Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe (2010)
Chapter 10. So, who were the Druids?
Implicit in the title of this chapter is the belief that the Druids were a phenomenon of the past and that those who, since the 17th century, have called themselves Druids cannot claim any degree of continuity with ancient druidic practice.
The evidence we have explored shows that the elite class of ‘the wise’ - Bards, Vates, and Druids - was rapidly changing in the early 1st millennium AD, even in Ireland where the impact of the Roman world was slight. Internal changes in the structure of society and the fast-growing influence of Christianity were the prime movers in the demise of druidism: the Viking incursion and the impact of Anglo-Norman settlers completed the process. All that remained in the Celtic fringes of Britain and Ireland were itinerant bards, ballad players, and storytellers roaming the countryside. Even in Brittany, which enjoyed a high degree of separation from France, nothing remained except for a few dishevelled raconteurs beloved of the postcard manufacturers of the pre-Great War era.
The increasing availability of Classical texts in the 16th century and the burning desire of Renaissance man to understand his past led, as we have seen, to a passion for Celtic history and with it a fascination with the Druids. Since then, every generation has recreated Druids in a mode satisfying to the aspirations and emotional needs of the time. The 18th century was a time of fanciful inventions and wild fabrications; the 19th century saw a vision of the Druids giving a risqué glamour to Benefit Societies and Masonic Lodges; while in the late 20th century, neopagans have tried to rediscover some of the basic underlying values of prehistoric religions in an attempt to create a belief system compatible with the concerns and values of the green movement. All these manifestations are an engaging part of post-medieval social history, but they are totally irrelevant to our central question - who were the Druids? It is to this that we must finally return.
There is sufficient evidence to suggest that a religious class, among whom were practitioners called Druids, was in existence in western parts of Europe by the 4th century BC, but it is not until the 2nd and 1st centuries BC that the structure of that class comes more clearly into focus with its broad threefold division of Bards, Vates, and Druids. The Bards served as the poets and songwriters who had powers to enhance or destroy a reputation; the Vates were the diviners able to interpret signs to foretell the future; while the Druids were the philosophers, teachers, and the intermediaries between humanity and the gods. The Classical texts are sufficiently explicit to suggest that by the 1st century BC changes were under way which were hastened by the impact of Romanization.
One of the most interesting questions is wherein lay the origins of druidism? It is no longer acceptable to see it as the religion of a group of Celts emerging in west-central Europe and spreading to the west, south, and east through migratory movements: this is too simplistic an interpretation of a highly complex situation. Moreover, there is a growing consensus that it may have been in the Atlantic zone of Europe that the Celtic language originated. This brings us back to Caesar’s assertion that druidism originated in Britain and that those who wished to study it had to go there for the purpose. It is quite likely that Caesar was repeating a generally held belief based on Gaulish tradition. How valid was the tradition we cannot say, but it might reflect a long-held view that the Atlantic zone of Europe lay at the heart of the ancient Celtic world.
Our brief review of ritual beliefs and practices in western Europe suggests that there were many practices, going back to the 4th and 3rd millennia, that might hint at a degree of continuity spanning the prehistoric period. That many of the megalithic monuments and chambered tombs were laid out in respect of alignments related to the solstices implies that by the 3rd millennium societies along the Atlantic seaboard had an intimate knowledge of celestial movements which they respected and incorporated into the physical world in which they lived. Deliberate deposition in the ground and in watery contexts and the digging of deep ritual shafts are traditions that go back deep into time, and in the treatment of the human body after death there are indications which could be thought to reflect a belief that the spirit moves on, a belief Classical writers attributed specifically to the Druids. At a more basic level, the focus on the human head in 1st-century religious ritual can be traced back to the Neolithic period.
On the basis of these links, it could be argued that the belief system that underpins druidism extends back in time to the Neolithic period or, put another way, that druidism, as it is recorded in the late 1st millennium, is simply a manifestation of the religious beliefs and practices that had developed over the previous three millennia in Atlantic Europe. If this scenario were accepted, then it would be legitimate to argue that megalithic monuments, including Stonehenge and Avebury, were the structures of the Druids - a view that would have gladdened the hearts of Aubrey, Stukeley, and the Breton Celtomanes.
However, the situation is, as always, more complex. Standing back from the mass of data now available, it is possible to identify a period of quite substantial social and economic change in the development of western European society around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. It is as though one cycle of development, which began with the introduction of the Neolithic economy, came to an end and another began. The changes are quite significant. The megalithic tradition of monument and tomb building ceased, as did the emphasis on ancestral burial in collective tombs. In its place, burials at first focused on individuals, often interred under round barrows, and the predominant inhumation rite quickly gave way to cremation, with the cremated remains of individuals often placed in urns buried in cemeteries. Broadly parallel with this dramatic shift in belief systems came a socioeconomic change which saw the control of the landscape increase, with the laying out of permanent boundaries and extensive systems of fields, and the establishment of long-lasting settlements, usually defined by prominent enclosing earthworks. It was as though the community had now, at last, imposed itself on the land rather than being subservient to it. It was at this time that storage pits began to be dug into the protective earth, and propitiatory offerings placed in the ground and in watery contexts began to increase greatly in number.
This dramatic systems change does not appear to have happened suddenly but was probably largely completed within the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. What caused it is a matter requiring intricate debate for which there is no time here, but one of the prime movers may well have been an overall increase in population and with it greater mobility.
It is a not unreasonable suggestion that it may have been as part of these mid-2nd-millennium changes that druidism emerged. The heavy dependence of the community on the productivity of the land, and the routines which ensured success, would have required a calendar responsive to seasonal changes rather than one predicated on the solstices. It may have been in this context that time division by lunar month came into prominence - a system manifest in the Coligny calendar and the four seasonal festivals that have survived in Irish tradition. It was probably also at a time of increased reliance on the wellbeing of corn-growing and animal husbandry that propitiatory offerings placed in the earth and in watery contexts became a significant pattern of behaviour emphasizing the dependence of the living community on the chthonic deities. In such a context, the conceptual balance between territory/earth/female and tribal/sky/male could readily have emerged or been enhanced. Thus it is possible to identify a real and direct continuity in belief systems, seen in western Europe at the time of the earliest Roman contact, that go back in time to the middle centuries of the 2nd millennium BC. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that druidism, which becomes dimly apparent in the Classical sources in the 4th century BC, may have had its origins in the profound changes taking place a thousand years before. That said, some of the knowledge and skills practised by the Druids may have derived from even further back in time.
The demise of the druidic tradition came fast. Within what became the Roman Empire many of the practices were deliberately repressed and the old religion was made irrelevant by the overlay of Romanized beliefs: native gods were systematically conflated with Roman deities, alien religions were introduced, including a variety of eastern mystery religions, and religious practice was brought to conform to a Roman format. No doubt in the deep countryside and away from heavily urbanized areas, old pagan practices continued, but in the turbulent period of the Germanic migrations and the subsequent resettlement, and with the rise of Christianity that followed, what little remained of the old belief systems disappeared altogether, leaving only a murmur of dimly remembered folklore to echo what had been.
In Ireland, beyond the heavy hand of Romanization, it is possible to see something of the process by which Christianity inexorably replaced druidism. Clergy took over the power of Druids, who became degraded as cheap magicians; the Vates became the clerics - the skilled intelligentsia who supported the edifice of the Church, while the Bards were left to compose their poems and songs to amuse or irritate their masters so long as the old social systems should last. By the 17th century - the Druids long gone - the last remnants of the ancient tradition of an intellectual elite had faded into the landscape.