Whatever grew on that tree was thought to be a gift from heaven, more especially the mistletoe. When thus found, the mistletoe was cut with a golden knife by a priest clad in a white robe, two white bulls being sacrificed on the spot. Tacitus, in describing the attack made on the island of Mona (Anglesea) by the Romans under Suetonius Paulinus, represents the legionaries as being awe-struck on landing by the appearance of a band of Druids, who, with hands uplifted towards heaven, poured forth terrible imprecations on the heads of the invaders. The courage of the Romans, however, soon overcame such fears; the Britons were put to flight; and the groves of Mona, the scene of many a sacrifice and bloody rite, were cut down.
After this the continental Druids disappear entirely, and are only referred to on very rare occasions. Ausonius, for instance, apostrophizes the rhetorician Attius Patera as sprung from a race of Druids.
When we turn to the British Islands we find, as we should expect, no traces of the Druids in England and Wales after the conquest of Anglesea mentioned above, except in the story of Vortigern as recounted by Nennius. After being excommunicated by Germanus the British leader invites twelve Druids to assist him. These probably came from North Britain. In Irish literature, however, the Druids are frequently mentioned, and their functions in the island seem to correspond fairly well to those of their Gaulish brethren described by classical writers. The functions of Caesar’s Druids we here find distributed amongst Druids, bards and poets (fili), but even in very early times the poet has usurped many of the duties of the Druid and finally supplants him with the spread of Christianity. The following is the position of the Druid in the pagan literature. The most important documents are contained in MSS. of the 12th century, but the texts themselves go back in large measure to about A.D. 700. In the heroic cycles the Druids do not appear to have formed any corporation, nor do they seem to have been exempt from military service. Cathbu (Cathbad), the Druid connected with Conchobar, king of Ulster, in the older cycle is accompanied by a number of youths (100 according to the oldest version) who are desirous of learning his art, though what this consisted in we are not told. The Druids are represented as being able to foretell the future and to perform magic. Before setting out on the great expedition against Ulster, Medb, queen of Connaught, goes to consult her Druid, and just before the famous heroine Derdriu (Deirdre) is born, Cathbu prophesies what sort of a woman she will be. We may cite two instances of the magical skill of the Druids. The hero Cuchulinn has returned from the land of the fairies after having been enticed thither by a fairy-woman named Fand, whom he is now unable to forget. He is given a potion by some Druids, which banishes all memory of his recent adventures and which also rids his wife Emer of the pangs of jealousy. More remarkable still is the story of Etain. This lady, now the wife of Eochaid Airem, high-king of Ireland, was in a former existence the beloved of the god Mider, who again seeks her love and carries her off. The king has recourse to his Druid Dalān, who requires a whole year to discover the haunt of the couple. This he accomplished by means of four wands of yew inscribed with ogam characters. The following description of the band of Cathbu’s Druids occurs in the epic tale, the Cattle-spoiling of Cualnge (Cooley): “The attendant raises his eyes towards heaven and observes the clouds and answers the band around him. They all raise their eyes towards heaven, observe the clouds, and hurl spells against the elements, so that they arouse strife amongst them and clouds of fire are driven towards the camp of the men of Ireland.” We are further told that at the court of Conchobar no one had the right to speak before the Druids had spoken. In other texts the Druids are able to produce insanity.
In the religious literature they are almost exclusively represented as magicians and diviners opposing the Christian missionaries, though we find two of them acting as tutors to the daughters of Laegaire, the high-king, at the coming of St Patrick. They are represented as endeavouring to prevent the progress of St Patrick and St Columba by raising clouds and mist. Before the battle of Culdremne (561) a Druid made an airbe drúad (fence of protection?) round one of the armies, but what is precisely meant by the phrase is obscure. The Irish Druids seem to have had a peculiar tonsure. The word drúi is always used to render the Latin magus, and in one passage St Columba speaks of Christ as his Druid.
See D’Arbois de Jubainville, Les Druides et les dieux celtiques à forme d’animaux (Paris, 1906), and Introduction à l’étude de la littérature celtique (Paris, 1883); P. W. Joyce, A Social History of Ancient Ireland (London, 1903). (E. C. Q.)